DISCLAIMER: None of these characters are mine. They have been used without permission and not for profit. No copyright infringement is intended.
SPOILERS: Up through season four. Other than that, it's completely non-canon. Word of caution: Major Character Death ahead!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To annebar76[at]gmail.com
SERIES: Third in Friends Forever series.

Darkness Falls
By annebar76


Part 1

Northern England, 807

Elspeth Redfearne walked with sure steps up the mountain, the cool spring air blowing her long black hair about her face as she tried to keep it out of her pale blue eyes. At seventeen, she had become her village's youngest healer a fortnight ago, after her mother had died of the same ailment that had taken the lives of nearly twenty villagers. Many of the people were beginning to turn on her, demanding a cure for the thing that was literally stealing the lifeblood from them. They were frightened, and she understood that, but she also knew they had good reason to be.

The village, like many others, still practiced the old ways privately while acting Christian whenever a representative from the Catholic Church traveled into town. Since the village was so remote, they rarely had to take on the guise of the Christ followers. The traders were usually the only people who came to the village, knowing that the villagers harvested the best wool in the land every year. The fact that the village was so inaccessible to the outside world was not lost on Elspeth. They had been very lucky; Elspeth had heard many horror stories from the few traders with whom she had contact of the massacres that occurred on a regular basis, but the murders that had taken place recently frightened her more than any army or thief ever could.

She was one of the two people in the small community who knew that the ailment wasn't an illness, but a series of attacks. Her mother had been the only other person to know that, and she had died doing the same thing Elspeth was attempting at that moment. She had not asked for help, knowing that if she told anyone of her suspicions she would cause hysteria. No one would understand what exactly she thought was behind the attacks. During her childhood, her mother had told her many stories that had been passed down from one generation of healer to the next, some of them dating back to the beginnings of civilization. There were a few that interested her for this particular problem.

Many of the stories told of creatures of the night that stole the blood from their victims, sometimes leaving the lifeless corpse to rot, and other times by making their prey into a being like themselves. She was certain that there was one such being that was slowly killing her people, though as far as she could tell, whatever it was had not yet turned anyone from the village. If some of the other stories she had been told were true, there was hope for the small village. There was a legend of one woman in each generation that had the power to kill these creatures with ease, and while Elspeth knew that she was not that person, she hoped that she would be able to reach a trader who would be able to get a message to the Chosen.

Her steps became slower as she approached the forest. She was in the area where most of the dead had been discovered, and she knew that she might very well be the creature's next victim. She glanced up to the sky and sighed with relief. She had made better time than she had hoped, and would get through the forest before nightfall. Even though that thought comforted her, she dug a wooden stake and some garlic out of her small bag and held it in her hand as she stepped under the canopy of trees.

The first thing she noticed was that the height of the sun in the sky did not seem to matter in the forest, and she wondered why she hadn't noticed that it was so dark under the evergreens before. What she noticed next disturbed her the most - there were no sounds. Not the sounds she would have normally heard, anyway. No birds were singing, and she could hear no animals scurrying away from her as she maneuvered the narrow path. The wind had also stilled to a dead calm. Instincts that had been honed her entire life screamed at her to run back to the safety of the village, but she knew she could not.

The sound of the twig breaking behind her was ten times as loud as it would have normally seemed, and she turned sharply in an attempt to find the source of the sound. Muttering a prayer to the Goddess under her breath, she hiked up her woolen skirt and began walking, almost running, along the path. Everything around her became a blur, and at one point she thought she saw someone in her peripheral vision, but when she tried to look directly at the person there was no one there. Branches tore at her clothing and any exposed skin, but she thought nothing of it. Her feeling that she was being hunted by something had become so pervasive that Elspeth could not think of anything but running.

Forcing herself to calm down, she slowed her gait to a walk and glanced at her surroundings. She had strayed from the path and was deep in the forest. There was no way for her to gain her bearing because she couldn't see the sky. Chiding herself for being stupid enough to allow her fear to overcome her natural sense, she closed her eyes and listened for any sound that might give her a clue as to her location. Finding nothing to help her, she began walking in as straight a line as she could manage in the dense woods, hoping she would find a familiar area soon. She had virtually grown up in these same woods after all.

Gathering the willpower not to let her fear overcome her again, Elspeth turned slowly toward the sound of something approaching her. The man she saw was tall, and wore the clothes of a foreigner. His pale face was clean-shaven, which was highly unusual in that area. She wondered if this would be the last person she would ever see, but she quickly pushed those thoughts from her head. She would survive. She had to if she was going to save her village. Standing fast, Elspeth held the stake in front of her with one hand while holding the garlic with the other.

"A child such as you should not be wandering around the woods so late in the afternoon." The man spoke her language perfectly, though with an accent she could not place. His voice was like music in her ears, and she was overcome with an urge to drop her weapons at her feet, but she shook it off and gripped them tighter.

"I was hoping you could help me. I was traveling on the main road, and I seem to have become lost." He stepped forward, not seeming to notice the stake and garlic she held in her hands.

Elspeth found her voice, hoping beyond hope that this was not the creature she thought it was. "Do not walk any closer, sir."

The man simply smiled grimly and walked even closer to her. "You know what I am, and yet you do not run. It is impressive that you do not let fear dictate your actions as the rest of the animals do. I thought I would just kill you, but now...I think not."

He was just a few feet from her, and she hurled the garlic at him. Catching it in his hand easily, he held it to his nose and breathed in the scent as though it was the best thing he'd ever smelled before tossing it to the side. "Not all of the tales are true. You will do well to remember that."

Elspeth was truly hopeless for the first time in her life. If the garlic had not worked, surely the stake was of no use either. She projected more courage than she felt. "Who are you?"

"I am exactly what you think I am, young child. I am your death."

She found her fear replaced with anger. "My life is not for you to take."

Suddenly his face changed into that of the menacing creature of the legends. His eyes turned yellow, his brow broadened, and fangs emerged from his mouth. "We shall see."

His movements were so fast that he was upon her before she could even recognize his attack. The stake dropped to the ground as her hands were pinned behind her with inhuman strength. Elspeth still struggled as the creature's fangs sank deep into her neck, and she whimpered when she felt the blood being sucked from her. When darkness finally closed around her, she welcomed it.

Jeremy Rankin stood just outside the mansion, waiting patiently for his client to arrive. It was odd to be turning a key over to someone at nine o'clock at night, but for as much money as his client was paying him, he felt he could be accommodating of her quirks. He had been trying to sell the mansion for over five years after the previous owner had left suddenly, but nobody in town wanted to set foot in the place. There were a lot of superstitious people in Sunnydale, and they had heard some terrible stories about it. None of those stories bothered his client, however.

From her accent on the phone Jeremy guessed she was from Europe somewhere, but he couldn't tell which country. He didn't even know what she looked like yet, all of the paperwork having been signed through agents or faxes. What he really couldn't understand was why she would buy the mansion without having seen it. She had only asked him a few questions about lighting and security, and that was it. Still, he wasn't going to complain. The commission he was making off of this sale was going to allow him to take a two-month leave from work to pursue his dream of writing a book.

He straightened his tie slightly when he saw the limousine pull into the driveway. A young man who didn't look at all like a professional limo driver stepped out of the car. His blond hair was slicked back on his head, and as the man opened the passenger door, his cold blue eyes seemed to stare right through Jeremy. A woman stepped gracefully out of the limo. The first thing that struck Jeremy was her short black hair. While it seemed to suck all the available light into it, her alabaster skin seemed to reflect the moonlight.

"Good evening, Ms. Redfern. It's so good to meet you in person." He extended his hand.

"Yes, I'm sure." She stared at his hand, her blue eyes looking coldly at the appendage. "Do you have the key?"

Dropping his hand slowly, he was still captivated by her and found that he wanted to please her more than anything in the world. "Yes, ma'am. It's right here," he said, holding out the key.

"Are all the papers in order?"

"They are."

"Good, Mr. Rankin. It has been a pleasure." She turned the key in the lock and opened the door slowly. Looking inside, she smiled to herself. "This is perfect. Thank you."

"Would you like me to show you around?" The more he was in her presence; the more he wanted to be near her.

"No, I think I can find my way." She paused, thinking about something. "Actually, I am a bit hungry."

"There's a nice little Ital-" Before Jeremy could even register what was happening to him, her fangs clamped over his jugular vein, sucking the blood from him. Before he was completely drained, she gave him some of her own blood.

Elspeth threw his lifeless body to the ground. "Martin, please take care of him, would you?" Turning on her heel, she went happily into her new home.

"C'mon, Faith. It's going to be fine." Buffy's head peeked in through the open car door. "She doesn't bite."

Faith sat in her seat with a deer caught in headlights look, her hair falling in soft curls on her shoulders. "I know that. But we've never...done the whole day thing with your mom."

She had never done well with parents, especially Joyce. When they had come back from England, Buffy had reintroduced Faith back into her mother's life slowly, wanting to make sure that Joyce knew that Faith had changed, but even after eight months the three women had yet to spend more than a couple of hours in a room together. Today was going to be an acid test, and Faith knew she was going to mess it up somehow.

"We're just going to be painting. We don't have to do bonding stuff if you don't want to."

"Yeah, and what if I drop something and swear, or I accidentally...oh, I don't know..."

Buffy smiled. "Smoke some crack?" Getting back in the car, she leaned toward her lover. "She likes you, and you are not, repeat not, going to mess up. Even if you do swear." Moving so that her mouth was next to Faith's ear, Buffy's voice was soft. "Besides, you haven't been in my old bedroom since you've been back."

"I am so there." Faith said, jumping out of the car and getting to the front door before Buffy even got to the steps. "Is your bed still in there?" She whispered when the blonde woman came up beside her.

"Exactly as I left it. Mom likes to be prepared for potential sleepovers."

"Wicked cool," Faith said just as Joyce opened the front door, covered in paint. "Hi, Ms. Summers."

"Hi you two. Come on in, I've already started painting upstairs."

Buffy eyed her mother while they walked inside. "So I see. Is there any paint at all on the walls?"

"Go ahead, mock your mother." Joyce said with a smile, patting Buffy on the back with a paint-covered hand. "We're starting with the upstairs hall, and I thought we'd do your old bathroom and at least part of the kitchen today as well. Would you two like to spend the night and get started on the rest of it early tomorrow?" She started up the stairs.

"Sure, that'd be great." Faith's words held more excitement about the chore than she felt, but she wanted to give Joyce a good impression.

"But Faith, remember we have to patrol tonight." Buffy mouthed 'please' silently.

"It's cool. We'll patrol and come back here. Besides, it's closer than our house anyway." Faith astounded herself by actually finding a way for them to stay the night, and wondered if she had been possessed by a demon.

"Then it's settled," Joyce said from the top of the stairs. "Come on, ladies. These walls aren't going to paint themselves."

"Do me a favor?" Faith whispered as they started to climb the stairs. "Remind me that this is fun when we've been doing this for a few hours."

"No way. If you play your cards right though, there might be a quick feel break in a little bit." Buffy said seductively into her lover's ear, nipping lightly at Faith's earlobe.

"Don't start...yet." Faith couldn't control the pleasant shiver that went through her body.

"Don't start what?" Joyce asked.

Both Slayers' eyes grew wide. "Nothing, Mom. Um, is that the paint?" Buffy really wanted to change the subject, and she was hoping that she wouldn't have to discuss the finer points of her love life with her mother.

"You've seen paint before, Buffy. Why don't you two just 'start' over on that wall," Joyce said with a smirk.

Faith and Buffy each picked up a roller and began painting the far end of the hall while Joyce did the cutting in along the trim. The silence between the three women grew, and before long, Faith started to feel a bit uncomfortable. She always became edgy when she was in Ms. Summers' presence, mainly because a part of her felt as though the older woman was only humoring Buffy and hadn't really forgiven Faith at all. While the rational part of her mind knew that was more than likely not true, Faith sometimes couldn't help the old doubt that came creeping in.

"So, how's the gallery going?" Faith asked, putting some paint on the roller.

Joyce jumped a bit, more from the sudden lack of silence than anything else. "Huh? Oh, the gallery's fine. It's been busy lately, though. I'm thinking about hiring someone new to help out."

"Business is that good? Color me impressed, Mom."

A grin grew across Joyce's features. "Thanks."

"I'm going downstairs for a drink. Anyone want anything?" Buffy started for the kitchen, bounding down the stairs when she heard two 'nopes' from the other two women.

While buffy was downstairs, Joyce saw her opportunity. She had wanted to talk to Faith ever since the Slayer had come back into her daughter's life, but for one reason or another her chance had never materialized.

When Buffy had told her she was in love with a woman, Joyce didn't even blink an eye. She had lived through years of wondering if her daughter was going to come home alive each night, and the fact that Buffy was involved with a woman was nothing compared to some of the other things she had been witness to over the years. And after seeing what the rejection Sheila and Ira had put Willow through, Joyce was determined not to do the same thing to her daughter.

The tension had come when Joyce found out exactly with whom her daughter had fallen in love. Even after hearing the story of how and why Faith had come back to Sunnydale, Joyce still couldn't help but remember the young woman who had not only tried to kill several of Buffy's friends, but had attempted to steal her daughter's life. Still, she hadn't said anything to Buffy, instead deciding to be as supportive of her daughter as possible. Now looking at the young woman down the hall, Joyce knew she had made the right choice in her silence. Faith had proven time and again since being back in Sunnydale that she had indeed changed, and that she was completely devoted to Buffy.

"Faith, would you mind grabbing that wet towel over there? I've spilled some paint on the trim."

"Sure, Ms. Summers."

"Thanks," she said, taking the towel from Faith and wiping the mess up. The younger woman was about to go back to her side of the room when Joyce lightly touched her arm. "Wait a second, please? I'd like to talk to you."

"Is this the part where you tell me I'm not good enough for your daughter?" Faith asked in resignation.

Joyce smiled sadly. "No, it's not. I'm sorry if I've led you to think that I don't approve of you and Buffy being together. That's kind of why I wanted to talk to you."

Relief flooded Faith's features. "Shoot, then. What's up?"

Taking a deep breath, Joyce began. "I'm not going to lie to you. I did have some...reservations about you being back in Buffy's life. There was even a part of me that thought her relationship with you was doomed, and I kept waiting for you to hurt her in some way."

"Is this supposed to make me feel better?" Faith asked quietly.

"Damn, this isn't coming out right. Look, the truth is - she's never been as happy as she is when she's with you, and that's the most important thing as far as I'm concerned. She loves you, and it's obvious you love her. I wanted you to know that what's in the past stays in the past as far as I'm concerned. You're a part of my family - that is, if you want to be."

"I don't know what to say, Ms. Summers."

"Well, you can start by calling me Joyce. Everyone else does."

"Okay...Joyce." Faith said, as if testing the name. "Thanks."

"Don't thank me." Joyce looked Faith directly in the eyes. "Just take care of her. She may not act it, but she's a big softy." Smiling, she bent to pick up her brush again.

Faith grinned. "That is so true."

Buffy, who had walked halfway up the stairs, was just staring at Joyce and Faith. "You shared a...a..."

"A moment?" Faith asked quietly, putting her arms around Buffy. "I really like your mom, you know that?"

Buffy just nodded her head. Not once did she ever expect her mother and Faith to become anything more than acquaintances, and she definitely hadn't expected to come walking up the stairs to see the two of them having a bonding moment. It had surprised her, but pleasantly so.

"I can't believe that you, Buffy Summers, have been struck speechless." Kissing the blonde woman lightly, Faith bounded back up the stairs and started on the wall again.

Shaking the cobwebs out of her head after a few seconds, Buffy did the same. The three women painted in silence until the phone rang downstairs.

Joyce went downstairs, and both Faith and Buffy could hear the muted sounds of a one-sided conversation. It was obvious Joyce was upset while on the phone, and even more so when she came back upstairs.

"What is it, Mom?"

Joyce sighed in frustration. "We've got a shipment of art coming in from Europe today, and I thought Nick could handle it. Apparently, it's been held at Customs and he can't seem to get anyone to talk to him. Sorry girls, but you're on your own for a bit."

Buffy wiped some paint off her forehead. "May I just be the first to say that's not fair?"

"Yeah, too bad it isn't some vampire emergency so I can be worried sick about you girls." Joyce replied, wiping the paint off her face and hands. "I'll be back as soon as I can, and we'll have dinner."

Buffy waited until she heard the front door shut before turning to Faith. "So, you want to talk about what just happened?"

Faith moved closer to her lover, grinning from ear to ear. "Well, if I remember correctly, your mom just got a phone call..."

Rolling her eyes good-naturedly, Buffy moved so that she was inches away from Faith. "That's not what I meant - I was talking about the moment you two shared. Is everything okay?"

"It's fine, B." Faith brought Buffy's hand up and gently brushed her lips over the knuckles. "But can we talk about it later?" Her lips began moving up her lover's arm. "I've got something...a little more physical...in mind..."

"But we need to finish..." Buffy's voice trailed off to nothing when Faith kissed her neck, then moved to her mouth.

"Finish what?" Faith asked innocently, even as she was unbuttoning her lover's shirt.

Their brushes fell forgotten onto the drop cloths as their lips met in a searing kiss. Buffy broke away breathlessly. "Bedroom. Now." Her voice held only a fraction of the desire she felt for the woman facing her.

Faith's only answer was to kiss her lover harder. She stood both of them up, not breaking the kiss again. Lifting Buffy's legs around her waist, Faith went into the nearest bedroom and promptly walked into a box. "Damn." She looked around the room briefly and noticed that there were boxes everywhere - including on the bed.


"Boxes galore, B."

"Move 'em. I want you."

Not needing any more encouragement, Faith knocked the boxes to the floor without letting go of Buffy. Their passion grew, and the rest of the world disappeared for them. They were oblivious to the phone ringing in the downstairs hallway.

Tara hummed softly to herself as she pulled weeds from the long-neglected garden. She, Buffy, and Willow had planted it when they moved into the house, but they rarely had the time to tend it, at least until recently. It was funny what dying did for one's priorities.

A few months before, Faith had stormed into the Scooby gang's lives again. The resulting chaos that ensued ended in all four women becoming immortal, though none of them quite understood why. Since then, they had stopped doing security checks for companies, and worked with the Watchers' Council. One of the biggest changes out of all of that had been Faith moving in with them, which had been shocking in that the dark Slayer had fit in so well with the close knit group of friends.

Tara fell backward as she pulled an especially difficult weed out of the ground. "Okay guys, let's not be difficult. You can't be here. You just won't let the other plants grow."


Tara jumped to her feet and turned in the direction of the voice. "Hi, Giles. I didn't hear you drive up."

"I apologize for scaring you." Giles looked around, a quizzical look crossing his face. "Um, to whom were you speaking?"

Chuckling a bit, she motioned to the garden. "The weeds. They're being uncooperative today."

"Ah, yes. I understand," he said in a slightly distracted, not quite believing tone. "Where is everyone?"

"Willow's visiting Anya and Xander, and Faith went with Buffy to Joyce's. How were your classes?" Tara stifled a smile as she removed her gardening gloves. She, Willow, Faith, or Buffy had gone through almost this same conversation with Giles almost every day since they had been back from England.

"Fine, just fine. I had no idea so many people were interested in Demonology." Giles had taken a position at UC Sunnydale as an adjunct professor in Folklore and Mythology two months before.

"We do live on the Hellmouth. Do you want some tea?" Tara led him into the house.

"I'd love some, thanks." Giles sat at the bar, looking a bit pensive.

Tara busied herself with putting the water on to boil and setting out mugs for them. "You look like you want to say something."

Taking off his glasses, Giles rubbed his eyes. "Well, I do wish everyone was here for this, but I've been doing a bit of research about your...your situation."

"So what did you find out?"

"Nothing. No one, not even the Watchers' Council, has any information regarding your immortality; yet I have a very difficult time believing that this has never happened before. Some kind of account, story, or legend would have at least been passed on if there were any others." He shook his head.

"Willow and I haven't been able to find anything either."

"You've been researching this? Why haven't you said anything before now?"

"We don't really have anything to say. There's nothing, Giles. We didn't tell Faith or Buffy either. And besides, I could ask you the same question." Tara smirked while pouring the boiling water into their mugs.

"I just wish we knew a few details about all of it. I could understand..." Giles stopped, wondering if he was being harsh. His voice grew soft. "I could understand if they transferred their power to the next Slayer, but they brought you and Willow back as well."

"Willow and I have had the same thoughts. We're not all that special in the grand scheme of things, are we? There are plenty of other witches out there."

"Apparently someone thinks all of you are very special, and I'm grateful for that."

"And this mushy moment will have to wait." Tara went to pick up the ringing phone. "Hello? Oh, hi. No, it's not a bad time. I can't do that." She sighed. "I'll let you know," Tara finished. Placing the phone on the cradle, she sat next to Giles with all of her attention everywhere but with the man who was beside her.

"Tara?" Giles' voice finally broke through her thoughts.

"Huh? Sorry Giles. Did you say something?" Tara still looked distracted.

"Who was that on the phone?"

"Um, it was Willow's mother." She spoke so quietly Giles had to lean in to hear her.

"Oh. OH! It's been..." He started calculating the time quickly.

"Willow hasn't spoken to her parents in almost five years."

"Why?" Giles had known that Willow had had an argument with her parents, but neither she nor Tara had ever spoken about what had happened. He felt as though Tara needed to talk to someone about it now.

"It happened a couple of months after we lost Oz. Willow decided that she wanted to tell her parents everything..."

The grey-haired driver took the bus slowly through the streets of Sunnydale. The route between the University and the town was never crowded during the summer months, and many times the driver was the only person on board the huge bus. Today though, there were two passengers, a blonde and a redhead, and they both sat at the back of the bus.

Tara heard the sigh Willow let out when they saw the 'Welcome to Sunnydale' sign, and she gave her lover's hand a reassuring squeeze. They had been together for a few months, but during that time the two witches had formed a powerful empathic bond. Lately they had begun experimenting with sending actual thoughts, not just emotions to one another. It took a great deal of concentration, but it was becoming easier for them to communicate telepathically.

"It's going to be fine, Willow."

"I hope so. I mean, my parents and I haven't exactly been in a talking place since I went to college, and they are going to freak in a major way over this." Willow continued to stare out the window.

"We don't have to tell them everything if you don't want to. I mean, it's going to be hard when you tell them why you won't be at Rosh Hashanah this year..." Tara's voiced trailed off. They had only been living together in a dorm room for a week. Even though they were deeply in love, she still felt unsure about her place in Willow's life, and what they were about to do was a huge step in their relationship.

Willow sighed. "No. It's all or nothing. I'm sure that once they've stopped wigging out about everything they'll like you. You are an extremely likable person after all." Willow leaned in and placed a soft kiss on her lover's cheek.

The bus slowed. "Last stop, kids." The driver said, opening the doors.

Willow and Tara stepped off the bus and began walking the three blocks to the Rosenberg's house. The warm breeze blew lightly around them as they turned onto the street where Willow had grown up. Tara wasn't sure how long she had been walking before she realized that her girlfriend was not beside her. Turning, she saw Willow standing about ten feet behind with a horrified look on her face.

Tara moved next to Willow, surreptitiously grabbing her hand. "I'm here. No matter what, Willow, I'm here for you." She began leading the stiff redhead slowly. "Remember that."

"What if they hate me? Or you?"

"Then we'll leave and let them have some time to get used to you being a witch and in...love with me."

Willow stopped again. "I do love you." Her voice was quiet but strong as her expression changed from horrified to one not quite so horrified.

"That's a good thing, love. I'm head over heels for you." Tara lightly kissed the tip of Willow's nose. "We can wait, you know."

"No, I don't think I could go through this again. Let's do this before I become chicken girl again."

Tara laughed in spite of the situation. "You're nowhere near chicken girl."

They stood in front of the massive front door of her parents' house, and Willow pushed a shaking finger against the doorbell, dropping Tara's hand at the same time.

"Hi, Mom." Willow's voice was timid.

"Hi yourself. You should come by more often." Sheila Rosenberg pulled her only child in to a brief hug. "Is this your new dorm mate?"

"This is Tara." Willow glanced at Tara only briefly.

"Come on in you two, you're letting in the bugs." She ushered both women in the house. "Your father is out back grilling the chicken. He'd want you to say hi to him."

"Sure. C'mon." Willow tugged at Tara's arm. "I'll let you in on the grilling secrets that have in the Rosenberg clan for generations."

"Oh no. I need help in the kitchen. You go help you father while - Tara, is it? - and I get acquainted." Mrs. Rosenberg was already pulling the Tara into the kitchen.

"Go Willow. I'll be fine." The look in Tara's eyes didn't quite tell the same story.

Willow's mother sat Tara down in a chair and began bustling about the kitchen. "You and Willow have become good friends, haven't you?"

"Y-yes, ma'am. We have."

"It's good that she's not hanging out with that girl anymore."

"You mean Buffy?" Tara said, not quite understanding how anyone could consider Buffy to be a bad influence.

"So you know her?" Sheila's tone was deceptively light as she poured the green beans into a serving bowl and began fixing a salad.

"She was Willow's roommate when we first started going - um, when we first became friends." Deciding it would be better not to tell Willow's mother that they were both still good friends of the Slayer, Tara ended the description of their relationship there.

If she noticed Tara's slip, the older woman pretended not to notice. "I always worried about her when she was with Bunny; they were always getting into such trouble at school." Willow's mother looked closely at the blonde woman sitting at the table for a moment. "You seem like a nice girl."

"Um, well, I guess I am. Willow's been a good friend - we've g-gone through a lot already." Tara was frustrated that she had already started stuttering and the difficult part of the evening hadn't even begun.

"Hm, I did hear about Oz. He was such a nice boy, too." Mrs. Rosenberg shook her head sadly. "Did you know her then?"

"No ma'am, we met last year during the..." Tara stopped again. She wasn't good at covering up the truth about her relationship with Willow, or how they met. "D-during the outbreak of laryngitis last year."

"Oh, and wasn't that odd? I don't think anyone had voices in the entire town. It must have been a 24-hour bug or something, don't you think?"

Tara's eyes widened almost imperceptibly. She was dumbfounded as to how this woman could have lived in Sunnydale for so long and still not have had any idea of what really went on in the town. "I'm sure that's just what it was, Mrs. Rosenberg."

"Please dear, call me Sheila. And you don't have to call me ma'am either." The older woman's smile was warm.

"Thanks, Sheila." The name was uncomfortable on Tara's lips, but she wanted to very much to please Willow's mother at the moment, anything to calm the coming storm.

"That's better. Tell me about your family. Willow said something about you coming from up north somewhere. Oh goodness, where are my manners. Do you want something to drink?"

"Sure. I'll just have some water if that's okay."

A glass of water was promptly given to the blonde witch. "There. Now tell me about your parents."

Tara flinched a bit, but Sheila had already turned away to work on the salad. "There's not much to tell. My mother passed away last year, and I don't really know my father that well."

Sheila looked at the young woman closely, wondering what would make someone say something like that. "I'm so sorry, I had no idea."

"Oh no, it's okay. I've found a second family since I've been at UCS."

"That's admirable. Losing a parent is always so difficult." Sheila handed the younger woman a bowl with enough salad in it to feed an army. "Here you go, dear. Could you set this on the table for me?"

"That's a lot of salad for four people." Tara remarked before she could stop herself.

"Well, there's actually five. Willow's father asked a nice boy he knows from work to have lunch with us. He's around your age, and if you ask me, he's perfect for Willow." Sheila winked conspiratorially.

"Oh." Tara's shoulders slumped slightly, and even though she tried not to sound disappointed, it didn't work very well.

Sheila looked worried. "She's not seeing anyone, is she? She hasn't talked about a boy, and Ira just thought that she should start dating again."

Tara's heart sank. Today would be even more difficult than they had imagined. "No, she's not dating a boy. I'm sure she'll love to meet..."

"Michael." Sheila filled in the name.

"Yeah - Michael. D-do you mind if I use your b-bathroom?" Tara hoped she didn't look as awful as she felt.

"Of course not, dear. It's just down the hall and to your right. I'll check to see if they're done outside."

Tara nodded and went down the hall to the bathroom. Her face was ghostly pale in the mirror. She had a very bad feeling about the evening, and her feelings were not usually wrong.

"Honey, come out here. I want you to meet Michael." Ira Rosenberg waved his daughter over to the grill, where he and a young man who looked like he had just stepped out of a Gap ad stood.

A million thoughts ran through Willow's mind as she stepped off the back porch, and there were very few that didn't make her stomach turn over. She knew her mother was giving Tara the third degree, which was something Willow wouldn't wish on anyone. She also knew she was in a situation that was just as bad. Her father was trying to set her up on a date, and though she knew his heart was in the right place, dinner had just become a hundred percent more complicated. She swallowed back the butterflies in her stomach and waved as brightly as she could.

"Hi, Dad."

"Willow, this is Michael. He works in my office." Ira grinned excitedly.

"It's good to meet you. Your father's told me so much about you." Gap Boy – that was how Willow began referring to him in her head - said.

"Michael's one of our best accountants, sweetheart. I'm sure you'll have a lot in common with him. He loves computers too."

She felt herself give a fake smile and heard words coming from her mouth. Not that she could comprehend what she was saying, but at least Gap Boy was entertained by it. Her own laughter vaguely rang in her ears, but she had no idea what she was laughing at.

Her mother's voice broke her out of the trance she seemed to be in. "Ira, are you almost done out here? Everything else is ready."

"Just another minute." He called to his wife before he returned his attention to Willow and Gap Boy. "Why don't the two of you go inside? Willow, you can introduce Michael to your friend Tara."

Willow led her 'date' to the kitchen, where her mother was doing a couple of last minute preparations for the meal. "Mom, where's Tara?"

"She said she had to use the restroom, but she went in there a while ago."

Willow nodded, understanding. "I'll go check on her." Letting down the wall that kept their emotions separate, Willow knew her girlfriend was not doing so well. She walked down the hall and knocked on the bathroom door. "Tara? You okay?" Can I come in? Just from that one message her head was already aching.

The door opened, revealing Tara's distraught face. Willow was pulled in quickly and felt Tara's arms wrapped around her tightly. "I take that as a no."

"M-maybe we shouldn't tell them. They want to fix you up with a guy."

"Shh, it's okay." Willow broke the embrace, bringing her hands up to stroke her lover's cheeks. Suddenly all of the doubt she had experienced earlier left her, leaving a very strong impulse to declare her love for Tara as quickly and as loudly as she could. "I'm proud of us, and of what we've built over these last few months. I want - no, I have to tell my parents about the most important person in my life."

"Really?" Tara looked overwhelmed with Willow's certainty.

"Really. Let's do this before I lose my nerve."

"What about Michael?"

"We'll wait for him to leave, then have the 'There's something I've been meaning to tell you...' talk." Willow smiled.

Willow was grateful when Tara chuckled a bit. She could feel that some of the tension had been released in the blonde. That would make the evening relatively bearable, or at least that was what Willow hoped.

Dinner had been quiet, with Tara and Willow both not speaking much while trying to be friendly at the same time. Michael had proven to be a very nice guy, and Willow suspected that he was a little on the gay side. Still, the reason why they had gone to her parents' house for dinner weighed in her mind and she knew that neither she nor her girlfriend would remember Gap Boy much. She couldn't even remember the color of his hair five minutes after he had left the house.

"That was a great dinner, Sheila. W-would you like some help cleaning up?" Tara broke the uncomfortable silence that had descended upon the living room following Michael's departure.

"Thank you, Tara. I can manage. Don't the two of you need to be getting back to the dorm?" Sheila began clearing the dishes from the table, glancing quickly at her daughter.

"Yeah, Mom, but that can wait. We still have a little while before the last bus runs, and I kind of wanted to talk to you and Dad about something." Willow moved so that she was sitting close to her girlfriend on the couch.

Ira looked up from the crossword puzzle he had dragged out of the newspaper. "Everything's okay at school, right? You aren't in any kind of trouble there, are you?"

Nervous laughter escaped from Willow's lips. "N-no, Daddy. School's fine. This is...personal." She risked a glance at Tara and drew strength from the love she saw there. "Mom, can you come in here?"

"I'll just listen from in here, dear." Sheila called from the kitchen.

"Please - I need to talk to both of you." Willow knew she sounded desperate, but she couldn't help it.

"All right. What is it you want to say?" Sheila sat in an armchair with her apron still on, as though she didn't expect to be there long.

"Um," Willow found that she couldn't remember anything she wanted to say, even though she and Tara had rehearsed this for a week.

Sheila broke the silence. "I've invited Michael over for Rosh Hashanah this year, sweetheart. He seems like such a nice young man, and he doesn't have any family here in Sunnydale."

"I won't..." Willow paused, continuing when she felt Tara's hand lightly on hers. "I won't be coming to Rosh Hashanah this year."

"Why not?" Ira asked.

There were so many things that went through Willow's mind in that moment. She could have easily lied and said she was planning to spend it with a Jewish group on campus, told them that she had some kind of big school project, or even told them she had converted to Buddhism. Tara kept creeping in and amongst the myriad thoughts in her mind, and Willow knew she had to tell them the truth.

"Because I'm a witch."

"Willow, I know that college is a time for experimenting, but we're your family." Sheila said mildly, though Willow saw anger flash through her mother's eyes.

"Your mother's right. There are a lot of things in college that can be confusing to a young woman such as yourself." Ira said evenly. To Willow, that wasn't a good sign.

"You don't understand." Willow's courage grew. "It's not just a college experiment. I - we - have powers."

"We? What are you talking about?" Sheila sounded more upset with each passing minute.

"She means us." Tara said softly. "Willow's very powerful."

Ira seemed to see Tara for the first time since the conversation began. "Really? I suppose the two of you have done a couple of love spells to find boys and now you think you're powerful? You know nothing - none of that stuff is real, little girl. Witches, goblins, and demons don't exist."

"Ira…" Sheila started.

Willow's father acted as though he hadn't heard his wife as he stared hard at Tara, then at how she held the hand of his daughter. "Do you want to tell us something else?" His words were deceptively calm.

Having read somewhere that it wasn't the best idea to come out to one's parents during an argument, Willow thought about not telling them anything else, but she couldn't stop now. "Tara and I are...together."

Sheila let out a breath of relief. "We know that dear, you're on the couch."

Ira sat still, his hands clenched into fists and his face becoming a deep shade of red. "You're an abomination!" Her father's voice boomed through the room. He shot out of his chair, raising his hand as if to hit his daughter, but it stopped in midair. Without controlling it, his hand crashed into the wall, placing a very neat hole about two feet from Willow's head.

Willow sat on the couch, her eyes full of disbelief at what her father had just tried to do. He had never raised a hand to her in anger, and she knew that it was only because of Tara that she had been able to block his fist so quickly, if at all. Then she heard a voice from beside her.

"Don't try that again, Mr. Rosenberg. It wasn't a mistake that your hand went through the wall." Tara sounded angry, and that was something Willow hadn't seen before.

Ira just stared at his bloody hand in shock. "You both make me sick. Get out of my house and don't ever come back."

Willow looked from her father to her mother, knowing that in a few short seconds she had destroyed the fragile relationship she had with them. Ira's face was purple with anger, and Sheila's mouth hung open in shock. The anger she had felt before slipped away as quickly as it had come, and she was left with an enormous sense of loss.

"I'll get my things," she croaked, trying to hold back tears. Willow grabbed Tara's hand and got to the edge of the room before Ira's voice stopped her again.

"You won't take any of my daughter's things. She's dead to me. Do you understand? You are dead. I will burn every last possession that was ever yours. It will be like you never existed to me. Now get out."

"Dear god. I had no idea it was that bad." Giles said sadly.

"Willow was almost inconsolable. I managed to get her over to Joyce's house, and we stayed over there for the next couple of days. Willow tried calling her parents' house a couple of times, but the number had been disconnected. A few days later we found out that they had moved out of state." Tara took a sip of her lukewarm tea. "Before I had a chance to tell you, Riley was killed. It sounds so terrible, but in a way Riley's death helped Willow come out of her pain. She was able to pour all of her energy into helping Buffy."

"It doesn't sound bad at all. It's understandable. Oftentimes we focus on other people's pain to overcome our own. I'm just sorry Willow had to go through that at all."

"I do too. A piece of her died that day - I felt it."

"How does she feel about them calling after so long?"

Tara stared at the floor for a moment. "She doesn't know yet."

"Why? Haven't you told her? I thought the two of you shared everything." Giles was shocked.

"We are still two separate people, even if we're linked. I haven't told her because...because I wanted to make sure they weren't going to hurt her again."

"What a bloody mess this is. I understand your reasons for not telling her, but you must tell her before they come."

"I know. I'll tell her when she gets home." Tara's mind was flooded with joy and panic all at once. "Something's happened."

"Do you know what?" Giles was on his feet.

"No, Willow's too far away." They had discovered long ago that if they were more than a couple of miles away from each other, they could only sense each other's emotions.

"Should we c-" Giles was cut off by the ringing phone.

"Willow?" Tara said, picking up the phone. "She is? We'll be there in a jif. Bye." She turned to Giles. "Anya's in labor."

"What are we waiting for? Let's get to the hospital!" Giles already had his car keys out as they headed for the door.

"Get these babies out of me now! Do you understand what I'm saying to you?" Anya was yelling at the top of her lungs, and the doctor didn't seem to hear a word she was saying.

"Hon, just breathe your way through, remember? You know, he-he-hoo-hoo?" Xander held his wife's hand, which was not a very good idea since he felt the circulation being cut off to his fingers at the moment.

"You just breathe this, Alexander Harris! You did this to me, and you don't - ARGH! - even - MMPH! - know what it feels like!" She looked at the doctor with daggers in her eyes. "I want an epidural - do you understand?"

"Anya, honey, you said you wanted-"

"I don't care what I said before - get that man down there to give me an epidural or we're never having sex again!"

Xander blushed so badly his ears were red. "Could you give her an epidural?"

The doctor looked up. "I'm sorry, Mr. Harris, but we can't do that at this stage of the birth."

Xander braced himself for more yelling, but his wife's voice was dead calm. "Then I wish that my husband feels the pain of childbirth."

For a split second, Xander was glad his wife wasn't a vengeance demon anymore. Then the disembodied voice of D'Hoffryn echoed in the room. "Oh, all right. Even though this really shouldn't count since you are a former colleague, your wish is granted."

Xander felt the worst pain he'd ever experienced in his life. Crying out, he crumpled to the floor in a heap. After the longest thirty seconds in the history of his life, the pain started to subside. "Is that what it feels like?" He asked in between deep breaths as the nurses got him onto a gurney.

"It is, and you're going to suffer through it with me." Anya said with a satisfied grin on her face.

"Oh god, this is not happening, this is no-" His mantra was cut off by another labor pain that seemed to shoot through his entire body.

The doctor started shouting orders at everyone in the room, trying to get the situation under control. "Nurse, can you see if you can reach her substitute coach, and get another doctor in here to examine Mr. Harris."

"Why haven't they come to tell us anything?" Willow asked as she paced the waiting room frantically.

Giles glanced down at his watch. "Perhaps it's because it has only been twenty minutes."

"Oh...yeah. That might be it." Willow still looked worried.

Tara wrapped her arms around her lover, kissing her lightly on the forehead. "It'll be fine, love."

"What if it's not? I mean, I don't want to poop on the party, but what if the babies come out all weird and demony - it could happen. She was a demon for a long time, and that might have changed some of her human, um, parts. Why didn't we think of that before now? It's too late now and if she delivers something that's all green and scaly that is just not going to be good...I'm babbling, aren't I?" Willow said into Tara's shoulder.

"Yeah, but that's okay. They won't be demon babies."

The door burst open suddenly and two paint-covered and very out of breath Slayers came barging into the room. "Sorry we're late we…got distracted. What'd we miss?" They said simultaneously.

"Other than the fact that Willow is acting more like a nervous father than Xander was, we don't really know anything." Giles said matter-of-factly.

"Oh, that's good, isn't it?" Buffy said.

"For now it is," Tara said, still holding Willow's hand.

Joyce came in, looking a bit upset. She glared at Buffy for a second, and then turned her gaze to Giles. "Well?"

"To recap, mom, everything's fine but no babies yet." Buffy said uncertainly.

"Good. Now would you like to explain the mess you left at my house?" Joyce said with deadly precision.

"Um, maybe later, mom. Right now we have to think about Anya, right?" Buffy sighed.

Buffy was saved from her torment when a harried looking nurse who ran into the room, almost knocking Faith down. "I'm so sorry. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, lady. What's the hurry?"

"Are..." The nurse looked around the room and was a bit confused. "Are...all of you with Mr. And Mrs. Harris?"

Willow's eyes grew wide again. "What's wrong?"

"Mr. Harris seems to be having some...difficulty. I need to know if either Willow Rosenberg or Tara Maclay are here."

Both Tara and Willow stepped toward the nurse. "That's us."

Although the doctor said they only needed one of the backup coaches, the nurse apparently decided that two heads were better than one. "Then come with me." She left as abruptly as she had come in, leaving the two witches to run after her.

"I don't think Xander's ever going to mock a woman's pain again." Willow couldn't help but grin as she and Tara walked toward the waiting room.

Anya's labor had been only a few hours, quick by childbirth standards, but not quick enough for Xander. After having experienced his wife's pain firsthand, he was resting in a drug-induced sleep alongside her.

Tara stifled a laugh at the picture of Xander's face floating through both their minds. "Stop it, love. We've got to tell the rest and I want to be able to kind of keep a straight face."

They walked into the room to find three expectant and anxious faces looking straight at them. "Well?" Giles asked, moving to the edge of his seat.

"Both. I mean, a boy and a girl - Janna and Aiden. Wait, reverse that. The boy is Aiden and the girl is Janna." Willow beamed.

"Janna? Isn't that kind of an odd name?" Faith asked.

Giles' face took on a haunted look for a moment. A sad smile crossed his lips. "Janna was Jenny's real name."

Buffy mouthed the words, 'I'll explain later' when Faith shot her a questioning look.

Willow put an arm around his waist. She couldn't believe she had forgotten about Jenny's name. "Is that okay?"

"What? Oh yes, Xander asked me a couple of months ago just in case they had a girl. It just...it brings back...so much."

Deciding Giles needed a change of scenery Buffy went to his other side. "Let's go see the babies, okay?"

"On one condition. I don't want to get near Anya at the moment," Giles said, with fear in his tone.

Faith laughed. "Yeah, I don't think she's too fond of men right about now."

"So Angel killed Miss Calendar?" Faith asked just after dusting her fifth vampire of the evening.

After looking at the twins for what seemed like hours, the Slayers had gone on patrol. They had combed the cemetery twice, and had found a total of nine vampires that evening, which was a bit much even by Sunnydale standards.

"Just after he lost his soul," Buffy said, a certain amount of guilt creeping into her voice.

"I knew I sensed major tension when they were in the same room, but I never knew why. How..." Faith's voice trailed off when she thought about what she had been about to ask.

"What 'how'?" Buffy asked.

"I was about to ask, 'How could you forgive him after that?', but then I remembered how everyone forgave me."

Taking hold of her lover's hand, Buffy whispered softly in her ear. "I'm just sorry it took me so long." She kissed Faith lightly at the nape of her neck.

"Thanks, B. Vamp at 2 o'clock."

"I'll get this one." Buffy dusted him with little work. "These guys are all newbies tonight, have you noticed?"

"Yeah, it's been that way for the last few days. You think there's a big baddy in town we don't know about yet?" Faith asked as they resumed their patrol.

"Wouldn't we have heard about them? Vamps are usually the 'create havoc and gloat' kind, not the 'stealth-like plan' type." She shrugged. "We should tell Will and Tara to keep an eye out, just in case."

Just out of the Slayers' range two dark figures stood, barely outlined in the night. "Do you think all of the rumors are true? Are the Slayers immortal?"

"They certainly don't seem to be tiring, Martin. I've never seen a Slayer have that much stamina, no matter how strong they are. Did you remember to give Jeremy the knife?" Her voice sounded nonchalant.

"Yes." Martin knew the dangers of not doing something Elspeth asked. Once and you lost an ear, twice and you were dust. "Look, there he is."

They watched as Jeremy attacked the two women, managing to stab the blonde woman in the back before being staked through the heart by the other one. After a few moments, they both stood and began patrolling again as though nothing had happened.

"That answers that question then, doesn't it? The witches probably are, too." Elspeth lost herself in thought.

"How will we destroy them?" Martin asked as they turned away and began walking home.

"If you can't destroy their bodies, destroy their minds. They won't be capable of fighting when the time comes."


Part 2

The light of the early morning sun shone brightly as Sheila grabbed the directions off the nightstand of the hotel room. Her hand was shaking so badly she had trouble getting the piece of paper into her pocket, but she finally managed. Making her way to the parking lot, she tried to figure out just exactly what she was going to say to her daughter.

She wasn't sure what had been the final push that gave her the courage to find her daughter after so many years. It had not been difficult, since Willow had been featured in a computer magazine a year back. Sheila was pleased that her only child was doing well for herself, although a bit disturbed by the fact that Willow was a bit thin. She quickly pushed that thought from her mind, though. Tiny criticisms of her daughter had been one of the many things that had driven a wedge between them.

The distant relationship she had shared with Willow had been primarily her fault. Never making an effort to understand anything the young girl was interested in, she had instead tried for a more academic approach to raising her child - teaching Willow anything that she could about books and political causes. Over the years Sheila had grown more uncomfortable with any kind of affection with anyone, and Willow had suffered for it. She had been hurt when she discovered that Willow had become so close to Joyce Summers, but by then she didn't know a way to repair the damage that had been done.

When Willow had gone to college, Sheila had breathed a small sigh of relief, mainly because she wouldn't be expected to raise her child any longer. The recollection caused a strong pang of guilt to sting her heart. She had always loved her daughter, she just didn't know her, and that was something that frightened her deeply. How could she not be close to someone whom she had carried in her womb for nine months?

After the fiasco when Willow had told them about being a witch and loving Tara, Ira had requested a transfer with his company. They had agreed, and within a week she and her husband were on a plane to Seattle. Packing the house hadn't taken as long as it usually would have; Ira had insisted that they not have anything to remind them of Sunnydale. Sheila had taken her clothes and a couple of other things, but that was all. Her husband would not allow any pictures of Willow to be packed, but Sheila had managed to keep one picture of her daughter, only taking it out when Ira wasn't home. She didn't hate Willow, she cared and loved her much more than she did before; she had just been too shocked to say anything that night, and it had cost her the only child she had. If Sheila had said something, she might not have ever lost touch with Willow.

Finding herself with a lot of spare time and not knowing anyone in their new home, Sheila did what she was good at: research. She was such a frequent visitor the librarians came to know her by her first name. Once that happened Sheila found herself in the enviable position of being able to see the books the general public wasn't usually allowed to see. That was when she discovered that she had not only been blind to her daughter, but to most of the events that had taken place in Sunnydale.

She was broken from her reverie only slightly when she heard a horn behind her. Getting on I-17 was a bit more hazardous than she remembered. Then again, Sheila didn't remember Sunnydale being such a busy town. It was still small by many people's standards, but it didn't feel like it was dying anymore. She had a suspicion that her daughter had something to do with that, but that was only because she had done a great deal of thinking in the last few years.

When Sheila first started going to the library, she wasn't quite sure what she was researching. As the weeks went by, though, it became clear that her quest for knowledge wasn't exactly a typical one. Books on the supernatural often found their way into her stack of books, and she found herself being very intrigued by the theories presented in them, at least on an academic level. The day she pulled the last book in the section, one of the shyer librarians had approached her, offering her a chance to see their rare occult books. That was when she discovered how blind she had really been.

All of the strange events that had happened over the years began to be connected in her mind as she read texts that were two or three hundred years old. She read the proof that ghosts, demons, and vampires really existed, as well as the stories of real witches, not just most of the poor women who had been burned at the stake during the Burning Times. A strong sense of pride began in her heart for her daughter, especially when she realized that Willow must have helped save hundreds of people during her high school graduation. What shocked her most in those old books, and she didn't think she could be shocked any longer, were the stories of the Slayer. All the trouble Willow's friend had been in made sense finally, and she still chided herself for not seeing Buffy for the brave woman she really was.

Talking to her husband about anything related to Sunnydale was impossible. Sheila had attempted to talk to him about the strange occurrences, but he insisted they were her imagination. When she said Willow's name by accident, Ira had become enraged, storming off to the garage. He didn't speak to her for a week after that incident, and when he finally said something it was as though nothing had ever happened.

Shoving everything under a rug might have been fine for him, but not for Sheila. She called Buffy's mother, and after a long, tense conversation in which Sheila had to prove that she had indeed changed, Joyce had given her Willow's phone number. Before she could lose her nerve Sheila had dialed, hoping that her daughter would answer the phone, but also hoping that she wouldn't.

Tara had answered instead, and when she found out who was calling she had hung up immediately. Sheila had laid the phone down, suddenly feeling as though all of the breath had been sucked out of her. She was shocked when Tara had called her back a couple of minutes later. In her quiet way Tara had informed her that Willow had been devastated over what had happened, and that it would be best if she never called again. After begging the younger woman to hear her out, Sheila told her everything. All of the guilt over virtually abandoning her daughter long before the last night she had seen her poured out. Tara had listened patiently, but Sheila had a sense that she didn't trust one word that was coming out of her mouth.

It had taken a couple of conversations with the younger woman for Sheila to prove that she really did want to mend her relationship with her daughter, and she knew that Tara hadn't said anything to Willow simply because Tara didn't want any more harm to be done. Sheila wanted to talk directly with Willow, though, and she knew that Tara wasn't going to let that happen over the phone. She never told Tara she was coming to Sunnydale, and although she felt bad about that, she still wanted, no, she needed, to see Willow and explain.

Knowing that Ira would in no way like it if she flew to Sunnydale, she outwardly lied to her husband for the first time in her life, telling him she was going to visit her sister in Arizona. Arizona was where the flight went, and that was all he needed to know. She had arrived in Sunnydale in the middle of the night after driving for what seemed like days, checking herself into the hotel after deciding that is was not a good idea to knock on her estranged daughter's door at one o'clock in the morning.

She missed the turn to the house, and doubled back. The map she had taken off the Internet was a good one, and the thought that Willow would be proud of her fluttered through her mind. She pulled into the driveway, and after a couple of deep breaths, she got out of the car and went to see her daughter for the first time in five years.

"Damn, I forgot to buy the peppers yesterday." Tara said, seemingly from inside the refrigerator. Balancing some fruit, eggs, and other food precariously in her arms she stood and closed the door with her foot.

Willow smiled and said in her best John Wayne impersonation. "Well, don't fret lil' missy. We can still get that omelet cookin'."

Giggling, Tara set everything down and wrapped her arms around her lover's waist. "Things have been a bit exciting lately, haven't they?" They had spent the last two weeks either helping Anya and Xander with the twins or patrolling at night.

"Yup. But I did happen to mention to the new parents that we might not be stopping by today." Willow lightly traced Tara's jaw with her hand.

"You wanna practice some spells later?" Tara's eyes rolled back when she felt her lover's lips graze her neck. Bringing Willow's head up, their lips met in a slow, deep kiss. They were both breathless when it ended.

Slowly unbuttoning the other woman's blouse, Willow's voice was husky. "Why don't we practice now?"

A noise upstairs startled both women. Tara regained her composure first, buttoning her shirt as she said, "Because two very hungry Slayers will be coming down those steps any second now."

Willow's face took on a pouty look. "Okay."

"Hey, I'll have no pout face in this kitchen. Besides, you know I can't resist it. C'mon, let's get breakfast ready."

Willow and Tara were just putting the finishing touches on the meal when Faith and Buffy came down the stairs. "Damn, B, why don't we cook anything that smells that good?" Faith asked.

"Could it be that we usually have cereal when it's our turn to cook?" Buffy smirked, doing a mock hurt face when Faith punched her lightly on the arm.

"How went the slayage last night?" Tara asked, putting a basket of fruit on the table.

"Okay. It was wicked busy though." Faith snagged an orange from the basket and started peeling it. "We dusted ten vamps and killed one fungus demon."

"Okay, major 'Eeeww' factor on the fungus demon." Willow scrunched up her nose. "And aren't they kind of rare around here?"

"Two points go to the research girl. It might be something to investigate. How're things at the madhouse?" Faith plopped a slice of orange into her mouth.

"Things are pretty good. Xander still hasn't recovered from the pain of childbirth." Willow couldn't help the giggle that escaped her mouth. "Anya's still telling him that they're never going to be orgasm buddies again."

The knock at the door startled the four women slightly, and Buffy went into the foyer.

"I'll get it. It's probably Giles here for his daily visit." Opening the door, she didn't register that it wasn't the ex-Watcher that stood before her for a second. "Gi - oh, sorry. I thought you were someone else. Can I help you?"

The older, petite woman pulled out a pamphlet quickly and started speaking. "Are you the lady of the house? I'd like to talk to you about the vacuum cleaner you use. Do you mind if I come in?"

"Well, normally I'd say 'yesiree' to that, but we already use the - what is it - the Rainbow 2000(tm). It's the bestest vacuum in the world." Buffy said enthusiastically, trying to ignore the snickers she could hear from the kitchen.

The woman seemed to visibly deflate. "Oh. I'm glad you like it. Sorry to trouble you." With that, she headed to her car.

"'It's the bestest vacuum in the world'? You sounded worse than a cheerleader!" Willow remarked just before doubling over with laughter.

"Laugh it up, Will. At least I got rid of her, unlike some people I can think of who end up spending a day talking to the guy who wanted to sell us life insurance."

"Hey, that's not fair. He was a nice man." Willow said after regaining her composure. "And besides, how was he supposed to know we didn't need it?"

Tara set the last thing on the table. "Come on, guys, let's eat before this gets cold."

The four women ate in an amicable silence that came from living together. They had just finished when someone knocked on the door again.

"Why can't they just leave us alone?" Faith cried melodramatically as she headed for the door. Opening it, she found herself staring at what looked to be a very nervous woman.

"Is Willow here?" The woman said in a quivering voice. Most people would classify her as plain, but there was something familiar about the woman's eyes.

"Sorry lady, we gave at the office. There's a guy who lives in the next house who'll buy anything though."

"No, I don't think you quite understand. I'm not selling anything. I need to see Willow."

"Huh? Okay. Hey, Red!"

"Who is -" Willow stopped short when she saw the woman in the doorway. "Mom." She found herself leaning against the wall to keep from falling to the ground.

Tara stepped behind her lover. "Sheila? What are you doing here?" Her voice was laced with an anger that comes from protecting a loved one.

"I knew you wouldn't let me see her, but I had to talk to her."

Willow had been looking at her mother in shock, but she turned to Tara. "Did I miss something?"

Willow, let's talk someplace-

"No, we talk here and now."

"Can I let her in?" Faith asked in a gentle tone.

"No!" Willow said forcefully.

"Yes." Both Sheila and Tara said simultaneously.

Tara shook her head for a second, feeling a tremor in her bond with Willow. "Come in, Sheila." She said quietly.

Faith ducked back into the kitchen, where she and Buffy promptly made themselves scarce. Neither one of them had any idea of what was going on, but they didn't want to be caught in the crossfire.

"Willow, I came by to-" Sheila was cut off when she saw the anger in her daughter's eyes.

"I don't care, mother. I'm dead to you, remember? You burned everything I ever had in that house. How dare you come here now?" Willow turned back to her lover. "You've been talking to her, haven't you?"

"Yes, but Willow-" Tara pleaded.

"You knew over everyone else just how much they hurt me. How could you talk to her?" Willow was concentrating her gaze solely on Tara.

"I called, and she happened to be here." Sheila offered.

"No, I want to hear this from Tara."

"Please, Willow. Can we talk about this somewhere else?" Tara pleaded.

"Fine. Mother, there's a couch you can sit on through there." After seeing Sheila sit, Willow again turned her full attention to Tara.

"She called one day when you were out, and wanted to talk to you again."

"When were you planning on telling me?"

"The day you called and told me Anya was in labor. After that, everything happened so fast. Willow, please don't pull away from me. I made a mistake; I should have told you the moment Sheila called. I just didn't want you to get hurt again."

"And finding out the person I love most in this world withheld the truth from me doesn't hurt? I can't believe you would keep something like this from me." Her voice was filled with betrayal.

"I just kept remembering how awful it was for you after what happened, and I didn't want you to go through that again. If I could change it now, I would. I'm sorry."

"What does she want?" The anger had gone out of her voice, only to be replaced by a distance that Tara had never heard before.

"She wants to - Willow? What are you doing?" They had had arguments in the past, but they had always been able to work through them. Now Tara could feel their link being severed completely, and it felt like someone was cutting out her heart and watching her die.

"I can't do this, Tara. I can't be connected to you. It hurts too much."

"That's it? You don't want to be with me anymore?" Tara could feel a deep void where Willow's thoughts and emotions used to be.

"No, that's not it. But I can't be with you right now. I just...need some time."

"How much?" Tara knew she should fight this, should try to recreate their link, but she sensed that it would only alienate her lover more.

"I don't know." She looked out to where Sheila was sitting. "I should talk to her." Willow left Tara standing in the foyer, both women feeling utterly alone.

"Tara? You in there?" Faith asked from the entrance to the bedroom. There was a small suitcase on the bed, half-filled with clothes.

"I'm here." Tara emerged from the bathroom, her face was blotchy from crying. She dumped some toiletries in and closed the case.

"What is this? You're leaving because Red's mother showed up?"

"It's a bit more complicated than that."

"Nothing's that complicated, Tara. You should wait and talk to her when she calms down a bit."

"She broke our link. I can't feel her." The words were simple, concise.

"Hasn't that ever happened before?" Faith said gently, knowing Tara was barely keeping herself standing.

"No. She wants some time, and I'm going to give it to her."

"By walking away? Take it from me. That's not the best thing to do right now." Faith put her arm around her friend's waist.

"I'm not walking away. She's hurt right now, and I helped cause that. I can't help fix it; she won't let me." Her voice broke. "I'll call." Grabbing her suitcase, she headed for the door.

"Don't do this."

"I have to if I'm going to respect her wishes, Faith."

Faith found herself looking at an empty doorway in shock. She couldn't believe, even in her life's experience, that her two friends could ever split apart that suddenly. The air felt less alive somehow as she stepped onto the overhang and looked down to the first floor. Buffy came out of the bedroom they shared and walked slowly over to Faith, gently wrapping her arms around her lover from behind.

"She's gone."

"They'll get through this. They've been through worse." Buffy said softly, but Faith didn't believe a word of it.

Sheila clutched her bag tightly, her foot tapping nervously on the floor. She had rehearsed this moment hundreds of times, trying to think of the perfect things to say, but the words she had been prepared to say flew abruptly from her mind the second her daughter had recognized her. It had been obvious that Willow had not been expecting her, not that Sheila expected Tara to say anything, but seeing the look of anger, hurt, and betrayal was overwhelming. Turning her gaze to the table that still had the remains of breakfast on it, she knew she'd made the wrong decision in coming to Sunnydale, but there was nothing she could do now - except tell her daughter everything.

Gradually she became aware that Willow had walked into the room and was standing a few feet from her, silently leaning against the wall. "I shouldn't have come. I'm sorry."

Willow tried to keep the turmoil of emotions she felt in check. "Then why did you?"

"I wanted to apologize..."

"You've already done that. Would you like to try for something else?"

"Can we start this over? Maybe go someplace else?" Sheila looked at her daughter hopefully.

Willow sighed and went to the glass door that led onto the deck. "Let's take a walk."

"I made a mistake," Sheila started as soon as they got onto the beach, "So many mistakes."

"What do you expect me to say, Mom - 'Thanks for coming by and wrecking my life just so you can feel not-so-guilty'? I'm not going to do that."

"I don't expect you to. It seems like I've been doing nothing but thinking these last few years, and yes, I do feel guilty. You were around Buffy so much I thought you were going to waste your life away in some jail cell when you were in high school."

"As you can see, I've turned out just fine. Is this supposed to help, or are you trying to hurt me more? You never approved of me, of my friends; you even hated Xander ever since I can remember."

"It wasn't that, Willow. I just never knew you." Sheila said softly.

"And you do now? After disowning me?"

"Please, this is hard to explain, but yes. I know what you were doing when you were in high school, and that I was an idiot for not believing in you, and for not seeing you for the person you really were and are."

Willow stopped still on the sand. "Who am I then?"

Sheila looked at her daughter with great care, noticing every detail she'd missed for all of those years. "You're a fighter and a witch - you always were, but I just never took the time to notice any of it until I was hundreds of miles away from you. I know about everything, or at least most of it: the vampires, demons, your high school graduation, the Slayer...and how I tried to burn you at the stake."

"That wasn't your fault, Mom. Most of the town was under the influence-"

"-of a demon." She finished. "But that's no excuse for forgetting about it afterwards because I didn't want to think about it. I avoided the truth for so long that I was blind to it, and when it was right in front of my face I ran from it. I've stopped running. Will you let me be a part of your life now?" Taking a deep breath, Sheila tentatively reached her hand out to her daughter.

Just before her mother dropped her hand in defeat, Willow grabbed it gently. "I'm not making any guarantees, but we can try."

"That's all I'm asking." Every crease in Sheila's face seemed to disappear from the relief she felt.

Willow spoke haltingly. "What about Dad?"

"He's still the same. He thinks I'm at your Aunt's house in Arizona." Sheila paused. "Your father and I aren't exactly close anymore, and I've come to a decision. I'm going to tell him I'm in Sunnydale." She felt Willow's hand tighten around hers, then let go.

"Don't do that, Mom. He's just going to think I did something to make you come down here."

"But I have to. I missed too much of your life because I couldn't see you for who you are. I'm not going to miss any more of it because of where we live." Sheila was taking a big step, especially since she wasn't sure how Willow was going to react. "I want to move back here, if you wouldn't object."

Willow's face looked tormented at best. "I need to think about it."

"That's more than I'd hoped for. It will give you some time to talk it over with Tara as well."

"Tara..." The name brought anger back to Willow's features, and for a moment Sheila thought her daughter was going to walk away.

"She wasn't trying to hurt you."

The younger woman closed her eyes. "I know."

"Then tell her. Tara has nothing but love for you, and that was obvious the day I first met her."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

Sheila did a double take. "What do you mean?"

"That day. Dad almost hit me. He would have if Tara hadn't been there, and you never said a word. Why not?" Willow's voice held only sorrow.

"I wanted you to be so many things, and that day you told me that you had no intention of becoming any of them." Sheila held up her hand when her daughter tried to speak. "Wait. It wasn't until much later I realized that you had grown into someone much better than I could have ever hoped to know. But that wasn't for another couple of years. The day you told us who you really were..."

"Your world came tumbling down?"

"No and yes. Everything I thought I had been building for you came crashing down around me, and that was more than I could take. I was in shock, but I know that's no excuse. By the time I realized what was happening we had moved to Seattle."

"And you couldn't call just to find out if I was okay? I called, Mom, I called every day hoping that either of you might change your mind. What am I saying? I had no idea how you felt. You never said anything. Yeah, I know, you were in shock." Suddenly furious again, Willow turned away and began walking back to the house.

"Willow, please."

"What? Do you want me to stand here and say that it was okay for you to do nothing because you were in shock? I'm not ever going to do that because it wasn't okay. My entire childhood was filled with moments when I needed you and you weren't there for one reason or another. 'Sorry, have to give a lecture on the effects of the women's movement on modern-day society' - that was your favorite one. I don't know why I was even surprised at your reaction to Tara and me. You never wanted to deal with me at all, did you?" She hugged herself, sobbing.

Sheila was silent for a moment, not sure of what to say. Every word Willow said was the truth, and Sheila wasn't going to deny it any longer. "No, I didn't," she said softly. "You were always so bright, so different from anyone else, and it frightened me. I'm not saying that who you are and what you do doesn't scare me now, but I want to be a part of your life if you'll let me. There's nothing I could say or do to make up for what happened, and it wouldn't be fair to either one of us to even try. Can you forgive me?"

"I don't know, Mom. I need some time to think things through." Willow looked everywhere but at Sheila.

"It's okay, really. I understand." Sheila sensed that the conversation was over, but she wasn't sure if she had accomplished anything.

"We'll talk later, okay?" Willow reached over and gave her mother's hand a reassuring squeeze.

They walked silently back to the house, both women's hearts heavy with emotion.

"What the hell happened here this morning?" Buffy asked while putting some of the leftover food back in the refrigerator.

"Search me. You'd know more about it than I would. I didn't know Red wasn't talking to her mom. Hell, I didn't know that was her mom." Faith scrubbed the pan so hard she was rubbing off the teflon coating.

"She never really talked about it, but that was a bad time for everyone." Buffy caught a glimpse of the two women outside, and wondered what they were saying to each other. "They'll be coming back soon."

"Then I'll go work out." Faith stood and started to leave the room, not looking at Buffy.


"What?" She asked. "I'm pissed at her. And yeah, I know have to think of the greater good and all that crap, but..." Faith stopped short.

"But what?"

"Tara's my friend."

"And Willow isn't?" Buffy fought to keep her anger in check.

"That's not what I mean. Yeah, Red's my friend, but Tara and I - shit, I don't know."

Buffy knew that it was difficult for Faith to tell anyone her feelings, and she also knew that she was no exception. "It's okay - you don't have to say anything."

"I want to tell you. We've never really talked about this. Tara never asked me if I'd changed when I came back, and she never judged me for anything I said to her before. Everyone else did."

Buffy walked to her lover and looked into her brown eyes. "Including me." She said in a sorrowful voice.

Quickly reaching out and grasping the other woman's hand, Faith brushed her lips across Buffy's cheek. "It's all good, B. You had your reasons, and if I'd been in the same boat I'd have probably done the same thing - except worse.

"Tara's one of the best people I've ever met, and whatever she did I know she wouldn't hurt Willow on purpose. She's a good friend, and she didn't deserve what Red did to her this morning."

"But we don't exactly know the full story."

"Doesn't matter to me. Tara's gone, and I don't know what you want to call it, but I don't think she's coming back to this house. And..." Faith took a deep breath. "That scares me."

"And you blame Will."

"Yeah, even though I know it's stupid and none of my business. I just need to not be around her right now, okay?" Faith turned to leave.

"Okay." Buffy grabbed her lover's hand. "Just remember that if Will broke their link, she's going through her own hell right now."

"I know, and that's why I'm not going to say anything to her." Faith wrapped her arms around Buffy's waist. "Thanks."

"For what?"

"Understanding. Love you." Faith leaned in and gently kissed Buffy before going upstairs.

"Love you, too." Buffy said to an empty room.

"The preparations for tonight are finished. Did you want me to do anything else before we leave?" Martin asked as her walked into the large hall.

"That will be all." Elspeth didn't even look up from the book she was studying.

"Are we going to take the one we came for tonight? We don't need that many precautions for someone like that, do we?" He asked nervously.

The ancient vampire looked up from the text and smiled at her subordinate, making him back up a step. "Plans change, Martin. We will take him, but I want one of the witches tonight. According to the way they patrol, this is a night they should be out with one of the Slayers."

"But...I'm surprised you need a witch so soon."

She stood, squinting suspiciously at him. "Why does it matter to you?"

Though Elspeth's hands stayed at her side, Martin began clawing at his throat, choking as he was lifted off the ground. "Curious..." He croaked.

"Curiosity killed the cat. You will do well to remember that." She released her hold on him, letting him drop to the ground. "You did test those chains, didn't you?"

"Yeah." Martin massaged his neck. "They were strong enough to hold another vampire."

"Good, I don't want the witch to be able to escape before I'm finished with her." Elspeth looked at him with an irritated glare. "I don't want you touching her at all - no feeding off this one like the last time. Is that understood?"

"But she's an immortal..." Martin shrank under Elspeth's glare.

"Exactly. Don't you dare touch her, or I'll tear your head off and make sure you watch yourself turn to dust."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Remember, too, that if you must leave to use the back entrance. The front is set up already and I don't want them to think anyone had been here. We need the time to be able to accomplish our goals."

"What about food?"

"Get someone quickly. I need you back here soon. Go." She waved him away with her hand, not even seeing him leave.

Elspeth's thoughts poured into the task that laid in front her. Taking a witch of either woman's strength would be difficult, even for her. There bond together made them even stronger, and the vampire had known from the start that if she were going to take them, it would have to be one at a time. She didn't care, though - she would take the small group of friends and destroy them all, one by one. It wouldn't be too difficult with one witch's power coursing through her veins, either.

The mud and water soaked the feet of the cloaked woman, and if she weren't one of the undead, she would have noticed that her appendages were freezing. As it was, she wrapped the sodden cloak around her tighter than before, as much to keep out the brief beams of sunlight as to keep out the drops of water that still fell from the trees above. Spying an inn in the distance, the figure moved faster towards the shelter and the food it was sure to offer.

It had been a terrible year for her. She had been in Italy when Francis of Assisi had received his stigmata, which had caused a religious outpouring in the nation, causing her to flee her beloved Rome. It had been her favorite area for so many reasons, not the least of which being the anonymity it provided her when she was hunting.

Upon opening the inn door, the figure was surprised to find a group men and women standing close to the door, swords held towards the interloper. Recognizing that she may have stepped into a trap of some sort, the figure slowly removed her hood to reveal her long, black hair and still innocent looking face.

"I have no need of trouble, sirs. I only wish for food and shelter for the night." She said, not moving from her spot. She could kill all of them in a split second, but she had another purpose for being there, and she could control her hunger for a few hours.

A young man came from behind the small group, stepping close to the stranger. "Who are you then?" His accent sounded as though it was from the highlands.

"People call me Elspeth." There was something curious about this small man who dared approach a stranger, and Elspeth knew this boy would be very interesting to know, and possibly the first one she would try her new spell on.

The boy scrutinized the stranger, looking into Elspeth's eyes for what seemed like an eternity, even to the vampire. After a moment of intense scrutiny, the boy turned to his friends. "She's not the one. Lay your swords down."

"What do you mean by that?" She asked after the group had collectively sat back in their chairs.

"There's been a creature stealing the blood from people in this area of late, so we have been cautious of strangers. You do not resemble the creature in the slightest though." He explained as he took her cloak, glancing appreciatively at her clothing. "Are you a member of the king's court?"

Elspeth's smile came easily. "I did attend his court once." She looked closely at the young man. "You have not said your name, and I would like to thank you properly for your act of chivalry."

"Jonathan, madam - but most call me Jon. Would you care for some mead? It will warm you on this cold day." He went behind the bar and grabbed two mugs, pouring a pale liquid into them. "Here," he said, handing her a mug.

"Thank you." Elspeth glanced around the crowded room, thankful that most of the people had gone back to their own business. "Is there some way I could have shelter for a few nights? I would be willing to pay handsomely."

Taking a large swallow of his drink, he looked at her with a great deal of scrutiny. "I believe we may be able to arrange for you to have a bed, although the Inn is truly full tonight. T'is a busy time for this area."

"And would this bed be close to yours?" A sly grin crossed over her face.

John blushed slightly. "I-if you would like."

"I would like that very much, young Jonathan."

He led her up the stairs quietly, nervously opening the door to his room and following her in. Their sex was brief and not in the least bit satisfying for the vampire, and Elspeth's bed partner soon fell asleep. It had taken tremendous willpower on her part not to kill him, but she wanted to use the spell on him, and it wouldn't work if she killed him, and she did need him. He was the purest one she had found in the entire country, and she was running out of time. The spell itself had taken a long time for her to perfect, and she knew it was to be the ultimate test.

At four hundred years old, Elspeth knew her time of blending in with the human population was coming to an end. She had seen the older vampires, some six and seven hundred years old, that were stuck with their demonic faces permanently. It was not a future she relished in the slightest, and for the past hundred years or so she had searched for a spell, a charm, anything to keep her looking human. As much as she enjoyed being a vampire, she liked being able to live as a human when the occasion warranted it.

She made the preparations quickly, drawing the symbols and lighting the candles necessary to complete her goal. The effects of the spell could be felt immediately, and Elspeth could not contain her smile when she felt the connection to John, feeding her strength. If this worked the way she wanted it to, he would be blamed for the killings soon enough and she would be able to move in the world of the humans without suspicion for a while longer.

Jonathan's sleep became restless as the memories and bloodlust flooded into his subconscious, but he didn't wake, even as Elspeth put her cloak on to go outside. After taking one last look at the suddenly tortured young man, she left with a smile. This one was going to last long enough for her to transfer some of her more unwanted traits.

The hunt went well, and Elspeth approached the inn completely sated and even content. With each kill, she had sensed Jonathan becoming more restless, his humanness crumbling each time she drew out the demon in herself. She could hear loud noises coming from the building ahead, and she walked to the front door while wiping a small trickle of blood from her lip. A smile completely devoid of humor spread across her face when she saw the scene going on inside the inn.

A small mob had gathered in the common room, circling someone. Every person held some kind of weapon, and though they brandished them in a clumsy fashion, the entire group together was dangerous for whomever their attention was directed towards. Instead of going in, she stood at the window and watched the scene play out in front of her, a look of amusement on her face. She knew exactly what was happening; she felt Jonathan's fear as though it were her own. The only difference in the emotion was that Elspeth embraced and thrived on it. Jonathan, on the other hand, looked as though he was having a difficult time forming words, let alone making the mob realize that he really was human.

His face held the features of the demon that dwelt within every vampire, though every other characteristic - strength, mortality, and fear - were that of a human. Most importantly, his screams were very human as Elspeth watched the mob inside the inn destroy him. When Jonathan finally stopped his futile cries of innocence, Elspeth felt everything that was human about him transfer to her. She took note of just how much damage simple farm tools had on the human body before turning back into the night, letting the darkness envelop her like a warm cloak.

"Blah, blah, blah, Willow needs me right now, blah." Faith mumbled to herself as she dusted her second vampire. Even though Faith knew it was irrational and had nothing to do with her, she was still angry at Willow for what had happened. Tara had become a sister to Faith, and the Slayer was protective toward her friend.

Patrolling alone wasn't any fun anymore, not when she had become so used to having at least one other person with her, not to mention she was getting worried about Tara. It had been almost twelve hours since the witch had left the house, and still no one had heard from her.

"She's okay," she said aloud without realizing it.

"So the Slayer has become schizophrenic. Interesting." The town's local psychologist jumped in front of her, looking decidedly un-doctor like.

"Yeah, and the voices are telling me to put this little wood thingy in your chest. What does Freud have to say about that?" Before he could answer she plunged the stake into his heart and watched his shocked face turn to dust.

Faith's thoughts turned back to her friend. Deciding she had had enough patrolling for the night, she headed over to the nearest hotel. It was the nicest of the few in Sunnydale, and even though she knew Tara probably wouldn't be staying at the same place that Sheila Rosenberg was staying in, it was a lot closer than the rat hole Faith had lived in a few years before.

The hair on her neck stood on end, and she knew there was a vampire near. She decided to put the need to find her friend on the backburner for a few minutes. Faith crept silently toward the playground in the park across the street, and as she came closer she heard the distinctive sounds of a feeding vampire.

"You know, you should really learn some table manners," Faith said from behind the demon.

The vampire looked up from his meal, his game face covered with blood. "Slayer," he hissed as dropped his victim and faced Faith.

"Oooh, you're handsome and smart too. I like that in my demons." She said as he lunged at her. She dodged him easily and staked him. "I wish you people would learn a new move or something - charging is such an overrated attack." She walked gingerly over to the vampire's would-be victim.

"Please...d-don't kill me." The young man whispered as he held one hand to his neck.

"Can't you see I'm the good one? Forget it. You should be okay, just get that looked at."

"Thanks." The fear was still evident in his eyes when he stood and staggered away.

"What if I told you some of us did have a 'new move'?"

Faith whirled around at the sound of the woman's voice; her eyes settling on a lone woman perched on top of the stone wall. Her instincts told her instantly that the woman was a vampire. "Really? I'd love to see it." Faith's voice held more bravado than she felt at the moment. She couldn't understand how the vampire had gotten so close without the Slayer sense kicking in.

"Hmm, in a moment, I think. I'd like to have a word, if I may." The woman had not moved an inch from her placed on the fence. "Please - sit and relax." She motioned to the place beside her.

"Why don't I not do that and just dust you instead? I kind of like that idea a bit better." Faith moved into an attack stance, ready for whatever the other woman could throw at her.

"I said, 'sit'."

Faith didn't have any choice in the matter. A strong force pushed her to the ground and held her there. "Who the hell are you?"

"Elspeth, but that's not really important. I want some information from you." She jumped off the wall and approached the Slayer. "Where's the blonde one you sometimes walk with?"

Faith struggled against whatever was keeping her to the ground, but she couldn't break the hold it had. She didn't know what the woman wanted with Buffy, but Faith wasn't going to dwell on the why of it. "I'm not telling you anything. You're gonna have to kill me."

Elspeth let out a sharp laugh that rang in Faith's ears. "That's not going to do me any good." She looked down at Faith's shocked face. "Yes, I know all about you, Slayer, and while you cannot be killed, I can put you through quite a bit of pain. Where is she?"

"None of your damn busi-" Faith's words were cut off as her throat constricted. She tried to swallow, but only felt pain in her ever-tightening throat. Gasping for air that couldn't make its way to her burning lungs, she felt herself losing consciousness. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the crushing feeling in her windpipe ended and she lay on the ground sucking air into her oxygen-starved body.

"Enough of that." Elspeth cocked her head and sniffed the air as though she were an animal on the hunt. "I really must go now, but we'll see each other soon enough." She turned and started to walk away.

The second Faith could, she jumped to her feet and ran, stake ready in her hand, toward Elspeth. She threw the stake at the vampire's heart, relieved to see that her throw would hit its mark.

Elspeth turned, and the stake stopped its deadly path far from its target, suspended in mid-flight. "I don't want you yet, Slayer." With a wave of Elspeth's hand, Faith flew through the air, her body impacting the stone fence with a sickening thud.

"...has seen record numbers of disappearances over the last month, and city officials are becoming concerned with-" The newscaster's words died when Tara turned off the engine. She had been driving most of the day, not sure of where to go. Almost every place she went to held memories of Willow, and even the ones that didn't still made her think of the redhead. When she left the house she had thought about going to Giles' apartment, but the last thing she wanted to do was talk to anyone except Willow. She was still having a difficult time even believing that her lover had really broken their link, although in her mind she knew that she was in shock over everything; the real pain would come later.

The evening air was crisp as she started walking through the darkened park. It was one of her favorite places to go; even though it was in the middle of town the vampires seemed to avoid it for the most part. She and Willow had spent many days and nights lying on the grass talking about anything and everything. They had mapped the stars, giving the constellations names and stories of their own. She had held Willow for hours after the fiasco with the Rosenbergs, making sure that Willow knew that there was still someone in the world who loved her for who she was.

Tara was slightly relieved when she saw movement in the woods, and she hoped for a vampire, which would provide a welcome distraction. As she crept toward the shape, she saw quickly that it was indeed a vampire, and a young one from the dirt still covering him.

Realizing that she didn't even know if she could kill the demon without her link to Willow, Tara began backing away slowly.

The vampire looked up, sniffed the air, and turned to stare straight at Tara. "Mmm, fresh meat." He began running towards her.

Without thinking, Tara uttered a single word, and his head flew off his body even as it was turning to dust. Turning away from the small pile of dust on the ground, she began her trek up the hill again.

When she reached the clearing at the top, Tara sat and looked toward the night sky, unmindful of the dew that was on the grass. Tara was so lost in thought that she didn't hear or see the person approaching her until the figure was almost upon her. Startled from her thoughts, she looked into the face of the young woman before her and was transfixed by the beauty of the raven-haired woman who seemed to be mildly distressed about something.

"Can you help me? I seem to be lost." The woman had a clipped accent, but Tara couldn't place where it was from.

She stood and walked closer to the mysterious woman. "Where are you trying to go?" The woman stood within arm's reach, and Tara could swear she could feel the woman's breath on the back of her neck. A shiver passed through her, and she sensed something odd about the woman.

Sniffing the air for a moment, the woman's face changed dramatically. "I think I've found the place, Tara."

"How did you..." Tara backed away from the mysterious woman, realizing why she felt so odd around the stranger - the woman was a vampire. "Carn-" Tara felt the word cut off, not only on her lips but in her mind as well. She tried to at least move away from the woman, but her muscles wouldn't obey the commands her brain was sending.

"And here I thought you would come along willingly. That's what I get for being an optimist. Let's see, how do I get to back to the mansion? There's levitation, teleportation - I could never get the hang of that one - oh, I know..." A rock flew up from the ground and hit Tara in the back of her head, knocking her out instantly.

"That wasn't very glamorous. Oh well, can't have everything, can I?" Elspeth lifted Tara with ease and began walking toward the mansion.

Faith woke up lying face down in the grass and a monstrous headache threatening to make her head explode. They would have to give us immortality but make us keep the pain, she thought ruefully as she pulled herself up. Remembering what and who put her in that position, she pulled her cell phone from her jacket and began dialing the number. It wasn't until the third number that she realized that the phone was in two pieces, and one piece was still inside her jacket.

"Damn." Knowing that it would be quicker to get to a pay phone, she started walking toward downtown. Not that downtown was that big compared to LA, but it still had public phones.

Her mind drifted back to what Elspeth had said. The fact that a demon wanted to try to defeat one of them was not something new, but it was weird that this vampire wanted only Buffy. And Elspeth seemed to have the same innate ability Willow had.

When she thought of Willow, Faith realized that Elspeth might not have meant Buffy at all when she asked about 'the blonde one'. What about Tara? That realization hit her like a ton of bricks as she came across the witch's parked car along the side of the road. The feeling of dread she had had since her friend had left earlier that day came back with a vengeance. Everything made sense suddenly; Tara had been in the park, and Elspeth had somehow sensed that she was close by. That would have explained why the vampire had left so quickly; she had sensed her prey was near. Hoping that she could get to Tara before Elspeth did, Faith went in search of her friend. While Tara could more than take care of herself, Faith knew that her friend was not at her best, and probably wouldn't be able to fight someone of Elspeth's strength.

Faith headed directly for the small hill at one end of the park, knowing that the two witches went there often. When she reached the top of the hill; however, there was nothing there but some footprints, and it looked as though they could have been made by anyone. "Damn it, Tara, where are you?" She asked into the night.

A gleam in the grass caught her eye, and Faith bent over to pick up the barrette. It was Tara's, and Faith winced when she noticed the blood that was covering it. She knew that whoever that woman was, she had Tara.

"Why hasn't she called yet?" Willow paced the length of deck. "Didn't she tell Faith she'd call to let us know she was all right?"

After Sheila had left, Willow felt an overwhelming need to talk to Tara. No matter how it turned out, she couldn't leave things the way they were. She and Buffy had searched Sunnydale for the blonde witch, going to every place Tara might have gone. Willow had become increasingly worried as the day had progressed, and even Buffy was beginning to think that something might have happened.

Buffy sat on one of the deck chairs, watching her best friend intently. "I'm sure she's okay, Will. It's not like there's any vampire in the world who could take her."

Willow stopped pacing and stared at Buffy. "You don't understand. Ever since the first day I met her, I could feel her here," she pointed emphatically to her chest. "And now..." Her voice trailed off as she tried to control her emotions. "I don't know what to do. We've called everyone and gone everywhere I can think of, but I still can't find her. This is all my fault."

"No, it's not." Buffy walked over and hugged her friend to her. "And you don't know that anything's wrong yet, so don't get too wiggy on me, okay? Maybe she's just giving you time to think about things. Have you tried a locator spell yet?"

"Yeah, I couldn't find her. Either she was out of range, or-" Willow sighed. She couldn't think of a way to explain to her friend that she could barely think clearly, let alone try to sleep. Even though she had tried the locator spell, she was sure she had messed it up somehow, since she just kept crying through the whole thing.

"She didn't want to be found?" Buffy finished for her.

"What if she doesn't come back?"

"She'll come back. You two have talking things to do. She's not going to be invisible girl forever."

"Maybe you're right."

"I know I am. She'll be fine, and you should get some sleep."

The sliding door opened and Faith came through it, throwing a bag on the deck. Dried blood was caked to her hair and face, and her arms didn't look much better. "She's gone." Her face was full of anger and concern, the mixture of emotions giving her face an odd sadness to it. "Someone took her."

Willow stared at the bag for a moment, her mind racing to take in what Faith had said. Something had happened to her love - her Tara - and Willow felt like she was to blame. At that moment, though, she couldn't admit that to herself, so instead she blamed Faith.

"Then what are you doing here? Why didn't you go after her?" She practically screamed.

"Don't scream at me, Red. She's my friend, and if I could have found her, I would have lifted the whole damn town up to do it. I searched everywhere I could think of, so don't you dare tell me that I didn't try to find her." Faith's eyes were full of fire.

"Faith, please." Buffy said, getting between the other two women.

"No, she wants to blame me for this and I'm not going to let her."

"She's right, Buffy." Willow whispered. She had crumpled to the ground and was sitting cross-legged with Tara's bag in her lap, staring at it as if that would bring her back.

"How do you know someone took her?" Buffy asked gently.

Faith, who had been seething, shook her head and looked at Buffy. "There's a new something in town." She told them what had happened on patrol.

"So she's not a vampire?"

"That's the thing, B. She's a vampire, but she's something else, too. I was thrown around like a rag doll, and she never even touched me. I've never seen a vampire do anything like that."

Buffy grabbed Faith's hand, pulling them both away from Willow. "She took you that easily?" She asked quietly.

"I should be dead." Faith looked with some concern at Willow, who hadn't moved from her spot on the deck. "We've got to find her, fast. If she could kick my ass that bad, she probably did the same thing to Tara."

"Okay, let's get Willow over to Giles' house and we'll go on a vamp hunt."

"Dammit Xander, it's two-thirty in the morning. How many times in one night could you need ice cream?" Giles mumbled to himself as he staggered down the stairs. He had only crawled into bed an hour before, having been up grading papers for one of his classes. By the time he reached the door, he was seriously considering moving at least a couple of blocks away.

"This had better be-" He stopped short when he saw the condition Faith, Buffy, and Willow were in. Faith looked as though she'd been dragged through the dirt, Buffy had dark circles under her eyes, and Willow looked as though the very life had been taken from her. "What's happened?" He asked as the three women let themselves in.

"Tara's missing." Buffy said. She and Faith helped Willow over to the couch and they both turned to face Giles.

Faith told her story about the evening again, watching the look of shock pass over his face. "A vampire as strong as she is couldn't exactly be Miss Incognito," she finished.

Giles thought for a moment, searching his memory for any reference to a vampire that had those kinds of powers. "I don't know, but I'll check while you're gone. It will be surprising if the Council doesn't know about this woman."

"Can you look after Will for a while? Faith and I are going to see if we can find Tara."

"Yes, of course. She's not going with you?" One look back at the redhead gave him his answer. Willow was staring out the window with a blank look on her face, the same kind people had when something horrific had happened to them. "Where will you search?"

"The usual. Caves, sewers, those warehouses on the edge of town. Keep her occupied, Giles. I've never seen her this bad." Buffy said as she and Faith moved to the door.

"I will. And you two, please be careful." Giles didn't care that they couldn't be killed. There were far worse things in the world than being killed.

"Will do, G-man." Faith called just before closing the door behind her.


Part 3

The first thing Tara felt was the cold, stone floor beneath her. Willing her eyes to open, she immediately felt a blinding pain in the back of her head. She tried reaching up to check if her brains were coming out the back of her head, and found that she couldn't move her arms or her feet more than a few inches. The clanking sound of the chains against the floor echoed in her head until she thought she would go deaf.

The longer she was conscious, the more her head cleared. Pain that had overtaken every thought slowly decreased to the point where she could try to remember what had happened. At the present moment; however, the last thing she could remember was going to the park. Whether it had been that night or the night before, she couldn't be certain. There was no light coming into the room at all. Tara didn't even know if she was even in Sunnydale anymore.

"I am truly sorry for having to hit you over the head and binding you like that. And yes, you are still in Sunnydale." A disembodied voice said quietly from the darkness.

"How did..." Tara's question ended in a groan of pain.

"I know?" Elspeth lit a candle, illuminating her face in a pale yellow light.

Tara focused her gaze on the face once her eyes stopped protesting the light that had been added to the room. The memory of what had happened earlier came back slowly, as though through a fog. "Yeah."

"Would you like to sit up? I want you to be comfortable." Elspeth bent down and propped Tara against the wall without waiting for an answer.

Tara's mind was reeling. Why was the woman being kind now? "You didn't answer my question." She felt the physical pain of the head wound dwindling, and soon she knew it would be gone.

"No, I suppose I didn't. We can't always have what we want." Elspeth's hand brushed the side of Tara's neck lightly and cocked her head to one side, as if realizing something for the first time. "You are no longer bonded to the redhead."

Tara looked at the woman in disbelief. "What are you talking about?" She fought to keep from thinking about her broken bond with Willow, not certain exactly how the woman before her was getting her information.

"Don't lie to me." Anger flashed in Elspeth's eyes for a split second. "I know more about you and your friends than you think."

Feeling a tear tumble down her face, Tara immediately swallowed her emotions. She had no intention of showing weakness in front of her captor. "She'll find me, even if we aren't linked."

"I don't think so, child. I have some tricks up my sleeve, and I don't plan on being in this rotten place for very long." Elspeth gently stroked a lock of Tara's hair. "I already have half of what I want. The other half of my present comes tomorrow night."

"Why are you doing this?"

She gave Tara an almost predatory smile. "Because I like you. Your power is just...intoxicating. I've never seen it so strong in one so young except for your lover, and I can only bond myself to one of you. You...caught my attention."

Elspeth moved to the center of the room and drew two pentagrams on the stone floor. Placing a candle in the five points of each symbol, she reverently lit each candle while speaking a low mantra. Dipping her finger in a small jar, she painted a small design on Tara's forehead, then her own. When she was finished, she stepped carefully into the center of one of the pentagrams.

Tara had stopped crying when the manacles fell off and she was lifted by something before being set down in the other symbol. She looked over at the other woman, fear evident in her eyes. Tara knew this spell - it hadn't been performed for generations. "Please don't."

Elspeth was too far in her trance to hear. Out of her mouth came words in a long-dead dialect, and as she spoke, Tara felt the spell beginning to work. "I'm sorry, Willow," she managed before passing out.

The morning sun barely came through the heavy curtains when Elspeth emerged from the basement with a new outlook. The young witch had even more power than Elspeth had imagined, and it made the vampire euphoric as it coursed through her being.

"Did you perform the spell?" Martin asked impatiently from his chair.

"It is done, my friend. She is completely under my control, and the longer she is, the more she will waste away."

"But she's immortal."

"Perhaps her body, but not her mind. When I'm done with her mind, there won't be enough of it left to form a coherent thought, let alone fight a battle." Elspeth said, feeling Tara's fear surge through her at those words. It was better than she could have ever hoped for.

"Whoa. Why not just turn her?"

"You know what, Martin? You would know these things if you opened a book every once in a while. If I turned her into a vampire, she would probably become invincible; not only is she already immortal, but she's also a witch. She could be much more powerful than I am. I won't take that risk. Besides, this is much better. Her soul will be mine, but her body will be an empty husk."

Seeing, hearing and feeling the conversation upstairs, Tara tried to shut her mind to the barrage of memories flooding into her mind from Elspeth's. The vampire had to be incredibly strong to be able to take Tara on a guided tour of her mind and still be able to function outside of that. Of course she is. She's feeding off me. Knowing that it was probably futile, she tried using her power to break the chains that bound her. The only thing she succeeded in doing was giving more power to Elspeth.

For the first time in years Tara felt truly helpless. She tried not to look at the memories that played like movies through her mind, or feel the emotions that were not hers, but she couldn't stop the never-ending barrage of images that flooded her mind. Every time she blocked one terrible event of Elspeth's life from her mind, another one would shove its way through the painfully weak wall Tara had attempted to build in her mind. Eventually she gave in and let the vampire's memories wash over her like a river of blood.

Rome, 922

Elspeth strode into the opulent hall, satisfied from her feed. She always loved drinking from the corrupt, and a Bishop was about as corrupt as one could get in Rome. "Bragi? Did you bring home a Slayer?" she called in a sing-song tone.

When only the echo of her own voice greeted her back, fury blazed in her eyes. She had wanted to be the one to hunt the Slayer, but Bragi had reasoned that he was older, and therefore wiser and stronger, so he should be the one to hunt the Slayer. If he only knew. The urge to turn him to dust in that moment had been overwhelming, and the only thing that had stopped her had been his assurances that he would bring the Slayer back so they could both feed on her.

Traveling with her sire for the past century had been enlightening, but Elspeth had grown increasingly tired of camping outside a village to terrorize its inhabitants. It wasn't as though it wasn't fun to watch villagers live in fear as their numbers mysteriously dwindled; she simply longed for something that was more of a challenge. That was how they had ended up in Rome in the first place. Rumors were floating through the demon grapevine about a new Slayer who had killed not only a fair number of ancient vampires, but several powerful demons as well, and Elspeth had convinced Bragi that they needed to kill at least one Slayer.

She wasn't interested in the glory of killing a Slayer; however, she was very interested in testing her powers. Villagers were nothing more than a quick meal for her, and she couldn't exactly turn on the demon community to find out exactly how strong her powers had become. That wasn't exactly true; she could test her powers on demons, but that would bring a lot of attention to her and create more enemies than she wanted to deal with at the moment.

Bragi had no idea about any of this, though. Elspeth had told him nothing of the person she had been as a mortal. Not that it was that important, but usually vampires stayed away from turning witches. Her mother had been an excellent healer, but for some reason she had never come into her power. Elspeth thought that the power might have skipped her too, but a few years after becoming a vampire she had discovered that the family gift had found her. Keeping her abilities a secret from Bragi had been difficult at times, but she had managed.

Dawn would be coming in a couple of hours, and Elspeth knew that Bragi was probably nothing more than a pile of dust. It surprised her that she was actually going to miss him. Not that she ever loved him, that was a weakness for humans, but he had been a constant throughout her undead existence. Of course, if he returned without the Slayer...

The sound of the door being pulled open brought her attention back to the present moment. The tall, cloaked figure of Bragi stumbled through the doorway before regaining his balance. He collapsed against the wall, holding his left arm. "Elspeth?"

She had expected this much. Rolling her eyes, she went to her sire and lover. "What is it, Bragi? Was she too powerful?"

He held up his arm as proof. "She almost ripped it off of me! How dare she do such a thing? I want her dead!"

"She'll be dead soon enough. Is your arm ripped clean through?"

"Only by half."

"Then I shall stitch it together." She leaned in, kissing him hard on the lips. "She'll die once I take care of you."

"That idea sounds most pleasing." His eyes filled with bloodlust.

"Good, I am so happy that you approve." Elspeth gently took his cloak from him, stripping him of his blood-soaked tunic and undershirt. His left arm had almost been torn almost clean through at the shoulder, with muscle, bone protruding from the open wound. It was going to take a while to repair the damage done by the Slayer, and when Elspeth looked closely at Bragi, she knew that she didn't want to do the work necessary to fix him.

"Pain before pleasure, lover." Elspeth took his arm in her hand and twisted until it came off his body.

"What have you done?" He yelled through his clenched teeth as he tried to struggle away from her, but he was so weak that she easily held him down with one hand.

"The question is not what have I done, but what will I do. You always underestimated me." Elspeth smiled.

Moving her body just a few inches to the left, Elspeth placed her knee on his chest. She afforded herself a brief look around the room in an attempt to find something with which to behead or stake him, but nothing in the room called to her attention. Finally deciding that her hands would be good enough, she tore his head from his body, the light gleaming in her eyes as her sire turned to dust beneath her.

Brushing herself off, Elspeth stood and strode out the door. The bloodlust in her veins was so great she couldn't believe she had even eaten earlier. The only creatures that ventured onto the streets this late at night were demons, and Elspeth needed to feed again before the sun came up. There was one human she knew would still be wandering, and Elspeth's mouth turned upwards in an evil grin at the thought of who that person was. She would kill her first Slayer before dawn's light.

Her hunt didn't last long. Elspeth found the Slayer standing over the prone form of a Vahrall demon. "You are strong, Slayer." Elspeth emerged into the moonlight, her fangs bared. The thought of the fight and feed to come made her blood sing. She calmed herself a bit - she didn't want to lose her concentration.

"Quiet, vampire. I've no need of compliments from the likes of you." The girl, who wore the clothes of a man, stepped forward to meet Elspeth's silent challenge.

Instead of getting angry, Elspeth laughed. "You have fight in you. That pleases me. Tell me, are you still trying to find the vampire whose arm you tore off this eve?"

"I have found you, and one vampire bears little difference to the next." The Slayer took up a battle stance, holding her stake at the ready.

Elspeth's eyes lost all humor. "Then you are ignorant as well as dead."

The Slayer yelled something unintelligible as she rushed toward Elspeth, ready to stake the vampire in the heart. The vampire ducked a split second before the stake made contact and pushed herself under the Slayer then upwards, flipping the young girl onto her backside. Instead of killing the girl, Elspeth allowed her to recover.

"I am afraid you have lost your little piece of wood." Elspeth's nostrils quivered when they smelled the fresh blood coming from the Slayer's mouth. As much fun as Elspeth was having with the fight, she knew there would be other Slayers. "It is time for you to meet your gods, if you have any."

The girl didn't answer, instead looking wildly around the darkened street for anything she could use as a weapon. When she didn't find any, she gazed directly into Elspeth's yellow eyes. There was no reasoning with this enemy, no negotiation to be done. It would end with one of them dead.

Her approach was slower the second time, her fists held at the ready, waiting to strike the vampire at a second's notice. "You will not have the satisfaction of killing me," the girl said in a futile attempt to intimidate Elspeth.

"You should think about that as I am sucking the blood from your body."

The Slayer's fist shot out, but instead of connecting with Elspeth's face, it stopped in midair, hanging as though a puppeteer forgot to move the strings of the puppet, but when the young girl tried to pull her hand back, it wouldn't budge.

Elspeth looked at the Slayer's fist with almost as much amazement as the Slayer. She had half expected her powers not to work against someone as strong as the Slayer, but apparently she was wrong. It was taking a great deal of concentration, though, since the object she was trying to manipulate was tugging back. "Do not fight; it will only be more painful if you do."

The eyes of the Slayer grew wider as Elspeth approached her. Elspeth knew she wouldn't be able to keep the girl still for much longer, but she still wanted to enjoy the moment. Leaning into the Slayer's neck, Elspeth slowly breathed in the girl's scent. "You smell...delicious." Elspeth said just before biting into the pure flesh of the Slayer.

Tara dry-heaved onto the floor, sickened by what she had just witnessed. The memory hadn't played through her mind the same way a movie would, instead it had been as though she had lived it herself. The thirst for blood still rang through her body, but after a few minutes the unnatural sensation began to die away. The memory of it was still there, though, and as hard as she tried not to, Tara dry-heaved again. For so long she had fought against the darkness that was in Sunnydale, and she felt as though she'd seen just about everything, but what she witnessed through Elspeth was of an evil she didn't want to comprehend.

Somehow she managed to sit upright after a few minutes, and she realized that the chains that had bound her had been moved so that her hands were in front of her, giving her more freedom of movement. I guess I'm not much of a threat, she thought ruefully. It was true, though. She could barely move, let alone draw enough strength to cast a spell or even run for her life.

Tara felt some relief when she sensed Elspeth fall to sleep. The sensations she had been feeling began to fade, and eventually she was able to concentrate on her surroundings. No outside light was filtering into the room, but Tara's captor had left a small lantern burning in a corner, bolted to the wall. The dim light wasn't enough for her to get a good look at the ceiling, but she was pretty sure from the echo that it was stone as well. The only access to the room that she could see was through a heavy oak door that was surely locked. Not even Elspeth would be confident enough to leave an open door for Tara to walk through, no matter the strength of her bonds.

Shivering when she thought of the vampire again, Tara knew that she was going to have to find a way to escape, or even just a way to break the spell that bound her to Elspeth's mind. The longer Tara relived the vampire's memories, the weaker she felt both physically and mentally.

Knowing that there wasn't a spell she could cast that would help her, Tara began trying to think of something that might help. Shifting so that she was closer to the lantern, she held the manacles to the flickering light. A small smile spread across her face when she saw that the lock would be easy to pick, and she knew that she would owe Faith for those lessons in breaking and entering.

Now all she needed was something to pick the lock mechanism. When she reached her hand for one of the barrettes that had been holding her hair up, she had to pull some blood-soaked hair out with the remaining one. For a moment she wondered where the blood had come from, but then she remembered the night before. Bending the barrette so that it could act as a pick, Tara began working on the lock by the low light, and quickly opened the locks that bound her wrists.

The door would be more difficult, if not impossible. Tara squinted to see the lock mechanism, but the lantern was too far away for her to see anything of detail. Resigning herself to wait, Tara sat on the hard, cold floor again, putting the manacles back on her wrists without locking them. She would be no match for Elspeth, but maybe she could get past Martin, if he came down at all.

She didn't want to sleep, but she knew she needed to if she was going to keep some of her strength. Curling herself into a fetal position, Tara closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep, thoughts of Willow carrying her sleeping mind to a better time and place.

The morning tea Giles had been trying to make fell to the floor with a clatter when the front door burst open. Rolling his eyes, Giles said one word, "Xander."

"Giles, what's this Buffy is telling me about Tara being missing?" Xander rushed into the kitchen, slipping on the spilled tea. "You really should think about cleaning that up." He said once he recovered his balance.

"Yes, thank you for that bit of advice." He lowered his voice. "As for Tara, Willow's in the next room, so please keep your voice down."

"Did they find anything?" Xander asked, concern evident in his voice.

"No. There's no sign of her except a bloody barrette." The older man gingerly picked up the shards of what had been his favorite mug.

"How's Will taking it?"

Giles looked incredulously at Xander. "How do you think she's doing? The one person she loves more than anything is nowhere to be found, and she blames herself for it. We don't really know what or who, aside from a first name, took her." He sighed. "The creature's not like anything I've ever heard of."

"Nothing at all?"

"I've even called the Watchers' Council, but there's little they can tell me." Giles put on more water for tea.

"Wait, little's better than nothing. Spill the beans, what'd they say?"

"There are a couple of legends-" Giles' words were cut off by the sound of the door crashing open again. He poked his head out from the breakfast bar just enough to see Faith and Buffy come in, and both of them had exhaustion and disappointment in their faces.

"Hey guys," they said in unison as they flopped onto the couch.

"Did you find anything, Giles?" Buffy rubbed her eyes sleepily.

"Not much. And you?" Giles chose to ignore the fact that the two Slayers looked and smelled as though they had been in the sewers all night.

"The big zilch. We searched everywhere in the city limits. If Tara's here she's probably hidden in some freakish inter-dimensional fold or something." Faith rested her head on the back of the couch while picking an unidentified squishy brown thing from her shirt. "How the hell are we supposed to find her when we don't even know what we're up against?"

"The G-man here was just about to tell me what the Watchers had to say when you two came in. Giles? I believe it's your turn."

"After getting Willow to finally get some rest through artificial means, I checked everything I could on that infernal machine over there," he glanced to the computer, "and I couldn't find anything on what this demon could be. She may be some kind of hybrid - a half-demon that was made into a vampire. That doesn't seem likely; however, in light of vampires disdain for other demon's blood.

"There is another possibility, though remote. I spoke with the Council early this morning, and apparently there are a couple of legends dating back to the Middle Ages about a vampire-like creature with powers that were very unusual for their kind."

"They don't know anything else?" Xander asked, perplexed that the normally anal Watchers' Council would allow something like that to stay just a legend.

"I doubt it. Those were tumultuous times, Xander. The Council was disorganized then, and many of their early records were destroyed when Christianity swept through England. Whatever she is, she's been around for a long time."

Buffy looked as though a million things were going through her head at that very moment. "What about Drusilla?"

"She's too young, Buff." Xander said, not quite believing his friend could overlook something like that.

"I know that. I meant to say that Drusilla wasn't a hybrid or anything else, but she had powers. What if this woman was a witch before she was turned?"

Giles had shocked expression on his face. "Of course, why didn't I see it before…"

"But that doesn't put us any closer to knowing anything about this woman."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that, Xander. Maybe we are closer." Giles stopped when he heard the sound of his alarm clock in his upstairs bedroom. "Damn. I've a nine o'clock class. I should call to let them know I won't be in."

"No, Giles. Go be teacher man. We'll do the Scoob thing here today, maybe do a little recon before nightfall." Buffy said.

"Okay, I won't be back here until tonight though. Call Angel. He may be able to tell you some things the Watchers' Council doesn't know. His lineage does go back to the Master." He gathered his stuff to leave. "All of you take care. Whoever it is that is doing this is quite dangerous. I'll see you tonight." The door shut softly behind him, leaving Buffy, Xander, and Faith in a thoughtful silence.

The crisp, pure light of dawn flooded the room, waking Willow from a fitful sleep. She couldn't figure out why the light was hitting a different part of her face, but when she automatically reached for Tara and laid a hand on an empty pillow the memories of the day before came crashing into her momentary respite from her waking nightmare. Pulling the extra pillow to her chest, Willow finally let the tears roll down her face.

A large part of her psyche still couldn't accept what had happened, wanting to believe that any second Tara would come through the bedroom door with a bright smile on her face and her sweet, soft voice washing over Willow like a balm on her soul. Willow even tried reaching out with her mind to establish their link, and when that didn't work the emptiness was overwhelming, leaving her curled in a fetal position in a futile attempt to block out everything. Clutching the pillow even tighter to her, she called her lover's name softly, needing to hear it on her lips.

The sound of Giles clattering in the kitchen brought Willow back to the present. She could tell he was trying to be quiet for her sake, but he only succeeded in being louder. A sad smile crossed her lips. He had been the first member of the Scooby Gang to really accept Tara, becoming a surrogate father to her as he had the rest of them.

There was a loud crash, and Xander's voice floated under the doorway, and Willow could hear them talking about the situation. She was relieved she wouldn't have to explain it to him at least. It seemed like only a few seconds later that she heard both Buffy's and Faith's voices, but the sounds faded when the group moved out of the kitchen.

As her thoughts wandered again, Willow got out of bed and went to the adjoining bathroom, looking in the mirror for the first time that morning. Her eyes were swollen and bloodshot, her hair was sticking straight up, and the clothes she was wearing were rumpled from being worn so long. The extreme guilt she felt was still very visible on her face, as was the deep sadness that was threatening to incapacitate her.

Splashing her face with some cold water, Willow looked at the mirror again after drying off. She pushed all of her guilt to the back of her mind, knowing that guilt wouldn't help her find Tara. No matter how terrible Willow felt, she knew she needed to remain focused if she had any chance at all of finding her lover.

"The power of positive thinking," she said to her reflection. In that moment, Willow decided not to even let the thought of not finding her lover even enter her mind again. She would be strong for both of them. Her eyes took on a steely determination, and after taking a couple of deep breaths, she decided it was time to face everyone.

The strains of the conversation became louder when Willow opened the bedroom door and began walking down the short hallway.

"...volunteer to call the undead one?" Xander's voice echoed down the hall.

"I can do it." Buffy sounded exhausted.

"I'll check the Net again," Faith said. "Giles still isn't the best when it comes to those things. Xander, you mind checking the books?"

"I can do the Net thing." Willow sniffed the air, and then wished she hadn't.

Buffy walked over to her friend. "Are you sure you're okay to do this?"

"I don't really have a choice right now. We - I - need to find her. I've already done 'curl up and wish I was dead' thing, and it doesn't exactly work."

Buffy wasn't so sure about that, but the look on Willow's face told her that the point wasn't up for discussion. "'Kay. Faith? Shower time, then more recon?"

"No prob there. I haven't stunk so much since...since a couple of weeks ago." She and Buffy made their way to the spare shower.

Xander looked closely at Willow, who had immediately turned on the computer and began surfing the web. He walked slowly to her, putting his hands lightly on her shoulders. "I'll call Angel for you, maybe he'll know something." He paused, lightly kissing the top of her head. "We'll find her."

"I know, Xand. I won't believe anything else, if I did, I'd..." Willow stopped.

"You still want me to check the books?" He asked quietly.

Willow never stopped typing on the computer. "I think you should probably check the ones at our house, too. Tara and I...we collected a lot of volumes Giles doesn't have. There might be something in them."

"Sure thing, Willmeister." Xander turned to leave. "I'll call Angel, and Anya and I will check everything."

Barely registering the sound of the front door clicking closed, Willow began typing rapidly on the computer, hoping that she might find any kind of clue that would lead her to Tara.

The apartment was quiet when Xander walked inside, and he knew that his wife and children were probably getting some much needed sleep. The thought of his children still awed him. He had never thought that he would get married in the first place, let alone become a father. The fear that he would treat Janna and Aiden the same way his parents had treated him loomed over his head until they were born, but even after a week Xander knew that he could never be that hateful to two people who meant so much to him.

He picked up the phone and dialed quickly, and after a number of rings he heard an old familiar voice on the other end.

"Angel Investigations. We help the helpless, and we offer some very affordable payment plans while doing it. How can I direct your call?" Cordelia's voice was chipper.

"Cordy? I need some help."

"I'm fine, Xander Harris, just in case you were wondering. And thanks for asking." Cordelia's sigh came over the phone line loudly when Xander didn't respond. "What do you need?"

"Tara's missing, and we don't know what kind of bad guy -" His words were cut off midstream.

"What? Why didn't you say so? Tell me what you know."

"Well, I was kind of thinking Angel might know something..." Xander left the sentence dangling, hoping that Cordelia would simply connect him to the vampire.

"No can do. He and Kate are out catching baddies themselves. So you have me. Well, and Wesley. Hold on, let me put you on speaker." There were some clicking noises, then static of the speaker.

"Good morning, Xander." Wesley's voice sounded as though it were in a tunnel.

"Hey Wes. Here's the sitch..." Xander launched into the story that Buffy had told him earlier, still keeping his voice low. By the time he finished, he was glad he hadn't done this in front of Willow; it was a pretty painful story for him, and Tara was only his friend, not someone he loved more than anything in the world. If Anya were missing, he would be a basket case and he knew it.

"That's all you know about this woman? Her first name?" Wesley asked after Xander had finished.

"You don't know anything, do you?" Xander said, a defeated tone in his voice.

"I didn't say that. I don't know her by her first name, which means she's not in the Watchers' Chronicles anywhere."

"Giles pretty much figured out the same thing."

"Are you sure she's a vampire? Maybe she's some weird and wacky new demon, you know - new and improved." Cordelia offered.

"No. She's a vampire. Faith wouldn't make a mistake like that. Look, maybe you should just have Angel call us."

"Wait. You said that she had powers beyond a normal vampires-"

"We already know that she was probably a seer or a witch or something before she was turned, Wesley. Drusilla was the same way, and her power carried over when she was turned."

"But Xander, think about Willow and Tara for a moment. Their power has grown quite substantially over only a few years. Can you imagine how powerful they will be in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years? Now try to imagine that in a vampire. If she were indeed a witch before she was turned, and that would make sense, she's probably more powerful than any of you can comprehend."

Cordelia's voice broke in. "Don't be so melodramatic, Wesley."

"He's got a point, Cordy." Xander said quietly, looking towards the bedrooms. For the first time since meeting Buffy, he considered getting out of town. "Thanks, guys. I appreciate the help. I gotta go do that research thing now."

"Sure, Xand. We'll have Angel call you ASAP."

Dialing the phone again, Xander was relieved when Joyce picked up the phone. "Hello?"

"Joyce. Hey, it's Xander. Do you mind taking the twins for a while?" Buffy's mother had immediately treated the two children as her grandkids, and she had extended an open offer to babysit for them.

"Sure. Is something up?"

"Just some heavy research time. We've got a baddie who's moved into town." He knew he should say something about Tara, but hopefully Joyce would never have to know. Most of the Scoobs tended to protect her from the worst of the stuff that happened simply because none of them wanted her to worry any more than she already did.

"Okay. Do you want to drop them off?"

"Sure. We'll see you in a few."

Xander hung up the phone and went to the twins' room. The sweet innocence in their sleeping faces was evident, and Xander felt a strong protective instinct grow inside him. While he knew that whatever evil they were facing this time probably wouldn't be interested in him or the children, he knew that anything could change in an instant, and that frightened him more than anything he had ever faced.

"They've been asleep since you left." Anya's voice floated from behind him.

"Hey, An." Xander pulled his wife into his arms and held her tightly. "I love you."

"They didn't find her, did they?" She returned his embrace, knowing that his news probably wasn't good.

"No." Xander loosened his hold on Anya. "We don't even know anything about who or what we're fighting, except a couple of theories. Giles couldn't find any reference to her in his books, so I told Will we'd go to the beach house and check the books there."

"Don't we need to be looking for Tara?"

"We need to know what we're fighting first." Resting his forehead lightly on hers, he leaned in and kissed her gently. "You up for that?"

She nodded. "Anything. I'd become a demon again if it meant killing this thing." Seeing the look on her husband's face, Anya quickly changed her comment. "Not permanently, of course."

"It's okay, An. I know what you mean. I'll get the twins ready." He let her go and went into the nursery with a heavy heart.

The sun was well below the horizon as Faith and Willow moved through the streets of Sunnydale. Buffy had stayed behind, waiting for Giles to get back from class so they could search in the second shift. After a long and relatively fruitless day of research, Anya and Xander were forming the backup team at Joyce's house. If anyone happened to rescue Tara, that was where they were supposed to go.

Neither Faith nor Willow had spoken much since leaving Giles' apartment, not really knowing what to say to each other. Willow felt tremendous guilt, not only over the fact that she blamed herself for Tara's disappearance, but because she had lashed out at Faith so quickly.

They were just past the Bronze when Willow turned to Faith. "I'm sorry." She said quietly.

Faith cocked her head slightly. "For what?"

"For what I said last night. I was just freaking about..." Tears welled up in her eyes.

"Don't, Red. It's okay. If something happened to B, I'd probably blame everyone in sight. Let's forget it and find her."

Willow smiled a small but genuine smile, her first since Sheila had shown up on their doorstep the day before. "Was there any place you didn't look last night?"

"Not really, but we were going for quantity more than quality." Faith looked at the warehouses around them. "It doesn't look like anyone's been in these buildings for a long time." She yanked open one of the doors, holding a hand over her mouth when a cloud of dust came pouring out.

Willow turned, briefly sensing something. "Tara?"

"This way, Red." Faith caught the look on her friend's face. "You see something?"

Willow shook her head. The feeling that Tara was near had left her as soon as it had drifted into her mind. "I thought I did." Her eyes caught something in the distance when they emerged from the dank and dusty warehouse. "Wait a sec, did you guys check out Angel's old mansion last night?"

"Yeah, we did. It was deserted."

"Then why is there a light on?" Willow pointed to the mansion on the hill, a glimmer of hope in her eyes for the first time since Tara's disappearance.

"Shit. Let's go."

Tara woke with a start, her teeth chattering from the chill in the room. The lantern was still providing some light in the room, and she noticed there was a small tray in the corner. Chiding herself for missing the chance to escape, she moved her cold, stiff body slowly to the tray. There was a small plate with some fruit on it and a dark glass beside it, and Tara shoved the food into her mouth so quickly she didn't even have a chance to taste it. Telling herself to slow down, she took a sip from the glass and promptly vomited.

They had given her blood. Throwing the glass against the wall and hearing it shatter into a hundred pieces didn't make her feel any better, but at least the blood was on the other side of the room. She needed so badly to be out of that cell, out of Elspeth's mind, but she knew that while escaping from the cell was only a matter of time, breaking the spell that bound her to the vampire was a much more difficult matter.

Images began flooding into her mind, and Tara realized that Elspeth had a great deal of control over what and when Tara would be forced to see and feel in the vampire's mind. Didn't you enjoy my present? Elspeth's voice floated through her mind.

When Tara didn't answer, Elspeth continued. I have a surprise for you, my new friend. Look...

Through Elspeth's eyes, Tara saw Willow and Faith walking toward one of the abandoned warehouses that took up the bad part of town. Willow looked as though she had been crying, and the emotions on her face showed the immense guilt and stress she felt. They're trying to find you, girl. They need a better sense of direction. Elspeth's laughter echoed cruelly through Tara's mind.

Yearning to reach out and touch Willow, Tara cried out with grief. She hated feeling so close, and so helpless to prevent the scenes that were playing through her mind. All she could do was sit in the dank, dark cell and wait for the door to be opened. Until that happened, Tara would remain helpless, and probably would not be found before Elspeth was finished. The witch knew what Elspeth hoped to gain from the effects of the spell, and Tara was determined not to let her sanity be taken from her.

A sigh of relief escaped Tara's lungs when Elspeth turned away from her prey. If nothing else, Tara wouldn't have to be tortured with images of Willow searching in vain. Her relief was short-lived, however, when Elspeth sent another thought into her mind. No! Not him! She screamed into Elspeth's mind. It was the first thought Tara had sent to the vampire, and it was the last. She knew she had didn't have long before the vampire made it to her destination, and Tara was determined not to let that happen.

Elspeth's thoughts invaded her mind, and in a moment of clarity Tara discovered that she could use their link to her advantage. Magic wouldn't help her at all, the power would go directly to Elspeth, but maybe Elspeth's bloodlust could. It made the vampire stronger, and Tara hoped that it would do the same for her. Taking a deep breath, she let down all her protective barriers, letting herself feel the full force of Elspeth's strength.

She let the shackles she had unlocked earlier fall to the ground, heedless of the sound they made. After testing the door, she realized that opening it would still be impossible, so she put the shackles on again and backed into the darker side of the cell, screaming at the top of her lungs. It wasn't very long before she heard someone on the other side, walking down the corridor. Taking a deep breath when the door opened, she continued screaming when Martin came through the doorway, his game face on.

"God, do you mind? It's not like anyone can hear ya, babe. You can scream until your throat pops right out of your mouth, and I'll be the only on to hear, and I don't wanna hear it, 'kay?" When Tara quieted, he continued. "That's better. Since I'm here, you could at least come over to say hi."

Thinking it was safe because the girl was bound, Martin moved closer to Tara. "You know, you're not too bad looking when you aren't making me want to take your head off." His hand gently, almost lovingly, moved over Tara's neck. "Too bad Elspeth wants you unmarked, we could have so much fun."

Tara sat where she was, putting a look of pure fear on her face and biding her time. After only a minute, Martin lost all resolve and bent over to drink her blood. Just before he sank his teeth into her jugular, Tara kneed him in the crotch and sent him reeling to the floor.

"You bitch!" Martin cried as he doubled over in pain.

Knowing that she only had seconds before he recovered, Tara quickly took off the manacles. Then she barred and locked the door, fleeing down the empty corridor. She didn't know where she was yet, or even what she would meet on her way out, but she knew she had to stop Elspeth before it was too late.

When Tara made it up the steps to the first floor of the mansion, she looked around only for a second before she found her bearings. For all intents and purposes, it looked as though it was deserted. Had her friends been looking for her, they would have found nothing but dust and cobwebs.

Do you like my decorating? Elspeth's voice lilted smugly through Tara's mind. I'm almost there. Can't you see that you won't be able to stop me?

Ignoring the taunts in her mind, Tara ran out the door and down the hill. She had seen how close Elspeth was to her target, and Tara knew that she would never get help in time to save her friend. The thought of watching him die made her run faster though, and she made it to Joyce's neighborhood within a matter of minutes. The Summers' house was still a couple of blocks away, and Tara thought about knocking on a couple of doors for help, but Sunnydale wasn't the kind of town where people opened their doors at night for someone they didn't know. Instead she pushed on to Joyce's house, her lungs on fire from running so far and fast.

Tara finally saw the sign for Revello Drive, but she didn't slow her pace at all. Without realizing she still had energy reserves, her pace actually quickened as she ran down the street. She was so focused on trying to get to Joyce's house that she didn't even know what she would do once she got there. The optimist in her wanted to call the cavalry in or get Joyce's car and make it to Elspeth in time to stop her, but she knew in her heart that they would lose one of their own that night.

The ecstasy of the feed as Elspeth sank her fangs deep into her prey made Tara stumble as she turned onto Joyce's street. Finally giving into the tears that had threatened to overwhelm her, Tara continued her race to Joyce's house, not seeing the car that was racing down the street.

A honking horn and the sound of shrieking tires made Tara turn around, and a split second before the car hit her she knew she couldn't get out of the way. Even though the driver had tried to slow down, she was still thrown through the air when metal collided with flesh. Her still body landed like a rag doll in Joyce's yard, eyes closed to everything around her.

"Everyone in this room has heard of one vampire story or another, whether it be Dracula, Nosferatu, or any number of the teenage monster films that have come out of Hollywood in the past few decades. There is something about vampires that many of you don't know, though. The myth of the vampire has existed prior the dawn of the written word." Giles stood professor-like in the front of the lecture hall. He had been distracted the entire day, calling his apartment every chance he had to see if they had come up with anything.

Angel had finally called in the late afternoon, but he didn't have much news. The only thing he could offer was the fact that if this vampire was who he supposed her to be, but she had sired the Master in the 1400's, and that she kept a very low profile. No one outside her circle knew that much about her, and even those demons who 'knew' her didn't know anything about what she could do. Until the last few days none of her victims, demon or human, had ever survived an attack from her.

"Um, Mr. Giles?" A young man in the front row asked timidly.

Giles turned from the window. "What? Oh yes, sorry. Where was I?"

"You were going to tell us that vampires are real." One of the football players snickered from the back of the room.

"Not exactly, no. What I am going to tell you, Mr.-" Giles glanced at his seating chart, "Powell, is the legend of the vampire is as eternal as the vampires themselves are believed to be, and that there is always a kernel of truth in myth."

The students watched warily as Giles went to the bag beside his desk and within a matter of seconds he had pulled a seemingly odd assortment of items out and placed them on the table in front of his desk. "Each of these items, according to one legend or another can be used to either ward off or kill a vampire. The only commonality between all of the legends; however, is the fact that vampires are creatures who drink the blood of the living, sometimes creating a vampire out of their victim."

Giles managed to hit his stride in the lecture, and even though his concern for Tara weighed on his mind, the hour passed by quickly. He was even amazed when many of his students joined in a lively discussion about which of the vampire legends could possibly be true. None of them really had a clue about the reality of any of the monsters they had studied over the semester, and Giles wasn't about to tell them the complete truth. He valued his position at the university.

"For next week, I want you all to read Chapter twelve - 'Dragons'." Giles called above the din. It never took them long to file out of the classroom, and Giles had all of his things gathered together and was leaving the classroom soon after the crowd had gone.

Normally he would have gone to his office to do some work, but he needed to help in the search for Tara. Giles knew his presence wasn't really necessary; Buffy, Faith, and Willow were out searching for Tara, and Xander and Anya were probably still researching, trying to find something more on Elspeth and what her motives might be. Shaking his head, Giles realized there were better things to do than to feel sorry for himself, so he began walking purposefully down the empty hallway toward his car.

"Excuse me, Mr. Giles?" A woman's voice called from behind him.

"Yes, Miss-" Giles turned, trying to place the face of the young woman walking toward him.

"Redfern. I have something...important to discuss with you."

"Can it wait until morning? I'm really in a bit of a hurry right now." Giles always tried to make time for his students, but tonight was different.

"Not exactly, but this won't take very long." Her face exuded an innocence Giles found to be disarming. "I just wanted to discuss the future."

"What about the future, Miss Redfern?" Giles set down the bag, resigning himself to the fact that he was going to be here for more than a couple of minutes.

Before he knew what was happening, Elspeth had sunk her fangs into his neck. He had known that his life might end like this, but he had always thought he would put up more of a fight. In the end, he did the only thing he could: stand in the hallway and wait for everything to be over. He just hoped that his family could forgive him for letting them down.

"I'm sorry, Buffy." Giles whispered before losing consciousness.

Willow drove toward the mansion's long driveway at breakneck speed, unmindful of the car swerving dangerously when she rounded a curve. Faith sat in the passenger seat with her hand on the dash and her feet firmly planted on the floorboards, but she said nothing. She understood completely, and if she were the one behind the wheel they would probably have been going even faster.

"Do we have a plan?" Faith asked. She had been around Willow enough to know that her feelings were usually right, and if she felt that Tara was here then they needed to be prepared.

"Go in, find her, kill the bad guys and get out. Not necessarily in that order." Willow looked to her friend. "You with me?"

"Hell yeah."

Willow stopped the car at the end of the driveway and cut the engine. Both women quickly got out of the car and went to the trunk, where they always kept a bag of weapons. Faith took a couple of stakes and an axe while Willow took a stake and the small crossbow. After checking their weapons with practiced skill, they made their way up the hill.

"The front door's wide open," Willow whispered when they reached the bushes just beyond the front entrance.

"And it's probably some kind of a trap. You care?"

"Nope." Willow stood up.

Faith started for the open doorway, stepping cautiously and trying to hear any kind of movement inside. Even with her heightened senses, she couldn't hear anyone inside. Motioning for Willow to follow, Faith took a deep breath and went into the mansion. The room was dusty, so dusty that they both kicked up clouds everywhere they stepped. There was no outward appearance that anyone had been living there except for a few footprints in the room.

"She's been through here," Faith said, sniffing the air. "Recently, too. Like within the last hour."

Willow looked at her friend, determination glowing in her eyes. "She's probably downstairs. C'mon."

Faith led the way down the stairs, and the farther they went the more they could hear a loud banging on one of the doors. When they made it to the end of the corridor, they checked each room quickly and quietly, and eventually they made to the last door, which shook under the force of the pounding.

"Tara?" Willow asked hopefully. Her feeling that Tara was or had been here was so strong, but when silence greeted her query, Willow found herself worried about who or what they might find behind the door. She threw a questioning glance at Faith.

"Vamp." Faith didn't make a sound, just mouthed the word. "Tara - we're here. Just hold on a sec and we'll get you out." She called to the demon on the other side.

Both the witch and the Slayer moved away from the door. Faith held her stake at the ready while Willow aimed the crossbow with a steady and practiced hand. Willow concentrated on the wood plank that barred the door and the slide lock, moving both at the same time. The instant the lock was undone, Martin came crashing through the door and headed straight for Faith, who promptly pushed him against the wall and held him fast.

"Kinda sucks having a stake pointed at your heart, doesn't it? Just gimme one reason...oh right, I don't need one." Faith pushed the tip against the vampire's shirt.

"Wait, Faith. Where is she?" Willow walked up beside the vampire.

"I'm never gonna to tell you, witch. You can't stop Elspeth, no matter what."

"Not her, you moron. Our friend. Where is Tara?" Faith asked through clenched teeth.

"Your guess is as good as mine." Martin had a huge smirk on his face. "Besides, even if you do find her, she won't be the same sweet thing you knew."

"What did you do to her?" Faith and Willow yelled in unison. Faith was dangerously close to dusting the vampire, and she knew that Willow would probably help at that point.

"I'll let you find that out for yourselves." Martin broke free from the Slayer's hold, and began running down the corridor. Before he could get far, though, Willow sent a crossbow through his heart, leaving nothing but a pile of ash.

"She must have escaped." Willow said, her emotions heavy in her voice. She had been certain they would find Tara at the mansion.

"If she did," Faith didn't mention any other possibility, "Then she would've headed for Joyce's house."

"Then let's get out of here." They both ran back the way they came, neither one of them wanting to rest until Tara was safe again.

"Are the twins asleep?" Joyce asked when Xander walked into the family room.

"Finally. They know something's wrong, so Anya's staying with them for a while in case they wake up again." He sat on the couch and put his hands over his face for a second. "You want to look through these with me?" Xander motioned to the pile of books he and Anya brought back from the beach house.

Even though Angel had given them more information, they still knew little about the creature. They at least had enough to start looking through the chronicles. There should be some kind of reference to the Master's sire.

"Sure, I'll just grab some coffee. You want anything?" Joyce moved toward the kitchen.

"I'll take some java. Thanks." Xander already had his nose in a book.

Joyce was setting out the coffee mugs when she heard a loud screeching noise followed by a sickening thud. She ran into the foyer and almost opened the door before Xander stopped her.

"Don't. It might be a trap." He went to the huge window at the front of the house. "Oh my god! It's Tara!"

They both ran outside, Anya following close behind. A kid who couldn't be more than seventeen stood crying over Tara's lifeless body, his car still in the road. "I didn't see her, I swear. She just..." He sank to his knees.

"Joyce, could you take him inside?" Xander asked quietly. "We'll take care of her."

Joyce couldn't believe how Xander and Anya had reacted. "Don't you want me to call an ambulance?"

"No, she'll be fine." Anya took the boy's hand, leading him into the house. "Joyce?"

Joyce ignored Anya and looked directly at Xander while she kneeled down. She knew something was very weird; it had to be. Xander would never act so cavalier about a hurt friend. "What's going on?"

"She'll be fine," he said after a pause.

"What? She doesn't look fine."

"She can't die - she's immortal. They all are," he replied.

Before Joyce's eyes, Tara's wounds healed themselves. Suddenly her chest heaved with breath and her eyes opened wide. "Giles!"

"Shh, it's okay. Giles isn't here." Joyce smoothed Tara's hair. "We can get him though."

Tara seemed to be more herself with each passing second. She looked up at Xander's worried face. "He's in danger, Xander. Elspeth went after him tonight." She stood unsteadily before Xander and Joyce each took an arm to help her balance.

"I'll call Buffy. Can you take her inside?" Xander looked questioningly at Joyce.

"Go, Xander." Joyce helped Tara into the house slowly. When she made it inside Xander was already on the phone, talking in fast, hushed tones. She led Tara to a chair in the family room and sat her down gingerly.

"See, you didn't kill her. She's fine." Anya stood in the entranceway with her arm around the boy. "Now go home. Okay?"

The boy stared at Tara for a moment. "Glad you weren't hurt." He said before he left in a rush.

"Buffy's checking the school," Xander said as he hung up the phone. Walking over to where Anya and Joyce were huddled over Tara, he kneeled in front of Tara and took her hand. "We should ground you for staying out past curfew..." He stopped mid-sentence, concern washing over his face.

Tara stared at the carpet, not really seeing her friends. Her eyes had dark circles under them, and even though her wounds had healed, she was still covered in dried blood and mud.

"Do you want to get cleaned up?" The voice that floated into Tara's ear sounded like Joyce.

"Yes," Tara said in a small voice.

"Can you two try to find Faith?" She didn't mention Willow's name, thinking it might upset Tara.

Anya and Xander cast knowing looks at each other. "Sure," Anya said.

"Thanks." Joyce helped Tara up, and they slowly went upstairs.


Part 4

Tara sat alone in the bathroom, still fully clothed. She had told Joyce that she would be fine, she only needed a few moments and had asked the older woman for a fresh change of clothes, but that had only been an excuse to have some time alone. There were so many thoughts rushing through her mind and she couldn't process all of them.

She was no longer connected to Elspeth, and for that one fact alone she cried with relief. Giles was dead, and nothing was going to bring him back. Knowing what she knew about Elspeth, he was probably worse than dead, and that was a prospect that frightened her more than Elspeth herself.

She reached up and felt her face, suddenly realizing that Elspeth's spell was still taking its toll on her, and thankful that her features hadn't changed in front of her friends. The sensations of the feed were fading bit by bit, so she was hopeful that her physical changes weren't permanent, but she wasn't sure how long they would last.

A knock at the door broke her from her thoughts momentarily. "Come in," she said, getting into the shower fully clothed and turning the water on, unmindful of the blast of cold water that sprayed over her.

"Tara?" Willow's voice was cautious for so many reasons, not the least of which being that she couldn't believe Tara was okay.

Tara sobbed against the shower wall. "Willow, please…"

"What is it, Tara? What do you need?" Willow touched the shower curtain, suppressing the urge to pull it back and view her lover completely.

"I need you to…leave me alone…please."

"Okay," she choked out before turning to the door.



"If Faith's still with you, can you send her up?" Tara's voice could barely be heard above the water now.

"Yeah, sure." Willow said sadly before closing the door.

Tara stood in the shower, taking off her clothes and letting them fall into a muddy blood soaked pile in the tub and letting the water wash over her. Once she was clean, she stepped onto the tiled floor and began drying herself off. She was afraid to look at her face in the mirror, but her hands told her that her face was still that of a vampire's.

The sound of someone knocking on the door startled her. She'd forgotten about Faith. "Yeah?"

"Hey, it's me." Faith called through the door.

Tara sat on the toilet with the towel around her, turning her face out the window. "Come in."

The sound of the door opening and closing was loud in the quiet room as Faith came in. She stayed at the other end of the room, sensing that Tara needed the physical space between them for now. "What do ya need?"

"She took Giles," Tara said simply, though she choked on the words.

Faith's eyes widened. "You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure." Tara swallowed the grief she felt. It wasn't going to do them any good at the moment.

"Damn it. I'm gonna-"

"What? What can you do?" In Tara's anger at the situation, she turned to Faith.

"Oh god, Tara. You're…"

"No, I'm not. You have to believe me." Tara begged, not moving from her perch.

Faith studied her friend carefully. "I think I do - but why?"

"It's a lot to explain, but she linked us together and this is one of the side effects."

"Will it stop?" Faith asked uncertainly.

"I - I don't know." Tara turned away again.

"Stay here for now. Buffy's checking the school, and hopefully what you saw was the future. I'll head everyone off who might want to come up, okay?"

Tara looked up at her, the gratitude showing in her mutated face. "Could you get me some clothes?"

Faith moved to put a hand on her friend's shoulder, placing it there uncertainly. "Sure."

The growl that emanated from Tara was anything but human. "Go," she said, her eyes flashing with demon-like intensity.

"I'm going," Faith said, backing out of the small room and leaving Tara to her thoughts.

Buffy drove as fast as she could through the streets of Sunnydale, barely paying attention to the street signs as they passed. She wanted to believe that nothing had happened to Giles, wanted to believe that her surrogate father hadn't fallen after all these years of nobly fighting demons, but in her gut she could feel that something was horribly wrong, even before Xander had called. In all the things that were unknown in her life, Buffy knew one thing: if anything had happened to Giles, whoever was responsible would die.

It was easy to find his car, and Buffy parked hers next to his. Even in the state she was in, she still realized his class should be over, so she checked his office first. The door was locked, and there was no sign he'd been there recently. The run to his classroom was short, but it seemed to last an eternity, and when she made it to the right hallway, it took her a moment to absorb the scene that lay before her.

No one was there, but then she hadn't expected to see anyone. The fluorescent lights buzzed softly, casting a harsh light everywhere. That wasn't what made her cry stick in her throat though. There wasn't a body to be found, but just outside his classroom's doorway was his bag full of weapons with a small trickle of blood slowly gliding down its side. Buffy knew exactly what that meant; he would never have left that bag unless he had no choice.

Buffy fell to her knees, a cry emanating from her lips. A small part of her mind kept repeating that it wasn't real, it couldn't be real. He'd simply been captured, not killed or worse, turned. Her mind wouldn't even go toward the prospect of him being turned though. It was hard enough to think that the wonderful, generous, and noble man she'd known for the better part of ten years was gone from her life.

She wasn't sure how long she sat there before she heard a noise behind her. Instantly on her feet, she pulled out a stake and went immediately into a defensive posture, looking around for anything out of the ordinary as the sound repeated again, this time closer.

As the person came around the corner, Buffy immediately threw a punch, but pulled it just before she hit her target. It wouldn't do her any good to have an unconscious security guard on her hands.

"Sorry," she said, relaxing her posture instantly.

"S'okay, Miss." The guard looked a bit startled, but other than that he seemed fine. "You shouldn't be here this late. It's not safe."

Buffy was suddenly reminded of the weapons bag and of Giles, and it was difficult to keep her emotions in check. She had to though. It wouldn't do her any good to breakdown, especially in front of someone she didn't know.

"I'm fine, really." She breathed deeply. "I was just looking for my professor. I missed class tonight and I wanted to see if I could get some notes from him." The lie rolled off her tongue easily.

"They've all gone home, ma'am. None of the professors are in their offices. I just checked." He responded helpfully.

"Thanks. I'll…just get my bag then." Buffy went the few feet to where Giles' bag lay.

"Would you like an escort to your car? This place isn't safe at night."

He had no idea how right he was. "I'll be fine. My car's just over there." Buffy nodded to the nearest parking lot.

"Okay. Take care." He continued on his route, not looking back at her as he went about making the campus safe for students.

Buffy began walking to her car, trying to blink away the tears that threatened to cloud her vision. She needed to keep herself together for at least a little bit longer. She had to find the thing that took Giles. Then she had to kill it.

Tara sat alone in the dark, a towel wrapped around her body as much for decency as for warmth. She still couldn't believe how wrong everything had gone in such a short span of time. Giles was gone. She didn't need anyone to tell her that. She was just waiting for the phone call that would confirm it. And then there was Willow. Tara couldn't even describe her own experience to her lover; it was too horrific for the blonde to think about, and yet that was all she could think about at the moment.

There was a knock on the door, and Tara jumped a few inches off her seat before settling down again. "Yes?"

"Tar, it's me." Faith called gently through the door. "I…have some clothes for you."

Tara was half tempted to tell her friend to leave the clothes at the door and leave, but she needed human contact, and Faith was perhaps the only person who might understand something of what was happening. "Come in."

Faith came in warily. "You want me to just drop these off?"

"Please don't. I don't think I can be alone right now."

"Sure thing. Here." Faith rested the clothes on the bathroom counter. "They're Joyce's, so they should fit pretty good."

"Thank you." Tara dropped the towel without reservation and began dressing slowly.

Faith turned her back to give her friend some privacy. "How're ya feelin'?"

Pulling the t-shirt over her head, Tara waited to reply. "Not so good. You can turn around now."

"So nothing's changed?" Tara knew the answer just by the look on Faith's face.

Tara could still feel the fangs in her mouth, but she was hoping her face had at least begun to become normal.


The silence that followed wasn't exactly an uncomfortable one. Tara was grateful just for Faith's presence. Faith, on the other hand, was debating on what to do or say.

Finally, Faith spoke again. "Giles is gone." Her voice sounded ragged.

"I know." Tara sighed deeply. She didn't have the capacity to cry. "How's Buffy taking it?"

"Not good, but she's hiding it. She's on her way here, and she wants to go after this thing now."

"She won't be able to touch her."

"Well, you know B. She'll go after her all the same."

"You don't understand. She can't be killed, but Elspeth doesn't care. She wants to destroy us. To make it so we've lost the will to fight." Tara looked down at her hands. "She almost did that to me."

Faith reached out and took Tara's hands, noticing the blonde's small flinch. "Do you want me not to touch you?"

"No, it's just…it's strange. She never touched me, but she…" Tara stopped.

"She violated you?"

A tear fell down Tara's deformed face. "Yeah. And I still have so much going through my mind, even my body, and it scares me so much. When you touched me…my first reaction was to…to bite you."

"God, Tar."

"I know you, and you can be almost as bad as Buffy. Fighting her by yourself isn't going to do anything. Elspeth is powerful." Tara said, adamant that Faith not put herself in the same position Tara had been in just hours before.

"But we can't-"

Tara cut her friend off. "She doesn't want to kill us. It's our spirits she wants to destroy. Think about it: she took me and exposed me to her very nature, and now she's killed Giles. Who do you think will be next?"


"Or Xander and Anya." Tara was beginning to remember parts of Elspeth's mind. "Then she'll go after each of our minds. She's already used mine…"

"You're still here."

The blonde hesitated. "Barely. Look at me. What if this doesn't go away? I feel…bloodlust. I feel a strong urge to take you now."

There was another knock at the door. "Faith? Tara? Come downstairs. We're having a meeting." Buffy's voice called urgently.

"Be down in a sec, B." Faith called back before turning back to Tara. "Can you do this right now?"

"I have to. We're out of options." Tara replied determinedly.

"Just lemme go down the stairs first, okay? They probably should have some warning…you know…"

Tara sighed. "Yeah, I guess so."

Tara followed a few steps behind her friend, but when they got to the bottom of the stairs she stopped. More than anything, she didn't want Willow to see how Elspeth had affected her. The blonde couldn't even bear to look at her own face; she didn't see how she could expect anyone else to be able to look at her either. As Tara stood at the last stair, she barely recognized Faith's voice as her friend talked to the rest of the Scoobies.

"Tara's coming down, guys," Faith began.

Willow, who had been sitting on the couch looking vacantly at the carpet, instantly brightened and looked to the door. "Tara?"

"Don't get your panties in a wad, Red. There's something you need to know. Tara's…"

Tara emerged from behind the brunette. "I'm different."

Five sets of eyes widened in shock. Buffy, on reflex, pulled out her stake. Xander and Anya stood with mouths agape. Joyce dropped her drink. Willow, on the other hand, stood and went to her lover.

"Oh god, baby," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "What did she do to you?"

"I'm okay. She didn't turn me." Tara stepped back when Willow reached for her hand.

"It looks like she did," Buffy said, moving closer.

Faith stopped her lover by putting her hands on Buffy's shoulders. "She's not a vamp. Elspeth did something to her, joined their minds, and this is one of the side effects."

"Will it go away?" Xander squeaked.

"I don't know. That isn't what's important right now though. We need to figure out how we can kill her," Tara said.

"I think this'll help that along perfectly." Buffy twirled her stake.

"That's not enough. I was inside her mind." Tara shuddered. "She's ancient, and more powerful than anything we've ever faced. With her powers, we may not even be able to get close to her. Especially…" Tara paused, "…after the power boost she got from me."

"From you? What?" Willow asked, emotion thick in her voice.

"Trust me. Please. I know her better than any of you."

"Then talk." Buffy said, distrust radiating from her.

"She turned Giles," Tara said simply.

Buffy squinted suspiciously. "How do you know that?"

"I saw everything she saw, felt everything she felt. She…was just beginning to…turn him," Tara took a ragged breath, "When the link between us was broken."

"When you were hit by the car," Joyce supplied.

"Yes," Tara replied.

"Can you tell me again why you weren't killed? I saw you die, Tara." Joyce asked.

"Mom, can we talk about this later?" Buffy needed to keep her mind focused if she was going to have any chance of destroying Elspeth.

Suddenly Joyce was angry, angrier than Tara had seen her in a long time. "No, we'll discuss this now. Xander said you're immortal."

"Yes." It was Willow who answered after seeing Buffy's jaw go up and down a few times.

Joyce turned to the redhead. "When did this happen?"

"Last summer, in England," Willow said quietly.

"Mom, shouldn't we-" Buffy put a hand on her mother's arm.

"Why didn't you say anything?" Joyce's voice echoed the hurt she felt as she pulled away from her daughter.

"I was waiting for the right time. Things have been so crazy around here…" Buffy drifted off.

"Forget it - for now, but Buffy, we will be talking about this."

Buffy stared as Joyce for a moment, a swirl of emotions on her features. Finally she turned to Tara. "Okay. What do you know?"

"Basically what you know now. She's ruthless, and she's been doing this for a few centuries."

"What?" Faith asked.

"Sucking life out of people to keep looking human. She sees us as bottomless wells."

"Because you're immortal?" Joyce inquired.

"And because we're powerful even without that. She's never taken a Slayer, but she's taken witches before, and she believes there's no other power like that in the world."

"I'm sorry, but you got all that from just a day?" Anya asked.

Tara shrugged. "When we were connected, everything she remembered and felt…it was part of me. I remember everything about her." She tried to ignore Willow's whimper of pain. She couldn't give into the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her, and probably Willow, at that moment.

"So you know what her plans are?" Buffy stared directly into Tara's yellow eyes.

"I know she wants our power. But more than that, she wants to destroy us."

Faith's head snapped up. "By getting to the people around us." She looked around at Xander and Anya, each holding a twin in one arm, and to Joyce. "We've gotta get you guys out of Sunnydale, now."

Xander stood. "We've always fought side by side, and I'm not giving up now."

Buffy went to him, putting a hand on each shoulder. "You have a family now. Keep them safe."

It took a minute, but Xander backed down. "Yeah. Joyce?"


"Pack a bag. We're getting out of Dodge."

"Don't go home, Xander." It was Tara who spoke.

"She has someone there?"

"I'm pretty sure."

"We'll buy what we need when we get wherever we're going then."

It didn't take the three mortals of the group to get there things gathered and to the car. They decided to take Joyce's, since it had more room for the babies. It would be easier that way, since none of them knew how long they would be on the road.

"Don't tell us where you're going, and don't call when you get there." Buffy said as she hugged her mother.

"But how will we know to come back?" Joyce asked.

"We'll call you, don't worry. Just get somewhere safe," Faith said, putting one of the twins in the car.

Xander, Anya, and Joyce collectively looked to the window where Tara stood. Not wanting to frighten the neighbors, they hadn't risked having Tara outside. Each one waved to her before getting into the car and leaving.

Their friends and family had disappeared from sight when Buffy finally spoke. "Okay, now we fight."


It pounded all around him, but he immediately knew it was not his own. Giles felt it flowing through someone else's veins. He had no heartbeat of his own to speak of, but he knew there was a good, strong heart close to him. Opening his eyes, he saw perfectly even though the light was dim. What he saw only increased the bloodlust he felt.

He recognized that he was lying on the floor in what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse. Only ten feet away from him sat a young man, his hands cuffed behind him and his feet tied. Directly beside him stood a strikingly beautiful woman – the same woman from his class.

"Ah, good. You're awake."

"You…killed me."

"I brought you to life. You'll thank me after you've fed." She shoved the man to him.

The smell of the blood overpowered him, and he felt his face change. Grabbing the man with a force he didn't think he possessed, Giles sank his fangs deep into the man's neck, taking great pleasure in the man's cries. As the blood was absorbed into his system, Giles felt the ecstasy take over, and he couldn't help but suck the man completely dry.

He let go of his prey and turned to Elspeth. "Why?"

"It's simple, really. I needed two things: a way to get to the immortals, and a new assistant. You see, the old one wasn't that smart. You, my dear Giles," she touched his face softly, sensually, "are brimming with intelligence."

He began remembering the kind of man he had been, and felt disgusted. As kind as he was in his human life, he would be that much more vengeful in his demon life. He thought back on those he loved before, and he hated them all. To him that love showed a weakness that didn't exist anymore. He felt strong, purposeful.

He sneered. "Call me Ripper."

She nodded approvingly. "Very well, then, Ripper. What were you thinking?"

"That I want to destroy the immortals." He said with vehemence.


"When?" He asked impatiently.

"Soon. First I want to pick your brain – not literally, of course. I haven't done that in, oh, a hundred years or so. It leaves a lot to be desired." She stepped back from him. "What I want is information on them."

"You know they cannot be killed."

"Yes. I want to kill them in a different way. In fact, I've already begun. That girl, Tara? She isn't worth anything in a fight now, I'm sure."

"Don't underestimate them," he said.

Suddenly Elspeth looked every bit the vampire she was as she pushing Giles up against the wall. "I have no intention of doing that. You would do well to remember your place in this little arrangement of ours. I do the thinking. You just provide the back story."

He didn't flinch at all, instead finding the threat of violence invigorating. "Get off me." He put a hand on her arm and twisted it off him before pushing her away. "This is an equal partnership. If not, I'll take my 'back story' elsewhere."

Taking a couple of steps back, Elspeth looked at him with shock. "You dare –"

He cut her off. "I dare to not be your lapdog."

Her smile revealed her fangs. "I think I'm going to like you."

Tara was on the couch when Buffy, Faith and Willow came back inside. She felt responsible for Giles' death even though she knew that it was irrational to feel that way. After feeling the actual act of taking his lifeblood, she couldn't help it.

"Tara," Willow softly cried as she went to her lover, stopping short of embracing her.

"Not now." Tara was firm. "Whatever our problems are, we can't solve them now."

"She's right," Faith said. "Look, I'm no genius, but it seems to me that this bitch wanted to divide and conquer. She didn't have to work very hard at it, either."

Willow stood and her eyes shot daggers at the dark slayer. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"This is partly your fault, and you know it." Faith's voice was raised.

"Don't you think I know that?" Willow raised her voice to match Faith's.

"Maybe, but I'm not gonna try to make you feel better by not saying what everyone's thinking." Faith took a step forward.

"So all of this is my fault." Willow took a step so that they were standing toe to toe.

"Nope, but you sure did make it easy. Not to mention," Faith motioned toward Tara, "You might as well've helped Elspeth destroy Tara. You know she's never gonna to be the same."

Willow slapped Faith hard on the face. "How dare you?"

"Stop!" Tara pushed herself between the two women. "This isn't doing us any good."

Faith kept glaring at Willow. "This is doin' me just fine."

Buffy stepped in. "Faith, no. We have to be level-headed here."

Finally the dark slayer backed down. "Fine. But this isn't over."

"You might want to rethink that," Willow said a little dangerously as sparks of light emanated from her hands.

Buffy turned to Willow. "That's enough." She waited until Willow backed down and turned to Tara. "We should get to the house. Get some research done, unless you know of a way to kill this bitch."

"Other than the normal things, no, but we need to find a way to get close to her. That's the impossible part," Tara replied.

"Then let's get with the going portion of the program," Faith said, heading for the door as the rest followed her.

"Wait. Tara," Willow said, turning to the blonde witch. "Will you be okay?"

Tara knew Willow meant more than just her features; the question was also about her emotional health. At the moment the only thing she could bear to think about was killing Elspeth. Anything else and she knew she would crumble. "Let's just go."

No one said anything; they all piled into the car and began the long drive to their house.

"Damn it!" Faith slammed the book onto the table. "There's nothing."

"We've only been at this for a few hours," Buffy said.

"What if we don't find anything? She's already done a lot of damage to us," Tara said.

"We can get past that," Willow replied in an attempt to be optimistic.

"You can get past what? Losing Giles? We all lost him. I," Tara began to cry, "was torn apart inside. You have no idea what it feels like to be helpless while someone invades you like that."

"I…I'm sorry," Willow said quietly.

"There is no sorry for this." She put the book she had been looking through on the desk. "I'm going to lie down." She stood and left the room.

"I should go after her." Willow stood as well, but was stopped by Buffy.

"She needs to be alone, Will. Let her have some time."

"Okay, I guess." Willow calmed down, knowing Buffy was right. She went back to her book and sat down. She had a thought, and though it killed her to admit it, it wasn't her place anymore. "Faith?"

"Yeah," Faith responded, as though she was not at all excited about what Willow had to say.

"Would you check on her in a while?"

Faith's eyes softened. "Sure, Red."

"Thanks." Willow turned back to her book, finding solace in the research.

Tara lay on the guest room bed, staring at the ceiling but not really seeing it. Her mind was a muddle of the events of the past couple of days. Everything had changed so much, and she was certain that nothing would be the same again.

"Blondie?" A soft voice came from the doorway.

She smiled a bit at Faith's nickname for her. That, at least, would be the same. "Hey."

"Ya want some company?"


Faith went in and sat on the chair beside the bed. "First time I was in this room you were the one trying to help me."

"That seems like such a long time ago."

"Not that long ago."

"We can't go back, you know. To who we were before Elspeth." Tara shivered in anger at the name.

"I know. You've been through a lot, and all I can tell you is that you're strong enough to get through it."

"How do you know?" Tara asked. She wasn't angry; she always knew Faith had a reason for what she said.

"I have my secrets. Some of 'em I haven't even told B." Faith heaved a heavy sigh. "When I was growing up, my mother had a lot of boyfriends, and most of 'em were assholes.

"The nice ones usually only hit her. The not-so-nice ones hit me. And there was one really not nice one…he raped me. It was a regular happening in my house until she died."

Tara sat up. "I'm so sorry." She put a hand on Faith's knee.

"Don't be sorry. It happened to me; made me who I am. Not that I was that great of a person before, but I'd like to think I'm a good person now. I wouldn't want it to happen to anyone else, but if hangin' out with you has taught me anything, it's that I have to look at the present.

"What Elspeth did to you was shitty, and very personal. No one can know what you went through, not even me. Her memories, her feelings had to be hell to experience, but you need to remember that you made it through. You're still alive, and I don't mean the immortal shit. You," Faith said as she touched Tara's chest, "are still alive."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because I know that that bitch put the urge to suck blood into you, and you still refused to give in. You're still a fighter." Faith covered Tara's hand with her own. "You may not look like you right now, but you're still in there."

"So what now?" Tara asked.

"You use what she did to you. She gave you her memories to get you weak, but you have to let them make you strong. Show her you aren't as weak as she thinks you are."

"Since when did you get so philosophical?" Tara genuinely grinned.

"I'm multitalented." Faith smiled back before turning serious again. "It's gonna take a while, but you'll come out the other side of this shit and be better for it. Trust me."

Looking intently at Faith, Tara started to feel that to be the truth. "I do."

"Good. Then let's go catch us a baddy."

"Wait. There's one thing. You need to lay off Willow. This isn't her fault."

"I know. Everything rational in me, which isn't much, says that it isn't. The only thing is that I saw your face after the link was cut. That pissed me off."

"Then be angry at Elspeth. That's more constructive, and the rest we can deal with later. Okay?" Tara stood and held out her hand.

"Done. And Tara?" Faith took Tara's hand and stood as well.


"Buffy only knows about the beatings, k?"

Tara cocked her head, wondering why that was. "Okay. But if you ever need to talk, I'm here."

"Same back atcha, Blondie." Faith squeezed her best friend's hand before letting go. "Now can we catch us a baddy?"

Smiling, Tara started for the door. "Of course."

"There's nothing in here."

"We're starting to repeat ourselves." Buffy said without looking up from her book. "You should try looking in a different book."

"What do you think they're talking about?"

Willow's voice sounded dejected, and it caused Buffy to look up. "Friend stuff." She closed the book and went to her friend. "You can't be concentrating on that right now. I know Tara's on your mind, and she should be, just like Faith's on my mind. The thing is that you can't let it overtake you."

Tara and Faith walked into the room. "That's exactly what she needs to do."

"Huh?" Willow and Buffy asked in unison.

"Guys, I need to talk to Willow for a second, k?"

"C'mon, B. Let's get some food or something." Faith and Buffy left quickly.

Tara turned to Willow. She hadn't rehearsed what to say, and up until the second her mouth opened she had no idea what was going to come out. She only knew they had to sort things out before they could defeat Elspeth.

"Willow…" She began before trailing off.

Willow looked at her expectantly, but didn't say anything, as though she was afraid she might break the tenuous bond they were forming.

Tara took a deep breath and started again. "I love you. That has never stopped. But you hurt me deeply and inexplicably when you broke our link," she thought for a second, "yesterday. Was it really just yesterday?"

"Tara, I'm so sorry –"

"You don't have to say that. I hurt you, but I need you to know what that did to me. I also need you to know that none of this is your fault." She went to where Willow sat and knelt in front of her.

"Why not?" Willow gazed into Tara's yellow eyes and looked like she was about to cry.

"You can't be responsible for everything, silly." Tara took one of Willow's hands in her own. "Neither can I," she said, thinking of Giles. "I don't look like this because of you; I look like this because of Elspeth. No one else."

"It's still so hard to see you this way," Willow said, gingerly touching her lover's face. "I hate what's happened to you."

"It's starting to go away though. Look." Tara bared her teeth.

"They're people teeth!" Willow said.

Tara grinned a little, but then her face sobered. "Willow, I know we have things to talk about with Sheila and what happened –"

"I don't care. You were only looking out for me, so there's no talking to do."

"We still should talk about that, but now isn't the time. We need to talk about something else."

"What? What are you saying?"

"I don't know if you're ready for this, but we need to try to link together again," Tara said cautiously.

Willow wasn't sure what to make of that. It wasn't that she didn't want to feel Tara's mind again. She just wasn't sure it was the best thing to do at the moment. "Why?"

"Because she divided us for a reason. I saw it for just a second, and I didn't even realize it until I was talking to Faith." Tara became more certain of herself as she spoke. "She isn't powerful enough to defeat all of us at once. I don't even think she could take on you and me if we're linked. She's afraid of us as long as we stick together."

Tara suddenly found the floor a very interesting place to look. "There is something though. I've changed. I saw things, felt things…"

Lifting Tara's chin, Willow looked at her lover with as much love as she could feel. "You are my love. That doesn't change, and whatever happened to you we can deal with together. I'll take your pain and make it mine too. That's what we do, right?"

Tears flowed down Tara's face. "I don't know if we should...stay linked after this is over."

Then Willow was crying. "Why?"

Her crying continuing, Tara stood and went to the window. "Because we've hurt each other, and they haven't exactly been tiny cuts. When you broke our link, you broke me. Elspeth broke me in a different way, but she broke me all the same."

Willow's voice was barely a whisper. "So it is my fault."

Not looking at Willow, Tara wiped the last of her tears away. "No, it's not. You had no intention of putting me through what I've been through. If you had, I wouldn't be here now." She turned to the redhead. "We need to do this now. From what I saw, her plans aren't to hang around long. We need to catch her while we can."

"You don't want to talk about this anymore?" Willow sounded desperate.

Tara finally turned from the window, her face as hard as she could make it. "I can't talk about it anymore. You know how I feel. Once we're linked, I'll try to keep the worst of Elspeth from you, but I can't guarantee anything."

"Okay," Willow said, and Tara thought she had never heard her lover so despondent.

They both reached out with their minds, each one searching for the other. Tara found that she kept fighting it, not because she didn't forgive Willow, but because she didn't want to hurt her lover. When they finally did meld, Tara struggled to keep a large portion of the past couple of days from Willow.

"Your face..." Willow started.

"It's back to normal. I know." Tara sighed. She wished she could say she was elated at the change in her face, but any of that was second fiddle to everything else.

"You're keeping so much from me."

"I have to. Besides, the only thing we need to link is our powers." Tara's face was hard. It needed to be if she were going get through the battle.

"Tara, please..."

Finally Tara looked at her. "I can't focus on us, because if I do, I'll fall apart. Okay?"

"Okay," Willow squeaked out.

There was a knock at the door. "Can we come in now?" Faith's voice came through.


"Blondie! You're back!" Faith exclaimed, giving Tara a big hug. "How'd that," she pointed to Tara's face, "happen?"

"Willow and I linked. I guess what was left of the spell couldn't take on two of us." Tara shrugged.

"Did you two figure anything out?" Buffy asked.

Tara had not been born a leader, and even though she had changed significantly since meeting Willow and the rest of the Scooby Gang, she still wouldn't call herself a leader. But something about the events of the recent past had changed that. She knew with a certainty what they had to do.

"Here's the deal. She can't fight all four of us at once, but she's going to try. Giles was turned because he knows our strengths and weaknesses, so we need to change tactics."

"How are we supposed to do that in a day?" Buffy asked with her arms folded across her chest.

"We need join our minds." Tara said. At the disbelieving faces of the Slayers, Tara continued. "Listen to me for a sec. Ever since Willow and I have been linked, our relationship has been symbiotic. When one of us has needed more power, the other one gives it.

"Willow and I are linked again, and it sent the residuals of the spell packing. I firmly believe that if the two of you were to link minds, you wouldn't be as vulnerable to attacks."

"And exactly how do you propose we do this?" Buffy was still skeptical. "Do you know a spell for that?"

"There was that spell we used with Adam," Willow offered.

"That's not exactly what I mean," said Tara.

"How? It took you and Willow years to be as closely linked as you are now. There's no way we," she motioned between her and Faith, "will be able to do that."

Sighing, Tara continued. "You're already linked though, don't you see? You're always in each other's dreams, and that's a form of telepathy."

"But we can't do it when we're awake," Faith said.

Willow stood and started pacing. "It's true, guys. You are linked already. You just don't consciously realize it. When you're patrolling, you're completely tuned into each other. Now we just need to make your minds more aware of that."

"Again, how?" Buffy asked.

Tara and Willow turned to each other and at the same time said, "The Doll's Eye Crystal."

"I'll go upstairs and get it," Willow offered.

Once Willow was gone, Tara turned to the two Slayers. "The Doll's Eye Crystal can do a lot of things, but mostly it enhances what's already there. That can mean a spell or pretty much anything magical – other crystals, orbs, enchanted items."

"Got it." Willow rushed back into the library, carrying the crystal. She set it carefully on the table. "Now all you need to do is focus all your energy on that, and open you minds."

"No spell?" Faith asked. She was a little skeptical. Everything they did with magic required some kind of chanting.

"Kind of, but kind of not," Tara said. "There's no 'spell' for this." She frowned. "This seemed so much easier in my head."

"Here," Willow positioned two tables face to face on either side of the small table. "Sit."

Buffy and Faith looked at each other doubtfully, but sat down anyway. "Okay, now what?" Buffy asked.

"Think about each other and at the same time look at the crystal. Focus everything you feel on that."

Both Slayers did what Willow said, and after a minute the crystal began to glow. Soon there tendrils of light coming from the glow, and they surrounded the two women. Eventually Willow and Tara couldn't tell who was who.

Do you think they're okay? Tara sent to Willow, afraid that talking out loud might break the bond the Slayers were forming.

I'm sure they are.

Suddenly glow encompassed the entire room, and just as quickly it was gone, knocking everyone to the floor.

"Is everyone five-by-five?" Faith asked, shoving a couple of books off her.

There was a chorus of positive answers as the four women stood up.

"Do you feel any different?" Tara asked hopefully.

Faith and Buffy looked at each other. Buffy held out her hand, and as she did, Faith mimicked the movement, as though they were testing this new bond. "Can you sense it?" Buffy asked.

"Yeah, B. It's wild. I feel…stronger." Faith's hand sparked a bit. "Damn." She laughed. "Cool."

Buffy turned to the two witches. "I guess it affected you guys as well?"

"I think so." As proof, Willow karate-chopped the end table and split it into two pieces. She grinned wildly. "Yep."

"Is this permanent?" Buffy asked Tara.

"My mom always told me that the crystal only lasted as long as it was necessary. I guess once we kill Elspeth we'll unlink," she responded.

"We shouldn't wait to find out." Buffy looked outside. "It's almost daylight. We should start searching once the sun comes up." She turned to Faith. "You and I will work out a battle plan. Willow and Tara – gather the weapons."

"Done." Willow and Tara left to get the weapons.

It had been daylight for an hour when Faith pulled the car to the into the warehouse district. "K, gals, we're footin' it from here on out. You know the plan?"

There was a round of 'yeahs' before they got out of the car and went to get the weapons. They were mostly for Buffy and Faith, since Willow and Tara hardly ever used a stake.

"If it starts getting dicey, get out of there. If she takes one of us, we can regroup. If she takes all of us, we're in hell forever," Buffy warned.

No one said anything that time. They all knew it was true, and as they headed through the maze of buildings, each one mentally steeling themselves against the coming battle.

It was easy to find the right building. Tara, and by proxy, everyone else, could feel Elspeth from a mile away.

They stepped inside slowly, ready for anything that might come at them. There were a lot of obstacles in the building, and any one of them could have a vampire behind it. Splitting up, Faith and Tara went slowly and quietly up the stairs while Buffy and Willow made their way through the maze of boxes. The vampires would surely be in one of the two places.

"Someone needs to call their decorator." Faith said quietly.

"I ate mine. Do you have any other suggestions?" A voice called from the top of the stairway.

Elspeth emerged from the darkness, Giles following closely behind her. At the sight of her old mentor, Buffy's fury grew to monumental proportions. The rest, feeling her anger, took it as theirs, even as the rage in their hearts grew.

"I want the blonde Slayer," Giles said, his game face on.

"Don't worry. You'll have yours, my pet." Elspeth didn't look away from her enemies. "Ladies, I'm so glad you've come to my little party. I see you've recovered," she said, turning to Tara and staring into her eyes. "Maybe not so much."

Everything in Tara hated the vampire who stood before of her. She had never felt such a need for vengeance. It wasn't for Giles, although he was part of it; it was for what Elspeth had done to her. No matter what, Tara was not going to let Elspeth live through this. She would see the vampire turn to dust if it was the last thing she ever did.

"You think you can kill me? I've been around for a millennium. Better people than you have tried and died," Elspeth said smugly.

"They weren't as ticked off as we are," Faith said, getting into a fighting stance.

"Enough!" Giles cried.

He jumped over the stair rail and landed on the ground in front of Buffy and Willow, while Elspeth began chanting. Immediately Tara knew what Elspeth was trying to break the bond, and she moved to stop her. In her concentration, even Elspeth wasn't powerful enough to do the spell and attack her foes. That was what Giles was for.

Tara muttered under her breath, her hands pointed at the ancient vampire. At the same time, Faith ran up the stairs to attack physically.

"You think your silly counter spell will hurt me?" Elspeth asked.

"Nope. But this will," Faith said, lunging at Elspeth and knocking her to the floor.

Instantly the spell was gone. Faith tried a roundhouse kick to Elspeth as the vampire stood up, but Elspeth not only easily dodged it, with a wave of her hand she sent the Slayer across the room and against the wall.

"Do not toy with me," she said menacingly, turning to the Tara. "Now for you." Elspeth left the rest out of the equation altogether.

Giles moved so that he was in front of the stairs, not allowing the Buffy and Willow to help Tara. Buffy immediately went into a battle stance, and Willow stood with her concentration on the top of the stairs.

"I've wanted to do this for years," Giles said.

"Really? And what's that?" Buffy responded, ready for whatever he was going to throw at her.

"Kick your bloody ass," he said before his fist shot out at her.

Buffy easily dodged it, seeing it as though it were in slow motion. She couldn't help but wonder if she was seeing that way because of all the power she had at the moment, but she decided not to question it. As she dodged the punch, she swept out her leg in a low kick that tripped Giles to the ground.

"You wanna kick my ass? You're getting yours handed to you," Buffy said before she punched him in the face. In the heat of the battle she saw only a vampire. She knew that in the aftermath of this, she would crumble, but not now.

Giles, blood coming from his nose, began chanting. Willow recognized the spell, and sent her power to Buffy. It was her fight.

Buffy felt the sparks on her hand. Without any thought, she aimed her hand at Giles, knocking him back to the floor. She reached to her back, where she had tied a stake, and pulled it out.

Buffy went to where her former friend, father, and mentor lay. Without any outward emotion, she plunged the stake into his heart and watched him turn to dust. Once he did, she looked at Faith. In those blue eyes, Faith could see more grief and anger than she had ever seen from her lover.

Even as the fight with the Slayers was happening, Willow had rushed up the stairs and was battling Elspeth with Tara. The vampire recovered quickly from the destruction of her first spell. After she threw Faith, she turned to the two witches, her eyes almost glowing with hatred.

Elspeth waved her hand again, and both witches were thrown back, falling to the floor next to Buffy and Faith. They hadn't hit with as much force; however, and were both still conscious, if a little sore. Standing quickly, Willow and Tara joined hands. With the Slayers' power coupled with their own, they were certain they could defeat the ancient vampire.

"You pathetic humans. I'll have your minds and souls forever."

At those words Tara felt so much – fear, hatred and anger. Mostly though, she felt the strength and love from her friends. In that moment, Tara knew what they needed to destroy Elspeth. Follow my lead, she sent Willow.

Tara took the redhead's hand, and they both began walking toward the Elspeth. She looked at them with curiosity more than anything else; she couldn't believe they would just walk toward her with no battle plan.

Willow, for her part, didn't know what was going on at first, but the link between her and Tara had strengthened to the point that they had a subconscious link as well, and soon she knew what to do when they were close enough to Elspeth. It wouldn't be easy, but it was possibly the only way.

"Are you going to lay hands on me? Drive the demon out?" Elspeth asked. She made no move to protect herself – she knew they couldn't touch her magically.

All of Willow's strength and magic went to Tara. It was more a fight between Tara and Elspeth than anyone else, and Willow knew it. Tara's eyes began to glow, and she began chanting in a language not even Willow knew. At once Elspeth's eyes became fearful.

As Tara raised her hand, Elspeth backed away. She had no more words, no more threats. Tara wouldn't have heard them anyway. She was taken over with the strength of the lover and friends, as well as something no one could identify.

A beam of light more intense than the sun burst forth from her hand, and Elspeth simply ceased to exist. There was no fire, no stake to the heart, and no vampire dust. It was as though she had never existed. The second Elspeth was gone, Tara collapsed to the floor.

"Tara!" Willow cried as she ran to her. She cradled the unconscious woman in her arms, stroking her blonde hair.

Faith and Buffy rushed over to their friends. "She's gonna be okay, Red." Faith said.

Willow felt tears down her face. "She's so small. Do you remember her being small?"

It was then that Faith realized they were all still linked. "Your strength! That's it!"

Buffy glared at her lover. "What?!"

"We're still linked. Send your strength to her."

Willow looked up. "Do it."

The three of them concentrated on Tara, and they could all feel something happen. It was as though they were pulling Tara back from some precipice.

"Did it work?" Came the quiet question a minute later.

"It worked." Willow held Tara closer, kissing the blonde without thinking.

Tara pushed her away gently. "No, Willow," she said as she broke the embrace and stood.

Willow stayed on the ground, feeling everything flow out of her. Then she felt what she most feared – the bond was breaking, and with it, her link with Tara.

"It's fading – the bond," Buffy said.

"We don't need it anymore," Faith replied.

Neither Tara nor Willow said anything. They both looked at each other as their link was severed once again. It felt, yet again, like each woman was cutting a part of herself out.

"I-I think so." Tara's words were quiet. "I was channeling old magic, although I'm not sure where it came from."

"Can you still feel it?" Buffy asked.

"No, and even now I'm forgetting what I said." Tara was still dazed as they all headed for the staircase. "Wait," she stopped. "Is Giles-"

"He's gone," Buffy said sadly.


"I don't want to talk about it right now. Let's just get back home."

The other three women looked at Buffy. Giles' death had been difficult on all of them, especially since none of them had had time to process it until that moment. They hadn't been able to process anything at all, and it was rapidly catching up to them.

"Good idea," Willow said, knowing that home would be the best place for them.

Tara gazed at the beach, not really watching the fog roll in from the ocean. It had been two days since they had defeated Elspeth, and things around the house were still far from normal. She wasn't even sure what normal was for them anymore.

They called Xander the day before and told them to head back to Sunnydale, and he, Anya, Joyce, and the twins were due back anytime. He had plenty of questions, most of which Faith fielded. She was the only one who had felt up to talking about the fight. Everyone else was just tired and grieving too much to even think.

None of the women had really spoken to each other since the fight; each one was in her own world, trying to process the events. Tara had found solace in the guest room and the back deck, and Willow read in the library. Buffy spent most of her time on the beach, while Faith mainly trained upstairs.

Her link with Willow was gone. Tara felt that she may snap at any minute, but she wasn't sure how to fix the situation. Willow still felt incredible guilt over what had happened, no matter what Tara said to her. It didn't help that Tara couldn't bear to be linked to her, let alone be in the same room with her from more than a few uncomfortable minutes.

She also didn't know how to feel about what had happened to her. She still felt the invasion, but something changed just before she killed Elspeth. When the four of them had been linked, her body had healed. Not fully, the memories were still there, but they weren't as bad. It was as though the memories weren't her own, which was how they had felt before.

The sound of the door sliding open startled her from her thoughts. "Hey," Willow said by way of a greeting.

"Hi." Tara couldn't look away from the ocean; it was one of the only things that granted her some semblance of peace.

"Mind if I sit?"

Turning to Willow, but not meeting her in the eye, Tara motioned to the chair a few feet away from her before turning her attention back to the ocean. "Go ahead."

"I can't do this," Willow said, sitting on the edge of the chair.

Finally Tara met her eyes. "Can't do what?"

"We need to talk. About something. About anything. I...I miss you," Willow pleaded.

Tara closed her eyes. "I miss you, too."

"So why does this have to be so hard?"

A tear fell from Tara's closed eyes. "Because what happened to me changed me forever." She opened her eyes and inched her chair away from Willow. "I'm not the woman you fell in love with. I'm not the woman I knew. Until I figure out who that new woman is, I can't be with you."

A cry escaped Willow's mouth. "What does that mean?" She asked, her voice breaking.

"I need to go away for a while."

For a few moments, neither woman could speak. Finally Willow asked the inevitable question. "When?"

"I'm leaving tonight." Tara felt dead inside as she said the words.

"Will you let us know you're safe at least?"

"I told Faith I'd call her once I get where I'm going." Tara found it impossible to look at Willow.

"Oh. Right."

They were silent again. The waves crashed against the shore, and the sun started setting. Tara wanted nothing more than to reach out and comfort Willow, who looked absolutely devastated, but she couldn't. She had nothing in her reserves to help herself, let alone anyone else.

Finally, Tara rose from her chair.

"I need to go." She touched Willow's head; the touch was so light that both women barely felt it. "I will always love you," Tara said softly as she went inside.

Trying in vain not to look behind her, Tara saw Willow completely break down outside. It tore her already broken heart to shreds.

Faith pulled up to the departing flights section of the airport and cut the engine. "You're sure you want to go all the way to Bermuda?"

"I've always wanted to go there, and it just seems like it's be the place I need to be."

"Okay, but you should call me as often as you can. I'm gonna miss you." She pulled Tara into a bear hug.

Tara squeezed back, not really wanting to say goodbye to her best friend, but knowing it was for the best. "I'll miss you, too. Take care of Willow." At Faith's incredulous look, Tara returned it with a stern look. "For me."

"For you."

Slowly Tara backed out of their embrace. "I need to go. I love you, Faith. You're a better person than you know."

"Thanks, Blondie. You're still you, no matter what you think."

Tara gave her a sad look and turned to go. She felt Faith's eyes on her until she had passed through security, and though it was hard to turn her back to her friend's help, Tara knew she need the time and space.

Buffy didn't turn when she heard Willow approaching, but she knew who it was. "Hey, Wills," she said.

"Hey," Willow said cautiously before sitting next to her friend. "We should talk."

"I kind of figured you'd want to do that eventually." Buffy still stared at the ocean, not really seeing it.

"Don't you?"

"Not really. I'm pretty sure if we don't talk about it, Giles will walk through the front door any second."

Willow sighed. "Buffy, he's gone."

The Slayer turned to her friend, her eyes wet with tears. "Don't you think I know that?" she practically yelled. Immediately she regretted her tone when she saw Willow recoil. "Sorry, it's just–"

Willow put her hand on the small of Buffy's back. "I know, I know. I miss him, too. He was our father."

"He deserved better," Buffy said quietly.

"He did. But Buffy, we can't change how he died. We need to remember how he lived. He would have wanted that."

"How are you so well-adjusted about this?"

"Because you aren't, and one of us has to be." Willow hugged her friend close. "I've thought the same things you've thought though, and it's a nightmare I never wanted to have to face. I knew he'd eventually go, but I figured he'd be an old man."

Buffy sighed heavily. "Me too."

"We'll lose all of them eventually," Willow said sadly.

Buffy closed her eyes. She knew that, and she had been trying to avoid the issue, but Willow had said it, so it was unavoidable. "I know. How will we…"

"Deal? We just will. Death has been a part of our lives for a long time. We'll move on, but we'll never forget them. That's all we can do."

"Do you ever wish we'd never come back?"

"No," Willow responded quickly. "We came back to fight the good fight, and that's what we're doing. How many lives have we saved since coming back?"

"What if can't do that anymore though? I'm sick of losing the people I love."

"That happens no matter what we do or who we are, and you know that."

Again Buffy sighed. "Doesn't make it any easier."

"It doesn't, but it keeps us fighting. Not to be hokey, but it's our destiny."

"And what a bright and shiny destiny it is," Buffy remarked sarcastically.

"I haven't regretted it at all. It brought Tara, you, and Faith into my life. Not to mention the rest of the gang. I wouldn't give that up for the world, and I think you feel the same way."

"Speaking of which, how are you and Tara?"

Willow seemed to take a moment to contain her emotions, and when she did speak, her words were broken. "She's gone."

"What?" Buffy's mouth hung open.

"She said she needed time away."

"I'm so sorry," Buffy said, pulling Willow to her.

Willow's tears began to fall. "She didn't even tell me where she would be."

"You have to let her go. She needs to find some peace, and you know that. Don't you?"

"I think I do. I just feel so guilty."

"And helpless."

"Thanks for the help there."

Buffy turned her friend so that they were looking straight at each other. "You need to listen to me. You two were linked almost from day one. No one ever really gets rid of that. She'll be back. You just have to give her time.

"You need to have hope. Don't start thinking about her never coming back. It won't help, and you know it. She needs to heal."

"We all do." Willow said quietly.

"Yeah, but she's doing what's right for her, and you need to find your own peace with this."

Closing her eyes, Willow rested her head on Buffy's shoulder. "Somehow."

"Maybe you could talk to Sheila?"

"Maybe. She says she's coming back as soon as she can."

"There's something then."

"Do you think we'll ever get back to where we were?"

Buffy thought about that for a moment. "No, I don't. We'll always be different, but we'll be stronger for this. You have to believe that."

"I think I do."

"Then focus on that. We'll get through the rest."

The two friends were quiet then, watching the sun descend into the ocean. Neither one knew what the future would bring, but both hoped for it to be better than the present.

The End

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