Chapter 1: More Jean Grey, Less Wolverine
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."
Chapter 2: Where My Love Lies, Waiting
Tara balks, without any real intention to, when the brown-haired Colonel aims a device at the invisible patch of air his team had emerged from and a small, cylindrically shaped ship wavers into being.
The other military member of the team who've found her, the blonde woman who reminds Tara a little of an older Buffy, misinterprets the look on her face and reaches out to rest her fingertips against Tara's forearm. "I know it might not look like much," she says, "but it's perfectly safe, I assure you. It's a thirty-minute flight back to the gate, and we can be back on Earth in time for lunch."
Tara can't quite stop herself from flinching at that gentle touch, either. Carter-- Sam-- doesn't say anything about it, but Tara can feel the eyes of the rest of the team on her, taking note of her reaction. It helps a little that she can see auras, even more clearly in this place than she had on Earth, and knows that none of them have a cruel spirit; even so, she's been alone for a long, long time. She feels crowded, even in the wide open space outside their vessel.
"It-- it isn't that," she replies, hesitantly, to fend off those assessing looks. "It just looks... a little small."
It isn't, really; it's about the size of a large passenger van, not much smaller than the sleeping cells in Loki's complex. She'd never been claustrophobic before the rogue Asgard scientist stole her from her bedroom, but the weeks she'd spent locked into one tiny room before she'd figured out a way to magically defuse Loki's technology have left their mark. She has no such guarantee that she'll ever be leaving this tiny space once she steps into it, and that terrifies her.
The dark-haired woman whose name she hadn't yet been offered exchanges an alarmed look with the Giles-y fourth member of their team, the one with the glasses, at Tara's reply. Then she steps forward, deliberately drawing Tara's attention, body language projecting openness and warmth.
"I know what you mean," she says, in a cheery, confiding tone. "You'd think if someone went to all the effort to design an interstellar shuttlecraft, they'd take a little time to introduce a few creature comforts. A little more space, a few frilly cushions-- maybe even one of those jet baths, a Jacuzzi." She pronounces the word like it's unfamiliar to her, a reference borrowed from a foreign language. "It's a trial, traveling with these people, I tell you. Oh; and I'm Vala, by the way."
Whether it's the tone of voice, the flickers of understanding sparking throughout the woman's aura, or the bemused but guardedly approving look the scholar shoots the woman during her little speech, something about it soothes the ragged edges of Tara's nerves. Almost despite herself, she nods in agreement. "That would be nice. The bath, I mean. It's been a long... I don't... I guess his people don't use water to clean themselves the way we do."
She's made do. But she misses showers. Glorious cascades of clean, hot water-- heavenly alone, even better when shared with a certain beautiful, red-haired witch that last year or so in Sunnydale.
"His people," Sam replies slowly, her expression cautiously inquisitive. "You mean, Loki's people. The Asgard?"
"Little gray guys, about yea high?" Colonel Mitchell adds, gesturing at a level just above waist height. "Walk around naked all the time? I never did get used to that." He shudders theatrically.
The description surprises a giggle out of Tara, and she instinctively covers her mouth as if to remind herself how it feels to smile. "Yes. I never met any others, just Loki, and he disappeared not long after he brought me here. But I remember he called his people the, the Asgard, when he explained about the genetic research he did here."
"Genetic research?" Sam and Mitchell glance at each other at that.
Some kind of unspoken conversation passes between the two Colonels, and then Mitchell nods to his teammate. "Okay, change of plan. I can see you're chomping at the bit to get into the computers. You want me to leave Jackson with you, or Teal'c?"
Teal'c must be the fifth and last member of the team, the tall, muscular, deep-voiced one who'd been the first to spot her; he tilts his head amiably as Tara glances over at him, giving the impression that he would be content with either outcome. There are gray streaks in the dark hair at his temples and a raised golden mark on the dark skin of his forehead that remind her of all the research Willow did on Egyptian magic before casting the spell to resurrect Buffy. Everything about him looks intimidating-- but he also radiates a very centered, protective calm that effectively offsets that impression.
Sam glances between them, then gestures to Jackson. "Daniel? I could probably use your help translating any files we find-- I'm reasonably fluent in formal Asgard engineering terminology, but Loki's interests overlap a lot more with your areas of expertise, and the place seemed pretty deserted on our way in. Unless there've been other visitors since Thor captured Loki?" She raises her eyebrows at Tara.
"N-no," Tara says, shaking her head more at the casual reference to yet another Norse god than at the prompt. "There are animals, but nothing you won't be able to scare away with-- with your guns." She gestures at the boxy weapon, larger than a pistol but nothing like the rifles and shotguns her father and brother had kept in the house she'd grown up in, that all of them but Dr. Jackson seem to be carrying.
"Or your... unique talents?" Jackson asks, cautiously. She stills at the remark, but he's quick to hold up a pacifying hand. "It's all right. If you're worried about being studied, or kept in a secluded facility back on Earth-- don't. We've encountered human beings with telekinetic gifts and other advanced mental abilities before; even if we could hold them safely, we wouldn't even try."
"Why should I believe that?" Tara swallows, nervously, not ready to admit to anything yet.
He sighs. "We've been doing this for a lot of years, now. I won't lie to you, we can't always help the people we encounter as much as we'd like, and there've been occasional-- missteps. But the President is fully read into the project, and the general assigned to Homeworld Security was one of us; no one disappears into the system on Jack's watch. You don't have to take my word for it, either; talk to Teal'c, on your way back. Ask him how he joined the program, and why he stayed." The corner of his mouth tugs up a little as he nods in his teammate's direction.
His aura doesn't waver at all as he speaks; it remains a clear, balanced blue, nearly as much so as his quieter friend's, and though the situation still seems a little unreal to Tara she can't help but believe him. They're all so earnest, like they're trying to gently ensure her comfort while not forgetting their own objectives, and the matter-of-fact way they're going about exploring another world where beings worshiped as deities once walked reminds her of the Scoobies on their better days.
"Even prison on Earth would be better than staying here," she says lightly, trying another shaky smile on for size. "You won't talk me out of going with you."
"Good." He brightens a little at that, clearly pleased, and she gets the sense that he understands somehow, in some way she doesn't yet know enough about him to fathom. He'll be an interesting guy to get to know, she thinks-- if she gets the chance to do so. If they don't just send her home as soon as possible....
Home. A sudden desperate hunger she hasn't allowed herself to feel since those first, wretched days of captivity wells to the surface of her thoughts, bringing with it the image of Buffy's house as she'd last seen it: the first place she'd felt like family since the death of her mother. The bedroom she'd shared with Willow. The sister she'd found in the Slayer. The pseudo-daughter in Dawn.
"We'd best get going, then," Mitchell interrupts, drawing her attention back to the present. "I'll send SG-5 back with a couple of extra computer geeks to help you take this place apart. Don't touch anything before they get here, all right? You and Jackson have already used up your quota of rescue missions for the year; I'm still behind O'Neill's record in the gray hair stakes, and I want to keep it that way."
"Understood," Sam smirks back at him. "Don't get lost on the way there. It would be a long walk to the Stargate on foot."
"She's exaggerating," Mitchell says confidingly, shielding his words with a hand as though he isn't talking loud enough for his teammates to hear. "I never get lost. Not when I'm the one driving. You ready, or is there anything you want to fetch before we go?"
Tara glances around, taking in the low, overgrown buildings, the soft grasses that tickle her feet, the spindly trees that sing low lullabies during the planet's occasional windstorms, and the greenish-hued sky overhead. It's been the only home she's known for seven years, but-- she shudders at the thought of taking any piece of it back with her, and crosses her arms protectively over her chest. The only things she can really claim as hers here are the threadbare clothes she's been wearing ever since her abduction, carefully cleaning and mending them as the months passed. Nothing else-- nothing-- is valuable enough to warrant bringing reminders of her extended captivity back with her.
"I'm ready," she replies, tipping her chin up determinedly. "I just want to go home."
"I just bet," Vala says, sympathetically. Then the other woman steps closer, hovering a hand near but not quite touching Tara's elbow. "Come on, then; you can sit with me, and we'll swap stories. I'm not from Earth myself, you know, and I haven't yet had the chance to meet many Tau'ri women outside the Stargate Program."
Tara allows herself to be guided into the muted gray, tubular craft, aware that Vala is managing her but grateful for the distraction all the same. It makes it easier to try not to worry about putting control of her circumstances into the hands of virtual strangers, and Vala does seem genuinely interested.
"I'd be glad to," she says, "but you sh-should know; I'm not a typical, um, Tau'ri."
"All the better!" Vala adds brightly, ushering her to a seat in the back of the craft. Mitchell and Teal'c exchange a few more words with their teammates as Vala launches into a description of her birthworld, then walk through to the cockpit area, preparing the little ship for departure.
Vala's story is a fascinating mixture of the familiar and the very, very strange-- which is familiar enough in its own way to a veteran of Sunnydale. Tara finds herself alternately amazed, sympathetic, and impressed as she listens, and finds herself sharing more than she'd meant to in return, only replacing any mention of her mother's magic and her own abilities with vague references to 'gifts'. She barely notices when they take off, and the slightly oppressive sense of being crowded in a small, curved space with more beings all at once than she's seen in seven years fades to an almost unnoticeable background niggle. Teal'c joins them after a few minutes, emerging from the cockpit to seat himself across from her and Vala, and shares the bare bones of his story as well, conveying worlds of meaning and conviction in short, carefully chosen sentences. It's just as unbelievable-- and just as recognizable, in a few key, basic ways.
Tara had spent more time in Loki's compound than she ever had in the free environment of Sunnydale-- and longer than that under the thumb of dominating male relatives intent on convincing her that she was less than human. The more she speaks with Vala and Teal'c-- the more she observes their reactions to their very ordinary, cheerful, and only nominally commanding officer-- the more it sinks in that her ordeal is ending.
Tara isn't dreaming. Nor is she leaping from the frying pan into the fire. She's actually going home.
The flying ship finally slows to a halt in front of an arched metal shape that has to be the gateway they've mentioned, just large enough for the rounded ship to pass through it. She can easily see it through the forward window from where she is seated; closely fitted, smooth reddish stones spread around the base of the standing circle like a platform, and nearby, a mushroom-shaped pedestal rises from the ground. Mitchell hovers the ship near the pedestal, then starts keying a sequence of buttons on a panel between the pilot's and copilot's stations.
"This is the gate-- the Stargate," he explains for Tara's benefit. "I'm guessing this is the first time you've seen one, if Loki brought you here by ship?"
She nods. "I've never seen anything like it. It's, it's amazing."
Mitchell smiles. "It is, isn't it? Think of it like a giant rotary phone dial: you just enter the digits to tell it where you are and where you're going, then give it a whirl and voila, your call is placed." He presses the seventh key in the sequence; then a portal springs to life in the center of the ring. A splash of turbulent energy-- some kind of overflow she guesses, though she's never seen anything like it with the magical equivalent-- reaches out toward them; then it settles into a gently undulating blue plane, captured within and bounded by the ring of strange metal.
"The Rainbow Bridge," she murmurs in recognition, awed by the display.
Could a 'Stargate' have been the inspiration for the Bifrost of legend? She's always assumed that the oldest 'fairy' tales have magical roots, but since meeting Loki she's wondered how many have technological origins instead-- and how much difference that difference really makes. She's seen the evil in both demons and aliens, and good in each as well; advanced technology and magic aren't really the same thing, but it seems they might as well be from the casual observer's perspective.
"And on that note," Mitchell replies, "one trip over the rainbow coming up." Then he pushes at the throttle, aiming straight for the shining portal.
It swallows them up, three endless, stifling heartbeats of nothingness; she feels her connection to the planet's magic rip loose, but then the world rushes dizzily back into focus, bringing the welcome touch of Gaia with it. She's here. She really is: despite the odds, after everything that's happened.
Tara casts her spirit out to the welcoming currents, smiling through her tears.
Willow, I'm home.
Chapter 3: This Is Where Your Book Begins
For the first few seconds after they cross the Rainbow Bridge, Tara simply basks in the awareness of being back on Earth again, the gentle brush of its magical currents against her spirit. The feeling is so much clearer now than it had been before Loki took her and she had to relearn her magic all over again, but she would recognize her homeworld anywhere.
She's home. Seven years and who knows how many light years away-- and she's finally home.
More tears well up in her eyes, and she dashes them away with the back of her hand. Vala, seated next to her, gives her a sympathetic smile and rests a hand on her elbow; Tara gives her a wavery smile in return. She's barely met these people who call themselves SG-1, but every move they've made since they found her has been earnest and supportive. And not just with her; with each other, too. If she could be sure they'd be the only people she'd have to deal with....
But she can't, and Tara lets her smile fade as the little ship Colonel Mitchell called a 'puddlejumper' comes to a halt in a big, concrete box of a room, facing a window into a control space filled with men in uniforms. The walls are a uniform gray, broken up by lines of paint and warnings stenciled on in block letters. She has just enough time to register that the signs are in English, almost unfamiliar after so many years of Asgard symbols, before the ship moves again, rising upward.
There's no living greenery anywhere; no hint of where on Earth they are, except for the signs-- and the glimpse of a flag. At least she can be sure her rescuers really are American. Tara swallows, then closes her eyes again, concentrating on her breathing as the feeling of the walls closing in on her returns.
Vala shifts her hand to Tara's back, thumb rubbing in slow, aimless motions over her shoulderblade. Tara focuses on the sensation as she sends out another silent prayer. She can do this. She broke out of Loki's lab all on her own, in body; now she just has to do it again, in spirit. And this time, at least, she isn't doing it alone.
General Landry, when she meets him later that day, reminds her of a bear; and not just because of his tall, slightly stout physique and great, bushy eyebrows. He's gruff with her, and clearly not a fan of unexpected surprises; he doesn't seem to know what to do with her. But he repeats the assurances that Colonel Carter and the others had given her, asks a few broad questions about her experiences, and then turns her over to SG-1 again for a 'thorough debriefing'.
She'd never have imagined that anything about her seven years of captivity might benefit anyone... but between her conversations with Loki after her clone had been killed and he decided to keep her, and all the time she'd spent exploring his compound after he disappeared, she has a lot of incidental knowledge about the Asgard: a priceless commodity now that their race is gone. She'd never have thought she'd feel sorry for Loki, either... but finally knowing why he'd never come back fills her with as much sadness as frustration. So many lives, gone; so much effort, for nothing.
The idea of staying at the SGC for however long it might take to pass on everything she's learned is... a little on the daunting side, at first. She's been dreaming of the house on Revello Drive and the life she'd built there for so long that anything that might hold her back from that makes her hands shake and her breath come short. But at the same time... the idea of greeting her friends, her family again seven years after they thought they buried her fills her with trepidation, too. What if the reality of her doesn't match up to what they remember? What if their welcome doesn't match up to her hopes?
Colonel Mitchell makes the choice both easier and harder all at once when he brings her the folder full of research he'd had done on her behalf. She can't return to Buffy's house, because it's gone; it fell into a sinkhole along with all the rest of Sunnydale a year after her 'death'. Most of her friends got out before it happened... but none of the Scoobies are even in the country anymore. Willow went to Brazil, and only rarely comes back home; Anya's dead; Xander's somewhere in Africa; no records exist for Spike; Giles is in Scotland; Buffy is in Rome; and Dawn is pursuing her PhD in England.
Tara wonders what happened to her dresses, her books, her magic supplies; she wonders what could have been so bad that they'd shattered like glass after she was gone. And some part of her quails at the thought of finding out, of tarnishing the memories she'd held onto like talismans in her years as a captive. She spends her first night in the SGC's on base guest rooms thinking things over, then goes to Dr. Jackson and asks for two messages to be sent. Just two, and depending on what happens... one way or the other, she'll finally be able to start thinking about the future again.
Howevermany days or weeks spent with the scientists studying Asgard technology is not too high a price to pay for that.
"So, this friend of yours. Buffy Summers?" Colonel Mitchell says casually, as they wait for the first of Tara's two contacts to make it down to the briefing room. "You knew her in Sunnydale?"
"Y-yes," Tara confirms, nodding. "I was dating a good friend of hers; and we looked after her sister sometimes, after their mom died."
"Right; your records show you shared an address for awhile," he replied, studying her face. "You and... Willow Rosenberg?"
Tara nods, cautiously. "Is... is that a problem? Buffy had to work so much to pay the bills, it seemed like the least we could do to help out."
"Nah; it's not that," he shrugs. "I'm just curious; Summers has a classified Army file dated to around the time she met you, which is kind of weird for a college student in suburban California that seems to have spent the last several years flitting around playing socialite."
"She, doesn't... ah, she never liked to talk about it," Tara says, as guilelessly as she can. After all this time, she isn't sure she remembers what's safe to talk about and what isn't. And besides, if he doesn't already know about the Initiative... well, it confirms that the SGC probably isn't in the pocket of the Initiative's backers, which is a good thing, but it also means there's probably nothing she can say that he'll actually believe. He and his team seem to think that her 'advanced abilities' are related to the feats of telekinesis, telepathy, healing, and other forms of willpower made manifest that a race called the Ancients had shown before they evolved into energy beings; Loki had believed the same thing.
Mitchell studies her with careful eyes; then nods, giving her a wry smile. "Don't worry, I won't judge by first impressions. Ain't none of us what we look like at first around here, either, you know."
"I've noticed," Tara says, smiling back.
Then the door opens, and a short, golden-haired woman steps through. Her hair is shorter and a little darker than Tara remembers; her face is leaner, and there are faint lines, now, around her eyes. But it's Buffy. Tara remembers those last few months, Buffy's bright, valiant spirit shrouded by shadows of depression, with a few sparks of light beginning to shine back through; she'd finally felt like she was connecting with Buffy as a friend outside of her relationship with Willow and her mothering of Dawn. Those clouds are all gone, now; she can't help but smile to see it, even through the lingering pang that Buffy had been the first to respond to Tara's message, rather than Willow.
Buffy stops short in the doorway, blocking her guide-- is that Riley Finn? Tara has no attention to spare for him, though; Buffy gasps as she claps a hand over her mouth, tears starting in her eyes. Tara stands, her own eyes spilling over again as she reaches out a hand-- and the next minute their arms are full of each other, without a word spoken between them.
"Buffy," she finally manages to say, pulling back, hands still clasping the other woman's.
"Tara," Buffy replies, a wondering smile breaking through her tears.
Sister, is what both of them are really saying. It had been one thing to feel the touch of Gaia, but this brings it home in a way even that hadn't that Tara really is home. This isn't a dream.
"It's so good to see you," one of them says; "I've missed you so much," the other echoes, simultaneously.
Then they laugh, pull back, and sit down under the benevolently shrewd eyes of the Colonel.
"Are you sure you're all right here?" Buffy asks, clear concern in her green eyes, when the time comes for her to leave. "They're not-- taking advantage of you or anything? Because you're welcome in Rome; and Giles has a guest room. Just, you know, until Willow gets back from, um...." she trails off.
"Buffy... it's fine," Tara gently shakes her head. "They rescued me; and they've been very helpful. But I... I saw some things, where I was... things from their world, not ours," she emphasizes. "Things I can help them with. I'm good here. And Riley vouched for them."
"I know, I'm just...." Buffy reaches out and folds Tara into a hug again. "Keep in touch, okay? Send me an email as soon as you have your own address again; and be prepared for a flood of messages from Dawn. I practically had to tie her down when I stopped in London to keep her from sneaking on the plane after me."
"I will. I promise," Tara confirms, then lets her go.
Daniel waits until Riley finishes escorting Buffy out of the SGC, then tracks Tara down at the borrowed computer she's using to write up her experiences.
"I've been here since the beginning, you know," he observes thoughtfully, studying her as carefully as Mitchell had before the meeting. "Since the early days, before the IOA got involved, and before it was quite so political. I saw a lot of things back then that probably wouldn't fall under my purview today... such as the unedited record of what exactly happened at that Army base in Sunnydale."
Tara isn't sure what to say to that. Except.... "You haven't told your team?" she frowns.
He shrugs, hands thrust in his pockets. "Jack knows," he says-- meaning Homeworld Director General O'Neill, who she's gathered was part of SG-1 back at the beginning. "And Sam and Teal'c were there, too, when General Hammond asked us to look into whether the more... extraordinary... aspects of the incident could be tied in any way to Goa'uld involvement. But Sam tends to dismiss anything that can't be logically explained; and Teal'c wouldn't care about the ramifications, except to test Ms. Summers' skills."
So.... this isn't recent knowledge; he's known, at least in some vague way, about the supernatural since before he met Tara, and so has half his team. "S-she might like that?" she manages to reply.
"Hmmm," Daniel agrees. "I know there was a lot to what was going on that didn't make it into the records; there had to've been. What's there seems like little more than a tantalizing glimpse into a world with subcultures and languages and legends all its own." He meets her gaze frankly, blue eyes earnest and gently demanding. "It reminded me of the early days of the SGC, in fact; of taking our first steps into a much larger, stranger world than we ever could have imagined. And made me wonder... how well the skills for dealing with one world might overlap with the other."
She hasn't thought about that, before; hasn't imagined what she'll do when she's done with her reports, when Dr. Lam is finally satisfied that her weight and blood panel results are back within healthy ranges. It's like she's been in a holding pattern, adjusting; wetting her feet before stepping back into the pool.
Tara bites her lip, thinking about it now, as Daniel turns to leave.
A week passes; then another. Then one morning, Tara wakes from a dream of being held close in familiar arms, the scent of strawberry shampoo in her nose. A tremulous thread of disbelieving joy threads through her mood all day; a joy not hers. She holds her breath, waiting. And she is not disappointed.
Vala escorts her up to the surface most mornings; she lives on the base, too, and has ever since her return from-- well, Tara hasn't got the full story on that yet, but it has something to do with a vast interstellar war recently concluded? She likes to get a little fresh air on the days her team doesn't go off-world, and it eases Tara's feeling of being trapped underground to sit on the grass, open herself to the world around her, and breathe. There's only one sun in the sky; the world turns faster than she's used to; but she never gets tired of staring up at the puffs of white cloud crossing the blue, blue heavens, and listening to Vala's bright chatter about her latest discoveries.
On that day, Vala's voice falls silent right in the middle of a wry discussion about the wonders of single-cup pod coffeemakers in taming the somnambulant subspecies of scientist, as a flash of light sunbursts behind her. Tara knows, even before she stands and turns, who it is; a lump forms in her throat, and her hands tremble. It's been so long. Willow's had other girlfriends-- Buffy had told her. They've both been through so much. She doesn't dare have any expectations.
Willow looks... older, like Buffy had. Her hair is darker, too; still red, but a richer hue, with a lock of white falling from one temple. Her face is leaner. But she dresses much the same. And her eyes....
"Tara. Oh, goddess; Tara. I didn't believe it when Buffy told me," she says, clasping her hands in front of her so tightly her knuckles whiten.
"I'll just... go let the general know we have a visitor, then, shall I?" Vala murmurs in the background; Tara barely notices her leave.
"It's really-- it's really me, Willow," Tara says, trying, and not quite succeeding, to smile. "I never... I was going to come to you that day, I swear. All I could think about was seeing you again; telling you I still loved you. Rebuilding things, together. All these years-- but I know it's been so long; I know you thought I was gone--"
Willow's face twists, briefly, with pain; then she reaches out suddenly, her grip as tight as a Slayer's. "Are you kidding me right now?" she half-sobs. "No one ever-- I couldn't-- oh, Tara."
Her lips are firmer than Tara remembers; but the cup of her hand on Tara's cheek, the arm around her waist just as reverent.
When they pull back, both of them are smiling: luminous, radiant. "Then you...?" Willow says.
"I do. I do, but...." She gestures toward the open hatch, leading into the Mountain.
"You may not have noticed, but I can kind of commute anywhere these days?" Willow says, gesturing at the air. "If you want... I mean, if they're not, Buffy said, but...."
"I kind of owe them? And Willow, the things they've seen... it's not like the Initiative. These people...."
"We'll work it out," Willow says earnestly, then bursts into a disbelieving laugh. "There's so much to tell you. There's so much I want to say. So much I want to know."
"We'll have the time now," Tara smiles, feeling the future finally unspool again, bright with promise, in front of her.