DISCLAIMER: This ain't mine. None of it. Except for the hottie, Julian. Oh, and the can of pop beside me.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: As this is set in the future, and branches off from canon after Joyce dies, we'll assume that Glory/Ben was defeated, and Dawn was saved in time at the tower. So Buffy lives, and life goes on with the slayage until Valentine's Day, 2006.
MUSIC NOTES: Song bits are "Here Without You" – Three Doors Down and "Feels Like Home" – Chantal Kreviazuk.
SPOILERS: Season 5 – This is set about 4 years after "The Body".
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By diamondforever


Part One

New York City, Valentine's Day, 1996

"You look beautiful, Tara." Julian gently kissed the palm of the blonde's hand. The two of them sat on a park bench, huddled together for warmth. Anyone walking by would have thought that they were just another couple celebrating a special day…but the reasons that they were here differed in such a way. Nobody would have expected it to happen. They were the social outcasts at school, but somehow, they'd found each other in their loneliness. On the first day of Junior High, Tara had clumsily crashed into Julian…and made her first true friend. Julian was an introverted, thoughtful boy who made sure he was left alone, while Tara was a shy, stuttering, second-handed clothing girl. They found solace in the other's company, sharing a strong bond of friendship.

Eventually, Julian had fallen deeply in love with his friend, and although it had taken him a while, and one day found the courage to ask her out on a coffee date. Tara, who felt that Julian was the brother she had never had, knew how Julian felt, and although the feeling wasn't reciprocated, couldn't find it in herself to turn him down. So at the beginning of their high school careers, Julian and Tara began to "go out."

"You know," Julian began, "it's been almost half a year since we started going out…"

"I-I-It's b-been g-great," Tara replied. She couldn't help but feel relieved – perhaps he would break up with her? This charade had been going on for too long. She didn't love him the way he loved her…

"I wanna ask you something, Tara. And I don't know how you're going to feel about this, but um, bear with me, okay?" He shifted nervously on the bench. What he had planned had to happen now. Otherwise, he'd never get another chance.

"W-What is it?"

"Tara Maclay, will you marry me?"

Sunnydale, New Year's Day, 2006

"Tara Maclay, will you marry me?" Willow stared up into the blonde's blue eyes. "Will you be my wife?" The ring box that she extended had been popped open, revealing a perfectly cut diamond, set on a gold band.

"Will…" Tara raised a hand to her mouth as tears of happiness and surprise began to fall. "Oh Goddess, Will…" She shook her head in disbelief.

"Y-you can think about it first if you want to," said Willow, slowly standing up. "It's not like you have to answer right away. A-and if you say no, uh, that's fine too! Maybe we're just not ready, maybe this just came too quickly, may-"

She was cut off by Tara's lips on hers, silencing all word or thought going on inside the redhead.

"So I'll take that as a yes?" Willow grinned dreamily as Tara seductively interlaced their fingers, beckoning to begin the more private celebration of their engagement.

"You're getting married?" Dawn squealed excitedly, first jumping on Tara, then Willow. "You're getting married. You're getting married! Married! Married!"

"Yeah, Dawnie…we're getting married." Tara smiled and relaxed into Willow, dropping a hot kiss on her shoulder. "Married," she whispered, almost reverently. It was so new, this feeling, knowing that the person she was holding on to was going to be with her for the rest of her life. "I love you."

I love you always, Willow mouthed, leaning over to capture her fiancée's lips.

"Oooooooh!" Dawn jumped again, clapping her hands together. "When'd this happen?"

"L-last night," said Tara.

"Right after the big date?" Dawn looked at Willow, who winked back at her. The redhead had been hinting to Dawn that she had had something big planned for Tara…but not on this scale. But indeed, a good scale it was, and the delirious happiness that emanated from the two witches gave Dawn such an all-was-well feeling. "I knew you were going to do something!"

"Yup." Willow nodded, once again kissing her fiancée, then gently rubbing their noses together. "Took her to the restaurant, then after dessert, proposed. Uh huh…" She was having trouble forming coherent sentences at the moment, mostly because of the hand stroking her thigh.

"You guys are so cool!" Dawn jumped in between Tara and Willow, breaking off any chance of Willow succumbing to the blonde's tempting. "And I'm gonna be your official wedding planner." A wide grin appeared on her face.

"Well, you see, Dawnie…" Tara shifted slightly in order to accommodate the slim teenager. "W-we were kinda planning on having a really small ceremony…just the Scoobies and us somewhere private in the woods…"

"But you could do some, you know, organizing for us if you really wanted to…"

(Note: There's a nod to CN Winter's "Show Me" here.)

Part Two

Sunnydale, Valentine's Day, 2006

"Sweetie, do you really have to work today?" Tara pouted over-dramatically from her position on the bed, amidst all of her textbooks. "I-I mean, it's Valentine's Day! You could do with some rest…you've been working so hard lately."

"Baby, if I come to you, the last thing I'll get is rest." Really, Willow did want to take the day off, but starting a company was hard work, and even now, after months of uphill struggle, her toil was just beginning to bear fruit.

"Please?" With a seductive sway in her hips, Tara slinked over to Willow's desk and began to massage her shoulders at an achingly slow pace. "I'll make it worth your while…" She dropped a teasing kiss in between Willow's shoulder blades.

"Uhhh..." Willow moaned, unconsciously relaxing into Tara. "J-just let me finish this little bit." Lately, Tara seemed to be so unrestrained…as if she needed Willow to prove to her that she loved her with all her heart. It wasn't like she was complaining, but Tara's behaviour was just slightly out of character. But when she'd asked the blonde if something was wrong, Tara hadn't known – and had been completely honest. She just insisted that she wanted – needed – to be loved.

"But I need you now." Tara halted her exploration of Willow's stress points, disappointedly storming back to the bed, and throwing herself down with a huff. When Willow didn't respond, Tara began to sob.

And that got Willow's attention. She hated seeing her baby cry. Immediately, she was by Tara's side, gently stroking the blonde's hair. "Baby, don't cry! Willow's here to make it better."

At once, Tara stopped her pretense and grabbed Willow's shoulders, rolling her over until the blonde was straddling the redhead. "I knew that would do it." Her lips curled up into a lazy half-grin as she leaned down to meet her fiancée's. "It works every time."

"Vixen," Willow grunted, pulling Tara down to her as even the notion of work was thrown out the window. As both were still naked from just getting out of bed a mere half hour ago, the barrier of clothing wasn't present.

"Mmmmm…" Tara moaned against Willow's mouth as the redhead's hands began to massage her breasts, her fingers rolling over the nubs until they began to perk up.

Meanwhile, Tara's hands had begun to travel down Willow's body, pausing at the glistening red curls –

Bzzz. Bzzz.

A flurry of motion broke loose as indecision took reign. "S-someone's at the door – " "Buffy'll answer it, baby – " "No, no, we've gotta go…no, no, keep doing that –"

But the buzzing didn't stop. Bzzz. Bzzz. Finally, Willow willed herself to pull a robe on, much to the chagrin of Tara, and pad downstairs to answer the door.

"Make it quick," she groaned, as she swung open the door. Who was this? Dawnie's new boyfriend? A tall man in his early twenties stood outside the door, just taking off his shades.

"I'm looking for a Tara Maclay. Um, does she live here?"

Part Three

The living room was completely silent as the three occupants faced each other. Tara and Willow – who was possessively holding her fiancée – sat opposite to the man who claimed to be Julian, whoever he was.

For the past ten minutes, Willow had been studying him. This guy…was hot - brunette, toned, laid back. His hair was absolutely perfect; each strand combed and gelled back with absolute precision. There wasn't a single blemish on his face, and his skin was impeccable. Julian seemed physically flawless, but the way his eyes squinted as if they scrutinized everything sent chills up Willow's spine.

Across from her, Julian was taking in and noting everything about the couple. No detail escaped him as he studied his former girlfriend and her…friend. Why were they so close? And why was the redhead acting so possessive? Tara wasn't hers. "It's been a while, Tara." He smiled, glad to have broken the silence.

"Y-yeah," Tara nodded, smiling briefly. "T-ten years, right?"

"I never forgot you, Tara. Best friends, remember?" He shifted on the couch, moving closer to the two witches.

"So how have you been?" Tara asked. He looked almost the same as he had before – but there was something different about him, like there was a frightened animal inside of him just waiting to be let loose. Her "big brother" seemed so caged, so alone…

"I've been ok." It was a non-committal answer, but Julian didn't want to worry Tara with just how hard life had become for him after he'd moved to Vancouver. He had been the outcast again, and this time, nobody had been there to save him. "Aren't you wondering how I found you?" He smirked, trying to relax. Tara had changed so much. She seemed confident, happy, relaxed; so different from before.

"Actually, I-I do." Tara grinned. Still the same smile.

"You know I moved to Vancouver back in '96, right?" Julian's smile faded into a small frown as his eyes hardened. "I hated it there. Nobody cared about me at all. I had no friends, my mother was too busy working…it was horrible." He leaned in to Tara, hugging her warmly. "You kept me going. The thought that I'd be able to see you again when I got out of the house gave me that drive." He kissed Tara's forehead before pulling back.

Willow noticed the look Julian was giving Tara and clutched the blonde to her. "You still haven't told us how you found Tara," she pointed out, squinting suspiciously Tara's old friend. She knew she wasn't acting very nicely, but this guy was just too good-looking for his own good.

"I called her dad, and he said 'Sunnydale' just before hanging up." He glanced concernedly at Tara. "I know things have never really been smooth between you two, but what happened? It's like he doesn't even want to remember you anymore."

"I, um, got into a fight with him." Tara looked away. She hated to lie, but the secret of Sunnydale had to stay just that: a secret. "W-we n-never made up."

"He didn't deserve you as a daughter." Julian smiled tightly.

Tara looked away, happy but uneasy with his sincerity.

"So go on," Willow prodded. "How'd you find Tara?"

"I called UC Sunnydale off the tip Tara's dad gave me, and they told me that Tara had just graduated and was living off-campus. It didn't take long for me to find out where…" He looked up, whipping his head around as the front door opened and closed.

"It's horrible!" Buffy was saying to Dawn, "I mean, I appreciate the rest and all, but having to patrol night after night and not seeing any demons is kinda gloomy." Entering the living room, she stopped short, staring aghast at the stranger sitting amongst her friends. "I-I mean, lemons. We have a major lemon problem these days, and it's my job to clean them up, and since there aren't any more lemons to clean, I'm out of a job and have no source of income." She gave him a quick once-over, nodding appreciatively.

Meanwhile, Dawn was visibly trying her best not to drool. Who is he? she mouthed to Tara. He's hot!

Tara smiled. "Dawnie, Buffy, t-this is Julian. I knew him from when I lived in New York."

Julian nodded politely, extending his arm to give Buffy a handshake. "Hi there." He smiled.

"A-and I'm Dawn!" said Dawn, still looking somewhat awestruck.

"Hey, Dawn." He grinned. "Watch that drool, huh?"

Off Dawn's look of utter embarrassment, Tara frowned. "J-Julian. B-be nice."

Julian turned back to the blonde witch, cocking his head to the side. "Why are you still stuttering around me, Tara?" He lifted a hand to Tara's cheek, stroking it.

"Hey, hey, buddy! Hands off!" Willow glowered at him. Mr. Good-looking had just crossed the line. "That's my fiancée!"

"What?" Julian shot up, staring down angrily – almost maniacally. "There is no way in hell that Tara is your fiancée."

"And why is that?" Willow stood up, moving to stand toe-to-toe with Julian. "Why can't she be my fiancée?"

"Because…" The brunette crossed his arms,"she's mine," he whispered.

"What?" Buffy stared at Willow, who had abruptly stepped backwards, leaning on the arm of the sofa. "Say that again," she demanded evenly.

"Tara. Is. My. Fiancée." Julian glared at Willow, an unspoken challenge apparent in his eyes. He turned back to Tara. "You forgot, didn't you?" he accused. He heaved, his shoulders rising and falling rapidly as he began to pace the room. "H-how could you?"

Part Four

"Tara Maclay, will you marry me?" Julian slid off the bench, kneeling in front of the blonde, a small box apparent in the palm of his hand.

"What – I-I – " Tara gasped, raising a gloved hand to her lips. "I-I don't know what to say." She couldn't say "yes;" she didn't love Julian that way. "Y-you're like a brother to me…"

"Can I be more?" Julian stroked Tara's cheek. "Please. Marry me. You're the only person I care about."

"W-we're f-fourteen, Julian! T-there is no way that w-we can get m-m-married!"

"Why can't we?" Julian grabbed Tara's shoulders and shook her, as if trying to make her see. "I love you. Isn't that enough?"

Crying, Tara shook her head. "N-no."

"Do you know what I'd be like without you?" Julian looked away as he felt the tears rushing down his cheeks. "I'd be nothing. I wouldn't be able to live."

"Julian…" Tara gathered him into a hug. "Y-you're my best friend…"

"Please, Tara," sobbed Julian, "just say you will." He tightened his grip around Tara's body, burying his neck in her hair.

"L-let's wait a bit, huh?" Tara just couldn't say no to him; she didn't know how to. "T-ten years?"

"You won't ever regret this." Julian smiled slightly, pulling away from the hug to kiss Tara's cheek. His fingers loosened their grip from around the velvet box he was holding as he returned to his original kneeling position. "This is for you; so you'll remember." He opened the box, revealing a small ring. "Try it on."

"I-it's beautiful." Tara smiled shyly. "B-but it won't fit."

"That's okay," said Julian. "Just keep it. To remember me." He kissed her cheek once more before standing up. "I'm leaving New York tomorrow for Vancouver with my mum."

"W-what?" Tara glanced up in alarm. "W-why?"

"My parents filed for divorce yesterday, and my mum wants me to go with her. It's why I'm asking you to marry me…" Julian looked away. "I-I'm sorry."

"I-I'll miss you." On impulse, Tara reached up to hug her best friend. He was the only person besides her mother who had been there for her. If he left, when he left…"N-no!" she cried.

"What? No, no, don't cry!" Julian tenderly wiped away Tara's falling tears, momentarily caressing her face. "I have to go now…"

"How could you, Tara? How could you forget?"

Tara didn't have anything to say. She remembered her promise now, and it was obvious that it meant the world to Julian. "I –"

"There hasn't been a second that I haven't been thinking about you." He sat back down, sinking back into his nonchalant demeanor. "I guess I can't say the same for you."

"I'll be upstairs." Willow stood up abruptly, moving quickly out of the room.

"Sweeti –" Tara rose.

"I'll be upstairs when you're done." She ran up the stairs, the sound of the slamming door resonating through the house moments later.

"Uh, look Tara, I can come back later," said Julian, "After things have quieted down a bit."

"Y-yeah, thanks." Tara managed to smile despite her inner turmoil. "C-come by tomorrow morning?"

"Sure." Julian walked out the door, only pausing to wave goodbye to Dawn and Buffy. "Tomorrow."

"Bye." Dawn stared angrily after the man from the doorway, having finally caught on to the tension his mere presence had caused.

"Tara?" Buffy sat down beside her friend. "I don't get it…"

"I didn't mean to – I-I didn't know –" The blonde sank into the couch.

"Shhh…" The Slayer gathered the witch into her arms, soothingly rocking her back and forth. "Calm down there."

"I-I didn't know how to say 'no,'" moaned Tara. "I-I'm so stupid!"

"No, you aren't!" Dawn protested, moving to sit down beside her friend. "We're young. We've all made mistakes. Some of them come back to haunt us more than others."

Tara blinked back her tears, allowing a small smile to appear on her face. "T-thanks."

"We're here for you, 'kay?" Dawn slid down off the couch to sit on the floor, latching onto Tara's legs affectionately. "No matter what happens."

"We love you, Tara. You and Willow, both." Buffy squeezed Tara's arm as she leaned her head on the witch's shoulder. "Family."

"Will?" Quietly, Tara entered their bedroom. The redhead was sitting in front of the computer, typing, or rather hammering, at the keyboard. "Darling?" Willow continued to ignore her, almost seeming to bore a hole in the computer screen with her intense gaze.

"I'm working, Tara," Willow muttered, not shifting her gaze.

"No you're not." Tara turned the screen around, revealing a page of typed gibberish. "L-look, I know Julian showing up bothered you, a-and the whole marriage thing shocked me too but – "

"Why didn't you say anything?" Willow twirled around in her chair, curling her knees into her body. "I mean, why didn't you tell him that you weren't in love with him?"

"I-I –"

"But then you don't know that! So baby, are you in love with him?"

"No." Tara knelt down to Willow, forcing her to look into her eyes. "I love you, Willow, and nothing will ever change that."

Willow shook her head, standing up and moving over to the bed. "Look, maybe I overreacted a little, but right now, I just need some space, 'kay?" She pulled back the covers before slipping quietly into bed. "I-I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Alright." Tara couldn't help but hang her head – this was her fault. "T-tomorrow then." A tear fell down her cheek; she sniffed. It was all so confusing, this marriage thing. She knew she wanted it – she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Willow. But she didn't know how to tell Julian. He loved her…too much, perhaps.

Was he serious about them getting married? If so, then how was she going to say no? Tara loved Willow with all her heart – she had to make both of them see. But how could she do that without breaking her oldest friend's heart?

Part Five

Willow had planned to wake up early and surprise Tara with a breakfast-in-bed, but it seemed that the fates were against her. By the time she had been able to rouse herself from the shores of sleep, it was past noon, and Tara wasn't around, as was to be expected. However, she had left a note for the redhead on the dresser.

I went out to coffee with Julian, Sweetie. Be back soon.


Willow regretted her storm-out now. She should have realized that Tara truly loved her, and that nobody stood a chance of snatching the blonde away from her. She wished that her brain wouldn't generate so many "what ifs" so quickly – it almost always made the situation worse.

It had only taken a few seconds for her to form the questions this time – "What if Tara loved Julian more?" "What if Tara didn't know how to say 'no' and decided to go with him for a bit and then decided to stay with him?" "What if Julian forced Tara to marry him?" "W-what if Julian forced Tara to –"

"No," Willow told herself. If that happened, she didn't know what she'd do to him. And Julian seemed like a nice enough guy – it was just the jealousy wiggins getting to her…right? He did seem kinda…obsessed? Would that be the right word to describe him? The way he always stared at Tara scared her – how determined was he to have Tara as his wife? Would she be able to protect Tara from him if he was willing to kill to have her?

"There you go again…" she muttered, "always looking at things so pessimistic."

"You're just worried." Dawn poked her head into the room. "Don't worry, Will. Tara loves you." She walked in a sat down on the bed beside Willow.

"Oh, Dawnie…" Willow rested her head on the younger girl's shoulder, sniffing. "But I acted like such an idiot last night – storming off dramatically and slamming the door…are you sure she'll still love me after that?"

"Would you stop being such a brat?" Dawn giggled, playfully slapping the redhead's arm. "You've done stuff way worse than that. And now, I think you're just trying to make me say "Tara loves you" over and over again, huh?"

"Well, okay, you're right. I am." Willow smiled. "So say it! Or I'll start crying." She stuck out her tongue and rolled out of Dawn's reach.

"Tara loves you," answered Dawn, "and I love you too. But guess what. I'll love you more if you come down and eat the brunch I made you." Smirking, she rose from the bed, sauntering out of the room. "And…" she poked her head in once more, "if you really want to make her say that she loves you, why not make her scream it?" Her head disappeared from the doorway.

Willow grinned and went after Dawn, a plan forming in her mind. She would make up for her poor behaviour, alright…

"…so w-we tried to turn off the coffeepot, but it just kept making more and more." Tara laughed, cradling her coffee mug between her hands. She had been happily relating non-Scoobie adventures to Julian, pleased to be reunited with her best friend.

"So how did you stop it?" Julian sipped at his coffee, hunching over it for added warmth.

"W-Willow smashed it on the floor."

"Willow…" Julian frowned, looking away. "Do you love her?"

"With all my heart," answered Tara. She sighed, knowing that they would have come around to this topic sooner or later.

"Didn't you once say that you loved me?" He set his cup down on the table. "Didn't you once promise me your hand in marriage?"

"Y-yes." It was Tara's turn to look away now. "I love you…as a brother. You're my best friend, and I l-love you. B-but I don't love you like I love Willow."

"You do." Julian grabbed her hand. "You do love me." He smiled. "Come away with me. Come back to Vancouver with me." It was if his ears were filtering out everything except for what he wanted to hear.

"J-Julian…" Tara was now faced with the same dilemma that she had faced ten years ago – how to say 'no.' "I-I can't. I'm needed here."

"But I need you, Tara," Julian pleaded. "You're the only reason I'm still alive."

"I-I'm getting married!" Tara countered. "I can't leave just because you want me to. I-I have a life here, and a family, a-and friends – "

"You once told me that you would always be there for me!" Julian stood up, knocking his coffee to the ground. "Was that a lie?"

"N-no!" Tara shook her head, looking down in shame as tears began to flood soak her lap. "No…"

"Then why aren't you here for me now? I need you more than ever!" The brunette clenched his fists, tears spilling down his cheeks. "Don't you love me anymore?"

"I do love you, Julian," Tara managed, "b-but only as a friend."

"Damn it, Tara! I –," His jaw clenched as he slammed his hands onto the table. "I'm sorry," he turned away momentarily, regathering his composure. "I shouldn't have lost my temper like that." He fumbled in his pocket and tossed some bills onto the table. "For the coffee. My treat." Julian began to walk towards the exit.

"B-bye," Tara whispered.

Julian raised his hand in farewell before slamming the door behind him, fully aware of the eyes focused on his retreating figure.

Part Six

Willow dropped her bag of flower petals when she heard the front door opening and closing. "Baby?" She stepped into the hallway, expecting Tara to be walking towards her – but the blonde wasn't there. "Tara?" Padding her way downstairs, she began to search for her fiancée. "Baby?"

She heard the sound of crying coming from the living room. Had Julian really hurt Tara that bad? What had he done to her? "Tara!" Willow ran to the source of the sound – every sob made a new cut in her heart; it was unbearable to hear Tara hurting so. Dawn sat there beside the blonde, rocking her back and forth as she wept.

"Dawnie…" Willow whispered, motioning for the brunette to let her take her place in comforting Tara. Nodding, Dawn kissed the blonde's forehead before vacating her seat on the couch. Immediately, Willow took her place, wrapping her arms around her love. "Tara?" she questioned.

"Oh, Willow…"Tara moaned, looking away as if trying to hide her pain.

"Baby, what did he do to you?" Willow moved so that she was staring directly into Tara's eyes. "D-did he hurt you?"

"I-It was what I did to him," Tara whispered. "H-he told me to go b-back to Vancouver with him, a-and I said no…"

"But what's so wrong about that?" Willow brushed Tara's hair back behind her ear. "You had to tell him the truth."

"I-It's so hard to say n-no to someone you care about," Tara continued. "A-and I care about Julian so much! W-when I said that I w-wouldn't go with him, h-he looked as if his whole world had j-just shattered." She looked down, allowing her hair to cover her face once more. "T-to know that I caused that –"

"He has to respect your answer, baby. If he can't do that, then it's his problem, not yours." Willow leaned in and briefly captured Tara's lips with hers. "I love you," she breathed against Tara's mouth, "I love you so much." She raised a hand to the blonde's cheek, caressing the skin with her thumb.

I love you too. "I-I just can't stand to see my f-friends hurt." Tara's voice broke as tears began to pour down her face once more.

"Baby…" Willow kissed Tara again, but this time with more passion. Right now, she needed to be there for Tara, and this was the first solution that came to mind. She deepened the kiss – allowing a few minutes of smoochies – before pulling back. "You wanna go to bed?" She knew Tara was tired and almost positively not in any mood for anything kinky or physically demanding.

Tara nodded, allowing Willow to pull her up off the couch and support her as they made their way towards their bedroom. Neither did she protest when Willow began to undress and then redress her in a tanktop and boxers. "T-thanks," she whispered, kissing Willow's cheek.

Willow merely flashed a brief smile and began to change into her own pajamas. "C'mon, let's get ready for bed." She offered her hand to Tara, who gladly accepted it, and led the way to the bathroom. After brushing up, they returned to the bedroom and lay down on the bed facing each other.

"You're so amazing, Will." Tara smiled, stroking her lover's cheek.

"No, you are." Her hand moved to Tara's waist as she leaned in to the blonde, intertwining their legs. "To be able to say 'no' to your oldest friend even when you know it's gonna break his heart…that's amazing."

"I'm so sorry for not telling Julian 'no' right when h-he reminded me about the engagement." Tara moved up so that she could rest her chin on Willow's head, her arms now wrapped tightly around the redhead. "It hurt y-you – I know it did."

"Baby, there's no need to be sorry!" exclaimed Willow. With a soft sigh, she kissed Tara's neck. "I was the one who completely overreacted."

"But I should have remembered…" Tara began to move her hands up and down Willow's back, making sure to scratch her more sensitive spots. "J-Julian, he gave me a ring when I said that I w-would marry him. I still have it – it's just in my drawer, actually." Untangling herself from the redhead, she went over to the desk and retrieved the ring. It was a small metal ring, made of wire – not worth much, but the wire had been beautifully manipulated into a unique design. "He spent days making this – I-I'd caught him working on it the day before. That's why I couldn't say 'no' when he proposed."

"Oh Tara…" Willow couldn't stop the tears from coming down her face, so moved was she by Julian's love for Tara. "H-he loves you so much! Why aren't you going with him? I mean, he'd take care of you much better than I could, and you wouldn't be in danger all the time because of the things that go bump in the night – "

"Willow. Sweetie." Tara almost lunged at the redhead, kissing her long and hard. "I love you. I will never leave you. Ever." She rubbed her nose against Willow's. "Don't you ever forget that."

"I won't," whispered Willow, wrapping her arms tightly around the blonde. Tara, in return, began to stroke the redhead's back. "Just no more secrets, 'kay?"


They stayed like that for a while, just holding the other, before drifting off to sleep.

Tara opened her eyes, expecting to see Willow holding her as they slow-danced to the music – but it wasn't her. The person she was holding was Julian. Tara tried to pull away, but she couldn't will her arms to move.

"Tara, I know that you said 'no,' but you're all I live for," he stated, pulling her closer to him, forcing Tara to lay her head on his chest. "You've gotta understand – I need you. And nothing can change that. I grew up waiting for the day when I would see you again, so that I could make you mine."

"J-Julian," Tara pleaded, "I can't."

"You have to come with me!" He grabbed her hand, holding it painfully as he began to drag her away.

They stopped their struggle as they turned to see who was singing. Willow.

Tara had never heard Willow sing before – the redhead had always maintained that it was for the better of the world – but what she was hearing now moved her. Willow stood in the center of the room, dressed in a simple black dress, tears drawing stains on her make-up adorned cheeks. Her gaze never leaving the blonde, Willow sang. She sang as if nothing else mattered. She sang love.

"Willow," Tara whispered. She wanted to go to her, to touch her, to kiss her – but she couldn't. Julian was holding her hand – and something was biting into her finger. She wrenched her hand away and stared at her blood-covered middle finger. The metal ring had been forced onto it, rubbing her skin raw, and in some places, tearing the layer away completely. She whimpered – it hurt.

"Tara," Julian ordered. "We need to leave now." He once again grabbed her hand, dragging her away.

"No!" The blonde struggled against his grip, desperately trying to make her way back to her lover. "N-no! Let me stay!"

"No!" Tara cried, shooting up in bed. "N-no…" She realized that she had been cradling her middle finger, which Willow's ring still adorned. It was red and raw, her erratic movements having caused the ring to scratch her.

"Baby?" Willow yawned, groggily sitting up and staring concernedly at Tara. "Bad dream?"

Tara nodded, shivering, hiding her damaged finger from Willow's view. Julian's ring…she had always treasured it, but had put it away since she'd left home – his gift had been too much for her to remember, having not expected to ever see him again.

But Willow saw the finger. "Tara, what happened?" She gently caressed the finger, soothingly kissing it.

"The dream…" Tara began to tremble, "J-Julian forced the ring onto my finger, a-and it hurt. I-I guess I was doing the same thing to my finger in reality as well."

"I-I'll go get you a cool cloth, a-and a Band-Aid! And some disinfectant as well – we wouldn't want that cut over there to get infected now, would we. D-do you need anything else?" Willow began to get out of bed, but was held back by Tara.

"Sweetie, it's okay." Tara grabbed Willow with her good hand. "I'm fine."

"Well, do you need anything?" Willow raised an eyebrow in question.

"Just you, darling, just you." Sighing, Tara gathered Willow to her, stroking her hair with one hand, while tracing figure eights on her stomach. "I'm gonna see Julian again tomorrow."

"You are?" Willow placed a hand over Tara's. "Why?"

"I-I want to give him back the ring," she stated. "He made it for the person he loved, a-and I'm no longer that girl – I've changed. A-and I think he should be able to give this to the woman he'll love one day." She wiped her eyes. The ring was very special to her, but she knew this was the right thing to do as she didn't return Julian's feelings towards her.

"Just don't let him hurt you, 'kay?" Willow rolled over onto her stomach, staring at Tara concernedly. She took the blonde's hand in hers. "Do you want me to come with you?"

"I-I think this is something I need to sort out on my own," answered Tara. She bent her head down, kissing Willow's forehead. "I love you."

"Love ya," Willow sighed, settling her head in between Tara's breasts and blowing a raspberry.

"Vixen!" Tara screeched. She shot up again, this time hitting her head on the backboard. "Owwww," she moaned.

"Oh, baby, are you alright?" In a flash, Willow had pulled Tara away from the offending slab of wood and was caressing her already-swelling scalp. "I'm so sorry, Tara, you okay?"

Tara moaned once, pouting. "Owwwww…" she whimpered, eyes twinkling.

"Ohhhhh." Willow nodded in understanding. "How can I make it better, baby?"

Tara pointed at Willow's lips, and then her own, putting on a puppy-dog face. Smirking, Willow leaned down, giving Tara a peck on the lips. "Better?"

Sniffling dramatically, Tara shook her head. So Willow kissed her once more, this time longer…and harder. Tara moaned pleasurably, licking at Willow's lips, begging for entrance. The redhead upped the levy, slipping her tongue into Tara's mouth and garnering a moan for her boldness. She smirked.

But her victory was short-lived, as Tara slipped a hand up the back of her tank top, her nails leaving exquisitely painful marks on the pale skin. Ooo, okay, you win.

"I win, huh?" Tara hooked her leg around Willow's waist and rolled them over so that she was straddling the redhead. "So what's my prize?" She looked up and down the redhead's body, sensually licking her lips.

Willow-hands traced up Tara's body, bringing the tank top higher and higher, before lifting it up and away. "Mmmm…" She licked around the blonde's right breast, her other hand rising to cup the other. "Ravish?" she whispered, "or to be ravished?" Willow bit at the nipple, before soothingly bathing it in her saliva as she sucked it.

"Uhhh…" Tara leaned her head back so that more of her breasts could come into contact with Willow's questing mouth and hands. "Hard…choice…" she managed. "C-Can we take turns?"

"Yuh huh," Willow said in a sing-song voice. "We can so do that."

Part Seven

"Hey, guys!" Willow's face broke into a grin as she entered the Magic Box. After a wonderful morning in bed with Tara, she'd felt almost obligated to see her friends and help them out with the newest baddie. She stopped, confused. "Uh, what's going on?"

The Scoobies were gathered around the round table…playing Scrabble. Hadn't they done this last time? Once more, Xander and Anya were looking hopeful, Giles was looking stuffy, and Buffy was looking glum. A modest pile of money lay at the side of the table, awaiting the victor.

"There aren't any vampires to hunt anymore," said Buffy off-handedly. "No new Big Bads to stop – I call for a break. I would prefer a different break, but Scrabble seems to be the favourite these days, you know?"

"Aha!" Xander jumped up, grinning triumphantly. "Bosoms! Six letters! And that will add up to…" he paused, frowning "…ten…points, now that's not fair! That was ingenious!"

"Xander, honey-bear, calm down." Casually, Anya pulled him back onto his seat, pointing at the new letters they'd gotten. "We'll get their money yet!"

"Frank," stated Giles. "The "f" is a triple letter, so twenty points." Adjusting his glasses, he scribbled down the number.

"Giles, would you lighten up?" Buffy looked dismayed as she put "dog" onto the board. "You've already won three times today."

"I have never lost a game of Scrabble in my life, and I plan to keep it that way," Giles replied stiffly. "Anya?"

Tentatively, the ex-demon began to transfer her word to the board. Everyone around the table became silent as they read the word. "Bunny," said Anya, looking up proudly. "The "u" is a double letter and "y" is on the triple word. Thirty-three points." She smiled. "I'm willing to overcome my fear of those evil creatures if it puts us ahead."

Grudgingly, Giles added the number to their total. "You're up by three. And pseudo. Nine points." He crossed his arms across his chest.

Buffy sighed. "You know, I just don't think I'm a Scrabble kinda girl!" She placed her chin between her hands and pouted.

Willow walked over to the Slayer and studied Buffy's rack of tiles. Smirking, she began to lay the tiles on the board. "Diction. Double on the "c"…thirteen points." She glanced over at the blonde. "Good?"

Buffy nodded numbly, vacating her seat. "You wanna play, Wills?"

"Thought you'd never ask!" Willow grinned, sliding comfortably onto the now-empty stool. "I'll give Mr. Giles here a run for his money."

"Don't be so sure about that, Willow." Giles chuckled, procuring a handkerchief from his right jacket pocket and wiping off his face. "I happen to know some very g –"

"Dawn, don't do that!" Anya jumped up, waddling over to the brunette. "You can't bring Emma close to those crystals. Some of them aren't cleansed yet, and a bad spirit might rub off on her. And if that happens, I'll get Halfrek after you!" She grabbed the baby girl away from Dawn and walked back to the table.

"Don't worry, Dawnie, she's always like that, being pregnant and all," whispered Xander. "You can play with her later."

Dawn nodded, grinning. "So Will, how's the boy situation going? Have you and Tara made up yet?"

Willow didn't answer, continuing to organize her tiles, but the grin that was plastered onto her face gave it away. They'd made up alright!

"So where's Tara?"

"She's with Julian right now."

Dawn froze. "You're leaving her alone with Julian?"

"You know," Buffy started, "I don't think that's a smart decision –"

"Look, Tara said she wanted to do this." Willow raised her voice, hoping that they would listen. "So she's doing this. It's not my job to watch over her every step. I can worry about her safety, but I have to trust that she knows what she's doing, and I do. So when she says that she wants to do this alone, I know she knows what she's doing." She visibly gulped, staring around at the Scoobies. "'Kay?" Somehow, she wasn't so sure that she believed her own words.

"Hey, really, I'm sorry for yesterday." Julian thanked the waiter as he transferred the two coffees from the tray to the table. "I just lost my temper."

"R-really, it's okay." Tara smiled. She was relieved, she had to admit. She had worried that Julian wouldn't agree to this meeting – maybe they'd be able to mend their friendship. "I understand."

"Why did you call me? I didn't expect you to ever wanna see me again." Julian leaned back, taking a slow gulp of his coffee.

"W-well, I've been thinking a lot about you," Tara began, "a-and I've talked to Willow…"

"Is she letting you come with me?" Julian looked up, hopeful.

"I-I'm not coming with you, Julian," Tara said carefully. She had to let him down gently. Julian needed to understand that she was with Willow, and that although she cared for him, she didn't love him the way he wanted her to. Gingerly, she took the ring out of her pocket and laid it on the table. "I-I want to give this back to you."

"What?" Unsteadily, Julian reached out and closed his hand over the ring, making a fist around it. "W-why?"

"Y-you made this for someone you love, s-someone w-who you thought would l-love you b-back. I'm not that someone, Julian. A-and I don't think I deserve this ring." Tara could feel the wetness that was beginning to coat her eyes, but she held her tears back this time. She needed to finish this. "I-It should belong to someone who loves you t-the way you w-want them to."

"But you do love me." Julian smiled, leaning across the table to briefly hug his friend. "I understand, you know. You love Willow and Willow loves you, and I have no right to barge in on that. Love is a sacred thing, and no one should be able to break true love apart."

"I'm glad you understand, Julian." Tara gulped down the rest of her coffee and began to put her coat on. "And I'll miss you." She suddenly felt light-headed and sat back down. "W-whoa." She began to teeter off the stool.

"Are you okay?" Julian rushed to the other side of the circular table, grabbing and steadying the blonde. "Look, do you want me to drive you home?"

"Y-yeah, thanks, that'd be great." Things were getting slightly blurry now, and Tara was having a hard time finding the door – and she had this overwhelming urge to just curl up in a ball and sleep. Luckily, Julian did her a favour and took hold of her arm, supporting her as they made their way out of the Espresso Pump and into his car. She didn't need to worry – he'd take her home.

"Hey, baby, I'm home!" Willow slipped her bag onto the floor as she made her way up the stairs. "You won't believe it; I beat Giles in Scrabble today and got these nice crisp bills to play with. So I was debating whether I should invest them into the company or take you out to a fancy dinner tomorrow nigh – Tara?" Nobody was home. All the lights were off, and everything was as it had been when they'd gone their separate ways that morning.

"Tara!" She began to run from room to room, a frantic hope that Tara would be lying in wait for her, the area around her strewn with petals and candlelit…but as she traveled through the house, her flame of optimism continued to diminish. "Tara!"

Willow stopped as the only plausible explanation came into her head: Julian. She shook her head, sinking to the floor in defeat. She should have known not to trust him. She should have realized that he wouldn't just let Tara go! It was dark now; they could be in LA by now. But she had to try – she just had to. She fumbled in the darkness for the phone. "B-Buffy? Tara's missing. Yuh-huh…Julian…I-I don't know, maybe two hours?...O-okay, I'll meet you at the Magic Box…thanks."

She dropped the receiver. Shaking, Willow opened a kitchen drawer and stashed a gun in her bag before once more running out the door.

Part Eight

Tara let out a shuddering sigh as she awoke, becoming aware of her foreign surroundings. "W-where am I?" It was dark outside, and it registered in her mind that she was staring at a seatbelt buckle – so she was in a car. Her neck was stiff; she must have slept for hours. She stretched, yawning.

"Tara." An unfamiliar voice made her sit up in her seat. She looked over.

"J-Julian?" Tara was confused. It was coming back to her now – she had been tired and Julian had offered to drive her home. But it had been light out then. "What's g-going on?"

"I'm sorry I had to do this, Tara." He held up an opened pack of sleeping pills. "Knocks the toughest gangster out like a baby. I'm sorry it had to come down to this." Julian placed his hands on the wheels and looked away, unable to make eye contact. "But I can't let you go now that I have you again. You have no idea how hard it's been for me. You were my only friend, and you still are. For ten years, I've been waiting to see you again, to hold you, to love you –"

"But you can't." There was no trace of a stutter in Tara's voice as she spoke. "You can't do this. You can't make me love you more than I do. You can't force me, or anyone, to go with you anywhere."

"Tara, please, listen to me," Julian pleaded. He stared directly at her, forcing eye contact. "I can't live without you. You need to understand that. I've been saving myself for you – I wouldn't let anyone come near me, in the hopes that I would find you and take you back with me."

"Do you think that I wasn't lonely after you left?" Tara didn't back down from the stare, but intensified it as the emotions inside her built, threatening to explode. She was naturally slow to anger, but Julian was really pushing it. Why couldn't he understand? Why couldn't he take "no" for an answer? "You," she dug a finger into his chest, "were my only friend too. When you left, I had no one. Nobody wanted to be my friend – I was the stupid bimbo who was too shy to say a word. You, you had the chance to have a fresh start. You had the chance of making new friends and being happy. It's your fault if you didn't take that opportunity and make use of it."

Tara knew what she had said was harsh in comparison to anything else she'd ever said to him, but Julian had to be told where to stop. It hurt her to have to shatter his dream…but she had to. She loved Willow, and nothing was going to pull her away from her family. "Let me go, Julian. And go – go live knowing that I'll always be here for you…as a friend."

"No." Julian shook his head, blinking back hot angry tears. "No. My whole heart belongs to you. W-would you just break it right here, right now? You are my life, Tara. I don't know how to live without you. Every second of every day, I think of you. Where do I go from here? The only place left for me to go is death. Would you do that to me? Do you care so little about me?" He grabbed her arm. "Give me a chance, Tara. You said 'yes.' Now keep that promise."

Tara solemnly shook her head. "You know m-my answer already. My place is here – with my family."

"No." Julian tightened his grip on her forearm, causing Tara to gasp in pain.

"Julian, let go of me." Her voice filled with fear as she saw her friend's visage take on that of a wounded animal. "Julian!"

"You're coming with me whether you want to or not!" he yelled.

"You're hurting me!" Tara tried to pull her arm away, but his hold was too strong. She calmed herself, gathering power. "Off!" Immediately, Julian withdrew, yelping in pain. Tara took advantage of the opportunity as she quickly muttered an incantation to unlock her car door.

"What the –" Julian stared after her in amazement. "How the hell did you do that?" But Tara didn't answer – she was already half a block away and picking up speed. "Come back here!" Hastily unlocking his own car door, he ran after her.

Tara looked behind her as she willed herself to move faster, desperate to get away. Her mind was in absolute panic. Was he going to catch her? And if he did, would he force her against her will to go with him? "Goddess, give me strength," she prayed. She knew she wasn't a runner, and long distances definitely weren't her thing. But she had to get away. She had to find Willow…but she was lost.

Her spontaneous take-off into the night had left her somewhat clueless of her whereabouts. Tara paused, unsure of where to go. She didn't recognize this part of Sunnydale, although she was sure she had been here at least once. Warehouses surrounded her, and with the road she had taken, Tara had no choice but to head into the main bulk of the buildings.

"Tara! Wait!" Tara could hear Julian's pounding footsteps as he neared, steadily gaining ground on her.

Panting, she picked up the pace, darting around the nearest building. Sure enough, Julian appeared from around the corner moments later. He stopped, studying the ground before heading in the same direction as Tara.

Both failed to notice the group of vampires observing their flight. Nodding to each other, they began to follow.

"Do you have any idea to where he might have taken Tara?" Xander sped up his walking pace trying to keep up with Willow. When she had shown up at the Magic Box, they had all split up and set out to look for the missing blonde and her kidnapper.

"I can't sense her, I don't know what's going on, or where she is, or if she's okay…" Willow trailed off, staring down at the ground and moving even faster then she already was.

"Hey careful there, or you'll –" Xander pulled his best friend to the side, keeping her from walking into a tree. He lost his balance, not expecting the resulting weight, and tumbled to the ground on top of Willow – namely, on top of Willow's bag. "– hit a tree, and damn the devil, Will, what the heck is a gun doing in your bag?" Timidly, he pulled the weapon out from the now-open bag. "W-Will?"

Willow grabbed the gun from Xander's hand and picking up her bag, began to speed-walk again. "I'm gonna kill this sick bastard if he's touched her, and I'm not gonna use magick 'cause I wanna let the world know that I will do anything, and I mean anything to protect my girl." Her hands were clenched into little fists as she looked back. "I don't care what happens to me, but tomorrow, Tara's gonna be safe and sound. If it means that I'll have to use this, then I will."

Part Nine

"Will. Willow!" Xander caught up to the determined redhead and grabbed her arm. "Freeze and rewind there, huh? Are you even sure that Tara's in danger? For all we know, they could just be sitting in one of those fancy-shmancy restaurants daintily sipping at the specialty coffee with Julian staring at the bosom – I mean…Hey, look." He spun Willow around so that they were facing each other. "Just don't do something you're gonna regret."

Willow nodded glumly. Looking away, she sighed. "I-I don't know. It's just that I don't trust Julian at all – a-and I'm scared; scared that Tara will go with him, o-or be forced to go with him. I wouldn't be able to handle that. A-and just the thought of Julian touching Tara or making her do anything she doesn't want to makes rational Willow get thrown out the window and be replaced with Willow of the butch! I-I'll do anything, anything to make sure she's okay." She broke down, sobbing. "I'm so scared," she whispered.

"Hey, hey, it's okay." Xander gathered the witch into his arms and lovingly stroked her hair. "Look, I know you're worried. We'll find her, huh? We'll find her. Just promise me you won't use that gun."

For a moment, Willow hesitated. She stared down at the cool metal object before slowly handing it over to Xander. "Okay."

"So where to, oh powerful witch?" Casually, in an attempt to lighten the mood, Xander swung his arm around Willow's shoulders. "To the Pump or to the –"

"Tara!" Willow froze, standing completely straight.


"She's in danger!" Willow could feel Tara's fear. Tara?

Willow! Tara was tired. Cornered. Help me!

Willow began to run down the street, her bag smacking loudly against her leg.

"Wait, Will!" Xander sprinted after her. "Where are you going now?"

"The industrial district!" Willow was already turning the corner. "Tara's in danger!"

"Tara!" Roughly, Julian grabbed the blonde's hands and pinned her against the wall, his body smashing into hers. "Stop running away." He moved back slightly. "What the hell was that back there?" he whispered. "The car doors were locked and there's no way that you're strong enough to stop me from doing anything to you."

Tara held his gaze, putting on a strong front to cover the stench of fear she knew was oozing off of her. "Would you?" she asked, her eyes steel-blue. "Would you do that to me? Would you touch me if I told you not to?"

Julian exhaled sharply, then sighed. "No." He stepped back, letting Tara go. He looked down at his feet. "I wouldn't. I would never hurt you." He moved further away, bouncing up and down with hands crossed across his chest, much like a child who was being forced to apologize. "I'm sorry for all of this. I-I'll leave you alone from now on."

"Y-you realize that you could go to prison for this –"

"I know." He inched towards the blonde. "Tara…" he pleaded.

"Go, Julian." Tara pointed the way back to downtown Sunnydale. "Just go."

The brunette nodded. Hot tears streamed down his cheeks as he inhaled and exhaled choppily. Gradually, he walked away, Tara once again staring after him like she had two days earlier.

When he had disappeared from immediate view, the blonde followed, finally allowing herself to show any sign of emotion. As she had told Willow, it hurt to do this. She hated to have to continuously deny Julian what he wanted. But when what he wanted most was her love, which was something she was unable to give, Tara to had make Julian realize that all he had left was a false hope for an impossibility to turn around in his favour. Silently she cried, coming to terms with the fact that she had almost definitely lost her oldest friend.

Tara remembered how she had once cried like this – when Julian had left New York ten years ago. At that time, deep inside her, she had felt a piece of herself fall away, dead, aware of the possibility that she would never see her friend again. Then, when Julian had shown up at her door mere days ago, her heart had rejoiced. It had rejoiced at once more finding a soulmate. Julian had been her soulmate, just as Willow was. They had had a connection from the moment they'd met – each understood and sympathized with the other. It was a bond completely different from what she shared with Willow; a bond of first friendship.

Now, he was gone once more – and this time for good. Tara could already feel that part of herself, just beginning to heal, dying again. Part of her wanted nothing more than to run to Julian and beg him to stay here with her; to be in her life. Not as lovers, but as friends. Couldn't they do that? Would Julian ever be able to learn to love her as she loved him? As a sister?

"Tara, look out!" Suddenly, she felt herself being knocked down to the ground, her fall being accompanied by the horrible smell of bad breath and the sight of a disfigured face. Vampire. The blonde reached into her sleeve for a stake but realized that she hadn't taken one with her as she'd left the house that morning, having not expected to stay out for so long. She cast a glance over at Julian, who was struggling with two other vampires. This was the end then. Tara knew her struggles would be futile as she was too scared to calm herself enough to cast. She'd known the risk of living in Sunnydale, and she knew she'd never regret it making it, but she wished that she could somehow say goodbye to Willow.

"No! Get off her! Incende." As the vampire lowered its head, fangs glistening, he exploded into flames. Willow had arrived. "Baby, you okay?" The redhead pulled Tara to her feet and enveloped her in a desperate hug, running her hands over the blonde's figure in a quick check for missing body parts.

"Julian," Tara breathed worriedly, grasping Willow's hand in hers as she prepared to cast. "Exussum animi." The two vampires began to smoke and cried out in pain, clutching at their now-burning hearts, finally disappearing into the night.

"Oh my god," Julian whispered. He sank to the ground, shaking his head. "This isn't happening, this isn't happening."

Tara made to go to him, but Willow held her back momentarily. "We're not finished yet," she pointed out. "Give him this."

Tara nodded and went to Julian, who was curled up into a little ball on the ground, rocking back and forth. She tried to touch him, but he flinched away as if it hurt him for her to be so close. "Tara?" He glanced upwards, trembling. "W-what are you?"

"I-I'll explain everything to you after." She pushed Willow's stake into his hand. "Right now, take this. For protection." Tara grasped his arm companionably, smiling encouragingly at him. "L-let's do this, huh?" Julian nodded timidly, rising to his feet. His face took on one of a determined fellow as he raised his stake. "Strike at the heart, Julian. That'll kill them."

Willow came over to them and took Tara's hand. "Here they come!" she said cheerfully. Footsteps sounded in the dark, louder by the second. The witches nodded, and branches began to break themselves off the surrounding trees, ready to strike at the vampires. Julian stood tall, his fists up in anticipation of action.

"Behind you!" Xander appeared at the end of the road, panting, a cellphone in his hand. Bent double, he pointed

Once more Tara felt herself being knocked to the ground, this time belly-down. And once again, all hope of being rescued was erased. Willow had her own assailant to deal with, as did Julian. A sharp pain went through her body as she felt fangs sink into her ear. "The Slayer's friend..." the creature hissed, stroking her hair, "your blood is exquisite, you know?"

Tara closed her eyes, bracing herself for the bite that would end it all, while, as a last attempt, silently chanting..."Noo!" In an almost unrealistic rage, Julian plunged his stake into the heart of his vampire and lunged at Tara's assailant, weapon brandished.

"Away," Tara breathed, sending the vampire on a collision course into a tree branch. She sighed in relief…just before Julian's stake drove into her side.

Part Ten

They sat on the bench, mist swirling wispily around them. It was chilly, not unlike a typical fall day in New York City, and they were alone. "Hey, um, Tara?" A younger Julian inched closer to the blonde. "Can I ask you something?"

Tara remembered this. It had been ten years ago, on the first day of high school. "O-okay," she managed.

"You've…" Julian paused, and grinned nervously. "You've been the best thing in my life for two years now…and alright; I'll just cut straight to the point. I like you, Tara. I like you a lot. I admire your strength, and I admire your courage. I want to know you as, er, more than a friend."

"Julian…" Tara froze. She had to say 'no.' She didn't love him like this. It had been her reluctance to refuse her friend that had caused the events of the past few days.

"Look, nothing big. Just for coffee or something." He glanced at her, eyes shimmering hopefully.

"Julian…" Tara touched his cheek with her fingertips. She knew what she had to do. She loved Willow. "I – I –"

"I understand." Julian turned away, staring down at the ground. He looked up and gazed at her longingly before placing his hands on the bench and standing up.

"Wait. L-let me explain." Tara reached out and grabbed onto her friend's arm. "Please."

Julian didn't face her, but he stopped, attentive.

"I-I really do like you, Julian. It's just that…" She looked away. Tara found it so hard to refuse him anything. He was like her brother. She didn't want to deny him anything – she never had. Nevertheless, this time, she had to. "I love someone else."

Julian's shoulders drooped noticeably, but then straightened again as he regained his composure. "How could you? I-I thought you loved me."

A menacing silence hung in the air as Tara stared at her friend. "I d-do."

"I don't get it." Julian spun around, his expression a cross between a wounded animal and a confused child. "First you say you love me then you don't, now you do – and I wasn't even talking about love! Sure, we might get there someday, but right now, I just want to get to know you better. Is there something wrong with wanting that?"

"You're l-like a brother to me, Julian." The blonde looked away, tears spilling past her eyelids. "P-please, don't l-let us lose this."

"You're my always, baby." A familiar redhead stepped out from the fog, gently smiling. She tilted her head to the side, beckoning for Tara to join her. "I'll always find you."

Tara looked from Julian to Willow, to Julian. This was the turning point. Two paths were in front of her, and she could only choose one. Really, it wasn't a difficult choice. She had chosen long before. She reached over to Julian and patted his thigh gently. "Please understand." She walked over to Willow.

Lovingly, the two Wiccans joined hands and smiled at the lonely boy on the bench. Silently, they turned around and began to move away into the mist.

"Tara." Julian's voice called after them. They waited. For a moment, there was silence. "I understand," he said dejectedly.

Tara smiled, closing her eyes. Thank you, Julian, she thought to him, thank you. And they continued onto their path into the future, away from Tara's past.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Tara blinked groggily as blurry images came into view. She took in the washed-down walls of what was without a doubt a hospital room. Her memories were muddled, but she recalled being carried to Sunnydale Hospital by Buffy, her wound having been bleeding profusely. Gingerly, she touched her bandaged side and ear. Both still stung and she could feel a slight throbbing beneath the cloth.

Willow's yawn broke the pattern of the humming machinery as she stirred from what was obviously one of many troubled naps. "Mmmm.." she murmured, rubbing her red eyes. With a sniff, she took Tara's hand in hers. "Hey, baby. How're you doing?" The redhead stroked the blonde's hand. "Please don't die, okay? I know that Doctor Atkins says you're fine and that the stake missed any vitals, but please get better soon, huh? It's been three days and it's so hard for me to sit here and not be able to hold you – well okay, I've held you a lot, o-or I've wanted to but been afraid that I might hurt you –"

Tara squeezed Willow's hand. "Sweetie. I'm here now." Off Willow's bewildered stare turned dazed happy look, the blonde smiled. "I'm okay. A-and sorry about the voice." Tara turned away and coughed, trying to clear her raspy throat.

"Tara!" Willow flung herself onto Tara, laughing with relief. "I was so worried that you wouldn't be better," she whispered tearfully.

"It hurts now," Tara managed. Willow's impromptu squeezing was taking its toll on her.

Immediately, the redhead disentangled herself and returned to her seat beside the bed. She took a hold of Tara's hand and stroked it gently. "I'm glad you're back," she said. "We missed you."

"Tara!" Dawn appeared at the doorway and almost jumped onto Tara but remembered the blonde's current state. "Tara." Instead, she resorted to leaning on the wall, smiling dazedly. Like Willow, her eyes were also red and puffy from crying.

"Dawnie." Tara motioned for Dawn to come closer and opened her arms, inviting her in for a hug, which the brunette gladly accepted. She closed her eyes, smiling contentedly as she squeezed the younger woman resting in her embrace. "Dawnie," she whispered.

A quiet knock at the door interrupted the girls' reunion. It was Julian, unshaven and unkempt. Scratches and bruises adorned his face, as well as the rest of his body judging from the way he held himself. "Hey."

"Get out." Dawn walked over to the man and drew back her hand to slap him. Julian cowered, raising his arms to block the coming blows. Dawn's arm fell. "I said 'get out!'" She beat him again and again. "You've caused enough pain – I thought I told you to never come back!" Julian fell to the floor, broken – but Dawn didn't stop. Instead, she mercilessly kicked his fallen body, her scream punctuating each hit.

"Dawn, stop it!" Tara tried to get up but fell back onto the bed, breathing hard. Willow stood up and pulled Dawn away from Julian. "It's okay."

"No, it isn't," whispered Julian. His voice was tearful, quiet. "I deserved every one of those." Wincing, he sat up and huddled into a ball. "I'm so sorry, Tara…so so sorry…"

"You should be." Even while holding Dawn, Willow's loathing towards Julian was painfully obvious. "How dare you come back to see her! Didn't Buffy's fists pound into your mind that Tara doesn't wanna see you?"

"I w-wanted to say good-by –"

"You!" Anya appeared in the doorframe, hands on her hips. "You…" She grinned, rubbing her hands together. "Xander stopped me last time, but now…" The ex-demon threw her head back and laughed. "Prepare to lose your sexual organs."

"Anya!" Tara stared at her friend, disgusted.

"What? I can't have my fun?" Anya shrugged and pulled a chair over to sit down beside Willow, who had let go of Dawn and returned to her seat. "And really, he deserves it. If I still had my powers, I'd make boils grow on his penis, then eviscerate his testicles." From his spot in the corner of the room, Julian yelped. "But I'm not a demon anymore, so all I can do now is scare people if I want to have any fun." She crossed her arms, pouting.

Tara smiled, amused. Even after so long, Anya was still fuming about her fall from grace in the demon circle. It was entertaining to watch her friend go on and on about the cons of humanity.

"Hey, I'm trying to be nice here! Don't laugh at me!" The ex-demon turned from left to right, glaring at all the occupants of the room.

"Nice?" Willow chuckled. "Threatening to disembowel a man does not count as nice."

"It does if you've actually done it," Anya said in a small voice, frowning deeper than before.

"I-I'm g-gonna go." Julian slowly got to his feet. "G-good bye, Tara." Shaking, he began to walk out the door.

"Wait! Julian!" Tara reached out a hand towards her friend. "Stay f-for a while."

"Baby?" Willow glanced confusedly at Tara, eyebrows raised.

"J-Julian and I need to talk," said Tara. She squeezed the redhead's hand. "Alone."

"A-are you sure?" I don't want him to hurt you.

"He won't hurt me anymore," Tara stated firmly. I trust him, Sweetie.

I can't be sure. Last time you were alone with him, I almost lost you. Willow captured Tara's gaze. I won't let him hurt you again. Ever.

"Will…" Tara's blue met Willow's green as an unspoken argument took place. It went on for minutes as the others looked on, awaiting the verdict. Neither would back down – both sides were fuelled by love.

Finally, Willow looked away, defeated. I may not trust him, Tara, but I trust you. She leaned over and lovingly kissed the blonde's forehead before getting up and moving to just outside the door. "I'll be here if you need me," she said.

Anya and Dawn followed suit, leaving but hovering just outside the hospital room, neither taking their eyes off Julian for even a second.

Slowly, as if walking down death row, Julian made his way towards the bed and sat down in Willow's vacated seat. He looked down – anywhere but Tara – and twiddled his thumbs.

"I'm sorry, Tara," he whispered. "For everything. I-I've caused all of you so much pain and worry – why couldn't I take 'no' for an answer? I mean, what a stubborn ass I've been." He looked down at his hands, staring at them in fear. "I-I-I hurt you! I became your father, Tara. I hurt you. I hit you. I tried to kidnap you. E-even if you loved me, I wouldn't deserve you." Tears flooded down his cheeks, leaving tiny wet marks on his khaki pants. "I'm so sorry. So so so sorry…"

"Julian, i-it's okay." Tara reached out and held the man's hand. "I forgive yo –"

"How can you do that, Tara?" Julian wondered aloud. "How can you be so kind to me? I've done nothing to deserve any of this!"

"It's because I love you." Julian's eyes widened. "As a best friend – as a brother," she clarified. "Y-you were there for me when no one else was. I c-could never repay you for that."

"Stop it." A small smile made its way to the surface as Julian wiped at his tears with a shirtsleeve. "I fell in love with you because of this. W-when we were together, I screwed up so many times – but every time I came back to you, you forgave me. You would hold me – " Despite her obvious pain, Tara pushed herself up on her elbows and motioned for Julian to move closer. Finally with a soft grunt, she threw an arm over his neck and held him. "– just like that." Julian's voice wavered as a new torrent of tears streamed down his face.

It was a moment of remembrance as they held each other. They forgot those lonely years, and they were both once again fourteen years old, on any icy cold bench, saying good-bye. Tears stained cheeks, sobs sounded unashamed, and whispers of eternal friendship were exchanged. Both Tara and Julian knew that this was without a doubt their last meeting in this life – their tale had drawn to a close. Julian couldn't stay – to remain would mean to have to face the love he could never fully have day after day.

"You'll find 'her' someday," Tara assured him, stroking his hair. "She's out there waiting for you."

"I'd thought I'd found her up 'til now," whispered Julian, squeezing his eyes shut and inhaling the scent of Tara's scent, engraving it into his memory once more. For the final time, he reminded himself. "How do I go on, Tara? You're the first and last thing on mind when I wake up and go to bed – where do I go from here?"

"You live, Julian," breathed Tara, "you live. It's time to let me go, and look to the road in front of you." She kissed his cheek once, then pulled back and kissed his other cheek. "You need to live in the future now, 'kay?"

"It's so hard though." Julian brushed away Tara's tears with his fingertips. "When I was in Vancouver, I would dream, every night – I would dream of you. Your hair…" He twirled a lock in his hand. "…your eyes…" He leaned in and kissed both lids. "…your smile…" His fingers traced her lips longingly.

After a long moment of silence, Tara leant in and brushed her lips against his, sharing their first and last kiss. "Goodbye, brother," she murmured. In unison, they took shuddering breaths, each waiting for the other to say something more.

At last, Julian kissed Tara's forehead and pulled her in for a final hug. He squeezed her to him tightly and let out a tiny whimper before letting go. "Goodbye, sis." Shakily, he removed a sealed letter from his jacket pocket and laid it on the bedside table. "There isn't much in there that I haven't already said, but I wanted you to have it. Please, remember me?"

"That's not even a question," said Tara. "You're family. I never f-forget family."

"I'm gonna go now…was never much good with goodbyes." He began to walk to the door, but stopped half-way and turned around. "Oh, I forgot. Here." He tossed the engagement ring back to her. "It's your size now."

Tara began to protest, but Julian stopped her. "I made it for you. It's yours, Tara." With a little wave, Julian got up from his seat and walked to the closed door. He opened it and stepped outside.

Smiling sadly, Tara picked up the letter that lay beside her and tore open the seal.


I don't know how to start letters. You know me, I've always been horrible at this kind of stuff. What can I say? I'm sorry, I guess. I've never said those words to anyone but you. They're special.

The first time I saw you, I thought you were an angel. You bumped into me, and as you bent to pick up your books, you looked up at me from behind your hair – you were so beautiful, so…innocent. Right then and there, I wanted your friendship. I've never regretted that. You've been the greatest friend anyone could ever ask for. But you could never give me what I wanted most, I now realize. Your love.

When I was away from you, that's what gave me reason to go on – that you would be waiting for me on the other side of that road of hardship. But I guess all my hope was in vain, huh? What could I expect? Ten years – of course you'd found someone else. I can't believe you found a girl, but whatever eh?

I'm sorry it took so long for reality to bite me in the ass. I've hounded you and your friends for the past few days, a stubborn idiot who just wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. But I understand now – you belong to another, not me. I was so stupid to think that you would still want me after I upped and left New York so long ago. But hey, I guy can hope, right? So I did – and I found you.

Now I'm rambling…so I'll end this as quickly as possible. This Willow, she loves you and I can tell you love her too (once again, sorry for being so stalker-y and trying to kidnap you and everything). If she ever hurts you, just give me a call (the number's on the back of this letter) and I'll come over and hurt her. Really, the only thing I think I can do to truly apologize and repay you for all the shit I've caused is to go away. But I'll always be here for you – even if you're a witch (Willow explained it all to me – kinda.).



The piece of paper was stained with tears, both fresh and old. Tara shook her head, breathing hard. Reverently, she held it to her heart, breathing a silent prayer to the Goddess, begging that he would find happiness. She squeezed the ring in her grasp.

"You dropped this." Willow offered a small photograph to Tara as she closed the door and sat down once again by the bed. She glanced at it and smiled. "You looked cute back then too." The redhead had never seen any pictures of the teenage Tara – none existed…except for this one.

It was a snapshot of Julian and Tara just outside of school, arms around each other's waists. "I didn't know he kept that," she said in awe.

"He really loves you, doesn't he," said Willow, gazing down at the ring in Tara's palm.

"Yeah, he does." She set the ring on the bedside table. Silence.


"Yeah, Sweetie?"

"Nothing." The redhead lifted the sheets and joined her fiancée beneath the covers, sighing contentedly as she snuggled into Tara's uninjured side. "Good night, baby. I love you."

"Mmmmm," Tara moaned in affirmation, closing her eyes. She began to stroke her hand up and down Willow's back, softly humming a lullaby.

"Why didn't you go with him?" asked Willow. "He could offer you so much – safety, love, a good home. You wouldn't have to worry so much about the next demon. You could think about children, l-little Taras and Julians –"

"Because I love you," Tara stated, without a trace of doubt in her voice. "You're so stupid sometimes, you know? I love you, and I don't know how to make you understand that, Sweetie. I have everything I could ever want in you and you alone."

"Of course I know that, Tar." Willow giggled and blew a raspberry on Tara's neck. "Just wanted to hear you say it again."

"Meanie." Tara snorted and tickled Willow's neck, making the redhead twitch and let out an 'eep.'

"No more!" Willow wailed after a few seconds. "You win, you win!"

"I always do," Tara said smugly.

"We'll see about that when we get out of here." Willow stuck out her tongue and licked Tara's neck, leaving a wet trail from collarbone to ear.


"And don't you know it." Willow snuggled down between Tara's breasts and sighed, content and secure for the first time since Julian had shown up. Tara was hers. They were in love, and by Jove, she was gonna marry her. But one more thing stood between them and the near-perfect relationship. "Oh, and baby?"

"Yeah, Sweetie?"

"No more secrets, 'kay?"

Tara nodded. "No more secrets."

"Goodie. Now, let's make with the restage."

The End

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