DISCLAIMER: BTVS is the property of Mutant Enemy and Twentieth Century Fox.
SPOILERS: Up until the end of season seven Buffy and season four Angel.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
PAIRING: Willow/Tara, Willow/Kennedy

The Further Adventures of Willow #2
The Return

By Nancy

She was my girl, used to be my world.
I miss my girl, what a fine girl.
— Jerry Cantrell, My Girl

Willow continued to stare in shock at Tara, who was looking more and more confused by the second. At least, it looked like Tara; same face, same eyes, same moue of anxiety pinching the brow. But there was no way possible that it could be Tara, no way. She'd done everything in her power and then some to get her lover back when a bullet had stolen her away.

"W-w-willow?" the Tara-alike stammered, reaching out a hand.

Scrambling backwards, away from the creature, Willow sobbed with pain and betrayal. This couldn't be happening, couldn't be, just not possible!

"What's, what's happened? Are you, are you afraid of me?"

"Stay away from me!" Willow hissed, unable to go back any further thanks to the wall of the shop. The creature stopped moving, eyes widening with hurt that was just so real, it took all Willow had not to apologize, not to take the thing in her arms and comfort. Crying in earnest now, Willow demanded, "Why are you doing this to me!? Haven't I paid enough?"

Kneeling, the apparition held out its hands and pleaded, "Willow, what's happening? Please, tell me what's wrong!"

Shaking her head over and over, Willow wrapped her arms around her knees and started rocking back and forth, trying to contain herself and her powers. Everything was chaos around her, she could hear books and magic tokens flying through the air and crashing into walls. Panting and crying, Willow held onto herself more tightly than she ever had.

Then tender hands molded themselves to her shoulder and frantic kisses touched her head as she was pulled into a strong but careful embrace. Soothing, familiar words washed over her and Willow sobbed openly, denying the comfort, denying the entire thing as her soul was ripped apart yet again and darkness swallowed her whole.

Buffy sat tense in the passenger seat as Giles pulled up in front of the magic shop. Both she and Kennedy were out their doors before it even stopped completely. She held up a hand to stop the younger girl's frantic flight inside what looked like a decimated store, and ordered, "Wait! Be careful, Kennedy. This, this looks like Willow lost control."

A flicker of fear crossed Kennedy's face and she nodded, showing that she would follow Buffy's lead.

Giles joined them there and he pulled out an icon of power. He grimaced at Buffy's inquiring look and answered, "Just in case. I keep it handy just in case Willow, ah..."

"Reverts?" Buffy offered.

Grim, Giles nodded. "Exactly. Let me go first."

"You're the man with the plan," Buffy agreed, motioning for him to go ahead.

Moving slow and cautious, Giles entered through the shattered front door and looked carefully around. He stopped so suddenly that Buffy bumped into him and Kennedy into her. Peering around him, Buffy's mouth dropped in shock.

Sitting naked on the floor, curled protectively around an apparently unconscious Willow, was Tara. She was streaked with some kind of drying goo and her hair was a disaster with it, but it was definitely her. Or maybe a demon version of her?

"M-Mr. Giles?"

Buffy blinked. Tara was the only one who ever called him that. Complete with stammer.

"M-Mr. Giles, please tell me what's going on?"

Overcoming his own shock, or, trying to, Giles replied, "Ah, Tara? Is that you?"

Pained eyes pleaded with them as she said, "W-w-w-willow...she, she didn't believe it was me. What happened to me? What's happening to me?"

"Get your hands off her, bitch!" Kennedy shouted suddenly, lunging forward.

Barely catching the younger slayer in time, Buffy grabbed her close, holding her still only through her superior strength. "Stop it! Stop it right now! We don't know what that is, we don't know anything!"

Kennedy froze in her arms, stiff and unyielding and visibly sending out waves of hate and fear towards whatever held Willow in its arms.

Hand held out as though trying to tame a wild thing, which perhaps he was, Giles stepped forward and said softly, "If you really are Tara, you'll understand that we're afraid for Willow's safety and let us take her, check her over."

"But, I wouldn't, I would never..." the woman protested, her arms tightening protectively around Willow's limp body. "Y-y-you don't believe it's me, either. Buffy? Buffy please, tell them it's me!"

Buffy had to harden herself against the achingly familiar voice and face, had to force herself to remember that there were mimicking demons and soul-catching demons and all kinds of demons that could look like anything they wanted. Biting her lip uncertainly, she said, "I want to believe it's you, Tara, but you're dead. You were shot, remember? Shot in the chest and killed instantly. Willow tried, she tried everything to get you back, but it was impossible."

Shaking her head in denial, the woman pleaded tearfully, "It's me, it's me, I swear."

Motioning Giles away, Buffy released Kennedy and shifted towards the women on the floor, then knelt beside them. She cupped...Tara's... face in one hand and said gently, "We don't know, I'm sorry. Let us take Willow, make sure that she's safe, then we'll figure this thing out. I swear, no one will hurt you, you've got my promise on that. Just...please let me have Willow."

Silent tears fell and Willow was carefully lain on the floor, as though she was something infinitely more precious than gold. That alone was enough to convince Buffy that it was really Tara, or at least, mostly convince. Buffy slipped her arms under Willow's light weight and pulled her close, then lifted and strode away to the other side of the shop. She placed her friend on the register counter, Kennedy directly behind her.

Hovering anxiously, Kennedy ran her fingers over Willow's slack face and whispered, "C'mon, Willow, please wake up!"

"Keep an eye on her," Buffy ordered, meeting the dark gaze and giving the silent order to protect Willow.

Kennedy nodded grimly in response.

Buffy turned back to the strange plateau of Giles and a naked Tara. Shaking her head, Buffy rejoined them and glanced at Giles. "So. What's going on, man with the plan?"

Looking helpless, Giles answered, "I have no idea."

"Where's Spike and his chip when you need to determine if someone's human?" Buffy muttered. The fluttering pain at the thought of the vanquished vampire was swiftly buried. There wasn't any time for emotions like that. Besides, the whole ghost thing was an additional headache she really didn't need just then. She watched as Tara's hand automatically went to her nose and Buffy grinned in approval. Another point in favor of it actually being Tara.

"Oh dear," Giles sighed. "I'm afraid that we'll need to do this the old fashioned way, either with magic, or with blood samples and physical tests, but I'm afraid that's Willow's domain."

"And she's out cold," Buffy agreed.

"No, she's not."

They all looked back at Willow's shaky, but determined statement. The redhead was still on the counter, staring holes into Tara as though that alone could ascertain the truth of the matter. With Kennedy's help, she got to the floor, leaning heavily on the slayer as she said, "I need to know. Buffy, I have some spare clothes in the back room, can you get them?"

Buffy nodded, but was reluctant to leave, even though her gut said that the woman on the floor was really Tara. She'd been fooled before, though not often, and if anything happened to Willow or Giles while she was gone...

"We'll be fine," Willow assured her, flashing a brief, haggard smile. "I'm all put back together, see?"

A little spark of electricity flared from Willow's fingertips and Buffy nodded again, accepting the statement as true. She headed out of the room and quickly rifled through the back cabinets until she found a bathrobe and pajamas. Trust Willow to have everything ahead of time. Shaking her head in fond amusement, Buffy returned to the main room only to find that no one had moved.

She offered the robe to the woman, who took it with a soft, grateful smile before putting it on and getting slowly to her feet. Standing so close to her, in the light, Buffy couldn't see anything different about this woman from Tara, not a single freckle or laugh-line out of place. It was really starting to freak her out.

"We'll meet you back at the house," Willow said, holding onto Kennedy's arm.

Buffy hesitated, then nodded and motioned for Tara to precede her out of the shop. She cast one last look back at her best friend and winced as she saw the redhead in earnest conversation with the dark-haired slayer. She'd never seen Kennedy so whipped, so afraid, not even when they'd been surrounded by hundreds of vampires and certain death.

Which made sense, really, since before she'd only risked her life, not her heart.

"Kennedy, it's going to be all right," Willow whispered.

Shaking her head, Kennedy refuted, "How can you say that? I had to compete against Tara when she was dead, now that she's alive, I don't stand a chance!"

Willow took a breath, cupping the younger girl's face and assuring her, "That's not Tara."

"What if it is?"

"It's not."

"But Willow..."

Willow stopped the frightened words with a kiss, putting all of her love and confidence in them into the press of lips on lips, her hand moving to cup the back of the taller girl's neck to keep her close. Not that Kennedy needed any encouragement to stay put, because her mouth opened to Willow's and she sighed in need and pleasure mingled in equal parts.

When Willow drew back, the dark eyes were closed and there was a soft, happy expression on Kennedy's face. Her lover's eyes opened at last and Willow promised, "It's not Tara. Now let's go figure out what is going on and how to stop it."

Kennedy nodded and laced their fingers together on the walk out of the shop to the car.

Buffy stared at the…at Tara… huddled on an overstuffed chair across the family room from her. The other slayers were notably absent, but only because Giles had sent them to bed, along with Dawn, with firm orders not to even poke their noses out on pain of having them cut off. For once, there had been quiet obedience from all the young woman, as though they knew just how difficult and important a situation it was. Dawn had protested, but Buffy had been adamant, as had been Giles and Xander.

So now they were just waiting for Kennedy and Willow to return before they, well, did something. Though what that would be, was anyone's guess.

"Would you please stop looking at me like that?" Tara asked softly, distressed, not meeting anyone's gaze.

Buffy looked at Giles, who sighed faintly, jaw tightening with unspoken emotion. From there, she glanced at Xander, whose back was turned to Tara. Her other best friend was far more tight-lipped than usual. The patch over his eye did nothing to hide the pain on his expressive face. She almost missed the barely audible, "It's me. I'm me. I am." As though Tara were trying to convince herself of that very thing.

It was that agonized murmur which convinced Buffy that no matter what the being across the room really was, it at least wasn't harmful or evil. Hesitant, she asked, "Do you want something to drink? Or, um, to eat?"

Wide hazel eyes peered up at her from the curtain of dirty hair and the being answered, "Yes, please. Water?"

"Sure," Buffy agreed.

She was just about to head for the kitchen when the front door opened and closed, signaling Willow and Kennedy's arrival. A few seconds later, the two silent women entered the family room, Willow's gaze instantly going to their strange guest. The hazel eyes shifted from Buffy to Willow and for a moment, everyone was frozen.

Buffy bit her lip at the pain on Willow's face. She wanted to shout at the cruelty of a Fate that would do this to her best friend, but kept silent.

Kennedy, to Buffy's great surprise, continued on her way, going upstairs presumably to the bedroom she shared with Willow. She definitely wouldn't have wanted to be witness to the conversation the two women had had back at the magic shop.

"Yes, well, I suppose someone should start," Giles said quietly. "Willow, would you come over here, please?"

Like the uncertain girl she hadn't been in years, Willow obeyed Giles without question or comment. Not that Buffy blamed her, given the circumstances. It wasn't exactly the same thing, but if her mother suddenly showed up and they didn't know if she was real, she'd sure as hell want someone else to take charge.

Putting a hand on Willow's shoulder, Giles looked down at her and asked, "Can you use your magic to tell if she's at least human?"

"No!" Tara protested.

They all looked at her, suspicion flooding the room almost physically.

Flushing, she continued, "I, I don't want her to break her, her, her abstinence for me. Find a-a-a-another way."

Thoughtful, Giles explained, "Willow is beyond that now. It's perfectly safe for her to use her magic."

"Are, are you sure?" Tara questioned.

Willow faced the being and Buffy was a little wary at the redhead's lack of expression. "Will?"

Thankfully, it wasn't a pair of all-black eyes that turned to her, just the regular, if guarded, blue-green. A half-smile played over Willow's lips as she said, "I'm fine, Buffy."

Reassured, Buffy watched as Willow crossed the room, stopping directly in front of Tara. The two women stared at each other warily, something that hadn't happened since Willow had gone off into the magic addiction. Willow held out her hand and, a long minute later, Tara accepted it. The pendant around Willow's throat flared at just that moment and a bubble of golden light exploded, encasing Willow and Tara.

When Buffy's eyes cleared, it was to find Willow shaking in Tara's arms and the blond woman holding her tight, rocking them both.

"Sssh, baby, sssh, it's okay," Tara murmured over and over, kissing Willow's hair and face as Willow sobbed her heart out.

A whimper from behind brought Buffy's attention away from the heart-rending spectacle. Kennedy stood in the doorframe, dark eyes wide with shock and betrayal, her face twisted with pain. Buffy moved instinctively towards her, the urge to comfort propelling her, but Kennedy ran out of the house, door standing open behind her.

Sighing, Buffy turned back to the room. Giles looked both happy and dismayed, exactly how Buffy felt, while Xander stood still in shock.

It was going to be a long, long week.

The hot water washed away the last traces of grime and caked on slime from Tara's body. Willow's hands moved a cloth reverently down the long line of Tara's back, rubbing gently but firmly. They had taken care of her front and Willow hadn't lingered, though she'd wanted to. She knew that this wasn't the time for a physical reconnection, it would be enough to simply hold Tara. Her own eyes were gritty and hot from the crying she'd done, but inside, she was thrumming with unspent power and energy held at bay simply because to be with Tara like this was something she'd never once imagined possible.

Dropping the cloth on the tub floor, Willow reached for the shampoo and whispered, "Close your eyes, baby, I'm going to do your hair."

There was a mute nod, so Willow poured a generous amount in the palm of her hand and then rubbed it into the tangled, dirty hair. Her fingers scratched lightly, detangling the knots with as much care as she could and still get the long mass clean. There was a soft sigh of contentment that sent a rush of emotion through Willow.

She didn't speak, just maneuvered Tara under the water to wash the shampoo out. Turning the other woman to face her, Willow grabbed the towel from the rack and patted Tara's face dry. Wide hazel eyes opened after that and Willow discovered that she couldn't stop smiling. That seemed to prompt a shy smile onto Tara's face much like when they'd first showered together; as if Tara couldn't really believe that Willow wanted to do this for her.

"Oh baby," Willow whispered, dropping the towel and holding her arms open.

Tara moved into them, wrapping her own around Willow's waist and holding tight. It was her turn to shake and cry, the events finally catching up, or perhaps penetrating for the first time. They stood there like that long enough for the water to cool down almost unpleasantly.

By then, Tara had pulled herself together enough to pull back and say, "I'm sorry. I'm just, I-I'm really confused and tired."

Cupping Tara's face, Willow kissed her sweetly before assuring her, "It's okay, Tara. Come on, let's get into some pj's and we'll snuggle in bed. We can talk about everything in the morning."

Tara nodded agreement, so Willow helped her out of the tub. She ran into the attached bedroom and grabbed the warm, bunny pj's that she knew Tara loved and a pair of boxers and t-shirt for herself. Returning to the small bathroom, she found her lover looking around with a minor frown and stopped short. "Everything okay?"

Tara had that hesitant expression that always bespoke an observation she didn't want to share, but felt like she should as she answered, "The dark-haired girl, sh-she's your girlfriend?"

Dismay bolted through Willow as she realized that not once had Kennedy come into her mind since discovering that Tara was really Tara.

"I, I thought so," Tara murmured, looking at the sink.

Willow followed her gaze and winced as she found the picture of herself and Kennedy making faces at the camera. Xander had taken the picture shortly after they'd moved here. Stepping forward, Willow put the clothes on the sink and slowly took Tara's hands, giving her plenty of time to pull away. "Tara, baby, it's going to be a big mess, I know that, but, but can we just, tonight? I mean, I just got you back and I only want to hold you and make sure that you're real. Can we? Please?"

A gentle smile surfaced on Tara's face and she nodded shyly.

Relieved, Willow brought her hands up and kissed the palms before releasing them. She picked up the pj's and offered, "Look! Bunnies!"

The smile widened and Tara nodded again, warm humor in her eyes as she took them and said, "Bunny jammies are good for snuggles."

Grinning outright, Willow agreed, "Excellent for snuggles. The very bestest."

It was in record time that she was in the boxers and t-shirt, fast enough to help Tara button the shirt, the other woman's fine motor-control not yet completely back. Willow stole a quick kiss and asked, "Ready for snuggles?"

"Definitely," Tara replied, holding out a hand.

Willow took it, craving the connection, and they walked to the bed. She held up the covers, letting Tara scoot in first, then climbed in. It didn't take long to assume their favorite snuggle position with Willow curled up around Tara, who lay on her back and held Willow. Breathing deep, Willow exhaled just as slow, feeling herself for the first time since Tara's death.

It was a big mess and mentally, Willow knew that. But her heart and her emotions were filled with the certainty of soul-deep love as she listened to the steady beating of Tara's heart. She knew that she wasn't going to sleep, because if she did, Tara might somehow be taken from her.

The End

The Further Adventures of Willow #3: The Morning After

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