DISCLAIMER:I do not own any of these characters. I think by now we all know who actually does.
SPOILERS: Well, if you haven't seen the 5th or 6th seasns you might be a little lost. Otherwise...
NOTE: This story takes place in the middle of season 6.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
There But For Glory
By Kirk Baldridge
They say it's where the heart is. But then again I'm starting to believe 'they' are probably a bunch of crazy people who aren't nearly as smart as they like to think. After all, do you really want to put your heart in the one place where it's most likely to get broken?
Okay, bitter much?
I had a home once upon a time. My mother was my life, my home, my whole world, and after she died I was lost and alone and scared out of my mind. I drifted, never letting anyone get close since, like my dad and my brother, I was convinced everyone was out to hurt me. I certainly never expected to fall in love. But wouldn't you know, after I started at UC Sunnydale, that's exactly what happened.
Such a beautiful name. Such a beautiful woman. And, I thought, such a beautiful soul. We connected in the most incredible ways, even before we ever became intimate. When I was with Willow I felt...complete, like I'd found a piece of myself I never even realized was missing from my life. Our relationship progressed so fast and I never regretted a moment of it. Until that fight, right before Glory...well, before Glory took my mind. I could only remember, or recognize, one thing after that.
I got my sanity back and then we lost Buffy. On the same night. Willow fell apart. Goddess, we all did. She was such a big part of our lives. In retrospect, I think our troubles, mine and Willow's, really started around this same time. She went to such a dark place to try and get revenge on Glory for what she did to me. Buffy's death pushed her need to fix everything, to make it all better, beyond a limit she was able to control, and probably my biggest regret I went along with it when she suggested we bring Buffy back. I missed her too. It hurt me, and Willow's strength convinced me we could handle it.
Buffy's return didn't make everything better though. Just the opposite. Willow had conquered death and I should have seen the danger sooner. I think I could have helped her. But she became convinced there wasn't anything she couldn't do if she put her mind to it. We had another fight and Willow used magic to 'fix' me, to make me forget, so she wouldn't have to feel sad or upset or whatever. Then that singing demon came along and we found out where Buffy was, what we'd pulled her away from, and Willow tried to use that same spell on her and screwed around with all our memories instead. When it was over I'd had enough. I was hurt, and scared, and yes, kind of pissed, and I couldn't stand to be around her.
I left. Willow. Buffy's house. My friends. And, unfortunately, a little piece of my heart.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this sad story. My home now, such as it is, is a dorm room at UC Sunnydale. I lucked into it after the previous occupant... well, I try not to think too much about what might've happened to the woman who used to live here. My life now consists of going to class, between long bouts of bawling my eyes out whenever I hear a song Willow and I used to dance to, or see the frogs in Bio class that always gave her such nightmares, or... no, I'm not going to do this again. Not here. Not now. That's not why I started this whole thing. Besides, we're getting better.
All of us.
Dawn and I have, thankfully, reconnected. She was pretty angry with me when I left, which I get, but after I took her on a couple of “movie and milkshake” fun days and we shared a couple of good cries, she and I came to an understanding. I'd stop feeling sorry for myself while she, in turn, would stop blaming Willow for that car wreck. I've been seeing Buffy in a whole new light recently too. She came to me, I think, because I was an outsider and has confided in me that she's been sleeping with Spike. To be honest that weirded me out more than all the vampires and demons I've seen since coming here.
Then there's Willow.
Everything was tense for the longest time. There was this distance between us, even during the brief times we saw one another. After Buffy's birthday party, when we got the forced quality time thanks to Dawnie and Halfrek, things have started to change. She's not casting anymore, which I'm not sure I'm comfortable with. I know this might make me sound hypocritical but while using too much IS dangerous, it can be just as bad to have access to all that power and keep it bottled up inside. It's just like emotions. Sooner or later Willow's control is likely to slip, and then where will we be?
Tara Maclay slammed her journal closed then buried her face in her pillow and screamed a muffled protest for all she was worth. Nearly two months had passed and the pain was just as fresh as ever. She was hurt and angry, at Willow and herself. Her girlfriend...ex-girlfriend, she reminded herself, had done those spells, but a part of Tara had to wonder if Willow would have ended up so fully committed to the path of self-destruction if she had stayed around and tried to help her through it instead of running away.
"Goddess. It's no use trying to second-guess now. I made my choice and I have to live with it, right or wrong. If only I..." The blonde turned her head as her bedside alarm went off. "Oh. Time for class." She slid off the bed and headed for her closet. "Mr. Jenkins gets so upset when I'm late." She threw open the closet door, and needless to say was more than a little shocked when she realized the face gazing back at her from the full-length mirror on it was not her own. She blinked; to be sure she wasn't seeing things. "Umm, hello?"
The beautiful brunette there smiled. "Hi."
The young woman shrugged her shoulders. "As much as I'd like to think I'm the object of someone's fantasy, even if it's a girl instead of Brad Pitt or whoever, I'm afraid not. I'm very real."
"Okay. So, if this isn't a dream, then...who are you?"
"Long story. And I'm sure someone here can tell it to you." The brunette looked around nervously. "Problem is, I don't have that kind of time. We can't keep this portal open for too long, or else one of them might notice." She stared right at Tara. "We need your help, Miss Maclay."
Tara paled. "How do you know my name?"
"Again, long story. Any chance you could come over here so I can tell it to you?"
"Come over where?" Tara took a step back. "What's going on?" The brunette frowned and jerked her head around. "I know. Give it here." Someone Tara couldn't see handed her an old, leather-bound book. "Watch." She gently touched it to the mirror, the surface of which rippled like water, and the volume landed at Tara's feet. "Check out chapters 4 through 6. They should explain everything. I'll try and get the portal opened again tomorrow, to see if you've made up your mind."
Tara breathed a sigh of relief when her mirror returned to normal, though she wasn't too happy with the deer in headlights expression on her face. She bent down to pick up the book. It was ice-cold. She flipped through pages and noticed it was both a Wiccan history and spell book. When she came to chapter 4 she stared at the mirror, as the bizarre exchange she'd just had began to make a little more sense.
Tara decided to skip class, for a change, and instead studied the book the mysterious woman had given her. She had always been fascinated by the idea of alternate or divergent realities, and was pleased to discover Anya had a wealth of personal experience with dimensional travel. They'd discussed other realities the ex-vengeance demon had visited and, in at least one instance, even created and vowed that both shrimp and rabbit worlds would be off-limit for each of them if the opportunity ever arose.
Now, it seemed it had.
The next chapter in the book was called Traversing the Barrier. It gave very specific, detailed instructions for a witch or other caster on how to go from one world to another. The ritual was very easy to perform, but was not often actually done because the individual components were hard to come by.
Chapter three was entitled Understanding and Acclimating to Similarities or Differences. Obviously written with a first-time, inexperienced dimensional traveler in mind, this part of the book explained how some realities might be similar in appearance, history and the people involved, while others would be wholly unrecognizable to outsiders. Just because an individual in one reality made a certain decision did not mean that individual in another had or would make the same decision, even if circumstances were otherwise identical. As she was reading it occured to Tara that in some worlds Willow had probably decided to go back to Oz, even if she happened to be in the picture, while others might well have her and Oz, or her and Spike, or even Oz and Spike for that matter, in a relationship together. Of course that whole concept made her a little dizzy.
After lunch Tara gathered some supplies and cast one of the spells listed in the book. It created a crystal knife, called an athame which, when touched, to any reflective surface in conjunction with the proper spell would open a portal home. She wasn't about to pass up a chance to visit another reality, but she also wasn't crazy. Along with the athame she prepared a couple of protective potions, more portable than whole spell books, and just in case it was necessary brought along a crucifix, holy water, and a few stakes. There was the chance vampires didn't even exist in this other world but why risk it? She also packed clothes, and various other personal effects, then almost as an afterthought sat down to write two letters, which she left in plain sight on her desk by the door. In the event she was gone too long or, Goddess forbid, something went wrong and she did not make it back, the letters would explain to her friends what had happened. One was for the Scoobies in general, as well as anyone else who might be interested. The other, as revealed by the warning on the front, and by the fact it was the only one of the two to be sealed, was for Willow's eyes only.
Tara sat down on her bed to wait. She slid the book in her lap and thumbed through it, pausing every so often to glance at the closet door. Several minutes went by, before it finally occurred to her she was also seeing the dress she had worn to Buffy's birthday party...which was hanging on the outside of her closet door. Sheepishly, she got up to open the closet, and sure enough saw the brunette smiling at her. "Sorry."
"Did you make up your mind?"
Tara nodded, and slung the bag over her shoulder. She clutched the book to her chest. "I'll come, but only under one condition."
"Name it," said the brunette.
"I need to know. Why you chose me."
The other woman frowned. "What do you mean?"
"You've gone through a lot of trouble, I imagine, time and some kind of risk, to breach the dimensional barrier, all for the sake of basically having a conversation," Tara replied. "So, my question is, of all the billions of people on this planet, why come to me?"
"We've got a problem. And we believe you're the only one who can solve it. I told you, I'll explain everything if you'll just hurry." The brunette looked up, with obvious fear in her eyes. "What was that? Did you...what? Okay. If you think it's necessary, go ahead. I'll be right behind you." She turned back to the mirror. "Look Miss Maclay, I lost good people, some of them my friends, gathering what we needed to contact you. Yes, I'll be very pissed off if it turns out it was all for nothing. So if you're saying no or whatever let's just get it over with all right? Believe me, there are a lot more important things I could be doing right now."
Tara sighed. "Okay. I said I'd come. I just hope I'm not wasting your time." She reached out to touch the mirror, and felt a wave of ice-cold energy wash through her body, followed by an incredibly intense heat that left her out of breath and more than a little aroused. "Goddess."
"Welcome. Call me C." The brunette held out her hand, and Tara shook it. "I'll save the formal introductions for later. Right now, we have to get out of here."
"Where is here, exactly?" Tara looked around. They were in the Magic Box, or what was left of it. Apparently it had been torn apart in some kind of an explosion; she saw fire damage, not too recent, and she could sense faded remnants of very powerful magic. "Whoa. What happened?"
"Later," said C. She grabbed the blonde's arm. "There's an exit to the sewer in the back room."
Tara nodded. "I know."
"Oh. Right. This alternate reality stuff is kinda hard to wrap your brain around."
"I know what you mean." Tara licked her lips. "Umm, why exactly are we going through the sewer?"
"There's less of a chance they'll detect us down there. Unless it's..." C shook her head. "Let's hope not." She got off the ladder and reached up to take Tara's bag as she was climbing down. "Hey. Here she is. Does she still look the way you remember?"
Tara turned, and gasped as she saw who was staring back at her.
It was Rupert Giles but, obviously, not the man she knew. He had unkempt hair, a scruffy salt and pepper beard, and he wasn't wearing a suit and tie or glasses.
"You're...umm..." Tara shook her head. "Sorry. You're the same, and yet..."
Giles nodded. "I understand." He smiled sadly. "It's good to see you again, Tara."
"You know me too? So, we're associated in this world?"
"Indeed," Giles replied. "We...were."
Tara blinked. "Oh."
"Okay, reunions over. Let's not make it a two-for," said C. "We aren't safe down here..."
Giles led the way. "In truth, given recent developments, I'm not certain we're safe anywhere, Cordelia."
"Wait, Cordelia?" Tara asked. "As in, Cordelia Chase?"
The brunette nodded. "You know me?"
"Only by reputation. See, in my world you moved to LA and were long gone before I ever got involved with the Scoobies. Xander and my...umm, Willow told me all about you, and some of it was even nice." Tara smiled at her own joke, but noted they did not. It also did not escape her notice that Giles winced slightly when she mentioned Willow's name. "So, I was promised an explanation of some kind. Miss Chase..."
"Call me Cordelia," said the brunette. "Or Cordy, like everyone else."
Tara nodded. "All right, Cordy. Would one of you please tell me why in Gaea's name I'm here?"
"Very well," said Giles. "But I fear you're not going to enjoy most of my narrative." He took a deep breath. "Are you familiar with a creature calling itself Glorificus?"
Tara couldn't suppress a shudder followed. She still had occasional nightmares about what the Hellgoddess did to her. "Unfortunately." She paled. "Is she...here?"
"No longer. She made her appearance last year, much to the dismay of my Slayer."
"You mean Buffy? Is there a Buffy in this world?"
"Indeed. Along with, as you called them, the Scoobies."
Tara smiled. "I guess some things are constant, in any reality."
"Did your Glorificus arrive in your Sunnydale in search of the Key?"
"Yes. She didn't find it until it was almost too late, because some monks had hid it in Buffy's sister."
"Dawn," Giles said quietly. Tara nodded. She saw the despondency in his eyes momentarily flash with grief, but he hid it well. "It appears Glory's luck was as similar in your world as in our own. Here her search first led her to several of Buffy's friends. Spike, then..."
Tara bit her lip. "Me."
"Indeed. Only our Tara was not as fortunate as you apparently were. When Glory found out she was not the Key she killed our Tara."
"Just wait," said Cordelia. "You haven't heard anything yet. Tell her, Giles."
The Watcher opened his mouth to respond, but before he could do so there was a terrific crash, and the ceiling ahead of them suddenly caved inward. Concrete and metal plunged into the water, followed closely by a massive, inhuman shape that stalked out of the shadows toward them.
It was a walking wall of chorded muscle. Easily a head taller than Giles, it was covered in matted brown fur and had talons as long as table knives. Beneath it thick, bony brow smoldered a pair of red eyes, and when it opened its wide mouth to growl it bared rows of dagger-like teeth.
Tara's eyes widened. "Goddess."
"He found us." Cordelia's voice was mocking and accusatory. "You said he wouldn't find us down here."
"No, I said I hoped he wouldn't. Clearly, I was in error."
As the creature got closer to Tara she saw it wore a metal collar around its neck. On it were a number of runes that glowed slightly, and were giving off faint traces of magic. She didn't recognize the particular spell but it was clearly enchanted somehow. She took a deep breath.
It leaned in close, sniffed her hair, and grunted. "You?" It's words were slow, halting, as if being forced out, but they were just barely understandable. "I thought you were dead."
"Y-You know me?"
It snorted. "You could say that. We used to date the same woman."
"Leave her alone Oz," said Giles. "She's not a part of this. You're here for us, not her."
Tara gasped. "Oz?"
"If she's with you she's a part of this," said the wolf. It sneered. "But I was only sent to bring you two in. No one said anything about my not ripping her throat out."
Tara started to back away, but the creature lunged forward and grabbed her shoulder. Even barely trying its grip was enough to make her wince. She was in trouble and could only think of one way out of it. Clenching her teeth she closed her eyes and tried to concentrate as she whispered under her breath.
"Magic, huh?" Oz snorted. "You really think you can stop me?"
Giles reached under his coat and pulled out a pistol crossbow, which he pointed at Oz. "I can."
"Unless that's silver Watcher-boy, you're..." Oz's eyes narrowed. "It is. I can smell it from here." It nodded. "So, you came prepared. I'm impressed. But do you really think you can pull that trigger?"
"After everything you've done?" Giles nodded. "Absolutely."
Oz looked from Giles to Tara and back again, then clenched and unclenched its claws. It was clearly debating if it could kill her before he could shoot it. It finally seemed to make up its mind, shrugged its broad shoulders and raised one huge claw, poised to tear into the blonde from above.
Tara raised her head. "Away." A bolt of light flung the beast backwards. "I'm not exactly helpless, you know." As it landed she clasped her hands over her head. "Thicken." The water around the beast turned into a thick sludge; in seconds it was so caked in muck it was barely able to move. "Incendere." Now the tar-like substance erupted into flames that engulfed the creature and it howled, in pain or fear, it was hard to tell which.
Cordelia blinked. "Whoa."
"Impressive," said Giles. "But I think it best we get out of here." He glanced at Oz. "Perhaps, the other way?" He led them back down the tunnel. They continued for several blocks until finally coming to a ladder, which led into some more tunnels. They, in turn, opened up into an underground complex. Tara gazed around. "Wow. What is this place?"
"It was once home to a secretive American governmental unit called the Initiative," Giles replied. "But they had to abandon it following an unfortunate series of incidents a few years ago."
"You mean with Adam?"
The Watcher nodded. "Such striking similarities our two realities seem to share." He gestured. "When they left the Initiative failed to destroy their facility. My associates and I found it was still more or less operational when we were forced into hiding in the nearby tunnels, and have been here ever since."
"Why?" Tara asked. "What are you all running from?"
"Giles!" A scruffy-haired young man approached them. "You're back. How'd it go?"
"See for yourself." The Watcher stepped aside and gestured at Tara.
The young man stuck his hands in his back pockets and nodded. "Cool."
As impossible as it seemed, Tara recognized his face. "Oz?"
The young man frowned. "I prefer Daniel, actually." "I don't understand." Tara turned to Giles. "W-What is going on?"
"Are you familiar with something called the Ferula-Gemina?"
Tara nodded. "I wasn't there but I heard what happened to Xander." Her eyes widened. "Oh. So somebody used it on Oz and it split him? One's human, and the other's...what, exactly? All wolf?"
"Essentially, yes. The creature is question is a lycanthrope in the purest sense. It is a manifestation of the inner rage and raw emotion once a part of Daniel here."
"Meanwhile, I get to be even calmer and quieter than normal," Daniel replied. "No beast growling in the back of my mind, urging me on to do these terrible things." He shrugged. "Kind of boring though. In a weird way I sort of miss the wolf. Not that I really want it back."
"Wait. If it's pure animal, how was it able to talk?" Tara asked.
"Did you notice its collar?" said Daniel. "It's magic. I don't pretend to understand it myself, but Giles here says it makes the monster able to think more like me."
Giles nodded. "Yes. The Ferula-Gemina splits a person into their extremes. Id and ego, if you will. But while it may cause certain characteristics to exist in one and not the other they're still essentially the same person at the core. The wolf's human mind has been suppressed by its overwhelming and aggressively bestial nature, however it does still exist, and the wards on that collar allow it to emerge."
"But, why?" Tara asked. "Who would do this to...them?"
Daniel raised an eyebrow. "You brought her all this way and you still haven't told her?"
"Some of it," Giles replied, albeit more hesitantly. "But I didn't want to overwhelm the poor girl."
"I get that. But she needs to hear all of it before she makes up her mind."
Tara crossed her arms. "About what?"
"Willow," said a voice. "They brought you here to fight Willow."
Tara turned to see a familiar face limping out of the shadows, and gasped.
Xander Harris looked like he'd been through hell.
He was limping so badly he had to use a cane, and as he got closer Tara realized something had happened to his left eye. There was a patch over it.
"Nice to see you again, Tara." Xander touched the patch and smiled. "Good thing you're on my right."
Tara bit her lip. "Goddess. What happened to you?"
"Guess it's up to me to do the exposition thing for a change." He cocked his head to glare at the others. "Maybe we should go someplace else more private."
"Nonsense," said Giles. "We're the ones who brought her here. We should..."
Xander frowned. "Hey! It was magic that got us into this mess in the first place. But whether I like it or not she is here now and Tara may be our best chance. You want her to go after my best friend? I think I should be the one to explain to her why."
"Besides, your Slayer's having a thing," said Daniel. "That's actually what I came to see you about, Giles."
The Watcher sighed. "Very well. Come along, Cordelia. You're the one she usually listens to."
"Course she does. I don't treat her like a porcelain doll."
Xander watched them go then leaned on his cane and turned to Tara. "Forget what I said. It really is good to see you again. I'd forgotten how beautiful you really were."
Tara blushed. "T-Thank you."
With some effort, Xander sat down. Tara sat beside him. "I'll be honest. When Giles told us he could bring you here I thought he was crazy. I never thought he'd really be able to do it."
"What happened here, Xander? Your eye... this world. And what's it have to do with W-Willow?"
"I'm guessing Giles told you about you right? What Glory did to you here?" The blonde nodded. "Did he happen to mention she did it in front of Willow?"
Tara's eyes widened. "N-No."
"Yeah. During one of her moments of clarity afterwards, Will told us she saw Glory put her hands to your head like she was going to do that brain-drain thing of hers. Instead, she...well, you know her, she magically inserts her fingers into a victim's skull?" Another nod. "This time she did it for real."
"Goddess. Poor Will. She had to watch me die like that?" Tara shook her head. "How horrible."
"Yeah. Buffy found her there sometime later, cradling your body in her arms. She was pretty much catatonic at that point." Xander sighed. "I wish now she'd stayed that way."
"What do you mean?"
"We redoubled our efforts to find Glory. Buffy, Giles, we were pissed. Even Spike if you can believe that. One day, out of the blue, Willow woke up."
Dawn stuck her head out of the kitchen. "Anya? You want some popcorn?"
The ex-demon, lying on the couch, turned from the financial report on the television. "What kind?"
"Xander explained to me that popcorn comes in more than one flavor."
"Well yeah, but..." They both looked up at a loud thump upstairs. "What was that?"
The master bedroom door came tumbling down the stairs, followed closely by Willow. Her face was blank and her eyes glassy. She didn't acknowledge Dawn or Anya and although her movements were stiffer and slower than normal it seemed quite clear she was heading for the front door.
Anya got in her way. "Hold on, Willow. I know what you're thinking, but vengeance isn't the answer. Tara would never want you to..."
Willow actually glanced directly at her and the ex-demon was flung across the room. She slammed into the far wall and slid to the ground, unconscious. When the redhead turned back to the front door it was torn right out of the frame and thrown out into the front yard. She followed it out.
Tara shook her head. "Goddess. What happened to Anya?"
"Concussion. Amazingly, I think An understood. She said she wasn't angry at Willow." Xander smiled. "At least, not until we found out where she went after she left Buffy's."
Tara bit her lip. She was afraid to guess.
"The Magic Box," Xander continued. "She sucked the place dry, Tara. Every book. Every little magical doo-dad, hidden or otherwise, Willow drained them all."
"N-No. Some of the artifacts and books there are of the darkest magicks known."
Xander nodded. "We could tell. It turned her hair and eyes jet black."
"So, with all this stolen power, she went after Glory?"
"And how. You know the place the Hellbitch was living? Will burned it to the ground. Along the way she flayed all her scabby little friends alive too." As Xander continued Tara grew paler and paler, and more than once felt as if she was going to either pass out or throw up. Perhaps both. "It was a hellacious fight. They took out whole city blocks. I have no idea how many died initially but most of the remaining populace, human and otherwise, cleared out after it settled down." He paused to catch his breath, only then noticing Tara was pale ad trembling. "Oh man Tara, I'm sorry. I didn't even think...you want me to stop?"
The blonde shook her head. "No. I n-need to know, what happened."
"Okay. But believe it or not, it gets worse." Xander collected his thoughts, and made sure Tara was okay before he continued. "Will had all the firepower in the world. She was burning magic and rage like nobody's business. If it had been anyone else, she would have probably won with her first shot." He frowned. "But Glory? She just kept coming. Everything Willow threw at her...oh, it took its toll. You could see that. No more super-speed, no quips about godly superiority, like at the beginning of the fight, but it wasn't doing any real damage. Glory got knocked down and got right back up. All Will really accomplished was burning all Glory's clothes off and, I think, making her even madder than she was before." His eye filled with tears. "And then Buffy got in the way."
Tara suddenly felt very cold. She held her breath.
"I don't know what she was thinking, getting in the middle of it. They barely acknowledged her presence. Will's magic was swirling around her like lightning, and Buffy..." Xander wiped his eye. "...it swept her in, tore her apart from the inside out. The way she screamed...God, I'll remember that sound until the day I die." Tara couldn't hold it any longer and she began to cry again. "Will and Glory, they just kept fighting. Giles and Spike broke down. I-I had to keep watching. For Buffy, for you, even Will, I needed to see."
"Glory," Xander replied. "Or so we all thought. It looked like Will finally ran out of steam. I heard her mention something about needing more power, and then she just...disappeared. Glory got pissed. She thought Willow had chickened out. Took off looking for her. So did I. Found her again, finally, at that new high school building. Only Will wasn't alone for long. Glory showed up, raring to go."
"The high school? Why would..." Tara raised her head and her eyes met Xander's. "The Hellmouth?"
He nodded. "I guess maybe we should have seen it coming. All that power for the taking. She just needed a way to tap into it. And she found one."
In the basement of the newly built high school, Glory crossed her arms. "Give up, witch! I'm tired of following you all over this piss-ant little city."
Across the room an ebony-haired and eyed Willow cocked her head. "I'm not running anymore." She raised her hands and, with seemingly no effort, caused a minor earthquake. A jagged, smoldering crack opened between her and the Hellgoddess. "You know what that is?"
"The Hellmouth," Glory replied. "So what? Even you don't have the power to open it."
Willow shook her head. "Not yet. All I need..." A bright light deposited Dawn on the ground in front of her. The teenager was in tears, scared and confused. "...is the Key."
"Willow?" Dawn sobbed. "What's going on?"
Glory sneered. "Are you kidding? All this time the Key was the Slayer's brat teen sister?" She frowned. "I guess I really underestimated those damn monks."
Dawn screamed as she was lifted into the air by invisible hands. "Willow? What are you doing?"
"Good question witch." Glory laughed. "Who do you think you're fooling? No way you're going to hurt the brat just to stop me. Now, give her here and maybe I'll..."
"For once in your long, miserable life, shut up." Willow's voice was completely devoid of emotion and she was oblivious to Dawn's tears as she floated the both of them over the smoldering crack in the ground. "You took my light away. I'm going to return the favor."
Glory put her hands on her hips and shook her head as the two of them plunged into the Hellmouth. "Damn, and they call me crazy?" Seconds later the Hellgoddess staggered back as a fountain of emerald energy erupted from the crack in the ground, blowing right through the building overhead. It continued on upward, so high into the sky that it actually burned away some of the clouds. "My Key!"
Deep within the shaft of emerald light two figures took shape. One remained, visible only in profile. The other emerged. It was Willow, engulfed in searing flames that were doing no damage to her skin or clothes. She aimed one finger and struck the Hellgoddess down with a bolt of lightning.
Glory clutched her chest. "Witch-bitch! That hurt!"
"That is barely a fraction of the pain you have put this one through Glorificus." Willow's voice was so deep and loud it shook the walls around them. "We are one now. She shares our power and we share her rage." More blasts of energy, each stronger than the last, struck Glory. Every time she clambered back to her feet they knocked her down again, and in time even the Hellgoddess began to waver. "It ends now, fallen one."
Glory felt it coming. She threw her head back and screamed as her awesomely powerful body transformed into the vastly inferior body of her weaker half Ben. Gasping for air he fell to his knees, soaked in sweat and his own blood. Through tear-filled eyes he looked up as Willow approached him. "I-I'm sorry. For what Glory did to your girlfriend. I tried to stop her. I swear. But I couldn't, I..."
Willow grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off his feet. "Bored now." Her flames swept over him and Ben shrieked in agony as he was slowly, torturously incinerated. At the last instant, before his body was consumed, it changed back to Glory. Doing no harm to her the flames went out and the Hellgoddess struggled, but despite her best efforts she was not able to break Willow's unyielding grip. "Your reign ends."
Glory felt a mystical tugging on her essence. It scared her. "N-No, stop it!" She was being torn apart, much like had happened to Buffy. "Stop it, witch!" That last word faded as her very being was reduced to sparkling pinpoints of light which flowed into Willow. She shuddered, and her eyes rolled back in her head.
The Key energy span back into itself and took human shape once more. It was Dawn, yet not. Both her hair and eyes were glowing green. Her hair stopped glowing but her eyes did not. Looking around she pointed at a nearby wall and released a tremendous blast of energy which blew out the whole side of the building. Feeling a surge of incomprehensible power, she smiled. "Interesting." As she turned to face at Willow she failed to notice Xander's broken body laying half-buried in the very rubble she had just caused.
"Giles and Spike found me later that day, patched me up as best they could. That's pretty much where we stand," Xander continued. "Willow runs the town now, and Dawn..." He realized Tara was no longer listening to him. She lay on the floor, unconscious. He sighed. "Wow. Lasted longer than I expected."
Elsewhere in Sunnydale, Oz paced back and forth in the middle of the street, snarling, until he heard movement from the mouth of a nearby alley. He approached a human figure skulking in the shadows there, and nodded after glancing up at the sun. "We got a problem."
"Giles and the Seer, they brought in somebody new."
"An impossible somebody. Tara Maclay."
The human figure's eyes burned bright golden, and as it sneered a pair of fangs was clearly visible. "Well now, isn't that interesting?"
Tara awoke to a sound she had become all too familiar with since moving to Sunnydale. Someone was fighting, and fairly close by. She slid off the surprisingly comfortable cot she found herself on and gazed around. She was in a room off the main chamber of the Initiative, 314 to be exact, and wandered through a nearby door which was wide open, like all the others. Security was obviously no longer an issue.
Dominating the next room was the pit she remembered Buffy and Riley mentioning was used for examinations of the various demons they caught, and which she soon came to realize seemed to be the location of the conflict she was hearing. She peered down to see two young women, a blonde and a brunette, fighting with wooden staves while wearing tight spandex pants and tops which left little to the imagination. She didn't get a good view of their faces, but from her observances with the Scoobies recognized that both women were highly skilled and appeared about equal in terms of strength and speed. One also seemed oddly familiar.
"Uhm, excuse me?" The two women stopped fighting, but only the dark-haired one looked up at her. Hers was a very attractive, though unfamiliar, face. "I don't mean to interrupt. You are just sparring, right? If this is a fight to the death sort of thing, I'll get out of your way."
The dark-haired woman shook her head. "No, we're cool. Right?"
"Indeed, I believe it would be in your best interest to discontinue our current activity," the blonde replied. "As I am detecting a marked increase in both blood pressure and pupil dilation."
Tara gasped. She knew that voice but was confused. Xander had told she was dead. "B-Buffy?" The other blonde turned to gaze up at her. It was indeed the Slayer's familiar face, but her stilted mannerisms and speech indicated she wasn't exactly what she appeared. "Or, should I say, Buffybot?"
"Either will suffice. For clarification I am also programmed to respond to Buffy, Miss Summers, the Buffybot and Robobuffy." The blonde cocked her head. "You are Tara Maclay. My records indicate you are deceased." She blinked. "It would appear I need to update my records."
"No, your records are fine," said the brunette. "Tara is dead." She nodded. "Yours is at least. This one got pulled out of some alternate reality by my Watcher and the Seer chick from LA."
"Watch...you mean Giles?" Tara's eyes widened. "You're a Slayer?" The brunette nodded as she was climbing up out of the pit. "What happened to Faith?"
"As I understand it she was killed in LA a year or so ago." She held out her hand. "Name's Kennedy."
"Tara." The blonde blushed. "But, you already knew that, apparently."
Kennedy nodded. "Giles has been going on and on about you ever since Cordy had that vision."
"Vision? Tara asked. "What vision?"
"They didn't tell you? Oh. Damn. Maybe you should talk to them then." Kennedy ran a hand through her sweaty hair and cleared her throat. "Look, uh, we've got running water down here, and sometimes it's even hot. I'm going to take a shower. RB will take you to Watcherland, right?" She patted 'Buffy' on the shoulder and took off before anyone could say or do anything to stop her.
The robot cocked her head. She blinked several times then turned to Tara. "I am unable to comply. My memory banks contain no record of a location known as Watcherland."
"She meant Giles," said Tara. "Can you show me where Giles is?"
"Certainly." 'Buffy' led the way. "According to my interpersonal relationships programming, at this juncture I'm supposed to apologize for the misunderstanding. Kennedy's communication methods are complex and tend to be difficult for me to process. Unlike Giles, whose thought processes are organized and specific."
"You don't sound like the Buffybot I knew," said Tara. "Who built you?"
"Warren Meers. At the insistence of Spike. I was designed to fulfill his every..."
Tara held up her hand. "I know. Go on."
"My CPU was badly damaged during an effort to rescue Spike from Glory and I was left in the basement of the Magic Box. After that establishment was destroyed I landed in the sewer, where I remained until Giles and those who had allied themselves to his cause found me. I was subsequently repaired and reprogrammed as a training or if need be combat unit by Daniel Osbourne and Jonathon Levinson."
"It was Willow in my world," said Tara. "Although you weren't a combat unit. You were just...Buffy. Or as close as we could get, anyway."
"Buffy Summers died in your divergent reality as well?"
"Under different circumstances, but yes. Only our Buffy came back. We...brought her back."
The robot frowned. "According to my records, mythical methods of resurrection are dangerous. I understand it is also against the Wiccan Rede."
"Are you not a practicing Wiccan?"
"How then could you condone such activities?"
Tara sighed. Bringing Buffy back to life had screwed things up in more ways than one. "Let's just say it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, okay? Are we almost there?"
"Yes." The robot led her to a door marked LAB 1. She didn't pause to knock or announce herself; she just flung the door open and walked inside. Giles was sitting at a desk, studying several old and dusty, leather-bound books and occasionally sipping from a cup of coffee. "Giles."
The Watcher turned. "Yes." He saw Tara. "Oh. You're awake. Excellent. How do you feel?"
"Better. I guess. Where are the others?"
"Resting no doubt. Since this complex is quite large Cordelia, Xander, and Daniel have adopted entire sections of their own. Privacy is such a rarity in this day and age." He smiled at Buffy. "I see you've met the Buffybot and my Slayer as well, I presume?"
Tara nodded. "Kennedy seems like a nice girl."
"Indeed. She is also quite a capable Slayer. Her strength is exceptional." He shook his head. "Unfortunately she is also quite headstrong and has a tendency to let her anger get the best of her."
Tara cleared her throat. "Um, Kennedy said Faith died in LA?"
"Not exactly. It was, uhhm...are you familiar with Angel?"
"The vampire? Wait, you're saying he killed Faith?"
Giles nodded. "After the soul he'd been cursed with was stripped away and destroyed. By Dusk."
"That is what my sister..." The Buffybot stopped herself. "...Dawn, calls herself now. Since merging completely with the Key and being corrupted by the Hellmouth she is changed."
"She is no longer the sweet, innocent teenager you doubtless know in your reality," said Giles.
Tara closed her eyes. "Poor Dawnie."
"Don't feel too bad for her." Xander came limping into the room. "Dusk is cold, cruel, and kind of slutty. She is also Willow's right hand. Dusk is the one who used the Ferula-Gemina on Oz, personally led attacks to kill Amy, Ethan and the other magic users, and..." He frowned. "...she killed Anya."
"Anya? Oh, Goddess."
Giles sighed. "Come now, Xander. You know as well as I she didn't do that on purpose."
"Maybe not. But she didn't act too broken up about it either."
"Tell me what happened," said Tara. "Please."
Dusk sat on the edge of the Bronze's roof with Oz crouched beside her, watching chaos unfold in the streets as two big, gray-skinned demons pursued a group of vampires. She had grown bored with watching humans trying to fight and getting slaughtered for their trouble. This, at least, was amusing.
The werewolf's ears perked up, and it growled. "Someone comes, Mistress."
"Let them." Dusk's voice sounded so cold, and it had a strange echo. "I could use the diversion."
A dart struck the werewolf's flank and it lurched to its feet. Before it was able to even take a step its eyes went dark and it fell flat on its face, snoring like a bizzsaw.
"Nice shot." Dusk rose. "Why don't you come out where I can see you, Riley?"
Dressed in black and holding a tranquilizer rifle, former Initiative agent Riley Finn emerged from the stairwell with Giles and Anya right behind him. "How'd you know it was me?"
"I can sense your mind. Such as it is." Dusk turned. "So what brings you back to this dreary little town?"
"Our psychic operatives detected something big a couple of months back," Riley replied. "After our last agents failed to report back I was sent to investigate because of my familiarity with Sunnydale and its inhabitants. Giles and the others told me about Buffy. I'm sorry."
Dusk smiled. "I'm not." She glanced at the gun Riley was holding. "You're thinking about using that thing on me, but you're not sure if it'll work. You're worried the experimental sedative your scientists came up with might not be strong enough." She smiled. "Just because it took down my puppy..." She shook her head. "...which, by the way, you are going to pay for, doesn't mean it'll stop me."
"I know." Riley holstered his weapon, then from his hip-pack took a small vial of blue liquid.
"You boys and your toys." Dusk gestured and Riley was jerked off his feet. He couldn't move, or finish what he had started. The vial rolled out of his hand. "Didn't you military morons figure out science and sorcery don't mix after your last little fiasco? What the hell good are you, really?"
"Dis...dis..." Riley tried to speak, but her power held him too tightly. His face was turning blue.
"What was that?" Dusk chuckled. I didn't catch that last part."
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. It was Anya, and she was holding the vial. "Distraction is the word he was looking for." She opened the vial and threw its contents in Dusk's face.
The green-haired girl staggered back. "My eyes!" Riley fell. "Bitch! What did you do to me?"
"Relax." Riley sat up. "It's a paralytic agent, specially designed for demonic and mystically enhanced entities. It won't do you any permanent damage, just incapacitate you for a while."
"So we can take you somewhere else and do permanent damage to you," said Anya. It was difficult to tell if she was kidding or not.
Tears streamed down Dusk's face. "No! Get away from me!" She began to glow. "Get...away!" A burst of energy exploded outward in every direction, slamming everyone else across the roof. Giles and Riley were thrown back against the side of the stairwell, leaving them stunned. Anya, unfortunately, was closer to the edge and screamed as she went flying off and plunged down toward the street so far below.
Tara closed her eyes. "Goddess. Anya."
"Riley returned to the Initiative shortly thereafter," said Giles. "And your American government, in its less than infinite wisdom, ultimately decided the threat posed by Willow and Dusk was too great to simply be ignored any longer. But at the same time their power was dangerous, and instead of attacking directly and potentially causing a great deal more damage and loss of life, they cordoned off the city."
Xander nodded. "There are walls around Sunnydale now. Armed guards make sure nobody comes in or out. We don't get TV or radio. Water still runs though. Electricity too. I'm guessing the big boys in DC don't want the bad publicity that comes with totally depriving us."
"So, there are other people still here?" Tara asked. "Besides you guys, I mean?"
"A few," Giles replied. "Who, for their own reasons, chose not to take part in the initial evacuations. Since then some of them have been killed by vampires and demons. Some of them were trapped as well, or chose to remain for their own reasons. Others, have been brought here by Dusk."
Tara frowned. "Why?"
"She likes to play games," said Xander. "We're all like toys to her."
Tara leaned forward and put her head between her legs. "I feel like I'm going to pass out."
"Just take deep breaths," Giles said as comfortingly as possible. "Slow and steady. You'll be fine." He looked at Xander. "Did you need something?"
"I went to see how Tara was doing but she wasn't there. Figured she was here."
The blonde lifted her head. "Why did you bring me here? I mean, what exactly do you think I'm going to be able to do? Willow was always the more powerful witch. I can't stop her."
"Nor did we intend you to," said Giles. "We had other reasons in mind for selecting you."
Much to his dismay, Angelus was down in the sewer tunnel with Oz. "I hate this."
"Skulking through the sewers like some beast."
The werewolf snorted. "You think you're too good for this work, vampire?"
"I know I am."
"You think you're so special, because the Mistress favors you?"
Angelus smirked. "I do enjoy her company, if that's what you mean."
"Bah." The werewolf stopped and lowered his head. "There."
"What is it?"
"Her scent, coming from..." Oz saw and picked up a small duffle bag lying by the water. He sniffed it. "It's hers all right. I can use this to find her."
Angelus nodded. "Excellent. If we bring the witch back alive, Dusk will be very pleased."
"Alive?" The werewolf huffed and snarled. "But..."
The vampire snarled "I want her alive! If it makes you feel better you can kill all the others yourself!"
"Fine. I will." The werewolf started walking again. "Except him. He must live. For my sake."
Daniel watched Tara come out of Giles office, followed by the Watcher, Xander, and the Buffybot. "What's the verdict?" He got no response from Tara, who turned and walked away. "Was it something I said?"
"It's not you," said Giles. "I'm afraid she is feeling a bit overwhelmed."
"Can you blame her?" Xander said. "We're asking a lot."
The Buffybot glanced from one man to the other, blinking in a rhythmically constant pattern. It looked like she wanted to ask or say something, but none of them seemed to notice.
"But what did she decide?" Daniel asked. "Is she going to help us or what?"
The Watcher nodded. "Reluctantly, yes. She is an exceptionally brave young woman."
"Makes it easy to understand what Willow saw in her in the first place," said Xander. He shook his head. "I only hope it wasn't all for nothing. Do you really think this will work?"
"What other choice do we have?" Giles asked. "Consider it this way. Tara's presence certainly can't make things any worse, now can it?"
As the three men parted the Buffybot stood where she was, mouth hanging open. Then she abruptly spun on her heel and walked until she came upon Kennedy curled up in a corner, sharpening a sword in her lap. She paused in front of the Slayer, waiting expectantly.
"Why do you call me that?"
"RB. It stands for Robo-Buffy."
"I understand the acronym. But I have noticed that when you use it you seem to be speaking in what my records indicate is a genial tone." The robot cocked her head. "Do you consider me a friend?"
Kennedy shrugged her shoulders. "I suppose. What does it matter?"
"I was not programmed to have, or be, a friend. I am uncertain how to proceed on such a course."
"Nobody is," said Kennedy. "Making friends isn't something you're built with. You just do it. It's a part of being human." She smiled. "Or, in your case, close enough."
The robot nodded, though the expression indicated she still didn't really understand. "Then as m...friend, may I ask you a personal question?"
The robot crouched beside the Slayer. "What is love like?"
Kennedy was so shocked she accidentally squeezed her whetstone too hard and it cracked in half. "Damn it!" She looked up at the robot. "Why do you ask?"
"I was listening to Giles tell his plan to Tara, and there was much discussion of how much Willow loved her. In my memory are listings for every romantic relationship involving one of the designate "Scooby Gang" members, as well as the often traumatic events which so often seem to precede and succeed them. Love seems to be a very powerful motivator in all such things. I do not understand why."
The Slayer chuckled. "RB, we humans go through our entire lives trying to figure that out. Falling in love is not something you can process and control. It's like I was saying about friendship. It just happens sometimes, only it tends to be even messier. With friends you can at least decide where you're going to hang out and which kinds of people you're going to associate with. But your heart has no buffer when it comes to falling in love. You can see a stranger's face on the street and fall madly in love without ever knowing their name. Some people have to work at it a little harder though." She smiled. "Wish I could help you, RB. See, I've been in lust a whole bunch of times in my life. It's happening more and more these days in fact, thanks to my damned Slayer hormones. But love? I'm still waiting on that one special lady. Some people just get lucky."
In the shower room, meanwhile, Tara stood under the hot running water and cried. She washed herself over and over but still couldn't make herself feel clean. Everything Xander and Giles had told her about Willow and Dawn and the others, it was tearing her up inside. And now, they want her to betray the woman she loved, and help them stop her from hurting anyone else. She'd agreed, mainly because she didn't know what else to say. Their plan was still echoing in her mind
"Willow and Dusk have appropriated the castle where Dracula once resided for their own purposes," Giles told her. "Its walls were enchanted to prevent any form of breeching, mystical or physical, and that spell is constantly reinforced by the Hellmouth. There is also no entrance to speak of. In order for anyone, such as Angelus and Oz, to get in or out, Dusk or Willow must authorize it."
"Which explains why you, or the Initiative, haven't been able to take them out yourselves," Tara realized. "But if what you say is true, I still don't understand what it is you expect me to be able to do to help you. I don't have the kind of power you'd need to get in there."
"No," Xander had said. "But you do have the kind that can get yourself in there. See, as strong as she is Willow still has one major weakness. You." Tara blanched. "Every so often Willow gets...shall we say, lonely. She'll send Oz or, more often, Angelus, out to bring her back a girl she can spend some time with. None of them are you, of course, but it doesn't take much for her to fix that."
"Wait. What are you saying?"
Giles sighed. "You'll be able to get closer to Willow than any of us ever could. Once in her personal quarters, I hope, her defenses will be down and you'll be able to strike at her."
"You better not be about to suggest I kill Willow for you," said Tara. "Because if that's what this is all about I'm going to grab the athame and go home right now."
Giles squeezed her hand. "Tara, we would never dream of asking such an unimaginable task of you. You merely have to incapacitate Willow, not kill her." He handed her a book, with a specific page marked. "Using this spell. I would do it myself but I can't because its casting requires a true witch."
As she was toweling off a few minutes later Tara thought about her Willow. They'd broken up because her love lied to her repeatedly, and worse was using magic to manipulate people's minds. Now she was considering doing something very similar to this Willow. The tears started all over again.
"Oops." Kennedy stood in the door of the locker room, her eyes wide. "I didn't know you were...uhh, wow." She turned away. "Your Willow's a very lucky lady."
Tara blushed as she pulled her clothes on. "Thanks. I think." She crossed her arms over her chest. "You can, um, turn around now. Did you need something?"
"Hmm?" Kennedy, still staring, smiled at the way Tara shifted uncomfortably. "Oh. Daniel programmed the 'bot to cook and she sent me to tell you food's ready. If you're hungry."
Tara nodded, and gestured for the Slayer to lead so she could follow. "It's not polite to stare you know."
"Maybe so. But I can't help it." Kennedy kept sneaking glances at the blonde. "I see a beautiful woman and I just lose all sense of propriety."
Tara blushed again. "How, umm, how did you get involved in all this?"
"Well, it's a funny story," said Kennedy. "No wait, not funny...bizarre and terrifying is more like it." She shoved her hands in her pockets and shuffled her feet. "It was really bad luck. I was at Angel's when Dusk and Oz showed up. I'd been sent there by my Watcher. He thought I might need extra training in case I ever got called, and Angel had a pretty good rep in the supernatural community. Dusk didn't even have to do anything, she just stood by with this dumb ass look on her face while Oz tore through Angel's friends. She did seem to get concerned when Giles arrived with Faith and she and Angel managed to take Oz down. I'm not sure what gave Dusk the idea to take away Angel's soul, but there was no one left to know what she'd done it until it was too late."
"What do you mean?"
The lobby of the Hyperion hotel was in shambles. Furniture had been overturned or destroyed outright. Bodies were scattered around the room--Daniel and Giles, as well as Cordelia and fellow Angel Investigations members Charles Gunn and Wesley Pryce, all bloody and unconscious. So was Oz. In fact the only ones left standing were Angel and Faith, both looking the worse for wear, and Dusk, who didn't have a scratch.
"I'm impressed," said the green-haired girl. "I didn't think you two had it in you. He was my big gun."
"What the hell happened to you, D?" Faith asked. "Buffy must be rolling over in her grave."
Dusk shook her head. "Nothing left to bury, Slayer. Sis is just dust in the wind now."
"Shut up!" Angel's pale hands clenching into even whiter-knuckled fists. "I don't want to hurt you, Dawn. But for Buffy's sake I will stop you!"
"I don't think so. You've got problems of your own, Angel. Like that pesky soul of yours. Stings doesn't it? See, I know how you feel. I had one too 'til recently. Thanks to Willow it's gone bye bye. Trust me on this." Dusk held her hand up and the palm began to glow. The vampire was jerked off his feet, his body rigid as he was engulfed in fiery green light. "You'll thank me later."
Faith stepped forward. "Angel! Bitch, what are you doing to him?"
"Watch your tongue, Slayer!" Dusk released Angel and he slumped to his knees. "Or I'll have my new toy tear it out of your mouth." She smirked as he lifted his head, his face twisted into a demonic sneer. "Oh what the hell? I think she wants you, big guy. Have fun."
Faith had just come from prison and didn't have the chance to prepare any weapons. She also hadn't been expecting to fight a vampire, particularly not this one. Angel lurched to his feet. "Don't let her get into your head. We're on the same team." He started toward her. "Aren't we?" He was the closest thing she had in the world to a friend, and he was eyeing her like a steak dinner. "You're starting to scare me." He licked his lips. "Angel?"
"Bad news, jailbird." Without warning the vampire punched Faith in the stomach, doubling her over, then caught her hair and jerked her head back. "Angel's in solitary. I run the cell block now."
Dusk laughed as he sank his fangs into the Slayer's exposed throat. "Welcome home, Angelus."
"I was upstairs at the time," said Kennedy. "Watching them fight. Angel and Faith were amazing. As powerful as Oz is, he didn't have a chance against both of them. Then Angel turned and..." She shook her head. "...I wasn't even thinking about the fact that I was a Potential. When Faith died it was, damn, I hardly know how to describe it. The power surged into my. I could feel it burning in every pore."
"So what happened?" Tara asked.
"Dusk must have somehow figured out what was happening. The next thing I know she and Angelus are standing over me. He said he wanted to eat another Slayer but Dusk stopped him. She said I was too new. I needed to get a little older. Or ripen, I think, was the word she used. They woke up Oz and took off."
"Obviously, Giles and Cordelia and Daniel survived. What about the others?"
Kennedy shook her head. "No."
"So after the funeral arrangements for Wesley, Gunn and Faith were settled," Kennedy continued. "Giles and the others went back to Sunnydale. Cordelia and I came with them."
Tara followed the Slayer to a dining hall where Giles, Daniel, Xander and the Buffybot were waiting. "Cordelia isn't eating with us?"
"It was her turn to check the sewer entrance," said Giles. "I think she..." His eyes widened. "Dear God."
Angelus stood in the doorway, holding Cordelia's limp body. He licked his blood-stained lips and smiled. "Hey gang. Miss me?"
Everyone except Kennedy and the Buffybot backed away as the ever-confident vampire strode into the room, a cocky grin on his face. He casually let Cordelia's body slide to the ground so he could cross his arms while Oz's massive form squeezed through the tight doorway behind him.
"And to think, you've been hiding right under our noses all this time." He shook his head. "What? No hello's for an old friend?"
"You were never my friend," said Xander. "Just so we're clear."
Angelus sneered at Tara. "You're Willow's long-lost, huh? Not much to look at if you ask me." He glanced over his shoulder. "You're positive it's the same scent?" The werewolf nodded. "Okay. So what are you, blondie? Giles here grow you in a lab? Or maybe, you're an evil twin from another dimension?"
Tara's eyes widened slightly at that. She hoped he didn't notice.
He did. "Ah so it's not some kind of weird glamour, you really are her, only from another world. Let me guess, they brought you all the way here to...what, exactly?" The vampire clucked his tongue. "Rupert. Rupert. Rupert! If these are the kinds of decisions you're making, you must be desperate. What exactly did you think a scared little girl like this would be able to do against us, huh?"
Tara frowned. "Hey! I'm not a little girl!!"
"Ooh, she's got a backbone." Angelus licked his lips. "But I'm really kind of a breast-guy myself."
Behind him, Oz snorted. "Enough talk. Let's get with the killing!"
"My big friend is a little impatient," said Angelus. "Still, he has a point." He snarled. "Okay, since I had Cordelia for dinner you can have the Watcher and the One-Eyed Man in the Kingdom of the Stupid." Xander frowned. "I'm eating the Slayer. We'll turn the robot into scrap metal and take the witch back to Dusk."
The werewolf nodded. "Agreed."
Kennedy glanced at the Buffybot, who was frowning. "You ready for this, RB?"
As the quartet was facing off with one another, Giles gathered Xander, Daniel and Tara at the back of the room and quietly spelled out his plan. "I think it would be best if we escaped."
"That's it?" Xander asked. "You want us to just run away?"
"Have you got a better solution?"
Xander frowned. "No, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Once they start fighting," said Giles. "We'll wait until they are too busy to stop us."
Tara didn't like the though of running any more than Xander did. Or Giles for that matter. He was just as angry as the others about Cordelia, she could see it in all their auras. She hadn't known the other woman long, but in an odd way felt she would really miss her too.
"Just be ready," said Daniel. "We may only get one shot at this."
Kennedy charged at Angelus, who just smirked, while the Buffybot approached Oz. Slayer and vampire traded a series of lightning-like blows which culminated in both of them being staggered, while the werewolf swung first one paw and then the other at the fast and agile robot.
"Now," said Giles. "Go!"
Oz finally literally put his foot down, and the impact momentarily knocked the Buffybot off-balance. The wolf snarled and grabbed the robot by the head. She was jerked off her feet and, in spite of her efforts to the contrary, hoisted high above his head. "Nobody goes anywhere!"
"Watch out!" Xander grabbed Tara and shoved her out of the way, just before Oz threw the struggling robot. He groaned as he was crushed up against a wall, then slid to the ground in a pool of blood while the Buffybot flipped back to her feet. She cocked her head to study the man.
"He is no longer functioning."
Giles closed his eyes. "God no. Xander."
"Xander?" Tara felt like crying. "Y-You monster!"
Angelus, distracted, took a punch to the jaw from Kennedy. Though staggered, he managed to slap her back. He snarled at the werewolf. "Watch it, fool! You almost killed her!" He then ducked under a right-cross and rammed his shoulder into Kennedy's mid-section, doubling her over. "We need her alive!"
"Yeah, yeah. Hey!" Oz grunted in surprised as the Buffybot punched him repeatedly in the sides and stomach. "I felt that!" Though he wasn't actually used to fighting like that the werewolf nonetheless balled up a fist and drove it right into the center of the Buffybot's face, crushing her nose and denting much of the metal underneath. "How do you like that, tinker-toy?" Though much of her head had been deformed the robot continued to function. One eye blinked. "I am operating at...eighty seven percent capacity."
Angelus countered another blow from Kennedy, who was sweating and panting. "What's wrong, little girl? Your Watcher never taught you anything about pacing?" He viciously punched her in the face and she stumbled, but his other hand lashed out and caught her shirt to keep her on her feet. "Rupert! You're slacking off! Even Buff lasted longer than this, and she was younger than Pollyanna here." The vampire's eyes narrowed. "Hmmm, speaking of, I wonder if you have any stamina where it really counts?"
Giles, desperate to save this Slayer, at least, suddenly charged Angelus, who released Kennedy and backhanded the Watcher. Before Giles could recover the vampire grabbed him by his head. "Hey, Rupert? Do you remember what I did to that gypsy of yours? Well, you know what they say." With a smirk he stared into the Watcher's eyes as he broke his neck. "Turnabout is fair play."
Kennedy rose behind the vampire and kicked him between the legs. "Oh shut up!"
Oz knew the robot was strong. Her blows were actually hurting him. But even though she knew where to hit his body was regenerating nearly as fast as it was taking damage. It had taken Faith and Angel working together to do him enough physical harm at once to overwhelm and incapacitate him, and even then he'd recovered quickly. The truth was if it wasn't silver, it really wasn't a threat. "Enough!" He caught one of the Buffybot's hands, and tore its entire arm off in a shower of sparks. "You really wanna play games, robo-bitch? Batter up!" He swung the robot's own arm like a club and sent her flying into, and then through, a wall on the far side of the room. As he turned he found himself face to face with Tara, and snorted. "You want some of this?"
"Try me." The blonde held up her hand as Oz loomed over her. "Ignis flagrare!" A burst of flame exploded in the werewolf's face and he roared, more in surprise than actual pain.
Even so..."My eyes! Stupid witch! I know where you are!"
Angelus saw Oz drawing his arm back, claws at the ready. "Watch out you idiot!"
Heedless of the vampire's warning the werewolf struck, and with a smug sense of satisfaction felt his claws go right through a human ribcage and explode out the back. "Got ya!" As his vision began to clear he heard someone wheezing, probably coughing up blood. The once strong heartbeat was fading quickly. "I guess Mistress'll have to be happy with a dead...you?"
Skewered on his wolf-half's arm Daniel smiled one final time. "You lose." His eyes rolled back in his head and his entire body went limp. A few moments later, so did the werewolf.
Tara, gasping for air and crying, lay on the floor after Oz shoved her out of the way just in time. He and Xander had both sacrificed themselves for her.
Angelus shook his head. "Werewolves." He lurched to one side as a chair shattered upon his back. Snarling the vampire spun around to see Kennedy holding one of the broken legs like a stake.
"Get out of here," said the Slayer. She was looking at Tara. "I'll take care of him!"
Tara stood up. "But..."
Tara nodded, then turned and ran out the hole in the wall the Buffybot had made. She saw the robot, damaged, a few feet away. She seemed to be trying to get up. "Are you okay?"
"D-D-Dama...ged. T-T-Thir...ty per...cent functional." Sparks flew out of the robot's stump. "Circuitry failure is imminent." Her good eye blinked at the other blonde. "Where is Kennedy?"
"Inside," Tara replied. "With Angelus."
"Then I m-must help her. She is my...my...neural pathways d-disrupted. I cannot recall the word."
"Your friend?" Tara offered.
The robot nodded. "Friend. Yes, friend. T-Thank...you." She moved at a slow, jerky pace. "I m-must help...m-my friend. Kennedy. Good-bye, Tara."
"Bye." Though she really did want to stay and help Tara knew there was nothing she could do for the robot. And Kennedy was a Slayer. She was the only one left who had any chance against Angelus. Whispering a prayer to the God and Goddess, the witch went against all her instincts and ran.
Angelus was stronger but Kennedy was faster and more agile, and while every punch the vampire landed did the Slayer more damage her punches and kicks left him bruised all over. He had been amused when they first started but the longer the fight went on the more frustrated he became.
"I only let you live the first time because Dusk told me too." Angelus blocked her swing and punched her in the face, breaking the Slayer's nose. That was on top of a busted lip, a left eye so swollen she barely see out of it and possibly a cracked cheekbone as well. "No such luck this time."
Kennedy finally seemed to run out of steam. She stopped fighting and collapsed, falling on her back in front of the vampire, who loomed over her with a knowing smirk on his face. Suddenly the Slayer she brought her feet up and kicked him in the groin, bringing Angelus to his knees. "Who needs luck?"
"Bitch! You think...you're funny?" The big, bad vampire sounded off with a high-pitched voice, but the humor of the situation didn't last long. Anger fueled his healing and his undead metabolism, allowing him to shrug off pain and rise again to grab the Slayer. "I'll show you funny!" He drove his knee into her stomach and tore her shirt off, then threw her across the room. "How was that? Did you like that, Slayer?" He drove the heel of his boot into her now bare chest, drawing blood and cracking several ribs. She screamed. "I sure did." He picked her up again. "Oh, what's wrong? You're not laughing anymore."
Kennedy spit blood in his face. Which, under the circumstances, didn't have the effect she hoped. He licked it off and smiled. "Screw you!"
"That's not a bad idea. Been a long time since I bagged a Slayer."
Kennedy's eyes widened, but she quickly recovered her composure. "Go ahead. I won't miss that thirty seconds out of my life."
Angelus slapped her. Hard. "Still cracking wise huh? Well, laugh now little girl. When I'm done with you, you'll be begging me for death. Trust me." He leaned in to kiss her.
Kennedy head butted him with all the strength she could muster. He was actually staggered by the blow, and she could swear she heard something in his face crack. But he didn't drop her like she'd hoped, and she could not lift her arms to strike at him any longer.
Angelus shook his head and snarled. "Have it your way bitch!" He crouched slightly and brought Kennedy down across his knee, breaking her back. She didn't even have time to scream. With her spinal chord severed there was no pain to speak of, just a strange numbness below the neck. Tears streamed down her face. Even if she survived, which didn't seem likely, she might be paralyzed for life. Then again, that look on the vampire's face told her she probably wouldn't have to worry about it. "Gues sI win."
"Not...y-y-yet." A thunderous blow sent Angelus flying. Standing there with her one remaining fist cocked, was the Buffybot. "You have hurt...my friend. You w-w-will pay."
The vampire wiped his bloody lip and sneered. "And who's going to make me? You?"
"I've fought the real Buffy to a stand-still. You're just a cheap copy."
The robot cocked her head. "As I...r-recall...the real Buffy...b-beat the crap out of you. The only r-r-reason you survived is because...Willow r-reinsouled you."
Angelus snarled. "Shut up!" He charged at the robot and backhanded her. Had she been human the impact would probably have broken her neck. Because she was not, the robot recovered in less time than it took the vampire to draw his arm back and caught his wrist. "Hey!"
"You will harm no one else with this!" The Buffybot pulled his arm, not quite hard enough to pull it off like the werewolf had done to her, but she did manage to dislocate his shoulder. As he howled in pain, she lunged forward and drove her skull into his midsection, doubling him over. She brought her knee up into the vampire's face, then cracked her fist down on the back of his head. He fell flat on his face.
Kennedy whistled to get the Buffybot's attention. She gestured with her eyes, the only part of her body she was still able to move, and the robot bent down to pick up her stake. "Get him."
The Buffybot nodded. "I will." As Angelus started to get up she kicked him in the small of the back, then leaned down and drove the stake into his heart from the back. He roared as he turned to dust. The robot then slumped to her knees, her power all but exhausted with those last few maneuvers. "K-Kennedy?"
"My battery...is almost...drained."
"I know the feeling. Angelus busted me up inside."
"Can I...do anything?"
"Just, hold me," said the Slayer. "Until one of us..."
The robot fell over and put her good arm around Kennedy. "I am sorry, I did not return sooner."
"I'm just glad you're here now."
Tara ran, in tears, until at last she came to a ladder and was able to climb out of the sewer. She was surprised to find herself still on the UC Sunnydale campus. It had obviously been abandoned for some time. Wiping her eyes she thought about what she was going to do next.
She still had the athame, all she needed was a reflective surface and she could go home. Even a puddle of water would do in a pinch. But she wasn't ready to leave. Not yet. She had promised Giles and Cordelia she would help, and they, along with Xander and Daniel, gave their lives protecting her so she could do just that. She wasn't about to let all those sacrifices all be in vain.
Tara heard thunder and looked up. Inside the seething mass of clouds overhead she could clearly see a constant pulse of green light. Her eyes widened. Green? Almost as if on cue a tremendous bolt of emerald lightning burst out of the clouds and pierced the roof of a long-vacant building, oddly without setting it aflame in the process. It was Lowell House if she wasn't mistaken. She gasped. That had been Riley's fraternity which, of course, sat right on top of the Initiative. Hesitating only a moment she ran back toward the building, instead of going as far and as fast away from it as all reason would seem to warrant.
Inside she smelled ozone, and almost plunged headlong into a huge, smoldering shaft burned down through the middle of the structure and deep into the ground. Tara could actually see down into the Initiative, although it was too far and too dark to make out any specific details. She already suspected she knew what was going on. The big green bolt of lightning was a dead give-away. She waited until she heard movement down below, then cleared her throat and leaned out over the hole. "Hello? Can I, umm, talk to you?" She stepped back as a green blur shot burst up through the shaft and materialized in front of her, in an all-too familiar shape.
Dusk cocked her head, a lock of green hair swinging into her glowing green eyes. "You called?"
"Y-Yes, I did." Tara was amazed at how different the girl looked. Not just the cosmetic physical changes either, she actually appeared to be several years older. Her aura was in chaos, there was so much mystical energy within and around Dusk it was impossible for the witch to know if she had literally aged herself or if this was merely an elaborate glamour of some kind. "Goddess. Dawnie?"
The girl sneered. "Don't call me that! Don't ever call me that!"
"Sorry." Tara suddenly felt very scared. This was not the sweet young woman she had known. Dusk seemed like a totally different person. "I was just wondering, what you were looking for?"
Dusk gestured and a rune-covered collar appeared in her hand. "Stupid boy killed my puppy."
"Oz," Tara whispered.
The green-haired girl stepped closer, and Tara resisted the urge to back away. "I know you. Don't I?"
"Umm..." Tara bit her lip. She was worried how Dusk would react if she found out the truth. "...no." Technically, that was true. "Not really. I probably just have one of those faces."
"Your face! That's it!" Dusk grabbed the blonde's face and turned her head from side to side. "You look just like her. It's remarkable. What was it? Some kind of glamour?" Tara shrugged her shoulder but said nothing. "Oh well, who cares? Come on." A portal of green energy opened in front of her. "Let's go home." She stepped right into it without breaking stride or looking back to see if the blonde was indeed behind her.
Tara took a deep breath and followed. In less time than it took to blink they were in another place altogether--a musty, cold stone corridor filled with cobwebs and shadows from torches lining the walls. This was the castle of Dracula described by Buffy and the others. She had never been inside, until now. "Wow."
"Nice, isn't it?" Dusk rested her hands on her hips. "That stupid vampire never knew what he had. I till don't get why he left this place behind when he took off."
Tara turned to the green-haired girl. "Why am I, umm, w-what do you w-want with me?"
"You're got her stutter down. I'll give you that." Dusk smirked up at the blonde. "You want to know the best part about being in charge? I don't have to explain...well, anything." She again motioned for Tara to follow, and led the way through the labyrinthine corridors to a wooden door.
From the room beyond rang cries of what Tara, blushing profusely, recognized as passion.
Dusk shook her head. "I told them not to start without me." She pounded on the door, causing the people within to cease their current activities, and probably to scramble for their clothes. "You've got about fifteen seconds to open this door, and then I'm going to..." It jerked open.
A wide-eyed young blonde woman peeked out, gasping for air. A blanket had been hastily draped over her nude body, the visible skin glistening with perspiration. "Apologies, Mistress. We were just..."
"I know what you were just. They could hear you in LA." Dusk gestured behind her. "This is..." She glanced over her shoulder. "...oh, who cares? Prepare her, Marina. She'll be here in one hour."
The blonde woman nodded. "Of course." She ushered Tara inside and closed the door. "We have company!" She gestured grandly as the two figures sprawled out on the bed. "Amber, Aly, meet.. uhhm, what the hell's your name anyway, newbie?"
"Tara." The witch realized her blunder too late when she saw the look on all three women's faces.
Finally, Aly shook her head. "That's convenient."
"Should make the whole transition easier," said Amber.
Marina nodded. "And you're already blonde, assuming it's natural. That's a plus."
"What's going on?" Tara asked. "What are you all doing here?"
"Angelus calls us the harem," said Amber. "He grabbed me at a club in LA. Said I smelled like strawberries, and that I was perfect for her. I knew better than to fight him."
"I've lived in Sunnydale my whole life," Aly replied. "I saw some weird stuff and heard about weirder stuff. One night Oz, the wolfie one, cornered me in an alley and brought me here."
Marina sat down on the edge of the bed, sighing as Aly and Amber rested their arms on her shoulder. "I used to be a lawyer for a firm in LA. They supposedly sent me to Sunnydale to investigate a string of bizarre occurrences connected to some obscure detective agency. Turns out the detective was Angel, and the "people" in charge were actually checking to see if Willow and the things she and her girl-toy were doing were going to get in the way of their own plans for him. I made the mistake of trying to get to close to Dusk and..."
"...here you all are," said Tara. The other three women nodded. "And she keeps you around, to have sex with? I-I didn't think Dawnie was interested in women that way."
"She's a very sensual person," Amber replied. "Not after women or men in particular, so much as just the experience, the contact, the release. I heard she sleeps with Angelus too."
Marina nodded. "Besides, it's not just her. The other one comes in here sometimes too."
"Willow?" Tara bit her lip. "You've...been with her?"
"A few times. It's usually Dusk though," said Aly. "They have a similar style, hunger, in bed. It's exhilarating, and kind of frightening, at the same time."
Amber shuddered. "Not like Angelus. He's brutal. I think he would have killed us, if Dusk hadn't..."
"You don't have to worry about him anymore," Tara assured them. "Angelus is dead. So is Oz."
"Really?" Marina asked. "You saw them?"
Tara nodded. "Trust me. He's not coming back." She smiled sadly while the three women held one another. "So, you're saying Dusk brought me here, because she intends to sleep with me?" They nodded. "What preparations is she expecting you to do?"
"We bathe you," Amber replied. "And anoint you with the fancy oils she likes. It's really ritualistic."
"Dusk said she'll be here in one hour," said Tara. "So, I'm not for her?"
Aly shook her head. "Willow gets all newcomers first. She is the one in charge, after all."
The three women led Tara to a room with a huge bathtub, and nothing else, in it and tried to undress her but she shoved them out, insisting she would prefer to do it on her own. The expressions on their faces told her she had been right to refuse, especially since they were all over one another again right almost as soon as she closed the door on them. She suspected they were all under some sort of influence, presumably mystical, or else Dusk had somehow managed to gather three remarkably nymphomanical women.
After the bath Tara found a silky black negligee draped across a chair, apparently meant for her. She could have sworn neither of them had been there when she entered the room, which implied magic she had not sensed. Then again she had been feeling off since coming to the castle. She was beginning to wonder if there wasn't some sort of magical dampening field in place, one which obviously wouldn't effect Willow or Dusk. Of course if that was the case then her whole plan was in jeopardy. Binding Willow's powers was difficult enough on its own, if magic didn't work very well here she might not be able to cast the spell at all.
Tara heard a door open and muffled voices from the other room as she was getting dressed. She felt even more uncomfortable than before, if that was possible. This negligee looked an awful lot like one she owned, which the Willow from this world would know, come to think of it. She reached for the doorknob and then froze, her heart in her throat. She knew from what Giles and Xander had told her that Willow's magic had taken a toll on her, in a very physical way. She would not look like the woman she loved. Taking a deep breath the blonde threw open the door and found herself face to face with the object of all her concerns.
The raven-haired woman with the jet-black eyes cocked her head as she stared at Tara. She had puffy blue veins around the edges of her pale face, and was wearing a tight black leather outfit. "Yes?"
"Do you...know me?"
"I know who you look like. That's enough." Willow gestured and Tara's negligee disappeared. "I wish they'd stop putting these things on. They just get in the way."
Tara didn't bother to cover herself. There was clearly no point. "Wait, Willow. I want to talk to you."
"Bored now." Willow grabbed the back of Tara's head, pulled her close, and kissed her hard.
Tara was taken by surprise, and for a moment she just hung there, letting herself be kissed. Then her hands shot to the raven-haired woman's shoulders in an effort to push her away. This was wrong. She shouldn't be...and when Willow's tongue forced its way into her mouth she realized just how wrong. Willow never kissed like this. It was clumsy, full of unrestrained hunger, not passion, and Tara felt sure that no matter how different her life might go Willow would always have a certain 'finesse' this woman was sorely lacking. She shoved the raven-haired woman away and wiped her lips. "Who are you?"
"No good, huh?" Willow turned into Dusk. "Guess I better work on my technique."
Tara didn't know whether to scream at her or be sick. She settled for going into the other room, which she now saw was empty, and grabbed one of the sheets off the bed to cover herself with. "I don't understand. Why are you pretending to be Willow? If you wanted me for yourself, you should have just said so."
"Would you have taken me?" Dusk crossed her arms and pouted. "Everybody always wants the big bad."
"Is that was this is about? You feel inferior to Willow?"
"Hell no! Her majesty isn't even..." Dusk's eyes narrowed, and she gnashed her teeth. "Why am I even talking to you? I'm in charge here. What I say goes. So lay down and..."
Tara shook her head. "No."
"You heard me. I said no. It’s not going to happen."
Dusk frowned, then with a mere gesture blew a hole in the wall. "Give me a break." Another fixed it. "You think I can't make you do what I want?"
"Oh, I've no doubt you can compel me to have sex with you. I obviously can't stop you. But I'm not convinced it is what you really want. You're not just interested in sex. You're looking for something else. Something more. If I'm not mistaken, what you're really searching for, is someone to love you."
The green-haired girl stomped her feet. "What are you? A damn psych major?"
"Not really. But come on. You're pretending to be Willow with women who look like me. Some part of Dawn's memories of us together must still exists in your mind and you're trying to..." Tara gasped as the girl grabbed her shoulders and peered deeply into her eyes. Inwardly, she cursed herself for saying too much.
"It is you, isn't it?" Dusk sniffed the blonde's neck. "Somehow, you're really here. You're really here!" She tried to embrace the blonde but was rebuffed. "Why are you here? How?"
"Long story," said Tara. "There's one thing I still don't understand, Dusk. Where's Willow?"
Trembling, Dusk took a step back. She was enveloped in a pulse of green light and disappeared.
A few minutes later Marina, Aly, and Amber reentered the room. They didn't see Tara standing behind the door and were unprepared for her to push them and run out, slamming the door behind them. She clasped the knob and whispered an incantation she had used more than once back home to keep her brother out of her private things; it sealed the lock and would hopefully keep them contained for several hours. It didn't escape her notice that it was taking more effort than usual to cast the normally simple spell.
Tara turned to run, but it suddenly occurred to her she had no idea which way to go. The corridors all looked the same. After a couple of dead-ends and doors that led only to empty chambers and storage closets the blonde got frustrated enough to start swearing. Then she got control of herself. "This is ridiculous. Maybe Dusk is playing a game. Changing the hallways somehow?" She slipped a hand into her pocket--having put her own clothes back on after Dusk left--and touched the athame there. "Maybe I should just go home?"
"Why, love? You just got here."
Startled by the voice Tara twirled around. Her eyes widened at the sight of the familiar spectral figure standing there with a trademark smirk on his face. "Spike?"
Tara had been wondering what happened to the vampire. Neither Giles nor Daniel would say anything the times she tried to broach the subject and Xander deliberately changed the subject. From the way they were acting she'd begun to suspect he was dead...more so than usual, of course.
He looked her up and down. "Appears I'm not the only one haunting this place anymore."
"How you been, blondie? Don't tell me they plucked you out of heaven too?"
Tara frowned. "You were in...oh. You're probably talking about Buffy. The last time."
"Sodding right I was." Spike arched an eyebrow. "To know that you must really be Tara." She nodded. "Did Dusk bring you back?"
"No. I'm not...from your world."
"That right?" Spike seemed completely unfazed by the revelation. Which was understandable. He was a vampire ghost, after all. "I wonder. Who in this town would have the guts, not to mention the magic, to pull off something like that? Let me guess. Watcher boy and his amazing friends?"
"Yes. And it cost them their lives. Xander's, Daniel's and Kennedy's, too."
Spike nodded. "So the Scoobies finally shrugged off this mortal coil, eh? Good for them."
"They're the lucky ones. That religion of yours, it talks about life after death right? Peace and love and light, all that crap?" She frowned then nodded. "So they're past the pain, the fight against evil and what-not. They're in your better place, celebrating with one another. Buffy. Anya. Joyce. So what's the problem?" He shook his head. "Way you tell it, they're not even your real friends."
Tara felt the urge to slap him, but she knew it was pointless. "What happened to you?"
"What do you think? Greenielocks did this to me."
"After Buffy kicked off, her friends kind of lost it. They were in no condition to go after Dawn or Willow. So I took it upon myself to do it for them. For Buffy." Spike sneered. "Needless to say, it didn't go so well. Turns out Dusk was waiting for me. She said she knew I'd try something heroic. When she made fun of Buffy I slapped her, right and proper, but she didn't take too well to that. Said I had no right to touch her. Or her sister. Then she got a bloody awful look on her face and promised I wouldn't touch anyone again." He shook his head. "I'm like a toy to her now. She keeps me around for giggles. I can't even leave this sodding castle."
"So what were Rupert and his goody-good thinking about in bringing you here?" Spike asked. "Yours is the last face should be here. It'll drive Dusk mad."
"Too late for that." Something occurred to Tara. "Where is Willow? I haven't seen her since I got here."
Spike arched an eyebrow at her. "You don't know, do you? No, I don't guess you would. The Scoobies lost track of her after the fight with Glory. A fight Willow barely won."
"What do you mean?"
Spike glanced over his shoulder. "Bloody hell. If you want to see Red, go up to..." He screamed as his body was enveloped in green flames and he was turned to dust.
Dusk appeared behind him. "He always did have a big mouth."
"Y-You killed him!"
"You know I've always wondered about that. Can you really kill something that's already dead?" Dusk shook her head. "Besides, I did no such thing. My one of a kind, mint-condition, Spike the friendly ghost is far much fun to just throw away."
"So what did you do to him?"
"Let's just say I gave him little time out." She cupped Tara's cheek. "Truth is, I wanted us to be alone. We have some unfinished business, you and I."
Tara took a deep breath. "Umm, before we...I need to ask. Where is Willow?"
"Willow? God, why's it always Willow with you?" Dusk turned into the redhead and crossed her arms. "Like I'm not good enough for you? Is that it?"
"I-I didn't say that. It's just, I'm worried about her. Nobody will tell me what happened to her."
"What difference does it make?"
"A big one. To me. Please."
'Willow' turned back into Dusk and sighed. "Fine. Some quality time with Willow." She smirked. "But after, I'm going to make you scream, just like she used to do back when you guys thought I couldn't hear you." She grabbed the blushing blonde's arm and they were both swallowed up by green light.
They reappeared in a space with no doors or windows, no decorations, or furniture save for a huge, four-poster canopy bed in the center of the room. Its single occupant had a blanket drawn up to her chest, and appeared to be in a very deep sleep. It was Willow, and yet not.
Tara paled. "Goddess." The once vibrant young woman was even paler than when Dusk impersonated her, and so gaunt. She had dark circles under her eyes and stringy black hair spread across her pillow. She was breathing in a slow, shallow way, her eyelids in constant motion. "What happened to her?"
"Glory," Dusk replied. "She's been this way ever since their big fight. I tried to wake her up when I first came to my senses but it was no good. She doesn't respond to anything...pain, or pleasure." She smirked. "It's too bad. I've got a feeling we could have made beautiful music together."
"So everything that's happened, everything Giles and the others blamed Willow for, it's all been you? You were operating on your own, not Willow's orders?"
"Absolutely." Dusk rubbed her hands together. "Okay. Now, you've seen her like I said. Let's get to it." She put a hand on Tara's belt, frowning when it was slapped away. "Hey!"
"I'm not ready yet." Tara turned to the bed. "I want to talk to her. Alone."
"Why? She can't hear you. She's just a vegetable now."
Dusk frowned. "Fine." She crossed her arms. "You know, anybody else tried talking to me this way I'd tear their heads off and spit down their necks." She vanished in a green pulse of light.
Tara sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed. "Hey. It's me. I'm sorry all this happened." She shook her head as she imagined what her Willow would be saying right about now. "Which is weird I know, but I can't help it. It's not like it's my fault. Or your Tara's, for that matter. It's just...where I come from? Dawn blamed herself for what Glory did to me. My Willow took matters into her own hands like you did, she just didn't take it quite as far. But from what Buffy tells me, she tried. She really fought Glory." Unnoticed by the blonde, Willow's eyelids started to flutter even more rapidly as she was taking. "Goddess, what am I supposed to do, Will? Giles and Xander, are dead. I'm sorry." Willow's hands clenched. "I tried to help. I really did. But Angelus and Oz, they're monsters. I'm not a fighter, Will. I'm not the strong one. You are. Strong..." She gasped as Willow's hand grabbed her wrist, and she heard the other witch's voice echoing in her mind as she was engulfed by magic.
"...like an Amazon."
Tara opened her eyes and gasped. She was alone. The bed and its occupant were gone. She also found herself in a whole new place; the foyer of Buffy's house, near the bottom of the stairs. Which wasn't possible, she realized as she was looking around. Even though she had sensed magic right before changing locations she didn't feel any of the debilitating aftereffects of such an impressive teleportation.
"This isn't real."
"Of course it isn't," said a voice. "Where you been?"
Tara turned. Anya was sitting on the living room couch with a bowl of popcorn in her lap. "Anya?"
"Now quiet down, will you?" The ex-demon pointed at the TV, which was clearly turned off. "I'm waiting for the financial report. This is supposed to be a good one."
"Am I dreaming?" Tara asked.
Sighing Anya grabbed the remote control and turned the TV on. It lit up instantly, and on the screen Tara saw an image of Willow, with her black hair and pale skin, sleeping. "Not you."
"Will," said Tara. "She...pulled me into her mind? I'm in her dreams? But why?"
Anya changed the channel and then shrugged her shoulders. "Who knows? Why don't you try asking Giles. He's in the kitchen." She smiled as dollar signs filled the screen. "Hooray! Flying money!"
Shaking her head Tara turned and walked into the dining room, where she found Xander and Buffy seated at the table. They appeared to be having a staring contest. "Hey guys. What's going on?"
"Can't talk," the Slayer whispered. "Got money riding on this."
Xander arched an eyebrow. "Hey is that Angel?" He smiled as Buffy turned and looked over her shoulder. "You fell for it again, Slayer! Pay up!"
Buffy grumbled and sneered as she dug into her pocket.
Tara continued on toward the kitchen. Out the dining room window she noticed an unfamiliar, balding man with glasses standing in the front yard. He was holding pieces of cheese. She closed her eyes for a moment and when looked again he was gone. "Welcome to the wonder that is Willow's mind." She walked through the kitchen door and into the main room of the Magic Box. "Huh."
Standing behind the counter, Giles raised his head from a book and smiled. "Hello."
"Hi. I, uhm, need some help."
"Of course." Giles gestured at the book he was reading. "Right this way."
Tara walked around the counter. "This is a dream, right? Something in Willow's mind?"
"See for yourself." Giles closed the book. The cover read ROSENBERG CHRONICLES. "You're not supposed to be here. You don't belong. You do know that?"
"I have o...Willow's in trouble, Giles. I think that's why she brought me here. She needs me to help her, and we promised we'd always find each other."
He took off his glasses and began to clean them. "Very well."
"Do you know where she is?"
"Of course." Giles pointed to the training room door. "That way."
"Thanks." As she was reaching for the knob, Tara had a feeling that despite her surroundings she wouldn't end up in the training room. Even so, she was still somewhat surprised when the door opened on to the busy dance floor of the Bronze. "Goddess. What are you trying to tell me?"
Someone grabbed the witch's arm. "Dance, love?"
"Spike?" Tara was taken aback when the vampire put his arms around her. "What's going on?"
"Can't say, blondie. Symbolism was never my strong suit."
Tara pulled away, shaking her head. "I-I can't stay here. I have to find Willow."
"Go on then." Spike grabbed a wild-eyed brunette Tara didn't recognize. "Me and Dru were planning t have our own private party anyway. Isn't that right?"
"The sheep are very confused," said the brunette. "And went moo."
Spike kissed her. "You took the words right out of my mouth."
Tara decided to keep her own mouth shut and backed away, paling when she felt herself bump into something a little too big and solid to be human. She glanced up at the thing, which was part human and part demon with just a touch of the mechanical thrown in for a patchwork effect. She knew who he was, his name at least, even though she had never actually seen him. "Adam?"
"Incongruent realities are disturbing, are they not?"
"The data is inconclusive. You must search for your results elsewhere."
"I-I don't understand."
"Clearly." Adam pointed to a door, out of place in the middle of the dance floor. "Go quickly."
Tara moved toward the door and it swung open on its own. She stepped into the light, and back into the familiar corridors of UC Sunnydale. Her old dorm, in fact. "Hey!"
"You're getting warmer." Daniel walked by with the werewolf Oz on a leash beside him. "Weird, isn't it? Makes me wish I'd finished that psych class."
Tara watched them go, then turned to find her old door. "Okay." As she reached for the knob it swung open. But even as she was taking a step it slammed closed. Frowning, she actually tried the knob and discovered it was now locked. "Willow?" She looked around. "I'm here to help. Let me in please." She tried the knob again. It turned and she was able to push the door open. "Thank you."
Out stomped Dusk, her face contorted in rage. She slapped the blonde. "Stop it!" Tara suddenly snapped back to consciousness to realize she was lying on the ground at the green-haired girl's feet. "What the hell do you think you're doing? This isn't what I brought you here for!"
Tara clutched at her now sore cheek. "W-What happened?"
"You were doing some kind of magic mind meld with Sabrina here," said Dusk. "I could sense it from the other side of the castle." She sneered. "Trying to double-team me, huh?"
"What?" Tara clambered back to her feet. "What in Gaia's name are you talking about?"
"To quote Spike I'm the biggest bad to ever hit Sunnydale. I've got power nobody can match. Except, maybe, for the uber-witch here. Which makes Willow an anomaly. One I've just had to live with because...well, watch." Dusk formed a ball of fiery green energy in an outstretched hand and before Tara could make a move to stop her threw it at Willow. It dispersed harmlessly against an invisible barrier. "I can't touch her. Nobody can. So I decided just to make her as comfortable as possible, so she'll hopefully have no reason to wake up." Dusk gritted her teeth. "I knew you were up to something. But I never imagined...this. Do you have any idea the kind of damage a crazy-ass witch like Willow can do? Why would you want to take that risk?"
"I didn't do anything. She grabbed me. Made me see things. I think..." Tara glanced at Willow. "...maybe, she was reaching out to me. Asking for my help. She's the one who wants to wake up."
Dusk frowned. "Crap. That's all I need."
"You sound afraid," said Tara. "You're the big bad. Are you telling me you can't handle her?"
"Watch your mouth! I don't care who you are, I'll..." Dusk's eyes lit up. "Wait a sec. Of course! This is perfect! I can use you as leverage. If Willow does wake up she'll find you here, with me, in chains. I'll be able to make sure she does what I want her too. Or else." She gestured, and Tara was jerked forward by invisible hands. "Before that happens, however, I believe we have unfinished business."
Tara shuddered as Dusk ran a well-manicured finger down her cleavage. "Stop...it."
"Or what? Willow may be a problem, but I can damn sure handle you, witch." Dusk grabbed Tara and kissed her, hard, on the mouth. She was then staggered by a slap she never even saw coming. "All right, that's it!" She slapped back and Tara went flying across the room. "I've had enough of you!"
"Go ahead." The blonde's lower lip was bleeding. "Kill me."
Dusk nodded. "Screw it." She held out her hand and formed another green fireball. "Think I will." Tara screamed as it came flying straight at her.
Tara opened her eyes after a few seconds surprised, and somewhat confused, about why she was still able to do so. She'd been so sure she was dead after that blast.
"That's a good trick," said Dusk. "I never even saw you move."
Tara didn't know what to say. She could sense magic in the air, something besides Dusk's.
"Let's see how you handle this one." Dusk tossed a bolt of green lightning at the witch, who started to crawl out of the way before she felt that rising magic again.
The air between Tara and Dusk rippled, easily dispersing the emerald energy.
"That's one hell of a counter spell," said the green-haired girl. "But this time I was watching you. You didn't do a thing." She crossed her arms. "So either you set something up in advance, or..." Her eyes widened. "...or else, you didn't do it at all." They both slowly turned to look at Willow.
The raven-haired witch had not moved. Her eyelids were fluttering madly, however.
"How did she do that?" Dusk asked. "She's still out of it."
"That's the thing about magic," said Tara. "It doesn't always do what you expect."
Dusk sneered. "This can't be. Your so-called magic is a joke. My power is far older than your entire race! I was already ancient long before humans even climbed out of the primordial slime. Your will is but a candle compared to the bonfire that is the Key!" She unleashed blast after blast of green energy, which came close to Tara but was never able to penetrate the field protecting her. "Damn it!"
"You keep doing that and you might wake her up all-together," said Tara. "Is that what you want?"
Dusk stopped. Her eyes narrowed. "Fine. Let's just try this another way then." She snapped her fingers. Marina, Alyson and Amber appeared on either side of her in flashes of green. "Listen closely, ladies. We're going to play a little game." She pointed at Tara “Take her. Right here and now. I want Willow to hear every sound she makes. If you can get her off quickly enough, I'll reward you. If not..."
The trio needed no further incentive, or warning. Alyson and Amber grabbed Tara's arms to hold her still, while Marina winked at her and began to unbutton her blouse. The blonde struggled but was at a disadvantage, due in no small part because she could not concentrate enough to do any magic to free herself. "Willow!" It was a risk, she knew, but she saw no other option. "Help me, Willow! Please!"
A light bulb exploded overhead, raining glass down upon the four women. Alyson and Amber released Tara as it scorched any exposed skin it could find. Marina got some of it in her hair. She shrieked, but was able to swat out the smoldering follicles before they actually caught fire. Not surprisingly Tara, though directly under and closer to the bulb than anyone else, remained miraculously untouched.
"Fine," said Dusk. "We'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way." She held her hand out and the athame from Tara's boot appeared in her hand. She smirked at the look on the blonde's face. "What? Did you really think you'd be able to bring something like this into my home without my knowing about it?" She peered at the dagger. "Nice craftsmanship. It's obviously old and ritualistic. So killing a witch like you with it should be doubly ironic." She approached a trembling Tara with her own blade held at the ready.
That was when Willow sat up.
Dusk and Tara both froze. Neither dared move nor speak. They were waiting to see what Willow was going to do first. Slowly she turned her head until her solid black eyes finally settled on Marina. The blonde trembled as she found herself in the line of sight of a woman who could have killed her with a mere thought. After a few seconds the witch's gaze turned to Amber and Alyson, and they both backed away as well.
"Go...away." Lightning-like energy enveloped the three woman and they disappeared. Willow then turned to see Tara and Dusk staring at her. "I'm...alive?"
Tara nodded. "You're alive and awake, Will. You're free."
"Free?" Willow lowered her eyes and began ringing her hands. "N-No. I can't...I don't deserve..."
"You made some mistakes, Will. But you still have a chance to correct them. No one else has to get hurt. Your life is yours again, Will. What do you want to do?"
Dusk looked from Tara to Willow and shook her head. "No. I won't go back. That little girl...NO!" She formed a ball of green energy and threw it at the dark-haired witch, hoping to catch her off-guard.
"Willow!" Tara screamed. "Look out!"
But the dark-haired witch never moved. The resulting explosion enveloped Willow and the bed in green energy and blew Tara and Dusk off their feet. Even from a distance they felt heat coming off the seething mass of green flames, which showed no signs of dieing down any time soon.
Dusk laughed as she got back to her feet. "I did it!"
"W-Willow?" Tara shook her head. "No. Not like this. Please. Willow."
Then the green flames began to swirl, shrinking in size and intensity until they revealed a pale figure with black hair. In her outstretched hand was a green ball of fire. She turned to look at Dusk, who was trembling, and over at Tara, who was smiling. "You tried to hurt me."
"I was trying to kill you, actually." Dusk hissed. "Looks like I can't." She shrugged. "Guess I'll just have to settle for...you!" She spun around and threw the athame at Tara.
Willow's eyes narrowed. "No." The dagger melted, and with it all Tara's hopes of going home.
Dusk stomped her feet and pulling at her hair. "Damn it! Dammitdammitdammit!" She disappeared in a surge of bright green light. Her voice carried. "This isn't over! You hear me? It isn't over!"
" Iwish you hadn't done that," Tara whispered.
Willow turned, her eyes widening as if she'd just noticed the blonde for the first time. "Tara?"
"It's me, Will."
"But, how? I-I saw you die. I saw Glory..."
Tara sat down on the bed, nodding. "I know. You watched your Tara die. I'm sorry."
"You're...not from here? From this world?"
"No. I'm afraid not."
Willow's face fell, and she sighed. "Oh. I thought, for a minute..."
"I know." They sat in silence for some time. Then Tara cleared her throat. "Umm, Will?"
"Can I ask you something?"
"You don't seem as homicidal as Giles and the others made you out to sound."
Willow nodded. "Yeah. I can see why they would tell you that. Last time they saw me I was all and black-haired and..." She touched her face and smiled sheepishly. "Oh. Right."
"Dawn, Dusk, or whoever, on the other hand..."
"You know why, don't you? Why she's acting that way?"
"She was corrupted," said Tara. "By the power of the Key manifested inside her, and by the Hellmouth."
"True. I also had a hand in it you know. Assuming Giles and the others told you everything?" Tara nodded. "But I think there's something, or rather, someone else involved as well."
"Her aura. The taint is coming off her in waves. I could feel it every time she came to see me, I just couldn't do anything about it. I'm kind of surprised you couldn't feel it unless, of course, you were lucky enough not to meet her in your reality?" Willow arched an eyebrow. "Did you?"
"I don't know. Who are you talking about?"
Up on the roof of the castle Dusk fell to her knees, clutching at her head and screaming. "Get out! Get out! Go away! I don't want to hear your whining anymore!" The green-haired girl stopped suddenly, looked up, and smiled at nothing in particular. "That's better."
Dusk rose. "This body is so weak. If the witch fights back hard enough, it'll die." She stared at her hands. "I need to get stronger and fast. It's too bad my old body was..." She turned, green eyes scanning the horizon. "Why not? I know one way I might be able to put this pulpy meatbag to good use."
She disappeared in a flash of green light.
"Glory?" Tara asked. "But how? I thought you killed her?"
"Not quite. She's a god. I'm not sure even I ever had the power to do that. When I tapped into the Hellmouth and got that boost I was basically trying to absorb her essence to contain it. Her body became, in effect, pure energy which I was so certain I could control." She sighed. "Looks like I was wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"I was out of my mind after you...I mean Tara, my Tara, died. My previous attacks on Glory had failed, and in an irrational moment of what I must have thought was clarity I decided I needed more power. I needed the Key. So I took Dawn and used her, as the conduit between myself and the Hellmouth. Everything I was borrowing from the Hellmouth was filtered through her. Everything I took from Glory, in return, also went through her. I'm guessing some part of Glory's essence, if not her consciousness all-together, held on."
"And took over Dawn?" Tara offered. Willow nodded. "Goddess." The blonde shook her head. "That explains the dramatic alterations in her personality."
"Maybe," said Willow. "But not the way you think. Some aspect of Glory may be inside her, yes, but Glory isn't the only thing responsible for Dawn's condition. It was more the corrupting influences of the Hellmouth and my evil inside her. That's what gave Glory a place to roost." She put her head in her hands. "Oh Goddess. What have I done? All this death and destruction, it's my fault."
Tara put an arm around the raven-haired witch's trembling shoulders. "I won't lie to you, Will. Yes, it's true you probably wouldn't be in this mess now if it wasn't for you losing control of your magic in the first place. But that doesn't mean you can't feel anger toward Glory. Or Dusk for that matter. The thing is Will, right now we actually don't have time for the blame game. Dusk is on the loose and getting angrier by the second. You and I both know she'll be back, sooner or later, and there's no telling what she'll do."
"Then you should go," said Willow. "Back to your world, where it's safe. I'll take care of Dusk. I did this. Now I have to be the one to fix it."
Tara frowned. "I can't. You, um, sort of...melted the thing I needed to get home." She shook her head as Willow began to cry all over again. "No, Goddess, don't do that, Will."
"I-I'm sorry." Willow wiped her eyes. "I can't help it. I miss you, Tara. Without you, I feel dead inside. I can't go on like this." She lay back on the bed. "Why couldn't I have just stayed asleep? I didn't feel anything there. I didn't know hurt, and I damn sure didn't have to worry about anything."
Tara lay down beside her. "For what it's worth, you might be able to redeem yourself."
"By stopping Dusk, before she hurts anyone else."
Willow nodded. "We just have to figure out where she'd go. What's she thinking right now?"
"I know she's scared," said Tara. "Of you and your power. Which means, if she wants to compete with you, she's going to need some more of her own."
"That's crazy. The Key is magical energy in the purest sense. It's way stronger than I could ever be."
"Maybe. But Dusk may not consciously know or believe that." Tara arched an eyebrow. "Oh, her body is human, right? It was never meant to handle the kind of power she now possesses. Even our magic isn't boiling within us in the literal sense hers is. She probably can't tap into everything she has."
Willow nodded. "Which, okay, means she just needs an upgrade. But how would she do that? Vampires, demons, her most likely candidates here in Sunnydale, they're stronger than humans yes, but even they don't have the kind of enhanced physical structure needed to hold the sort of energy we're talking about."
"One does," said Tara. "Think about it. If it is Glory, who's body would she want to put the Key into?"
"Her own," Willow realized. "In order to recreate it she'd need to piece together the stray molecules that might remain behind on this plane. And you know what that means?"
Both witches came to the same realization and said the same thing at the same time.
Willow threw off the blankets and slid out of bed, but as soon as her feet touched the floor and she attempted to stand up her knees buckled. Luckily Tara was right there to catch her. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it. Are you okay?"
"I've been asleep for...what, over a year now? There's some atrophy going on here." Willow shook her head. "I'll be fine. I just need a little pick-me-up." She gestured. "Repair." A faint pulse of light washed over her body. With obvious ease now she stood up and stretched. "That's better."
Tara frowned. "Will. Isn't that the sort of thing that got you into trouble in the first place?"
"What?" Willow stomped her feet. "Come on, Tara. To stop Dusk you're going to need my help and let's face it, I'm no good to you as an invalid." She smiled. "Don't worry. I can handle this."
"That's what worries me," Tara whispered. Willow's eyes were solid black and her hair had not showed so much as a hint of her natural color. There was a very real possibility that she had corrupted her magic too much to ever fully recover from it. "Can we...do we actually have a chance Will? The Key is mystical energy in its purest form and Dusk, or Glory, or whoever she is may be able to tap fully into it if she recreates her old body. Can you and I really stop her? Is your power enough?"
"Maybe," Willow replied. "But not for long."
"What do you..." Tara's eyes widened. "Oh no. Goddess. It's borrowed magic." Willow nodded. "I see it eating at your aura now. Each passing second your power is fading, and yet..." She shook her head. "You have so much more magic left within you. It's incredible."
Willow took the blonde's hand. "Close your eyes."
"Okay." Tara did so. She felt a surge of vertigo, but even as her mind and her body were beginning to register it, it was gone. "W-What was that?" No response. "Willow?" Still getting no answer she opened her eyes and looked around. She gasped. They were in the long-abandoned hallway of the ruined Sunnydale high school. Nearby there was a sign which read BASEMENT. "Whoa."
"I didn't think we had time to walk across town," said Willow. "Sorry if the trip was uncomfortable."
Tara nodded. "It's okay. How did you do that?"
"A spatial fold," Willow replied. "It's really not all that hard."
"For you. I used to get headaches just floating Miss Kitty around the room."
Willow laughed. "I remember. She..." Her face fell. "Wait. No. I don't. You're not my Tara. My Tara is..."
"Hey." Tara touched the other witch's arm. "It's okay, you know. she's in a better place."
"That's what everybody else tried to tell me after she died," said Willow. "But I just kept thinking...I want Glory to suffer. She needs to pay for what she's done. Revenge was more important than grief." Tears filled her eyes. "I never even got the chance to say good-bye. It's not fair!"
"No," said Tara. "It's not. But there's nothing you can do about that now Will. Right now we have to focus. Dusk is...well, downstairs. We need to come up with a plan to stop her." She looked around. "Say, why did you bring us here, instead of down where she is?"
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "I didn't think it was such a good idea to just pop in on her."
"You know she's expecting us," said Tara. "So surprise is out of the question." Her eyes widened. "Wait. I have a crazy idea. Do you think you could call for something of hers?"
"Maybe. What did you have in mind?"
Downstairs, Dusk was standing at the hole in the ground that led to the Hellmouth, studying the energies of the area, when magic elsewhere caught her attention. She glanced down to see the Ferula-Gemina, which stayed with her at all times, disappearing from her belt. She smiled.
"Oh goodie. Company's here."
Willow handed the Ferula-Gemina to Tara. "You wanted it? You got it."
"Now what are you planning to do with it?"
"Only what it's designed for," Tara replied. "Dividing a target into its two most dominant traits." She studied the artifact, noting in particular where the trigger was and how to activate it. "In this case, Dusk."
"So it will split her. Into Dawn and, I hope, the Key." Tara saw the way Willow was looking at her and shook her head. "Think about it. If I'm right, once Dawn is in true human form and the Key is back to being pure energy, the last remaining traces of Glory's essence won't have anywhere to go."
Willow frowned. "That's the craziest thing I've ever heard."
"Which tells me it's probably a good idea," said Willow. "Buffy came up with these kind of ridiculous plans too and they always seemed to work out in the in end. What do we do?"
"Even if Dusk didn't know we were here before I'm sure she does now," said Tara. "The Ferula-Gemina is pretty much a dead giveaway. We'll need to hit her hard and fast, and I think our best bet is to try a...Goddess, what does Buffy call that...oh! A double-front maneuver." She shrugged. "Or something."
"What's the first step?"
Minutes later Willow had her answer, as she stepped out of the shadows by Dusk, who's palms were glowing as she waved her hands over the Hellmouth. "Boo!"
The green-haired girl didn't even flinch. "Took you long enough."
"I take it you were expecting us?"
"Are you kidding? With all that magic you give off when you move around?"
"You know we're going to stop you, right?" Over Dusk's shoulder Willow saw Tara coming down the stairs with the Ferula-Gemina in hand.
"I know you'll try," sad Dusk.
Tara braced herself and fired the Ferula-Gemina. The blast went unerringly into at Dusk's back but passed right through and instead ended up scorching the floor at Willow's feet. Both witches were left slack-jawed and wide-eyed, while Dusk just shook her head.
"Fool." The Dusk in front of Willow vanished in a pulse of green light. The witch heard Tara scream and turned to see the blonde tumbling down the stairs. On the stairs behind her, stood Dusk. "Did you really think I wouldn't be able to figure out what you were up to?"
Willow sneered at the green-haired girl and had to bite her tongue to keep from screaming, or swearing, as she went to check on Tara. The blonde was unconscious and bleeding from a gash on her forehead, but did not appear to be otherwise badly injured. She breathed a sigh of relief.
"It's not her you know." Dusk was suddenly standing right behind her. "Not really." She shook her head. "But the truth doesn't matter does it? You look at her and your heart beats faster, right? You remember all the fun the two of you had. The nights of passion. Love love love." She spit on the floor. "It's a lie! Just a big joke nature plays to get us to reproduce." She chuckled. "Well, not in your case, of course."
Willow stood up and spun around, her eyes solid black. She grabbed Dusk by the throat and drove her back into the wall. "Shut up!"
"Touched a nerve, did I?" Dusk smiled. "Guess the truth hurts."
Willow threw her head back and screamed. Her grip on Dusk faltered. The green-haired took advantage of it by twisting away then balled up both of her fists...which began to glow. She punched Willow in the chest and a burst of green light sent the witch flying across the room.
"You shouldn't have let your guard down."
Willow lay on the ground for a few moments, stunned, then slowly got back to her feet. Several of her ribs had been broken by the impact, but she could feel the magic coursing through her healing them. It was already easier to breath. "Lucky shot."
"I don't believe in luck. Just..." Dusk generated two tremendous balls of green energy. "...power!" She threw one at Willow and the other at the unconscious Tara.
The witch's eyes widened. "No!" She reached out with her mind and put a protective barrier around Tara. Dusk's blast struck it...and dissipated harmlessly. In fact she felt very little magic from it at all, which told her there had not been much force behind the attack. Even as she breathed a sigh of relief the second blast hit her, full-on, and the air around the witch instantaneously turned solid. She couldn't move, couldn't focus her magicks and was only able to continue taking in enough oxygen to remain conscious.
Dusk leaned in close and winked. "Got you." She smiled and began to walk in slow circles around Willow. "See I figured you'd protect Tara, which is why I wasn't really attacking her. I knew as long as you were focused on her you'd be defenseless. You always were kind of scatterbrained that way." She shrugged her shoulders. "I also had a hunch doing you physical damage would take too long. This..." She ran a hand over the surface of the crystal-like substance enveloping the witch. "...little cage I whipped up, on the other hand, should negate your magic. At least long enough for me to finish what I came here to do. Better yet..." She blew Willow a kiss and walked backwards toward the Hellmouth, smirking. "...you get to watch."
Tara awoke to a dull, throbbing headache, made all the worse by the voice echoing in her mind.
'...up. You have to wake up now.'
'I'm awake,' Tara thought to Willow. 'Unfortunately. What happened?'
'You remember how bad we said things were?'
'They're worse now. Look.'
Tara slowly raised her head to see Willow encased in an ice-like substance. 'Oh. Are you okay?'
'Under the circumstances, fine.'
'Over there.' Willow's inner voice was silent for a moment. 'Sorry. Look to your left.'
Tara rolled over. Dusk was standing with her glowing hands in the air, one foot planted firmly on either side of the Hellmouth. Her eyes were tightly closed and there were bright spheres of light swirling around her. Every so often she would reach out and grab one, and it would disappear.
'What is she doing?'
'Gathering as much of Glory's lingering essence as she can. Gods don't fade easily you know. Once she has the majority of them she'll be able to reconstruct her body.'
'So some of that is Glory? What about the rest?'
'A lot of pretty powerful demons have been killed in Sunnydale over the years. What's left of their essence has a tendency to gravitate toward the Hellmouth.'
Tara nodded. 'Right.'
'We have to hurry. Where's the Ferula-Gemina?'
Tara realized her hands were empty. Looking around she saw the rod laying a few feet away. She grabbed it and stood up. 'So, I just...blast her?'
'You'll probably never get a better shot.' Through their mental link Willow could sense Tara's hesitation. 'Why is it bothering you now? You were fine shooting at her before.'
'I didn't have a chance to think about it then. But Goddess, this is little Dawnie.'
'It won't be for long, if you don't hurry.'
Tara sighed. 'You're right. Okay.' She took a deep breath. 'I can do this.' She aimed the Ferula-Gemina at Dusk's exposed back and poised her thumb on the trigger. 'I can do this.' She closed her eyes and fired at the exact same instant that the green-haired girl's entire body began to glow.
The blast hit. Dusk shrieked, and light filled the room as her radiant form exploded. Tara was battered by waves of magic that rendered her temporarily unconscious. Just before she blacked out though she heard what sounded like ice cracking and smiled. When she came to Willow was kneeling beside her with a hand on her shoulder and breathing a sigh of relief as their eyes met. "Hey."
Tara sat up. Herears were ringing. "What happened? Did it work?"
"Yes, and no." Willow pointed. "Look for yourself."
Someone was standing by the Hellmouth, stretching. A tall, lean, disturbingly familiar woman with light brown hair. She had on the exact same outfit as Dusk, but it was clearly not Dawn.
Tara paled. "Glory?"
"I think we miscalculated," said Willow. "It didn't split her into Dawn and the Key."
"Dawn and Glory?" Tara asked. She didn't see the teenager anywhere.
Willow shook her head. "Once again with the no."
"As far as I can tell, we got Glory..." Willow looked around. "...and the Key."
Tara closed her eyes. "I should have realized. Dawn wouldn't have been dominant anymore." She put her head in her hands. "How could I be so stupid?"
"It was a good plan," Willow assured her. "It just didn't work out so well."
Both women were startled when Glory was suddenly kneeling right beside them. "Hi, ladies. Sorry to interrupt, but I couldn't help overhearing. So where is it?"
"What?" Willow asked.
"My precious little Key. If what you say is true, it should be here. I don't see it."
"The Key is pure energy," said Tara. "Maybe it's invisible."
"No, witch. It's glowing and green, and I want it!" On the last word Glory stomped her foot down so hard it sank into the ground up to her ankle. "Stupid mortal coil. Everything here is so fragile." She grabbed Tara by the throat and lifted her off the ground before she or Willow even knew the Hellgoddess had moved. "See what I mean? I'm back. And we both know I can crush you like a bug. Less than a bug really. So tell me what I want to know..." This was directed at Willow, since Tara was unable to talk. "...or you won't like what happens next."
Willow shook her head. "I can't tell you what I don't know. I can sense the Key's having been here. So can you, I imagine. I have no idea where it is now."
Glory stared at her for a few moments. "You know what? I am in such a good mood right now...I actually think I believe you." She abruptly let go of Tara and rested her hands on her hips. "But that doesn't change what's buzzing around in my head. Dusk was really scared of you. I'm not."
"What's your point?"
"I'll tell you what. Take your best shot."
Glory shrugged her shoulders. "I'm giving you another chance to settle an old score. I killed your little blondie bear once." She winked at Tara, who paled. "Think I can't do it again?"
Tara could feel the magic swelling within Willow and shook her head. "Don't."
But in spite of her concern bolts of multi-colored energy still began to flare around Willow. The ebony depths of her eyes swirled as she clenched her fists. A burst of power sent Glory flying across the room. She hit the far wall so hard it left an imprint of her body behind as she slumped to the floor. The seething witch unleashed blast after thunderous blast, enveloping the Hellgoddess in a literal firestorm.
Tara could feel the heat. "Willow, stop."
The entire room was shaking like it had been caught in the epicenter of an earthquake. Chunks of plaster rained down from what was left of the ceiling, all remaining glass shattered, and jagged cracks formed in both the walls and ground. In addition, what appeared to be steam rose from the Hellmouth.
"Willow!" Tara was worried. The dimensional walls in this area were thinner than most, and it might not take all that much to open the Hellmouth once and for all. If the worlds bled together it would be the end, and no amount of power would save Willow or anyone else...except, perhaps, Glory. "Stop it!"
Her rage and power finally expended, Willow's arms dropped to her sides. She was sweating and panting, and if Tara hadn't been there she would have fell on her face. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it."
"How'd I do?"
"It was an impressive light show," said Tara. "But you didn't really accomplish anything."
Out of the still raging maelstrom strode Glory--looking none the worse for wear except for her clothes, which had apparently been disintegrated by the heat. Seemingly oblivious to the fact she was naked, and probably fully aware of what a marvelous body she had, the Hellgoddess arched her back and stretched.
"Nice try. It's just too bad I don't tan."
Willow sighed. "Well, it was worth a shot. Any other ideas?"
"I have one." The Hellgoddess, now standing right behind them, rested an arm on each witch's shoulder. "You've got more power than I thought. So, you know what?" She casually slapped Tara, sending the blonde tumbling head over heels, back into unconscious. "I still wanna play. Amp it up, witch."
"Sucks, doesn't it?"
Tara opened her eyes and gazed around. To her surprise she was laying on the floor of Buffy's living room, and there was someone sitting on the couch, watching her.
"Dawn?" Tara sat up, confused. The teenager looked exactly as she remembered. "What sucks?"
"Having to just sit around and watch..." Dawn gestured and the TV flashed on. Willow and Glory were glaring at one another on-screen. "...while the big girls have all the fun."
Tara frowned. "Is this...am I...dreaming?"
"More or less. I wanted to talk to you, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity."
"You aren't really Dawn are you?" Tara stood up. The energy she was seeing in and around Dawn was familiar to her, but she wasn't sure why.
The teenager shook her head. "Not anymore. Not for a long time, really."
"The Key. You're the Key."
"I've been called that, yes, by some. In truth I come from a point in existence where things do not have names. I decided to appear to you as Dawn because this is the face with which you are most familiar."
"Why? W-Why do you want to talk to me?"
"Because, you are the only one who can stop her."
Tara glanced at the television. "Glory?"
"Glorificus's time on this plane is nearly at its end. I know, because we are bound together, she and I. We came to this reality together, and it was always intended for us to leave the same way. No, Willow is the true danger to this world, and although I am aware you are not from here I suspect you would not allow anything to destroy it if it were within your power to prevent it."
Tara shook her head. "But it's not. I'm a witch, yes. Not like Willow though. I don't have anywhere near the kind of power she does. How could I possibly stop her?"
"You may not be her equal in terms of the sheer volume of magic you can manipulate, but that is not the power I was referring to. That is the biggest difference between you two. Willow assumes everything can be bent to her will if she only tries hard enough. You have seen this in your own reality have you not?" Dawn nodded when Tara lowered her gaze. "But at heart, even after all she has been through, Willow is not truly a bad person. And though she may survive what is to come physically, emotionally she will never be able to forgive herself what happens to the rest of her world when the Hellmouth is finally opened."
Tara gasped. "She's going to..."
"Yes. She believes it's the only way," Dawn replied. "Only this time, she won't have enough power left to seal it again. The two worlds will merge. Finally. Fully. It will literally be Hell on Earth."
"What do I have to do?"
"First we must get Glorificus out of the way," said Dawn. "And that is where I come in."
Willow and Glory locked eyes. The witch's narrowed. "Wait a second. I know how to beat you."
"I saw it. I saw you lose." Willow glanced over at the unconscious Tara. "When our minds were joined. You got your ass royally kicked by the Slayer of her world, and I'm willing to bet the same thing'll happen here." She held out her hands out and the massive hammer once wielded by Olaf the Troll materialized. It was so heavy though it slipped right through her fingers and hit the floor with a resounding clang.
Glory laughed. "Is that your big plan, sweet cheeks? Bringing in a weapon you can't even use?"
"Not right now, maybe." Magic surged around Willow. "Then again..." She grabbed the handle. "...you know what they say..." She picked it up with ease now. "Things change."
The Hellgoddess arched an eyebrow. "Impressive. Made yourself stronger, huh?"
"Faster too." Willow, now beside Glory, hoisted the hammer. "Boo!" Even as she began her downward swing of the weapon she realized the Hellgoddess was standing where she had been moments before.
"You've got talent, kid. I'll grant you. But I've been doing this a lot longer than you. Just this side of forever as a matter of fact. Give yourself all the weapons and power boosts you want. It doesn't matter. In the end you're dust in the wind, while I'm gonna look this good..." Glory stretched. "...for eternity."
Willow held up her hand. "Thicken." The air around the Hellgoddss became instantly solid, and even she could barely move her arms or her head. "Catch this, bitch!" She threw the hammer.
Glory's eyes widened. It hit her square in the chest and knocked her head over heels. She landed face down and did not move for several moments. Then she slowly raised her head. "Ow."
"Hurts, doesn't it?" Willow picked up the hammer again. "And to think, I used to be so scared of you."
At the last second Glory rolled out of the way of the witch's swing and grabbed her wrist. "You should be!" She twisted and Willow screamed as they both heard bones break. "I'm done playing." She slapped the hammer out of the witch's other hand and grabbed her by the throat. "Nobody hurts me and gets away with it."
Willow spit in her face. "Come on. Finish it!" She sneered. "What? You've already killed everyone I loved. You really think I give a crap what you do to me?"
"Suit yourself." Glory cocked her other fist and winked. "Say hi to blondie for me." Someone grabbed her wrist and she turned, dropping Willow at the same time. A blast of green energy sent her flying.
Tara stood there, her body on fire with green energy. It even filled her eyes. "Tell her yourself."
"Well, well, well." The Hellgoddes shrugged off the pile of rubble she had been thrown into and looked Tara up and down. "Look who found my Key. It suits you, Glenda."
The blonde smiled. "It's me. Only...more so."
"But, how?" Willow was stunned. "How did this happen?"
"Let's just say we came to an agreement. She needed a body to channel her essence through, so it wouldn't take out the rest of the world while we ended Glory's reign of terror."
"Big words," said the Hellgodess. "Question is, can you really back 'em up?"
Tara shook her head. "I'm not going to fight with you."
"Good. That'll make killing you a lot easier."
"No. I'm not going to fight, because I don't have to." Tara saw a pillar of fire rising from the crack in the ground behind Glory. "You've got a one-way ticket home, Glory. And I'm your ride."
Willow gasped. "The Hellmouth. It's...open!"
The Hellgoddess spun around. "What? No. Not now!" Two huge, fiery hands reached out of the fire and grabbed her. "Stop it! Let me go!" Her fists passed right through the flames. "No!"
"Your friends are waiting for you." Tara smiled. "You do remember Dismay and Chaos, don't you? I recall that's the names you gave them before they kicked you out. You scared them back then because you had so much more power than they did. But it's been millennia. And guess what?" Two vaguely humanoid shapes appeared within the flames. Both were smiling. "While you were hiding inside your flesh-cell, they've been growing stronger. I think you're going to find things are different from now on."
Glory screamed as she was consumed. When the conflagration ended she and the rest were gone, but more and more smoke continued to gush from the still wide-open Hellmouth.
"Quickly." Tara held her hand out to Willow. "I need your help to stop this."
Willow offered her own. "What can I do?"
"My power alone may not be enough. Join with me. Together, we can seal the Hellmouth forever."
The explosion of emerald light that resulted was visible to everyone and everything left in Sunnydale. It caused what was remained of the high school to swell up like a balloon. The rising sun itself actually looked dim for the several minutes that went by before the ruined structure returned to normal.
Tara opened her eyes, again surprised to find they'd been closed in the first place, and realized that she was not in the basement of the high school any longer. She was, in fact, in a dorm room at UC Sunnydale she and Willow had shared for a time, before moving into Buffy's house.
She also wasn't alone.
Willow was there, standing beside her and looking equally perplexed. She was not the black-haired, black-eyed dark witch any longer either. Her hair was red again and her eyes blue. She touched her own face, then looked up at Tara with confusion and a little bit of fear in her eyes.
The blonde shook her head. "I have no idea."
Both women turned as the dorm room door swung open. They gasped as in walked two other Willow and Tara’s, who were in the midst of a conversation.
"...be late is all," the blonde was saying. "I thought you wanted to make the opening."
Willow nodded as she sat down on the bed. "Yeah. But we're going to be there for a while so I just want to wear my lots-of-walking around shoes and save myself a lot of foot ache." She bent down to pull off the shoes she was wearing. "Hey, is my brown jacket in the closet?"
Willow, the one standing with Tara, paled. "Oh Goddess. I remember this day."
"Me too. It's the day we had our first fight. You stormed off and I..."
"...ran into Glory." Willow bit her lip. "You got hurt. My Tara was killed. Why are we here"
The other Willow and Tara froze. A spectral green figure appeared in the middle of the room. It was Dawn, and she was smiling. "Because I brought you here."
"Why?" Tara asked. "You're the Key. Why do you want us to relive our worst day?"
"I did not bring you here to relive it," 'Dawn' replied. "I brought her..." She pointed at the standing Willow. "...so she could stop it."
"The fight?" Willow asked.
'Dawn' shook her head. "No, the fight is necessary for the evolution of your relationship. But if you hadn't run off then your Tara would not have gone to the Cultural Fair alone and been killed by Glory. I brought you here so you can change all of the terrible things that have happened in the last year."
"But altering history like that...it's wrong," said Tara. "It goes directly against the Rede."
"Not in this instance. You see, this event was never supposed to happen. You were not meant to die on this day, Tara. Your end comes later. Willow and the you of this world both still have much good left to do together, and I am here to be the instrument of that change."
Willow licked her lips. "I-I can really do this? I can...bring her back? I can save everyone?"
"Yes. You need only step into the place of your past self and everything will be rewritten. This world will once again be on the path it was intended to follow all along."
"And I won't remember any of it, right?"
'Dawn' shook her head. "Merely as a vague bad dream, perhaps, for a time. But consciously? No." She turned to Tara and held out her hand. "Before she does this, we must go."
"You do not belong here. Your presence in the altered time-line would be destabilizing." 'Dawn' noted the look on Tara's face. "Trust me." She smiled when the blonde took her hand. "It is well within the scope of my power to return you to your own world, and for all you have done I would gladly do so."
Tara turned to Willow. "Good-bye. And...good luck."
"Thanks," said the redhead. "For everything."
'Dawn' waved her other hand and a door of green light appeared in mid-air in front of them. She and Tara shared a calming moment together, then stepped into it and all vanished.
Willow took a deep breath and approached her other self.
'Dawn', meanwhile, led Tara back to her own dorm room, which she recognized by the notes she had left on the bed for Willow and the others in case she didn't return. "You see?"
"I-I didn't mean to doubt you."
"Of course you did." 'Dawn' chuckled. "But it's all right. Given the circumstances, I understand."
"So what are you going to do now?" Tara asked. "Since Glory is gone. You're still here. Conscious, and more or less corporeal. Where does the Key go next?"
"There is much about this multi-verse I have never seen. I would like to experience as much of it as I can, and as I am eternal I think there is time to see it all." She and Tara both laughed. "Before I go, though, there is one other thing I feel I should do." 'Dawn' held her hand up. "Prepare!" A green light flashed from her palm and filled Tara's eyes. The blonde was momentarily frozen. "You will know what to do, when the time comes."
Once Tara could see and move again, the Key was gone. She shook her head. The last thing she rememered was 'Dawn' saying she was going to explore the multi-verse.
Then the phone rang.
The next several weeks were quite hectic for Tara and the Scoobies.
Between Xander and Anya's wedding-that-wasn't, Buffy's bouts with insanity and Spike-related confessions and her class schedule, Tara was exhausted. She had begun spending more time with Willow though, and when her ex asked her out for coffee she felt like it was finally time and agreed.
In the end the two of them finally got back together.
As they made love every chance they could Tara felt happier than at any other period in her life. The only thing putting a damper on their reunion was the matter of Warren and his "nerd-herd" as Xander called them. Buffy had discovered their hiding place and ultimately got Andrew and Jonathon put in prison. Warren himself escaped but it was agreed by all concerned that he would be caught, sooner or later.
Tara and Willow were once again basking in the afterglow when they noticed Xander was down in the backyard with Buffy. He had been quite brusque with the Slayer since finding out she and Spike slept together, only now it looked like they might be bringing the hostilities to an end.
"You think they're making up?" Willow asked.
"Hope so." Tara turned away from the window with a big grin on her face. "That's the best...." The smile dimmed slightly when she realized Dawn was standing behind the redhead. "...part." Only it was not the teenager she knew, but a semi-transparent, glowing green energy version of her. She was speaking, but the blonde could not hear any words. She could, however, read her lips. "Get down?"
Willow arched an eyebrow. "What, sweetie?"
"I think, maybe we should..." Tara grabbed Willow and pulled her toward the bed.
"Tara!" The redhead didn't seem at all unwilling. "We just got dressed. Are you sure we..."
A second later the shots began. They didn't initially recognize them for what they were. Then something hit the window, and whistled right through the area where the two of them had been standing. It struck the far wall with a sickening thud and sent plaster and wood flying everywhere.
Willow's eyes were as wide as saucers. "Goddess. Tara, how did you know?"
"I-I saw, I'm not sure..." Tara looked around the room, but 'Dawn' was gone. "Call it a hunch."
The redhead gasped. "Oh no. Buffy and Xander!"
As Willow raced for the bedroom door, Tara paused for a moment. "Thank you."
"You're welcome..." a gentle voice replied, once she was gone.
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