Part Five

"Christian," Willow sighed, her hands reaching up to his strong hands on her shoulder. The touch was gentle, rolling and pushing stressed muscles. Their 'meeting' with Buffy had not been fun, it had left her feeling upset..at herself, at Buffy, and at the world in general. And it wasn't over yet.

"Cara?" Christian kneaded on, smirking as her head rolled forward on her neck, her body slumping to enjoy the massage. He almost wished Willow's friend, the Slayer, could see her like this. The hysteria he could imagine the blonde having would be so amusing.

Willow sighed again, a low blissful moan. "Oh..that's good. Y'know..if you didn't have that problem about necks, you'd have a sensational career as a masseuse."

Christian's eyebrow went up. He loved it when she sprouted off these new words, and concepts. It was quite the challenge to keep up with her thoughts, even without the modern concepts he was behind on. "A what?"

"A person who manipulates muscles, and limbs, to reduce tension." She murmured, more gone than present. Christian's fingers strayed to her neck, and began to explore the knots hidden there. "Ouch!" She yelped, as he discovered a particularly painful spot.

"That hurt?" His hands stilled.

"Not precisely," She sighed, standing up from her seat on his lap. "Here, I'll show you what you were doing to me." The grin that sprung to his face was pure wickedness. "Not that."

Chuckling, he slid forward on the chair, shrugging his jacket off and tossing it onto the table, before confidently sitting back. "Go ahead, do your worst." He sat up straight, head high, and grin wide. More boy than man, Willow laughed silently.

Willow slid her body behind the chair, her hands reaching first for his shoulders. "My worst, huh?" She whispered, bending low by his ear. "Well then.." Delicately, she parted her lips and bit down lightly on his ear, letting her teeth nibble down to the lobe, before nuzzling at the skin by his neck. Christian was a true vampire, he had a neck fetish that went both ways. As much as he loved digging into a good jugular, if a girl got to his throat he was putty in her hands.

The tiny yelp of surprise, followed by the rumbled growl of pleasure was measurement enough of his puttification. "Willow?!" His voice was strangled, "This is a public place, Amata! You're friends..."

"Get a free show," She purred, her fingers now moving to massage his shoulders, slipping down along his shirt-covered back as she continued her ministrations.

'Free show.' Christian mused, torn between encouraging her, and stopping her. 'Actually,' He mentally groaned, 'No contest...she can do whatever she wants to me!' He jerked forward, his right hand whipping up to nab her left wrist, and he pulled her around and into his lap. " Ah..better. Now, where were you?"

Willow giggled, straddling his lap. "I WAS massaging your back." She laughed, her fingers reaching to run down the exposed flesh of his throat, and then plucking at buttons.

"Is not my back that wants massaged." He growled, eyeing the little smile on her face. She looked so pleased with herself, so content...and absolutely adorable. How could she have been an innocent before he had met her? Women, in these times were not the reserved creatures he'd known in the past.

Willow raised an eyebrow, "Oh? Really?" Christian's hands tightened on her waist, pulling her closer, despite the restrictions of the chair arms. He was such a wicked man, for the way he had of making HER feel so...wicked. And she loved it. No one was hurt by the sensations he easily awoke in her, everything that could happen, and did happen occurred between them alone.

"Uh huh." Christian's hand's moved upwards, tugging the light top she wore out from under the snug jeans, his hands toying lightly with her silky skin. "Although...maybe some where more private, would be better?"

Willow's eyes shot ingeniously wide. "What's wrong with here? Other than the teaming bodies of young teenagers, the throbbing pulse of music.."

"Noise." He interjected. "That's noise, not music, music is soothing."

Her smile widened, "And the fact that we have remarkable little privacy? What's wrong with all that?" Willow looped her arms loosely around his neck, letting her torso sink lower, her face nearing his.

Christian's hands slipped up that torso, steadying it, anticipating what was coming. 'If her friends are going to show up, it'll be now.' He thought, feeling the illicit anticipation of rocking the world of all those that had cared for her.

Willow's lips brushed his, a silky teasing action, of low contact, but subtle promises. She brushed his mouth again, and then a third time, teasing him. Christian was nearly predictable in his responses to certain actions, in certain moods, and his sudden hungry assault was just what she had been aiming for.

The heavy noise, and dark lighting of the Bronze, combined with the nearly invisible corner booth they had obtained offered a modicum of privacy, despite her flirtatious words. And Buffy had been forced to leave them to fetch the others from their various locations....they had time.

Her hands left his neck, roaming downwards to those buttons again, and tugging a few open. His mouth still devouring hers, and hands still discretely exploring.

"WILLOW!" The gasped sound from behind should have made her jump away, but she resisted her old prudery, savoring Christian's kiss for just a few more moments, and then seductively pulling away. His eyes flicked over her shoulder, and then back to hers, the devil-may-care smirk sliding into place. Feeling rather licentious, herself, she slowly winked, and then slipped off his lap.

Licking her lips, she smiled at the congregation watching her in stunned horror. "Buffy." Her eyebrow raised, taking in the other five bodies with her. "Well, that was fast."

Buffy's eyes looked past her friend, to the lazily sprawled vampire, so totally non-plussed by the situation. "Bastard." She hissed. "What did you do to her?"

Willow looked up to the ceiling, a choked laugh escaping. "I knew this was a mistake." She sighed, looking to Christian. "They won't listen, why should we even bother?" Willow stepped around Christian's chair, reaching for her jacket on the table and picking it up. "Let's just go home, Christian, it's not worth the arguments."

"No!" Xander shouted, moving to intercept his childhood friend. "Look, I'll listen...I promise..just..don't disappear, please." He desperately searched Willow's face for some softening. Her dark eyes were at odd's with her features. They seemed so haunted, so old, so tired. "Don't go."

"Please Willow?" Cordelia shot Buffy a 'stop her' look, before stepping in to grab Willow's lax hand. She squeezed hard, speaking earnestly. "My dry-cleaning bill is going to astronomical as is from all the crawling through tunnel's, sewers, and the ickier side of Sunnydale! I'd rather you just stayed somewhere sorta civilized."

Christian looked around the Bronze, snorting at this concept of civilized. He was, however, fully prepared to leave if Willow so much as twitched towards the door. His gaze returning to watch Willow, was distracted by the barely concealed hostility of the younger vampire, Angelus.

Angelus..oh, Christian remembered him vividly. He was one of the Master's favorite prodigies. An up-in-coming, in the community, his flare for the kill, brutality, and evil a delight to his rather twisted

Master. Katherine had disapproved of that Master with all of her being. 'So stupid,' she'd once said, after one of her run-ins with the Master. ' Allowing such rampages will only dismiss the myth of our existence. And if the mortals move past their disbelief, they will start to hunt us down. Their technology is developing too fast..they will find ways to destroy us all.'

Apparently, the Angel had fallen from his Master's grace, instead of killing the Slayer, he now stood beside her. Where he once saw humans as the herd he preyed on, he now apparently saw it as the sheep he would guard. 'How the world changes,' Christian thought, shaking his head in bemusement.

The silence between Willow and her friends was getting heavy, he realized. Her back was somewhat to him, and her face obscured, but he could tell she was tense. She didn't know where to start, or what precisely to say, and they didn't know what to ask. 'What a mess.'

Christian shifted, sitting properly in the chair. He reached out and snagged Willow's jacket, and then her hand, jerking her back to fall onto his lap. "Mia Cara," He said loud enough for all to hear. "Perhaps they should sit down, and then we will tell them all a story, yes?" His arms wrapped lightly about her waist, a casual embrace, but still suggesting intimacy.

It was a silent tender of support. Christian settled her in his lap comfortably, nodding to the others to take seats around the table, and enjoying, at the same time, their discomfiture. Willow slowly relaxed in his light embrace, taking the strength and confidence he offered her.

The shell she had hidden in during her life in Sunnydale was so easy to crawl back into, Christian realized. The preconceptions her friends had made her instinctively want to fit them. The only problem, now, was that shell was too small, and the docile, submissive Willow had been consumed in Hell's flames, and risen stronger.

"Now, where to begin?" He murmured, feigning thoughtful interest in the overhanging lights. In all truth, he was checking out their audience, noting the two older members of the group, a distinctive gentleman with glasses, and a dark haired woman with a definite calm poise about her. The man was the Watcher. His eyesight, while poor in design, was sharp in perception. He would note details, recording them for later study.

The woman was clearly his. She sat on the opposite side of the Watcher, completing the semi-circle the small group formed in the booth, and keeping the three teenagers from being too near Christian and Willow. "How about with what you've done to Willow?" Buffy watched him accusingly.

"Stop it, Buffy. He's done nothing to me." Willow's voice was quiet, but resigned. She didn't expect Buffy or any of them to believe anything they said. Their past experience with vampires condemned any hope for rational discussion. "Christian has saved my life more times than I can count, and has risked even more just to keep me sane than I can possibly repay him for."

"Is that what that display was about?" Xander asked incredulously. "You'll suck face with a vampire to repay him? That's suicide."

Willow's eyes narrowed, lips parting in a silent hiss. The sheer venom of her expression shocked Xander, and he inched deeper into the padded back of the bench behind him. "No. I kissed him because I wanted to."

Christian smirked behind her, secretly delighted by her words. "This is off topic, can we discuss the more important aspects of your friends absence?" He shifted in the chair, pulling at Willow so that she'd sit more comfortably on his lap. "Like, perhaps, the events leading up to her disappearance, and then we can inform you of where we were, what we've seen, and the how and the why of our return home?" He raised a dark eyebrow to look at each and all of Willow's friends.

The Slayer glared at him hostilely, as did Angelus. The Watcher, however, watched him with a silent expectation. The boy's girlfriend, a very pretty young thing who probably had sickeningly sweet blood wouldn't meet Christian's eyes, nor would the boy. The older woman, nodded. "I think that makes a lot of sense. I'm Jenny Calendar, Christian, and this is, Xander," She indicated the boy beside her, "Cordelia, Buffy, and Rupert Giles. The uh...."

"Vampire." Angel supplied easily.

"Yeah. The vampire sitting on the stool there, that's Angel." Jenny supplied for Christian's reference. She had casually pointed out everyone at the table, watching each mentionee squirm as she pointed to them. As if, while ignominious and nameless, Christian wouldn't attack them.

"Buena Sera," Christian nodded graciously to Jenny. "Now, shall we begin, or is there some dagger's you'd like to throw along with those delightful looks?" He smiled sardonically at Buffy, masterfully not wincing when Willow's elbow shot back into his chest.

"Please do." Giles said wearily. "Willow," The Watcher addressed the girl. "Please, explain what happened after school was dismissed Friday...your bag was found at the Park." Giles leaned forward, palms down on the table top.

"It was found?" Willow murmured faintly. It meant that the police suspected she was dead. Did her parents believe that too? "I..." Her voice trailed off, lost.

"Cara," Christian pulled her further back on his lap. "What did you do after you finished...classes?" He began to direct the questions, although he knew all the answers already. In the smaller form of individual focused questions, Willow would be able to tell the story of her abduction without re-experiencing much trauma.

"I went to my locker, grabbed my homework, and then rushed to the library. We," She swept a hand to the people around the table. "We were supposed to meet there."

Xander looked away, shamed to remember that he'd ditched the after-school meeting to watch Cordelia rehearse with the cheerleaders. Cordelia squeezed his hand, sympathetically.

"And?" Christian prompted gently.

"No one was there." The words were spoken woodenly, as if Willow was distancing herself from them. "I waited for three- quarters of an hour, and then left for home."

Giles and Buffy looked guilt stricken. If they hadn't been so busy managing their love-lives to remember their obligations..none of this might have happened.

"What happened on the way home?" Christian kept his voice soothing, quiet and low. It was lulling Willow's senses, easing through her defenses.

"I was walking through the park, feeling sorry for myself... There was no one around, no one that saw me, at least. I could hear kids and people in the distance. I remember thinking about my homework...my chemistry homework..and then...there was a flash of white light....and I woke up to see you wiping my face."

She turned suddenly, to smile at him gratefully, understanding suddenly what he was doing. Tenderly, Christian reached up, to lightly brush away a tear at the corner of her eyes. "Good. Shall I tell the next bit? Hmm?"

Willow nodded, settling back again, but looking down at her hands. The other's sat squirming at the obvious affection between them, and Willow didn't care. Listening to the re-hashing of her time in Craith's realm only brought the memories closer. There wasn't yet enough time to distance herself from the immediacy of those memories, and certain words woke certain thoughts...and they hurt.

Christian resumed talking, his words kept at an even tone, so that she could escape them if she chose to. He rather suspected she would. It couldn't be easy, to be dreaming of Craith's long-nailed hands wrapped around her neck, or of that row of sharp teeth smiling it's insane promise of a horrible death. Prior to being brought up to the dais, to be sacrificed before Christian had interrupted...she had watched him sacrifice other humans..and then there were the children. He had taken one little boy, and ripped the living child apart, dining on the raw flesh as the day progressed.

And she wondered if her screamed nightmares disturbed him, pulling him from his own sleep? He was disturbed by more than her sobs. The stuff of her nightmares rivaled the images that plagued his own memory. How could they not be shaped by what they'd lived through?

Christian watched, still speaking to the others, as she began to lightly touch the ring on her hand. Her finger stroking over the garnet stone, that protected her from the sun's brightness, with a soft caress. I did look remarkably like an engagement ring a wealthy gentleman would give his affianced two hundred or so years ago. The set of her jaw was relaxed, she wasn't listening at all...either that, or she had made herself cold to the description of her capture.

Christian glossed over the mild torture the Hunter's had inflicted on her, although, he was still terribly proud of how she had fought back. Tonight's victory over the Hunters was her revenge for that lost battle of ten days ago.

"...Craith threw me in a pit with his delightful Hell Hounds..and the next thing I knew, Willow was helping me out." Christian left out the ritual. That was something Willow had to decide if she wanted to tell them or not.

"In THREE days?" Buffy was pale, her eyes brilliant in a white face. Her stomach was churning to just imagine what Willow had gone through.

"No." Willow whispered, still studying the ring. "I was there eight weeks." Christian caught her hand, squeezing it, his thumb stroking the back of the hand. "We had to wait an extra week after Craith made his portal, before we could leave."

"Oh my god." Xander whispered, tears down his face. Giles sat speechless, his eyes reflecting that his mind was working very fast now; Jenny Calendar seemed equally preoccupied.

Angel grunted. "So Craith's here...and you came along for the ride to do what?" He set his hostile eyes on Christian.

Christian smirked. The pup was a laugh. For all that he knew his own legend was greatly exaggerated, the things he knew of Angelus should have dimmed the reputation of Christian Visconti. "Oh, y'know how it is... I got weary of constantly dining on tired, exhausted and stale blood..so I thought I'd return home to dine on the richest vintages going."

Angel glowered at him. Perhaps he would have spoken on the subject further, but Willow ended it. "Stop it, Angel. Look. I'm not dead, I'm fine, I'm a little...different, but I'm harmless. Christian is Christian...and if I ever suspect you're hunting him, Angel...then when he kills you, I won't feel any regret." Her words were harsh, a sign of her still volatile emotional state when her moods swung so violently. Those same emotions swung again, and Willow looked away, shamed by her cruel words to the most important people in her life. "I need a drink." Willow said quickly, hopping off Christian's lap as she escaped for the bars anonymity .

Quicksilver, Christian thought with a small smile, watching her bound off to the bar. Keeping up with her was definitely a ride, alright. Turning, he watched her friends confused faces as they watched a girl they hardly recognized. "She's seen and lived through more than any person should have to." Christian offered quietly. "Take my advice, don't question why she acts as she does..she has her personal demons motivating her, just accept it, and learn to live with it."

Xander's eyes flicked from Willow to Christian. He seemed to be struggling with something, wavering between hostility and a softer emotion, before mastering whatever it was that eluded him. "I....I don't know why you helped her, and " He raised a hand, stopping Christian from speaking, "And I don't care...I just...Thank you."

Okay, so maybe the boy wasn't that bad. Christian mused, studying him with his grey eyes. Brown eyes held his, respect and fear both present. Christian nodded once, gravely. He flicked his gaze to the Watcher, who had been silent for a long time now, "We'll need to find out what kind of activities Craith has been up to. At best, he has a day's head start on us."

The vampire slouched back in the chair, at ease and comfortable, even though the Slayer sat across from him. "He'll be amassing power, preparing to make the sacrifice that will give him immortality, and the releasing of the Old Ones."

"Sacrifice? What sacrifice?" Giles found focus with the concept of the apocalypse, as always.

Christian shifted, his eyes turning to rest on Buffy's. "Hers." He said with a nod.
 

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The bartender slid her tonic water down the polished wood surface, moving on to his next customer. Willow stirred the straw that decorated the drink, and turned, leaning her back to the bar. From this vantage point, she could see the table she'd left.

Christian was leaning forward, talking earnestly. Strangely, that didn't worry Willow. He wouldn't mention the details of the Craith's sorcery on her, or their own alliance. Alliance, she smiled. What a stupid word for what was happening between with them. Perhaps a few hundred years ago, an arranged marriage could be called an alliance, or a business arrangement, or war-treaty could be described as an alliance...but it sure didn't fit this relationship.

'I'm thinking too much about this.' Willow sighed. She moved her eyes past his dark head, looking at Xander, and Cordelia. They looked so...young. 'That's a laugh, I'm the same age as they are.' Willow frowned at the thought. But it was true. She looked at them and felt centuries older. 'Is this how Angel feels when he's with us? Removed by age?' Willow pensively ran her finger in a circle around the glass rim.

'Does Hell age people prematurely?' Willow laughed, a short bitter sound. What a thesis presentation THAT would make. She shook her water lightly, watching the ice crash against the contours of the glass. 'Craith aged me," She sighed, her mind returning to the need to find the dark Lordling. 'Where is he? Who's he sicced his pets on now?' Willow pulled her left hand away, looking not at the ring on her ringfinger, but at the fingers that had so easily ripped the spirits of two Hunters our of their artificial bodies.

'I can still touch them,' she mused, flicking her finger tips and seeing the grey aura of the destroyed Hunters' essences. Her mind seemed to separate from reality, and she toyed lazily with these fading awarenesses. They screamed in pain as she touched them, howled in agony as she ripped into them...and were destroyed beyond recovery as she tore the knowledge she needed from them. 'There you are!' She smiled slyly, delighted in herself for figuring a way to discover Craith's location and plans. 'My, my...aren't we predictable?' Her fingers flicked again, dismissing the dead motes of energy around them. It was a casual move, one that no bystander would take a second thought on.

But it was a very Craith-like dismissal. The thought was chilling, Willow froze, looking at her hand again. 'I'm NOT like Craith.' She thought, desperate to believe it. 'I'm doing this to save Buffy.' Willow looked over, resting her eyes on her blond friend's face. The Slayer was still looking grim, but it seemed as if her grimness wasn't directed at Christian.

Sighing, Willow pushed her body off the supporting edge of the bar, and slowly made her way back the group. Christian was silent, it was Giles now speaking, listing possible avenues of tracking Craith down. 'Like I'm going to let any of them face Craith?' Willow thought, a smile hidden by raising the glass to her lips.

"He'll do exactly what the Master did." She volunteered suddenly, knowing a sure-fire way of leading them off track. "He'll go exactly to the same place the master did to open the Hellmouth."

"He'll need sacrifices, Inamorata. He can't generate that kind of power on his own." Christian pointed out, not quite seeing what Willow was doing.

She smiled down at him, silently pleading with her eyes for forgiveness. To protect him, she'd lie to him too. "And the Hunters we destroyed were out there for fun?" She scolded gently. "He's been taking what he needs, and keeping them for the event."

A light dawned in Christian's mind. "Herding. He's herding his cattle to a slaughter. Of course, that's predictable of him."

Willow shrugged, "Craith IS predictable, he's acted in the same way for the past thousand years. Why fix something that's not broken is his credo." She set her glass down on the table, looking at Buffy. "What did the Master do? Where did he need to get to?" In some ways, Willow felt badly, she was deliberately leading Buffy to the wrong conclusion.

Buffy's blue eyes were wide, the awareness that she was Craith's most desired sacrifice throwing her off-balance. "The library..he went to the library."

Giles nodded, "Of course. The Hellmouth is located right below the library." The Watcher pulled his glasses off, folding them down, and unfolding them as he thought. "But, he needs the right timing to do such a ritual. The Hellmouth won't be swayed by blood sacrifices..it requires certain alignments, in conjunction to a ritual mass sacrifice."

Christian's hands tugged Willow back into his lap, feeling the tiny shudders ripping through her as she recalled her own "sacrifice". Rubbing his hand in a small circle on her back, he nodded to the Watcher. "Can you find this optimum time? I will check with the community for any current sightings...but we'll need further information than just where Craith is now."

Willow relaxed, visibly under his touch. "Yes," She whispered. "We need to know what it will take to kill him."
 

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Willow paced anxiously in the library, feeling rather awkward. Christian had been gone for perhaps four hours, and she felt alone in a room full of people.

Of course, those people were very jumpy around her, still. The oddest looks would touch her, and the conversations were stilted. It was enough to make a girl scream. Willow only held back, since she really didn't want to see a multitude of crosses being placed in front of her face with the suspicion that she was about to snap.

Giles was muttering to his books, the clutter around him testament to his dedication in his search. Ms. Calendar was tearing through the web, now that Willow was through hacking into the Sunnydale Police dept's computer files. The Slayer was sharpening a stake, much to Angel's discomfort. He kept watching her hand slide up and down that piece of wood, the knife lightly skimming it with an exquisitely pained look on his face.

Xander and Cordelia were sitting, talking quietly, and trying to keep the mood in the room a little up. It was a war they were losing fast. Willow watched them for a few quiet moments, surprised that she felt no rancor at seeing them together. It amazed her that a little distance could help her get over the hurt. 'Distance, torture, or Christian?' Her subconscious whispered. 'Shut up.' She whispered back.

He had been gone much, much too long. What if something went wrong? What if Craith had discovered him...what if? Her mind churned out a million negative what if's.

"Willow?" The sound of her voice jerked her away from those thoughts. Xander and Cordelia were watching her expectantly. "Did you hear me?" Xander asked again.

"No." She shook her head, regretfully. "Sorry, I was thinking about something else."

Cordelia shot Xander a look, ribbing him gently. The boy barely flashed her a look. "Oh. Well..we were just wondering if you'd thought of anything to tell your folks."

'My parents.' Willow frowned, a sudden clear mental image of her mother and father, just before their last family picture flashed in her mind. The loving way her Dad had of smiling at his two girls, and the way her mother gently fussed his tie. Willow missed them. She missed her Dad's hugs, and the good-night kisses her mother had given her when she was little. "Oh mom..." She whispered, suddenly afraid that facing Craith would mean she'd never see her parents again.

"Yo..Earth to Willow, come in Willow." Xander was standing beside her now, waving his hand in front of her face. Her snap to was so sudden, he jumped back reflexively.

"Sorry." Willow murmured, forcing herself to stay in the here and now. If she died, she died doing something that would, inevitably, save her family's lives. If she lived...she lived.

Xander frowned at her, still unsure of her state of mind, and although he knew she was the same person he'd been friends with for 16 years...she felt almost like a stranger. "You're thinking of HIM." He suddenly accused.

Willow blinked, blankly. "Him?"

"That vampire, Christian. Are you nuts, Willow? Falling for a VAMPIRE?" Xander couldn't stop the words from spilling off his tongue. "Yeah...he saved your life, but that's no reason to fall in love with..."

Willow rounded sharply, her hand snatching front of his shirt and shaking him with a violence no one had ever dreamed she was capable. "Love? What do you know about love?" She snarled, intensely angry. "You had love waiting for a long time, and never saw it. It died, you know. I watched that love die, and you prattle to ME about love?"

Xander's jaw was slack, his head reeling from the shaking. "Willow..." She released him suddenly, and he dropped to the ground, Cordelia and Buffy suddenly there to help him up.

"Don't Willow me." She hissed. "I went to Hell because of you people and your precious searches for true love. I went through Hell because my friendship was no one's damn priority." Willow stalked closer to the door, pausing before turning around. "And I make no claims to loving Christian."

The library doors slammed behind her, leaving the stunned group behind. "You don't have to Willow." Xander whispered sadly, staring after the empty space she had occupied. "It's in your eyes."
 

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Willow stormed through the streets, ignoring any and all things, just aching to get away. She felt terrible for losing it on Xander, like that. Actually, she felt badly for snapping at them all. It wasn't their fault she'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time..not really.

Sighing, she stopped to lean on the rough bark of a tree, surprised to find herself standing outside her parent's home. 'My PARENT'S home?' She thought, puzzled at such a strange thought. 'No..that's our home, MY home...isn't it?'

'....fall in love with...' The words echoed again in her head. "No. I don't know how I feel about him, Xander. You're wrong. You can't fall in love with someone that fast." She whispered, staring down at her feet. 'Can't you?' Whispered her subconscious, determined to get it's digs in.

Willow jerked away from the tree, backtracking to the nearest intersection, and then to the downtown core. "No. You can't. I won't....he can't love me. It'd just be another case of unrequited love." She muttered to herself. 'Besides,' she added silently. 'I'm going to leave him protecting Buffy. Just in case. I'll face Craith alone.'

It scared her to even contemplate that. Frightened her immeasurably, but it was comforting to think that Christian would be safe, or safer. He'd have a fit, when he discovered her coming deception...but, it was the only thing she could think of doing. Telling him she didn't want him there, that would be a lie. Willow sighed, stopping again at a red light, and a pedestrian-stop sign.

The streets were deserted. At 2:30 am, what else was new? The main downtown of Sunnydale was tiny, and all the shops, stores and buildings of Sunnydale seemed to roll up and disappear as soon as the city hall clock tower struck 6 PM. Willow smiled, looking up at a Tower that had been keeping time long before she had been born.

The light changed, and she walked on, comfortable in the darkness, it's light easier on her eyes than daylight had been. re- acclimatizing wouldn't happen overnight, she realized, but eventually, it would happen. 'If I live.' Murmured a traitorous voice inside.

Sighing heavily, Willow made her way to the boundaries of Sunnydale's "good part" and "bad part" of town, and looked around. The action was casual, as if she was checking both sides of the street before crossing. The casual act, however, was all fake. As a vampire stepped out from the alley Willow had just passed, and moved to attack, Willow smiled. "Hello Spike. I was wondering how hard it would be to get your attention."

Spike took a step back, mildly surprised at such a casual greeting from one of the Slayer's timid little friends. "Spill a bit of blood, that makes our kind move faster." The vampire smiled, his fangs a garish sight, still stained with her last meal.

"I'm sure." Willow murmured faintly. "Where's Christian Visconti?" She casually watched the short-haired Billy Idol clone as he swaggered about in his black trenchcoat, the same coat she'd seen him wear many times during his encounters with Buffy.

Spike's eyes went wide, then narrowed, a speculative gleam in them. "Not here. Why?"

Willow sighed, again. "I'm so sorry, Spike. I'm not in the mood to be an entertaining coward. It's been a very bad couple of weeks, and...well, either you take me to see Christian, or you'll be examining your mortality, again."

Spike laughed, and Willow smiled. 'It was just as well,' the former Slayerette thought. 'I can't pound Xander to a pulp just to get my tensions out, but I can him.'
 

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Christian was shouting loudly at them all when she quietly pushed the library doors open. His words were an odd combination of cohesive sound, and growls, but his meaning was clear. "I'm right here, Christian." Willow softly called.

"Cara!" He practically gasped. Very nearly flew across the room, he carefully studied the rent clothing and scratches on her face and arms as he went. The other occupants also shrieked out to see the mess she was in. Giles muttered once, and practically ran for his office and the first aid kit.

"I'm okay," Willow waved her arm, shooing the others off, even as Christian steered her to a chair. "I just had a little run in with someone who isn't too fond of me, and we had a bit of a disagreement." Christian snarled something incomprehensible, tearing the shirt sleeve further to get a good look at the deep gash in her arm.

It was still oozing blood, but the vampire wasn't interested in drinking it. Taking the torn fabric, he balled it up, and pressed it down on the cuts. "Are there more?"

Willow shifted in her seat. "None serious, Christian. Leave it be. I've had worse, you know."

Buffy pushed beside the vampire, holding out a quickly fetched bowl of water. "Here." The Slayer snagged the fabric from Christian's hand, rinsing it in the water. She gently mopped up the cuts, scratches and abrasions around the arm, before rinsing and once again placing the fabric over the deepest cut, holding it like a compress.

Willow rolled her eyes. Xander hovered behind Christian, looking pale and anxious, and Cordelia looked nauseous. "Guys, I'm FINE!" Willow said, exasperated.

Christian just muttered on, checking her out for more cuts.

"I'm sorry, Willow." Xander spilt out in a rush. "I shouldn't have talked to you like that, I should just be grateful you're alright...and ..well..I'm sorry." He looked down to his shoes, expecting the harshness he had witnessed in her earlier to rebuff him, but needing to apologize all the same.

Willow sighed, gently taking the cloth out of Buffy's hand, and lightly pressing it to the cut herself. Buffy rolled back on her heels to look up at the redhead, while Christian just persisted testing her arms, then legs for further wounds. "Christian." The sharp command implied in her voice made him jump, and taking the opportunity, Willow stood up.

"Stay." She said to her lover. The vampire sat down, dumbfounded. Willow took a few steps away from them all, before turning to Xander. "Come here." She requested softly, watching him move closer. Wrapping her arms around him, she hugged tightly, whispering to his ear, "You're forgiven." She looked past him, to Cordelia and winked.

Releasing him, she wandered back to Buffy, squatting down to face the Slayer. "I'm sorry, Buffy. I shouldn't have hit you at the mall, and I shouldn't have been so nasty earlier. I've had a really rough couple of months, and I'm afraid that I just can't let it all go. Okay?" She easily fell into Buffy's open and relieved embrace.

Willow sat down on her rump, sliding backwards to bump into Christian's leg, and leaning against that. "Are we all kosher now? Any other grievances, apologies, or general comments we'd like to air?"

Her friends seemed to look around, but came up with nothing. A sharp tug on her hair, however, spoke of one commentator. "Yes, Amata, I want to know who did this to you?" Christian reached down, scooping her up into his arms, and carefully pulled the clothe back away to study the cut. His frown, and outstretched hand for the medical kit Giles held, strangely reassured everyone in the room that he had no intention of biting their friend.

Willow shrugged, a small smile on her mouth. "Spike." The smile widened, a beam of sunshine.

"How much did you leave?" Christian tapped her nose lightly. "I believe I saw that smile when you had that Hunter dead to rights." He ignored the shocked looks of her friends, understanding that even imaging little Willow Rosenberg confidently destroying a demon was a stretch. However, she was no one's door mat anymore, and she never would be again.

Willow smirked, looking like a little perky pixie. "Enough for him to crawl back his dearly beloved."

"SPIKE?!?" Angel's jaw dropped. "You took on Spike and LIVED?"

Willow's smirk just grew. "Yup." She watched Angel's shocked expression for a moment, before laughing out. "Oh, come on Angel. I've spent quality time in Craith's version of Hell. D'you think I WOULDN'T be able to take on a measly little vampire?"

The vampire, who's lap she was sitting on, chuckled, while the other one, across the room looked stunned. "Ah, Willow..." Christian gently nudged her. "I think we need to get you to a ladies room. No offence, cara..but the smell of your blood is not comforting."

Willow looked at him, puzzled. "Okay. Sure." Standing, she started walking to the doors, stopped by Christian's touch on her back.

"And, Cara, I'll be tagging along, just to ensure you get there."

Willow frowned now, certain that there was more to this. But, she allowed him to follow her, stopping Buffy from following with a simple hand motion. Whatever it was Christian wanted to talk to her about, he didn't want anyone else hearing. They walked in silence, Christian flicking the light switch on as they entered the washrooms. He was fascinated by these modern amenities. "Were you going to tell me Craith was gathering his forces below the library?" He asked with out preamble, as she filled the sink with water.

"Pardon?"

"Craith is not coming to your library. He is beneath it, at the Hellmouth itself." Christian opened the medical kit, pulling out some ointment, and reading the tube quickly. "He is collecting his forces, and victims there."

Willow's heart sank. She'd hoped to keep this knowledge from him, not willing to risk his life. "How did you..."

"The community. It took a bit longer than I anticipated to get some results out of them, there is no true organization amongst them, with the Master dead. The oldest now living in Sunnydale is Angelus, and he is hardly one of them." Christian took the cloth from her unmoving fingers, rinsed it, added some of the hand soap, and then washed the arm again. Willow hissed in pain, as the cuts stung.

He silently place ointment on the cuts, after trying the skin, and placed a few bandages on, after she showed them how they worked. "You knew, didn't you. And you weren't going to tell me. Why Amata." Two strong fingers under her chin lifted her eyes up.

"I don't want you facing Craith." The words were spoken with more strength than was truly felt. "I don't want him to see you, Christian. He'll be so furious...I'm scared he'll destroy you." Willow reached for the metal control that opened the drain, and watched the water lower. Finally, the basin was empty, and she pushed away, moving to the door. "I'm going to face him alone, and I want you to protect Buffy."

She slipped out the door, leaving him behind, and began walking down the hall, back to the library. The door behind her opened and closed again with an audible click. "Like Hell." Christian roared. "There's no way I'm letting you do that alone! Not MY wife."

Willow stopped dead, her heart lurching as the words hit her. Slowly, she turned to look at him, both eyebrows high in a stunned face. He seemed pretty shocked too, his normal expression of suave confidence missing. "Your...what?" The words were a shaky whisper.

"Wife." Christian said again, the shock of the honesty in the words surprising him. "I...."

It was almost surreal, Willow realized. To hear such words from him, it made her dizzy. 'No, no...I barely know him..I can't feel this way...' Her body took a half step towards him, her eyes searching his for something intangible. "Me? Why..would you think..."

Christian shook his head. "I'm not thinking..cara, I'm feeling. You are not my wife, but you feel as though you ought to be. The words just came out. I'm sorry, I didn't want to scare you...I didn't want you to know....but I care far more for you than I should allow."

"Mia amore, I can't let you face Craith alone. I love you."
 
 
 

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Part Six

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Willow stared, speechless, shocked and euphoric, all at the same time. Her first impulse had been to look for another female in the hallway, her second was to launch herself at the man.

Fortunately, her common sense, though disbelieving, decided to intervene. "Me?" Her voice positively squeaked. A sure sign, she realized in the distant, impassive part of her mind, that shock was finally setting in. "You love....me?"

Christian nodded wordlessly.

Willow's world was trembling, the very earth beneath her feet seemed to shake as she stared into his grey eyes, wondering at her fortune. It wasn't until the earth heaved sufficiently to knock them both over, that she realized the truth. 'The ground IS shaking!" Her head whipped around studying the up heaving flooring around them, looking for the center of the disturbance.

Sprawled as she was on her side, her eyes traced the spider-webbed patterns, and her vision expanded to see the web-formation in the hard concrete floors. "The library!" Willow's gasp preceded her physical response. Scrambling to her feet, she took Christian's suddenly offered hand, and ran towards the library.

"Craith?" Christian grunted, falling forward as another tremor threw him from his feet. He followed the action easily, rolling back upright and ran on. He was ahead of Willow, his beloved too tiny and slight to maintain sure footing while running, and Christian chose not to wait for Willow's answer, knowing the truth for himself. The aura of evil that Craith had infused his realm with, it followed the Demon Lord here. Only, in this earthly realm, the aura wasn't widespread, it was centered about Craith, making him detectable.

And right now, Christian was strongly detecting Craith. It wasn't on his top ten of sensations he wanted to experience again. It made even a vampire's skin crawl.

The doors to the library had been shifted by the ruptured earth, and the upheavals of the quake. No longer hanging level, they were jammed against one another. Lowering his shoulder, Christian forced them open.

The formerly dignified library's impression of calm warmth and intellectual stimulation was shattered, along with many of its polished wooden cases. The center of the room had experienced the most unnatural of eruptions. Craith, himself, lounged indolently in the center of the room, holding the limp, unconscious body of the Slayer in his taloned grip.

The sight stirred Christian's memory. Buffy's languid dangling limbs were overlain with the vision of Willow in the same position, from weeks before, blood dripping down her throat from where the black tipped nails of Craith's hand pierced into her white-skinned throat.

Heat surrounded Christian, his mind conjuring the remembered oppression of the eager throng about the dais, waiting for the Master to complete this sacrifice. And the futile despair that he had felt battling to get to Willow....

Christian shuddered, pushing those nightmare memories away. Craith had a debt owed to him, for what Willow and he had suffered. And it was a debt Christian's eyeteeth ITCHED to collect. "CRAITH!" He roared, allowing the mask of his humanity to dissolve into his demonic face.

The demon lord was gratifyingly surprised to see the vampire. Shock and hatred washed across Craith's inhuman face, pleasing Christian immeasurably. "Visconti, you escaped and attained reach of this realm. What a disappointing surprise." The arrogant sorcerer sniffed.

"Put the girl down." Christian growled, inwardly appalled he was defending the bane of his kind, a Slayer. But no Slayer deserved what Craith was capable of.

Craith grinned, his sharpened points of teeth shining. "Or what? You are nothing but a minor gnat to be swatted." The demon lord drew his inky cloak about him, nodding briefly to his underlings. "Kill them, all. Thoroughly, if you don't mind?"

Power flowed easily to the sorcerer, surrounding him in tangible clouds. Dark, and ominous, his magic blotted out the sorcerer, and his captive in an eclipse. As they vanished, male voices shouted loudly, in futile calls to save Buffy.

A low growl echoed behind Christian. Turning, he watched young Angelus' enraged face. Visconti sternly refrained from rolling his eyes. 'If the fool attacks me...."

Angel sprang forward, but past Christian, straight into the first Hunter that came their way. With all the strength born of grief and fury, the younger vampire tore the Hunter apart, piece by piece.

Christian watched, bemused for a moment. The fledgling's ferocity was incredible, and it reminded him of his own grief-stricken rage after Katherine had been slain, all those centuries ago. In Angel's fury, Christian could clearly see the legendary Angelus. He was savage, brutal and remorseless, gutting the ensorcelled creature with his hands and fangs.

His admiration of the other vampire's form and style was cut short, the younger mortal male's body tumbled into Christian. "Oomph!" Christian sprang to his feet, snarling at the Hunter who'd caused the boy to fly into him. Xander discretely moved out of Visconti's way.

Cordelia, her cries shrill, was cringing behind Giles. The Watcher deftly rained ineffectual blow upon blow with a quarterstaff on the Hunter attacking them. Giles' was clearly tiring, his deflection of the Hunter's own stave become less certain with each pass. The quarterstaff came up, struck the bone spear, and with a vicious twist, the Hunter sent the quarterstaff flying, and nearly snapped Giles' wrists. The Watcher fell back, nearly landing on the girl behind him. The Hunter raised up his bone spear, angling it for a downward strike through Giles' body.

The spear came downwards, driven by the demon's arm, but clattered harmlessly to the ground as the Hunter dissolved into a fine cloud of ash.

Christian looked down at the ash outline of his own opponent, perversely disappointed at the sudden end, but knowing the cause. Dusting himself off, Christian cocked a head at Willow. She was quite pissed, her forehead furrowed, and brown eyes narrowed into black slits. If flames could spring up around her, they would.

She was beautiful.

And dangerous.

Xander looked around the room, bewildered. Tentatively, he reached out towards Cordelia, and as she walked into his embrace, held her tight. "What happened? Where did those things go?"

Giles bent and sifted through the pile of ashes closest to him. His hand raised, fine grey grains of the ash fell through his fingers. "Strange," he murmured. "I've never seen anything like these creatures referred to in any of my books."

"They're called Hunters, Giles." Willow turned to face them. Her pale face set. "They are constructs, bits and parts of different corpses reassembled to specific design, and then infused with a demonic soul. They are used to hunt down and capture humans for use in Craith's rituals."

Giles raised an eyebrow, straightened his glasses, despite the clear crack in the right lens. Rising from the crouch beside the ashes, he regarded the girl who had only weeks before helped him research the prophecies, and demons Buffy faced. The set of her jaw, and the pain in her eyes made her a virtual stranger, now. "I see."

Willow frowned, a delicate little expression. "Don't, Giles." She cautioned, before the questions written on his face could be voiced. "We don't have time. Buffy's safe for only so long." Her voice softened, "I'll tell you what you want to know later, okay?"

"How do we help Buffy?" Angel stared with a lost hopelessness at the sealed crater his girlfriend had disappeared into. The slump of his shoulders, and agony lining his face was reminiscent, to Christian, of his own pain when he thought Willow dead or worse.

Slowly, Christian let his face shift back into the human expression, and with Willow's approving nod at him, moved to stand beside the younger vampire. Hand upon Angel's shoulder, Christian waited for the man to notice him. Once Angel shook himself partially from the fog of his grief, Christian completed the process that would restore the fight in Angel's being.

He slugged him. His fist cracked across Angel's jaw with a very satisfying *thunk*, throwing the vampire onto his ass.

Angel's head snapped up, the vampire in him snarling fiercely. It was, in Willow's opinion, an incredibly stupid scene. Angel was sprawled flat on his behind, but snarling, while Cordelia, Xander and Giles looked on aghast. And Christian, well, it was a good thing Willow had decided she loved him, because that self-satisfied smirk on his face was just begging to be wiped off.

Tilting her head to the side, Willow considered them. Angel was tensing muscles, preparing to lunge at Christian, and Christian was just lounging about, completely unfazed by the red-eyes and extended fangs of Angelus. 'If they're going to be playing for a little while, I can get away and deal with Craith alone!' The thought was terribly appealing, and it met with her goal of keeping Christian, and her friends safe. 'Everyone, except Buffy.' Her mind whispered. 'And if you blow it, you and Buffy BOTH die.'

"Then I won't fail." Willow whispered to herself, taking a step backwards, towards the crater. All the studying she had done in Craith's library had left her well-prepared to hunt him down, and she knew she had more the ability within herself to raise more than sufficient power to do whatever was necessary.

Biting down softly on her lower lip to stop it's trembling, Willow denied her own fears. Taking a final look at her friends, Willow memorized every detail about their faces. Hoping and intending to be with them again; but, preparing nonetheless for the chance she would not.

The spell would not go unseen, there was too much of a visible response in such a working; this she had learned when creating the portal between worlds. However; Christian was far enough away from her that by the time he realized the spell was cast, she could, perhaps, complete it and be gone before he could intervene.

Turning sharply, tears burning in her eyes, Willow raised her chin upwards, calming herself to form a nexus, and a smaller portal, one that would take her directly to Buffy, and Craith. Heartbeat slowing as the imposed calm overtook her, she reached within herself, to the part of her soul she guarded against constantly. The darkness that was Craith's fingerprint on her being. 'A weapon is only evil if the user is evil,' she whispered to herself, allowing her being to pull at the power contained in that fingerprint.

"And let no Will tear this asunder, as I Will," The whispered words grew louder, until the final words sealing he spell were cried aloud. "So Mote It Be."

The earth tore again, ripping downwards in response to Willow's summons. Christian and Angel both fell to the wave of power lashing out. Frantically, both vampires struggled for footing.

"WILLOW!!!" Christian howled, fighting with all his being to get to her. "NO!" The power forming a portal, the silvery center of this portal, and blinding white light that surrounded his lover a sight he wished she could see for herself. The physical presence of power was a reflection of the spellcaster's soul. And Willow's soul created a light show of intense beauty.

"What is she doing?" Angel shouted. The current of power was pushing them away from the spell's center. It required a great deal of concentration to stand against the current, and even more strength to move against it.

Christian grunted, battling fiercely to get closer to Willow. "You're not doing this alone." He growled softly. "She's trying to go up against Craith by herself." Christian shouted to Angel.

"She's WHAT?" Angel found the motivation he needed. Forcing his feet to take a step, after step, he struggled towards the red- headed girl.

The others, were pushed to safety by the waves of power reaching outwards. Unlike Craith's destructive nature, Willow was benevolent, and her spell reacted in accordance with her gentle nature. It sought to protect everything around it; and that meant keeping living beings from harm.

The two vampires, however, were not living matter by any biological definition, and the spell didn't react to them as such. It acted as a wall, or force they had to push through, but it was a wall they could fight. Growling, Christian stepped into the strongest circle of power that formed the portals barrier, turning towards Angel, he reached out an arm to the younger man.

Angel threw out his right arm, clasping Christian's forearm, and allowed Visconti to pull him into the circle. Power flared higher, and to the mortal witnesses outside the portal's confines, the threesome vanished.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Ohhhhh...." Willow let her forehead rest on the cool ground beneath her sprawled body. "Maybe I'll just stay here and die quietly." The cold rock felt so soothing on her now pounding head. *Who would have thought a simple little spell like that would be so...exhausting?* She wondered.

A deep voice chucked behind her, and two strong hands reached down and scooped her up. "Cara, I think dying here and now would be in excessively poor taste, si?"

*I'm dreaming, that's it. Christian is still safely tucked into the library, probably cursing himself silly. He's not here. He isn't. He's upstairs battering Angel for distracting him....*

"Is she okay?" Piped in Angel's voice.

*Or, they're both here.* Willow took a chance, and cracked her eyes open between throbbing pounds in her head. The jaw right above her was definitely Christian's. She'd woken up enough times to recognize that strong line, and the arrogant set of it. "Oh dear."

Christian tilted his head to grin down at her. Dropping a gentle kiss on her forehead, he scolded her in a soft voice. "Thought you could sneak off, did you? Didn't I explain my feelings on the subject sufficiently?" He juggled her so that she could wrap an arm around his neck, and bury her face into his shoulder.

"Willow?" Angel's voice was definitely pleading.

"'M fine. My head hurts." She mumbled into Christian's chest.

Angel looked blankly at Christian. This was not his ideal situation, depending on a creature he didn't trust to save Buffy. Visconti didn't seem to concerned about anything, he looked back at Angel with equal blankness and shrugged.

"Cara," Christian cajoled Willow softly. "We'll get you some nice willow-bark tea, and make your head all better, right after we decapitate Craith. Can we do that, first? If it's not too much of a problem?"

Willow sighed, torn between grumbling about his sarcasm or just letting it slide. "I didn't want this." She whispered into his shoulder. "I didn't want you here, I don't want you to be hurt."

Christian said nothing, he nodded once to Angel, and still carrying her, began walking through the tunnels. Craith was, again, trackable. In fact, to Willow's senses, every step they took nearer the Demon Lord made her skin just itch. Even concentrating on the sound of Christian's soft footfalls, or the sound of Angel's jacket as he moved his arms didn't distract thoughts of Craith from her mind.

"Put me down, Christian." Willow murmured suddenly, not certain why she was speaking, but knowing beyond a doubt that she needed to be on her own feet.

The darkness around them was complete. There was no torches, candles, or openings providing any source of light to illuminate their passage, but Willow knew beyond a doubt that the two vampires accompanying her were not being hindered by the situation.

"You won't be able to see where you're going, Willow." Angel whispered behind them. His voice had a slight hiss to it, a telling sign that his game-face was in place.

Gently, Christian set her down, his hand to the back of her waist steading her until she was secure on her own feet. "I can see just fine, thank you." Willow corrected with a small smile. Stepping away from Christian's hand, Willow tilted her head to the path leading to Craith, and Buffy. "We need to get going. HE won't want to wait too long to begin the sacrifice."

The sudden hiss from Angel warned Willow too late. The younger vampire shot past them, running to the end of the tunnels . "Angel! NO!"

"Damn." Christian grunted, his arm shot out and came back empty handed. Without waiting for Willow, he began to chase after Angel. "The Fool will get us all destroyed."

Willow stared after Christian in pure horror. "No, no, NO!" She closed her eyes tightly, fighting to control the panic rising in her heart. *NOOOOO! Christian! Stop...you're running straight to Craith...*

A massive low-pitched boom sounded through the tunnels, echoing deeply off the stone walls as it rumbled back to her position. A shrill scream immediately followed it, galvanizing Willow like nothing else could. She had heard that scream before, in a different tone of voice, with a different person crying out. Before, it had been torn from her body, from her mouth as the Hunter's had captured her outside of Christian's cottage in the hell of Craith's realm.

This time, the scream came from Buffy's throat. As Craith tortured her in God only knew what way.
 
 
 

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Part Seven

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Willow slid to a halt at an intersection in the corridors, nearly sliding past the route she wanted to take. The screams, those horrid sounds torn from Buffy's throat, had faded and Willow was scared to think what that could mean.

Taking in short breaths, and ignoring the growing pain in her lungs at this heavy physical abuse, Willow resumed her race through the catacombs.

Angel and Christian would already be facing Craith, Willow realized, and were probably being soundly pounded. Alone, in the nether realm, Christian had been powerless in comparison to the Demon Lord; here on Earth, he had not the sufficient time to recoup his strength. And Angel, having abstained from fresh human blood for so long, he was no better off.

*And you're going to do what, that they can't?* Her subconscious jeered quietly. "Shuddup." Willow growled, under her breath. "I'll do whatever I can to help my friends." *And Christian.* Murmured her subconscious, again. *But, what's the limit you will go?*

Willow ignored that question, and ran on. There was no limit to what she would do. At least, she hoped there wasn't. Craith had touched her, when he had performed that rite to gain access to her world, touched her and made her his equal. And now, she was banking on that equality to help her. "What's the worst he can do? Toss a few bad memories at me?"

*You DON'T want to go there.* Her subconscious advised. Willow sighed, coughing on the sigh as her lungs protested the shortage of air.

Her pace slowed to a fast walk, and she began to inch closer to the wall, allowing the cold stone to touch her skin. Craith was so near, now. And she could hear the sounds of struggle. Angel and Christian's struggles, to be precise. "What is he doing to them?" Willow winced, hearing a particularly vile thud. "Oh, God. Christian, be safe!"

She licked her lips, nervously, and leaned towards the corner, allowing her head to poke into the opening. Craith stood just ahead of her, his back to the archway. His posture was arrogant as always, one hand raised casually and gleaming with raw power.

His target was Christian.

Christian zigged when he should have zagged, accidentally becoming a clear shot to the Demon Lord. "Oh, dear." The vampire muttered clearly. Willow smiled, despite herself.

Her smile faded, though, as Craith laughed, "Good bye, Visconti." The power around his hand grew far more intense, crackling ominously. "For the death of my Hell hounds, your punishment is obliteration, something I should have done a century or more ago."

The hand reached out in the general direction of Christian, the small dark smile of pleasure playing on the Demon Lord's lips as he prepared for the sweet sound of Christian's screams. "I think I'll almost miss...."

<< THWAP!!! >>

Craith pushed himself up from his knees, several meters away from where he had stood before. Without any pause, the Demon Lord flipped over, standing with fluid grace. "What..."

"Christian's mine, paws off." Willow Rosenberg snarled, her pale face tight with suppressed fury. "And for the record, I'm the one who killed your damn dogs."

Craith's amber eyes shot wide, his mouth settling into a displeased line. "You!"

A small satisfied smile tugged on Willow's mouth growing wider as Craith's indignant fury became stronger. He was at the point of spluttering, so enraged was the Demon Lord.

"You were DEAD!" He fumed. "I had you split open and gutted!"

A gasp echoed behind him, Buffy sat on the roughly constructed stone altar, staring with wide horrified eyes at her friend and the Demon Lord. One hand lightly clutched at her head, cradling the area that had been hit before.

Willow frowned, not pleased to have Buffy witness what was likely to become very unpleasant. "No, you split me open, but instructed your little priestling to gut me." She corrected mildly, absently noting Christian assuming position behind Craith. "You were busy running off to earth, remember?" Thoughtfully, she tapped a finger on her lower lip, the smile that had disappeared moments ago resurfacing, with sudden evil glee. "Oh, and I'm afraid the only thing that got gutted back there, after you left, was the priestling, the Hell hounds, the Seneschal, your army, and the guards."

Craith's mouth open and closed in silent furious rage. Finally, with an imperious finger pointed towards her, he managed a few vowels and concenents to resemble real words. "KILL HER!"

>From the shadows and the fabric of the very walls, his Hunter's materialized, oozing from stone as if they had been part of that wall only moments before.

"Oh." Willow commented mildly. She lavished a smile on the Demon Lord, practically seeing the steam rising from his ears. "I killed three of those, yesterday, too. I hope you didn't need them."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Christian watched his beloved, absolutely flabbergasted. The nervous wreck he'd seen earlier, the one who had dreaded facing Craith but swore to do so anyway had vanished.

She wasn't as insane as before, but he could clearly see the woman who'd rescued him from the Hell hound pits. The power, the grace, the sheer arrogance in her actions. And the darkness.

Somehow, Willow had overcome her revulsion and embraced the power harbored in her soul to stand against Craith. The raw magicks that she had struck Craith with before was testament to that. And now, as she smiled cutely at the Demon Lord, verbally pushing Craith to a precipice, Christian just waited for the end of the world.

It was short in coming. The Hunter's, sensing their master's growing rage attacked in blind force, without any structure. Their actions a pure reflection of Craith's mental state. *Score one for Willow.* Christian smiled, letting his vampiric visage slip into place as a Hunter lashed out with his pike.

Neatly dancing around the pike, Christian did a quick step-dance, ending with his hand thrust clear through the Hunter's chest. A fist formed inside the constructed slave, wrapping around the heart that was the binding force, giving ‘life' to it. With a sharp tug, he pulled hand and heart out. The Hunter crumpled.

Fangs beared in an unholy grin, Christian turned his head around to look for the next nearest opponent. "Next, please."

Across the room, the Slayer struggled with all her skill to tackle these creatures. By Christian's standards, she was doing a damn fine job, even without a stake. Sharp spin kicks, accompanied with good solid punches, jabs and the occasional slamming of other objects into the creature, she was remaining in control. Her eyes had flicked toward Christian in the instant of his Hunter's death, and the sight had given her a clear idea of how to operate.

Buffy hunched her body, eyeing the creature's chest for the next series of movements it would make. Finding an opening, she dived and rolled between the creatures legs, and behind it, her left arm snaking out mid-roll to grab it's quarterstaff. Once latching onto it, she tugged hard and claimed it for her own. "It's not a stake," Buffy grinned. Raising it up, and using both hands to achieve a good grip, she punched the staff through the Hunter's back and heart. The creature dissolved before it hit the floor. "But, it'll do."

Despite her distrust of Christian Visconti, she tossed him a thumbs up gesture, and then giggled to see his confusion. *I guess being out of touch so long, he's really behind the times.* She twisted the quarterstaff and her body into proper fighting posture, and engaged the next two Hunter's, now fully confident that the good guys would win, after all.

Sliding across the floor in an acrobatic but deadly dance, Buffy destroyed the first of the two Hunter's, and then moved the second into a better position to fight. The small training Giles had given her with the quarterstaff paled in comparison to these Hunter's expert use of their pikes, and the occasional blasts of focused energy they could release from the pike's made the entire fight just a tad dicey. *Okay, we'll win, but I'm going to need one helluva good soak in the tub. My body is going to just HURT!*

A dip, thrust and pull back, and another Hunter was destroyed. Buffy paused to recover her breath, running over to Angel's still prone body, crumpled by the rubble of the wall he'd been thrown through. Dropping her staff alongside him, she gripped the two edges of his leather jacket, tugging hard to pull him upright.

"Angel, honey? Sweetheart, wake-up." Buffy cooed, speaking quickly all the same. The vampire didn't twitch. Buffy gnawed on her lip, tentatively giving him a shake. "Angel?" Sighing, Buffy resorted to the level she hadn't wanted to go. Letting go of his jacket with one hand, she swung her elbow far back, and with slamming force crashed her fist into his jaw. "WAKE UP!" She howled at the top of his lungs.

He did so, aggressively. Buffy stared up into the game face now poised right above her, the stone floor behind her back just starting to feel cold through her shirt. "Oh. Hello."

Buffy grinned. "Hello, to you." They paused again, the sound of a fight echoing around them. Angel broke off the staring contest to look around, quickly rolling (pulling Buffy with him) as a pike crashed down from above.

"I guess were still fighting Craith?" Angel commented, leaping to his feet and lunging at the Hunter.

Buffy chuckled wryly. "Fraid so. Remove or destroy their heart." She advised. "It works on these things just as good as it does on vamps."

Angel grunted, delivering a solid punch to the critter. "Really?" He snapped off the end of the Hunter's pike, and before the Hunter could move, rammed it through the heart. The Hunter disappeared. "What a stereotype."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"I want you to know," Willow said conversationally. She glanced with complete boredom at Craith, noting his fury with pleasure. "This is incredibly redundant." Absently, she gestured to the four Hunter's frozen in position around them.

No sooner did he seize control of them and direct them to attack her, than Willow did the same thing right back. "It won't work." She continued. "I spent four days reading every book and document in your library. All I have to do is observe you do something once, and I can replicate it perfectly, if I don't figure it out first without watching you." She smirked. "And you only have yourself to blame for it."

Craith growled, finally foregoing the attempt to use the Hunter's to destroy her. His self-control and dignity dissolved as he lunged at her tiny body, claws outreached to rip into her skin.

Willow smiled, amazed at her own composure *Snapped, Crackled and, here comes Pop!* With ease, she let her body go boneless and crumpled to the floor, seconds before Craith should have made contact. Scrambling from that position, under and away, Willow drained the Hunter's of the energy that kept them animated, and redirected it with deadly force at the Demon Lord's back for the second time that evening.

It tossed him a few meter's closer to her ultimate destination. *I can't destroy him, myself.* Willow realized, the concept of like repulsing like very clear to her. Good can't counter good, nor can evil counter evil. The power and knowledge Willow had acquired couldn't defeat the same power and knowledge she had acquired it from.

But the Hellmouth COULD swallow him up.

Pulse after pulse, she drove Craith back, keeping a steady pace to the beating she delivered so that he wouldn't have time to defend himself. Looking up, she studied the Hellmouth quickly, feeling for a weak area. *I wouldn't be able to sense it at all, if not for him.* She realized, finding the weak area she needed. Concentrating, Willow created a small opening by forcing a bubble of energy at that spot, and then expanding it in a controlled fashion. It kept the Hellmouth's energy sealed out of the earth, but still opened the portal for something on this side to pass through. *Something big is gonna go through there, in just a few....*

Her eyes dropped down, expecting to see Craith. They were disappointed. "Where?!?" The sudden tackle from behind answered that.

Twisting Willow rolled to find the Demon Lord straddling her body, his claw-like hands inches from ripping her throat open. She reacted first, thought after. With more physical control over her limbs than she dreamed she had, Willow swung her feet up to lock her ankles around his neck, and then threw her legs back down, sending him flying towards the opening.

*YES!* Willow cheered.

Claws raked across her leg, wrapping around her ankle and latching on. "NO!" Willow screamed, feeling her body being pulled into the opening with Craith. Desperately, she twisted, rolled, and reached out. Already she could feel her feet and limbs encountering Hell's powers. "NO!"

Finger's scratched along stone blindly, frustrated for a secure grip. *I refuse to DIE!* Willow's eyes closed tightly, and she clawed for all she was worth, but slipped back still. Throwing one hand up and out, she found purchase.

In Christian's hands.

"Don't let go." He growled, strain clear on his features.

*Trust me. I'm not letting go no matter what!* Willow promised silently, her fingers digging painfully into his flesh. Aloud, she grunted as he tried to pull her up.

"Something's pulling me down!" Willow cried, feeling incredible pain as her body was being torn in two ways.

"Merde!" Christian swore, his inflection giving clear sincerity to the curse. His head turned away from the portal, and though Willow couldn't hear anything but the sounds of the Hellmouth, she could see he was talking.

Another pair of hands wrapped around her forearms, and Angel's face came into view. "Go." The younger vampire said to Christian. Feeling her lover's grip of her hands let go, Willow mewled a protest, but was silenced as Christian allowed his own body to crawl along Angel's anchoring body, and down to her.

"Relax, Cara." Christian soothed. He wrapped his legs around her waist, peering down to see what held her back. The darkness and swirling of malevolent power made visibility difficult, but in moments, Christian's eyes adjusted.

And he saw Craith. "Well, well." The vampire purred. "My lord Craith, what a surprise to see you."

The Demon Lord was still holding on to Willow's ankle for all he was worth, his claws for fingernails pinching deep into the skin and blooding the ankle. "She's going to hell WITH me, Visconti." Craith promised with an absolutely baleful laugh.

Christian snarled, his fangs and face slipping back into demonic, a feeling utterly natural in this unnatural magickal hell. "No, Craith." Christian freed one single hand, his fingers not tightening into a fist, but becoming like a scraping or clawing tool. "I think not."

With a savage throw, Christian impaled his fingers deep into Craith's eyes, gouging with brutal cruelty, through the sockets and into the brainpan. With a quick flick and release, his hand pulled away, and Craith's entire body went slack.

The hand about Willow's ankle loosened, relaxed, and fell away.

"Pull us up!" Christian shouted. Not taking any chances, he tightened his own grip on Willow, feeling the tugging motion as the Slayer and Angelus pulled them back to the Earth, and safety.

His eyes closed, and head bent to rest on Willow's backside "We won."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was a pathetic foursome that straggled into the library hours later, Buffy latched firmly onto Angel's arm, trying to hide a black eyes in the sleeve of his jacket; and Angel looking extraordinarily crispy, his clothes, and hair all damaged from the force of Craith's blast, and his tumble through a wall.

"Buffy!" Giles leapt from his chair, looking remarkably disheveled himself. "You're alright!"

His voice acted as a starter's gun, rousing Cordelia, Xander and Ms. Calendar from their stunned state. In seconds, they swarmed around the Slayer, freely distributing hugs.

Behind Buffy, Christian quietly entered carrying Willow. Moving without much fanfare, he set her down on the large central table, and set about examining her ankle.

"Christian?" Willow called softly, her fingers reaching to find his chin. Lifting his face up, she smiled down at him. "We won."

The vampire who had saved her in Hell, saved her in Earth, and loved her in both places smiled at her. "We won." Reaching out, he pulled her into his arms, hugging her tightly and hard.

Willow smiled again, snuggling closer. "Promise me something?" She asked, feeling his chin rest on top of her head.

"Que, Cara?" Christian's voice was a husky growl.

Willow buried her nose into his shirt. "I know there's some details to be worked out, and I'm much too young to be anyone's wife, just yet..." Her voice trailed off to feel Christian stiffen slightly. "But, can we try and work out those details in the meantime?"

For the first time since his return to earth, Christian Visconti smiled with the most sincere grace. "Ah Cara."

"Christian?"

"I AM finally home."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~The End*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Ah! Another longwinded story DONE! I sincerely hope you enjoyed it!

Cheers! ~Anya
 

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