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
The movie Tara picked ended up being incredibly romantic in a couple of places and indescribably boring in all the rest. Watching the people on-screen making out she remembered a similar session with Willow, then drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face.
She soon found herself back in her apartment in New York. Monica was dragging her out of their bedroom, and they were both laughing and happy. As they left they passed through a section of the loft which doubled as her art studio. There was a painting she had just completed on the wall.
An image of a white-haired woman.
Tara was awakened by an usher, who told her he needed to clean the theater. She walked outside and just basked in the sun for a few minutes while her eyes adjusted. "I remember that painting. The White Lady." The inspiration for it came, ironically enough, in a dream. In it, the woman whose face she painted spoke to her in a language she could not understand. "But I sold it almost a year ago. Why would I be thinking about it now?"
She had seen and gone through too much during her years in Sunnydale to simply dismiss her dreams. Whatever she was experiencing was very real. She was sure of it. Either someone or something was trying to communicate with her, or else she was somehow sensing some kind of presence. A demon or other spellcaster, perhaps. But it was impossible to tell if her dreams were a warning, or a threat.
Unfortunately, Tara didn't have a lot of options open to her about what to do. Willow and Xander and Dawn had moved on with their lives. They weren't in the monster-fighting, mystery-solving business anymore. Spike would not be much help and Faith was a stranger to her. To make matters worse, with Anya gone she couldn't even go to the Magic Box to do research. She was pretty much on her own.
"Hey." Tara nearly jumped out of her skin as she realized there was someone standing behind her. Someone she was fairly sure had not been there a moment before. "Sorry. Did I scare you?"
Tara shook her head. "N-No, I just...well, maybe a little." The black-haired girl with the ring in her nose seemed awfully familiar to her, but she couldn't place the face. "Do I know you?"
"I don't think so."
"My mistake. I guess I'm just having a weird day."
The young woman twirled a heart-shaped ring on her finger. "Wanna talk about it?"
"I..." Tara suddenly felt light-headed. "...think I need to sit down."
The stranger helped Tara over to a bus-stop bench. "Lady? Are you all right?"
"Just a little...dizzy. By the way, my name is Tara."
The black-haired girl smiled. "I'm Diana."
Willow was in the middle of organizing the medication cabinet at the hospital when she felt a chill go down the length of her spine. It also made her skin crawl. Something was wrong.
She took her cell-phone out of her pocket and called Dawn, then Xander, but they were both fine. There was no reason for her to be sensing anything from Spike or Faith, which only left one person. "Tara." With her ex back in town it seemed at least plausible. But she had no way to call the blonde because she didn't even know her number at the hotel. "Sally." She walked out of the room. "Can I take my break early?"
A few minutes later Willow was in her car, and on the road. But it didn't take long for her to realize that finding Tara would be almost impossible; unless she happened to be in her hotel room, in which case she probably wasn't in much trouble anyway. Still, she felt she had to try something.
At the hotel, after getting no response to her frantic knocking Willow quietly apologized and used a little bit of magick to open the door. She hoped Tara would forgive her if she was, in fact, in trouble. But as it turned out, the room was empty. Willow frowned. "Damn." Her purse was gone, so chances were Tara had just gone out to lunch or something. She started to wonder if she had just been imagining things.
Then Willow noticed Tara's open suitcase laying on the bed. In it, besides her clothes, was a small photograph in a fancy frame. She picked it up and looked at the image of Tara and a rather attractive woman. She assumed it was the ex-girlfriend Tara had told her about. The redhead's eyes widened. She had an idea. There was a way she could use the sentimental importance of the photograph to find Tara. Holding it in her hands she sat down cross-legged on the floor and closed her eyes. "Now, if I can just remember the chant." It was a modification of a locator spell she had come up with years ago. With a little luck, she would be able to find Tara anywhere in Sunnydale. Willow took a deep breath and began whispering. She clutched the photo tightly.
A few minutes later the picture frame began to feel warm. Willow opened her eyes to see that the glass surface of the photo was glowing slightly. She stood up and pointed the thing east. Both the glow and the warmth seemed to diminish. The same thing happened when she pointed it south or north either. When she got west, however, the glow brightened and it started to get warmer. The redhead smiled. "West it is."
Tara wasn't entirely sure why, but when Diana asked her to go for a drink she said yes.
Within a few minutes they were in a restaurant, sitting together in a back booth. The girl had her hand sitting on Tara's leg, and was whispering in the blonde's ear. Tara barely heard her though, her head was still spinning and all she could think about was Willow. She wanted to go to her, yet at the same time she wanted to stay with Diana. It didn't make sense, and if she'd been in her right mind she would have run away.
Diana bit her lip when she noticed Tara wasn't responding to her question. She raised her hand and smiled when she saw the small crystal in her heart-shaped ring was glowing. "Finally. The allure spell is working. I thought her mind was going to be too strong for it." She slid closer to the blonde and brought her other hand--on which there was a ring with a shimmering white crystal in it--up to Tara's face. When she moved it back and forth, the blonde's eyes followed. "Okay, now listen very closely. Do you know where Willow is?"
"Yes," Tara replied. Her voice was slow, and strangely stilted.
"Can you show me where she is?" Diana asked.
Tara nodded. "Yes."
Tara slowly lifted her hand and pointed.
Diana followed her gaze to a pretty, red-haired girl just entering the bar. She seemed to be unusually interested in a picture she was holding. "I don't believe it!"
Willow looked around the bar, but it was too dark and crowded for her to see Tara and Diana.
"How did she find us? Damn it, I can't take her here. There are too many witnesses." The black-haired girl stood up and held out her hand to Tara. "Come with me."
Tara nodded and took Diana's hand. She stood up and followed the girl.
Willow frowned when the spell brought her to a bar.
She never known Tara to be much of a drinker, but then again this was not the Tara she knew. If Tara was here, it was possible she was not alone. There was always the possibility that she had met someone since coming back to Sunnydale and was out on a date, the thought of which made Willow's heart hurt.
Of course, she and Tara were not together anymore. They hadn't been for a very long time. And she had no right to feel the way she did. Tara was a grown-up, who could go anywhere she wanted and do anything she wanted with anyone she wanted. Still, as ridiculous as it might have been, since seeing Tara again she had been wondering if it would be possible to rekindle what the two of them had so long ago.
Then Willow felt a tug. She lifted her head, to see a flash of blonde hair on the other side of the bar. It was Tara all right, heading toward the back door. She was holding hands with a cute black-haired girl. The redhead sensed a strong magic at work. "Tara!" The blonde was too far away to hear her. "Stop!" Willow pushed her way through the crowd as quickly as she could, but they were packed too tightly. By the time she got to where she'd seen Tara and her 'friend' the two of them had slipped out the back door.
Willow charged out into the alley behind the bar just seconds later, only to have the mother of all flashbulbs go off right in her face. She cried out and staggered back. "What's..." She felt someone press warm metal against her lips, which she was then unable to move. Her vision returned a short time later.
The black-haired girl she had seen with Tara was standing right in front of her with a smile on her face. She was also wiggling one of her fingers, on which she had a ring covered in runes. "Hi. Sorry to ambush you like that, but I hear you're a pretty powerful witch. And since I don't want a lightning bolt shoved up my ass I figured it'd be for the best if I took the initiative here."
Willow tried yelling, but with her lips paralyzed all she could do was mumble.
"Blondie?" Diana nodded toward Tara, who was standing a few feet away with a blank expression on her face. "It was just a fling, really. I don't need her anymore." She smiled. "I have what I came for."
Willow frowned. Her brow furrowed, and the rune-ring flew off Diana's finger and into her hand. With that, she was able to speak again. "I don't need my mouth to do magic, you know."
"Cute," said Diana. "I guess I shouldn't have underestimated a witch with your rep. In certain circles, you're even better known and more feared than the Slayer." She shrugged her shoulders. "But you know what? Now that I get a look at you, I'm so not impressed." She held up her hands, to show Willow that each of her fingers had a different kind of ring on it. "See, I've got powers too."
Unlike Tara, Willow had never mastered the art of reading auras. But from the look of Diana's jewelry, she was guessing this girl didn't really have much in the way of power. Some sorcerers focused what little magic they had through artifacts such as statuettes, mirrors, things like that, while those who had no inherent power of their own derived limited abilities from enchanted items such as rings.
"Don't mess with me little girl." Willow held up her hand, in the palm of which formed a fireball. "I'm really not in the mood."
Diana took a step back, her mouth agape.
She could practically feel power coming off Willow in waves. It made her skin tingle. And it didn't even appear that the redhead was trying very hard. She began to doubt her chances.
Then she remembered what Zanestra had told her would happen if she failed. As impressive as Willow's display of power was, it didn't scare her half as much as that threat.
"I'm not afraid of you!" Diana clutched the ankh around her neck. "I'm not!" She muttered a few words under her breath and vanished in a flash of light.
Willow was so startled by this she dropped the fireball. It disintegrated before hitting the ground. "Okay. Now I have to admit, that is a neat trick. Where did you go?"
"Right here!" As the redhead started to turn Diana swung the trash can lid she had picked up. It struck Willow in the side of the head and knocked her for a loop. She stumbled and fell, barely conscious. "Zanestra said I was just to bring you back alive. She didn't say anything about your being unharmed." She smiled. "I don't think she'll mind a few bruises, do you?"
To Diana's surprise the trash can lid suddenly flew out of her hands. She also felt magic burning, and realized it was coming from Tara. The blonde was glaring at her. "You?"
"How can you be awake? I didn't release you."
"You want to mess with my mind?" Tara asked. "Fine. But leave Willow alone!"
Diana nodded. "Now I get it. I underestimated your connection to her. You broke free of my allure spell when I hurt her. Huh. I guess your will's stronger than I thought." She held up a hand. "Too bad." One of the rings glowed, and an intensely bright light filled the alley. "Well, I guess that takes care of...no!"
Tara had her own hands held up in front of her eyes. She lowered them. "What? Don't look so surprised. I might have been under your spell a little while ago but I could see and hear everything going on around me. I know what you did to Willow. I'm not stupid."
"Never said you were. But you're the one making things difficult. I didn't want to hurt your girlfriend and I don't want to hurt you either." Diana crossed her arms. "So I'll tell you what. Let us go..."
"Stop," said Tara. "Right there. I know what you're going to say next and I don't care. The only way you're getting Willow out of here is over my dead body!"
Diana shrugged her shoulders. "Fine by me!" She used her crossed arms to shield the fact she had taken off one of her rings, and now she pitched it at Tara.
But Willow, who was not quite unconscious, held her hand out. "Thicken!"
A shimmering wall of force formed between Tara and the ring, which bounced off and landed back near Diana's feet. Her eyes went wide. "No!" She grabbed her ankh, whispered, and disappeared.
Tara threw herself in front of Willow as a tremendous explosion rocked the entire alley. Even through Willow's protective field she could still feel the intense heat. Once the flames died down the redhead's eyes rolled back in her and she passed out, ending the barrier spell. "Willow? Oh Goddess."
As soon as she reappeared in her hotel room, Diana dropped to one knee in front of Zanestra's painting. While it had never been neccessary for her to display that level of respect for the...whatever she was, given what she was going to have to tell her now, it was better not to take any chances.
"Diana!" Zanestra's face became animated. "Why are you alone? Where is the witch?!"
"You failed me, didn't you?"
"I'm sorry Zanestra. It was the other witch. The blonde one. I couldn't...both of them at once..."
"Silence!" Energy surged in Zanestra's eyes, shot out of the painting and struck Diana. She screamed as she was thrown across the room. "I told you before, no one fails me!" Every cell in Diana's body felt like it was on fire. It hurt so much she could barely move or make a sound. "By all rights, I should kill you!" The pain dwindled, but did not disappear entirely. "But I still have need of your corporeality. Though it pains me to say this my access to the mortal world is finite, and will remain so until the witch brings me to the world and I once again have possession of my artifacts." Her eyes narrowed. "My rings. You have two less than before."
"I had to use the fusillade to prevent being captured by the witches."
"And the serenity?"
Diana cleared her throat. "Umm...one of the witches..."
"No!" Another blast of energy drove Diana back into the wall. "If they manage to decipher those runes they may learn of my existence. I still have a chance to be free, if you can yet get the red witch."
Diana was in tears. "I-I won't fail you again, Zanestra. I swear it."
Willow was awakened by a soft hand gently caressing her cheek.
It was a wonderful, familiar, but almost forgotten sensation. She smiled, blissful in that moment after the return of consciousness. Comforted by the fact her head was resting in someone's lap.
Her eyes snapped open. Who? She looked up into Tara's smiling relieved face. "Thank the Goddess. I was afraid you were hurt really bad. How do you feel?"
As Willow sat up she began to remember what had happened. "Like there's a bomb going off in my head. Where did that girl go?"
"I'm not sure. Her necklace. I think it gave her the ability to translocate."
"You mean teleport?"
"Exactly. In fact, I think everything she did came from her jewelry. Did you feel any other power?"
Willow shook her head. A mistake, as it made the pain that much worse. "Where do you suppose she got all the artifacts? Some of that stuff looked pretty old."
"I don't know. But if Giles were here, I'll bet he could tell us..." Tara held out her hand. "...about this." She held a golden, rune-encrusted ring in her palm.
"Where did you get that?" Willow asked.
"Don't you remember? You took it off her while she had your lips paralyzed. She left in such a hurry, guess she forgot about it." Tara handed the ring to Willow. "Do you recognize the symbols?"
The redhead studied it for a few moments. "Should I?"
"No." Tara sighed. "That girl was too young and too hot-headed to be doing this on her own. Someone must have given her those artifacts and sent her after us. My guess is, we can find a clue to the identity of her benefactor on this ring. But we'll need to do some research for that, and we don't have any books."
"You're right," said Willow. "But I think I know where to get some."
A few minutes later, once the redhead had regained her balance, they were on their way.
"Will, can I ask you a question?"
"Back in that alley, I could see everything you and that girl were doing. That fireball. How did you manage to do that? I didn't even see you gesture, or make an incantation."
Willow smiled. "I didn't." She held out her hand, and another fireball appeared. "Touch it."
"Come on, trust me. Touch it."
Tara did so, half-expecting to get burnt in spite of Willow's words. Instead, her hand went right through the fire as if it wasn't there. It had no heat either. "An illusion?"
"A good one, don't you think? I picked it up a few years ago, before Buffy...it's used for intimidation. Vamps in general run away from fire." Willow dropped her hand and the fireball vanished. "I assumed our friend in the alley wouldn't know the difference, and I was right. Lucky for us."
"Yeah. If she'd called your bluff..."
Willow nodded. "But she didn't, and that's what counts. Hey, we're here."
"Already? How can that be? The only thing around here is..." Tara turned to see a sign with which they both were very well acquainted. "...the Magic Box. Will, it's closed."
"I know. It has been for years. All our old books are inside though. We just need to get to them."
"But that would be breaking and entering. It's not our shop."
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "You want to go back to the hotel and wait for our friend to strike again, when all our answers could be right inside that door?"
"I..." Tara was torn, between doing the right thing and keeping Willow safe. The girl in the alley had said she was after the redhead. That meant she would be back. "Okay. But let's not do any more damage than we have to. Anya's still our friend Will, even if we haven't seen her in a long time."
"Don't worry." The redhead rubbed her hands together. "I can do this no problem." She put her hand on the knob, closed her eyes, and began to concentrate. "Almost...have..."
A jolt of what appeared to be electricity shot out of the door and struck Willow in the chest. It sent the redhead flying backwards several feet, though when she landed she was still conscious and there did not seem to be much in the way of physical damage.
Tara rushed to her side. "Are you all right? What was that?"
"I'm fine," said Willow, though her head was spinning all over again. "And I think it was..."
"...an anti-magic ward," a voice from behind them replied. "To keep away burglars. And sneaky witches." Willow and Tara were both surprised to see Anya standing there with her arms crossed.
The vengeance demon's face reverted to human as she approached them. "Why are you here?"
"We need your help," said Tara. "Someone...or something, is after us. We were hoping to check your books and see if we can find out anything."
"So why didn't you just ask me? Why did you have to try and break into my shop?"
Willow frowned. "We couldn't ask. We don't know how to contact you."
"That's easy. All you have to do is call my name, and the dimensional vibrations will get my attention."
"So can we go in?" Tara asked. "Or do we have to wait for you to leave and call you?"
Anya stared blankly at her for a moment. "Everybody else was really upset when you left town. I didn't mind too much." She gestured, and the door opened with a click. "Go ahead. But be sure to leave a receipt for anything you take. And lock the door behind you, okay?" Shaking her head, she disappeared.
"Well, that was certainly...brief," said Tara.
Willow nodded. "But more than I've seen or heard from her in years. Come on." Inside, they found cobwebs and layers of dust over everything. "Speaking of years."
"When you said she wanted to leave Sunnydale behind, you weren't kidding." Tara turned to the ample bookshelf at the back of the store. "Where do we start?"
Willow held up the ring. "Right here. These runes, I don't recognize them. Now they could just be power words, to make the silence spell work, in which case the best we can hope for would be to uncover the original language and translate them. But it's also possible that the person or being who crafted this thing, may have left a signature or some other hopefully identifiable marking. We just have to figure it out." Tara, she realized, was staring at her in a funny way, and smiling. "What?"
"I'd forgotten how much I missed Willowbabble," the blonde replied.
When she turned to walk toward the books she also missed the smile on Willow's face.
"I got it! Tara! I found something!"
The blonde, who had been upstairs reading, came down the ladder and went up to the table on which Willow had spread out a number of different books.
"This ring. I think I've figured out who it belongs to."
"Well, don't keep me in suspense." Tara sat down beside her. "Who is it?"
"Don't know her. Go on."
"She's a sorceress of sorts, who's supposed to have disappeared about two thousand years ago. According to the legends, Zanestra was a twisted individual who worshipped death and brought pain and misery to everyone around her. She made sacrifices, some of them human, to demons and dark gods, she was said to drink blood, though she wasn't a vampire as far as I can tell, and she was always on the lookout for ways to increase her powers. She had a collection of artifacts gathered from all across the globe, many of which she killed for--eight rings, a medallion, and a scepter, each with it's own separate power."
Tara nodded. "The rings that girl in the alley was wearing."
"Exactly. Probably the ankh too."
"So how did some girl end up with the artifacts of a two millennia old sorceress?"
"That's the really confusing part. According to the Dark Legend Tome and the Blood Book, Zanestra was finally defeated by a gathering of the greatest magic-users in the land. Though each of their clans were enemies, it's said they banded together to vanquish a threat which loomed over them all."
Willow nodded. "They combined their powers to open a portal to another dimension, and banished Zanestra for eternity. Before they could do that, they scattered her artifacts to the wind."
"They didn't want to take any chances that Zanestra could magic her way out of her prison. By stealing her rings and her medallion they deprived her of a great deal of her power."
"And none of them wanted it?"
"Probably. But even the most ambitious were more afraid of being corrupted by her evil. They sent her artifacts as far away from themselves as they could."
"So how did our friend from the alley find them?"
"I'm guessing Zanestra told her."
Tara blinked. "What? I thought you said they banished her to another dimension?"
"They did. And as far as I can tell, she's still there. But Zanestra was never one to take things laying down. There are later stories which say a cleric named Alignon, about three hundred years ago, communicated with Zanestra's essence in a dreamstate. Alignon, corrupted by her evil, is supposed to have produced a rendering of her, through which Zanestra was able to exert a degree of her power."
"How? If she's trapped..."
"You remember I said Zanestra had rings, a medallion, and a scepter?" Tara nodded, and Willow continued. "The magic users who banished her were not able to get the scepter away from Zanestra before she fell into that other dimension. And this scepter is actually the worst of all the artifacts. It's a power booster. Speculation is that over time Zanestra was able to augment her power using the energy of the dimension itself. Not enough for her to get out, of course, or she'd be here already, but it's a good bet she is stronger and more dangerous than she was when she went in there. Assuming she is, in fact, still alive."
Willow's words sparked another memory in Tara, who slapped her hand down on the table so hard it startled the redhead. Not to mention it hurt her hand. "I knew that girl from the alley looked familiar. She wasn't just a face in a dream. She's the one who bought the White Lady!"
"Umm...Tara? I don't have my cryptic decoder ring with me. What's going on?"
Tara told her about the dream she'd had; of a black-haired girl and a white-haired woman, as well as the painting she had done and sold a year before. "I got the idea from a dream."
"Just like Alignon," said Willow. "Zanestra must have touched your mind while you were sleeping."
"That's supposed to be one of the powers she had even before she got her artifacts. And that dimensional prison she's in may be very close to both the astral and dream planes. It wouldn't take much for her to reach out and touch someone." Willow frowned. "So, let's say I'm a psycho who's been locked away for two thousand years, and I want out. I contact one woman's subconscious to paint my picture so I can use more of my power to get control of the other one and give her some of my trinkets. What do I do next?"
"Like you said, she wants out. She can't do it herself, so she must be looking for someone who can." Tara's eyes widened. "Will. The girl with the rings said she was after you, not me. Goddess! What if Zanestra found out about you and your power while she was in my mind? She might think you'll be able to set her free, so she sent that girl to follow me and lead her to you. This is all my fault!"
Willow put an arm around the sobbing blonde. "Take it easy. It's not like this is the first time someone's come after me, and I doubt it'll be the last. We'll get through this. I promise you."
"I hope so." Tara wiped her eyes. "I'm scared, Will. I have a real bad feeling about this one."
It had taken time, but Diana finally managed to convince Zanestra that she had a plan. A good one.
"Trust me. It'll work."
"I trust no one. Remember, you are taking your fate into your own hands."
With Zanestra's permission secured Diana entered the Cyber's Web a short time later. It was a restaurant with a computer at every table, an idea taken from its predecessor, the Espresso Pump.
"Table for one?" asked a perky young blond waitress as she bounced by.
Diana nodded. "I can find my own seat, thanks." She slid into an empty table at the back of the restaurant, so she could keep an eye on the rest of the room. Not that she was paranoid. She was pretty sure Willow and Tara would be coming after her, sooner or later. She wanted to get them first.
Immediately, she started a search on Willow Rosenberg. Magic had failed so far. Now it was technology's turn, and she felt fairly sure she would succeed. All she needed was an address. With a little luck she could find where Willow was living and take her, and the blonde, by surprise.
Only it didn't work out that way."What is going on?" Diana couldn't find any records on Willow. No address. No work listing. Not even any indication of her having a social security card. Someone had done a very thorough job of erasing Willow from the system. "Damn it! Zanestra's going to..." Just like that, she got a hit. Two records had come up for the name Rosenberg. One was for an Ira and Sheila Rosenberg. "Must be her parents." The other was in connection with several insurance claims involving a house. "That's more like it!" She jotted down the address, just in case. "It can't hurt to check."
"Tara, look. We don't have time to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. We have to find this girl and stop her before she actually manages to hurt somebody. Or worse..."
"How? I know it's been a long time since I was here, but the last time I checked this is still a pretty big city. She could be anywhere."
"We just have to figure out where she'd go next. What does she want?"
"To release Zanestra." Tara lifted her head. "With your help. Remember, she wants to use the power you have to free Zanestra. She'll probably go wherever she thinks you'd be. Your apartment?"
Willow shook her head. "If she knew where I lived she'd have come after me by now."
"How about computer records? It shouldn't be too hard for her to..."
"Don't worry. When I moved out of Buffy's house I knew there was a chance someone might try to get to her or Dawn through me. I didn't want that to happen, so I altered my records. Anyone trying to pry into my records who does not have the proper authority like the police or the government maybe, and me of course, will run right into a firewall I designed myself. Officially, I'm kind of an enigma."
"Why would you do that?"
"I told you, to keep Buffy and Dawn safe." Willow shrugged her shoulders. "And myself."
"Forget it. What's done is done. The point is, she'll never find Willow Rosenberg that way." The redhead paused as something occured to her. "Unless she really pushes the issue."
"What is it?"
"Well, I only blocked things from a certain point on. I suppose it's possible she might be able to learn about me up until the point I moved out."
Tara gasped. "Oh no! Dawn! If she goes to your old address..."
Willow rushed over to the phone. Several anxious rings later... "No answer! Damn it, what if we're too late? We can't...someone's picking up. Hello?"
"Well, well. Just the woman I wanted to talk to."
"Who is this?" Willow bit her lip as she held the receiver out so Tara could hear it too.
"I'll give you a hint. We met earlier today. In an alley?"
"What did you do with Dawn?"
The voice on the other end of the line laughed and hung up.
Willow dropped the phone, and she and Tara raced for the door.
Dawn hadn't been expecting company, but when the black-haired girl with all the rings showed up on her door it just seemed right to invite her in. After all it was daytime and the woman was not on fire, so clearly she was not a vampire. She also didn't appear to be a demon.
Besides, as they sat down on the couch together Dawn felt somehow safer around this woman than she ever had anyone in her life; including Buffy and Bill. Never mind the fact she didn't even know her name or the fact one of her rings seemed to be glowing slightly. When compelled to sleep, she did so.
With that taken care of, Diana got up and looked around the living room. There were pictures all around of Tara and Willow, some of them with one of the two blonde women in other pictures who shared a strong resemblance to the woman on the couch as well as a distinguished-looking older man with glasses and a brown-haired younger man who always seemed to be smiling.
Diana shook her head. "She's not here. I can feel it. There's no one else in the house." She grabbed her ankh, and was just about to initiate the translocation spell when the phone rang. Annoyed at first by the interruption she had intended to ignore it when something inside told her to answer instead.
That voice. It was the redhead. Diana smiled. "Well, well. Just the woman I wanted to talk to."
"Who is this?"
Diana couldn't believe her luck. "I'll give you a hint. We met earlier today. In an alley?"
"What did you do with Dawn?"
Diana couldn't help laughing as she hung up the phone. She knew Willow and the blonde would come running to save their friend now. People like them were so predicatable. Clapping her hands she turned to Dawn, who curled up on the couch and moaned in her sleep. "Hmm..."
"Do you understand the plan?" Willow asked as they pulled up in front of Dawn's house.
Tara nodded. "I think so. But do you really think we can hold her off long enough?"
"We have to try. We don't have a lot of other options here." Willow started to get out of the car, but Tara caught her arm. "What?"
"Be careful, Will. I just got you back. I don't want to lose you again."
The redhead smiled. "Relax. This'll work. I mean come on, it's just one girl. Against the two of us? What chance does she have?" She squeezed Tara's nose and slid out of the car.
"I hope you're right." Tara followed, though she still had an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Willow strode quickly up the sidewalk, and as she stepped onto the front porch she made a grand gesture which nearly knocked the door off its hinges. As they entered the redhead immediately moved to the side so Tara could finish her incantation. They both closed their eyes.
Every lightbulb in the front room suddenly blazed to life, with a pure white light innumerable times brighter than any of them could ever have acheived on their own.
It was a desperate, somewhat risky manuever. Especially since they knew the girl they were up against could do a similar sort of magic. It was possible she had some sort of a defense against it. But they also knew it was likely to be their best chance of stopping her without hurting Dawn.
Tara lowered her hands, effectively cancelling the spell. Two of the lightbulbs gave out and shattered, while the rest returned to normal. She started to smile. It didn't last though. Looking around they realized there was no one else in the room. All their efforts had been for nothing. "Damn."
"Nice try," said a voice. It was Diana, just coming out of the kitchen. "A for effort."
Willow gritted her teeth as she fought to keep her anger in check. She knew how dangerous it was for her to let the magic get out of control. "Where's Dawn?"
"She's safe. For now. I sent her to bed. Cute girl. It's too bad I'm here on business, or I might..." Diana shook her head and smiled. "Never mind. I'm not here for her. Or you," she said to Tara. "It's your friend here I want. Will...I hope you don't mind if I call you that...I need a favor. If you do one little thing for me, I promise I won't hurt your lady friends. What do you say? Wanna give a girl a hand?"
"Forget it," said the redhead. "I would never release a monster like Zanestra, even if I could!"
Diana's eyes widened slightly, but to her credit she kept her face calm.
"You've discovered the truth then. Most impressive." The voice was not Diana's, and it sounded like it had come from behind them. Only they were sure there was not anyone in the living room. "I told Diana witches couldn't be trusted with my ring. Didn't I, girl?"
Diana nodded. "Yes, Zanestra. I'm sorry."
Willow and Tara walked into the living room, being careful to keep an eye on Diana as well. The pictures above the fireplace had been taken down and replaced by a large painting of a woman with long white hair. Her eyes and lips were moving, the former watching them.
"I'm so glad you could join us," said Zanestra. "I've been waiting a very long time for this."
"My painting," said Tara. "And it's alive."
Zanestra smiled. "Not quite. Your rendering merely acts as a window to this world. I owe you my thanks, witch. I could not have gotten this far without you."
Tara's face paled. "No."
"Hey!" Willow stepped forward. "Leave her out of this. It's between you and me!"
"So be it! Since you already know who I am I will skip the formalities and get right to the point. You're going to perform the ritual that will release me from this prison."
Willow crossed her arms. "I can't."
"I don't know the ritual you need. And even if I did, I don't have any supplies here."
Diana cleared her throat. "We have everyone you'll need right here." She pointed to the coffee table, on which sat a large, leather-bound book, candles of various sizes, some crystals, a black kettle, and a variety of colored liquids and powders. "Any more questions?"
"How do I know if I do this--assuming I even can--you won't just kill us all once you're free?" Willow said. "I've read about you. You're a monster!"
Diana and Tara's eyes widened, but Zanestra just laughed. "You have courage, child. And you're right. You do not know. But there is one thing you can believe. If you do nothing, all of you will die!"
"Oh, and just in case you're thinking about doubling-crossing us..." Diana glanced at the painting. "...her, don't. It wouldn't be very smart." She whistled. "I got us some extra insurance, just in case."
Two demons stomped in from the kitchen with their arms and mouths full of food. They were at least seven feet tall, with slate-gray skin, and hooked black horns. When they saw Zanestra's glowing eyes they dropped the food they were carrying and swallowed the rest.
"These are Ashlock demons," said Zanestra. "Virtually immune to your type of magic."
Willow frowned. Her whole plan was going right out the window. Diana was one thing, they could have handled her, but she never counted on Zanestra herself. And now these demons.
"So you see, you were lucky before," said Diana. "I underestimated you both. Zanestra didn't." She saw the anger on Willow's face and the fear on Tara's and got an idea. "Zanestra. A little extra incentive?"
"What did you have in mind?"
Diana gestured to the demons. "Get the blonde! That way, we can be sure Willow will try her best!"
The demons barely got two steps before Willow deliberately stepped between them and Tara. "Don't even!" She held up her hands. "Retro movere!"
Visible waves of force from the redhead's hands washed over the demons. With enough concentration that very manuever could probably have knocked back a car coming straight at her at top speed. But the demons didn't even slow down, or seem to notice for that matter.
One of them casually shoved Willow aside. The other grabbed Tara's arm. "No!"
"Tara!" Diana got in the redhead's way. "Move! They may be immune to my magic, but you're not!"
The black-haired girl nodded. "Which is why you should listen closely. We both know I probably can't stop you if you're really determined. But here I am in your face. So I'd be crazy to try and lie to you when I say they..." She nodded toward the demons. "...won't hurt her, as long as you co-operate."
The redhead took a deep breath. "Just remember what we talked about, Tara. We'll get through this. Everything's going to be all right. I promise."
Finally, Tara stopped struggling and allowed one of the demons to drag her into the kitchen. The other stayed in the room to watch Willow, and to listen to Diana and Zanestra.
Willow and Diana stared at one another for a few tense moments, until the redhead snorted and pushed past her on her way over to the coffee table.
"Diana." Zanestra lowered her voice so only the black-haired girl could hear her. "This witch may yet attempt to betray our cause. Watch her closely. Once she succeeds, you may have her."
Diana smiled. "Thank you."
Willow had limited experience with opening dimensional portals.
They were very diffcult to create in the first place, and even more difficult to maintain once open. Most proved to be more trouble than they were worth, especially considering the sort of things which usually came out of them. The ritual for opening this particular portal was not all that complicated though. She wondered why Diana couldn't do it for Zanestra, and then remembered the girl was not actually a witch.
Willow kneeled down in front of the painting, and arranged the various components of the ritual in front of her, with the book in her lap. All she had to do was put the right ingrediants into the bowl in the right order, and recite the chant. Then Zanestra would be free and...she shook her head. She couldn't have cared less what the demons did to her, but they were threatening Tara and Dawn and that she would not allow. That was the only reason she would do her best to perform the ritual as truthfully as possible.
Out of the corner of her eye, Willow saw Diana glaring at her. "Just you wait," she said under her breath. "You'll get yours soon enough." With that, she started the ritual.
The demon shoved Tara into the corner by the sink and started rummaging through the refrigerator again. But it was pretty much empty after the last time, and it grunted.
Tara looked around for a weapon. There were some kitchen knives nearby, but she was fairly certain the demon would be on her before she could get to them. There was also a heavy iron skillet beside the sink, though she was not sure how that could possibly help her. She had to think of something else.
The blonde cleared her throat. "So, umm, what's your name?"
"Shut up!" It growled at her with a mouth full of meat. "I'm not supposed to talk to you!" It stuck its head back in the fridge and sniffed around. "Mmm...egg salad!"
Tara got an idea. She thought back to the spell she had been casting as she and Willow entered the house earlier and then mentally rewrote a few of the lines. Without the demon's noticing she began reciting the new version. It was directed at a single lightbulb this time--the one in the refrigerator.
The demon's eyes grew wide as its light suddenly increased tendfold. Before it could figure out what was going on the lightbulb overheated and exploded right in its face. It roared and staggered back, the slate-gray flesh on its face smoldering. It was momentarily blinded. "Witch!"
Tara lunged for the back door. Though she hated feeling like she was abandoning Willow she needed to get out and get help. Before she could get there though the door flew open, and a fast-moving figure literally bowled her over in its rush to get into the house. She was nearly knocked unconscious.
Diana grew steadily angrier as she watched Willow successfully, and apparently effortlessly, perform the ritual she herself had tried and failed to do a year ago.
But she was no witch. Unlike Willow and Tara she had no power of her own. Everything she did was because of Zanestra and her artifacts. That made her angry too. When she first gained possession--in other words, stole--the ankh and discovered its mystical properties, she assumed it was going to help become a great thief. Then a series of increasingly bizarre dreams led her to each one of the rings and, eventually, Zanestra. The sorceress promised her a great reward for her service. She just hoped she would survive.
A loud pop followed each of the ingrediants Willow was placing into the bowl. That was only half the ritual, the chant and an exertion of power was the really important part. Diana knew she wouldn't have succeeded even if the Latin hadn't messed her up, because she had no capacity for magic.
The black-haired girl jerked her head around as she heard what sounded like a muffled explosion, followed by a roar. Something was going on in the kitchen and it sounded like a fight. She glanced worriedly at Willow, who by was luckily too wrapped up in the ritual to notice.
Zanestra looked furious. "Take care of that! I will brook no interruptions at this stage!"
Diana gestured to the other demon. "Stop him!"
It nodded and stomped into the kitchen. She heard a wet thud and a strangled roar, then the demon flew back out into the living room. It landed on its side, a kitchen knife buried in its throat.
Diana frowned. There was no way the little blonde could have done something like that. She looked up, to see a cocky, leather-clad brunette woman strolling into the room. "You?"
Faith shrugged her shoulders. "I was in the neighborhood. Thought I'd drop by."
Behind her, Tara peeked around the corner.
"This is the Slayer you spoke of?" Zanestra asked. Diana nodded. "When Diana mentioned you earlier, I had this feeling we would be meeting, sooner or later."
"Guess you were right." Faith didn't appear the slightest bit fazed by having a conversation with a painting. "Next time, I'd suggest you find some better minions. These guys of yours might have been horny, but they're really not much use in a fight, you know?"
Zanestra was not smiling any longer. "You're smug, for a mortal. I have just the cure for that!"
"Okay then." Faith spread her arms, clearly unconcerned. "Thrill me."
Zanestra's eyes glowed, and before even Faith had a chance to react two bolts of energy shot out and struck her in the chest. She was flung across the room and crashed down through a set of shelves.
Diana smiled. "Nice shot! She...uh oh!"
Faith started to get back to her feet, albeit a bit unsteadily. But Zanestra blasted her again and again, until it was too much for even the Slayer to bear. She groaned and slumped to the ground, the front of her shirt torn open and the flesh underneath burnt red and smoldering.
Tara gasped. "Faith!"
"Slayers," said Zanestra. "Always thinking with their fists."
Tara was stunned. All their hopes of victory, not to mention survival, had gone right out the window with Faith's unexpectedly sudden defeat. From where she was standing she could tell the Slayer was, for the moment at least, still breathing, but that didn't seem likely to last much longer.
Willow was close to finishing the ritual. Very close, in fact. Her aura, which had been crackling with the colors of the rainbow, was now a solid, constantly pulsing dark red color. That was the sign of true power being focused in a single direction, for a single purpose.
"I can't let her do this. She'll never forgive herself!" Tara tried to sneak into the room.
Diana, unfortunately, saw her. "Hey!" The black-haired girl rushed over to Tara, and shoved her. "Stay out of this witch! It won't be long now."
Tara clenched her fists. "You've got that right." She punched Diana in the jaw, spinning her around, and for good measure kicked her in the ass. The black-haired girl landed flat on her face. "Bitch."
All at once Willow's eyes snapped open. "It's done." She raised her head as the surface of Tara's painting started to boil and churn, obscuring Zanestra. "I..." The redhead's face fell. "...did it. Oh goddess."
"No," said Tara. "It's too late."
A hand emerged from the painting.
In it was a golden scepter about a foot and a half long, covered in runes and shaped like a clawed hand clutching a milky-white crystal. Another hand soon followed, then came a mass of stringy white hair atop a wrinkled, angry face. Her eyes, when she lifted her face, were solid black.
"Ah, fresh air." She took a deep breath. "It's been too long!" Her shoulders wouldn't quite make it. "Damn. Guess I should have had her paint it lifesize. Ah well."
Willow got up and went over to Tara, who immediately embraced her. "I-I'm sorry," the redhead sobbed into her shoulder. "Goddess. I couldn't stop. I wanted to, I swear, but the power... it was flowing through me. I knew it was wrong, but it felt...goddess Tara, it's all my fault. Zanestra's free, because of me."
"Shh...take it easy. We're not finished yet. There's still one way."
Willow wiped her eyes. "What?"
"The painting. I've read up on this sort of thing. The painting is Zanestra's focal point. Until she emerges fully it will still act as her anchor. If we can get rid of it before she gets out."
Willow nodded. "I get it. Tara, I know a way. Here, give me your hand. I've got an idea."
"Okay." They locked hands and the blonde felt a spark of electricity go through her entire body. The connection between them was as strong as ever, even though they had not been together for such a very long time. "What is it you're planning to do?"
"Remember when we pooled our powers to move that soda machine? We're going to do that again, only with an added twist. We have to concentrate on destroying the painting."
Tara's eyes lit up. Now she understood. "Let's do it." They closed their eyes and focused.
Zanestra was becoming increasingly frustrated, and enraged. Because of the physical limitations of a corporeal body and the size of the painting, she could go no further.
"I will not be denied! Not when I am so close!" She pointed her scepter toward Diana's still form. "Come to me, now! I command you come to your mistress, now!" The black-haired girl shuddered, as, one by one, the rings slid off her fingers and flew across the room. Zanestra put them on, and with each the crystal on her scepter glowed a little brighter. Then she gestured, and Diana was rolled over onto her back. The ankh ripped off her neck and flew into Zanestra's grip. The crystal shone brightly now. "At last! Thanks to this pathetic excuse for a servant I am not at my peak, but it will do. With my artifacts once again in my possession I..."
Zanestra's brow furrowed as she sniffed the air. "What's that smell?" It took her a while to recognize it, because she had not had to deal with physical senses for over two millennia. "Something is burning?" Out of the corner of her eye she saw smoke. The frame around her was smoldering. "What...no!" She could feel the power now. Magic was being directed at her, and she knew by who. "You witches! I won't let you get away with this!" She pointed her scepter at them, just as the entire painting burst into flame. "No, not now! Not when I'm so close!" The surface of painting turned into a swirling vortex, pulling her back into the other dimension. "No!" The painting and the portal collapsed in on themselves with a loud pop, once again trapping Zanestra. She had apparently lost her hold on the scepter, however. It was outside the painting and now it clattered to the floor.
Willow and Tara ignored it for the time being. They slumped against one another, exhausted. Both Zanestra and the portal had resisted them to the bitter end. Even with their combined magical strength they were barely able to get the job done. Clearly it had been worth the strain though.
"Are you okay?" the blonde asked.
The redhead nodded. "I think so. How about you?"
"Fine. Except for a splitting headache. I'd forgotten how much magic can take out of you."
"You were great though."
"So were you. You're incredible, Will."
Someone groaned. "Would you two please cut out the love fest?" Faith sat up, clutching her head. "At least have the decency to make out quietly. I'm trying to die over here." She glared at them. "And if either one of you asks if I'm okay, I swear I'll shove a stake through your heart."
Tara glanced toward the stairs. "We'd better go check on Dawn."
"To tell you the truth, I'm not sure what happened."
They found Dawn upstairs on her bed, just like Diana said.
"I remember answering a knock on the door, I saw a flash of metal, and then the next thing I know you're waking me up here. How did I get here?"
"It was Diana," said Willow. "She's this girl who attacked Tara and I the other day. She wanted me to release this two thousand year old sorceress from a painting."
Dawn took this in stride. "Okay. So what happened? Did you stop her?" She noticed Faith. "And what's she doing here?" Ever since Buffy's death the two of them had been at odds.
"We stopped Diana and the sorceress," said Tara. "Barely. If I'd known the painting was here we might have been able to come up with a better plan. We're just lucky Faith got here when she did."
"Yes," said Dawn. "But how did she get here?"
"We asked Anya to go find her and bring her here," Willow replied. "She was our secret weapon."
Faith shrugged her shoulders. "For all the good I did." She glanced down at her breasts, which were pretty much on display since her shirt was in tatters. "Anybody got something I can put on?"
Dawn sighed. "Hold on. I think I have a sweatshirt that'll fit you." When they got downstairs a few minutes later, and she saw the state the living room was in, Dawn frowned. "Oh man. Bill is going to blow a gasket when he sees this. I thought we were past the whole rampaging monster thing."
"He doesn't know?" Tara asked.
"About vamps and demons? Of course. You couldn't live on the Hellmouth for very long and not. But he doesn't know I have anything to do with it." Dawn crossed her arms. "Guess I'll have to tell him now. I don't know any way to explain all this otherwise."
"Umm...Will?" Tara was staring at the floor. "Where's Diana?"
Faith stepped up. "Better question. Where's that magic stick you told me about?"
"Oh great. She's gone," said Willow. "And she took Zanestra's scepter with her. There's no telling what kind of a bitch she'll become once she figures out how to work it."
"The scepter is a power booster," Tara replied. "Diana doesn't have any, so unless something changes it won't be any good to her."
Dawn's watch beeped. "You guys better take off. Bill will be home soon, and I'm gonna have a hard enough time explaining all this, without telling him about witches and Slayers too."
"I'm going to the Bronze," said Faith.
Willow nodded. "We'll give you a ride. Coming, Tara?"
"Right behind you." The blonde ran her hand down Dawn's arm. "I'm sorry about all this."
After dropping Faith at the Bronze and declining her invitation to come inside, Willow and Tara returned to the former's apartment. They sat around talking for a few minutes, then Willow announced she was tired and decided to lay down for a while. She invited Tara to stay the night, and since she didn't like the idea of having to walk back to her hotel the blonde eagerly agreed.
The next morning Tara woke up, and was surprised to find herself curled up on the bed next to Willow. She was pretty sure she had started out in a chair nearby. How she ended up in the redhead's arms was a mystery, but not a question she was in any hurry to answer. She lay her head back down and sighed. She had forgotten how good this felt. Being close to someone she loved so much.
And Tara did still love Willow. Even after all those years the first time their eyes met she was reminded of just why she had fallen for the redhead in the first place. Her heart was soaring. She hadn't felt so happy in a very long time, and she knew it was all because of the woman next to her.
In those few quiet moments, before the sun had come up, Tara made a decision. Whether Willow wanted to try again, regardless of if they would be just friends or something more, her life was here. Where she finally knew it should have been all along. Not that she regretted the time she spent in Europe and New York or her relationship with Monica, but Sunnydale was her home. She smiled.
"Will." Tara gently shook the redhead. "Wake up, sleepyhead."
"Mmm...no! The tadpoles! They're..." Willow's eyes snapped open. "...revolting. Oh. Tara, hey."
The blonde smiled. "Still have that old frog fear, huh?"
"Guess so." Willow sat up. "What's going on? Is everything okay?"
"Fine. I was just thinking about something, and I wanted you to be the first to know."
"I'm going back to New York."
Willow blinked. "When?"
Tara shook her head. "That's not the question you were supposed to ask."
"What do you mean?"
"You're supposed to say, how long will you be gone?"
Willow frowned. "What?"
"Say it. Please?"
"Okay, umm...how long will you be gone?" Willow feared she already knew the answer.
Tara smiled. "However long it takes me to sell my apartment, and have my things shipped back."
"Back? Back where back?" The redhead was still only partly awake, and confused.
"Here, silly. Sunnydale. I'm coming home."
Willow's face lit up. "Are you serious?"
"Would I lie..." Tara cupped the redhead's cheek. "...to this pretty face?"
"Tara!" Willow threw her arms around the blonde and embraced her so tightly it was hard for Tara to breath. "Oh goddess, what a way to wake up."
Tara nodded. Her face was starting to turn red. "Will...suffocation...bad way...to die."
"Oh." Willow released her. "Sorry."
"Forget it." Tara ran her fingers through her hair and licked her lips. "Uh, there's something else I wanted to talk to you about. I've been kind of going through the motions for a while now. After Zanestra...well I don't think I can paint anymore, you know? I had an idea I wanted to run by you."
Willow arched an eyebrow. Tara was being cryptic. That was unusual. "Tell me."
It was nearly two months since Tara moved back to Sunnydale, and she had been busy the whole time.
"What do you think?" Tara stood out in front of the Magic Box along with Willow, Xander, and Dawn. A banner was hanging from the bottom of the sign, and in great big, bright, bold letters is read NOW OPEN UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.
"I like it," Dawn replied.
"Me too." Willow embraced the blonde. "It's fantastic! You're a businesswoman!"
Xander frowned. "I don't know." He cocked his head. "It looks a little crooked to me."
"Hey!" Dawn playfully slapped him. "Not the sign, doofus."
"Oh. Okay." He smiled. "I think it's great, Tara. Congratulations."
The blonde blushed. "Thanks. It's so exciting. I just wish Anya was here. She's the one who agreed to let me take over the shop in the first place. If it wasn't for her..."
Anya abruptly appeared right next to Tara. "...you'd still be a starving artist." She crossed her arms. "Don't forget our deal. I get half the profits."
"Only for the first year," Willow reminded her. "After that, you sell her the lease outright."
Anya waved dismissively at the redhead. "By then it shouldn't matter anyway. Word on the ether says D'Hoffryn is going to retire soon. Hallie and I are both up for his job. Being in charge of all the vengeance demons is a full- time job, and I won't have time for buttloads of money."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," said Tara. "But I don't know about...buttloads."
The demon smiled. "Trust me." She took a step back and disappeared.
Dawn looked at her watch. "Oh man. Tara, I'd love to stick around and watch you make your first dollar, but I am supposed to meet Bill at the caterers to talk about our wedding plans." She embraced the blonde and whispered in her ear. "I say go for it. We all know the old magic's still there."
"I gotta go too," said Xander. "Nancy is waiting for me at the site." He shook Tara's hand. "Good luck. I just wish I had something more constructive to say." He then took Willow aside and spoke softly to her. "In answer to your question, I'd say yeah she's interested. Just take it nice and slow."
The redhead nodded. "Thanks." As they both left she turned to Tara and held out her arm. "Shall we?"
Tara slipped her arm into Willow's and nodded. "Let's."
"By the way," Willow said as they unlocked the front door. "You wanna go to a movie tonight?"
"Not really," said Tara. "I'd rather go back to your place." She caressed the redhead's cheek and then walked into the shop with a smile growing on her face.
Willow licked her lips and followed. "Goddess, I love this town."
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