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By Counterpunch


Chapter 81

Well if this isn't going tits up fast, Spike thinks.

He isn't made to thwart gods and destiny. Matter of fact, he'd said bollocks to the concept when he left his mortality behind and went to go screw destiny a new one. Didn't expect irony to be the one to screw him over in the end. Becoming the second vampire with a soul, after that ponce, all for the fated enemy of his kind. Well, looks like even in death he can't escape being love's bitch.

It'd serve him right if the girl he goes and gets his soul over dies. Again.

Last year it nearly killed him. God or not, he's not going to stand watching this time.


Spike takes a determined step forward, but is stopped by someone grabbing his arm. It's the bloody Watcher. He glares. "Get. Off," he grits through clenched teeth.

At least Rupert has the decency to look as haggard and terrified as Spike feels. Doesn't stop him from wanting to punch him, chip or not. He'll take the pain. Anything'd be better than just... watching. He moves to yank his arm away and continue.

"No!" Rupert shouts above the howling wind and magics. "We mustn't interrupt! Whatever process has begun, to interfere now could cause irreparable damage."

"Irreparable damage? Worse than what, dying?!"

"Trust them," is all Rupert says in response. And god, it kills him to do it, but Spike takes one look at Buffy, aflame with determination and faith, and steps down. Part of him flares with frustration and regret, but mostly he finds himself at ease with a strange sense of certainty that things will be fine. This is Buffy, he reminds himself. Of course he trusts her; she's a bleedin' hero.


Chapter 82

He asked for just one thing. One measly thing: don't die.

The smell of damp soil, burning wicks, the forest at night, and fear wafts unbeckoned.

One. Thing.

It isn't snakes and slices of flesh this time, but pulsing waves and glowing eyes. Not earth, but wind. And fire.

The result is the same, though. Willow goes away. The magic always takes Willow away.

He was one of the Slayerettes, before they became the Scoobies. And then he was...just Xander. Willow hadn't needed him in years; she was always leagues ahead of him. He'd known that in the third grade when she arranged all the crayons by order of wavelength (Sure, it had ended up being a rainbow all the same, but not the way she described it, with invisible science and a beaming smile he didn't understand but looked perfect on her face.)

But when Buffy came along, they were both similarly ordinary. For a while, at least, they were on the same level. And then Angelus happened and Willow got all witchy, and kept getting witchier until Xander was just a spot in the distance where they used to be. Where he still was and would always be.

The magic took Willow away. First from Xander, and then from herself.

Buffy and Willow glow and his stomach churns. 'Trust me,' Willow had said to Buffy. To Tara too, but not to him.

A secret bubbles up. He was ashamed to think of it, but part of him had been relieved, that day, after Willow had cried herself out on the bluff, that maybe that was the end of the magic. That she could just be Willow again, and they could go back to the way things were. But one look at the broken bundle in the backseat and blood that stained his hands reminded him that things would never, ever be the same. But the Willow curled tightly against the window, at least, he understood and knew how to help. He didn't know magic or science, but he knew Willows. It was always the two of them.

Three of them, he corrects. It had always been the three of them. How easy it was to not talk about Jesse, because to talk about him at all would have been admitting his death their fault and that was just another unbearable truth.

The scene in front of him now almost seems to pass in slow motion - Tara practically clawing at Buffy and Willow, the tense way Giles is holding himself, even Spike's jaw grinding as he seems to barely keep himself back- and Xander feels so helplessly lost. He hears gunshots and squeezes his eyes shut. He's going to lose them both this time; it's all going to fall apart again. The earth might not be ending on a global scale this time, but everything he cares about - his whole world- is right here in this room.

He can't bear the weight of more deaths on his hands.

Don't die. Please don't die. He prays.


Chapter 83

Honestly, for a while there, what Anya was most frustrated by was the lack of inventiveness of mortal life. A thousand years of endless and limitless creativity made being human incredibly boring. Only a handful of moments really stacked up in comparison to her life as a vengeance demon. That thing with the mayor being a giant snake was a pretty good one, if ultimately a failure. But he got extra points for style.

Evil military Frankenstein was child's play. Honestly, I mean who did people think gave Mary Shelley the idea in the first place, anyway? But Buffy and the others had really stepped up their game, what with the hellgods, and vengeance that made her previous clients seem like petulant children. Heroes becoming the villains, even Anya could admit that was a good one.

But even Anya has her limits. And this is getting to be a little ridiculous. The world can't end every year almost on schedule without getting predictable. And people coming back from the dead or dying every few months is beginning to give Anya a headache. And heartache, if she's being honest. And she's had quite enough of that, thankyouverymuch. Being alive for centuries doesn't make it easier to deal with death when it happens to people you . . . care about. Fact is, she's learned, it only makes it harder. It was difficult enough losing Tara the first time. And not just because of all the murder and rampage afterwards.

It started because they were the only two Scooby-adjacent significant others, having locked themselves in Giles' bathroom to escape the Scooby core infighting. Xander had been trying to teach Anya about 'small talk' and though she thought it pointless and inane, determined that since a) it was important to Xander and b) she and Tara clearly weren't leaving the bathroom anytime soon, decided to use the opportunity to practice. "I like the tile," she'd mused pleasantly. Much to Anya's surprise, she found she didn't mind talking about things with Tara, even if they were pointless and inane. She found herself spending time with her often; between after her shifts at the Magic Box, before Xander came home from work, even when there wasn't a particular reason to go, Anya would find herself on the UCSD campus more times than she thought.

The 'Scrappy Club' became official after Tara had tried to explain the reference. "Because Scrappy is Scooby's sidekick, get it?"

Anya shook her head. "How can Scrappy be a sidekick when Scooby Doo is also a sidekick? Velma, Daphne, and Fred solve the crimes while Scooby and Shaggy hide, eat, or smoke marijuana in that disgusting van."

Tara giggled. "I don't think they were, um, allowed to show them smoking pot in the Mystery Machine."

"Well of course not, humans can be so prudish, but they definitely were. They were clearly stoned."

Even though she'd been more than comfortable with the idea of those nerds dying, she decided to help Willow for Tara, who could no longer do so herself. It was the last gift Anya would ever been able to give her best friend.

Tara was the only one who didn't treat her like an idiot or a child. She was patient and kind and took the time to understand Anya instead of Anya having to try so hard to understand everyone else. Human beings were exhausting, but aside from Xander, Tara was the only one who had made her feel normal. She treated her like a person.

Even Willow, with whom she has a contentious yet relatively cordial, growing on genuine relationship. They've all had practice mourning Buffy, and even Tara. But Anya doesn't want to lose another friend. Even one as often annoying and self-centered as Willow.

As Anya watches the energies surround and consume Willow and Buffy, part of her regrets not picking a different group of misfits to latch onto. Or not packing up to leave Sunnydale ages ago. All she keeps sowing here is death and pain.

And not for the first time, despite her best judgement, she finds herself gravitating toward Xander and holding his arm tight.


Chapter 84

No, thinks Dawn. No no no no no no no.

Not again.

She's finished with death. No more. She's sixteen! She wants to gossip with friends and get caught for trying to sneak out late, not go through another cycle of death, mourning, and pain.

Instead she watches her sister bent backwards, glowing in a frozen mask of pain, while a god floats above holding her life in his hands. They've done this, literally, a year ago. If anything, fate is getting lazy. Desperately, she looks around for answers. Willow is equally afflicted, arched in a matching position of pain, glowing in Osiris' grasp. Tara's no help, clawing her way towards Willow and Buffy, looking as desperately terrified as Dawn feels. In a cold rush of awareness, Dawn realizes she's going to lose them all.

Spike stands motionless in doorway. Though if the way his fists are clenched and his jaw grits soundlessly are any indication, he's barely holding himself back. Xander's face is clouded in anger while Anya's arm snakes over to hold on to him.

It's all happening again and there's nothing Dawn can do to stop it. She can scream with the unfairness of it. The air feels thin, and despite gulping it down, Dawn feels like she's drowning. Her arms spasm, reaching out towards help that isn't coming.


Her hands meet something warm and solid and she curls her fingers around it instinctively. Giles.

"It's alright," he tells her, squeezing her hand. Looking at her with gentle eyes that hold her and ground her ashore. "Breathe."

He seems calm and steadfastly faithful in this moment of tumult when her world is being unmade once more. She nods as if to convince herself, holding onto his confidence.

It'll be alright. It has to be.



Chapter 85

This is all my fault , Tara thinks in a desperate panic, now more certain than ever that her spell was the wrong and selfish, unnatural thing that she feared it was. She has upset the natural course of things with her resurrection and now Buffy and Willow are paying the price.

There's always a price.

A trade, Willow said. Tara should have never allowed it. Life is not something meant to be sacrificed or traded for the sake of someone else. She watched her mother learn that lesson the hard way. Ran from home so it couldn't happen to her, too. Left Willow to make sure it wouldn't.

A just and equal exchange . There's nothing just about this, about Willow trading her life. Tara's come back from the dead and now the scales have been tipped again. She'd just gotten her back, finally and truly, after their reconciliation, Tara should have known better.

There's always a price.

Tears stream down her face as Tara leans forward, practically doubled over, reaching out towards them, begging, begging, begging to take it back. But before she can, Buffy and Willow are thrown back in a powerful burst of energy.

And then, it's over.


Chapter 86

It kinda feels like one of those roller coasters, where everything goes topsy-turvy and your stomach turns in the opposite direction, your skin feels like is put on backwards, and your skeleton kinda vibrates and everything keeps moving even after the ride is over and you're standing still.

If anything, Buffy thinks, as she braces herself on hands and knees on the floor, it's a keen reminder of why she doesn't like roller coasters. She gets enough of that out-of-body-adrenaline action in her regular day-to-day, thankyouverymuch.

Quickly as it had all started, Osiris is gone. The storm clouds and lightning evaporate, leaving the living room as normal as it usually is.

Slayer recovery brings her upright again almost instantly--fast enough to see Willow swoon and mumble "S'ok," woozily- but not quickly enough to catch her before she passes out. Willow slumps awkwardly, face first, into Tara's arms. Tara's cheeks are wet and her gaze flickers down to Willow before looking back up to Buffy, dazed and haunted and wild. At that look, the funny amusement park feeling is gone in an instant. Buffy sobers and draws her attention back to Willow.

Xander scrambles past and slides next to Tara, helping her out with Willow's body. Buffy doesn't like how floppy and pale she looks.

"She's alright," Spike says. "Heartbeat's steady." He shrugs at the quizzical looks. "I can smell it." Despite how much that grosses her out, Buffy's shoulders relax and she turns to Giles.

"I'm sorry, Buffy. I've no idea what just happened. But-" he continues quickly, at her and Tara's stricken expression, "Willow seemed to be quite certain. I'm sure when she wakes, she'll be able to explain."

She really hopes Willow didn't do something stupid and self-sacrificial with the god of the dead, because if she did, it'll all be for nothing cause Buffy's gonna kill Will herself.

It's sad that she's actually looking forward to the biggest problem in her life being homework, Buffy thinks as she makes her way to the redhead sitting alone on the bench outside. Sophomore year, new school, new start, new focus. No more vampires. This is Sunnydale and she's ready to put everything else behind her. "Uh, hi! Willow, right?"

God, the poor thing seemed like a strong breeze would knock her over, she was so startled and nervous by the interaction. "Why?! I-I mean, hi! Uh, did you want me to move?"

The unconscious woman in front of her has come a long way from withering under Cordelia's peripheral vision to withstanding dieties. For the thousandth time in the last few weeks, Buffy wants answers. She slides Willow's limp hand into her own and squeezes it; she wants them now .


Chapter 87

There's no Blackness this time.

Well, sort of.

She's still unconscious, but it feels different than it had over the summer - not abrupt or frightening, but rather like slowly waking up under soft white sheets. It's still dark, because, Hello, eyes closed! But she feels safe, warm, and loved. A smile pulls at the corner of her mouth at the sense-memory. Someone whispers her name, and the smile widens.

"Tara," she murmurs almost sleepily, burrowing herself deeper into the arms surrounding her.

Willow stops. The arm has hair. Like, a lot of hair. She cracks an eye open. ". . . Xander?"

"Will," he exhales in relief. She dips slightly, and Willow realizes there's more than one body under hers. Another arm, smoother and softer, is gripping her tightly, and she follows it up to meet the very worried gaze of Tara.

"Tara," Willow sighs, eyes fluttering with relief. She was so sure, before the transference. But still, part of her was afraid to wake up again in a world where Tara no longer existed. Tara's face sags in relief at Willow's movement, and Willow grips her arm tighter not wanting to let go.

"Oof," Willow grunts, as Dawn throws herself into them, hugging her tightly. "It's okay, Dawnie, it's okay," Willow says, returning the hug.

"Will," it's Buffy's turn to press, "What the hell just happened?"

For the first time since May, Willow doesn't feel like she's woken from one nightmare into another. Tara is safe. Buffy is alright. She knows what happened. It's all going to be okay. The bright white of their future shines straight ahead.

Willow smiles.


Chapter 88

"Buffy," Willow begins a little while later, sipping a glass of orange juice. "You were the key."

They've moved to the couch, Willow sitting between Xander and Tara, who hasn't let go of her hand since.

"Um, hello," Dawn waves, "Sitting right here. I thought it was pretty well established that I was The Key?"

"You are," Willow affirms. "You're The Key-Key. Buffy was the key to what happened with this. Lower-case key."

"See, Dawnie?" Xander claps her shoulder, "You're still the only super special mystical ball of energy in town." Dawn rolls her eyes and crosses her arms in a very teenager-like way.

It took a few minutes for Willow to feel well enough to make it to an upright seated position, let alone a chair, though she still looked quite pale. Anya had suggested the high sugar content of juice to perk up Willow, who smiled gratefully at the suggestion and gladly accepted a glass. Soon she was able to continue her story.

"It all started last summer, when we brought you back."

"It was wrong," Anya interjects, as if proud of her moral compass, "I knew it."

"No," Willow says quickly with a frown. "Well, yes, maybe. But, it went wrong."

Eyes trained on Willow, no one notices Buffy freeze at the words, or Tara sliding an arm over to hold Buffy's hand. She squeezes it tightly, giving Buffy an intense look that leaves no room for disagreement.

"It didn't go wrong," Willow huffs frustrated, as her words trip over themselves. "I mean, we didn't do it incorrectly. The spell did what it was supposed to. But we were interrupted."

"The bikers," Xander recalls with a snap of his fingers. "They ran over the Urn thingy, breaking it while we were doing that scary channeling thing."

"Oh my god," Anya mutters. "And he flew--"

"Straight into Willow and Buffy," finishes Giles, who had taken off his glasses no fewer than three times in the span of five minutes.

"Pieces of him did," Willow explains. "His essence was fractured along with the Urn."

"So then why did he recognize me just now, and not Anya or Xander?" Tara asks. "They were there too."

At the question, Willow turns somber as shame again flickers across her face. "Because of where you were." She meets Tara's gaze, "Tara, I'm so sorry." Her voice cracks, "It was me. I did this to you. When you died. It's why I was so easily able to summon him."

"You didn't need ingredients to beckon Osiris; part of him was inside you already," Giles understands. "Tara's spirit must have still been lingering in the room after . . . after her death. And wherever Willow banished him to, she was accidentally swept along. His prison must have taken the form of what it was ensnared in . . ." he finishes, looking at Tara, "You."

Everyone is quiet--processing--when Spike suddenly blurts out, " hat's why it bloody looked like Sunnydale."

Hot tears fall with Willow's nod. Giles twists his glasses. "And why Tara couldn't perform any magics. It was a soul dimension of sorts, devoid of mystical energy aside from itself. There was no source of power or energy, so to speak, to connect to."

"Until Spike," chirps Anya.

"Until me," Spike echoes.

Tara frowns, a look of intense concentration on her face as she stitches the pieces of the story together. "Spike's body was grounded to the world, but his soul connected on the plane I was in. And through his soul, I was able to reach magic on earth."

"Hang on, this is all well and good n'all, but that doesn't explain what just happened with Willow and Buffy." Spike says insistently, and with a growing lack of patience. "Why were the two of you glowing ?"

"I made a trade." This, Willow is confident about. Her voice turns strong and even. "Giving Osiris the fragment of himself still inside Buffy for him leaving us alone."

"You offered to return part of his spirit in exchange for taking nothing in return," Giles confirms.

"Are you crazy?" Anya gapes, "Do you have any idea how insanely useful it is to have the help of a god in your back pocket? Need I remind you people, being able to call in godly favors comes in really handy in our line of work?"

Willow shakes her head, "It doesn't matter. It wasn't worth it."

"What could possibly be worth giving up a favor that big?" Anya asks incredulously. "You do remember the giant snake, right? And the hellgod?"

Having not spoken this entire time, everyone turns as Buffy finally finds her voice, "We couldn't risk him leaving with something that belongs to us." But her eyes, and Willow's, are focused only on one person - Tara.


Chapter 89

She hadn't granted herself many comforts over the last several months but now, Willow snuggles contentedly into the veritable army of pillows and sips hot chocolate with a happy sigh. Her body is still a little heavy and uncoordinated, unable to make it up the stairs on her own, but warmth and strength infuses with each sip.

"I feel so fancy. Like a princess." she giggled drunkenly.

"Well don't get too used to it, princess," Xander grunted, "Next time you walk up the stairs yourself."

"Hey, I tried , but none of you would let me."

"Your own body wouldn't let you, Will."

The logic was sound, but she still pouted. "I bet Buffy wouldn't have had such a hard time carrying me."

"Yeah, well, she didn't call dibs fast enough, so the honor goes to your oldest, bestest friend."

"You didn't have to call dibs, y'know." A beat. The suspiciousness of it settles. "Wait. You didn't have to. Buffy could carry me as easily as a sack of potatoes. Why'd you call dibs?"

Xander sighs, knowing the gig is up.

"Because, as your oldest and bestest friend, I needed to tell ya something." Willow sobers immediately at Xander's serious tone.

"During the spell down there, I...I thought the worst of you, Will. Seeing you there, glowing, all magicked up, it made me remember after the bluff when there was no more magic, and I was...glad. I could do something, I knew how to help you. Everything was awful, but somehow, it felt like I'd finally gotten you back. Just...Willow. No magic, Willow. The way it used to be. It was selfish and mean that I liked you when you were at your lowest. I don't want to be the kind of person who only feels strong when the people around me are weak."


He won't meet her eyes. "Xander," she repeats gently. His eyes are shining and his burden heavy. It's unfair for him to carry something that he shouldn't. "For a long time I thought being strong was about having power," she explains. "I know what true strength is now, Xander, because you reminded me. That day on the bluff, you were stronger than me, than Buffy, or Giles - anyone. Strength isn't about power. It's about who you are, how you love, and what you do with it."

He doesn't seem entirely convinces. "Historically, I haven't had the greatest track record of that. Just ask Anya."

"That's the thing about history, Xan. We can learn from it." A glint of light seems to penetrate his darkness. They share a knowing smile; having faced their own rock bottoms and created an even stronger foundation. "Now come, squire," Willow encourages in a bright voice, playful banter returning like a welcome friend. This darkness is behind them now. "Take me to the royal chambers."

Xander grins and poses dramatically. "As you wish, my lady."

Exhaustion catches up with her as she rests -truly rests- since before Glory. The past few weeks since Tara's return have been filled with sleepless nights of desperate research and anxiety and the months before with an empty aching inevitability of starting over. The previous two years have held nothing but death. The last time she'd been almost this content and relaxed was probably when it clung to her in red silken sheets the morning Tara died. It almost feels strange, soaking up leisure. As if she doesn't even recognize it. Between the itching of the Blackness and gaping maw of rebuilding a broken life, she'd forgotten what stillness felt like. True stillness. When the sound and fury and chaos of life stills to a meditative quiet, without the whispering shame or flushed guilt in the way. In this peace, she hears a still, small voice. Here, in the quiet, she knows who she is; everything she's always had the capacity to be - the good, the bad, the easy choices and the hard ones. She's finally...just Willow.

A gentle knock on the door jam pulls her from her thoughts. The hot chocolate still has a little warmth left in it. Willow looks up as the door opens and smiles.

She's home.


Chapter 90

Dawn was glad to have her bed back again.

Not that sleepovers weren't fun and having Tara back was...god, there wasn't even a word for it, but Dawn definitely missed being able to sprawl without having to worry about smacking someone in the face. Plus, when her bedmate kept shifting and waking at all hours, it was kind of difficult to get a good night's sleep. She loved Tara, of course she did, but that didn't stop a happy sigh from escaping as she flopped openly on her bed like a starfish.

It's funny, Dawn thought, how awkwardly Tara had broached the topic. She was in the middle of her evening routine when Tara had knocked on the bathroom door and asked if she could talk to her about something. Tara had gnawed her lip and looked a little guilty as she stumbled through asking if would be okay to sleep in Willow's room tonight.

If Dawn hadn't been so unbelievably thrilled, she would have rolled her eyes. It was obvious that something had shifted between them the night the evil apparitions had come for everyone.

It takes her a moment to figure out what it is that seems so off. But as soon as she crosses the threshold and turns towards the dining room, it becomes perfectly clear. Willow and Tara are both in the kitchen, laughing softly together, unaware of Dawn's presence. They look . . . relaxed. Loose. For a moment, Dawn is dizzy with deja vu, remembering back to last summer and the countless times she'd walked onto this very scene. But it had been so long; it had been lifetimes.

The only thing Willow and Tara did these days was skirt around each other, Willow in her cocoon of worry and guilt; Tara in her bubble of quiet but conflicted anger. They barely spoke to each other this past week. And, Dawn wonders, had they even touched?

Now they're standing practically hip to hip at the sink, passing dishes back and forth to wash.

Dawn stands gaping, absorbing the scene in front of her, afraid if she moves or blinks, it will disappear like a dream and she'll wake up. She stands so quietly, it takes them a while to notice her. It's Tara who finally catches her out of the corner of her eye. She blushes, almost shyly, before glancing quickly at Willow, who turns to follow Tara's gaze, and blushes in turn when she makes eye contact with Dawn.

As they face her, Dawn notices how rough they each look. Sees the exhaustion crusted around their swollen eyes, yet there's somehow a brightness to them that gives off an aura of freshness. Or maybe it's the way they approach each other, as familiar and united as two parts of the same. Their shyness, now, reminds her of that morning all those months ago, of catching the two of them together in the hallway, flushed and blushing and in love.

Barely holding back a squeal, she'd given a good-natured eye roll and simply said "Omigod, Tara, please. You don't have to ask if it's okay to sleep with your girlfriend." She'd flushed at the unintended phrasing, but Tara didn't seem to catch it.

"She's...we're not..." she stammered instead, unable to form a coherent sentence.

Dawn's heart plummeted at having caused distress. "Hey," she interjected quickly, trying to ease Tara's discomfort, "It's okay if you guys don't know what you are yet." Tara shot her a grateful look. "But," now it was Dawn's turn to look sheepish as she couldn't help herself from asking, "Is there a 'yet'?"

"It's still early," Tara tempered expectations, as if trying to tell Dawn not to get her hopes too high yet. "There's still a lot to work through on both sides and we're not skipping anything this time, so we'll take it slow. But after everything the last few days...." Tara tries in vain to stop a smile from taking over her entire face. That more than answers the question and Dawn doesn't remember the last time she'd seen her so happy.

There wasn't anything to say after that, except more excited smiles and some well-earned giggles.

It feels like things are starting to fit right again. Maybe even for the first time, really. Like the last few months - no, years - had been a bad dream and they were slowly leaving it all behind where it belonged. Every passing hour the nightmares fade further until the very shape of them is blurry and distant and they are merely wisps of ghosts with no names.

Two people she loved torn unfairly from her came back and there weren't miracles enough for it. Though, she thinks wryly, she isn't too keen to try it a third time. If people could just stop dying in the first place, that would be way better. Dawn hugs her pillow and lets out a happy squeal, just because. She'd stopped updating her diary some time last year when everything was so miserable, there hadn't felt like a point. Now, though, there were things worth writing again. Pulling it out from the nightstand she cracks it open, turns to a clean page, and smiles.


Chapter 91

Tara stretched and sighed into her pillow, sunlight warming her back against the soft, soothing sound of ocean waves kissing the shore. It took a moment for that to process and Tara straightened up in alarm, staring at a wide, empty expanse of beach located near the water's edge. Receding waves reach just to the edges of the bedskirt, and Tara gaped, dumbfounded.

"I always found the place where the land meets the sea to be a magical one."

Though she swore no one had been there a moment ago, suddenly a woman materialized a few feet from the bed. Though she appeared to be a beautiful woman in her late 50s, there's something more ancient to her long, narrow face as if she's survived far too many things. "It can be rather contemplative, don't you think?" she mused conversationally, angling her head toward Tara.

Something vaguely familiar hummed at the back of her mind, but Tara couldn't quite place it. "Do I know you?" she queried with a squint.

"I should hope so," the woman replied with a patient but amused look. "You did pray to me after all."


"Your Holiness," Tara bowed hastily, flustered and awed.

"Oh come now, child, none of that," Isis chided. "I wasn't fond of the cult of worship thousands of years ago, and I don't like it now. Please do stand. That's better," she said as Tara rose, blushing.

"You worry, about there being a debt owed for the actions earlier today. You did not ask me for renewed life, Tara. You were given it as a gift and gifts do not come with a price: they are given freely. Like love. And trust."

Though Tara yearned for the words to be true, she found she could not let go. "But...I was always taught to respect the proper order of all things. Was it natural, my coming back?"

"What is 'natural'?" Isis gestures with her hand rhetorically. "Osiris' resurrection was no less natural than yours. Both of you had natural deaths, but so were your resurrections in the cosmic order of things. I have the power over fate itself, my child. My dear husband likes to forget it was I who found the pieces of him scattered across Egypt and put him back together again. In reuniting the fragments of him once more, you were able to be restored as well."

Tara frowned in confusion, "So, I'm back on a technicality?" She couldn't help but feel unsatisfied by the answer.

"No, of course not," Isis scoffed, "I'm a god, I don't bow to 'technicalities'. My husband deals with Justice, which can be cold and hard. Life does enough of that on it's own. Besides, what is 'Just' does not always mean it is fair. So I granted you your plea. Your death was not your choice; it so rarely is for humans. But your life, however, is what you choose it to be."

"But..." Tara stammered for words, desperate to try and express what she had so feared and still does not understand, "Why me?" Why me and not others? Why me and not my mother? Why not the thousands who die as cruelly or unfairly and are just as worthy of a second chance? "I-I didn't want-"

Isis interrupted gently, as if taking pity on her. "It is precisely because you did not expect life to be given to you that it was granted. A true prayer is not to express hope that the future bends to your will, but to experience closeness to the divine- appreciation of the gods' bounties, connection with the rest of creation, discovery in the meaning of your life, and a sense of wholeness and peace.* That is what true prayer is, Tara. And that is exactly what you did."

It had been a long time since Tara felt cared for and basked in a motherly glow. A great swell of love rose through her and she wiped away tears that she only just realized were there careen down her cheeks. A lightness she'd felt few times since her mother died - like that night in the Magic Shop when a new family had chosen her, claimed her as their own, freeing her from the past and giving her the endless possibility of a bright, shining future all her own - chokes through her tears and breaks through in laughter. Hope swells. "Is it really over?" she smiles wetly, overcome.

"No, my child," Isis said with infinite tenderness, cupping Tara's cheek as the light shines so brightly it slowly encapsulates the ocean and Isis herself in its' glow. "It is only beginning."

Tara blinks. Darkness thrums back at her, memories of a dream fading away like the tide against the shore. She frowns, not knowing why she feels a little sad to have woken, but a feeling of a sublime peacefulness lingers. The feeling grows as the rest of her senses register the scene around her: the warmth of Willow; the smell of her shampoo; the soft steady sound of her breathing. And the particular familiar way she's managed to hog the covers, twisted up inside like a little Willow burrito. Tara quirks a groggy grin and shakes her head.

She represses the urge to snuggle up next to Willow, not wishing to disturb her slumber, settling for a feather-light forehead kiss instead, and heads downstairs. Willow hums, an unconscious smile pulling at her lips. Shuffling towards the muted glow coming from the kitchen, Tara remarks how strange it is that the dining room is no longer a research station.

Somehow she isn't surprised to see Buffy sitting at the kitchen island nursing a beer. There's an eerie familiarity of having seen the Buffybot at the same spot numerous times. This Buffy though, of flesh and blood, turns at the sound of footsteps. She stands, wordlessly passes Tara, opens the fridge and hands her a cold bottle before heading back to her stool. Tara takes the seat next to her and fumbles with the lid for a moment before giving up and handing it back to Buffy, who pops the lid off effortlessly with a flick of her thumb.

"Will still out?"

Tara nods as she angles the bottle up for a deep swig. "Like a light." They sit side-by-side in mellow silence in the kitchen glow.

"So," Buffy recaps slowly, after Tara takes a few sips, "I didn't have a cosmic sunburn."

"Nope," Tara says measuredly. "Apparently you had part of a god in you and I was accidentally part of his mystical prison."

"Huh," Buffy grunts.


"Huh," she repeats, not blinking or changing facial expression.

"Yeah." Tara takes a long swig of her beer. Processing is quiet, even as it thunders through them with each heartbeat.

"How long has he been out there?" Tara motions to the door, where the porch light illuminates Spike's outline against the darkness.

"Long enough that I'm starting to smell like an ashtray." Tara's nose scrunches in disgust. Buffy takes a sip as she fingers the label, peeling off the bottle from condensation. "Do you think it'll get easier, the forgiving?" She looks almost embarrassed at having voiced the admission.

Tara can see the conflict warring in Buffy the same way it waged battle in her over the last several weeks. She thinks back to her own anger at Willow, the anger that felt like it would swallow her whole and never let her go. Anger that felt like it would consume the world in another abyss of loss.

Buffy's words from days before about the world moving without her had rung true. Everyone else had six months' head start on healing and forgiving Willow under their belt, and it was only in the past few days that Tara's begun to not feel consumed by her anger and grief, able to find a foothold and follow the rest of the Scoobies down the same path.

Tara stops fiddling with the bottle and places it on the table, mulling the question. "I think forgiveness is a lot like love; it shouldn't sit there like a stone.** But I don't think it's something we should carry, either. It's too heavy; we have to put it down and let it go."

Buffy looks off into the distance. "That price you mentioned earlier? I think we've all paid it. It feels...done. I dunno why I know that, but I do. Slayer-Deep. Something else- something bigger- is most definitely going on, but this? This whole thing with you? It's over, you're home. For good." Buffy raises her beer and Tara joins her as their bottles clink celebratorily. "And if not?" Buffy adds with a shrug while Tara is mid-swig, "I've killed gods before. One more won't be hard."

Tara's surprised that the part of her that had tugged with such doubt and uncertainty is quiet. Without knowing why, Tara smells salt and ocean and finds herself believing Buffy with a steady sureness. It's over. She takes Buffy's hand in her own, and Tara is on firm ground***, exactly where she belongs.

Chapter End Notes

*From either Siddur Lev Shalem or Machzor Lev Shalem, I'm not sure which
**Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, inspired by Tulipp's Bread
***Terra Firma by Tulipp

To Be Continued

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