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"Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past. "
:Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

 

Tara waited.

She idly picked at her knitting, pulling a few stitches through out of habit rather than anything else. She needed to keep her hands busy. She discovered early on that if she had something tiny and focused to do, her brain would quiet itself down for a few menial hours.

A sigh escaped her lips.

Tara hated knitting. She mindlessly completed a row of the burgundy and cream scarf she had been knitting for what seemed like forever.

Too long, she thought.

1, 823, 069 stitches and she had come no closer to easing her aching heart than she had at stitch number 1.

1,823, 070. Enough for now.

Tara placed the long train of fabric beside her on the bed, flexed her aching fingers, and sat up. Feeling the pressure in her bladder, she swung her legs to the side and put her bunny slippers on. Before she could stop it, as she stood mid-step to the bathroom, a memory swept her, powerful in its grasp.

"See?" Willow urged happily, her hands busy fidgeting with an apparently fascinating tissue. "They're bunnies! For my snuggle bunny."

Tara's grin stretched across her face, slowly and with a hint of flush in her cheeks.

Rising to her feet, she took a few steps to meet Willow by the bureau. "Will, they're lovely," she said, gathering Willows hands in her own. "And they'll keep these frigid feet of mine toasty warm for you."

"Oooh, all ready for bedtime snuggles?" Willow bounced excitedly.

Chuckling, Tara replied, "Yes, Willow. All ready for bedtime snuggles."

A devilish glint in her eyes, Willow's mouth turned up at the corner. "Good. 'Cause you know, there's nothing I like better than making sure you're all warm and toasty. Especially during bedtime snuggles".

"Oh really? And how were you planning on doing this exactly?"

"Well, I had kinda planned to throw you down on that bed and have my way with you, if that's alright," Willow said in a mischievous, light hearted voice.

Tara gasped, thrusting her right arm suddenly at the doorway in order to balance herself. Assaulted by her memories, Tara didn't even notice the crying. It felt like a horse had kicked her in the chest, leaving Tara reeling, shell-shocked, and heartbroken for at least the tenth time that day.

Steeling herself, Tara made her way to the bathroom determined to prepare for bed without further disaster. Several minutes later, after brushing her teeth, relieving her bladder, flossing, and washing her face, Tara flicked the switch, submerging the bathroom in darkness. Placing her knitting on the bedside table, she pulled a corner of the blanket down and settled herself under the covers.

She picked up a framed photo of the Scoobies and lovingly cradled it in her hands. She paused, staring at the figures that haunted her. Tracing her fingers along Willow's face, she hesitated before taking a deep, shuddering breath. She put the picture back on the table.

Before turning off the lamp, Tara turned on the radio, the alarm of humanity, like she did every night since, and waited with bated breath.

…..Nothing.

Not even the hiss of static or the rambling of car commercials could be heard. An abyss of sound pervaded the room, and Tara sighed. Again.

The room, now silent and dark, howled its emptiness back at Tara as she clutched the sheets to her chest and laid her head on her pillow, quietly succumbing to another night of restless sleep and broken nightmares.

Chapter Text

"Willow”

Willow jerked awake, head jumping up from its resting place on the inside of her arm, elbow crooked beneath her head on the table. Willow’s eyes were unfocused and panicky, her chest rose and fell rapidly as she panted, still hearing echoing screams from the chasms of her dreams.

Sliding into the chair next to her at a table and room not unlike the research area at the Magic Box, Ms. Hartness slowly began rubbing Willow’s back. She had gotten used to waking Willow with a soft hand. But no matter how gently she was woken, Willow always woke with a start. There would be several flustered moments before awareness would settle and Willow would realize where she was.

"Willow, you've been asleep for hours. Aren't you the least bit sore on that table, dear?" Ms. Hartness posed quietly in a sweet Welsh tongue, her arm making tender circles on the middle of Willow's back.

Taking several slow deep breaths to settle herself, Willow blinked and turned her head.

"Why do you keep doing that?" she asked softly, a slight frown on her face and a crinkle between her brows.

"Do what, dear. It's nothing that I haven't done dozens of times now."

Sure in her convictions, Willow knew, more than anything, the kindness this woman was showing her was wrong. A murderer like her didn't deserve being woken tenderly. A torturer like her wasn't entitled to warm biscuits and jam in the morning. Malicious and destructive villains like her don't warrant clemency. The Big Bad doesn't get a break. It went against every Scooby bone in Willow's body. And she knew it.

"I don't deserve this. Any of this."

Before she let herself soften and melt in tears of Tara and sobs of 'sorries', Willow pushed her chair back and stood. Looking to the floor, she hid her eyes. Taking a few small steps, she turned and let out a quiet "Please excuse me," before closing the door to her room behind her.

Ms. Hartness sighed and turned to look as the latch to the door slid quietly into place with a small click.

"No, Willow," she said sadly, shaking her head. "You don't."

Chapter Text

"Don't."

Buffy's eyes hardened and she squinted at her foe. Circling slowly with every muscle tense, she quickly checked the exits to make sure the being in front of her couldn't escape.

"Make me."

Appalled, Buffy screwed her face up and spat, "Dawn, if you think for one second I'm gonna let you get away with this, you've got another thing coming to you."

Not relinquishing her hold on the box of Oreos, Dawn slid slyly closer to the doorway. "Oh yeah? What are you gonna do, slay me? Sure makes the whole jumping off a tower thing kind of redundant, don't you think?"

"That cookie is  mine  and you know it. It's my post-slayage treat. A Scooby snack for the Scooby! And...and…I even put a post-it on the box, see?" Buffy stammered desperately.

Dawn turned the box over- 'Last cookie dibs' and a little stake were drawn on a sticky note. She rolled her eyes. "Fine,” she relented. “But you know this means I get the whole next box to myself?"

Happy that the standoff was over, Buffy yanked the coveted treat and shoved it in her mouth. "What, so you can mix it with Tabasco sauce and marshmallow fluff and call it icing? I think not."

"Ugh, fine. Ignore fine, creative dining. Whatever." Dawn rolled her eyes. "I'm going upstairs, you coming?"

"Yes ma'am. Just give me two shakes of a lamb's tail. I'm going to do another sweep."

Dawn pondered the conundrum as she began climbing the stairs. "Huh. Why do they say that anyway? Lambs don't shake their tails twice. Do lambs even shake their tails once?" Turning around to see if Buffy had an answer, Dawn was puzzled to see her sister nowhere in sight.

"Buffy?"

Shrugging, she turned and continued up to her room.

Chapter Text

The night was still, heavy with a hint of humidity, thick like a blanket. The rain from the day before soaked into the streets and shimmered underneath the streetlamps. Buffy circled the Summers house for the third time that night. Part guilt and part determination, Buffy continued to stubbornly patrol long after any threat had reared its bumpy face.

Buffy had promised that nothing would ever happen to Dawn as long as she lived. But she had failed. Hadn't she learned? Hadn't she seen what damage a selfish Slayer could do?

And I thought I was different than Faith.

The saintly and superior attitude she had clung to when she had come back had blinded her irreparably. And so she had failed in so many ways. She failed to protect Tara, darling Tara, who made pancakes and juice in the morning. She failed to safeguard her family who had suffered enough that year. Useless and aloof, Buffy was unable to save and defend the people who had selflessly upheld a vigil of support for her and her duty, adopting it as their own.

Thus wrapped up in her thoughts, she sheathed Mr. Pointy. Satisfied with her sweep of the house, Buffy walked back up the front porch. Letting her eyes scan the front yard once more, she reached one hand to the doorknob and hesitated. Twisting around, she stared at the moon for a long moment.

Round and full, the moon shone foggy, caught behind a light mist of clouds. The moon had meant so much before. Cycles of cages, wolves, and magic had occupied the past. Now the only thing that seemed to orbit the Summers house was pain, blood, and death.

Turning her back on the heavens, Buffy entered the house and shut the door on the moon.

Chapter Text

" I put on that sweater you gave me
I woke up in the kitchen a few minutes later
I didn't know how I had gotten there
Did you guide me?
I didn't make it to your funeral
I didn't want ritual or resign
So lost I was asleep in the palms of your hand
In dreams we were happy and safe
I can't comprehend the ways I miss you
They come to light in my mistakes
In my mistakes
In my mistakes"
:Neko Case, South Tacoma Way:

   

"The stars burn. You can't quite touch 'em, can you? They burn, burn, burn. Tiny little holes right through Spikey."

The vampire made his way through the alleyway. Drunkenly stumbling around trash cans toppled like boxes, Spike muttered to himself; his own crazy voice more soothing than the reviling buzz of victims tearing through his head.

"Time, time, running out of time. Have to get back home. Quick like a bird."

He paused, sensing something wrong. Subtle, like changing a recipe by adding extra salt. The air reeked of dark changes. Unnatural and erratic. Alarmed, Spike braced himself for danger.

"I hear you, you know. Your skittering little legs. Didn't think I could, did you?"

There— in the corner behind the dumpster— a buzzing.

At first a low hum, Spike's eyes narrowed and he grabbed a nearby bent golf club, sticking out of a soggy cardboard box like a spider leg, and slowly stalked towards the noise. The humming grew louder like a cacophonous swarm of bees.

Swatting the air around him, Spike crouched ready, club swung behind him like a baseball bat. Slow steps brought him closer to the dumpster. As the buzzing grew, so did his nervousness.

Swallowing loudly, he whispered "Bring it on, luv."

As the last word left his lips, the buzz exploded in a brilliant nebula. Spike lifted his arm to try and shield his eyes as a thousand luminous shards pierced his flesh.

The light was the last thing he saw before blacking out.

Chapter Text

"Tara!"

Like a bolt of lightning, Willow shot up in her bed drenched in the warm sticky sweat of nightmares clinging to her flesh.

Pupils dilated, it took her a moment to realize where she was.

England. I'm in England.

But, I felt her, her brow crinkled in confusion. Here, but…not here.

Trying to shake the cocoon of Tara that encased her every time she woke, Willow tried to relax her tense body by following the now mustily familiar landscape of her room at the coven.

A small hum echoed in the back of her sleep-fogged mind, and Willow blinked.

"Willow, this is your room. You'll be expected to arrive at all meals, but otherwise you are free to stay and wander as you wish. Elyse will come and check on you every hour to see if there's anything you require. All right?"

Willow slowly nodded, if only to get Mrs. Hartness to stop talking and leave.

"Good! Then we'll see you shortly for some supper." With a kind smile, Ms. Hartness turned and walked away, her short heels skittering on the wooden floor like beetles.

Left standing on the threshold of her room, Willow forced herself to open the door. She stared emptily at the living quarters in front of her.

Dust particles shimmered in the light that poured in from the large windows opposite the bed. She trailed her fingers lightly over old lacy pillows and a thick, frilly beige blanket before resting on her small suitcase.

Willow pulled a single picture frame from beneath a thin layer of clothes, and sat down on the edge of the bed, staring longingly at the photo in front of her.

Taken the Thanksgiving before Joyce's death, Xander had snapped a picture of Tara and Willow snuggled up together on the couch. Willow had seen him out of the corner of her eye and was about to tell him off, but Tara...darling Tara hadn't even noticed. Staring adoringly at Willow above her, a smug smile of contentment and happiness shone on Tara's face.

Willow traced Tara's grin in a shaky hand before placing the frame next to a small vase of flowers and continued to unpack. Refolding everything before she placed them into the dresser, Willow mindlessly organized her life into five drawers.

A large wardrobe in the corner of the room caught her eye. She stood standing in front of it for a long moment. Abruptly, as if having just mustered up the courage to do so, she opened the doors wide with both arms.

Taking off both her shoes before stepping boldly into the closet, Willow closed the doors firmly behind her, steeped her breathing, and concentrated. Drenched in darkness, brows furrowed, lips tight and hands clenched, Willow faced the back wall and lifted one arm warily. Sifting through several old coats, she held her breath and reached out shakily.

It seemed like forever that her hand crept forward. On and on she moved slowly, so slowly until suddenly, her fingers touched the back of the wardrobe. The rough and gritty grains of the wood mocked her light touch.

…But there was no magic. Not for a witch in a wardrobe in England, not anywhere. The world was just as it had always been: dry, scabbed, and cruel.

Willow had somehow forgotten this, having had buried a tiny part of herself deep. Long before Buffy had come along and whisked her off her feet with danger and purpose, before Cordelia and her cronies had taunted and belittled her into spackled wallpaper, Willow had protected herself.

Submerged in the companionship of two young boys, a tiny Willow had hidden the white and shining beauty of her innocent heart away. She knew she would need to keep it safe. In order to lose oneself in books and neglect, one had to take the necessary precautions. The lessons of C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, and Tolkien among others had taught her that. She had learned well.

And there it had stayed, shrink-wrapped and refrigerated for the time the Slayer would come with her friendship and bumps in the night.

At the cold, hard touch of the back of the wardrobe, this part of Willow exploded and let loose every moment of pain and anguish in her young life simultaneously. In flashes, her life decomposed.

…a constant key under the doormat

…a skinned knee and sneering faces on the blacktop

…crinkled toilet paper and used wrappers in her locker

…a twenty-dollar bill and a ten-word note taped to the fridge

…two helpless puncture marks in the side of Jesse's neck

…the dark, dismal realization of Moloch's deception

…dead fish on a string in the solitude of her bedroom

…the cold steel of betrayal twisting deep at the sight of two naked bodies tangled together underground

…the bitter frustration of Buffy's blind obliviousness and preoccupation when she needed her most

…a warm bench and a blank, blue-eyed gaze at the fair ten seconds too late

…Buffy's serene body atop rubble and dust

…screams in the night

…the slinking fear of argument

…brittle herbs

…delicate words

…red sheets

…red shirts

…splotches of red

…red

…red

All Willow could see was warm, sticky red. And in that, something broke.

Sinking to the floor of the wardrobe, a lifetime of empty wasted endless days stared Willow in the face. For the first time since the funeral, Willow cried. Giving in to the abyss that claimed her, a low cry began deep in her bowels. Scratching its way through her lungs and throat, its claws erupted with a terrible and mighty ferocity.

It was terrible and colossal. The floods of Noah were nothing compared to the torrential downpour that ravaged Willow.

Shaking, wailing, and hacking sobs on the floor of the wardrobe, somewhere Willow wondered how the tears could feel so hot when her chest felt so cold. Her pulse pounded in her ears as fire poured forth from her eyes and trailed down her face but hissed and evaporated when it ran blindly into the collapsing icy caverns of her breast.

And that was how Ms. Hartness found her charge hours later, throat raw, eyes vacant and unfocused, mouth trembling, with a never-ending barrage of tears streaming down her face.

After Willow’s lack of appearance at dinner, Ms. Hartness knocked on her door and saw the wardrobe ajar. She scooped Willow up and rocked her slowly on the floor, whispering chants of 'hush' and crooning old English songs from her childhood.

Hair being stroked softly, Willow brokenly succumbed to sleep with the murmuring of gentle words in her ear.

With a flourish of bed sheets, Willow got up before she could easily persuade herself not to. After throwing some clothes on and washing up, she emerged from her room to be welcomed by a plate of still steaming biscuits, berries, cheese, and juice left on the table. Despite her best intents, a tiny smile graced her lips, cheeks stretching unused to the action. The smile did not reach her eyes as another useless day loomed ahead of her: tedious and barren.

All right, then. First, breakfast; then Giles.

Chapter Text

Tired and weary of browsing through volumes of dry texts, Giles removed his glasses and massaged his eyes with the backs of his hands. Even after the dull, weary itch had faded, he continued to rub as if he could scrub it all away.

Before he could dwell on his unhappiness, a rapid knock on the door drew him forth from his thoughts.

"Yes? Oh, Ms. Hartness. Please, do come in."

Closing the door behind her, Ms. Hartness surveyed the cluttered desk and let out a soft chuckle. "Research, Mr. Giles? I wasn't aware you alone were in charge of the advancing apocalypse.”

His eyes crinkling, Giles smiled. She always knew how to barge into a room like an irritatingly welcome friend and make him smile amidst danger, worry, and responsibility.

"Yes, well. It can never hurt to try. Though truth be told, I feel as if I might as well be doing nothing anyway, there’s so little to go on. And quite frankly I don't know what to do, Marissa."

Word of the first two murders had spread quickly. The Council, per their form, was predictably slow to consensus and action. But it didn’t stop others from having their own ideas. Regardless of any theory, something was coming. And no one having any idea what it was made people very, very nervous.

Recognizing the slow sticky dread of helplessness in Giles' eyes, Ms. Hartness gently nudged Giles' chin to meet her gaze. She beckoned him to stand, wrapped her arms around as far as she could reach, and held him tight.

They swayed silently for a few moments, two little buoys adrift in a wide, dark, and tumbling sea.

Breaking the comfortable silence, Ms. Hartness pulled back to look at Giles. "Rupert. She's not making any improvement."

Meeting her gaze, Giles sighed. "Yes, I know."

"Good. Then I think you realize we've done all we can for her here."

Seeing him opening his mouth, preparing to interrupt, she placed a finger over his mouth and continued. "Rupert. It's been months. She came to us broken. She's still in pieces, but…she's stubbornly resigned herself to live. And I doubt she's even realized it, but she has. In fact, she'd probably deny her own will, but I daresay she's stronger than she gives herself credit for."

Shaking his head, Giles agreed. "Oh, I have no doubts that Willow gotten remarkably better. But it's only been a few months, do you really think she's ready to go back to Sunnydale?"

"My dear Giles. She’ll never  truly   be ready, but she  is  needed. For whatever is coming. There will be a great battle fought on the Hellmouth soon, as you well know, and your Slayer will need all the help she can get. Willow must go back. It won't be easy, but there's nothing more we can do to help her here. The rest is up to her. And her friends. And you," she finishes, looking up at him with a smile in her eyes.

Giles smiles back. "She thinks you're afraid of her, you know."

Chuckling softly, Ms. Hartness replied "Oh, don't be ridiculous. I couldn't be less afraid of her than Tupperware. Now, come. Let's go to her, shall we?"

Chapter Text

Pain.

That's all that he could remember. There was no room in his brain for anything else, all possible thoughts scattered like ants by new waves of torment.

Blinding, flashing pain besieged him and tore through his flesh. His mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for air, but no sound escaped. He was trapped in a bubble of anguish.

It seemed endless, stretching on into infinity, pulling him to the far corners of wherever he was.

He thought it was pain at first, what else could it have been? But for a moment—a miracle moment—his back stopped spasming. Primal body functions kicked in and, relishing the respite from agony, his spine relaxed into a gentle, natural arc.

It seemed that the moment his back relaxed, the rest of his body followed, each muscle softening slowly like butter. It seemed to take forever, but the agony and sound eventually melted until he was just Spike, with elated tears of thanksgiving leaking from his eyes.

Limbs sprawled out, he lay panting heavily on the ground, praising whatever Gods above and below for the solid terrain he could grasp.

Grateful for his newfound freedom, he was nonetheless aware of his vulnerable state. Desperate for survival, now more than ever, he forced himself to his knees and scrutinized his surroundings. Bracing his aching arms on his thighs, he opened his eyes and froze.

Trash cans littered the damp alley. A dumpster lay dormant against the far wall. And a bent golf club stuck out like a spider leg from a dank cardboard box.

It was the exact same alleyway he had come from.

Except it was daylight.

Spike ever so slowly raised his gaze towards the sky.

And didn't burn.

Chapter Text

"Hello?" Xander asked as they walked. "Earth, to Buffster. You there?"

Realizing that someone was talking to her, a sudden "Huh?" blurted out of her mouth.

"Well, that was enigmatic. Maybe a little overacted, but with just a bit more 'oomph', I think you've got some definite Oscar material there."

"Sorry, Xander,” she apologized, “I guess I zonked out again?"

"Yeah, sure. Either that or excitement is just pouring out your ears in all new fun ways. Everything alright in there?"

They turned the corner at the tail end of town and started up the long sloping hill. Kids blurred by on roller blades and bicycles as they walked, the sunshine warming their backs like a slow, cozy winter fire.

Picking at the loud, crinkling, plastic wrapping in her hands, Buffy shuffled on, noticing the grass peeking through the cracks in the sidewalk, Stubborn little weeds. "Yeah, I was just out a little later than usual last night, checking things out. You know, no biggie."

Xander recognized that tinge of the sluggish self-hatred Buffy carried. He knew it because he was just as stuck in the quicksand of regret as she was.

There was nothing that haunted him more in his life—not seeing his best friend ashen and unconscious laying bruised and battered on a hospital bed, not staring at the pavement alone and benumbed on Christmas eves, and not even the stricken realization of betrayal in Anya's brimming eyes as she stood emptily on the altar—than the moment Xander Harris, champion of Scooby blind-daring and action, stood motionless in that sunny backyard on the worst day of his life.

But what could he possibly say? No words would make his sticky feet move those months ago, and nothing he could say now would dispell the hanging cloud that smoldered above them. It was a deeply ingrained Scooby habit to save the heavy emotional drain for apocalypses and demons rather than on communication and conversation. It took precious resources to keep up fighting the forces of darkness, let alone the effort of trying to live in the light.

Squinting against the sun, he swept the unspoken conversation away with a silent agreement, "Yeah, no big."

Buffy was grateful for Xander's willingness to sacrifice the topic. She just didn't feel like getting into it. Not today.

They kept walking, stuck in a comfortable silence, each wrapped in their own tiny pockets of grief. The sign for the cemetery snuck up on them as it always did, taciturn and massive.

Buffy hated the sunlight that day. It mocked her relentlessly as her friend lay cold in the ground. Buffy hunted the dark and the evil, but she could do nothing to chase away the shadows that hung under Dawn's eyes or the scars that lingered on Xander's face more potent and obvious in the sunshine than they had been the night before.

Buffy squeezed her sister closer to her.

She glanced over at Willow, who had mutely insisted she dress herself that morning, as she sat in the only chair with her hands clasped tight, knuckles shining whitely and trembling in her lap. A constant stream of tears trickled down Willow's face as she looked ahead blankly, lost and irretrievable. Buffy wondered if she'd ever see her best friend again.

It wasn't often a fallen or dearly departed Scooby member had a remnant of them left in Sunnydale. Most drifted away like dust to Angel in L.A. or were possessed in the dark by demons. It was almost a morbid rare treat to be able to visit a grave.

Buffy was slightly startled when they stopped walking, having arrived at their destination, and Xander spoke softly. "You know, I didn't think it would be this hard."

Nodding solemnly, she said, "I know. Me either."

Xander reached to pick up the old bouquet of brilliantly mixed zinnias—petals browning slightly at the tips like burnt paper edges—that rested against the tombstone. "She still doesn't talk to me, but I know her like the back of my hand. These are hers."

"Anya?"

He bowed his head in affirmation, and with a forced chuckle said, "She probably did research on appropriate graveside manner."

Buffy gestured down at the mixture of flowers in her hand, "Well, these aren't exactly a dime a dozen at the grocery store, either."

He shrugged. "Well, what's a few extra bucks? We made a promise, Buff, and an elephant never forgets. Or shirks his duty. Or, you know…isn't an elephant."

Xander faithfully went to the floral shop in town every Friday to tenderly collect a mixture of ferns, phlox, irises, and orange blossoms. It had been the only thing Willow asked of him before she left. Somewhere he knew, best-friend deep, that Willow didn't think she would ever be coming back.

He upheld her wish, but always added a single dark crimson rose just for her. It just felt right to him.

Cradling the old zinnias in his arms, Xander replaced them with the fresh bouquet as he sat down in the grass, cross-legged beside Buffy.

She stared at him for a long moment.

Then, taking a deep breath, Buffy began.

"Hey, Tara. . ."

Chapter Text

Accidentally knocking the pots to the floor with a clatter, Tara cursed loudly as she burnt her fingers on the stove and shoved the throbbing digits between her legs, clamping her thighs together.

The morning light shone through the window over the sink in the Summers kitchen, soft like a lullaby, as Tara tried to prepare breakfast.

Ella Fitzgerald kept Tara company every morning, rain or shine, happy or sad, empty or full, pancakes or cereal, ready or not. It chased the silence away, if only for a little while, and jazz was something Tara clung to. Like the last remnants of a tube of toothpaste, Tara squeezed up the few inheritances she had, burrowed deep in her heart.

Mornings at home with Mom had been such a rare delight, and Tara treasured them more than anything. Her father and Donnie always left early to work the farm, so Tara was left alone with her mother for a few precious hours. The house would sing with happiness, smug and full of cookies and magic.

Her mother would hoist her on a stool and hold her protectively from behind like a mama bear at the kitchen counter. She would sing with the radio, under her breath, tickling the backs of Tara's ears. Lady Ella serenaded them warmly and flowers danced on the windowsill as they wove recipes into blankets of solace that Tara would wrap around herself during the long dark nights under lock and key.

Flour, jazz, honeysuckle, and daffodils would stick to the underside of Tara's heart when Father worked a dark magic all his own. Try as he might, however, nothing was more powerful than those happy mornings bathed in light and love.

Trying to shake the burning that licked the tips of her fingers and heart, Tara shook her head and went to the sink to run her hand under cold water.

"Morning, you,” Tara felt in her ear as a soft body molded into hers from behind. "Funny shapes today?"

Tara smiled, feeling Willow's grin ripen in the crook of her neck.

The glass she was filling slipped from a lax grip and shattered into tiny fragments along with Tara's carefully conceived morning procedure.

Jerked out of her thoughts, as her back echoed a phantom Willow-warmth, Tara realized it just wasn't enough this morning. She had grown too comfortable with the routine. Her brain had relaxed in habit and her heart was beginning to think.

It was too much.

Barely remembering to turn off the stove, Tara left the kitchen in a flurry, crunching over the broken glass, and hurried to the front door.

She needed to get out. The house was oppressive and caved in on her slowly with faulty routines, patterns, and habits designed to keep her calm. Tara barely had time to realize she was panicking; it struck dart fast, unseen until it hit. Her breathing labored and spots danced behind her eyes as she leaned heavily against the banister.

She just needed to get to the door.

With a last burst of desperate strength, Tara leapt towards the door and grabbed the doorknob as she fell.

Fresh air flew in as the door swung open. It blew the crazy and the panic out of Tara like sifting sand in the wind as she lay collapsed in the doorway with one arm hanging off the threshold.

The hysteria fled after a few moments as a lazy breeze gently blew Tara's sweaty hair into the draft. Her mind cleared slowly, defogging like a mirror after a steaming shower, and her breathing returned to normal as she listened to her heart calming.

Thump-thump. Thump- thump. Thump – thump.

Taraheart , she thought, her eyes brimming with a fresh wave of tears, her throat thickening. She forced them down with a deep swallow.

She knew no one was watching, but Tara felt self-conscious sprawled out like a lunatic in the doorway of the house. Stranger things had happened in the Summers home, she knew, but not in this place.

Tara stood and brushed her hands off on her pants, staring forlornly at the long expanse of the lawn in front of her.

I need more eggs.

She needed to collect herself before going out again. Too unnerved to do it now, Tara hugged her arms, rubbing her shoulders in cold comfort, and turned to go back inside.

The door shut firmly behind her.

Chapter Text

After staring blankly into the sun for a moment (when was the last time he’d done that?), Spike had blinked and scrambled into the shade out of dark habit. Safe behind a veil of shadow, he then tentatively thrust his hand into the sun and snapped it back. Satisfied that his hand didn't sizzle and pop like frying bacon, Spike let out the breath he didn't realize he had been holding.

Experiment completed. It was time to go exploring.

Nothing had been worse than those first few hours, down in Africa.

Was this a nightmare? Spike didn't even know. He thought he had just gone crazier, if it were possible. It had been months since he had retained any sense of lucidity for longer than a few minutes, so how could he tell? The hissing voices of his past victims surrounded his every thought and stirred up a dust cloud of raucous torment that led to constant headaches.

But, no.  That wasn't even the worst of it, was it, Spikey boy?

His heart. Oh, how his heart had ached. It rotted inside him with a dull throb, blackness and evil oozing from ventricles and arteries like sewage. He could feel it poisoning him slowly. It seeped into his soul, laying waste to whatever was left of virtue and goodness lay within.

That was why he had tried to cut it out. That was why it burned. After all his hard work, his soul was being ravaged, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

But here… Here it had all stopped. The discordant buzz in his brain hadn't reared its nasty head. A giant mute button had encapsulated Spike's mind. It confused him at first, but then sunk to a deep dread. Could it have gone? If the voices had fled, had his soul gone with them? It was just so quiet.

Which begged the question: Where was he really? Spike wasn't even sure anymore.

It looked like Sunnydale, but didn't sound like Sunnydale. For there were no human fingerprints to be found. No screeching traffic of cars, no indistinct smattering of voices, no music parading from a restaurant window, and no patterns of life in the air.

It felt like Sunnydale, but didn't smell like Sunnydale. It couldn't have been.

There wasn't a scent of warm blood anywhere.

Something was wrong. Deadly wrong. Determined that the simmering stew of anxiety wouldn't get the best of him, with a snarl Spike headed to the only place he ever expected to find answers.

“Slayer.”

Chapter Text

With a whoosh, automatic doors opened and blasted an air-conditioned gust onto sweaty skin, creating the pleasant cooling sticky sensation that only summer can bring.

Rubbing her arms in a vain attempt to chase the growing goose bumps from her flesh, Dawn grabbed a shopping cart and started meandering towards the school supplies.

Anya accompanied her, looking skeptically at the products in front of her, as if suspecting they were all sub-par. "So," she said, "Have you given any more thought to my spectacularly-prepared suggestions?"

Dawn rolled her eyes, "Anya, you've cut out every single coupon from the newspapers and magazines for the last month and flagged the best deals with hi-lighters and post-its." Scrunching up her face, she added as an afterthought, "And it's still August."

Seeming quite pleased with herself, Anya started parading down the aisles, admiring the colorfully-labeled rollback prices along the way.

"Well, you can never be too prepared. Careful and well-researched purchasing is the cornerstone of American capitalism. You don't want to jump in all willy-nilly into the market, do you?"

Despite knowing it was best to ignore any discussion about free enterprise with Anya, Dawn stubbornly refused to give in to her quips. "I'm not jumping into anything. It's just back-to-school sales. They're the same every year. Chill."

"Everyone keeps telling me that, but I don't understand,” said Anya in a suddenly less-than-cheerful mood.

Slightly confused, Dawn asked, "What, back-to-school sales?"

Anya waved Dawn's question away with a flick of her wrist and continued, "Chill. You use the word so casually but do you have any idea what it's like trying to pretend everything is perfectly normal all the time? I can't  chill ."

Awareness crept upon Dawn as she recognized the simmering anger behind Anya's voice. It was a bitter frustration that pressed upon the chest like a slowly turning vise. The hurt it left behind in its destructive grip left nothing sacred. She knew because it had ensnared them all.

"Things just keep getting worse for you humans, how can you stand it? I'm…riddled with these unpleasant feelings and memories and I can't do anything about it! I visit Tara twice a week, and I don't understand why it still doesn't  feel  any better."

It kept spilling out, unbidden and unending, and it was all Dawn could do to stand and watch helplessly with somber understanding.

"This ache isn't going away and none of you will talk about it! I mean, my god, don't you ever tire of bottling everything up?"

The tension was palpable. It wore thin on restraint and stoicism by testing even the furthest limits of Scooby suppression. It cracked them slowly. Differently. They were each caught in the deepest muck and drowning slowly. This time, no one was coming to rescue them.

How did we get so lost?

Willow was gone, nursing and rehabilitating in England with Giles, and Dawn didn't know if she was ever coming back. Even if she made it back to Sunnydale, Willow would never really come back. Not without Tara.

Buffy, on the other hand, was so laden with guilt, it was a miracle she was still standing. Dawn could see it press on Buffy's shoulders in the morning when she didn't think Dawn was watching. How could she have missed it before? Blinded by admiration and sisterly jealousy, Dawn had mistaken the sad and lonely burden of the Slayer for glory and celebrity. She was glad, now, to have escaped that fate. She could grow and be loved and have a life all her own, safe from destiny and circumstance.

Anya and Xander… Well, they danced so finely around each other, Dawn wasn't sure where they stood. Hell, Anya and Xander weren't even sure. Tangled in the past, they simply couldn't figure out how to unravel and just forgive themselves. And each other.

And Tara…Tara was dead. There would be no more milkshakes and movies, no more morning couch-cuddles or pancakes. A great warmth was gone and Dawn had never felt so utterly alone, motherless once more.

"Anya. I get it," Dawn spoke, sounding very small.

Anya made a face and shrugged, as if embarrassed, and gently put an arm around Dawn's shoulders. Abandoning the shopping cart, they exited the store, fading into the summer wash of customers and cars.

Chapter Text

Woke up and wished that I was dead
With an aching in my head
I lay motionless in bed
I thought of you and where you'd gone
and let the world spin madly on
:The Weepies-World Spins Madly On:

   

The quiet suited her.

It soothed and whirled in the wind as it caressed her, gently blowing wild her hair and rubbing raw her skin.

The wind didn't speak. It didn't quietly cower like the Coven or blatantly forgive like Giles. It simply blew the broken pieces of Willow into blessed nothingness as she sat. And as far as she was concerned, it was the most welcoming thing on earth.

The tree was her furthest hiding spot from the cottage. Sometimes, when the prospect of living seemed too daunting and paralyzing, she needed the quiet growth and easy seclusion of the woods for company.

The magick lessons, of course, didn't help. The magick was where it all began. And ended. There was nothing Willow wanted to be farther away from than it.

A part of her was innocently fascinated with what the Coven taught her. How it was all connected—Gaia and the root systems, like millions of tiny computer wires in a vast network. But every tendril she followed in the system drew to a forsaken, shuddering end. It might have all been connected, but none of it led back to Tara.

So what was the point?

The interest ended there.

She engaged them, of course. The good student was too deeply ingrained to ignore, and it proved useful. But this time, no dormant, hopeful purity hid underneath. The driving force wasn't thirst for knowledge or geekish habit, but an empty inevitability.

All she wanted was a silent solitude; to be left alone and meditate until nothing remained. But they pressed, with their magick and teachings, so she had no choice but to learn.

"Willow, you must try to focus."

And because she had nothing left, she did. She took deep breaths and tried to imagine the edges of her sight hazing into white. But white just made her think of red. Faltering, she looked desperately into Ms. Hartness' eyes, her own pleading and begging and raw with fear.

"Willow, listen to my voice. Hum with me."

Weakly, she had forced her vocal cords to vibrate. Small and fragile at first, but with Ms. Hartness' hum resonating in the background, Willow inhaled and started again low. She didn't have the strength to tighten the pitch, but the deep strum grew strong and steady on its own.

The hum encompassed her, filled her bones with a resonating rhythm, and drugged her mind. Willow sank into the vibrations in her chest, down into the dark, and a warm tendril pulled forth and surrounded her in a giant yawn.

Nothing existed in the black except the safe and the pulsating warm. Willow was no more or no less than a hum.

Slowly, percolating drops of consciousness seeped into her mind, collecting and forming shape. It was an hour later that Willow fully came into herself again.

Her eyes fluttered open into the dusky light and she saw the patient, tender face of Ms. Hartness wearily smiling back at her proudly.

Willow hadn't understood until later, as she lay in bed in the dark, that she had relearned how to fall asleep. Away from the nightmares, Willow circumvented her way to slumber. Safe from the white, red, and inevitably, the blue.

Willow sat up straight as she inhaled fully, stretching her and back and lungs. She stood and balanced herself on the tree, momentarily dizzy and lightheaded.

When the fuzz around her vision cleared, the long green stared in front of her; speckled with grass, shrubs, and wildflowers.

With a lasting breath, Willow began the long trek back.

It's time to learn.

Chapter Text

"Will, it's time you learned how to do this," Tara began patiently.

Approaching the counter with more than a hint of trepidation, Willow asked timidly, "Are you sure? My cooking skills are kinda not so great. Remember the George Forman grill? It's not so George Forman-y anymore."

Tara smiled at the memory of the deceased kitchen appliance’s demise. "That reminds me, sweetie, lesson number one: Grilling, baking, and cooking are three very different things."

"Uh, right. Okay. And sautéing is….?"

"A type of frying," Tara answered with a half-grin. "But don't forget the roasting, boiling, searing, poaching, braising, and deep-frying."

A look of blank awe smacked Willow across the face. "Wow. That's uh… a lot of terms."

Her smile never faltering, Tara nodded as she twisted around and reached for the cabinets. "Mhmm, so we'd better get started."

"Tara?" Willow squeaked.

Tara retracted her arm and turned around to face her girlfriend, who had backed herself into the island counter in the middle of the kitchen. "Yes?"

Gnawing her bottom lip, Willow glanced down at her feet before nervously asking, "What if I can't cook it right?"

At that moment, Tara fell in love with Willow all over again. Right down to her jittery, bouncing toes encased in fuzzy pink socks.

Seeing Tara's lazy smile grow even wider, Willow grew puzzled. "Why are you smiling? This isn't smiley-face material. This is…I-could-start-a-fire-and-burn-the-house-down material. Not at all with the good."

Crossing her arms, Tara asked, "Willow, can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"What's sodium chloride?"

"Um, the ionization of sodium and chlorine atoms?"

Nodding, Tara questioned further. "Good. And what is the square root of pi squared."

After a moment of contemplation, a baffled Willow squeaked, "Uhhhh, pi?"

Opening a cabinet door, Tara pulled out a bowl and a large wooden spoon from the drawer near her thigh. Slapping them on the countertop next to Willow, she slid close to her lover, feeling their legs and hips melt together like warm chocolate. "And how did you know both of those answers?"

Growing incredibly distracted by the lips dancing in front of her eyes, Willow offered, "Three quarters of a bachelor’s degree and a handful of mediocre classes in high school?"

Putting her arms on the counter on either side of Willow, Tara leaned in and whispered, "Follow the formula."

Gulping, Willow's brain wasn't making the neural connections necessary to catch Tara's point. "Following the…what?"

Pulling back with an extremely satisfied look on her face, Tara grabbed the bag of flour and placed it into Willow's capable hands. "The recipe for salt requires synthesis of the ingredients sodium and chloride. For the other, you had to first multiply 3.14 by itself, then divide that by itself to reach a conclusion, yes?"

Willow nodded.

"All you have to do in order to cook is break down the recipe into an equation. It's no different than a science experiment or a math problem. Follow. The. Steps," Tara finished, punctuating the last words with a kiss on Willow’s nose.

The pieces finally clicking into place, a warm confidence poured into Willow, and her face blossomed into a brilliant smile. "How do you do that?"

Tara gathered Willow in a loose embrace, "Well, it was easy 'cause I love you so much. But I'll admit, I had an ulterior motive."

Looking up into Tara's eyes, the redhead implored, "And what might that be exactly?"

"Well, where would you be when you want to pamper your poor, sick girlfriend who's stuck in bed with the flu and you don't know how to make pancakes?"

With a burst of laughter, Willow pecked Tara lovingly on the cheek and began gathering supplies and ingredients with a vivacious flourish.

Soon, buttermilk pancakes were sizzling in the pan and Willow was stirring another batch of batter in a bowl. The kitchen was pregnant with love, and the air was laden with the warm scent of baking. Blissfully content, Tara soaked up the smell of a perfect Sunday mo-

Tara's eyes fluttered open to the sunshine dancing through the window blinds. She lay under the blankets, still a bit groggy from her dream. It had been so easy for the memory-smell of pancakes to sensually waft her into consciousness. She let the familiar heaviness settle into her heart like it did every morning, but suddenly her eyes snapped open.

Wait. Where's that smell coming from?

Tara yanked her bathrobe from where it hung on the wardrobe and pulled it on when every single nerve in her body jumped in alarm.

Tara froze.

A clang. It may have been muffled through the floorboards, but a definite and resounding clang reverberated throughout the house and shattered her world.

Tara's pulse pounded in her ears as she stood motionless, but was soon jolted into action as she heard indistinct mutterings join the clattering downstairs.

No. It's impossible.

Scrambling to the door, Tara flattened one palm against the hard surface and cracked open the door. The cool air from the hallway blew onto Tara's face and she closed her eyes with joyous rapture.

It had been so long, oh so long since she had heard those sounds— any  sounds. Tears leaked from her eyes. It was almost unrecognizable, this feeling. So foreign, Tara had long given up any expectation of having it again. Something as simple as hope had abandoned her. Yet here it was, sizzling and glowing and welling within her, as she let herself believe her waiting might be over.

She was about to swoop down the stairs in excitement, but a sudden fear caused Tara to pull back. Was it all another trick? A dream? For all Tara knew, she could still be asleep now, floating on the tendrils of fantasy, only to again wake with a horrible and consuming emptiness.

But the smell. It pulled her from her misgivings and she took a first step into the hallway. Hardly breathing, as if it would shatter the possibility of the moment, Tara slowly crept down the stairs, each step bringing her closer to the euphoric noises in the kitchen. Slinking across the floor, Tara's heart resumed its rapid fluttering as the sounds in the kitchen grew clearer. It nearly thumped out of her chest when she saw a body at the counter.

Whatever hope had blossomed inside Tara earlier, in an instant burned to ashes. The metallic taste of copper invaded her mouth and her heart dropped into her stomach. The smile that had graced her face withered into a grotesque twist when the figure turned to face her.

As Tara wavered in the doorway to the kitchen, Spike turned around, spatula in hand, and watched her fall to her knees.

"Oh, you. Need more eggs," was all Tara heard before she blissfully let blackness claim her.

Chapter Text

Buffy shuffled into the kitchen just in time to see Xander grab a carton of juice from the fridge. He pulled a glass from the cabinet over the sink and turned, offering her a cheery salutation.

"Ahh, mornin', Buff. I see you're all rise with the shine."

The morning Slayer greeted him with less enthusiasm, grabbed a cup for herself, and motioned for him to pour her some juice as well, before slumping into a chair. She drained the cup in a few gulps, put the glass down onto the counter, and grunted a reply. "Ugh. Mornings? So not my thing."

"Funny, considering how many times you get to see it after a whole night of  not  sleeping."

Since the juice had little effect on her ravenous appetite, Buffy shot Xander a look of pure unamusement before getting up to grab a box of Pop-Tarts from the shelf.

Xander returned the look with one of his own, as he asked, "Which leads me to my next question: How is it you've clearly never been introduced to the world of breakfast foods before?"

With a look of mock offense on her face, Buffy held up a foil-encrusted package, "I'm all about the breakfast foods! This? Total nutrition. It's a meal in pancake form."

Xander raised his eyebrows and countered, "Yeah, if normal pancakes had partially hydrogenated soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup, and chemicals starting with the letter 'x' in them that no-one-can-pronounce, then sure… color them nutritious."

The sound of footsteps thundering down the stairs interrupted the wildly entertaining conversation. Dawn strutted into the kitchen, and squealed at Buffy, "Oooh, Pop-Tarts? Sa-weet!" She yanked the other sugar bomb out of the package and promptly began devouring it with gusto.

Buffy threw her hands up in frustration. "Have you no respect for your elders?"

"Actually, I'm a few thousand years old. So, technically? I'm older than you."

Before the sisterly affections got out of hand, Xander interrupted, "Ooookay, I think that's enough breakfast talk for now.”

“What, no more discussions of Pop Tarts or Fruit Loops?”

Xander claps his hands together, “Hows about I take Dawnie here out for a tour of her happy, new Hellmouthy home?"

Despite the fact that her mouth was still full, Buffy tried to speak, "Mmm! Xander, don't forget to bring the plans back before school starts." She turned to Dawn, wagged her finger, and continued, "And you, missy, best behavior. Don't even think about trying to steal Tito's hammer again. I won't get in the way of the angry carpenter next time."

Dawn rolled her eyes and huffed, "Omigod. For the tenth time, Xander dared me to."

Xander shook his head and smiled nervously as he quickly shuffled Dawn out, waving to Buffy as they left.

The kitchen felt hollow now, empty of all noise and sound. Silence slowly settled like a cloak and hummed against her skin. Buffy turned back around to face the window above the sink and stared into the sunlight.

She watched the particles float in and out of the flickering shadows of the blinds, swirling and dancing in the luminous rays. They warmed Buffy's face as she closed her eyes, letting her skin soak up the soft moment for a long while.

Then, she grabbed the phone from the cradle, dialed, and waited for the call to go through. After a moment, she heard a small click as someone picked up.

"Giles?"

Chapter Text

The first thing she noticed was the sound. It pounded and pulsed everywhere.

With a groan, Tara tried to sit up but a sharp twinge forced her to fall back down. As the pain subsided, she realized the loud sound was, in fact, her head throbbing. As she reached up to rub her temple, Tara opened her eyes tenderly and blinked several times to get used to the light.

She found herself lying on the couch in the living room and again attempted to sit up. This time, however, she was met with success.

From the left, she heard, "Careful, luv. You hit the floor hard, bound to leave a mark."

In a flourish of panic and alarm, Tara fell off the couch and scrambled back as fast as she could, hitting the far wall with a thump. She clutched her chest and felt her heart pound. "W-w-wh…" Too shocked and rattled to speak clearly, Tara cursed herself, and tried again. "What  are you  ?" she hissed.

"What, you don't know me? Spike. Vampire. Big Bad. Helped you Samaritans out of the goodness of my own heart."

Tara shook her head, still crouched on the floor. She was about to speak when Spike interrupted her.

"And I should be askin' you the questions here, luv. You're the one that died," he finished, slumping back into the couch.

The blood in her veins turned to ice.

What?

Somewhere, Tara vaguely remembered feeling numb in the tips of her fingers.

Spike examined his fingernails and reclined in his seat, hoisting his feet up onto the tabletop. "Great. So I'm stuck in some crazy dimension with Red's dead bird. Brilliant."

Dead. Is that what all this is?  Tara heard his words through a fog. Time had slowed in a tiny space of her mind. Endless days passed through her mind, reflecting the lonely hours that had loomed ahead, scratched bare of hope or belief.

She remembered the first few terrifying and horrific days. But nothing, nothing had been worse than the first moments.

Willow was radiant. The room had glowed. No,  she  had glowed with an intense love that warmed Tara right to the gut like a shot of whiskey. It started in the throat, trickled down into her bowels, and spread through her system, leaving Tara merrily drunk in its stead.

Everything was perfect.

She should have known, right then, when people are happiest on the Hellmouth, that something wrong would happen. Blinded by Willow-light, Tara hadn't heard the window shatter. She hadn't registered anything other than her love's beauty marred.

"Your shirt…" she had said, before she tripped, numbed and shocked, to the ground.

She had to get up. Willow was covered in blood. She must have been hurt. Willow was hurt, and Tara had to get to her. She pushed the cold away and scrambled to her feet, desperate to help.

"WILLOW!"

The room was gone. Willow was gone.

Tara snapped around, her hair whipping the side of her face, causing several strands to catch at the side of her mouth.

She faced the White.

Piercing ivory surrounded her on all sides and she tried to find her way back. The air was thick cottony and unyielding. Tara yelled and sprinted forward with her arms outstretched. As if a giant wall had suddenly relented, Tara's momentum propelled her through the White and downward as it gave way, causing her head to smack into a maroon carpeted floor.

She forced her head up, and used her hands to push herself unsteadily to her knees. Darkness pressed on the backs of her eyelids, but she stubbornly wobbled up. She jolted forward, "NO!"

The room was back. But Willow was gone.

Tara had spent countless nights screaming into nothing, and days frantically searching Sunnydale for any signs of life. She hadn't showered. She hadn't rested. She hadn't eaten. She hadn't done anything except look for a way back. And when that hadn't worked, she found herself melting in sobs of hysteria.

She had finally succumbed to exhaustion and slept for what felt like days. It had been the only time she had slept through the night since.

Spike's words were far away, but eventually they seeped into Tara's ear and registered at once. Her head snapped up and she looked wildly into Spike's eyes. "What?"

Realization slowly dawned on Spike and he looked at her with a hint of curiosity.

"You really don't know, do you?" He asked curiously.

Tara shook her head.

Spike let a long sigh and ran his hand through his hair. "Word on the streets says you died a few months back. Shot."

Ice filled her chest.

No, it can't be.

"No," she said firmly, speaking more to herself than to him. "  Willow  was shot."

Her stomach churned and her throat pounded. Tara shook her head forcefully. "No, she can't be. I promised I'd never leave again. I p-promised I'd never l-leave."

Air couldn't come fast enough. It seemed to evaporate the moment it entered her lungs. She tried to gulp it down, but her breathing hitched and gave way to a sob. And that sob to another.

Suddenly, there seemed to be no end to the river that flowed out of her. She cried for all the nights she had spent grasping a pillow to her breast hoping to shake the darkness from her heart. She cried for the mornings she woke with screams and the sound of a window shattering echoing in her ears. She cried for herself. But mostly she cried for Willow. And how it was that she existed without her.

Spike must have gotten off the couch at some point, because eventually an arm started to stiffly rub her back, awkward but genuine. Through her tears, Tara clutched onto him and gave herself over to the only arms that had held her in months.

And there she sat, hunched on the floor, crippled by grief and bruised by circumstance as she let her aching heart cry.

Chapter Text

Willow felt her then.

Right…there.

A deep pang of Tara that sliced her open and made her gasp with hurt. The pain was suddenly everywhere. She felt it echo and pound around her, dragging her down into the deep. Willow cried out, felt her knees buckle, and the world spin.

In a flash, Giles dipped to catch Willow where she fell, and kneeled in the grass, holding her strongly. The ground was damp from the rain the day before, and tiny water bubbles surfaced as his boots squished into the grass. He had missed the subtle nuances of the earth while in Sunnydale. The pristine California sunshine had spoiled him, but here he remembered how to relish the wet mornings and early fog. They rooted him, deep and ancient, into the countryside. He felt more connected than he had in a long time. In the end, maybe that was one of the reasons he had brought Willow here. Perhaps here she could feel the rustic strength and wisdom that infused the weary and the lost. Including him.

Laden with Willow's dead weight, Giles counted the moments until she regained consciousness. He never got used to them, but eventually grew accustomed to the bouts of heartache and agony that overwhelmed Willow and forced her to the ground. He knew the blackouts were connected with her lessons. The new magicks introduced into her black-scarred system were bound to have their bumps and bruises along the way. She needed to re-learn how to use the light she was given.

He sighed.

I was so blind. So foolishly blind.

He knew the dirty residuals that rehabilitation created, clinging like sand to clammy flesh. It had haunted him in dark corners when Slaying business had retired for the evening and he was left alone in his house with naught but a smooth glass of scotch for company. How little he had touched magic since the days of Ripper. He let the power shrivel inside, too afraid to wrestle with his own potential. For good or bad, he didn't care to find out.

The dank guilt of his deeds tumbled inside of him for decades, sequestered, but never forgotten. It nagged on his conscious and pulled often, like a gentle tug. Don't forget me, it said.

He never forgot.

He did, however, hoard his flaws, like nuts for the winter, keeping them safe and secret. And because he was narrow in his ways and determined not to let the past repeat itself, he inadvertently let it happen anyway. He ignored the warning signs and led his daughter astray. His fears and shortcomings had led to her downfall, and he would not be so quick as to let it happen ever again.

And so he held her protectively, and waited for her to return.

As the third minute slowly ticked by, Giles felt Willow stir.

Gently , he thought.

He watched her eyelids tremble and flutter. Her green eyes, dull like frosted sea glass, quivered open and she looked up at the pale sky. A moment passed as she stared blankly, her gaze passing over the faraway clouds. Willow's face strained as she pursed her lips, closed her eyes, and exhaled through her nose.

Giles felt like he was intruding on a desperately private moment. He quietly cleared his throat, and soft as a lamb's breath asked, "Are you all right?"

Eyes still closed, Willow nodded and pressed her head into Giles' sleeve. "Can you just…hold me for a moment? Please?"

"I'd love nothing more." With that, he kissed the top of her head, and gazed at the spongy green hills across the valley, crowned with clusters of trees, as the sun made its way, tumbling through the sky.

His eyes were filled with green and his hand with red as Giles absentmindedly stroked Willow's hair. Thoughts of his recent phone call circled lazily in his mind, lingering like day-old baked goods at the grocery store.

Buffy's voice had warmed him instantly. The brittle ice surrounding his spirit melted with the spring of her bright greeting. His eyes had crinkled at the corners like tissue paper when he smiled. He had forgotten, just for a moment, that there was more to the world than pain and grief.

Trust Buffy to remind me.

It was more than just a phone call, really. Buffy had sounded much more collected than she had in quite some time. There wasn't a secret weariness or reluctant acceptingness that tinged her every move. Buffy seemed…ready. And Giles was proud of her. She had done it all on her own, and he knew at what cost.

The call started innocently enough, with light banter sprinkled in like cinnamon, but soon he could hear the nervous curiosity that tinged her voice. It was a full twelve minutes before he even broached the topic of Willow.

"Giles, are you sure? I thought this was supposed to be a six-month shindig. Now you're telling me she's ready all of a sudden?"

"Buffy, this not about it being sudden. She doesn't have a choice in the matter, it's time."

"Time for what, the Copacabana? This isn't some sort of Coven initiation test, is it? See if she goes all Dark-Eyed-Magic-Mamma again at the 'Welcome to Sunnydale' sign? 'Cause I don't much like the sound of that."

Giles' loud sigh could be heard muffled into the receiver. "Some matters have merely been taken into account, and we've come to the realization that it's time for Willow to go back. No tests, no dark magic, no experiments."

There was a pause.

"'We've come'? Giles, does Will even know she's coming back yet?"

A lack of motion made Giles realize his hand had stilled, and was now resting heavily atop Willow's head. He looked down to see that she had cradled her fist beneath her chin and was clutching her other arm close to her chest. Her eyes still stared blankly into the hills beyond.

Ever so gently, Giles took his hand and nudged Willow's chin, tilting her head so she looked up at him. He stared deep into her eyes, leaden and weary, and felt the weight of a world on his shoulders.

He took a deep breath to steel himself, felt the saturated air permeate every pore in his lungs with a primordial strength, then met her gaze. "Willow," he began. "We must talk."

Chapter Text

The afternoon light was heavy with gold as the hours slowly matured into early evening, saturating the air. Shadows stretched across the floor, reaching and crawling under furniture and up walls. Twilight was coming, and Spike was tired. The sun was sucking all the energy from his bones, he didn’t remember the last time he’d been awake with the sun and it was exhausting.

He sank deeper into the couch, absentmindedly flipping through a magazine that had been lying out on the table while Tara fussed about in the kitchen making lunch. It had been hours since either of them had eaten. Eventually Tara wiped her eyes dry at the stubborn insistence of their stomachs. Besides, the crying had to stop sooner or later.

For one thing, Spike had had enough emotion to last him for another two hundred years as far as he was concerned. But strangely it hadn't bothered him as much as he thought it would. He felt a strange calm settle upon him like fine silk at the mere recollection. He might not have known where he was—or, for that matter, why he was, but for now, he had a purpose: Hold Tara.

So hold her he did.

And he felt strong and good. But their growling hunger had interrupted the lonely spasms of heartbreak, so then came resolve and sandwiches.

"Spike, do you want regular turkey, or smoked?"

Not bothering to glance up from the magazine, he didn't miss a beat. "Smoked."

Spike continued to mindlessly flip pages, but the words twisted and blended into a tangle of text. Overcome by a sudden dizzy spell, he pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, hoping to relieve the pressure. He vaguely heard other voices, muffled, from the kitchen, "Pop Tarts or Fruit Loops?"

As soon as it began, his nausea ceased, and Spike found himself balanced precariously at the edge of the couch. Trying to shake off the strange feeling, he shouted back, "What are you playing at, Blondie? I said I wanted smoked."

A moment later, Tara entered the living room carrying two pale blue ceramic plates, topped high with potato chips and sandwiches, with a frown plastered on her face. "Spike, who are you talking to?"

He opened his mouth to speak, but shut it abruptly and glanced over his shoulder. Seeing nothing, he turned back around to look at Tara who had sat down across the table and was staring at him worriedly. "Spike?"

Tiny alarm bells rang in the back of his brain. Something was wrong. He’d been both undead and around the Slayer gang long enough to know something wasn’t right. Maybe the voices were coming back, but he found himself strangely comforted by that idea—it was nothing more than he deserved.

“Nothing,” he said, changing the topic quickly and gesturing to the sandwich. “S’not blood, but it’ll do.”

Chapter Text

There is a magic, delicate moment, sometime during the inescapable night, when time and space blend together like watercolor.

It had been hours since darkness descended and cast the world into weary shadow, pronouncing the deep tired that seeped into Tara and Spike's bones. It was an exceedingly draining day, and sleep was long overdue.

As the haze of unconsciousness fuzzed Spike's mind, he could no longer recall how long it had been since he'd shut the lights, peeled down the sheets, and crawled into bed. Sleep hummed in the back of his brain, pressing behind the eyes like a faint headache. He recalled, somewhat curiously, how foreign the sheets felt, weighing down his feet at the cliff of the bed. The fabric, although soft, seemed laden with starch when texture rubbed against his skin as he turned onto his stomach and flipped the pillow over to the cool side.

How long had it been since he had lain in a bed? It felt alien, having no chilled stone slab beneath him. Despite the warmth of the layers, the mattress remained distinctly cooler, reminding him, even in sleep, where he had come from- a tattoo of cotton.

But this moment, this delicate wire of transubstantiation, soon began to work its magic.

In that tissue paper veil that shrouds sleepy time thoughts in embryonic cocoons, Spike disintegrated like paper pulp into a vat larger than himself. Soon, feeling passed beyond sensation, and the bed and everything on it ebbed into the ocean of numb. It could have been Dreaming, but there was no sense of self in this place.

No, this was something far greater in which the being known as Spike traveled. It was beyond Space and Time itself.

On and on he tumbled, passing milky nebulas and streaking stars, floating gently through space. It was then that Infinity stretched out with its smoky tentacles, encased him in a haze of possibility and spat him out into the sun.

It was bright, it was sudden, and it sizzled. As the offending pain bored into his flesh, identity smacked back into him like a wet sock and Spike the Vampire was returned to the world.

And there he sat, crumpled up behind a restaurant alley, dumped rather unceremoniously by unknown forces. He stared dumbly at the crust of black nail-polish clinging stubbornly to his cuticles as the voices trickled back into his head. The loudness again overtaking his mind distracted him from the sun while steam slowly started billowing out of the sleeves of his jacket.

His eyebrows furrowed in a weary confusion as a crowd only he could hear pounded in his eardrums. It was familiar, this feeling, and that made him more nervous than anything. Panic grasped him as he raised his head and queried to the empty alleyway, "Mommy?" before his legs crumpled and darkness overtook him.

Chapter Text

The heat was disgusting. This particular summer had ushered in that special heat that even a good cold shower can't fix; the second you're dried off, the sticky heat comes back with a vengeance.

Clem wiped his brow and felt beads of perspiration ooze from the 387 separate gland zones on his body, and wished he'd settled somewhere farther east. Where there were four seasons. And where it was cold six months out of the year. Five of which involved snow.

Mmmm, snow.

Clem frowned and tried to push images of white-capped trees and mittens out of his head. Instead, he pinched his soaking, oversized t-shirt in a vain attempt to let it air out. He felt more than conscious sitting in a pool of sweat, but was somewhat comforted knowing his companions were equally plagued. Three straight hours of poker in the back of Willy's Pub could do that to a demon. Hell, it would do that to anyone, demon or otherwise.

Employing a self-control he didn't realize he possessed, Clem managed to keep his fidgeting to a minimum while the table finished its hand. The last card had barely touched the table when he pushed his chair back and slapped his hands on the table. "Well, fellas, this's been fun and all, but I'm thinking a break is in order. Think we can call ten?"

Various hisses, snorts, and whistles replied. "Great, thanks. Oh, and Mike? I have those roaches I owe you, just left them in my car. Thanks for the loan, buddy," he called back as he hovered in the rear doorway.

Business taken care of, Clem turned to face the night. His shoulders sagged in relief as the cooler air in the alleyway nipped at his flesh. His perspiration was bordering on unsanitary, so he took out the small towel he'd decided to carry with him and sopped up the unsightly mess of his glistening skin.

"I bet its fifty degrees and raining in Massachusetts. Why didn't I listen to Mom? She warned me but, nooo. I just had to 'Go west, young demon'," he grumbled as he folded the cloth and put it back into his pocket. He sighed and looked up at the sky. The industrial orange glow of Sunnydale cast itself into the heavens, but a few stars managed to twinkle at him in the distance. Clem waved back, and was mid-swing, heading back inside, when something glittered and caught his eye.

"Oh, no."

Moonlight danced off silver buckles on a pair of black boots sticking out from behind a dumpster. Attached to the boots lay a very unconscious Spike.

As he crept closer, Clem immediately became concerned with the cuts and wounds that littered Spike's body. Parts of his leather jacket had melted onto his skin, which made visible the red and blistering burns that seemed to still sizzle. A deep gash on the cheekbone under his eye looked like something had nibbled on it for dinner. "This is not a good place for you, buddy," Clem grimaced, and knelt down to pick up his friend. He grunted as he hoisted Spike onto his shoulders and staggered under the weight.

Clem had since redecorated the place he was supposed to crypt-sit. As the months had gone by, it hadn't seemed like Spike was returning, so he'd made himself comfortable. Twisting around, he racked his brains for another location. Somewhere safe. Away from prying eyes. And daylight. Especially daylight.

Bingo.

The card game and cockroaches forgotten, Clem set forth with heavy cargo, resolve, and an idea. "All right, let's pray that new high school's up to code. I hope it doesn't collapse again. That would just be… unpleasant." He clambered on, footsteps fading into the distance—and silhouette into the mist—as night swallowed them up in one big gulp.

Chapter Text

It was strange, really, the things coming to England had brought—endless dark dreams and night sweats, driving on the wrong side of the road, deep meditations, British slang. But none struck Willow as more odd than adding milk to tea as she sat cushioned in an armchair, cradling a forgotten mug in her lap.

Despite Giles' insistence that tea was the all-time-cure for any ailment, Willow never indulged in the drink. Instead, she preferred a hot, hearty mocha to stir up the blood in her veins. During the later-than-late nights of demon research at the Magic Box, a balmy liquid didn't appeal to her as much as the sugar-rich coffee. Truth be told, she never wanted to be soothed by a quiet cup of tea because there was always the worry of unwinding too much in the face of danger. No, the self-appointed demon researcher couldn't afford respite in tea. Mocha was thick, heavy with caffeine, and necessary to avoid relaxation. In the Scooby world, nothing was more dangerous than getting too comfortable.

Besides, Tara was always the one to drink tea and she drank enough for the both of them. She and Giles often shared an affinity for a midnight cup of chamomile and hushed conversation. In the midst of various research, Willow would secretly watch while the two sat on the second floor overhang, reveling in the magic moment of people she loved, together in harmony. Willow had no need for tea, she had Tara—more perfectly tranquil and steeped than any beverage.

Willow cupped her mug tightly, creating a loose warmth, as though the smooth-as-teeth porcelain might transport her back to such nights. Her legs remained numbed and forgotten, folded beneath her, when the door to the cottage cracked open and ushered in a very wet Ms. Hartness.

Her hair hung in ringlets, matted to her neck and face, while water continued to drip from the tips. Peeling off her jacket, Ms. Hartness hung it on the hook next to the door and valiantly attempted to make some semblance of order out of her tangled hair.

Willow jumped and threw an arm over the chair so she could view her mentor. Noticing the woman's disheveled state, Willow flung into action, clunking the forgotten mug on the table in her haste. Concern immediately flooded her features. "Ms. Hartness, why are you—is everything all right? Was there a storm? Are you hurt? Are you okay?"

"Willow, dear, I'm quite alright, thank you. Although I do believe my umbrella has died a most violent death, I seem to have escaped with a mere soaking. How lucky of me."

Willow's fussing dimmed and her shoulders sagged with a noticeable relief. A soft "Oh," escaped her lips.

"I do believe I've braved far worse weather in this countryside than a mere rainstorm. Though there was that one time years ago during a veritable monsoon and a bottle of, what was it now, Sambuca?"

Ms. Hartness trailed off, squinting at the far wall with fond memories. Willow, in the meantime, stared back with an equally squinty, yet curious expression. "Ms. Hartness?"

"Hmm?"

"Ms. Hartness," she said more firmly, trying to bring her attention back to the present.

"What? Oh yes. Never mind that. Another story for another time, hmm?" Ms. Hartness motioned for them to sit.

"Willow," she said and waited for her to meet her gaze. "I assume that since this is the first time you've missed dinner in quite some time, Rupert has finally told you."

Willow didn't trust her voice. Instead, she nodded and looked at the floor.

"One of us was going to tell you last week, but he came to me and requested to do it himself."

It was all right, after all. Willow had supposed this moment was coming ever since she arrived at the Coven. As much as she longed to stay forever and never go back, a part of her always knew it had to end.

Then again, she'd also never expected to stay for so long. A part of her believed she'd be thrown out after only a few days. Hopeless. Useless. A lost cause. Too evil to be bothered with. She had even packed her bags one morning, but instead of a taxi, she was greeted with hot breakfast.

"But how?"

Ms. Hartness crinkled her forehead in confusion, "Sorry, dear, what?"

Willow didn't even realize she'd spoken, but it was impossible to backtrack now.

She'd never told anyone before, not the group, not the Coven, not even Ms. Hartness or Giles, but there was something that lurked deep within the shadows. Willow could feel it crawling under her skin, up her neck, and in her fingers. It was everywhere. And it oozed. All the time. Always. Everywhere.

It wouldn't have been so terrifying if it came unawares, but The Black struck when she was most focused; it was in the hum when she meditated and the roots when she was at the tree. It grabbed her down like a tide too strong and drowned her in the darkness until she was no more. Giles had been there a few times, but she had a sprinkling of bruises up and down her body for all the times he hadn't. It scared the hell out of her.

"How," her voice cracked, "am I supposed to go back with all this blackness inside of me?"

"Willow."

So wrapped up in her fear, she didn't register that Ms. Hartness had sat next to her and taken her hands in her own. "Willow, look at me."

Numbly she made eye contact, even as hot tears welled, making everything blur.

"You, my dear, are a very special witch. That darkness? It is a remnant. Of the things you've done, of the lessons you've learnt. Had you given into it, you wouldn't feel it at all. It is remorse, it is guilt, it is regret. For everything that has happened and everything that now will be. Embrace it, Willow. It makes you human."

Willow knew she was human, this was no surprise. But after everything she'd learnt on the Hellmouth, being human made you no better than a demon. It just made you worse. Because humans have a choice. And she had made that choice anyway. She had given into it, that darkness, that evil. Sometimes it just seemed easier to end it. A few times she nearly had.

But something smooth, hard, and warm stood in her way. Willow looked down and found the cup of tea in her hands. When had she grabbed it? The tea of midnight, of chamomile, and whispers. The tea of Tara. Willow gripped the mug tighter and resolve bubbled to the surface.

A great glow of Tara infused her. Willow was the water and Tara was the tea. She soaked up the moment, letting Taratea seep into her bones. Willow knew it wouldn't last long, but for now? For this minute? It was enough. Willow breathed through her nose and looked back at Ms. Hartness.

"When do I pack?"

Chapter Text

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I've been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don't mean anything
When you've got no one to tell them to
It's true...I was made for you
:: Brandi Carlile,  The Story ::

It was like finding a needle in a haystack.

Dawn surveyed the ocean of newspapers, magazines, and various ads that surrounded her. She watched Buffy snap the cap onto the now-empty red marker, which had died a noble death after hours making pretty red circles. Dawn sighed.

A huge freaking haystack.

Despite the many benefits and advantages of the fast-food market, making a profit proved impossible, prompting Buffy to quit the Doublemeat Palace. Dawn hadn't minded, actually. They'd eaten so many Doublemeaty Doublechicken Buckets that she swore her hands permanently smelled like grease. Then again, it was probably only half as bad as Buffy felt. A few months earlier, Dawn had glimpsed a bank statement sticking out of an envelope on the desk and it shocked her. She had no idea it was that bad.

It was odd, thinking that after all the world-saving work the Scoobies had done, trivial, bureaucratic things like bills would be the thing to cripple them. It was just so…stupid.

At least last year they'd been somewhat sheltered when Willow, Tara, and Xander had quietly poured in a bit of each paycheck and profit, no matter how tiny, hoping to keep things afloat. Xander still tried sometimes, but Buffy would tuck the envelope back into his jacket pocket when he came over, telling him to put it towards 'living bachelorly'. Whatever  that  meant.

Dawn, whenever she could, would sneak the envelope back in after a Xanderdate. She knew how much he wanted to help. That's what Xander did. He was a helper. Just like her.

"So. Prospects. What are they?" Dawn asked optimistically, clasping her hands together.

Buffy picked up the pad of paper with the collected list of options. She glanced down and reported, "Thirty-three jobs in twelve different fields, none of which I'm qualified for," before slapping the pad back on the table. "Eight hours of job research, and Giles tells me I don't apply myself.  So   not fair."

"Well, y'know, he's British, so his ideas of 'applying oneself' include polishing new shoes and are therefore way messed up. I wouldn't trust him."

Buffy gave Dawn an appreciative smile before picking up the pad to stare at it properly.

"I just don't get it, am I that un-hireable?" she muttered miserably. "I mean, sure, I get covered in seven kinds of vampire dust each night, but I clean up real good. I even have," she paused, counting fingers under her breath, "…three shirts without blood on them! Three! That's two more than I had in college!"

"Which you...kinda didn't graduate from." Seeing Buffy's face crumble before her, Dawn quickly stammered on. "Not that you weren't busy saving the world and stuff, and taking care of Mom and me, which is  way  more important, but the real world is sorta finicky on the degree thing. Which you kinda don't have," she finished meekly with a hopeful cringe.

Exhaling loudly, Buffy sighed, "You're right. And I know you're right. It just sucks. Big-time. Big-time suckage of the Greek Tragedy variety."

Dawn saw it: the instance right before it could all sink. The moment they could both fall into the rut of despondency and miserable silence, a dank, familiar ship that had been capsizing all summer now.

But even if she used all her fingers to plug holes in the hull to keep them from sinking, Dawn was resolute. It was enough, and if Buffy couldn't do it herself, then Dawn would do it for her.

Determined to ride the tide, Dawn grabbed a fresh newspaper and peeled the sections apart, handing one to her sister "Yep. It sucks. But'cha know what else has great variety? All these jobs we haven't looked at yet! There've got to be lots of vacancies on account of all the randomly deceased, dying, and stuff in Sunnydale, it’s just all a matter of timing. The more we put in, the luckier we'll get. See? Glass half-full, to death and destruction."

With a curt nod, Buffy saluted, "You're right. For the second time in two minutes, which has to be a new record. I think you might be taking vitamins." She grabbed the paper and began searching anew.

Pleased with the turn of events, Dawn sat back in her seat and smiled.  Oh yeah, Baywatch Dawn. I should totally have my own action figure

Chapter Text

Tara had been starting to resent the kitchen.

Here she was, again.

Like all other days Since, Tara kept herself busy, but this time it wasn't to trick herself into being calm. Now, she cooked for pleasure, so her hands would have something to do. This time she let her brain think, because she could afford to.

She knew herself well. She could idly sit and think, but that would soon give way to panic, which would serve her no good. No, Tara needed to keep herself together; not for herself anymore, but for him. Never in her life (at least, not after the sixth grade when she realized those strange feelings she felt for the girl who sat behind her in science class were  definitely  not friendship) did she expect a 'him' to sweep her off her feet. Yet here he was, turning Tara's world topsy-turvy with something as seemingly insignificant as morning pancakes.

It was pleasant, baking for someone other than herself. Normally, she'd pack up a plate of scones, cookies, muffins, or pies and, like a good neighbor would, wrap it in a basket and deposit it on the kitchen tables of other disturbingly empty homes on the street—unholy carcasses of love and family.

At least then the treats weren't sitting on  her  table, quietly mocking  her  with their uneaten chocolates and jams.

Before, she was politely throwing her food away in other people's empty houses. Now, she baked for a purpose.

Purpose.

Spike had mumbled something about purpose last night before going to bed, but she had been too tired to think about it at the time. It was only when she'd turned off the lights and was in bed staring at the ceiling that she realized her body was humming. Despite the aching yawn of her bones and the weary strain of her muscles, Tara found she could not fall asleep. Her brain was far too busy.

Purpose. What was hers?

That was simple. To love Willow. It had always been so simple.

But never easy.

Not that Tara didn't feel love for Willow—she felt that with all of her being. But to give that love? To send it? To show it? To live it? There was always something standing in the way.

The demon. Her family. The Scoobies, at first. Glory. Death. Magick…Death.

Closing yet another book that yielded nothing, Tara slumped in her chair and rubbed her face. They'd been researching for weeks, but hadn't been able to find anything no hidden loophole, no secret prophecy that would bring Buffy back again.

Evenings at the Magic Box had been a given, Dawn even had her own homework niche permanently stationed at the corner table. This particular night she was home having a movie night with Spike. The two of them seemed to cling to each other more often now. A proper pair of bandits, equally lost in a den of despondency.

And so there they were, two witches, an ex-demon, and a carpenter prowling Giles' library at midnight. Willow hadn't touched her in days.

Tara glanced over at the cloth bandage that covered raw wires sticking out of the Buffybot's neck and sighed. She swallowed, faintly tasting bile in the back of her throat.

The nausea in her mouth propelled Tara to rest her head on Willow's shoulder. She could feel tense muscles underneath the thin t-shirt. "Willow?" she whispered, reaching for her arm. Tara took the teal pen Willow held, laid it down on the table, and placed her own hand atop Willow's.

She raised her head and looked at Willow, who stared heavily at the expanse of tomes in front of her. "Sweetie?" Tara frowned. Ever so slowly, the hand beneath her own, one that Tara knew dearly had lovingly traced and kissed hundreds of times in privacy and shadow shrank away, leaving the cool wood of the table to kiss her palm.

Willow swallowed. Her lips were taut and her brow was furrowed in resolve, but her eyes betrayed the slew of emotions within. "Not now, Tara. I've got " she stopped, picked up her pen and sighed. "I'm sorry. Just…Not now."

Tara's heartbeat faltered and everything slid away until only the sleek table, which grew warmer from the heat of her fingers, existed and grounded her to the earth. That moment was the slow beginning of the end. When danger, magick, and duty came first. When Willow thought the answers were a burden to find and bear alone instead of together.

There was always an obstacle preventing Tara from loving Willow. Why did something that came so easy and natural have to be so difficult?

Instead of being purposeless, Tara had lain in bed with one hand flat against the wall, reveling in the knowledge that some other being was on the other side. He may not have been what she was expecting, but the fact that he  was , exceeded any of her expectations.

His presence proved there was meaning to her existence, that she wasn't some cosmic joke or mistake. She'd forgotten—in routine, pattern, and recipe—how to live. It hurt too much even thinking of a life without Willow—one where her smile didn't grace the heavens, where her heart didn't get to beat with the earth. But if he existed, that meant she did too. And if there was anything Tara believed, it was that no one is without purpose. Despite obstruction or vicissitude, whether it be death or a soul, there was meaning. No force on earth was strong enough to deter her from this truth. And Tara would not let her get that lost again.

So here she was. Again, baking. For a purpose. And though it was nearing early afternoon, said Purpose was still upstairs asleep.

But by God, Tara was tired of waiting.

And this time, because she could, Tara would do something about it.

Chapter Text

The food that I'm eating
Is suddenly tasteless
I know I'm alone now
I know what it tastes like
So break me to small parts
Let go in small doses
:: Regina Spektor,  Ode to Divorce ::

 

Xander hated Tech Services. In the eighth grade he'd gotten caught for calling a late-night naughty 1-800 number and had since nursed an avoidance of all things toll-free.

"If you have problems with a Microsoft program, please press 1. If you have problems with a Macintosh program, press 2. If you have problems with a …"

The spreadsheet for labour costs, equipment fees, and orchestrating charges from his latest construction gig had frozen. Right there on the screen, all the data from work zone B was glitched and now displayed columns from the company demo-sheet.

"If you have problems with a program from Microsoft Office, please press 1."

Excel wasn't his strongpoint, and Anya had always made sure to demonstrate that when it came time to organizing finances. Quicken would suffice for most people, but Anya wanted a full layout of all monetary accounts before inputting information. "I don't trust it, Xander. Software that calculates that quickly and efficiently has to have a secret agenda. I don't like the automated thing. "He would chuckle and agree, then go back to whatever he was doing. Somehow he knew she was worried about becoming obsolete. What would happen if computers could learn to love money as much as she did?

Listlessly, he randomly tapped a few keys on the keyboard. Nothing.

Normally, Xander would leaf through the manual or 'Help' page for about forty seconds to perpetuate his manliness before calling his personal, go-to digital guru.

But she wasn't here anymore, and he was stuck calling some schmuck in an office god-knows-where instead of his best friend. Suddenly—or not-so suddenly, as it was always there—Xander missed Willow with a ferocious ache.

He'd never been without her for so long. Instead of poker nights when Anya would win, Willow would protest and Buffy would still not understand how to play, he had a cheap, empty apartment and lived off of noodles and QVC. The life he loved so desperately had crumbled. No letters, phone calls, emails, random visits or refrigerator raiding. What was the point of being a Scooby if there was no gang? They fell apart—Xander fell apart—and he didn't know how to pick up the pieces.

"Hello, this is Mike speaking, how can I help you?"

Xander sighed. "Hi, Mike, I'm Xander. Sorry to bother you, but um…never mind." He hung up the phone.

Doing nearly anything these days made Xander cringe with familiarity. His life was sculpted, perfected, and structured on a ragtag team of desperados. With them gone, he was just…floating.

Xander wasn't a floater. Give a guy oversized weapons he has no idea how to use and he'll be your champion. But this? This…crap? He hated it.

Not one minute since he'd hung up, the phone rang. "Mike, buddy, I told ya I was sorry, just sorta…changed my mind."

"Xander?" replied a confused, distinctly female voice.

"Buffy?"

"No, apparently I'm some guy named Mike. Anything you wanna talk about, mister?"

He grinned. "Aah, no, that would just be my new friend from tech support. What's up, Buff?"

Static buzzed for a moment as Buffy hesitated. At her next words, his heart skipped a few beats.

"She's coming back."

Chapter Text

Dawn was nervous.

It's not every day one starts High School. Especially one that seemed to have a penchant for straight-up-end-of-the-world evil.

Slow down, Tiger, you can do this.

Mental checklist: Stylish yet respectable outfit? Teeth brushed? Breakfast? Check, check, and check.

Be an adult. At least as adult one can be in ninth grade. She could do that, right; be a grown-up? Heck, Buffy took her patrolling nowadays and she even totally made a good impression on the principal. Before homeroom even started!

Dawn had a good feeling. And those didn't happen so often. She happily fondled the cell phone in her pocket.

Really? I mean, really? Honestly, how cool. Bette's parents wouldn't get her a cell phone until she had her license, and it was literally all the girl would talk about. Dawn made a mental flag to keep all mention of Buffy's gift as far away from Bette as possible.

She'd been wondering when her family would pick up on modern technology. For a group of people (one of whom was a computer-science major) in dire need of constant communication, they sure seemed to be slow on the uptake.

Dawn twisted through the hallway, narrowly skirting major collisions with large backpacks, stocky athletes, gaggles of girls, and general traffic.

Everything was so...big. The lockers, the football players, even the classrooms seemed supersized. No one looked at her, everyone was far too busy with the hullabaloo of the first day back.

Dawn felt like a dandelion—whisked into the wind, about to be lost.

As if choreographed, lockers slammed simultaneously, high fives were given, lipstick was hurriedly put on, and everyone scattered like ants and disappeared into different rooms.

Suddenly alone in the hallway, Dawn swallowed the butterflies down. She could do this. She'd done way worse things than the first day of school. She’d fought demons, had been kidnapped more times than she could count, was almost sacrificed, stayed up late doing research about things that would give other kids nightmares, and by golly, she had a cell phone.

Dawn smiled and looked at her schedule.  Crap .

"O-kay, where is D-Wing again?

Chapter Text

"Pick me up softly, I don't know the shape that I'm in
One bullet missed me, the other one kissed me
And left me to die in the dirt.
They killed every last man and shot down my Suzanne
It's over whatever it's worth
So pick me up stranger, pick me up softly
I don't know how much I've been hurt"
::Joe Purdy,  Cowboy Song ::

 

  Day Twenty.

That's what it was, twenty days since she had chosen to go back. That meant nineteen nights she had lain awake, barely sleeping, afraid that in a moment of exhaustion, the blackness would come claim her and change her mind.

Because now, returning wasn't an option. The calls had been made, flights schedules, taxis reserved, and within a span of 28 hours Willow found herself without even a choice to back down.

Articles of clothing in various piles of organization were scattered around the room, a sprinkle of clutter amongst as well. Empty suitcases lay open, beckoning Willow to pile them with things.

Willow was not looking forward to going back, to say the least.

Half of her still desperately wanted to crawl away, worried that even England was not far enough away from Sunnydale. Yet at the same time, she could not help a tiny part of her from believing that staying so far away was wrong. She was a widow. And of all the guilt she carried, not staying with Tara had been her greatest burden and mistake.

How could she? How could she dare to leave when she'd just gotten her back? Willow abandoned her love, left her alone with the carpet for a shroud and Dawn to find, unadorned and bereft, cooling in the shadows.

Willow knew that that was her greatest crime of all.

It haunted her at night during the nightmares. Tara would lie on the floor in the darkness, her flesh tinged blue, limbs sprawled out with that damned red splotch in the middle of her shirt. Then her eyes would open, like a porcelain doll, and stare straight at Willow. Mute and motionless, Tara would look at her, blank and empty until Willow would wake up gasping with the cool, unblinking eye burned into her retina.

Someone knocked at the door and startled Willow out of her daymares. Slightly dazed, she cleared her throat. "Come in," she called. Giles peeked from behind the door and pulled his glasses off. "Aah, Willow, you're here, excellent. Would you mind terribly if I pulled you away from packing for a few minutes?"

"'Course, Giles," she replied, and let a shirt she'd been folding flop to the floor as she stood.

Anything to get away from this.

Willow followed him outside and closed the door to the cottage behind her.

Giles walked leisurely with his hands in his pockets, the collared ends unfolding loosely near his elbows. Side by side they strode for a few minutes, enjoying the timid weather afforded to them after some rain the night prior. It was cooler now, and the air felt fresh.

Willow looked up at Giles. His eyebrows were furrowed and his lips tight. Just as she was about to say something, he spoke.

"Willow, I do hope you can forgive me."

No.

"What? Giles, y-"

"No, Willow. This is my place, my apology. So, please, let me make it."

He paused for a moment.

"I am a Watcher. It is my responsibility to guide and teach the Slayer in her duty to protect the world against the forces of darkness. There were rules and protocol written by the Council many years ago for every possible circumstance. But all of that changed in Sunnydale. Buffy changed it all. You and Xander…" he trailed off.

Her cheeks flushed, unaccustomed and uncomfortable at the apology directed at her. He was Giles, steadfast and wise, right to call her the rank amateur she had been. He shouldn't be asking for the apologies, not after her hands had thrust him into the ceiling and smashing down to the floor. That right was reserved for her.

But her throat was shut, thick like honey with emotion.

"I know now that I Watch more than one. And because I…hesitated, I looked away, I was not Watching. I'm so sorry, Willow.

Huh  .

It had never occurred to her that someone other than her could be blind.

And no, it didn't ease the shame she felt or changed the responsibility she carried, but she could take some comfort in knowing it wasn't just her that sometimes screws up. It wasn't just little Willow Rosenberg who was laden with penitence. And you know? Maybe, just maybe she could give someone the comfort she knew she'd never feel again. She could give the gift of Tara, a small pocket of peace to the closest thing she'd ever come to a father. He deserved it more than he knew.

"It's okay. I forgive you. I'd always forgiven you." It barely came out as a whisper, but she knew he heard. Giles always heard.

That ease with which the slight feel of relief came ruined it all. That taste of forgiveness soured her system and the Blackness lay claim to her once more. Willow didn't even have time to shout before she collapsed, her forehead splitting on a rock as her head hit the ground. She didn't hear Giles cry out. She only felt Black.

In the darkness came teeth.

Chapter Text

Anya didn't think it was very fair, the way she was being treated.

She was Anyanka, champion of mistreated women, a thousand years of enough torture, punishment, and evisceration experience behind her to frighten any being. And yet, here was Halfrek telling her she was a joke at the office.

A joke? She'd seen hundreds of fledgling demons try and fail to make something of themselves. D'Hoffryn had given her 'employee of the century' eight times in a row. How dare they mock her name. She'd been on top for decades before her little Sunnydale High romp, Cordelia Chase had just gotten lucky. If not for Giles' meddling, Cordelia would have stayed vampire food and Anya would never have lost her powers and gotten into this sopping mess.

A busy waiter weaved between the tables, delivering hot mugs and collecting empty ones. Anya thought about what she could do to that man. Torture him in ways he couldn't imagine. Delivering pieces of himself in tarts and cupcakes to the women he'd wronged.

But Anya merely sighed. She just didn't feel like it, today. That seemed to happen a lot these days.

The measure and test of true friendship rarely appears, but when Anya found herself human and alone in the world, she discovered just how real her friendships were. No well-wishes or condolences on her recent mortality. No fruit baskets, no singing telegrams. Anya was left to scrape together a life out of what little she knew. Did any of her friends or proteges care that Anyanka, champion of mistreated women, lived for weeks in an abandoned gym office in a high school before finding a cheap, dank apartment?

Without her powers to protect her, the trials of living in Sunnydale proved too much for a weak teenager to handle by herself. Anya needed friends. She needed allies. How little she knew at first how different those two were. She'd quickly picked up on the fact that the only thing Sunnydale had going for it resided in the high school library in off-periods and after school. The Scoobies were meek and small and had more odds stacked against them than anything Anya had ever seen. And she had seen a lot. How could she know that only a few stupid, mortal years later she'd feel more at home with them than anywhere else she'd been? How could she know of the steely inner strength Buffy held behind her facade of nail polish and cute shoes? What hope did Anya have of seeing anything more than ancient detachment bred of Watchers toward their Slayers from Giles? The power that dwelt deep within poor, compliant Willow? Or how quickly foolish, useless Xander Harris would rile her bones and quake through her being?

How could she hope?

But now she was here, sitting on a stupid stool in The Espresso Pump, holding a long-ago-cooled cup of a generic coffee drink, stuck. Summer lingered, warm and salty, and made her wish for things to be different. Ha! The vengeance demon, wishing! Irony slapped her in the face once again.

She couldn’t help it. She wished she didn't have to go home to her apartment and cook for one. She wished Buffy would look her in the eye and that Dawn didn't always seem so sad. She wished Giles hadn't left and that the Magic Box were still there. She wished Willow would come back, and that she could be enjoy coffee with Tara instead of Hallie's empty companionship. She wished she still had a place in the system that continued to turn, blind to the disasters of its quiet heroes.

Instead, she was listening to bad folk music, which assuredly did nothing to improve her mood. Anya frowned, took a sip of her drink, and straightened her back. She knew the uselessness of hope and the foolishness of wishing. Ask any of the women she helped if when they saw their wish granted, they felt better. If it were what they truly wanted. If they could only have him back. If, if, if.

Enough wishing. It's time to do what we do.

Anya cocked her brow and looked Halfrek in the eye. "Fine. If the Lower Beings want something to talk about, I'll  give   them something to talk about."

Chapter Text

This time, the terrible darkness spoke. It yelled, howled and dragged Willow from the grass and dew, far past the roots and into the deep.

It seemed like forever. But then came wind. And noise. And teeth. From the inky darkness, sharp and wet, the teeth glistened for her. "We're coming for you," they hissed. Willow cowered and covered her ears as a midnight storm blew around her. She fell to her knees while her hair whipped around her hands and face. But still the tempest raged, snarled, snapped, and roared. "We know her eyes are watching you, little Willow."

Willow choked. The deep-seated fear that always lingered grasped her mercilessly. The tears could come now, hot and firey in this cold, cold place. They knew. They always knew. Her sins. Her darkness. It would never be over. Not while Tara's dead face watched her from beyond. Willow knew no spell or weapon could defeat these demons. No matter how much magic therapy the Coven could teach her, there was nothing that could be done to save Willow from this fate. Of teeth and thrashing. It was what she deserved. Even Tara knew; even Tara saw.

"Did you think it would be that easy, a hug and some tears?" The sound was booming and everywhere. "Think again, young one, because we're here. We're always here and soon, we'll be all that's left."

The din and wind coalesced in a massive cyclone that swept Willow off her feet and into its bowels. Powerless in its wake, Willow drowned. And drowned and drowned and drowned. She drowned in hopelessness. In fear. In worry. In nausea, and a sick knowing that was meant to be. She had relinquished herself to darkness once before why should it not come claim her now?

In the storm, Willow succumbed, sunk into herself and thought of blue. While the teeth were grinding, Willow recalled the way Tara used to sigh into her pillow in the mornings.

The grinding stopped.

And how she used to close her eyes when she heard a birdsong.

The itching ceased.

The warm way she'd hug the laundry when it came out of the dryer.

The wind caressed.

Her face after a shower.

The dark turned grey.

The color of her lips.

The sound stopped.

Willow let herself think of red.

And then,

she woke.

"Oh, god."

But this time it was no slow, soft awakening. Willow jolted violently, electrocuted by the earth, and gasped desperately as if having nearly drowned.

Strong arms were cradling her. "Just breathe,” Giles soothed.

"What happened," she managed to gasp.

"What do you remember?"

She thought back to the sweet but unexpected forgiveness. "We were talking, and I felt—" she recoiled from the ground and met his gaze with frightened eyes. "—I felt the earth, Giles. It's all connected."  But none of it back to Tara. Just the evil to me.  "It is, but it's not all good and pure and rootsy. There's deep, deep black. There's...I saw, I saw the Earth, Giles. I saw its teeth."

Willow felt rather than heard the certainty in his voice. "The Hell Mouth."

It's coming.  "It's gonna open. It's going to swallow us all."

Chapter Text

Buffy ran.

Not that it was unusual. Nine times out of ten Buffy tended to be engaged in some form of sprinting. It was her Olympic speciality. Well, along with all the monster fighting.

But Buffy was proud that she'd made it nearly an art form—running in every outfit imaginable. Heels? Khakis? Flying necklaces? Fashion didn't deter her from duty. Matter of fact, it spurned her on. It gave her courage and satisfaction knowing at any given moment she could kick demon ass. Superman had it all wrong.

She cringed to think of alternatives. Of carrying a gym bag with her. Or wearing only sweats and loose tops. God forbid. She was the Slayer and could do anything, did do anything, rules be damned. Friends? The Council? Falling in love with vampires? Parents? High School? College, even? Death? What's the big deal if 'fashion' was slapped on too?

She skidded as she rounded a corner, almost tripping on a lost binder on the ground.

Dogs? My dogs are dead? What the hell was I thinking?  Buffy grimaced, knowing thinking on her feet was not one of her strengths. Oh well, it was too late to worry about that now. Odds were, she'd never see Principal Wood again anyway. Principals never did last long at Sunnydale High.

Speaking of lasting long, Buffy had hoped it'd be at least a day until Dawn used the phone. But no. Leave it to her to get into trouble the first day. In the daytime, no less. And during first period.

And so Buffy ran.

Because she was the Slayer—the Sunnydale Batman—and protected the innocent, even if it happened to be her not-so-innocent little sister.

Buffy at least had a safe, normal childhood; she hadn't hit Slayerdom until 15. By that age, Dawn had been half-sacrificed; seen her mother die; seen her surrogate mother die; seen her sister die, only to come back and nearly fall apart; had her family threatened repeatedly; and had been kidnapped more times than Buffy could count.

But wait. No, that wasn't it at all, was it? There was more. Lots more. Dawn was there for Faith—with blind admiration in the beginning and stubborn strength at the end when she and Mom were cornered in the bedroom after the coma. She was there for the divorce, cried for days and refused to eat grilled cheese sandwiches again because they were Dad's specialty. Dawn was there for Angel, and later, for Angelus. She was there when she broke her leg in the fourth grade after a bad skating accident. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Buffy had lived her life twice—once with, and without a sister.

And to think she'd come so close to losing it. Twice! Buffy frowned and promised herself she wouldn't let it happen again.

And ran faster.

Chapter Text

Tara pulled the towel that rested over her shoulder and ignored the flapping noise it made when it hit the kitchen counter. She wiped her flour-dusted hands carelessly on the sides of her thighs and walked over to the stairs. "Spike?"

After a quiet moment she shouted again, "Spike, are you up?" When silence again greeted her, she started to climb the stairs while a faint worry seeped into her heart. She called ahead, "Spike? I made breakfast," but was cut off by the slamming of the screen door downstairs. Full-out alarm exploded in her ears as she scrambled down the stairs, barely managing to see the last reverberating shutters of the door in the kitchen. She righted herself against the banister, sprinted through the door and turned sharply to see Spike's boots disappear around the corner.

"Oh no, you don't," Tara gritted her teeth and gave chase to her increasingly spastic houseguest.

Months of spending time without a nightly demon hunt had left her ill-motivated to exercise. With no Slayer to back up, no beloved to guard, no innocents to protect, there hadn't really been a point. Not to mention the fact that there weren't any demons to hunt anyway. She felt the effects now only a few blocks from Revello Drive, as a cramp pinched painfully at her side. Tara made a small note in the back of her mind to resume exercising as soon as she could catch her breath.

Tara was so bent on forcing her mind to outwit her body that she hadn't realized where he was headed. As his strides became more focused and Spike entered a dilapidated building, Tara wondered just how much longer she could hope to chase a being that didn’t need oxygen.

She didn't think she could run much longer when she saw Spike trot to a dazed halt in the middle of a burnt out hallway.  Finally . She balanced her arms on her knees, too exhausted to stand straight. Her chest heaved as she took stock of her surroundings.

High school. He'd led her to the high school. Its dark, broken corridors and corroded walls echoed the giant gap of time it'd been since she was last here. A small twitch of her eye and she could almost see the not-so-tiny Tinkerbell light in the distance. Before she could sink into a delicious, painfully memory, Spike's possessed footsteps pulled her in the opposite direction, down a janitorial stairway and into the dark.

"Spike!" she shouted while she scrambled over fallen beams. Tara slipped suddenly, grunted as she hit the floor and watched a burnt yearbook page fly out from under her. A long-dead, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed girl floated past her face.

What the hell is the matter with him?

Tara knew Spike, deeper than she expected to. It started in the milky beginnings of her and Willow's relationship, though she didn't know it then, while sitting on the cool porcelain of Giles' toilet seat making awkward small talk with Anya. She understood when she saw the bruises dance on his face after Glory, in the ways he averted his eyes for days. She saw, out of the corner of her eye, the hours he spent leaning on the tree in the front yard, cradling a forgotten cigarette between his fingers.

It came to her slowly, in moments and crises, just how similar she and Spike were.

Both, runaways trying to escape what they were, inadvertently falling into this ragtag team of Scoobydom and becoming something entirely unexpected and different. Something more. She understood, later on, how deep that path took them—when sacrifice, love, and loyalty become truths instead of sidenotes. Sure, they may have taken different routes, but ultimately they'd become the same. Tara knew. And she held onto it just in case Spike ever tried to forget or pretend otherwise. He was more than that;  she was more than that.

All of a sudden, he stopped. Frozen dead in his tracks, Spike suddenly seemed to realize where he was. He turned and squinted at Tara through the dusty light that filtered through foggy basement windows.

"Spike?"

They stared at each other for a moment, searching, but then Spike turned and faced a gaping hole in the wall where a door once stood. He laughed crazily for a moment, but his features soon softened and his eyes smiled tenderly at something Tara could not see. He raised his arm and gently spoke, stealing the breath from Tara's lungs.

"Buffy…duck."

Chapter Text

It was astounding what time could do to scoured hearts. Contrary to popular thought, it didn’t heal all wounds. It didn't create a salve after months of searing pain, and it certainly did not prepare Buffy for what was on the other side of that door.

"Spike? Are you real?"

His wild laughter echoed in the dark basement, and her face twisted. It was all too surreal. There had been other basements, once. In falling houses. In secret and in shame. In desperation and in need. That urgency to feel something, any thing. Even if it was as dead as she still felt—as dead as she used to be.

Buffy wondered where he'd been. How he’d got here, why his hair looked so different...And what were those cuts on his chest? His eyes were tender. Concerned for him, she lifted her hand to touch his cheek. But then the memories came.

She remembered how she’d stood outside the bathroom looking in, wondering how long it would take her to get used to sitting on the slick, cool porcelain without feeling ill. It took her a few weeks, after everything, to not panic if her back was turned to an open room.

Buffy blinked.

Berries.

She was washing berries and slicing fruit in front of the sink when a clammy wave passed over her. Everything turned to slow-motion. She watched water droplets spill down the edge of a strawberry that wobbled on the countertop. Slayer instincts forced her blood to pump faster and made her heartbeat pound in her ears. Threat, there was a threat. The pregnant belly of a blueberry rounded slowly in Buffy's vision when the fine hairs on the back of her neck sprang up in attention. Buffy swiveled and snapped to her right. Threat—there was a threat.

She heard a muted clatter as time resumed its normal speed. A bowl crashed on the tile.

"Buffy?"

Dawn stood in the doorway, her arm frozen and her face a mask of alarm. "Buffy?" she repeated.

Buffy saw herself  as if from behind a veil, horrified at the sight of her sister so frightened. She looked down, surprised to see a knife locked tight in her grip. Its smooth and heavy handle was the only thing she could feel and it grounded her to the kitchen. She looked back at Dawn, who was fixated on the fruit-laden countertop, and followed her sister’s line of sight. Blood. There was blood. Buffy looked at her other hand. It was then that she noticed the red on the blade. She didn't even feel the cut.

She didn't feel anything except Dawn's arms that surrounded her. Buffy closed her eyes and sank into the hug. That had been the beginning of okay.

She'd had enough to worry about that summer without thinking of him. Plumbing in the basement, arrangements with the funeral parlor, Dawn catching up at school (apocalypses always happened during finals for some endlessly odd reason), phone calls to Giles, double shifts at the Doublemeat, and meetings with the social worker, among other things. Turned out real life took up lots of real time and left none for Spike.

. . . Who was suddenly standing before her. Disheveled. In the basement of the new high school.

Breath. Deep breath. Reel it in, Summers. Dawn is on the line. Stranger things had happened in Sunnydale, she supposed.

"Buffy, duck."  Except maybe hearing him say that.

"Duck? There's a duck?"

And then, as happened every so often in her line of work, there was black.

Chapter Text

A large pile of bricks takes up residence in Tara’s chest. The pressure of Spike’s words is sudden and immense. They steal her breath and stab her heart.

Buffy?

His hand drops, and eyes that were so tender and full a moment ago look away, caving with fear and confusion. He turns away, raising his arms to his head, and starts to pace backwards.

Tara pushes past the shock that threatens to topple her. There’s no time for that right now. This is time for blind Scoobying. As she rushes forward to stand before him, a calm settles on her like a balm. You can do this. You’re an Amazon, remember? “Spike. What did you mean, just now, when you said, ‘Buffy’?”

Spike continues pacing. Nothing in his demeanor suggests he has even heard Tara. Instead, he mutters to himself as his steps become more forceful. Her heartbeat thunders furiously in her ears, but Tara manages to focus on Spike’s words. After all, they’ve brought her here; who knows where else they can take her. You have to do this.

He’s like a frightened animal pawing away from her questions. "No visitors today, terribly busy." All Tara knows is that she has to keep him talking. Keep him going. But trying to guide him through whatever is happening seems impossible as half of what he says is nonsense.

“Nobody comes in here, it's just the three of us.”   

Three of us? Tara’s heart thuds dully with the dangerous thing called hope. Buffy, she focuses. Buffy will fix it. “Is Buffy here, Spike? Can you see her? Is she hurt? Can you tell her I’m here? Can you tell her

He finally snaps, “Don’t you think I’m trying! Slayer’s going on and on about some bloody zombies who keep yelling at her and attacking and

She whirls around to focus on a detail she can fix. “Zombies?” she interrupts. “No, Spike, zombies don’t speak. They must be manifest spirits raised to seek vengeance. Tell her there m-might be a talisman or something.”

"Not ghosts," he says. The events of the past several hours coalesce as Tara watches his crazy antics. That's it . Tara grits her teeth. I need him, even if he can't do it himself. "Spike! Tell her—" she grabs his coat and forces him to look at her. " This is important, damn it. I don't know what's going on, but I need you to tell her what I said. Ok?"

The steel-blue of Spike's eyes bore into Tara's and in an instant she sees the Poet and knows the man behind yellow eyes. And somehow, just for a second, despite everything, she thinks everything can be okay.

Chapter Text

“So. . . ” Tara says later, calmly, hands folded together, “Do you wanna talk about what happened?”

“Not particularly, no.” Spike snaps.

They’ve been sitting in the basement of the old high school for hours. Spike’s behavior has continued to be erratic, talking to people who aren’t there, yelling in what seems like pain, though Tara can’t find anything physical to explain it. She decides to start small. “Why come here?”

He sighs, realizing the futility of fighting the situation, and decides to respond somewhat helpfully. “Dunno, really. Didn’t feel like I was in control of myself. Suddenly there was just someplace I needed to be.”

The phrase rattles throughout Tara’s entire being.

“I remember,” she murmurs, suddenly feeling very cold. And it’s true—Tara won’t forget it. Ever. Even if she wanted to. Though she was never fully present, parts of her remember Glory. In bits and pieces, like looking through a peephole and only seeing a small part of what’s on the other side. When reality blurred into a nightmare and Tara was never certain of what was real. It felt like she’d been constantly dragged under by a tide waves crashing around her struggling to reach the surface.

Last time there’d been darkness and horrible things swarming, whispering, taunting her. Tara remembers crawling slick blackness oozing through her fingers and she kept sliding into thicker darkness until she was choking on it; until it crawled into her mouth, through her ears, and dripped from her eyes. And all the while it whispered and hissed. Tara remembers feeling dirty. The way her father had told her she was, the way she had tried to never believe in her heart, the way she finally was in the dark, cold place.

 

Closing inward still comes naturally, the way it did before she met Willow and the others—before she’d been transformed as a Scooby. She fights against it now. “And then you saw. . . Buffy.”

“I didn’t just see her , love. I saw them all. Near as I can figure it, I'm crazy and you're just another figment of my imagination.”

Tara can’t help laughing. Spike squints at her suspiciously. "What the bloody hell is wrong with you."

It’s just so ridiculous.

"Listen, I don't appreciate being made fun of, even in my own head."

Her laughter finally dies down a bit. "Spike," she manages to say, wiping away a tear, "I'm not in your head, you're in mine."

He observes her a moment, squinting skeptically, then nods sharply, "Right. So we both think the other's imaginary, yeah?"

"No, you're definitely part of mine."

"Bollocks, no way I'm part of some dead girl’s dreams," he says. Tara shrugs. "Fine, prove it. Do a spell."

At that, Tara’s prior confidence falters. "I can't,” she admits, feeling very small again. “Magic doesn't work here. Trust me, I've tried," she adds darkly.

Spike smirks. "Told you. Not real," he says, gesturing to her.

Tara glares at him. "Fine," she grits her teeth, "I'll show you.” She closes her eyes and concentrates, focusing on her connection to the earth, just as her mother had taught her. She remembers how to, even if the earth has never answered her here. She remembers how it feltalmost warm . . . Her eyes fly open.

Not remembering. Happening!

Tara looks at Spike in shock and awe. "What?" he says, oblivious. Tara has no words, her jaw is slack in astonishment.

She feels the earth through Spike.

Chapter Text

“So you've never been able to do magic here? Since when?"

"Since always? I’ve tried, but nothing happens. I-Its like striking a match that won’t light. Its been like that since I got here. Spike, can I. . . try something?" Tara asks as calmly as she can.

He leans away from her, slightly suspicious. "You're not gonna curse me are you? I've got that covered, love, trust me."

"No," she shakes her head, "I'm just going to . . . sense." At his nod of acquiescence, she closes her eyes once more and sends her perception outward until it meets the source of energy. There it is—edges rusted, but still burning underneath, a glowing light like a lonely, frail filament.

"Oh, Spike," she breathes in understanding. "It must hurt so much," she says tenderly.

He squirms, made uncomfortable by her empathy. "Well yeah. A hundred some odd years of murder and terrorizing doesn't exactly make for a warm welcome when a soul comes marching back."

The earth, Spike’s soul . . . they’re connected. Spike is a door and his soul is the key. That’s it. "A soul by its nature is a force of energy. I-I don't think you belong here. I don't think either of us are supposed to be here,” Tara explains. “But you . . . see me?" she waits as he nods in affirmation. "And you also see— saw . . . Buffy." He confirms again. "But she couldn't see me." He shakes his head “So. What do we know?” Spike shoots her a look. “B-besides me being . . . dead,” she adds.

He leans back and begins listing on each finger, “New high school, all shiny n’ fresh, Anya’s a vengeance demon again, Slayer and Little Bit are alive and well. No sign of your girl, though. Much as I could figure it, she’s out of town. Probably visiting the old homestead. ‘Willow Unplugged’ as it were, for a spell.”

Tara frowned, “What do you mean?”

"I might've been in Africa fighting demons for a near-useless soul, l but even there I could hear the earth screaming with your girl's rage. Grief is mighty powerful, and after what she did last time with you, can't say I'm surprised. Glad I was outta town though, no way in hell I woulda wanted to face her down, all gothed up."

Neither one of them had wanted to talk about it, After. Their fight before the fair. Before Glory. Granted, there had been more pressing matters, like covering up the death of a Slayer, secretly burying Buffy, and moving in to take care of Dawn, for starters. But Willow was clogged with grief and guilt over her best friend’s death while Tara was keen to stay as far away from the nightmares of her prison as possible. Ignoring the trauma had been easy. But now, Tara realized deep in her gut, it had only delayed the inevitable. What had happened after she died?

He sighs and looks away before continuing reluctantly, “Been seeing things; hearing people long gone. The ones I killed. Hearing them, in my head. Taunting me. Punishing me . . . things that I did."

This, Tara thinks, is a problem she can hold onto. “Spike, you have to follow her,” Tara presses, ignoring the Willow warning bells for another time.

“I can’t,” he says dejectedly, “You don't know what I did. I can't go see her. Don't deserve to. She doesn't deserve to."

She can sense him slipping away into insanity again, sense this chance slipping away. She remembers being crazy; hearing voices and not being certain of reality. He looks so lost. Delicately, she touches his arm, feeling the thrum of the earth through him. She lets that infuse her with strength and hope, then opens her eyes and speaks as much to herself as to him.

“You can do this.”

Chapter Text

Anya hated that her job now felt like, well, a job. "You were saying?" she asked the space cadet in front of her.

"I want more quesadillas?"

"Before that," Anya directed. She’d only just finished with that woman and the boyfriend-turned-giant-worm, but with the news from Halfrek, Anya wasn’t taking any chances and was back on Vengeance duty sooner that she cared to.

"A margarita?"

Had they always been  this insipidly annoying? She had taken such delight in this part, the creative brainstorming of torture, but now it felt tedious. Like filing pointless paperwork. Or a tax extension.

"After that," Anya gritted her teeth.

The woman's eyes brightened as she finally remembered, "Oh. Yeah! My boyfriend's spineless. He should just, y'know, not be spineless. For real."

"No spine. Got it. I can do that."

Confused, the woman twisted her face, "What do you mean."

"And?" Anya pushed in an irritated voice that clearly stated, ‘I want to get this over with already.’ "Well honey, what I'm driving us towards here is, sometimes, don't you just wish that—" she was cut off as the Scoobies entered the Bronze.

Relief and irritation warred within, at the sight of Buffy, Spike, Xander, Dawn, and that other woman from earlier. She settled for irritation. "Oh, penis," she mumbled, as they surrounded her.

That was  how it always was it them. Accusations, accusations, accusations. Why were they even surprised by this, she wondered as they presented her with Ronnie, daring to ask her to change it. As if things were so easy to just undo.

This is what I do.

"Bite me, Harris. I have rules to work with. Vengeance Demon codes of conduct you'll never understand because you're still all so . . . human," Anya all but spat as she finished.

"I'm not," Spike chirped up. "Demon like yourself, Anya. Now you turn this spell around like a good little Vengeance Demon, or I . . . what?"

She was about to tell Spike off for daring to patronize her when a glimmer caught her attention. Like the reflection of a coin twinkling at the bottom of a water fountain as it caught the light.

It couldn't be.

She turned to look more closely. Yes, there it was. Faint and flickering but there. "Oh my god."

Spike pulled back, sneering, "What are you staring at?"

"Oh my god," she repeated, as understanding dawned on her.

Realizing she knew, Spike quickly tried to hide. "Right, let's go," he said to the others.

Anya grabbed his arm before he could escape. "How did you do it?" She pressed. Vampires didn’t exactly go chasing their souls; it was fire to them, an inescapable burning.

"Spike. What is she talking about," Buffy asked with equal measures of confusion and exacerbation.

Still enraptured, Anya ignored her. "I can see you," she breathed with wonder.

Anya remembered why she slept with him all those months ago. It wasn't just to hurt Xander. It was because Spike had been just as empty, hollow, and in pain as she had felt. Anya had known looking into his eyes that his void was so deep it could swallow her for a few minutes.

Yet there it was, filled with light.

"Nothing," Spike said to Buffy. "Let's go, got some worm hunting to do."

"How did you do it?" she insisted, more forcefully. If he could do it, then maybe, just maybe, there was hope for her somewhere down the line. She hated to admit it, but she wanted out of the vengeance game. Her heart wasn’t in it anymore; she had given it away to a stupid boy a long time ago. She just wanted to be whole again.

"Shut up," Spike growled.

"It shouldn't be possible," Anya mused, speaking more to herself than him.

"Shut your mouth, you," Spike spat, desperately attempting her from continuing.

"How did you get—" she tried again before Spike exploded with a punch to the face.

"I said, you shut up ."

Anya went down hard, smashing the table and ending up on the floor. Her wonder went straight from awe to pissed. Right, that's how it always was with them: punch first, people later.

Anya wiped her lip. It'll feel good to punch something tonight. "I am so gonna kick your ass."

Chapter Text

They came up with a plan, loose as it is. It’s pretty strange, following someone all day without interacting with them. It’s even stranger watching him talk to himself.

No, Tara reminds herself repeatedly. Buffy’s here. She has to be.

She learns to stay quiet, letting him focus on being present in the ‘real world’, having full conversations without having to split his attention. The hardest has been hearing him talk to Dawn.

“What’s your point, niblet?”

Tears come to her eyes instantly and she squeezes against them, nails pressing into her palms. They’re out there.

Things take a sharp turn at the Bronze. Tara tries not to think too hard about the last time she’d been there, but Willow’s cruel words still echo in her ears, and she flinches at the balcony. Luckily, it doesn’t take long for something to happen. Spike soon starts talking to Anya, which must have escalated quickly into a fight, because suddenly he’s kicked across the room by an unseen force.

“Demon, just like yourself, Anya,” Spike says. Suddenly, the strange conversation about Xander from months ago at the Espresso Pump makes sense. Tara’s heart seizes; everything had fallen apart. Unable to keep her distance any longer, Tara starts to rush over to Spike but he jerks still like he’s been grabbed, his head snapping to the side. He punches back at the unknown assailant.

“Working out some personal issues, are we?” he says while being beaten. “Hey, I guess this would be first contact since, uh, you know when. Ooh, up for another round up on the balcony, then?”

Tara cringes. Buffy, then. Before she can dwell on the cruelty of Spike’s false bravado, he’s off running again. He’s fast, but at least he appears to be running in a single direction up the street, away from the main drag. Downtown soon gives way to sprawling neighborhoods and Tara arrives to see Spike mimic stabbing downward at something like with a spear.

Whatever has happened is clearly traumatic, enough to rip the veneer of sanity and Spike’s concentration along with it. He stands transfixed, staring at the ground in horror, clutching his head, screaming. “I’m sorry,” he croaks.

“Spike, what are you sorry for, what happened?” Tara probes as gently as she can, unable to keep herself back any longer.

“Right. Wrong. All wrong. Wrong maneuver. Not hardly helpful,” Spike mutters, to himself this time, she’s sure. “God, please help me. Help me!” He screams at her.

Tara looks helplessly at him, flailing and screaming in the alleyway. She grows more panicked at his growing hysteria. “Spike, what happened? How can I help? Help you do what? What can I do?”

“No. No. Too much. Too much. Too much. Too much. Too much. Too much. Too much. Inside me all the way,” he taps his chest. “Deep, deep, deep inside me.”

“Spike,” she whispers. Tara approaches him, tries to grab his hand, but at the lightest touch of her hand on his shoulder, he pulls back.

“Get away.” He shrinks, “Get. Uuh.” At his increasingly wild movements, and talking to the air, she calls his name louder and louder with each lack of response.

“What the hell are you screaming about? I can hear you. No need to SHOUT!” he screams at the top of his lungs.

She flinches at his outburst. He’s never been this unhinged before. She trembles as she reaches out. He continues screaming, louder as if he’s being tortured and it conjures up a million memories of her own. “Spike?”

He's crying but then starts to gag. Spinning, he runs away down the alley, away from downtown, out into one of Sunnydale’s cemeteries. Tara follows him into the chapel.

It’s set up with a dozen wooden pews arranged on either side of a central aisle. A large, simple, gothic crucifix at the front of the chapel can be seen from down the aisle. Tara looks around. “Spike?” she calls out. There are three stained glass arched windows on each sidewall of the chapel. She walks forward and jumps when he speaks from the shadows behind her. “Hello.”

Tara brings a hand to her chest to stem her racing heartbeat. “Spike, you scared me.”

He steps into the moonlight, bare-chested, offering his shirt out to her. “It didn’t work. Costume. Didn’t help. Couldn’t hide.”

“What happened in the alleyway, Spike?”

“No more mind games. No more mind.”

“Spike, I know it’s scary a-and that it’s really confusing right now but try to focus. Focus o-on me, focus on Buffy.” She keeps to the back, a few pews away so as to give him space but Spike flinches, recoiling violently.

“I think I hurt someone. Didn’t mean to. He’s a demon, then he wasn’t, and I—” he winces, then robotically starts unzipping his pants.

Tara recoils in disgust and confusion. “Spike, you’re scaring me.”

She knows what in boys’ pants. All high schools are hell, even ones not on top of a conflux of evil. It was hard enough being shy and quirky, but throw being a closeted lesbian witch in the mix, and even without actual demons, Tara’s high school experience was nearly on par with that in Sunnydale.

She didn’t know how they knew; she never spoke of her attractions to anyone, never let her gaze stray to boys or girls, fearful of giving any excuse for ammunition.

But boys still grabbed their crotches and made lewd faces at her in the halls. She tried to make her body as small as possible in the hopes they’d forget about her but it only served to encourage them. Hunching was default; she ducked her head and kept her eyes on the floor, tired of their faces and the way they brought their fingers to their mouths, flicking their tongues with cruelty twinkling in their eyes, leaving laughter ringing down the halls and tears brimming in Tara’s eyes.

A crash pulls her from the past and she shakes her head against it, just in time to see Spike land in a heap against a smashed set of pews.

“I take it things aren’t going well,” she says wryly.

“Well, yes,” he replies lucidly, “Where’ve you been all night? I tried to find it, of course,” he continues, no longer talking to her. “The spark. The missing . . . the piece that fit. That would make me fit. Because you didn’t want,” he’s crying now, and Tara’s entire being crumples with sympathy. “God, I can’t,” he says to Tara now, “Not with you looking.”

Spike stands and walks away to a nearby window. He stands there, mostly in shadow, and looks over his shoulder at a spot a few feet from Tara.

“I dreamed of killing you.”

Buffy , she thinks. She must have followed him here from whatever happened in the alleyway. Buffy is here with Spike. She flushes, feeling uncomfortable for intruding on this private confessional. She doesn’t belong here, knowing what she does; what Buffy tried so desperately to make Tara hate.

Spike continues his confession, but Tara takes her leave, ducking outside to get some air. She sits down in the grass, leaning against the chapel’s stone wall, and gathers her head in her hands. Her emotions are all over the place, so she forces herself to take slow, deep, and even breaths in an attempt to calm herself.

Tara remembers that night on the couch; Buffy lost, sobbing into her lap, begging for forgiveness Tara didn’t have to give. Instead, she gently cooed and smoothed Buffy’s hair. It was so short, then. Tara wonders how long it must be now.

A few minutes later, Spike comes out, looking a bit dazed and beyond exhausted, but in control of himself. Scorch marks from the crucifix visible through the hole in his shirt. Tara looks up and nods in agreement. She’s bone weary, too.


“Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

When she was little, Willow loved to fly. Ever on the academic circuit, the Rosenbergs would take several short trips out to the east coast for conferences, events, and lectures. Willow'd earnestly beg, for weeks, to join them. As much as she enjoyed spending lazy afternoons with Xander and Jesse, she always felt different. Curious. And if she were being honest with herself, smarter. So sometimes, deep inside, she longed for something more. In her parents world, there were people like her; people who loved learning, spent their lives learning, never stopping, but thirsting for more.

While her parents' hands-off method of raising her had provided little except economic stability, the promises of their knowledge gave Willow wings. Their trips to New England, New York, Washington DC, and Chicago opened her eyes to a life outside of her empty home.

Never in a thousand years would Willow have predicted she'd stay—truly stay (and by choice, even)—in Sunnydale; not when she had Oxford and Harvard at her fingertips and dreams of catching snowflakes on her tongue. But intellect did not beget precognition, and Willow could never have known Buffy would come and change her life so drastically. It hadn’t been easy, letting go of her childhood dreams of crunchy autumn leaves and apple cider, but a new purpose had taken over Willow—one that didn't involve grant proposals or academics.

Buffy had probably never understood the depth of Willow's sacrifice that day under the tree. That bone-crunching hug afterward had made her forget, of course. And so she pushed those dreams aside in lieu of a new one. Instead, she settled. Willow put her wishes on the shelf and lost herself in Purpose.

In Sunnydale, she was needed. And it felt good to be needed. To help.

Flying since had been more bittersweet than anything. She still tasted her old dreams, but they seemed so far away now, like childhood clothes she’d long outgrown. Flying reminded her of what she'd given up. And oh, how it had come full circle.

Eleven hours. It takes eleven hours to fly to London. Willow doesn't carry much.

The ride goes by in a monotonous hum, and when the pilot announces their descent into Heathrow, Willow closes her eyes in preparation.

There's a car waiting for her outside baggage claim that takes her to the countryside. The driver tosses her light suitcase into the back as if it weighs nothing. It almost does; Willow packed for Buffy and Xander’s benefit—she knew she wouldn't be needing anything.

Giles will be waiting for her, she knows.

A few minutes away from their destination she takes out the photograph and lays it on her lap, smoothing the frame as if it were a rumpled skirt. She traces Tara's face as the car slows to a halt. Willow closes her eyes and takes a slow, deep breath.

The car door feels more massive than she's used to, and she wonders if English cars are all like that or if its a sign of her own weakness.  She hasn't had much energy, every little small thing is heavy. Just breathing hurts.

Giles is there, looking more British than ever in tweed and a black umbrella. Everything feels damp as she follows him up the path to the cottage. Willow shrugs off the wet coat and makes no move to turn on the lights, preparing herself in the quiet dark.

She takes another deep breath before turning to face Giles, arms relaxed at her sides, chin flat, and eyes closed.

The seconds pass, beating heavily and long. After a few moments of nothing happening Willow cracks open an eye, confused to see Giles making tea in the kitchen.

He turns around to ask Willow if she wants some, but sees her posture instead and stiffens.

"Please," she pleads.

With a start, Giles understands Willow had expected him to kill her just as Willow realizes that was never his intent.

The crackle of the overhead speaker announces their descent into California

Willow emerged from the meditation, her breathing slow and even. She was in her regular position, palms face up on her knees. Willow thought of the last time her hands had touched her friends. When her arms had bled power and crushed bone. Stripped flesh. Her hands were tainted; she didn't want to touch Xander or Buffy with them anymore.

I’m not ready, she thought, for the third time that day. Giles had said it was important she go back. Had said that she was needed. Well, she didn’t know about that, but she was ready to start delivering penance. She had a key to her parents’ house, just in case, even though Giles said Buffy assured him she’d be welcome back at Revello Drive.

The problem was, she wasn’t so sure if she deserved to be. But she had made a choice all those years ago as a girl under a tree, and Willow was finished breaking promises and letting down the people she loved. Even if they might not love her back anymore.

Chapter Text

Buffy shuffled nervously in place. She hated airports. Everybody who didn’t die in Sunnydale left from airports, but no one ever came back. Giles, her father, Willow.

Willow.

Which Willow was coming back? Would it still be her friend? And what did that even mean, these days. They hadn’t connected since . . . well, they hadn’t connected. Buffy knew some reformed evil in her days. Heck, she'd slept with two of them. But none of the evil she’d faced prepared her for this. Nothing prepared her for something so terribly common as grief. For what Willow could do. For what the girl who she’d once tackled to the ground with  gratitude and overwhelming love.

Xander shifted his sign from one shoulder to the other looking around nervously.  He was probably the only person more nervous than her.

"We've never been apart this long before, Buff. I don't know what to do without her," he'd told her at the beginning of the summer just after Willow left. "What'll it be like when she gets back, y'know? She's not—" he broke off, trying to find better words. "She's not gonna be the same."

None of us are, she'd thought.

Buffy tried to hide her fidgeting from Dawn, who was anxious enough.  Buffy played with her necklace to try and calm the restlessness but she was still on high alert. Not for the first time, Buffy hated being the Slayer. She hated the positions she’d been put into time and time again; when it came down to killing the people she loved.

What would happen when Willow came off the plane? Would it be awkward? Of course it’ll be awkward , she thought wryly. What’s three months away from ending the world between friends.

Buffy looked down at her hands and thought of the last time her hands had touched Willow. How helpless and useless they’d been. Buffy hated her hands. They were just tools—they punched, cracked, hammered, gripped, and pushed. They had been powerless against Willow, all those weeks ago. God, if Buffy’d only touched her.

Climbing out of that catacomb had been the easy part. Once she and Dawn had clawed their way to the top, there’d been no time to rest. The world hadn’t ended,  and it was a bittersweet victory that had come at such a cost. The walk back to the house had been long and weary, Buffy and Dawn holding each other up as they stumbled back to the house. Papers from the coroner greeted them on the tabletop; reminders of what still faced them.

While Dawn took a long hot shower, Buffy had gone to the bedroom and started cleaning up the glass and blood. She'd furiously scrubbed the carpet, hands cut from the broken window pane, foam from the chemicals stinging her hands, scrubbing scrubbing scrubbing, crying as hard as she’d ever cried. As hard as for Angel. As hard as for Mom. She couldn't see through her tears and scrubbed  furiously, hands raw, trying to scrub it all away—her mistakes, her grief, her failures. Scrubbing Tara . It had never fallen apart so hard.

She hadn’t even noticed Dawn coming in until arms came around her shoulders, fruity shampoo contrasting with the chemical smell of the cleaner. Buffy didn't know how to be strong for this; with a broken family and a ghost in the walls. She didn’t know how to accept that Tara’s death was her fault or that Willow had willingly walked into darkness because of it. So she simply clasped a hand over her mouth and wept, with endless ‘I’m sorry’s’ breaking from her lips.

The smell of carpet cleaner echoed in her nose now and it made Buffy nauseated as she craned her neck anxiously at the people leaving the plane.

“Do you think she’ll get the sign?” Xander asked, nodding towards his yellow crayon poster, pulling Buffy out of the past.

Chapter Text

Walking into their old room last night was nothing compared to the horror that drowned Willow at the sight of that body, lying skinless at the base of the site. Images of ropes in a darkened wood flashed, and panic overtook Willow instantly. She stumbled backwards—as if scorched—trying to breathe, but oxygen was suddenly missing. She sucked in deep breaths trying to fill her lungs but but the air didn’t come fast enough. Dizziness assaulted her and she barely made it back up the ladder.

What have I done . . . Did I do this?  she thought for a moment before mentally going over the checklist the coven had taught her. As the panic threatened to overwhelm her, Willow clung to her meditation techniques, concentrated on her breathing, and sank into the earth.

The panic settled, changing into the steady, regular flow of Scooby action. It was familiar, even after months of being away. So, there was something skinning people. Ok, no big. She could do this.  If this was a test, they sure picked one hell of a pop quiz. No shortcuts this time, no going big, either. She'd do things the right way this time, the natural way. She might be powerful enough to figure this out by herself, but she didn't have the control yet. So it wasn't worth the risk. Willow might not know where Buffy, or Xander, was, but she did know someone who could help her. She would not allow herself to do it alone, she needed a checks and balance system. She would build in a fail-safe and forcefully slow down the magics. She'd lost the thirst to push herself. She didn't want to be powerful anymore. She just wanted to be Willow.

So she would figure it out. The regular way, with some good, old fashioned Scooby detective work.

Her mental list was short, really only one name was on it, but it was worth a shot. Insane in the basement , Anya had said. Time to find out just how crazy Spike really was.

Chapter Text

Ever since that night in the chapel with Buffy, Spike has stuck to the high school basement. Their plan has overwhelmingly been a disaster, with Spike scaring Buffy and Tara more than makes it worth trying to go out again. He isn’t okay. This is abundantly clear now. But after that, things have been mostly fine. While Spike sits—off to the side leading against the wall, popping sunflower seeds—Tara has set up a makeshift research table poring over the miraculous books lying open before her.

Tara stopped visiting the Magic Box months ago, not long after she arrived in this farce of a Sunnydale. Once the initial hysterics of her situation wore off, naturally she went to the shop in the hopes of finding a spell or ingredient to help her escape. But when she went, all she found were empty spaces. Most of the books were blank—huge swathes of white between clumps of text she was already familiar with. There were even vacant places on the shelves where objects and ingredients once were. That didn’t stop her, of course. She delved deep into whatever material she did find: gods and goddesses, resurrection, deities of the afterlife, the Osiris spell they spent weeks working on before they brought Buffy back. It was all there—everything she had ever looked up during Scooby research.

She left no spell unspoken and no page unread. But no matter what Tara did, nothing worked. Where once there was connection in life, Tara found a gaping void. It was as if she were missing a limb: the magic that was part of her being, woven into the fibers of her cells; the magic that she was born into, and connected her to every good thing in her life. The magic that was such a big part of her relationship with her mother...that kept her warm and soft when life was cold and hard. That brought her to Willow—to Buffy, to Dawn, Xander, Giles, and Anya.

Magic was how she saw the world, it colored every living thing and connected it all. Here, she felt that great connection severed. Living in greyscale, a consuming and aching emptiness surrounded Tara. No matter what material she found at her fingertips, there was nothing she could do with the information. It was inert and useless, just like her.

Resigned to her empty existence, she stopped going to the Magic Box to spare herself the pain. She built herself into routine at the house, to abide without hope; and told herself to endure. She had no choice.

But Spike brought that spark back to her—not just hope, but magic. The earth. The connection. So Tara braced herself and returned to the Magic Box one more time; steeling her heart for the disappointment and pain that had shaded her world for so long. But her miracle continued. The moment she stepped through the door, she released the breath she’d been holding and stared around in awe.

The shelves were full. No books were missing. And when she picked one at random to fan through, every single
page was filled.  She felt the earth again and let it infuse her with strength, energy, and most importantly, hope. She brought books by the armful back to the basement and got to work.

Spike perks up as if hearing something in the distance. “Someone’s here,” he says, breaking the silence.

Tara looks up from her research and freezes. “Here?”

“Sorry,” he corrects. “Not here-here. There,” he clarifies, referring to the ‘real world’. Tara’s shoulders relax. “It’s your girl,” he says a moment later.

She should have been preparing herself. It was inevitable, Willow coming back from...wherever she was. She just didn’t expect it to be here , in the school basement of all places. Or now.

“You went away,” Spike speaks to a Willow she cannot see, “You’ve been gone since…” he trails off, the open ended ellipses haunting Tara with the death she hadn’t known she’d suffered. “Tragedy,” he says, a moment later. “Is there blood? You did it once. I heard about it.” Tara freezes. It takes everything to not to dwell on the possibilities of that sentence. Spike walks forward several steps. “Slayer’s here too. And Xander.” Tara inches closer, not able to help herself even though it brings her no closer to her loved ones.

“There’s a body,” he explains to Tara. “Everyone’s talking to me. No one’s talking to each other.” Spike turns to face over his right shoulder suspiciously. “Someone isn’t here. Button, button, who’s got the button?” She wonders if he’s gone off again, but he seems clear-headed, controlled. “My money’s on the witch,” Spike accuses triumphantly.

Tara’s eyes linger in the direction Spike looks, knowing that on the other side, somewhere, Willow’s alive. Willow—who she last saw splattered with blood and shock—alive. Even as he says, “Red’s a bad girl,” she can’t stop that awe from making her heart sing.  “They think you did it. The Slayer and her boy. They think you took the skin.”

That, finally, is enough to pull Tara’s attention back to the matter at hand. They think you took the skin.

“The what?” Tara whispers. Surely he’s mistaken. That couldn’t have been. But the smell of Lethe’s bramble wafts unbeckoned and turns her stomach. Her knees feel weak and she reaches out to steady herself but misses the wall and buckles to the floor.

“Finally,” Spike says, relieved and also irritated, “They’re gone.” He turns, noticing Tara on the floor and quickly kneels, concerned. “Hey. You alright?”

Tara feels lightheaded. “What happened?” she asks hoarsely.

“Buffy and Xander were here—”

She shakes her head, “No. Be fore . What happened ?”

“S’not my place, love," he says a bit regretfully.

“I c-c-can’t-”

Spike seems genuinely remorseful he can’t help further. “Really, I don’t know what happened. Wasn’t here. Was off getting this useless soul.”

Her eyes are pleading. She can’t bear to know; can’t bear not to either.

He sighs. "As I said, only heard about it. It's nothing good. Nothing you probably haven’t guessed already, now, deep down." The gaps in the answers speak volumes. "It's always the quiet ones, innit?" he finishes softly, eyes far away. She has a feeling he’s not just talking about Willow, anymore.

‘Made the earth scream’, he said. ‘They think you took the skin.’

Tara knows enough. And with the sick feeling in her stomach, she leans forward to heave.

Chapter Text

Spike was well aware he was being used like a dog. Not so much in the degrading sense—he was doing that plenty well on his own, thanks—but rather like a well-trained mutt, following the scent of blood.

He didn’t like leaving Tara behind, shaky as she’d been earlier. He knew what it was like to finally see the monster for what it was. Wouldn’t have wished it on someone as sweet as that little dove, but if anyone had asked him (not that anyone ever did), he could’ve seen it coming a mile away. Red had reeked of power, even in the early days, but he’d cared far more about the Slayer than her pets. Never did like her much. Suspected it had to do with how much she reminded Spike of himself, all the things he’d hated about William.

Tara hadn’t said much all afternoon. What with finding out Willow was a murdering torturer and all, she was understandably a little preoccupied and out of sorts. She declined to come along for the hunt, mumbling some excuse about research. It wasn’t going to be that exciting and he couldn’t blame her for wanting to keep her distance from Willow, even if separated by a strange dimension. Finding out what she did? Does something to a person. Sometimes you can’t be the same after that. He should know.

He tried to ignore Buffy’s presence—it was like a blinding light, it was—but Xander being there dampened the situation plenty. Dawn too, but Little Bit bothered him to a lesser degree. He was proud of her, threats n’ all, for sticking up for Buffy. He remembered when she carried a childlike anger and resentment towards her sister. Shame she had to grow up so fast, the way she did. He wouldn’t have wished it on anyone, even without his soul.

Blood drew him further into the woods, the scent both mesmerizingly magnetic and nauseating. His stomach churned and hungered at the same time. No changing what he was, soul or not.

Without preamble, he left Buffy and the others at the mouth of the cave. Heading back to the basement, though safe, wasn’t an appealing option at the moment. He hadn’t been topside for the better part of a week, having holed himself away since the incident with Ronnie and Buffy.

Perhaps fresh air would do him some good.

Chapter Text

After Buffy killed the demon, they split up, Buffy going to check on Dawn back at the house, leaving Xander to take Willow to the hospital. Though deep, Willow's wounds were relatively minor, considering. They managed to concoct a cover story about a whittling accident gone awry but the nurse still looked suspicious while bandaging her stomach.

Taking her chart, the nurse left and Xander found himself alone with Willow for the first time in a long while. They sat close to each other but the awkwardness that bridged between them felt like miles.

"I guess no trip to Sunnydale is complete without a visit to the hospital," Willow said lightly, trying to break the tension.

"Definitely one of our finer tourist destinations. The Jell-O is top notch."

"Absolutely," Willow nodded a little too quickly. "And having experienced all eight flavors, we're definitely qualified to pass judgement."

"Yeah, we should get frequent flier miles at this place or something."

Their banter was familiar, but the veneer of cheerfulness barely masked the growing tension.

"O-or a 'come ten times and the eleventh visit is free' card."

"I'll keep it in my wallet right next to the burrito club card and Swords-R-Us membership."

Willow chuckled and he smiled, but no one spoke. The silenced soon stretched uncomfortably, neither making the move to break it.

"This is stupid," Xander finally declared, "We've known each other since we were four , Will. You're my best friend."

Willow squirmed, blushing. "Xander . . ." she chided.

"No! This is stupid. I don't like this feeling all . . ." he said, gesturing vaguely between them, ". . . weird."

"It hasn't been this awkward since the illicit kissage of senior year," Willow admitted.

"And frankly that was way more fun, so having that put into context really makes this feel just super fun." Xander fidgeted with his hands, laying them on his knees before changing his mind and clasping them together again. "It shouldn't be this hard."

"Yeah, but it's kinda my fault, so . . ." Willow replied in a small voice, trailing off.

"I think you're kinda dealing with enough of that for one lifetime, Will, don'tcha think?" He remembered when it used to be easy, when the world was simple and the hardest choices they’d had to make was choosing whose house to go to after school. Now Willow's grief scarred his face and lingered in her eyes. But sometimes he’d blink and they were still ten and happy, before the world became dangerous, and consequences shadowed their every step.

He hoped she still saw that too.

The silence stretched between them again, like silly-putty, waiting for the tension to fall and separate.

"I signed for her, y'know," Xander said finally. The flinch was barely there—but Xanders know their Willows—and even without looking, he could see her entire being lurch. She didn’t say anything, but he knew she was trying to keep it together. "Her body, someone had to. . . ." he trailed off, looking around the room. "I hate hospitals." Willow's lip wavered and she pursed them in the vain hopes of staying the tears that welled. "That was the worst day of my life."

Willow snorted through her tears. "Tell me about it."

"I keep thinkin', running it over and over in my head till it's all I think about and I just . . . if I could've just moved, I could've knocked him down, I could've. . . ." Willow watched silently, saying nothing, as it all poured out of Xander. "I could've. . . ." he trails off. "I could've saved her."

Her eyes were the saddest he’d ever seen them, heavy and lidded under the weight of death; full with regret, pity, understanding—a thousand things he’d never wanted her to feel—the sorrow was palpable.

"Xander, you know there's nothing you could've done."

"But I always do something. That's what I do."

"He had a gun, he could've killed you."

"That's never stopped me from doing something stupid before."

"Definitely not, or else you wouldn't be saying all this stuff now. Xander, you're my best friend. We've known each other since we were four, remember? So I know what I'm talking about when I'm saying you're a dummy."

He looked at Willow weakly as she slid her hand into his. They were dry and cool. "Don't you think I've thought about ways I could've saved her? If I'd've just listened to her. If I'd've never done the dark magics, or hadn’t been doing so well or trying to win her back, and we never would've been in that room. O-or even if we never met. That one almost hurts more, but . . . she'd’ve been safe, she'd still be alive somewhere, breathing, and-and . . . it just goes on. I think of, like, three new ways it could’ve gone differently every day."

Willow wiped her nose with her sleeve. "But it doesn’t change the fact that she's still gone, and I'm still here. Which turns out is a good thing, 'cause someone has to stop you from being such a big doofus." Her smile was weak but genuine. He saw it stretch over her face and reach her eyes.

"Hey, I was the one trying to be all comforty, here," he said. But Willow’d gotten good at that over the years, stealing away his problems and tucking them somewhere into herself.

"Yeah, well I figure I owe you one for getting me to not end the world, so. . .  Consider us square."

Hoisting her to her feet and throwing one arm around her shoulders, he marched them out of the room. "Let's get burgers."

"Oh god, yes," Willow moaned, "I haven't eaten since England."

Two steps out of the Emergency Room, he felt better already. The entrance doors slid open to let them exit.

"Hey, do you know what you'd like?” she said on their way out, “Bangers n' mash. Mostly just because you'd get to say 'bangers n' mash'."

God, he’d missed her.

Chapter Text

 

Bracing her arm against the doorway, Willow cringed as the pain seared across her belly. She slowly approached the bed, cradling her stomach. Gingerly, she settled into a cross-legged position, placing her palms on the familiar place atop her knees, taking a moment to survey the room.

Nothing here reminded her of the room down the hall. And for that, Willow was supremely grateful. She thought back to the high school sleepovers she and Buffy had; the gossip and whispers they'd shared, bowls of junk food, afternoons doing homework. This was an innocent space; a room devoid of shame, death, and triggering memories. A room without Tara.

Determined to start healing, Willow took the familiar deep breaths, and sank into her meditation.

She was surprised to find how quickly the earth opened itself to her here. Granted, it was a Hellmouth, but still. The regular connection was there, but it was a much vaster system than in England.

Here, Tara was in the roots.

They ran onto the porch a giggling soaking mess, having tried in vain to shield themselves with schoolbooks and purses, which flopped uselessly against their heads. It had been an unexpected rainfall, unusual for this time of year, even more so in Southern California. “Willow!” Tara shrieked while fumbling for the keys as hands slid up her back.

“What?” Willow looked back with false innocence.

Tara laughed, eyes twinkling, “We’re soaked!” She looked so beautiful with tendrils of hair twisting down her neck and around her ears, skirt sticking to her legs. Her shawl had fallen off one shoulder leaving it bare, and she bent down to tie her boots, laces having gotten loose in the mad dash. She was an absolute mess. She was perfect.

“I know,” Willow said with a mischievous grin, “I kinda wanted to keep it that way.”

Tara rolled her eyes good naturedly. “Can we please get inside first, you horndog?”

“And waste this perfectly romantic moment?” Willow waved, gesturing widely. “Getting caught in a rainstorm together?”

Moving her hips awkwardly, Tara winced as she pulled at her skirt. “It’s not as romantic when there’s a wedgie the size of Montana riding up your butt.”

Willow laughed as the door finally opened and they marched in together.

It didn’t take much longer for the clothes to come off after that.

A different energy hummed alongside the memory, powerful and strong, and Willow's eyelids fluttered.

Slowly, Willow pulled back from the remembrance space, finding her way back by climbing up the roots. She felt the familiar pull of Tara leaving her and kissed it goodbye as she always did. Earth magic, natural as it was, was all the more draining and she leaned back into the pillows. "Buffy," Willow said weakly.

Standing hesitantly in the doorway, Buffy looked unsure about whether to leave or stay. "I didn't mean—,” she started, looking almost embarrassed. “Sorry to interrupt.”

"That's all I had left in me anyway," Willow confessed.

"Didn't realizing meditating was such hard work," Buffy took a tentative seat at the foot of the bed.

"I'm healing, growing new skin," Willow shared.

"That's... wow. This is magic, right? When most people meditate they don't get extra skin, do they? Cause Clem should like, cut back." The banter was awkward. Nervous. Willow tried not to think about how that was her fault, too.

"It's magic," she confirmed. "I'm drawing power from the earth to heal myself."

"We're on the second floor," Buffy deadpanned, confused.

"Y'know, Giles says everything is part of the earth. The bed, the air . . ." As she rubbed the bedspread in front of her, Willow felt it swell—the ghost of a proud smile graced her lips—a memory, “. . . Us.” For a moment, Tara thrummed. I'm finally doing it right.

"Explains why my fingernails get dirty even when I don't do anything."

"Plus you stuck your thumbs in a demon."

"True."

Exhausted, Willow leaned into the pillows behind her. Buffy watched, and then, “You’re wiped out, I should go.”

Willow’s stomach sank. She felt the moment, that precious moment, between them slipping away. She thought about a life without Buffy, about disappointing her again and again and again, and desperately reached out. “No. Please stay? I missed you so much when I couldn’t find you,” Willow begged, talking about so much more than the Gnarl demon and her accidental spell.

Buffy must have known, read it in her eyes, because her reply was as earnest as Willow’s. “We missed you, too. I missed you, too,” she corrected. "Dawn’s working on what caused the mutual no-see-ums, but I don’t—"

"I did it," Willow interrupted guiltily.

"You did a spell?"

For one terrifying moment, Willow thought her worst fear had come true. That right then, Buffy saw her as an enemy. Again. "I didn’t mean to, I-I just remember thinking that I wasn’t ready to see you guys yet. I was afraid we wouldn’t, you know, connect?" Willow admitted. Like we haven’t in years. In a lifetime. Like we almost aren’t now.

"So, you made it happen just by thinking it?" Buffy confirmed.

Willow braced herself. It was harder than waiting for Giles’ retribution. This was Buffy. “Guess I have a ways to go before I master my powers, huh.”

But Buffy’s only response was, “S’ok. Long as you’re all right,” and Willow exhaled a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. There was forgiveness in Buffy’s eyes, and it was more than Willow had dared hope to see again.

"It’s nice to be forgiven." The weight of the past year nudged its way forward, and she flushed with shame. "Too bad I need so much of it."

Buffy looked down and Willow was afraid she was going to change her mind and take it all back. “I have a confession to make. I thought it might be you. With the flaying.”

Relief flooded Willow again. Guilt she was good at . “I know.”

"I wanna be the kind of person that wouldn’t think that. Xander never thought it."

"He did, a little. Heck, I did a little. Xander has the luxury of not saying it, but you’re the Slayer. You have to say stuff like that. It’s ok. It’s ok too if you still don’t think I can recover from this magic stuff. ‘Cause, honestly? I’m not that sure about it either,” Willow admitted, feeling very much like the shy lonely girl Buffy had faced at the water fountain all those years ago.

But that just reminded Willow of the past six years all over again, so she leaned forward, sighed, and began meditating again.

"I thought you were too tired," Buffy pointed out.

"It hurts too much not to try."

"I’m sorry," Buffy apologized, despite her having nothing to apologize for.

"It just takes so much strength. I don’t have that much."

Buffy scooted herself onto the bed and situated herself across from Willow. “Well, I got so much strength, I’m giving it away.”

She remembered when it used to be like this between them. When it was trust and support that shone brighter than the darkness that surrounded them, giving them the strength to defeat it. When their friendship brought them together instead of drove them apart. "Are you sure?" Willow asked, giving Buffy the space to decide.

"Will it help?"

Willow nodded gratefully, “Much.”

"Good."

And there it was, shining bright and strong. It felt so good to finally— finally —feel it again.

Reaching out tentatively with her magic, carefully pulling some of the Slayer energy into her own. It felt….familiar. Buffy grabbed her hands and held tight. Just like she used to; like it could be again. She felt stronger already.

Chapter Text

"Hey," Willow slumped, sitting on her knees like a child.

She remembered going for walks around the Coven’s property and picking up small rocks to put in her pocket. They weighed her down like an anchor and it was an apt metaphor for someone who felt like they were drowning a good part of the time.

During the meditations, she'd take out one of the rocks from her pocket, cradle it, and think of Tara: her other anchor. As the Coven surrounded her, she drew from their strength and steadiness. They were warm and gentle and she took great comfort in their number. Usually hovering around thirteen people, it was the ideal minyan.

Willow would meditate with the women around her, borrow their numbers, and say kaddish.

It had felt strange at first.

Willow's participation in Judaism had taken a markedly drastic downturn since her Bat Mitzvah. After that, it seemed her parents felt their job was over, and didn’t care much anymore. They went to synagogue the obligatory two or three times a year, and even that had petered out by high school. What she knew was fragmented, archaeological almost; just scraps of Hebrew terms and abstracted beliefs. And Willow had never done well with abstraction. She preferred details, facts, formulas, and codes (losing sight of the bigger picture had always been her undoing).

She became frustrated at her lack of knowledge of her own history. Had she always been so ignorant of herself, of who she was and where she came from?

The one thing Willow did remember were the rituals of Jewish bereavement. After all, the Scoobies, were always within Death’s reach. Death lingered in the doorway, never leaving, waiting for the next person. But death could be structured. So she clasped to the ritual, the way the shiva process was designed to be held. It gave her something to hang on to, a way to grasp small things.

Things like rocks.

Willow would sit with the Coven, close her eyes, sink past the meditations and into a special separate place. There in the earth, in the deepest reaches of her chest, Willow found Tara.

The first time she had said the prayer, the words felt foreign in her mouth. The Hebrew and Aramaic seemed deeper, more ancient even than the Latin Willow had grown accustomed to. The words felt rusty on her tongue after so many years. But Willow clung to the ritual, letting tradition burnish her against the wake of her mistakes.   She stumbled over the mourner's kaddish, forgetting whole lines, but with every passing day, each time she spoke, it became smoother. By the end of the second week it felt natural. Comforted by the women surrounding her, Willow's meditations turned into prayer. Into benediction. And the stones grounded her. To Tara.

Prayer carries, Willow remembered.

"What's that," Tara asks, shrugging off her jacket, back in the dorm room after Joyce's funeral.

"Hmm?" Willow murmurs.

Tara nods to the book in Willow's hands.

"Oh, it's nothing," she replies distractedly.

"Looks an awful lot like 'something'," Tara says as she makes her way over, wrapping her arms around Willow and pressing a soft kiss to her shoulder.

Leaning into Tara, Willow tilts the book to share the page. "It's my old prayer book from Hebrew school. I haven't used it since, well, I got it, really. But after today? I dunno. It got me thinking about where I come from. And even though I’m not really so much with the practicing, I remember going to my grandmother's funeral."

Tara's thumb rubs circles on the backs of Willow's knuckles as she continues, "I only met her a few times. The Rosenbergs? Not too big on the family front, but we went to the funeral. And there's this whole thing afterwards, at the house, shiva? I dunno, it was really nice,” Willow trails off, tracing Tara's fingers with her own. "Tons of visitors, seeing each other again after so many years, reminiscing and telling stories about her." She looks up at Tara, "I could see how good it felt for them. Remembering her and connecting with each other, y'know?"

Tara leans forward, connecting their foreheads with a kiss. "It's a beautiful tradition, Will. There's life in death."

Of course, after Joyce, had come Glory, so the prayer book was soon abandoned again.

Ever so tenderly, Willow traced Tara's name, as deeply engraved in Willow as it was in the headstone. She touched reverently, fingers trembling for a moment before they fell. This was harder, so much harder than she had ever thought possible.

Rocks were permanent.

"It's me," she breathed. “Happy Birthday.”

Chapter Text

Tara looks down at the papers in front of her.

There are a plethora of gods, goddesses, and other deities to choose from and countless spells among them.
But no spell ingredients. Well, there are ingredients, but not real ones. Everything in the Magic Box is a perfect replica of their real world counterparts, but all lack the mystical properties that make them potent spell ingredients in the first place. That makes things easier, actually; it narrows the options down.

Tara has decided to pick up where she— they —left off last year. Most of the research they did on Osiris is superfluous and moot now that she knows the nature of her death—nothing mystical about it. Not a Slayer, just an ordinary bullet for an ordinary girl. No, there was nothing down Osiris’ path for her. But thinking about Osiris has brought Tara to Isis—his wife, partner, and queen.

Isis’ role in afterlife beliefs, Tara reads, was helping to restore the souls of deceased humans to wholeness as she had for Osiris. From the Late Period on, Isis became one of the deities most commonly mentioned in prayers that often referred to her kindly character and willingness to answer those who called upon her for help.

Help is something she sorely needs.

Spike asked once, why she doesn’t want him to tell the others about her so they can help her escape. He means
well, and it isn’t a bad idea… But how can she explain her reticence?

Hope is a dangerous thing; and it can cut both ways.

There had been hope once, inflating within Tara like a balloon, as the doctor told them she was turning a corner; that the cancer was in remission and no longer invading her mother and waging war against her body. She knew the way hope soured within her when he pulled them aside a few days later, apologizing deeply for the mistake, that in fact the opposite was true: the cancer cells were winning, multiplying faster than space would allow, overtaking organs. And Tara knew, then, what true demons were. The way it felt like she was never going to stop falling after that balloon popped; how hard the ground hit when she fell.

No. She wants to protect them from all that. Until she is sure, absolutely sure, that she can’t do this on her own, that the spell won’t work, there is no reason to tell them.

“I don’t want them to hope,” she finally admits, lamely. It is the best she can come up with.

Surprisingly, though, Spike seems to understand. “Yeah, I was afraid you’d say that. Nothing more dangerous, right?” He rolls his eyes at her surprised reaction, but sighs patiently regardless. “My mum,” he says by way of explanation.

She flushes, a little ashamed to have thought so little of him.

“S’alright,” he says, “Not like I go around blabbing about tragic backstories. Ruins the evil flow, y’know?”

Tara smiles at him gratefully. “Me too,” she shares in apology. “My mom, I mean.”

“I bet she was a nice lady.”

“She was,” Tara replies as the memories settle around her shoulders like a warm embrace. “I’m sure yours was,
Too.”

Sadness flickers across his face and he smiles, even if it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. It’s always different, she remembers saying to Buffy a lifetime ago. This time, though, she reaches out, taking his hand in her own. Spike stiffens slightly, but says nothing and makes no move to pull away. Not for the first time, she’s grateful he’s here. Hope might not be the worst thing after all.

Chapter Text

The thing Dawn hated most about crying was that after the tears dried, a dull, throbbing headache usually took its place. She felt the headache coming hours before, while they were in the middle of researching. It was hard to not be bitter when Willow sat there researching Cassie’s website while everyone ignored Dawn’s theories about what was going on. But it didn't matter anyway, she thought guiltily. All of them were wrong, and Cassie still died.

"Look, all I'm saying is that this is normal teen stuff. You join chat rooms, you write poetry, you post Doogie Howser fanfic. It's all normal right? Let's see what other sites there are."

Willow starts typing frantically when Dawn interjects. "You guys are way off track. I got a hunch on this one."

No one acknowledges her. Again. They're just looking at the laptop. As if she weren’t even there.. As if Buffy hadn't asked her to get close and talk to Cassie to get details. But as soon as Willow's stupid computer beeps, they're all over that.

"Oh, wait, no, here's something. No, that's Phillip Newton."

“No, that's her dad,” Buffy says. “Open it."

Dawn rolls her eyes. "Guys, I'm telling you. I got this case cracked wide open. I got the perp fingered. I told you about Mike Helgenberg, right?"

"Uh, that's the guy that asked her to the dance?" Buffy asks distractedly.

Dawn nods excitedly, "Right. The one that keeps asking her to the dance. I'm thinking, who likes to be rejected? Nobody. I'm thinking, some people can't handle the rejection. I'm thinking that—"

Willow interrupts her. Willow. Interrupts her . "Hey, I got something. Whoa, drunk and disorderly, disturbing the peace—there's a lot of charges here."

Buffy's attention once again turns away from Dawn. "Her dad's a drunk?"

"A violent drunk?" Xander pitches in.

Buffy's already grabbing her jacket and bag. "We'd better find out. I have his address right here. Got your keys?" Xander is right behind her, "Yeah."

Dawn shakes her head, "Guys, I'm telling you, I'm liking Mike Helgenberg for the perp. Let's collar him before he—" The door slams ". . . Lawyers up."

Dawn's face falls. This is nothing new, for them to barrel forward without her, but she'd hoped that after all the Scoobying she’s  put in over the summer, things will be different. But no, they just leave her, again.

She huffs as turns to face the dining room. It's just Willow there, looking suddenly very nervous and alone.

Good, Dawn thinks, ignoring the guilt that flares immediately afterwards. She grabs her book bag and heads upstairs without a word, trying to ignore how much the dejected look on Willow's face hurts.

Her being wrong might not have mattered in the end, but it didn’t stop the ache inside Dawn’s chest from hurting any less. The ache that meant another person she cared about was dead. Again.

She sat on her bed not doing anything besides holding Mr. Gordo and staring emptily at nothing. She didn’t notice Willow hovering in the doorway until a few moments later, when she knocked softly, holding a steaming mug.

"Hey, Dawnie. I brought you some hot cocoa. Thought it might help y'feel a little better? Having a hot mug to hold always made me . . ." Willow trailed off before starting again, "Well, it's all warm n' chocolatey. Your favorite! I even put salt in it the way you like, even though that's usually thought of as, y'know, gross."

Willow fidgeted for a moment with the handle, obviously feeling uncomfortable the longer Dawn didn’t say anything.

She let the cheerfulness drop. "I'm really sorry about Cassie. I know you two got pretty close really fast." Still facing silence, Willow placed the mug on the side table and sat down on the bed next to Dawn. She looked at her hands for a moment, "Sometimes they leave so suddenly, y'know?"

There was a flicker of emotion in Dawn's face.

"And it doesn't—" Willow broke off. "It doesn't make any sense and I know it can be hard, b—"

Dawn’s facial expression had started to soften, but it hardened instantly at those words. She interrupted in a low, cold voice, "Don't you talk to me about hard."

Willow fell back, surprised. "Dawn, I—"

"No! You don’t have the right,” she said forcefully as grief thickened her voice. “You left me to find her all alone! You . So don't tell me it can be hard to hurt when you took the easy way out and left me all alone."

Eyes already wet, Willow blinked against Dawn's anger. Though her face was a mask of pain, Willow's jaw was tight as she took it.

"I lost Tara, too!" Dawn continued, "And I needed you!" At this, Willow looked up, startled. Dawn was crying now, the anger having deflated into a deeper sorrow. "I needed you, Willow."

For those few months over the summer after Buffy died, Willow and Tara were as much parents to her as her own mother had been. They had moved in and slipped into the roles quietly, helping Dawn through endless nightmares, and running the household more smoothly than it’d been in months. They gave her love and structure when her world had fallen out from under her.

"You’re right.” Willow admitted simply. “You’re right and I'm sorry, Dawnie. I didn't want— I wasn’t supposed to come back, y'know?" She flashed a weak grin.

"Well you couldn't stay in England forever.”

Willow shook her head sadly, heavy with guilt. "No, I don’t . . . I don’t just mean England." There was a sharp, cold, moment as Dawn understood and her eyes grew wide. Willow broke away from the scrutiny of Dawn’s stare, fidgeting with the blanket on her lap. “It was never supposed to get that far.”

"Dawn," Willow said urgently, grasping Dawn's hand and holding it tight. "Those things that I said? Those things that I did, I . . . I'm ashamed of them. They're never going to go away. But that means I won't forget. Any of it. Ok? I've seen the worst parts of myself and it's never going to happen again. I’m so sorry for everything I did to you.”

Dawn nodded, feeling the doors between them open—the way they used to be. She knew this Willow. The one who'd brought gifts while Mom was in the hospital and helped tutor her in math so she wouldn’t fall behind when she was sick. Who held her hand and rubbed her back whenever she cried that dark, backwards summer. Who tinkered for long hours in the basement working on the Buffybot after helping tutor Dawn during summer school. The Willow who coordinated schedules and tried to help the endless bills with small computer gigs after Buffy died (and long after she came back). The one who Dawn heard crying sometimes at night after soothing one of Tara's nightmares. She fell into Willow, throwing her arms around a small part of her family who’d finally come back.

“Please don't go again this time, ok?" Dawn mumbled.

"Looks like you're stuck with me—mildly reformed evil and all."

"That's ok," Dawn buried herself in Willow's shoulder. "We've gotten really really good at reforming evil."

They both chuckled, sniffling. Dawn yanked two tissues from a box and gave one to Willow. The mug was still warm, and she leaned back to take a sip of the hot chocolate. It's gonna be ok.

Chapter Text

"For god's sake, shut your whimpering mouth."

The magic had felt fudge-like: sticky, warm, and much too rich. With the spider gone, the shattering glass brought her back to herself and Willow stood back, gasping. It had taken more out of her—much more than she'd expected. She hadn't drawn from the earth this time, instead acting instinctively without thought to consequence. The aftertaste of the magic turned thick and sour.

Willow turned back to the girl, more afraid of herself than the spider that had nearly penetrated her barrier. Is that how Dawn had looked when I'd faced her? Tiny and frightened and alone?

"I-I'm sorry," she stammered.

It'd unnerved her. She was frightened at how easy it was still, after everything, to make the wrong decision. How instinctual it had become to pull from more powerful magics.

Despite months in England meditating, training, and focusing her energies, Willow herself could still be so easily unleashed. The person that haunted her, the one with black eyes and unchecked arrogance and selfishness, wrecking havoc because she could . Because she had wanted to. The Willow she never wanted to be again. The one she was ashamed of.

The thought of it filled her with fear, set her heart racing, skin itching.

“Giles, no,” she said flatly.

“Willow you must. Magic isn’t simply a box you lock and ignore."

“Uh, yes! I can! With the biggest lock ever and a side of throwing away the key, please and thank you."

"It’s a part of you, it always has been.”

God, she hoped not.

“And look at me, Giles,” she shot back desperately, clutching at her chest. “Look where it got me,” her mouth twisted.

“Magic isn’t addiction, Willow," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "It is choice.”

“Choice? Choice! ? You think I’d choose this?” she demanded. “Giles, I-I can’t breathe .”

“It was always there, Willow. The potential of choice.”

Who was she then? The girl who forsook Harvard to stay in Sunnydale with Buffy? Or the one who chose magic because she wanted to and it was easy .

At first she’d gotten more power because she needed to: To help. Protect. Save. And then, she got more because she could. Tara was right. Tara was always right. She was so blind and it had cost her everything.

“Willow, the first successful spell you ever did was a vampire ensoulment. A rare feat for even a practiced and expertly trained magic-user. And yet you did so from a hospital bed with less than a year of self-taught magics. That type of magic doesn't come without a price. I should know, remember? We're the same, you and I. From the beginning you were on your own. Suffice to say, it was always within you. You were always strong with thirst that begat arrogance, perhaps, but also determination. Bravery. Strength.”

She barked darkly. “Right, like I’m strong. Addict, Villain-”

"Scooby," he interrupts gently.

Amazon.

She deflates and looks at him wearily, so wearily.  "I think I forgot, Giles. I forgot how how to be one." It comes out so small but his eyes, patient and kind, hold her steady.

She chooses.

"I can't," Willow said later when she met Buffy's eyes. "I'm sorry." As Buffy wordlessly turned to find Anya, emptiness filled Willow once more. She looked down shamefully as the front door slammed. When was the last time she was able to stand by Buffy's side when she needed her and faced the darkness together?

When she walked out that door, all Willow could see was the Buffy she faced against those months ago. It sickened her. Even with all the magics, it was never Willow's spells that were weak, it was Willow herself. The slip of control that morning at the fraternity was proof .

The magics, she realized with a start.

She might not be strong enough able to face Anya, to tell her the truths that burned too hotly in the shame of her heart, but she knew someone who could.  

D'Hoffryn.

________________________________________________________________________

The walk back to her apartment was like molasses, slow and dark. Tears dried in layers on Anya's face, cheeks tightening as more still trickled down. Anya always hated crying, she found it so pathetically weak and human.

Which was exactly what she was, now. Again.

As the day roiled in her stomach, Anya absentmindedly wandered through the streets, keeping to the parks and side streets. All of her friends were gone, human and demon alike—she'd managed to betray both in one day. Flashes of the frat house carnage replayed in her mind and Anya ducked off the sidewalk to dry heave into the bushes.

She wiped her mouth with the edge of her sleeve and continued into the apartment she called home, empty as it was. She lethargically dropped the keys on the table and jumped, startled by the figure on the couch illuminated softly by a small table lamp.

"What are you doing here, Willow," Anya asked raggedly, too exhausted to be irritated.

"I lied earlier. I do get it. Needing them to hurt. Knowing they deserved it," Willow confided softly, hands in her lap, eyes downcast. "Hoping it would feel better."

Anya's stomach rolled again but there was nothing inside anymore. She could see tears brimming in Willow’s eyes. Anya walked forward silently and sat in the chair opposite the couch but keeps a small distance, the space between buffering their hurts.

"We can be good again," Willow finally said thickly.

Anya barked a dark laugh, "Did you see what I did today, Willow?"

"I don't think that visual will leave me anytime soon, no," Willow admitted.

"Then how can you say that?" Anya accused angrily. "How can you say we can be good again after the things we've done."

"What other choice do we have?” Willow’s voice rose to meet Anya’s, “I close my eyes and I see—" she broke off and looked away. "It doesn't go away. I see him , and the cuts I put on Buffy and Xander's faces, and I just—" Willow deflated, looking out the window. “We can be good again because they want us to be. I don't believe in myself much these days, but Buffy's always been my hero, Xander's always been my best friend, and I trust them more than I trust myself, so. . . Fake it till you make it, right?" she finished with false cheerfulness. "All I want to do is give up, but the thing that keeps me going is knowing they wouldn't want me to. And I never want to hurt them again, so, I won't."

But Anya was too empty for saving graces. She had trusted Xander, once, and look where it had gotten her. She absentmindedly rubbed her finger where the engagement ring used to be. There was a rustle as Willow stood and shuffled to the door, but Anya made no move to escort her out.

Willow paused as she opened the door, "You’re not alone, Anya."

Anya wished she could believe her.

Chapter Text

All in all, the boys took the situation pretty well. After they’d woken up from the not-slaughter and seen their frat house streaked with blood and trashed, all Buffy had to do was explain it as a rival frat prank for the guys to turn their confusion into competition. Ah, predictable college boys.

She continued to patrol campus to make sure there were no signs of the spider demon. Or any other demons, for that matter. It was a relatively quiet night with only one vampire and a nest full of raccoons, which Buffy backed away from carefully because she so wasn’t dealing with that. She took her time going home and it was nearing one in the morning by the time she rounded the backyard.

“Hey.”

Buffy looked up startled. Willow was sitting on the back kitchen steps wrapped in a robe, cradling a mug. “Hey,” Buffy greeted back, “What are you doing up?”

Willow blew out a breath. “Oh, y’know . . . Can’t sleep.”

Buffy nodded in understanding. She knew that one.“Y’ok?” Willow asked as Buffy plopped down next to her.

“Yeah,” Buffy lied, before thinking better of it. “No,” she said, still unsure. “I don’t know.” She ran her hand through her hair, sighing. “Some days I just really hate being the Slayer.” Days when I have to kill the people I love.

“We don’t make that easy for you, do we?” Willow said almost casually. Almost. Buffy looked over at her, puzzled. “We put you in that position all the time, Buffy. And I’m starting to realize it might not be fair.”

“What do you mean?”

“You were right, earlier today. I just sat there.”

The words flew out of her mouth without thought, “Willow, I underst—”

“No, Buffy,” Willow interrupted, looking miserable. “You don’t get it. I did it to you, again.”

“Did what, Will? You didn’t do anything.”

“I know!” burst out Willow. “That’s exactly it. I didn’t do anything. But I . . . We expected you to.”

Buffy watched Willow play with the mug, rotating and gripping it, as she gathered herself.

“I wanted you kill me, Buffy,” Willow finally admitted. “After she died, I just—” She stopped, thinking of a different way to verbalize her thoughts. “I told you guys I wasn’t coming back, and I meant it. I mean sure, I was a little stuck on the whole ‘revenge’ thing, but. . .  I made it so you had no choice but to stop me. So the Slayer had no choice.”

Buffy’s stomach clenched painfully.

“You’re the Slayer, so we expect you to make the tough decisions. And then we get upset with you for making them.”

Buffy still had no words, so Willow continued. “You were right, earlier today. About being the Law. We act like we should have as much a say as you, but then we force you to make the tough calls. We make you the Law and then get upset with you when you use the responsibility we leave you. It can’t work like this anymore.”

That, finally, was something Buffy understood. “No, it can’t.” Her voice was thick, with years of unresolved, unrealized bitterness caught in her throat.

Willow turned the mug around in her hands. “But Xander was right, too. Sometimes there’s another way. We all need t—” She stopped, correcting herself, “Xander and Giles and I, we need to start accepting responsibility. Same as you.”

The weight that Buffy had been carrying for seven years suddenly felt a little lighter. Buffy didn’t realize how deeply she had pushed her resentment down. Because it had felt selfish, almost. To have the gift of these people in her life, sharing the burden of fighting the forces of darkness, giving up everything - everything , she thought, looking over at Willow- to stand by her side. How could she be angry with them after all that? But over time, Buffy learned, sharing a burden and sharing responsibility were two very different things. Over time, the two had drifted further apart until it seemed as if Buffy stood on an island alone, again, apart from Willow and Xander, looking at them from the distant shore, wondering how and why it was that they had left her there all alone.

The same as me. Buffy repeated Willow’s words. What could that kind of shared burden even look like? How would it even work. Half a dozen problems with the idea sprang to mind immediately and the lightness she felt just a moment ago quickly faded. “Will,” she sighed in a voice not unlike a parent breaking bad news to their child, “It won’t always be so easy.”

“I know,” Willow acknowledged quickly. “I know, but...I think all of us have kind of outgrown ‘easy’ at this point, don’t’cha think?”

Buffy pursed her lips, weighing the offer. “Has Xander...” the question trailed off, wondering  if he’d already agreed to this.

“Not yet, but it’s something we probably should have done a long time ago. I’m sure he’ll be on board.” Willow’s expression darkened for a moment. “Besides, Xander and I need to have a little chat, apparently, over a certain big fat juicy lie he’s been keeping from both of us for five years.”

Willow turned to her, “I never told him that, Buffy.” she said urgently, “About Angel—”

Buffy interrupted her, gesturing to stop. She didn’t have it in her to revisit that moment, it was just too painful. Too much after today. She clenched her jaw tightly a few times and took a few deep breaths, gathering herself with everything that had just been said.

“Thank you,” she said, meaning it deeply. “But I think I’ve hit my heavy conversation limit for the day. There’s probably a lot more for us to talk about, like,” she exhaled, cheeks puffing out, “A lot more, but maybe we could hit the big ol’ pause button for tonight? My brain kinda feels like it’s about to explode.”

Willow nodded in agreement. “Yeah, do you have this little pressure headache –”

“Right behind the eyes? Oh yeah.”

“Tea?” Willow offered, handing her the mug.

Buffy blinked in surprise. “Tea? From Ms. Mocha-so-strong-it-vibrates?”

Willow chuckled. “Yeah, well. Things change, I guess.”

“Thank you,” repeated Buffy, deeply, “For telling me.” She took one of Willow’s hands and threaded their fingers together. “All of it.”

Chapter Text

Tara knows she’s out of time.

Well, technically, she has all the time in the world. Never ending amounts of time trapped in this undying, unliving limbo of an existence, where nothing ages, nothing dies, nothing is. There’s nothing to suggest that she can’t stay here forever if she wants to. But if anything, that interminable immortality reminds her of the unnaturality of it. She looks down at the spell she created and gnaws her lip in fear.

After Spike’s appearance, the more time she spends here, the more she’s reminded of what she’s missing. But the more she witnesses from the other side, through him, the more she doubts herself

She’s dead.

That’s it.

To change what the natural order has decided? Magic can’t . . . shouldn’t be used to change things. Every magical cell in her body knows this.

But, oh, she remembers how tempting it is. How badly she wanted to say a few words and have her mother back after she’d passed. Her only connection to the world—the only person who had made her feel loved and who she had loved in return—gone, leaving the world a cruel and colorless place. So instead she ran away to escape that feeling. Sure, she’d wanted to leave the rest of her family behind, but mostly she couldn’t bear to stay in the negative spaces where her mother used to be. She ran to California, where she hoped the sunshine could brighten the greyscale of her world. Sure enough, it did. And two years later at a wicca group meeting, Tara’s world colored.

She’s run away from death only to have it find her again. And again, and again, and again. Death is never far from the Scoobies; it waits in the wings, just around the corner. Taking and taking and taking, without discrimination. She remembers Dawn’s grief, the way it nearly knocked on the front door as a monstrous thing.  Dawn’s grief mirrors her own, and her chest hurts with the familiar unfairness of it all. First Joyce. Then Buffy. Then...herself.

Fate has spoken, the fabric of life cut.

Who is she to say otherwise?

To interfere is to make the world come unglued; manipulate it piece by piece until it is nothing more than a lie reshaped to resemble the shadow of truth.

“I’m scared,” she admitted to him quietly, late one night.

“Can tell that much myself, thanks.”

Tara swears she can hear the words of spell whisper. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“If it doesn’t work?”

“No,” she admitted softly, “If it does.”

He squints, confused. “Sorry, gonna have to explain that one, love. Isn’t it what you want?”

“The spell,” she explains. “It’s not for a resurrection.”

“What?” He asks incredulously, “Why the bloody hell not?”

“Because,” she says, searching for words to explain what she knows deep inside, “It’s not right. It’s not natural.”

“You think this, ” he gestures around them, “Is natural?”

“No, I don’t, but Spike. I died. I can’t change that. And who would I be if I did?”

Spike sighs and shakes his head. Looking at her seriously for a moment, he knelt beside her, nudging her chin gently to meet his gaze. His voice is soft. “I’ve been alive longer th’n most, and I‘m still afraid of death. All vampires are. Trust me when I say you’re never going to be ready. There’s never a good time to go, but you can’t stay here. And neither can I, frankly. I’m either getting more crazy or less, but either way your window might be closing, Tara. It’s now or never.”

“Don’t suppose it could be never,” she joked through tears.

“I may be immortal,” he smiled back, “But I’m definitely not a saint.”

There is nothing to say her spell will work. It is of Tara’s own creation, worded as ambiguously as possible: calling on Isis to help restore her to wholeness. She has no idea if that will mean life or death. If it will bring her back to the real Sunnydale, or help her pass on to wherever she should have gone after her death.

All the same, despite knowing that this place, this existence is unnatural and that the spell is justifiable, it is a huge risk. Here, at least, she exists.

She thinks of her mother. She thinks of Dawn and Buffy, Xander and Anya. She thinks, as always, of Willow. Thinks of all the people who have given her life meaning and purpose, says a quiet goodbye in her heart, just in case, and kisses them farewell. Tara doesn’t know what, if anything, lies on the other side of the spell. It could be a second chance, or It could be nothing. But she has loved and been loved and that, in itself, is a good life.

He’s right. It’s time. She takes a deep breath, relinquishing the decision of her fate to the those who may know better, says a prayer to the goddess, and begins.

 

Chapter Text

Turned out missing a month of classes could put you behind. Even for someone who loved school, Willow was having a tough time catching up. She was even beginning to get sick of being in the library, which was something she’d never thought possible. Still, she was grateful to her professors for letting her join their classes long after the add/drop period. She missed school; it was where she felt the most Willow. It helped her remember who that was.

Still, she was she was exhausted by the time her study group let out and she made it home. “Buffy’s out patrolling,” Dawn called from the dining room. Willow peeled off her jacket and let the book-bag fall to the floor as she flopped into a chair across from Dawn. “Long day?” Dawn said, watching Willow slump across the table.

“I can feel my brain hurt,” Willow moaned.

“That’s physically impossible,” Dawn pointed out.

“Tell that to my brain,” Willow mumbled into the table.

Dawn lifted one of Willow’s limp arms lying atop one of her notebooks. “Well tell your brain to not ooze all over my biology homework.”

Interest piqued, Willow turned her head to the side just enough to peek. “Biology?”

Dawn gave her a look of sublime skepticism. “I thought your brain hurt.”

Fully engaged at this point, Willow scooched her chair closer to the textbooks. “Well, it does,” Willow admitted, “But that was for other stuff, not biology,” she scoffed, displaying a renewed second wind of excited energy. “What’cha working on?”

“Enzymes. What did you do when you had the enzymatic reactions lab?”

“Well, our teacher kinda turned into a monster in the middle of the curriculum, so we missed that one. But hey!” she brightened, nudging Dawn enthusiastically. “Now we can do it together!”

Dawn shrugged. “Okay, as long as I get full credit.”

“Great! Lemme go change and I’ll be right back,” Willow announced, grabbing her bag and coat from the floor, before climbing the stairs.

She crossed the upstairs hallway to the bathroom when a wave of dizziness passed through her. She leaned against the door jamb for balance, swaying unsteadily. The hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention. But the wave soon passed as quickly as it had come. “Oookay . . . don’t skip lunch, and bring study snacks next time,” Willow noted. “Message received.”

The floor creaked down the hallway in Buffy’s room. “Buffy?” She called, “Are you back? How was—”

The words evaporated before reaching her lips and Willow stood stunned in the hallway, eyes glued to the floor of Buffy’s room.

Because nothing in the world had prepared her for the sight of Tara lying on the carpet.

Immediately the world started to spin. Willow’s heart exploded, pounding, pulsing in her ears; it was deafening. She clamped her hands against her ears to dim the whooshing, but it only served to make things louder. Cringing in pain and confusion, Willow whimpered, searching around the room wildly for answers, eyes coming to rest on the window.

The window.

No, the window had broken. The window was . . . whole? She heard it shatter. Everything shattered.

Tara was lying on the carpet. Tara is lying on the carpet?

She was hyperventilating.

Tara was lying on the carpet. Willow clenched her eyes shut and grit her teeth. Tara was lying on the carpet.

I just remember thinking I wasn’t ready to see you guys yet . . .

. . . Thinking . . .

Willow’s eyes opened wide.

Tara was lying on the carpet.

Oh god, what have I done?

Chapter Text

It’s done.

There’s a crinkle, a kind of sigh, and Tara opens her eyes.*

Light filters in from what must be a hallway, but it’s dark, and she is in a bedroom—that much she can tell. It seems like Joyce’s bedroom, the one she and Willow had shared. But things have changed. The pictures on the wall have been replaced and the bed is different. She sits up, absorbing the surroundings, reveling in her continued existence.

A dog barks in a yard across the street, pulling Tara from her reverie, her head snapping toward the sound. She stares, slack jawed, with a look of awe on her face at the mundane  noise.

Still stunned, but eager to continue exploring, she makes her way to get up, but wobbles. Tara presses a hand to her head against the hum of lightheadedness that assaults her. A few seconds pass before she feels steady enough to try again. She is soon stopped by another dizzy spell, but this time because of the figure in the doorway.

Willow stands, completely frozen like a statue. Tara’s stomach flips. They stare at each other as time stretches, in matched shock and stillness. The dog barks again, reminding Tara this isn’t a dream, and it propels her forward.

She takes a step, and as if that motion is enough to break whatever spell Willow is under, she moves in return, taking a step backward. Tara hesitates, frowning. More slowly this time, she takes another small step and again, Willow shuffles farther away. Tara finally takes a step forward, reaching out her hand, when Willow suddenly flees in horror.

Tara’s forehead wrinkles in confusion. Before she can follow, Willow has already bolted down the stairs and run outside. Tara makes it down in time to watch helplessly as Willow stumbles across the front yard, panicked and scared like a wild animal.

Willow’s hands twist in her hair, she’s muttering to herself and pacing with her eyes trained straight down at the ground. Tara takes a few steps forward, unsure of how to proceed, arm held out in front of her uselessly, trying to figure out what to do.

Neither of them notice Dawn approach the front door to take in the scene in front of her.

“Oh my god,” Dawn gapes, dropping her pencil. “Oh my god,” she repeats.

Tara swivels at the sound, locking onto the sounds of Dawn’s distress. “Dawn,” she breathes. There’s a swirl of emotion on her face, joy and hope conflicting with uncertainty and worry at the situation.

“Oh my god,” Dawn says again, louder this time. Without tearing her gaze away from Tara, she says, “Willow, what happened?” Willow doesn’t break pace. “What happened?” Dawn asks again, more forcefully. Willow shakes her head, muttering to herself with her eyes clenched tight.

“What did you do ?” Dawn demands.

“I— I—” Willow stammers, staring at her hands, palms open facing the sky, retreating further into herself. “I don’t—”

“Dawn, step away from that.”

Dawn and Tara look past Willow to see Buffy standing at the end of the driveway. There’s an intense look of concentration on her face, and her body posture evokes that of a hunter, stalking quietly, ready to attack at any moment.

For her part, Willow hasn’t looked at Tara since coming outside. In fact, it almost seems as if she’s forgotten Tara entirely, focusing on trying to calm herself down. There’s a veritable garden surrounding Willow, plants and flowers that weren’t there a minute ago blossoming at her every step. She seems unaware of Buffy’s presence.

Dawn and Buffy are squared off, Tara between them, and no one notices Willow collapse like a doll farther out on the lawn, as suddenly as if a light switch had been turned off.

“Buffy?” Dawn asks, lost and confused, eyes darting between Tara and her sister.

“Get away from it,” she responds in a hard voice.

“What?” Dawn replies, dazed, but making no motion to move from where she stands.

“If that’s Tara, it means she’s the big bad we’ve been waiting for, and there’s no way that’s a possibility. Or its the big bad pretending to be Tara. Either way, that’s not our Tara. So, again, Dawn. Please be a good sister and step away from whatever the hell that is,” Buffy explains in an eerily calm tone that belies the tension in her stance. She never stops stalking closer.

Dawn hesitates, clearly conflicted.

“Willow, you too,” Buffy continues, not tearing her eyes off Tara. At the lack of response, Buffy finally breaks eye contact, looking for her and all three of them finally notice the unconscious redhead.

Tara shouts Willow’s name and runs to where she’s fallen. Buffy rushes to intercept, grabbing Tara’s arm before she gets there. At the touch, a wave of energy rushes through them, radiating throughout their bodies.

With matched expressions of surprise and confusion, Tara and Buffy stand locked in this position as Dawn rushes across the lawn to Willow, still out cold in the grass. The flowers surrounding Willow recede into the earth, the last one melting away just as Dawn skids to her side.

“Willow,” both Tara and Buffy utter as one.

Chapter Text

Willow dreams of a garden.

She wakes, the garden’s scent lingering in her nostrils, and moans as pain shoots through her side. She reaches across her torso to clutch her ribs and shoulder, throbbing and sore from her fall.

Her fall? Willow frowns. She doesn’t remember falling. Though it hadn’t been unusual over the summer, it’d rarely happened since returning to Sunnydale. “Ow,” she mumbles, sitting up groggily in the grass. Suddenly, it comes to her in a tidal wave: Her fall. Grass. Sunnydale. Tara. Her eyes snap open.

Dawn is kneeling near her, an arm cautiously hovering around Willow’s shoulders, concern laced across her features. “Dawn, what happened?” Willow asks shakily, fumbling to a standing position.

Dawn doesn’t move, moving her jaw soundlessly as if unsure of what exactly to say, glancing repeatedly over Willow’s shoulder. Willow follows her gaze and turns to see Buffy, looking relieved at Willow’s recovery but very much still in Slayer mode, Tara beside her.

The blood leaves Willow’s face. “No,” she whispers in horror. “No no no no no, this isn’t happening.”

Tara manages to wrench herself out of Buffy’s grip and rushes over to Willow. Before she can get there, though, Buffy appears and plants herself in-between them, holding them apart, each arm outstretched to the others’ chest. In a larger and repeat performance of what had happened when Tara and Buffy touched, a great glow of energy thrums between them at the moment Buffy makes contact with both of them, vibrating through their arms and blowing their hair as if there’d been a gust of wind.

Part of her had recognized it instantly, the connection. It had felt familiar almost, the energy, as if she’d been waiting for it her whole life. She thought it was the magics at first. Only it turned out to be Tara, of course; Willow recognizing a piece of herself from far away. Her body had panted with understanding in that laundry room, long before her mind caught up to what her heart recognized upon first touch. It was what she reached out for every time they did another spell after that. Floating roses, demon finding; Willow hadn’t known it at first, but they were all just excuses to touch Tara again.

She recognizes it now.

“Tara?” she quavers in wonder.

 

Chapter Text

“Spike,” Tara says by way of answer, as if that explains everything.

They’re in the dining room, Tara at the head of the table, Buffy and Dawn to either side, Willow next to Buffy.

“Spike!” Tara repeats with urgency, as if the name suddenly reminds her of something important. She scrapes the chair back, stands alert and alarmed. “Is he okay? Where is he? We have to—”

“Hey,” Buffy reassures her, reaching across the table to touch Tara’s hand. “Hey. It’s okay. I already called Xander. He’s looking for him.” Tara nods satisfied, relaxing back into her seat.

The entire exchange, Willow sits folded into herself, arms crossed tightly as if she were going to unravel right there in the dining room. Dawn, for her part, is sitting as close to Tara as physically possible while still being in another chair.

“So. Spike. Crazy Spike?” Buffy remarked skeptically.

“Not crazy,” Tara shakes her head and taps her chest, “Me.”

“Yes, this is pretty crazy, but trust me. He’s crazy.”

“No,” Tara tries to explain, “I mean, part of his crazy is me. At least I think it is. I-its kind of hard to tell sometimes.”

“Well at least that’s consistent. So, what about him?”

“I’m still not sure, exactly? I don’t know where I was, only that there was no magic, and I couldn’t get out. Not until he showed up.”

“Showed up?” Dawn queries, “When? How?”

“I don’t know, a few weeks ago maybe? Sorry, this is just . . .” Tara looks around overwhelmed, waving her hand to try and express the inexpressible. Her face collapses and she quickly brings a hand up to catch a sob.

Willow makes a move towards Tara, but catches herself immediately and sits very still, wrapping herself tighter. Dawn doesn’t have the same qualms. She places an arm on Tara’s shoulder and reaches for one of Tara’s hands. At the touch, Tara softens and gives Dawn a look of immense gratitude and love. She squeezes Dawn back, and though tears fall unabashedly at this point, continues to hold it reverently.

Buffy’s posture has softened a bit—no longer antagonistic—but still stiff with unknowing.

“I was here,” Tara starts anew. “In Sunnydale. But . . . it was different. Like, you know at 4am when the world is really still and quiet and it seems like you’re the only thing that’s alive? It was like that, but all the time.”

“So it was just you,” Buffy clarifies. “Nothing . . . nobody else. Until Spike.”

Tara nods. “I woke up one morning and he was here, in the house, making pancakes.”

Buffy’s eyebrows shoot up in disbelief. “Spike, vampire Spike. Cooking,” she repeats, as if it’ll help her understand better.

Tara chuckles and nods. “I had a hard time believing it myself, but then he started talking to you.”

Buffy’s as surprised as everyone else. “Me?”

“At first. Then it was other people. Anya, Dawn,” Tara lists, looking over at Dawn to see her beaming. She sobers momentarily before continuing in a guarded tone, “Willow.” As she says the name, Tara finally looks across the table. Her gaze is loving, but a little clouded. She pulls herself out of it and quickly resumes talking. “There were other voices too. He sort of . . . talked to himself a lot.”

“Good to know  that  hasn’t changed,” Buffy mutters.

“It took a while to find which spell to use. I kind of made one up myself. A-and I wasn’t sure what it would do, exactly, but I guess it worked somehow.” She gives an empty half-smile.

“Wait, I thought you said magic didn’t work where you were.”

“It didn’t. But Spike had . . . has,” she corrects, “A soul.” She finishes slowly, gently, unsure if Buffy and the others know.

Buffy shakes her head, confused, “I don’t understand, what does Spike’s soul have to do with magic?”

Willow’s eyes widen in understanding. She speaks for the first time, “Energy.” All eyes turn to her. Having spoken once, she looks back down, picking at the edge of her sweater nervously, uncomfortable with the attention.

“That’s right,” Tara confirms, eyeing Willow. “It was a source of energy, one I could use to channel magic.”

“So you don’t know where you were?” Dawn asks. Another question comes to her, and she looks a little apprehensive to ask it. “Do you know . . . what happened while you were gone?”

Everyone tenses, trying not to look at Willow. Tara swallows. “He told me what little he knew.” When she looks up, it’s only at Willow. It’s a loaded comment, vague, but spoken with a weight of a degree of knowing. “B-but no,” Tara drags her attention back to the group as a whole. “I don’t know where I was.”

Buffy glances quickly at Willow before turning back to Tara. “All that matters is you’re here now,” she comforts. Tara looks up at her gratefully. Willow hasn’t moved. Buffy pats the table, pushes her chair back, and stands. “I’m gonna go make some calls. Dawn? Can you help get the extra bed set up for Tara?”

“A-actually,” Tara interjects in a small voice, “I’d really like to not be alone tonight. I’ve kind of had enough of that for one lifetime.”

Buffy looks over at Dawn, still holding Tara’s hand, and smiles. “I understand,” she says. “Besides, I don’t think we can pry Dawn off of you with a crowbar anyway, so I’m glad you’re down for a sleepover.”

Tara and Dawn also stand, Tara giving a lingering glance to Willow, before turning out of the room. Willow’s eyes follow her hungrily but she makes no move to get up.

Buffy turns to head into the kitchen. “Will?” she calls, jerking her head and beckoning her to follow. Willow wrings her hands, looking anxiously at where Dawn and Tara have exited. “Will,” Buffy repeats, more softly this time. It works, catching Willow’s attention. “C’mon. Let’s go call Giles.”

Chapter Text

“Yes, I daresay this qualifies as a priority, Rupert,” Ms. Hartness says to him on the phone. “Don’t worry about the Potentials. We’ll find the other girls and send them to you in Sunnydale. Yes. Yes of course, we’ll start looking into it immediately. Tell her . . . Tell her to hum. She’ll understand. . . Yes. . . We’ll find an answer, Rupert. Good luck.”

When she hangs up the phone (rotary, black, wall-mounted, from the ‘70s), she pauses for a moment, letting the implications of what she’d been told sink in.

Her first thought, of course, is Willow. Willow who came to them muted and shattered. Who came to them expecting retribution and reprisal, and was nearly broken by their acceptance. Now, Marissa fears, things are going to get interesting. The power and choice is up to Willow, as it always has been. And from what Rupert has told her, that is a lesson Tara had tried to impart to Willow as well.

She wasn’t even that close to the table, but even from several paces away, Ms. Hartness was able to see the guilt radiating from Willow. It was nothing new, of course. Everything Willow did  was tinged with shame and emptiness.

“What’s that, Willow?” she asked lightly, watching as Willow slowly angled the siddur into view.

Hebrew appeared occasionally in various magical texts. The Jewish mystics wrote copious volumes, and discussions of those volumes, and discussions of those discussions, and so on and so forth until there were entire shelves devoted to Judaic magical texts.

“Ah, yes. There’s magic in just about every religion, did you know that?” Willow didn’t speak, but her face adopted a curious-yet-pensive expression. It was more than she’d seen from Willow since her arrival, and Ms. Hartness took that as a sign to continue.

“Oh yes. It’s in every religion to some degree or another, woven into prayers or rituals. And not just in the metaphoric sense. For the Buddhists and Hindus, it’s in meditation. For some Christians, sacrifice. And in Judaism, prayers like those strengthen community, connection, and healing. If you’re really curious, you should speak to Rachel. She can tell you more about it in greater detail. Came to us from an orthodox community in London several years ago.”

Willow looked back down at the prayerbook, looking less embarrassed, regarding it with a new sense of respect. “She always tried to teach me.” The words were hoarse and Marissa had to strain to hear them. 

“Tara?” Willow’s breathing hitched, just a bit, as it always did at the name, but she pushed through and nodded nonetheless. “I didn’t know she was Jewish as well,” Ms. Hartness replied.

“She wasn’t. But she still tried to teach me.”

“I would have very much liked to meet her,” Ms. Hartness replied kindly.

“She would have liked to meet you, too,” Willow trembled, eyes shining. 

Well, thinks Marissa, it appears the opportunity may have re-presented itself. They have two witches to try and protect, now. And this time, she intends to be more proactive.

Rupert has given her a task. It’s time to get to work. They have Slayers to find.

Chapter Text

“Sorry I can’t get it to work,” Dawn says apologetically, the air mattress plug dangling uselessly in her hand.

Tara smiled. “That’s okay, Dawnie, I think a proper sleepover will be better, don’t you?” Dawn beams and for the hundredth time that night, leans in for a hug. Tara’s arms open automatically, similarly craving the contact, one hand coming to rest on her back and the other cupping Dawn’s head. The smell of Dawn’s shampoo, the solidity of her body, the warmth of her seeping into Tara’s bones . . . God, how she had missed it. Tears prickle anew and she kisses the top of Dawn’s head reverently, holding her tight.

Tara pulls away, angling Dawn away from her to give her a wet smile. “C’mon, let’s finish getting ready for bed.”

They’d had a lot of sleepovers, that summer. At first, they could never coax Dawn in or out of bed. It often took her until late-afternoon to finally go downstairs, where she burrowed into the couch to stare at nothing until late evening and the process began anew. Tara allowed it for three days until finally she slipped under the covers alongside Dawn and held her as she sobbed until the sun rose, and their stomachs growled. Sleeping wasn’t something she was doing much of herself then, either.

That was the first morning Tara made pancakes.

Things got slightly better after that, but at least two or three times a week, their door would crack open. Squinting against the hallway light, Tara would gently nudge Willow over, and Dawn would settle between them. They were just two lost girls, fighting against the nightmares of gods and girls and sacrifices. In the morning, Willow would be gone, having slipped out quietly, leaving the blankets tucked around them lovingly and the ghost of a kiss cooling on Tara’s cheek as she went to go fight her own demons. Tara’d blink away sleep as sunlight caressed her eyelids open, and look down at Dawn—curled asleep, so small and delicate against the weight of everything that had been taken from her in her short existence.

Dawn beams back at her, looking like the sun, giving Tara’s hand a squeeze before bouncing to her bedroom. Tara continues getting ready, bending to grab a spare toothbrush from under the sink. When she stands, Willow is lingering outside the doorway, hugging the wall as if to make her presence as small as possible.

Tara’s heart gives a squeeze. “Willow,” she breathes.

Willow fingers the trim of the door jamb, gnawing her lip, barely able to look Tara in the eye. The unfairness of it all flares hotly. Here she is, returned to where she is supposed to be, free from wherever she has been, reunited with her family, and yet Tara feels miles away. It reminds her so much of before—those long months apart, between the magics that tore them apart and brought them back together. When every conversation was tentative and unsure, every glance stolen and hesitant.

But this is fearful, wary. Faltering. For both of them.

“Were you . . .” Willow clears her throat, her voice giving out. “Was there pain?” There’s a haunted look in her eyes, but at least she’s looking at Tara this time. The tension in her shoulders relaxes in relief as Tara shakes her head. “Good,” she says, breaking eye contact, returning her gaze to the floor. “That’s good.”

Willow, who always filled the spaces with words, is buried beneath the silence of them now. Tara knows Willow senses that she knows something about what had happened. But Tara, caught between fear and reluctance, is afraid to ask. Afraid to the see the lines form, to see the shape of what Willow had done. As long as she doesn’t know exactly what happened, there is a chance . . . A chance the shapes can stay blurry and distant. She doesn’t want to know the details of Willow’s cruelty. Or her grief.

They are bottled up inside her now. Tara swallows, moves toward Willow, who immediately, but just barely, leans away. They both flinch.

Tara opens her mouth, looking for words but finding none. Her jaw grinds soundlessly.

Willow only nods, as if she understands, and musters a brighter demeanor. It doesn’t fool either of them. “You should go join Dawn,” she says with a shaky false cheerfulness before disappearing around the corner, “You know how she gets if you keep her waiting.”

“Yeah,” Tara trails off emptily to the hallway.

Chapter Text

“What are you waiting for?”

Dawn is sitting on the floor at the base of the bed, leaning back while Tara sits cross-legged at the edge. Tara’s hands thread through Dawn’s hair, weaving a lock into the braid. “Hm?”

Dawn’s trying to be patient. She’s not little-kid Dawn, anymore. She’s teenager-adult-understandy Dawn. The one that Buffy talks to like a peer, now. “With Willow.”

Tara’s hands pause mid-braid. “Dawnie,” she says in a tone that’s clearly meant to temper expectations.

“No, not that,” She rolls her eyes. “I mean like . . . why aren’t you in there talking to her?” The fingers on her head resume their movement. “Not that I’m complaining,” she quickly amends. “Soooo not complaining, here, but—” she turns around, all of Tara’s braiding falling loose down her shoulders, “Don’t you want to talk to her?”

Dawn’s not an idiot. She’s seen her fair share of adult relationships these past few years and is familiar with their shifts and shakes; how they grow and die, tear or heal. She’s seen Xander and Anya, Buffy and Spike, Willow and Tara—Tara, who’s here. Here! Alive! Tara who somehow found a way back to them from wherever she was, who was in here braiding hair instead of out there with Willow.

Not that Dawn isn’t cherishing every second of it. It’s more than she ever thought she’d have again. It’s everything she lost on that carpet, everything she’d craved over the summer—Tara’s safe and comforting presence. Tara, who somehow made everything okay, even when the world was upside down and hurting. It’s a miracle. But she knows that as much as Tara loves her, she shouldn’t be in this room right now. She isn’t hurt by that knowledge, just baffled by it. She wants to understand.

And not that she thinks there’ll be a romantic reunion either, of Willow and Tara falling into each other’s arms with tears and kisses, like everything was fixed.  She isn’t naive. Well, there has been crying. But not like that. She knows there’s a lot to work through. There is a lot for Tara to know and for Willow to say. Willow is still learning how to exist like it isn’t painful. She hears her cry at night sometimes. She hears the nightmares.

She knows Tara coming back doesn’t mean things are fixed, only that things are better . If there’s anything Tara’s taught her, it is that things take time to fix.

But instead, things between them are broken and, not talking isn’t helping them get fixed any sooner. “You don’t have to try and protect me, I’m not a little kid anymore. I know it isn’t going to be easy, but . . .” she trails off, letting the point linger.

Tara nudges Dawn’s shoulder to have her turn back around and resumes playing with her hair. “You’re right,” she admits, just as Dawn is sure she isn’t going to respond at all. “You’re not a little girl anymore, Dawnie, you haven’t been for a while. There’s a lot for us to talk about and . . . you’re right about it not being easy. Which is why, I think, the rest of tonight should be as easy as we can make it.” Tara finishes the braid, tucking stray ends into the folds, smoothing things to where they’re supposed to be.

“I guess that makes sense. It is really late,” Dawn admits, glancing at the clock.

“And some one has school in the morning.”

“Ohmygod, please tell me you’re joking,” Dawn spins around in mock alarm. “There’s no way you’re actually making me go to school tomorrow.” Tara crosses her arms, and raises an eyebrow, making a very clear “I-am-serious” face. “Oh come on,” Dawn protests, smacking a pillow. “You came back from the dead .”

Tara thinks a moment. “Fine. You can miss first period.”

Dawn throws her arms up in disbelief. “First period ?!”

Tara’s quirks a half-smile. “Like you said, it is really late. Can’t have you falling asleep in chemistry.”

Pouting, Dawn flops down dramatically. “Chemistry is my first period,” she grumbles.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay with me going to school tomorrow?”

Buffy fluffs a pillow and tosses it on the bed, flopping down next to Willow. Tucked tightly under the covers, Willow’s lying stiff as a board looking up at the ceiling. “I’ll be fine, Buffy.”

“Uh huh. Cause you seem totally fine, lying there staring at the ceiling like a corpse.” Willow turns to her side, propping her head up to glare at Buffy. “What, like I’m wrong?”

Willow pouts furiously. “No, but you don’t have that many days off, and knowing us, they should probably be saved for an apocalypse. Preferably one that isn’t my fault.”

“What, this doesn’t count?”

Willow shakes her head. “No,” she says firmly. “I don’t know what I did, but so far, the world isn’t ending yet.”

“Will, she said she did it.”

“I know. But I don’t have the best grip on this whole magic thing, yet. Remember what happened when I came back to Sunnydale? What if—”

“What if you made this happen just by thinking it?” Buffy finishes for her.

There’s a look of abject misery on her face. Willow nods.

Buffy sighs. “Will, if you could, don’t you think it would’ve already happened months ago?” Willow opens her mouth to argue, but the logic is enough to give her pause. Buffy slides one arm out from under her and reaches across to lay it on Willow’s. She angles her head, signifying seriousness. “We’re gonna figure this out .”

Willow’s chin wobbles and she bites her lip to try and steady it, desperately wanting to believe. “Maybe,” she acknowledges. “But what if you’re right, and she’s the thing from beneath us? The thing that’s supposed to devour us?”

“Listen, Will, I’m the first one to not trust anything that seems like it could be even a remotely threatening possibility. Especially when it comes to this. To you. To Dawn. Not when I’ve just gotten both of you back. I’m itching to fight and ready to take her down if she so much as blinks the wrong way. But you can’t tell me whatever weird thing happened to us outside didn’t make you think twice about it being real.”

“I’m scared,” Willow admits, starting to tear up again.

Buffy thinks about making it back to the house at the beginning of the summer, an equally dishevelled and exhausted Dawn at her side. The police tape stretched across the door, barring entry. How they sat, dazed and empty, as Xander pulled up to the house a while later to pick them up, a small figure huddled in the backseat. The aftermath suddenly looming  paralyzingly large. “We’ll figure it out,” Xander had said, glancing back toward Willow in the car.

“I know, Will,” Buffy says. “Me too. We’ll figure it out, I promise.”

Chapter Text

“I promise you, this is even less fun for me than it is you.” Xander calls out into the darkness. Sunnydale High is newer, sure, but basements are creepy no matter how spankin’ new they are. Especially with just a flashlight. He is glad to have been on the construction crew so that he at least knows his way around. And if he’s made duplicates of all the keys? It was for safekeeping and world-protecting, of course. Well, it was probably best that the architect, foreman, and school principal didn’t know about it.

He steps carefully, path lit by flashlight. “‘Xander, go get Spike’, she said. ‘Our friends are coming back from the dead’, she said. Y’know, one of these days, that excuse is gonna get real old,” he grumbles.

He’s walked around the school before, but during the daytime, on the job, while building it. He hasn’t been here after hours since, well, high school. God, was it only four years ago? It’s hard, coming to look for Spike instead of going to the house. Instinct tells him to go the other way; to be with Willow. It takes every bone in his body to not run to her side. He only got in the car because Willow begged him to. Literally begged. He could hear her voice tremble, and the way she barely held it together. His hand shook, hanging up the phone.

He remembers when the earth trembled with her. When it had almost swallowed them up whole. Part of him had been relieved, of course, that the world hadn’t ended. But the small, broken thing he clutched to his chest made him wish it had. They had won. He had saved the day! Him! Regular, non-super Xander. So why hadn’t it felt better? Why did winning for them always mean losing something along the way? Things had been simpler, back when he, Buffy, and Willow had roamed these halls. Maybe not easy, but . . . simpler.

He is more scared now, than he was that day on the bluff. He’s just gotten Willow back and can’t bear to lose her again.

Which is how he comes to be wandering the halls of Sunnydale High, long after anyone should be here. He doesn’t know what kind of new curriculum the new principal has enacted but the fact that a light is on in his office makes Xander supremely grateful he is no longer a student here. “Granted, it is more than a little creepy having a grown man wander the halls of a school after dark on his own for no reason.”

There is definitely some mystical mojo going on, because nothing in the basement matches with the blueprints. The walls he built himself aren’t here. “Sure, be a Hellmouth. But at least don’t interfere with good craftsmanship,” he mutters, clearly offended.

Something metal clatters in the distance, and he turns to walk towards it. “Giyaah!” Xander’s arms flap in the air, but he recovers quickly to swing the flashlight up as if it were a baseball bat.

Spike’s face pivots quickly into the light. And for once, he doesn’t have a snarky, degrading comment for Xander. “Did it work?” he asks urgently, with wide, pale eyes. “Is she here?”

Chapter Text

She’s here , Willow thinks for the thousandth time that night.

Her head buzzes with thoughts of Tara. Her body hums with Tara. Her consciousness pounds with Tara. And her heart . . . Oh, her heart—it bleeds with Tara.

There isn’t much she can be counted on for these days, but at one point, she did used to be a good researcher. And not just find-a-particular-demon kind of research, either. No, this is figure-out-what-the-frilly-heck-is-going-on research; underlying diagnostic research. The last time she’d done that was . . . Glory. Back when her magic made things better, instead of defiled; made things whole instead of tore apart. And it still hadn’t been enough.

Willow wonders if she will always fail the people she loves, in one way or another. In the ways that matter most.

But she can’t lie pressed beneath the questions and doubts any longer; they’re suffocating her. She peels back the covers and heads downstairs.

One of the projects she’d busied herself with over the summer is digitizing some of the Coven’s materials. Collections have a history and life of their own, as much a part of the creators as the communities they are rooted in. Giles’ materials at the Magic Box have been carefully curated over years, begun with the Council’s basic resources and expanded over the years by Giles himself. He is as much a reflection and part of those books as they are of him. The Coven Willow stayed with had developed their collection over generations. Magic was woven into it like any other living entity. She and Giles selected a few tomes from the library, ones that might feasibly prove useful to Buffy here in Sunnydale, and in the evenings, Willow has been scanning them page by page.

At times it has made her feel fifteen again, with Ms. Calendar admiring the project from over her shoulder. She and Giles talked about it, once, the nostalgia eventually giving way to bleeding once more over the unfairness of their loved ones being taken away. It is another thing that connects them, that trauma—with Giles having gone cold in his rage while Willow burned with hers.

What books they were able to salvage from the wreck of the Magic Box are in Buffy’s basement now. A few boxes of spell ingredients and other magical artifacts keep company with the books Willow hadn’t destroyed or sucked dry. She pulls a few from the shelves and brings them upstairs.

The impossibility of the situation overwhelms her once more. She takes a deep, shuddering breath and lays her head down, letting the cool surface of the table soothe her while she calms her breathing. She lets herself have thirty seconds, and then gets to work.

“Since when do you drink tea?”

Engrossed, Willow hasn’t felt the hours fly by or heard the stairs creak. Tara is in the doorway, hugging herself in an oversized bathrobe. Her hair is slightly mussed and her cheek bears the mark of a pillow crease. A wave of dizziness threatens Willow and she squeezes her eyes tight against it. “Um,” she swallows hard, heart pounding. “Since you . . . Since England.”

There’s a beat. “Oh,” Tara says simply as she realizes, hugging herself tighter, looking suddenly very shy.

It’s clear neither girl knows what to do or say, but Tara’s self-conscious body language moves Willow into action. “Would you like some?” she asks nervously, immediately pushing her chair up to stand. “Tea, I mean.”

Tara seems as if she’s about to say no. “Yes,” she changes her mind, thinking it over. “That would be nice, thank you.”

Willow smiles, a little pinched and nervous, but glad to have something concrete to do. She heads into the kitchen and Tara follows. She flicks the burner on to heat the kettle then takes a mug from the cabinet next to the sink. The clock on the microwave reads just past 4am. Willow shuffles in the pantry for the tea box.

“It feels like yesterday that we were doing this,” Tara remarks. “For Dawn, after Buffy. Was it only last summer?”

“It feels like a lifetime,” replies Willow, fumbling.

“Literally,” Tara mumbles darkly. 

The comment is sobering, and heaviness settles between them again. There’s so much unspoken. Willow’s bursting with the pressure of it. “You’re afraid, aren’t you?” Willow says in an unaccusing tone, merely stating a fact Tara doesn’t want to verbalize. “ . . . To know.”

Tara looks guilty. Bites her lip. “I don’t want to be,” she admits.

“It’s okay,” Willow reassures her. “ I would be. Heck, I still am .” She has no idea where to begin. Except where it all ended. “You died. In my arms. I . . . didn’t take it well.” Willow’s fingers play with the tea wrapper; squeezes her eyes shut against the memory of the window shattering.

“Spike said he heard the Earth s-scream.”

Willow nods, unable to meet Tara’s eye. Can’t bear to even look at her.  “But not before I killed the person who shot you. Not before I almost hurt Dawn, or tried to kill Giles and Buffy. That’s when I tried to end the world.”

Shame burns so hotly it’s excruciating, but the burns will never be penance enough. The shrieking of the kettle indicates a boil. Willow turns to take it off the flame, giving Tara a break from having to look at a monster. She takes her time pouring the water into a mug, tearing open the packet slowly. That there is no absolution for her is a penitence Willow was prepared to live with. But this part, the confession, is something Willow had been hoping to stave off for a lifetime. Because for Tara to have to live with the knowledge of what Willow had done in her name, it would be a betrayal and pain of the highest order.

“How?” Tara chokes weakly.

Willow snorts self-deprecatingly. “How do you think? With magic,” she spits the last word like it’s dirty.

“No,” Tara shakes her head, “How did you s-s—”

Willow doesn’t remember the last time she’s seen Tara stutter. How many more ways can I fail you? “Stop?” Willow finishes for her. Tara nods. “Xander. Also a boatload of pure Earth-magic keyed to detonate my rage bubble . . . But mostly Xander.” Willow drains the tea bag and slides the mug across the counter. Tara accepts it in silence. “All that magic is still inside of me. I haven’t forgotten how dangerous I still am. How dangerous I can be. I was selfish and in pain and I could spend the rest of my life apologizing and it’ll never be enough because it was unforgivable.”

“You can’t apologize forever, Will.”

“I know.” she says firmly. “I can only do better.” Tara looks unsure. 

Spike must have told her enough, because Tara seems to be handling the news remarkably well. An unsteady moment passes until Willow breaks it until it breaks her, “Was it everything you expected?” 

“What was,” Tara asks confusedly. 

“All,” Willow gestures vaguely. “That.”

Tara thinks over the question a moment. “You know, the last thing I remembered seeing was blood all over your shirt. Wherever I was, for the longest time, I thought it was you who got shot. But I think . . . part of me was afraid to think about the other possibility. That if it was me, what you’d do.”

It seems as if Tara’s about to say something else, but they’re interrupted by hurried footsteps on the stairs. Before they can investigate, Dawn rushes into the room. Her hair is still mussed from sleep but she’s wide-eyed and alert in panic. Her body sighs in relief, relaxing only when her eyes find Tara. “I woke up and you weren’t there. I panicked,” Dawn explains with a shrug.

“I’m so sorry, sweetie, I didn’t mean to scare you.” Tara quickly moves to wrap the teenager in her arms. Dawn clings back tightly, holding fast to Tara’s robe.

“I know,” she says relieved. “It’s okay, you’re here now.” Tara strokes Dawn’s hair, the other hand rubs her back. Dawn buries her head in Tara’s shoulder. “You’re here,” she repeats, thick with emotion. 

“I’m here.” Tara kisses the top of Dawn’s head, looking guardedly over at Willow.

Shrinking back into the cabinets, Willow bears the weight of Tara’s just anger and fear. She hugs herself and reaches reflexively for the tea.

Chapter Text

It’s Dawn who answers the door. “Hullo, Niblet,” Spike says as he and Xander arrive at the Summers house just before sunrise.

He’s spent the night at Xander’s doing a fat lot of nothing, cooped up, and growing more restless by the hour. The basement seemed like bloody Disneyland in comparison. He hopes Harris is telling the truth, not just for Tara’s sake but his as well. His sanity is hanging by a thread and he’d like to keep what little of it he has.

Dawn still greets him with crossed arms and a flat look, which, he notes, is fair and quite what he deserves. He’s just grateful to see her confident again. He remembers the self-loathing and doubt in her own existence from the Glory days and how lost and ignored she felt last year, no thanks in part to him. She deserves better than the lot of them and is so much stronger than she ever gives herself credit for.  “And when did your sister get unbelievably scary?” He’d said to Buffy. He didn’t mean it as a bad thing; he was proud of her.

“Spike?” It is said in the softest, most unsure, hopeful tone he has ever heard. Tara steps hesitantly into view from the living room, one arm holding the wall as if for balance.

And there she is. Standing like a fragile little wisp of a thing she never was. The strongest people never know the depth of their fortitude or resilience, mistaking the ability to endure as weakness. People like Tara weren’t the rock being worn down against the ocean shore - they were the water, softening the edges of the people around them with patient steadiness. 

There’s no doubt in his mind of how much she’s evenned him out over the past several weeks. No matter how many voices in his head- of past victims and tormentors alike- hers was always one he could trust. Each at their most vulnerable, they’d been there for each other. She spent endless hours calming him down during the lowest of it, when his grasp of reality was tenuous at best and violent at its worst. No one had ever…

No one had ever stayed. Not Before, not After. Being undead didn’t change the fact that the things he loved left him. But what would happen now, part of him wondered, now that she was back? Now that she’d gotten what she needed from him. 

“Well, wouldja look at that,” he says hesitantly to Tara with an ounce of awe and hint of self-doubt. She doesn’t move, and Spike frowns, turning to Dawn. “Wait, you can see her too, right?” Before anyone can answer, Tara throws her arms around him. Surprised, he returns the gesture, the uncertainty evaporating instantly,  and gives Tara a pat on the back. She clings tightly and he makes no move to stop her. She stays. “S’good to see you too, love,” he mumbles into her shoulder, something warm settling inside him, feeling like home. 

Dawn’s arms are still crossed, but shift to a more comfortable, casual posture. She smiles wetly, watching them. “Yeah, Spike. We can see her, too.”

Chapter Text

 

It’s been a while since Buffy has dreaded going to Sunnydale High. Ok, dreaded is a little dramatic, but she definitely does not feel like leaving the house that morning, and not just because she hasn’t gotten enough sleep.

She woke before dawn to the smell of pancakes and immediately remembered. It was still dark, so Buffy threw on a robe and headed downstairs. Willow was in the dining room surrounded by piles of books, paper, and her laptop. She looked up as Buffy walked in. “Morning,” she said.

“Can you technically say that if it’s still dark out and you never went to bed in the first place?”

“Sorry,” Willow apologized. “I tried, I just, couldn’t fall asleep. Not when . . .” she trailed off, looking over at the kitchen.

“Tara’s up, I take it?” Buffy asked, sliding next to Willow, who nodded back.

“And Dawn.”

Buffy looked flabbergasted. “It’s six am. I can’t get her up before nine without an air horn.”

Willow chuckled. “She woke up a few hours ago and came downstairs when she couldn’t find Tara.”

“Tara’s missing?!”

“No, no— She couldn’t sleep either.”

“Hm. Looks like we’re putting Mr. Sandman out of a job.”

“She’s making pancakes.”

“Sure smells like it.” Buffy blinked as if startled by her own words. “Wow. Didn’t think I’d ever get to say that again.” She took a moment to observe Willow. Her hair was a little disheveled, there were little bags under her eyes, torn cuticles, and a tired, but anxious edge about her. Buffy remembered those days. Those awful days after Angel had come back. After all these years, there still wasn’t an answer for why. She remembered not caring about why he was back, only that he was.

“How are you?” Buffy asked seriously.

Willow glanced at the kitchen nervously. “I’ve never been so okay to not be okay, y’know?” *

“Been through the whole ‘back-from-the-dead soulmate’ thing, remember? I sooo know.”

With a grimace, Willow downed the dregs of the cup of coffee. “Worst club ever.”

They ended up having a second breakfast before leaving for school, grabbing Pop Tarts on their way out the door. Buffy gave Spike a long hard look before leaving. 

Dawn has to practically be pried off of Tara, and once in the car is quiet and withdrawn.

“Listen, if I stayed home from school every time someone came back from the dead I would have missed half of Senior year. Plus, if I don’t get to stay home, neither do you.”

“Tara wouldn’t let me stay home either,” Dawn huffs grumpily.

Buffy makes a face that implies she’s impressed. “One more reason to believe she’s the real deal.”

Dawn looks over. “Do you really think she’s not?”

Buffy takes a deep breath. “I don’t know, Dawn,” she answers honestly. “I hope she is, but . . . we’ve seen too many weird things to rule it out. Especially with this new big bad we don’t know anything about.”

“Tara would never be evil.”

“Never,” Buffy agrees vehemently.

“Do you think maybe she doesn’t know?” Dawn asks nervously.

“Know what?”

“That she’s evil?”

They sit with the uncomfortable question heavily between them. Questions churn in her stomach and Buffy wishes Giles would get here faster.

Chapter Text

Giles doesn’t believe it himself until he stands outside the front door and Tara answers. “Good lord,” he says simply.

She’s wearing an apron over jeans with a green top, and appears to be covered in flour. There’s a smear of it leading from a spot on her forehead into her hair, leaving a slightly white streak. “Mr. Giles!” she says, brightening with a smile, and leans forward to hug him. He returns the motion, slightly dazed, patting her back in greeting.

“Tara, yes. So very good to see you too.” As they pull back, he looks quizzically over her shoulder into the house.

“Buffy and Dawn are at school, Xander’s at work, and Spike’s at Xanders’,” she explains. “I’m baking.”

“Yes, clearly,” he says, blinking rapidly with a slight smile as he glances at the apron. Still beaming, she steps backwards, inviting him in. “Of course,” he lifts his suitcase and carries it into the foyer. While it is genuinely good to see Tara, it reminds him why he’s here. “And, ah, Willow?”

“She’s upstairs. Taking a shower.” Tara’s tone stays relatively even, but her body language shifts just enough.

Buffy hadn’t said much the night before, only that there wasn’t much to say. When he asked her to repeat herself, all he got was, “Tara’s back, Spike is involved somehow, we don’t know much of anything, and Willow’s gonna gnaw her finger off if I don’t give her the phone.” There was a far-off shuffle of the phone being passed before Willow’s trembling voice came on the line. “Giles?”

“Are you alright?” he asked immediately.

There was a shaky exhale on the other end. “Well, I haven’t gone all homicidal maniac. So, I guess . . . okay?”

“It’ll be alright, Willow. The next flight leaves in a few hours, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Giles, hurry,” she pleaded nervously. “I’m kinda freaking out over here.”

“Ms. Hartness says to hum. I rather hope you’ve some idea of what that means as it’s left me completely in the dark.”

“I’ll try, Giles. Thanks.”

The memory of Willow’s anxiety brings him back to the moment sharply. The being in front of him looks and acts, to the best of his memory, exactly like Tara. But the fact that there is so little to go on naturally has him on edge. She’s been alone in the house with them overnight and no harm appears to have fallen on anyone. Buffy has left a voicemail promising to swing back by the house on her lunch break, and he has called Willow to let her know of his arrival. He is practically bursting with questions and can only imagine how Buffy and the others are feeling.

“You’re worried for them.”*

He blushes, realizing Tara knows he’s scrutinizing her. He’s forgotten she can do that. “Well yes, your, ah, absence was something of a traumatic experience for us all. Some took it harder than others.”

“Like trying to end the world?”

The bitterness and anger in her voice is palpable, and he fails to mask his surprise at hearing that emotion from her for the first time.

Tara rubs her forehead, “Sorry,” she apologizes. “It’s been . . .” she searches for words but finds none sufficient, “. . . A day,” she finishes emptily.

“Giles?” a hopeful, thin voice calls from the top of the stairs.

“Willow,” he replies fondly, grateful to see his charge in one piece. 

Practically running down the stairs, she throws herself into his arms. He collects her easily, and though she’s put on weight since England, is still frail against his chest as she takes a shuddering breath. Willow’s hair is still damp from the shower. He kisses the crown of her head, remembering the broken way she’d fallen into his arms after she’d first arrived in England, and feels very, very proud of how far she’s come.

After several moments he finally pulls back, taking in Willow’s wet eyes and the guarded way Tara observes them, and clears his throat. “Tea, anyone?”

 

Chapter Text

Xander’s eyes flicker nervously around the room before settling back on Willow. The pizza he’s brought over after work has been devoured, mostly by himself, Dawn, and Buffy (trust a teenager and Slayer to each pack away over half a pie single handedly). And the now-empty boxes and plates are stacked high with used napkins. Willow, he notices, has managed to eat an entire slice, and is now taking small nibbles of the crust as she sits back, quietly watching everyone else. They’ve finally got a functional, living, real-life Willow back, one who doesn’t look like every breath is excruciating. He swells with protectiveness. 

God, this is freaky . And not just because Spike is here, though that certainly doesn’t put him at ease. And the way he and Tara are acting together? All . . . chummy and close? It gives him the jeebies. The heebie-jeebies. The nicest person he ever met, like, seriously ‘her-name-would-be-in-the-dictionary-next-to-the-word nice’, is buddy-buddy with . . . Spike.

Ok, so he has a soul now, but he’s still Spike .

Honestly, that’s the one thing that makes him think what they’re claiming is true. There’s no way the two of them would ever be so close otherwise. Unless it’s the big bad messing with them. And Tara is evil. No, Tara could never be evil. But if it isn’t Tara . . .

He’s never seen anything so convincing, though. The way she greeted him this morning, eyes so tender and full of bright, shining love; holding him tight. Eyes that looked so sorrowfully at the faint marks on his cheek, and clouded over when she touched them so delicately, her fingers tickling the stubble on his skin. Tara had looked at him the same way when Joyce died and he put his fist through the wall like an idiot. Only, she hadn’t looked at him like he was an idiot; just with infinite tenderness and understanding. Like only they shared a secret.

That same Tara is somehow sitting in the living room, buddy-buddy with Spike, and collecting the broken pieces of all of them like it’s nothing. Something that only Tara can do. No. She’s real. Somehow.

He doesn’t like it. Well no, that isn’t entirely true. He’s thrilled! Tara is back! And hasn’t been pulled away from a heavenly dimension! But nothing ever happens on the Hellmouth without reason, and that reason is usually bad, if not terrible, and even more often than that, straight up evil. It makes his stomach turn. And not just because he’s eaten too many slices of pizza.

They need answers, because the longer Tara is here without them, the worse it’ll get.

He pulled Willow aside after handing off the warm pizza boxes to Buffy. “How’s it going?”

It didn’t look like she’d moved much from the dining room table all day. She glanced back at the workstation and shook her head. “There hasn’t been much to go on yet. She was waiting for everyone to get back before going too much into detail, but I started researching pocket-dimension theories and—” He cut her off.

“No. Will, how are you doing?”

“Oh,” she said softly, a little dumbfounded and surprised, as if she’d forgotten about herself entirely.

He watches her carefully while Tara and Spike explain their story.

“And you say the books were completely empty?” Giles asks curiously in his most Giles-y way; blinking rapidly while holding a cup of tea.

“Not completely. There was some stuff in them, but a lot of blanks. Some were things I already knew, but not everything.”

Giles seems to chew on the information. “Fascinating,” he murmurs. “And they were like that until Spike appeared.” Tara nods in confirmation. “Fascinating,” he repeats to himself, lost in thought. “There are theories of cryptomnesia, but never in a type of case such as this.”

“Giles? Translate?” reminds Buffy, glancing around the room at similar blank faces.

“The reappearance of suppressed or forgotten memories,” he explains. “Usually it manifests as unconscious plagiarism. Or in cases of deep trauma, such as people waking up from a coma with the sudden ability to speak another language. In your case, it appears as though only that which you had previous knowledge of, or exposure to, was present in your . . . Limboland,” he finishes, begrudgingly using the word Buffy has coined to describe where Tara has been.

“So why’d they suddenly fill up when Spike showed?” Buffy asks. “If I knew he could magic words onto a page, I would’ve had a much easier time getting through finals.”

“If, as Tara says, before there was no connection to the earth, and thus magic, it appears his soul must have had something to do with it,” Giles posits.

“So what, Spike’s soul is magic? What makes him so special? I’ve got a soul, why couldn’t I see Tara?” Xander asks.

“You’re human,” Buffy says, some sort of realization dawning. “He’s not.”

Giles walks slowly around the room, pacing as he thinks aloud. “A vampire is a magical creature by its very nature; a demon inhabiting the body of the deceased. It’s possible that Spike’s soul, while reunited with his body, wasn’t bound by it the way ours are.”

“So Spike’s soul is magic.” Xander confirms.

“Of sorts, yes. And I doubt there are very many demons in Sunnydale who can attest to the same qualifications. It still begs the question as to where Tara was in the first place. And how she got there. I suggest we start looking into demonic soul possessions and dimensional theory,” Giles finishes.

“Isn’t it lucky we get homework when we’re not even in school anymore?” Xander says with false cheerfulness.

Buffy stands and runs her hands over her thighs to straighten her pants, signaling commander mode. “You, Dawn, Giles, and Willow are on book duty. I’ll patrol tonight and see what I can find out about this ‘beneath you devoury’ thing.”

“Um, hello?” Spike spreads his arms wide in a ‘what about me’ gesture.

“Right,” Buffy says. “You stay here.”

“What?!” Spike says, offended. “I may be crazy but I can still fight.”

“That’s exactly why you can’t fight. Your crazy is a liability and I can’t protect you and fight the bad guys at the same time. Sorry Spike, you’re benched. Besides,” her eyes scan the room quickly, “I think there are more than a few people here that could use some extra protecting.”

Immediately, Xander’s eyes find Willow, whose eyes are predictably trained on Tara, whose eyes are, predictably, trained on Dawn. Whatever his feelings about Spike, Xander finds he can’t disagree with Buffy on that.

Chapter Text

There is a chorus of protestations, people clamoring loudly over one another, but in the end Tara shouts, which is enough to grab everyone’s attention. She blushes, but does not apologize, and repeats in a clear, calm voice—that leaves no room for argument—that she is going for a walk, and that she is going to do it by herself.

It’s surprising to her how stifled she feels in the house. After months alone in an empty world craving the people she missed the most, it is suddenly overwhelming and smothering. Willow doesn’t make eye contact with her, though Tara feels her staring hungrily out the corners of her eyes. Willow doesn’t touch her, rarely approaches her, and keeps her distance is much as possible. It feels wrong to admit to herself, but this comes as a relief. Unsure about her own conflicted feelings—torn between her anger, hurt, grief, and love—it’s easier to have some distance.

Tara sighs as she makes her way down the street, confusion and uncertainty tying her stomach in knots.

And other concerns plague her, a deeper nagging doubt that grows stronger by the hour. What if she is dangerous? What if Buffy was right, that first night?

Could she be the thing that she has always feared the most? Something ugly and evil—like her father always told her she was—that will hurt the people she loves? Has she come this far only to have come back wrong? Is she even in control of herself? She stops briefly on the sidewalk and rubs her temple, pressing the heels of her palms against her eyes until she sees stars.

There is no rustle of bushes or sound of footsteps, but the hairs on the back of Tara’s neck stand up.

“H-hello?” she calls out warily. Defensive spells fly to mind, and she sends a quick tendril of herself into the earth, checking to see that her connection to magic is still present and can be called forth. Reassured at the familiar presence, she calls out again, feeling stronger, confident, with the safety of magic at her side. “Show yourself,” she demands.

This time the bush does rustle, but it’s Buffy who steps out from it, ducking through the branches and looking very sheepish. “Hi,” she waves lamely.

“Buffy,” Tara exhales in relief before the briefest flash of irritation flares. “What are you doing here?” she asks, crossing her arms.

“Um. Not following you?” Buffy attempts lamely. Tara raises an eyebrow and Buffy drops the act. “Following you,” she admits guiltily. Seeing Tara’s mouth open to protest, Buffy quickly continues with a quirked brow of her own, “Oh come on, like we were going to let you go out alone? At night? In Sunnydale? Besides, I wasn’t gonna interrupt, you never would have known I was here.”

Tara’s eyebrow jumps further up her forehead. “Sorry,” Buffy looks sheepish again. “Am I interrupting? ‘Cause I can—” she gestures backwards with her thumb, indicating an exit.

Questions and uncertainties hang heavily over her and Tara thinks maybe she’s had enough alone time for the night. Now that Buffy is here, she doesn’t want to see her go.  Hugging herself, Tara shakes her head, “No, it’s fine.”

“Y’sure?”

Tara nods again. They resume walking, falling into step next to each other in a companionable silence, though Tara’s fears hover on her shoulder, haunting not far behind.

“Alright, spill,” Buffy blurts not a few minutes later. “I’ve done the resurrected back-from-the-dead thing a few times now. There’s . . . stuff to deal with. I’ve also had my ex-boyfriend come back from the dead too—or, undead, I guess—so no matter which way you look at it, that kinda makes me the expert, here.”

Tara sighs loudly, not even knowing where to begin.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Buffy says. “The way the world just kept going, without you in it and when you come back, it’s speeding so fast you can’t get back on.”

“How did you do it?”

“Not sure I’m the best example here, what with the clinical depression, sleeping with Spike—,” Buffy counts out each item with a finger, and she’s ready to keep going, but Tara interrupts her.

“No, I mean—how did you forgive Willow?” Embarrassed and almost surprised at the admission, Tara hugs herself tightly, looking away from Buffy and hiding behind a veil of hair. It’s an old gesture, but one she clings to in this moment nonetheless.

Just as Tara thinks Buffy’s not going to say anything at all, she speaks. “I’ve been the Slayer for a long time now and almost given up more times than I’d like. But Willow and Xander were always there, helping me save the world. She had a million reasons to leave Sunnydale, but she chose to stay here, fighting evil. And fighting evil is hard, trust me. Especially when it’s yourself. Sometimes the people we need to save are each other.”

Buffy takes a breath, and the next words come out pained. “I wasn’t here last year, Tara. I should have known what was going on with Willow. Been there for Dawn. For you. I should’ve stopped Warren and the others way sooner. You died because of me. Forgiving Willow was easy in the face of that. Plus,” she adds with characteristic cheerfulness, lightening the seriousness of her previous words, “I figure if you help save the world four or five times, the sixth one’s gotta be free.”

Tara is contemplative, chewing on Buffy’s words quietly as she speaks. But buried in there was an admission of guilt she has no reason to apologize for. Tara looks sharply over, displeasure across her face. “Whose gun was it?” she presses resolutely once Buffy finishes.

Buffy blinks, confused, “Sorry?”

“The one that killed me.” She hates that the freshness of it makes her nearly stammer over the truth. But this is too important for such trivialities. “Whose was it?”

“Um, Warren’s, I guess. Maybe Jonathan or the other one? I don’t know, wh—”

Tara interrupts, because this is crucial, and she wants her to know it. Buffy has always carried too much of her burden alone; this shouldn’t ever be one of them. “His gun, Buffy. He pulled the trigger. Not you. It was no one’s fault but his.” Tara hopes it’s enough, that her words can somehow penetrate the armor of guilt her friend carries.

Buffy bites her lip, looks up at the moon; Tara searches her face. A moment passes. “Let’s go home, Tara,” she says finally, eyes wet. At the battle-weary look on Buffy’s face, Tara thinks maybe, just maybe, she’s made a dent. 

Chapter Text

 

There’s no rushing yeast.

Tara sighs in relief—the bag of yeast is still in the back of the freezer where she left it last year. Crumpled and wedged behind boxes of frozen dinners and containers of ice cream, but still there. The other ingredients –sugar, flour, salt—are presumably also untouched since Tara’s departure.

She made a lot of bread the summer after Buffy died. Unable to sleep, waking in the early morning hours—sometimes before dawn—with a panicked sweat slicked down her back and nightmares of Glory echoing in her ears. There was no sleep for Tara those mornings. Gingerly she’d sneak out of bed as to not wake Willow, who had often helped quiet her back to sleep from earlier nightmares, and head downstairs to the kitchen.

Tara felt closest to her mother, then. Her mother, who had lived with a quiet dignity and strength and died without it—her mind and body stolen by sickness. Her mother, who had braided her hair and patched her scratches and iced the bruises and made Tara promise—promise—to get out once she could. Who had seen the love Tara had in her heart and made her vow to give it to someone worthy.

Sometimes Tara missed her so much it made her want to punch something with the unfairness of it. To take the anger and hurt and grief and push it as far away as she could because it was just too much for one person to hold. It hurts , she’d said to Xander. She remembered that release of pain, grateful to feel it somewhere else for a moment, instead of strangling her heart.

Bread takes time. It has to be kneaded, massaged, and left alone to prove, only to be beaten down again for a second rise. Only time will help it reinflate, to help it forgive and forget what was done to it; to be made into something more.

Tara thinks they’ve all been beaten enough. She just wants to be left alone to rise.

“Are you ok?” Dawn mumbles sleepily from her pillow, curled up under the blanket toward the wall. Tara cringes. She thought she’d snuck in quietly. 

“I’m fine Dawnie, go back to sleep,” she whispers, trying to change into pajamas as quietly as possible. Tara slips under the covers, trying not to jostle the bed too much. With no further motion from the shoulders on other side of the bed, she lets out a long sigh, as much in relief to have not woken Dawn as the exhaustion of the day catching up with her. 

Tara can sense long hours of tired restlessness ahead but is still startled when, without stirring, Dawn’s voice suddenly breaks through the night, gentle and sincere in the darkness. “I was angry too, when she came back.”

Tara sighs. It’s too much and all too confusing. “Dawn-” she barely begins to chastise before the next words chill her to her bones.

“But I wasn’t angry she killed him. I’m glad he’s dead.” Dawn’s voice is hard and cold. The tone is final, leaving no room for conversation. She still hasn’t moved. Silence presses. Tara swallow and blinks into the blackness. Sleep doesn’t come for a long, long time.

“You’re gonna run out of flour eventually, you know.” 

Tara smiles against her better judgement.  Spike saunters around the counter, pulling her from her thoughts. “Y’not uh, hiding out in here by any chance, are you?” He jerks his thumb towards the dining room, where Willow hasn’t moved from research mode in hours.

Tara flushes in embarrassment at being called out so accurately and she punches the dough a little harder than is strictly necessary. “No,” she shoots back defensively, immediately feeling bad for snapping. “No,” she repeats more gently. “Maybe a little,” she admits.

“Lot tougher now that it’s real, innit?”

“I didn’t think it would be this hard.”

“Can’t hide from things when they’re right in front of you. Well, you can, but not forever.” He pulls out a cigarette, slips it behind his ear. “I’ve tried.”

The anger comes more easily than she ever expected it to. “I can barely look at her without thinking about what she did.”

“Trust me, she can’t either.”

“Why are you doing this?”

He shrugs. “I’ve been in love with something I didn’t deserve. More th’n once. Been on both sides of this one.”

After everything , after finally having making it back, things are more broken between them than they ever were. She just wanted to come home. She’d given Willow her heart a long time ago. The trust she’d been earning back carefully all those months ago, gone; crumbled in the wake of her passing. Can it ever be rebuilt again? And now, a question Tara never wanted to ask— Should it?

She’s come so far, finding home again in Dawn and Buffy’s arms. In Xander, Anya, and Giles. Miracles she never thought she’d have again. She wants more than anything to find similar solace in Willow’s arms, to be soothed by Willow’s hands. Hands that floated roses and freed her mind. Hands that have now stripped flesh and crushed bone. Murdered. Hands she can’t even look at. “I don’t know how things can ever be the same.” It feels like her heart is breaking.

“They won’t be. Nothing ever is.”

Tara finds she doesn’t have much to say to that. She dips her hands in flour and kneads.

Chapter Text

 

Willow thinks about how she took for granted, the years when they were together, not being nervous around Tara anymore.

In the beginning, without knowing why, she had been full of butterflies at the thought of Tara -of doing another spell together, of asking to hang out. It became painfully obvious later, of course, but at the time she’d just chalked it up to the nervousness and newness of having something of her own outside the Scoobies.

Then, there was a flutter in her stomach whenever they did anything for the first time, basking in the newness of being in love and out, together - going to a restaurant, seeing a romantic movie, holding hands.

And later came an entirely different breed of nervousness, after their breakup when uncertainty surrounded every interaction in a haze of guilt. And the bright, shining moment at the wedding, when the jitters turned light and hopeful, fresh with the promise of beginning anew. Each moment, electric; lighting  Willow up from the inside out.

But this? This is a new sort of nervousness, even stronger than it had been last year. Her skin itches constantly, but for the first time in a long time, not with the magics. It’s the itch of unknowing, and it keeps Willow up at night. The rest of the world falls away until only the question of Tara remains. And unlike during the pressing apocalypse of Glory, this time, she can devote her full attention toward finding answers. So she does.

It’s been a few days now, since Tara has come back. Buffy has stopped trying to talk her into going to bed; instead, making her promise to take regular REM-cycle length naps. That, at least, Willow can promise. It is nice, though, getting to see more of Buffy after she finishes patrolling, when the lines between ‘late’ and ‘early morning’ are blurred, and they can share a nighttime snack before Buffy crashes for a few hours before school. Sometimes there are other soft footsteps, overhead, in the quiet dark. Willow knows by those steps Tara has woken from another bad dream and is getting a glass of water in the bathroom. Relief and guilt pool in her belly when Tara does not come downstairs.

Willow felt the blade of Tara’s anger; she was intimately familiar with its edges, aware of how conflicted Tara is n her presence. Can’t blame her, at all, either; how can she not be, after the things Willow’s done?

Since not causing Tara any pain or discomfort is pretty high on the list of her priorities, she decides to minimize her presence as much as possible. She shrinks, making herself invisible. She’s had years of practice, after all; it’s been a while since those mousy pre-teen years, but she will be Invisi-girl again in a heartbeat if it means giving more space to Tara.

Willow is done imposing her will on others, wheedling herself back into people’s lives, heedless of their feelings. However Tara has come back, it is her life now to choose what she wants to do with it. All Willow wants is to make sure that it is safe and truly her own. That is a gift Willow desperately wants to give. And that means finding answers.

So it comes as an honest surprise when Buffy dumps a bookbag on the table, jerking a very bewildered Willow out of research mode, and demanding she go to class. She’s forgotten about school entirely. It seems so unimportant in the face of everything else. She goes begrudgingly, and ends up deciding to stay on campus longer to get ahead of the next few assignments and free up time she can use to keep researching later.

The library is near empty, and Willow has a table all to herself. Exhaustion of the last few days seem to catch up, because she finds her eyelids growing heavy, and words blurring on the page. So close to relinquishing herself to a nap, a pair of feet walks into her peripheral vision and stops at the table. She follows them up and is more than a little surprised by who she sees. “Tara?”

She stands without a greeting, hugging herself nervously, eyes dashing around the library, looking everywhere but at Willow. Gnawing her lip, Tara ducks her head, letting her hair fall forward, over her face, and shakes her head softly.

“What’s wrong?” Willow asks, pushing their awkwardness aside as her concern grows. “Are you okay?”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, I just . . .” Tara swallows, still refusing to make eye contact. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“Do what? Tara—”

“There’s something I haven’t t-told any of you yet. About where I was.”

Warning bells ring faintly, but desperate to help, Willow ignores them. This is more than they’ve said to each other, directly, since the kitchen the night Tara came back. “You can tell me anything, you know that, right? It doesn’t matter what it is.”

“I’m sorry, I just . . . didn’t know how to say it. I saw things.”

“What kinds of things?” Willow probes gently.

“It was horrible, Will,” she says miserably.

Willow leans forward in alarm, “Did-did it hurt you?”

Tara shakes her head in frustration, “No, that’s not what I mean. Sorry. I’m saying it all wrong.”

“That’s okay, take your time. Whatever you need.”

Tara hesitates, weighing her decision before meeting Willow’s eyes. “I think I was sent back to warn you.”

“Is it the ‘from beneath you it devours’ thing?” She moves to take a notebook out of her bag, “I’m still working on that. There are some texts—”

“No.” Tara interrupts. “Not ‘It’, Will.” It’s clear from the serious tone and demeanor what she means.

“Oh, god,” Willow says as it sinks in. “Me.” Tara nods solemnly. “Oh, god,” Willow repeats. “What did I do?”

Ducking her head again, as if it’s too painful to admit, Tara responds, “You don’t want to know what I saw.”

That’s it. All of the months of painstaking work, the hours of meditations, sleepless nights, all the times she’s wanted to give up and die, it’s all been for nothing. Panic rushes in like a tidal wave, drowning her in abject terror. Ears ringing, she takes desperate ragged breaths to try and calm herself, but finds the air far too thin. From somewhere outside of herself, Willow registers the table suddenly seeming very far away. “Oh, god.”

Tara continues quickly, trying to calm her down, “But if you stop, completely, no more magic—”

Tara’s words slam her back into herself immediately, and Willow clings to them, nodding furiously in agreement. “Right. Right. Stop. But what about Giles and the Coven? They made it seem like it would be just as dangerous for me to quit completely. Like I’ll go off the deep end again!”

“You can’t, Willow,” Tara says with warning. “If you do so much as another spell . . .”

It’s all too much. All she wants to be is Willow but she can’t even do that right. “I tried to stop! I tried! What if I can’t do this?”

“Don’t think that way.”

The tears are hot with shame and weakness. “How can I not? I’m not strong, Tara. I’m just me. Look at what I did before . . .”

Tara thinks hard for a moment. “There is one thing,” she offers, “One thing you could do to stop it from happening.”

Desperate for an answer, Willow begs, “What? Anything.”

“I did it once. It’s not that bad, really.”

A different set of bells ring a warning. This time shrill and off-key. “Tara?”

“You could sleep,” Tara offers with a shrug.

There’s a beat as Willow comprehends Tara’s meaning. Her expression shifts. Distrust and anger darken her features. “Who are you,” she asks coldly. Deadly.

All gentleness drops from Tara’s face, settling into an almost disinterested calm. “The suicide thing was too far, huh? Huh. You seemed so ripe.”

“Who are you,” Willow demands.

“You know you’ve wanted to. Thought it would be better for everyone—make sure Big, Bad Willow can’t ever come out to play and hurt anyone else again.”

“Tell me who you are,” Willow demands again, less confidently, trying to keep the shakiness from her voice and failing.

‘Tara’ ignores her completely. “I stand by my opinion, you know. The world would be better—safer—if you took a razor blade to your wrists—”

Memories of nights in England come to her a cold rush and the magic comes unbidden. She squeezes a fist against it. “Stop—”

“She’d be better off, too, you know. Without you reminding her of everything you did to her. Of what you did in her name.”

“Stop it.” she begs, “Stop using Tara this way—”

“What, the way you did? When you turned her into a thing to control? When you tortured Warren and tried to kill everyone just because you lost someone you loved? As if you’re the only person that’s ever happened to. She can’t stand to look at you, you know that, right? You might as well off yourself now because you don’t know hurt. This last year is going to seem like cake after what I put you and your friends through, and I am not a fan of easy death. Fact is, the whole good-versus-evil, balancing the scales thing . . . I’m over it. I’m done with the mortal coil. But believe me, I’m going for a big finish.”

Willow can only mutter, “From beneath you, it devours.”

“Guilty,” Not-Tara says with a look of smug cruelty that has never once graced her true face.

Chapter Text

Tara slaps the dough onto the counter, grinding the heel of her palms forward as if she can push her unrest with it. Buffy has gone patrolling, Willow is at the library, Dawn’s at a friend’s house working on a history project, Spike is at Xander’s; and Tara, once again, is alone at home.

The house is quiet for the first time since her return, and even the light seems still. Silence presses heavily, the way it used to, growing tighter around her chest. She’s turned to the kitchen the way she turned to it before, churning the turmoil of everything into something that can be given form.

“Careful not to over mix,” comes a tenderly soft, sweet voice that stops Tara cold. “You don’t want it to get dense.” A woman with long brown hair sweeping over a shoulder sits on one of the counter stools. “Hi, Sweetie,” the woman says, with infinitely kind eyes.

“M-Mom?”

Giving no sign she hears Tara address her, the woman sits contentedly observing, smiling with a look of mixed sorrow and profound love. Taking in Tara’s appearance—hair up in a messy bun, wearing an apron—the woman makes a soft, broken sigh. “Oh, Tara, honey. I’m so sorry I missed you growing up.”

Tara pales, choking back a sob that presses on her throat, growing bigger by the second, as she falls from one nightmare dream to another. She wears a look of pure longing, but shakes her head in disbelief. “This can’t possibly be real.”

“As real as the day you accidentally made Cameron’s water bottle explode, remember?”

Tara’s eyes grow wide at the memory. “The first time I did magic.”

Her mother nods, smiling. “You came crying to me saying they were right all along, but what did I tell you? ‘There’s no demon in you, there’s only—”

“‘—Tara’,” she finishes. “Mom,” she sobs, this time with conviction. Tara moves to hug her, to bury herself in her mother’s embrace but falters when her hand passes right through her form.

“I’m so sorry, honey,” Mrs. Maclay apologizes, looking equally mournful. “I’m just visiting.” Reminded of this fact, she glances quickly over her shoulder before turning back with a serious demeanor. “And I don’t have much time,” she says urgently. “I needed to warn you.”

“Warn me?”

“Her soul is in danger.”

“What? Who?” Tara shakes her head, furiously wiping at her eyes.

“Willow,” her mother answers. “The magic, it’s stronger than her. She’s going to destroy everything. She came back from it once before, but this time there’ll be no saving her.”

Tara shakes her head, trying to process the overload of information. “But M-Mr. Giles and the Coven said—”

“I know. They all mean well, and she’s come so far, but I’ve seen what happens and it won’t be enough. You have to help her.”

“W-what? How, what—”

She speaks urgently, as if speaking on borrowed time and will be stopped by someone at any moment. “You have to stop her, before she’s lost forever.”

Tara pulls back, as if struck. Doubt flickers across her face. “Mom?” she asks shakily.

Her mother seems to have anticipated this and continues gently. “Honey, she knows. It’s okay. Why do you think she went to England in the first place? It was only a matter of time.”

Tara pulls away slowly, as the message settles, eyes sharpening to suspicious slits. “You’re not my mother.”

The woman’s earnestness falls, her face hardening. Dropping the charade, the figure continues, “The murder thing was too much, huh? Funny, it didn’t seem to bother her.”

“Stop it.”

The figure’s visage twists into a mockery of her mother’s. “She tortured him first, did you know that?” she says cruelly.

“Stop!”

“That’s exactly how he begged. Before Willow  flayed  him.”

Tara closes her eyes miserably, shaking her head against the words. “Please, stop.”

The figure places both hands on the counter and stands menacingly. “You think Willow can come back from a stunt like that again? One more temptation, one more spell, and she’s toast. You think it was bad, what happened to you before? Well buck up, sister,” she sneers. “I’ve got big plans, and I’m going to make you wish you never came back.”

“‘From beneath you, it devours’,” Tara breathes out.

“Not ‘it’,” The figure smirks cruelly, “Me.” And with a sharp  pop,  disappears, leaving Tara alone in the kitchen, utterly chilled to the bone, and heaving shaky breaths.

Chapter Text

Buffy is terrified by Holden’s words. Spike siring? It’s impossible. It’s unthinkable. How can he? Between his soul and the chip, there is no way. And yet, the pile of dust at her feet begs to differ.

Sure, he’s been staying a Xander’s, but he isn’t a prisoner. Since Tara’s return, he’s actually seemed a bit . . . saner? They all chalked it up to one less voice in his head, but maybe something else has taken its place. Unless Tara knows something? And they are in on it together, somehow? No! Buffy shakes her head against the thought. That doesn’t make any sense, either. Tara’s been with them at the house almost constantly since returning. And Spike didn’t exactly want to stick around for Scooby research, so off he went—free to do his own thing.

Which, possibly . . . means killing people again.

It’s late. Early, she amends, glancing at her watch, but it can’t wait until morning. It’s too important. Hurrying, she makes her way to Xander’s.

 

Chapter Text

The front door slams open as a very frantic Willow barrels through the entryway.

“Tara?” she calls out in alarm. “Buffy?”

She has one foot on the staircase when she notices light filtering into the darkened dining room from the kitchen. Unsure of what she will find, she creeps tentatively towards the kitchen, taking quiet steps.

Open containers of ingredients and clean baking trays lie scattered across the countertops. A bowl of half-mixed dough languishes in a bowl. The spoon, long forgotten, has slipped down into the batter. Puzzled, Willow turns to head upstairs but freezes when she sees a floury handprint on the handle of the oven, smearing down across its face. Another hesitant step brings Tara into view. She is crumpled on the floor, knees pulled up to her chest, head between them.

“Tara!” There’s no indication that Tara has heard her at all. She remains curled up, taking ragged, irregular, hitching breaths. “Oh god, Tara, are you alright?” Immediately her hands reach forward, but she pulls them back a moment, hesitating, as if unsure to touch. The uncertainty only lasts for a moment, and gently as she can, places a hand on Tara’s shoulder. 

Despite the care Willow takes, Tara’s head shoots up at the touch, wide-eyed and terrified. “Willow?” she asks uncertainly, almost fearfully, as if doubtful of what she is seeing.

Willow exhales, relieved at a response, and delicately tries to assess if Tara is hurt, searching for any sort of obvious injury to explain the situation. Tara, for her part, ignores the ministrations. While Willow examines her for bodily harm, Tara searches Willow’s face. Not noticing the scrutiny, when she finally looks back, their eyes meet and she freezes.

They have not stared at each other like this, so openly, since Tara’s return. It’s been stolen stares out of the corners of eyes, avoiding glances and looking away quickly, bypassing their feelings and each other as much as possible.

Willow blisters under Tara’s deep, searching gaze, but she cannot tear herself away. “Tara?” she asks in a strangled voice. Willow is bare beneath Tara, naked to her core, exposed and raw, stinging like a freshly cleaned wound.

Fearful and doubtful of her own sanity, afraid of the past, afraid of the future, Tara searches Willow’s eyes, looking for any shred of the Willow who haunts her—the one who whispers words with flowers and presses forward blindly. Instead she finds deep knowing and shameful understanding. Someone who has faced her darkest truths and emerged awakened.

There is still much to talk about, but for once, Tara feels like it can wait; that they can talk about it—as equals on the same firm ground, and not grinding against each other like tectonic plates.

Tara knows, from looking deep within, that Willow is no longer a danger, to herself or to others. She has seen the deepest, darkest parts of herself and shone a light upon them until they no longer haunt the shadowed corners of her mind. Tara knows this as surely as she had known Willow had problems in the first place. As surely as she had left Willow, she has now come home. 

Willow had promised she would always find Tara. Turns out, all Willow needed to do was find herself, and there she was. 

As Tara gazes at Willow, a sob breaks, and she falls into her. Gathering each other up, they cling to each other, reunited.

And Willow? Willow drowns. Only, it isn’t the Blackness that pulls her down, but waves of Tara. She never wants to breathe again. Isn’t sure she even needs oxygen to subsist anymore when everything she needs is in her arms. Willow is reminded of why she wants to live.

Unsure of the reason, but not questioning why, Willow simply thanks every god in the pantheon for the wonder in her arms. It is more than she deserves, more than she ever thought she would have again. With every tear Tara sheds, Willow is anointed; bathed anew and baptized in what feels like forgiveness.

Something had happened in the kitchen that caused Tara to fall to her knees, welcoming Willow’s touch and making peace with the past. Her mind still presses with questions, but for now Willow simply lets them be and cherishes her miracle for what it is.

Chapter Text

It isn’t long after Buffy comes home slamming the door hard enough to rattle the doorframe, that a gathering is called.

“And it took the forms of your mother, and you,” Giles says, turning to Willow, clarifying, “Tara.” Both girls nod solemnly, harrowed by the memory.

“I haven’t seen any ghosties since Tara,” Spike says. “And she’s been real for days. Can I go now?”

“No,” Buffy barks , eyeing him distrustfully. Twisting his lip into a half-hearted sneer that looks more like a pout, Spike flops back on the couch, none too pleased. “And no one is going anywhere until we figure this out.”

“I’m not certain how much there is to know at this moment, Buffy,” Giles admits. “We don’t know what the nature of this evil is, only that it can take many forms. And, though, causing great emotional pain, seems to be non-corporeal, thus causing no physical harm.”

“So what, that’s it? A shape-shifting ghost, that’s all we’ve got?” irritation and impatience drip off Anya in waves.

“We’ve worked with less before,” Xander points out.

Tara tucks one leg under as she slides onto the couch. “It thinks Willow is a threat.”

“What, it’s afraid of redheads?” 

Tara ducks almost nervously. “It tried to get me to kill her.”

The room goes still for a brief moment before Buffy yelps incredulously when she finally processes Tara’s words. “It what ?”

“Me too,” Willow adds, before Tara can respond.  “I mean, it wanted me to kill myself, too,” she admits in a soft, nearly shameful voice.

“It what!? ” Xander and Dawn join Buffy’s vocal disbelief. Tara, for her part, regards Willow with a calm, curious look. Willow picks nervously at her sleeve, uncomfortable under their gazes.

“Well there’s no way that’s happening,” Xander states firmly. “I vote no more dying for anyone this year. All in favor say ‘aye’,” he finishes, raising his hand. Dawn raises hers immediately in agreement.

“No one’s dying,” Buffy vows. “And the sooner we figure out how you became alive again, the better. This thing is messing with us, and we need to figure out the answers to the old questions before we start with new ones. Got it?” Everyone nods, Spike included, until he realizes what he’s doing, makes a face, and stops.  

“Wait a minute,” Tara muses, wheels turning. “Spike, you said you saw other ghosts before, besides me. Who else have you seen?”

Before he can answer, Giles interrupts with a question. “Do you think there could be a connection?”

“Maybe,” Tara offers.

“If this thing tried to get to Will out of the picture, maybe it’s doing the same thing to Spike.”

“How is Spike being crazy the same thing as trying to kill Willow, ” Xander asks in an increasingly agitated tone.

“Because while Willow and Tara were being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, I was getting a free therapy session from a psych major-turned-vampire who says Spike sired him.”

Everyone’s eyes widened in surprise, save Spike who practically growls at the notion. “Bollocks,” he spits in disgust.

“I’m just telling you what the dead guy said,” Buffy raises her arms in defense.

“Well he’s wrong,” Spike snarls. “I didn’t cross the ocean, go to the end of the underworld to get my soul back only to rot it by killing again.”

Buffy regards him for a moment, pondering everything that’s come to light. “Well, until we know for sure, you’re staying here, where someone can keep an eye on you,” she declares with finality. “Any questions?”

He scowls and huffs back into the couch disgruntled, but doesn’t argue.

Hands on hips, Buffy faces the group, and in her most Slayer-like voice that suffers no argument, speaks, “We figure out what’s going on, and we figure it out now.”

Chapter Text

It’s been over two weeks, but Tara still has a hard time with the quiet. 

It used to be her preference, in a world full of violence and noise, to keep the safe haven of home a place of quiet solace. It always calmed and centered her. Now the quiet reminds her too much of where she’d been, with its’ unnatural, stifling stillness. But since coming back, Tara leaves a radio or television on low - not loud enough to hear the program, but just enough to remind her she’s not alone. To ground her.

She keeps windows open, too, regardless of the approaching winter, letting the blissful sounds of the suburbs -cars passing, dogs barking, lawn mowers buzzing- comfort her. Especially on evenings when sleep is elusive, slipping through her fingers with each passing hour. Nights such as this.

She lays quietly in the dark with Dawn’s even breaths rising and falling nearby in a soothing rhythmic pattern. It’s been hours but still the memory of the figure in the kitchen earlier haunts her. Though it hadn’t been her real mother, Tara still feel almost dirty with the transaction. As if she’d somehow betrayed her mother’s memory as opposed to it having been twisted and hijacked by an unnamed evil. What memories she had of her mother were precious and few enough; they feel tainted now, somehow, bookended by such corruption, and she burns hot with anger and resentment. At least if anything, she’ll use the outrage to strengthen her resolve. 

The sound of the screen door creaking open and shut filters up through the open window, interrupting her thoughts. It gives her the excuse to abandon pretense of sleep, so she peels the covers down, slips on a robe, and heads downstairs.

The house is quiet and dark as she creeps through the first floor. A small light illuminates the stovetop where the kettle sits, steam escaping, left open as to not whistle. Tara pauses, pulls a mug from the cupboard, and pours herself a cup before stepping outside. 

It’s Willow on the stoop, and she turns around at the sound of the door latch, brightening instantly. Tara winces as the screen door creaks despite trying to carefully ease it shut, “Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all,” Willow smiles warmly, scooching over a little to make more room.

Tara blows on the tea, trying to cool it before taking a tentative sip. “Maybe one day we’ll sleep at night again like regular people,” she remarks dryly. 

“Pretty sure I’ve been disqualified from being a regular person since spending high school fighting monsters.” Willow jokes briefly sobering under the nights’ heavy events. “You okay?” 

Tara thinks a moment before responding. “For the first time in a long time, I feel like it will be.”

Willow nods, as if digesting the words, but the line of worry on her forehead only deepens. A question pulls at her. “How can we be sure?” Tara regards Willow with a confused look, uncertain of what she meant. “About what it said. A-about me,” Willow clarifies nervously, referring to the shades that tormented them a few hours ago. 

Tara contemplates the question thoroughly, quietly, while Willow holds her breath. After what seems like forever, Tara finally opens her mouth, and speaks slowly, giving weight to her words. “If it  were  true, it wouldn’t have needed to try so hard.”

It might have been logical, but still Willow’s doubts linger. Tara sees it on her face, as she always did, and lays a hand atop hers. “The magic is a part of you, Willow. But that’s all it is; a part.”

They sit in silence a few moments longer until- “You were right,” Willow admits suddenly. “About everything. You always were.” She twists the mug tightly. “And I think knew, too. That day at the fair? When-” she inhales sharply as the memory slices anew, “When we had our first fight. Do you remember?” 

Tara stiffens. Everything about that wretched day was broken into her bones.

“I didn’t want to listen, but I think maybe part of me knew and lashed out, ‘cause I didn’t want to think about it. If you were right or wrong, who that would make me.”

The past presses so heavily, Tara feels like she’s strangling on it. A dark, shameful secret, darker than the prison of her mind she was trapped in with Glory, long since pushed to the deepest fathoms of her heart rises like bile. “It’s my fault,” she chokes. “The fight. I was afraid.”

“Of me, I know. You were ri-” 

“No.” Tara shakes her head, insistently. “I wasn’t. You were learning so much, so fast. And I...I was worried. That if I didn’t have anything left to teach you. . . “

Willow sits stunned as she absorbs the admission, eyes growing wide as understanding dawns. “The magic. You thought...you thought I was going to outgrow you.” 

Tara nods miserably, unable to meet Willow’s gaze. The secret has burned in her since that day, but like too many important things, there was never a chance to talk about it. There was Glory, and Buffy, and Dawn, and…by then it was too late.

Part of her had felt what happened after was punishment. That she had driven her own insecurities into Willow, planted seeds of doubt that had never been there, and questioned Willow’s love. Falling victim to Glory was nothing less than what she deserved. She’d been a monster after all.

“Tara, look at me.” Willow nudges Tara, who refuses to meet her eyes. When she does, Willow’s eyes are gentle, full of nothing but tenderness. Tara feels her gaze bore into her so deeply it scrapes her insides hollow, and remembers why she had fallen in love with her so quickly. “Magic brought us together, but its not why I fell in love with you.  You  are why I fell in love with you. The magic was just...extra. Tara, I could never outgrow you. If anything, you’re the fertilizer. You...you’re the sun.”

Tara’s heart clenches painfully against Willow’s love. She hadn’t realized it already found its way back to Willow until this moment as it aches in a chest that isn’t her own. “Are you sure?” she mumbles, feeling home slip into place again as seamlessly as it had the first time. “Cause I’m feeling pretty dark right now.”

Willow dismisses the thought with a wave. “So you had a momentary wiggins. It happens. And I didn’t exactly help by overreacting.” She looks down at the cup of tea in her hands before continuing. “It’s kinda funny, actually. One of the reasons- the biggest reasons- I didn’t want to give up magic last year because I thought the magic was why you kept loving me.” Tara’s jaw drops, hanging slack and insulted at the concept. Willow smiles wryly. “We’re kinda silly, aren’t we. You were afraid I wouldn’t love you without the magic, and there I was, off doing the same thing.”

Tara can only look at her in incredulity. Willow shrugs, as if the truth is obvious. “You didn’t know who I was, before. I was nobody. And I was afraid you wouldn’t like who she was. If I gave up the one thing that made me special, who would that have made me?” 

There’s so much to unpack in Willow’s self-loathing. How could she have not seen how deep and insidiously it had taken root, before? There are hundreds of words of rebuttal in her heart, bursting at the seams, but all Tara choke out is, “Someone I love very much. I only ever wanted you to be  you , Will.” 

She looks over with a sad smile. “I’m not so sure who that is, anymore. Or who it ever even was.”

A thought comes to her mind, completely unbidden, and seemingly disparate, but suddenly the connection appears, clear as day. “Did I ever tell you about lobsters?”  It’s something Tara learned from her mother; making something out of nothing.

“The Big Pineapple,” she’d said once, patiently and lovingly, under the stars.  That was one of the things she loved about Willow - the patient way she’d wait for her words to make sense. Tara never felt like a helplessly awkward freak. 

“Their flesh is soft, but the shell is hard and doesn’t expand. As the lobster grows, it becomes more uncomfortable under pressure from the shell until it sheds and grows a new one. It does that multiple times and every time, the lobster is uncomfortable then vulnerable, but it needs to shed its shell or else it dies.” A shooting star passes overhead. “I think you stayed inside the shell too long, Will,” Tara laments.

She can feel Willow’s hard swallow as her own as she takes a long sip of tea. “I guess that’s another reason the Rosenbergs were never much for shellfish,” Willow remarks emptily.

Tara meets her eyes, seeing the self-loathing, shame, and regret. But she also sees strength, wisdom, and self-awareness. There’s nowhere else to hide, anymore. “I have a feeling the Willow you’re becoming now is the biggest and strongest one yet.”

Having had the unnamed evil test her so viciously and cruelly, to have had it try and sow more doubts in Tara’s mind and convince them otherwise, is proof alone of this certainty. Armed with the knowledge that Willow  has  learned from her mistakes, learned her lessons in the hardest, most painful ways possible, Tara knows what Willow will choose, next time, when faced with the tough call; herself.

Only now is she wholly, truly, Willow. 

It’s Willow’s turn to break. “I’m sorry it took me so long to understand.” The words are choked out in a strangled voice, but she herself is finally free. 

In this grace, Tara can finally see room for herself there too, and she smiles wetly. “Better late than never, right?”

Willow’s face crumbles with a fresh wave of tears and this time Tara doesn’t hold back--no guarding, no conflict. There is nothing between them now. She closes the space between them and gathers up the sobbing Willow in her arms. Her own tears well hot and thick, but Tara holds on, desperate to grip this moment of honesty and forgiveness. Love, like always, carries them through. 

They cling to each other for several long minutes, as the grief and regret ebb,  replaced by hope and the soft white of a new beginning. 

In a cruel, self-fulfilling prophecy, blinded by fear and insecurity, they’d both gotten lost on the same lonely path, forgetting the magic wasn’t what was stronger when they’re together:  they  were. True magic crackles between them with every breath and touch, lighting them up from within, and sharing that light in the darkness. Love is brave and hard. And when the world presses down, love lifts up. 

They rise.