The Wolf Within
by Erin
Additional Disclaimer: Werewolf material contained in this story is copyright White Wolf Games, Inc. such as Garou, Children of Gaia, Black Spiral Dancers, Gurahl, Glass Walkers, etc.
Part the Sixteenth

Bright sunlight shining in her eyes brought Willow to full wakefulness. She rubbed her eyes, careful not to disturb the figure sleeping next to her; she looked down at the blond head fondly, noticing that even in sleep Buffy held on to her protectively.

She shifted a tiny bit, kissing the top of Buffy's head. Unfortunately, this also brought a corner of the dusty fur that served as their blanket right underneath Buffy's nose; she snorted, then sneezed, startling herself awake. Willow giggled.

"Wha's so funny?" Buffy mumbled, rubbing her hand over her face.

"You," Willow replied, kissing Buffy soundly, and pulling her into a big hug. "You don't know how glad I am that you're ok."

"Count me as a big ol' likewise, babe," Buffy said, smiling at her lover delightedly. "Not to look a gift life in the mouth, but do you have any idea why we're ok?"

Willow frowned, remembering the events of the night before. "I'm not sure, the last thing I really remember is..." she shuddered, not wanting to remember the feel of Oz's talons tearing through her skin. "I woke up sometime after, and I think we were rescued, but by who or what I'm not sure."

Any further conversation was forestalled by Buffy's stomach, which was protesting its emptiness in a very vocal fashion. Willow laughed again and jumped out of bed, her feet touching the cold, dusty floor. Their backpacks had been placed next to the large, wooden bed they both had slept in, so Willow grabbed hers and began to rummage through it, looking for powerbars. Unfortunately, it appeared that they had none left.

"Bad news. Looks like we finished off our last powerbars already," Willow said, watching Buffy stand and stretch. The sunlight played over Buffy's limbs, and the mild ripple of muscles under skin always fascinated the redhead.

"What's that?" Buffy asked, pointing at a large kettle warming over a banked fire in the fireplace.

"Dunno, could be laundry for all I know."

Buffy lifted the cast-iron lid and peered in, sniffing experimentally. "Smells good for laundry."

"It's soup, and you can help yourself if you like." A deep voice startled them both. The source of the voice was standing in the open doorway, a canvas bag slung over his shoulder.

The man was nearly wider than the doorway itself, Willow noticed. He was very tall and broad, and his long salt-and-pepper hair and beard nearly hid an omni-present smile. His faded denim jeans and flannel gave him a Grizzly Adams appearance.

He walked in without another word, and set his canvas bag down on the rough-hewn wood table. Coming to stand in front of the girls, he held open his arms in a welcoming gesture. "Be well, young sisters. Welcome to the knowledge of Gaia and Her creation. Be easy in all your forms, and walk lightly upon the Earth. I am Artur Mountainwind, Gurahl Tale-spinner of the Mountain Guardians. To meet you is my honor." He inclined his head out of respect for his guests, and they did likewise.

"I, um..." Willow was unsure how to respond after the formalness of the man's greeting. Still, she gave it a valiant try. "I am Willow Rosenberg, Garou Theurge of the Glass Walkers, and this is my companion Buffy Summers, the Slayer. The honor is, um, ours."

Artur smiled at the two girls. "Geth-Uzmati," he said, turning to Buffy. "We have known about your kind for millennia. It was because of the Gurahl that Gaia created the Slayers as protectors of mankind against the Pattern Breaker." Knowing the questions that the two girls would want to ask him, Artur held up a large, weathered hand. "But you are hungry, and the Ritual of Hospitality dictates that first you must break your fast. Please sit." The two friends looked at each other and then sat around the large table while Artur filled up earthenware bowls and plates with food.

Setting the food on the table, he said, "Take this fish and these berries. The berries are the fruits of Gaia, which I bequeath to you. Their sweetness is all we need to tell us why we nurture Gaia's creation. The fish has been salted to remind us of the tears that have been shed in protecting Gaia. The fish has given of itself so that we may nourish ourselves; we honor its sacrifice. Never fail to offer Gaia's bounty to any in need."

He poured large mugs full of water from a clay pitcher. "This is fresh spring water. It symbolizes life. Drink, and gain the wisdom of Gaia."

The two girls drank deeply; Willow noticed how refreshing and clean the water tasted, not at all like "natural spring water" found in supermarkets, and certainly a far cry from city tap water. It was cold, crisp, and slightly sweet, and she found it very refreshing. The three of them ate in silence; it seemed almost sacrilegious to disturb the peacefulness of the meal.

Buffy thought about the different family dinners she had gone to over the years, and how often her grandparents would say 'Grace' before a meal. They always thanked God for their food, but never did they actually thank the food itself. She began to wonder why not.

Finally, when they had eaten their fill of the fish soup and berries, Artur leaned back and regarded his guests seriously. "I am sure we all have many questions; so since you are my guests protected under the Ritual of Hospitality, I will let you ask yours first."

Willow and Buffy exchanged glances, and after a moment Willow asked, "You are a werebear? A, um, Gurahl?"

Artur nodded. "I am."

Willow relaxed somewhat. "I'm sorry, I just didn't realize what kind of, uh, reception we were going to get, seeing as how I'm Garou and Buffy is human."

"You have no need to fear that." Artur smiled at them. "We Gurahl are protectors and healers. We enter combat only rarely, and then never without good reason. Only those corrupted by the Pattern Breaker have any need to fear us."

"You said you knew about the Slayers," Buffy said. "And how the Gurahl created them?"

"Actually, Gaia created them," Artur corrected. His eyes became distant, the flickering firelight reflecting in them like dark, underground pools. The girls listened with rapt attention to his story. "In the early days, Man had a difficult time surviving in the harsh wilderness. He was without claws, without fangs, without speed, and without strength. We had sympathy for Man, and helped him build shelter, make tools, and hunt and dig for food.

"As the human settlements grew, the Soul-Dead known as Vampires came in to hide among the cities and prey on the weak. Thus the Pattern Breaker was served as more corrupted, soulless creatures were spawned. Night by night they ravaged the human cities, spreading their plague of corruption.

"The terrified humans called out to the heavens for a savior, one who would protect them from the Soul-Dead just as their hunters protected them from the wild beasts. Our Kinfolk brought this before us, and we brought it before Gaia. We pleaded with her to help Man fight against the Pattern Breaker's minions, for we knew then that Man would be a force in the world, and could tip the scales of the war. The Great Mother said to us, 'If you can find someone who is willing to fight and die on behalf of Man, I will make of him a savior.'

"So we went into the human cities, and asked for one who would be willing to take on the burdens of a savior, one who would fight and die for their people. We travelled from city to city, and found no one who was willing to stand up to the horrors of the Soul-Dead.

"Finally, in a small village, we found someone. Not a warrior, or a hunter, but a young girl, one who loved her people and wanted them safe from harm. She boldly stepped forward and said, 'Wise ones, I will give my life to save those of my people. I would do it ten or a hundred times if I could, for I love them.' We heard the voice of Gaia, then, and She said, 'So it shall be. This young girl and those who come after her will be the saviors of Mankind, and they shall slay the Soul-Dead who prey on her people.'

"And so it was from that moment on that one young girl is chosen to receive Gaia's gifts and be the savior of mankind, fighting the minions of the Pattern Breaker to protect her people." Artur fell silent, his tale finished.

"How much of this is true?" Buffy asked, quietly. "I mean, I've heard stories about how the Gurahl were jealous of Garou, so they started fighting, and stories about how the Garou demanded obedience and the other shape changers didn't like it... I guess I'm wondering what the heck I can believe."

Artur just smiled. "That is something you have to find out for yourself."

Oz paced the dark cave, rubbing his arms vigorously as if to ward off a chill. That... thing...had killed Anoorach and had taken the two girls to god only knows where. It was all he and Onaalth could do to get away before they were torn to pieces as well.

Oz looked over at the jackal-headed Spiral, who was busy whimpering and whining in his sleep. Sickening. He had tried to convince Oz to return to the Caern, to gather more Spirals, but Oz had refused. He wasn't leaving here until Willow was his again. He had even refused to sleep, because he could no longer bear the nightmares.

When it grew dark, he would track them and find them.

"Sir, were you the one who rescued us last night?" Willow asked.

Artur nodded. "I found two brave souls who were fighting for their lives against the minions of the Pattern Breaker. I brought you both back here for healing, since you were sore in need of it."

"Thank you." Willow bowed her head respectfully. "We, that is, Buffy and I, were looking for you. I am on a quest, and I had hoped that you would be able to help me with it."

"What desperate situation has befallen the Garou that they would send a questing pup after a member of my race?" Artur asked, smiling faintly.

"Well, sir," Willow began, "one of those Black Spirals we were fighting last night is... was...a friend of ours. He was taken by the Spirals and turned to the Wyrm -- er, Pattern Breaker."

Artur's smile faded, and he fixed a sad gaze on the two girls. "I am sorry to hear that. The Pattern Breaker touches many, and his touch always brings corruption. Still, I don't know why you came so far to bring this news to me."

"One of my teachers thought that you knew of a way to cure Wyrm taint."

The Gurahl stroked his beard thoughtfully. "The problem is not only the taint, it is also the madness, correct? The madness could quite possibly be cured, but I know of no way to cure a minion of the Pattern Breaker completely."

Willow felt her heart sink with bitter disappointment. After they had come so far and fought so hard. She swallowed, feeling Buffy's hand cover hers. Then Oz was well and truly dead if even the Gurahl could not help.

"So there's nothing we can do?" Buffy asked quietly.

"The spirit of Bear teaches all the Gurahl our healing gifts. He has, on occasion, been known to teach certain gifts to Garou as well. You may be able to call upon Bear, and He may deign to teach you something that would help. But the confrontation would be dangerous; Bear is not forgiving toward those who slaughtered His children."

Willow raised her head, looking Artur in the eyes for the first time. Her tear-stained cheeks looked flushed, but she swallowed and said, "If that is what it takes, I'll do it."

The late afternoon sun shone down on the small forest glade. There was a tiny, bubbling spring here, just outside the cabin, and the musical sound of rushing water was helping Willow focus her thoughts.

"You must be purified of mind, body, and spirit in order to survive your confrontation with Bear; if you have any lingering doubt you must rid yourself of it before the ritual," Artur had told her.

The crunching sound of boots on dirt and leaves told Willow that Buffy was walking up behind her. Sure enough, a quiet voice said, "Willow, please don't do this."

"I have to, Buffy. It's the only way I can save him."

Buffy crouched down next to her, hand clutching her shoulder tightly. "Will, please. I almost lost you last night. would have killed me. Will," she said, raising Willow's face to look into her own, "I can't live without you."

The redhead's eyes filled immediately with tears. "God, Buffy, I wouldn't want to live without you. But I can't...I have to do this. I can't turn my back on it now, not after everything that's happened. Not after everything I know now."

Buffy dropped her gaze, and asked in a quiet voice, "Aren't I worth more to you than he is?"

Willow nodded, tears spilling down her cheeks. "Yes, Buffy, you're everything to me." She stroked one downy-soft cheek with the back of her hand. "I've never loved anyone as much as I love you right now, and every day I love you more.

"But what I'm doing isn't just for Oz. It's for you too. You saw the Spirit World -- everything is slowly being drowned in poison. You can fight it, but you can only fight so much.

"Every night you go out to risk your life, killing vampires and demons, stopping apocalypses, all to save your friends and family. This is something I can do, something to stall the poison and let us all live a little bit longer. I can do this, Buffy. Please believe in me."

Willow felt herself get wrapped up in a hug, Buffy holding her tightly to her. "God, Will," she said, voice roughened by tears. "I do believe in you. I just worry so much about you, you know? I've been doing it for so long now, I'm used to being everyone's protector."

Willow smiled, her lips brushing Buffy's neck. "I know."

"Ok. Well, I won't say I won't worry, but I believe in you. If anyone can do it, it's my bad-ass werewolf." Buffy smiled, and hugged Willow even tighter.

Willow allowed herself to remain in the embrace for several minutes, gaining strength and comfort from her lover. Finally, she said, "Thank you. It means everything to me that you believe." She gave Buffy one final hug, and then stood. "Ok, I think I'm ready."

The two lovers allowed themselves one final kiss, and then they headed back into the cabin.

Part the Seventeenth

Willow sat cross-legged on the dusty floor of the cabin, the deerskin robes she wore heavy against her skin.

Artur made her change out of her normal clothing, because he said that such trappings of the Pattern Weaver might anger Bear, and no one wanted to take any more chances with that than necessary. She breathed deeply, and felt the hot smoke of smouldering sage in her nostrils.

"We are here to witness the purification of this young cub. A sister of the Garou, we ask for the peace and protection of Bear, and the wisdom of the Great Mother on her behalf." The Gurahl anointed her forehead with spring water, his large hand proving surprisingly gentle.

Buffy sat to the side, watching the proceedings nervously. She knew that Willow needed to complete this quest, for her own reasons if no one else's. But it didn't mean that Buffy stopped worrying about her. She was going someplace alone, without Buffy there to protect her, and the Slayer didn't like it one bit.

Artur bent and placed an amulet around Willow's neck. "I grant you the blessing and protection of the Brothers and Sisters of Bear," he said solemnly. "May your journey prove fruitful, and your actions honor your people and the Great Mother." Picking up Willow's small mirror, he pressed it into her hand.

Willow rose, and with one last look at the Slayer, gazed into the mirror. Taking a small step forward, she vanished.

"So it begins," Artur said, quietly.

Oz padded through the silent forest, sniffing the air anxiously. He and Onaalth had covered the blood-stained clearing that they were forced to flee the night before; it was nearly impossible to pick up the scent of the creature that had attacked them. It was as if it were part of the earth itself.

So they had expanded their search in ever-widening circles. Onaalth had dared to challenge Oz, saying that they should abandon the search to travel back to the Caern; Oz had ripped in to the smaller, jackal-headed werewolf, both literally and figuratively. He was here for one reason: Willow; and there was no way he was going to let that betraying bitch elude him again.

So close! They had been so close to taking her in the clearing. The Slayer had been ripped to pieces, and Willow was theirs. She was so close to being forced to walk the Spiral, and then she would be his forever.

The Spiral... Oz remembered it only in brief, nightmare flashes of repressed memory. He remembered the gauntlet he was forced to walk, as the other Spirals in the Caern took their turns slashing him with claw and fang, or branding him with hot Balefire. The pain ate into his soul until it touched something deep inside him, and finally unleashed the Rage which he had held down and kept hidden for so long. He snarled with the memory of it; his faddishly jaded, carefully indifferent persona shattered in an instant. He raged against everything: against the Spirals who caused him pain, against his family for never understanding, against Veruca for stripping away his comfortable preconceptions, and most of all against Willow.


Willow who insisted on loving him, even when he so obviously didn't deserve it.

Willow who wanted to kill him, slide a silver blade into his gut, spilling his blood and entrails on the floor.

He walked the Spiral, and it brought him face-to-face with all his failures, all his disappointments, everything he lost. Except Willow. The Wyrm told him that he could have her again; make her like he was, bring her to the Caern, and she would be his forever. His to play with, his to control.

All he had to do was find her.

Willow looked around at the forest glade, awash in nature spirits. Unlike the forest areas closer to civilization, this place was inhabited by spirits who exuded vitality and health. Water spirits, untouched by toxin, played merrily in the natural spring. Tree spirits, free from smog and blight, whispered long-forgotten secrets to each other.

She started walking, for no better reason than that she felt she should.

"Hey, watch where you're going!"

Willow jerked back in surprise, looking down at her feet. A small rabbit sat there, eating some ripe berries. He looked at her with what she thought was a very pissed-off expression. Not that she'd ever seen a pissed-off rabbit before to compare.

"I'm sorry," she said, feeling a little odd at talking to a rabbit. "I wasn't watching where I was going."

"That's for sure," he said, only slightly mollified. "Why are you stomping around here, anyway? Are you intentionally trying to crush cute little animals?"

Willow thought that the attitude this rabbit was pulling made him a lot less than 'cute'. "I'm just looking for Bear. I won't bother you any more." She turned, and started walking away.

"Bear, huh? Never liked the guy. Always throwing his weight around. What're you looking for him for?" Rabbit began hopping next to her, trying to keep up with her long legs.

Willow, annoyed, looked down at the tiny rabbit. "I was told that he could help me, teach me a gift."

The rabbit made a rude noise that Willow didn't think was possible considering the shape of rabbit lips. "Bear? You've got to be joking."

"Why not?" Willow stopped and folded her arms across her chest. "I heard that Bear has a lot of gifts he can teach."

"Well, sure, if he wanted to. But he won't teach 'em to you. He'll just kill you."

Willow blinked. "He'll...why...I mean..."

Rabbit looked at her critically. "You're Garou, right? Yeah, he won't teach you, he'll just kill you. Best to turn back now."

"But, I can't!" Willow put a hand up to her forehead, trying to still the beginnings of a raging headache. "I mean, I need to talk to him!"

Rabbit cocked an eyebrow. "It's really that important, huh? Hmm, well maybe there is something you can do. Bear is a huge glutton, I mean, he doesn't think about much except eating. If you can lure him in with food, he'll generally listen until the food runs out. Then he'll eat you, unless you've convinced him otherwise."

"He'll eat me?"

"Well, yeah. You're the other, other white meat."

"Ok..." Aside from the fact that this was all coming from a rabbit, Willow couldn't find anything wrong with his logic. "So what does Bear like to eat? Like, nuts and berries and stuff?"

Another rude noise. "Hell no. Fish, preferably salmon," Rabbit advised.

"How do I catch salmon?"

"How do bears do it?"

Oz turned his head back and forth, trying to narrow down that elusive scent. They had been searching for what felt like hours, and now he thought he had it. There. Just a faint trace left on a few leaves, but it was there. Willow.

He called out to his packmate, an ear-splitting howl of obsession and triumph.

Buffy heard the hair-raising howl, faint but still recognizable. It was a mad sound, and the pure desperation that filled it made her shiver.

"Prepare yourself," Artur said, head cocked to one side. "They come."

Buffy walked over to her backpack, and drew her silver blade.

"Just like a bear," Willow mumbled, standing knee-deep in an ice-cold, rushing river. She was able to find it with a little more help from Rabbit. He turned out to be not so bad after all; she guessed they just got off on, or under, the wrong foot.

The silvery fish darted around past her ankles; she was convinced that they were taunting her and her inexperience. The few times she was able to grab one, they slid right out of her grasp. She was cold, wet, tired, frustrated, and just about ready to give up.

"Come on!" She yelled, after missing another catch. "Can't you guys cooperate just once?"

"Why should we?"

Willow jumped back from the voice she heard at her feet, nearly slipping and plunging herself into the icy river. "Wha...?"

The voice came from a large salmon, darting back and forth under the water. "I mean it, what's in it for us? You're just going to eat us, right?"

"Um, well..." Willow said, thinking furiously. "You'd...get to see what life on land is like!" She finished, triumphantly.

"Oh, goody. Then I can choke to death. Sign me up."

What is it with these sarcastic animals? Willow wondered. It was really starting to tick her off. These guys were a lot pissier than their Disney counterparts. "Look, you guys are supposed to get eaten. Isn't it some Circle of Life thing?"

"That doesn't mean I have to make it easy." The salmon darted off through the water.

Willow sank down on the bank, dropping her head into her hands. This whole world, everything in it was very weird and very disappointing. She was really starting to hate it.

"Now, that's pretty sad."

Now what? Willow looked up to see a hawk perched on a nearby tree, regarding her solemnly. "Can I help you with something?"

"Yeah, you can stop feeling sorry for yourself. You're a predator, for Gaia's sake! Act like one."

"I don't know how!" Willow cried, frustrated. "I've been human my entire life, and now all of a sudden I have to deal with all this!" She waved her arm around, indicating the surrounding forest.

"You want to know how to deal with all this? By killing, that's how." The hawk regarded her calmly. "That's how things work around here. Something tries to kill you, you kill it. Something looks like food to you, you kill it. It's that simple. Some things have to die so that others can live. It can't be done nicely, it can't be done politely, it just has to be done, period."

Willow fell silent. She looked at the fish, darting around, each one full of life. She thought of Oz, his mind consumed by madness.

She was a predator. She was a Garou.

She was a human.

She leapt up, startling the hawk, and ran off into the forest.

Oz tracked the faint scent to a small cabin, hidden in a forest glade. The ground burned when he walked on it, it was so full of the spirit of Gaia, the Jealous Mother. He ignored the pain and smell of burning flesh. Each step brought him closer to her.

He reached the front door, and shifting into Crinos, nearly ripped the door off its hinges in his haste. Inside, he saw a large man who fairly reeked of nature, and he saw...the Slayer. She stood near the front door, silver blade bared to the firelight.

"Where is she?" He snarled, taking a fearless step toward the armed Slayer.

"You're too late, Oz, she's not here."

Not here... Oz looked around, noticing that even though her scent was present, Willow was nowhere to be found. That could only mean...

"The Umbra," Oz laughed triumphantly. "The Umbra!" He ran outside again, followed closely by the smaller Spiral. Buffy cast a puzzled glance over at Artur, and ran after them.

She ran around the side of the cabin just in time to see them reach the small stream and use its reflective surface to slip into the Spirit World.

Buffy ran back inside the cabin. "They're going after Willow, we have to follow them!"

Artur looked at Buffy sadly. "I cannot. I cannot travel into the Spirit World at will, as can the Garou. It is not a gift that the Great Mother has given us."

Buffy clenched her jaw. "You can't, but I can." She ran outside, heading for the stream.

Willow jogged through the forest, yelling as she ran. "Bear!" She screamed. "Show yourself! Bear!"

An ear-splitting roar brought her to a stumbling halt. Standing before her on his hind legs, massive front paws tipped with huge claws waving threateningly in front of her, was Bear. "You dare to call me!" He roared. "Daughter and Sister to murderers! I should crush you!"

Willow had had enough. Shifting into Crinos, her nine-foot form still only half as tall as Bear, she yelled, "Listen to me! I never killed anyone, and I never wanted to, either! But you're not making anything any easier by continuing this, this vendetta! I don't know if you've looked around the world lately, but no one could give a flying fig about who killed who thousands of years ago! All I want is to get past it, and get on to fighting the Wyrm. Now, can you understand that, or do I have to say it more slowly this time?"

Bear dropped to all fours, seemingly taken aback by her boldness. He glared at her, but didn't attack. He didn't say anything, either, so Willow continued. "Now, I need your help to save a good person, but I'm not going to beg for it. People tried to give me some advice on how to deal with you, from begging to bribing, but I figure either you're going to help me or you're not. If you do, I appreciate it, and you can be sure I'll do whatever I can to honor you. If you don't, well..." Willow shrugged. "I'll live, but a good person will be lost to the Wyrm, and I don't want that to happen. I don't think you do, either."

"I don't think anyone has dared to speak to me that way," Bear growled.

"Yeah, well, there's a first time for everything, isn't there?" Willow shifted back into human form, truly dwarfed by the great Bear now. She still didn't appear to be afraid. "I've never had to deal with animal spirits before. I've lived like a human for nineteen years, and that's a heck of a long time, you know? My only experience with animals was at the zoo, or Discovery channel documentaries. And you know, things aren't nearly as calm and polite as they seem to be on TV." She exhaled, brushing her hair from her eyes. "I'm a Glass Walker. Now, I'm not real sure what that means, but I'm pretty sure it means that I was never supposed to go without indoor plumbing. To be honest, I know I'm not cut out for this whole nature thing, as beautiful as it is. As much as I want to protect it, and fight the Wyrm, it's never going to be the place for me.

"All I want to do is help my friend, and save him from the Wyrm."

Bear stared at her for a long moment. Finally, he said, "What do you need to know?"

Part the Eighteenth

Willow let out the deep breath she had been holding; she knew her 'resolve face' worked pretty well on her friends, but she guessed it worked pretty well on animal spirits, too. At least Bear was willing to hear her out instead of killing her. That was always a plus.

"Thank you. I know I'm a Garou, and I know they've done not-so-good things in the past. But all I want to do is help my friend. That's why I'm here."

Bear stared at her, eyes narrowed. "I'm not inclined to trust Garou; first they turned their back on me, and then they targeted my Children for destruction. I heard their screams, their cries, but there was little I could do." Bear lumbered toward the young redhead, stopping with his massive head just inches from her face. "You wish my knowledge? Then you shall have it."

Willow looked into Bear's eyes, noticing for the first time the swirling black-brown depths. They mesmerized her, and she felt herself being drawn in, a dizzying sensation not unlike the childhood game where she would look up into the night sky and twirl around rapidly. Just like the night sky, Bear's eyes seemed to hold a multitude of stars, and they blurred together as the world whirled around her faster and faster...

Willow hung weightlessly in the dark sky, drifting above the earth in slow, lazy fashion. Everywhere she looked in the sky were other spirits, watching the proceedings on Earth from the Spirit World with interest. Close by, the great Celestine Luna travelled through the sky, pouring cold radiance down upon the face of Gaia.

Every so often her Children would call out to her, the Great Bear, and honor her with song and ritual. And she smiled on them, and taught them new rituals and secrets, because they were the healers of Gaia, and she loved Gaia and her children with all her heart.

Her children led peaceful lives devoted to teaching, and tending the sick and injured. She knew every single one of them by name; they would sometimes travel to the Spirit World to visit her and bring her food and honor gifts. She watched as they welcomed their new brothers and sisters, the other Shape Changers created by Gaia. The Children of Cat, Raven, Coyote, Wolf -- all were welcomed by the elder Children of Bear.

But inside the Children of Wolf she saw Rage and jealousy, and for the first time she feared for her own Children.

And when she looked again, she saw war; war against the Gurahl. There was Sits-on-Mountain, once a happy tale-spinner who loved her cubs and kept a garden, now torn apart by a pack of Garou. And over there was Warindo Silversalmon, a wise, jovial lorekeeper who taught the art of beekeeping to humans; his head was torn off, nailed to the doorframe of the Garou pack-leader who killed him.

Jaice Mountainwind, Urian Walks-the-Land, Orphea Lightwalker, Leaping-Bear, Kirima Skye, Gardio Faces-the-Death-Bear, Shoshona Medicine-Bear, Seeks-After-Death, Chewanna First-Mother... Bodies were piled upon bodies.


Her Children were dying, swarmed by the Garou who hunted them. She thought her heart or mind would break from the sorrow; death would be preferable to sitting in the Spirit Realm, watching her Children murdered. But she was a spirit; she couldn't die. She could only feel.

Willow fell to her knees, sobbing.

The dark, Umbral landscape flashed by as Buffy ran after the two Black Spirals. Luckily, Oz and his packmate were more focused on reaching Willow than they were covering their trail; they appeared to be stumbling through the brush wildly, ripping up great clods of dirt and leaving branches and bushes trampled in their wake. Buffy clutched her silver knife tightly.

God, she thought, I can't believe I let her go out here alone with Oz still on the loose. If anything happens to her... Buffy furiously clamped down on where that thought was going. Nothing was going to happen to Willow, she thought.

I'll die before I let it happen.

A deep, growling voice interrupted Willow's sobs. "Now you understand."

The redhead nodded. Once she had taken a few deep, shuddering breaths, she spoke. "I understand." She had a new respect for Bear, this spirit that had lived longer than all of human existence and seen things that no creature should be subject to. "The Garou today don't teach any of that; according to some of them the war was justified. And even some of the more peaceful Garou just think that it was all done out of pride."

She lifted her head and looked at Bear, who was looking back at her sadly. Not with anger anymore, or rage, but sadness. It touched her heart. "I could tell them; teach them the truth about the Gurahl, and you. I know...I know I'm not responsible for all those things that happened long ago, but...I want to help."

Bear let out a snuffling sigh. "I doubt they will listen. I know your heart is pure. You are the first Garou in many ages to seek me out. Why?"

Willow brushed the back of her hand across her eyes, wiping away the tears. Clearing her throat, she said, "I have a friend who was a lost Garou cub. He was very confused, and a group of Black Spiral Dancers took him and made him in...into one of them." She dropped her eyes again, feeling that now-familiar guilt and regret.

"Did he join with the Wyrm willingly?" The deep voice asked.

Willow shook her head. "No. He's a good person, he helped us kill demo--um, Wyrm beasts more than once. He wouldn't have gone with them if he felt he had any other choice."

Bear regarded the redhead for a moment. "If it is true that he did not accept the Wyrm voluntarily, then his soul might yet be saved."

Willow held her breath. After all this time, is it possible someone knew the cure? "What do I have to do?" She asked, breathlessly.

"You must kill him," the great bear replied.

"What?" Willow cried, disbelievingly. "We've come all this way--"

"Listen," Bear interrupted. "Here is what you must do..."

Oz caught the scent and howled with delight. They were very close now, which was good because he could sense the Slayer on their heels. With any luck, they should be able to reach Willow before the Slayer could do anything about it.

He howled again, hearing his bloodlust echoed back to him in the answering howl of the other Spiral.

Willow raised her head, the mad howl of approaching Black Spirals signaling that they were very close to her now.

"You know what you have to do," Bear said. It wasn't a question.

Willow nodded; her hands were sweating, and she wiped them on her deerskin outfit before shifting into Crinos to meet their attack.

"Then, Gaia be with you," Bear responded, melting into the shadows of the forest. Willow turned toward the sound of the howls.

Oz burst out of the brush, his large Crinos form smashing through the dense foliage like tissue paper. He didn't hesitate; he covered the open ground between himself and the red-furred werewolf almost instantly, crashing into her with all the momentum a 600 pound werewolf could provide.

Willow went down under his attack, her arms barely holding his claw-tipped hands at bay. She drew up her knees and, planting her feet firmly against his stomach, flipped the Spiral off of her, sending him crashing head-first into a tree. She jumped up and faced Oz, who was now stumbling groggily to his feet, a gash in his forehead trickling blood into his dark fur.

Her elation was short-lived, however, as she felt a strong blow to her back which sent her sprawling face first into the turf. She rolled, narrowly avoiding the kick aimed at her from the jackal-headed Spiral who had followed Oz into the clearing. She was forced to keep rolling, the blows aimed at her not giving her enough time to get to her feet, only to dodge.

I can't keep running! Willow thought wildly, and almost as fast as thought she shifted into wolf form, gaining her feet, er, paws, quickly and running to the opposite side of the clearing. Once there, she shifted into Crinos and eyed the two Spirals warily, waiting for their attack.

The two werewolves approached her now, sidling cautiously to either side of her. "Wil-low," Oz said in a sing-song voice. "We don't have to fight. You can join me now, save yourself a lot of pain. You can't stand against both of us alone."

"She doesn't have to." A voice from the other side of the clearing interrupted him. Willow would have recognized it in her sleep; she smiled at Oz, all her fangs bared for him to see.

"You heard the Slayer. I don't have to." She lashed out, kicking Oz squarely in the chest, the force of her blow rocking him backward. Jackal snarled and whirled around to face Buffy, his werewolf form towering over her by at least three feet.

Buffy eyed the mottled werewolf, his fur missing in huge patches. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that someone gave you the mange," she said smoothly, waving her silver knife in front of her. Jackal growled at her, his considerable reach giving him an advantage, but he seemed reluctant to get close to her while she still possessed the razor sharp blade.

On the other side of the clearing, Oz and Willow were exchanging furious blows. Willow had the advantage of Slayer-training, but Oz fought with a ferocity matched only by the truly insane. Willow felt her strength sapping, her body bleeding from a dozen different cuts and slashes, each burning with an infectious fire.

"You can't stop me, Willow," Oz grinned, foam-flecked lips pulled back from yellow fangs. "Your faith in Gaia has made you weak, and the Wyrm has made me strong." Another clawed hand got through her defenses, raking hot tendrils across her chest. She stumbled back, feeling her knees give way; she landed on her back heavily, Oz looming over her with a victorious howl.

Buffy glanced over at the fight, her heart leaping into her throat at the sight of Willow down on the ground. In less than a second, she leapt forward, straight at Jackal, and her silver blade flashed twice. Her leap carried her past the surprised werewolf, and she yelled, "Willow! Here!" and threw the silver knife at her downed friend.

Jackal looked down at the slashes on his stomach, watching with surprise as blood and intestines poured out of the wide openings. His mind almost didn't comprehend the fact that he was dead, and he keeled over before he completely realized it.

Willow reached up and grabbed the silver knife, muttering a quick thanks to Gaia that it had flown at her handle first. She raised the knife, pointing it straight at Oz's chest.

Oz stumbled back, eyes widened in horror. His nightmare coming true...Willow holding a silver knife...he clutched his head, his brain pounding inside his skull. Willow scrambled to her feet, her heart breaking at the frightened look Oz was giving her now.

"I'm really sorry, Oz. I have to do this."

Oz let out a cry of sheer terror, the sound cutting right through Willow's heart. She looked into his eyes, once filled with love, now only madness, and stabbed, the silver blade sinking deeply into Oz's chest.

Oz felt the burning deep inside his chest and he stumbled backward, the blade slithering out of him, his blood burning against the silvery surface. He clutched at the hole in his chest, blood pouring over his clawed hands. "Why...?" He said, unable to summon more energy to speak.

Willow looked at him, her eyes filled with tears. "I'm so sorry. It has to be this way. Oz, I'm sorry..."

Oz's knees buckled, and he fell heavily to the ground. A wracking cough seized him, and he tasted the oily, coppery flavor of his own blood. I thought you loved me, were his last thoughts, then darkness.

Willow watched Oz's still body, her eyes unblinking. Buffy approached slowly, her voice quiet. "Will, I'm sorry..." Willow raised a hand, interrupting her.

"It's ok, Buffy, it's going to be ok..." She continued watching Oz's body. Did she...? Yes, there, coming out of the wound. A translucent figure seeped out of the gash, small at first and then growing larger as it took shape.

It was a nightmare creature, covered in sickly green balefire. Serpentine, it made the dead Mayor look pretty by comparison; numerous tendrils waved in all directions, toxic ooze flowing over its skin in dark rivulets.

"What...?" Buffy said, mouth agape. Willow nodded as if she expected this horror, and stepped forward, slashing at it again and again with the silver blade. Tendrils and bits of spirit-bane-made-flesh went flying in all directions; the thing screamed, a high-pitched sound which made Willow feel as if her eardrums were going to burst. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she kept on hacking at the thing until nothing was left.

Once the spirit bane was dispatched, Willow knelt down on the ground next to Oz's body. "What was that thing?" Buffy asked, quietly.

"A spirit bane. It was Oz's link to the Wyrm." Willow's eyes flicked over Oz's body, looking for any sign of life. "Oz? C'mon, you can do it...Oz?" Willow shook the limp body which now had the face and body of the Daniel Ozbourne that she remembered. "He's supposed to be alive...killing the bane is supposed to bring him back to life!" She shook him more violently now, the body cool under her fingers.

"Willow..." Buffy pulled Willow back gently but firmly, the much larger werewolf yielding to her touch. In an instant, Willow was back in her human form, her arms enveloping Buffy in a hug. Buffy held onto her love firmly, feeling sobs wrack the young woman's frame.

"Hey, who died?" They heard a soft groan from right next to them, and both young women fixed their startled gazes on a young man who was trying, rather unsuccessfully, to rise to his feet.

"Oz!" Buffy and Willow both cried out and rushed forward to help their friend upright. "Are you ok?"

"Well, physically," Oz began, poking at the now-healed chest wound tenderly, "I feel like I got hit by a truck. Twice. Mentally," he looked at Willow, deep guilt shadowing his eyes, "I don't think so."

"Oz, it's ok," Willow said, smiling. "How much...?"

"All of it," Oz replied, his voice dull. "Every thought, every word. Every time I hurt you, or Buffy." He looked at the girls, his eyes pained. "I'm so sorry...I can't begin--"

"Shh, it's ok," Buffy said, giving him a small smile. "We should get back to Artur's. I think we could all use some food and rest."

The three friends slowly made their way back to Artur's cabin, the werebear providing them with hot fish stew and refreshing spring water. He also healed their wounds as Willow told him the story.

"It seems that Bear has given you his favor," Artur rumbled, approvingly. "If you are an example of the type of Garou the tribes are producing, then I have great hope for the future of both our peoples."

Oz, who had lapsed into deep silence since they left the spirit world, asked, "Now what?" He was unable to summon up the energy to even pretend indifference; that mask was gone, shattered by the Wyrm and by the horrific deeds he still remembered all-to-clearly.

"Now I guess we rest, then go back to Sunnydale," Buffy said. "Chris and Nichole are probably freaking out by now."

Nichole stared listlessly around the back room of the Dream of Gaia, her eyes seeing but not really registering the new shipment of books she was supposed to be putting in inventory. She heard the chime of the front door opening, and it startled her out of her reverie.

"Hey Chris," she said, greeting the Glass Walker who had just walked through the front door. "Did you--?"

"Nope," the young man responded. His eyes had dark smudges under them, mute testimony to the fact that he was working overtime to try to find the girls. Smudges which probably looked a lot like mine, Nichole thought. "I've tried calling in some favors, tried their cell phone, nothing seems to work. Unfortunately that thing isn't meant to take a lot of abuse; if they got into trouble, it's probably busted."

Nichole nodded. "I've been doing a lot of spirit communication, and haven't found anything. Wherever they are, they're so isolated that no one can find them."

"Including the Black Spirals, maybe?" Chris asked. Nichole only shrugged in response, her eyes filling up with tears. "C'mere," Chris said, pulling the Child of Gaia into a hug. "They're ok, I know they're ok."

"Never bet against a werewolf and a Slayer," Buffy said, walking out of the back room with Willow and Oz in tow. The two Garou blinked at the group, mouths agape.

Willow peered closely at Chris and Nichole. "Uh oh, Buffy, I think they've broken--" She barely got the words out before she was enveloped in a giant hug from the Gaian, the woman squeezing the oxygen out of Willow's body. Buffy was engulfed in a similar hug, Chris showing no mercy to the young Slayer.

The hugs seemed to go on forever, until Willow complained about not being able to breathe. Nichole took a step back, only to have Chris immediately take her place.

"Guess you guys are glad to see us, huh?" Buffy said with a grin. "Believe me, we are so glad to see you." She walked over to where Oz stood quietly in a corner. Grabbing Oz's hand, she said, "I think some better introductions are in order. Chris, Nichole, this is Oz. Oz, this is Nichole, and that person wrapped around Willow there is Chris." Oz gave the two a faint smile and nodded.

Nichole beamed at the young man. "So, I see the cure worked." She shook her head in wonder. "Absolutely amazing. I guess the question now is what tribe were you from, Oz?"

"Now, what tribe do ye think, lass?" An Irish-accented voice answered her. "He be Fianna, a' course."

"Finian!" Willow stared at the Galliard in shock. "How did...? Why...?"

"I followed ye, lass, how else ye think I find ye here?" The Fianna chuckled, and stepped out of the back room, arms folded across his chest. "The whole Spirit World is starting to buzz with the story of your success. So I figured I'd look ye up. But to answer your question, the Ozbourne kinfolk are Fianna, and so is Daniel."

Chris looked back and forth between the old Fianna and the back room. Glancing at Nichole, he said, "You let anyone in here, don't you?" Nichole just grinned and said, "Umbra," as if that explained everything.

Finian walked up to Oz and poked a finger in his chest. "Now look lad. I know you're feelin' bad about all the terrible things you did, but there are two things you can do. You can wallow in it until the Wyrm comes to swallow you up again, or you can try to make a difference. You're a Galliard, like me, the musicians and storytellers of our tribe. So tell your story; teach the lessons you've learned about yourself and the Wyrm to our young 'n' old. It's your choice."

Oz looked up at the old Fianna, for the first time in months feeling hope about his life and his future. "I...Will you teach me?"

Finian grinned at the young man. "A' course! We can't let that brave lass's deed go unsung, can we?" He threw a winning smile at Willow, enjoying the young Garou's embarrassed blush.

"Well, I guess that's that, then," Buffy said.

"Not quite," Chris answered, a huge grin on his face. "There is a little matter of a ceremony..."

Part the Ninteenth

"Buffy, please stop pacing. You're wearing all the wax off of my floor." Giles' calm, British voice cut into Buffy's thoughts.

"They should be back by now," Buffy muttered, barely pausing in her pacing.

"They already called to say that they were on their way," Giles replied, patiently. "Everyone is fine. They should be here any mi-" Almost faster than he could see, Buffy grabbed the front door and was gone in the blink of an eye. Giles could just now hear the sounds of a car pulling up outside. "-nute."

Willow saw Buffy rush out of Giles' house, and she couldn't even wait for the car to come to a complete stop. She jumped out and sprinted across the courtyard, meeting Buffy with a huge, bone-jarring hug. Well, it would have been bone-jarring if one participant wasn't a Slayer, and the other wasn't a werewolf.

"God, I missed you Will," Buffy said, holding her love tightly.

Willow smiled, her face buried in Buffy's hair. "I was only gone for two days!" She thought about that, and then hugged Buffy even tighter. "I missed you too."

"...and so this Get of Fenris whelp told me that the best way to die was to jump down the throat of a Wyrm beast, and choke it from the inside. Well, I told him that if he found a Wyrm beast, I'd be happy to be there to stuff him in!" Finian roared with laughter at his own joke. He, Oz, Chris and Nichole walked across the courtyard toward the two girls.

"Ok, lovebirds," Chris said. "Let's reconvene inside, shall we?" The four Garou managed to get Buffy and Willow unclinched and back inside Giles' house; the fact that the two girls didn't let go of each other's hands the whole time wasn't lost on them, however.

"Ah, Willow," Giles said, in greeting. "How did the ceremony go?"

"Great!" Willow bounced on the balls of her feet, obviously excited. "I'm now a full-fledged, card-carrying--well, not really card-carrying since werewolves don't really carry membership cards or anything, but--member of the Garou Nation, Glass Walker tribe!"

"Congrats, Will!" Buffy took the opportunity to hug Willow again. "I wish I could have been there."

Willow smiled. "I understand, those vamps and demons were starting to get cocky with just Giles and Xander fighting them."

"We weren't doing all that badly," Giles protested. "I don't understand how that vampire almost opened the Hellmouth..."

"The Ritual of Passage was pretty amazing," Nichole said. "Oz and Finian told the story of Oz's death, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house."

"Yes, I was going to ask you what happened," Giles said, "Buffy was a little scant on the details of Oz's rescue."

Willow blushed; it was obvious she had been asked to re-tell her story several times over the past couple of days. "Bear told me that every Black Spiral has a bane, a Wyrm spirit. It's kind of a symbiotic relationship, in a twisted, Exorcist-type way. When the Spiral dies, the bane leaves. If the bane is killed, and the Spiral has a good heart and didn't give themselves up willingly to the Wyrm, then Gaia may choose to give that person life again." Willow smiled. "It's a little more complicated than that, but that's the gist."

Buffy looked over at Oz; he was never the most talkative, outgoing person but he seemed even more withdrawn than usual. "How are you doing, Oz?"

He looked up at Buffy; the pain was still there, but it only shadowed his eyes rather than haunted them. "I'm...better. Finian's teaching me a lot about his--my tribe."

"Aye, that I am," Finian said, tousling the young man's hair fondly. "We're going to be heading east, to find a sept where the young lad can learn more about his heritage. We've got a long road to travel, and a lot of Garou to tell about the lad's story, an' the courage of the lass who redeemed him." He winked at Willow, who blushed again.

"The story is spreading like wildfire," Chris said. "Not only because there has never been a case of a Black Spiral being redeemed, but also because of the way that the Gurahl and the spirit of Bear helped. There have been lots of calls for the Garou Nation to make peace with the Gurahl--"

"Calls made mostly by the Children of Gaia, might I add," Nichole interjected.

"--and even some Garou who want to find Bear in the Umbra, and learn his healing gifts."

"I chose Bear as my Totem, or guardian spirit," Willow said quietly. "And he accepted me."

Chris nodded. "That in itself is something that hasn't happened in hundreds of years."

"That's great, Will," Buffy said, smiling. The smile didn't reach her eyes, however; she still had that feeling, that misgiving that now Willow would have to leave, go to LA to be with her sept. What would she do without her? Willow was her strength, her comfort, her love. It seems like they just found each other, and now...

Nichole caught the sad look Buffy was giving Willow, and she nudged Chris. Chris followed her gaze, and whispered, "What?"

Nichole rolled her eyes, and said, "Chris hasn't told you about the best part..." In a fierce whisper, she said, "Tell them about the best part!"

"Huh? Oh! The best part," Chris said, suddenly comprehending. "The best part is that Mr. Hartwell, sept leader and head of the LA Glass Walkers, has agreed with me that we need a permanent Glass Walker presence in Sunnydale, what with all the Wyrm activity and Lost Cubs. And that means that I'm going to be staying in town!" He finished, triumphantly.

Nichole slapped her forehead in exasperation.

"Oh, and Willow's going to be staying in town too," Chris added.

Buffy looked at Willow, unable to believe her ears. Willow nodded, a big smile breaking across her face. "You didn't think you were going to get rid of me that easily, did ya?"

Buffy wrapped her arms around Willow. "Never." She tilted her head up and kissed the redhead soundly.

"Yes, well," Giles said, somewhat surprised by the display. "Would anyone like anything to drink?" He retreated quickly to the kitchen.

"I'll take soda. Lots of ice," Oz replied, shuffling away from the kissing pair.

"Herbal tea if you have it."

"Irish whiskey."

"Do I smell coffee?"

The small get-together had turned into more of a party; Willow and Giles were listening intently to Finian telling stories about the Garou heroes. Oz was watching the old Fianna too, soaking up everything he was saying. Finian had really offered a life-line to the young man, and Buffy was really grateful for it. For the first time since Oz returned, she got the feeling that he was going to be ok.

Nichole had actually squealed when she saw Giles' record collection, and immediately put on some old Jimi Hendrix, or Led Zeppelin, or something.

Buffy made her way into the kitchen, where Chris and Nichole were talking quietly, giving each other those big, soulful looks. Buffy was used to those; she saw them enough between her and Angel after he came back from Hell. It was a look that said, "I can't stand to be apart from you, but I can't be with you." Well, if she had anything to say about it, Chris and Nichole wouldn't have that same problem.

"Hey guys," she said, interrupting shamelessly. "How are you two crazy kids doing?"

"Fine," Chris said, somewhat suspiciously. Nichole just looked away.

"Great!" Buffy said, grabbing a carrot stick and munching on it. "You guys seem to have gotten over your 'tribal differences.'"

Chris grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, well, I guess the Children of Gaia aren't so bad. Their hearts are in the right place."

Nichole cleared her throat. "And I guess the Glass Walkers are ok. I mean, their technology is pretty useful on occasion."

Buffy was positively beaming. "Fantastic. So, when are you two lovebirds getting together?"

The two Garou just stared at her.

"What? I, for one, think it's pretty obvious how you guys feel about each other," Buffy said, grabbing another carrot stick.

"Buffy, we've been through this," Nichole said with a sigh. "One of our oldest laws, remember? 'Garou shall not--'"

"'--mate with Garou,' I know," Buffy interrupted. "But you know what? I looked it up. 'To come together for the purpose of reproduction,' that's what mate means."

They just stared at her again.

"What? Don't they have birth control where you come from?" Buffy grabbed another carrot stick, and headed out of the kitchen.

Chris and Nichole just stared at each other, dumbfounded.

Willow leaned up against the breakfast bar, her arms wrapped around her beautiful blonde Slayer. The two lovers were watching Finian and Chris arguing about some point of Garou spirituality; Nichole and Oz were sacked out, and Giles had excused himself earlier to go upstairs to bed.

"So what happens now?" Buffy said softly, leaning her head on Willow's shoulder.

"Well, Chris and Nichole are sticking around, which is nice because I still have quite a bit to learn." Willow smiled. "What did you tell those two, anyway? They look really happy together."

Buffy shrugged. "I just pointed out the obvious."

"Finian and Oz are going to be leaving in the next couple days. I'm going to miss him, but I'm glad it looks like he's going to be ok."

Buffy nodded. "Same here." She turned around, facing Willow and wrapping her arms around the redhead's waist. "So what happens now, with us?"

Willow dropped her head and kissed the Slayer on her lips, her cheek, her neck. Buffy's breathing quickly became shallow, and Willow whispered, "I don't know, but I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to keep my hands off you."

"Okay!" Buffy said, breaking away from Willow and walking into the living room. "Great party, glad you all came, see you guys later!"

Sparse moonlight trickled through the windows, gently illuminating the two lovers. Willow was watching Buffy, her eyes soaking in every detail -- the porcelain skin, delicate nose, perfect lips... Willow stifled a groan, thinking about those lips on her skin, setting her on fire.

It was an amazing few weeks, that was for sure. To find out that she was a werewolf, a discovery only eclipsed by finding out that the love of her life had been in right front of her for the past four years. Buffy was the love of her life, there was no doubt about that. No one made her feel as loved or wanted as Buffy did, not even Oz...

Oz. Willow was glad that she was able to help him. He wasn't back to his 'old self' and might never be, but he was alive, he had control of the wolf, and he had a purpose now. Hope. She sent a quick but heartfelt prayer to Gaia to watch over him.

She wondered what she and Buffy were going to say to their friends and family. Let's see, what to say first... "Hey guys, I'm a werewolf!" or "Hey everyone, Buffy and I are seeing each other!" Of course, she couldn't tell her family about the werewolf thing, which is too bad because news of Buffy and her relationship would really pale by comparison.

She absently stroked Buffy's cheek with delicate fingers, causing Buffy to open her eyes. Those beautiful hazel eyes which looked at her with such love that it almost broke her heart.

"Hey," Buffy said, reaching up to cup Willow's cheek. Willow covered the Slayer's hand with her own.

"Hey yourself."

"Guess we really did it, huh?"

Willow smiled, her eyes twinkling with mischief. "Uh huh, more than once too, from my count."

Buffy grinned and gave the redhead's stomach a quick tickle. "That's not what I meant and you know it."

"I know." Willow grinned in response. "Yeah, we really did it. It's weird, it seems almost like these past couple of weeks were spent in some other world or something..."

"Part of it was," Buffy replied, smiling. "But I know what you mean. I keep expecting to wake up."

Willow shot her a quick glance. "Think this is a dream?"

Buffy responded by climbing on top of Willow, placing soft kisses along her jaw and neck. "This? No, this," more kisses, "is the most real thing that has ever happened, or ever will."

Willow wrapped her arms around the Slayer, feeling her palms slide over soft, bare skin. "I think so, too... I love you, Buffy."

"I love you too, Will...god, I love you."

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