ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To rsietz[at]

By Counterpunch


Chapter 21

It was strange, really, the things coming to England had brought--endless dark dreams and night sweats, driving on the wrong side of the road, deep meditations, British slang. But none struck Willow as more odd than adding milk to tea as she sat cushioned in an armchair, cradling a forgotten mug in her lap.

Despite Giles' insistence that tea was the all-time-cure for any ailment, Willow never indulged in the drink. Instead, she preferred a hot, hearty mocha to stir up the blood in her veins. During the later-than-late nights of demon research at the Magic Box, a balmy liquid didn't appeal to her as much as the sugar-rich coffee. Truth be told, she never wanted to be soothed by a quiet cup of tea because there was always the worry of unwinding too much in the face of danger. No, the self-appointed demon researcher couldn't afford respite in tea. Mocha was thick, heavy with caffeine, and necessary to avoid relaxation. In the Scooby world, nothing was more dangerous than getting too comfortable.

Besides, Tara was always the one to drink tea and she drank enough for the both of them. She and Giles often shared an affinity for a midnight cup of chamomile and hushed conversation. In the midst of various research, Willow would secretly watch while the two sat on the second floor overhang, reveling in the magic moment of people she loved, together in harmony. Willow had no need for tea, she had Tara--more perfectly tranquil and steeped than any beverage.

Willow cupped her mug tightly, creating a loose warmth, as though the smooth-as-teeth porcelain might transport her back to such nights. Her legs remained numbed and forgotten, folded beneath her, when the door to the cottage cracked open and ushered in a very wet Ms. Hartness.

Her hair hung in ringlets, matted to her neck and face, while water continued to drip from the tips. Peeling off her jacket, Ms. Hartness hung it on the hook next to the door and valiantly attempted to make some semblance of order out of her tangled hair.

Willow jumped and threw an arm over the chair so she could view her mentor. Noticing the woman's disheveled state, Willow flung into action, clunking the forgotten mug on the table in her haste. Concern immediately flooded her features. "Ms. Hartness, why are you--is everything all right? Was there a storm? Are you hurt? Are you okay?"

"Willow, dear, I'm quite alright, thank you. Although I do believe my umbrella has died a most violent death, I seem to have escaped with a mere soaking. How lucky of me."

Willow's fussing dimmed and her shoulders sagged with a noticeable relief. A soft "Oh," escaped her lips.

"I do believe I've braved far worse weather in this countryside than a mere rainstorm. Though there was that one time years ago during a veritable monsoon and a bottle of, what was it now, Sambuca?"

Ms. Hartness trailed off, squinting at the far wall with fond memories. Willow, in the meantime, stared back with an equally squinty, yet curious expression. "Ms. Hartness?"


"Ms. Hartness," she said more firmly, trying to bring her attention back to the present.

"What? Oh yes. Never mind that. Another story for another time, hmm?" Ms. Hartness motioned for them to sit.

"Willow," she said and waited for her to meet her gaze. "I assume that since this is the first time you've missed dinner in quite some time, Rupert has finally told you."

Willow didn't trust her voice. Instead, she nodded and looked at the floor.

"One of us was going to tell you last week, but he came to me and requested to do it himself."

It was all right, after all. Willow had supposed this moment was coming ever since she arrived at the Coven. As much as she longed to stay forever and never go back, a part of her always knew it had to end.

Then again, she'd also never expected to stay for so long. A part of her believed she'd be thrown out after only a few days. Hopeless. Useless. A lost cause. Too evil to be bothered with. She had even packed her bags one morning, but instead of a taxi, she was greeted with hot breakfast.

"But how?"

Ms. Hartness crinkled her forehead in confusion, "Sorry, dear, what?"

Willow didn't even realize she'd spoken, but it was impossible to backtrack now.

She'd never told anyone before, not the group, not the Coven, not even Ms. Hartness or Giles, but there was something that lurked deep within the shadows. Willow could feel it crawling under her skin, up her neck, and in her fingers. It was everywhere. And it oozed. All the time. Always. Everywhere.

It wouldn't have been so terrifying if it came unawares, but The Black struck when she was most focused; it was in the hum when she meditated and the roots when she was at the tree. It grabbed her down like a tide too strong and drowned her in the darkness until she was no more. Giles had been there a few times, but she had a sprinkling of bruises up and down her body for all the times he hadn't. It scared the hell out of her.

"How," her voice cracked, "am I supposed to go back with all this blackness inside of me?"


So wrapped up in her fear, she didn't register that Ms. Hartness had sat next to her and taken her hands in her own. "Willow, look at me."

Numbly she made eye contact, even as hot tears welled, making everything blur.

"You, my dear, are a very special witch. That darkness? It is a remnant. Of the things you've done, of the lessons you've learnt. Had you given into it, you wouldn't feel it at all. It is remorse, it is guilt, it is regret. For everything that has happened and everything that now will be. Embrace it, Willow. It makes you human."

Willow knew she was human, this was no surprise. But after everything she'd learnt on the Hellmouth, being human made you no better than a demon. It just made you worse. Because humans have a choice. And she had made that choice anyway. She had given into it, that darkness, that evil. Sometimes it just seemed easier to end it. A few times she nearly had.

But something smooth, hard, and warm stood in her way. Willow looked down and found the cup of tea in her hands. When had she grabbed it? The tea of midnight, of chamomile, and whispers. The tea of Tara. Willow gripped the mug tighter and resolve bubbled to the surface.

A great glow of Tara infused her. Willow was the water and Tara was the tea. She soaked up the moment, letting Taratea seep into her bones. Willow knew it wouldn't last long, but for now? For this minute? It was enough. Willow breathed through her nose and looked back at Ms. Hartness.

"When do I pack?"


Chapter 22

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I've been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don't mean anything
When you've got no one to tell them to
It's true...I was made for you
:: Brandi Carlile, The Story ::

It was like finding a needle in a haystack.

Dawn surveyed the ocean of newspapers, magazines, and various ads that surrounded her. She watched Buffy snap the cap onto the now-empty red marker, which had died a noble death after hours making pretty red circles. Dawn sighed.

A huge freaking haystack.

Despite the many benefits and advantages of the fast-food market, making a profit proved impossible, prompting Buffy to quit the Doublemeat Palace. Dawn hadn't minded, actually. They'd eaten so many Doublemeaty Doublechicken Buckets that she swore her hands permanently smelled like grease. Then again, it was probably only half as bad as Buffy felt. A few months earlier, Dawn had glimpsed a bank statement sticking out of an envelope on the desk and it shocked her. She had no idea it was that bad.

It was odd, thinking that after all the world-saving work the Scoobies had done, trivial, bureaucratic things like bills would be the thing to cripple them. It was just so...stupid.

At least last year they'd been somewhat sheltered when Willow, Tara, and Xander had quietly poured in a bit of each paycheck and profit, no matter how tiny, hoping to keep things afloat. Xander still tried sometimes, but Buffy would tuck the envelope back into his jacket pocket when he came over, telling him to put it towards 'living bachelorly'. Whatever that meant.

Dawn, whenever she could, would sneak the envelope back in after a Xanderdate. She knew how much he wanted to help. That's what Xander did. He was a helper. Just like her.

"So. Prospects. What are they?" Dawn asked optimistically, clasping her hands together.

Buffy picked up the pad of paper with the collected list of options. She glanced down and reported, "Thirty-three jobs in twelve different fields, none of which I'm qualified for," before slapping the pad back on the table. "Eight hours of job research, and Giles tells me I don't apply myself. So not fair."

"Well, y'know, he's British, so his ideas of 'applying oneself' include polishing new shoes and are therefore way messed up. I wouldn't trust him."

Buffy gave Dawn an appreciative smile before picking up the pad to stare at it properly.

"I just don't get it, am I that un-hireable?" she muttered miserably. "I mean, sure, I get covered in seven kinds of vampire dust each night, but I clean up real good. I even have," she paused, counting fingers under her breath, "...three shirts without blood on them! Three! That's two more than I had in college!"

"Which you...kinda didn't graduate from." Seeing Buffy's face crumble before her, Dawn quickly stammered on. "Not that you weren't busy saving the world and stuff, and taking care of Mom and me, which is way more important, but the real world is sorta finicky on the degree thing. Which you kinda don't have," she finished meekly with a hopeful cringe.

Exhaling loudly, Buffy sighed, "You're right. And I know you're right. It just sucks. Big-time. Big-time suckage of the Greek Tragedy variety."

Dawn saw it: the instance right before it could all sink. The moment they could both fall into the rut of despondency and miserable silence, a dank, familiar ship that had been capsizing all summer now.

But even if she used all her fingers to plug holes in the hull to keep them from sinking, Dawn was resolute. It was enough, and if Buffy couldn't do it herself, then Dawn would do it for her.

Determined to ride the tide, Dawn grabbed a fresh newspaper and peeled the sections apart, handing one to her sister "Yep. It sucks. But'cha know what else has great variety? All these jobs we haven't looked at yet! There've got to be lots of vacancies on account of all the randomly deceased, dying, and stuff in Sunnydale, it's just all a matter of timing. The more we put in, the luckier we'll get. See? Glass half-full, to death and destruction."

With a curt nod, Buffy saluted, "You're right. For the second time in two minutes, which has to be a new record. I think you might be taking vitamins." She grabbed the paper and began searching anew.

Pleased with the turn of events, Dawn sat back in her seat and smiled. Oh yeah, Baywatch Dawn. I should totally have my own action figure


Chapter 23

Tara had been starting to resent the kitchen.

Here she was, again.

Like all other days Since, Tara kept herself busy, but this time it wasn't to trick herself into being calm. Now, she cooked for pleasure, so her hands would have something to do. This time she let her brain think, because she could afford to.

She knew herself well. She could idly sit and think, but that would soon give way to panic, which would serve her no good. No, Tara needed to keep herself together; not for herself anymore, but for him. Never in her life (at least, not after the sixth grade when she realized those strange feelings she felt for the girl who sat behind her in science class were definitely not friendship) did she expect a 'him' to sweep her off her feet. Yet here he was, turning Tara's world topsy-turvy with something as seemingly insignificant as morning pancakes.

It was pleasant, baking for someone other than herself. Normally, she'd pack up a plate of scones, cookies, muffins, or pies and, like a good neighbor would, wrap it in a basket and deposit it on the kitchen tables of other disturbingly empty homes on the street--unholy carcasses of love and family.

At least then the treats weren't sitting on her table, quietly mocking her with their uneaten chocolates and jams.

Before, she was politely throwing her food away in other people's empty houses. Now, she baked for a purpose.


Spike had mumbled something about purpose last night before going to bed, but she had been too tired to think about it at the time. It was only when she'd turned off the lights and was in bed staring at the ceiling that she realized her body was humming. Despite the aching yawn of her bones and the weary strain of her muscles, Tara found she could not fall asleep. Her brain was far too busy.

Purpose. What was hers?

That was simple. To love Willow. It had always been so simple.

But never easy.

Not that Tara didn't feel love for Willow--she felt that with all of her being. But to give that love? To send it? To show it? To live it? There was always something standing in the way.

The demon. Her family. The Scoobies, at first. Glory. Death. Magick...Death.

Closing yet another book that yielded nothing, Tara slumped in her chair and rubbed her face. They'd been researching for weeks, but hadn't been able to find anything -- no hidden loophole, no secret prophecy -- that would bring Buffy back again.

Evenings at the Magic Box had been a given, Dawn even had her own homework niche permanently stationed at the corner table. This particular night she was home having a movie night with Spike. The two of them seemed to cling to each other more often now. A proper pair of bandits, equally lost in a den of despondency.

And so there they were, two witches, an ex-demon, and a carpenter prowling Giles' library at midnight. Willow hadn't touched her in days.

Tara glanced over at the cloth bandage that covered raw wires sticking out of the Buffybot's neck and sighed. She swallowed, faintly tasting bile in the back of her throat.

The nausea in her mouth propelled Tara to rest her head on Willow's shoulder. She could feel tense muscles underneath the thin t-shirt. "Willow?" she whispered, reaching for her arm. Tara took the teal pen Willow held, laid it down on the table, and placed her own hand atop Willow's.

She raised her head and looked at Willow, who stared heavily at the expanse of tomes in front of her. "Sweetie?" Tara frowned. Ever so slowly, the hand beneath her own, one that Tara knew dearly -- had lovingly traced and kissed hundreds of times in privacy and shadow -- shrank away, leaving the cool wood of the table to kiss her palm.

Willow swallowed. Her lips were taut and her brow was furrowed in resolve, but her eyes betrayed the slew of emotions within. "Not now, Tara. I've got -- " she stopped, picked up her pen and sighed. "I'm sorry. Just...Not now."

Tara's heartbeat faltered and everything slid away until only the sleek table, which grew warmer from the heat of her fingers, existed and grounded her to the earth. That moment was the slow beginning of the end. When danger, magick, and duty came first. When Willow thought the answers were a burden to find and bear alone instead of together.

There was always an obstacle preventing Tara from loving Willow. Why did something that came so easy and natural have to be so difficult?

Instead of being purposeless, Tara had lain in bed with one hand flat against the wall, reveling in the knowledge that some other being was on the other side. He may not have been what she was expecting, but the fact that he was , exceeded any of her expectations.

His presence proved there was meaning to her existence, that she wasn't some cosmic joke or mistake. She'd forgotten--in routine, pattern, and recipe--how to live. It hurt too much even thinking of a life without Willow--one where her smile didn't grace the heavens, where her heart didn't get to beat with the earth. But if he existed, that meant she did too. And if there was anything Tara believed, it was that no one is without purpose. Despite obstruction or vicissitude, whether it be death or a soul, there was meaning. No force on earth was strong enough to deter her from this truth. And Tara would not let her get that lost again.

So here she was. Again, baking. For a purpose. And though it was nearing early afternoon, said Purpose was still upstairs asleep.

But by God, Tara was tired of waiting.

And this time, because she could, Tara would do something about it.


Chapter 24

The food that I'm eating
Is suddenly tasteless
I know I'm alone now
I know what it tastes like
So break me to small parts
Let go in small doses
:: Regina Spektor, Ode to Divorce ::

Xander hated Tech Services. In the eighth grade he'd gotten caught for calling a late-night naughty 1-800 number and had since nursed an avoidance of all things toll-free.

"If you have problems with a Microsoft program, please press 1. If you have problems with a Macintosh program, press 2. If you have problems with a ..."

The spreadsheet for labour costs, equipment fees, and orchestrating charges from his latest construction gig had frozen. Right there on the screen, all the data from work zone B was glitched and now displayed columns from the company demo-sheet.

"If you have problems with a program from Microsoft Office, please press 1."

Excel wasn't his strongpoint, and Anya had always made sure to demonstrate that when it came time to organizing finances. Quicken would suffice for most people, but Anya wanted a full layout of all monetary accounts before inputting information. "I don't trust it, Xander. Software that calculates that quickly and efficiently has to have a secret agenda. I don't like the automated thing. "He would chuckle and agree, then go back to whatever he was doing. Somehow he knew she was worried about becoming obsolete. What would happen if computers could learn to love money as much as she did?

Listlessly, he randomly tapped a few keys on the keyboard. Nothing.

Normally, Xander would leaf through the manual or 'Help' page for about forty seconds to perpetuate his manliness before calling his personal, go-to digital guru.

But she wasn't here anymore, and he was stuck calling some schmuck in an office god-knows-where instead of his best friend. Suddenly--or not-so suddenly, as it was always there--Xander missed Willow with a ferocious ache.

He'd never been without her for so long. Instead of poker nights when Anya would win, Willow would protest and Buffy would still not understand how to play, he had a cheap, empty apartment and lived off of noodles and QVC. The life he loved so desperately had crumbled. No letters, phone calls, emails, random visits or refrigerator raiding. What was the point of being a Scooby if there was no gang? They fell apart--Xander fell apart--and he didn't know how to pick up the pieces.

"Hello, this is Mike speaking, how can I help you?"

Xander sighed. "Hi, Mike, I'm Xander. Sorry to bother you, but um...never mind." He hung up the phone.

Doing nearly anything these days made Xander cringe with familiarity. His life was sculpted, perfected, and structured on a ragtag team of desperados. With them gone, he was just...floating.

Xander wasn't a floater. Give a guy oversized weapons he has no idea how to use and he'll be your champion. But this? This...crap? He hated it.

Not one minute since he'd hung up, the phone rang. "Mike, buddy, I told ya I was sorry, just sorta...changed my mind."

"Xander?" replied a confused, distinctly female voice.


"No, apparently I'm some guy named Mike. Anything you wanna talk about, mister?"

He grinned. "Aah, no, that would just be my new friend from tech support. What's up, Buff?"

Static buzzed for a moment as Buffy hesitated. At her next words, his heart skipped a few beats.

"She's coming back."


Chapter 25

Dawn was nervous.

It's not every day one starts High School. Especially one that seemed to have a penchant for straight-up-end-of-the-world evil.

Slow down, Tiger, you can do this.

Mental checklist: Stylish yet respectable outfit? Teeth brushed? Breakfast? Check, check, and check.

Be an adult. At least as adult one can be in ninth grade. She could do that, right; be a grown-up? Heck, Buffy took her patrolling nowadays and she even totally made a good impression on the principal. Before homeroom even started!

Dawn had a good feeling. And those didn't happen so often. She happily fondled the cell phone in her pocket.

Really? I mean, really? Honestly, how cool. Bette's parents wouldn't get her a cell phone until she had her license, and it was literally all the girl would talk about. Dawn made a mental flag to keep all mention of Buffy's gift as far away from Bette as possible.

She'd been wondering when her family would pick up on modern technology. For a group of people (one of whom was a computer-science major) in dire need of constant communication, they sure seemed to be slow on the uptake.

Dawn twisted through the hallway, narrowly skirting major collisions with large backpacks, stocky athletes, gaggles of girls, and general traffic.

Everything was so...big. The lockers, the football players, even the classrooms seemed supersized. No one looked at her, everyone was far too busy with the hullabaloo of the first day back.

Dawn felt like a dandelion--whisked into the wind, about to be lost.

As if choreographed, lockers slammed simultaneously, high fives were given, lipstick was hurriedly put on, and everyone scattered like ants and disappeared into different rooms.

Suddenly alone in the hallway, Dawn swallowed the butterflies down. She could do this. She'd done way worse things than the first day of school. She'd fought demons, had been kidnapped more times than she could count, was almost sacrificed, stayed up late doing research about things that would give other kids nightmares, and by golly, she had a cell phone.

Dawn smiled and looked at her schedule. Crap .

"O-kay, where is D-Wing again?


Chapter 26

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Lessons, Episode 1 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes inbetween what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

"Pick me up softly, I don't know the shape that I'm in
One bullet missed me, the other one kissed me
And left me to die in the dirt.
They killed every last man and shot down my Suzanne
It's over whatever it's worth
So pick me up stranger, pick me up softly
I don't know how much I've been hurt"
::Joe Purdy, Cowboy Song ::

Day Twenty.

That's what it was, twenty days since she had chosen to go back. That meant nineteen nights she had lain awake, barely sleeping, afraid that in a moment of exhaustion, the blackness would come claim her and change her mind.

Because now, returning wasn't an option. The calls had been made, flights schedules, taxis reserved, and within a span of 28 hours Willow found herself without even a choice to back down.

Articles of clothing in various piles of organization were scattered around the room, a sprinkle of clutter amongst as well. Empty suitcases lay open, beckoning Willow to pile them with things.

Willow was not looking forward to going back, to say the least.

Half of her still desperately wanted to crawl away, worried that even England was not far enough away from Sunnydale. Yet at the same time, she could not help a tiny part of her from believing that staying so far away was wrong. She was a widow. And of all the guilt she carried, not staying with Tara had been her greatest burden and mistake.

How could she? How could she dare to leave when she'd just gotten her back? Willow abandoned her love, left her alone with the carpet for a shroud and Dawn to find, unadorned and bereft, cooling in the shadows.

Willow knew that that was her greatest crime of all.

It haunted her at night during the nightmares. Tara would lie on the floor in the darkness, her flesh tinged blue, limbs sprawled out with that damned red splotch in the middle of her shirt. Then her eyes would open, like a porcelain doll, and stare straight at Willow. Mute and motionless, Tara would look at her, blank and empty until Willow would wake up gasping with the cool, unblinking eye burned into her retina.

Someone knocked at the door and startled Willow out of her daymares. Slightly dazed, she cleared her throat. "Come in," she called. Giles peeked from behind the door and pulled his glasses off. "Aah, Willow, you're here, excellent. Would you mind terribly if I pulled you away from packing for a few minutes?"

"'Course, Giles," she replied, and let a shirt she'd been folding flop to the floor as she stood.

Anything to get away from this.

Willow followed him outside and closed the door to the cottage behind her.

Giles walked leisurely with his hands in his pockets, the collared ends unfolding loosely near his elbows. Side by side they strode for a few minutes, enjoying the timid weather afforded to them after some rain the night prior. It was cooler now, and the air felt fresh.

Willow looked up at Giles. His eyebrows were furrowed and his lips tight. Just as she was about to say something, he spoke.

"Willow, I do hope you can forgive me."


"What? Giles, y-"

"No, Willow. This is my place, my apology. So, please, let me make it."

He paused for a moment.

"I am a Watcher. It is my responsibility to guide and teach the Slayer in her duty to protect the world against the forces of darkness. There were rules and protocol written by the Council many years ago for every possible circumstance. But all of that changed in Sunnydale. Buffy changed it all. You and Xander..." he trailed off.

Her cheeks flushed, unaccustomed and uncomfortable at the apology directed at her. He was Giles, steadfast and wise, right to call her the rank amateur she had been. He shouldn't be asking for the apologies, not after her hands had thrust him into the ceiling and smashing down to the floor. That right was reserved for her.

But her throat was shut, thick like honey with emotion.

"I know now that I Watch more than one. And because I...hesitated, I looked away, I was not Watching. I'm so sorry, Willow.

Huh .

It had never occurred to her that someone other than her could be blind.

And no, it didn't ease the shame she felt or changed the responsibility she carried, but she could take some comfort in knowing it wasn't just her that sometimes screws up. It wasn't just little Willow Rosenberg who was laden with penitence. And you know? Maybe, just maybe she could give someone the comfort she knew she'd never feel again. She could give the gift of Tara, a small pocket of peace to the closest thing she'd ever come to a father. He deserved it more than he knew.

"It's okay. I forgive you. I'd always forgiven you." It barely came out as a whisper, but she knew he heard. Giles always heard.

That ease with which the slight feel of relief came ruined it all. That taste of forgiveness soured her system and the Blackness lay claim to her once more. Willow didn't even have time to shout before she collapsed, her forehead splitting on a rock as her head hit the ground. She didn't hear Giles cry out. She only felt Black.

In the darkness came teeth.


Chapter 27

Anya didn't think it was very fair, the way she was being treated.

She was Anyanka, champion of mistreated women, a thousand years of enough torture, punishment, and evisceration experience behind her to frighten any being. And yet, here was Halfrek telling her she was a joke at the office.

A joke? She'd seen hundreds of fledgling demons try and fail to make something of themselves. D'Hoffryn had given her 'employee of the century' eight times in a row. How dare they mock her name. She'd been on top for decades before her little Sunnydale High romp, Cordelia Chase had just gotten lucky. If not for Giles' meddling, Cordelia would have stayed vampire food and Anya would never have lost her powers and gotten into this sopping mess.

A busy waiter weaved between the tables, delivering hot mugs and collecting empty ones. Anya thought about what she could do to that man. Torture him in ways he couldn't imagine. Delivering pieces of himself in tarts and cupcakes to the women he'd wronged.

But Anya merely sighed. She just didn't feel like it, today. That seemed to happen a lot these days.

The measure and test of true friendship rarely appears, but when Anya found herself human and alone in the world, she discovered just how real her friendships were. No well-wishes or condolences on her recent mortality. No fruit baskets, no singing telegrams. Anya was left to scrape together a life out of what little she knew. Did any of her friends or proteges care that Anyanka, champion of mistreated women, lived for weeks in an abandoned gym office in a high school before finding a cheap, dank apartment?

Without her powers to protect her, the trials of living in Sunnydale proved too much for a weak teenager to handle by herself. Anya needed friends. She needed allies. How little she knew at first how different those two were. She'd quickly picked up on the fact that the only thing Sunnydale had going for it resided in the high school library in off-periods and after school. The Scoobies were meek and small and had more odds stacked against them than anything Anya had ever seen. And she had seen a lot. How could she know that only a few stupid, mortal years later she'd feel more at home with them than anywhere else she'd been? How could she know of the steely inner strength Buffy held behind her facade of nail polish and cute shoes? What hope did Anya have of seeing anything more than ancient detachment bred of Watchers toward their Slayers from Giles? The power that dwelt deep within poor, compliant Willow? Or how quickly foolish, useless Xander Harris would rile her bones and quake through her being?

How could she hope?

But now she was here, sitting on a stupid stool in The Espresso Pump, holding a long-ago-cooled cup of a generic coffee drink, stuck. Summer lingered, warm and salty, and made her wish for things to be different. Ha! The vengeance demon, wishing! Irony slapped her in the face once again.

She couldn't help it. She wished she didn't have to go home to her apartment and cook for one. She wished Buffy would look her in the eye and that Dawn didn't always seem so sad. She wished Giles hadn't left and that the Magic Box were still there. She wished Willow would come back, and that she could be enjoy coffee with Tara instead of Hallie's empty companionship. She wished she still had a place in the system that continued to turn, blind to the disasters of its quiet heroes.

Instead, she was listening to bad folk music, which assuredly did nothing to improve her mood. Anya frowned, took a sip of her drink, and straightened her back. She knew the uselessness of hope and the foolishness of wishing. Ask any of the women she helped if when they saw their wish granted, they felt better. If it were what they truly wanted. If they could only have him back. If, if, if.

Enough wishing. It's time to do what we do.

Anya cocked her brow and looked Halfrek in the eye. "Fine. If the Lower Beings want something to talk about, I'll give them something to talk about."


Chapter 28

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Lessons, Episode 1 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes inbetween what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

This time, the terrible darkness spoke. It yelled, howled and dragged Willow from the grass and dew, far past the roots and into the deep.

It seemed like forever. But then came wind. And noise. And teeth. From the inky darkness, sharp and wet, the teeth glistened for her. "We're coming for you," they hissed. Willow cowered and covered her ears as a midnight storm blew around her. She fell to her knees while her hair whipped around her hands and face. But still the tempest raged, snarled, snapped, and roared. "We know her eyes are watching you, little Willow."

Willow choked. The deep-seated fear that always lingered grasped her mercilessly. The tears could come now, hot and firey in this cold, cold place. They knew. They always knew. Her sins. Her darkness. It would never be over. Not while Tara's dead face watched her from beyond. Willow knew no spell or weapon could defeat these demons. No matter how much magic therapy the Coven could teach her, there was nothing that could be done to save Willow from this fate. Of teeth and thrashing. It was what she deserved. Even Tara knew; even Tara saw.

"Did you think it would be that easy, a hug and some tears?" The sound was booming and everywhere. "Think again, young one, because we're here. We're always here and soon, we'll be all that's left."

The din and wind coalesced in a massive cyclone that swept Willow off her feet and into its bowels. Powerless in its wake, Willow drowned. And drowned and drowned and drowned. She drowned in hopelessness. In fear. In worry. In nausea, and a sick knowing that was meant to be. She had relinquished herself to darkness once before -- why should it not come claim her now?

In the storm, Willow succumbed, sunk into herself and thought of blue. While the teeth were grinding, Willow recalled the way Tara used to sigh into her pillow in the mornings.

The grinding stopped.

And how she used to close her eyes when she heard a birdsong.

The itching ceased.

The warm way she'd hug the laundry when it came out of the dryer.

The wind caressed.

Her face after a shower.

The dark turned grey.

The color of her lips.

The sound stopped.

Willow let herself think of red.

And then,

she woke.

"Oh, god."

But this time it was no slow, soft awakening. Willow jolted violently, electrocuted by the earth, and gasped desperately as if having nearly drowned.

Strong arms were cradling her. "Just breathe," Giles soothed.

"What happened," she managed to gasp.

"What do you remember?"

She thought back to the sweet but unexpected forgiveness. "We were talking, and I felt--" she recoiled from the ground and met his gaze with frightened eyes. "--I felt the earth, Giles. It's all connected." But none of it back to Tara. Just the evil to me. "It is, but it's not all good and pure and rootsy. There's deep, deep black. There's...I saw, I saw the Earth, Giles. I saw its teeth."

Willow felt rather than heard the certainty in his voice. "The Hell Mouth."

It's coming. "It's gonna open. It's going to swallow us all."


Chapter 29

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Lessons, Episode 1 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes inbetween what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

Buffy ran.

Not that it was unusual. Nine times out of ten Buffy tended to be engaged in some form of sprinting. It was her Olympic speciality. Well, along with all the monster fighting.

But Buffy was proud that she'd made it nearly an art form--running in every outfit imaginable. Heels? Khakis? Flying necklaces? Fashion didn't deter her from duty. Matter of fact, it spurned her on. It gave her courage and satisfaction knowing at any given moment she could kick demon ass. Superman had it all wrong.

She cringed to think of alternatives. Of carrying a gym bag with her. Or wearing only sweats and loose tops. God forbid. She was the Slayer and could do anything, did do anything, rules be damned. Friends? The Council? Falling in love with vampires? Parents? High School? College, even? Death? What's the big deal if 'fashion' was slapped on too?

She skidded as she rounded a corner, almost tripping on a lost binder on the ground.

Dogs? My dogs are dead? What the hell was I thinking? Buffy grimaced, knowing thinking on her feet was not one of her strengths. Oh well, it was too late to worry about that now. Odds were, she'd never see Principal Wood again anyway. Principals never did last long at Sunnydale High.

Speaking of lasting long, Buffy had hoped it'd be at least a day until Dawn used the phone. But no. Leave it to her to get into trouble the first day. In the daytime, no less. And during first period.

And so Buffy ran.

Because she was the Slayer--the Sunnydale Batman--and protected the innocent, even if it happened to be her not-so-innocent little sister.

Buffy at least had a safe, normal childhood; she hadn't hit Slayerdom until 15. By that age, Dawn had been half-sacrificed; seen her mother die; seen her surrogate mother die; seen her sister die, only to come back and nearly fall apart; had her family threatened repeatedly; and had been kidnapped more times than Buffy could count.

But wait. No, that wasn't it at all, was it? There was more. Lots more. Dawn was there for Faith--with blind admiration in the beginning and stubborn strength at the end when she and Mom were cornered in the bedroom after the coma. She was there for the divorce, cried for days and refused to eat grilled cheese sandwiches again because they were Dad's specialty. Dawn was there for Angel, and later, for Angelus. She was there when she broke her leg in the fourth grade after a bad skating accident. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Buffy had lived her life twice--once with, and without a sister.

And to think she'd come so close to losing it. Twice! Buffy frowned and promised herself she wouldn't let it happen again.

And ran faster.


Chapter 30

Tara pulled the towel that rested over her shoulder and ignored the flapping noise it made when it hit the kitchen counter. She wiped her flour-dusted hands carelessly on the sides of her thighs and walked over to the stairs. "Spike?"

After a quiet moment she shouted again, "Spike, are you up?" When silence again greeted her, she started to climb the stairs while a faint worry seeped into her heart. She called ahead, "Spike? I made breakfast," but was cut off by the slamming of the screen door downstairs. Full-out alarm exploded in her ears as she scrambled down the stairs, barely managing to see the last reverberating shutters of the door in the kitchen. She righted herself against the banister, sprinted through the door and turned sharply to see Spike's boots disappear around the corner.

"Oh no, you don't," Tara gritted her teeth and gave chase to her increasingly spastic houseguest.

Months of spending time without a nightly demon hunt had left her ill-motivated to exercise. With no Slayer to back up, no beloved to guard, no innocents to protect, there hadn't really been a point. Not to mention the fact that there weren't any demons to hunt anyway. She felt the effects now only a few blocks from Revello Drive, as a cramp pinched painfully at her side. Tara made a small note in the back of her mind to resume exercising as soon as she could catch her breath.

Tara was so bent on forcing her mind to outwit her body that she hadn't realized where he was headed. As his strides became more focused and Spike entered a dilapidated building, Tara wondered just how much longer she could hope to chase a being that didn't need oxygen.

She didn't think she could run much longer when she saw Spike trot to a dazed halt in the middle of a burnt out hallway. Finally . She balanced her arms on her knees, too exhausted to stand straight. Her chest heaved as she took stock of her surroundings.

High school. He'd led her to the high school. Its dark, broken corridors and corroded walls echoed the giant gap of time it'd been since she was last here. A small twitch of her eye and she could almost see the not-so-tiny Tinkerbell light in the distance. Before she could sink into a delicious, painfully memory, Spike's possessed footsteps pulled her in the opposite direction, down a janitorial stairway and into the dark.

"Spike!" she shouted while she scrambled over fallen beams. Tara slipped suddenly, grunted as she hit the floor and watched a burnt yearbook page fly out from under her. A long-dead, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed girl floated past her face.

What the hell is the matter with him?

Tara knew Spike, deeper than she expected to. It started in the milky beginnings of her and Willow's relationship, though she didn't know it then, while sitting on the cool porcelain of Giles' toilet seat making awkward small talk with Anya. She understood when she saw the bruises dance on his face after Glory, in the ways he averted his eyes for days. She saw, out of the corner of her eye, the hours he spent leaning on the tree in the front yard, cradling a forgotten cigarette between his fingers.

It came to her slowly, in moments and crises, just how similar she and Spike were.

Both, runaways trying to escape what they were, inadvertently falling into this ragtag team of Scoobydom and becoming something entirely unexpected and different. Something more. She understood, later on, how deep that path took them--when sacrifice, love, and loyalty become truths instead of sidenotes. Sure, they may have taken different routes, but ultimately they'd become the same. Tara knew. And she held onto it just in case Spike ever tried to forget or pretend otherwise. He was more than that; she was more than that.

All of a sudden, he stopped. Frozen dead in his tracks, Spike suddenly seemed to realize where he was. He turned and squinted at Tara through the dusty light that filtered through foggy basement windows.


They stared at each other for a moment, searching, but then Spike turned and faced a gaping hole in the wall where a door once stood. He laughed crazily for a moment, but his features soon softened and his eyes smiled tenderly at something Tara could not see. He raised his arm and gently spoke, stealing the breath from Tara's lungs.


Part 31

Return to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Fiction

Return to Main Page