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

By Counterpunch


Chapter 61

It's been a while since Buffy has dreaded going to Sunnydale High. Ok, dreaded is a little dramatic, but she definitely does not feel like leaving the house that morning, and not just because she hasn't gotten enough sleep.

She woke before dawn to the smell of pancakes and immediately remembered. It was still dark, so Buffy threw on a robe and headed downstairs. Willow was in the dining room surrounded by piles of books, paper, and her laptop. She looked up as Buffy walked in. "Morning," she said.

"Can you technically say that if it's still dark out and you never went to bed in the first place?"

"Sorry," Willow apologized. "I tried, I just, couldn't fall asleep. Not when . . ." she trailed off, looking over at the kitchen.

"Tara's up, I take it?" Buffy asked, sliding next to Willow, who nodded back.

"And Dawn."

Buffy looked flabbergasted. "It's six am. I can't get her up before nine without an air horn."

Willow chuckled. "She woke up a few hours ago and came downstairs when she couldn't find Tara."

"Tara's missing?!"

"No, no-- She couldn't sleep either."

"Hm. Looks like we're putting Mr. Sandman out of a job."

"She's making pancakes."

"Sure smells like it." Buffy blinked as if startled by her own words. "Wow. Didn't think I'd ever get to say that again." She took a moment to observe Willow. Her hair was a little disheveled, there were little bags under her eyes, torn cuticles, and a tired, but anxious edge about her. Buffy remembered those days. Those awful days after Angel had come back. After all these years, there still wasn't an answer for why. She remembered not caring about why he was back, only that he was.

"How are you?" Buffy asked seriously.

Willow glanced at the kitchen nervously. "I've never been so okay to not be okay, y'know?" *

"Been through the whole 'back-from-the-dead soulmate' thing, remember? I sooo know."

With a grimace, Willow downed the dregs of the cup of coffee. "Worst club ever."

They ended up having a second breakfast before leaving for school, grabbing Pop Tarts on their way out the door. Buffy gave Spike a long hard look before leaving.

Dawn has to practically be pried off of Tara, and once in the car is quiet and withdrawn.

"Listen, if I stayed home from school every time someone came back from the dead I would have missed half of Senior year. Plus, if I don't get to stay home, neither do you."

"Tara wouldn't let me stay home either," Dawn huffs grumpily.

Buffy makes a face that implies she's impressed. "One more reason to believe she's the real deal."

Dawn looks over. "Do you really think she's not?"

Buffy takes a deep breath. "I don't know, Dawn," she answers honestly. "I hope she is, but . . . we've seen too many weird things to rule it out. Especially with this new big bad we don't know anything about."

"Tara would never be evil."

"Never," Buffy agrees vehemently.

"Do you think maybe she doesn't know?" Dawn asks nervously.

"Know what?"

"That she's evil?"

They sit with the uncomfortable question heavily between them. Questions churn in her stomach and Buffy wishes Giles would get here faster.

Chapter End Notes

* Dialogue line borrowed from JetWolf's The Chosen, with permission of the author


Chapter 62

Giles doesn't believe it himself until he stands outside the front door and Tara answers. "Good lord," he says simply.

She's wearing an apron over jeans with a green top, and appears to be covered in flour. There's a smear of it leading from a spot on her forehead into her hair, leaving a slightly white streak. "Mr. Giles!" she says, brightening with a smile, and leans forward to hug him. He returns the motion, slightly dazed, patting her back in greeting.

"Tara, yes. So very good to see you too." As they pull back, he looks quizzically over her shoulder into the house.

"Buffy and Dawn are at school, Xander's at work, and Spike's at Xanders'," she explains. "I'm baking."

"Yes, clearly," he says, blinking rapidly with a slight smile as he glances at the apron. Still beaming, she steps backwards, inviting him in. "Of course," he lifts his suitcase and carries it into the foyer. While it is genuinely good to see Tara, it reminds him why he's here. "And, ah, Willow?"

"She's upstairs. Taking a shower." Tara's tone stays relatively even, but her body language shifts just enough.

Buffy hadn't said much the night before, only that there wasn't much to say. When he asked her to repeat herself, all he got was, "Tara's back, Spike is involved somehow, we don't know much of anything, and Willow's gonna gnaw her finger off if I don't give her the phone." There was a far-off shuffle of the phone being passed before Willow's trembling voice came on the line. "Giles?"

"Are you alright?" he asked immediately.

There was a shaky exhale on the other end. "Well, I haven't gone all homicidal maniac. So, I guess . . . okay?"

"It'll be alright, Willow. The next flight leaves in a few hours, I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Giles, hurry," she pleaded nervously. "I'm kinda freaking out over here."

"Ms. Hartness says to hum. I rather hope you've some idea of what that means as it's left me completely in the dark."

"I'll try, Giles. Thanks."

The memory of Willow's anxiety brings him back to the moment sharply. The being in front of him looks and acts, to the best of his memory, exactly like Tara. But the fact that there is so little to go on naturally has him on edge. She's been alone in the house with them overnight and no harm appears to have fallen on anyone. Buffy has left a voicemail promising to swing back by the house on her lunch break, and he has called Willow to let her know of his arrival. He is practically bursting with questions and can only imagine how Buffy and the others are feeling.

"You're worried for them."*

He blushes, realizing Tara knows he's scrutinizing her. He's forgotten she can do that. "Well yes, your, ah, absence was something of a traumatic experience for us all. Some took it harder than others."

"Like trying to end the world?"

The bitterness and anger in her voice is palpable, and he fails to mask his surprise at hearing that emotion from her for the first time.

Tara rubs her forehead, "Sorry," she apologizes. "It's been . . ." she searches for words but finds none sufficient, ". . . A day," she finishes emptily.

"Giles?" a hopeful, thin voice calls from the top of the stairs.

"Willow," he replies fondly, grateful to see his charge in one piece.

Practically running down the stairs, she throws herself into his arms. He collects her easily, and though she's put on weight since England, is still frail against his chest as she takes a shuddering breath. Willow's hair is still damp from the shower. He kisses the crown of her head, remembering the broken way she'd fallen into his arms after she'd first arrived in England, and feels very, very proud of how far she's come.

After several moments he finally pulls back, taking in Willow's wet eyes and the guarded way Tara observes them, and clears his throat. "Tea, anyone?"

Chapter End Notes

*borrowed from JetWolf's 'The Chosen'


Chapter 63

Xander's eyes flicker nervously around the room before settling back on Willow. The pizza he's brought over after work has been devoured, mostly by himself, Dawn, and Buffy (trust a teenager and Slayer to each pack away over half a pie single handedly). And the now-empty boxes and plates are stacked high with used napkins. Willow, he notices, has managed to eat an entire slice, and is now taking small nibbles of the crust as she sits back, quietly watching everyone else. They've finally got a functional, living, real-life Willow back, one who doesn't look like every breath is excruciating. He swells with protectiveness.

God, this is freaky . And not just because Spike is here, though that certainly doesn't put him at ease. And the way he and Tara are acting together? All . . . chummy and close? It gives him the jeebies. The heebie-jeebies. The nicest person he ever met, like, seriously 'her-name-would-be-in-the-dictionary-next-to-the-word nice', is buddy-buddy with . . . Spike.

Ok, so he has a soul now, but he's still Spike .

Honestly, that's the one thing that makes him think what they're claiming is true. There's no way the two of them would ever be so close otherwise. Unless it's the big bad messing with them. And Tara is evil. No, Tara could never be evil. But if it isn't Tara . . .

He's never seen anything so convincing, though. The way she greeted him this morning, eyes so tender and full of bright, shining love; holding him tight. Eyes that looked so sorrowfully at the faint marks on his cheek, and clouded over when she touched them so delicately, her fingers tickling the stubble on his skin. Tara had looked at him the same way when Joyce died and he put his fist through the wall like an idiot. Only, she hadn't looked at him like he was an idiot; just with infinite tenderness and understanding. Like only they shared a secret.

That same Tara is somehow sitting in the living room, buddy-buddy with Spike, and collecting the broken pieces of all of them like it's nothing. Something that only Tara can do. No. She's real. Somehow.

He doesn't like it. Well no, that isn't entirely true. He's thrilled! Tara is back! And hasn't been pulled away from a heavenly dimension! But nothing ever happens on the Hellmouth without reason, and that reason is usually bad, if not terrible, and even more often than that, straight up evil. It makes his stomach turn. And not just because he's eaten too many slices of pizza.

They need answers, because the longer Tara is here without them, the worse it'll get.

He pulled Willow aside after handing off the warm pizza boxes to Buffy. "How's it going?"

It didn't look like she'd moved much from the dining room table all day. She glanced back at the workstation and shook her head. "There hasn't been much to go on yet. She was waiting for everyone to get back before going too much into detail, but I started researching pocket-dimension theories and--" He cut her off.

"No. Will, how are you doing?"

"Oh," she said softly, a little dumbfounded and surprised, as if she'd forgotten about herself entirely.

He watches her carefully while Tara and Spike explain their story.

"And you say the books were completely empty?" Giles asks curiously in his most Giles-y way; blinking rapidly while holding a cup of tea.

"Not completely. There was some stuff in them, but a lot of blanks. Some were things I already knew, but not everything."

Giles seems to chew on the information. "Fascinating," he murmurs. "And they were like that until Spike appeared." Tara nods in confirmation. "Fascinating," he repeats to himself, lost in thought. "There are theories of cryptomnesia, but never in a type of case such as this."

"Giles? Translate?" reminds Buffy, glancing around the room at similar blank faces.

"The reappearance of suppressed or forgotten memories," he explains. "Usually it manifests as unconscious plagiarism. Or in cases of deep trauma, such as people waking up from a coma with the sudden ability to speak another language. In your case, it appears as though only that which you had previous knowledge of, or exposure to, was present in your . . . Limboland," he finishes, begrudgingly using the word Buffy has coined to describe where Tara has been.

"So why'd they suddenly fill up when Spike showed?" Buffy asks. "If I knew he could magic words onto a page, I would've had a much easier time getting through finals."

"If, as Tara says, before there was no connection to the earth, and thus magic, it appears his soul must have had something to do with it," Giles posits.

"So what, Spike's soul is magic? What makes him so special? I've got a soul, why couldn't I see Tara?" Xander asks.

"You're human," Buffy says, some sort of realization dawning. "He's not."

Giles walks slowly around the room, pacing as he thinks aloud. "A vampire is a magical creature by its very nature; a demon inhabiting the body of the deceased. It's possible that Spike's soul, while reunited with his body, wasn't bound by it the way ours are."

"So Spike's soul is magic." Xander confirms.

"Of sorts, yes. And I doubt there are very many demons in Sunnydale who can attest to the same qualifications. It still begs the question as to where Tara was in the first place. And how she got there. I suggest we start looking into demonic soul possessions and dimensional theory," Giles finishes.

"Isn't it lucky we get homework when we're not even in school anymore?" Xander says with false cheerfulness.

Buffy stands and runs her hands over her thighs to straighten her pants, signaling commander mode. "You, Dawn, Giles, and Willow are on book duty. I'll patrol tonight and see what I can find out about this 'beneath you devoury' thing."

"Um, hello?" Spike spreads his arms wide in a 'what about me' gesture.

"Right," Buffy says. "You stay here."

"What?!" Spike says, offended. "I may be crazy but I can still fight."

"That's exactly why you can't fight. Your crazy is a liability and I can't protect you and fight the bad guys at the same time. Sorry Spike, you're benched. Besides," her eyes scan the room quickly, "I think there are more than a few people here that could use some extra protecting."

Immediately, Xander's eyes find Willow, whose eyes are predictably trained on Tara, whose eyes are, predictably, trained on Dawn. Whatever his feelings about Spike, Xander finds he can't disagree with Buffy on that.


Chapter 64

There is a chorus of protestations, people clamoring loudly over one another, but in the end Tara shouts, which is enough to grab everyone's attention. She blushes, but does not apologize, and repeats in a clear, calm voice--that leaves no room for argument--that she is going for a walk, and that she is going to do it by herself.

It's surprising to her how stifled she feels in the house. After months alone in an empty world craving the people she missed the most, it is suddenly overwhelming and smothering. Willow doesn't make eye contact with her, though Tara feels her staring hungrily out the corners of her eyes. Willow doesn't touch her, rarely approaches her, and keeps her distance is much as possible. It feels wrong to admit to herself, but this comes as a relief. Unsure about her own conflicted feelings--torn between her anger, hurt, grief, and love--it's easier to have some distance.

Tara sighs as she makes her way down the street, confusion and uncertainty tying her stomach in knots.

And other concerns plague her, a deeper nagging doubt that grows stronger by the hour. What if she is dangerous? What if Buffy was right, that first night?

Could she be the thing that she has always feared the most? Something ugly and evil--like her father always told her she was--that will hurt the people she loves? Has she come this far only to have come back wrong? Is she even in control of herself? She stops briefly on the sidewalk and rubs her temple, pressing the heels of her palms against her eyes until she sees stars.

There is no rustle of bushes or sound of footsteps, but the hairs on the back of Tara's neck stand up.

"H-hello?" she calls out warily. Defensive spells fly to mind, and she sends a quick tendril of herself into the earth, checking to see that her connection to magic is still present and can be called forth. Reassured at the familiar presence, she calls out again, feeling stronger, confident, with the safety of magic at her side. "Show yourself," she demands.

This time the bush does rustle, but it's Buffy who steps out from it, ducking through the branches and looking very sheepish. "Hi," she waves lamely.

"Buffy," Tara exhales in relief before the briefest flash of irritation flares. "What are you doing here?" she asks, crossing her arms.

"Um. Not following you?" Buffy attempts lamely. Tara raises an eyebrow and Buffy drops the act. "Following you," she admits guiltily. Seeing Tara's mouth open to protest, Buffy quickly continues with a quirked brow of her own, "Oh come on, like we were going to let you go out alone? At night? In Sunnydale? Besides, I wasn't gonna interrupt, you never would have known I was here."

Tara's eyebrow jumps further up her forehead. "Sorry," Buffy looks sheepish again. "Am I interrupting? 'Cause I can--" she gestures backwards with her thumb, indicating an exit.

Questions and uncertainties hang heavily over her and Tara thinks maybe she's had enough alone time for the night. Now that Buffy is here, she doesn't want to see her go. Hugging herself, Tara shakes her head, "No, it's fine."


Tara nods again. They resume walking, falling into step next to each other in a companionable silence, though Tara's fears hover on her shoulder, haunting not far behind.

"Alright, spill," Buffy blurts not a few minutes later. "I've done the resurrected back-from-the-dead thing a few times now. There's . . . stuff to deal with. I've also had my ex-boyfriend come back from the dead too--or, undead, I guess--so no matter which way you look at it, that kinda makes me the expert, here."

Tara sighs loudly, not even knowing where to begin.

"It's weird, isn't it?" Buffy says. "The way the world just kept going, without you in it and when you come back, it's speeding so fast you can't get back on."

"How did you do it?"

"Not sure I'm the best example here, what with the clinical depression, sleeping with Spike--," Buffy counts out each item with a finger, and she's ready to keep going, but Tara interrupts her.

"No, I mean--how did you forgive Willow?" Embarrassed and almost surprised at the admission, Tara hugs herself tightly, looking away from Buffy and hiding behind a veil of hair. It's an old gesture, but one she clings to in this moment nonetheless.

Just as Tara thinks Buffy's not going to say anything at all, she speaks. "I've been the Slayer for a long time now and almost given up more times than I'd like. But Willow and Xander were always there, helping me save the world. She had a million reasons to leave Sunnydale, but she chose to stay here, fighting evil. And fighting evil is hard, trust me. Especially when it's yourself. Sometimes the people we need to save are each other."

Buffy takes a breath, and the next words come out pained. "I wasn't here last year, Tara. I should have known what was going on with Willow. Been there for Dawn. For you. I should've stopped Warren and the others way sooner. You died because of me. Forgiving Willow was easy in the face of that. Plus," she adds with characteristic cheerfulness, lightening the seriousness of her previous words, "I figure if you help save the world four or five times, the sixth one's gotta be free."

Tara is contemplative, chewing on Buffy's words quietly as she speaks. But buried in there was an admission of guilt she has no reason to apologize for. Tara looks sharply over, displeasure across her face. "Whose gun was it?" she presses resolutely once Buffy finishes.

Buffy blinks, confused, "Sorry?"

"The one that killed me." She hates that the freshness of it makes her nearly stammer over the truth. But this is too important for such trivialities. "Whose was it?"

"Um, Warren's, I guess. Maybe Jonathan or the other one? I don't know, wh--"

Tara interrupts, because this is crucial, and she wants her to know it. Buffy has always carried too much of her burden alone; this shouldn't ever be one of them. "His gun, Buffy. He pulled the trigger. Not you. It was no one's fault but his." Tara hopes it's enough, that her words can somehow penetrate the armor of guilt her friend carries.

Buffy bites her lip, looks up at the moon; Tara searches her face. A moment passes. "Let's go home, Tara," she says finally, eyes wet. At the battle-weary look on Buffy's face, Tara thinks maybe, just maybe, she's made a dent.


Chapter 65

There's no rushing yeast.

Tara sighs in relief--the bag of yeast is still in the back of the freezer where she left it last year. Crumpled and wedged behind boxes of frozen dinners and containers of ice cream, but still there. The other ingredients –sugar, flour, salt--are presumably also untouched since Tara's departure.

She made a lot of bread the summer after Buffy died. Unable to sleep, waking in the early morning hours--sometimes before dawn--with a panicked sweat slicked down her back and nightmares of Glory echoing in her ears. There was no sleep for Tara those mornings. Gingerly she'd sneak out of bed as to not wake Willow, who had often helped quiet her back to sleep from earlier nightmares, and head downstairs to the kitchen.

Tara felt closest to her mother, then. Her mother, who had lived with a quiet dignity and strength and died without it--her mind and body stolen by sickness. Her mother, who had braided her hair and patched her scratches and iced the bruises and made Tara promise--promise--to get out once she could. Who had seen the love Tara had in her heart and made her vow to give it to someone worthy.

Sometimes Tara missed her so much it made her want to punch something with the unfairness of it. To take the anger and hurt and grief and push it as far away as she could because it was just too much for one person to hold. It hurts , she'd said to Xander. She remembered that release of pain, grateful to feel it somewhere else for a moment, instead of strangling her heart.

Bread takes time. It has to be kneaded, massaged, and left alone to prove, only to be beaten down again for a second rise. Only time will help it reinflate, to help it forgive and forget what was done to it; to be made into something more.

Tara thinks they've all been beaten enough. She just wants to be left alone to rise.

"Are you ok?" Dawn mumbles sleepily from her pillow, curled up under the blanket toward the wall. Tara cringes. She thought she'd snuck in quietly.

"I'm fine Dawnie, go back to sleep," she whispers, trying to change into pajamas as quietly as possible. Tara slips under the covers, trying not to jostle the bed too much. With no further motion from the shoulders on other side of the bed, she lets out a long sigh, as much in relief to have not woken Dawn as the exhaustion of the day catching up with her.

Tara can sense long hours of tired restlessness ahead but is still startled when, without stirring, Dawn's voice suddenly breaks through the night, gentle and sincere in the darkness. "I was angry too, when she came back."

Tara sighs. It's too much and all too confusing. "Dawn-" she barely begins to chastise before the next words chill her to her bones.

"But I wasn't angry she killed him. I'm glad he's dead." Dawn's voice is hard and cold. The tone is final, leaving no room for conversation. She still hasn't moved. Silence presses. Tara swallow and blinks into the blackness. Sleep doesn't come for a long, long time.

"You're gonna run out of flour eventually, you know."

Tara smiles against her better judgement. Spike saunters around the counter, pulling her from her thoughts. "Y'not uh, hiding out in here by any chance, are you?" He jerks his thumb towards the dining room, where Willow hasn't moved from research mode in hours.

Tara flushes in embarrassment at being called out so accurately and she punches the dough a little harder than is strictly necessary. "No," she shoots back defensively, immediately feeling bad for snapping. "No," she repeats more gently. "Maybe a little," she admits.

"Lot tougher now that it's real, innit?"

"I didn't think it would be this hard."

"Can't hide from things when they're right in front of you. Well, you can, but not forever." He pulls out a cigarette, slips it behind his ear. "I've tried."

The anger comes more easily than she ever expected it to. "I can barely look at her without thinking about what she did."

"Trust me, she can't either."

"Why are you doing this?"

He shrugs. "I've been in love with something I didn't deserve. More th'n once. Been on both sides of this one."

After everything , after finally having making it back, things are more broken between them than they ever were. She just wanted to come home. She'd given Willow her heart a long time ago. The trust she'd been earning back carefully all those months ago, gone; crumbled in the wake of her passing. Can it ever be rebuilt again? And now, a question Tara never wanted to ask-- Should it?

She's come so far, finding home again in Dawn and Buffy's arms. In Xander, Anya, and Giles. Miracles she never thought she'd have again. She wants more than anything to find similar solace in Willow's arms, to be soothed by Willow's hands. Hands that floated roses and freed her mind. Hands that have now stripped flesh and crushed bone. Murdered. Hands she can't even look at. "I don't know how things can ever be the same." It feels like her heart is breaking.

"They won't be. Nothing ever is."

Tara finds she doesn't have much to say to that. She dips her hands in flour and kneads.


Chapter 66

Willow thinks about how she took for granted, the years when they were together, not being nervous around Tara anymore.

In the beginning, without knowing why, she had been full of butterflies at the thought of Tara -of doing another spell together, of asking to hang out. It became painfully obvious later, of course, but at the time she'd just chalked it up to the nervousness and newness of having something of her own outside the Scoobies.

Then, there was a flutter in her stomach whenever they did anything for the first time, basking in the newness of being in love and out, together - going to a restaurant, seeing a romantic movie, holding hands.

And later came an entirely different breed of nervousness, after their breakup when uncertainty surrounded every interaction in a haze of guilt. And the bright, shining moment at the wedding, when the jitters turned light and hopeful, fresh with the promise of beginning anew. Each moment, electric; lighting Willow up from the inside out.

But this? This is a new sort of nervousness, even stronger than it had been last year. Her skin itches constantly, but for the first time in a long time, not with the magics. It's the itch of unknowing, and it keeps Willow up at night. The rest of the world falls away until only the question of Tara remains. And unlike during the pressing apocalypse of Glory, this time, she can devote her full attention toward finding answers. So she does.

It's been a few days now, since Tara has come back. Buffy has stopped trying to talk her into going to bed; instead, making her promise to take regular REM-cycle length naps. That, at least, Willow can promise. It is nice, though, getting to see more of Buffy after she finishes patrolling, when the lines between 'late' and 'early morning' are blurred, and they can share a nighttime snack before Buffy crashes for a few hours before school. Sometimes there are other soft footsteps, overhead, in the quiet dark. Willow knows by those steps Tara has woken from another bad dream and is getting a glass of water in the bathroom. Relief and guilt pool in her belly when Tara does not come downstairs.

Willow felt the blade of Tara's anger; she was intimately familiar with its edges, aware of how conflicted Tara is n her presence. Can't blame her, at all, either; how can she not be, after the things Willow's done?

Since not causing Tara any pain or discomfort is pretty high on the list of her priorities, she decides to minimize her presence as much as possible. She shrinks, making herself invisible. She's had years of practice, after all; it's been a while since those mousy pre-teen years, but she will be Invisi-girl again in a heartbeat if it means giving more space to Tara.

Willow is done imposing her will on others, wheedling herself back into people's lives, heedless of their feelings. However Tara has come back, it is her life now to choose what she wants to do with it. All Willow wants is to make sure that it is safe and truly her own. That is a gift Willow desperately wants to give. And that means finding answers.

So it comes as an honest surprise when Buffy dumps a bookbag on the table, jerking a very bewildered Willow out of research mode, and demanding she go to class. She's forgotten about school entirely. It seems so unimportant in the face of everything else. She goes begrudgingly, and ends up deciding to stay on campus longer to get ahead of the next few assignments and free up time she can use to keep researching later.

The library is near empty, and Willow has a table all to herself. Exhaustion of the last few days seem to catch up, because she finds her eyelids growing heavy, and words blurring on the page. So close to relinquishing herself to a nap, a pair of feet walks into her peripheral vision and stops at the table. She follows them up and is more than a little surprised by who she sees. "Tara?"

She stands without a greeting, hugging herself nervously, eyes dashing around the library, looking everywhere but at Willow. Gnawing her lip, Tara ducks her head, letting her hair fall forward, over her face, and shakes her head softly.

"What's wrong?" Willow asks, pushing their awkwardness aside as her concern grows. "Are you okay?"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt, I just . . ." Tara swallows, still refusing to make eye contact. "I can't do this anymore."

"Do what? Tara--"

"There's something I haven't t-told any of you yet. About where I was."

Warning bells ring faintly, but desperate to help, Willow ignores them. This is more than they've said to each other, directly, since the kitchen the night Tara came back. "You can tell me anything, you know that, right? It doesn't matter what it is."

"I'm sorry, I just . . . didn't know how to say it. I saw things."

"What kinds of things?" Willow probes gently.

"It was horrible, Will," she says miserably.

Willow leans forward in alarm, "Did-did it hurt you?"

Tara shakes her head in frustration, "No, that's not what I mean. Sorry. I'm saying it all wrong."

"That's okay, take your time. Whatever you need."

Tara hesitates, weighing her decision before meeting Willow's eyes. "I think I was sent back to warn you."

"Is it the 'from beneath you it devours' thing?" She moves to take a notebook out of her bag, "I'm still working on that. There are some texts--"

"No." Tara interrupts. "Not 'It', Will." It's clear from the serious tone and demeanor what she means.

"Oh, god," Willow says as it sinks in. "Me." Tara nods solemnly. "Oh, god," Willow repeats. "What did I do?"

Ducking her head again, as if it's too painful to admit, Tara responds, "You don't want to know what I saw."

That's it. All of the months of painstaking work, the hours of meditations, sleepless nights, all the times she's wanted to give up and die, it's all been for nothing. Panic rushes in like a tidal wave, drowning her in abject terror. Ears ringing, she takes desperate ragged breaths to try and calm herself, but finds the air far too thin. From somewhere outside of herself, Willow registers the table suddenly seeming very far away. "Oh, god."

Tara continues quickly, trying to calm her down, "But if you stop, completely, no more magic--"

Tara's words slam her back into herself immediately, and Willow clings to them, nodding furiously in agreement. "Right. Right. Stop. But what about Giles and the Coven? They made it seem like it would be just as dangerous for me to quit completely. Like I'll go off the deep end again!"

"You can't, Willow," Tara says with warning. "If you do so much as another spell . . ."

It's all too much. All she wants to be is Willow but she can't even do that right. "I tried to stop! I tried! What if I can't do this?"

"Don't think that way."

The tears are hot with shame and weakness. "How can I not? I'm not strong, Tara. I'm just me. Look at what I did before . . ."

Tara thinks hard for a moment. "There is one thing," she offers, "One thing you could do to stop it from happening."

Desperate for an answer, Willow begs, "What? Anything."

"I did it once. It's not that bad, really."

A different set of bells ring a warning. This time shrill and off-key. "Tara?"

"You could sleep," Tara offers with a shrug.

There's a beat as Willow comprehends Tara's meaning. Her expression shifts. Distrust and anger darken her features. "Who are you," she asks coldly. Deadly.

All gentleness drops from Tara's face, settling into an almost disinterested calm. "The suicide thing was too far, huh? Huh. You seemed so ripe."

"Who are you," Willow demands.

"You know you've wanted to. Thought it would be better for everyone--make sure Big, Bad Willow can't ever come out to play and hurt anyone else again."

"Tell me who you are," Willow demands again, less confidently, trying to keep the shakiness from her voice and failing.

'Tara' ignores her completely. "I stand by my opinion, you know. The world would be better--safer--if you took a razor blade to your wrists--"

Memories of nights in England come to her a cold rush and the magic comes unbidden. She squeezes a fist against it. "Stop--"

"She'd be better off, too, you know. Without you reminding her of everything you did to her. Of what you did in her name."

"Stop it." she begs, "Stop using Tara this way--"

"What, the way you did? When you turned her into a thing to control? When you tortured Warren and tried to kill everyone just because you lost someone you loved? As if you're the only person that's ever happened to. She can't stand to look at you, you know that, right? You might as well off yourself now because you don't know hurt. This last year is going to seem like cake after what I put you and your friends through, and I am not a fan of easy death. Fact is, the whole good-versus-evil, balancing the scales thing . . . I'm over it. I'm done with the mortal coil. But believe me, I'm going for a big finish."

Willow can only mutter, "From beneath you, it devours."

"Guilty," Not-Tara says with a look of smug cruelty that has never once graced her true face.


Chapter 67

Tara slaps the dough onto the counter, grinding the heel of her palms forward as if she can push her unrest with it. Buffy has gone patrolling, Willow is at the library, Dawn's at a friend's house working on a history project, Spike is at Xander's; and Tara, once again, is alone at home.

The house is quiet for the first time since her return, and even the light seems still. Silence presses heavily, the way it used to, growing tighter around her chest. She's turned to the kitchen the way she turned to it before, churning the turmoil of everything into something that can be given form.

"Careful not to over mix," comes a tenderly soft, sweet voice that stops Tara cold. "You don't want it to get dense." A woman with long brown hair sweeping over a shoulder sits on one of the counter stools. "Hi, Sweetie," the woman says, with infinitely kind eyes.


Giving no sign she hears Tara address her, the woman sits contentedly observing, smiling with a look of mixed sorrow and profound love. Taking in Tara's appearance--hair up in a messy bun, wearing an apron--the woman makes a soft, broken sigh. "Oh, Tara, honey. I'm so sorry I missed you growing up."

Tara pales, choking back a sob that presses on her throat, growing bigger by the second, as she falls from one nightmare dream to another. She wears a look of pure longing, but shakes her head in disbelief. "This can't possibly be real."

"As real as the day you accidentally made Cameron's water bottle explode, remember?"

Tara's eyes grow wide at the memory. "The first time I did magic."

Her mother nods, smiling. "You came crying to me saying they were right all along, but what did I tell you? 'There's no demon in you, there's only--"

"'--Tara'," she finishes. "Mom," she sobs, this time with conviction. Tara moves to hug her, to bury herself in her mother's embrace but falters when her hand passes right through her form.

"I'm so sorry, honey," Mrs. Maclay apologizes, looking equally mournful. "I'm just visiting." Reminded of this fact, she glances quickly over her shoulder before turning back with a serious demeanor. "And I don't have much time," she says urgently. "I needed to warn you."

"Warn me?"

"Her soul is in danger."

"What? Who?" Tara shakes her head, furiously wiping at her eyes.

"Willow," her mother answers. "The magic, it's stronger than her. She's going to destroy everything. She came back from it once before, but this time there'll be no saving her."

Tara shakes her head, trying to process the overload of information. "But M-Mr. Giles and the Coven said--"

"I know. They all mean well, and she's come so far, but I've seen what happens and it won't be enough. You have to help her."

"W-what? How, what--"

She speaks urgently, as if speaking on borrowed time and will be stopped by someone at any moment. "You have to stop her, before she's lost forever."

Tara pulls back, as if struck. Doubt flickers across her face. "Mom?" she asks shakily.

Her mother seems to have anticipated this and continues gently. "Honey, she knows. It's okay. Why do you think she went to England in the first place? It was only a matter of time."

Tara pulls away slowly, as the message settles, eyes sharpening to suspicious slits. "You're not my mother."

The woman's earnestness falls, her face hardening. Dropping the charade, the figure continues, "The murder thing was too much, huh? Funny, it didn't seem to bother her."

"Stop it."

The figure's visage twists into a mockery of her mother's. "She tortured him first, did you know that?" she says cruelly.


"That's exactly how he begged. Before Willow flayed him."

Tara closes her eyes miserably, shaking her head against the words. "Please, stop."

The figure places both hands on the counter and stands menacingly. "You think Willow can come back from a stunt like that again? One more temptation, one more spell, and she's toast. You think it was bad, what happened to you before? Well buck up, sister," she sneers. "I've got big plans, and I'm going to make you wish you never came back."

"'From beneath you, it devours'," Tara breathes out.

"Not 'it'," The figure smirks cruelly, "Me." And with a sharp pop, disappears, leaving Tara alone in the kitchen, utterly chilled to the bone, and heaving shaky breaths.


Chapter 68

Buffy is terrified by Holden's words. Spike siring? It's impossible. It's unthinkable. How can he? Between his soul and the chip, there is no way. And yet, the pile of dust at her feet begs to differ.

Sure, he's been staying a Xander's, but he isn't a prisoner. Since Tara's return, he's actually seemed a bit . . . saner? They all chalked it up to one less voice in his head, but maybe something else has taken its place. Unless Tara knows something? And they are in on it together, somehow? No! Buffy shakes her head against the thought. That doesn't make any sense, either. Tara's been with them at the house almost constantly since returning. And Spike didn't exactly want to stick around for Scooby research, so off he went--free to do his own thing.

Which, possibly . . . means killing people again.

It's late. Early, she amends, glancing at her watch, but it can't wait until morning. It's too important. Hurrying, she makes her way to Xander's.


Chapter 69

The front door slams open as a very frantic Willow barrels through the entryway.

"Tara?" she calls out in alarm. "Buffy?"

She has one foot on the staircase when she notices light filtering into the darkened dining room from the kitchen. Unsure of what she will find, she creeps tentatively towards the kitchen, taking quiet steps.

Open containers of ingredients and clean baking trays lie scattered across the countertops. A bowl of half-mixed dough languishes in a bowl. The spoon, long forgotten, has slipped down into the batter. Puzzled, Willow turns to head upstairs but freezes when she sees a floury handprint on the handle of the oven, smearing down across its face. Another hesitant step brings Tara into view. She is crumpled on the floor, knees pulled up to her chest, head between them.

"Tara!" There's no indication that Tara has heard her at all. She remains curled up, taking ragged, irregular, hitching breaths. "Oh god, Tara, are you alright?" Immediately her hands reach forward, but she pulls them back a moment, hesitating, as if unsure to touch. The uncertainty only lasts for a moment, and gently as she can, places a hand on Tara's shoulder.

Despite the care Willow takes, Tara's head shoots up at the touch, wide-eyed and terrified. "Willow?" she asks uncertainly, almost fearfully, as if doubtful of what she is seeing.

Willow exhales, relieved at a response, and delicately tries to assess if Tara is hurt, searching for any sort of obvious injury to explain the situation. Tara, for her part, ignores the ministrations. While Willow examines her for bodily harm, Tara searches Willow's face. Not noticing the scrutiny, when she finally looks back, their eyes meet and she freezes.

They have not stared at each other like this, so openly, since Tara's return. It's been stolen stares out of the corners of eyes, avoiding glances and looking away quickly, bypassing their feelings and each other as much as possible.

Willow blisters under Tara's deep, searching gaze, but she cannot tear herself away. "Tara?" she asks in a strangled voice. Willow is bare beneath Tara, naked to her core, exposed and raw, stinging like a freshly cleaned wound.

Fearful and doubtful of her own sanity, afraid of the past, afraid of the future, Tara searches Willow's eyes, looking for any shred of the Willow who haunts her--the one who whispers words with flowers and presses forward blindly. Instead she finds deep knowing and shameful understanding. Someone who has faced her darkest truths and emerged awakened.

There is still much to talk about, but for once, Tara feels like it can wait; that they can talk about it--as equals on the same firm ground, and not grinding against each other like tectonic plates.

Tara knows, from looking deep within, that Willow is no longer a danger, to herself or to others. She has seen the deepest, darkest parts of herself and shone a light upon them until they no longer haunt the shadowed corners of her mind. Tara knows this as surely as she had known Willow had problems in the first place. As surely as she had left Willow, she has now come home.

Willow had promised she would always find Tara. Turns out, all Willow needed to do was find herself, and there she was.

As Tara gazes at Willow, a sob breaks, and she falls into her. Gathering each other up, they cling to each other, reunited.

And Willow? Willow drowns. Only, it isn't the Blackness that pulls her down, but waves of Tara. She never wants to breathe again. Isn't sure she even needs oxygen to subsist anymore when everything she needs is in her arms. Willow is reminded of why she wants to live.

Unsure of the reason, but not questioning why, Willow simply thanks every god in the pantheon for the wonder in her arms. It is more than she deserves, more than she ever thought she would have again. With every tear Tara sheds, Willow is anointed; bathed anew and baptized in what feels like forgiveness.

Something had happened in the kitchen that caused Tara to fall to her knees, welcoming Willow's touch and making peace with the past. Her mind still presses with questions, but for now Willow simply lets them be and cherishes her miracle for what it is.


Chapter 70

It isn't long after Buffy comes home slamming the door hard enough to rattle the doorframe, that a gathering is called.

"And it took the forms of your mother, and you," Giles says, turning to Willow, clarifying, "Tara." Both girls nod solemnly, harrowed by the memory.

"I haven't seen any ghosties since Tara," Spike says. "And she's been real for days. Can I go now?"

"No," Buffy barks , eyeing him distrustfully. Twisting his lip into a half-hearted sneer that looks more like a pout, Spike flops back on the couch, none too pleased. "And no one is going anywhere until we figure this out."

"I'm not certain how much there is to know at this moment, Buffy," Giles admits. "We don't know what the nature of this evil is, only that it can take many forms. And, though, causing great emotional pain, seems to be non-corporeal, thus causing no physical harm."

"So what, that's it? A shape-shifting ghost, that's all we've got?" irritation and impatience drip off Anya in waves.

"We've worked with less before," Xander points out.

Tara tucks one leg under as she slides onto the couch. "It thinks Willow is a threat."

"What, it's afraid of redheads?"

Tara ducks almost nervously. "It tried to get me to kill her."

The room goes still for a brief moment before Buffy yelps incredulously when she finally processes Tara's words. "It what ?"

"Me too," Willow adds, before Tara can respond. "I mean, it wanted me to kill myself, too," she admits in a soft, nearly shameful voice.

"It what!? " Xander and Dawn join Buffy's vocal disbelief. Tara, for her part, regards Willow with a calm, curious look. Willow picks nervously at her sleeve, uncomfortable under their gazes.

"Well there's no way that's happening," Xander states firmly. "I vote no more dying for anyone this year. All in favor say 'aye'," he finishes, raising his hand. Dawn raises hers immediately in agreement.

"No one's dying," Buffy vows. "And the sooner we figure out how you became alive again, the better. This thing is messing with us, and we need to figure out the answers to the old questions before we start with new ones. Got it?" Everyone nods, Spike included, until he realizes what he's doing, makes a face, and stops.

"Wait a minute," Tara muses, wheels turning. "Spike, you said you saw other ghosts before, besides me. Who else have you seen?"

Before he can answer, Giles interrupts with a question. "Do you think there could be a connection?"

"Maybe," Tara offers.

"If this thing tried to get to Will out of the picture, maybe it's doing the same thing to Spike."

"How is Spike being crazy the same thing as trying to kill Willow, " Xander asks in an increasingly agitated tone.

"Because while Willow and Tara were being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, I was getting a free therapy session from a psych major-turned-vampire who says Spike sired him."

Everyone's eyes widened in surprise, save Spike who practically growls at the notion. "Bollocks," he spits in disgust.

"I'm just telling you what the dead guy said," Buffy raises her arms in defense.

"Well he's wrong," Spike snarls. "I didn't cross the ocean, go to the end of the underworld to get my soul back only to rot it by killing again."

Buffy regards him for a moment, pondering everything that's come to light. "Well, until we know for sure, you're staying here, where someone can keep an eye on you," she declares with finality. "Any questions?"

He scowls and huffs back into the couch disgruntled, but doesn't argue.

Hands on hips, Buffy faces the group, and in her most Slayer-like voice that suffers no argument, speaks, "We figure out what's going on, and we figure it out now."

Part 71

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