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 VII

"And why exactly should I help you?" the Vengeance Demon paused, her eyes shifting from Dawn to the figure of Faith behind her. She felt the Slayer stiffen, heard the unmistakable sound of leather creaking as arms crossed in growing exasperation. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Faith's legendary impatience and temper could be downright dangerous in a situation like this. "Plus, Willow's possibly gone all dark magic," Anya rolled her eyes for emphasis, "and there's no way I'm getting involved with that again." She motioned dramatically to the disaster of her store. The walls and windows were blackened with soot and scored by the intense heat and violence of Willow's agony. An entire section of the ceiling lay in an enormous pile in the center of the room. The milky plastic of a makeshift tarp was the only barrier between the interior and exterior worlds of the store.

"We'll help you fix up the shop," Dawn offered with a weak smile and picked up a broom, but as she began to sweep at the black dust on the floor it became clear quickly that there was no end to it. There was no floor any longer, just ash and soot.

"Oh please. You with your microscopic teenage attention span and kleptomaniac tendencies," she rambled angrily and then turned on Faith, "and you, a murderer slash Slayer which, by the way, is so redundant. I mean, come on. You and Buffy are Slayers. You slay things. Look it up!" she said and finally threw up her hands in disgust.

Faith inhaled sharply behind her and Dawn began to panic. This was it. Faith was going to go all Rogue Slayer and attack Anya and they would never get Buffy and Willow back.

"But…" she began, only to be cut off by the totally incongruous sound of laughter behind her. She turned to find Faith openly appraising the vengeance demon, a sultry smile forming on her lips.

"I like her," Faith said with a smirk and Dawn rolled her eyes in disgust. What was it with these people? All the adults in her life were like these total freaks of nature when it came to the rules of attraction. Why would Faith who could have, like, anyone want a nasty old demon? Then again, Buffy had that whole Spike issue. Maybe it was a Slayer thing. And if Faith had seen Anya all veiny and wrinkled she was sure the dark Slayer wouldn't be looking at her in that way that was making her all uncomfortable. And angry.

"What?" the teenager turned on the Slayer in hurt shock. And she wasn't even sure why. Just that this was impossible. "Nobody likes Anya! I mean, except Xander and he's…"

"Hello! Standing right here!," Anya interjected. "And that's just not true! I have many friends, like…" She stumbled for a moment and then smiled brightly, "Like Tara! Tara was my friend. And not in a lesbian, womyn with a 'y' love kind of way, so there. You're wrong as usual…" she trailed off when she saw the look of pain that the blonde's name brought to Dawn's face. "And see, now you've made me say her name and everyone's going to be all sad."

"Not me," Faith shrugged and slipped her hands in her pockets. "Didn't know the girl." And then she scowled as if she was unhappy with the words.

"Well, then you're lucky," Anya said with a frown, crossing her arms in front of her. It took a moment for the callous words to sink in and Dawn felt the rage swell within her. Why hadn't she seen it earlier? Anya had never really stopped being a vengeance demon. She never really cared about anything, but money and sex.

"'Cause you don't have to miss her." Which pulled all of the air out of the room, all of her rage turning to grief in a moment.

The teenager looked up to find the Vengeance Demon standing under the flapping tarp looking small and sad. And alone. Her eyes wet with tears as she surveyed the devastation of the store. The results of Tara's murder.

Faith finally broke the silence, clearing her throat. "Sorry to interrupt here, but we're kind of on the clock … so are you up for this or should we start looking for another witch without the, you know, the whole demon issue?"

"It is not a demon issue!" Anya's forehead furrowed in contempt as she seemed to reach a decision she wasn't entirely happy with. "Stupid humans," she muttered. "Fine. But I'm just going to look. That's it. No promises." Dawn watched Faith nod her assent. "And if Willow's there and her eyes look even slightly dark I don't know any of you. Got it?'

Dawn mimicked the dark Slayer, silently nodding her agreement. "Thanks Anya…"

"Don't." the Vengeance Demon held a hand up firmly to stop the teenager. "I'm not doing this for you. So don't thank me." Anya's eyes grew distant as she prepared herself to orb.

""Then who are you…" the teenager asked too late. In a flash of silver light the vengeance demon was gone. "…doing it for?" she finished in a whisper.

"Oh. Hey! Pajama Guy at three o'clock," Willow used her free hand to point excitedly at a pajama-clad student walking toward them in a crowd of friends, her other hand swinging confidently in the blonde's warm grasp. "So, do you think he planned the whole pajama thing? Or was it accidental? You know, he woke up one day and didn't have time to dress for class, but he looked down and was all like, ''hey, look at those! They're clothes-like' so he just kinda went with it…" she trailed off when a glance at Tara revealed a highly amused grin.

She's laughing at me, she thought with pleasure. I caused a Tara smile. A Tara grin even. Like the old Willow…

"What?" The redhead quizzed, pulling them to a stop in the middle of the Quad under the soft golden glow of a path light. The blonde hid behind her hair and Willow felt the universe shift, memories of this different Tara sliding in layers over that Tara who was gone.

"Nothing. It's just," blue eyes looked up through heavy lids to meet the redhead's green. "It's been a wh-while since, uh, Willowbabble." And she looked down again.

"Well, I kinda had better things to do with my mouth," the redhead said and was rewarded with an enormous blushing smile. She felt a soft hand on her cheek and the blonde began to lean in, but then stopped abruptly when the sound of approaching students reached them. Blue eyes glanced from the raucous laughter of the students back to Willow, doubt clouding perfect pale features.

She thinks I'm embarrassed. And I would have been. Then. But now…

In one sure motion, she pulled Tara into a fierce kiss that the blonde quickly deepened, her hand finding the back of Willow's head pulling her in. The sound of muffled laughter continued around them as the crowd passed, a girl's confident voice finally sounded beside them.

"You go girls!"

Willow pulled back laughing, returning the anonymous girl's wide smile for a moment. Turning back to Tara she found an astonished smile as the blonde studied her. Then it faded slightly, blue eyes travelling to the space around Willow, to the air between them.

She's reading me. She knows. She sees it now.

Her own smile fading, Willow reached out to touch Tara's face afraid that this was the moment The moment she would lose her again. She felt the slight pull again at the edge of everything. There had always been magic with Tara, but this was different. it wasn't residual effects of the spell. It was the spell. It was magic, hard and cold and tearing at her with its deadly fingers.

I can't…

She reached down into herself and said the words that would center everything. Would protect herself and Tara from the world. A bubble of them.

"Willow?" the blonde said her name gently and she felt warm hands caress her face. Felt the slow perfect spell of her name on Tara's lips that quirked slowly into a smile. "How did you know about ''Miss I'm-so cool-in-my-leather-jacket'?"

Tara sees it all. She always did.

It started as a smile on Willow's face, sheer delight in the power and insight of her lover. But it quickly faded. How could she tell her?

"Tara…I…" she faltered and looked at the ground. It was too much. This Tara didn't know the deceitful Willow and she didn't want to introduce her to that person. Ever. It should all be brand new. But how to tell her? She looked back to Tara for an answer.

Blue eyes held her steady and she felt the magic and the doubt recede. "You know you c-c-can tell me… anything."

Tears sprang to Willow's eyes, but she didn't cry. She would not allow anything to ruin this stolen time with Tara. Not grief. Not magic. Nothing.

"I know. And I will." She choked back a sob and brought her lips to the blonde's to feel the fact of her warm breath on her. "Tell you. Everything I can." Tara sighed against her. "Okay?"

And she was pulled into a fierce kiss that made words unnecessary. This was their language. The only one they had ever really needed. If she had only listened…


Buffy stood blinking in the front hallway, the door wide open behind her. It had taken her ten minutes to find the courage to cross that threshold. During her wild run over, she had imagined kicking the door down, breaking the windows to get in, but when faced with the familiar car in the driveway, the yellow kitchen light and blue flicker of her mother's nightly news ritual she found herself immobilized. Unsure for the first time in months.

"Mommy?" she repeated, expecting it to explode in an ear-splitting scream, but it came out as a soft question. Almost a whisper.

Her eyes wandered over the familiar photos and paintings that lined the hallways. Smiling photographs of her mother and herself. Aunts and uncles. No photos of her future family -- Tara and Willow. And no Dawn. Which was strangely unnerving. It was obvious suddenly that her sister had been inserted not only into their memories, but into the photographic evidence of their lives. Of course, she knew that there was no Dawn in this present, but she couldn't seem to bring her mind to accept that fact, because Dawn had always been her sister. Always would be. And she had died to give her a chance to find her future…

"Buffy?" And there she was suddenly. Living, breathing. Mom. A smile of delighted surprise crossing her features as she stood staring at her daughter from the living room.

And for once there were no second thoughts, no doubts, she was just suddenly in her mother's arms again, inhaling the warm, comfortable, unmistakable scent of safety. Of Home.

"Mom!" she cried and laughed into a silk-covered shoulder and felt her mother's arms slip around her. She knew she was holding on too tightly, that her Slayer strength could hurt her all-too human mother, but she couldn't help herself. Hanging on for dear life. And that was something else familiar. That no matter how hard she held her mother, it was never too much. Mom magic, she decided choking on another sob. She felt those wonderfully strong arms pull back gently and brush the hair and tears from her face.

"Buffy. What happened? Are you okay?" Her mother's eyes studied her intently, looking for signs of injury and Buffy laughed through another sob. "Did something happen?"

"Yeah. No. I mean I just… I missed you," she sniffed and felt an enormous smile break over her face. It was such an unfamiliar feeling after months of sadness and depression. A smile. So strange that something so simple had become so elusive. And dangerous.

But the lines of her mother's face, that crooked smile full of concern. The tiny lines around her eyes. Those were familiar. And so fragile.

"Are you sure you're okay?" her mother's gaze deepened as if she was looking straight through her daughter.

"Yeah…just had a rough day…or two. Maybe even three."

"Well, I'm just making dinner," she put an arm around Buffy's slim shoulders and guided her through the house toward the kitchen. "Care to join a lonely old lady for some macaroni and cheese?"

"I think that can be arranged," she joked and leaned in to let the impossible strength of her mother carry her through the familiar rooms of the past.

Anya materialized in the hallway just outside the guestroom and stood shaking her head. The place reeked of Willow and magic. Deep magic. Would these people ever wake up and get a clue? She had seen it from the moment she'd first laid eyes on the deceptively unassuming redhead. The power. The potential. But everyone else seemed blind to it. Even the Slayer. As if a spell had been cast to hide the terrifying power of the girl. Even from herself.

But there was something else at work here. Definitely. She could smell it. Her nose wrinkling at the stench of it, acrid and sickeningly sweet. Demon magic. Almost. Maybe some kind of demon-human hybrid? And whatever it was it was interfering with reality on a temporal level, which meant that D'Hoffryn was certainly aware of the situation. If he wasn't directly involved in some way.

She stepped over the threshold and gasped at the roaring grief and agony of it. And the magic, strong and still actively coursing through the room in thick streams. Through everything.

Shifting from her human senses to Vengeance Demon she looked up to see it all in one nauseating rush. The bullet. The blood. Willow and Tara and Osiris. But there was more laid over and under the now of this room, a brighter thread just forming, twisting its way around the past that held to this room. Entangling realities in a nightmarish knot of passion and grief. Willow and Tara naked against each other in a dorm. But it wasn't the Willow of then. It was this Willow making new time with her own hands. And Buffy separating the past and the present as she ran toward her mother.

And it was all happening now. Here. But it wasn't. Which was confusing because she was a Vengeance Demon. This was what she did. Reality was her medium and her gift. She should be able to read it and write it easily.

But this was just a mess. Amateurish and rough. And somehow no matter how hard she stretched, it seemed to remain just outside her grasp.

With an exasperated grimace Anya forced her senses back to the room. Back to the human to try to understand why her powers were suddenly failing. There had to be something else...

The walls were scorched and scored like the Magic Box and she felt her face furrowing into what Xander had always described as her ''frowny face'. The room was a disaster of glass and ash. Her eyes travelled over the debris finally landing on an object that stilled everything. Made the world and every reality stand still.

"Occum's Heart," she mumbled and closed her eyes. "Willow, what have you done now?"



Buffy groaned at the wonderful pain in her stomach. She hadn't felt this full and content in years. After dinner they had decided to make cookies and watch a movie and now, ten cookies and two glasses of milk later, she was cursing her total lack of willpower when it came to her mother's baking.

"Owww," she moaned out loud and felt her mother chuckle behind her as she ran a cool hand through Buffy's hair. "I think you did this on purpose." Her eyes closed under her mother's comforting touch.


"This," she pointed weakly at the remaining cookies on the plate. "You've clearly been replaced by some evil Mom monster who's trying to trap me here with yummy baked goods," she snuggled into her mother's side, "and dangerously comfy PJs."

"I see my evil plan is working."

Buffy laughed at the playful tone of her mother's voice. "Totally. I don't think I'll be able to move for at least a week."

Strong arms wrapped around her and she closed her eyes letting herself sink completely into the comfort of her mother. The world smelled like cinnamon and cookies and Mom and she was sure there had never been a moment in her life as beautiful as this one. It was safe and warm and even the Slayer in her seemed content. Or at least, seemed to be napping.

Meg Ryan's voice finally filtered down through her senses and she opened her eyes to take in the strange sight of the blonde actress in black leather riding a motorcycle.

"See! Meg Ryan is hot…kind of….don't you think? I mean, she's cool with the hair and the…well, I don't know what she's doing in leather, but… cool … right?"

"Well I happen to think Meg Ryan is very cool, but I'm not exactly an expert."

Happy with her mother's answer, Buffy closed her eyes again and pulled a blanket over the two of them. "Yes you are a certified expert because you are the coolest mom ever."

She felt the low rumble of her mother's laughter against her back and smiled. "Thank you honey," her mother sighed and stiffened slightly. "But I am still a mom and so it's my job to be uncool and ask you why you were crying earlier." She felt a light kiss on the top of her head and began to relax. This wasn't an inquisition, this was her mother, holding her safe, trying to help.

But that brought her back to what wasn't in the upstairs room. The device. And everything that meant. This wasn't right. She wasn't in the right time and her mother was dead there. Dead and gone. Willow's warning about changing things suddenly echoed through her mind making her forehead tighten with worry. She turned gently to face her mother, to make sure that she was still there. And alive.

And she was. Buffy hit 'pause' on the remote and took a deep breath.

"Mom? What if you…I mean, if you could go back in time and change something…anything. What would you change? Or would you?"

Her mother was quiet for a while as she studied the familiar pattern of the blanket, her brow furrowing in concentration. "Hmmm. You mean, do I regret anything?"

Regret. There was that word again. The theme of her life in the real now.


A soft laugh shook her from her thoughts. "Well, I definitely wouldn't have been so hard on you about the slaying," she brushed blonde hair away from her daughter's face with a sad smile. "I'm still sorry about that, you know."

"Really?" Buffy's lips quirked into a surprised smile. "No apologies necessary." She took her mother's hands in her own and squeezed. "You were just doing your Mom duty, trying to protect me."

Her mother sighed and shook her head, "But I made it so much harder for you when you needed me the most."

"Mom, really, it's alright. No childhood trauma here okay?" Buffy squeezed the hands she held in her own and watched as her mother blinked slowly in her signature gesture of acceptance. "But that's it? You wouldn't change anything?"

Deep lines formed between Joyce's eyebrows as she considered her daughter's question. "Well, I probably would have had another baby." She smiled suddenly removing a hand from Buffy's to push back an errant lock of hair. "You know, you always did want a sister. A nice, normal sister to drive you crazy and steal your clothes."

A sister. Dawn. She felt the tears threatening. Her mother had never told her. And she would have another baby. Soon. A teenage baby. But not a normal one. Her mother was doomed to having extraordinary daughters whose lives were foretold in ancient manuscripts, written in the stars.

She stared into her mother's smiling eyes and realized that no matter how extraordinary Dawn's origins were, she was just a teenage girl who had lost her mother. And she was her sister. A sister who was stuck in the future without this. Without cookies, and home and another chance to see her mother. One more thing Buffy couldn't share with her.

The tears surprised her, rolling down her face before she could stop them.

"Oh, honey, it's okay." She wiped the tears from her daughter's face. "You'll always be enough for me," hugging the crying Slayer to her, she murmured low. "And you'll always be my baby."

After a few minutes, Buffy's sobs subsided, but she didn't withdraw from her mother's arms.

"Buffy. You don't have to tell me what's upset you. I just…" she felt her mother draw a deep breath. "I don't think you have to go back in time to make things right."

She pulled back slowly, wiping tears from her face. Could she tell her mother? "But what if… what if they're gone and you can't…?"

A sad smile crept across her mother's face. "Is this about..." she began, but trailed off a frown forming on her face. "Buffy, I don't believe anyone's ever really gone. But maybe you shouldn't concentrate on the past, on what you think you've done wrong. Maybe you should think about what you can do to make things right…now."

Buffy nodded absently, studying the beautiful lines of her mother's face. She was right. She was always right in the way mother's are.

But what was now? And when?

Dawn swept shards of broken glass and a few chicken feet into the dustpan and coughed through a cloud of black dust. They had been cleaning for over four hours, but it hadn't made a dent in the mess of the store. At least it was easier than sitting around waiting and wondering about Anya. Where she was. What she was doing. It wasn't that she didn't trust Anya really it was more that she didn't trust the Vengeance Demon. And there was always the possibility that someone had made a wish. Over the past hour she had meticulously gone back through all of her interactions to make sure she hadn't unwittingly verbalized the hope that had kept her company during the many nights she spent alone in the empty house. Tara. But it would be so easy…


A warm smile played over Dawn's face as she leaned against her broom to watch Faith struggle with an enormous display case that was listing dangerously to one side. The Slayer fought to hold the case with one hand while bracing it with a scrap of two by four. Finally, when the structure was relatively stable she stepped back to survey her handiwork. Dawn began to clap and whistle. Faith took a deep bow before throwing a clump of some unidentifiable herb in the teenager's direction making her squeal in mock horror. In retaliation she showered the Slayer with chicken feet.

"Okay, that is just… foul!" Faith shuddered and carefully, almost daintily, removed one blackened claw from her shirt with two fingers. "And I'm thinking if I look anything like you I definitely need a shower." The Slayer wiped at something on her cheek creating an enormous black smudge on her already dirty face.

"Yeah, it's so important to look your best for a demon."

"A very hot demon," the Slayer teased raising her eyebrows.

Dawn shook her head again in disgust. Faith attracted to Anya was just so wrong. "Didn't you get enough of the bad girl action in the big house?"

"The big house?" Faith asked, her eyes widening in disbelief. "Okay, Half Pint…"

"Don't Half Pint me!" She snapped. "I'm not a kid. I know what goes on in...those places." Dawn threw her head back angrily. She was so tired of being treated like a child by everyone. And she had always counted on Faith to treat her as an equal. Until now. "I know you were the alpha chick or whatever 'cause of the Slayer strength… a-and you had a harem of hot chicks who were your bitch-…"

She was interrupted by a stunned Faith, her palm extended toward the teenager in the universal 'shutup now' gesture.

"Okay, first of all D, you've been watching way too much TV 'cause, believe me, there are no hot chicks in the slam." She lowered her hand and smiled wickedly. "Well, okay, maybe one or two," the dark Slayer shook her head, her playful smile fading.

"The slam," Dawn repeated to herself. "That's so cool. But you were definitely the top chick with all the bitches or whatever right?" Dawn continued, hands on hips in her best Faith impersonation. She expected a quick comeback or put-down, but the dark Slayer just studied her carefully for almost a minute.

"Yeah, I was the alpha chick for a while," she began carefully, her eyebrows drawing together into a hardened frown. "And then I wasn't." Faith turned and began to pick up larger pieces of charred wood, throwing them into the refuse pile in the center of the room.

"What happened?" Dawn made sure to keep her tone low, careful not to break rhythm of the conversation. As far as she knew Faith had never opened up to anyone. About anything. No one knew anything about the dark Slayer.

"I don't know, lots of things," she said quietly as she hurled an enormous piece of drywall onto the pile. "I guess I got sick of beating the crap out of everybody," she continued and began yanking at an enormous beam jutting out of the wall. "I know, hard to believe, huh?" Dawn held her breath. She could feel it. She was so close to something important. She watched as Faith struggled with the beam and then stopped abruptly. "And then… you know… Angel told me about your sister… that she'd been killed or whatever." Dawn watched the Slayer carefully. Watched her wince at the painful memory and then shrug it off before returning her attention to the wall.

And it was over. The moment was gone, but Dawn had what she needed. Or the beginnings of it. A piece of Faith, the real Faith. And Buffy. Because she had known it from the beginning that Faith and Buffy were two pieces made to fit together, but time and experience had worn and broken the edges. Reshaping them both until the seams were obvious, the gaps too large to overcome.

Be careful. Because Faith is like a wild animal. Like those squirrels you're always trying to feed in the park. Any sudden movement and she'll bolt.

Okay, probably more like a feral cat than a squirrel...

"So, is that why you're out? Good behavior or whatever?"

With a loud groan, the Slayer freed the gigantic beam from the wall and dragged it to the pile. "Don't you people watch the news?" When she didn't get an answer, Faith turned to Dawn, her trademark smirk replacing the thoughtful smile of the previous moments. "Juvenile offender." She rolled her eyes. "Once you turn eighteen they have to let you go and your record's all squeaky clean."


"Yep," Faith just nodded and turned back to the wall to busy herself with cleaning up. "So if you're gonna murder anybody, do it now."

"Well, the only person I'd murder is Spike and he's already dead so…"

"Ew! What are you two doing? You're making a mess in my store!" Dawn jumped at the sound of Anya's voice and then moved quickly into irritation.

"For your information we were cleaning your store, but don't thank us or anything," the teenager shot back testily.

Anya's nose crinkled in disgust as she surveyed the blackened forms of the two women.

"Well stop because nothing's getting cleaner and you're now both just in desperate need of a shower."

Dawn dropped the broom handle placing her hands on her hips to begin an angry retort, but she was interrupted by Faith's low voice.

"Is that an offer to help," Faith wiped her palms slowly on her shirt and eyed the vengeance demon. "With the shower? Because I definitely need help with all those hard-to-reach places."

"Please." Anya rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. "I don't date Slayers. You're all too butch."

"Who said anything about dating?" Faith shifted her weight from one hip to the other and Dawn watched in horror as Anya raised an eyebrow openly appraising the Slayer. As if she was actually considering it. The shower. And that brought up all sorts of disturbing thoughts about Faith and hot water and…Anya. Yuck.

"Hello! Impressionable teenager in the room!"

"She started it," Anya pointed at a completely non-plussed Faith. "And you can't have it both ways. One minute you want to be treated like an adult, the next you're all 'oh please, don't harm my innocent ears with your lesbian flirting and vague oral sex references…'"

"Oh my God! Stop! Please!" Dawn brought her hands to her ears. Sometimes the vengeance demon was like an unstoppable avalanche of words. Disturbing, inappropriate words that tumbled into the room without warning. Like an x-rated version of Willow babble. And that brought the teenager back to the reason they were here. Willow and Buffy. "Anya. Focus. Please." She sucked in an enormous breath. "What did you find out about Buffy and Willow?"

Anya again rolled her eyes and shifted effortlessly from innuendo to serious discussion. "Well, it's not good, but you already knew that."

Dawn glanced worriedly at Faith who held her eyes and blinked slowly once to let her know that it was going to be okay.

"Well where are they and what is that silver thing and why does it seem like Tara's in the room and…?"

Dawn felt something squeeze her hand and looked down to find the Slayer's blackened hand in her own. She hadn't even noticed that Faith had made her way to her side.

"It's complicated." Anya sighed and stared at the hole in the ceiling. "The silver thing is called Occum's Heart and it's," her brow furrowed in frustration. "It's kind of a time machine. But not. Which would be complicated enough on its own, but Willow's involved so it's like a thousand times …"

"So how do we de-activate it?" Faith interrupted.

"We don't. I mean we can't. It's a spell. Someone cast it and the Heart just acts like a power cell kind of."

"Okay, well what's the spell? And who is this Occum person?" the teenager quizzed and felt Faith squeeze her hand before releasing to cross her arms.

The vengeance demon took a deep breath as if preparing herself for a long monologue. "Occum's not a person. He or she was some kind of super witch who was probably demon,"

"He or she?"

Anya resumed her explanation with increasing irritation. "It's a legend. No one's really seen this thing, it's sort of like the demon Holy Grail. And 'he or she' because no one knows and demons sometimes have multiple genders so…oh! and it could be an 'it' because Ishn'al demons have like five different sexes…"

Dawn sighed and felt her jaw clench in frustration. "And what does it do?"

"Well, instead of doing it with just a penis or a vag-"

"No!" the teenager yelled in frustration and embarrassment. "The silver thing…Occum's Heart!"

"Oh, that." The vengeance demon continued obviously disappointed that her explanation of demon sexuality was cut short. "Well, Occum supposedly made it after his or her lover was killed as a kind of second chance. A way to go back in time and do it over. Get her back." Her forehead was lined in concentration. "But it's really way more complicated than that and if you weren't rushing me and interrupting every two sec…."

"So Willow used this guy's heart to go back in time and save Tara or something?"

"See, like that. Interrupting is just rude," Anya pouted and crossed her arms again tightly around herself. "And I'm already late for a meeting in Bangkok."

Dawn was absolutely furious, the rage welling up in her in a terrible wave. She wanted to beat Anya senseless. Making them wait for hours only to rush off to some meeting somewhere without really telling them anything. And that was the other infuriating thing. She wasn't really telling them anything that could help Buffy. She took a step toward Anya ready to scream at her when she felt Faith's hand on her arm.

"Look, we're really sorry…it's just B and Red and the whole apocalypse thing has us a little edgy you know?" Dawn was stunned into silence. Why was Faith being all nice? Shouldn't she beating the demon senseless by now? "And thanks for, you know, helping us out."

Anya's expression softened a bit and a slight smile formed on her lips. "No 'thanks' remember? Not doing this for you." Her forehead furrowed again and she took a deep breath. "And anyway, I don't think it was Willow. I think Willow tried to stop it. With magic."

"But why…"

"It's only for one person. Not two. So I'm thinking Buffy must have somehow activated it and Willow went all black magic trying to…"

"But Buffy would never…I mean, what would she want to change?"

Anya threw her hands up in the air and shrugged before moving to gather a few items from behind the counter. "That's not really important is it?"

She felt as much as heard Faith slam a fist against her own thigh.

"So we're just supposed to sit around and wait for them to come back?" Faith's voice came out as more of a growl.

"I told you it's not that simple. Willow's magic interfered with the spell so all bets are off. And Vra'al's definitely going to want his heart back and rumor has it that for some reason he thinks you have it and the Key which is some kind of big bonus," she gestured toward Dawn. "So if I was you…"

"What?" Faith barked beside her. "Who the fuck is Vra'al?"

"Major underworld player. Ten feet tall supposedly, but, you know, demons are like human men," she rolled her eyes in disgust. "Always exaggerating."

"But I thought…" Dawn began, stumbling in confusion. "I mean, it's Occum's Heart right?"

"Well, yeah!" Anya shook her head at Dawn's ignorance. "It was once he took it from Vra'al."

She felt Faith's tension build beside her. "But this Vra'al guy doesn't have a heart so how is he gonna…"

"Oh, he has four other ones. That was just his favorite. And minions. Did I mention minions?" Anya waved at them, distracted. "Sorry, but I'm late…."

"Anya! You can't just leave us like this," Dawn yelled in desperation. Things were moving too fast. And once again, someone she needed, someone she depended on was leaving. "Can't you do something? You deal with this reality time stuff all the time."

That seemed make the vengeance demon pause for the moment at least. Inhaling sharply she said, "I can't. For about thirteen different reasons. And don't ask me to explain because you can't understand…"

"You mean I'm too stupid," Dawn muttered angrily crossing her arms in front of her.

"No I mean you really can't." Anya answered without a hint of her usual condescension. "Human brains just aren't built to think that way." She sighed again angrily and continued. "But the main reason is that D'Hoffryn forbids it. No one is allowed to interfere with Willow Rosenburg in any way. Period."

"What? Why?"

Anya shook her head sadly. "How should I know? I just work there." Anya grimaced and looked in her bag. "And I really have to go, like, now or I'm gonna get fired. And that word has a whole other meaning when you work for a demon." Dawn watched a sad smile take hold of the vengeance demon's face.

"Are you coming back?" she asked weakly.

Anya looked genuinely surprised. "Do you want me to?"

And that just made her angry for some reason. How stupid were these people? She may not be able to understand multi-dimensional time reality stuff, but she could see that they should be together at a time like this. "Yes! Jeez!" Dawn exploded shaking her head in exasperation.

And then the absolutely impossible happened. Anya hugged her and gave them both a shy wave before simply vanishing.

"Great. Now what?" Dawm looked around the ruined interior of the store and thought of her sister and Willow stranded somewhere in the past. And there was nothing they could do to help them.

"Well, I guess it's time for me to find some weapons and slay this four-hearted Vra'al guy."

"Oh yeah," she answered with a smile because if nothing else she still had Faith. And when facing a demon and his minions that was a lot.


Part IX

It felt like it had taken hours to navigate the Quad and the dorm hallways to reach Tara's room. A long journey of fumbling kisses and stares full of longing that had finally brought them here. Where they belonged. Where it had all started. Willow smiled and felt a contented sigh escape her as she took in the familiar dorm room. The dark walls and tiny lights, the wonderful smells of tea and jasmine and Tara. She closed her eyes and let it transport her to another time. Before. When everything between them was awkward and true. Their first clumsy kiss and 'I-love-you's that weren't anymore. She had rewritten that. They had rewritten it together. The kiss. But still no 'I love you'. She would have to correct that…

All thought left her mind as Tara's mouth descended on her own in a clumsy but demanding kiss. Willow smiled into the difference of it. The newness of this mouth that should have been so familiar.

"S-sorry," Tara pulled back abruptly, her head beginning to duck with insecurity. "Is that o-okay if I… ?"

Willow pulled her in to silence that perfect mouth with hot kisses and was surprised to find herself pushed forcefully against the door, Tara's body pressed against her, her hands moving under the redhead's t-shirt, hiking up her skirt.

"Oh my God!" Willow finally managed, gasping for air as Tara's mouth moved to her neck and finally to her stomach.

And they were definitely going to have to move to the bed or she was going to fall over and injure them both. But one quick glance told her the bed was covered in books. Lots of them. Heavy, leather-bound tomes that the redhead knew instinctively were magic-related.

That's going to take way too long to move, she thought absently as the heat of Tara's mouth made its slow progress over her stomach. Her knees were growing weak as the blonde pulled her skirt up around her waist.

And she was struck again by the differences between her memories of this time and the exquisite heat of now. This Tara was unrestrained and…she gasped as she felt the warmth of the blonde's mouth descend again…

And where the hell did she learn to do… she gasped again. That?!? We didn't do that until…

She slid down the door as the wet heat of Tara's mouth moved against the fabric between her legs. And then caught herself. Risking another glance at the bed she had just decided to move to the floor when something caught her eye. Something familiar and completely unexpected. A woodcut of the device that had started everything. She froze immediately. It was a déjà vu, but more than that because she knew that somehow this had all happened before, like a memory just out of reach, a word unspoken on the tip of her tongue. A memory of this room. This Tara.

The Tara from this time who believed that the redhead was the same shy hacker geek and sidekick to the Slayer. The Willow who belonged here in this now. That girl who was not a liar. Not a murderer or a power-addicted witch. Yet. She felt the guilt and shame crushing down on her in terrible waves. She was lying to Tara again and it had to stop.

How many times can I fail you…

Now. She had to tell her now even if it ruined everything. Even though it would take every ounce of her strength because the heat between her legs was undeniable…

"Tara," she gently pulled the blonde's face up to meet her own. "I need to tell you …" she smiled, gasping for air, "we need to talk….about earlier." Willow leaned in to place a gentle kiss on the blonde's lips, but was surprised to feel her pull away.

"Oh! S-sorry….I know…I mean, I know it was j-just…" Willow watched as the blonde backed away, her shoulders hunching in shame as her eyes again found the floor.

You idiot! Be careful what you say here. You went from shy, geeky hetero friend to lesbian sex fiend in a matter of hours and she has no idea…

"No, no, no! No!" She took the blonde's hands in her own and bent to find blue eyes. "That's not the kind of talk I mean."

The blonde backed away again and looked at the floor, her hair hiding her eyes again. "It's okay…Willow I mean, I kn-know there's…Oz,"

"No! No Oz." Willow shook her head emphatically. "This is so not about him." She took a deep breath as her eyes wandered over the room's contents landing finally on the open texts. That talk would have to wait. There was something more important that needed to be said. Corrected. Because she had said it before…then. In that other past the 'I love you's had come first before even a kiss and she knew that Tara needed to hear it desperately. So she brought her hands up to cup the blonde's face, gently bringing her face up to her own. "Okay, I thought there was only one talk that needed to happen, but apparently there are two because I've been so busy with…um, other things that I…so…" the redhead couldn't help but smile at her own nervous rambling. Like I'm channeling Old Willow. "So this officially begins the talk where I tell you that I'm absolutely, totally in love with you Tara Maclay."

Blue eyes finally met her own, brimming with tears and Willow released a breath she didn't realize she had been holding. "Really?" The blonde's hesitant question brought an enormous smile to the redhead's lips. All of this doubt and uncertainty that Tara had somehow managed to overcome. She found herself wondering exactly when that transition had happened. Was it after they turned her father away or had it been a subtle change over weeks and months. A slow, comfortable slide into the confident woman Tara would become. And she loved them both — the shy, sweet girl of the past who stood before her and the strong, take-charge woman she had lost. She would always love them both.

"Really." She whispered against Tara's lips. "Love you. Always have. Always will." She kissed her lightly and pulled back to study the changing lines of Tara's face as she finally allowed herself to believe. "And want you too," she kissed her again feeling the blonde's lips turn up in a smile against her own. "Gods, like every second," another lingering kiss. "So don't ever…" Tara sighed against her lips, "worry…'cause Tara kisses… always good."

Willow felt the cement set of her shoulders soften as Tara deepened the kiss, her cool fingers exploring her neck, smoothing away the tension. Her lips pulled away gently and Willow forced her eyes open to find a shy smile on the blonde's face.

"I love you so much Willow," blue eyes moved over her face, the blonde's smile fading slightly as her eyes became unfocused. Willow took a deep breath to steady herself knowing Tara was reading her again. She felt it this time. Felt the blonde's energy like a warm breeze blowing around her. Through her.

"What do you see Tara?"

The blond witch jumped slightly, startled out of her thoughts. "N-nothing."

Willow took her hands in her own and squeezed them slightly. "It's okay. You can tell me," she began gently and waved at the air around her. "This…is kind of the other thing I wanted to talk to you about."

"Oh…I…" the blonde began and faltered, a deep line forming between her eyebrows as she studied the space around them. There was a long silence and she willed herself to stay silent. To give Tara the room she needed to say what had to be said. "It's just…your aura…" the blonde trailed off and looked left before smiling slightly. "Y-your aura was the first thing I noticed about you. So beautiful." Tara's smile brightened as she reached out to touch red hair tentatively. "Like a halo of sunshine, with these veins of white and g-green running through it," Tara's face scrunched in concentration as she struggled to articulate the indescribable. "Kind of like this explosion of liquid, fiery marble." Blue eyes returned to meet her own for a moment and the smile faded.

"But?" Willow prodded gently.

"Did something h-happen to you?"

Willow just nodded and waited. That was so like Tara. She had obviously seen something terrible in her aura. Something dark, but her only concern was for Willow. She steeled herself for what was coming. Was this the moment then when it ended? When the spell was broken?

"B-because…" the blonde touched her face gently, "now there are v-veins of…darkness," she frowned in concentration, "every-w-where…and…" she trailed off, her mouth snapping shut as if she was afraid to say more.

"I know." She placed her hand over Tara's where the fingers rested lightly on her cheek. "But you don't have to worry, I'd never hurt you."

Tara's face twisted with confusion as she looked deeply into green eyes and cupped the redhead's face in both hands. "I'm not worried for me Willow. I'm worried for you."

She felt the tightening in her throat, the burning in her eyes as the tears began to cloud her vision. But the grief would have to wait. There was too much that needed to be said before it was all taken away. Because it would be eventually. It always was.

She looked deep into blue and began. "Tar-" but her voice broke again around that word. Inhaling deeply, she averted her eyes and found them returning to the open text on the bed. The device. She turned and pulled Tara with her to stand over the illustration. "How…I mean, why are you researching this?"

Tara looked at the open book before turning again to search her eyes and Willow could see the confusion there. The concern. But there was something else overpowering everything. The blonde would wait for her to find her way to the explanation because she trusted her. With everything. Willow fought back another sob and pushed herself back to the present.

"I don't know. I was re…s-searching something and it just seemed so familiar and s-sad," she rolled her eyes, an embarrassed smile twisting across her features. "I know it's s-silly…"

"No it's not 'cause that's why I'm here," she felt her forehead furrowing at the implications of this 'coincidence'. Tara's hunches were never to be taken lightly and there was her own overwhelming sense of déjà vu. "I mean, literally, that's why I'm here, but I don't know much about it." She squinted at the small text under the woodcut, but could only make out the words 'Occum's Heart -- mythical demon device.'

Guess it's not so mythical she thought with a rueful smile. She scanned the other books strewn across the comforter and found that they were all familiar texts on demons.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I'm not this Willow…" she trailed off as the blonde's face twisted with confusion and concern. Be careful. Be careful what you say. You could lose her again so easily… "I know it sounds insane or like a really bad movie, but Buffy and I are here from the future." Willow looked down at the illustration and continued, "it was this…device. There were two words on the back." She shrugged. "Buffy said them by mistake and now we're stuck here. I'm sorry I should have told you before…" she trailed off, squeezing Tara's hand sure that it was the last time she would be able to touch the blonde. She had betrayed her. Made love to her under false pretenses. She wasn't this Willow.

"So you're both back in time in your old bodies?" Which wasn't what she was expecting at all so she nodded quietly and waited. "Where's the H-heart?"

Willow smiled as she studied the blonde's look of deep concentration. "I'm thinking it's probably still in the future, that it just triggered the spell. But I have no idea what the spell does…except for the obvious."

"So that's why all the d-darkness then," the blonde's brow was still furrowed in concentration. "because it's a demon spell."

And it would have been so easy to agree. To lie. But she wasn't going to be that girl again. "No," her eyes dropped immediately to the floor in shame and she felt her fingers grow colder in Tara's hot grip. "Tara, I can't tell you everything, but…" she swallowed past a lump in her throat and took a deep breath to steady herself. "Terrible things happened…are going to happen," the blonde nodded her understanding and she forced herself to go on. "And I do terrible things. Really awful things Tara," a tear slipped down her cheek. "Evil, unforgivable things,' she finished quietly.

There was another long silence as the two of them stood holding hands.

"W-was it me?" Her head immediately snapped up to face the blonde. "I mean, because if I hurt anyone…" she was nearly hysterical, desperate as her eyes roamed over the redhead's face. "you need to tell me so I w-won't…."

Willow stood staring at her trying to understand the sudden turn. She had been expecting anger and hurt at her painful admission, but this…

She studied the blonde's features, the fear and desperation that were growing with every moment and it all fell into place with a nearly audible click. The texts, the terrible future she had described. This Tara still believed she was a demon, believed that she would inevitably bring pain and suffering to anyone who loved her.

"No! It was all me. Completely me and that's…" she paused momentarily unsure of how much to give away. Would it change things? You've already changed everything! "You're not a demon Tara," she finally said forcefully, holding blue eyes steady with her own. Blue eyes clouded with doubt.

"No Willow, you don't understand I…" Tara began, shaking her head violently.

"You're not," she interrupted softly. "It was all a lie. Your father told you that to control you. To keep you from becoming more powerful than him."

"No, that's not p-possible. I mean, how do you…"

She smoothed golden hair behind one ear and held her face with one shaky hand. "There's a kind of a demon test…' she began and then realized she was going to have to go into detail about Spike and changed direction. "I, uh, can't tell you how I know, but I do know this." She brought another hand up to cup the blonde's face. "Tara, you are the purest soul I've ever met. Believe me, there's no demon in you… anywhere.

"So I'm not?"

Tears clouded her vision as she watched Tara struggle with the weight of it all. The terrible knowledge that the man she trusted and feared most, the man who should have protected her was a liar. Had made her hate herself and fear the future.

"No, baby," she murmured gently stroking Tara's hair, loving the silk of it pouring through her fingers and then pulled her into her arms. "Absolutely no demon in there anywhere. Just beautiful, brilliant, wonderful Tara." The scent of jasmine and sandalwood washed over her as she nuzzled into golden hair and fell into the all of Tara.

And suddenly it was there in the room with them. Magic. Deep and dark and powerful tearing at the fabric of reality with a searing cold.


Not yet.

She reached down into herself again to stop it. The magic. But it was deeper this time and stronger and she thought she felt something familiar in it. Something that seemed to speak her name in that other language that told time in millennia. And then the black.

"So if it's just some big dumb demon looking for his heart what's with all the 'end of the world' stuff?"

Dawn studied the darkened features of the Slayer who walked briskly beside her, an enormous axe and broadsword resting on one shoulder. Faith had grown silent as they walked away from the Magic Box, her eyes rapidly scanning the growing dark.

"I mean, it doesn't sound so apocalyptic to me," she continued hoping for a response, but Faith just shrugged.

"Probably just Cordelia being a Drama Queen as usual," the Slayer finally offered without breaking stride and shifted the weapons from one shoulder to another.

Her memories of Cordelia were dim and vague evoking a strange mixture of terror and awe. And oddly, images of very short skirts. She looked up to find that they were entering the cemetery and stopped.

Faith turned immediately to face her. "What?"

"This is the cemetery."


"And it's dark."

"Yeah, it kind of does that at night," Faith offered glibly and Dawn rolled her eyes. She had definitely walked right into that one.

"Why are we here?"

The Slayer scowled and brought the weapons off her shoulder to rest on the ground in one graceful motion.

"Is this a trick question? 'Cause I thought, you know, you being Buffy's little sis that you would know the drill." Dawn stood speechless. Was it possible that Faith was going to take her with her on Patrol again? "See, me Slayer," Faith pounded a fist against her chest in her best Cave-Slayer imitation and Dawn again rolled her eyes, "they…uh, are vampires." She flipped the broadsword once effortlessly and handed the teenager the hilt before motioning dramatically toward the arched stone gateway. "And we slay."

She said 'we,' Dawn thought with growing excitement and rolled the leather grip of the sword in her hands. But Buffy would kill her. No, Buffy would kill Faith and then never let her leave the house again. That was what had almost happened the last time. Except for the Faith-murdering part. But this Buffy would definitely kill Faith and probably send her to some convent school in the Swiss Alps or something.

But Buffy isn't here…and the world's gonna end anyway so who cares.

"So what's the plan? Am I like your backup? Shouldn't I have a stake?"

Faith shook her head and hefted the axe onto her shoulder again. "Too easy to miss with a stake and that'll just piss them off. Just stay out of the way. But if one of them gets by me, start swinging."

Dawn nodded wildly, too excited by the prospect of actually getting to go on Patrol to admit that she didn't have any idea how to use a sword.

"So I have to cut their heads off…"she began but stopped as the Slayer turned and began walking in long very un-Buffy strides toward the cemetery.

"Forget about that. Hack off an arm or a leg and they'll probably leave you alone long enough for me to dust 'em," she said over her shoulder and Dawn struggled after her. She could hear the smile in Faith's voice, could almost feel her excitement. Buffy acted like she was going off to clean toilets when she went on Patrol, but Faith obviously loved it. Everything about it. And who wouldn't, Dawn thought shaking her head, testing the weight of the sword in her hands. This was so freakin' cool!

They walked purposefully through the labyrinth of dimly lit paths finally stopping at a fresh grave.

"Now what?" Dawn whispered loudly and watched a predatory smile cross the dark Slayer's face as she studied the grave and the cemetery around them.

"Now we wait for the fun to start."

"Fun," Dawn murmured with a smile and stared at the loose dirt covering the grave in front of them. "But shouldn't we be at home, you know, in case this Vra'al guy shows up for his heart or whatever?"

Faith scowled and seemed to consider her question briefly, "Someone's gotta slay and if the VD's right, Red can handle anything," she looked to her left suddenly before continuing obviously distracted. "And I'm thinking I don't want to be around if she does." Faith smiled wistfully, "She never liked me much."

"Oh yeah," Dawn shifted the leather grip in her now-sweaty grip. If Willow really had gone all dark magic-y again, she didn't want to be around her either. Or even on the same continent. "So do you think…" she began but was cut off by a quick signal from Faith, her hand palm-down in the familiar gesture for silence that Buffy used when she was was being bossy Colonel Buffy.

She turned the sword grip in her hands again as Faith stepped between her and the dark woods behind them. "Here kitty kitty." Silence. "Don't make me come get you," she continued in a disturbing parody of an angry parent and Dawn understood with a chill that Faith sensed a vampire out there somewhere.

"No worries Slayer, just came to talk to Little Bit." A familiar figure emerged from the darkness clad in a long black coat with peroxided hair, his hands held palm up in surrender. Dawn felt the sword slip from her grip and fall to the ground with a dull thud as a violent mix of emotions ran through her. Her first impulse was to run to him. He would help them. And he probably knew things. It was a demon thing after all. And he had always protected her. But then she remembered Buffy broken and bruised and the terrible conversation she wasn't supposed to hear.

"Go away Spike," she growled and stepped up to stand even with Faith, surprised at the angry tone of her own voice.

The vampire actually looked surprised. And hurt. He stared for a few moments and then tried again, his voice soft and gentle, "Look, I know I…"

"You tried to rape my sister!" She didn't say it. She would never have said it. It was torn out of her in one violent spasm of grief and anger that hit Spike like a physical blow. He staggered back slightly and his mouth closed around whatever he had come to say.


Faith. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end as she turned to the Dark Slayer and saw the flash of fury in those dark eyes. This was the Faith they all feared. She understood it now. The dark and the power and the terrible wounded thing at the base of it all. And she knew without any doubt that she was looking into the face of death.

Oh god!

"Faith, no…" but it was too late. The Slayer moved like a shadow, faster than Buffy, faster than anything she had ever seen. A rush of motion that swept Spike up effortlessly in a screaming tornado of anger and pinned him against an enormous tree. She saw the stake pull back in a long arc and pause for what seemed like an hour, but must have only been a fraction of a second. "No!" And then the blur and hiss of it as the Slayer brought it home.


Part X

"You're late!" Anya hissed and hustled a confused Slayer toward what seemed to be a white altar. They walked through a well-dressed crowd sitting quietly in neat rows of chairs. "They can't start without you , you know?"

"Who can't?

But there was no answer and she found herself standing next to Willow, her back to the audience, the murmur of impatience and anticipation bubbling around her. She could feel their eyes on her and she couldn't resist turning to make sure they were still seated. And human.

"Do you, Willow Rosenburg, take Tara Maclay and Buffy Summers…"

"I do!" her best friend interjected enthusiastically and Buffy felt a warm hand squeeze her own from far away.

Something's not right, this is…

The redhead fidgeted nervously next to her and she turned see that she was dressed in a pair of jeans and a white peasant blouse. But there was something wrong. Was that paint?

"Willow, your shirt…"

Willow turned to her with a beatific smile, her head tilting slightly in a question and Buffy looked down to find a growing circle of red on the clean white of her own shirt.

"Buffy, where's your ring?"

"I.." she began and then stopped. The device was now resting in the palm of her hand. Silver with stars. And warm.

"Remember sweetie? We don't need them." Looking up from the crimson on her shirt she found a matching stain on Tara's. Mesmerized, she watched the liquid red blossom and grow on the blonde's chest.

A loud scream brought her back to the moment.

"Dawn?" She turned wildly to locate the source of the screams only to discover that they were in a cemetery. And it was dark.

A wedding in a cemetery? Must be Sunnydale…

Everyone was gone and she was left with the screaming that seemed to come from every direction at once. And Tara.

"Do you remember now?"

And Buffy knew what she meant somehow, as if the words had been waiting here for her. "Back before Dawn," she mumbled and Tara smiled that lopsided smile that somehow meant as much as Mom's and nodded. "Where is she?"

Tara looked to her left with a heartbroken grimace and slowly closed her eyes. Buffy followed her line of sight to find Willow in red overalls and a striped shirt lying face down on the grass as she concentrated on floating a slowly turning pencil. She looked so young and vulnerable. Impossible that this girl had faced vampires and demons. That this was the girl she had fought so hard to protect.

"Right where you left her," Tara answered softly. The redhead's sneakered feet kicked in the air as she focused on the levitation with childlike determination and the Slayer felt her throat tighten at this vision of her old friend.

"Hey Buffy, I think I'm getting pretty good at this magic stuff!" And then she saw the eyes. Black with dark magic and felt the nightmare fear run through her body like ice. But this wasn't the demon Willow. There was no anger or malice, just the incongruity of those black eyes set in the elfin, naïve features.

"I'm sorry Tara," she managed to whisper.

"Don't worry, it's not the end of the world," the blonde witch offered with a sad shrug.

Another agonizing scream ripped through the night and Buffy felt a terrible pain in her chest. She brought a hand up to the searing wound and felt warm wet. The blonde witch stayed silent, but gave a sad glance to a crumbling crypt. Buffy cleared the distance in seconds as the screaming grew louder and more panicked. Tearing the rusted metal door from its hinges she rushed in to find herself in the familiar blinding white of a hospital room.

Important-looking machines flashed numbers and beeped regularly. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of antiseptic and bleach. She hated hospitals. They were never about healing and cures. Hospitals were suffering and death and surgeries that didn't work. And 'complications.' Which she had learned was just another word for torture and death. She followed the tubes and cords to a bed and felt the pain in her chest grow bright and hot.

"No." Dawn lay in a white hospital gown, her head bandaged and bruised, a respirator bringing her chest up and down at unnaturally regular intervals. "I'm sorry I'm too late," she whispered.

"You know if someone's underwater you can still talk to them," she felt tears slide down her cheeks at the sound of the soft voice beside her. "They can hear you from miles away." Buffy turned away from the terrible sight of her sister to find Faith standing next to the bed. "It just takes longer to get there."

"I don't dream about you anymore." Buffy said calmly as Faith efficiently spread a clean white sheet over her sister, careful not to cover her face.

"Yeah, right," a soft smirk played across the dark Slayer's features. "You know you really ought to get that looked at." Faith extended her arm to brush two fingers over the bloody material clinging to her chest.

"It's my heart," Buffy said quietly, but found that she couldn't look away from the pale hand hovering just in front of her.

"It was meant for me," Faith's hand turned over slowly to reveal the silvery demon device sitting like liquid mercury in her palm. "So I could fix things."

"I'll fix it," she responded curtly, but couldn't seem to take her eyes off the shining metal. "That's my job."

The image before her eyes began to waver and shrink as if it was receding. "That's the thing B, Slayers aren't made to fix things," Faith's voice grew more distant as the metal began to shimmer and shift as if…"we're the breakers." And she was suddenly out of breath, a strong mail-covered hand holding her down. Holding her underwater

It's those Renaissance Fair guys who work for the fatty. I followed Faith into the sewer and now we're both going to die…and she doesn't even care. She thinks this is fun!

If I can just get that device I can stop everything…

She reached out through the cold, foul water toward the shiny brightness, but her hand met nothing, her eyes and brain fooled by the water, lungs burning for air as she fought. Why wasn't Faith helping her?

Why should she? I wouldn't help her. Now.

She was dying. She knew what it was like to drown because she had done it before and this was it. But she had lived through this particular 'drowning' hadn't she?

"Buffy!" It was Faith's voice that brought her back, her eyes focusing immediately on the clear image of the metal heart. And then it was Willow's voice and Tara and Dawn's, all of them desperate and terrified and far away.

Buffy sat up in bed gasping for air, the sheets knotted and torn in her fists.

It was a dream. Just a dream, she told herself, but knew that it wasn't. It was that kind of dream. A dream that wasn't. And she couldn't seem to suck the air into her lungs fast enough because it was still waiting in the room with her ready to steal her breath.

"Buffy honey?" she jumped at the sound and turned to find her mother beside her. At the sight of the gentle expression of concern she finally let go of all the worry and grief and burst into tears in her mother's arms.

As gentle hands stroked her back, she felt the sobs subside and sniffled.

"Sorry if I woke you up."

"It's okay, I was up anyway," her mother pulled back to study her face. "One of my headaches."

Headaches. Mom.

"You have to go to a doctor!" It came out much louder than she expected and her mother blinked once in confusion before her face softened into a tired smile.

"I've been to a doctor, honey. I'm fine," she tucked a strand of her daughter's hair behind her ear. "Really. It's just…"

"But…no. You need to see another doctor. Ten doctors!" she held her mother's shoulders in her strong grip and fought back the tears. "Tomorrow. Okay? Promise me."

Her mother studied her carefully, her head tilting slightly to the right and then closed her eyes in her signature gesture of acceptance. "Okay honey, but tomorrow's Saturday." That was when she noticed the playful smile. "Getting appointments with ten doctors on the weekend may be a little difficult."

"No. I am the Slayer," Buffy began with mock-sternness and then wiped her nose with a pajama sleeve. "And what I say goes. So, you'll just have to find ten doctors who are all willing to be all doctor-y on Saturday."

Her mother's smile widened Buffy felt all of the tension drain away as she placed a kiss on her forehead. "Are you going to be able to get back to sleep honey? That sounded like quite a nightmare."

"Well, maybe if I could sleep in your bed, they wouldn't be able to find me," she said softly amazed at the child-like tone of her own voice. But her mother's gentle laugh reminded her that it was okay. This was her mother. She could be scared and small here and no one would have to know.

"Well, you are the Slayer, so I guess I don't have much choice."

"No, you don't," she smiled and rose from the nightmare bed to make her way to the room that would always be her mother's. She knew what she had to do now. It was all there. Had always been there waiting for her to find it. She didn't have the entire picture, but she had the pieces and tomorrow she would begin to put them together. Tomorrow. But tonight…

"Mom?" Her mother turned in the darkened hallway at the serious tone of her daughter's voice.


"You know I love you right?" She didn't need Slayer vision to see the smile on her mother's face, she could feel it. Everywhere. Always.

It was the scream that did it. Spike's scream as the stake pierced his chest brought the limited contents of Dawn's stomach up in a convulsion that drove her to her knees.


She waited on all fours staring at the dark blades of grass for the low whisper of the vampire's end, but there was nothing. Just the howling obscenity as Faith threw her head back in frustration and unanswered rage. Which meant that Spike was alive. Or more accurately, was still undead. And she should feel happy, but she didn't. A large part of her wanted the Slayer to stake his undead, wannabe-rapist ass. No more Buffy sleeping with vampire issues. Her sister would be free of him because he would just be gone and it wouldn't even be her fault because she tried to stop it. Right? It would just be Faith and her unstable, kill-anything-that-moves impulses.

"Shit!" And then a long guttural groan of a yell like a wolf denied its prey. "He's a fucking vamp D!" She was right of course. "And I'm a Vampire Slayer. Do you know how many people he's killed?" Dawn just blinked from all fours. "Try, like, a hundred thousand at least."

"I know, but he saved me. Or he tried at least," she managed softly and shifted back to sit on her heels. It sounded so selfish out there with all those others who hadn't lived. Whose lives had been ended by the vampire's two-hundred-year reign of terror. What was one silly Slayer's sister in the face of all those thousands?

"Stake me then," Spike sobbed as he hung limp from the stake in his chest, his feet dangling like a child's beneath him. He didn't look so dangerous now. He looked like the guy who watched cartoons with her. Not the bloodthirsty killer she knew he was. Because he was. There were whole books written on the subject of William the Bloody. Xander had shown them to her. And where was Xander anyway?

"Shut up!" Faith screamed in a rage at the vampire and held a fresh stake in front of his face. "Fucking anger management classes. I should have killed that therapist! Getting me in touch with my feelings!"

"Stake me!" Spike was now yelling and grabbing at Faith's stake. "I can't take it!" he moaned and then clawed at his chest with his free hand, writhing around the stake in his chest. "I can't…please…" Dawn could see the strain on Faith's face as she grew very still, her eyes narrowing as she studied the blonde vampire. And then she stumbled back, the stake falling to her side.

"How d-did you…" she stammered in angry shock and then stopped, bringing the stake back up between them.

There was something happening here, something huge. Dawn could see that now. Whatever it was it was enough to make Spike cry and make Faith just… stop. And that was big and important, but she knew she couldn't ask. She shouldn't break the fragile calm that had suddenly descended on the scene.

Then it broke.

"You think that makes a fucking difference?" Faith demanded, her mouth twisting in hard snarl.

Oh god, oh god. What makes a difference?

Whatever it was it was dangerous enough to frighten Faith. And that couldn't be good.

"No! I didn't. I didn't want this," he shook his head and sobbed, his body hanging limp from the stake. "It's terrible, the things I've done…

"Shut up!" All Dawn could think over and over was shutup Spike. Please shutup. Because she was there again, the Dark Slayer and she wasn't sure she could stop her this time. In one quick motion Faith stood over the vampire, a stake drawn back to impale him. "You think it makes a difference?" she yelled into his face and Dawn saw something truly miraculous and terrifying -- tears in Faith's eyes. "Every murdering, raping, child molesting scumbag on this planet has a soul William! It doesn't mean a fucking thing!"

Dawn watched terrified as the crippled vampire cowered before the Slayer. She could feel the cold wet of the grass soaking through the knees of her jeans, pulling all the warmth from her body. Spike had a soul? Like Angel? Did that mean he was good now? Did that mean Faith wouldn't stake him? But he had still done all those terrible things. He had still hurt her sister. And she was scared by how much she wanted the Dark Slayer to hurt him. To punish him.

And then suddenly she was weightless, dangling from an iron clamp around her neck. Faith and Spike were now below her as she clutched at the thing around her throat. A hand? A very strong hand like metal or stone.

A deep voice growled from someplace to her left, "The Key," and then Faith's voice far away screaming her name.

Willow groaned as she slowly returned to consciousness. She was in someone's arms. Someone who smelled like Tara. And she was humming softly, whoever this someone was.

Her thoughts quickly coalesced around the events that lead to her current situation. The device that Tara had given a name to. Occum's Heart? And Tara. She had somehow gone back in time to Tara. And the magic. She had blacked out. And that meant…

I lost her again.

It was over. She had known it couldn't last. And it hadn't.

"Tara!" Her eyes were wide open in an instant, already filling with tears. She expected to see the terrible room in the Summers' house, but it was Tara staring down into her eyes. And beyond her the familiar room with dark walls and strings of tiny lights. Tara. Staring down at her with an expression between concern and…was that fear?

Without thinking she reached up and threw both arms around Tara's neck and held her tight, mumbling her name over and over into silken hair. She moved to kiss Tara's cheeks and her forehead before finally pulling back to study her beautiful face.

The blonde smiled down at her. "Are you o-okay?" Willow nodded and let her eyes wander over the miraculous sight above her. "I th-thought you w-were…" she began and then stopped to kiss the redhead firmly on the lips. Willow couldn't help but smile into the warm lips on her own, wondering what had brought on such a bold move from the shy blonde.

"You thought I was?" she prompted carefully, still smiling. Still unable to believe that she was here. With Tara.

"The W-Willow from this time. The one who d-doesn't…." she began with a sad smile and rolled her eyes in embarrassment "I m-mean, when the spell's over, you'll probably, uh, go back to being th-this…Willow, right? The Willow who doesn't um, want me?"

Willow watched as Tara's eyes lost their focus. She was reading her again. Seeing the future Willow's energy with all its darkness.

And she's glad I'm still here?

"Tara I never didn't want you. Ever. Believe me I was always with the wanting of you. It just…it gets so," she tapped her head lightly, "…busy up here it takes me longer to really know some things. You know?"

Tara nodded, but still didn't seem convinced.

"In fact, in the real timeline, tonight was our first kiss." Willow tucked a strand of gold behind a perfect ear and watched as Tara's face erupted into a beaming smile.


"Really," she nodded. "But just a kiss. I was way too shy for," she lifted her eyebrows playfully, "…you know, all that."

"All what?" Tara asked and she recognized the flirtatious tone in her voice immediately.

"All this," she murmured and pulled the blonde down into a long deep kiss.

"Oh that." Tara's tone was teasing. Playful. Sexy even. And Willow felt the want hit her with overwhelming force. Then the slight tug of magic calling her back. She said the words that would center her self and felt the tug recede.

"Willow? What just happened?" Tara's voice was small and scared.

"You felt that?" A small nod from the blonde and Willow sat up, furrowing in concentration. "The spell, I think. From the device. I keep feeling it like it's still trying to work on me…" The blonde's eyes, when she met them were unfocused again. Studying her. "What do you see?"

Tara's eyes were still far away. "Um, sometimes it's not so much w-what I…see. Sometimes it's m-more what I f-feel." Willow waited patiently as the blonde's forehead furrowed in concentration. "It was k-kind of like a, um, an earthquake…but magic. And…" she trailed off and looked at her hands.

"And what?" Willow brought a shaky hand to her face, letting her fingers glide over a soft cheek.. Tara's eyes closed and she let out a long breath.

"And, well, at first I thought it was…" she blushed and Willow wondered what could possibly be causing the blonde so much doubt and discomfort. She cupped her cheek and ran her thumb over perfect lips and Tara smiled into her hand to begin again. "I could feel you…like, everywhere and I th-thought it was 'cause, um…" she ducked her head with a shy smile and the redhead felt her own heart race. She knew now.

"Because you're in love with me."

Tara just nodded. "B-but then I saw the dark that w-wasn't you…and it…" she frowned and ducked her head. "It was p-pulling at you…everywhere." And blue eyes found her own staring with trust and absolute love. "Because you're everywhere. I mean…not just m-my everywhere, but really…everywhere."

Willow turned Tara's words over in her mind trying not to get lost in the blue. Because this was important. And it had everything to do with staying here. And hanging on to Tara. But she couldn't reach it. Not yet. She shook her head in frustration and her eyes fell on the books on the bed. "What do you know about it? The Heart?"

"Not much." Tara frowned and reached to pick up one of the tomes. "Just that it's a…um, a d-demon device created by some kind of super witch to get a second chance to be with her lover."

"Oh." Willow swallowed loudly and felt her throat tighten. A second chance. She would have given anything…

"Is that w-why you…I mean, did you want a s-second chance… at something," the blonde asked softly staring into her eyes.

"Um," she began haltingly and then stopped. The tears were right there, waiting to spill out of her. "Buffy activated it…the device," she faltered. "So, um, not mine…the second chance."

They sat in silence for long moments and Willow let her hand fall from the blonde's cheek to her hand. Tara slowly entwined their fingers and Willow felt the familiar surge at the contact.

Tara gasped and then met her eyes. "Then w-why are you here Willow? It's…the H-heart is only meant for one p-person."

"I…" Willow began and then stopped, falling into the blue of Tara's eyes that seemed to go on forever. Everything turning over in her mind in a maelstrom of possibilities and potentialities. But it wasn't physics or magic, it was the sound of her name on Tara's lips that meant more. The way it stopped everything. Like a spell. And that was familiar somehow. Second Chance. Tara. The Heart. Magic and time. And Tara had said she was everywhere….

My energy is everywhere and the Heart controls reality. Bends time. And I tried to stop it with magic.

"I…I think I get it now," she began and took the blonde's other hand in her own. "Or at least some of it." And she felt the familiar, beautiful rush and flight of something she hadn't experienced in months in the real now. Not since that moment in their bedroom.

Hope. The thing with feathers.

"Tara I think I'm controlling the Heart."


Part XI

"… I think I'm controlling the Heart."

Tara frowned and stared down at her hands. Not the reaction Willow was hoping for. Then again, why would she want her tainted energy in this body when she could have the real thing? The old Willow.

Slender fingers began to gently play with her own, circling and stroking her hands as the pale brow furrowed in concentration. As if she was reading her palm, but no. She knew this face. Tara was trying to find a way to tell her something important. Working toward the explanation that would cause Willow the least pain. She felt her heart break at the familiar sight. This miracle that kept recreating itself over and over with every second. Tara alive. And the new thing. Hope.

"S-so you're like., a r-really powerful, um, witch?" the blonde raised her eyes tentatively to meet Willow's. "I mean, in the…uh, the f-future?" There was no smile. And she remembered their first argument before Glory. Tara's fear that Willow was growing too powerful. A fear that had proved to be well-founded. She grimaced at the memory. Not a shining moment in the history of Willow Rosenburg. Had it started this early? Tara's fears about her magic use?

Her forehead tightened as she tried to form her response. Carefully. But she couldn't trust her mouth and brain to cooperate so she resigned herself to a meaningful nod. When she finally found the strength to look up Tara was biting her lip, staring out the window at the night sky with an unreadable expression.

"So, um, that's g-good right? 'Cause that's wh-what you, uh…I mean…that's what you w-wanted." The blonde closed her eyes painfully around the last word and turned back to her.

Willow found that she couldn't meet those deep blue eyes and looked instead to their entwined hands. The long, slender fingers that tapered at the tips. 'Witch fingers' she had read somewhere once. A rueful smile played over her lips at the accurate description. Tara was the real witch. She had always understood implicitly about balance. Things that Willow had been forced to learn in one painful, destructive lesson after another.

"It's what I thought I wanted…you know, the big magic."

Tara winced and nodded solemnly before looking down at their hands. "But 't-terrible things….'" It wasn't a question and Willow didn't attempt an answer. Just nodded. There was a long silence that was finally broken by Tara's long inhale.

"So, if you're, um, controlling this d-device why don't you just go b-back?" Suddenly blue eyes held her own, calm and clear and deep. "To me?" As tears clouded Willow's vision, the features before her blurred and blended into an impressionistic watercolor of blues and peach, ash blonde and white.

There was so much she needed to tell her. She wanted to scream it all in a warning. To write it on the walls, tattoo it on pale skin so that it was never forgotten or ignored. But she couldn't. Because she didn't know enough yet. And if she had changed things so radically it wouldn't matter anyway. It never had before. Things tended to get worse in Sunnydale. Not better.

"Tara I…" She croaked and pawed clumsily at her eyes to wipe the tears from her cheeks and realized that she didn't have a voice to give herself away anyway. Cool fingers cupped her face gently and she looked up to find tear-filled eyes studying her carefully. Tara knew. Had probably known for some time. Willow couldn't even protect her from the terrible knowledge of her own death.

"I'm s-so sorry." Strong hands held her face as Tara's lips pressed against her eyelids, against the cool wet of the tears on her cheek. A loud moan of a sob ripped through her and she felt the magic shift within her. Her first impulse was to react against it with equal force, but she was stopped by the gentle touch of Tara's mouth whispering against her forehead.

No. This is…fighting back with magic is not of the good here. Tara knows something. She knew it before you even got here because…the books. Just let her find a way to tell you….to tell herself.

Listen to Tara. Let her…

Willing her eyes open, she steadied herself around the woman in front of her. Forced everything within her to circle Tara, making her the new center of the universe.

Somehow they found each other through the magic and the grief. The wet heat of Tara's mouth was on hers, salty with tears and sweet and her grief-filled moan was transformed into an utterance of total desperation and longing. "Tara I can't lose you again," she managed between kisses and sobs. And then pulled away. They needed to research this problem. To find a way for her to harness the Heart's power and stay here with Tara. That was the important thing because her rational brain kept arguing that she had changed the future already, but there was the stronger, deeper part of her that seemed to remember this. Knew that this had already happened. And that was impossible. She needed to know more so she could stop this terrible march to that room. "But.…but it's okay. I can fix it 'cause if I'm all controlling…"

But her love was silent., cutting her off with the light pressure of fingertips on her lips. Holding her gaze Tara carefully removed Willow's t-shirt, tracing her collarbone with eyes and shaking fingers. The redhead shivered and felt her mouth open automatically in a question against cool fingertips. She watched in awed silence as blue eyes traveled over her body, studying her with cautious intensity. The fingertips were gone and she felt the cutting elastic of her bra slide away, an astonished shy smile forming on perfect ruby lips.

"I know this is probably not such a b-big, um, deal to you Willow, but…" then that lopsided smile and her eyes asking a silent azure question. Willow wasn't sure what the question was, but she knew the answer. She nodded and felt timid fingers brush her right breast, felt the pull of Tara echo through every part of her gently taking charge of her. Closing her eyes, parting her lips with that light touch. "…this is all…" soft lips grazed her own. "I ever wanted." And then feathery press of lips and tongue and fingers on her skin pushing back the magic and the future. Making the now again in this room as Tara felt her way across and through Willow. It had been all about the desperate, heated density of reunion before in that other room, but this was moments that stretched into a long, liquid exploration of a start.

Let Tara lead the way.

There was a burst of light and she opened her eyes to see the room erupt in a shower of tiny floating stars. Fairy lights, she thought absently as Tara's smile deepened, her eyes dancing along with the tiny flames. But only for a moment.

And the Heart's spell receded, pushed back by the molten circle of them. By Tara as she pulled her own shirt over her head, her eyes turning that dark new moon blue.

"Tara this is," she began in a hoarse whisper, but was silenced by the gentle, insistent press of Tara's mouth on her own. And then lips soft and winged against her ear making her arch into a soft hand, her body trying to take flight.

"…this is the big magic …"



All she could think in the moment she heard the scream of her name was this is what it feels like to be an astronaut. Until her body fell from weightlessness into a heap on the unforgiving cemetery turf. Which Willow would have told her was a great lesson in gravity, but at this moment it was a hard lesson. And there was something harder under her. Hard and cold.

A sound like the tearing of metal brought her back to the moment. Why were things suddenly moving so fast? Her eyes traveled up what looked like two trunks of a red-barked tree and understood with sudden terror what the sound was. The demon above her was screaming as it clawed at a wooden stake protruding from its eye. It was…enormous. If this was Vra'al there was no exaggeration and very probably no hope for them. He was at least fifteen feet tall, stretching above her like a building.

The familiar thud and grunts of hand-to-hand combat brought her head around. Faith was struggling with two smaller demons that were covered in dull metallic scales. Battling to reach Dawn where she still lay on the ground. And Faith had no weapon.

"Dawn run!" Faith screamed as she blocked a terrible blow that brought her to her knees. But Dawn couldn't move, frozen to the spot by the certain knowledge that the Slayer was going to die if she ran. They were too much for her and there were more coming, she could seem their strange lurching forms moving toward the clearing through the headstones and crypts. Struggling to reach her feet she felt the hard thing beneath her bite into her leg with stinging heat. The sword. She began to cry with relief as she struggled to free it from her own weight. But she didn't know how to use it.

Rolling the grip in her hands she watched Faith complete a complicated series of kicks to bring herself between the demons and Dawn. Sucking in a deep breath Dawn closed her eyes and let go of all her fantasies of being the hero. She tossed the sword as hard as she could in Faith's general direction and opened her eyes in time to watch the sword tilt and straighten into a silver arc heading straight for the Slayer's back.

Oh god!

"Faith!" She covered her eyes with her hands so she wouldn't have to see it.

Oh my god! I killed Faith. I killed a Slayer. I stabbed her in the back and…

Another metallic scream ripped through the night.

"Nice toss D." Dawn's eyes flew open in time to watch one of the demons fall, impaled on the sword. Before it could hit the ground Faith wrenched the blade free and was whirling in a blur on the remaining demon. But there were more shadows approaching and she thought she could hear the oily flutter of leathery wings above her. There were too many.

"Run damnit!" Faith screamed again as she lunged at another demon and at the last moment defied the laws of gravity her body twisting to behead an approaching demon. Dawn knew she should run, but she couldn't. Some strange part of her brain was talking to her. Telling her that if the Slayer was going to die here someone should see it. She shouldn't die alone. And then her eyes fell on the familiar dark silhouette of Spike still pinned to the trunk of the tree. She was on her feet in a moment, crossing the distance in long strides.

Spike was struggling against the stake in his chest, his eyes wild as he surveyed the demons around them. He clawed at the wooden spike in his chest, but it was slick with blood and he couldn't seem to get any leverage, flailing against the tree as his fingers slipped over the butt of the stake. She knew she should leave him there or stake him herself for everything he had done, but they needed him now. Why did it always seem to work out that way?

"Get out of here!" he growled.

"Make me!" she yelled through tears and looked around for anything that could help, but there was nothing. Just demons and headstones. She turned back to watch his feet kick against the narrow trunk of the tree. A sudden inspiration made her drop to all fours.

"What the…"

"Stand on my back," she yelled over the metallic screams around her and crawled beneath his feet. There was a moment when she was sure this was a ridiculous idea, that she had just dropped to all fours in the middle of a demon battle to be beheaded or worse. And then Spike's full weight was pressing down on her, his boots hard and cold against her spine. She gritted her teeth and felt him shift several times and then a quick, agonized yell as his weight lurched forward and off of her.

Strong hands yanked her to her feet and she found herself staring at the wound in his chest. So close. Faith must have pulled back only at the last moment. A millimeter of error and Spike would have been dust. She looked up into 'game face' and cringed.

Never forget he's a vampire. Xander's warning rang in her head as yellow, reptilian eyes met her own.

"Stay here," he commanded and pushed her against the tree.

"Motherfuckers!" Faith's battle cry was primal. "You are so gonna fucking die!" The Dark Slayer, smiling and covered in blood, ducked and blocked a blow from one demon before whirling with inhuman speed to decapitate another. And the sword was suddenly, impossibly in her other hand, jerking back to impale a third as she landed a solid kick to the head of another.

"Bloody hell," Spike murmured appreciatively and the teenager just nodded. This was so not Buffy. Buffy was elegant and choreographed when she fought. Even when she was slaying she seemed to be following some kind of rulebook on proper behavior, fighting with perfect posture. Hitting with robotic precision. But Faith was…wild. Unrestrained.

Too bad you can't get extra credit for PSAT vocab words used in the heat of battle.

And that was the strange thing because for the heat of battle it was awfully quiet. The only sounds were Faith's incessant yells and the clang and thud of the sword. The demons, for all their apparent organization didn't seem to be saying a thing.

What's up with that?

With a low growl Spike launched himself at a demon bearing down on them. As they began to trade blows, Dawn again searched for anything that might help. There had been an axe. Where was it?

As her eyes scanned the surreal scene before her she was inevitably drawn to the enormous figure of the demon who had grabbed her in the first place. He stood still at the far edge of the clearing with his arms crossed and the skin of his head seemed to be alive, shifting and changing. She squinted into the darkness and realized with a gasp what she was seeing. His skin wasn't moving, it was covered in what looked like giant reptilian bats. Their clawed hands worked at his wound, pulling at the stake, black tongues licking away the blood.

"Ew!" She looked away quickly, her eyes landing on the silver glint of the axe blade in the grass. It was easily fifteen yards away through the thick of the battle. She heard Faith's eerie howl again and wondered if the Slayer could stop herself if Dawn got in the way. Spike was struggling with another demon to her right and losing. His only weapon the blood-covered stake. She had no choice. But she couldn't seem to move.

'cause, hello! You are not a Slayer. You are just some stupid girl who used to be a Key and you are going to get very dead if you go out there.

But Faith's going to die…

Inhaling deeply she searched for anything to calm her, wishing suddenly that she knew a prayer. Any kind of prayer. Buddhist, Jewish, Wiccan, whatever. But she didn't. All she knew were the few spells that Tara had taught her and that disturbing rhyming thing she had learned from her grandmother --- "Now I lay me down to sleep…" --- which ended up in a scary place so… big no to that.

But Tara. The image of the smiling blonde brought a smile to her face. And somehow, impossibly, in the middle of a raging battle she felt calm. Maybe she did know a prayer after all.

It took her almost thirty seconds to pick her way around the edge of the fray. Ducking and sometimes crawling and generally trying to stay as invisible as possible. She was used to that — the invisible thing — it was only when she tried to be noticed that she got into trouble.

She had to crawl the last ten feet ducking as a demon arm as it flew past her head to land with a thud near her. Well, that could be a weapon if she really needed one. But…yuck.

The wooden handle of the axe was so close. Crawling quickly she held it's slick grip in her hands and leaned back on her heels. There were too many demons between her and Spike now. A hissing sound to her right brought her to her feet. A demon and it was too close now for her to run. She remembered Faith's instructions and swung. Maybe she could hit something. Anything. An arm or a leg and the Slayer could help her. But the axe met no resistance. She had missed. It's weight and momentum swept her around in a dizzying off-balance twirl until it connected with something…hard. The impact jarring her with such severity that she yelped in pain. The axe was torn from her grasp as the demon fell to earth with the blade buried in its side.

Dawn rubbed her hands on her jeans trying to wipe away some of the pain and numbness. Her hands felt as if they had been stung…by a really big bee. The demon was still twitching on the ground, but he didn't seem too dangerous so she closed her eyes and gripped the handle to free the blade. It wouldn't budge, caught on metallic scales. Blowing her hair out of her face she tugged again and felt it jerk free.

"D! Down now!" Without bothering to breathe, Dawn dropped. She felt as much as heard the whisper of metal slip past her left ear. Something very heavy fell over her pinning the axe underneath her body.

It took her a few seconds to free herself from the demon's weight. As she pulled herself free she heard Faith's howl again, but it wasn't a battle cry this time. It was pain. She turned to see the Slayer's face twisted in agony, one hand covering a terrible gash in her left shoulder.

"Okay, now I'm pissed," she hissed and struck out with a roundhouse that sent one demon flying into another.

"Faith!" Dawn screamed and tossed the axe, careful this time to throw it in a high arc, handle down. As she watched its flight, mesmerized by its lazy progress, time seemed to slow. The Slayer's eyes swept quickly over the battlefield and an evil smile crossed her features. With a wink for Dawn time sped up again. Faith didn't seem to even make contact with the axe handle, lunging and rolling to redirect its path, adding her own energy to hurl it sideways through the necks of two demons and halfway through a third.

Dawn wanted to scream with joy, but Faith was already fighting another demon, her crippled arm held against her body. The wound was terrible. Dawn could see bone through the streaming blood and her stomach clenched violently, but the Slayer defied her own injury as she rolled to free the sword and lunged to kill a demon that had crept up behind Dawn. Faith stood before her now, taking in the overwhelming number of the demons. There seemed to be an endless supply of them as they moved to encircle the two women. For every one they killed another took its place.

She felt something warm trickle down the side of her right hand and noticed with growing detachment that her shirt sleeve was sliced in a line across her shoulder. The axe must have cut me when I fell on it, she thought absently and felt Faith take her hand in her own, their blood mingling as she squeezed gently.

Guess that means we're blood sisters.

Faith turned to Dawn finally with a sad smile.

'"See ya Half Pint." Another wink and she streaked away, her inhuman howl causing a ripple of agitation in the crowd of demons. The sword blade swinging in mad, fierce arcs. Dawn looked toward the axe, but it was too far away. Too many demons between her decidedly non-Slayer body and the weapon. Another hiss beside her and she knew it was over. The distance between herself and Faith was too large and the Slayer was currently overwhelmed by four demons. She put her fists up and wondered how it was going to feel when the hard scales hit her.

Duh, it's going to hurt. A lot.

There was a terrible sharp pain and pressure in her neck and strong hands holding her still. The world swam before her eyes and her knees gave way, but she was held upright.

Everything was suddenly silent. She worried that she had gone deaf, but there was still the sound of the Slayer grunting as she decapitated another demon before slowly winding down to take in the eerie scene. The demons, the trees, everything had gone completely still.

"I'll drain her dry before you wankers can take a step," Spike growled close to her ear. "There won't be enough blood left to open a portal for a doormouse much less you and your fan club."

There was a moment of sheer terror but it passed and Dawn grew very calm in the vampire's grip. Everything seemed so clear, her vision tunneling down to one thing — Faith. As she hung limp in the vampire's arms she felt as if a connection was opening between herself and the Slayer. Like a portal…sort of. She watched dark eyes scan the scene, brows furrowing and felt it. Saw it. The world of the cemetery was suddenly crisp, everything was brighter and more clearly defined. But it wasn't just vision, she could feel the demons around her like tactile colors that were different than the trees and the cold stones. Could feel the sword, weightless in the Slayer's grip, like an extension of her arm.

And suddenly she was just Dawn again. Watching the Slayer as she held the shining blade at the proper angle, ready to strike. She saw the wounds, scores of them deep and jagged. A deep cut on the Faith's forehead that caused her to constantly wipe at her eye to clear her vision. When those eyes reached Dawn she saw the flash of fury and something else. Terror. For her.

She started to cry immediately, but not because of sadness. It was joy, overwhelming joy. Faith — cold, hard, tough girl Faith — actually cared whether she died or lived. And not because she was a fucking Key.

It's okay. It's okay. He's not going to hurt me. Well, he already hurt me, but not that bad. It's okay, it's going to be okay…

She realized it was Tara's voice she was hearing over and over again in her mind. A mantra for calm. But it wasn't for her.

Faith's forehead tightened in confusion as she stared at the teenager. Then everything just…opened. The space between herself and Faith. And she was hit with all of it at once. Images and pieces of a different life. A life full of fear and fury and the constant always threat of violence from everyone. And worse, something terrible and all-too familiar. Desperate loneliness. She gasped and heard an answering intake of breath from Faith.

"Slayer?" Spike mumbled into the teenager's neck. Faith composed herself in an instant and nodded with a grimace before turning to back toward them slowly.

"You would eat a thing as valuable as the Key?" the demon asked in a low, booming voice.

"She's not a 'thing' you uglyass excuse for a…"

"You bet your ass I would," Spike interjected and Dawn shuddered as his teeth grazed the wound on her neck. "Tasty lil' bird like this is just too good to pass up."

She heard Faith's deep growl, but the Slayer held firm.

" The Heart is mine, Slayer. It was stolen from me and I will have it returned. You will release it and the Key to me by dawn or…"

"Whatever," Faith rolled her eyes and turned her back on the demon horde. "A hell god couldn't pull it off, but One-eyed Jack here thinks he's gonna take the Key from a Slayer." She shook her head and walked behind them. "Call me when someone buys you a fucking clue."

Dawn felt the earth fall away again as Spike swept her into his arms. Everything kept shifting in dizzying waves, but she kept her focus on the dark form of the Slayer up ahead and felt everything else just…fade away.


Part XII

Willow drifted slowly out of sleep. The familiar smell of Tara's room surrounded her and she knew without looking that she was still there. And…even better…she was naked with the sheet twisted around her legs and that wonderful, languid feeling that only hours of sex with Tara could impart. But there was no one in the bed with her, which was not so better. The clock read 3:13, so she hadn't been asleep long. Maybe a half hour. But why was Tara up and not snuggled around her?

"Mmmm, where's my Tare Bear?" The redhead stretched and yawned, rising to her knees to scan the room. She felt amazing. Tired and dizzy and maybe even a little queasy, but totally, completely amazing. The blonde sat cross-legged on the floor poring over a book in her lap. She had clothes on, which was a big disappointment. She looked up at the sound of Willow's voice and froze, her eyes widening, mouth dropping open as blue eyes roamed over the redhead's exposed torso. Tara swallowed once and looked away, ducking her head shyly, a crimson blush extending all the way to the tips of her ears.

"I…um, uh, T-Tare Bear?" she squeaked and turned a page in the tome, stealing another quick glance at Willow. She would have to remember that. All of the private jokes and names between them that weren't anymore.

"Yeah, kind of a pet…" Willow trailed off with a concerned frown and moved toward the blonde. "…name is everything okay?"

"Oh yeah!" Tara nodded emphatically, her eyes falling on the redhead before closing slowly. "I, um," she swallowed and ran a shaky hand through her hair. "It's just…um…you know," the blonde continued to struggle and Willow found herself growing anxious. Had Tara found something? Had she seen something in Willow's aura too terrible to speak of? "I mean…" she sucked in an enormous whimpering breath and opened her eyes. "N-naked, um …Willow?" Blue eyes drifted down before darting away again guiltily and the redhead resisted the urge to laugh, but she couldn't suppress the enormous grin. Tara was so adorably…adorable. How was it possible that this woman could step so effortlessly between sultry vixen and total cute-itude? "Like g-gym class…y-you know?" she asked with a pleading look in her eyes as if she was begging for a reprieve from further explanation. It took the redhead only a moment to connect the dots. The terror of changing for gym, surrounded by all those scantily clad girls, afraid to look. Afraid they'd catch you looking and humiliate you. Again.

"Well, in this gym class you can stare as much as you want Ms. Maclay, but, um, I think I'm being denied the all-important reciprocal stare-iness by too many clothes on you," Willow replied fingering the blonde's tank top suggestively.

"Oh…I…um," blue eyes stared back at her wide and blinking and she wasn't sure it was possible, but Tara somehow managed to turn an even deeper shade of red. "Naked..and um..re-s-search?"

"Yeah, you're probably right," she sighed and moved to sit behind the blonde, wrapping her arms around soft curves, her legs extended to rest under bent knees. "Could get kind of," she paused to kiss the soft skin behind one ear and felt Tara tense and gasp. "Distracting."

A cool hand fell from the page onto the redhead's exposed thigh and the blonde jumped in her arms. "Oh, s-sorry… I…um…." Tara gave up on whatever she was trying to say with a loud sigh and Willow smiled into the smooth skin of an exposed shoulder.

"Watcha looking for?" she asked playfully, letting her eyes drop to the page below.

Another long sigh. "It's a, um, a…d-div…"

"Divination spell," Willow finished for her, all of the levity and teasing gone from her voice. She knew this spell. Intimately. It stood out like a bookmark in her life. She had cast it in secret to map Glory and Tara's essences. To undo what the hell god had done to the beautiful girl in her arms. And in casting it she had seen into some of the torment Glory had inflicted on Tara. Terrible things. Unspeakable things that they had never managed to discuss afterward. And that knowledge had been one of the reasons for her slip into dark magic. Because she would do anything to protect the blonde from more harm. "I know this spell," she finished quietly and kissed a bare shoulder, her expression growing stern. A wall of vertigo hit her with force and she closed her eyes, letting it roll over her in nauseating waves. Letting her head drop against the strong back before her.

"I thought we c-could use it to understand what's happening…with your m-magic and the, um, the Heart."

She didn't notice, Willow thought with a grateful sigh. She didn't want to worry Tara any more than she had to. Recovering her precarious sense of balance she moved her lips over exposed skin letting the familiar smell right the world.

"Willow?" Right. The divination spell. It was too powerful. She had almost lost herself in it in her search for Tara. It was too dangerous. And casting with Tara was…In a terrible rush of images she remembered with humiliation and overwhelming self-loathing the last two times she had cast with the blonde. The resurrection and the spell to make Buffy's 'hitchiker' tangible. Her impatience and growing arrogance had made her unwilling to wait for the spell to build. She cringed as she remembered reaching out to the dark magic, taking the terrible short cut offered and breaking her precious connection with Tara. It was inconceivable to her now and it remained simply unforgivable. The memory of it left her more ashamed than any of her actions after Tara's death. Those 'terrible things' had been a reaction to tragic events, the results of grief and furious agony. Severing her connection to Tara had been a willful and selfish act of betrayal. And in a moment of sudden clarity she realized here with Tara in her arms that it had been the darkest magic imaginable.

Ruth had told her she would find the root of her darkness in the small things. In the excuses and rationalizations. In everyday acts. Because she would always find a reason. There would always be a need so great…especially on the Hellmouth.

"I don't think… Tar, it's…it's too dangerous," she murmured into bare skin and hugged the blonde tighter.

Warm fingers caressed her own for a moment and then withdrew slowly as the blonde removed the book from her lap to turn in Willow's arms. "But you said we'd c-cast it before," she said with obvious confusion.

She reached out to trace the perfect curve of lips to steady herself. "I said I knew the spell." She sighed and looked away from the blue. "I cast it without you."

The look of astonishment on Tara's face changed quickly to one of confused concern. "But wh-why…h-how…?" she trailed off and searched green eyes for an answer.

"Well, the why was…terrible things," she repeated and the muscles in her jaw clenched uncomfortably. "And the how," she shook her head sadly. "I don't even know…I mean, probably just total desperation and that trademark Willow Rosenburg hard-headedness I guess?" She winced at the memory of the terror that had gripped her when she had momentarily lost her way, lost her connection to the real. It wasn't the knowledge that she would die that had finally brought her back, it was the horror of knowing that Tara would be trapped with Glory forever. "I know it was crazy…"

"Not crazy…impossible was more the w-word I was looking for," Tara replied shaking her head in amazement and more than a little anger. "How did you get b-back?"

Without me as your anchor were the unspoken words in the blonde's question and Willow winced.

"I, um, modified Ms. Calendar's curse so it was timed to certain biological triggers and used an Orb of Thessela as a kind of spiritual magnet to make sure…"

"What?" Tara was clearly horrified by the admission.

"I know it was stupid, but…"

"Willow, you could have been trapped in that orb forever or…w-worse."

Willow nodded her assent and closed her eyes. She had been so proud of her ingenuity at the time. Hours and hours of research and clandestine experimentation. And she had been so terribly desperate. "I know Tara," she kept her voice as calm and soft as possible, reaching out to take the blonde's hands in her own. "And believe me, I would never, ever do that now. It was just…" How could she explain the events that had led to her reckless behavior?

Blue eyes searched her own for long moments and then closed slowly. "I know you wouldn't…now." She shook her head slowly and a line formed between the perfect arches of pale eyebrows. "I j-just…I wanted to sh-show you about magic…the right w-way you know? The good parts and the really b-bad, but…"

"It's not your fault Tara," she interjected gently and squeezed the blonde's hands in her own. "Really." The blonde retreated behind her hair, her thumb slowly circling the back of Willow's hand.

"Sweetie we need to do this." Blue eyes met her own again and Willow's forehead tightened in response. How could she explain? Because she knew that as much control as she now had over her magic, the moment she sensed Tara was in danger she would stop at nothing to save her. She would protect her love at any cost. "Because it's h-hurting you…the Heart's s-sp…um, magic."

Gentle fingers moved over her scalp and Willow released a deep sigh. How did Tara know about the pain? She allowed herself a small smile at the thought of the two of them moving along separate paths to protect each other. And she knew now how much more painful it was to watch the one you love suffer. The idea of the blonde feeling the slightest pain or discomfort made her own seem insignificant. She squeezed Tara's hand gently and stared directly into blue eyes.

"Okay, but if anything and I mean anything of the dark variety happens when we're in there…or out there,,," she mused out loud trying to decide which description was more accurate.

"It won't," Tara said flatly a gentle smile playing on her lips. "I trust you Willow. I know you'd never hurt me."

Willow felt her throat constrict and swallowed hard before looking away from the blue gaze. There was so much she needed to tell her. So much that she needed to confess.

"I trust you." She heard Tara say again and felt her stomach turn over with a sudden realization. This Tara could trust the Willow she was now with everything. She would die before she would allow anything to happen to her. And wasn't what this was all about? A second chance?

For Buffy, she reminded herself. But maybe she could build her own second chance around it. In a way she already was. Maybe. But one way or another, she would have these brand new moments with Tara forever. If the Slayer's second chance didn't change everything.



Willow frowned at her slip. After years of struggle she had finally managed to get her habit of speaking her thoughts aloud under control, but not tonight. Not with Tara. It was quite possible that she hadn't said it out loud at all.

"Yeah, it's just that it's her second chance so I'm probably going back to a future where Angel's all human or she's still dead or…who knows?" she stopped her angry rant abruptly. That had been a major slip. Tara's forehead was now furrowed with concern and surprise. "Sorry. Too much information…"

The blonde shook her head slowly and appraised her with concern and obvious confusion. "No, it's okay I just…I mean," she stopped to collect her thoughts and frowned in concentration. "You know, she's like your hero…and you're b-best friends."

"Well, things have kind of changed a lot and Buffy…well, she most definitely has…changed that is. She's…I mean we're…." And she felt guilty suddenly for even considering speaking about her best friend this way. Buffy had been through so much. And so much of it was because of her.

"Don't you t-trust her to do the right thing…with her s-second chance?"

Willow sat staring into blue eyes for what seemed like long minutes, but was probably only a few short seconds. No one had asked her if she trusted Buffy and the thought had never crossed her mind. Not once. Her focus and everyone else's had been on her own recovery. On regaining control of herself and the trust of her friends. She had never considered how she felt about them. Buffy had been so self-involved and distant for so long she had begun to take it for granted. She had forgotten about the friend this Willow had known. The friend and partner who still took her on patrol in this now. Who still went out for mochas and sat up trading stories about Riley and Oz and…everything. She had trusted this Buffy with her life, with the world. But now….

"I don't know, but I do know I trust you Tara," she finally responded looking up to meet her eyes again. "More than I trust myself."

A lop-sided grin slowly spread over perfect pale features and Tara ducked her head shyly, embarrassed by the candid admission. Willow leaned across the small space between them and stole a quick kiss that brought another deep blush to the blonde's face.

"So, um, I'll g-get the, uh, the herbs and you…" Tara glanced at the redhead's chest before quickly looking away. "M-maybe you should, ah, get d-d-dr…should put some c-clothes on?"

"No, I'm fine, really." Willow responded playfully with a smug smile. "Comfy even." Tara squirmed under her gaze and seemed to find the bookshelf to her left extremely interesting.

"But that c-could get kinda distracting."

"What?" She asked with exaggerated innocence.

The blonde's head tilted to the side, a look of total exasperation clouding her features. "Willow I know you're used to th-this, but…"

"Sorry Tar. I'll get dressed if you want." She smoothed blonde hair behind one ear to soothe her and traced Tara's jaw lightly. "It's just been my experience…and yours by the way… that we're just going to end up this way anyway. After the spell. 'Cause you know, me and you and all that magical sexy energy floating around leads to not so many clothes on us. So this is really just me being all efficient." She swallowed hard at the memory of their post-spell 'rituals'. "Really."

Blue eyes studied her with more than a little doubt and then a mischievous grin crossed the blonde's features. In one motion she pulled the tank top over her head and rose to remove her underwear in a long, seductive slide of hands over thighs.

"Skyclad it is then," the blonde said with a smirk and turned to retrieve the necessary ingredients.

Willow sat speechless watching Tara search through drawers and bags for the herbs and materials they would need. Her hair wasn't as long as the Tara Willow held in her memory and the blonde tresses still held the evidence of her bleach experiment months before. She looked so young and beautiful kneeling naked before her desk. This level of comfort and intimacy had taken many months in their previous relationship and by then Tara was a different person. This was a new Tara, innocent and surprisingly confident and watching her Willow felt suddenly shy, her face burning with heat. As the blonde turned and obviously fought the urge to cover herself with her arms, Willow averted her eyes and swallowed hard. Gym class indeed.

When the circle had been drawn and the herbs mixed, the two sat cross-legged nervously avoiding each other's eyes. She had expected this to be so easy and familiar, but it wasn't. And sitting there facing her with all of that naked skin between them she wasn't sure she would be able to control her desire long enough to complete the spell.

Tara gently took the redhead's hands in her own and Willow panicked, worried that she would never remember the words of the spell. Or worse, that she would remember her own hacked together version. Her eyes drifted to blue and she felt a familiar calm descend. This was so right. All of it. The incredible sexual tension that they had secretly joked about as the 'secret ingredient' in their particularly powerful brand of magic, the hands clasped together, and the two of them in a circle. Together. The blonde shyly anointed her with oil and offered the bowl to the redhead to return the gesture. She smiled and dipped her thumb into the warm liquid. Tara knew the incantation, which meant she did too. There was no need to worry.

Tara knows. Let go and let her lead…

Their eyes locked and she felt the familiar surge as the blonde reached out to her, making the connection. Tara's energy flowed into her and through her and she felt herself speaking the words of the incantation, going through the ritual motions from far away. All that really mattered was Tara. And the building energy around them so familiar and strong and…kinda hot. She smiled and felt as much as saw an answering grin on the blonde's face.

So right…

And suddenly the physical was just…gone. Willow was no longer in the room. Moving through layers of energy, she expanded up and out to the place Tara and the text would describe as the Nether Realms, but her scientifically inclined mind always interpreted as some kind of higher dimensional space.

Okay, stop it Rosenburg! Stop with the analyzing and just…do the Tara thing. She would have smiled at herself if she had a face to smile with.

Letting go, she began to explore the world around her. An endless amorphous field full of shifting energies that disappeared and reformed in the shape of familiar objects. Her home, the Summers' house, a classroom at UC Sunnydale. She felt a presence beside her and turned to find Tara smiling gently. It was like turning in a dream to search for that presence that was always there just out of sight. And it was Tara of course. She knew the expression intimately. It was patience and trust and…more than a little arousal. There would be no losing herself in this divination. She had every reason to go back.

But now she was research girl with a job to do, so she centered herself carefully and began to study the space. It was tricky here to remember who you were, much less what you were doing. Like in a dream, intent tended to shift with the scenery. It took incredible focus and Willow slowly found hers and began to travel, trying to map out the place. Travel here was a useless term. You imagined yourself in a place and concentrated and the place or the person were brought to you. But she needed to know about the space itself so she concentrated on travelling as far as possible in a straight line.

She felt the rush and blue of movement, saw images rush past and felt Tara's surprise and fear as the distance between them grew. With great effort, she soothed her through the connection they still shared and felt the familiar pang of desire.

And then in a rush she was there, approaching Tara fast from behind. Which confirmed at least one of her theories. That this was a self-contained universe. A bubble. But for the real answers she needed to go deeper. Farther. She turned to Tara and let her feel her intention. The blonde's gentle concern washed over her and she felt again the strong tug of want.

Okay, finish this so you can get back and get to the snuggles already!

Willow began a monotonous chant and kept the Heart in her mind's eye. Focusing on its energy, the stretch and feel of the magic that had brought them here. It swept her up in terrifying rush of energies. Because there were more than one and she could feel her own and the device's and something else. Something familiar…

Another 'earthquake' tore through her and she watched horrified as a thin stream of energy was drawn out of her into the screaming swirl. And with a searing cold pain her connection to Tara was broken. She felt a suffocating compression and realized that the entire universe was breathing. Expanding and shrinking in broken, erratic intervals, like it was trying to collapse, but was held up by…

…me. My energy. Something is borrowing my energy.

And she could feel the gravity of other bubbles, other universes as they pulled at this one. Touching at points, merging to create new colors that swirled in energy clouds of time and space.

She panicked for a moment, her attention faltering as she drifted along without anchor. Because it had a sort of terrible, compelling beauty to it and it called to her moving her farther and farther from herself. She could see now the way to control it. The places where the darkness of the device's spell and her own darkness meshed and mingled. It would be so easy to insinuate herself into the dark and seemingly endless power of the Heart and…

There was something important she had to remember….

The connection. Tara.

She felt the slight familiar tug of something warm and understood what that other energy was. Everywhere. Tara. Her mind regained focus and she thought back to the blonde's halting description of Willow's omnipresence. Maybe that had been the problem in the future. She had been looking for Tara in the wrong places back in the real now. Searching for her in the specific and the separate when she was everywhere at once.

Before letting go she used a small but excruciating amount of energy to create a 'map' of what she had seen. A map she could take back to the real.

The warmth moved through her, pulling her back through layers of energy and space. Images of the past and the possible future flicked through her consciousness. She wanted to stay and capture them all. Study them for clues to the right future. The future with Tara in it. But there was an undeniable force pulling her back with strong hands that spoke to a place deep within her. That place that didn't need words or reason. That only Tara could open.

She gasped back into consciousness still chanting to find the blonde above her staring down at her with eyes full of concern and…she smiled…almost black with need.

"Are you okay?"

A quick glance past blonde hair revealed a slowly spinning hologram hovering just above Tara's left shoulder. The spell and her own magic mapped out in swirling colors.

She could only nod as she brought her leaden arms up to encircle the blonde and bring her naked body down to hers.

"Willow," I need you. Now.

It wasn't spoken but she heard it anyway. And Tara was already inside her and she was inside Tara and this was just the completion of something that had begun outside of time. Spiritual becoming physical and back again.

Spiritual is definitely all of the good, she thought with a smile and reached up to bring her mouth to Tara's. As the slide and heat of their bodies increased, their mouths moving over each other in wide-open unspoken phrases all she could think was…

But physical is…with Tara…just wow.

She woke to the light sounds of snoring. Which was…kind of odd. The room was still dark, but she could make out the faint outline of her mother's sleeping form next to her, the fuzzy pink of a wash cloth still covering her eyes.

The headaches…Mom…and that device. This is all wrong. But Mom…

For several minutes she listened to her mother's regular breathing, watched her chest rise and fall under the blanket. Her mother was alive here and now. But for how long? She began to do the mental math, growing more and more desperate as she ticked away the months until Dawn's appearance. Until her mother's body on the couch.

Don't go there. Remember what mom said. Concentrate on making things right… here. Now.

The Slayer inside was growing restless and she knew that soon her need for release would become undeniable. Her fear rousing the sleeping beast within making her heart race, her muscles tense. With a loud sigh she gave up on sleep altogether and checked the clock. 4:52. At least that was normal. She hadn't been able to sleep through the night in years. Especially since Willow had brought her back. Yanked her back.

Gently extricating herself from the covers so as not to wake her mother, Buffy quietly walked to her room to dress, making a mental plan.

First would be slaying because she needed to quiet the beast. Then Willow. They needed some sort of plan to get them back. Maybe her dream would help. And it was possible that the witches had found something useful already. If not, her next stop would be Giles. That was a last resort because there was too much she couldn't tell him. Too much she was tempted to tell him so that he would change things. For her. So she wouldn't have to. Then back home to spend more time with Mom. After penning a quick note to her mother, she wrote 'muffins and coffee' in blue ink on her hand hoping to be back in time to surprise her with breakfast.

For some reason she opened the window and crawled through to make the short jump down to the ground. Just like high school. If nothing else it definitely brought a smile to her face. Plus the physicality of it did a little toward calming the Slayer side of things.

And she was walking toward the cemetery, like she did every night, her subconscious sifting through the sensory information rolling in. Cataloging the interesting bits, flagging down the inevitable supernatural flare. But it was too small, too all-over-the-place to be a threat. Her adversaries tended to be of the highly localized variety as Willow used to put it. She had never gotten the joke until that moment and felt guilty suddenly and more than a little stupid for the vacuous stare that had almost definitely met the hacker's attempt at humor. But she had always felt sort of mentally challenged around her best friend.

The dream image of a younger Willow suddenly filled her mind. Those black eyes set in innocent features excitedly floating a pencil. With a shiver she noticed that the image had stopped her dead in the middle of one of the cemetery's many footpaths. What did it mean?

"Well, lookie, lookie what we have here." The slight lisp caused by a tongue against brand new fangs would have given him away even without the now clanging alarm of her internal vampire sense. "A tasty little treat."

Buffy's eyes rolled involuntarily as she turned to confront a former frat boy with one of the thickest necks she had ever seen. Well, that explained it. A neck that size must be irresistible to someone with a serious neck fetish. As she sized him up and worked out the best comeback her brain cycled through possible fight plans. One flick of her wrist and she could stake him from here, but that wouldn't be fun. She needed a fight tonight. The release would help her concentrate on solving the riddle of the dream and the spell and…everything.

But this vamp was big. And dumb. And he kind of looks like Riley…Riley on serious steroids. But still…definitely big and that could get dangerous so…

"And blonde too." He licked his lips. "I like blondes."

Buffy shook her head and regarded him coolly as he stepped toward her. "Well, you know what they say…." Fratvamp lunged surprising her and caught her jacket lapel in one hand. In one graceful movement the Slayer grabbed his sweatshirt and dropped, using her weight to drag him down so that she could kick him easily up and over her head into a tombstone. It would have been a paralyzing back-breaking blow to anyone but a vampire.

The former frat boy shook his head and glared at her with confusion and growing frustration. "Aw come on. Why are you fighting this? I promise you'll like it," he said with a smooth smile, stalking toward her menacingly.

"You didn't let me finish my joke. See, they say," she began again only to be interrupted by a clumsy attempt at a left hook. Ducking quickly the Slayer hit him with a well-rehearsed kick to the groin and a combination to his thick neck. Within seconds the vamp was on his knees before her staring up in shock. "…blondes have more fun," she continued, burying the stake in his chest. "Dusting your mouth-breathing ass."

With more than a little disappointment she quickly surveyed the area to find herself alone. No vampire action anywhere nearby. And frat vamp hadn't been nearly enough to satisfy her. Maybe there was some action at the cemetery on Dimas.

Tucking the stake into her jacket she began a brisk walk in that general direction, her mind returning immediately to the dream images. There were answers there if she could just figure it out…in time. But her dreams were always hellishly confusing until after the fact. But that was the way it was with everything wasn't it? So clear in hindsight.

Walking purposefully on the uneven pavement she was surprised to find herself in front of the hospital. Nowhere near the cemetery and no recollection of actually travelling there. Images from the dream suddenly overwhelmed her: Dawn comatose in a hospital bed, Faith and something about talking underwater…

It was way past visiting hours, but sneaking past the orderlies and nurses proved to be no challenge. Most were dosing away the time or busily engaged in hospital paperwork. A quick look over a sleeping nurse's shoulder at a computer screen gave her the room number and she began her stealthy descent into the hospital's basement, her nose crinkling at the smell of disinfectant and…something musty. Like a house no one had lived in for years.

Does anyone ever come down here?

She entered the room without thinking, so focused on her mission that she hadn't imagined the numbing terror of actually being there. With Faith. Who was lying helpless and vulnerable under a white sheet in this horrible room with its peeling gray paint and the choking smell of mildew.

And there were all the familiar feelings. The anger and heat that the other Slayer seemed to pull out of her. The hurt and betrayal that engulfed her like a spell. It was all there, but the sight of the Slayer lying there…she was just a girl. Like Dawn or even…


And all of that anger and hurt wrapped around itself becoming a thing that she could finally get both hands around. And put aside. Where it finally looked like…guilt.

Buffy swallowed past the lump in her throat and forced herself to look at the other Slayer. The flimsy, stained hospital gown and yellowing sheets. Her pale skin, even whiter now after months away from the sun.

Like a vampire, she thought with a shudder that brought back the encounter that had lead to this place. Faith fighting Buffy for her life… And that brought the other side of her into play. The inner voice that spoke in rationalizations and blame. It was talking to her now about the body switch and Angel and everything that the dark Slayer had done to hurt her, but all she could see were the dark circles and dry, chapped lips. How did this broken girl manage to fight her in the Quad?

Chapped lips. She realized that she had never seen Faith without her trademark dark lipstick. War paint, she thought with a smile. Took on a whole new meaning…

Why am I even here? This is ridiculous.

And there were two solutions here. Two ways to stop the terrible spiral between them. Killing her was the obvious first answer. No one would know and they certainly wouldn't care. And she was evil. She could feel all of the terrible past with Faith building inside her into a yell of righteous anger.

But…chapped lips. There was something so heartbreakingly and infuriatingly vulnerable about those damn chapped lips. The lips of a little kid out in the wind and the weather too long. As she studied Faith's features, the dark Slayer's forehead furrowed and she let out a low whimper, her eyes flicking rapidly under dark lids. A nightmare. She wondered suddenly if Faith had the same surreal prophetic dreams. If she was in the middle of an eight month long one now.

Another low whimper and she couldn't help herself. "Faith," she said softly and the whimpering stopped. "I…it's okay, it's me." She shifted uncomfortably fighting conflicting urges to comfort and to run. "Buffy."

Yeah, that's gonna make her feel all safe. You stabbed her remember?

A part of her feared that Faith would rear up in the bed like a scene from a bad horror movie and strangle her. Instead she seemed to relax. Her eyes moving slowly under her lids.

Buffy took a deep breath, preparing herself for what she had to say. Or ask. Asking for help had always been difficult for her, but over the past year it had become just…alien. Who could she ask for help? Not Willow. Tara was gone. And Xander was always there to help, but he just wasn't enough. Which left her with… "So, um, I'm just gonna say this 'cause…okay, I need your help Faith." A few beats passed as she waited for some kind of response, a smirk or chuckle or something, but there was nothing. "I, uh, it's my sister Dawn…who doesn't exist yet, but…see there's this metal time machine thing and Willow and I used it and we're stuck in the past and that means Dawn's stuck in the future and I need you to protect her for me." Whoa channeling Willow. Slow down. And her tone, she noticed was growing angrier and more demanding. "Okay, this is crazy, you don't even…and why would you….I mean I stabbed you and we hate each other and…" Faith's forehead furrowed again, her blank face forming a slight frown, which meant…

They can hear you from miles away…it just takes longer to get there.

Faith's words. From the dream. But could she really hear her? Understand her? Well, she never heard me when she was all up and walking around…and stabbing me in the back.

Okay, stop with the snarkiness 'cause newsflash! The girl's in a coma!

"What did Mom say?" she mused aloud and remembered gentle words about regret. About making things right…now.

What were the things she regretted, really regretted about Faith?

I regret that she is a skanky, evil…

Buffy closed her eyes and began a breathing exercise to calm herself. To distance herself from the anger and prepare for battle. Because that's what this felt like. It was Faith after all. Even if she was all coma-y. "Okay, so…I'm sorry I didn't come…before…to see you or whatever. That was really kind of…crappy of me especially after you helped with the Mayor and all, so…sorry…you know, for that. The not coming here thing."

She grew quiet, her eyes drifting over the room's depressing contents. An ancient-looking heart monitor next to a rusted IV stand. It took her a few seconds to realize she was waiting for a response. But Faith's face was blank again and the heart monitor kept beeping in regular time.

Okay this is stupid and a waste of time and…

She jammed her hands in her coat pockets ready to leave and…there it was. Cylindrical and smooth. Lip balm. Or, more likely lip gloss. Pink. It was freshman year after all.


Sucking in an enormous breath Buffy moved toward the figure on the bed, still ready for any sign of a waking Faith. Still ready for an attack.

"Okay, this is gonna seem really weird and…oh whatever." The lid came off with one tug and she approached the dark Slayer slowly. Cautiously. This was, after all, her arch enemy she was closing in on with only a tube of pink lip gloss.

It was easier than she thought it would be. Like playing makeover with Tara and Dawn. But it was strange to see that shiny pink on such a blank face. No smile. No expression at all. But at least the chapped lips were gone. And Faith almost looked…sweet.

Probably the best revenge ever. Evil she-demon slayed by Cotton Candy lip gloss! She thought and laughed out loud surprising herself. The image of Faith awaking from a coma horrified to find herself wearing pink lip gloss made her laugh even louder, but the hollow, lonely sound of her laughter echoing through the room and out into the hall silenced her.

And that left her in an awkward quiet, which was strange because that's all there had been between them. But she felt as if there was a conversation happening. Just not audible.

"So, um, there's all this stuff I need to tell…" someone. She trailed off and realized she was fidgeting with the tube of lip gloss. Popping the cap off and back on over and over again. She began to return it to her coat pocket, but stopped herself. With a mischievous smile she slid the tube into Faith's limp hand.

Maybe she'll think she did it herself. In her sleep…or coma or whatever.

After a few more moments her smile faded and her eyes drifted over the dark Slayer's once powerful form. Her jaw clenched unconsciously when she reached Faith's abdomen. It was covered in hospital gown. The wound. The scar. But she could feel it anyway. A frown burned its way into her forehead and she took another deep cleansing breath.

"My mom's gonna die Faith. In about a year." The tears began and she didn't even try to stop them. "And I can't do anything about it. Or maybe I can, but I shouldn't and…" she looked to that pale face for a reaction, but there was nothing. Just pink lip gloss on that perfect mouth that had never been still before. Faith had always had something to say…about everything. "And I'm gonna kind of…die….you know, too. Only they bring me back…."

And it all began to pour out of her. Willow and Tara. Dawn and her mother. And heaven. The peace she had lost. All of it. Because she needed to tell someone and she knew Faith would understand even if she was evil. Because she was a Slayer. She knew what it was like to be the One. Which was just another way of saying 'alone' wasn't it?

Part 13

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