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Summary: An ancient Roman denarius shows up in Sunnydale. Crossover with The Dresden Files (the books, not the TV show).

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Literature > Dresden Files, TheanotherlostsoulFR18528,376108815,17029 Aug 1121 Oct 11No

The Spaces Between

Author's Note: If I could offer a suggestion going forward, I would highly recommend tracking my story if you're enjoying it. It'll send you an email when I add a chapter and that's important because I've been posting half-chapters on a weekly basis to keep things flowing but I'll be compressing them down into the full chapters as we go. 'Welcome to the Hellmouth' was already crunched down from spanning Chapters 3 and 4 to just Chapter 3 having the full text, and when I begin posting 'The Harvest', this chapter and the previous one will become one piece. Getting a 'New Chapter' email is much easier than watching Latest and eyeing the number of chapters and going 'Didn't I already read all four chapters?', isn't it?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

     Willow's head spun disconcertingly as the sound of someone pounding on the front door of her house penetrated her awareness and dragged her kicking and screaming back towards full consciousness. She forced her eyes open and struggled to remember where she was and why she felt like five miles of bad road. She was just so tired; her entire body felt weighed down by fatigue. Why couldn't they let her sleep?

     As she wriggled in bed, intending to roll over and sink back into the arms of Morpheus, a petulant-sounding female voice drifted in through a window that Willow didn't remember opening. "Don't you have a key?"

     "If I did, would I be pounding on the door?" After a long moment of thought, Willow managed to recognize Xander's voice but that only raised more questions. Why was Xander here? Who was with him? And where was here again? She forced her eyes open once more and this time they managed to focus on her surroundings. She was lying on her bed, tucked snugly beneath the blankets. The clock on her nightstand indicated that it was just past 2 AM. How had she- "Wait! I think there's a spare key hidden somewhere around back…"

     As the two bickering voices moved off, the events of her night at the Bronze crashed through Willow's mind and her hand flew up to the injured side of her neck. A small gauze pad had been taped neatly in place over the wound and the feel of it beneath her fingers brought certain images among the jumbled mess to prominence in her mind's eye. Memories of the strange woman carrying her home and treating her wound, wrapping her in blankets to keep her warm and control the onset of shock. One memory that replayed itself over and over was the mysterious woman telling her that she was going to die without help, causing Willow's heart to race wildly. Obviously she hadn't died. She'd gotten help. But from who?

     "Are you sure you saw her, Buffy?"

     "I'm positive. She was heading toward this side of the cemetery, holding her neck and stumbling along like someone was helping her walk. I just hope that she and Jesse made it back here where it's safe."

     Well that explained why she hadn't recognized the female voice: it wasn't someone she'd interacted with much in the past. Or, for that matter, had any desire to interact with in the future. Which raised yet another question: why on Earth had Xander brought Buffy to her house at two in the morning? And why would anyone look for Jesse here? Willow frowned, mind working desperately to try and make sense of what was going on and failing miserably. She was just so tired, and it was so hard to think. Why would they think she'd seen Jesse? Xander had been the last one to see him, hadn't he? After school? Had he even been at the Bronze tonight?

     There was a soft knock on her door, pushing it open just enough for a sliver of light to pour in from the hallway. "Willow?"

     "I'm here." Willow grimaced as her throat burned with each hoarse word, reaching up to rub it softly. How much damage had that thing done to her? Should she go to the doctor in the morning? Could she? How would she explain it?

     Willow slid her back up the headboard as Xander pushed the door open, reaching a sitting position as he rushed into her room. He flipped the light switch and she squinted against the sudden wash of illumination, gasping as the brilliance stabbed at eyes that were only just getting used to the darkness. "What happened? Are you alright?"

     Glaring at her friend, Willow pointed a finger at what she would have thought was a very conspicuous piece of gauze taped to her throat. "Yes, Xander, I'm perfectly fine. Never felt better. I thoroughly enjoyed having the girl who picked me up turn out to be some kind of cannibal who tried to rip my throat out with her teeth. It's my idea of the perfect date." She waited for a moment, watching him gape at her like a fish out of water - and making a note to ask him how he'd ended up so battered-looking at some point later in the conversation - before taking pity on him. "It was a stupid question, Xander. Of course I'm not all right. Now why is she here?"

     "She know's what's going on, Wills. She can help."

     Willow shot Buffy a disbelieving look and arched an eyebrow expectantly. Buffy just stared back levelly in some sort of bizarre game of chicken, apparently unconcerned with the scrutiny. Eventually the blonde was the one to crack, her voice tight and expression guarded as she spoke. "The thing you left the Bronze with was a vampire."

     Shoving down her instinctual reaction of disbelief, Willow narrowed her eyes. "I saw you watching the two of us dance. So you knew I was with a vampire… and you just let me leave the Bronze with her?"

     "What was I supposed to do? Pull the two of you apart and stake her in front of everyone?" Buffy let out a harsh, scoffing laugh. "Because I'm sure that would have gone over so well. Even if I had tried to warn, you wouldn't have believed me. No one would have, because everyone knows that 'vampires aren't real'. Trust me, I've been down that road before and I don't recommend it."

     Willow pursed her lips, knowing that whether she liked it or not - and she really, really didn't - Buffy was right. There was nothing the blonde could have done at the Bronze that wouldn't have ended badly for everyone involved. That didn't mean, however, that Willow was prepared to just let it go. Not yet anyway. Especially since while the Bronze might have been off limits, that didn't mean the entire rest of Sunnydale was. "So instead you did nothing. You let a vampire take a bite out of me. You let me nearly die."

     That made Buffy wince as the pointed criticism slid home like a knife into her gut. "I watched the two of you and tried to follow when it led you off the dance floor, but I lost sight of you in the crowd. By the time I realized that the vampire had snuck you out a side door, you were already away from the Bronze and on your way to the graveyard." Yes? And? She couldn't have given chase? They hadn't been moving too quickly, at least as best Willow remembered.

     "She ran into me right outside the Bronze and was looking for you." Xander's tone was soft as he took over the narrative, and Willow immediately recognized his 'keep Willow from losing her temper' voice. It was becoming more common these days and he had a good reason to use it this time: she was beyond pissed at Buffy. "We caught sight of a blonde girl in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit leading Jesse into the cemetery and followed them, hoping to find both of you."

     Willow's heart was suddenly in her throat as she remembered her rescuer warning her that 'more of those leeches are coming'. The strange woman had been right about that but hadn't realized - or hadn't told her - that Jesse was with them. Or at least Willow assumed there was more to this story than Jesse moving on from Cordelia to some girl with a schoolgirl fetish. "What happened, Xander? Where's Jesse?"

     Even as Xander tried to answer her, Buffy opted to speak over him, her voice flat and emotionless. "We found him in a crypt in the graveyard. He'd been bitten and there were a couple of vampires with him. There was a fight and the three of us got separated. I managed to dust the vampire that was trying to kill me and save Xander, but there was no sign of Jesse. Either he got away on his own or the vampires took him."

     "Buffy caught a glimpse of someone that she thought might have been you as we went into the crypt, and that's why we came here. To make sure you were safe and we hoped we might find Jesse here with you." The tone in Xander's voice said it all to Willow: he didn't actually believe what he was saying and had played along for Buffy's sake. He didn't want to be here, despite knowing something had happened to her, because he knew Jesse was still out there somewhere else.

     Willow closed her eyes and let out a loud sigh before reopening them and shaking her head sadly. "I didn't even know he was at the Bronze tonight. If I'd known, I would've sent her back to try and save him."

     After exchanging confused looks, her two intrepid home invaders looked at her in surprise with Buffy asking the question that was on both their minds. "Her? Her who?"

     "The woman who rescued me. If you saw me in the graveyard, you must've seen her. I could barely walk after that vampire took a bite out of my neck."

     "You were alone when I saw you."

     Willow fixed her gaze on Buffy, studying her expression carefully. There was nothing in the girl's face to suggest that she was being anything other than completely honest about what she'd seen. On the other hand… well, that didn't make the slightest bit of sense. She'd passed out in the graveyard and the woman must have manhandled her all the way home before dragging her inside and patching her up. How was it possible to see her heading home but miss out on the fact that she was a rag doll being hauled along by someone else? "You had to have seen her… she saved my life."

     The soothing, almost patronizing, tone was back in Xander's voice as he raised his hands in surrender, cutting Willow off. "Why don't you tell us what happened, Willow?"

     "The… vampire had me pinned against the wall of a crypt with her fangs in my throat." Willow visibly shuddered at the recollection of that moment, her hand involuntarily coming up to the bandages on her throat. "I was sure I was going to die. Then there was a flash of red light and intense heat and a roaring sound in my ears. I remember screaming because it felt like a bomb had gone off in my head. I reopened my eyes just in time to see the… creature was on fire and I watched it crumble to dust before my eyes in seconds." She swallowed hard, her hand instinctually reaching for the coin that wasn't at her throat for the first time in months. Casting her gaze around wildly, Willow let out a sigh of relief as she spotted it two feet away, sitting atop her nightstand. Turning back to Buffy and Xander, she ignored the odd looks they were giving her and went back to her story. "There was a woman standing in the door of the crypt. She had her arm outstretched and her hand was glowing. She knew my name and said she'd been watching over me for a while. She helped me get out of there." Willow closed her eyes. "I passed out before we even made it out of the graveyard and I woke up back here, in bed, with my neck bandaged. She must've taken care of me."

     Buffy let out a derisive snort at that, making Willow's eyes snap open before narrowing at the blonde. "So you were rescued by someone who's been stalking you and create fire from thin air? Did your mysterious rescuer have a name? Cause it sounds to me like they might be more dangerous than the vampires."

     "Just out of curiosity, would that make her more or less dangerous than someone who deliberately lets people get attacked by vampires because they wouldn't help her with her homework?" Willow offered the blonde a cold smile as she flinched at yet another knife sliding home. Guilty conscience, meet angry victim. "And no, I don't know her name. I was a little busy trying going into shock and trying not to die from blood loss to be concerned with getting her references. Next time I'll be sure to get a copy of someone's driver's license before I let them save my life. And she did, you know. Save my life. Unlike you. So at this point, you don't really have the right to criticize her, even if she does turn out to be a demon worshipper planning to sacrifice me or a pedophile or… or a Scientologist or something."

     Huffing, Buffy threw her hands up in the air even as Xander gave her a small, crooked grin. "Really, Wills? A Scientologist?"

     Willow shrugged defensively. "Aren't they always talking about some sort of magic power thing if you unlock their highest teachings? She could be like, Queen of the Scientologists."

     "Could be. Probably not, though. You do realize how crazy this all sounds, right?" Before she could even say anything, Xander raised his hands again defensively. "I'm just saying, human beings don't generally set things on fire from across a room without a flamethrower. You've gotta admit that what you're telling us is a little out there.You said it yourself: you were bleeding and in shock…"

     Raising an eyebrow, Willow just chuckled. "It's 'a little out there', Xander? And vampires aren't? I mean, really? We're having a discussion with vampires in it and you're quibbling over any part of it being unbelievable?"

     Xander's mouth moved soundlessly for a moment and then he sagged. "Touché."

     One half of her detractors defused, Willow turned her attention to Buffy and went back on the offensive. "So, how is it that you know what's going on, anyways? Was that a course at Hemery High that they don't offer out here because we're not cool big city kids? 'Evil Creatures 101' or something?"

     "Well, it's nice to know that at least some of the non-vampire citizens of Sunnydale don't know who I am." Buffy shook her head despondently. "I mean, really, keeping a secret identity in this town is a lot of work. I feel like I've practically been walking around with a little button on my jacket that reads, 'Hi, I'm the Vampire Slayer. Ask me how'."

     "Vampire slayer?" Willow looked Buffy over again, appraising her against this new information. It certainly explained the way she moved, the almost leonine quality about her. Part of her had recognized the girl was a predator from the very first moment, no matter how hard Buffy had tried to hide it. It explained a lot, but not everything. Especially since… "Aren't you… well, a little on the small side to be fighting supernatural monsters?" Buffy glowered flatly at her, but Willow barreled on ahead. "I mean, that vampire tossed me around like I weighed nothing. They're way stronger than any normal person."

     "What can I say? I'm talented. I'm more than a match for most of your run of the mill vamps." Buffy's response was flippant, but her posture and her expression spoke volumes about her seriousness. "This is not my first rodeo. I've dealt with these creatures before. It's what I do… no matter how much I wish it wasn't."

     Willow barely heard the last part of Buffy's answer, the girl having mostly finished that thought under her breath. She knew for a fact that Buffy hadn't intended for anyone to hear it, even though her unhappiness about it was written plainly on her face for both her and Xander to see. The girl clearly had some unexpected depth to her, depth that certainly hadn't been apparent when Buffy had approached her for help today. Reluctant or not, Buffy seemed to have accepted her part in whatever was going. Willow wasn't sure if that should earn the girl respect for her selflessness, or scorn for being forced into a duty she obviously didn't want. That, however, was a question for another time. "So, what do we do now?" Willow's question hung in air as she glanced back and forth between Xander and Buffy, waiting expectantly.

     She didn't have to wait long. Buffy's answer was flat and resolute. "We don't do anything. There is no 'we' here."

     Unsurprisingly, Xander wasn't too thrilled with that response. "They have Jesse. If we don't do something, he's going to die."

     "The vampire that bit me said that she'd been sent to bring back food for 'the Master'." Even as she said it, Willow knew that she was likely giving Xander false hope, but surely that was better than no hope at all, wasn't it? "He could still be alive."

     The look Buffy shot her in response was anything but friendly. As if Willow cared whether the girl liked her or not; she just wanted to find out what had happened to Jesse. "Even if he is still alive, there's no way of knowing where they took him." She took a deep breath, appearing to consider her next step before meeting Xander's gaze. "I need to talk to my Watcher. I'll go after Jesse and I'll bring him back if he's still alive, but I need to know where he is first."

     Xander shook his head. "You mean we'll go after him and bring him back. He's my friend. I want to help."

     "Again, there is no 'we' here. We is me. When normal people get mixed up in fighting vampires, they end up dead. I'm not letting that happen again. I. Will. Handle. This." Xander crossed his arms, his jaw set belligerently but Buffy refused to back down on the matter. "Trust me, Xander, it's safer for you both to not be involved."

     "Yeah, because ignorance obviously kept me and Jesse safe tonight." Willow's respect for Buffy took another nosedive as she neatly countered the blonde's argument. "Pretending the monsters don't exist isn't going to protect us from them… knowing what's out there and how to deal with it will."

     Buffy's jaw clenched for another long moment. "Fine. Come to the school library in the morning. We'll talk to my Watcher and he can answer all your questions. Maybe he can talk some sense into you. If not, at least it won't be on my head." She turned and stepped into the hall, clearly finished with the conversation before pausing and looking back at Xander. "I'll walk you home safely, Xander, unless you plan to stay here…"

     Xander looked at Willow, clearly asking if she wanted him to stay, but she waved her hand dismissively. "Go on home and get some sleep, I'll see you at school in the morning." He nodded and followed after Buffy without another word. Behind him, Willow closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly as she listened to the quiet sounds of their departure. She didn't open her eyes until she heard the sound of the back door closing and knew they were truly gone.

     After a moment, she turned her attention to the other presence she could feel in the room with her. She was somehow unsurprised to find the woman who had rescued her leaning against the wall of her room, right next to the doors that led out onto her balcony. The woman took no immediate notice of Willow's attention, instead staring at the doorway Buffy and Xander had so recently departed through with a thoughtful expression on her face. It was only several breaths later that the woman looked at Willow and smiled softly.

     "I believe that we need to talk, my host."

     "She doesn't mean it, you know. Willow doesn't really blame you."

     "Coulda fooled me, Xander. And the thing is… I'm not sure she's wrong."

     "I believe that we need to talk, my host."

     "Who are you?" Inwardly, Willow was surprised at the calm and even tone of her voice as the question left her mouth. She'd thought that she would be frightened and angry and demanding when she finally had a chance to question her rescuer, but instead found herself feeling strangely calm and rational. "What are you? I mean, you're obviously not human…"

     "Whatever makes you assume that I'm not human? The fact that your friends couldn't see me? That you couldn't sense my presence until they left?" The woman waved a hand dismissively. "I could easily teach you a dozen different ways to veil your presence from others, each more subtle than the last. The senses, especially human senses, are ridiculously easy to deceive."

     "That doesn't mean that you're human." Willow fixed her with the same flat, even look she usually reserved for unnerving the sheep at school, only to receive a small smile in return. "A human being wouldn't have been so insistent on needing me to ask them for help when I was about to die. A human being wouldn't have 'veiled' their presence from others while saving my life without a real, pressing reason."

     The woman's smile widened and she inclined her head to Willow, acknowledging the point. "You are most perceptive, my host."

     "And you're avoiding my questions." Willow rose unsteadily to her feet and took a step towards the woman, meeting her amused eyes with a glare. "Who are you?"

     "Your questions are rather pointless I'm afraid. You ask me who I am, what I am? These are not simple questions that are easily answered, and no quick answer I give you will be capable of making you fully grasp who and what I am." She smiled at Willow to soften the sting of her words. "If you insist, however, I will answer these questions in terms that your limited frame of reference will allow you to comprehend."

     "Limited frame of reference?" Willow's voice sharpened noticeably at the insult. "What do you mean by that?"

     "I mean that you are a sixteen-year-old girl who, before tonight, knew nothing of the supernatural world around her. Even now, after your nigh-fatal epiphany, you know only that not everything is as it seems." The woman shook her head, amused by Willow's temper. "You haven't even realized yet that the questions you're asking me are insignificant compared to the one you should be asking. However, in the interests of retaining your trust, I will answer what you have asked. My name is Lasciel and you may consider me your… protector."

     "My protector?" The sharp tone of Willow's words softened into quiet confusion at this.

     Lasciel nodded slowly. "Among other things."

     "What other things?"

     "That will largely depend on you, my host." Lasciel's smile looked almost smug as she watched as she watched Willow struggle with the answers to her questions.

     "What do you mean by that?" Willow's head spun as she tried to make sense of what she being told. Every answer only seemed to muddle the issue even further.

     "I mean, Willow, that the choices you make will shape what I am to you. For the first time in your life, you have all the power in a relationship, you have control."

     The words hung heavily in the room for a long moment as Willow considered what she had been told. "None of that makes any sense to me…which is precisely what you meant when you said I couldn't fully grasp the answers, isn't it?" Lasciel nodded again, her smug smile becoming more genuinely warm. "So, if I'm asking the wrong questions, then what are the right questions?"

     "Who and what I am, is much, much less important than what I want from you."

     Willow frowned, considering the point Lasciel just made. "Clearly, you want something from me, something that involves me being alive or you wouldn't be 'my protector'." She paused to see if Lasciel would have anything to add to that thought. When she didn't, Willow continued. "So what is it that you want?"

     "I want to help you, Willow. I want to teach you. I want to make sure that you have the knowledge and power to not merely survive, but to thrive and to succeed at whatever tasks you take upon yourself." Lasciel closed the distance between the two of them, reaching up to gently run the back of one hand over Willow's cheek as she spoke.

     "Why? Why would you do that for me?" Willow's eyes narrowed suspiciously, although she made no move to remove Lasciel's hand or back away from the woman. "What's in it for you?"

     "Your well being, for one thing." Lasciel answered, gingerly sliding her hand down to touch Willow's neck just above the bandaged reminder of her brush with death. "Tonight has opened your eyes to the dangers that are hidden in the world around you. The creature you encountered tonight was, in truth, the least of its kind, barely worthy of being called a vampire at all, and it almost killed you. Your death would be a tragic waste, something I devoutly desire to avoid." The fingers left her neck as Lasciel brought both hands up to cup the redhead's face. "You have such tremendous potential, Willow. Potential that you've not even begun to become aware of.  Your parents and your peers are blind to it, but I see exactly what you could become. That's why I was given to you. So that I could help you fulfill that potential." Looking away for the first time, Lasciel shot a pointed look at the collar that sat on Willow's nightstand.

     No, Willow realized with a start, not the collar. The coin that hung from it. "You're connected to the coin!"

     "More than connected, Willow. I am bound to the coin and to whomever possesses it. That is both my blessing and my curse." Lasciel's smile faded into an expression filled with sorrow. "I am powerless to directly interact with anyone other than bearer of my coin, but in exchange I may lend my power and my knowledge to the one I am bound to."

     "Why haven't you revealed yourself to me before now? I've had the coin for months…"

     "I could not reveal myself to you while you remained ignorant of the supernatural world, not without creating far more problems than either of us would have cared to deal with." She fixed Willow with a pointed look. "Imagine for a moment that I had appeared to you before tonight. You would have been a young woman, with no reason to believe in anything beyond what could be scientifically explained, suddenly suffering from what would appear to all the world as hallucinations. When other people became aware of the situation you would likely find yourself committed to a mental hospital and down that path lies no benefit for either of us."

     "I still might be crazy." Willow met Lasciel's gaze with a glare of her own.

     "If I were a hallucination of some kind, you would be dead, Willow." Lasciel countered her statement with a small smile. "A hallucination couldn't have destroyed that vampire, nor could it have gotten you home safely when your body went into shock."

     Willow sighed, willing to concede that point… for now. Then again, just because Lasciel wasn't a hallucination didn't mean that she wasn't crazy. After all, she was talking with some sort of spirit being that was now bonded to her because she owned an ancient coin. "Alright, so you aren't a hallucination. But you still haven't given me an explanation of what you get out of helping me."

     Lasciel fell silent as she pulled away, turning and wandering over to the balcony doors before… sticking one hand through the window pane? "I was present at the beginning of the universe. I watched as the firmament was given shape and form. Alongside my brothers and sisters, I helped make this world hospitable for mortal creatures like humanity." Pulling her hand free, she looked back over her shoulder at Willow, an expression of loneliness and longing filling her features. "Yet I am not part of this world. I exist outside it and I always will. I cannot directly affect the world at all, save by acting through someone else. More than two thousand years ago, I made a choice and bound myself to that coin, and through the coin to the men and women who have taken it up. In exchange for the power and knowledge I can bestow on them, I get to experience the world they are a part of. I get to live vicariously through them, to feel what they feel… that is what I get out of my partnership with you, Willow. It may not seem like much to you, but it is enough. I will teach you to use the potential you were born with, my host. I will even supplement your abilities with my own, not inconsiderable power when you have need of it. I will be forever at your side, all of my wisdom and all of my knowledge available to you at a moment's notice whenever you require it. I will be a mentor, an advisor and a partner to you in pursuing whatever goals you set for yourself." The sadness faded from Lasciel's smile as she spoke. "All I ask in return is to share your experiences."

     Wandering back over to sit on the edge of her bed - she didn't know how much longer her legs would hold out and the last thing she wanted to do was fall on her ass in front of the immortal spirit woman - Willow closed her eyes as she considered Lasciel's words. She'd already seen a tiny portion of what this… being… was capable of in the moment that it had saved her from the vampire. In fact, Lasciel had saved her life at least twice tonight already. Surely that earned her Willow's trust? If Lasciel had intended to harm her, she could have done so long before now. In fact, she could have simply let the vampire or the blood loss and shock take its course earlier this evening. She pictured herself embracing what Lasciel had offered her and thought of all the good she could do with that kind of knowledge and power at her disposal. The idea was intoxicating. There would be nothing she couldn't do.

     An errant thought strayed into her mind. It was nothing, really, just a memory of a scene from a movie she had seen years ago. In the movie, a journal that contained a copy of the memories of a young, ambitious, evil wizard had managed to seduce a young girl and nearly kill her in its efforts to take on a life of its own. Could Lasciel mean to do something like that to her? "How do I know this isn't some kind of a trick? That you aren't just trying to lull me into letting you take possession of my body?"

     Turning away from the balcony doors, Lasciel crossed the room to sit next to Willow on the bed. "Think back for a moment, Willow, to the last thing you said before the vampire that bit you burst into flame. Do you remember?"

     Willow frowned thoughtfully, confused by Lasciel's reaction to her accusation. "I asked someone to help me?" At least she thought she had. The memory was vague and clouded by fear and pain.

     "And when you succumbed to shock during your escape from the graveyard…" Lasciel nodded her confirmation of Willow's memory as she pressed onward to whatever point she meant to make. "What did I tell you before you passed out?"

     "That you couldn't help me, not unless I asked you to." Willow voice was calmer, steadier now, as began to get an inkling of what Lasciel was trying to point out to her.

     "What you must understand, my host, is the power of free will." Lasciel's smile grew more serious now and less amused. "Neither I, nor any of my kin, may force you to do anything. The only way that I could take control of your mortal shell would be for you to willingly give me such control. Even if you did choose to allow me control over your body, the moment you chose to reassert control, I would be powerless to stop you." Lasciel's face was almost solemn as she continued. "That is the ultimate limit of my power. I am not permitted to take away your free will, I cannot force you to do anything and I cannot affect the world around you at all, save when you allow me to do so through you."

     "So if I hadn't asked for your help?" Willow's face was pensive as she asked the question that suddenly seemed so important to her.

     "I would have been forced to stand idly by and watch you perish." Lasciel nodded as comprehension dawned on Willow's face. "If your plea for help had not been open-ended enough to grant me the freedom to act, you would have died in that vampire's arms."

     "You can't act without my permission, even to save my life?"

     "Not even to save your life." Lasciel tilted her head, considering Willow for a moment. "It is late, my host, and you are weary from the day's events and from your wounds. You should rest now and we can continue this discussion later. If you will permit me, I will restore your body while you sleep, healing your wound and restoring the vitality you lost."

     "You can do that?" Willow seemed surprised as Lasciel rose and helped her to settle back.

     "Quite easily, my host. Now lie back and rest. When you have need of me, I will be no further away than a thought."

     Having not actually turned the page - or absorbed a single word - in well over ten minutes, Tara Calendar née Maclay was grateful for the distraction when she heard the door to the master bedroom opening. She looked up to find her aunt standing in the doorway, rubbing the sleep from her eyes as she yawned. "Morning, Aunt Janna."

     "I'll yell at you for not remembering my name is Jenny Calendar after I have some coffee. I smell coffee, right?" Chuckling, Tara pointed back over her shoulder in the direction of the apartment's kitchen and Jenny stumbled past the living room sofa in search of her precious morning pick-me-up. A few minutes of rummaging, clinking, and muffled cursing later, Jenny returned and plopped down on the couch at Tara's feet. "Where was I? Oh, right. My name in Sunnydale is Jenny Calendar; you need to use it even when you think we're alone. We can't afford for anyone here to suspect anything." The dark-haired woman waited until Tara nodded at the gentle rebuke before pressing onward. "Now, I got a lot of work done on 'Tara Calendar' after you went to bed last night. The rest will have to wait until I have a less traceable connection. After all, the idea is to avoid having the FBI or the DHS knocking on our door, not to draw their attention to us." She scowled, shaking her head in irritation. "Thank you, terrorists, for making life harder for the rest of us ne'er-do-wells."

     Thanks to her upbringing in rural Alabama, Tara's knowledge of computers was pretty much limited to 'push this button and it turns on' and so she had absolutely no idea what any of that meant or why her aunt was having problems. All she cared about was what it meant for her future. "How long before I'll be able to start back into school here, Aunt Ja-enny? Like you said, we don't want to draw attention and that means I need to be in school. We're lucky as it is that nobody's noticed the spare car or the second set of footsteps." Pausing, she offered her aunt a lascivious grin and a wink. "Either that or they've noticed and think you're a hooker doing after-school specials or something. I mean, with the economy the way it is…"

     Jenny sputtered for a few seconds before leaning over to swat Tara hard on the arm with her free hand. "Tara Andrea Calendar! That was inappropriate and wrong and… have you seen the men in this town? There's nobody I'd want to be able to afford me." The two shared a giggle at that and then Jenny sobered so she could answer Tara's question. "A couple of days, if everything goes according to plan. We can head up to the Starbucks in Goleta after school on Thursday; you can get your fix of overpriced coffee and I can log in to their Wi-Fi and finish up what needs to be done. All goes well, you could be in classes the next day or Monday at the worst." Jenny cocked her head, staring at the teen consideringly. "Unless you're in a particular hurry?"

     "No. There's no need to rush. I mean, I've waited this long to be almost a normal girl. I can wait a few more days." Closing her book and placing it on the coffee table, Tara rose and walked over to the window, peering out at the parking lot and smiling crookedly as she stared at the candy apple red '67 Mustang sitting next to her aunt's more sensible tan Camry. "You know, I almost want Dad or Donny to try and report the car stolen. Be a fly on the wall when they realize that since mom paid for everything, she could - and did - put it in my name the day I turned sixteen. Bet they miss it more than me. You know, if it wasn't for the fact that we're supposed to be family, you wouldn't even need to bother with your computer magic. They'll never care enough to report me missing."

     Moving to wrap her arms around Tara from behind, Jenny rested her cheek on the top of Tara's head as she hugged her niece. "I'm kinda surprised that you didn't… tie up some lose ends… before you left home. Given the way they treated you…"

     Tara just shook her head. "Mama's instructions were clear: if anything happened to her, I wasn't supposed to draw any unnecessary attention to myself. Wasn't to do anything rash or hasty. Just take what was important and find you. So I did." She shrugged. "For now, I'll rest and regroup and prepare… and when I'm ready, I'll take my vengeance on the ones who killed my mother. My problems with the Maclays can wait until after that."

     "She would've been proud of you, Tara. You've done remarkably well in a bad situation."

     "Why couldn't I have done better when she needed me, then?"

     Jenny didn't have an answer to that.
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