DISCLAIMER: Buffy the Vampire Slayer belongs to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox and minions.
COPYRIGHT: You know it. The story and all original material belongs to me. To quote the fabulous Missy Elliot "copywritten so...don't copy me."
THANKS: mad props to all the Kittens, to Jenny Jewwitch for the kaddish and the constant support and to Melissa (witchpunk), my wonderful rocking beta/editor.
SPOILERS: S6 spoilery, but diverges from canon after S6. I started writing it in the summer of 2002 so there is no crossover with S7.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Tempus Fugit S7
By leavethesky



"Put her down. Now."

Dawn felt the uneven up-down of Spike's gait stop abruptly, his strong arms pulling her closer to his body. Which was kind of comforting and kind of…disturbing.

"Look Slayer, just because Buffy's not here…" he began and was interrupted by Faith as she stepped with violent intent into his personal space.

"Don't you ever say her name!" it came out as more of a hiss, but the impact was the same as a high-decibel scream. Dawn's vision was wobbly at best, but she could see the muscles in the Slayer's jaw grind away with pent-up fury. Could feel a tremor in the vampire's grip. "Scumbags like you don't deserve to say her name.'

That's why she calls her B, Dawn mused with some part of her brain that seemed to be floating like a helium balloon just over her left shoulder.

"Put me down Spike. Please."

The world shifted dangerously on its axis as her feet found the ground and her knees failed to hold up their end of the bargain. Faith's arm was suddenly around her, righting the world to a gentle rocking motion. Like being on her father's sailboat on a calm day. She knew it was the Slayer's arm because it was warm and slick with sweat and probably about ten different kinds of demon blood. And Slayer blood too she thought with a frown. Lots of it. There was that rusty sweet smell she was too familiar with and something else. Kerosene? Or maybe turpentine. It smelled like art class. Did the demons have turpentine running in their veins?

"Look. I wasn't gonna hurt her…" he began and trailed off with a frown.

"I know Spike." The words were hard to form and came out in a whispered sort of mumble. "It's okay. Can we…just…." But she couldn't seem to form words any longer.

She felt Faith growl low as she leaned into her shoulder. As they began to limp away all she could think was, when did Faith get so short? Have all the Slayers back through the ages or whatever, been so… vertically challenged?

"Well, I'm not leaving you two out here alone. State you're in, a bloody fruitfly could take out the both of you and Bu--…that other Slayer'll kick my ass if anything happens to the Little One. " Then the unmistakable sound of a Zippo and the vampire's heavy boots trudging behind them.

They were so close to home now. One more block and she would be able to rest. Maybe. If the house wasn't already a pile of kindling for Vra'al and his minions. For some reason The Three Little Pigs came to mind. "I'll huff and I'll puff…"

She hadn't realized she'd said it out loud until she caught Faith looking at her with something between a smile and a frown of concern.

"And I'll blow your house down. Almost there D. Just hang on," The Slayer's voice was gentle and even, but she could tell by her breathing and their ever-slowing gait that she was weakening. So much blood.

She could see the house now, the yellow glow of the porch light that was always on. And that helped her find a little bit of strength somewhere. Enough to get her moving, to take some of the weight off of Faith. But there was someone on the porch, she could see the glint and shine of metal as the silhouette moved in front of the broken door. The square shoulders and fire engine red of a familiar tool box.

Xander. Her heart leapt at the sight of him. One more member of her family safe and…here. He was standing straight now, she could just see him squinting in their direction.. The tool in his hand suddenly became a weapon and he was marching toward them angrily and Dawn realized how this must all look. The vampire and the Evil Slayer dragging her home covered in blood.

"Great! Just fucking great," Faith hissed low and the wound at Dawn's neck began to throb noisily.

"Dawn?" It was more of command than a question and the large metal tool she still didn't recognize was now pointed at Faith. And he was still marching forward. Couldn't he see that Faith was barely standing?

"I know how this looks, but it's not what you think…" Faith began and Dawn felt the world shift in a vertiginous blur. If there had been anything on her stomach she would definitely have thrown it up.

"Oh I don't know everyone's covered in blood, the house is trashed, Buffy and Willow are missing so… of course," he threw up his hands in mock revelation. "Faith must be back in Sunnydale!"

The Slayer's arm gripped her tightly, pulling her close and she became very conscious suddenly of the blood between them. And the weakness. If they could just get to the house.

"Xander, Faith's here to help. Buffy and Willow are gone and…"

"Dawn I know you think Faith is like this supercool Slayer," he was speaking to her now in his most daddy-like voice. The one she hated. She didn't remember him ever speaking this way before Willow went all dark magic. He'd just been Xander then. Cool, goofy, kinda cute Xander, but now….she forced herself to concentrate through the dizziness and nausea on his very important lecture. "…but she's not. She killed people. And she hates Buffy. She'll do anything to hurt her." He held her eyes for a moment and then looked back to the Slayer, his face full of rage and hurt and something else that she couldn't really figure out.

"You don't know anything about it…" Faith began angrily and then stopped. Dawn felt her take a deep breath and exhale slowly. "Look, you can go all Montel on me later. Right now we need to get…."

"Let's get this straight, I don't take orders from murdering psychos, I don't care if you are a Chosen One," he shouted taking a step toward the Slayer, the tool Dawn now recognized as a hammer was held at a threatening angle. "Let go of Dawn."

"As much as I hate to admit it the Slayer's right, Dawn's…" Spike began only to be cut off by Xander.

"You shutup! Should have known you'd team up with the Slut Slayer first chance you got. Why don't you go crawl back to whatever rock she found you under." The hammer was now six inches from Faith's face and Dawn felt suddenly sick.

"Look, I'm trying to stay all cool here, but if you don't get that out of my face…" Faith said evenly and shifted into what Dawn recognized immediately as a fighting stance. Rolling slightly on the balls of her feet. Probably trying to decide how to disable him without letting go of her.

"Oh, what? You gonna kill me? Guess you liked your little trip to the big house?" He appraised her injuries with a sneer. "I dunno Faith, that arm doesn't look so good so I'm thinking I could take…"

This was insane. They had just battled, like, a thousand demons, they were bleeding and broken and they still weren't any closer to the house. Her neck began to hurt with a dull, hard pain.

"Stop! Both of you!" Dawn yelled and brought her other arm around the Slayer's neck to hold herself up. "Xander, I love you, you know, like a brother or whatever… but right now… you're being a real…asshole." She heard Spike snort behind her and chose to ignore him. She was desperate. Desperate for the old Xander. The one with the jokes and the donuts and the heart big enough for all of them. "We need to get to the house and get the Med Kit and the weapons 'cause this demon is frickin' huge and he's gonna be here soon." He stood staring at her for a moment, his gaze bouncing back and forth between her face and the Slayer's. Finally, his frown deepened, but the hammer slowly fell to his side.

"How big?"

She sighed with relief as the Slayer's grip relaxed. "Like, fifteen feet…and minions…" she tried to relieve Faith by standing on her own, but ended up falling forward. Xander caught her easily and swept her up into his arms. "Lots of minions."

"Buffy?" He asked softly, his voice hoarse with more than a little fear as he walked without another word toward the house.

"She and Willow…" her eyes met Faith's over Xander's shoulder and she was overwhelmed again by a tide of violent images. Soft animal print sheets and a man standing over her bed loosening his belt. The sticky feeling of blood on her hands as an old man in tweed slid down a wall. Sharp heat as she looked down to see her own knife embedded deep in her own abdomen. And worse the terror and relief of following the hand that held it up to Buffy's face.

"Dawn?" It was Xander voice, but she wasn't in his arms anymore. She was now resting on something soft and familiar. The sofa in the living room. How did they get here so fast?

Then more images of blood and anger. And fear coagulating hot and thick.

"Faith," she mumbled through the haze and felt a hot hand take her own. And it all stopped.

"Hey Half Pint. You okay?" Dawn blinked back to reality and relaxed slightly as she took in the familiar objects of home.

"Dawn." It was out of her mouth before she could stop it.


"Could you please I mean, when it's not like all an emergency or something… could you call me Dawn?"

Faith studied her with an unreadable expression on her own face then nodded. "Sorry, didn't know 'Half Pint' bugged you so much."

"It didn't…I mean it doesn't. I just…I want you to call me Dawn. Okay?" She wasn't sure what she wanted for why she even needed this, but it seemed important somehow. "I mean D's okay, but…"

"No problem jefe." Faith smiled at her. "I mean, Dawn." She made a strange face around the name, like embarrassment, but managed to say it out loud.

"See it's not so…"

A gunshot rang out making them both jump quickly followed by a long wail and she remembered. The room. It was down here too which meant it was taking over the house.

Faith's head was thrown back as she stared up at the ceiling. The floor of that room. Her neck streaked with blood and dirt.

"Okay, one really heavy MedKit," Xander grumbled as he struggled into the room with the enormous metal box. Another wail stopped him, his eyes growing wide as he tried not to look up. "So when, exactly, did the house get all haunted?"

"It's kind of a long story," she mumbled absently. Faith withdrew her hand gently to rummage through the Kit and she felt the world slip again.

"Dermabond!" Faith exclaimed like a child on Christmas morning and Dawn couldn't help smiling. "And a medical stapler. Hella cool!" She ripped open a sterile swab and reached toward Dawn's neck and the teen felt the cool burn of alcohol.

"Faith, your arm…"

"Nope." The Slayer ignored her protests and grabbed a tube of something called Emla. "Me Slayer, remember. Me strong." She ended with a cave grunt and Dawn noticed out of the corner of her eye that Xander was watching them both carefully. Which was strange 'cause he never shut up.

"But your forehead is just gross…" she backed up slightly as Faith approached her with some smelly beige cream. "What is that stuff?"

"Magic." Faith wiggled her eyebrows and then winced. Dawn's stomach turned over as the gash on the Slayer's forehead began to bleed again.. "Pain killer." She offered weakly and smeared it on the bite at her neck before placing a bandage over the area. "Now your arm."

"No, Faith," she began but was cut off by Xander.

"I'll take care of Dawnie," he said a little too loud and then softened. "You should do something about that arm. And your forehead." He finished with a frown and there was a long silence. Finally Faith nodded at him once and grabbed the tube of Dermabond and a few other things. With a wink for Dawn she was off to the bathroom still holding her wounded arm carefully against her body.

As Xander rifled through the kit, Dawn sank back gratefully into the chair. Faith was right, that stinky cream was magic. The pain in her neck had almost completely disappeared. She touched the rough bandage with the tips of her fingers and remembered the reason it was there in the first place. Spike.

Scanning the room for him, she remembered that Willow had replaced the vampire lock on the house. It was the only magic Buffy had allowed near the house since she had gone dark magic. Everything magic-related had been banned to the now-destroyed Magic Box or just thrown out.

An orange flare from the dark front porch gave him away. As Xander wiped down her arm with antiseptic she called out to the front porch. "Spike, you can come…"

"No!" Xander and Faith said it simultaneously and she stopped in shock. Faith now stood facing the door, her face set in hard lines. Dawn noticed that the gash on her forehead was now sealed and the cut on her arm, though still open and bleeding had been cleaned and covered in a yellow antiseptic.

"Spike is permanently uninvited to the Summers' house," Xander said with finality and then ripped open a bandage. "That's the way Buffy wanted it."

Dawn's first inclination was to argue. It wasn't just Buffy's house. It was hers too. Then she remembered what Spike had done and frowned, her eyes falling to the floor.

Another ghostly gunshot ripped through the room and she felt Xander jump.

"S'okay Little Bit. I'd rather be out here." The orange glow intensified and then flicked away in a high arc. "Where I can smoke. Plus there's some serious witchiness going on in there." He came close to the open doorway and stopped with an exaggerated shudder. "Gives me the willies."

There was a burst of light and a familiar voice, cutting through the room like glass. "Okay, I said I would help, but no one said anything about the penis." Anya. Dawn smiled with relief. Maybe she had answers. "Or penises," she said studying the vampire's skulking form with obvious distaste. "Or is it peni? I'm never really clear on that whole plural…"

Faith, she noticed had slipped over to the couch and was busily stapling her arm back together, wincing with each pop of the gun.

"Oh, no, no," Xander rose to his feet and Dawn rolled her eyes. This could take days. "You didn't say anything about Anya being..."

"You know what? Do me a favor and never invite me in," Spike chimed in from the porch. She heard the sound of his Zippo as Xander continued his angry rant.

"…no more demons, no more vampires. From now on this is strictly a humans-only operation, so both of you can just…."

"Look, I'm no fan of Willy out there, but he did us a solid with the demon hordes and he's pretty good in a fight." Faith interjected absently as she concentrated on stapling her arm back together. Dawn knew from experience that this entire confrontation was heading toward an explosion. An ugly one. "Same with the VD here. So," she shrugged, her eyes moving from Anya to Xander. "As long as they're on the right side they're five by five with me." She returned to her stapling and Dawn noticed that Anya had crossed her arms and was now smiling smugly at Xander.

"Well…that's…that's…" he sputtered angrily, his facing growing redder by the moment. He looked like her Uncle Freddy did before the heart attack. "That's a hell of a recommendation coming from the Slut Slayer who stabbed Buffy in the back…"

Faith turned to face him, stapler held like a weapon, "B stabbed me remember? Put me in a fucking coma, but of course you could never see that 'cause you've been hot for her since.…"

"Thank you!" Anya yelled. "Finally somebody says it. You've been all moony-eyed over Buffy for years…"

"Hey I'm not the one who slept with dead boy out there," Xander interjected, redirecting his anger at the vengeance demon. "So did you sleep with Faith too Anya? Or was it a threesome with Spike…"

"Now that would have been…" Spike interjected from the porch wiggling his eyebrows.

"Hello! B's the one with the undead fetish, not me…"

"Two whole minutes of sex with Spike is more than enough for one lifetime," Anya interrupted. "Although at least it was more than you could ever manage."

Dawn shook her head as Spike puffed up to defend himself.

"Hang on! It was at least three minutes and…"

Xander seemed to actually inflate with anger as he stepped toward the vampire, bandage in hand.

"Shutup! I should have staked you..."

"Ohmygod, shut the fuck up! All of you!" Dawn screamed and then stood silent for a moment shocked at her own outburst. "Hello! Big demon coming. Plus lots of medium-sized demons! We need to…" Another loud wail echoed through the room. Anya was now staring up at the ceiling, her eyes unfocused.

"You go Dawn," Faith said, nodding her head with more than a smug smile, until she noticed the vengeance demon and grew suddenly serious.

"When did this happen?" Anya demanded sharply. "The spreading? When did it start?"

"It was like this when we got back," Faith responded and picked up a roll of gauze, her gaze was still fixed on the vengeance demon who was now shaking her head.

"This is not good." She clucked a few times in what Dawn knew to be a nervous tick. Definitely not a good sign. "This is really not good. Really, really not good."

"Okay, 'this is not good' in a bad hair day kind of way? Or in an end of the world…"

"End of the world," she interrupted Xander's question, still focused on the ceiling. "It's, um, it's the Heart." She was now glancing around the room, gesticulating wildly. "Willow's magic is probably making it unstable and if she doesn't fix it soon, it'll explode into this reality. And not in a good way."

"So what does that mean?" Dawn asked, her voice shaking with fear.

Don't cry. Don't cry. Be tough like a Slayer.

Dawn glanced over at Faith who met held her eyes for a moment and blinked slowly to let her know that it was going to be okay. It was reassuring for a moment, like the connection they had shared, but without all the violent images.

The vengeance demon returned her eyes to Dawn's and sighed loudly before continuing in a matter-of-fact tone. "That means…" she paused for a moment as if she was searching for the right words. "Oh! Like Glory. Kind of a mini-version of what the hell-bitch was after." She nodded emphatically, happy with her analogy and then added. "Only without the Key. So…hey," she squeezed Dawn's arm "Lucky you."

"Yeah…lucky me," the teen mumbled.

"So that's what Cordy saw." Faith stated without any emotion. "Red and B and the end of the world?"

Anya nodded cheerfully. "Yep."

"Well how do we stop it?" Dawn blurted out in desperation and heard a 'bloody hell' behind her on the porch. "I mean, can't we cast a spell or call up a spirit or…" she was in tears now, past the point of caring how it looked. Because she wasn't a Slayer. "How do we stop this?"

Anya's expression actually softened into something sad. She shook her head slightly. "You don't. Willow does…or," she frowned, "She doesn't."

Willow turned on her side to watch the slow rise and fall of Tara's chest. Sunrise was beginning to color the sky in pinks and reds, making the blonde's skin a study in perfect peach. Pale eyelashes fluttered and a line formed between closed eyes. Willow recognized the signs of an impending nightmare and ran shaking fingers lightly over the soft skin of a cheek to tuck strands of gold behind one ear.

"Shhh, it's okay, baby," she whispered and brushed her lips against the warm soft of Tara's forehead.

"Mmmm, Willow," the blonde sighed and with a smile returned to sleep. It was so tempting to kiss those perfect lips to waking, to move the blonde with soft touches and tastes back to consciousness. Back to them. But she needed to sleep. The spell had been an enormous drain on both of them and, well… they hadn't exactly gotten much rest afterward. She smiled again and stifled a yawn. There would be no sleep for her. The divination had shown her that.

Her gaze fell on the slowly spinning map, hovering near the bed. Another soft kiss for Tara and she rose painfully from the bed. The simple act of removing the sheet and crawling to the floor took all of her willpower and nearly all of her strength. Breathing heavily, she finally sat cross-legged before the holographic image of the spell's magic, studying the slow and steady mix of its surface.

Because it was all there in a swirling mix of greens and violet, red and…dark. Tangled into a three-dimensional mess of energies and magic.

Liquid fiery marble, she thought with a rueful smile. Tara's description of her own aura seemed appropriate for the sphere of light.

With a series of deep breaths, Willow centered herself falling into a deep meditation, letting her mind reach out to read the mix of energies, to unravel the knots and plaits of the spell that had brought them here. And the magic that was keeping them here.

Concentrating with all of her will, she could just make out the seams and subtle lines between where the magics shimmered against each other in a constant state of simultaneous attraction and repulsion. Backing out to study the whole of it, she knew in a moment of terrible clarity how this would end. Because there were two ways to untangle space and time. But only one that would lead her back to Tara.

Opening her eyes slowly, Willow's eyes trailed up the sinuous curve of her girlfriend's sleeping back. Studying the fall of golden hair over the dark sheets, she smiled and turned inward to feel the connection between them shimmering and bright.

"I won't lose you again," she whispered and closed her eyes.

It had been quiet for almost four minutes in the Summers' house, which had to be a record. Everything had been explained and re-explained and argued over for what seemed like hours, but was probably more like thirty minutes. Dawn checked her watch to find that it had been exactly forty-two minutes. Forty-two minutes of Anya and Xander chipping away at each other and Spike pouting and occasionally interjecting an inflammatory remark or two. At least they did know thanks to him that the portal Vra'al and his minions were using was open for limited time frames. Anya guessed fifteen minutes, but she couldn't say for sure.

At some point Faith had grown very silent, finally slipping out during a particularly heated exchange to wander the front yard. Dawn watched her through the window as she paced the distance between trees, from the front porch to the sidewalk. Stopping occasionally to look back at the house with a faraway stare. She noticed that sometimes now, watching Faith, those terrible images would flash through her mind, but they were growing cloudy. Distant. Like old memories. Terrifying memories she shouldn't have.

What was up with that anyway…weird.

Anya and Xander were bickering again in hushed tones and her attention floated back to the room. Probably one more thing she wasn't supposed to hear.

"…but if Willow went all dark magic then we have to do something," Xander argued his voice getting louder.

"Look, I've already explained this. We can't do anything about Willow…"

"Can't or 'won't' Anya?" Xander interrupted and Dawn watched the muscles in the vengeance demon's jaw clench with anger. "Because I'm thinking this is more about you not wanting to 'interfere' because it's some kind of vengeance demon conflict of interest or whatever."

"Hello! We are talking about Willow here not some wicked witch of the west or whatever. Plus a very powerful demon thingy constructed by yet another super powerful witch." Anya stood with hands on her hips, her eyes full of rage. "This is not something you just throw some herbs at and chant a few words in Latin!" She rolled her eyes in desperation.

"So… great! We just wait to see if Willow fixes things?" Xander demanded angrily. When Anya simply nodded he closed his eyes tightly.

"Oh like that's gonna happen," Spike's voice rang out from the porch.

A cold chill washed over Dawn. This was a new argument. Everything before had been about Vra'al. Or the past. Who had slept with whom. But this was new and terrifying. "What do you mean?" Dawn asked, her voice shaking with fear.

Xander turned to her and swallowed hard. His voice, when he spoke, was gentle. "She's been so depressed Dawn. Since…Tara." His forehead furrowed in deep lines and she found her thoughts drifting to Tara. "And I probably shouldn't tell you this, but she tried to kill herself in England." He looked down at the floor. "A couple of times."

"What?" She remembered all the times she had avoided Willow since her return. Returning home from school late every day so she wouldn't run into the redhead. Memorizing her class schedule so she could avoid her. She couldn't even look her in the eye. But…she had tried to kill herself?

Okay, now I feel like a total jerk.

But Willow was getting better. She was all joke-y again. Even if it was kind of fake. She was trying.

Think how much you miss Tara. Willow must be…

She couldn't even complete the thought. She had been so angry at Willow for so long, but the thought of losing the redhead permanently made her sick with fear.

"No. You shouldn't tell her shit like that," Faith growled from the doorway and Dawn jumped. "What the fuck are you thinking?"

"Look," He began defensively, "I just think we need to have all the facts here before we start making plans…"

Anya released a long sigh. "Okay there is a way to stop this…the end of the world thing." She looked at the floor and crossed her arms tightly against her chest. "But you're not gonna like it."

There was a long silence as everyone waited for the vengeance demon to continue. She could see Spike's shadowy figure behind Faith's silhouette in the doorway, his back turned as if he was pretending not to listen.

"An," Xander asked gently and Dawn knew it was bad. If Xander was this worried…

"It's Vra'al's Heart," she began. "If we just let him have it, this will all go away." It sounded so simple, but Anya's forehead was furrowed.

"But I couldn't even get it out of the room," Faith began only to be cut off.

"Doesn't matter." She shook her head emphatically. "It's his. He can take it. Whenever."

"So, great!" Xander exclaimed excitedly glancing around the room with an elated smile. "Why didn't you tell us this before 'cause I'm seeing a big win-win here. No losing of major body parts fighting the fifteen foot demon and, hey, no end-of-the-world. Sounds good to me."

But Faith was silent, studying the vengeance demon carefully. "What's the catch?"

Anya raised her eyebrows in that way that spoke volumes. Volumes of bad news. "I'm not sure really…"


"But Willow and Buffy probably just, you know, won't come back. They'd be trapped…probably…wherever they are."

Dawn was on her feet in a moment to confront Anya. "What? No!" She was crying now and shouting. "We're not gonna let that happen right? 'cause what if they're trapped in some hell place and…"

"It's not gonna happen," Faith said calmly and Dawn felt some of the terrible tension in herself dissolve.

Xander stared at Dawn for a moment and then turned away, hands on hips.

"So let me get this straight," Spike said from the porch. "We either let the big demon have his Heart and lose the Slayer and Red or we trust the suicidal super witch to make this right before the world ends?" It was more of a statement than a question and Anya just nodded her assent. "Perfect!" He exclaimed with a rueful smile he turned away.

"Well, I personally think that Willow and Buffy would want us to save the world." Anya added and Dawn noticed that she was now directing most of her lectures at Faith. "I mean, Buffy did it once already. The dying that is…to save the world. So, it's really not even a question. Is it?"

Again with the silence.

Dawn was speechless. How was there even a discussion about this? The panic began to rise again and she glanced over at Faith to find the Slayer staring at her.

"Vra'al is not getting that Heart." She said evenly, her eyes still fixed on the teen's.

"I'm with the Slayer," Spike offered in his most matter-of-fact tone and walked into the yard. Dawn looked to Xander, but his back was still turned, his shoulders hunched as if he were in pain.

"Look at you all," Anya exclaimed. "You're maimed and mauled and do you really think you can hold him off long enough for Willow to stop this? If she's going to stop this at all. Because we really can't be sure that she will or even that she can 'cause they could be dead in there and in that case the world's gonna end anyway, which means no Willow and no Buffy…"

"Dawn?" It was Faith again and she knew what the rest of the question was. And she knew that Anya was right. Buffy would want her save the world. To do the safe thing. Because Willow couldn't be trusted anymore. Right? That's what they were all saying. Except Spike. And Faith. And Xander who wasn't saying anything. But that was the thing they were all saying with their silence. That they didn't trust Willow, but they wouldn't give up on Buffy.

She found herself staring up at the photo of Tara, barely visible in the darkened upstairs hallway.

What would Tara say?

Faith followed her line of sight and her features softened.

She would tell me to trust my heart…like that's a big help. 'Cause I don't know anything anymore…

Except that Willow had brought Buffy back. That she had fought a hell-god to save Tara.

And she took care of me…she and Tara… and Xander…when Buffy was gone. When I had no one.

They were family. And that was a thing her mother had taught her. That you couldn't pick and choose when to believe in your family. They were a constant. A cosmic constant as Willow would say.

"I trust Willow." Her eyes drifted from the smiling blonde's portrait to a photo of her Mother and Buffy. Faith nodded with a slight smile and moved silently toward the weapon chest. She turned to find Xander looking confused, his brow knitted in a very un-Xander way. Dawn expected Anya to protest or at least mock her decision, but the vengeance demon was smiling a crooked sad smile.

"Well, I guess I'm gonna be out of the vengeance business soon."

"Why?" She was hoping that meant some kind of vengeance-y spell. Some kind of big demon magic to reset everything, to bring Willow and Buffy back.

Anya's face pinched into her normal expression of mild disapproval. "Because I'm about to interfere with Willow Rosenburg." She shrugged and rolled her eyes. "Oh well." She walked over to Faith and the two began sorting through the weapons.

"So, I'm thinking Dawn and X-man in the house with crossbows…" Faith began only to be cut off by a suddenly animated Xander.

"No. No way am I gonna hide in the house while you…"

"Look," Faith cut him off angrily. "We don't have time for this pride crap." She pointed at Anya and Spike, "Demon, vampire and Slayer are harder to kill. We'll be the front line." Turning back to the weapons she tucked a dagger into her belt. "'Sides, someone needs look after Dawn."

That seemed to placate Xander. With a nod, he began tipping furniture in front of the windows, barricading them in.

"Great. What are we supposed to do if Vra'al actually gets in here?"

"He's not going to," Faith said and then winked, "and if he does, just start talking about boys. That should send him screaming back to hell."

It took her a few moments to get it. The joke. Because her mind was so fixed on the dire and the bad. Then it hit her and the juice box she'd been nursing for an hour was in her hand like a weapon. "Oh my god, you are so going to get it!" She squeezed once sending a stream of pink liquid all over the Slayer.

There was a moment when those dark eyes narrowed that she thought she might actually be in danger, but Faith dropped her weapon and lunged at her with a wicked grin. Dawn actually screamed in mock terror and then began giggling uncontrollably as she dove for the other side of the dining room table.

"Faith, I'm sorry…really," she pleaded, carefully keeping as much table as possible between herself and the Slayer who was stalking her with an evil smile.

"Come on Dawn. You're just making this harder on yourself," the Slayer said calmly and Dawn realized she hadn't been nearly this scared when they were facing the demon and his horde.

"I don't talk about boys that much," she said defiantly and moved slightly to her left to counterbalance the Slayer's move.

"Ohmygod, and there's this guy Brandon. He's, like, sooooooo cute," Faith parroted her girly tone and intonation perfectly and Dawn felt her face heat up in embarrassment. "But I'm all into this other guy Asher who's got these, like, amazing eyebrows that are all kinds of…"

"Here you can have mine if you want," Anya handed another juice box to Faith who accepted it without taking her eyes off Dawn. "It's full," the demon added, raising her eyebrows for Dawn.

"Thanks a lot An…" she didn't have time to finish the sentence as Faith suddenly leapt across the table catching her good arm. Dawn screamed with laughter and squeezed the last of her juice box at the Slayer as she emptied the contents of her own box on the teen's head.

"Bloody hell, I thought someone was dying in here."

She looked up to find Spike in the doorway, one eyebrow raised in a smirk as he regarded their immature antics with obvious distaste. Xander stood nearby with his hands on is hips looking confused. As if he was deciding how to react. A slight smile played at his lips.

"You know, I like seeing two scantily-clad girls wrestling in grape juice as much as the next guy, but," his smile faded slightly. "Since we don't have a battle plan and Big Bad's on his way…"

A ghostly gunshot rang through the house and the Slayer's smile faded almost immediately. "I kept hearing this high-pitched squeaking, like dolphins or something…" she trailed off lost in thought for a moment and then turned to Anya. "But the demons weren't say anything even though they were crazy well-organized"

The vengeance demon's forehead crinkled in concentration. She left abruptly and they followed to find her searching through an ancient demon codex. "Did they look like this?" she asked pointing at a perfect illustration of the ugly demons in the cemetery. Faith nodded and wiped a drop of juice from her chin. "Well, they don't talk…I mean, the way humans talk…with tongues and mouths… and they don't have ears. You're right about the dolphins…it works more like that." Faith stood deep in thought for a moment and then smiled, her eyes focusing on Dawn.

"I think I've got a plan." She shrugged. "Or at least, a really fucked up idea."


Part XIV

Buffy marched with a new sense of rhythm toward Tara's room. A quick check and change of clothes in her own dorm room had revealed a trail as bright as noon.

Willow didn't even bother to make the bed…which means they probably didn't get a lot of research in she thought with a rueful smile.

The thought of the two witches still having sex in Tara's room had made her hesitate momentarily, but there was a mantra developing in her head. A chant.

It had started with the words from the dream. back before Dawn but she knew the end of that phrase now. The punctuation. back before Dawn...dies. so it had become a new chant.

Get back to Dawn. Get back to Dawn.

It had started in that terrible hospital room and grown louder and more insistent as she closed the distance to her old friend. As if talking to Faith had helped her distill her conflicting thoughts down to one crystalline resolve:

Back to Dawn.

As if the dark Slayer was speaking to her from someplace deeper and farther away. Telling her about the future in some unspoken language. Or maybe it was the dream with all of its awful urgency. And it was starting to make sense to her. Not in a rational, point A to point B to point C kind of way, but in a deep down gut-level way.

A Faith way.back before She thought and actually stopped in the hallway. Okay, I must have caught something in that hospital. Some kind of dementia....

Despite her newfound confidence she still hadn't managed to decode the dream. Dawn in danger seemed obvious enough. And Faith…well, her impromptu trip to the hospital was almost certainly tied into that. But her cryptic remarks about Slayers not being fixers…. And the whole three-way wedding. What was up with that?

Okay, you're not going to figure this out by lurking around in the hallway.

Another flight of stairs, ten yards and she was standing in front of Tara's door. And she realized with sudden panic that there was a good possibility she was interrupting a major wiccan smoochies session. But a quick listen at the door let her know that the two women were up and talking softly in conversational tones. Flirty and sweet tones, but not overtly sexual.

Lurk much?

Swallowing hard she knocked gently and heard Willow's muffled, "It's probably Buffy." But she wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted her. The door opened to reveal Tara, young and beautiful and so different from the picture of the blonde witch she kept in her mind.

But still…Tara. Here and alive. The image from the dream of a blood-soaked shirt flashed in her mind and she felt tears spring to her eyes.

"H-hi Buf-" Before she could stop herself Buffy had enveloped the shy blonde in a rib-cracking embrace. "Oh, um."

"Hey Buf, no breaking the girlfriend," she heard Willow say somewhere off to her right. With a laugh, Buffy released her death-grip on Tara and wiped clumsily at her eyes.

"Oh…sorry. I just," she turned to find Willow seated cross-legged on the floor in front of some kind of psychedelic disco ball. "Is she…I mean…does she know?"

A gentle nod from Willow. "Everything."

She turned her attention back to the blonde who was smiling shyly as she shuffled nervously from foot to foot. "I'm so sorry Tara…I forgot you don't really know me…in this now. It's just..." She paused momentarily worried that Willow didn't mean everything. Had she really told Tara? The two witches exchanged a look full of sadness and meaning and she knew. Willow had told her. Everything. "I just missed you…I mean, we all do. Then."

Tara blushed crimson, her eyes darting around the room. "Oh, um, I…" She finally met the Slayer's gaze with that crooked smile. "It's okay. I-I'm just s-so glad we're…um…f-friends. In the f-future I mean." She studied her clasped hands, her forehead furrowing in frustration. "That m-m-means a lot to m-me…r-really."

"It means a lot to me too," she said softly and reached out to squeeze the blonde's arm gently. There was so much she wanted to say to Tara. Apologies and explanations. But how could she? This Tara didn't know about the small things that had lead them to that future she was so desperate to return to. A future without the gentle blonde in it.

And how do you say you're sorry for letting someone die anyway?

Buffy studied her intently with all of her senses, taking in everything about her just as she had found herself doing with her mother. As if she was trying to imprint everything about the two women indelibly on her consciousness. Or maybe as if she was looking for signs of blame.

The Slayer inside inevitably recorded and analyzed the obvious signs of submission. The hunched shoulders, down-turned eyes and averted gaze that spoke of the abuse she had only ever guessed at. The Slayer recognized all the signs of submission, of a non-alpha dog, but there was something else that registered again in a deeper place. She had always considered girls like Tara to be weak — easy prey. And she had assumed that the toughness Tara had developed over the years was a result of battling demons with the Scoobies. But as she studied the shy smiling girl before her, a girl who knew the terrible details of her own death, she saw with a thunderclap of clarity the immeasurable strength of this girl. Tara was stronger than all of them. Always had been.

"Well…um…I r-r-really should g-go," the blonde managed finally, squirming under Buffy's gaze. "Y-you know…w-w-work and all." She finished with a nervous shrug and looked over at Willow with something like desperate indecision.

"Hello!" Her best friend's familiar voice rang out. "There will be no leaving without major smooches or I will be forced to get my pout on."

Buffy almost laughed at the expression on the blonde's face. Red was just not a big enough word for the color of her cheeks. And she was nervously looking back and forth between the redhead and the Slayer. Finally with a beaming smile she crossed the room and kneeled down to the redhead. Buffy found something very interesting to look at on the bookshelf and wondered why her face was suddenly hot.

After a painfully awkward good-bye hug with Tara, Buffy was finally alone in the room with Willow. With a deep breath, she forced her mind back to the problem at hand. The reason for her visit. She dropped to the floor to face the redhead and gasped when she saw her face. There were dark circles under her eyes and her gaze was unfocused and glassy. It seemed to take enormous energy for her to open her eyes and return the Slayer's gaze.

"Um, Wil…no offense, but you look kinda…"

The redhead nodded slightly and winced. "Do you think Tara noticed?" She couldn't answer the question. There was no right answer. There was the truth which was an emphatic'yes' and there was what her friend needed to hear. Willow nodded with a pained expression and looked down at her hands. "Yeah," she said softly and sighed.

Buffy's eyes were drawn to the floating sphere, which was now actively giving her the wiggins. There was definitely some magic-y something going on with the disco ball.

"It's a kind of a map," the redhead explained without any prompting. "Of the spell and…other things."

"So you found out what's going on… with the device and everything," she said excitedly and the mantra began again.

Back to Dawn. Back to Dawn

But Mom…

"Actually, it was Tara," Willow began, her voice shaking and the Slayer wondered if it was fear or fragility. "She knew about it, which is kinda strange in itself," she paused to catch her breath. This was not right. Okay, willow should definitely be a little tired after what was obviously a night of sex, but this…this was wrong. The girl she had left the day before was healthy and full of Willow energy. This girl was deathly pale and weak. "It's called Occum's Heart," she extended a shaking hand to point to a book at the end of the bed. "There's an illustration in that."

Buffy reached for the book and found a crude illustration of the thingy that had brought them here. And a lengthy, but ultimately useless description underneath. The same story of a lover lost that Willow had told her in the room. Before. "So…as usual this uses a lot of words to say absolutely nothing." She pushed the book aside and smiled at her friend. "What does it do?"

"Well, Tara says that from what she's read it was made to give people a second chance at something….you know, kind of a 'do-over' that changes things….the future…but no one really knows for sure."

A second chance… "Oh. So we're here so you can have a second chance to see Tara…"

"No," Willow interrupted, her voice hoarse and weak. "Not my second chance. You cast the spell remember? I'm not even supposed to be here, but when I cast a spell to stop it, our magics got all mixed up and…voila."

"So, how… I mean…but I didn't want a second chance at anything. I mean I don't think…" she trailed off struggling to remember the events of that evening. Dawn at Rain's house…and the confrontation with Faith in the Rain's front yard.

There was her mother. That was a given. And there was nothing to do over except every moment she had ever spent with her mom.

"Well, it's more complicated now…" the redhead began and trailed off, glancing quickly at the floating sphere. There was something she wasn't telling her. She knew the way secrets felt. They were the atmosphere and oxygen of their lives, in the future.

But this wasn't the future.

Make it right…now.

"Wil, what's going on?" she asked softly.

Willow choked back a sob, but her lip quivered uncontrollably. "It's…we're not supposed to be here…still. My magic is…" she grew silent and Buffy watched tears roll down her face.

"Your magic is keeping us here?" Buffy asked gently and the redhead nodded.

"It's sucking energy from me to keep us here." She smiled a thin smile. "Thus the sickliness on my part."

"So you can just release your spell and we'll be back…"

"It's more complicated than that," the redhead began and then stopped. Buffy closed her eyes and drew in a long breath. It was going to take all of her willpower not to scream at Willow. Because there was definitely something else going on here. Something wrong because it should have been simple. Willow should stop her spell and the Heart would do its thing and they would be back.

Without Tara. Without Mom.

The realization hit her like a blow to the chest. She couldn't breathe. It was like before when she had been ripped from heaven to be with them. To be with Dawn. But she hadn't had a choice then.

"I won't lose her again," Willow said evenly as if she had read the Slayer's thoughts.

"But Willow we have to go back. Dawn is…" her tone was now urgent and panicked.

"You are going back Buffy." Willow reassured her and her smile was so calm and peaceful. Almost innocent. "I'm not…I can't live without her….I won't."

There was a long silence as she tried to process her friend's statement. Her eyes wandered to the sphere just over the redhead's shoulder. The beautiful mix of colors and the darkness that seemed to be growing. Spreading through the bright like a deadly infection.

But it was simple. All Willow had to do was let go. Once her energy was gone…

Oh god! This time the realization swept over her in an enormous, nauseating wave of desperate anger.

If Willow didn't let go her energy would dissipate until, finally, there was no more spell…and no more Willow.

"No!" She was on her feet in an instant, the Slayer within ready for a fight. Ready for violence. "You can't…I won't let you do this Willow." Because this was a threat. A direct threat. And she wasn't going to allow that dark-eyed demon to take away everything again.

She ran quickly through the possibilities. She could threaten Willow. Could force her physically to let go.

The redhead sighed, her forehead creasing. But her eyes, when they opened slowly, were green. "There is no 'letting me' Buffy," Willow closed her eyes heavily and the Slayer saw the hard pain there etched in deep lines. "Can't you see it's already done?"

They had been actively working on Faith's 'fucked up idea' for an hour. Dawn downloading file after file from the internet while Xander wired the house and yard. The Slayer had spent a large amount of the time tending to her wounds and eating almost everything in the house.

"Growing girl," she said around a mouthful of M&Ms and Dawn, seeing her chocolate-stained face felt a little better about everything.

"Ever heard of sharing?" she admonished playfully and grabbed a handful of candy.

After pelting the teen with carefully targeted candies the Slayer finally got bored and made her way out into the yard. Dawn watched as she paced the distance between trees and cement casually flipping a sword from one hand to the other in terrifying swirls of lethal metal. One slip, one slight miscalculation and Faith would lose fingers or worse. An arm. With a shudder she tried not to watch. She knew what Faith was doing. The Slayer had explained it to her as testing the balance of each weapon. Which didn't make much sense, but it was more than she would have ever gotten out of her sister. Buffy would have just told her to go clean her room or something.

The files were now raining in fast, so Dawn gave up watching the blue bars make their slow progress and sneaked upstairs. The creep factor definitely increased as she got closer to the room. She could see it now from the end of the hall, but she stopped to take another look at Tara. And her Mom. It was strange and terrifying the things she had forgotten about the two of them. She tried everyday to remember something about both of them, but it got harder. And that just made her feel guilty. And as the dark slayer was trying to teach her, guilt wasn't something she needed right now. She needed to focus on keeping those demons away from the house as long as possible. Away from that room to give Buffy and Willow enough time.


It still looked exactly the same. As in completely destroyed. Like a tornado had hit it. And the wailing was louder inside. Standing above the flickering laptop and the metal Heart, it was obvious whose grief-filled yells filled the room. It didn't take Slayer hearing to pick out the unique timbre of Willow's voice.

And she was beginning to understand. Willow. The two suicide attempts. Which was really what all of that end of the world stuff was about. Probably. And something else between Willow and Buffy and Xander that she would never really understand. But she understood the wanting to disappear part. For so long she had felt something slowly erasing a part of herself. The part that held her mother and Tara in it. But it wasn't just the memories that were disappearing, it was the other things too. The feelings and thoughts that made everything better and safe. That was why she spent a few minutes every day trying to remember. Talking to them seemed to help. Seemed to connect her to past…

"Buffy, you need to hurry 'cause…well, we need you here. I mean, I need you here."

She ran a hand through her hair nervously and stared at the broken laptop screen. "And, um, Willow I know I've been kind of…" she paused, not sure how to say it all. Even if they couldn't hear her. "Whatever I just…I wanted you to know that I think I understand…a little."

She felt a familiar presence behind her and jumped.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to scare ya," Faith shifted nervously. "I just thought you might know if Buffy has a secret weapons stash somewhere."

"Yep, under her bed. Next to her diary."

"Her diary?" Faith's eyebrows rose in a half-hearted attempt at her typical playful smirk. "Anything interesting?"

She wanted to play along, to keep the mood light, but the diary and the devastation of that room kept painting everything in muted tones. And the diary…everything she knew about Faith came from that diary. From Buffy's initial impressions of her that sounded like the jealous scribblings of a teenager, to her sister's growing guilt and rationalization and finally to self-righteous anger. And maybe even hate.

One passage stood out in her mind. It had terrified her when she read it and the words still haunted her:

I tried to kill Faith tonight and I know I should feel bad about it. But I don't.

Not even a little.

There a few lines scratched out in heavy lines of blue ink. Then:

What's happening to me?

She had always believed that her sister was some kind of untouchable icon of good.. like a stone statue of a saint. Until she found that page.

"No. She doesn't write in it anymore. Not since Mom." A frown pinched Dawn's forehead and she knelt to drag the black chest from under the bed to hide her emotions. She had always felt comfortable invading Buffy's private space. They were sisters and it was kind of her duty, but now standing with Faith in the familiar room it just felt like a violation of Buffy's trust.

But what am I supposed to do? I can't be the only one to know these things...

The diary, she discovered, now rested on top of the weapons in the box. Running her fingers over it lightly she thought of her sister's return from death. The girl whose thoughts were too painful and raw to even write down. She extended the diary to Faith and almost cried at the reverent way the dark slayer held it.

Faith studied its worn fabric cover for a moment then swallowed hard. "Thanks, but…I don't think I..." She placed it carefully on Buffy's bed and bent down to rifle through the weapons, her forehead deeply lined as she stole occasional glances at the pink cover. Arranging Buffy's favorite weapons carefully around her, the Slayer reached for a shining blade on the bottom and stopped mid-motion. Her hand hovered over the box for several moments and Dawn noticed a slight tremor in the strong spread of her fingers.

"What is it?"

Faith didn't answer. After taking a deep breath she bent to withdraw a cruel-looking double-bladed dagger. It looked rusty near the hilt, which was strange because Buffy was so anal about everything. Especially her weapons.

"Is that paint?" she asked and felt stupid because she knew by the look on Faith's face and the memories that weren't hers what that was. Blood. Faith's blood. And this was that knife. That knife that had changed everything.

The Slayer turned the blade slowly, shaking her head, her eyes growing darker. And Dawn knew she shouldn't, but she couldn't seem to help herself.

"Can I see it? The scar I mean," she asked quietly, but Faith's head snapped back as if she'd been struck. There were a few moments of awkward silence before a sad smile covered the Slayer's face. She nodded and lifted the hem of her shirt with one hand to reveal a jagged purplish, but fading scar near her hip.

Dawn resisted the urge to touch it, to trace its ugly lines with her fingertips. As if that could fill in the gaps of what she didn't know. There were only the fragmented images from Faith's memory and pieces of overheard conversations to tell the story. And the diary. The rest of that confrontation was a secret between Faith and Buffy that no one else could really get close to. Her sister had tried to kill this girl and the proof was written on Faith's body in a jagged red line.

The sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs brought her back from her musings.

"I knew it!" Xander stood in the doorway angrily pointing at Faith. The Slayer quickly pulled her shirt down to cover the scar and lowered the blade. "I knew this was all some bullshit act of yours Faith."

"What now?"

"Spike said he heard from Willy that that thing," he pointed to Willow's room without taking his eyes from the dark Slayer. "Was supposed to be delivered to the Mayor's Slayer. And that would be you." He finished with a sneer. "Since, if I'm not mistaken, you were the Mayor's bitch. Not Buffy."

"I am nobody's bit--"

"What?" Dawn shook her head and turned to Faith. All the angry words in that diary about betrayal ran through her mind as she stared into dark eyes. Had this all been some crazy plot to get rid of Buffy?

"This was all just her way of getting the Heart for herself," he shouted angrily. "Probably so she can go back in time and kill Buffy so the Mayor gets to be big Worm Demon of Sunnydale!"

"That's not…" Faith began and then stopped. With a deep breath she turned to Dawn. "It's not like that Dawn. Really. You've gotta believe me."

"Right. 'Cause the credibility of a convicted felon is so…"

"No wait…" Dawn began but could only stare at Faith who wasn't denying anything. So that meant she had been there just to get the Heart? All along. "I mean…Faith?" her voice broke. If she could have she would have gotten on her knees and pleaded with the Slayer to tell her it wasn't true.

Dark eyes closed tightly and then opened to meet Dawn's. "Okay… I did come here to get the Heart. but…"

"To use it," Xander interjected hotly and Dawn watched the Slayer's jaw clench. Her knuckles, she noticed, were white around the hilt of the dagger.

"Yes." Faith admitted with a fierce look and Dawn was stricken by an overwhelming wave of nausea. "But not for that…not to help the Mayor…"

"Just to kill Buffy…"

"No!" Faith snarled turning the knife in her hand. She looked suddenly terrified as she glanced at the diary on the bed and Dawn wondered what she was afraid of. She had the knife after all. And the slayer strength to back it up. If this was really some revenge plot like Xander was saying. "I thought that if I could just…" she became agitated suddenly, her eyes looking inward as she played out some terrible memory. "He just came out of nowhere…that guy. Finch." Faith finished with a look of utter helplessness and shook her head. "And I thought, if I could change…you know… what I did that it might fix things…" she looked up obviously expecting a biting response from Xander, but he stayed silent crossing his arms. When Faith spoke she spoke to Dawn. "Between Buffy and me."

"Yeah, whatever. I knew we couldn't trust you," Xander muttered low and Dawn wasn't sure what to do. Who to believe. "The first chance you get…"

"I don't really care what you think Xander. I could be Mother fucking Theresa and you'd still hate m-" Faith stopped suddenly making a motion for quiet, her head tilted slightly to the left. Dawn noticed that Xander's mouth was still slightly open in an aborted retort.

"Wha-?" But a quick frown from the Slayer made her shut her mouth. Faith's dark eyes were now scanning the shadows of the front yard, a grim smile slowly forming on her lips.

"Showtime." Faith said with another sad smile and Dawn swallowed the fear that was tearing through her like a storm. The yard was black and empty to her eyes, but she knew that on this thing to trust the Slayer. And that meant there were demons crawling toward the house under that blanket of dark. "Ready to be superheroes?" Faith asked gently as she tucked that terrible blade into its scabbard and fitted it into the waistband of her jeans.

All Dawn could think was, no. No. I'm not ready. Yet. How is anyone ever ready for this?


Part XV

Wllow concentrated on her breathing, the unsteady in and out of it as Buffy stood above breathing in ragged tormented gasps. She was trying to concentrate on the words, but she was so tired. Exhausted. But she hadn't really slept in months. And it felt like it was all catching up with her. Now.

It was the spell, she knew that. It wasn't physical…technically. Although she felt herself drifting at the edge of consciousness. Barely hanging on as Buffy's tone oscillated between anger and desperate grief. Her own muted emotions responded with defensiveness and then despair.

"You can't…" Back to grief. And it was breaking Willow. The depth and pull of it. Taking even more of her precious energy. "Wil, I need you. Cordy said…there's an apocalypse and Dawn's in it and I need you…"

"No you don't." She said with a sad smile. "There's the coven and Giles and even Anya if you need a big gun in the magic department."

Deep lines formed between the Slayer's eyebrows as she studied the redhead with obvious confusion. "No…that's not what I meant," she ran a hand through her hair in her trademark gesture of agitated frustration. "I mean…I need my best friend."

"Since when?" she asked quietly. Evenly. "'Cause it looks to me like you've been fine all by yourself." She expected a defensive response, but Buffy was silent, her mouth open in shock.

"Wil, I know I've been kinda distant…you know in the sense of…" she paused, her brows knitting together in frustration. "In the sense of not really being a friend, but I'm trying. I want this back," she motioned to the space between them then let her arm drop to her side.

Willow looked up at the Slayer taking in her bleach blonde hair and the embroidered jeans of freshman year. This girl had been her best friend and her family. Had been everything to her and she had loved her with a fierceness that still took her breath away. But that Buffy had disappeared. Slowly. Or maybe in punctuated evolutionary steps of Glory and Joyce's death. And she realized that the Willow her old friend was looking at was a different girl too. The sidekick and supportive friend she had tried so hard to regain in the future. That girl who eluded her still.

"Buffy, I'm not this girl anymore," she brought a fist to her chest with great effort and held the blonde's gaze. "and…I don't think I have been… for a long time. Even before…"

"What does that mean Willow. I mean… I don't even know what you're talking about because… I'm not this girl either..." Buffy looked crazed, her eyes wide as she looked around the room gesticulating wildly. "And do you think I want to leave Mom and go back there to that…that hell place where she isn't…. I mean, even if Dawn is there…"

Joyce. She had thought about that at some point with some barely-connected part of her brain, but it had gotten lost in the overwhelming fact of Tara. "Oh god Buffy….I'm sorry…I didn't…"

But her old friend waved her off, tears forming in her eyes. "S'okay…I mean, it's not okay, but…there's nothing I can do." She wiped at her nose with a shirt sleeve.

"Unless that was your second chance," Willow mumbled, trying to be hopeful for her best friend but failing miserably. Buffy's eyes narrowed in concentration before growing wide.

"Oh, you mean I could make that my second chance….Mom." She grew thoughtful. "But I can't change anything…unless I got her a different doctor or something…and even then…"

"No Buffy…your second chance," she tried to stop the Slayer's rambling. "You made your choice when you cast the spell…whatever you were thinking then…I think…" she trailed off hoping that was enough. Because there wasn't much left of her to speak with. Just an enormous empty space that seemed to be growing with every breath and second.

"Oh." There was a long silence as the Buffy glanced around the room, her eyes holding for more than a few breaths on the globe before returning to green. "So, my second chance is the problem." Willow was so stunned by the Slayer's astute observation that she just stared into red-rimmed hazel eyes. "That's what starts it… the apocalypse Cordelia saw?"

"Maybe. We don't know…it could be anything," the redhead began, closing her eyes to stop the dizzying spin of the room. "It could be me." She finally managed through clenched teeth.

"Wil, please…" the blonde dropped to her knees in front of her, taking up her limp hands in her own.

"Buffy don't…please." She couldn't look at her friend. Couldn't see those eyes that lead in only one direction.

Now the Slayer was angry, her jaw clenched in righteous rage the redhead knew so well.

"So that's it," she demanded, her voice taut with a dangerous mix of anger and grief. "You'd rather just die here and leave us than–" the slayer stopped abruptly and she knew she should say something to fill the silence. To make her best friend understand.

But speech was becoming more and more difficult for Willow. Not just the physical act of mouths moving, but the psychological motions that propelled thoughts into words were slowing. She couldn't seem to form a response, couldn't gain access to that part of her brain anymore. Focusing again on the hazel eyes of her friend, she was surprised to find the Slayer studying her. And something like horrified recognition in the brown and green of them.

There were a few moments of silence that Willow couldn't find the energy to break as they remained locked together. A single tear rolled down the Slayer's cheek and into the silent moment between them and the redhead realized she would have been surprised if she had had the energy. Then the sound of a familiar voice, musical and warm.

"Willow's not going to die." It was a terrible relief to hear those words. Like a wish she didn't know she had. A vengeance wish with all of its chaotic potential.

"Buffy, if there's anyth-th-thing you need to…t-t-take care of, you should go do it now," Tara continued without taking her eyes from Willow's. There was a strong set to the blonde witch's shoulders. She seemed to stand straighter. Taller. Much taller than Buffy. And despite the stutter her expression was placid. Resolute. Willow began feverishly working on her arguments as Buffy and Tara hugged again. This time there was no awkwardness. They held each other like old friends. And with a quiet 'thank you' for Tara, the Slayer was gone leaving the two of them alone in the room where everything had started. Alone with each other and the map of Willow's unmaking.

Dawn was still numb. Still reeling from Xander's accusations and Faith's admissions. If Xander was right, Faith really was the back-stabbing bitch they had always told her she was. The Slayer was evil. She was conniving and manipulative and there was no room for the cool girl with the deep sad smile. No room for the memories of pain and fear the two now shared. For years now the world had been shrinking. People kept leaving and dying and the ones that remained pulled farther and farther into themselves. In this new world there would be no room for someone as big as Faith.

Because what would Buffy do? If she was here. If she could talk to me.

That was easy. Her sister always did the same thing when it came to the dark Slayer. No matter what. And the small-world Buffy would never have trusted Willow either. Because there was only one Willow anymore and she had dark eyes and darker magic. All the other Willows lived somewhere else. In the world of the past where they could be trusted to stay what they were. Anya was right, her sister would have insisted that they seal them both away with the Heart to save the world. Because she didn't trust anyone. Not her friends or fellow Slayer. Not even Dawn.

"Don't even think this is over Faith," Xander growled behind her as she followed the Slayer down the stairs focusing on the powerful set of her shoulders hunched under the straps of a 'borrowed' black tank.

"It's never over," she heard the Slayer mutter defiantly, but her shoulders slumped even further. And Dawn felt an echo of a memory of a similar exchange. Angry, accusing Xander and Willow. Faith outnumbered and outside again.

"Because as soon as Buffy gets back from…" he began only to be cut off by Anya.

"If she gets back at all," Anya crossed her arms when all eyes turned to her. "What? Why are you all looking at me like that? I'm just trying to be the voice of reason here. There is a high probability that Willow and Buffy won't get back in time and that means Vra'al will get his Heart anyway," she gestured at the three of them with disdain. "And all of you will be dead for no reason. I mean, because look at us we're not exactly an army here."


"And that's only if Willow's little spell doesn't tear a hole in reality before…"

"Anya!" Xander faced her angrily. "This isn't helping."

"Oh! But you pissing off the only Chosen One we have left is such an important contribution…"

"But this is all her fault," he pointed at Faith who rolled her eyes. "If she hadn't…"

"And if Buffy hadn't…and if Willow hadn't…and if you hadn't…left me at the altar…" Anya replied in mocking tones before taking a deep breath to regain her composure. "You people are so into the blame! Like anything is ever that simple except of course, you leaving me at the alter because, hello. Promise. Broken. But even that doesn't matter 'cause we're all going to die a very painful death anyway" She threw up her hands and turned to the weapons chest.

"The demon has a point," Spike added with a wry grin.

"Well, that's just great!" Xander's voice and body language was becoming more and more agitated, almost hysterical. "I for one believe that Buffy's going to make it…"

"I just think we should all take one more look at this situation and think about why we're doing this." She stared at Xander pointedly and then Spike. "Because hello, this is not what Buffy and Willow would want. Am I the only one who sees this? I mean, is this a human problem?"

There was a long silence as the vengeance demon's words seemed to echo through the room. then a familiar gunshot's reverberations rang out in the cramped hallway. Faith, Dawn noticed was now watching the yard, shifting her balance slightly from foot to foot. From heel to toe. The bandage over the deep wound on her arm was soaked through with blood. She knew from experience that Slayers weren't bleeders, which meant that the wound was worse than it looked. Faith seemed to notice her attention and bent to attach a dagger over the bandage with thick silver tape.

"How long do we have," Faith asked without turning her attention away from her task. "'Til the end?"

"That's like asking me how long it when you're going to die. It could be in fifty years it…"

"Best guess," Faith interjected impatiently.

The vengeance demon shrugged. "An hour? Top end."

"Great, so we have to hold off an army of demons for an hour and hope that…" Xander was nearly shouting.

"See, this is exactly what I've been trying to tell you," Anya chimed in.

"Okay, here's the deal," Faith began, tossing a broadsword hilt-first to the vampire on the porch. She turned to Dawn and handed her the dagger at her belt without blinking. The one Buffy had used. The one with Faith's blood still on it. "Plan's still the same, but if Vra'al gets to the house you two run like hell. Okay?" she held Dawn's arm in a firm grip. "Let him have his fucking Heart."

"Wait a minute, so if he makes it to the house you're just gonna let him…" Xander began again stepping angrily toward the Slayer.

"No Einstein, if Big Demon gets to the house that means we're all dead," Spike interjected coolly from the porch.

"But he's not getting to the house," the Slayer continued with a smile that was much more like the old Faith. The wisecracking cool girl who sneaked Dawn out of the house to go on Patrol. Who trusted Dawn with secret terrible things. "Cause B and Red are gonna do their thing like they always do." She picked up a second, lighter sword, twirling it in her grip as her gaze turned from Dawn to the yard. "And then after we have a mega-demon smackdown," she winked and flipped the sword. "B can kick my ass and everybody'll be happy."

"Slayer! I have come for that which is mine," Vra'al's booming voice shook the house and Dawn jumped. How did he do that? Appear from nowhere? The portal.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll be with you in a sec big guy," Faith shouted dismissively and turned to the group with a confident grin. "Good to go?" Everyone, even Xander returned her confidence with a nod and without a word they were moving toward their spaces, making the last preparations.

"Little Bit," Spike stood in the doorway looking at the floor between them. "Look, I know I can never make things right…" he began and then trailed off with a frown. "Bloody hell, just…light 'em up Summers," he said with a shrug and tossed his Zippo. She wanted to say something, but he was gone. And that was probably a good thing because what was she going to say?

She looked for Xander and Anya, but they were gone. Probably off somewhere saying their goodbyes. Or not saying anything at all.

"Y'okay?" Faith asked softly, her brow furrowing in concern. Dawn nodded, but couldn't seem to speak through the panic that was strangling her. Her heart was racing and she was sure she was going to throw up again. "Breathe." The Slayer was now taking deep breaths and Dawn felt her own body following automatically. "You know the drill right?" Another nod as she began to run through the mental checklist. It helped, somehow, to have that line of things that needed to be done. That she had to check off and complete. All of these things that lead to Buffy and Willow and everything back to normal. "I'm gonna buy as much time as I can, but when I give the signal…"

"I start the show," Dawn managed at the Slayer's prompting. Faith smiled and then looked around nervously.

"Okay, so…" the Slayer began, but was cut off as Dawn threw herself into her arms.

"I know…I mean I don't care you know…why," she couldn't seem to get the words out and Faith was now rigid with fear in her arms. Slayers were terrified of the strangest things. "I'm just glad you're here Faith." And now she was crying which just made her angry. All she had ever wanted was to be strong. For all of them.

"Slayer there is no need for bloodshed. Simply hand over my Heart and the Key."

Faith patted her back clumsily and pulled away. "Everything's gonna be five by five D," she whispered. "Really." But her eyes were wet with tears as she turned toward the porch. "See, I totally agree with you on the no bloodshed thing," Faith spoke loudly to the demon and Dawn smiled as the Slayer's gait was transformed in three strides to her cocky trademark swagger. "It's just the whole you making demands part that's so not gonna play."

Tucking the knife into her belt, Dawn moved quickly to the computer in the dining room and began the painstaking task of double-checking everything. Again. She could feel the hard leather and metal digging into her side, but this was the way the Slayer had worn it so she was determined to keep it next to her skin. Where it reminded her constantly of its location so she could find it if she needed it. Faith was barely visible through the dining room window and she could just make out her left arm and shoulder as the Slayer baited the enormous demon.

"So, how's the eye Big Guy? I mean, ouch. That's gotta hurt." Dawn didn't hear the response, just a low rumble that must have been a demon growl. Vra'al was nearly invisible in the darkness of the front yard. Xander had nailed pieces of wood to the downstairs windows and left a horizontal strip for visibility. She hadn't asked where the wood came from, but the kitchen counters were gone.

Buffy is gonna be so pissed, she thought with a smile and turned out the overhead light to see the scene better, but the glare from the computer screen obscured almost everything. As the Slayer made her way off the porch, Dawn could just see Spike's straight silhouette on her right. Anya, she knew, would be in the back yard waiting for rear attack. They looked so small against the growing crowd of demons. But Faith was still talking and that was a good thing. More talking meant less fighting and more time for Willow and Buffy.

A hand landed on her shoulder and she jumped. "Sorry Dawn, I just…" Xander was frowning at the scene in the yard, but his eyes, when they met hers, softened into a crinkley smile. "Just wanted to let you know I was here," he whispered. "So you know the plan right?" But it wasn't really a question. She knew this game. It was the get-ready game. The get-your-mind-off-the-impending-doom game the Scoobies always played. "As soon as we get the sign, we secure the house and get in position for Operation 'Death from Above.'" He said the last words in an ominous tone and lifted a can of lighter fluid. And it was the old Xander. The one who always knew the right thing to say. She nodded and gave him a smile in return.

"Yep. Ready." She shrugged and returned her attention to Faith. He squeezed her shoulder and the weight of his hand was gone. She knew where he was going. To the door. It was his job to close it and throw the heavy medieval-looking bolt he had installed earlier. It was all part of the plan, but she hadn't understood the finality of it until that moment. That Spike and Faith and Anya would be locked out. Would be separated from the two of them and the safety of the house. But she couldn't think about that now. She needed to focus on the 'things she needed to do.' On the signal that would start everything.

The banter between Faith and Vra'al was inaudible. Dawn was so focused now on Faith and the signal that hadn't been given yet. Her hand hovered above the keyboard as she waited. And waited.

Then without warning it happened. Between one second and the next Faith turned her hand slightly and shrugged. And time sped up again. Dawn heard the loud slam of the door and hit the button. And in the space between now and then all hell, literally, broke loose.

Willow couldn't seem to focus anymore. The room was dim even though she could feel the heat of sunlight on her bare legs. Could hear the soft noises of Tara shuffling papers and rifling through bags and drawers.

Spell ingredients, she thought with a frown. So there wasn't even going to be a discussion. Not like there was even a chance of that at this point…Tara didn't have Willow's trademark 'resolve face'. She had resolve self. Argument was unthinkable when faced with an absolute truth held in flesh and bone.

"Tara I'm not losing you again." But she could try. Arguing. Because it was all she had against the terror of losing this. Against that glowing sphere that was growing darker and darker.

"I won't watch you die, Willow," she began in a strong even tone that shifted to something softer, but just as determined. "Please don't m-make me."

"You don't have to watch. You can go somewhere…" but she knew already that this line of reasoning wasn't…well, reasonable.

"We're c-connected… and it hurts." The blonde frowned and arranged satchels of herbs in a semi-circle between them. "No m-matter where I am." And she could see it finally. The unfamiliar dark circles under blue eyes. And the desperation. She was hurting her. Again.

"You don't understand Tara…"

"I d-don't understand? So you're going to make me?"

"No, that's not what I meant. I would never put you through that. And you saw…this reality…that it isn't exactly stable. It doesn't really exist. You…we…we won't remember any of this."

The blonde frowned and grew pensive. "But I felt it in the d-divination…affecting the other realities…and you said yourself that we d-don't know…. It's all tied together Willow."

She closed her eyes against the pain and incredible effort of speaking. "No, I don't know…you're right. But I know I can't…it wasn't living without you…there."

Tara nodded slightly, almost imperceptibly and studied the floor. "I want to remember all of this Willow. I don't want to forget. Any of it."

Willow felt the tears slide down her face and cursed silently. This was taking too much energy. She wanted to hang on longer. Wanted to be with Tara for as many moments as she could steal.

"Willow," Tara began softly and took her hands. "Don't make me stop you. Please."

"Tara…" she meant it to be the beginning of an argument. The start of a long explanation about her own enormous power and the blonde's well-schooled, but untapped talent. Instead it emerged as a low keening as her body collapsed forward. Tara was right. In her weakened state she was no match for anyone. Not that she would allow that to happen. A confrontation. She would never hurt Tara. Would never allow that dark part of herself near the blonde.

Strong slender fingers held her face as warm lips glided over the wet of her cheeks. The swollen heat of her eyelids and mouth. "Your friends need you Willow. The world needs you." Willow shook her head, but let herself fall father into the blonde's embrace. No one needed her, but how could she make Tara understand. "And I-I know you said…t-terrible things happened…but," she frowned in concentration before looking deep into the redhead's eyes. "It doesn't feel r-right. The things you've told me. It's not supposed to be that way…I mean…" she trailed off finally, her fingers running through red hair. "I don't feel that that's what's supposed to happen, you know?"

"But Tara, terrible things did happen. I can't…you can't…and I deserved it…all of it," the blonde stopped her with a kiss.

"Do you trust me Willow?" She nodded and allowed a small smile. There weren't enough words for how much she trusted Tara.

"With my life," she said without thinking then smiled at her slip. And somehow, without her knowledge the decision had been made. She wanted to cry with relief.

"It's going to be alright, sweetie. I'll always be with you." So Tara knew about the decision too. The choice. But it probably wasn't a choice to her. Just a fact she was trying to get Willow to accept.

"Tara, I know you probably won't remember this, but…I need you know that no matter what happens…even if I…even if I hurt you…that I love you more than anything. Okay?"

The blonde was beaming. "You know, it's so…I didn't think I could ever fall in l-love with anyone…but this," she pressed her palm against Willow's bare chest. "This Willow Rosenburg." She shrugged, a lopsided smile forming on perfect lips. "Then I met you."

"But…darkness and all?" Willow choked back a sob.

"Darkness and all," Tara confirmed with a nod and traced the redhead's lips with her fingers, her eyes dancing with mischief. "So, um…Skyclad?"

Willow nodded into the soft touch, but she had no strength left to lift the fabric over her head. "A little help?"


It was all the proof she needed. Better than any divination spell. That one word meant that reality could be a flexible thing and that maybe the worlds they had made weren't so separate.

Finale - Part I

As Faith's 'fucked up idea' screamed to life, Dawn took the stairs two at a time behind Xander to get into position in the upstairs bedrooms. The files of dolphin, bat and whale sounds she had downloaded and ripped from nature CDs had been high EQ'd for maximum sonic impact and were now at ear-splitting levels. And on top of it all was some hard techno song loop the slayer had insisted she add to the mix. It sounded like a rave in hell. Which it kind of was.

"I am so ready for my action hero moment!" Faith yelled as she approached the front line of demons with both swords drawn. Dawn quickly got into position at her bedroom window and hoisted the crossbow to her shoulder. The high frequency sonic assault was definitely having the desired effect on the demons. They seemed disoriented as the Slayer hacked her way through four of them with barely any resistance. Spike was busy dismembering a fifth on the other side of the yard. It almost seemed cruel. Until she thought about what was at stake. What they would do to them if they caught them.

Aiming the way Xander and Faith had shown her, she let a wooden bolt fly and yelled in frustrated rage as it splintered against the demon's hard armor. "Fuck."

Oh my god, I have to stop with the cursing before Buffy gets home or she's gonna kill me.

If Buffy gets home…

She started to yell for Xander for advice and realized that he wouldn't hear her over the noise.

"Are you feeling me?" But she could still hear the Slayer as she slashed her way through a still-disoriented crowd of demons, her swords cutting through the air in blinding silver streaks of light. "'Cause I'm feeling you…oh yeah, you too baby." The now-familiar metallic screams made her skin crawl, but at least there were no more gunshots. Or the terribly ghostly wails of Willow's grief to remind her that the redhead probably didn't want to come back here. To this house where Tara wasn't. "Say my name bitch!"

She smiled a guilty smile at the Slayer's comments. It was like some kind of slaying-induced Tourette's Syndrome.

There was a small bundle of aluminum bolts near her foot that Xander had found stashed in the basement with some old photos. Not much use for metallic bolts when you were facing vampires. She dipped one in the coffee can full of lighter fluid and pulled Spike's Zippo from her pocket. Remembering Xander's instructions she let the shaft burn until it was too hot to hold. Carefully fitting it into the bow she lined up the shot as well as she could through the flickering blue flames and pulled the trigger. There was a terrible moment when she worried that she had aimed too close to Faith, but the Slayer continued unfazed. Dawn realized that she had missed. The demon she was aiming for moved and the precious bolt was wasted. She was about to pick up another one when a flare of light caught her eye. Another demon was flailing wildly with clawed hands as liquid fire poured from its chest. There was no explosion, no pyrotechnic display, but the demon, at least was an easy target for Faith who decapitated with one stroke.

Dawn gave herself a loud congratulatory yelp that was swallowed up in the cacophony of the battle before carefully lighting up another arrow. After setting up the shot, she watched panicked as the flaming bolt was deflected into a nearby bush that promptly burst into flames. Well, at least she could see a little better now.

"You feeling me now? Huh?"

She could see Spike and Faith cutting down demons with relative ease although the Slayer's left arm was lowered slightly as if she was tired. Or the wound, maybe she was protecting it. Despite the problems it was definitely the smackdown the Slayer had predicted. Maybe they had a chance after all.

The sudden unmistakable sound of electronic feedback brought her gaze up to the trees on her right where they had tied one of the speakers. One of the Vra'al's flying giant bat things was engaged in an epic battle with the inanimate black box. And if they took out that speaker, that meant the line to the backyard speakers would be broken and Anya would be alone with god-knows how many well-organized demons.

She raised the barrel of her crossbow and aimed at the winged demon and with a silent prayer to Tara and Mom and everyone she could think of, let the bolt fly. She didn't see it hit the bat demon, but the loud scream and insane flapping as the inkblot thing struggled to the ground were confirmation enough.

Before she could congratulate herself another winged shadow replaced it. And with growing horror she saw that the other speakers were being attacked as well.

"Xander!" she screamed and knocked a wooden bolt into the shaft. No reason to waste metal bolts on these guys. They seemed pretty soft and not so flammable.

"Dawn!" She let the bolt fly as Xander stomped up behind her and allowed herself another victory squeal as it hit home.

"The speakers!" That was all she had to say. He fired two arrows before she had a chance to prepare another one. Two more shadows dropped, but there seemed to be a swarm of them. More like silent bees than birds. Or bat bees. Xander dropped three more of the winged shadows before a piercing electronic feedback scream tore through the demonic soundtrack and the right side of the yard fell silent. Dawn actually checked her ear before realizing that it was the speaker. And that meant…

"Holy frikkin'…okay, who turned off the music?" Anya screamed from the backyard before a loud hiss and the unmistakable drop in her voice as she got her vengeance demon on.

"Oh shit," Dawn muttered and fumbled with another arrow. There were only two speakers left and that meant the odds were definitely tilting in the other direction. A loud yelp brought her attention down to the yard where Faith dragged the shorter sword at her side from her injured arm.

"Go D!" Faith yelled with her usual bravado. Dawn could here the smile in her voice. That cocky, I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass smile that even now had the demons circling carefully. It was clear from their movements that the demons were communicating again. She thought she heard it a few times above the speakers that were still screaming that unholy soundtrack. The hiss and knock of an arrow from above and another winged demon fell from the sky.

"Flaming arrows Dawnie," Xander yelled in halting speech as he knocked two more arrows and let them fly. "Help Faith."

With a nod, she let the wooden bolt fly and heard the scream of another demon. It wasn't a mortal wound, but the bat thing was forced to the ground where it could do no more damage to the speaker. Then it was the time-consuming process of lighting up arrows. This time three at once burned with a yellow flame as Dawn marveled at Xander's skill with the crossbow. For every one she killed he took down at least four.

See Buffy, if you had just let me train with the rest of you I'd know how to fight! I wouldn't be a useless arrow-lighting betty!

The arrow had burned too long and it singed her fingertips as she placed it in the shaft and lined up the shot. Faith may have been injured, but she was definitely holding her own. Two more demons lay at her feet while the others circled and the Slayer taunted.

" Yeah, you feeling me now." That jaunty head nod that made Dawn smile. One of the demons she noticed was squaring up on Faith's left side, probably trying to take advantage of her injury. But his body was turned at an odd angle so she chose a bigger target to Faith's right. Just as she pulled the trigger, he sprang falling on Faith in a screaming flaming heap. The Slayer extricated herself quickly, cutting off the arm of another as she leapt to her feet. "See boys, you mess with me, you mess with my whole fucking crew!"

More arrows sang through the air above her as Xander continued his own incredibly accurate version of Fiery Death from Above. He was chanting something as he effortlessly picked flying shadows from the air around them. With singed fingers Dawn knocked another flaming arrow and lined up a shot, this time aiming at one of the demon's targeting Spike since Faith seemed to have everything temporarily under control.

"Come on Willow. Come on," she heard it just barely as the mp3 sequence reached the end of a loop. Guess everybody's praying tonight.

It made her feel lighter for some reason knowing that Xander was praying for Willow. Cheering her on after everything. She joined the chant and let the arrow fly. It didn't hit the demon's broad chest where she was aiming, but ended up sticking out of its right eye. Which was good enough.

"Come on Willow!" she screamed and gingerly grabbed another burning shaft. Xander she noticed, had stopped and was now regarding her with a rueful smile. Their eyes locked for a moment. Dawn shrugged and both of them began cheering with gusto. "Go Willow! Woo hoo! Come on Buffy!"

Four more shadows screamed to the earth as Xander and Dawn cheered in rhythm. "Brrr, it's cold in here. There must be some Scoobies in the atmosphere!"

Another flaming arrow found its mark…well, almost. The shaft was buried deep in the thigh of a very angry demon who clawed at it with agonized screams as the flames spread over its armor. Faith dispatched him with one deep sword thrust and looked up at their impromptu cheering with a smirk.

"Come on B!" She brought her injured sword arm around surprising the demon to her left and decapitating him with ease. "You better hurry or you're gonna miss all the fun!"

Dawn knocked another arrow and began a new cheer surprised when Xander joined in. "Go Slayer, go Slayer go…"

Faith seemed to find a reserve of energy somewhere turning on the circling demons with renewed fury. It was like the cemetery again. The scene was lit by the moonlight and the eerie flicker of the burning hedges as the Slayer attacked the demons with everything — head, elbows, shins and metal. Anything and everything she had went into the battle as the lizard men continued to fall. Dawn's newfound enthusiasm began to fade as she watched more demons wander in to replace their fallen brothers. Or sisters. Or…whatever. They were still coming which meant there was a portal open somewhere. She aimed at one of the newly-arrived demons hitting him squarely in the chest.

"Go Dawnie!" Xander yelled with a smile and fired another arrow. Dawn couldn't help but smile. She was definitely getting better at this. Maybe she was making a difference after all.

A piercing scream tore through the house from the backyard and every muscle in Dawn's body locked up at the inhuman, but still familiar voice.

"Anya!" Xander dropped his crossbow, his eyes wide as he picked up a double-headed axe near the door ran down the hall.

"Oh god," Dawn turned back to the window, but her hands were shaking so badly that she couldn't seem to aim. The sound of an enormous crash ripped through the house. Xander. He hadn't wasted time on the stairs, crashing through the windows in her room into the backyard to save his ex-fiancée.

Dawn took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. There were so many demons now and more seemed to be arriving every second. Another loud feedback scream and they were left with only one speaker obscured by a cloud of black shadowy figures. The speaker's output was barely enough to cover the sounds of the battle now. She could hear the Slayer's grunts and the ring of swords against hard body armor. And worse, now she could hear Willow's terrible wailing above it all.

She aimed at the swarm around the speakers and hesitated. There was no reason to waste precious ammunition on the puny speaker that remained. Better to help Faith and Spike. Through the shimmering heat of the arrow she lined up the shot and took down a demon approaching the Slayer from behind. She reached quickly for another bolt trying to emulate Xander's lightning-fast reload technique.

"Xander are you insane!" Anya's desperate and terrified scream cut through the room like a knife. " You have far too many soft parts to be down here…"


The rest of the conversation was lost as the window exploded around her in a shower of glass and wood splinters. Still in shock and blinded by the dust and shrapnel from the explosion, Dawn huddled against the bed frame blinking wildly as she tried to understand what had happened. A bomb? Magic?

"Dawn!" Faith was screaming her name between the grunts of battle, but the teen couldn't see the window much less the yard. Feeling her way across the floor to the window, Dawn felt the debris and shards of glass digging and cutting into her knees and hands. And her face was on fire.

"Faith?" she croaked and then felt something like iron cut deeply into her shoulders then pressure hot and hard. She tried not to but she couldn't seem to help screaming as she was lifted by that terrible pain in her shoulders up and out of the room. And for the second time in that long night she found herself airborne, screaming her guts out, but this time she was blind and Faith couldn't rescue her now. She heard the Slayer's voice growing faint as the demon carried her farther and farther from home.

They had been lying naked together in the circle for minutes and days. Willow could feel the golden heat of Tara's skin, could hear the low indistinct murmuring of her voice. The words were indecipherable, but she knew that there were 'I love you's and 'forevers' in every soft syllable. Bare legs were entwined and Willow felt soft lips flutter over her eyelids and cheek. She wanted more contact, but knew she would never find the energy to make it happen. But the connection, there was no need for words with Tara. With a smile she imagined the blonde kissing her, on top of her, inside her and heard a low chuckle.

"I don't think that's part of the ritual." Then soft lips on her own. She wanted to argue or prove her wrong, but the world had gone all hazy and warm. Reason and words were useless in this place of raw floating sensation. Because she was almost gone, slipping in and out of consciousness as time breathed around them. So she focused on the bright standout things that she could still touch. Salty kisses and the wet slide of skin. And singing. Tara singing something light and sweet. Maybe a lullaby although it was one she had never heard her sing before.

Another warm slip and she was, for a moment, in a different room with Tara, but the same. A different time then. An awkward first kiss that wasn't the one they had shared. A new impossible memory. With a deep inhale she rolled back into consciousness. Dying. She was dying. That's what this was.

And she knew what the song was now. It was an incantation and they were slipping into that other realm of dreams and super-dimensions. Tara guiding her gently out of herself. Willow wanted to stay in the physical, but she couldn't find the place to hold on to. All the edges that made things real had become slippery and vague. As she drifted away from the physical plane she felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was so much easier here and Tara was everywhere. Both of them home in this space where everything was energy that spoke in the languages of color and constants.

But there was one constant that would no longer be. Because Tara would be nowhere again after this. There would be a world without her where time crept along in cold hard steps. And that was wrong. Willow began reflexively to pull away in terror and in that moment she saw it. The other solution to this impossible equation. It was so beautifully simple because she was there already. She watched with growing detachment as her own essence curled away from her in a thin glowing spiral and mingled with the Heart's dark magic. It would be so easy to control it. The Heart. She could give them any future they wanted. Anything. And it was her destiny. She felt it. Somehow she was tied inextricably with this device and it's terrible spell. She and Tara. Everything in her life had led to this point. All the deaths and love and grief dragging her inexorably to this place where realities and magic were boiling into a sea of potential. This was where she belonged. This was the reason it felt so familiar. The Heart was hers.

In the way of that dimensionless space, the more she thought about the Heart's center the closer it became. And the more her connection to Tara diminished. She could feel the blonde's fear and shock flare bright and then grow faint as the swirling dark of the Heart engulfed her in its metallic cold. It was necessary she knew, to sever their connection briefly for this to work. For her to become one with her fate and keep Tara safe. Then she could be with her love forever. And it would be so easy. She was already growing stronger, more powerful. The flow of energy reversed as the dark magic flowed into her.

Through the lens of the Heart's magic she could see time opening up in every direction. Folding out around her like a three-dimensional kaleidoscope that she could step into with just a thought. She could see it all. The Willow that was and could be. The Tara that might have been. The two of them that should have equaled always. And it was all hers like vague memories that grew more distinct and tangible as she focused on the details. This was the fulfillment of all the promises the dark had whispered to her. This was the power she had glimpsed in terrifying hints and glances. And it wasn't evil. How could it be when it led her back to Tara?

As the power roared into and through her, she reached out to taste the universe in all of its potentialities. Spinning through events that had and hadn't occurred, that would and would not be she felt a glitch in what should have been the most perfect moment — their first kiss. As she focused down the déjà vu loop of that point in time made everything stand still. The Heart. She had used it before and forgotten. The memory erased by the spell's reordering of time and events. Their first kiss hadn't happened at all. She and Tara hadn't….but they had.

That's why Tara was studying Occum's Heart. She knew somehow…without any memory she knew. My beautiful brilliant girl…

It was like losing the blonde all over again. Willow stretched out with her mind to see the immensity of she and Tara that brought the glowing blur to a screaming pause. In almost every possible universe they were together in some way. But the Heart had altered things and it sat now buried inside its own spell creating another feedback loop that she hadn't seen. That didn't appear on any map because it wasn't supposed to exist.

This is not good. So not good. I could have killed us all. Who am I kidding? I still could. I mean, hello, end of the world stuff here…

A familiar warmth passed through her, engulfed her briefly and was gone. Tara. The blonde had taken advantage of that small moment of indecision to break through. But just for a moment. Leaving Willow with nothing but the Heart's frigid dark. All those past and future memories and no Tara.

She knew in that moment what was so familiar about this place and its magic. It was grief. It was that terrible night of retribution and sorrow bound and compressed into a space so small it could warp time. It was the utter and complete absence of the warmth and light that was Tara. And she was about to give herself to it again.

She didn't have the strength to pull away, but she could continue with her original plan, unmake herself and change everything. With what little strength she had left, Willow began the steps that would separate her magic from the Heart's and allow her to die safely inside the world she had made with the Heart's magic. The first and most difficult obstacle was the dark magic now pouring into her. Her own indecision and Tara's brief intervention had slowed the onslaught, but it was there. Tempting and terrifying and she knew she couldn't stop it completely. So she worked around it. Literally. Withdrawing her own energies from the spell, allowing this fragile space to contract slowly. It was excruciatingly tedious work because the sudden removal of her energy would be disastrous. She worked carefully to retract herself from the spell, but she was quickly reaching the threshold. That point on the event horizon of this place from which there was no return. That line that separated life and death. And not just her own death. The end of an entire reality.

The darkness still surrounded her still streaked through with golden red remnants of her own energy. The last shreds of herself that had to be removed before the darkness and the end would finally claim her. And that seemed appropriate somehow after everything she had done. All of her failures. Her deepest wish was another chance to say goodbye to Tara and she was denied even that. Because she had given in. Again.

How many times can I fail you Tara?

The deep cold of the dream space around her blurred and shifted into the barren landscape of her childhood nightmare -- the cold endless world of alone. Willow stood on a long, low plain, the dark thunder clouds of the spell's energy gathering above her as the deep red sun slipped slowly toward the horizon. Nice cliché she thought and cleared her mind for the final withdrawal from the world.

Oseh shalom bim'romav, hu ya'aseh shalom, aleinu v'al kol yisrael v'al kol yoshvey teveil, v'imru amein.

It came unbidden to her mind, the mourner's kaddish. Not for herself. For the world that was dying with her. For everything and everyone she had lost. Tara, Joyce….Buffy.

Oseh shalom bim'romav, hu ya'aseh shalom, aleinu v'al kol yisrael v'al kol yoshvey teveil, v'imru amein.

It was all she could remember from the kaddish and all she needed. Its sad tones echoed back to her in the voices of her grandmothers, her father and finally her own voice clear and small. As she slipped the last of herself from the knot of the Heart's magic she repeated the prayer in her mind like an incantation. Her final spell.

May the one who maketh peace in the high places, make peace for us and for all Israel and all who dwell in the world, and let us say, amen.

The heavy sing-song of it echoed over the empty surfaces of that world and she knew that she was crying somewhere. Maybe in that circle with Tara back in that perfect room. Maybe everywhere in every time.

Blessed be.

As the sun slipped below the dream horizon and the storm began its steady collapse around her a faint glow filled the sky golden and shimmering and…Tara. Everywhere and always.


Part 16

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