DISCLAIMER: None of this is mine, it all belongs to the genius of Joss Whedon (but then again, what genius would kill Tara?)
WARNING: This story touches on the subject of sexual violence.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: 7x22 Chosen

By diamondforever


Chapter Twelve

A few hours in, Dawn tapped Tara gently on the shoulder, gesturing to where Willow, who was visiting with Buffy in Dawn's chair, had sat. "You mind if I sit down?" she asked quietly.

"Sure, Willow's with Buffy." Tara smiled as Dawn took a seat and resting her head on the blonde's shoulder. They sat comfortably for a while, basking in long-absent warmth that had gone sorely amiss.

"I missed you, Tara," Dawn said eventually.

"I missed you too, Dawnie." Tara turned and kissed the brunette's forehead. "I missed you a lot."

"Don't lose," Dawn pleaded. "We just got you back, and…please stay."

"We don't plan to," Tara replied solemnly, "we don't plan to."

They each retreated into silence. It wasn't what they normally did together, this research. Back then, either Tara would do the studying and Dawn would be left to her boredom, or they would both kick back and relax as best they could and throw in some thumb-wrestling for the heck of it. Before, they'd been the outsiders.

But now, it was different. They were working side by side, and it was the most natural thing in the world to everyone else, but to them it was just another sign of how much had changed in the past year.


Dawn had grown up.

"How're you doing, Will?" Buffy sipped on her coffee as they leafed through pages upon pages.

"N-not too bad. I mean, Tara's back – I'm a happy gal, couldn't ask for more…"

Buffy sighed. "Will, how are you really doing?"

Willow looked up from her reading, and stared at Buffy. Heaving a sigh, she put her current book down. "I'm scared," she almost-whispered. "I'm really scared, Buff. I don't know what's gonna happen to me and Tara if we lose, or-or what's gonna happen to you guys. I'm not so good with the Slayage a-and I can't help but not trust myself with the witch-y stuff anymore and I-I'm scared I'll let Tara down if – "

Buffy laid a comforting hand on the redhead's arm. "You'll do fine. Tara believes in you. I have faith in you too – Will, just do what you do best; love Tara."

Willow nodded, smiling hesitantly. "Yuh-huh," she gulped.

They got back to work and for the next half hour, there was silence between the two.



"How's Tara doing about Kennedy?"

"Dunno," Willow mused thoughtfully, "I haven't really talked to Tara about that one."

"Be careful, Will. You know Ken…she's, she's violent."

A subtle fear crept into the redhead's features. "If Ken were to try to hurt Tara, sh-she'd never stand a chance! W-would Ken do that?"

"We'll keep an eye on her for you," Buffy assured, "but talk to Tara and make sure everything's fine and dandy."

"Mhmm," Willow frowned.

"How ya feeling?" Faith supported Robin as they made their way back to his room.

"Been better," Robin grunted, teeth gritted, "but slowly making my way back up the ladder of health."

"Good." Faith left the man leaning against the wall as she opened the door, went to the bed, and pulled back the covers. "In you get," she gestured.

"Yes, ma'am," Robin grinned as he did as he was told. Groaning, he leaned back onto the headboard and patted the chair beside his bed. Faith complied and sat down.

"So…" Robin smirked cheekily at his girlfriend.

"How can you be trying to joke?" Faith raised an eyebrow. "You might be dead tomorrow, for all we know."

"Heard of lightening the mood, Faith-y? I figured," Robin explained, "that if we're all going to die, then we might as well make the best of our time. I mean, I don't have anything to do. Why stress it?"

Faith ignored the pet name, instead storing it in her mind's box of verbal ammunition. "That wasn't how it was last apocalypse."

The black man's demeanor changed immediately. "Well, last apocalypse I wasn't stuck in bed, watching from the sidelines. I helped, last apocalypse." Robin punctuated 'helped' with his fist as it collided loudly with the bedside drawer.

"Hey," Faith grabbed his hand, "hey." She touched Robin's arm in both affection and restraint. "You're helping. You gave us that message from the Powers –"

"– not like I had a choice," he muttered.

"You're helping me, Robby." Faith's lips curled upwards for a moment as she loosed her well-kept bullet from the chamber that was her mouth. "Nobody's ever given a flying fuck of a chance to me before, and you have. A-and I think we're gonna get somewhere."

"Thanks." Robin squeezed her hand. He raised an eyebrow. "Robby?"

"R?" Faith offered.


"Fine." Faith shrugged, crossing her arms across her chest and leaning back on her chair. "Let's see to that hand, huh?" She held it gently as she softly kissed each knuckle, then each fingertip. She sucked each digit into her mouth and swirled her tongue round and round, getting a low moan from Robin for her efforts. His head was leaned back, eyes closed, mouth hanging slightly open. She paused for a moment, realizing.

This wasn't Buffy – both a happy and sad awareness. Faith had finally moved on and found herself somebody who really cared for her. But she knew now that in giving herself, if only even a small part, to Robin, her complete love and longing for Buffy had come to an end. And she liked it.

"Faith." Robin's voice called her back to the world.

"What is it?" His tone was caring, yet not intruding.

"Nothing anymore," she smiled, leaning over and kissing him before joining him under the covers. "Just getting rid of some past issues."

"You sure you don't wanna get 'em out?" He stroked her hair. "I find that when I say stuff out loud, I let go better."

"I-I don't think I wanna let go just yet. Maybe someday," Faith snuggled into his chest, "but not now." Buffy had been a fantasy, and a nice fantasy too – but that was all she ever would be. And now that she was given the choice to choose between her fantasy and reality, the latter was looking a whole lot more favourable.

"Okay," Robin whispered, placing his hand over hers.

"Will…" Tara pleaded with her girlfriend to rest, but the redhead plowed on through her stack of volumes. "Willow?" No answer. "Sweetie, what is it?" She cupped Willow's cheek and forced the redhead to face her. "W-what's wrong?" Tara's fingers were wet with her girlfriend's tears.

Willow turned away, embarrassed. "I-it's nothing; just that time of the month. You know – mood swings, random emotional breakdowns, it's scientifically proven. I'm just shiny," she chuckled.

I know you well enough to know when you're lying, Sweetie. Tara turned Willow's chair to the left and her own to the right so that they were facing each other. "And I know what's going on," she said, going out on a limb. She leaned in to kiss the redhead's cheek. "And it's okay. No matter what, I'll always be here," she whispered.

It was then something snapped inside Willow, and it all burst out. "Everything's happening so fast, and it's like one apocalypse after another, a-and now you're back – and I'm happy you're back, but how can you forgive me so quickly? I fucked up, but nobody seems to be thinking that. I used magick! Yeah, it was Hades and his "power" and "destiny" but I still gave in, didn't I? Everybody's tiptoeing around me like I'm a ticking time bomb, o-or like I'm special or something, but I'm not! I'm just an ordinary girl lucky enough to get to see her love again, b-but it's like I'm gonna lose you so soon. We don't know what's gonna happen after we fight Hades – are we gonna die? I don't wanna die! – Or even if we'll win.

"A-and I don't wanna lose you to another freak accident when this is all over. I want to be sure. I…I just wanna be with you forever." Throughout her rant, her composure had steadily deteriorated, and by now, she was openly sobbing. All the others were trying their best to look away, not wanting to cause Willow more embarrassment.

Tara didn't try to answer, but merely replied, "I love you," and kissed her girlfriend long and soft. "No matter what, we'll be together in the end."

Chapter Thirteen

Xander was just getting back with the takeout when Andrew let out a whoop of victory and heaved a book into the air. He wobbled under the weight of the volume that much resembled a picture album, stretching his arms out for only a moment before his strength gave out, plopping it and his arms none too gracefully onto the table.

"What is it?" Giles rushed over to the former Troika.

"It's a book," Andrew stated, chest puffed out proudly, "chronicling the outcome of each pair of witches throughout history." He flipped open the cover and turned to the first entry. "This one's missing a name, but it tells us exactly what happened."

As with Xander, Giles smoothly took the book as his own. He began to read:

Julia and her beloved (her name has been lost) – they were the first, and the beloved killed Julia in order to save her love from the fires of hell.

Laura and Wildra – Laura was marked by the Dark Lord and in order to save her love from the fires of hell, Wildra intervened and killed Laura, taking her place.

"According to this book, there was a pair every ten years." He stopped reading.

"The language…it's not very classical. A-are you sure it's not a fake?" asked Wesley.

"And how's this gonna help even if it is real?" Faith sneered, crossing her arms and leaning back against the wall, an expression of residual disdain towards her former Watcher that dared him to answer her.

Wesley looked away.

Ignoring the pair, Giles flipped to the final entry. "Joanie Lewis." He looked up. "Can we find out if she is still alive?" He turned the book around, letting the others look at the picture of the most recent Marked.

"Suicide, poor witch," a soft voice said from the entrance to the study. Anya. Her dress and hair were mellowed down; even her carriage was different. There were still traces of the modern Anya left, but otherwise, this was Anyanka from a thousand years ago, before her corruption. "Hi. Oh!" she exclaimed in answer to the surprised words and looks of greeting she was receiving, "it was stupid, oh, and rude of me to come barging in like this, huh? I mean, there was no "We're having an orgy" sign or anything, but hey, who knows, right?"

When the response was just more silent confusion and perhaps some embarrassment, Anya cleared her throat. "Okay, onto business. I'm sorry, but the Powers didn't really give me the good news to deliver. Well, there isn't much good news. Just a bit – if you win, it's over, you win. Does that help?" Silence. "Nope. Alright then, first things first. You need to challenge Hades tomorrow as the sun sets. From that time to the time when the sun rises, you can slice and dice, he's vulnerable, don't ask me why, 'cause I don't know."

"Now I'll give you the spells you need to use. See, the Powers make it so easy for you! To challenge him, do the standard circle, and say in Latin, yes you'll have to translate that on your own, you do need to do your own work. We challenge you, keeper of hell. In the name of the heavens, we demand your audience." She stared at them. "Are you writing this down? I'm only repeating this once, you know!"

Startled, one, from Anya's appearance, and two, her extremely unusual behaviour, those who had the resources needed to record information did as she said, although only one person should have needed to.

"After that, you'll be transported to Hades and you'll need to say this spell. In Latin, of course. Our bond of love will banish you from this plane. Our love is strong. Our love will not die. Our love resists you. Got that?" She looked around. "Okay then. One last thing. If you lose, Hades will have enough power to take over every known dimension."

"Well, that's all. Um…" Anya ran over to Tara and gave her an awkward hug. "I'm glad you're back, even though I can't be back with you," she whispered. She squeezed the witch tightly and kissed her on the cheek before withdrawing. "Goodbye, everyone." She waved, a conspicuously forced smile on her face, and turned to leave.

As she neared the doorway, she heard the footfalls of someone coming up behind her. "Anya." It was Xander, his arm subconsciously reaching towards her as his expression pleaded with her. "Stay. Please." He grabbed her arm and glanced back at the others, who immediately began to discuss the information they'd received. He pulled her into the hall. "Why can't you stay long enough to even say hi?"

"Because I've delivered my message, and that's all the Powers are letting me do." Anya sighed, her false cheeriness immediately giving way to a forlorn-ness that indicated her acceptance of her fate. "And don't you mean goodbye?" she asked sadly. "After this, I'm gone and I'm not coming back. My job in this dimension is done." She bit her lip and looked away. "But I don't want to say goodbye to you."

"Why'd you go and get yourself killed, An?" the carpenter queried. She could tell from his expression that he was angry, but understanding and…withdrawn. "We had so much ahead of us." Tears rolled down Xander's cheeks as he stroked Anya's cheek with the back of his hand.

"Did we? Maybe we did. We'll never know, will we. But that's life, right?" She leaned in and kissed her love softly on the lips. "Suck it up, big boy," she teased, trying to lighten the mood.

"Not now, An." Xander smiled wearily, not missing his longtime partner's attempt at humour. He wiped the tears from his cheeks, but they kept coming. Imagine that – a grown man crying. He wasn't ashamed, especially in front of Anya. She'd seen it so many times, when life as a Slayerette became too much, or when Buffy had died, and when Willow… "Aw, c'mon, give your man a hug one last time then." He enveloped her in a bear hug, pushing those dark thoughts to the back of his mind. For later – not now, when the important things were happening.

His tight friendly grip gave way to a more tender hold as he caressed Anya's smooth back and kissed her forehead as he had done so many times, and now, for the last time. Make it count, wise guy, he told himself. "I love you."

"I love you too." Anya kissed his jaw and he angled his head downwards and then they were kissing fiercely, desperately, unwilling to let each other go, but still knowing that it was inevitable. Slowly, breathing hard, crying harder, they pulled back, arms still wrapped tightly around each other. "Goodbye," she whispered, slowly backing away, but still holding onto whatever part of him she could reach as she did. There was a hint of a smile on her face as she blew him a kiss moments after the contact between them was lost. "Love again," she added thoughtfully, head cocked to the side. "That's what I'm supposed to say, right?"

Tears streamed down Xander's cheeks as he smiled and nodded, raising a trembling hand in farewell. And so ends the next chapter in 'The Book of Xander'. He blinked back the next flood of tears, trying to recover his emotional strength, and as he closed his eyes, she was gone in a peaceful silent wind. "Goodbye, An," he whispered. "See you soon."

He wiped his cheeks on his sleeve and turned stiffly to walk back inside.

"I'm sorry." It was Fred, the double doors just closing behind her. She looked lost. "Am I intruding?"

Xander forced a smile and shook his head. "You came just on time, m'dear." He tucked his hand behind him and bowed formally, winking at her, determined to put on a strong front for the others until he came to terms with his love's departure. "Allow me to escort you to your room." He offered an arm.

Fred looked incredulous, if which he couldn't blame her, but she didn't question as she accepted his invitation, allowing Xander to lead her into the study.

The group looked up as they made their entrance, and Wesley immediately rose up to greet her. "How was the meeting?" he inquired.

"Boring. Paperwork, really." She raised her eyebrow as she took in the messy state of the study, books sprawled will-nilly throughout the normally organized room. "Y'all mind telling me what's going on here?"

And so they told her all that had happened in the last day since Fred had gone for her 24-hour meeting downtown as acting representative for Angel Inc. in place of Angel.

Fred took it in well, nodding occasionally and asking for more detailed explanation now and then.

"So tomorrow sunset, Willow and Tara need to challenge Hades in order to be able to cast him back to wherever he belongs…or what?" she asked.

"I think that he'd no longer be vulnerable and send his servants to torment us until we acted," answered Willow.

"And if you lose? I'm sorry, but I need to ask this." Fred's lips curled down slightly as emotions of both sympathy and curiosity flashed across her face.

"Hades will take over every imaginable dimension with the power drawn from all the souls of witches he has gorged himself on throughout time," Angel declared quietly, arms crossed across his chest, his expression betraying nothing.

"So we've gotta win this," Dawn concluded.

"No." Willow looked over at Tara and reached for her hand under the table, trying to reassure both of them. "This one's our battle, Dawnie." She squeezed her love's hand.

Slowly, one by one, they left the room – Willow and Tara last. There was nothing anybody could do but hope and pray that tomorrow's battle would be won, and that life would still continue on in the aftermath.

Willow poked playfully at Tara's foot from where she lay at the foot of the bed. The blonde was settled on top of the covers, feet over the pillows, head beside Willow. A stray lock of hair dangled annoyingly in front of her eyes, Tara's well-placed blows doing nothing to tame it. Willow tenderly brushed it back, placing it behind her ear. "Wanna take a break?" she whispered.

Tara looked up and smiled, but shook her head. "Just a few more minutes, Sweetie. I-I need to double-check the translations."

Tara had always been the stronger of the two when it came to translations. Willow lacked the patience to go over the phrases again and again checking for error, being more likely to just give it the old run-through and hope for the best. After their first experimental Latin spells together, resulting in a mini-battle against a particularly icky army of tadpoles, Tara had wisely decided to take the task of translating into her own hands, Willow gladly obliging.

Latin was a beautiful language and Tara had always reveled in the way at sounded when read properly. Willow knew this, and during the blonde's recovery from Glory's attack, had, as the superior reader between the two of them, read Tara Latin poetry to calm her.

"Okay." Tara put down her pen and closed her notebook carefully. "All done." She set it done on the floor beside the bed before swinging her body around so that she and Willow were side by side. "Y-you know, about before…" She lay on her side, concern evident on her face. "Are you alright?"

"I-I guess I'm just nervous." Willow frowned. She reached out and stroked Tara's cheek. "I don't wanna lose you," she whispered, her voice breaking.

Tara kissed the redhead's forehead, gathering her into her arms. "You won't lose me," she assured. The blonde felt like it was her job, her mission, to be strong for Willow, even though at the moment, she herself was pensive and scared by the uncertainty of their future. What Willow had said was true – what would happen if they won? Would they die anyway, their bodies physically dead from the force and power of the spell? That would be typical of the Powers – sacrificing everything for their own safety.

"You're pulling away from me, baby." Willow pulled her head up from where it was resting on Tara's shoulder. "I can feel you in your mind." Her eyes housed pain and remorse. "A-are you mad at me? For the magick? I'm so sorry, I couldn't help myself. I just wanted to see you again, a-and I'm sure there must have been some other way for me to bring you back." She was breathing heavily, tears streaming down her cheeks as they seemed to be doing very often nowadays.

"Willow." Tara whispered her name, the inflection of her voice telling the redhead to look at her. "You were forgiven before you did the spell. And y-your shamefulness at having done it, it shows that you know it was wrong. That is all that anyone who loves you would ask of you." She smoothed back the fiery locks of her love. "We've just gotta be strong tomorrow, and then, either way, it's over for us."

"No." Willow sat up. "It'll never be over for us…" She shook her head vigorously. "After this, there'll be the next Big Bad and then the one after that…no. This'll keep on happening to us as long as we stay here." She looked back up at Tara, emotionally naked. Guilt and love shone brightly, as the blonde saw her love torn between loyalty to her best friend and a true happy ending. But in the end, Tara, as always, won out, whether or not Tara wanted to. "I've been thinking about this ever since you got back. I-I have a second chance with you, or a third chance, if you count the chance we started, and I don't wanna waste it."

"I want us to leave," Willow concluded, "a-and start a new life on our own, somewhere away from all this." She kissed Tara's lips tenderly. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you. C-can we do that? Is that too much to ask?" She feared that she had upset Tara with her request to leave their friends behind in favour of a safer life together, but the blonde didn't seem angry with her.

"It isn't, Will." Tara shook her head. "I think we need to leave too. Y-you know you still have a lot to learn about magick, and away from needing to use it so much every day, you'll be able to learn safely from the beginning. We can start a family, and r-raise our children far away from vampires, d-demons, and danger. I want that with you too. And I-I think that it's time for us to start our family."

Happily, Willow grinned and pulled her blonde towards her, kissing her. She ran her hand through golden locks and down warm skin, caressing Tara's back. "And I thought you would be mad at me," Willow chuckled against Tara's lips.

"Never," answered Tara, breathing hard. She let out a low moan as Willow bit her lower lip then soothed it with cool saliva and warm tongue, pulling at the buttons on the redhead's button-down shirt.

And that would have been that if Willow hadn't remembered something important that she'd told Buffy she would ask Tara about. Reluctantly, she pulled back and rolled off the blonde. "I've gotta talk to you about something."

Tara was confused as to what could be so important that they needed to talk about it while they were both in such an aroused state. She could feel the hot wetness in her panties, with every little instant of contact between the material and her opening sending tingles up her spine. "Can't it wait?" She leaned back on her elbows.

"I need to talk to you about Kennedy," Willow stated evenly. She was afraid, even though she knew Tara understood. "My relationship with her started off as just a rebound. A-and I've been thinking about this, and I've come to realize that I am attracted to Kennedy in some way. I could never love her like I love you, but I do care for her. I-I need to know that you're okay with that." She searched Tara's face for any sign of despair.

Instead, Tara smiled.

"You needed to move on, and you found someone to help you along that path." Tara took Willow's hand in hers. "It would be my worst nightmare to see you give up your future because of the past. Kennedy gave you that option."

"I'm glad that Kennedy came in with the flirt-age then, but now, I'm so happy with you, and it's like I've left her behind and broken her heart."

"I don't think it was you. Her pain goes so much deeper than that. Can you feel it? There's such a…a sadness in her. I want to help her, but if the only way to help her is your being her girlfriend, I don't want you to help her. I-I don't wanna be selfish b – "

"You're not being selfish, baby." Willow lifted the hand that was enclosed in Tara's to her lips and kissed the blonde's fingertips. "You're the only one I want."

"She's nice," Tara said thoughtfully. "Maybe when she gets past us, she'll open up. I want to know her better."

"You're amazing, Tara Maclay." Willow swept her up from the bed dramatically and dipped her across her knee before kissing her passionately. "I love you."

"Love you." Tara licked at Willow's bottom lip with her tongue, requesting entrance, which Willow gladly gave.

The redhead lost her grip on Tara's back and let the blonde fall back onto the bed as she straddled her, never losing contact. Her hands roamed over the older woman's body, from hair to neck to breast to stomach to leg and back up again.

Tara acutely felt Willow's hands travel her body, the heat from her lover's fingers and palms imprinting invisible bonds of love on her as she gave herself over to Willow's expert touch. Then Tara couldn't stand it any longer and she was on top, tenderly licking and biting a trail down Willow's body as her nimble hands cleared away any clothing in her way.

Willow groaned as she felt Tara's mouth move over her, leaving a hot sticky trail of bliss behind. She let out a low moan as she felt the saliva cooling, tickling her skin. She arched her back, giving Tara more access to whatever the frilly heck she wanted as long as she – oh, Goddess, oh, Goddess…

"Come up here," Willow commanded, her breath coming in short gasps as she took off whatever clothing still left on her, Tara doing the same. The beauty of the blonde's naked body never ceased to amaze her. She was like a Goddess – young and nubile, perfect in Willow's eyes. Reverently, she touched Tara's breasts, the nipples forming hard peaks against her palms. "So…beautiful," she breathed, kissing them one at a time.

Tara felt Willow's eyes go up and down her naked body. It had taken her so long to become proud of her body, to discover that she was not an embarrassment. Willow made her feel like a treasure, a dessert that was finger-lickin' good right down to the last drop, so she said. Still, Tara found it hard to keep from blushing when Willow stared at her with such unabashed passion and love. And as Willow kissed her breasts, she sighed, knowing that being loved like this was so much better than heaven could ever be.

Tara wrapped her arms around Willow's neck, her fingers caressing hot skin where it met fiery hair. Her expression was one of utmost adoration as she pulled Willow closer and closer until their lips were just touching, recreating the afternoon moment that had been disrupted by Xander.

Willow couldn't keep her eyes from watering as she read the unspoken words in Tara's gaze. And as the blonde brought them closer and closer together, she placed her hands on Tara's hips, stroking the bone and skin with butterfly touches.

Their lips met and it became a struggle to hold the rising passion at bay. They knelt on the bed, barely moving against each other as the kiss went on. Slowly but surely their bodies came together until they lay side by side.

Then the explosion came – having been forcibly quashed, it came out in an unstoppable wave, spreading and spreading to the tips of their toes and fingers, rewarding them for their patience. Hands roamed freely, giving and taking pleasure. Tongues sought sweetness and found.

I love you. It was whispered, moaned, grunted, breathed, mouthed, tasted, felt – Willow and Tara demonstrated their love to each other frantically, slowly…their passion built and waned, built and waned. It rose and fell like a tidal wave crashing onto sandy beaches. They loved each other well into the night before exhausted they fell asleep in each other's arms, dreaming of their life together.

"…so Red and Blondie are gonna save the world tomorrow, pretty much," Faith summed up, having related the whole of the day's events to Robin as they lay cuddled in his room.

"Gonna try to, right?" Robin corrected, stroking Faith's hair.

"Uh huh," answered Faith, smiling contentedly as she felt the black man's firm hands.

"You helping?" he asked.

"Not really. Just gonna be on the lookout for anything stupid enough to try to stop the spell." She frowned – she'd wanted to do more, but having never really done any research, she hadn't been able to help out as much as she wanted to. Instead, she was reduced to sentry duty – but hey, so was everyone else during the actual battle.

"Hey." Robin noticed her discontented look and tried to console her. "You're still doing more than me."

"Would you stop it with that already?" Faith slapped his arm playfully, but frowned when he winced.

"Slayer strength, Faith." Robin rubbed his arm. "That's gonna bruise."

She shrugged. "Won't show through your complexion." She kissed the spot seductively – well, as seductively as kissing a bruise could be. "This might though." Faith moved up to Robin's neck, licking and biting along his jaw line, earning low moans from her lover.

"Get up here." Robin didn't give Faith a chance to react as he pulled the Slayer up to him and kissed her hard on the lips.

If she had wanted to, she could have easily resisted, but she allowed herself to be led instead of leading as she always did. It was different – a nice different. Robin was a good kisser, and she felt no regret in relinquishing the lead under his expert tongue. His hands traveled Faith's back, adding pressure to just the right spots.

She ran her hands down his muscled chest and abdomen before bunching up his shirt in her hands and lifting it up and over his head as Robin did the same to her. He flipped her over and began kissing her neck, returning her the favour she had done him moments before.

Faith straddled him as they returned to lip-lock, and as she pressed herself close to his body, Robin unclasped her bra and tossed it to the floor. She let her breasts drag across his stomach before, with a sudden tenderness, she bathed his wrapped wound with her glorious attention of mouth and hand.

Robin moaned more audibly this time, then even louder as she pulled down his boxers, freeing his bulging member. She pleasured him, but didn't let him go over the edge as she toyed with him. Finally, he couldn't take it anymore and lifted her up by the waist before beginning to undo her jeans.

She grinned. "Enough play for ya?" Her hands quickly finished the job for him and she pulled them down.

All Robin could do was nod, watching transfixed as she seductively pulled down her panties. Damn, she's good at this, he thought. And she looks good while doing it. She paused, reaching down to her pants to grab a condom and unwrapping it, placed it onto his member. Slowly, at a torturing pace she lowered herself onto him and began to move above him.

The rhythm was slow at first, but it sped up steadily. They moved in synch, grunting and moaning, voicing whispers and near-screams of 'faster' or 'harder' until at last they crashed over the edge together. They stayed there for a long time, both using whatever they could to prolong their stay to the point of exhaustion.

"I…love…you," Robin panted as his hips finally came back to rest on the bed.

Faith did a mental jump as he said it.

He…loved her? Nobody had ever said those words to her, and she had never said that to anyone either. It had always been fuck and run for her…until Buffy. Now there hadn't been a whole lot of fucking, but definitely plenty of running. Yeah, she'd said it was over in her mind, but in her heart, was it really? Not yet. Faith would never really be over Buffy until she moved to another country, settled down with a family, God forbid, and even then it wouldn't be a sure thing. She could eventually love another, but her heart would always belong to her fellow Slayer.

What was she supposed to say to him? 'I think I might love you someday, but right now I'm in love with Buffy Summers, but that was nice'? That was just rude! It was too early in this first real relationship of hers for her to be able to say something like that.

Robin must have noticed, his eyes showing his sudden worry. "Hey, I realize I shouldn't have said that…" He tried to cup her cheek, but Faith pulled away awkwardly. "What's wrong?"

"I-I," she stuttered out, unsure of absolutely everything. "Don't fucking touch me, you jerk!" She felt closed in, caged. She tried to pull away. Her body told her to run, and hell, that was what she wanted to do, but her heart and mind held her back. If she left now, there would be no turning back.

Robin let her move away, but wouldn't let go of her completely. The harshness of her words glanced off of him. He had expected this, in a way. He berated himself for slipping up. Faith was giving him a chance and he was doing a shit poor job in using it. He had to take it slow. Yeah, he wanted to tell her he felt for her, hell, how he had been attracted to her from the moment they'd met. Maybe it was love, maybe it wasn't, but he had always gone with the moment, and at that moment, his gut had been telling him to do something, and he had to his current chagrin. "I'm sorry," he offered. "Faith, you don't have to tell me what's wrong. You don't have to sleep in here if you don't want to, but please, don't shut me out. You said you would give me a chance, and maybe me saying what I did counts as the end of that chance, but hey – let's give this a shot, huh? I'm sorry if I scared you." He stroked her cheek. This time, she didn't pull away. "That's the last thing I meant to do."

Faith allowed herself to be consoled, her heart, which had been frantically beating, slowing back down to an even pace as she felt Robin draw her to himself. He meant those words – he wasn't just using her. He cared for her, and she admitted to herself that she cared for him just as much. It would take getting used to, but she could do that. All she needed was time, and it seemed that Robin was willing to give her that.

With nothing left to do but wait, Xander, Andrew, Buffy, and Dawn chose on their part to veg out in front of the television. After flipping through Cordelia's ample selection of movies – and at Xander's bidding, having a moment of silence for the comatose ex-Scoobie – they selected a group favourite. Willow.

Having been Willow's favourite movie due to her namesake, her insistence that they watch it at every sleepover throughout high school had eventually made it a Scoobie Classic. So fittingly, that was what they decided to watch, in memory of happier times.

However, only Andrew seemed to really be into it, letting out whoops as Shorsha, or 'The Hottie' as he had dubbed her, kicked butt at every turn. Xander joined in half-heartedly every now and then, not wanting to let his inner monsters ruin what could well be their last night together.

Buffy and Dawn sat off to the side, lost in silent reverie. It had been a harsh past few days for the two of them, and now that there was a lull in the action, the pain was finally being felt.

Dawn, for her seventeen years, was taking this well, or so she told herself. She had lost a mother and a sister in the last three years and then impossibly found her sister again right where she'd lost her. Then Tara and Willow, the most substantial and stable parts of her life, had proven her wrong with Tara moving out and Willow spiraling down the path of darkness. It had been a momentary reprieve when she had found them again just for it to be taken away – permanently. Now, in another impossibility, all was right again in the world, but so wrong all at the same time. Tara was back, but because of that, so much was at stake. There was only so much a girl could take!

She couldn't help but wonder whether or not this was just a small lapse from the pain that was her life. Tomorrow brought uncertainty for the future, for even the existence of the future. It was make it or break it, and like always, there was nothing she could do. She was the helpless, good-for-almost-nothing teenager.

And now, a teenager without a home.

Sunnydale was gone. The only home Dawn had known for all her life was nothing but a pit of rubble. Even with the most optimistic perspective she couldn't muster a bright light at the end of the tunnel for herself. Where do we go from here? Sweet's final hurrah rang in her ears. Where would she go? Where would Buffy go? Would the Scoobies split up or stay together at the end of this? Was there even a point in asking this with the fate of the world resting on the two witches she loved most in the world? Her mind was a flurry of questions that just couldn't be answered.

Buffy glanced over at her sister, worried. But she didn't know what to do to comfort her. Her own problems loomed in front of her and it didn't feel right to try to help someone else when her own demons haunted her. Then again, since when did her feelings matter? Being the Slayer meant being selfless night after night, sacrificing social life and all the perks of the average teenager in exchange for being the hero nobody could ever know about. Any lapse in that mentality cost an innocent life. Seven years of her nocturnal white-knight-to-the-rescue act had taught her that.

She could put all that safely behind her now if she so wished to do. There were others who could take her place and she could live her life like she wanted to – normally. Buffy Summers would retreat into the crowd, into the background, into obscurity and let go of her responsibilities. She was going to stay around and help Angel, that was for sure, but in a lesser role. Angel would take her in, and she would work for him part time – or as part time as part time could get in fighting evil.

And who knew what would happen, given time. Buffy and Angel would never be able to have a conventional relationship or even a satisfying one in the sexual aspect…but they still had something. The spark was still there, just waiting to be fanned into a flame once more.

But thinking about that just led to guilt concerning all things Spike. There was no doubt that he had seen them kiss mere days ago, but he'd ignored it. He loved her, and he was a hero. He sacrificed himself for the world. Buffy wondered what the old Spike would have thought of that. He would have called himself a nancy. Gone all soft, he would have said.

She cared about him. She would admit that. First, he was her enemy, then, the recipient of all her frustration. And in time, he had become her lover…of nearly two years. She didn't love him, but there was something there too. Somehow, she just couldn't let it go. He was gone, burnt to ash, nothing anyone could do about it. She was supposed to move on now, right? Buffy the Vampire Slayer couldn't do that just yet.

She glanced over at Dawn, who sat beside her silent and sullen, gazing uninterestedly at the screen. Like many times before, Buffy put her arm around her sister, as if to protect her from everything. She knew that wasn't possible even with her all her ability, but she sure could try.

It seemed to be working though. Dawn responded, snuggling in closer to her official guardian, a faint smile gracing her features. They didn't do this too often, sibling rivalry and conflicts having gotten in the way earlier years. Not until the rude awakening when their mother had been so cruelly taken away from them had things changed between them. All they had to call family were each other, and they needed to treasure that.

And Buffy had done that. Their bond of sisterhood had given her the willpower to jump off the tower and what would have, and should have been the end of her life on earth. Dawn had been angry at Buffy for a long time for leaving her alone in the world, but in time, she had come to realize that it was because her sister loved her and not for any other reason that she had given her life. And it had made their relationship even stronger.

"What's gonna happen now?" Dawn asked.

It was a simple question, but it presented all sorts of problems for Buffy. Besides staying in LA, she honestly didn't know what was going to happen. So she told Dawn what she knew. "I'm going to stay here with Angel. Help out around the hotel, y'know?"

"Sounds cool," Dawn said quietly. She nodded.

Buffy waited for her to say more but nothing came. Great. One of the few times they needed to have serious talk and it's a one-way conversation. She rolled her eyes. It wasn't really anything big, but they needed to see this one through. "You have to stay with me until you graduate. You know that, right? I'm your big sis and official guardian."

It was Dawn's turn to roll her eyes at Buffy's 'I'm your guardian and sister' line. "All hail Big Sister Buffy." She mock-groveled in front of the Slayer. Their relationship was friendly and comfortable as well as a good mood-lifter at times.

Buffy laughed and pinned Dawn down, expertly tickling the helpless girl as she begged, howled, and wailed for reprieve. "Nuh uh, Dawnie," Buffy teased, pressing harder in attack.

"You're missing the best part," Andrew interrupted. Seeing that they were lost, he sighed and explained. "They've all been turned into pigs and Willow needs to use the wand and turn them back into humans. Are you even watching? You chose the movie…"

"Yeah, yeah, Andrew, we're watching," said Buffy, sitting back down on the couch and straightening her rumpled shirt. She cast a side-long glance at Dawn and they burst into laughter.

Andrew frowned and gave Xander a withering look for not helping him. The carpenter shrugged. "What? You wanna stop two hotties from tickling each other?" He was met with disapproving glances from the sisters. "In the sisterly sorta way!" he back-pedaled.

"Fine, fine, do what you want," Andrew grumbled, settling back down in front of the television. "But you're missing out."

"Okay, Andrew," Buffy sing-songed.

Dawn leaned her head on Buffy's shoulder, settling back into their former position. "Since when did you get so huggy?" Buffy asked.

"Since now," Dawn shrugged.

"You still haven't answered my question."

"You never asked me a question."

"Did too."

"Did not."

"Did too."

And it would have made for another tickle fight if Buffy decided to spare Andrew the stress of having to break them up again. "So I didn't then."

"Uh huh." Dawn smiled smugly, crossing her arms.

"So are you okay with staying here in LA with me?" Buffy asked.

There was a tense pause before Dawn nodded. "I just wanna be where you are."

They snuggled down to watch the rest of the movie contentedly.

The atmosphere in the study was all business. They sipped at bourbon, the sweet tang keeping them on their toes as they discussed the future of Slayerdom.

"We went to Phoenix and ran the streets there for two days or so." Angel and Wesley were relaying the results of their mission to Giles. "There were a few reports of vandalism and street girls with super-human strength that were terrorizing the community," said the vampire.

"We got in touch with the closest contact from what's left of the Watchers' Council – David Mitchell. He's agreed to try to get things under control there and continue searching for new Slayers," Wesley added.

"That's good," said Giles. "Have you, are you planning to make any other trips to locate others?"

"We were hoping you could help us there," Angel explained. "Dispatch some of the new Slayers to potential hotspots and they can keep an eye and ear out for news. Right now, Gunn's taken to the streets here in LA to do just that. He'll be reporting back in a few days with what he has."

"You're right." Giles wiped his glasses and replaced them. "It's essential that we locate these Slayers before they misuse their gift. They need to be trained to do good, not evil. A rogue Slayer, as we have all seen, is very dangerous. However, due to recent events, there's a considerable lack of capable Slayers around."

"We're hoping Gunn will solve that problem," said Wesley. "He's been around for a while and has some influence in the underground. When he gets back, God-willing, he will bring others with him that are ready to be trained here."

"Are you suggesting that we begin to train Slayers here in the Imperion?" Giles asked in disbelief.

"I don't see why not," Angel countered. "We have the facilities, we have the staff – all we need are students."

"It does seem very plausible," Giles mused.

"You do realize that we are basing all of our plans on hope?" Wesley asked realistically.

They paused, thinking that through. Slowly, they all made eye contact and nodded, having no choice but to accept what they had available to them. Angel picked up the flask of bourbon and refilled each of the glasses. He raised his own. "Here's to hoping."

The other two raised their cups in agreement. To hope – hope of victory tomorrow, hope of success in the field. There was nothing to do. All they could do was wait.

The movie was over. Dawn and Andrew retreated to their rooms, leaving Xander and Buffy sitting side by side on the couch. They had both lost someone special to them, and they felt alone in their thoughts. But they could relate to each other, and that was why they sat there together.

Xander's pain was obvious, his final goodbye to Anya far from what he had imagined it to be. It had been too short, too bitter, too accepting. He should have held onto her, not let her go. They were just beginning to mend their relationship when that Bringer brought down his blade and ended whatever hope was there.

Buffy's demeanor was next to emotionless. She stared blankly ahead of her, not being able to voice any of her thoughts to anybody, no matter how close. She wasn't ready, and she feared that what she needed to say about her relationship with Spike would drive Xander, everyone away. She knew he didn't approve of the vampire, and a few years ago, she wouldn't have either. But things had changed – everyone had changed.

She wouldn't talk even if she could. Her job tonight was to comfort her friend. Xander needed to let it out. His bitterness radiated from him in unrelenting waves and Buffy worried that it would lead to a bottomless pit of depression for her best friend.

"You need to let it out," she said. "It hurts. I know it does. I'm hurting too."

"I know," Xander answered. "It's hard though."

"Love's never easy," Buffy pointed out. "We all know that. There's never the fairy tale ending in real life. We can't expect that everything will be alright in the end, because almost all of the time, it isn't."

"Why do I need to know this?" Xander cut in. "I understand. I lost whatever real shot I had at a lifetime of happiness with Anya when I left her at the altar, and it took me almost a year for her to begin to open up again. I mean, what's this supposed to mean? Are the fates smiling cruelly down on me, cutting all my threads away one by one? It sure feels like that." He was crying again. The tears came proudly, proof of his feelings, proof of his humanity.

"When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, right?" Buffy wrapped her arms around Xander, letting him sob against her. "Anya loved you, loves you – she's here with you in spirit if nothing else."

"It just hurts so much," he cried. "Hurts so damn much and I feel like it's eating me from the inside out. I don't know how to live without her. She made the truth so clear, even when she shouldn't have." He rested his head on her shoulder and smiled bitterly, returning the embrace. "She embarrassed me without trying to more times than I can remember. She annoyed me more than anybody else I know. And…if I loved her anymore, I think my little heart would break." He laughed. "Imagine that."

"I could," Buffy said quietly. "Since the beginning, you're the one who's always been there for me, even when you I told you not to. You've done things that nobody asks you to do. Xander, you have the biggest heart in the world."

He pulled back and gazed thoughtfully at her for a moment, looking like a lost child searching vainly for an answer. "How'd things get so bad, Buff?" asked Xander. "Things weren't so bad a few years ago."

Buffy couldn't answer that. Something held her back – perhaps her own questions and doubts. All she could do to comfort her friend was cry with him. And so she did that.

They cried together until there was nothing left to cry, and then sat there on the couch, just holding each other. There was no romantic interest on either side anymore – just a sibling love that came from the deep friendship they shared.

Fred bravely posted vigil over Kennedy late into the night despite the others' warnings. They described her as violent, angry, and unpredictable, but Fred didn't see that in the injured Slayer lying before her on the bed.

Kennedy was withdrawn and seemed confused, as if she didn't know what to do in her situation. Fred couldn't relate, but she imagined she would be angry if she were her – not confused or withdrawn. From what she'd heard about Kennedy's personality, she'd expected Kennedy to be caught up in plans of fiery vengeance, or perhaps even carrying them out right this moment.

But no – instead she lay there on the bed, seeming to have given up. Was it that she felt Willow didn't care for her? She did. Fred knew she did. Back when the redhead had visited them she had had feelings for Kennedy, even at the beginning of their relationship. Fred could sense those kinds of things. Maybe Kennedy needed to know that.

"I just wanted to tell you, Kennedy," said Fred, "Willow cares about you. She loves Tara, but she still cares about you."

Kennedy knew that already, but she didn't say anything. She didn't want to. She cared for Willow too, and that was what was making this decision so hard for her. Before, it had always been easy. Just do what Hades said, and look forward to the future happiness that was promised to her. Stupid conscience. Damn humanity.

She looked away.

Fred sighed. Kennedy's unresponsiveness had been consistent throughout the evening and up to this point, and despite her patience, it was getting to the scientist. "So…" She went to her last resort – small talk. "How did you get to Sunnydale?"

Hades, Kennedy thought bitterly. I was told to go, and I went, like the good little servant I am.

"Okay then." Fred tried one last time to provoke a response. "What did you do before Sunnydale? Just school? Were you interested in anything or was it training with your Watcher every day?"

Kennedy almost smiled at that. Fred was so innocent and sweet. That the girl could try to sympathize with her even though they were practically strangers reminded her of Tara…who was no doubt making good use of what would most likely be her last night on earth.

Kennedy still vividly remembered her own last night with Julia. The desperate holding and kissing – the knowing that it was their last time together. She had broken her promise to her love long ago, when she decided to do Hades' work in exchange for Julia. That last night, Kennedy had promised Julia to not let their separation be for naught, but her love for her soulmate was too much.

Julia would have to forgive her. She had to.

Fred didn't like silence. She couldn't stand talking into a void, and that was Kennedy right now. There was nothing she could do if the girl chose to remain like this. She couldn't make the choice for her. Sighing again, she left the room, hoping that Kennedy would change with the morrow.

Once Fred left the room, Kennedy sat up. She looked straight ahead of her, trying to conjure an image of her love. Long ago, it had been simple to do so, but now, it was almost as if she couldn't remember enough of Julia to imagine her. It had been too long.

The image of Julia always brought Kennedy peace, even in the darkest of times. Why not now, when she needed her most?

A single tear rolled down her cheek.

Kennedy touched it. She hadn't cried for over a century. Her tough façade wasn't just a show – she needed it to carry out what she needed to. Her iron will enabled her to watch as countless innocents sacrificed their souls in the name of love – and she, the first, stood by watching, stony faced.

Why was she so hesitant when it came to Willow and Tara? They weren't different from any of the others – lovers, soulmates trying to preserve their love. Kennedy had once been that too. She had been no different – and look where she was now.

They didn't deserve different. They were going to fight Hades – either way, Willow and Tara would be together. That wasn't so bad. There were worse fates than what they were facing.

With that, Kennedy decided. She would do as Hades said, and she would win Julia back to her. There would be a happy ending for all the witches. And they would have her to thank.

Chapter Fourteen

An hour before the spell was to be cast, Tara sneaked off to Kennedy's room. She brought with her some healing tea that would reduce the pain she knew the Slayer was in. She wanted to help her, to ease Kennedy's evident hurting. Even if she didn't know how to, she had to try.

As she entered, Kennedy looked up. "Hey," said Tara. "I-I brought you some tea. It'll stop the pain for a bit."

"Thanks," Kennedy answered quietly. Tara's appearance surprised her. She should've been preparing the spell. The blonde Wiccan continued to prove why she had so easily won Willow's love. But despite her affection for Tara, she would still go forward with her plans. The blonde's appearance merely provided her with the opportunity to do so. Tara, whichever way she chose to look at it, was playing right into her hands.

"I'm sorry." Tara turned her head from preparing the cup of tea, having come to apologize in the first place. "Maybe I shouldn't have come. It must hurt for you to see me." She turned her back to Kennedy, preparing to leave.

"No." Kennedy stopped the blonde from leaving. "I should be sorry. You have no reason to apologize, Tara. I've been a bitch to both you and Will." Her eyes pleaded with Tara for forgiveness. "Can we put what I've done behind us?"

She didn't want to mean it, but deep down, she knew she did.

"It's okay, Kennedy," Tara soothed. She hated the sadness in the Slayer's eyes. She wanted to make it better. "I would be mad if I were you. I mean, if you loved somebody, but that person loved someone else…anybody would be angry. Nobody can blame you for how you feel. It's human."

It's human. The words resonated through Kennedy's mind like a poison. She hated the feeling of humanity. It made her weak, unsure, incapable. But it was what she had been – and what she still was, in essence. No matter how much she hated it, she couldn't ignore what the remnants of her soul told her – that what she was doing was wrong. Only her love drove her forward. Her love for Julia gave her control over her actions and would give her strength for what she would need to do.

"Willow gave me all I could ever hope for," Kennedy lied, trying to comfort Tara. "I guess I need to be happy with what I have."

"She's attracted to you, Kennedy," Tara stated, "and I know I should be jealous, but I'm not. You're beautiful and kind. I would have loved for Willow to be with you if things were different. You would have taken care of her." Tara sat down on the side of the bed, handing Kennedy her tea. "Here, drink this. You'll feel better."

Kennedy took a long sip. The tea worked instantly, cooling the boiling blood around her gashes and filling her with gentle warmth from head to toe. "Thanks." She dove back into the Willow-focused discussion. "Willow loves you, though, and I can see why. You're so gently and loving – I mean, look at how I treated you two when you came in to see me. If I were you, I'd be beating the shit out of me. But you see past all that. Willow chose you for a reason. She fell in love with you because you're amazing."

Tara blushed, looking away momentarily. "Thank you."

Kennedy continued to sip at the tea. "I wish I had time to get to know you better, Tara," she whispered.

"What does that mean?" Tara arched an eyebrow.

Kennedy moaned, her back arching off the bed as her face contorted in a grimace of pain. Her fingers loosened their grip on the cup and it dropped to the floor, shattering instantly.

"Kennedy, what's wrong?" Tara stood up, knocking her chair down in the process, staring down in bewilderment at the brunette.

The Slayer cried out, her limbs flailing out and grasping at the bed post, her body all the while writhing from side to side as if trying to escape from an invisible opponent. Her eyes blinked open and closed inhumanly fast, her mouth opened now in a silent scream. Her left hand swung out, fist narrowly missing Tara but connecting with the bedside drawer, knocking it over.

"Sorry," she whispered as her body slowly relaxed and her head rolled to one side, her eyes closing as she let out one final laboured breath. Tara knew without a doubt that Kennedy was dead.

As the others rushed in having heard the screaming, she sank to the floor. Had she mixed the healing potion wrong? Had she misread the labels in the herb supply? She must have. Kennedy was dead – and it was her fault.

"Kennedy." Willow ran in, her hand clasping over her mouth as she stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of her ex's prone body on the bed. "Is she –"

"She's dead," Giles declared, checking Kennedy's pulse. He looked at the cup on the floor. There was an assortment of herbs and flowers in the mixture, but his sharp eyes picked out the lethal digitalis among them. "Sh-she was poisoned."

"It's my fault," Tara admitted in a whispered. All eyes in the room turned to her in disbelief. "I-I made the healing tea…I must have made it wrong. I-I…I killed her."

Kennedy approached Hades, her gait confident, but cautious. Her heart was troubled with what she had done, but it had been needed – no way around it.

From where he lay on the couch, Hades clapped his hands together, an amused smile on his salient features. "Excellent work, Kennedy!" He laughed. "You have far exceeded my expectations." He applauded her once again. "Observe your handiwork."

He gestured, and a window of mist formed – a window back to the Imperion. It was horrible. Kennedy felt as if a whip were lashing out at her for every tear on Willow and Tara's faces as they wept, one in disbelief and anger, the other distraught and confused.

Willow was staring mutely at her lover, not being able to form words for what Tara had done. She was torn between comforting her love and giving her what she felt she deserved – the extent of her anger.

Tara lay curled into a ball on the floor, rocking back and forth as she sobbed "I did it" over and over. Kennedy's humanity reached out to the witch, all the while inwardly punishing herself for inflicting such pain on an innocent. She had to hold back the tears, not being allowed to show any emotion in front of her Master.

Meanwhile, her gaze wandered off to her own body, lifeless on the bed, supposedly murdered. It disturbed her. Kennedy's limbs hung out at odd angles, proof of the death spasms she must have had. Still, her face seemed peaceful, free of pain – ironic that she was the cause of all the discord in the room.

With a wave of his hand, the images disappeared and Hades turned back to Kennedy, still grinning. "Pure genius," he declared. "Poisoning yourself while the white's back was turned. The pain was great, I hope?"

"As always, Master." Kennedy bowed her head. Pain was a blessing, Hades had taught her. It was only in pain that could you perform to your highest potential.

"Come, Kennedy." Hades stretched luxuriously before lifting himself up from his seat and walked gracefully to the door. He turned and looked at her, his eyes alight with excitement. "We have much to prepare for." He gestured for her to follow.

"Yes, Master." She did as she was told.

But as she reached the entrance, he rose up in all his fury, towering high above her. "See that this is my victory," he warned, his height and fire dwindling already. He put his hands together, smiling menacingly. "Your happiness is at stake here."

Kennedy bowed her head, knowing it was true. Her performance here would determine her future. "I know, Master. I will not fail you."

Hades nodded. "That's right. Keep your eyes on the prize."

Back in the room, all eyes still rested on Tara.

"Tara? What's going on?" Willow kept her eyes to the floor, not being able to look her love in the face.

"I…I don't know," Tara whispered. "I-I must have mixed my healing tea wrong, and it…" She trailed off, not being able to form the words proclaiming Kennedy's fate.

"She's the only one who could've done it," Buffy said quietly, resigned.

"It was digitalis," Giles explained. "The flower, when taken in a concentrated form, can cause your heart to swell up and if not treated within seconds of consumption, will lead to a painful death." He kept his eyes carefully trained on the body, not wanting to believe that the gentle blonde could do such a thing. Tara, from his experience, was the most careful person he knew. She almost never made a mistake. Also, digitalis was not a flower normally found in magick supplies. He didn't want to tell anyone, but the only conclusion he could come up with was that Tara had murdered Kennedy. "Tara…Willow…you can't let this come between what you must do."

"It was an accident." Tara was no longer crying, but her eyes betrayed her utter despair at having taken a life, even in accident.

"There's no time to figure this out," Giles declared, determined to stay strong for everyone. "You must challenge Hades in a few minutes."

Tara nodded, staring mutely down at the floor. She got up and walked to the door.

"We'll deal with Kennedy." Her ears picked up Faith's mumbled words to Buffy.

Willow followed Tara outside and touched her arm hesitantly. She led her down to the basement staircase and sat down, hands folded in front of her, still not looking at the blonde. Her shoulders were hunched up, body tensed tightly in.

Tara obediently trailed behind her. She knew this was hurting the redhead in so many ways. She wanted to make it better, but she couldn't…she was the cause of this pain.

"Why'd you do it?" she asked. Her voice came out as a harsh breath and she raised a hand to wipe away fresh tears.

"I-I…" Tara didn't know what to say. The mistake was hers, and although she hadn't meant it, it was done. Kennedy was gone. Willow had all the right to blame her.

"Were you jealous, baby?" Willow looked up, an almost vacant glaze over her eyes. "Did you think I would choose Ken over you?"

"Of course not!" Tara captured her gaze and wouldn't let it go. She pleaded silently with Willow to understand. "I would never doubt that –"

"You're the only one who could've done it, Tara!" Willow's eyes hardened. "You know that I care for her. There was no way I was going to leave you – why'd you have to freakin' kill her?"

"I…I didn't mean to, Will." Tara reached out to the redhead, placing a hesitant hand on her shoulder. "Please…you've gotta understand." She couldn't touch her any more than she was – not without Willow's consent.

Willow stared at Tara's hand for a while, not knowing what to do. She was angry, confused as hell – but intentionally killing Kennedy…that wasn't a Tara thing to do. She had to block this out right now. They had something important to do. "I don't know what's going on here," she said firmly after a few seconds, "but we'll figure it out after." She took Tara's hand in her own and kissed it. "I love you, a million kittens."

"I love you too." Tara hugged Willow tightly to herself as she let her tears flow. "I'm sorry…I'm sorry for this happening."

"I'll always forgive you in the end," Willow whispered softly into her ear. She kissed Tara's cheek. "C'mon. We've gotta go."

They rose up together and climbed the stairs. Tara squeezed Willow's hand, trying to give the both of them strength. They were going to need it.

"Promise me, Ken. Promise me."

They stood together quietly, off to the side. Only a few minutes remained now. Kennedy held Julia to her, not wanting to let her go. She knew she would have to. They had no choice. It was for the greater good.

"Remember our reason of existence," Julia pleaded. "Remember our love."

Remember our love…Kennedy vowed in her heart never to forget. "I promise, Jules. I promise."

"I love you." Julia drew back, gazing into a sea of brown. "Forever."

"You'll be the song in my heart. Nothing will extinguish the fire which is my love for you." Kennedy leaned down, capturing Julia's lips in a desperate kiss.

It's time. They both knew their time was up. Julia wrapped her arms around Kennedy for the last time. The clock was ticking. They would make use of and treasure what they had left.

Finally they drew apart and walked hand in hand to the circle. Strong and sure, Julia stepped into the center, her head held high as she eyed the gnarled demon hatefully.

Hades grinned and winked.

It took all the strength Kennedy possessed to keep herself from directing the deathblow into the hellgod. She knew it would be in vain. It would only satisfy her anger, something trivial in comparison to what was at stake here.

Trembling, she raised the knife that materialized in her hand and began to chant…

Hand in hand they stepped into the circle over candles outlining the shape. The others stood off to the side, leaving the center of the room as bare as the ring on the boarded floor.

Silently, they sat facing each other, clearing their minds of all thought.

Willow began the chant.

Nos dico vos, custodis abyssus. In nomen polus, nos requiro vestri celebratio.

Tara followed, repeating the spell.

Nos dico vos, custodis abyssus. In nomen polus, nos requiro vestri celebratio.

They repeated it together, their voices rising in crescendo throughout.

Nos dico vos, custodis abyssus. In nomen polus, nos requiro vestri celebratio.

The candles surrounding them flared up in bright flame and the witches fell back.

All was silent as the group stared at the burning fire signifying that Willow and Tara lived. They could only wait.

Willow and Tara stood in a black void. Darkness surrounded them. They did not show their fear, but it was there in overwhelming force. Wherever they looked, there was nothing – nothing upon nothing upon nothing.

Suddenly, they were no longer alone. Hades materialized across from them in all his terror, chuckling.

"Greetings, Black and White." He nodded to Willow. "We meet again." He waved his hands, creating a dark dungeon-like setting. "Come to play, have you?"

They didn't answer. His presence was confident, powerful. They couldn't let him intimidate them more. Quickly, they began to chant. "Nostrum vinculum amor mos expello vos ex is plagiarius."

Hades threw his head back, roaring in laughter. "You cannot beat me, mortals! Your hearts are not pure." He folded his hands in front of him, a sinister grin on his face.

Tara stopped, the words unable to flow out from her mouth any longer. Kennedy. Once again, the guilt hit her full on. She was not pure. Hades was right. Willow. She looked over at the redhead in desperation. He's right.

It's okay, Willow thought back fiercely. We'll do this. Inwardly, she knew Hades was right as well. Tara killed Kennedy. She had to forgive her, but she couldn't! Not so soon. They were not pure. "Goddamn it," she cursed.

Hades nodded. "That's right, Black. You think you're special?" He shook his head, tutting mockingly. "All who challenge me get this far."

They tried again. "Nostrum vinculum amor mos expello vos ex is plagiarius. Nostrum amor est validus. Nostrum amor mos non intereo. Nostrum amor reluctor vos." Hades didn't even stop them this time. The spell did nothing.

"Ow." The hellgod pouted. "I'm hurt." He snapped his fingers and immediately, his terrible aura flared up, burning the witches. "You are weak. The Powers chose weaklings." He sneered.

"Will, something's wrong." Tara glanced over at her lover. "Something's really wrong. The spell didn't work." Their hands were clasped together so tightly that their fingers were white. It wasn't working. I love you, Will. Through anything, even this. Stay strong, she encouraged.

Willow nodded. Let's get him.

In sync, they lifted their hands, together forming a strong wind. It lashed out at Hades, knocking him off his feet.

"Better," he applauded. He hurled the spell back at them, but they erected a shield.

Hades cocked his head to the side. "Alright then. We can play a game then." He raised his hand, a purple fire igniting in the palm. Willow saw it coming and tried to pull Tara out of the way but she failed to keep her balance, throwing them right in the path of the incoming ball of flame.

But there was no pain. Willow checked Tara out. "Are you okay?"

Tara nodded, hugging the redhead tightly to her. "Where'd he go?" Hades was gone.

"Never mind him," Willow sighed, thankful they were safe for the time being. She didn't want to let go of Tara, the blonde's steadily beating heart reassuring her. "Are you okay?" Willow glanced worriedly up and down her body, checking for injury.

"I'm fine," Tara assured with a frown. "Absolutely fine. I don't get it. Something's really wrong here…"

"C'mere." Willow soothingly gathered the blonde into her arms in what she knew would very likely be a vain attempt to comfort her, all the while keeping her perceptions alert to Hades' return. "I love you. A-and before whatever happens next…I wanna tell you that you're my always, my love, forever – no matter what." She smiled wanly. "It's like I can't get tired of saying that to you." Tara opened her mouth, panic in her eyes, but Willow silenced her with a gentle finger. "Just hold on, I need to say this. I don't know if you killed Kennedy, and maybe I'm not ready to let that go just yet – but I know I will, because I need you more than anything in the world. Everything's gonna be alright." She didn't know that, but it seemed like the right thing to say, and she knew she wanted it to be true. They would get through this. They would win. And they would prosper.

"Will it?" Tara whispered. "I don't know, Will."

Willow knew something was horribly amiss here. Tara's blue eyes grew darker and darker as the seconds passed, uninhibited lust threatening to devour her brimming, barely being held back by the witch. Throughout her last words, Tara's voice had been dropping lower and lower, and as the blonde pulled back to stare unabashedly into her eyes, panic ignited in Willow.

"T-Tara?" she questioned, shaking. "What's happening?"

"I-I…I don't know." The blonde's eyes re-focused and looked down at trembling hands. She gritted her teeth together, beads of sweat dripping down her forehead, so great was the exertion of effort and willpower she was using to keep in whatever force attacked her.

"Tara!" Willow yelled, her voice unconsciously rising in her fear and uncertainty. "Tara?"

"Stay away, Will," Tara almost growled. She clenched her fists, unclenched them, clenched them again. "I can't hold it back much longer."

"Hold what back?" Willow asked dumbly. She knew. It was Hades. She knew she should do as she was told and move away, but she couldn't bring herself to let go of Tara. What would happen to her love if she did? Willow couldn't let go. She just couldn't. "It's gonna be okay." There was nothing else she could say. She had to at least try to help. She prodded gently into Tara's mind, trying to tap into the core of struggle, to relieve the tension – anything. But she was forcefully pushed out.

"No," Tara stated evenly – or what might have been evenly if it weren't for the unfocused inflection in her voice. She roughly shoved Willow back, away. Anywhere but near her. "Get back, Will, I'm warning you!" She cursed under her breath, teeth gritted, body now pitched forward, limbs pushed into the ground. She resembled an animal, a predator, preparing to attack her prey.

Now Willow began to backpedal quite vigorously. Tara was advancing upon her, a pained chase as the blonde would poise to pounce then take control of herself once more before falling under the powerful influence Willow knew Hades held over her. C'mon, Baby, pull out of this. Fight him. Tara, if she so wished to do so, had the power to do terrible things to Willow, as could Willow to Tara.

They would never abuse their powers under any circumstance, had vowed they would never, but Tara was helpless in this situation…and consequently, so was Willow. She was essentially helpless to Tara's powers if the blonde's puppet master wished to use them. She could never lay a finger on her love.

It was an eternal dance. Predator and prey moving away and towards each other until finally, the chase ended.

Tara was on top of Willow in a second, kissing, biting, devouring her lips, her neck…her Willow. Her hands groped, squeezed, clawed painfully over soft skin, leaving angry red marks wherever they passed over.

Willow cried out as Tara bit down into her neck. She was pinned to the ground, arms held magically above her head – and Tara taking whatever she wanted. She couldn't fight back. Tara would have her way with her. But every bite, every lick, every second this continued, Willow and Tara died a little more.

But suddenly, it stopped and Tara was staring down at her, panting. Their tears mingled on Willow's cheeks as unspoken words flashed between them.

"I'm sorry," Tara whispered. Quivering, she brushed away the redhead's tears. It hurt to touch her, to know that she had done horrible things to her love. Her fingers caressed the swollen tooth marks adorning Willow's neck. "I'm s-so so sorry."

It was taking control of her again. She could feel the animal lust welling up inside of her, relentless waves crashing against the shores of her resolve – and she couldn't hold it off long. Her mind screamed, ordered her body to stop, but she was a prisoner trapped, caged insider herself – a helpless observer to her actions.

Willow smiled through her tears, shaking hands reaching up to lovingly cup wet cheeks. She did the only thing she knew how to do. Wincing, she lifted herself up and still trembling, brushed infinitely soft lips together. They moved their mouths slowly, savouring the ephemeral love, wanting, needing to prolong this reprieve…

…until Hades intervened once more.

Tara could only scream silently, watching as she took pleasure from Willow, made her cry out, made her scream. She was violating Willow's body, Willow's soul, Willow's trust. It made her want to vomit. But she couldn't. She didn't have control of her physical being.

This was her fault. If only she could be stronger, could fight harder, could save them from this. But she couldn't. She wasn't able to.

And then she was fucking her, forcing her fingers through dry wrinkled skin, growling as she didn't find what she wanted. She pumped her fingers in and out, in and out, searching, craving, forcing Willow's arousal.

In pain, Willow screamed. She was trying to remain strong, but her resilience was waning. She knew it wasn't Tara's fault, but this was breaking her thrust by thrust. To see such moral disregard in Tara's actions hurt her so much, but she couldn't be angry. They were both victims here. She wanted to be strong for Tara, to lend her strength, even if she needed to save that for herself. It wouldn't help her here. She had to help Tara.

Up until this point, Willow had resisted Tara's advances. She could feel, hear her body, screaming to be aroused but found within herself an impossible spring of persistence that refused to give in. But she knew that as long as she continued to hold back, so as long as Tara would continue her torture. So slowly, she let herself ebb away into nothingness, giving in to Hades, rising above the pain, above all feeling. She had to help Tara. She had to end it.

Willow thrust her hips up into Tara's fingers, gyrating, writhing, opening herself.

Willow, don't! Tara's soul screamed. She saw the redhead giving up – she couldn't. They had to fight! They couldn't give up…

But there was nothing either of them could do.

Tara roughly captured Willow's mouth once more, sucking and biting, drawing blood. The crimson taste slid across her senses, stimulating, arousing all the more. Inside, she could see only the blood, the red, and more red. They distinct salty flavour provided such ecstasy, such pleasure to her, an orgasm of taste. It was all she could perceive.

The blonde lay half on top of the redhead, one hand supporting her weight, the other pushing below, in and out, in and out, deeper in and deeper in. Willow merely lay spread-eagle on her back, tears flooding down her cheeks.

She had been crying so long, so hard that the ground around them was stained wet – wet with tears, wet with sweat, ripe with poignant smell of pain.

Willow's body responded mutely, her arousal slowly building, being allowed to be built, rising drop by drop in an excruciating trek to the peak. Every moment was an uphill battle; to climb higher was to violate every principle that existed in their minds – but there was no way to go but up.

Then at last, it ended. Willow screamed as she came and Tara fell on top of her panting, crying. The scent of sex hung like a cloud above them, around them, in them, permeating their skin and into their souls. It was dirty, disgusting, vile.

Tara could feel Willow beneath her, could smell her tears, smell her cum, smell her pain. And she couldn't stand it. Summoning the last vestiges of her strength, she lifted herself off of Willow. She didn't want to be near her, was scared of what Hades might make her do if she were.

But the one moment she was directly above the redhead, her horrible work spread beneath her, the bile that had been unable to come out before shot out of her and she was barely able to turn her head to the side before heaving out the contents of her stomach. When she had finished retching and coughing, she rolled to the other side so that she was lying beside Willow and not on top of her.

Her nose was clogged and she could hear the keening wail coming from her throat. She couldn't breathe, but she didn't care. Tara didn't want to.

Willow felt hollow, still helpless. She was both mentally and physically exhausted, hurt. But it wasn't Tara's fault, she told herself again. Willow had seen, felt, smelled, heard the horrible things done to her by the hand of the one she loved, yet she couldn't blame Tara. Neither of them had wanted this to happen.

But she had tried, tried to enter Tara's mind, to combine her strength with Tara's…and been shut out at every door she tried. It was like Tara hadn't wanted and hadn't let her share whatever turmoil broiled beneath her exterior. It bothered Willow that Tara didn't trust that she could handle it.

The two witches lay side-by-side, unable to touch each other. It hurt too much. They were broken in every way. Guilt-stricken, horror-stricken, grief-stricken they were. But they weren't finished. They came to this dimension to do something, and they had to finish it. The world's well-being rested on their shoulders. No matter how huge the burden, they were charged to carry it, and they would. Their pain was secondary to this.

It was a struggle, but they stood, looking around for their nemesis.

Mocking applause sounded from behind them. They turned quickly and there he stood, smirk on his face, leaning casually against a hooded figure. An obedient shadow, it stood still and silent beside Hades, body neutral.

"Fallen so easily, just like the rest." Hades tutted. "I expected the Powers to save the best for last. Perhaps, I was mistaken." His mouth curled down in a sort of disappointed pout, laughable in other circumstances, but just sadistic and cruel here.

Willow and Tara knew what to do. It would be painful, but they had to. There was no other way. Trembling and wincing at the moment of contact, they joined hands. The warm and comforting feeling of reassurance this normally brought was absent, replaced by a cold hollow hole of discord and uncertainty. They weren't comfortable with each other. How could they be after what had happened? The future was clouded in obscurity, in a place where neither could go to right now; there were much more important things at stake.

"Nostrum vinculum amor mos expello vos ex is plagiarius. Nostrum amor est validus. Nostrum amor mos non intereo. Nostrum amor reluctor vos." As they had come to expect, it didn't work.

"You aren't pure," Hades explained, spreading his hands before him as if trying to make them understand. The putrid scent of false concern radiated from his eyes. "Your love is strained. You need to overcome these restricting hurdles!"

There was nothing they could do anymore. Tara wouldn't forgive herself, and at this point, they could barely touch each other. How could they win this? Willow looked frantically at the blonde. She searched the indentations of her dimples, the depths of blue in her eyes, seeking re-assurance. There was nothing but fear and haunt.

"W-Will, what are we gonna do?" Tara whispered. Long gone was any strength, any poise. Here, fear drenched through, soaking the atmosphere, her aura. And she was crying again.

"We're not gonna be able to do this, are we…" Willow admitted.

Tara slowly shook her head. "There's t-too much to work through." She shuddered as she tried to squeeze Willow's hand. Her fingers were cold and shaking. "I'm s-so sorry."

Hades sighed. "I guess you're right. Alright then." He smiled. "No more games." Leisurely, he raised his hand, palm-up. "Y'know, I take great in pleasure in doing this. It gives me a sense of triumph, a taste of vengeance. Your masters are a bunch of manipulative wretches too used to power. They don't care about anybody but themselves. That's why you're here. You may be innocents in the scheme of things, but I'm going to devour your loveliness as they look on, and I'm going to enjoy every moment of it."

They could sense the power welling up inside and around him, malleable to his will, there at his beck and call. A mere thought would send that destructive energy hurtling towards them. It whirled menacingly, teasing, winding, building to be sent forward to do the hellgod's bidding. Building and building, it grew in its intensity, reared back –

"Stop." A calm voice pierced the ominous silence. "Master."

It was the shadowy figure, all but forgotten, smirking from beneath her, for she was most definitely a female judging from her voice, hood. "A moment, please."

Something about her voice struck Willow as familiar. In fact, she knew whose voice it belonged to.


The supposedly-dead Slayer stood in front of them now, hood thrown back, arms crossed over her chest.

Hades chuckled. "Finally chose to speak up, I see.

"Yes, Master."

"Would you like to play, my treasure? They are helpless now."

"I wouldn't have stopped you if I didn't."

Hades began to move away, retreating into the shadows. "Kill them when you're done. I will watch your handiwork from afar."

Willow stared indignantly at the brunette. A slow fear crept coldly up her back. "W-who are you?" she squeaked out in her smallest voice. The Kennedy she knew wasn't like this. Kennedy, she knew, had her faults, but was never like this…so mocking, so sadistic, so cruel.

"Don't you know, Will?" She pouted, her expression much like her master's. "I'm disappointed. I thought you would have figured it out by now."

"Y-you're the F-First," Tara whispered. Her head hung low, eyes facing the ground, unable to look up from the anger and guilt in her eyes. She had been used in so many ways, and she hadn't been smart enough to see it sooner. Not until it was already too late.

"Smart girl," Kennedy commended. "I was the First, am the First. You could say I'm your older sister." Suddenly, the relaxed expression of cynicism on her face shifted to one of frighteningly focused hatred. "The Powers, they sacrificed us first, gave us to Hades in exchange for their meager existence. They threw us at him like worthless trinkets, offered us up as penance for their weakness, and we went like the little obedient servants we were." Her expression once again softened, this time to one of regret and loss. It reflected a glimpse of her true suffering. "But I saved her from this. I wouldn't let her give herself in my stead. So I killed her." She inhaled dramatically, exhaling particles of dark matter. "Now, I am the most powerful witch in existence." She giggled, bringing her hand to her lips to partially cover the disdainful look on her features. "And you are my playmates."

She snapped her fingers, and immediately a ring of fire rose up around the pair. The silhouette of Kennedy stood framed by tongues of red, orange, and yellow, licking around her, welcoming her.

The intense explosion of heat seared Willow and Tara's flesh. The ring slowly closed in around them, inch by inch, painstakingly slow, leering and frightening. It threatened to consume them. The flames leaned in, whispering tales of eternal ache and hurt to them, telling them what was in store.

They feared it, this fire. It would burn away all their goodness and leave them with a shell of themselves – ghouls of the dark. They shrank away, raising limbs to protect sensitive faces from scorching.

"Are you scared yet?" Kennedy yelled. "This is how I felt when I found out I was going to hell!" Her bitterness captured her entire being and wrapped so deeply into her anger, she lashed out with all the force of her mind.

Willow and Tara conjured a shield which deflected the brunt of the dark energy, but despite their efforts Kennedy's mind was too powerful. The spears of matter battered against their dual-source energy, eating away at the essence until there was nothing to protect them any longer.

And then, there was only pain – excruciating currents running up and down, left and right, over and over again, traveling throughout their veins in a never ending cycle. All senses were slowly stripped away, deteriorating under the steady flow of energy until only one sense remained – a scream of incoherent high-pitched pain.

"Why?" Willow cried out. "Why would you do this?" The hum of delirium grew louder at a steady crescendo, but she needed to know this as inviting as delirium was at the moment. What could make a pure lover become so twisted? What could cause such remorse and anger? Willow was angry, but not just at Kennedy, or Tara, even. She was angry at her masters, the so-called benevolent Powers That Be. She had never seen the other side of the battle, always following like an obedient puppy whatever the higher beings requested, like it was all she was made to do. Honestly, she was tired of this, constantly being used as a puny pawn in plans of the bigger picture that she couldn't see. She was tired of having to constantly fight for her life. She was tired of constantly having to worry about tomorrow.

Above all, Willow was tired of being supernatural. Willow just wanted to be normal.

"Why?" Kennedy put her hand to her chin, as if entertaining the thought for the first time. She once again snapped her fingers, releasing them from their torture. Gasping for air, taking in the sweetness of much-missed oxygen, Willow and Tara collapsed to the ground.

Kennedy walked leisurely up to them and knelt down beside Tara, who was only semi-conscious still. A cool smooth hand reached up to stroke the unresponsive blonde's cheek. She turned to Willow. "Do you love her, Will?" she asked, cocking her head to the side.

There was nothing Willow could do but nod.

"If you lost her, you would do anything to get her back, right?"

She nodded.

Nonchalantly, the brunette dragged her nails across Tara's cheek. The blonde moaned, the sting jarring her from the momentary bliss of oblivion. Kennedy glanced down at the witch, a fleeting sad smile flashing across her face. Her head snapped back up at Willow. "Did you feel that?" she hissed. "Did you feel that sting when I hurt her?"

She had. What was very likely only a light scratch had struck right across her soul; Tara's cry had broken her heart.

Kennedy looked away. "Every moment for a thousand years, Julia has cried for me," she said softly. "Can you begin to fathom my pain, children?"

"Y-you've been alone for so long." It came no louder than a whisper, barely louder than a breath. Tara, broken-bodied, broken-souled, broken-minded, raised a trembling hand to Kennedy's. "I-I u-understand. You h-have to be with t-the one you l-love."

Willow recalled an afternoon not so long ago when those words had been directed towards her – the day she made the biggest decision of her life.

"Y-you n-need to b-be, or else, you c-can't survive," Tara murmured. "It's s-so painful, unbear-rable, and you'll do anything to g-get rid of that feeling."

"What would you know?" Kennedy yelled. She slapped Tara hard across the jaw, sending her body a few feet to the left, limp. Willow distinctly heard a bone break.

Kennedy's anger had flared up again, but she hid the regret flawlessly. Her reunion with Julia depended on her performance here. Even now, he watched her closely from just under the cover of darkness. Hades didn't trust her, never did. They only thing that kept her in check was Julia, her greatest blessing, her greatest sorrow. This was all for her.

She didn't want to do this, didn't want to hurt Tara or Willow. Kennedy had always been the gentle one. She had been the white in her and Julia's coupling. She had been the purity. And she had given that up for this – for this hell. She just wanted it to end. No more loneliness, no more longing, no more misery. Just Julia – with her, forever, like they were supposed to be.

Her slight weakness must have been observed by Tara as the blonde lifted herself up so that she was facing Kennedy, a trying endeavour in her state. "Your p-pain, Kennedy, it pours off of you. You m-miss h-her. You've been without her for s-so long. Y-you want…want to touch her, to just h-hold her. A-and it's okay to feel like that. That's l-love."

"Don't tell me what to do, bitch!" Now Tara was off the ground, held aloft by a renewed burst of dark energy. Kennedy's hand was shaped into a claw, slowly tightening, suffocating the blonde.

"No!" Willow screamed. "Please, Ken, don't!" It pained her so much to see this happening. She'd admitted to herself that day that she cared for Kennedy, and seeing two people she loved suffer – she couldn't take it. She was in both their positions, and once again, helpless. It was becoming a recurring thought. Helplessness, not being able to do anything for anybody. Her body, mind and soul screamed out to Tara, her unadulterated valiance being the cause for her pain, but she couldn't do a thing, so weak was she in her wrecked condition. And her sympathy reached out towards Kennedy. She could feel her loneliness, had experienced that loneliness. It was like a quicksand, surrounding you and inviting you into its clutches – never letting you go but making you sink deeper and deeper until there was only you and the sand.

"Please, Kennedy…" she begged. "Let her go!"

Kennedy gritted her teeth inwardly, but shook her head.

"K-Kennedy." Tara persevered, despite the pain. "It's…okay to love someone this much." Her voice had been soft to begin with, but with the added pressure of Kennedy's mind, it was reduced to a hoarse whispered hack.

But an idea had formed in the back of her mind – their only chance at survival, and if not their own, perhaps that of the world and their loved ones. It was risky, but in her panic, this was the only idea she had left. "But…but th-think about…the rest of the world," she pleaded. She had to make Kennedy change; it was the only way. Willow and her couldn't do this; not if Kennedy wouldn't let them. She was too powerful, too strong. Tara had to bring her over to their side. But there was so much risk.

Even now, the lack of air making its way to her brain was affecting her reasoning. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, and the world was closing in around her. Courageously, she forced out the last thought she could still remember. "If y-you get to be with Julia, what will happen to the rest of the people out there? Th-the innocent people?"

She fell backwards and landed hard as Kennedy released her grip on Tara's throat. As coherence rushed back into her, the blonde pushed out the final sentence in her plea. "S-sometimes, we've gotta make s-sacrifices. E-even if it means w-we don't end up getting what w-we w-want m-most. "

"Stop." There was silence – a cold, calculating silence ripe with the opportunities of death or life. It would all be decided here.

Willow held her breath. Tara's courage both elated and worried her – it was risky, and things could go either way from here. Her words may have gotten to Kennedy, but at the same time, there was a large margin of change that it would only provoke more torture.

But she was proud of her lover – proud of how she persisted without a thought to her own well-being. She put the world before herself. If only Tara could see that none of this was her fault – none of it. That was Tara's greatest fault, always blaming herself for everything that went wrong and stubbornly facing the consequences on her own.

Willow forgave her; forgave her for anything, everything. They had to clear this hurdle. She wanted a family, wanted to live to see Dawn finish high school, wanted to leave this all behind – but in order to do that, they had to beat Hades first. She would do anything for that. I love you, Tara. I love you. Hold on, baby, I'm coming to help.

The deafening silence prevailed, looming ever more as an indication of things to come. For the moment, neutrality reigned, but it would all change in a second with Kennedy's decision.

The witch hadn't released Tara voluntarily. It didn't go according to plan, and she needed her plan to do this with her resolve waning so. She had to finish them off, slowly, cruelly; she had to flaunt the extent of her power to her soul-master. But something in Tara's plea had awakened something inside her – something she had no control over.

Could it be…her soul? The soul that Hades couldn't take away from her but merely…dampen?

No…the part in her that had for so long lay dormant was stretching its legs, yawning as it awakened from a millennia-long sleep. It hurt. Damn, it hurt like it never had before. Consciousness for this creature of pure white that rested within her pulling at her heartstrings, making her lose control of this very precarious situation – there was a rushing of guilt, of muddling.

No! Not now! Why? Years of building to clarity, to goals… ruined, ruined by her damn conscience. She wouldn't let anything get in the way with her close enough to smell Julia. It was against all her ethics. For thousands of years, her only thought was Julia.

But it felt as if Julia was the one doing the tugging in her heart, pleading her to reconsider her motives. She was pleading with her, begging her to stop. She didn't want to listen, but…she held no power over her love and obsession – she held all the cards.

I'll always love you, Julia whispered. I'll never stop loving you, but you have to do the right thing. Our sun is setting. It isn't our time anymore.

"No!" Kennedy was unable to hold her tongue. She balled her fists as she began to shake with anger. "Our time…will never set…"

Tara could sense the conflict in Kennedy's heart. It devastated her to have to stoop to methods of the sort, but this time, it was necessary…this horror.

Willow, meanwhile, had pulled her body to be beside Tara, determined to lend her support in whatever way possible. She knew what Tara had done. And she knew what she needed to do. It was something simple, wondrous, and sacred to the two of them – but it would always be enough. She moved her hand on the ground, turning it palm up. She touched Tara's left hand, smiling gently at her, prodding.

Tara looked down at their partly intertwined fingers, then at Willow, searching for permission and forgiveness. She found it waiting readily for her.

Slowly, like their first touch, fingers touched more steadily, and then knuckles, more and more skin until their palms were pressed tightly together.

Their minds melded and all barriers dissipated – all misgivings righted, until…they were one in mind. Tara's pure white mixed with Willow's powerful black, bonding in an unbreakable tie. It was fueled by love, built by love, strong from love.

Willow remembered this feeling, though not in this magnitude. She'd felt it many times with Tara in their two years together, and had last experienced it in the abandoned shell of Sunnydale High mere days ago, but she had never felt it like this. Not this complete, not this filling. No, this was the utmost pinnacle of ecstasy, the epitome of purity, the highest of the highest places. This was the feeling of absoluteness. This was the feeling of real, true love. This was the feeling of hurdles overcome. This was stronger renewal of what was truly theirs. And Willow knew that no matter how they tried to, they would never reach these heights again.

This was the peak of their time.

Oh, they were a sight to behold. Risen up strong, hair whipping to frame their concentrated faces, eyes flooded with the brilliant light of goodness – it struck fear into the deepest depths of Hades. His plan had failed for the first time. Strife and discord he had sown no longer existed within the two. It was completely purged now and replaced with a calm center of security. He needed to act quickly, lest all he had done be for naught. "Kennedy, finish them now!"

"You must choose, Kennedy," Tara and Willow whispered. "The fate of the world rests in your hand." There was a divine tone to their combined voices. They turned to each other and simultaneously nodded. "Nostrum vinculum amor mos expello vos ex is plagiarius. "

"Kennedy!" Furious, Hades rushed forward in his astounding speed, his mind preparing a colossal blast that would wipe the witches from the face of any dimension. He would not let anything ruin the day he had looked forward to for so long. Nothing. Fiery quick and unstoppable, he released the energy. They would die the two of them; destroyed by the darkest of darkest energies. No light could stand against this.

The witches knew that. Quicker. There was panic. It was dangerously close. They could feel the darkness and it was getting closer and closer. The seconds were ticking down towards destruction. There was nothing they could do but, "Nostrum amor est validus. Nostrum – "

It hit. But it didn't hit them. It hit the dazzling shield of pure black energy.

Kennedy had made her decision in that flash of a moment. She knew she would regret it…but at the same time, maybe it wasn't so bad. Julia's memory, for that was all she was and ever would be, would be honoured. Kennedy would see to that. She owed them at least that much. But time was fleeting, so she had acted as quickly as she could.

Perhaps not the wisest idea. Hades was damn powerful, stronger by hundredfold. It hurt, but it was the right thing to do. This wasn't for her anymore; she was done being a selfish fool. It was time for her to being giving back all she had taken, regardless of the consequences awaiting her. "Willow, Tara," she commanded. "Finish it." She wouldn't be able to hold him off for long.

Hades glowered and pushed hard against her, but she held steady and unflinching. Her heart, mind, and soul were set…and there was nothing her Master would be able to do to change it.

"Nostrum amor mos non intereo. Nostrum amor reluctor vos."

Immediately, all was deathly quiet. Not a noise was heard, as if all sound had been sucked out. Then a whisper of wind blew, like a gently breeze. Hades began to breathe rapidly, eyes bulging as his eyes followed an unseen movement. The breeze picked up, transforming into a whistling howl that penetrated to the bone, chilling and terrifying. It built to a deafening pitch, feverish heat swirling until from within emerged a two roars – of Hades and of the storm.

Then as quickly as it had come, it was gone, and all was silent once more.

Hades was gone, disappeared with the squall.

"Wh-where'd he go?" Tara glanced around her, mind breaking connection with Willow's as she remembered the horrible events that occurred the last time Hades disappeared. Something was welling up inside of her, and she was afraid. "Willow." She was retreating into that dark world again, of guilt and wrong-doing. The feeling of confidence dwindled down from highest high to lowest low, rushing in torrents, devastating her already overloaded emotional matrix.

As if sensing her distress, Kennedy walked over to her, kneeling down beside her and taking her face into her hands, tenderly brushing away the forming tears. "Tara," she said quietly, "it's over." She smiled wanly. "You don't need to be afraid anymore."

"Th-thank you," Tara whispered. She had sunk down to the ground, exhausted, weak, and anguished, but relief was beginning to nip at the edges of self-erected walls of isolation, calming her fear and erratic heartbeat.

A warm breeze gradually permeated through the darkness, cleansing away the tension. A soft light winked into existence in the faded distance, rays trickling towards them until they were enveloped in voices and glow of radiance and eternity. All around, spirits appeared, singing, smiling, serene. It was a hum of reverence, of relief, or release – freedom from infinite hell. In a lazy spiral, they floated upwards, away into the rapidly clearing horizon.

"The souls of the witches," Willow whispered reverently. She smiled, inhaling the clean air, sacred with the presence of generations upon generations of undying love. It filled her with elation, relaxing and exciting her all at once. "Where are they going?"

"To rest," Kennedy answered, gazing up thoughtfully at the hovering specters. She smiled wearily, knowing she would soon be joining them. Time to say her goodbyes. She took Willow's hand in hers, her other hand reaching up to cup the redhead's cheek. She kissed Willow on one cheek, then the other before enveloping her in a lingering embrace.

It was in remembrance of all they had gone through together, and it showed how much Kennedy had treasured their time together. "Thank you for being so kind," she whispered into Willow's ear.

Willow's hands stroked gently over Kennedy's back, feeling the strong muscles, remembering the intimacy they'd shared. She had shared so much of herself with this woman. Kennedy had opened her back up after what had happened. She had been like a rusted door, condemned to closed eternity, locked shut with self-made bonds; but with unyielding patience, the Slayer had pushed and pulled with unwavering strength, knowing full well what lay inside was a love for another and not her. Yet she had persevered. And it had undoubtedly saved Willow's life.

Kennedy was fading away. She sensed the change and pulled away from Willow as she felt her corporeal form begin its final journey, become a memory. She looked down wonderingly at herself. Then she nodded, accepting her fate.

A woman on a mission, she made her way to Tara and knelt beside her again. "Thank you for making me see," she said. "Thank you for understanding." Respectfully and lovingly, she kissed the blonde on the forehead before pulling back to stare deeply into her eyes. "You are the best and purest soul I have ever seen. It would be a shame for it to go to waste." Images of Willow's cruel rape flashed in her mind, images of her standing nonchalantly to the side, observing in anguish, thinking it was for the better.

Tara blushed slightly, before turning away in embarrassment. "You chose what was right in the end," she answered quietly.

"It's what Julia would have wanted me to do." Kennedy smirked. They were calling her to her final slumber. She was tired. It was time for her to rest too. "Later, girlies." And so she gave in to the yawning summon that awaited her, letting her body rise up through the darkness and into the pure eternal light.

All thought left her mind. The chronic ache for Julia dulled to a mild throbbing, and even that was gone eventually. For the first time in millennia, she felt bliss. She felt peace. She felt…her soul. Then she felt nothing. Kennedy…was released.

Willow stared solemnly after the distancing figure. She raised a hand in companionable farewell. "Goodbye, Kennedy."

She could have sworn she heard a "see ya" echo down from the heavens.

Chapter Fifteen

Five hours in, and still they posted vigil – the three of them. Angel, Giles, Wesley, the three merry men…merry fools, more like. All the others were spread liberally around the room - all the others were in sweet slumber. But the three of them stayed awake, waiting, hoping, praying.

Willow and Tara lay in the centre of the room. They were shells, souls alight somewhere in the vast darkness. All things good depended on them now.

Angel toyed with the lapels on his duster. He hated being helpless. It was against his nature to just stand by passive. He needed to do something, anything; just not play look-out. He was getting restless with the waiting.

He gazed over at Buffy – an act he had caught himself doing more than too many times in the last hour. It wasn't that she was his current object of semi-infatuation that made these stolen glances so painful. It was that she represented everything he could never have – love, family, Buffy. It had been close to four years now, and still she was never completely absent from his mind, never completely purged. There was always just a touch of longing – almost completely undetectable, but sure enough, still there. It would slowly, in tiny tiny steps, eat away at him until he was no more than dust and ash.

He looked away. This…this was the reward of the cursed. He would continue on courageously until the prophecy was fulfilled, and even then, Buffy Summers would still be in his cold un-beating heart.

But this fate of his would only come to pass, if first, the more urgent prophecy was fulfilled. Willow and Tara fought an epic battle invisible to mortal and demonic eyes and the only assurance they had that the world was still only teetering on the edge and not lost were the small flickering flames perched humbly atop stiff mounds of wax – such little things the world's only link to the battles of the supernatural.

Then it happened, the horrible omen they all were hoping against hope wouldn't. The candles went out in a rush of wind, cold and bone-chilling. It picked up from nowhere, and dashed their hopes into the ground, leaving nothing but fear and a cold comprehension of their fate.

All were aware and alert. An organized chaos. Buffy and Dawn jumped up from where they were on the floor. Xander, Andrew, and Fred, from where they had lain slumped for the hours after their watch were now tripping over each other as they drowsily grabbed for their discarded weapons. Faith, as if completely attuned to the events, came sprinting down from the floor above where she had been keeping Robin company.

A state of absolute panic and despair overtook the conscious occupants of the room. It wasn't that they didn't know what was going to happen – they did, sorta. And it wasn't good. This meant it was the end. Hades had won, and it would very likely be sooner rather than later that they would go to their deaths. Willow and Tara had failed.

"What's going to happen now?"

"Are we going to fight?"

"I say fight and kick some demon ass while we can, if you want my opinion."

"Thinking with your sword again, Faith?"

"It's not always that first."

"Let's go out with a bang if we're going out."

"Don't be stupid."

"I don't wanna die…"


"I think we all need to calm down for a second here."


"Shut up!" It was Dawn who finally jolted the others into a shocked state of silence. She was grinning slyly. "Aren't you guys missing something kinda important here?" She nudged her head downwards from where she stood just outside the circle.

Willow was sitting up, looking slightly pained, but blinking evenly at them; a taut, but bemused grin on her face. "Hey," she ventured. "Why the panic? We're alive. We won." She shifted her weight onto her knees and stood on shaky legs. "See?" She regarded the awkward silence expectantly, raising her eyebrows as she awaited their reaction.

The atmosphere in the room shifted rapidly from worrying to rejoicing, and Willow found herself the recipient of countless hugs, squeezes, and unintentional gropes. Normally, she would have reacted with more enthusiasm, perhaps slapped back straying hands, but she didn't. She had no will to do so. They had reason to, the world being saved and all, but Willow wasn't really concerned about that at the moment. She was preoccupied by something much more important.

Right now, she had her own world to save – Tara. It seemed that nobody but her had noticed that the blonde hadn't gotten up from the floor, but had merely curled herself tightly into a closed ball, shutting herself away from the world.

Willow's heart sank as she observed her girlfriend in such distress. Tara always took all the blame. She was inhumanly strong in that aspect. Tara could withstand punishment after punishment, and being so introverted, nobody would even sense the distress emanating out from the girl. But Willow could sense it. No matter how hard Tara tried to keep her out, she couldn't – Willow always found a way in.

Willow wanted to get them out of here. They were exhausted, in pain, broken both physically and emotionally. If the others had bothered to look closer, they would see the bruises and deeper wounds that adorned both their bodies. If the others could see past their own happiness – look at the means instead of the ends – maybe then, they would notice the state of their heroes.

All these thoughts came selfishly, Willow knew, but she couldn't help but think them. She saw some merit in them. She knew now how Buffy felt, to be the one responsible for ensuring that those who lived would still be around to see the new day – and never receiving a single gesture of thanks. Willow realized that she wanted to be praised, wanted to be noticed…but she also realized that to be a true hero, she would never be.

Even now, the others moved away, blinded by their happiness – and Willow couldn't blame them. She wanted to be happy too. She wanted to rejoice along with them, but she couldn't. Not when Tara was hurt; not when she had no idea where they stood in their relationship because of what had happened.

There was so much to work through, things to be sorted out and healed, understandings to be reached. Willow didn't know if they could fix it. She wanted to, but with Tara so full of guilt and at the epitome of stubborn, and with Willow so hurt and so…confused – she just didn't know.

Having made their way painstakingly slowly up, they were finally there. Tara had taken care not to ask for help, determined to keep to herself – namely, away from Willow. She knew none of this was Willow's doing, but Willow was not an option for comfort. Tara loved Willow all the more for her forgiveness, but she didn't want forgiveness as much as she needed time – time to heal, time to come to terms with what had happened, and what horrible things she had done. She knew she had Willow's forgiveness, but she didn't have her own.

She remained sullenly and guiltily silent as, too weak to do so herself, Willow fragilely undressed her and tucked her in under the covers. Tara felt much like a child but did not have the energy to protest.

Willow swiftly undressed herself and joined Tara in bed. The absence of clothes, as if they had somehow held the awareness of her broken form at bay, made her pain and exhaustion all the more apparent, all the more appalling – like something she wished to be rid of, but couldn't as it permeated throughout her body, making her feel absolutely filthy. She was too tired to shower.

She looked over at Tara, at her stiff figure lying in the bed unmoving, and berated herself for what had happened. She loved this woman so much that to see her, so collapsed in upon her own guilt…it hurt so much to see her like this. Willow wanted to, would do anything to make it all better for her baby. But what?

"Are you okay?" Stupid question, Willow knew, but she didn't know what else to say.

Tara, much as Willow had expected, shook her head.

"How…how can I make it better?" asked Willow. She tried to comfort her lover, wrapping her arms around Tara's stomach as she spooned her, attempting to relieve her of the guilt, trying to transfer her strength, the little that she had left, into the one who needed it more.

But Tara shuffled away, brushing Willow's hand from her bare stomach, curling into a ball as far from the redhead as she could. "I-I I can't t-touch you right n-now," she whispered.

She was a ghost of who she had built herself up to be. She was a mere remnant of the strong determined woman who was confident in what she did, who had worked so hard to get to that point. It was all gone now, shattered like broken glass. Willow couldn't help but think that she was the bullet that had ruined it all. Deep down, she knew it was Hades, still exacting his vengeance upon them, even after his defeat, holding some sort of power over their lives – making them regret, blame, pull away from the love that had held it all together, breaking them apart. Even after all their efforts, he was still winning.

"I'm sorry," Willow whispered back, tears beginning to form in her eyes, falling and staining the pillow beneath her with droplets of warm moisture. She wanted to make this better and right all the wrongs that had been done. She wanted to be the hero. She wanted to make everything okay.

But she couldn't. Things hadn't been okay for so long now, despite what she had persuaded herself to believe. She didn't even really know what 'alright' meant anymore. She had adapted; they had all adapted to this flawed lifestyle of theirs where everything emotional was accepted as a byproduct of what they had to do in order to save the world.

Well, the Willow-meister just wouldn't stand for that anymore. She observed her past passivity and examined the consequences that had resulted because of it. Because of Willow's non-action and decisions made in their showdown with Hades, Tara's perception of the world and herself were now so distorted by guilt that Willow feared she would never recover.

"I'm so sorry." Willow wanted to reach out, to hold her, to kiss away her pain, to make her forget – but she knew that it would do nothing but worsen the already bleak situation. She knew that Tara needed time and space, and she was willing to give her as much as she needed…but it pained Willow to remain so helpless.

"It's n-not you, W-Will," Tara murmured. "P-please don't blame y-yourself."

"But I-I wanna help," Willow protested. She touched Tara's shoulder hesitantly. "What happened back there…none of it was your fault, you know…Tara, you can't blame yourself for not being strong enough. I wasn't strong enough, either, but you helped me to accept that I couldn't have helped it. Please, let me help you. Don't push me away. Please," she begged.

The silence that ensued was the most painful silence they had ever had and very likely ever would have to endure. It all hung on Tara's response. Everything that mattered to Willow hung on her response.

Finally, the answer came, in the form of a deathly quiet whisper. "I…I need t-time, Willow." Tara's body uncurled slightly from its fetal position, turning round in an agonizing expenditure of energy so that she lay facing Willow on the bed. She stretched out a shaking hand to the redhead, fingering a stray lock of fiery hair between her knuckles, trying to comfort her love even when, Willow felt, she was the one who needed comfort.

"I'll wait," said Willow, her voice coming out much higher and more strained than she had wanted. She enfolded Tara's hand within her stronger one, squeezing it with infinite gentleness. "I'll wait as long as I have to."

Tara smiled the smallest of smiles, seeming as though she was yawning after awakening from a sleep-world where hope was clearly absent, almost as if a faint crackling could be heard as her mouth muscles moved into the gentle smile. Her eyes gave off no warmth, no light; but there was a glimmer of hope that lay within. And Willow was content with that – perhaps not happy, but knowing that progress would be made with time and in the right circumstances told Willow that there was a way back to the day from inside the trap they had fallen into.

They lay facing each other, fingers intertwined although barely touching. Hades had torn them apart. It would be a significant while before they could be comfortable with everything about each other once more.

Hades had ruined their future, or at the least, set it back to an indefinite date, Willow was sure. She didn't know if they would ever be able to go away now. Tara's recovery came first – she knew and accepted that. Still, her whole being yearned for a family of her own – a family of their own, safely tucked away in suburbia far away from the action, far away from danger. Above all, Willow wanted her family, which included Tara, safe.

But family would wait until Tara was ready…would she ever be comfortable leaving this life? Right now, Tara would want the support of her friends. Her friends were here, at the centre of it all. And until Tara said she was ready to leave, they wouldn't. But…would Tara want to be alone day after day with Willow, the one, in Tara's mind, she had raped? Willow didn't see it that way, but it wasn't her emotions that needed placating.

Their roles had been exchanged. Tara had been the stronger one. Now, here she lay, broken and defenseless – or perhaps with all her defenses up as the weight of her guilt and insecurities caved in upon her psyche. Willow commanded a vision of absolute clarity. She knew what needed to be done, what boundaries had to be respected…she didn't like it but she knew, nevertheless.

"Tara…when things get better, w-would you still be okay with us leaving?" she asked gently, apprehensively. "I-I mean, I know you wanted to before, but you, you know, wanna still? If you're not comfortable, I'm absolutely fine with it. But I need to know – will…will we ever be able to start a family together?"

She took care to keep her voice neutral. She didn't want Tara's answer to be influenced at all by her – Tara tended to do that. It was her weakness. She cared more for the ones she loved than she cared for herself. It was a good thing most of the time, but she was so selfless that she would disregard her own well-being in favour of her loved ones. It would devastate the blonde, as it did now, for her to hurt anybody accidentally, much less deliberately.

But she spoke. "C-can…can we l-leave s-soonish?" asked Tara. "I w-want to b-be with you, b-but I need t-time…to m-myself, so that I c-can heal – a-away from people t-that want to h-help b-but can't."

Is she referring to me? thought Willow. She understood that Tara needed time and space, but there was still a limit to which she would allow her solitude. Willow would not abandon Tara, no matter what. She wouldn't leave her to face this alone – she just wouldn't.

"I love you." She grazed Tara's cheek with her lips. "I will always be here for you, no matter what," she declared solemnly. "You know that, right?"

Tara's lower lip trembled. "I love you t-too," she murmured. "A-and…I know you w-want to, but we b-both know you c-can't." A hint of a smile graced her chapped lips.

They had both begun to cry by this point. Hot wet streaks of salty liquid traced paths down cold bruised cheeks. Their eyes were swollen red, the white conspicuously absent. The silence hurt; the emotional scars, the physical bruising, the forced intimacy they knew was essential to the healing process; it all ached to an almost unbearable degree.

They knew they had to overcome this, but they also knew they needed time – and they were willing to invest in that. They just didn't know how long it would take.

There was no sun. It was a gloomy morning, grey and overcast. Cold air drifted in through the open window, chilling bare skin.

Willow shuddered as the current made contact with her shoulders and back, uncovered by the thin duvet. She shivered and snuggled further into warm skin – Tara's skin.

Sometime in the night, while they were sleeping, barriers erected had been let down and as they were naturally inclined to do, they had reached out for each other. Willow was spooning Tara, her hands as they always were on the blonde, wrapped around her waist, resting on her stomach, protecting her from the baddies – always protecting her.

But when the wind woke Willow, everything came back – all the memories, all the things that kept them apart; it all came rushing back. Immediately, out of respect for Tara, she began to pull herself away. Her gut feeling told her that although she was truly enjoying this, neither of them were really ready for this sort of intimacy. It was all in their subconscious, and although Willow felt that this was home, she wasn't going to go with her instincts; they had gotten her into trouble before and she wasn't going to make a mistake here.

But Tara, arms placed over Willow's, wouldn't give up the contact. Instead she sighed and rolled over, her head resting in the crook of Willow's neck, her lips grazing her steady pulse.

Willow allowed herself to revel in her own wants and her own needs, if only for a moment. She knew that upon waking, Tara's illusion of contentment would disappear and she would be plunged back into cruel reality, just as Willow had been. This was what Willow could grow old with, what she would be happy with indefinitely, but the feeling, she knew, was not mutual. This sort of contact was what was hurting Tara so much, and Willow was willing to set aside her own wants and needs in light of Tara's predicament.

Having taken enough from her unwary love's warmth, Willow pulled away, taking care to allow Tara a few more moments of dreaming. Standing at the foot of the bed, she observed the blonde sadly. She lay curled, so peacefully, without a care in the world, a fragile porcelain doll. No evidence of what she had gone through was displayed in her expression. She was at peace with herself in her unconsciousness – so different from when she was awake.

Willow penned a short note and placed it on the bedside dresser before heading downstairs to get their breakfast, leaving Tara alone in the room.

Immediately noticing Willow's absence, Tara instinctively reached out, expecting to but not finding. Not yet fully awake although on the verge of being so, she was fully attuned to her most primal callings. All complications were abolished, didn't exist in her dream-realm. All was well where she lay in slumber.

Tara knew what awaited her in awakening. She knew of the demons plaguing her soul, the holdbacks and fears planted so cleverly in the darkest most hidden places of her heart. She knew how she could not dispel them as hard she tried. She knew that though all things would heal in time, they would not heal fast enough for Tara.

She longed for Willow's arms wrapped protecting and loving around her, Willow's warm body pressed up against hers, Willow's comforting presence that pushed everything else away from her mindset. She craved for this intimacy; she thirsted for it, didn't feel alive without it. But every time she felt Willow, she was reminded, cruelly reminded, of her actions, of her sins, of her ultimate violation. It repelled her, a sharp sting, a righteous reprimand, a slap, reminding her of how far away she was from happiness and how undeserving of grace she was.

In a way, Tara was grateful. What had happened had been her fault. She had preached the absoluteness of fate and prophecy as a means for Willow's, as well as her own, appeasement, leaving no other options than to do as they were told or meant to do. So many what ifs arose whenever she thought of it. What if she hadn't let Willow get so far with her magick? What if she hadn't been standing at that exact window at that exact moment? What if she had been stronger?

Things would have been so much different. But all that had happened had happened, according to prophecy, or whatever the hell it was, and now she would live with the consequences.

Tara was determined to experience retribution as she pulled herself tighter in, shutting all else but the guilt she drew about herself out, a cloak that kept external help from coming in to save the day. She was determined to find her own way back.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Willow sighed as she removed two mugs from the kitchen cupboard. As had been proven time and time again over the years, she was the only early riser of the Scoobies apart from Tara, who was at the moment, not in any shape for early rising. Come to think of it, neither was Willow, but it seemed that old habits died hard. They were the odd ones out within the group when it came to this. It was one of the few things that hadn't changed over the years they had been together. So much had changed.

The once unbreakable friendships established back in high school by the core group were no more. Friends had come and gone – Cordelia was in a coma, Oz was somewhere out there, searching for his center, maybe, or settled down, with a family. Anya was at peace.

Once integral, Willow felt, had felt that she was no longer needed many times. Now, with the original Slayer retired and others rising up to take her place all over the world, it felt like the rest of the group had just as much right to step down. They had been at it for seven years; they had done more than their fair share – all of them. It was the end of their time. They deserved at least that much, right?

Willow honestly didn't care anymore. She didn't care that she wasn't looking out for everybody else. She didn't care that her help would very likely be needed again. It was past that time now. She was no longer, chose to no longer be a dedicated fixture to this cause.

It didn't matter that she was being selfish. She knew she was. By doing this, she would be leaving behind her family, breaking her promise to stay by Buffy's side until the end. But Tara was the most important, the dearest and most treasured person to Willow. By herself, Willow could stand to not have her own dreams fulfilled so quickly, but if Tara wished it, Willow would do it. With Tara alive and well, they would inevitably leave. If not now, then when? In the middle of averting another apocalypse when the loss of their presence would be felt so much more?

Willow was conflicted, yet absolutely set on what she would eventually do. She was prepared to leave when Tara gave the word, whenever Tara was ready. She was fully devoted to her. Nothing would stand in the way. Her look shifted to that of resolve as she firmly set the two mugs in her hands down upon the counter, as if needing some physical gesture of affirmation to her decision.

She turned, sensing, unexplainably knowing who stood in the doorway behind.

"Top of the morning to ya." Buffy smiled as she made her way into the room.

"How long have you been standing there?" asked Willow.

"Long enough to see with the slamming of the mugs – and don't blame it on unknown strength or lack of strength because that's a pretty weak argument." She made an attempt to laugh, but her half-hearted joke brought no humour.

"Coffee?" Willow offered tiredly, ignoring Buffy's not-so-well-formulated jab at punning. She looked at her best friend and tried her best to smile.

"Sure, Will." Buffy uncrossed her arms and pushed herself lightly up and onto the counter. "Double mocha latte, if you would."

"Comin' right up," Willow chirped back reflexively.

She fumbled with the coffee machine for a moment before shaking hands forced her to admit defeat to her task. She sighed. She was weak, exhausted, and it frustrated her to no end. But she had to ignore her own primitive needs for the time for they would heal in time. Rest would come, as well. Tara needed her attention.

Still, despite her iron will, Willow's strength was waning. She was only human, even with all her gifts. And she was done drawing strength from her magicks; she knew what path lay in that direction and wasn't about to sign up for a second trip to hell.

"Will," Buffy gently placed her hands atop the redhead's, splayed hard against the ceramic surface, "let me help you." She led the witch to the nearest stool.

Willow placed her head between her hands and closed her eyes, succumbing for just a moment to her exhaustion. She was so very tired.

"How are the two of you doing?" asked Buffy, deftly starting the machine up. "You didn't seem too happy-because-we-saved-the-world-Willow last night." Coffee set to broil and bubble, Buffy returned to her seat on the counter, attention raptly set upon Willow. "What happened? Something happened. Forgive me for prying, but as best friend, I'm not supposed to allow things like this to remain unsaid."

Willow could see the unspoken questions on the tip of Buffy's tongue, only held back by commendable sensitivity. Buffy wanted to know. Everybody wanted to know what had gone down in the unknown. Being so involved and having invested so much into this fight, they deserved to know.

But something kept Willow from telling. Something held her words inside; words that could change Tara's label from murderer to victim in an instant; words that would have to be said eventually.

Things, when laid out in front of her, usually seemed so simple – simple in their natural complexity. She took great delight in letting her mind send a situation flying off in as many directions as possible as rapidly as she could. It was when she was truly herself, her mind spreading its proverbial wings and taking glorious flight into the heavens of pure Willow. It gave her escape from solutions she didn't like. Her imagination was her shelter.

But now, her options were limited to two – tell Buffy, don't tell Buffy. There were no routes that would lead her away from this, no routes of escape that her mind could conjure up. Both paths led nowhere but where she dreaded.

There were things that could never be told, emotions that would never be revealed to anyone; some, not even Tara. They were burdens weighing down upon Willow that she alone would shoulder and that she alone would deal with in her own time. Selfishly and unselfishly, she kept them to herself. They would haunt her, but she would come out victorious as she had time and time again. All she needed was Tara by her side to help her face her demons. Only her blonde angel gave her strength to stand strong.

"Things…happened," she settled upon. "Bad things, a-and Tara and I are having some trouble because of it." She wringed her hands silently and looked up teary-eyed at Buffy. "I-I know where I stand in our relationship. But…I…don't know where she stands anymore. One second she's touching me and everything's all good with smoochies and touchies, and then, she remembers, and it's all gloomy again. She blames herself for what happened and it's not her fault; it's not her fault!" she half-cried, half-wailed.

Willow's eyes were puffing up, and she could feel hot angry tears brimming.

"Will, what happened?" The Slayer was concerned, rapt.

Willow shook her head. "No. I can't."

"Let us help, Will," Buffy requested, almost begged. "Dawn, Xander, the others. Let me help."

Willow shook her head resolutely. "This is something we have to work out on our own, Buff." She went to the pantry and pulled out a sesame seed bagel – Tara's favourite. "I'm sorry…" She halved it and went to the fridge, pulling out a slice of cheddar. She placed the cheese in between the halves and placed it in the toaster oven. Grilled cheese bagel – Tara's favourite.

Her reply to Buffy's plea must have sounded like she was brushing her off because the Slayer slammed her hands onto the counter, propelling herself off the counter and over to Willow. Being a Slayer, the force of the impact of her palms against the ceramic top thundered in the quiet din of the former hotel kitchen like the crack of a whip, her strength leaving two imprints in her wake. Willow jumped and turned in alarm, only to find Buffy standing not three feet away, pleading now.

"Will, I know I haven't been good to you," Buffy sighed. "I know I haven't been there for you as a best friend should. I know I haven't been there for you during your rough patches – any of them. Being a Slayer isolated me from my friends and family – it was in the way before, but it was my duty. But now it's not. I can help now. Please, let me."

Buffy's heartfelt plea was not lost on Willow. She wanted to tell all, but she wasn't ready to do so. So many things had happened so quickly and in such great magnitude that to even ponder the beginning of the consequences of these life-changing events gave Willow a throbbing headache. She wanted to sob, to scream, to unleash all her pent up pain and exhaustion in a never-ending wail – but she couldn't. She needed to be the strength of two broken people. A fragmented breaking strength it was, but it would have to do.

Willow looked away.

"Will, please." Buffy reached out and placed a hand on the redhead's forearm. "You're not alone in this. Don't take the whole burden on yourself. It'll kill you – it damn near killed me. I know what it's like to feel like you're alone and that you can't share what you're going through. It just affirms how horrible a friend I've been to you because you can't go to me, your best friend."

Willow stared sharply up at that. It hurt, but she felt deserving of it. "I didn't wa – "

"I deserve this now. Don't blame yourself for trying to help me. I was back and there was nothing I could do about it. I was upset and angry and resentful that you had pulled me from bliss," Willow winced, "but I always knew you did it out of love for me. I just couldn't accept it, you know?"

"Buffy…" Willow held her friend's gaze. "Stop blaming yourself. Please. It's past now. I made a mistake and we all suffered from it. No, we're not as close as we used to be, but that started much earlier than when you think it did." The drift had begun in their first year of university, had been confirmed when Willow had met Tara. But she said the next statement with absolute conviction. "You, me, Xander – no matter where we are in this world, how old we are, or how for apart we are – I will always consider you two my best friends because that's what you two are. Nothing will change that if I can help it."

"Oh." Buffy pursed her lips as if something hadn't quite clicked in what Willow had said. And then, she understood in a moment of heartbreaking lucidity. She recalled her relief at Willow originally deciding to stay with her; and she imagined now what it would be like to face Los Angeles without her. "When…when are you leaving?" she whispered.

"Whenever Tara's ready," Willow answered quietly.


"Buffy, this isn't because of you or anybody," she explained. "It's just that…it's not safe where we are now."

"Nowhere is safe, then," Buffy argued vehemently. "Evil is everywhere and so is the First. It's gonna be out for your blood especially." Her cheeks sparkled with droplets of grief and anger. "You were never afraid of danger before," she accused sadly.

"But I'm tired, Buff," Willow sighed. "I'm so tired… We've fought for seven years now a-and I'm only human; I just wanna be a normal twenty-one year old who can finish school a-and start a family. I can't have that here. I would feel inclined to help and to get involved. That's why we're going away. It's because I'm being selfish. It's because I'm being a coward. It's because I'm not strong enough."

Even as she tried to skirt the issue the truth came out. She had told herself after last night, had convinced herself that their going away was for Tara's recovery. The reality was that it was for Willow's.

"Is there anything I can do to change your mind?" Buffy's final plea.

Willow wanted to be persuaded, wanted to be rebutted so that she had no choice but to stay, but nevertheless her mind was set. Whenever Tara was ready, they would be gone. She shook her head. "You can't."

And then Willow was engulfed in hot tears and strong arms that held her close and tight with a strength that could only be that of a Slayer. She could feel that inner strength and wisdom, along with the knots of writhing pain that defined Buffy radiating from within, a brutal testament to all she had gone through.

This was what made it so hard – her love for Buffy. If she could have it her way, she would make it so that she would never be apart from her best friend. But her love for Tara was more.

She clasped the blonde to herself and they wept together. Distance would inevitably break down the friendship, no matter what they said, how they tried. They both understood: Willow was choosing Tara over Buffy. It was the right choice to make.

"You're my best friend, Will," Buffy murmured. "I love you. You know that, right?"

Willow nodded. "I know."

Buffy gazed at her for a moment before once again bursting into tears. "I'm gonna miss you so much," she sobbed.

"I'm not leaving yet, doofus," Willow consoled. She wished there was another way, but she knew there wasn't. She had to find another purpose in life, make something of herself outside of what she had been forced by association to do for so long. "You still have me for a little longer."

"I love you," Buffy whispered.

"I know, Sweetie."

Then it was ended and they withdrew. Willow tended to the toasted bagel while Buffy poured the coffee.

Their moment of intimacy had been fleeting, a mere moment that came and went, and though not forgotten, was a moment far and few between. The familiar gap between them had settled back in place, separating them, if only a little, from the friendship they had once had.

"Tara likes her coffee black, right?" Buffy rummaged in the refrigerator for cream.

"Mhmm," affirmed Willow. "Black for me too, please."

"Don't you normally load up on the sugar?" asked Buffy mildly.

"I don't feel much like the sugary sweetness today." Willow sliced the bagel in half, then wrapped it in a napkin. "They don't seem to be too plentiful in the plate department here." She frowned, all the while trying to avoid why she didn't feel like sugar.

"Will." Buffy handed two steaming mugs of coffee to the redhead. "If you ever need anything ever, I'm here for you. Please remem –"

"I know," Willow murmured. She nodded in thanks, accepting the two mugs and pressing the wrapped bagel to her body. She walked to the entranceway and closed her eyes, nodded once more in thanks – for everything. Then, both were alone, Buffy in the kitchen, Willow on the stairs. Alone in their thoughts, afflicted by grief, exhaustion, fragmented strength. Neither would ever truly escape.

"H-hey." Tara was dressed, sitting on the bed, trembling. Hair barely brushed, lips chapped, borrowed clothes hanging loose off her normally accommodating frame.

The impact of Tara upon Willow's senses was like a freight train crashing head-on. It was devastating, like seeing the ghost of a loved one. Essentially, she was. But she did her best to smile, held in her despair, looked strong for both their sakes.

"Hey. Morning." She set a mug on the dresser for Tara and sipped from the other. She offered the bagel to Tara. "I bring breakfast and coffee."

"Thank you…" A hoarse whisper, a half-smile. Tara slurped, then let the liquid fall back into the mug from her mouth. Too hot. She blew over the surface before trying again.

"Are you planning on going down at all today?"

Tara shook her head.

"Sooner or later, they're gonna come looking for you," Willow gently pointed out. She knew Tara was afraid. It was right for her to be. What else could she be right now? Willow was afraid too – as much, if not more so. Uncertainty, that was what it was. Uncertainty, hand-in-hand with an unhealthily large dose of regret and fear.

"I'm afraid, Will," whispered Tara. She held the mug tightly within her hands. "I'm afraid of how they'll react when they know."

"They love you," answered Willow. "They'll understand." She sat down beside Tara, feet set firmly on the floor.

"But I'm afraid of how they'll look at me. They'll pity me, and they'll try to hide their disgust around me, but I'll see it." She bit her lip. "They'll see me and…and, they'll know. They'll h-hug me as if I were a f-fragile little doll that could b-break at any moment. A victim." Tara raised her hands to her face, touched them to her cheeks, withdrew them. "But I l-look at m-myself, a-and I d-don't see that. These hands…t-they hurt y-you. They v-violated you. How could a-anybody pity me? They will, because they don't really know. I just…I…"

Her voice a bare murmur, cracked with guilt barely constrained. Willow understood. Tara wanted Willow to hate her. She wanted to be pushed away, to receive the hurt she had inflicted back tenfold. She didn't care that the others wanted to help. She didn't want their help. She wanted Willow's anger and retribution because Willow was the one hurt by her. Willow was the one she loved. To be truly punished and to begin to heal, she needed redemption. She needed to feel hurt that she could only feel from Willow, her judge, her captor, her punisher.

Willow set her coffee on the dresser and stared sadly at Tara. She took Tara's face in her hands and kissed her firmly on the mouth. Placing her forehead against Tara's, closing her eyes, taking a deep breath…"Tara, that doesn't matter at all."

A light rapping on the door echoed throughout the room. The lamp was lit, its light casting a soft glow about its surroundings, countering the drizzling grey of the outside world. The sounds bounced from surface to surface before fading away into silence. The cycle repeated as the knocking continued. Then, a voice.

"Willow? Tara? Come down, I made celebratory cookies!" Dawn continued to knock for a moment more. Things were hard right now. Going into the Willow-Tara-Hades showdown, emotions had been iffy and strained. Kennedy's body lay in a shallow grave beneath the gravel of downtown Los Angeles, carried and buried there by Faith.

Faith had liked Kennedy from the moment she had set eyes on her. She had had the same flare and unpredictability that characterized the Slayer. Even now, she hadn't forgiven Tara. She held her anger in with practiced control, knowing that acting on her emotions would do nothing good.

Dawn understood. But she loved Tara like a daughter loved a mother. She had convinced herself that it had been an accident. It would get in the way for a while, but things would eventually clear up. Dawn was determined to make things clear up faster.

"Willow? Tara?" She waited a little longer before turning the knob and entering.

The room was empty. It looked much like it had before. They had come with nothing, had left with nothing. There was no evidence that they had ever been there if not for the soiled sheets folded neatly at the top right corner of the bed and the halved stationary that lay atop the dresser.

Except for the pitter-patter of the warm summer rain, all was silent. And it was a deafening silence as Dawn's whole being cried out in a terrifying internal wail. She knew already. She knew what the letter contained; what words had been placed so carefully, so meticulously within. And it broke her. Dawn wanted to cry – and so she did.

Gingerly, she touched the paper, afraid to read, determined to read. She grasped it within her hand, fingers shaking. They closed around it, her fist causing a crumpling and crackling. She sighed and finally, opened the letter, knowing what awaited her.


Hey Guys,

Let me start off by saying that this wasn't how we wanted it to be. By now, you'll know that we're gone. I'm so sorry. I wish we could have stayed. This was such a hard decision to make, but it had to be made and it had to be done. Things happened and we need to sort them out on our own. Away.

There are other reasons too. I'll be honest by telling you we've talked long and hard about leaving for a long time now. Even before…you know what. Tara and I, we want to start a family, away from all the action and the danger. Be normal, you know? If we stayed, our children would be in constant danger and we would always be worrying about them. We'd become a hindrance and we couldn't live like that.

We're sorry that we had to leave so quickly and quietly. We wanted to say goodbye, but it would have been too hard. Things need to be dealt with alone in our own time, and we don't know how long it will take. We don't know if we'll ever, but we have to try. We will. I guess what we're trying to say is don't expect us back. We'll definitely visit and all, but…this is goodbye. We will definitely call.

With all our love,


P.S. Tara didn't kill Kennedy. I felt that needed to be cleared up as it'll definitely come up when things have settled down and you remember there's a body. I'll explain when I call.

Tara had cried as they walked past the rooms – rooms containing the peaceful slumbers of their family. A hand over her mouth had kept the dry hacking sobs from spilling out into the sound-scape, but she had paused at Dawn's door. Had it not been for Willow's determination, she would have entered to kiss the girl goodbye.

Willow had cried as well. But she had held back, hadn't allowed herself to express the emptiness and sorrow she felt. She had to be strong, and so she had. She had taken a deep breath and guided Tara gently, firmly down the stairs, out the door.

Her hands gripped the wheel of the rented Chevrolet tightly, the studs of the leather covering biting into her skin. It was sharp. It kept her awake. Only a bit longer and she would be allowed a few hours of rest.

Willow's eyes were red, tired. Her mouth set into a thin line, it reflected the rest of her stance. Completely contrived, obviously contrived; she plodded on as a warrior through the never-ending swarms of adversaries, blade steaming with dripping blood, exhausted. They would win soon. She knew that. But she had a secret weapon – magick. For she was a sorcerer as well as a warrior, and when all seemed lost, she would rise up with her last reserves and obliterate.

She loved Tara, and that was enough. For now, Tara's needs and Tara's wants, that was all that mattered. She would hold out on everything for her until Tara was alright, because she knew that in return, Tara would be there for her. She would take care of her when she finally collapsed from exhaustion.

The sun was dipping beneath the horizon, giving way to the cool darkness of the desert night. They would have to stop soon. And then, she would call. Willow knew what awaited her – anger, tears, yelling, crying, and pain. She dreaded that phone call, but she knew it had to be done.

Willow felt much like a pawn.

She knew what was necessary. She was the do-er, and she would be the one on who the blame would fall. She would be called irrational, immature, no doubt, but she knew she wasn't. She was too experienced, too hardened to the need over the want. She knew how necessary their isolation was.

Tara needed to heal.

Willow cast a sidelong glance at Tara, who was dozing lightly in the passenger's seat. She was positioned awkwardly, uncomfortably, head nodding into a folded elbow that lay on a rolled-up window. Their bodies would be aching when they arrived. Tara's limbs would need rubbing – if Tara allowed.

She stirred, her eyebrows scrunching together as she awakened into her nightmare. Willow's face fell in synch with Tara's – reality was back in place for the blonde, along with her anguish.

Not a word was spoken. The steady thrumming of the engine contentedly filled in the silence.

Willow ventured a smile. Doubts remained, but reassurance rested within the haunted tired eyes of her love. It gave her the strength she so desperately needed – enough to continue on a little longer.

Just a little longer.

The End

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