Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its characters are the creation and property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. I'm just taking them for a short, non-profit spin. The only thing I claim is the story below.
Distribution: The Mystic Muse: http://mysticmuse.net
So long as the credits are intact, feel free to save a personal copy.
Feedback: Yes, please. But be gentle, I'm kinda new at this.
Author's Notes: This story takes place years after the last season of BtVS, but any references to Willow as she appeared in the Angel series will be pretty vague, if not non-existent. In this story, Willow eventually left the Scoobies (though she kept in touch and often drops by to visit) and traveled pretty widely, returning to the coven in Devon several times. Her last stay there lasted for more than a year.
Summary: Willow returns briefly to the place that was Sunnydale.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10 Part 11 Part 12 Part 13
Sunnydale was no more. It was worse than a ghost town, because there wasn't even a trace of the town any longer, only a black crater that stretched for miles.
There were no attempts to resurrect it, no misguided bureaucratic efforts to fill in the crater-deep gouge in the earth. The highways that used to pass through Sunnydale were simply rerouted. Maps were redrawn to reflect the new roads. It was as if everyone sensed, this time around, that it was better to stay away.
People began to forget that there used to be a place called Sunnydale. Only a clear hard look at the lay of the land might reveal the outline of a road that branched off strangely from the current route and seemed to lead to nowhere.
That is, unless you used to live in Sunnydale. Or you were actually looking for it.
A lone car, which used to be red but was now gray-white with dust, turned from the highway and followed the near-invisible road. Although it was slow, it never faltered from its chosen route. After several minutes, it came to a stop.
A door popped open, and a slim woman in her late twenties emerged, dressed in a loose blouse and dark jeans. The wind came up and tossed her long, red hair. She ignored it, and walked forward purposefully…until she was standing at the edge of the gaping maw that used to be Sunnydale.
Showing no fear of the deep black pit, she planted her feet firmly on the stony ground. She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sky. With hands outstretched, she began to speak.
There is great sadness
A cherished one has gone
The wind blew again, stirring dust. This time when it parted, it revealed another girl in shirt, jacket and jeans. She was younger and taller, her long dark hair flowing past her shoulders. She stopped in her tracks, surprised that there was someone else. She hitched her backpack across her shoulders uncertainly. When she recognized the figure ahead, she briefly warred with an impulse to leave. Why should I, she thought resentfully.
Emptiness engulfs me
Loss languishes within
Help me bear this grief
The redheaded woman continued to chant softly, but her words, and the heartfelt ache in them, carried easily across the pervading silence.
Accompany their spirit
Comfort we who grieve
Let us rejoice in their life
The newcomer approached reluctantly. However annoyed she was at this turn of events, she was still drawn by the ritual. Like the woman, she had also had friends and family who'd never left Sunnydale. She bowed her head respectfully.
May their essence be recorded
In the Great Book of Shadows
Renew our remembrance with joy.
The woman opened her shimmering green eyes and gazed at the torn land below. "Hey, baby," she called out gently. "I'm sorry it took so long for me to visit. I was away, had to finish some things. I even wrote a book, would you believe it? Remember how we always said some of the old stuff could use an update? Well, I tried. I wish I could show it you…" She took a deep breath. "I still miss you, but you probably know that. Rest well. Be at peace."
The girl froze, knowing who those words were addressed to. She looked away, feeling like she was intruding on a private moment.
By the time she looked back, Willow had stepped away from the edge of the crater and was facing her. "Hi, Dawnie," the hacker/witch greeted warmly.
But the girl wasn't ready to forgive her, not yet. "I thought you were in England," she said stiffly.
"I just got back. Stepped off a plane two days ago and everything."
"That stuff you were chanting, it was…nice," Dawn admitted stiltedly. "What was it?"
"It's called the Prayer of Passage," Willow replied. "I thought Tara would like it."
"I guess." The younger girl fiddled with her backpack. "You do this often?"
"Whenever I get the chance."
"I didn't see you last year." Now her tone was accusing.
Willow shook her head. She knew that Dawn was referring the yearly trek the Scoobies made to Sunnydale, but she'd been in England by then. "I came earlier. I don't go on set days, just whenever I can, or when it feels like I should."
That earned a raised eyebrow. "Why?" the witch repeated.
"Yeah," the girl insisted, "why? I know why Buffy, Xander and I go. Anya, Tara and Mom," her voice broke a bit, "and our old house, they're all under there somewhere. But you? I thought this was all the past to you. Part of what you left behind."
"Dawn." Willow's tone was incredulous. "Tara's grave is here, and yes, Joyce's and Anya's too. You're really surprised that I'd drop by and say hello?"
The brunette looked away. "I guess not."
The hacker stared at her for a second. Then she sighed. "Okay, this is just silly. For awhile now – and by awhile I mean years – you've been angry with me. I'll be the first to say you've got reason. I nearly got you killed once, and then I went for you when I was all dark eyes. But when I came back from England the first time, I thought we were okay. Then you went all stony cold again after we fought the First. Are you ever going to tell me what I did to piss you off?"
For a second, Dawn was again tempted to simply take off. Just leave without answering. Then she muttered, "Kennedy."
The woman's eyes went wide. "You like Kennedy?!"
"NO! No no no – a world of no's!" was the horrified, vehement denial. "But you do!"
"And this is news to you?" Willow asked, confused. "I know I haven't been around much, but it has been a few years since Kennedy and I got together, not to mention…"
"You mean, since you left us for her!" Dawn cut her off. She squared her shoulders, finally free to make the accusation. "I actually believed it, you know, all that bull about us being a family…until you left to move into one of Kennedy's houses with its two dozen wings! We see Faith more than you."
"The house in the Hamptons doesn't have wings," the hacker denied defensively. Oh nice going, Rosenberg. Completely fell into that one. "And Faith comes around whenever she needs to lie low. I didn't leave because of Kennedy. That was so totally not the point."
"Oh really?" The younger girl crossed her arms over her chest. "So why did you leave?"
"Well because…" Willow paused, frowning. "Fine, so Kennedy was partly the point," she conceded reluctantly, "but it had nothing to do with the fact that her house has wings!" Like her, the revelation of how rich Kennedy's family was had thrown Buffy and the other Scoobies for awhile. Except for Giles, of course; as a Watcher he'd known already. "Look, if we're going to talk about this, can we at least sit down? I have a nice thermos of extra warm mocha in the car. Speaking of which, how'd you get here?"
Now it was brunette's turn to look uncomfortable. "I…rode the bus."
"The bus doesn't pass through here. Former Hellmouth apparently not a tourist destination. That's why I rented a car."
Of course she'd check first, Dawn groaned inwardly. She'd forgotten how organized the witch could be. She was busted. "Well, the bus stops at the next town. From there, I sort of…hitchhiked."
"And Buffy's okay with this?" Willow asked in disbelief.
"She…doesn't know I'm here."
For a second, the woman just stared at her. Then she laughed. "Oh Goddess, some things never change! Come on, I'll call Buffy and tell her you're with me. Let's get some food. How do you feel about diner food? I think I passed one on the way here. I haven't eaten at a diner in ages."
Dawn followed quietly. Although she was in her bare twenties now and about to graduate, Buffy would still have a cow if she thought her younger sister was deliberately putting herself in danger. Since Buffy was finally allowing Dawn to patrol without her (though she still had to be with Xander or one of the new Slayers), that was the last thing the younger woman wanted. Taking off for the former Hellmouth without any precautions? Buffy would have her hide.
So without protesting too much, the girl followed Willow to the car. They found a nice quiet diner in the next town. She let Willow buy her coffee and a sandwich, and graciously waited long enough for the woman to finish her call and the food before continuing to interrogate her.
"So why did you leave?"
Willow cradled her coffee. It was really quaint, the way diners served coffee in cups. Too bad they didn't offer mochas. "Kennedy wanted to show me all these new things, new places, and I eventually ran out of reasons not to. Sunnydale was gone, but there're other Hellmouthy places, and you know Kennedy's one of the few Slayers with the resources to go anywhere she's needed. We went everywhere, Europe, the Pacific, lots of little islands. It was a great learning experience because you know me, California girl most of my life. But mainly? I wanted us to have a fair chance," she revealed. "Kennedy knows that Tara will always be a huge part of my life, but to be around everyone who knew Tara…well, a lot of people were comparing Kennedy to Tara, and not in a favorable way. It wasn't helping. Plus, Buffy's never been too thrilled with Kennedy."
The redhead recalled the times she'd had to referee between her best friend and her girlfriend. It had been very much like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. "I mean, it's not exactly un-understandable. They're both stubborn. They were butting heads from the second Giles brought Kennedy to the house. Which is a pity, because Kennedy really respects Buffy. Just not enough to toe the line and keep her mouth shut. She's not that kind of girl. It's all those take charge Slayer genes."
"She's like Faith," Dawn muttered.
The comparison gave the witch pause. The idea of falling for someone resembling the troublesome Slayer she'd actively disliked for most of her life was…mental eww. "`Course not!" she denied quickly. "Faith's more with the homicidal, and Kennedy doesn't have that many notches on her belt. I think."
Her companion just gave her a look.
Willow sighed. "Dawn, I'm sorry my going hit you hard. I didn't know. By the time I left you were hardly talking to me. I spoke with Buffy and Xander about leaving, and they were fine with it. I don't know if I can explain how difficult it was for Kennedy. She went through a lot to be with me. Bad enough that I turned into Warren the first time she kissed me – yes, that's what really happened back then. I was wracked with guilt because I let her kiss me and you know…enjoyed it." She bit her lip. "I bought a gun, do you know that? I got the exact model Warren used to shoot Buffy and Tara. I found Kennedy in the garden, and pointed it straight at her."
Dawn stared at her in disbelief. Willow with a gun? "What happened?"
"Kennedy." The hacker smiled briefly. "Amy's hex was turning me into Warren. Kennedy kept her head, and her questions led me back to myself, and to Tara…I ended up on my knees, begging Tara to come back to me. Now, normally a girl screaming for her former lover is, hello, huge 'back off' sign, but Kennedy just kissed me again and helped me shake the hex off. And that was just our first date!" she exclaimed. "How many people do you think would even stick around after a bizarro meltdown like that? The rest you pretty much know."
"Yeah, '…fun in a my-girlfriend-has-a-pierced-tongue kind of way,'" Dawn remembered, making the older woman redden. She fiddled with her coffee. "Guess I can't really hate her then," she said grudgingly.
"Why should you hate her?" Willow asked in surprise. "Those months after we escaped Sunnydale, I thought you were angry at me."
"Not at you. At Kennedy and you."
"Oh." The witch turned that over in her head for a few seconds. "Oh."
"I…" Dawn grimaced. "Okay, this is going to be intensely embarrassing for a few minutes. You and Tara, what you had together? That's what I want for myself one day."
Whatever Willow had been expecting, it wasn't that. "Dawnie, that's sweet. But you're…?"
"Straight, yes. With what looks like the Summers' bent for falling for the wrong guy. Did Buffy ever pull the cookie dough analogy on you?" she asked wryly. "Never mind. The important thing is I looked up to what you and Tara had. It's not hard to understand why. I mean, my parents divorced, and Riley left Buffy just when I was getting to know him. Xander and Anya – don't get me wrong, I was all for them, but that was pretty much a 'something only they could pull off' scenario. Then there was Buffy and Spike, but that was always, um, complicated. But you and Tara?" Dawn smiled, just thinking about the way things used to be. "You talked, you supported each other, you hardly argued. Which is probably why I had belly rumblings whenever you guys fought. It's just, most of the time the two of you were, I dunno, in synch? There was no doubt that the pair of you were meant to be forever if Tara hadn't…" she stumbled. "And well…you guys looked after me."
"Don't get me wrong," she rushed, not wanting Willow to misunderstand. "I wouldn't trade having a sister like Buffy for anything. But she's the Slayer, and sometimes there was no time, and at other times there was a Big Bad to deal with first. Then there were the months she was gone, and when she came back it felt like she didn't want to have anything to do with me." Dawn sighed. Those had been unpleasant times. "I never got that from you and Tara. You never made me feel like I was in the way, even when I was in the way. The two of you were always patient, and you made me feel…loved. Well, except for the time you got addicted and crashed the car. Oh and that other time you threatened to turn me back into a crackling ball of energy."
"Oh well, you know, temporary lapse of evilness," Willow mumbled apologetically as the rush of memories hit her. It was true that she and Tara had taken the lonely teenager under their wing for awhile, not because of any conscious decision, but because the girl seemed to need it. In a way, because of who they were and who they'd been, they'd understood the youngest Summers a bit more in those days than Buffy had. "Dawnie, you know we'll always love you, right? Even if you go all silent treatment on us. Even if you throw rocks. Which I hope you never will, but if you do…"
"I know." The girl smiled at the beginning babble. It was starting to hit her how much she'd missed the hacker/witch, missed that incredible mind that skipped, hopped and leapt, and the words that struggled to follow. "Tara and you belonged together, and Tara was the most understanding, sweetest person I've ever known. Even when you guys broke up, she was always checking on me. And the day you got back together! Oh that was the best day ever! Then one day I came home, and Tara was sprawled on the floor…" Her throat tightened, and she couldn't continue.
"Oh Dawn." The redhead's eyes, too, were bright with tears. "Buffy told me, you know. How you stayed with Tara, how they found you huddled in a corner of our room. You were so scared, but you didn't leave her because you didn't want her to be alone. While I - oh Goddess, I was such a fool!" Willow burst out as old recriminations and regrets returned. "All I could see was my anger and my pain! How could I leave her there, even for revenge?"
The redhead took a calming breath. "I always wanted to thank you for that," she continued more quietly. "Next to hurting you guys and trying to destroy the world, I hate thinking about the way I left Tara alone."
"I understood, you know. What you did." Dawn's voice fell to a whisper. "Destroying the world maybe went a little too far, but going after Warren – we were totally supportive, Xander and I. Buffy was the only one who –"
"Buffy was right," Willow interjected.
"Buffy's the Slayer, and for all our sakes, it's good that the line's that clear for her," the younger woman said with uncommon insight. "But I told her I would've done it myself if I could have. And not even Buffy can say that the world's not better off without another wannabe-psychopath."
The hacker shifted in her seat. Even if it was the right thing to do, it would be too weird to argue with Dawn over this, since Willow was the one who'd actually done the deed. "So, you were saying…me and Kennedy?" she prompted, changing the subject.
The college student found herself playing with the rim of her coffee cup. More embarrassing stuff. "A couple of nights before we fought the First, I went to your room. We'd kicked Buffy out and I was feeling guilty and um, scared." She cleared her throat. "I was about to knock when Rona came out of the bathroom. She told me it wasn't a good idea to disturb you. I thought she meant because you were going over the things that Faith wanted. I said I was just going to say hello. That got a laugh and a wink, and something about how Kennedy already beat me to it. I don't know why, but that stunned me," she said. "It shouldn't have. You'd called her your girlfriend, after all. But I guess I was blocking that somehow, telling myself that it wasn't serious. And then…"
For some reason, Willow had the feeling that a huge megawatt blush was headed her way. Oh this cannot be good.
"…you moaned. It wasn't like I hadn't heard stuff like that before," Dawn said matter-of-factly, "but this time you cried out Kennedy's name."
Yup, Willow thought, there it was. If she got much redder, her face would probably explode. "Um, er, well…"
"That's when it sank in. Tara was dead. She had to be, if you were sleeping with someone else. She was never coming back. And you - you were over her. It wasn't fair!" The girl's voice rose. "I know it was months later, but it still felt like it was too soon. You and Tara were supposed to be forever. Doesn't forever merit a year of mourning at least?"
"Sweetie, it's not that simple," Willow tried to explain, taken aback by her vehemence. "A part of me will never stop mourning Tara."
"Not the part that moaned, obviously."
The witch froze as something bordering on anger flashed in her eyes. "Goddess, is this what the silent treatment's been about?" she asked in disbelief. "You think I betrayed Tara by being with Kennedy? Do you honestly think you miss Tara half as much as I do? You have no idea how it feels!"
"You thought it yourself, didn't you?" Dawn asked coldly. "I couldn't believe it, I kept thinking it must be a fluke. This girl was as different from Tara as anyone could be. She's loud and obnoxious and abrasive. She chases after you, and the next thing we know she's in your bed. And for her, you did the one thing you would've never done for Tara – you left us! You and Buffy and Xander were always going on about how the Scoobies are a family, but you left!"
"Dawn, that's not fair!" Willow objected. "Leaving was never something that Tara would've wanted. And trust me, if I had known beforehand that Tara was going to die in that house, I would've taken her far, far away!" She paused, breathing hard. "Tara didn't leave you guys even when we broke up because she thought of you as her family, too. That's not the way it was with Kennedy. She could never be 'family,' because she doesn't get along with you guys much."
"Oh that's right, blame us!" Dawn scoffed. "Why don't you just admit it, Willow? Why don't you just come out and say it? You forgot Tara when Kennedy came along, didn't you?"
"NO!" To both their shock, the usually even-tempered witch slapped her hand on the table, making their cups rattle. "God, how can you say such things? You want me to compare how I felt about them? What I had with them? To put all these messy feelings on a scale and say, 'oh here, there's more in this one than the other?' It doesn't work that way. I didn't stop loving Tara when I was with Kennedy, but I did love Kennedy. I can't compare what I had with the two of them. They were different relationships, because Tara and Kennedy are two very different people."
"What does that even mean?" Dawn asked coldly.
"What I said." Willow threw up her hands in exasperation as the girl continued to look at her suspiciously. "Fine, you want the details? Tara and I, we grew together, as people, as women, as witches. Tara was so shy when she we first met. She used to stutter, did you know that? She was so gentle, and with her I was usually the bolder one. She left me free to follow my heart once, and that gave me the freedom and courage to choose her." Despite the situation, the redhead found herself smiling at the memory.
"But by the time you met her, really met her, she wasn't taking grief from anybody, including me. She thought I was using too much magic, and she said so. And when I crossed that line, she left. For Tara, to get her back, and for myself, too, I gave up magic. You see, Tara understood magic. She saw how reckless I was getting, and she was right. Oh how I hurt her, Dawnie." Willow shut her eyes in remembered shame. "And the worst part is, I didn't truly realize that what I did to her was wrong until my magicks hurt you."
Seeing how badly the redhead still felt about something that had happened so many years ago made the younger woman uncomfortable. "Willow, it wasn't that bad." She waved her hand around. "See? Arm's good as new."
The witch smiled wanly at the gesture. "That's not what you said back then." In fact, she'd been roundly slapped by the then-teenager. "Tara came back only when I was magic-free. So if Tara had lived, you're right, we would've been forever, but…" Here Willow hesitated.
The idea was broached after she'd returned to the coven, when she'd started delving seriously into Wicca. Many of the members of the coven were strongly Wiccan in faith, like Tara had been, and they believed in destiny, purpose, and some of them, in the hidden hand of the Goddess.
How can you say that?! That's like saying there's a reason for everything, even Tara's death, even the way I almost - The debate was threatening to turn ugly.
Tara's death came from one man's hate. Your near-destruction of the world was likewise your choice. But it may be that the Goddess took these things and weaved them into the fabric of the world.
That's such a –!
Thankfully, before she could continue, one of the gentlest witches had moved forward to hold her hand. What took her away, what happened after, was evil, Willow. Human evil. We do not contest that. But sometimes, the Goddess does fashion some good from such evil.
What possible good could that be?!
They had the wisdom not to answer her directly. Althea, a witch her own age and one of her close friends, came forward and placed her hands over Willow's. Such power in these hands, and such a burden. None of us envy it, nor could any one of us bear it. But you can. Now.
Admit the possibility, they'd said. You believe in logic, don't you? Follow the web to its logical conclusion.
The coven had insisted that she face the possibility. "Eventually, maybe, Tara would've let me start using magic again, but we would've been careful, restrained, and if we had continued like that…Dawn, I don't know if I would've had the ability to turn the potentials into Slayers when we fought the First."
The admission obviously stunned the girl, but Willow barely let it sink in before continuing. "Kennedy, on the other hand, is very much a Slayer. She's fierce, she's a bit of a brat – which probably explains why the two of you don't get along since no two brats do."
"Hey!" Dawn protested.
"She doesn't let anything stand in her way," the redhead continued. "She's actually smaller than me, while Tara was taller, did you notice that? People rarely do because Kennedy's so tough, so upfront with who she is and what she wants. I wasn't looking for anything back then. I was still so raw inside. But she chased me, and she did it with such determination that yeah, she Scarletted me off my feet. She doesn't get magic, so if I said one day, 'oh I think the sky's better green,' she'd just sit back and watch me do it. She's got that kind of faith in me, that I know what I'm doing, that I wouldn't use magic unless it was the right thing to do. If anything, she thinks I'm too careful."
"What you heard that night," Willow said, blushing again, "was something I was really hesitant about. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to. We were on the verge of another apocalypse, and when there's that little time left it seems extremely foolish to not take what you can from life…which probably explains why things between Kennedy and I developed so fast. But I was afraid of losing control. Kennedy grounded me. She wanted me to do what I could without fear that I'd lose myself again. I took her with me when I did the spell with the axe…"
"So she could bring it back to Buffy when you were finished," Dawn cut in. It was all in the plan to fight the First. "I know that part."
The witch's voice gentled. "That was part of it, yes, but more importantly? I asked Kennedy to be there…so she could kill me if I turned into Big Bad Magic Willow."
To say Dawn was shocked was putting it lightly. "But th-that's awful!"
Willow just smiled. "I know you don't like Kennedy. And I maybe understand why you resented the two of us being together…but don't shortchange her, Dawn. Kennedy showed me that life was still possible after Tara. But I will always miss Tara."
The college student fell silent. Then suddenly she latched onto something that Willow had said. "Hang on, you just said you couldn't compare what you had with Tara with what you had with Kennedy. Had? Showed?"
"Caught the past tenseness of it, huh?" Willow asked. "It's one of the reasons why I left for England last year. At first, Kennedy and I just needed some space, but in the end there were too many issues. It just didn't work out."
"I'm sorry." To her surprise, Dawn found that she meant it. As much as she'd resented Kennedy for Willow's departure, and for usurping what she thought of as Tara's place, she'd genuinely wanted the redhead to be happy.
"Don't be. We're still good friends. We were simply meant for different paths."
"Now you sound like your book."
"Yeah, who'd have ever thought, huh?" the woman quipped, relieved at the switch in topic. "Author me." Immersed in magic once more, surrounded by the amazing witches of the coven in Devon, with Giles nearby trying to set up the new Council of Watchers, and badly needing a distraction from her troubles with Kennedy, Willow began putting her own thoughts and ideas about the craft together. The resulting work was based, not just on years of accumulated Scooby research, but also on the oral traditions and teachings of the coven, and, of course, on Willow's personal experience with magic.
Dawn rolled her eyes. "Oh come on. Wiccan history and philosophy? Who better to write about that? Oh, and I checked Amazon the other day. It's in the top 100 and climbing; not bad for a book in such a specialized field. The people who left reviews loved it."
The redhead smirked. "You mean, aside from the people who wrote that I was going to hell?"
The girl frowned. "You don't listen to those cretins, do you?"
Willow laughed, touched by the concern. "Hardly. When you've got real vampires, monsters and demons chasing after you, the petty stuff tends to roll off."
"Tell me about it," Dawn agreed. She took a sip of her coffee. "So what're your plans now?"
"Well, you saw some of it. Drop by Sunnydale, visit my parents. Then I thought I'd see how you guys were doing."
"You're coming back?" the girl asked excitedly.
"For a visit, yes," Willow nodded. "Then I'm returning to England for awhile."
Something about the way she said it made Dawn suspicious. "How long's 'awhile'?" she asked.
"I'm not sure," the redhead confessed. "Maybe a year."
The girl nearly spilled her drink. "A year?! But you just got back! I thought you said England was temporary."
"Temporary or well, as it turns out, a little…longer? It depends." Willow wasn't being evasive. She really hadn't thought it through yet. "Giles asked me to assemble a new library for the new and improved Council of Watchers. We actually started while I was writing the book, but there's still a lot to be done."
"You're thinking of not coming back."
The certainty with which the girl said it surprised Willow. "Maybe," she admitted.
Dawn straightened in her chair. Something in her expression cleared. "I get it. That's why," she said.
She met Willow's eyes. "Why Tara asked me to go to Sunnydale today. She doesn't want you to go."
Willow leapt from her chair. "That's not funny, Dawn!"
"I'm not –"
"You don't joke about stuff like that!"
The girl stood up, mainly because the witch looked like she was ready to bolt, and now that Dawn understood why she was here, she was ready to chase after her if need be. "Willow, listen to me, okay? I'm not joking. I told you I was standing outside your door that night. I was so angry that I was on the verge of shoving that door open and I don't know, screaming at you guys. I never told you why I didn't."
"I don't care!"
"Tara stopped me."
Willow stared at her, too stunned to speak. Quickly, Dawn explained.
The teenager's eyes went wide as she scrambled away from the door. 'Oh God, it's the First!' she thought, as a familiar blonde witch materialized by her side. "Get away from me!" she nearly screamed.
The Tara who stood before her seemed in every detail the same as always. "I'm not him, Dawnie, but I don't how to prove that to you." She glanced at the door, and her expression was a strange mixture of sad and determined. "Don't disturb them. Willow…Willow needs this."
"You expect me to believe that the real Tara would be okay with this?" Dawn asked in disbelief.
The older girl favored her with a lopsided smile. "'Okay' is a relative term. Willow has to be strong for what's to come. She has to believe that she can handle this, and she needs to know she can lose control without losing herself." Then her eyes filled with concern. "Oh Dawn, I'm so sorry things are so hard for you right now. But it won't always be like this. Buffy will come back, you'll see…"
"…then she faded away. That was the first time I saw her."
Willow sank back in her chair, her legs suddenly nerveless. "She knows about me and Kennedy?"
"Oh Goddess." The witch covered her face with her hands. "And you saw her again?"
"I…I've been seeing Tara on and off for years," Dawn confessed quietly. "She says it's easier for her to appear to me, because I…guarded her body?" The last bit came out as a question because she didn't quite understand it herself.
"Because you kept vigil," Willow supplied, suffused with guilt once more. As Tara's lover, it should've been her duty. But first she had left to chase Warren, and then Giles had taken her to England. "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked in a voice full of hurt.
"I'm sorry," the girl said sincerely. "I wanted to, specially when I found out you were leaving. But Tara told me not to, that you needed to find your own way. I never understood that until now." I had no idea how hard it was for you to move on. "She really loves you very much."
"Then why won't she show herself to me?" Willow asked in anguish. "Is it…because of the magic? I promised her I was going to be magic-free, then I used it again, and I tried to destroy the world. Or because I…killed someone?"
"No! No, it's not like that." If Dawn had had any doubts about the depth of Willow's love for Tara, it all disappeared in the face of the witch's grief. "She told me she can't. She did something so that the First wouldn't be able to take her form when it appeared to you – she called what he wanted to do an abomination – but in the process it barred her from becoming visible to you, too."
Dawn fell silent, knowing that it was a lot to absorb, maybe too much for any one person to deal with in one sitting, much less in a few minutes. If it had been her, she'd be running off screaming.
But this was Willow. "Is she here?" she finally asked, trying to suppress the eagerness in her voice. "Do you see her right now?"
"No, I don't really see her for more than a few minutes at a time," Dawn explained.
"But you said…last night?" the witch surmised.
"Even shorter than usual." Dawn frowned. "Actually, she seemed distracted last night. She made me promise to go to Sunnydale today. I asked why, but she wasn't too clear. She just said stuff like, 'you have to stop her from leaving' and 'she's the only one who can.' I didn't even know she meant you until I got here. I thought you were still in England."
"That's all? But," Willow thought hard, "that doesn't necessarily mean it's me. She could've meant someone else."
"Willow, who else could it be?" Dawn rolled her eyes. She couldn't believe how dense the normally bright witch was being. "You were the only one who was there. And you're definitely one of those 'only one who can' types."
"Dawn, just because you found me at Sunnydale doesn't mean I'm the only one who was supposed to be there today. It could be a fluke. Besides," the hacker frowned, "even if it's me, we have no idea what I'm supposed to do."
"So what do you suggest we do?"
Willow was already reaching for her keys. "We go back to Sunnydale and find out."
Thankfully, Willow was a much better driver now than when she'd taken Dawn for an impromptu magicky joyride that had ended in disaster. The redhead drove a trifle faster than the girl was strictly comfortable with, but that was probably an after-effect of Dawn's stunning revelations.
Actually, if Dawn had known exactly how jumbled and distracted Willow's mind was at that point, she would've probably jumped out of the car. But she didn't, so it was mostly a quiet ride until they halted at the outskirts of the crater that used to be Sunnydale.
"You see, there's no one else…oh!" Dawn suddenly jumped out of the car and ran towards the crater. She stopped several feet from the edge. "Willow, I think she's here! I can't see her yet but there's a kind of shimmering over there by the center –"
"Dawn, wait!" Willow clutched the girl's arm when she reached her, and pulled her back a few steps. Her eyes became focused, steely.
Dawn gasped. She recognized that look. "What're you doing? No, you can't go dark eyes now! Not in front of Tara!"
"It's not dark magic," the witch reassured her. "But I have to make sure this isn't some kind of trick. Dawn, she started appearing to you when we were fighting the First. You've never touched her, am I right? That means she's incorporeal. So was the First."
"But we dealt with the First! They're all dead and gone, and his army's buried under Sunnydale!" the girl protested.
"As far as we know. There could be vestiges. Or worse. Just because we finished the First, doesn't mean it was the Only."
Dawn shivered at the possibility. "You can tell if it's Tara?"
"I can tell if it's evil," Willow said grimly. She stretched out carefully with the tendrils of her magic and sensed…oh Goddess, there was something, a floating presence in front of them that was gaining strength with each second.
And it was moving. From its original place over the crater, the presence drifted to their right. Willow turned to face it, carefully keeping herself between the entity and Dawn. It didn't feel dangerous, but she still wasn't sure.
"Willow, I'm starting to see her now. It's her, it's really Tara, I swear!" Dawn exclaimed. "She's smiling at me…but she doesn't look too happy with you. She's all bright and shiny, and she says she's glad I found you."
Dawn frowned as she listened. "She says there's something's wrong with the seal over the Hellmouth. Some demons are trying very hard to get through, and she's not sure if it can hold. She says she knows a way to strengthen the seal, but she needs our help."
"I know, Dawnie," Willow cut in hoarsely, her mouth dry as the magic she'd sent out coalesced around them. "I can see her, too."
Every instinct, every feeling in her gut cried out that it was so. It was followed closely by her wry inner voice – dummy, did you really think you could handle Tara's re-appearance with any semblance of logic? Knowing the danger, knowing how the First came in the guise of dead people to taunt its enemies – what the frilly heck does any of that matter? When she's here. When she's so beautiful, and everything about her is exactly how you remember…
When seeing Tara again is the one wish you've buried in your heart since the day you lost her.
Small wonder that the first sight of the woman she'd loved and lost staggered Willow, brought her to her knees after a single shaky step. She blinked, still not quite believing what was happening, and then her sight was blurring with tears falling and trailing from her green eyes, down her cheeks. As much as she hated the way they obscured Tara, she could no more stop them than halt the rain.
The sight of Willow shook Dawn. Now she understood. Now she believed. Do you honestly think you miss Tara half as much as I do? You have no idea how it feels! Easy words, Dawn had dismissed them. But here was proof. Tara's reappearance in Dawn's life had alarmed her at first, then reassured and comforted her to a degree she would always be thankful for. But as much as she loved Tara, it hadn't affected her like this.
A second of seeing had sent the world's most powerful witch to her knees. Just like that. No wonder Tara had done everything in her power to prevent the First from using her likeness against Willow. Even if it had meant barring herself from Willow, that was still a lesser price to pay than this.
I didn't imagine it, Dawn thought in a daze, their love, that ideal in my mind. It was real.
And Tara – Tara who had always been so calm and collected in Dawn's presence for all of these years – Tara was running forward as she would have in real life. Unable to touch Willow, she knelt down in front of her. All of her concern and love for the redhead shone on her face, there for the whole world to see.
Tara had seen Willow like this before, the day Joyce had died, the day Buffy had died. Only back then, she had been able to offer comfort, had been able to soothe Willow with kisses, had been able to keep Willow on her feet. But now…if there was one moment that Tara truly regretted not being of this plane anymore, it was this.
All she could do was hold Willow with her eyes and her words. "Willow. Shh. Honey, it's alright…"
"Tara," she heard Willow whisper, and the broken, tear-filled way her name fell from those lips wrung her heart a little more. It was the same way Willow had said her name when Joyce had died, and she remembered what had followed. I can't do this, the hacker had said. Only back then, Tara had taken Willow in her arms and said, we can do this.
We can do this. Like everything they had faced before. Together.
In the end, she couldn't help it. Tara knew it was impossible, but she had to try. She stretched her hand between them, palm out and straight. And just as she knew she would, Willow slowly did the same.
They did not try to clasp hands, as in a spell. No, this was the flat palm-to-palm of ritual. Of anchoring, the way Tara had anchored the redhead the first time Willow had traveled the Nether Realms. Only this time, Tara wasn't sure who was being the anchor, her or Willow. Or maybe, somehow, both.
And there was something. It wasn't touch, exactly. Tara knew that if either of them pushed, if she tried to curve her fingers around Willow's, their hands would just pass through each other's. But there was a tactile sensation where their palms met. There was warmth, and a current that seemed to pass between them.
She looked deep into Willow's eyes, loving her. You know me.
You know me, Willow returned. And then, Oh Goddess, if this is a dream may I never wake.
Tara's lips curved into a smile. This isn't a dream. And I'm no goddess.
Willow's gaze on her was solemn. To me you always were. Then her lips quirked in answer to Tara's impish grin. In fact, I seem to remember calling you that a number of times…
Will-ow! Tara had no idea how, but she was sure she was blushing.
In the end, it was that easy. They shared a quiet laugh together. And then it was okay to let go, and their hands, still tingling, dropped back into their laps.
"Oh Tara, look at you," Willow said, wiping her eyes with a sleeve. "All beautiful and glowy."
"You can really s-s-see me?" Tara asked. For years she had hovered and watched, but it was an entirely different thing from this, from having Willow's eyes shining on her. She had almost forgotten how wonderful even a look from the redhead could make her feel. If there was such a thing as a nervous shade, at this point she was definitely it. "But I thought I b-b-blocked…oh, it's you, isn't it? Your magic."
The redhead nodded mutely. She saw the flash of misgiving on Tara's face at the mention of magic. Of course. The last time they'd seen each other, Willow was recovering from her addiction to dark magic. Funny how such a tiny expression could hurt.
"It's not dark magic," Dawn piped in quickly, anxious that this first meeting between the former lovers go well. "Willow's been really good. She turned the potentials into real Slayers. I told you about that, right? Buffy said she's more powerful than the original sorcerers who made the first Slayer. Without her, we'd all be…"
"Yes, I know." Tara met Willow's eyes, and her face lost its tension. "I was so proud of you, Will. To be able to channel that kind of pure magic – it was amazing."
Willow's heart was thudding in her chest. It was all she could do not to lean forward and try to embrace Tara. Which probably wouldn't work anyway because she's all shimmery and floaty and incorporeal. She cleared her throat. "So uh you called, and we're here. What's up with the Hellmouth?" She glanced at the crater. "It looks nice and buried."
The blonde's expression darkened. "That's the way it looks, but it's not. The cave-in damaged the seal to the Hellmouth, and there are…things that're trying to break free. So I guess it's good that you've gotten control of your magic, because this is going to take magic. A lot of it," she said bleakly.
Willow swallowed. "Dawn might've exaggerated the whole 'powerful me' thing," she said nervously. "You see, I had this axe. Only it wasn't one of those ordinary axes, it was mystical and meant to be used by Slayers, and well, it turns out that witches could use it, too, for other nifty things. Like spells to help potentials reach their full potential." I'm babbling. Two minutes in front of Tara and words can't fly out of my mouth fast enough. "Anyway, I don't have the axe anymore."
Her discomfiture didn't escape Tara, who smiled. "It's not the axe that we need, Willow, it's you. There's a way to re-seal the Hellmouth, but I need your help. And Dawn's too."
"Anything," Willow promised quickly, while the girl behind her nodded.
Tara bit her lip, and suddenly she seemed hesitant and unsure. "To strengthen the seal, you and I need to do a spell, but I can't do it from this plane." She paused as Willow nodded tersely. "But there's a chance. Tonight, for the first time in five hundred years, the right stars will align, and it will be possible for me to…return for awhile. But I can't do it on my own. I need a…door and a –"
"Key," the redhead continued softly. Suddenly, Willow scrambled to her feet. "Dawn, step back," she ordered sharply.
"What?" Dawn asked in surprise.
Tara was looking up at the hacker in confusion. "W-Willow? What's wrong?"
Willow placed herself between the two women. Her eyes, suddenly hard as jade, never left the blonde as she spoke, but her grim words were for Dawn. "I don't think this is Tara."
Tara's eyes were wide with disbelief and hurt. "W-Willow?" She stood up slowly.
"But, but you just said –!" Dawn gasped in shock.
Willow did her best to ignore the stricken look on Tara's face. As much as every fiber in her being wanted – actually told her that this was real, she couldn't ignore the alarms sounding off in her brain.
"I know what I said," she told Dawn bleakly, "but Tara would never ask for this. More than anyone I know, Tara respected the natural cycle of life and death. Remember when you asked about resurrection spells? Do you remember what she said?"
"Witches aren't allowed to alter the fabric of life for selfish reasons. Wiccans took an oath a long time ago…" Dawn trailed off uncertainly, her eyes swiveling to the blonde woman. If Willow was right, who had she been pouring her heart out to all these years?
Steeling herself, Willow slowly turned back to Tara, to the image of Tara – she corrected herself. "Isn't that what you said?"
"Y-yes," Tara admitted, her lips quivering at the unexpected pain of having to defend herself before Willow. "B-but the rule's not absolute. I agreed to b-bend it f-f-for Buffy," she reminded them.
Willow winced at the way the blonde witch hung her head and how badly she was stuttering. Still easy signs to read. "Tara," she relented, "if this is really you, I'm sorry. But please understand, we've been through so much. If it was just me, I'd –" she cut herself off sharply, "-but I won't let anyone hurt Dawn."
After a moment, Tara nodded. Willow and she had watched over Dawn for a long time, were even her guardians during the stark, bare months of Buffy's death. Both of them would go to great lengths to protect her.
"The r-rule doesn't apply," she began to explain. "We're n-not doing this for selfish reasons, and we're not altering m-my…what happened. The effects of the spell are temporary. It will anchor my essence to this plane for t-two weeks, maybe more, but in the end I w-would have to go back because…"
"…you don't belong here anymore." This time it was Willow who looked stricken as she finished the witch's sentence.
"I'm sorry," Tara said softly.
"Don't be," the redhead hastened to reassure her. "You're in a good place, right? I mean, where you are when you're not checking on Dawn…you're happy?"
"Oh yes." Suddenly, Tara's blue eyes were practically dancing. "One day, Will, when it's time, I'll show you the Summerland. It's peaceful and so beautiful, you won't believe it."
Willow shifted uneasily under her former lover's radiant gaze. With the blood on her hands, it was unlikely that she would ever see the Summerland. But there was no need to burden Tara with that.
She cleared her throat. Tara's answers had soothed her doubts away, and now that she was free to believe her instincts, Willow was in danger of being overwhelmed by her former lover's appearance all over again. Gods, that smile, that face and figure, blonde and curvy and tall – all of these were exactly as she remembered them, but more importantly the vision felt like Tara. "Baby, I'm so sorry…"
"Don't be," it was Tara's turn to say. Impulsively, her lips quirked into a lopsided smile. "You can always make it up to me later," she murmured. Her smile grew as Willow's eyes widened.
"Um, I, er, o-of course!"
Dawn threw a curious glance at the stuttering redhead, which only made the woman flush more. Okay, so not going there. "So, this anchoring spell. How come you never told me about it?" she asked Tara.
"I do believe in the natural cycle of life and death, Dawn," Tara said. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the flash of anger on Willow's face. Apparently, the redhead had a lot to say about the 'naturalness' of her passing. "I w-wouldn't ask for a spell like this if I wasn't convinced it was the only way. I only found out about the seal a few hours – days ago?" She stumbled, unable to explain how differently time flowed between this plane and the next. "Even if I'd told you earlier, the spell only works if the stars align in the way they will tonight."
Oddly, Willow had gone still at the mention of stars. She closed her eyes, took deep breaths, and after awhile she began to mumble. "Oh Virgo, and Sirius is reappearing, and the stars associated with Nut, oh and those two constellations. I never noticed those before." When she opened he eyes again, she simply said, "Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow what?" Tara and Dawn were looking at her in confusion.
"They'll be aligned tonight and tomorrow," Willow answered brightly, all supporto-gal again. "That means we have time; we don't need to rush this. Which is good because I can prepare, and Dawn's going to need a little preparation, too."
"Tonight and tomorrow?" Tara repeated faintly, staring at her former lover in astonishment. "You can feel the stars?"
The redhead shrugged, looking embarrassed. Near the end of her first trip to England, Willow had developed a sense for the root systems that branched throughout the earth. That was how she'd sensed the First trying to break through the Hellmouth. Over the years, that talent had somewhat…expanded.
"Only if I pay attention," she said defensively. "Otherwise, just in a general way like, 'it's gonna be a good day' or 'it's not too auspicious today' or 'the world's gonna try to end again.' But the last one's easy `coz it's all attention-grabby." Suddenly another thought intruded. "Um, we don't need Osiris for this, do we? 'Coz Osiris? Not too happy with me."
"I don't think so. The important stars are the ones associated with Nut, like you said, so it's really her that we need." A crinkle appeared on Tara's forehead. "What do you mean Osiris isn't happy with you?"
Thankfully, Dawn interrupted. "What do nuts have to do with getting you back?" she asked in bewilderment.
Willow jumped at the welcome distraction. "Not nuts, finger food snacks. Nut, Egyptian sky goddess, usually depicted in a blue dress adorned with stars and holding an ankh. She's associated with death, afterlife, resurrection and rebirth. She's also Osiris' mother." Which is good, because Osiris probably won't obstruct a rite involving his own mother. I hope. "We're going to need a round water pot."
The girl threw out her hands. "Again with the what?"
"She's referring to the d-drawings," Tara explained this time, though her eyes didn't stray too long from the redhead. Goddess, she never ceases to amaze me. "Nut was drawn as a woman carrying a round water pot on her head. The ancient Egyptians associated water with birthing, bringing things to life."
"Oh." Dawn said, though she still didn't get it all. "So, me. I mean, what do you need from me?" she asked timidly.
Tara sensed the girl's nervousness immediately. "Sweetie, if you don't want to do this, you don't have to."
"I want to," Dawn assured her quickly. "If it will bring you back, even for awhile, I definitely want to. I just, I have no idea what to do."
Willow hesitantly laid a gentle hand on the girl's arm. "Sweetie, Tara needs a way into this plane and a place to stay. But before she can do any of that, she needs to…open a door first, between where she is and where we are."
"But she's already here, isn't she?" It wasn't a protest. Dawn just wanted to understand.
"Not really," Tara demurred. "What you're seeing right now is more like a reflection or a s-shadow."
"To bring her through, we need a key," Willow explained as gently as possible, knowing how much any mention of her non-human origins tended to upset Dawn. "That power is still in you, in your blood. But Tara's right, we're only going to do this if you want to. If you don't, we'll find another way."
"But this is our best chance, right?" There was barely a second of hesitation. "Let's do it," Dawn said decisively.
Willow hugged her. She couldn't help it, she felt like she would burst with pride. Over Dawn's shoulder, she traded glances with Tara, who looked like she wished she could join in. Our girl is so brave. The other witch smiled.
Dawn returned the hug. It felt good. It felt like the years of estrangement between her and Willow were fading away. She was amazed at how simple it was. Just like that, she had her other big sister back. And if things worked out, she'd have Tara again too, and her family would be complete. Even if it was just for awhile, it was something to look forward to.
"I have to go," Tara said softly, hating the way her words broke the embrace between the two women. But she had already stayed longer than she'd ever had before, and she could feel the pull of the other world growing stronger. "I'll be back…tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow," Willow confirmed eagerly. "Do we have to do it here?" she frowned, not liking the idea of doing the spell so close to a possibly unstable Hellmouth.
"No, anywhere is fine," Tara assured her.
"Then we'll do it at my place. Well, my aunt's place, really." The redhead halted as another complication struck her. "Will you be able to find us? I can probably give you directions…"
Tara smiled, even as she was fading away. "I always know where you are, Willow."
"Feeling okay?" Willow walked into the living room with a tray loaded with two warm cups of tea. It was nighttime, and she thought the herbal teas might help both of them unwind. "How'd Buffy take it?"
Dawn took one of the mugs gratefully. "You mean after she was sure I wasn't joking? Pretty good, actually. She's almost as excited as we are. Xander, too. They're just ticked that they can't come right away."
"Vampire?" the hacker inquired, taking a seat.
The girl rolled her eyes. "Try 'nest of.' A bunch of them decided to form a gang. We've been tracking them for weeks. Buffy thinks they're finally close to finding them, so they can't leave now. She asked if we needed slayer help. She says she can reach the others if we do."
Willow thought about it. "I don't think so. It's a difficult spell, but pretty straightforward otherwise. It either works or it doesn't."
"Do you think it will? Work?" the girl clarified.
"I hope so," was the fervent answer. "Goes without saying that I'm going to give it my best shot."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Then we find some other way to re-seal the Hellmouth."
"Willow, that's not what I mean."
"I know." The witch rubbed her eyes tiredly. She'd spent most of the hours since they'd gotten back researching. What they were going to do tomorrow was much more complicated than what the Scoobies had done for Buffy. Tara had been dead for years, her remains obliterated in the destruction of Sunnydale. Strictly speaking, this wasn't a resurrection so much as it was a rebirth.
She glanced at Dawn, and knew that at that moment they were both remembering the way Buffy was when she'd returned. The Slayer had barely spoken the first day of her resurrection, and there had been some doubt in the beginning as to whether she hadn't been…damaged somehow. Plus there had been that piggybacking demon.
"It's not going to be like that," Willow spoke up with fierce determination. "Tara's returning of her own free will, and only for a short time. She's going to wake up here, in a house, on a bed, in a room softly lit by candles. And the first thing she'll see is the two of us. She'll be fine." And if she's not? You know how chancy these things are now. It's not like before, when you were blissfully ignorant. Goddess, no wonder Giles wanted to tan my hide. I'd tan my hide, when I think of the risks we took. If I'd faltered in those tests…
She was snapped out of her reverie by Dawn's hand on her arm. "I believe you," the younger woman said seriously. "I know you'll do everything to make sure Tara's alright. But…what about after?"
"What do you mean?"
"You still love her, don't you? And it's obvious that she still loves you. Are you…?" The brunette trailed off, not exactly sure how to phrase the question.
Willow put her mug down. "Dawn, it's not like Tara and I can just pick up where we left off."
"She's not going to be here long, for one thing. This is temporary, remember?" the hacker reminded her bleakly. "Besides, that might not be what she wants."
"Oh come on! You saw how she was, how she ran to you."
"And did you see how I almost made her cry, with my doubts and my being all question-y?" Willow took a deep breath. "Does she know, Dawn? About how I lost it and nearly ended the world? I went over everything she said, and it sounded like she only started watching us when we were fighting the First."
"I-I'm not sure," Dawn answered, thinking hard. "We never really talked about it. She first appeared to me back then, like I said. But that first time, she said you needed to know that you could lose control without losing yourself. I think that means that she knows."
"It sounds like she does," Willow agreed sadly, and yet she also felt a great sense of relief. If Tara knows, and she still wants me to do this spell…doesn't that mean that she trusts me? Suddenly, Willow's heart was beating really fast.
"Personally, I think it's good if she does." Dawn stifled a yawn. "I think I'm going to sleep now, unless you want to talk about what we're going to do tomorrow?" She stretched, and winced. "That's definitely the last cross-country bus ride I'm taking for awhile."
"Leave it, I'll fix up," Willow offered as the girl moved to take her cup. "We can talk about the spell tomorrow. I made up the spare bedroom for you. Bathroom's right next to it."
Dawn nodded her thanks and went up the stairs, leaving Willow alone with her thoughts.
Willow looked deep into the contents of her mug. I can't think of it this way. I shouldn't. Even if the spell works, she's going back to the Summerland. This is not a second or third chance with Tara. Get that idea out of your head right now, Rosenberg, she scolded herself. You can't fall in love and lose her all over again. Not if you want to stay sane. Not if you want the world to be safe.
With a look of resolve, Willow stood up and gathered the cups. If they were going to be as prepared as they could possibly be, more research needed to be done.
In the end, Willow's careful preparations paid off and the spell went off perfectly.
There had been only one awkward moment. Right after Tara appeared and before they started the spell, the blonde had motioned Willow to one side.
"I-I need you to promise me something," Tara said gravely.
Something seemed to coil inside Willow. "What is it?" she asked, dreading the answer.
Tara swallowed. "I trust you, I do. I want you to know that. But you're so powerful now, and I just n-need to hear it from you."
She expected an argument or questions, but Willow just bent her head. "Okay."
"I won't try to bring you back, Tara. I promise, not unless you want me to. I don't even know if I could. And anyway, I'm through tearing people out of heaven," she added bitterly. "There, is that enough?"
"Willow, I'm sorry. I just…"
"No apologies," Willow said firmly. "I have a spell to do, and I need to concentrate. I don't want to fight with you."
"I don't want to f-fight either."
"Then let's not." The witch shook her head. "I understand. Really, I do. Are you ready?"
Tara nodded. "I'm probably going to d-disappear as soon as the spell starts. I need to be fully on the other side when it begins."
The rest of it was almost uneventful, for a major spell. Everything was precise, all the ingredients carefully prepared. Willow was centered and her voice was steady as she began the ritual.
Even Dawn knew her part. At Willow's signal, she calmly took the sharpened athame from the center of the circle and ran it cleanly in a diagonal line across her palm. At the center of an impeccably drawn sacred circle, the mix of water and herbs in the round earthen pot glowed as it received the first trickles of blood from Dawn's outstretched fingers. When the startled girl looked at Willow, the witch merely smiled back, but without breaking her murmured supplication to the sky goddess.
Minutes passed. Dawn watched in awe as a form began to coalesce on the nearby queen-sized bed, which Willow had made sure was covered in pristine new sheets. The girl forgot all about the pain in her hand as the sense of Tara's presence grew, and the shape on the bed solidified.
And then, in a moment that for Dawn would always hold the real meaning of magic, the woman with dark blonde hair was simply there, looking for all the world like she was merely asleep. Her chest rose and fell with even breaths.
Willow signaled Dawn to remain as she ended her invocation and gave thanks to the sky goddess. "You alright?" she asked, as she took the athame from the girl, and pressed a bandage into her palm. It was a neat cut, she noted approvingly. But then, Buffy would've made sure that her sister knew how to handle blades.
Dawn nodded, still speechless as Willow ritually broke the circle. The redhead walked to the bed and tenderly drew a fresh blanket over Tara's form, which was skyclad. She carefully placed a folded robe and nightclothes next to her pillow.
"Is it really…did we do everything right?" Dawn asked nervously, her eyes glued to Tara now that she was covered.
"As much as I can tell, yes. You did really well, Dawnie." Willow smiled, and it was that smile, the equable certainty in it, that reassured the girl more than anything else. "Now we just have to wait for her to wake. She'll be tired, maybe disoriented. She traveled a long way."
"How long before she wakes?" the brunette asked eagerly.
"Hours, maybe all day. The books weren't too clear about that."
"All day?!" Dawn exclaimed plaintively. She couldn't imagine waiting that long. As it was, she was barely stopping herself from rushing over and hugging Tara, just to make sure that she was real.
"It's a lot to wait, I know," Willow said kindly, her eyes turning to Tara. "But I think we should give the spell time to settle down. I don't want to disturb her until she's ready. She deserves to wake peacefully."
Her words made Dawn feel a little ashamed. Here she was being all impatient, and if she felt like this then what must Willow be going through? For the first time since Tara's appearance, she snuck a glance at her sister's best friend, and held her breath.
Willow's eyes were shining a brilliant green, almost as if they were afire with their own inner light. Her coppery hair glowed like a nimbus around her head, and the peaceable smile on her face looked like it was seriously considering turning permanent.
"Willow, you're…" Dawn gasped, at a loss for words.
"I wouldn't let dark magic touch her, Dawnie," the witch said simply. "Not for this."
"This is what Kennedy was talking about, wasn't it?" the girl realized. "When Buffy, Faith and the new Slayers wanted to know how you pulled the spell off. You were downplaying your part in it, but Kennedy butted in and said that you'd turned into a goddess. See, I did listen to her sometimes."
Willow shook her head in amusement. "It's not the same, and yet…well in the most important ways, I guess it is. I'm not making much sense, am I?" she laughed. "I don't know what I looked like then. Kennedy said my hair turned white, and I was all glowy. I never could get much of a description out of her. Every time I tried, she'd get all excited and er- anyway, no idea," she ended quickly.
Dawn rolled her eyes. Honestly, sometimes Willow and Buffy treated her like she was twelve. Not that she'd ever really been twelve. "So we wait?" she finally said.
"Yup," the hacker answered cheerfully.
"We don't have to leave her, do we?"
"Not for a second."
"Okay," Dawn said gladly. "So um…what do we do in the meantime?"
Willow quietly pulled an armchair closer to the bed, and motioned Dawn to do the same to the chair by the dresser. "Do you still play chess?"
"You mean you haven't heard?" The college student pretended distress. "I led our team to the finals. Buffy and Xander were cheering like crazy. It was," she tried to search for the words that would best describe the experience, "really embarrassing!"
"I caught it, actually," Willow revealed with a grin. "I threatened Buffy with all sorts of dire curses if she didn't get the whole thing on video. They sent it to me, and Giles and I were screaming and throwing popcorn at the TV all throughout the tournament. Our English friends thought we'd gone mad. Just think how much more embarrassing it would've been if I'd been there." Suddenly, she ducked her head. "I should've been there, Dawnie. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," the young woman said sincerely, and it really was, now. "It doesn't matter because…I'm so going to whip your ass today! Oh that feels good. I've been waiting to say that for so long!" she exclaimed gleefully, spoiling for some payback. Dawn had lost nearly every game to the redhead since she'd first learned to play.
"Oh really? Well, I suppose miracles happen," Willow scoffed. Her voice softened as she gazed at the peacefully sleeping blonde, "and today seems to be the day for them."
Dawn buried her face in her hands. "How did we get to this?"
It was a rout. True, she had lasted much, much longer than she used to. Hours had passed since Willow and she had started to play. They had even broken for a quick lunch. The game had gotten so engrossing and competitive, they'd spent the last hour playing with less than nine pieces on the board. Then Willow had launched her blitzkrieg, and suddenly Dawn's king was running for its life.
"See, I have an unfair advantage. I've been playing against you since you started," Willow explained apologetically, as she crunched Dawn's bishop, "and sometimes you still lead with the knight. Check mate."
"I thought you were out of practice," her opponent grumbled. "Come on, spill. Who've you been playing with?"
"Malborg demon," Willow answered, still in a contrite tone. "It was one of those tests the coven designed. You know, deal with something major without using magic. I think they meant that mainly I should run away, but when I saw that it had a stone board in the corner of the cave, you know those tables with the sculpted pieces? I knew it was the kind of demon who took pride in his game. So I bet it a hundred years of no killing or maiming humans."
"You challenged a Malborg demon," Dawn deadpanned, "to a chess game."
"Best of three," Willow nodded. "It got iffy there for awhile. He won the first round."
"What were the stakes?" the girl asked curiously. "I can't imagine a demon giving up a hundred years of killing and maiming just like that."
"Oh well, Malborg demons, they really only like one thing. Blood, freshly flowing from the source. Witchy blood's even better, because of the potency or spiciness or something like that. They consider it a delicacy."
Dawn stared at her. "And the coven allowed this?!" she squeaked indignantly.
"Well, after the first few hours, they came to see how I was," Willow told her. "They figured that I was dead, you see. Then they stayed to watch the game. Actually, Grunthar – that's the demon's name – claims that that's why he lost. All those noisy, moving vessels of warm witchy blood moving around in his cave, they distracted him. But well, a deal's a deal. We still play sometimes. I mean, without the maiming and killing, he gets so bored."
The college student laid a hand on her aching head. "I think I'm going to see what we can have for dinner. Should I…?" She stood and gestured towards Tara, who was still sleeping.
Willow nodded. "Maybe she'll be awake by then." She looked down at the woman with soft eyes. "But let's keep it light for starters, okay? Soup first, maybe. If she can keep that down, we'll try something more solid. Whatever she wants."
She didn't notice Dawn suddenly blink back tears, suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. Seeing Willow watch over Tara like this reminded her of the time when Glory had snatched away the blonde witch's mind. Just like then, Willow seemed endlessly patient. Even when the Scoobies had fled, and the Knights and Glory's minions were chasing after them, she had never relinquished her role of caring for Tara.
In her heart, Dawn knew that if anything like that went wrong now, Willow would be exactly the same. "I'll see if I can make that vegetable minestrone Tara likes so much," she said, her throat tight.
"Thanks." Willow turned her attention back to Tara. As she had done for hours now, she restrained herself from touching the woman, unwilling to disturb her rest. She contented herself with drawing the blanket up further over the curled body. "Hear that, baby? Dawn's going to make one of your favorites. It'll be nice and ready by the time you wake up."
The witch sat back and nestled deep into the armchair. She sighed as she felt tiredness seeping into her. She'd barely slept last night, and the strain of doing the spell was catching up with her. She leaned her head back. I'll just rest my eyes awhile…
She woke up to something she thought she'd lost forever, Tara touching her hair. The sight and sound and touch of the Wiccan rendered her speechless. Willow bit her lip as tears filled her eyes.
Tara had woken slowly. She found the robe and the nightclothes folded neatly by her side, and put them on. She wondered briefly why she was skyclad but thought, with a smile, that it might have something to do with Willow. Speaking of which, she had turned to the woman dozing just a foot away. She liked watching her lover sleep.
It took a full minute before Tara realized that something was wrong.
"Sweetie? Your hair, when did it grow so long? And you – have you done something?" she frowned. "I can't put my finger on it, but you look different…"
Willow swallowed, still unable to speak. But she realized immediately what Tara meant. Older. I look older. She straightened in her chair. But why was Tara surprised by that? Didn't Tara as much as imply that she'd been watching Willow all these years?
"…and why are you sleeping in the chair, honey? Why aren't you in bed with me?" Tara wondered.
Willow's heart hammered in her chest as one possible explanation leapt out at her. Okay, deep, deep breaths. She hoped that she was wrong. "Tara, I…what's the last thing you remember?"
The blonde witch frowned. "We were talking. I was looking at you, and…" Her eyes widened. "S-something hit me? From behind? Oh Goddess, Will, did someone…was I s-shot?"
The words rendered Willow speechless again. She could only nod as the memory of watching Tara die lanced through her.
"What happened?" Tara asked, her lips trembling. "D-d-did I…was I in a coma? I didn't wake up for…" she looked closely at Willow, at the devastation in her eyes, "m-months, y-years? Is that why you're so different? Oh my God, how long was I…?"
I can't do this! But Willow had to try. The blonde was so obviously distressed, so close to panicking. "Tara," she said hoarsely, "you've been…gone for awhile. You um missed a…few things. I…"
While her mouth was struggling to work, her mind was running a race. Something in Willow's mind clicked, and she understood. Tara doesn't remember. Everything from the time she died. She doesn't even know that she died, and that means…she doesn't remember what I did, how her worst fears about me and my magic came true. Oh Goddess!
Willow swallowed convulsively as she suddenly found herself fighting a temptation stronger than any dose of dark magic. "Tara, I…I've got to – to…" She looked up in relief as an excited Dawn burst through the door. "…prepare dinner! You need to eat. Dawn will fill you in."
Dawn squeaked, "What?!"
But Willow was already fleeing as if seven demons were after her. She was in the hallway before Dawn caught up with her and snagged her arm.
"What's going on?" she demanded.
"She doesn't remember, Dawn!" Willow whispered hoarsely. "She thinks she was in a coma. She doesn't even remember that she died."
Dawn looked at her in disbelief. "And you want me to be the one to break the bad news? No way! If we need to, we're going to tell her together."
Willow went pale. "No, I can't! You have to do it."
"What happened to 'whatever happens'?" Dawn asked. "If she doesn't remember she died," she said in a lower tone, "then that means as far as she's concerned, the two of you are still together. Don't you think she needs you in there?"
"That's exactly why I can't do this!" Willow twisted away. She was wringing her hands together, the very opposite of the calm Wiccan who'd performed the spell. "Dawn, she asked me to promise not to try to bring her back, and Goddess help me, I will keep that promise. But. But. She doesn't remember. It would be so easy," her voice fell to a whisper, "to let her continue thinking that, that she was in a coma, that she just woke up. And if I did something then, some spell to keep her here, she'd never know, would she? She wouldn't even remember that I promised."
"Willow…" Dawn was gazing at her in shock.
The redhead shuddered. "I can't risk it. You have to tell her, tell her everything that happened when she…passed. Don't leave anything out."
Dawn's eyes rounded with understanding. "You mean even the way you…?"
"Everything," Willow said firmly. "I…if after that she still wants anything to do with me, call me. I'll be downstairs." She left quickly, before she could change her mind.
Willow worked feverishly in the kitchen, washing dishes, scrubbing pans, anything to keep her from thinking of what was going on upstairs. The sink had never been so shiny, the cabinets so neat.
Two hours had passed since she'd left Tara. She'd eaten a quick, tasteless dinner. She had looked up hopefully as Dawn came down to fetch a tray with two bowls of soup and some sandwiches, but the girl had merely inclined her head at Willow before heading upstairs again.
The witch's insides were churning in anxiety, not knowing how long to stay away or when it would be proper to try to check on the blonde. Assuming Tara wants to see me at all, she thought morosely. She knew Tara well enough to predict that the gentle witch would be horrified by what she'd done. What she has to find out about all over again.
What she'd forgotten was how innately understanding Tara was, how absolutely unafraid she was in the face of matters emotional. So she froze when Tara, snuggly wrapped in a long, fuzzy bathrobe that Willow had left hanging in the upstairs bathroom, walked into the kitchen. It hadn't occurred to her that Tara would seek her out.
The woman's dark blonde hair was wet, and her skin was flush from what must've been a warm shower. She carefully perched on a stool next to the counter. She watched the bustling redhead quietly for awhile. Then she asked, "Is it true? What Dawn said?"
Willow offered her a weak smile. "You're going to have to be more specific."
The blue eyes remained somber. "You k-killed two people? T-tortured Warren? Fought Buffy and Mr. Giles? And how could you possibly think that ending the world would be a remotely good idea?"
"Um…I wasn't really thinking at the time?" Willow tried. When Tara said nothing, she gave up all pretense at other activities. She braced herself against the kitchen sink, arms wrapped protectively around her torso. She had a hard time meeting Tara's gaze so she didn't.
"You threatened Dawn?" Tara spoke up again. "Willow, how could you?" How could you do that to Dawnie? When we swore we'd take care of her? When we were sisters and guardians to her?
As if she'd heard the unspoken accusation, Willow flinched. "I wasn't going to hurt her, not really. I just wanted to scare her so she'd get out of my way. I…" She cringed at the feebleness of her own excuses. Just listen to yourself, Rosenberg. Who are you kidding here? Nothing could possibly justify what you did, and you know it.
Willow took a long, steadying breath, and forced herself to meet Tara's steady blue eyes. "No excuses. I was angry, I lost control. I was ready to die for what I did," she said matter-of-factly. "When Giles took me to England, I thought it was to kill me, and I accepted that. Instead, he introduced me to the coven, and they went Hogwarts on me. They taught me magic, not just the spells, but the philosophy, the way everything's connected. I learned about Gaia, and Wicca as a belief and a way of life. These women, they're incredible, Tara. I wish there was time for you to meet them. Only…of course they were scared of me." She frowned. "I never did find out why they decided not to kill me. It would've been the easiest way."
Tara shivered at the blunt narration. How can she stand there and discuss it so coldly, as if it didn't matter whether she lived or died? "I'm glad they didn't kill you, Willow."
The hacker hung her head. Willow. Just Willow. No sweetie or honey, or any of the tiny endearments the blonde had used when she'd first woken. But then, it was no less than what she deserved. "Makes two of us."
A heartbeat passed. "I'm starting to remember."
"Remember? You mean everything that happened?"
"Not everything, bits and pieces. I think the shock of entering the physical world, I don't know, threw me?" Tara mused. "Maybe I'm starting to recover, or maybe Dawn's story jogged my memory. When Dawn told me how I d-died, and how the two of you brought me back, I wasn't surprised. It felt…familiar."
"That's good. Not the dying part, but that your memory's coming back," Willow amended quickly. "You should rest. We have a few days, a fortnight according to the spell. I can start the research, if there's any to be done," she offered.
"There's plenty." Tara bit her lip worriedly. "Oh Willow, I d-don't remember the spell! The one we're supposed to do together to fix the seal…Dawn told me what I said, but outside of that…Oh Goddess, what are we going to do?"
"Hey, it's okay." Willow forgot her anxieties and circled around the counter to comfort the apprehensive witch. "We'll find it, or you'll remember. Tara, you've had a hard day. Passing from one world to another, it's not exactly a walk in the park. Maybe you just need some time to, I don't know, get used to it?"
She drew herself up, all-professional Scooby now that she had a problem to solve. "I bet our main problem's going to be the sheer volume of material. 'Coz this is the Hellmouth, right? Every watcher, slayer, seer and witch, not to mention the odd vampire or two, has probably written something about it. Even if it was just, `I was here, yay me.' I wish there was some way we could, I dunno, Google the library. Except we'd still have trouble picking the keywords. I mean, if you just enter 'Hellmouth' you'd get thousands of hits. Maybe we could try 'Hellmouth' and 'seal' but I bet there'd still be hundreds…are you laughing at me?"
"A little," Tara confessed, stifling a giggle but failing. "It's been awhile since I heard you trying to go in five directions all at once."
"You should stop me when I do that," Willow said crossly.
Tara shook her head, a smile touching her lips. "Never."
"Uh, right." She hesitated. Oh to hell with it. "Tara…you have no idea how much I wish I could tell you that I didn't do any of those things. I'm sorry. I know that doesn't mean much, but I am."
The blonde sighed. "I know. Or at least Dawn knows, and if she and the others forgave you then I can hardly…It's just, it's really hard to believe. I know you. In a million years, you'd never -"
Willow shut her eyes. "But I did." Never the easy way. But then I guess I stopped deserving easy a long time ago. "Tara, look at me. Read me the way only you can."
"Do it." Her voice grew firm as her green gaze locked with blue. "When you woke up, you noticed the physical changes first. It's been years since you…passed. But right before I left, you felt it, didn't you? You've always been the sensitive. You can sense auras and energies. What do you see in me now?"
"Traces of darkness," Tara whispered. "Veins of purple-black in your aura."
"Then you know. Your senses are telling you that it's true. Believe it. I've killed. I've caused a tremendous amount of pain." Her eyes dropped to the empty space between them. "I'm not the Willow you knew." Or loved. She had hoped to escape this, but the gaps in Tara's memory had made this outcome inevitable. This is part of the price you pay for what you've done.
But Tara was also noticing other differences in the redhead, how warily she carried herself, the stiff set of her shoulders, the way her gaze constantly shifted and lowered. It brought home the point that this wasn't the lighthearted college student she remembered. But then, this wasn't the reckless Willow who had blithely abused magic either.
Tara realized with a pang that she barely knew this Willow, who was so quick to condemn herself. Of course, there had been shades of this uncertainty in the very beginning, when they'd first met, but the Willow she had known for the most part was a woman who was growing in confidence and power, and was take charge when needed. Except…a memory came to her, of a night when a claustrophobic Anya had heaped abuse upon abuse on a strangely mute redhead. How Willow had not even moved when the former vengeance demon had rounded on her, and how the tirade had stopped only when Tara herself had stepped between the two, and defended Willow.
"It's not the only change," Tara offered after awhile. "There used to be a mottled green-gray streak that was probably your addiction. It's gone, Willow, and there's a band of gold and white in your aura so bright that it's almost blinding. Dawn told me…there are Slayers now, not just Buffy and Faith? You touched the Goddess when you made them, didn't you?" Her voice hushed. Channeling that kind of pure magic was an experience only a handful of witches were privy to.
Since she had her ex-lover's permission, she continued to read her. "There's a strong unity in the way your energy flows, too. You're emanating such a lot of power, but it's stable. You have more magic than I've ever seen in any one person, but it's all under control. How are you doing that?" she asked, clearly amazed.
"Oh you know," Willow answered lightly, cheered by Tara's revelation. "Healthy living. Exercise. Lots of wholesome, organic foods. And not using magic unless I have to, and definitely not for everyday things, because someone once told me that that's not what magic is for."
The words filled the blonde witch with warmth. "You remember that?"
"I remember everything about you. I used to write it down," Willow reminded her.
"Do you still keep a journal?" Tara asked. Perhaps Willow would let her to read it. It would be one way to find out what had happened since she'd gone and, more importantly, it would let her get to know the redhead all over again.
But Willow was shaking her head. "After…there was no point after." She had started the journal after Buffy's mother had died, because it had suddenly struck her how all moments were fleeting, and she didn't want to forget the moments she spent with Tara. But losing her lover – that was the last thing she wanted to remember.
Tara looked like she was about to say something else, but before she could, Willow deliberately switched topics. "So what do you want to do…well, not today because it's getting pretty late, but tomorrow? Aside from getting plenty of rest."
"I was thinking," Tara said hesitantly, "maybe some shopping?" She saw the redhead's surprise. "I know it sounds strange, but-"
"No, no, it's completely understandable," Willow denied immediately. "I mean, I'd go shopping the first chance I'd get, too. It's not like there're malls in the Summerland. Buffy, Xander and I, we were talking about going to the new mall after fighting the First. It's totally not strange."
"I need to get some clothes," Tara explained. "I can't go around in a robe and a nightgown all day."
"Oh. Actually that's not a problem. I bought some stuff," Willow revealed, "and kept a couple of things. So you've got some new clothes, towels, toothbrush, sleepwear, that sort of thing. I figured you'd need them. They should be good for a few days. Come to think of it, there should be something down here. Now where'd I put…"
Tara curiously followed the redhead into the living room. Trust my organized gal to think of everything, she thought fondly, wondering where the hacker had found the time.
Willow opened the small closet near the entrance to the house and handed her something.
"My leather trench coat! You kept this?" Tara held the garment up in delight.
"It's a little worn but it's clean. I um, I use it sometimes," Willow said awkwardly. "Most of your other stuff was lost in the Sunnydale implosion, but this one I had with me. It's…what you were wearing when you came back to me."
"I remember," Tara said softly. She held the long coat against her. "Thank you, Willow."
"Not a problem," Willow returned. The image of the blonde hugging the coat was doing funny things to her insides. Unbidden, an image rose in her mind – Tara and she trading wild, hungry kisses as her fingers hooked into the coat and slipped it from her lover's curvy body. She swallowed and hid her twitchy fingers behind her back. "I'm going to turn in soon I think. Do you need anything?"
Tara shook her head. "It looks like you took care of everything. Oh, just…where am I sleeping?"
"In the room where you woke, if you like," Willow offered. "Your stuff's already in there, but if you want to switch rooms, that's fine too."
"But isn't that your room?" the blonde objected.
"Only when I'm here, which isn't often. It's okay, my aunt won't mind if I take hers. She's on a Mediterranean cruise, she won't be back for weeks. Dawn's got the guest room, so it all works out." Willow hesitated. "Have I mentioned yet how glad I am that you're back? Even if it's just temporary, I…" She felt tears pooling in her eyes, and stopped herself.
"I never left you, Willow." Even with her scant memory, Tara knew that it was true. She couldn't imagine it being otherwise. She brushed her hand gently against the redhead's cheek, feeling the delicate skin under her fingers. "Even when you couldn't see me." Her heart sped up – something I have to get used to again – and suddenly she thought, why are we sleeping in separate rooms?
It was followed closely by the realization that what she wanted more than anything was to feel the comforting warmth of her lover – former lover, Tara, years have passed, remember? – cradling her on her first night back, and to wake next to her in the morning. But she wasn't going to push. "G-good night? And thank you for bringing me," there was a sudden, strong impulse to say 'home' that surprised her, "…back."
"Good night, Tara. I'll see you tomorrow?" Just saying those words, being able to say them again, brought an incredible rush of joy to Willow.
"Tomorrow," Tara agreed warmly. Impulsively, she kissed Willow on the cheek before making her way upstairs. Although she was disappointed that the redhead hadn't made a move to change their sleeping arrangements, the smile on her face was enough for now.
Willow barely stopped herself from running after the blonde, and asking her to…What, sleep with you? Ask to join her in her room? Presume much? She stayed rooted on the spot for several minutes. She raised her hand to the cheek where Tara had kissed her. Her normally busy mind was devoid of everything except for a couple of thoughts. One was: Tomorrow, and all the feelings that came with that one, simple notion. The other was: Dear Gaia, how am I going to do this? How am I going to find the strength to stay away from her?
Willow woke up to what was probably the happiest morning of her life in recent memory. Until panic set in. It was real, wasn't it? It wasn't some long, incredibly detailed dream?
She leapt out of bed and checked the other rooms, but even Dawn's bedroom was empty. Nervously, she made her way down towards the kitchen. No words could describe how her heart twisted when she heard a familiar voice asking, "Funny shapes or round?"
"I missed the funny shapes." The shy, happy voice of Dawn.
"Good, because to tell you the truth, funny shapes might be all I can manage right now. Still not a hundred percent on the pancakes but maybe…Oh hi, Willow."
"H-hi," Willow managed, her throat tight.
Tara was dressed casually in a simple, body-hugging shirt and jeans, and her dark blonde hair was gathered into a ponytail. She looked wonderfully, gloriously alive.
Casting about for something to say, the redhead went with, "You should've woken me, I would've cooked."
"No, it's okay. Dawnie and I were up really early."
Willow looked at the pair of them. "Does 'really early' translate to 'no sleep'?"
"Something like that." Tara smiled. "We had a lot of catching up to do. Pancakes?"
"Thanks." Willow hoped the other two wouldn't notice how her hand trembled as she took a plateful from the blonde. "Wow, this is a lot."
Tara's expression was sheepish. "Sorry, I sort of went on automatic."
"No, no, it's fine. It's great!" the redhead assured her. "Don't you think it's great, Dawn?"
"Uhuh," Dawn mumbled, her mouth stuffed with pancakes.
"I keep expecting Buffy and Xander to walk in. That's probably why, you know, enough pancakes to feed an army," Tara explained. She handed Willow the syrup, studiously ignoring the way her hand tingled when their fingers brushed.
"Well you might see them, but not today." Dawn swallowed and reached for the milk. "Buffy called this morning. She says she can't stand it, she's flying in if there are no developments with the vamps by tomorrow. Xander wanted to come, too, but someone's got to stay with the SITs."
"SITs?" Tara asked. "Oh, the potentials?"
"Slayers-in-training," Willow nodded. If Tara remembered the potentials then that meant that more of her memory was coming back. "The first batch of potentials are Slayers in their own right by now, of course. Those who decided to continue at any rate. But we've been getting the younger ones, and we make sure that they go to Buffy for training first."
"'Those who decided to continue?'" the blonde echoed. "Slayers can choose now?"
"Oh yeah. It's in the new and improved Watchers' Council's guidebook and the Slayer handbook," was the enthusiastic answer. "Buffy insisted, and it makes sense since there isn't just the one Slayer for this generation anymore."
"Willow should know, she wrote them," Dawn piped in. "I guess you could call them her first crack at writing."
The redhead looked embarrassed. "Somebody had to. The old ones were burned with all the other books, and the stuff Giles could remember was totally antiquated, like so nineteenth century. It badly needed an update."
"So there's a new Council, and it's f-friendlier?" Tara had met the old Council once, and she hadn't liked them very much. They had been intrusive, prying people who seemed to spend a lot of time holding their collective noses in the air. They'd been awfully intimidating, too, until Buffy had put them in their place.
Willow nodded. "The First Evil destroyed most of the old Council. There was a bunch of Ethan Rayne-types who tried to set up another one, but those guys were so Idi Amin, we and Angel had to put a stop to it. The new one's run by Giles. It's busy as anything because there's a lot to rebuild and so few of the old Watchers left, the trustworthy ones anyway…Where was I? Oh yeah, new Council, friendlier, lots of changes. For one thing, active Slayers now have an allowance," she announced proudly.
From her tone, Tara could guess whose nifty idea that was. "I always wondered why they didn't before."
"It was because of the 'Slaying's a calling' thing," Willow explained. "I mean, Giles and I agreed that no one should be doing Slayage for money because that's just demeaning and wrong. But Slaying takes a lot of time, and the original Slayers like Buffy and Faith are even busier now because they're asked to teach the SITs. So no salary, which satisfies tradition, but the Council makes sure they have funds for living expenses and weapons and stuff so they can concentrate on the slaying if they need to. We even took out group insurance."
"Nice compromise," Tara commented. Her forehead crinkled in a frown. It sounded like Willow and Giles had "agreed" on a lot of things. Plus, the redhead had written the new rules, and it seemed like she'd helped stop the old Council too. "Willow…are you part of the Council now?"
"Not really, I -"
"Totally," Dawn jumped in, glad that the witch had figured it out. "What? Oh come on, you so know you are, even if it's unofficial," she said over Willow's protests. She leaned towards Tara. "This part I forgot to tell you last night. Willow's sort of Head-Watcher-in-training. Giles is Head of the Council now, but everyone understands that if he ever decides to step down…"
"Then someone else takes over," the redhead cut in emphatically.
Dawn didn't back down. "Willow, you know no one else can run Slayer Central like you can. You're practically second-in-command. I know you think being a Watcher is awkward right now because of K- er, because of stuff, but who else is going to do it?" she asked in exasperation
The hacker ignored the near-slip, stubbornly maintaining that other people were more qualified. "Buffy can. I mean who better to guide the Slayers than the original?"
The brunette nearly laughed. "Hey, I love my sister, but please. You know it'd drive her crazy in a couple of months. Buffy and Faith, they're Slayers not watchers, and that's how they like it. They like being on the ground, in on the action. Remember Giles' little speech? What the Council really needs are people who can see the big picture, but who understand what it means to fight evil." Dawn bit her lip. "Why else did you stay in England for so long, if you really didn't like being there?"
"Dawnie…" There were other concerns, mainly having to do with Willow's conviction that a person who'd fought a Slayer, worse, the Slayer, no matter how briefly, shouldn't be part of the Council at all, much less possible Head. But the girl's question and the way she asked it took the wind out of her arguments.
Tara felt like she'd stepped into the middle of a long, ongoing dispute with lots of undercurrents. She knew that Dawn had resented Willow for leaving. She'd gotten the sense, since her return, that the two had reconciled. But that didn't mean that there weren't still a few sore points. "So Buffy's coming? When?"
As she'd hoped, the question allayed the tension and brought everyone's attention back to the present. "Tomorrow. I'm booking her a flight late in the morning. I'll pick her up from the airport, if I can borrow the car?" Dawn asked Willow.
The hacker nodded. "Go ahead. Just no Hellmouthy side trips please."
"Yeah right, as if I would." The girl rolled her eyes. "God, I'm full. Thanks, Tara." She stretched. "I'm going to take a shower and straighten out the room. Otherwise I'll never hear the end of it. Do Buffy and I really need to share a room?" she asked with the slightest trace of a whine.
"Unless you want to try to convince your sister to camp out on the sofa, sorry, full house," the redhead quipped.
She stood up as the grumbling girl left. "Coffee?" she offered to Tara.
"Please," the blonde nodded. She sat down at the small dining table and waited for Willow to join her with two steaming mugs. She sipped the drink slowly, savoring it.
"Is it okay?" Willow asked anxiously.
"Just the way I like it," Tara affirmed, touched that Willow remembered the way she took her coffee.
The redhead looked pleased. "Did you sleep well last night?"
It was on the tip of Tara's tongue to say yes, the expected answer, but instead, she suddenly found herself blurting out the truth. "N-not really. I started to remember some things, and it was…it wasn't pleasant."
The memory of the First had returned last night, and the sense of that evil had been so disturbing, it had shaken Tara from sleep. But that hadn't been the most difficult part. With the First had come the recollection of the potentials…and of the potential called Kennedy.
"Maybe before," Tara thought, "as a spirit, I felt different." After all, it was she who'd told Dawn to let Willow and Kennedy be. But now?
The thing with memory loss was, even though she knew she was simply recalling events that she had once known, everything felt new, like she was seeing them for the first time. So when the images of Willow with another woman hit Tara, it ripped through her very human heart.
The pain was exquisite. Visions of Willow losing herself in a younger girl's kiss, in another's strong brown arms swirled with the memory of her own spirit resolutely guarding the door, as the Slayer-to-be made the love of Tara's life moan in a way that the witch had always thought only hers to command…
Then it got worse, because it was Willow's turn, and everyone in the house must've heard the cry of ecstasy that was Willow's name wrung from somebody else's lips…Oh Goddess, take this away from me. Please!
Tara had sat up on the bed, trembling. She had wanted – oh why deny it – yearned for Willow, who was only a few steps away, in the room across the hall. She had struggled with the urge to get up and "check" on the redhead, with the hope that maybe once there she'd be invited to stay. Because she knew what she'd do then. Rightly or wrongly, she'd claim Willow as hers once more, stamp out those memories with new ones. She would make the redhead scream her name until she forgot the other Slayer…
"Tara?" Willow laid a concerned hand on the blonde's arm. She frowned as she felt her shiver. "Are you okay?"
"What?" There was a distinct flash in the blue eyes, and then they cleared. "Oh s-sorry, I w-was just remembering."
"Well, that's…good," the hacker said a little uneasily. Was she imagining it or had there been, for a second, something blatantly possessive in Tara's gaze? Oh great, now I'm projecting. "Anything interesting?"
"N-not really." The blonde ducked her head and…was that a blush?
"Dawn came in before…er, a few minutes later. She tried to be quiet, she just wanted to check if I was okay I think, but I was already awake so we ended up talking. We've spoken before, of course, but a few minutes of conversation with a ghost – it's not the same, is it?" she asked lightly.
"I guess not," Willow replied, but there was a wistful expression on her face. "Tara, Dawn said you…couldn't appear to me? You said much the same thing to me the first time I saw you, something about blocking?"
"It was the only way I could think of to stop the First." Tara frowned as she struggled to describe what had happened. "L-let me tell you first about the Summerland. Or at least what I can. Everything there is soft…ethereal? It feels a little like everything's floating, and you're at peace. I don't think I was Tara when I was there. I mean I was," she clarified as Willow's eyes widened, "but I was also…everyone my soul had ever been, including who I was when I passed."
"The part of me that was Tara was connected to Dawn, to Buffy and the Scoobies, even to my f-family, but mostly…to you. I don't know how to explain it. I was aware of you, but it was like I was…watching from afar? Though 'far' isn't the right word either. The Summerland isn't a place like we think of places, it's not locked into a location. Even time's not the same there, there are spaces when there's time and then there's not-time." Tara knew it wasn't the clearest of descriptions. She was frustrated by her inability to communicate more than this vague picture to Willow, but there was simply no human frame of reference she could use that would encompass the experience. "But sometimes I would get stronger impressions, flashes of feeling and seeing. When I first arrived, I was overcome by an outburst of rage and pain. For a second, there was a distinct image of y-you, except…I thought it couldn't be you. It was a girl with your face and your body, but everything about her was dark."
"Dark hair, black eyes, veiny skin," Willow described in a voice that shook, appalled that her former lover had seen her like that. "Dark soul."
"Hurt, enraged soul," Tara corrected. "Oh Willow, I would've come to you then, if I had known how. But I was so new, I couldn't even tell if what I was seeing was happening right at that moment or if it was an echo of something that had already happened. I'm sorry…"
"Gods, Tara, don't apologize!" the witch burst out fiercely. "Not for that. Never for that. It was all me. It was my fault."
"I'm not blaming myself, Will," Tara explained gently, knowing that the mere possibility horrified the redhead, "but I wish I could've helped."
Willow shook her head emphatically. "No, I'm glad you weren't there when it happened. I was out of my mind. Who knows what I would've done or tried if you'd actually appeared to me? At least in the end it turned out alright. Xander saved me, and Giles and Buffy."
"Xander saved the world," Tara agreed softly.
"Yeah well, we take turns. It's a Scooby thing. Buffy's still ahead, though." The tiny joke drew a smile from the blonde. Willow continued seriously, "I wish that none of that had touched you. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I mean, it's good that you feel sorry for what you did," Tara said, "but don't be sorry that your soul cried out to me. It's part of loving someone, Willow. It means that our love was strong; it formed a bond between our souls. I wouldn't give that up for anything." The gentle witch looked down into her cup. "B-but I did give up something later."
"Tara?" Willow was alarmed to see tears rolling down the woman's face.
"I th-thought I'd cut myself off from you forever," Tara's voice dropped to a whisper. "W-when I blocked the First." She was surprised when Willow took her hands and held them firmly in her grasp.
"Tell me," the redhead said softly, lending her strength.
It was the Summerland, and the last, disturbing image of Willow was far behind. It had not been repeated, much to Tara's relief. There were still flashes of pain and anger, but those were the signs that the young woman was healing. Content, the soul who was Tara-and-more resumed her reflections.
The intrusion was sudden, fierce and filled with malice. The malevolent intruder probed and prodded, and before she could even react, it had snatched the memories of her and Willow. Willow…In an instant, the young soul was overwhelmingly Tara once more, filled with the need to protect her lover. Because she knew immediately that this being was not after her, but after Willow. Its desire to hurt the redhead was tremendous.
It twisted again, this time trying to steal her image. NO! Tara stepped out of the Summerland to stop it, but it was too fast. It was an entity with ties to the earth, and it would get there sooner than she could ever hope to. But that didn't change the fact that she would not let herself be used to hurt Willow. Never! Even if it meant that Willow couldn't see her again…
With barely a second thought, Tara raised the forces of her old magic and wove it tightly around herself. From now on, Willow would be blind to the sight of her.
The thing screeched in thwarted outrage. It had not expected resistance from a newborn soul. It sped faster away.
Tara followed as closely as she could in its wake. She would not give up. She would not let it hurt the ones she loved. And that was how she discovered the path to the waking world…
By the time she finished her story, they were both in tears. Willow squeezed Tara's hands once before slowly letting go.
Tara felt the loss of the contact acutely.
"You're so brave," Willow said, her voice tinged with awe.
"It was for you," Tara demurred, as if that explained everything. "It was the First Evil, wasn't it?"
The redhead nodded. Even now there was a nervous cast to her face.
"T-tell me?" it was Tara's turn to ask. "What happened a-after? It got here so much faster than I did."
"Are you sure? It's a long story." Willow's reluctance was obvious.
"We have time." She gazed intently at her love. This time she was the one who reached across the table to take the redhead's cold hands. "Please, Willow? What did the First do to you?"
The hacker swallowed. Haltingly, she told her side of the story.
Willow looked intently at their joined hands, as if to draw strength from their connection.
"There was a girl," she began. "She was Dawn's age, a precog. Her name was Cassie Newton, and she had a premonition that she was going to die. We tried to save her, and in a way we did, but in the end we still lost her. Buffy says she just collapsed. When the First appeared to me, it took her form. I was in the library, researching, when Cassie showed up and told me that she had a message from you. She said you needed to tell me things, but that you couldn't show yourself to me because I had blood on my hands," she said in a shaky voice. "She knew so many things, Tara. I thought…She was really convincing."
Willow had used much the same words to relate the encounter to Buffy and Xander. But this was Tara, so she went on. "She asked if I remembered our bridge and the song you sang to me, and what we said about being Amazons. She said – it sounds silly, I know – but she said you were still singing to me. She had me in tears. I really believed that I was talking to you through her. I guess because I wanted so badly for it to be true."
"Oh Willow." The blonde was horrified at the pain she must've gone through.
"Later, after Joyce appeared to Buffy and Dawn, I wondered. Why Cassie? I mean, she was a nice girl, but I hardly knew her. I thought it was just a matter of time, so I braced myself. I tried to prepare for the day when the First would appear to me with your face, look at me through your eyes. Even now I don't know if I could've handled that," she admitted.
"I wouldn't have l-let it," Tara said resolutely. One hand came up briefly to touch Willow's face, to draw her away from the past and into the present, into this miracle that was the two of them talking across a small table.
"I know. You didn't, and…I haven't thanked you for that yet, have I?" the redhead realized.
"You don't need to. I did it for me, too. What it was planning was d-disgusting!" The idea was repulsive to Tara on so many levels. To use love like that, to twist the memories they shared, to use her against Willow, how could such an abomination be borne? "How did you figure it out? That it wasn't me?"
"Oh that was, well, not easy, but obvious eventually. In its typical egocentric, evil entity way, the First overplayed its hand. It tried to get me to kill myself." The hacker's lips twisted into a sardonic smile. "The stop-magic-right-now stuff was easy to swallow. I didn't even think about it. Giles warned me that it was dangerous to stop, but magic was the last thing we fought about, and if you wanted me to hold it right there then that's what I was going to do. But when it suggested that I should pretty much end it…"
Tara found herself holding her breath, tightening her hold on Willow.
"It painted a pretty picture," the smaller woman's voice dropped to a whisper, "of me with a blade to my wrist, with your picture on my lap. Now if it had made that suggestion earlier –" Abruptly, she clamped her mouth shut.
There were things Willow had never meant to tell anyone, had not revealed to a single soul until now. Abruptly, she let go of Tara's hands. She stood and grabbed their empty cups hastily, glad for any excuse to get away.
Of course it was already too late. In seconds, Tara was on her feet and following her. Willow had her back to her, and she could see that her hands were braced knuckle-white on the kitchen counter.
"W-Willow? D-d-did you…?" She couldn't bring herself to finish the question. Her throat was tight with fear.
"No," the redhead answered slowly. "But there were moments when I wanted to, a couple of times when I…almost."
"Oh honey, no." Deep blue eyes filled with tears. "N-never a good idea." When Willow stayed frozen, the blonde grasped her shoulders and urged her gently to turn around. When she still wouldn't look at her, Tara ran a finger lightly along her jaw and tilted her head up so their faces were level. "You should always be alive and strong. Like an Amazon, remember? The world needs you."
"I try, Tara. I do, but sometimes it's so hard," Willow said hoarsely. Something in her let loose at the admission, and she began to weep.
"I know, darling, I know." The witch pulled the green-eyed woman into her arms, bringing her close until they were leaning against each other, Willow's head buried in Tara's shoulder. "It's alright now, I'm here. I never left you, my love."
They stood together in the cramped space, silent save for the sobs that wracked the redhead's small frame and the blonde's soothing reassurances. Willow sank into the warm, long-missed comfort of this embrace, letting every pent-up emotion go.
For awhile the two women reveled in the simple fact that they were finally able to console each other in a way that had long been denied to them. Together, they chased the darkest of demons away.
It was hard to say when the nature of their embrace changed. It happened gradually, as Willow's cries subsided. The only thing they could both be sure of after was that it was Tara who moved first.
Tara felt the redhead's arms slacken around her, and understood what was coming next. Willow was preparing to let go. She would get a hold of herself, probably mumble an apology about her impromptu cry-fest and try to make a weak joke about it. Then they would both go back to this thing they were trying to do, this civilized, gracious pretense that they were nothing more than former lovers.
Only Tara realized she couldn't. It wasn't as if they'd broken up and were seeing each other years down the road. This wasn't some social meeting between exes. What had parted them was nothing as mundane as heartbreak. Tara had died. They had been ripped from each other in a single bloody moment, and they had been very much in love when it happened.
Now she was finally holding Willow in the way she'd wanted to since she'd woken, and this feeling…it felt exactly like coming home. How could she let that go? I can't, not yet. Not ever, if the gods are kind.
Her hands were low on the slim woman's back, and it took very little effort to begin moving them upwards, to push lightly along the familiar curve of spine, until she was molding Willow to herself as surely as she had done hundreds of time before. She felt her partner's breath hitch as their bodies fit together in the accustomed way – in seconds there was not an inch of space between them – and then her boneless surrender as she let herself fall under the spell of Tara's gentle touch.
Tara's heart sped as palms flattened, reacquainting themselves with the familiar-yet-now-new territory of warm skin beneath thin clothes. They drew apart just enough to trade a brief searching looks before Tara leaned forward to trace kisses over Willow's face, tasting the salt on her cheeks.
There was no hurry, no urgency, but it wasn't long before the blonde witch gave into her heart's desire, and pressed her lips to Willow's.
A sigh rose from the redhead's throat, swallowed in the soft, achingly sweet contact. In that moment, it was as if they'd never been apart.
The kiss began chastely. In its way, it was another means of offering comfort. But when Willow's head fell back and her eyes closed, Tara found herself pressing harder against the smaller woman.
Willow's mouth instinctively parted at the first exploratory touch of the witch's tongue. Then, suddenly, she broke the kiss and staggered back. Her eyes were wide and a little wild, her breathing ragged.
Tara dropped her hands and looked away, but not before Willow caught the crumpled rejection in her eyes. "S-sorry, I shouldn't have…I forgot that y-you're with s-s-someone else now. I know you're trying to w-work things out…"
"You know nothing!" the redhead declared harshly, not bothering to correct her. Right now, other relationships were the last thing on her mind. "I can't do this!"
Willow's hands clenched tightly at her sides. "It took me years – years! – to get over you. I had to tell myself everyday that you were gone, that you were at peace, that I had to accept that and that I should learn to live my life without you. And just when I think that I've moved on, you come back. It's like a – a big cosmic joke! I can't kiss you, and fall in love again and let you go, Tara! You made me promise. How could you make me promise?"
"I'm s-sorry if…d-did you say f-f-f-fall in love again?" The witch couldn't help the hopeful note that crept into her voice. Since the spell had brought her back, she was all too human again. And human or not, there had never been any form in which she did not want Willow to be hers.
"Tara." All the anger drained from Willow as the blonde gazed at her with infinite tenderness, hiding nothing of what she was feeling. Oh goddess, that look, those eyes like the clearest sky. "I may have exaggerated the whole 'getting over' thing," she admitted slowly. "It took me years to say your name without breaking into tears or…just breaking. Now when I talk about you or when your name comes up, there's still this tug inside, but that's okay. People can deal with it because it doesn't show up so much on my face anymore."
"I love you." There. It was out, the truth that Willow had been trying to keep bottled up inside since the moment she'd laid eyes on Tara again. "You…the way it happened…I never had the chance to stop loving you. So I don't know how. I don't know how to stand here, and have you here, and not want you to be with me for as long as…" Her voice shook. Then she straightened. "I should go."
"Willow…" Tara tried again, desperately wanting to, what exactly? Explain? Apologize? But how could she do those things when she barely understood what was going on herself?
"Don't." Willow smiled painfully. "I promised I would let you go. I will never break a promise to you again." Without another word, she turned and left.
The hacker resolutely stayed inside her room for the rest of the day, her eyes glued to the screen of her laptop. A sandwich lay half-eaten next to her. As she'd predicted, the first hurdle was the sheer volume of material. Just sifting through this stuff could take weeks…
Dawn burst into the room later that night and slammed the door behind her. "What's wrong with you?" she demanded.
Willow didn't even glance her way. "Aren't you supposed to be arranging Buffy's flight?"
"It's done, she's coming tomorrow, and don't try to change the subject!" the girl snapped in quick succession.
The redhead rubbed her eyes tiredly. "What do you want, Dawn?"
"I want to know why the woman we both thought we'd lost, the woman who through some miracle is back, is crying her heart out in the next room," she demanded.
Willow's head shot up. "Tara's crying?"
"She was. I finally got her to sleep," Dawn muttered. She threw her hands out. "I don't get it! When she died, you lost it. You tried to destroy everything because you couldn't stand the pain of losing her. Now that she's back, you won't even give her the time of day?"
"That's not what happened. You don't understand." The witch tried to stay calm.
"I just said that! I don't get it," the girl repeated. "I leave you guys alone for awhile, and when I come back you're holed up in here, and Tara looks like she lost her best friend. What happened?"
"We were talking and one thing led to another," Willow answered reluctantly. "We…kissed."
"About frickin' time."
"What? Oh come on, don't tell me you didn't want to."
"You do remember that this is a short-term arrangement, right?" the witch reminded her harshly. "Two weeks, maybe a little more, and then Tara goes back?"
"But you love her. Or…don't you anymore?" A tiny hint of doubt crept into the girl's voice.
"This has everything to do with loving her. Mainly, I can't risk it."
"What?!" Dawn couldn't believe her ears. "Willow, that's ridiculous!"
"Right. Of course it is. Because we all saw how well I handled losing her the last time," the hacker said sarcastically. "Zipped through the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, torture, oh and let's not forget raising an ancient demonic effigy to destroy the world. Do you really want to see a replay?"
For the first time since she'd stepped into the room, the girl faltered. She had vivid memories of Bad Magic Willow. "You wouldn't do that again, would you?"
"I don't know, Dawn. I'm trying to avoid finding out." Willow sighed. "Gaia knows the last thing I want to do is to hurt Tara, but like it or not, things are different now. I'm not the same carefree, college blessed-be she knew. I can't pretend that there aren't risks and that nothing will happen if I lose control. This time I know that the magic's a part of me. I can't shut it off, and I can't act like it's not there."
"So this is about the magic?" the brunette asked. It had always struck her as ironic, that the magic that had been responsible for drawing the two witches together in the first place had caused them so many problems later on.
"Part of it," Willow nodded. "But to be honest, it's also…if I do this? When she leaves, it'll hurt like the worst thing in the world. It'll be like losing her all over again. Just the thought, right now, of Tara not being in the next room in two weeks is…" She couldn't continue.
They fell silent. Then Dawn slowly sat down next to her. "What did you miss most about Tara?"
"I wouldn't know where to start," Willow answered, wondering where this was going.
The redhead looked at her for a moment. "Okay. The short answer to that is everything. The long answer? Her warmth, compassion, her quirky sense of humor. I think I was the only one who got her insect reflection jokes," she grinned. "How gentle she was, and brave. How we took care of each other, figured spells out together, held hands, kissed, made –" she stopped, blushing.
"Made love," the brunette supplied softly. "It was always about love between the two of you, wasn't it?"
"Always," Willow affirmed. "I miss what we had together. Waking up next to her in the morning, and knowing that my day, happy or sad or plain-jane ordinary, would end with her at night. Small things. How she liked to sit with her legs up if the chair was big enough, or the way she'd stop to watch me work sometimes. Big things. Being absolutely sure that whatever happened, we loved each other. Together things. Would you believe I even miss the disagreements we had? Just…everything," she said again, because that was the only word big enough to fit it all.
Dawn's gaze was distant, introspective. "That's the same way I feel…about my mom. Not the couple-y stuff, but I miss everything, too. The way she was, and the way we were when the three of us were together. The way she made everything seem okay even when they weren't. The way she loved me, even when, technically, I wasn't really -"
The witch held her breath. Opening up about Joyce was something the youngest Summers rarely did. "Stop right there. You are," she insisted firmly. "You so know you are, and thinking otherwise is the one sure thing that's going to make your mom mad, Dawnie."
The girl smiled, knowing that Willow was right. Whatever else had happened, her mother had loved her. "When my mom…died, I felt so lost. The day of her funeral, I thought for sure I wouldn't be able to bear it. When they put her in the ground, I just wanted to fold up next to that huge mound of dirt and cry. When you and Tara took me home, when I was walking between the two of you, with both your arms around me, holding me up…that's what gave me the strength to walk away from Mom's grave that day." She looked at the redhead. "That's what the two of you mean to me."
"Dawnie…" the woman swallowed. She didn't know what to say.
The girl held up her hand, wanting to finish before she lost courage, or died of embarrassment. It was one lesson she had learned early, growing up in Sunnydale, that some things needed and should be said when there was a chance. Because people? They weren't around forever. Sometimes they were taken away, or sometimes they left. "Since then, the two of you never stopped looking out for me. Tara appeared when I was afraid, and you…even when we weren't talking, I knew somehow that if I needed you, you'd come running."
"In an instant," the hacker confirmed.
Dawn smiled, and then flushed as she remembered what followed. "I never apologized for how I was after the funeral. I treated you guys badly. When I tried to do that spell -"
"You were in pain. God knows I understand that." Touched beyond words, Willow cut the apology off. "Really not a shining example here."
"But you are," the girl countered. "The bad you did, it doesn't negate the good. It took me awhile to see that, but it's true. You recovered from your addiction and more, you took charge of it, and saved us all from the First. When Buffy died, you held the Scoobies together. Do you know that the first time you went to England, Xander used to pass the time by telling us stories about what you guys did?" she asked. "It was partly to clue Buffy in on what happened while she was gone, but it was also…I don't think they realized what kind of pressure they put on you when they made you 'boss of us.' They didn't know what it would mean when they asked you to make it look like Buffy was alive. The fact that the Scoobies, even Anya, chose you as their leader, not Giles or anyone else, doesn't that count for something?"
"So yeah, you hurt me, Willow," she persisted, "but you and Tara, you also took care of me when Buffy was gone. I won't ever forget that. The same way I won't forget what it was like, living in a house that became a home again because the two of you made it that way. Even if it was just for a short time, I was a part of what you and Tara had." She took a deep breath. "I mean, I know you didn't have to take me in like that. It's not like we're…"
"Hey." Willow laid a hand gently on the girl's shoulder. "We are. We're family, all of us. Buffy said so, remember?" She saw that Dawn was near tears and cast about for something to lighten the mood. "Besides, it was more the other way around. We crashed your house, remember? We were house-crashers," she grinned.
"You were not. You were definitely invited. Although you know," Dawn added slyly, "I still don't get why you guys wouldn't let me get a tattoo."
The hacker rolled her eyes. "And have your sister-Slayer rise from the grave to kick my ass? So not going there." It was an old argument. Dawn never let her forget that she could've been, as she put it, a really cool high school kid with a small, tasteful tattoo, if not for Willow and Tara's strong objections. It was one of the few instances when the pair had abandoned their usual persuasive, positive reinforcement techniques to collectively put their foot down. "Besides, you're legal now. Why don't you get one?"
"And have Buffy kick my ass?" Dawn mimicked her response. "I just got no-Buffy patrolling privileges. No way am I risking that for skin art. Not yet, anyway."
"Oh so that's it. I wondered why you were being so jumpy every time Buffy's name came up," Willow said. "Congratulations…I think. Am I really supposed to congratulate you on getting fully immersed in the dangers of Scooby-hood?" she asked worriedly. What in the world was Buffy thinking? Since becoming her guardian, the witch's protective instincts were never far from the surface when it came to Dawn.
The girl spotted the doubtful look. "Now don't you start," she warned. "I had a hard enough time arguing about this with Buffy."
Willow was a little embarrassed. "I'm just worried. It's sort of like a reflex, I can't help it."
"I know," Dawn said, "and I appreciate it, really. But you guys were taking more risks than this when you were my age."
"Let's not get into what I was doing at your age," the redhead muttered. Give or take a year, that was around the time she'd taken over temporary leadership of the Scooby gang, had found herself co-guardian to a teenager, and had blunderingly resurrected Buffy. "Just take care of yourself, and don't hesitate to call for backup when you need it."
"I won't." Dawn promised. She picked at the sheets on the bed. "Um, about Tara? I guess I understand, but at the same time…" She halted uncertainly, but decided she needed to say this. "It's like you got this huge gift, you know? Like you won the cosmic lottery or something. By some miracle you've been given time with Tara again, but you're actually refusing it. I know you have your reasons and they sound good, but if it was me? If I were given a few days with my mom, I wouldn't even hesitate."
Willow knew she meant well, but couldn't she see that the situation wasn't that simple? "Give me some time, alright, Dawnie?" she temporized. "You've gotten used to having Tara with you all these years. I've only had a couple of days."
"Okay," the girl agreed, but she sounded disappointed.
"In the meantime, would you do me a favor?" the witch asked slowly. Whatever the issues were, she couldn't stand the thought of Tara crying. "I think I'm onto something here and I want to finish this, but if Tara wakes…Can you tell her that I'm sorry I freaked, and that if she feels like it, we'll talk tomorrow?"
"Would I?" A smile lit up the brunette's face as she stood. "Consider it done."
That night, Tara's sleep was fitful again, but deep. Exhaustion from her crossing and the last couple of days was finally catching up with her. But when she woke up, she still felt uneasy and regretful.
All of that vanished when she met Dawn downstairs, and the girl relayed Willow's message while Tara quickly made breakfast. The Wiccan was relieved. She was afraid that she had ruined things yesterday with the impulsive kiss.
A few minutes later, Dawn was taking the car keys and was on her way out the door, explaining that she wanted to leave early since she'd never driven to the local airport before. Then she casually mentioned that Willow had asked to be woken before Buffy's arrival.
"I'm kinda in a rush though. Don't want to be late," she said cheerfully as she checked her watch. "Can you do it?"
Before Tara could even open her mouth to respond, the young woman was already halfway to the car.
And that was how the witch found herself standing outside her former girlfriend's room. Her stomach was trying very hard to do handstands and somersaults. What if she's still mad? Dawn said she wasn't, she even apologized, but what if…
She took a deep breath, and knocked. "Willow?" When no one answered, she turned the knob and quietly stepped inside. "Will…?" Her voice trailed as her eyes fell on the peacefully slumbering redhead tangled in the sheets of the king-sized bed.
Oh my goddess, she's so…Tara was riveted to the spot, lost in the sight of the woman she knew she would love forever. There were so many changes, tiny ones, but collectively they were undeniable. Of course she'd noticed them before, in glimpses over the years, in the moments when she'd first woken to this world. But this was the first time that she was free to observe completely and without distraction.
Her eyes were drawn to the glorious flame of Willow's hair, spilling to the middle of her back, longer than it had ever been when they were together. She stared longingly at the face whose collective features veered towards resolute now, even in sleep, and at the form that used to verge on skinny. The latter, specially, had changed in subtle ways, fulfilling its promise of slim litheness, hinting at curves more rounded under the loose-fitting sleepwear.
Then there were the features that were as familiar to Tara as yesterday: the slightly possessive way a Willow-hand was draped around a pillow, the creamy paleness of a redheaded woman's skin, dusted with freckles, the arching brows and thick lashes over eyes that could turn jade or emeralds or the deep Amazon of a rainforest, and the widow's peak that framed the sweet, heart-shaped face.
Another memory rose. It wasn't one Tara had lost, only something that her mind was choosing to retrieve at this moment. I used to wake early, just to catch her like this.
Their last year together had been so hectic, what with school, taking care of Dawn, Willow leading the Scoobies and constantly tinkering with the Buffy-bot. Each of those things could've easily been full-time activities, and it amazed Tara that her girlfriend had been able to organize their lives so that everything fit and almost nothing, especially Dawn, was ignored. It meant, though, that Willow was constantly in demand.
Not that Tara minded. The Scoobies were her family, and they needed their witches, but…from the time the sun colored the morning to the moment the alarm clock rang in another busy day, Tara savored the simple pleasure of holding Willow in her arms and watching her sleep. For that precious half-hour, her lover was hers alone. It was her private rite, her Willow-time, and she never told Willow about it because she knew the redhead would feel guilty that such a ritual was even necessary.
In repose, Willow's usually animated features were relaxed, almost serene. It had always made her look younger than she was, and back in those days Tara used to tease the redhead that she could pass for sixteen in her sleep. "Should I be careful, sweetie? I wouldn't want to be accused of corrupting a minor," she joked.
Willow had been mostly embarrassed by the teasing, but once she'd woken early, too, and caught Tara watching her. On that day, she had returned her lover's sallies with a smoldering look. "And if you had met me at sixteen," she'd asked, "would you have been able to resist?"
And something about that question, the rough, drowsy timbre of Willow's voice, already certain of the answer, the emerald challenge in her eyes, took Tara's breath away. She leaned over quickly to cover her lover's body with her own, and they had made love that morning with an abandon that surprised them both. Their passion had led to sly, secretive smiles all day and to a barely restrained repeat that night.
But that had been before Buffy's resurrection, before the complications, before Tara had lost Willow to magic, and then, so many countless weeks and months later, gloriously reclaimed her. Before Tara's death.
'This is no longer that time,' the Wiccan chided herself, as her sight swept tenderly over the redhead in the strong morning light. No, Willow would never pass for sixteen again. The girl that Tara had known was gone, and in her place was a striking, complex woman.
'I haven't been a part of her life for so long,' she thought sadly. By this point, the years Willow had spent without her were more than double the length of time they'd spent together. 'She was right last night. She learned to live without me.' Her forehead crinkled. 'Is that why I've felt so unbalanced since I got here? Is that why I kissed her?"
Was that it, pure selfishness on her part, an impulsive, misguided attempt to reclaim Willow in some way? But even wracked by guilt, Tara knew that it wasn't anything so simple. She had initially woken thinking that they were still together, with no way of knowing otherwise. The realization that they weren't, that she had died and years had passed, had been overwhelming. But now that her memory was returning, so was something else.
If the redhead had never had the chance to stop loving her, how much more true was that for Tara? Neither death nor the Summerland had lessened her love for Willow. In that place, that state, there had been no need for her to move on. Then, when she had followed the First back to this plane, she had been able to watch over the woman she loved, but not much else. Now, having Willow this close, and having arms, face, hands and lips with which to touch her, it was all the witch could do not to reach for her, to show her in every way that…
"I will always be yours," Tara whispered.
How could she not want to express those feelings in these precious few days they'd been given? How could she stop wanting this woman, when just a glance from those liquid green eyes – eyes she once thought despairingly would be forever blind to her – made every fiber of this very physical body sing?
Willow shifted in her sleep, interrupting Tara's train of thought. "The toaster's running away…"
The Wiccan smiled. At least some things haven't changed. She cleared her throat, and touched the woman's shoulder briefly. "Wake up, sweetie. Buffy's on her way."
The hacker burrowed deeper into her pillow. "Don't wanna."
Goddess, how cute can she be? "Willow…"
"Mmrph. 5 more minutes?"
"Okay," Tara agreed indulgently.
A minute later, it gradually sank into Willow's consciousness that Tara hadn't moved, was still standing patiently by the bed. "Whatcha doing?" she mumbled.
"Letting you sleep. Watching you a little…did you pull an all-nighter again?" Tara asked in a slightly scolding tone as she moved Willow's omnipresent laptop off the bed.
"You sleep in the middle now."
"Huh?" Willow asked groggily. A curious green eye lazily popped open.
"You used to sleep on the left." There used to be room for me, came the unbidden thought.
As if Willow had heard her, she murmured, "Took me awhile to get used to it, you know, sleeping alone. Which is funny when you think about it, 'coz I've slept by myself most of my life." She finally opened both eyes to look at the witch. "It still feels better, you know, you sleeping next to me. I think you pretty much ruined the 'whole-bed-to-myself' experience for me, Tara Maclay."
"I know. It feels like that for me, too," the blonde confessed. "The first night I got back I wished…" She stopped and bit her lip.
"Hey." Willow propped herself up on her elbows, fully awake now. "This is me, remember? You can always say anything to me. That doesn't have to change."
Encouraged, Tara continued shyly, "I think…because this all feels so new, so different? That first night I was hoping you'd ch-change your mind about um…staying in separate rooms. I wanted…it would've been nice to be h-held."
"You wanted…?" Suddenly the redhead's expression turned stricken. "Oh God, of course you did! How insensitive can I be?"
"What?" The tall woman looked at her blankly.
"Of course you wouldn't want to be alone on your first night back. You were floaty and incorporeal for so long, this back in your body stuff must be strange and jarring. And here I am, being all 'let's go to our separate rooms' and -"
"Willow!" Tara cut in hastily. If the redhead's guilt were any less heartfelt, she wouldn't have been able to stop herself from laughing. "It's not like that. It was just something that would've made me feel better. I know you were being considerate, giving me my own room. And anyway," she took a deep breath, "I u-understand that you couldn't. I mean, s-since you're with somebody…"
The hacker's guilty expression turned into a puzzled one. "That's the second time you've said that."
"It's okay, really," Tara reassured her. "It's more than okay, it's - it's good. You're supposed to move on."
"Are you talking about Kennedy? You remember her now?" Willow asked gently. "But you don't remember that we…I mean that she and I, that we broke up?" she surmised.
"Y-you did?" Astonished blue eyes met green.
"More than a year ago," the redhead confirmed.
"But I remember seeing the two of you talk to Giles in England," Tara said in bewilderment. "I think that was less than a year ago."
"Well that's possible. We're still friends and Kennedy visits England a lot." A teasing grin blossomed on Willow's face. "You must not have been watching that closely," she quipped, "if you missed our spectacular fights."
"N-not all," Tara admitted apologetically. "Sorry, I tried not to watch whenever things between the two of you got p-private, but sometimes I was just sort of there," she explained, embarrassed. "I stayed with Dawn most of the time, because she really needed someone. I thought, since you were with Kennedy, you were okay."
"I was – am. Kennedy helped me a lot," Willow said as she sat up on the bed, "but eventually we had to admit that our relationship wasn't working out. There's no one, Tara," she continued in a more serious tone. "I wouldn't have kissed you yesterday if there was."
"I was the one who kissed you," the blonde reminded her timidly.
"I wasn't exactly struggling to get away," the hacker returned. "Which brings us to my apology of the day. I'm sorry I freaked." Willow remembered the conversation she'd had with Dawn last night, and she had to admit the girl had a point. Tara should at least know why she was being so skittish. "It's just, I think I'm still…adjusting? Words can't describe how happy I am that you're here, but at the same time there's a part of me that's sort of, I don't know, surprised? Like I can't believe this is really happening, and I'm waiting for the hammer to fall. I know that sounds confusing, but do you get it at all?"
The witch nodded. "I do. I'm sorry about the kiss. I shouldn't have done that. You were feeling sad, and I…I t-took advantage…"
"No! No, I liked the kiss," Willow reassured her swiftly. "Don't even think like that. Tara-kissage, always a good thing. Only…" she continued in a smaller voice, "would you understand if I said I'm not ready? I can't handle taking this further and then losing you again. Gods, that sounds so bigheaded, like I'm just assuming that's what you want. It's not that I expect…I need time to get used to you being back."
"So do I." Tara smiled.
"Then that's what we'll do." Willow nodded happily. "That said, and given that there's no relationship issue, if you still want to, I could um…stay with you tonight? Or – or we could stay here. Whichever you like." Such a simple question, but it felt like her heart was stuck in her throat.
The blue eyes went wide. "Willow?"
"Just to sleep!" she clarified, feeling the heat rush to her cheeks. "I mean, if you're having trouble…if you still want to be held then…Do you? Because it's also okay if you don't anymore…"
"Oh no, it's not that," Tara answered. "I've wanted to since I got back, like I told you. I've…actually had trouble sleeping because, you know, I'm not used to being alone either, not when you're just in the next room," she said shyly, "but, are you s-sure? I don't want to rush."
"There's no rushing," Willow said firmly. "Think of it as a sleepover. We used to do those a lot before we got together."
You mean you used to sleep while I stayed awake half the night trying to keep my hands to myself. Ah those early days. No doubt who fell for whom first. The blonde witch favored her with a lopsided grin. "I'd like that."
The answering smile on Willow's face was dazzling. "Okay then." She got up. "So Buffy's on her way?"
"Her flight's coming in soon. Dawn already left to get her."
"Time for a quick shower then, and oh, do I get to cook you breakfast today?"
Tara shook her head. "Already done."
"Darn," Willow said with genuine disappointment. "I'm not being a hospitable host, am I?"
"It's alright. I like cooking breakfast, you know that. Besides," Tara waved at the laptop, "you were up all night doing Scooby work. Why don't you meet me downstairs, tell me what you found?"
The redhead quickly grabbed some clothes. "Be right with you," she promised, as the woman nodded and headed towards the door.
Willow was actually humming when she darted nimbly down the stairs ten minutes later. She didn't even bother to dry her hair, just combed it out and hoped it would behave today. She sniffed appreciatively. "Pancakes?"
Tara shook her head. The redhead's enthusiasm made her grin. "Waffles today. I don't want you to get tired of the pancakes."
"Not a possibility," Willow declared. "It's going to take longer than – I mean, it'll be a really long time before I get enough of those." Something sad flashed in her eyes, but she determinedly banished the emotion to concentrate on breakfast. "Yum."
"Glad you like it." Tara caught the fleeting expression, but said nothing. Truth to tell, she was still a little dazed from Willow's revelation that she wasn't with anybody anymore. Not to mention the prospect of actually sleeping with her…"So did you find anything useful last night?"
Willow harrumphed over her mouthful of waffle. "Too many things, like I expected."
"You got that much from the `Net?" the blonde asked, thinking she hadn't seen any books this morning.
"Oh no, I logged into the Council network last night. It's one of the projects we were working on in England," the hacker explained, "trying to scan as much of the library as we could into searchable digital format so we can access it from anywhere. Just the safe stuff, of course, references, histories, absolutely no how-to books in case the system's compromised. It took me an hour just to cut the search down to something with less than a thousand hits."
"Let me help," Tara offered. "I'm not as good as you, but at least I don't think of computers as 'infernal machines.'" They exchanged grins at her mimicry of Giles.
"You'd be surprised. I actually convinced Giles to email," Willow said proudly. "He'll even reply if you give him a couple of days."
"No! Really?" Tara leaned forward in disbelief. "How'd you -?"
Suddenly, they heard a door slam, the distinctive thud of a heavy bag hitting the wooden floor, and Dawn shouting, "Hey, we're home! Where is everyone?"
"We're here, in the kitchen!" Willow turned back excitedly to her companion, only to find Tara blinking back tears. "What's wrong?" she asked in alarm.
"Nothing." The blonde wiped her eyes. "For a moment, I just…"
She didn't need to say anything more. Willow understood instantly. It wasn't exactly like this, but it was close. How many times had they asked Dawn not to dump her stuff on the floor when she got back from school? How many nights had the girl returned late enough to find the two of them already sharing a meal? And it was always a habit of hers, announcing her arrival the minute she was through the door.
Willow slowly reached across the table and squeezed Tara's hand. "It's okay," she said softly.
"I know," she answered. "These are h-happy tears."
"That's alright then." The redhead drew her hand back with a smile. The smile grew broader as another voice sounded off, this time full of impatience.
"Dawn, just leave the bags already! We'll get them later! Where are they?"
"Over here, Buffy!" Willow called.
In seconds, the tiny blonde Slayer was sweeping into the kitchen. She froze as she caught sight of Tara, who slowly got to her feet. "Oh my God, it is true!" she said in breathless amazement. "It's really you."
"H-hello, Buffy." Tara smiled tentatively.
"I can't believe it. Are you really…?" Buffy's eyes filled with tears as she moved forward to hug the woman. Just as abruptly, she stopped. "Is it okay if I…?"
"You can touch her," Willow replied softly, guessing what was making her friend hesitate. "She's not going to fade away."
Tara nodded and opened her arms, and found them full of Slayer in the next instant.
"We missed you so much!"
"I m-missed you, too."
Buffy released her after awhile, wiping tears. "Dawn says you've been watching over her? I can't believe she never told me about that." She turned to Willow. "And speaking of secrets – you!"
"Me?" the hacker squeaked.
"How come you didn't tell me you were coming back, huh?" Buffy asked accusingly, stepping towards the redhead.
"I was, I was! I just, you know, wanted to make a stop first," Willow explained nervously, backing off from the menacing monster fighter. "I was going to call you right after."
"Not good enough," Buffy pronounced. "Best friends are entitled to more than that, even if their friends happen to turn into famous witchy authors."
"I'm not famous," the redhead protested.
"That's not what Giles and Dawn tell me, and don't change the subject!" Buffy placed her hands on her hips in perfect Slayer-pose and glared at her friend. "I haven't seen you in more than year. I should've been informed the second you landed. No, make that, the second you decided to fly back. Oh, come here!"
Suddenly it was Willow's turn to be enveloped in a bone-crushing, Slayer-worthy bear hug. "Buff…" she gasped, "need to…breathe."
"Whoops, sorry!" Buffy let go and watched cheerfully as the hacker wheezed.
Willow's look said she wasn't convinced that the force of her best friend's embrace was entirely accidental. "I guess the…flight was okay?" she asked, trying to catch her breath.
"Except for the security measures. Flying is really a pain these days. No way to even sneak a stake in," the Slayer complained. "All I had in my handcarry was a cross and 3 ounces of holy water. I felt practically naked the entire flight. Oh, are those pancakes I smell?"
"W-waffles," Tara said.
Buffy beamed. "You are a lifesaver," she declared. "Literally. They gave us nothing but peanuts and cookies on that flight. I hope they fed you better on the flight from London, Will…"
Dawn nearly walked in at that moment. She was entirely prepared to say something snarky about Slayer strength and Buffy's unseemly amount of luggage, but stopped when she took in the sight of the three women laughing and passing plates around the small kitchen. She felt herself tearing up, but held back. It had been a long time since she had seen something so…incandescent. No matter that the scene was so ordinary; she wanted it to be burned into her memory forever.
So this, she thought to herself, is happiness. I'm happy. We all are, Scooby jinx be damned. She watched each of them carefully in turn. Buffy, who suddenly looked young and carefree, with not a worry in the world. Willow, who was busy regaling the two blondes with funny stories of Giles and England. Tara, whose smile was morning-bright and whose eyes sparkled every time they fell on the redhead.
Thank you for giving my sisters back to me, Dawn thought silently. Then she stepped inside to join them.
A pending apocalypse tended to inspire panic in most people. To jaded veterans like the Scoobies, who'd actually had to learn the plural of the word, apocalypses had lost some of their urgency.
So the discussion of yet another problem with the Hellmouth was postponed until everyone had their fill of coffee, hot chocolate and waffles. Buffy declared an additional free half hour so she could shower and settle down. Dawn helped Tara clear the dishes, while Willow went to fetch her laptop.
"Though like I was saying, what I've found so far isn't going to be much help," the hacker began apologetically. "I don't suppose…" she hesitated, not wanting to pressure the blonde, but aware that they didn't have much of a choice, "do you…remember anything about the spell? Or is it too soon?"
Tara's sigh was equal parts discouragement and frustration. In hindsight, she should've told Willow about the spell before crossing over. But it hadn't occurred to either of them that there'd be complications like this. "It doesn't w-work like that. The memories don't c-come back in order. Sometimes there are a bunch of them together, like the First and the potentials, but then it, I don't know, skipped forward? Because the next thing I saw was you in England…"
"First time or after?" Willow asked quietly, as Dawn pretended to be busy loading the dishwasher.
"B-both. I mean, I saw you s-several times," she explained. "The first scenes were blurry. They came in snatches…I think, because I wasn't on this plane? But it was enough to see…" She glanced down. The events she'd witnessed were extremely personal and she wasn't sure how Willow would react to her having seen them. "It was so hard for you."
The truth was the visions had shocked her. Tara had been away during Willow's first withdrawal. She only had a general idea of what the redhead had been through because it had happened soon after their breakup and she was still too raw then, too confused and angry to be around the girl who'd been her lover. But however bad that might've been, she couldn't imagine it being worse than the scenes from last night.
She'd been half-asleep, floating into deep slumber, when an ashen Willow materialized in her mind's eye. The girl was as colorless as a ghost – even the bright luster of her hair seemed to have faded – and she was painfully, nearly insubstantially thin. Starved of magic, it was almost as if she was literally starving as well. Shirts that the blonde knew used to be close-fitting hung loosely from gaunt shoulders. Once, when she changed, Tara caught a glimpse of ribs and spine starkly carved out on the sunken frame.
The hacker moved stumblingly when she wasn't curled into a fetal ball on a narrow bed in a sparsely furnished room. She whimpered from the spasms that wracked and twisted as the coven witches extracted all magic ������� not just dark matter but every single bit of energy she'd absorbed during her rampage – from her. During the worst of these sessions, snatches of Tara's name fell from her lips like so many unanswered prayers. Afterwards, she'd spend hours staring vacantly into space…Willow, who'd always had a spark in her eye, a spring in her step, and twenty million things going on in her wired mind.
But the worst of it, the thing that brought Tara crashing into wakefulness, gasping but still ensnared by the visions, was the sight of Willow standing less than a foot from the edge of a cliff. It was a cloudy, wind-tossed day, and her arms were wrapped around her thin, shivering body. As she gazed down at the waves smashing into the rocks far below, the bleak expression on her pale face was both lost and longing.
"…there were moments when I wanted to, a couple of times when I…almost."
Tara knew instinctively that this was "almost." She held her breath for what felt like forever before Willow took one tiny step from the edge. The wan redhead slipped her hands into the pockets of her jacket. "Coward," she muttered to herself as she turned her back on the roaring, ceaseless sea of blue and its offer of oblivion.
No. No, Will, you're being strong. Tara wasn't sure whether that was a memory or her reaction to the vision, but to her it was true. Didn't the choice to live with pain or loneliness or sorrow, not knowing what was going to happen next, or when or even if those things would end, take courage?
Willow watched the play of expressions on a face she could read as well as her own, and realized that somehow the Wiccan understood what she'd been through. "Hey," she called out gently, touching the blonde's hand and bringing her out of her reverie. "It was hard, sure, but it was also amazing in its own mind-bending, soul-baring, slow torture kind of way."
Tara ignored the attempt at flippancy. She wouldn't let her former lover brush this off as if it hadn't meant anything, as if it hadn't been tough. "'I just want to be Willow' – that's what you told Giles. That's when I knew."
Blue eyes lifted and gazed at her with pride, sympathy and, most unbearable of all, forgiveness. "That you'd be okay. That you'd made it, and that magic would never be your master again. Because all you wanted was to be yourself."
Willow shifted uncomfortably. "Tara, that's not a guarantee."
"Isn't it?" the blonde contradicted softly. "Most people would want more. You did once," she reminded the witch in kindly tones, taking the sting out of her words. "You wanted…you really thought you weren't good enough without the magic, didn't you?" she frowned, finding it hard to believe. How could this bright, fascinating woman not see what a remarkable person she was?
It was only in the Summerland that Tara had found out about the extent of the teasing, the cruel put-downs and snubs that a younger Willow had suffered for that gravest of adolescent sins, being different. The Wiccan understood how that felt because she'd gone through something similar herself. But in her case she'd kept quiet, faded into the background, and most of the time that meant she was simply ignored. That hadn't been an option for Willow. The redhead could no more hide her intelligence than separate her mind from her mouth. She stood out, and that made her a target.
Willow had mostly been a different person by the time she'd met Tara, but there were still hints of how those things had affected her. Like the night when the girl had mocked herself for being a spaz at fifteen and her "geek-infested roots." Tara had joked about it at the time. But in the Summerland, she realized that the words were echoes of what other people had said, and that when Willow repeated them a part of her believed they were true.
So in that context, how could wanting to be "just Willow" instead of some ultra-powerful witch not be a breakthrough? It meant that she was finally on some basic level accepting herself – her strengths, weaknesses, quirks – the whole package. It had taken years, the love of Tara and of her friends and a lot of pain, but Willow Rosenberg was finally learning to truly value who she was.
Though she might not yet be a hundred percent appreciative of the girl she used to be. "If you had met me before," the redhead shrugged, "you might've thought the same thing. I wasn't exactly 'cool monster fighter' back then."
"You mean you weren't brilliant before the magic?" Tara asked.
"Oh that. That was just, you know, brainy stuff." Willow waved the compliment off. "That was all I was good for at the time, school and research. It wasn't like what I did made much of a difference –"
"It made a difference to me," Dawn piped in, "and I know you helped Buffy a lot. She told me plenty of times that she would've been sunk if you hadn't helped with the Slaying and that other insidious beast, homework." She blushed as the two women turned her way. "Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt but…I always thought you were cool, Willow."
"You did?" The hacker seemed genuinely surprised.
The brunette set the last of the plates down and wiped her hands. "I even thought you were cooler than Buffy. Sure she was 'the Chosen One,' but she was born with super strength and speed so that stuff just came naturally to her." Her tone was a little derisive, and she sounded uncannily like the teenager she'd once been. "But you? You were smart, but you didn't stop there. You always loved school and learning about stuff. You were so far ahead of everyone but you were never mean about it. I remember how patient you were. Buffy was always rushing from one thing to another, but when I had a question you'd stop whatever you were doing and really try to explain it to me. Like the way you'd play chess, drawing out the game to teach me stuff when you could've beaten me in five moves flat. I can't tell you what it meant, having someone like you to look up to. Besides, Buffy at sixteen?" She rolled her eyes. "Not so deep. And don't say I told you so, but sometimes she could get really, really blonde…"
Tara cleared her throat, eyebrows raised.
Dawn turned beet red. "Um, I didn't – I just meant – oh look, the dishwasher's all loaded. I think I'm going to run some errands now!" she exclaimed before scurrying out of the kitchen. Less than a minute later, there was the sound of an engine gunning and squealing tires.
The two witches blinked at the speed of the girl's departure.
"Huh," Willow finally said. "You know, that could've been really useful back when we were trying to get her to take a turn at laundry day." She waggled her eyebrows at the peeved blonde, eliciting a giggle.
In seconds, the giggles had mushroomed into outright silly laughter. 'I've missed this,' Tara thought. She loved how it made the hacker look for one thing, the way it made the fair skin flush and the green eyes glisten.
Impulsively, she touched the redhead's shoulder, the fingers lingering a few seconds longer than was strictly necessary. "Willow?"
Tara was suddenly possessed by an idea, wicked but too good to resist. You do know that you can go to hell this time around, right? Her inner angel shrugged. Oh well. She approached her former lover with a mischievous glint in her eye. She felt Willow freeze, startled by the proximity. The taller woman stopped and leaned close until her lips were millimeters away from the witch's ear.
"Honey, if I had met you at sixteen?" Her voice was breathy, supple, caressing. "We both know I wouldn't have been able to resist." For a second she fretted. What if Willow's forgotten…until the woman blushed a shade of red so deep it nearly put her hair to shame.
She remembers alright. Satisfied, a smirking Tara stepped back a respectable two feet away.
Willow was still standing there, speechless, when Buffy walked into the kitchen. "Where's Dawn?" she asked.
The interruption gave the redhead a chance to compose herself. "Apparently there are some serious errands that need to be attended to, pronto," she answered with attempted sagacity, though her eyes were still a little wide when they met Tara's.
"Uhuh." The small blonde looked at the two women, but neither of them elaborated. "I guess we can spare her for the Scooby meeting. I can always give her the short version later." She caught Tara's lopsided grin. "What?"
"Scooby meetings. K-kind of missed those," she replied wistfully as they sat down, Tara at the counter, and Buffy and Willow at the small table.
Buffy gave her a fond look. "We missed you too. We can hold as many meetings as you want…" Thankfully, she remembered to stop before she got to "before you go." She pushed the thought away. It was time to concentrate on the business at hand. "Dawn gave me the basic situationer on the Hellmouth. Bummer, though I can't say I'm surprised. So what do we need to fix the seal?" she asked. "A big dose of super-Wicca white magic?"
"The seal wasn't created by white magic." Tara bit her lip as the answer automatically came out. Suddenly she remembered that she hadn't wanted to talk about this yet, not until she understood this particular memory more.
Too late now. Willow latched onto her statement, the wheels already turning in her mind. "Oh of course! That's why it needs blood…but it's not purely dark either, is it?" she surmised. "Because if it were then it wouldn't hold back the demons on the other side of the Hellmouth. Plus there's the whole tears-of-remorse business – you've got to admit that's not very evilly."
Despite her worry, Tara felt a small surge of pride. Of course Willow would figure it out; she was the brainy type. But what if the same thing that's been bothering me occurs to her? "The seal represents balance – light and dark joined forces to create it. You could say that balance holds the demons back."
"Because if that many demons poured into the world, it would throw the balance off," Willow reasoned.
Buffy frowned. "So you need light and dark magic to what…recharge the seal?"
"Something like that," the Wiccan answered casually.
Too casually, judging by the shrewd look a certain pair of green eyes directed her way. "You remember how the seal was created, don't you?" the hacker guessed. "You know, down to the details."
Oh Willow. As much as the blond didn't want to discuss this memory yet, she had little choice but to continue. It can't mean that. It just can't. "I only remember what I was told. The seal was created by l-lovers, a warlock and a witch, dark and light magic practitioners."
"You met them?"
"I m-met the witch. She came to me. She was the one who sensed that the seal was unstable."
"Oh right, because it's not like a dark magic practitioner would be in the Summerland. How did they create the seal, Tara?" Willow asked, though she was already trying to work it out. "It would've taken a huge amount of magic, a major-mojo spell…It wasn't the witch who cast the spell, was it? No, because the seal requires blood. It was the warlock who triggered the magic. How?"
Tara's voice fell to a whisper. "B-blood magic," she answered reluctantly.
All traces of color drained from the hacker's face. "Oh God."
"Blood magic?" Buffy repeated. "Eww! Though I guess it makes sense in a gross, disgusting kind of way. The seal only opened for blood before."
"Not his blood," Willow said through clenched teeth. "He practiced dark magic, his blood wouldn't hold demons back." Her face hardened. "Hers."
"What, you mean he cut her and…?"
"He k-killed her," Tara revealed reluctantly. "There was no other way. Her lifeblood created the seal. His tears closed it."
The redhead shot to her feet. "Is that what this is about? You ask us to bring you back so I can – can…? Are you out of your mind?!" she practically screamed. "Well I'm not going to do it. God, how can you even think I'd - !"
"Willow!" Tara closed the space between them in a second. She cradled the hacker's face in her hands. "I kn-know, I'd n-never ask you to! Not in a million years."
"But you don't remember. What if this is it? What if we're supposed to re-enact…" Willow wrapped her arms around the blonde in anguish and embraced her tightly. Even her hands were shaking. She shut her eyes as the scent and warmth of the woman she loved fill her. "I can't. Oh God please don't ask me to," she pleaded, sobbing. "Anything else – my life, my magic if you want it – anything for you but not this. Even if it's the only way, I would never…"
"It's not," Tara soothed, tears pooling in her eyes as she stroked the soft locks of copper. "I s-swear to you, Willow. I may not remember the spell but this isn't it. I know you c-couldn't do something like that, in the same way I would never h-hurt you. Shh, my love. Shh. It's okay…"
She whispered more reassurances, but Buffy heard no more because by then she'd recovered her senses enough to tactfully leave the room.
The Slayer didn't go far, just to the living room. Suddenly she felt like pounding something. As much as Tara denied it, she'd gathered enough from Willow's outburst to know that it was a possibility.
Don't you dare. Buffy wasn't sure who or what she was railing against. Fate? The whole world? You've asked enough from them, dammit! I won't see Willow torn apart again. I won't have Tara murdered a second time. Just leave them alone!
The small blonde was trembling, from sorrow or outrage she wasn't quite sure. All she knew was that she would do everything in her power to protect her friends. She didn't know how long she stayed that way before she heard a familiar, contrite voice behind her.
"Buffy? Hey, sorry about the weepies. You know how my mind jumps sometimes…"
Typical. Willow gets an earth shattering revelation and she apologizes. Buffy couldn't stand it. She turned around and enveloped her best friend in a fierce hug. "I missed you, you know that? This entire year without you was entirely weird."
"I missed you, too," Willow returned softly. "I won't be gone so long next time."
The redhead grinned as they drew apart and held up a hand. "Pinkie-promise. Scout's honor. Cross my heart and hope to, well, not die because that would totally ruin the point, but whatever promise you want. Oh except for that thing where you slash your arms and mingle blood because for one thing 'ow!', not to mention we'd never qualify as brothers anyhow."
Buffy laughed. "I'll hold you to that – the promise, not the bloodletting." She glanced sheepishly at Tara, who was smiling indulgently at them. "I've missed you both." She sobered. "I'm not going to let anything bad happen this time."
Tara approached the other blonde and squeezed her hand in reassurance. "It's okay, Buffy. Sometimes things happen no matter what we do, but they turn out alright in the end, don't they?"
The serene, steady gaze of those blue eyes spoke to her in a way that only they could. As gently as possible, they reminded Buffy that she, too, had died…and that Tara was right, that hadn't turned out so bad.
When they were calmer, the Slayer reluctantly continued. "So how do we do this?" However much she wanted to give her friends more privacy to figure this out, there was still a Hellmouth problem and from what Dawn had said about the terms of Tara's return, they didn't have much time.
Tara glanced hesitantly at the slim figure that had been, until a few moments ago, wrapped in her arms. Goddess, it felt so good to hold her! To her relief, Willow returned her look calmly. "It still has to be light and dark magic, but beyond that I d-don't know. There was supposed to be a spell but I don't remember it. Some of my memories are coming back but n-not at a rate that we can predict. We can't count on me remembering the spell in time. We have to find another way."
"Then that's what we'll do," Buffy declared. "We'll hit the books. Giles and the Council will help with the research. Then we'll mobilize the available Slayers, get them here as fast as -"
"Don't!" Willow suddenly cut in.
"If there's going to be an outbreak of demons from the old Hellmouth, we're going to need plenty of backup," the Slayer began to reason before the she realized that the hacker's breathing was coming in short gasps.
"Willow?! What's wrong?" she asked urgently, catching her friend just as she staggered.
"I'm okay," the witch replied through gritted teeth. "Just…wobbly, need to sit down. Don't worry, it'll pass." She addressed the last to Tara, who was looking at her in alarm. They guided her to the couch, where she buried her face in her hands, taking several deep breaths. When she lifted her head again, her expression was grim. "There's going to be a breakout alright. But this isn't the one we need to worry about."
Buffy froze. "Are you telling me…?"
The redhead winced as another pang hit her. "I can feel it. Probably would've sooner if I hadn't been so concentrated on this, or if we weren't so near Sunnydale."
"I don't understand. F-feel what? What's happening?" Tara asked in utter bewilderment.
Willow sighed. "The Hellmouth, Tara, it's stirring. Not the one here, the other one in Cleveland."
"It's young compared to Sunnydale," Buffy explained, "and not as troublesome. Or at least it hasn't been. Giles calls it a second-rate Hellmouth. We've been watching it."
Tara's eyes were wide as they turned to Willow. "You can sense it all the way from here?"
Buffy saw that her best friend was having a hard time figuring out how to answer. "Tara, the first time Willow felt the Hellmouth, the one here in Sunnydale…she was in England."
The revelation obviously stunned the blonde witch.
"It's part of the earth," Willow finally managed as her head stopped reeling. "Everything's tied together and there are these…root systems all over the world. Most of it is, well, incredible isn't a big enough word to describe it. But it's not all fairy-light and goodness." She grimaced. "Some of the world's got teeth."
Buffy fetched a glass of water and handed it to her friend. "What's going to happen?"
"I'm not sure," the redhead answered as she gratefully sipped the cool liquid, "but I think we're facing two breakouts, and the vibe coming from your side of the world is much worse. I'm going to get in touch with the coven, ask them to help seal your Hellmouth."
"They can do that from Devon?"
"If not, they might send a few witches over," Willow said. "I won't really know until I talk to them. Tara and I will stay here…if that's okay?" she asked the blonde, who nodded. "We'll work on finding the spell to repair the Seal of Danzalthar. But Buffy, you have to go back. Unlike Sunnydale, the Cleveland Hellmouth's not under a hundred tons of rock. Whatever's massing there is huge, almost First army-type huge."
The Slayer pursed her lips. "I'm not liking the idea of leaving you and Tara to deal with this alone."
"I'm not exactly wild about it either," Willow confessed, "but I'm not getting as much of a sense of urgency from this one as I am from yours. Maybe we can ask Angel to stand by."
"Better yet, why don't we ask him to come over already?"
"No, if we do that…" She paused. It was hard to explain, this hunch she had, but if anyone was determined to find the right words, it was Willow. "I think the demons at both Hellmouths are part of one group. At this point it feels like they're not paying attention to Sunnydale much. But Angel's tied to the Powers That Be and a lot of mystical, higher-plane forces. If we call him in now, it'll be like posting a huge neon sign over this place. I think what's here is some sort of recon force trying to find another way into the world. There aren't that many. But your side? They already know there's a working Hellmouth there. All they need to do is push hard enough to break through. If that happens, you're going to need everybody – Faith, the SITs, every Slayer you can muster."
Buffy frowned, crossing her arms. "How much time do we have?"
The green eyes deepened, took on a faraway look. "Days, maybe. I'm sensing frustration, so they haven't figured out how to do it yet. A week if we're lucky. But that's the main breach; there could be leaks along the way, like what happened with the First."
The small blonde sighed. "I guess that means I'm flying back tomorrow. I need to call Angel. Can I use your phone?"
"Feel free," Willow said. "Or you could try the laptop first, it's in the kitchen. Somebody from Angel's usually online. You could do a video call."
"And it's free, right?" Buffy grinned. "I'll try that first. You sure you're okay now?"
"I'm fine, Buff."
"I'll stay with her," Tara volunteered when the Slayer hesitated. She sat with the still-pale witch as the other woman left. "Are you sure you're alright?"
"Except for the demon inside my head bashing away with a mallet, finey Mcfine fine," Willow assured her. "It'll go away. I just need to rest for awhile."
"Is it always this b-bad, these episodes?"
The witch shook her head. "Actually, the first time was the worst. I collapsed and I guess I was physically trying to get away from it. Giles had to hold me. At least I can block out most of it now. Not the first wave, though, that always gets me." She snuck a look at her former girlfriend. "Tara, are you okay with this? I mean, it's alright if…does this…scare you?"
The blonde considered the question seriously. "No, I was just surprised. Though I don't know why I should be. I've always known that you'd be powerful. I told you that when we first met, remember? Once we had our voices back anyway," she grinned.
"I remember that it frightened you." Willow said quietly.
"Will, look at me." Deep cerulean eyes met uncertain green. "You know that's not what scared me. That's why you got mad and w-walked out. Nothing about you frightens me anymore," she said warmly, taking the slim hands in her own. "I don't like the way this causes you pain, that's all."
"It's not so bad," the redhead offered. "It's useful, really. It's like a reminder, you know, like one of those signs - 'this far, no further, cross this line and it's 'ouch' from here on in.' Keeps me on the straight and narrow…though not too straight because you know, gay now."
Tara smiled at the little joke, though she remained unconvinced. It was hard to be in favor of something that hurt Willow. "So what do we do?"
"We step up the research," was the ready answer. "I emailed the Council last night, asked for some books. If they used express shipment the books will get here by tomorrow or the day after. We'll figure this out," she said confidently, buoyed by the feel of Tara's hands clasping hers.
"I believe that," the taller girl said. "I just wish…It w-would've been nice if…" She gave up and sighed.
Willow didn't need to hear any more to understand. "I know. I wish that, too," she said softly. "But Tara? This is going to sound completely selfish, but if dealing with this is the price for having you back then…I really don't mind that much." She bit her lip. "Does that make me a bad person?"
"Only if I'm one, too." Touched by the declaration, Tara lifted their joined hands and brushed a kiss on the freckled skin.
Dawn didn't take too well to Buffy's announcement that she was flying back tomorrow…and that the youngest Summers was coming with her.
"I understand that you want to spend time with Tara. Really I do. But you can't just go AWOL, Dawn. You have to let your teachers know. I don't want them dropping you just because you're suddenly a no-show for two weeks. Besides, didn't you tell me you had an exam coming up?" Buffy asked.
"The world might end in two weeks and you want me to worry about dropping some subjects and an exam?" The girl was incredulous.
"The world's been on the brink a few times, and we managed to get through those and school," the Slayer pointed out. Suddenly, she grinned. "Want to put it to a vote? Let's ask Willow what she thinks of you blowing off your last year at university."
The senior was horrified. "That - that's so not fair!"
"I know." Buffy's grin faded as she regarded her sister seriously. "Trust me, I'd like nothing better than to stay here and catch up with Willow and get to know Tara again. But we have a job to do. It's not just school, Dawn. Next to Willow you're our main research gal. If Willow's right about how serious this whole business with the Hellmouth is, we're going to need you. I need you," she added quietly.
What could she say to that? Reluctantly, Dawn agreed to return home.
The rest of the day flew by. While Willow and Tara pored through the Council's online library, Buffy and Dawn re-packed and made arrangements for the flight back.
"Don't forget to put it on the Council's tab," Willow reminded the sisters when they regrouped for a late lunch. "This is Slayer business now."
Then, taking Tara aside, she offered to take over the research so the witch could spend time with Dawn.
"Sweetie, are you sure? Your head…"
"Nothing an aspirin or a Tylenol couldn't handle. Go on, Dawn misses you."
"W-what about you?"
"Dawn and I are fine. We've had our important talk, and I promise we'll have more later. I'm not going to let things slide again, Tara," Willow declared in a determined voice. "I'm going to be in her life from here on in."
"She'll like that," the blonde said happily, "she missed you so much." The estrangement between the two had been one of the things that she'd worried about the most.
She found Dawn in her room, happily unloading what seemed like bag after bag of clothes onto the bed. "These were your errands?" The Wiccan stared in amusement at the growing pile. "Don't you think you overdid it?"
"Oh these aren't for me. Well, maybe one or two or hmm…four things. But the rest are for you," the girl announced gleefully.
"W-what? Dawn, I can't –"
"Hey these are from Buffy, too," Dawn said defensively. "You can't reject gifts from the both of us now, can you?"
"The two of you planned this?" Tara asked weakly.
"Sort of. Buffy gave me her card and told me to let loose first chance I got." The brunette grinned. "This way we figured you can surprise Willow. She'll know she didn't get you these things…specially this little item." She grabbed a small bag from the pile and handed it to Tara.
"What's…?" Warmth flooded the witch's cheeks as she opened the bag and pulled out the contents. "Dawn!"
"What? You don't like it?" the girl asked with wide-eyed innocence. She dropped the act when the blonde began to stammer incoherently. "I know Willow's being…a shade less than her brilliant self, not to mention stubborn as anything. I just thought maybe you could persuade her."
"Persuade her?" Tara repeated in disbelief. "Dawn, if I wear this when Willow comes to my room tonight, she'll run out so fast she'll be in another state by the time the sun comes up!"
"So lock the door," Dawn shrugged, before the witch's words sank in. "Waitaminit…Willow? In your room? Tonight?!" she repeated. "Oh that's wonderful!" She hugged the blonde, ecstatic at the prospect of the reunion of her favorite pair.
Tara tried to disabuse her. "W-we're just going to sleep."
"Together? Even better."
"No, no, not like that! Just s-sleeping."
"Whatever you say."
Tara gave up. It was obvious that nothing was going to dislodge the smirk on Dawn's face. "M-maybe you should take some of these back? I like them," she assured the girl quickly, "but it seems like too much for -"
"No, it isn't," the brunette interrupted quickly, afraid of what she was about to say. Not thinking about that. Not tonight, or I'm never going to be able to get on that plane with Buffy. "How about we try some of these clothes on? I think I got your size right but you never know."
"Not this," Tara pronounced primly as she tucked the tiny article of non-clothing back into the bag. "This never sees the light of day."
Dawn wisely hid her grin as she thought about the scorching glances the two witches had been throwing at each other since Tara's return, specially when the other wasn't looking. The light of day maybe, but the light of Willow? Oh if only I were a betting woman…
Then it was late, and it was time to go to bed.
A pajama-clad Willow gulped and knocked diffidently before she opened the door to Tara's room. Okay, be calm. It's not like you haven't done this before. It's just a sleepover…She entered just in time to catch the blonde, who was seated cross-legged on the bed, stretching her arms over her head, her shirt going taut over bountiful curves and lifting just enough to show a band of skin…with the sexiest woman alive! Gods, did I say sleep?! "H-hey."
"Oh hi. Sorry, all this hunching over a laptop…" Tara explained in embarrassment as she waved at the machine on her lap. Feeling a little guilty about letting the hacker do most of the work again, she'd rushed back to do some research after dinner.
"No, my bad. I was the one who walked in and interrupted. I get that way too sometimes, with the need to lift…stretch! I meant stretch!" Nice going, Rosenberg. Smooth. Willow wasn't sure when she'd last felt this panicky. It was as if the years were falling away, and she was on the verge of turning twenty again. "Um, Tara? I know that we agreed on tonight, but if you want to spend it with Dawn that's okay, too. Since she's leaving tomorrow, I mean."
"Dawn's already asleep." Tara tried to smile through the giant butterflies that began fluttering in her stomach as soon as she'd caught sight of the redhead standing there in front of her, close enough to touch. Goddess, this is really happening! She's in my room. We're going to spend the whole night together. Inwardly, she groaned. This is going to be torture. "Apparently going to the mall t-twice in one day fazes even the youngest Summers."
A copper brow shot up. "Twice?"
"They passed by on the way from the airport because Buffy wanted to get a few things. Then Dawn went back after breakfast when she ran her 'errands.'"
"Trust the Summers sisters never to turn down an opportunity to indulge in retail therapy. A lesson which Dawn has learned well. Smart girl," Willow commented fondly.
"Yeah, she is." Tara got up. "I-I'm going to change, okay?" She gathered some clothes, picking out a modest silk nightgown-and-robe ensemble and studiously avoiding a certain bag that was tucked discreetly in a corner of the top drawer. Besides that has to go into the wash first…Her eyes widened as she realized where her thoughts were heading…with the rest of the new clothes!
She took a quick bath, careful not to get her hair wet. When she came back, Willow was already occupying the right side of the bed. She was lying front-first with her head propped up in one hand while the other tapped a few keys on the laptop. She had the cutest diligent expression on her face.
"I really think we're on to something here. These last couple of references looks promising," the hacker was saying, before she glanced at Tara and promptly lost all train of thought.
The thing about silk was it clung. To everything. Dips and curves swayed enticingly under the robe, bringing a wealth of memories. Of what it felt like to slide her hands over smooth cloth-covered skin, to feel that warmth, that shiver through a barrier that barely separated. Do you remember what it felt like to touch that…and that…there? Would Tara still moan if you ran the tip of your tongue…?
Willow's jaw went slack as the girl moved to untie her robe. She snapped her attention back to the laptop, shutting it down unceremoniously and practically shoving it off the bed. She was blushing furiously.
Just sleep, Tara reminded herself as she slid off her robe. Willow had made it clear that she wasn't ready for anything else. "H-how do you want to do this?" she stammered.
The redhead looked at her curiously, detecting her apprehension. For some reason the fact that her former girlfriend was also nervous calmed her, gave her focus. Tonight isn't about you, doofus. It's about Tara and giving her what she needs. The slim woman turned so that she was lying on her side. She patted the empty space in front of her. "Come here," she invited softly.
The blonde felt the mattress give under her weight as she slowly complied. For a moment she lay there stiffly, wondering how on God's green earth she was supposed to sleep with Willow so close and watching her like that.
"Turn on your side, sweetie? Like me."
Tara did as the woman suggested, turning her back to the hacker and facing the far wall. She felt a blanket being drawn up over their legs and halfway up their sides.
"Comfy?" She felt Willow's breath tickle her neck. Not trusting her voice, she nodded.
"I know this isn't the usual way we slept, but I thought this might be better tonight." One arm curved around her middle…and then, with a sweetness that made Tara want to cry, the redhead came close and spooned her, curling around the blonde with the warmth of her body.
"Is this okay?" Willow's voice sounded a little hoarse.
"I-it's perfect." Tara closed her eyes as her heart pounded. It was impossible not to feel the pert breasts pressed against her back, the hips that were so close to her own, but tonight wasn't about those things. With her body, Willow was offering her comfort, safety…love.
I'm home. Whatever feelings Tara had about being out of place in this world vanished. Though the Summerland had held its own sweetness, in its own way this was incomparable. Afraid of ruining the moment, her right hand tried to find a place to rest that wouldn't disturb the strong freckled arm draped around her middle.
Willow's hand caught hers and intertwined their fingers firmly before bringing both hands back to wrap around Tara's body, pressing lightly along her belly.
Then the perfect ending. The Wiccan felt a light kiss press against her hair. "Good night, Tara."
Some time in the night they had moved.
Morning found Willow lying on her back while Tara had turned around to face her, draping an arm over her waist and burrowing into the familiar crook of her shoulder. Somehow, a Willow-arm had snuck beneath and around the witch's body, pulling her close.
It was like a hundred other mornings, except this was one of those rare times when Willow woke first.
"This is the way every day should begin," she mumbled drowsily into the sweet-smelling blonde tresses tickling her cheek. This is the way I once thought every morning would be. She recalled how it felt to wake – if wake was the right word since they'd hardly slept – next to her lover in the morning-after of their reconciliation, how determined she was never to lose that again. Nothing's worth this, she remembered thinking. Magic's not worth a moment of this, not a second, a nano- second…Less than forty-eight hours later, she was smashing Buffy into walls and making Giles bleed.
Beside her Tara stirred. Her hand moved sleepily, tracing its way from Willow-waist to tummy and making comforting circles there. Her eyes remained closed, unwilling as of yet to exchange their half-twilight for day.
Unseeing, the blonde lifted her head to nuzzle Willow's cheek. "Why didn't you tell me?" she murmured.
"Didn't tell you what?" the redhead asked, distracted by the mild caress.
"The night I got back, why did you leave? Why did you send Dawn to talk to me without you?" This time the blue eyes opened. They met their counterparts steadily, lovingly…and with a little hurt.
Willow flinched. "I didn't know if I could. I was…scared."
The gently circling hand stilled. "S-scared of me?"
"Of how you would look at me when you knew." The witch found herself staring evasively at the ceiling, but her answer was painfully honest. "I've dreaded it forever, facing you with what I did. I've always had this picture in my mind of how it would go, how disappointed and angry you'd be. And it always ends the same way – you'd turn your back and leave, only for good this time. Forever. Because even your spirit wouldn't be able to stand what I did. I don't understand this, now," she admitted, one hand waving at their entwined forms. "You should be running away or giving me the evil eye or casting wards or something. How can you love me after what I did, Tara? After what Dawn told you and what you've actually seen? How can you forgive me when…"
"When what?" the blonde prodded gently.
The hacker's voice was so low it was barely a whisper. "When you were my first victim."
The statement, and its accompanying profusion of painful reminders, pierced Tara like a barb. She shut her eyes and pressed her face into the redhead's shoulder. So finally they were going to have it, this talk that by rights they should've had years ago.
"You hurt me, Willow." The words came with tears. "Not the spell itself, but when you did it…you b-betrayed me. You knew better than anyone what Glory did to me. When you made me forget, it was like that didn't matter, as if I didn't matter, like…you didn't care."
She felt the woman next to her freeze. For a second even the rise and fall of her chest seemed to stop. 'Is she going to leave?' Tara thought dully. Would Willow's guilt drive her away again, as it had when she'd left Dawn to talk about the terrible things she did?
"I'm sorry." A warm breath fell along the girl's cheek and then the redhead was moving, shifting until she was on her side and they were lying face to face. "I'm so sorry, Tara."
When the Wiccan opened her eyes again, it was to a sea of remorseful green. "When you promised to go a month, a w-week w-without magic," she continued haltingly, "only to break it so easily the next day, you broke my heart. I trusted you completely. I knew – not just believed but knew, like I knew the sun would come up everyday – that you loved me, that I was safe with you no matter what. After all, you fought for me, protected me, f-found me when I was l-lost. I never doubted you even when you started keeping things from the rest of us. When you cast those spells, it was as if suddenly I didn't know my world anymore."
"Oh God." Willow trembled under the force of her lover's pain. She'd always known that she'd hurt Tara, but this was the first time she'd had to confront the depth of it. "I'm sorry, I…" Say something else, doofus! But what? What can I possibly say to make up for what I did to her? What good are words? "How could you take me back, Tara? Not that I wasn't – am," she corrected, "absolutely grateful that you did, but how could you love me again after that?"
"'Again?'" the blonde repeated with a puzzled frown.
"I know I was all with the persistence though I really tried to give you space," the redhead explained in a rush. "If you didn't want to see me, I would've accepted that eventually. But I loved you so much, I couldn't help myself, I had to try. I stayed away for as long as I could but when I bumped into you – and then things were going well with the magic- quitting and I began to hope that maybe you'd give me a chance –"
"I didn't stop loving you, Willow." Tara cut in before the hacker ran out of air.
"You didn't?" the redhead asked in bewilderment. "But – but you left…"
The statement echoed with so much doubt that Tara immediately understood that it would take more than words to convince her. So she instinctively found herself doing the one thing that could. She lifted her head and kissed Willow, letting her feelings flow through the act.
The contact was supple, slow, the gentlest mix of breath and moist, tender lips. It didn't rush or poke or push. But it promised. More if you want it. More if you allow it. Just for you. Only for you.
A tendril of thought winded between two straining bodies. Kiss me, Will?
Tara. The redhead's mouth moved tentatively in response, nothing heavy or too forward, just soft lips seeking each other out, exploring together. But the instant reaction it provoked in both of them threatened to take their breath away.
'I'm on fire,' Willow thought helplessly, and for a second the temptation to move, to wrap this goddess of a woman in her arms and deepen and take all that the kiss offered was overwhelming. Until she remembered why they were talking in the first place and the guilt came crashing down again.
It had accomplished its purpose though. There wasn't a part of her that could doubt the Wiccan's declaration now, however impossible it should be. She could only gaze at her speechlessly as they drew apart.
"I never stopped." A part of Tara regretted the end of the kiss, but it was more important that they clear this hurdle first. "But when you did those spells, I realized I couldn't trust you anymore. That's why I had to go. I cared for you so much, Willow. I was tempted to stay even then. But staying, when you'd already p-played with my mind t-twice…" She took a deep breath. "I've been in situations where people h-hurt me and I couldn't do anything about it. But this time, if I hadn't left it would've been almost like I allowed it to happen. I couldn't do that."
She wondered if she should mention the irony of it – that it was also Willow who'd given her the strength to leave. Because the girl who'd barely managed to escape the Maclays, who'd hidden in the most remote UC campus she could find, praying everyday that her family wouldn't find her, who believed that she had a demon waiting to unleash itself on the world – that girl might have stayed.
But Willow had vanquished that. Everyday for two years, the gentle redhead had believed in her, drawn her out, loved her. And the woman who'd healed under that kind of regard and encouragement – the one whom the hacker had insisted on introducing to her friends as "a powerful witch," who'd grown strong by Willow's side – that woman had no choice but to leave when it became clear that the person she loved was becoming someone else, someone capable of harming the people around her.
But it hadn't been easy. "You have no idea how close I came. I was crying the entire time I packed. I kept glancing at the door to the bathroom, half hoping that you'd come out. If you hadn't stayed away, if you had b-begged for another chance like you did at Xander's…"
"You might not have left, and I – I would've done it again," Willow continued numbly.
"M-maybe. We don't know that."
"Oh I think we do," she scoffed. "I hurt Dawn after you left. I went to Rack and went full-blown magic junkie."
The Wiccan tenderly ran her thumb across a freckle-smattered cheek. "We don't know," she repeated, feeling that it was also time to air something else. "Would you have gone to Rack and been so reckless that night if you weren't so full of anger and pain…because I left?"
"Tara?" The redhead's brow furrowed. Surely she'd imagined the hint of self-reproach in the other woman's voice.
"Maybe you wouldn't have n-needed to."
"Don't even go there." Willow drew in a sharp breath. "It wasn't about need. It wasn't like food or water or even I-need-a-drink-because-my- girlfriend-left-me need. It was the rush, the craving. That's why I went to Rack even when I was supposed to be watching Dawn – goddess, I can't believe how incredibly stupid that was! I deserved a good whack on the head and trust me, if I could go back and administer it myself, I would."
"I could've stopped you," the blonde witch insisted. "If I'd been there instead of Amy maybe…maybe things wouldn't have gotten so bad."
"Tare honey, I love you, but between the two of us, who's the boss of me?" the hacker argued. Green eyes widened a second later as she realized what had slipped out – again! – only this time in a moment of exasperation. Not that she could help it. It was just monumentally silly that the most caring, considerate person she'd ever known was feeling guilty over what, leaving the girl who'd wiped her memories? After everything I did, it's a miracle she wants anything to do with me.
Willow cleared her throat. "I've said this before and I'll say it as many times as it takes to sink in: It was my fault. That's all, end of story. No ifs, no buts and definitely no more maybes. You warned me. You told me to slow down but I didn't listen. It's useless to second guess. If it matters – and I know it doesn't but if it did – my personal opinion is that you did the right thing. You protected yourself. I was so wrapped up in my pity party, I obviously wasn't thinking straight anymore."
"Plus, you were right," she continued, determined to address all of Tara's doubts. "It started out with me wanting to help and then it became about the things that I wanted. I cast a spell on you because fighting with you always made me uneasy. Then later, I wanted things the way they used to be – Buffy back to her old self, and you not mad at me. I panicked when you said that it wasn't working out between us. I was so focused on fixing those things that I never asked myself whether I had the right to do it. I meddled in all of our memories simply because I could."
"And the thing is…" Willow hesitated, not sure how the Wiccan would take her last confession, "the thought that you might leave me for what I've done, not just those spells but what came after, still frightens me. That's one of the reasons why I asked Dawn to talk to you, because I was tempted to…"
"Not tell me?"
"She told you that, too?"
"Not then. Later, when she found me crying."
Fingers brushed diffidently across the Tara's cheek. "If it matters, I think I would have. Told you, I mean. But the fact that I even thought about it…Oh Tara, you've been back for such a short time and already I've made you cry. I'm sorry."
"Not as much as I've made you." The blonde tucked a stray curl behind the redhead's ear.
Last night she had gotten visions of Willow walking into what used to be their room. Tara had never seen the witch look more vulnerable than when she entered, taking in the changes to a place that had once been their sanctuary. With a frail resolve that made Tara's heart ache, the redhead slowly went across the bedroom to that window. She hadn't cried then, but later, when the same fingers traced the letters on a cold stone grave in their brittle, achingly delicate way, and countless times before and after…In the years they'd been apart Willow had wept a sea of tears for the loss of her lover. "I'm sorry you had to go through what you did."
Something about the way she said it made Willow look at her closely. "Is this…more memories?"
She felt Tara nod against her shoulder. "They c-come at night mostly. Only this time, I didn't wake and they came like dreams, even the bad ones. Today, they're just there." She smiled. "I like it better this way."
"Have the nasty memories been hard on you, baby?" the redhead asked sympathetically.
Tara raised her head and locked gazes with the girl. "Not anymore," she said simply. "When you hold me like this, nothing can touch me. I love you, Willow, and I forgave you long before the night I walked into our room and asked you to kiss me. If for some reason you need my forgiveness again, it's yours."
Willow shut her eyes briefly. "I – I don't deserve that."
"How can you forgive others so easily but not accept it for yourself?" the blonde demanded quietly. "We've all made mistakes. I nearly got everyone killed once but you wouldn't even let me say sorry. You did the same thing for Buffy when she was suffering from those hallucinations."
"You didn't mean to hurt anyone and Buffy was under a spell," the hacker automatically defended. "But what I did was deliberate -"
"You wanted us to stop fighting. You wanted Buffy to be happy. Those weren't bad things in themselves. It was the way you resorted to magic that was wrong," Tara said. Her expression softened. "Forgiveness isn't about deserving, Willow. But even if it was, the way you've lived your life since? You've done your best to earn it."
Gentle blue eyes searched out uncertain green. "You were right, I was horrified when I found out," she admitted. "What Dawn told me and the visions that came, they were t-terrible. But I saw the rest, too. You didn't stay that way. You worked hard to control your gift, and since then you've used it to protect the world and everyone around you. You've become this amazing witch, and yet somehow, deep down, you're also the girl I've loved since the day we met. Many things may have changed between us, but nothing in this world or the next will make me turn my back on you."
The green deepened. "Tara…"
A sharp rap on the door startled them both. "Hey guys, in case you're awake in there, breakfast is ready. Come down when you can." There was a pause chock-full of mischief. "Take your time."
Willow and Tara looked at each other, blushed at the same time, and laughed. "We're coming, Dawn!" the redhead called out.
Breakfast was good. The witches were treated to full-blown Summers fare, complete with heaps of bacon and eggs and, to their delighted surprise, crepes filled with sliced strawberries and cream.
"Least we can do," the sisters smiled. This was part of the plan too.
Afterwards, by some unvoiced agreement, the foursome split into pairs. Tara stayed with Dawn while Buffy and Willow went for a walk in the garden.
"I miss California sometimes, the colors and this wonderful weather." Buffy picked up a twig and absently twirled it in her hand. "It takes some getting used to," she mused, "seeing Tara and Dawn practically the same age. She's what, twenty-two again?"
The observation gave Willow pause. Funny how she hadn't really noticed, but of course Buffy was right. Physically, the spell had brought Tara back much as she'd been when she died. "More or less."
"Makes you think, doesn't it? Were we ever that young?"
"I have it on good authority that we were at one point or another," the witch pronounced. "You're mangling that poor stick, by the way."
"I am?" The Slayer stared at the crushed twig in her hand before dropping it. "I once sent Angel away to be second front. Guess I'm going to find out how that feels now," she sighed.
"Well technically, you're the first front, we're the second, and Angel's the third or the back-up, depending on how you look at it. Speaking of which, did you get in touch with him?"
Buffy nodded. "Just give him the word, he says. Though he'll come down sooner if the Hellmouth starts acting, you know, Hellmouthy." She glanced at the house. "It's great to have Tara with us again. For whatever reason."
"Yeah, isn't it? It's like there was this hole, and I – we learned to live with it. Only now whatever was gone is back and it's not so holey anymore. It's all patched up." The redhead beamed. "Get it?"
"I get it," the blonde affirmed. "But I don't get the no-touching thing."
"Huh?" Willow reared back in surprise. "What 'no touching thing'? Has Dawn been talking to you?" she asked suspiciously. Dummy, of course Dawn told Buffy. She must know everything by now. "There's been plenty of touching. You saw us hug yesterday, and we slept together last night –sleep and talking only," she added quickly, "all of which is kinda hard to do with no touching."
"Yeah I know but Will, other than that you practically jump away from the poor girl whenever you so much as brush digits. I've never seen you that way with Tara, not ever, not even when you weren't officially together. Unless…is there something I'm not getting here? Did you guys decide…?" she trailed off. Just mentioning the idea seemed ridiculous.
"No!" the hacker hurriedly denied. "No deciding of any kind. Nothing like that."
"Then what is it? How are you dealing with this, really?"
"I'm fine, Buffy. Finey Mcfine fine."
The small blonde looked at her shrewdly. "You know you always say that when you're not?" she pointed out. "Now normally I'd be all subtle Buffy here. I'd lead to this topic casually after hours of watching vids and decimating bowls of freshly microwaved popcorn. But I'm leaving in a few hours so I'm invoking the best friend's express clause. Level with me, Will, tell me the good stuff."
"There's no good stuff! I mean, being with Tara is all good. Only I…" Willow's shoulders slumped as she gave in. "God, Buffy, I could spend the entire day watching her, and I don't mean complicated stuff. She could just be reading or walking or sitting in that way she does, you know, the way she'll Indian sit on a couch or a chair if it's wide enough? Sometimes I look at her and it's all I can do to breathe."
"Yeah I sensed that. You'd have to deaf, blind and dumb not to and hello, Slayer senses here. Your heart rate speeds up the second Tara steps into the room, like it's always done," Buffy teased lightly. "Still not getting the why of being jumpy, though."
"Remember when I was just starting the witchy stuff and I told you that magic is about emotional control? Well Tara makes me feel out of control, and that's me keeping my distance! If I touch her, if I keep touching her…" The redhead let out a deep breath. "What if I lose it again?"
"You really think that can happen?" Her friend's tone was skeptical.
"That if I – if we give in, I'll want forever?" Willow spread her hands. "I love her, Buffy. I already want forever. Okay, maybe not forever because no one's shooting for immortality here, but years definitely. I'm barely hanging on now."
"Then what difference does it make?"
The blonde raised her hands. "I'm just trying to understand. Because – okay how do I put this? I have this feeling that if Tara was back only for a day, we wouldn't be having this discussion."
To her surprise, the witch readily agreed. "A day is one thing," she said. "A day and you're right, there'd be nothing to discuss. But it's easier – I mean it would still be hell but just this side of easier – to spend a day knowing that what you're actually doing is saying goodbye. But days and weeks of living the life we should've had? Then what, I wake up one morning to find out that she's disappeared? Or I turn around just in time to catch her fading away? How insane a redhead do you want on your hands?" She clenched her fists. "It's too much. The feelings would be too much and I'd…"
"Go vengeance woman?" Buffy completed softly. "Willow, if we're talking about what happened before, I don't think the problem was you feeling too much."
"What do you mean?"
The Slayer stopped walking and faced her friend. "Okay, bear with me for a second, okay? I think about that day sometimes, and when I try to pinpoint exactly where everything went wrong, I always go back to that moment when you wouldn't talk to us. You didn't even tell us that Tara was dead until Xander and I tried to stop you from hunting Warren. It was as if you cut yourself off from everything except your anger."
"Do you remember when Giles asked what Tara would say if she saw what you were doing? You didn't even consider the question. You just snapped off a comeback and aimed another spell at him." Hazel eyes took on a reflective gleam. "Sometimes I wonder what would've happened if I had just, I dunno, grabbed you and held on and not let go…"
"You would've probably gotten a nice kick in the face," Willow replied cynically. "I was lost to the dark side, Buffy. I don't think a Hallmark moment would've saved me."
"We'll never know, will we? After all, that's basically what Xander did and it worked," the blonde said, not willing to concede the point. "But onto the now…that's not the only thing holding you back, is it?"
The hacker looked at her in surprise. "You know me too well," she grumbled after awhile. "It's creepy."
Buffy grinned. "It's supposed to be that way. Hello, best friends for more than ten years now. I've seen you in oversized fuzzy sweaters and you've seen me covered in monster goo. Far more times that we can count, actually." She frowned. "Does this mean we're getting old? We're starting to count in decades."
Willow rolled her eyes. "Of course not. You're a Slayer and I'm a big, bad Wicca. Between us we somehow managed to stop aging past sixteen."
"Ugh, please no," the blonde winced. "Too much drama and broodiness. I'll settle for twenty-one. I liked the way everything was instantly legal. What about you?"
"Me? Oh…now I guess." The redhead had a surprised expression on her face, as if she hadn't expected her own answer. "With Tara here, right now's perfect," she said dreamily.
Buffy silently counted to ten. "Earth to Willow."
"You were about to tell me something," the Slayer reminded her friend pleasantly.
"I was?" she hedged.
"Okay, okay. Jeez, pushy much?" The hacker sighed. "I lost Tara once, and it was terrible and I honestly don't know if I can go through that again and come out sane. But this time it's also…" She looked down. "Before we did the spell, she made me promise not to bring her back. I can't even try, Buffy. We can't even talk about it. When the time comes for her to return, it'll be like she…chose to leave me."
Buffy was silent for a minute. "Is there a choice? I mean, is there a way to bring Tara back for good?"
"I don't know," Willow replied with complete frankness. "If there is, it's not a spell I've ever heard of and well, I've been trying not to look. But I have this feeling that it's there. Like if I turn enough pages, I'll see it eventually. That's not based on anything. It's not even a conjecture, just a hunch."
"Yeah, but it's a Willow-hunch and we all know how those usually turn out…" Buffy's ears picked up a familiar tread. "Hey, Tara."
"Sorry to interrupt." The taller woman smiled as she approached the pair. "Dawn says she needs to print their tickets?"
"Oh that's right, I forgot the old printer broke down. I gave my aunt a new one for Christmas, but it must still be in a box somewhere. I'll find it. Be right back." Willow darted away quickly. That was close.
The two blondes gazed after the retreating hacker fondly before falling into step.
"I'm sorry for leaving so soon and taking Dawn with me," Buffy apologized. Then she smirked. "On the bright side, it gives you more alone time with Willow."
"Buffy, do you think Willow is okay with my being here?" Tara blurted out. She felt her cheeks go warm. "S-sorry, I know I shouldn't be asking, but you're her best friend and if there's anyone who knows, it's you."
"You know how Willow feels about you," the smaller woman replied kindly. "Of course she's happy."
"I know how she felt about me, but now…It's been so long, it's a little confusing." The witch was having a hard time reconciling the sweet, open woman from last night and early this morning with the tense redhead at breakfast.
Buffy hesitated. "Tara, I hope you don't mind but…Willow told me about her promise."
"She d-did?" The witch sounded surprised.
"I kind of insisted," the Slayer explained. "Would it really be so bad, coming back for good? Will says she doesn't even know if it's possible, but if it is…are you sure you don't want to try?"
"I had my time, Buffy, and my passing, it wasn't like yours; it wasn't unnatural. It would be s-selfish to ask for more," Tara answered. "Besides, do you remember…heaven?" For a moment, she was afraid of how the woman would react to the question. Would it remind her of how she'd been pulled out of paradise by her closest friends?
To her relief, the Slayer simply smiled. Her equable expression said that it wasn't a painful memory anymore. Instead it was a comfort, maybe a goal, and it brought peace.
"For me, it was the Summerland. It might be different…"
"Tara, no one is going to be surprised that you ended up in heaven. In fact we'd all be pretty nervous if you didn't."
"Do you remember feeling that you'd achieved your purpose, that everything you went through to get there was worth it?" the witch asked. "I'm scared of losing that. I know what Willow wants, but if I agree it will change things. I'm afraid that it m-might ruin everything."
Buffy nodded. "I understand. In my case it was – I was at peace, I'd done my job. I was satisfied and content that I did it well. Now it's all up in the air again and I could just as easily screw up this time. But the other side of that coin is…I've seen Dawn grow up into this amazing young woman, and I had something to do with that. And that, by itself? That makes being back here worth it." She grinned. "Don't tell that to Dawn, though. She's got a swelled enough head already."
"I'm sure she appreciates it. I'm glad it worked out for you," the Wiccan said sincerely.
"So am I. Look, Tara, I know I reacted badly to the resurrection thing, but Willow wouldn't have done it if she didn't think I was trapped in a hell dimension. She's not going to do anything against your wishes now," Buffy said seriously, "but if there's one thing that the experience taught me, it's that sometimes the world finds a way to call the people that it needs back."
"Maybe you're right," the taller blonde conceded, "but Willow and I, we knew the terms of that call when we answered it. Do we have the right to change it now?" She bit her lip. "Besides, if you remember what heaven was like then you know that it's more than a place, it's a state of being. If I stay here, I'm giving that up, too."
The expression on the Slayer's face turned wistful. "I remember some of it, how it felt, but eventually you forget the details. Makes living in this world easier, I guess. Does Willow know?"
"I mentioned how it was to be a soul, how I wasn't just me but also everyone I'd ever been." A wide smile touched the Wiccan's lips and for a second her face was transformed. "But I haven't explained what that means. We haven't had the time."
"Oh Tara, you've got to tell her," Buffy urged. "You have good reasons, and Willow should know them. I understand how she feels, though. She doesn't want to be in it for two weeks or ten days, however wonderful they might be. She wants the whole package, the life together that the two of you were denied. And that – that's just so Willow I can't argue with it either. This is really something that you both have to settle because when it comes to the two of you what you're talking about is a relationship, whether it's just for a couple of weeks or longer."
Tara nodded. On that score she agreed completely.
"There's um, one last thing. I really hate doing this but I have to." There were times when Buffy detested being the Slayer, and this was definitely one of them. "I'm only going to ask this once and then whatever you say goes, okay?"
Clear blue eyes turned her way, understanding that there was only one question that the Slayer would direct to her in Willow's absence. "A- ask."
"When you told Willow definitely 'no' to the re-enactment idea, was that…are you sure?"
"It's n-not a memory, but I think I'd r-recognize it as the spell if it were," was the truthful reply.
"And if it turns out that it is?" Buffy prodded gently.
"Then the seal opens and we d-deal with what comes out." Tara's expression was unyielding. "Because I'm never going to ask that of her, Buffy. After everything we've been through, it would destroy her."
They walked on in silence as the Slayer pondered the witch's response. Finally the petite blonde lifted her head. "Good," she pronounced.
"G-good?" Tara repeated in surprise.
Buffy nodded firmly. "Just one thing. If it does come to that, to letting the seal open, send for Angel right away. Don't wait. And tell me. I might have my hands full by then," she said ruefully, "but there'll be cavalry. Alright?"
The Wiccan smiled in relief. "Okay."
Scant hours later, Willow and Tara took the Summers sisters to the airport. The group exchanged hugs, got a little teary-eyed and chatted animatedly until the flight was announced.
Right before they went through the gate, Buffy impulsively turned around and enfolded Willow in a bear hug. "Take care of yourself, okay?" she whispered. "And remember, if you do fall apart I'll be there to help pick up the pieces."
"Thanks, Buffy." The redhead barely stopped herself from breaking into tears again. "I'll see you soon. You too, Dawnie. You guys take care."
The drive on the way back was mostly quiet.
Tara wondered sadly if she would see them again before it was time to go. It's only been minutes since I said goodbye and I miss them already. Dawn, who was this wonderful, outspoken young woman, and Buffy, who'd become wise…
"On the bright side, it gives you more alone time with Willow…"
Oh dear heaven. Tara ducked her head, hoping the woman beside her wouldn't notice the way her cheeks suddenly flamed. Not that it hadn't been on her mind, sort of, before now.
Tara had been sneaking glances at the redhead ever since they'd gotten into the car. The college student she remembered hadn't even had a learner's permit. Maybe that's why she was so fascinated by how capably and comfortably her former girlfriend was handling the car.
It wasn't that Willow was speeding exactly; she was still barely within the limit. But you got the sense that given a choice or if she had to, she could. Not recklessly, but with the same matter-of-fact competence that she was showing now. Plus, the blonde noticed to her amusement, the car had a manual transmission.
"What?" Green eyes flicked her way for half a second.
Busted. "Just remembering something Buffy once said. Only she wasn't Buffy then, she was that other Slayer, Faith? She was wrong."
"Oh? What was she wrong about?"
A lopsided grin blossomed on Tara's face. "You definitely drive stick."
"Well of course I -" Willow's eyes widened as she caught on. "W- what?!" she spluttered.
"It was the first time you took me to the Bronze and introduced me to Buffy, only she was actually Faith in Buffy's body," the blonde reminded her patiently.
"I remember that! But when was there mention of 'me' and 'stick'? When did those two words go together?"
Tara noticed the needle nudging past sixty-five. "Slow down, honey. You were getting us some drinks and Buffy – sorry, Faith – took one look at us, or probably more at me looking at you, and said, 'So Willow's not driving stick anymore. Who'd have thought?'"
Most of Willow's response was unintelligible as she muttered under her breath, but Tara got the impression that the stream of words flowing from the redhead's mouth wasn't entirely polite. "Just wait till I get to Cleveland," she ended in an ominous tone.
"I didn't mind," the blonde interjected shyly. "I mean, I didn't like how she made it sound so s-skanky, but I didn't mind that she noticed. And for the record, I like the way you drive."
Willow kept her eyes on the road, but the hand that had been on the gear shift snuck to the right and found one of Tara's. "I'm glad," she said, squeezing the girl's hand briefly before returning to its place.
Tara found that she didn't want the fleeting contact to end. Tentatively, she covered the hand that was resting on the stick shift with her own. "Is this okay…it's not bothering you?"
In answer, Willow stretched out her hand until their fingers naturally melded together, Tara's locked over hers. "I've had dreams," she revealed softly, "where I was driving and holding your hand exactly like this. Some of them seemed so real, I could almost feel your hand in mine when I woke up. We were in a convertible, going a little fast on an empty road. The sun was shining, and the top was down. The wind whipped your hair back and you were laughing because it did that every time you tried to pin it down. Sometimes I even recognized the road."
Spoken gently, the words seemed to weave a spell that Tara very much wanted to fall under. "Where were we going?"
"Wine country. Sorry, I know you don't like wine that much," the hacker said apologetically. "I didn't really appreciate it myself until a few years ago. But there are some beautiful hills and vineyards and inns up there, and in my dream I was taking you to this little winery so you could try their wonderful cabernet."
"You're into wine now?"
"It's not like I'm a connoisseur or anything," Willow disclaimed quickly. "I couldn't tell you what grape came from what year and I like having a good merlot whatever the snooty folks say, but I'll share a bottle with friends every now and then."
Tara ducked her head. "Was this something you used to do with K- Kennedy?" she couldn't help asking.
"No," was the immediate answer, "though it was Kennedy's mom who got me started, gave me some pointers on how to tell good wines from bad, that sort of thing. But the only trip I took up there was with Buffy and Xander before I left for England. We figured we should see California together before I went." Willow didn't mention that her best friends had practically kidnapped her, sensing how depressed the redhead had gotten over her increasingly shaky relationship with a certain Slayer. "I guess because we all thought I might not come back."
"I'm glad you did. Come back, I mean." Tara rested her head against the seat, turning so that she could gaze at Willow. "Tell me more about this dream, sweetie? What does wine country look like?"
Willow obliged with a smile. "There's this road that goes from Sonoma to Napa Valley. You drive east over the mountains, and the views as you descend…absolutely beautiful. At times you can see the valley stretched out below you, miles and miles of green and patches of purple, tiny stone buildings, some of them old…"
Tara listened, enraptured, as the hacker drew a picture for her with words that was more vibrant than any captured photograph. Miles passed unnoticed while the setting sun behind them turned Willow's hair to coppery gold. For a moment the image the hacker's words was creating was so strong that Tara could almost see the vineyards and wineries when she closed her eyes. Maybe we can go on a road trip. Willow could teach me to drive and we could take turns…
Her eyes flew open as the dream abruptly ended. 'I can't,' Tara thought wildly. 'I can't.'
Suddenly she was hearing Buffy again. "She doesn't want to be in it for two weeks or ten days, however wonderful they might be. She wants the whole package, the life together that the two of you were denied."
The problem was, in her heart, Tara was starting to want the same thing too.
It's just the two of us.
If that hadn't been on Willow and Tara's minds before, there was nothing like arriving at the quiet, empty house to remind them.
The pair stood across from each other inside the door, hardly daring to look at each other, tongue-tied. Suddenly, everything felt awkward.
Tara took a tentative step towards the kitchen. "I'll s-start dinner."
"Oh no you're not!" Willow suddenly exclaimed, startling them both with her vehemence. "Sorry. I mean I want to do it, cook something for you. Everyone else has – Dawn, even Buffy and she was only here overnight! I've wanted to do that since you got here, prepare something for you. Not that it's going to be better or anything, because you know me, not much of a cook but I'd really…"
"Will," Tara cut softly through the beginning babble. "I'd love that, but you don't have to. It's no trouble if –"
"I want to!" The redhead repeated, nodding several times to emphasize her point. "Is there um, anything you'd like in particular?"
"Whatever you come up with is fine. Just…" The taller woman hesitated. "I was wondering…do you think it's possible for me to try some wine?"
Green eyes locked on her in surprise. "Are you sure? Because you uh sort of…hated it before."
"So did you. But from what you say it can be good and well…u-unless, is it too much trouble?" Tara demurred.
The hacker's chin lifted. "No trouble at all," she said firmly. "I just need some time, like if you're not hungry yet…maybe an hour? I'll call when everything's ready."
"Okay. Do you want me to check your email, see if there's any word from Giles on those books you asked for?" the Wiccan asked. At the redhead's nod, the girl turned and climbed the stairs, hiding her grin. That's so sweet, that she wants to cook me dinner.
The second her former girlfriend was out of sight, Willow broke into a frenzy of activity, all thoughts of awkwardness forgotten.
Finally! She was so determined to prepare a meal once and for all that for some time the process completely occupied her. She wanted everything to be perfect and if Tara wanted some wine after dinner, Willow was going to provide the right introduction.
Something light, fruity, easy to start with…maybe a dessert wine? Mentally, the hacker flipped through a dozen possibilities. Was there time to go out and buy something? Thankfully, a little snooping revealed that her aunt kept a couple of bottles on hand, California wines of course, and Willow found something that would do.
That still left the dinner itself, the table setting, finding the good plates, bringing out silverware and wine glasses…
Sixty-five minutes later, the redhead threw a frantic eye over the table. Had she forgotten anything? Everything looked ready.
'Except me!' she amended as she glanced down at the sauce stains on her shirt. How is it that Tara always looks relaxed while she's doing this while I come out of it looking like I came from a monster truck rally?
Willow tore up the stairs to change. In another minute, she was standing outside the blonde's door. She knocked, and with a little quaver in her voice, called the Wiccan to supper.
When Tara came downstairs and saw for the first time how carefully everything was prepared for her, for a moment all she could do was stand there in surprise. "Willow, this is so…you didn't have to…"
"I did. Definitely with the had," the redhead croaked, dazzled by the slow smile that broke over the face of her former lover. If she'd almost forgotten how doing little things for Tara could make her own heart soar, the pleasure on that face and the heady beat of her own pulse was all it took to remind her.
They sat down and began to share a meal that was a success even by Willow's exacting standards. Tara ate the meat-free pasta with relish, and was surprised when the witch even served dessert ('thank you, Rachael Ray!' the hacker mentally intoned). But the best part of the meal, in Willow's opinion, was the conversation.
They slipped into it easily, like old friends, or maybe more like old lovers who were still friends between whom there was still…Willow cut the thought off hastily.
They reminisced about the old Scooby gang, laughing over the scrapes they'd gotten into, and swapped stories about new experiences. For the moment, the problem with the Hellmouth was pushed aside – it was important but it would still be there later. Now was the time for catching up, for reacquainting and reminding.
After dessert, Willow brought out a light-colored bottle that was already uncorked. "I hope you don't mind but I chilled it a little. The purists would have my head but I've always liked this one slightly cold."
Tara held out her wineglass and watched the redhead pour for the both of them with a practiced motion. "How do you do this?" she asked.
"Oh you mean like tasting and stuff? No need, just take a few slow sips." The slim woman put the bottle down and lifted her own glass easily. "We've tried wine before. Of course, we did that just for a spell and it was horrible," she shuddered at the memory, "tasted like recycled bicycle tires! Never trust Spike's taste in anything that comes in a bottle." She shook her head, then leaned forward earnestly. "I hope you like this one better, but it's also okay if you don't."
"I know it's okay, but…" Tara bit her lip. But back then you didn't like it either and now you do. I want to share this with you like we used to share mochas. When you were telling me about wine country and going to your first tasting – I want to understand what lights up your face like that. I want to remember so that when I go back…Out of nowhere, something inside her quailed at the thought of "going back."
Willow misinterpreted the flash of trepidation she caught on the blonde's face. "Hey, it's alright if you don't want to try it anymore. Not everyone likes it and that's fine too."
"No, I want to," Tara reassured her quickly, even as she tried to deal with the bewildering flash of emotion. Of course she didn't like the thought of leaving Willow, but since when had she felt any real reluctance about returning to the Summerland?
What happened? What's changed? Ever since we talked in the car, a part of me feels so…unsettled. She raised her glass to her lips, aware of anxious green eyes following her every move. The chilled, slightly fruity liquid swept over her tongue at the same moment realization struck.
Never stopped loving her. But had accepted over the years that that love could only happen from a distance. Tara had reconciled herself to the idea, and although she loved the redhead no less, there had been a part of her that had somehow been able to – not exactly hold back – just hadn't been fully engaged.
The short trip in the car had changed all of that.
Tara Maclay, you dummy, you've fallen in love with her all over again. Eagerly. Desperately. Butterflies in your stomach. Did you really think you could spend all this time with Willow up close and not?
The blonde witch shut her eyes as she felt tears gather, not wanting to alarm the woman in front of her. When she opened them again, her cerulean gaze glimmered with light. "It's wonderful…"
Willow returned the look eagerly. "I'm glad. I was hoping you'd…" Then she met the full force of those shining blue eyes and her mind stuttered. Wha –?
That expression, where had she seen it before? Then in the next instant the answer was there, transporting her to the past.
It was the morning-after of the Sunnydale blackout, of Willow's declaration that she was with the person she loved. For the first time the hacker had woken to find the blonde openly watching her, and as now, the light in her eyes had been unmistakable. Tara's gaze was as clear as words, and it was the words that echoed in the witch's memory now.
"This is really real, isn't it? You and me?" A crinkle of uncertainty furrowed the normally placid brow and Willow found herself reaching up with the tips of her fingers to smooth it away.
"As really real as it can be," the redhead said reassuringly. "I mean, if you want it to be." Suddenly her eyes widened. "Oh God I'm such a moron! I never asked – I just assumed – my mind sort of stopped at coming here with the candle and trying to apologize and making sure you knew how I felt –"
Tara held a finger to her lips. "I love you, Willow." Her half-smile was luminous, and for the first time there was a glimmer of knowing in it too, a teasing quality that would become endearingly familiar to the hacker in the coming days. "It feels so good to be able to say that, finally."
"I do too, you know, love you." The words bubbled merrily on the witch's lips. Is it really possible to be this happy? Someone like me, and here we are, and I've found her, and even though I messed it up and put her through so much, she loves me back? Loves me anyway? "So um…does this mean…are we together now?" she asked hesitantly, wary of invoking the Scooby jinx in any way. It seemed almost dangerous to ask for more when this, right now, was perfect.
"It feels like we've been together since the first night we met," the blonde confessed, leaning down to kiss her girlfriend. "Only now it's official."
Fast-forward to what felt like a hundred years later, and the redhead couldn't help recognizing it once more, the light in her lover's eyes. The intense blueness of them that called to an answering wave of longing deep inside Willow.
That's when it hit her again. Tonight. No Buffy, no Dawn. Just her and Tara in one room…one bed.
The realization made her jump up in panic. "I uh…I'm glad you liked it. Do you want more? Because if you don't, I guess I should fix this up…"
"No please, let me," Tara volunteered after a second, taken aback by the abrupt change. "You cooked and everything, I'll clean up."
Willow nodded, too frazzled to argue or offer help. "Thanks. I'll just go take a shower, got a lot of stuff on me from the cooking. I'll freshen up before we work on the Hellmouth some more." She barely waited for the blonde's "okay" before she sped off.
Ten minutes later, the redhead was staring at her sodden image in the bathroom mirror, her hands propped up on the sink.
"Do not think about this," she told herself warningly. "Don't even go there! Are you forgetting that the fate of the world is at stake here?" she chastised her reflection. "This isn't the time…"
'When is the time?' Something bitter in her welled up and butted in. 'Hasn't that always been the problem, never enough time for Tara and you? We thought we'd found our world, and in an instant it was taken away. Now here she is again, only you can't keep her, Willow.'
"I love her," the witch told her reflection defiantly. "I want…"
'Do it only if you can let her go. Give in only if you can keep your promise. Or risk betraying Tara again.'
"I would never do that!"
The inner voice seemed unimpressed. 'Prove it.'
An hour later, Tara felt like she was teetering on the verge of some kind of psychosis.
Had Willow even noticed how intensely she had been staring at her all evening? It wasn't deliberate. She just kept finding herself hungrily snatching glimpses of the witch all evening long and…sinking into each glance, prolonging it.
It was those silly, long-sleeved pajamas. No, Tara corrected herself, trying to pull her attention back to the book in front of her, it's that button.
The first time Willow had slept in the witch's room (way before the night of the extra-flamey candle), her pajamas had been fully, ridiculously buttoned up. Much later, when they'd become lovers, Willow often slept in a tank top, or if it was too cold, she'd pull a pajama top on but leave several buttons open, at least three. Just enough, Tara had always thought privately, to be able to slip a hand in…
Tonight there were two buttons open on Willow's top, and that one button-difference, along with a few other things, was undoing the best of Tara intentions. She'd come into the room ready to work and determined to respect her former lover's reservations.
'Only she's not making it easy, is she?' the Wiccan grumbled inwardly. Whatever her intentions, she wasn't prepared for the freshly-showered-Willow-scent that hit her when the witch passed by the bed to get to the desk. And she was too damn cute! The rumpled look, the still-wet hair, the glowing, newly-scrubbed skin – the hacker would be mortified if anyone outside of a very small circle of friends and family saw her like this, but to Tara it was part of the attraction. It said they were still close, comfortable.
Not to mention how many times had a night of lovemaking started like this, with Willow barely out of the shower before the blonde woman was onto her, cornering her, barely able to shut the door behind them before she was pressed against her lover, taking those lips, tasting that skin…Worse, from what Tara could see, there wasn't anything but skin under the fuzzy cloth…
She took a deep breath. 'Get a hold of yourself,' she scolded herself caustically, before her gaze wandered over to the redhead again and swept longingly over the familiar and no-longer-familiar planes of the woman's slim figure. Gods, I'm turning into a guy! Just at that moment, Willow bent quickly to retrieve something from a low drawer, and Tara's mouth went dry as more pale-flushed skin flashed from the open vee of her top. Forget that. I'm worse.
Unaware of all the attention, Willow glared at the screen of her laptop. "Why is it that it's exactly those things that we need that aren't –" she began in exasperation, turning towards her companion.
And ran straight into intent blue eyes, fierce with wanting.
The blonde knew in an instant that she was busted, because Willow's eyes went round even as she squeaked, "Um, Tara? What's wrong?"
"N-nothing." The Wiccan dropped the book she'd been pretending to read for the last hour and got off the bed. In three steps she was looking down at a very nervous redhead. Now that the moment was upon her, Tara's voice turned thick; she could barely get the words out. "It's just…you look so good in those pajamas, Willow."
She reached down and tucked a stray curl behind the redhead's ear.
Her other hand slipped into the copper tresses, marveling at the length and softness of it. So many things changed, so many things the same.
"Tara…" Her name slipped like a sigh from half-parted lips.
Lips, Tara thought in a daze, that she had never been able to resist, nor would ever want to. She bent down towards her lover's upturned face, and their warm breaths mingled for a moment that seemed endless.
The kiss, when it came, was searing.
It was no accident this time, no inadvertent offshoot of a comforting embrace or of a conversation long withheld. Though unplanned, every part of Tara intended this kiss, wanted it, wanted Willow.
And like a flame to kindling, it set off something inside Willow too, so that after a second's pause she was returning the kiss fiercely, hungrily. Gods, this is the woman I love, her lips and body sang. How could she not kiss her? In seconds, she was on her feet, giving as good as she got.
Tara led but every move Willow answered. When the blonde's hands dropped to her waist to draw her nearer, hers found their way to the small of the Wiccan's back, urging her close in return. When a tongue ran shyly across her lips, seeking entrance, Willow welcomed it readily, playing its gentle game of tag…until she lost patience, trapped it playfully and sucked.
"Goddess, Willow, you –!" Tara's voice was hoarse as she broke for air.
"Me?!" Willow returned indignantly between snatches of breath. "You're the one who –" That was as far as she got before her lover was kissing her again. And this time she wasn't shy.
They stumbled across the room. Every sense was spiraling, rising. Hands fumbled, sliding from neck to shoulders to arms to hips and backsides, seeking purchase, knowledge, warmth, skin. Specially for Tara, who was re-learning the art of body and skin. Incorporeal for so long, she reveled in the softness and yielding solidity that was her lover's frame. I can't get enough of her, she marveled, and who could blame me?
When the two women fell on the bed, side by side, they couldn't let go. Willow felt a nimble Tara-hand slip between their bodies, nimbly undoing a button. She felt the graze of fingers between her breasts, setting off sparks…
But also waking Willow's mind. The action made it clear that Tara wanted her, here, now. No, not just wanted because it had never been that simple between them – wanted to make love to her, but yes, right now. Suddenly her heart was hammering. They were so close, and Willow was so tempted.
'Do it only if you can let her go…Or risk betraying Tara again.' Willow knew instantly that she couldn't give the right answer yet, couldn't say for a fact that if she reclaimed Tara as her lover, she could let her go when the time came. And that fear, that she would hurt the woman she loved again, finally overcame the desire.
"Wait," she whispered. Mustering everything in her, she slowed their kisses, stilled the questing hands. "As much as I'd like to continue," she said hoarsely, grabbing at straws, "there's you know…research. Tons of it. Lots of late hours ahead and Scooby work."
"That's never stopped you before," Tara said slyly, moving in for another kiss.
Willow ducked away. In the second that Tara froze in disbelief, she got to her feet. "Things are different now." She moved towards her laptop. She could hardly look at the Wiccan; she knew how easy it would be to get lost in those deep blue eyes. "I'm uh not exactly a spritely twenty-year old anymore, you know. Can't survive on a two hour nap and a cup of coffee…"
Tara got out of the bed and followed her. "Willow? What's wrong?"
"Nothing, it's just…well I mean…everything's different now, right?" the redhead mumbled. "Like you're still young while me, I'm turning 30 soon. You on the other hand, you're barely older than Dawnie now, and it would just be weird dating someone Dawnie's age…"
The blonde's gaze narrowed. "Now you're just making up excuses."
"Hey these are valid concerns," the hacker protested as indignantly as her flimsy excuses allowed.
"You mean imagined concerns." To their mutual surprise, Tara grabbed Willow's hands, and brought them to her waist, firmly sliding them down her hips. "This body is twenty-two, because this is the way you and Dawn remember me. But I'm not, Willow. I'm just as old as you are, or maybe even older because of where I've been and what I've gone through. But that isn't what's really bothering you, is it?"
Willow let out a breath. "No."
Tara looked at her in genuine confusion. "I don't understand this…If you love me, and you know I love you, and you're not in a r-relationship anymore…why so many obstacles? Why is it so complicated?"
"It just is. Tara, look, I've been through so many things, and you might have seen them but you weren't there, you don't understand," the redhead tried to explain. "I've changed in so many ways. You may think you know me but I'm not the same girl."
The Wiccan crossed her arms in front of her chest. "You're right. I've never known this Willow, who's so afraid of loving me."
It was too close to the real reason, that mention of fear, and it made Willow snap, "What am I supposed to do, Tara? Make a place for you in my heart?" She regretted the words as soon as she saw the blonde pale. Those words had been Tara's a long time ago, when they were talking to Dawn about her mother's death, and now they were being thrown back at her.
"I have, you know," she sighed. "But some days it doesn't make me feel any better. And what you're asking from me right now…it's too hard. I'm sorry but I can't."
"Then m-maybe we should sleep apart tonight." Tara regretted the words as soon as they came out of her mouth.
The green eyes gazed at her sadly but didn't falter. "If that's what you want."
Hours later, Tara dreamed.
There was a lake, and a bridge, and Tara's breath hitched. Surely, at any moment, her lover would appear. They would talk and hold hands and forgive each other. But she wasn't with Willow. She was walking with…herself, she realized. Only the other figure seemed more knowing and just a bit glowy. Myself, she recognized, before this confusing body.
"Do you believe it now?" The other's voice echoed with something unworldly.
"She said she loves me."
"But she's no longer yours. Years have passed. You know this. You remember more now."
"I just…I love her, and each day is one less from the time we've been given." She could hear the frustration in her voice.
"This isn't what you were sent back for." The reproach was gentle.
"I know! I haven't lost sight of that, but at the same time…it's so hard to keep away from her, to keep things at this level and no more. Except for when we broke up, I've never held back from her. Is that so wrong?"
"Wrong? Only you can say that. But is it fair to Willow? That's a different matter. You know what she wants."
She dropped her head. "I can't. You know that. And she promised."
"And she's keeping that promise, isn't she? You should talk to her."
"She's mad at me. She – she pulled away," she said, a throb of pain in her voice. In the entire time they'd been together, neither she nor Willow had ever broken away from a kiss they shared. Ended it apologetically maybe, when there were other things that had to be done. Now, in the space of a few days, Willow had done it twice.
The luminous apparition sighed. She wasn't immune from this particular hurt either. "The one thing guaranteed about Willow is that she doesn't stay mad. Talk to her. You said it yourself, each day is important, precious. Do you really want to waste more time with this disagreement hanging between the two you? Besides," she smiled, "I have a feeling she wants to fix this as badly as you do."
"Does she?" Tara asked hopefully. "But you're right, we don't have time to argue. I'll talk to Willow tomorrow."
"Good. I don't think you'll regret it."
In the morning, both witches woke to the same thought – Why are we fighting? – and the determination to put things right.
But despite their resolve, their initial meeting was awkward.
Willow shifted from foot to foot as she stood in the doorway to the kitchen. In a matter of seconds, her mind frantically came up with a dozen ideas to start talking to the tall blonde, but discarded them just as quickly.
Tara glanced at the redhead nervously before her eyes dropped back to the bowl of pancake mix. Her hair fell forward to shield her face.
Oh-kay, this is bad, Willow couldn't help thinking. "Um," she began desperately, "need help?"
"E-eggs maybe?" Tara suggested after a second. "If you want scrambled eggs."
Willow beamed. At least the blonde was talking to her! "That sounds great! Eggs you know, they're very nutritious. Lots of protein and Vitamin A, good for building muscles and bones and eyesight. Not that you need better muscles or bones or…do we have another bowl?" she trailed off, looking dubiously at the tray of eggs in her hand.
"I saw another one in that c-cupboard."
"Got it. Is there any particular way you want them?"
Tara paused, her brow crinkling. "I thought we agreed on…scrambled?"
"Oh yeah. It's just that some people like their eggs beaten in a certain way. You know, clockwise, counter, uh…quickly, slowly…?" I just cannot shut up, the addled hacker thought helplessly.
"Oh. Either. I mean, there's no particular way I like my eggs um…beaten," the Wiccan said in a bewildered tone. "Do you like funny shapes or round? Pancakes," she clarified, before the conversation got any more confusing than it was.
"Whatever you come up with is fine," Willow replied brightly.
"Did you –"
"Are you –"
They glanced at each other ruefully and lapsed into silence.
This is ridiculous. Say something! "Tara…" Willow swallowed nervously. Dammit Rosenberg, you're not a kid anymore. Just tell her how you feel and take it like a woman! "I'm sorry. I…missed you last night."
Tara looked up, and this time their eyes met and stayed. "I missed you too," she replied softly. "I'm s-sorry too. We agreed that we both n-needed time and I've done nothing but push since…"
"No, don't," the redhead interjected. "I ah…I don't mind the way you er push." A rakish grin briefly curved along the hacker's lips. "To be completely honest, I kinda like it. I guess I should be flattered that you find the older me as irresistible as the younger model."
Tara's laugh was half-relief, the giddy feeling that came with making up. "Model? You're not a car, Willow. Older, younger, you're you." She let go of the bowl and spoon and walked over to the slim woman, shyly taking her hands in her own. "And I love you."
The declaration made the redhead's heart skip. "Do you know what the hardest thing was about losing you?" she suddenly blurted out. "I mean, everything was hard but…"
"Will?" Blue eyes were wide with surprise and uncertainty. Where was this unexpected fork going?
"The nights. The nights were hardest," Willow pushed on, favoring her girlfriend with a humorless grin. "Ask Giles sometime about the year I spent as a zombie, how I traded night for day. Once I was strong enough – and well, once the coven witches were sure that I wasn't going to go black magic and blast them to pieces – I'd patrol the grounds by myself. Sometimes I'd walk all night until I was too tired or till the light broke. I never told anybody, but I always thought of it as walking towards the sunrise."
For a moment Tara could only gaze at her. The words brought up an image of her lover starkly clear in her mind's eye. The walking wounded…was it a memory or did Willow just describe it so well right now? A gentle hand came up and brushed a stray lock of red back into place. "Honey, I'm sorry," she said softly. "If I had a choice, it would've been never to leave you."
"I know." And then Willow, or at least Willow's runaway mouth, threw another curve ball. "Except you did once. With good reason," she added hastily.
The blonde lost her hold on the hacker in surprise. She looked at her girlfriend closely. Judging from Willow's expression though, she was just as shocked at what she'd said. Not deliberate then, just my frazzled gal's woolly mind working overtime.
Tara's lopsided grin was full of affection. Time to bring that woolly mind back to the present. "And did you notice how easy it was for you to get me back?" she quipped. "We had coffee and the next thing you knew, there I was, standing in your doorway, staring up the slit of your skirt, propositioning you." She paused. "Face it, Will, when it came to you, I was a slut."
That got the desired effect. "Tara!" Willow burst out laughing. "Wait, wait – you were staring up my skirt? How long were you standing there before…?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" the tall woman said smugly.
"A gal's gotta have some secrets," the blonde shrugged. "Besides, don't tell me you didn't notice. The first thing you did when you heard me was to sit up and smooth that skirt down. Come on, admit it, you felt a teeny bit self-conscious, didn't you?" The Wiccan continued teasing her girlfriend until they were both doubled up in laughter.
"Okay!" The redhead finally held out her hands in surrender. "Enough, you win! Oh God, I missed you so much, baby."
"Erm so my point, my original point – I do have one somewhere – would it be alright if while you were here, we could maybe…" Willow continued hesitantly, "not spend another night apart? Not if we can help it? Even if one of us does something stupid?"
"I'd like that," Tara agreed with a warm smile. She watched another play of expressions on her girlfriend's face and spotted something that anyone who knew Willow would recognize in an instant. Resolve face?
"Tara, I want to try to explain." This time it was the hacker's hands that tightened over hers. "My reaction last night…I don't know if this'll make sense but…"
Willow took a deep breath. "I was what, nineteen, twenty when I met you? And since then it feels like everything in my life relates to you somehow. Everything was for you or with you, because of you or…because I couldn't get over you. You're like this," she paused, searching for the right metaphor, "perfect childhood home. I've never had one in real life of course, but that's what it feels like sometimes. Like you're this perfect home I lost years ago, I just can't help comparing every place I've been to since. But though part of me has never stopped searching for that place, that feeling, I've learned to…live in other places as well." She shook her head. "I'm sorry, I know I'm not making much sense. But do you get it at all?"
To her relief, the blonde nodded.
"But now I've found it again, this home I thought I'd lost forever," the redhead continued haltingly. "I've found you again and…Tara, I love you, I do. So much, and that's what's making this so hard. Because what you were offering me last night? It's the one thing I've dreamed about for years. Only…" the slim woman bent her head, and instantly the world's most powerful witch seemed small, almost fragile. "Only what happens when it ends? How do I wake up from this perfect dream? How do I choose to wake up from us?"
"Willow, sweetie…" As the woman looked up again, Tara gazed into the earnest, searching eyes. "I wish I could tell you that I had the answers," she said regretfully, "but I don't. But I know this much: when we're together, we're strong. Together we can face this one day at a time, until we find our way. That is, if – if you w-want to?" she asked, suddenly struck with uncertainly. What if it's too much? Is that what she's trying to tell me, that she's spent too many years trying to deal with what happened to me, to us? That it took her so long to get over the pain, now that she's finally gotten over it she can't risk going back?
She needn't have worried. "Want to? Ha!" Green eyes blazed into blue. "You mean everything to me, Tara Maclay. From the minute you knocked me down, I didn't stand a chance. There's nothing in the world I want more than to spend everyday, every minute, every waking second with you."
Tara caught her breath at the impassioned statement. "Willow, you…when you say things like that…!"
"What? It's nothing I haven't said before," Willow said in her most innocent tone. But she was grinning again. "Besides, it's not the words themselves, you know. There's a trick to it."
A blonde eyebrow rose. "A trick?"
"A secret then. Want to know?" The hacker tugged her close until she could whisper in her girlfriend's ear.
"Yes, please." A tiny shiver ran through Tara as she felt warm breath tickle her skin.
"The secret," the redhead murmured, "is that I mean every word I say. What's more, you know I do. Don't you, Tara?"
Tara closed her eyes. Yes. They had had their hard times, their doubts, the lies that had nearly destroyed them. But every word Willow had ever spoken to her of love she had meant. Strange how powerful that was, how it could change a person's entire world. Just knowing that someone loved you that way, that they could say such sweet implausible things like that to you and you could believe them.
The wonder of it all is that I found her, and she found me. How is such a thing even possible, to find the one person meant for you in this whole wide world? And to find her so soon, so early…I was lucky. Even if we had such a short time together, Goddess, I was lucky.
"Willow." Tara's voice fell to a whisper. "I'm going to kiss you now." It came out like a statement, but there was a question hidden in it too.
The redhead drew back, but only enough so she could have more of those deep blue eyes. "Kissing is okay," Willow breathed. "I can handle kissing."
This time, when they came together, things were easy. No questions, no doubts, just sweet, perfect kisses and two lovers taking it slow in the middle of an inscrutable world.
And breakfast was postponed for another few minutes.
They were having coffee when inevitably, reality intervened and the conversation shifted back to the problem with the Hellmouth.
"I still don't have any memories about the spell we're supposed to do." Tara cradled the warm cup in her hand, trying to hide her worry.
"It's okay. If you don't remember, we'll just find something else that'll do." Although she tried to sound encouraging, Willow couldn't help adding, "I don't know how much further we can go without those books, though. This is so frustrating! We must've sifted through a zillion tarabytes of information and still no –" She broke off as the blonde grinned. "What?"
"Tarabytes?" the Wiccan repeated.
"Huh? Oh!" The hacker smiled back. "Remember megabytes and gigabytes? Now sometimes we talk about terabytes, which is 1,000 or 1,024 gigabytes, depending on what system you're using, or a trillion bytes. I guess my mind kind of…wandered."
"I can't imagine a trillion bytes of data," Tara said.
"Well it would have to be on some pretty major machinery. Oh and I was you know, exaggerating. The Council's online library is nowhere near that," Willow admitted. "Yet. But something graphics-intensive, like online computer gaming or virtual worlds? I bet the servers of Worlds of Warcraft or Second Life easily hold hundreds of tara- er, terabytes of data. Oh and there's Youtube…"
The blonde had next to no idea what her brainy girlfriend was talking about, but she zeroed in on the important thing. "There you go again," she teased, "Freudian slip?"
"Slip, nothing. My mind is sort of on a one-way track right now," the redhead confessed readily, earning another bright lopsided smile.
For two Scoobies who basically had zilch while the end of the world was looming over their heads, they looked ridiculously happy.
That's when the doorbell rang.
Willow practically jumped to her feet. "The books! It's got to be. We're not expecting anybody, are we?"
"I don't think so," Tara replied. She grinned fondly as the witch sped out of the kitchen. Willow and books – some things never change.
The redhead practically threw the door open. "It's about time – !" she managed before her mouth fell open in shock.
"Hi." A dark-haired woman stood in the doorway, a huge satchel that would've broken another person's back slung easily over her shoulder. "I heard someone around here ordered some books?"
It took what felt like ages before Willow could get her voice working again. "K-Kennedy?!"
"Hey, Red, how're you? Surprised?" The woman's generous mouth curved into a smile. "Glad to see you made it back okay. How was the trip from England? Buffy and Faith are summoning everyone to Cleveland, but I was passing through Devon when I got the call. I heard about the book order so I volunteered to drop these off and check on my favorite witch first. What've you gotten yourself into now?"
"Willow, who is it? Did the books finally…" Tara stood stock still as she got a good look at the newcomer. She'd never met her in person but the long black hair and tanned skin were instantly recognizable. "Oh."
The powerful witch who suddenly found herself between two of her former girlfriends finally managed to squeak, "Uh Tara, this is Kennedy. Ken, this is Tara."
Ken. She calls her Ken. I'd almost forgotten that. Unconsciously, the blonde crossed her arms in front of her chest. She couldn't help feeling that someone up there, in some dimension, was having fun.
One glance took in all the tell-tale signs of Tara jealousy – the raised eyebrows, the narrowed eyes, arms crossed in front of her chest. Willow found herself stammering an explanation, "I didn't know she was coming, honest!"
"Tara…" the young Slayer repeated slowly. "The Tara?" As realization sank in, the deep brown eyes could've frozen water. "Now I get why Buffy was stammering all over the place when I told her I was on my way here." She turned to the redhead, hitching the bag over her shoulder. "Been up to something with that magic of yours, Will? Should I go?" she asked bluntly.
'Since when did my nice, boring life turn into a soap opera?' Willow wondered as her eyes darted between her former lovers. 'Forget that, this is way weirder than anything on TV!'
"Don't be like that," she admonished Kennedy first, trying to ease the tension. "Why don't you come in, get some rest? If you talked to Buffy then you know that there really is trouble. We could use your help, not to mention those books."
"Tara, I'm just going to show Kennedy the guest room, okay?" Willow said, giving the Wiccan's hand a soft squeeze before she quickly ushered the Slayer ahead of her. She didn't miss the way Kennedy's laser eyes took in the move.
"Let me fill you in on the situation." She eyed the huge bag the brunette was hefting as they climbed the stairs. "Where'd you come from this time?"
"Oh the Hebrides, Greece, Italy, then I decided to pass by England," Kennedy replied, successfully distracted. "But when I heard from Giles that you'd gone, I thought about coming home for awhile, even before I got the call."
"Oh. Have you seen your parents yet?"
"No, they're on vacation too. But I got in touch with them and they're fine. Mom says thanks for the nutcracker you sent, by the way."
"Did she like it? I know she likes collecting those funny soldier dolls, but I wasn't sure…"
Tara listened to the voices fade as the two women disappeared up the steps. Slowly, she sank down on the nearest couch. Suddenly, she had a feeling that things had gotten a lot more complicated.
For the next few hours, Kennedy's arrival was like a big white elephant in the middle of the room. Except for a short statement on Willow's part that the Slayer was "resting…jetlag, you know" the witches didn't mention it. Instead, they poured over the newly available books as if their life depended on it. Which in a sense it did.
They became so engrossed in it that when lunchtime came around, they both opted for some quick sandwiches Willow had made. The redhead also took one up to the guest room "in case Kennedy wakes up."
When she returned, she was practically hidden behind a huge pile of pillows and sheets. "Tara?" she asked in a muffled voice. "I'm moving some things in here, if that's okay? I mean, we are staying together tonight…?"
"Oh," Tara breathed. "I th-thought you might not want to. S-since, you know, it might be…" She gestured in the general direction of the Slayer's room.
"Huh? Oh sweetie, I told you, Kennedy and I aren't together anymore." The redhead unceremoniously deposited the pile on a plush armchair.
"Yes but…it m-might be…awkward."
That got a considered look. Willow sat down on the bed. "Does Kennedy being here make you feel awkward?" she asked carefully.
"No, but…d-doesn't it make you…?"
"Maybe a little," the witch admitted, "but not in the way you think. It's more…Tara, how much of me and Kennedy did you see?"
The blonde looked down. "A few things, before I learned to read the lets-get-a-room signs and make my escape. I'm sorry, Will, I wasn't intentionally spying on you."
"No, no, of course you didn't. It's just that – Tara, you know that I would've never…" the hacker stammered. "I mean if you hadn't…"
"It's okay, really. You were supposed to move on. It's how life goes," Tara tried to say convincingly. "Besides, maybe she was better for you."
"What?" the redhead asked in shock. "Of course not! What does that even mean?"
"Oh Willow, we've always known that one day you would leave me behind," the Wiccan said matter-of-factly. "From the first time we did magic, you had so much power, and in the two years we were together, you b-blew right past me. Your magic, just you, yourself – do you have any idea? You're maybe the most powerful witch alive today. So…so maybe it's fitting that your girlfriend's someone who's special too, like a Slayer. Maybe you needed someone like her. Not that she wouldn't have noticed you before. It's just, it makes more sense now, that a Slayer and a really powerful witch…And she's, you know, h-hot, hotter than I ever was…"
"Hey!" Willow interrupted. "Hey, that's not allowed!"
"What's not allowed?"
"You doubting how I feel about you. Tara, you know I would've never looked at Kennedy twice if you were around."
"Twice?" the Wiccan glanced at her shrewdly.
"Um. Er. Flattered, okay? I would've been, but that would've been it," Willow blushed as she rushed on. "Besides, it's not like you would've let me. You would've given me the evil eye, and I'd be rushing into denial…sorta like the way I'm doing now."
Tara crossed her arms. "Maybe," she conceded.
Willow laughed. "Baby, I know in the beginning you were all 'do what makes you happy,' and I really appreciated that at the time. But you never gave the impression that you'd be so…" she hesitated over the word, "understanding after we got together."
"Well, that was different," the blonde conceded, with a hint of a pout. "You were mine."
"Undoubtedly." Willow nodded several times to emphasize her point. "So you would've fought a Slayer off to keep me, huh?" she teased.
"I would've posted a huge `hands-off' sign."
"And how would you have done that, exactly?" Willow asked, amused. "Because somehow I can't see you going all large with the butch."
"Oh I would've thought of something." Tara turned smoky eyes on the redhead. "Probably something like…this," she breathed, dropping her book and pulling Willow so tightly to her that there wasn't an inch of space between them. "Kissing is okay, right?"
"Y-yes." Willow's heart galloped as their bodies pressed together. Oh Goddess, all those curves…
"Good," the blonde whispered possessively as she closed the distance between them. And Tara was so intent on claiming her girlfriend's lips once more, so subsumed in the heady sensations that could only come from kissing Willow, that she didn't realize she was headed for the same trap the redhead had foreseen earlier.
Caught up in the perfect moment, the perfect dream, Tara briefly forgot about the Hellmouth and her impending return to the Summerland. Everything in her mind was centered on one thought: I want this, just this, to be able to hold Willow forever.
Considering how restless their previous night had been and everything else that had happened since, it was no wonder that the witches ended up dozing, their arms wrapped around each other.
Tara woke first, blinking at the mid-afternoon sun that flooded the room. Beside her Willow snored softly.
Aww cute, the blonde glanced at the supine woman fondly. She shook her head. Maclay, you've got it bad. Again.
She got up slowly, trying to disturb her companion as little as possible. She was successful. Though the redhead stirred, she continued to slumber.
Tara glanced at herself in the mirror and combed her fingers through her hair. Ugh, bedhead. Giving up on the futile attempt, she grabbed a piece of elastic and tied her hair into a ponytail.
Then she noticed it, a constant muffled sound that, in hindsight, had been in the background since she'd woken. Curiously, she stepped towards the window. She was about a foot away from the bright pane of glass when her heart began to pound.
The tall witch shut her eyes. Just like that, it was upon her, the fear. In her mind, it was as if she could hear/feel another sound, a sharp pop and something zinging through the air…
Unconsciously, her right hand rose up protectively over her chest. If there had been any doubts about the success of Willow's spell or how far it had brought her across, this was proof. Tara was alive. Completely, humanly alive. Which also explained why she was afraid.
In the Summerland, there was no fear. She understood what had happened to her, was saddened by its effects on the people she had left behind, but there had also been a certainty, an innate understanding, that such things were utterly behind her. In the Summerland, she was infinite, indestructible, eternal in a way vampires could only dream about. Here…aside from the time limit of the spell itself, it was suddenly achingly obvious to her how fragile this existence was. This body.
It's a wonder, she thought, opening her eyes and looking down at her hand, that we don't spend all of our lives afraid. She glanced at Willow, still peacefully asleep, and at her hand again. Come on Tara, you can't have it both ways. It's awkward, scary and when you think about it, actually pretty flimsy, this skin stuff. But this is the same body that allows you to touch Willow, to hold her. Her mouth firmed as she faced the window again.
The second step was the hardest. After that it was simply pure recklessness, ignoring every instinct that screamed at her to stop. With a deep breath, Tara arrived at the window. It was almost a relief to look out, and confirm that there was no guy with a gun lurking below.
What there was, however, was a strikingly attractive, dark-haired woman who was punching and kicking a tree, the sturdy trunk of which was tightly wrapped in what looked like gym pads. There was a short sharp cry as she delivered a perfectly executed roundhouse with a force that would've felled any opponent on two legs.
She's good. Tara had watched Buffy work out a dozen times and to her untrained eye it seemed that Kennedy might give the original a run for her money. Then again, there was more flash to this younger Slayer. Buffy, for all that Giles had despaired of getting her to take her Slayer duties more seriously, had developed over the years into a focused and eminently practical fighter. She finished her fights quickly, sometimes messily, and made her quips after.
From Kennedy the Wiccan could sense/see…impatience? It was hard to tell from this distance. Something, at any rate, that was still a bit impetuous, a little rash.
Tara shot a glance at the redhead who was still sound asleep in her…their bed. She almost regretted having to leave. But there were things she needed to do, and perhaps they were best done while Willow was asleep.
A long time ago, the blonde mused, she would've avoided anything that smacked of confrontation. Before she'd met Willow, she'd mostly been content to stay in the sidelines, keep her head down.
But that wasn't exactly an option when you were a Scooby, or even if you were simply a student at good ole UC Sunnydale. Whether you kept quiet or made a lot of noise, monsters would chase you. And after facing all kinds of demons, vampires and other denizens of the dark, well it was just easier to deal with people. At least people didn't try to eat you. Normally.
Or so Tara told herself as she passed by the kitchen and stepped out into the sunshine with a glass of orange juice.
She kept back as she waited for Kennedy to finish her workout. It was hard not to envy the slightly shorter girl with the fit and toned body of an athlete and the grace and speed of a Slayer. Kennedy was everything that Tara would've once found intimidating – the woman was self-possessed, confident, with an awareness of her own hotness, not egoistically but in a matter-of-fact way. In short, exactly the kind of person who wouldn't have hesitated to chase someone she liked, as she had done with Willow.
The blonde waited two beats when the workout winded down. "I th-thought you might want a drink." Oh goddess, why did she have to stutter now?
"Thanks." Kennedy took the glass as she wiped her face with a towel. "Checking out the competition?"
Tara stiffened. "Is th-that what you are? C-competition?"
She wasn't sure what the response would be. To be honest, she thought that the younger Slayer might react like Faith. She had only met the dark Slayer once, and the Faith-in-Buffy's-body had been mean, snidely making fun of her and Willow and the way she stuttered.
But Kennedy didn't even blink at the witch's stammer, though her expression made it plain that she wasn't backing down either. In short, she was reacting to Tara exactly as she would have to anyone else in the same situation.
Why was I expecting otherwise? The Wiccan reminded herself that Willow had loved and almost made a life with this Slayer. The former geek wouldn't have fallen for a bully.
"Maybe the question you should be asking," Kennedy said slowly, "is why someone who's leaving in a week and a half is even thinking about things like competition. I called Buffy," she continued by way of explanation. She placed her towel and the glass down on a nearby wooden bench. "Just because Willow and I broke up doesn't mean I like seeing her hurt."
"I'm n-not here to hurt her," Tara said in surprise.
"Oh sure," the younger Slayer snorted. "Look, Tara, you're probably a nice girl – that's what everyone tells me anyhow – so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. But I'm not blind and I'm not an idiot. I see the way Will looks at you and frankly, I haven't seen Red so unsure of herself in ages. I don't like it." Kennedy nodded towards the house. "She told you we broke up a year ago?"
"She mention why? Or were you watching?"
"No, I – it doesn't work that way."
"Fine. We were together for years, longer than the two of you," the brunette stated factually. "In that time, there were always a couple of days when Willow would disappear, sometimes for a few hours, once or twice for the whole day. It didn't matter where we were or what we were in the middle of, suddenly she'd be gone. It drove me crazy until Buffy finally told me that the first day was your birthday, and the second was the day you…she lost you. Tell me, were you with her during those times?"
"What did she do?" Kennedy asked out of genuine curiosity.
Tara hesitated. The Slayer's question verged on matters that were essentially private, but under the circumstances she could understand why she needed to know. "Willow would find a place that reminded her of me…us. Because Sunnydale was gone, she couldn't go to m-my…So instead she would walk around and when she found something, she'd leave a stone there and talk to me a little."
Kennedy understood at once. "Like she would've if she'd been able to visit your grave."
The witch nodded.
There was a faint shade of regret in the dark brown eyes. "I really loved her, you know. I still care for her a lot. But I couldn't stay in a relationship that was basically haunted."
"I'm sorry." The Wiccan took a deep, steadying breath. "I wasn't haunting her, or you. I just wanted to know that Willow was okay."
"It's done," Kennedy shrugged. "But the final straw – the day I knew we were a lost cause as a couple – was the book."
"I don't understand. What book?" Tara asked. "You mean…the book Willow wrote?"
"Have you seen it?" the Slayer demanded almost angrily.
"No, I haven't."
Kennedy shook her head. "Trust Willow not to have a copy of her own book. I brought one along with the others. Take a good look at the cover. To be fair, it was Giles' idea," she added grudgingly. "He said Willow should publish under a pseudonym unless she wanted every witch wanna-be swarming after her. Go on," she said abruptly, "I'm sure it's inside somewhere with the rest." She paused. "Thanks for the drink."
Without another word, she resumed punching the poor tree.
'Why would a book be the last straw?' the blonde wondered as she returned to the house.
The witches had separated the books Kennedy had brought into two piles. Half Willow had put aside and further divided between herself and Tara. Those were the ones the redhead said were most likely to contain something useful. Since the Wiccan hadn't seen it yet, Willow's book was probably in the pile that was sitting untouched in the living room.
Tara realized that she had no memory of Willow writing her book, though she had seen the witch deep in thought or typing away at her laptop many times. Maybe it had coincided with the time she'd decided that Dawn needed her help more. Besides, not having barred herself from the then-teenager, she could do more for Dawn.
It took her a few minutes to find the right one. Of course it turned out to be the last hardbound volume at the bottom, with the back part of the binding facing her.
With a deep breath, Tara turned the book over. She stared at the ornate letters in stunned disbelief for a full minute.
The book was by W. Maclay.
Willow, of course, chose that moment to walk in. She'd woken up some minutes ago and, conscious of the deadline they were running against, dove right back into research. When she found something that seemed promising, she ran to show it to Tara.
She was carrying a large, obviously old, leather-bound book with gilt-edged pages. "Hey, there's an interesting passage on seals written by a monk in…Tara?" Alarmed by the strange expression on the blonde's face, she quickly dropped the heavy volume and went to her. "Are you okay? What's wrong?"
Tara held Willow's book out. Her hand was shaking. "You took m-my n-name?"
"Oh." The hacker suddenly found the floor very interesting. "I'm um, sorry. I would've asked but you were…and Giles needed the name in a hurry for the publisher, and it was the first thing I thought of because I was thinking of magic, and I think of you when I think of magic, so I – I – I thought you wouldn't mind," she ended miserably.
Tara saw that Willow had misunderstood her. "I don't," she stated softly, putting the book down and reaching for the redhead's nervous hands. "Really the opposite. I can't believe you'd…I always thought that one day I'd take your name, or that we'd combine ours. My family doesn't deserve you," she said earnestly. "The Maclays have a tradition of beating their women down."
The shame and sadness in her voice was unmistakable. The Maclays had been the one secret the blonde girl had kept from all of them, until her family had shown up and everything had come tumbling out.
"But you see," Willow explained, "I wasn't thinking about them. I was thinking of one Maclay in particular. She taught me magic. I could barely float a pencil until the day she literally burst into my life…" With a tender hand, she raised Tara's bowed head so their eyes could meet. "When I think of true magic, the essence of it, the purity of it, I think of her." She tucked a stray blonde curl behind the girl's ear. "My magic teacher."
Tara closed her eyes at Willow's gentle touches. "I am, you know."
Oh God. Suddenly the redhead's throat was tight. "I…used to. Know, I mean. Now, after everything I've done it would be, I dunno…assuming? But I can hope. If you mean what I think you mean…?" she said in a rush, every word brimming with wild anticipation.
The tall Wiccan laughed. She pulled Willow close. "You know," she repeated simply.
But the hacker was shaking her head. "Right now I'm feeling more of a strong maybe."
"Will…" Tara frowned.
"If you want to talk about knowing though, what I do know is that I am," Willow continued as if she hadn't heard her.
Suddenly the redhead found herself drowning in a sea of blue. "You're…?" Tara's eyes were wide. She seemed to have lost the ability speak.
"Yours," Willow breathed, meeting that azure gaze, letting all the love she had for the woman shine in her eyes. "Always." And she came closer, moving slowly into the circle of Tara's arms. And kissed her.
It was possibly the sweetest kiss Tara had ever received from anyone. But that was impossible. Because this was Willow, and it seemed that there would always be something sweeter to share with her.
It ended, as far as the blonde witch was concerned, way too soon. Her fingers curled into the hacker's shirt, unwilling to let her go yet.
"Willow…sweetie, please let go of these things you fear? We've been given this chance, this incredible gift…"
"Grace," Willow murmured.
"Grace is like…a gift that you totally don't deserve, but it's given to you anyway, freely and with love. The best kind of giving," the redhead smiled.
Tara traced the freckled cheek with her fingers. "That's exactly what we have, a few days of grace. I don't mean to push, it's just…I've never loved anyone the way I love you. I don't want to keep acting like I don't."
"But it's not that simple." Willow's reason reasserted itself again. "It's not like we can just pick up where we left off."
The blonde looked at her steadily. "You mean you don't w-want to?"
"No!" the hacker quickly denied. "I want to! I'm just…Tara, I already explained. I'm…scared."
"Of me?" Funny how one word could hurt.
"Of losing myself in you. Because that's what's going to happen if I let myself go this time."
Tara looked into the anxious green eyes. "I trust you."
"I trust you." The taller woman leaned forward and kissed Willow tenderly. "But I understand that that's not enough. You have to trust yourself too. Think about it?"
Willow nodded shakily.
Tara let her go. She knew that the hacker needed time, so she turned to leave. She was at the door when, impulsively, she just as quickly turned back.
The blonde swept the stunned redhead up into her arms, and kissed her with a ferocity that surprised them both.
Willow actually felt her legs turning into jelly as she gave way to Tara's insistent mouth and her thorough, exploring tongue.
"Just something else for you to think about," the witch said huskily. Then, true to her word, she left.
The redhead found herself leaning against the nearest wall for support. A silly grin was plastered on her face. And that, she told herself with dazed satisfaction, was take-charge Tara making an appearance. Gods, how am I supposed to resist her now?
Tara decided to take a short walk to cool off. It was dusk, but surely a couple of blocks wouldn't hurt.
She was already berating herself for kissing Willow like that. Nice going, Maclay. First you tell the girl you understand, and then five seconds later you're shoving your tongue down her throat. What were you thinking?
A sheepish smile tugged at her lips. I wasn't thinking. I want us to pick up where we left off. I so want Willow to be kissing me now…
She'd gone for about a block and a half in a pleasant daze when a scream cut through the air.
Tara froze. A girl was running towards her. Desperate hope lit her eyes when she spotted the witch.
"Help! Something's after me!" the teenager gasped as she neared.
For some reason the thought that immediately came to Tara was – Vampire? Has the seal been breached already? "What is it?" she asked quickly
"I don't know! It was dark and it – it growled!" The girl was nearly crying.
The blonde woman straightened and peered further up the street. There was nothing yet. "Listen, run straight home or to a friend's, whichever is nearer. Or if your place is too far, go to mine." She described the house quickly. "When you get there, lock the door and don't let anything in. Don't look back."
To her credit the teen hesitated, even as a faint unearthly cry sounded in the distance. "What about you?"
"I'll give you some time. It's okay," she reassured her, "my friends are coming." As soon as the girl fled past her, Tara muttered a spell under her breath. A tiny point of light materialized and flew behind her.
She glanced around. Another spell brought several pieces of wood from a picket fence to her feet.
She stood there, heart pounding and mouth dry. The second a running misshapen figure came into sight, the witch sent the makeshift stakes flying towards it.
Two missed. Three lodged themselves in the monster's chest.
It didn't die. It was two-legged, vaguely human-shaped, but if it was a vampire, it had the ugliest game face Tara had ever seen. When it screamed in fury and tore the wood out, the witch began to run.
In seconds it was gaining on her. The blonde woman ran faster, but she could hear it coming closer with every passing second. She ran to the sidewalk, dodged around the trees that grew there, hoping the obstructions would slow the thing chasing her down.
Unfortunately the strategy worked both ways. A branch caught her arm and sliced into her skin. Seconds later, there was another growl, closer than before. The faint smell of blood was encouraging it, Tara realized. Any moment now she could imagine clawed hands reaching out to grab her…
Then the air crackled, and a dark whirlwind flung itself between the monster and the witch.
"Thicken," Willow intoned, and suddenly the monster was clawing at an invisible barrier. "Are you okay? Your arm!" she exclaimed as she saw the cut on the blonde woman's arm.
"It's nothing, just a scratch. What is that thing?" Tara asked breathlessly as she slowed beside the redhead. "I tried to stake it, but…"
Willow recognized it immediately. "It's a Turok-han. Think prehistoric uber vamp. They're harder to kill. Or at least they used to be." As the monster struggled to get to them, she released the barrier and held a hand out. "Spirit of light…ignis incende!"
The Turok-han leapt towards them as soon as the barrier cleared…and collided in mid-flight with a burst of flame that seemed to come straight from the redhead's hand. It cried out as the fire caught and it began to burn. In seconds it was nothing but ashes.
"What was that?"
Willow grinned. "Little ball of sunshine, revised."
Tara gaped at her. "That was not a 'little' ball!"
"Well, that's why we were having so much trouble with it before, see? We were asking for a lot of power from such a small…" Suddenly she froze.
"Something's wrong." The witch frowned. "We have to get back to the house!"
"What is it?"
"I don't know," she replied grimly. They ran.
To be continued…
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