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 5: Missing Time

I came to see the damage that was done
And the treasures that prevail.
        --Adrienne Rich, "Diving Into the Wreck"

8:19 p.m.

No one moved. No one spoke.

God, look at Tara.

Willow couldn't breathe. She looked so beautiful. Tara stood just across the room, wearing her blue shirt, the one that didn't quite tug down to her waistband. It was okay. "Clothes," she murmured, the whisper of a smile touching her lips. Tara was right there. Relief flooded her eyes. "Clothes," she said again.

Better not get used to 'em. A phrase buzzed in her ears. Better not get used to 'em. Blood rushed through her head. Blood. The words echoed. Willow blinked. No, it was okay. She had a white shirt on. She looked down. Her shirt was white. It was a white t-shirt. It was white. And Tara's shirt was blue. It was okay.

She should go to her. Move her away from the window. Before something… happened. Willow pushed her chair back, put her hand on the table to push herself up. She looked at the table her hand rested on. The table. The research table. At…the Magic Box? And Tara was wearing her blue shirt at the Magic Box?

A gunshot thundered in Willow's mind, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She stumbled and grabbed the edge of the table to keep from falling. She was too late. Not again. No, please no, not again.

She felt her heart begin to speed up, her blood pound, her breath quicken to shallow gasps. Tara was going to fall, and she couldn't do anything to stop it. She couldn't watch it again. She couldn't do it again. It was too much.

"Willow, what have you done," Anya whispered to her, her voice tinged with horror. Willow heard the whisper as if from a great distance. She had done this. Her wrist buckled, and she slid to the floor. Her hip banged against the seat of the chair. Had she done this?

She was hallucinating. Okay, that was better. Or it was worse. Better or worse? Focus, she told herself. It wasn't magick; she had done no spells. They wouldn't work anyway. She'd been told that. She was hallucinating. She had done that.

She hadn't meant to—but God, how she had wanted to. How she still wanted to. How she wanted nothing more than to close herself up in the private Tara-world of her mind, turn her face to the wall, and live there, together and alone, forever. But she had swallowed the bile of that wish down and pulled herself up. To live.

She had not swallowed hard enough, though, because here, standing across the room, and looking right at her, was the wish. It had come back, or she had returned to it.

Her skin itched, her flesh pulsed, her head swam. The familiar panic pressed at the back of her eyelids, and she knew how easy it would be to give into the hysteria, the way she gave into it at night, pressing her face into the pillow and screaming with emptiness until she exhausted herself into a few hours of half-sleep.

And so she covered her eyes with her hands and pressed back against the nightmare she craved so much. She reached into herself for that white-hot match of strength that the Guides had taught her to light, and she grabbed it. She pulled until it flamed, and then she smoothed her burning palms down over her face, feeling the heat spread through her cheeks, willing her breath to slow as she passed her hands over her lips, willing her heart to slow as she passed her hands over her chest.

She crossed her legs and rested her hands on her legs. Her knees burned. She blocked out the hallucination, blocked out everyone, and focused instead on the pale spine of a book on the shelf in front of her. Breathe, breathe, she repeated to herself. In, out. In, out.

She focused on her breathing and on the pale book until the rest of the room receded and went white, and the searing heat turned to ice, and it numbed her to the pain, and she gave in to it.

8:19 p.m.

No one spoke. No one moved.

Omigod, it was Tara.

Dawn could not take her eyes off Tara. It was Tara, wasn't it? Probably she was supposed to be suspicious and think about demons or vampires or something, but…but it was Tara. She looked absolutely real, and she stood in front of them, her brow furrowed, her eyes darting from one face to another. Dawn stared.

Seconds later—it seemed like longer—Dawn felt, at the base of her skull, a gentle hum, a massage with sound, and it rubbed upward through her mind, soft and soothing fingers kneading away the wrinkles of fear and disbelief and doubt. Her mind felt warm. Relaxed. Safe.

Dawn took a step forward, and then another, and the warm hug in her mind settled in. This was the right thing. This was the most perfectly right thing. As she passed the others, she saw Buffy's eyes turn to her, saw her sister open her mouth and speak, but the words—whatever they were—did not reach her. She only saw Tara, and she yearned toward her as she might yearn toward her mother, if her mother were here.

She heard a noise behind her, a thud, and turned to see Willow stumble and fall to the floor. Xander sprang across the room and dropped on his knees next to her, but by that time, Willow had already folded into herself, shut out the rest of the room. Her lips moved, but she sat perfectly still. Xander leaned in.

"It's okay," Dawn said, her eyes drawn back to Tara. She had seen Willow go into meditation mode all summer. Willow was just calming herself down. That made sense. It was fine.

Dawn stared at Tara, at the familiar slight wrinkle between her eyes that appeared when she was concerned. Dawn had seen that wrinkle plenty of times. Like when she had stayed out too late with Janice last summer, and when Tara had tried to explain about leaving Willow. The warm hum in her mind told her that this was really Tara, but when she saw that little wrinkle, she knew it was true.

"Willow?" Tara said now, but Dawn laid a restraining hand on her arm, and she faltered. She looked from the arm to Willow.

"You're back," Dawn said.

"I," Tara started to say, but then she looked at Dawn's arm again. She pulled Dawn into a hug. "Dawnie," she said instead. "I'm glad you're okay, sweetie," she said softly. Dawn leaned into her. The warm feeling in her head soothed her, assured her that this was right, that this was Tara, and she gave into it gladly and squeezed Tara tight.

Dawn heard Giles speaking to her and pulled out of Tara's embrace reluctantly. But she stayed close, her arm touching Tara's. "I don't know," she answered him. "I can't explain it, but I can feel it in my head right now. She's Tara. She's not a demon, she's not a ghost, she's…Tara. The same Tara she was a few months ago. I can feel it."

Tara stepped back, then, away from her.

Dawn didn't know how it was possible, but she didn't care. Tara was normal, and Tara was herself, and Tara was alive. She was the same Tara who had taken care of her after Buffy died. The Tara who picked her up when she called from a drunken party at the beach last summer and didn't ask any questions, didn't even tell Willow, just half-smiled and bought her a milkshake. She was the Tara of pancakes and candles.

And she was home.

8:19 p.m.

No one moved. No one spoke.

Oh, God, it was Tara.

Familiarity clenched like a fist around Buffy's throat, and her eyes instinctively dropped to Tara's hands. Thank God. They were clean and dry, the fingernails intact. She closed her eyes with the relief of it, and when she opened them again—only a second later—she realized that Tara's blue shirt was clean and dry, as well. There was no blood. There was no gunshot wound. Thank God.

She saw, in her peripheral vision, Dawn moving toward Tara, and she reached out to her sister. "Gently," she said, with effort, but Dawn didn't appear to hear her, or at least didn't respond. Buffy opened her mouth again, but her voice wouldn't work.

Willow. Where was Willow? She pulled her eyes away in time to see Willow stumble and fall to the floor. But before she could move, Xander was there, his hand on Willow's back while Anya looked from Willow to Tara. Xander would take care of her.

A touch at her elbow startled her, and Buffy turned to see Giles. His head was turned toward her, but his eyes were on Tara. "Buffy," he said quietly. "We must figure out what's going on here." But Buffy already knew. She knew it deep in her bones, Slayer-deep. Tara had come back.

It wasn't crazy. After all, she had come back from the dead. And so had Angel. It happened. Things didn't always make sense. Sometimes people died for no reason. And sometimes they came back, too. Because they still had work to do. Because their time was not over. Because they were needed.

Buffy realized that she wanted this to be Tara, she wanted it desperately. Not a vampire, not a demon. But she had to know. She faced that fact reluctantly. She had to know. Because if this weren't Tara, then she would have to act. Before Willow got her hopes up.

She turned to Giles, but Anya was already answering him. "It's obvious," she said, but with no malice. "Willow brought her back. She went all dark magicky again and brought Tara back."

"No," Buffy shook her head. "I don't believe that. She wouldn't."

Giles frowned, looked hard at Tara for a long moment. "I agree," he said in a low voice. "No, Anya. I feel no dark magicks at work…at least not here…and Willow has done nothing. This must be something else. I'm just not sure what."

"Well, it's not a wish" Anya said firmly. "D'Hoffryn keeps me in the loop on these things, and I think I would know."

"Then what?" Buffy asked. She looked helplessly at Giles. "We have to move fast on this, Giles. Look at Dawn. She's already. . . ."

"Dawn," Giles said suddenly. "Of course. The headaches. There must be a connection." His eyes were still fixed on Tara. "Dawn," he said. "Is this what you meant when you said she was coming? Did you mean Tara?"

Dawn's words reassured them all. Buffy could see it when she glanced at the other faces. Something had happened, some force was at work, but whatever it was, this was still Tara. Who stepped back, holding a palm out against them. "What is going on here?" Her voice shook. "Why are you all staring at me? And why is Willow doing that? Talk to me, someone, please."

Xander stood up, stepping protectively in front of Willow. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Maybe we want some answers first," he said, his eyes narrowing. "Like, what did Willow wear to her eighth-grade graduation?"

Tara looked at him blankly.

"Xander," Anya said sharply. "You're being ridiculous. We've already decided that this is Tara."

"Okay, okay," he said. "Maybe Tara wouldn't know that one. I know, how did we prove to your dad that you're not a demon?" He raised his eyebrows at her and nodded smugly.

"Spike," she started to say, automatically, but then she shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut. When she opened them again, Buffy saw resolve. "No, wait, wait," Tara said. "Someone tell me what's going on. Right now." Her voice resonated in the room.

Buffy realized with a start that Tara didn't know she had been dead.

8:21 p.m.

No one spoke. No one moved.

Finally, Anya cleared her throat. "You died," she said simply.

Tara heard the words through a fog. "What?" she asked. "What?"

Anya's eyes softened. "Three months ago," she said. "You were shot, and you died. But you're back now," she added encouragingly. "It's so good to see you."

Tara covered her ears with her hands. "No," she said. "I don't understand. No, that can't be true. No."

Dawn touched her arm. "Tara," she said softly. "It's true. I sat with your body all day. I saw you."        
"Mr. Giles?" she asked quietly.

He smiled sadly at her. "Tara, I'm sorry," he said, confirming. "But you're here now. And we'll figure out the rest of it as soon as we can."

Tara could not process what was happening, could not understand it.

But it made a kind of sense. As she tried to grasp what had happened, some calm part of her mind detached itself enough to go through the evidence again. The empty house. The photograph of herself on the wall. The calming drink. Willow. And was the Magic Box…a little different?

Her head felt muddy, dizzy. She turned her head—like trying to run in a pool of water—to look at Willow, who sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes open, lips moving silently. Tara allowed herself really to see Willow. Even from across the room, Tara could see that she was different. Thin. Pale. Her shirt was wrinkled.

This wasn't the Willow who had sat in the bathroom and cried silently while she'd packed her things to move out. This wasn't the Willow who'd looked at her with desperately sad eyes outside the Magic Box. Tara had seen Willow mournful, had seen her regretful and sorry and in pain and feeling alone. But this Willow was different. This was Willow grieving and empty. This was Willow without hope.

Agonizing as it was to look at Willow from a distance and not go to her, Tara knew she had to concentrate. She focused on Willow, and a tremor of grief passed through her, and she felt, in a heartbeat, the abyss of three months of mourning. It seeped from Willow into the air around her. There was something else, too, something she couldn't quite put her finger on. But it was mostly a profound and aching well of despair.

Tara felt in that moment that it was all true. It hit her like a gunshot. She had died, and Willow had been shattered. The knowledge—and she accepted it as knowledge—ripped through her skin and cells, a bullet of truth. She swayed.

Giles put a hand under her elbow. "Tara," he said gently. "Come sit for a moment. You've been through…well…quite an ordeal."

Tara shook her head again, slowly. "Willow needs to know I'm here," she said. "I can't let her suffer any more. She needs to know I'm back." She looked at Giles, almost pleading, and he nodded.

"I can do it," Dawn offered. "I've seen her do this lots of times. She usually comes out on her own, but I can help if you want."

Tara smiled sadly at Dawn. She swallowed against the lump in her throat. "Thanks, sweetie," she said, "but no. Let me." Dawn nodded.

Tara walked to Willow and knelt on the ground in front of her. Willow didn't seem to see her; she continued to stare at a point on the wall behind Tara. Occasionally, her lips moved. She was breathing deeply. Tara searched Willow's face. Up close, she looked gray, gaunt. Her hair pulled back in a careless ponytail. Her lips chapped, cracked. And she wore no jewelry…no necklace, no bracelet, not even earrings. She was unadorned. Grief and loneliness waved over Tara.

She knew she needed to take this slowly. She didn't touch Willow, not at first.

"Willow," she said softly, her face inches from Willow's. "Don't be scared. It's me, I'm back. I know you must think I'm a hallucination, but I'm not. I'm here, I'm… alive." The word caught in her throat. Willow did not respond, but her breathing quickened for a moment, and then slowed again.

"Willow," Tara said again with effort. "I'm here."

She was holding her breath, Tara realized. She exhaled, calming herself. She lifted her hands and gently, gently rested them on Willow's shoulders. At the touch, Willow blinked, and her eyes seemed to focus for a moment.

"Willow," Tara said. She felt the tension in Willow's shoulders, heard the sigh that started somewhere deep in Willow's throat and emerged as a moan.

"Oh God," Willow's voice was small and strangled. "Oh God, I can't take this…." Tara swallowed. She moved her hands to Willow's face, laying them softly, so softly, on Willow's cheeks. At the touch, Willow's eyes closed, and she made that sound again. A quiet keening.

The sound tore at Tara. She tried again.

"Willow, baby," she said. "Willow, I'm here. Look at me. I'm really here."

Tara held her breath, and Willow inhaled. She covered Tara's hands with her own. And she opened her eyes.

8:23 p.m.

From deep within the calm, Willow heard Tara's voice. She felt Tara's touch. It was real enough to undo her. The fingers on her cheeks. The warm breath in her face. The scent of freshly washed hair and oatmeal soap and something else….herself.

Was it real? It felt real. Hallucinations didn't have form and breath and scent. They didn't say her name. Only people did that. Only Tara did that. Hallucinations didn't have familiar fingers that had touched Willow in her deepest places and now cupped her face so gently, so very gently.

It felt so real. And all she had to do was open her eyes and see.

Willow breathed in and out, in and out. She listened with her body for the warnings, for the itchy skin, the crawling flesh of magick. Or the racing pulse of panic. Or the great yawning black hole of sadness. Where had those familiar feelings gone? She felt calm. She was calm. She could open her eyes.

But first, she covered Tara's hands with her own, feeling the knobs of the knuckles and the blunt, smooth nails and the cool planes of the fingers. She breathed in. These were fingers she knew. These were Tara's fingers. She breathed out. And then she opened her eyes and looked directly at Tara.
"I'm really here," Tara whispered to her. Willow caught her breath as she met Tara's eyes, as their hands trembled together.

"You're really here?" she echoed. "You're really here." And saying the words, she knew it was true.

It was real. It was Tara.


Chapter 6: Breathe

But to me the darkness was red-gold and crocus-coloured
With your brightness,       
And the words you whispered to me
Sprang up and flamed.
        --Amy Lowell, "Summer Rain"

Dawn, jetlagged and exhausted, was nearly asleep. She hoped she would dream tonight, happy dreams of Tara. And Willow. And Tara and Willow together, like the happy endings in the romance novels Janice was always telling her to read. She felt better than she had in a long time, and she wanted that good feeling to last.

A tiny doubt still pricked at her, though. A worry. It was probably nothing, but still. . . . She turned her pillow over to the cool side.

Xander and Anya had driven the three of them home before returning to patrol with Buffy and Giles. Tonight, of course, it wouldn't be a patrol so much as an investigation. Buffy had said they needed answers. Giles had said they needed questions.

In the car, Tara had held Dawn's hand. Dawn had noticed that she reached out and patted Anya and Xander's shoulders a lot, too. She didn't seem to mind when Dawn and Anya kept plucking at her sleeve, fingering her hair, touching her knees. Willow had folded herself into a shadowed corner of the backseat, on the other side of Tara. She had wrapped her arms around herself, as if she were cold, and she just watched Tara silently, with wide and hungry eyes. And Tara had simply looked back at her. She had touched everyone else, but she had looked only at Willow.

Dawn wasn't sure that was…really normal. She could hardly believe what had happened, that Tara had come back. So shouldn't Willow have been even more…touchy? They should have been holding hands, shouldn't they? And talking? It made Dawn feel a little woozy, as if she were holding her breath.


The touching took hours. Just touching: the path of fingers tracing skin. Reacquainting. Reminding. Confirming. Willow convincing herself that yes, Tara stood before her, live and breathing and whole. Tara convincing Willow that yes, the skin she touched, the hair she ran her fingers through, the mouth and cheek she felt with the palm of her hand were all real.

Flesh and not illusion. Body and not imagination.

In the car, it had seemed safer to Willow to tuck her hands away, to press herself back against the cold metal of the car door. Once she touched Tara again, she wasn't sure she would be able to let go. She would cling, clutch. She would collapse.

And anyway, even without touching, without the finger-kiss of skin on skin, Willow had felt Tara's gaze as she had felt it in the Magic Box, when Tara had hugged everyone but looked at Willow. She'd felt it physically, as an embrace. It had encircled her. Her friends' touches in the last months had sought to protect. And to comfort. But this touch—the clasped hands of this long, blue gaze—had held her completely.

It had been enough. It had been more than she'd ever expected to have again.

Once inside Buffy's room, Willow had leaned against the closed door. Tara, thumbs hooked in her back pockets, glanced around the room. A calendar on the wall had caught her eye, and her forehead had wrinkled slightly. Willow had watched her silently. She'd heard enough in the Magic Box to know that Tara didn't remember. She didn't know she had died. She didn't know anything that had happened. No time had passed for her.

What did that mean?

But when Tara turned her blue eyes toward her, the warmth of her gaze spread like kneading fingers through her body. It meant that Tara was okay. Willow could see that. She hadn't been in pain. She hadn't suffered. And she hadn't seen…what Willow had done.

She knew she had to tell her. Yes, it might send her away. But Tara was alive, and so Willow could learn to live with that. It only mattered that she was safe. Should she tell her? She should tell her. But maybe…maybe not tonight?

Now, Tara reached for her, and Willow held her breath. They stood only inches apart, fingers barely touching. Willow's eyes asked the question, and Tara's eyes, clear and deep and knowing, answered. For that moment, words hung in the space between them, whole paragraphs of fear and concern and shame and uncertainty and reassurance.

And then Tara slid her achingly familiar arms around Willow and pulled her in, fierce and possessing. Willow leaned into the body she'd mourned, gave herself over to the soul she'd grieved. It was a miracle. The first embrace.

And they touched for hours.


There were no candles.

The curtains sifted only a thin stream of moonlight into the darkened room. But it didn't matter. Tara could see what she needed to see. All she needed to see.

She could see Willow, finally here, finally safe.

Willow raised her arms, and Tara tugged the wrinkled shirt over her head, undressed her completely. Then she pulled her own clothes off, and everything that was tentative between them, everything that was uncertain, fell with the fabric to the floor.

They stood, face to face, naked and alive and sure.

Tara was growing slowly, slowly, into the understanding that somehow, she lived after having been dead. That her body was new. Without wound. Without scar. She did not feel that she had been…away…exactly, but when she concentrated, she was aware of a space, a tiny white pocket of empty time in her mind, when she had been…resting.

The only thing she knew for sure about that empty time was that Willow had not been there. And that she had missed her. That so much more than time and distance and grief had separated them. She thought maybe she hadn't been aware of that gulf at the time, but now it peeled back the thin skin over her sorrow. For Willow. For herself. But mostly for Willow.

She watched Willow's breasts rise and fall unevenly. She studied Willow's eyes, pooled with wanting and a relief so vast it encompassed them both.

And then Tara leaned forward. With the softest of soft touches, with a whisper of lips on lips, she breathed life back into Willow's mouth.

It felt like a first kiss.

It felt like the first time.

It felt like…when had the first time been? At the touch of Willow's lips, a flood of deep and cellular memories washed over her, through her, crashed under her skin.

Was it when Willow had first knelt in front of her, her red hair brushing the tops of Tara's thighs? She had clutched at that hair, legs burning, and she had thrown her head back, not recognizing the raw, animal cry in the shape of Willow's name that had ripped from her own throat, from her bones, at the touch of Willow's tongue.

Or was it when they had first buried their fingers deep in one another, surrounding, encircling, wrapped in warmth? When the electricity had suddenly come back on, the soft white of the fairy lights along the wall had thrown Willow's body, sitting above hers, into relief. Her eyes half-closed, her chest heaving, she had seen the ends of Willow's hair, backlit, as flaming red sparks around a dark and pulsing center. Moving above her, pressing down.

Was it earlier? Was it when she had first bent her lips to Willow's breasts, her mind translating the sensation into pepper and apricots? This is what red tastes like, she had thought to herself, and then she hadn't thought at all as Willow arched into her mouth, gripped her back with the nails of both hands, her moan low and liquid and full of wanting. Wanting Tara.

That was the first night Willow stayed.

But no. No, their first time had been earlier still. Fully dressed, sitting cross-legged in a circle of magick, fingers touching, breath matched, eyes half-lidded and heavy. When Willow had fallen back, Tara's wrist had flexed back from the current, and an electric tongue had licked its way up her arm to her chest and down, down. As Willow's body bowed, as her red shirt lifted to reveal the pale skin beneath, Tara's breasts had ached. She had been overcome. And everything that had happened after that spell…every hesitant gaze, every knowing touch…was the confirmation of what they had already tasted. What they had known since the beginning.

The images sparked and flamed, red dots against the black of her closed eyelids, and Tara pulled her lips away from Willow's. She felt that each time they had been together—each caress, each conversation—was tattooed on her nerves, inky memories. Each touch lived just under the surface.

Her skin was needled with the imprints. It burned from the inside out.

Had she lived…well…had she been without this touch for three months? Could that really be true? And could she have chosen, before that time, chosen to live without this touch for so long? It seemed impossible, when Willow's every touch—every breath—coursed through her. So familiar. So necessary. Well, they would lay that time to rest.

She took Willow's hand and led her to the bed.

She had been dead, and now she was alive. She had been reborn.

This was her rebirth. This was the first time.

Starting right now.

They lay side by side, breasts touching, legs entwined. Willow's head rested on Tara's arm. In the half-light, her face was shadowed. Tara moved closer. She wanted to press out the grief, to squeeze the mourning and sorrow from that pale body.

Willow was quiet, one palm pressed against Tara's chest, feeling her heartbeat, listening to the pulse with her skin. Her breasts rose and fell. Tara draped the ends of Willow's hair over her collarbone, like a necklace.

Tara touched her fingers to Willow's cheeks, and they came away wet. She held the fingers to her own lips, tasting the salty damp. Three months of pain rested on her tongue. She wanted to take the tears away from Willow, to bear the grief for her, wear it on her skin so Willow could see that it was all that remained. She rubbed her wet fingers on her own face, smoothing two streaks of sweat and tears below her eyes.

She anointed herself with Willow.


Tara moved over her in the moonlight, one hand buried in Willow's hair and the other like licks of flame against her thighs. Her long hair brushed against Willow's face. Her breasts pressed against Willow's breasts. Her lips grazed Willow's forehead, her mouth, her neck.

Willow wanted to memorize every curve on Tara's shadowed face. She wanted to pull her so close that there was no longer any distance between them, so close that they were inside each other. So close that they were part of each other. She wanted to hold on.

She held on. She felt the contours of Tara's back with the flats of her palms. Her neck. Her hair. Her hands remembered what to do. Her mind was still numb with shock, her heart pounding with relief, but her hands knew how to press the space between Tara's shoulder blades. How to trace a finger along the edge of one ear. How to hold on.

Willow gripped Tara's shoulders and closed her eyes. She held her breath. She was afraid to exhale, afraid to open her eyes, afraid to change any small piece of this one perfect moment, in case it was, after all, only her wish. If this were the only moment they got, she wanted it to last forever.

But Tara spoke against Willow's mouth.        

"Breathe, Willow," Tara whispered to her, and her hands echoed the words against Willow's restless body.

Willow breathed, and her breath came out as a cry, piercing the darkness of the room as the last echoes of her grief left her. She breathed, and her breath came in as a long, shuddering gasp of life and peace and prayer.

It was a communion.

Around her, the air was honey-scented with Tara, and her skin was damp with Tara, and when her body exploded and her mind broke open into a thousand white and shining fragments, the arms that held her were trembling with Tara.

And when she opened her eyes again, spent and weeping with relief, Tara was still there.


Dawn awoke with a start to the sound of a cry. For a disorienting moment, she thought she was waking up in her room at the coven, hearing Willow sobbing through the bare walls. She resigned herself to it, to the familiar sound of Willow at night.

Then she heard the cry again, and as the sound penetrated the quiet of her room and then faded, faded, she recognized it for what it was. She might be only a teenager, but she lived with adults. She lived with their wants and their needs and their loves, and she knew sounds when she heard them.

She knew this sound.

It was a cry not of pain but of release. A cry not of grief but of healing. It was a cry of pleasure. It had been so long—so long—since she had heard that sound from Willow.

She rolled over, turned her pillow to the cool side, and smiled to herself, feeling that she, too, was finally safe and warm and home in Tara's embrace.

Dawn breathed deeply and slept.


Chapter 7: Prodigal Daughters

And there were daughters older than the mothers who had borne them,
Being older in their wisdom, which is older than the earth;
And they were going forward only farther into darkness….
                --Edwin Arlington Robinson, "Valley of the Shadow"

Something had happened. The very air was charged. If he held his head right, tilted his ear to the breeze, the air crackled. Perhaps the wind had changed, and his Mary Poppins had flown into town on her umbrella after all.

Because there was a new energy in Sunnydale, one that hadn't been there yesterday. And certainly not before the spell.

Resurrections were tricky; everyone knew that. Even a powerful sorcerer had to face the fact that a resurrection would work…more or less. How many times, after all, had he given this caution to young widows and parents and sisters and….daughters?

He had done everything correctly, but he went through the evidence again. The sacrifice of the blood of witnesses to bring her forth. The chanting to conjure her essence. The doorway through which she would pass. The rope to bind her to this reality. And the gift of milk…a gift for a God.

Yes, the elements had all been there. It was just possible, of course, that the spell itself had been incomplete, but he had spent countless hours attempting to cross-reference the ingredients, perfecting the Latin of the chant.        

A University education was such a gift. Doc smiled. And the transformation to half-demon had been value added. He had so much to be grateful for. A father who had brought him up with a classical training and paid for his studies. And an adopted mother who had taken him under her wing, compelled him with darkness, showed him the lap of a God.

But now, perhaps, the son would become the father. And the mother would become the daughter.

It would be a miracle.

It was so simple, really; he should have realized it much sooner. He'd been expecting Glory's essence to return at the tower because he'd assumed that's where she had left this reality. Not having her appear there…well, it only meant she had appeared somewhere else. Which meant she had left somewhere else.

He only had to sniff her out. And then he could set his plans in motion.

It would be delicious. But perhaps…a cup of cocoa first.


It was a miracle.

It had to be, Buffy thought, stirring milk into her coffee. A miracle. How else could she explain the fact that Tara had walked through the door the previous evening, picked the pieces of Willow up off the floor, and with a simple touch, put her family back together again?

A miracle. Or something else.

Buffy wanted nothing more than to hug Willow and tell her that everything was going to be just fine. To assure Dawn that all her sisters were here for good. To keep everyone safe. But under the thin skin of her relief, her Slayer-sense bubbled up and boiled over. Events—good or bad—always had causes. Often deliberate causes. And motivations.

And consequences.

This uneasy knowledge tugged at the edges of her contentment. They had to figure out who…or what…had brought Tara back, and why. They had to remove the threat. And then they could celebrate. Go on.

She looked up to see Tara pausing in the kitchen doorway. The familiar half-smile felt like a hug to Buffy. "Tara," she said, getting up to get her a cup. "How….

"She's okay," Tara cut in. "She's taking a shower, and then she'll come down."

Buffy smiled. The world had just turned upside-down—again—but some things didn't change. "No. Tara, how are you?" She poured coffee and set the cup in front of Tara.
"Oh." Tara smiled ruefully. "I'm fine, Buffy. I mean, I'm confused, and I can't really get my mind around what's happened…well, you know…but last night, being with Willow…it was so right, so…." She broke off, her cheeks flushing. "Sorry."

"It's okay," Buffy said, putting a hand on Tara's arm. "Tara, it is so okay." She bent her head to look into Tara's eyes.

"Tara…" Buffy spoke into her cup. "Did Willow talk to you yet about…what happened?"

Tara gave her a sharp look. "No, not yet," she said. "I mean, I had a feeling that there was something to tell, but… I thought it could wait until today. Last night…we didn't really talk. Buffy, she just…she needed me."

"Of course," Buffy agreed quickly. "Waiting was totally the right thing to do." She frowned at her coffee. "It's just that….Willow, well, Dawn can tell you more, since she's the one who spent most of the summer with her, but she hasn't really been talking that much at all, and so…."

"Willow," Tara said softly. Buffy glanced from Tara's face, flushed pink again, to Willow, standing in the doorway and twisting Tara's blue shirt in her hands. Her lips were pressed tightly together, her knuckles white. Buffy slid off her stool and crossed the room in a few strides.

"Willow," she said gently. "Let me wash that for you." She reached for the shirt. Willow looked down at the fabric, surprised, as if she hadn't realized she was holding it. She unclenched her fingers, and the fabric slid out of her grasp.

"Buffy, I…." Willow hesitated. "I have to talk to Tara." She glanced at Tara again but didn't move.

"I know, Will," she said. "But it will be okay. I promise." She hugged Willow, a brief, hard hug, feeling the rigid shoulders under her arms.

Willow nodded and held her hand out to Tara. "Will you…come outside?" Their fingers trembled when they touched, and Buffy's chest ached. Willow had Tara back, and that was the best gift in the world, but the conversation they were about to have would not be easy. Maybe she could….

"Hey," she said suddenly, and they turned back. She searched her mind for a strategy, a way to just tell Tara about Willow's rage and get it over with. Or to tell Willow to wait, to delay this confession until later, when they knew more about Tara's return, when things felt more secure. Or to take the blame herself, somehow, so that Tara wouldn't have to know.

But no.
"Just…just come have some breakfast after you talk," she said finally, lamely. Tara nodded. Willow's smile did not reach her eyes.

Buffy sighed and went to pour herself another cup of coffee. Caffeine would help. She couldn't carry this burden for Willow, no matter how much she ached to. And no matter how much she wanted to, she couldn't take the pain of hearing it from Tara. She'd once thought she could protect her friends from their biggest demons, but this was a monster they had to face for themselves.

And it was necessary. She knew that. No, it wouldn't be easy. But it would be right.


"They've been out there a long time," Dawn complained. " I want to see Tara. And I'm getting hungry." She crossed her arms on the counter. "Can't I at least have a piece of toast?"

"Have some more juice," Buffy said flatly. She heard the front door open and voices in the hallway. "We're not eating until they come back. This is our first meal together, Dawn. It's important. Anyway, juice has calories. It's like toast, only…it's in a glass, and…it has less butter."

"Great," Dawn said, rolling her eyes. "Like you'd ever put butter on your toast anyway," she added under her breath. She welcomed the distraction of Anya and Giles, who pushed into the kitchen with arms full of brown paper bags.

"So then," Anya was saying, "I said, 'Xander, what more do you want? They don't make bags of chips any bigger than that.' You should have seen his face." Anya set down her bags on the counter with a flourish.

"Ah, how clever," Giles said, smiling sideways at Buffy. "The vengeance demon at home. Kind of a busman's holiday, isn't it, Anya?"

Anya tilted her head at him for a moment. Then she turned to Dawn and Buffy and beamed. Giles looked around with raised eyebrows, but Buffy only gave him a blank look, and Dawn didn't really get it either.

"Wait until you see what we got," Anya said proudly. She began to remove items from the bags. "First, we found some of that tea she used to like, and this notebook with kittens on it." She passed the notebook to Dawn.

Giles stepped forward and started rummaging. "Oh yes, look at this," he said. "It's a—what do you call them—a barrette…for her hair. I thought…."

"And this," Anya interrupted excitedly. "This is the best one." She presented Dawn with a small paperback book.

" The Big Book of Insect Reflection Jokes and Other Hellmouth Hilarity." Dawn read the title out loud. She wrinkled her nose.

"You know, in case she feels depressed or something, like when Buffy came back," Anya said. "This could cheer her up. Cheer us all up. God knows we could use a little old-fashioned insect humor now that Tara is here to explain it to us."

"So where are Snow White and Prince Charming, anyway," Xander asked, coming through the door with two more bags. "And no, I'm not going to say who's who. You'll never get it out of me. So don't even try."

"Outside, and no one's trying," Buffy said dryly. "Jeez, Xander, did you buy the whole store?" She unloaded eggs and bacon and bread and bagels and fruit and doughnuts onto the counter.

"We didn't know what she'd want to eat, so we thought we'd get everything. I mean, who knows what kind of appetite you work up when you've just been kind of hanging out for three months, right? And we thought maybe we could tempt Willow-the-wisp with variety. Buff," Xander's voice dropped. "Did she eat a single thing yesterday?"

"Her herbal drink," Dawn said, vaguely, over her shoulder, wandering to the window. But she forgot all about breakfast when she realized she had a clear view of Willow and Tara, standing close together near the bench in the back yard.

"They're talking," she announced from the kitchen window. "It looks like they're talking."

She glanced back to see four startled faces turned her way.

"Dawn," Buffy said reprovingly. "Don't spy on them. You shouldn't be looking at them." She set down the barrette she'd been turning over in her hands. "It's not a nice thing to do. It's very not nice. It's wrong." Buffy joined Dawn at the window. "You can see them?"

Dawn turned back to the window.

Willow was speaking, her hands wrapped around herself. And Tara was listening. As they watched, Willow's head dropped, and Tara touched a finger to her chin and lifted her face back up. Willow spoke again.

Tara's face changed. Her hand fell, and she stumbled backward across the grass. She turned and gripped the back of the bench, doubling over. Her shoulders heaved. Slowly, her hand tight on the bench, she pulled herself upright. She stood there for a long time, her back to Willow. It looked like she might be crying. Willow didn't move.

The kitchen was absolutely silent. Dawn felt like she might throw up herself. The moment seemed to last forever.

But then Tara turned, slowly. Dawn could see, even at a distance, that her cheeks were wet. Wiping her mouth on her sleeve, she tilted her head at Willow, seemed to study her. And then, without pausing again, without another second of hesitation, Tara closed the distance between them, wrapped her arms tight around Willow, leaned into her.

From behind her, Dawn heard Xander's whisper of relief and Anya's contented sigh. "Okay, that's enough," Buffy said sternly, putting one hand on Dawn's shoulder and the other on Xander's. "Anya, come on." She pulled them forcibly from the window. But she was smiling.


Willow's hands slid to her shoulders and gently pushed back. "Tara," she said quietly. "It's okay if you need…time. You're alive. That's all that matters." Tara heard her voice as if from far away.

Tara reached for her hand. The fingers looked the same as they always had, small and on the bony side. Tender. But these fingers had soaked up currents of black magick. They had crushed metal and split the air and bloodied friends. They had…killed. Tara had prepared herself for pain, for revenge even, but she honestly hadn't been expecting that. Not cruelty.
The image of this Willow—so driven by fury, so vengeful, raging—she felt it as a wound, a gash. It stung to think of Willow so desperately alone that she would threaten Dawn. So lost that she would give herself over to a nightmare rather than face a day without…her.

But that wasn't the worst part. Maybe it should have been, but it wasn't.

It hurt more to think that Willow had lived inside the knowledge of what she had done for three months. Without hope.

At least she'd had something to hope for the first time Tara had left her. The hope of a reunion. And she'd never really doubted it, had she? Even after Dawn's arm, Tara knew that it was her own absence that really fueled Willow's resolve.

She had tried to explain it to Dawn.

"I forgave her," Dawn had said one afternoon while she and Tara were shopping for new gym shoes. "I finally did. But if you do, then why won't you come back? It's been like a month. Isn't that enough time?"

Tara handed her a pair with purple laces. "It's just…she has to know she can do it," she said finally, reluctantly. "If I come back now, after only a month, w...what happens the next time something goes wrong? The next time she's tempted to use dark magick? She has to be sure."

Dawn glared at her. "You mean
you have to be sure," she said angrily. "This isn't about Willow. It's about you . You say you love her, but you don't come home." Her shoulders sagged as her anger drained away suddenly, and her lower lip trembled. "You never come home."

Tara tucked Dawn's hair behind her ear. "Dawn, I do love her. I love her more than anything. And that's why I have to stay away for a little while longer. If I stand beside her right now, she'll never learn to stand on her own. Without me. Without the magick. And she h... has to. She just has to."

Tara heard the note of desperation in her own voice. She knew Dawn heard it, too, because Dawn looked at her hard, and then without saying another word, she bent to pull on the next pair of shoes.

The conversation flashed through Tara's mind, and she thought briefly how surreal it all was. She had come back from the dead, her lover had just told her she'd drained a powerful sorcerer and killed a human, and all she could think about was buying Dawn shoes. With purple laces.

She just has to. The words echoed.

Well, she'd had to, all right. Look what had happened. Yes, she'd killed out of revenge and rage, and that was…God, it was unimaginable. But after that, with Tara dead, on the edge of her own despair, Willow had—somehow—stepped back from the cliff. She had put one foot in front of the other and walked herself through three months of empty, endless days. She had done that. And that was something, wasn't it?

The time for object lessons was long over.

Now it was time for something else.

"Willow," she said finally. "I'm not saying it's all going to be fine. I don't know." Willow's grip loosened instantly, and Tara clutched at her hands to keep her there, to keep her close.

"Tara, I.…" Willow said, crumpling.

"Willow, don't," Tara said. "Just don't." She looked into the wretched green canyons of Willow's eyes. "There's nothing you can say now, nothing, that's going to make me leave." She watched the hollow in Willow's throat deepen, but Willow did not speak.

Tara gripped Willow's fingers and pulled their clasped hands to her own chest, pressing Willow's fingers to the bone between her breasts. She felt the blood pulsing, the heart contracting and releasing under her skin.
"You feel that?" Tara asked hoarsely. Willow swallowed hard. "Well, that belongs to you. And I'm not going to take it away from you. Never again. No matter how hard it is. No matter what." Willow swayed back, made a little sound.

Tara moved their joined fingers to the scooped neck of Willow's shirt. She slipped her thumb under the fabric until she could feel the pulse of Willow's heart. "And this…?" Willow nodded mutely. Tara swallowed over the tight ache in her throat. "This belongs to me. And I'm going to take care of it now."

Willow lifted her eyes then, and Tara was flooded with green. Still holding Willow's fingers tight, she slipped her other hand around the back of her neck, pulled her close. She pressed her lips to red hair, to pale forehead, to eyelids and ears.

"Willow, baby," she whispered. "I'm going to take care of what's mine." She held Willow tight, and when she finally felt the thankful arm wrap around her back, felt the heat of the palm through her shirt and the breath on her neck, her tears came again.

She had heard everything. Willow had just showed her the darkest side of herself, the shadow Willow that she had always tried so hard not to see. And that Willow lived in a dark place, darker than she had known.

But Tara was no stranger to dark places. And now, with the darkest corners exposed to light, with the hardest confessions out in the open, with no secrets left to tell, they would find a way out. A way home.


"They're crying again," Dawn said slowly, from the window. "That's good, right? Crying is good? Or is crying bad?"

Buffy came to the window and looked out. Maybe, after all, she thought, they didn't have to wait to celebrate. Maybe there was a simple explanation for Tara's return, A simple as the sight of two women clinging to each other in the middle of the backyard, lost in a private and long overdue reunion. As simple as need meeting need. As simple as forgiveness.

Buffy put her arm around Dawn's shoulders and pulled her close. "It's good," she said softly, hugging Dawn to her. "This kind of crying is very, very good."

And, after all, they did eat together, although it was more lunch than breakfast. Willow and Tara sat close, their shoulders touching. Willow obediently drained the glass of orange murk that Buffy set in front of her, but she mostly watched Tara eat, reaching to refill her coffee cup or to slide another piece of toast onto her plate. The others ate ravenously, scarfing down eggs and bagels like it was their last meal. Or their first.

Buffy waited until Dawn had popped the last bite of bacon into her mouth before she rested her forearms on the table and caught Giles' eye. He nodded and dabbed at his lips with a napkin.

"Tara," he started to say, but Anya stood suddenly, scraping her chair back and glancing at the screen on a tiny black box she pulled from her skirt pocket.
Anya glanced around, saw the curious looks. She shrugged, holding up the black box. "It pulses. Like Xander used to." Dawn made a face while Xander sunk down in his chair.

She turned to Tara. "I'm really sorry," she said. "But duty calls. I'll be back later." And she was gone.

Tara glanced around the table, bewildered. "What just happened?" she asked.

Xander shrugged. "Anyanka just happened," he said. "Big Daddy D'Hoffryn calls, and she goes running. She's a good girl." Tara heard bitterness in his voice. She shook her head.

"I guess I missed a lot," she said slowly.

Willow squeezed her hand. "Oh yeah," she said. "I guess with…everything…I forgot to mention that…."

Tara's forehead wrinkled. "Vengeance demons have beepers now?" she asked. Xander just rolled his eyes, but Buffy and Dawn giggled.

Giles cleared his throat. "Tara," he said. "Before we talk about your, well, your resurrection, have you thought about calling your father? I…I'm not sure what you'd tell him, but perhaps your family should know that you're alive."

Tara looked around the table. She reached out and ruffled Dawn's hair, and then she pulled Willow to her and kissed the top of her head. To Buffy, it looked like a protective kiss, shielding and possessive and infinitely tender.

"Mr. Giles," Tara said softly. "They already do."        


Chapter 8: Resurrections

Curious, here behold my resurrection, after slumber,
The revolving cycles, in their wide sweep, have brought me again.
       --Walt Whitman, "To the Garden, the World"

Tara walked, a borrowed sweater wrapped tightly around her, although the afternoon was warm.

Bits of the breakfast table conversation clung to her like crumbs. She hadn't had to hear much about the evidence of the resurrection ritual held at the tower to understand what it meant. Giles was too knowledgeable not to be able to read the signs. He had been too kind to spring it on her right away, had let her find some peace with Willow first, but it had had to be said. Blood sacrifice. A doorway into this reality. Rope to bind whatever crossed that threshold. The gift of milk to welcome a God.

Someone—or something—had tried to resurrect Glory, and Tara had come back instead. At least, that was the good alternative. Her coming back from the dead was some kind of magickal…accident.

The other alternatives weren't so harmless. Glory could be using her as a host body, the way she'd used Ben, who had died and therefore ceased to function. Or Glory had somehow punctured her mind again, growing Tara a new body to house her own essence.

Or—and this was the one that had stuck in Tara's throat, the one that had raised a chill on her arms that she hadn't been able to shake since—or some part of Glory had been in her all along. Willow's reversal spell hadn't entirely worked, or it had worked too well, and some echo of Glory had been reverberating in Tara's brain since that night. Glory was immortal, after all. She had to have been somewhere.

And it made a sick kind of sense.

"She was so weak," Buffy had said slowly. "Glory, I mean. She had a hard time fighting me. I thought it was the troll hammer and the orb, but maybe it was her. Maybe she wasn't all there." Tara hadn't been able to read the look in Buffy's eyes.

She would rather be an accident.

When Tara had left the house, refusing company and insisting that she be given some time alone to process this possibility, to walk through the autumn afternoon and clear her head, to meet the others at the Magic Box later, Willow had kissed her hands and understood with her eyes. Tara needed time to think, and as long as she stood next to Willow, she would be utterly focused on Willow. They both knew it. And just at first, Tara needed to be alone.

Now, she touched the place where Willow's lips had warmed her palm. She couldn't leave Willow again. She wouldn't. Not after so much had happened. Not now.

But she was scared for herself, too. For what might happen to her. Did that make her a terrible person?

The thought that she was still connected to Glory was…it seeped into her and clung. Tara had never spoken of the muddy terror that had swamped in her veins after Glory had taken her sanity. A thick sludge of fear around what she knew was true, what she knew was real. And she couldn't wade through it.

At first, Buffy's death had eclipsed the memories. Tara had been too busy comforting Willow and Dawn to think about herself. And once Buffy was back, well, she hadn't really wanted to remember.

It had mostly been just as Glory promised it would be: darkness and small spaces, crawling flesh and quicksand shame, words and images she hadn't understood pressing in on her. Mice. Doors to be opened. Men who killed. But a few times—only a few—it had been more real than that. And those times were worse. It was during one of those times that she had hit Willow, had actually struck her. Hard. Tara remembered the way it had felt.

The clammy skin, the damp grip of sickly sweet darkness. Darkness that that oozed, that seeped into her skin and then leaked back out. No separation between the darkness and herself. They were the same. Dark. Bad. Unchanging. And then.…

Approaching from the horizon, a pale shape, a face. Blurry but angular. Twisted in anger. The face sneered this at her. The face would make her behave, would control her. It was veined. It had dark hair. It loomed, it leered. It was a nightmare face.

Was it her father? Was it Donny? Tara tried to find one firm place to stand in the mire of her marshy brain. These were the only faces that made sense, the faces that punished and controlled. These were the dark faces she knew, the features that she had seen contorted in rage and looming. The face came into focus: A sharp widow's peak. Liquid black eyes. It menaced.

But no, it was Willow. Red hair and green eyes and magick. For a moment, Tara could almost move. It was only Willow. It was always Willow.

But then Willow smiled, and as she smiled, her red hair went black, and her green eyes went black, and the smile twisted bitter and cruel and Tara had to protect herself from this nightmare creature who wasn't her Willow and she struck out against the vision, struck as hard as she could to beat it away. "Bitch," she cried out in protection.

And, oh, it was Willow after all who turned brimming green eyes to her, and Willow's cheek was red where she had hit her. She deserved all the nightmares because she had hurt her. She wanted to apologize, but the words that clawed out of her were about figures, and the mud spread over her mind again, reminded her that she had things to do. A tower. And bricks.

Later, as fingers pierced her mind a second time, confusing and unfamiliar images had flooded her mind, a life flashing before her eyes. Dawn, rigid with fear as an old man smeared blood onto her forehead. The contorted faces of short creatures in brown robes. Willow, floating across the floor with outstretched arms and deeply black eyes. Deeply black anger. Deeply black magick.

After she had been thrown and lay sprawled amidst the rubble—able to move again, able to think—hands lifted her. They were Willow's hands, and it was Willow's familiar face, and Tara let herself be found.

But she hadn't forgotten the memories…were they Glory's or her own?…of that other Willow.

In the grieving time that followed, she had convinced herself that it had been guilt, an echo of that last conversation with Willow before Glory found her on the park bench. Or maybe a trick, like that false and haunting image of Giles killing an innocent person.

And she had never spoken of it.

That was what it had felt like to have Glory take her mind, to have Glory in her. The best thing she knew twisted into a nightmare shape and turning on her. Having to protect herself from the person she loved above everything. When she had learned of the spell Willow had used to tamper with her memory, the memory of that other Willow had risen like bile in her throat. It had come true, that vision. It had been real. Realer than she could have imagined.

She couldn't go back to that. Not now, not ever.

Maybe it was just an accident, after all, she thought desperately. Maybe she was just herself, only herself, and she could stay with Willow. Maybe Willow's spell had worked, maybe she had mapped their essences correctly and reversed the spell without going too far. There had to be some way to find out, some way to know for sure. Or to fix it.

Once, she thought, clutching her sweater around herself, the answer would have been magick. The Scoobies had all depended on Willow to solve problems with magick, even before Buffy died. Tara included. She hadn't always liked it, but she hadn't always stopped it, either. It had been an answer.

But the answers weren't so easy anymore.

And the questions weren't clear, either. Everything had changed. Some of the changes were for the better. At breakfast, she had seen that the Scoobies sat a little closer together, touched one another more. Dawn was stronger, more mature. Giles was gentler. Buffy was more at peace. And Anya and Xander…little touches of shoulder to shoulder, and sidelong looks, gave them away; something was going on there.

But…. But Anya was a vengeance demon again. Xander's face was scarred with thin red welts that slashed across his left cheek, and Tara had noticed that Willow bit her lip whenever she looked at them. Spike's name hadn't even come up. And Willow….

Would Willow ever be the same? Tara stopped walking for a moment, heartsick at the thought of what Willow had gone through. What Willow had done. She could not, she would not let Willow get that lost again.

She had come back for a reason, she felt that. Accident or not, Glory or not…it didn't matter. Willow had burned out…burned up with rage and grief. And Tara had come back to gather the ashes and let the phoenix out, to see the red feathers in full flight again.

The question was how.

But there wasn't an answer in sight that didn't involve magick. Magick and Willow.


No. No. No.

Willow's mind had been in hyperdrive for the last hour. She was turning pages furiously, three or four books at a time open in front of her. She'd nearly forgotten what that felt like. And it was a relief, really, because her skin had started to itch again, and she was trying to ignore it.

Her mind had always worked like a computer, making lightning-fast and sometimes arbitrary connections she could not stop from spilling out into her speech. It sounded like babbling, she knew, but if she didn't talk through the rapid-fire thoughts in her head sometimes, she'd burst.

But these last months, she hadn't babbled. She hadn't talked much at all, mostly to Dawn and the Guides at the coven. She'd had to slow her mind down, to short circuit it to avoid the pain of facing—again and again and again—the inevitable chain of association that always led her to a bullet. Nothing had been safe. No thought. No word. No action.

It could be anything. Honey on her toast at breakfast came from a honeycomb. Combs made her think of brushes, which made her try to remember whether she'd brushed her teeth that morning, which made her wonder where the expression "gritting teeth" came from, if it was the sandy kind of grit or the food kind, like they ate in the South, which was the setting of "Gone With the Wind," where home was Tara. Deliberate memories she could handle, sort of, but not the ambush reminders that waylaid her at unexpected moments, that doubled her over so she couldn't eat or sleep.

So she had stopped. She had slowed her mind down to avoid the connections. And once the connections were gone, there was no need to talk to let them out. No babbling. She had simply put her mind to sleep.

It had been, of course, a sleep full of nightmares.

And then Tara had come back, and the nightmare had changed into a dream. Her only dream—to have Tara alive, here, with her. She could stay in the world of that dream forever, the touch of Tara's fingers on her skin and in her hair.

But Willow knew that now it was time to wake up from the dream and face her life again. Her real life. And oh, thank God, her real life with Tara.

Her body had awakened first, the skin coming back to life under the trail of Tara's fingernails, her cold flesh rousing under the press of Tara's hands. And then her heart, stirring under Tara's thumb, under Tara's eyes.

It was time for her mind to wake up, too. She would fix this. She would take care of Tara. She had set off her mental alarms, pulled back the covers on the connectors in her mind. Told them to get out of bed. She skimmed through spells and ran her fingers through indexes and tried not to think about Tara, walking through Sunnydale alone and frightened.

Tara hadn't wanted Willow to go with her. And Willow knew that was because this was her fault. If Glory was still in Tara somehow, it was all her fault. Willow had put her there. With magick. The very thought sickened her.

Was Glory actually in Tara? That was the question.

And Willow knew how they could find the answer.

She rubbed her arms furiously, trying to rub away the tickle, the flesh-prick urge of magick. Because there was a way. She had known it the moment Giles had finished presenting his evidence and Tara had said, suddenly, "Glory. It's Glory." Tara had had to explain to the others—to remind them of the reversal spell Willow had performed—but Willow had known instantly.

What she had done once, she could do again. Chart Tara's essence. Look into her mind. See if Glory was really there. But it would take magick. And she couldn't use magick. Could she? No, she couldn't. She couldn't.

And so Willow hadn't said a word, had flattened herself against her chair. She had breathed deeply against the nauseating skin-rush that she felt at the thought of using magick again. And then she had slipped out of her chair and gone to the bathroom to be quietly sick.

She had pressed her cheek against the cool of the wall tile and breathed—in and out, in and out—as the magical itch pulsed and twitched just under her skin. It wouldn't go away.

Now, seated at the research table, she still felt flushed and ill. She knew that even if she wanted to do the spell—even if—she might not be strong enough. Strong enough to do the magick. Or strong enough to come back from it. The last time it had almost killed her. She had wanted it to.

Willow shook her head. This wasn't helping; this was why she had put her brain to sleep in the first place. She let go of the pages she was turning to press the heels of her hands against her eyes. Then she closed the left-hand book and reached for a larger one to take its place. Her mind raced, and her flesh crawled. She inhaled and exhaled slowly to stay calm and focused, but she knew one thing for certain.

She would not let Tara go again.

She could survive without Tara. She could get through each endless moment by waiting for the next one to arrive. She could hold her breath against the loneliness and the pain. She could shut down her mind and meditate and get through longer than long days. If that was survival, then the past months had taught her she could do it. But she couldn't live.

And she intended to live.


The bell to the Magic Box jangled, and Willow looked up to see Tara walking toward the table, her arms crossed over her chest. Tara paused for a moment in the middle of the shop, locking eyes with her. Willow was stunned all over again by the still-fresh sight of Tara standing in front of her, the manuscripts in front of her forgotten.

Xander glanced up from his book. "Whoa, did anyone just have a serious déjà vu moment?" he asked. "Tara walking in the door?"

Willow pushed back her chair as Tara moved again and met her halfway, leaning into her. "Hey," Tara murmured, hugging Willow tight, both hands in Willow's hair. Willow pressed her face against Tara's rough sweater, feeling the arms around her shoulders. They were Tara's arms, weren't they? Only Tara's arms.

Willow felt Tara's lips on her hair, the rim of her ear, and she felt a current pass between them, a gentle understanding. And then Tara spoke into her ear. "I'm back," she said. Willow felt rather than heard the words.

"I know," she said into Tara's sweater. "I was waiting for you." And Tara's arms tightened around her.

"Tara," Xander said behind Willow. "Willow's been hitting the books since you left, but I'm still working on the fact that the big bad Got Milk."       

"Xander, if you say that one more time, I think I might have a minor stroke," Giles said, walking through the training room door with an armful of books and a basket of charms.

"Where are the others?" Tara asked over Willow's shoulder. She half-turned in Tara's arms to watch Xander slide off the counter, but she didn't let go; her arms gripped Tara's waist. She had no intention of letting go. Neither, apparently, did Tara.
"Buffy and Dawn went to do an early sweep of the campus," Xander said. "Rumors of a new guy in town. They call him the Poet. Very threatening, if you ask me: give me your wallet, or I'll recite a limerick. Ooh, please scare me."

"Tara," Giles ignored Xander. "How are you doing?"

Willow wasn't listening. Just touching Tara, just standing next to her—she felt it as a balm, calming her irritated skin. It soothed her; it almost took away the itch. Almost.

"I've been thinking," Giles said now, leaning against the counter and regarding Tara. "There might be a way to find out, if not how precisely how to fix the problem, then at least what the problem is." He paused, glancing at Willow. "If Willow is willing to try."

Willow only heard the words after she registered that there had been a pause, a beat of silence. She looked at Giles sharply, and then, seeing the wariness in his face, she understood what he was saying. And her stomach roiled.

"No," she said, her voice hoarse. "I won't do it. Look what happened the last time I did this spell. Tara was okay…at least, we thought she was okay…but Ben died. He died." Her voice was hoarse, but it didn't waver. "I will not stand by and let that happen to you. Not again. Not ever again."

"Wait a second," Xander said, holding his hands up. "What does Ben have to do with this? Do Ben and Tara have some kind of connection?"

"I can't do it." Willow turned to Tara again, lifting a hand to her face. "Every time I use magick, I destroy something. Or someone. I can't. Not you." Her fingers trembled against Tara's cheeks.

Tara's forehead wrinkled. She looked at Giles for a long moment and seemed to come to a decision. She reached for Willow's hand. She held it to her own face and closed her eyes, standing perfectly still. Willow felt Tara's cheeks cool beneath her hot fingers. When Tara opened her eyes again, they were clear and calm and very blue.

"I think we should listen to what Giles has to say," she said quietly.

"Tara," Giles said quietly, urgently. "You know what this means?" Willow watched in confusion as Tara nodded slowly. And then Giles turned to her.

"Willow," he said. "It's time we talked."

Chapter 9

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