Tempus Fugit – Absolute Zero

by LipKandy

Copyright © 2003


Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer belongs to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox and minions. This story, original dialogue and characters belong to me. I have never and will never make a dime from these stories.
Distribution: The Mystic Muse    http://mysticmuse.net
Feedback: Yes, please
Author's Note: This story takes place in the Tempus Fugit AU. If you haven't read S4 and S7 you may be a bit lost. And for those of you who have read them, this story takes up where S4 left off. If you remember, S7 Willow erased their first kiss and this is the two of them rewriting it. So, to refresh everyone's memories: after interrupting Tara's date with Rachel and learning (the hard way) that Tara is gay, Willow confessed her love, Tara didn't believe her, it was a disaster and there was no reconciliation. No first kiss at all because Willow didn't go back in time. It is now several days later and W/T haven't seen each other since that terrible night…
Note: so far, Tempus Fugit has only been slightly AU (until the end of the S7 version), but at this point, things will start to diverge from canon. There will still be some recognizable canonical landmarks, but as you know from reading the S7 version, things have to diverge pretty radically to make that future happen.
Playlist: (because I owe it all to the music) Sigur Ros "( )", Cat Power "Cross Bones Style", Coldplay "Yellow" (although Tara sings it as 'Willow'), Portishead "Wandering Star", The Yeah, Yeah, Yeah's "Mystery Girl", Folksongs for the Afterlife "So Glad", and Lipkandy "Leave the Sky"
Thanks to: Witchpunk my beta/editrix/muse; JewWitch, DarkMagicWillow and Tulipp for nudging me (directly and indirectly) back to writing this; and all the Kittens – you rock my world!
Pairing: Willow/Tara

Summary: Tara seeks help from Giles while Sunnydale endures an unexpected cold snap.

Part 1    Part 2     Part 3    Part 4    Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9    Part 10

Part 1 

Tara woke up feeling like a terrible weight had been lifted from the world – from her. She felt…lighter. Almost like those first few weeks away from her father except that this lightening was, well, bigger. Deeper. Even though everything in her world had gone terribly, irreversibly wrong.

It had been three days since that terrible night in her dorm room. The disastrous date and Willow. Willow saying those words she had fantasized about since she had met the redhead.

'I'm in love with you.'

She had replayed that scene over and over in her mind, picking it apart, breaking it down to the lines and colors, to the elementary particles of pleading green eyes and shaking fingers.

"No you're not," she said aloud to the empty room and winced in embarrassment at the words. Because it was inconceivable that beautiful, brilliant Willow Rosenberg would be in love with a demon girl like her.

But even that didn't matter now because she had lost the redhead in that moment that should have been a triumph. The music should have swelled, the lights dipped, but there was just Tara, the coward, talking to her feet and shutting down. By the time she raised her head, the girl was gone.

"Coward," she reiterated out loud to the face in the mirror then scowled. And Willow really was gone. Tara hadn't seen Willow in a week. The redhead had obviously calculated her schedule with her usual unerring accuracy and was now working the equations in reverse to ensure that the two of them never crossed paths again. The idea of a lifetime or even another week without her made Tara's eyes well up with tears. She couldn't bear another second of this torture. And the weather seemed to match her state of mind.

A cold snap held Sunnydale in its grip and for the first time in her life Tara felt grateful for her harsh upbringing. She was used to rising in the early morning cold with frost on the inside of the windows and she wasn't suffering the way her hallmates and fellow students seemed to be. It didn't help that the dorms didn't really have heat, just small electric radiators that didn't do more than warm the two feet around them. She thought suddenly of Willow whose warm-weather upbringing surely made her more susceptible to the cold.

I hope she has a warm blanket, she thought suddenly. And a scarf.

For a moment she imagined Willow all wrapped up in a colorful striped scarf, her red hair flaming out of a dark pea coat and smiled. Then the cold reality that Willow wasn't hers to worry about anymore brought her crashing out of her fantasy.

Not like she was ever yours to worry about in the first place…

Because Willow didn't really know her so she couldn't have meant what he had said in this room. If she really knew Tara Maclay there would have been no I-love-yous. There would have been looks of disbelief and disgust, lots of research and finally some sort of cage. She thought of Willow's descriptions of Oz's full-moon imprisonment and shuddered. They would have to lock her up to protect her love from her. Or maybe she would become the sort of evil that only a Slayer could handle.

Pure evil, Tara. That's what her father had told her so many times.

Shaking her head she tried to clear away the memory of that horrible house with its constant fear and loneliness. She wasn't there anymore. And regardless of how Willow felt about her, the Scoobies were exactly the right people to deal with her problem. Even if it meant killing her and she was perfectly willing to accept that possibility, especially if it meant protecting Willow.

But she didn't know enough and she wanted to go to Willow with the facts. Her love's brilliant scientific mind demanded no less. The redhead would argue and debate and she needed to be steadfast. She needed to have all the facts to present the airtight case against herself.

Shivering in the chilly air, she looked at the magic books strewn around the room and took a deep breath. There just wasn't enough information in them, she would need help and there was only one place to go for it. Because she needed to know, needed to understand what kind of threat or curse she might be to the one person who could open her heart with such ease.

It would take more courage than she had ever mustered before to get the information she needed – even leaving her father seemed small in comparison. Probably because there was so much more at stake here.

With a sigh she faced her reflection. "You are doing this…today." Her messy morning hair shook a little. "One step at a time, Tara," she said softly repeating the words of her mother.

With a wistful smile she pulled her robe tightly around herself and walked into the frigid hallway toward the showers.

One step at a time.

Willow sank down in the overstuffed chair and pulled her arms tightly around herself trying not to shiver, hoping that no one would notice that her eyes were puffy from crying. The two wool sweaters and comfy pink mittens just weren't enough to keep her warm. She just wanted to go back to her room and crawl under the blankets and sleep, but no, she was stuck here at this early morning Scooby meeting freezing to death.

"Giles, could you turn the air conditioning on? I don't think it's cold enough in here," Xander smiled at the Watcher and rubbed his hands together, blowing on them to illustrate his point.

The Englishman grimaced. "Yes, I agree that it is rather brisk, but I assure you that the useless appliance the landlord refers to as a heater, does nothing but emit a sort of burnt hair odor…"

"Hey guys!" The door flew open revealing the small figure of her best friend. "Did someone order freeze-dried Slayer?" She quipped rubbing her hands together and Willow managed a half-smile before burrowing farther down into her turtleneck.

"Yes, quite to the point Buffy," Giles changed gears immediately as he turned to the Slayer.

"Really?" Her face scrunched in her confusion. "Cause I thought the point of this hellishly early meeting was just some kind of English breakfast with scones." She stopped rubbing her hands suddenly and became very serious. "There are scones, right?"

Giles sighed dramatically and with a slight shake of his head gestured to a plate full of donuts and a carafe of coffee. "Of course. Donuts actually."

With a satisfied smile, Buffy made her way to the counter.

"I'm hurt, G-man. Why didn't you tell us there was breakfasty goodness?" Xander asked and quickly followed the Slayer to procure his share of the pastries. "It's discrimination against us non-Slayers I tell ya."

Giles simply rolled his eyes. "Yes, well, once you're settled, I'd like to discuss the matter of the uncharacteristically cold weather," he finished stiffly and sat down.

Willow shifted in her seat, her interest finally piqued. "Why? Do you think it's magic-related?"

Giles turned his attention to her, pleased to have someone actually listen to him. "Quite possibly although I have no evidence. It may simply be a weather anomaly."

"Or some frigid cousin of that evil rain demon, El Nino," Xander said around a mouthful of donut. "Hey Wil, don't you want a donut? There's chocolate." He raised his eyebrows suggestively at the end and she wondered where Anya was. For the first time in her life she actually missed the psychotic ex-demon. At least she would have distracted Xander.

Hugging herself tightly, Willow shook her head as he wiggled his eyebrows again. She had lost her appetite days ago and the thought of a sugary piece of fried dough made her stomach turn over. "No thanks. Not hungry," she murmured and returned her attention to Giles. "So you think it could be some kind of spell…"

"Oh come on Wil, not even some coffee? Or a Jelly?" Xander interrupted again, holding up a cup of coffee and a donut oozing grape jelly from one end.

"No I don't want a donut! Okay?" she snapped then stopped, shaking her head when Buffy and Xander both stopped mid-chew to stare at her wide-eyed. "Sorry. I just," she sighed and closed her eyes for a moment remembering a relaxation technique Tara had taught her.


Nope, not gonna go there! That way lies puffy eyes and a runny nose.

Her jaw clenched against the tears, she opened her eyes as Buffy and Xander exchanged worried glances. "I'll have some coffee. Thanks." She softened her voice and forced a smile for the two of them. "Black." At least she could use it to warm her hands.

Once Xander and Buffy were settled, munching steadily on their donuts, Willow reached for the steaming cup and tried to restart the conversation. "So there's magic afoot?"

Giles pushed his glasses up and nodded once. "Possibly," before turning to his Slayer. "Buffy have you seen anything out of the ordinary during recent patrols?"

The Slayer took a few moments to finish chewing. "Do you mean normal run of the mill demon-y out-of-the-ordinary, or end-of-the-world my Mom's dating Geraldo Rivera out-of-the-ordinary?"

"Joyce is dating Geraldo Rivera?" Xander chimed in and Willow fought the urge to simply walk out. She could be studying for her Calculus exam or reading her Psych homework in her warm, comfy bed. Anything but sitting around listening to not-so-funny early morning jokes. Which wasn't really fair. It wasn't their fault she was miserable and normally, this was exactly the kind of thing she would need to cheer her up, but not now. Nothing could cheer her up anymore. If she weren't so completely numb, she'd be crying again.

"Clearly I'm referring to any strange demon or magical activity. Any sort of grave-robbing or strange relics or symbols…"

"Oh! There was this demon the other night with a funny stick," the slayer interjected enthusiastically. "But he got away from me," she scowled. "Slippery little guy."

"Buffy, why didn't you tell me? This could be important." Giles asked with growing frustration as the blonde took another bite and shrugged. "Was it a wand or a staff?" He asked after a heavy sigh.

"I dunno," she continued chewing looking thoughtful. "Kind of a wand-y staff," she gestured with her arms indicating a length of about two and a half feet. "About yay long." She opened her mouth to take another bite then seemed to remember something. "Oh! It was see-through, like glass," she remarked obviously pleased with herself.

"Or ice," Willow mumbled and looked down into the dark brown liquid between her hands. She looked up to find Giles staring at her, obviously lost in thought.

"Yes, quite right," her murmured before returning his attention to the room. "Well, I think this warrants research."

"As long as I can do it in the comfort of my nice warm bed," she grumbled, picking up her coat.

"I don't think that will be a problem. And Buffy," the Watcher continued, "Perhaps you and Xander could expand your Patrol and search for this 'slippery little guy' for the next few nights?"

"Sure. As long as it's not between six and nine I'm good to go," she responded before taking another bite.

"What's between six and nine," Xander asked and Buffy froze, her eyes going wide like a deer in the headlights.

"Um, nothing," she stammered. "Just stuff…you know. School type stuff."

"Oh, I get it," Xander nodded, a smug smile spreading across his face. "It's 'Riley's got a break from maneuvers so we're gonna smooch' type stuff." He raised his eyebrows.

"Um, yeah." Buffy grimaced and glanced quickly at Willow before looking away. "Yep, gotta fit some Riley time in between Patrol and my total lack of studying."

Taking a deep breath, Willow slipped into her jacket trying not to reveal how hurt she was. Buffy had virtually disappeared in the past couple of days when she needed her best friend the most. That one night of mochas when they had stumbled onto Tara's date was the last actual conversation she had had with the Slayer who was obviously devoting all of her free time to Riley. She shouldn't have worried about her friends noticing her puffy eyes. They didn't seem to notice her at all anymore, both of them so wrapped up in their significant others that her pain was pretty much invisible. Again.

Then again, how could she talk to her about this? Buffy would freak. Definitely with the major freak out and that was the last thing she needed since she was already submerged 24/7 in her own suffocating, world-ending freak-out.

And the more time passed, the less she felt like talking anyway. The less she felt like doing anything at all. Even the incessant noisy rush of chatter in her mind had slowed to a trickle.

Even internal Willowbabble is on hold.

Moving with lead feet toward the door she heard her best friend's voice behind her. "Hey Wil, if you wait a few minutes I'll walk back with you."

"No, that's okay. I think I'm gonna go ahead." She shivered for effect and managed a small smile. The truth was, according to Willow's calculations, Tara should trek through the Quad on her way to Victorian Lit in about ten minutes and she desperately wanted to avoid an awkward encounter with the blonde witch. But she couldn't tell her friends that, so she was stuck lying...or telling a half-truth. "Wanna go back to my warm bed." The Slayer's forehead furrowed and her smile faded.

"Oh, yeah. Maybe we can get dinner later?" the blonde offered.

"I've got class 'til late and you've got the six to nine thing, remember?" she reminded her best friend and nervously adjusted the strap of her bag.

"Willow," Giles cut in and Willow tried not to breathe an obvious sigh of relief. Talking to Buffy was becoming painful. "Since we're dealing with cold-related magicks, perhaps you should focus on…"

"Norse mythology," she interjected. "Ragnarok and such?" she finished for him and he nodded, obviously astonished. During the heat wave, Tara had told her about the Norse gods and cosmology. Long, colorful stories full of ice and snow that kept Willow entertained and cool for hours. But they wouldn't know that because she had kept that part of herself so secret. A guilty secret. She thought suddenly of Tara's deep trusting blue eyes.

Tara deserves better anyway, she thought sadly. Someone date-y and cool who isn't afraid...of everything.

"See you tomorrow?" she tried to keep it upbeat, even rolling onto the balls of her feet, but Giles' strained smile belied his concern.

"Yes. Tomorrow." Giles said softly. Willow turned and opened the door to the chilly air outside. Before the door had even closed behind her she heard Xander's "What's up with the Willster?" but kept walking, telling herself she was just trying to keep warm.

Part 2

absolute zero
: a theoretical temperature characterized by complete absence of heat and equivalent to exactly -273.15°C or -459.67°F.
: temperature at which a thermodynamic system has the lowest energy.

Tara walked along the deserted suburban streets enjoying the cool air. She missed fall. It had always been her favorite time of year back home, but southern California weather seemed to skip directly from summer to spring, a weather monotone that rarely changed pitch.

But she couldn't enjoy it completely. Something or someone was tugging slightly at Tara's mind. It felt like that strange sensation when a dream slowly reveals itself hours or days after waking, but, she tried not to worry it too much. She had felt this way over the past few days, seeing flashes and bits of dreams that felt more like fantasies – Willow above her, bare skin and heat and open mouths. It was startling, but never overwhelming and she couldn't quite reach them as if they were happening to her in the moment. Not at all like memory.

Suddenly, in an overwhelming moment of warmth and sensation she could feel every inch of the redhead on top of her, moving over her, between her…. Tara stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk and looked around to reassure herself that no one had seen. Even if it was all in her mind, her skin was flushed and the heat was palpable even in the brisk afternoon air.

So real…

It wasn't a fantasy or even a dream. It felt… magickal, but then everything about Willow had always felt magickal to Tara. Even the way the redhead drank her coffee seemed miraculous. But it would have to wait. She had more important things to deal with now.

Focus. One step at a time, Tara. Then maybe….the magick.

Swallowing hard, she looked at the apartment buildings around her and adjusted the books in her arms. She walked with determination through an archway and courtyard to the front of a sturdy wooden door and raised a hand to knock. But didn't. Turning, she began to walk away only to stop and return to the same door after a few steps.

You are not going to be a coward this time. You are going to be strong like an Amazon…for Willow.

Taking a deep breath, the blonde witch smoothed her skirt and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear before raising a hand to knock tentatively on the sturdy door.

A few moments passed and she adjusted the heavy books in her arms again, sure that he was out. She only had an hour before her next class and she needed to start this now, needed to know that this was beginning.

"Yes?" The door opened abruptly startling her. "How may I help you?" A very English voice asked her from the open doorway.

"M-M-Mr. Giles?" she stammered, looking down at her feet. They had only met once, briefly. She and Willow had run into him at the Magic Shop. She shouldn't have expected him to recognize her. "I'm a f-f-friend of W-W…" she couldn't seem to get the name out, but the Watcher saved her.

"Tara isn't it? Tara Maclay?" Tara looked up in surprise to see a warm smile on the older man's face. She nodded and felt a large smile cover her face. Mr. Giles was so different from the men in her family. Here was a demon hunter whose essence felt gentle. There was darkness there, she could sense it, but it was tempered by a sort of weary calm. "I'm sorry," he stepped to the side and opened the door wide. "I thought you were yet another high school student selling those infernal chocolate bars. Would you care to come in from the cold?"

Still smiling, Tara nodded and stepped over the threshold into his neatly appointed apartment. It was like stepping through a portal out of California and into England, she thought. If she had ever even been to England. Or anywhere. The smell of books and leather permeated the space and Tara felt warmed by it despite the chill.

"Would you like a cup of tea? I was just about to put the kettle on," the Watcher asked and Tara froze. She wasn't used to accepting hospitality or kindness from others, but this wasn't just for her, hospitality was for the host too, she reminded herself. And it might help the queasiness in her stomach.

"Yes please," she finally managed. "That w-would be…lovely." Giles practically beamed at the younger woman and walked quickly to the kitchen where she could hear the sounds of running water and cabinets opening and closing.

"So, is there anything I can help you with, Miss Maclay or is this purely a social visit?" he asked as he lit the gas burner on the stove.

She smiled at the gentle prodding. "Um, Tara p-please." She managed and he smiled nodding briefly. "Yes, actually. I've, um, b-been re-s-searching demons, but I've r-reached the end of my, um, p-personal l-l-library," she smiled sheepishly holding up the two careworn, leather-bound books.

Placing the kettle on the stove, Giles walked toward the blonde, pulling a pair of glasses from his pocket as he studied the books intently.

"May I?" he asked and Tara nodded with a blush. Handling the books reverently, Giles thumbed through a few pages nodding his approval.

"These are quite rare," he flipped through a few more pages before the book fell open to a bookmark she had forgotten to remove. "And in astonishingly good condition."

"Th-they were my g-grandmother's," she offered with a bit of pride, happy that they met with the Watcher's approval.

"Researching Occum's Heart?" he asked as he studied the woodcut that had inexplicably captured her interest for the past few weeks.

"N-no," she ducked her head in embarrassment. "Just a side p-project." He was now studying her with a soft smile and several moments passed in awkward silence before Tara struggled to fill it. "I, um, it s-sort of…c-called to me. I g-guess that sounds r-ridiculous," she shrugged and picked at a loose thread on her skirt.

"Not at all," he said softly and set the book carefully on the table. "Wars have been fought over the very idea of the Heart. Although the Council determined several years ago that it is in actuality a myth," he explained and sat back in the leather chair. "So you're researching demons?" She nodded and he settled into a chair nearby. "And you would like my help?" She nodded again, ducking behind her hair at what she knew would be the next question. "Will you be working with Willow?" Which wasn't at all the question she was expecting.

"N-no. I don't want Willow involved," Tara spoke clearly, meeting his gaze with conviction then softened slightly. "It—it could be d-d-dangerous and it's, um, kind of personal. I'd app-preciate if you wouldn't t-tell her."

"I see," his voice was almost a whisper. The kettle began to whistle and he rose abruptly in a flurry of tweed to tend to the tea. As the Watcher puttered in the kitchen, Tara scanned the titles on the shelves, amused to see a copy of Dante's Inferno next to a well-worn copy of Harry Potter. Running her hands nervously over her skirt again, she felt the unmistakable soft of wool and reached between the seat cushion and the arm of the chair to remove a pink woolen mitten.


Bringing it to her face with shaking fingers, she inhaled the unmistakable scent of the redhead and felt the tears well in her eyes.

"I have quite a few herbal teas if you prefer," she heard Giles speak absently as he rounded the corner with a tea tray. Tara guiltily tucked the mitten in her jacket pocket and rose to help the Watcher clear a space.

"Thank you, Tara. Now," he settled back into the leather chair opposite with a steaming cup of tea. "You say this is demon-related and personal," he asked carefully, stirring his tea. "This isn't related to the cold spell we're enduring is it?"

Surprised, Tara looked up to meet the Watcher's gray eyes. "You think the cold is magick-related?" She hadn't even considered that possibility, so wrapped up in her own issues and Willow that she couldn't really see anything anymore.

"Possibly," he said in a matter-of-fact tone before taking a sip of tea.

"Then you sh-shouldn't be wasting your t-time with my p-problems," she placed her cup on the coffee table and began to gather her books.

"Nonsense." His voice was soft but firm. "We're not even sure there is a connection yet." He held her eyes and smiled. "Besides, your demon research may prove useful. And if Willow is correct – and I'm sure she is – your abilities would be a valuable addition in the event that there is a connection."

Speechless, Tara held his kind eyes for a moment before picking up her teacup with a shaking hand. Willow had talked about her to Mr. Giles. She was sure the fiery blush on her face was obvious to the Englishman, but he betrayed no hint that he had even noticed her discomfort.

"I'd be h-happy to help you r-research the cold," she said shakily. Giles offered his genuine thanks and sat back in his chair as if he was waiting for her.

Taking another scalding sip of the mint tea she had selected, Tara inhaled deeply and willed herself to reveal the terrible secret she had been carrying as long as she could remember.

For Willow.

"I'm demon." The words were out of her in a sudden rush and she set the fragile teacup down waiting for the disgusted and angry remarks or possibly even violence. When she finally found the courage to look up at the older man, he was studying her with an expression somewhere between confusion and interest. "It r-runs in my family…only in the w-w-women. But th-they never s-said which kind…of d-demon I mean."

The Watcher's forehead was now furrowed in concentration as he studied the contents of his cup and finally looked up at her. "Your mother as well?"

She nodded and looked down at her hands. "I n-never saw her transf-formation," she winced remembering the horror of hearing her mother's desperate pleading when her father and uncle locked her in the 'demon room'.

"I see," he said in a near-whisper. "I know how difficult this must be for you, Tara, but I do need to ask a few more questions."

"O-Of course," she replied without looking up.

"Was her transformation linked to any temporal or lunar events?" He asked gently.

"You mean, like a w-werewolf?" she asked and he nodded his assent. "No. It was r-random as far as I could tell. Every f-few months or so. Until t-two years before she died…then it s-stopped completely."

"I'm very sorry." The Englishman cleared his throat softly and she heard the chink of the teacup being set on the wooden table top. "And your own…transformations?" His tone was so gentle, tears clouded her vision. Here she was telling him that she was a demon, a potential threat and he was taking such care with her.

"I don't…I mean, I haven't t-turned yet. Not until my twentieth birthday." There were several moments of silence. Giles looked lost in thought as his eyes scanned the bookshelf to Tara's right. She finally picked up the teacup again and took a sip to calm herself.

"Did they ever describe her transformations to you or give you any physical description of the demon she would become," he asked finally and she shook her head. His eyebrows drew together in deep concentration and she heard an almost inaudible "Hm, very interesting," before he stood up and withdrew a linen from his pocket to begin cleaning his glasses. Tara smiled at a memory of Willow's exaggerated pantomime of this same gesture.

After a few moments of deep thought, he walked to one of the overloaded bookshelves and withdrew a couple of volumes. "Well, from what you've told me, it's unlike anything I've encountered to date. No lunar connection, no periodicity and onset triggered by a rather arbitrary date…." He trailed off, finally turning to her with a serious expression. "It could be some form of possession…a family curse of some sort that is repeated with each generation."

"Possession?" She hadn't considered that option. Her father's very limited descriptions had always been so physical – ugly, deformed, evil.

"Yes, and that would be treatable. We could perform a banishment spell." He returned his attention to the page in front of him and Tara sat speechless. She had never imagined it could be that easy. That it could be treatable. Of course, banishment spells were hardly simple, but the idea that there was hope was absolutely astonishing. "Or there's always the possibility of some sort of demon blood in your family. A kind of latent demonic tendency, but those are typically brought on by specific physical events…puberty, a first sexual experience, some sort of sacrifice or ritual cutting," as he rambled on excitedly she couldn't help draw a parallel with Willowbabble. Grabbing several more volumes, he brought a large stack and set it on the table in front of Tara with great enthusiasm.

"These volumes make an excellent start and I have a few more in storage that may be of some help," he muttered absently, cleaning his glasses again. Tara stared wide-eyed at the wealth of information before her, then winced at the sheer volume of it. She had a ten-page Sociology paper due next week and hadn't even begun to study for Art History. But this was more than she had dared hope for.

"Th-thank you," she finally managed. "But I couldn't p-possibly…they're so v-valuable."

"Not to worry," he smiled replacing his glasses. "You obviously have a great reverence for books as those two wonderful volumes can attest," he motioned to her grandmother's books.

"Would you l-like to b-borrow them?" she asked and watched a shy, child-like smile creep across his face.

"Would you mind?" He asked hopefully and she almost laughed out loud at his enthusiasm.

Shaking her head wildly, she smiled. "I'd be honored. Besides, I don't think I could c-c-carry them all back to the d-dorm."

His eyes went wide immediately and he bent to pick up the enormous stack of books. "You couldn't possibly carry all of these back to campus. I'll drive you."

Completely flustered by yet another unfamiliar display of kindness and generosity, Tara blushed deep red. "No, no…it's o-o-okay, really. I n-need the exercise."

"I insist," he ignored her and picked up a set of keys. "I can tell you about the demon we're researching on the way in case you run across it in your studies." Tara stood speechless by her chair still unsure. No one was ever kind to her. No one but Willow. And this man knew about the demon and the evil that lurked within her, but still stood waiting to go out of his way to help her.

She couldn't stop the tear that rolled down her cheek, surprising her. Wiping hurriedly at her face, she bent to retrieve her bag hoping that he hadn't seen her emotional display.

"Tara I know this must be terrible for you. I admit I can't even imagine…" he trailed off and she looked up to find a crisp handkerchief extended toward her. Swallowing another sob, she took the offered linen and whispered a quiet thank you. "It took incredible courage to come here today," he said softly. "I can see why Willow speaks so highly of you."


That brought all of the terror and sadness out of her, the tears streamed down her face as she thought about the brilliant redhead. This wasn't about her at all. This was about Willow and he had to understand that.

"P-please, I want," she sobbed then paused to collect herself. "Don't let me h-hurt her. If it c-comes to that…if I'm…" the gentle pressure of his hand on her arm stopped her.

"I'm sure it won't come to that," he offered with a sad smile.

"But if it d-does I n-need you to p-promise me if it's s-something e-evil you'll help me k-kill it." His smile faded abruptly.

"You do understand what you're saying," he asked carefully.

She held his eyes in an unwavering stare and nodded. "I w-won't hurt anyone. I w-won't allow that to happen." She had to make him understand this – the real reason for her visit. Someone had to know so they could protect the world from her demon self. The Watcher held her gaze for a few moments before his features softened.

"We'll find an answer, Tara," he stated simply. "It's what we do."

Part 3

Willow pulled the comforter over her head in attempt to speed up the warming process. She had crawled into bed fully-clothed trying to escape the cold. And it wasn't really that cold, she reminded herself. It was only in the mid-forties. No one was going to freeze to death in Sunnydale. Still, it was definitely not warm and Willow Rosenberg was not the frolic-in-the-snow type.

Nope, much more of a curl under the covers kinda girl, she mused. It was so much nicer under the covers with the light filtering in all blue and orange with a little bit of pink from the sheets. Yep, much better under the covers. Still, frolicking in the snow might not be so bad if she could come back to bed and warm up with someone nice and snuggly. Plus, there were snow angels. Tara said she liked to make snow angels when she was little and Willow imagined ghostly, ethereal sculptures carved from snowflakes and ice with flowing hair and sky blue eyes. And curves.

Tara. Snuggly. Damn! How did I end up back here?

She sighed and pulled the covers back from her face. It seemed she spent most of her time trying not to think about the blonde witch. On the second day after The Day that Must Not Be Mentioned she had remembered a few meditation techniques in an attempt to quell the overwhelming, body-wracking spasms of grief and anxiety that seemed to hit her at the worst times – like the Scooby meeting. She winced at the memory of snapping at Xander then returned to the meditation technique. The idea was to empty your mind…but not forcefully. If thoughts intruded you were supposed to acknowledge them and gently sort of push them aside. She tried. Really hard. But thoughts of Tara were like some self-replicating virus that could take down her processor in a matter of minutes – filling up everything with Taraness.

So that hadn't worked. And neither had the whole reverse-bumping-into thing. All of that calculating to avoid Tara and she found herself desperately hoping the blonde would defy her analysis and turn up unexpected. It was the only time in Willow's life that she could remember actually hoping to be proven wrong. So far, her calculations were terrifyingly and disappointingly accurate.

The only thing that seemed to work was bed and sleep. And she was having the best dreams. And not just the Tara spicy dreams…although those were definitely of the good. And bad, because, hello, no chance of making them a reality. But it was the less spicy ones that woke her up with a bittersweet smile: vivid dreams of hand-holding under the table at Scooby meetings; Tara's fingers threading hypnotically through her hair as Willow's head rested comfortably in her lap; stealing smooches in the Magic Box of all places.

It was as if in sleep she had the relationship with Tara she hadn't even dared imagine – full of love and passion and trust. Something perfect and all hers. And Tara's.

And she really wanted to go back there, but there was the cold research Giles expected. She scowled at the stack of magick books and pulled the comforter up to her chin. Maybe there wasn't any connection anyway and she would waste hours of possible sleep time researching. They didn't know if this was an evil ice cream demon intent on bringing the Rocky Road Apocalypse or just some sort of weird weather coincidence.

But there was a way to find out she realized with a smile. Pulling her laptop from her bag without moving from her warm spot, she began to search through the weather reports for Sunnydale and the surrounding areas. It looked at first as if it was just some slow cold front, but her scientific mind immediately saw the improbability of the too-regular drops in temperature. Not to mention that fifty miles out of Sunnydale in any direction the temperature rose to its normal seventy degrees. So, yes, definitely some sort of Hellmouth-y weather weirdness.

Great. She made another face at the leather-bound books and looked at the clock. Her first class wasn't until one o'clock so she could, theoretically, take a nap and still have time for research.

And I'll be all rested and ready after a nap. Yep, it's napping in the name of research. Always for a good cause.

Closing the laptop with a snap, Willow snuggled down into the blankets and let herself drift off with the blue-eyed snow angels.

That wild thing inside her was growing restless. An hour of wandering around cemeteries and she had only staked one vamp. There had been no sign of the slippery demon with the shiny stick thing. Of course, this could have something to do with the fact that Anya had insisted on going along and the blonde hadn't stopped talking for more than three seconds.

"Look, no offense, but have you guys ever heard of stealth?"

Xander looked sheepishly at Anya whose mouth still hung open from her endless monologue. He looked back to Buffy, slipping his hands into his pockets. "Sorry Buff."

"You're sorry!" Anya huffed. "This Slayer," she said contemptuously, "Just rudely interrupted my story and you're apologizing? To her?" With her hands on her hips the ex-vengeance demon stared down her now cowering boyfriend. "She should apologize." She pointed at the Slayer without averting her icy stare.

"An, we're supposed to be patrolling…" Xander began to whine and Buffy rolled her eyes in frustration. She had had about as much as she could stomach of this entire scenario. First she had given up her 'Riley Time', as Xander insisted on calling it, to accommodate their schedule and now they were wasting even more valuable minutes having a very loud argument. It was getting harder and harder to rein in the Slayer inside that wanted a very physical confrontation at this point.

"Guys! Hello! Not helping in the whole stealth department…" she began gesticulating wildly only to be interrupted by an unfamiliar voice.

"Looky, looky. What do we have here? A couple of tasty blondes and, well, Craig you can have the dweeb. He's more your type."

"Hey! He's not a dweeb…" Anya retorted automatically and Buffy felt her spidey senses kick into high gear as the girl's eyes suddenly went wide. "Oh. See!" She motioned to the newly arrived vampires and graced Buffy with a smug smile. " Stealth with vampires," she lectured, "Not really a priority since we're their…." At that moment the vampires – three of them she noted internally – decided to lunge and the last word was distorted into a surprised high-pitched scream as Anya was knocked to the side by Xander. "Prey!"

Even before her stake sank into the chest of the first vampire, Buffy felt a sort of glorious relief. She needed this badly and not just for the Slayer thing. This was uncomplicated and easy – despite the risk to life and limb thing. When everything else in her felt so hopelessly out of control and confusing she could count on slaying to reduce everything to the basics. This, after all, was what she was meant to do.

Focusing on the fight she extended her senses a bit to make sure that Xander and Anya were out of harm's way before returning her attention to the two remaining vamps smiling evilly at her, the faint moonlight reflecting off bared fangs.

"Oooh, looks like we've got ourselves a spicy one Todd. What do you think she tastes like?"

"Like chicken?" she answered then grimaced. She was definitely not on her game tonight. The main vamp was looking at her with a quizzical expression and his minion just stared ahead blankly. "You know, 'cause everything tastes like chicken?" It came out as more of a question than a statement and Buffy cringed remembering that Xander and Anya were here to witness her very un-Buffy-like like gaffe. She would never hear the end of this. It would be Kentucky Fried Buffy jokes for the next three weeks at least.

With a sigh she lunged at the dim-witted minion using a precisely timed set of moves she had been working on for the past few weeks. It was probably a little too complicated for a real fight, but these two didn't look like too much of a challenge. Besides, she had to punish them for making her look bad.

A reverse handspring and she hit him with two feet squarely in the center of his chest, knocking him to the ground and sending her into a perfectly executed forward roll. A quick sweep to knock the leader off his feet and she tucked into a quick back flip to straddle the minion and stake him in one easy motion.

The sound of Xander whooping and clapping actually made her smile as she leapt to her feet to confront the other vampire. She hadn't really gotten a good look at him before, but now he stood in the faint light of a street lamp and she felt like she had had the wind knocked out of her. Dark hair, square shoulders, dark trench coat, and that brooding stare as he assessed her.

"Angel?" Her voice was almost a whisper. She had managed to almost completely banish her first love from her thoughts for the past two months and now it all came crashing back into her in a breathtaking tidal wave of pain and anger. And betrayal.

She stood flat-footed, overwhelmed by the rush of emotions, as a roundhouse caught her off guard and sent her to the ground hard.

"So, not so spicy. More tart." He said above her with a sneer and kicked her in the ribs before she could rise. Looking up she could see cruel blue eyes and the differences that should have been obvious before – this wasn't Angel.

Somewhere to her right she could hear the sounds of a heated argument between Anya and Xander. Could hear Anya insisting that the Scooby stay out of the fight. For the first time in over a month, she hoped that the ex-vengeance demon got her way. All she needed was Xander running in to rescue her and inevitably just endangering himself.

Another kick to her face and she tasted blood. That was enough to send the Slayer into a frenzy. Without thinking she kicked into a backward roll and regained her feet, but lost her stake. In a blur of rage she took the Angel clone down with a crippling blow to the side of his knee and followed up with a series of kicks and punches that left him bleeding and prone. But the Slayer wasn't finished yet, with the taste of blood still coppery and warm in her mouth she showered him with punches, screaming in rage and pent-up frustration as her fists landed again and again with satisfying precision. The sound of Xander's voice brought her back to the world of the real and she was surprised to hear her own voice raging about L.A. and true love and broken promises as she brutalized the already unconscious vampire.

Finally slowing her punches she sat still trying to regulate her breathing.

What's happening to me?

Because this was becoming a little too familiar, this loss of control. It was terrifying. She felt a hard tremor begin in her hands and brought them up to study the shaking with a sort of detached interest. A wooden stake appeared between her and the vampire and she stared at it for a moment uncomprehending.

"I think he's already a check in the win column, Buff. Do you want me to finish him for you?" It was Xander's voice, gentle and worried. She felt the warm pressure of his hand on her shoulder and shook her head. Carefully pulling the stake from his hand she took one last look at the soulless undead thing that wasn't Angel and drove the stake through his chest.

Before the vampire could disintegrate into dust she was on her feet backing away from Xander, apologizing as she hastily wiped the tears from her face.

"Sorry, I don't know…"

"Hey, it's me," he said with sad eyes and a warm smile. "It's okay." But there was more than concern there. She could see something like fear behind it all.

He's afraid of me. And he should be.

"I'll see you…" she began taking steps backward away from him. "I mean, you know…Scooby meeting. Tomorrow."

His forehead furrowed with concern as he extended a hand to her. "Buffy, are you sure you're okay?"

"Yep! Fine!" But her voice was too shrill. Too perky. "I've just…I've gotta go."

He nodded, his face still full of worry and she noticed Anya several yards behind him standing quietly with her arms crossed.

Okay, I managed to shut Anya up so that must have been quite a freak-out.

With a small wave she turned and forced herself not to run until she was safely out of sight. Then it was all instinct. She didn't even have to think, her feet taking her automatically to the familiar building. But it was after 'lockdown' so she would have to sneak in. Slipping silently through the empty corridors, she passed the 'Visiting Hours 6-9pm' sign and turned right. A familiar set of broad shoulders in the familiar green cotton shirt was visible in the room and she breathed a sigh of relief.

"Hi Paul," she whispered making the big man jump.

He brought a giant hand up to his chest and shook his head with a relieved smile. "Buffy you scared me to death," he said softly as she shut the door behind her.

"Sorry," she said and hoped that her puffy eyes weren't visible in the dim light of the room. "How's she doing?" she looked to the placid features of her fellow Slayer lying under a hospital sheet.

"Better now that you're here," he said with a smile. "It was all frowns earlier. Until you showed up," he said softly as he replaced an IV bottle. "Of course, you realize that it is after visiting hours and I couldn't possibly," he arched an eyebrow and trailed off.

"I know, I know," she said with a smile. "I am officially breaking and entering without your consent."

Another giant smile lit up his face and he nodded. "I'm just glad you're here for her." He shook his head and looked at the Dark Slayer. "Young girl like that…it's not right." His face hardened and he looked back to Faith. "Whoever did this…" he left his sentence unfinished and Buffy felt the muscles in her jaw tighten in guilt and anger and shame. Because she had done this. But she had managed to forget that and everything else until tonight.

Patting her shoulder he walked past her and whispered a silent, "Good night," leaving her alone in the room with her arch-enemy and the past that never seemed to let go.

"Hey Faith," she whispered and sat down in her usual place beside the bed, marveling again at the fact that she was here at all. If it hadn't been for that dream she would have certainly left Faith here to rot in this hospital. But the dream was so vivid…and undeniable. It had led her here to another secret she was forced to keep from her friends. Because they wouldn't understand. She wasn't sure she did.

Picking at something on the white sheet she began nervously, "So, you'll never believe what happened tonight. There was this vamp that looked just like…"

Part 4

She and Tara were in bed. Naked. It was exquisite and warm and it wasn't even naughty. Yet. The two of them lay face to face just staring at into each other's eyes. Smiling. She could feel Tara's hand on her hip, felt a bare leg rub lightly over her calf. It seemed to go on forever this dream stretching backwards and forward. So warm.

Then suddenly in a violent jerk the scene changed. She was on the floor now, on her knees. Something sticky and warm and she knew already what it was because Tara lay beneath her on the floor, limp and empty. Tears streamed down her hot face and the screaming seemed to come from everywhere at once. And the grief and agony – there was no end to it. It was all over and through her, consuming her burning her self away into something dark and furious.

"TARA!" She woke with a start screaming the girl's name, covered in sweat. It took her a few moments to understand where she was: in her dorm room. Her empty dorm room. At least Buffy wasn't there as usual to hear her scream the blonde witch's name in her sleep. She wiped her eyes clumsily and tried to shake away the terror of the nightmare, but it wouldn't leave. The horror of losing Tara was like nothing she had ever felt. Finally she let it overtake her and sat sobbing in the bed staring at the photo strip of she and Tara through teary eyes.

After a few minutes her breathing finally began to even out and the crying subsided, but she still felt empty. And cold. Yep, definitely cold. The windows were all fogged and several, she noticed, were cracked. Which was strange. Maybe the cold? Glancing at the clock she noticed that the plastic casing was shattered and the digital display blinked 12:00 at her over and over again. Looking to her trusty black wristwatch she gasped in shock.

"No." Her trusty watch, the one that had survived apocalypses and demon attacks, was smashed, it's display now a dull metallic gray. She knew it was ridiculous to mourn a watch, but she loved that ugly thing. It kept perfect time and now she would have to go buy a new one.

Okay, so I'm not used to the cold, but aren't these things meant to stand up to temperatures above zero?

Shaking her head she finally checked Buffy's analog clock and discovered that she was almost late for the Scooby meeting.

"Oh heck!" she yelped and jumped shivering from the bed to throw on the nearest clothes, gathering magic books as she went.

As she walked briskly to Giles', images from the nightmare continued to assault her bringing tears to her eyes. The emptiness of it, the loss…she stopped dead in the middle of the street, wrinkling her nose in concentration.

This stops today. I can't…with the avoiding. I just can't anymore. Besides, maybe if I'm really good she'll want to be friends again.

She smiled a genuine smile for the first time in days thinking of her friendship with the shy blonde. It wasn't everything. It wasn't lazy, hazy naked time in bed, but it was so much more than she had ever had in her life.

So…friendly. I'll apologize and plead insanity or something and hey! I'll bring flowers. No. no flowers. Too girlfriend-y…

Oh! Bagels! Everyone loves bagels right? But wait, are bagels suggestive? With the hole and everything…?

"Hey Will," Buffy's voice snapped her out of her internal rambling and Willow realized she had somehow managed to walk all the way to Giles' door without noticing. "Smiling Will?" Her best friend said with a confused smile of her own.

"Smiling Will is good," Xander's voice boomed behind Buffy. Willow stepped through the doorway into the slightly warmer apartment. "Whatcha smiling about?" he asked raising his eyebrows again suggestively and Willow sighed dramatically.

"Sex," Anya offered from the couch next to him. "That's definitely a sex smile," the ex-demon continued.

"It is not a sex smile! Just because a person is smiling does not mean sex was in any way…in the way." Willow retorted blushing and waiting for the rest of the explicit monologue, but there was none. In fact, Anya simply crossed her arms and looked away. So something was definitely up with Anya. Great. Maybe she and Xander had a fight. That's just what she needed. Hopefully Xander would pull her aside later to ask for advice. Too bad there wasn't a self-help booking on making up with your ex-vengeance demon girlfriend she could hand him.

"Ah Willow!" Giles' voice cut through the mounting tension and Willow smiled gratefully. "You rang about some sort of discovery?"

"No fair Giles," Xander began with a little too much enthusiasm and she eyed his shifting stance. He kept glancing at Buffy then away. "Now we don't get to hear Willow naughty thoughts."

"Precisely." Willow began removing books from her bag as the Watcher sat down with a cup of tea.

"Okay, so I was researching anything to do with Ragnarok even though my Old Norse is pretty much non-existent…" she began, leafing through pages to find the entries she needed.

"Wait? Anorak?" Buffy asked and she heard Anya sigh dramatically.

"Ragnarok!" the ex-vengeance demon interjected angrily. "Don't you people read? Doom of the gods, end of the world, blah, blah, blah." She huffed before hugging herself tighter and looking away. Okay, maybe Buffy and Anya had a fight. Were they dating now? Blinking in confusion she decided to return to the research and avoid the volatile emotional undercurrents in the room.

"Um, exactly." She said and Anya actually smiled at her a little. "Only before the big nasty battle of the gods and the giants there's the Fimbulvetr, the winter of winters, which is just a fancy way of saying three years of serious frickin' cold." She paused to search for a bookmark and opened the giant book to a Norse print of the final battle. Lots of impaling, axing, and the usual gore. Buffy shrugged unimpressed and Anya's smile widened a bit.

"So you think this nasty weather is really the Big Chill or whatever?" her best friend asked and she nodded.

"It's quite possible," Giles interjected. "Although the legend is common, I've not been able to find any reference to when, where, or how the Fimbulvetr begins."

"Actually," Willow thumbed to a cracked piece of parchment and handed the book to the watcher. "I found this prophecy that seems to refer to some ancient sect of Priests of Fenrir who say it starts on the Hellmouth." She pointed to a badly damaged passage. "See there, 'and the Fimulvetr will rise from the land of heat and the mouth of hell'" His finger ran over the passage and she could hear him reading the Old Norse aloud trying to translate on the fly. "And then, as far as I can tell something about a 'broken spell' or something." She tilted her head to look at it again. "Or maybe a Spell of Breaking?"

"Hmmm, I think 'broken spell' may be the more accurate translation," Giles began absently. "but my Old Norse is rather rusty…."

"Okay, so who's Fenrir and do his priests carry icy wandy sticks?"

Willow looked up from the tome to meet her friend's hazel eyes. She could hear Giles clearing her throat so she asked quickly, "Unabridged or Cliff's Notes?"

"Cliff's. I'd like to get out of here sometime tonight," Buffy smiled. Willow actually smiled in return suddenly sad that she didn't have time to talk to her best friend about everything. Tara and the dreams.

"Okay, Um, Fenrir is evil wolf god guy who kills Odin, king of the gods, in the final battle. And I don't know about the sticks."

"Ice wands," Any interjected angrily with a scowl. "They carry ice wands. And don't ever try to talk to them about Fenrir unless you've got, like, a week to kill." She shook her head with disgust and returned to her brooding.

"Are they dangerous? The ice sticks?" Buffy asked testily, pointedly emphasizing the 'sticks'.

"How should I know? I told you, I try to avoid those guys. Deadly boring. All they want to talk about is how great Fenrir is. Fenrir this and Fenrir that. Who cares!" she threw up her hands and stared intently at Buffy. There were a few moments of tense silence and Willow wondered again what was going on between the three of them.

"This is good right!" Xander yelped nervously and Giles looked up with a quizzical expression. "I mean, we know what this is, who the bad guys are. So…stop the guys with the icees and it's over. Easy as pie right?"

"Well, if Anya is correct the connections appear to be more than coincidental. So, yes. Possibly. Well done Willow," he smiled, pulling his glasses off.

"You're welcome!" Anya huffed rising from her chair. "And I am correct." Without another word she walked to the apartment door and left. Xander apologized over and over, glancing nervously at Buffy before following her.

As the door slammed behind him, Buffy rolled her eyes and released a long sigh. Willow thought there might be an explanation from her best friend or at least a snide remark about Anya's mood, but…nothing. Shivering, she sank down onto the couch suddenly noticing the cold. So she had accomplished something today with the prophecy, which meant maybe she could get away with a research-free night tonight so she could plan how best to approach Tara.

Maybe after copying over my ChemLab notes. Oh my God! ChemLab!!

"What time is it?" she practically yelled at the room.

Giles glanced at a clock behind her. "Quarter to ten, why…?"

But she was already grabbing her books and bag and running for the door.

Sometimes she thought she could feel it crawling around inside her – the demon. Moving under her skin, sliding into her mind to darken her thoughts. But today it was different…that lightening. She found that she could push it aside, drive it back with relative ease. Just a bit of controlled breathing and a few thoughts of Willow or Mr. Giles' kind words full of hope and the world seemed to open up around her. It all seemed to be tied in to that lightening she had noticed. As if the world wasn't tied to one dark path – as if it had broken free of its original course and was free to follow any path.

Of course, there was still the rest of it to deal with. With a heavy sigh she looked to the stack of tomes Mr. Giles had thoughtfully carried up for her that were now scattered around the room and open on the bed. Hours and hours of work and she had promised to help research the cold as well. Which made her smile. Mr. Giles actually wanted her help. He trusted her with his books and the cold problem. Someone who battled daily against the forces of evil had asked for her assistance. Her smile broadened and she pulled the nearest book to her. There was no Table of Contents, but she was used to that. These were, after all, ancient books. Flipping through the pages she saw the familiar typeset of a sixteenth century press and skimmed over the attributes of a particularly fierce-looking demon: 'vicious and driven by an insatiable lust for blood….' She shivered and closed the book with a wince deciding that she wasn't ready yet…to face what she might become.

Breathing deeply she began to center herself in a meditation. It was even colder this morning and she could almost see her breath in the crisp air. Tomorrow, maybe, she would allow herself the heater. If it got colder. But now, the meditation. Thoughts of Willow flickered in her mind as always and she let herself linger on the redhead's smile for a few moments before calmly centering herself once again. If she was going to help them she was going to have to regain her focus.

It took a few more minutes, but she finally found that floating place and opened up her senses. What she felt surprised her. It wasn't the usual warmth and play of energies she was used to. Instead there was a bone-chilling cold and the unmistakable sensation of something pulling on her – draining energy from everything around her. She contemplated following it to its source to get some idea of the power they were dealing with, but stopped herself. That could be dangerous. Or deadly.

With a gasp she brought herself back to her dorm room. She didn't have an anchor and as experienced as she was with magic, she had spent very little time in the nether realms. She would need a partner to go farther and Willow was as far from her now as she had been before that Wicca meeting. As she recalled the injured look on the redhead's face, the distance between them seemed almost insurmountable, but…one step at a time.

Rifling through her bag for a few moments she found the spiral notebook and opened it to a list color-coded in different colored pens. She had never been one for list-making, but the fact that this entire mission was devoted to Willow made her rethink her processes. Tara was trying to connect everything in her world in every way possible to the beautiful redhead who lit her heart. Like a spell, she wove her love into the fabric of her life.

With Willow-like neatness she crossed out the first item on the list: 1. Speak to Mr. Giles about demonology.

And proceeded to the second item written in purple ink: 2. Ambush Willow after ChemLab. And 'ambush' was probably the wrong word – a little too violent for her tastes – but she thought it sounded Scooby-like so she had used it anyway.

Because that was the only way at this point. Even if it meant skipping class. She smiled at the thought of the redhead's horrified expression at the mention of missing anything school-related. But this had to be done. One way or another they would have to work together again soon and that would be impossible unless she began to repair at least some of the damage done.

Besides, she missed Willow so much she found she couldn't breathe. She desperately needed to be near the girl, even if she hated her now. Maybe she could salvage something of their friendship that had meant everything to her for the past few months.

Willow was the air she breathed and now she was gone, Tara felt sometimes as if she were suffocating. With a shake of her head she cleared her mind of the negative thoughts and focused instead on the words she wanted to say to Willow.

"I love you." It came out as a whisper and she blushed bright red at the very thought of saying it to her love. If she had only…that night when Willow had said those words…but that would have been selfish. She would never allow the redhead to put herself in danger and that was exactly what falling in love with her evil self was – dangerous.

She glanced at the open books around her and sighed. So far she had found nothing. Hours of research the night before had revealed nothing but a few accounts of demonic possession that bore no resemblance to the family tales she had managed to overhear. None of the demons she had so far researched fit the precise profile of her own inevitable transformation, but the research had made her dreams take a strange dark turn. There were still the vivid images of a life and passion with Willow, but there were other moments as well – a black-eyed, cruel version of the redhead full of power that made Tara's skin crawl with fear. Like the demon within her had somehow escaped to take Willow instead.

Shuddering at the memory, she takes a series of deep breaths to drive the nightmare away.

It's just a dream. Just a dream…

It had to be because she would do anything to save the beautiful redhead from that dark-eyed demon that lived inside her. Anything.

Eyeing the clock she dressed hurriedly and gathered a few books. Only fifteen minutes until ambush time. Her stomach flipped at the thought of what she was about to do and she ran a hand roughly through her still tangled hair finally decided to pull it back rather than take the time to make it perfect for the redhead. Or almost perfect.

Sighing dramatically at her less than breathtaking image in the mirror, Tara picked up her patchwork bag and quickly exited the room. There was no need to rush really, she had plenty of time. But she would need a few minutes before the ambush to steady herself for that thunderbolt moment when she actually laid eyes on Willow again. Because it always was – a thunderbolt. And she had to be prepared or she would be left standing there stuttering and bewildered as the redhead ran away in terror, anger or fear.

After only five minutes of brisk walking she stood outside the hideous building that housed the Chemistry department. A 'modern' behemoth built sometime in the seventies she thought absently trying to distract herself, with tiny slits for windows that were never open to let in fresh air. 'Monstrous' was probably a better word. If the word 'chemistry' hadn't been enough to keep her out of the science department this building certainly would.

A steady stream of students began to pass Tara signaling the end of classes and she smoothed her skirt unconsciously. Suddenly a flash of red amid the blondes and browns and there was Willow flickering through the crowd like a spark. Tara's heart raced immediately and she inhaled deeply forcing herself to just watch for a moment. The red head was lowered and her lips moved slightly as she walked as if she was working something out. Carrying on a heated internal argument or discussion. She was only a few feet away now and Tara felt her stomach turn over. Taking a deep breath and a halting step forward she said it for the first time in days. The magic word.


Green eyes flashed up at her and the redhead actually jumped, a beaming smile overtook her face but only for a moment.

"Tara." A painful whisper that took the smile away and Willow stepped back away from her, green eyes moving to the ground. "Don't… aren't you in Medieval History now? I mean, obviously you're not because, hello, standing right here, but don't you? Have that?" Then a look like panic flashed across the redhead's face and she looked up with concern. "Not that I memorized your schedule or think you should be all Medieval because I would never…think that about you or memorize anything. Except dates." Green eyes opened wide. "I mean, ya know, date dates of the historical kind… all with the calendar numbering and not the hand-holding smoochiness…"

Tara's brain apparently overloaded at this point because she couldn't seem to process everything at once. Here was Willow finally. Willow – beautiful and fiercely shining and bouncing frenetically in the blonde's vision. And babbling. At full force. And Tara knew from experience that this sort of babble was not a good thing. It was panicked. Traumatic. It was the verbal equivalent of all those self-defense maneuvers she had struggled to learn her first year in Sunnydale. Then she heard Willow stumbling around the word 'date' and knew that she had to act quickly or they would both be dragged down into the dark chasm of that night.

"Willow." She placed her arm on the pale blue jacket and the torrent of words stopped immediately. She felt as much as heard the sigh of relief. "I s-skipped class." There were a few moments of silence as the redhead stared at the hand on her arm and Tara self-consciously removed it. Furrowing deeply, Willow turned to her, green eyes blinking in disbelief.

"You skipped a class?" Still blinking she stared at Tara dumbfounded. If it had been a different day, a different week, the blonde would have laughed with sheer joy at the beautiful openness and expressiveness of Willow Rosenburg's face. But it wasn't.

"I w-wanted to t-talk to you and I've alr-ready arranged to g-get the notes from s-s-some…a friend." her traitorous mouth seemed to determined to make an already awkward situation absolutely impossible. She half-expected the redhead's face to be twisted in derision, but Willow's expression remained unchanged.

"I don't understand…are you okay? Are you sick? You know, because this weather…you really shouldn't be walking around with all that skin exposed…" Tara finally did laugh at Willow's inability to grasp the concept of skipping even one class – for anything. "What?" The redhead trailed off, a small smile working at the corners of her mouth.

"Willow, I skipped class b-because you're avoiding me and I wanted to see you. To talk to you. And I thought this was the only w-way." The laughter must have helped because she managed to get the entire sentence out without much of a stutter. But Willow's eyes were wide with shock again.

"I'm not…" the redhead hugged her books to her chest. There were a few moments of silence and Tara was sure that all was lost, until suddenly Willowvoice rising in pitch and volume. "Avoiding you. And…and how do I, that is, you… know you're not avoiding me?" Another pause. "Aha!" She raised a slender finger between them and a giddy, guilty smile spread across her pixie features. "That's probably it! I'm the one being avoided because here you are with the anti-avoidance and…"

"God I m-missed you." Tara said still laughing with delight and Willowbabble stopped abruptly, the blonde's admission hanging in the air between them. For a moment she feared the redhead would sneer at her confession or simply ignore it, but her eyes sparkled and her smile was breathtaking.

"Oh." The hacker's head tilted to the left slightly, her brow crinkling slightly in confusion. "Really?"

Rolling her eyes at the understatement Tara ducked her head to avoiding burning the redhead to cinders with the sheer overwhelming love that swept through her. "Really."

"Oh." She didn't dare look up now. All she could think of was the millions of ways she missed Willow. She missed her in a bone-deep, desperate way that threatened to strangle her. Even when the redhead got up to refill her coffee at the Espresso Pump it was almost unbearable. "Because I thought…"

But neither had the opportunity to voice their thoughts as a familiar cocky voice cut into their conversation. "Hey Tar." A slender arm wrapped around her waist. "You didn't have to come all the way over here to pick me up, darlin'." A soft, wet kiss on her cheek and she closed her eyes against the fury that threatened to overwhelm her. Aly.

If I were Willow I would have planned for this possibility. Probably in green ink.

But she wasn't and here she was with Aly's arm wrapped territorially around her waist and Willow staring at them both in shock, her mouth still slightly open around the sentence she hadn't finished.

"Hi, I'm Aly. Tara's ex. But you probably know all about that. Right Willow?" The redhead just stared at the offered hand for a second before adjusting her books to shake.

"Um, no…actually." Willow managed around a tight smile, her eyes darting from Tara's eyes to Aly to Aly's hand at her waist. The hurt in her eyes was so deep it sent the blonde's mind spinning. She could feel the redhead pulling away from her, withdrawing into herself.

"You're kidding!" Aly exclaimed dramatically. "That's strange 'cause she's told me all about you."

It was vintage Aly. The girl had always kept Tara at arm's length emotionally even when they were dating, but if the Tara showed the slightest interest in anyone else Aly suddenly became possessive and affectionate. And 'slight' was certainly not the word to describe her interest in Willow. All-consuming was possibly a fraction of it.

And the center of her world was now staring at her with a look that spoke of profound betrayal and deep pain. Aly's insinuation was obviously working its way through the redhead's powerful psyche and she could only imagine the cascade of negative conclusions she was reaching. Tara had hoped this moment would be about reconnecting, but it was quickly spinning into apocalypse territory.

"Oh." Willow's shoulders drooped and a deep crease formed between her eyes as she tried to look everywhere but at Tara. "Well, I've really gotta get to class." A fake smile and Tara watched horrified as the redhead turned and nodded, her eyes dead. "Nice to meet you Aly." She looked once at Tara, her mouth opened but she didn't say a word. Just closed her mouth and turned away.

Her initial shock wearing off, Tara's first impulse was to cry. How had things gone so impossibly wrong? Then suddenly without warning, she was just angry. Aly was one of her oldest friends and she owed her so much. If it hadn't been for the self-confident girl's friendship and not-so-gentle prodding she would probably still be at home working in her father's house. She owed her so much, but Willow was walking away. The back of her red hair bobbing furiously as she stumbled slightly on the uneven pavement.

Peeling Aly's hand off her waist, she called out to the fast-retreating redhead. "Willow wait!" and turned to Aly taking a deep breath. "I love you Aly," she began and her ex-girlfriend smiled smugly. "But I don't want to s-see you or t-talk to you for a l-long time." She dropped her friend's warm hand pointedly and held the girl's dark eyes for a long, tense moment. "Okay?" the smile was gone in a moment replaced by a look of utter shock.

"Tar?" was all she managed before the blonde turned away and sprinted the short distance to the dazed redhead. There were tears in her beautiful green eyes and Tara used every ounce of her strength to keep her focus on Willow, to keep from turning and lambasting the brunette.

"Willow, I'm sorry…" she began only to be cut off by the redhead who was still backpedaling slowly as her eyes darted between Tara and what she hoped was the now-retreating backside of her former friend.

"No!" Willow was shaking her head her eyes skimming worriedly over the forms of students still streaming around them. "Really Tara, it's okay. I understand…"

"Do you?" Tara asked softly, her voice breaking. Willow nodded but looked down. "Cause I want to t-talk to you ab-bout…"

"Look, I'm really sorry about everything I said in your room…." Willow interrupted and trailed off, kicking at something on the sidewalk. Tara felt the world constrict. Felt the cold deepen and gel around her. She was hurting Willow again, she could feel the hacker's energy imploding. "I was…that was…" the redhead frowned and looked at her feet.

"Are you…s-sorry?" She asked carefully willing her body not to descend into sobs; willing her body and her battered heart to stay still. "Of course you are…" she managed finally understanding the redhead's meaning. Willow hadn't meant it. Any of it. It had been some sort of mistake. Some sort of miscommunication and Tara had just taken it the wrong way. "It's okay. I know you didn't m-mean it…what you s-said."

Tara withdrew her hand and took a deep breath before looking at Willow. She expected relief, a smile and roll of the eyes, but the redhead was just staring at her with that same confused expression. As if she was trying to read something just behind the blonde's head.

"Um, no." she shook her head slowly and swallowed audibly. "I meant it." She said it slowly, deliberately. Very un-Willowlike. Then the dam broke loose. "Unless you don't want me to mean it. I mean, if I should be sorry…if you want me to be sorry, I will be because I don't know how these things are supposed to work," she began to babble then suddenly stopped, a slight frown forming on her face. "Anymore. You know what. No. That's not…" and green eyes were suddenly holding her own with intensity. "Sorry is not what I am and that was something that I meant. Every word of it!" she said pointedly, her shoulders squaring into what Tara recognized as her resolve stance. "But it's okay if you don't want me to mean it," the redhead's tone softened and the blonde felt as if she might pass out from all the sudden changes in direction and altitude. "I mean, I understand that you don't feel the same way about me as a girl, even though you like girls. You just don't like this girl and that's…that's okay," she looked away suddenly biting her lip. "So you don't have to…have that talk. In fact, I'd really prefer if you didn't…unless you need to 'cause…."

"Willow." Tara said the word to steady herself and was surprised to find the redhead looking at her expectantly, babble over. Carefully picking her way through the debris of their conversation the blonde fought desperately to find the meaning. When it hit her finally it was the thunderclap again – long and deafening and rolling across her in waves.

She meant it. Every word of it.

She knew she must be smiling, but she couldn't seem to feel her face anymore. Except…tears. That must be the salty taste in her mouth. Wiping her eyes clumsily with the over-sized sleeve of her sweater she sniffed once and took a deep shuddering breath.

Be strong….for Willow. Like an amazon.

"I d-don't n-not feel the s-same way, Willow." Ducking her head she closed her eyes and swallowed back a sob. She couldn't look at those green eyes now. If she did she'd be utterly lost.

"That's a double negative." Willow said quietly above her. Tara laughed and just nodded her head. "So…that, um, equals a positive?"

But you're still a demon so…strong.

"I n-need…time Willow." She managed finally and looked up to find Willow smiling a small terrified smile. The redhead's forehead crinkled in confusion so she continued. "There are some th-things I n-need to s-sort out…" she trailed off unsure how to explain.

"Okay. Time. I can do that." Willow nodded frantically, her eyes darting to the space where Aly had been. "Is it… I mean, I know it's none of my business, but…"

"It has nothing to do with Aly," Tara said firmly and the redhead let out a relieved sigh before smiling sheepishly.

"Good! I mean, not that it's not okay if it was…about her," she began and the blonde senses another desperate babblefest coming on.

"It's f-family stuff." She blurted out then looked at the ground again.

"If I can help…" Willow began and Tara felt the warm pressure of a small hand on her forearm. The relief of the redhead's touch was overwhelming. "I want to."

"You already are," she said softly. "It's just…I n-need to do this m-myself."

"Okay," the redhead squeezed her arm slightly, but didn't let go. "So," she began and Tara looked up at the playful sing-song in her love's voice. "This 'time' we're speaking of. Is it Willow-free time? I mean, should the avoidance thing continue…not that I'm admitting to any avoidance on my part mind you," and Tara laughed out loud for the first time in days. It took all of her strength not to wrap her arms around the redhead. All she had hoped for from this ambush was friendship not…everything. Not this.

"D-definitely not W-Willow-free time," Tara nodded firmly, her breath catching as Willow slid her hand down a sweatered arm and entwined their gloved fingers.

"And when you say time, are we talking about weeks? Or is this an hours thing? And is it negotiable because I was on the debate team for three whole weeks until I realized you actually had to debate in front of people, so I'm fully prepared to negotiate…." As Willow continued playfully babbling, Tara knew she should be thinking about the cold and the threat and the demon inside, but she couldn't. Listening to the music of the redhead's voice she finally allowed herself to sink completely into the moment, to let that small warm hand guide her gently away from the demon and the past…even if it was only for a few minutes.

I've been out haunting the neighborhood
And everybody can see I'm no good
When I'm walking out between parked cars
With my head full of stars
High on amphetamines
The moon is a light bulb breaking
It'll go around with anyone
But it won't come down for anyone…
…and I won't come down for anyone.
—from St. Ides Heaven, Elliott Smith

cut this picture into you and me
burn it backwards kill this history
make it over make it stay away
or hate'll say the ending that love started to stay
—from Sweet Adeline, Elliott Smith

"Buffy!" She bolted upright, clutching her stomach, but the hot pain she expected wasn't there. Slowly, she began to notice that things weren't right. Her mouth tasted like she'd been on a two-week binge and the world smelled like a shitty inner-city hospital: bleach, iodine, urine, and mildew. "Wha' tha fu-?" she slurred and finally took in her surroundings. The rusty machines and yellowing sheets. The IV in her arm. It was a fucking hospital.

"Oh my God," someone said behind her and she heard metal clatter against linoleum. Then the sound of feet moving hurriedly away and toward her simultaneously. There were things she should know: B, Angel, the Mayor, vampires and other things too, but all of it seemed to slip away from her as soon as she tried to focus. Like a dream. A strong, dark hand grabbed her wrist and she tried to jerk away, but found that her muscles weren't working right.

"Welcome back Ms. Knox."

Who? Oh yeah. Fucking Knox. She wanted to punch this guy for calling her that name, she knew that much. That was her father's name and she wasn't his. She was her own now and that name was ancient fucking history. But it was all lost in the onslaught of sensations as everything in the hospital hit her at once – the smells, sights and sounds of it drowning her as the Slayer inside awakened in a shuddering jolt.

"She's awake," she heard it in the cacophony from the hallway. Then the click of a telephone followed by the squeak of rubber soles. She tried to get up, but the big man held her down gently.

"Hey, hey, where you going? You only just woke up," the soft, deep voice continued. Nothing was working right. Her legs and arms hadn't caught up with her yet, jerking wildly as she tried to get to her feet, because those rubber soles were coming and she knew with that absolute surety of Slayer sense that there was bad news at the end of that walk.

"No," she slurred weakly. Then the unmistakable sound of a syringe and a burning in her arm near the IV. She pawed clumsily at it, but the drug was already working on her, separating her from her strength and self.

"By order of the Council," a female voice began, but she didn't hear the rest. As Faith sank into black she used the last of her strength to tighten her fist around something small and cylindrical and important. She didn't know what it was, but it was all she had against them and the cold that slipped around her like an icy hand.

Part 5

Willow sat with the comforter tucked around her, inhaling the scent of Tara with every breath. Her eyes closed as she leaned back against the headboard and let herself get lost in sandalwood and something else…jasmine? The blonde witch had insisted she take the stripey scarf for warmth and she had finally acquiesced only after Tara had reassured her repeatedly that she had another in her dorm room.

Can't have Tara catching a cold just so I can be all perv-y and smell her all day…and probably all night, she smiled. Because she definitely intended to sleep in the comfy wool scarf unless, maybe, she could manage to swing an invitation to spend the night in Tara's cozy room. Just for warmth, of course. Double the body heat and all. Lots of body heat and it would probably get so warm under the blonde's down comforter that they would have to take off some clothes and…

Okay stop with the naughtiness already! Tara said she needs time and that's what I'm giving her. Although we still haven't established exactly how much time…and she probably doesn't think about me that way anyway. And, hey, I don't even think that way! I'm very seldom naughty it's just…those dreams! Naughty subconscious! I mean, where does it even get this stuff? Dirty, dirty mind! She scolded internally. Must be sneaking off to read smutty books when I'm not looking or something. I didn't even know I knew about that…thing…with the…fingers and…besides Tara said she's still a virgin. But how is that possible? She and that Cordelia-clone were pretty cozy. Maybe lesbians have a different definition of virgin? Oh yeah! Maybe I should look that up.

Even as she began to type the words into the search engine she began imagining the images and illustrations that probably would go along with such a description and swallowed hard.

Okay, maybe later. After Tara's had her time or whatever. But research. If you're going to be a lesbian you need to do research. They might have special rules or something. Some sort of Sapphic Protocol and you're gonna look all Madame Butterfly up on stage flubbing your lines with your parents in the audience and…

Startled by her own internal ramblings, Willow glanced at the stack of magic research and closed the laptop. Lesbian research would have to wait. Until much later. When it was dark. And there was absolutely no chance of Buffy walking in on…things.

She let out an exasperated sigh and looked around guiltily as if someone could read her thoughts or worse, could see her certainly flushed face. Not that anyone was there. No, Buffy, her best friend and confidante was most definitely missing in action again. And it wasn't even 'Riley Time'? Or was it?

A look at the clock revealed the time: 5:30. So, almost 'Riley Time' which meant Buffy was probably off getting dinner without her so she could go straight to her boyfriend, then to Patrol. Another sigh and she eyed the magic books stacked neatly beside her bed. At least research would kill some non-Tara time. The blonde had agreed to go for coffees after the afternoon Scooby meeting and Willow had agreed, ecstatic at the time. But now it just seemed interminable. At least ten hours and possibly even eleven or twelve if it turned into a marathon Scooby session.

Frowning she picked up a book and thumbed through a few pages on Ragnarok and Fenrir. Still no mention of the ice wands, but this was a much more detailed account of the terrible Nordic battle at the end of the world. Fenrir's father, the trickster god Loki at the helm of the ship of the dead leading the giants into a battle with the gods, elves, dwarves and…

Which sounded kinda like The Lord of the Rings. That was a weird coincidence. Picking up a paperback copy of Edda, the Norse story of creation she flipped casually and immediately landed on the name 'Gandalf'. Okay, maybe not such a coincidence. That thief! Did he even footnote?

She shrugged off her momentary irritation at Tolkien's apparent plagiarism and re-examined the relevant details. There were a few passages about Fenrir's captivity. He was held apparently by some super-strong, super-thin stuff called Gleipnir that was capable of holding a god.

So how are these ice stick guys gonna break that if a god can't even do it?

Earthquakes. It was there on the next line. And what was Southern California famous for? She thought she had felt a tremor this morning walking with Tara, but she had chalked it up to the general weakness and fluttery feeling she got whenever the blonde was around.

So, okay, these guys were probably going to use magic to set off some earthquakes and open the Hellmouth to let this Fenrir guy out and…how was this related to the winter thing and the 'broken spell'? Not to mention, hadn't she read somewhere that somebody else had to eat the sun and the moon first?

Paging irritably through the tome, she looked out the window to make sure the sun was there. Yep. Still there although going down pretty quickly.

She made a few notes in blue ink (for those icy Nordic types and of course, for the blue eyes that had sparkled while telling her about this stuff in the first place) and another in pink to remind herself to ask Tara about the Old Norse translation. Maybe it wasn't 'broken spell' at all and she and Giles were hunting down the wrong path.

And I should probably call her tonight…just to make sure. Not just to hear her voice. I wonder if there's a spell to speed up this time she needs?

She remembered the recent 'My-Will-Be-Done' curse that had gone awry and shuddered. Definitely not wanting to repeat that. She wasn't sure she could bake that many cookies if it happened a second time.

Checking her brand new clock she noticed with satisfaction that it was now 6:45. Just in time for her hourly trip down the hall to wash her hands and maybe get some chocolate-y goodness from the vending machine.

A glance at the phone and she decided she'd rather postpone her trip down the hall in favor of Tara goodness. Besides, she had a very good reason for calling. She needed that translation. Really.

"H-hello?" Tara answered the phone and Willow smiled at the hesitant but beautiful sound of her voice. It was so cute and endearing and yet sexy at the same time and…


"Oh! Sorry," Willow blurted out. "Tara I was just…did you know that The Lord of the Rings is a blatant and I mean blatant ripoff of the Edda? That's just so…how could he? Even the names! I mean, hello, Gandalf is in, like, the first few stanzas," she wasn't quite sure where the sudden babble was coming from. Probably the fact that she'd been caught daydreaming about the blonde again. By the blonde herself.

Her babble was cut short by the sound of a low chuckle on the other end of the line.

"Willow?" Even Tara's chuckling was sexy and the way she said her name…the redhead was sure she would swoon if she weren't already sitting on the bed.

"Oh! Yeah! Sorry. That would be me. Willow." She shifted the phone from one ear to another and tried unsuccessfully to lower her internal temperature. The room didn't even feel cold anymore, so she was definitely blushing at a Rudolf the red nosed reindeer sort of level. "But you probably already know that now…from the babbling I mean."

Another low throaty chuckle and the blonde cleared her throat. "Um, yeah. B-but I wouldn't exactly call Tolkien a, um, a th-thief. Wagner did it too you know. And even M-Mozart. Plus, I th-think calling Tolkien a thief m-might get you stoned to d-death by the D&D guys d-down the hall."

"I know…" the redhead grumbled with an amused smile. "I just thought…I mean, it's The Lord of the Rings! And wait, there are D&D freaks down the hall?" She yelped, looking at the door in fear.

Another long musical laugh and Willow felt the fear and cold slip away. She was struck by a sudden revelation. "Hey, maybe they're the guys with the ice wands!" It had sounded much more plausible when it was still floating around up there in her mind. "I mean, you know, they're all sneaky and beady-eyed and you know they probably got them off the internet. They probably meet somewhere in cloaks and beat drums and chant to Thor or something."

"Um, Will, I think if Carl saw an actual s-spell or m-monster he'd probably wet himself." So Tara was on a first-name basis with these potential Fenrir wannabes? And Carl? She sounded awfully chummy with this nefarious dice-roller. The redhead knew the blonde was gay, but still. She could feel the jealousy rising up hard and fast.

"Carl?" It came out much snarkier than she intended.

"Oh, um, y-yes." The blonde stumbled, obviously upset by Willow's tone of voice. She felt guilty immediately. "C-C…he was in my R-Roman History c-class last year. W-We used to s-swap notes."

That should have been a comfort, but it wasn't. Tara apparently had forgotten the sanctity of the redhead's notes. Willow wouldn't even allow Oz to borrow her notes, xeroxing them instead and highlighting the important parts for him. Yet here was the beautiful blonde just loaning her precious notes out every D&D geek on the planet letting them touch them and hold them and god only knew what else. She would have to check up on this guy, Carl. Definitely.

"Willow?" All of the anger drained away with that word on those lips. She sighed and smiled into the phone.

"Oh. Yes. Sorry. I just…" a knock at the door brought her out of her deep reverie. "Hold on a sec, baby." It was out of her mouth before she could check herself and she wasn't even sure where it had come from. Baby? She'd never called anyone that in her life. Her face felt like a blast furnace. Maybe the blonde hadn't noticed? There was no sound on the other end of the line. Just the soft strains of whatever music Tara was listening to. "Come in." She yelled a little too loudly and the door opened wide to reveal the gigantic figure of Riley.

"Oh. Hey Willow. Is Buffy around?." Not even an attempt at polite chit chat or even a 'how are you doing, Willow', The redhead just stared at him for a few moments as her brain tried to shift gears from her slip with the blonde witch to the soldier's presence. Because something was wrong. And she wasn't sure what it was yet, her brain still hung up on that one word: Baby.

She said she needed time and you're being all pressure-y and…what the frilly heck is Riley doing here during 'Riley Time'?

That was the wrong thing. The very wrong thing. She shivered suddenly feeling the cold. Riley's breath was a soft mist as he exhaled in the room.

"It's Riley Time," she smiled hoping he would go look for his girlfriend and get on with whatever they did.

"What time?"

"You know, you and Buffy. Six to nine every night." His forehead furrowed and she saw the muscles in his jaw clench and understood suddenly that he didn't know. And that meant Riley time wasn't Riley time. And Buffy was lying. To everyone. But if it wasn't Riley Time what time was it? "Oh yeah! Sorry, I forgot, um, she's… a-at the Lesbian Alliance meeting!" Okay, where did that come from?! The frown on Riley's face deepened so she began a desperate scramble to explain her best friend's whereabouts. "Because her friend…T-Terry is one. A lesbian, I mean. Because obviously Buffy isn't of the gay. I mean, look at you. And she and you do…non-lesbian…things. All the time. Not that she tells me what you do because I mean, ew…and not that I know what lesbians do because why would I?" she trailed off awkwardly and managed a pathetic smile. The phone was slick in her sweaty grip. She hated lying. And she didn't even know why she was lying. And she was pretty much one hundred percent sure that Riley knew she was lying. Heck, who was she kidding? Even her totally oblivious mother could tell she was lying on this one.

Riley put his hands in his pockets and looked at the floor. "Well, could you tell Buffy I stopped by? You know, when she gets back from the Lesbian Alliance meeting." He gave her a tiny, sad smile and turned to leave shutting the door quietly behind himself.

Willow slumped down into the comforter. She didn't know whether to feel hurt or angry or just betrayed. It didn't make any sense. Why would her best friend sneak out every night and lie about it? And who was she meeting? A guy? But wouldn't Buffy have told her if she'd met someone else? It wasn't like she was the president of the Riley fan club or anything. So, mainly hurt.

"Willow?" Tara's voice small and far away. The phone! She'd forgotten all about it.

"Hi…Tara. Sorry…about that. I just…" she didn't finish the sentence because she didn't know how.

"Are you okay?" Not is Buffy okay? Or Xander. The blonde had asked if she was okay. Had she heard? Probably. Willow hadn't covered up the receiver. She could almost see the kind look of concern on Tara's beautiful face. The thought of it made her relax a bit. Drove the pain a little farther away.

"Yeah, I just…why would she lie to everyone? And me?" Her voice rose uncomfortably, threatening to squeak at any moment then fell to a whisper. "I mean, I'm her best friend."

"She p-probably meant to, um, t-tell you. You s-said you'd both been r-really busy lately."

She smiled a bit at the blonde's gentle explanation then felt her forehead furrowing again, remembering the last time the Slayer had lied to them all. "But Tara, the last time she lied to us it was all kinds of bad. I mean, like, near-death experience bad. Why would she…and there's stuff I've been needing to talk to her about too, you know?" All of her frustration over the events of the past weeks suddenly caught up with her. All of that pain and confusion and no one to talk to. No best friend in sight. "I mean, I've got stuff…very important stuff… happening and she's running around with Mystery Man or whatever doing god knows what, but if she needs a spell or research you know she'll be all 'Willow do this' and 'Willow I need you to' and expect me to just drop all of my… stuff." She was so angry and hurt she could feel the tears burning her eyes.

There were a few moment of silence and she heard the blonde shift on the other end of the line. "I'm sure she w-wants to tell you. You're her best f-friend." The redhead couldn't help a snort of derision as she began to pick at some imaginary lint on the comforter. "I'm s-sure she would t-tell you if she, um, c-could. She l-loves you, Willow."

"Yeah, well, she has a funny way of showing it," she pouted.

"Is th-this 's-stuff' dangerous?" Tara asked carefully. "I mean, because if you n-need help…"

"Oh no!" she yelped, feeling guilty at the obvious fear in the blonde's voice. "No, nothing like that just…I just…" She paused to take a deep breath and closed her eyes. "I wanted to tell her about…us. And, well, everything."


Then it struck her that maybe 'time' meant there really wasn't an 'us' yet and she was being all presumptuous.

"Is that okay? That I wanted to…because I don't have to…." She thought the phone might break apart in her hand she was gripping it so tightly.

"Th-that's, um, fine Willow. I just…I d-didn't think you'd want to t-tell anyone about…us." Tara interjected softly.

"Oh, I definitely want to tell everyone…on the planet. You know, when there's an us to talk about. If there's an us to talk about and a 'mine' and 'yours' even…but only when you're ready because… time. Time. That's what I'm giving you. I'm time-giving girl…and space because they're really kind of the same thing…."

"You know I m-meant what I said b-before," Tara said softly and Willow thought she could hear a crooked smile behind the words. Can you hear a smile?

"What?" The redhead breathed softly unsure of herself after the revealing chatter.

"Y-yours." She said firmly. "No matter what h-happens, Willow, I need you to, um, kn-kn…understand that I am… yours…always."

The redhead sat speechless, fingering the twisted cord and silently cursing the inventor of the phone. Alexander Graham Bell, she thought with growing irritation, You would be so dead, mister…if you weren't already…dead. Because this wasn't the kind of moment that should happen on the phone, they should be together, holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes.

But this would have to do.

"So am I." She said suddenly, a giddy smile making its way across her features. "Totally, completely, absolutely yours. In fact, I'm so yours I'm thinking of shrinking myself down to fit in your pocket or something."

A gorgeous laugh and Willow relaxed into the warmth of the comforter letting Buffy's betrayal slip away. "I th-think I prefer you, um, Willow-sized."

And it hit her like a thunderclap – like all revelations about Tara seemed to – that she was sitting here in a frigid room by herself talking into a piece of plastic and she had never felt so un-alone in her life. Not with Oz or her friends or her so-called family. That was what it meant to belong to someone and have them belong to you – never being alone again.

Yours, she thought with a smile. Forever. And gave herself up without a second thought.

Buffy was sure she was having the most annoying night of her life. Nothing seemed to be going right. Her study session had run WAY over and now she was late for…everything. Her nightly schedule had become a tight series of events and any deviation threw the entire thing into chaos. It was infuriating. She had even begun writing things down in her filofax to keep up with it all.

Oh my god, I'm turning into Willow.

Rolling her eyes, she allowed a small smile for the first time in hours. Like she could ever be as efficient as her best friend. It just wasn't physically possible. Plus, slaying was never predictable. She had practically run away from her study buddies only to be ambushed by three wildly desperate vamps in a row on campus. Her smile faded at the memory. These vamps were like rabid dogs. No cunning, no strategy, basically a feeding frenzy. Her jaw tightened at the realization – the Initiative. They were driving the vamps off their normal feeding grounds and throwing the entire balance of Sunnydale off. She couldn't even count on the cemeteries for fresh slayage anymore and was forced to widen her Patrol farther and farther each night. And factoring in occasional Riley time that meant about one to two hours of sleep a night. No wonder she felt like she might snap at any moment.

At least she was almost to the hospital. Her dreams the night before had centered on Faith, but they all did lately. Strange, vivid dreams of the two of them in strange conversations about Tara and someone named Dawn; and Faith, the two of them slaying side-by-side again with perfect synchronization and over and through it all an overwhelming feeling of dread. Something was off. Something big and she needed to get to the hospital and find out exactly what it was.

Making her way through the now familiar subterranean halls of the hospital basement she walked through the doorway into Faith's room and stood stunned in the emptiness. The Slayer was gone. Backing up carefully, she checked the door to make sure – yep, right room. Trying not to panic she turned to the hall to find Paul smiling behind her.

"It's incredible isn't it?" He beamed happily. "She woke up this morning." Shaking his head in astonishment he adjusted the sheets on the empty bed carefully. "A miracle…"

"Where is she?" Buffy asked carefully unsure of herself. Part of her wanted to share his elation, but another jaded side was worried about the Dark Slayer loose again with her appetite for destruction.

"Oh, they moved her to a rehab facility," he looked confused now. "Didn't say where. I would have called you, but I didn't know how to get in touch…"

"It's okay." She interrupted a little too sharply, but he seemed unfazed. "Do you know how I could find out where she is?" she softened her tone and looked into his eyes. "It's kinda important that I see her."

Shaking his head, he looked away sadly. "Unless you're family…" he trailed off and returned his gaze to hers. "If I could help you I would, but I don't have access…."

Biting her lip she looked away in disappointment. There was no way to get the information. Unless, of course, she resorted to violence and threatened one of the nurses. But that was just too…Faith. She sighed. maybe Willow could hack into the records and….yeah, right. She couldn't ask the hacker to do her thing on the Slayer's file for the same reasons she couldn't tell her she was visiting her every night in the first place: this was the psycho Slayer that had held her best friend at knife's point only months ago.

"Thanks Paul," she murmured distracted and walked away. "For everything."

She was practically running by the time she hit the heavy doors, her mind churning through possible solutions: she could just pay a visit to every rehab facility in town or Willow might help her if she thought Faith was a danger…and she might be.

Which brought her around for the millionth time to the question that had been bothering her since she had begun these visits: why the hell was she even bothering?

Those dreams…

"Are just dreams," she muttered angrily to herself.

"Dreams, huh?" A deep familiar voice beside her. Her head snapped up to find Riley. She waited for the rush of warmth, but she was just irritated. One more distraction in a night full of them. All she wanted to do was track down Faith, but now…She sighed. And she couldn't even ask him for help because that would lead to a discussion of Angel and…everything. Besides the fact that she had no desire to go there at the moment, she just didn't have the time. "I can help with that you know. When you go for your Masters in Psych it's kind of a requirement."

A sheepish grin lit his features and she smiled in return, but only for a moment. The thought of a Riley lecture at that moment made her jaw clench uncomfortably. What was it about grad students anyway? Talk, talk, talk. Maybe it had something to do with the teaching thing or assistant teaching thing. Lectures. And when,, exactly, she wondered, had Riley's monologues gone from endearing to irritating?

Hello! Right about now, because time. You so don't have time to be psychoanalyzed by your boyfriend right now. And these are not the kind of dreams he's talking about anyway. These are Slayer dreams. Heavy prophetic weirdness.

"Nope. Thanks. No dreams here. Just the usual," she stumbled awkwardly for an excuse and noticed a strange blinking metal thing in hid hand and it hit her – how had he found her? "Wait. Are you tracking me?"

"No. I mean, not technically. Okay, maybe just a little." His broad shoulders slumped slightly and she thought of Angel stalking her causing her temperature to rise. "I just. I haven't seen you in a couple of days and you haven't returned my phone calls, so…I worry."

"I'm the Slayer. You don't have to worry about me. I can take care of myself." She responded testily then softened as his expression turned to a sort of stunned puppy face. "Look Riley, I'm sorry," she reached out placing a gloved hand on his enormous shoulder. "I just, I have some stuff going on right now and with this whole Ragnarok end of the world cold thing going on I just…."

"Oh, the cold snap?" he nodded firmly, his shoulder's straightening into soldier mode. "It's just a weather anomaly. Our team's already analyzed the data and although it's statistically improbable…"

"Actually, we don't think it's just a cold snap," she interrupted, careful to keep her voice perky and upbeat. "Haven't you guys noticed an increase in magical activity or whatever you call it in military lingo?"

He shuffled his feet, forehead furrowing in confusion and something else she couldn't quite identify. "Well, yeah, but that doesn't mean the two are connected. And, not that it's any of my business, but who, exactly, is 'we'?"

Time. You're wasting time!

"Giles, Willow and Xander. You know, the royal 'we'." She answered jokingly, but noticed that he wasn't smiling. "Why? Who did you think 'we' was?"

"Nobody." He tucked the beeping thing in a thigh pocket and shifted his vest. "I don't know, Buffy," she said, exasperation creeping into his voice. "It's just…a week ago you couldn't wait to be with me and now I go by your room after three Buffyless days and Willow thinks you're with me." He paused briefly and shook his head. "She even made up some crazy story about you being at the Lesbian Alliance to cover for you." That was what the other thing was: hurt. He thought she was cheating on him. But, oh god, Willow.

"You talked to Willow?" she asked wide-eyed and he nodded. Closing her eyes, she brought her hands to her face and took a deep breath. "No, no, no." she mumbled into her hands. Things between them had been awkward at best for weeks, but this was sure to drive her best friend away. Possibly for good. It would definitely require a lengthy explanation tonight and she wanted to, but she was so busy. Maybe she could try the cookie-baking thing when this was all over. "This isn't happening." She mumbled and suddenly pulling her hands from her face she blurting out testily, "And they are connected! The cold, the magic." Until she was struck by a thought, "Have you guys seen any guys with big ice sticks?"

Shaking his head in confusion, Riley sputtered back. "What? No. I don't…you know what? We were talking about us."

She closed her eyes again and took a few deep breaths. She didn't have time for this.

"Look, Riley. There's no other guy. No other 'we', okay?" She turned and began walking away from the hospital and he followed. "But there is this whole Slayer thing I do and right now, I have an apocalypse to stop…"

"Buffy," he laughed. "Don't you think you're over-reacting? It's just some bad weath…"

"Newsflash! This is the Hellmouth. There are no coincidences and there's no such thing as over-reacting," she said firmly and watched the patronizing smile fade from his face. There were several seconds of silence and she wondered if this was it. If he was going to finally leave her too.

"What can I do to help?" He exhaled and stared deeply into her eyes, finally reminding her why she liked him in the first place. But that brought a whole new problem: what could he do to help? The last thing she needed was a bunch of gung-ho Initiative guys fouling things up. She needed information. Fast. About Faith and the apocalypse and whoever these brand new freaks in town were and…


Reaching up onto her tiptoes she kissed Riley lightly and held his arms firmly. "Well, for starters, you can help me beat up Hostile 17 for info." Because if anyone would have information about the End-of-the-World Ice Capades it was Spike.

Raising his eyebrows, Riley wrapped his strong arms around her and smiled. "See, that's all I wanted. Just a little quality time with my girl."

They kissed and it was the same warm Riley kiss that had been so awe-inspiring only a week ago, but now…all she could think about was the Dark Slayer. Where was she? And, more important, what, exactly, was she going to do with her when she finally did find Faith?

Part 6

Faith was shivering uncontrollably, her teeth chattering violently as she tried again and again to regain consciousness. It felt like she was held underwater – freezing water. Each time she broke the surface and the world began to emerge in hard lines, it would dissolve again as she was pulled back under. Fighting desperately to keep her eyes open she groaned against the weight of it.

"Wake up, slag." Male voice. Brit, Not a frilly Watcher like Wesley or Giles, but definitely Council. Two, maybe three bodies in the space with her, which left at least one, probably two up front. The facts ticked off in her mind as she was pulled under again. A hard stinging slap to the side of her head brought her back to the sharp icy world of…another fucking armored van.

Don't these guys ever learn? I broke out of one of these shitcans once already, she thought with a sliver of hope that quickly melted away as more facts trickled in through her blunted senses: ankle cuffs, burning into her skin like fire and she was face down on the fiery cold of a wheel well, her arms bound tightly around and behind her.

A straight jacket for the psycho. Well, at least it's fabric, she thought wincing as he pulled her upright again. Something was definitely wrong with her left arm and shoulder. An enormous angry face appeared suddenly in front of her unfocused and his breath made her gag as she was sucked under again.

Another hard slap and she tasted the coppery sweetness of blood.

I am so gonna fucking kill you , she thought and smiled, but her legs when she tried to move them were leaden and useless.

"What're you smilin' at you sick bitch?" This time it was a body shot that doubled her over and left her gagging. But all she could think was, Why is it so cold?

Her first thought was she wasn't in Sunnydale anymore, but everything inside her screamed that she was. The Slayer recognizing its home.

"Give us what yer holdin' now or you'll be in a world a hurt."

Holding? She couldn't even feel her arms much less her fingers. How could she be holding anything?

She would have spit at him if she could, but the muscles were no longer under her control. From very far away she felt something pulling at her, then terrible overwhelming pain in her left arm.

Another hard hit to the other side of her head and the world went to fuzzy static, like that crappy TV her mother used to watch twenty-four hours a day.

"Smith! Give her the good shit now. If she won't give it up, we'll pry whatever the fuck it is out of her dead cold fingers." The bad breath moved away and she felt different hands on her now. Gentler. They pushed the wet hair out off her face and she felt herself pulled upright gently.

"We don't know what that will do to a Slayer in her condition…" a softer voice began and she tried desperately to hold onto this information. Here was a potential ally.

"The Council don't care whether this pathetic excuse for a Slayer's delivered dead or alive. Give 'er the shit now. I don't want her usin' whatever's in 'er 'and against us."

The gentle fingers probed her shoulder carefully and she groaned without meaning to. The touch disappeared immediately and she heard the sounds of a plastic cap snapping open then a syringe.

A rough hand fell like molten iron on her bare leg and she tried to fight, but her body managed barely a shudder against him. She didn't even feel the needle as it sank into her thigh, just the terrible screaming fire that moved through her veins burning her alive from the inside out.

Well, at least it's not cold, she thought as her entire body seized in a high arch against the sharp metal and she heard fabric tearing.

Hard hands tried to restrain her as the Slayer fought against the chemical and metal bonds. Her teeth were clenched so hard she was sure they would break apart in her mouth.

"Bugger all!" the rough voice said then that gentler worried voice muttering 'oh God, oh no' over and over, but she was beyond them, rising now, not sinking. Rising higher and higher past the pain to a place where she could remember and forget everything all at once: the Mayor with his cold, manipulative affection; Buffy with the jagged blade and the brand new anger; the pain, helplessness and shame of her childhood; and something new. A strange new memory that wasn't yet: a warm, golden smile on Buffy's lips for her, the Dark Slayer, the fuckup. The killer.

"Buffy!" It was barely recognizable, her own voice, but it was unmistakable.

The Council heavies were yelling at each other around and over her and she felt the needle this time as it sank into her skin pushing her finally back into the sharp cold with only that one fading golden image to protect her.

Tara struggled to hold the pile of books in her arms as she walked to Mr. Giles' apartment and tried to keep her mind on the task and not on Willow. There had been no vivid dreams the night before, but then, she hadn't needed them. She and Willow had spent hours on the phone talking and…well, flirting. A blush crept over her face at the thought, but there was no denying, it had definitely been flirting. A sort of relieved acknowledgement of the transition in their relationship, not to mention the sexual tension. It was like they were getting to know each other all over again in a very different way. And that lightening…it just kept getting bigger, as if they were moving toward something. Something her dreams had only hinted at.

The familiar crunch of frost under her boots was a reminder of the danger they all faced and she brought her thoughts back to the apocalypse, the impenetrable cold and the demon that still lay within her. All the reasons that brought her to this now-familiar wooden door on a bitter cold morning.

"Ah Tara, do come in," the door swung open before she could even knock, "I've finally managed to get the heater working. It can't be above freezing out there."

"M-morning Mr. Giles," she mumbled with a smile before setting the books on the coffee table. No one had ever made her feel so at ease in such a short time before. Except Willow.

Without asking, Giles brought out a steaming pot of tea and Tara accepted the cup with blushing thanks.

"My pleasure," he said with a smile before sinking back into the overstuffed chair. "It's so nice to have tea with someone again."

Tara blushed again and reached for her notes. "I d-didn't find anyth-thing except a f-few references to th-thaumogenic and thesulac d-demons, but…" she trailed off unsure how to continue. Each fit certain aspects of her mother's possession and her father's threats, but none was a perfect fit. Shaking her head she handed the open book to Giles who studied it with interest.

"Yes. A thesulac demon. A fair candidate, but for the type of generational, family-oriented demonic manifestation you've described…" He closed the book carefully and set it on the table between them before meeting Tara's eyes. She nodded once to let him know she understand. "Well, I'm afraid I haven't had any more luck." He picked up a leather-bound tome nearby and thumbed through it carefully. "Every demon I find that fits one aspect of your description, fails in another." He set the book on the table open to a particularly vicious and reptilian-looking demon with several heads. "I'm quite sure you would have noticed if your mother was transformed into a hydra every few months."

Tara nodded slightly and shuddered at the horrific demon in the illustration. Buffy, Xander, Mr. Giles and Willow fought demons like this every day to keep the rest of the world safe. They risked their lives and families to help others. That thought made hardened her resolve and she felt her shoulders push back slightly. This was the reason she was meeting secretly with Mr. Giles; the reason she couldn't tell Willow about the demon. If she couldn't protect Willow on Patrol she would shield her from the demon inside her.

"D-do you have any other b-books I c-can…" she began, but her stuttering stopped her and she ducked her head in embarrassment.

"You mean you've already read all the…" he said before trailing off. "Oh, I see," he muttered under his breath before pulling out a cloth to clean his glasses. "Well, it's obvious why Willow raves about you. That's quite a lot of material to digest virtually overnight." He said softly before closing the book on the hideous demon.

"The wh-whole demon thing is k-kind of a b-big motivator," she smiled sheepishly ducking her head, but she could feel that Mr. Giles continued to study her for several moments. Finally, he cleared his throat and she looked up.

"Yes, I suppose it would be quite the motivation," he began softly before smiling. "I'm afraid we've exhausted all of my resources. The next step would be to contact the Council." Tara inhaled sharply at the suggestion, sure that he had finally decided to reveal her demon status and the threat to higher powers. But Giles spoke again before she could voice her concerns. "But they have a tendency to…overreact and I'd prefer to keep this between us for a bit longer."

"Th-thank you Mr. Giles," Tara whispered and looked down at her hands. She didn't deserve his concern.

"Tara, I know you're quite adamant about not involving Willow, but at this point I believe her skills could…"

"No." She was surprised at the conviction in her voice and looked down immediately. "I…I j-just c-ca…I won't put her in d-d…" she began, but her voice broke and she couldn't continue afraid she would give herself away.

There were a few moments of awkward silence before Giles cleared his throat again and stood. When he spoke, his voice was the easily recognizable business-like tone he reserved for research. "Well then, maybe we should go over the facts again."

They ran quickly through her limited knowledge of her demon history and childhood memories without any new revelations. The Watcher removed his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. "What about recently? Have there been any hints of the demon transformation? Physical changes, dreams…"

"Dreams…" she murmured meaningfully, surprising him. Those dreams – so vivid and real. She blushed just thinking about them and looked once more at her hands. "I…I've been having these int-tense d-dreams recently."

"Recently as in months?" he questioned carefully and Tara shook her head, looking up at him through the comforting drape of her hair.

"J-just the past few d-days," she nodded and returned her attention to her chewed-up fingernails trying not to betray the content of them with her eyes.

"Well, that's very interesting," his forehead furrowed in what Tara was beginning to recognize as his 'deep thought' look: an expression of deep concentration that was strangely reminiscent of Willow. "Were these dreams…" he began, but paused for a moment before continuing. "Do you feel they're related to this demon manifestation?" he asked carefully.

Tara thought for a moment about the dreams and felt the heat rise in her face. There was something about the vivid, intense nature of these dreams that was familiar and disturbing. "S-since I was about f-f-ive, I've h-had d-dreams…about the f-future." She paused and looked up to check his expression: still pensive and curious, so she continued looking down again. "I…s-sometimes they w-would come t-true." She looked up again to and met the Watcher's eyes hoping he would understand the terrible nature of her revelation. "Usually th-they did. M-my family t-told me they were signs of the d-demon in me."

Two deep furrows creased his brow. "I see. Well, dreams can be signs of magical influence, but they won't necessarily help us with a diagnosis. Buffy often experiences premonitory dreams in times of great magical upheaval." He looked thoughtful again and there were a few awkward moments of silence before he turned to her, the lines of his face softening.

"Tara, I know this may be difficult, but can you tell me the content of these dreams? Did you dream about the demon manifestation?" She could feel his eyes on her and found herself recoiling automatically. It was unfair, she knew, but admitting to her dreams in the past had always ended in confinement…or worse. "I'm sorry. If this is too…" The watcher began, obviously distressed by her reaction.

"No. I'm s-sorry, Mr. Giles," she managed a slight smile for him and focused again on the question: those dreams. Images from the past few nights swept over her immediately: she and Willow sliding against each other, wet and heat and…

Suddenly the image of a dark-eyed demonic Willow loomed in her vision and she gasped, a chill running through her.

"Tara?" The furrows had returned to his forehead as he studied the blonde with concern.

"Yes, s-sorry. I just…." She trailed off trying to figure out how to say this without giving up intimate details. "Th-they're very v-viv…" she winced at her inability to get the words past her lips.

"Vivid?" he offered quietly.

She nodded. "And s-some are k-kind of intim-mate." She said and felt her face catch fire as the Watcher cleared his throat.

"Ah, I see." He cleared his throat again as Tara tried to calm herself, images of that black-eyed version of her love assaulting her. "Is it the demon Tara? Do you see it?"

"Y-yes." She answered quietly and ducked behind her hair. "B-but, it d-doesn't make sense." Everything was quiet and she realized without looking up that he was waiting patiently for her to continue. "It…it's not me. It's Willow."

When she finally found the courage to look up he sat still, blinking in confusion. "I don't understand. You say the demon is Willow?"

She shook her head against the images and tried to clarify the series of intense, but disconnected images for him. "She's…so angry…a-and powerful…with b-black eyes and hair…. It's t-terrible." She stopped as her voice began to break, tears forming in her eyes.

Giles now regarded her with a look of angry disbelief and she had to fight to keep herself from recoiling again. "I don't understand. You're saying the demon is Willow…"

"No," she interrupted. "It's m-more like, she's t-trying to p-protect me I think, but the magic she c-calls on is too strong and…it's consuming her." Wiping at her eyes she forced herself to once again meet the Watcher's intense gaze. "I w-won't let that happen."

Nodding once, he stood up and removed his glasses, but replaced them almost immediately. "I understand that you have premonitions, but that's simply impossible. Willow isn't powerful enough…"

"No. You're wr-rong. She is," she interjected without a hint of stutter. "S-sorry." She mumbled as his angry gaze fell on her.

Sighing deeply he punched his hands into the pockets of his tweed jacket. "Even if she were, as you say, capable of such power, she is incapable of succumbing to the dark forces." His back straightened with the proud conviction of a parent speaking of a favorite child.

Tara chose her words carefully. She had seen the darkness in him. "Like you were?" she asked softly and winced as he swung to face her. He was clearly shocked by her words and his mouth opened and closed several times, but there no words were spoken. Finally after almost a minute, he sat heavily down in his seat.

"I was sure she had learned her lesson from the curse she unwittingly placed on the rest of us," he mumbled absently to himself then turned to face her. "And she seems to be progressing quite well under your tutelage," he offered with a sad smile. "I'm not sure what I could do to help her. I'm afraid she regards me as a sort of well-meaning but bumbling relative."

"Mr. Giles, she idolizes you. You're l-like a father to her," she said softly and was relieved to see a sort of wistful smile cross his face.

"I didn't realize," he began then removed his glasses, pulling a cloth from his vest pocket to clean them. "I'm not sure what I could do for her that you can't. She obviously has a great deal of respect for your abilities and from what's she's told me you're teaching her to respect magic."

"You can say no to h-her," she said then whispered, "I can't."

He stopped cleaning his glasses and turned to look at her. She forced herself to meet his gaze for a moment then looked down again afraid of his reaction. After what seemed like several minutes he cleared his throat and returned the cloth to his pocket.

"I see," he said softly. "I'll definitely take your advice into consideration." Clearing his throat again he continued, "but that doesn't help us with the demon diagnosis. Perhaps there's another source in Wagner's Codex…"

The sound of the door opening and slamming shut startled them both. "Okay, for the record, I don't run errands anymore without getting paid. I mean, besides the expensive gas I use driving Xander's car, there's my very valuable time you're wasting. Oh, hi Tara." The ex-vengeance demon finished cheerfully, setting a bag on the counter as the blonde witch and the Watcher sat still stunned by the intrusion.

"H-hi Anya," Tara finally stuttered out and Anya smiled affectionately before turning again on Giles with an outstretched hand.

"That's forty-seven dollars you owe me. Pay up." Tara smiled at her bravado. She couldn't explain it but she felt a sort of strange affection for the ex-vengeance demon. Maybe it was her outsiderness. Or maybe it was just the fact that she was fearless about expressing herself while Tara agonized over every utterance.

Giles began digging in his jacket for his wallet, a deep frown forming on his face. "Anya, the herbs I asked you for couldn't possibly total more than thirty-five dollars…"

"Twelve hundred years worth of valuable knowledge. If it weren't for my expertise you'd be stuck with inferior bloodroot and…"

"Yes. Very well," he interrupted handing her the money, which she accepted with a smile.

"I'm not kidding. You have to watch those people. Half their herbs are mislabeled…" she rambled on and Tara watched the exchange with a smile, but the Watcher's expression had changed at some point. He was now regarding the raving blonde with a strange expression.

"Tara, I've just had a thought." He began, cutting Anya off.

"Hey," she began only to be cut off again.

"Since we've reached the end of my resources," he looked nervously at Anya who crossed her arms angrily. "Perhaps it would be advisable to consult an expert, as it were," he said before giving Anya a pointed look. "One with considerably more demon knowledge than any of us." Glancing once more between the Watcher and the ex-vengeance demon, Tara finally understood.

"Oh, you think Anya c-could help?" The thought of another person knowing her secret was terrifying, but the thought of Anya's extensive knowledge gave the first glimmer of hope she'd felt since she first left this apartment with all of those books.

"Oh no, I told you, no more help unless you pay up," she said and threw her head back defiantly. "Any information I have, I got the hard way so it's gonna cost you."

Tara bowed her head dejected. "I…I don't' h-have any money, but I could p-pay you o-over time," she stuttered out.

"Oh! This is for you, Tara?" Anya practically shrieked and walked over to the blonde witch who nodded shyly. "Well then, that's different." She turned to glare pointedly at the Watcher. "She looks dependable. I'm sure we can work out a reasonable payment plan…"

"Anya. You're not seriously considering charging a friend for your help," he demanded angrily.

The ex-vengeance demon looked back and forth between the two several times in confusion. "Friends? Is that what we are?" she asked. "You're my friend?" she turned to face Tara with a look of open hope and confusion.

"I h-hope so," Tara said with a smile. "I m-mean, you know, if y-you want me to b-be."

The ex-vengeance demon just stared at her for long moments and Tara fought the urge to lower her head. "Yes," Anya said finally. "You're quiet and you stutter and you dress in unappealing clothes," Tara watched amused as the Watcher rolled his eyes. "But I like you. You're nice and you never make fun of me or interrupt like some other rude people." Giles sighed dramatically at this last insult.

"Wonderful, can we proceed then without a contract or down payment?"

Anya's face hardened again and Tara fought conflicting feelings of panic and amusement at the scene before her. "There's no charge for Tara. But you," she pointed at him and squinted. "Every insult will cost you ten bucks."

He rolled his eyes and shook his head before pulling his glasses off to clean them. "Very well."

"So," Anya asked perkily. "What's the problem Tara? Are you possessed?" When Tara didn't answer immediately she continued, raising her eyebrows with excitement. "Oh, maybe a demon impregnation then? They're exciting! Lots of blood and…"

"Anya," Giles interjected wearily and Anya extended her hand.

"Ten bucks."

"But I didn't even…" he began, but she cut him off.

"That was a very mean 'Anya'." She pointed at him again. "I know what you meant. You English types are all alike. The words coming out of your mouths sound so nice and civilized, but underneath it all you're cursing us with boils and…"

"Oh alright!" he placed another ten dollars in her hand and she smiled.

"That's better," she said sweetly before turning her attention back to the blonde witch. "So, spill it. What's the problem?"

Tara swallowed hard, steadying herself. Looking back and forth between the two of them she began to explain her situation. When her stutter became too much for her Giles filled in with the research they'd done until Anya waved him off.

"This is all wrong," she said rolling her eyes. Giles began to retort angrily but she cut him off. "Look, demons are either magically created," she pointed to herself dramatically, "like me. Or they're born that way. Like lizards or fish, you know? " She poured herself a cup of tea and added several spoons of sugar. "Of course, every once in a while some witch channels too much power and ends up turning herself into a demon," she studied Tara for a moment before continuing, "but obviously, you're not the type."

"But according to her family, this manifests itself only in the women and only at a certain age," Giles offered only to have Anya wave him off.

"Okay, nine times out of ten, someone claiming to have demon blood is just bragging. I mean, do you know how hard it is for a human to mate with a demon," she made a face. "Interspecies romances never work out. Believe me."

"So you're saying we can rule out the…"

Tara found herself growing more and more detached as the two went back and forth about demon lore and possession. It was all too much and she had so much hope tied up with this strange, new human. This new friend. That brought a small smile to her face. At least Anya hadn't balked at all at the possibility that she might be demon. In fact, she seemed positively delighted.

When she returned her attention to the room, Giles was speaking in hushed tones about the beatings Tara's family had administered to drive out the demon. Anya grew uncharacteristically quiet as he finished. Tara looked down at the faded gray of her cargo pants, her face burning with shame. It wasn't her family's fault, she wanted to tell them. Her father was just trying to save her from the demon she would one day become.

When she finally looked up, Anya was staring at her and, impossibly, there were tears in the ex-demon's eyes. She stood up abruptly motioning to Tara with one hand before pointing an accusing finger at Giles. "How could you not…?" she began then stopped, shaking her head. "It's obvious, her father was just using this an excuse to keep the witches in the family in line." She threw her hands up angrily. "I mean, hello, beating the demon out! If that worked you'd have to keep your psychotic Slayer from killing them all." Her voice was rising in volume as she became more indignant. "She could just beat them until they turn into stuttering, pretty blondes!"

Giles was now on his feet ready to defend himself and his Slayer, but Tara was lost in Anya's revelation. If she were right…

"Psychotic! Buffy is the most stable Slayer I've ever…" Giles began.

"Hello, beating vamps into unconsciousness while screaming about Angel is…"

"You m-mean you th-think I'm not a d-demon?" Tara said quietly and they both turned to her at once.

"I don't think. I know." Anya said without missing a beat. "Believe me, I've spent enough time with every kind of demon in the book and you're no demon." It almost sounded like an insult, but Tara rose to her feet.

"But…my m-mother. They l-locked her up…." She began still unable to believe the ex-vengeance demon. "All the women in my f-family…"

"Believe me," Anya began angrily. "I wish I was still a vengeance demon, because I'd make sure your redneck father got exactly what he deserved." Her expression grew wistful as she imagined her vengeance, "Some sort of ritual castration….Oh! Or a demon impregnation for poetic justice!" she offered cheerily. "You haven't lived until you've seen a man try to give birth."

Tara felt her knees grow weak, a terrible shaking beginning somewhere in her abdomen. "Mr. Giles?" she asked softly.

The Watcher held her eyes for a moment before closing his own. She could see the muscles in his jaw clench, his hands form into fists before releasing. "Oh dear lord," he whispered and reached for his glasses. "I'm so sorry Tara."

"S-sorry?" Her voice sounded childlike and small.

"That you had to suffer so…for nothing." He said softly, but she could see the anger beneath the surface. "That you were the victim of such…evil." He said with disgust. "And that I didn't see it sooner."

She looked dumbfounded between the two of them, trying to get her mind around it all. It couldn't be this easy…and terrible. It couldn't have all been a lie. Could it?

"Are you s-sure?"

Anya smiled. "One hundred percent. I've seen this thousands of times." She dismissed Tara's misgivings again with a wave. "In fact, I'm pretty sure you could get some vengeance going even now. Don't you just wish…"

"Anya!" Giles interrupted forcefully. "As much as I would like to see these men suffer for what they've done…"

"No," Tara said softly. "No v-vengeance." The tears were pouring down her face now as she struggled not to believe. Struggled to hang on to the only truth she had ever known.

"I'm n-not a demon?" she asked again and felt the swell of something unfamiliar and warm – hope. Anya's smile was bright and sure.

"No! How many times do I have to tell you?" she huffed. "Hello! Twelve hundred years!"

Tara couldn't hold back any longer, falling into the ex-vengeance demon she held on tight crying and laughing into that thin shoulder.

"Giles! She's attacking me!" Anya asserted over her shoulder, but didn't pull away. "Oh. Is this a hug? Are we hugging like Willow and Buffy?" she asked and Tara could only nod wildly as she clung to the girl's skinny frame. "So does this mean you want to have sex, because, you know, I have Xander for that?" she asked, but enclosed Tara in her arms. The blonde witch could only laugh.

She heard Giles sniff once and clear his throat once again and decided she should let go. Anya had other ideas and continued to hug her, so she let herself be held by this strange new friend, smiling wide.

She didn't even hear the door open or the familiar voices in conversation.

"What the –?" a familiar voice demanded angrily and she turned in the ex-demon's arms to Willow and Buffy standing in stunned silence.

"Tara's not a demon!" Anya blurted out excitedly and the blonde noticed for the first time that she'd been crying too.

Wiping the tears from her eyes, Tara's smile began to fade as she noticed the angry and horrified expression on the beautiful redhead's face.

"Of course she's not a demon!" Willow retorted testily, her hands clenching into fists at her side as she stripped off her jacket. "Why would you even say that? And what are you doing to her?" she gesticulated wildly.

"Hey! She hugged me first!" Anya fired back angrily and Tara felt the panic rise up, strangling her. This was not how she wanted to tell Willow. "You all let her think she was a demon until I told her how ridiculous that was. I mean, look at her! Her clothes alone should have tipped everyone off," she smiled smugly. "And I did it for free because we're friends. Besides, it was so obvious. No one beats the demon out of someone. It just doesn't work." Still smiling, Anya looked to Tara and Giles for confirmation.

Tara stepped slowly away from Anya, but stopped when Willow took a step back. Her eyes filled with tears as she looked into the blonde's. All she could see in those green eyes was pain…and betrayal.

"Tara?" And it was there in that question as well. She had never considered the damage she could do to the redhead by trying to protect her.

She nodded once and swallowed, ducking behind her hair.

"You thought you were a demon?" Willow asked, her voice breaking. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Tara nodded again and raised her eyes. She could feel the tears sliding down her cheeks. "Willow, I…" she began, but was interrupted by the phone ringing.

The Watcher moved silently to answer and Tara tried again to find the courage to explain, terrified she would lose Willow all over again.

"I w-was going to tell y-y-you…" she began and paused. Everyone was watching them – Giles, Buffy and Anya – and that made her more nervous, made the stuttering increase.

"When?" Willow pleaded desperately and Tara felt the rest of the room drop away. "After the 'I love you's? I mean, 'cause now I'm wondering if any of that meant…"

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the shocked expression on Buffy's face, heard the murmured, 'dear lord' from Mr. Giles, and took in the smug knowing smile on Anya's, but it didn't matter.

"No, Willow. I meant it. All of it," she managed to say without tripping over a single syllable. "I'm y-yours…if you still w-want me."

They stood there for long moments with that enormous space between them and the blonde witch thought she might collapse under the pain of it. To come all this way, to find out her entire life had been a lie only to lose the only thing she had ever wanted.

"Well yeah!" the redhead raised her arms in frustration, "'Cause you know, I'm the one who did the…thing with the carpe diem and the 'I'm in love with you' matzoh ball and I mean…b-but Anya? You go to a skanky ex-demon instead of me, your… girlfriend…"

"Hey! Your girlfriend felt me up! And Xander so owes me fifty bucks…" Anya interjected, but Willow's babble continued unaffected.

"… maybe…who isn't a girlfriend or a 'yours' yet, but who's supposed to be soon, right? After time…that I'm giving you." She crossed her arms protectively around herself and Tara watched as the redhead's lower lip began to quiver. "How lon-…" she began again only to be cut off as Giles hung up the phone with a loud, meaningful click.

"I'm afraid we have a new problem. That was the Council," he said in a business-like tone, inhaling deeply as he pushed his hands into his pockets. "It seems that Faith has awakened."

Part 7

"What? " Willow's voice was strung tight, her mouth still hanging open after Anya's inadvertent admission. Tara could see the tears glistening in her eyes and felt her own burning with grief. The moment was gone and she could tell by the growing tension in the room that she wasn't going to get an opportunity to explain herself anytime soon.


But it was already too late. This, she realized, was what life was like for the Scoobies. There had been no time to even process one life-altering revelation and she was thrust immediately into another. She had no idea who Faith was, but she could tell by the reactions and the overall energy in the room that she was someone with the power to divide these inseparable best friends and family. Someone strong enough to shake the bonds of this tight-knit group. For a fleeting moment she almost felt jealous, then she saw the pain and anger in those beautiful green eyes in the set of those thin, strong shoulders and fought the overwhelming urge to cross the distance and comfort the redhead. Swallowing back her emotions, she hugged herself tightly instead. She had no right anymore. She had hurt Willow terribly and now she had to concentrate on steadying herself for the rest of the Scooby meeting. For Willow.

Looking from face to face for some sort of explanation, she noticed that the expression on Buffy's wasn't surprise, it was concern – an almost-panic that was palpable. Giles had straightened slightly, squaring his shoulders as if he were preparing for battle. At least Anya looked as confused as Tara felt.

Faith. Ironic that such a beautiful word could belong to someone so obviously divisive.

"Do they have her?" Buffy asked, her eyes growing wide.

The Watcher's seemed surprised by her question, but answered calmly. "Yes. She's in the Council's custody, so there's nothing to –"

"Good." Willow interjected, crossing her arms defiantly looking to her best friend for a similar gesture.

"Where do they have her?" Buffy blurted out, ignoring her best friend completely as she took a few steps toward the Watcher.

His head tilted slightly to the left in question. "They didn't tell me, but I'm sure…"

Tara looked to Willow to find the redhead's sad eyes following the exchange with growing alarm. She must have sensed the blonde witch's eyes on her because she glanced once, meeting her eyes before looking away quickly.

"Giles we can't let them take her." Buffy practically yelled and the blonde witch resisted the urge to back up a step. This was a Slayer after all. Her diminutive size was deceiving. She could hurt them all with ease and Tara was used to quick, unpredictable violence. Her family had used it for years to surprise the demon inside her, to make it submit. But that was something she couldn't think about right now. "You have to call them back and find out where they have her."

The Englishman just stared at her for a moment in open astonishment. "Buffy, the Council only called me as a courtesy. Faith is in the custody of their Wet Works and I'm sure…"

"What? Who with the…what are Wet Works?" The Slayer asked, her hands clenching and unclenching.

The Watcher just stared at her for several long moments, his mouth opening and closing on a response. "Buffy I don't see…"

"Assassinations, torture, that kind of thing," Anya responded coolly and shrugged as they all turned to her incredulous. "What? I thought everyone knew that. And who is Faith?"

"An evil, homicidal, slutbomb of a Slayer who should be locked…" Willow began angrily and the blonde witch turned in surprise to find the redhead's beautiful face twisted with rage. The black-eyed demon of her dreams suddenly flashed before her eyes and she had to restrain the yell that threatened to tear itself out of her. Because this was wrong. There was so much anger and fear here.

"Torture?" Buffy's eyes went wide as she turned from the ex-vengeance demon to the Watcher who seemed to be regarding her behavior with growing alarm. "Giles, we have to rescue her."

The Englishman simply stared at her, his mouth slightly open.

"Rescue who?" Xander asked cheerily as he and Riley entered bringing a gust of frigid air with them. "There's rescuing afoot?" he smiled and Tara took a step back as the two larger men entered the circle of them.

"Faith." Anya said curtly, crossing her arms as her eyes narrowed on the dark-haired boy. "You, know, the other Slayer." She said with obvious meaning and Xander's eyes went wide. "I'm assuming it's the one you slept with."

"An!" he blurted out in shock, but it was too late. All eyes were now on Xander except Tara's. She watched Willow's face fall then harden.

"You slept with Faith," the redhead stated flatly before shutting her eyes, her jaw clenching visibly under the pale skin of her cheek. Buffy was shaking her head and staring at Xander in disbelief. She thought she heard Riley mumble, 'there's another Slayer?' but the Scoobies seemed were oblivious to anything outside the circle of themselves and the shared past that seemed to be everywhere.

"It was…" he began haltingly then stopped, squaring his shoulders in indignation. "You know what? It's really no one's business who I slept with and why, exactly, are we even discussing rescuing her? She tried to kill us all!" He raised his hands, his eyes going wide and Tara felt everything slow down. The room seemed to drop in temperature as the three faced off and she watched horrified as Willow seemed to grow smaller. As if she was curling in on herself for protection. "Not to mention helping the Mayor become giant snake guy!"

"Precisely." The Watcher said quietly from somewhere to Tara's right, but she couldn't focus any longer on anyone but the now-silent Willow. Her pale skin seemed even whiter…like snow. And her flaming hair sat silent and still around her usually bouncing frame. "The Council is fully prepared to handle Faith."

Still shaking her own head, Buffy turned away from Xander to face her Watcher. "Look, I know it sounds…insane, but I started having these crazy intense dreams a few nights ago…" Tara looked up at that to find the Englishman staring at her over the Slayer's shoulder, but Buffy continued, apparently unaware. She felt the pressure of another gaze – Willow who looked at her pointedly for a moment before glancing guiltily away. It was enough. Willow's been having them too. The dreams. "Slayer dreams…about Faith…and other stuff…so I went to the hospital," Buffy turned at this point to address the entire group, her hands extended palm up as if she were begging and demanding at the same time. "I..I can't explain it, but she's…different. She's…"

"In a coma!" Xander shot back testily. "Of course she's different. She can't hold Willow hostage at knife point or, or strangle me when she's unconscious!"

"Let me get this straight," Riley said stepping forward. "There's not just one Slayer. There are two. And the other one's in a coma? And she tried to kill people?" the soldier seemed genuinely confused as he looked at his girlfriend willing her to explain. Buffy only closed her eyes and Tara recognized a deep-breathing exercise as her fists clenched tightly at her sides.

"Yes. Yes and yes." Xander responded without even turning.

"So that's who you were visiting at the hospital?" Riley said smiling and obviously relieved.

There were a few moments of silence before Buffy opened her eyes and nodded.

"Riley Time." Willow's voice was almost a whisper as she nodded confirmation of her own statement. Her face was a mask as she raised her eyes to look at Buffy who just nodded.

"I'm sorry, but you don't understand…these dreams," The Slayer began only to be cut off.

"I don't understand," Willow spit out angrily. "Of course, I couldn't possibly understand 'cause it's a Slayer thing." She reached for her coat, pulling the sleeves on with violent jerks of her arms. "And I'm not a Slayer so I couldn't possibly understand about dreams or intense…ness or…"

"No. It's not a Slayer thing and this is coming out all wrong," the blonde began and Tara could see the desperation in her eyes as Buffy her best friend. "Or maybe it is…a Slayer thing. It's just…this is all…so wrong. I can feel it." Willow's eyes again met Tara's for a moment and she felt an electric charge slip through her. "And we need to help her."

"No, Buffy, you need to help her," the redhead responded coolly and Buffy recoiled as if she'd been struck.

"Buffy, what exactly do you plan to do with her after this rescue," the Watcher interjected gently. "The Council is much better equipped to rehabilitate her than we…"

"Rehabilitate!" she turned on him. "Hello! I don't remember rehabilitation being on the Wet Ones resume. I think Anya said torture and assassination."

"And brainwashing," Anya said with less enthusiasm than usual, her eyes returning immediately to Xander's and Tara watched them exchange a long meaningful glance, his shoulders drooping slightly under the ex-demon's gaze.

The Englishman frowned slightly. "Yes, I admit that was a rather strange decision although given Faith's record…"

"We're wasting time," the Slayer interrupted. "She could be halfway to England by now."

"And I'm still not seeing the bad?" Xander said angrily and Buffy again seemed shocked by his response.

Tara watched the redhead zip up her powder blue coat and reach for her bag, leaving the pile of magick books and journals she brought on the floor. As she turned to walk to the door, the Slayer stopped her.

"Wait Willow. I really need you to do a locator spell." Buffy turned to the Watcher, "Do we have the ingredients here?"

"Yes Buffy, but…" the Englishman began only to be cut off.

"No." Willow's voice was flat and atonal.

Buffy turned back to her best friend. "Wil, there's no way the Council's just going to tell us where they have her."

"No, Buffy, you don't get it. I'm not just not doing the spell. I quit." There were tears in her eyes as she stared at her best friend. Green eyes met Tara's again in a brief glance full of desperation and pain before Willow turned and walked to the door.

"Willow," the name left Tara's lips in a whisper and she moved toward the sad outline of the redhead, but the Slayer was faster.

"Wil, I need you…" she began and the redhead whirled on her in fury.

"No you don't, Buffy!" she practically yelled at her best friend and Tara stopped mid-step. "You need someone to do your little spell and take your orders like a good soldier and I'm sorry, but that me who used to be that girl just…isn't anymore! Find someone else." The tears were streaming down her face and her eyes were narrowed in rage. "Because I quit. The best friend thing, the…this." She motioned to the books at her feet. "All of it!" Willow's eyes met Tara's for just a moment and a sob escaped her lips before she turned and left, slamming the door behind her.

There was a long silence as the echoes of the redhead's departure reverberated through the room. Tara focused on Buffy whose mouth still hung open in shock and tears were obvious in wide eyes that continued to study the door as if she expected her best friend to return through it at any moment. Xander's head hung on his shoulders, his eyes studying the floor as his shoulders squared. She watched his dark brown eyes dart to the Slayer, more than a hint of anger and blame evident in his gaze. She studied them all because she wanted to run out after the redhead, but she couldn't. Something was keeping her in this room without Willow. Maybe it was fear of what the girl would say to her or maybe it was something else. A feeling. She looked up to find Buffy studying her and quickly hid behind her hair wishing again that she had gone after Willow.

"Well, that was…intense," Riley smiled sheepishly and turned to his girlfriend. "I'm guessing this Faith really pissed Willow off at some point," he shook his head still smiling and Tara realized that he was actually trying to help lighten the mood. "'Cause I've never seen her that mad. Even when she was threatening me with a shovel."

"Faith tried to kill Willow and she would have…" Xander growled then trailed off still staring pointedly at Buffy, but the Slayer was lost deep in her own thoughts.

"Look, I know…" the Slayer began and stopped abruptly. "These dreams mean something and…" she closed her eyes again and Tara could see the strong muscles in her jaw. "I have to help Faith."

"Okay, so I don't have important dreams or anything, but am I the only one who sees a problem here? Psycho, murdering Slayer…" he turned to stare pointedly at Giles who still stood silently regarding his Slayer. "Why can't we just let the Council take care of her?"

"Because!" Buffy yelled, closing her eyes as her fists clenched white-knuckled at her sides. "I stuck a knife in her, okay? I buried it up to the hilt in her. And I see that every time I close my eyes. I…I feel it…." Her eyes, when they opened were wet with tears, but wild. "I stabbed her and…and worse than that…I wanted to. I would have killed her if I could and I never…" a sad sobbing laugh escaped her. "And she still helped us beat the Mayor even after…" The Slayer opened her eyes again and wiped violently at the tears on her cheeks, then shook her head unable to continue.

There was a long uncomfortable silence as Buffy sniffed loudly and Xander looked at the floor. Anya had at some point moved closer to Tara and she could feel the tension in the ex-vengeance demon's body beside her. Giles continued to study his Slayer with fierce intensity before his gaze dropped suddenly and he sighed audibly.

"I'm sorry Buffy, I hadn't realized…" he began, but trailed off.

Tara took a few deep breaths to calm herself and find her center. Buffy's pain was palpable and the fractured energy of it filled the small room and beat against the blonde witch's fragile psyche like a storm surge. Another long silence and the blonde witch tightened her arms around herself, terrified of what she was about to do. What she was about to offer – the real reason she had remained in this room without Willow.

"I'll do the, um, the s-spell," she offered quietly and suddenly all eyes were on her.

"What?" Buffy sniffed again and Giles extended a kleenex, which she accepted.

"The locator spell…I'll d-do it." She noticed absently that she could now see her own breath as she spoke as if Willow's departure had taken all of the warmth from her world.

"Tara, look, I know you're trying to do the right thing here and you seem like a nice person so you're probably just trying to help," Xander began, his voice rising in pitch. Tara began to back up a step as his anger increased, but Buffy's hopeful, pleading eyes locked with her own held her fast. "But you don't know this girl. She's psychotic and she kills people and…"

"I'm sorry Xander, I know she, um, she h-hurt you, but I'm n-not doing the…the, um, the s-spell for Faith," she said softly and took a deep breath unsure how she was going to continue until she glanced up again at the Slayer and saw the hope in her eyes. This was Willow's best friend and the redhead had given up Oxford and Harvard and her future to fight by her side. This was the Slayer who risked her life every day and as mad and hurt as Willow was right now she knew the redhead would regret not helping. At least she could give her this one thing even if she had taken away any chance of a future together. She could take Willow's place just this once. "I'm d-doing it for Buffy." She said simply and felt as much as saw Xander's furrowed brow as his gaze returned guiltily to the floor. "And Willow," she whispered to herself.

"What do you need?" Buffy was amazed at the sound of her own voice: so small and child-like. There was something about this girl – Tara, she reminded herself – that made her take an emotional step back. As if she could break the girl just by looking at her.

And she never really had before – looked at Tara. The blonde witch had just been Willow's strange, shy friend who had (impossibly) less fashion sense than the redhead. She had even been suspicious at first: unfamiliar, witchy girl suddenly spending lots of time with Willow, but the two of them together in their ill-fitting clothes and clashing colors made some sort of strange sense. That and the fact that Tara didn't give her even a hint of wiggins. Of course, she'd been a bit jealous at first and probably still was. She had always been Willow's only close female friend, but she hadn't really been all that available lately, so she couldn't really blame Tara. Before there was 'Riley Time' there was, well, Riley time. Lots and lots of it. And that didn't leave much friend time…or anything time, really.

Of course now there was the distinct possibility that all those nights Willow had spent somewhere else were, in fact, 'Tara Time' and that made the Slayer's face heat up.

"Um, s-something of hers if you h-have it?" the blonde met her gaze for a moment before looking down, hiding herself behind a curtain of blonde hair. "Something she's, um, t-touched w-would be best."

Something of whose? She's touched…what?

Then it hit her: something of Faith's. Something Faith had touched. For the spell. Yes, she definitely had something that fit that description. Her stomach turned over at the thought and she glanced up to find those intense blue eyes holding hers for a brief, but calming moment.

"No problem, I just need to go get…the thing…she's, uh, touched." She fumbled awkwardly. "From my house. Xander, can you drive me?" It wasn't really a question and she was already headed for the door when she noticed that he hadn't moved.

"I think I'm with Wil on this one," he mumbled without even looking up and she noticed that Tara withdrew a little, hunching in on herself protectively. "I mean, do you even care about the Mr. Freezie Machine of Death out there anymore?" He raised his arms suddenly and the blonde witch flinched as he pointed angrily at Buffy. "We're all gonna die in some crazy Lord of the Rings freeze-out because you need to rescue a psycho…"

"So that's it?" she countered angrily, because that's what she was now…angry. She passed betrayed and confused long ago and now it was just a familiar and almost comfortable anger. "You'll help me with the Apocalypse thing that may not even be a thing, but you don't trust me enough to –"

"Hello! Sneaking around behind our backs and lying, not the best way to inspire trust!" he yelled back.

"Fine, you don't trust me on the Faith thing, I get that. I screwed up, but I've noticed that you're totally willing to trust me to go out and slay vamps every night in the freezing cold not to mention saving the world…" she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This was a waste of time. "You know what, I don't have time for this. I've got to stop the apocalypse at 1:12 a.m. and it's 4:30 p.m. so I have exactly," she checked her watch and tried to do the math, but finally gave up. Her brain was simply overloaded. "Barely enough time to find Faith and make it to the Fenrir kegger."

"Wait. You know where Fenrir's minions are?" Xander's face shifted from anger to a reserved hope.

"We picked up a heavy magic signature in the Waverly Park area. Looks like some serious buildup of mystical energy," Riley filled in with his most business-like voice. "And Hostile 17 gave us a positive ID on the HST's," he smiled a smug smile and crossed his arms. "After a lengthy and painful interrogation."

"So why wait 'til 1:12 to stop them? I say we go now," Xander puffed up, squaring his jaw as he spoke. And it just made her furious for some reason. He was ready to charge in without the facts, on barely any information, but she asks him for one favor…

"Um, 1:12 is the, um, the f-full moon," Tara's stuttering voice some how broke through the angry tension in the room. "They probably w-won't begin the s-spell 'til then?" Buffy realized after a moment that she was staring open-mouthed at the witch. She was like a witchier, stuttering version of Willow…with blonde hair. And didn't Anya say something about Tara thinking she was a demon? Like that was possible in this or any other reality. No wiggins. At all. This girl was like the anti-wiggins poster child.

Tara's revelation seemed to finally bring Giles to life. He immediately reached for an almanac and cleared his throat. "Yes, quite right. But we have no idea what kind of spell we're talking about or how to stop it."

"Well, that's kinda where you guys come in," she looked hopefully between Tara and her Watcher. "I mean, with Wils not so…" she stopped abruptly afraid to continue, afraid her voice would break because she was so not ready to go there. And she could see the unshed tears in the blonde witch's eyes as she looked quickly to the door and back to Buffy, slumping her shoulders a little more. Because that was thing they weren't doing: going after Willow. Her best friend had just asked her to choose between herself and Faith and she had chosen Faith. Sort of. It had seemed so much more complicated a few minutes ago and definitely not so anti-Willow. So, yes. Save Faith, stop the apocalypse, then loads of talking and explanation time with Willow. Because she couldn't lose Willow. It was just inconceivable. And that probably explained why she wasn't freaking. Because she should be. And she should be kinda mad too shouldn't she?

"I can help Giles research while Tara prepares the spell." It was a familiar voice, but…Anya? Offering to help? It was inconceivable. "My Old Norse is still much better than any of your pathetic attempts at translation even after twelve hundred years."

"An," Xander began to protest, but the ex-vengeance demon cut him off.

"What? You're always telling me I should help more and I'm helping my butt off!" she countered with righteous indignation. "Besides, this Faith person needs to be told immediately that there will be no more sex with my boyfriend. Xander's penis…"

"Yes, thank you for your assistance Anya, I'm quite sure your knowledge will be enormously helpful," Buffy almost smiled at her Watcher's attempts to reign in the ex-demon.

"Fine." Xander cut in angrily, crossing his arms. "I'm totally go boy when it comes to the Apocalypse, but not with Faith." His brown eyes bore into Buffy's and she met his stare for several seconds as the anger boiled inside her.

"You know what? No thanks. I think we can handle this without you," she said walking past him toward the door.

She heard him sputtering behind her as she walked purposefully away. "Look Buffy, you don't' just get to…"

She whirled on him in a fury, "I don't just what Xander?" she yelled angrily. "See, I don't get to say, 'you know what? I feel like saving her tonight, but not him.' I have to no matter what."

His features softened for a moment and his voice when he spoke was almost pleading. "The Council has her, Buffy and there's no way I'm helping her. Not after what she did."

"Fine. Then go home. I don't need you here," she turned her back to him before he could see the tears in her eyes and found herself face to chest with Riley.

"And what about you? Are you giving up on me too?" she demanded angrily, but he just smiled.

"I'm all in. Just tell me what to do."

Taking a deep breath she held back a sob of relief. "Just, um, tell them everything you know. I'll be back in a few," she said before heading to the door.

"Buffy, you don't get to decide who does what and when," Xander's voice boomed out behind her.

"And you don't get to decide when to help your friends!" she opened the door with one hard jerk and slammed it behind her.

Part 8
"No bad dream fucker's gonna boss me around…"
-- Elliot Smith, Christian Brothers

Tara looked up at the door for the thousandth time hoping Willow would miraculously skip through it, but there was no one, not even Buffy who had been gone for at least fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes spent bent over a spell book trying to merge with the furniture as the remaining Scoobies and significant others bickered and planned.

Riley was unable to provide any more information than his initial 'briefing' as he kept referring to it and that left Xander and Giles to argue about Buffy and her plans.

"Giles, you didn't see her the other night. She went all WWF on this vamp, screaming stuff about Angel…maybe it's a spell?" He snapped his fingers obviously pleased with his theory. "That's got to be it. Faith got her evil minions to cast a spell on Buffy and…"

The Watcher finally interrupted. "I understand your concern, but that's simply not possible. Faith has been a coma for eight months. I will admit Buffy's behavior has been rather strange, but…" he removed his glasses and Tara forced her attention back to the intricate spell in front of her. It required a connection between the spellcaster and Faith, which was impossible. There was a modification written in the margin in Willow's handwriting that would allow her to use Buffy's connection, but Tara was not about to risk the Slayer's life on a locator spell. Not that Willow's modification was life-threatening, it was just that magick was, well, unpredictable. And the enormous energy drain she had felt during her meditations was going to make this difficult enough as it was…

"Tara did Faith appear in any of your premonitory dreams?" It was the Watcher's gentle British voice and Tara looked up blinking from her research. It took her a moment to refocus her attention on their conversation and Giles seemed to read her hesitation as confusion. "But, you've never met her, so how would you know?"

"Dark hair, dark eyes, slut-wear," Xander began and the Englishman rolled his eyes in frustration. "And if you were seeing the future she was probably trying to kill you."

That lead Tara's thoughts back to her dreams and she was immediately hit with a vivid image of she and Willow wrapped around each other, heat and wet…

"N-no," she stuttered quietly and returned her attention to the spell. Her face was hot with embarrassment and she hid behind a curtain of hair hoping they would let her return to her studies. There was a long, uncomfortable silence and she looked up to find Anya studying her with a smirk.

Oh god, she knows. Please don't say anything, please don't…

"That's right," the Watcher said absently. "I'd forgotten your dreams were all centered on Willow."

That brought a smug smile to the ex-vengeance demon's face as she crossed her arms, but miraculously remained silent. "I, um, y-yes. Just…j-just Willow."

Xander stared at Tara for a moment before looking away with a scowl, the muscles in his jaw working angrily. Riley shifted from one foot to the other looking bored and confused.

"Look, why don't you guys just focus on finding out everything you can about Ragnarok and I'll go with Buffy to get Faith," Riley offered finally. Xander and Giles exchanged looks and Tara returned to the spell deciding that it was too dangerous to both her and Buffy. She would need an alternative. With a heavy sigh she picked up her grandmother's book and leafed through to the page she needed.

"I'm afraid it's not quite that simple," the Watcher said with a bemused smile.

"You don't just go get a Slayer if she doesn't want to be gotten," Anya piped in cheerily. "Unless you have a death wish."

"Precisely," the Watcher offered sadly. "And I'm afraid Faith may prove to be more dangerous than the Council's Wet Works."

Tara risked another glance up to find Anya nodding her head in a moment of rare agreement with the Watcher.

"That's the understatement of the year," Xander growled. "Look Giles, can't you talk some sense into Buffy? I mean we've got a serious…"

"Yeah Giles, why don't you talk some sense into me?" Buffy's voice cut through the room, surprising everyone. Tara thought she saw Xander flinch and noticed an evil-looking blade in the Slayer's hand. But she didn't hold it like a weapon. The Slayer was almost cradling it in her hand, holding it carefully, gently, as if it might break at any moment. Or turn on her.

Xander put his hands on his hips and turned away angrily as she walked past him to place the blade on the table in front of Tara. It felt cold, like the world outside. The blonde witch shuddered as she studied the wicked curves of it. This piece of metal tortured and hammered into the cruelest shape possible was the tool of someone who wasn't content to just kill.

"Now that's quality craftsmanship," Anya remarked appreciatively.

Buffy inhaled deeply, "That is…it was Faith's." She paused with a wince, her eyes never leaving the blade. "And that's her blood." There was another weighty pause before the Slayer looked up meeting Tara's eyes with a hopeful, sad expression. "Will that work?"

She didn't get a chance to answer. "Oh yeah, there's nothing better than blood for magic," Anya commented dryly. "Although you really should take better care of your weapons. Blood will ruin a perfectly good knife. Eat through the metal like…"

"Yes, thank you Anya," Giles interjected irritably and Anya glared at him, but somehow managed to stay silent.

Tara looked away from the Slayer's intense, pleading eyes settling finally on the knife. She could see it now, the blood like rust near the blade hilt. She nodded and eased her chair back a bit before looking back up at the blonde.

"Yes, that will work,"

The Slayer nodded once and smiled slightly before Xander's angry voice cut in.

"Look, I know you think I'm just some loser who gets the donuts and can't even get into college, but this is…"

"That is so not true," Buffy responded angrily. "I've never said anything like that…"

"You don't have to say it Buffy! God! You treat us all like we're just…your employees. You give orders and expect us to follow you no matter what!" he shouted back and Tara thought she saw tears in his eyes.

Buffy recoiled as if she'd been struck, standing silent for long seconds as the entire group watched her.

Finally Riley spoke up, "I don't think that's really fair to Buffy. She's under a lot of pressure and…"

Xander whirled on the soldier pointing his finger accusingly, but didn't get a chance to speak. Without taking her eyes off Xander, Buffy extended her hand to Riley in a gesture that clearly meant 'quiet'. "S'okay Riley. This is…" she began and stopped, her eyes hardening, her voice going cold. "You know what? I don't have time for this. Don't you think I know the danger here? I mean, the last time me and Faith got together it was not to play cards, so don't act like I haven't thought about this. I just don't have time to explain it all to you and have a committee meeting on it." She straightened and ran a hand through her blonde hair and Tara thought she saw a slight tremor there. "I've got to go get her… now. Now as in right now. Not two hours from…here. So, if you still have a problem, feel free to not help, but just…stay out of my way."

"Fine, I'm outta here," Xander said and walked to the door, but turned suddenly. "An?"

"Oh, I'm staying here." She said with matter-of-fact certainty. "And I need your car, so you'll just have to walk."

"What?" he asked incredulous and Tara felt the pain of the encounter wash over her. All of Xander's insecurity and doubt and now betrayal spilling into the room. Tara took a few deep breaths to center herself, looking down at her hands.

"It's freezing out there. I'm not walking home in this," she said, and Tara looked up through the veil of her blonde hair to see the ex-demon gesturing toward the window and the snow that was now falling outside. Xander just continued to stare at her. "Fine, I'll drive you home, but you better hurry, cause I'm not missing the Apocalypse action," she said and hustled the still stunned Scooby out the door.

There were a few moments of strained silence and Tara glanced up at the Slayer to find her again running a hand through her blonde hair. Buffy exhaled deeply and turned to the blonde witch. "So, what do you need?" Her voice was strained, but soft and she resisted the urge to comfort the Slayer.

"I, um…" she looked at Riley and then Mr. Giles. "I n-need a clear s-space," she motioned to the floor and back up to the small group. Riley began immediately moving the larger furniture out of the way and Buffy looked again to Tara.

"What else?"

"Well, uh…" she hesitated. This was going to be a complicated process. The locator spell was too dangerous so she was going to attempt to reach out to Faith using the blood on the knife as a guide. It was something she had done intuitively as a child and she was confident it would work, but the results were never certain. And there was all of the energy and emotion from Riley and Giles. Not to mention Buffy. She looked up at the Watcher again and winced. She so hated to be rude. "I s-sort of need…"

"For us to leave," the Englishman spoke up gently and Tara breathed a sigh of relief.

"All of us?" Buffy asked, wide-eyed and Tara rose to her feet, shaking her head.

"No, I'm not d-doing a locator s-spell. I think it w-would be too d-dangerous. I'm going to reach out to her telepathically, so I n-need you…Buffy, to s-stay with m-me." She smiled and placed a hand on Buffy's arm. "But you sort of n-need to calm down."

The Slayer still looked confused, so Tara searched for a quick explanation, but the Watcher again saved her with a proud smile. "Buffy, Tara's going to, well, effectively channel Faith, so she may say things that could prove helpful." He removed his glasses and held her eyes. "It's a very resourceful alternative, not necessarily as reliable."

Tara nodded her agreement. "I know, but if it d-doesn't work we can try the, um, the l-locator spell."

The Watcher nodded, but the Slayer still seemed unsure.

It was Riley who spoke first. "So Tara's going to, like, talk telepathically to this Faith?"

"Not exactly," the Englishman began and looked to Tara before continuing. "She's going to enter Faith's mind and try to get an impression of her surroundings. Clues to her location."

Buffy sucked in a huge lungful of air. "Faith's mind…talk about going to a scary place."

"Precisely." He raised his eyebrows and pushed his hands into his pockets. "She'll be receiving a sort of slideshow of everything in Faith's mind, but there should be no real danger to either of them."

Tara waited nervously for the Slayer's approval or, more likely, rejection. She had expected the Watcher to immediately reject her plan as too cautious and potentially time-consuming and was surprised at his show of support. Now there was only Buffy staring at the blade on the table. Wiping her now sweaty palms on the fabric of her skirt, Tara ducked her head to study the intricate pattern of the oriental rug beneath her feet.

"Sounds like a plan." Buffy said suddenly. "What do you need me to do?"

"I, um, o-okay, first we need to cast a circle," she turned quickly away from the Slayer's intense gaze and gathered a few candles, setting them at the four cardinal points. The blonde witch tried to keep her mind on the preparations, but Buffy's eyes never left her as she moved the pieces of the spell into place.

"Am I in it or out of it?" Buffy asked and Tara could only stare at her blankly. "The circle I mean."

"Oh!" she answered and lowered her eyes in embarrassment. "Um, in…inside the, uh, the circle." Without hesitation, the Slayer walked carefully inside the lit candles and kneeled.

"This okay?" she asked, her eyes smiling slightly and Tara just nodded before turning to retrieve the last item.

"Don't you need to draw the circle in witchy dust or sand or something?" Buffy asked and Tara hesitated unsure how to answer. The Slayer had to know the basics of magick, but the Scoobies seemed to specialize, each taking the time to learn a particular area in-depth so they could inform each other.

"Well, y-yes, it, um helps, when you're beginning." She explained, but Buffy tilted her head slightly to the left and scrunched her forehead. Tara began to backpedal immediately, sure that her explanation had sounded arrogant. "But, I m-mean, s-some people keep doing it that w-way their whole…l-lives. It's a p-preference th-thing really." She tried a weak smile, but the Slayer continued to study her, so she finally retreated behind her hair and turned back to that last item: the knife.

Studying its hard lines and the dried blood, she hesitated and even considered asking Buffy to move it to the circle for her. But she would be in direct and intimate contact with its owner very soon.

Might as well get used to it.

"Wil says you're a really powerful witch," Buffy said behind her and she stopped with her hand hovering over the blade. When she turned briefly, hazel eyes were watching her with a thoughtful expression. Tara began to shake her head automatically, but the Slayer continued. "And that you're all, like, big knowledge woman with the Wicca." Tara wanted to say 'no', but there was something in the blonde Slayer's tone that kept her silent. She turned fully, leaning back against the table for support and Buffy averted her gaze looking down at her perfectly sculpted nails. "So you two, you know.... how long?"

And that just brought her back to Willow's emotional exit, to the pain and grief and the fact that she wasn't there comforting the girl who was everything. Not to mention the fact that there wasn't a 'how long'. They hadn't even had a chance at a beginning, thanks to Tara's secrecy.

"You should, um p-probably talk to Willow about this," Tara said quietly trying not to cry.

"Well, that's gonna be pretty difficult since she's not talking to me, like, ever again," the Slayer said with a sad smile.

That was one thing she knew with absolute certainty: Willow Rosenberg would never walk away from her family for good. She just needed time…and space. Fighting evil alongside this petite, unlikely-looking hero was part of who she was, she couldn't deny it any more than Tara could deny her love for the fiery redhead.

"Buffy, she loves you. She's just up…upset and, um, hurt," Tara offered gently. "She'll come back."

"You think?" Buffy looked up with tears in her eyes. "I just don't get how it all…" she shook her head angrily and wiped at her eyes. "God I'm a crappy best friend. I mean, I didn't even know she was…and, hello, girlfriend!" she gestured wildly before collapsing in on herself.

Tara rolled the word around in her mind – 'girlfriend', Willow's girlfriend– and felt her eyes begin to burn with grief.

"I don't think I'm her g-girlfriend any…more," she winced and once again withdrew behind the veil of blonde hair.

"Look, Tara, I've been a really bad friend, but I know Willow. She loves you," the Slayer said gently before scrunching her face in a sort of amused grimace. "You know, in a totally different way than she loves me…an in-love sort of way and I'm starting to sound like her, aren't I?"

Nodding, Tara smiled weakly and took a deep breath, closing her eyes. She needed to rein in her emotions before the spell and this conversation was not helping. As much as she wanted to talk to the Slayer about Willow, as much as she wanted to run to Willow, she couldn't.

"This isn't helping is it?" Buffy asked quietly. "With the spell?"

"It w-would be, um, better if we c-cleared our minds. Do you know any m-meditation techniques?" Buffy just nodded and crossed her legs. As she began breathing, Tara found she couldn't stop thinking about what their conversation. About Willow. She knew, without doubt, that Willow would return to the Scoobies and Buffy and she was positive that the redhead wouldn't want her back after her deception. But she needed the Slayer to understand that she would be there for them whenever they needed. "I want you to, um, know, Buffy," she began and the Slayer opened her eyes. "That I l-love her… more than anyth-thing and I'll do whatever I c-can to help…to k-keep her safe…even if we're n-not, um, t-together," she said between shuddering breaths and turned her back to the Slayer before a tear could roll down her face.

"Do you think I'd let you anywhere near her if I thought you wouldn't…keep her safe?" Buffy asked gently with a hint of an edge to her voice and Tara wanted to turn to her but found that she couldn't. Wiping roughly at the tears on her cheeks she picked up the blade. And almost dropped it. It was like ice– a burning terrible cold that sank into her skin.

Somehow, she managed to bring the knife into the circle and set it carefully between them on the worn rug. Buffy quietly studied her every move and she wiped her hands self-consciously on her skirt before kneeling to sit across from the Slayer.

"You feel it?" Buffy asked, her eyes moving to the curved blade between them and Tara nodded. "Still gives me the wiggins," the Slayer said and shuddered with an exaggerated movement of her shoulders. "So, let's do this."

Tara looked down briefly and tried to calm herself. This wasn't a spell, really. There didn't need to be a connection between her and the still terrifying girl sitting across from her. So, there was really no reason to be nervous. Except that this was Willow's best friend and she was counting on Tara…

"Buffy, this m-may not work. Or the, um, inform-mation I get could be, uh, useless…" she began a halting disclaimer only to be stopped by the surprising feeling of the a warm hand on hers.

"It's going to work," she looked up to find hazel eyes holding hers with confidence. "I trust you."

Tara closed her eyes in pain. No one should trust her, but… these people needed her.

Get it together Tara.

One step at a time.

It was her mother's voice and she thought immediately of their long hours in the fields and woods around her house. The years of lessons and practice in craft. Casting was as natural as breathing to her. She could do this for Buffy and Willow. She could do this for herself. Inhaling deeply, Tara opened her eyes to meet the Slayer's.

"Once I begin to, um, make the connection to Faith, anything I say will be her words. Her thoughts," she said calmly and rose briefly to light the four candles. Returning to her position, she noticed that the blonde Slayer's eyes were closed and her breathing was regular and deep – a meditation exercise. Opening up her own senses a bit, she could feel the Slayer's raw, sharp energy withdrawing.

Smiling, she inhaled deeply and centered herself for the casting, choosing to build the circle internally rather than through ritual and incantation. It was a practice her mother had taught her. Imagining her mother's love and protection, the secure circle of her arms, she extended a circle of protective energy around them and silently asked the goddess for protection. Opening herself in this way, she would need it.

When she felt the circle gel around them, she began the process of connection. Normally, she would simply reach out to the object and use its essence to find the person connected to it, but even in deep meditation she found Willow creeping into her subconscious again and again. Not that it was surprising at all, but she would need the physical connection of the knife and blood to find Faith.

Focusing carefully on the blade, she brought a shaking fingertip to the blood still visible near the hilt. Centering herself, Tara extended her senses to feel it in that other way that went beyond vision and sound, but the knife's ice cut into her with a sharp edge. Breathing deeply, she allowed the fear to wash over and through her. This weapon couldn't harm her. Yes, it had done terrible things, but it was inert, made of metal and wood.

Reaching out with her senses she felt the snap and pull as the connection was made then a jarring series of sensations as she entered Faith's mind. The first thing she felt was the pain: searing, mind-numbing pain that rolled through in waves. And it seemed to come from everywhere at once: her face, mouth, feet and worst of all, her left arm, which seemed to be encased in fire.

Tara breathed deeply, fighting her own fear and instincts for self-preservation letting herself move farther into Faith's psyche. She was hit immediately with the sensation of suffocation and drowning. Gasping for air, she fought to separate herself from the physical and pulled back slightly to the sensation cold metal against her skin. It took her only a moment to understand that Faith had been drugged and was struggling to regain consciousness. It was unlike anything she had experienced before. She had never gone this deeply into someone's psyche and now she found herself split in two. Opening her eyes, she could see Giles' apartment and Buffy, still with her eyes closed, but overlaying that was another world that seemed to emerge and retreat.

Focusing again, she let herself go a little deeper and was struck be a series of violent images: an enormous man with a thick British accent stood above her menacingly and she there was a terrible, wrenching pain in her left arm followed by a sharp sting in her thigh. Then fire as Tara felt her body arch and her teeth grit slightly against the agony of it. Hot hands were holding her down, gripping her arms and legs and the scene shifted to a different vantage. A man towering over her as the blows rained down and Tara raised her arms with Faith to deflect them.

"No Daddy, please!" she felt herself yell with Faith and saw as if from a long distance, Buffy's eyes open wide in surprise.

There was darkness again and she waited for a moment before those eyes opened again and the large Brit was back angry and shouting, his hand coming down in hard strikes against her face.

"I'm so gonna fucking kill you," she felt herself speaking Faith's mind and Buffy's forehead furrowed. The Slayer's calm eyes brought her back to center and she pulled back slowly, trying to see the environment and remove herself from the overwhelming interior of Faith's mind.

A cold metal box, but it looked familiar. Like a van, but not. There were small windows behind the man, but there was only sky beyond them. She could hear a strange sound behind the chatter and the rumble of the van or truck, like a bell or a horn repeating, then the sound of heavy machinery and a voice on an intercom somewhere outside. Another hard blow hit Faith unexpectedly and Tara lurched to the side. That's when she saw them: seagulls spinning in circles in the sky beyond the window.

A hard, ripping pain in her shoulder and Faith went down again, sinking into unconsciousness screaming one name, "Buffy!" Tara screamed with her and the blonde Slayer leapt forward as if to pull the witch back physically. She tried to detach herself, but Faith was holding on so tight.

So tight…

There was still that strange separateness as Buffy shook her and Faith clutched at her desperately and Tara was hit with another series of images that ripped through her in violent flashes finally leaving her breathless with the burning and the tight fist holding on. Concentrating on Buffy's touch, Tara pulled back just enough to feel that her own arms were rigid behind her back as if she were in restraints, her left hand balled in a painful fist around something. Breathing deeply, she brought her left arm up and through the strange dual self, used all of her energy to open that hand. It held something important. Something worth everything to the Dark Slayer.

As her fingers relaxed and opened, she felt Faith's impossibly strong grip slip away taking the pain and anger with her.

Tara studied her own familiar and empty hand for a moment and burst into tears.

Part 9

It took Willow almost four whole minutes to get into her dorm room. Through her quiet sobbing, her ice-cold keys seemed to dance away from her fingers, dropping to the floor repeatedly.

"I can't believe this," she yelled at the metal objects on the beige carpet of the hallway before turning back to the door in desperation. "Would you just frickin' open!"

There was a soft click and the doorknob turned easily in her hand. Sniffling, Willow eyed the door warily before bending to retrieve her keys. "Thanks," she said to the empty room as she stepped in, pushing the door shut with her foot. Taking in a deep, shuddering breath, she looked around the familiar contents and just felt lost and alone. And very, very cold. Buffy's bed, she noticed was unmade and her clothes were strewn on the floor as if she'd dressed hastily this morning.

To go rescue Faith. She got all dressed up to go…you know what? Not gonna go there.

No, she knew exactly where she was going. She had planned it all on the freezing walk from Giles' apartment: she was going home. Checking her calendar to make sure, she found that her parents were out of town for the next two weeks. Just enough time to find another dorm room, an apartment, or maybe even transfer out of this terrible place for good. Away from the vampires and the Hellmouth and Buffy and Tara…

She started crying again almost immediately. All the way to the dorm, even as angry as she was, she had harbored a secret hope that someone would come after her, but no one had. Of course, the rational side of her brain knew that they all had more important things to do with the apocalypse and everything, but she could still be a little hurt. A little angry. Couldn't she?

"Why is it so hard for me to just be mad? I mean, Buffy deserves it! All self-righteous and commander-y and who the hell does she think she is? This isn't the Buffy the Vampire Slayer show!" she said angrily to the empty room then sat heavily on her bed with a loud sigh.

Her side of the room was, of course, immaculate, which just made her more unhappy. From her new vantage from her bed she could see the edge of the Slayer's weapon's chest sticking out from underneath her bed. That wasn't good. Buffy was sure to need something from that chest and she really didn't want a confrontation. She wanted to be gone, wanted them all to miss her and wish she were there.

"Yeah, right. Like that's going to happen." They had probably forgotten all about her the second the door closed. In fact, they were probably having a party right now to celebrate her departure.

"I am so outta here," she said and reached under her bed for her bag. She began carefully folding clothing and packing it in ordered stacks, but she couldn't stop thinking about the fight with Buffy and Tara's admission.

It all made her furious and she felt the tears begin to stream down her face again as she began angrily stuffing clothing indiscriminately into her bag.

"Well, now you can find some other faithful, dog, geyser person to push around and…not sleep with and…" Well, what had Tara done exactly? She still hadn't gotten her head around that. It seemed at the time like a malicious sort of conspiracy with Anya. But Tara had asked for time to deal with something. Was that the something?

She shook her head to clear all thoughts of the confrontation from her mind. Right now, she needed to focus on packing what she needed and leaving. She could think about everything later. Her laptop fit snugly in her bag, padded by the heavy clothing and she began stuffing her backpack with textbooks. A few spell books remained on the shelf and she considered bringing a couple with her just in case.

No. This is it Rosenberg. No more vampires, spells or research girl.

Making a mental checklist she began to collect all of the things she needed – bathroom supplies, jewelry, journals. She could come back later for the rest.

After the Apocalypse. No, there's not going to be an Apocalypse, they always beat it.

We always beat it.

Not gonna go there, remember?

As she turned to do one last sweep to make sure she had everything she needed she noticed the photo strip of her and Tara and her heart stopped, her breathing stopped. Everything stopped.

For just a moment she considered leaving it there, but it passed quickly and she picked the strip up with a shaking hand and slipped it into her jacket pocket. Feeling around inside the pocket she located her pink mitten and the sock she'd been forced to wear on her left hand since she'd loaned her only pair of her gloves to the Slayer.

Well, at least it was kind of warm, but she missed having an actual thumb on her left hand not to mention the pink.

"Pink mitten I command you. Show yourself!" she said dramatically to the room then sighed when her joking incantation was met with stillness. Shrugging she picked up the phone to call a taxi and stuffed the last of her belongings into a suitcase.

Dragging her bags into the hallway she closed the door and locked it. Turning her back on the dorm room she shared with Buffy, Willow picked up her bags and stood there for almost a minute, unable to move.

"Well, okay, maybe just the one magick book," she mumbled, "and some notes," unlocking the door to retrieve the grimoire and her notes on Ragnarok. When they were tucked in her bag she took a deep breath and picked up her bags finally making her way down the narrow stairwell.

"Nightmares become me
it's so fucking clear."
Eliot Smith, Christian Brothers

Faith was floating and it was kind of nice. Warm water all around her and the sun, she could feel the sun all over her. Seagulls flew overhead, she could hear them, but she wasn't ready to open her eyes yet. It was just…she needed a break. Just a little one.

There was movement very close, but she didn't flinch or even open her eyes to investigate. For a moment she was sure it was her gran with the sodas and the bologna sandwiches and relaxed even further into the warm sand, but the person moved and she could tell it wasn't gran and that she wasn't even at the beach. This person wasn't nearby, they were closer than that, they were inside somehow, but she wasn't worried. They were warm like the beach and gran, but she was beginning to realize that nothing else was.

"No," she heard herself mumble somewhere far away and began to remember the cold and the metal van and the straight jacket. "No," she just wanted to stay at the beach, but there was Dad suddenly with all of his anger and his fists curled up tight and she remembered and understood.

Wake the fuck up, girlfriend! Or you are gonna be very dead or worse.

Because there was the van and the Council, but also the doctor with the soft eyes and something was coming. She just had to wait and be ready, which meant saying good-bye to the beach and the soft warm world that wasn't hers anymore anyway. Just one tiny opening, that's all she needed. Just a little room for the Slayer to explode through.

She thought she saw her grandmother waving sadly from her broken down house, but she didn't wave back.

The leather seats of Giles' Citroen were hard and uncomfortable from the extreme cold, but Buffy tried to force herself as far as she could into the unforgiving stone of it hoping to avoid conversation. She needed to think this through and plan what to do when they actually got to the docks. If that was where Faith actually was. Tara said there was no way to be certain, but she had seen gulls and heard the sound of water and shipping instructions on the loudspeaker – in Faith's head. That part still shocked the Slayer, that the shy blonde had willingly taken a trip to psycho central for her.

Talk about an amusement park ride to hell.

I guess I can see why Willow's such a fan…not that I'm a Tara fan the way Wil is. Or was.

She thought suddenly about the secretive smile she had seen and ignored on her best friend's face so many times in the past weeks and that wasn't somewhere she needed to be right now. It was almost go time and she needed to be prepared psychologically for…everything.

It was just…things had seemed so clear only a week ago. The world was Riley-shaped and the slaying was just something she did when she wasn't with him. And he was so comfortable. Normal. Simple.

Okay, so maybe clear isn't the right word for what things were. Maybe it was just…easy. And sort of Riley-foggy in a clear sort of way.

But she had wanted that so much, that simplicity. No damned souls to worry about, no room temperature boyfriend. Someone warm-blooded who could go to the beach and sun-bathe. Plus, there was the sex. And she still wanted that didn't she?

Looking up from the tattered floor of Giles' car her eyes caught Riley's in the rear-view mirror and looked away quickly hoping to avoid any further conversation and explanation right now. That could come later when they had Faith and stopped another apocalypse and were finally just Buffy and Riley again. She just hoped Tara and Anya could come up with something for her by the time they finished this little rescue. Tara seemed smart, but she was no substitute for Willow really. Her best friend would have made the answers appear out of sheer force of will. With a rueful half-smile, the Slayer forced her mind away from that narrow, guilt-ridden path back to Willow. Maybe Tara was right. Maybe her best friend would find a way to forgive her and she would do it all right next time. She wouldn't take her for granted ever again. Or Xander. She missed him. He would be telling ridiculous jokes right about now and not minding at all that she was ignoring him. He was predictable. Dependable. She knew what he was going to do in a fight, knew that he understood when to get out of the way and protect himself when things got bad.

So, she'd lost two of her key teammates in the last minutes of the game and here she was going to pick up a loose cannon with Riley and Giles. Not to mention that she was counting on a witch she barely knew and a tactless ex-demon with questionable intentions to find the solution to an apocalypse. At least, Tara had pretty much pulled a Willow back in the room, but she'd been obviously shaken by the results. Buffy had tried to get some explanation from the teary blonde, but Tara had just composed herself and calmly relayed a description of Faith's location. Well, what she thought was Faith's location. Even though Buffy was dying to know about the disturbing 'Daddy' thing and whatever else the blonde had seen. But Tara refused to answer her questions saying simply that it would be a betrayal of Faith's confidence. She knew if the situation was reversed she would hope that the blonde witch would show the same restraint, but still…knowing what made the Dark Slayer tick would be pretty helpful in about two minutes. Did she want Buffy dead? Was she planning some elaborate revenge she and the Mayor had cooked up as a Plan B?

The noisy old Citroen engine stopped and Buffy was drawn out of her musings by the watery sounds of a loudspeaker and seagulls whirling above. They sat there in silence for almost a minute until Riley shifted in his seat and she realized that she had to start this.

"Buffy I understand that you feel very strongly about this and I'm not doubting your intentions," Giles said evenly, his eyes firmly on the dark docks outside the windshield. "I just want you to consider the consequences. This…" he began and faltered, scowling down. "Faith has a very difficult road ahead of her. Not only is she in trouble with the Council, but she's wanted for murder."

"I know Giles," she mumbled and sank a bit more into the cold leather seat. "What do you want me to do? Desert her? Tried that once, remember? Didn't work so well."

"That's precisely what I'm trying to avoid," he said sharply and Buffy, shocked by his tone of voice, turned to face him. "If you really want to help her it is going to take a great deal of hard work and patience," his features softened and the Slayer relaxed slightly.

"I know patience…not really my strong point," she admitted after a few moments. "But I'm gonna…I have to. Those dreams...and she's a Slayer," she finished almost in a whisper and Giles just nodded.

"Okay, so what's the plan?" Riley interrupted from the back seat and Buffy turned in her seat to face them both and went immediately into Slayer mode.

"We don't want to hurt anybody, so no lethal force or anything, unless it's absolutely necessary." Riley nodded and Giles smiled.

"Buffy, I'd like to try to speak to them first," he said calmly, tucking his glasses carefully into a jacket pocket. "There may be no need for violence."

"Worth a shot," she said doubtfully. "But when there is the need for violence – and I'm so hoping there will be – I'm the only one who goes in that van with Faith. Understood??"

Both men nodded and Buffy took a deep breath. "Okay, let's do this."

They exited the creaky old car as quietly as possible and made their way around a tower of shipping containers. Behind them, parked near the water was an armored van not much different than the last armored van.

Shaking her head Buffy whispered, "Again? They'll never learn."

"Tara was correct," Giles said softly and she thought she saw a proud smile on the Watcher's face, but the sound of a thick British accent wiped it immediately.

"Rupert? Out for a stroll?" The accent stepped out of the darkness into the stream of light and Buffy could clearly see the round spectacles and tweed jacket.

"What? Is there a factory somewhere turning you guys out?" she asked incredulous as two much larger figures moved in the darkness behind him.

"Ah, and your ever-witty Slayer. Or should I say, ex-Slayer?" he said coolly and the Slayer rolled her eyes. She could feel Riley moving slightly behind her to position himself for an attack.

"Actually, still the Slayer. Unfortunately, it's not like a job at the mall. Can't be fired. Or quit. Believe me, I've tried," she said, but he remained silent, staring at her with that infuriating smirk. She gave him her cheeriest smile in return. "Although, I bet you'd look really 'smashing' in one of those Hotdog-On-A-Stick manager uniforms."

Giles smiled beside her and she rolled onto the balls of her feet, preparing herself for the coming fight. Because the way those two no-necked guys were standing, there was definitely going to be a fight.

"Nigel. I realize you're quite busy breaking several international laws at the moment." All hint of smile left the Council member's face as he stared down Giles. "So, I'll keep this short. We've come for Faith. You see, there's another apocalypse coming and we need all the Slayer resources we can possibly…"

"Slayer?" he sneered. "Ah, see, there's been a misunderstanding. We don't have a Slayer, just some runaway murderous whore who seems intent on, shall we say, delaying the arrival of the rightful Slayer." He crossed his arms smugly looking pointedly at Buffy. "Our Slayer."

The punch hit Mr. Tweed so fast and hard that even Buffy didn't see it coming.

"Go Giles," she muttered, launching herself at the larger of the two thugs. "A little warning next time though?" she said cheerily as an enormous arm swung past her head.

"I'll do my best," he groaned with the effort of blocking Nigel's blow, returning a body shot that doubled the Council member over on the pavement.

"And remember everybody," she said cheerily as her heel caught the Wet Works minion in the solar plexus, "Play nice." As the thick-necked guy bent over in pain she knocked him out with a well-placed blow to the back of the head. That left just the one guy between them and whatever was in the van with Faith. She looked up to find Riley standing over a crumpled heap nearby. Okay, no guys between them and the van.

An almost inaudible scraping behind her brought her around in time to block a blow.

"Okay, three more guys," she muttered as they moved to surround her. "Look, I don't want to hurt anybody. I just want what you've got in the pretty van."

All three simultaneously pulled weapons from hidden pockets and scabbards: two knives and a billy club. Well, at least there were no guns. She prepared herself for the attack, but a sudden cacophony of sound from the van stopped them all. It sounded like someone was shaking up a can of nails. Something or several somethings were hitting the walls of the van with great force. Then a long, loud yell.


"I'll get her Buff," Riley said and she heard him take off toward the van as the two with the knives attacked.

"No, Riley!" she yelled, but it was lost as she dodged one knife, grabbing the wrist that held it in a crushing grip as she ducked to miss the swing of the other attacker. There was a loud scream as the second man's momentum carried his blade into the shoulder of the soldier she was holding.

"Hey, I said," she paused in her lecture to kick the now unarmed attacker six feet into the container wall. "…play nice!" she finished and checked to make sure the man she still held wasn't dead. The third man with the club had abandoned the fight to chase down Riley who was now climbing into the van. Giles was making his way toward the remaining thick-neck who was still wobbling from his collision with the wall, so she sprinted toward the van.

She caught the lumbering man within four steps and tackled him easily, regaining her feet with a casual roll. "Where you going?" she asked now wielding his club as he tried to regain his feet blinking against the light.

A loud yell behind her and she turned in one quick movement to watch a blur of army green sail out of the truck and hit the wall hard.

"Nobody listens to me," she muttered and raised the club quickly to knock out final thick-neck who had managed to regain his feet. "What did I tell you about getting in the van?" she lectured angrily as she walked over to her fallen boyfriend. His eyes fluttered several times before he slumped against the wall. "Oh God, Riley!" she kneeled beside him and found his pulse was strong and steady under her fingertips and she could see his breath in the frigid night air.

"It's okay Buffy," Giles said beside her, still out of breath. "I'll see to Riley. I think you should look after Faith." He motioned with his head to the door and patted her shoulder gently.

With a nod, she took a deep breath and walked deliberately toward the back of the armored van. The interior was dim, lit only by the streetlight, but she could see the limp and callused hand of what had to be another Wet Works mercenary.

"More like Damp Works," she mumbled with a smirk and realized she was still holding the club in her right hand. It took her only seconds to decide against carrying any sort of weapon into that truck. The club clattered noisily down the alley until she heard a faint splash. Inhaling the icy winter air deeply Buffy centered herself and climbed into the truck…and total ruin.

Two soldiers in black combat gear lay limp against each other and a thin, balding man in a lab coat huddled behind their bodies trembling in fear. Syringes, IV bags and medical supplies littered the floor and she felt her before she saw her. That spike in her Slayer senses that told her Faith and danger were near. She had felt it before they even left the car, she realized now, had felt it even at Giles' apartment, but mistaken it for fear and anticipation. She could have lead them here on her own.

When she saw the dark Slayer she gasped in surprise. A part of her had held onto that image of Faith in dark leather and lipstick, her nemesis in black lurking in the shadows waiting for a moment to strike, but the figure huddled against the far end of the van was the girl from the hospital, broken and battered.

Buffy climbed further into the van, the metal of the doors painfully cold to the touch of her bare hand. A brief glance told her that the soldiers were still breathing, which was definitely of the good. Even if it was surprising. Walking slowly toward the dark Slayer she held her hands palm up and winced at the sound of a syringe cracking under her boot.

"Stay the fuck back or I'll kill you all!" Faith yelled and Buffy realized that one of her eyes was swollen shut. "I'm a Slayer," she said, but her voice cracked. "I'm a fucking Slayer," Buffy barely heard her whisper.

"It's me," Buffy said stopping a safe distance from the dark Slayer. She could see her fully now, slumped against the back wall, bare legs bruised and bloody, A straight jacket held her arms behind her back and she could just make out broken leg irons hanging around her ankles. Her usually perfect hair was matted around her face and she was shivering violently.

"B?" Faith croaked and Buffy thought she saw a small smile. "Come to finish the job?"

"You mean there's something to finish," she said and immediately regretted it, but the dark Slayer actually smiled.

"You coulda just sen' a card," she said finally in a scratchy voice. "Or, y'know, flowers."

There was a moment of dead silence and the two of them began chuckling simultaneously. The blonde took a step forward and knelt carefully in front of the broken girl who recoiled immediately.

"S'okay. Really." Buffy extended her palms again to show that she had no weapon. Pushing dark, wet hair out of the girl's face, Buffy winced at the amount of damage the Slayer had endured. The anger and fury of their last encounter flashed in her mind for a moment. She had wanted to cause Faith so much pain. This. She had wanted this, she realized with terrible guilt. "Why did they…?" she began, but trailed off.

"Somethin' 'n m-my hand," Faith murmured, her words beginning to slur. "They wan'd it…"

A dozen terrible scenarios went through Buffy's mind: a knife, a grenade, some doomsday device. Maybe the Mayor's minions had managed to sneak something to his favorite at the last moment. She realized that she had two choices: take it by force or…

"What is it?" she asked gently, more than a little worried that Faith would just sneer and laugh and use whatever it was to kill them all, but the dark Slayer just shook her head and shrugged wincing at the movement.

"S'funny thing, B, I don' e'en fuckin' know."

Buffy shook her head slightly. This didn't make any sense. Faith had taken a beating for some mystery item in her own hand and somehow fought off two armed attackers without the use of her arms. Okay, maybe it did make some sense. But the slurring was disturbing.

"Did they drug you?" she asked carefully and Faith nodded with a smile more like a leer.

"A lot." She finally managed and winced again as she tried to move in the straight jacket. "Prolly enough for th' whole class if you're in'eres'ed," she said and Buffy shook her head and smiled. Faith drugged and beaten couldn't resist being a smartass.

"Okay, I'm gonna get you out of this thing," she said gently and reached slowly toward the buckles on the heavy cloth of the straight jacket pulled painfully tight around the Slayer. How could she even breath in that, Buffy wondered, growing more and more angry at the Council. As her fingers fumbled with the icy metal, she noticed a knife nearby and briefly considered using it to cut Faith free, but that brought her to the confrontation on the roof. With a shudder she continued working the buckles, finally freeing the dark Slayer who simply went limp and groaned as the tight material pulled away.

Buffy backed up slowly and helped her lean back against the wall. Her arms were still behind her back and she watched Faith struggle to bring her right hand to the front, flexing her fingers one by one.

"Fuck tha' hur's," she mumbled again, her eyes rolling back in her head.

Buffy reached forward quickly to catch her as she collapsed forward into unconsciousness.

"Faith?" she asked worriedly, but the slim body in her arms straightened again, falling back to the wall. Buffy steadied her with both hands.

"Finally got me where ya' wan' me, huh, B?" she smirked, raising her eyebrows and Buffy rolled her eyes. "Some good shit ya got there doc," she said loudly, before the blonde could retort and Buffy heard the doctor whimper in fear behind her. Faith used her right arm to pull her limp left arm onto her lap. The fingers were clenched tightly around something, her knuckles white with the effort and the blonde took a deep breath. This was the moment of truth. Either Faith was really drugged and beaten or this was all an act and she was about to find out the hard way what the Slayer's revenge would be.

Buffy looked up to meet the dark eyes she'd dreamed about for the past five nights and a strong shiver ran through her. The dreams, she had to remember the dreams. They had brought her to the chaos of this armored truck so far from her friends in the freezing cold. She had been so sure that they were telling her something. That this dark-eyed girl was meant to be a part of her future whether she liked it or not.

"What is it?" she asked, her voice trembling slightly and Faith blinked slowly, still fighting the effects of the drug.

The dark Slayer shrugged again and closed her eyes. "Mus' be somethin' impor'n 'cause I can' even open my own damn fist," she said and laughed a short painful laugh before slumping against the wall again.

"Faith?" she asked, but got no response. Carefully, she covered the Slayer's cold, clenched fingers with her own and was surprised when they relaxed slightly, slowly, as if she was warming them into movement with her own body heat. After almost a minute of the two of them sitting there in silence, Faith's hand fell open and Buffy gently removed her own hand to see what the Slayer had been holding onto with such fierce determination.

She recognized the black tube of lip gloss instantly and swallowed hard, tears welling in her eyes.

"Buffy," Giles' voice was gentle, but concerned as he called to her from outside the van. "Riley's awake and I think perhaps we should get to safety before they come round."

Nodding, she wiped clumsily at the tears on her cheeks and cleared her throat. "Yep, we're coming." Closing her eyes slowly she took a deep breath and opened them to find Faith still asleep, her mouth open slightly. "Faith," she took the Slayer's shoulder gently and her eyes opened slightly. "I'm gonna pick you up okay?"

"You could at leas' buy me dinner firs'," Faith winked at her before closing her eyes again and Buffy shook her head at the typical innuendo. She had walked right into that one.

With one last glance to make sure the two soldiers were still out, Buffy turned back to Faith to find her studying her with a strange intensity. She felt the soft brush of fingers on her cheek and gasped at the surprising contact. Holding herself as still as possible she raised her eyes to meet Faith's who smiled slightly, a faraway look in her eyes, as they sat there in silence for several seconds. Finally the dark eyes closed and she felt the hand drop away.

Still reeling from the powerful moment with the dark Slayer, she sat there for several more moments studying the face before her for some sort of sign, but there was nothing, just the slight fog of her breath with each exhale. Cradling Faith gently she raised her effortlessly into her arms and felt her shiver against her. Her legs and arms were bare and she was still wearing only a hospital gown in the near-zero cold.

Walking over the debris, Buffy carried the broken Slayer to the back of the van and jumped down onto the dock. "I need your coat, Giles," she said and noticed that the Watcher was supporting a still dazed-looking Riley.

"Dear lord," Giles said as he took in Faith's condition, immediately stripping off his jacket and carefully tucking it around Faith. Buffy could see the muscles in his jaw clenching in anger as he averted his eyes and braced Riley. "You did the right thing, Buffy."

"I hope so," she whispered and looked down at the Slayer's face, swollen and bruised but peaceful in sleep. She realized that Faith's lips were chapped again and her fist was again tightly curled around that tube of lip gloss she now clutched to her chest. With another deep inhale she settled the Slayer more comfortably in her arms and followed the two limping men back into the cold night.

Part 10

Tara sat alone in Giles' apartment poring over a musty book on Old Norse legends. Every few seconds she would steal a glance at the door hoping for Willow, knowing that it wasn't likely or even really possible. She had gotten to know the redhead well in the past weeks and was almost positive that when in pain, she would retreat from the source for at least a few days before returning to face it.

A lot like I would…only except for the facing it part. It took me how many years to face Dad? And then I didn't really. I just ran.

Sighing she returned her attention to the tome in front of her, her gaze falling on a particularly nasty looking demon. It's horned visage brought her back to the reason for her presence in this comfortable apartment – the demon she wasn't anymore. How ironic that the moment she was freed from her demon self, she lost the most important thing in the world to her. As if she had cast a sacrifice spell to exorcise that part of herself and ended up sacrificing her relationship with Willow. Which really wasn't worth it. If she had to choose between normal for a lifetime and another year with Willow it was no contest.

And that was another problem: how to exist as just a 'normal' girl. Her entire life, any bad or selfish thought could be blamed on her demon nature, but now there was just Tara. And the lies her family had told her, not to mention the abuse… she knew she should feel angry, but all she felt was guilty and ashamed…and hopelessly naïve. It seemed so obvious now, sitting in Giles' apartment waiting for an ex-demon and two Slayers to reappear. It seemed so obvious that it was all a terrible manipulation, a way to keep her enslaved and under her father's control. Why hadn't her mother seen it? She was an intelligent and powerful woman. Why hadn't she protected her daughter?

She didn't have time to answer her own questions as the door swung open dramatically to reveal a shivering, muttering Anya.

"Idiot mortals!" she yelled throwing up her hands before slamming the door and walking angrily toward Tara. The blonde witch couldn't help but flinch as the ex-demon threw herself into a nearby chair. "All I hear for the past months is, 'Anya, why can't you be a normal girl and make friends? Anya why can't you help out more with the boring and pointless Scooby stuff?' and now here I am friending and helping my butt off and all he can do is cry."

That surprised her. She looked up from the book to find Anya staring at her with a pleading intensity. Xander was crying. She thought of Willow suddenly, alone and crying somewhere…without her. Without even her best friend. So much pain.

"I mean, how am I supposed to learn anything if they keep changing the rules on me every freakin' second?" the ex-demon huffed, before looking down at her hands. "And I don't like it when he cries. It hurts me and that's not fair because, hello, I'm not the sissy with the tears and the," she looked up abruptly, her eyes wide like a child. "Is that normal, to hurt when someone else cries? Or is this some sort of sexually-transmitted virus or…"

"Um, I th-think it's pretty n-normal," Tara said quietly. "If you love someone…you h-hurt when they, um, hurt."

Anya held her eyes for a moment and looked thoughtful. "Well, I wish he'd be more considerate then and stop crying so I don't have to hurt too."

"I don't think he m-meant to hurt you," she said quietly and found herself smiling at the ex-demon's unconscious display of sympathy. "It's been a h-hard day for, um, everybody."

"I blame Buffy," Anya said and waved Tara off before she could begin a gentle defense of the Slayer. "Not in an I need vengeance way of blaming Buffy, more of an it's about freakin' time she got knocked off her pedestal. I've known emperors with smaller egos! I mean, the timing definitely could have been better, but, you know, it had to happen. Of course, it would have been nice if it happened some time other than Ragnarok, but," she shrugged and picked up a nearby book.

Tara looked back down at her own book and decided it was useless. Sighing, she shut it and began sorting through another pile hoping that the discussion had ended. It wasn't that she didn't want to talk to the blonde demon – she actually enjoyed their strange discussions of the Scoobies – but she was so drained from the spell and…everything. And they still had almost no information about the upcoming apocalypse.

"Did it hurt when Willow cried?" Anya asked and Tara looked up from her book to find the ex-demon studying her with that same child-like intensity. She simply nodded and looked down hoping to escape any further questioning. "So you do love her."

Tara nodded again and fought the tears that seemed to be hovering so close just waiting for any mention or thought of the beautiful redhead.

"I bet you two have lots of orgasms," Anya stated calmly and fixed her with another intense stare. "Probably more than me and Xander. I mean, don't get me wrong, he's a Viking in the sack, but let's face it he's no lesbian."

"Um, we, uh, I think…we d-don't, I m-mean, not…" Tara began, but the heat in her cheeks was so intense she couldn't continue.

Anya's was clearly horrified by her near-admission. "You mean never?" she looked at Tara incredulous.

"No," the blonde witch squeaked before looking down at her book with great fascination.

"Well, that's just too terrible for words," Anya said sadly. "I mean, we're about to die in a frozen Apocalypse and you haven't even had orgasms with Willow?" The ex-demon shook her head and leafed through another book. "If I were you, I'd go find her and jump her."

Her cheeks still burning, Tara swallowed hard. She wasn't used to talking about sex with anyone, but it was probably the only chance she would ever get. Plus, there was something so clinical about the way Anya discussed things. There was no judgment really. Well, besides her obvious disbelief. "I, um, I d-don't think Willow w-wants that, um, with m-me…anymore"

"Yeah right. She can't even sit still when you're around." Anya waved dramatically at the air. "I mean, I thought she was going to have an orgasm the second she laid eyes on you this afternoon…wait, can you lesbians do that? Orgasm just with the looking? 'Cause that's so not fair."

Tara coughed embarrassed and closed her eyes. "No." Although she really wasn't sure about that. There had been a few times…not that she would know what that felt like. She had been told repeatedly that impure thoughts lead to the demon. "Um, Anya, maybe we sh-should," she motioned to the books and Anya rolled her eyes.

"Alright, but don't come crying to me when you're a hot and bothered ice cube with no Willow in sight."

Tara was sure her cheeks had turned an even darker shade of red as she bent over the book trying desperately to focus. After a few minutes of reading through a familiar account of the Norse legends Anya interrupted her thoughts.

"Where's this prophecy Willow thinks she found?"

"Oh, um I don't know," Tara began and glanced over at the pile of notebooks and magick books the redhead had left on the floor. Anya followed her line of sight and immediately moved to bring the unwieldy pile to the table.

Tara tried to keep her focus on the useless book in front of her. She knew it was ridiculous, but it seemed like a violation of Willow's privacy to be leafing through her work. Especially after their flirtatious conversation the night before and all the redhead's talk of Carl 'fondling' her own notes.

"Okay, this is about physics or something. Who cares?" Anya said irritably and dumped the open notebook unceremoniously in front of the blonde witch. There was a definition of 'absolute zero' written in Willow's careful, precise handwriting. 'The theoretical lowest possible temperature at which all atomic motion ceases' and the word 'impossible! See quantum mechanics!' written in excited script nearby. "She's your girlfriend. Where would she put the prophecy stuff?"

"She's n-not my, um girl…"

"Whatever. Okay, where would Willow, who has naughty thoughts about you all the time, put the translation…"

Tara pointed at a few crisp green sheets of paper sticking out of the ancient, crumbling pages of another magick book. "There," she said out of desperation hoping to stop the agonizing and embarrassing monologue.

The ex-demon pulled the ancient book from the stack and smiled as she opened the brittle pages. Tara tried to look interested in the book in front of her and Willow's notes as Anya shuffled through the green papers.

"Aha! See!" Anya pointed at something written in the margin and the blonde witch's face heated up as she realized it was her own name written in big pink letters surrounded by little hearts. "Naughty thoughts! I bet she had an orgasm while she was writing…"

Tara thought it might actually be possible to die of embarrassment. "Is that her t-translation," she dared to interrupt hoping that it would distract the ex-demon from her excruciating line of discussion. She could just make out the curves and lines of Old Norse through the backlit paper in Anya's hand.

"Oh, yes!" Tara watched her eyes scanning the translation line by line, a small frown forming as her head tipped to the right. "Okay, see," she pointed at something on the page, "this is what I'm talking about. Sloppy, just sloppy," she shook her head and Tara moved to see what she was pointing at. "I only grew up speaking Old Norse, but do they ask me? No. Nobody asks the ex-demon anything," she continued to shake her head as the blonde witch scanned the page. Anya's finger was under a section Willow had obviously worked on a great deal. The papers were actually xeroxes of the ancient pages in the book before them and the redhead's translation was written in small letters above each line, except the space above Anya's finger which had been crossed out and re-written several times. Two words were circled in Old Norse: óklara›r galdr. It was familiar enough, but Tara couldn't be sure of the meaning from the context. Arrows lead to the margin where notes were scribbled in erratic script: 'broken spell' and 'spell of breaking' as well as 'spell of unbinding'.

"See, this is what you get when those two work on a translation. They're both so literal." Anya held up the other sheets of paper which were covered in possible translations and notes about spells of unbinding and breaking. "And anal." She said rolling her eyes. "Your girlfriend really needs to get laid."

Tara began coughing and the ex-demon helpfully patted her on the back as she returned to her chair.

"So, what d-do you think it means?" Tara asked when she could finally speak.

"It's obvious isn't it?" Before the blonde witch could begin to answer Anya continued. "They're talking about a broken spell." The ex-demon looked thoughtful for a moment. "Or actually, an unformed spell. You know, someone or probably several someones started a spell and didn't close it properly either intentionally or accidentally and presto," she made a dramatic motion with her arms. "Big, energy-sucking open-ended nightmare!" her satisfied smile almost made Tara smile herself, but there was still the problem of who would have done such a thing and why.

"But that w-would have to be a, um, a p-powerful spell, right?" Anya nodded absently as she continued to study the paper in her hand.

"See, and that," she pointed at something else on the page. "right there. They're talking about pure, untouched snow here, not virgins! Sex on the brain I tell you," she raised her eyebrows at Tara and the blonde witch rolled her eyes automatically at the ex-demon's voracious appetite for sex talk.

"But there's no c-coven around her powerful enough to do that," she said carefully.

"Well, it's got to be you and Willow, obviously," Anya continued without looking up.

Stunned, Tara could only stare at her for long moments as she processed this information. But they had only cast simple spells. Low-level spells. Nothing of this magnitude. Nothing that could create this sort of energy rift. "But w-we didn't c-cast anything…wouldn't it, um, have to be a r-really powerful spell?" she knew the answer, but hoped her questions might prod the insecure demon into another helpful revelation.

"Willow doesn't need you, you know. She could have done it herself." Tara frowned down at the notebook in front of her, Willow's handwriting smiling back up at her. She knew the ex-demon didn't mean to hurt her, but her words cut deep. Maybe Willow had cast another spell without her. A dangerous one.

No. I would have felt it. We're connected now.

"I would have f-felt it," Tara admitted. Anya appraised her with a smirk and the blonde witch ducked her head in embarrassment waiting for the innuendo, but it never came.

"Did you perform any, you know, sexy joining spells? Those can be pretty powerful, combining energies and all." Tara's head snapped up and Anya raised her eyebrows suggestively.

"I, um, no. We, um, h-hadn't gotten that…far." The ex-demon crossed her arms and just stared at her for what seemed like an hour

Finally she shrugged and dropped the pages on the table. "Well, Willow did something to set this off unless some huge magical Big Bad rolled into town without anyone noticing."

Something was pulling at Tara's psyche, a memory just out of reach. She reviewed the spells she and Willow had cast, going over each carefully to make sure they couldn't have set the Apocalypse in motion inadvertently, but there was nothing. Just the rose-rocket spell gone awry and the fairy lights spell.

Which, technically, was unfinished because Willow felt your evil demon self through the connection and withdrew.

But I'm not a demon…

So why had Willow pulled back? Tara shook her head in confusion. She had always assumed Willow had pulled out of the spell because she sensed the demon in her.

But that wasn't important right now. She had to concentrate on the apocalypse and that spell was just a minor one. Nothing on the order they were discussing.

Still, something about it was bothering her. She couldn't remember the actual spell and she didn't remember Willow bringing an actual book with her, just some notes. She remembered the alterations to the locator spell and felt her forehead tighten. In fact, a couple of the spells they had performed recently were from Willow's notes. Tara frowned. Maybe Willow had performed a spell and she just hadn't noticed. Had confused it for attraction or something else.

Those dreams.

Before she could gather her thoughts, the door to the apartment burst open. Buffy rushed in carrying a badly beaten brunette in her arms wrapped in Giles' tweed jacket and the Watcher followed close behind.

Faith. She knew with absolute certainty it was the other Slayer. She shivered at the terrifying and disjointed memories they now shared.

"Put her in my bedroom Buffy. There are extra blankets in the linen closet." The Watcher pulled his glasses and a cloth from a pocket and began the now-familiar cleaning ritual. There was a bruise forming under his left eye and she wondered suddenly if Willow was okay.

"You look terrible," Anya said without a hint of concern.

"Thank you Anya," Giles said coolly before carefully putting on the glasses. "Riley has a concussion. We took him to the Initiative. I feel certain they can give him the medical attention he needs." He frowned at the floor for a moment, obviously lost in thought, before returning his attention to the room.

"What about the half-dead Slayer?" Anya asked. "Is she going to wake up because I want to be here when she does to make sure she understands that Xander's penis is off-limits."

The Watcher took a deep breath and crossed his arms. "Yes, Anya, Buffy believes she will wake up within the next few hours although I daresay her wounds are so severe your warning won't be necessary."

Anya just nodded as if his answer were satisfactory and returned to Willow's notes.

"Is F-Faith going to be alright?" Tara asked carefully and Giles regarded her thoughtfully for a moment before answering.

"Most probably, although we have no way of knowing what long-term affect the drugs they gave her will have." He frowned and she wondered what horrific scene they had found on the docks. Enough to make the hardened Watcher introspective. "Otherwise, Buffy feels sure her Slayer healing should take care of her injuries with a few days' rest."

"And thank you for your help in locating her," he said with a soft smile. "I'm not sure we would have found her in time otherwise," his smile faded slightly and he added almost in a whisper. "It seems I underestimated the connection they share as Slayers."

Connection they share…Willow.

Tara shivered as the words echoed in her mind. She couldn't seem to shake the feeling that it was all tied together somehow: the intense dreams they all shared, the connection, Willow and the spells. But the details eluded her. As she concentrated, running through the events of the past few days, thoughts of Willow sidetracked her train of thought. Willow alone and in pain. She owed the redhead an explanation at least, but she was stuck here with all of the useless books in the freezing cold room.

"You know, your translation isn't terrible, but this," she pointed at the circled words on the translation "is not a spell of unbinding or breaking, it's an incomplete spell," the ex-demon interrupted her thoughts and she heard the Watcher shift in his seat.

"Really?" Mr. Giles voice regained its formal tone. "Well, that's quite interesting. It would require a very powerful spell to create this sort of instability."

"Exactly! Which is why it has to be Willow!" she exclaimed confidently.

"But…" The Watcher began and Tara remembered their conversation earlier about Willow's power. He was studying her now intently as if he were remembering as well. "Tara, has she performed any spells of this magnitude?"

"I,uh…" she began and trailed off shaking her head. No. It was impossible. But it was the only possibility they had right now. "I think I really need to see her. Now." she said suddenly and began gathering her things.

"I'll take you." Giles said and she tried to think of an excuse. Because she needed to speak to Willow alone. This wasn't a Scooby thing even if it was about the end of the world; it was a Willow and Tara thing. Somehow she knew it had everything to do with the connection they shared. It belonged to the two of them and she didn’t want to talk about it in front of anyone else.

"No, I'll take her. I want to go home and have sex with Xander," Anya said and grabbed her things. "I mean, Tara and Willow shouldn't be the only ones having pre-apocalypse orgasms."

"Oh, dear lord," Giles said closing her eyes and Tara thought her face would catch fire. At least she didn't have to make any excuses.

She picked up the green sheets of paper and folded them carefully into her bag.

"I'll c-call you if I, um, f-find out anyth-thing," she said, ducking behind her hair again.

"Please do," he said softly and turned to begin the long process of searching through the giant pile of books for clues. Tara took a deep breath to center herself and followed the ex-demon into the freezing cold night to find Willow. If nothing else, they would be together when the end came and the world and everything in it came to rest finally at absolute zero.

"Stupid taxis," Willow muttered and checked her watch again. It had been almost an hour since she called the car service to find out what was taking so long. They had given her some excuse about the cold and the cars not starting and when she called backed there had been no answer at all. She sighed and resumed pacing to keep warm.

This was ridiculous. The lobby was freezing and her hands were two different temperatures. The pink mitten-covered one was toasty and warm while the sock-covered one was numb with cold. She tucked the freezing cold appendage into her jacket pocket and sighed. The lobby was empty. All of the students had gone home or were tucked inside down comforters and sleeping bags in their rooms. She could see the orange flicker of a fire just outside the dorm. Someone had started a bonfire in the quad using furniture and wood from god-knows-where for fuel.

Eyeing her luggage and the empty lobby, Willow finally decided it was time to get warm. Grabbing her backpack full of clothes and her laptop, she made her way out into the snow and extended her hands to the warmth of the flames.

It was the first time she had felt any warmth in days and she sighed with relief as her sock-covered hand slowly warmed. The fire smelled awful and judging from the green flames mixed in with the orange and yellow she was pretty sure that some of it was toxic, but she didn't care.

We're all gonna die in the apocalypse anyway. Who cares about a little cancer.

Her smile lasted only moments before her thoughts drifted to her friends who were probably gathered around Giles' apartment poring over books to find a way to stop it.

If Faith didn't kill them all already.

Xander would be cracking stupid jokes, Anya would be making rude, inappropriate comments and Buffy would be bossing everyone around and getting all impatient.

That brought a rueful smile to her lips. And Giles. Giles would be all frowny-faced and serious as he tried unsuccessfully to get them all to concentrate on the world-ending horror waiting just outside.

And Tara. Tara would be there now, freezing in that little apartment while she went through those musty books looking for clues, looking for the key to an ancient prophecy of cold and fire. She wondered suddenly if they had found her notebooks. Maybe her notes would help in some way even if she wasn't there to be all research girl.

Turning to warm her backside, she stared into the black that seemed to entomb the small fire and shivered. Tara. She finally let herself think about the blonde witch again, the hurt in her eyes.

She thought she was a demon. What kind of family lets someone as special as Tara think they're a demon?

Hello, your own mother tried to burn you at the stake.

So, maybe that was the family thing Tara had needed to work out on her own? Willow sighed in frustration. She needed more facts and by leaving she had made absolutely sure that she would never get them. Turning back to the fire she extended her hands again to warm the sock-covered fingers.

Because Tara will never forgive me for being such a poop-headed, whatever-I-was. I didn't even give her a chance to explain. Stupid mouth that never shuts up.

What kind of a girlfriend am I anyway? All accusing and hardheaded when poor Tara was trying to explain. But who could think with Buffy being all 'you have to rescue slutty slutty, evil Faith who tried to kill you' and Tara hugging Anya. Anya! What was up with that, anyway? I am the only person who should be hugging Tara…


Hugging and kissing and all the other stuff in those naughty dreams and what was up with those anyway? Buffy said she was having dreams too. I wonder if they're…


The sound of the familiar soft voice made her freeze in place, every muscle locked because she shouldn't be here. That voice belonged to someone who should be a mile away in Giles' apartment reading about Ragnarok and guys with ice wands.

But she's here, right behind you and you're going to have to turn around someday. I mean, it's not like she can get in front of you with the bonfire and everything.

Slowly, Willow turned, sure that Tara's face would be angry and hurt, or worse, Faith would be standing there with a knife to the blonde's beautiful, pale throat. But it was just Tara, beautiful, graceful, smiling Tara, her head ducked and a half-smile on her lips as she just… stood there. Her hair was golden and glowing, lit by the fire

"I, um," the blonde began and stopped, nodding to herself as if she had just made a decision. Willow knew she should say something, should begin a lengthy explanation about her actions earlier, but her tongue seemed to be as frozen as the rest of her. Time seemed to have stopped altogether except for the slow movement of Tara's hand as she reached into her pocket for something. "Sorry, for everyth-thing. Really s-sorry." She mumbled and looked down and Willow was sure she shouldn't be thinking that the blonde was absolutely gorgeous at that moment. She should be thinking about the hurt and the secrets. "I think this is, um, yours?"

Tara is sorry?

No one ever said sorry like that to her. They all sort of acted like nothing happened when there was a fight or an argument. If there was a 'sorry' it was usually a sort of joking, offhand sorry, not a sweet, mumbled, heart-felt sorry.

Somehow in the past minutes by the fire, Willow had convinced herself that she was the one to blame for the entire episode at Giles', but here was the beautiful blonde apologizing to her. Here. So someone had followed after her, even if it had taken a while. And more than that, she was holding something out to Willow. Something pink.

She knew she should be frowning or even crying, but Willow felt a familiar smile on her lips before her brain even processed what Tara was holding out to her: her pink mitten.

I'm a junkyard full of false starts
and I don't need your permission
to bury my love under despair
coming up roses, elliot smith

Buffy paced back and forth in the small floor space of Giles' living room, while the Watcher flipped through yet another big leather-bound book. It all seemed so useless and ridiculous. They only had two hours until the big event – if it even was the big event. The Initiative had been wrong before. Not to mention that it was the Hellmouth and a strong magical signature could be almost any random wannabe Big Bad trying to prove themselves.

I've got some serious wiggins. Of course, that could be the freezing cold…or the fact that Faith is only two rooms away.

They had bandaged the more serious cuts, but the majority of the injuries were deep bruises from the beating. Buffy knew from experience that these would heal quickly, but that still left the question of other, invisible injuries. She was fairly sure there was no internal bleeding even though she hadn't found the nerve to check under the hospital gown, but there was still the question of the old injuries and how they would effect the Slayer. There was no way of knowing and she couldn't exactly ask Faith's doctor so there was just the waiting. If they survived the big Rag thingy.

Buffy sighed and sat down across from Giles, opening a book on demonology at random. Her eyes focused immediately on an etching of fairies, flitting happily in a spring scene full of flowers. It was so ridiculously out of place she almost laughed. One of them looked remarkably like Willow and she felt the smile fade from her features, her forehead tightening into a hard frown.

According to Giles, Tara had gone to find Willow about some lead on the Ragnarok spell and she found herself feeling sort of jealous. She should be out there comforting her best friend instead of not really helping with the research. Besides, if she apologized, maybe Willow would help and it would be like old times with the jokes and…

Yeah right. This isn't one of those times when you can just say you're sorry and Wil will be all 'no problem Buff',

Nope. This was one of those end-of-the-world fights that was definitely going to take lots of groveling and probably many mochas to sort out. If it could be sorted out. It was just…why did it have to happen right now?

The sound of a book slamming shut brought her out of her reverie. Giles was obviously frustrated and a frustrated Giles was so not a good thing. He was all she had left now.

"Mine has faeries. Wanna trade?" The Watcher glared at her and Buffy just shrugged. "Don't know what they're doing in your demon book anyway? I mean," she picked up the book to angle it so that Giles could see the etching. "See, they're so cute and, you know…fairy."

The Englishman frowned. "Buffy, faeries can be quite dangerous, in fact…" he began, but stopped at the sound of something hitting the floor above. Both of them rose immediately and Buffy gave the Watcher the sign to stay put as she quickly made her way to his bedroom.

What she found there startled her. Faith knelt on the floor looking around the room, obviously disoriented. The swelling around her eye was down and the bruising on her arms had faded a bit to dark yellows and purples. She looked up immediately, her eyes narrowing as she took in the blonde Slayer.

Buffy froze, unsure how to proceed. This was Faith after all. Wild, dangerous, unpredictable Faith. And there was no telling what affect the drugs had had on her memory. Not to mention the head injuries and that little issue of an eight month coma.

"Where am I?" The dark Slayer asked, struggling to get to her feet. She was still wearing the hospital gown and Buffy could make out the cuts and bruises on her pale legs. "I mean, it feels like the 'dale, but why's it so fucking cold?" She wrapped her bare arms around herself and Buffy could see her own breath fogging in the air in front of her. She knew she should get the other Slayer something warm to wear, but was afraid any movement on her part would be misinterpreted.

"I'm gonna," she gestured toward a pile of clothes on the dresser and Faith tilted her head slightly in confusion. Buffy took a step to the side and picked up the small pile. "We got you some clothes," she tried to hand them to her, but the girl didn't move, just stood there shivering. After a few seconds she set them down on the bed next to her and took a step back. A part of her still worried that the Slayer would attack; that she was just waiting for an opportunity, a moment of weakness.

Faith stood there staring at her, making no move to pick up the offered sweater and jeans and finally lifted her eyebrows in a gesture that spoke volumes of 'answer the question'. "Oh! Yeah! You're still in Sunnydale," she said nervously. "In, um, well, you're in Giles' apartment, which is unbelievably, a lot warmer than outside." Still nothing from the dark-eyed Slayer. She was just standing there shivering and staring at her and Buffy wondered suddenly if she was still drugged. but her speech wasn't slurred, so probably not the drugs. She sighed heavily, "We're not a hundred percent on why it's so cold. But, you know, it's probably the usual. Norse God trying to free himself from the Hellmouth to start an apocalyptic war, yadah, yadah, yadah…" Dark eyebrows arched.

"Same ol', same ol', huh?" She said, the smile playing at her lips as she hugged herself tighter.

"Yep." There was a long awkward silence as the two studied each other.

"So, are you gonna tell me what I'm doing here?" Faith said and Buffy noticed that her chapped lips were shivering slightly.

"Okay. But first, clothes. I mean, I know they're not really your style, but…"

"Why the rush? You wanna watch?" Faith reached for the clothes and Buffy rolled her eyes before turning her back quickly to avoid giving away the deep blush on her face.

She could hear the scrape and rustle of the clothes as the slayer hastily dressed. Then a few muttered expletives.

"Granny panties? Aw, come on, B!" Buffy couldn't help but smile. The clothes were from a stash she kept at Giles' in case of emergency. Not exactly stylish, but great for those nights when she ended up covered in electric blue demon mucus…or worse. And they so weren't granny panties. They were cute with little red flowers. So what if they were a little wide on the hips.

"Fine. Don't wear them," she said with growing irritation and crossed her arms.

"I won't," Faith said and there was the unmistakable sound of the jeans' zipper. "Okay, all safe now."

She turned to the incomprehensible sight of Faith in khaki's and a bright red sweater, struggling to pull on a pair of trainers.

"You should stay in bed, Faith," she said, feeling the smile fade from her features replaced by a frown.

"You gonna make me?" Faith finished tying both shoes and turned to stare at her. Buffy met her gaze and tried to read the intention there. She didn't want to provoke the dark Slayer, but she wasn't going to back down either if she insisted on a confrontation.

And maybe a confrontation is exactly what you want anyway. Yeah, 'cause it would be so much fun to beat up someone you've already put into a coma once.

"No," Buffy said finally, never taking her eyes from Faith's.

"Good, 'cause I really need a slay," she said and grimaced. "I feel like I'm gonna jump out of my skin."

But Faith just sat there staring at her, making no attempt to leave the room. "So, are you going to tell me whas' goin' on?" The slur was almost imperceptible, but her Slayer hearing caught it easily. And there was something under the words, something almost menacing. Or maybe it was the strain of fighting the drugs and the pain.

Buffy nodded once and sighed, releasing the death grip she held herself in for the past several minutes.

"You've been…sort of in a coma for about eight months," she said keeping her voice as calm and even as she could. Faith's forehead furrowed into a deep frown and she could see the muscles in her jaw working as she clenched her teeth. "The Council got to you before we…I could, when you woke up. Do you remember the van?"

A short nod. "Kinda hard to forget getting tied up and the shit beat out of you," she said without a hint of emotion.

Buffy ran a hand through her hair and nodded. This was the tough part.

"What else do you remember?" she asked finally and Faith closed her eyes, allowing the blonde a momentary break from her intense stare.

"I dunno, s' all kind of fuzzy." She frowned suddenly, her eyes narrowing and Buffy rolled automatically onto the balls of her feet, preparing for an attack. "I remember weird shit, like the Mayor giving me cookies." She shook her head in disbelief and shrugged.

"So you remember the Mayor?" Buffy asked careful to keep her tone light.

Another nod and a deep line forming between dark eyes. Faith wobbled then stumbled slightly and Buffy automatically lunged forward to catch her, but was stopped midway.

"No!" The dark Slayer held a hand out as if to defend herself and Buffy recoiled automatically.

"Sorry," she mumbled and backed up another step, holding her palms up. "It's okay, I'm not…" she began, but something about the way the brunette was holding herself, the defensive position stopped her. It was Tara: the way she had crouched and cried out while channeling Faith. Swallowing hard, the blonde Slayer took another step back and inhaled deeply. "I take it you remember more…."

Another nod and Faith straightened, her eyes locked with Buffy's. "Yeah, some," she said finally. "You and me…" she began then stopped in apparent confusion. "We're fighting, right?"

"Faith, you…" she began angrily and stopped. Her first instinct was to confront, to explain her actions, the anger and blame rising up inside her hot and fast the way it always did with the other Slayer. But something stopped her. Those dreams full of another Faith. And the dream that had eventually lead to the Mayor's downfall. But there was something else, a strange, comforting calm that seemed to permeate everything in the room despite the cold. It felt like…like the circle and the spell – like Tara – making her hesitate. "We were….yeah. with the fighting." Buffy said exhaling evenly, like a meditation and nodded. "You went to work for the Mayor. You know, the Big Bad who wanted to turn into a giant snake and eat the town?"

Faith's eyes narrowed, but she didn't move into a more aggressive stance. In fact, she just nodded again and shrugged slightly. "So what gives, B? Why bother pulling my big bad ass out of that van then? Looking to get your revenge on. Slayer-style?"

Revenge. Yes, she had wanted that so badly once and the dark-haired girl in front of her definitely deserved it for all the pain she had caused. The familiar fury rose up in Buffy again as images from the past rolled through her mind. Her eyes automatically traveled to the place on Faith's body marked by her unsuccessful attempt at revenge and she felt some of the anger drain away. It was covered by the bright red sweater, but she knew exactly where the mark would be. Her thirst for revenge had lead to eight months in a coma. "Um, no." she ran a hand nervously through her hair. "No revenge here. Except for, you know, maybe the clothes," which somehow, despite the tension in the room got a small smirk from the dark Slayer.

It faded rapidly. "So, in the middle of another frickin' Apocalypse," she hooked a thumb at the freezing cold room and the snow outside. "You haul ass over to the docks to rescue my worthless ass?" They stood there, eyes locked for several moments while Buffy assessed the situation. Everything about Faith's posture and tone screamed 'threat' to her, but something held her back. Maybe it was that residual Tara calm, or the cold or just the knowledge that the dark Slayer was in no physical condition to be any real threat. Relaxing back onto her heels, Buffy took another deep breath and let it out in a long, slow exhale.

"It's complicated," she began and was almost relieved at the sound of a soft knock on the door. Giles' head appeared, his eyes going wide as he took in the two of them. Clearing his throat he opened the door just wide enough to address his Slayer directly.

"Is there…" he began and trailed off suddenly, his eyes darting to the dark Slayer who now stood with her arms crossed staring at the Watcher. "Is everything alright?"

Buffy sighed and nodded.

"Yeah, good to see you too, Giles. I'm doing jus' great, thanks," Faith said angrily as she snatched a jacket from the back of the chair and walked to the window.

"Where are you going?" Buffy asked, her tone almost desperate as she watched the other Slayer unlock the window with a flick of her wrist.

"To slay," dark eyes challenged.

"Faith, you're in no condition physically to…" Giles began only to be cut off.

"I may be all mentally defective now, but I do remember enough to know that you're not my fucking Watcher," she barked, wrenching the window open with one violent jerk. "I don't need your permission," she smiled threateningly.

"This is not about permission, Faith. This is about your physical…" the Englishman continued in the confrontational tone.

"Giles, it's okay," she said firmly and stared pointedly at the confused Watcher. "I'll go with her. We can check out the park, see if anything's brewing early."

"I don't need a fucking babysitter," Faith said, her eyes narrowing as she turned to face Buffy, shoulders squaring for a confrontation.

okay, this isn't going so well

With another deep exhale, the blonde Slayer fought the urge to answer the challenge. Instead, she walked calmly to the ancient weapon chest and opened it. "Actually," she said calmly. "I'm kinda thinking you do." Before she could protest, Buffy tossed her a stake and sword, which she caught easily. "I didn't go all out to save your," she paused to get the quote just right, "'worthless ass' just so you could get it kicked your first night out." Tucking several stakes into her waistband and withdrawing a sword of her own she turned finally to face her fellow slayer. "And I know you don't remember a lot, but we usually use the door." She smiled and waited for Faith's response. It took several long moments before the dark Slayer finally rolled her eyes and shut the window.

"Buffy, I'm still concerned that Faith is dangerously weak from her prolonged stay in the hospital. It could compromise you both…" Giles said and she noticed that his tone had changed, softened slightly, but Faith was already squaring up for a fight. Before the Slayer could get a word out, she calmly addressed her Watcher.

"Giles, she needs to slay," she said because as much as she wanted to distance herself from her fellow Slayer, she knew implicitly what the girl was going through. The burning, itching need to do what they were both chosen to do. "Believe me. It's like a thing…with us." She said finally and felt as much as saw Faith relax slightly. Giles just looked at her in confusion before nodding once and stepping aside.

"Yeah, it's either a slay or wild sex and I don't think you or B are up for a party…" the dark Slayer said as she walked past a now-red Watcher.

"Yes, I see. Quite right," he said with a grimace and began cleaning his glasses.

"So, I'll check in after we crash the magic party?" Buffy said trying not to smile at his obvious discomfort.

He nodded, replacing his glasses. "Yes. And Buffy, remember, you won't be able to stop the spell once it is underway. They will probably be using some sort of magickal device or amulets related to Norse mythology so I would focus on destroying or disrupting those."

"Break the bad kids' pretty toys," she interjected playfully hoping to stop the Watcher-babble before it overwhelmed them both. "Gotcha."

After a few moments of awkward silence, Faith cleared her throat dramatically in the hall and Giles nodded emphatically. "Yes, well…do take care. Both of you."

"You too," she said with a smile and turned to join Faith in the hallway.

"Awww, isn't that sweet. I didn't know you cared, G-man," the dark Slayer said sarcastically and Giles mumbled something inaudible behind her.

"Hello, he just risked his life to save you from the Council," Buffy said testily, but the look on the dark Slayer's face stopped her anger: disbelief that was quickly shifting to something else. Something not good. Desperate to lighten the mood, she fell back on humor, taking another deep breath and releasing it to steady herself. "So be good, Faith," she warned with a smile and gentle push.

There was a moment of tense silence as Faith bit her lip and continued to stare at a point just beyond the Slayer's right shoulder and Buffy automatically rolled onto the balls of her feet anticipating some sort of attack.

"Oh, I'm always good, B. You just never took the time to find out how." A smug wink and the dark Slayer walked ahead of her. She exhaled and closed her eyes briefly, letting herself relax. It was just like old times, almost. Except for the terrible past and the limp in the Slayer's once-powerful stride.

Willow couldn't seem to tear her eyes from the fuzzy pink between them. It didn't make any sense. This just wasn't rational.

Tara is here. With me. And the mitten is…in her hand. Her bare hand that doesn't have any glove on it and must be really cold out here in all the freezy weather.

"It w-was…I found it in, um, Mr. Giles' chair. I w-would have give it back earlier, but, um…" she stopped and shrugged, her gaze dropping to the snowy ground.

Okay, not rational. We are now totally on another dimension of anti-rational where pink mittens just show up with gorgeous Taras attached and…

"You came all the way in the snow and it's so cold and you don't even have gloves to bring me my mitten?" The words tumbled out of her and she stood shaking her head at her own jumbled sentence.

Tara looked up, her forehead furrowing in confusion, her head tilted slightly to the right. "I, um, no. Did you not w-want it?"

"No! I mean, yes! I want." She said, but Tara still looked confused. "It. The mitten! 'Cause, you know, socks should really go on feet or, you know, for puppets with button eyes and there's no thumb, which makes it hard to do the opposable thumb higher primate thing," she finished awkwardly and winced. Her mouth was definitely travelling too fast for her brain tonight. There was another awkward silence and Tara looked down at the mitten still extended between them before looking back up to Willow's eyes.

"Oh! Yes!" She smiled awkwardly and took the mitten from Tara, returning the sock to her pocket. The mitten was still warm from Tara's coat.

Tara Warmth

She felt the smile widen on her face and blushed, looking quickly away into the multi-colored flames.


Nodding, she forced herself to turn back to the blonde whose beautiful hands had returned to the pockets of her worn pea coat.

"Much," she said and watched Tara nod slightly, looking down again. There was something about the blonde's movements that felt like a retreat. As if she could turn and leave at any moment. Willow began to panic at the thought of losing Tara this quickly. There was so much to talk about, so many important things she needed to ask…to explain. "And look," she held the two mittens up with a smile that felt forced, wondering again why she couldn't stop babbling. This was definitely not the explanation she had intended. "They're much happier now, because, well, they were made for each other at the mitten-making factory and…yeah." She trailed off realizing too late the double meaning of her little speech. Tara looked up briefly, tears in her eyes before hunching into herself.

There was another terrible silence while they both looked at the ground, the fire – anything but each other.

"Willow, I um…" Tara began but stopped, her forehead furrowing in concentration. "I know you probably, um, d-don't want to t-talk to me, you know," the blonde dipped her head and let her hair fall in front of her face. "Ever ag-gain…"

"No, Tara," Willow tried to interrupt, but the beautiful blonde crossed her arms and hunched even further.

"It's o-okay. I mean, I unders-stand I just…" Tara paused and nodded again before looking up through the veil of blonde to meet Willow's desperate gaze. "We found out something, um, about the, uh, prophecy…actually Anya did…and I, well everyone, needs your, uh, help?"

"Oh.." Willow didn't know whether to be happy that they – that Tara – had come to her for help with the Apocalypse or upset that the blonde hadn't come after her for personal reasons.

Who cares! She's here! Which is more than I can say for my so-called friends…

She could feel her face tighten painfully into a hard frown at the thought of her friends sending Tara out into the cold to find her instead of coming themselves.

"I'm sorry. It wasn't f-fair of me to ask…" Tara said suddenly and turned to leave obviously misreading the redhead's expression.

"No!" Willow said, reaching automatically for the blonde's arm to stop her. "Please. I want to…" She wanted to…she wanted to go back in time and change everything. Stop the argument and the leaving. But more than anything, she just wanted to hug the blonde and forget everything. Instead she released her arm and took a half step back. "You know, with the helping. If I can."

Tara turned slowly to her, but her eyes never left the ground. "Anya thinks…well Old Norse, or a, um, v-variation of it, was her native tongue."

"Oh. Really?" Willow was stunned. She had never thought to even ask the ex-demon about her human heritage, about the girl she had been before D'Hoffryn's offer.

Okay, how terrible am I that I never even bothered to ask her? Pretty terrible…except, hello, skanky ex-demon who tricked me into bringing my evil vampire doppel…

The redhead stopped her inner rant and took a deep breath. The Anya problem could wait. Right now there were bigger problems. Apocalypse-sized. And she wasn't thinking about Ragnarok. Tara stole a look up at her, before nodding and glancing quickly away and Willow felt her stomach flip over. It took only moments for her to process the implications of the blonde's revelation.

"So Anya interpreted the prophecy and I'm thinking it's different that my interpretation and not in the good kinda way?"

Blonde hair nodded again and Willow stood transfixed as slender, pale hands clasped each other. "Yes. Different." Tara stole another look and their eyes met momentarily. "I, um, Anya th-thinks that it's not so much 'broken spell' as a spell that wasn't completed? You know, not closed for some reason?"

"Oh. Not good." Willow felt her forehead tightening into a hard frown. "But," she looked around at the frozen scene around her, the snow covering the normally warm and arid ground. "Really not good. This must have been some powerful spell, I mean, 'cause, you know, snow in Sunnydale sort of not the usual."

Tara smiled slightly and looked up to meet her eyes. "Yeah, some powerful spell or s-some powerful spell caster."

Willow held the blonde's gaze and swallowed hard. In the flickering light from the bonfire, Tara's eyes were like the deep blue of the sky during a storm. "I, um…" she struggled to break the spell of those eyes and finally shook her head dramatically to return to the problem. "Oh, so you think there's someone new in town? Some kind of sorcerer and you want me to help find them?"

"It c-c-ould be." Tara nodded. "But someone that powerful would probably draw attention to th-themselves or, um, leave a magical signature and no one h-has."

"Oh," Willow said, noticing that the blonde looked down again. And her stutter was gettting worse, which was never a good sign. She could feel the fire behind her making her backside uncomfortably hot and the front too cold. She really should turn, but that would leave her with her back to Tara so…no to that. "So, do you have an alternate theory?"

Tara continued to look at her hands, finally nodding again and looking up. "Willow, have you…" she stopped and looked away again. "Have you c-cast any, um, spells lately…w-without me?"

It took her a few moments again to process what the blonde was telling her. Or asking.

They think…Tara thinks I did this. She and them and everyone thinks I went all crazy again and cast some spell and started an Apocalypse and…great, they still don't trust me.

She could feel her throat tightening with grief and a little anger. It was only one stupid spell and she would never live it down. No matter how many cookies she baked or how many times said 'sorry'.

"You think I did this?" She asked, wincing as her voice cracked.

Don't cry. Don't cry.

Tara's eyes now met hers, wet with tears. "No, Willow." One pale hand reached out for her and stopped in the space between them, falling slowly back to the blonde's side. "I don't think you did it…not int-tentionally anyway. But you're the only one powerful enough."

"What?" It was all too much for the redhead. The cold and heat, the emotional drain of the altercation at Giles' and now Tara standing in front of her accusing her of setting off an Apocalypse. Like she was even powerful enough. She knew she should be angry, but she just felt sad and hurt. "Tara I'm not…I know you think special, but I could so not have done something this big. I mean this is big magic big – huge magic – and I'm just a little tiny me." She realized somewhere in the middle of the rambling that her vision was blurred by tears. "And I haven't cast a spell without you since the soda machines! Because it just isn't, I mean, why would I want to when I could with the hand-holding and you?"

Tara held her eyes for a moment before looking down again, her hands working nervously against each other. "Willow I…"

"You have to believe me Tara. I would never…" she pleaded. "I would just…never. Even if I could. Which I can't."

"I believe you," Tara said loudly, her eyes once again meeting Willow's and the redhead felt her own body relax slightly, the sobs stopping under the blonde's gaze. But she didn't say anything else.

"Oh. Really?" Could it really be that simple? Tara just nodded and looked at the ground again.

"But, um, I n-need to ask you a question ab-bout a spell we cast."

"Okay," Willow said nervously and shifted slightly, taking a step forward away from the scalding heat of the bonfire.

"The, um, the firefly spell?" the blonde said, her eyes widening slightly as the redhead stepped toward her. "You know, the one that, um, fizzled?"

Willow nodded, waiting for the blonde to continue.

"Where did you get the spell?" Tara asked finally. "I c-can't seem to find a copy of it."

It took her only a moment to remember with photographic accuracy the yellowing pages. That book was tucked carefully into the duffle bag still in the dorm lobby. But she did have her notes in the bookbag at her feet. Bending automatically, she pulled off the mittens and rifled through the contents, finally pulling several immaculate sheets of note paper from an older grimoire. The spell was written in blue ink and she smiled slightly as she extended them to Tara with a sniffle.

The blonde took them with another slight nod and began reading, her forehead crinkling up adorably.

Okay, no staring, Rosenberg. No matter how cute Tara is, she hurt you and she thinks you're likes super-powerful apocalypse starting girl. No matter how unbelievably cute it is when she bites her lip…like that.

"It was in Gaelic?" Tara frowned and looked up at Willow who shook her head slightly to clear the Tara-thoughts.

"Um, yeah!" The redhead blurted out, then softened. "Why? Is that not okay?"

"No, I j-just…" Tara began, looking back at the pages in her hand. "I thought it was in English…it seemed so f-familiar when we cast it." Frowning harder, she returned her attention to the paper.

"Tara you don't think…" the redhead began, suddenly understanding the blonde's line of reasoning: incomplete spell, firefly spell that fizzled. "I mean, it's just…a few lines to make sparkly stuff happen. No big magic here." She motioned at the pages with a weak smile.

Tara looked up, her eyes still distant in thought. "I, um, big magic doesn't just come from big spells," she said wistfully before looking back at Willow's notes. There were a few more moments of awkward silence as she studied the pages, biting her lip again. "Is this…" she asked suddenly. "This l-line seems to refer…" she trailed off. "Are you sure part of the spell isn't m-missing?"

Willow felt her own forehead crinkling into a frown as she brought the yellowing pages up in her mind. This was the hard part. Tara had warned her repeatedly about the dangers of modifying spells and she had promised to be careful. But this was a harmless spell. "Not so much missing as, you know, edited?" she admitted finally and the blue eyes went a little wider.

She expected a lecture or at least some harsh words of warning, but Tara just nodded again and looked at the fire that was currently blasting the back of the redhead's legs with heat. "Do you have the original?"

Willow nodded and picked up her bookbag. "It's in my suitcase, in the lobby," she said and turned without another word to walk back to the dorm. After a few steps, she realized that the blonde wasn't following her and turned to see what was holding her up. Tara stood in the same spot, her eyes wide as she stared at Willow, her hands loose at her side.

"Suitcase?" Tara said finally and Willow felt her stomach turn over.

Stupid mouth!

Her brain raced through a thousand different explanations or excuses, but for once the redhead managed to keep her babbling impulse under control.

"Yeah. It's in the lobby." Hello, you already said that! and Tara was still staring at her. "I was waiting for a taxi, but it's too cold for the batteries or something and…" she stopped abruptly as the blonde lowered her head, folding her hands carefully in her pockets.

"It's okay, Willow. You d-don't owe me any explanation," the blonde nearly whispered as she walked past Willow into the frigid lobby.

"No, Tara. It's not that I don't want to explain and I do owe you," she said, scrambling to catch up with the blonde who was now standing next to her suitcase. "It's just, I mean, first there was the mitten and then the whole prophecy thing and…okay, I'm leaving." She finished abruptly and bent down to open her suitcase. "I was going to go to my parents' house first for a few weeks," she mumbled as her fingers seemed to work with a mind of their own picking through the folded clothes searching for the book. "And then transfer to someplace, you know…else."

There was no sound behind her, the blonde was completely silent, but she could still feel her comforting presence behind her. Willow finally found the rough leather surface of the book and pulled it from its resting place between two t-shirts. The spell was still bookmarked and she opened the book to find hearts drawn around Tara's name on the pale pink slip of the mark. Blushing, she quickly pulled the bookmark out and stuffed it into her pocket before handing the open book to Tara, who sniffed once before accepting it with shaking hands.

"Maybe we should sit?" Willow said and gestured to the empty couches. The blonde nodded once, hiding behind a thick curtain of hair. As soon as they were seated, Tara bent over the book, obviously deeply engrossed and the redhead found herself studying those beautiful hands. Long, slender pale fingers, that held the ancient pages with such reverence and care.

"Witch fingers," she thought out loud.

"What?" Tara looked up finally through the curtain of hair and Willow swallowed.

"Nothing. Sorry?" she shrugged and hoped the blonde hadn't heard. Tara looked down at the text again briefly and frowned.

"Willow, this isn't the, um, the s-same spell," she said finally, her voice cracking slightly.

"Yes it is," the redhead said and pointed out a particular stanza near the end. "See, I only needed this part." Tara inhaled and looked up at Willow, her eyes full of fear and disbelief. Trying not to panic, she began a hurried explanation. "I know you said I should be careful about modifying and I was. Really. It's just, I only needed that little piece."

"Willow, this is a…it's a very powerful spell. Or it can be," Tara said calmly, looking back to the text.

"But I thought it was just a rites of spring type spell," she pointed at a few words. "You know, a kind of celebratory ritual. I mean, it says Beltane in here somewhere."

"It's a, um, it…" Tara stopped and took a deep breath. "It's a sort of enj-joining spell. Coven's use it to c-consolidate their power. Or…" she stopped and the redhead thought she heard a sniff. "To affirm their c-connection to each other." She said quietly, her head bowed. "The fireflies are just, um, d-decoration?"

"Oh." Was all that Willow could manage. She wasn't that familiar with enjoining spells. It wasn't something they had ever needed fighting demons. She had stumbled across it when she was researching the my-will-be-done fiasco. "Is that bad? I mean could that…that couldn't have caused the hell's chance in snowball winter out there could it?"

The blonde head shook over the text and those beautiful hands were shaking, she noticed. "I don't…I don't know. Magic is…unpredictable. And this, this is…" she stopped abruptly and blue, tear-filled eyes looked into Willow's. "Why did you…why did you b-break the connection…when we did the s-spell?"

Willow felt her face heat up immediately before she had even really processed the question. The spell. That sexy firefly spell. It had been so overwhelming, the feelings. And she wasn't ready for it, too wrapped up in her anger and grief over Oz. Of course, she couldn't tell Tara that.

With the memories came a series of other images: the dream. Sexy, intimate images that made her heart pound and everything get a little warmer.

"It's okay. You don't have t-to…I know you saw the demon in me Willow." Tara said, her voice so soft the redhead had to strain to hear it. "Anya was wrong." A painful, sad half-smile graced those perfect lips and Willow nearly cried out. "I know what I am."

"No. No!" she said too loudly and put her mittened hands over Tara's. "No demon! That is so not the reason I…stopped." A single tear rolled down Tara's pale cheek and Willow felt her own throat tighten with grief in response. Softening her voice she held the slender hands in her own. They were so cold she could feel it through the wool of her mitten. "I know I shouldn't have…with the spell and I want to tell you about why I…pulled away, but it's sort of, um personal."

"You didn't," she began, her voice tight with emotion. "Um, you didn't feel the demon?"

"Not even a tiny bit," she smiled and squeezed the hands that hung limp in her own. "All Tara goodness." Very goodness. Too much goodness…if there is such a thing as too much Tara goodness and I think emphatically, no.

A tiny sob escaped the blonde as she looked away, her hands finally holding Willow's tightly. "I…I'm so s-sorry."

"You, Missy, have nothing to be sorry about," Willow said softly and lowered her head to look up though the veil of blonde hair into those beautiful, tear-filled eyes. "Me, on the other hand, well apparently I've set off an apocalypse, so…do you really think I did?" she asked suddenly, unable to keep up the pretense. "I'm so sorry Tara, I should have listened…"

"No Willow, I don't know anything really," Tara sniffed again and gently removed her hand from Willow's to wipe her nose. "I just h-have this, um feeling…"

Tara's 'feelings' she was learning were never to be taken lightly. "Okay, what do we need to do to complete the spell and stop the end of the world? Teacher."

The blonde looked up at her in surprise, then looked away. "Well, we need to go to m-my room where we originally did the, um, spell and…" she trailed off, looking at the floor.

"What? We don't need a human sacrifice or, wait, there are no frogs involved are there?"

The blonde actually smiled a little and a familiar warmth spread through Willow's body. "No frogs. Just, um…" she trailed off and the redhead thought she would remain silent or worse, pull away. After an excruciating silence, the blonde finally looked into her eyes and took a deep breath. "We have to learn to...to t-trust each other again."


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