Willow had lost count of all the times that Jack had had to heal her. The times between healings were getting shorter and shorter, and by now it seemed as though there were two or three every hour. Willow could tell that she didn't have long left - and Jack was getting more and more tired, although he tried to hide it from her. Willow doubted that he would be able to continue much longer.
And then she would die.
That is, if Caelus was right. Which Willow was no longer entirely sure about. Of course, with her emotions sliding from homicidal to melancholic at the drop of a hat even with Jack healing her, it was difficult for Willow to be sure of anything.
But, besides the physical pain, Willow didn't feel so bad.
Then Willow remembered that Caelus had said not everyone died from the power she had. Sure, he'd said that everyone wished that they had, but that wasn't the same. And if she didn't die, then the universe wouldn't end.
Willow didn't know what the chances of her survival were, but really, it was her only chance. She very much doubted that Caelus would be finished before she died. Or whatever was happening to her ran its course.
However, in order to find out exactly how many people survived (and, more ominously, what happened to those who did) Willow needed to talk to Caelus. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a problem, but Jack was taking a much needed rest. Willow didn't want to wake him up, so that he could heal her if she needed it.
Unfortunately, with Daniel and the others hanging around, Willow knew that she wouldn't be able to leave the house without someone noticing and waking Jack on her behalf. And Willow thought that, if Jack didn't sleep now, he'd probably just collapse with exhaustion later. So either she could go without healing now, or wait until healing was no longer an option.
So, she needed to get out of the house. If Willow still had her magic, that wouldn't have been a problem, but she didn't. All she had was some corrosive black stuff that cut through anything and was killing her.
Suddenly, a memory emerged. Buffy, climbing up her wall and through her bedroom window, as she had done so many times before Joyce found out about her Slaying. Willow had never been able to use the minuscule crevices in walls to her advantage.
But, now, she could make her own handholds. She could, after all, cut through anything. Making small holes in the outside wall to allow her to climb down should be child's play.
As indeed it was.
Riley wasn't talking to Buffy. This was something that she could live with, however. Sooner or later, he would realise that she had acted the way she had to save his life.
Still, it was kind of annoying. Who wouldn't want their lives saved, if they had the chance?
Buffy was brooding on this (not that she would ever admit to brooding. No, brooding was what Angel did. Not her, she was far too perky) in a graveyard (which was a good place to definitely-not-brood) when she spotted Martouf walking by.
Normally, if Buffy spotted a human walking around Sunnydale after dark, she would follow them and save them from the inevitable vampire attack. But Martouf had a symbiote, and was therefore more-or-less as strong as she was. He could probably handle a vampire attack.
On the other hand, Buffy was brooding. And, although she didn't really know Martouf, she could tell that something was bothering him. Given that this particular cemetery seemed devoid of newly-sired vamps, Buffy figured that it might be a good idea to find out what was bothering Martouf and see if she could do anything about it. And if it stopped her dwelling on Riley's incomprehensible decision not to be healed, then so much the better.
So Buffy called after him, and Martouf stopped and waited for her to catch up.
"What is it, Slayer?" Martouf said brusquely as he began walking again.
"It's Buffy, actually. The Vampire Slayer is just a title." Buffy corrected.
"Apologies. It is just that we have no records of one such as you, not even a legend. You must understand that the Tok'ra histories tell us that vampires were no more dangerous than any other race. There was no need for a Slayer."
"Yeah, and Goa'uld were just fluffy bunnies instead of megalomaniacs." Buffy grumbled. She knew the story, Jolinar had already told her. But Buffy found it impossible to reconcile the benevolent High Lord of the Goa'uld and the amorphous creature that had tried to kill her friends and wipe out his own race a year ago. Buffy was pretty sure that she was missing something, something that had led to vampires and Goa'uld alike becoming evil. She was also pretty sure that Caelus knew what it was, and if it wasn't for the fact that he was working to save Dawn's life (and by extension, the universe), Buffy would be trying to get him to tell her just what that was.
"Is there something I can do for you, Buffy?" Martouf asked, breaking Buffy's chain of thought.
Buffy found herself wondering how exactly you ask an alien you barely know what's on their mind. Buffy decided to gently try and worm it out of him-
"Is something bothering you? You seem... upset."
-or she could just blurt it out. That worked too.
For a while, Buffy didn't think he would answer. For a while, neither did Martouf. But, eventually, he spoke. He needed to speak, to say the words aloud, even if saying them hurt more than a Goa'uld pain stick.
"Jolinar's dead. She died, years ago. And now she's back, but she's still dead. After Caelus is done, she'll be reabsorbed by Sam. And she'll be gone. Again. She didn't think I'd figure it out, not before it was too late, but- I can't lose her again. I can't face that. Can you imagine what it's like, to lose someone you love, only to get them back, only to lose them again?"
Buffy could imagine. It was, after all, exactly what had happened between her and Angel. She'd sent him to hell, he'd come back and then left again. She'd moved past that now (mostly) but it still hurt. Back then, it had hurt far, far more, knowing that it was only a matter of time before he was gone for good.
But how much worse would it be if that happened with your partner of hundreds of years?
Martouf took her silence as her not being able to understand what he was going through. "But what do you know? You've got your insecure boyfriend who won't even tell you why he didn't want to be healed."
Buffy stopped walking. "You know why he didn't want to be healed, don't you?"
Martouf looked at her for several seconds before answering. "I held him while Selmak healed him, Buffy. He was strong. Stronger than he should've been. Try and imagine why he wouldn't want to give up that strength."
Buffy did, and she could only come up with one reason.
Because of her. Because Riley feared that, without that strength, he wouldn't be good enough. That was why he had been so keen on trying to make her understand that he was fine, that he was in fact better than he had ever been.
Buffy was going to need to have a conversation with him, about that. Just not right now.
Because, right now, Martouf needed to know that things were going to get better. That he would, eventually, get over Jolinar's death (as much as such things were ever possible). So Buffy told him about Angel, and to her vast surprise, found that she felt much better for doing so.
Martouf looked at her gravely when she finished, and then said "Thank you, Buffy. Thank you."
When Willow entered Caelus' lab, he was, for the first time, not doing anything with the equipment. Well, beyond absently toying with an empty test tube, because Caelus seemed absolutely incapable of sitting still.
Caelus looked up from the conversation he had been having with Jacob (no doubt Caelus was trying to catch up on all the galactic history he'd missed whilst he had been in prison) and asked "Have you seen Spike and Jolinar, by any chance?"
Willow felt a white-hot, irrational surge of anger. Damn. Apparently leaving without Jack had been a bad idea. Because, right now, Willow wanted to wipe Caelus off of the face the Earth.
Unfortunately, she actually had the power to do that, and the part of her that told her that killing Caelus was a bad idea was too small to make her pause. Willow could feel her control slipping away. Darkness swirled in front of her.
Caelus instantly stopped being the genial geneticist and became the imperious High Lord whose orders were to be obeyed without question. "Give me my scythe." Caelus said to Jacob, who found himself handing over the scythe before he even stopped to think. There was simply no possibility of disobeying that voice.
Caelus took the scythe and tossed it to Willow, who instinctively caught it. The part of her that was still capable of rational thought realised that the scythe barely weighed anything, and certainly didn't need someone of superhuman strength to carry it.
And then Willow pulled the power to obliterate Caelus and Jacob from existence. Only, this time, there was more power than before, more power than she could hold, more power than anyone could hold, an incredible source of absolute darkness...
Willow collapsed bonelessly to the floor, knocked unconscious by the sheer amount if power she had tried to wield.
Caelus pried his scythe from Willow's unconscious fingers and passed it back to Jacob, who asked "What just happened?"
"She tried to use too much power." Caelus replied, face held carefully blank so as to give nothing away.