The bed was cold by the time Oz woke up. His feet objected to the temperature of the cement in his basement apartment, but he ignored their protests and padded up the stairs sleepily. She was standing near the open front door, towelling her hair dry, her body wrapped in a dark purple bathrobe.
"Your mother says hi and she'll be home by midday." she said, turning when she heard his entrance.
"Ok." Oz replied, wrapping his arms around her waist from the side and pressing his cheek to hers. "What're you doing up this early anyway? It's Saturday."
"I wanted to see the sunrise."
From anyone else, that would seem like a stupid reason, full of greeting-card sentiment that just didn't fit in their lives. But on this occasion Oz just smiled, burying his face in her hair and inhaling.
"Mmm.. you bought some of that shampoo that smells like apples." Even half-damp, the softness of the fine blonde locks was almost enough to leave him breathless, and that was before he took into account the head they were attached to.
Tara smiled, Oz could feel the skin against his cheek move.
"I want you to promise me you'll use it from now on. Your hair's too nice to destroy with soap and occasional dye jobs." her voice was mock-scolding and quiet.
"Only if you give me one good reason why our matress is currently losing any residual body heat downstairs while we stand in front of an open door up here."
Morning was gone by the time they emerged from the basement again. Tara had been oddly quiet, leading Oz to comment that if she got any more introspective she wouldn't need him around for anything anymore. She'd just smiled and traced his upper lip with her thumb, the touch gentle in the same way Oz could remember he himself touching her skin, as if any more pressure might break the fragile flesh from sheer force of emotion.
Now they walked hand in hand down the street, liking the sunlight on their faces, their blood heated now but the weather still unforgiving. The huge bull mastif dog on the corner growled at them as they walked past, as usual they sped up just a fraction, and as usual the old woman sitting on the porch called out to them that he was harmless and would never hurt a soul.
As they passed the gate in the high wire fence, Tara paused, releasing Oz's hand and turning the handle slowly, the hinges giving a protesting squeal. As she walked into the garden, the large dog came over and licked her hand. She laughed, turning to look at Oz.
"I always w-w-wondered if he'd actually like me." she stuttered, stroking the animal's head before coming back out and shutting the gate behind her. "I always wanted to find out."
"You're very carpe diem today." Oz commented when they were back in step, idling their way to the school, no classes speeding them up. Not that classes often caused them to speed, they were pretty much only still enrolled by the not-so-subtle extracurricular activities that were known to cause frequent occasions of speeding.
"Well you know what Buffy Summers says in all her self-defence videos. Life is short." Tara cocked her head, thinking about that for a moment. "Now that it occurs to me, that's not a very comforting thing to say in a self-defence video."
"Perhaps we should make one then. We could offer helpful hints such as garlic breath, sometimes more of a lifesaver then actual lifesavers."
Tara smiled. "You're one-liner guy today. I like one-liner guy."
"Aren't I always?"
"Well sometimes you're two-liner guy, which is also good, but personally I'm a sucker for one-liner guy's brevity."
"Brevity good. Got it."
Tara laughed again, and they continued their walk to the school.
Tara bent her elbow up and down a few times to wear the sting away, unlooping the belt off her upper arm.
"I hate needles." she told Larry with a small wince. "I've hated needles since I was a little girl."
"Well these needles are one of the few reasons you got to grow up into a big girl." Larry pointed out, carefully flicking the side of the hypodermic to get rid of airbubbles. Holy Water injections were a precaution that they always took, the success rate wasn't spectacular but there was no reason not to.
"Apart from the jabby owie reason." Tara muttered to herself.
"What was that?" Oz looked over from his repairs on a crossbow. Giles had run out of bolts and had shown truly quick thinking by using the bow itself as a stake. The downside was the repairs now required.
"Nothing. Just thinking non-real thoughts out loud."
"I like your non-real thoughts. Please continue to think them."
Tara smiled again and Larry rolled his eyes, bending his own arm to reduce the sting.
"You two. If we're still alive for the senior prom luncheon next year, I'll nominate you guys as king and queen just because this much affection in public must be channelled into a goal or it can have dire consequences."
"That reminds me." Tara's face took on a look Oz was begining to recognize. He thought of it as her 'life is short and I'm not advertising shoes so listen to what I'm going to say'. She'd already told Giles to ask out the computer teacher, told Harmony and her clique to get a job, and Oz himself that he should get a cat, because dog people missed out on intelligent mamalian company. He wondered what this piece of advice would be. It was starting to trouble him, that Tara was so sure that this all be done today.
"Take whomever you want to take to the luncheon next year. Don't let what people will think stop you. You know what I mean."
"Uh, yeah, ok." Larry blushed and rubbed the back of his neck. Oz wondered what it was that Tara did mean, obviously it wasn't lost on Larry.
"Everybody ready?" Giles asked, flanked by a few more members of the White Hats. Tara glanced around the room, closed her eyes, breathed in and grabbed Oz's hand tightly.
"Ready, willing, with the chances of able increasing into the night."
The creatures were waiting outside the school. Boredom, what a reason for a massacre. That's what Larry said later. For now, he didn't have time to say anything at all. The vampires weren't big on the tatical plans, they chose a location and used it as their playground, when they felt like it. Boredom for vampires involved running out of squishy bits to hurt on a body. So they'd go find some new bodies for their games.
Two of them seemed to be working apart from the rest, their yellow eyes darting, searching. Their game had different rules. Their eyes set on Oz and Tara, the girl and the boy both catching sight of them at the same second. Before they could run they were being carried off into the night.
"I like this part." the girl vamp, glossy red hair brushing her shoulders, commented, trailing her hand down Tara's cheek. "They smell so yummy when they're afraid."
"What do you wanna do with our new toys, Will?" the male vampire asked his companion. She smiled. Oz thought he might have seen her at school once.
"We could cut them and put them in with Puppy." Redhead suggested, tilting Tara's chin up. Oz struggled against the leather-clad arms holding him captive. The boy - he couldn't have been any older then Oz when he died - was so strong. "He'd be so hungry and then when they were dead, he'd cry. I like it when Puppy cries."
"Would you like that?" the vampire holding Oz asked him, whispering into his ear. "To see your pretty blonde slut ripped apart by someone who doesn't even have the decency to enjoy every moment of it? Who doesn't love every little glistening piece of her as they devour her mouthful by mouthful?"
Tara could hear them, the room was small and there was little space between the two young girls and the two boys. She tried not to cry, Oz could see her holding all her fear in. With a shaky swallow Tara regained a little courage and stared the redhead straight in the eye.
"We b-b-both know it's n-n-not going to be that."
The girl vampire's face contorted for a second, an expression of very human confusion crossing it. Oz noticed how pretty she would have been when she was alive.
"Xander, she can hear my thinking the way Dru can. I don't like it." her lower lip stuck out in a pout, the dark lipstick perfectly applied. Oz wondered if it was actually lipstick or… not lipstick.
"Do you want to play with her brain then?" her partner suggested.
"Mmm… like warm clay." the girl, Willow, Oz was sure that was her name, smiled dreamily.
"Or we could hurt him and make her watch?" Xander tightened his clench around Oz, winding him. "Make him scream until he cries blood and lick it off."
Oz was almost relieved when they turned their attention to him. He'd go through anything, if they didn't hurt her.
"No." Willow shook her head, smiling sweetly at Oz. "He wants us to do that. And he killed Amy, I saw it. Ran her through with a stake. Didn't you?"
Oz felt like a small furry animal, trapped in the wash of deadly headlights. He couldn't look away from her eyes as they shimmered and shifted in color, from hazel-grey to yellow and back again. "You stabbed her with a piece of wood. Did it give you a charge when she crumbled? Was it fun? I bet it made your heart race." Willow's voice was low and seductive. Oz wanted to kill her then and there, but Xander's arms had him pinned tightly. Tara was shuddering with fear, a fistful of her hair trapped in Willow's fingers.
"How do you want to make him pay?" Xander asked. "We could go find Faith and Jesse at the Bronze and ask them for ideas."
Willow tilted her head to one side, a lazy smile sliding across her lips like the grin on a sunning lizard.
"I think we should give him the chance to have some fun. Everybody loves to have fun." Her pretty features shifted and became something monstrous, but still the voice was light and playful. "Make him weak enough to sit quietly and watch, then come have fun with me." Xander nodded at the order and bit down into Oz's neck.
Oz struggled, but he was no match for the unholy strength. He could hear Tara saying something to Willow.
"I've been injected with Holy Water, you know." To his ears, it sounded like a desperate fumbling at straws. Willow laughed.
"Do you ever eat spicy food and wonder at how much of the taste depends on it burning the roof of your mouth, just a little? I used to love spicy food. And Charlie Brown cartoons. Do you like Charlie Brown cartoons?"
That was the last thing Oz heard before the world went grey and fuzzy.
When he woke up, they were back in the basement. He could tell a few hours had gone by, partly from the way his head seemed only slightly less heavy then a bowling ball, partly because of the stupid Felix the cat clock opposite the bed that Tara had bought at a market once.
His heart lurched for a second with fear before he made out her form sitting on the big ratty footstool they used as an extra chair. She had a photo album open on her lap.
"Hey." he said, sitting up and putting his palm to his forehead, perhaps to keep his throbbing skull from bursting through the skin. This was worse then any headache he'd ever had. "Are you all right?"
"Do you remember the day you gave me the little Pez witch?" she asked, smiling at him, a sad smile that made his heart ache with loving her. Oz nodded. "I love that little witch. I keep it in my jewellery box, you know."
"Tara, are you ok?" Oz got up and went over to her, concerned. "They didn't hurt you too badly, did they?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, then looked at him. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her skin chalky.
"I can feel my body giving up." Tara whispered, shoulders shaking a little. "My fingers are numb. They told me I'd be dead by morning and awake by sunset."
Oz couldn't stop the sob that rose in his throat. "Oh, baby."
That was all he could say. He grabbed her as tightly as he could, crushing her in a hug as they both cried, broken sounds of tearful whimpers and held-in screams.
Tara was the one to break the hug, much later. She looked over at the clock.
"I've still got an hour or so, I think." sighing, she closed the photo album. "I need you to promise me that you'll make sure I don't rise again."
"I can't." Oz shook his head, more tears falling. "Don't make me promise that. I can't."
"You have to." Tara's expression was so gentle, Oz thought his heart would probably break long before hers gave out.
"This can't be happening, baby. I can't lose you."
"You never will." her voice was soft.
"You knew, didn't you?" Oz's voice was more accusatory then he meant it to be. "All day, you knew."
Tara nodded. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I didn't want you to know." A simple enough response. "There was no way for us to stop it. Some things have to happen. I didn't want to ruin our last day."
'Last day' made Oz's breath hitch again. "I can't imagine existing in a world without you." he whispered.
"You're never going to." Tara promised for a second time. "I don't just mean that in a love is forever way either. Our souls are tied. And the girl, Willow, hers too. The three of us will always meet, every life, in all the different universes. Can you have a plural of a singular noun? Universe means one, one… verse, I guess, which doesn't make sense."
"Is that true?" Oz wasn't sure if he believed it. He wanted to, his heart ached to, but he wasn't sure if he did.
"That we're tied? Yes." Tara nodded, her hair falling around her face. She was so beautiful. Even now, with her skin growing clammier and colder and her breath getting fainter. "Somewhere in existence the three of us are probably trapeze artists together or something."
"I could dig that, I mean we'd have the whole sequined thing happening, always good."
It was so important that they talked like this now, flippantly and lightly. Like the man riding the bomb in Dr Strangelove, the old movie they'd gone to on their first date. When you only have moments left, don't waste them on anything but laughter.
"I hope next time I get to know her better. She might have been nice, if things were different." Tara said, staring off into space.
"I don't know if I could deal with you two being close after this." Oz said, stroking her arms, her soft, silky arms. Every inch of her was perfect. He couldn't desecrate her with a stake or beheading. "I apologise in advance for any wiggins I may exhibit next time around from that inability to deal."
"Apology in advance accepted in advance." Tara smiled. "And love is forever, you know. Never forget that the whitehat witch loved one-liner guy so much she thought her heart might stop. Oh, sorry, very very bad choice of words there." Another smile, so perfect and shy and sad Oz thought he was going to start crying again. "Oz?"
"Can you hold me? I'm so tired."
As they lay on the bed, Oz's arm wrapped across Tara's body, their legs tangled, her breathing became shallower, her eyes slid closed. Oz kissed her forehead and she smiled a little, sleepily.
"Eventually we'll find a reality where there's a happy ending, I promise." she murmured. "Might take a while though."
"It will be worth it." Oz assured her. "I love you."
"Love you too." her voice was very faint now. The only sound was her rasping breath before that too faded to nothing. Oz didn't move for a long time, there was time enough to make sure she didn't rise. For now, he just lay there, feeling her body against his, his heart breaking.
He would go find the girl, Willow, and leave her dust on the ground with all the other garbage.
It was his right to.
They were tied, after all.