DISCLAIMER: These are not my characters; Willow and Tara, the other characters, and various plot events that set up this story belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc, and I am grateful to have them.
PAIRING: Willow/Tara

Terra Firma
By Tulipp

Chapter 13: The Opener of Doors

Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks—with a whisper,
So ope the doors, O Soul!
Tenderly! be not impatient!
(Strong is your hold, O mortal flesh!
Strong is your hold, O love!)
    --Walt Whitman, "Last Invocation"

"Are you tired?" Willow unfastened Tara's shirt slowly, one button at a time. Tara was watching her, the blue eyes never leaving her face. They warmed Willow. It felt like every hour that passed took some of the chill away.

"Tara, we cast a spell," Willow said, her eyebrows lifting. She eased the shirt off Tara's shoulders. It felt heavy in her hands. Fatigue was pulling at her fingers, echoing through her chest.

"We did," Tara agreed. Willow reached behind Tara's back and unclasped her bra. Tara held her arms out from her sides, and Willow pulled the bra off and let it drop to the floor. "Did it remind you?"

Willow thought about that as she unzipped Tara's pants and bent to slide them and the underwear beneath over her hips. Tara put a hand on her shoulder to steady herself as she lifted first one foot and then the other; Willow could feel the fingers wrapping over her shoulder bone.

"It reminded me of everything," she said, finally. She tossed the clothes aside and stood. "It reminded me of how it used to be, in the beginning. Before Rack and Osiris and Glory and…before everything but you."

"Me, too," Tara said softly.

Willow undressed in silence, feeling Tara's eyes on her skin, on her nakedness. Those eyes were enough to raise a breath of arousal in her, to make her feel hot with wanting. She had been wanting always, but now she had what she wanted. It stood in front of her. It lingered in her blood. It was magick. It was Tara. It was….

"Glory," she said finally. "Did she do this to us?" She meant more; she meant everything, but she saw that Tara understood.

"I think she married us," Tara smiled, and Willow's breath came out in a half-giggle before she could stop it, and then she stiffened.

"Willow," Tara said softly, reaching for her arms, searching her eyes. "It's okay to laugh. We used to joke about things, even the scary things, remember? Don't you remember how it used to be? We used to joke, and laugh, and sometimes, even when things were very dark, it made it better."

"I remember it used to be easier for us," Willow said. Her hands clutched at Tara's shoulder blades, pulled her in.

Tara smiled into the dark. "It really wasn't, you know," she said quietly. "It was always hard. Oz and Adam and my family and Joyce dying and Buffy and Glory and," she rubbed her hands over Willow's back. "And the problems with the magick were always there, Willow."
"Well, it was easier. Not easy street maybe, but easier. I understood the rules." Willow pressed her face against Tara's shoulder and inhaled the faint and milky scent of sweat. "But it doesn't matter, anyway," she murmured. "We don't get easy anymore."

Tara gripped the back of Willow's neck, pressing down so that Willow had to look at her, had to lift her face to her. "You get that, Willow," she said, and her voice was fierce, almost angry. " We get that. We live on the edge of dark things, on the Hellmouth, and we choose that, and bad things happen. But we get to be alive, and we get to love each other, and I think sometimes," Tara's voice shook, " sometimes we get easy."

"I feel like…." Willow sighed, and Tara looked at the space between her slightly open lips; when Willow spoke again, she heard her voice come out tiny and far away. "I feel like…like I slammed the door on the easy stuff a long time ago, on all of it, and we can never get it open again."

Willow shook her head, but Tara's hands moved up to her face, and her thumbs brushed Willow's ears, and she leaned in to kiss her. Willow felt the impression of Tara's soft lips against eyelids and cheeks and lips.

"That door might have been shut, sweetheart, but it isn't locked. It's never locked. We'll get it open again. But first," hands slid down to grasp Willow's bare hips, "first, we need to sleep."


"Two sacked out and only slightly Glorified witches," Buffy announced, coming back into the dining room, where Giles had carried the tea tray.

"Is that like 'doing spells'?" Dawn asked brightly. She liked hearing Buffy say "witches" again. It felt so normal. Like before. Well, no one had ever really said "witch" that much, but she was pretty sure they'd all thought it a lot. She knew she had.

"Dawn!" Buffy didn't try to hide her smile. "They're sleeping. At least, I think they're sleeping." She glanced at Giles. "I listened at the door," she admitted. Giles' lips turned up slightly as he poured out the tea, adding a splash of whiskey to one of the cups. Buffy just looked at him, and he dribbled a little whiskey into a second cup.

"Giles," Buffy said soberly. Dawn sat down and pulled the cup of just tea toward her.

"I know, Buffy," he said, sighing. "I should have said something sooner, but I, I had hoped to have something more, more definitive before I told you…."

"And me," Dawn interrupted, scowling. "Hello? I'm the one who's the key."

Giles reached out and touched her wrist. "Of course. And you, Dawn."

"So spill," Buffy said, sinking into a chair. She looked at Giles expectantly.

He sighed, frowned into his cup. He sipped at the hot, laced tea, and his face relaxed a little bit. "In the winter, I did some research at Council Headquarters. Now, there wasn't a great deal of information," he added hurriedly, holding up a hand as if to ward off questions. "But I did find one text, a very old Tnatum manuscript, that mentioned the key." He sipped his tea again.

"Giles, I'm about up to here with the cryptic," Buffy said, and her voice held a note of warning.

"Professor Berlin was right," Giles said. "Glory…wherever she is…can no longer use the key. No one can, really, except the Key itself. Herself," he said apologetically, nodding at Dawn. "But the Key, well, if certain conditions are met, if certain events take place in a particular order—and the manuscript did not actually say what those events were—then the Key comes of age, if you will. She becomes a power in her own right."

Dawn glanced at Buffy, whose brow furrowed. "What kind of power?" Dawn realized that her pulse was racing.

"Well, it's rather simple, I suppose," Giles answered, but his brow furrowed. "The power to…to open doors."

"Okay," Buffy said, "but what does that mean? What does it mean for Dawn? What kind of doors are we talking about here?"

Dawn looked at Giles with wide eyes. She had been about to ask the same question. "Car doors, maybe?" she asked hopefully. "Cause, like, Janice and I could really use some wheels, you know?" She raised her eyebrows at Buffy, who glared back.

"Dimensional portals?" Buffy continued, pushing her teacup away. "Opening the doors between realities?"

"Well, you see," Giles said slowly. "The manuscript was rather unclear on that point. No one ever expected the Key to become human. If she had been a ball of energy, then we might have understood more, but what it means for the key to be human, human and in this reality….well, we simply don't have any road maps for this."
They sat in silence for a moment. Dawn felt the hum in the back of her mind again, the hum she had felt when Doc had spoken to her. A thief, he'd called her, and she didn't think he'd been talking about shoplifting.

"That man," Dawn said slowly. "He said something to me. He said…he said I hijacked his resurrection."

Giles pulled off his glasses. "Dawn, I'm not sure we can trust everything the Professor said. I know that better than anyone. However, it might be useful to start with the conditions. Did anyone…."

Buffy pulled a folded piece of paper from her back pocket. "I wrote it down."

"Buffy," Giles beamed. "How very resourceful. I'm proud of you."

"And to think they wouldn't let me go back to college," Buffy said dryly. "Okay, listen: 'In killing with no weapon, in seeing a wish undone, in forgiving its greatest threat, the key is met.' And they have to happen in that order?" Giles tilted his head in a nod.

Dawn thought. "Well," she said doubtfully, "I killed those weird zombie things in that cave."

"Yeah, but you had a sword," Buffy pointed out. "Weapon?"

"Oh, yeah." Dawn frowned. She tried to remember. She'd squashed a lot of bugs, but that probably didn't count. "Wait," she said suddenly. "Halloween. I had a…a pencil in my pocket, and Tad…." Her voice trailed off, but Buffy reached over and squeezed her hand.

"That's one," Buffy said matter-of-factly. "Oh, and my birthday party. You wished, and Anya got Halfrek to undo it. That's two. Hey, this is easy."

Giles looked from one sister to the other. "What…."

"Long story," Buffy said under her breath. She smiled. "Okay, just one left, right? 'In forgiving its greatest threat,'" she read again. She pursed her lips.

"Well, it can't be Glory," Giles said. "That happened too early. Greatest threat." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"Should we be worried?" Buffy asked quietly.

"Maybe it's…." Dawn started to say, but then she heard the front door open, and she heard two pairs of footsteps in the hall—one light and quick, the other heavier—and she turned her head to see Xander and Anya, both breathing hard. Anya dropped a paper shopping bag to the floor and put a hand to her chest, panting.

Dawn stared at the bag, incredulous. "You went shopping?"

"Clothes," Anya wheezed. "For Tara. But wait, wait, we went back to the Magic Box," she started to explain, but Xander's voice overlapped hers, urgent and anxious. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He touched the scars on his face.

"Are they okay?" he asked, and to Dawn his eyes looked haunted. Wild with regret. The scars stood out bright red against his sallow skin; Xander touched them again. "Is Willow okay?"


Tara wanted to sleep.

It was one of the first gifts Willow had ever given her, the peace of a restful night. Tara hadn't often slept deeply in her life before Willow. At home, even before her mother had died, she had often woken up at night, startled into wakefulness by the creak of a foot on the floorboards outside her room, by the violent sweaty smells of men. And her first year at college, she had been watchful still, afraid always that they would come find her, that they would burst in at night to take her home. Tara had always rested with one ear open. Just in case.
Sleep in a lover's arms, sleep that lasted all night and ended with another woman's warm breath on your face in the morning—Willow had given her that. And she wanted it right now, wanted it desperately, to rest and be enfolded and see the end of this long, long day.

But she wanted it for Willow more. The previous night, in some gray hour before dawn, Willow had jerked upright in bed, clawing at the covers and keening, and Tara had held her tight and tried to smooth away the nightmares with her touch. It had terrified her, broken her heart, to see the naked pain that attacked before Willow realized that Tara was there.

Tonight there would be no nightmares.

Tonight Tara was keeping a vigil. Tonight, she would watch over Willow, hold her in her arms, and at the first sign of a tremble or a twitch, she would wake Willow up. She could see that her lover had closed down over the past months—months that to Tara felt like little more than days—and she had a vision of opening her again. Tonight, Tara would smooth Willow back against the pillows, would press her knees apart and open her with her fingers and her damp skin. Tara's tongue would be the key that unlocked her, and it would turn on the lights in all of Willow's dark rooms.

And so Tara was awake, waiting.

She was holding Willow, who slept. And she was thinking. About Willow. About wanting. About Glory. Had Glory married them? Tara had only meant it as a joke, wanting to see a smile on Willow's lips, wanting to see something other than the abject relief that had adorned Willow's face all day. But she wondered now. Would it be more true to say that Glory had divorced them? Glory was selfish; Glory was self, and if she had been in them all this time, if she had enhanced them as the professor had said, then had she enhanced their separateness? Had she teased at the parts of them that wanted distance, that wanted to fight against dependence and stand alone?

Tara didn't know how to think about Glory. She had been right to leave Willow when she did, she knew that, but was it Glory who had given her the strength to pack that box and walk away? Was it Glory who had given her the resolve to stay away for so long? Those months alone had been brutal and lonely, harder than hard, but she had grown stronger during them; she knew that. She had become more confident. She felt taller. She rarely stuttered anymore. Was that Glory?

And if Glory had, in some small way, done this to her—done this for her—then what about Willow? Was it Glory who had tickled Willow's magickal bones, who had encouraged her to become more and more dependent on the magick? Was it Glory's influence that had compelled Willow to cast the tabula rasa spell on her?

Tara sighed and wrapped an arm more tightly around Willow's back, pressed her fingers more firmly on the back of Willow's head, which was folded into her chest. She wanted so much to blame it all on Glory, to absolve Willow for violating her and to absolve herself for leaving. But it couldn't be that easy. Could it?

No. It had never been that easy.

She had been afraid of Willow. And she had been afraid of Willow's wanting. And maybe…it didn't change Willow's choices…but maybe she had confused the wanting with the magick.

Maybe, in that cloud that had settled on them after Buffy died, that cloud that had lingered after Buffy's resurrection, she had forgotten to see Willow, her Willow. Maybe she had let her vision of a dark and terrible Willow haunt her, and she hadn't seen that it wasn't true yet, that vision. She hadn't seen that the Willow who tried so hard to be strong, to risk herself with dark magicks in order to protect them all, was still the same Willow. The Willow who needed. The Willow who wanted.

That wanting had scared her, at times, and it had seemed easier to call the wanting "magick." To fear that the magick might consume her, might consume Willow, might consume them both. Burn them alive.

But they were alive. She was alive. And maybe it was the wanting, the endless emerald fire of Willow's wanting, that had brought her back to life. She couldn't fear that anymore. She couldn't fear Willow anymore. Dark magicks had burned Willow to the ground, but the wanting was still there, smoldering.

It had always been there between them, a wanting that was breathless and deep. It hadn't stopped. Magick couldn't stop it. Death couldn't stop it. And Tara didn't want to stop it. Not anymore. She kissed Willow's hair fiercely. Not ever again.

Willow, curled into Tara's body like an infant, curved against her like a lover, slept.


Tara felt the nightmare coming. She felt Willow's breathing change, felt Willow's calves tense, sensed the small sound that started in Willow's stomach and threatened to rise. She eased Willow onto her back and leaned over her, ran a hand through the fine red hair and down the pale shoulder.

"Willow," she whispered, pressing the shoulder with her hand. She tensed, ready to chase the ghost of herself from Willow's dreams. And then, a little louder: "Willow, love, wake up."

It was easy, after all; Willow inhaled once, opened her eyes, and looked directly into Tara's face, and there wasn't time for fear or confusion. Willow met Tara's gaze with her eyes, met Tara's grazing fingers with the skin of her shoulder.

"You know me so deep," she murmured, her voice thick with sleep. The words took Tara back.       
Her first vision of Willow. The first spell. Magick had, for them, always been erotic. But it was more than that. It had always let them know each other, let them open up doors in each other. The first time, the very first time, she had looked at Willow's hand, palm tight against hers, and she had looked at Willow's face, bewildered and winded. And she had heard, or felt, or imagined the words echoing in her mind. You know me. She had said them, or Willow had said them. It didn't matter. They had been said; they crackled in the skin between them.

Like they crackled now.

Tara looked into those green eyes, and she felt Willow's breath quicken, and she felt Willow's skin heat beneath hers, and she couldn't believe that three months had passed without this. She wanted to fill that white fissure in her mind, that empty pocket outside of time and space, to fill it with Willow. She longed for Willow to fill it with her fingers and her knowing and the great thrust of her wanting.                

She knew Willow wanted that, too. She knew it as Willow leaned up and kissed her. The kiss was greedy; it chewed at her lips and pressed into her mouth. It lapped at her teeth and circled her tongue and made her hungry. It swallowed her throat and slid down, down. It consumed her.

Had Tara ever felt, had she ever been so wanted? Had Willow's hands ever clutched her hips so cravenly, slid up her sides so insistently? Had Willow ever licked at the sweat between her breasts with such craving? Had they ever inked fingerprints of such deep lust onto Tara's skin?

Now, Willow's ravenous hands trailed down, and Tara bent one knee and pulled her leg up toward her shoulder. She wanted to expose herself to Willow, to open herself. Willow twisted around, then, flipping Tara onto her back, pressing against the back of Tara's thigh, pressing the knee up.

Tara felt the drum of her own pulse in her neck and the drum of Willow's pulse on her thighs, and when Willow's fingers curled into her, knowing and hungry, she gasped wetly. Willow's skin stuck to hers, Willow's red hair fell over her face, and as Tara's vision blurred with need, Willow's fingers pressed and pulsed deep. And when Tara lost her breath, Willow gave it back to her with her lips and her tongue, and it tasted hot, like wanting. She lay rigid for a moment, feeling the sweat on the back of her thigh with one hand and the damp of Willow's neck with the other, and Willow's name rose up through her nerves and onto her tongue. And Willow's lips held it there.

They lay quietly for a moment, both panting. Willow trailed her wet fingers across Tara's lips and then her own. Tara watched Willow press her fingers into her mouth, tasting her, and desire shuddered through her. She wanted to open all the doors between them.
Tara pushed Willow up onto her knees and slid down. She lifted her face for a moment to the hollow of Willow's hip, where she breathed deeply in, breathed in the angle of the bone and the white of the skin and the last clinging shred of sleep and the sharp scent of want. Willow's hands grasped at her shoulders and then twisted into her hair.
She lifted her head to the flaming place between Willow's thighs and tasted the salt of shell-pink, the rose-smooth of wet, the pulse of red under her tongue. She knew that her lips were touching real body parts, that her fingers were gripping real skin, and she knew somewhere that these parts had names, and she wanted to think them as she touched them, to name them, but she only felt them now, felt them translated into color and sense: Hot. Thirst. Red. Swell.


And she felt Willow's thighs tauten on either side of her face, and she pulled down on Willow's hip with one hand and pressed up with her other, until her fingers were surrounded by Willow, until she was inside Willow. And she felt the ravenous yawn that roared up through Willow's legs and trembled her own cheeks and shook them both so deeply that Willow could only whisper her name: Tara.

It wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough.

Feeling Willow's head rising and falling on her heaving chest, feeling the gasp of Willow's breath under her own hands, Tara felt that she could never get enough of this woman: her lover, her witch, her Willow. She felt the wanting that breezed up again in Willow and ended in herself. A gust of wanting that reached inside her like fingers, that lived on her tongue, that beat back all the last closed doors between them.

"You open me, Willow," she said thickly. And she reached for her again.


Chapter 14: Sore

The sight of you is good for sore eyes.
    --Jonathan Swift

Willow watched Tara sleep in the weak morning sunlight that filtered through the curtains. She knew that Tara had stayed awake to hold her, to keep watch, and she wanted to feel guilty about that…but she didn't. Instead, she felt loved and protected, and she had missed that feeling so much. And Tara could sleep now that it was light outside, and their nightmares were safely tucked away. For a little while, anyway.

She leaned against the headboard, Tara's head in her lap, and thought again that it had all happened so fast. She could hardly believe it still, but she did believe it. She believed in this miracle, Tara's bare skin pressed against hers under the sheet, Tara's tousled blonde hair falling over her legs and stomach. It was everything else that she didn't believe: death and killing and pain. But it had happened; it had all happened.

She shook her head, buried a hand in Tara's hair, feeling the warmth of Tara's scalp against her fingers. Her other hand trailed down Tara's bare arm, feeling the shoulder and the elbow and wrapping her fingers possessively around the wrist until she could feel the pulse beating under the skin.

Under her fingers, the arm stirred, and Tara's head moved, and Tara opened her eyes and looked up at her. Willow felt a rush of love so powerful she thought for a moment it would knock her out. She gripped Tara's shoulder to ground herself.

"Morning, sleepyhead," Willow murmured. Tara smiled lazily and started to lift her head but stopped, grabbing her neck with her hand.

"Ouch," she said, wincing. She rubbed her neck with her hand, moved her jaw, shifted her legs. "Oh, God."

Willow felt the blood rush into her cheeks. "Did I hurt you?" she whispered. It was the thing she was most afraid of now, the thing she thought she might be most afraid of always.

Tara rolled onto her back and looked at Willow with eyes so deeply loving that Willow almost felt she'd been kissed. "Never," Tara said seriously. "I'm just kind of…sore. Um, everywhere. Aren't you?" Willow just blushed, suddenly feeling very shy.

The sheet had pulled back when Tara had rolled over, exposing Willow's lower body. Tara's eyes narrowed with concern at the dark purple bruise that spread over her hip, the skin almost black with broken capillaries. From her fall, Willow realized now, when Tara had first appeared.

Tara ran a finger over the skin. "That looks painful," she murmured. "Poor thing."

"I didn't even feel it," Willow said honestly. She touched Tara's cheek with her palm. "I don't feel anything but you." It was true; her heart pounded with Tara; her skin hummed with Tara. She felt the heat from Tara's cheek seep into her palm, warming its way up her arm and into her chest and down, and she felt her lust return. Again.

"I want to feel you again." She grinned to take the edge off her need, to make it playful. She wanted to be playful.

Tara closed her eyes, her head dropping back onto Willow's stomach. "Willow, darling," she said, a laugh in her voice. "I don't think I can. Four nights in a row…."

Willow blinked. "It's only been…" she started to say, then stopped. Of course for Tara it had been four nights. They had talked about this in the dark, about the fact that Tara felt the passage of three months as only a wrinkle in her mind, a little empty place. But really, the time hadn't passed for Tara, not like it had for her. Willow kept forgetting that. It was hard to grasp.

"Four nights," she said, trying to make her brain understand it. "I know." Tara did look exhausted, bluish smudges under her eyes. "I know," she said again, grinning again as her fingers traced their way down Tara's neck, pausing to tickle the hollow of Tara's throat. "And you should definitely rest…after." Her fingers paused again on the top swell of Tara's breast. Tara shivered, and Willow giggled a little bit as Tara's eyes darkened.

She started to let her fingers circle, but Tara reached for her wrist and held it tight. Willow stopped, surprised, and glanced uncertainly at Tara's eyes, the smile fading from her lips.

"Willow," Tara said softly, and she reached her other hand to Willow's chin, rubbed her thumb on the soft skin underneath her jaw. "Willow, I love you." Willow's eyes fluttered at the words; they caressed her.

She felt dizzy; for a moment she couldn't speak, couldn't find any words that would give shape to her love for Tara. It was a forest fire, it was an ocean, it was a planet. It was everything.

"I love you so much," she murmured finally, knowing how inadequate the words were as she leaned down to brush Tara's forehead with her lips. But Tara pushed down on her chin, and Willow's lips ended up on Tara's mouth instead, and she felt Tara's hot breath. After a moment, she pulled away, breathless.

"More," Tara said, reaching a hand around to the back of Willow's neck.

"I thought you needed to sleep," Willow teased, feeling the blood rush down her neck and up her thighs. Tara's breath came out in a gentle laugh.

"I will," Tara said. "After."


Buffy looked up from the stack of Magic Box invoices she was double-checking when Willow entered the kitchen early the next afternoon, damp-haired and loose-limbed. "How's Tara?" she asked coyly.

Willow glanced at the wall clock and looked away quickly, biting her lip. Buffy hid a smile as she watched Willow cross and uncross her arms. Finally, she just let her arms drop and folded her hands in front of her. "She's still pretty tired," Willow said. "You know, with…being alive and…everything. She's asleep."

"Yeah, it sounded like you were both getting lots of…sleep," Buffy said lightly, smiling as Willow's face flushed deep pink.

"But we were really quiet," Willow protested, crossing her arms over her chest again. Buffy thought how good—how really, really good—it was to hear the rise in Willow's voice, to see her embarrassed. To see her any other way but ashamed or empty.

"Slayer hearing," Buffy reminded her. And she'd heard an earful. She slid off her stool and went to Willow, squeezing her shoulder. "You look good with the blushing, Will. I've missed that." Willow smiled at that and sank down onto the closest stool. "Let me make you one of your drinks, okay? I want you to eat something, so don't say no." Buffy pulled a glass from the dish rack.

"Um, Buffy?" She turned to see Willow eyeing the toaster thoughtfully as Dawn entered the kitchen with a stack of comic books. "I think maybe I could eat something else today."
"Ooh, ooh, let me make it for you," Dawn gave a little hop. "Please, Willow, let me make you something. I can make quesadillas—the real kind, not the peanut butter kind."

Buffy paused, glass in hand. She knew that Dawn and Willow had gotten closer over the summer; she knew from phone calls and postcards that as much as Willow had tried to hold her grief in, to keep it behind closed doors, she had sobbed in Dawn's arms more than once. And she knew that Dawn had cried for Tara on Willow's shoulder. She hadn't been there to see it, to see the trust that they had re-established between them, but she saw it now in Dawn's shining eyes and in the acceptance of Willow's smile.

"Sure, Dawnie," Willow said, reaching out to tousle Dawn's hair playfully. "A quesadilla sounds good."

In the end, Willow ate three while Buffy and Dawn fussed over her, and Dawn would have slid a fourth onto her plate if she hadn't refused, covering her plate with her hands and moaning that she couldn't possibly.

"You have an appetite again!" Dawn squealed happily, and then went off to answer the phone. "Hey, Janice," she said into the receiver, disappearing around the corner to the hallway.

"Yeah, Will," Buffy teased, "any more appetite and I'm going to have to separate you and Tara so that poor girl can get some rest." Willow blushed again and giggled, and although Buffy noticed that she looked around almost guiltily after she laughed, she had laughed. She even stuck her tongue out the way she used to do, just the tip. Buffy hadn't seen Willow do that in months.

It struck Buffy, suddenly, a little sadly, that no one had started laughing again like that after she had come back from the dead, but she pushed that thought away quickly, tucked it under the protective layer of Slayer that she wore like sunscreen over a burned and peeling heart.

"I'm just going to go check on her, Buffy, okay?" Willow slid off her stool, but she waited. Her laugh had faded as quickly as it had bubbled up, leaving her brow wrinkled and her hands clenched to her chest. "I'll just peek in, I promise, and come right back, but I just want to make sure…."

"Absolutely," Buffy said, understanding Willow's need to see Tara for a moment, to reassure herself that she was still there, sleeping safely. "I'll be here." And Willow smiled again.

Buffy watched her go, noticing again the way Willow's arms and hips swayed freely as she walked, and she felt a lump form in her throat. She had dreamed of this moment, not a Slayer's dream of portent and prophecy but a girl's dream of seeing her friends happy. Including Willow. God, who was she kidding, especially Willow.

And she was happy for Tara and Willow, so happy it hurt. But it reminded her, too, how much she missed that kind of love. The kind that swept you off your feet at night and wrapped around you like an extra-large oxford-cloth shirt in the morning, scented with after-shave and coffee. The kind that she'd only had with…with Riley. Maybe by the end it had become hard and hurtful, been infused with pain and anger, but in the beginning, it had been lighter. It had felt good. It had been a bandage, a salve.

Buffy thought now that she hadn't recognized it as love soon enough for that very reason, because it hadn't hurt. And when, before—or after—those early days with Riley, had love not hurt? At least with Riley, before he'd pimped his blood out, before he'd left, love hadn't left her wanting and him cursed. It hadn't left her sick at heart and him violent. It hadn't left him evil and herself sore.


Tara pushed away the remains of the dinner Dawn and Buffy had left her and tugged again at her shirt. Willow had heard the shower running when Tara had finally, finally dragged herself out of bed in the late afternoon and brought her a shopping bag full of clothes.

"Anya got them," Willow had said with a grateful tremor in her voice, but Tara had only been relieved to see the jeans and the skirt, the shirt and thin sweater, a pair of sandals. "She even got you underwear." Tara had wondered, in the shower, what she would do when she ran out of the few articles of her clothing that had remained in Willow's closet and bureau drawers, and so the bag of clothes had been a relief.

It would be ungracious, surely, to notice that the outfits Anya had chosen for her were…well, more Anya than Tara. And so she tugged at the tight shirt and realized with a sigh that there were all kinds of practical matters she was going to have to figure out. School, for instance. She didn't think that her scholarship had a resurrection clause.

She hadn't mentioned this to Willow yet; it was too soon, and Willow was still so raw, still an open wound. It had been all she could do to convince Willow to go for a walk with Buffy and Dawn, to get some fresh air while Tara woke up and ate dinner. She knew that Willow was afraid to leave her, afraid even to stop touching her, but Tara thought that Buffy was right to say it was necessary. Baby steps, Buffy had told Tara, squeezing her hand sympathetically. Just an hour or two.

Tara had expected that it would be hard for Willow, that brief separation. What she hadn't expected was the void she would feel the minute Willow left, turning her pale face to look at Tara one more time as Buffy and Dawn tugged her out the front door. It was different, somehow, from sleeping and knowing that Willow was in the shower or the kitchen, different from her solitary walk of the day before, when she had desperately needed time just to think.

This time, she had bit her lip, crossed her hands behind her to avoid reaching for Willow as the door closed. And it had been, already, a painfully long, endlessly stretching hour when she couldn't see Willow, couldn't make sure that she was all right. An hour when she had to trust that someone else was taking care of Willow.

But it was more than that. If she was honest, it was an hour when she was alone, and that frightened her. It was like…before, in the white place. She had been alone before, and being alone now, in the dining room of a house she had once lived in, with her plate of salad and re-heated quesadillas and the quiet ticking of the clock on the wall, she felt dizzily surreal.

What if she had dreamed the last two days? What if all this were just a trick of her mind? What if this were just her own cozy heaven, but really she was still dead and in the ground, and Willow was still….

"Stop it," she said out loud and pressed her hand against the small and greenish fingerprint bruises that Willow's grip had left on her arm the evening before. That helped, feeling the bruises. Willow had left an impression on her. She was here.

"Stop what?" She glanced up, startled, to see Xander leaning in the kitchen doorway, shoulders slumped and looking as tired as she still felt. His feet dragged across the floor, and he sank into a chair and set a bottle of beer on the table.
"Oh," she said. "It's nothing. I was just…."

"Worrying about Will?" Xander took a swig of his beer.

Tara half-smiled and nodded. "And about me, too, a little bit," she confessed. "It's strange, you know? I mean, Buffy used to talk to me a little bit about what it was like for her, but…I don't think it's the same." She pushed her fork around her plate again for something to do, for somewhere to look.

"Anya told me to tell you that we saved some of your stuff," he said quietly. "I know Buffy's got a lot on her mind right now, so maybe she didn't mention it, but she and Anya went to your dorm room after…and got some books and magick stuff and…well, I don't know. There was some jewelry, I think. A blue rock. Photographs. Some stuff Buffy said Willow gave you." He picked at the edges of the beer label. Tara thought he seemed nervous, thought he was talking to avoid some other conversation.

"They had to hurry because your father was coming to get your things, and they wanted to ask Willow what to get—what was important—but that was before she started talking again, so…." Tara's stomach lurched at that, and her fork scraped against the plate. They both winced at the noise. "So…."

"Xander," she interrupted. "What do you really want to talk about?" He set down his beer bottle and met her gaze for the first time. He smiled a little.

"I forgot that you could do that," he said. "You always could do that." He was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke again, his words came out in a rush. "Listen, Tara, I know it must be kind of confusing right now, but we have to talk about this. Someone has to talk about this. Buffy and Giles told me about the spell in the Magic Box, and they both said it was fine, but I have to ask. What exactly do you think you're doing with Willow and the magicks?" Tara waited for more, but he didn't say anything.

"Xander, it was okay last night. She was okay. She didn't go over the edge. It was fine. I could feel it…I could feel her, and she was okay. " Tara's brow furrowed. She didn't know how to explain it so that he would understand.

"Yeah, that's what Buff said, too," he said slowly. "And it's a step; I get that. But what about when you're not around, Tara? What happens if Willow gets tempted to go Wicked Witch of the West again…maybe for a good reason…and you're not there? You can't be with her 24 hours a day, not forever." He leaned forward.

Tara's mouth felt suddenly dry. She licked her lips and wondered where Willow was right then. Her hand shook slightly as she lifted her water glass and sipped.
"You don't know what it was like," Xander continued before she could speak, his voice quiet. Tara steeled herself against what she knew was coming, some description of Willow's brutality, but Xander surprised her. "Tara, she woke up at night screaming. She wanted to die. You just don't know."

"You think that was my choice?" Tara asked, hearing her voice grow louder. "You think this is easy for me? You think I want to know that she suffered so much and was alone?" Tara heard her voice trembling and pressed her lips together. Her stomach churned.

Xander shook his head in. "Tara, she wasn't alone. That's just it. You weren't here, but she had the rest of us." He took another swig of beer.

"Is that what this is about?" Tara asked, confused. She wasn't sure exactly what they were talking about, and that was oddly familiar. There was always a subtext with the Scoobies, always something lurking underneath the still waters of conversation. "Xander, I don't want to get in between you and Willow. I swear I don't."

"Tara," he went on as if she hadn't spoken, gripping his beer bottle with both hands. "You went away and left her, and the rest of us had to pick up the pieces, and now you want to come back and change all the rules." His voice was even and taut.

"I didn't just 'go away,' Xander," she said tightly. "I was dead, remember? I was dead. I didn't choose to leave." Anger was an unfamiliar emotion to Tara, but she felt it rising in her chest now, squeezing her vocal cords, choking her words.

Xander let out a puff of breath. "Yeah, well you may have died three months ago, but you left Willow a long time before that." Tara felt his words as a slap.

"Don't you talk to me about leaving," she said, and her voice shook with anger. "Don't you dare. You were too busy leaving Anya at the altar to notice that Willow needed help. If she'd really had the support she needed when she quit the magicks, then maybe she wouldn't have lashed out like that after I died." She narrowed her eyes at Xander. "So where were you then?"

"I think that's a case of the pot calling the kettle black, don't you, Tara?" he said coldly.

"You don't know how it was between us," she said heatedly. Some corner of her mind realized that she was still gripping her fork, pointing it at him. "I did what I thought I had to do. I did what I thought was right for me and right for Willow."
Xander looked at her for a long moment. "That's what I thought I was doing now," he said tightly, and his fingers clenched into a fist, the knuckles whitening as Tara watched. It was familiar, that fist. That rage. Xander had made that fist after Joyce died, and the same memory that had flashed into Tara's mind then waved over her now.

Her mother had died, and grief had clawed at Tara like an animal, ripping her from throat to stomach, leaving her exposed to an emptiness that yawned and screamed to be filled. For a long time, she couldn't even cry.

The emptiness seemed to grow larger all the time—at home, where she couldn't fill it with laundry or cooking or secret casting in the closet of her bedroom, and at school, where she couldn't fill it with studying.

She found one thing to fill that emptiness, finally, in the shape of a dark girl with short, spiky hair and a nose ring. Tara hadn't actually liked Luz that much, hadn't liked the way she cut class to smoke clove cigarettes, hadn't liked the way she sometimes mocked Tara's stutter, hadn't liked the way she had no time for Tara except the time that they could grab, after school but before Tara was expected home to make dinner, for the awkward kissing and groping in Luz's car that formed their entire relationship.

That, at least, she had liked. It had felt…almost good, almost like living, having someone's hot lips press against hers, having someone's arms holding her. It wasn't much, but it took the edge off the emptiness for a little while.

Until they were caught half-dressed, as they should have known they would be, by some kids out looking for a lost dog. Friends of Tara's brother. And Donny was waiting when she got home. "Just wait until Dad finds out," he'd sneered at her. "Just wait until he gets home, you little witch."

"It's none of your business," she had said weakly, although she knew it wouldn't matter, but Donny had laughed in her face.

"You sick demon dyke," he spat out, and he had raised his hand. "You're a shame to your Mama's memory."

Without thinking, without making a conscious decision, without filtering the urge the way she always had done before, almost always would do after, Tara had made a fist, had murmured a couple of words, and her brother had doubled over in pain, clenching at his stomach and falling to his knees. She had squeezed her fingers tight, and that fist of her own rage and grief had caused Donny to scream with the pain. And for a second, just for one second, the hurt was gone. The emptiness was filled.

"Don't ever touch me again," she said, her voice tight with anger. And she had left him on the kitchen floor, contorted and writhing, while she went out to the barn and cried, sobbed because her mother was dead and she had let her down. Not by kissing Luz—her mother would have accepted that, Tara knew—but by using the magick to hurt.

By becoming the demon.

had left her alone after that, at least physically. But Tara had felt sick anyway. She had cast on purpose, cast in order to hurt someone, cast because she could. And it had felt so, so wrong. She would almost have preferred a beating to that knowledge, that she could be violent and cruel to protect herself, that she could lash out with magick like that. She would have slept easier at night if she had actually used her first, smacked Donny or the table or the screen door.

So she had known, instinctively, when she saw Xander pull his fist from the cheap plaster of Willow's dorm room and clench it, looking with something like satisfaction at the blood on his knuckles, what he felt, how that contact of his fingers with the hard wall had seemed, for just one second, like relief.

And she had known, because she remembered, that it faded quickly, so quickly. She had caught Xander's eye and smiled at him, a little, through the grief of her own remembering, and she had spoken the only words of comfort she knew. "It hurts," she had said.

Now, Tara's unfamiliar anger fizzled as suddenly as it had flared up, draining away from her chest and leaving only that same sick feeling in her gut.

"Xander," she pushed back her chair and walked around the table to where Xander was sitting. She sank into the chair next to him, perched on the edge of the seat, facing him. "I know you want to take care of her, I know you do, but you've got to trust me to do that now. She'll always need you, but right now," a wrinkle creased Tara's forehead as she said words she knew it would hurt Xander to hear, "she needs me more."

He looked at her for a long moment, and then the taut line of his jaw loosened, and his fingers unclenched. "You know, Anya was right about one thing," he said finally. "I have these two women, and they're the loves of my life. One of them doesn't need me because she's the Slayer. And the other one doesn't need me because she has you. I don't have anyone who really needs me." He smiled, and there was pain in his smile. But there was also, finally, acceptance.

Tara reached out tentatively and touched the scars on his face, as she'd wanted to do since she'd first seen them, and Xander did not flinch. "Anya needed you," she said quietly. "She still does."


"I still do," Willow said suddenly, insistently.

The evening air was warm and dry; it was still a relief to Dawn after a summer of damp. She felt good, great even. So maybe they didn't have the Key business figured out yet, but Tara was alive and eating her quesadillas right now, and Buffy was smiling and swinging Willow's hand in hers.

Dawn thought that Buffy had been extra touchy with Willow all day, and that made sense to her. She had felt Willow's whole arm shaking when they had pulled her through the front door of the house to take this walk. knew that Willow just wanted to be around Tara. Dawn thought that she would be the same way; she kind of felt that way now. She wanted to see Tara all the time, to remind herself. Like a bruise. You knew it was there, but you wanted to keep pressing it anyway, to remind yourself that it hurt. Only that was stupid, she thought now. Tara wasn't a bruise. Bruises were bad. Bruises hurt.

"Still do what?" Dawn asked, confused. Buffy had thought they might run into the Poet while they were out, but after an uneventful walk, they had been talking about ice cream, about whether they should pick up milkshakes to take home.

"Still think we should stop at a pay phone," Willow said, biting her lip. "We should call the house. Make sure Tara is okay." She was breathing fast, and in the light of the street lamp, her face looked pale. She shifted nervously from one foot to the other.

"Will," Buffy said gently. "You can do this. We'll be home in twenty minutes. Just hang on, okay? Nothing's going to happen in twenty minutes, right?"

"Well, maybe you could tell me something to get my mind off it, then," Willow said finally, giving in. "You should tell me the riddle. I didn't hear it the first time."

Dawn looked uneasily at Buffy, and Willow caught the look.

"Please," Willow said quietly, almost desperately. "I'm not going to break if you tell me something hard, I promise. Even if it's something bad. I'll try not to fall apart. I know Tara's not here to hold my hand," her voice caught, "but I want to help. I can handle it."

Buffy didn't answer at first, and Dawn could see her thinking, deciding. They had worked out their ideas about the riddle and the Key with Giles the night before, but it all seemed kind of unimportant right now. And there was no reason in making anyone feel bad. If she was the Key, she was the Key, right? Okay Sarah Sarah, or something like that.

What mattered, Dawn and Buffy and Giles had decided, was that clearly all three conditions had been met before she'd left for England. And that meant that her powers had been unlocked for months. Although if that was true, Dawn thought now, scuffing her shoe along the pavement, then being the Key totally sucked. Forget a car; being the Key couldn't even get her extra allowance. Or, apparently, a milkshake.

"Can we at least talk about the headaches," Willow asked, pleading, but the clanging noise of a metal trash can rolling out of an alley ahead stopped her.

"I thought it was too quiet," Buffy said with a sigh. "You two stay back." She stalked ahead, but in spite of her warning, Dawn gripped Willow's arm and followed her sister.

Dawn could hear the voice as they approached the alley, a voice that, as they approached, became familiar. Peering around the corner of the alley as Buffy marched ahead, she could see two shapes wrestling in the street. It was dark, and Dawn couldn't see more than dim outlines, but the shape on top had horns coming out from either side of its head, and…yuck, were those more horns sticking out from its hips?

Beneath the horned shape was something else, and that, Dawn realized, was where the voice was coming from. "My name is Ozymandias," the voice was shouting, "king of kings." Weird, Dawn thought. Talking about some over-the-hill rock star and his stupid reality show.

"The poet," Willow murmured. Dawn frowned; she hadn't paid that much attention in English lit last year.
"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" The shape on the bottom shouted and kicked out, and the monster flew back, sliding along the pavement to end in a heap at Buffy's feet.

For a moment, it didn't move, but then Buffy cleared her throat. It looked up at her, and even in the shadows, Dawn could see the leer.

"Well, someone's feeling horny," Buffy said, and she lifted her booted foot, brushed against it with her hand, and shot it out at the monster's chest, pushing down with her boot as the creature slumped to the pavement, a trickle of something dark oozing from its chest and its mouth. When Buffy pulled her foot away, wiping it on the pavement, Dawn caught a flash of metal on the sole of her shoe.

"Nothing else remains," the other shape said.

"When did she go all Inspector Gadget?" Willow asked Dawn under her breath.

But Buffy wasn't finished. She stood, hands on her hips, and called out to the other shape, who had stood up and was limping forward, toward the circle of yellowish lamp light at the end of the alley.

"So I hear you do a mean limerick," Buffy was saying, but Dawn thought there was something familiar about the slim sway of hips, the slope of the shoulders.

"You know, 'there once was a vigilante,'" Buffy continued, standing still. "Why don't you tell me the next line? Because I haven't had much time for reading lately." Her voice was light, but as the shape took another step forward, Buffy stopped, suddenly, and Dawn saw who it was.

The hair was different, longer and almost brown, and the face was hard to make out under the bruises and the blood, but it was definitely him. Beaten within an inch of his life, it looked like, and probably sore all over, judging from the limp and the way he held an arm close to his side, but him. Dawn's stomach clenched with disgust.

He took another step, and then sunk onto his knees in front of Buffy, pulling his shirt apart at the neck and lifting his bloodied face to her. "I've been waiting for you, Slayer" he said, and there was no poetry at all in his voice now.

"Spike?" Willow whispered hoarsely, and Dawn felt her arm go rigid.

"Spike," Buffy said grimly, and she pulled a stake from her jacket.

In that moment, Dawn was struck dumb with dread. She looked at Buffy, whose lips tightened and who seemed not to realize that she held her stake up, poised and ready to strike. And Giles was not there to stop her.

Then Dawn looked at Willow, whose eyes flashed dark and who seemed unaware that she had raised a hand, the fingers stretching toward the figure on the ground and quivering slightly. And Tara was not there to stop her.

And Dawn reflected, in that surreal way that allows a person to be completely within a moment and completely detached from it at the same time, that this would probably be a good time to be the Key. If only she knew how.


Chapter 15: The Poet and the Pendulum

It seems I am still waiting
for them to make some clear demand
some articulate sound or gesture,
for release to come from anywhere
but from inside myself.
    --Adrienne Rich, "Toward the Solstice"

Tara could see them, two thin figures clutching one another in a shadowed corner of the alley. One holding the other up. And two others, standing back, watching. Fear hit her: a fist in the stomach. Willow was hurt. Willow couldn't stand up straight. Willow had cast, and without her, it had gone wrong . She stopped still for a second, paralyzed, as Xander ran ahead.

She had grown uneasy in the Summers house, alone with Xander and his scars, alone without Willow. Too much time had passed. Something was wrong. She shouldn't have let Willow go out without her; it was too soon. She had tried to focus her mind, to find Willow in their old way, but she had felt too anxious to cast a finding spell, too distracted, and so they had set out on foot, toward the Magick Box.

And she had been right, it seemed. Willow was in trouble. Willow couldn't stand alone. Willow needed help. And Tara felt afraid.

But when Xander reached the huddled figures ahead of her, and they looked up, she realized she'd had it all wrong. It was Buffy who was limp. And it was Willow who was holding her up. Tara closed the remaining distance between them on a wave of relief, reaching her arms around both girls in a brief, hard hug.

Tara caught Willow's eye, and the look she saw there was calm enough, peaceful enough, to let her breathe again. It was okay. Over Willow's shoulder, she saw Anya reach for Xander's hand but then curl her fingers into a fist and let her arm drop.

"Dawnie," Willow said, nodding her head toward the alley wall, and Tara turned to see Dawn, standing rigid against a brick wall, staring into space. Tara went to her, touched her, and Dawn seemed to shake herself.

"What…what happened?" Dawn asked slowly. She glanced around, confused.

Tara frowned and glanced uncertainly at Buffy. Xander had taken her other arm, but she seemed calmer already, standing up straight. Willow had an arm around Buffy's shoulders and was talking softly to her, but she was watching Tara.

"Did you have a headache? What do you remember?" she asked Dawn softly, touching her arm.

Dawn bit her lip. "Spike was here," she said finally. "And he…I think he wanted Buffy to kill him, but she wouldn't, and Willow's eyes were all dark, and then…." Tara's throat tightened at that, but she kept her voice calm.

"Then what, sweetie?" she asked softly. "You can tell me; it's okay. Whatever it is, we'll figure it out."

But Dawn shook her head. "That's all I remember," she said. "And now you're here."


"I want to know what happened," Dawn said again, more insistently this time. "Buffy, please. Where did Spike go?"

Tara had fussed over Buffy when they'd arrived home, running her a hot bath and insisting that she eat a piece of toast and drink hot tea. She didn't ask any questions, just seemed to know that Buffy wanted to feel quiet and clean and warm and full. Buffy had missed being cared for like that. It felt good.

Now—Buffy thought it was only right—Tara's attention had turned back to Willow; she had settled into the corner of the sofa and pulled Willow to her, wrapped her arms around her, and Buffy watched both girls' eyes close for a moment as their bodies touched. She could almost feel the sigh that passed through them both, that drew Willow's back to Tara's chest. At the contact.

It had never been like that, with Spike. It had been contact, and she had wanted it for awhile, but it hadn't been a sigh. More of a gasp. Like seeing him again had been a gasp. She wanted to explain it, to tell the others what had happened, but she couldn't find the words. She was still, a little, in the gasp.

Buffy had thought first of powerlessness. It felt like the white of enamel bathtub in the small of her back. It felt like the black of slick leather pulled like a blanket over her nakedness. It felt like the cold gray of a crypt. Or the final gray of the tombstone over your head. Or the paralyzing gray of not knowing what to do.

The weak lamp light had flattened the alley into grays, blurred the flat edges of black and white like an old movie. That was unusual; Buffy usually found that her Slayer vision was 20/20, clear and focused and seeing right through to the sharp heart of a situation. But at the moment, the only thing that looked sharp was Mr. Pointy.

She was aware of Willow and Dawn, standing back and to her left. She heard one of them gasp and knew that they had seen what she had just seen: Spike, kneeling in front of her, holding his shirt open over his bare chest, blurred with blood and bruises.

It came back, all of it, a movie seen long ago and played now on rewind. The great empty hole of her life and the way that she'd used Spike to fill it. Sex that left her splintered. Rage and wanting; lust and anger. The aching relief of telling him no. The surprise—and how much had she had to will herself to forget in order to feel that shocking, cold surprise?—when he wouldn't listen.

"He wouldn't listen," Willow was saying, and Buffy jerked herself back to the present. "He said horrible things. He was taunting her. He was…God, he was lewd. It made me so…."

Xander shook his head. He flexed a wrist against the mantle. "Why didn't you just beat the crap out of him? He deserved it after what he did to you."

Buffy glanced at Willow, who smiled at her gently, and Tara, who looked keenly at her but said nothing. "Xander," she said. She didn't know how to explain. "That's what he wanted. That's why he came." She swallowed against the memory of his eyes, blackened by torment. Against his cheekbones, angled with shame.

"Sorry, Buff, I don't get it," Xander went on. "Spike's back in town, only instead of banging heads, he's doing poetry slams? And by the way, does anyone else think it's strange that we had two showdowns in two days, and I missed them both?"

Buffy sighed, remembering. "He wanted me to kill him," she said. "He was trying to provoke me…to make me mad enough to stake him. Only…."

"Only what?" Dawn asked, her voice tiny.

"Only…" Buffy said again, but she couldn't get the words out.

"Only he's human," Anya said from the doorway. She smiled broadly, and it occurred to Buffy that she liked poofing in and out of rooms.

"Jesus, Anya," Xander said tiredly. "Can't you just use the door like everyone else?"

She glanced at him. "He's human," she said again, patiently. "He made a deal to be restored to how he was before. He was trying to get rid of the chip, but what he was before was human. But he remembers everything. And now he's crazy with guilt, insane. D'Hoffryn's theory is that Spike was reciting poetry to try to block his vampire life from his mind."

Buffy saw Xander roll his eyes. "D'Hoffryn says," he muttered quietly. Anya just looked at him, impassive.

"He used to write poetry," Buffy said quietly. "Before he was turned. He told me about it once. Love poems." When he was human. When he was William. When he was a….

"… coward," she had called him, her voice full of contempt. "After everything, after what you tried to do to me, I still trusted you with Dawn. I still thought there was some hope for you. And you ran."

Why was it that she remembered only what she had said? Why was it that even now, Spike was fading, fading like the lines of a poem she'd once had memorized but now could barely remember? He had spoken, she knew he had spoken to her, but the words were gone.

She'd laughed at him, incredulous. "But you didn't destroy me," she'd said. "You didn't destroy anything. Spike, look around. You have no victims here." She had gestured at Willow, standing next to her, at Anya and Dawn, a few paces off. Survivors. Women unbroken, in the end, by men. Or vampires. Or gods. Or grief.

"You have no victims here ," she'd said again, and she'd known as she heard the words that it was true. "Save your atonement for the people you really hurt."

She had reached down then and grabbed his shirt, pulled him easily to his feet. She'd looked past the bruises to his eyes, past Spike to William, and she remembered, deep in her bones, looking past Angelus to Angel, when he'd come back, in that painful moment before she'd killed him. She knew that suffering. And then she had pulled him down and kissed him—lightly, so lightly—on the forehead. And then she let go.

"Get out of Sunnydale, Spike," she had said. "Go to L.A. Go back to England. Go somewhere, anywhere. Go spend your life doing something good. Atoning. But not here. Not with me."

She thought he'd lifted his chin then, thought that his eyes sparked finally with understanding. He had looked at her for a long moment, looked past her to Dawn with something like longing.

And then he turned. And he walked away, out of the alley and into the night. And Buffy had watched him go, watched the sloping back of the vampire who had never known how to love her straighten into the back of the man who would spend a lifetime regretting it.

The others were quiet when Buffy stopped talking, reflective. For a moment, no one said a word, not even Xander. But Buffy glanced over at the sofa to Willow and Tara, and she saw two sets of eyes wet with understanding. They understood different things, perhaps, but they understood.

"But why did he stop?" Dawn asked. "I don't get it. What made him stop?"

Buffy lifted her hands and let them fall back into her lap. She looked at Willow for help.

"Something changed," Willow said slowly. "I don't know…I walked over, and then Anya showed up, and she and Buffy were talking, and then we looked over and Spike was…different. Like the fire had gone out. He listened. It was kind of weird, I guess. Now that you mention it." Buffy nodded. That was how she remembered it, too.

"And that's it?" Xander asked finally. "We've been hearing about the poet for days, and he turns out to be Spike, and that's all we get?" He looked at Buffy helplessly, his eyes red with wanting to help. "No ass-kicking, no yelling, Jesus…. What kind of…what kind of closure is that?"

Buffy shrugged and opened her mouth, but it was Anya who spoke, touching Xander's arm and speaking quietly and evenly, with what Buffy knew was the wisdom of a thousand years of vengeance, a thousand years of love, a thousand years of good-byes to people you thought you'd known, once.

"Sometimes," she said, "it's the only kind you get."


"I get it," Tara said slowly, and Willow leaned back into her, let her head fall against the curve of Tara's neck, felt the warmth of Tara's arms around her waist. "But Will…were you tempted? Dawn said your eyes were dark."

The others had drifted off to the kitchen, but Tara and Willow remained on the sofa, each unwilling to let the other go. And here, safely encircled, Willow remembered, and she told Tara.

Willow had thought first of powerlessness. It was the white fingers of Glory like lightning in her brain. It was the black itch of temptation and the cold black of grief. It was the damp gray of night sweats in a lonely bed. And the ashen gray of skin. And the endless gray of not knowing what to do.

Willow felt the rush. The blood in her head, the tensing of her arm, the narrowing of her eyes. She felt it all, sudden and complete. And for a moment—for one terrifying moment—she thought she was powerless against it, that the magicks would take her over. She saw it happen, a movie played on fast-forward. She would cast against Spike, and she would kill him for what he'd tried to do to Buffy. And she wouldn't be able to stop, and Buffy and Dawn would turn on her, and she would be alone. She would be punished. Tara would die again. And it would all begin again.

But a recollection pushed its way through the haze of fear and inevitability. She remembered the evening Dawn had told her about Spike.

They had been walking, and she had been half-listening as Dawn told her the news from Sunnydale, about Buffy and Xander and Giles and Anya and Janice.

Willow had hardly noticed the omission. They had walked on, with just the tickle of something missing, and then she had turned to Dawn suddenly. "What about Spike?" she had asked.
And so Dawn had told her.

Willow had felt it then, the hot, wet boiling up of emotion through the flat and dusty prairie of her grief. She didn't even recognize it at first, could only see it as the magicks, could only understand it as a return to darkness and evil and pain.

She had gone stumbling to find one of the Guides, crying so violently she could hardly see, terrified of the magicks that had become her enemies. She'd once thought that dying would only keep her from Tara temporarily, but now she knew that their separation was utterly final. Tara was somewhere peaceful and light, with her mother maybe, but Willow would only pass out of this world into a hell dimension of endless torment, some dark city of fire and suffering where she would be forever alone.

"It's back," she had screamed at the Guide, clawing at her chest and arms, sobbing. She'd been unable to breathe, unable to stand, images of Tara and Spike and a bruised Buffy crowding her mind. She had felt wild. Uncontrollable. It had scared the hell out of her. And out of Dawn, who had followed her and was weeping softly in the doorway.

"Willow," the Guide had said quietly, her voice wrapping calmly around Willow, a blanket around a shock victim, "that's not the magicks you're feeling. Listen. Take a breath and listen to your body and your mind. Come."

She had put a hand on each of Willow's shoulders and had breathed, and eventually Willow had breathed with her, and she had tried to listen, tried to see through that haze of pain and blackness. And she had, in the end, heard it.

It wasn't the magicks. It had never been the magicks.

It was anger. That Buffy had been hurt. That Tara had been ripped away from her. That she would be alone in life and alone after death.

And it was anger that Willow had felt tonight, anger at Spike for hurting Buffy. Anger at him for daring to show his face in Sunnydale after what he'd done. And maybe…maybe somewhere buried deep…anger with herself that she hadn't been a good enough friend to earn Buffy's confidence all those months ago.

And realizing it, she had dropped her hand, and shook her head until she could feel her vision clear, and she had walked up to Buffy and stood next to her friend.

Tara had started to cry into Willow's hair, but Willow pressed on. "It's a good thing," she said, although her throat caught on the words. "I looked at Spike, and I felt all that anger boiling up, but…I don't know…it was like I understood the difference. Finally. Between the anger and the magick. I would have used a spell to separate Spike and Buffy if I'd had to, you know, but…but it was okay. Buffy handled it."

"Willow," Tara whispered. "I'm proud of you." Willow felt Tara's arms tighten around her, and she closed her eyes with relief. It was a step. It was a tiny step, but it was a step. And she had done it. With no help from anyone, with no spells and nobody holding her hand. All by herself. Just for a moment, that felt good.

At the sound of footsteps, she opened her eyes again to see Dawn standing just inside the living room, looking uncomfortable.

"Dawnie, are you okay?" she asked, sitting up and glancing at Tara, who wiped at her eyes.

"I remembered something," Dawn said, biting her lip. "Something else. It was…it was just the last thing I saw. Before I kind of blacked out or whatever. Your necklace…."

Willow touched the pendulum around her neck and felt Tara stiffen next to her. She glanced over, but Tara looked away, wouldn't meet her eye.

"Dawn, just spit it out," she said, sitting up. She felt a little dizzy.

"It changed color," Dawn said quietly. "When you pointed at Spike, your necklace changed color."

For a moment, the words sat in the air, innocent. Harmless. But then they sank in, and the world seemed to fade to gray again as Willow felt the relief seep away, felt Tara's pride in her—that rare, wonderful, warming thing—seep away. Felt her strength, her self, seep away.

Chapter 16

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