DISCLAIMER: None of these characters are mine. They have been used without permission and not for profit. No copyright infringement is intended.
SPOILERS: None, really. If you haven't read the rest of the stories in the series (Decisions, Full Circle, and Darkness Falls) you will be hopelessly lost for this one, so I recommend going back and reading those first.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To annebar76[at]gmail.com
SERIES: Fourth in Friends Forever series.
The door burst open, and two women quickly walked into the room. One, a tall woman with long jet-black hair and cerulean eyes wore a dark overcoat that completely hid her figure to any roaming eye. It also kept anyone from seeing the weapons she carried underneath the garment. She paused at the door only long enough to close and lock it.
The other woman was smaller and by all outward signs was dressed the same, and for the same reasons. Her blonde hair was cropped short, and when she went into the room she absent-mindedly pushed a stray lock out of her face; a face that had a look of anger and frustration to it.
"I don't understand why you don't want me to fight," Gabrielle said in their native Greek, very aware that the volume of her voice had risen quite a bit since they had made it back to the small rented room they shared.
"You don't understand " Xena responded; only to have her lover cut her off.
"Exactly. We've been tracking this demon for a fortnight. We do have a bit of an edge, and I've been fighting alongside you for at least several hundred lifetimes, so I do know what I'm doing." Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair in exasperation as she took a deep breath. "Why don't you trust me in this fight?"
Xena loosened her topcoat, removing her sword and Chakram from underneath before taking the garment off completely. "I'm not sure I can explain it "
"Can't? Or won't?" The blonde gently took her lover's hand in her own. "Please. We both know that if you face it by yourself you could be lost forever. If we face it together, we have a chance."
Deep blue eyes closed in sadness. "No, we don't," Xena said quietly, opening her eyes and looking down at Gabrielle. The raven-haired woman's face softened, and her eyes became watery. "You've become so much to me "
Gabrielle's eyes grew wide. "Stop it. You're scaring me."
"I don't mean to." Xena led Gabrielle to the edge of the bed and gently sat her lover down. "Do you remember the battle we fought with that god in Africa?"
"It wasn't that long ago." Gabrielle said uncertainly.
"You were knocked out when I killed him, so you never knew " Xena stood and began pacing, "Before he died, he bound my fate to that of the same demon we're hunting."
"What? How could he do that?" Gabrielle said, not quite believe what she had just heard.
"We both know gods have powers of their own. Even though he knew he was losing, this was his way of making sure I'd be put in my own version of Tartarus." Xena kneeled down, taking in all the features of Gabrielle's face. "I didn't believe he could do it, but a day later I began to have dreams."
All of the elements fell into place for Gabrielle. Xena had been irritable, many nights not sleeping next to Gabrielle at all under the guise of keeping watch. After being together so long, the blonde knew when something was bothering her lover, but she also knew that Xena would talk about it when she could. But there was something else though: they had tracked the demon all too easily. Gabrielle hadn't seen any of the traces Xena had appeared to notice, and while Xena was the better tracker of the two, Gabrielle was no slouch at it either.
"What dreams?" Gabrielle asked in a voice that was breaking. She didn't want to be hearing any of this. There weren't many things that could threaten the immortal warriors, but there was something about this that was disquieting.
"Dreams of the demon. Of hunting alongside it, killing with it."
"Gods " Gabrielle knew all too well of Xena's fight against the bloodlust that seemed to run deep inside her.
A rueful laugh escaped Xena's mouth. "I thought I might have just been having nightmares, but the dreams were too real. Then one night I woke up with blood on my hands." Xena shuddered. "I've hardly slept since then."
Gabrielle swallowed hard. Her intuition was telling her where the conversation was going, and she felt fear come over her in waves. "And you want to fight it alone because " She couldn't finish the sentence.
"Because in order for this particular demon to die, I have to die with it," Xena finally said.
"But we can't die." Even to Gabrielle, her voice sounded flat with shock.
"No, but I can take this demon where it can't harm anyone else."
"And how are you going to do that? You're not a witch. You stay as far away from a spell book as you possibly can."
Xena didn't answer immediately, and Gabrielle knew the next words from her lover's mouth would be a lie.
"You're right. We'll find a way."
"Yes, we will," Gabrielle said, keeping the doubt out of her voice. She still had time to keep Xena from doing anything rash. "There has to be a way out of this." Gabrielle lightly caressed her lover's cheek.
Xena leaned into the touch. "We can talk about it tomorrow. Tonight, I'm tired."
"I am too." Gabrielle leaned in, barely grazing Xena's lips. "I love you. Don't ever forget that. Eternity's too long to spend without you."
Xena's eyes welled with unshed tears. "It is indeed. Let's get to bed."
Both women undressed in relative quiet, stopping only to help each other with some of the more intricate clothing they had to wear. It wasn't long before they were in bed, and Gabrielle immediately moved over to Xena's side and laid her arm over the warrior's chest, trusting completely that her lover would be there in the morning.
In her slumber, Gabrielle reached over to Xena's side of the bed, only to find it cold. "Xena?" She asked, opening her eyes to the dawn.
Xena wasn't in the room, but on the small table against the wall laid the warrior's Chakram. It gleamed in the morning light, taking on a gentle beauty that belied its actual use. It took a moment to register the scene before Gabrielle, and even as she went over to the table she was still in shock.
"No " She whispered as she picked up the short letter resting under the Chakram's blade.
Gabrielle wasted no time in getting dressed and arming herself. She was determined to not let Xena do whatever she was planning to do. After putting her Sais into her boots, Gabrielle left the small room and went downstairs, not even noticing the strange look she received from the innkeeper in her haste.
It didn't take her long to find the area where they had found the demon the night before. There was a small clearing, and amongst the large rocks there was a cave. Taking out her sword, Gabrielle approached the clearing carefully, instantly becoming aware of every sound in the area. It was the lack of certain sounds; however, that gave Gabrielle pause.
There wasn't any sound that could have come from a creature as large as the demon, and certainly no sounds of fighting. When she stepped into the clearing, she found definite signs of a struggle, and the tracks had definitely been made in the past few hours. As she continued to comb the clearing, Gabrielle found the one thing she hadn't wanted or expected to find.
At the opposite edge of the small area was a circle of scorched earth. When Gabrielle approached, it was obvious that a campfire had not made the marks. It looked exactly like the signs of a portal. Though Gabrielle wasn't sure how, she knew that Xena had succeeded in doing what she'd said she would do; the demon had gone to a place where it couldn't harm anyone. The only thing was, Gabrielle knew that Xena had gone with it.
Standing became too much for her suddenly. Gabrielle dropped to her knees, letting her sword fall beside her. Though tears never fell, it was a long time before she was able to stand.
Tara sat on the balcony of the hotel room; silently contemplating how her life had changed so completely in so little time while the wind blew her long blonde hair back. She had seen a dear friend killed. That had been horrifying enough, but to feel it through the killer's perspective had almost driven her insane. It had only been through her strength and the strength of her friends that Tara had been able to begin to heal.
And that was partially what she was doing in Bermuda: healing and getting away from the constant battle with evil. She had spent much of her time reading, sleeping in the sun, and swimming. Overall, it had been good. With occasional calls back to Sunnydale to check in with Faith, she had for the most part put past events out of her mind.
Almost. Even though she knew she had her friends; Buffy and Faith would always be there for her. Xander and Anya, though in San Francisco, would also support her, but Tara felt completely alone what seemed like the first time ever. In truth, it was almost seven years; ever since she and Willow had become lovers, but now that all seemed to be over. Willow had broken their psychic link, and though they had forgiven each other for the events leading up to that point and the subsequent events surrounding that, Tara wasn't sure she could go back to being Willow's lover.
Coming to that decision had been one of the most difficult things she had ever had to do in her life. Willow was her love, but more than that, she was her best friend. The one she shared everything with. The one who shared her soul. Though their link had been broken, Tara still felt that way.
But she had been left scarred from the last battle, and she still felt an evil within her. It had diminished a great deal since Elspeth's spell had been broken, but it was there, moving around in her mind. It was a part that longed for blood the same way a vampire did, and that frightened her. She was afraid to show Willow that part of herself, knowing that Willow would feel guilty about having put her lover through such a horrific experience. As the saying went, though, hindsight was 20/20, and Willow needed to know about it if they ever had any hope of getting back together.
Tara sighed softly. Through all of her fear and sadness, she wanted to talk to Willow. It felt like it had been forever since they had spoken; she hadn't intended it to be that way, but every time she picked up the phone to dial, she lost her nerve. Tara resolved that she would do it this time. She simply had to hear Willow's voice.
She went back inside, and picked up the hotel phone with a million things going through her mind. What would she say? What would Willow say? Had the redhead moved on in those months? Tara shook her head. If Willow had moved on, Faith or Buffy would have told her.
Dialing the numbers before she could lose her nerve, Tara took a deep breath and held the phone up to her ear, listening to the ringing sound. Five rings and no answer. After six rings, Tara almost hung up the phone, but just before she hung up a very breathless Willow picked up the phone.
"Hello?" The word was said between heavy breaths.
"Willow?" Tara asked, almost choking on the name. This was much more difficult than she thought possible.
The breathing stopped. "Tara?" Willow asked, and Tara could hear the caution in her voice.
"Hi." Now that Tara had the redhead on the phone, she wasn't sure of what to say. "Is this a bad time?"
Willow's breathing resumed. "I was just working out. Did you want to talk to Faith?"
"I'd like to talk to you if you have the time." Tara cursed to herself. Why did this have to be so uncomfortable?
"Oh. Oh! Me?" Willow's voice squeaked, obviously shocked. "Sure."
"How have you been?" Tara mentally smacked herself. They hadn't spoken in months and she was resorting to small talk.
"Okay." Willow waited a beat. "I've missed you."
Tara closed her eyes as a tear leaked out. "I've missed you, too."
"When - I mean, are you coming back soon?"
"My flight leaves in a couple of hours," Tara said, feeling the now all-too-familiar butterflies in her stomach. "I should be back by tomorrow morning."
"Do you need a ride?" Willow asked.
"No, I'll just take a cab."
Tara couldn't stop her sharp intake of breath at the word. Her chest began to tighten and her palms started sweating. The urge to hang up was strong, but she willed herself to make it through the conversation.
"Tara, I'm sorry. I didn't mean "
"It's okay, Willow. Seven years is a hard habit to break."
Willow swallowed hard. "And I guess it needs to be broken."
"No, yes - I don't know. I'm not sure where I am right now." Tara took a deep breath to try to dispel some of her fear. "I do know I need to see you again."
"Me too." The relief in Willow's voice was evident.
"So I'll see you tomorrow?" Tara asked after a moment.
"Definitely. And Tara?"
"Yeah?" She could barely whisper.
"We'll make it through this." Willow's voice broke with emotion.
Tara hung up without responding as she finally gave in to the panic she was feeling. In less than twenty-four hours she would be back in Sunnydale; back to the place she had called home for so long. She just hoped she was strong enough to let the people she loved back into her heart.
Willow pulled into her mother's driveway, taking a deep breath when she put the car into park. It had been three months since Sheila Rosenberg had moved back to Sunnydale, minus Ira Rosenberg. Willow was just getting to know her mother again, and it certainly was not an easy thing. She had not seen either one of her parents in so long she had almost forgotten what they looked like, and coming to find out that her mother wanted back into her life had somewhat thrown the witch.
But Sheila had returned a changed person. She wanted to be involved in Willow's life, to know her daughter. It was the reason she had studied demonology to the extent that she could be called an expert in the field, and since Giles had been lost, Sheila had proved herself invaluable to the group.
Willow took the steps to the porch slowly and knocked on the door, waiting patiently for her mother to answer the door. It still wasn't easy to see her mother sometimes, knowing what her sudden appearance in Sunnydale had caused, but Willow was doing her best to see past it.
Sheila opened the door. "Come in."
"Mom, I keep telling you not to do that," Willow said, stepping inside the house.
"I know, but I figured I was safe. It is daylight after all." Sheila closed the door behind her. "I have some coffee in the kitchen."
"Thanks." Willow followed her mother into the kitchen. "How're things at the gallery?"
After Sheila moved back to Sunnydale, she had taken a job at Joyce Summers' art gallery, handling all incoming and outgoing shipments. It was an intricate job, and one she had been pleased to take over. In essence, she was running the gallery with Joyce. Since the two of them had formed a good friendship, the job hardly seemed like work to the elder Rosenberg.
"Good. We just received a shipment of African fertility gods in this week. You should come down and see them," Sheila said, pouring two mugs of coffee and handing one to Willow. "So how are you doing?"
"Tara called this morning." Willow took a small sip of the hot liquid.
Willow had insisted on more than one occasion that that her mother wasn't at fault, but Sheila kept apologizing whenever Tara came up in conversation. Had she not come back into her daughter's life the way she had, Willow and Tara wouldn't be separated, or that was how she explained it.
"She's coming back tomorrow."
"That's excellent. Isn't it?"
"Yeah, it is." Willow idly traced the top of the mug with her finger. "It's just I'm scared, Mom." Willow's finger stopped and she looked directly at her mother. "What if we can't find what we had?"
"Oh sweetie," Sheila said quietly, covering Willow's hand with her own. "I can't lie to you, you may not. You might discover something different though, something better."
"I know, and I'm holding on to that. It's the only thing that's helped me since all this happened," Willow bowed her head, "But there's this other thing. What if we can't find anything? What if it's over?"
"Then you'll grow to live without her." She said simply.
Willow began crying the tears she'd held inside for so long as Sheila pulled her into her arms. Neither one of them said anything. Sheila just let her cry until there were no more tears left in her.
Eventually Willow lifted her head from her mother's shoulder. "Thanks."
"I want to be here for you."
"I'm glad you are." Willow wiped her tears. "I think I'll go put some cold water on my face, and then we'll go for lunch."
"Are you sure you want to?"
Willow sighed heavily. "Yeah. I want to spend some time with you."
As she went into the bathroom, Willow couldn't help but feel that all the cold water in the world wouldn't erase the pain she was in. Either that pain would lessen in the next day, or she would feel her heart completely ripped from her soul. It wasn't an exaggeration. She would truly be losing a piece of herself forever if Tara decided not to be in her life.
Faith kneeled in the dirt, tugging out weeds. At least, she thought they were weeds. Her long, wavy brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her previously white tank top was brown with dirt. Gardening wasn't exactly something she enjoyed doing. In fact, if anyone had asked her, Faith would have said she would rather have someone pull out her fingernails. However, Tara had asked her to look after the small herb garden, so Faith was determined to do her best to take care of it for her friend.
Not that she had any idea whatsoever what any of the herbs looked like. That being true, Faith was certain she was pulling out just as many herbs as she was pulling weeds. It didn't help that she hadn't done it since her friend had been gone, either. Tara had been hinting that she was coming back soon, and Faith remembered her promise and immediately went out to clean out the garden and make it presentable.
Deciding she had done enough for the day, Faith stood up and drove the wheelbarrow to the compost heap and dumped everything onto the mound. Just a few yards behind the garden was a small shed, and she put all the garden tools inside before heading to the house. As she brushed some of the loose dirt off her shirt, she hoped she wouldn't have to tend the garden much longer, and it wasn't just because she hated gardening.
She missed Tara. It was as simple as that. When Faith had shown up in Sunnydale, Tara had been the only one to accept and trust her immediately; even when she found out everything the Slayer had done in the past. Things had changed so fast after that; she, Buffy, Willow, and Tara had all become immortal through a strange series of events that Faith still wasn't sure she understood.
After that, Faith and Tara had become fast friends. In the beginning of Faith's relationship with Buffy, the two friends thought of all kinds of little romantic things that would let the blonde Slayer know she was being thought of, and through those times, Faith had come to know Tara very well. Faith laughed at herself. She never would have thought her best friend would be a shy witch. She never thought she'd have a best friend in the first place.
She was thinking about this still when she wandered into the kitchen, grabbing a soda from the refrigerator and barely noticing the woman coming in from the sliding glass doors.
Faith nearly jumped out of her skin, and she spilled half her soda on the floor. "Damn, B. You have to stop with the stealthy appearances," she grinned, grabbing a paper towel.
The downstairs of their house was very much an open-air design, so it wasn't exactly easy to sneak up on someone, especially a Slayer.
"I wasn't even trying to be stealth-like," she remarked, walking to where her lover was cleaning up the liquid. "You looked like you were thinking about something."
Faith finished mopping up and threw away the towels. "I was thinking about Tara."
"She's coming back." Buffy said as she settled on a kitchen stool and picked up an apple, taking a huge bite out of it.
"I know. I just kind of miss the walks through the graveyards."
Buffy laughed at that, and in the process she almost spit out the piece of apple she had just put in her mouth. "That's what all the best friends are doing these days."
"That did sound kind of strange, didn't it?"
"I won't tell anyone. Come over here." Buffy sat the apple down and held out her hand.
It was a hand that Faith easily accepted; she knew she had found her soul mate in Buffy long ago. Sinking into her lover's arms, Faith relaxed completely. "Have I ever mentioned just how much I love this?"
"What? The sweaty hugs or life in general?"
"Both." Faith replied softly, her mouth centimeters from Buffy's ear. "I love you."
"Yeah?" Buffy asked as she arched into Faith.
"Yeah. You've got my heart." Faith let her lips barely graze the lobe of Buffy's ear.
"What?" Faith's question was almost a silent brush of air on Buffy's neck.
"Kiss me "
Faith said no more, her lips tracing a line to Buffy's mouth. Their lips met, the passion slowly rising between the two women as the kiss deepened. As Faith's tongue entered her mouth, Buffy wrapped her legs around the other Slayer, pulling them even closer together.
Reluctantly Faith broke the kiss. "Let's go upstairs."
"Why? I kind of want you right here."
"Dirt and all?" Faith pulled back enough for Buffy to see the dirt-smudged shirt.
Buffy grinned. "You are kind of dirty." She said impishly.
"Hey, you should talk, sweat girl."
"I thought you liked it when I got all hot and sweaty," Buffy said, wriggling against her lover.
Faith's next breath was ragged. "Damn, B. That feels so good."
"I think that's a vote for staying right where we are." Buffy whispered. She began lightly tracing a line across Faith's neck with one finger.
Faith rolled her eyes back, shivering under the touch. "Shower," She whispered, hooking her hands under Buffy's thighs, lifting them around her waist, and kissing her lover voraciously.
Instead of going upstairs though, Faith took them into the spare bedroom, where she barely managed to close the door behind them before Buffy had stripped her shirt off.
Willow moved around the living area with a speed that was almost unnatural, cleaning everything she found. There was no piece of dust that was safe from her cloth or mop, and no magazine safe from the trash can. Tara had been gone for so long, and Willow didn't want her to see the place looking anything but spotless.
"C'mon Red, she's going to expect some dust, you know," Faith said just as Willow lifted the Slayer's feet to dust before taking the magazine from the brunette's hands. "And by the way, I was reading that." Faith snatched the magazine back.
"Fine, but trash it when you're done," Willow replied distractedly.
"She's right. You should slow down." Buffy chimed in.
Willow stared at both her friends disbelievingly. "Guys, she's going to be here in two hours tops. I want things just right."
Buffy put her hands on Willow's arms. When she spoke, her voice was gentle. "Will, she lives here, and she knows it's never perfect. I don't think that's what she expects. She'll probably be happy just to be among friends again."
"Right, right. Friends. That's it. We're her friends. I'm her friend," Willow said, tears coming to her eyes.
"I'm sorry, sweetie." Buffy put her arms around her friend, pulling her into a strong embrace. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"I know, but it's true." Willow's tears stopped as quickly as they came. "I'm just still getting used to it."
Faith threw the magazine onto the table. "I'm going upstairs."
Willow looked at Faith as the Slayer walked up the circular staircase, not saying anything. She knew how Faith felt, and a part of her still accepted that blame. No matter how many times Tara said there wasn't anything to forgive, Willow still thought she was partly to blame for everything that had happened to her ex-lover.
"Willow," Buffy turned her friend's head toward her. "I know what you're thinking. Listen to me. You are not to blame for this. Tara definitely doesn't blame you for this either. She just needs all of us to help her through this, and you can't do that if you wallowing in guilt."
That caught Willow's attention. Buffy was right. Tara did need them all, and Willow couldn't do anything in the state she was in. "You're right," She said softly.
"Glad you see it that way," She replied with a grin. "Now go upstairs and have a shower while I finish the cleaning down here, okay?"
Willow finally came out of her guilt-ridden stupor. "Sure." She gave her friend one last hug before going upstairs.
Faith let the water cascade down her body, hoping to relieve some of the frustration she was feeling with yet another shower. She wasn't angry at Willow. What happened to Tara hadn't been Willow's fault, but it had still happened, and Faith knew Tara would be forever changed by it. No one got that close to evil without being affected, and Faith hated the fact that her friend had been touched by it.
Stepping out of the shower, Faith grabbed a towel and started drying off. She had thought about the ramifications of what Tara had been through so many times since the witch had been gone, but with her coming back it seemed all those consequences were crashing in around Faith.
Of course, she was sure that Willow was having many of the same feelings, but Faith hadn't been able to talk to the redhead about it whatsoever. They hadn't done much talking at all recently, and Faith knew she was mostly to blame. She just wished she knew how to approach Willow without sounding accusatory.
"You know, you could show Will some kindness," Buffy said from the doorway.
Faith's first instinct was to be angry at the remark, but she knew Buffy was right. "I don't know what to do or what to say."
"How about, 'hey, I'm here for you if you ever need to talk'? You don't have to say anything more. Seriously." Buffy sighed. "She thinks you hate her."
Brown eyes closed, letting Faith absorb Buffy's comment. "Really?"
"Yeah." Buffy moved closer, taking Faith's hand and squeezing it gently.
"I don't. Not at all. I just don't know what to say." Faith finally opened her eyes to find Buffy looking back lovingly.
"Why not try that for starters. Go from there." Buffy's lips curled into a small smile. "Why don't you try telling her a gross story? You know, one of the ones you're always telling me?"
Faith found herself returning the grin. "I could never do that to her."
"Hmph. You do that to me all the time."
"You like my stories."
"Uh-huh." Buffy pulled Faith to her. "Talk to her," She said quietly.
"Sure." Faith kicked herself immediately. She really had no idea what she would say.
Willow's bedroom was on the same floor, just on the opposite side of the house, so Faith made her way around the balcony to knock on the bedroom door. After a few seconds, Willow opened it, her hair pulled up in a towel on her head.
"Hey," the redhead said.
"Can we talk?"
Willow's eyebrows shot up. "Um, sure." She held the door open. "Come on in."
"I'm sorry." The words seemed to blurt themselves out of Faith's mouth.
Faith suddenly found her feet to be very interesting. "We haven't talked a lot lately. I'm not angry at you. I just "
"Just what?" Willow prompted after Faith didn't say anything.
"Don't know what to say. I've never been any good at these things. I've always kinda run from them." Faith started pacing the room nervously.
"I thought you were angry beyond belief." Willow said quietly.
"B just told me, and I'm sorry. I don't know how to act in these situations. You know me. I'm an action kind of gal."
"This whole thing is my fault anyway "
Faith stopped pacing and turned to her. "No, it's not. You had no idea that bitch was gonna take Tara. No one could have seen that coming. If you could, you never would have wished that on her."
Willow blinked several times, as though she was digesting what Faith had just said. "You know, coming from you it makes sense."
"What?" Faith asked, not really understanding.
"Buffy's been trying to tell me the same thing ever since this happened, and I thought she was just trying to make me feel better. From you though, I know it's real."
"Because I'm not your friend?"
At that Willow actually grinned. "No, silly. You're my friend. It's because I've never heard you say anything you don't mean just to make me feel better."
Faith let out the breath she had been holding. "Oh, I get it."
"Good. Thanks. I think I'm actually ready to see her now."
"I'm glad I could help." Faith was still a bit dumbfounded as to how she had fixed things for Willow, but she decided to go with the flow.
"You did. Now, get out of here so I can dry my hair." Willow took off the towel on her head.
"Sure thing, Red." Faith went to the door, leaving her friend to the matter of her hair.
"We're here," The cabby looked back expectantly, but Tara didn't move. "Lady, we're here," He said a bit louder.
Tara shook her head. "Sorry." Digging in her bag, Tara pulled out some money and handed it to the man. "Keep the change."
"Hey, thanks." The cabby stepped out of the car and took Tara's bags out of the trunk. "You need any help with these?"
"No, but thank you," Tara said distractedly.
She couldn't take her eyes off of the house. Her house. The same house she hadn't seen in so long she had forgotten how large it was. The exterior was simple white, except for the third story, which was enclosed almost completely in glass. The entire structure seemed to tower over her, and for a moment she just wanted to get back in the cab and run away.
Running wasn't an option for her anymore. She missed her friends, and she wanted to be surrounded by people who loved her again. Not that Bermuda had been bad; she just didn't have a support network there.
Then there was Willow. Tara missed her the most, and yet it was the prospect of seeing the redhead that frightened Tara more than anything. She breathed in deeply, as though the breath would give her courage, and it did, at least it took away some of the butterflies in her stomach. Picking up her bags, she began the downhill walk to the front door.
As she moved closer, she started to wonder whether or not she should knock. Deep in her gut she knew that this was still her home, so she decided to just let herself in. When she finally made it to the door, she faltered a bit. What if Willow didn't love her? What if the love she felt couldn't overcome her darkness?
Tara pulled the keys out of her pocket and unlocked the door, opening it slowly. "Hello?" She called out tentatively.
"Tara!" Faith said as she bounded down the stairs. The Slayer was about to embrace Tara before she seemed to think better of it.
Tara pulled her friend into a bear hug, and for a moment they stood with their arms wrapped around each other. When they separated, Tara had tears in her eyes.
"It's so good to see you again." Faith managed to say as Tara wiped the wetness from her cheeks.
"You too. We have so much to talk about." Tara's words were heavy.
"Yeah, but whenever you say. K?"
Tara pulled back, having finally been set down. "Sure." She nodded. "Buffy," She said, looking behind Faith.
"How was your flight?" Buffy asked.
"Long, but okay."
"Good." Buffy hugged her briefly. "We'll get these bags for you. Where do you want them?"
The question hung in the air.
Tara thought about it, not really wanting to answer. "The spare room for now, okay?"
"Sure thing, Tar." Buffy replied, and she and Faith took the bags away, leaving her to stand alone in the foyer.
She wasn't alone for long. A shock of red hair peaked out from where the kitchen was. "Willow?" Her voice cracked a bit on the name.
"Hi," Willow said quietly.
Tara let out the breath she had been holding. Willow looked more beautiful than she remembered, and Tara found herself wanting nothing more than to sink into the redhead's strong embrace.
"You've changed your hair," She said instead.
"It's a bit shorter," Willow laughed nervously. "You like it?"
"Oh, yes." Tara stepped closer to Willow and took her hand. "I missed you."
When Tara took her hand, she felt the familiar electricity between them and fought the urge to pull her ex-lover closer.
"Me too." Willow's voice was barely above a whisper. "Tara, I "
"Shh. We'll talk later." At that, Tara pulled Willow into her arms, and she felt everything at once: safe, loved, scared, elated, and sad. And above all, she never wanted to let go.
Tara wished nothing more than to stay there forever. It felt like home, and everything else that had happened faded away. Tara closed her eyes and rested her head on Willow's shoulder cherishing the warmth of the redhead's body, the feel of Willow's hair against her cheek. When Tara felt Willow's mind reaching out to her though, she panicked.
Pulling away from the embrace and putting a few feet of distance between them, Tara winced. "No, please." She pleaded.
"I'm so sorry, Tara. I didn't mean it. It just kind of happened," Willow said.
"I know, but it..." Tara closed her eyes, trying to overcome her need to run away. "It isn't you. Really."
Willow's voice was just above a whisper. "But it feels that way."
"I'll explain it all to you one day, I swear."
"I know you will. What can I do to help you feel better now?"
"Let me rest. I'm tired." Tara looked anywhere but at Willow.
"Okay." Willow moved out of the way, giving Tara ample room to go through.
When Tara passed by, she stopped and turned to Willow. "I'm sorry. I I still love you. I promise you that one thing."
The cemetery had a quietness to it that was almost unnatural, and if two different women were walking through it, they might have been frightened. As it was, Buffy and Faith walked almost lazily amidst the gravestones.
"What do you think about red?" The brunette asked. In one hand she languidly twirled a wooden stake.
"We've been over this. I do not want our bedroom painted red. It's been proven to induce anger in people, and some of us don't need any more of that." The blonde, though shorter and slimmer, walked with the same confidence that her companion did.
"Buffy " Faith dragged out her companion's name.
Buffy glared at Faith. "You never do that."
"What?" Faith asked innocently.
"Use my full name."
"Name one time in the last month," Faith opened her mouth to respond, but Buffy's hand stopped her, "when we weren't having sex."
"That's not fair."
Buffy grinned and took her lover's hand in her own. "Nope. Never said it was."
The freshly dug soil of a grave began to move, and Faith stood at the ready. "I got this one."
A hand popped out of the earth, followed by a head and a body. Faith waited until the vampire's chest was exposed before she stabbed the demon in the heart with the stake, turning it to dust instantly.
"Come on. You didn't even let that one get out all the way." Buffy said with a crooked grin.
Faith walked over to her lover, putting her arms around Buffy's waist. "That's because I have more important things I'd rather be doing right now."
"Mm, you definitely have a point there." Buffy let her lips gently touch Faith's, but something caught her senses before she could deepen the kiss any further.
Both women turned to a wooded area within the cemetery and searched the darkness for some sense of what was close by.
"I'm not getting just one vamp on my radar."
"Me either." As soon as she made the remark, Buffy felt the vampires on three sides. "We must have disturbed a nest."
"Back-to-back," Faith said, and they immediately stood with their backs to each other.
The vampires seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and with twelve of the demons, Buffy knew it wouldn't be an easy fight.
"Slayers," one vamp said.
"Ooh, you get a gold star," Faith said, getting into her fighting stance without much thought.
"I don't think this is really a fair fight." Buffy mimicked her lover easily, getting ready for the fight to come.
Faith shrugged as the first vampire came near her. "Who ever said life was fair?" Keeping herself close to Buffy, Faith kicked the first vampire in the chest.
Suddenly there was a whirring sound overhead, and both vamps and Slayers alike looked around to see what it was. A silver disc flew through the air, and before anyone could react to it, it bounced off the trees and lopped off the heads of four of the vampires.
One of the remaining vamps finally spoke up. "Um, I think we'll be leaving now." He and his friend looked at each other, and they turned around and ran.
"Should we go after them?" Faith asked, looking torn.
Buffy looked around. "We could split up " Her eyes lit upon something, or someone, on top of one of the distant crypts.
The two vampires forgotten, Buffy started moving in the direction of the form. "This way. Do you see them?"
As they started to move toward the form, it seemed to disappear from the crypt. A thin mist began to form, and both Slayers knew they'd have difficulty tracking, no matter what their abilities were. When they reached the crypt, the figure had gone.
"Do you see anything?" Buffy asked after they had checked the perimeter for any sign of the figure.
"No wait. Those tracks lead into the woods."
"Let's go." Buffy headed in the direction of the footprints, but Faith put a hand on her arm.
"We should think about this. This person just took out four vamps with one shot."
"And your point? We do have an advantage."
"I just wanted to point that out." Faith shrugged.
A broad grin spread over Buffy's face. "'K. Can we go now?"
They moved slowly among the gravestones, partly because the tracks sometimes ended abruptly when the person had jumped on a headstone, and partly because of the fog, though the fog also served to protect them from any attacks that might have come their way. They made it to the woods eventually, and once their eyes had adjusted to the change in light they continued on. The tracks were easier to find, and soon the came upon a small clearing.
Leaning against the side of a tree was a woman who stood in a very relaxed stance. There was no evidence of the round silver weapon, but that could have easily been hidden under the black leather duster she wore. The only thing that was really visible was her blonde hair, which was cut close to her head. Buffy and Faith made their way over to her.
"Didn't take you long." The blonde said with a clipped, unidentifiable accent. "I'm impressed."
"I'll show you impressed." Faith immediately started for the woman, but Buffy's arm held her back.
"Diplomacy." Buffy stared at her lover with wide eyes. They didn't know who or what they were dealing with, but so far she didn't pose a threat to the Slayers.
Buffy turned to the woman. "Why don't we start with a simple question? Who are you?"
"I'm a friend."
"You wanna be more specific about that one? 'Cause I've got enough friends." Faith said suspiciously.
The woman sighed and turned to Faith. "You're right not to trust me. It speaks well of the warrior in you." She cautiously moved away from the tree, but didn't move toward the Slayers. "I'd heard the Slayers were indestructible "
"And you decided to come here and find out?" Buffy folded her arms over her chest. She was beginning to not like this woman, even if she had killed four vampires with one throw.
"No." The woman shook her head. "This is all wrong. I didn't mean for this to happen like this." She looked to the two Slayers. "I am a friend, and I'm a warrior. Like both of you."
"You're a Slayer?" Buffy asked, her brow furrowing with confusion. She thought she and Faith were the last two on the planet.
"No, but I do fight demons."
Buffy noticed then how controlled the woman's movements were. She moved like a fighter.
"So who are you?" Faith asked.
"Gabrielle most of the time, anyway."
"If you're this big baddie when it comes to fighting demons, why haven't we heard of you?" Buffy shot out. Both the gang and the Council were aware of individuals who took up the mantle of warrior in order to fight against evil, but most of them came into contact with the Council sooner or later.
"Let's just say I have a knack for flying under the radar, as it were."
"Look lady, I don't have much in the patience department, and you're really trying mine. I'm guessing it was you who took out those vamps," Faith took a step towards the woman, "And I'll give you credit for that, but you need to drop the mysterious act."
Gabrielle hardly reacted, and Buffy knew they were dealing with someone who didn't frighten easily. "I need your help. Well, not exactly. I need the help of your friends. You do have two friends who help you, right?"
"What makes you think that?" Buffy asked, not wanting to reveal anything she didn't have to. Willow and Tara had been through enough.
Sighing, Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair. "Word gets around. I heard about what happened to you last year. No specifics, mind you, but I did hear that you and your friends were fished out of rubble a week after you had supposedly been killed. That's not exactly a regular occurrence. Not to mention the underworld has been buzzing with a band of four women who seem to be invulnerable."
Buffy looked to Faith, wondering just how much they should reveal. It was only supposition that they were immortal, and they preferred to keep it that way. It made finding the demons a bit easier, since they tended to run when they knew they were facing a losing battle.
Deciding instead to test how much Gabrielle would tell them, Buffy turned back to the redhead. "What was that disc you used?"
Gabrielle blinked, obviously taken aback by the question before regaining her composure. She slowly opened her coat and immediately the Slayers tensed. "Relax, I'm only getting it out," she said.
"I think we'll stay this way just the same." Faith said, completely ready for a battle.
"Suit yourself." She finished opening the coat, revealing a silver circle that had the yin-yang symbol outlined in gold in the center. The rest of the design was open, as though to provide a handhold for the weapon. "It's called a Chakram. Here," she removed it, dangling it on her finger, "take a look."
Faith and Buffy inched closer for a better view of the weapon. Not only was it beautiful, but also it was obvious that the outer edge was razor sharp. It was no wonder it had taken the heads of the vampires.
Faith reached out to touch it in awe. "Wow, that's a beauty. I haven't seen anything like it."
"That's because there's only one in existence." Gabrielle said.
"Wait. Chakram?" Buffy seemed to put two and two together. "Are you seriously deranged?"
"What are you talking about?" Faith asked Buffy.
"Haven't you ever seen an episode of Xena? The only things that are different are the time period and that Gabrielle's the one walking around with the Chakram." Buffy turned to the woman. "Okay, 'Gabrielle', I'll make this easy. Tell us which hospital you escaped from, and we'll get you back there as soon as possible."
Gabrielle closed her blue eyes and sighed. "Look, I'm not crazy."
Faith snorted. "Could've fooled me."
"Please, listen to me before you tell me I'm crazy." Gabrielle put the weapon back on her belt. "I know all about that damn TV show. The truth is that I came up with the concept. I sold the rights to the story to help a friend."
"And I'm really an opera singer. Slaying is just a side gig." Buffy said, crossing her arms. "No offense, but even this is falling out of my normal realm, and believe me, that's a large realm."
"Wait, let her talk."
"Why?" Buffy asked without turning her attention away from Gabrielle.
"I may not like or trust her, but I know insane and she isn't," Faith responded.
Buffy glanced at her lover. "Okay," she said before turning her gaze to Gabrielle. "So talk."
"There really was a warrior in ancient Greece named Xena who traveled the lands with a companion named Gabrielle. Unlike the show, though, our partnership was far more equal. The difference is that we never died. At least, not permanently."
"You became immortal. How? By eating Ambrosia?" Buffy was suppressing the urge to roll her eyes.
"By much the same method you became immortal, I'd imagine." Gabrielle locked her eyes with Buffy's.
There was a sharp intake of breath from Faith. "You know. No one knows."
Buffy had had enough. Moving faster than even Gabrielle could have expected, Buffy pinned the other blonde to the tree. "Say I believe you. What do you want from us?"
Gabrielle seemed completely unfazed by Buffy's sudden violence. "I told you already. I came to you for help."
"I think we deserve something more specific than that." Buffy didn't relax her hold.
"Don't you think we should " Faith started.
"No, I don't. I'm through with diplomacy." Buffy never took her eyes off of Gabrielle.
"The witches I need them." Gabrielle put her hands on Buffy's forearms. "They may be the only people who can help."
"With what?" Buffy squinted suspiciously, but she was beginning to believe the woman.
"My friend Xena is trapped."
Buffy released her hold as Faith spoke up. "So how do we know your friend isn't evil?"
"You don't, I suppose." Gabrielle closed her eyes in defeat. "Perhaps I was wrong about you. I'm sorry I wasted your time." She turned to go.
"Wait." Faith softly put her hand on Gabrielle's arm. "We didn't say we wouldn't help you. And if you care about your friend, why would you give up so easily?"
Gabrielle sighed heavily. "It's just been so long " She murmured so softly even the Slayers could barely hear her.
Faith looked at Buffy. "We should at least hear her out," She pleaded.
"Okay. But " Buffy nodded to Gabrielle, "You give up your weapons for now."
Gabrielle seemed to hesitate at first before relaxing. "Fine."
Very carefully, she pulled the Chakram off her belt and handed it to Buffy before reaching down to pull a set of Sais from her boots. She then reached into her duster and took out a small battle sword. Two daggers were pulled out of sheaths at the small of her back. Lastly, Gabrielle took out a metal cylinder and handed that and the sword to Faith.
Faith raised her eyebrow. "And this is a weapon how?"
Gabrielle grinned. "See the small inset button? Press it lightly."
When Faith did, the cylinder extended into a full fighting staff. "Damn. I wanna know who does your weapons, lady."
"I do. I don't trust anyone else." Gabrielle said simply.
"Well, you're well-armed, I'll say that for you," Buffy said. "Let's get going. I'll call Will and Tara and let them know we're coming."
Tara lay on the bed in the spare room, trying to sleep and failing miserably. Instead, she stared at the ceiling and played back her homecoming in every painful detail. While she was happy to see everyone, there were so many emotions under the surface that it was impossible to find peace in the house she once called home.
A sigh escaped Tara's lips as she thought about that. She wasn't comfortable in the house anymore, and that she knew. The only safe haven for her was the spare room. It was the only room where she wouldn't run into Willow.
It wasn't that she didn't want to see Willow; she did. Even when she left for Bermuda, she had missed the redhead terribly. Something had changed in Tara when Elspeth captured her, and that was a part that she couldn't share with her ex, no matter what. She just wanted to be back the way she was before, but she knew that would never happen.
She wanted to save Willow from more pain. It was one thing for the redhead to know the experience Tara had had; it was another for her to live the experience. Being in the head of a vampire and feeling the bloodlust first hand was not something Tara wanted Willow have to handle.
The sun had begun to set by the time Tara started to feel hungry, and she knew she would need to get something to eat soon. Hoping she wouldn't run into Willow; she didn't want to have 'the talk', whatever she might say, at the moment. She knew she needed a couple of days to acclimate herself to her friends again.
She stepped into the living area and went into the kitchen. Realizing she had no idea what to expect when she opened the refrigerator, she decided to wing it for dinner ideas. Before she left, Tara had been the one to do most of the shopping; it was easier than shopping with two Slayers and a witch. That way there had been less impulse buying. To her shock; however, there was virtually nothing in the fridge.
"We haven't been cooking much since you left," Willow said as she descended the stairs. She stopped when she reached the edge of the kitchen and leaned against the counter, looking very uncomfortable.
"I'll do some shopping tomorrow." Tar snatched an apple from the fruit basket, looking anywhere but Willow's eyes.
"We could order a pizza or something."
Tara didn't say anything immediately. That would mean spending at least an hour in Willow's company. What would she say, what would they do?
"Um, yeah. Sure." Tara said uncertainly.
"We don't have to eat together." Willow's voice broke.
Tara wanted nothing more than to take Willow in her arms and never let her go, but instead she ignored the comment. "I'll order from the usual place. Is that okay?"
Willow blinked a couple of times. "Sure."
The phone was by her side, and Tara picked it up and dialed, amazed she still knew the number by heart. After placing the order, she set the phone down and turned to Willow.
"I'll be on the deck. Could you come and get me when the food gets here?"
"Tara " Willow touched Tara's arm before the blonde could leave the kitchen.
"I don't think I can do this right now." Tara shook her head.
Willow released her as though she was touching fire. "Okay. Sorry."
Immediately Tara felt bad. "No, I'm sorry. I just feel lost and out of place. I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Don't apologize. You've been through so much "
"We've been through so much. This is difficult for you, too."
"I'm still sorry. Is there anything I can do to make this easier?" Willow asked.
Tara sighed and, for the first time in the conversation, looked Willow in the eye and said quietly, "You need to let me go."
The walls holding in Willow's emotions finally gave way, and she began sobbing. "Tara, please we can get through this "
Tara's own sobs combined with Willow's. "Not right now," was all she could say.
Seeing the pain she had caused her ex made everything that had been in her head so much worse and she knew she couldn't be there. She couldn't sleep in the house that had once been her home. As of that moment, she wasn't sure she could even stay in Sunnydale anymore.
"I have to go." Tara said suddenly, heading toward the foyer. She didn't look back until she picked up her car keys.
"Where will you be?" Willow asked.
Suddenly all she wanted to do was to put her arms around Willow and comfort her, but she knew she couldn't. It just wasn't something she had in her anymore. That thought made her feel even worse, and she didn't think that was possible.
"I don't know yet. I'll...I'll call."
Tara promised herself she wouldn't fall apart until she was wherever she was going. She needed to get away from the house and think. Buffy and Faith would be there soon, and Tara didn't want to answer any questions. There were so many things she needed to sort through in her mind.
Bermuda had been meant to do that, but being away from everything hadn't done much more than to push it out of her mind. Instantly she regretted the trip, knowing that she had only drawn out both her and Willow's pain.
She pulled onto the highway, not thinking about anything. Her concentration needed to be on driving, and she knew it. She wasn't afraid of dying, but she didn't want to hurt anyone else. There had already been enough of that for one day.
Before she knew it, she was halfway to L.A. It wasn't her favorite city, so she decided to pull into a Motel 6 and get a room by the highway. She would decide the next day whether or not she wanted to go the rest of the way or turn back. Tonight she needed to break down.
That was exactly what she did when she made it to her room.
Willow sat on the rocks, looking at the ocean. It had become quite a habit of hers since Tara had left the country. It was one of the few places she found that helped the swirling emotions in her. It didn't offer any peace now; it just reminded her of what fool she had been to think that Tara coming back would wipe away all the bad things that had happened.
She had never felt so helpless in her life, and it was driving her crazy. Tara wouldn't talk to her. Willow didn't even want to talk to herself. She knew she couldn't do anything to save her relationship with Tara, and Tara obviously couldn't even stomach being around Willow.
A tear slid down her cheek. It had been a few hours since Tara left, and the sun was long since gone. It was a full moon, and for a moment her thoughts drifted back to Oz. He was her first love, and the first to break her heart. She had broken Tara's heart, but that didn't even start to explain over what Willow felt so guilty, no matter what Faith and Buffy told her.
She heard the sound of footsteps on the rocks behind her, but instead of turning around, she merely wiped the tears from her face.
"Hey," Willow responded without emotion.
Buffy sat down next to her, glancing worriedly at her friend's face. "You okay?"
Willow didn't say anything, choosing instead to continue staring at the water with a lost look on her face.
"It's Tara, isn't it?" Buffy asked quietly, putting an arm across her friend's shoulders.
Willow still didn't say anything for a moment, but new tears started running down her cheeks. "She's gone again," was all she could get out before breaking down again.
Buffy held onto Willow and let her cry. After a few minutes, Willow calmed down enough to talk.
"Did you fight?"
"No she she couldn't even look at me. She has to hate me after what happened." Her voice broke on the word 'hate'.
"I have to stop you on that one, Will. Every time I talked to her while she was gone she asked about you. How you were doing, if you were okay, whether you were talking to Sheila "
"Stop trying to make me feel better, because you're not."
Buffy, visibly angry at Willow's words, pulled her friend so that they were staring at each other. "Listen to me. It's true. She still loves you with everything she has. If she didn't she wouldn't have come back here, and it wouldn't be so hard for her to be around you.
"When Faith first came back, there was a lot she didn't think she could share with me. It took time and it wasn't easy, but we've gotten past a lot of that. Fortunately for us, we never shared a bond like you two had. That would have made things so much harder."
"Because, stupid, Faith could tell me what she wanted when she was ready. Tara can't do that with you, not when you're linked. She told me " Buffy stopped.
"Told you what?" Willow was desperate.
"That putting up that wall between you when we fought Elspeth was the most difficult thing she had ever done, and that if you had stayed linked much longer she wouldn't have been able to keep it up.
"The last thing she wants is for you to feel what she felt. It isn't a matter of her not wanting to see you. I think she wants to see you with everything she is, she's just not sure if she can be your Tara again."
"She'll always be my Tara, no matter what," Willow said quietly.
"Then you need to find a way to tell her that."
"How am I supposed to do that if she isn't even here?"
"She'll be back. Nothing could keep her away from us forever."
"I guess so," Willow said uncertainly.
"I know so," Buffy said definitively.
"I think I feel a little better," Willow lied. She knew she wouldn't feel better until Tara was back where she should be.
The words seemed to satisfy Buffy. "Good. Now, I should tell you about patrol tonight."
Willow's interest piqued. Talking about the bad guys was one way for her to take her mind off everything. "What's up?"
"We kind of picked up a stray."
"You know what I've told you about strays."
Buffy held up her hands. "I know, I know. We ran into someone who needs our help. At least I think she does. And Wills, you'll never believe who it is."
"Well, don't keep me in suspense."
"I should let her tell you. Really. It'll be better coming from her. I'll just succeed in making her sound like a loon."
Willow actually found herself giving a little chuckle. "Now I'm extremely interested."
"Let's go back to the house then."
They stood and started the walk to the house. The path to the house wasn't long, and neither woman spoke. When they reached the back deck, Buffy turned to her friend.
"I don't know if she's for real yet, but keep an open mind, k?"
"Um, okay?" Willow said with raised eyebrows.
"Here goes nothing." With that she opened the door.
Faith stood next to the sofa, but she was far from relaxed. A familiar-looking woman sat on one of the chairs in the living area, and she also looked like she was either about to run or fight. The air was tense, but not to the point where Willow thought anything bad would happen. Faith just seemed to be protecting things; she wasn't acting overly hostile to the woman.
"Hi," Willow said, not knowing what else to say. Both she and Buffy sat on the sofa.
"Faith, I think we'll be okay. Come and sit down," Buffy said, offering her hand to her lover.
"I'd rather stand." All the same, Faith visibly relaxed.
"This is Gabrielle," Buffy said.
For a moment, Willow and Gabrielle just stared at each other. One trying to figure out the other's identity, and the other seeming to hope the redhead would figure things out on her own.
"You look have we met?" Willow asked, unable to place the woman.
Gabrielle sighed. "No, but you know part of my story."
Then Willow put two and two together. "You look a little like Gabrielle from that show." Her eyes narrowed. "You're not telling me "
"She is, Red. I think I believe her."
Though she was speaking to all of them, Gabrielle focused on Willow. "Xena and I were separated."
"How?" Willow surprised herself by simply accepting Gabrielle's identity as fact.
"The simple version is that her fate was tied to a demon's."
"Did she kill it?" Willow asked.
"I don't know." The emotion showed in her voice. "She left me one night and fought it alone. When I woke up, I followed her trail to the battle site. The markings of a portal were on the ground. I know she took the demon to another dimension."
"So what makes you think I can help you?" Willow asked.
"Because I'm hoping you can find her. She's she means everything to me. I've tried so many times, but I can't travel through the dimensions for very long by myself."
"And you think she can?" Faith asked, sounding a more than a little upset.
"Not by herself. I'm immortal like you, but I'm not a witch. I've never found any other human like Xena and me before now, least of all someone as powerful as you. I have always believed that I hadn't been able to do this before was because every time I tried this my tether to this world was a mortal one."
This time Buffy spoke up. "What does she mean, Willow?"
Willow didn't take her eyes off Gabrielle when she spoke. "She means that whenever we travel between dimensions it's very dangerous. It's easy to get lost and not find your way back, so if you have a partner who can tether you to this world it's much safer.
"The only problem is that, as mortals, most people can only stay in different dimensions for so long before they have to rest. Being tethered to another person isn't easy."
"But you and Tara " Faith started.
Willow blanched at Tara's name. "We were linked naturally."
Gabrielle blinked and scooted forward in her seat a bit. "Were?"
The pain in Willow's chest that she had so carefully contained threatened to spill out. "I need to go." As slowly and as purposefully as she could, she left the other three women and went into the library.
Faith didn't say anything, but she stood and followed Willow.
"What do you mean by 'were'?" Gabrielle asked Buffy.
Buffy heaved a heavy sigh. "She and Tara have had some issues lately."
"So she's not part of your group anymore?"
"That's none of your business."
"I'm sorry. I'm just trying to understand."
Buffy stood. "No, you're just trying to figure out if there's any chance for you to get Xena back. I understand that."
The phone rang then, and Buffy picked it up. "Hello?"
"Hey," Buffy said evenly into the phone as she walked onto the deck. There was no use in Gabrielle being privy to her phone conversation.
"I was wondering could you ask Faith to get my things to me?"
She had been pacing the length of the deck, but when Tara finished her question Buffy stopped dead. "You aren't coming back?"
"Don't ask me that," was Tara's emotional response.
Buffy felt like she was dealing with a wounded animal. Any wrong move would scare Tara away forever. "Just tell me you're safe and okay."
"I'm not in Sunnydale, but I'm okay."
"Please, Tara. Come back. We're all here now, and we all love you."
"You love who I was, not who I am."
Buffy tried very hard to keep her voice calm. "But you haven't given us a chance. Just do that. Give it a week, or even a couple of days. Just to find out. Willow "
Tara broke in. "Is she okay?"
"Honestly? No, and she won't be until you can talk to her. She can't live in limbo much longer."
There was a deep breath. "Neither can I."
There was a click, and Tara was gone. Buffy knew calling her back wouldn't work; Tara would have either turned off her phone or she just wouldn't answer it. She looked back into the house and sighed deeply. She still had to deal with Gabrielle. It all seemed like too much to deal with at once.
Buffy opened the back door and went inside. "You need to leave." It wasn't said in an unfriendly tone, but it also wasn't friendly.
Gabrielle just nodded. "I'm sorry I took up your time."
Considering that, Buffy snapped out of whatever trance she was in. "I don't mean you need to leave permanently. We need to sort out some things. Then we might be able to help."
Gabrielle's face brightened. "Okay. I'm at the Hilton on the "
"I know where it is. What room?"
Buffy tried to offer her a smile, but couldn't quite manage it. "Do you know your way back?"
"It's not too hard to get back to town." Gabrielle turned to go. She made it to the door and looked back at Buffy. "I really do hope they can work out their problems. Words cannot express how hard it is to try to live without your soul mate."
Gabrielle was out the door before Buffy responded. "I never want to find out."
Tara threw the phone onto the bed and rubbed her face. In her heart she knew she needed to be with Willow, if not as a lover, then as a friend. It was so difficult because the only thing she wanted to do when they were near each other was to reach out and link to the woman she loved.
And she did still love Willow. That would never change, no matter how long they lived. Tara felt it deep in her heart, and she had since they first met all those years ago. Even on that first night when they were fighting the Gentlemen, they had bonded in a primal way.
So shouldn't she at least try? Why would Willow's love change because of the changes in Tara? In all the years they had been together, they had changed and grown. The only difference now was that Tara had changed by herself, and once she really was honest with herself, that was her fear. What if Willow couldn't accept her for who she had become?
She went to the bathroom and washed her face. There was a decision to be made, and Tara knew she couldn't evade it anymore. Her Willow was in pain, and the sooner things went one way or the other, the sooner they could both move on.
She went to the main office and checked out, and for the second time that night, she got into her car and didn't have any clue as to where she was going. As she drove the dark and twisty road, she began thinking over her life with Willow and the rest of the gang. They were family, and they had readily accepted her into their lives.
That line of thought ended quickly. Thinking about her adoptive family wasn't what she should do. They were important, but Tara knew the only two that mattered in the situation were Willow and herself.
And again, without knowing what she would say or do, she turned her car toward Sunnydale the first chance she had. She needed to either end things or begin again.
It surprisingly didn't take long to make it to the familiar streets of Sunnydale. Tara continued to the other end of the town and headed north. The house wasn't far, and she pulled into the driveway a couple of hours before dawn. Taking the keys out of the ignition, she went to the front door.
For the second time in as many days, she wondered if she should knock or just let herself into the house. Though it pained her to admit it, for the moment it wasn't her house. She was a visitor, and she would be until things were sorted.
There was no doorbell, so she knocked as loudly as she could. Waiting for someone to come to the door seemed to take forever, and she had just turned around to go back and wait in the car when she heard the creak of the door opening. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and turned back around.
"Tara?" Willow asked in disbelief. She was still in her clothes from the day before and looked as though she hadn't slept at all.
"Can we talk?"
There was a glimmer of hope in Willow's eyes. "Of course." She stepped out to the way and let Tara into the house.
Once inside, they both stood facing each other, not knowing what to say.
"Let's go outside," Tara finally said, if only to give her more time to think of what to say.
"Sure," Willow said sadly.
They were silent as they went onto the deck, and then to the beach. An uncomfortable silence settled over them with Willow waiting for Tara to make the first move, and Tara not knowing how to start. When Tara did break the silence, Willow jumped a bit.
"I still love you."
With those four simple words that held so much meaning, Willow's emotions flooded out. "I'm not afraid of you. Not who you were, and not who you are now." She turned to Tara. "I will always love you, and I will always need you, no matter what. A long time ago I knew I wanted to be with you. All of you good and bad."
Tears were streaming down Tara's face. "I just want things to be the way they were, and they never will be again."
Willow took both of Tara's hands in hers. "Don't you see though? They'll be better. We know what it's like to not be together, and we won't ever put ourselves through that. I won't put us through that again. We'll be stronger for it."
Tara looked down and squeezed Willow's hands. "I saw so much, felt so much. I don't want you to have to experience that."
Putting her finger under Tara's chin and pulling her face up to look at each other, Willow smiled a small smile. "I'm strong enough. You have to trust me again."
"We're touched by evil every day, and I know it doesn't compare to what you went through, but maybe, if you'll let me, I can help you through some of it. We we don't have to reestablish our link again if you don't want to." Willow swallowed her tears. "I just want to be there for you. Even if it is only as a friend."
"But I don't think I want that." Tara held Willow's gaze in her own as she spoke the quiet words.
Willow broke eye contact. "That's okay."
This time it was Tara who brought Willow's face to hers. "I want to be more than that."
Before Willow could say anything, Tara put a finger over Willow's lips. "We'll take things slowly, okay?"
Willow's finally registered what Tara was saying, and her eyes lit up. "As slow as you want. Please promise me one thing."
"Don't run away again," Willow said simply.
Saying nothing more, Tara took her love into her arms. She had finally come home, and though she knew it wouldn't be easy, she felt at ease in Willow's embrace. It was at thrilling and peaceful at the same time, and Tara thought she would never feel either again. For the first time since their link had been broken, she felt some semblance of joy.
Willow pulled back, but kept her arms around Tara. "Are you okay?"
Tara smiled. "I'm happy."
Willow leaned her forehead against Tara's. "Yeah?"
"Good, because I'm happy, too."
Standing on the beach in Willow's arms, Tara knew the healing had begun.
Tara woke the next day with the feel of a sliver of sunlight shining warmly on her face. Taking a deep breath, she stretched in a very catlike manner and sat up. For a moment she was disoriented as to where she was, and then she realized she was in the guest room of the house.
Neither she nor Willow slept the night before, talking into just before dawn. When they finally agreed they both needed some down time, it was very difficult to go to separate bedrooms, but Tara insisted. It wasn't that she didn't want to sleep in Willow's arms; she did. Tara also knew that it wasn't a good idea just yet. She just needed a bit more time to feel more at home.
The room wasn't very bright, so she got out of bed and opened the blinds. For a moment she merely stared at the view of the ocean. She never got sick of looking at or hearing the waves crashing on the shore; it was a balm on her soul.
"Hey," a gravelly, sleepy voice called from a darkened corner of the room.
Tara jumped, but she instantly recognized the voice and turned around. Her smile was difficult to hide, so she decided not to even try.
"I know we said we'd sleep in separate rooms for now, but " Willow's voice trailed off.
"But what?" Tara inquired. Though she wanted to cross the room to where Willow sat in a rather uncomfortable looking position, she stayed where she was.
"I guess I still don't quite believe you're back. It's entirely possible that I'm dreaming."
"Have you had many dreams like that?" Tara smirked.
Willow was quiet for a moment. "I've had nightmares."
Tara's face fell. "What?"
Instantly the redhead was at Tara's side. "I'm so sorry. What I mean is that whenever I would wake up, you wouldn't be there, and I felt like my subconscious was trying to punish me. Hence the nightmare."
At those words Tara's expression eased. "I had nightmares, too."
Taking Tara's arm, Willow guided them both to the edge of the bed so they could sit down. "About me?"
"I don't know how to say this," Tara's voice was quiet and timid. "It wasn't about you. It was about what Elspeth wanted to do to all of us. That was in her mind the entire time, and it still haunts me, but you were at the forefront of her thoughts. She knew about us," Tara motioned between them, "and she killed you in front of me."
Tears clouded Tara's eyes as she fought to control her emotions. "I lost you every night."
Willow took one of Tara's hands in both of hers. "Did you have that dream last night?"
Tara shook her head. "I didn't dream much of anything."
"That's definitely a step up," Willow said.
"It most definitely is."
Willow looked down. "You never told me if it was okay that I slept in here."
"I guess I didn't." The words were hesitant.
"It was " Tara searched for the right words, " nice. Even though I didn't know you were here, it was still nice to see you when I got up. It felt like," she paused again, "coming home."
"You are home," Willow responded, tucking an errant lock of hair behind Tara's ear.
Dipping her head, Tara grinned shyly. "Thanks."
Willow put her arm around Tara's shoulders and pulled the blonde to her. "You know you're beautiful when you sleep."
Tara thought the contact would frighten her, but it didn't. Instead it thrilled her to be able to have this intimacy again. Even if the link between them was still severed, Willow's touch electrified her.
Tara mumbled something into Willow's shoulder.
"What was that?"
Tara turned her head so that she could respond. "You watched me?" Again, she did not feel uncomfortable at all.
But that was what being with Willow was supposed to be like. It was their destiny to be together, and Tara had known it from the moment they had met in the Wicca group at UC Sunnydale. She smiled briefly at that thought, remembering that stuttering, shy girl she was before she had become a part of Willow's life.
"I used to do that all the time," Willow said, daring to kiss the top of Tara's head.
"You never told me," Tara whispered.
"You never asked," she responded, smiling broadly.
"What would you do if I told you I killed someone? A human someone." Tara's words were so quiet Willow could barely hear them.
"You didn't kill anyone."
Willow pulled back and regarded Tara closely. "What are you talking about?"
Tara found she was unable to hold Willow's gaze, looking at the floor instead. "Nothing."
"No matter what you experienced, it wasn't you. You need to remember that."
Releasing her hold on Willow, Tara turned back to the window. "You're right," she said, although she couldn't seem to make the words sound believable.
"You're the bravest person in the world, you know that?" Willow said, wrapping her arms around Tara from behind.
"I don't consider myself to be brave."
"Baby, you need to give yourself credit. You say you've changed, and I can agree with that. No one could walk away from that experience and not be changed, but your basic traits are still the same. I know that no matter what, you're still the kind, loving, and sincere woman I fell in love with."
It wasn't difficult for Tara to know Willow was being truthful in her praise. She didn't have it in her to be anything but. It gave Tara a certain sense of safety she hadn't felt in what seemed like forever. She closed her eyes.
"I haven't stopped loving you. I'll never stop loving you." Willow's voice was soft in her ear.
It had been so long since Tara had even hoped to hear those words from her lover again, but she dared not feel comforted by them. There was still too much to reveal.
"You were always in my heart, and if it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't be here now," Tara said.
Tara didn't move from Willow's arms, and they stood like that, staring out at the beach, for a long time without speaking.
"We should get something to eat," Tara said after a while. "I can't remember the last time I ate."
That got a genuine laugh from Willow. "I think you're right."
She released Tara and, holding hands, they both went into the common area of the house.
Buffy and Faith were both in the kitchen area, putting together a lunch with the meager hodge-podge of food in the house.
"We really need to go shopping," Faith said as she chopped up the last tomato. "I can't stand this rabbit food anymore."
Buffy offered her a small but genuine smile. "And eating well is a tragedy how?"
Nudging Buffy's hip with her own, Faith effectively moved her lover away from the plates and put the offending vegetable on the plates. "Because I need substance. It's not like I'm going to get fat or anything."
"I'd still love you even if you did," Buffy said, following behind with the sliced cucumber.
Faith grunted. "You'd better."
Turning around, Buffy pulled Faith into her arms. "You could grow a second head and I'd still love you."
Faith's laughter rang through the kitchen. "And in our little world, that could easily happen," she said before placing a light kiss on the corner of Buffy's mouth and releasing her.
"Willow didn't sleep in her room last night," Buffy said casually.
"Do you think they're still talking in there?"
"I don't hear anything, but who knows?"
Just then the guest room door opened, and Willow and Tara emerged.
"Hey guys," Faith said with a soft grin. "You two missed breakfast."
Returning the grin, Tara walked to the kitchen and grabbed an apple. "We had a late night."
"Yeah. We had a lot of talking to do," Willow came up beside Tara and took an orange and began peeling it.
"So you talked and?" Faith asked anxiously.
"We're on the recovery road," she said, taking Willow's hand again.
"Excellent," Buffy smiled, stepping back from the counter. "Maybe you two can finish making lunch, because Faith and I are causing some major damage in the kitchen."
Both women laughed. "Sure thing," they both said at once.
As Willow and Tara prepared lunch, an easy conversation developed between the four women. No one mentioned anything that had happened recently, but it wasn't out of avoidance; it was more a way of feeling comfortable with each other again.
"Oh! I almost forgot!" Buffy exclaimed. "Mom wants us over at the house tonight. She's having a little welcome home for you," she said, looking at Tara.
Tara blushed. "She doesn't have to do that."
"Too late." Faith took a big bite of the melon Willow had cut. "She's already done it. It's not big just us and Ms. Summers. Oh, and " she trailed off.
"And?" Tara asked curiously.
It was Buffy who spoke. "Sheila."
"We don't have to go," Willow offered.
Tara looked to the rest of the group with an almost frightened look on her face, but that gradually changed to one of determination. "We'll go," she said quietly.
"If you feel uncomfortable, we'll leave," Willow said, taking Tara's hands.
Tara let out the breath she had been holding. "Thanks. I think I'm going to go outside. Could you call me when lunch is done?"
The look on everyone's faces changed to concern, but they stopped short of saying anything other than, "Okay."
Once Tara was outside, Buffy and Faith looked at Willow expectantly.
"Is everything okay?" Buffy asked.
Willow shrugged. "I honestly don't know. She goes from one end of the spectrum to the other. Sometimes things are like they were, but then she acts like she's very uncomfortable with me."
Buffy shot her friend a surprised look. "You mean you haven't "
"Linked?" Willow's face saddened. "No, and I'm not pushing it. There's still a lot she needs to tell me. I think she doesn't want to spring anything on me, ya know?"
"I know exactly what you mean," Faith said.
"Faith, could you check up on her? She talks to you more these days," Willow said, sadness lacing her words.
"Sure. Just save some lunch for us," Faith said as she started for the door.
"You think she's going to leave again?" Buffy asked when Faith was outside.
"Honestly? I don't know."
Buffy put a hand on Willow's shoulder. "She's coming back to you, even if it is slowly. Maybe we shouldn't do the homecoming thing tonight. It'll give her more time to settle in."
"And not see my mother."
"And not see your mother," Buffy grinned. "Mom will understand, and I'm sure Sheila will, too. You guys need the time to just be."
Willow smiled. "Is that some kind of Zen thing?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Buffy smirked.
"Uh-huh." Willow put an orange slice in her mouth. She grew serious then. "If she would only let me in again. She says all the right words, but I know her. She's holding back. I think that's part of the reason she hasn't reached out to me to reestablish the link."
"What's the other part?"
The sigh that escaped Willow's mouth was a heavy one, and one tear left a wet trail down her cheek. "I think she doesn't trust me. She's lying about being better."
Buffy rested a hand on Willow's shoulder. "What makes you think that?"
"Even without the link, I know her like she's a part of me. I know her looks, her movements, the sound of her voice and the way she tucks her hair behind her ear when she's nervous. I know her. And she won't open up to me." Saying those words cut Willow to the bone, and the tears, which always seemed to be just below the surface, started flowing freely down her cheeks.
"She will," Buffy said with confidence. "It's just going to take time."
Willow didn't respond, and after a couple of minutes she began to calm down. "I'm sorry," she said as she wiped her tears away with her hand.
"You've nothing to be sorry for. This thing, it's a terrible thing you're both going through, so no apologizing for crying, 'k?"
"'K," Willow said as she chopped the last of the onion. "You know, if you and Faith ever opened up a cookbook, you might learn to make something other than cereal," she said for a change of subject.
"Ha! You're funny, you know that?" Buffy grinned. "We'd burn the house down. Then where would we be?"
Willow rolled her eyes dramatically. "Living with our mothers, probably."
"And that's one point for the Buffster."
"This time, but if it takes a hundred years, I'm going to teach you how to boil water." Willow shook the spatula at her friend before turning back to the burner.
Buffy looked out the window where Faith and Tara were. "I wonder what they're talking about."
"I don't know. I'm trying not to think about it too much, though."
"Is lunch done?"
"Yeah, I'm just putting the onions on salad now."
"I'll go get them then." Buffy went to the deck.
Faith stepped onto the deck, but Tara didn't turn from her place at the rail.
"I've always felt this was the most peaceful place of the house, don't you think?" Tara said quietly.
"I guess so. Never really thought about it much," Faith said, joining Tara at the rail. "You wanna talk about it?"
Tara shrugged. "Not really. You know everything there is to know." She turned to her friend. "Thanks for not saying anything."
"I've got your back, you know that."
"Sometimes I think you're the only person who could understand any of what happened to me." Tara's words were laced with sadness and defeat.
Faith glanced at Tara. "Don't think that. Shit, how do I put this?
"Sure, she hasn't felt evil like we have, and I know you want to spare her from that. Maybe you can, but then again, maybe you can't." Faith turned Tara to her. "You have to give her the chance to decide. If you don't give her that chance neither of you will know.
"I thought that way about Buffy for the longest time, and I was so scared to tell her anything. When I finally did, it was like like this big weight was lifted off me."
"What if she runs? What if the truth is too much?"
"Then you go from there. Listen, I'm not the wisest person in the world, but I know this: if you don't tell her, it'll eat you up inside until there's nothing left."
Tara thought about that. Faith was right; she did need to tell Willow everything, but Tara still wasn't sure she could, even if that meant doing irreparable harm to herself.
"I just need time."
"Time for what?"
"If we decide to link again, she'll see everything from my point of view, you know that. It isn't just telling her. It's putting her through what I went through."
The sliding door opened and Buffy poked her head out. "Hey guys, lunch is ready whenever you are. Take your time."
"We'll be there in a sec."
Buffy shut the door and Faith turned back to her friend. "She's strong. She can take it."
"I just don't want her to have to take it."
"That's not your decision. She feels she can handle it, and you have to let her."
Faith was right. Tara couldn't make the decision for Willow. If Tara wanted any kind of relationship with her, she would have to be honest. "I see your point," she said, meaning her words.
"Good. Now let's get inside."
Tara flopped onto her bed in the spare room, covered her face and groaned. As much as she had wanted the evening to go well or at least without a major incident, that didn't happen.
"On an epic scale," she said to herself.
The evening had left her wondering if she could indeed come back into the life that she had made for herself. After all, she would need to be a part of Sheila's life is she wanted to be a part of Willow's life, right? And after the evening's events, she didn't think she could do it.
As far as exits went, Tara didn't think that one was too dramatic, but it was nerve-wracking all the same. She hadn't even stayed to say hello to Joyce, and she made a mental note to apologize since the evening had been for her.
It was just too soon. She had barely begun mending what she and Willow had, and she hadn't even aware of how strong her feelings were toward Sheila until she had seen her. It wasn't Sheila's fault, was it? Tara was being irrational. There was no blame to be placed.
That didn't prevent her strong reaction to the older woman. Small talk wasn't something she was comfortable with, and she found that the only thing she wanted to do was scream at Sheila for what had happened. Again, she knew it was irrational. It didn't matter though. That was what she felt.
She wasn't sure how long she lay on the bed, but when she finally woke up after hearing the front door close it was dark outside. She heard voices in the common area, and after a moment there was a knock on her door.
"Tara?" Willow's hesitant voice called.
Tara didn't move from where she was. "Come in."
"Hey," Willow said as she sat down next to Tara. "How ya doing?"
"I have a headache." It wasn't true, but Tara just didn't feel like talking at the moment.
"Oh, okay. Do you want anything?"
"I'll just leave you alone then," Willow said at she stood.
Tara's hand shot out and grabbed Willow's. "Don't leave."
Willow sat back down, still holding Tara's hand.
"I just don't want to talk right now. Could you lay down with me?"
The relief on Willow's face was evident. "Of course," she said as she laid back.
They stayed silent for a while with the only touch being that of their entwined hands. It wasn't an uncomfortable silence, but it wasn't exactly comfortable, either. Finally Tara spoke.
The two words hung in the air.
"I don't know what why I just don't know," Tara said, finally removing her other arm from her face.
"You don't have to apologize. It was too fast. You should have had more time to get used to things."
"Yeah," Tara turned on her side to face Willow, "But I want to. Get used to things."
"Then we'll take things slower." Willow looked at Tara. "Turtle slow."
Tara grinned. "Turtle slow?"
"Yeah, you know, walk along very slowly while periodically putting your head into your shell."
"Sounds like a plan to me." Tara brought her hand up to stroke Willow's face. "Do I have to take things with you turtle slow?"
Willow was breathless at the touch. "Not if you don't want to."
"Good." Abruptly Tara stood and crossed the room. "I want to tell you some things, and I need to do it now while I have the courage."
Willow sat up and gathered herself. Tara's touch had affected her more than even she expected. "I'll always be here to listen."
"Did you know," Tara said quietly, "That when Elspeth killed Giles, I was still linked with her."
"It's okay," Willow responded.
Tara turned from the window. "It's not though, don't you see? I saw everything she saw, and I felt everything she felt." She turned away again. "I felt the bloodlust. Willow, I wanted him to die."
A tense silence hovered between the two women for a moment. Tara was horrified that she had finally put words to her experiences, and she allowed herself the luxury of shedding a few tears. She kept waiting for Willow to leave the room, but she never heard Willow do that. Instead the redhead came up behind her and wrapped her arms around her love.
"There's nothing I can say that will make this better for you, but thank you for sharing that with me. Was that what you were so afraid of me knowing?"
Tara relaxed into Willow's embrace. "Yes," she said softly.
"I'm still here."
"You are," was all Tara could say as tears of relief fell down her face.
Hesitantly Willow kissed Tara's temple. "I will never leave you again, love. You're stuck with me."
Tara smiled through her tears. "Same back at you."
Again a silence fell, but this time it was an easy one. Both women were relishing the feel of the embrace.
"We should get to bed. It's late." Tara finally said with a tinge of regret as she broke the embrace.
"Yeah. Would you " Willow couldn't finish her question.
"You want to sleep in the chair again?" Tara smiled.
"Does that sound weird?"
"No, but I'd rather you sleep beside me. With clothes. No monkey business."
"Okay. I'll just go upstairs and get something to sleep in," Willow said, heading for the door.
Tara put a hand on Willow's arm. "Borrow one of my shirts." She dug in her suitcase and threw Willow a brightly colored one. "Here, have a touristy one."
"It's fluorescent pink." Willow said, quirking an eyebrow.
"It's cute. Now get into the bathroom and change."
Tara changed quickly, pulling on a t-shirt and boxers and getting into bed. When Willow came out, both women smiled at each other. Without saying anything, Willow settled in beside Tara, giving her a few inches of space.
"I can handle it." Willow said into the darkness.
Tara knew what Willow meant. "I went through it and I can barely keep it together. How can I put you through it, too?"
"Because I'd rather live through that than live through the rest of eternity without you in my heart."
Tara didn't say anything immediately, measuring her decision carefully. "Okay."
Willow immediately turned to look at Tara. "Okay?"
"You need to prepare yourself though. I'll try to filter things as much as possible, but I can't guarantee anything."
Willow dared to put a hand on Tara's face so she could look her in the eyes. "You don't have to do this now, you know."
"Yes, I do. I don't know if I'll have the guts tomorrow."
"Sit up with me."
They both sat cross-legged on the bed facing each other. "You're sure?" Tara asked, looking deeply into Willow's eyes.
"As sure as I can be."
Tara reached out with her mind, and as she did, Willow did the same. Tara tried to be as gentle as possible by not letting her see and feel everything at once. Still, when Willow felt Tara's mind her head jerked back. Immediately Tara stopped reaching out, but Willow took her hand.
"No, I'm okay."
Tara nodded with tears in her eyes. "O-okay."
"Baby," Willow said, rubbing her thumb over Tara's knuckles, "I'll take care of you."
That was all Tara needed to let go of everything. Willow felt all the feelings of hurt, shame and regret that Tara held deep inside her psyche, as well as the strong love that filled her heart. The redhead cried out as tears fell down her face and she reached for Tara, hugging her close.
It was a long time before either woman could say anything. Finally their sobs subsided and they pulled back enough to look at each other.
"I'm so sor "
Tara put a finger over Willow's lips to silence her. "You don't need to say that." She smiled then. "Thank you."
"For making me feel safe again. I never thought it would happen."
Gently Willow leaned in and kissed Tara. It was slow and without demand, and both women felt the love behind it.
"Are you okay though?" Tara asked.
Instead of answering immediately, Willow gave her answer careful thought. "It's part of who you are now. I fell in love with the whole Tara package, so yeah, I'm okay. This is easier."
"It's easier for me, too," Tara grinned.
Willow squeezed Tara's hand. "Good."
"There is one thing I'm exhausted."
Willow shot her love a crooked grin. "Me too. You wanna do some sleeping?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
With that both women snuggled under the covers again, but this time they curled up together and left no space between them.
One thing Gabrielle had learned in the past two millennia was the art of patience. Xena had been very good at teaching her when she was still young and antsy. That brought a smile to her face.
Those were interesting times, Gabrielle thought.
Gabrielle had known from the moment she laid eyes on Xena they were meant for each other. It was only later that she could put a name to what she felt. When Xena died and ended up in Autolycus' body, Gabrielle knew she loved Xena with all her heart.
When they had chosen immortality, Gabrielle never doubted they would be together forever. Nothing could separate them. They were soul mates, and there wasn't anything that could stand in the way of that.
Then Xena left her in a misguided attempt to save the world. Other than losing Xena, the worst part of it was that she had figured out how to break the bond with the demon only a week later. That alone had sent Gabrielle reeling for years.
Once she had recovered enough to begin doing research, she learned everything she could about witchcraft because she knew it was the only thing that would bring her love back to her. While she knew the mechanics of it, she would never call herself a witch. Because of that, she found herself in the situation of being virtually powerless in a dire situation. That was not something she was used to.
It hadn't taken her long to find out that she couldn't travel in a different dimension for very long before her tether became exhausted. She knew her only chance was an immortal witch, and that was something she was certain never to find.
Then she began to hear rumors of two Slayers who worked with two very powerful witches. As far as she was concerned, that was her best hope of being reconnected with Xena, so she sought them out.
As she made her way toward California, the rumors changed. The warriors had become invincible, sending the demons running for the proverbial hills. Gabrielle dared not hope that they had become immortal as well, but when she met three of them, hope had welled inside her.
She wasn't sure if they would help her. After their first and only meeting, Gabrielle was almost positive she would never hear from them again if she didn't take some sort of action. It had been a week since the day they had met, and Gabrielle still had not heard anything.
As much patience as she possessed, there was still a limit. She had waited over three hundred years to be reunited with her love, and as much as she kidded herself that one more day wasn't going to hurt, she needed to be with Xena. She wasn't complete without the warrior.
And that was why she put on her duster and began arming herself, not to fight the Slayers, but as protection against the demons. She needed to speak to someone in that group. She didn't really care who that was at this point.
She was determined to make some sort of progress that evening. Even if that meant learning there was no hope. Tonight she would either begin the task of getting Xena back, or she would find some hole and curl into it forever.
"Don't you ever get sick of walking through this graveyard?" Tara asked.
Willow laughed, cherishing the feeling of Tara's hand in her own. It had been a week since they linked their minds again, and though it hadn't been easy, both she and Tara were doing much better. The remarkable thing was that their relationship was stronger than ever.
Though Willow was still adjusting to the experiences Tara had been through, things had quieted to the point that no one on the outside of the situation could tell that anything bad had happened.
"Well, I wouldn't consider it to be the most exciting thing we've ever done, but it sure beats well, it doesn't really beat anything," Willow said with a grin. "Maybe we should get something new to do."
"We could always do some traveling. After all, aren't there other Hellmouths out there?"
Willow shook her head and chuckled. "You want to get away from Sunnydale's graveyard to walk through someone else's graveyard?"
Tara joined in the laughter. "It's an idea, isn't it? I'd like to see you come up with one."
"I do have one," Willow snickered and pulled Tara into her arms. "You wanna make out?"
Tara smacked Willow's arm. "You're such a cad, you know that?"
"Yes, and if you let me, I'll kiss you until the end of time."
"One of these days I may give up and let you." Tara leaned in and kissed Willow deeply.
"Hate to break up such a heartwarming moment, girls," a voice called from behind them.
Both women turned toward the noise. "You might want to run," Tara said.
"I can take a couple of little girls," said the vampire. Just then three more came out of the woods. "Do you still think you can beat me?"
Willow looked at him and shrugged. "I dunno. You wanna find out?"
A low growl emerged from the first vampire's throat and they began their attack. Willow and Tara each held up a hand and the three vampires were thrown back ten feet.
"That's all you got?" one of the vampires asked.
Suddenly Tara looked angry. "Not. Even. Close." She held out her hands and a burst of light poured from her, turning the vampires to dust.
"Are you okay?" Willow put her hand on Tara's back. "I felt "
"I know. Anger. It's just I started remembering " Tara panted.
"I know, baby. It's only your first day back. Give yourself a chance to freak out a bit."
Before Tara had a chance to answer, she saw a petite blonde come out of the woods. "Willow," Tara said with a tone that told the redhead there was a threat.
Willow turned to where Tara was looking. "I thought you might have left."
Gabrielle looked at her quizzically. "I have the best chance of getting her back. Do you really think I'd give that up after waiting only a week?"
"I guess not," Willow said, looking at her very confused girlfriend.
"You two know each other?" Tara asked.
"A little," Gabrielle said.
"Not really," Willow said at the same time.
"Okay." Tara drew out the word. "Could someone please explain?"
Gabrielle began her story again. She detailed her last meeting with Faith, Buffy and Willow. Then she progressed through her story of Xena's disappearance, and told them of her efforts to get Xena back. Tara went through the emotions her friends had gone through: disbelief, not trusting and finally belief. Willow also felt her immense sadness that Gabrielle had lost her soul mate.
"She's been gone so long," Gabrielle finished with a distant look in her eyes. "You two are my best hope. My only hope of getting her back."
"And what do we do if you get her back here?" Tara asked. Do you trust her? she sent to Willow.
"I know a spell to separate her from the demon. It may work. It's written in Hittite, and I've done my best to translate it, but the language died out a little before my time."
As much as I can, Willow sent back.
Willow grinned. "Don't we have that book on Hittite? The one from the Watchers' Council?"
A slow smile spread across Tara face. "Yep." She turned to Gabrielle. "We'll help, but we can't guarantee anything."
"Are you linked again?" Gabrielle hesitated on such a personal question.
"How did you " Tara looked at her with surprise.
Willow spoke up. "We told her. She needed to know."
Tara nodded. "Okay then. We have some prep work to do, and I'm not sure how long that will take." Should she come with us?
We could keep an eye on her, and she could help.
"You can stay with us," Tara said. "Do you need to get the rest of your stuff?"
"Then we'll follow you and we can head to the house form your hotel," Willow said. "C'mon." She and Tara began heading to their car.
Gabrielle followed them with a smile on her face.
Gabrielle set her pack onto the bed and sat on the chair. She was more than a bit surprised that the two witches had been willing to take her into their home, especially without checking with the Slayers. Still, Buffy and Faith didn't seem too shocked by the turn of events.
Faith had mumbled something like, "Good thing we're immortal," and walked away. Buffy eyed her warily, and after asking if the witches were sure, nodded her head and followed Faith up the stairs.
It was obvious they were a tight knit group, regardless of whatever troubles they had encountered in the recent past. She tried not looking at the situation from a tactical viewpoint, but she knew that the closer the four were, the better off her chances were of getting Xena back, and she had to believe that this time she would get her love back.
There was a knock on the door. "Gabrielle? Are you hungry?" Tara called.
Gabrielle hadn't realized that she hadn't eaten since breakfast. She was immortal, but she still needed to eat. She rose and went to the door to open it. "Sure."
"I've made some food if you want."
"Thanks," Gabrielle smiled.
After Tara had set everything on the table, they sat down and began eating.
"No one else is hungry?" Gabrielle asked.
"Everyone ate earlier. I just figured you'd want some food."
With as much time as Gabrielle spent alone, she wasn't used to someone doing something kind for her. "Thanks," she said with genuine gratitude.
Tara pushed her food around her plate, not really noticing it. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure," Gabrielle said as she put another bite of food into her mouth.
"How do you say goodbye?"
"To everyone you grew up with. I mean you had a sister, right? And parents. What about them?" Tara asked quietly.
Gabrielle's fork stopped midway to her mouth. It had been so long since she had let herself think about the ones she had left behind, and it was still difficult. "You just have to. The only thing you can do is to honor their memories as much as possible."
"And the people you meet along the way?"
"I can only tell you how Xena and I dealt with it. We kept people at arm's length and didn't stay in anyone's life for very long. It was much easier that way. Things changed when Xena left me."
Tara's brow furrowed. "Left you? Somehow I thought "
"That the demon took her?"
"She chose to fight the demon on her own and sent herself to that dimension as far as I can tell. Merihem demons are more interested in spreading disease than they are with spells. No, Xena left me by choice. She felt it was the only choice, but it was still a choice."
Tara reached out and took Gabrielle's hand. "You're still angry."
Gabrielle looked to the ceiling to try and stop the flood of emotions. Tara was somehow getting her to talk about things she had never spoken to anyone. "I'm still very angry with her."
"But you still love her."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and a tear slipped out. "I'll always love her."
"Good. The more tears that come through the easier it will be to find her."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked at Tara. "No one's ever told me that before."
Tara nodded. "Well, a lot of people don't know that. Normally what you need is an item of the person you want to find. That helps you find the right dimension so you don't waste your time with the other ones.
"Since it's been so long since Xena held any of her things, I'm thinking our best hope of finding her is you. She's your soul mate, and you're hers. I'm going to have to do some research, but I remember my mother telling me something about that."
"Is she a witch, too?" Gabrielle asked.
"Was. She died when I was a teenager." The sadness in Tara's eyes was evident.
Gabrielle squeezed Tara's hand and released it. "I'm sorry."
Tara shrugged. "It was a long time ago, and I've found a new family. I'll always miss her, but I'm sure she'd want me to be happy, which I am.
"Anyway," Tara shook her head as though to get rid of the past. "No one else will say this, but I think we should have Xena back soon if all goes well."
"And if it doesn't?"
Tara flashed a crooked grin. "That's not an option."
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked when Tara's expression changed.
"Sorry, but Willow's wondering when I'll go to bed. I should get up there." Tara stood.
"How do you know?"
Tapping her temple, Tara grabbed her plate and began cleaning. "Telepathic link. It comes in handy at the neatest times." Gabrielle started to stand, but Tara held up her hand. "Stay. Eat. I made this for you, and if you don't eat it I'll be hurt." She started to leave the kitchen.
When Tara turned her back, Gabrielle called after her. "Thanks again."
Turning back around, Tara shrugged. "I figured you could use someone to talk to. You probably don't get much of that these days."
A sad smile crossed Gabrielle's features. "No, not really."
Tara walked back over to the shorter woman and put a hand on her shoulder. "You have people who understand now. No matter what happens, you'll have friends here."
Gabrielle wasn't sure of what to say. She hadn't seen anyone that trusting since long before she became immortal and it amazed her. From things she had pieced together in Sunnydale, Tara had been through something terrible, but it seemed as though she hadn't let it change her. Suddenly Gabrielle felt less alone.
"Good night, Gabrielle. If you need anything, let us know." Tara went up the stairs and was gone.
As Gabrielle ate her food, she contemplated what she had told Tara. It simply wasn't like her to open up to strangers, but something about Tara set her at ease. She wondered if it had anything to do with Tara being a witch. Gabrielle quickly dashed that thought from her mind, since Willow didn't exactly make her feel at ease.
No, Tara was special. Though she knew Willow most likely had her own innate power, Gabrielle believed Tara's was feeling and manipulating a person's essence. That could be a terrible power to have in the wrong hands, but somehow Tara used it wisely. Hopefully it would be helpful in locating Xena.
The hope she had felt earlier came back again. She could taste it now, and she found she was getting impatient, and as she quietly cleaned her dishes and went back to her room, she couldn't sleep. In fact, she could barely sit.
She opened the curtain and looked at the beach. Slowly opening the door, she walked onto the deck. The full moon glittered across the water, shining beautiful slivers of light that seemed to make everything glow. She couldn't help but think of all those nights she and Xena had spent under the stars.
After going back inside to get her pack, she went down to the sand and spread her sleeping bag onto the ground. She gingerly stepped into it so as not to get any of the sand in the bag, and when she zipped it up she felt a sense of security and warmth. It was on the difficult nights that she usually did this. The cocoon of the bag helped Gabrielle imagine Xena had her arms around her. It was silly she knew, but she couldn't help it.
She knew it was dangerous for her to have hope. Each time she had tried to locate her love had been an exercise in futility, and the little voice in her head warned her that this time might well turn out to be like all the others. Still, though, she had the hope. This time was different. The circumstances made her quest that much more feasible.
And so, she hoped.
The sun shone brightly into the workout room as Faith hit the dummy. She was trying very hard to concentrate on her workout, but her mind kept going to the research that was taking place downstairs. Gabrielle had been staying with them for two days, and Faith was ready for it to be over.
Her senses perked up and she stopped in the middle of a high kick. Someone was coming up the stairs. She lowered her leg and looked to the door.
"Nice room," Gabrielle said when she entered.
"You could say that," Faith said, folding her arms across the chest. "What're you doin' up here? I thought you were the type to spar in the great outdoors."
"I wanted to talk," Gabrielle responded.
Neither Faith nor Gabrielle moved. They each were very aware of the other, and were prepared to fight if need be.
"Go ahead," Faith said.
"You don't like me, do you?"
"What was your first clue?" Faith said with a small sneer.
"Why? I'm not here to hurt you." Gabrielle walked over to the window. "This is a lovely view."
"Yeah, it's nice. Now, about the hurting." Faith took a step toward the smaller woman. "They've been through a lot lately."
If Gabrielle noticed the movement, she didn't show it. "I gathered that, and I'm sorry my timing is so poor."
"Still didn't keep you away."
Gabrielle let out a sigh and turned to the Slayer. "If you lost Buffy, wouldn't you do anything you could to get her back?"
Faith uncrossed her arms. "I'd turn over every rock in the world to find her."
"I'm just uncovering the rocks. This is my last chance, Faith. If three immortals can't do this, no one can," Gabrielle said desperately. "I feel for what Tara and Willow are going through "
"There's a 'but' here, isn't there?"
"I'm half a person. To be honest, Willow and Tara know what I'm going through more than most ever could," Gabrielle said. "They made the decision to help me. I wish you would respect that."
Faith balked at that. "Respect? I know they're not idiots, and I do respect their decision. Hell, I even respect you. If half the shit you did on that TV show was true, you deserve all the respect you can get.
"But " Faith's shoulders sagged a little, "I don't know that you bein' here is the best thing for them."
"Can't you let them be the judge of that?"
Faith knew Gabrielle had a point. It wasn't her decision; it was Tara's and Willow's. She had to accept that.
"Tell me somethin'. If you don't get her back, what're you gonna do?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I hadn't given it much thought until I found the four of you. The thing of it is that I've been fighting without her for so long, and one of the only things that helped me get through those years was been the hope of being reuniting with her.
"The other thing that kept me going was the need to fight the good fight. There's always been something bigger than us, something that called us to save the world. Xena and I accepted that thousands of years ago. We were the only immortals; we were the best fighters for good the world had.
"Now that I know you exist, I think my course will take a different path if this doesn't work."
"What's that?" Faith asked.
"I'll try to find a way to become mortal again," Gabrielle said simply.
"You mean you'd give up your life?"
The petite blonde turned back to the window to hide the emotion in her eyes. "Wouldn't you?"
Faith didn't even have to think about that. A life without Buffy was a life she didn't want to live. "Yeah, I would."
"Then we understand each other?"
Faith wasn't one for touching people she didn't know, but she felt a kinship with Gabrielle that she hadn't expected. She went over to stand beside the blonde and carefully put a hand on her shoulder.
"We're good, G."
Gabrielle glanced at her and smiled. "You gave me a nickname."
Faith smiled back. "What of it?"
"You wanna work out?" Faith asked.
"Thought you'd never ask. Weapons or no?" Gabrielle asked.
"I wanna see what you're made of. No weapons."
They each moved onto the mat and shifted into a battle stance. Faith knew the other woman had an advantage because of her lower center of gravity, and she made an adjustment in her stance to compensate.
Without warning, Gabrielle attacked with a high kick that glanced off Faith's chin, sending her back a couple of steps.
"Nice one," Faith said appreciatively.
Gabrielle didn't say anything, but a broad grin spread across her face.
They circled each other warily. Faith struck with a right hook that Gabrielle dodged, but then Faith lashed out with a low kick that knocked the blonde flat on her back. In an instant she was up again though, and without warning, she launched herself over the Slayer. The second she landed behind Faith, she kicked her in the small of the back, sending Faith face down onto the mat.
Faith quickly rolled onto her back and leapt up. "You sure you're not a Slayer?"
"Must be good genes," Gabrielle deadpanned.
Faith laughed out loud. "Right."
Each woman bested the other over and over as the sparring continued, both enjoying the feel of fighting a new opponent. Gabrielle didn't get much of a chance to fight someone who didn't tire out after twenty minutes, and Faith enjoyed the challenge of fighting someone who had moves other than Buffy's.
Finally they each threw kicks at each other that knocked both of them to the ground. They sat up, staring at one another and panting.
"You're good, I'll give you that," Faith said.
"So are you. For a youngster," Gabrielle smirked.
Faith slowly stood and held out her hand. "Only compared to you, grandma."
Though she didn't need it, Gabrielle took Faith's hand and stood. "Are you calling me old?"
"I call 'em as I see 'em. Can't help that."
"Thanks. I'll have to remember to check my self esteem at the door around here." Gabrielle was still smiling.
Faith grabbed a couple of water bottles and threw one to Gabrielle before downing half of hers in one gulp.
"You wanna go downstairs and see how the Wonder Twins are doing?"
"Only if we can grab lunch first. I always get hungry when I fight."
"And horny," Faith mumbled.
"What was that?" Gabrielle asked after choking on her water.
Faith shot her a wicked grin. "You heard me."
"Don't you know you shouldn't say things like that to your grandmother?"
"You didn't deny it."
"I have no comment," Gabrielle said as they started for the stairs.
"Yeah, yeah. C'mon, let's get something to eat, horngirl."
Gabrielle laughed out loud as they started down the stairs. To Faith, it seemed that the other woman was actually beginning to enjoy herself in the house.
"It's still not right," Tara said quietly.
"What's wrong with it?" Buffy asked just as softly.
They were both in the library, pouring over books. Buffy was looking into inter-dimensional travel, while Tara was trying to translate the spell. Willow was in a chair across the library snoring lightly with a book across her chest.
"It's written in a rare dialect of Hittite that not even my books can fully translate, unless I'm missing something. Why can't it be in Sumerian or something?" Tara said, blowing a lock of hair off her face and looked over at Willow. "She's cute when she sleeps."
Buffy grinned. "That's not my area of expertise."
Tara shook her head and smiled. "I don't think Faith worries about the clowns in the balloon when she dreams."
"Faith's a little more um, primal?"
"Uh-huh." Tara looked at her knowingly. Faith had a tendency to be somewhat descriptive.
Buffy cleared her throat and looked down at her book again. "So. This hit thing "
"Hittite. Willow and I have almost all of it translated, but the last bit is off, and if we get it wrong "
"Things could explode in a literal sense?"
"Yeah. Once we get Xena and the demon back here we won't have long before the demon starts wreaking havoc."
"That's if it comes back with her," Buffy said.
"It'll be best that way. We'll know it's gone then. Otherwise it's a guessing game."
"Not the flying monkeys " Willow mumbled in her sleep.
At that Tara softly closed her book. "She's about to wake up."
Buffy got up and put her book down. "I'll get ready for patrol," she said as she walked out of the library.
Tara went over to where Willow slept and kneeled down. "Baby?" She lightly stroked the redhead's cheek.
Willow's eyes slowly opened and she smiled contentedly. "Did I fall asleep?"
Tara flashed a crooked grin. "Just a little."
"That was a nice way to wake up then." Willow leaned over and gently kissed her love. She pulled back a bit, resting her forehead against Tara's. "Did you get anywhere with the last bit?"
"Nope. There's something we must be missing. It's just wrong somehow."
"Yeah, like it was that's it!" Willow shot out of the chair and went to the spell. "I think it's in another language, or at least another dialect."
"It can't be. Who would do that?"
"Every program has a back door in case of an emergency. A failsafe. Maybe this was a failsafe for the person who created the original spell."
Tara was excited and continued Willow's thought. "So whoever it was that originally joined two beings wanted to make sure there was a way out in case someone performed the spell on them."
"And they didn't want to make it easy on anyone else who wanted to sever the link." Willow's excitement deflated a bit. "Now we need to do is figure out the other language."
Tara didn't lose momentum. "Process of elimination."
Buffy poked her head in. "We're outta here for a while. You guys want anything when we're out?"
Tara barely looked up. "Caffeine. Lots of caffeine."
Buffy grinned wickedly. "Would you like to drink it or just freebase it?"
"Whichever," Willow said distractedly without looking up at all, and Buffy let the door close.
"So where do you want to start?" Willow asked, looking over her shoulder.
"From the beginning." Tara looked at Willow, marveling at her beauty.
"Whatcha thinkin'?" Willow asked.
Tara leaned down and kissed her love slowly and completely. "Just how much I love you."
Turning in her seat, Willow pulled Tara onto her lap. "We could take a break " she trailed off, placing light kisses along Tara's jaw.
"A break would refresh our minds," Tara said huskily.
"And other things," Willow responded before covering Tara's lips with her own.
When they broke the kiss, Tara stood and held out her hand. "Let's go."
Willow looked at her with a mischievous glint in her eye. "You mean you don't want to get jiggy with all the dusty books?"
Tara giggled and mock-gagged. "Don't ever call what we do 'jiggy', or you'll never see me without clothes on again."
"Is that a threat or a promise?" Willow said, taking Tara's hand and stepping next to her.
"Don't find out."
Tara brought Willow's hand up and lightly kissed the redhead's knuckles. Without words, she led them out of the library and upstairs.
Their lovemaking was intense and cathartic. Afterward they lay in each other's arms, kissing every so often, but mostly just reveling in the contact of skin on skin.
"Have I mentioned how happy I am we made up?" Willow said while softly stoking Tara's arm.
Tara grinned. "You're just saying that because you've had your way with me."
Propping herself up on her arm, Willow was serious. "No, I mean it. This time last month I thought we would never be together again." A tear slid down her face at the thought.
Tara wiped the tear away with her thumb. "Sh, baby. We are together. In every way." You are my love. My life.
Willow felt safe and comforted hearing those words in her head. She lay back down, draping herself across Tara's chest. You're mine.
And with those thoughts, the two cradled each other. They eventually made it back downstairs, and once there, they somehow kept their hands off one another.
"Why do you stay?"
The question caught Buffy off guard. "What?"
"Why do you stay?" Gabrielle asked again. "I heard Willow and Tara talking about it last night, and I was wondering the same thing myself."
Buffy had the sudden wish that Faith was next to her in the cemetery instead of at the grocery store picking up caffeine for Willow and Tara.
"It's our home," was all she could come up with.
"So you have family here?" Gabrielle asked casually, twirling her Sais in her hands.
"My mom. And Willow's mom. Everyone else is in San Francisco."
"And the Hellmouth?"
"Closed." Buffy cast a sidelong glance at her companion. "Why are you asking?"
Gabrielle came to a stop and sat on one of the headstones. "There's a lot of evil to fight out there, and you're missing it."
"We've had plenty of that here, even without the Hellmouth."
"Please don't take offense, but I haven't seen much of anything since I've been here," Gabrielle said, slipping the Sais into her boots. "I just figured there had to be something else keeping you here."
Buffy was not about to spill her guts to someone who was basically a stranger, but she felt she had to justify why they still called Sunnydale home. "We just want to spend as much time with our families as possible before " she trailed off.
"They die?" Gabrielle finished.
"Yeah. We don't have much time left, and honestly, I don't want to look back in two hundred years and wish I'd seen my mother more."
Gabrielle nodded sympathetically. "I understand. Xena and I we weren't able to do that. She was too well known, and staying in one place meant danger to everyone around us.
"It was easier after a few decades. We could afford to stay in one place for a time, but by then it didn't matter. Everyone in my family, with the exception of Lila, was dead, and she wouldn't have understood why I hadn't aged," Gabrielle sighed. "She was so simple in her views. There have been times during my separation from Xena that I've wished I could have remained that simple.
"But then I wouldn't have known the greatest love of my life. Xena helped me become the woman I am today, and I wouldn't trade that for the world. No matter what kind of hell I've been through in the last few centuries."
"Why do you think she did it?" Buffy asked.
"Left. I mean, didn't she realize that you could have found a way to separate them?"
Gabrielle sighed heavily. "Probably, but she didn't trust witches. I think, and I've had plenty of time for that, that she wanted to protect me.
"How do I explain this? She would have rather had me hope that she could come back than for me to kill the demon and her along with it." She kicked a stone out of the way in her frustration. "She was always protecting me. I can't tell you how many arguments we would get into about that in the early days."
"Even after you became immortal?"
"Even then," Gabrielle laughed. "She couldn't stop, and after a while I just accepted it because she couldn't exactly get killed doing it at that point, could she? I suppose in the end it did kill her.
"Do you mind if we talk about something different?" Gabrielle asked, sounding weary and depressed.
Buffy blinked a couple of times in her surprise at the sudden change. "Sure. What did you want to talk about?"
"What," she pointed to the mansion on the hill, "is that monstrosity?"
Buffy sighed and sat on a headstone. "That is a place we're hoping to tear down very soon."
"We? As in, you?"
"A lot of terrible things have happened there. It just seems to be a magnet for big bads, and we figure it'll be for the best. Besides, the rest of the town thinks it haunted."
"Forgive me if I'm stepping on any toes here, but what terrible things?" Gabrielle asked.
Buffy considered the question, wondering just how much to tell this new person in her life.
"Have you heard of the vampire with a soul?"
Gabrielle nodded her head. "Angelus, right?"
"Mm-hm. There was a period a few years ago when he didn't have a soul."
"But you gave it back to him?"
"Not in time." Buffy sighed. "It was a matter of timing. He was trying to end the universe, and I stopped him in that mansion."
"Other things have happened, though."
Buffy should have known Gabrielle would be intuitive enough to pick up on the omission.
"Yeah, but I'm not the one you should hear them from," Buffy said sadly as she lazily twirled a stake in her hand. She looked around, finally resting her gaze on Gabrielle. "I don't think anything's going to happen tonight. Let's head back."
It was a short trip and, even with stopping off for some coffee, it didn't take them long to start for the house. Along the way, Gabrielle rolled the car window down and took a deep breath. "I love the smell of the Pacific."
Buffy stopped and turned. "Oceans have different smells?"
Gabrielle shrugged and took the tray from Buffy. "You'll find that out once you've started really traveling, but yes, they do."
"Huh," she responded as she opened the door, "interesting."
Buffy found that the more time she spent with Gabrielle, the more she liked her. Even as she realized this, she hoped they would be able to build on this experience. To have other immortals to talk to would be comforting in the years to come. Buffy was sure of that, especially in light of their conversation in the cemetery.
"Anything good out there?" Tara said cheerfully as she stuck her head around the corner from the kitchen.
Buffy grinned. "Nope. Hence the early."
After taking a look at the clock, Tara turned back to the other two women. "I thought it was later somehow," she shrugged. "We should catch you up."
"Did you find something?" Gabrielle asked hopefully as they went into the library.
"Did we ever," Willow said as she took a cup of coffee from Buffy. "We figured out why the spell has been so difficult to translate."
"And?" Gabrielle's said, hating the anxiousness her voice betrayed.
"Every fourth word is in a different language. That's the key," Tara said happily.
Gabrielle dropped to her knees. She didn't dare hope. She couldn't dare hope. There had been many times she thought she had the key to getting Xena back, but they were all false. This hope had more permanence to it somehow, and that knocked her to the ground.
The other women rushed to her as she knelt, and she could hear them asking her if she was okay. "I'm fine," Gabrielle croaked before looking at Willow and Tara. "Are you certain?" she asked.
"As certain as it gets," they said in unison.
"How close are you?"
"We think we know what language is. All we need to do is decipher it," Tara said as she handed Gabrielle a glass of water.
She took it gratefully and moved to sit in the chair next to her. "How long will that take?"
Willow shrugged. "We're not sure, but it won't take us long."
"Thank you," Gabrielle managed to whisper.
Willow and Tara each put a hand on each of Gabrielle's shoulders. "Thank us when we have her back."
Gabrielle found her feet and tugged both women into a very uncharacteristic hug. "Don't worry, I will, and so will she."
She released the two women self-consciously, not knowing where the sudden outpouring of emotion had come from. Looking at Willow and Tara though, Gabrielle was glad for it. They were brimming with happiness of their own.
She wondered for a moment whether she had completely lost the capability to be happy. Even if she did manage to get Xena back, would Gabrielle be able to trust her? Willow and Tara had found that forgiveness and trust again, but Gabrielle had had centuries to stew, and Xena had most likely experienced untold horrors in the other dimension.
They would find a way back to each other and, with a surety she had lost long ago, Gabrielle knew that nothing but having Xena back mattered. Everything else was just a minor obstacle compared to what they had been through together in their lives.
"You okay?" Willow asked, looking concerned.
Gabrielle shook her head to clear the cobwebs. "I was just thinking."
Tara seemed as though she was about to ask, but Willow barely glanced at her lover and Tara shut her mouth before she could say anything.
"We're going to get started. I know you probably won't be able to sleep, but you need to be rested." Tara looked beyond Gabrielle, to Faith and Buffy. "All of you need your sleep. We've got this from here."
Gabrielle was about to ask why the two witches didn't need sleep, but Faith was already pushing her to the spare room. "Come on, grandma. Let's put you to bed."
A wide grin spread across Gabrielle's features. "You do realize you'll pay for that remark," she said as she started out of the library.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm not afraid of you," Faith laughed out loud.
As they passed Buffy, Gabrielle couldn't help but see the amazed look on her new friend's face. "Are you all right?" she asked the Slayer.
"You aren't kicking her ass?" Buffy asked.
"You heard her. I'm a grandma. Aren't I, Faith?"
"Yeah, but you're our grandma," Faith said, and Gabrielle could hear the genuine affection from her.
Buffy and Faith followed her into the common area before going upstairs, leaving Gabrielle to root through the refrigerator. As she pulled out a bottle of water, she found herself knowing that Xena would like her newfound friends almost as much as she did. After a brief period of adjustment, that was.
She smiled as she entered her room at the thought. Xena could be back as early as tomorrow evening. Gabrielle hadn't hoped until that moment in the library, and the more time that passed, the more hopeful she was. She could hardly wait to be with her soul mate again.
Willow stretched out on the sofa in the library, intent on the words in front of her. Once they had figured out the code, it had been easy to decipher the spell. Since it was the middle of the night, both she and Tara chose not to wake anyone. There was still work to be done.
Tara was leaning over the desk with a map they had slowly but surely drawn over the years. It wasn't just any map; it showed the various dimensions they had visited and what dangers lay in each one. There were several Willow hoped Xena hadn't fallen into, ones that slowed time as various tortures were inflicted, while others that simply drove the person insane over time.
In all of them, it was likely that Xena hadn't talked to a soul, and that would have a strong effect on her psyche. It wasn't something Willow thought Gabrielle would be ready for, so the two witches had devised a plan: when they pulled both the demon and Xena out, they would both be separated from the group through the use of a force field. It wasn't a complex spell, and one that Buffy and Faith could perform easily while she, Gabrielle, and Willow were doing their jobs.
It had been decided that she would tether Gabrielle to the physical plane. Tara had fought her over it, but Willow had won out, arguing that the other woman had seen enough of hell recently, and didn't need to see anymore. Instead, Tara's job was to perform the spell that would separate Xena from the demon, which was no easy task. If one thing went wrong, they would lose their chance, and both Xena and the demon would be lost in the dimensions forever.
Willow closed the book slowly and went to Tara. Let's go to bed. She sent as she wrapped her arms around Tara.
Ever since they had reestablished their link, Willow noticed that, while in private mostly, they reverted to using their telepathic link to communicate. It was almost as though it made them closer somehow. She didn't analyze it too much, though. That would be for another night.
In a second. Willow, do you see that hole? Why haven't we ever been there? Tara pointed to a section of the map that didn't have anything written on it.
That was where Angel was, judging from what he told me. He doesn't have many memories of that time.
Just that it was nightmarish, and that in one year he had lived a hundred, Tara said quietly in Willow's mind.
I know, and I've thought about that. This isn't going to be easy for either one of them if she's there. Xena may very well be nothing more than an animal when she comes back. Willow shivered as she remembered Buffy's stories after Angel had come back.
Tara turned to her with a desperate look on her face. Gabrielle shouldn't be put through more pain.
Willow took Tara's face in her hands. I know, but it's necessary to reunite them. If Xena is as strong as we think she is, they'll find a way back to each other. Besides, she may not even be in that dimension.
Tara brushed her lips lightly over Willow's. That's my Willow. Always thinking the best of a bad situation.
I'm your Willow now? she smirked.
Tara pulled her closer, and Willow cherished the feel of her lover's arms around her waist. You've always been my Willow. Nothing will ever change that.
I'm glad we've established that. Willow smiled, trying not to think of when she wasn't Tara's. She couldn't help it, and finally came to the conclusion that even then, they had belonged to each other.
Bed, baby. We have a long day tomorrow. Tara sent, her voice clear in Willow's mind.
Willow rested her forehead on Tara's for a moment before taking a deep breath and letting the other woman go. With linked hands, they both went upstairs and fell into a deep, peaceful sleep. For them, everything was right with the world.
The next day at dusk, Gabrielle looked around at the clearing Willow and Tara had chosen. It was large, hopefully large enough to contain Xena and the demon, but Gabrielle had her doubts. If the spell for the containment field didn't work, she would be unable to help Xena in time. With Gabrielle being her only tether to this world, she knew she was the only one who had any hope of talking to Xena. She just hoped she could remember her ancient Greek. It had been a long time since she had needed to speak that particular language.
"Gabrielle, you should sit here, facing this way," Tara said as she positioned the shorter woman. "Willow will be over in a minute."
"You're sure this will work?"
Tara smiled. "As I've said before, this is our best hope. Willow is a wiz at this, and I'll be lending my power as well. You won't have any problems."
"What if you need all your power for Xena?" Gabrielle asked uncertainly as she sat down.
Even after all those years searching for Xena and being exposed to witchcraft, there was still a lot about it she didn't know, and therefore didn't trust. She knew she needed to if she had any hope of getting through the situation, and standing before her was one of the most trustworthy people she had ever met.
"I won't. By the time she's back, you'll be back as well," Tara said as she kneeled beside her. "Failure is not an option."
Gabrielle offered a wavering smile. "If you say so."
Gabrielle saw the warrior in Tara as her faced hardened a bit. "This won't work if you don't believe it will. Have Faith."
"I'll try. It's just been a long series of false starts."
"But you've never had us on your side. Remember that," Tara said, her face softer. "I need to get ready. You'll be all right?"
Gabrielle nodded, and once Tara left, she thought of nothing but the future. She could see that Tara believed every word she said, and if that was an indication of what the other three women felt, Gabrielle needed to finally give up and put herself in their hands. With a sigh, she finally did.
"Ready?" Willow asked as she sat next to her, but facing her.
"As I'll ever be."
Gabrielle knew the spell for crossing the dimensions by heart, and she began chanting the same time Willow did. Soon she felt herself separating from her body and floating up. She looked down, and saw that her body had fallen flat on the ground, along with Willow's. At the same time, she felt Willow's strength inside her, and it was like nothing she had ever felt in her past trips to the other dimensions.
The scene changed before her changed. She was walking on a stone plain with fire surrounding her as she stepped. The rock stayed cool, but she couldn't see anything beyond the flames. As though an unseen force were guiding her actions, she waved her hand and the flames disappeared. She wondered if that was Willow's presence.
Gabrielle could see clearly then, and was a little surprised to see that she had almost fallen off the edge of a cliff. Below her was molten lava, and as it bubbled up she could feel the extra heat it released. She wasn't quite sure why she wasn't burning to death, but then she was only spirit-walking.
It didn't take long before she saw that she was alone in the hell dimension. The voice in her mind, Willow's voice, agreed, and instantly the scenery changed from one extreme to the other. Snow swirled around her, and Gabrielle had trouble keeping her footing on the slippery ice. She was on a slope, which made it even more difficult, but her feet suddenly sported snow shoes, allowing her to walk up the hill.
When she made it to the top, the snow stopped. There were demons in this dimension, and they were all coming toward her a tremendously fast rate. She took out her Sais and moved to a battle stance, but before she had to fight, she was pulled from that dimension as well.
As inhospitable as the other two dimensions had been, the new one was just the opposite. She was in a lush, green forest with a stream running just a hundred yards from her. It was a peaceful setting, but Gabrielle quickly became aware of the creatures in the forest. There were a lot of them, and she could sense that they weren't friendly. The voice in her mind told her to run, and Gabrielle was mildly surprised she wasn't pulled from that dimension as well. Still, she did as she was told, narrowly avoiding several thigh-high creatures with very large fangs.
Once she was out of the forest, she came into a clearing and stopped dead in her tracks. It was the same clearing she had found the portal signs in. There were even scorch marks on the ground, and Gabrielle knew she was in the right place. Just beyond the tree line, she could see the outline of the cave she remembered from that horrible night.
The change in the air was immediate. Gabrielle knew she was being watched, but she wasn't sure by what. She knew Xena's gaze, but what she was feeling wasn't Xena. It was something more animalistic, and it frightened even Gabrielle.
"Xena?" she whispered.
Something dropped to the ground from behind her, and Gabrielle turned around immediately. Standing before her, pelts of animal hide covering her, was Xena. Her eyes were wild, and Gabrielle saw no recognition in them.
Xena began circling her, growling slightly as Gabrielle began to do the same to her. "Who are you?" she asked in a voice that sounded barely used.
Gabrielle startled at the use of modern-day English, but she recovered quickly. "It's me, Xena. It's Gabrielle."
"You can't possibly be her."
"Why not?" Gabrielle asked, slowly changing her stance. She was no longer ready for battle, but she somehow knew Xena needed not see her in a defensive posture.
"She's in the other world. I've watched her." Xena's circling slowed, and she moved to a dangerous crouch.
"Then you know I've been trying to find you," Gabrielle said, a small tear falling down her cheek. After all those centuries, was she to die at the hands of her beloved?
"What?" Gabrielle was surprised by the question.
"How are you here?"
"I I found some other warriors like us. One of them is acting as a tether to our dimension."
"Go away then. You cannot help me," Xena said as she stood to her full height and started for the cave.
"Xena, wait," Gabrielle called desperately.
While she didn't turn, Xena stopped. When she didn't say anything, Gabrielle took her cue to speak.
"We have a way to separate you from the demon."
At that, Xena did turn. "How?" she asked again.
"Two of the immortals are witches. They deciphered the spell, and once I get you back, they'll be able to perform it and kill the demon."
"Go back to your world, Gabrielle."
"Why? Why won't you trust me on this?" Gabrielle asked desperately.
"Because witchcraft can bring only pain."
"It brought me back to you."
Xena seemed to consider that for a moment, and Gabrielle didn't move as her lover did so. She knew she was getting through to Xena, and hopefully it would be enough. It had to be enough.
"They're sure they can help?" Xena said slowly.
"I've never trusted anything but you for so long, Xena. I trust them though. Please," Gabrielle risked a step forward, "Come back to me."
Xena took a step back as Gabrielle inched forward. "Don't."
Gabrielle felt defeated. If Xena wouldn't go back with her, where would she be then?
"It'll sense you if you get too close to me."
Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks and looked around. "It's here?"
Xena nodded. "Very close by. It's never very far. We need each other to survive."
Gabrielle couldn't fathom that kind of hell. To be separated from your soul mate was one thing, but Xena had been forced to keep her torment alive. "Come with me."
"You don't understand. It will attack you before you get to me. You're a threat."
Gabrielle felt Willow's voice in her head again. "Come to me. Willow will hold it off long enough to get you back."
"Trust me, Xena. Trust in our love."
The tension seemed to leave the taller woman and she took a hesitant step toward Gabrielle. When she did, the dark form of the demon appeared in the clearing, seemingly ready to pounce on her. Taking a calculated risk, Gabrielle took another step, causing the demon to attack.
In a split second, Xena was at her side, even as the demon leaped to attack. Both women were shocked when it was suspended in midair. Xena looked to Gabrielle for a second before looking disbelievingly to the demon.
"Portal, Xena. Now."
"What about you?" Xena asked.
"I'm only here in spirit. I'll see you on the other side. Trust me." With that, Gabrielle leaned up and quickly kissed her love.
The scene floated away from her, but she saw Xena open a portal before everything disappeared. Gabrielle didn't dare feel victorious just yet. She knew everything was going to happen very quickly from there on out, and she just wanted to make it through with Xena by her side again.
We found her. We're coming back. Willow's voice echoed in Tara's mind.
"Get ready, guys," she said to Buffy and Faith.
Just then there was a flash of light, and a dirty, disheveled woman ran through with a large, very hairy demon on her trail. Tara was gratified when both Buffy and Faith managed to erect the containment fields quickly. She looked over to where Willow and Gabrielle were just rising and nodded a little to the two of them.
She could feel Willow's power coursing through her as she began to recite the spell to separate Xena from the demon, and as she did, the demon became even more agitated than he had been before. Xena, who was also agitated, wasn't trying to get out of the prison. Instead she kept her eyes locked on Gabrielle's.
Suddenly another bright flash of light burst from between Xena and the demon, and they were both flung backwards. Tara barely registered Gabrielle running past her to Xena, but as that happened, she lowered the force field surrounding Xena. When the two women were reunited, they held on to each other for dear life.
There was more to do, however. "Buffy, Faith. Are you ready?" she asked.
Both women nodded, and Tara let down the second force field. The demon immediately went after the two Slayers, spitting all the way. Willow made it over to Tara and took her hand. We should end this. The demon could get away.
But there was no need for them to do anything. Xena had the Chakram in her hand and threw it, slicing the demon's head cleanly from its body. It slumped to the ground before the Slayers even as the Chakram found its owner again.
No one spoke for a moment. Tara had no words for what they had just done, and she felt speaking would cheapen the reunion between Xena and Gabrielle. She could tell their bond was stronger than ever, and she knew that no matter what, things had been set right.
Everything was unfamiliar and, at the moment, nothing seemed right. Xena had forgotten how to be with people, and that included Gabrielle. The moment the strangers showed her the small room she would be staying in, Xena had locked herself in the bathroom. The one thing she could figure out was the shower, and even that was a hit-or-miss. Eventually though, she figured it out.
The water was as cold as possible, but then that was what she was used to. She removed the hide that had served as her clothing and stepped inside the stall, wondering at the pressure of the water as it cascaded down around her. She remembered some of the details of her past life, and she remembered she liked feeling clean. Though the bar of soap smelled very odd to her, she began using that and the piece of cloth next to it to clean herself. Her hair was a ratty mess, but it didn't matter.
Was she really back, or was this another nightmare? If it was, Xena hoped she wouldn't wake from it. She would step out of the shower and find Gabrielle staring back at her with love shining in her eyes. It was something she dared not believe. When she did wake, that would make things so much more difficult, and Xena knew that.
Finally satisfied that she was clean, she stepped out of the shower and wrapped the towel around her. She looked down at the animal hides with disdain, hoping she would never have to see them again, and opened the outer door. Completely expecting to walk into her cave, as she had so often before, she was startled to see the dim light of a bedroom.
What almost made her knees buckle was the sight of Gabrielle sitting in a chair that was situated next to the bedroom door. Neither woman moved, their eyes locked together in a questioning stare. The more time she spent looking into Gabrielle's eyes, the less Xena felt she was still in the nightmare.
"There's some food on the table for you," Gabrielle said quietly, motioning slowly to the small table beside her. "Do you still like grapes?"
Xena wanted to say something, but the only thing she could do was nod. The relief she saw in Gabrielle was evident.
"I laid some clothes on the bed. I had to guess your size, but they should be fine for now," Gabrielle said nervously. "I'll leave you to get dressed." She stood and started for the door.
Xena's hand shot out and touched Gabrielle's arm. "No," Xena said quietly. "Don't leave."
Gabrielle nodded and sat back down as Xena went to the clothes on the bed. After inspecting them, she had no idea how to put them on, and looked to Gabrielle.
"Do you need help?"
Again, Xena could only nod. It wasn't like her to admit she needed help, but with Gabrielle, she felt safe. It didn't matter that they had been separated for so long, Xena still felt a strong kinship to the woman she had pledged to spend the rest of eternity with.
Gabrielle walked to her slowly, gingerly taking the undergarments from her. As she was dressed, Xena closed her eyes to the feel of Gabrielle's hands on her again. The skin of her hands was rough, but Gabrielle's touch was soft, and Xena reveled in that tenderness. When Gabrielle finally moved away, Xena missed the warmth that had surrounded her.
"Would you like to sit?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
Xena moved to the chair Gabrielle had been in and sat on the comfortable cushion. It was all so much. Gabrielle was with her, and for the moment, they weren't in danger. They were, she supposed, safer than they had ever been. For Xena, it was frightening. She hadn't had that feeling for centuries, long before she had met Gabrielle. Even then, it had been a deceptive feeling.
Gabrielle took the other chair in the room and pulled it so that they were sitting face-to-face. "Here," she said as she handed Xena a grape.
Xena took it, but didn't eat it. "Where are we?"
"The Americas, can you believe that?" Gabrielle smiled. "We always said we would come here."
"What year is it?"
Gabrielle's smiled faded. "You've been gone over three hundred years."
Closing her eyes, Xena fought the urge to scream her pain. "I knew it had been a long time "
"Xena, how can you understand what I'm saying?"
"I watched you. There was a pool in the cave, and whenever I had a chance, I watched. I saw the world change, and you with it."
"That doesn't mean you don't belong here."
Opening her eyes swiftly, Xena locked eyes with her beloved. "I know," she said softly. "There's only one place I truly belong, and that's with you. Wherever you are, I'll be."
"I kind of feel the same way about you," Gabrielle beamed.
They stared at each other a moment before Xena put the grape in her mouth. It tasted better than she remembered, but then again, it wasn't sour, as all the food had been in the hell dimension. She smiled and took another. Soon she was practically shoving the food in her face, but she stopped when she felt Gabrielle's hand on her arm.
"Slow down. It won't run away." There was humor lacing Gabrielle's voice, but Xena also detected a note of concern.
"I know," she responded as she licked the fruit juice from her fingers. "It's a hard habit to break."
Gabrielle's hand slipped into Xena's, and everything just stopped. The touch and the look in Gabrielle's eyes were the only two things Xena registered.
"It's been a long time," Gabrielle said, her eyes never leaving Xena's.
"But you found a way. I should have known you would," Xena smiled for the first time in so long, and was rewarded by one in return.
"It wasn't easy, and I'm sure you know there were a lot of false starts."
Xena snorted. "To say the least. I still can't believe you used that, what was it? Snake oil from that traveling salesman.
Her smile fading, Gabrielle slipped her hand away. "I was desperate."
Xena quickly took hold of Gabrielle's hand. "I'm sorry. I just miss poking fun at you."
"I've missed that, too. I'm sure you have a lot saved up for me," Gabrielle said, her smile back.
"You wouldn't believe just how much," Xena smirked.
"I can't wait."
Xena didn't think Gabrielle dreaded that nearly as much as she sounded she did, but it was a conversation that would have to wait for another day. The more time that passed, the more questions Xena had, and she hoped her lost love would be able to answer them.
She nodded toward the door. "Who are they?"
"They're like us. Young, though. Very young. Remember how old I was when we met?"
"They aren't quite that young, but they're close." Gabrielle sighed. "They've seen far more battle than I had by their age though."
"How long have they been immortal?"
"Two years at best, but I think it hasn't even been that. Two of them are Slayers."
Xena perked up at that. They had avoided the Slayer at all cost, but now not only were there two, but Gabrielle had taken them into confidence. Xena wasn't all that surprised though. She knew the loneliness that her lover had felt. If the only person who could understand her was a Slayer, Xena would have gone to her as well.
"There are two now?"
"It's a long story, and one I'm sure they would love to tell you. The two witches are the true bards though. You'll like all of them, I think."
Xena shook her head, causing a twig that hadn't dislodged during her shower to fall out of her hair.
Gabrielle laughed. "You need a haircut."
"What, this?" Xena asked, holding out her waist-length hair. "Are you telling me I look terrible?" Though she tried to sound hurt, she knew she wasn't succeeding.
"Would I say that?"
"Would I use your scrolls as a bog roll?" Xena countered.
"You still remember that day?" Gabrielle asked, shock evident on her face.
Xena saddened suddenly. She didn't like thinking about her hell. "It was what kept me going all those years. I would replay our adventures, both good and bad. While I enjoyed days like that thoroughly, the bad ones were terrible. There were so many things I wish I could change."
"You can't think that way."
Xena didn't register Gabrielle's words. "I wish I had never opened that portal. I saw you find the spell, and it broke my heart."
"Xena, understand me when I say this to you. You were doing what you felt was the noble thing to do. While I have been furious over the years with you for doing it, I know you hadn't done that to hurt me. You did it to save me. Don't regret what you did," Gabrielle paused. "Even if it turned out to be what you felt to be the wrong decision, you can never know what would have happened had you stayed.
"We're together now. Let's just enjoy that, and let the past stay where it belongs. It will always be a part of us, but it doesn't have to control us."
"I seem to recall being told that before," Xena laughed.
"And I'll tell you again if you don't stop being stupid," Gabrielle said as she playfully smacked Xena on her arm.
"Hey, that actually hurt," Xena said as she grabbed her arm.
"Right, and I have a mountain stronghold on the Spanish plains to sell you."
They both laughed, and it was a natural, guttural one. For Xena, that meant that their healing had begun. There would be bumps on the road, but they were finally together again. All was right with her world.
"Faith, stop stealing the orange slices," Tara said as she batted the Slayer's hand away from the fruit bowl.
"Come on, I'm starving."
"And you can wait, just like the rest of us," Buffy said, though she looked like she was going to pounce on the fruit bowl herself.
"Do you think we should knock on the door?" Willow asked, glancing to the guest room.
"Let them be," Tara said. "If they need time, they can have all they want."
"That's easy for you to say. You eat like a bird," Faith remarked.
"Actually," Willow began, perking up a bit, "Birds eat their weight in food, so that's not "
Just then the guest room door opened and Gabrielle came out, closely followed by a much cleaner Xena. The warrior's long, knotted hair had been cut very close to her head, and she still looked a bit like a terrified animal, but Tara knew that would disappear eventually.
"Hi, guys," Tara said, greeting them the same way she would greet any of her friends.
Gabrielle took Xena's hand and went to the other four women, who stood around the kitchen island. "This is Xena," she said.
Though Willow didn't approach, Tara saw a kind smile on her love's face. "It's good to have you here."
Xena nodded uncertainly, and Tara took a risk. She was standing closest to the warrior, and she reached over and took Xena's hand. Tara was very relieved when the touch wasn't rebuffed. "You're family here."
"You're Tara, aren't you?"
"None other. How did you know?"
Xena smiled. "Gabrielle said you would say something like that. She tells me you're the mother hen of this place."
"Is that a compliment?" Tara asked, her gaze flicking to Gabrielle.
"It's a huge compliment," Gabrielle responded.
"You do manage to keep up with the shopping and stuff," Faith said as she snapped up an apple slice.
"Faith!" Tara exclaimed with a grin. "No sneaking."
Faith just chewed her apple and swallowed. "See? She is the mother hen."
"Ugh," Tara said in exasperation.
"All of you, shoo. Tara and I need to finish making breakfast," Willow said as she waved everyone out of the kitchen.
Once the four women were gone, Willow turned to Tara. So?
"Voices for now. I don't want to scare our new friend too much."
Willow smiled as she turned burner on. She put the skillet on top and went to the refrigerator for the butter. "You're right, but you still didn't answer my question."
"She's doing much better than I thought she would," Tara said, glad to see Xena laughing at something Faith said. No doubt it was one of her insane sewer stories. Tara loved those.
"The place she was in wasn't like the once we've been to before. It wasn't as bad."
Tara finished chopping the onions and put them in the skillet to sizzle. "No, but she was there for a long time."
"Are you worried?"
"She'll be fine. After everything Gabrielle has told us, Xena went into this one of the strongest-willed people in the world. This won't be anything but an obstacle for her to overcome, and I have no doubt she will."
"We need a bigger skillet," Willow said when she poured the eggs into the mix. "Or not as many hungry fighters."
Tara laughed and hugged Willow from behind. "I'd prefer the former. It's good to know there are others like us."
Willow turned around, not breaking Tara's hold on her. "Are you saying you want to form a support group?"
Tara closed her eyes briefly and smiled before kissing Willow. "Only if you really want to. I was thinking more along the lines of having new friends." Reluctantly she pulled out of the embrace to stir the eggs. "Could you get the toast?"
"Why don't we ever have bagels anymore? Is there some kind of law these days?" Willow said as she popped the bread into the toaster.
"You're silly sometimes. They were just out of the kind you like when I went to the store the last time. I promise I'll get there earlier next time." Tara tried to look entirely put out, but she knew from the look on Willow's face that she had been quite unsuccessful.
"See that you do."
"Har-har. If you were actually serious "
"You'd kick me out of the bedroom?"
Tara flashed a crooked smile. "Not in a million years."
"I'm going to hold you to that, you know. Don't think I won't," Willow said. With the sausage done, she put the links into a bowl and took it to the table.
The toaster dinged just as Tara was sprinkling a pinch of cheese on the eggs. She scrambled them a little more before putting them on a dish, and she and Willow made it to the table at the same time. "Do you want to do the honors?"
"But of course," Willow said with a little bow, causing Tara to giggle a little.
"I love you," she said as she kissed Willow lightly on the cheek.
"It's because I'm cute, right?" Willow responded with a gleam in her eye.
"There are so many more reasons, and some of them are definitely rated R."
"For strong language?"
Tara laughed and pointed to the deck. "You know it's not for strong language. Now get out there before the food gets cold."
"Okay, but I'm going to show you some R-rated stuff later," Willow said as she went onto the deck.
Tara set the bowl of fruit in the middle of the table. She couldn't believe how much things had changed. Only weeks before she would never have imagined she could be so happy again, but seeing the rest of her friends as they entered the common area, she knew she was happier than she had been in a long time.
With a strong sense of satisfaction at the appreciative looks from the gang, Tara sat down at the head of the table. "Do I need to tell you guys to eat?" she asked with a grin.
"Not twice, that's for sure," Faith said as she sat next to Tara.
Everyone, including Xena, quickly followed suit and they began passing around the serving dishes. Tara watched her carefully as they ate, and noticed that the raven-haired woman was taking her cues from Gabrielle. It was as though Xena had forgotten how to eat with utensils, but then Tara expected that. She had been in the wilderness for far too long not to.
There wasn't much talking amongst the friends, and as they ate, Tara saw Xena relax more. She had a strong sense from the warrior that the panic from displacement was fading quickly, and Tara knew Gabrielle was the cause. The two women hadn't walked the world for so long without having an extremely strong bond.
Tara looked at Willow as she thought about that. They would eventually be even closer than Xena and Gabrielle, and in certain ways they already were. Where the other two women had almost a telepathic bond from fighting together for so long, hers with Willow was organic. Tara wondered what it would be in a century, and even beyond that.
As she ate she began to block out what little conversation there was. Upon thinking of the long stretch of time they would be together, part of Tara was filled with joy. They would never have to say goodbye to each other, and their bond would only grow stronger. But that same token, however, they would say goodbye to everyone else they loved with the exception of Buffy and Faith. Tara adored Joyce, and she hoped she would feel the same about Sheila one day, but she knew she needed to steel herself soon for their eventual deaths.
And what would become of them once Xander and Anya left them as well? Would the four immortals watch over the twins, and then their children beyond that? Or would they travel the world to help right the wrongs of the world? She had meant what she had said in to Willow a few days before: she didn't feel they were doing as much good as they could by just staying in Sunnydale. Though Tara understood why they were there for the time being, they would most likely sever any mortal ties they had within only a few decades.
She began to think beyond that, and she was relieved they had newfound friends she knew would be able to know them forever. They may not fight together, but knowing Xena and Gabrielle would be out there gave Tara a certain comfort she didn't realize she had been seeking. They weren't alone anymore.
Tara? Willow's voice echoed through Tara's mind.
Sorry, love. Just becoming introspective. You know how I can get. Tara said, smiling at Willow.
"Do you know where you'll go from here?" Faith was asking the two warriors.
"I'm not sure, but I think some time away from everything might be a good idea," Gabrielle said as she grasped Xena's hand.
Xena didn't say anything, but she looked adoringly at Gabrielle. It was easy to see their love, and Tara was pleased she had been a part of reuniting them.
"Why don't you stay with us for a while? We have the room," Willow offered.
"Thank you for the offer, but we'll be leaving tomorrow," Gabrielle replied with a smile.
"Thank you," Xena said suddenly, causing all eyes to turn to her. "I never thought I would be in this realm again, and you have given me the world. I will be forever in your debt."
"You're friends now, and we would give anything for our friends," Buffy said.
It was quiet for a moment, and Xena looked at Gabrielle. "I want to go home. Is it still there?"
The smile on Gabrielle's face was radiant. "I've made some changes, but it's still there."
Xena turned to the group again. "You're invited to our home any time you wish to come."
"The same goes for you," Faith said.
A small smile played on Xena's lips before it was replaced by a bit of anxiousness. Tara could feel it coming off in waves suddenly, and she cleared her throat. "Buffy, Faith, if you wouldn't mind clearing up?"
Buffy and Faith nodded and began taking the dishes off the table. Without words, Gabrielle led Xena back to the deck. Tara had a feeling Xena would feel more comfortable out there, and she was right. Xena's body seemed to relax as the two sat on the deck chairs. Tara wondered what kind of long-lasting effects Xena's self-imposed imprisonment would have on the couple.
Willow took her hand. Don't worry so much. They'll be fine.
Tara gazed at her love. Promise me forever.
You have it. Nothing will ever come between us again.
Leaning over, Tara placed a chaste kiss on Willow's cheek. Nothing.
"Hey, you two quit that. Don't you know it's not nice to whisper? If you have something to say, say it to the group," Buffy said as she put dishes in the dishwasher.
"We weren't whispering," Willow said.
"You were telepathing, it's the same thing," Buffy responded.
"That's so not a word," Faith said with a grin. "Don't try to use it in Scrabble, either."
"Like we even play Scrabble."
Faith went up to Buffy and kissed her soundly. "But if we did "
"I'd let you win every time if you kissed me like that," Buffy said.
Tara smiled to herself. Everything would work itself in its own time, she knew. Time righted most wrongs, and their house was finally a happy one again. Change would come, but they would be ready for it. There truly wasn't anything they couldn't do anymore.
She couldn't wait for the future, but she definitely loved the present. With Willow and her friends by her side, what was there not to love?
Return to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Fiction
Return to Main Page