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


Part XVI

"Mom!" Buffy stood panting in the empty downstairs hallway. The red Cherokee was in the driveway so her mother hadn't gone to work or the grocery.

"Mom?" She tried not to panic, but couldn't shake the fear that something had happened. That Tara had reversed the Heart's spell, returning her to that terrible future house with no mother and no hope. But that wasn't possible. The signs of her mother's presence were everywhere. A lilac sweater draped over the armchair, the subtle hints of the familiar perfume. And the pictures. There were none of Dawn. Just portraits of Buffy and her mother lining the walls.

The fridge, she thought of her mother's longstanding rule with sudden inspiration and stalked through the house to the kitchen.


Gone for a quick walk. Be back in a few minutes. I bought blueberry muffins (your favorite). Please eat something. You're too thin!



Buffy studied the soft looping lines of her mother's handwriting. The careful way she left exactly the same amount of space between each line. Reaching out she traced the 'Love, Mom' with shaking fingers and swallowed a sob. After a few moments of indecision, she removed the bright pink Post-it from the door and folded it carefully before sliding it into her pocket. She knew it was pointless, that she couldn't take anything with her from this world, but she could try.

After pouring herself a cup of coffee and trying in vain to eat a few bites of muffin, she retreated to the back steps to wait for her mother. The house and the kitchen held too many painful memories of the past and the future, so she sat on the cool concrete and waited. Studying the soft reds and peaches of the treasured roses she willed her mother to come home as quickly as possible. Because the light, that golden light of morning was tugging her into another time. The house and yard seemed to glow with it The same light as that day she had come home to find the body on the couch. And another day with Xander in the back yard when everything had gone so horribly wrong.

A brief overwhelming memory of her recent good-byes with the younger Tara brought tears to her eyes. That was the last time she would ever see the blonde who had meant so much to them all. Especially to Dawn. And Willow.

With a frown, she took a sip of the strong coffee to steady herself and scanned the lush green of the yard. It wasn't this color in the future. Not this lush emerald green.

Probably because there's no Dawn here to not water it, she thought with a wry smile. A fleeting smile played at her lips as she thought of the gentle teasing Tara would give Dawn about the lawn. The brown patches and yellowed sections. One side over-watered while the other dried out in the withering California heat.

Tara and Dawn. And her mother. So strange that they were all connected in her mind. Then again, maybe it wasn't. The blonde was family. Buffy had said it herself. Once. Strange that when Tara was alive she had only ever thought of her as Willow's. Only after the blonde's death did she notice how much she was everyone's. Dawn's and Anya's and maybe even her own. And that brought the guilt.

No. Don't go there. Mom's coming home soon…don't waste this...

This would be the last time she saw her mother and she wanted it to be right. No sadness or wigginess, just the two of them again. Even if that was wrong because she loved Dawn, but she needed this. Because she was going back to that hard place where Tara and her mother weren't. All the gentle things were gone in that world and she wondered for the thousandth time why she was fighting so hard to return. Nothing soft was waiting for her there just the hard steel of weapons and pain

And Dawn. Back to Dawn.

But that wasn't something she wanted to think about either. Nope. She was feeling very territorial about this time with her mother. These moments were hers. And as much as she loved her sister, there were only so many things she could sacrifice.

Without thinking Buffy had risen to her feet and was now walking over the springy green toward those gorgeous rose bushes. Dawn and Tara had worked so hard to keep them the way her mother had, watering and fertilizing them religiously. Hours and hours of hard work, but staring at them now, she could tell they weren't the same. There were years of love and care in those soft petals and steely thorns. Years of her mother invested in them.

"Buffy? Oh good, I wasn't sure you were coming back." Surprised by the sound of her mother's voice she turned to find her surrounded in a golden halo like an angel. Or a ghost. There was so much ground between them and the light. The world seemed to shift slightly. "If you can stay, I'll make us some burritos for lunch…"


Because her mother was standing right where he had stood on that day. And Buffy was…

She looked up to the windows above. Her mother's room. And Willow and Tara's. The glare on the glass was nearly blinding, but she could just make out the faint outline of Tara looking down at them. Then the sudden electrical storm of her Slayer senses going into overdrive, the adrenaline pumping strong and fast.

"No! Tara. Get down!" she shouted at the blonde without thinking. Because suddenly it was that day. That day she had relived a million times. Measuring the steps between herself and Warren over and over while she was mowing the yard. Calculating the angle of the gun at that moment. The trajectory of a stray bullet that shouldn't have been. If she had just done her job…

"Buffy what's wrong?" Her mother followed her line of sight and then looked back to Buffy. "Who's Tara?"

"Oh god, I…" A series of loud, quick gunshots shook her to the core and she leapt to protect her mother, clearing the space in a moment to shield her fragile body. She looked frantically for a wound, but there was no blood and a quick scan of the yard revealed that there was no one, just the two of them. But the upstairs window was marred by a single bullet hole and that meant… "The spell."

"What spell? Buffy…" Her mother looked terrified as she searched her daughter's face for an answer and Buffy felt the tears streaming down her own face. This was it. She could feel the magic around them like an electrical charge.

"Mom I have to go." It took all of her strength to hold back the sobs that threatened to overwhelm her completely. But she didn't want to ruin these last moments with grief and anger. And guilt. She wanted to be able to say a real good-bye to her mother. Finally.

"I thought so honey." A brave crooked smile. "I figured you'd have something fun to do today. But you know, if you're not too busy, maybe we can get together next week sometime…"

The barely masked disappointment in her mother's voice broke her heart.

I was horrible. I was a terrible, awful daughter. I deserved to lose her.

"No Mom. I mean," she looked deep into her mother's eyes and took her hands in her own as the sounds of Willow's grief-filled wailing filled the yard. "I have to go."

Willow's cries stopped suddenly, but Buffy could still hear her best friend. The redhead's voice was soft and child-like and she was chanting something in a language the Slayer didn't recognize. Except one word. 'Shalom.' Willow had told her what it meant once. The chanting began again, sad and calm. A spell?

Her mother seemed oblivious to the ghostly sounds and the magic, but after a moment of confusion her expression changed. There was no more disappointment as she studied her daughter's features, just the slow steady amazement of recognition. Followed by a sad smile. She reached out and tucked a wayward strand of Buffy's blonde hair behind one ear and a sob erupted from the Slayer's slim frame.

"My beautiful brave girl," her mother said with a fierce gentleness and pulled her into a strong embrace. The smell of flowery perfume overwhelmed her and she let go of everything, crying into that strong soft shoulder. As her mother squeezed her she felt a familiar cold stretching and held on tight. There was too much left unsaid. Too many things she wanted to share with her mother that would be lost forever.

No. I'm not ready. Please…

She understood in that moment why Willow wanted to die. Because she would have given anything to stay there with her mother. Forever. This was heaven. She was sure of it and she didn't want to leave it again.

"I love you. You know that right?" she cried in desperation against the perfectly pressed silk and felt her mother mumble her assent. But the world shifted in a nauseating earthquake of un-movement and it was a different shoulder. Scratchy cotton against her cheek and the perfume was gone replaced by the familiar scent of drugstore after-shave.

"Buffy —" Xander's voice was full of panic, his arms going stiff around her. And the light… Her first thought was for her mother. The awful knowledge that she was gone. That this was a different day of grief and pain. But this day didn't happen for a year at least. Why was she…

Second chance. Oh god…I can't do this. I can't…

Out of the corner of her eye she could just make out the faint outline of Tara in the upstairs window.

"No!" As her own terror peaked into absolutely fury, the Slayer within took over. Reacting from memory, from the movements remembered and rehearsed a thousand times, she pushed Xander aside and moved beyond herself as the Slayer was unleashed.

The world became a blur of golden light and the black hard lines of the gun as she cleared the distance between them in the space between heartbeats. He was saying something. Screaming at her in selfish rage, but the words were meaningless to the demon inside her. The pop of the gun rolled out in a long, rumbling tone as the stinging heat and pinch of pain tore through her abdomen. Then the hard break and satisfaction of contact as the two of them crashed to the ground. The gold dimmed and the world slowed. She could hear Xander's cries and another voice familiar and wild that shouldn't have been there.

Faith? No. That wasn't possible.

As the cold descended Buffy thought of her mother and was surprised to feel no grief. And for once, no guilt. Just peace.

That's what 'shalom' means. Peace, she thought with a smile and stretched into the cold dark searching for heaven. Searching for home.

Something wasn't right. The faint glow around her had grown slowly in intensity and the world hadn't ended. Willow brought a hand up to her face. It was faint and indistinct, but still there. Still her energy.

Something definitely is not right here.

The thunderclouds boiled just above her head and the sun had disappeared long ago beneath the horizon, so why was she still here? In the crepuscular light of the deserted plain all she could think was,

I can't even get this right.

She should be gone to wherever people went when they died. And this whole reality bubble should have collapsed by now releasing Occum's Heart to finish the spell. But something seemed to be holding her there, propping up the space around her. Something…

The world shifted and it was a familiar room with dark walls and slowly spinning globes of tiny lights.

Willow. We had a deal.

It took only a moment of concentration to feel the connection that had never really been severed. And the energy drain. It was there a faint thin thread ascending from her abdomen to the dark clouds that hovered near the ceiling.


Yes sweetie, I thought I lost you.

The memory of warm hands held her face and she felt the slow murmur of lips on her own. Pulling back she felt the scene shift again along with Tara's face in that fluid way of the dreamspace. The blonde's face seemed to slide easily from her younger, shyer visage to the more mature lines. And the room was now the deep reds and browns of their world in the Summers house, but the storm clouds still hovered above.

So did I. But how? I mean...

The room shifted again and it was the slow rocking weightlessness of the two of them dancing, floating above the floor of the Bronze on Tara's birthday.

The connection. It's still there.

Another shift and they were lying naked in a room Willow didn't know. A hotel room? Angel's hotel. It wasn't a memory she recognized, but it was still Tara. Familiar so it must be another kind of memory. This reality bleeding into that other one. Warm and soft and electric. And it was getting so hard to focus. To hold on.

Another shift and it was a cold night on the rooftop with the stars overhead and the warmth of Tara beside her. The stars weren't fixed though. They moved slowly, rearranging themselves into new constellations that she knew she should recognize. Tara's hand came into her vision drawing patterns in the night sky as her lips fluttered against a cold ear.

Willow I can't hold on much longer, you have to finish this.

I can't…I don't have the energy.

She lied. Because it was all slipping away and this was how she wanted to remember it. She didn't want to go back to that empty place.


It was Tara's most disapproving tone. And that, she thought, might be a fate worse than death.

You can borrow some of mine. You already are.

The world shifted back to that room with the fairy lights and the dark walls that were safe and warm. The blonde sat cross-legged before her, their knees brushing shyly as they held hands for a spell. Willow could see the connection between them vivid and shimmering.

I can't...

Another slip and they were in the Summers' house again, lying in bed as the sunlight streamed in through the windows. Their foreheads were touching and Willow could feel the heat between them, the breathless panting. They had just made love and the room was still glowing with it.

You have to let go baby. She felt a light kiss on her forehead and a cool hand on the heated skin of her chest just above her heart. I'll always be with you.

Extending her senses she could feel the cold dark pressure of the spell just beyond the room. There was no use resisting. She didn't have the energy and Tara wouldn't withdraw until her own energy was depleted as well. The blonde would sacrifice herself for Willow.

I'm so scared Tara.

I know sweetie, a warm hand smoothed her hair back behind one ear. But I'm right here. I'm not leaving.

Taking Tara's hand in her own Willow began the final steps to sever their connection and return to the present. Carefully withdrawing her own energy from the Heart's magic and finally, beginning the dangerous work of removing the spell embedded within. Their first kiss. It had to be erased to avoid creating a singularity, a feedback loop of apocalyptic proportions. With the last of her own energy and some of Tara's she stabilized the spell, but the pain of it was unending. She could see that moment in all of its bittersweet joy and awkward perfection. And suddenly they were standing there in Tara's room in that moment. Both of them with tears in their eyes as they studied each other with shy intensity.

Tara I know you're in love with me.

Since the first time I saw you.

It was a different room now, another new memory. An apartment full of light. Their apartment? Dark wood floors and sunshine and they were making love in the middle of the living room floor, unopened boxes piled around them. Hot and loud and no one to worry about. Just the two of them and all of those empty rooms, sighs and moans reverberating through that space that was all theirs.

Tara I can't

The words echoed through the dreamtime and the world shifted again. Back to that room where it had all ended. Tara was wearing a black leather jacket, her hair held back as she studied Willow with a possessive fierceness. Claiming her all over again even though she was the dark witch. The nobody girl.

I'll never leave you Willow,

Another quake in the dreamscape and it was day, the sun streaming in the windows of that ending room as Tara stood before the windows in a halo of soft. That light blue shirt, her hands in back pockets as the two of them held each other's eyes for long minutes. There was no blood. Just that moment stretching out as the distance between them diminished.

Do you trust me?

They were in each other's arms in front of that terrible window, but there was no gunshot. The connection between them lived and breathed.

With everything.

Willow searched for the last threads of herself and felt them shimmering bright and strong like electric spider silk unraveling itself from the darker energy of the Heart's spell. And Tara glowing full around her.

The room was dim now, lit only by a few candles. Tara lay over her, her hot weight pulling the universe down to the impossible, irrefutable fact of them. The only thing that ever mattered. Really.

I love you.

Both of them together because there was no line between them anymore. Running her fingers over the wet warmth of the blonde's face Willow smiled into a forever kiss and fell into that new moon blue as she finally let go.

Dawn was flying. It should have been a wonderful and exhilarating experience. And it probably would have been if she wasn't held aloft by two steely claws that were currently digging into her shoulders and back. Or more specifically, that soft fleshy part right above the collar bone.

She stopped screaming after they cleared the front yard and Faith's voice had grown faint. She still couldn't see clearly. No amount of blinking helped to clear what felt like sand from her burning eyes. The world was a blur of dark and the flickering yellow of the yard. As far as she could tell they had circled the yard twice, probably to torture and distract the Slayer and Spike who screamed her name as she dangled high above.

I'm like one of those poor slimy worms I made Dad put on the hook when he took us fishing. Yuck.

Just like those poor squirming things. Without all the slime and green worm guts. Or Dawn guts. But there was definitely blood, so maybe a little with the slime. She could feel it warm and wet against her shirt. And that was terrifying and definitely not of the good, so…best not to think about that. Somehow she found the strength to quit screaming, afraid that it was making things worse for her friends below. Even though the pain in her shoulders was terrible. And something was digging into her side. A third claw? But it felt kind of familiar.

Oh my god, the knife!

The image of the wicked double blade caked with Faith's blood flashed in her mind and she froze at the thought of it, worried that the demon could somehow read her mind. What if it suddenly decided to reach down and have a bite of Key for a snack? And there was the added problem of her arms which were currently hanging useless at her side. Moving them even slightly made her shoulders erupt in searing pain. The fingers of her left hand were tingling and a few were numb. She remembered a conversation between Willow and Xander about pinched nerves and the Vulcan death grip. Whatever that was.

After an excruciating wiggle test, she found that her right hand was definitely tingly, but not numb.

Okay, time to be tough like a Slayer.

She steeled herself and jerked her hand up, but the wall of pain that sliced through her shoulder almost made her pass out. It took her another minute for her to regain her composure. So that wasn't going to work. Maybe Faith could get to her once this thing landed. If it landed.

And is this some kind of bat-demon joyride? I mean, hello, why aren't we landing?

So no one can rescue you.

The knowledge swept through her like ice water. This thing was going to fly her around up here until everyone was dead and then bleed her to open a portal to god knows where. Not like there would be much blood left at this rate. She had to find a way to get to that knife before she passed out. Just a few inches. That was all she needed.

"It's just pain. It's just your brain telling your body that it's been hurt." It was her sister's voice. Buffy trying to calm her on the way to the hospital after that night she had broken her arm. That awful night with Willow…

"Yeah, I get that, but could you tell my brain to keep its voice down." She said aloud and then tried to center herself the way Tara had taught her. The deep breathing and relaxation techniques that were supposed to help her focus. She felt something scrape the soles of her sneakers and looked down to see the top of a tree then a bright orange roof and an ancient plastic Santa just inches beneath her feet.

The Miller's house. They never took their Christmas decorations down. And that meant she was right across the street. Behind Vra'al. Behind enemy lines. But if she could get this thing to let go of her, she could land safely on the roof and make her way back to the house. Sucking in a long, steady breath, Dawn tried to center herself again, remembering the soft tones of Tara's voice as she counted down from ten.

Just let yourself sink into it. But that had never worked for her. She always got distracted. Random thoughts about school or Buffy or even what she had lunch would lead her off into…

Hello! Like now! Focus!

With an audible groan she tried again, this time letting her thoughts drift to one of those lessons. The smell of jasmine and herbs as Tara chanted soft words of encouragement.

Oh. Wow. That's what Tara meant.

Okay, less centered, more floaty. Like she had stepped outside herself. The pain was still there, but farther away. Much farther away.

Still floating, Dawn concentrated on moving that hand up to her waist without breaking the fragile calm she had found. And it worked, although it took her a few moments to notice that her hand was now clutching the grip somewhere far away.

Okay, now what?

She really hadn't thought this through beyond the point of actually getting the knife from her waist. Stabbing was definitely in order, but that was going to require strength and less floatiness. A lot less. And a different kind of focus. Like a Slayer. Holding onto as much of that floating painless space as she could, Dawn called up everything she could to find her inner Slayer. Even if she wasn't chosen, maybe she could fake it. Maybe a little bit of that Slayerness had rubbed off after all these years.

A loud yell pierced her consciousness and she knew instantly that Faith had been wounded again. Badly. Nothing could make the dark Slayer scream like that.

"Motherfucker you are so going to pay!" Faith's voice was a deep growl, but Dawn could hear the panting desperation behind the words.

The thought of the Slayer's pain and suffering brought a white flash of anger that swiftly melted into rock-hard resolve. They didn't deserve this. Tara, Faith, Buffy, Xander …Willow. None of them deserved this. And it was all just a stupid accident anyway. The Heart. But Faith was going to die in their front yard and she was going to die too before Buffy and Willow could even…

"Motherfucker!" Dawn screamed, borrowing more than a little of the Slayer's fury as she drove the knife up into the demon's rough underside. The first blow glanced off some kind of leathery armor, but the second sank in up to the hilt and the teen was rewarded with a deafening metallic scream as her own pain ripped through her like a flaming arrow. Withdrawing the knife, she ignored the blinding pain and drove the blade up again, blacking out momentarily as the demon withdrew the knife-like claw from her left shoulder.

Another stab and the grip on her right shoulder loosened, leaving her dangling from the demon's partly retracted claw high above the ground. Still partially blinded, she kicked her legs in the air and hoped for the Miller's roof as gravity claimed her.

It was a relatively short fall. Maybe ten feet. But this was definitely not the Miller's nice flat terra cotta roof. Dawn felt the whip and bump of branches tearing at her clothes and skin as she continued to descend. Then the bone-shaking thump as she landed precariously on what proved to be an enormous branch. Scrambling furiously she somehow managed to grip smaller branches with numb fingers and held on.

Okay, ow!

No part of her body was pain-free. Her eyes, face, arms, shoulders and now her butt were all throbbing at different frequencies. At least she was off the demon hook.

So no more story of the poor little worm Dawn on the demon hook. Now it's the Key stuck up a tree…

Her vision, at least, seemed to be improving. She could make out the amorphous forms of demons in the distance framed by blocks of darkness that had to be houses. A new tree standing in front of her house slowly coalesced into the unmistakable form of Vra'al, his back to the teen as he surveyed the battle. Straining, she tried to make out the Slayer and Spike, but there were only dark shadows twisting to the sounds of battle. Something warm and sticky dripped onto the bare skin of her leg and Dawn looked down to find blood covering her ripped jeans.

She didn't have to search long to find the source of the blood. Her shoulders were a sticky mess of pain and she knew that getting to the Med Kit was going to be impossible. Loud rustling beneath her caused her to freeze in place. Holding her breath, she watched a line of demons walk from some place beneath her toward the battle.

Oh God, if they see me or smell me or…whatever. I'm so dead.

Scanning the area for an escape route she tried not to groan with disappointment when it became apparent that the only way out was up. Or down. Spike's primal scream made her lose her balance momentarily, but she managed somehow to stay on her hard-won seat. The vampire was obviously in serious pain, if not completely dusted. One more person in pain. One more person gone. Even if he was…what was he anyway? She had thought she knew him. Then he had done that. To her sister. Nothing made sense anymore. And there was definitely no talking about it with anyone. Definitely not now.

Willow please…

It took her a moment to realize what that warm tickle on her elbow was. Blood. Blood dripping onto demons emerging from their portal. And they were sure to feel it or smell it and discover her hiding place.


She quickly cupped her elbow with her right hand to stop the flow of blood, but her hand she realized in a wave of nausea was also sticky with blood. More drops fell through the branches and Dawn swallowed hard. She watched the emerging demons with dread as the blood dripped down. But it never reached them. The air beneath her flickered with blue light and she felt that overwhelming sense of something opening inside her. Like before with Faith. But different. More like another day that she hadn't been able to think about since.

The portal.

The blood continued to drip from her hands and she was helpless to stop it as the portal reached out to her with its electric fingers.

That day. That night with Glory. The memory had been too tied up with Buffy's death. Her sister's sacrifice. It was a place in her mind that Dawn hadn't been able to touch since. But now she remembered it all. The strong slow pull of the between. Her skin was hot with it. Because that's what a portal really was. An almost. A threshold between. And her blood was the yes or no.


She wasn't a Key. Key was the wrong word and she knew that now. Because she wasn't a green ball of energy anymore. She was a girl and girls got to make choices, which made her more of a switch really. She hadn't understood that then with Glory and Buffy. Or Faith. She hadn't understood about the No. How big that one word could be.

But she understood it now with that part of herself that was older than all of them. Older than the rocks below. And the part that was brand new with every second that passed. Lowering her hands to let the blood drip Dawn counted down with Tara, floating above the pain as she allowed herself one word.


No to the pain and the death and the distance that was growing between everyone. No to this big giant demon and his smelly minions.


She was the switch and the Key and she felt the space beneath her respond with a metallic scream. And there was no between anymore, just the subtle disappearing scar only she could feel. And a demon cross-section writhing in pain beneath her.

"Ew," her nose crinkled at the now-familiar smell of demon blood. Turpentine. It had to be. She almost felt sorry for it. Or what was left of it anyway.

At least there would be no more minions to take over for their fallen friends. If Faith could hold them off for a few minutes maybe they had a chance.

An unearthly yell split the night and Dawn's head whipped involuntarily to the battlefield where a small figure appeared on the walk in front of her house. Anya. And she was cradling someone in her arms. Someone much larger than herself. Dark hair and… Xander.

"No," she whispered and felt the tears begin.

Oh god…maybe he's just…

"You killed him," the vengeance demon's voice sounded small in the huge night, but Dawn could hear the dark thing growing behind it. Like Willow. But Anya already was a demon. Had been for thousand of years. "You're going to have to pay."

"I have no quarrel with you Anyanka," Vra'al roared and she thought she could hear a hint of fear in his voice. "And this human is inconsequential…"

Vra'al's minions were gathering from all sides around the vengeance demon, leaving the still vague form of the Slayer alone with only a pair of hulking silhouettes.

"Wrong." Dawn blinked to clear her vision of the tears and blood and missed the moment Anya dropped Xander's limp body onto the lawn as the demons closed in. "This human was very consequential…to me," she said calmly before lifting her arms. "Incindiere!" Several demons and at least two of the trees in the side yard spontaneously burst into flames and the yard was thrown into blinding light. "It's about time I got my vengeance on!" she yelled and lunged at the circle of demons with Xander's axe.

She could see the yard clearly now. Could see Faith struggling, but eventually overcoming her demons. There was no sign of the vampire anywhere and that meant Xander and Spike were dead. She felt the overwhelming and crippling grief threatening.

No. She couldn't let herself think about that now. They had to survive. They had to give Buffy and Willow a chance. Because this was about more than just them. They were saving the world. But Faith was holding her side with her injured arm and Dawn could see the dark stain of blood on her shirt and pants. And the sword was practically dragging on the ground.

"Time for our dance Big Guy," she said with her typical bravado and somehow managed to straighten into her trademark cocky swagger.

Vra'al turned his head and stared at Dawn before returning his attention to house and the teen understood. He knew now that the portal was closed, but there was something else. Because he was staring at the house not at Faith.

The Heart opens a portal…oh my god, I can…I can open it or maybe I can talk to Buffy or Willow….

Hello! You are so very stuck up a tree!

She scanned the distance between herself and home. The demons seething around Anya and Faith and Xander's body in the space between. But if she could just get to the house she might be able to stop it all. She swung without thinking down to the next branch and almost passed out from the pain.

Okay, so maybe not that way. If I can get Faith's attention…

But the Slayer was stalking Vra'al, circling him with the sure confidence of a predator. She dispatched two of his minions with barely a glance and continued her dance with the giant demon who was now holding a sword of his own. A very large sword. About the size of Faith.

Anya was possessed. Definitely dark Willow material there, but her fury was focused on the minions standing between herself and Vra'al. And as Faith would say, they were definitely feeling her. She fought like a Slayer. Sort of. With lots more veins and wrinkles.

Go Anya! Kicking their smelly, ugly asses!

"Slayer this is not necessary. Give me my Heart and the Key and I will leave you and yours in peace," Vra'al's voice rumbled over the asphalt and lawns and Dawn thought she saw Faith close her eyes for a moment.

"Yeah, and we can still be friends after we fuck, right?" Faith countered, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

"Faith! Four hearts remember?" Anya yelled between a bone-rattling axe-blow to an unfortunate demon's sternum and a round house kick to another. "The main one's dead center. Kick every inch of his demon ass."

"No problem." Faith smiled and studied the giant before her. Dawn couldn't breathe as she watched them square off against each other. The enormous demon and Faith who, as powerful as she was, barely reached his waist. Her vision blurred and shifted as she watched the terrible scene in the yard. Wiping her eyes with what she hoped was a clean piece of her shirt, she heard the loud clang of metal. The scene was fuzzy, but she could see the glint of their swords as they clashed. The sparks that flew with each meeting of metal. And in moments of clarity she could see that Faith was still guarding her left side as she circled.

It was ridiculous. This tiny girl with debilitating wounds facing off against a giant demon with four hearts. It was also classic Faith. Fearless and foolish and… as much as she believed in the Slayer, she found herself moving toward the ground one excruciating branch at a time. Moving in inches toward the battle to help. Maybe she could distract Vra'al or something.

A loud cry from Faith brought her attention back to the fight. Faith had lunged with all of her strength only to be blocked by Vra'al who swung at the Slayer's crippled left side. There was a terrifying moment when Dawn thought that the Slayer had fallen, but she saw the brunette roll up and under to impale the demon from beneath. She could just make out the steely glint of the sword as it emerged from Vra'al's back. A cheer rose in her throat until she heard it, the loud groan as Faith fell to her knees.

"No!" Dawn screamed and dropped to the ground. She didn't feel the pain anymore. All she knew was that she had to get to Faith. She had to get to the house. This shouldn't be happening. They were supposed to win. Buffy and Willow were supposed to make things right.

"Too low Slayer," Anya hissed and then fell silent. As Dawn ran toward Vra'al she saw what had silenced the vengeance demon. Faith sat back on her heels, a smaller sword embedded in her abdomen as she looked up at Vra'al with wide eyes, her mouth forming a perfect 'o'.

Dawn ran toward the demons and Faith without fear.

"Dawn no!" Anya yelled and she saw the blur of the axe as it flew past her into the chest of a demon in her path. Hurdling it's writhing form she continued toward the fallen Slayer and heard Vra'al groan in pain as he tried to remove the sword from his own abdomen. It might have missed the Heart, but it was definitely not a flesh wound. Dawn had just reached the fallen Slayer when the explosion knocked her to the ground.

Not an explosion really in the normal sense of the word. There was no fire or heat. No glass or debris. Just the warm thunder and lightning blast of…magic.


"The Occum," Vra'al roared in anger and frustration before turning away from the house.

"Finally!" Anya yelled in triumph as the demons scattered around her, following their master, his enormous legs shaking the earth in long retreating strides.

"What?" Dawn screamed over the roar of it. Because this couldn't be good. "What's happening?" But Anya wasn't listening to her. Too busy throwing anything she could find at the retreating demons. And chanting.

Dawn bent over Faith and smoothed the hair from her pale face. She was covered in blood and demon gore and her clothes were practically shredded from the long battle. The silver duct tape Faith had used to mend her precious leather pants after the last encounter in the cemetery were now the only thing holding them together. There were tears in the Slayer's eyes and the sight of them released Dawn's own grief in an enormous sob. All this death for nothing. But Faith was smiling. She took the Slayer's hand in her own and felt the barriers between them disappear again in a rush of blood and energy, but it was different this time. No fear. Just calm and peace.

"S'five by five, Dawn. We won." Faith winked and looked up at the sky, her eyes growing glassy and blank, her hand falling limp in Dawn's grasp. The impressions and images that were all she had of the Dark Slayer faded slowly replaced by a long, slow wave of numb.

Faith is dead. Faith can't be dead. Faith can't be dead.

This wasn't right. This wasn't supposed to happen. Yes, they had all talked about the possibility before. That this was a battle that most of them might not survive, but they always talked like that. And they always won. She looked down at Faith's pale face, covered in her own blood and Dawn's.


And Xander lying in a crumpled heap ten feet away. Wonderful, warm always there with a joke or a hug Xander. And Spike. His absence told her enough. That he hadn't been able to hang onto that soul for very long.

"No! You said you wouldn't leave me alone!" she sobbed and clutched at Faith's lifeless hand. From far away, she felt Anya's hand rest lightly on the top of her head. "Anya," she tried again to reach the vengeance demon and was surprised at the calm sound of her own voice. "What's happening? Is it Willow?"

"It's the end of the world." Anya smiled and held her arms open to the silent rushing roar of it.

Dawn looked up at the house through tears and confusion to see a ring of light expand out from that room. Then the rush of color and cold and an enormous overwhelming




If we accept multiple universes, then we no longer need worry about what "really" happened in the past, because every possible past is equally real. -Joseph Gerver, 1971 Physics Today.

Know that the world is uncreated, as time itself is, without beginning and end. -- Mahapurana (India, ninth century)

It was the dream. That same dream that had tormented her back in the real now. And that meant she was there. It had worked. Or not worked. Because she was back in that room with the pain and grief and the dream of Tara. She could tell now that this wasn't the dreamtime of the Nether Realms. It was the real dream of the Tara that was gone. That she could never see again. And that meant she was in that room in the Summers' house that was once theirs. All of its smells, its peculiar acoustics and the unmistakable memory feel of it that let her know she was back there just between waking and sleep. She didn't want to wake up. Not yet. Just a few more minutes with her love.

Because now that she had lost Tara a second time it was the terrible dream that wasn't so terrible anymore. Her first instinct had been to wake immediately and find Buffy. Find everyone and make sure things were right. Make sure everyone was healthy and alive. But there would be all the time in the world for Buffy and Dawn and Xander later. This was still hers. She inhaled jasmine and sandalwood and felt that gilded warmth against her side and she let herself sink back a little. Back to the dreamworld where Tara was warm and alive against her. Back to the world where they were safe. Where pancakes and a morning of the gentle push and pull of comfortable chatter with Dawn and Buffy waited for them beyond the walls of this room.

Their fingers were entwined and she drew the tapering lines of slim fingers with her own careful not to wake herself. Careful to hold on to that drowsy detachment that would keep her far from the real. Willow opened up her consciousness to feel the whole of the moment. The smooth heat of a bare leg pressed to her own. The soft swell of a breast against her arm. Then it was the gentle flutter of the blonde's breath against her ear, the sultry play of air over sensitive skin. The murmur of Tara's lips moving in sleep. Saying her name over and over in a low sing-song and that vibrant living connection between them that was more sensual and alive than any physical act.

But she needed that myth of the physical for a few moments. With drowsy amusement and overwhelming sadness Willow remembered the relentless progression of the dream and reached out to trace the soft lines of Tara with trembling fingers. The whole of her love that she would never see again.


Buffy's panicked yell violently snapped the redhead up and out of sleep. Blinking in the faint flickering yellow light, she struggled to her feet and realized in a rush of modesty that she was standing completely naked before her best friend.

A quick look to the floor revealed a crumpled red sheet that she hastily drew around herself.

"Oh, uh…" the Slayer turned her back while the redhead struggled to cover herself and she noted absently that her friend's clothing were unfamiliar. Dark, form-fitting pants and a tight dark shirt. Nothing she recognized and very un-Buffy in its utility. It looked like a Matrix-y version of a superhero's wardrobe — tight, sexy and functional. Right down to the shoes. She shook off the confusing wardrobe analysis and watched the Slayer as she surveyed the damage wondering how much had changed. If anything. "Wow. Did we do this?" Buffy reached out to the black scoring on the walls that Willow knew instantly were evidence of a terrible struggle and magic. Big bad magic. Definitely.

"Probably when I went all with the dark magic to stop the spell," Willow shrugged and wondered with her still sleep-fuzzy brain where exactly they were. Because they were definitely back in the future, in the Summers' house, but what did that mean? Were they back where they had left off? She and Buffy?

And what's up with Trinity the Vampire Slayer?

But she had more important things to worry about because there was so much now between them. The memory of the angry exchange in Tara's room made her wince with an almost visceral pain. She had been so determined not to return to this room. To abandon her friends and die with Tara in that other past. And that was kind of unforgivable wasn't it?

That brought her to another enormous question mark — the spell's completion. If it changed the past, she should remember only the new version and that stolen time should have disappeared. But she remembered everything. Everything about those precious moments with Tara. The shy young woman with the surprising strength and confidence. Another new first kiss that probably wasn't anymore. Everything. But those memories created a path for the grief and pain to find her. She could feel the them pulling at her with desperate insistence and inhaled sharply to focus herself. This was not the time for grief. This was the time for Scooby action. Tears could come later when she was alone.

To take her mind off the awkward possibilities Willow studied the room with the clinical detachment of a Scooby looking for clues. The walls were black in large sections on the south wall and broken pieces of furniture and torn clothing lay strewn around the room. But something was wrong. The bedframe and mattress propped against the wall weren't the catalog pieces she had returned to from London. And the clothes were a strange mix of familiar and completely foreign pieces. Torn black t-shirts and tanks.

Following the circular path of debris, Willow's eyes drifted to her feet where a careful line of powder was drawn on the carpet. The beginnings of a circle that stretched away from her, lit by candles. Around her. Someone had cast a spell here. She could still feel the residual magic from the Heart and something else. Something familiar.

They tried to help us. Dawn and Faith must have cast a spell. Or maybe Anya?

Her thoughts were interrupted as Buffy turned to her, her face a mix of confusion and something like defeat. The Slayer's strong hands worked against each other as she stared down at the floor and then up to meet her best friend's eyes.

"Wil, I'm so sorry I couldn't --" she began, but her voice died and her head tilted to the left slightly as her forehead scrunched in the Slayer's trademark expression of shock and confusion.


Oh god, we changed things and I'm, like, two-headed monster girl now or something…or maybe I'm all permanently veiny and with the black hair and…

Willow searched the walls for a mirror, but found only scorched plaster, nails and yellowing tape. She reached tentatively to her face to make sure, but felt only her regular features.

But I could have forgotten. I could just think that my face feels normal and really…okay stop with the head-trippiness.

Hello, you remember. You remember everything…which is totally bizarre in itself.

But what does Buffy remember?

She searched her best friend's face, but found only confusion.

"Buffy what is it?"

The Slayer's mouth opened once as if she would speak and then closed abruptly as she studied Willow carefully. Her eyes travelling over the redhead's features and then beyond as if she were deciding something.

"Um, Wil…" she began and then closed her eyes. She felt two strong hands on her bare shoulders as her best friend turned her gently away.

"Buffy…" she began, but trailed off as she found herself facing the windows, the Slayer's hands still resting on her shoulders. Tara's armoire rested in pieces on its side under the window and her destroyed laptop had been placed carefully on top of it. "You know you could have just told me, really. I'm not like that anymore. I know that it's just a comput--"

Her body understood before the visual information made its relentless progress through her sluggish brain. There was someone else here in the room with them. Someone blonde and naked in the circle with her and every muscle in her body locked in rigid tension with the knowledge. She closed her eyes and fell back slightly, the Slayer's strong arms holding her upright.

No. It's not her. Don't even think that. It can't be her. She's gone. You left her there… Don't delude yourself Rosenburg. It's probably Anya skyclad for the spell or…

"Wil?" Buffy whispered gently behind her and Willow felt hands those supporting hands squeeze her shoulders gently. "It's okay. I'm right here."

Movement at her feet brought her other senses into play. Whoever it was they were stirring, bare skin brushing against her legs. And the soft sounds of someone rousing from sleep. A breathy sigh and the impossible smell of jasmine. It was the dream. She was still dreaming. Had to be.

But the Slayer's hands were firm and real on her shoulders.

"Buffy?" she choked on the word and squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that were already rolling down her face. It wasn't Tara. It couldn't be. "It's not…it's not her Buffy…"

"Wil, open your eyes." The Slayer's voice held a note of tenderness that she hadn't heard in years. The sound of her best friend, the girl she had trusted once with everything.

Through a blurry haze of tears, the room began to materialize around Willow. The broken lines of the magic's ruinous path and something soft and glowing below. Swallowing hard against the desperate fear and grief, Willow leaned back into her best friend's grip to take in the sight of Tara lying on her side, naked at her feet. The candlelight softened the familiar curves, but it was unmistakably Tara.

"She's dead isn't she? Or in a coma? Or a ghost? That's it, she's some kind of ghost haunting…" Willow's eyes closed involuntarily as her mind raced through the nightmare of possibilities. She felt Buffy squeeze her shoulders again.

"Not a ghost…and so not dead."

"How could you know that…I mean, you haven't even…" she sobbed.

"Slayer hearing …her heartbeat, breathing…she's just asleep." Another squeeze. "Trust me Wil. It's Tara."

"Willow?" There was no mistaking that voice. Low and musical and still husky with sleep as it rolled over her in a breaking wave. Her eyes were open in a moment to find Tara blinking up at her.

"Baby?" she fell into those arms and kept falling as the warmth encircled her in a world of Tara. Real and solid and there in the room where it had all gone so horribly wrong. They were crying against each other, hands tracing the lines of each other's faces.

"I thought I lost you," Tara said inside a kiss and Willow found herself blinking in astonished confusion.

"But…I did…lose you," she began and trailed off. Because this was impossible. She had let go of this girl. The connection had been broken. "How…?" she tore her eyes from deep blue, and searched up the black clad figure behind her. The Slayer stood above them, her eyes full of tears as she studied them with a beaming smile. "Buffy?"

"I couldn't," she began, but her voice broke. "I just…you know…couldn't lose you both again."

Willow's mind seemed to be circling the Slayer's last statement. Racing through the events of the past days and hours. Occum's Heart and her own dark magic.

"Second chance…" Willow turned incredulous to Tara's lop-sided smile to make sure it was still real, tracing the familiar jawline gently with her fingers. "This was your…?" she couldn't even finish the sentence as she returned her gaze to Buffy.

The Slayer nodded through her own tears and Willow rose to her feet in a moment, her arms encircling her best friend, her hero for so many years. They were both crying now and laughing as they held each other. "I love you Buff!" she somehow managed through the tears and the Slayer's bone-crushing embrace.

"I love you too Wil and I'm so sorry…" they rocked against each other trading insistent apologies as the awkward tension of the past years melted away. And something else, a new set of memories that seemed to be forming as they held each other. Like long-forgotten moments that had been there all along waiting to emerge.

"Buffy?" She pulled back to see the Slayer's forehead lined in confusion. Both of them struggling with the overlapping memories. Conflicting pasts nudging them. "Are you…?"

The Slayer just nodded.

"Um, should I b-be jealous here or…" Tara had managed to pull on a robe and stood behind them with a soft smirk. Willow found that she could barely look at the blonde. Worried that too much scrutiny would make Tara disappear.

"Tara," the Slayer sniffed and pulled away from Willow to embrace the surprised blonde. "I missed you so much."

Quickly recovering from the initial shock of finding herself in Buffy's arms, Tara enclosed the Slayer in a gentle embrace. She was clearly confused, but touched by the impromptu show of affection. "I missed you too Buffy." Blues eyes met green over a dark shoulder and Willow felt her knees grow weak.

"Oh my god it worked! You're back!" Dawn's voice filled the room and the redhead barely had time to turn around before she was practically knocked to the ground by the teen's exuberant hug. Images cascaded through her mind: helping Dawn get ready for a date; watching Tara teach Dawn a simple spell. But these were new memories. The Dawn she had left here wouldn't even look at her. Before she had time to recover the teen had suddenly pulled away. "Tara?"

Dawn was gone and Willow heard a soft whoosh and turned to find that the teen had replaced the Slayer in the blonde's arms. Tara again seemed pleasantly surprised if not more than a little confused as she gently stroked the dark hair. "Dawnie, it's good to see you too sweetie," she pulled back slowly and gently wiped tears from the teens face. "But I just saw you a few hours ago."

The teen's head tilted slightly in a gesture that reminded Willow immediately of Buffy. Dawn looked around the room obviously confused, until something seemed to settle. Or click. Willow felt it too. More memories sliding into place. The spell's magic working to anchor this new future to the past.

"Oh yeah," Dawn shook her head with a smile and rolled her eyes as if she had decided her confusion had been just a momentary slip.

"Hello! Sister back from another dimension and I don't even rate a hug?" Buffy stood hands on hips and Dawn rolled her eyes again in righteous teenage indignation before leaping into her sister's arms with a squeal and a wide smile.

Willow's eyes met Tara's again and she was shocked to feel heat in her cheeks. She looked away shyly and wondered at her own actions. But the memories were a jumbled mess in her mind, new ones arriving with every moment that passed. And she wasn't sure which Tara was in the room with her now. Was it the woman she had betrayed, whose mind she had violated or was it a completely new person? Were they even together in this universe? Another stolen glance confirmed that Tara was still studying her with tenderness and concern.

So, okay…probably a couple here. Or were a couple at some point, which is all of the good, but…

"So were you two in, like, a hell dimension or something?" Dawn's excited voice brought her attention back to the room and she noticed for the first time that the teen was dressed like her big sister in black fighting gear. "Anya said you were an idiot for setting it off by accident and that you were probably going to pull a Glory and end the world…only, you know, by mistake." Another roll of the eyes. "Where's the thingie?" she continued without waiting for a response. "The Heart or whatever?"

"It should be gone. It kind of erases itself…" Willow began, but stopped as Buffy extended a silver object in the palm of her hand. "Oh."

"Can I see it?" the teen asked and reached for the silver object only to have the Slayer pull it away abruptly.

"No way."

"Well, how did you set it off?"

"Like, I'm gonna tell you that," Buffy began then grew pensive as she studied its surface. "Anyway, I think we broke it." Then extended the Heart to the redhead. "Actually, I think you broke it, Wil."

Willow carefully accepted the object from the Slayer's hand. It seemed lighter than she remembered. Still warm from the Slayer's pocket, the redhead still couldn't shake the feeling that the metal was alive, but there was definitely something different about it. The residual effects of the spell seemed disconnected from the object in her hand.

"What was it like here?" she questioned as she studied the now-familiar star pattern on the Heart's surface. "Did we disappear or…"

"Suspended animation," Dawn interjected in a matter-of-fact tone. "You know…like Sleeping Beauty."

"Exactly like Sleeping Beauty," Tara offered with a flirtatious smile. Willow felt her face heat up again and with a deep inhale returned her attention to the less-confusing demon object.

"So what were you doing?" Dawn resumed her interrogation. "Did you do something over? Anya said that it's some kind of do-over demon machine."

Looking up from the Heart, Willow's eyes met Buffy's and the Slayer seemed to be searching for answers in the redhead's face. Her forehead lined in concentration as she grappled with the spell's magic and her own fading memories.

"I don't know, it's all kind of…fuzzy," the Slayer shook her head as if to clear it and then scanned the room quickly. "Wait, is Mom…I mean, is she…?"

Dawn looked almost angry for a moment before her eyes fell to the floor. "She's um…" she began and trailed off.

"We took flowers to her grave yesterday," Tara moved forward to take the teenager's hand in her own. "Roses from the garden." The blonde witch said gently and studied the Slayer's face intently. Willow wanted to run to her, but she couldn't seem to move. This was her Tara. Calm and beautiful and offering comfort to everyone. But was she this Tara's?

"Oh." Buffy's eyes were full of tears, but she nodded her acceptance. "I knew that," the lines between her eyebrows deepened as her eyes fell to the floor. "I just thought…I mean…I don't know what I thought." Tara reached out to her and Buffy took the hand offered with a painful smile.

In that moment Willow understood what the Slayer had lost. What she had given up for Tara. And Willow. Joyce was her sacrifice.

She could have used her second chance to….

To what? She argued with herself. To go back in time and make her mother go to the doctor sooner and hope that made a difference somehow? To be there to watch her mother die from an aneurysm?

"Buffy I'm sorry…"

"It's okay, Wil" her best friend interrupted her with a sad smile as she looked at the redhead. "I got to say good-bye…I think." The pain of it was overwhelming. Buffy once again sacrificing so much for all of them. She felt the tears roll down her face and suddenly realized how tired she was. And how scared. Buffy had given up so much for her to have a second chance, but would she live up to it? Willow felt Tara's hand slip into her own and a wave of calm washed through her, the connection to her love stronger than she remembered.

"Got to say good-bye to who?" Dawn demanded. "Who?"

Before the Slayer could respond a loud voice boomed through the upstairs.

"Dawn! We're not supposed to be up here 'til the Lilith Fair is ov-…" She felt the door to the room slam open and a sharp intake of breath behind her. Then a soft, almost inaudible "B?" Before she could turn to see the source of the intrusion, a blur of dark rushed through her peripheral vision and tackled Buffy. Willow stepped immediately between this new unidentified danger and Tara, preparing herself for defense. But…B?

That's when Willow noticed that Buffy wasn't being so much attacked as…well…kissed. But the Slayer reacted violently, pushing her attacker to the ground with surprising force. It was only when the dark figure was on the floor that Willow's mind processed the impossible events. Faith. Faith was now on her knees, her hair pulled back and no makeup in an outfit that was a perfect complement to Buffy and Dawn's. Dark and stylish and very much twenty-first century superhero wear. It looked like some kind of kevlar weave or reinforced nylon. Something tough and protective unlike Buffy's usual high fashion-victim Slaywear. After years of Willow's ceaseless prodding on the subject, someone had finally talked some sense into her best friend.

"Oh, uh…sorry," Faith sat on her knees blinking up at the Slayer, her eyes full of hurt and confusion. She glanced quickly at the three other occupants of the room and back to Buffy. "I forgot you didn't want anyone to know…" the dark Slayer trailed off and looked at her hands. "About…you know…us."

"Yeah, like there's anyone on earth who doesn't know," the teenager muttered, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Except, you know, Giles. But that's just because he's clueless… and English."

She heard Tara whisper a gentle, "Dawn," and the teen fell silent. The Slayers, however, seemed oblivious to the intrusion, completely focused on each other as always.

"I mean…damn B, you didn't have to get all ghetto on me," she let out an exasperated sigh, but when she spoke again her voice was small and gentle. "Didn't you get my note?"

"What are you talking about? What note? I didn't know you could write." Buffy fired back angrily and Willow could see the dangerous mix of emotions playing on her best friend's face. "And…there is no us! Ever." Anger and hurt and confusion. She knew its source because something was shifting within her own mind. Alongside her longstanding feelings of jealousy and anger for the dark Slayer there was something new emerging. A kind of grudging respect for Faith that had somehow grown into trust and friendship. There were vague hints of a still-stormy relationship between the two Slayers. She thought she could feel Tara mixed in there as well and several conversations with the blonde flashed through her mind. The low soothing tones of her voice and the words 'just give her a chance' echoing in a thousand permutations.

"Fine. Whatever. There's no us…." The dark Slayer shook her head obviously hurt by Buffy's remarks. "It's in your pocket," Faith pointed still kneeling in front of the blonde. "I mean, it's not really a note, cause you know, you're right…not exactly that hot with the whole writing thing…and I would've put it in your hand, but kinda…stiff as a board so…." The dark Slayer rambled nervously as Buffy dug in her pocket finally extracting something she held tightly in her left fist, her eyes closing slowly. Willow felt a slow swell of more memories as her feelings for Faith evolved again into a kind of sisterly affection side by side with the other memories of the violent psychopath who had held her at knife point. Faith, she noticed had risen slowly to her feet, careful to keep her distance from the blonde whose eyes were slowly opening to study the object in her hand. A black tube of something. Mascara? Lip gloss? "In case you woke up when I wasn't here," she finished, her voice painfully soft.

Buffy's eyes went wide and her mouth fell open as she looked from the tube to Faith and finally to Willow. She didn't know the significance of the object in the Slayer's hand, but knew what her best friend was going through. The confusion. The visceral tug-of-war between the dark concrete of the past they knew and the flexible shining thing being built with each second that passed.

"Wil?" Buffy's eyes searched hers, begging for an answer, an explanation or more likely a denial. She could feel the fragility of the situation, the spell building the past from these moments and the broken memories they all shared. But more terrifying was the power they all had to change everything. Right now. That any action or inaction could affect everything. Could take Tara from her again.

But isn't that kinda…you know…life?

She could see the desperate pleading in Faith's face. And something else she had never seen there. Hope.

Second chance. Maybe there was enough to go around. Enough for all of them. And as crazy as it seemed to most of her, as much as it hurt that younger Willow who idolized her best friend and resented the exclusive connection the Slayers shared, the idea of Buffy and Faith together was right in that deep down place she was learning to trust. Her heart.

But how to say it without disrupting things? Without influencing events with her own prejudices and past. Something filtered up through her psyche. Something her best friend had said in that room before the Heart's spell was cast.

"There's always a catch?" Willow offered with a shrug and a smile. Buffy struggled visibly with the changing landscape of their past, her face twisted in confusion as the words settled between them.

"Oh, my god, this is hell," she heard her best friend mutter. "I try to do the right thing and I end up in some hell place where Faith and I..." But with a quick glance to her fellow Slayer, a kind of astonished recognition and acceptance became evident in a tiny, terrified smile. Buffy nodded almost imperceptibly as she stared at the tube of lip gloss and it happened. Reality stretched and snapped as the spell lined up the future and the past with a thunderclap of certainty that almost knocked the redhead to her knees. "Faith and I," the Slayer mumbled again.

Buffy cleared the space between herself and Faith in a moment, the two of them locked in a kiss that would have killed another human and Willow felt a ripple in the fabric of everything emanating out from the entwined pair of Slayers in an electric rush.

Without thinking she glanced at Tara becoming very aware suddenly the blonde witch was wearing only a bathrobe over total nakedness and she was wrapped in a sheet. Their reunion had been positively chaste in comparison. Maybe they weren't a couple? Or had been once and she'd done something to break them up? Her eyes she realized with a start had involuntarily descended to the exposed skin of the blonde's chest. With a start, she brought her eyes up to Tara's and was shocked to see her studying her carefully as her thumb circled over the back of the redhead's hand. Swallowing hard, Willow fought the urge to look away as Tara's lips curved into a lop-sided smile. Why did she feel so awkward? Like she had a high school crush?

"Okay, sister smooching is just...yuck. I'm going to Rain's!" the teen announced with disgust and quickly moved toward the door.

"Not in my gear!" Buffy yelled breathless between kisses and Willow laughed at the beautiful everyday insanity of it all. Amazed that the sight of her best friend kissing her former arch-nemesis seemed completely normal.

Not to mention a girl. Miss Straight Girl America is all over a girl.

When did that happen?

Pieces of an awkward conversation in the coffeehouse flickered through her mind. Buffy, red-faced and mortified asking her best friend for advice without actually asking.

'Buffy, why are we playing 'hide the gender pronoun?''

Her face reddened at the memory and the terrifying attempts at conversation and explanation that followed.

'Really, I'm so not, like, the lesbo guru or whatever.'

"Fine! Jeez! Get a room already!" Dawn yelled from the hall.

"This is my room…or was until Red went all…" Faith growled, only to be silenced by another deadly round of kisses from the blonde. Well, that explained all the dark clothing and the leather strewn around the room. But wasn't this their room? Hers and Tara's?

"Ready to go home?" Tara asked gently and squeezed Willow's hand.

"I, um… home? You mean we're not home now?"

Blue eyes studied her carefully as the blonde's head tipped slightly to the left. Tara was reading her. The familiar feel of the blonde's energy running gently through her and over her. She couldn't help wondering what she saw there. Was her energy still dark? Did the traces of dark magic follow her? "W-we can stay here tonight if you want."

An image of the two of them making love on the bare wood floors of an apartment coursed through her mind. A fantasy or maybe a new memory. Willow didn't know but she blushed at the potential and looked to the floor again. "Um, no, I…" she paused for a moment to gather her strength to ask for the only thing she had ever really wanted. "I want to go home Tara."

Somehow they got dressed and made their way to the car. No goodbyes with the Slayers who had fallen into a world of only each other. Just the three of them driving through Sunnydale in the middle of the night to a home she didn't know. There was a conversation with Dawn about Xander and Anya. Xander was still in physical therapy. Wounded in the confrontation in the back yard. Buffy had been shot as well, but she had recovered quickly. An image of a scar on the Slayer's left side, a mirror image of Faith's flashed in her mind. She didn't ask about Warren.

Throughout the drive Tara was silent, focusing on the road ahead with occasional glances to Willow. After several riveting tales of the younger Summer's slaying exploits with Faith since the spell was cast, Dawn was safely in Rain's house and they were alone in the car.

'Rain. As in forty-percent chance of?' Did that happen in this time or that other past? Or both?

A cool hand covered hers, slim fingers gently entwined with her own. They were still sitting in Rain's driveway a comfortable silence warming the space between them.

"Willow, something's different isn't it? I mean, you and Buffy, you changed something with your Second Chance?" Tara knew. Of course Tara knew. She had always understood the important things. Willow just nodded and looked down at their hands. She could feel the metallic warmth of the Heart in the pocket of her jeans. A reminder of everything that had changed. "Because it all kind of feels brand new." The blonde's forehead scrunched into deep lines as she contemplated her next statement. "But at the same time, I have the feeling that it always did."

"Always did what?"

"Always felt brand new…with you I mean," the blonde finished shyly and then looked out the windshield at the dark night sky. Willow followed her line of sight and sank into the creaky vinyl seat. The stars were the same at least. Familiar constellations framed by the car's white and beige interior. An old boxy Volvo wagon that Willow couldn't seem to remember, but that felt right somehow. Safety statistics and charts flashed through her mind letting her know that she had researched this purchase carefully, hoping to keep Tara safe. This moment, she knew, was about safety too. The two of them, sitting side by side in the security of the steel cage as they shared secrets. A neutral space between the Scooby world and the untouched safety of that other place she hadn't been yet. Home.

"Yeah. It did…" she smiled a small smile. "Always. With the feeling brand new."

Another long silence. "How d-different is it? This world…I mean, from the one you left?"

"Very…I think," she began then trailed off. The truth was she wasn't sure how different it was. Or similar. "But I'm kinda unclear on the details right now." She twirled her fingers in a circle near her temple and rolled her eyes. "Kind of messy up there right now."

"Messy?" the blonde prodded gently.

"Well, I have all these memories from the other time, but instead of disappearing like they're supposed to…they're all kind of moving in." She searched for the right analogy to explain her current state of psychological pandemonium. "Like I'm at the movies, but there are three movies playing instead of one and I have to pay special attention because something could be happening in one that I need to know and …" she turned to face Tara abruptly, clutching her hand tightly. "And…are we together in this world? I mean, you know, when we got to the movies…you and me… is it a friendly type thing or a, um, a smoochie type thing?"

Tara bit her lip to suppress a smile. "A smoochie type thing. Definitely."

"So we're not just roommates?"

"Mmmm, more like roommates with benefits," the blonde said with a flirtatious smile then looked became serious. "Weren't we together in your other world?"

She felt the frown forming automatically. "Yes…and no."

Tara nodded, still staring at the night sky, "Because I was gone."

"Well, it was…complicated, but…yeah. How do you…"

A wry smile graced perfect ruby lips. "Buffy's never told me she missed me before, Wil. Ever. If you two hadn't just returned from another dimension I'd have her checked for signs of demonic possession," she joked carefully. "And you said you had lost me, so…"

She nodded through the tears starting at the thought of those other Tara's that were lost and the mounting panic that her overlapping memories pointed toward some sort of instability in the fabric of this reality. This wasn't right. She shouldn't remember anything from that other past. Buffy didn't. Obviously, or the Faith encounter would have become a violent brawl, not the disturbing version of Slayer foreplay she had just witnessed.

"Tara I shouldn't remember all of the…everything."

"Are you sure?" the blonde turned in her seat to face the redhead. "I mean, if anyone could remember multiple realities, it's you sweetie."

"But what if something's wrong? What if this is just a dream and I…" Willow turned to Tara in a panic, grasping her hands in desperation. "Tara, I'm not going back there, I can't!" The feel of a cool hand stroking her cheek silenced her.

"Sweetie, you're not going anywhere," the cool fell away and Willow felt the car shift into Drive. "Except home. With me."

They drove the rest of the way in silence as they held hands over the emergency brake. Willow stared out the window and tried to will her warring memories into some kind of order. This was basic psychology. She knew how memory worked, what triggered it. Sights and smells that brought the past into the present. But now each sensation brought a double or triple set of conflicting memories. The familiar landmarks on the side of the road evoked a long, tired ride home from the beach, dosing off in Tara's arms in the backseat of Xander's car. But it also triggered other vague memories of this same drive home wounded and tired from battles she didn't remember yet. And a number that was driving her crazy: 317.

They pulled into the driveway of a brightly painted Victorian clapboard house and Willow checked the address. 1267. So it wasn't their address. That haunting number. Maybe it was the combination to something. Or a date. Something significant had happened on March 17. An anniversary? Or maybe it had some significance to the spell. A countdown to something. Or it could be the amount of time I have left in this world. But is it three days and seventeen hours or three years, seventeen days or…With mounting trepidation she followed Tara to a sturdy wooden stairway on the side of the house and the two began to climb. Flowering vines were entwined in the railings of the staircase and she thought she smelled jasmine.

Tara stopped at a bright purple door to remove a set of keys and Willow watched fascinated as the blonde began to unlock the door to a place she had never been.

"Tara…does the number 317 mean anything to you?" She finally blurted out. The blonde turned to her, a quizzical expression on her face as she opened the door, but didn't enter. "It just keeps…I don't know. I keep seeing it…or thinking it…it's a very popular number in my head at the moment."

"How popular?"

"Britney, pre-movie career."

The blonde looked thoughtful for a moment before a playful smile crept across her features. "Um, actually it's three minutes, seventeen seconds." Willow was still confused. "Well, that would be the average time it takes to get to Buffy's in an emergency." Tara smiled as she glanced briefly into the still-dark interior. "You timed it…repeatedly. Under different conditions."

"Oh." Well, that was a relief. And more than a little disappointing. "So…I'm still quite large with the dork in this reality."

"Yeah, if dork is spelled s-e-x-y," Tara squeezed her hand and pulled her gently inside and Willow felt the same disturbing mix of arousal and profound shyness that seemed to be the trademark of their relationship in this dimension.

She was about to ask the blonde about it when the lights suddenly came on revealing a comfortable living room. There was evidence of both she and Tara in the room's contents. Built-in shelves overflowing with books magical and non-magical in nature. A green velvet retro couch flanked by two stylish, but well-worn chairs shared the space with a state-of-the-art multimedia suite. A nest of cables and connectors was barely hidden behind the dark stylish lines of a low table attesting to a network of surveillance and computer equipment throughout the apartment and probably beyond. Candles and crystals were littered over almost every available surface. She winced at the thought of that other past where these objects had caused them both so much pain.

The room brought tears to her eyes, but she didn't cry. It was so familiar, this place, but the details of it remained just out of reach. She remembered small things about it. Waking up in Tara's lap on a Scooby movie night, reading a passage in some book over the blonde's shoulder. Bickering gently over the placement of a particular drawing. And strange disconnected memories like the fact that she didn't remember buying the TV, but she knew exactly how it was connected to the network. And the hub was somewhere behind…

She felt a gentle tug on her hand and looked up into that crooked smile that made her throat ache.

"Come on. I want to show you around."

Willow swallowed and followed the blonde down a hallway lined with photographs of the two of them and their 'family.' She slowed to study their strange contents and felt Tara's hand squeeze hers gently. The first photo she noticed was one of Tara with Dawn and Faith. Tara and Dawn hung from the dark Slayer's back in what was obviously a vain attempt to tackle her, but Faith stood grinning apparently unfazed by the two women trying to drag her to the ground. It was such a strange scene. She hadn't really thought about what it would mean to have Faith in their lives. That Tara and the dark Slayer might actually be friends in this world. She remembered a few snips of conversation and a wealth of conflicting emotions on this subject. Jealousy and frustration and even, impossibly, affection.

'Sweetie, what part of 'yours' and 'you're the hottiest hottie on the planet' did you not understand?'

So yeah, add embarrassment to that column of crazy emotions. Tara must have read her confusion because she moved closer suddenly, their arms touching slightly as they studied the photo.

"You took that one," she offered gently and Willow noticed for the first time the mischievous glint in Tara's eyes as she stared out of the photo. Clearing her throat nervously she looked up at a photo just above it. An impromptu group shot of the entire Scooby gang with Giles and Joyce. They were all in the Summers living room, draped haphazardly over the sofa arms and onto the floor. All of them. Xander's wide grin as he hugged a grudging smile out of Anya. Buffy and Dawn smiling their movie star smiles as they flanked their mother protectively. Joyce sitting center stage looking weak, but happy. Giles standing with perfect posture to one side, his smile belying his unending affection for the crew. And Faith looking very uncomfortable, arms crossed as Dawn apparently held her in frame with one hand. Clearly, the dark Slayer hadn't been a willing participant in this group photo. Willow noticed with a smile that she was sitting on Tara's knee, their hands clasped as they stared at each other and not at the camera. She squeezed Tara's hand unconsciously, her eyes drifting back to Joyce.

"Was she gone in your world too?" Tara asked gently and Willow nodded, her eyes filling with tears.

"Yeah. It nearly killed Buffy…and all of us really," she finished weakly.

"I was so proud of you for patrolling with Faith so Buffy could be with her Mom." Tara offered gently and Willow wondered suddenly about Tara's mother. Her past. Were they the same here? They should be.

But this was all too confusing. She and Faith working together? And Joyce's death. Was it the same in this reality? Was it complications or something worse? She moved to another photo to stop the grief and confusion from overtaking her again. This one was of she and Tara. They had obviously been caught in an intimate moment, completely focused on each other and obviously mid-smooching by the looks of their swollen lips and dilated eyes.

Tara chuckled beside her. "Faith using her powers for no-good as usual." She could hear the smile in the blonde's voice, but turned to make sure Faith hadn't gone evil on them again. "No. Nothing like that," she soothed Willow carefully. "She just…well, we sneaked away for some private time and she tracked us and… took this." Tara turned her attention back to the photo with a wistful smile. "I'm kinda glad actually. It's one of my favorites."

"When was it taken?" she asked as she reached out automatically to touch the glass. Its surface was cool and hard under her fingertips. Real.

"Um, last summer sometime. Maybe August? Or July?" Another light musical laugh. "In a few hours I'm sure you'll be able to tell me the exact date and time."

Willow smiled weakly, but she was still stuck on the timeline. July or August. And that placed the photo during their breakup. In the months of her worst magic abuse when Tara wouldn't even look at her or take her phone calls. But here was evidence to the contrary. They were together and happy then. No magic in sight. Just the two of them in love.

It was too much for the redhead and she stumbled backward, Tara's arm holding her firmly around the waist. "Sweetie, maybe you should sit down" The world spun around her as the blonde led her gently toward the white tile of the kitchen. They passed another room, a twin bed and computer desk crammed with programming reference books barely visible in the dim light. Was that her room? But they were together weren't they? Unless this reality was still shifting somehow. If it was unstable, she could keep drifting between realities indefinitely never knowing what was real and what was the dream.

She found herself seated in a kitchen that smelled like herbs and clean. Tara whispering about tea as she moved gracefully around the room. Plants hung from hooks, drying in fragrant green clumps. Sage, mint and comfrey and other unidentified smells. Strange twisted roots in multi-colored glass jars. A new memory of Tara working in an herb garden. Their herb garden at the Summers' house and one behind this house they shared with an older couple who lived downstairs. Her lover planting and growing things wherever she could.

But that twin bed….. The queasiness was growing more pronounced as she tried to focus on the kitchen and its contents looking for clues. On the refrigerator were a series of what looked like trading cards, but on closer inspection Willow found that they were actually the Scoobies or "Cool Monster Fighters". Scraping her chair over to clean white plastic linoleum she discovered that everyone had their own card and although they shared an overall design scheme (all of them in the same black uniform), they each had their own icon and superhero-worthy name. Xander or 'X Man' had an enormous X on his chest that looked suspiciously like Superman's design. She thought she remembered Faith calling Xander an 'ex-man' at some point and knew suddenly that this entire project had grown out of their mutual love of comic books and the mounting terror of Joyce's illness and Glory. Her multimedia expertise hadn't been so much volunteered as drafted into service. She smiled softly at the new memory and returned her gaze to the cards. Dawn was "The Switch", her symbol a shining green star and Willow smiled at the teen's action-hero pose as she kicked at the camera. Buffy and Faith or Slayer Lite and Darth Slayer had chosen contrasting fists as their symbols. One white. One black. And they looked very superhero-y as they snarled, stakes in hand, at the photographer. Willow laughed out loud at the next card. Anya's symbol was a giant dollar sign. Unlike the others, the ex-vengeance demon was not punching or kicking, but was instead wagging her finger at the camera in her trademark gesture of harsh admonishment. The next card was Giles dressed in tweed, wielding an axe with the name Ripper surrounded by a comic-book starburst. Then it was Tara and Willow or 'Blondie' and 'Red.' There were no symbols, but the two of them were dressed in the same black. She thought she looked typically ridiculous as she kicked at the camera, but Tara….she nearly fell out of her chair at the sight of the blonde in tight black fighting gear, a look of pure animal intensity on her face as she struck at the camera.

"You like?" Tara asked a smile evident in her voice as she handed the redhead a steaming cup of tea. She thought she smelled mint and ginger as she continued to stare at the blonde's card.

"Uh-huh," she managed between scalding sips. "You look…um…wow!"

A soft chuckling near her ear made her tear her eyes from the refrigerator to find the blonde blushing next to her. "Yeah, um, that's kind of your screen saver…and wallpaper and your home page," another lop-sided smile. "And I still find trading cards tucked into your books."

She turned back to the card and blushed. A memory was working its way up through layers of sensation and she felt the queasiness grow in intensity. The symbols. She and Tara had had their own once, but they were a problem somehow.

"But there was a thing with the symbols right?" she took another sip of the tea to calm her stomach. "Our symbols.'

The blonde smiled and nodded, obviously pleased that the redhead was remembering this world. This past. "They interfered with some of the spells." She couldn't seem to remember her own symbol, but she saw the blonde's with sudden clarity. The sun. A deep red center surrounded by the golden fiery corona. On Tara's chest. In her memory it looked strikingly similar to the bloody fingerprint of the gunshot wound and Willow felt the world shift violently.

"Willow" she woke to the sound of the sound of Tara's worried voice and opened her eyes to find the blonde hovering over her looking absolutely panicked. Her upper body was covered in a warm, wet liquid. Blood?

No. It's tea. I'm on the floor in their kitchen. Our kitchen. And we're safe.

"Tara? What happened?" she asked groggily.

"You fell sweetie. Are you okay?" Tara embraced her, holding her tightly against her and Willow almost passed out again at the overwhelming relief of it. The incredible rightness of being in those arms again. She wanted to hold on, but she was so weak. "I think we should get you to bed."

With a bit of struggle, they managed to reach their feet and stumble down the hall. Willow hesitated in front of the room with the twin bed and computer desk and Tara stiffened slightly beside her. "Oh. Would you rather sleep in Dawn's room tonight?" The blonde asked gently. "I understand if that's…"

"Dawn's room?"

"Well, technically, it's your study/Dawn's room, but…lately it's leaning more toward the Dawn's room side." Willow noticed a giant poster of J-Lo over the bed surrounded by smaller photos and magazine cutouts of various pop artists. "She usually spends the night a couple of times a week now."

With a weary and relieved smile she turned to Tara, "No, I want our room…if that's okay?" And averted her eyes immediately because she couldn't look really. She couldn't risk making this world disappear under the weight of her gaze. Like particles. You couldn't scrutinize them too closely without losing something.

The blonde sighed and closed her eyes briefly, a bright smile forming on her lips. "Oh yes. Definitely." And gently helped the redhead down the hall toward the other end of the apartment. Willow felt like she was floating through an Escher drawing of the hallway. Her vertigo was so acute that the normal directions of up and down, right and left were proving useless.

"For a straight girl, Dawnie sure has lots of girls on her wall," she murmured groggily into Tara's shoulder and felt a rumble of laughter as a reward.

"Yeah, that's what Faith says too." She could feel Tara smiling next to her. "And I found a Darth Slayer trading card in her backpack a couple of weeks ago," she said with evident amusement, then grew serious. "But we've been trying to get everyone to lay off the teasing. Dawn's pretty freaked and the fact that her big crush is in love with her sister has hit her kinda hard. I don't even think she knows why she's so angry," the blonde finished, concern for the teenager obvious in her voice.

Willow just nodded as she was led into a familiar-smelling room and seated on a comfortable bed. The conversation about Dawn was so familiar. Their worry and concern for the troubled teenager echoing through all of her pasts as she ran her fingers over the bumpy blanket that read like a topological map of love and sorrow. But it couldn't give her the answers she needed. She wasn't even sure what the questions were anymore.

The soft glow of candles filled the room and she let herself fall back onto the bed, which was much softer than she remembered. And moving. And kicking. Yes, definitely something small and writhing under her back. With a yelp she jumped away from the intruder ready for some kind of miniature demon attack, but found only a white and black cat. It took a moment for her mind to connect this rather large cat with the sneaky kitten that lived in Tara's dorm room.

"Miss Kitty?" and suddenly she was choking on sobs as she clutched the purring cat to her chest, tears pouring down her face. As if this living memory had pulled all of that bottled up grief out of her. "Oh my god, you're like…here and…huge." Miss Kitty squirmed away from her and she was overwhelmed with racking spasms of grief. "See, even the cat knows," she said through the tears and felt a warm hand on her back.

"Even the cat knows what, sweetie?" Tara's voice was soft and even and the hand moved in comforting circles, but it wasn't enough. She couldn't trust her senses. They lied. Sometimes. They only understood the world in three dimensions, not the four or five or eleven of everything. And it could change in a moment.

"That I'm not right!" she exploded in a frantic, tear-choked spasm. "That's I'm like an imposter. And, and the real Willow Rosenburg that belongs in this world is going to show up and kick me out and it's so not going to be pretty because if I were me..."

"You're not an imposter, Wil…" the blonde began emphatically, but she cut her off because Tara needed to understand this. She needed to be aware of the threat. The lie.

"I don't belong…" she gestured wildly at the comforting contents of the room. "….in the…this here Tara! Don't you see?" she finished desperately, turning to meet blue eyes, averting her gaze almost immediately, terrified that Tara's features would blur and shift away from her. "I'm not the real Willow Rosenburg…the this Willow Rosenburg. This isn't right and…and you don't understand…I don't deserve this!"

Tara stared at her for what felt like an hour, her forehead lined with confusion and concern while Willow tried in vain to control the sobs that still shook her in violent convulsions. In a moment, the blonde's features shifted to a kind of resolved calm. She felt a cool hand cup her cheek and turn her gently. "Willow look at me." But she could only close her eyes and push against that hand that felt so real. But she couldn't. Look. Because that was the dream and the end. "You are the real Willow Rosenburg. My Willow Rosenburg." Tara's thumb stroked her cheek gently as both hands cupped her face and the sobs stopped suddenly. "You just don't remember this world yet. You will."

She wanted to believe her. Desperately. But there was too much at stake. They needed to research. There was work to be done. "Tara we need to…we need the-the research and…because…I'm not going back there," she mumbled in a panic and pulled away. The books in the living room. There had to be something about Occum's Heart in them. Or time. She was on her feet and halfway to the door when that familiar voice stopped her.

"You bet your ass you're not going anywhere." Finally she did look, surprised by the ferocity in the blonde's voice. Tara's expression as she stood to face her was one of fierce determination that softened slightly when her eyes met Willow's. "I didn't go to the Nether Realms to get you just so you could d-disappear again."

Her mind had stopped working somewhere in the middle of the last sentence as her eyes drifted over the features she knew so well, but they were brand new. Her hair was shorter. A little longer than shoulder length and slightly bleached from the sun, so they didn't spend all of their time hunting evil in the dark here. And was her face a little thinner? Leaner? Her clothes, she noticed for the first time were different as well. Tight jeans over a slimmer frame and a sleeveless top that revealed toned arms. The curves were still there, but this was a body shaped by physicality. Faith. Somehow she knew that the dark Slayer was responsible for this new Tara even though she couldn't pinpoint exactly why.

Then there were the things that were the same. The perfect arch of those pale eyebrows that brought her eyes to the strong slope of an aquiline nose. The curve and sigh of lips set in a determined line. She followed the strong plane of cheekbones back up to those dark blue eyes and saw something new. A scar. Small and fading beside Tara's left eye. She reached to trace it automatically, but held back.

"How did…who hurt you?"

"Random vampire," the blonde replied with a shrug and smiled. "Who is currently fertilizing a very large area of the cemetery." And she was starting to know already. Images of the blonde returning from patrol with Faith and Dawn. A bloody bandage taped above her eye. An angry confrontation with Faith that Tara and Dawn had interrupted with assertions that the Dark Slayer had practically ripped the vampire's head off for touching the blonde witch. And her own shaking fingers as she tried and failed to tend to the wound. So much blood and so close to those beautiful eyes. Faith had taken over finally. And she had let her. Willingly. She remembered overwhelming guilt. That she hadn't been able to help her baby when she was injured.

"I couldn't…" but it was more a question and she stopped unsure of her new memories.

"It's okay baby, you were just afraid you would hurt me." Finally centering herself on the small lines in the corners of Tara's eyes that meant happiness. But there was something else. Something processing in the deeper part of her mind far from the reach of that part of her that dissected and scrutinized. She finally let herself touch that fading pink line and the blonde smiled into her touch. "It doesn't hurt anymore," she said softly and sighed as Willow traced the line of her jaw to her lips.

"You went to the Nether Realms to get me?" she asked quietly. Because that was the thing working around back there and she had to be very careful not to disturb it until it was ready. So she focused on the slight flush forming on the gorgeous slope of those cheeks and trailed her fingers back to trace the arch of an ear.

"Mmmm-hmm," she murmured in response and closed her eyes leaning into Willow's touch. And there it was, working its way up now to the rational part of her brain. Tara, this Tara had gone to the Nether Realms to get her? But…

"But that wasn't…I mean…this you?" It wasn't possible. It was that other girl in the Nether Realms. The young Tara with the stutter and the shy, impossible confidence. She had felt the connection. "That was the other Tara…bubble world Tara." Blue eyes were studying her now and she realized that she had dropped her hand to her lap.

"That's what I keep trying to tell you," the blonde said quietly and brought her hand up to cup the redhead's cheek gently. "There is no other Tara." She swallowed and closed her eyes as warm lips bushed softly, briefly against her forehead. "And no other Willow," another light touch of lips against each eyelid. "There's just you..." And the soft fluttery heat of those lips against her own, but only for a moment. "And me"

She felt time stop as the pieces fell into place. The circle in that room, the candles and the heat. The two of them naked in the center of it all. Quantum mechanics and relativity and the nature of time. That everything was happening at once in every possible place and time. It was the act of noticing, of being and choosing that made it real. That was what made the now.

The images and memories from that other place, the Nether Realms suddenly overwhelmed her. The swirling energies and emptiness and the connection to Tara that had never really been broken. And the blonde there finally leading her back, helping her choose to let go..

Her eyes were open in an instant to find that blue regarding her with patient affection. Waiting for her to find herself again.

"Willow." She wasn't sure it had been spoken aloud, that word that was both a question and a statement. And she wondered again about the way Tara said her name. A spell. That was what she had decided in some other space and time and it was, in a way. But it was more than that, it was the blonde describing her, claiming the everything of her with those two soft syllables. And she was again. Willow.

"Tara." A long slow smile that spelled out the last of her, letting her know that the memories were waiting for her they just needed…time. And the two of them to make and unmake them. She and Tara.

"Hi sweetie," The blonde finally broke the silence. A shy smile crept over Willow's face as she looked down at her hands.

"Hi." And back up to Tara who was now smiling playfully as she took the redhead's hands in her own. "So, now what? Is there anything, you know, I should know…I mean, before I…you know… know it?"

"I love you," Tara said softly, bringing a hand up to push red hair behind one ear making Willow shiver. "You should probably know that."

"Oh," she could feel the heat erupting in her face. "Yeah, I should…know that." But there was still that awkward shyness that she was beginning to understand. Because despite the past stretching out behind them, this was new. She didn't know the rules of this world, the patterns and rituals of their life and love were a mystery making her feel like an outsider in what should have been her own life. "And so should you…know that I love you I mean," she stumbled awkwardly and frowned at her clumsiness.

But Tara was moving closer, her hand tracing her jawline, running in shivering tremors down her neck. "And you should know that I missed you." Closer still. "Terribly."

"God I missed you so much," she meant to shout it but it came out as a whisper as she fell into those arms again Felt the warmth as Tara pressed against her. How was it possible that she had gotten Tara back not once, but twice? "But there are things…" she choked on the words before righting herself. She could feel the strength of her girl as she held her up. "Things you should know about me." Tara held her tight, her hand moving in small circles on her back.

"Shhh." She soothed. "I know about the darkness. I saw it all…" a warm hand against her chin holding her head up. "In the N-Nether Realms."

She pulled back to study Tara's face. To make sure there wasn't rejection or disgust written there in hard lines, but that beautiful face held only love and concern. "Oh." Was all that she could find to say. She had seen everything? "And you don't hate me?" Tara shook her head slowly still studying Willow's face. "Maybe you didn't see it all then because it's definitely of the serious evil and you probably shouldn't even be…"

"Sweetie," Tara's fingers on her lips silenced her. "I saw it… all," a pained expression replaced the beautiful smiling curve of those lips. "I saw the 'terrible things'," her hand stroked the redhead's cheek softly. "I'm so sorry…" she began sadly and trailed off with a faraway stare. "And 't-terrible things'…they happened here too…" she looked down with a pained expression. "Not the same things, but…" Blue eyes locked with her own, holding her still. "I saw, Willow. I saw you choose…not to…again." It took her a moment to understand the reference. To understand that Tara had somehow seen her moment of weakness in the Heart's center when she had come so close to taking the power offered. The power that would always be waiting for her.

"For you," she whispered softly finally and looked into blue eyes and the beginnings of a smile. "But still…me equals dangerous and I can't…I won't put you in danger again," she responded and tried to pull away, but strong arms held her gently in place.

"From the time I was four years old, m-my mother taught me that I had to understand my dark side to really control it," she tucked another strand of red hair behind an ear. "To recognize it and resist." Tara winced painfully and Willow found herself reaching out to comfort her. This was about the demon. She had never really understood before. About Tara's self-awareness, her inner calm and strength. Where it came from. This was a woman who had been trained since childhood to look for signs within of the demon they had convinced her she was. "And I think," she began again hesitantly, breaking Willow's train of thought. "I think you finally understand your dark side Willow…you just did it, you know, the hard way," a slight smile and raise of the eyebrows. "As usual."

"The really, really hard way," she murmured beginning another long silence as Tara's gaze drifted over her features forcing Willow to look down. Scared that she would see traces of that dark-eyed demon in her eyes. And that was a place her mind did not want to go. Her lifelong defense mechanism kicked in and she began to ramble automatically. "I, um, anything else I should know like significant dates or you know because…"

"Well, you should probably know that," Tara leaned in to whisper in her ear and Willow swallowed hard as her entire body shivered into that light touch. "I think I'm going to kiss you … okay?" Echoes from her multiple memories rippled through her and she closed her eyes against the slight tremor that was beginning somewhere deep. An almost imperceptible nod and she felt the wet slide of the blonde's cheek against hers through the tears she didn't remember crying. Then the impossible heat of their lips that were now that close. Tara whispering her name into her with every breath. Breathing her back into herself as lips brushed against hers softly.

"This is the real?" she asked in a small voice and Tara nodded.

"The really real," she felt the smile against her mouth as soft lips brushed her own in another impossible first kiss, her knees growing weak under the weight of it all. But Tara caught her, holding her fast with one arm, her other draped over one shoulder, a warm hand on Willow's neck as the blonde gently stroked that space behind her ear. And lips again against hers. "Willow," casting a spell, her hand moving to the bare skin of her chest. "I need," the 'you' was unspoken and understood as Tara finally claimed what had always been hers with a moan that traveled between them in the space of open mouths.

Then the heat was gone, Tara studying her with worried intensity. "Too fast? Because we can just go to bed if you…" but her chest was heaving under the brand new shirt Willow didn't recognize. And she wanted. To know. She wanted to learn every inch of this woman over and over again, this body she knew by heart.

"No. I'm just…" she ducked her head again and swallowed hard. "I'm so afraid Tara." And felt those hands move over her again.

"I've got you," her voice so calm and sure now all of the doubt gone. Then the inexpressible calm of her hands on clothes and bare skin, undressing her. Unbuttoning her all the way, the gentle pressure of one hand always on heated skin as she uncovered everything. Stripping it all away in layers until Willow stood naked before her. Lips hot again against her own, "And I'm never letting go. Okay?"

She nodded and felt hands slip too her waist, felt the pressure of that deep blue gaze flutter over her skin. Tara reading her in that other way that wasn't about energies and auras. "So beautiful." This was about skin and smell and the weight of what was real, the flush of it spreading through her like fire. She needed the weight of Tara on her now, the all of her against her again.

"Tara," I need… and the sentence was completed for her in the heat of a long, lingering kiss as she was pulled and pushed in gentle strokes back to the bed. Their bed. The nubby texture of the bedspread against her back and the soft scrub of Tara's cotton shirt and jeans. And the heat of Tara against her, both of them speaking each other's names over and over in that silent language as she closed her eyes and sank into the soft heavy heat of it.

Until the heat lifted and her eyes flew open in a panic, but Tara was there above her pulling the t-shirt over her head. Tara she wasn't sure if she had spoken it, but the blonde's eyes met hers immediately.

"It's okay sweetie. I'm right here," she said gently and brought her hand to a bare thigh. "I'm not going anywhere." Willow fell into the slow smile in the curve of those lips as Tara stripped the last of her clothes away. And it was just the two of them again with nothing between as warm hands and blue eyes moved over her skin in shimmering waves.

She was unmade as Tara's fingers moved over her, sculpting her with that soft push and pull into the Willow she was meant to be. The Willow she had always been. Taking charge of her again with the lightest touch, driving back the fear with sighs and that forever smile.

"Hold on to me, Willow" And she did, never taking her eyes off her love as she brought her hands up to clutch and pull everything she had lost and regained. To pull it all down to her so she could feel the weight of it against her. So she could make it real with every sense she had, every inch of herself.

Tara's mouth and hands moved over her making her and claiming her with that other magic that lived outside of time. Moving lower and lower…

"Tara I need to see you," the words left her in a panic as the blonde made her way back up to her, holding her again with those eyes that really were the center of the universe now, holding her steady in that distanceless space between them.

"It's okay sweetie," she murmured and Willow sighed in to her mouth as their hands traveled over each other in a ritual that she knew was all about that other kind of magic. The magic of heat and wet. The Big Magic. "I've got you," Tara murmured and she felt her take hold of the past and the present, weaving them together with a slow, insistent pressure. But magic…

Her eyes flew open to find the blue studying her, new moon dark as they looked into her, helping her find the things she already knew, but couldn't tell herself yet:

The battle with Glory: her own dark magic, Faith and Buffy battling for Dawn as Tara emerged shining from Glory's prison, her magic burning white hot in defense of Willow…

Another fall into dark magic, blurry and vague, but Tara…Tara was there to pull her out of that cold place…

A new first kiss immersed in cold and light and deep magic…

The two of them over and over entwined like this, glowing and golden and bending the universe with the weight and heat…

And finally Tara everywhere as it broke over her in a wave of everything suddenly right there. The past, present and future sliding together in time with their own desperate movements. And that low musical voice whispering her name over and over in that other, deeper language that let her know she was finally where she belonged…home.



Things that happened at 3:47 a.m. on the night of Buffy and Willow's return:

Dawn lay awake staring at the ceiling in Rain's bedroom. She could hear her friend's soft snoring next to her and wondered why that didn't squick her out. They had stayed up late talking again and that's why she was sleeping in Rain's bed and not in the guest room. Not like that was a new thing 'cause she hadn't actually slept in the guest room since the first night she slept over. And it always seemed to be Rain's idea. Not that it was a bad idea, it was just that she wasn't used to sleeping with someone else. But Rain was different all around. Dawn had never had a real friend before. Well, there was Janice, but she was kind of a friend by default. They'd known each other since grammar school, but she couldn't trust Janice with the really big things. They still talked to each other in home room, but since she'd started hanging out with Rain, Janice had become friends with Courtney and her biatch minions, so she couldn't trust her anymore. And she could trust Rain. With almost everything.

Buffy would kill her if she knew, but it wasn't her fault really. Well, maybe it was kind of because she knew better or something like that. She and Rain had gone for a walk after dark to get away from the parentals even though she knew it was too dangerous. They had been attacked by a new vamp and Dawn had reacted without thinking using Faith's trademark sweep and stake method. And Rain had been so cool about it all. Even when she told her about her sister being a Slayer and Willow and Tara being witches, Rain still thought Dawn was cooler than Buffy, which almost never happened.

Because Buffy was a SLAYER and Dawn was just, well, she hadn't really gotten into that part yet. She wasn't quite sure how to tell someone outside her family that she was really an ancient energy switch that opened portals into other dimensions. With blood, which was of the ick for most people. Because even though she knew that she was a Switch she also knew that she wasn't really. She was really more of a girl…plus.

Rain shifted in her sleep, rolling to snuggle up to her and she was forced to stifle a squeak. And this was another thing that was becoming normal and kind of cool. She could actually sleep at Rain's. Usually. When she wasn't thinking too much like right now. It was sort of like the few times she had slept with Willow and Tara when she was too scared to sleep by herself. And not like that. Maybe it was like Willow and Tara. The way they always told each other everything and protected each other. And other stuff. Her face heated up at the thought and she became almost painfully aware of Rain's breathing and the warmth of her against her side. No. This was just a friend thing. This was what normal, real friends did, wasn't it? They slept in the same bed and cuddled when they were scared and it was no big. Because Rain was about as normal as it got. No vampires or prophecies and definitely no ex-vengeance demons or super-witches. But she really wanted to tell everyone about her. And Rain wanted to try some spells together so she was going to have to tell someone about it eventually. Just in case. Faith? But she couldn't really talk to Faith anymore since Buffy had gotten in the way. So…Tara. Definitely Tara. She would understand. And she missed the blonde witch. She knew it was irrational, but she felt like they hadn't really seen each other in months. Yep, definitely time for milkshakes and total disclosure because secrets were dangerous. She had learned that the hard way. The evil, scary, people-getting-hurt way.

Dawn rolled onto her side and tried to stop thinking about the demons and the Hellmouth and the hordes of things that wanted to eat her family or bleed her or…

Rain's arm encircled her waist and she felt the girl curl against her back. "Stop thinking and go to sleep," her new best friend mumbled right against the back of her neck, which made her shiver all over, but definitely stopped those other scary thoughts.

But this was a little scary too, just in a totally different way. Maybe it was magic. Tara had told her about the witchy connection she and Willow had shared almost immediately and something about vending machines. And this definitely felt witchy and connected-y (if that was even a word) so maybe it was magic. Maybe Rain was a witch and she didn't even know it.

She smiled and pushed back against Rain another wave of warmth driving all thoughts of demons and evil from her mind.

Definitely magic. And Tara would know exactly what kind.

"Are you satisfied yet B?" She could just make out Faith's features in the deep black, but she knew that tone. "I mean, I think we've done just about everything…" Frustration. That was the tone. But that was okay. She knew how to turn that. Oh yeah, she so knew how to turn Faith frustration around.

" Just one more time please," she interrupted, deliberately dragging out the please to sound like a small child while reaching out to tuck a strand of dark hair behind her fellow Slayer's ear. "I promise I'll make it up to you." Faith softened immediately as she expected, but rolled her eyes for good measure. "Any way you want."

"Any way I want, huh?" She thought she saw the flash of perfect teeth set in a sultry smile, but there was a loud sigh. "Fine. One more sweep, but then we're going home." Without even a kiss, Faith stalked away toward the back of Rain's house for another sweep. Buffy fell in behind her, thankful that her sulky frown was hidden in the moonless dark of the yard. She was being irrational she knew that. There was probably nothing here. Her Slayer senses weren't picking up anything unusual, but it was Dawn in there and what if there was something and they had just missed it the first four times? "I think you're OCD, B," Faith growled as she made her way through a row of hedges.

"What does that mean? OCDB?" she demanded testily. She hated knowing less than Faith on any subject. And the way Faith said it …it had to be some term she used with that woman. "What? Is that what you and your girlfriend call me when you're having a session or whatever it is you do."

Another loud sigh as the dark silhouette turned to confront her. "She's not my girlfriend, she's my therapist! Damn, B! And it's Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which you definitely have because," Faith turned back to the hedges and began walking again growing more agitated with every second. With a guilty smile Buffy followed behind watching those powerful shoulders and neck work in the trademark sign of Pissed Off Faith. She knew it was cruel, but she so loved getting Faith all, well, Faith-y. It was so incredibly hot. "Hello! Checking Red and Blondie's yard exactly five times every night has gotta be a sign of some kinda major disorder and -- ow! Fucking rosebushes!"

Buffy was about to begin a counter-argument about the importance of being thorough that sounded far too much like Giles, but stopped when she noticed that Faith was sucking her thumb, her face twisted in pain and anger. It was incredible really. The girl could walk home with major stab wounds and massive blood-loss, but any little minor scratch and she was a complete baby about it. She used like four boxes of band-aids a week. And they couldn't be the regular old band-aids. They had to be special band-aids with Hello Kitty or Star Wars or Monsters, Inc. stuff all over them.

"Let me see it." She reached for the injured hand only to have it jerked away.

"No. Why?" Okay, definitely into full guilt-trip territory now. And it was her fault, this terrible injury, because she had made them sweep the yard one last time.

"Because!" she used all of her strength to wrench Faith's hand away from her and into a thin stream of light from 'the Rains' back porch. "I have to make sure you didn't hit a major artery," she said trying without much success to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

"Okay, you obviously don't care about my pain," Faith began in full pout mode as she tried to tear her hand away again, but Buffy held on. She could see the slivery dark of a thorn, could feel its sharp roughness under her fingers. If she only had her old-school manicure this thorn would be out in a second, but her beautiful sculpted nails had been one of the many sacrifices she had made for this 'relationship' or whatever it was. They were still working that part out.

Though the nails… totally worth it, she thought with an evil grin. But she would never let Faith know that.

With a loud sigh, she began trying to dig the thorn out with her too-short, but still perfectly-shaped nails drawing a loud hiss from the dark Slayer.

"What? It's bad isn't it?" Faith sounded almost panicked and she had to stifle a laugh. Laughing at Faith, she had learned, led to hours of angry Faith, brood-y Faith and all-around badness.

"Yep. I think we're gonna have to amputate." With an angry growl, Faith tried to tear her hand away again, but Buffy held on and finally produced the thorn. "See, all gone." But the dark Slayer was still pouting. "Still hurts?" She asked softly.

Faith just nodded angrily crossing her 'good' arm over her stomach. Buffy leaned down and kissed the injured thumb, but Faith was still staring off into the dark yard, a deep scowl evident on her face.

"Still?" An angry, incredibly cute nod and she remembered the Slayer's own remedy for her injured thumb. With a mischievous grin she pulled the thumb into her mouth and was rewarded immediately with a sharp intake of breath. Faith's head snapped around to face her, her mouth open in surprise. "Still?" she mumbled around the injured thumb as Faith swallowed hard and nodded once.

"B?" Her voice was shaky and small, so totally unlike the big bad Slayer everyone was used to. She knew that tone of voice, knew exactly what Faith was asking for -- consent. And it nearly broke her heart. This was another one of the tricky parts of their relationship — 'power dynamics' (that was her word for it, that way-too-hot-to-be-a-therapist woman). Here she was with Faith's thumb in her mouth, but the poor girl still had to ask to make sure she wanted her. It was part of her therapy and it made for some unbelievably awkward moments when they both wanted each other desperately, but were too afraid or proud or whatever to ask. But still, when they finally did get started things tended to get totally 'off the hook' (as Faith would say) pretty quickly. In the best way possible.

But she would have to find a way to let Faith know soon that she trusted her enough to start things. Enough to take what she wanted when she wanted it. Because she was pretty sure there wasn't anything Faith wanted to do to her that she wasn't going to like. She flashed back to an old memory from before. She and Faith and Angel with nasty-looking 'instruments' and lots of talk about torture. Then focused on the deep brown eyes before her, eyes that were studying her with hope and something else they hadn't been able to say to each other yet. This was a different girl. She had proven that again and again even when Buffy had done everything in her power to keep her the same. And maybe, just maybe she was different too. For once, maybe that didn't have to be a bad thing.

She slowly pulled the thumb out of her mouth and was rewarded with a speechless, open-mouthed Slayer. With a satisfied smile she took the hand in her own. "I'm thinking four and a half times is way enough to spot the evil."

"You think?" so the sweetness was definitely on the fade because that was a smirk. Definitely a Faith smug smile trying to hide in the dark.

"You so played me!" She growled and Faith shook her head, her eyes all wide-eyed innocence, but her smile had turned to one of pure mischief as she slowly backed away from Buffy. "You," she reached for the dark Slayer, but she danced away from her. "You are a dead woman!"

With a shriek they were both off, tearing through yards and hedges at blinding speed and it felt so good. She hadn't had a good slay in five days and the Slayer inside her needed this. Needed the woman in front of her who seemed to have a special gift for calming that demon or probably just wearing it out. Maybe it was the combination of the Chosen two canceling each other out. Or something.

But those thoughts were quickly giving way to other thoughts. To the what-am-I-gonna-do-when-I-catch-her-thoughts that generally involved lots of clothes-ripping and sex in strange places because they didn't have to hold back with each other…after the consent part, which was already done. So, no holding back for fear of hurting anyone with superhuman speed and strength. Because she would. Catch her. They had established that over the past two years of sparring, training and slaying. Although they were equal in stamina, Faith was just slightly stronger, but Buffy was that half a second faster. So she would catch her and it would be her turn to do whatever she wanted with Faith for a while. She heard the mumbled curse as the Slayer stumbled on something just a few yards ahead of her. Yep, she would definitely catch Faith. It was only a matter of time.

Anya lay in bed watching Xander sleep, her fingers tracing the still-purple scar on his back. The deep gunshot wound that had brought them both so much pain and, more importantly, had drastically reduced the number of orgasms she was accustomed to. And that led her thoughts back to revenge. Evisceration? No. Been there, done that and it just wasn't enough for the pain Warren Mears had inflicted on her. And Xander. Skinning him alive? Not original. Willow had done that once and she prided herself on originality. So she would just have to keep searching for a spell to extend his fifteen-year sentence to life without parole. With a big nasty cellmate named Vern. Or maybe she could get Hallie to bend the rules a little and send him to Oz. The TV show, not that hellhole with the terrifying singing munchkins. Everyone had assured her that a life as a paraplegic and time in a maximum security prison was enough punishment for the wannabe Big Bad, but Anya knew better. There was never enough punishment for those who hurt the people you love. So she had a project. A make-Warren-suffer-for-the-rest-of-his-pitiful-life project. And that brought a bright smile to her face. She loved projects and it was after all in her field of expertise.

But all of those thoughts about Warren and revenge brought her back to a terrifying possibility: What if this Xander wasn't really alive? What if he was really lying dead beside her on the bed. She poked him, but there was no movement, so she poked him again. Hard.

"Ow." A loud groan and there was movement. "I'm alive An, so you can stop with the poking," Xander grumbled in his sleep, turning to throw a comforting arm across her stomach.

"Just making sure, honey." She smiled again and brushed back his thick dark hair wondering for the millionth time why she stayed with him. For as strong and sturdy as he looked he had far too many soft parts that always seemed to be in danger. He was vulnerable and since he held her heart that meant she was vulnerable too. Why couldn't she have picked a Slayer? They were much harder to break. And with all that super-stamina there would have been much longer orgasms and probably a lot more of them. With a heavy sigh she looked back at the sleeping figure beside her and knew the answer. As ridiculous and impractical as it was, there was the indisputable fact that she was hopelessly in love with this goofy, flawed, fragile human.

She would have to remember to thank Willow later and maybe even Buffy if she could stomach it. For Xander and Tara and this new world. Even if it was all a crazy accident. Because for once in her twelve hundred-year existence, she had to admit she couldn't have done it better herself.

"Tara why are you dressed in a fish suit?" Willow mumbled sleepily into a bare shoulder and Tara smiled at the serious expression on the redhead's face. Whatever was going on in the dream it definitely had her girl very concerned.

"It's a costume party sweetie," She replied gently and kissed the lines on Willow's forehead away. That seemed to satisfy her. "Do we get to keep the fins?" But she wasn't really looking for an answer, already deep asleep again as she snuggled against her. She felt the press of bare skin, the slide of silky red hair on her chest and took a deep breath to push back her desire. Willow needed to sleep. She looked down their entwined bodies, her eyes following the sinuous curve and angles of one perfect leg thrown over her and sighed.

Willow needs to sleep she reminded herself and smiled at her insatiable need for this beautiful bright woman now sprawled across her.

But she was going to make sure her slumber wasn't interrupted by anything — not demons or vampires, nightmares or frog dreams, not even her own want — nothing was going to come between her girl and the sleep she so badly needed.

Pulling Willow closer still she held onto her slippery girl with all of her strength. Reassuring herself that they were safe. Buffy and Faith had been by earlier to sweep the yard earlier so there were no demons to worry about. The Slayers' combined energy signature was like a bright spike in the murmuring field of her other senses. And their incessant, muffled bickering left no doubt about their identity as they made their routine 'secret' sweep. Rain's house was next no doubt.

The thought of the Slayers checking up on their little sister made her smile. Things felt so wonderfully right…even if they were still a little bumpy. Yes, there were still demon devices and the threat of Vra'al and there was all of that past to deal with. So much pain and darkness behind those beautiful green eyes and she had to find a way to take some of it from her love.

She looked down at the smiling redhead whose fingers were now moving over her chest in lazy circles.

My sneaky, sneaky girl.

"Willow you need to sleep," but that brought only a pouting turn to that unbelievably sexy mouth.

"Mmmm…don't wanna," as Willow's lips moved over her breast in hot, wet swirls she saw the flash of green and violet, felt the rush of their arousal as it swept through the room, crashing back into them in a breaking wave. And felt the rightness of this as a real thing. A glowing, fiery space they were bringing into the world with every movement and moment. Drawing it around them in lines of breath and touch. As Willow moved lower, moaning as she opened up that burning want that seemed to never end, she understood again. She didn't have Willow's memories of that other world, those other pasts to pull from, but she had the aching heat of now and the reason of them. This was her girl and her place. Her home. There was nothing and nowhere else for her but Willow. Ever.

The End

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