Disclaimer: I own nothing about this story other than the basic plotline and some original characters that may show up. Everything else belongs to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy.
Distribution: The Mystic Muse: http://mysticmuse.net
Through the Looking-glass
Feedback: Yes, please.
Spoilers: None, Uber
Author's Notes: This story contains situations that may be unsettling to some people. These include forced breath holding, drowning and underwater sex between two females. If you have a problem with that, then stop reading now, click "back" on your browser, and find something else to read. Thanks to Chris Cook for the title graphic!
Summary: Tara is a member of a race of undersea mermaids. Willow is a recreational diver who stumbles into their territory.
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19
Willow Rosenberg sat on the edge of the small boat she had rented from the docks earlier that day, preparing her dive gear for her latest underwater adventure. The area was rather popular with the local crowd, and tourists often came here for fun and relaxation. She hoped that none would come today, however. Today she wanted to be alone.
She looked out to at the silently rippling water as she thought briefly about how much she enjoyed gliding through the weightless environment of the ocean. Her parents were certified divers and had often let Willow come with them when she was little. Of course, they didn't allow her to go into the water herself, saying that she was too little and that it would be too dangerous. She always stayed on the boat with the captain playing cards.
She couldn't recall when it was that she started to appreciate the water, but she did know that from her teenage years, she always felt as if she had always belonged there. During high school she would spend what free time she had at the local outdoor swimming pool enjoying the feelings she had as she glided around. Most of the time, however, the place was often too crowded by families, so she wasn't able to enjoy it as much as she wanted to. It wasn't that she wasn't a people person. It was just that sometimes she wanted to be alone. She figured it must have come from her upbringing, when her parents spent so much time traveling with her in tow that she didn't have time to make any friends.
The only constant in her life had been swimming. Even after high school, when her parents allowed her to come on their trips, she had found ways to indulge herself. No matter where her parents had gone to, there was a swimming pool either at their hotel or within walking distance. On the times that her parents had left her at the hotel while they went diving, she had often gone to the pool and swam around, though she found that the pools there were often more crowded than they were at home. She didn't mind, but she wished that she could be alone so that she could enjoy herself without having to feel too guilty that someone may be watching.
That led to her decision one night to sneak into the pool after it had closed, just so she could be by herself without having to listen to the constant noise that had often accompanied her daytime visits. Wearing a loose fitting T-shirt and pants and holding a bag containing a mask and fins in one hand, she scaled the fence, dropped as silently as she could to the ground and walked to the edge of the water. Dropping the bag next to her as she reached the edge, she took off her shirt and unbuttoned her jeans, letting them fall down to her ankles. She had taken a moment to examine her body, clad as it was in the blue one piece swimsuit she always wore and never really liked, as it did little more than to highlight just how unremarkable her teenage body was.
She sat down and took her shoes and socks off, putting them, along with her pants, down by the nearby diving board. She then moved to the edge of the pool, soaking her feet in the slightly chilled water. She felt a tingle go up her spine as she moved to don the fins and mask and slid into the water.
She swam around the pool for several minutes, taking several opportunities to dive under the water and run her hands across the pool's surface. As she dove under the surface and began her third slow lap around the pool, she began to feel something that she hadn't really felt before.
She was starting to get aroused. The sensuous feel of the water against the bare skin of her arms and legs was sending jolts of electricity down her spine. The cool temperature of the water, amplified by the colder surrounding air, brought forth a shudder. She looked down to see her nipples poking through the fabric of the swimsuit. She gently rubbed them both with the tips of her fingers, sending a spasm through her body.
As she swam to the side of the pool and started to rise, she took the time to think about what she was feeling. It wasn't something terribly new to her. As a blossoming teenager, she had often felt sexually excited, though it wasn't until she had read some books at the library that she was able to put her feelings into something tangible. But she had never felt this way while swimming in the water. Maybe it was that she was alone or maybe it was that she was doing something she wasn't supposed to be doing. She couldn't tell for sure.
As she broke to the surface, she took a few moments to look around. Although it was night and the chance that anyone passing by was slim, she wanted to make sure that she was alone. After all, breaking into the pool to go swimming by herself was one thing. But what she was about to do was something else entirely.
Taking several breaths, she dove under the surface once again and began to swim to the opposite side of the pool, much like she had been doing. Only this time, she was mainly using her legs to keep her moving forward, as her arms began moving of their own volition across her body. She traced her fingers across her body, sending small pulses across her skin as she teased herself, drawing her fingers away after only a moment's touch. She brought her left hand up to rub the nape of her neck, teasing it by rubbing with her fingertips one moment, then her entire hand the next. Her right hand circled both of her breasts, gently stroking and pinching the nipples after every third or fourth pass. She felt a burning ache in her lower body around that time and moved her hand down to her lower regions, feeling the beginnings of a growing intensity in her chest as her fingers gingerly grazed her mound.
Reaching the other side of the pool, she surfaced and started some breathing exercises, taking in as much air as she could as she prepared to swim back to the pool's opposite end. As she did, she reached for the straps of her bathing suit, pulling them down over her shoulders. She paused for a moment before removing the suit completely, allowing it to fall to the pool surface below.
She thought about the situation she was in. Floating in the pool as nude as the day she had come into the world, she knew that she should be embarrassed. After all, empty or full, night or day, being naked in a public swimming pool was something she would never do.
And yet, as Willow took a final few breaths and dove under the surface again, she couldn't bring herself to care.
Holding onto one of the bars of the nearby pool ladder as well as she could with her right hand, she began to move her left hand in a cursory exploration of her body. She traced a curve around her chest, in between her breasts and lightly rubbing her nipples again, having become painfully erect thanks to the combination of the chilled water and her earlier teasing. She moved her hand back down to gently tickle her thighs, teasing the skin of her sex as she did so. After repeating these motions about three or four times, she moved her hand to her sex again and cupped it in her hand. She gently slid a finger inside of her; gently massage her clit and teasing her inner walls. She paused briefly as she felt the pressure on her chest increase as the waves of pleasure began to course through her.
She struggled to keep herself from breathing, knowing that her orgasm would be more powerful without the lack of oxygen. She couldn't tell, however, if this was because of the fear of drowning or because of the thrill it was bringing her. These thoughts left her mind as quickly as they had come however as she continued to tease her inner walls, having added two fingers to her damp folds, feeling the wetness inside of her just as easily as she felt the wetness outside.
The urge to breathe was growing more intense as she continued to pleasure herself. Willow knew she was on the verge of a powerful and cataclysmic orgasm. Her moans, which had started off small, began to grow in intensity, magnified by the fact that her mouth was clamped shut in an attempt to keep herself under control. An attempt that was, she found herself admitting, failing spectacularly. The need to breathe was overpowering, but she fought it as she buried her fingers deeper inside herself, desperately trying to bring herself to the powerful climax she knew was coming.
Suddenly she felt an intense shock wave pass through her. She gripped the pool ladder and began to moan loud as an intense orgasm passed through her. This intense emotion, combined with her need to breathe, threatened to cause her to black out. As the last shreds of her powerful underwater orgasm faded, she grabbed onto the opposite bar of the pool ladder and weakly began to climb up.
As she moved to sit on the side of the pool, water dripping down her body, she took a moment to figure out what this all meant. Being the overly curious teenager that she was, she had often looked through things she wasn't supposed to. That included several sex books. But none of them had ever said anything about this. She slipped back into the water to retrieve her swimsuit, which had floated up from the pool's bottom and now was at the opposite end of the pool.
That had been nearly twelve years ago, and Willow could still remember it as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. Since then, she had discovered dozens of internet websites that were devoted to Aquaphilia, a term used to describe a form of sexual fetishism which involves images of people swimming or posing underwater and engaging in sexual activity in or under water. Willow could easily admit, and felt proud to do so, that she now considers herself one. "After all," she had thought at the time. "What could be more serene and beautiful than the human form balanced gracefully within the gravity free environments below the sparkling surface of a swimming pool, a rainbow colored coral reef, or crystal clear lagoon?"
It was then that she discovered another major revelation about herself. Most of the stories and pictures she found on these websites involved women underwater and in sexual situations. She found that reading these stories and seeing these pictures aroused her and many was the night that she fell asleep masturbating to them. The dual revelation of being both turned on by both water and women was something that she knew would affect the rest of her life.
"Talk about discovering yourself all at once," she thought as she zipped up her wetsuit top and raised the hood over her head, encasing her upper body in smooth neoprene rubber. She had decided to wear a bright red bikini bottom instead of the wetsuit pants, as it would make any attempt to pleasure herself while she was underwater (and she had no doubt such a situation would arise) much easier.
She had gotten certified as a diver when she was twenty-two, having saved up enough of her money to pay for the lessons herself without her parents' knowledge. She knew that they would disapprove of Willow's frequent dives, since they considered it more of a hobby enjoyed once in a while rather than a way of life. She did so partly because of her interest, piqued as it was by her parents' dives. But mostly it was so she would be able to act out her private underwater fantasies alone.
A small frown creased her features as she moved to strap her buoyancy compensator and its attached tank to her back. Not only had she not told her parents about her pastime, but she never told those who she considered her closest friends. Not even Buffy Summers, herself a certified diver who often accompanied Willow during the relatively few times Willow decided to join others on her underwater adventures. It wasn't that she didn't enjoy the company, though. But every time she went into the water, she felt the uncontrollable urge to please herself. And that wasn't something she knew she could get away with around others. This left her feeling rather isolated, with no one with whom to share the passion for her hobby.
Picking up her mask from the boat's steering controls, she moved to the side of the boat, putting the mask on and adjusting it to her face. She had always known that she wanted to share her fantasies with someone, but her natural shyness kept her from approaching women she found attractive. She had come to accept it, but she had always hoped.
Or maybe it was just that she hadn't met the right woman yet.
Sitting down on the deck of the boat, she put the regulator into her mouth and drew several breaths, pleased to see that the equipment was still in tip-top shape. Placing a hand to her face to help secure them, she flipped off the boat and began yet another underwater adventure, completely unaware of the fact that this adventure would be different from all the others that had come before.
Tara swam silently in the ocean, admiring the natural beauty of the coral reefs and the tropical fish that swam about in schools. Normally such a sight would be amazing, but to one like her, it was merely an everyday part of the scenery.
Taking another look at her surroundings, however, she realized that she was nowhere near where she should be. It was well past the borders of her that were put in place by her clan of mermaids, and it was one of their most sacred laws never to travel this far beyond them. But she couldn't help herself. She was often curious about the world outside her own, mostly because few ever spoke to her about it.
Tara had lived her whole life under the ocean. Despite the common stereotypes associated with mermaids by the surface dwellers, she and the others of her clan had nothing that in any way resembled a tail. They appeared to be, in all aspects, relatively human in appearance. The only features giving away her aquatic nature were a series of small greenish scales, which stood out in contrast to her alabaster skin. These scales resembled those found on several smaller marine animals such as fishes. They were grouped together in several areas across her body; particularly her head, where they emerged from her hairline for several centimeters. Her thighs and feet were also scaled, in addition to the sides of her neck; where, also, a series of gill slits the length of about two inches, allowed her to breathe in the underwater environment. In all other aspects, however, she looked very much like a human woman.
It was a comparison that those of her race were loath to admit, however. She knew that her clan of mermaids held a distrust of humans, stemming from an incident in the past that was long forgotten. She didn't realize why, though, and had often wanted to meet a human, knowing that they sometimes traveled down to the ocean using some form of magic that she couldn't understand. And as a practicing mage, she was familiar with most forms of mermaid magic.
She continued to swim majestically through the ocean floor, one hand lazily tracing across her nude body as the other moved to caress the schools of fish in various shades of color and spongy coral as she floated passed them. She took a moment to examine her body and realized that it was nothing that she had to be ashamed about when it came to her body. With long, golden blonde hair that flowed in the ocean currents, long shapely legs that ended in webbed feet that made her a powerful swimmer, and a generously sized chest that, more often than not, was kept hidden by her beautiful blonde locks, she was the perfect picture of the typical underwater goddess.
Suddenly she saw something out of the corner of her eye. Turning her head toward the movement, she was surprised to see a body moving off in the opposite direction. It was then that she realized that it was a human! The thought filled her with dread, as she had heard rumors from others in her clan that humans were both disruptive and destructive. She knew she should return to the meeting place to inform the Elders of what was going on.
Instead, her curiosity was piqued. She knew that it might be dangerous, and that she would most likely be punished for doing so, but she couldn't help herself. There was something about this human that called to her. She decided to move to investigate, using the nearby coral as cover. After all, she figured, she always wanted to meet a human. This might be her only chance.
Willow glided silently through the ocean, the only sound the rhythmic pulsing from her regulator as she breathed in and out. She watched as the bubbles traveled to the surface, a tingle of excitement growing as she did. She knew what that meant, and she wasn't at all surprised. Whenever she entered the ocean recently, she had felt an intense desire that begged to be released. It made her long, not for the first time, for someone to share her passion with.
She began to trace her left hand over her body, sending a jolt through her body. She gently teased herself this way as her right hand slowly made its way to her bikini bottoms. As she did this, her left hand grasped the zipper of her wetsuit top and gently began to pull it down. Stopping halfway, she reached inside and began to gently caress her breasts, feeling her nipples grow and harden as her teasing brought them to attention. Her other hand dipped into her bikini and gently cupped her mound. She shuddered as she felt the growing wetness that yearned to be released.
She was all too happy to comply, gently inserting a finger into her sex and began to caress her inner folds.
"Oh, goddess!" Tara thought as she watched the human from a safe distance as she fondled herself. "I never knew a human could be so…be so…"
She couldn't think of any way to put her thoughts into words, as the actions being put on display in front of her defied all conventional explanation. She had often spied on humans as they made their way through the area, but she had never seen one so engaged.
She had always had a weakness for female mermaids. This, combined with her talents in magic, had made her unpopular with the majority of her clan. But there were those with whom she enjoyed special moments, where they could discuss whatever was on their minds and practice their Craft. However, they had drawn the proverbial line in the sand at acting on the feelings that they had shared for one another, for fear of bringing the others' wrath down upon them all.
But as she stared at this human, she felt something for her, a feeling that went beyond simple lust. It felt half like a yearning, half like a desire. What caused this desire, she found herself wondering. What was it that was causing this pull she felt toward the human? Tara thought that it was that, unlike most other humans she saw in the area, she was alone. She was often alone, as well, though this was because she wanted it that way. Did this human have desires, too? Was she here alone because of some repression that the surface world had brought upon her?
She gazed intently at the human as she continued her exploration of her body. And she noted that, it was a remarkable body. Modestly proportioned, with shapely legs and a small yet ample chest. This, sadly, was all that she could see, as much of her upper body, along with her lower regions, were covered in clothing. Tara felt regret that she couldn't see more of her body and that she had felt the need to cover herself. The ocean was a place to be natural, to be free.
She lost her train of thought as she became aware of the fact that her hands, seemingly having detached themselves from the rational part of her brain, were moving across her body in much the same fashion as the human's. The thumb and forefinger of her left gently pinched the nipples of her exposed breasts until they became the size of small peaks. Her hands then raised to gently knead them over and over again, sending ripples of pleasure coursing through her body, inflaming her soul. She never thought that anyone could bring out such feelings in her, especially not a surface dweller.
She paused as she opened her eyes to see the human gently begin to unzip the clothing that concealed her upper chest, and silently gasped as she caught sight of two of the most perfectly sized breasts that she had ever seen in her life. They, much like everything else about this human, seemed too good to be true.
Her right hand slowly lowered to her sex, the throbbing and feelings becoming too much for her to ignore anymore, her thoughts on the shape of the human's luxuriously formed chest and how much she would enjoy fondling, nipping and gently stroking them. As that last thought burned into her brain, she began to rub her sex, sending two fingers inside, following up quickly with a third. The small scales on her fingertips helped send her body afire, the heat of her passion flowing out over her as her wetness joined with the natural wetness of the ocean around her.
Willow's hand was moving of its own volition now, all pretense of calm or patience abandoned as her fingers impacted against her inner walls, sending insurmountable pleasure through her body and forcing her to draw air more quickly than she would have liked. She was close now, she could feel it. She continued to send her fingers deeper into herself, her other hand lazily climbing back up her body.
Her moaning, muffled as it was by the regulator, began to grow in intensity. Her breaking point was near, and she only increased her determination. Her hips began to buck violently as she felt her passion explode from her, her self made wetness joining with the natural wetness of the sea.
Feeling herself coming to the breaking point, Tara increased her thrusting, bucking her pelvis to help bring herself closer to climax. She could feel the tidal wave of pressure beginning to form, begging to be unleashed, and suddenly, without any warning, it had. Tara threw herself back into the ocean and moaned in ecstasy as spasm after powerful spasm washed over her.
As Willow began to slowly swim away, her body still tingling in the throes of her orgasm, she realized that she was in no hurry to bring her underwater adventure to a sudden and, she had to admit, pleasurable end. She noted, however, that she didn't want to do it out here in the open where other divers happened along. She looked around for somewhere she could be alone and continue to explore, and spotted an entrance to a cave nearby.
She checked her air supply, found that she had enough to last for quite some time, and made her way to the cave entrance.
As her orgasm subsided, Tara realized that her cry of passion could have alerted the human to her presence and she moved quickly to find if she had been noticed. She was relieved to find, after a few moments, that she was still underwater, though her pleasure at seeing her was soon changed to dread as she saw that her destination was a nearby cave.
Tara knew the cave all too well. It was a superstitious place among her clan, where mermaids had gone and never returned. Her mother had gone several years ago to disprove this theory, and never returned. She didn't know what had happened to her, and those she asked merely said that it was "surface dweller aggression".
Tara hadn't believed that. There was no way that she could. But it didn't help that she still carried a fear about the place. And that the human was now making her way there.
She had been planning to leave to tell the Elders, but she knew that to do so would abandon the human to die. And this was something that, despite her nature, she could not allow. She felt…something for this human, and it just wouldn't allow her to come to harm.
Moving cautiously, and keeping to the coral as much as she could, she kicked her legs and began to follow the human into the cave.
Taking a length of rope from one of the pouches on her buoyancy compensator, Willow wrapped it along the shaft of a nearby piece of coral, and entered the cave, holding onto the rope with her left hand as she swam slowly, her right hand moving down beneath her bikini bottom to one again begin rubbing her sex.
After several minutes, she came to a stop and rested on the ocean floor, sitting cross legged with her back to the cave wall, the tank clanking as it impacted the surface. She let go of the rope in order to free her hand, bringing it up to unzip her wetsuit top the rest of the way, exposing her breasts to the cooled water, her nipples still hard from her earlier teasing. She brought the thumb and forefinger of her left hand up to gently pinch them, the intensity of her touch causing her to squeal each time she did. Her right hand, meanwhile, continued its massage of her precious parts, slowly at first, then more rapidly, two fingers gently inserting to caress herself once more.
Her moans, soft and muffled with her regulator in the way, began to grow in frequency and loudness as the fingers brought her peaks to attention and her sex to a furiously painful wetness just straining for release. She bit down on the regulator's mouthpiece as her hand vibrated faster, her moans increasing in intensity as her orgasm began to build.
After several more seconds, she lost control and began to arch her back; her breaking point reached as wave after wave of intense pleasure was sent through her body. She arched her back again and again, the intensity building, then slowing and finally ceased.
As she began to breathe normally again, she figured that she could probably bring herself to another peak of ecstasy, but she realized that she might not have enough air left. She moved her hand back to the cave wall and began to look for the rope, only to realize that it had disappeared.
"Where did the rope go?" she thought, bubbles nervously pulsing from her lips. "How am I going to get out of here now?"
After a few moments of searching (and failing to find) the rope, she began to panic internally as she realized that she was completely lost in the middle of an ocean cave with no idea how to get back. Every path she could find only seemed to send her deeper into the cave. She should have been aware of this, but her desperation to find a way out blinded her to all other thoughts. The only thing she did think about was how her situation could get any worse.
Then she attempted to take a breath…and didn't draw any air.
Panicking, she reached for her air pressure gauge, and found that it was near empty. "How?!" she panicked. "I had plenty of air. Unless…"
She thought briefly back to her intense orgasm, how her back had arched itself violently…and only now realizing that it must have damaged her tank. She was so intent on trying to find a way to escape that she hadn't realized it…until now.
With blind panic, she began to scramble back the way she had come, hands clawing at the rock around her in a feeble attempt to move faster. She began to feel an intense tightening in her chest, though this time Willow was not pleased about it. Instead, she knew that, unless she found means other than sexual release to make this pressure go away, she would die down here. And no one would know.
Tara had followed the human inside of the cave, after pulling curiously at the piece of rope stuck to the coral near the entrance until she had tugged it completely out. She wondered what it was, but her more immediate problem was to help the human.
As she entered the cave, she was glad that her natural attenuation to the water would her to track her as she moved deeper into the cave. Her empathic senses began to pick up danger, however, and she began to increase her strides.
"I hope she's all right," she thought to herself. She couldn't tell for sure, but a sudden sense of danger ahead didn't help to assuage her fears, so she kicked her legs faster.
She turned left to find the human racing towards her, hand clutched on an oval shaped device over her mouth as she attempted to breathe from it. Tara didn't know what she was doing, but she could tell from her movements that she was panicking about something.
It was then that the human's head looked up at her, emerald green eyes reflected in the mask that she wore. Eyes that quickly widened in fear at the sight of the unknown person in front of her. She backpedaled several feet before realizing that nothing awaited her back there, but realizing that she could go no further, she muffled some sort of exclamation, gesturing wildly to the device she had in her lips.
Tara nodded, knowing that she had to take extra precautions. She gestured with one hand and spoke an ancient chant that would allow the human to fall into a sleep-like trance until she could get her to the surface.
The human looked quizzically at her for a second before falling limp. As Tara moved to collect the human in her arms, she checked to see if she was all right. She was somewhat glad to see that, expect for her inability to breathe (due to the spell sending her into a trance like state), she was all right.
She also noted, with some surprise, how warm the human's skin, where it was exposed, felt against hers. And how much pleasure she found in holding her against her own bare skin. But these feelings would have to wait. She knew that the spell she had cast would not last long, and she would need to take her somewhere she would be safe when she awakened. Flicking her powerful legs and holding onto the human like a long lost treasure, Tara headed back the way she had come, knowing that there was a place nearby where she could tend to her.
And perhaps, if all went well, even learn more about her.
The ocean held many secrets, most of which, quite surprisingly, lay in plain sight for anyone to see. As Tara swam towards the exit of the cave with the human still in her arms, she was more than grateful of that fact, because it meant that there was nowhere in the ocean more safe for the two of them than her secret hiding place. Tara found the small cave when she was a teenager. Its location is very close to the borders of her clans underwater city, and was far enough out of the way for her to be alone, yet close enough to her clan to feel safe. Many was the time she had swam there to think about the greater mysteries of the ocean world: Why she felt so alone, why she could not confide in others her deepest desires and most of all, if there was anyone in the world who she could feel love for.
Her legs kicked fiercely as she sped into the cave, knowing that the spell she enacted would not last long. Tara hoped that it was the spell that had caused her unconsciousness. She didn't want to believe that she had accidentally caused the death of an innocent. She would never be able to explain it to the others. Or forgive herself.
She saw the cave wall above her head vanish and replaced with water. She knew then that she had made it into the cave's air pocket. She headed for the surface, feeling her arms and legs beginning to ache. The weight of this human and of the bulk attached to her slowed her down and caused a rather large drag on her ability to swim.
As Tara broke through the surface of the water, she became aware of another ache. Like the others, it was due to the presence of the human. Unfortunately, this ache was completely different and was more difficult to ignore. Now was not the time for it, though, and she knew it. Better to deal with that problem later, if for no other reason than to ensure the human's continued survival. Once she was awake and breathing, then she could deal with these feelings and their possible ramifications.
Loosening her unnaturally tight grip on the human, Tara slowly dragged her body to a cluster of nearby rocks. Reaching her destination, she gathered all her strength and lifted her up, carefully laying her on top of the smooth surface of one of the rocks. The heavy equipment on her back caused her to nearly topple over, but Tara moved quickly to steady her.
Tara began to remove the 'foreign' materials from the human's body. She first moved to the backpack, struggling a bit with as she tried to remove it. But, not being familiarized with this human's contraption, the task was difficult and time consuming. Tara had no time to waste; this beautiful human's life depended on her figuring out the best way to strip her of this heavy burden. She tested several of the straps, finding ones that, once removed, made it easier to slip off. She continued for several minutes, removing the other equipment and clothing until the human was lying nearly nude in front of her, the only covering she wore the red cloth tied with string.
She was prepared, now. As Tara jackknifed under the water, she swam to a nearby collection of small rocks where she usually kept her medicine bag. Normally she and the others who practiced their magic would only do so with each other and not on their own, but she always knew that an emergency would arise that would require her to be ready, and that it never hurt to have some supplies handy.
Granted, she never would have figured that an emergency to save a human's life would ever present itself.
"If Baji knew I was using my talents to heal a human, I'd probably never hear the end of it," she thought as she began to remove the last rocks covering the hole where she kept her bag.
As she did so, she took a moment to reflect on the form that awaited her in the cave above her, recalling some of the details of that exquisite body. Her long red hair was a shade darker as the cloth that she adorned, framing a face that sparkled with the radiant beauty of a child. Green eyes and small, yet undeniably perfect breasts that had been covered by the strange upper garment she had unzipped during her earlier exploration of her body. Well toned legs and sculpted thighs that, though not as muscular as hers, were smooth to the touch, completely devoid of the scales that covered her own.
The human's most attractive feature, however, was her lips. They were…Tara had no idea how to even begin to describe them. Every time she did she found herself wondering how pleasurable it would be to bring her own lips in contact with the human's and gently press, nibbling then parting them ever so slightly to allow her tongue to enter her mouth and explore deeper.
She also briefly thought about how different they appeared. In addition to the lack of scales, she lacked gill slits. Her hair was short and cropped neatly around her head, contrasting with her long and free floating golden locks. What's more, she had made an effort to keep herself from being nude. That was what she found the most strange about her patient. From what she was doing, it made her appear to be as at home in the ocean as Tara herself did, notable physical differences notwithstanding.
She removed the last rock covering her bag then, and reached forward with one arm to grasp it. She kicked her feet and began to swim back to the surface. Breaking through the calm water, she gently swam over to where the human lay and crawled on all fours onto the rocks, taking several seaweed wrappings from her bag and began to place them across the human's exposed abdomen.
After she placed the final one down, she withdrew a clamshell. Muttering an ancient chant and running her fingers across its surface, the clamshell popped open sending tendrils of mist in the enclosed space, which eventually evaporated in the cave's walls. The clam's juices, contained inside the shell, would aid in bringing the human back to consciousness, by drawing her essence to the surface.
Replacing the shell in her bag, she crawled on her hands and knees, stopping mere inches away from the human's face. Tenderly, she began to anoint her head with the clam's juices, creating tiny intricate patterns, invoking the Gods and Goddess of the sea to watch over their children of the ocean.
As she continued, she began the chant necessary to complete the spell. "Oh Goddess, may your light shine brightly on this visitor from above and show her the way back into my…" She paused, caught herself, and hastily amended, "your warm and waiting embrace. Oh God, let your eternal wisdom allow her to come back from the spirit world so that she will see my…" Again, she caught herself and hastily added, "thy waiting arms."
As her fingers finished tracing the pattern on the human's face, she gently placed them against her lips. She bent forward, gradually parting her own lips and lightly pressed them together. She found herself unwilling to break the kiss, though she knew she must. She had to say the final incantation to complete the spell. She parted lips with the human, gently whimpering as she did.
"Come back to us, gentle maiden from above," she whispered.
Willow felt as if she was floating. Granted, this wasn't a feeling that was strange to her. What did make it strange was how uncomfortable it made her feel. She felt guilty in letting herself get as carried away as she did. She began to realize why her parents didn't want her to become involved in diving, insisting that she could never deal with any dangers that may arise. It was just as glad that they weren't here now, she thought. They'd never let her hear the end of it.
It had really been an experience, though. She had to admit that. She hadn't had a more powerful orgasm since her first time in that public swimming pool all those years ago. She remembered from high school how all the girls giggled and said that they never forgot their first sexual encounter. She never could understand it herself, though after he midnight escapade, she could understand a bit better. And now, she wished she could travel back in time and tell them how wrong they were.
Still, a small tingle of fear gripped her heart with one hand as her excitement gripped it with the other. Regardless of how good it made her feel, she had nearly died. But instead of feeling her lungs fill with water and her body grow cold, she just felt…nothing.
She was surprised to find it was a good nothing. She didn't feel dead, nor did she feel alive. It made her feel…uncomfortable.
"But, hey," she thought. "At least I'm still alive. Or am I? Well, if I were dead, I'd certainly know it. I wouldn't be here overthinking my own mortality if I were dead, now would I? No, no, I'd just be waiting in a big line at the pearly gates waiting for the keys to my permanent suite at the Hotel Heaven…"
Her thoughts trailed off as she became aware of the fact that wherever she was, it was making her feel chilled to the bone. "OK. Good. Cold. Oh, wait. No! Cold! Wait. Feel cold, not cold cold. At least I know I'm cold. That's gotta be good, no matter how grim it sounds."
She also became aware of the fact that someone was speaking to her. Had someone found her body? No, nobody could have found her body. She had made this trip by herself. Nobody knew that she had left. No one knew she was here.
Except…except that strange girl she had seen as she tried to find her way to safety. Thinking back on it now, it must have been the seriousness of the situation that she had found herself in that made her mind play tricks on her. That had to be what it was .She was oxygen deprived and in a heightened state of panic. It must have been the only way to explain what she had seen, because strange looking naked women just don't appear out of nowhere.
Through the darkness surrounding her, she heard a beacon calling to her. And she also felt that beacon pulsing over her body, exploring it gingerly. She had the cautious feeling of many slim, nimble fingers touching her chest, caressing her thighs, teasing her breasts and across her face.
Normally the thought of someone casually exploring her body in this manner would disgust Willow. After all, being touched in naughty places was something she didn't like unless she was the one doing the touching. But what surprised her was that she noted how respectful the touch felt, as if whoever was doing it feared to cause her harm.
She also noted, with a small hint of surprise, that it didn't feel that bad.
"Hello?" She thought, trying to get the attention of the mysterious presence. "I don't know who you are, but I'm a human, not a house of cards! You don't have to be so gentle with the touching." She thought for a moment.
"Then again, soft fingers…soft, nimble fingers…soft, nimble fingers dripping with water…soft, nimble fingers dripping with water across my naked body…"
She felt a grin form on her face. "I changed my mind. Keep with the gentle touching, please!"
Just as her mind was getting accustomed to the feel of sensual touching, the hand moved away. If Willow could find the strength to move, or even whimper, she would have.
"Hey! Get back here with the fingers!"
The thought had barely breezed through her consciousness before the touch came back. Or rather, it was a new touch…in a new place
The touch seemed to set her every nerve aflame, bringing her back into consciousness.
Her eyes popped open without any warning, and was surprised to find, staring back at her, something that could only be described as a dream.
After all, nothing in real life could have been as beautiful.
Emerald green stared deep into ocean blue for what seemed to be an eternity, though it was only seconds. But for the two beings in the cave to which those eyes belonged, time seemed to come to a halt. The lives they had lived until this moment were forgotten, their problems and concerns evaporating into the air and passing through the cave walls.
Willow drew a breath, feeling her strength return as her chest expanded. She noted that the air had a strange tinge to it. Not quite stale, but not fresh either. It didn't feel dangerous, though, and she knew that she could breathe without harm. Of course, she was grateful to be breathing at all, given her near death experience. She continued to stare at the female face in front of her, taking note of her strange features.
"Are those...no. It couldn't be...scales? And wow. What are those? Gills? Must be. She's breathing with them. But what does that mean? Oh, wow. Wow. She must be...a mermaid!?"
A curious child, Willow had often read books about myths and fairy tales, always finding the stories about mermaids to be of particular interest. She also had watched "The Little Mermaid" a lot when she was younger.
Little did Willow know that one day all that reading would bring her face to face with an actual living, breathing, and exquisite creature, a real life mermaid. Though, she had to admit, the beauty in front of her could put Ariel and all her sisters to shame.
She had done a lot of research on her fetish, and she knew that most people found mermaids to be a turn on. Some people even took it to the extreme, and made tails so that they could swim around like one. She never really got that aspect of aquaphilia as much as some other parts. But she had to admit, as she stared into those wonderful blue orbs, that she could see the attraction.
But this wasn't possible. Mermaids didn't actually exist in real life. They were the stuff of fairy tales and children's bedtime stories. And yet...here, she was.
It made her want to rethink her belief that she hadn't died.
A sudden chill passed through her. She craned her head to one side and looked down at her body. Suddenly, she became aware of why she felt so cold. Biting down a squeak, she struggled to get out from under the weight holding her down. She didn't mind being naked, of course. She just didn't want to be naked in front of other people.
Suddenly, the pressure was gone, and she quickly crawled backward until she felt her back impact against the cave wall. Willow paused as she caught her breath, taking a moment to glance quickly around the cave. It didn't appear to be too dangerous, she noted. She spotted her equipment resting near the water, along with her wetsuit and the tank top she had worn underneath it.
Willow also saw the mermaid sitting near the edge of the water, noticing that the creature was as naked as she was. No, not nearly as naked she realized as her fingers brushed down across her abdomen to feel the cloth of her bikini bottom still in place. The mermaid's body was completely exposed, no clothing evident either on her chest or lower body. She also noted the scales that ringed her forehead also covered her fingers and thighs.
Willow took notice of the mermaid's other features. Her mysterious savior had long golden hair that flowed down to the small of her back. She ran her fingers through her own hair, realizing that, while hers was also long, the cut and style must have made it seem rather short to her. Instead of a tail, she had long legs that looked lean and powerful, obviously the result of her aquatic nature. The feet that were at the end of those legs were scaled as well. Her chest was ample, with two of the most perfect breasts she had ever seen.
Willow's gaze lifted to the mermaid's face once again. Her countenance was as beautiful as any she had ever seen; full lips and a cute nose, high cheekbones and prominent but feminine chin that appeared to be chiseled from the finest porcelain.
Their eyes locked again, and Willow was surprised to find that they had taken on a different expression. Where before she had seen hope and joy, now she saw anguish and pain, and what appeared to be...
"Hurt?" Willow thought. "Why would she be..."
She realized then what it was that must have made her rescuer so upset. This beautiful creature had risked her own life to save her own, doing so without any thought of reward or compensation. And what had she done to show her gratitude? Flinched away and given her every reason to make her believe that her help was unwanted.
Not only that, but that she was also somewhat startled by her. While that was true, at first, she found herself starting to warm up to this lovely creature before her. She couldn't explain it. It may have helped that the mermaid didn't appear in any way to be the type that would intentionally harm another person.
Regaining her composure, she raised her hand and waggled her fingers in greeting. "H...h...hi."
The mermaid waved back, though Willow noted that some of the pain in her eyes remained, tinged with a hint of concern and confusion. Willow knew she had to reassure her, but she wasn't entirely sure how she could without making her feel worse.
"Th...th...thank you," she said, cursing herself for stuttering. "For saving my life, I mean."
The mermaid nodded in reply, some of the pain leaving her eyes, though the concern and confusion remained.
"Good," Willow thought. "I've reassured her that I'm all right. Now to let her know about me."
She placed a hand to her chest, the touch sending a shiver through her body. "Willow. My name is Willow."
The mermaid gave a half smile and placed a hand on her own chest, the scales of her fingers glittering in the dim light of the cave. "Tara."
Willow's body shook as the mermaid's voice pierced her heart, sending wave after wave of delight through her nerve endings. The voice was soft and lyrical, yet carried behind it a power that radiated through Willow's skin, sending the cold she had felt away as if it had never been there.
Willow slowly moved back towards Tara, who made no attempt to either move away or resist her advance. In fact, it appeared to her as if she wanted her to approach. Willow was all too happy to comply, though she proceeded with caution, just in case she made a wrong move that would frighten Tara away.
Willow sat down facing Tara. She looked up and gave a small half smile. Being so close, Willow noticed that Tara's eyes had begun to shine with a sense of desire and longing that Willow couldn't place. With a revelation of sorts, it dawned on Willow why she felt so concerned about worrying the beauty that was now mere inches away.
Taking Tara's chin gently in her hand, she slowly brought her face up. "I...I want to thank you for saving my life."
Tara's brow creased slightly, the scales on her forehead rising with the action. "Willow?"
Willow's smile brightened and brought her face closer to Tara's. "I've always been taught to give thanks to those who do something nice to me. Do you really want me to be rude?"
Willow couldn't tell what possessed her to do what she was doing, but she knew that she was drawn to this exotic creature...no, not a creature. This person that was sitting in front of her. It's like what she had learned in high school science class: Two forces with opposite charges would naturally be drawn together.
She wondered, with some curiosity, what was it that drew her to Tara?
Willow's lips inched closer to Tara's, some shock mixing with the excitement she was feeling. On the one hand, Willow thought of how forward her actions must seem to Tara, especially given how they had just met. And especially given that they were, to be blunt, two completely different species. But on the other hand, she couldn't help but feel that it was somehow...right to be doing what she was doing. And a tiny part of her mind couldn't help but think that maybe she was dreaming, or in heaven - after all, did mermaids really exist? For whatever reason, she found that her usual inhibitions and shyness weren't holding her back.
The distance between the two finally closed, and Willow found herself kissing Tara. She noted, with some surprise, that Tara hadn't been caught unaware of her action. Nor had she moved away.
The richness of the kiss surprised her, as well. Willow had often overheard some of the more popular girls in high school talking about how whenever they kissed a boy for the first time, the kiss was usually awkward and passionless. This kiss, however, was different. It felt to her very much like a key being inserted into a lock, or two puzzle pieces being placed together.
After yet another eternity that encompassed seconds, the two parted lips, knowing that neither was the same as they had been before they had exchanged themselves in this fashion.
"So..." Willow began. "You're a mermaid?"
Tara gave a silent nod in acknowledgement.
Willow gave a shy half smile. "Well, you don't look a thing like Ariel." She noticed Tara's brow crease in confusion and quickly added, "I mean...Ariel's a well know mermaid where I come from. And she's got a tail and a beautiful singing voice. Not to say that you don't sing beautifully, too. Because, you know, never heard you sing and all...but I'm sure that you..."
She felt a hand on hers then, and looked down to find Tara's scaly fingers on her wrist. The touch was soft, yet sent a jolt through Willow's spine. She looked up again and heard the most beautiful voice she had ever heard.
Willow had never heard anything quite like it in her entire life. There were no words to the lyrical melody being sung, but the resonance carried in the tones spoke louder than written words could ever convey. It spoke of a friendship between two good friends, of a close relationship between two individuals and a joining together of two souls into one eternal embrace.
Willow sat in silence as Tara continued to sing for her, and found that she was becoming enthralled in what was going on. She found herself being carried away by the voice like a body in a cresting wave, riding along the water of the melody until she came to a rest on the sandbar.
She opened the eyes she didn't realize she had closed as Tara's singing came to an end and smiled. "That was...beautiful."
Tara smiled in return as Willow looked around the cave. "So...is this where you...live?"
Tara tilted her head slightly. "Sometimes. Not always."
Willow turned to face her. "Looks nice." She let out a small sigh.
Tara took notice of her apparent discomfort. "Okay?"
Willow nodded, though the motion did not carry with it the truth that it should have. "I don't know. It's just that...I've always had a thing for water, you know." She turned to look at Tara again. "I guess you would. But at least with those gills you have, you never have to worry about drowning down here. I mean, I never would have come close to drowning if I hadn't lost my rope, but I'm usually more careful than that."
Tara was no longer listening, her thoughts turning inward to when she had pulled the cord from the cave entrance. At the time, she had been curious as to what it was, but she had let the thoughts drift aside in order to save Willow. She now realized that, in addition to saving her, she had nearly been responsible for causing her death in the first place.
The thought brought a wave of shame over her. She had always secretly thought that she could be better than those of her clan and respect all life that entered the sea, whether or not it belonged there. It pained her to know how wrong she had almost been.
Tara felt Willow move away, and looked up to see her approaching the equipment she had left near the water. Willow picked up one of the hoses that came from the backpack and examined it, and then she inspected the tank attached to the backpack.
"Tank's damaged," Willow said without preamble. "I won't be able to get back."
Tara started. "Get back?"
Willow turned to look at her. "What?"
Tara grew anxious and scared. She had finally found someone with whom she might be able to share everything, her one link to the surface world, and she was going to leave her? "What you mean 'get back?'"
Willow looked pained. "Tara...I...I can't...stay..."
Tara's gaze passed down to the rocks in front of her. She knew that it wouldn't last, but she hoped that it wouldn't come so quickly. She was already thinking of how to say goodbye when she felt Willow's hand on her chin. Her head was lifted until she was staring into Willow's eyes.
"I...can't stay," she repeated. "But...but...I'd like to...you know...come back. To visit?"
The pain at thinking she had lost Willow evaporated, and Tara's face brightened. "You...you mean..."
Willow sat down beside her and placed her arms around her waist, bending forward to kiss Tara on the lips again. It was a small, quick kiss, and yet it felt to Tara to be much more. It signified trust...understanding. A promise.
"I mean..." Willow said as their lips parted. "OK?"
Tara's face brightened as she began to cry. "Oh, yes."
Willow raised an arm and wiped away the tears. "I don't know why, Tara, but I feel...close to you...somehow. And...I would like to get to know you...and for you...to know me."
Tara could only sit in silence, not believing what was going on. She could only stare at Willow as she spoke. Knowing that she would see Willow again made her feel happy, as if she could float through the air as easily as she floated through the water.
"I can come back in a few days," Willow continued. "Would you like to meet then?"
Tara nodded enthusiastically. Perhaps a little too enthusiastically, but she didn't care. Something about Willow told her that she would like her regardless of what she did. That didn't mean she would ever tell her how she had been nearly responsible for killing her, however. That was a secret she would never tell.
Willow looked back at her equipment. "I don't know how I'm going to be able to get out of here, though. My air tank got damaged when I..." she paused. She didn't want to admit to Tara, at least not right now, what she was actually doing in the cave. "My tank got damaged. And I can't hold my breath long enough to get back to the surface, especially when I have to drag my equipment with me..."
She felt Tara's hand on her shoulder and turned to find her muttering something in a language she couldn't understand. Willow also noticed that Tara's right arm was extended, two fingers outstretched and close together, a small light emanating from them. She noted that it grew in intensity as Tara continued to speak.
Just as she was about to ask Tara what she was doing, her fingers touched her throat, the light shining brightly around her and enveloping her in what felt like a cocoon, warm tendrils of energy dissipated into her skin and into her trachea. She instinctively began to fight a gag reflex, only to realize that no gag reflex was forthcoming.
Just as quickly as the feeling started, it vanished, leaving her wondering what had happened. A whistle drew her attention to the water, where Tara awaited her, the buoyancy compensator and tank floating beside her. Willow looked down to find her wetsuit, tank top, mask and fins by her feet.
"Coming?" Tara asked, a glint in her eyes and a grin on her face.
Willow sat on the boat, waving goodbye to Tara as she dove under the surface of the water. She couldn't believe what had happened. Tara had somehow given Willow, temporarily at least, the ability to breathe underwater without assistance. For those few brief moments, she had felt what it would be like to be like Tara, gliding through the water without assistance from any complicated diving equipment.
She would have to talk to Tara about how she had done that, but it would have to wait till later. It was getting late, and she had to get back home.
She started up the boat's engine and steered it back towards the docks.
The trip home had been uneventful, but it had given Willow time to think about what had happened. As she took her car down the highway, she thought about how much her life had changed in the past twenty-four hours. She had started the day by taking a relaxing dip in the ocean and hoping to be home long before her roommate and now looked to finish it heading home after an encounter that had left her simultaneously feeling confused and at peace.
And she realized that it never would have happened that way if she had been careless. She was usually more careful during her underwater escapades, planning her adventure down to the smallest detail. But this time things had gone a bit too far, and she knew it. Never before had Willow had to deal with the possibility of drowning. And it wasn't much of an exaggeration to think that she would have died down in that cave had it not been for...
Willow's thoughts drifted, as they had done many times during her trip home, back to the mysterious beauty that had saved her. There were so many unanswered questions she had about Tara. For example, why was she beginning to feel so strongly towards her? She assumed that it was because of her striking beauty. Being used to seeing the naked female form underwater, there was nothing about Tara that Willow hadn't seen before. But that didn't begin to describe her burgeoning feelings. Willow strongly felt that it had something to do with her natural attraction to all things aquatic. There was no other way to explain it.
Willow brought the car around the street corner to the apartment complex where she and Buffy had moved to following high school. It was a modest ten-story apartment situated near the Santa Monica Beach, which made it an easy commute for Buffy, who worked as a lifeguard at the beach during the summer and the nearby indoor pool the rest of the year. Willow worked part time at a number of odd jobs during much of the year, often joining Buffy during the summer as a volunteer lifeguard.
The two had shared a passion for the water ever since high school, but in different ways. Willow preferred the quiet contemplation that came from silently gliding through the water while Buffy had been a competitive swimmer in high school and a member of school's swim team. Willow had been certified for only three years while Buffy had been a certified diver since she was fifteen. Despite their differences, their mutual interest, along with their friendship, had led to their deciding to live together following graduation and to choose their home near the ocean.
Bringing the car into the underground parking lot, Willow shut down the engine, pausing for a moment before opening the door and stepping out. Kicking the door closed behind her, she moved to the trunk, and opened it, taking out the large bundle that comprised her equipment. She left the tank, since it was damaged, she would have to find time to take it to the dive shop and get it serviced.
Walking up to the door, Willow fumbled to take her key card from the pocket of her jeans, withdrawing the small plastic rectangle and swiping it across the reader after a moment. Opening the door and stepping inside the apartment lobby, she walked up to the elevator and pressed the up button. As she waited for the elevator to arrive, she thought of how wonderful it felt to swim in the ocean as freely as she had been able to when Tara had done...whatever it was that she had done. To swim without needing a tank on her back or being dependent on canned oxygen produced feelings in Willow that she couldn't begin to describe. It felt like...magic.
Willow scoffed at the thought. She had a hard time believing that what had happened was because of some magical means. Then again, she also had a hard time believing that there were mermaids in the world, and there was no way she could deny that anymore.
The elevator doors opened with a ding, and she walked inside, pushing the third floor button. As the elevator doors closed, her thoughts drifted back to ocean, and the beautiful being she had encountered there. Her love of the ocean had meant that she had seen a great many strange and exotic underwater creatures in her life, but Tara was one of a kind.
This brought her conflicted feelings for Tara to the surface once again. On the one hand, Tara had saved her life, and that was something for which she would be eternally grateful for. But that couldn't explain what she was feeling. She wouldn't feel the way she did for just anyone who rescued her. Perhaps it was the fact that she was physically attractive. Willow had found other women attractive for quite a long time, but for Tara, her feelings were more...obvious. It could be her exoticness. Thanks to her online escapades, she was used to seeing the naked female form in a variety of environments and situations. But with Tara, it felt as if she was discovering the pleasure of seeing it for the first time.
The elevator came to a stop and the doors opened. She blew out a breath, hefted her gear over her shoulders and stepped off, heading for the apartment door. She set the gear down and reached for the door knob, only to find it turning on its own. She caught her breath as the door opened and the unmistakable shape of her roommate's body emerged from it.
Buffy was apparently as surprised to see Willow as Willow was to see Buffy, as she did a double take. "Will!"
Willow smiled sheepishly. "Hi, Buff. I didn't think you would be home so soon."
"Neither did I," Buffy admitted, running her fingers through her honey colored hair. "But Riley said I could take the rest of the day off since the beach wasn't as crowded as it's been the past couple of days. And a lifeguard doesn't get as many opportunities to take half a day off as some other people do, so I..." It was then that she noticed Willow's baggage and cocked an eyebrow in surprise. "Will?"
Willow felt her face turn the same shade of color as her hair. "Well, I thought that you would be out all day, so I decided to go. You know, I thought that you would be back by the time I was finished, so I didn't really see..."
"That's no excuse, Will," Buffy interrupted. "I know you're not as experienced as I am when it comes to diving, but even that doesn't excuse the fact that you should know better than to dive alone. You should always have someone with you, just in case something happens that you couldn't anticipate."
Willow kept quiet as her best friend admonished her. She was right, of course. And what made the situation worse for her was that she couldn't tell Buffy why she had gone alone in the first place. She was certain that she would freak out, or at least not believe her.
"I know, Buff," she said. "I was...stupid."
Buffy's face softened somewhat, her lips slightly turning in a small smile. "Don't say that, Will. You're one of the smartest people I know. You just need to be careful and have someone with you. You never know what could happen."
"Actually, I have a pretty good idea," Willow thought to herself, an image of Tara once again forming in her mind's eye.
Buffy reached for one of the bags containing Willow's gear. "Come on, let me help you get that stuff inside."
Several minutes later, Willow was sitting on the couch, a cup of hot chocolate in hand. Her thoughts continued to drift back to her encounter with Tara. No matter how hard she tried, the image of that perfect female form continued to coalesce in her brain.
She sighed, wishing that Buffy had stayed to talk to her, but she had decided to go down to the pool to work on her breath holding exercises. She had said that she wanted to improve her technique so that she didn't suddenly run out of air whenever she was in the ocean for long periods of time rescuing drowning victims. Of course, Buffy invited her to come too, thinking that she would enjoy herself. But Willow had decided to stay, saying that she had enough water fun for one day.
She wondered why she felt so afraid that she had been caught with her dive gear, because she knew it had nothing to do with her love of the water. After all, she made no real effort to keep it a secret from Buffy. But there were facets of her fascination she thought she could never share. Of course, as one of many lifeguards at the nearby beach, Buffy was as comfortable and at ease in the water as she was. But Willow couldn't bring herself to talk to anyone about what she felt when she was in the water. Not even her best friend.
"I wonder, though," she thought. "I mean, Buffy's a big water fan. Maybe she...I don't know. Maybe I should find out. But how could I ask her that? 'Hello, Buffy? Ever play with yourself in the ocean?' Bet she'd give me one of her patented 'what the hell' stares and toss me out on my rear."
Willow sighed again and placed the cup down on the table, shifting her weight as she moved her feet to rest beside it. As she settled into her new position, her thoughts once again turned to Tara. What was it that made even the most fleeting thought Willow had about her something to look forward to as others looked forward to the morning sunlight or a fresh cup of coffee?
She figured the only way to find out was to fall back on an old habit: good old fashioned research.
Willow sat up and moved to the nearby computer. As she turned it on and waited for it boot up, she thought about what made Tara different than the mermaids she was used to seeing. "Well, for starters, she has legs," she thought. "And what a set of legs. Wow. They just went on forever and....The frilly heck?! Where did that come from?!"
As the login screen appeared on the monitor, Willow typed in her name and password, thankful that Buffy had agreed to put separate accounts on it when they bought it. It made keeping things she didn't want her roommate to find out about easier than having to delete the contents of the cookies and history folders every time she used it.
The desktop appeared and Willow dragged the mouse over to the Internet icon. Double clicking on it, she watched as the web page loaded up. Moving the mouse over to the Favorites tab, she dragged the icon down to the folder containing the aquaphilia- related websites she had discovered over the years. One of them, the first she had found shortly after her pool experience and had checked nearly every day following, was devoted to mermaids. She had found other websites since that broadened and expanded her horizons, but she kept that one bookmarked.
Until now, she couldn't figure out why. But she figured that now was the time to pay it a long overdue visit.
Clicking the link, Willow watched as the page appeared on the monitor. The dominant picture of the website featured a mermaid with long flowing red hair and an ample chest laying on a series of rocks, her scaled tail slightly upraised and swinging in the breeze. On her face was a smile that could melt the heart of anyone who looked at her. It had certainly melted Willow's the moment she laid eyes on it. In fact, with the red hair and killer smile, she often had wondered if that she was that mermaid in a previous life and had captured her image for all the world to see. The site also had a section devoted to the history of mermaids, which she moved the mouse icon to and clicked.
Willow absorbed the information contained within with interest, which included a rather interesting piece of information. The first mermaid myths had been born out of an old legend where an ancient goddess that had taken on the attributes of a fish after killing a mortal whom she had fallen in love. That particular passage made Willow pause, as it was somewhat similar to the situation that she had found herself in. She had been near death, but was saved by Tara. It made Willow wonder even more about her strengthening emotional connection to her rescuer.
In addition, the site also mentioned the role that the mermaid had played in popular culture. The most obvious one was, of course, "The Little Mermaid". Willow smiled as she recalled the many Saturday afternoons that she had spent watching Ariel swim through the ocean in search of her one true love. She let out a sigh. Ever since she had discovered her dual nature of being a lover of the water and the female form, she had often pretended that she could be like Ariel, swimming through the ocean and looking for someone to love. Getting certified as a diver was the closest she could get to feeling that, and the fact that she did it without her parent's knowledge or acceptance made her feel isolated. Being friends with Buffy had blunted that somewhat, but the fact that she never explained to her just what it was about the water that made her feel the way that it did meant that she was never as comfortable about herself and her hobby as she would have liked.
Willow knew that their love of the water was mutual. What set them apart was how specific their love went. While Buffy was drawn to the water out of a desire for exploration and to save lives, Willow was more sexually charged about all of its aspects. To her, there was nothing more exciting than swimming in a lake or ocean on a quiet Saturday morning or sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool and bringing herself to climax the likes of which she had never felt before. And to her, there was no difference between the two.
Willow thoughts turned ever so briefly from Tara to one of the times that she and Buffy had decided to go diving together. It had been two years ago when Buffy had first gotten the lifeguard job and had decided to celebrate by joining some of the other lifeguards on an open water dive the following weekend. After much cajoling, Willow had decided to go with her, mostly because of her desire not to bring Buffy down from the emotional high she was on about getting the job.
She remembered how excited Buffy had been that day. The prospect of spending the day in the water was clearly something that she had been looking forward too. Willow knew from high school how much Buffy enjoyed the water, but that had been the first time that she had known how personal she felt about it. Buffy had told Willow afterward how much of a thrill it had been to be in the water with others who shared their passion and love for the aquatic life. Willow couldn't help but agree with her, even though she knew that they were on two completely different tracks.
Shutting down the computer and moving to close the window, Willow stepped to the table and picked up the glass of hot chocolate, finishing off the last of it in one sip. As the liquid traveled down her throat, she felt the warmth pass through her body, revitalizing her after her ordeal. As much as it stimulated her senses, it was nothing compared to whatever magical spell Tara had done to bring her back to the land of the living.
Willow's brow creased in thought, wondering why her thoughts continued to drift back to Tara when thinking about even the most inconsequential things. It made her think about her sanity. People who spent time obsessing about a single thing were never considered to be of sound mental health. Then again, there were things that one could focus on that could be of a positive nature to one's emotional well being. And Willow quickly realized that Tara would end up becoming something that would make her feel a whole lot better. Not only about what had happened, but also about herself and her secrets. Willow didn't know how she knew, but she felt like she could open up to Tara about her life in ways that she couldn't to anyone else.
After washing the cup and placing it back in the cupboard, Willow moved to her bedroom, lying down on the queen sized mattress and stretching her arms and legs out as far as they would go. Bending her wrists and ankles and flexing her toes and fingers, she realized that knowing how good it felt to move her extremities helped a great deal to alleviate her dread at having almost died.
As Willow closed her eyes, her thoughts suddenly shifted from Tara to what she had done earlier today. She had read a lot of stories on the Internet that tended to glamorize sexual experiences like hers. But reading about something and experiencing it yourself were two completely different things. And she knew that, despite having the most powerful underwater orgasm she ever had, it also nearly led to her death.
Willow felt conflicted about the situation. It was unlike anything she had experienced before, and she most definitely wanted to experience it again. But not when it meant nearly killing herself. Perhaps, with Tara...
The thought snapped Willow's eyes open. She wasn't seriously thinking about this, was she? Making love to someone like Tara? Someone who, despite her burgeoning feelings and curiosity, was as much an alien to her as she was to Tara? Besides, she didn't even know if Tara felt the same way. She had seemed so upset when she said that she had to leave, but that could have meant anything.
Willow let out a yawn, and realized that these mysteries would have to wait. She was too tired right now to think about anything. She sat up and took off her tank top, exposing her chest to the chilled air around her. She followed this by unbuttoning her jeans and slipping her legs through them, gathering them up and placing them down on the floor beside the bed.
As Willow moved to get under the sheets, she took a moment to glance down at her body, clad in a matching cotton bra and panty set. She normally kept them on when she went to sleep in addition to an undershirt on the odd night that she figured she would engage in what Buffy so eloquently dubbed "fridge bingeing". Sleeping in the nude was usually the last thing she had on her mind. But after a day full of risky actions on her part and surprising discoveries, what was the harm of doing one more potentially silly thing?
After all, she figured, it wasn't like it would kill her or anything.
Willow stood up and reached behind her back, her fingers working on the clasp holding the cotton bra she wore in place. After several seconds, she had the undergarment unhooked. Pulling the straps down and working her arms through them, she placed it on the floor near her nightstand. Her fingers then drifted to the waistband of her panties. Slowly tugging them down her legs and over her feet, she dropped them on the floor near the nightstand as well.
Willow sat down on the bed as exposed as the day God made her, the cool air breezing through the nearby window running across her body sending a spasm through her spine and nervous system. She couldn't help but admit that it was quite an arousing feeling. Slipping between the sheets, she shifted her weight in order to get comfortable. All the while, she fought the building urge to close her eyes and drift to sleep. She wanted to be comfortable when she fell asleep, otherwise she would wake up more cranky than she usually did.
Her efforts were interrupted when an image formed in the darkness of her mind. Willow was not overly surprised to find that it was the gloriously nude form of Tara, lying on the rocks of the cavern where she had been brought back to consciousness. Her arms were tucked behind her head, the scales on which highlighted the crystal blue of her eyes. Both sparkled with an intensity and passion that rivaled the stars themselves.
What drew her the most, however, was the smile on Tara's lips. That crooked almost half smile caused Willow's stomach to do flip-flops, zigzags, barrel rolls and every other type of movement possible. Just one look at that quirky smile made her weak enough to lower her defenses and have the need to sleep overpower her desire to remain awake.
With a final yawn, Willow closed her eyes and allowed herself to be sent off on her nightly journey to an euphoric state of bliss.
As easily as the sea water plankton drifted in the ocean currents, so too did Tara's mind drift back to her encounter with Willow. It certainly had been a life-altering change for her. But as much as she felt excited about having met and struck up an apparent friendship with a human, it also gave her pause. She had used magic to help Willow, and by doing so had broken one of the cardinal rules that she had been taught while growing up. Tara kept telling herself that it had been the right thing to do. Regardless of how her people felt about humans, she just could not allow her to die, especially since Willow had become trapped and could not find her way out on her own.
That too had given her much to think about. If Willow had gotten lost on her own, it would be easier for Tara to justify her actions. But she had been responsible for putting Willow in danger in the first place. And that, more than anything else, made how she felt conflicted. She was told to distrust and leave humans alone, believing them to be a disease that would infest the ocean. And yet, she could not see how damaging they, and Willow in particular, could be to their society. If anything, her actions made Tara believe that she was born to live her life in the ocean.
Tara's thoughts turned briefly towards how magic had come to exist for the mermaids. It certainly was a rare talent, and there were few not only in her own clan but throughout the entire mermaid race that could wield the power that she could. Even those few would never fully realize the untapped potential that they possessed. Those clans whose members carried the potential for magical talent also had a mage who taught those few adepts how to use their craft for the betterment of the ocean.
Tara had often questioned what "betterment of the ocean" meant. Obviously it meant preserving the purity of the ocean as much as could be possible, but how did it apply to others? Mermaids often feasted on the fish that they shared the ocean with. Clearly they were not above the need to preserve the integrity of the clans. And what of humans? That was a question she had long thought about, ever since she first learned that they often came beneath the surface of the ocean. They shared obvious qualities, such as a family structure and a need to explore, but there was nothing that signified a lasting connection between the two.
She herself had no real connections. Ever since the death of her mother, Tara had been raised by her father, who had disowned her when she was twenty years old because she reminded him too much of the woman who had been his wife. Tara was not overly sad, as he had not treated her well even before her the death of the woman he claimed to love. Since that time, Baji, the elder Mage of her clan, had been responsible for her upbringing. She treated Tara in every way much like her own child, looking out for Tara's best interests, making sure that she was needed, comforted her in times of woe and provided a shoulder to cry on. In addition, she also taught her the fundamentals of magic and how every incident had a consequence on the ocean around them. Or, as Baji had put it, "every stone thrown in the ocean, even in the most inconsequential ways, affects the world around it."
One of the lessons she had taught Tara was that she should never use the Craft on humans. She knew that Baji was one of the few in the clan who held no ill will towards the surface dwellers and made no secret of it, which had caused her to become the object of suspicion and ridicule. But she also knew that it would be dangerous to approach them and make them aware of the mermaid presence in the ocean, as it had the potential to bring down disaster on them all. That was a point that she had driven home to Tara on many occasions.
It was because she knew that Baji would understand what she did that Tara traveled to her now, in order to seek the guidance and comfort that Tara knew she could not provide herself.
Tara's thoughts turned once again to Willow, and she found herself thinking how beautiful she looked. Her red hair looked long, but compared to hers, was rather short. Willow's face was, even in her unconscious state, a sight to behold. As for the rest of her body, it was certainly attractive, even if it was…different. It frightened Tara that she found herself attracted to Willow, even on a subconscious level.
She had to be comforted. And she knew that there was only one person who could ease her mind.
On the outskirts of her clan's colony was a makeshift dwelling composed of several large stones supporting a flat disc that served as the roof of the structure, the whole of which thrummed with the magic that was holding it together against the ocean current. This was where Baji lived when she wasn't required by tradition to participate in the affairs of the clan. Tara was one of the select few who could come to her private sanctum without fear of reprisal.
Tara found Baji meditating outside the small hut. The long silver hair that was her most prominent feature flowed from her head out into the ocean in all directions. Her legs were crossed and she was humming a chant that Tara knew was meant to cleanse the spirit and revitalize her soul. The fact that it was so similar to what she had done to Willow made her ill at ease, as if the one person who could understand her already knew why she was coming.
As Baji's eyes opened, Tara grew relieved as the older mermaid's face broke out in surprise, signifying that she had not been aware of her approach. "Tara. My dear, sweet child. How are you?"
"Fine, Master Healer," Tara responded in the way that was proper to address someone of Baji's standing. Although she was rather unconventional, she still held onto the basic traditions of her clan, and she didn't want to be disrespectful.
Baji smiled. "Please, Tara. There is no need to be so formal. I know it is in your nature. But out here, where it is just the two of us, let us drop tradition, if only for a little while."
Tara sighed as she kicked her feet to approach Baji as the elder mermaid moved to sit down in a more comfortable position. "Speak, child. I sense that something troubles you."
Tara knew that she couldn't try to keep what she had done a secret, especially not from Baji. So she told the elder mermaid everything. How she had encountered Willow, how she had endangered her life, how she had brought her back and the promise Willow had made to come back. Despite this, however, she did keep from Baji the fact that she was beginning to feel something for Willow. Tara didn't know how long she could, but she figured that it would be for the best to keep it quiet as long as she could until she had a chance to sort it out for herself.
As Tara finished her tale, she looked into Baji's face, and was not at all surprised to find her looking back at her with a disappointed expression. "Tara, I've told you before…"
"I know, I know," Tara sighed, shifting rather uncomfortably as her best friend and teacher began the disciplinarian speech that she had been expecting. The fact that she knew that it was coming made it all the more difficult to endure. "But I couldn't help it. I was curious about her. You know how I am. I tend to get rather…possessive about that which I find curious. And I nearly caused her to die! I had to do something to help her. I owed it to myself to make sure that she lived…and that I…"
Tara trailed off and sniffled, fighting and losing the battle to keep herself from crying. The emotional way she said those words was mainly due to her attraction to Willow, which would not let anyone, not even the one she respected most, speak any ill will of her. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to look at Baji, whose face had softened somewhat, no longer looking at her with disapproving eyes.
"I know how you feel, Tara," she said, her tone of voice telling Tara that she did indeed understand what it was that Tara was going through, and not simply saying that it would be better for her own comfort. "I know that you feel that we are unnaturally cruel to the humans, and that you wish to prove yourself better than those who feel that way. But you should know that to interfere with the affairs of humans directly."
Tara held her head, accepting the mild dressing down. She wasn't aware of which incident of interference Baji was referring to, but she had the feeling that it didn't matter. "Yes."
"And do you know why?"
Tara nodded as Baji held out her hand, palm facing forward. A light began to shine from the center of the palm, growing slowly as she began to move her hand, using the light to transform the water in front of her into a reflective surface upon which played one of the many stories she had been taught to convey in this manner.
The story of how humans and mermaids had come to separate.
Baji began to narrate the story being shown out in front of them. "A long time ago, child, there was a human male who traveled into our underwater kingdom. Most of our clan was indifferent to the intrusion, with the exception of one."
The image of a beautiful mermaid appeared a perfect vision of loveliness with skin bronzed by the sun and shoulder length brunette hair. Unlike either Tara or Baji, this mermaid had a tail, which was covered in beautiful green and purple scales.
"Lorelei was the mother," Baji continued. "The first. The one who gave birth to our race as it exists today. She fell in love with the human. And, in a desire to learn more about him, performed the Spell of Transformation."
Tara watched as Lorelei began to chant a spell. She recognized several of the incantations, but was unfamiliar with much of the spoken word, most likely being an archaic form of language she didn't understand. Tara watched in astonishment as concentric rings appeared and slowly enveloped Lorelei's tail until it was replaced by two powerfully muscled legs. Tara also noted that the scales from her tail were now sprouted from various areas on her body, including heavy concentrations on her forehead and feet.
"Yes, Tara," Baji said as she noticed Tara's shocked expression. "She became half human, retaining all of her aquatic tendencies, but appeared in all other aspects to be human. It was then that she then set out to meet this male, encountering him near the Forbidden Cave."
Tara stared in amazement. She had always wondered what incident caused the intense distrust between mermaid and human, and she knew that it had to do with that cave. But what connection could it possibly share?
Then it hit her. There could be only one answer. There was only one thing that could irrevocably alter the balance of the sea.
"I'm afraid so."
The reflective surface once again showed the nude body of Lorelei, this time with the equally nude form of a human male with short dark hair, a beard and a powerful build. And the two…
Tara gasped. She had known that it was coming, and had done her best to be mentally prepared for it. But hearing about an incident and actually seeing it occur were two separate things. She realized that the pair must have been deeply in love for them to have committed that action. Tara quietly sympathized with them, knowing how it felt to love someone who was not her own kind.
Baji continued her narrative. "When the Elders found out, they were furious. They assumed that the human had come from the surface to corrupt us. The fact that one of their own could so easily be taken in under his charms showed how dangerous he could be. So the next time he came underwater, the Elders ordered their strongest warriors to…"
Baji fell silent, and Tara nodded in understanding, her eyes a mixture of deep thought and profound sadness. The Elders had seen the human as a contaminant and feared that he was merely the first of a supposed invasion from above, so they had killed him. It made her sick to her stomach. The pair was obviously in love, and could have been the first step in a successful merging of their divergent worlds. And their love had been repaid by those who could have accepted it with nothing but suspicion, fear and outright hatred, even to the point where they had been forced to kill, all in the name of preserving their way of life.
It made her ill. The Elders preached not to upset the delicate balance of the sea, but saw no qualms about doing it if it meant preserving their secrets. Could they not understand that in order to survive, all things must live in harmony?
"What happened to Lorelei?"
Baji's eyes grew said. "It was felt that her acts warranted her banishment from the clan. And in order to ensure that she could never do again what she had done, the Elders arranged for her to be killed. Unfortunately, there were…complications."
Baji pointed to the reflective surface, which was now showing an image of Lorelei, whose appearance no longer matched the strong nubile aquatic beauty that Tara had first seen, now appearing instead to be very much with child.
"The Elders decided that they could not harm Lorelei for fear of harming the child. They decreed that, though born through illicit circumstances, the child was an innocent in the whole affair. So the Elders declared that Lorelei was allowed to live only until the child was born. After which, in order to hide the child's birthright, she was immediately put to death."
"But how did they explain his heritage to him?" Tara asked. "They could not keep such a secret from him."
Baji's head tilted slightly. "Indeed, Tara. But they could not tell it of the circumstances of its birth. Therefore, the Elders enacted the Spell of Transformation on our entire clan, remaking all of us in the image of that which we now despised the most."
Tara couldn't believe it. Understanding finally hit her brain like the crest of a wave. Despite all that they had done, an apparent contaminant had been introduced into their society, and in order to keep it secret, the entire clan underwent a dramatic change into that which they had hoped to keep buried forever. No wonder they came to loathe humanity.
"And…and that's why…" She paused as a sudden thought struck her. Her mother had died under mysterious circumstances after preaching that the dangers of the Forbidden Cave were little more than lies. Her desire to show this to the clan and her eventual murder seemed less than coincidental. "Did…did…did they also…kill my moth…?"
"I do not know," Baji sighed. "Your mother was an intensely private individual. She did not share to me all of her secrets. I would not put it past her, however. She had a curious streak about her." Baji gave a soft smile. "One that you seem to share."
Tara returned the smile. Her teacher's approval remained unspoken, but it was indeed present. It meant that she was free to explore her feeling for Willow without regret. "So you wouldn't be upset if I went…if she came back…"
"No, Tara," Baji replied. "You are old enough to make these kind of suggestions for yourself. I shall not pretend that I can tell you not to see this human again and expect you to follow my wishes. If you wish to see her again, that is up to you." She gestured with her hand, and the reflective surface disappeared, changing back into water. "It is late, child. Perhaps you should return home."
Tara nodded and got up as Baji got up from her cross legged position and moved to swim inside her private cave. As she reached the entrance, she turned to face Tara. "But I would suggest that you tell her about your involvement in her near death experience. It is not a good thing to keep secrets from other people. Not even humans."
Tara watched with growing sadness as Baji retreated into her home. Her friend had effectively killed the elated feelings she had. Baji told her that she could make the decision to see Willow again on her own without fear of her reprisal, but at the cost of having to tell Willow that she had accidentally killed her. It did not set well with her, as she didn't know how Willow would react if she realized that the reason for her salvation was also the reason for her near death experience. And what if others were to find out? Not all of her clan was as accepting of humans as Baji was, and she couldn't bear the mark of being branded a human lover.
As much as Tara knew it would be a problem, she also knew it was one that was not likely to happen. For all she knew, Willow was not coming back, and she merely said that in order to get away from her.
Still…the kiss…and the promise…perhaps there could be happiness there. Tara owed it to herself to try and find out, if for no other reason than to soothe her conscience. And she owed it to Lorelei, who had once had a chance to merge the two races. If she could do this, she could bring about a whole new change in their society.
And Tara could finally be with someone who shared her passions. There was indeed something about Willow told her that she was someone who was as like minded as she was: respectful, kind, courteous and gentle to everyone. Her activities before the incident in the cave also indicated that she held a special kind of love for the water, one that gave Tara hope that Willow would return to her.
Turning around, Tara began to swim home, knowing that Willow would be very much on her mind the rest of the night. And perhaps, just perhaps, for a long time to come.
Willow was underwater, wearing neither diving equipment nor clothing. She was also drowning, thrown overboard by some mysterious assailants for no obvious reason other than to gain some sort of sick pleasure in watching her struggle and drown. She tried to free her wrists, which were chained together and to the ship's anchor, but had no luck in loosening their death grip. Her lungs burned as she struggled to hold her breath. She knew that she couldn't hold on forever, and that she was going to die.
And suddenly, from the murky depths of the sea, a figure emerged.
Continuing to struggle to hold her breath, Willow saw the shape move towards her, transforming into a gloriously beautiful woman with long blonde hair and ocean blue eyes that, even now, tinged with fear.
It was Tara.
Thankful that someone was coming to her rescue, Willow began to moan and jerk her head, attempting to tell Tara of her predicament and to release her. The act caused Willow to involuntarily blow a burst of air directly into Tara's face. This startled her rescuer for a moment, but then she moved to one side and proceeded to work on the chains, trying to force them open.
As Tara did this, Willow could feel the energy slowly seep out of her body, knowing that her struggling had expended her a great deal. She could no longer fight the urge to breathe, and so she did. The act caused her to convulse as a large amount of water traveled down her throat. She spasmed, closed her eyes and began to gag…
And felt a pressure on her lips, one that caused the pain in her chest to ease. She opened her eyes…
And found Tara's face in front of her again, delivering a deep, thorough and emotional kiss.
Willow was surprised by this, as she had thought that Tara would be freeing her. What she was even more surprised to discover was that her drowning spasms began to cease, the pressure on her chest and lungs easing and her mind growing clearer.
Willow took a breath, and was surprised to find her lungs filling with oxygen. She looked at Tara, who was floating in front of her, as if waiting for something.
She gave the only response she could think of. "Thank you," she mouthed.
Tara smiled, then raised one scale covered finger to point at her right eye, then brought her arms up to her chest. She finished her movements by pointing at Willow, then swimming back to finish untying Willow from her prison.
Willow had understood at once what it was that Tara had told her.
"I love you, too…"
Through the sheets, Willow could feel the early morning sunrise wash over her with the cleansing action of the midmorning tide. Still, she was not completely ready to wake up from her state of unconsciousness; the images that had been playing across her mind's eye too temping to let slip away without a challenge.
But, as she opened her eyes, they did.
Sitting up, Willow turned to look out the window. The sun was rising in the sky, but with the ocean so close by, it was not as humid as she thought it would be. The street was relatively clear now, but by midday, they would most likely be filled with tourists.
"Well," she thought. "Time to get up and join the real world."
Untangling herself from the wadded sheets, she got up and headed for the shower, taking the time to wrap a robe around herself and tie the sash. With the possibility of being spotted by Buffy, the time for casual nudity was, rather sadly, over.
Ten minutes later, Willow emerged from the bathroom, still wearing the robe, though she now wore a fresh pair of underwear underneath it. After she had something to eat, she would get dressed. Heading into the kitchen, she prepared to make some breakfast and paused as she noticed a note taped to the fridge door.
I've gone to work. Drop by if you're not too busy.
Willow sighed as she took out the milk and put the container on the counter. Should she take Buffy up on her offer? It wasn't like she had a great deal to do, she figured. And perhaps it would help to clear her head in regards to Tara to be around others, especially at the ocean. It was too public a place to get away with thinking…
Willow paused, as she couldn't quite explain what exactly it was she was thinking about. Ever since she discovered this side of herself, she often had erotic dreams of that nature. She always figured that it was a means of playing out her private fantasies in a way that neither endangered her life nor let her secret out, but this was the first time it had affected her as deeply as it had. It combined the two things about the previous day that were of vital importance: nearly drowning to death and meeting Tara.
As she took the cereal out of the cupboards, Willow couldn't help but think a lot about how the two were related somehow and briefly about, despite how absurd the notion was, she couldn't help but think how much it made sense. It certainly didn't help that Tara was the only one to be near her when she began her panic attack.
She slouched back into the chair, lost in her own thoughts. She quickly became aware of the fact that she was no longer as hungry as she thought she was, and moved to clean up.
Ten minutes later, after a trip to the dive shop to get her tank fixed, Willow was walking down the street towards the beach, the late morning temperature allowing her to wear a tank top, shorts and flip flops. She carried a folding chair in one hand and had her laptop case slung over her shoulder. Her body may have been on land, but her mind was far away, deep in the ocean depths, searching for the mysterious blonde to whom she owed her life.
Willow was beginning to wonder about her sanity. Even though what had happened was traumatic, she knew that, after such a time, most people would eventually look past what happened and continue with their lives. The fact that Tara was beginning to dominate her thoughts every waking moment, and even her non-waking moments, told her that she was beginning to obsess about her situation. Her mother would no doubt say that it was because of some "deep rooted desire to prove one's limits" or some other psychological technobabble.
She suddenly felt her feet go from slapping unforgiving concrete to shifting sand, and grimaced as the finely grained particles invaded the openness of her shoes. Slipping out of them and reaching down to pick them up, she walked over to the nearby lifeguard station, where she could easily spot the figure of her friend leaning against the wooden railing.
Willow couldn't help but smile. Buffy wasn't one that others would consider to be the "bubbly blonde" type, at least not in private where Willow was the only one to see her as she truly was. But when it came to her duties as part of Los Angeles' lifeguards, she completely radiated the image of the "All-American Girl", the red one piece lifeguard swimsuit and blonde hair evoking the well known image of Pamela Anderson from "Baywatch".
"At least Buffy doesn't have large…floatation devices," Willow thought, slightly blushing.
She also became aware of the fact that there was a second person with her friend, this one also clad in the one piece red swimsuit that signified her status as a lifeguard. But aside from that, she was the complete opposite of her best friend. Whereas Buffy was blonde, this person was a brunette. Whereas Buffy's eyes were unassuming and kind, the brunette's eyes were dark and mysterious. And while Buffy held herself in a position of quiet reservation, ready to spring into action at a moment's notice, this other person seemed more laid back and casual.
There was something about her that Willow didn't like.
The brunette whispered something to Buffy, who turned her head to look at Willow. "Hey, Will."
Willow waved back. "Hey." She glanced at the brunette. "Who's the newbie?"
Buffy turned back to the brunette. "Faith, this is Willow. Willow, Faith."
Faith's face broke out into a smile that, as far as Willow could tell, looked as forced as one could imagine. "Hey."
Willow did the polite thing and smiled back.
Buffy turned to look at Faith. "Mind keeping an eye on things for a bit?"
Faith shook her head. "No problem, B."
Buffy nodded and walked down the ramp, coming to stand beside Willow, who had put her laptop case down and was setting up the folding chair. "How you doing, Will?"
"Fine," Willow replied absently, sitting down and shifting her position in an attempt to get comfortable. "Looks like you've got someone new."
Buffy looked up to see Faith looking out into the ocean with a pair of binoculars. "Faith? Yeah, she's new. She just transferred here from Hermosa. She said she was looking to go where the action is, though if you ask me, she might want to be looking for another kind of action."
Willow creased her brow. "You mean…"
"If she's gay?" Buffy finished. "I don't know, Will. Why? You think she's cute?"
Willow wished her hair was longer than it was, as she could easily hide behind it. She was a rather secretive person, and didn't let other people know too much about her. But since she and Buffy were such good friends, being secretive wasn't much of an option. So she had decided, as their senior year was coming to an end, that she was sexually tilted in favor of the opposite sex.
Buffy was understandably shocked about this, but it passed rather quickly. Even more, she insisted on escorting Willow to both the prom and after-grad party. People had looked, and even more snickered, but Buffy didn't care. She was not prepared to let anyone ruin Willow's special night.
It pained Willow to think about it. Not only because she thought it made Buffy, (who was rather popular despite her tendency to hang around the social outcasts) the object of undeserved ridicule, but also because she had kept the fact that her aquaphilia fetish played a major role in the swerve her sexual slant had taken a secret. It made her friendship with Buffy one that was based on hiding her true self from the one person Willow believed could understand her the most, something that had broken her heart.
It was then that she became aware of the fact that Buffy was talking again, her gaze looking out at the ocean and the large waves that were beginning to form. "Looks pretty nasty out there today."
Willow shifted in the chair, her gaze fully locked on the sand below. "Yeah."
"Could see some killer surfing action," Buffy added, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the sun.
Willow absently nodded as she once again shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah."
Buffy turned to look at her best friend, hands firmly planted on hips and noting the lack of enthusiasm in Willow's voice. "And my suit's riding up my backside something fierce."
Willow nodded. "I guess."
Jerking her head up rather suddenly, and silently thanking herself for not suffering whiplash, she looked up into Buffy's face, her eyes slightly glazed over. "Yeah?"
Buffy decided that she had to choose her next words carefully. From how her best friend acted, she seemed rather hurt. No doubt this was due to her well meaning, though rather harsh, words of advice the previous day. The last thing she wanted was to upset Willow any further. "You're…not upset with me, are you? About last night, I mean."
Willow smiled softly. "No, Buff. I'm just…"
Buffy smirked. "Living life at ludicrous speed?"
"You know me," Willow quipped. "I'm as comfortable in space as I am under water."
Buffy chuckled, moving to sit down beside Willow as she looked out into the ocean with a sigh. "I couldn't be like that. Give me the cool relaxing ocean over the stress of life any day."
Willow's ears perked up at this, as it gave her some hope that she could talk to Buffy about her love of water. She tried to open her mouth to form the words, but couldn't bring herself to say anything. Aside from the fact that it would sound crazy, she wanted to keep what happened yesterday, especially Tara, a secret. She wasn't entirely sure why, though. All she knew was that she wanted Tara for herself, which in and of itself was surprising.
And yet, it made sense, after a fashion.
Looking up, she saw Faith talking into a walkie-talkie. The look on her face was grim, and it made Willow's stomach tense up.
Switching off the walkie-talkie, she shouted, "Hey, B! Riley wants to talk to you. He says it's important."
Buffy got up, thumbs moving to straighten out the bottom of her swimsuit. "Sorry, Will. Riley wouldn't call me in unless it was important. I can't stay and talk some more."
"It's OK, Buff," Willow sighed, hoping that the act didn't make her disappointment that obvious. "You've got your responsibilities. Can't have little old Willow drag down your day."
Buffy looked down at Willow, bringing her hand down to reach for Willow's chin, slowly raising it until her friend's eyes met hers. Once she was sure she had Willow's attention, she said, "Look, Will. I'll talk to Riley. I'll see if I can get him to get Faith to cover the rest of my shift so I can get off early. And tonight, we'll head out somewhere, just the two of us. We'll go do anything you want. And I'll pay for everything."
Willow looked confused. "Buff, don't do this just because you feel guilty about…"
"But that's not the reason," Buffy insisted. At Willow's glare, she muttered, "OK, it is. But can you blame me? I mean, we've been friends since high school. We've done everything you can imagine together. I'd kinda hate to let something like what happened last night drive a wedge between us."
Willow could see Buffy's point. Even in high school, the blonde had acted like a mother figure, standing up for those who couldn't stand up for themselves. That, along with her love of water, had made Willow think that her friend's career choice was not as surprising as some others made it out to be. And one of her enduring qualities was that whenever she thought she had done one of her friends wrong, she would go to whatever lengths were necessary in order to make that friend happy again.
Buffy was obviously feeling upset about what she had said last night, or if not that, then at least the manner in which she had sent it. It was something that she felt trapped under, and just wouldn't feel better until she found a way to make it up to them.
That left Willow with only one option. "Sure, Buff. Tonight it will be just us girls."
Buffy gave Willow her patented smile. "Great." She turned to head off down the beach. "I'll be back in a bit."
Willow watched her go for a moment before turning her gaze back out into the ocean, the waves cresting onto the beach with a thunderous roar before settling into a gentle trill. Her thoughts turned once again of Tara and how much she had enjoyed swimming in the ocean freely. It was a wonderful feeling. And there was something about doing it with Tara made it all the more special.
Reaching down to pick up her laptop case, Willow opened it and pulled out the machine. She figured she could get in some more research before Buffy came back. It would help to keep her mind off the stunning mermaid.
Though for how long, she couldn't quite tell.
Inside her private cave, Tara floated above the water, her fingers and toes flexing as she stretched out to her full length. She had been here ever since she had first awakened. That had been almost six hours ago. It didn't matter. Even if she had to wait six hours or six years, she would come here everyday and wait until she saw Willow again. She would find a way to explain everything to her.
Even if it meant telling her how much her rescuer was also responsible for nearly causing her to die.
Tara had been wondering how Willow would react to that information. From what she had told her, Willow had held herself responsible for what had happened, though she didn't indicate how exactly she had managed to do that. Tara didn't press about it, as she was too involved in keeping herself from blurting out her role in the act. As a human, Willow wasn't used to being in the ocean, and it pained Tara to know that she had been responsible for nearly killing her.
What Baji had said made it clear that in order for there to be an understanding between them, she would need to feel comfortable enough to tell Willow this. The irony of the situation was that Tara wanted very much for there to be an understanding between them, perhaps even more. And what better way was there to build an understanding between them than to build on their mutual passion: the ocean. It made perfect sense when she thought about it: Willow, a human who longed for the pleasuring touch and caress that only the ocean could bring, and herself, a child of the ocean whose heart was pure as the water itself. There had also been the slightest of hints of a mutual, if unspoken, attraction between the two, as evident by Willow's very passionate kiss. As she looked back on it now, Tara realized how much that kiss had forged the beginnings of a chain between them that would carry the pair through every danger the ocean could throw at them.
But if Tara told Willow about what happened, she would no doubt look at her in a different light. She had agonized over that thought many times in the previous day. Would Willow see Tara as some sort of siren, who lured humans with the promise of riches and love only to kill them when they dropped their guard? And what would happen if she thought that to be true? Would she try to gain some measure of revenge by harming her?
Tara realized the sad irony in that question, for any situation in which Willow was hurt would be more than enough to cause her emotional damage more harmful than if a harpoon had directly impacted against her heart.
Turning over onto her chest, she dove under the surface and attempting to clear her head by swimming laps along the bottom of the cave. After several minutes, however, she realized how futile the act was, gave up and surfaced once again, paddling over to nearby the rocks to sit down.
"Willow," she said, then spoke an incantation that she hoped would serve her well.
"Goddess, please give me the strength to find the courage I need to bare my soul to the one who deserves it most. God, please impart unto me the desire to do that which I know I must."
Then, to her surprise, she began to sing.
I was so alone
No one could understand me
Then she came from above
And made me clearly see
That there is one
To whom I can share
Everything that I am
And lay my soul bare
Goddess, let her return
Down here to the deep
And give me the strength
To ask for what I seek
And if it is your wish
For it not to be so
Then please do it quick
For I cannot bear to be without…
"Willow," she finished, her eyes closed and her voice a hushed whisper.
On the beach, Willow had been absently surfing the net when she suddenly found herself distracted. She looked up from the monitor of her laptop out into the ocean once again, noting that, unlike the last time she had done so, there was an unmistakable urge for her to put the machine in her lap down and head down into the waves in a rush. It took all of her willpower to keep herself rooted to the chair, but she was surprised by how badly she wanted to be in the water at that very moment.
"Tara," she whispered, shutting down the laptop and placing it back in its case. She then closed her eyes and took the beautiful blonde's lusciously nude body in her mind's eye once again.
That was all it took to make up her mind. She had to see Tara again. As soon as possible. There was no question about it. But how could she? Her tank was in the shop, and from what the shop clerk had said, it would take a week, perhaps more, for him to fix it.
Willow sighed, realizing that she would need to ask Buffy to borrow her tank. And that doing so would bring up the whole "not-diving-alone" talk that she wanted to avoid. Aside from the fact that she would have to explain her deepest secret, she wasn't sure how much her best friend would react to a clearly alien creature.
Opening her eyes, Willow decided that she would have to take the risk. She needed to see Tara again, and Buffy was her only means to accomplish that.
Willow sat across from Buffy, her eyes wandering around the room that they currently occupied. She took a moment to reflect on the day that they had. It had been special, she had to admit. Between Buffy's lifeguard duties and her frequent part time work, they didn't have wealth unlimited. But it was enough that they could get by without having to resort to handouts, usually leaving enough money to enjoy the odd casual expense one every few months. But with all the stuff they had done today, Willow figured that there weren't going to be any more "casual expenses" for a while and that she would need to take three part time jobs in order to cover the costs.
Their first destination after going home to change had been Santa Monica Place, where they had spent countless hours window shopping. Nothing seemed of particular interest, though they had spent an obscene amount of time at both Frederick's and Victoria's Secret trying on unmentionables of various styles and cuts. The only good that came from that was that it gave Willow a new appreciation of her own body, having tried on several pairs of lingerie that were definitely not meant for sleep and drew a polite whistle of approval from Buffy.
The next destination was the theatre, where they watched one of the weekend's new releases, a comedy called "Date Movie." Though she found the movie amusing at times, Willow had to wonder at why Buffy would choose a movie that was so…crude. The lead actress certainly made an effort to perform well despite the weak script and Willow couldn't deny how much she felt for her character in the situation she had found herself in.
And to be honest, that little dance number at the start would make it almost impossible for her to hear "Milkshake" on the radio again without giggling.
The final place the pair had decided to go was their current location: the Il Fornaio. It was a well known Italian restaurant well suited to both Willow's vegetarian lifestyle and Buffy's varied taste in world cuisine. Aside from ordering their meals and receiving their drinks, the pair hadn't done much talking.
Or rather, Willow hadn't done much talking. Buffy had been, in actual fact, going on and on for the past ten minutes about how much she was impressed by Faith. The comments stung Willow with the power of a bee sting and a slap across the face. She had kept her most precious secret hidden from her best friend for the better part of the last ten years, and bubbling in a pot of self made guilt because of it, while some stranger she had known for all of thirty seconds had just walked in out of nowhere and flaunted her (from what Buffy described) rather impressive water skills like it was no big deal. The blonde certainly knew how much Willow enjoyed the water, but had never gone out of her way to say that she was impressed by that. Add the fact that her secret sexual attraction to water was something she kept close to her heart, and she figured she had the right to be bitter about Faith, who from all appearances was everything Willow was not: carefree, charismatic and totally in control of her sexuality.
Willow knew that now was not the time to dwell on Buffy's questionable relationship, work-related or not, with the brunette. Buffy had said that Riley gave her permission to leave early and take the weekend off on the proviso that she come in and work double shifts the following weekend. That gave Willow a small opportunity in which to convince her best friend to lend her diving equipment so that she can go to see Tara.
"Buff," she said, cursing herself for interrupting her friend while she was talking, but then realizing that it was probably going to be the only way to get a word in edgewise. "I…I…I wanted to talk to you about…"
She paused, her nervousness causing her to stutter.
"What, Will?" Buffy prompted.
Willow couldn't help it. She clammed up and shifted uncomfortably. It must have been more noticeable than she intended, for the blonde gave her a curious look. "Come on, Will. You know that you can talk to me about anything."
"I know," Willow admitted. "But this is…kind of…"
"Well, if you don't wanna tell me, I'll understand." Buffy sighed. "I just thought that, with everything we've been through, that there would be no secrets…"
"I met someone," Willow blurted. She hoped that the suddenness of the act wouldn't be too shocking.
Instead, the look that appeared on Buffy's face was one of happiness. "That's great, Will. Who is she? Where did you meet her? Oh, I have so many questions."
"I kinda figured that," Willow noted. "I met her…yesterday."
"Yesterday?" Buffy asked. "You mean…so you didn't go alone?"
Willow swallowed. This wasn't going to be easy, and she knew it. But it would do her good to say the truth, even if it was a heavily modified version. "No, Buffy. I went down alone."
"She saved me."
It was then that Willow realized that she had backed herself into a corner, and that she had no choice but to fully expose her deepest secret to her best friend. Although she knew the possibility might come up, she was still unprepared to deal with it. "It won't be that bad," she thought. "After all, I came out of the closet to her, and she was all fine about it. Finey McFine Fine Fine, as a matter of fact. Well, not really at first. She had this look on her like she just stepped in dog poop and didn't want to look down. But she got over it. So she'll get over this, too. I hope. Please, let her get over this."
Buffy looked at her with a mixture of shock and confusion. "Almost? What's 'almost' about drowning, Will? You really should have known better. Faith never would have done anything that risky."
Willow swallowed again, silently letting the comparison between her and Faith pass without comment. Internally, however, she was hurt by it. She never would have figured that Buffy would be comparing her best friend with someone else, lest of all someone like Faith. It made her wonder just what else about her Buffy compared with Faith.
"Does Buffy still like me?" Willow thought in a panic. "Is this going to be the end of our friendship? And why did she compare me with Faith? I'd call that a low blow, but thankfully, I'm not…equipped in that area."
She realized she would have to say something, lest her silence be taken as an admission of guilt. "Buffy, we've known each other since high school. You said it yourself. We've done and seen everything you could imagine together. But there are some things about me that I don't think you could understand…"
Buffy was getting impatient. "Willow, please stop beating around the proverbial bush. We're best friends, and best friends don't keep secrets from one another."
"You kept Faith a secret," Willow blurted, instantly regretting her decision to do so. Instead of shutting up, she continued, "You said she just transferred here. How do I know that? For all I know, you're as much a lesbo as I am and have been having secret make out sessions while at work and…"
Willow couldn't take it anymore. She broke down and began to sob. It didn't matter that they were in public with over a dozen people watching. She had suffered worse humiliation in high school.
Buffy was clearly upset by this. "Will, you've got to understand me. It's different with Faith. She's…I don't know. I mean, I look at you, and know what you were like when we were in high school, and how much the water was a part of our lives. And then I look at her…and I see us, you know?"
"I sense a 'but' coming," Willow said, looking up with red rimmed eyes.
"But…different," Buffy added. "You know, there's something about her that just tells me that, had we been different growing up, we could have been her." She looked around the room sheepishly. "You know how I am, Will. I'm a protector of the less fortunate, a hero to those who can't defend themselves. And I see Faith…as someone who, given the right guidance and motivation, can be just like us."
Willow realized that she had gotten it wrong about Faith. It was very much in Buffy's character to help out other people, especially if they never realized how much they needed it. And if Willow could think the way she had about the brunette, then how did others see her? Having fought a one sided battle ever since her teen years, she could certainly sympathize with what Buffy saw about Faith.
"And besides," Buffy added as the waiter returned with their dinner, placing the two plates down on the table. "It's not like we keep all of our secrets a secret. Hell, you told me that you're gay." As Willow put on a rather stern look, she quickly continued, "Not that I have any problem with that. I mean, you like girls. So what? Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all…"
"Buff, I seem to recall baring my soul before we went on this unplanned detour to tangent-ville?"
Willow blushed, and then began to tell her tale. "I was a teenager. It was before we met. My parents were divers, and I always went with them whenever they were on vacation. Well, I never went went with them, since they wanted to keep me safe. Anyways, I think that helped prepare me for my eventual discovery. I've always had a thing for the water, but the pool was always crowded. So one night, I snuck inside after it was closed…"
Buffy couldn't help but smile. "Go, Will! Never imagined you to be one to go against the rules."
Willow felt herself smile. "Never thought of myself that way, either. In any case, when I was there, I started to get…feelings."
"Feelings? What kind of…"
"Sexual? About water?"
"And you…acted…on them?"
Willow bit her lower lip. This was the part where it could go wrong. "Yes. And I know what you're going to say. It's sick. It's demented. It's strange and something that you just couldn't understand. That's what you think, isn't it?"
Buffy tilted her head as she thought about it for a moment. She lifted her fork and began to twirl her pasta. "You know, you think it would be, but it really isn't."
Willow clearly wasn't ready for that. "What?"
Buffy took a bite of her meal, then put her fork down on the plate. "Willow, you're not as alone as you think you are. I've been into the water ever since I was young. I've won medals in swimming competitions. I got certified as a diver as soon as I was able in order to broaden my horizons. I took that job as a lifeguard in order to combine my love of the water with my love of helping people. Now, I'll admit that I've never felt the way that you do about being underwater, but if you feel that way, then it's something that makes you unique, not something that you should be ashamed of. Everyone has their kinks, Will. This one's yours."
As Willow took up her own fork and began to eat, she couldn't help but be elated. Her sexuality was, and still is, something that she was reluctant to share with others. It certainly didn't help her that her particular kink was a small minority in the vast reservoir of sexual fetishes. And she certainly felt some apprehension about telling Buffy, not only because it had to do with Tara, but because it had to do with revealing to someone else a part of herself that was private. But as she watched Buffy explain herself, she realized that she had been wrong in keeping this from her. Of all the people in the world, Buffy was the one who could understand her the most. What a fool she must have been to think otherwise.
"But," Buffy added. "If we can detour back onto the drowning issue for a moment…"
Willow set down her fork and braced herself for the worst, but realizing that she had deserved it. There was no way Buffy was going to let that issue drop.
"Just because I understand how you felt doesn't mean I'm willing to let that make me tell you that was a good idea," Buffy continued. "That sort of thing isn't something you do alone." She paused, and broke out into a grin that rivaled Willow's patented quirky smile. "I mean, it is…just not…down there…you know? You know what I mean, right?"
Willow smiled. "Sure, Buff. I get it."
"So you won't do it again?"
Willow shook her head.
Willow nodded in agreement, though inwardly she was heartbroken by the fact that she had to lie to Buffy about that. No matter how dangerous it was, underwater masturbation wasn't an activity she was willing to part with. She just promised herself that she wouldn't do it anywhere where her equipment could get damaged.
Willow realized she had completely forgotten why she had begun talking in the first place. Picking up her fork once again, she asked the question that, thanks to Buffy's recent revelation, was made easier. "Buff, I need to ask you something."
"Sure, Will. Whatever you need."
"I need to borrow your tank."
Buffy cocked an eyebrow. "Why?"
Willow blushed. "I…kinda damaged mine when I…"
Despite herself, Buffy allowed a small smile to form on her lips. "It must have been one powerful experience, Will, for you to have done that."
"Haven't had one like it since my first," Willow admitted.
Buffy let out a small chuckle, then suddenly shifted gears back into what she affectionately dubbed "mother-mode". "Is your new friend going to be there with you?"
Willow grew uncomfortable at the question. "I think so."
Willow decided to tell Buffy as much as she could about Tara. "Well, she's rather…shy. And I didn't act grateful when she helped. She might think I'm a bit of a…spaz."
Buffy let out a chuckle. "Will, I've known you for years. Trust me, acting like a spaz isn't enough of a reason to dislike you."
"You think so?"
"I know so."
Willow took another bite of her meal and chewed thoughtfully. Then a thought struck her. "You could come with me."
"To meet…my friend."
"You sure, Will?" Buffy asked. "I mean, from what I can tell, she sounds like someone pretty special. I wouldn't want to get in the way of…well, anything."
"I'm sure, Buff," Willow answered. "I'm sure she won't mind seeing another friendly face."
As the two continued to eat their dinner in silence, Willow's mind frantically tried to put logic to the situation. "Who am I kidding? Tara was freaked out enough by me, and here I am inviting Buffy to come meet her. And what will Tara think about me bringing another unwanted guest into her kind's underwater kingdom?"
These thoughts raced through her head for the rest of the night. Once she and Buffy finished eating, they made their way home. Once there, Buffy called the docks to reserve a boat for the next day. The two then spent an hour going over their gear, preparing it for the trip they would take the next day.
All the while, Willow's thoughts were on Tara, and how she would react to Buffy. Then her thoughts shifted to how Buffy would react to Tara.
One way or another, tomorrow promised to be a most interesting day.
Tara could feel something in the ocean. A monumental shift in the currents and eddies had just occurred, but she wasn't too sure what to make of it. Whatever it was left an impression on her mind that was difficult to shake off.
Holding her head in one hand, Tara slid into the water and dove under, coming to rest on the rocks below. She hoped that, by spending time underwater after such a long period above it, her nerves would calm down. But no matter how hard she tried, the feelings persisted and linger. And she couldn't help but feel that something had just gone horribly wrong.
Surprisingly, her thoughts shifted to Willow, and Tara realized that somehow, she was at the center of the disturbance. She thought ever so briefly about what might have happened to her. Had she told someone about what happened yesterday? Was she in any danger? Was she hurt?
Tara's heart longed to find out the answers to these questions, but she realized that she would have to wait to find out. Something about the tremors she felt indicated Willow's return to the ocean floor, something that Tara anticipated with a mixture of fear and delight.
She let out a yawn, and realized how tired she felt. Having been awake since the early morning, the need for sleep crested over her like the tides themselves. Shifting uncomfortably on the rocks she was splayed on, she moved to an outcrop that seemed less likely to cause her back problems and settled as comfortably as she could manage.
Tara closed her eyes and drifted to sleep, somewhat afraid of what she would find when they met the world once more.
Willow awoke the next morning fearful about the day's planned activities. It wasn't that she wasn't excited about meeting Tara again, of course. That had been the goal she had been working towards. There had been one unfortunate complication, and it was one that she had brought into the equation.
She wondered for a moment if she was moving too fast by asking Buffy to come meet Tara. She had been thinking about that ever since she had brought it up, and the night's rest hadn't made her feel any better about it. What stung the redhead the most was how much her possessiveness for Tara and the need to keep her a secret from others played into that invitation. She wanted to share something with the two people who were important in her life, but wasn't quite sure if she wanted to share them with each other.
Willow's forehead creased as she thought of what exactly it was she wanted to share with Tara. The question of what she wanted to share was easy as far as Buffy was concerned. Having spent the majority of their friendship hiding something that was special to her, it was a relief, after their discussion last night, to know that she could be more open with her friend. But with Tara, it was different. There was an abundance of things that she wanted to share with the beautiful blonde mermaid, but Willow found herself asking if she really wanted to include her best friend. And something about what had happened between the two of them that told Willow that it might be a good idea to keep human contact with Tara limited. But at the same time, she knew that it would not be possible for her to keep something like this from Buffy. Best to get it out of the way now before something worse happened.
Getting out of bed, Willow moved to put on her bathrobe as she made her way to the bathroom. She was not entirely surprised to find Buffy already there brushing her hair, clad in sweatpants and a loose fitting tank top. The blonde turned as Willow opened the door, gently knocking on it as she did so.
"Hey, Will. Feel better?"
"Excited about today?"
Willow pursed her lips as she thought about how to reply. She certainly was, but the thought of having Buffy there was enough to give her doubts. "Kinda."
Buffy gave Willow a curious look. "What do you mean 'kinda?' You were all excito-gal last night."
"I was…I mean, I am…but…"
Buffy looked into the mirror as she put the hairbrush down and reached for the red toothbrush lying in the cup near the faucet. "Will, are you having second thoughts about me coming along with you?"
Willow had to admit that she was, but it was hard for her to describe why. And as she brushed her teeth, Buffy was also taking the time to figure out what exactly was going on inside the redhead's mind. Willow's decision to invite her to go to meet this new person in her life was obviously one she jumped to prematurely. It was a situation that the blonde could easily sympathize with. Last night, Willow had said something that had been deeply personal, and obviously felt guilty enough about it to overcompensate by putting out the idea that they should go together.
"I wonder what would have happened if I went into psychology," Buffy thought. "Willow's certainly given me enough practice at dealing with the emotional problems of other people."
"I understand, Will," she said aloud, noticing that Willow instantly looked relieved at that. "I'll tell you what. I'll come with you just to meet your friend, and then I'll head back to the boat and give you two some time alone. Does that sound OK?"
Willow couldn't believe it. Buffy was, once again, going out of her way to be extremely nice to her. And she couldn't really decide whether or not she liked it. Still, if it meant that she could deal with Tara without undue complications, she was more than willing to take advantage of her generosity.
"Thanks," she said as Buffy walked past her to head back to her room.
"No problem, Will," the blonde said in reply. "Now get a move on. If what you've said is true, something tells me we want to get out there before the tourists do."
Faith pulled up to the beach on her scooter, the one possession that she had managed to save throughout her long journey to California. The machine was as close to her as any lover, allowed her the freedom to go anywhere she wanted, and meant she didn't have to take any shit from anybody.
She reflected for a moment on her long and strange journey to the west coast. Having grown up in Boston as the only daughter of a single mother who spent more time on the couch than she did on the employment line, she knew from an early age that the only person she could depend on was herself. She wasn't what one would consider to be the educated type, though she knew enough to get by.
The only thing that made her feel good was the water. There was something about it that she couldn't describe, but the first time she swam in the local pool, she felt like she was cleansing herself of all the neglect, heartbreak and disillusionment she felt towards the world.
Plus, it didn't hurt that she looked pretty damn fine in a bikini.
Leaving home when she was sixteen, the only things Faith took with her were the scooter and two hundred dollars that she had swiped from her mother's wallet. The money had been spent more quickly than she would have wanted, and in order to scrounge up enough cash, she started taking small jobs in whatever city she found herself in, making enough to be able to get to her next destination. While it would have been easier for her to steal the money, she didn't want to have the stigma of being a criminal attached to her. It was something that made her think of her mother, and she knew that she could be better than that.
Four years passed before two things happened that would change her life forever. Having suffered through the horror of having to resort to prostitution in order to get the money she needed to survive, Faith knew she had hit a low point in her life. Returning to the homeless shelter that had become her home ever since she arrived in California, she met someone who was able to look at her for who she was and not where she had come from. And who, after learning about her love of swimming, recommended that she get into the lifeguard business as a means to help others.
Faith had to admit that the job certainly made her feel better about herself. Knowing that she was going to be responsible for the lives of other people made her work harder at this than she ever had at anything else. It had taken some time, and a lot of hard work, but she had made it.
She was sent to join the forces at Hermosa. And up until two weeks ago, she never realized that there might be anyone else in the world quite like her. Then she had heard some of her fellow lifeguards talking about Buffy "The Savior" Summers of Santa Monica, and from the way they talked, it sounded as if she was someone Faith would really like to meet. She had then requested, and was granted, a transfer to Santa Monica Beach, where she came under Buffy's wing.
That had been nearly a week ago, and things between them had been great. Buffy had even told her about her best friend Willow, who Faith thought would be someone else to get along with, if what the blonde had said about her was any indication. After yesterday, however, she had to wonder. The redhead had seemed to be put off by her, and Faith could see why, knowing that her appearance was one that made others think that she was some sort of predator. Faith knew that it must have made Willow upset to find her best friend with someone else. She hoped that Buffy could convince Willow that she wasn't that bad.
Stepping off the scooter and taking out the key, Faith walked up to the lifeguard tower. It was rather early, but with Buffy taking the weekend off, she wanted to make sure that nothing went wrong. Stepping up the ramp, she opened the door and stepped inside, securing it behind her.
Once she was sure it was private, she took off her shoes and socks, stuffing the socks inside the shoes and setting them off to the side. She then removed her shirt, tossing it on top of the shoes. She finished her strip by unbuttoning her jeans and letting them slide down her legs, which she then slipped out of and kicked to the side.
Moving from the pile of clothes on the floor to the mirror on the opposite side of the room, Faith gave herself a quick once over. She admired how well the one piece swimsuit hugged her body, amply displaying her curves and generously accentuating her ass. She enjoyed the stares she always seemed to get from the boys and men who populated the beach, though she never let it interfere with her work.
After several moments, Faith turned and opened the door, walking out of the tower and leaning on the wooden railing. She thought once again about the way that Willow had looked at her. She would have to talk to Buffy about the best way to change that. If Buffy was friends with Willow, Faith wanted to be as well.
But for now, she had a long day of work ahead of her. Moving to withdraw a folding chair and a pair of binoculars from inside the tower, she moved to sit down and begin her scan of the area. As her gaze drifted across the sands, she said a silent prayer for Buffy, hoping that she and Willow enjoyed their day together.
Willow sat on the side of the rented boat, clad in a one piece black wetsuit that covered her entire body and checked Buffy's tank for what seemed like the hundredth time. She knew that she had no reason to be worried about it. As a professional, Buffy always kept her equipment in perfect working order and the reason for her obsessive compulsiveness was simply her transference of the nervousness she felt about her best friend and her new friend meeting face to face.
It was certainly a troublesome situation, and it was only through trial and error that she would find out how it would play out. Zipping up the wetsuit, she turned to look at Buffy, who was also clad in a black full body wetsuit. Willow couldn't help but notice how well her friend's body fit into it, the black rubber highlighting the ampleness of her chest quite nicely and, blushing as her eyes caught sight of it, magnifying the already shapely curve of Buffy's ass.
"Buffy's certainly got a flair for exhibition," she thought absently. "Even when she's fully clothed, she's got a way of making it all stand out."
Buffy moved to put on her buoyancy compensator, the back of which rested a tank rented from the dive shop. When the pair had stopped there on the way to the docks, Willow had vehemently insisted that she be the one to wear the rented equipment, but Buffy would have none of it, insisting that, since her equipment was top of the line, Willow would feel safer if she used it.
Strapping the heavy equipment onto her back, Buffy took a few test breaths from the regulator. Satisfied that everything was OK, she turned to Willow. "You ready, Will?"
Putting on her mask, Willow turned to look Buffy in the eye. "Yeah." Then, as Buffy moved to put on her own mask, added, "Thanks."
"For…accepting me as I am." It was a simple phrase, and yet there was so much behind it. For the longest time, she had kept to herself, never letting anyone get to know the real person that was Willow Rosenberg. Even when she had told Buffy that she was gay, she still kept her most private secrets, especially her status as an aquaphile, close to her heart. But in the past forty eight hours, a lot had happened to change her outlook on life. And she was happy that the two people who mattered most in that life played a vital part in it.
Buffy took Willow's gloved hand into her own and gently squeezed. "I wouldn't want you to be anyone other than who you really are, Will. And I want you to be happy. Now let's go meet your friend."
Willow nodded, put on her fins and placed the regulator into her mouth. Buffy followed suit, also attaching a writing slate to her weight belt that would allow them to communicate underwater. The two then each placed a hand on their faces to keep both their air supply and their masks on, then dove as one into the ocean.
Tara awoke and looked around, finding some comfort in the familiar surroundings. The uneasiness that she had felt the previous day had passed, and she felt more clearheaded and able to think.
Swimming to the surface, she allowed herself to float gracefully on the water's edge, looking up at the ceiling of rock above her head and wondering if Willow would come to visit today. She found it curious that she was now expecting an event that she had been dreading before.
Thinking about it, Tara realized now that, no matter what happened between them, she would always have the brief contact that they had shared when Willow had first awoken. Thinking back on that moment, Tara thought about the things Willow had said. She knew of mermaids, citing one named Ariel. The most curious thing she had said about this Ariel was that she had a tail.
She looked down at her feet, waggling her toes as a small smile formed on her face. Knowing now why she looked the way she did, Tara was sad that she would never be able to have the enhanced mobility that a tail offered. Her legs had given her a strong swimming ability, but she couldn't help but wonder what could have been.
It was a surprise that they were able to communicate as well as they did. Tara wondered how much of the conversation Willow had understood. While her manner of speech was such that she could communicate with others of her kind rather well, it made verbal communication rather difficult. She knew that Willow had been able to pick out the general idea of what she was saying. She also knew a spell that would give the redhead the ability to understand her better. If she came back, Tara would ask if she could perform it on her.
The thought sent a double wave of depression over her. She was accepting two very important things as fact by thinking that: that her ability to perform the spell on Willow was something she could justify enough to say that it wasn't a further violation of her clan's tenets, and that the redhead would indeed return to her.
Tara sighed. She knew it was rather sudden to assume that after only two days, but a cloud continually hung over her. Willow's experience may have been enough to convince her never to return to the water, regardless of the reason.
Suddenly Tara felt uneasy. Her danger sense had been awakened, and was now telling her that an imminent danger was approaching. It was impossible that any of her fellow mermaids were coming to find her. Only Baji knew of her secret hideaway, and she would never have come to her so abruptly. It could only mean that humans were near.
Taking a deep breath, she stretched her senses out into the ocean, trying to pick up something in the approaching presences. She immediately felt two distinct forces. One was strange to her, but an air of curiosity and a sense of honor and purpose identified it as one that was pure of heart. The other felt familiar, yet carried a sense of apprehension. Whoever this second person was clearly worried that whatever it was doing was for the good, yet could not fully convince itself.
Tara's blood grew as cold as the water around her. The familiar presence must have been Willow. But what was she doing? Did she bring someone here to capture her? Had she told someone else about her experience and was now sending others to investigate?
"Willow?" Tara said to the air. "What have I done?"
She had to hide, but knew that she could not escape without being spotted. And there weren't any adequate hiding places in the cave. The irony that the cave itself was meant to be a hiding place was not lost on her.
As she scrambled to the rocky surface, Tara quietly accepted the inevitability of what was going to happen, knowing full well that she had brought it down upon herself, and that whatever was about to happen was either a reward or punishment for her actions.
Willow's breath came in rapid bursts, the bubbles caused by her exhalations rising in a near constant stream to the surface. She looked up at the cascading inferno caused by her own breathing, realizing that it might be a good idea to keep it under control, lest she run the risk of running out of oxygen as she had the last time she was underwater. It occurred to her that she was doing this because she was nervous not only about seeing Tara once again, but also because she wasn't sure how Buffy would react. Willow had to admit that she wasn't sure which caused her the most anxiety.
The redhead felt a gentle squeeze on her gloved hand then, and turned her head to look at Buffy, her blonde hair floating around her head like a golden picture frame. Willow was glad for her friend's comforting touch, realizing that it served a dual purpose: it made sure that they would not be separated, and every so often when Buffy would send a comforting squeeze back as she had just done, it made her feelings of nervousness dissipate.
If only for a moment.
Willow turned back to see that they were approaching the cave where Tara had taken her a mere two days ago. So much had happened to her since her reawakening, not the least of which was her developing feelings for the mysterious blonde mermaid. She was frustrated that she still could not explain those feelings in a way that she was satisfied with. Buffy had helped somewhat with dealing with her concern, even if she had not idea what it was about, but Willow knew that Tara was the only one who could provide the answers she truly sought.
It occurred to Willow that she had truly died two days ago, and the Willow that returned to the surface was a completely different individual. Tara had such a profound impact on her life. And in only two days, it had gotten to the point where she could not concentrate on anything else. What did it mean? Was she going crazy?
Well, that would have to be one of the questions that the redhead hoped Tara could answer.
Kicking her legs in order to increase her pace towards the cave entrance, Willow came to a sudden stop as she felt Buffy tugging her arm. Turning back to look at the blonde, Willow watched as she shook her head, her grip leaving Willow's as her other hand reached for her writing slate. As Willow watched, Buffy wrote something down it, and then turned it in her direction.
"What are you doing?"
Confused, Willow motioned to the slate. Buffy handed the writing tool to the redhead, who wrote something down below Buffy's words. Once she was finished, Willow gave it back to her friend.
"Going to meet my friend."
Buffy looked at the words, then up at Willow. She pointed to the cave as if to say “In there?" Willow turned to where her friend pointed, turned back around and nodded. Suddenly nervous, the blonde once again wrote something down on the writing slate. After a few moments, she turned it to Willow once more, pointing a finger at her words in order to emphasize their meaning.
"It's too dangerous, Will. I may be certified for cave diving, but you aren't. And who knows what we could encounter in there."
Willow tried not to let her disappointment at Buffy's concern show. It was obvious that the blonde was just looking out for her best interests, making sure that she didn't do anything stupid. She had done that sort of thing since high school. And it certainly didn't help that, in this instance, she was right. The last time she went into a cave alone, things almost didn't turn out so well for her. But when it came to Tara, Willow knew that, no matter what, there was no danger. She implicitly trusted Tara, and that overrode Buffy's well meaning words.
Taking the slate from Buffy's hand, Willow wrote something down on its surface. She handed it back to the blonde, a mixture of hope and sadness radiating from her eyes.
Buffy looked at the slate, upon which Willow had written two words.
Buffy blew out a breath, the bubbles from her act cascading to the surface. The problem wasn't that she didn't trust Willow. In fact, she truly believed that whatever the redhead was thinking, it was a good idea. After all, Willow wasn't the one for flights of fancy. But there was the fact that what she was proposing now was rather dangerous, and even with an experienced diver like herself nearby, Willow should know better than to do anything as risky as this. Since she wanted to support the redhead in whatever she wanted to do, however, she was left with very little choice. She nodded her head, took Willow's hand into hers once again, and entered the cave alongside her friend.
The pair traveled through the labyrinth of tunnels for several moments, and Buffy was beginning to get worried that they were lost, when they finally reached a cavern. As the pair swam towards the surface, the blonde wondered once again if they had made the right decision to come this way. If something were to happen now, there was almost no chance either of them could get back out.
Breaking through the surface of the water, Buffy removed her regulator, taking a deep breath to test the air. It didn't seem dangerous, but that didn't make her feel any better. Looking around, she realized that their destination was as far out of the way as she could imagine. It was certainly a good place for unknown parties to come out and ambush them, the only way out being the path they had just taken.
Buffy suddenly became aware that there was something else in the room. She couldn't see anything, however, and removed her mask in order to get a better view. She scanned the area, her danger senses on full alert, before finally spotting someone attempting to cower in one corner at the opposite end of the cavern.
The person was unlike anyone she had seen before. Long golden locks flowed from her head, coming to a stop near the small of her back. She was also totally naked, not a single scrap of clothing evident anywhere on her body. What drew Buffy's attention the most was the fact that, on certain areas of her body, there appeared to be small patches of green that contrasted heavily with her skin. In addition, her neck had several deep gashes that looked like she had been cut. But when Buffy saw them pulse, she realized that they were gills.
“Will, who the…" she started to say, only to see that her companion had already swam forward, approaching the rocks on which the female rested. “Will, stop! You don't know who that is!"
Willow turned around. “Yes, I do." She gestured to the person, who was looking increasingly agitated. “Buffy, this is Tara."
“She's the one I was talking about. The one who saved me from drowning."
The information was just a bit too much for Buffy to absorb. “Will, you can't mean that she…"
On the rocks now, Willow began to remove her equipment, dividing her attention between Buffy and Tara. “She did, and I couldn't be happier for it. Now can you come here, please? I really want you to meet her."
Buffy could sense the subtle, yet uncharacteristic whine in Willow's request, and left with no other option, swam over to join Willow. As the redhead watched her approach, she turned to look at Tara, green eyes ever hopeful. A connection had been easily made between her and Tara. She hoped once more that the connection could be extended to Buffy. Somehow she thought it would make Tara feel better. Kneeling down, Willow extended her hand, prompting Tara to do the same. Their hands came together, each feeling the radiant heat energy pass between them almost as if the pair shared one heart.
Looking back at her friend, who she noted with some sadness remained in the water, she said, “Tara, this is my best friend. Her name is Buffy."
Tara turned to look at the newcomer, and offered the briefest of waves. “Hi."
Her voice was that of a hushed whisper, and Willow instantly grew uncomfortable. She could clearly see how much of a problem Buffy's presence was causing Tara. Turning to look at her friend, she said, “Buffy, I think you're scaring Tara."
Buffy, who had dealt with stranger things in her life, couldn't help but agree. “To be honest Will, she's kind of scaring me, too. I think we should get out of here before…"
“Hold on." Willow insisted, turning back at Tara. “Tara, can I trust you?"
A moment passed before Tara nodded vigorously. Turning to look once more at Buffy, Willow said, “Tara, I'm going to tell you something that's deeply personal to me. Something that I've never told anyone else. But I am going to tell you this because I trust you." The redhead turned back to Tara. “Do you understand?"
Tara nodded again as Willow looked back at Buffy. “Buffy…is someone important to me. She's…helped me through some pretty tough times. Kinda like you. I…kept things from her. Things about myself that I shouldn't have kept hidden. It ate away at my insides, making me feel all icky." She turned back to Tara, piercing her blue eyes with her own. “But thanks to her, I've come to understand that there shouldn't be any secrets. Especially between the people we care about."
Tara's face held a great deal of anguish as she listened to Willow's tale. If this Buffy was someone who had harmed Willow in the way she had nearly done, she had to wonder why Willow considered the other woman her best friend. It was too confusing for her to figure out. But as Willow finished her tale, she realized that the only reason Willow may have been hurt by Buffy was because she kept things from her. And when Willow said that there should be no secrets, Tara's face brightened. Along with the fact that it made her feel slightly less afraid to tell Willow her secrets, it meant that the redhead held the other blonde in high regard if she could trust her enough to share a deeply personal secret. And if Willow believed Buffy was a good person, so could Tara.
Willow was glad to see the change in the blonde mermaid, knowing that it would make getting Buffy to accept her that much easier to accomplish. “So, does that mean that you're not afraid of Buffy anymore?"
Tara shook her head no.
Willow smiled. “Good. But now I have to contradict myself and say that I want to be alone with you for a while. Is that OK?"
Tara nodded once again, a smile on her face. Willow took it as a sign of encouragement. Had she thought about it, however, she would have noted the slight stress lines across the blonde's forehead, indicating that her happiness was tinged with a sense of doubt and a pensiveness that resulted in the smile losing some of its brightness.
Getting to her feet, Willow walked over to Buffy. “Buff, you mind?"
Buffy hesitated. What she thought was going to be a simple diving trip to meet a new friend of Willow's had quickly become something else. Not only was Willow's new friend an unknown who she didn't feel at all comfortable about, she also had a problem with leaving the redhead alone at this depth. If something bad happened, she wasn't too sure Willow could escape and make her way back to the surface. She also knew that Willow expected an answer and that she couldn't just float there and say nothing.
“Will, I have to say that I have a problem with this."
“You didn't yesterday," the redhead retorted.
“Yesterday I didn't know your friend was…" Buffy hesitated, not really knowing how to finish the sentence without either offending Tara or upsetting Willow. Letting the comment drop, she continued, “Look, Will. I'm worried, is all. There's something that isn't right here."
Willow could hear the unvoiced meaning in Buffy's words. “It's about Tara, isn't it?"
“Buffy, be honest."
Buffy sighed, the obvious discomfort she felt making the act all the harder to accomplish. “Yeah, Will. It is."
Willow, while not entirely surprised, was nonetheless taken aback. “Buffy, I know that Tara seems a bit…strange. And I know you just want to look out for me. But I feel something for her. I…I have to figure out what it is. And I kinda want to…find out with nobody else watching. I know I shouldn't keep that a secret from you, but I kinda wanted to find out for myself and figure out what it means before I tell anyone. Do you understand?"
Buffy pursed her lips, understanding all too well what Willow wanted. This was a classic character trait of hers: finding out something new, trying to learn all she could about it, then deciding whether or not anyone else deserved to know. In that respect, she was willing to allow Willow to stay. Still, she did not entirely like the idea of leaving her all alone with some strange creature, no matter how much Willow proclaimed its good intentions.
But she couldn't continue to argue with Willow when it appeared that the conversation was going to keep going around in circles. That was another character trait of Willow that, while endearing at most times, was really a pain at times such as this, when it appeared that her life could be in danger.
“Just…be careful, OK? I don't want anything to happen to you."
“Nothing will," Willow promised.
Buffy moved to replace her mask over her eyes and returned the regulator to her mouth. Then, giving one last glance at Willow and hoping that she wasn't making a mistake, she dove under the surface and headed back the way they had come.
Watching as Willow's friend returned to the ocean from whence they came, Tara couldn't help but feel conflicted about what had just happened. The happiness she had felt about hearing Willow speak had dissipated as reality once again set in. Willow had told someone about her. And what was worse, she actually brought that person here. She couldn't help but wonder what would happen now. Had she inadvertently started a chain reaction that would eventually bring about the destruction of her clan?
On the other hand, Willow had said that she had kept secrets from Buffy, and how much it pained her to do so. Tara realized that it was the same situation in which she found herself. By keeping what she had done a secret, the only person she was harming was herself. And after experiencing the pain of agonizing over whether or not to tell Willow that she nearly killed her, Tara certainly knew how much it could hurt to keep secrets from others. She also wondered what other secrets Willow had, and if Willow would be willing to share them with her.
Looking up, she saw Willow walking back towards her. Tara's gaze passed across her form. Unlike the last time they had met, in which she wore clothing over her body but kept her legs bare, Willow now wore a form fitting black garment that make little squeaking noises as she moved. There was something about those noises, along with the smell the clothing radiated, that flipped a switch in the back of Tara's mind, making Willow appear in her mind's eye as sexy as she had been when the blonde first saw her nude body.
Sitting down in front of Tara, Willow looked into the blonde's eyes. “Hi."
Tara returned the stare, hesitant as to how to proceed. “Hi. I glad you come back."
Willow smiled. “I'm glad to be back." She looked around the cave. “I love what you've done with the place."
Willow turned back at Tara, sad that her attempt at humor had failed. The feeling was replaced by the need for her to learn more about the beautiful creature in front of her, something she didn't get a chance to do the last time they were together. “Tara, I've got a lot of questions to ask you. That is, if you wanted to answer them. I mean, I'm not going to force you to answer anything you find uncomfortable or private, but maybe we can start off with some easy questions, like 'how old are you?' or…"
“Yes," Tara interrupted. “I answer questions, only…" She paused, hoping that she could frame her next words better. “I no sure you understand."
“Understand what? The answers? Well, yeah. Kinda figured that, what with you being a stranger to me. That's why I was hoping that…"
Tara reached out and touched Willow's arm, noting ever so briefly how different the touch of her hand against the clothing had been compared to the redhead's bare skin. Willow had worn a similar piece of clothing the first time they had met, and when the blonde had removed it, she felt as if she was removing a part of Willow's skin. The thought concerned her greatly, wondering if she was removing a vital part of her body. The immediate danger had made those thoughts secondary, but looking at Willow clothed from neck to ankle in something similar once more, Tara wondered how much the clothing was a part of the redhead's life. And she also wondered if Willow enjoyed the feeling of it against her skin as much as the blonde enjoyed the feeling of it against her own.
Her mind returned to the task at hand, and she answered Willow's question. “No, I mean…I no sure talk good for you understand. I think it better if I…help you learn."
Something about Tara's voice told Willow that there was something dangerous about what she was trying to say, but the curiosity she felt overrode the potential danger. “Understand? How?"
Tara moved to position herself closer to Willow, arms reaching out for the redhead's face. “Trust?"
"Trust?" Willow thought as Tara waited for her reply. "What does she mean by 'trust?' Do I trust her? That's not even a question. Of course I trust her. Except…" She had to think. Whatever it was that Tara was about to do was obviously something personal, and she had the feeling that it would alter her life. "Then again, a lot of that's been happening lately. And aside from nearly drowning, nothing bad has happened yet."
“Yes, Tara," she said aloud. “I trust you." Despite the lingering doubts in her mind as to what Tara was going to do to her, the words came straight from the heart.
“You sure?" Tara asked. “Because once I start, spell can't stop. And there potential for bad…"
Willow took Tara's hands into hers, and stared deeply into her eyes. The ocean blue of her irises held such love, but that affection was tainted by a sense of caution. Whatever it was Tara wanted to do, it was clear from the look in her eyes that she was frightened about the possibility of it causing her harm. Willow knew, however, that Tara would never knowingly go out of her way to harm her. She couldn't figure out why she knew this, but it didn't matter. On some level, conscious or not, she knew Tara would never harm her, and that was enough for her.
“I trust you." The words were a whisper, but had the strength of an anvil dropping.
Tara swallowed, then took her hands out of Willow's and placed them on her face. On reflex, Willow closed her eyes, her breath going from shallow and languid to long and deep. The hot air blew into Tara's face, making it almost impossible for her to concentrate on her spell. And she needed no distractions. This spell she was about to enact had been one she only performed on marine life, never on someone like Willow. If she didn't do it correctly, it could cause Willow brain damage or, worse yet, leave her in a permanent vegetative state.
Tara would make sure that she performed this spell correctly. She couldn't risk harming Willow.
“Amphitrite, zel kanna de nora el cucco…"
Willow had closed her eyes as soon as Tara's fingers touched her skull, her breathing slowing. She didn't know why she was doing this, but somehow she knew that whatever was going to happen would work better if she remained calm and did not give Tara undue reason to worry.
She heard Tara chanting in some mysterious language, the same type of language she had heard when she spoke the spell that had allowed her to breathe underwater. And like then, she couldn't make out the words. But there was so very few words that Tara did speak that Willow could understand. She had only been able to pick out a few key words, and was thankful enough that she could get by on just them.
Suddenly the feeling of Tara's touch on her skull changed. Where before it had been warm and gentle, there was now a slight, but intense pressure that sent a cold invasion working its way inside her mind. Willow felt herself tense up as the feeling slowly become one that felt like ten ice picks were being slowly shoved into her head. Her urge to tense up increased, but she struggled to calm herself. Willow knew that whatever reason Tara had for doing what she was doing, it would work better if she didn't do anything that might break her concentration. She had to admit, however, that it was getting more difficult by the moment.
As she continued to fight the urge to tense up, Tara's words began to change.
“sel denna dio mag…of everlasting understanding. And may she accept this gift with everlasting happiness and joy."
Willow smiled, finally understanding what it was that Tara was doing. The blonde was bestowing a gift onto her, much like giving her the ability to breathe underwater. And, like before, she was doing it to give the redhead something that she desired most.
"I will," Willow promised silently. "I will accept this gift in the spirit that it was given. Anything you give me is a gift, Tara. And I will treasure them forever and always."
Willow felt as if she were wrapped in a cocoon, waiting for the moment in which she would be born anew into the world. Her many adventures in the water had always given her the feeling of being reborn, the fear and shame she felt on the surface washing away as she swam. But this time, there was something…different about it. Willow recalled her earlier thought about having become a different person following her experience two days prior. Well, perhaps she had not become different then, but she certainly had become different now. Being given the gift of being able to fully understand Tara was somehow…magical. Special, even. And unlike anything she had experienced before. There was some pain, but Buffy had always said that pain was the body's way of knowing you're still alive.
"Are you OK, Willow?"
Willow heard the words, and realized that she had her eyes closed. Opening them, she gazed into Tara's own beautiful blue orbs, which still held a note of caution tinged with nervousness. The redhead absently wondered why Tara felt the need to be so cautious around her. There had been the feelings she felt when the blonde had first revived her, and now her fear that whatever she had just done had hurt her. These acts made it rather obvious that Tara was concerned for her welfare, no matter what she did.
"But why?" Willow wondered. "Does she have feelings for me? Whoa…where did that come from? I mean, yeah. I have feelings for her, too. But…I don't know what to do with them. And what do I do if she feels the same way? I mean…she's…well, we're different. But…something tells me we're more alike that I think we are. Let's get back on the tracks for a second, though. Gotta make Tara feel better. After all, Mermaid Tara's cute. But Worried Tara? Not so cute."
"Of course I'm OK, Tara," she said aloud, moving her body over to sit beside the blonde, an arm moving to wrap itself around the other's waist. "And you don't have to be so worried. I feel safe with you. I don't know why, and I can't explain it, but somehow I know that nothing you do can harm me."
Tara turned away at that. She was glad that her hair often covered her face, as it helped in situations like this where she didn't want others to see how emotional she could get. Willow's words, though well meant, made her feel ashamed. The redhead remained ignorant of the fact that the person she considered herself safe with was also the one responsible for causing what very well might have been the most traumatic experience she ever had. And though it had gnawed at Tara's conscience ever since, Willow's presence with her here and now made it worse, especially since the blonde knew that she had to tell her everything. That was why she had performed the spell. She had to make sure that Willow could easily understand what it was that she wanted…no, needed to say. Tara only hoped that she could make her understand that it was an accident.
"Willow…there's something I need…"
Willow leaned over, removing her hand from Tara's waist and moving to put it on the blonde's shoulder. "What is it, Tara?"
Tara flinched as she felt the touch of Willow's bare hand on her own skin. It was not a touch she deserved. At least, not at the moment. There was only one way that she could gain the right to be touched in this manner. It was going to be difficult, so the sooner she said it, the better.
"Willow…do you remember…how we met?"
Willow smiled. What had happened wasn't the sort of thing one easily forgot. "Of course, Tara. It was only two days ago. You saved me from drowning in that cave. And I can't thank you enough for that."
Tara turned to look Willow in the eye. "Don't."
The word gave Willow pause. "Don't? Don't what? Thank you?"
Tara nodded. "I don't deserve your thanks. I don't deserve your…love. I don't deserve you. I'm…evil."
This was something that Willow could not believe. Tara was what other people would consider a perfect vision of loveliness. She certainly did not appear to be an evil creature. After all, evil creatures generally didn't look like beautiful naked women. "How? Tara, please. I don't understand. Saving the lives of others isn't evil. How are you evil? Please, tell me."
Turning away once more, Tara crawled to the water, palm outstretched. Willow watched in silence as the blonde dipped a finger into it and began moving her hand in a circular motion, causing ripples to play across the surface.
Tara forced the words out of her mouth, knowing that there was no way they would come on their own. "Willow, you need to understand. I am…" She paused, trying to come up with the right words. "I am a child of the sea. Unlike anything you may have seen before."
Or perhaps not. Tara turned back to look at Willow, a thought from their earlier conversation coming to the surface. "You mentioned a mermaid you knew?"
Willow nodded. "Yes. Ariel. But what…"
"You said she had a tail," Tara interrupted, turning to look at her legs. "We had tails once. But we gave them up when…"
She faltered, her eyes watering. Sliding over, Willow placed her arm on Tara's side once more, her other moving to Tara's chin, lifting the blonde's head until their eyes met. "Please, Tara. I…I want you to feel comfortable enough to tell me anything. I said that there should be no secrets between friends." She paused, and asked the question that she had, for the past forty eight hours, been silently asking herself.
"Are we friends? Can we be friends?"
"Can we?" Tara thought, her brain working fast to comprehend what it was that she was hearing. Being friends with Willow was something she wanted so much, she knew that even despite their differences, that it wasn't even a question to consider. The fact that they shared a mutual interest in the ocean which had brought them together only strengthened their bond. Tara's desire to bridge the gap between her clan and the human race Willow represented also played a factor: she knew she was already stumbling down Lorelei's path, and so all she could do was to hope for a much happier ending than the one which had crushed that dream.
Willow smiled briefly, knowing that the first connection had just been made. Now was the time to see if it could be taken further. Moving her hand to Tara's face, she brushed back several strands of her long golden hair. "And please don't hide your face from me. I like it. It's beautiful.
"Even the scales? And my gills?"
"Even the gills. And especially the scales. They make you look…exotic. And unique. And I like having things that are…unique. Things that I can call…mine."
Tara's small smile, which she had used to keep Willow's mind at ease, slowly morphed into one of genuine happiness, before it melted as she remembered what she had to do.
Looking directly into Tara's eyes, Willow said, "Now tell me what you have to say. I promise that whatever it is, I won't freak out."
Tara nodded. Knowing that Willow wanted to hear what she had to say made it somewhat easier for her to say it. Not completely, but enough. "Thank you, Willow. Now, as I said, there was once a time that my clan of mermaids had tails. That was before my time. Before…the Change."
"The Change?" Willow echoed curiously.
"Yes, Willow" Tara said. "The Change. When our clan underwent a permanent transformation into the type of creatures…into the type of people we are today. We went from being fully aquatic creatures into hybrids of our previous forms and humans." She passed a hand across her body. "What you see before you…is only half of what we once were. The other half…we changed forever through the use of magic."
Willow sat with her mouth open. For any race to undergo such a dramatic change…it was unthinkable. And there was also the fact that their change was mystical in nature. It made her curious. "Can you…tell me about your magical talents, Tara?"
Tara hesitated, wondering how much of her society she felt comfortable enough telling Willow. Certainly the fact that she now knew of their kind was bad enough. But her abilities were another story. It didn't feel right for her to talk about them, even though magic was a vital part of her society with anyone displaying talent training under the elder Mage of the clan. But even before the Change, it was still considered enough of an aberration to the norm that it caused all those who displayed talent to be distrusted, as if they would somehow cause the fall of their society through some mystical blunder despite their training. That feeling had only been strengthened following the Change, as magic had indeed irrevocably altered their society for the worse in the eyes of many. Since that time, magic had remained a vital part of their lives, people like Baji still held very important roles in society and used for communication with sea creatures and healing. But there were those who merely saw this as a way of maintaining the status quo; the Elders obviously taken their xenophobia over the Change a step too far by never outwardly displaying any hint of how much their society had been altered.
Wondering ever so briefly if she was performing such a blunder, Tara continued, "Our clan has some who can…shape the ocean around them. We're taught from an early age how to use our gifts to better the ocean around us without causing any major alterations. But despite that, there are those in our society who…look down on us. They treat us with scorn, distrust and even outright hatred. This became even worse following the Change, when we used magic to change our society forever."
Willow was afraid to ask the question that came immediately to her mind after hearing this, but she knew she had to say it. Otherwise she would agonize over it for a long time. And, in any event, it was something she felt she had the right to know.
"Why, Tara? Why would your clan go to such great lengths to change who and what they were?"
Tara hung her head down. This was the most painful part of what she had to say. "It was…because an anomaly was introduced into our society."
Willow tried to make some sense of this, but it only made her more confused. "Tara, I don't understand. Why would your race go and do something like that? What could have possibly convinced them that it was a good idea to change who and what they were?"
Tara looked up at Willow, her eyes shining with the tears she somehow managed to keep in check. "Love."
"Love?" Willow echoed with some surprise. "Tara, I don't know how it is with your clan, but where I come from, love is something precious and special, and certainly not something to cause anyone to do something incredibly stupid. I mean, yeah, love makes you do the wacky sometimes. And unless it's dangerous, you wouldn't even think twice about doing it. But from the look of you, it certainly wasn't dangerous. I mean, if it could make you look like that…"
Willow realized two things at that moment. She was babbling incoherently as she often did when she was nervous, nearly letting things out that she really should not. But more importantly, her words were making Tara look downtrodden once again. Whether it was from her words or the fact that she had interrupted her, Willow could not tell. At some basic level, however, she realized that it didn't matter. The blonde held a great deal of pain inside of her, and the conversation was making it slowly seep out as if she had suffered a grievous wound.
Willow hoped she could be a band aid for Tara's pain. "I'm sorry, Tara. I didn't mean…"
"No, Willow," Tara replied, a sad look on her face. "You're right. Love is something precious and special. And Lorelei must have known this as well. That must have been why she decided to meet that human and…prove her love."
The pieces fell into place in Willow's mind at that, the picture they formed not a pretty one to see. "You mean…one of your clan met a human, transformed herself and…" She stopped there, the final phrase of her comment unsaid, yet mutually understood between her and Tara, who nodded her head in answer to Willow's question.
"When the Elders of the Clan found out, they put both Lorelei and the male to death. But, it was too late. The anomaly had entered our society."
Willow understood now what Tara meant by anomaly. "You mean a child."
"And so, in order to hide the truth of its origins, your clan transformed themselves?"
Tara nodded. "And that's not all. The incident caused the clan to distrust humans and shun all contact with them. It became a law that any human that violated our territory was to be killed."
Willow's eyes shot open, suddenly growing wary for Buffy's safety. "Am I…did we…Tara, have Buffy and I…violated your territory?"
"No, Willow," Tara answered. "This cave is close to our borders, but isn't inside our territory. I chose it as my hiding place so that I could feel safe, yet be able to…"
"Spy on humans."
Willow's lips formed a smile. Despite all she appeared to be, Tara was someone curious about the outside world. "So…you're like a peeping tom?"
Willow blushed, realizing that Tara had no way of understanding some of the more esoteric human terms. "Someone who watches others from afar while they do things that…" Her brain caught up with her words as she recalled what she had been doing before Tara had rescued her. "You mean you saw me…"
Tara could see how much Willow was getting flustered about that, and swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat. Somehow she knew that this would happen if the redhead ever found out. "You're upset, aren't you?"
Willow grew puzzled at the question, especially considering how much she found herself wondering that exact same thing. She felt that she certainly had the right to be upset. Or, at the very least, be embarrassed beyond all recognition. Masturbating wasn't exactly an activity that one did in the presence of others. That was what made doing it in the pool when she was younger such a turn on. The fact that she could have easily gotten caught at any moment excited her. But no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't be upset with Tara. After all, the ocean was her home, and she had been the one to intrude without permission. It would be akin to her walking into some stranger's house, eating all their food and using their bathroom.
"No, Tara," she said, knowing that her answer was one hundred percent honest, not a single word of it being said in order to make the blonde feel better. "I'm not. It's just that…I spent the better part of my life reading and fantasizing about stuff like that. I never knew there could be anyone out there who could understand…I mean, truly understand what it's like to feel the way I do about water. I…I have a sexual attraction to it, and whenever I immerse myself, I feel as if my body is being caressed by the hands of some imaginary lover. I had my first orgasm touching myself at the bottom of a swimming pool. I couldn't take a shower after gym class because I was afraid of what could happen. I took scuba lessons in order to prolong my fantasies and find new ones. I…I've always felt as if water was the only thing that could…you know, make me feel good in ways I've never felt before."
"People on the surface do this to feel good?" Tara asked, her curiosity piqued by Willow words.
"Some," Willow admitted. "People have specific fetishes that turn them on, but that's one of the rarer ones. It's not exactly a thriving community, despite what you may see on the internet. And, until recently, it was something I kept to myself. I never told anyone. Not my parents, not even my best friend. And I had no problems with it…at least until I got myself trapped in a cave and nearly died."
Tara, who had been growing increasingly happier discussing things with Willow, immediately grew wary and retreated into herself at the redhead's final words. She had forgotten the whole reason that she had started the conversation in the first place. And they had been getting along so well, the beginnings of an emotional bond certainly forming like the links of a chain. But this loose thread popped up once again to shatter her illusions.
She had to do it. She had to say the one thing keeping that chain incomplete. Even if it meant that it would never be fully formed.
"I did it."
Willow looked at Tara, seeing that she had once again hidden her face behind her hair. "What?"
"I did it. I nearly killed you."
Willow smiled. Tara certainly was taking this "delicate, house-of- cards Willow" approach a bit too far, in her opinion. "No, Tara. You couldn't have had anything to do with it. I mean, without you, I would have died. You see, when I went into that cave, I had a piece of rope with me. I tied it to some coral in order to find my way back out. Somehow I managed to lose it. I think the knot must have come loose or something…"
Tara said the word with more force and abruptness than she intended, but it did not matter. After what she had to say, there was the very real chance she would never have the chance talk to Willow again. "I followed you. I had to stop you from getting into that cave. It was where…"
"Where Lorelei and her mate…" Willow added when Tara fell silent. "You mean, that cave is…"
"Yes," Tara confirmed. "The Elders have always said that the cave was cursed. My mother didn't believe them, and so she went there to prove it. I'm not sure, but I think they might have…"
Tara's tale was getting sadder by the moment, and Willow moved to hug her. She wrapped her arms around Tara's waist, resting her head on the blonde's heaving bosom, feeling her chest rise with every breath she took.
Whatever reaction Tara must have been expecting, clearly this was not it. "Willow?"
"I'm sorry," Willow whispered.
Tara couldn't take it. She would not allow her emotions to be played with in this manner. Shrugging off Willow, she retreated to the other side of the rocks. Clearly distressed by this, Willow moved to follow, only to stop short as Tara raised her hands.
"I almost killed you, Willow!" Tara shrieked, her tears flowing forth now unchecked. She buried her face into her knees and continued to cry. "I took away the only thing that kept you safe. I untied your safety line. I was curious. Curious about it. Curious about you. And that curiosity almost led to your death. I thought that I was better than the Elders. I thought I was better than my friends. But I'm not. I'm just as cruel and heartless as they are."
Willow looked down at Tara. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. At the time, she had no idea where the rope had gone. The dream she had the other day had told her, on some unconscious level, that Tara and her near death experience were somehow related. It was a surprise now to hear how right she had been.
And yet…Willow couldn't bring herself to be upset about it. The redhead had known from the moment she had decided to do what she had done that day that she had given her life into the hands of some unknown deity that could take it away from her as easily as it could give it back unharmed. And although that deity did indeed feel it had the right to take her life, it had apparently not counted on Tara arriving to rescue her.
Willow couldn't help but feel more connected to the blonde mermaid than she had before, and she had to let her know this. But first she had to comfort her. "No, you're not."
Those three words caused Tara to hold back further tears and look up at Willow. Instead of seeing the beautiful red haired angel looking back down at her with hatred and disgust, she instead found her holding back her own tears, a look of genuine pain on her face.
"Tara, I don't know much about your clan. But from what I can tell, they are nothing more than a bunch of racist bastards. They think they know what's best for everybody, and do whatever they can in order to maintain their so called perfect vision. But you're different. If you truly were like them, as you say, you would have left me to die."
Tara realized the truth in Willow's words. And it encapsulated what she had thought at the time. Even though she had wanted to go and report the presence of a human so close to their territory, she had instead decided to follow her, ending up saving Willow from what turned out to be a very dangerous situation.
It was true. She was different. And although it was a source of great shame for her for the longest time, at this very moment, she couldn't be happier about it.
Walking back to Tara's side, Willow got on her knees and looked the blonde square in the eye. "Tara, from the moment my eyes first caught sight of you, I've felt something for you. I think you've felt it, too. There's something between us that I think needs to be explored. And I would really like to do so now. You know…if you're willing to as well."
Tara grew ever hopeful, but she still held something back. As Willow's face approached hers, she kept expecting something to happen that would bring an end to this perfect moment. An earthquake. The return of Willow's friend. Something. She didn't know what. All she knew was that this could not be happening.
But as the distance between her and Willow closed, she realized that nothing could ruin the moment. Tara had told Willow the one thing she thought she could never say. And Willow didn't care. Not only that, but she was prepared to give herself completely to the one person who could truly understand what it felt like to be one with the ocean.
Their lips came together. Tenderly at first, then opening and moving more voraciously. Their tongues probed each others mouths as their hands moved to caress each other's bodies.
Willow pulled away from Tara and got to her feet. Tara whimpered as Willow's touch left her, wondering if she had done something wrong. Her fear faded as she watched Willow reach for the ring attached to her garment and began to lower it.
Tara watched in growing surprise as Willow began, with some degree of difficulty, to remove the clothing from her body. Pulling her arms out of the top as she brought the zipper down, the redhead then wiggled her hips in order to get it down over the lower half of her body. Finally, she sat down, working her legs the rest of the way out, fully exposing her body to the chilled air.
Tara took in the sight of the beautiful naked body she had fallen in love with the moment her eyes first gazed upon it as it was revealed to her once again, in all of its wondrous glory. She knew that, unlike the last time, she was now free to look upon it without concern for the redhead's well being. And that now, with Willow's words fresh in her mind, she had the right to touch the other girl without fear.
"There we go," Willow said, a smile on her face as she placed the clothing down near the rest of her gear. Turning back to Tara, her smile deepened. "Like I said before, Tara, there shouldn't be anything between us. Not even clothing."
Tara's heart thumped against her chest as Willow approached her once again. This time, they would come together without interruption. Without hesitation. It brought a smile to her face. A fusion of the land and the sea. And she knew that there would be no regrets between them about it.
From behind the cover offered by the coral outcroppings, the two male mermaids watched as the female human traveled towards the surface. One held a knife carved from a shark bone, dark eyes boring into the female who, unaware of their presence, continued her journey. The pair, like others of their kind, had been patrolling the borders of their territory for days, hearing that there had been an intrusion by humans near their colony. Out of fear of a new human invasion, the Elders had dispatched patrols across their borders.
It appeared that the Elders concerns were valid.
"So it is true," the merman with the knife said to his companion. "The humans are encroaching on our territory."
"This cannot be permitted," the other spoke, blue eyes cold and unfeeling. "We know what we must do."
The first mermaid brandished his knife, then kicked his legs slowly, swimming away, all the while keeping to the corals for cover. His companion followed silently, the pair waiting for the right moment to make sure that the human never returned to the surface.
Swimming to the surface, Buffy's thoughts turned to Willow, hoping once again that she had made the right decision in allowing the redhead to remain in the cave in the company of….Her train of thought came to a halt as she wondered what sort of label she should give to Tara. She clearly wasn't human, that was for sure. The scales on her body and the gills on her neck had certainly proven that. But as much as she wanted to voice her caution, Buffy didn't want to offend Willow by outwardly stating that Tara was a creature or a monster, even though that was exactly how she felt. Willow was certainly willing to accept the strange being for what she was without question and apparently trusted her implicitly. Almost, Buffy noted with some degree of concern, as much as the redhead trusted her. No matter how hard she tried, the blonde couldn't tell herself that she shared that trust, and it was only her belief that Willow would do the right thing in the end that was enough to convince her to leave the two of them alone.
Still, Buffy couldn't help but have a bad feeling about the situation. Something about Tara was setting off an alarm bell in the back of her mind. The fact that she had saved Willow from drowning was something Buffy was curious about. Had Tara intentionally put Willow in danger just so she could rescue her? Had she done something to Willow that made her more compliant to her requests? Was Tara planning on capturing a human for some twisted purpose? Was the blonde, even now, torturing Willow in ways the redhead had never experienced before? Had Tara done all of this in order to lure them out here to die?
Those thoughts refused to leave her brain as she broke through the surface of the water, spitting her regulator out into the water and reaching out to take it into her hand. Using her other hand, she began to swim towards the boat, reaching it after a few moments. Climbing onboard, she began to remove the straps of her equipment, taking off the fins and buoyancy compensator and placing them down on the boat's wooden deck. Her hands began to move to take off her mask when something hit the boat from below.
"What the hell?"
Rushing to the boat's side, Buffy looked into the crystal blue waters, but was unable to find anything out of the ordinary. Convincing herself that it was just a random occurrence, she moved back to settle herself into a comfortable position on one of the boat's wooden seats, removing her mask and placing it down beside her other gear. Several more seconds of contemplative thought, most of which revolved around her continued concern for Willow's safety, passed uneventfully before the boat was rocked once again, this time more forcefully.
The motion caused Buffy to fall from her seated position, hitting the deck face first. Getting onto her knees, she crawled over to the boat's side once more and looked out into the waters again, spotting a vague shape passing by several feet under the water.
"So there is something down there," she thought, moving to take the harpoon rifle that had been resting near the boat's engine. The guy she and Willow had rented the boat from had given it to them saying that it might be a good idea to have some protection. She was thankful now that they had decided to listen to him. Buffy moved back to where she had been before, but had barely made it two feet before the boat was rocked again, the force nearly causing it to tip over. Collapsing to the deck, the blonde reached for the handle of the fallen harpoon rifle, taking it into her hand even as the boat was rocked once more.
Getting to her knees, her breath beginning to come in hurried gasps, Buffy leaned over and looked out into the water once more, trying to spot whatever it was that was that was attacking her. Noting that the harpoon was shaking, she tried in vain to steady her hands, knowing that she was going to need perfect aim in order to fire her one and only shot.
There! Several feet away! A vague shape in the water. Buffy raised the harpoon, lined up her sights…
And fell forward as something struck the boat from behind. Her chest impacted hard against the wood, causing her to gasp in pain and her grip on the harpoon to loosen. Buffy watched in horror as the weapon tumbled into the water, its impact causing a splash that reverberated through her ears like a thunderclap. Cursing, she quickly looked across the boat, seeing if there were any other objects that could be turned into makeshift weapons. But aside from her gear, there was nothing else onboard.
A cold lump began to form in the blonde's throat as she realized that she was defenseless. Looking back out into the water, Buffy could once again see the shape, only this time, there was a second. The two forms then broke apart and began to circle around the boat like sharks circling a cornered prey.
As much as her own life was in danger, Buffy couldn't help but fear for Willow. She was all alone thirty feet below, her only protection a creature that could be as dangerous as those hunting her now. A shiver ran up her spine as she realized that her earlier assumption about Tara may indeed have been correct.
But for what reason? A ritual sacrifice? To make a point? For food?
Her blood turning to ice water, Buffy's mind raced in two directions. One tried to figure out how to escape from her current predicament. The other hoped that Willow, wherever she was, was all right.
Neither of the two women knew much about how to please others. At least, not in the context of their current situation. Tara never had a mate, her natural proclivity towards females making sexual intimacy for the purposes of procreation something she never thought about. And Willow never felt comfortable enough to put herself out on the dating market, fearing that she would scare away anyone who ever found out about her private fetish. The touch of her own hand, both on land and in the water, was the closest she ever got to actually feeling the touch of another against her body.
But as the two embraced one another, lips pressing together, tongues intertwining and hands caressing each others bodies, they felt as if they could no wrong. Both instinctively knew that any touch, no matter how slight, would bring intense pleasure to their partner.
Both Willow and Tara looked back on their lives prior to this moment, realizing that they had been wrought with confusion and pain. In Tara's case, it was metaphorical pain. Her entire life had been a struggle to keep the two distinct sides of herself from coming into conflict. Her strict adherence to the rules of the clan had always made her feel guilty for spying on humans who came into the ocean. But at the same time, she had always wondered why, as no human had done anything to harm her, and the only proof she had that they had done any damage to her society had, until recently, been little more than rumor. When she found out, it made her more concerned about acting on her growing attachment for Willow, not only because of what harm might come down upon her, but also what damage could be done to the clan by her actions and decisions. But with Willow, all of her fears and concerns were rendered moot. The redhead was everything she hoped to find in a human: understanding, caring, and above all else, accepting of her in every way.
Willow's pain, by contrast, had been of her own creation. She had always been considered an outsider when she was younger, a feeling that had grown considerably worse once she discovered the interesting, though considerably weird, effect that immersion in water had on her sexuality. She always kept that side of herself closed off, never allowing anyone, not even those whom she though would understand her most, to know how she felt when her body came into contact with water in any form or the private fantasies she often had while doing so. And truth be told, though she never quite understood the fascination some people in the aquaphile community had about mermaids, one look at Tara had certainly had enough of an effect on her to bring her around. And she was ever thankful for that, as Tara represented everything she could have hoped to find in someone who she could relate to: a partner that shared her interests, a friend that could understand her, and a lover that could please her like no one else.
Their first touch following Willow's return had been a kiss, delivered with a tenderness that surprised each of them. Both knew, not knowing how they knew, that the other still held a lingering hesitation about what they were doing. It was perfectly understandable, considering what they were each feeling at that moment. Though she no longer felt bad about what she was doing, knowing that she was violating her clan's sacred laws still scared Tara on some level that she couldn't describe. Her spying on humans aside, the blonde considered herself as rigid as a rock, up until now never knowingly breaking any law the Elders set forward. As for Willow, though she felt an instinctive attraction to the blonde, the thought of making love to an alien, even one as beautiful and understanding as Tara was, frightened her. Was it something she could live with? What would be the repercussions if Buffy found out? If anyone found out? Could she deal with them? Could the embarrassment she had feared since she was younger suddenly come at her with the force of a tidal wave, leaving a destructive path wherever it traveled?
Those thoughts were soon abandoned as the kiss deepened, their lips hungrily devouring one another as each experienced wetness at their centers that had nothing to do with the presence of the nearby water. For Tara, it was the most pleasurable experience in her life, something about Willow making her look past the fact that what she was doing was, according to the laws she held so close to her heart, wrong. As she had before, Tara realized that the fiery redhead was as much a child of the sea as she was. Fate had simply made an error on her part. And as Willow's fingers explored her body, caressing her scales and breezing past her flesh, Tara felt new sensations play across her nervous system. Where Willow's touch brushed past scales, the impressions had been dulled somewhat, but what remained was enough to drive the blonde mad with desire.
Willow, meanwhile, relished the touch of Tara's lips on hers, the initial strangeness of the blonde's scaled fingers playing across her naked body quickly becoming as arousing as they had been when they were dripping with water against her body in their first encounter. Having only experienced her own touch in such a manner, it was quite a new sensation to feel the fingers of another play across her form, especially since Willow somehow felt that Tara was the only one who deserved the gift of touching her flesh this way.
Breaking the kiss, Willow looked into Tara's eyes, realizing that the aquatic blonde goddess was the one she had longed to find on dry land ever since she was a teenager. She also realized that, while certainly exciting, making love on the rocks was not what she wanted.
The blonde returned her gaze, blue sapphires twinkling. "Yes, Willow?"
"I was wondering…could we…"
Tara's gaze pierced Willow, causing the redhead's heart to melt into a puddle as deep as the one currently collecting between her legs.
The redhead found herself unable to form words, her breath catching as her eyes traced the voluptuous naked body of her newly found treasure. Instead, she gestured towards the water, a goofy look on her face.
Tara smiled, turning around and moving to slink into the water, her act barely causing a ripple in the liquid's surface. She turned to watch as Willow, a widening smile on her face, followed suit.
"Shit, fuck and damnit!"
The boat was rocking continuously now, and Buffy's carefully crafted wall of calm, built through intensive training and self discipline over the years, was crumbling as if someone was taking a sledgehammer directly to it. The movement of the boat had finally convinced her that, sooner or later, whoever it was that was doing this was going to force her off it and into the ocean.
Moving quickly to recover her gear, she hurried to replace it on her body. "Well, if that's what you want, then I guess I'd better give myself a head start."
Having put her mask and fins back on, she now moved to strap on her tank and buoyancy compensator, though the violent motion of the boat made it difficult. The shaking of her hands, growing more violent by the moment, certainly wasn't helping matters any. Finally managing to steady her hands enough to secure the equipment to her back, Buffy placed the regulator into her mouth, secured both it and the mask to her face and hastily jumped into the water, a task made easier by the fact that the boat was violently rocked once again at that moment, causing her finned foot to hit its side and send her tumbling out of control into the crystal blue sea.
Plunging headfirst into the water, Buffy was momentarily stunned. Her eyesight was obscured by the rush of bubbles her hastily made exit had produced and her body ached all over from the sudden collision with the water making it an effort to draw oxygen into her lungs. She knew that she couldn't afford to take the time to recover now, as whoever it was that was attacking her would most likely be on her now.
Swimming in what she hoped was a direction that would take her away from her attackers, and trying to shake the cobwebs from her mind as she moved, Buffy at last turned to look at who was hunting her. Although her gaze was still hazy from her abrupt launch into the ocean, she could now clearly see that there were indeed two people attacking her. She noted that they wore no clothing, and that across their bodies…
"So I was right!" Buffy thought. "Tara did lead us into a trap!" She noticed that one of the strange men held a knife in his hand. It didn't take a genius to figure out who it was intended for.
Her mind raced at an incredible speed. She knew she had to get back to the cave, grab Willow, get her away from Tara and get back to the surface and away from the danger. But even as she thought about it, she knew that she couldn't make it back in time, not with two creatures intent on ending her life on her trail. It also occurred to her, somewhat soberly, that it was possible that Willow was dead already, and that, by heading back to try and rescue her friend, all she was going to do was set herself up to definitely get killed. It had, after all, been a while since she left the redhead alone, which would be more than enough time for Tara to do something to bring Willow's life to a quick end.
It pained Buffy to realize that, in order to save her own life, she was going to have to sacrifice Willow's. At least for the moment. Silently promising herself that she would find a way to come back for her, Buffy turned away from her pursuers and headed off, hoping that she would find help before she came under attack.
As Willow's mouth continued its exploration of the wet confines of Tara's own, the mounting pleasure, combined with the heat she was feeling, made her wonder for the briefest of moments if their lovemaking was causing the water around them to boil like a tea kettle on a oven element. A smirk formed on her face as she thought of the irony of the fact that making love in the water could produce that sort of feeling. "Hmm. Maybe I could use that as some sort of science experiment. Independent Variable: temperature of water. Dependant Variable: Amount of making out with hot blonde mermaid."
The pair had continued kissing after they had moved into the water, their hands exploring various erogenous zones on each other's bodies. Willow's breasts had been cupped by Tara, the scaled touch sending a shiver through the redhead's body. Their lips had pressed against each other's necks, though Willow had wondered if doing so would cut off Tara's air. Even though they were above water, and Tara certainly looked like she could easily breathe, Willow was worried that covering them would asphyxiate her new love.
"It will be OK," the blonde had said when asked that question.
They even dove underwater together, taking their lovemaking to the zero gravity environment that it afforded. Tara somehow knew that Willow would enjoy it, and Willow wanted to please Tara as much as the blonde wanted to please her. Tara knew, however, that they couldn't do it forever, as Willow would need to be able to breathe.
Willow slowly moved back towards the shallow end of the water, guiding Tara's head down to her center as her back hit the slippery rocks. Moving her hands to her sides, she slowly breathed as Tara, face now firmly planted between her thighs, began to taste what the redhead's sex had to offer. The blonde's tongue casually played across her mound, teasing her clit every so often as it licked away at the juices seeping out to mix with the surrounding water. Willow hissed as the blonde's tongue touched her exposed bundle of nerves, the sensations of her act, which under normal circumstances would be explosive in and of themselves, were magnified by her immersion in the water.
The redhead squirmed as Tara continued her exploration, tongue gliding across her slicked outer folds. Her breath came in gasps now, as all connections to her brain seemed to stop functioning. All her thoughts centered on Tara: on how much she loved the blonde and the enjoyment she derived from making love underwater to the beautiful woman Willow could now and forever call her soul mate.
"Tara," Willow moaned, sliding down to a seated position. Tara moved as she did, their bodies fused together and acting as one. Willow felt her blood rush from her head down to her lower region, the experience beginning to leave her a little lightheaded.
But through the fog clouding her brain, an idea emerged. If she was truly going to experience her first non-masturbatory orgasm, there was only one way she wanted to do it. Gently squeezing Tara's shoulders to catch her attention, Willow watched as the blonde's head broke through the surface of the water, water droplets dripping from her hair.
"Willow? Is everything OK?"
"Everything's fine, Tara," the redhead said in response. "It's just…well, I had my first…orgasm at the bottom of a pool, and I was kinda hoping, since I'm going to…it's the first…and I was wondering if…"
The smile that crossed Tara's face was tinged with caution. "But Willow, you can't…"
"I know," Willow admitted. Then a thought flashed through her brain. "Tara, you know that spell you did? To make me breathe underwater?"
Tara's smile lost the caution that had kept it from radiating the happiness she truly felt and became one consisting solely of love. Getting to her knees, she began to chant, her hand raised with two fingers outstretched. Willow closed her eyes, not only knowing what was about to happen, but eagerly welcoming it.
She heard Tara chant as before, but now that she could understand the meaning behind the words, they seemed almost…magical.
"Goddess Amphitrite, impart unto Willow the ability of breath, so that she may have that which she most desires. God Poseidon, may your wisdom and everlasting knowledge allow Willow to know how much this gift means to me, and how much it will bring us mutual enjoyment."
Willow smiled at the words, and as before, felt the warm light enveloping her in its loving embrace, the tendrils of energy working their way down her trachea. Unlike the last time, she made no effort to fight it.
She knew what it meant now. And where it would take her.
Buffy pumped her legs, desperate to get as far away from the two men as she could. Her movement was born out of desperation and panic. Without a clue as to her location, there was no way she could identify the area. And without any certainty that she was heading towards the shore, the blonde was forced to wonder if she was simply heading further out into the sea, increasing the odds that she was going to end up floating out in the middle of the ocean with only the fishes for company.
"Well, look at it this way, Buff," she thought absently. "Maybe I'll get to some area where they can't follow before they catch up to me."
She knew that the chances of that, however, were growing dimmer by the moment. Her exertion, combined with the weight of her equipment, was slowing her movement considerably. And as she checked her pressure gauge and saw that her air supply was running low, she realized that, one way or the other, she was going to die very soon.
"So my choices are death by drowning or death by knife to the gut? Not much of a choice there. Death is.."
She felt a hand grasp her leg and pull her back. Turning with a whimper, she caught sight of the man brandishing the knife in her direction. Regretting once more the fact that she had lost her own defensive weapon, Buffy moved to block the incoming strike.
The water made both movements languid, and thus the strike and block met one another with less force than intended. Undaunted, the man tried once again to strike at Buffy, who moved to avoid the attack, grunting at the exertion her movement caused. Acting on instinct, the blonde tried to draw air into her lungs as she prepared to defend herself against the inevitable third strike, but found that she could not. Panicking, she scrambled for the air pressure gauge, her heart turning to stone as she saw the needle planted firmly in the red zone.
Moving to unbuckle the now useless tank and buoyancy compensator, Buffy turned to see her attacker join up with his companion, the pair looking at her curiously before advancing on her once again, the one with the knife in the lead.
"At least I've got a weapon now," she thought, her cheeks puffing as she fought to keep the only oxygen she had left in her lungs. As her attackers swung in for the kill, she gathered her strength and swung her gear at them, the water once again slowing her movement. But it was a success, as the equipment caught one of the men square in the stomach.
Unfortunately, it was not the one with the knife, who swam over his partner and approached Buffy, knife raised to attack. The blonde turned to move, dropping the now useless oxygen supply as her hands moved to release her weight belt in the hopes of using it as a weapon as well. A cold hand grasped her ankle, and she moaned as she knew that her attempt to escape had once again blocked. Grunting with the combined exertion of having to hold her breath and release her weight belt, Buffy used her free leg to kick at the creature, attempting to get him to release his grip on her other leg.
Finally unlatching the weight belt, Buffy brought it up, intending to bring it down on the head of her captor. But before she could, an impact collided to her side, causing it to slip through her hands. Moaning again, she watched as it tumbled to the sea floor. Looking over, she saw the creature she had knocked out earlier several feet away, obviously the source of the impact she had suffered.
"Are these guys friends of Aquaman or something?" Buffy wondered as she turned around in time to see the man's companion swing his knife hand up, sending the blade directly into her side. Too physically exhausted to move, she could only watch as the blade impacted plunged directly into her body.
The act caused her to gasp out her remaining air, her natural instincts causing her to inhale the salted sea water as her breath was forced from her body. Convulsing, she kicked feebly at her opponent, hoping that her act would confuse the creature for a moment. Then, holding on to her side to try to stop the flow of blood, she slowly began to swim away, hoping that her attacker would not follow.
Buffy realized the futility of the action. The damage had been done. Lost in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue, combined with a knife wound on her side that had impacted deep into her body, all formed a crystal clear picture that told her that her life had come to an end. Ironically, as she fought to keep herself together long enough to find a way to get to shore, Buffy found herself thinking not about her own life, but Willow's. She could only imagine what was happening to her best friend at that very moment. And she was sad that she could do nothing to rescue her from the horrible dangers she was no doubt being subjected to.
Lying on the cave floor, Willow watched as the bubbles she blew rose to the surface. Tara's face, once more buried between her thighs, continued to pleasure her in ways she had never known before. She knew that Tara was enjoying the sensations as well, if the comforting squeeze given off by the blonde's hands against her thighs was any indication.
"Tara," she burbled, her voice rising in pitch as she felt her orgasm draw nearer. "Tara….TARA…TARA!"
Her center, filled with both water from the environment and her own secretions, finally erupted. Holding her breath, Willow tried to recreate the situation in which she had first experienced an orgasm. She knew, thanks to Tara's spell, that the fear of drowning was minimal. Still, she couldn't help but be taken back to that swimming pool thirteen years ago when she was a teenager, when she has brought herself to the peak of ecstasy on a single breath and unsure of where she belonged in the world. That night had been the start of a journey, of which meeting Tara, and making love to her, was the culmination.
Her own underwater goddess.
As Tara felt the shuddering aftershocks of Willow's breathtaking orgasm pass through her body, she also felt something else. Something that mixed with the feelings of warmth and happiness she felt like a dark cloud covering the sun. As her hands gripped Willow's body, Tara knew that something as monumental as the coupling between herself and the redhead had just taken place. The blonde could only hope that whatever it was wasn't going to affect the bond that had, with Willow's release, been fully formed. Once Willow returned to the surface, she would try to find out what had happened. She was so close now to bridging the gap between merpeople and humans, and she wasn't about to let anything spoil it now.
Even, if it came to it, meant going against the wishes of the Elders.
The merman with the knife watched as the human swam away, trying in vain to halt the blood from the wound he had inflicted on her. He knew that he should follow her to ensure her death and that the body could never be found. But he and his companion had traveled far from their territory, and the female had been alone and had nowhere to go.
There was no danger. The threat had been eliminated. And no one would know about it.
Though it had been a busy afternoon, Faith had little or no trouble with her section of the beach. In fact, as far as things normally went, it had been relatively peaceful. That's why the scream that shattered the immediate area shortly after noon caught her by surprise, if only for a moment.
Then she was into action, grabbing a float and springing down the tower ramp towards where she heard the scream erupt from. Reaching a young looking woman in a two piece blue bikini, she asked, "What's wrong?"
The woman, by this point in full blown hysterics, pointed out into the ocean. Faith followed her gaze and saw someone floating face down in the water. In moments, the brunette was running into the waves, float dragging behind her. Swimming out to where the figure was, she tried to turn it over in order to see who it was. Whoever it was looked pretty bad, as the water around the body was tinged in red. The brunette also thought she saw a deep wound in the person's side, but couldn't tell as she brought the body over, saw who it was and gasped.
It was Buffy.
Draping one arm across the blonde's body, Faith started back to the shore, her heart hammering in her chest. A million questions raced through her mind, each bringing up two more. What had happened to Buffy? Where was Willow? And, perhaps most important, was the blonde going to die?
"Not if I have anything to say about it," she thought with grim determination. Bringing Buffy's body to the sand, she looked up at the young woman who had pointed out her friend's body. "I need you to go get the walkie-talkie that's at my tower and bring it down here."
She looked up to find the woman frozen to the spot, mouth agape. "NOW!"
The woman bolted for the tower as Faith silently cursed the fact that she raised her voice to someone who didn't deserve it, not exactly helping her determination to squash the "feral predator" look she knew others thought her to have. But given the circumstances, she could hardly be blamed for her outburst. Buffy was the closest thing she had to a real friend in the past ten years, and she wasn't just going to sit here and watch her die. If that meant rubbing other people the wrong way, so be it.
The woman returned with the device, and Faith pressed the transmit button, shouting, "This is Faith Lehane at Tower 8. I need a medical team down here now!"
"Roger that, Lehane," came the reply. "We'll be down there in a few minutes."
Putting the walkie-talkie down in the sand, Faith moved to look at Buffy, her gaze turning to the wound at her side. Whatever had caused it definitely didn't look like something natural. It looked far too much like a knife wound for her comfort.
Moving her hand over to the zipper of the wetsuit Buffy wore, Faith hesitated. She wasn't too sure whether or not the blonde would like to be naked on the beach with other people watching. But she also realized that it was the only way she was going to get access to the wound in order for the paramedics to treat it.
With a great deal of hesitation, Faith's fingers closed in on the zipper, pulling it down slowly. She felt her hands start to shake as she began to work Buffy's limbs through the material, her touch as tender as if she were handling fine china, afraid that a tighter grip would snap the blonde's bones. As she brought the wetsuit down over the wound, she got a closer look at it, noting how deep the blade or whatever it was that had impacted her had gone. From the look of things, there had been a large blood loss, perhaps even rupturing of the internal organs. That realization told Faith that, no matter what she or the incoming paramedics did, Buffy was going to die.
Faith's eyes widened as Buffy turned, with some degree of difficulty, to look at her. The look on her face was a mix of anguish and genuine shock. "Faith! Thank God I made it to shore!"
Despite the situation, the brunette smiled, her eyes brimming with tears she tried to keep in check. "Hey, B. Nice to see you."
Buffy chuckled, an act that caused her to wince in pain. Faith moved over, her hands going to the wound on the blonde's side. "Don't worry, B. Everything's going to be all right."
Buffy let out a sound that Faith interpreted to be half moan, half chuckle. "Faith, you're a lot of things, but you're not is a good liar. I know you too well."
Faith smiled, her eyes brimming over with tears. "We've only known each other for a week, B. That's not enough time to make friends with anybody." She found her thoughts shifting from the horror in front of her to recalling the four year journey she had taken to get to where she was today, and the many friends she made and had to leave behind when her wanderlust took her to her next destination.
But most of them weren't what she would consider true friends. The kind of person she could spend time with knowing that the other person enjoyed her company as much as she did theirs. The kind of person with whom she could spend weekends together at the movies or the mall, hanging out and talking about boys, clothes and other things girls liked to talk about.
Buffy was the only one she could apply that label to. And fate had cruelly stepped in to take from her.
Faith wanted to know who had done this. She needed to find out. For her sake. For her sanity. And she wanted to make sure that they paid for this.
"Buffy," she said, her voice quivering. "Who did this to you?"
With a supreme Herculean effort, Buffy moved to get up, managing to get to her knees before collapsing into Faith's arms. Her breathing was becoming an effort, and a rather painful one at that. Her life was almost gone. But she had to tell the brunette what she could. She had to make sure that Willow was going to be found and rescued. That way, she could die knowing that her friend would be rescued alive and well.
"Faith…you have to…find them…Make sure that…Willow…"
Faith held onto Buffy's body, hoping to hear more, but it was not to be. A final, shuddering breath came from the blonde as she weightlessly collapsed against Faith's body, all signs of life extinguished.
The brunette held on to the body tightly, starting to rock back and forth as she began to cry. She did not hear the sirens approaching, the muttering of the tourists and townspeople around her, or the shouts of the approaching paramedics to get out of the way. Nothing else mattered to her but the cold dead weight pressing against her body.
And the sound of her anguished sobs.
"I'm sorry, Faith, but there's nothing we can do."
Riley Finn, Captain of the Santa Monica Lifeguards, sat in front of his desk, going over the paperwork that had been unceremoniously dumped in front of him by the young woman pacing the room in front of him. Her eyes were still rimmed in red from the tears that she had shed earlier, and were glossed over as if she was fighting to keep fresh ones from falling. Riley also noted the fact that mixed with that glossy look was a fierce determination that slowly changed into anger at his response.
"What the fuck do you mean, 'there's nothing we can do?'" Faith replied, the shaking of her voice betraying her desperate battle to keep her anger and grief under control, lest she say or do something she would later regret. "Buffy got killed, Riley. We gotta find out how."
"It's not our place, Faith," Riley insisted, leafing through the papers, trying to keep himself from getting too emotional. Despite the fact that he appeared to be indifferent to the situation, learning of Buffy's death had greatly affected him. The blonde had been one of his top lifeguards and a close personal friend for years. They even went out on a couple of dates. But they had both decided to keep their relationship professional, neither Buffy nor himself making the move to take it any further than that.
Riley had seen Buffy work hard to get to where she had gotten in her life, and he was proud of the fact that she had accomplished so much in such a short amount of time. But as hard as she worked, Buffy knew how and when to have fun. And it was that mixture of serious professionalism and playful exuberance had made Buffy popular not only with her fellow lifeguards, but with the people that frequented the beach. Women wanted to be her, and men wanted to go out on a date with her. It broke Riley's heart to know that he would wake up tomorrow morning knowing she wasn't going to be reporting for work.
His thoughts were brought violently back to the present as Faith slammed her hands down on his desk. "You gotta be kidding me. Somebody dies out in the ocean and we can't do anything about it? 'It's not our place?' Come on, Riley. Do you really think that the cops can do anything about this?"
"No," Riley admitted with a sigh. "But they're the ones who have the resources and the ability to find out what happened, Faith. You have to let them do their job."
"Yeah," Faith scoffed. "Does that job happen to involve midnight doughnut runs and instant coffee packets?"
"You're out of line, Faith."
Turning away in a huff, Faith walked to the opposite side of the room, collapsing into one of the chairs near the door. "I know, Riley. It's just that…if it was anyone else, I would be able to put on my professional face and try not to let myself get too emotional about it, you know? But with Buffy, I…" She choked down a sob and looked away, trying to fight the urge to cry.
Getting up, Riley moved to sit beside Faith, moving to rest a hand on the brunette's shoulder. "I know how you feel Faith…"
Faith slapped Riley's hand away and got up, walking back towards the desk. "No, boss. I don't think you do. I've seen death before, Riley. When you live the kind of life that I have, going from one place to another, it's the sort of thing you just can't avoid. But I've never seen it…never had to live with it like this. Buffy died, Riley. She died in my arms. I felt her body grow cold. I saw the life drain from her eyes. And…it hurts to think about it. She is…she was the only person in the world I could say I loved like a sister, and I watched helplessly as she died right in front of me. Shit like that isn't supposed to happen, Riley. I feel…" Faith ran her fingers through her hair and looked at the floor, struggling to try and make sense of the conflicting emotions she felt at the moment. "I…I don't know how I feel. I'm…I'm not sure I want to feel…"
Riley got up and walked beside Faith, putting his hand on her shoulder once more. This time, the brunette accepted the comforting touch without argument, looking up into his face and giving a small smile. Moving to sit down, Riley watched as Faith moved back to the chair she had sat in before and stared vacantly at the wall, the clouded look in her eyes returning. He knew that the brunette was going through a great deal of emotional pain at the moment, and that it wouldn't do her any good to stay here and try to do her job if she was going to spend her time agonizing over what had happened.
So he made a decision. "Faith, I want you to take a couple of days off."
Faith brought her head around to look at Riley. "What?"
"I want you to take some time off, Faith. You're not going to feel better unless you can find a way to deal with what you're going through, and that's not going to happen if you try to do your job as if nothing has happened."
"No 'buts', Faith. You're…You're one of my best, and the last thing I need is for you to get…distracted. I can't afford that. And I'm sure you wouldn't like to be off your game. So consider yourself on vacation until you can deal with this."
Faith opened her mouth to protest, but it died before it passed her lips as she realized that Riley was right. It wouldn't do her any good to stay at work if she was going to continue to dwell on what had happened. If she did that, she wouldn't be paying attention to what was going on around her. And that meant she would make mistakes, which could lead to another innocent person getting hurt. That wouldn't do much to improve her mood.
She needed time to figure out how she was going to deal with this and how much her life was going to be affected by this. And that meant she had to have no distractions, even the one that normally would help her deal with this sort of pain. "OK, boss."
Riley smiled. "I'm glad that you've come to your senses, Faith. Go home and find a way to deal with your pain. And when you feel up to coming back, give me a call and let me know."
Getting to her feet, Faith moved to the door. As she reached for the handle, she turned and looked at Riley, who had gone back to his paperwork.
And with that, the brunette stepped through the door and started back to her tower, Riley looked up from his work as he heard the door close. And, with Faith gone and the need for him to keep a level head passed, he allowed himself to feel the emotions that he had kept under control during the entire conversation.
He closed his eyes to try and stop the tears from coming, but it did not help. The emotional dam he had kept together during his conversation with Faith had begun to show cracks while she was talking, and was crumbling even further under the weight of his growing need to express how he felt.
The wall finally collapsed. And the tears flowed freely.
Stepping inside the tower and closing the door behind her, Faith moved to gather her things from where she had put them earlier in the day. She started with her street clothes, taking the socks out of her shoes and slipping them back onto her feet, noting with some sadness how empty and hollow even that simple act felt. In fact, ever since leaving Riley's office, everything the brunette did was starting to take a great deal of exertion on her part to accomplish. It was as if cinder blocks had been strapped to her arms and legs, forcing her to have to put a great deal of effort into the simplest of tasks. Faith knew that her actions were affected by the main thing that was dominating her thoughts at the moment: the image of Buffy's lifeless body against her own. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get it out of her mind. Buffy had been her teacher. She had been her friend. She had been her inspiration. And the brunette felt empty knowing that her comforting presence was gone.
A dull ache throbbed in the center of Faith's chest, as if something had punched straight through her gut and was clenching its fist against her heart, her strength of will and need to carry on oozing out of the wound. She had lost things in her life, so this sort of pain wasn't new to her. She had felt heartache when she had to leave behind the friends she had made in one place as her wanderlust took her to another. She had been angry when she had lost money buying non essential things, crooked street gambling or due to outright theft by some punk kid who had decided to mug her while she was asleep. And of course, when she had lost her virginity in a one night stand, it had hurt like hell, at least for a moment anyway. But losing all of those things didn't hurt her as much as this did.
That pain eventually faded. Faith knew this wouldn't. And it made her wonder who could have been heartless enough to casually murder someone like Buffy in cold blood? She shivered as her brain registered the word "blood" and looked down at her body, seeing the dark red patches splayed across it. Contrasting heavily with the brighter red of her swimsuit, Faith recognized them as blood stains, which Buffy had unknowingly dripped on her when the blonde had collapsed into her arms. Their presence on Faith's body made the effort to put on her shirt and jeans all the more difficult. Faith couldn't help but think that, in doing so, she was wiping away the only part of the blonde that she had left.
Slipping on her shoes, she tied the laces and got up, moving to grab the key to her scooter from the table as she walked to the door. Pausing for a moment to look around the room one final time, Faith opened the door and walked out, heading for the parking lot. She was halfway there when Buffy's last words played through her mind.
"Faith…you have to…find them…Make sure that…Willow…"
"Find who?" the brunette wondered curiously. "Who was it that killed Buffy? Where are they? How can I find them? And what does Willow have to do with this?"
She recalled the events of the other day, noting how Willow did not appear to be comfortable with her at all. But that didn't necessarily mean that the redhead would be capable of committing murder. And from the way that Buffy had talked, Willow wasn't even the type to swat a fly. Besides, most people who first took a look at her and spent any time with her were rather uncomfortable. It was something Faith felt immensely sad about, knowing that people who acted like that did so because they only saw the predatory image she had somehow managed to cultivate around herself. But Faith soberly realized that there was no other explanation to justify the suspicions about the redhead that were weighing heavily on her mind. It didn't help that the reason she had to come in today and work a double shift was so Buffy could take the weekend off to spend time with Willow. It was that more than anything else which made the idea that the redhead could have had something to do with Buffy's death a schema that would not leave her mind, no matter how much she tried to convince herself otherwise.
Stepping onto the scooter, Faith put the key into the ignition and gunned the engine. As she made her way out of the parking lot and headed down the street, she realized that there was only one person who could help her figure this out: the person who may very well have been responsible for it all.
Having passed out in the aftermath of her lovemaking with Tara, Willow awoke to find the ceiling of the cave far above her head and her entire body immersed in water. She moved in a panic to get to her feet, fearing that she had somehow fallen in and was drowning. Then she took a breath out of reflex, and realized that she could breathe comfortably.
"But how…?" she thought with surprise, before remembering the events that had taken place prior to this moment, specifically recalling Tara enacting the spell that allowed her to breathe underwater. A smile formed on her face as she turned around, her fear evaporating into the water around her, and saw Tara's sleeping form curled up in a ball against the rocks nearby. Her blonde hair was floating around her head, which framed her perfectly sculpted face. And upon that face rested a pleased expression; one that made Willow's heart beat against her ribcage.
Moving to sit beside Tara, Willow brushed her fingers against the blonde's skin. The touch provoked an immediate response from Tara, who opened her eyes and turned to look up at Willow's smiling face.
"Have a nice nap?" she asked with a chuckle.
Tara smiled, getting to her knees and enveloping Willow in a hug in answer to her question. Willow returned the hug, her hands traveling down the blonde's back, the redhead's fingers playing across Tara's spine. She stopped briefly near Tara's tailbone and grinned as she moved her hands away from the blonde's body.
Tara whimpered at the loss of Willow's hands, and their comforting touch, against her body. That whimper quickly changed to a yelp as the redhead quickly brought her hands onto her ass and gently squeezed it. "Ooh," she moaned, squirming at the touch. "Someone's being naughty."
Willow smiled as she released her grip on Tara's backside and broke the hug. She then got to her feet and began to swim for the water's surface. Tara moved to follow behind her, slowing down in order to take the opportunity to gaze admiringly at the redhead's small but perfectly round hindquarters. An impish grin formed on Tara's face as she kicked a bit harder to catch up to Willow. As she got closer to the redhead, Tara reached out with one hand and delivered a playful swat on her exposed rear.
Letting out a small waterlogged yelp, Willow glanced down to find Tara looking back at her, a wide smile on her lips. The redhead's heart fluttered at the sight. "My, oh my. If Tara's smile was the sun, she could brighten the entire world for years. Say good bye to electricity, folks. Tara's smile is the power source for a new generation."
The pair broke through the surface of the water and headed for the rocks. Once they reached them, Tara moved off to the side and watched as Willow began to collect her gear, first taking the time to climb back into her clothing. The blonde watched with some dismay as Willow's naked body was covered up. But she realized that, clothed or naked, Willow's body was pleasant to look at.
The redhead turned to look at Tara, her upper body still uncovered. "Yes, Tara?"
Tara paused. Despite all that they had just done and how they had felt about it then, the feelings of regret and caution had returned in the aftermath of their actions, stronger than they had been before, the line the blonde had been straddling for so long having now been irrevocably crossed. Tara needed to know if Willow felt any concern or shame about what they had done. "Do you…regret…Do you regret what we've…"
Willow moved to take Tara in her arms, giving the blonde a quick and tender kiss. "No, Tara. I don't. What we've just done…is special. I don't know why, but I just know that it is. And that's why I don't feel guilty about it. And that's why I think that you shouldn't feel guilty, either."
Tara smiled faintly, grateful for the comforting touch of Willow's naked body against her own. It was reassuring to know that Willow held no regrets about what they had done, despite the danger that their actions could bring down upon them. The blonde was also comforted by the fact that Willow, much as she did, saw the potential good that could come from bringing together their two highly divergent worlds. In a way, that helped to make her feel more comfortable about the situation, even if her concerns never fully faded.
"Are you heading home?" she asked
Willow turned to look at Tara, her body now fully clothed, and saw the sadness that the blonde was trying to keep hidden from her. "Yes, Tara. But I will be back."
Moving over to Willow, Tara brought up her hands. The redhead grew curious at this. "Tara?"
Tara paused. "Willow…if you're going back to the surface, I have to…remove your ability to…"
Willow's eyes grew wary. What did she have to remove? Did she want to remove her ability to understand Tara's language? No, that couldn't be it. After all they had done, why would she want to take that away from her? It had to be her ability to breathe underwater. As much as being able to understand Tara was something strange, it was something that could easily be hidden. But being able to breathe underwater unassisted was something that would be impossible to explain if anyone noticed it. For that reason, Willow could understand why Tara would want to remove it.
And yet…"But doesn't it…you know…disappear on its own? Last time you didn't have to do anything once we had reached the surface."
"I know. When I cast the spell that time, I did so in a way that would cause it to fade after you returned to the surface. But this time, I cast it differently because…because I was unsure of how long we would…you know. And I didn't want you to drown while we…"
A smile appeared on Willow's face, realizing what it was Tara had done. The blonde's attention to her pleasure and safety was something that she was slowly beginning to like. But as Willow thought about it, she realized that the ability to breathe underwater wasn't something that she wanted to give up. After all, it had been a lifelong dream of hers to be able to swim unassisted by clumsy equipment that could fail at any moment. And now that she had gotten it, she wanted to try and keep it. There was the potential for danger, of course. Willow couldn't deny that. But if there was one she was good at, it was keeping secrets that she didn't want other people to know. Of course, the fact that the secrets she kept were usually the type that were difficult to conceal made Willow feel guilty about doing it, but this was different. This was something that could easily be kept hidden with no strings attached.
So she would ask Tara if she could keep the ability to breathe underwater. If she explained what it meant to her, and Tara still insisted on taking it away from her, at least the blonde would know. "Tara…I was wondering. Could I…."
Tara hesitated, unsure of what Willow was trying to say. "Yes?"
"Could you…maybe…not take that away from me? The ability to breathe underwater, I mean? I know it's a special thing, and that you have every right to ask for it back. But…I've always wanted to have this. I've spent my entire life wanting things I thought I could never get from anyone. And here I am getting everything that I've always wanted. And I know it must seem selfish of me to ask this, but I was kind of wondering if I could…you know, keep this one thing? As something to…remind me of you when I'm…"
Tara placed a finger delicately on Willow's lips, bringing the redhead's babblefest to a halt. She then made a choice, one that she could easily make without a second thought. If Willow wanted something special to remind her of her presence on the surface, then so be it. But she would have to take precautions in order to make sure that they would both be protected from any potential fallout of this decision.
"OK, Willow. I will let you keep the ability to breathe underwater. But you have to promise me. You can't misuse this ability. If anyone finds out that you can do this, they will try to find out how. And if it leads to humanity discovering our clan, then there could be…problems."
Willow, who normally would have inquired about what exactly those problems were, was too excited about the prospect of keeping this gift to pay any real attention to either Tara's concerns or the overly cautious manner in which she voiced them. Moving to replace her fins on her feet, she said, "I promise, Tara. No one will find out about this."
Tara was not fully convinced. "But what about Buffy, Willow? You said that it would be right to keep secrets from others. Does that mean you'll tell her about this?"
Willow's hands stilled as she was putting her mask back over her eyes. She felt conflicted about the question. She had indeed said that there was no need for secrets between friends. That was why the redhead had brought Buffy to see Tara in the first place, so that her blonde friend could see what it was that attracted her so much to her underwater adventures. Tara was, after all, the living embodiment of them. But Buffy would never understand what Tara had done to her, not only by giving her the ability to breathe underwater, but also in giving her the ability to understand Tara's language. Buffy would no doubt see those two things as a violation of Willow's being, and would try to harm Tara because of it, no matter how much Willow might try to explain things to her.
Willow couldn't allow that, even if it meant that she would have to once again keep a secret from her best friend. "This is different, though. Even though I always thought she could never understand my love of water, it was something Buffy could easily accept. Tara's gifts aren't. She'll never understand that they are given to me out of love. I've got to keep this from her. I'm going to do this to keep Tara safe. I'm going to do this to keep Buffy safe. I'm going to do this to keep me safe. I can do it. I know I can."
"Yes. I promise, Tara. I won't tell Buffy, either."
Tara brushed a hand across Willow's face, the touch sending a jolt through the redhead. Willow found it surprising how easily Tara's touch could affect her now, even when she wasn't using her magical talents. Of course, Willow was also beginning to realize that, when it came to Tara, every touch was magical.
As Willow moved to finish applying her gear to her body, she watched as Tara slunk back into the ocean, resurfacing a few moments later with what looked like an oyster pearl. Moving over to the redhead's side, Tara put the pearl into Willow's hand.
"Willow, this is important. After what we've done…I think it's necessary to keep in contact. This pearl has…magical qualities. It was given to me when I was younger by…by my caregiver. She told me that I could give it to whomever I wanted if I felt that person was someone special. I do think you're special, so…I want you to have this. It will allow you to feel as if I am nearby, comforting you with the essence of my being. It will also give you the ability to contact me through telepathy. Whenever you want to do so, hold it in your hand and think of me. I will be able to hear you and will understand what it is that you want to say."
Willow looked at the pearl for a moment, rubbing it between her thumb and forefinger. It felt smooth to the touch, almost as if it had been cast from Tara's own skin. She smiled as she recognized what this was: yet another gift from Tara, given in the hope that it would bring them closer together. Moving to place it in one of the pouches of her buoyancy compensator, she turned around and took Tara's hand in hers, her other hand reaching out to take hold of her remaining gear. The pair then moved into the ocean together, dove beneath the water, and headed for the surface.
As Willow and Tara made their way back to the boat, the redhead couldn't help but feel that something had gone incredibly wrong in her absence. There was no way she could try to put her feelings into words. She just knew that something didn't feel right, and it bothered her a great deal. That feeling had only gotten worse as she and Tara continued their swim to the surface where, upon breaking through the water, they discovered the boat without any hint of Buffy's presence.
Tara noted the concern on Willow's face. "What's wrong?"
"Buffy's not here, Tara. She promised that she would wait on the boat for me."
Tara bit her lower lip, trying to keep her concern and fears from becoming apparent on her face. The feelings she had while making love to Willow, and now discovering that her friend was missing? Tara realized that the two events were too coincidental to have been the result of random occurrence. She realized now what must have happened, and it pained her to know that she would need to tell Willow, potentially break the bond that she had worked so hard to forge.
Watching as Willow hefted herself onto the boat and bent over to drag her gear onboard, Tara said, "Willow, I need to tell you something. When we…made love, I felt…something change in the ocean."
Willow looked into Tara's eyes, noting that the blonde's tone was cautious, as if she feared to say whatever it was that she had to say. This immediately put her on edge, as she had hoped that what she had said before would have soothed the blonde. But now that the fear was back in Tara's voice, Willow began to grow concerned again. Why couldn't Tara feel happy about what they had done?
Tara tilted her head slightly. "I think so. Maybe. I don't know. I didn't want to say anything because…I didn't want to upset you."
Gripping the side of the boat, Willow looked into Tara's eyes, seeing them once again clouded in fear and doubt. After her attempts to comfort the blonde about what they had just done, it was not a pleasant sight to behold.
"Tara…please, tell me."
"I think…that Buffy may be dead."
The thought struck Willow as quickly as if she had been caught in a tidal wave. How could Tara think that? How could she say it? And more importantly, why did she find herself fluctuating between reluctantly believing it herself and vehemently denying it at the same time?
"I don't know, but I felt as if two forces came together and struggled for dominance. Then, rather suddenly, one smothered the other. And that other…slowly began to fade until it simply…disappeared."
Willow couldn't believe what Tara was saying. Buffy couldn't be dead. She just couldn't be dead. But, at the same time, it scared her to realize how much she found herself believing the blonde's words. "Tara, I don't believe that. Buffy isn't the sort of person who would just die without putting up a fight. If something had happened, she would have tried to save herself."
Tara cast her gaze down into the water. "I hope you're right, Willow. I have a bad feeling about this. We've come so far. We've…I've done so much. I don't want anything to happen that could destroy what we have."
Willow moved her hands to Tara's shoulders, gently squeezing them to reassure the blonde. "I feel the same way, Tara. Hopefully we're both wrong." Moving to the boat's engine, she started it up.
"There's something else."
Willow turned to look at Tara once more. "Tara?"
Tara glanced down into the murky depths below her. As much as she had been afraid to say what she had said before, she was even more afraid to say this. But it was important. The thought of having to make sure Willow knew everything about what may have happened to Buffy overrode her natural caution and her desire to make sure the redhead didn't suffer any more pain than necessary.
"I wasn't sure before, but when we traveled here, I realized that…you and Buffy…That the two of you have…"
"Tara?" Willow prompted the feeling that something was very wrong growing once more in the pit of her stomach.
"We've crossed the border of my clan some time ago. You and Buffy have violated our territory."
Willow's eyes shot open in a panic, realizing that her earlier concern for Buffy's safety was now clearly justified. "Tara, I'm sorry. I didn't know…"
"I know," Tara replied. "And somehow, that makes what may have happened here worse. If…If Buffy was killed by others of my kind…You have to believe me, Willow. I couldn't live with myself if I thought that I had unintentionally led someone to their death. You know that now. So…if Buffy…if she…"
Willow tried to find something to say that would comfort her blonde aquatic lover, but nothing came to mind. This was mostly because she couldn't find anything to say that would comfort her own tortured feelings about the situation. The thought that Buffy could be floating dead out in the middle of the ocean somewhere was an image that just wouldn't leave her mind.
And try as she might to feel otherwise, Willow was beginning to be concerned about what role Tara could have played in it. The blonde had said that she had felt something change, though she had been vague about it. Whether by design or because she honestly didn't know, Willow couldn't tell. And if Tara had been aware of what was going on, why had she not told her when she first felt it? Why wait until they had returned to the surface? As much as Willow wanted to believe that Tara had nothing to do with what was going on, it was not much of a stretch to think that the blonde had been lying to her about everything ever since they had first met.
"No! Don't think like that! Tara wouldn't lie to me. She's too much of a kind soul to do something like that. And if something had happened to Buffy, she would put up a fight! She's not the type to just roll over and die! She would try to get to shore. I'll bet she's there right now waiting for me. I'll go see her right now and reassure her that everything's OK. But…if she did come across others of Tara's kind….how can I explain it to her? I'll have to tell her that…But I can't! I promised Tara I wouldn't! Oh, God! What am I gonna do?!"
Looking into Tara's eyes, she could see the worry in them that began to match the worry that she herself was feeling. "First off, gotta make Tara feel better. I don't feel better, but making her feel better would go a long way towards making me feel better."
"Tara, don't worry. I'm sure that Buffy's waiting for me at the docks. I'll go there now and try to sort things out. And when I do, I'll come back."
Tara nodded in reply, and without another word, dove under the water. Willow sat watching the spot where Tara had been for several more moments before moving to the engine and began to guide the boat back to the docks.
No matter how much she tried to convince herself that everything was all right, the bad feelings had only gotten worse after Willow had brought the boat back. Not seeing Buffy anywhere on the docks, she took the bag containing her clothes and, leaving her gear on the boat, walked to the nearby washroom. Thankful that there was no one else there, she walked into one of the stalls, stripped out of her wetsuit and got dressed. Her thoughts during this entire time were a jumbled attempt to try and figure out what situation, besides the possibility of being attacked by others of Tara's kind, could justify Buffy abandoning the boat. Willow tried to think of possible scenarios, but realized that there was no other reason that could make Buffy choose to leave the boat. She was a lifeguard, trained to remain calm in any sort of difficult situation, and nothing short of an unavoidable disaster which she could not prevent could shatter it.
After returning to the boat to collect her gear, Willow made her way to her car, storing the gear in the trunk and getting inside. She started the engine and headed off, the idea that Tara's kind could have been responsible for Buffy's disappearance making what she was doing feel wrong. The idea that she was putting a great deal of distance between herself and Buffy hung over her head, blinding her to her surroundings to the point where she had nearly driven off the road.
"Why?" she thought as she attempted to focus on the road. "Why is it that I feel so divided and conflicted when I should be happier than I have ever been in my life? I should never have brought Buffy and Tara together. I knew it was a mistake. I knew something bad was going to happen. I just knew it. But hey, maybe I'm overreacting about this. Maybe Buffy got tired of waiting for me on the boat and decided to swim back to the docks. She could have easily taken the bus or gotten a cab from there and went home. I'll bet she's waiting for me there right now…Unless she got attacked by a shark…or an octopus…or…"
"We're in my clan's territory."
"I think…that Buffy may be dead."
Tara's words found their way back into Willow's brain, shattering the redhead's latest attempt to feel better as if it had been a gingerbread house being under attack by the overeager mouth and hands of a five year old. Everything that kept invading her mind was beginning to be amplified by the fact that all of this could have been avoided had she taken the boat back to the same place as had two days ago. It hadn't occurred to Willow at the time that she was doing anything wrong by bringing the boat to a different location this time. Indeed, that was the whole reason why she had brought it somewhere different in the first place. As the most remote area that Willow could think of, she knew that there was no chance that they would be discovered by anyone else. It occurred to her now that Tara's clan had chosen to live in such a remote spot for a very good reason. And the fact that she and Buffy had unknowingly violated it, combined with the knowledge that all of this could have been avoided if she had thought things through, was making her feel even more depressed and agitated than she had before. After all, it was one thing to put her life in danger, but to risk someone else's life as well?
As she brought the car into the underground parking lot near the apartment and found a place to park, Willow thought that there was no way that the situation could get any worse.
And then she looked up and saw Faith standing nearby, her eyes flaring with a burning hatred as she looked straight into the redhead's own. Turning the key and shutting down the car, Willow immediately grew uneasy at seeing the brunette, a feeling that didn't fade when Faith spoke to her as she got out.
"What's going on here, Red?"
The minute that Willow saw Faith, she knew that something bad was about to happen. And what made her feel worse was the fact that Faith reminded her too much of Tara: a new person in the redhead's life that she had been greatly afraid of upon first meeting her. But while Willow had warmed up to Tara rather quickly (though recent events had given her cause to doubt if she should have), she remained coldly indifferent towards Faith, an act that she knew was out of character for her. As she had never knowingly gone out of her way to harm anyone or feel negatively towards others, it pained Willow to know that she was inherently, and perhaps unfairly, judging Faith. The fact that the brunette was here and looked as if she was about to walk over and stick a knife in her gut certainly didn't do anything to change that mindset. Buffy had told her that there was good in Faith and that she wanted to work to bring it out. But as far as Willow was concerned, Faith was nothing but trouble.
Knowing that she couldn't ignore her, Willow looked up and started directly into Faith's eyes. "What do you want, Faith?"
Faith walked up to Willow, causing the redhead to step back as if she had just been cornered by a wild animal. "I think you know, Red."
Willow gave the brunette a quizzical glance, confused at Faith's response. She had given it to her in a very matter of fact tone of voice, as if the redhead should know exactly why she was here. "Faith, what are you talking about? Why would I know why you're here?"
No sooner had the words passed through her mouth than she realized exactly why Faith could be here. And she mentally slapped herself in the face for not realizing it sooner. If Buffy had either made it to the beach or went there after getting to the docks, she would have told Faith everything that had happened, especially if she had come under attack. Willow grew frightened about this, especially given the fact that if Faith was here, then Buffy should be as well. But from all appearances, it didn't appear as if she was anywhere in the immediate vicinity. Willow had to find out where Buffy was, if only to assuage her mounting fear.
"Faith, have you seen Buffy? Do you know where she is?"
Faith's snarled as she pointed a finger directly into Willow's face. "You got some nerve, Red, acting like you think I have no idea what's going on."
Willow's heart was crashing against her chest, growing more confused and flustered by the moment. Faith was clearly attacking her for some perceived offense that she had done to Buffy. And though she wanted desperately to believe otherwise, it was somewhat sickening for her to realize how much Faith's words were hitting home. But she couldn't let the brunette know what had happened out in the ocean. It was mostly because she was still unsure about what actually happened, but more importantly, it was because she wasn't quite ready to believe the truth. "Faith, I don't know what's going on! I've been out all day with Buffy, and we got…"
Willow paused, unsure of how to continue. She certainly didn't want to bring up Tara to anyone, especially in a conversation like this. But she especially didn't want to talk about her in front of Faith. If Buffy's reaction had been any indication about how other people who didn't understand her and would react to the idea of mermaids, then Willow knew that Faith would be antagonistic towards her, especially if she learned about who and what Tara really was.
"We got separated," she quickly continued, hoping that her momentary pause wouldn't be too noticeable. "I tried to find her, but I couldn't. So I decided to go back to our boat and see if she was there. She wasn't, so I decided to come back home and find out if she was here. You have to believe me, Faith. A…A lot's happened to me in the last couple of days, and I'm trying to figure out how to deal with it."
Planting her hands on her hips, Faith snorted as she flipped her hair back. "And since you couldn't, you decided it would be easier to just drag B out to the middle of the ocean and kill her."
Willow suddenly gave Faith her full attention, wondering how she could be tactless enough to say that. And she also wondered how much that statement didn't seem to affect her as much as she thought it would have. Willow knew why, of course. She'd had the image of her blonde friend's lifeless body in her mind for some time, so it wasn't much of a surprise to hear about it from someone else. After all, all it did was confirm what she had already begun to suspect. But what did surprise her was who had given her waking nightmare a very real and very frightening confirmation, to say nothing about the incredibly insensitive way that Faith had said it. Her tone of voice and accusatory mood finally brought Willow around to the sudden realization that the brunette adamantly believed she had killed Buffy.
"Faith, I didn't…"
Faith's face contorted into one of disgust. "Oh, come off it, Red. I know what happened. I found her out in the ocean with a big ass knife wound in her side. And she said your name with her dying breath. Now, if you ask me, it doesn't take much of a genius to put those two things together."
Willow opened her mouth to deny Faith's words, but found herself with nothing to say. She had been wondering if her actions had brought about Buffy's end, but hearing it from the mouth of someone else just felt wrong. It didn't help that the brunette's words were lashing out at Willow as if she was mercilessly whipping her naked back, making the redhead's already painful thoughts all the more excruciating to deal with.
Blinking her eyes and shaking her head in an attempt to regain her focus, Willow knew she had to say something in her own defense, lest Faith think her silence was an admission of guilt. "Faith, listen to me. I had nothing to do with Buffy's death. I…I didn't even know about it until right now." She knew that wasn't true, but at the same time, she told herself that it wasn't exactly a lie, either. Even though Tara's words had given her a reason to suspect it, Willow had still clung to the hope that she would find Buffy alive. Faith's words, however, had brought that fantasy down around her head as quickly as if it she had used a jackhammer to smash it to pieces.
Her eyes began to water, and Willow knew she was on the verge of a complete emotional breakdown as she continued, "And to be frank, I don't really appreciate the fact that you're attacking me about this. Buffy may have meant a lot to you, but she meant a lot more to me. We've known each other since high school. We've been best friends for years. She went out of her way to make me feel more comfortable about things I did and things I liked which…which I thought would scare and frighten other people if they ever found out. She made me feel like…like a normal person at times when I had reason to wonder if I really was. We even had the rest of our lives all planned out. I was going to be Buffy's maid of honor at her wedding, and she at…at mine. We were going to grow old together and share a room at the old folk's home. We…we were going to forget to take our pills and complain about the temperature in our room. We were supposed to be together forever…I…I've never thought that I would have to spend the rest of my life without her…"
Willow leaned against the side of her car and buried her face in her arms, too emotionally spent to keep herself from crying any longer. The double impact of learning that her best friend was indeed dead and being accused of it by an angry Faith was too much for her to handle, finally unleashing the tears that she had tried desperately to keep buried ever since she first contemplated the idea that Buffy could be out of her life.
Faith, meanwhile, watched Willow's emotional breakdown and realized immediately that she had made a big mistake. The pieces to the puzzle that had pointed her to the conclusion that Willow could have killed Buffy fit together so well that it never occurred to her that she might have been wrong about it. And caught up in her desire to avenge Buffy's murder, she came off as being accusatory and feral, the very image that she had been desperately hoping not to give Willow. The redhead was someone she very much wanted to be friends with, if for no other reason than the fact that she was important to Buffy.
Faith immediately regretted saying what she had said, knowing that in doing so, she was dishonoring Buffy's memory. The brunette figured that it would have been her one wish in life that the two of them could be friends. It was certainly ironic that the opportunity for that to happen only came at the expense of the blonde's own life.
"Red…" she said, her voice a whisper that held back the pain that Willow had let loose. She turned away, trying to keep herself from letting the redhead know how much she had been affected by her words.
Turning to look, Willow thought about the dramatic 180 degree shift that Faith had just undergone. She was unsure whether or not she should believe it, thinking at first that the brunette was simply trying to lull her into a false sense of security by playing with her emotions. But as she watched the animalistic fury and tension that had been in her eyes and wrapped around her body slowly fade away, Willow realized that she was indeed being sincere. It became obvious to Willow that Faith was as deeply affected by Buffy's death as she herself was, but while she was letting herself get depressed to the point of catatonia over it, Faith had decided to take a more proactive approach, trying to find out for herself what exactly had happened. Willow couldn't blame the brunette for that. Given the right set of circumstances, not knowing what she did about the situation, she would want to do the same.
Faith turned at the sound of her own name, seeing Willow looking at her with her arms outstretched, a puppy dog look of sadness on her face. Without a second thought, Faith ran straight into the redhead's arms, the two embracing one another in a tight hug. Their sobs echoed across the empty parking lot as they collapsed to their knees, each of them letting their emotional guard down completely, knowing that the other felt the same way. They held one other for a few minutes more, neither fearing to separate out of concern of the other's feelings. Eventually, they let go of one another and got to their feet, still sniffling and blinking away their remaining tears.
"Red, you gotta understand something. What I said…I didn't mean…"
"I know," Willow said, brushing away a strand of her hair. "You were just…You just wanted to find out what happened to Buffy. She is…she was someone special."
"Yeah," Faith sniffled, turning away to look out at the setting sun. "There's nobody else in the world quite like her, Red. The world's lost someone important today." Turning back, she looked into Willow's eyes. "But at least she can rest in peace now."
Willow blinked. "What?"
Faith swallowed hard, the memory of what happened and her feelings about it still fresh in her mind. "Buffy's last words…well…I didn't catch them all, on account of the fact that she didn't finish them, but…I thought she wanted me to find you and make you pay for what you had done to her. But now that I think about it, I think she wanted me to make sure that you were OK. And now that I know you are, I can get to work making sure that whoever was actually responsible for this pays for what they've done."
Willow who had begun to feel a connection with the feisty brunette, suddenly felt herself ill at ease. Not only because it once again reminded her of Tara's possible role in all of this, but because, despite all that had happened, she felt the need to protect the blonde, and her kind by association, from the well meaning advances of Faith that would no doubt become something substantially different were she to find out what really happened.
Faith's voice cut back into her thoughts. "Like I said, I got the idea from her last words that you had something to do with it. But from what you've just told me…I don't know, Red. I still can't shake the feeling that you know more than you're telling me. Are you sure you have no idea what happened?"
Hearing the question made it almost impossible for Willow to keep herself from blurting out what she felt at that moment. Her thoughts rewound over the course of the past few days, realizing now that with everything that's happened, she may have changed more dramatically than she had thought at first. And Willow knew that it all stemmed back to meeting Tara for the first time. She had been so deeply affected by what had happened to her prior to that, both on an emotional and hormonal level, it never occurred to her to give herself adequate time to think about what had happened to her. And even when she had gotten back to dry land and had the opportunity to do so, Willow didn't dwell on it as much as she knew she should have.
And there was also the fact that Tara had sung to her. Willow realized now it must have been what had affected her actions, because ever since that moment, she had been feeling and thinking things that had never before crossed her mind. Including, she realized with growing sadness and concern, the hastily made decision she had made to bring Buffy to meet Tara. It was something that bothered her greatly. Despite her tendency, because of her spazzy nature, to make decisions like that, she had only done so when it was about something rather insignificant. On decisions like the one she had made to bring Buffy and Tara together, Willow would have spent a great deal of time thinking about it, wondering if it was a good idea and weighing all the pros and cons before finally reaching a decision. And she knew that she would not have made a spur of the moment decision about a choice like that that unless she had somehow been tricked or coerced into doing so. This concerned Willow a great deal, and made her wonder if Tara's song had implanted some sort of subliminal message in her mind, telling the redhead to bring someone down to be sacrificed by her people.
Willow's mind screamed at her in two different voices, each telling her what she should do. The rational part of her mind told her to tell Faith everything that she knew, knowing that it would help bring about the justice that Faith obviously felt Buffy's death required and which she, on some unconscious level, could agree with. But at the same time, the part of her mind that wanted to keep things a secret in order to protect others told her that it would be a bad idea to blurt out what she knew. What she had to say would have been impossible for anyone to willingly accept under normal circumstances. Buffy had seen it for herself firsthand, and things hadn't turned out so well for her. Not to mention that if she were to tell Faith, the brunette would no doubt write her off as an insane lunatic, trying desperately to make up a ludicrous excuse to explain the situation. A situation that, despite everything they had just gone through, Faith might still think she had a role in.
The fact that any attempt on her part to explain to Faith what had happened in those terms would certainly serve to justify that left Willow wondering what she should do. She certainly wanted to explain to the brunette what really happened, but not if that meant putting herself and Tara in any harm. Those two things were something she did not want. "I'm sure," she answered with great emphasis, hoping that Faith would believe her words.
Shaking her head, Faith turned around and walked back to her scooter. Willow watched her walk away, tears once again welling in her eyes. From the brunette's actions, she knew that Faith didn't believe her. Or, at the very least, didn't think she was going to get a straight answer out of her.
"FAITH, I'M NOT LYING! I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DIED!"
Stepping onto the scooter, Faith turned the key and gunned the engine. She then looked up at Willow, seeing a look on the redhead's face that was unmistakably vulnerable. Faith knew by that look that what Willow had said was the absolute truth, at least as far as she knew. And as much as Faith wanted to believe that Willow had nothing to do with what had happened, the redhead's unwillingness to give her an honest answer or possible explanation made her seriously doubt the redhead's words.
Then again, would she really be acting this way if she had killed her best friend? For the moment, Faith really couldn't answer that question as well as she would have liked. But Willow obviously needed to do what she needed to do as well: spend time dealing with the pain that she felt, imagined or not. And for the sake of Buffy, whom she knew would not approve of what she was doing now, Faith was willing to let Willow off the hook, at least for the moment.
Shaking her head, Faith drove up beside Willow's car, turning to look at the redhead. "I know you think that, Red, and I want to believe you. I really, really do. So for now, I'm going to, for Buffy's sake. But I am going to try and find out what happened. And if I find out you've been lying to me, I'm not going to be happy."
Faith gunned the engine and sped off, leaving Willow without the opportunity to deliver a response. The redhead stood and looked out at the departing vehicle for several more moments before she got her keys out of her pocket, walked over to the trunk and opened it to retrieve her gear, all the while trying to keep herself from suffering another emotional collapse.
Several minutes later, Willow walked into the apartment, recalling how much the situation reminded her of what had happened two days ago. Like then, she had just come home from a secret dive trip on which she had met a beautiful blonde mermaid known as Tara, and bared her soul to her. But there was one major difference this time that made her feel depressed about walking inside the place that, up until now, had been a bastion of comfort in a cruel world.
Buffy. There was no comforting presence of her best friend in the apartment to make her feel better about the things that she had done and felt ashamed about. There was no feeling of knowing that Buffy was going to come home and help Willow leave the problems of the day behind her. The redhead felt a sense of loss as she realized this, knowing with some irony that she would have been the first person that would have helped her deal with her grief and loss.
Setting her gear down beside the door, Willow walked towards Buffy's room, stopping in front of the door. She brought her hand to the knob and hesitated for a moment before grasping and turning it. Pushing the door open, Willow stepped inside the room, closing the door behind her. She then drew a deep breath and turned around, looking at the contents of her best friend's room.
There was a Queen sized bed situated against the wall with simple white sheets and two pillows. A clock radio and a framed picture of her family stood on the nightstand beside the bed. There were also two bookcases in the room: one on the opposite side of the bed, the other in front of it. Both held a mix of videos, DVD's, magazines, novels and old school textbooks. Willow found herself smiling at the sight of seeing so much reading material in Buffy's possession. Despite her appearance as the stereotypical uneducated bleached blonde bimbo, the blonde had often enjoyed the thrill and excitement that came from reading a good book.
Knowing this, Willow had given several to her as birthday gifts over the course of their friendship. Walking over to the bookcase beside the bed, she withdrew one which she had given to Buffy on her last birthday: "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare." Opening the cover, she lifted the dust jacket and looked at the words she had written on the inside cover in her easily recognizable calligraphy: "Happy Birthday, Buffy! I hope you enjoy this. My parents gave me this when we went to London. I want you to have it because…well, it was special to me. Just like you are. Willow." Willow traced a finger over the words she had written before returning the book to where it had been on the shelf.
Her gaze then drifted across the room, coming to a stop on the small cabinet beside the door. Taking a look, she saw that it contained the various trophies, certificates and medals Buffy had won while part of the high school swim team. Although most of certificates stood framed among the trophies and medals, two hung side by side on the wall above it. One was the certificate that the blonde had gotten when she had completed her lifeguard training. The other wasn't a certificate at all, Willow realized upon closer inspection, but a picture. The picture showed Buffy at what looked like her mid teens wearing a blue competition style one piece swimsuit that, because she appeared to have recently been in water, clung to her body. A pair of swimming goggles and a medal hung from around her neck. She stood between two other people, her mother Joyce and younger sister Dawn. Willow had met them many times when she had stayed at Buffy's house for sleepovers and late night homework cramming sessions. All three of them were smiling, Dawn and Joyce clearly expressing their happiness at Buffy's apparent victory.
Looking at that picture, and thinking of the memories of their friendship that it had invoked, brought a fresh wave of sadness and pain over Willow at the loss of her best friend. It also made her think that it was rather selfish to think that she and Faith had the exclusive rights to feel anything about Buffy's death. She had affected a great deal of people in her tragically short life, and both she and Faith had shown a large amount of grief about her loss. But as much as it affected the two of them, Willow knew that it would affect Dawn and Joyce more. She and Faith were Buffy's friends, but Dawn and Joyce were her family. They most likely knew what happened by now, and Willow couldn't help but wonder how they were handling it. Was Joyce sitting in a chair with a cup of tea, crying at the loss of her first born daughter? Was Dawn curled up in a ball in her room and holding a stuffed animal, trying in vain not to believe that her sister had been taken from her?
Blinking away the tears that were welling up in her eyes, Willow moved to the closet and opened it. Looking inside, she wasn't surprised to find it stocked with jeans and t-shirts. Willow knew that Buffy had been a tomboy for most of her life, only wearing fancy clothes such as dresses and high heeled shoes on special occasions. Willow would never forget the pink dress and matching high heels the blonde had worn when she escorted her to prom. It was so unlike her to go to great lengths to beautify herself like that for anybody. But Buffy had said something that night that deeply affected Willow, who realized with those words how much she was willing to go through just to make her best friend happy.
"I know this isn't something I normally do, Will. But because it's you, and because I love you as a friend, I'm willing to do this. I want to make you happy, even if it means putting myself in danger."
Closing the closet door, Willow turned and walked out of the room. As she closed the door and headed towards her own room, she began to cry once more. Seeing Buffy's room, filled with the various knickknacks and personal items that showcased the blonde's brief but vibrant life, reinforced and amplified her feelings of despair. These feelings were amplified by the fact that she knew that they would need to get packed up. She would have to walk back into that room, look at everything that was her best friend's legacy, and put it away as if it were something to be donated to the Salvation Army.
But Willow knew that it wouldn't be going to someone who didn't deserve it. It would be going back to Buffy's family, who could treasure it more than she could by leaving it here. It was the only thing Willow knew she could do with it, since she couldn't keep it that room as if everything was all right. Because she knew that it wasn't. Keeping Buffy's things in her room would only serve to remind the redhead of what she had lost.
Pausing at the door to her room, Willow glanced back at the gear she had left by the door. Moving back to it, she unzipped the pouch on the buoyancy compensatory where she had placed the pearl given to her by Tara. Taking out the smooth marble and letting it rest in the palm of her hand, Willow felt something pass up her arm. It felt as if an electrical current had pass through her, infusing her being with a sense of freshness and calm that she had not felt since…
Since Tara had brought her back to consciousness. Willow almost dropped the pearl out of disgust at the thought, quickly being reminded of how much she was beginning to question her decisions and Tara's possible influence on them. But for some reason she couldn't even begin to fathom, she kept it in her hand. As much as she felt conflicted about Tara and her feelings for the blonde at that moment, Willow knew that it was also somewhat comforting to have something of hers nearby. She just couldn't believe that Tara would be capable of doing something as horrific as what she was imagining. And knowing this, regardless of how much she wanted to doubt it, made her think that things would get better soon. Despite this, however, the negativity that had been brewing in her mind in relation to the mermaid refused to leave her being. It was as if Willow's feelings for Tara were the sun, and her nagging doubts she had about the blonde were a dark cloud that was hanging over it, keeping the full vitality and strength of her feelings from coming forth at their full intensity.
Closing her hand around the pearl, she tried to push those feelings aside, thinking only of pure happiness and warmth as she thought of Tara, hoping that wherever she was, the blonde would feel them and be comforted.
As she swam home, Tara could not help but feel as if she was being watched. No matter how much she tried to feel good about what had transpired between her and Willow, the wrongness of what they had done continue to hang over her, making her feel as if she had betrayed her clan by making love to the redhead. Tara's state of mind was not helped at all by the fact that she was forced to consider that because of her vagueness in offering a conclusion regarding Buffy's safety, in addition to saying nothing about her clan's xenophobia and distrust of humankind, Willow was at this moment beginning to think that she had lured them both down to the sea in order to be killed.
It had pained Tara to realize this, especially since it was her choices that had set everything in motion. Although Baji had given her blessing and said that she would not judge her for her actions, she had been the one to decide to walk the path that had led her here, knowing full well the dangers that were possible. She couldn't blame this on an outside power. She couldn't blame this on some less reputable element of her society influencing her. She had made the choice herself to do what she had done. That made what happened her responsibility.
Her teacher would no doubt try to comfort her, but she was a minority in this situation. If anyone else were to find out what had happened, she would be ostracized and put to death. And all for the simple reason that the Elders feared anything they saw as even remotely harmful to their society. That also meant Willow would feel their wrath, if they were to discover her role in what had happened, when she returned to the ocean.
"If she were to return," Tara thought, fearing once again that Willow would somehow convince herself that the blonde had been in collusion with the others who had killed Buffy and never return, denying her the opportunity to try and explain everything.
But as much as Tara feared that situation and realized the apparent danger should Willow return, she was also beginning to think that, regardless of what the Elders thought about the situation, the redhead's return and the love for each other that they shared, perilous as it was at the moment, could only be seen as a good change to the clan and their way of life. If she could prove to everyone that peaceful coexistence between mermaid and human could happen without the apparent dangers that had made them fearful of the love between Lorelei and her mate, it would do enough to convince others to begin questioning the Elders' decisions as she had. This would force a change whether or not the Elders desired one. And Tara knew that if she could accomplish this, her death would matter little to anybody in her society.
But it would mean that she would be leaving Willow alone, confused and divided between two similar, yet completely divergent, worlds. Tara knew that the redhead possessed qualities of both, yet it was that mixture that would never allow her to feel comfortable living solely in either. It made her feel selfish to think about how much her death would not matter to others, because she hadn't thought to take into account how greatly it would affect Willow, especially if she were to learn that their union had been the catalyst for that senseless act. Having already lost her best friend on land due to the actions of her clan, Tara did not want Willow to lose the only real link to comfort and love that she had available to her.
Approaching the aquatic city that her clan called home, she saw other mermaids swimming around. Males and females conversed with one another while children swam around without a care in the world. She smiled at the antics of the children, hoping that they would grow up without any of the fears and rules that had been so much a part of her own upbringing. Something about the way that the adults were acting, however, made Tara feel uneasy. It was almost as if they were trying to figure out what to do about a potential problem.
Tara turned around to find Baji approaching, her hair billowing in the water. The fact that her teacher was here made her concerns about the others more prominent, for she would not have come here unless she had business with the Elders. The fact that she had specifically called for her meant that what she had to say was for her ears alone. Tara's feelings of uneasiness and concern were rapidly approaching a dangerous point, and she knew that what her teacher would say now would not help them dissipate.
Leading Tara away from the others, Baji turned to look at her. "I've felt something earlier. Have you…Have you done…anything?"
As before, Tara knew that she could not keep anything from Baji, no matter how much she wanted to. So she told her everything: How Willow had brought someone from the surface, how that person had treated her with suspicion and fear and how she and Willow had made love shortly after she had left.
Baji grew uneasy as Tara finished speaking. "Tara, I can feel that you know what's happened, so I won't try to comfort you. Your friends invaded our territory. The one that left you was found by a patrol on her way back to the surface. They…they killed her."
Tara shuddered. She knew that Baji was going to tell her this, but that didn't mean it was easier for her to hear it. "It was an accident. They didn't mean to invade. They…She…Willow only wanted to come back and see me. I…I never thought…" Tara quickly wrapped her arms around Baji, giving her a hug as her tears moved to join the salted water.
Tenderly patting Tara's back, Baji replied, "I know you had the best of intentions, Tara. And luckily, the Elders have not yet treated this incident as anything more than what it appears: a single person unknowingly invading our territory. It's unlikely that any more will be made of this, as the patrol was quite sure that she could not make it anywhere that she could be easily found before she….before she passed."
Hearing that, Tara could feel a mixture of revulsion and relief pass through her. On the one hand, it meant that Buffy would not be found by anyone on the surface, thus preserving the secret of her clan. And anyone that did manage to find her body would more than likely think that her death was the result of something other than an attack by her kind. But it reminded her of how much her mistake had cost Willow, and that she would need to try and explain had happened to her if and when she returned. And now, with clear proof that Buffy had been killed by her kind, Tara wasn't sure that Willow would easily accept an explanation of her innocence in the act.
Baji's voice cut into her thoughts. "Tara, I have to tell you something that you may not want to hear, but I think it is necessary for you to know. This perceived attack on our way of life has made the Elders more…xenophobic than usual. They've decided that until tensions have been lowered among us and the apparent threat has passed, no one is to travel outside our borders out of fear of potentially attracting other unwanted visitors. Now, I said before that I would not disapprove if you wanted to pursue your relationship with Willow. Now, for both your safety and Willow's, I have to go against my word. I don't think you should see her again."
Tara looked into Baji's face, a mixture of sadness and confusion on her face. The words of her teacher were something that she did not want to hear. The two of them had come so far and done so much to prove their mutual love for one another that it revolted Tara to think that a simple misunderstanding by those who didn't know better was threatening to tear what they had done. She would need time to figure out how to deal with this and how to explain everything to Willow, but Baji needed a response now. The elder mermaid needed to be reassured that Tara, who was in every aspect like her own offspring, would not do anything rash. But Tara couldn't agree with what Baji wanted her to say. Nor could she go along with what the Elders decreed. She would not be dissuaded from being with Willow, especially when the redhead had lost the one thing in her life that was special to her. And especially not when Tara could be the only comforting thing she still had in this world.
Willow would need someone in her life now. And Tara wanted it to be her. Mostly, it was because of her happiness at succeeding where Lorelei failed in bridging the gap between mermaid and human. But now, some part of it was because of the guilt she felt about having unknowingly caused Buffy's death. Whether she was actually responsible for it or not, it didn't matter. Willow may think that she was, and that was more than enough to make her feel ashamed. Buffy's death at the hands of her people had been a wanton act of violence, one that could not be simply passed over as an accident as her actions that had led Willow to become lost in the cave and almost die had been.
She had to explain to Willow that it had been an accident. And she had to hope that, in doing so, she could gain her acceptance and love once more. It would not be easy. It may not succeed. But it had to be done.
"I'm sorry, Baji. I can't do what you ask of me. I can't do what the Elders want me to do. Willow has had pain brought down upon her because of us, and it is my responsibility…no, my duty to make sure that she doesn't suffer anymore because of us. Even if it means I will have to be killed."
Baji looked at Tara, neither anger nor fear on her face. "So much like your mother," she murmured, gently hugging Tara once more. "Very well, Tara. But if you choose to do this, do so with the knowledge that anything that you do from this point forward is a risk not only to yourself and our clan, but Willow's life. I know that is not something you wish to risk, so I know you will proceed with caution. But be aware that if something should happen to you, there is nothing I can do to stop reprisals from the Elders."
Tara nodded. "Yes, Master Healer."
Holding onto each other for several more moments, Baji and Tara finally separated. And as the elder mermaid began to swim away, Tara felt a wave of sudden happiness wash over her. Closing her eyes, she could feel the unmistakable presence of Willow mixing with the pleasant feelings, the redhead's life force working gradually to change the blonde's own feelings from somber and subdued to pleased and happy, despite the fact that a trace of uneasiness and fear were present in her own aura. Tara kept her face passive so that she would not attract unwanted attention, but she internally smiled at the fact that wherever she was, and despite whatever sadness and pain she herself was feeling, Willow was attempting to comfort her.
Tara's one wish at that moment was that she could return those feelings.
Willow was underwater, struggling to free herself from the discarded fisher's net in which she had become entangled. Moaning around the regulator between her lips, she lamented her predicament. Why had she decided to go diving alone in the middle of the night? It was stupid of her to have done that. And when her head began to hurt, she should have realized that something was wrong and headed for the surface. But before she could, a wave of nausea had passed over her and knocked her out. When she came too, all she could think about was getting to the surface as fast as she could. Unfortunately, in her haste, she managed to completely miss, and thus get trapped in, this blasted net.
Panic rising in her chest, Willow tried once again to free herself, but only managed to make things worse. Pausing in her struggles, she grabbed the air pressure gauge hanging from her side and looked at it. Her eyes shot opened as she saw the needle nearing the red zone. Flailing about, she tried once again to free herself from the net, realizing that unless she got out now, or someone came to help her, she was going to run out of air and drown.
Willow's frantic struggling paused as she saw a shape emerge from the depths of the sea, her fear evaporating as she recognized what it was. It was Tara, the luscious blonde mermaid coming to save the redhead, much as she had done before when Willow had been tossed overboard.
"She's going to rescue me," Willow thought, her fear and panic fading. "I knew that Tara would come to rescue me. I knew she wasn't cold and heartless."
But instead of moving to free Willow from her prison, Tara simply floated in front of her, a small smile beginning to form on her lips that suggested neither love nor compassion. Willow's eyes shot open as she saw this, realizing that Tara hadn't come to help rescue her, but was instead going to sit back and watch her drown. She screamed, the regulator falling from her mouth as she did, and continued to struggle against the source of her entrapment, hoping that Tara was just playing around and that seeing the redhead in genuine distress would convince her to come save her.
Clamping her lips shut, Willow stared pleadingly at Tara, noticing that her face was looking more menacing by the moment, all remnants of its former passivity gone. But thoughts of Tara and how she had been were driven from the redhead's mind as she realized that she needed to get fresh oxygen into her lungs immediately, even though she knew that there was none available to her. Willow felt her chest heave as she finally exhaled, sucking a copious amount of sea water into her lungs as she involuntarily inhaled. Trying to force the foreign invasion out of her body only resulted in further intrusions, but Willow could not help herself. Her body quickly began filling with water, oxygen and her strength leaving her body with every convulsion she suffered.
And as her eyes began to glaze over, Willow could only stare vacantly at Tara's face, an anguished look of pain and betrayal on her own. And watch as the blonde laughed at the redhead dying in front of her, her face cruel and contorted into one of devilish amusement.
Willow awoke with a start from her nightmare, the sheets knotted around her body as if she had been acting out the struggle that had taken place in her mind. Shivering, she realized then that her body was drenched in sweat and that her breath was coming in panicked gasps. Turning to look out the window, she could see that the sun was high in the sky, its rays shining through the window down on her body.
Turning around to look at the clock, she was surprised by the fact that it was approaching noon. Moving to get up, Willow glanced at her nightstand, seeing the pearl resting beside her lamp where she had put it last night. Looking at it now, with the memory of her nightmare still fresh in her mind, brought to the surface the redhead's confusing, and still conflicted, feelings for the blonde mermaid. No matter how much she tried, Willow still couldn't decide how to deal with the idea that Tara could have had a hand in Buffy's death. And despite her attempt to send good feelings to Tara last night, and her constant attempts to tell herself that Tara had nothing to do with it, the nightmare she had just had made looking at the pearl now a difficult task. Doing so made her feel a mixture of the love she had always felt for Tara and the cold disgust that had been growing deep in the pit of her stomach that made her feelings for Tara questionable at best. Willow knew that her thoughts were making her feel like she was on a knife's edge and could topple at any moment, and it didn't really do a great deal towards making her feel any better.
Moving to the washroom, Willow took a quick shower, the water spraying against her body in a hard and unforgiving way, as if it was trying to remind her how much her love for it had played a role in the events of the last few days. Stepping out of the shower a few minutes later, she dried herself with a large towel and moved back to her room to put on a fresh pair of underwear and her bathrobe. Walking to the kitchen to make herself breakfast, Willow found herself moving to Buffy's room shortly after making it, the majority of her meal uneaten on the table.
As she stood in front of the door to her best friend's room, Willow's hand moved to the knob as she mentally prepared herself to walk inside the room and see everything that would remind her of happier times with her best friend. Though some time had passed, the wound of Buffy's loss was still fresh enough to make her prepare herself for what she was about to do. Pausing as her fingertips brushed the knob, Willow found herself walking back to her own room, entering it and looking once more at her nightstand, the pearl still resting on it.
Walking over and taking it into her hand, Willow thought about what she should do with the smooth marble. The thought that she should throw it out the window and let it smash into a million pieces on the ground below entered her mind briefly, but left just as quickly. No matter what Tara had done, it didn't seem right to destroy something that was precious to her and that she had given to Willow freely. But could she keep it in her possession knowing that her feelings for Tara were still up in the air? What if she decided that she no longer loved Tara? What would she do with it then?
Willow's thoughts shifted suddenly from what to do with the pearl to what she should do today. Packing up Buffy's things was the first thing that came to mind. It was certainly important and something that she should do with the utmost haste. After all, the longer that it remained in the house, the more likely it would be that she would grow too attached to it and decide not to let it go. Better to get it all out of the house now before she decided to keep it all in a desperate hope to keep Buffy's memory alive.
But on the other hand, perhaps she should, one way or another, find a way to bring closure to her feelings for Tara. It would certainly make packing Buffy's things easier for her if she could decide how she truly felt about the one who could have played a role in what happened, now that she knew for sure what had happened. And despite her pain, Tara needed, and rightfully deserved, to know how she really felt about it.
Closing her hand around the pearl and feeling its energy course through her arm, Willow tried to project a message to Tara, trying also to keep her negative feelings from clouding her mind.
"Tara? Are you there? Can you hear me? Please…talk to me."
Tara sat cross legged near the dwelling she kept inside the borders of her clan, glancing above at the surface of the water. Her attention, however, was focused on her private thoughts. She knew the geography of the area well, and knew that where she was sitting was near the exact center of her clan's territory. And all around her were people that would harm her if they found out that the cause of their current fears and concerns was among them and had been spying on humans ever since she was a child. What could make the situation worse than that was having someone discover what she had done to Willow, not only magically, but physically. That would definitely make people think of her as a dangerous person that was bringing disaster down upon them all, much like they thought Lorelei had done in the distant past.
"I never wanted this," she thought with disgust directed not towards her kind, and certainly not towards Willow, but towards herself. She had known that this was a potential consequence for her actions the moment this began. And she had taken every precaution to make sure nothing bad could happen. But she hadn't counted on Willow bringing anyone else to see her. She hadn't counted on the two of them entering their territory to do so. And though she knew that the Elders would do whatever necessary steps to keep their territory safe, she certainly hadn't counted on their fears and prejudices making them paranoid enough to do something as drastic as killing an innocent person who unknowingly violated them. Those same fears and prejudices had been much a part of her life, yet they were so for reasons that she had, until recently, never really understood.
It was merely the latest obstacle in her struggle to fight between what she was because of her birthright and what she hoped to become through learning and experience. That struggle had eventually led Tara to Willow, who was the first to see her not as a creature that could bring harm down upon others, but as a person of love and care that was special in a way that only the redhead could understand fully. It had made Tara proud to know that Willow looked at her and saw the one link to a place that she had always dreamed of going, yet had until now, had never managed to find.
It was ironic that, despite all of her best efforts, the place Willow had always wanted to go had also been the place where her best friend's life had been brought to an end. For that reason alone, Tara wanted to howl at the top of her lungs. It had been the first time she had to deal with more than suspicion and bigotry on the part of her clan, any injustices they may have committed before the Change being lost throughout time. She had never in her lifetime experienced an act as horrific as this and Tara hoped that she would never have to again.
Her thoughts turned away from the disgust she felt about the act and the hatred of her kind as she became aware of a subtle imprint against her mind. It was as if someone had placed a pair of fingers on the back of her skull and was attempting to work them through the skin in order to get into her head. Shutting her eyes and attempting to concentrate, Tara tried to figure out the source of the invasion into her mind, one she immediately identified when she heard a familiar voice in the intrusion.
"Tara? Are you there?"
Although relieved to hear Willow's voice, Tara quickly recognized that what was going on could easily discovered by anyone with magical talent. Unlike before, when the redhead had imprinted her feelings onto her, there was no danger of what was going on being discovered by anyone else, as there was little disruption in the currents and flow of the energies that could be detected. This time, however, with Willow actually communicating to her, there was a danger. And with the situation the way it was, with everyone on a heightened sense of alert, even the slightest of disruptions would be investigated with the utmost urgency.
Turning her head to look around, Tara breathed a sigh of relief when she noticed that there was no one taking apparent notice of what was going on. But that didn't mean she was safe. What Willow was doing was unfocused, and thus could be easily felt by anyone with even the most basic magical talents. The chances were very good that anyone else who could interpret this would most likely pass it off as a mild headache, however, so that meant she had to act quickly before anyone could have the chance to interpret it as anything else.
"Oh, Tara! I need…I need to talk. I'm going to come back to the place I was when we met… first met! First met! I don't want to come back to where we had come yesterday and find myself under attack by…whatever attacked Buffy. I…I think that we…need to talk. About us."
Willow's presence left her mind rather abruptly after that final statement, leaving Tara to wonder just what it was that she wanted to talk to her about. Why was she coming back to her? Didn't Willow realize how much danger she was putting herself in by doing this? Of course she did. She had to. Buffy had been killed by others of her kind. Willow had to know this by now. So why was the redhead coming back to her?
It had to be love. It had to be the same love that Willow felt for Buffy and brought her to the decision to bring her to meet Tara. It had to be the same love that had brought the two of them together in the first place. It had to be the same love that had made both of them decide to join together in the one way that could never be taken away by anybody, not even themselves. And it was love that was going to bring Willow back to her, even though it could mean both of their deaths.
Tara tried to keep herself from crying, realizing what it was that Willow was doing. She was once again making a choice that could doom her life. Not only that, she was making a decision that could doom Tara's own and those of her clan. But there was still one very vital question that was unanswered by her thoughts: what did Willow want to say that would make her decide to go to all this trouble and risk the potential danger that her actions represented? If she wanted to say that she didn't want to be near Tara anymore, there were other options for her to do so. She could have spat out a rather blunt series of expletives that would be stamped into the blonde's mind for the rest of her existence. She could have said absolutely nothing at all, the very situation that Tara feared the most. She could have even destroyed the pearl, an act that would have been easy for her to do, and the magical aftershock of which would definitely make an impression on her.
But Willow didn't do any of those things. She said she wanted to talk. That was a start, and it meant that there was still hope for them. That bridge had already been built, and even though there were some loose planks, Willow's words had given Tara the confidence that the redhead wanted very much to repair it. That meant she had to pursue it, regardless of the risk to either Willow or herself.
But how could she, with countless guards patrolling the borders by now and any attempt on her part to leave the borders only serving to confirm her role in what had happened to all?
Tara would find a way to circumnavigate them. She had to get to her private cave. She had to see Willow again.
Even if it was for the last time.
Faith's sandal clad feet slapped against the wooden planks of the docks, the noise created by her actions reminding her of the sound of breaking bones. And, by association, her uncomfortable feelings that she had felt towards dealing with Buffy's body the previous day when she had been fearful of breaking the blonde's limbs as she worked them out of her wetsuit. Trying not to think about that, she instead cast her thoughts back on what she had done since encountering Willow.
Returning to the homeless shelter, she wondered why, with the income that had come from her lifeguard job, she would choose to continue to live in a dumpy, run down building on the bad side of town. It was a simple question that had an even simpler answer, at least in her mind. She did it because, although she was working hard and had the ability to live a better life, she didn't want to forget where she had come from. If she started to live the good life, she would grow accustomed to it. And in her experience, it didn't do any good to try to hold on to that which she knew would never last.
Besides, of all the places she had lived in during her trip to California, it was at that building where her life, a life without trouble, fear or the stigma of being labeled, had really started.
And it was all thanks to that mysterious stranger. Even today, Faith could easily recall the events that had happened the day she had met the man she only knew as Angel. Looking at him, she could immediately tell that he was someone who tried to find the good in everybody, no matter how they acted or how they looked. That had been something in her favor, as she had walked into the shelter that night wearing an ensemble that could only describe as "colorful", though anyone else would have made far less tactful comments.
Angel took her into a room and asked that Faith talk to him about her life. She did, telling him everything about her past and what her life had been like at home, including how much she enjoyed swimming in the water and how she considered it a means to cleanse herself of the pain she often felt when dealing with the pressures of real life. As the conversation continued, Faith began to realize that she was doing most of the talking. All Angel had done was nod politely and say that he understood what it was that the brunette was saying.
And when Faith had finished talking, he had said something that would affect her for the rest of her life.
"Going down the path you're on now will only ruin you, Faith. I think you know this; otherwise you wouldn't be trying to do something about it. But you don't have to go to the extreme in order to make a difference in other people's lives. Sometimes the most powerful change can come from the gentlest strike. You're a rare breed, Faith. You're a person who genuinely wants to do right, even if you have to do something you don't want to do in order accomplish it. And even though you've have a rough life, you keep caring about others. That makes you special. And someone like you can do well in the world…if you know how."
It was then that Angel recommended that Faith get into the lifeguard business. He thought that it was the best way to combine the brunette's two passions: helping others and swimming. And Faith couldn't deny that it had done wonders for her life. She had a purpose now, she knew that she would be doing her best to make other people feel safe, and best of all, she had made a friend that would be proud of her and one that, unlike the others she had made during her travels, she would never lose.
At least, a friend Faith thought she would never lose. Thinking about Buffy made the weight of her loss crash against her once again; a dull ache the brunette knew she would have for a long time. Faith wondered if it would ever fade. Could she go on with her life without being haunted by this memory? Perhaps not, but at least she could try to make the impact she would get from dwelling on that less forceful by finding out what had happened. And since she wasn't going to get it from Willow (which, despite what had happened between them, did more than enough to keep her suspicions of the redhead firmly in the back of her mind), she was going to have to find it herself.
Walking up to the rental agency office, Faith looked at the man on duty, hoping he could give her the answers she wanted. "Hi, I'm Faith. We talked earlier in the day?"
"Ah, yes," the man replied, a small sparkle in his crystal blue eyes. "You're the young woman who inquired to us about looking into our boat rental records."
"If you don't mind, miss, can I ask why?"
Faith licked her dry lips, knowing that it was going to be difficult to get what she wanted. "I'm…investigating an incident that happened the other day at Santa Monica Beach. I have reason to suspect that it happened out in the ocean, and I wanted to see who has been out there recently."
The man gave her a quizzical glance. "Are you a cop, miss?"
Faith paused, but realized that she couldn't lie. It wasn't in her nature to deceive anyone, even when it was for the greater good. "No."
The man went back to his paper. "Then I'm afraid I can't let you see the records. You would need to get a warrant before we can allow you to do that."
Faith swallowed hard. She knew that it wasn't going to be easy to get what she wanted. And the clerk's refusal to help meant that she would have to resort to less acceptable acts in order to get what she wanted. Taking off her hat, she shook her head, shaking out her hair to its full length. She then stretched her arms behind her head, displaying her impressive chest, barely covered by the white tank top she wore, for all to see. It disgusted her to have to do this, reminding her of the times when she had to resort to selling her body on the street in order to get money. She only hoped that it would have the desired effect she wanted, and that it would come quickly, lest anyone besides her target get the wrong impression about what she was doing.
Looking up, the man saw the private display of Faith's charms and blushed. "But I guess I can make an exception in your case, miss. Come on in, and I'll get you started."
Faith was disgusted by what she had to do in order to get what she needed, but at least it had been worth it. She sat in front of a desk, a couple of binders open on top of it. She had taken one, which contained the records of the people who had rented boats for the previous six months, and gone over it, starting at the previous day and working her way backward over the past three months. And though there were many names listed, one stood out among the rest.
Willow Danielle Rosenberg.
Seeing that name on the majority of the pages she had gone through made Faith's suspicions about the redhead resurface. Willow had said that she had nothing to do with what happened. Even if that were true (and she still didn't firmly believe that), what reason did she had to take a boat out nearly every weekend for the last three months, presumably all by herself? What exactly was it that she did out there?
Rubbing her chin, Faith closed the binder and set it aside. Getting up, she made her way to the door and stepped out of the building. As she turned around, she saw a very familiar face walking down the wooden pathway towards the rental office, head thankfully tilted down and unaware of what was in front of her.
Moving to hide behind one of the nearby docked boats, Faith watched as Willow, whom she now noticed was holding a bag in one hand, walked up to the building and began to talk to the clerk. It was all the brunette could do to stop herself from confronting the redhead right then and there. If she did, she knew that she would never know what it was that Willow was up to.
Something about the situation still gnawed away at Faith. She desperately wanted to believe that Willow had nothing to do with Buffy's death, no matter how much the evidence continued to point in the opposite direction. The reaction she had given to being accused of Buffy's murder had certainly confirmed to her that the redhead could not have known about what happened. But Faith knew from past experience how easy it could be for one to manipulate the emotions of another, and it would certainly have been easy for Willow to toy with her on this issue, making a joke out of the fact that she had killed Buffy and, worse than flaunting it to the brunette's face, insisting that she had nothing to do with it.
And being the type of person who would believe almost anything under those circumstances, Faith naturally took all in hook, line and sinker. Even though she still had doubts after what had happened the previous day, she had mostly shoved them to the side out of respect to Buffy. Faith knew that the blonde wouldn't want her to be thinking ill of her best friend. But given what was now readily apparent, she felt foolish at how easily she had been tricked.
And muttering a silent apology to Buffy, she realized that disrespecting the dead may be justified if she was doing so to the blonde's murderer. Watching Willow walk off, Faith cautiously moved out of her hiding place and headed back to confront the clerk at the rental building. "What was that about?"
Jerking her thumb back, Faith said, "The redhead who was just here. What did she want?"
"Oh, her," the man replied. "She comes in every weekend and rents a boat. I guess she just loves the ocean a bit too much. This is the third time this week she's been here. Yesterday she came in with a blonde, but I remember that she came back alone looking pretty distressed, as if something had happened while she was away."
Faith's resolve hardened at hearing the man's words. She had been willing to give Willow the benefit of the doubt out of respect for Buffy. But now that she had evidence that could support her earlier assumptions, Faith was going to confront Willow and find a way to wring a truthful answer about what happened out of her. And this time, she wouldn't accept anything less than the truth.
"I need to borrow a boat."
Willow sat on the boat, looking out at the water around her. Unlike her previous trips into the deep, it was somewhat of an effort for her to do so. For the longest time, she felt as if the ocean was the only thing in her life that made her feel complete. And now the one thing that had given her comfort and love had seen fit to both give to her and take away the only two people who could understand how she truly felt about it.
She shook her head, realizing now that what she was thinking simply wasn't true. It had become painfully obvious to her that as much as Buffy understood her, Tara understood her more. But the redhead still couldn't help but wonder how much of that was lies and deceit. The blonde mermaid had seemed so sincere, and yet the events that had happened since they had met caused her to question how sincere Tara really was. Willow desperately wanted to believe that Tara had nothing to do with what had happened, and she knew that there was only one way she was going to find out.
Getting to her feet, Willow began to strip out of her clothes until they were piled in front of her. Hesitating for a fraction of a second, she moved to take off her bra and panties as well, setting them down on top of the bundle. As she stood naked in the center of the boat, the breeze caressing her bare skin, Willow suddenly became aware of the fact that her hands were beginning to play across her body, her right drifting across her taut stomach before moving up to breeze between her breasts while her left moved to graze at the red curls of her sex.
Quickly realizing what she was doing, Willow forced herself to stop. As she did, a sense of guilt draped itself over her body. This is what the water had done to her; it made her unknowingly do things she knew were dangerous and stupid. The redhead, in realizing this, also realized that Tara may not have changed her at all. Maybe she had always been like this, using the fear and shame she felt about keeping her fetish for swimming and diving private as an excuse to keep her from doing to harm not only herself, but to others. If she hadn't snuck into that pool, she never would have taken up diving. If she had never taken up diving, then she wouldn't have knowingly violated the territory of a secretive and private race. And if she had never done that, she wouldn't have met…
Willow was quickly growing more confused about what was going on in her mind. If things hadn't happened the way they had, then she never would have met Tara. And it made her feel guilty to think about what may have happened to her had she never met the luscious blonde. True, Buffy would still be alive, but she would still be a paranoid recluse, keeping her private self a secret for much longer than she had until she let it out to Buffy in a different way. Would she still be alive if she had done that? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
And as much as Willow couldn't shake the insignificant, yet ever present negative feelings she had begun to feel towards Tara, Willow couldn't completely lose the powerful feelings she had for her either. She had done nothing wrong, after all. True, she did keep the secret of her clan's xenophobia, but she did eventually tell her. Yes, it didn't happen in the most flattering way, but it did happen. And if Tara really had anything to do with what happened to Buffy, would she really have done that?
This realization made it all the more important for Willow to talk to Tara, if for no other reason than to ask for her help in sorting through the jumbled thoughts of her mind. Picking up the bag she had brought with her, Willow withdrew a mask and a pair of fins, slipping them both onto her body. Moving to the side of the boat, she stepped off it, hit the water feet first and began to swim towards Tara's private cave, hoping all the while that she would not suffer the same fate that her friend did.
Bringing her boat beside the one Willow had abandoned, Faith looked around, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. Seeing nothing that looked out of the ordinary nearby, she peered into the boat, finding a small pile of clothes inside. Picking up the shirt, she recognized it as the one that she had seen Willow wearing earlier. The brunette's brow creased in thought as she wondered why Willow would want to be naked out in the middle of the ocean.
She realized, however, that the answers to those questions didn't really matter at the present time. What did matter was that the clothes provided evidence that Willow was somewhere nearby. And when she found her, Faith would get the answers she wanted. Moving to collect the scuba gear she had rented along with the boat, she stripped out of her tank top and shorts, revealing the lifeguard swimsuit that she had gone back to the shelter to put on, knowing she would have to go into the ocean. The swimsuit that, Faith noted soberly, still had traces of Buffy's blood across it. Faith never had time to wash it after she got home last night. And to be honest, she wasn't sure if she was ever going to do it. Thinking for a moment about that, the brunette wondered if she was trying desperately to cling to the past by not washing her swimsuit. By not doing that, was she trying to preserve something of Buffy's life in her mind? Was that psychologically sound? Surely being reminded on a daily basis of the blonde's death wouldn't do wonders for her mental health.
But the simple truth of the matter was that she didn't have anything else to wear that was appropriate for what she had to do. And it had been a good idea to wear her tank top and shorts over it as she went to the dive shop, since anyone who looked her way (and given her figure, most people did) would no doubt see the blood and start to get ideas that Faith really didn't want others to start cultivating about her.
As she moved to strap on the gear, Faith hoped that Willow hadn't gone too far. And that despite what she had just learned, she could phrase her comments more diplomatically. All things considered, it would be easier for her to get the answers she wanted from Willow if she didn't snap at her like she did last time.
No matter how badly she wanted to.
Willow glided through the ocean, breathing as easily as if she were breathing from a tank. Despite all that had happened, it was still an incredible and indescribable feeling for her to be able to do this, and she knew that it should be making her happier than she had ever been. But no matter how much she wanted to enjoy what she was doing, the knowledge of her ability's origin, mixed with her feelings towards the task at hand, unsettled her. Her concern was no longer out of fear for what happened to Buffy, but the unshakable feelings of worry about how to explain her recent revelations to Tara.
She had been thinking about it ever since she had woken up, and the more she had, the more Willow realized that no matter what evidence could be presented to convince her otherwise, Tara had nothing to do with what had happened to her best friend. If there was one thing that Willow knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was people's capacity for doing things in the heat of the moment they later regretted. After all, if she hadn't been such a spaz about revealing her deepest secret to Buffy, Willow wouldn't have felt the need to invite her to go visit Tara, and the blonde would still be alive. And though Tara had no real role in what happened, there was no doubt that she was blaming herself for everything. After all, in her mind, she had hurt Willow. And Willow could only imagine how much that was troubling Tara, knowing how important her safety was to the blonde.
They were both going through an incredible amount of pain right now, and Willow hoped that each of them could help the other through it. Seeing Tara's cave as she came back to the present, Willow looked around to see if there was anyone nearby, then swam towards the entrance. Pausing for a moment to collect herself, she entered the cave, one hand moving to graze the stone wall.
Sitting on the edge of the boat, her back to the water, Faith clamped her lips around the regulator of the tank and drew a breath, the act causing a burst of air to travel down her throat. She smiled around the device, thankful that the equipment she had rented was in proper working order. Not that she believed that it was damaged or anything, but it never hurt to make sure. After all, she was putting her life in the hands of equipment that was not her own and could fail at any moment. Even though she had worked well with others and was as much a team player as her job required, she still found it difficult to put her life into the hands of anything that might not be dependable. It had a lot to do with the way she lived. Living on her own for as long as she had didn't make it easy for her to open up to others about her feelings. Buffy had been the only one with whom she felt comfortable doing so, and now she was gone. It would have been easy for Faith to believe that the fact that she had opened herself to Buffy was the reason why she was gone. But that wouldn't do her any good. Willow was still the only one who could explain what happened.
Having already put on her fins and weight belt, Faith moved to slip her mask on over her eyes and nose. Once it was on, she secured both it and the regulator to her face with one hand and dove into the water. The minute she hit it, Faith immediately felt a tingle pass across her body, a feeling that persisted and began to grow as she swam away from the boat, the only sound she heard the rhythmic pulse of her own breathing. As the tingling of her skin intensified, Faith began to think how funny it was that she had never thought about doing this before. Having been taught the basics of diving while being trained as a lifeguard, she knew how to do it without putting herself in danger. And since she knew how, she could have easily decided to do it during her free time. But it had never really occurred to her to go diving for anything other than rescuing trapped individuals from boat wrecks and downed planes. And it really made sense for her to think that. Doing things for the fun of it wasn't something that she did very often. The minute she started doing something for her own enjoyment, it became less about helping others and more about fulfilling her own desires. And she never wanted to do that. Other people came before she did.
And it was because of other people that she was here. She wanted to make sure that she had a reason for Buffy's untimely and unnecessary demise. The time for letting Willow off the hook had long passed. And one way or the other, Faith was going to get an answer now.
Looking around, Faith tried to see if there was anywhere that Willow could have gone. Seeing no evidence of either the redhead or a place where she could hide nearby, Faith began to swim around, looking to see if there was any place for Willow to run off.
Tara sat on the rocks inside her cave, waiting for Willow to arrive. She could feel that the redhead was close, her unmistakable imprint permeating through every one of Tara's senses. Despite her happiness at knowing that Willow was coming, Tara was still unsure about what it was that she wanted to talk to her about. The apprehension Tara felt before was amplified tenfold now, knowing that the redhead had decided to come to her to discuss it, something that Tara couldn't believe Willow would do. For her to do what she was doing was incredibly risky and dangerous to her life.
It was easy for Tara to feel so conflicted about Willow approaching her. Being in the redhead's presence was something that had brought her incredible pleasure every time it had happened before, even if every time had been punctuated by an incident that had cast a cloud over her feelings. That cloud had done a great deal towards making her fearful about what was happening now. In order to get past the patrols guarding the borders of her colony, she had used her magic to cloud her presence. It was a simple spell, and one that could be easily enacted without anyone noticing a major disturbance in the life force of the Mother Ocean. But that still didn't make Tara feel better about doing it. If anyone were to discover that she was missing, the Elders would send someone to search for her. And if the search party were to find her together with Willow, then they would both be in trouble.
Tara tried to push those thoughts from her mind, telling herself once again how much the perfect union she and Willow had formed would be good for the entire clan, no matter how much the Elders claimed otherwise. It was starting to become her mantra. Every time she thought about the negative aspects of her current situation, she would repeat that what she was doing was for everyone's benefit. It helped to assuage her fear for a time, but it would always come back, stronger than it had been before.
For a fleeting moment, Tara wondered if it would ever reach the point where even saying that wouldn't make her feel any better. And for an even briefer moment, she almost wished that someone from the clan would find the two of them together. Then she would be able to show them without any fear or doubt how much love could indeed bring about a much needed change in the way they lived. But the thought was too selfish to remain in her mind for very long. For while Tara wanted to show others that she loved Willow very much, she also wanted the redhead to be safe. And she couldn't have both.
Turning her head to look into the water below, she saw someone approaching. Recognizing it as Willow, Tara faintly smiled as she saw the redhead approaching the surface, the fear and trepidation she still felt within her heart making it less prominent on her face. But she promised herself to try and make sure that her happiness would be apparent to Willow. Despite all that had happened before, Tara knew that both of their lives would change forever in the next few minutes, and she didn't want her fear to be a negative influence.
Breaking through the surface of the water, Willow was pleased to see Tara lying nearby, as if she had been waiting for her to arrive. Not that it was surprising to find her here. After all, this was her private place. But Willow thought that she would have to wait for her to show up. Something about the way that Tara held herself, however, made Willow feel uneasy. Although she no longer felt any hostility or suspicion towards Tara, Willow couldn't help but feel that the blonde was once again keeping something from her. Whatever it was, she hoped that Tara would have the courage to tell her. After all, there should be no secrets between friends. And if they truly considered each other friends despite all that had happened, revealing that secret would be the first act in rebuilding the bridge they had made that the actions of others had nearly shaken apart.
Swimming over, Willow moved to join Tara on the rocks, the faintest of smiles on her lips. “Hi…Tara."
“Hi, Willow," Tara said in reply, then cast her gaze down over Willow's nude body. Noticing this, Willow let out a small chuckle. “I…I thought that you might like to see me…like this." She then looked deep into the blonde's eyes.
“Tara, I need to tell you something…"
Tara turned away, raising a hand. “Please, Willow. If you have come to say your goodbyes, then please do it quickly. It's…it's not safe for us to be together anymore."
Concerned about Tara's feelings, Willow reached out and brushed her fingers across the blonde's arm. Tara held back the impulse to flinch at the touch, knowing that it might be the last time Willow could do this to her, and she wanted the redhead to enjoy the touch of their bare skin together. “Tara, please. Let me explain. I…I feel bad about what happened."
Tara raised an eyebrow. “About what? Willow, you shouldn't feel sorry about what happened. It was my clan that killed Buffy and harmed you. We brought great pain down onto you."
“No, Tara. You didn't do that to me. Your kind didn't do that to me. I…I did it to myself."
Tara could feel something change with Willow's statement, and cast her senses out to pick up on the source of the change. She was surprised to find that it was coming from Willow herself. The redhead's aura, vibrant with passion and life during their previous encounters, was now cloaked in a blanket of insecurity and pain. It was a feeling Tara knew all too well, having felt very much the same way when she had feared to tell Willow that she had nearly caused the redhead's death.
Willow looked at Tara, noting the confused look on her face. Hoping that what she was about to say would be more understandable, Willow continued, “I…I never really talked to anyone in high school. You know, aside from Buffy." Willow involuntarily winced at the sound of Buffy's name, the pain from her loss still too recent. Seeing Tara do likewise, she looked around the cave before continuing, “I told you that…water is something…special to me. And I always feared that if I told anyone, they would make fun of me. I was afraid that people would make me feel like I didn't belong. That I was…I was weird. I…I guess I started using that as an excuse to explain why I could never…never really be open about myself to anyone." At Tara's curious stare, she quickly added, “I mean, having told you and Buffy, I know now that it's not that big of a thing. But back then, I let it eat away at me until I managed to convince myself that it was something about me that was bad and shouldn't…"
Her eyes tearing up, Willow looked away from Tara and glanced out at the water. Crawling over to the edge of the rocks, she extended a finger and dipped it into the liquid. Raising it after a few moments of immersion, she watched water drip from her fingertip. “I let that kind of thinking rule my life, taking me to a place I didn't really want to go. But, as much as I don't like where it took me, I can't…"
Turning back to look at Tara, Willow tried to smile, the roller coaster her emotions were riding making it difficult for her to make it seem genuine. “I can't really…argue about what I found."
Tara stared at Willow as if the redhead had suddenly sprouted a second head. “Willow?"
Willow choked down a sob, her resolve to keep herself under control slipping with each passing moment. “Tara, I'm sorry. I really am. I never should have thought that you…that you had anything to do with what happened to Buffy. It was my fault. All my fault. It could never have been you."
Tara couldn't believe what she was hearing. Was Willow really accepting the blame for what had happened? It was certainly noble of her, but it wasn't right. “But it was, Willow. I know it was. At least, I think it was. I don't know. I had to have done it somehow. I didn't plan for every problem. I didn't take everything into account. I was so concerned about your life that I never thought about…"
Crawling back to where Tara sat, Willow brushed away a strand of the blonde's hair that had been covering her face and stared directly into her eyes. “No, Tara. Don't blame yourself. It wasn't you. It couldn't have been you. I know how kind and caring you are. Like I said before, you wouldn't have saved me if you weren't. And besides…I can't really blame you for what they did to Buffy. I mean, that wouldn't be fair, and I don't like to form opinions about other people right away." She blushed slightly. “Well, except in one case, but I think I've been able to work things out with this person. At least, I hope so."
Willow's words made Tara nervous. “Willow, this person, can…Can you tell me about her?"
Willow could detect the uneasiness in Tara's voice, but wasn't sure what was its cause. Did the blonde fear that another person had been made aware of the secret of her clan? Of course she did. What Willow had said made it appear as if she had done exactly that. Of course, Willow had done no such thing. She never would betray Tara's secret to anyone. All Faith knew about what happened was that Buffy had been killed by unknown assailants. She had no way of knowing that Buffy had been killed by a race of xenophobic underwater people.
That made it somewhat easier to tell Tara about Faith. “Well, she's someone I disliked because…because I was afraid of her. And it reminded me of how I felt when I first met you." Seeing Tara flinch at this, she quickly added, “But it was different. I mean, I grew to love you for who you are and look past the fact that others in your clan feel negatively about humanity." Reaching out with one arm, Willow took Tara's hand into her own and gently squeezed it. “And I do, you know. Love you, I mean. Never forget that."
Tara smiled as Willow continued, “But with this other person, I immediately disliked her. It seems silly now, but at the time, I looked at her and knew that she was everything that I could have been had I been more…I don't know. I mean, Faith might have been…"
Willow tilted her head at Tara's remark. “That's her name. Faith. Anyway, I think that maybe I was…jealous, you know? That Faith might have been the person that I could have been if I had been…more open about who I really was. I mean, she was confident and charismatic and everything I always wanted to be." She looked out into the water then, a pang of subconscious guilt hitting her chest as she realized that she was doing it again. Thinking like that made her believe that bringing Buffy to meet Tara was a good idea. And no matter what kind of a spin she tried to put on it, she was still making snap judgments about other people. And it hurt.
Willow felt a touch on her shoulder then, and turned to find Tara smiling at her. “Willow, you don't need to change who you are. I mean…" The blonde's words stilted and Willow could tell that she was thinking seriously about whether or not it was a good idea to say whatever it was that she had to tell her.
“Tara, whatever it is that you have to say, please tell me. I won't be afraid."
Tara looked away, her face disappearing behind her long hair. “Willow, I don't know how to say this, but…" She began to sniffle, tears welling up in her eyes. “I…I've done things that I never would have done before had I not met you. I broke the rules of my clan; I endangered both my life and yours; I kept Buffy's death a secret. And I did it all because…I love you, Willow."
Willow was caught off guard by that statement. Although it was something she had been wondering for a long time, to actually hear it come from Tara's lips was quite a surprise. It also shattered some of the doubts and fears that she still subconsciously held. It hurt her, however, to know that not all of them had completely disappeared with Tara's words. There were still some lingering concerns about why Tara had said that. Obviously saving her life and making love to her should have been enough to prove to Willow that Tara did feel that way, but on some level, she needed more. “You do?"
Tara shook her head. “I do, Willow. From the moment when I first met you, I felt something for you. It was as if a connection had been made between us. One that's…different from anything I've felt towards anyone else. I've never felt the way I do about you before. And…and I'm willing to do…whatever it takes…to make you…h…happy and s…sa…safe."
And with that, the lingering doubts that Willow still had towards Tara disappeared completely. Enveloping the blonde in a hug, Willow squeezed tightly, feeling the touch of Tara's skin against her own. It was a comforting touch, one that made her feel comfortable and safe, as if she was wrapped in a security blanket. Knowing that Tara would protect her from all the dangers that would come made her feel as if there was nothing that could harm them.
Suddenly she could feel a change in Tara's demeanor, the comforting sense of her warmth changing rather abruptly to a cold dread. Looking into Tara's eyes, Willow could see them growing clouded with worry.
“Tara? What is it?"
Tara looked at Willow, fear rising in her chest. Somewhere in the ocean, a monumental shift had just taken place, one that foretold of coming doom for both of them. Closing her eyes and reaching out with her senses, she could feel the familiar auras of several mermaids approaching the cave, including one who exuded power and authority. No doubt the Elders had found out she was missing and had decided to head out themselves to find her. Along with the mermaids, Tara felt one other presence. It was this presence that bothered her more than the thought of the approaching Elders. She could feel very familiar impressions from this one. Whoever this person was felt very much like Buffy had when Willow had brought her here: concern and suspicion mixed with anger that clouded her judgment. This meant that whoever it was most likely wasn't aware that she was being followed.
Opening her eyes, she looked deep into Willow's green spheres, which, like her own, were beginning to grow concerned. And though the situation was indeed dire, Tara couldn't bring herself to lie to the redhead. She couldn't reassure her that everything was all right. But there was no way for them to realistically escape from here without being spotted by those approaching the cave. There was nowhere in the cave they could hide, either.
It occurred to Tara then that even if there was some way they could safely escape the cave, there was nowhere she and Willow could safely run to. They could try to hide, but with the mermaids' magical ability to track her, there was nowhere in the ocean they could go where they wouldn't be found.
"I had hoped to deal with this much later, if only to save Willow unnecessary grief now. But if it is the wish of the Goddess and the God to test me now, then it is not my will to dispute them. Let them come. Let whoever this unknown person is come. Let my clan come. I will show them all that peaceful relations with humanity can be achieved. And I will protect Willow with my dying breath. Goddess, may she know that what I do now I do out of my everlasting love and devotion for her. And that no matter what, I will always treasure the time we had together."
Checking her air pressure gauge, Faith saw that she still had plenty of air. Comfortable that she would be able to continue her search for Willow for a few more moments, she turned and saw a cave nearby. With no other place in the immediate area that the redhead could have gone, it made her wonder why Willow would have gone there. Had she hidden something in there that needed to be recovered? It didn't really matter, as far as she was concerned. All it meant was that Willow had trapped herself in that cave, and that the only way for her to get out was the way she had come, meaning that Faith had her cornered.
Deciding not to wait for her to come out on her own accord, Faith swam over to the entrance of the cave and took a look inside. It seemed reasonably safe, so she decided to continue. Hoping that she wasn't making a mistake, the brunette kicked her feet and swam into the cave.
The mermen had first been alerted that something was wrong when the Elders sent word that someone among them had gone missing. Though the discovery had come through the use of magic, it was considered enough of a serious problem, in light of the current situation, to be investigated. It had taken several hours, but they had been able to discover that Tara, daughter of Miranda, was no longer among them.
This deeply concerned the Elders. Tara was something of a maverick in their society, and under normal circumstances would not have been allowed to get away with many of her transgressions, whether or not she was fully aware of them. But the death of her mother, at their own hand for doing many of the same things, had made them uncharacteristically forgiving towards her. Even though they knew that what they had done was necessary to preserve their way of life, they also knew that the loss of her mother had affected Tara deeply, and so they could not bring themselves to chastise her.
But in this circumstance, they were not going to let her get away with what she had done. She had used magic to deceive them. For what purpose, only the God and Goddess knew for certain. That act alone was cause enough to punish her, but her disappearance at this moment, when their society could be on the verge of invasion by surface dwellers once again, had given the group cause to wonder what role she could have played in bringing the humans to them.
Fearing a repeat of the situation that had happened with Lorelei so long ago, each of them set out with patrolmen to try and find her. But instead of finding her, one had found yet another human who had entered the water dangerously close to their territory and was making its way towards a small cave near their colony's borders. Informing the others of what was going on, the group that spotted the human decided to follow her inside the cave.
They would eliminate this human from their waters. Then they would find Tara.
And then the Elders would punish her for what she had done, whether or not she had actually done it. If she had done anything, then her punishment would suit her crime. If she had done nothing, then her punishment would serve to discourage others from following in her footsteps.
One way or the other, Tara would suffer for this.
"Tara, what is it? What's wrong?"
Looking into Willow's eyes as she asked that question, Tara couldn't help but feel worried about her safety. After all they had done, and after all they had achieved, everything they created was about to be destroyed. She wondered briefly if she should voice her concerns. After all, keeping secrets from Willow had brought them to this point, and Tara knew that it would not be a good idea to keep something from her again; even if they were unable to do anything about it. And with nothing they could do to prevent what was to come, all Tara wanted was for Willow to enjoy what very well could be her last moment alive.
Enveloping the redhead in a hug, Tara spoke softly, "Nothing, Willow. Just enjoy this moment as if it were your last."
To herself, she added, "For it may very well be."
Faith was beginning to think she had made the mistake she had hoped not to make. Searching the cave for more than ten minutes, she had yet to find any evidence that Willow was anywhere inside. Despite the danger of continuing on, she pressed forward, taking a moment to glance at her pressure gauge. Seeing that she was nearly out of air, Faith retraced the path she had taken to get here, and figured that if she turned around now, she could make it back to the surface before she ran completely out of air.
But if she did, she wouldn't have the opportunity to confront Willow. For all Faith knew, the redhead was going to skip out of town after doing whatever it was that she was doing in here. For that reason alone, she decided to continue on. The risks were obvious. There was the danger of getting lost inside the cave, the chance that she could get trapped inside if the entrance were to somehow get blocked. And of course, there was the more likely danger of running out of air and drowning before she could find Willow.
Faith knew the dangers. But she also knew that there may never be another opportunity to deal with the redhead and find out the truth. She had to continue onward and try to find Willow, even if she were to die in the attempt.
A few moments later, she came to the entrance to a tunnel that branched off from the main path. Heading down it as breathing became more difficult, Faith hoped that wherever it was she was going led to a fresh source of air, otherwise she was done for.
Her eyes widened as she saw that the path she had taken lead into an underground cavern. Kicking a bit faster, her air nearly spent, Faith headed out of the tunnel and towards the water's surface, hoping that Willow was here. With the air in her tank nearly gone, she found it ironic to think that the person who may have played a role in ending Buffy's life could be the only one able to save her own.
Willow continued to hold onto Tara, the feel of the blonde's skin against her own and the sound of their combined heartbeats the only things that mattered to her. The pain, confusion and hurt of the past few days was gone, replaced by the touch of the one who could comfort her in these trying times, a thought made somewhat ironic in that the actions of her kind, taken out of ignorance, were the cause of what had happened. Her head resting on Tara's chest, Willow closed her eyes and savored the wonderful peace that she had found, a peace that was abruptly shattered when she heard three words in a very familiar voice.
"What the hell?"
Willow's eyes shot open and looked out into the water to find Faith, clad in scuba gear and wearing her lifeguard swimsuit, staring right back at her. The brunette's gaze turned slightly, and Willow realized that she was looking at Tara. Breaking her look on Faith, Willow turned to look up at Tara, seeing an expression on her face that the redhead immediately interpreted as one of resignation.
Reaching the rocks, Faith ditched her gear and reached for Willow's arm. "Willow, get away from that!" Glancing down at Willow's body, she added, "And why are you naked?"
Willow stubbornly refused to move, her mind barely registering the brunette's question. "Faith, what are you doing here?"
"Looks like I'm saving you from the same thing that might have killed Buffy," Faith replied, tugging on Willow's arm hard and finally separating her from Tara.
"No, Faith," Willow said, turning to look at the brunette. "You've got it all wrong. Tara had nothing to do with Buffy getting killed."
Faith wasn't buying what Willow told her. First she had said that she hadn't done it, and then Faith had seen her go out, rent a boat and come out into the middle of the ocean. That alone was confusing, and Faith promised herself to inquire about that later. But to swim into the cavern and find her in the embrace of a creature that was clearly alien in nature? That defied explanation, rational or otherwise. "Oh, yeah? So if she had nothing to do with what happened to Buffy, how come the two of you look like you were celebrating something?"
Willow found that she was unable to answer that question. It wasn't that she didn't have an answer, of course. But the answer certainly wasn't one that Faith was about to either genuinely accept or believe without comment, especially since doing so would put Tara in danger, making her worst fears about Faith learning of Tara's existence come true. The last thing Willow really wanted to do was admit to Faith was that she was in love with Tara.
"Faith, you have to believe me…"
The movement of Faith's hand had been too quick for her to catch, and thus Willow found herself unprepared for the strike of the brunette's hand against her check. Her knees gave out as if someone had slammed into her and Willow collapsed to the ground. Tara was on her feet immediately and grabbed Faith's wrist, clenching her own hand around it. Faith let out a strangled yelp of pain as she felt the bone break, looking at Tara with anger and reaching up to strike the blonde with her other hand.
That hand never reached its intended target, for Willow had gotten back to her feet then and rushed to block the incoming strike. "Faith, no! Listen to me!"
Faith struggled to release the hands on her wrists, but their grips were ironclad. "Red, are you shitting me? This…this thing killed Buffy!"
"No, she didn't!" Willow all but screeched, her mind working at light speed, trying to find something to say. But what could she say that would make Faith understand what was going on? The only thing she could think of was the thing that could make everything worse. It pained Willow to realize that the only way to clear Tara's name would be to admit to Faith that she had lied to her before, and that she was the one that killed Buffy. It wasn't a lie, after all. She had done it. Not in the literal sense, of course, but she had done it.
Faith snorted of disgust. "Oh, yeah? Well, if you didn't kill her, and neither did that," she tilted her head towards Tara, eliciting a glare from both her and Willow, "Who did?"
Before Willow could give her answer, Tara released her grip on Faith's wrist and collapsed to the rocks, clutching her head. Immediately letting go of the brunette, Willow moved to help the blonde to her feet. "Tara? What's wrong?"
The words that came from Tara in response to the redhead's question were nearly unintelligible to Faith, who was only able to pick out one or two words, and even that wasn't enough to make sense out of what the blonde was trying to say. Willow, however, not only seemed to understand her, but turned pale at hearing it, indicating that it wasn't anything good.
Getting to her feet, Willow grabbed Faith's arm. "Faith, we need to go."
The sudden change in the redhead's attitude was a bit too much for Faith to take in. "Why?" Gesturing towards Tara, she asked, "What did that tell you?"
Willow growled and stared into Faith's eyes. "Faith, Tara is not a thing. She's a living, breathing person with feelings, and I would like it very much if you started respecting them."
"Don't tell me what to do, Red," Faith snapped, all pretense of trying to maintain calm around Willow abandoned. The redhead was obviously too enthralled by the strange blonde to think rationally, and that made her words more untrustworthy than she had originally decided to believe. She wasn't about to be led along by any more games. Pointing to Tara, she continued, "For all I know, she put you under some kind of spell and made you do things you didn't want to just to serve her own ends."
The comment stung Willow. She had already wondered if that was a possibility for what had happened, so it didn't really surprise her that Faith had come to that conclusion herself. After all, it was the only way to explain everything. That is, if you had no way of knowing what had really happened. And there was no way that Willow was going to be telling that to Faith anytime soon.
"Faith, I'm not kidding around. We've got to get out of…"
The sound of someone coming up through the water cut off her words, and Willow turned to see several people emerging from the water, making their way towards them. The redhead was struck by how similar they appeared to Tara: naked as newborn babies and scales placed at strategic locations around their bodies. The only thing that separated the newcomers from Tara was their expressions, at first merely angry, quickly turned darker at the sight in front of them.
One of them, apparently the leader of the group, looked at Tara. "Tara, what is the meaning of this?"
Tara found herself at a loss for words. "I…I…I…"
Willow spoke up first after seeing that Tara couldn't answer the accusation inherent in those words. "Who are you to ask her that? She can make her own decisions without…"
The voice was so commanding that Willow took a step backward out of reflex and, looking down at her body as if she were only now becoming aware of the fact that she was naked, made a half hearted attempt to cover herself in front of the newcomers.
Faith meanwhile, glared at the mermen, anger in her eyes. "So this is how it was, Red? Your little friend here couldn't settle for killing one person, so she got a bunch of her pals together and decided that it would be more fun to lure other people down here to butcher like cows?"
Willow shook her head. "It's not like that, Faith. Tara had nothing to do with what…"
"I SAID SILENCE!"
The merman pointed, and four of the other mermaids who had accompanied him swam forward, approaching the rocks. Willow stood her ground in the face of the approaching danger, not willing to leave Tara's side no matter what happened. Faith, however, apparently deciding that the best defense was a good offense, swung her head around, trying to find the best possible route of escape.
"Faith, what are you doing?"
The brunette shot a glare at Willow. "What does it look like I'm doing, Red? You may want to sit there while Aqua Girl's friends gut you, but I'm gonna try to get out of here, and if I can't, then at least I'm going to go out fighting."
Holding onto Tara, Willow looked up at Faith. "Faith, please! Don't do anything hostile towards them! Maybe we can find some way to get out of this so that we don't end up like…like Buffy…"
Faith paused in her frantic search for a weapon at that, finally realizing that Willow was right. It wouldn't do her any good to do anything that could get her killed. But at the same time, she couldn't just let these… these things take her prisoner. Turning to look at Willow one last time, a mixture of sorrow and pain on her face, she turned around and, as the mermen approached, ran straight at them, leaping over them as she closed in and diving head first under the water.
Willow's cry was seconds too late to make a difference, and Faith was gone. Two of the mermen that had been approaching quickly spun around and headed off after her. It was a sight that made Willow's heart sag. Buffy had been an accomplished swimmer and excellent at controlling her breathing well enough to dive at great depths, and neither of those talents had been good enough to save her from the aggression of the mermen. She didn't know how good Faith was at that sort of thing, but somehow she realized that it didn't matter. The mermen had, as Buffy would say, the home field advantage. And that fact made Willow realize with absolute certainty that Faith was never going to make it to the surface.
And she wondered for a moment that it might not be such a bad thing. That thought, coming out of nowhere, shocked Willow a great deal. It surprised her to know that, on a subconscious level, she truly didn't want Faith to escape and that she wanted the brunette to die at the hands of the mermaids who had gone after her. Why did she want this? Did she truly hate Faith enough to want to see her dead?
Those were questions that certainly deserved more thought, but as the mermaids reached the rocks and made their way towards her, Willow realized that she wasn't going to have time to figure them out.
Faith swam in a panic, hoping that she hadn't made yet another mistake in deciding to swim away from Willow and the creatures. All that kept her going was the thought that they had to be after her by now. She knew that there was no chance in hell that those things were simply going to let her get away. That alone made it important for her to get out of here.
Especially considering that those things had the advantage in the current chase. Whatever they were, those creatures must have some way to breathe underwater. That left her at an immediate disadvantage, having left her own air supply back in the cavern. Even if she had remembered to grab it, it wouldn't have mattered. Putting aside for a moment the fact that it was nearly empty, the extra weight would only slow her down. Speed was important in her escape. Not only because she needed to get away from those creatures before they caught up to her, but because she had to traverse the tunnels leading out of the cave and head back to the surface all on the strength of one breath.
Faith had to admit that the chances of her succeeding in that weren't good. She wasn't that good at free diving to begin with, though Buffy had been trying to help her out. Still, to go from the cavern to the surface probably would have been beyond even her abilities. And if Buffy couldn't do it, then Faith didn't stand a chance. But it was certainly preferable to sticking around with Willow. Doing that guaranteed certain death. Even though the chances of death were as likely in this situation, probably more so, at least she had a chance, no matter how infinitesimal it was, to get away.
Looking ahead, she could see the tunnel twisting around. Faith swam forward as fast as her legs could take her, her chest beginning to ache as she turned around another corner and saw the mouth of the cave off in the distance. Keeping her mouth closed, Faith smiled. All she had to do now was swim out of the cave and head back to the boat…
She felt a hand grasp at her ankle then, and turned to find two of the creatures behind her, one of them holding onto her ankle. Using her free leg, Faith kicked the creature in the head, causing his grip to loosen from her body. Taking off in a mad scramble, Faith tried to make it as far down the tunnel as she could before either of the creatures following her had a chance to get her again.
Unfortunately, the optimism she felt at escaping didn't last long. Feeling a hand on her ankle once again, Faith struggled to try and free herself, but this time the grip was too strong for her to break in her increasingly weakened state. She grew more distressed as she felt another hand on the calf of her other leg, the two now working to tug her back in the direction she had just come.
Faith fought the urge to give up, but the fact that her chest was beginning to tighten from having held her breath for so long, along with her earlier exertion while trying to find the cave entrance, was making that difficult. Moaning as she felt the hands move up her legs, she struggled to free herself, the combination of the water and her lessening strength working against her to make her reactions languid and easily counteracted.
The hands of the creatures closed around Faith's waist, turning her around and shoving her against the stone floor of the tunnel. Looking into their faces, Faith could see nothing but cold, dark hatred in their eyes. And as she watched one of them wrap his cold hands around her throat, she realized that she shouldn't have dismissed Willow's arguments so easily and that she should have listened to her when she had said to do nothing. Maybe she would not be in this position had she done that. Of course, she wouldn't have been in this position in the first place if she had listened to Riley when he had told her not to get involved in something that wasn't her business.
But Faith didn't listen to Willow. She didn't listen to Riley. They had been the voices of reason, the thing that normally saved her from doing something as stupid as this. But as far as Buffy's death was concerned, she shut her own voice of reason off and refused to listen to anyone else. All that mattered to her was that she find out what happened. She just had to be the conquering hero, doing what she thought was right in order to avenge the blonde's memory.
It was ironic to look at the situation she had found herself in now. In the brief time that she had known her, Faith had learned a lot about Buffy, and one of the things she knew was that Buffy was a kind and peaceful soul who didn't want anyone to go to any amount of trouble on her account. For the briefest of moments, Faith wondered if Buffy was looking down on her from Heaven. She didn't believe in God or Heaven or any of that religious stuff, but she couldn't help but think that what was going on was the work of some higher being. Had Buffy been looking down on her, trying to tell Faith not to do what she was doing? Was this God's way of trying to tell her that she should have listened to Willow and Riley and not gotten involved?
As Faith blew out her air in response to the force against her throat and involuntarily sucked seawater into her lungs, she began to realize that, for the first time, she had allowed her emotions towards others to cloud her judgment. She had tried hard throughout her life not to do that, but when it came to Buffy, she couldn't help it. She was like Angel.
No. She wasn't like Angel. She was an angel. And Faith knew that she was about to join her in the big ocean in the sky.
"I'm sorry," she thought as she felt the telltale signs that signaled that she was about to drown to death. "Willow…Angel…Riley…please forgive me. Buffy…I'll be seeing you real soon."
Tara visibly, and very violently, shuddered. Willow, arms held away from her body by the mermaids holding her prisoner, could only watch as the blonde dealt with feeling the death of Faith at the hands of the other mermen. It made her ill to see Tara like this. She had told Willow about how much she had been affected when Buffy had passed away. But caught up in the throes of passion at the time, Willow hadn't paid much attention to what effect it had on her. But there was no mistaking the downtrodden look on Tara's face or the closed off and shrunken form of her body. There was only one thing that could make Tara feel that way. And were it not for those holding her captive, Willow would have rushed forward to comfort her. But the mermaids would not allow it, having separated them rather violently, and the two that remained after the others went after Faith holding her off to the side as their leader approached Tara. All he had done for the past few minutes was simply stare at Tara, the expression on his face one of disgust and anger.
When he finally spoke, his words were even and without emotion. "Tara, daughter of Miranda, daughter of Celeste, you have violated the edicts of our clan. You have led other humans to our territory. You have committed the worst of crimes: making contact with a human and having them learn about us. What have you to say for yourself?"
As Tara looked up into the face of the other mermaid, Willow could see a change in her demeanor. Where before the blonde had been withdrawn and painfully shaken, now she was projecting an image of confidence and defiance, a far cry from the shy and closed off Tara that she had come to know.
"I did it because our way of life has become stagnant. We cannot continue to allow ourselves to believe that if we remain withdrawn from the surface world, we will be protecting ourselves. This very incident should show you beyond a shadow of a doubt that if we remain hidden and attack anyone who violates our territory, unknowingly or otherwise, we only serve to bring that which you do not want: unwanted attention to ourselves. It is a vicious cycle that we've been trapped in for years, ever since you denied the feelings of one very much like me." Tara looked at Willow, hope sparkling through her eyes. "A mermaid who found love with a surface dweller and would do anything that she thought was necessary in order to protect the one that she loved."
Turning her gaze back to the merman, she continued, "And if you feel it necessary to kill me for doing what I think is right for our society, then so be it. But do so knowing that my death will not prevent what you fear. The seeds have already been planted. And if others were to follow in my footsteps and begin to question why they are doing the things they do, then I will have done enough. You can kill me, but you cannot kill what I have begun here. You would need to kill our entire society to do that."
The merman cast a glance towards one of the guards holding Willow and nodded. Keeping one hand on the redhead, the merman withdrew a knife from the sheath tied to his arm of his partner and passed it to their leader. Taking the weapon, the elder merman moved back and brought Tara violently to her feet. Her head cast down, her blonde hair covering her face, she did nothing to retaliate. Willow watched with growing concern, wondering what had happened to the confidence and self assuredness that Tara had just shown.
"Tara? What are you doing?"
Lifting her head, Tara looked at Willow. "What I must. Don't you see, Willow? If they kill me, others would find out that the Elders are not above killing their own in order to maintain their secrecy. Then a change in the way we live will have to occur whether or not the Elders desire it."
Willow saw Tara's eyes tear over as she looked at the merman. "But please…if I am to die, let me do so with the knowledge that Willow will be spared. Let me die knowing that she can return to the surface to lead out the rest of her life without incident. With me gone, she won't have a reason to return here and bother you. And she can keep the secret of our existence. I trust her well enough to do that."
"You may trust her, Tara," the merman said, tracing the point of the knife's blade across her chest and causing Tara to wince. "But I do not. And neither will the other Elders. She had involuntarily brought two other humans into our midst. She had corrupted you. And who knows what other secrets about us she may have learned from you?"
Tara's eyes shifted to Willow only for a brief second, but it was long enough for the elder mermaid to notice. Grabbing Tara by the throat, he lifted her off the ground. "What have you done to her, Tara? Have you used your magic on her?"
Struggling, Tara tried to free herself from the merman's vice-like grip. Disgusted at her actions, the merman threw her at the rock wall. The blonde hit it like a sack of potatoes and crumpled to the ground.
"TARA!" Crying now, Willow could only watch as the merman approached Tara's fallen body and traced the knife across her body.
No. It was not all she could do. She could save Tara. There was no way that she was just going to stand here and let her be killed. Wrenching her right arm, she sent the merman holding it headlong into the water. Before his partner could respond, Willow had her knee buried deep into his gut, causing him to release his grip on her arm and crumple to the ground.
Rushing forward, Willow stood between the elder merman and Tara, arms outstretched as if she was protecting a valuable treasure. This, at least in her mind, was in fact exactly what she was doing. "Stop! I won't let you hurt her!"
"Stand aside, human."
Willow stood her ground. "I will not. If you…If you want to kill Tara, then you will need to kill me first."
Before the merman could respond, Willow heard a voice from behind her. "Willow…no!"
Turning her head, the redhead looked at Tara, who was getting to her knees. "I must, Tara. If they feel the need to kill someone because of what has happened, then let it be me."
"But why?" Tara asked, perplexed.
"Because…" Willow began, hesitating for a moment, before continuing, "Because…I have no one now. On the surface, I mean. Buffy's dead. So is Faith. And my parents never bothered to pay that much attention to me. I don't have any friends up there. Buffy was the only one person in my life who looked out for me…who treated me like I was normal…who treated me like family. And now that she's gone…I have no one. And nothing left but the ocean that took everything from me. And…and I don't want to live if I'm going to be reminded of everything that I have lost whenever I look at water, be it an ocean or the running water of my bathtub."
She turned back to Tara. "And in any case, it works out for the best for everyone if I'm the one who dies. Tara, you said that if you were killed, and it became known to others of your kind, then the changes to your society that you want will happen. But if I die…then you still get them."
"But how?" Tara asked, noting that the hand of the merman holding the knife was wavering.
"Because…if they kill me…then you can live. And you can make sure that your society knows that their leaders have killed one who harbored no prejudice towards you and your kind, no matter what they have done to me. And they can also see that perhaps not all human beings are evil. And Tara…I want you to live. I will die happy knowing that you will live. And that you will have gotten what you wanted."
Closing her eyes, Willow stretched herself to her full length and tilted her head upward, opening herself up to be struck down. "Be brave, Tara. And live…for me."
Tara expected the elder merman to walk over and deliver the killing blow to the redhead. After all, he had made it clear that he was not open to the idea that no-one had to die in order to maintain the secret of the clan. So she was surprised to find the merman drop the knife to the ground.
"Perhaps…we have been wrong. If one can still see the good in one of our own, with the knowledge of what we have done to those she loves, then we may have been wrong to judge all humans based on the actions of a single representative of their kind. Perhaps you are right, Willow. Perhaps not all humans are bad."
The heads of Willow, Tara and the merman turned to see one of the mermen that had been guarding Willow get to his feet, his own knife in hand. Staring into Willow's eyes, he snarled, "No! There can be no peace with humanity! Humankind invaded our territory! Humankind polluted us! Humankind cannot be allowed to do so again!"
And with that declaration, he threw the knife at Willow.
Willow was violently shoved to the ground, her head impacting against the rock. The last thing she was aware of was a strange, gurgled cry, and then total darkness claimed her.
Willow awoke to find a vague shape hovering over her, a shape that slowly began to morph into the outline of a face. Thinking that the face belonged to Tara, she felt an extreme sense of adulation. Even though she had delivered an eloquent speech about how her death would bring about what Tara wanted, the blonde still felt the need to protect her from all the dangers that life threw her way.
But as her vision began to clear, Willow saw that the face was not Tara's. It was instead that of an elderly woman with long silver hair. The scales on her forehead immediately told Willow that she was a mermaid, but that made Willow question her behavior. After all, hadn't the last mermaids she had encountered threatened to harm her because Tara had revealed to her the secret of their society?
Smiling as she became aware of the fact that Willow had awakened, the mermaid reached out and brushed her fingers past the redhead's forehead. Involuntarily arching her back at the touch, Willow took a breath and found her strength returning. Though she felt better, she had a splitting headache, no doubt due to her collision with the rock.
Opening her mouth, Willow tried to speak. "Who…who are…"
The mermaid smiled. "My name is Baji. And you must be Willow."
Willow tried to move her head, but stopped and groaned when a sudden jab of pain flashed behind her eyes.
Moving to help Willow up, Baji said, "I'm sorry for all that you have gone through because of us, Willow. Tara never wanted to harm you. All she wanted was your love, and she hoped that together, you could make our society see the error of its ways. I do think you've managed to accomplish this. From what I understand, your words had a major impact on the Elder you encountered. He told me that he will speak to the others about how wrong they were in their views of humanity." She sighed. "Tara got what she wanted. I just wish that she could have lived to see it."
"What? What did you…"
Willow's shock at that statement was quickly replaced with horror as she saw Tara's prone form lying near the water close to where she and Baji were sitting. Shrieking, Willow shot towards the body and turned it over, seeing the pained look on the blonde's face and the wound on her chest where the knife that had been thrown at her had impacted. The knife, Willow noticed with a lack of genuine surprise, was nowhere to be found, obviously having been retrieved by one of the mermen when they had left with the Elder.
Crying at the sight of Tara's corpse, Willow was, for the first time, sorry that she had felt the need to constantly protect her from harm. Had the blonde not shoved her out of the way of the knife, it would have impacted against her instead. It wasn't a fate that Willow terribly wanted, but it would have been more preferable than witnessing this.
Cradling Tara's body in her arms, Willow began to rock back and forth, her loud sobbing reverberating throughout the cavern. Feeling a hand on her shoulder, Willow turned and saw Baji, whose face was kind and understanding.
"I'm very sorry, Willow. I'm sorry that our actions have caused you to lose Tara. She was something that was precious to you, and I feel your pain. "
Willow's face contorted at hearing that. Tara had been killed senselessly, and all the elder mermaid could say was sorry and that she felt the pain that the redhead was going through? That wasn't possible. If Baji truly felt the pain Willow did, she would be as dead as Tara was right now. She couldn't accept that there was nothing that could be done to save Tara. There had to be a way for the blonde to live. There just had to be. "Isn't there anything you…anything others can do to save her?"
Baji hesitated. "There is nothing I can do, Willow. I told Tara that if she took the path that led to this moment, there was nothing I could do to prevent the consequences of her actions. True, I never predicted that this would happen, but that does not mean I can do anything about it."
Willow snapped her head around to look at Baji, an act that, for the briefest of moments, made her wonder if it was going to do more harm to her, given her recent head trauma. But that thought was insignificant in light of the information she had just been given. That was more harmful to her than any head injury, or any other injury, she could suffer. "What do you mean? Tara can use magic. That must mean that there are others in your society who could. She even mentioned a caregiver. Maybe she could help us. There has to be some sort of spell that could bring her back!"
"There is," Baji said. "But…"
"Then find out how to do it!" Willow shouted. "Get someone here who can perform it and bring Tara back to life."
"We cannot," Baji insisted. "Willow, please try and understand. I am sure that Tara told you how magic was responsible for how we came to be the way we are today. That is something I am sure she would not have kept a secret from you. Since then, magic has been considered harmful, and those who can use magic have tried to teach others how not to use our gifts to harm the environment."
A flash of insight sparked through Willow's mind. "But Tara's already done that. I mean, she gave me the ability to breathe underwater. I mean, she did it before, but it was only temporary then. But she decided to give it to me permanently." At Baji's distressed look, she quickly added, "Not that I would have abused it. I mean…I promised her I wouldn't misuse her gift, and I never go back on my promises. And…And she gave me the ability to understand your language…well, you obviously know that, since we're having this conversation…"
Willow fell silent at Baji's rebuke and looked down once more at Tara's body. Brushing aside one strand of Tara's honey-colored hair, she whispered, "I'm sorry, Tara. I truly am." Lying down over Tara's body, Willow began to sob quietly. "It's my fault. I never should have come back. You would still be alive if I had just used her pearl to talk to you. I could have said what I wanted to say that way. But I had to come back. I had to make sure you saw me when I laid myself bare to you."
Baji took this in with interest. "Tara…gave you the Pearl of Sicily?"
Looking up, Willow looked at Baji through tear stained eyes. "The what?"
"The Pearl of Sicily," Baji answered. "It was a gift that I had given to her on her thirteenth birthday. I told her to give it to someone she considered special in her life." Looking into Willow's eyes, she saw the green irises of her eyes twinkle like gemstones, obviously coming to the conclusion that Baji was the caregiver she had spoken of earlier. "The Pearl of Sicily is not something to be given lightly, Willow. Tara giving it to you is nothing less than a proposal of marriage. Do you understand that?"
The redhead nodded, a faint smile forming on her face. Tara giving her the pearl was more special than she had thought at first. At the time, Willow had seen it as something that was exchanged between friends. It never really occurred to her to think of what had happened as being anything more than that.
"I've known that you were special to Tara, Willow," Baji said. "I've known almost from the moment that she first spoke of you. If you had known her for as long as I did, you would realize that what she has done here is atypical of her normal behavior. Though she has at times done things that the Elders despised, she had never broken the rules in a manner such as this. It would not have been a thing that she would have done for anyone else, Willow. And she must have truly loved you for her to give you the one gift that meant more to her than anything in this world."
Moving over beside Willow, Baji gently took her away from Tara's body. "You have already lost too much because of us, Willow. I will make sure that you lose no more because of us."
Willow's eyes slowly widened as she realized what it was that Baji was telling her. It was almost too good to be true. "Does…does that mean that…you'll bring Tara back?"
"I will." Noting Willow's expression, Baji added, "But you must understand something, Willow. What I am about to do is very dangerous. I don't think that I can do it alone. I will need your help."
"Me?" Willow flustered. "But…But what can I do?" Crawling back towards Tara, she ran a hand through her hair and sniffled. "I'm…I'm not like you. I'm not like Tara. I'm not…unique. I'm…not special."
"But you are, Willow."
Willow brought her head up to look at Baji at that, finding the silver haired mermaid looking at her with sadness, compassion and love. "You may not think that you are special because of what has happened, but look beyond the negative. See how much you have affected us. You have given the Elders serious reason to rethink how we live, telling them that not all humans are bad. You have also affected Tara. She never went against the edicts of our clan in a manner like this. She thought that you were special enough to save from drowning to death in the Forbidden Cave. She thought you were special enough to save from the misguided actions of one of our kind. Look inside your heart, Willow, and do what needs to be done. Not for me, not for yourself, but for the one who has already done more for you than you can ever imagine."
Willow looked down at Tara's body and brushed her fingers across her skin. It was simple to think that she wasn't special. Having spent the majority of her adolescence hiding what was a vital part of her character, it had the side effect of unfortunately creating a lowered opinion of her own self worth. There wasn't anyone she felt comfortable being herself around. Buffy had been the closest thing to a confidante she had ever had, but that didn't mean Willow ever felt comfortable revealing everything about her to the blonde. And the minute she decided to do so, everything had gone wrong. Tara was the only one she could truly feel comfortable being around without having to put up a front or keep things a secret.
Willow looked up into Baji's face, a neutral look on her own. She had lost Buffy because of her fears and insecurities. She would not lose Tara to those same fears and insecurities, especially when the blonde had been vital in helping her to look past them to see the wonderful woman that she truly was.
"I will. I'll help you." Willow tenderly brushed her fingers over Tara's face. "I'll do anything in this world if it means Tara will be brought back to me."
Baji nodded and smiled. "Then let us work quickly. We do not have much time."
Willow sat across from Baji, holding the elder mermaid's hands in her own. Between them lay Tara's body, the sight of which made the redhead nervous about what she had to do. Baji had explained that, while she would be the one to perform the spell required to bring Tara back to life, Willow would need to act as an anchor that would funnel her energy and keep her centered on the task at hand, as even the slightest distraction would be disastrous not only to Tara, but to themselves. Given all that had happened to her in the last few days, Willow wasn't sure that she could control her emotions well enough to do what Baji wanted.
But she had to try. This was the only way to bring Tara back. And that alone was enough for her to make the effort.
Willow nodded as she closed her eyes and tried to control her breathing, centering her mind and body on the task at hand. Seeing this, Baji closed her eyes as well and began to hum. Willow could feel something behind the melody, an indescribable feeling of pure pleasure washing over her, cleansing her being of all doubt and concern. The redhead realized then why Baji was doing this. The mermaid, whether or not she believed that Willow was prepared for what was about to occur, wanted to make sure that she was truly calm and focused, knowing how badly things could go wrong if either of them were to be distracted. Willow was truly glad for Baji's help. Anything that could be done to help keep her mind focused on bringing Tara back would be a benefit.
After a few more moments, Baji began to chant. "Goddess Amphitrite, we call upon you now. God Poseidon, we beseech you, make your presence known. We ask for your help in returning to us the life spark of one who was taken from us. May you, in your everlasting wisdom, see the need to bring Tara back to us so that Willow may find the comfort that she so rightly deserves, a comfort that we have unknowingly denied her."
Willow shivered slightly as she felt a breeze pass across her naked flesh. Curious as to where it had come from, she opened one eye and looked up, and was surprised to find a dark cloud beginning to form above them. She involuntarily clenched her hands and immediately felt a sense of guilt about doing so, wondering if her act had broken Baji's concentration.
If it did, the mermaid didn't voice it. "Goddess Amphitrite, we command you, bring Tara back. God Poseidon, we command you, bring Tara back."
Willow tried to maintain her calm, but the fear that she was beginning to feel about the situation was growing, in no way helped by the fact that, after opening one eye to look at the cloud, she saw that it was getting larger by the moment. And though Willow wasn't sure, but she swear that she heard the unmistakable rumble of approaching thunder.
"Goddess Amphitrite, in the name of the Mother Ocean, bring Tara back to us."
A blast of lightening erupted from the cloud, striking the rocks dangerously close to Tara. Willow flinched as her brain registered the noise, but otherwise did not move from her seated position. Her fear was reaching uncontrollable levels now, and she hoped that whatever Baji hoped to accomplish, that it would happen soon, as she wasn't sure how much longer she could remain calm.
Another strike of lightning. Another. And another.
And another directly against Tara's chest.
Willow let out a shocked yelp, the only way she could express the surprise she felt at seeing what she had just taken in without doing anything that could seriously jeopardize what was going on. Despite the fact that it was strange to her, she knew that it was necessary for what needed to occur. But knowing that didn't help allay her growing fear.
"Goddess Amphitrite, God Poseidon, we call upon you. Bring Tara back!"
Baji's words brought about another lightning bolt that impacted against Tara, followed by another. Willow involuntarily winced at each strike, her fear beginning to grow despite her knowledge of the event being played out in front of her. To calm herself, she put the thought of Tara's body the way it had been before into her mind. The blonde's warm skin against her own when they had made love immediately came to mind, and she smiled at the recovered memory. Despite all that had happened, that had been the only good thing to come out of this entire situation. It was the first time she had truly felt alive.
That memory triggered something in the back of the redhead's mind, and she could feel her strength increasing ten fold. The sudden increase cascaded over Willow like the crest of a wave, leaving her a little disoriented, leaving her unprepared for what happened next. Whatever it was that Willow felt mixed with Baji's magic, creating colossal force of energy that erupted from the magically created cloud and struck Tara's body dead center in the blonde's chest.
And that was the last image that Willow's mind perceived as she blacked out.
As Willow came back into consciousness, all she could think about was how much time had passed while she was out. And that she was beginning to get sick and tired of being knocked for a loop. What was this, the third time it happened in as many days? The fourth? Did it matter? Not really. She just hoped that it was all worth it, and that Tara was alive. Opening her eyes, Willow looked around, finding herself alone on the rocks. Tara's body was gone. So was Baji. Panicking, Willow scrambled to the edge of the water and looked into its depths, finding nothing.
For a moment, Willow thought of swimming out of the cave to try and find them, but she rejected that. For some reason that she couldn't figure out, Willow knew that it was important for her to stay where she was. As she thought about that, she also wondered why staying here was so important. There was no explanation that Willow could come up with that made any sense. If Tara had been brought back to life, then she and Baji should be here now, comforting Willow and reassuring her that everything was alright. If Tara had not been brought back to life, then Baji would be there to comfort her and offer her sincerest regrets that she had failed in her task.
Either way, there should be someone here with her. But aside from herself, the cave was empty. That could only mean one thing: that what had happened did not work. Was that why Baji was not here, Willow wondered? Did she take Tara's body back to her people so that they could perform a burial? The thought that Tara was truly taken from her, despite everything that had happened and their efforts, made Willow feel as if a vital piece of her being had been torn away. It was too much for her to take. Buffy was dead. Faith was dead. And now Tara was taken from her.
Crawling over to the corner, Willow curled herself into a ball and began to cry. Despite everything that had happened, she was surprised at the act. After the pain, grief and loss that she had suffered over the course of the past few days, it was a surprise for her to find that she still had tears to shed. But these tears were different. The tears she had shed before were for Buffy, whose loss was like losing a sister, a pain that Willow would feel for some time, but would eventually fade. The thought of Tara being out of her life, however, was a pain that was like a cancer, working its way into her body and infesting her vital organs, slowly but surely driving the life out of her.
She felt a hand on her shoulder then, and through her tears, Willow looked up to see a sight that should have been impossible. There was no way that it could be true. But it was.
Tara got down on one knee so that she could look Willow directly in the eye. "Hello, Willow."
The sound of that voice made something snap in the back of Willow's mind, and the redhead enveloped Tara in a fierce bear hug, her crying growing more intense. She held onto Tara tightly, fearing that letting go of the blonde would cause her to be taken from her.
"Willow…air's becoming an issue…"
Looking up into Tara's face, Willow smiled. "But what about your gills?"
Tara's smiled back. "You got me. But…Willow…You're kinda hurting me…"
Willow's immediately released her grip on Tara and looked into the blonde eyes. "Sorry." Then the reality of what was going on set in. "But…if you're here…then that means…"
It was then that Willow noticed two others nearby. One of them was Baji, her face radiating happiness and love as she looked at Willow. The other was the merman that had been here before. Willow immediately grew wary at seeing him, remembering what had occurred the last time he had been in her presence.
As if he could read her thoughts, the merman spoke then. "Willow, I've spoken to the other Elders. We…We've learned about what we have done to you, and we are truly sorry about the pain that we have caused you. We see now that there can be peaceful coexistence between us and the surface dwellers." Staring directly at Willow, he asked, "Tara has told you of the story of Lorelei?"
"At that time, we had thought that the human she had encountered had done something harmful to her, that he would spread the knowledge of our existence to others of his kind and that they would send others to kill us all. After we enacted the Spell of Transformation on our race, we grew to be disgusted by the fact that we had to reshape ourselves in the image of an apparent enemy because of that misguided belief. We allowed our anger to twist itself into a distrust of all human contact."
The merman cast his glace towards Tara. "There are those who were born following this who came to wonder why we did it. We've never bothered to explain to them what truly happened, telling them only that it was because of an incident that happened long ago. We helped saturate that belief by creating social stigma about the cave where Lorelei and the male consummated their love." He shrugged slightly. "It was perhaps inevitable that there would be those who would find out that the two were related."
"My mother wanted to disprove their theories about the cave, so she went there," Tara spoke up. "And when she did, they murdered her in order to make sure that the rest of our society continued to believe that the cave was not to be visited by others."
Willow looked at Tara, an expression of empathy on her face. The blonde had said before that she suspected the role of the Elders in the death of her mother, so it must have been especially heartbreaking for her to hear it confirmed.
"Tara told us that she encountered you entering the cave," the merman said. "And fearing for your life, she rescued you." He glanced at Tara. "We would have merely punished her for that, had she not allowed you to see her. But it would seem that the two of you had formed an immediate bond, even if neither of you were aware of it. That compelled her to stay with you until you were brought back to life. Had we been more aware of what was going on, we would not have reacted in the manner in which we did."
Tara looked down. "I was…I was unsure of how you would react. I feared for Willow's life. I had to make sure that she…that she…"
"We understand now, Tara," the merman replied, placing his hand on Tara's shoulder. "And we are truly sorry for the pain we have brought down on Willow." He turned to look at Willow. "And we intend to make up for it…if she is willing."
"What?" Willow asked.
"We want to adopt you into our society, Willow," Baji said. "I can perform the Spell of Transformation on you to allow you to become one of us. You no longer need to be fearful on the surface. You can live with those who understand how you feel." She looked at Tara. "And those that you love."
Willow couldn't believe what she was told. To be like Tara…a mermaid…to live among a society of underwater creatures…to be with Tara…to have their love be acknowledged and respected. It was everything of which she always dreamed.
So why was she hesitating in giving her answer. It was true that what she was being offered was special and something that she always wanted. But what of her life on the surface? Was she really willing to give it up so easily?
"Can I have time to think about it?"
"Of course," Baji responded. "Please take as much time as you need. This is not a decision you should make immediately, after all."
Willow looked into the face of the elderly mermaid and smiled, but lost that smile when she looked at Tara and saw the haunted and pained look in her eyes, as if she could not believe that Willow would need to think about this decision. Willow could sympathize with her, but as much as she wanted to make this decision now to appease her, the redhead needed to have time to figure things out in a way that could make a decision easier to come to.
After returning to the surface, Willow got onboard her boat and, to the best of her ability, dried herself with her t-shirt. Once she had done this, she got back into her clothes, leaving her sopping shirt on the deck. Sitting down, her thoughts turned to the offer she had been given and the pros and cons of her choices. It was certainly a tempting offer, but now that she had time to think about it, Willow wondered if she was truly worthy of it. After all, although her actions had brought about a peaceful end for Tara, it had come at too heavy a price for herself. Buffy was dead at her own hand. Not directly, of course, as she could never think of lifting a finger to harm the blonde. But directly or not, her best friend was still dead because of her hasty actions, and it continued to gnaw away at her.
And then there was Faith. Though Willow didn't feel as responsible for her death as she had for Buffy's, it still made her sad. Could it have been prevented if Faith had stayed where she was like Willow wanted? The redhead shook her head, knowing that such thinking was self defeating. It made no difference now to think about what might have been. What mattered was the here and now.
And here and now, she had a choice that would affect the rest of her life. Bringing her boat alongside Faith's, Willow reached out with one hand and grasped its side. As soon as she did, she began to make her way back to the docks, all the while thinking about what to do with the offer she had been given.
Arriving home as the sun began to set after bringing the boats back to the docks, (and ignoring the stares she had gotten from others given her near topless state despite the fact that she gamely attempted to cover herself), Willow walked into the apartment and made her way to Buffy's room. Looking once more at the legacy of her best friend's life, she got to work packing it away, starting with Buffy's clothes. She made sure to take the time to fold them and put them into the boxes in such a way that they did not crease. She followed up on this by packing away the blonde's trophies, medals and certificates, doing as good a job as she could manage at putting them away so that they wouldn't break while being transported.
As she put the last trophy away, Willow looked around the room, deciding that she would leave the books and everything else for tomorrow. Going to the phone, she picked up the receiver and dialed a number. After a few moments of listening to the phone ring, someone on the opposite end of the line picked up and a voice that was unmistakably feminine responded.
Willow swallowed, knowing that this conversation was going to be difficult. "Hello, Joyce."
The pause that seemed to stretch into infinity following her words was punctuated by Joyce's small gasp, followed by, "Willow? Is that you?"
From the sound of Joyce's words, Willow figured that she had been crying when she picked up the phone. The redhead wondered how long she had been doing it. "Yes, Joyce. I wanted to call you about…about Buffy."
Willow could hear Joyce crying at the other end of the receiver, and she immediately felt guilty about mentioning Buffy by name. But was there any good way to mention her that would not bring about this response? As with wondering if Faith would still be alive if she had stayed where she was, it was pointless to dwell on it. It had happened, and there was no use trying to think about what might have been.
Taking a deep breath, she asked, "Joyce, I don't want to sound insensitive, but…how are you feeling?"
"How do you think I feel, Willow?" Joyce snapped. "My baby girl's dead, and I'll never know how or why…"
Willow felt a fresh stab of pain and guilt at hearing Joyce speak to her like that, not only because she knew not only why Buffy was dead and how it had happened, but because she could never tell anyone about it. It had been the same way she had felt when she told Buffy about Tara and the existence of mermaids, and it had gotten the blonde killed. And on the other side of the coin, not telling Faith about Tara and the existence of mermaids had gotten her killed, too. It was the perfect example of a Catch-22 situation. "I'm sorry, Joyce…"
Apparently calmer, Joyce responded, "Don't be, Willow. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped. I know how much Buffy meant to you. I can remember like it was yesterday the first time that you came over and stayed the night at our house. Buffy told me how excited she was about the fact that you were going to be here. I baked you two chocolate chip cookies. Buffy always liked them…"
Willow could tell that Joyce's recovered memories were going to cause her to start crying again, so she decided to say something before that could happen. "Joyce, there was another reason I wanted to call you. I was going to ask that you come down to pick up Buffy's things."
"And…that you pick up some of my things, as well."
"How come?" Joyce asked.
"Because…" Willow hesitated, coming to the decision on the choice that she had been mulling over ever since she had been given it. "Because I'll be moving out of the apartment."
Exhaling, Willow tried to explain her decision to Joyce in terms that would require her to actually explain it. "Joyce, I've decided that…with Buffy dead…there's no reason for me to stay here. And I don't want…to keep the things that will remind me of her. I want…I want to go somewhere that I can get a fresh start. Somewhere where I think I can find someone that can…help me get through my pain and grief."
Joyce sighed. "Willow, this really isn't the sort of thing you should be talking to me about. Maybe you should call your parents…"
"Joyce, my parents never cared about me," Willow blurted. Then, before she could catch herself, continued, "They always tried to shelter me when they went on their trips. They never let me come with them, fearing I would hurt myself. If they really cared about me, they wouldn't have made such an active effort to stunt my emotional growth. That's why I always spent time at your house with Buffy. It was there where I could…"
Willow hesitated. She didn't want to say that it was at Buffy's house where she could be herself, because that wasn't true. No matter how much she let others know about herself, be it her talent with computers or her sexuality, the fact that her status as an aquaphile was always the one thing she feared to reveal to anyone. Telling Buffy certainly hadn't been that great of an idea, though whether or not it was doing that or her overcompensation afterward that had proven to be the disastrous move was yet another situation in which looking back on the situation did little good.
"Where you could what?"
Jolting back into reality at Joyce's question, Willow answered, "Where I could feel like I belonged, where someone could accept me for who I was." She hadn't time to consider her words, but looking back on them now, she could see how appropriate they were. They were obviously enough to appease Joyce, at any rate.
"Thank you, Willow. I won't pretend to be your mother, but I would suggest that you think about your choice. Dawn and I will come by tomorrow to pick up Buffy's things and what you will be willing to part with. We'll see you then."
The line went dead, and Willow put the receiver down. Moving back to her own room, she flopped onto her bed and thought about what she had said to Joyce. She had thought about it, and it was a decision she would not regret. Tara and the others were willing to go out of their way to accept her, though there was the possibility that they were doing it out of a sense of guilt. On the other hand, perhaps they were genuine in their concern for her welfare.
And of course, there was Tara. How could she think of abandoning her now? Tara had risked her own life, and indeed had lost it, in making their love known and accepted by her kind. To say that she didn't want to be with her now would be rude in the grandest sense of the word. And, of course, she had nothing on the surface to keep her here. Buffy was gone. Her parents were never around. And she had no other person to keep her here.
In a way, by killing Buffy, Tara's clan had made this decision easy for her. That, more than anything, was the great irony of the situation. And as Willow drifted off to sleep, she allowed herself to think one thought.
"I'm going home."
Willow awoke the next morning to the sound of a loud noise occurring somewhere nearby. Through the fog that clouded her brain, she recognized it as the sound of the call buzzer telling her that someone was outside the apartment trying to get her attention. Fumbling out of bed, Willow sleepily made her way over to the wall mounted unit that would let her talk to whoever it was outside. She let out a croak, pushed down the button, and said, "Hello?"
"Willow? It's me."
Rubbing her eyes with her free hand, Willow recognized the voice as belong to Joyce and said, "OK. I'll buzz you in." Letting go of the button, she pushed the one beside it, unlatching the door to the complex so that Joyce could come in and made her way back to her apartment. Moving back to her room, Willow began to get dressed, pulling a shirt over her head just as someone knocked on the door. Heading to it, Willow opened it to find two people waiting in the hallway, one a middle aged woman with curled blonde hair, the other a sullen teenager with straight dark hair hiding her features.
She smiled faintly, trying to hide the sadness that she felt deep within her heart. "Hi, Joyce. Hi, Dawnie."
Dawn looked up, hair falling away at the act and revealing her face to Willow who, for the first time, noticed that her eyes were rimmed in red. Pushing past Willow, Dawn made her way inside the apartment, not turning back to look at either her or Joyce.
Noticing Willow's hurt expression, Joyce said, "You'll have to forgive her, Willow. She's taken Buffy's…she's taken it hard."
"I can image," Willow responded with as little emotion as she could manage, as she watched Dawn collapse into the sofa, arms folded across her chest. Willow and Joyce went into Buffy's room and spent the next half hour taking the boxes containing the blonde's belongings and loading them into Joyce's waiting van. The entire time, Dawn continued to sulk, neither asking her mother or Willow if they needed help nor responding when they asked for her assistance.
After they had finished putting Buffy's belongings into Joyce's van, she and Willow returned to the apartment and stepped inside the redhead's room. "Are you sure you want to do this, Willow?" Joyce asked. "A lot of this stuff is little more than personal effects. I wouldn't feel right just taking it off your hands."
"I'm sure, Joyce," Willow answered without hesitation. "Where I'm going, I won't need most of this. The rest…The rest is just stuff. I don't need it. I suppose I never really did need it. Keeping these things will just remind me of everything that has happened to me. And where I'm going, I don't…I don't want to be reminded of that."
Joyce raised an eyebrow at Willow's words as she stepped passed the redhead and made her way around the room, selecting several of Willow's things that she would take home with her, mostly consisting of old magazines and books that she figured would be of interest to Dawn.
Willow, meanwhile, watched the sight with genuine sadness. Despite what she had told Joyce, most of her things were valued treasures that, given any other option, she wouldn't want to part with. The most precious of these treasures was the small gold mirror she had bought at a garage sale a couple of years ago. Buffy had said that it wasn't a worthwhile purchase, and that her money could have been better spent getting something more essential. But the moment Willow had laid eyes on it, she knew she had to have it in her possession.
It made the decision to give it up all the more painful.
After ten minutes of looking through the room, Joyce had collected several books and most of the magazines, putting it into one of the boxes remaining in the room. As the older woman walked to the door, Willow stepped to her dresser and opened it, taking out the gold mirror and putting it on top of the box.
"Please, Joyce. Take this, too."
Joyce looked down at the mirror, then back up at Willow. "Oh, no, Willow. I can't. I can't take that."
Willow was caught off guard by Joyce's words. The redhead hadn't expected her to realize not only what it was, but how much it obviously meant to her. "Please, Joyce," she insisted. "I want you to have it. It's…it's the most precious thing I own, and I want to make sure…I want to make sure that it…it's safe."
Joyce sighed deeply, not convinced by Willow's argument. "Are you sure, Willow? If it's as precious to you as Buffy told me, perhaps you should keep it."
Willow thought about Joyce's words, not exactly surprised that Buffy had told her mother about how much the mirror meant to Willow. It was indeed precious to her, and with startling clarity, she realized that it was something that she shouldn't give up. She also realized that Joyce had talked to her about the mirror in terms similar to how Baji had spoken of Tara's pearl: a precious personal object that should not be discarded, no matter the reason.
Reaching out to take the mirror off the box, Willow slipped it into her pocket. "You're right, Joyce. It is a precious thing, and I shouldn't just give it away."
Smiling, Joyce walked out into the living room, turning to look at Dawn. "It's time to go, Dawnie."
Stepping up beside Joyce, Willow looked at Dawn. "It was nice to have you over, Dawn. Joyce is giving you some of my things. I hope you enjoy them."
Dawn turned her head and looked up at Willow, her eyes penetrating into the redhead's soul. "Why?"
"Well," Willow began, thinking of how best to explain the situation to her. "I thought that maybe, because I need…some space in my room, I thought that…"
"No," the teenager snapped, getting to her feet and giving Willow her full attention. "Why couldn't it have been you?"
"Dawn…" Joyce started to say, but before she could continue, Dawn stepped right in front of Willow and slapped her.
"WHY COULDN'T IT HAVE BEEN YOU?!"
"Dawn!" Joyce shouted, scarcely believing that she could have done that. "I know that you feel upset about what happened with Buffy, but not even that gives you the right…"
"No, Joyce," Willow said, turning to look at the older woman. "Let her get this out. If she doesn't do it now, it will just come out in some other way that's more…harmful." She turned around to look at Dawn, seeing the barely restrained rage contained within her eyes. "Go, ahead, Dawn. Let it out."
For a moment, Dawn hesitated, this turn of events clearly not the reaction she had been expecting. Then she began to pummel the redhead in the chest, shrieking like a banshee as she did so. In between the screams, Dawn shouted, "It should be you! You should be the one who died! Not Buffy! Not my sister! She helped the disillusioned, consoled the depressed and cheered up the lonely. Buffy could have changed the world for the better if she wanted to. That was her gift. " Looking up into Willow's eyes, Dawn's expression darkened considerably. "And that's a lot more than I can say about you, Willow. What good have you done for this world? What have you done that's so special and makes my sister's death justified?"
Willow's tongue caught in her throat, knowing the answer to that question very well, but knowing also that she couldn't tell Dawn. Aside from the fact that she wouldn't believe it, Willow didn't want anyone else to know about Tara and her society. Though they had adopted a new outlook on humanity, it wasn't very likely that humankind would look upon them in the same way, at least not in the way that she had done.
"I'm sorry, Dawn…"
Ignoring Willow's attempt to apologize, Dawn turned to Joyce. "I'll be in the van, Mom." She then brushed past Willow and made her way to the door. As it closed, Joyce put a hand on Willow's shoulder.
"Don't let what Dawn said bother you too much, Willow. She's going through a tough time right now. And to be honest, she was always jealous of the friendship you had with Buffy. I think it was because she wanted the relationship she had with her to be like the one the two of you shared. I think she's always felt some sort of hostility toward you, only accepting you because you were friends with Buffy."
Willow blew out a sigh. It wasn't really surprising for her to hear this. Dawn was never really all that talkative when she had spent time over at Buffy's. There was even one time when she had asked Joyce if she could stay over at Janice's when she had been over. It may have been a coincidence, but the fact that she had bluntly asked that the minute she became aware of the fact that Willow was going to be staying the night, and right in front of her no less, had made her curious.
"It's OK, Joyce," she said, turning to walk back into her room. "I don't harbor any ill feelings towards Dawn. She reminds me a lot of the way I used to be."
"Used to be?" Joyce probed.
"I used to be a lot like Dawn," Willow elaborated. "Frustrated and scared by the world around me, lashing out at anything that I thought would threaten my small personal sphere. But…I've grown a lot, especially in the last few days. I've opened my eyes to the way the world really is, and I don't think that I like it."
Joyce didn't like the tone of Willow's words, her concern for what the redhead had said earlier painting an uncomfortable picture of what was going on in her mind. "Willow, what exactly are you saying?"
"Only what I said before," Willow answered. "I'm leaving, Joyce. I'm going to go somewhere that can accept me for who I truly am."
"But where?" Joyce asked, incredulous as to what Willow was talking about.
Looking out the window, Willow saw the beach near the apartment, the water cresting rhythmically onto the sand beginning to grow in sync with her heartbeat. They were as one, she realized at that moment. It had been that way for the majority of her life, ever since her experience in that swimming pool all those years ago. The water had been a major influence in her life. And very soon, she would return there to be with Tara, the only person on this world who truly understood her.
After Joyce and Dawn had left, Willow sat on the couch, going over the second of two letters she had been writing to those she would be leaving behind. Having already composed a letter to the landlord explaining to him why she was leaving and telling him what to do with her remaining personal effects, she was now working on the more personal, and thus more problematic, letter: the one to her parents.
Ironically, it was that letter which should have been easy for her to write. After all, Willow's opinion of her parents was rather negative, and it was partly their fault that she was leaving this world to join Tara and her clan. On the other hand, if they hadn't been neglectful, then she wouldn't have started the journey that led her to the beautiful blonde.
Sighing, Willow put her pen down on the paper, and began the hardest letter she would ever have to write.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I bet you weren't thinking you would be hearing from your little girl. When was the last time that we talked to one another? I can't really remember. Goes to show you how much we really love one another.
Anyways, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. Y'see, I've done a lot of soul searching in the past few days, and I've come to realize that I really don't belong in the world. I mean, I was picked on in school, and I didn't have that many friends. And I really can't help but blame you for it all.
I mean, I probably didn't do myself any favors by never really being open about myself, but that's mostly because I never really felt comfortable doing it with you. You always treated me like a baby, always insisting that if I wasn't too careful, I'd end up hurting myself. And a couple of days ago, I couldn't help but think how right you were.
Because a couple of days ago, I nearly died. I bet you're shocked to hear about that, aren't you? Though I've got to be honest and say that I suspect what you're really thinking right now isn't whether or not I'm really OK, but something along the lines of "We told you so, Willow. You're not responsible enough." Well…you're right, Mom. You're right, Dad. I'm not responsible. I may be grown up, but at heart, I'm still a scared little girl.
But don't worry. This scared little girl isn't going to be around much longer. I've decided that I'm going to go live with people who will accept me for who I am, and won't judge me for who I am or what I do. They may be responsible for some of my greatest pain, but at the same time, they want to make up for those problems by offering me the life I could never believe I truly deserved.
I've left instructions with my landlord to send my things back to you. They should arrive in about a week or two. As for my money, I'm donating that to charity. At least there it will do somebody some good.
Don't try to contact me. Where I'm going, you won't be able to find me.
Goodbye, Mom and Dad.
Signing her name, Willow folded the paper in half and slipped it into the envelope. Sealing it shut, she collected the other envelope and headed for the door. Pausing as she reached for the knob, Willow took one final look at the apartment, her home for the past seven years. But the more she thought about it, the more Willow realized that it wasn't truly her home. It was just a place that she felt less afraid of the world.
The ocean was her true home. But before she could return to it, there were several other things she had to take care of. First she would deliver the letters, and then she would head to the shelter to make sure that Faith's things were properly taken care of.
In the back of her mind, Willow wondered which of those tasks would end up being more difficult.
"I'm sorry to hear that. Faith was a very special person."
Listening to the owner of the homeless shelter talk about Faith brought about the first feelings of true remorse Willow had about the brunette's death. Despite how she felt at the time, it really was unnecessary, and something that should never have happened. And at the peak of the problems she felt over it was the fact that, at some basic level, she truly wanted Faith to die at the hands of the mermaids. Whether it was out of her need for the secret of their society to remain that way or some latent aspect of her supposedly buried jealousy towards the brunette greatly troubled her.
In response to the man's question, she simply said. "I know. And I just wanted to drop by and take care of her stuff."
Leading Willow over to a door at the opposite end of the room, the owner pointed to it. "This was her room."
Willow nodded as the man walked off and, flashing back to days earlier when she had done the same thing with Buffy's room, stepped inside. As she did, various scenarios flashed through the redhead's mind, trying to give herself a picture of the room that she was about to enter. Despite what she now knew about Faith, Willow couldn't help but see a darkened room with a heavy S & M influence and decorated with posters of heavy metal bands.
Which made her all the more surprised when she saw that the room was as Spartan as any she had ever seen before.
The only things in the room were a simple cot and a dresser, no evidence of any personal effects anywhere. Walking up to the dresser, Willow opened the drawers to find that there was very little in the way of clothing inside, and that which was there was unlike the type of stuff she had expected Faith to wear. The only instances in which Willow had seen her was when she was wearing her lifeguard swimsuit, and the way that it hugged her perfect figure made it seem as if she were the type to wear tight halter tops or leather or something equally outrageous. Instead, there were simple t-shirts, shorts and pants, along with socks and various styles of lingerie, all of modest cut. It looked as if there were enough clothes here to last a week.
That confused Willow. Faith was a lifeguard, much like Buffy. And though the blonde didn't make a lot of money, it was certainly enough for her to live comfortably, if not extravagantly. So why did Faith decide to live in a dumpy run down place like this?
Moving to sit on the bed, Willow glanced around the room, taking in the emptiness of the place. She wondered why Faith had decided to live her life this way, knowing that she could have done better. The explanation continued to elude Willow as she got up from the bed and made her way back to the dresser to collect Faith's things. As she took out her clothes and made her way to the door, a sudden realization flashed through her.
There was a reason why Faith lived like this. She was afraid of the world, just like Willow was. No. On some level, Willow could tell that what scared Faith was not the same thing that scared her. But it didn't really matter. That had to have been the reason why she didn't keep so many possessions. Did she feel that if she had ever lost anything that was important to her, she would do something she would later regret? Given what happened, it wasn't hard to draw that conclusion.
Willow felt a fresh wave of pain hit her, realizing for the first time that she and Faith were truly alike. The world scared both of them, and it made her sad now to realize that circumstances had thrown them together in the manner in which they had. If Buffy was still alive, there was no doubt in Willow's mind that she would have done her absolute best to make sure they got to know one another better.
Buffy had really been the one thing that they had in common. To Willow, she was the sister that she never had, a real friend that she could be herself around. Or, at the very least, be less secretive and afraid. That must have been why Dawn disliked her so much. It must have made her so upset to see Buffy acting towards Willow the way she had hoped her sister would act towards her. The redhead didn't know in what context Buffy was to Faith, though if their conversation at the Il Fornaio and how the brunette had confronted her had been any indication, it was clearly a case of hero worship. That didn't surprise her in the slightest. Buffy was always looked up to by others during high school. Of course, she took it rather modestly, never allowing it to give her a swelled head.
Walking out of the room with Faith's things, she headed for the exit of the shelter and walked down the street. It took her about fifteen minutes to reach the Salvation Army store. Talking to the clerk, she left Faith's clothing with the clerk on duty, who promised to hold them for a specific person that she thought would be worthy of them.
As she stepped out of the shop, Willow took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The letters had been sent and Faith's things had been dropped off. Her life on the surface, such as it was, had come to an end with those two events.
It was now time to head for the ocean and begin her new life.
As the sun began to set over the horizon, Willow sat on the edge of the water, wearing a one piece blue swimsuit that was a near perfect match for the one she had worn the first time she experienced the water in a sexually suggestive way. She had worn something like this when she had begun her journey, so it made sense that as she made completed that journey, she try as much as she could to appear like the teenager she had been.
Willow would have preferred to go into the water naked, much as she had done before. But she couldn't, not with the possibility of being spotted by anyone passing on the nearby street. Willow also wanted to enjoy the sunset, for she knew that it would be the last one that she would be seeing in this fashion.
Glancing down at her hand, she saw Tara's pearl, one of the few things that she would be taking with her on her journey back to the ocean. The only other thing she was going to be taking was the golden mirror, which she was holding in her other hand. Her discussion with Joyce had made her realize that it wasn't something she wanted to part with. For a moment, she wondered if Tara would accept it much like she had accepted her pearl. It wasn't as precious as the pearl, but it was something special to her. Would that be enough of a reason for Tara to accept it?
As the sun went down, Willow let out the breath she didn't realize she was holding and got to her feet. Taking her first hesitant step, she started towards the water, her strides growing larger and more confident with each passing moment. It wasn't long before she had entered the ocean and was swimming out to sea.
Approaching the area near Tara's private cave (and wondering if she should really be calling it that anymore), Willow closed her eyes and held onto Tara's pearl as hard as she could. As she did, she broadcasted her thoughts, hoping that either Baji or Tara would feel her message.
"Baji…Tara…I'm heading back to the cave. I've…I've decided to come home. I'll be waiting for you."
Diving under the ocean as soon as she finished her thought, Willow headed towards the cave, hoping that she would not have to wait long for Tara and Baji to come.
Tara's eyes, which she had closed while she was meditating, opened as she could feel Willow's voice in her mind. It could only mean one thing: the redhead was returning to them. She smiled at the thought, knowing that, with the stigmas towards humans that her clan held no longer factored into the equation, she and Baji would be able to do all they could in order to make Willow more comfortable in the role she was about to take in her new family.
"Do you feel it, Tara?"
Turning, Tara saw Baji approaching. Smiling, she reached out and took her teacher's hand into her own. "Yes, Master Healer. Willow is coming back."
Baji returned the smile, but then her face grew serious. "Are you happy, Tara?"
Tara looked into her teacher's face with concern, not really understanding what it was that she was saying. "What do you mean?"
"About Willow coming to live with us," Baji answered, spreading her arms out in an all encompassing gesture. "But more importantly, I want to know how you feel about being brought back to life."
Tara looked down at that, and Baji could tell that she was visibly distressed. "I am truly sorry for that, Tara. I truly did not want to do this, but Willow was in so much pain by your loss that I could not bring myself to refuse her request."
Looking up, Tara sighed. "I know, Master Healer. But you of all people should know that using magic in that way is dangerous and could pose a risk for the one who casts the spell."
"I know, Tara," Baji said, coming to rest beside the blonde and taking her hand. "And that is why I must tell you something important. I knew when I enacted the spell that there was a danger to myself, so I tried to prepare Willow as much as I could about how to use her talent."
"Her talent?" Tara was confused as to what Baji was talking about, but she quickly came to understand. "You…you mean that Willow…can use magic?"
"She has the innate talent," Baji replied. "And during the spell we enacted to bring you back to life, I could feel a great deal of power coming from her and directed towards me. That, I believe, is the reason why you were brought back to us. It wasn't due to my power. It was because of Willow. Her love for you and her need to have you in her life is a magic that not even my talent can eclipse."
Tara still had one question. "But how can she learn to use a talent that she does not have?"
Baji turned away. "Because, Tara, during the link we shared, I used my magic to transfer all of my abilities to her. She now possesses all of my talents." Seeing Tara's shocked expression, she continued, "I knew this would upset you, Tara. But there was no other way. This is why I insisted on bringing you with me when I went to speak to the Elders. I could not have you run the risk of finding out what happened and telling her, adding to her problems."
Tara had never thought about speaking ill towards her teacher and caregiver, but hearing what she had done made her seriously tempted to do so. But just as she was about to, Tara realized the logic of what she was saying. With the death of Buffy less than twenty four hours ago, the fresh knowledge that Faith had been killed, a death that could have been prevented, and believing that she herself was dead, imparting to the redhead the knowledge that not only that Tara was alive, but that Willow herself now possessed magical abilities, would not have been the best choice.
"Don't be, Tara," Baji said, letting go of Tara's hand and running her own through the blonde's hair. "I am very proud of you, and I am sure that you will help Willow acclimate to our way of life."
Tara immediately grew wary. "Baji, what are you saying?"
Baji swallowed. "Tara, the spell to bring you back has done a great deal of damage to my life force. I'm afraid it's worse than I thought. I am dying."
Tara's eyes widened. "But…but you can't. With the changes that our society is going to be undergoing, you'll be able to be a vital part of our lives once again. And…" Her tongue caught in her throat. "And…there is much that Willow will need to learn about us, and about magic. She will need a teacher."
Tara looked at Baji pleadingly, and saw that the elder mermaid was looking back at her. Comprehension dawned on the blonde's face as she realized the unspoken intent in her gaze. "Oh, no, Baji. I can't…I can't do that. I'm…I'm too young. There is still much I need to know…"
Gently squeezing Tara's hand, Baji brought her panic to a halt. "Tara, listen to me. In all the time that I have guided this colony's magic users, I have never had a student who took to my teachings as quickly as you. You are a very knowledgeable and talented magic user. You have already displayed this in helping Willow deal with the pain she has suffered. All you need is the confidence to use your power without second guessing yourself. Willow will be able to help you, and you will need to be able to help her."
Removing her hand from Tara's hair, Baji gestured towards the water. "Now, go. Let the Elders know that Willow has returned. They will know what to do."
Tara swam off, Baji watching her departure with a smile on her face. A smile that slowly faded as her body began to grow weaker. A slight shiver passed through Baji's body as she fell back onto the rocks, her life force leaving her body. But despite the finality of the act, she allowed herself to feel comforted. Tara had found love, her society was going to accept Willow, and the two of them would become more powerful together than they ever were apart.
"I am so proud of you, Tara. And of you, Willow. Mother Ocean, God Poseidon and Goddess Amphitrite, may you watch over them."
Baji closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of contentment, her final acts as her life force passed beyond the physical ream to join with the Mother Ocean, where she would watch over Tara and Willow with happiness and love.
Willow swam towards the entrance to the cave, the objects in her hands making it somewhat difficult for her to move as quickly as she would have liked. Pausing at the entrance, she tried to mentally prepare herself for what awaited her inside. This brought up a very important question that had somehow managed to slip from her mind in all of the commotion of the past twenty four hours.
What would her upcoming transformation involve?
Willow knew that it would be magical in nature. That at least had been explained to her. But what hadn't been explained was how it would be enacted, nor how it would affect her. What would be involved in the process? What would happen to her? What would she be like once it was completed?
She knew that these were important questions. Rather unfortunately, however, they also brought up her concern about whether or not the mermen were indeed genuine in their sorrow for what they had done to her. It was thus incredibly surprising for her to discover that those thoughts quickly vanished from her mind without her dwelling on them too much.
Willow tried to find some reason for this thinking, and found that the situation being presented to her wasn't like what had happened earlier. This time she knew without question that it would not be just Tara that would welcome her with open arms. This time her entire race would look at her with happiness and love. That alone made her more assured that the choice she had made was the correct one. No one on the surface would have done this for her, which made it easier to say goodbye to them.
Swimming into the cave, Willow made her way down the tunnels, arriving a few moments later inside the cavern to see that there were others already there awaiting her arrival. As she floated in the water, she counted a dozen merpeople waiting, all of them preparing for some sort of ritual, obviously the one that they would use to transform her into one of them.
"Come, Willow," one of them said, reaching out with one hand and beckoning the redhead forward. "Once Tara and Baji arrive, we shall begin."
Willow made her way to the rocks and was told by the mermen to lie down in the center of the circle which they had formed. The redhead had just completed this action when she heard a splash. Turning her head and peering between two of the mermaids, she expected to see Tara and Baji approaching. Willow was thus surprised to see only Tara coming towards them, a look of contemplative thought on her downtrodden face.
"Tara," Willow said, concern slowly but steadily replacing the happiness she was feeling at that moment. "What's wrong?"
"Yes, Tara," one of the other mermen said. "What is wrong? And where is Baji? We will need her help to perform the ritual."
Looking up to face both Willow and the others, Tara stated simply, "She's…not coming."
It was only three words, but the impact it had on those present was immediate, all of them instantly knowing what she meant to convey with that statement. Of all those present, Willow was perhaps the person who felt sorry for Tara the most, having gone through the pain that the blonde no doubt was going through herself at this moment. For her to have gotten everything that she wanted, only to have the one person in her life to whom it may have mattered more leave this plane must have left a deep wound in her soul. It made Willow question whether or not it was possible for Tara to continue on her own, even with the assistance of the others.
This was obviously something that the mermen realized as well. "Tara," one of them spoke. "If you would like some time to prepare yourself, we will understand. We do not need to do this right away if you feel unable to do this. I'm sure that Willow will understand if you will need time to prepare."
"I agree, Tara," Willow found herself replying. "I can wait a few days for…for this, if that's what it will take for you to…"
"No," Tara spoke, the word coming out quietly , yet with as much force as if it had been shouted at the top of her lungs. Kneeling down in front of Willow's prone body, she continued, "I want to do this now. It is true that I have had a serious loss, but you have suffered more, Willow. And as much as my pain hurts, it should not come before yours. Once you have become one of us, we will be able to help each other. And through our love, find a way to heal one another and become stronger than we ever were apart."
Tara smiled faintly, and Willow returned it with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. Genuine doubts about the blonde's well being, however, prompted her to ask, "Are you sure, Tara? I mean, are you going to be able to…be able to help the others do what you need to do without…harming me?"
Moving to a cross legged position behind Willow's head, Tara smiled as she stroked her fingers through Willow's red hair. "I'm sure, Willow. Knowing that you will be with us makes me feel happy, and that happiness will make sure that what needs to be done will be done. I can do it, Willow. Don't worry."
She may have been calm and relaxed on the surface, but Tara had indeed harbored serious concerns as to whether or not Willow's words of caution were prophetic. With Baji gone, the task of performing the spell fell to her alone. The others would help by channeling their strength to her, though it would be up to her to use that strength to remold Willow to the creature she would become, like a sculptor using sand and coral to create a beautiful work of art.
Tara looked at them now, the dozen who would help her in this task, and saw that all of them were staring back at her with expressions that made her aware of the fact that they were aware of the difficulty she faced, yet silently promising that they would do their best to make sure what she wanted to happen did indeed happen.
It comforted Tara to know this, since it was not that long ago that these men would not have pledged themselves to do this. Indeed, they would have cast a blind eye to the plight of this sad little girl, never bothering to realize how truly alike they really were on a spiritual level, if not a physical one.
Well, soon enough, that similarity would be physical as well as spiritual.
Reaching out with her hands, Tara took into them the hands of those sitting beside her, they in turn taking the hands of those beside them until they were all linked together as one chain, one that would coil around Willow and comfort her during her time of grand change. Closing her eyes, Tara began to breathe slowly, focusing her energy in preparation to help the others enact the Spell of Transformation. After a few moments, she was ready to begin, tilting her head towards the merman opposite her and informing him that she was ready.
"Mother Ocean, hear your children," he intoned. "We ask you now to come and help one of your wayward children find her way home. She has had great pain brought down upon her, pain that was unknowingly brought down upon her by her own brothers and sisters, who were unaware that we were harming one of our own."
As the incantation continued, Tara could feel the beginnings of growing warmth deep in her chest, the energies of her magic coalescing in the pit of her stomach and working its way through her veins as if it were her blood. It passed up her arms and into her fingers, spreading out into the mermen whose hands she was holding. The energy continued to flow from her and passed onto the others, gradually working its way back to her and collecting into her stomach one again, the mixing of energies producing a new untapped power the likes of which she had never felt before.
"Mother Ocean, we ask your humble servants, the Goddess Amphitrite and the God Poseidon, to come help our wayward child complete her journey and return to us. Mother Ocean, we compel you to do what is right and end the suffering and pain this child has suffered."
The energy Tara was funneling through the other mermaids began to take physical shape, manifesting itself as thin wisps of smoke that coalesced out of the air and slowly began to circle Willow's body, growing in thickness as they began to play across the redhead's clothed body. The smoke then began to envelop Willow's body, covering it as if it were a cocoon being formed around an insect. By the time it covered Willow completely, the smoke had grown in thickness to the degree that it rendered her body invisible to the sight of both Tara and the others.
The blonde opened her eyes to see Willow's body covered in the smoke, and looked curiously at the others. "I thought that…When Baji told me about Lorelei, she showed me how she was able to transform herself."
"Spells take many forms, Tara," one of the mermen replied. "With a misspoken word, a spell cast in order to create a whirlpool can accidentally create a tsunami. A substituted phrase could mean the difference between a small crustacean and a large shellfish. The spell Lorelei enacted on herself was one that was quick, and thus brought about a temporary change, one that she would have reversed quite easily had…had we not been shortsighted. This will be different in that it will be a slow and permanent change. And I would think that, given all that she has been through, we would want to spare her the further shock of such an abrupt change to her very being. Do you not agree?"
Tara nodded in agreement, realizing the truth behind the words. Willow had been through enough changes recently, and even though she knew what awaited her at the end of this journey, it would not do her any good to end that trip by encountering choppy waters. Best to prepare herself for her new life insofar as it is possible.
"Now we must complete the ritual." Closing her eyes once more, Tara allowed her energy to flow once more into the bodies of the other mermen, combining with their own impressive talents and funneling it back to her. Now that Willow's body was prepared, it was now time to complete the spell and finish her transformation. They would have to be careful, however, as a single mistake at this point could mean her death.
But the love Tara had for Willow, combined with the others genuine desire to help her, meant that there would be no errors. No mistakes. Everything would proceed peacefully and without interruption.
The merman opposite Tara began to chant again. "We thank you for your help, Mother Ocean, in allowing your servants to help us in our task. Now we ask you to help us complete our task. Help us bring our child home."
The cloud enveloping Willow's body began to shift, its actions borne out of the incantation being spoken. The movements were subtle, but were indeed noticeable to anyone paying attention. As the movements continued, they began to grow more intense, as if they were working on physically reshaping that which was contained within. All the while, Tara kept her energy flowing into the others even as it was coming back into herself, making sure she was performing the spell to her expectations.
Opening one eye, Tara could see that the cloud was beginning to dissipate, growing lighter in opacity as it moved away from Willow's body. And though she knew the work that greeted her when it disappeared was of her own hand, there was nothing Tara could do to prepare herself for the sight that greeted her.
Willow was lying on the ground as she had before, but only her red hair, now grown to a length that equaled her own, gave Tara any indication that this was still Willow, as she was in all other respects completely changed from the woman she had first seen days before. She was stripped of her garment, revealing to all the nakedness she herself had first seen when they had made love. Her body, much like that of the others, was now covered in green scales that range in size from fingernail to thumb, the greatest concentrations of which were on her upper body and legs, with a small line cresting her hairline. Close to her neck, just above her breasts, lay her new gills, which pulsed silently, letting Tara and the others know that Willow was breathing comfortably.
In every way, Willow's body was now the exact opposite of the one which Tara had seen days before and had fallen in love with. But at the same time, it was even more exquisite and lovely than it had been.
Opening her other eye, she looked up at the others, tilted her head slightly and whispered, "Thank you. You may leave us now."
As the other mermaids made their way into the water and swam away, Tara approached Willow's unconscious body, raising a hand and bringing the tips of two fingers down on the redhead's forehead. Following this, Tara brought her head down to Willow's and pressed her lips onto the redhead's, giving her a passionate and heartfelt kiss. It was the kiss she had wanted to give ever since she had first rescued her from drowning to death mere days ago, but now it seemed a lifetime ago. A lot had changed since then, not much of it for the better. But for both her and Willow, it was all worth it.
Willow's eyes opened the moment Tara's lips touched hers, and Tara, raising her head to look deep into Willow's eyes, smiled warmly. "Welcome home, Willow. Dear lost child of the sea."
Willow returned the smile as she got to her feet. "If I'm a lost child, then how about you pretend to be my mother and show me how much you missed me?"
"Vixen," Tara smirked, giving Willow another kiss that was less intense than the one she had given mere moments ago, but was no less passionate. As they broke away, Willow looked down at her body, seeing it in its transformed state for the first time and finding it a far cry from the one she was used to. To Tara's amazement, and her own surprise, she didn't seem the least bit surprised or shocked to see the radical changes the spell had brought upon it. If anything, Willow seemed to be far more comfortable the way she was now than the way she had been before.
Willow raised her arms and looked at the newly grown green scales that had emerged on the backs of her hands and on her fingers. "I look…I look…"
"Different?" Tara asked, worried that Willow was beginning to regret her decision. For a moment, she feared that Willow would detest what had been done to her, accuse her and the others of violating her being, and demand that they change her back.
Tara's fears were allayed when Willow reached out with one arm and wrapped it around her waist, drawing her body close to her own. As she did, she smiled a warm and appreciative smile that acted like the sun itself, burning away Tara's lingering doubts.
The two embraced, each allowing the touch of the other's warm body against their skin without guilt, fear or hesitation. It felt to each of them as if they were frozen in time, the rest of the world passing them by without a care or concern for the two women whose love for one another could now be realized.
Prompted by Willow's voice, Tara looked down to find the redhead looking up, a twinkle in her eyes. "Yes?"
Willow blushed, her red skin contrasting with the green of both her eyes and the scales that lines her face. "You seemed upset that Baji was…was…was not here. What happened?"
Resting her head on Willow's shoulder, Tara tried to find the strength to speak. "She…she…"
Willow could tell that whatever had happened to her teacher, Tara was not yet prepared to speak of it. She understood that the pain was too recent for her to speak of it in a manner that wouldn't cause further anguish, and for that reason, Willow decided to let the matter drop. She knew that when Tara was ready to speak of it, she would tell her everything. Until then, Willow was prepared to let Tara be silent on the issue.
"It's OK, Tara," she spoke, taking the blonde's arm into her hand. "You don't have to tell me now. I'll be here for you. When you're ready, you can tell me."
"Thank you, Willow," Tara whispered, glad that the redhead understood what she was going through, and that while she was willing to help heal the wound, now was not the time to begin.
Right now, all which mattered was that the two of them were finally together, without any secrets and without any lies. And though there was a great deal of pain for each of them to work through, they would have the rest of their lives to do that.
Shortly thereafter, Tara led Willow back to her new home, where she was greeted by others rather kindly, the redhead in turn thanking them for their kind words. All the while, Tara held Willow's hand, letting her know that although everyone was showing their gratitude and love, no one was happier at seeing her in her new home than she was.
There were the select few who looked at them not with happiness, but with abject scorn and barely concealed hatred towards not only Willow, but Tara herself. Tara was used to the glances and the stares, but she could tell that Willow was visibly upset by them, no doubt thinking that they were looking at her and seeing not one of their own, but yet another instance of magic being used to dramatically affect their society.
Tara couldn't help but wonder if those feelings would ever go away. From how Baji had described their behavior, the hostility her kind had endured when they had first undergone the change to what they were now was nothing short of a roaring inferno, but they had also come to learn to live with the change, even if they had never come to terms with it. And even if she had now become like her, Willow was, for all intents and purposes, a living representation of the reasons why they became the way they were. Would some rogue element of the clan take it upon him or herself to rid them of what a potential threat? The actions of one of the mermen when they had confronted her and Willow days before indicated that there would be some hostility towards her, even if the Elders would never allow it overtly.
Guiding Willow towards her home, Tara promised herself that she would not allow Willow to come to harm, regardless of where the threat to herself came from. She had promised Willow that she would be welcomed here, and would do whatever was necessary to keep that promise.
After all, Willow had already proven that she would do the same were she in her position.
As the pair arrived at Tara's home, Willow couldn't help but smile at what was now her home as well. A simply constructed hut, it reflected what she had come to know about Tara and her race: even though there were those who commanded great mystical powers which could grant them whatever they desired, they lived a simple existence, not one to splurge on the grandiose or overabundance that they could clearly give themselves.
Willow recalled her decision to give up the clutter of her surface life, and realized once again how much it had been the right decision to make. On the surface, her life had been a constant state of confusion, rendered in even further disarray by the loss of the one person who could truly anchor her. But down here, life was simpler. No distractions, no confusion.
Life here, she realized, would be pleasant.
As she entered the hut, Willow made her way towards what appeared to be Tara's bed, which consisted of nothing more than a large stone, flat and completely smooth, a blanket composed of seaweed resting upon it. Spreading out onto it, she allowed herself to relax for the first time in a long while.
Swimming into the room, Tara noticed Willow spread out seductively on her bed, and couldn't help but pause and take in the sight of that lusciously beautiful body. It seemed that she was acclimating to her new situation rather quickly. But perhaps that was not as surprising as Tara thought. After all, if what Willow had told her before was correct, she had plenty of preparation at living a life underwater.
Approaching Willow, Tara moved to lie down beside her. "Willow?"
Moving over to look Tara in the eye, Willow said, "Yes, Tara?"
Reaching up to run her fingers through Tara's hair, Willow nodded. "I am, Tara." Her brow creased, wondering why Tara had asked that question, realizing that it must be Tara's desire to see her safe and happy that prompted her to ask that. But why would she feel that way now? There must be something still troubling her, something that had nothing to do with what had happened to Baji.
"Tara, are you all right?"
Lying down on her back, Tara glanced up at the ceiling, letting out a deep sigh. "Yes, Willow," she responded after a moment's contemplation, realizing that she truly was feeling all right. There was, however, one topic of discussion that impeded her feelings of goodwill. One that she knew would have to be broached immediately, lest she discover it herself and harm herself misusing it.
"Willow, there is something that we need to talk about."
Reaching over to drape an arm across Tara's chest, Willow said, "What is it, Tara?"
"When you…when you and Baji…when you decided to bring me back to life, she wanted to make sure that you would be able to do so without any problems. She also knew that doing so would…would cause her life force to…"
Tara cursed herself for being unable to voice her concerns. She wondered whether or not she would ever be able to do so, knowing that in order for her to move on in her life, she would have to accept the loss. Forcing herself to continue, she said. "So when…when you performed the spell, she transferred her talents to you."
Willow's eyebrows rose slightly. "Her abilities? What do you mean?"
"She…gave you her magic, Willow."
"Her magic?" Willow said in surprise, her ability to comprehend what Tara had told her slowly beginning to erode in light of the impossibility of what she had said. And yet, there was no way that she could deny the fact that it could have been possible. After all, she did feel something come over her during the spell that made her feel…powerful, as if there was nothing she could do wrong.
As much as she felt excited about the idea of having magical powers like Tara, one thought immediately concerned her. She had pressured the elder mermaid into doing something to help bring Tara back. If she had known that Baji would have done so at the cost of her own life.
"Tara, I'm sorry."
Turning over, Tara gave Willow a curious look. "What for, Willow? Baji knew what she was doing, and must have felt that your happiness was more important than her own life." She thought for a moment, then added, "And if it makes you feel better, I would have done the same for you."
Willow giggled. And, catching Tara's curious expression, replied, "You did, remember? Back in the cave when you were willing to sacrifice yourself to protect your people."
"I guess you're right, Willow," Tara sighed. "We only wanted to make you happy, even if we had to die in order to do it. You understand that, don't you?"
"Of course, Tara," Willow answered, planting a kiss on the blonde's temple. "And…if you truly want to make me happy, then could we…"
Tara smiled, and moved to position herself over Willow, granting the redhead the full view of her body. Willow ran her hands across Tara's thighs and across her abdomen as the blonde grinded her pelvis, driving her sex onto Willow's own. Biting her lip, Willow moaned at the contact, arching her back to return the contact.
Lowering her head, Tara plated a trail of kisses across Willow's upper chest, taking the time to wrap her lips around the redhead's nipples, flicking her tongue across them and bringing them fully erect. She then brought her tongue down slightly below Willow's breasts, bringing her tongue out and up between Willow's small flesh globes.
Willow's hands, meanwhile, traveled up the expanse of Tara's thighs, gently cupping the blonde's rear, eliciting a watery squeal of delight from Tara, her pelvis grinding itself into Willow's own, bringing a squeal of arousal from her as well. Both of them let out a giggle, a giggle that was swiftly cut off and transformed into an intense and pleasurable moan as Tara pressed her lips against Willow's.
Willow drank in Tara's essence as easily as she could drink a glass of water. The intense feelings she felt at doing so threatened to shut off her higher brain functions. It was that need to keep herself aware of what was going on around her that forced Willow to raise her hands and gently press against Tara's chest.
Confused, Tara got off of Willow and rolled onto her side. "Willow? What's wrong?"
Sighing, Willow turned to look Tara straight in the eye. "I was thinking. Maybe we should…wait."
Rolling over, Willow tried to compose her thoughts, hoping to say what she wanted to say without accidentally offending Tara. She knew, on some level, that Tara felt the same way she did, so she wanted to make sure she said what she had to say in a way that made sure she knew that.
"I mean, you said it yourself," she began. "We've…we've been through a lot of pain, and as much as I want to…prove my love to you, I can't help but realize that it was that…eagerness that played a part in…" Swallowing down the lump that was forming, she continued, "That it would probably be best if we…if we waited." Continuing without taking a breath, she tried to explain her decision. "I mean, you said you had a lot of pain, and I wouldn't want to subject you to something like that before you had a chance to feel better about yourself, because I want to make love to you without feeling…without feeling guilty about it. And even though you've loved me since the day we met, I know that you want to make sure that I'm…that I feel comfortable about who I am…who I am now before we decide to…before we decide to…trust one another like that again. Not to mention the fact that somehow I've got magical abilities, and that's something that's going to take a while to get used to. And I know that you'll…help me in that respect."
Letting out a silent chuckle, Willow knew that the time had come to wrap up this little bit of babble, and concluded by saying, "Do you understand that, Tara?"
Moving up behind Willow and gently caressing a finger across the expanse of her naked back, Tara whispered, "I understand, Willow."
Smiling, Willow turned around to look at Tara, giving the blonde a comforting squeeze. "I knew you would, Tara."
Running one hand through Willow's hair and putting her other hand on Willow's arm, Tara gave the redhead a comforting squeeze, saying more with those gestures than words ever could.
Shifting into a new position, Willow laid her head down on what apparently passed for a pillow and closed her eyes. "I'm sleepy."
Tara watched in silence for several more minutes as Willow drifted of into sleep, then moved to follow suit, lying down on the bed and closing her eyes. She was like this for only a few seconds before she rolled over, draping an arm across Willow's body.
Although apparently unaware of this act, the second she came into contact with Willow's flesh, Tara's face broke out into a smile, one that sparkled brightly and lit the room fully as if one had lined the walls with light bulbs.
Two weeks later, the letter Willow sent to her parents reached them. In a rather uncharacteristic display of genuine affection for their daughter, they made every effort to try and find her, contacting everyone whom they could think of in trying to help. Although the police were quick to put together a team to help search for her, the only person who appeared to be forthcoming with information that could be considered useful was one Joyce Summers, who was as clueless as they were as to Willow's intended destination.
After searching nearly nonstop for Willow for a week, Ira and Shelia gave up hope of finding their daughter alive and returned home, where they spent the next several days in a state of near depression. Their neighbors reported hearing two gunshots four days after returning home, police finding their bodies in the basement shortly thereafter in what was ruled to be a suicide.
Joyce, meanwhile, coping with the dual sting of the loss of both her daughter and her best friend, tried to patch things up with Dawn as best she could in order to help deal with her grief. Dawn, however, could not come to terms with what had happened, and ran away from home days after. Joyce, now having lost both of her daughters, became so distraught that she checked herself into a clinic. The doctors diagnosed her with depression and decided to keep her under their permanent care, lest her case become so serious that she became a danger to both herself and others. Their lives, along with Buffy's and Faith's, had all come to an abrupt and needless end out of the actions of the mermen.
But as bad as that was, one beacon of light shone bright against the darkness. Through all the pain, through all the sorrow, a lost and frightened child had found her way home. And though the road to reach that destination had been fraught with pain and suffering, and though the future seemed uncertain, at the present, those concerns were but a distant memory, to be dealt with at a later time.
All that mattered to her now was that she was home and that she was with Tara. As far as Willow was concerned, that was all that was important.
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