Tara MacClay had been through a lot in the last few years, the least of which being a fatal bullet wound. She'd spent some time dead, relaxing in a pastel-colored heavenly dimension full of kittens. The arrival of Miss Kitty Fantastico made her question how much time had passed, but she couldn't work up any worry about it. Then she met Cassie.
The girl was Dawn's age, and she said strange things. Not too strange, at first. Tara had used magic during her own life, and she'd even helped stop an apocalypse. She'd seen things. A young seer fit right in with her version of ordinary. But after she'd told her story, she looked Tara in the eye and said, "I'm sorry, but you won't get to stay here."
"But here is the afterlife . . . it's right there in the name. After. How can I leave?" Tara asked. And then she'd landed in the box. Time, an abstract concept in the heavenly dimensions, became a tangible thing in the box, and it crept.
Just when she didn't think she could take the agonizing nature of time's tangibility a moment longer, or more accurately a week after she had that thought for exactly the thousandth time, the slow tick of time's passage exploded.
Tara's harrowing escape from the box, the battle against Wolfram and Hart, and her relocation to Brazil in the company of a young slayer named Kennedy all passed in a frantic rush. Time, Tara had decided, was more than just relative.
She couldn't bear to face Willow at first. The love of her life had struggled through her own series of ordeals, and had found a beautiful peace on the other side. Tara refused to stir things up. She watched from afar, opened her little magic shop in São Paulo, and met Kennedy once a week at a coffee shop.
Then that exploded. Not the coffee ship, at least not literally. Virtually everything in the coffee shop survived, except for the oversized mug from which she'd been sipping latte when it happened, and one of the legs on Kennedy's stool.
She'd somehow learned that her slayer girlfriend was meeting a hot blonde -- Willow's words, Tara would not describe herself as such -- in a coffee shop, and now she stood in the doorway, the pain of betrayal on her face and magic crackling from her fingertips.
"It's not what you think," Kennedy had blurted. "And I'm pretty offended at what you're thinking, for that matter."
Tara had no choice but to look up, and brush her hair away from her face. She'd never felt more nervous than she had in that moment.
Willow's reaction, though. The way the joy had swiftly overpowered the hurt and confusion on her face. The way the three of them had hugged and Tara felt like she'd explode with love. She'd never felt so happy.
Never more nervous, never more happy. Like that day over three years ago now, Tara once again felt those two powerful emotions warring in her gut. Today she would marry the woman she loved.
"Dawn," Tara said. "I need to see Willow. Just for a minute."
Dawn Summers, master of the long-suffering sigh, demonstrated her ability with gusto.
"What if I keep my eyes closed the whole time?"
"That argument didn't work for Willow and it won't work for you either."
"But I have more impulse control than Willow." Tara added a sage nod. She thought the sage nod really sold it.
"Irrelevant," Dawn said. "Two brides means no peeking from either of you. Remember what happened the last time we ignored superstition?"
Tara cringed, but refused defeat. "That had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with Faith. Who leaves a puppy alone with a cake?"
"The cake was just the start of it." Dawn opened one of the eyeshadows on the dressing table and compared it to a fabric swatch. "I will not have chaos demons dripping slime all over the dance floor at this wedding. Chaos demons have antlers. Pointy, pointy antlers. Xander can't spare another eye."
Tara considered arguing that Xander could choose not to dance with a chaos demon, should any materialize, but Tara knew Xander pretty well, and of course he'd dance with a chaos demon. Or at least make out with one.
"And just think about how perfect it will be, when the two of you meet at the altar," Dawn continued in her most reasonable tone of voice.
"But what if it's not perfect!" Images of disaster flooded her mind. Sneezing at the exact wrong moment. Dropping her flowers. Falling flat on her face. "I can't do this, what am I thinking, I can't walk and talk in front of all those people, I'll trip on my dress or forget my vows or get laryngitis!"
"Or forget to breathe and pass out?"
"Or forget to breathe and -- you're mocking me."
Dawn put down one makeup brush and picked up another. "Reassuring you wasn't working."
"Is Willow nervous too?"
"That depends," Dawn said. "Which answer will freak you out more?"
"What if we're both too nervous to talk? Or what if she's not nervous at all and she sees that I'm a quivering mess! She'll realize she's made a huge mistake and -- "
"I really need to see Willow." Tara bit her lip. "No, no seeing. Superstition. Chaos demons. Slime and antlers."
"Now you're getting it."
"I'll put a bag over my head!"
Dawn once again demonstrated her superior ability to fully express her long-suffering patience with a sigh. "Wait here. I mean that! Do not move."
Tara tried not to fret as she strained to hear the voices in the hallway. She'd heard Kennedy's 'absolutely not' loud and clear but had failed to make out a single word since. Remarkable how quietly people could argue in a hallway.
Eventually, the door opened once again. Kennedy marched in and stared at her without speaking. Time did the creeping thing again.
"Okay," Kennedy finally said. "The bridal party has reached a decision."
"And that is?"
"Buffy has vetoed the bag idea. Something about hair and not wanting to do everything twice. But Faith and Dawn have found a loophole. One that doesn't, I'm relieved to report, involve magic."
The door opened again. Dawn and Faith carried in a large piece of plywood. It had a hole cut into it, at about waist height.
"You can touch," Dawn said, looking just the slightest bit smug. "But you can't look."
"Tara?" Willow's voice wavered a bit, on the other side of the board.
Good, Tara thought, she's nervous too. But then another, more urgent thought, barreled into that one and knocked it out of the way. Oh no, Willow's nervous too. Poor Willow.
"Right here," Tara said out loud. She tried to sound confident and in control, or at least comforting. She thought she managed the comforting part.
She caught the briefest glimpse of a Willow hand, and she reached for it, just as Kennedy spun her chair in the opposite direction. Tara reached again, her fingers closing on Willow's behind her back. Warm Willow fingers. Nice. "We're getting married today."
"Yeah," Willow said, wonder in her voice. "We are."