The prisoner begins her morning in silent meditation, the same way she's begun most mornings for as long as she can remember. Steadily, patiently, she builds an image in her mind, then dwells in it, breathing deeply, renewing her determination to face the situation that awaits her.
Once, her focal image would have been a peaceful afternoon spent in the garden with her mother; she'd lost that gentle woman far too early, but the teachings she'd absorbed in her childhood had sustained her until she'd finally managed to escape the confines of her father's world. Since her imprisonment, however, she's relied on a much later scene in her life instead: the last time she ever spoke with her only lover. Years later, she can still vividly recall the way the sunlight glinted in the other girl's hair, the nervous, hopeful smiles they shared in the hall, the careful way they danced around the word 'friend', and the way her heart leapt as she accepted her invitation to coffee. She'd walked away from that meeting wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed with the other girl and celebrate their reunion, never mind all the important issues they needed to settle first; but instead, she'd awakened in a tiny, windowless, Willow-less room.
In the early days of her captivity, she'd held high hopes that the red-haired witch would find her. As much as her beloved's lack of self-control worried Tara at times, that intemperance would have worked very much to her advantage when the powerful witch finally realized her girlfriend had gone missing, and Tara had imagined her rescue at the hands of the Scoobies a thousand times over.
But that was before Tara fully understood what had happened. The day her captor told her the full extent of what he'd done had been the worst moment of her adult life, worse even than the sight of Buffy sprawled beneath Glory's tower or the weight of a spring of Lethe's bramble across her palm.
It isn't just that she isn't on Earth anymore; the unusually bright sun, the extremely long day, and the three moons that chase each other across the green-tinted sky might not belong to any place visible from 1630 Revello Drive, but mere distance could never stop Willow from finding her. It isn't even that she'd traveled to this place-- wherever it is-- on a spaceship instead of through a portal she or Willow might be able to recreate; that issue, too, might be overcome given enough time.
No, the real problem is: who would ever look for a woman already known to be dead? And not the magically caused, let me just talk to Osiris for a minute, only permanent if you're unwilling to touch the darker magics, kind of dead either.
According to the little gray being that kidnapped her, he'd stolen her mid-nap with only the best of intentions. He claimed her gifts were a sign that she's part of the next evolution of humanity, and that her genes might be the key to saving his people. (Not that she's seen any evidence of that in all the time she's been here, or that he believed her when she tried to explain that magic is actually older than humankind). To keep anyone from noticing her disappearance, he'd even replaced her with an imperfect, short-lived clone, fully intending to swap them back a week later.
So much for intentions. Why he hadn't simply kept the clone he'd created for testing and left her alone, he'd never explained. Tara devoutly wishes he had, despite what that would have meant for her. What if the real Tara-- genes and magic uncorrupted by Loki's copying process-- could have deflected the bullet that had killed the clone? Or done something else and avoided the bullet entirely? And even if not-- at least she would have been there, not here with only her memories and her fears to keep her company.
Was anyone else shot, too? She's often wondered; did Willow take her death as badly as Tara fears? As devastated as Willow must have been, Tara worries for her lover's state of mind-- and what she might have tried to do in her grief. How had the rest of the Scoobies dealt with her death, on top of all the other problems they'd been facing? None of them were exactly stable when she last saw them.
Unfortunately, all her efforts to persuade Loki to let her return home had fallen on deaf ears, even before the little alien disappeared the year after her arrival on this planet.
The day she'd realized that he wouldn't be returning had been her second worst since the kidnapping itself. She'd used those first months, hemmed in by energy fields and iron bars in a place even less friendly to her than the house she grew up in, to learn how to access the unfamiliar magical energies of her new world; her only goal was to discover a way to slip free of her cell and shroud herself away on her jailor's ship without his noticing her escape. She'd finally figured out how to accomplish the task just after he left on that last voyage-- but with his ship gone, and no way to access the foreign computer systems he left behind, she's even more trapped now than she'd been in the days before the locks finally began to answer to her touch.
At least the food dispensers and the makeshift toilet facilities still function; he must have left them on automatic. The 'food cubes' taste worse than Buffy's cooking and the water has an unpleasant metallic aftertaste, but, thank the goddess, she hadn't been left here to starve.
Tara blinks as she realizes her mind has begun to wander, then shakes her head and lets the meditation go. It's time to begin another day. She's been mapping the area around the facility slowly as the weather permits, and she found a clearing the day before with some kind of fruit-bearing tree; the single small, citrusy sphere she took to test hasn't upset her stomach, and she wants to gather some more this morning at different stages of ripeness.
She rises, automatically smoothing the wrinkles from her loose, threadbare skirt, then waves a hand at the door and steps through as it swings open. A short length of hall extends between the small group of cells containing the only beds in the facility and what she's decided is the central laboratory area; two more doors separate that room from the main entrance, and she pushes through them, breathing deeply of the fresh outdoor air.
The grass in front of the building is soft and warm under her bare feet after the cool, smooth corridors inside. She wriggles her toes a little among the short blades, smiling faintly at the pleasant sensation. The sun is warm on her face, the greenish sky is clear of clouds, and there are-- faint murmuring noises carrying on the early morning breeze?
Frowning, senses at full alert, Tara pads quietly toward the sounds. She keeps to the shadows as she moves and picks up a dead, fallen branch as she approaches the corner of the building; her magic is probably the most effective defense she has, but she wants the reinforcement of a weapon that can be seen even if it turns out to be only a flock of chattering birds.
It isn't, though. Tara pauses, heart in her throat, as a man's voice carries to her.
"…thought you said there wouldn't be anyone here," he's saying.
"I said that if Loki left any clones behind, they'd have died a long time ago," a woman replies, confusion in her voice. "Even if Thor found this place, he'd have brought us anyone he found, instead of just healing them and leaving them here. Maybe there's a native population?"
A stab of emotion lances through Tara's heart; she gasps, covering her mouth with her free hand. It isn't Willow-- but it's definitely someone human, and they know about the alien who took her.
"A native population of one?" the man replies, skeptically.
"The little guy was collecting humans with advanced genetics, wasn't he?" a second woman asks, voice colored with an unfamiliar accent. "Maybe the one your fancy scanner is picking up had some sort of X-gene for healing?"
"X-gene?" yet another voice comments, amused. "Who introduced you to comic books when I wasn't looking?"
"Who says I didn't find them on my own?" the second woman speaks again, as Tara creeps closer. "I do have my own library card now, you know."
"And since when do you read comic books anyway, Jackson?" the first voice interjects.
The amused one-- Jackson-- heaves an audible sigh. It sounds as though he's just a few paces away from her around the corner-- and the group he's with is definitely familiar with Earth culture. There's still no way to tell whether or not they're actually friendly, but even the faintest prospect of contact with home has tears already starting in her eyes. She takes another step forward, bracing herself against the rough wall, then extends a shaky hand and realigns a few air molecules into a circular, reflective shape. After all the practice she's had in the last few years, her magic comes much easier now than it ever did back home.
"Visual anthropology is a very active field of study, actually, and the significance of comic books as a communicative medium--"
Despite the clearly carrying words, there's nothing visible in her makeshift mirror: no people, no form of transport, nothing at all. Tara's heart sinks a little. She's never seen any other prisoners in Loki's laboratories, but that doesn't mean there never were any; maybe she's simply hearing ghosts?
"Colonel Mitchell!" a fifth voice speaks then, deep and authoritative, interrupting Jackson's musings. "We are being watched."
Startled, Tara takes a hasty step back and raises her hand to disperse the mirror--
--only to see in its surface a man appearing from thin air, as if emerging from behind an invisible wall. He's tall, brown-haired, dressed in a military uniform, and looking almost directly at her--
She drops the magical construct without another word, then raises her hands and conjures a quick shield. The stick she'd been carrying thuds to earth as a shimmering, iridescent arc springs up between her and the intruders, and she begins retreating toward the entrance of the building, heart pounding in her chest. Better safe than sorry; after finally being found, the last thing she wants is to die because of a misunderstanding. What if the group they're from is like the old Initiative?
The man follows her around the corner a moment later, a big gun held loosely in his arms but not pointed at her; four more people follow behind him. They stop in their tracks as they see her; the leader frowns, then carefully lifts his hands from his weapon.
"More Jean Grey, less Wolverine," he mutters out of the side of his mouth, darting a glance toward another brown-haired, glasses wearing man: probably the rambly Jackson, if Tara knows her Gileses. "Hi there," he says next, in a louder voice.
The blonde standing next to him quirks her lips in a suppressed smile, and some of the tension seeps out of Tara's shoulders. "Y-you're from Earth?" she stammers, too keyed up to wait for proper introductions.
The junior Giles steps forward at that, laying a cautionary hand on the other man's arm. "Yes, we are. We're peaceful explorers, and we'd heard that a-- former acquaintance-- of ours once had a base here. Can you tell us where you heard that name? We don't often hear people refer to our homeworld in that way; they usually call us the Tau'ri."
One simple question, and she's already stepped into a minefield. She has no idea what to say-- do they usually run into humans not from Earth, or something?-- so she asks another question instead. "Could you, um, could you tell me today's date?"
The two men look at each other; behind them, the third, taller man raises an eyebrow and answers instead. "It is the twentieth of March," he says, his voice deep; he's the one who'd called the warning.
"I think she wants to know the year," a dark-haired woman comments dryly; her aura reminds Tara a little of Faith, and her voice is the accented one that had suggested X-genes. "It's two thousand and nine, by the Tau'ri way of counting," she adds, studying Tara with curious eyes.
2009? Tara had thought only five years had passed, but she's been counting by seasons, and the days are much longer here. "S-seven years," she says softly, shaking her head. "I've been gone so long..."
"Do you mean-- you're from Earth, too?" asks the fifth person, a tall blonde woman with a strong presence like an older Buffy. She exchanges speaking glances with her teammates, then approaches Tara cautiously, hands open and empty. "What's your name?"
She pauses, wondering whether or not it's safe to tell them, but what else can she do? Even if she can get away from these people-- whoever they are-- with their ability to turn invisible and guns that she knows all too well can kill from a distance, what are the chances of someone else ever turning up on this planet? What are the chances that Tara will ever find another way back to Sunnydale-- to Willow? Even if they lock her up-- if it's on Earth, anything is possible.
"T-tara," she replies faintly, and releases the energies sustaining the shield. "Tara Maclay."
"Hello, Tara," the woman replies, warmly. "My name is Sam Carter, and we're here to take you home."