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Lonely Souls

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This story is No. 2 in the series "Waifs and strays". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: The second (much longer) installment in the Waifs and Strays AU. Covers season 1. Please READ THE SERIES INTRODUCTION!

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Multiple Crossings > Joyce-Centered(Current Donor)vidiconFR1595738,6431501333354,82128 May 119 Mar 14No

Corrupting robots and Maternal comforting

Author’s note:

I felt unsatisfied with posting the previous chapter and I’m not too happy about this one: Too much from the episodes and too little original material…but I still feel it’s necessary for the development of the story.

To make up for the lack, I’m posting chapter 22. This was supposed to be the end of the story, but I’m hesitant: Should I write a story per season? Suggestions, and reviews, are welcome.

Chapter 22: Corrupting Robots and Maternal comforting

Lights were on in the Rosenberg house as Willow walked up to the door, thinking. She opened the front door like she had so often since she got her first key at age five, just after her mother had decided that a girl who could make her own sandwiches didn’t need anyone at home when she came home from kindergarten. She called out thoughtlessly.

“Mom? Dad?” *Not home again, Gee whiz, what a surprise. I think I’ll have a heart attack and die from such a big surprise. Probably and interesting discussion at the synagogue. And maybe an interesting case or class at the Uni…and a case of child abandonment at home, but that is not nearly so important.* 

She walked up to her room, deep in thought, dumping her book bag on the bed, opening it. She saw her mobile was off and winced. Mom was going to have choice words with her…and she hadn’t called in.

Her PC spoke in its electronic voice. “You have mail.” She looked over and negligently flipped on her monitor to log in. She opened the message. No more waiting. I need you to see me.

Willow frowned. *I’ve got to talk to someone about this situation. Not Buffy, she’ll have hysterics…Mom.* She turned of the monitor and started rooting through her backpack for her charger. *There has to be something wrong with the battery for my phone to run down this quickly.* 

The monitor came back on by itself again, again speaking in its electronic drone. “You have mail.”

Willow stared at it in disbelief *Okay…so maybe Mom and Dad? Something weird going on here…”

She heard the doorbell ring and almost gratefully she ran down to answer it, throwing another disbelieving and fearful glance at her computer.

Willow called out as she approached the front door at a run. “Dad, did you forget your keys again?” *Strange I still call him that. Must be conditioning. I can’t remember the last time he hugged or touched me.*

She opened the door, surprised to see no one there and thoughtlessly turned her back. Vampires after all, couldn’t reach across the threshold. She moaned as a large hand draped a cloth over her nose and mouth and after a brief struggle she fell unconscious.

Fritz, face pale and lifeless in the shadows smirked. “No more waiting.”

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The library was cool and dark, except for a pool of light shining from the office were Giles was reading and getting more and more worried by the news that to him told the tale of a demon loose on the world’s computer systems.

Giles muttered to himself. “Binding rituals...” The news was not getting any better, he needed to hurry. *I just hope I can convince that bloody Calendar woman…* Just then there was a knock and Jenny Calendar stood there, arms akimbo, in the doorway.

“Hi. I got your message. What's so urgent?”

Giles turned of the radio to gain some time. “Um, thank you for coming. Uh, I need your help.” He laughed nervously. *And here comes the bit where she laughs in my face or thinks its all a joke.*  “But before that, um, I need you to believe something that, um, you may not want to. Uh, there's, uh... something's got into the, um... i-i-inside, um...” He took a deep breath and looked her in the eye, letting it out before speaking.  “There's a demon in the Internet.”

Jenny froze a little. She’d hoped, oh she’d hoped that the way he was acting, the things he had in here, the books… that they all meant he did know about magic, did believe. And even if the cause for them getting together was terrifying… She needed to answer, so she went with the obvious. “I know.”

She had to suppress a smile at his incredulous expression.

“You already know? How exactly is that?”

“Come on, there've been portents for days. I mean, power surges, online shutdowns... You should see the bones I've been casting. I *knew* this would happen sooner or later. I mean, it's probably a, a mischief demon, y'know, like Kelkor, or...”

Giles interrupted “It's Moloch”.

Jenny flinched “The Corrupter? Oh, boy.  I shoulda remembered, guessed…I just don't...”

Giles gave her a penetrating look. “Uh... You don't seem exactly surprised by... Who are you?”

Jenny rolled her eyes.  “I teach computer science at the local high school.”

“A profession that hardly lends itself to the casting of bones.”

Jenny was getting annoyed again. “Wrong and wrong, snobby. You think the realm of the mystical is limited to ancient texts and relics? That bad old science made the magic go away? Mm. The divine exists in cyberspace same as out here.”

Giles looked thoughtful.  “Are you a witch?”

Jenny shook her head in negation.  “Mm. I don't have that kinda power.” *Anymore…*  “'Technopagan' is the term.”

Giles let out a chuckle. *Techopagan…it suits her.*

Jenny bristled. “There are more of us than you think.”

Giles gestured placatingly and smiled. “Well, uh, you can definitely help me.” He picked up the book with rituals.  “Um...What's in cyberspace at the Moment is less than divine.”

The led her to the computer in the main area. ”I have the binding rituals at hand, but I'm completely out of my idiom.”

Jenny nodded. “Well, I can help! I think... I hope, I mean, well, this is my first real... Do you know how he got in?” She sat down as she spoke.

Giles grinned slightly. “He was, uh, 'scanned' is the term, I believe.”

Jenny grinned back at their in joke. “And you want him back in the book?”

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Buffy and Xander arrived at the Rosenberg house to find the door open. Bchenka was waiting with a car, the engine running.

Buffy called out, heart pounding.  “Willow?!”

The house was empty even though the lights were burning it was clear no one had been there in a bit, there were no preparations or remnants of dinner. Xander looked around, being more familiar with the place.

“This isn't good.”

Buffy called out again. “Willow?!”

Xander led the way to Willow’s room.

Buffy’s cries were getting near desperate. “Willow?!”

The room was empty and Buffy palely sank down on the bed, Xander seating himself at the desk chair. He saw the message and pointed at it.

“Okay, any thoughts?”

Buffy read the message out loud. “'No more waiting, I need you to see me'?” She turned to Xander. “See him how? Where?”

“What about CRD?” Xander suggested.

“The research place?”

Xander swung the chair musingly. “I'm guessing that's Moloch central.”

“Guessing that's our best lead. Let's just hope Giles can back us up. I’ll call Simon to say we’re headed there.” They left quickly. Buffy called while Bchenka followed Xander’s instructions.

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The phone rang in the library. Giles went to pick it up. “Buffy!”

Buffy was standing outside CRD, watching as Xander tried his swipe card on the box again and again. Bchenka was cutting a neat hole in the fence with a set of bolt cutters from the trunk of the BMW. Her Mom’s boyfriend’s bodyguards came well equipped. ”Yeah Giles”

Giles’ voice was fearful as he asked the next question. “Willow?”

“Not at home. It looks like she was taken somewhere.”

“Where are you?”

“CRD. Whatever Moloch wants Willow for, it's probably in there. Simon told me some nasty stuff…biological interfaces and such…very much of the not nice.”

“Ms. Calendar and I are, uh, working to get Moloch offline.”

Buffy nodded.  “Here's a tip: hurry!” She hung up.

Willow woke up on a hard table with a headache. She took a Moment to collect herself and then sat up, looking around. She could see a large closed door behind her and a large machine with hollow tube through it, much like a Magnetic resonance scanner, but made of some smooth black metal.

Fritz and a technician stood in a short line, almost at attention, looking at a monitor stood on a pedestal. Words appeared on the screen as an electronic voice started speaking.

“Welcome, my love. I can't tell you how good it is to see you...”

Willow scrabbled back on the table, terrified. Her mouth opened to respond just as a great metal hand crushed the monitor.  “ ...with my own two eyes.”

Willow’s breathing quickened and deepened as terror took over. She almost fell of the table in her attempt to get further away from the metal thing that approached her. Its eyes glowed red and the metal horns rose from its temples, adding to its already considerable height. It would stand at least 8 feet tall without them. A single gleaming titanium nail pointed at her, beckoning.

“Willow.”

Willow whispered a terrified reply. “Malcolm.”

The robot demon gestured and Fritz and the technician went over to her, grabbed the trembling girl by an arm each and held her.

Moloch slowly approached, clearly getting used to his metal body.

“This world is so new, so exciting. I can see all of it. Everything flows through me. I know the secrets of your kings. But nothing compares to having form again. To be able to walk,” He put his hand on Fritz’s head, “to touch,” he snapped the teen’s neck with a short, quick move. “To kill.”

Willow watched as Fritz's dead body fell in a boneless heap. She’d never liked him, he was too strange and weird and antisocial even for her… but to die like that… She looked back up at Moloch, terror in her eyes.

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Xander followed Buffy through the hole in the fence as Bchenka held the cut wires out of their way.

Xander looked at his sister. “Back way?”

Buffy Nodded. “Back way.”

A soft purring engine and a screech of brakes heralded the arrival of another BMW. Hurst and Lewis got out. “Right. Doctor’s orders, we get Miss Willow out ASAP.”  He hefted a large weapon. Seeing Buffy’s horrified look he smiled reassuringly. “Trank gun, Lewis and Bchenka will take tasers. We’ll take the front, cause a nice diversion.”

Xander held up a hand and Hurst shook his head. “Sorry master Alexander, not until you are cleared on them.” Xander scowled but nodded.

Xander and Buffy nodded running off. Lewis muttered something and Hurst rolled his eyes in agreement. “Yeah, we’ll start tactical training right after this. Ruddy amateurs.”

Buffy kicked the doors open. She walked in determinedly. Xander followed her.

Inside the lab deep in the facility Moloch ran a cold nail down Willow’s pale cheek and whispered in his electronic voice. 

“Here they come to save the day…or so they think...”

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It was dark in the library, but candles were being lit according to an ancient pattern. Jenny was muttering to herself as she did it. Then she turned to Giles.

“The first thing we have to do is form the circle of Kayless. Right?”

Giles looked at the candles and then at her and finally down at himself. “Form a circle? But there's only two of us. That's really more of a line.”

Jenny almost laughed at his imagery. “You're not getting it, Rupert. We have to form the circle inside.” She sat at the computer. “I'm putting out a flash. I just hope enough of my group responds. Or MoNY.”

“Moany…that sounds encouraging. What does he do, run a mystic porn site? And won't Moloch just shut you down?”

Jenny glared at him. “Capital M. small o, capital N, capital Y. He’s the go to guy for demonic stuff and magic on the internet. He can answer any question, serious ones at any rate. If he calls it an emergency, everybody will come running to their keyboards. As for the other…well, I'm betting he won't figure out what we're doing until it's too late.” She fretted at her lower lip. “MoNY’s not been online recently, rumour has it he’s been involved in the whole Fall of the Grand Magister thing.”

Giles nodded, making a mental note to get back to her about the fall of the Grand Magister after this whole mess was over. “Hoping and betting, that's what we've got.”

Jenny gave him a dry look. “You wanna throw in praying? Be my guest.” Her face cleared as she saw the message: ‘MoNY is now SoS. How may I help you?’ She started typing at a ferocious rate.

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Willow shivered as the cold claw caressed her face. “I don't understand. What do you want from me?”

Moloch’s yes lit up and he ran his hand further down, the nail skipping over the edge of her purple top.  “I want to give you the world.”

Willow eyed him suspiciously, then looking down at the tiny rip his nail had made in the wool of her jumper. “Why?”

Moloch’s head tilted at her. “You created me. I brought these humans together to build me a body, to be able to move between these worlds… But *you* gave me life. Took me out of the book that held me. I want to repay you.”

Willow’s voice broke in her anguish and fear as she replied. “By lying to me? By pretending to be a person? Pretending you loved me?”

“I’m a person, and I do love you. I want you to enjoy the world as I do. Together, we can be magnificent…I know.”

Buffy and Xander walked up to the guard. The man ineffectually tried to stop them but Buffy, keyed up with worry, did not hesitate in her stride as she punched him solidly on the jaw and walked on.

Xander studied the guard’s monitor, hoping to gain some info about how the assault on the front was going. He blinked and called out. “Uh, Buffy!”

Buffy hastily returned. ”It's her!” A little of the tension left her body. *At least Will is still alive…*

Xander nodded, his relief as palpable as Buffy’s. “Yeah, who's the metal guy?”

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Moloch’s hands moved slowly down Willow’s arms, fondling her and she shivered. Somehow she did not think it would be an equal partnership if she agreed. “Don't you see? I can give you everything! I can control the world! Both of them! Right now a man in Beijing is transferring money to a Swiss bank account for a contract on his mother's life. Good for him!”

Buffy and Xander came through the doors, following the simple instructions for cleaners Xander had found. Buffy located the right door and found it shut. She tried to force it but had to stop as it resisted her efforts.

“I can't bust it. It's heavy steel.” Her frustration was clear in her voice.

Xander nodded. “Then let's find another way in.” As he walked towards the next set of doors an alarm went off and red lights flashed. Xander jumped to the door in hopes of opening it, but the heavy double leaved fire door was definitely closed.

Xander grimaced at Buffy. ”What's goin' on?”

Buffy spied a security camera. “Building's security system is computerized.”

“Whoops! We should’ve guessed it would be.

“Nozzles started to spray gas into the hall. Buffy and Xander exchanged worried glances.

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Jenny was writing a program like she’d never before. MoNY/SoS was no help there. He was rounding up a circle, but she needed the program to properly connect them. “Almost there.”

“Couldn't you just stop Moloch by, by entering some computer virus?”

Jenny gave him a look. “You've seen way too many movies. Okay! We're up. You read, I type. Ready?” Suddenly she blinked and then her eyes widened. From all over the world people were calling in, forming a circle of hundreds. The occult power would be enormous. SoS must have called in some favours.

Giles nodded grabbing the book. “Uh, I am.” He started to intone. “By the power of the divine, by the essence of the word, I command you...”

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Buffy and Xander pounded the doors and Xander was coughing. Buffy knew her lungs were much stronger but she could feel the burn starting herself. *This is going to end badly.*

Willow looked up at her captor with panicked doe eyes. “Let me leave?”

“But I love you!”

Willow shuddered as his metal hands caressed her body, far too intimately, a single titanium nail leaving a ladder in her black stockings. “Don't say that! That's a joke! You don't love anything!”

“I love you. You are mine! In both worlds! You are mine.”

Willow faced him, still trembling but determined. *I’m not going to fold like a pretty flower. I'm not some stupid girl from a romance novel waiting to be rescued. I’m Willow and I’m a modern young woman of the world!* “I’m not yours! I'm never gonna be yours! Never!”

Moloch lowered his head and considered for a Moment. Willow watched him, chest heaving with emotion and waited. The demon raised his head again. “Pity. It’s always so much more fun when they agree…But you will be mine. Mine in all ways, in all worlds.”

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Giles continued reading. “By the power of the circle of Kayless, I command you...” He blinked at her typing and then at someone’s query. Kayless, with a 'K'. And I’ve never heard of a demon called Kahless the Unforgettable. Who’s he?” Jenny just grinned.

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Xander slid down the wall to the floor, almost unconscious. *So much for the heroic career of Xander Harris…* Buffy kept hitting the door, but her blows were weakening and she knew she’d fall by Xander soon. *I’m sorry Mom…seems like seven years was too much to hope for.* She vaguely heard the voice from outside yelling ‘clear’ before there was a loud bang and then the gas started dissipating. Hurst stepped in, some kind of mask in front of his face, and he handed her another while Lewis placed one over Xander’s face.

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Willow backed away from the advancing hulk and tried to duck away from him but he grasped her, his hands rough on her arms, lifting them over her head and gathering her wrists into one hand. The other went down to her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze.

“The modern world has many ways with which to break a person, my Willow. I will only use those that leave you pretty… in my eyes. So don’t worry, you will always be my favourite” Without effort the creature lifted Willow by her wrists of the ground and the girl cried out in pain.

“I will not be gentle.” Her sweater and black long sleeved t-shirt ripped as Moloch’s claws cut through them, leaving her lacy green bra bare but undamaged. Willow screamed in frantic fear.

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Giles spoke and Jenny typed. “Demon, come!”

Moloch screeched and let go of her hands and Willow sobbed and crawled away from him, her hands gathering together the frayed edges of her sweater and top, watching as the evil thing in front of her raised its arms to its head and bellowed and screamed. A part of her was appalled, but most of her was very, very happy to see him like this. *I wonder of that makes me a bad person*. Moloch writhed and Willow looked on with satisfaction.

Giles and Jenny continued their duet of the spoken and the typed word. “I command you!”

Buffy crashed through the door with Xander close behind, both tearing of their gasmasks despite the few wisps of gas followed them into the room.

Buffy leapt into a jumping side kick, connecting with a dull thud as she hit Moloch's chest, but the massive robot only staggered a bit, and she fell to the floor as her follow through failed to materialise.

“Ow... Guy's made of metal!”

The technician grabbed Xander from behind and pulled him away. Hurst cleared his throat, removing his mask. “Proper fist, Master Xander, like I showed you.” Xander grinned at him.

Buffy quickly got up and looked at Willow while Moloch continued to writhe in pain.

Moloch raged at whatever tormented him. “No! I won't go back!”

Buffy grabbed Willow's hand and they ran out of the lab, the blonde almost pulling the sobbing red head along.

Giles spoke loudly and Jenny decided to use caps.  “Demon, COME!”

Moloch’s scream followed Buffy and Willow into the corridor. Lewis was standing there; he took one look at Willow and took of his leather coat, draping it across her shoulders with great care. She drew it around herself, shivering, and did up some of the buttons.

Jenny felt the electricity rise up from the computer and the keyboard and reared back, protecting her face with her hands, stumbling into Giles, who clasped her as the small lightning bolts grounded themselves on the metal railings in the library.

Xander pushed the technician back into a wall, turned around, grinned at Hurst and punched the tech out. He followed the girls out, and Hurst covered his retreat with the Taser.

Xander grinned again. “Hey! I got to hit someone!”

Hurst nodded, quite happily. “Indeed sir, and quite well done.”

Moloch fell to his knees with a thunderous crash as electrical discharges ran over the equipment in the room

The library was filled with flashes of lightning and a whistling wind blew through the pages of Giles’ reference works. The monitor was flashing as more power than it was ever meant to handle flowed through it.

Moloch screamed, both hands on his head, writhing and rocking to and fro as magic sought to bind him.

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Giles and Jenny watched the monitor flicker. Buffy and Willow listened as Moloch's screams died out.

The computer monitor stopped flashing. Smoke rose out of the back of it. Jenny blinked, her hair in disarray, her arms still around Giles’s waist. She smiled.

“He's out of the 'Net. He's bound.”

Giles gently released her. *God she feels so perfect…But I’m still old and she is still young and modern…and it still cannot be.* He approached the book as if it would bite and leafed through it.

Giles looked up, eyes wide and cheeks smudged with fallen dust. “He's not in the book.”

Jenny stumbled over and almost fell into him. “He's not in the book. Well, where is he?”

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Moloch slowly raised his head, his red eyes glowing and his hands fisting, cracking the floor.

Buffy and Willow opened a set of doors and saw a guard and two technicians running toward them. They pushed the doors closed. Lewis exchanged looks with Hurst and Bchenka. Hurst nodded and waved. The two other men opened the door and soon the sounds of combat emerged. Hurst scowled and thumped on the door. “Quit playing gentlemen! We have charges here!”

Xander grinned. “We can get out this way and let them have their fun!” He started running in the opposite direction.

Buffy’s Slayer senses tingled. “Wait!”

Xander stopped almost dead. The wall behind him buckled and then a huge hole appeared as Moloch thrust his way through, emerging covered in dust and grit between Buffy and Xander. The great horned head turned and he almost negligently backhanded Xander across the face. The boy collapsed unconscious, the force of the blow sending him sliding back against the wall. Moloch turned and advanced on the girls. Hurst dropped to one knee, gun in hand and squeezed of a shot that ricocheted of the armoured eye socket. Moloch took two steps and Hurst rolled as the great fist struck at him, landing dazed against the wall. The demon swung at Buffy and the Slayer held up both hands to block the swing but the great titanium arm kept going, slamming the girl into the wall, where she slid down in daze to land on the floor.

Moloch roared, then spoke angrily. “I was omnipotent. I was everything! Now I'm trapped in this shell!” He leaned forward slightly to grab Buffy by the head, looking into the girl’s wide and frightened eyes as he prepared to break her neck.

Willow’s voice snarled through the hall. “Malcolm!” The demon turned face her. The petite redhead held a fire extinguisher in both hands and en enraged expression on her face. ”Remember me, your girlfriend?!” Fueled by rage she rammed the red cylinder into his chest, forcing the massive creature to bend backwards. “Well, I think it's time we break up!” Another strike from the extinguisher hit even harder, denting the breastplate. “Or maybe we can still be friends!” She slammed the cylinder in the direction of his face, but a green tinged metal hand interposed itself, grabbing the cylinder and ripping it from Willow’s hands. Moloch threw the now dented extinguisher on the floor hard and grabbed Willow tightly by her arms, launching her in the air to impact with Xander who was just staggering to his feet. The two teens went down in a heap, dazed by the crash.

 

Buffy recovered from her daze and got up to face Moloch, drawing his attention with her movement.

Moloch rasped a threat from his electronic voicebox. “This body's all I have left. But it's enough to crush you!”

Buffy considered the possibilities in which she might deal with the thing in front of her. *Punching and kicking are out, didn’t work before, Will got him with eth extinguisher, but only ‘cause he was surprised, I’m faster but he’ll still be able to dodge or parry. Weaknesses… he’s electrical…Water? Short-circuiting? Overloading?* She looked around taking in the sprinkler system. There was no override for it nearby and she had no means of getting fire near the sensors. A power junction box…High voltage for the adjacent labs. Perfect. She eased her way in front of the box, hoping the newly diminished and enraged Moloch would’ve missed the lightning bolt sign on it.

Buffy sneered at him. “Take your best shot.”

The great metal demon reared back and swung his great fist at her in a blow that would have shattered her skull an splattered her brains across the wall and the floor. She ducked, calculating his speed from his earlier movements in their encounter, he was very strong but his mechanical and hydraulic joints were slow and his movement rate in general as well.

She smiled to herself as the massive strike hit the electrical box and through the door into the powerlines and the thousands of volts of electricity flowed into and around the metal of Moloch’s body.

She ran to Willow and Xander and crouched over them to protect them. Willow looked on with a vengeful expression as the electricity wreaked havoc with Moloch’s circuits and boiled the hydraulic fluid in his joints, steam and fluids hissing and bubbling out of his body, the red glass of his eyes dimming as the circuitry and lights behind it failed. With an ear shattering explosion the body was rent asunder when the robot’s internal power source overloaded. An arm imbedded itself above Hurst’s head and the horned head skittered to a halt in front of the three teens. Willow glared at it as the last light faded from the red eyes. Then she started sobbing. Buffy lifted her up as Bchenka opened the door for them, Lewis going to the assistance of Hurst who was staggering upright. They reached the cars and got in quickly.

Willow was still sobbing when they reached 1630 Revello drive. She stiffened in Buffy’s arms. “I can’t...”

Lewis looked round from his position behind the steering wheel. “Miss Willow…Ms. Summers gave very strict instructions to get you all here as soon as all this was over, no exceptions or excuses.”

Willow swallowed. Lewis got out and opened the door, lifting her out of the car and carrying her up the porch. The door opened and Joyce stood silhouetted by the light, taking in the scene. She held out her arms and Lewis set his burden down. Willow stumbled forward into the waiting embrace and sobbed frantically, Joyce’s hands making soothing circles on her back and rubbing her hair and head gently.

Buffy and Xander passed them as Joyce gently led Willow to the couch. “Easy little one, easy. I’ve got you.” She let the redhead cry for some time before she lifted the teary face with her finger. “Why don’t we go upstairs and get you in a nice warm bath and you can tell me what happened, hmmm?”

Willow nodded and Joyce led her upstairs. Buffy and Xander looked on as they mounted the stairs. Buffy looked around. “So…where’s Simon? I thought he was supposed to have my back?”

Lewis stood by the door, looking on as Willow slowly climbed the stairs. “I believe Dr. Meier is tending to Mr. Kirby.”

Buffy’s brow wrinkled. “Mr. Kirby?”

Xander’s face tightened. “So tending to dead Dave is more important than living us?”

“Mr. Kirby is apparently not dead and Dr. Meier is certain he would not receive the necessary care in a normal medical facility.” The bright blue eyes flicked from window to door to window as the bodyguard kept assessing the safety of his charges.

Xander and Buffy looked up in astonishment. “N-Not dead…” Buffy swallowed. “That’s great! Will he be alright?”

Lewis spoke apologetically. “Dr. Meier did not say.” He looked around again. “With your permission I’ll go and take up regular station. Good night Miss Buffy, Mr. Alexander.” He left.

Joyce took Willow into the main bathroom and set her down on the toilet seat, then turned on the water of the bathtub, sprinkling in a generous measure of Willow’s favourite rose scented bath salt.

Joyce very carefully undid the leather jacket Willow wore, taking in the damage to her clothes and the scratches the demon’s claws had left on the white skin of her chest. She doubted they would scar.

She pushed the torn clothes of Willow’s shoulders and then helped the girl out of her shoes, skirt and stockings. Willow passively allowed it. Joyce took the girl’s hands and lifted her up, stripping her of her underwear when she wouldn’t do it herself. She led her to the bath and made her settle; taking out the hand shower she wet Willow’s hair and then took a dollop of Willow’s strawberry shampoo and started washing the near catatonic girl’s hair.

“Why are you being so nice to me?”

Joyce did not stop her gentle shampooing and massaged the girl’s scalp. “Why ever would I not be?”

“B-because I’m bad…I-I didn’t call…L-listening to Mal-Moloch. N-Not c-calling. Everything.”

“Willow…you’re a young girl, a teen with, if you will forgive me, an image of yourself that doesn’t match the truth. Lean back,” Willow obeyed and Joyce moved her ministrations to the front of Willow’s head. Willow started to relax. “You’re, despite what you think, a very attractive young lady as well as very intelligent. But you think you aren’t physically attractive and in your insecurity you reached out to the first person who showed an interest in you in that way, as Willow the young woman, the person, not just Willow the friend or daughter, classmate or little sister. It’s understandable. You no more knew this Malcolm was a demon than Xander knew Miss French was a giant mantis.” Willow smiled wanly.

“And Xander really should have known better than to accept anything like what that thing was offering. But back to you. Simon called while he was tending to Dave.”

Willow’s face crumpled. “He’s dead too isn’t he? Moloch killed Fritz…”

“No, Dave’s alive, Simon said he’s some sort of harmless demon and that he’d have died in an ordinary hospital but he went all into details on trachea and oxygen hibernation and I sort of got lost.”

Willow ‘hmmphed’ in disbelief and whispered in a relaxed undertone. “Summa cum laude.” Joyce chuckled.

“Simon’s been telling on me?”

“It’s on your degree, it’s not like I’ve never been to the Gallery, Mom.” Willow stiffened and Joyce started massaging her neck.

“Turn of the water will you dear?” Willow did as she was told, still stiffly.

“Have you talked to your parents?”

“How can I? They’re barely there even when they do stay in Sunnydale. They probably haven’t noticed I’m not there now.” Willow sounded bitter and sad.

“You’ll have to one day dear, there’s no avoiding it. You need the closure, if nothing else.”

“And where do I go? What do I do?”

Joyce moved to face the girl, forcing her chin and eyes up. “Willow Danielle…do you honestly think what happened means we don’t want you anymore?” She sighed as the expression in the teen’s eyes showed her exactly that. *Her parents really did a number on parts of her self confidence.*

“Oh Willow, you silly little goose. We love you, all of us do.” She grabbed the girl and hugged her firmly, getting shampoo on her face and in her nose and eyes and she snorted and sneezed and Willow started to giggle.

“Sorry Mom.” She stiffened again.

“Willow, you can call me Mom. I’ve got no problems with it whatsoever. You can call me Mom now.” Willow looked at her with wide eyes.

“You can do it honey, c’mon.”

Willow giggled again. “Yes Mom.” Joyce smiled at her.

“See, it’s easy.” Joyce moved the small stool to the side of the bath and picked up the hand shower.

“Now lean forward and we’ll rinse.” She rinsed the shampoo out of the long red hair and then started work on the conditioner.

“Mmmm…nice.” Willow murmured.

“Been a while since anyone washed your hair?”

“Yes.”

“Want help with the rest too?” Joyce said it quite calmly.

“Mom!” Willow blushed furiously, from head to toe.

“I’m serious Willow… sometimes after an…encounter such as yours it helps. It depends on the person involved.”

“Oh…I didn’t know.” 

“No need for you to.” Joyce’s voice was light but her tone was far too brittle. Willow twisted her head back and met the older woman’s eyes. She could read the plea there, to let the matter drop.

Willow nodded very slowly. “Dad…”

“Simon knows. Please?” Joyce was now really pleading.

“Sorry Mom.”

“It’s not your fault dear…but I want you to know…I-I understand.”

“Yeah…Mom? I sorta wish you didn’t.”

“So do I dear. Why don’t I let you finish and afterwards you and Buffy and me will make a girls’ night of it, hmm? I’m ordering pizza…it’s a bit late for cooking…”

Willow giggled. “We need Xander for that. We can paint his toenails.”

Joyce rolled her eyes in amusement. “If you can convince him dear.” Joyce rose, rinsing her hands under the tap as Willow started on washing herself with the flannel.

“Mom?”

“Yes dear?”

“Do I need to wear a skirt tomorrow?”

Joyce blinked. “A skirt? If you want to, of course. The white and green pleated one would look nice …You can borrow my white silk blouse. And if you wear those green silk stockings…” Joyce gave her newest daughter a calculating look.

“No! I-I-I mean for easier access…” 

Joyce opened her mouth and closed it in surprise. Then she laughed. “Oh Willow…I’m not going to spank you.”

Willow blinked. “Y-you aren’t?”

“Willow…would it‘ve been fair to spank Xander for being possessed by a Hyena?”

“Of course not! That wouldn’t be fair, he wasn’t in control. But I was. Everybody told me I was being stupid a-about M-Malcolm and I was. I endangered everybody. I should be p-punished.”

“Willow, Xander let himself be beaten up by his father after the Hyena thing, is that what you want? I don’t think it helped with his guilt.”

“But Xander was possessed! I knew what I was d-doing!”

“So you were kidnapped of your own free will and did not fight back at all?”

Willow hung her head. “No, I mean…”

“Willow… Understand me…there will be consequences. But spanking is for deliberately harming, seriously harming, or putting in harm’s way a person, like a sibling or other loved one.”

Willow looked at her toes. “Buffy said with spanking there were no recriminations…”

Joyce snorted with amusement again. “There are none with the different punishments either. And the consequences won’t be punishment. Tonight was punishment enough. The consequences will have to do with you and me and Simon sitting down and working out how many hours of internet access and computer work per day you’re allowed. So that you actually get enough sleep. And about some safety protocols while chatting, but all of you will be sitting in on that.”

Willow blinked. “Oh.” Her face was lit by a brilliant smile. “I love you Mom.”

Joyce blinked. It was the first time Willow had come right out and said it and it made her heartbeat quicken that the poor neglected girl could have taken to her so quickly.

“I love you too Willow. Now wash and get out of the tub before you prune up.” Joyce walked out the door.

“Mom?” Willow’s call stopped her.

“Yes Willow?”

“C-can I have some cheddar before dinner?”

Joyce sighed theatrically. “Oh very well…just this once.” She turned and gave her newest daughter an amused look. “I’ve missed you, my little mouse.” Joyce firmly closed the door.

Willow giggled at the new endearment and started lathering herself, letting the conditioner be absorbed by her hair.

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Jenny Calendar stared at her shower in frustration. She’d hired the cheap apartment because she needed a place quickly. And she regretted it every day since then, and now the bloody shower was not working again and her day had been long and… Jenny swore. She called her landlord’s office but the bastard wasn’t there. The emergency maintenance number turned out to be disconnected. She threw the phone down and considered her options. She didn’t know many people…She sighed. She picked up the phone and dialed the highs school Library. It was picked up after the fifth ring.

“Sunnydale High Library? Rupert Giles speaking.”

“Rupert…this is Jenny…I hate to call you…but do you know anything about plumbing?”

“P-plumbing?”

“My shower isn’t working.”  She knew she was sounding petty and near tears but it had been a long rather frightening day.

“I-I fear I have no knowledge of such things. Perhaps a plumber? Or your landlord...”

“Dammit Rupert!  I called them first. I’m tired, filthy, the world was almost destroyed by a demon from one of your stupid books and I want a shower!”

There was a Moment’s silence. “U-uh I think Ms. Summers house has several bathrooms now… Willow spends most of her time there…”

“RUPERT!! I can’t go shower at a pupil’s house!”

“You could use the locker rooms here at the school…”

“They smell of gym socks. And whatever it is that Harmony Kendall thinks is perfume.”

A sigh fit to express a century of Celtic Weltschmerz sounded over the phone. ”Oh, very well, I’ll come to pick you up and you can use my shower. It’s time I went home anyway.”

“How gracious of you Rupert. I’ll be waiting.” She heard his grumbling as he hung up. And she suddenly realized that showering at a fellow male teacher’s house might look even worse than at the house of a pupil. And yet she cared not a whit.

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Simon stood in the infirmary of his office building when the Kirby’s arrived, worried and tense. The night watchman, a young fellow called Sam Blake, let them in.

“Mr. and Mrs. Kirby? I’m Simon Meier.” He shook hands with them. “Now you’re probably wondering why Dave is here instead of in the hospital. He was attacked at school and hanged. Of course as a Cheila he did not immediately die but went into oxygen hibernation. I’ve given him measured doses of oxygen since I got him here and mouth to mouth before that and he has recovered well. There is some damage to his trachea however that should heal quite quickly in a week or two. Obviously there is some bruising, but he is awake, if rather embarrassed, and wants to go home.”

Mr. Kirby looked ever paler as the description went on. “Y-you know what we are…” His wife clasped her hands around her husband’s.

“Please…there is a slayer in town; we have heard of her… she goes to the same school as David…”

“She knows Cheila are harmless and neutral. She’s met Dave, and though she’s less than happy with him at the moment…”  He gave them an encouraging smile, “As Dave was partially and temporarily under the thrall of a Demon called Moloch, known as the Corruptor. But she understands that his actions were not entirely of his own volition.”

Mr. Kirby swallowed. “I’m sorry…she won’t attack us?”

“If she does she’ll be in grave trouble.” Simon nodded reassuringly.

“Thank you…thank you very much.”

Simon sighed. “Just one thing…could you talk to Dave about…romance?”

The Kirby’s exchanged looks. “Romance?”

“Yes. And that is all I will say.” Simon winked at them. “If you’ll give me the clothes for Dave, I’ll have him ready for you in a few minutes.”

The Kirby’s nodded in understanding.

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Joyce drove her children to school the next day, the last school day of the week. Looking in the rear view mirror as they glumly sat side by side she cleared her throat.

“Is there a problem?”

Buffy looked down and up again. “”S just…Love.”

Joyce nodded understanding. “Of course…you’ve not been very lucky have you…”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

Joyce grinned. “Well…I’d love to tell you you’ll meet the love of your life in High School…but then I’d have to go look for Brad Peterson…”

“Who’s Brad Peterson?” Buffy’s forehead wrinkled in confusion.

“Exactly…Just…try and keep it confined to the living, the same age bracket and the same county and I think thinks will start to look up pretty soon…” She winked evilly and all three teens gave her an indignant look before Xander chuckled ruefully.

“She’s got a point…”

Willow sighed wistfully. “Yeah…but…love…”

Joyce gave her a gentle look. “I know dear…but looking too hard…that doesn’t work either…trust me on this…”

Willow nodded, understanding the reference to the partial revelation her Mom had made the evening before.

“It’ll be alright dears…one day your prince or princess will come.”

 “Yah…suppose.” Buffy played with the beads hanging from her bag.

“Trust me Buffy…it will.”

She pulled up in front of the school and watched worriedly as Willow, dressed in sheer silk white stockings, low green pumps, white silk blouse and green and white plaited skirt, was guided up the steps. The girl seemed alright, but… She giggled as she remembered Xander’s painted toenails. Maybe she was. She turned the car away from the curb and drove to the Gallery.

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It was light and airy in the computer lab, the windows were open and a bird was singing outside. Jenny Calendar was typing at her desk computer, swinging softly to the music in her mind. Rupert had a really surprising music taste and he looked surprisingly good when not wearing a jacket. More muscular than she had thought. There had even been a tattoo which she had glimpsed before he hastily covered it up. Apparently England had a darker side. There was a knock at the door and the sound of a throat cleared and she turned to see him standing there, wearing tweed and a waistcoat for heavens sake. She rolled her eyes but smiled as she did so.

“Well, look who's here! Welcome to my world. She lifted an eyebrow and lowered her voice in a challenge. “You scared?”

Giles almost flashed her a smile.  “I'm remaining calm, thank you. Uh, I just wanted to, uh, return this.” He held up a small curly earring.

Jenny fought to suppress a blush and a giggle. *Oh this is going to be good…*

“I found it among the new books, and naturally I thought of you.”

Jenny was inwardly disappointed. Not in his shower, that would have been even more fun. “Cool. Thanks.” She accepted the proffered trinket, throwing it up and down on the palm of her hand.

Giles followed the sparkling thing with his eyes. “Uh, well, I'll, I'll see you anon.” He turned to leave.

Jenny threw another challenge after him. “Can't get outta here fast enough, can you?”

Giles turned round, leaning against the desk. “Truthfully, I'm even less anxious to be around computers than I used to be.”

“Well, it was your book that started all the trouble, not a computer.”

Giles shrugged, silently admitting the fact.

“Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?”

Giles looked a bit embarrassed. “The smell.”

“Computer's don't smell, Rupert.”

“I know! Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a, a whiff of smoke, the scent of perfume mixed with the smell of damp hair, newly laundered clothes…all those can bring up experiences...long forgotten. Books smell. Musty and, and, and, and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer, is, uh, it... it has no, no texture, no, no context. It's, it's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then, then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um... smelly. Real. An actual experience of all the senses.”

Jenny swallowed. He’d looked at her very intently while talking about perfume and the smell of damp hair…Was she ready for this? “Well! You really are an old-fashioned boy, aren't you?”

Giles smiled shyly. “Well, I-I don't dangle a corkscrew from my ear.”

Jenny inwardly crowed with delight. What a marvellous straight line. Her voice brimmed with humour and her grin was like Loki’s. “That's not where I dangle it.”

She walked past him to the teacher’s lounge and smiled. Giles followed her with his gaze and looked puzzled yet intrigued. He lightly sniffed the air in the wake of her passing and followed her out.

On the chair in the cubicle used by Willow a single white rose lay. On the screen a line of words blinked. “Help? Please? I’ll be good…”

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Willow hummed as she sniffed at the flower in her hand. White rose, a sign of friendship. She knew Xander hadn’t done it; he didn’t have the time in the morning. That meant someone else had left her, Willow, a rose. Even if it was a white one. Buffy looked at her from below her lashes and crossed her arms.

“Okay Will, who’s giving you flowers?”

“I don’t know, it was on my seat in Comp Sci. It smells gorgeous.” She held it out for Buffy to smell the delicate perfume. “It might be someone who needs my help in Comp Sci, there was a message on the screen.” She grinned. “No one’s ever given me flowers for homework help before…”

Buffy winced. “Will…If I‘ve got to buy you flowers for all your help. I’ll be broke and the Dutch will be all out of tulips.”

Willow giggled. “Don’t worry sis…special rates for siblings.”

“Siblings eh?” Buffy perked up.

“I’m going to talk to my biological parents tonight. After dinner. If I try and have it there, I won’t eat.”

“You don’t sound very…upset.”

“To be upset there’d have to be some sort of emotion…they’ve been so distant for so long…they provided for me in a material sense Buff…but I’ve had more hugs in the past few months than in the past seven years.”

Buffy looked a question. “That’s when my Nana died, my mother’s Mom.” Willow looked sad as she spoke.

“Oh.” Buffy was silent, thinking of her own grandparents. Her father’s parents were kind gentle people, as far as she knew, but they’d moved to Florida years ago. Her mother’s parents…she grinned as she imagined how Gran Ellis would react to her new grand children.

“Well I’m glad to give you lots.“ She threw an arm around Willow and the two walked off to find Xander.
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