DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of these characters. If I did, I'd treat them better than...some people.
SPOILERS: Nothing, really. It's a speculative story about the past, and the future.
FEEDBACK: Yes, please. The more the better.
CONTENT: W/T T/f (mentioned) W/f (mentioned)
NOTE: It should be pointed out that this story is in no way related to my last one, DARK FUTURE. Yes, it deals with Sunnydale in the future, but that is where the similarities end.
NOTE 2: While this story focuses primarily on Tara, and as you might expect will ultimately end up with her and Willow getting back together, many years have gone by. It would not be realistic if they stayed all alone and miserable during that time now would it? So be warned, if the mere idea of Willow or Tara having been in a relationship with anyone else bothers you, do NOT read this story.
By Kirk Baldridge
Tara Maclay sat in the bay window of her apartment, looking out over the rain-soaked streets of New York. She had been there for quite some time. Thinking. Remembering.
The thirty-four year old's blonde hair had been cut particularly short. It was a rash decision she had made only a week or so ago. She regretted it almost immediately. That was the final straw in a depressingly long series of bad decisions she had made.
There was a framed photograph in her lap which she knew epitomized her mistakes. It was a picture of her and a beautiful, dark-skinned brunette women with their arms around one another. Her name was Monica Wheeler, and she had been the single brightest light in Tara's life for the past two years.
It was over now. Their relationship. Monica had packed up her things and moved out a month ago. There was no single reason why they broke up; just a lot of little ones that added up to being far more of a headache than either one of them wanted to put up with anymore.
That part of her life was over now. Tara knew and accepted that. But Monica's departure had opened a door into her past she had closed and tried to forget long ago. It would have to be dealt with before she could move on. She got up and walked into the bedroom, sitting the picture of her and Monica down on the desk beside a plane ticket for a flight that very afternoon.
It was a long flight from New York to California, and less than an hour into it Tara curled up in her seat and fell asleep. She dreamt, not surprisingly, about the past.
"Funny shapes, or..." Tara was interrupted by the opening of the back door. She and Dawn turned, to see Willow stumbling into the kitchen with another woman. One Tara did not recognize. They were laughing and smiling, and the blonde felt her chest constricting.
"Tara." Willow was clearly caught off-guard by her presence. "What are you...doing here?"
"I-I...was with Dawn, remember? Our big movie and milkshake fun day?"
The redhead nodded. "Of course."
"We fell as-sleep on the couch, and when w-we w-woke up, you w-weren't...I mean, you and Buffy..."
"She's not home either?" Willow asked.
Tara shook her head.
"Dawnie, I'm sorry. We wouldn't have stayed gone so long if..." Willow's eyes widened as the 'we' reminded her who was standing behind her. The _expression on Tara's face told her exactly what the blonde was thinking. "Tara, I want to introduce you to somebody. This is Amy."
Amy waved, smiling tiredly. "Hi."
"H-Hi," said Tara. "Since you're here, I-I should go..." She started toward the door.
"No, Amy," Willow continued. "Amy the rat?" She turned. "Sorry."
The brunette shook her head. "No, it's fair. I was a rat."
It still took Tara several moments to understand what Willow was telling her. "How did you..."
"I don't know. It just came to me the other day. Isn't this great?"
Tara wasn't sure what to say. The shock turned to sadness and pain as Amy went on to tell her how much magick she and Willow had done the night before. She felt very cold when she heard about the casual abuse of the sacred power, and had to leave. "Dawnie, I'll see you later." This time, Willow tried to stop her by telling her about some clothes she had left behind. She didn't even slow down. "I'll get them later!" She passed Buffy in the hall, ignoring the Slayer as she fought back the tears until she got out of the house.
Tara woke suddenly from her dream, as the flight attendant was asking if she wanted to eat. She ordered a small vegetarian plate and then ran her fingers through what remained of her hair. After that encounter she got called to the office of her art teacher at UC Sunnydale. The woman told her about a year long art study program in Europe, entirely funded by a grant from one of the school's biggest benefactors, which she and several of her art students were planning to participate in. And Tara was one of those students being invited. She was so hurt by Willow, and by how out of control she was getting, that she agreed.
The year in Europe turned into two, then three. Even after her teacher and the other students went back home to the States she stayed. She got an apartment and a job at a restaurant to pay the bills, while she worked on and then finally sold several of her paintings. She was well-respected in her community; not just for her artistic skills, but for her magickal and aura reading abilities. Though she never got rich, monetarily speaking at least, she had more friends and a much better, safer life. At first she stayed in contact with Dawn by e-mail, but eventually the letters got fewer and further between. Eventually they stopped all together.
She moved several times in Europe, sometimes by choice and somtimes because she was no longer financially able to maintain her current residence. The art business was a fickle one, to be sure. At length she got homesick, for the US, and moved to New York to start over. That was where she met Monica, who was managing the gallery where Tara took several of her paintings for an exhibit. Monica bought one, the two of them became friends, and after a few months they became more than friends.
But Tara always remembered Sunnydale. Often at breakfast, if she or Monica were making pancakes, she would recall how she used to make funny shapes for Dawn. And every time a Wiccan day of observance came along she thought about the ceremonies she and Willow had attended.
Even while she was with Monica, Tara never forgot about Willow. The redhead had been her first real girlfriend, and the first woman she ever made love with. Monica knew this. After all these years there was a part of Tara that still loved--and probably always would love--Willow. Monica knew this too. It was a big part of the reason the two of them broke up. She perceived a lack of total commitment, which was too much to deal with, particularly when coupled with Tara's increasing frustration over her art not selling as well in the States. Naturally there were other factors involved as well, but those were two of the biggest.
Tara shook her head as a flight attendant announced they were making preparations to land.
Tara hadn't told anyone she was coming, so she took a cab to Buffy's house.
About halfway there it occured to her that it might not be Buffy's house any longer. It had been nearly ten years since she last spoke to anyone in Sunnydale. Anything could have happened in all that time. Buffy might have lost the house because of debt or demon, or she might have chosen to move for some other reason. The people living there now might have no idea who she was.
But she had to start somewhere.
As they pulled up in front Tara noticed that the house had been repainted dark blue. It looked like parts of it had been recently repaired or refurbished too. She got out and stared.
"Hey, lady?" The driver was opening the trunk to get her bags. "You okay?"
After a moment, Tara nodded. "I'm fine."
"That'll be $22.50. Unless, of course, you want me to take you someplace else?"
"No. This is fine." Tara paid him. "Thank you." Once he was gone she dragged her bags up to the front porch, and took a deep breath as she prepared to knock on the door.
To her surprise, it opened on its own. A tall, dark-haired man in his late twenties or early thirties emerged. He was clearly as startled to see her as she was to see him. "Oh, uhh...hi."
"Hi," said Tara. She had no idea who he was.
"Can I help you with something?"
Tara started. "Oh. Sorry. I was wondering...is this the Summers' residence?"
"Sure is." He cleared his throat. "Hon! Someone's at the door!" He squeezed past Tara. "Excuse me, but I have to go. I'm late for work." He glanced over his shoulder. "Love you."
Tara watched him go, confused. Then she turned back to find someone standing in the door staring at her with a slack jaw and wide eyes. The blonde smiled. "Hey, Dawnie."
The gawky, cute teenager Tara remembered had matured into a tall, beautiful young woman. She had brown hair streaked with blonde that was tied in a nearly waist-length ponytail. She continued to stare until she finally found the strength to speak, and even then it was haltingly.
"It's me. What?" She smiled. "Do I really look that different?"
Dawn slammed the door right in her face.
Tara was too stunned to move for several moments. While she had not exactly been expecting a warm welcome from Dawn or the others, she hadn't expected this either. As she went to knock on the door it was abruptly jerked open again, and a teary-eyed Dawn stepped out onto the porch.
"How dare you!"
Tara started. "W-What? Dawnie..."
"Don't call me that! Nobody calls me that anymore. My name is Dawn."
Dawn crossed her arms. "I guess I owe Spike twenty bucks."
"It's been over ten years, Tara. We lost track of you. I said you were dead. Spike bet me you were alive. It looks like he won." Dawn frowned. "So, what do you want?"
Tara shrugged her shoulders. "Nothing. I-I just...I thought..."
"What? That we'd welcome you back with open arms? You abandoned us, Tara. When you left Willow, I knew it was for the best. It hurt, but I knew you were right to do it." Dawn sighed. "But then you ran away. From me, from Willow...from your life and your friends and everything. You quit. And a part of me...quit too. I tried to pretend it didn't bother me, when we talked on the phone, and in the e-mails, but I felt betrayed. Buffy tried to tell me it had nothing to do with me. So did Willow, when she wasn't crying. But I knew that wasn't true. I was one of the things you wanted to forget. That's why it was so easy for you to disappear."
"No. Dawn, I never, ever forgot about you. I told you I would always love you, and I still do."
Dawn wiped her eyes. "Then why did you stop answering my e-mails? Why did you change your address? If you weren't trying to hide...from me, from us, what were you doing?"
"It's complicated. I had a life in Europe. A good one. But that doesn't mean I didn't miss you. All of you. When I moved the first time it wasn't by choice. Then I got busy, and..." Tara shook her head. "No excuses. I owe you that at least. I got busy. Sometimes I forgot, sometimes I didn't have access to a computer or a phone. But I promise I never forgot about you, Dawn. If you believe nothing else, believe that."
"You still haven't answered my question. What are you doing here? What do you want?"
Tara looked around. "I'll tell you everything you want to know. But can we go inside? I don't particularly want to discuss my personal life in front of the whole neighborhood."
Dawn motioned for her to go in first, then frowned when the phone rang.
Much of the furniture was different, Tara noted as she was putting her bags down in the living room. That couch was definitely new. There were also several paintings on a wall where there hadn't been any before, and there was a flat-screen TV hanging on another. She shook her head.
"No, I can't babysit right now," Dawn said to whoever was on the phone. "I'm busy. What? No, Bill's gone. I have company." She glanced over her shoulder. "As a matter of fact, you guys may want to get over here. I think you're going to love this one. Okay, see you in a little while." She hung up.
"Who was that?" Tara asked. "And who's Bill?"
"That was Xander," Dawn replied. "He's on his way. And Bill is my fiancee."
Tara gasped. "You're engaged? That's fantastic. Congratulations. Was that him I met on the way out?"
"That's him. Bill Maxwell. He's studying to be a lawyer."
"A lawyer? Your mom would be proud."
Dawn sat down on the couch, and Tara joined her. "So where have you been all this time?"
"It's a long, complicated, depressing story. If it's all the same to you, since Xander's coming, I'd rather only tell it once." Tara cleared her throat. "Umm...where are Buffy and..."
Dawn's shoulders stiffened, and a lump formed in her throat. "Tara, there's something you should know. Buffy's not with us, anymore."
Tara gasped. "What? How? Was it a demon, or..."
"Nothing like that. This kid wandered out into the road. Buffy went to save him, and she did, but the semi wasn't able to stop in time." Dawn chuckled nervously. "Can you believe it? All those years fighting monsters, vampires, saving the world over and over again, and she gets taken out by a stupid truck."
Tara put her face in her hands. "Oh Goddess."
"We tried to call you. To tell you what happened. But we couldn't find you. I was angry. At you. I hated you. For years I blamed you for not being here for Buffy." Dawn fighed. "But I know it's not your fault. You had to do what you had to do. Besides, if you had been here, you might have died too."
Tara lifted her head. "What about Willow? Is she...?"
"She's alive," said Dawn. "More or less."
"What does that mean?" Tara asked.
Dawn stood up. "I'll tell you later. I heard a car door. I think they're here."
The front door opened. Xander, looking like a slightly older, better dressed version of the young man she once knew, entered--with a two or three year old baby in his arms. He blinked when he saw Tara. "Well well. Look, it's a ghost, Amber. Only the good kind."
A dark-haired woman Tara did not recognize came in behind him. "Honey?"
"Nanc." Xander put an arm around the room. "I'd like you to meet Tara Maclay. She's an old friend of ours. Tara, this is my wife Nancy. And our daughter, Amber."
Tara shook hands with the woman. "Nice to meet you." She smiled at the child. "You too."
"You guys thirsty?" Dawn asked.
Xander and Nancy shook their heads. "Wa-wa!" cried Amber, clapping her hands. "Wa-wa!"
"One wa-wa coming up," said Dawn. "Tara? Wanna help me out?" She walked into the kitchen, with the blonde right behind her. "It's not polite to stare, you know."
"Sorry." Tara shook her head. "When I left, Xander and Anya were engaged. What happened?"
"The wedding sort of went kerflooey. This demon--I think he was one of Anya's old boyfriends, or maybe just a vengeance curse of hers, I'm not sure--he screwed it all up."
"So Xander eventually married someone else. What happened to Anya?"
Dawn shrugged her shoulders. "Good question."
"So, do you own the company now?" Tara asked.
Xander shook his head. "Not exactly. I'm in charge of...well, pretty much everything. But I've still got to answer to the guy who actually owns the place."
"Still, you're really doing well for yourself, Xander. That's great."
"Thanks. Hey, what about you?" Xander asked. "You here on some big art tour? Mrs. Picasso?"
Tara shook her head. "I wish. I haven't sold a painting in months. The art business is changing, and frankly I don't know if I have the strength or resolve to keep up with it."
"So what are you going to do?" said Dawn.
"I don't know. That's why I came back. I wanted to see if my friends were still talking to me."
"Oh come on. No matter what else happens, we'll always be there for you." Dawn put her hand on Tara's. "Forget what I said before. I could never hate you."
Tara sighed. "Goddess. I've missed so much. I'm sorry I wasn't around."
"It's okay," said Dawn. "You're here now. That's what's important."
"Yeah, we can catch you up on everything." Xander's watch beeped at him. "Except, not right now. Damn. Nancy and I have to attend this fund-raiser. Dawn, I know you said..."
Tara stood up. "Look, I'm intruding. You guys need to go, and I'd be in your way, Dawn. Why don't you stay here with Amber, and I'll just go find a hotel room?"
"No," said Dawn. "We have plenty of empty rooms here. It's just me and Bill. You can stay."
Tara shook her head. "N-No. That's okay. It would be...a little weird, I think." Tara picked up her bags and started toward the door. "There's one thing I would like to know. Willow. Where is she?"
Xander glanced at Dawn, who shrugged her shoulders. "Tara, did Dawn tell you what happened?"
"You mean, about Buffy? Yes."
"Willow had an even harder time than the rest of us. The desire to use magic to try and bring Buffy back, it tore her up inside. We thought she was going to lose it." Xander stuck his hands in his pockets. "Without you here, we couldn't get through to her. No one could."
"But where is she now?" Tara asked. "Dawn said she was still alive?"
"Guys. I know I haven't been around in a while, but I know stalling when I see it." Tara crossed her arms. "One of you, please tell me where Willow is."
Tara felt a knot growing in her stomach when her cab came to a stop, in front of a scary-looking building with a sign on it that said Sunnydale Psychiatric Hospital.
"Oh Goddess." Xander and Dawn had just given her this address, they hadn't told her what it was or why Willow was there. "N-No. Willow."
The cab driver glanced over his shoulder. "Did you say something, lady?"
"Umm...no. How much do I owe you?"
"Tab comes to $14.50."
Tara nodded. "H-Here." She handed him a twenty. "Keep the change."
"Thanks, lady. You have a good day now."
Tara slipped out of the cab. Xander and Nancy had given her a ride to the nearest hotel, where she found a room and unpacked her things. Soon after she was struck by a sudden need to see Willow, and called for a cab. But now that she was here, the old fears and self-doubt reemerged in full. No matter what condition Willow was in she was still the woman Tara had once loved more than life itself. The woman a part of her still loved and would probably always love, so long as she lived. Still, she was scared. Not of what she would see--she was pretty sure she could handle that--but rather what Willow would see, or not see, in her.
The nurse behind the counter smiled as the blonde came walking up. "Can I help you?"
"I'm here to see..." Tara took a deep breath. "Is there a Willow Rosenberg here?"
"Oh yes, Miss Rosenberg." The nurse picked up a clipboard and scanned it. "She's in Room 223." She pointed to an elevator at the end of the hall. "It's on the next floor."
Tara nodded. "Thank you." She felt tears welling up in her eyes as she waited for the elevator, and once inside it she lay her head back and did her best to repel the rush of emotions within her. "Goddess." Whatever Willow was going through, she would have to be strong for both of them.
As she approached the door of Room 223, she heard a woman's voice. "Mr. Jones, please get off the bed and put your clothes back on. Yes, I'm impressed, now please...thank you."
Tara peered into the room. A redheaded nurse, with her back to the door, was helping a balding, older man back into his robe. She cleared her throat.
"Excuse me." The white-clad woman started to turn. "Do you..."
The woman she had thought was just a nurse was, in fact, Willow. Her eyes widened. "Tara?"
The redhead closed her eyes. "This can't be happening. Not again. I'm past this now." She took a deep breath and turned back to her patient. "Mr. Jones? Are you all right?" He nodded. "You sit down and watch TV. I'll be back to check on you in a little while, all right?" Again he nodded. "Good man. Bye bye now." Without looking at Tara, who followed, she walked out of the room and straight down the corridor to a small office. The blonde got in the room behind her before she could close the door. "Stop it!"
"Will? What's going on? What's wrong?"
"You're not here. You're not here, you can't be. This is all in my imagination."
Tara shook her head. "I am real, Will. It's me. I swear."
"Why now? After all these years?"
"That's kind of a long story."
Willow turned to stare at her now. "What did you do to your hair?"
"Bad day at the salon. What about you? When did you become a nurse?"
"I spent a couple of months in this place after Buffy...you must have seen Dawn or Xander, right? They told you I was here?" Tara nodded. "And about Buffy?" Tara nodded again, and Willow continued. "Anyway, after I got out I decided to take Psychiatry and Psychology classes, and I started to go to nursing school. I got a recommendation from one of the doctors here and the rest, as they say, is history."
"I'm impressed," said Tara. "It looks like you're doing well for yourself."
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "I don't do it for myself. I do it for the people here. They ask for so little, and I have gained so much from them in return. This beats magic any day."
"So, you're happy?" Willow nodded, and Tara smiled. "Then I'm happy for you."
"You know, once upon a time that would have meant so much to me," said Willow. "But you know what? I'm not that little girl anymore. I've grown up and moved on. Like you did." She crossed her arms. "It took me a long time to get over you, Tara. Your leaving tore me up inside, but it also helped me to build myself back up stronger than I ever was before. In a lot of ways, I guess I owe you for that."
Tara nodded. "I-I shouldn't have come. This was a mistake. I-I'm sorry Willow." She turned to leave, only to feel the redhead's hand on her shoulder. "Will..."
"I can't deal with this right now, Tara. I'm working, and this is important to me."
"Meet me. After work? We can talk then."
Tara nodded. "Where?"
"Here. In front of the hospital at eight PM? Okay?"
Tara showed up promptly at 7:59 that evening. Willow clocked out, said good-bye to some of her patients, then Tara followed her to the parking lot.
"I'll drive," said the redhead.
"You've got a car?" Tara asked.
Willow directed them to a tan convertible that was at least ten years old. "I call it Old Reliable. I bought it for a song at a repossession auction, and I haven't had a problem with it yet. It's not much to look at, but then I don't go for flash." She opened the driver's door. "It's unlocked."
"I think it's nice," Tara said once they were inside. "I like it. So, where are we going?"
"To get something to eat," Willow replied. "I was thinking, maybe, the Bronze?"
Tara nodded. "That's fine. I am kind of hungry. But why the Bronze?"
"It's not like you may remember." Willow smiled. "Trust me."
When they pulled up in front of the club, Tara noticed immediately that it had been given a face-lift. New paint, a brand new brighter, flashier sign, and lights that actually illuminated the whole area and made it difficult to find any shadows at all within a hundred yards of the door.
"The vampires must hate this place now," Tara said as they approached the door. "It looks like it'd be a whole lot harder for them to feed around here."
Willow, now wearing a tight black skirt and an even tighter red top, laughed. "You'd be surprised." She smiled at the big bald man guarding the door. "Good evening, Alex."
"Hey, Red. Nice to see you. It's been a while."
"Been busy. This is a friend of mine. Tara."
"Nice to meet you," said the blonde.
Alex smiled, revealing he was missing several teeth. "You too. Any friend of Red is welcome here." He opened the velvet rope for them. "You ladies go on in. Have a good time." As they passed, he leaned down and whispered in Willow's ear. His voice carried anyway. "Glad to see you're finally over Emily."
The redhead's cheeks flushed as she glared at him. "Ixnay on the....umm....just hush, okay?"
"Sorry, Red. Didn't know it was a state secret." He turned to a mousy little man who was trying to slip in behind Willow and Tara. "Lou. Do you think I'm blind? Get to the back of the line."
"Is that guy a friend of yours?" Tara asked.
"I spent a lot of time here after I moved out of Buffy's house. Alex was always nice to me. He kept trying to ask me out, but I got through to him eventually." Willow smiled. "Before we got to really know one another, I think it bugged him that I'm gay. Not the fact I like women, he understands that. What he was never able to grasp is that I didn't like him. He's not used to being turned down."
Tara stopped Willow. "I've been meaning to ask. Why did you move out of Buffy's?"
"Long story short. You know what happened with me and Amy and Rack, right? The magic, the car wreck? Well, I pretty much gave up on magic after that. I stopped casting. But the power was always there inside of me, waiting to come out. Then Buffy got shot...by Warren. Dawn told you about that?"
"In an e-mail, yes. She said he came into the back yard while she and Xander were talking."
"Right. Buffy almost died that day. I was there, in the house, and I saw Warren. But I wasn't able to stop him. He got away before I could even get downstairs. I lost it. Control. The power just exploded out of me. I seared off an entire layer of paint from every house in the neighborhood."
Tara blinked. "Whoa."
"Whoa is right. I thought I was going to die myself. It hurt so much. But just as quickly as it had come, I felt the power drain out of me. To this day I don't know what happened. Xander and I managed to get Buffy to the hospital in time to save her life, thank the Goddess."
"But what does any of this have to do with your moving out of the house?"
"I was just getting to that. Xander told Buffy what I had done while she was recuperating. She asked me to leave the house, because I was too much of a threat to Dawn." Willow sighed. "And I did it because, well, she was right, and I knew it. My control was always fleeting at best. I was a threat to everyone around me. That's when I checked myself into the Psychiatrict Hospital. They helped me fight the cravings."
"They know about magic there?"
Willow nodded. "Not everyone on staff, but some. That's another reason I love working there." She motioned to a dark-haired woman standing beside a pillar. "Come on. My table's upstairs." Tara followed her up the stairs, to a table that was off to one side, away from the others and overlooking the dance floor. The dark-haired woman was right behind them. "Hey Becky. I didn't know you were here tonight."
"Julie called in sick. So what can I get you ladies?"
Tara realized the woman was a waitress. "Umm...just some ginger ale, thanks."
"I'll have the usual," said Willow.
Becky smiled. "Be right back." She turned and walked away, and Tara couldn't help noticing the way Willow was staring at her rear end the whole time.
"Another...friend of yours?" the blonde asked.
Willow again felt her cheeks flushing. "Something like that."
They fell into an awkward silence waiting for the drinks. When the waitress returned, Tara smiled at how Becky deliberately stuck her breasts in Willow's face as she leaned across the table.
They ordered dinner while she was there. The blonde cleared her throat once Becky was gone. "She's obviously showing off, for you. Are you guys going out? Or is she just a flirt?"
"Becky and I...it's complicated. There was this one time, about three years ago. A New Year's Eve party. We had a little too much to drink, one thing led to another..."
"...and you slept together?"
"Almost. We kissed for a while, but as we started to get undressed I suddenly, I don't know, came to my senses, and I guess I kind of freaked. I don't really remember that much. But ever since then Becky has been showing off, to try and make me understand what I could have had. And to let me know..."
"...that you could still have it if you wanted?"
"She is very attractive," said the blonde. "I wouldn't blame you."
"What? I'm sorry. I happen to have an eye for pretty women." Tara arched an eyebrow. "I noticed you, didn't I? If nothing else, you have to admit I've got great taste."
"You're incorrigible, you know that?"
Tara sipped her drink. "So, besides Becky, have you gone with anyone since..." She realized what she was saying and how it must have sounded. "I-I'm sorry. It's none of my business."
"It's okay," said Willow. "Really. I don't mind." She sighed. "For the first couple of years I couldn't bring myself to even look at another woman. Even when you left the country I tried to hold out hope that you'd come back, and we could be together again. I knew I was fooling myself though. Eventually I started going out more. I even made the mistake of letting both Xander and Buffy try and fix me up. Needless to say it didn't work out. Then after one particularly bad blind date I wandered into a bookstore, and that's where I met Emily."
"Tell me about her."
"She's a writer. An old soul, you know? We hit it off immediately. It was great. I was laughing, and through her I started to be alive again. We started spending all our time together, and one day out of the blue she kissed me. From that moment on, everything between us was differemt."
Tara rested her chin in her hand. "It all sounds so wonderfully romantic."
"Was? You guys aren't together anymore?"
Willow shook her head. "Emily couldn't handle the Scooby stuff. Like most people in Sunnydale she had grown up with a blind eye to the darkness in the world. Seeing vamps and demons on a daily basis, I guess it was just too much for her. She tried to get me to quit, to leave town with her, but of course I couldn't. So she was the one who left instead. I haven't seen or spoken to her in almost a year."
"For what? It's not your fault."
"Maybe, if I hadn't left you in the first place..."
"Don't blame yourself. Blame me. You did what you had to do. It was the right thing. I was dangerous. I cast that Forget spell on you without even giving it a second thought. Then I tried to do it again, and in my mind I was only doing what was right. I was crazy. I'm just sorry it took the car wreck, and Dawn getting hurt, for me to figure out how out of control I was getting."
Tara put her hand on the redhead's and squeezed it. "You got through it. That's the important thing."
"What about you?" Willow asked, finishing her drink. "Anyone special in your life?"
"Not anymore. For a while, I thought I'd actually found someone. Monica. She was the most incredible woman I had met..." Tara looked into Willow's eyes. "...in years."
"Sounds great. So what happened?"
"Life. You know how it is."
Willow nodded. "Is that why you came back then? Because your girlfriend left and you're lonely?"
"I'm not going to lie to you, Will. I never could. That is part of it." Tara finished her own drink. "But there's also the fact that I missed you. All of you. It's been too long, Will. I never should have stayed away all those years. If I hadn't given up on you, on us, maybe I would have been there when Buffy..."
"There's nothing you could have done to save her, Tara. Believe me."
After dinner they sat and watched the people downstairs dancing for a while.
"Do you remember that dance contest we almost won?" Willow asked.
Tara nodded. "It ended up us against Xander and Anya, and the only reason we lost..." Her cheeks turned red, but she finished the sentence anyway. "...is because you tried to twirl me, and made my skirt fly up in my face. I don't think I have ever been so humiliated in my entire life."
"It's a good thing you were wearing underwear that night," said the redhead.
They both laughed.
"Looky looky. This is just like old times."
Tara's eyes widened. She thought she recognized that voice, and turned to see a familiar, platinum-haired figure in black gliding toward them. "Spike?"
"You remember. I'm impressed, goldilocks."
Willow didn't seem surprised to see him. "I was wondering when you were going to show up."
"Been busy. Alex only just told me you were here." Spike grabbed a chair, turned it around and straddled it right next to the table. "Been a long time, blondie."
"What are you doing here?" Tara asked. Something about the vampire felt off, she just couldn't put her finger on it. The whole thing put her on edge.
"Red didn't tell you? I live here. Me and the owner have an understanding."
"What kind of understanding?"
Spike lit a cigarette. "I keep the vamps and other nasties from trashing the place, in exchange for a place to stay and some blood every now and then."
"You seem...different, somehow," said Tara. "Have you done something with your hair?"
"No," said the vampire. "And stop staring, or I'll bite you."
Willow shook her head when Tara glanced worriedly at her. "He's kidding. The chip still works fine."
"Bloody right it does. If I ever catch up to the wankers who put the thing in my head..."
"They're all already dead," said Willow. "Remember?"
Spike smiled. "Oh yeah, right. I feel better now. Thanks Red."
"You guys seem awfully friendly," said Tara. "Will, didn't you once tell you you couldn't stand being around him because he was just a soulless..." Her eyes widened. That's what it was. He had an aura. Vampires didn't have auras because they didn't have souls, and yet Spike had an aura. "How?"
"Finally," said the vampire. "Your ex is a little slow on the uptake, Red."
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "She got it though."
"You got your soul back. How? Surely Will, you didn't..."
"What? Pull the gypsy curse routine on him?" Willow shook her head. "No way. I wouldn't want a repeat of what happened with Angel. No, I had nothing to do with this."
Tara turned back to Spike. "Then how?"
"Long story short. Demon, and a really good hand of kitten poker. He owed me, I collected."
" 'cause the bugger was a blooming idiot, that's why. I wanted him to take the chip out of my head, but he said he was going to give me what I really deserved instead. Next thing I know, I wake up and I'm reliving the last century plus of really bad things I've done in this world. Nearly went out of my gourd."
Willow patted Spike on the shoulder. "He's a nice guy now."
"Sod off!" But the vampire half-smiled in spite of himself. "I got one up on Angel though. He can't experience a moment of true happiness or else he goes back to being homicidal. Me? I don't have that problem. I get all of the benefits and none of the side-effects. God, I love this town."
Spike left, after noting how Willow and Tara were inching closer to one another and talking more softly. But as he went downstairs he told them the meal and drinks were on the house.
They thanked him and were starting to talk about where to go and what to do next when Willow's purse began to vibrate. Tara gave her a funny look until she pulled a pager out of it, and frowned at what she saw on the screen. "I don't believe it!"
"It's the hospital. Damn. One of the other nurses had to leave, and they need me to cover her shift."
"They want me to come in right now. Immediately, if not sooner."
"Oh. Well, you'd better go then."
Willow frowned. "But I won't even be able to give you a ride back to your hotel."
"Don't worry. It's a nice night, and I don't mind walking."
The redhead wrote something down on a napkin and handed it to Tara. "That's my number. I'm off tommorrow if you want to do anything, okay?" She waved as she raced for the stairs.
A few minutes later Tara was taking a leisurely stroll. She was in no hurry. There was nothing waiting for her in her room but a movie on cable. As she walked past the park she thought back to the love song she had sung to her Willow when the musical-causing demon came to town. She began humming it to herself, and got so caught up in the memory she didn't notice a figure crossing her path until she ran into him.
"Oh!" She took a step back. "I'm so sorry, I didn't..." She looked into the man's face, and realized he wasn't a man at all. It was a particularly ugly vampire.
He snarled. "Hello, pretty! Hungry?" He licked his lips, baring his fangs. "I am!"
Tara was scared. She'd never faced a vampire alone before. She'd always had Willow or at least one of the other Scoobies backing her up, and this time she didn't even have a stake. "Y-You better l-leave me alone!" She decided to try and bluff her way out of the situation. "Or else!"
The vampire snorted. "Or else what?"
"Umm..." Tara looked around. There had to be a piece of wood somewhere. Sure enough she saw a pencil on the ground near the curb. It was out of her reach, physically speaking--the instant she tried to take a step this vampire would be on her--but there were other ways. Her brow furrowed as she tried to focus her power, and found it was lacking. Having not cast since leaving Sunnydale, she was out of practice. With effort though, she managed to get the pencil to start wiggling. Unfortunately, the vampire noticed.
Tara finally found her center and the pencil flew into the air. But at the last second he twisted out to the right, throwing off her aim. It sank nearly eraser deep into his chest. He snarled. "A witch!" With a grunt he tore the pencil out and tossed it aside. "I've always wanted to eat a witch!"
Tara backed away and screamed as he lunged at her. Then suddenly someone came charging out of the darkness and tackled the vampire into a pile of garbage cans and cardboard boxes that were sitting under a bare lightbulb. It swung back and forth in the wind, giving Tara only glimpses of the snarling vampire and the person on top of him, but whoever it was seemed to be holding their own. Then she heard a wet thud and a grunt, followed by the all too familiar sound of a vampire turning to dust.
The other figure came walking back into the light. It was a tall, well-built woman, with long brown hair; wearing leather pants and a dark blue tube top along with a black leather jacket. She had a scar going down one side of her face, and was carrying a stake. She saw Tara watching her and smiled. "You okay?"
"Fine," said the blonde. "Thanks to you." The woman was familiar, though she didn't know from where. "That was incredible, what you did. Fighting a vampire like that. Are you all right?"
The other woman shrugged her shoulders. "Five by five."
Tara gasped. "Faith?"
The Slayer cocked her head, her body instantly tense, prepared for danger. "I know you?"
"Yes." Tara frowned. "Well, no. Not exactly. I mean, we have met, but it was a long time ago. And to be fair, you were in someone else's body at the time, so you were seeing through different eyes."
Faith nodded. "Now I remember. Red's ex-honey. I heard you left town."
"I'm back. What about you? I thought you were in prison?"
"I got a reduced sentence, thanks to Angel's testimony and...what did they call it? Commendable conduct during incarceration." Faith stuck her hands in her pockets. "Imagine that. Good behavior. Me."
"So how did you end up back in Sunnydale?"
"Angel suggested I try to make amends for my past misdeeds. I couldn't think of any place better. Showed up on B's doorstep about five years ago. You should've seen the look on her face."
Tara thought about what Willow and Dawn had told her. "Wasn't that when Buffy died?"
Faith nodded. "I guess Angel must've told B I was on the up and up. She agreed to give me a second chance. One I wasn't even sure I deserved. We fought some vamps, a couple of demon hitmen...and then three weeks later, she was dead. Just like that. The newsies called her a hero. It was all over the papers."
"Wait. Buffy's death was publicized?" Tara was stunned. "We had to hide her grave the last time, so the vampires and demons wouldn't find out Sunnydale had no Slayer."
Faith crossed her arms. "What do I look like to you, blondie?"
"You took over as the Slayer?"
"Damn straight. I knew I owed B that much at least. Her Scooby club was a memory by then. Xander was deeply into the marital bliss thing, Red had gone all Florence Nightingale, and Dawn...well, she fell apart. I was the only one left who could come close to filling B's shoes." Faith gritted her teeth. "I could just barely keep up though. I got a rep with some of the uglies in this town who knew me from when I worked with the Mayor, but the rest just assumed I'd been called when B died. I saw no reason to argue."
Tara nodded. "That explains why things didn't fall apart like before. You kept a lid on things."
"I do what I can. Like tonight."
"Speaking of which, how did you know I was in trouble?"
"Didn't. I was on my way to the Bronze when I heard someone yelling. And I love a good throwdown."
"Well, I for one am happy for your primal instincts. Thank you."
Faith shrugged her shoulders. "Nothing to it. I'm going clubbing. You wanna come?"
"I wish I could, but I was just there with Willow and I'm tired. I'm just going back to my hotel."
"Cool. See you around."
A figure watched from the shadows as the two women went in opposite directions. When they both were out of sight it stepped out into the light. It was a young woman, maybe Dawn's age, with pale skin, shoulder-length black hair, and a silver ring through her nose. She was wearing even more leather than Faith.
She smiled. Then, clutching an ankh around her neck she muttered a few words under her breath and vanished in a shimmering rain of golden light.
The girl reappeared, an instant later, in an otherwise unremarkable room.
She took off her leather jacket and tossed it on the floor. She was on her way to the bathroom when she heard a booming voice that stopped her in her tracks.
She lowered her head. "Yes?"
"Did you find her?"
Diana cleared her throat. "The one I found her with is not the one you seek."
"Are you certain?"
"I am. She did not look as you described, and the witch called her--I believe the word was...Slayer."
"Yes. Is that important?"
"I did not anticipate a Slayer's interference. Perhaps I erred in sending you alone."
Diana's eyes widened. "No, Zanestra!" She turned to face the painting of an older, white-haired woman on a wall behind her. "Please! I have always served you faithfully!"
"Yes," said the woman in the painting. Only her lips and eyes moved when she spoke. "Which is the reason that I chose you for this task. Your powers rival those of the blonde witch, but she is only a means to an end. Your goal is to find the one who has dominated her dreams as of late. The one who supposedly has power enough to shatter the dimensional barrier that has imprisoned me for eons! You do remember her name?"
"The blonde witch should lead you to the her. Once she has freed me, then you shall have the reward I promised you. But if you should fail me..."
Diana shook her head. "I will not. I swear it to you, Zanestra."
"Go then. Cleanse yourself and rest. We shall begin again in the morning."
Tara had a very strange dream that night.
She saw herself at the Bronze, on the dance floor with music playing, but there was no one else there. Looking around, she found she was not alone after all.
Willow sat at a nearby table. Her body was surging with power, and her eyes solid black. She pointed at Tara, or so the blonde first thought. Then she realized Willow was actually pointing behind her, and turned to see a young woman with black-hair, standing in front of a shimmering portal of light.
"What's going on?" Tara approached the girl, who was staring intently at Willow. "Who are you?" She stopped in her tracks when a second figure literally appeared behind the girl. An older woman with long white hair, who was wearing dark robes. "What?"
"Release me!" The woman raised her hands and Tara was buffeted by invisible waves of force that knocked her the entire length of the club. She hit a wall, which shattered like glass, and woke suddenly to find herself short of breath, with sweat pouring down her face.
"What was that?" Tara rolled over and glanced at a clock beside her bed. "3 AM?" She lay back down and cupped her hands over her eyes. "Goddess!"
She recounted her dream for Dawn when the two of them met for brunch that afternoon.
"We didn't study dream interpretation in college," said the brunette. "What do you think it means?"
Tara shrugged her shoulders. "I wish I knew."
"Maybe it was a prophetic witch-thing. Have you ever had that kind of a dream before?"
"Not that I recall."
"I'm sure you'll figure it out." Dawn looked at her watch as it beeped. "Damn! I have to get back to work. Shay is going to kill me if I don't get that article in on time."
Tara smiled. "I'm glad you finally became a writer, Dawn. It was always your dream."
"Yeah, I guess I got lucky." Dawn took her car keys out of her purse. "Can I give you a lift somewhere?"
"Maybe. Is the Magic Box still around?"
Dawn shook her head. "Not really. After Xander left her at the altar, Anya closed it up and left town. I heard she became a vengeance demon again, but I haven't seen her in years. The last time was when she helped avenge a girl at UC Sunnydale. I barely managed to talk her out of it."
"Huh. Then I guess I don't have anywhere to go. With you and Willow and Xander all busy working, no one's got time for little old me anymore." Tara sighed. "I guess I could try the Bronze."
"I wouldn't. Spike naps during the day, and he keeps the doors locked." Dawn stepped away from the table. "Tara I'm sorry, but I really have to go. Call me later, okay?"
Tara nodded. "Bye." She dropped her hands to the table. "Maybe I'll go see a movie."
A few tables away, an eavesdropping Diana leaned back in her seat and smiled.
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