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

By Counterpunch


Chapter 51

It's done.

There's a crinkle, a kind of sigh, and Tara opens her eyes.*

Light filters in from what must be a hallway, but it's dark, and she is in a bedroom--that much she can tell. It seems like Joyce's bedroom, the one she and Willow had shared. But things have changed. The pictures on the wall have been replaced and the bed is different. She sits up, absorbing the surroundings, reveling in her continued existence.

A dog barks in a yard across the street, pulling Tara from her reverie, her head snapping toward the sound. She stares, slack jawed, with a look of awe on her face at the mundane noise.

Still stunned, but eager to continue exploring, she makes her way to get up, but wobbles. Tara presses a hand to her head against the hum of lightheadedness that assaults her. A few seconds pass before she feels steady enough to try again. She is soon stopped by another dizzy spell, but this time because of the figure in the doorway.

Willow stands, completely frozen like a statue. Tara's stomach flips. They stare at each other as time stretches, in matched shock and stillness. The dog barks again, reminding Tara this isn't a dream, and it propels her forward.

She takes a step, and as if that motion is enough to break whatever spell Willow is under, she moves in return, taking a step backward. Tara hesitates, frowning. More slowly this time, she takes another small step and again, Willow shuffles farther away. Tara finally takes a step forward, reaching out her hand, when Willow suddenly flees in horror.

Tara's forehead wrinkles in confusion. Before she can follow, Willow has already bolted down the stairs and run outside. Tara makes it down in time to watch helplessly as Willow stumbles across the front yard, panicked and scared like a wild animal.

Willow's hands twist in her hair, she's muttering to herself and pacing with her eyes trained straight down at the ground. Tara takes a few steps forward, unsure of how to proceed, arm held out in front of her uselessly, trying to figure out what to do.

Neither of them notice Dawn approach the front door to take in the scene in front of her.

"Oh my god," Dawn gapes, dropping her pencil. "Oh my god," she repeats.

Tara swivels at the sound, locking onto the sounds of Dawn's distress. "Dawn," she breathes. There's a swirl of emotion on her face, joy and hope conflicting with uncertainty and worry at the situation.

"Oh my god," Dawn says again, louder this time. Without tearing her gaze away from Tara, she says, "Willow, what happened?" Willow doesn't break pace. "What happened?" Dawn asks again, more forcefully. Willow shakes her head, muttering to herself with her eyes clenched tight.

"What did you do ?" Dawn demands.

"I-- I--" Willow stammers, staring at her hands, palms open facing the sky, retreating further into herself. "I don't--"

"Dawn, step away from that."

Dawn and Tara look past Willow to see Buffy standing at the end of the driveway. There's an intense look of concentration on her face, and her body posture evokes that of a hunter, stalking quietly, ready to attack at any moment.

For her part, Willow hasn't looked at Tara since coming outside. In fact, it almost seems as if she's forgotten Tara entirely, focusing on trying to calm herself down. There's a veritable garden surrounding Willow, plants and flowers that weren't there a minute ago blossoming at her every step. She seems unaware of Buffy's presence.

Dawn and Buffy are squared off, Tara between them, and no one notices Willow collapse like a doll farther out on the lawn, as suddenly as if a light switch had been turned off.

"Buffy?" Dawn asks, lost and confused, eyes darting between Tara and her sister.

"Get away from it," she responds in a hard voice.

"What?" Dawn replies, dazed, but making no motion to move from where she stands.

"If that's Tara, it means she's the big bad we've been waiting for, and there's no way that's a possibility. Or its the big bad pretending to be Tara. Either way, that's not our Tara. So, again, Dawn. Please be a good sister and step away from whatever the hell that is," Buffy explains in an eerily calm tone that belies the tension in her stance. She never stops stalking closer.

Dawn hesitates, clearly conflicted.

"Willow, you too," Buffy continues, not tearing her eyes off Tara. At the lack of response, Buffy finally breaks eye contact, looking for her and all three of them finally notice the unconscious redhead.

Tara shouts Willow's name and runs to where she's fallen. Buffy rushes to intercept, grabbing Tara's arm before she gets there. At the touch, a wave of energy rushes through them, radiating throughout their bodies.

With matched expressions of surprise and confusion, Tara and Buffy stand locked in this position as Dawn rushes across the lawn to Willow, still out cold in the grass. The flowers surrounding Willow recede into the earth, the last one melting away just as Dawn skids to her side.

"Willow," both Tara and Buffy utter as one.

Chapter End Notes

*wordplay borrowed from Tulipp's Terra Firma, which, if you haven't read it before, please stop what you're doing, google it, and read. Bring a blanket and a cup of tea, you'll be there for a while, but it'll be worth it, I promise.


Chapter 52

Willow dreams of a garden.

She wakes, the garden's scent lingering in her nostrils, and moans as pain shoots through her side. She reaches across her torso to clutch her ribs and shoulder, throbbing and sore from her fall.

Her fall? Willow frowns. She doesn't remember falling. Though it hadn't been unusual over the summer, it'd rarely happened since returning to Sunnydale. "Ow," she mumbles, sitting up groggily in the grass. Suddenly, it comes to her in a tidal wave: Her fall. Grass. Sunnydale. Tara. Her eyes snap open.

Dawn is kneeling near her, an arm cautiously hovering around Willow's shoulders, concern laced across her features. "Dawn, what happened?" Willow asks shakily, fumbling to a standing position.

Dawn doesn't move, moving her jaw soundlessly as if unsure of what exactly to say, glancing repeatedly over Willow's shoulder. Willow follows her gaze and turns to see Buffy, looking relieved at Willow's recovery but very much still in Slayer mode, Tara beside her.

The blood leaves Willow's face. "No," she whispers in horror. "No no no no no, this isn't happening."

Tara manages to wrench herself out of Buffy's grip and rushes over to Willow. Before she can get there, though, Buffy appears and plants herself in-between them, holding them apart, each arm outstretched to the others' chest. In a larger and repeat performance of what had happened when Tara and Buffy touched, a great glow of energy thrums between them at the moment Buffy makes contact with both of them, vibrating through their arms and blowing their hair as if there'd been a gust of wind.

Part of her had recognized it instantly, the connection. It had felt familiar almost, the energy, as if she'd been waiting for it her whole life. She thought it was the magics at first. Only it turned out to be Tara, of course; Willow recognizing a piece of herself from far away. Her body had panted with understanding in that laundry room, long before her mind caught up to what her heart recognized upon first touch. It was what she reached out for every time they did another spell after that. Floating roses, demon finding; Willow hadn't known it at first, but they were all just excuses to touch Tara again.

She recognizes it now.

"Tara?" she quavers in wonder.


Chapter 53

"Spike," Tara says by way of answer, as if that explains everything.

They're in the dining room, Tara at the head of the table, Buffy and Dawn to either side, Willow next to Buffy.

"Spike!" Tara repeats with urgency, as if the name suddenly reminds her of something important. She scrapes the chair back, stands alert and alarmed. "Is he okay? Where is he? We have to--"

"Hey," Buffy reassures her, reaching across the table to touch Tara's hand. "Hey. It's okay. I already called Xander. He's looking for him." Tara nods satisfied, relaxing back into her seat.

The entire exchange, Willow sits folded into herself, arms crossed tightly as if she were going to unravel right there in the dining room. Dawn, for her part, is sitting as close to Tara as physically possible while still being in another chair.

"So. Spike. Crazy Spike?" Buffy remarked skeptically.

"Not crazy," Tara shakes her head and taps her chest, "Me."

"Yes, this is pretty crazy, but trust me. He's crazy."

"No," Tara tries to explain, "I mean, part of his crazy is me. At least I think it is. I-its kind of hard to tell sometimes."

"Well at least that's consistent. So, what about him?"

"I'm still not sure, exactly? I don't know where I was, only that there was no magic, and I couldn't get out. Not until he showed up."

"Showed up?" Dawn queries, "When? How?"

"I don't know, a few weeks ago maybe? Sorry, this is just . . ." Tara looks around overwhelmed, waving her hand to try and express the inexpressible. Her face collapses and she quickly brings a hand up to catch a sob.

Willow makes a move towards Tara, but catches herself immediately and sits very still, wrapping herself tighter. Dawn doesn't have the same qualms. She places an arm on Tara's shoulder and reaches for one of Tara's hands. At the touch, Tara softens and gives Dawn a look of immense gratitude and love. She squeezes Dawn back, and though tears fall unabashedly at this point, continues to hold it reverently.

Buffy's posture has softened a bit--no longer antagonistic--but still stiff with unknowing.

"I was here," Tara starts anew. "In Sunnydale. But . . . it was different. Like, you know at 4am when the world is really still and quiet and it seems like you're the only thing that's alive? It was like that, but all the time."

"So it was just you," Buffy clarifies. "Nothing . . . nobody else. Until Spike."

Tara nods. "I woke up one morning and he was here, in the house, making pancakes."

Buffy's eyebrows shoot up in disbelief. "Spike, vampire Spike. Cooking," she repeats, as if it'll help her understand better.

Tara chuckles and nods. "I had a hard time believing it myself, but then he started talking to you."

Buffy's as surprised as everyone else. "Me?"

"At first. Then it was other people. Anya, Dawn," Tara lists, looking over at Dawn to see her beaming. She sobers momentarily before continuing in a guarded tone, "Willow." As she says the name, Tara finally looks across the table. Her gaze is loving, but a little clouded. She pulls herself out of it and quickly resumes talking. "There were other voices too. He sort of . . . talked to himself a lot."

"Good to know that hasn't changed," Buffy mutters.

"It took a while to find which spell to use. I kind of made one up myself. A-and I wasn't sure what it would do, exactly, but I guess it worked somehow." She gives an empty half-smile.

"Wait, I thought you said magic didn't work where you were."

"It didn't. But Spike had . . . has," she corrects, "A soul." She finishes slowly, gently, unsure if Buffy and the others know.

Buffy shakes her head, confused, "I don't understand, what does Spike's soul have to do with magic?"

Willow's eyes widen in understanding. She speaks for the first time, "Energy." All eyes turn to her. Having spoken once, she looks back down, picking at the edge of her sweater nervously, uncomfortable with the attention.

"That's right," Tara confirms, eyeing Willow. "It was a source of energy, one I could use to channel magic."

"So you don't know where you were?" Dawn asks. Another question comes to her, and she looks a little apprehensive to ask it. "Do you know . . . what happened while you were gone?"

Everyone tenses, trying not to look at Willow. Tara swallows. "He told me what little he knew." When she looks up, it's only at Willow. It's a loaded comment, vague, but spoken with a weight of a degree of knowing. "B-but no," Tara drags her attention back to the group as a whole. "I don't know where I was."

Buffy glances quickly at Willow before turning back to Tara. "All that matters is you're here now," she comforts. Tara looks up at her gratefully. Willow hasn't moved. Buffy pats the table, pushes her chair back, and stands. "I'm gonna go make some calls. Dawn? Can you help get the extra bed set up for Tara?"

"A-actually," Tara interjects in a small voice, "I'd really like to not be alone tonight. I've kind of had enough of that for one lifetime."

Buffy looks over at Dawn, still holding Tara's hand, and smiles. "I understand," she says. "Besides, I don't think we can pry Dawn off of you with a crowbar anyway, so I'm glad you're down for a sleepover."

Tara and Dawn also stand, Tara giving a lingering glance to Willow, before turning out of the room. Willow's eyes follow her hungrily but she makes no move to get up.

Buffy turns to head into the kitchen. "Will?" she calls, jerking her head and beckoning her to follow. Willow wrings her hands, looking anxiously at where Dawn and Tara have exited. "Will," Buffy repeats, more softly this time. It works, catching Willow's attention. "C'mon. Let's go call Giles."


Chapter 54

"Yes, I daresay this qualifies as a priority, Rupert," Ms. Hartness says to him on the phone. "Don't worry about the Potentials. We'll find the other girls and send them to you in Sunnydale. Yes. Yes of course, we'll start looking into it immediately. Tell her . . . Tell her to hum. She'll understand. . . Yes. . . We'll find an answer, Rupert. Good luck."

When she hangs up the phone (rotary, black, wall-mounted, from the '70s), she pauses for a moment, letting the implications of what she'd been told sink in.

Her first thought, of course, is Willow. Willow who came to them muted and shattered. Who came to them expecting retribution and reprisal, and was nearly broken by their acceptance. Now, Marissa fears, things are going to get interesting. The power and choice is up to Willow, as it always has been. And from what Rupert has told her, that is a lesson Tara had tried to impart to Willow as well.

She wasn't even that close to the table, but even from several paces away, Ms. Hartness was able to see the guilt radiating from Willow. It was nothing new, of course. Everything Willow did was tinged with shame and emptiness.

"What's that, Willow?" she asked lightly, watching as Willow slowly angled the siddur into view.

Hebrew appeared occasionally in various magical texts. The Jewish mystics wrote copious volumes, and discussions of those volumes, and discussions of those discussions, and so on and so forth until there were entire shelves devoted to Judaic magical texts.

"Ah, yes. There's magic in just about every religion, did you know that?" Willow didn't speak, but her face adopted a curious-yet-pensive expression. It was more than she'd seen from Willow since her arrival, and Ms. Hartness took that as a sign to continue.

"Oh yes. It's in every religion to some degree or another, woven into prayers or rituals. And not just in the metaphoric sense. For the Buddhists and Hindus, it's in meditation. For some Christians, sacrifice. And in Judaism, prayers like those strengthen community, connection, and healing. If you're really curious, you should speak to Rachel. She can tell you more about it in greater detail. Came to us from an orthodox community in London several years ago."

Willow looked back down at the prayerbook, looking less embarrassed, regarding it with a new sense of respect. "She always tried to teach me." The words were hoarse and Marissa had to strain to hear them.

"Tara?" Willow's breathing hitched, just a bit, as it always did at the name, but she pushed through and nodded nonetheless. "I didn't know she was Jewish as well," Ms. Hartness replied.

"She wasn't. But she still tried to teach me."

"I would have very much liked to meet her," Ms. Hartness replied kindly.

"She would have liked to meet you, too," Willow trembled, eyes shining.

Well, thinks Marissa, it appears the opportunity may have re-presented itself. They have two witches to try and protect, now. And this time, she intends to be more proactive.

Rupert has given her a task. It's time to get to work. They have Slayers to find.


Chapter 55

"Sorry I can't get it to work," Dawn says apologetically, the air mattress plug dangling uselessly in her hand.

Tara smiled. "That's okay, Dawnie, I think a proper sleepover will be better, don't you?" Dawn beams and for the hundredth time that night, leans in for a hug. Tara's arms open automatically, similarly craving the contact, one hand coming to rest on her back and the other cupping Dawn's head. The smell of Dawn's shampoo, the solidity of her body, the warmth of her seeping into Tara's bones . . . God, how she had missed it. Tears prickle anew and she kisses the top of Dawn's head reverently, holding her tight.

Tara pulls away, angling Dawn away from her to give her a wet smile. "C'mon, let's finish getting ready for bed."

They'd had a lot of sleepovers, that summer. At first, they could never coax Dawn in or out of bed. It often took her until late-afternoon to finally go downstairs, where she burrowed into the couch to stare at nothing until late evening and the process began anew. Tara allowed it for three days until finally she slipped under the covers alongside Dawn and held her as she sobbed until the sun rose, and their stomachs growled. Sleeping wasn't something she was doing much of herself then, either.

That was the first morning Tara made pancakes.

Things got slightly better after that, but at least two or three times a week, their door would crack open. Squinting against the hallway light, Tara would gently nudge Willow over, and Dawn would settle between them. They were just two lost girls, fighting against the nightmares of gods and girls and sacrifices. In the morning, Willow would be gone, having slipped out quietly, leaving the blankets tucked around them lovingly and the ghost of a kiss cooling on Tara's cheek as she went to go fight her own demons. Tara'd blink away sleep as sunlight caressed her eyelids open, and look down at Dawn--curled asleep, so small and delicate against the weight of everything that had been taken from her in her short existence.

Dawn beams back at her, looking like the sun, giving Tara's hand a squeeze before bouncing to her bedroom. Tara continues getting ready, bending to grab a spare toothbrush from under the sink. When she stands, Willow is lingering outside the doorway, hugging the wall as if to make her presence as small as possible.

Tara's heart gives a squeeze. "Willow," she breathes.

Willow fingers the trim of the door jamb, gnawing her lip, barely able to look Tara in the eye. The unfairness of it all flares hotly. Here she is, returned to where she is supposed to be, free from wherever she has been, reunited with her family, and yet Tara feels miles away. It reminds her so much of before--those long months apart, between the magics that tore them apart and brought them back together. When every conversation was tentative and unsure, every glance stolen and hesitant.

But this is fearful, wary. Faltering. For both of them.

"Were you . . ." Willow clears her throat, her voice giving out. "Was there pain?" There's a haunted look in her eyes, but at least she's looking at Tara this time. The tension in her shoulders relaxes in relief as Tara shakes her head. "Good," she says, breaking eye contact, returning her gaze to the floor. "That's good."

Willow, who always filled the spaces with words, is buried beneath the silence of them now. Tara knows Willow senses that she knows something about what had happened. But Tara, caught between fear and reluctance, is afraid to ask. Afraid to the see the lines form, to see the shape of what Willow had done. As long as she doesn't know exactly what happened, there is a chance . . . A chance the shapes can stay blurry and distant. She doesn't want to know the details of Willow's cruelty. Or her grief.

They are bottled up inside her now. Tara swallows, moves toward Willow, who immediately, but just barely, leans away. They both flinch.

Tara opens her mouth, looking for words but finding none. Her jaw grinds soundlessly.

Willow only nods, as if she understands, and musters a brighter demeanor. It doesn't fool either of them. "You should go join Dawn," she says with a shaky false cheerfulness before disappearing around the corner, "You know how she gets if you keep her waiting."

"Yeah," Tara trails off emptily to the hallway.


Chapter 56

"What are you waiting for?"

Dawn is sitting on the floor at the base of the bed, leaning back while Tara sits cross-legged at the edge. Tara's hands thread through Dawn's hair, weaving a lock into the braid. "Hm?"

Dawn's trying to be patient. She's not little-kid Dawn, anymore. She's teenager-adult-understandy Dawn. The one that Buffy talks to like a peer, now. "With Willow."

Tara's hands pause mid-braid. "Dawnie," she says in a tone that's clearly meant to temper expectations.

"No, not that," She rolls her eyes. "I mean like . . . why aren't you in there talking to her?" The fingers on her head resume their movement. "Not that I'm complaining," she quickly amends. "Soooo not complaining, here, but--" she turns around, all of Tara's braiding falling loose down her shoulders, "Don't you want to talk to her?"

Dawn's not an idiot. She's seen her fair share of adult relationships these past few years and is familiar with their shifts and shakes; how they grow and die, tear or heal. She's seen Xander and Anya, Buffy and Spike, Willow and Tara--Tara, who's here. Here! Alive! Tara who somehow found a way back to them from wherever she was, who was in here braiding hair instead of out there with Willow.

Not that Dawn isn't cherishing every second of it. It's more than she ever thought she'd have again. It's everything she lost on that carpet, everything she'd craved over the summer--Tara's safe and comforting presence. Tara, who somehow made everything okay, even when the world was upside down and hurting. It's a miracle. But she knows that as much as Tara loves her, she shouldn't be in this room right now. She isn't hurt by that knowledge, just baffled by it. She wants to understand.

And not that she thinks there'll be a romantic reunion either, of Willow and Tara falling into each other's arms with tears and kisses, like everything was fixed. She isn't naive. Well, there has been crying. But not like that. She knows there's a lot to work through. There is a lot for Tara to know and for Willow to say. Willow is still learning how to exist like it isn't painful. She hears her cry at night sometimes. She hears the nightmares.

She knows Tara coming back doesn't mean things are fixed, only that things are better . If there's anything Tara's taught her, it is that things take time to fix.

But instead, things between them are broken and, not talking isn't helping them get fixed any sooner. "You don't have to try and protect me, I'm not a little kid anymore. I know it isn't going to be easy, but . . ." she trails off, letting the point linger.

Tara nudges Dawn's shoulder to have her turn back around and resumes playing with her hair. "You're right," she admits, just as Dawn is sure she isn't going to respond at all. "You're not a little girl anymore, Dawnie, you haven't been for a while. There's a lot for us to talk about and . . . you're right about it not being easy. Which is why, I think, the rest of tonight should be as easy as we can make it." Tara finishes the braid, tucking stray ends into the folds, smoothing things to where they're supposed to be.

"I guess that makes sense. It is really late," Dawn admits, glancing at the clock.

"And some one has school in the morning."

"Ohmygod, please tell me you're joking," Dawn spins around in mock alarm. "There's no way you're actually making me go to school tomorrow." Tara crosses her arms, and raises an eyebrow, making a very clear "I-am-serious" face. "Oh come on," Dawn protests, smacking a pillow. "You came back from the dead ."

Tara thinks a moment. "Fine. You can miss first period."

Dawn throws her arms up in disbelief. "First period ?!"

Tara's quirks a half-smile. "Like you said, it is really late. Can't have you falling asleep in chemistry."

Pouting, Dawn flops down dramatically. "Chemistry is my first period," she grumbles.


Chapter 57

"Are you sure you're going to be okay with me going to school tomorrow?"

Buffy fluffs a pillow and tosses it on the bed, flopping down next to Willow. Tucked tightly under the covers, Willow's lying stiff as a board looking up at the ceiling. "I'll be fine, Buffy."

"Uh huh. Cause you seem totally fine, lying there staring at the ceiling like a corpse." Willow turns to her side, propping her head up to glare at Buffy. "What, like I'm wrong?"

Willow pouts furiously. "No, but you don't have that many days off, and knowing us, they should probably be saved for an apocalypse. Preferably one that isn't my fault."

"What, this doesn't count?"

Willow shakes her head. "No," she says firmly. "I don't know what I did, but so far, the world isn't ending yet."

"Will, she said she did it."

"I know. But I don't have the best grip on this whole magic thing, yet. Remember what happened when I came back to Sunnydale? What if--"

"What if you made this happen just by thinking it?" Buffy finishes for her.

There's a look of abject misery on her face. Willow nods.

Buffy sighs. "Will, if you could, don't you think it would've already happened months ago?" Willow opens her mouth to argue, but the logic is enough to give her pause. Buffy slides one arm out from under her and reaches across to lay it on Willow's. She angles her head, signifying seriousness. "We're gonna figure this out ."

Willow's chin wobbles and she bites her lip to try and steady it, desperately wanting to believe. "Maybe," she acknowledges. "But what if you're right, and she's the thing from beneath us? The thing that's supposed to devour us?"

"Listen, Will, I'm the first one to not trust anything that seems like it could be even a remotely threatening possibility. Especially when it comes to this. To you. To Dawn. Not when I've just gotten both of you back. I'm itching to fight and ready to take her down if she so much as blinks the wrong way. But you can't tell me whatever weird thing happened to us outside didn't make you think twice about it being real."

"I'm scared," Willow admits, starting to tear up again.

Buffy thinks about making it back to the house at the beginning of the summer, an equally dishevelled and exhausted Dawn at her side. The police tape stretched across the door, barring entry. How they sat, dazed and empty, as Xander pulled up to the house a while later to pick them up, a small figure huddled in the backseat. The aftermath suddenly looming paralyzingly large. "We'll figure it out," Xander had said, glancing back toward Willow in the car.

"I know, Will," Buffy says. "Me too. We'll figure it out, I promise."


Chapter 58

"I promise you, this is even less fun for me than it is you." Xander calls out into the darkness. Sunnydale High is newer, sure, but basements are creepy no matter how spankin' new they are. Especially with just a flashlight. He is glad to have been on the construction crew so that he at least knows his way around. And if he's made duplicates of all the keys? It was for safekeeping and world-protecting, of course. Well, it was probably best that the architect, foreman, and school principal didn't know about it.

He steps carefully, path lit by flashlight. "'Xander, go get Spike', she said. 'Our friends are coming back from the dead', she said. Y'know, one of these days, that excuse is gonna get real old," he grumbles.

He's walked around the school before, but during the daytime, on the job, while building it. He hasn't been here after hours since, well, high school. God, was it only four years ago? It's hard, coming to look for Spike instead of going to the house. Instinct tells him to go the other way; to be with Willow. It takes every bone in his body to not run to her side. He only got in the car because Willow begged him to. Literally begged. He could hear her voice tremble, and the way she barely held it together. His hand shook, hanging up the phone.

He remembers when the earth trembled with her. When it had almost swallowed them up whole. Part of him had been relieved, of course, that the world hadn't ended. But the small, broken thing he clutched to his chest made him wish it had. They had won. He had saved the day! Him! Regular, non-super Xander. So why hadn't it felt better? Why did winning for them always mean losing something along the way? Things had been simpler, back when he, Buffy, and Willow had roamed these halls. Maybe not easy, but . . . simpler.

He is more scared now, than he was that day on the bluff. He's just gotten Willow back and can't bear to lose her again.

Which is how he comes to be wandering the halls of Sunnydale High, long after anyone should be here. He doesn't know what kind of new curriculum the new principal has enacted but the fact that a light is on in his office makes Xander supremely grateful he is no longer a student here. "Granted, it is more than a little creepy having a grown man wander the halls of a school after dark on his own for no reason."

There is definitely some mystical mojo going on, because nothing in the basement matches with the blueprints. The walls he built himself aren't here. "Sure, be a Hellmouth. But at least don't interfere with good craftsmanship," he mutters, clearly offended.

Something metal clatters in the distance, and he turns to walk towards it. "Giyaah!" Xander's arms flap in the air, but he recovers quickly to swing the flashlight up as if it were a baseball bat.

Spike's face pivots quickly into the light. And for once, he doesn't have a snarky, degrading comment for Xander. "Did it work?" he asks urgently, with wide, pale eyes. "Is she here?"


Chapter 59

She's here , Willow thinks for the thousandth time that night.

Her head buzzes with thoughts of Tara. Her body hums with Tara. Her consciousness pounds with Tara. And her heart . . . Oh, her heart--it bleeds with Tara.

There isn't much she can be counted on for these days, but at one point, she did used to be a good researcher. And not just find-a-particular-demon kind of research, either. No, this is figure-out-what-the-frilly-heck-is-going-on research; underlying diagnostic research. The last time she'd done that was . . . Glory. Back when her magic made things better, instead of defiled; made things whole instead of tore apart. And it still hadn't been enough.

Willow wonders if she will always fail the people she loves, in one way or another. In the ways that matter most.

But she can't lie pressed beneath the questions and doubts any longer; they're suffocating her. She peels back the covers and heads downstairs.

One of the projects she'd busied herself with over the summer is digitizing some of the Coven's materials. Collections have a history and life of their own, as much a part of the creators as the communities they are rooted in. Giles' materials at the Magic Box have been carefully curated over years, begun with the Council's basic resources and expanded over the years by Giles himself. He is as much a reflection and part of those books as they are of him. The Coven Willow stayed with had developed their collection over generations. Magic was woven into it like any other living entity. She and Giles selected a few tomes from the library, ones that might feasibly prove useful to Buffy here in Sunnydale, and in the evenings, Willow has been scanning them page by page.

At times it has made her feel fifteen again, with Ms. Calendar admiring the project from over her shoulder. She and Giles talked about it, once, the nostalgia eventually giving way to bleeding once more over the unfairness of their loved ones being taken away. It is another thing that connects them, that trauma--with Giles having gone cold in his rage while Willow burned with hers.

What books they were able to salvage from the wreck of the Magic Box are in Buffy's basement now. A few boxes of spell ingredients and other magical artifacts keep company with the books Willow hadn't destroyed or sucked dry. She pulls a few from the shelves and brings them upstairs.

The impossibility of the situation overwhelms her once more. She takes a deep, shuddering breath and lays her head down, letting the cool surface of the table soothe her while she calms her breathing. She lets herself have thirty seconds, and then gets to work.

"Since when do you drink tea?"

Engrossed, Willow hasn't felt the hours fly by or heard the stairs creak. Tara is in the doorway, hugging herself in an oversized bathrobe. Her hair is slightly mussed and her cheek bears the mark of a pillow crease. A wave of dizziness threatens Willow and she squeezes her eyes tight against it. "Um," she swallows hard, heart pounding. "Since you . . . Since England."

There's a beat. "Oh," Tara says simply as she realizes, hugging herself tighter, looking suddenly very shy.

It's clear neither girl knows what to do or say, but Tara's self-conscious body language moves Willow into action. "Would you like some?" she asks nervously, immediately pushing her chair up to stand. "Tea, I mean."

Tara seems as if she's about to say no. "Yes," she changes her mind, thinking it over. "That would be nice, thank you."

Willow smiles, a little pinched and nervous, but glad to have something concrete to do. She heads into the kitchen and Tara follows. She flicks the burner on to heat the kettle then takes a mug from the cabinet next to the sink. The clock on the microwave reads just past 4am. Willow shuffles in the pantry for the tea box.

"It feels like yesterday that we were doing this," Tara remarks. "For Dawn, after Buffy. Was it only last summer?"

"It feels like a lifetime," replies Willow, fumbling.

"Literally," Tara mumbles darkly.

The comment is sobering, and heaviness settles between them again. There's so much unspoken. Willow's bursting with the pressure of it. "You're afraid, aren't you?" Willow says in an unaccusing tone, merely stating a fact Tara doesn't want to verbalize. " . . . To know."

Tara looks guilty. Bites her lip. "I don't want to be," she admits.

"It's okay," Willow reassures her. " I would be. Heck, I still am ." She has no idea where to begin. Except where it all ended. "You died. In my arms. I . . . didn't take it well." Willow's fingers play with the tea wrapper; squeezes her eyes shut against the memory of the window shattering.

"Spike said he heard the Earth s-scream."

Willow nods, unable to meet Tara's eye. Can't bear to even look at her. "But not before I killed the person who shot you. Not before I almost hurt Dawn, or tried to kill Giles and Buffy. That's when I tried to end the world."

Shame burns so hotly it's excruciating, but the burns will never be penance enough. The shrieking of the kettle indicates a boil. Willow turns to take it off the flame, giving Tara a break from having to look at a monster. She takes her time pouring the water into a mug, tearing open the packet slowly. That there is no absolution for her is a penitence Willow was prepared to live with. But this part, the confession, is something Willow had been hoping to stave off for a lifetime. Because for Tara to have to live with the knowledge of what Willow had done in her name, it would be a betrayal and pain of the highest order.

"How?" Tara chokes weakly.

Willow snorts self-deprecatingly. "How do you think? With magic," she spits the last word like it's dirty.

"No," Tara shakes her head, "How did you s-s--"

Willow doesn't remember the last time she's seen Tara stutter. How many more ways can I fail you? "Stop?" Willow finishes for her. Tara nods. "Xander. Also a boatload of pure Earth-magic keyed to detonate my rage bubble . . . But mostly Xander." Willow drains the tea bag and slides the mug across the counter. Tara accepts it in silence. "All that magic is still inside of me. I haven't forgotten how dangerous I still am. How dangerous I can be. I was selfish and in pain and I could spend the rest of my life apologizing and it'll never be enough because it was unforgivable."

"You can't apologize forever, Will."

"I know." she says firmly. "I can only do better." Tara looks unsure.

Spike must have told her enough, because Tara seems to be handling the news remarkably well. An unsteady moment passes until Willow breaks it until it breaks her, "Was it everything you expected?"

"What was," Tara asks confusedly.

"All," Willow gestures vaguely. "That."

Tara thinks over the question a moment. "You know, the last thing I remembered seeing was blood all over your shirt. Wherever I was, for the longest time, I thought it was you who got shot. But I think . . . part of me was afraid to think about the other possibility. That if it was me, what you'd do."

It seems as if Tara's about to say something else, but they're interrupted by hurried footsteps on the stairs. Before they can investigate, Dawn rushes into the room. Her hair is still mussed from sleep but she's wide-eyed and alert in panic. Her body sighs in relief, relaxing only when her eyes find Tara. "I woke up and you weren't there. I panicked," Dawn explains with a shrug.

"I'm so sorry, sweetie, I didn't mean to scare you." Tara quickly moves to wrap the teenager in her arms. Dawn clings back tightly, holding fast to Tara's robe.

"I know," she says relieved. "It's okay, you're here now." Tara strokes Dawn's hair, the other hand rubs her back. Dawn buries her head in Tara's shoulder. "You're here," she repeats, thick with emotion.

"I'm here." Tara kisses the top of Dawn's head, looking guardedly over at Willow.

Shrinking back into the cabinets, Willow bears the weight of Tara's just anger and fear. She hugs herself and reaches reflexively for the tea.

Chapter End Notes

*borrowed from lipkandy's exquisite 'Tempus Fugit S7'


Chapter 60

It's Dawn who answers the door. "Hullo, Niblet," Spike says as he and Xander arrive at the Summers house just before sunrise.

He's spent the night at Xander's doing a fat lot of nothing, cooped up, and growing more restless by the hour. The basement seemed like bloody Disneyland in comparison. He hopes Harris is telling the truth, not just for Tara's sake but his as well. His sanity is hanging by a thread and he'd like to keep what little of it he has.

Dawn still greets him with crossed arms and a flat look, which, he notes, is fair and quite what he deserves. He's just grateful to see her confident again. He remembers the self-loathing and doubt in her own existence from the Glory days and how lost and ignored she felt last year, no thanks in part to him. She deserves better than the lot of them and is so much stronger than she ever gives herself credit for. "And when did your sister get unbelievably scary?" He'd said to Buffy. He didn't mean it as a bad thing; he was proud of her.

"Spike?" It is said in the softest, most unsure, hopeful tone he has ever heard. Tara steps hesitantly into view from the living room, one arm holding the wall as if for balance.

And there she is. Standing like a fragile little wisp of a thing she never was. The strongest people never know the depth of their fortitude or resilience, mistaking the ability to endure as weakness. People like Tara weren't the rock being worn down against the ocean shore - they were the water, softening the edges of the people around them with patient steadiness.

There's no doubt in his mind of how much she's evenned him out over the past several weeks. No matter how many voices in his head- of past victims and tormentors alike- hers was always one he could trust. Each at their most vulnerable, they'd been there for each other. She spent endless hours calming him down during the lowest of it, when his grasp of reality was tenuous at best and violent at its worst. No one had ever...

No one had ever stayed. Not Before, not After. Being undead didn't change the fact that the things he loved left him. But what would happen now, part of him wondered, now that she was back? Now that she'd gotten what she needed from him.

"Well, wouldja look at that," he says hesitantly to Tara with an ounce of awe and hint of self-doubt. She doesn't move, and Spike frowns, turning to Dawn. "Wait, you can see her too, right?" Before anyone can answer, Tara throws her arms around him. Surprised, he returns the gesture, the uncertainty evaporating instantly, and gives Tara a pat on the back. She clings tightly and he makes no move to stop her. She stays. "S'good to see you too, love," he mumbles into her shoulder, something warm settling inside him, feeling like home.

Dawn's arms are still crossed, but shift to a more comfortable, casual posture. She smiles wetly, watching them. "Yeah, Spike. We can see her, too."

Part 61

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