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By Counterpunch


Chapter 41

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Same Time Same Place, Episode 3 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!

Spike was well aware he was being used like a dog. Not so much in the degrading sense--he was doing that plenty well on his own, thanks--but rather like a well-trained mutt, following the scent of blood.

He didn't like leaving Tara behind, shaky as she'd been earlier. He knew what it was like to finally see the monster for what it was. Wouldn't have wished it on someone as sweet as that little dove, but if anyone had asked him (not that anyone ever did), he could've seen it coming a mile away. Red had reeked of power, even in the early days, but he'd cared far more about the Slayer than her pets. Never did like her much. Suspected it had to do with how much she reminded Spike of himself, all the things he'd hated about William.

Tara hadn't said much all afternoon. What with finding out Willow was a murdering torturer and all, she was understandably a little preoccupied and out of sorts. She declined to come along for the hunt, mumbling some excuse about research. It wasn't going to be that exciting and he couldn't blame her for wanting to keep her distance from Willow, even if separated by a strange dimension. Finding out what she did? Does something to a person. Sometimes you can't be the same after that. He should know.

He tried to ignore Buffy's presence--it was like a blinding light, it was--but Xander being there dampened the situation plenty. Dawn too, but Little Bit bothered him to a lesser degree. He was proud of her, threats n' all, for sticking up for Buffy. He remembered when she carried a childlike anger and resentment towards her sister. Shame she had to grow up so fast, the way she did. He wouldn't have wished it on anyone, even without his soul.

Blood drew him further into the woods, the scent both mesmerizingly magnetic and nauseating. His stomach churned and hungered at the same time. No changing what he was, soul or not.

Without preamble, he left Buffy and the others at the mouth of the cave. Heading back to the basement, though safe, wasn't an appealing option at the moment. He hadn't been topside for the better part of a week, having holed himself away since the incident with Ronnie and Buffy.

Perhaps fresh air would do him some good.


Chapter 42

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Same Time Same Place, Episode 3 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!

After Buffy killed the demon, they split up, Buffy going to check on Dawn back at the house, leaving Xander to take Willow to the hospital. Though deep, Willow's wounds were relatively minor, considering. They managed to concoct a cover story about a whittling accident gone awry but the nurse still looked suspicious while bandaging her stomach.

Taking her chart, the nurse left and Xander found himself alone with Willow for the first time in a long while. They sat close to each other but the awkwardness that bridged between them felt like miles.

"I guess no trip to Sunnydale is complete without a visit to the hospital," Willow said lightly, trying to break the tension.

"Definitely one of our finer tourist destinations. The Jell-O is top notch."

"Absolutely," Willow nodded a little too quickly. "And having experienced all eight flavors, we're definitely qualified to pass judgement."

"Yeah, we should get frequent flier miles at this place or something."

Their banter was familiar, but the veneer of cheerfulness barely masked the growing tension.

"O-or a 'come ten times and the eleventh visit is free' card."

"I'll keep it in my wallet right next to the burrito club card and Swords-R-Us membership."

Willow chuckled and he smiled, but no one spoke. The silenced soon stretched uncomfortably, neither making the move to break it.

"This is stupid," Xander finally declared, "We've known each other since we were four , Will. You're my best friend."

Willow squirmed, blushing. "Xander . . ." she chided.

"No! This is stupid. I don't like this feeling all . . ." he said, gesturing vaguely between them, ". . . weird."

"It hasn't been this awkward since the illicit kissage of senior year," Willow admitted.

"And frankly that was way more fun, so having that put into context really makes this feel just super fun." Xander fidgeted with his hands, laying them on his knees before changing his mind and clasping them together again. "It shouldn't be this hard."

"Yeah, but it's kinda my fault, so . . ." Willow replied in a small voice, trailing off.

"I think you're kinda dealing with enough of that for one lifetime, Will, don'tcha think?" He remembered when it used to be easy, when the world was simple and the hardest choices they'd had to make was choosing whose house to go to after school. Now Willow's grief scarred his face and lingered in her eyes. But sometimes he'd blink and they were still ten and happy, before the world became dangerous, and consequences shadowed their every step.

He hoped she still saw that too.

The silence stretched between them again, like silly-putty, waiting for the tension to fall and separate.

"I signed for her, y'know," Xander said finally. The flinch was barely there--but Xanders know their Willows--and even without looking, he could see her entire being lurch. She didn't say anything, but he knew she was trying to keep it together. "Her body, someone had to. . . ." he trailed off, looking around the room. "I hate hospitals." Willow's lip wavered and she pursed them in the vain hopes of staying the tears that welled. "That was the worst day of my life."

Willow snorted through her tears. "Tell me about it."

"I keep thinkin', running it over and over in my head till it's all I think about and I just . . . if I could've just moved, I could've knocked him down, I could've. . . ." Willow watched silently, saying nothing, as it all poured out of Xander. "I could've. . . ." he trails off. "I could've saved her."

Her eyes were the saddest he'd ever seen them, heavy and lidded under the weight of death; full with regret, pity, understanding--a thousand things he'd never wanted her to feel--the sorrow was palpable.

"Xander, you know there's nothing you could've done."

"But I always do something. That's what I do."

"He had a gun, he could've killed you."

"That's never stopped me from doing something stupid before."

"Definitely not, or else you wouldn't be saying all this stuff now. Xander, you're my best friend. We've known each other since we were four, remember? So I know what I'm talking about when I'm saying you're a dummy."

He looked at Willow weakly as she slid her hand into his. They were dry and cool. "Don't you think I've thought about ways I could've saved her? If I'd've just listened to her. If I'd've never done the dark magics, or hadn't been doing so well or trying to win her back, and we never would've been in that room. O-or even if we never met. That one almost hurts more, but . . . she'd've been safe, she'd still be alive somewhere, breathing, and-and . . . it just goes on. I think of, like, three new ways it could've gone differently every day."

Willow wiped her nose with her sleeve. "But it doesn't change the fact that she's still gone, and I'm still here. Which turns out is a good thing, 'cause someone has to stop you from being such a big doofus." Her smile was weak but genuine. He saw it stretch over her face and reach her eyes.

"Hey, I was the one trying to be all comforty, here," he said. But Willow'd gotten good at that over the years, stealing away his problems and tucking them somewhere into herself.

"Yeah, well I figure I owe you one for getting me to not end the world, so. . . Consider us square."

Hoisting her to her feet and throwing one arm around her shoulders, he marched them out of the room. "Let's get burgers."

"Oh god, yes," Willow moaned, "I haven't eaten since England."

Two steps out of the Emergency Room, he felt better already. The entrance doors slid open to let them exit.

"Hey, do you know what you'd like?" she said on their way out, "Bangers n' mash. Mostly just because you'd get to say 'bangers n' mash'."

God, he'd missed her.


Chapter 43

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Same Time Same Place, Episode 3 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes in-between what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

Bracing her arm against the doorway, Willow cringed as the pain seared across her belly. She slowly approached the bed, cradling her stomach. Gingerly, she settled into a cross-legged position, placing her palms on the familiar place atop her knees, taking a moment to survey the room.

Nothing here reminded her of the room down the hall. And for that, Willow was supremely grateful. She thought back to the high school sleepovers she and Buffy had; the gossip and whispers they'd shared, bowls of junk food, afternoons doing homework. This was an innocent space; a room devoid of shame, death, and triggering memories. A room without Tara.

Determined to start healing, Willow took the familiar deep breaths, and sank into her meditation.

She was surprised to find how quickly the earth opened itself to her here. Granted, it was a Hellmouth, but still. The regular connection was there, but it was a much vaster system than in England.

Here, Tara was in the roots.

They ran onto the porch a giggling soaking mess, having tried in vain to shield themselves with schoolbooks and purses, which flopped uselessly against their heads. It had been an unexpected rainfall, unusual for this time of year, even more so in Southern California. "Willow!" Tara shrieked while fumbling for the keys as hands slid up her back.

"What?" Willow looked back with false innocence.

Tara laughed, eyes twinkling, "We're soaked!" She looked so beautiful with tendrils of hair twisting down her neck and around her ears, skirt sticking to her legs. Her shawl had fallen off one shoulder leaving it bare, and she bent down to tie her boots, laces having gotten loose in the mad dash. She was an absolute mess. She was perfect.

"I know," Willow said with a mischievous grin, "I kinda wanted to keep it that way."

Tara rolled her eyes good naturedly. "Can we please get inside first, you horndog?"

"And waste this perfectly romantic moment?" Willow waved, gesturing widely. "Getting caught in a rainstorm together?"

Moving her hips awkwardly, Tara winced as she pulled at her skirt. "It's not as romantic when there's a wedgie the size of Montana riding up your butt."

Willow laughed as the door finally opened and they marched in together.

It didn't take much longer for the clothes to come off after that.

A different energy hummed alongside the memory, powerful and strong, and Willow's eyelids fluttered.

Slowly, Willow pulled back from the remembrance space, finding her way back by climbing up the roots. She felt the familiar pull of Tara leaving her and kissed it goodbye as she always did. Earth magic, natural as it was, was all the more draining and she leaned back into the pillows. "Buffy," Willow said weakly.

Standing hesitantly in the doorway, Buffy looked unsure about whether to leave or stay. "I didn't mean--," she started, looking almost embarrassed. "Sorry to interrupt."

"That's all I had left in me anyway," Willow confessed.

"Didn't realizing meditating was such hard work," Buffy took a tentative seat at the foot of the bed.

"I'm healing, growing new skin," Willow shared.

"That's... wow. This is magic, right? When most people meditate they don't get extra skin, do they? Cause Clem should like, cut back." The banter was awkward. Nervous. Willow tried not to think about how that was her fault, too.

"It's magic," she confirmed. "I'm drawing power from the earth to heal myself."

"We're on the second floor," Buffy deadpanned, confused.

"Y'know, Giles says everything is part of the earth. The bed, the air . . ." As she rubbed the bedspread in front of her, Willow felt it swell--the ghost of a proud smile graced her lips--a memory, ". . . Us." For a moment, Tara thrummed. I'm finally doing it right.

"Explains why my fingernails get dirty even when I don't do anything."

"Plus you stuck your thumbs in a demon."


Exhausted, Willow leaned into the pillows behind her. Buffy watched, and then, "You're wiped out, I should go."

Willow's stomach sank. She felt the moment, that precious moment, between them slipping away. She thought about a life without Buffy, about disappointing her again and again and again, and desperately reached out. "No. Please stay? I missed you so much when I couldn't find you," Willow begged, talking about so much more than the Gnarl demon and her accidental spell.

Buffy must have known, read it in her eyes, because her reply was as earnest as Willow's. "We missed you, too. I missed you, too," she corrected. "Dawn's working on what caused the mutual no-see-ums, but I don't--"

"I did it," Willow interrupted guiltily.

"You did a spell?"

For one terrifying moment, Willow thought her worst fear had come true. That right then, Buffy saw her as an enemy. Again. "I didn't mean to, I-I just remember thinking that I wasn't ready to see you guys yet. I was afraid we wouldn't, you know, connect?" Willow admitted. Like we haven't in years. In a lifetime. Like we almost aren't now.

"So, you made it happen just by thinking it?" Buffy confirmed.

Willow braced herself. It was harder than waiting for Giles' retribution. This was Buffy. "Guess I have a ways to go before I master my powers, huh."

But Buffy's only response was, "S'ok. Long as you're all right," and Willow exhaled a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. There was forgiveness in Buffy's eyes, and it was more than Willow had dared hope to see again.

"It's nice to be forgiven." The weight of the past year nudged its way forward, and she flushed with shame. "Too bad I need so much of it."

Buffy looked down and Willow was afraid she was going to change her mind and take it all back. "I have a confession to make. I thought it might be you. With the flaying."

Relief flooded Willow again. Guilt she was good at . "I know."

"I wanna be the kind of person that wouldn't think that. Xander never thought it."

"He did, a little. Heck, I did a little. Xander has the luxury of not saying it, but you're the Slayer. You have to say stuff like that. It's ok. It's ok too if you still don't think I can recover from this magic stuff. 'Cause, honestly? I'm not that sure about it either," Willow admitted, feeling very much like the shy lonely girl Buffy had faced at the water fountain all those years ago.

But that just reminded Willow of the past six years all over again, so she leaned forward, sighed, and began meditating again.

"I thought you were too tired," Buffy pointed out.

"It hurts too much not to try."

"I'm sorry," Buffy apologized, despite her having nothing to apologize for.

"It just takes so much strength. I don't have that much."

Buffy scooted herself onto the bed and situated herself across from Willow. "Well, I got so much strength, I'm giving it away."

She remembered when it used to be like this between them. When it was trust and support that shone brighter than the darkness that surrounded them, giving them the strength to defeat it. When their friendship brought them together instead of drove them apart. "Are you sure?" Willow asked, giving Buffy the space to decide.

"Will it help?"

Willow nodded gratefully, "Much."


And there it was, shining bright and strong. It felt so good to finally-- finally --feel it again.

Reaching out tentatively with her magic, carefully pulling some of the Slayer energy into her own. It felt....familiar. Buffy grabbed her hands and held tight. Just like she used to; like it could be again. She felt stronger already.


Chapter 44

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Help, Episode 4 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes in-between what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

"Hey," Willow slumped, sitting on her knees like a child.

She remembered going for walks around the Coven's property and picking up small rocks to put in her pocket. They weighed her down like an anchor and it was an apt metaphor for someone who felt like they were drowning a good part of the time.

During the meditations, she'd take out one of the rocks from her pocket, cradle it, and think of Tara: her other anchor. As the Coven surrounded her, she drew from their strength and steadiness. They were warm and gentle and she took great comfort in their number. Usually hovering around thirteen people, it was the ideal minyan.

Willow would meditate with the women around her, borrow their numbers, and say kaddish.

It had felt strange at first.

Willow's participation in Judaism had taken a markedly drastic downturn since her Bat Mitzvah. After that, it seemed her parents felt their job was over, and didn't care much anymore. They went to synagogue the obligatory two or three times a year, and even that had petered out by high school. What she knew was fragmented, archaeological almost; just scraps of Hebrew terms and abstracted beliefs. And Willow had never done well with abstraction. She preferred details, facts, formulas, and codes (losing sight of the bigger picture had always been her undoing).

She became frustrated at her lack of knowledge of her own history. Had she always been so ignorant of herself, of who she was and where she came from?

The one thing Willow did remember were the rituals of Jewish bereavement. After all, the Scoobies, were always within Death's reach. Death lingered in the doorway, never leaving, waiting for the next person. But death could be structured. So she clasped to the ritual, the way the shiva process was designed to be held. It gave her something to hang on to, a way to grasp small things.

Things like rocks.

Willow would sit with the Coven, close her eyes, sink past the meditations and into a special separate place. There in the earth, in the deepest reaches of her chest, Willow found Tara.

The first time she had said the prayer, the words felt foreign in her mouth. The Hebrew and Aramaic seemed deeper, more ancient even than the Latin Willow had grown accustomed to. The words felt rusty on her tongue after so many years. But Willow clung to the ritual, letting tradition burnish her against the wake of her mistakes. She stumbled over the mourner's kaddish, forgetting whole lines, but with every passing day, each time she spoke, it became smoother. By the end of the second week it felt natural. Comforted by the women surrounding her, Willow's meditations turned into prayer. Into benediction. And the stones grounded her. To Tara.

Prayer carries, Willow remembered.

"What's that," Tara asks, shrugging off her jacket, back in the dorm room after Joyce's funeral.

"Hmm?" Willow murmurs.

Tara nods to the book in Willow's hands.

"Oh, it's nothing," she replies distractedly.

"Looks an awful lot like 'something'," Tara says as she makes her way over, wrapping her arms around Willow and pressing a soft kiss to her shoulder.

Leaning into Tara, Willow tilts the book to share the page. "It's my old prayer book from Hebrew school. I haven't used it since, well, I got it, really. But after today? I dunno. It got me thinking about where I come from. And even though I'm not really so much with the practicing, I remember going to my grandmother's funeral."

Tara's thumb rubs circles on the backs of Willow's knuckles as she continues, "I only met her a few times. The Rosenbergs? Not too big on the family front, but we went to the funeral. And there's this whole thing afterwards, at the house, shiva? I dunno, it was really nice," Willow trails off, tracing Tara's fingers with her own. "Tons of visitors, seeing each other again after so many years, reminiscing and telling stories about her." She looks up at Tara, "I could see how good it felt for them. Remembering her and connecting with each other, y'know?"

Tara leans forward, connecting their foreheads with a kiss. "It's a beautiful tradition, Will. There's life in death."

Of course, after Joyce, had come Glory, so the prayer book was soon abandoned again.

Ever so tenderly, Willow traced Tara's name, as deeply engraved in Willow as it was in the headstone. She touched reverently, fingers trembling for a moment before they fell. This was harder, so much harder than she had ever thought possible.

Rocks were permanent.

"It's me," she breathed. "Happy Birthday."


Chapter 45

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Help, Episode 4 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes in-between what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

Tara looks down at the papers in front of her.

There are a plethora of gods, goddesses, and other deities to choose from and countless spells among them.
But no spell ingredients. Well, there are ingredients, but not real ones. Everything in the Magic Box is a perfect replica of their real world counterparts, but all lack the mystical properties that make them potent spell ingredients in the first place. That makes things easier, actually; it narrows the options down.

Tara has decided to pick up where she-- they --left off last year. Most of the research they did on Osiris is superfluous and moot now that she knows the nature of her death--nothing mystical about it. Not a Slayer, just an ordinary bullet for an ordinary girl. No, there was nothing down Osiris' path for her. But thinking about Osiris has brought Tara to Isis--his wife, partner, and queen.

Isis' role in afterlife beliefs, Tara reads, was helping to restore the souls of deceased humans to wholeness as she had for Osiris. From the Late Period on, Isis became one of the deities most commonly mentioned in prayers that often referred to her kindly character and willingness to answer those who called upon her for help.

Help is something she sorely needs.

Spike asked once, why she doesn't want him to tell the others about her so they can help her escape. He means
well, and it isn't a bad idea... But how can she explain her reticence?

Hope is a dangerous thing; and it can cut both ways.

There had been hope once, inflating within Tara like a balloon, as the doctor told them she was turning a corner; that the cancer was in remission and no longer invading her mother and waging war against her body. She knew the way hope soured within her when he pulled them aside a few days later, apologizing deeply for the mistake, that in fact the opposite was true: the cancer cells were winning, multiplying faster than space would allow, overtaking organs. And Tara knew, then, what true demons were. The way it felt like she was never going to stop falling after that balloon popped; how hard the ground hit when she fell.

No. She wants to protect them from all that. Until she is sure, absolutely sure, that she can't do this on her own, that the spell won't work, there is no reason to tell them.

"I don't want them to hope," she finally admits, lamely. It is the best she can come up with.

Surprisingly, though, Spike seems to understand. "Yeah, I was afraid you'd say that. Nothing more dangerous, right?" He rolls his eyes at her surprised reaction, but sighs patiently regardless. "My mum," he says by way of explanation.

She flushes, a little ashamed to have thought so little of him.

"S'alright," he says, "Not like I go around blabbing about tragic backstories. Ruins the evil flow, y'know?"

Tara smiles at him gratefully. "Me too," she shares in apology. "My mom, I mean."

"I bet she was a nice lady."

"She was," Tara replies as the memories settle around her shoulders like a warm embrace. "I'm sure yours was,

Sadness flickers across his face and he smiles, even if it doesn't quite reach his eyes. It's always different, she remembers saying to Buffy a lifetime ago. This time, though, she reaches out, taking his hand in her own. Spike stiffens slightly, but says nothing and makes no move to pull away. Not for the first time, she's grateful he's here. Hope might not be the worst thing after all.


Chapter 46

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Help, Episode 4 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes in-between what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

The thing Dawn hated most about crying was that after the tears dried, a dull, throbbing headache usually took its place. She felt the headache coming hours before, while they were in the middle of researching. It was hard to not be bitter when Willow sat there researching Cassie's website while everyone ignored Dawn's theories about what was going on. But it didn't matter anyway, she thought guiltily. All of them were wrong, and Cassie still died.

"Look, all I'm saying is that this is normal teen stuff. You join chat rooms, you write poetry, you post Doogie Howser fanfic. It's all normal right? Let's see what other sites there are."

Willow starts typing frantically when Dawn interjects. "You guys are way off track. I got a hunch on this one."

No one acknowledges her. Again. They're just looking at the laptop. As if she weren't even there.. As if Buffy hadn't asked her to get close and talk to Cassie to get details. But as soon as Willow's stupid computer beeps, they're all over that.

"Oh, wait, no, here's something. No, that's Phillip Newton."

"No, that's her dad," Buffy says. "Open it."

Dawn rolls her eyes. "Guys, I'm telling you. I got this case cracked wide open. I got the perp fingered. I told you about Mike Helgenberg, right?"

"Uh, that's the guy that asked her to the dance?" Buffy asks distractedly.

Dawn nods excitedly, "Right. The one that keeps asking her to the dance. I'm thinking, who likes to be rejected? Nobody. I'm thinking, some people can't handle the rejection. I'm thinking that--"

Willow interrupts her. Willow. Interrupts her . "Hey, I got something. Whoa, drunk and disorderly, disturbing the peace--there's a lot of charges here."

Buffy's attention once again turns away from Dawn. "Her dad's a drunk?"

"A violent drunk?" Xander pitches in.

Buffy's already grabbing her jacket and bag. "We'd better find out. I have his address right here. Got your keys?" Xander is right behind her, "Yeah."

Dawn shakes her head, "Guys, I'm telling you, I'm liking Mike Helgenberg for the perp. Let's collar him before he--" The door slams ". . . Lawyers up."

Dawn's face falls. This is nothing new, for them to barrel forward without her, but she'd hoped that after all the Scoobying she's put in over the summer, things will be different. But no, they just leave her, again.

She huffs as turns to face the dining room. It's just Willow there, looking suddenly very nervous and alone.

Good, Dawn thinks, ignoring the guilt that flares immediately afterwards. She grabs her book bag and heads upstairs without a word, trying to ignore how much the dejected look on Willow's face hurts.

Her being wrong might not have mattered in the end, but it didn't stop the ache inside Dawn's chest from hurting any less. The ache that meant another person she cared about was dead. Again.

She sat on her bed not doing anything besides holding Mr. Gordo and staring emptily at nothing. She didn't notice Willow hovering in the doorway until a few moments later, when she knocked softly, holding a steaming mug.

"Hey, Dawnie. I brought you some hot cocoa. Thought it might help y'feel a little better? Having a hot mug to hold always made me . . ." Willow trailed off before starting again, "Well, it's all warm n' chocolatey. Your favorite! I even put salt in it the way you like, even though that's usually thought of as, y'know, gross."

Willow fidgeted for a moment with the handle, obviously feeling uncomfortable the longer Dawn didn't say anything.

She let the cheerfulness drop. "I'm really sorry about Cassie. I know you two got pretty close really fast." Still facing silence, Willow placed the mug on the side table and sat down on the bed next to Dawn. She looked at her hands for a moment, "Sometimes they leave so suddenly, y'know?"

There was a flicker of emotion in Dawn's face.

"And it doesn't--" Willow broke off. "It doesn't make any sense and I know it can be hard, b--"

Dawn's facial expression had started to soften, but it hardened instantly at those words. She interrupted in a low, cold voice, "Don't you talk to me about hard."

Willow fell back, surprised. "Dawn, I--"

"No! You don't have the right," she said forcefully as grief thickened her voice. "You left me to find her all alone! You . So don't tell me it can be hard to hurt when you took the easy way out and left me all alone."

Eyes already wet, Willow blinked against Dawn's anger. Though her face was a mask of pain, Willow's jaw was tight as she took it.

"I lost Tara, too!" Dawn continued, "And I needed you!" At this, Willow looked up, startled. Dawn was crying now, the anger having deflated into a deeper sorrow. "I needed you, Willow."

For those few months over the summer after Buffy died, Willow and Tara were as much parents to her as her own mother had been. They had moved in and slipped into the roles quietly, helping Dawn through endless nightmares, and running the household more smoothly than it'd been in months. They gave her love and structure when her world had fallen out from under her.

"You're right." Willow admitted simply. "You're right and I'm sorry, Dawnie. I didn't want-- I wasn't supposed to come back, y'know?" She flashed a weak grin.

"Well you couldn't stay in England forever."

Willow shook her head sadly, heavy with guilt. "No, I don't . . . I don't just mean England." There was a sharp, cold, moment as Dawn understood and her eyes grew wide. Willow broke away from the scrutiny of Dawn's stare, fidgeting with the blanket on her lap. "It was never supposed to get that far."

"Dawn," Willow said urgently, grasping Dawn's hand and holding it tight. "Those things that I said? Those things that I did, I . . . I'm ashamed of them. They're never going to go away. But that means I won't forget. Any of it. Ok? I've seen the worst parts of myself and it's never going to happen again. I'm so sorry for everything I did to you."

Dawn nodded, feeling the doors between them open--the way they used to be. She knew this Willow. The one who'd brought gifts while Mom was in the hospital and helped tutor her in math so she wouldn't fall behind when she was sick. Who held her hand and rubbed her back whenever she cried that dark, backwards summer. Who tinkered for long hours in the basement working on the Buffybot after helping tutor Dawn during summer school. The Willow who coordinated schedules and tried to help the endless bills with small computer gigs after Buffy died (and long after she came back). The one who Dawn heard crying sometimes at night after soothing one of Tara's nightmares. She fell into Willow, throwing her arms around a small part of her family who'd finally come back.

"Please don't go again this time, ok?" Dawn mumbled.

"Looks like you're stuck with me--mildly reformed evil and all."

"That's ok," Dawn buried herself in Willow's shoulder. "We've gotten really really good at reforming evil."

They both chuckled, sniffling. Dawn yanked two tissues from a box and gave one to Willow. The mug was still warm, and she leaned back to take a sip of the hot chocolate. It's gonna be ok.


Chapter 47

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Selfless, Episode 5 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes in-between what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

"For god's sake, shut your whimpering mouth."

The magic had felt fudge-like: sticky, warm, and much too rich. With the spider gone, the shattering glass brought her back to herself and Willow stood back, gasping. It had taken more out of her--much more than she'd expected. She hadn't drawn from the earth this time, instead acting instinctively without thought to consequence. The aftertaste of the magic turned thick and sour.

Willow turned back to the girl, more afraid of herself than the spider that had nearly penetrated her barrier. Is that how Dawn had looked when I'd faced her? Tiny and frightened and alone?

"I-I'm sorry," she stammered.

It'd unnerved her. She was frightened at how easy it was still, after everything, to make the wrong decision. How instinctual it had become to pull from more powerful magics.

Despite months in England meditating, training, and focusing her energies, Willow herself could still be so easily unleashed. The person that haunted her, the one with black eyes and unchecked arrogance and selfishness, wrecking havoc because she could . Because she had wanted to. The Willow she never wanted to be again. The one she was ashamed of.

The thought of it filled her with fear, set her heart racing, skin itching.

"Giles, no," she said flatly.

"Willow you must. Magic isn't simply a box you lock and ignore."

"Uh, yes! I can! With the biggest lock ever and a side of throwing away the key, please and thank you."

"It's a part of you, it always has been."

God, she hoped not.

"And look at me, Giles," she shot back desperately, clutching at her chest. "Look where it got me," her mouth twisted.

"Magic isn't addiction, Willow," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "It is choice."

"Choice? Choice! ? You think I'd choose this?" she demanded. "Giles, I-I can't breathe ."

"It was always there, Willow. The potential of choice."

Who was she then? The girl who forsook Harvard to stay in Sunnydale with Buffy? Or the one who chose magic because she wanted to and it was easy .

At first she'd gotten more power because she needed to: To help. Protect. Save. And then, she got more because she could. Tara was right. Tara was always right. She was so blind and it had cost her everything.

"Willow, the first successful spell you ever did was a vampire ensoulment. A rare feat for even a practiced and expertly trained magic-user. And yet you did so from a hospital bed with less than a year of self-taught magics. That type of magic doesn't come without a price. I should know, remember? We're the same, you and I. From the beginning you were on your own. Suffice to say, it was always within you. You were always strong with thirst that begat arrogance, perhaps, but also determination. Bravery. Strength."

She barked darkly. "Right, like I'm strong. Addict, Villain-"

"Scooby," he interrupts gently.


She deflates and looks at him wearily, so wearily. "I think I forgot, Giles. I forgot how how to be one." It comes out so small but his eyes, patient and kind, hold her steady.

She chooses.

"I can't," Willow said later when she met Buffy's eyes. "I'm sorry." As Buffy wordlessly turned to find Anya, emptiness filled Willow once more. She looked down shamefully as the front door slammed. When was the last time she was able to stand by Buffy's side when she needed her and faced the darkness together?

When she walked out that door, all Willow could see was the Buffy she faced against those months ago. It sickened her. Even with all the magics, it was never Willow's spells that were weak, it was Willow herself. The slip of control that morning at the fraternity was proof .

The magics, she realized with a start.

She might not be strong enough able to face Anya, to tell her the truths that burned too hotly in the shame of her heart, but she knew someone who could.


The walk back to her apartment was like molasses, slow and dark. Tears dried in layers on Anya's face, cheeks tightening as more still trickled down. Anya always hated crying, she found it so pathetically weak and human.

Which was exactly what she was, now. Again.

As the day roiled in her stomach, Anya absentmindedly wandered through the streets, keeping to the parks and side streets. All of her friends were gone, human and demon alike--she'd managed to betray both in one day. Flashes of the frat house carnage replayed in her mind and Anya ducked off the sidewalk to dry heave into the bushes.

She wiped her mouth with the edge of her sleeve and continued into the apartment she called home, empty as it was. She lethargically dropped the keys on the table and jumped, startled by the figure on the couch illuminated softly by a small table lamp.

"What are you doing here, Willow," Anya asked raggedly, too exhausted to be irritated.

"I lied earlier. I do get it. Needing them to hurt. Knowing they deserved it," Willow confided softly, hands in her lap, eyes downcast. "Hoping it would feel better."

Anya's stomach rolled again but there was nothing inside anymore. She could see tears brimming in Willow's eyes. Anya walked forward silently and sat in the chair opposite the couch but keeps a small distance, the space between buffering their hurts.

"We can be good again," Willow finally said thickly.

Anya barked a dark laugh, "Did you see what I did today, Willow?"

"I don't think that visual will leave me anytime soon, no," Willow admitted.

"Then how can you say that?" Anya accused angrily. "How can you say we can be good again after the things we've done."

"What other choice do we have?" Willow's voice rose to meet Anya's, "I close my eyes and I see--" she broke off and looked away. "It doesn't go away. I see him , and the cuts I put on Buffy and Xander's faces, and I just--" Willow deflated, looking out the window. "We can be good again because they want us to be. I don't believe in myself much these days, but Buffy's always been my hero, Xander's always been my best friend, and I trust them more than I trust myself, so. . . Fake it till you make it, right?" she finished with false cheerfulness. "All I want to do is give up, but the thing that keeps me going is knowing they wouldn't want me to. And I never want to hurt them again, so, I won't."

But Anya was too empty for saving graces. She had trusted Xander, once, and look where it had gotten her. She absentmindedly rubbed her finger where the engagement ring used to be. There was a rustle as Willow stood and shuffled to the door, but Anya made no move to escort her out.

Willow paused as she opened the door, "You're not alone, Anya."

Anya wished she could believe her.


Chapter 48

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in Selfless, Episode 5 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes in-between what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

All in all, the boys took the situation pretty well. After they'd woken up from the not-slaughter and seen their frat house streaked with blood and trashed, all Buffy had to do was explain it as a rival frat prank for the guys to turn their confusion into competition. Ah, predictable college boys.

She continued to patrol campus to make sure there were no signs of the spider demon. Or any other demons, for that matter. It was a relatively quiet night with only one vampire and a nest full of raccoons, which Buffy backed away from carefully because she so wasn't dealing with that. She took her time going home and it was nearing one in the morning by the time she rounded the backyard.


Buffy looked up startled. Willow was sitting on the back kitchen steps wrapped in a robe, cradling a mug. "Hey," Buffy greeted back, "What are you doing up?"

Willow blew out a breath. "Oh, y'know . . . Can't sleep."

Buffy nodded in understanding. She knew that one."Y'ok?" Willow asked as Buffy plopped down next to her.

"Yeah," Buffy lied, before thinking better of it. "No," she said, still unsure. "I don't know." She ran her hand through her hair, sighing. "Some days I just really hate being the Slayer." Days when I have to kill the people I love.

"We don't make that easy for you, do we?" Willow said almost casually. Almost. Buffy looked over at her, puzzled. "We put you in that position all the time, Buffy. And I'm starting to realize it might not be fair."

"What do you mean?"

"You were right, earlier today. I just sat there."

The words flew out of her mouth without thought, "Willow, I underst--"

"No, Buffy," Willow interrupted, looking miserable. "You don't get it. I did it to you, again."

"Did what, Will? You didn't do anything."

"I know!" burst out Willow. "That's exactly it. I didn't do anything. But I . . . We expected you to."

Buffy watched Willow play with the mug, rotating and gripping it, as she gathered herself.

"I wanted you kill me, Buffy," Willow finally admitted. "After she died, I just--" She stopped, thinking of a different way to verbalize her thoughts. "I told you guys I wasn't coming back, and I meant it. I mean sure, I was a little stuck on the whole 'revenge' thing, but. . . I made it so you had no choice but to stop me. So the Slayer had no choice."

Buffy's stomach clenched painfully.

"You're the Slayer, so we expect you to make the tough decisions. And then we get upset with you for making them."

Buffy still had no words, so Willow continued. "You were right, earlier today. About being the Law. We act like we should have as much a say as you, but then we force you to make the tough calls. We make you the Law and then get upset with you when you use the responsibility we leave you. It can't work like this anymore."

That, finally, was something Buffy understood. "No, it can't." Her voice was thick, with years of unresolved, unrealized bitterness caught in her throat.

Willow turned the mug around in her hands. "But Xander was right, too. Sometimes there's another way. We all need t--" She stopped, correcting herself, "Xander and Giles and I, we need to start accepting responsibility. Same as you."

The weight that Buffy had been carrying for seven years suddenly felt a little lighter. Buffy didn't realize how deeply she had pushed her resentment down. Because it had felt selfish, almost. To have the gift of these people in her life, sharing the burden of fighting the forces of darkness, giving up everything - everything , she thought, looking over at Willow- to stand by her side. How could she be angry with them after all that? But over time, Buffy learned, sharing a burden and sharing responsibility were two very different things. Over time, the two had drifted further apart until it seemed as if Buffy stood on an island alone, again, apart from Willow and Xander, looking at them from the distant shore, wondering how and why it was that they had left her there all alone.

The same as me. Buffy repeated Willow's words. What could that kind of shared burden even look like? How would it even work. Half a dozen problems with the idea sprang to mind immediately and the lightness she felt just a moment ago quickly faded. "Will," she sighed in a voice not unlike a parent breaking bad news to their child, "It won't always be so easy."

"I know," Willow acknowledged quickly. "I know, but...I think all of us have kind of outgrown 'easy' at this point, don't'cha think?"

Buffy pursed her lips, weighing the offer. "Has Xander..." the question trailed off, wondering if he'd already agreed to this.

"Not yet, but it's something we probably should have done a long time ago. I'm sure he'll be on board." Willow's expression darkened for a moment. "Besides, Xander and I need to have a little chat, apparently, over a certain big fat juicy lie he's been keeping from both of us for five years."

Willow turned to her, "I never told him that, Buffy." she said urgently, "About Angel--"

Buffy interrupted her, gesturing to stop. She didn't have it in her to revisit that moment, it was just too painful. Too much after today. She clenched her jaw tightly a few times and took a few deep breaths, gathering herself with everything that had just been said.

"Thank you," she said, meaning it deeply. "But I think I've hit my heavy conversation limit for the day. There's probably a lot more for us to talk about, like," she exhaled, cheeks puffing out, "A lot more, but maybe we could hit the big ol' pause button for tonight? My brain kinda feels like it's about to explode."

Willow nodded in agreement. "Yeah, do you have this little pressure headache –"

"Right behind the eyes? Oh yeah."

"Tea?" Willow offered, handing her the mug.

Buffy blinked in surprise. "Tea? From Ms. Mocha-so-strong-it-vibrates?"

Willow chuckled. "Yeah, well. Things change, I guess."

"Thank you," repeated Buffy, deeply, "For telling me." She took one of Willow's hands and threaded their fingers together. "All of it."


Chapter 49

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place after Selfless, Episode 5 of Season 7. They're sort of like scenes in-between what we, the viewers, saw. Think about them logistically and place them chronologically. Any questions, please feel free to ask!

Tara knows she's out of time.

Well, technically, she has all the time in the world. Never ending amounts of time trapped in this undying, unliving limbo of an existence, where nothing ages, nothing dies, nothing is. There's nothing to suggest that she can't stay here forever if she wants to. But if anything, that interminable immortality reminds her of the unnaturality of it. She looks down at the spell she created and gnaws her lip in fear.

After Spike's appearance, the more time she spends here, the more she's reminded of what she's missing. But the more she witnesses from the other side, through him, the more she doubts herself

She's dead.

That's it.

To change what the natural order has decided? Magic can't . . . shouldn't be used to change things. Every magical cell in her body knows this.

But, oh, she remembers how tempting it is. How badly she wanted to say a few words and have her mother back after she'd passed. Her only connection to the world--the only person who had made her feel loved and who she had loved in return--gone, leaving the world a cruel and colorless place. So instead she ran away to escape that feeling. Sure, she'd wanted to leave the rest of her family behind, but mostly she couldn't bear to stay in the negative spaces where her mother used to be. She ran to California, where she hoped the sunshine could brighten the greyscale of her world. Sure enough, it did. And two years later at a wicca group meeting, Tara's world colored.

She's run away from death only to have it find her again. And again, and again, and again. Death is never far from the Scoobies; it waits in the wings, just around the corner. Taking and taking and taking, without discrimination. She remembers Dawn's grief, the way it nearly knocked on the front door as a monstrous thing. Dawn's grief mirrors her own, and her chest hurts with the familiar unfairness of it all. First Joyce. Then Buffy. Then...herself.

Fate has spoken, the fabric of life cut.

Who is she to say otherwise?

To interfere is to make the world come unglued; manipulate it piece by piece until it is nothing more than a lie reshaped to resemble the shadow of truth.

"I'm scared," she admitted to him quietly, late one night.

"Can tell that much myself, thanks."

Tara swears she can hear the words of spell whisper. "I don't know what's going to happen."

"If it doesn't work?"

"No," she admitted softly, "If it does."

He squints, confused. "Sorry, gonna have to explain that one, love. Isn't it what you want?"

"The spell," she explains. "It's not for a resurrection."

"What?" He asks incredulously, "Why the bloody hell not?"

"Because," she says, searching for words to explain what she knows deep inside, "It's not right. It's not natural."

"You think this, " he gestures around them, "Is natural?"

"No, I don't, but Spike. I died. I can't change that. And who would I be if I did?"

Spike sighs and shakes his head. Looking at her seriously for a moment, he knelt beside her, nudging her chin gently to meet his gaze. His voice is soft. "I've been alive longer th'n most, and I'm still afraid of death. All vampires are. Trust me when I say you're never going to be ready. There's never a good time to go, but you can't stay here. And neither can I, frankly. I'm either getting more crazy or less, but either way your window might be closing, Tara. It's now or never."

"Don't suppose it could be never," she joked through tears.

"I may be immortal," he smiled back, "But I'm definitely not a saint."

There is nothing to say her spell will work. It is of Tara's own creation, worded as ambiguously as possible: calling on Isis to help restore her to wholeness. She has no idea if that will mean life or death. If it will bring her back to the real Sunnydale, or help her pass on to wherever she should have gone after her death.

All the same, despite knowing that this place, this existence is unnatural and that the spell is justifiable, it is a huge risk. Here, at least, she exists.

She thinks of her mother. She thinks of Dawn and Buffy, Xander and Anya. She thinks, as always, of Willow. Thinks of all the people who have given her life meaning and purpose, says a quiet goodbye in her heart, just in case, and kisses them farewell. Tara doesn't know what, if anything, lies on the other side of the spell. It could be a second chance, or It could be nothing. But she has loved and been loved and that, in itself, is a good life.

He's right. It's time. She takes a deep breath, relinquishing the decision of her fate to the those who may know better, says a prayer to the goddess, and begins.


Chapter 50

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place after Selfless, Episode 5 of Season 7.

Turned out missing a month of classes could put you behind. Even for someone who loved school, Willow was having a tough time catching up. She was even beginning to get sick of being in the library, which was something she'd never thought possible. Still, she was grateful to her professors for letting her join their classes long after the add/drop period. She missed school; it was where she felt the most Willow. It helped her remember who that was.

Still, she was she was exhausted by the time her study group let out and she made it home. "Buffy's out patrolling," Dawn called from the dining room. Willow peeled off her jacket and let the book-bag fall to the floor as she flopped into a chair across from Dawn. "Long day?" Dawn said, watching Willow slump across the table.

"I can feel my brain hurt," Willow moaned.

"That's physically impossible," Dawn pointed out.

"Tell that to my brain," Willow mumbled into the table.

Dawn lifted one of Willow's limp arms lying atop one of her notebooks. "Well tell your brain to not ooze all over my biology homework."

Interest piqued, Willow turned her head to the side just enough to peek. "Biology?"

Dawn gave her a look of sublime skepticism. "I thought your brain hurt."

Fully engaged at this point, Willow scooched her chair closer to the textbooks. "Well, it does," Willow admitted, "But that was for other stuff, not biology," she scoffed, displaying a renewed second wind of excited energy. "What'cha working on?"

"Enzymes. What did you do when you had the enzymatic reactions lab?"

"Well, our teacher kinda turned into a monster in the middle of the curriculum, so we missed that one. But hey!" she brightened, nudging Dawn enthusiastically. "Now we can do it together!"

Dawn shrugged. "Okay, as long as I get full credit."

"Great! Lemme go change and I'll be right back," Willow announced, grabbing her bag and coat from the floor, before climbing the stairs.

She crossed the upstairs hallway to the bathroom when a wave of dizziness passed through her. She leaned against the door jamb for balance, swaying unsteadily. The hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention. But the wave soon passed as quickly as it had come. "Oookay . . . don't skip lunch, and bring study snacks next time," Willow noted. "Message received."

The floor creaked down the hallway in Buffy's room. "Buffy?" She called, "Are you back? How was--"

The words evaporated before reaching her lips and Willow stood stunned in the hallway, eyes glued to the floor of Buffy's room.

Because nothing in the world had prepared her for the sight of Tara lying on the carpet.

Immediately the world started to spin. Willow's heart exploded, pounding, pulsing in her ears; it was deafening. She clamped her hands against her ears to dim the whooshing, but it only served to make things louder. Cringing in pain and confusion, Willow whimpered, searching around the room wildly for answers, eyes coming to rest on the window.

The window.

No, the window had broken. The window was . . . whole? She heard it shatter. Everything shattered.

Tara was lying on the carpet. Tara is lying on the carpet?

She was hyperventilating.

Tara was lying on the carpet. Willow clenched her eyes shut and grit her teeth. Tara was lying on the carpet.

I just remember thinking I wasn't ready to see you guys yet . . .

. . . Thinking . . .

Willow's eyes opened wide.

Tara was lying on the carpet.

Oh god, what have I done?

Part 51

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