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By Counterpunch


Chapter 71

It's been over two weeks, but Tara still has a hard time with the quiet.

It used to be her preference, in a world full of violence and noise, to keep the safe haven of home a place of quiet solace. It always calmed and centered her. Now the quiet reminds her too much of where she'd been, with its' unnatural, stifling stillness. But since coming back, Tara leaves a radio or television on low - not loud enough to hear the program, but just enough to remind her she's not alone. To ground her.

She keeps windows open, too, regardless of the approaching winter, letting the blissful sounds of the suburbs -cars passing, dogs barking, lawn mowers buzzing- comfort her. Especially on evenings when sleep is elusive, slipping through her fingers with each passing hour. Nights such as this.

She lays quietly in the dark with Dawn's even breaths rising and falling nearby in a soothing rhythmic pattern. It's been hours but still the memory of the figure in the kitchen earlier haunts her. Though it hadn't been her real mother, Tara still feel almost dirty with the transaction. As if she'd somehow betrayed her mother's memory as opposed to it having been twisted and hijacked by an unnamed evil. What memories she had of her mother were precious and few enough; they feel tainted now, somehow, bookended by such corruption, and she burns hot with anger and resentment. At least if anything, she'll use the outrage to strengthen her resolve.

The sound of the screen door creaking open and shut filters up through the open window, interrupting her thoughts. It gives her the excuse to abandon pretense of sleep, so she peels the covers down, slips on a robe, and heads downstairs.

The house is quiet and dark as she creeps through the first floor. A small light illuminates the stovetop where the kettle sits, steam escaping, left open as to not whistle. Tara pauses, pulls a mug from the cupboard, and pours herself a cup before stepping outside.

It's Willow on the stoop, and she turns around at the sound of the door latch, brightening instantly. Tara winces as the screen door creaks despite trying to carefully ease it shut, "Mind if I join you?"

"Not at all," Willow smiles warmly, scooching over a little to make more room.

Tara blows on the tea, trying to cool it before taking a tentative sip. "Maybe one day we'll sleep at night again like regular people," she remarks dryly.

"Pretty sure I've been disqualified from being a regular person since spending high school fighting monsters." Willow jokes briefly sobering under the nights' heavy events. "You okay?"

Tara thinks a moment before responding. "For the first time in a long time, I feel like it will be."

Willow nods, as if digesting the words, but the line of worry on her forehead only deepens. A question pulls at her. "How can we be sure?" Tara regards Willow with a confused look, uncertain of what she meant. "About what it said. A-about me," Willow clarifies nervously, referring to the shades that tormented them a few hours ago.

Tara contemplates the question thoroughly, quietly, while Willow holds her breath. After what seems like forever, Tara finally opens her mouth, and speaks slowly, giving weight to her words. "If it were true, it wouldn't have needed to try so hard."

It might have been logical, but still Willow's doubts linger. Tara sees it on her face, as she always did, and lays a hand atop hers. "The magic is a part of you, Willow. But that's all it is; a part."

They sit in silence a few moments longer until- "You were right," Willow admits suddenly. "About everything. You always were." She twists the mug tightly. "And I think knew, too. That day at the fair? When-" she inhales sharply as the memory slices anew, "When we had our first fight. Do you remember?"

Tara stiffens. Everything about that wretched day was broken into her bones.

"I didn't want to listen, but I think maybe part of me knew and lashed out, 'cause I didn't want to think about it. If you were right or wrong, who that would make me."

The past presses so heavily, Tara feels like she's strangling on it. A dark, shameful secret, darker than the prison of her mind she was trapped in with Glory, long since pushed to the deepest fathoms of her heart rises like bile. "It's my fault," she chokes. "The fight. I was afraid."

"Of me, I know. You were ri-"

"No." Tara shakes her head, insistently. "I wasn't. You were learning so much, so fast. And I...I was worried. That if I didn't have anything left to teach you. . . "

Willow sits stunned as she absorbs the admission, eyes growing wide as understanding dawns. "The magic. You thought I was going to outgrow you."

Tara nods miserably, unable to meet Willow's gaze. The secret has burned in her since that day, but like too many important things, there was never a chance to talk about it. There was Glory, and Buffy, and Dawn, then it was too late.

Part of her had felt what happened after was punishment. That she had driven her own insecurities into Willow, planted seeds of doubt that had never been there, and questioned Willow's love. Falling victim to Glory was nothing less than what she deserved. She'd been a monster after all.

"Tara, look at me." Willow nudges Tara, who refuses to meet her eyes. When she does, Willow's eyes are gentle, full of nothing but tenderness. Tara feels her gaze bore into her so deeply it scrapes her insides hollow, and remembers why she had fallen in love with her so quickly. "Magic brought us together, but its not why I fell in love with you. You are why I fell in love with you. The magic was just...extra. Tara, I could never outgrow you. If anything, you're the fertilizer.'re the sun."

Tara's heart clenches painfully against Willow's love. She hadn't realized it already found its way back to Willow until this moment as it aches in a chest that isn't her own. "Are you sure?" she mumbles, feeling home slip into place again as seamlessly as it had the first time. "Cause I'm feeling pretty dark right now."

Willow dismisses the thought with a wave. "So you had a momentary wiggins. It happens. And I didn't exactly help by overreacting." She looks down at the cup of tea in her hands before continuing. "It's kinda funny, actually. One of the reasons- the biggest reasons- I didn't want to give up magic last year because I thought the magic was why you kept loving me." Tara's jaw drops, hanging slack and insulted at the concept. Willow smiles wryly. "We're kinda silly, aren't we. You were afraid I wouldn't love you without the magic, and there I was, off doing the same thing."

Tara can only look at her in incredulity. Willow shrugs, as if the truth is obvious. "You didn't know who I was, before. I was nobody. And I was afraid you wouldn't like who she was. If I gave up the one thing that made me special, who would that have made me?"

There's so much to unpack in Willow's self-loathing. How could she have not seen how deep and insidiously it had taken root, before? There are hundreds of words of rebuttal in her heart, bursting at the seams, but all Tara choke out is, "Someone I love very much. I only ever wanted you to be you , Will."

She looks over with a sad smile. "I'm not so sure who that is, anymore. Or who it ever even was."

A thought comes to her mind, completely unbidden, and seemingly disparate, but suddenly the connection appears, clear as day. "Did I ever tell you about lobsters?" It's something Tara learned from her mother; making something out of nothing.

"The Big Pineapple," she'd said once, patiently and lovingly, under the stars. That was one of the things she loved about Willow - the patient way she'd wait for her words to make sense. Tara never felt like a helplessly awkward freak.

"Their flesh is soft, but the shell is hard and doesn't expand. As the lobster grows, it becomes more uncomfortable under pressure from the shell until it sheds and grows a new one. It does that multiple times and every time, the lobster is uncomfortable then vulnerable, but it needs to shed its shell or else it dies." A shooting star passes overhead. "I think you stayed inside the shell too long, Will," Tara laments.

She can feel Willow's hard swallow as her own as she takes a long sip of tea. "I guess that's another reason the Rosenbergs were never much for shellfish," Willow remarks emptily.

Tara meets her eyes, seeing the self-loathing, shame, and regret. But she also sees strength, wisdom, and self-awareness. There's nowhere else to hide, anymore. "I have a feeling the Willow you're becoming now is the biggest and strongest one yet."

Having had the unnamed evil test her so viciously and cruelly, to have had it try and sow more doubts in Tara's mind and convince them otherwise, is proof alone of this certainty. Armed with the knowledge that Willow has learned from her mistakes, learned her lessons in the hardest, most painful ways possible, Tara knows what Willow will choose, next time, when faced with the tough call; herself.

Only now is she wholly, truly, Willow.

It's Willow's turn to break. "I'm sorry it took me so long to understand." The words are choked out in a strangled voice, but she herself is finally free.

In this grace, Tara can finally see room for herself there too, and she smiles wetly. "Better late than never, right?"

Willow's face crumbles with a fresh wave of tears and this time Tara doesn't hold back--no guarding, no conflict. There is nothing between them now. She closes the space between them and gathers up the sobbing Willow in her arms. Her own tears well hot and thick, but Tara holds on, desperate to grip this moment of honesty and forgiveness. Love, like always, carries them through.

They cling to each other for several long minutes, as the grief and regret ebb, replaced by hope and the soft white of a new beginning.

In a cruel, self-fulfilling prophecy, blinded by fear and insecurity, they'd both gotten lost on the same lonely path, forgetting the magic wasn't what was stronger when they're together: they were. True magic crackles between them with every breath and touch, lighting them up from within, and sharing that light in the darkness. Love is brave and hard. And when the world presses down, love lifts up.

They rise.


Chapter 72

Chapter Notes

This chapter takes place in 'Never Leave Me', Episode 9 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!

"Alright, that's twice you've tried to kill me since last night. I'm starting to think you might not appreciate my hospitality," Buffy grunts as she ties the restraints tighter for the third time.

Tara hovers in the doorway, arms crossed nervously. "I'm worried about him."

Giving the last knot a strong yank for good measure, Buffy steps back to survey her work. Fully vamped, Spike gnashes at her mindlessly, struggling against the ropes, giving no sign of having heard her. "Me too," she says with a frown. "He's getting worse."

"Well you're the ones who thought keeping a psychotic murderer as a houseguest was a good idea," Anya huffs from under a pile of bedding.

Buffy rolls her eyes. "Not helping, Anya."

Tara bites her lip. "Even in the basement he was never this bad. Even when he was crazy, he was still . . ."

"Himself," Buffy finishes for her.

Tara nods. "It's like he's not even there anymore."

"Sorry about the rope," Tara apologized while Spike thrashed, gnashing at her wildly, without any recognition. He flickers back and forth with no warning; it was worse than it'd ever been before. She held herself back from holding his hand as it only served to tempt him with warm flesh. She sits as close as she can without him trying to bite her. "We'll figure this out, Spike, I promise. Come back," she pleads.

"He needs blood," Anya dumps a stack of sheets into Tara's hands. "Stat. If he's been killing, no wonder he's going wild without it."

Buffy makes a movement to go but Tara stops her. "I'll go," she volunteers. Buffy opens her mouth to argue, but Tara interjects. "He's calmer when you're around. Stay with him." To Willow, she adds, "I'll be back before you know it. Promise."

As much Willow and Tara had been avoiding each other before, now they're barely apart, taking comfort in a low, chaste closeness, as if making up for the months of separation all at once. Willow looks as if she's going to protest, but closes her mouth and relents with a nod. Tearing herself away, Tara leaves with a last lingering look at Spike, just as Anya offers to go back to her place to grab a pair of handcuffs. She shakes her head against the visual.

It's not that far to the butcher shop, but with Spike in the state he is, Tara wants to be back as quickly as possible. She reaches for the car keys in the dish next to the front door but pauses halfway, remembering she doesn't have her license. Presumably it's somewhere, though she's not about to use identification for someone with a date of death in their record. She frowns, filing it away as yet another complication of her existence to reconcile before grabbing the house keys and hurrying out the door.

The journey is longer by foot, but with every block traveled, Tara feels more at peace. Everything looks the same as it did in Limboland, but it couldn't be more different. Tara roamed these streets a thousand times over those months, but never like this; never so full of life.

Women push strollers, kids whiz past on bicycles and skateboards, cars honk, and people walk, part of a blissfully, magical regular day. Tara inhales deeply, basking in connectivity, letting the fabric of humanity slowly stitch her back together.

The walk continues pleasantly, until she senses a strange, dark energy as she gets closer to the butcher shop. She concentrates as she enters, scanning quickly to see if any clientele are demons, but everyone appears to be human. It's midday, too early for vampires, so what is this energy she feels, so cold and deep? She turns in time to catch a figure in a familiar looking black cloak at the corner of her eye, but by the time Tara rounds the entryway the person is gone. She frowns, pushing the possibility from her mind. There's no way it can be Spike. The way he's tied up at the house and the sun shining makes sure of that.

So why does something seem so eerily recognizable?

Paying for the blood, she makes her way out as quickly as possible and hurries home.


Chapter 73

Everyone, not just Willow, is parked in front of the table, texts spread open. They decide, given the strange apparitions haunting and preying on them, that safety is better in numbers. When there are multiple witnesses. And fewer opportunities for manipulative ghosts to prey on them. An exception has been made for Xander to go out and make a quick snack run before settling at the table with everyone else. Though neither Buffy, Tara, or Willow have much of an appetite.

She berates herself for not thinking about it earlier. She's been so focused on alternate dimensions, portals between worlds, realms beyond death, those sorts of things. How could she have not looked into the very spell Tara used to escape in the first place? That spell must be the key, and Willow's been completely blind to it.

Of course she has, she thought bitterly. When's the last time she'd done research like this? Sure, she's been back for a month or two . . . But serious research mode? She'd turned to magic for every shortcut, last year and at every turn she'd gotten lost. How can she have missed it? Research is the thing she's supposed to be good at, from before the magic even came into her life. This should have come to her as naturally as breathing.

She shakes her head, squeezing her eyes tight against that trail of thought. She takes a slow, deep breath, finds her center the way the Coven has taught her and with renewed determination, grabs a book on deities. Tara's spell invoked Isis, the feminine archetype of creation, Egyptian goddess of rebirth, Giver of Life, Goddess of Magic, Wife of. . . .

Ice fills her veins. She hears screaming in her ears from far away. It's only when Xander shakes her gently that she realizes it's only a memory. It rises up like bile--the Blackness. Her vision swims and she squeezes her eyes tight against it, taking a sharp breath.

Everyone looks at her in concern.


It takes everything to stay grounded and awake--to find the hum that Ms. Hartness has taught her, and let the earth cradle instead of swallow her. She can't afford to lose it, now. The stakes are too high--Tara is on the line. "Osiris," she breathes.

"Who?" asks Dawn.

Xander squints, "Wasn't he the guy we used last year to bring Buffy back?"

"You don't 'use' a god, Xander," Anya retorts peevishly. "He's not a kleenex."

Willow can feel Tara eyeing her curiously. She can feel Tara with every fiber of her being, and panic rises. The bile turns to sludge.

He had come to her so easily, after. Barely holding onto Tara, fingers clutching desperately at her neck, already starting to let the rage and pain and unfairness of it all roll over her like a storm. Tara's body was still warm in her arms and she was already starting to let go.

"How? How is this natural?" she had asked, childlike and peevish with the powers of a god. To a god.

Gunshots and shattering glass echo in her ears. The hum is slipping away and she feels the Blackness tug. "It was me," she whispers. "It's my fault. I did this to you," Willow says desperately, trying to make them understand. "To Tara." Urgency propels her every movement, she taps an impatient finger at an open book. "Osiris."

Everyone looks at her blankly.

"I summoned him, right after . . ." her eyes flick guiltily towards Tara.

Giles takes off his glasses and regards Willow curiously. "You used Osiris to resurrect Buffy," he says quietly, putting the pieces together, "And thought to do the same with Tara." Willow nods miserably, the disgust and self-loathing palpable. They all sit for a moment, absorbing Giles' words.

Anya eventually breaks the silence. "So what happened?" she asks matter-of-factly. "I mean, it clearly didn't work or else you wouldn't have gone all evil and tried to kill us and end the world." Xander looks at her sharply, but she either doesn't notice or doesn't care. "So what happened?"

"He said, 'No.'"

"He said, 'No' ?"

"He said it wasn't a mystical death so nothing could be done, that it was the natural order of things."

Tara squirms uncomfortably in her seat.

"Will . . ." Buffy comforts, eyeing Tara's reaction but saying nothing. "I get the guilt, but if nothing happened, what could have possibly been your fault?"

"I did something, after. When he wouldn't help, I--" Willow swallows hard and closes her eyes with a frown, remembering. "Didn't take it so well. I remember screaming and lightning and then he--" she gulps, "He disappeared."

"If he left, how is that a bad thing?"

Willow frowns, trying to describe what happened, "I think . . . I think I made him disappear."

"You can't make a god disappear," Anya clarifies with exasperation. "Trust me, I've tried. There were plenty of times a deity or two got involved at work after some vengeance wishes got messy, and it took ages to deal with the paperwork."

"Anya's right, Willow," Giles looks at her kindly. "Despite how powerful you've become, it's not possible to summon a god by sheer force of will."

"But Giles--" she immediately protests, before being cut off by a wave of his hand.

"There's simply no way to communicate without the magical ingredients necessary to amplify spiritual energies in order to bridge the mystical and physical realms."

Willow's jaw works silently, trying to process, still doubtful. "But the magics--"

"Are only a tool. They cannot overcome law."

Buffy chimes in. "If she didn't summon him, how did he go all Thor in my bedroom? And where did he go? Playing hide-and-seek with a god once wasn't fun the first time around, and I'm not too psyched for an encore performance."

"That is an excellent question, Buffy. One I suggest we continue to research."

"You could just ask him," Anya blurts out casually.

It's clear this is an option no one has considered--or even knows is a possibility--and everyone stares at her like she's crazy. "What?" she defends herself. "Why waste time looking for answers when we can just go to the source itself?"

All eyes turn to Giles, who considers it for a moment. "Well, yes, I suppose we could--"

"See?" Anya interrupts, beaming triumphantly.

"So what, we just call up a god and say 'Hey, remember us? Have any more snakes for us to puke up?' Or--"

"Xander . . ." Tara chides, with a gentle hand on his shoulder.

He stands abruptly, the chair making an awful scraping noise against the floor. "No! No 'Xander'. That was some messed up stuff we dealt with last year. And we never talked about it. So excuse me for not being too thrilled at the thought of bringing back the god of Nightmare on Elm Street for a fireside chat."

"It wouldn't be like that," Tara explains patiently.

"How do you know?" he demands, spinning towards her. Xander looks haunted, the faint scars on his cheek catch the light and seem to glow. That day, that year, is reflected tenfold in this moment.

"There's no desire to transfer mystical or magical energies. Merely communication," Giles offers. "It would be more akin to a long-distance phone call."

Xander crosses his arms, slightly less antagonistic, but still not pleased at being outnumbered. "Fine," he says finally, "But if any snakes show up, I'm hangin' up," and storms out of the room.


Chapter 74

Her first instinct is for Willow, sitting hunched and dejected at the table, looking akin to a very small kicked puppy.

"Hey," Buffy says sharply to Willow, but her intent is gentle. "You didn't do anything wrong," she reminds firmly.

Willow's face crumples, "But -- "

"That was then," Buffy interjects, stopping the protest. The year between them spanned lifetimes; lessons scarred over in blood, but still pink and healing. Buffy sends a silent ' Are we good?' Willow's lips form a firm line and she nods back determinedly. Satisfied, Buffy turns her attention to Tara, who looks both gutted and sympathetic as only she can. "You ok?"

Tara nods, albeit a bit distractedly. "I'm just gonna..." She indicates the direction Xander left a moment earlier, and follows, but not before wordlessly checking on Willow.

"I'm okay, guys. I promise." Willow squares her shoulders as she pulls one of the books toward her. "Now shoo," she waves, attention already focused towards research.

Buffy's heart contracts. Tara kisses Willow's head before following Xander and Buffy gives Will's shoulder a squeeze and heads up to check on Spike.

"'Bout time," he greets impatiently a minute later after she gets upstairs. "I can almost get my wrist out."

"Oh come on," Buffy scoffs, "If you could've gotten out, you would have by now. God knows you were unsupervised long enough."

Despite her comments, Buffy begins inspecting the ropes anyway. "Figure anything out yet?" Spike inquires, interest piqued.

"More questions, but at least we know who to ask them to this time."

Despite the limited freedom of movement, Spike manages to crane his neck towards where Buffy is on the floor checking the knots near his feet. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah," Buffy responds tersely. "Osiris."

He lets out a low whistle. "Hearda him. Big muscle, much too serious for my taste. No sense of humor. Hey!" Spike yelps in pain. "Would you watch it? Might not have any circulation, but I'd still like to feel my limbs."

Showing no signs of hearing , Buffy busies herself with retying the ropes. "Hello, are you listening? Be careful -- " Buffy looks at him pointedly and yanks them tighter. "Alright," Spike finally barks out, annoyed, "What is it this time, Buffy?" Each word dripping in sarcasm. "What did I do to so piss you off this time you're going after my life and limb, eh? What could I have possibly done sitting in this stupid chair, bored out of my skull, not saying a word."

"'Not saying a word,' Funny you should say that, Spike. It seems like ' not saying a word' is your specialty lately."

He scowls, "What on earth are you on about?"

"How could you keep it from me?" she snaps. Anger and betrayal make the edges of her voice sharp and Spike sobers instantly at the hurt shimmering in her eyes. "How, Spike? How could you not tell me about her?"

The terrible stomach twisting shame and guilt has been a constant companion since Africa, but the freshness of this deed still cleaves deeply.

"It's my job to protect this family, this world , and after everything we've been through, you couldn't even do me the decency of a heads up?" she accuses. "'Hi Buffy, thought you should know I've been seeing dead people and oh! By the way, the one that lived in your house, raised your sister, and dated your best friend is one of them.' Did you even stop for a minute and think that it could have all been a lie? That maybe you were being manipulated by some unknown evil? Willow almost ended the world when Tara died and you thought what, just having her show up out of the blue would have been totally fine and not at all a huge risk? To Willow? To me? To Dawn, to the world ?" The anger spirals into guilt and back again, into a panicked sort of ramble.


"I almost killed her, Spike. Right when she came back. I saw her outside my house standing next to Dawn with Willow falling apart again and if something hadn't-- if I hadn't..." She breaks off, pursing her lips against months of hurt. Tears brim but don't fall; collecting sadness is something Buffy is good at. "I needed to know. I need to know these kinds of things. If I don't, it's my fault all over again. I can't..." She stands away from him in a defeated posture, deflated.

"I'm sorry," he apologies genuinely. "It wasn't my place to say. I was going to, for what it's worth, if it didn't work. I didn't think-"

"That's right, you didn't think ." The anger evaporates but the hurt remains, slowly softening with compassion. Next she speaks, it's with the weight of a parent firmly chastising a child. "You don't get to make decisions for me anymore. We clear?"

He nods. She exhales loudly, running her hands through her hair, and tiredly plops down in a nearby chair. There's a bit of an awkward silence, but after eyeing Spike for the better part of a minute, Buffy softens. "How's the uh...?" making a face and gesturing to her teeth.

"Better," he confirms. "Packets been helping. Haven't gone rabid since she brought 'em back. Feeling more like myself again. For all that's worth," he mutters as an aside, "Hasn't cured the crazy, I'm afraid."

"I don't think you're crazy, Spike," Buffy murmurs.

"Yeah, well," he mumbles, almost sheepishly, "We'll see."

Buffy sighs, rubbing her head before jerking her chin toward the ropes. "Do you feel up to giving it another shot?"

He shakes his head. "No. Let's give it another night. If I don't go all bumpy n' rabid, then maybe."


Chapter 75

In seventh grade, Willow convinced him to steal a chemical from Uncle Rory's job so she could do a science experiment. It wasn't for school, because Willow had already gone through the high school textbooks and was moving onto college level material. And, it wasn't like Xander understood a lick of what she was doing anyway, but he was always game for things being lit on fire and going 'boom'. Plus, someone needed to keep watch to make sure no one would catch them.

"It's completely safe, Xander," she promised. And he believed her, because she was Willow. And Willow wouldn't lie to him.

It didn't stop his eyebrow from being singed off or stop his favorite shirt from catching on fire. He was able to stamp it out quickly with no other injuries, thankfully, but the thing he remembered most was how completely it took him by surprise. Willow said it would be fine, so when things ended up not fine, it didn't really compute.

She felt awful and apologized, guiltily bringing him small presents, like his favorite chocolate bars and comic books, the next few days to make up for it. But it still didn't stop her from blaming the materials instead of herself.

"The ingredients must have been on the shelf longer than we thought and became inert. It should have worked fine, Xander, I'm so sorry."

Willow was smart. Willow was his best friend. Willows didn't lie to Xanders. So he believed her.

He believed her, too, that night . . . Well, he wanted t-- Desperate to believe, more like it. They were raising the dead , how could it be alright? How could it possibly turn out fine? But she was the most brilliant person he'd ever met, how could she be wrong?

No, he does not want to revisit that night. Anything about it. Not the way Willow's veins gashed open, nor the way she choked on the snake as it crawled out of her mouth. Not the way their hands shook as they held the candles, trembling in the knowledge of their transgression. Or the way the demon gang had turned Sunnydale into a living nightmare. Or the haunted, empty look on Buffy's face. And everything else that came after, during that awful, terrible year. How long had Willow been lying to him? Why didn't he ever let himself see it?

The cushion dips as someone slides in next to him on the couch. He's surprised to see Tara join him, her eyes sad and full like the ocean at night. "Hey," he greets emptily, already feeling his anger ebb.

The quiet way she says his name softens the rest of him immediately. She places a warm hand atop his. "I need to know."

He still needs to hear it; that there's a good enough reason to go through all this again. Somehow, in her Tara way, she recognizes this. "I need to know what happened to me," she finishes.

It's been a while since he's seen this Tara. The one with heavy, tender eyes who looked at him with a knowing understanding the day Joyce died and he didn't understand anything at all. And before that, the shy, quiet girl who made herself invisible and apologized for things she never needed to apologize for. It strikes him how terribly unfair it is, the things that have happened to her. He doesn't ever want to be the cause of a hurt she would try to take away and put inside herself.

"Sorry," he apologizes as he runs his fingers through his hair. "I just . . . " The words sit there between them, unfinished and heavy. "I don't want to lose her again."

Tara nods, as if troubled by the same burden, "It's different this time."

"How do you know?" he asks, haunted by memories of a broken and keening Willow rocking in his arms. He can't do this again.

Tara considers her words a moment. "Because she wants it to be."

That gives him pause. Xander thinks of the afternoons Willow spent tutoring him after school, despite knowing full well the odds of him listening or succeeding were slim to none. The endless times she helped him in class or wordlessly brought an extra lunch or Snack Pack because she knew he wouldn't have one.

He knew Willow used to do Buffy's homework to help keep her grades up, covering when Buff was busy out patrolling. The hours she spent in single-minded focus, hacking into town records and uncovering every last inch of information that would save them in the nick of time.

The endlessly patient and loving way she took care of Tara when Tara wasn't Tara. The way he knew Willow'd never leave her side, even if she never recovered. She'd've spent twenty years spooning applesauce and soothing outbursts while never giving up on finding a way to undo what Glory had done.

That if the resurrection spell hadn't worked, there's no doubt Willow would've kept fighting monsters in Buffy's place until it killed her too, resolutely accepting Buffy's vigil as her own.

Even now, peering into the dining room, he sees the nervous but determined way Willow purses her lips at the books in front of her, squaring her shoulders for what's to come.

This is Willow. Once her mind is made up, she can do anything.

Xander reaches down for Tara's hand and gives it a squeeze. "Alright. Let's go make one heck of a long-distance phone call."

The half-smile he gets in return is more than enough to keep him warm.


Chapter 76

The basement is different from the last time Tara remembers it.

Granted, everyone had been tied up, Buffy tripped her down the stairs, and there had been demons trying to kill them. So it wasn't hard for it to seem like an improvement, but still.

Floor-to-ceiling shelving has been installed along the back walls and filled with carefully organized and indexed boxes, four of which are open, their contents piled at Willow and Tara's ankles--remnants of the Magic Box, occult objects, books, magic ingredients, and slightly singed but still meticulously organized tax documents, jars of herbs and amphibian eyes that stare lifelessly until Tara rotates their gaze away toward the back wall. It feels like a mausoleum in the dim light.

It's almost like mourning, she muses silently, as they continue digging through boxes for the particular spell materials. She hadn't had much time to look through her mother's belongings and choose what to save; an entire lifetime held in just a few objects.

Impatient to leave the broken painful memories down in the basement where they belong, Tara hurries to clear the contents and move to the next box, pulling it towards her to reach for the last few items within. It tumbles into her hand, cold to the touch, and she marvels at the weight. She stares, dumbfounded, having forgotten how heavy it was.
Willow looks over at Tara's lack of movement and freezes at the sight of the crystal.

It had been the first time Willow'd stayed. She was still operating on false pretenses, then, about their relationship. Even to herself. Her brain hadn't caught up with what the rest of her felt. She hadn't understood yet.

"I knew." Tara explained much later, one quiet night as she ran her fingers through Willow's hair and down Willow's skin, why she'd eagerly offered the doll's-eye crystal so soon after they met. "Even if we never..." She trails off before starting differently, "I knew that you were where I wanted to be."

Willow stammers, "I-I didn't know it was still here." Bewildered, Willow looks at it with a mixture of guilt and fondness. Her hands twitch, itching to hold it. Can I? Her eyes beseech. Tara offers it to her. "Think it'll work?" Willow asks.

Tara clears her throat, recovering. "For the spell? I don't see why not. It didn't specify a particular type of crystal-"

"No, I you think the spell will work," Willow clarifies with a bite to her bottom lip.

"Oh," she says, dazed.

Willow is quick to fill in the space with words. "I haven't- Not since...well, there was a whole invisible thing when I first got back to Sunnydale, but that was an accident. This is...real. Deliberate."

Tara can see it in Willow's eyes--the hesitation.

It's strange, seeing uncertainty in Willow's face when it comes to magic; it's a reflection of Tara herself from all those years ago. Tara'd trembled with doubt, night after night, when Willow kept coming back to her room to try new spells. Things had been so delicate and fragile in the cradle of their relationship. Tara, certain of her feelings, but so unclear of Willow's, with the agonizing awareness of falling in love with someone who would never love the same way back; that awful sureness of having lost her without ever having had her to begin with; the miracle of of how a single flame in the darkness could light up her entire life.

Extraordinary circumstance had forged Willow's magic into a superpowered weapon before she understood how to properly use it. Tara had learned the traditions as a child; respect and discipline taught reverently by her mother. But Willow, she realizes now, had been on the front lines with Buffy for years and saw how tradition and rules could bind and fail them. Willow's big, beautiful brain mixed magic with innovation and creativity, finding new ways to save lives and thwart danger. But on the Hellmouth, the lines between life and death are drawn far too often. The right choices become more difficult to make, and the lessons are learned harshly and paid for in blood. They had all paid.

Tara had seen, right away, that day in Wicca Group how big Willow was. How her tiny body could barely contain anything within her. Willow was made of sharp edges and contradictions, but it was her love and passion that pierced Tara so fiercely. A love she had grown to depend on and feared losing as Willow's skill in magic soon began to surpass anything Tara could teach her.

She had come alive under Willow's touch, blossomed under Willow's light, taken root, grown taller, stronger, until she was a tree in her own right.

They had come full circle with the magic, lost and found each other within it time and time again; here they were again, together and tentative.

But now they have lifetimes of experiences, with the benefit of full hindsight and the harsh lessons already learned. It's already different, this time around. She can tell by the way Willow keeps glancing at the doll's eye crystal with a hesitant reverence. If there's anything the last week has taught her, it's that they can't avoid the past. They can only make it a part of themselves and carry it forward.

They have to cauterize this wound.

Tara places the crystal in Willow's hand, closing her fingers around it. Willow's eyes widen, "Tara, I-"

"Will," she interrupts gently. "This became yours a long time ago. Use it. You can do this." Tara doesn't know if the spell will work or if the answers they seek will be found. But she knows it certainly won't be for lack of trying.

"No," Willow says, the corner of her mouth quirking up as Tara's words suffuse her. "We can do this."

It nearly takes Tara's breath away, those words. It's dizzying, hearing them directed back at her all this time later. Willow's confidence is shaky, but it's there, flickering like a candle, growing more steady and true, her self-doubts and fear quelled for the moment, fortified by Tara. That's what it was always about, after all--sharing and trading strength.

Becoming stronger with each other. For each other.

Like Amazons.

"It's time," they say.


Chapter 77

The tension lies thick and heavy in the living room, like humidity. The coffee table has been cleared away, making a large space for the spell to be cast.

Dawn sits, nibbling at her fingernails, knees pressed together tightly with one leg bouncing, her eyes skittering around the room. Xander sits next to her, trying not to appear moody or restless, and failing at both. He settles on distractedly rubbing Dawn's back. Anya, in counterpoint, leans impatiently against the doorway with her arms crossed. Buffy hovers near the center, pacing as Willow and Tara ready the spell. Her gaze periodically flickers to Spike, who ignores her, and pretends to be only half-interested. And Giles, also leaning against the doorway, surveys everything with an aloof intensity.

Tara and Willow sit across from each other on the floor, surrounded by a circle of crystals and flower petals, scavenged from the remains of the Magic Box stored in the basement. The preparations are sparse, and soon there's nothing left to do but begin. Tara sits up straight with purpose, holds her arms out, and waits. It is such a familiar gesture Willow goes almost dizzy with it. How many times have they done this? Together in a circle, magic crackling between them like electricity. How did Willow ever forget that the electricity had nothing to do with the magic and everything to do with Tara? Synchronicity and trust . . . Roses and fairy lights. The magic was them.

Willow used it to find Tara. And later, to push her away. Used it to protect her, and then to abuse her. She took the pure, innocent thing between them and corrupted it.

And when is the last time they've even done magic together? A long time--even before Willow twisted the precious gift between them into something selfish and ugly.

Willow looks at Tara's outstretched hands and tries to ignore the way her palms itch. She can feel the dry sprig of Lethe's Bramble in her hand and feels sick to her stomach. But Tara's eyes are beseeching her. Tara's hands are waiting. . . for her. For answers only she can give. Answers she owes Tara. She will not fail Tara again.

Swallowing hard, Willow reaches out and places her hands in Tara's. The magic comes, unbeckoned, before they even have to call it--it turns on a light inside of Willow's cold and dark places. God, how-- how could she have forgotten this and left it behind?

Within the circle, lightning crackles, storm clouds brew, a breeze quickly strengthens into a sharp wind, and the familiarity of it fills her with nausea. But Tara's hands are there beneath hers, soft and warm. There are no windows here, and Tara is alive alive alive.

She opens her eyes. Tara's hair flaps in the wind as the spell picks up, but her eyes never leave Willow's.

And then, he's there.


Chapter 78

Willow remembers the screaming, the anger that had turned her inside out . . . The rage that she folded herself into, because anything was preferable to facing the grief that swallowed her whole. It was animal, the way she screamed--it clawed its way out of her. Every day since then, until Tara materialized in the room she died in, it threatened to claw its way back out again. There was never an end to the grief; to the shame and sorrow. No matter how tightly she squeezes her eyes, she still hears the screaming.

It takes her a moment to realize she's not remembering. Someone is screaming, and it isn't her.

A disembodied torso materializes in the ceiling above them, contained with the circle, though the storm clouds and light spread out across the room. He roars and looks down upon them, scanning his surroundings before squinting at Tara. "I recognize your essence," he says almost curiously.

Bodies as one, Tara and Willow both stiffen in fear. Confused, Tara glances across the circle. Osiris continues his scan, eyes flashing in anger as he recognizes Willow. "You!" he shouts. "Months you have banished and imprisoned me."

Willow looks legitimately shocked and baffled, has no idea what he's talking about. Her jaw gapes but before she can respond, he continues. "No human is capable of such a feat. You reek of power not your own."

Without preamble, he reaches an arm down to grab Willow's head, holding her in his giant hand as if she were nothing more than a tennis ball. Head back, jaw open in a silent scream, Willow's eyes burn from within, radiating a strange red glow.

"Willow!" Buffy shouts and runs towards them.

Tara, Giles, and Anya cry out at once, anxious to not disturb the circle, but Buffy moves too quickly.

Buffy's hand makes contact with Willow's, who is still holding Tara's hand, and that strange, familiar wave of energy passes through the three girls with a FWOOSH! and pulses out from them like a shockwave.


Chapter 79

One moment, Willow is filled with fear, incredulous at how she could have ever-- ever --been so disgustingly arrogant as to think she could demand anything of a god.

The next moment, her body is far away. Matter of fact, she has no body at all. She is spirit. Power. A god. She is death. Underworld. Judgement. Justice. She's...being summoned. The required elements are present; the vessel, in place. The veil between the realms grows thin and she crosses over into a terribly mundane, physical world. She can feel the power concentrating. The vessel is gathering, focusing, ready for the channeling. She thrums with energy.

Instead, there is a great shattering; the walls of the vessel broken, power split, essence ripped, spirit torn. She flies, spinning spinning spinning, into death and decay. Into pain and desperation.

There is darkness. It screams. And awakens in Sunnydale.

Willow's eyes fly open. She takes a harrowing, gulping breath, coming back to herself with a violent jerk.

She can see it all so clearly, now. How the consequences and events of the past year toppled like dominoes. And it had all started with . . .

"Buffy," she gasps.

Buffy turns to her carefully, slowly. "Willow, what the hell was that."

"Buffy," she stammers, "It's you. It's me, i-it's--"

"It. is. I ," Osiris bellows, startling Buffy and Willow.

Willow finally understands. She knows what she has to do. And she knows she has to do it very, very carefully.

Buffy's hand still rests warm and heavy on her shoulder. "Buffy," Willow looks into her best friend's eyes. She sees worry, pain, confusion, and determination and is overwhelmed by the literal awesomeness of her companion. "Do you trust me?"

The answer comes as it would not have just a few months ago--without hesitation. "Do it," Buffy replies.

Flooded with gratitude and love, Willow turns back around and asks the same of Tara. Permission . "Tara?" she lets the word trail off, containing the multitude of questions in the only name that ever mattered.

It, too, comes immediately. "I trust you," Tara's eyes ground her, and Willow can feel her gaze over every part of her existence. It's painful and exquisite. Willow feels it in her bones.

Thus fortified, she turns back to address Osiris. "Keeper of souls, I beseech you, have mercy."

"I deal in justice, witch."

With Tara's hands still in her own and Buffy squeezing her shoulder, Willow summons all the courage and strength she can, letting these powerful, strong women guide her. "Justice, then. I offer a trade. A just and equal exchange: something given, nothing taken."

He sniffs the air, considering the offer. She takes it as a good sign and continues, "Spirit borrowed, spirit returned."

Willow is dead-locked on the floating god above her, focusing with every fiber of her being, to do this right. To do it correctly. Because the most important people in her life depend on it. "I transfer, from within to without. I trade that which is mine to give, freely and without consequence. This and only this will be taken."

Tara stiffens as the trade being offered becomes clear. She cries out just as Osiris booms, "I accept."

As soon as the words are spoken, Buffy and Willow are thrown back and enveloped in a band of glowing red energy. It oscillates around them in waves, whipping their hair as if caught in a storm. From somewhere far away, Willow registers Tara leaning forward in alarm as their hands are torn apart. She feels Tara scream, though the sound is lost in the maelstrom of magic. And wants more than anything to reassure her everything will be okay; that this, finally, will be amends.

But there is only black.


Chapter 80

Giles has had enough of his charges being enveloped in mysterious glowing energies.

He's lost both of them right after the other.

First Buffy, off that harrowing tower, into a growing chaotic ball of near-bleeding realities and universes. And Willow, ever so slowly--to his everlasting shame and regret--to the same magics and power that had seduced him as a young man.

Both his fault. If only he had been faster or smarter. Gotten to Ben sooner. Stepped in when Jenny had. . . .

If only he had stepped in.

And then, that awful, wonderful phone call at the end of last summer. One--if he were honest with himself-- he had secretly hoped for, and as soon as it came, dreaded. He hadn't been wrong to say to Willow what he did that night in the kitchen; he had only meant to say it to himself.

It's all been his fault, really. But here they are. Both Buffy and Willow learning to live again, and doing it on their own, stronger than their worst selves. Stronger than the emptiness that once threatened to consume them both.

He feels helpless, watching the two of them trapped in Osiris' red glow. But he's never bothered to find out the details of the ritual they used to resurrect Buffy . . . never wanted to. What little he knows, vague and by allusion, has been enough to terrify him into wanting to know as little as possible. In this case, ignorance is bliss.

He curses himself for it now, of course. A man in his position can't afford ignorance; the world depends on it. His world depends on it. And it appears to be going up in strange, red flames. So of course his first instinct is to panic. But then he thinks of something Ms. Harkness said to him before he left.

"Remind her to trust herself, Rupert."


It's this thought that gives him pause when every inch of him screams to run forward and intervene. The hard-earned lessons for both of them from this summer rise to his consciousness. How carefully and measuredly Willow attended to her lessons; the meditations and hours of focus. The way she was almost . . . grateful to slow down and take the basics seriously. The spirituality and connectedness of all things seemed to ground her to something larger than herself. This time she trusted the process and found value in it. She was broken but he saw her painfully glue herself back piece by piece.

Suddenly, Giles realizes what Willow has just asked. For trust. And Buffy has given it, without question or hesitation. It's something he has given Buffy, something she's earned years before. Something Willow, in her turn, is slowly rebuilding.

Giles realizes then that he does trust her. He trusts both of them. So, despite the still very present fear and uncertainty, he stands back and Watches.

Part 81

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