Disclaimer: All non-original characters herein belong to persons such as Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, UPN, WB, etc, etc, etc, rather than me, myself and I. No compensation is received by me, only the pleasure I take in writing it.
Distribution: The Mystic Muse: http://mysticmuse.net
Feedback: Always welcome.
Author's Notes: Sequel to The Valentine's Day Apocalypse and The Witch and the Sorceress . It might be helpful if you read those two stories first.
Thanks to DragonWriter17 and Lilly for the beta.
Dedication: For Tamie, who loved The Witch and the Sorceress, even though she thinks Buffy should have staked Tara.
Summary: Willow's missing. Buffy reluctantly must team up with Vampire Tara to find her.
Part 1 Part 2 Part3 Part 4 Part 5
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…
The redheaded sorceress sprinkles magical powder on the tile floor of the bathroom. "Beatum sit in nominee D'Hoffrynis. Fiat hoc spatium porta ad mundum Arashmaharris."
There is a flash of light, and a towering horned being appears, facing away from the redhead. He is regal and oozes power.
"Behold, D'Hoffryn, Lord of Arashmahar. He that turns the air to blood and rains…"
D'Hoffryn slowly turns around as he speaks until he spies the sorceress.
"Miss Rosenberg!" he says, his tone genial. "How lovely to see you again. Have you done something with your hair?"
"Hello, D'Hoffryn," Willow replies, her tone somewhat less friendly.
"I figured I'd be hearing from you soon. The flaying of Warren Meers? Oh, truly inspired. That was water cooler vengeance. Lloyd has a sketch of it on his wall."
"That's not me anymore," Willow scowls.
"Is that right?" D'Hoffryn's tone is amused. "So, that wasn't you who summoned the kroka demon to deal with your lover's rapist? And I didn't feel your presence earlier today? I didn't feel a bit of the old you?"
"We need to talk about Anya," Willow steers the conversation away from herself.
D'Hoffryn growls, his good mood ruined. "Very well. Let's talk about Anyanka…"
The Slayer watched as Xander chased after Anya then looked toward the closed parlor doors where the confused, but blessed sounds of life were emanating from within. The first of the boys stumbled out of the parlor, a horrified expression on his face.
"Wha…what happened?" he asked, looking at Buffy.
"Uh…frat house prank?" she guessed, trying to conceal the long sword she was holding behind her back.
The young man looked at her, more confused than ever. He looked down at the blood covering his mangled shirt and felt his chest.
"That spider thing?" he whispered and looked around for the danger.
"No, I think you guys just had too much to drink. Or, more likely, someone slipped something into your drink, and you all had a mass hallucination."
"But I remember…" he looked up at her.
"Yeah, funny how hallucinations work," she said.
More of the boys began to file out of the double doors.
Buffy looked at the longhaired blonde guy with a huge smile on his face. He went up the first boy and put a jovial arm around his shoulders. "Great party, dude! Total tripping!"
Buffy watched as he weaved his way around the fallen furniture and up the stairs. She turned back to the young man. "Let me guess…you threw this little shindig so you could have a little fun at your girlfriend's expense. Show off to your frat brothers?"
The boy nodded.
Buffy walked up to him and leaned her face close to his. She could smell the blood and the fear coming off of him in waves, but wanted to make sure he got the point. "Next time you get another bright idea like that, remember what happened here tonight. Remember the feel of having your heart ripped out and know that next time you probably won't get this lucky."
She turned around and left the boys to deal with the mess they created themselves.
Buffy entered her house and made her way up the stairs after cleaning her sword and putting it away in the weapons chest. She wanted to thank Willow for her help with Anya, but her room was empty. Probably at Tara's, she thought to herself.
"Hey Dawn," Buffy greeted, heading for her room, the day's activities having taken their toll on her emotions. It wasn't every day she had to run a sword through one of her friend's chest. And Anya packs a mean punch, she mused feeling the stiffness begin to settle in her neck. Well…packed, that is. Not gonna be packing that anymore, thank goodness.
"I didn't do it," Dawn said with only a slight whine in her voice. Buffy took a moment to appreciate her sister's growing maturity.
"Do what, Dawn?" Buffy asked.
"Make the mess in the bathroom," Dawn said. "It was there when I got home from school."
Buffy crossed the hall into the bathroom that Willow and her sister shared and peeked inside. There was a blackened circle in the center of the tiled floor. Glass from a broken bottle lay scattered around. A smell of sulfur permeated the room. Buffy recognized the smell.
"Dawn," she asked. "Have you seen Willow?"
"No," Dawn replied. "No one has been around. What's going on, Buffy?"
Buffy pulled out her cell phone and dialed Willow's number.
"Just goes to voice mail," she said, breaking the connection.
"Buffy?" Dawn said, and Buffy could hear the worry in her voice.
"Sorry, Dawn," she said and motioned the teenager to follow while she headed into her room for a fresh change of clothes.
"Things with Anya came to a head today," she explained. "She hurt some boys at the university – summoned a demon to rip their hearts out."
"Oh my god," Dawn said, her face pale.
"Wasn't a pretty sight," Buffy agreed. "I found her at the frat house tonight. Xander was trying to get her to run, but she was waiting for me. I think she wanted to die, Dawn."
"Did you kill her, Buffy?" Dawn asked, compassion yet fear in her voice.
"No," Buffy sighed in relief. "D'Hoffryn showed up, and she asked him to reverse the wish even though it would require the life and soul of a vengeance demon. Anya was willing to make the sacrifice, but instead D'Hoffryn killed Halfrek and made Anya human again."
"Halfrek's dead?" Dawn asked, remembering her own encounter with the dark haired demon.
Buffy nodded, and Dawn tried to process the information as Buffy changed her clothing.
"Why would D'Hoffryn sacrifice Halfrek instead?" she finally asked.
"Good question, and I think the answer has something to do with Willow," Buffy said.
"What do you mean?"
"D'Hoffryn mentioned he had spoken with Willow, and that mess in the bathroom looks a lot like the mess he left behind the last time he tried to recruit Willow."
Dawn looked alarmed. "You think he has her?"
"I don't know," Buffy said. "Willow's not the inexperienced college girl she used to be. She's more than a match for D'Hoffryn."
"What are you going to do?"
"Try to find Willow," Buffy said, grabbing her jacket. "I'll try Tara's first. If something's happened to Willow, she might know about it."
Dawn followed her sister down the stairs, and Buffy paused at the door.
"Call Xander, Dawn," she said. "Ask him to come over and keep an eye on you and maybe fix the tile upstairs if he can."
"I don't need a babysitter, Buffy!" Dawn said, the whine finally making its appearance.
Buffy smiled and gave her sister a hug. "I know you don't, but D'Hoffryn mentioned the 'from beneath you it devours' thing, and until we know exactly what that is, I'd like more than just you keeping an eye on the house. Okay?"
Dawn pouted for a moment then smiled. "Okay, be careful, and let me know about Willow."
Buffy nodded and left the house.
The mansion on Crocker Street had stood empty since Angel had abandoned it years earlier. Buffy didn't know if the vampire actually owned the property or not, but even after so many years, none of the demon residents of Sunnydale dared to take residence there. With or without a legal title, Angel's possession was secure. At least until recently when the Slayer herself gave permission for the current resident to take up housekeeping.
As Buffy entered the courtyard, she noticed an immediate improvement in the state of the garden. In the past, on occasion, she would make a sweep through the brooding house, noting the steady decline, feeling sad about it, but not willing to do anything to prevent it. For Buffy, the more the mansion fell into disrepair, the more distant she felt from her relationship with its owner.
Buffy was surprised to see all the dead weeds and debris had been cleared away and new flowers planted. The rose bushes were still bare and hadn't had time to settle yet, but Buffy could see that by next summer they would fill the area with their sweet scent just like they did in her own garden.
Buffy thought back to last summer. She had been so lonely then. Dawn had been gone with their dad, Xander was busy with his construction job, Anya was off doing god knows what kinds of vengeance, and Willow and Giles were in England. After patrol every night, Buffy spent hours, sometimes until the sunrise, just sitting in her garden, surrounded by the sweet smell of the roses Tara had planted and nurtured before she died.
Buffy walked over to the waterfall and allowed the cool water to run over her hands. The sound of the falling water was soothing. She brought the water up to her face and felt immediately refreshed.
"Tara?" she called as she approached the entrance. "Hello?"
Buffy was reluctant to simply enter the house. Although she still lived with the Summers sisters, Willow spent almost as much time here, and Buffy didn't want to intrude on her best friend's privacy. However, her concern for Willow outweighed the reluctance, and Buffy pushed opened the door.
The inside showed as much improvement as the courtyard. Most of the old furniture had been moved out, and Buffy could still detect the scent of fresh paint in the air. New throw rugs covered the floor of the living room, and several new pieces of furniture had been moved in. Gentle candlelight and a warm fire added soft light to the room. Tara had made a great start in home improvement, and Buffy felt a reluctant stab of gratitude to the vampire for her efforts in restoring Angel's home.
"Tara?" Buffy looked toward the hallway where she heard a small whisper of sound.
The sound repeated. and Buffy felt a tingle at the back of her neck as she detected a vampire. It was familiar, but she knew it was not the witch.
"Who's there?" she asked, reaching behind her back for the stake hidden in her belt.
"Nobody," a tortured voice whispered, and Buffy relaxed her pose.
"Spike?" she followed the sound of his voice to the dark hallway and drew him out into the living room.
"Nobody," he said, looking down at the floor. "Nobody's here. The witch went out for a bit, so nobody's here."
"Spike, what are you doing here?" she asked.
"Told me to get out of the basement. Got kicked out of my home. Had nowhere else to go," he said as he moved over the fireplace. He crouched down on the ledge and leaned toward the burning logs as if seeking their warmth.
"Tara's letting you stay here?"
"Nice bird, she is. Always did like her. Not all snarky like Red."
Buffy smiled at his description of Willow. "I suppose she used to be, but Tara's gone a bit snarky herself these days."
He turned his face away from the fire and squinted his eyes looking at her sideways. "She's all right. Can't go home, so she said stay until I can."
"At least you're out of the basement," Buffy sighed. "That's an improvement. Do you know where Tara is? I need to find Willow."
"Not here," he said, turning back to the fire.
"I know she's not here," Buffy repeated. "Do you know where she's gone?"
Spike got a sly look in his eye, and a grin broke on his face. "Gone to get something to eat," he whispered. "Said maybe she'd bring back something for me."
"Tara's gone hunting? Here in town?" Buffy said, her anger filling her. Willow had promised her that Tara would not hunt in Sunnydale.
Spike's expression grew fearful, and he folded in on himself, pulling his knees close to his chest as if to hide his face.
"Spike," Buffy said, pulling at his shoulder. "Do you know where Tara's gone?"
He shook his head. "Gone out."
Buffy realized that further questioning would be useless. "See you later, Spike."
Just before she reached the door, she heard him whispering. She paused to listen and understood one word.
Buffy nodded and left the house.
Buffy had never been to the Red Oyster bar, but she knew of it. When Willow first came out to her, she kidded her best friend about her wanting to hang there rather than at the Bronze with her and the other straight folks. Willow had laughed and told her that plenty of non-straight folks hung at the Bronze and besides, she simply wanted to be where Tara was and Tara had no interest in the Big O. The bar that is, her friend had added playfully, and Buffy grinned as she remembered Willow's sweet blush.
The Slayer pushed her way into the darkened bar and soon spotted the back of the vampire's blonde head. She guessed that Tara's tastes had changed; she sure seemed to have an interest now. Buffy moved past the few dancing couples on the dance floor and walked up to where Tara and her companion were sitting in a booth.
"What do you think you're doing?" Buffy asked, folding her arms and looking down at the snuggling couple.
Tara turned to the Slayer while keeping her arm around the smaller blonde she was sitting with. She looked at Buffy's scowling face with an amused smirk on her lips.
"Gee, Buffy, I would have a thought a woman your age would have figured it out by now."
"Leave," she said to the stranger. "And stay away from her. She'll hurt you."
The woman giggled and squeezed the vampire harder. "Oh god, I hope so!"
Tara smiled at Buffy's expression then turned to the woman. "It's okay, hon. I'll catch up with you later."
"But…" the woman protested.
"Go!" Tara said, a frown darkening her brow.
The small blonde scowled at Buffy as she left the booth and walked away with a huff. Buffy waited a moment and then sat down across from Tara.
"Care to explain that?" Buffy demanded.
"What?" Tara said, looking calmly at the Slayer.
"You're cheating on Willow now?" Buffy asked.
Tara let out a bark of laugher. "Cheating? What are you talking about, Buffy?"
"That woman!" Buffy accused. "You were all over her!"
"Sure looked like cheating to me," Buffy fumed.
Tara laughed, loud and hard. Buffy looked around and saw they were getting the attention of other patrons. She stood up and grabbed Tara's cool hand.
"Let's go," she said and pulled Tara from the booth. The laughing vampire simply followed.
Outside, Buffy finally let go of Tara's hand and continued to walk away from the club. Tara followed, her mirth finally subsiding.
"Sorry, Buffy," Tara said walking beside the Slayer. "I'm not making fun of you. It's just that sometimes you're so naïve."
"I worry about Willow, that's all," Buffy explained.
"I know," Tara acknowledged. "And for that I'm grateful to you. But the truth is you don't know Willow as much as you think you do. You haven't really known her for a long time. Probably not since the day she came out to you."
Buffy turned to Tara, hating to hear things about her best friend from a vampire, but her curiosity and concern for Willow prompted her to ask for more.
"So Willow knows about…?" Buffy jerked her head back in the direction of the club.
Tara smiled. "Of course."
"And she doesn't care?"
"Why should she?" Tara asked. "What we feel for each other can not possibly be threatened by a passing interest or a new toy. Besides, that one back there…?"
Buffy glanced back at the club and then looked back at Tara, the question clear in her face.
"One of Willow's favorites," Tara concluded with a smirk.
Tara resumed strolling down the sidewalk, waiting for Buffy to process that information. When the Slayer caught up again, she asked, "So, do you really think you know Willow?"
"I guess I don't," Buffy admitted. "I'd like to, though. Willow's important to me. I don't understand this path of darkness she's chosen, and I'm afraid I'll lose her. I almost lost her when you died, Tara. I don't want to have to face that again."
"Then get to know her, Buffy," Tara said gently. "She's still your best friend, and she loves you very much. Probably more than you've ever realized."
"I think you're right," the Slayer admitted then caught herself and looked up at Tara in surprise.
"What?" Tara asked.
"Sorry," Buffy grinned for the first time that night. "Never thought I'd be having this kind of conversation with a vampire."
Tara chuckled. "We used to be good friends, Buffy. I think we can be again. I'm willing to give it a try if you are."
"We'll see," Buffy hedged, not wanting to make any promises.
Tara recognized Buffy's hesitation and accepted it. "So, where are we going?" she asked to change the subject.
Buffy paused and looked around at their surroundings. "I'm looking for Willow. I think something's happened to her."
Buffy watched as Tara got a faraway look on her face. A sliver of concern made its way through her gut as she saw worry appear on Tara's face.
"Willow's okay," the vampire explained. "I'd know if anything was seriously wrong with her, but it's like she's far away. I'm sure she's no longer in Sunnydale."
Buffy sighed. "That's what I was afraid of."
"What's happened, Buffy?" Tara asked, her eyes flashing in the night.
Buffy quickly explained recent events ending with what she found at the house.
"You think D'Hoffryn has her?" Tara asked.
Buffy nodded. "D'Hoffryn's been after her for years."
"You said he mentioned Willow when he showed up at the house tonight? What exactly did he say?"
Buffy thought for a moment then said, "He called Willow a firebrand and said he had high hopes for her."
"Well," Tara said, thinking. "I think his wait has finally paid off."
"What do you mean? Willow wouldn't…"
"I think that's exactly what she did," Tara said. "Willow's quite good at making with the vengeance, Buffy. You've seen it yourself. She's beautiful when she's at her work. Maybe she just decided it was time to make it official."
"I don't believe that," Buffy said. "Yeah, maybe she's good at it, but only when it's for herself or for you. Willow's not into freelancing."
Tara thought a moment, then shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. But if so, then it's her choice."
Buffy felt her anger growing. "Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you? Spend the rest of eternity by each other's sides…the vengeance demon and the vampire. Sounds like a bad gothic novel to me."
Tara laughed. "Willow's a big girl, Buffy. Whatever she decides is fine with me."
"But what if she didn't have a choice, Tara? What if D'Hoffryn's holding her against her will?"
"Then we'll make him pay," Tara said calmly. "Do you have a plan?"
Buffy thought a moment. "Anya," she finally said. "If anyone knows about the workings of vengeance demons, it's her."
"Fine, let's go," Tara said and then began walking again. Buffy looked at Tara's back wondering what she was getting into. With a sigh, she followed the vampire down the street.
There was no answer to their knock at Anya's apartment.
"I don't understand," Buffy said. "I thought she'd be here."
"Shh!" Tara said, pressing her ear to the door.
"She's here," Tara said and with a powerful twist broke the lock on the door handle.
Buffy stared as Tara hurried into the apartment, wondering why the vampire had access. Then she remembered that she had no business over whom her friends invited into their homes and followed the blonde witch inside.
"Anya?" she asked, looking around.
"In here, Buffy," Tara called from the bedroom.
Buffy followed the voice and was dismayed to see Anya curled up on top of her bed coverings in obvious pain.
"Anya?" she cried, making her way over to the side of the bed. "What's wrong?"
Anya was still wearing the same clothing she had been hours ago at the frat house. However, the clothes were soaked through with her perspiration. Anya's face was pale and damp, and Buffy could smell the sour odor of rank sweat…and something even more unpleasant.
"What's going on?" Buffy asked, trying not to cloud her judgment with panic. She reminded herself that only a few hours before she had run a sword through the demon's heart.
Tara was sitting at the side of the bed, one hand placed gently against the brunette's forehead and the other pressed against the pulse point on her neck.
"I don't think the transformation from demon to human is a pleasant experience," Tara said, moving into the bathroom and emerging a moment later with a wet washcloth.
"Oh," Buffy said, finally understanding. She wondered for a moment about Xander, but then realized that Anya would not have wanted him here during this time, especially since she experienced it once before.
"Buffy…" Anya whispered, cracking open an eye. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry, Anya," she said, moving to the other side of the bed. "Why didn't you tell me this would happen? I would have come home with you."
Anya made a small noise, and Buffy realized she was trying to chuckle. "That's rich…especially after you tried to kill me tonight. What do you want?"
Buffy took a deep breath, knowing that Anya was right, but sure in her conviction that she was only doing her job. "Willow's missing," she explained. "I think D'Hoffryn took her."
Anya was silent for a few minutes as Tara moved about the room, opening drawers and pulling out clean clothing.
"Yeah…well…figures," Anya said, closing her eyes painfully for a moment and then looking at Buffy. "D'Hoffryn really doesn't have that many girls, despite his boasting. He'd want a sorceress of Willow's power…he has for a long time. And with both Hallie and me out of the fold, he'd be short handed."
"That bastard!" Buffy said as she stood up. She began to pace the room.
Anya sighed. "Buffy, you don't understand. Yes, he's a bastard, and I'll hate him for the rest of my very painful and hopefully short life. But D'Hoffryn would never take Willow against her will."
"What do you mean?" Buffy asked. She glanced at Tara, but the vampire was only silently watching Anya.
"Just that…" Anya explained. "He couldn't take her. He's a big mucky muck amongst the lower beings, but his powers are limited. If he's got Willow, then she went with him of her own free will."
"Why would she go with him?" Buffy asked and felt immediately stupid at Tara's sarcastic laugh.
"Why do you think, Buffy?" the vampire turned away from the Slayer and went back into the bathroom.
Anya laughed weakly. "Quite a bargain he's getting. Willow for Hallie. And he has the added fun of watching me be devoured."
"Oh gods," Buffy said, remembering the conversation that afternoon with Xander and Willow. "This is my fault. I told them to come up with another way so I didn't have to kill you."
"Well, thanks, but I didn't ask for any favors," Anya griped, and then her face contorted as another spasm of pain ran though her body. Buffy moved to the window and cracked it open a bit to let in some fresh air. She heard water running in the bathtub as Tara returned to the bedroom.
"Anya," Buffy said turning back to the bed. "I'm sorry you're hurting right now, but I need information. If Willow has agreed to be a vengeance demon, what happens now?"
Anya sighed, her eyes glassy. "She'll be in Arashmahar. Preparing."
"Preparing?" Buffy asked. "How?"
"Training…getting ready for her ascension. You just don't become a demon overnight. Did you forget how long it took Wilkins?"
"When you disappeared after the wedding. You were in Arashmahar?" Tara asked.
"Yes," Anya nodded. "But I had over a thousand years of experience under my belt. I didn't need that much time. Willow's good, but she's going to need a lot of training."
"What kind of training?" Buffy asked.
"Believe me," Anya said. "You don't want to know."
"Oh gods," Buffy whispered again. Then she focused on the problem. "How do we get her back, Anya?"
"What business is it of yours, Buffy?" Anya asked. "If Willow's gone to be a vengeance demon, that's her business."
"Willow is my business, Anya," Buffy argued. "I need to find her. You know as well as I that if she's set on becoming a demon I can't stop her, but I have to talk to her before that happens."
"Well good luck," Anya said. "You'll need to go to Arashmahar to get her."
"Tell me how to do that," Buffy demanded.
Anya looked at the Slayer. "You're serious?"
Buffy nodded. "I am. Tell me how."
"You can't do it," Anya said. "You have to be a magic user to open the portals and make your way through to the lower dimensions. You don't have that kind of power."
"I do," Tara said. "I can do it."
Buffy looked at the vampire. "I don't know…"
"Then forget about it, Buffy," Anya said. "Go about your business. Willow will be back soon enough."
"As a demon!" the Slayer fumed and thought a moment. "All right, Tara. Anya, how do we get there?"
"Just a minute Buffy," Tara interrupted. "I said I can do it – I didn't say I would do it."
"What?" Buffy said, shocked.
"Anya…" Tara said turning to the woman on the bed. She gently took Anya's hand in hers and held it for a moment. "I need to speak with Buffy for a few minutes, but when I get back, I'll help you get cleaned up. Okay?"
Anya nodded, her eyes closed tightly as another spasm wracked her body.
"Come on," Tara said, leading the way into the living room. Buffy followed a moment later and closed the bedroom door. Despite her anger at the vampire, Tara's actions surprised her. The gentleness Tara exhibited for Willow and others she cared about was a wonder to her. From her experience with Angel and Spike, she knew it was possible for vampires to have true human feelings, but Tara was not like them. Perhaps it has something to do with her sire, Buffy mused.
"What do you mean you won't do it?" she asked, jumping into the confrontation.
"From what Anya said…if Willow's in Arashmahar, then she's there because she wants to be there. Why should we interfere?"
"I just need to talk to her, Tara," Buffy said, hating having to explain herself.
"Look Buffy, you just admitted that you didn't understand Willow. If she wants to be a vengeance demon, then how do you think you can convince her otherwise?"
"I just do, okay?" Buffy said, raising her voice. "She may be your lover, but she's my best friend, and I can't let her make this kind of decision without me."
Tara was silent as she looked at the Slayer. Buffy tried her best not to squirm under the icy gaze.
"All right, Buffy," Tara finally said. "I'll help you find Willow so you can talk to her, but I want something in return."
Buffy stiffened. "What?" she asked through clenched teeth.
"I want you to understand Willow, Buffy," Tara began. "I mean, really understand her. Talking to her about her choices is not going to do either you or her any good unless you're both able to communicate on the same level."
"What do you mean, 'understand her'?" Buffy said.
"Live in her world, Buffy," Tara said. "You really can't begin to know her until you walk in her shoes."
Buffy looked at the vampire in an attempt to judge her ulterior motives. As far as she could tell, Tara was serious.
"I want you to spend just one day living in Willow's world," Tara continued. "Know what it's like to feel what she feels, to have the kind of power that she possesses. It's not like your own Slayer power, Buffy…believe me."
"And how am I supposed to do this?" Buffy asked, tempted but far from giving in.
"As much as you dislike it, Buffy, I'm a big part of Willow's life," Tara said, moving closer to the Slayer. "She and I share a connection, a link that binds us more closely than two beings can possibly be bound."
"The sire and childe connection," Buffy said impatiently. "I get it."
"No," Tara argued. "It's different than that. We shared it in life, and now in death it's even stronger."
"So what's that got to do with me?"
"I can use magic to simulate that connection, Buffy," Tara explained. "It's easy since you and I are already bound."
"That was before," Buffy argued, thinking about the Valentine's Day adventure they had shared. "That was living, breathing Tara. You may look like her and share her memories, but you're not her."
"The only thing missing is the soul, Slayer," Tara said. "And it's such a small thing…a soul. Just because it's gone doesn't mean the memories or the emotions I experienced are gone. Nor does it mean that I still don't feel the same way."
Buffy looked at Tara afraid to comprehend what she was being told. "What do you mean?"
"I still feel for you the same way I did back then, Buffy. I still want to be your friend. I look upon the short time we were lovers with fondness, and I cherish it as one of my most precious memories. And to be totally honest with you, I'm still very much attracted to you."
Buffy's heart pounded out of control at Tara's words. For just a moment she felt flattered that Tara still found her attractive, but then panic set in.
Tara smiled at Buffy's expression. "Don't worry, Buffy," she said. "This is not a come-on. Despite your necrophiliac tendencies and despite how much I still want you, I wouldn't expect anything from you…certainly not a repeat performance, no matter how much you seemed to enjoy it."
Buffy's anger rose at Tara's smirk. "Look, just get on with it. Tell me what you want from me."
"Very well," Tara said. "Let me link us together with magic so that you can feel what Willow feels. Spend tomorrow evening with me…just a typical evening, nothing more than what Willow and I would do together on one of the nights she spends with me rather than with the Scoobies. And after…in return, I'll help you find her."
Buffy thought a moment. She understood a little of what Tara was proposing. She and Willow had shared a sort of connection many times in the past, most recently when she had lent the redhead her power to heal herself. Buffy knew that generous act had unwittingly led to the return of Tara…without Buffy's power, Willow would not have had strength enough to raise her dead lover from the grave.
Giles had told the Slayer that she was just as responsible for Tara as Willow was. Buffy hated that thought, for if she was responsible for Tara's existence, then she was also responsible for Tara's victims. And it was her job as the Slayer to protect people from creatures like Tara.
However, Buffy also knew that if she did her duty and staked Tara, then she would lose Willow…and she desperately needed Willow. Buffy knew that without Willow she would have been dead a long time ago…and stayed dead. Despite all the evil Willow had done, the good she did far outweighed any of the bad. She had refused to let Willow give in to the darkness before, and she refused to let her go now. And she knew she needed Tara's help.
"One condition," she said, trying to regain some control over this impossible situation. "All the rules I set before remain in effect…no killing, no turning, and no invite to my home."
Tara shrugged. "We've kept those rules, Buffy. Why throw it in my face now?"
"You've hammered it into my head numerous times tonight that I don't know Willow. I'll agree to this crazy scheme for Willow's sake, but I won't compromise my principles in the process."
"Buffy," Tara said, "on the honor of the person I was before, I promise I won't force you to do anything against your wishes. All right?"
"All right," Buffy nodded. "What now?"
"Go home," Tara said. "Get some rest. Come by the mansion at sunset."
"What are you going to do?"
"Help Anya," she said. "She shouldn't be alone right now, and I'll try to get more information about how to get to Arashmahar."
"Why would you help her?" Buffy asked. "Just in return for info?"
Tara looked at the Slayer with a combined expression of amusement and pity. "Anya took care of me when Willow was busy trying to save your ass from that hellgod, Buffy. Besides, she's my friend…I take care of my friends."
Buffy looked at her, too exhausted to reply. "I'll see you later."
Without a backward glance, she left the apartment.
Late Night Girl Talk
Buffy closed the front door and wearily eased off her coat. As she was hanging it on the tree, she heard a noise from the living room.
"Buffy?" her sister groggily asked, pushing up from the couch.
"Yeah, Dawn," Buffy said. "Xander go home?"
"A little while ago," she replied.
"Then get to bed…it's late," Buffy climbed the stairs with Dawn following.
"What happened?" Dawn asked. "Did you find Willow?"
"No," Buffy said with a sigh. "I found Tara instead and we went to see Anya…she's sick, Dawn. Becoming human again is…she's hurting bad."
"Oh god," Dawn whispered.
Buffy took a deep breath. "Anya thinks Willow made a deal with D'Hoffryn…Anya's life in return for Willow's services as a vengeance demon."
Dawn's eyes widened. "Would Willow do that? I mean, they've never been bosom buddies."
Buffy shrugged. "Who knows what goes on in Willow's mind these days?" The Slayer thought for a moment and chuckled. "Maybe Tara's right," she admitted more to herself than Dawn.
"What do you mean?" Dawn asked.
Buffy looked up. "Tara agreed to help me find Willow if I spend the night with her tomorrow. It's supposed to make me understand Willow more than I do."
Dawn's smirk lit the room. "Way to go, Buffy! About time you got groinal with a girl," she teased. "And with Tara, too."
"Quit it, Dawn," Buffy said. "I am so not going there again."
Dawn's mouth dropped open. "Again?" she squeaked. "When did you…with a woman? Oh my god! You and Tara?"
Buffy panicked, "I don't know what you are talking about, Dawn," Buffy said as she pushed past her sister into her room. Dawn immediately followed, ignoring Buffy as she tried to close the door before she entered.
"The other day I asked Tara if she had ever cheated on Willow, and she admitted she had a brief affair with someone, but she wouldn't tell me with whom. I just assumed it was with one of her friends from school, or even Anya," Dawn explained. "I never imagined it'd be you."
Buffy paled as she began to pace around the room, picking up random objects and putting them down.
Dawn quickly assured her sister. "Oh, it's okay," she said, kicking off her slippers and sitting on the bed. "Tara said it happened after she and Willow broke up…months before she died. And besides, I know you'd never do that to Willow."
"Dawn…" Buffy sighed and made one last feeble protest. "I did not…"
"Buffy," Dawn said shaking her head at her sister. "You've got the same expression on your face that you had when I found out you were sleeping with Spike. You can't fool me."
"I…," Buffy paused. "Oh crap," she finally said with a sigh and plopped down on her back next to her sister, her hands hiding her face.
"Tell me all about it," Dawn said with a squeal as she excitedly turned to the slayer. "Where was I when you were having your wild fling with the prettiest lesbian in Sunnydale? And how come you never told me you liked girls? I mean, think about it…way better choice for you than muscle-bound dead guys."
Buffy looked at her with an incredulous expression on her face. "I am so not having this conversation with my baby sister. Any why the hell is Tara talking with you about stuff like that anyway? I knew she'd be a bad influence on you."
"Tara talks with me about anything I want to talk about," Dawn said. "She's always treated me with respect even when she was alive so it has nothing to do with her now. She's never made me feel like I was just some bratty kid who, despite growing up on the Hellmouth, has to be protected from all the big bads out there. I asked her about it one time…not long after you died. I asked her why she didn't treat me like the rest of the Scoobies and do you know what she said?"
"What?" Buffy asked curious despite herself.
"She said that was the way her mother treated her," Dawn said quietly. "Her mom said that if you try to hide kids from the bad in the world, they miss out on the good. And if you fight their battles for them because you think you're protecting them, you're only cheating them out of learning the skills they'll need to survive when you're not around anymore."
Buffy sighed and put her arm over her eyes again. "Sounds like something Mom would have said."
Dawn nodded in agreement. "Tara's always been someone I could ask anything and get an honest and truthful answer." Dawn paused and then picked up Buffy's hand. "Maybe I can count on you for that, too?"
Buffy looked into her sister's hopeful eyes. She thought about Dawn's role models – the Wicked Witch of the West, two vampires, an ex-ex-demon and an ordinary guy who was so scared that he'd hurt those he loves that he couldn't get too close to them. And herself – a flawed superhero. Buffy decided maybe it was time they started being more than just sisters. After all, if Dawn was grown up enough to learn how to stake vamps, maybe she was old enough for 'girl talk.'
Dawn silently watched the play of emotions move over Buffy's face.
"It was last February," Buffy began, a faint blush warming her cheeks. She stared at the ceiling, not yet ready to face Dawn. "You and the gang were out of town and I needed help dealing with some idiots trying to open the Hellmouth."
"Where was Spike?"
"Around, but by then I was trying to kick him like a dirty habit," she said. "I knew if I asked him for help, he would just distract me with sex and the town would be toast."
"So you went to Tara?" Dawn asked.
Buffy stood up and started changing into her pajamas. "Yeah, and she helped me save the world…again." Buffy quickly finished getting ready for bed and climbed in after turning off all the lights except for the low watt nightlight.
Dawn snuggled closer to Buffy. "So how did you two hook up?"
"We were in the middle of researching a crisis. The flirting started lightly at first, but the more time we spent together, the more I realized I wanted her and to my amazement, I realized she wanted me too. Of all the Scoobies, Tara was the only one I felt close to during that time. And I could feel her isolation from the rest of us…she was just as alone and lost as I was. So even before then, we had connected emotionally. Tara knew everything about my relationship Spike," Buffy said. "I think that night she decided to show me I deserved more than just his abuse."
"You mean he hit you?" Dawn asked.
"He hit me, I hit him…it was our version of foreplay." Buffy turned toward Dawn. "Will this conversation knock me permanently off your pedestal?"
"Nah," Dawn said. "It'd take more than you banging the undead to do that. Besides, I kinda suspected your relationship with Spike was like that anyway."
"Your insight is starting to scare me, little sister," Buffy said and smiled in relief.
Dawn continued. "So Tara showed you that you deserved better than Spike?"
"Tara showed me more love and passion in that short time than anyone else had ever before," she said in a whisper staring up at the dark ceiling lost in the memory. "When we made love I felt like I was the most beautiful woman in the world. She touched me as if I were a precious jewel to be treasured while at the same time she took her pleasure from me in such a wild way that I never would have in a million years imagined from Tara.''
Buffy glanced at Dawn in horror. "My god, I can't believe I just told you that!"
Dawn sighed. "Wow," she said ignoring Buffy's outburst. "That's…that's so romantic."
Buffy smiled, warmth infusing her being at finally being able to share this with someone. Xander wouldn't have understood…he would have thought they did cheat on Willow even if the Wiccans were separated and Anya would simply have wanted details – the more graphic the better. Briefly, Buffy wondered if maybe she could talk to Willow about this now and if that was one of the points Tara was trying to make.
Buffy chuckled as she focused on Dawn again. "Well, it was Valentine's Day."
Dawn frowned when Buffy's expression turned sorrowful. "What?"
"I felt bad that I hadn't had a chance to get her anything for Valentine's," Buffy said. ''She told me not to worry about it – just get her some flowers. She liked flowers." Buffy paused. "After her funeral…after Giles took Willow to England, I finally brought her flowers."
"Did you love her Buffy?" Dawn asked quietly.
"I did during those two days," Buffy answered honestly. "And afterwards, our friendship was so much more than it had been. She was the reason I was able to finally say no to Spike. Without her love I don't think I could have done it. But I knew there was a chance she and Will could get back together…Tara wanted it, despite everything Willow had done to her. I'm not going to lie and say I did not entertain a few white-picket fence fantasies in my head, but I was happy when they finally reconnected because I could see how happy it made Tara. And after all she did help heal my soul; the least I could do was let her go."
"How did you manage it, Buffy?" Dawn asked.
"Her dying," Dawn said. "You must have been grieving almost as much as Willow. Certainly more than the rest of us, and we had no idea. How did you get through it?"
Buffy sighed. "I had a world to save, Dawn," she answered. "I had a best friend and a sister to save too…Tara was beyond help and I didn't have time to grieve. And after, with Giles and Willow gone, Anya off playing Let's Make a Wish, and Xander hiding behind his work, I had to be strong for you. Those many nights when I held you as you cried yourself to sleep because she was gone? I was crying inside just as much as you."
"And now," Dawn asked with concern.
"Now…" Buffy said as the bitterness crept into her voice. "Now she's a vampire created by the most important woman in my life other than you. And together they hurt and they destroy and they kill people and I…" Buffy's voice broke off into a sob.
"You what, Buffy?" Dawn whispered.
"And I let them!" she cried, pulling Dawn closer to her and burying her head in the teen's lap in shame.
"Oh Buffy," Dawn said, comforting her sister. "It's not as bad as you think."
"No?" Buffy said, pulling up and wiping her face. "Just tonight I found Tara with another woman at that bar. Tara admitted that she treats that woman as nothing more than just a toy to feed on and that even…even Willow gets into it! I just don't understand, Dawn!"
"I know you don't, Buffy," Dawn said with sympathy in her voice. "Maybe Tara's got a good idea…maybe you should spend some time with her. I'm not saying you should be friends with Tara the way you were before, but at least maybe you'd see that things aren't so black and white in Willow and Tara's world these days?"
"I'm the Slayer, Dawn," Buffy said. "I'm supposed to destroy evil, not understand it."
"But maybe you can at least give Tara a chance?" Dawn said. "Look at how your other friends reacted to you and Spike? Wasn't Tara the only one who gave you a chance?"
"I don't know," Buffy said. "I already said I would…for Willow's sake. I hate to waste time when I should be looking for Willow, but Anya said Willow can't become a demon overnight."
"Good!" Dawn said. "I'm sure you won't regret it."
"What about you?" Buffy asked. "What are you going to do while I'm off getting psych lessons from a vampire?"
"I'll go stay with Anya," Dawn said. "If she's that sick, she'll probably want some company."
Buffy looked at her sister. "See, there you go scaring me again by acting all grown up."
"After the conversation we just had?" Dawn laughed. "I hope you realize that I have grown up, Buffy."
"You have," the slayer said. "And I'm proud. Now go to sleep!"
"Okay, okay!" Dawn agreed jumping out of the bed and heading to the door. "But later I want to hear about you and Faith."
"What!" Buffy yelled at her departing sister. "Is there anybody who didn't know about that?"
Dawn's laugh echoed down the hallway, and with a smile Buffy turned off the light.
Lights glowed warmly through the sheer curtains as Buffy entered the courtyard. Dusk was settling over Sunnydale and it promised to be a warm and beautiful evening. The Slayer paused at the rosebushes and ran a hand down her suede jacket, smoothing the nap. She adjusted the collar on her white silk shirt and wondered why she was bothering. I can't believe I spent an hour dressing for tonight, she thought.
The French doors opened as she stood there. Tara walked out into the garden and spotted her standing awkwardly on the garden stones.
"Buffy," she greeting warmly. "Good evening. You're right on time, thank you."
"Uh, yeah sure…I mean, you're welcome," Buffy sputtered. She was put off by Tara's courtesy…her and the vampire had understandably avoided each other since Buffy learned of Tara's existence and the Slayer realized she really didn't know this new Tara.
Tara moved over to the garden table hidden in a nook and brought out a small paper sack. Buffy moved closer to see what the vampire was doing and her eyebrows rose in surprise when Tara started to scatter birdseed around the courtyard.
"And the night starts on the weird foot," she muttered to herself and then silently cursed vampire hearing when Tara chuckled.
"Where's Spike?" she asked, angry at herself for feeling embarrassed and wanting to take control of the situation.
"He was feeling a little better tonight so I sent him off to the butcher's for blood," Tara answered. She finished with the birdseed and moved around to one of the stone benches lining the yard. She indicated for Buffy to join her and the Slayer carefully approached, but did not sit.
"Have you eaten?"
"Not yet," Tara replied.
"How long since you fed on a human?"
Tara looked at the Slayer in the eye. "Night before last," she answered. "Would have been last night, but your little interruption stopped that."
"That girl," Buffy said with certainty. "She lets you feed from her. Like Riley." The last was said with a note of disgust in her voice.
"That's right, Buffy," Tara said. "But no money is exchanged in the transaction."
"Then what does she get out of it?" Buffy asked.
"Lots of things," Tara answered with a shrug. "Protection, satisfaction, friendship."
"Anemia," Buffy retorted.
Tara grinned. "I don't hurt them, Slayer," she said. "Just the opposite in fact."
"So you feed from them while you screw them," Buffy said, disgust in her voice.
"Did you ever let Spike feed while you were fucking him, Buffy?"
Buffy's face turned into a scowl. "That's none of your goddamned business."
"Fair enough, but I know Angel fed from you and you loved him," Tara smirked. "How did it feel, Buffy? Was it not more intense than the most intense orgasm you've ever had?"
"I'm not listening to this," Buffy said as she turned around and started to stride away.
"Oh come on, Buffy!" Tara said, standing up and moving quickly toward the Slayer. "You asked me a question and I answered."
Buffy whirled around. "Just like you answer Dawn's questions?" she fumed. "What? You get off on giving details of your sex life to a teenager?"
"I haven't harmed Dawnie and you know it, Buffy," Tara said. "You're just angry about something you have no control over. That's always been your problem…if you can't control it, you either slay it or walk away from it."
"Then why feed on humans, even if they want you to?" Buffy asked. "Why can't you feed on animal blood like Angel did?"
"Are you a vegetarian, Buffy?" Tara asked in return. "Do you think about the animals who die to give you sustenance? I grew up on a farm where every day I cared for and fed the stock that eventually ended up on our table."
"Humans are not livestock," Buffy emphasized.
"To vampires, they are," Tara shrugged. "But you set the rules and Willow enforces them. I don't kill to feed in Sunnydale, but that doesn't mean I should starve myself. I have a 'herd' of humans who keep me sustained and I take well care of them."
Buffy's lip curled in disgust. "And Willow? Do you feed from her, too?"
Tara's pleasant expression turned sour, even though her smile remained. "If I can't ask about Spike, then it's not fair of you to ask about Willow."
Buffy took a deep breath and decided to change the subject. "But you do kill, don't you? I've noticed the crime rate in the area has gone down since you rose and then of course there's your family. Fratricide for a vamp is so cliché, don't you think?"
"My brother got what he deserved," Tara said. "And my father's day had arrived…he probably would have died no matter what he witnessed. It was his time." Tara paused. "As for the criminals…yes Buffy, I hunt them. The rapists, the murderers, the child molesters. All the ones you leave up to the 'authorities.' The same authorities you expected to bring justice to my murderer."
"It doesn't make it right, Tara," Buffy said.
"Maybe, maybe not," Tara shrugged. "I don't care who I kill…if they're criminals or not makes no difference to me, but Willow does care and justice makes Willow happy. And that I do care about."
"So if she's really into vengeance, why help me?" Buffy asked.
"You and I made an agreement, remember?" Tara reminded. "I'm willing to fulfill my side of the bargain…are you?"
Buffy thought a moment. She knew that by opening herself up to a vampire, she was taking a big risk. Then she thought about the time she had opened herself up to human Tara and she hoped that even a small part of that Tara remained in the vampire. Tara was different now, but Buffy was willing to wager her life in order to find Willow.
"All right," she finally said. "Let's do it."
Tara smiled. "Good, then let's sit please."
Buffy looked at the hand the vampire held out and then finally grasped it lightly in her own. The touch brought a flood of memories back to her of the time when that same hand had brought her incredible pleasure. She looked at Tara and breathed deeply, smelling roses and night blooming jasmine. Even with the pale cast to her features, Tara was still beautiful and Buffy felt a pull of desire.
"I'm putting a lot on the line here, Tara," she whispered.
"I know," the vampire answered. "And in a few minutes you'll understand that I really mean you no harm, Buffy. Just the opposite, in fact."
Buffy said nothing. She simply sat on the bench next to Tara. The vampire took Buffy's other hand in hers and clasped body of them tightly, but not painfully, in her own.
"You remember how it goes, Buffy," she said softly. "Just open up your senses and let me in."
Buffy paused a moment and then closed her eyes. She breathed deeply of the fragrant night air and felt her barriers collapse. She knew she was at that moment totally vulnerable. Never was she more in danger from a vampire, not since that time with Dracula. Even during their most intimate moments, she knew deep down that Angel and Spike could never hurt her in the way Tara could now. They could only do damage to her body, Tara had the potential to destroy her soul.
As she felt Tara's psyche entering her, Buffy slowly came to realize that the connection went both ways. Tara might not have a soul, but she had something. She knew immediately that everything Tara had told her that night was true…the vampire would never harm Dawn nor allow harm to come to her. In fact, she wouldn't let any of the Scoobies, including Spike and Anya, come to harm if she could help it. Tara didn't begrudge the former vengeance demon her choice to return to human status, but she felt compassion for the suffering Anya was enduring.
And as for the women she kept as a rabbit warren, Buffy realized they were better off than they had been. Many were former drug addicts or prostitutes. Buffy caught a fleeting glimpse of what Tara had done to one woman's abusive boyfriend and felt a surge of satisfaction.
Most of all, Buffy felt Tara's love for Willow, which was all-consuming. When Tara had told Buffy that she would die when Willow did, the Slayer had just shrugged it off as mere vampire bravado, but now she understood that Tara really meant it. Without Willow, Tara had no purpose on Earth.
Finally, as the connection came full circle, Buffy felt Tara's love for her. For a moment, she was confused because the love from Tara's memories of her life and the love she felt now was the same, but then Buffy realized that Tara did feel the same way about her. She knew without a doubt that Tara would not hesitate to kill her if she ever threatened Willow and the rage the vampire had felt when Buffy accidentally staked her was overwhelming, and yet Tara still loved her. Most of all, Tara still desired her.
Buffy hadn't felt that kind of desire for a long time and her body responded to it instantly, her eyes popping open to see the vampire watching her, a small half-smirk on her lips that Buffy remembered so well. The Slayer gripped Tara's hands tighter and looked into passion-filled eyes.
"Oh god," she gasped and lunged at Tara, roughly grabbing the vampire behind the head and pulling her forward. Their lips met in a harsh kiss that Buffy knew would leave a bruise later, but the Slayer didn't care. All she wanted at that moment was to connect with Tara physically as they were now connected mentally and emotionally.
Buffy felt as if she were awash in memories. Kissing Tara reminded her of their romantic adventure last February. She hadn't kissed a girl since she had kissed Tara and now she remembered why she'd liked it so much. And the hardness of the vampire pressed firmly to her reminded her so much of kissing Angel. She realized that Dawn had been right – she had grieved over Tara's death, as much as she had Angel's loss, but until now she never realized how much.
She felt a surge of emotion from Tara, realizing through the link that she was happy with Buffy's realization. Buffy almost expected Tara to end the kiss, but the vampire's grip only tightened as she shifted Buffy onto her lap. Buffy straddled Tara's legs, clasping her firmly with her thighs. Tara started rubbing her breast through the silk shirt and Buffy groaned her approval.
Tara finally broke off the kiss and started to mouth the slayer's neck, paying close attention to the faded scar. She arched closer into the contact, offering her neck for the vampire to suckle. She felt through the link the powerful desire her slayer's blood caused in Tara, not only a desire to feed, but to claim and possess Buffy in a sexual way – and in a family way. Buffy recognized the possessiveness common in demons, but that trait was tempered by Tara's unique nature and it was not insurance guaranteeing her safety. Quite simply, Tara wanted her and would have her. And Buffy decided that she wanted Tara just as much.
Buffy pulled Tara's head closer with both hands and lifted herself on her knees, trying to stimulate contact where she needed it most. Tara immediately sensed her desire and slipped her hand to the crease of Buffy's jeans and started to caress, pressing strongly through to Buffy's center.
"Yes!" the slayer cried as Tara fondled her throbbing clit. Buffy pulled Tara's head up and clamped her lips to Tara's, kissing her wetly and gasping into the vampire's mouth. She felt Tara's face transform and accidentally cut her lip on a fang. Buffy's body tightened at the slight pain which faded quickly. She sensed Tara's exhilaration at the taste of her blood and urged Tara to press harder and the vampire responded by grinding her knuckles against her clit.
With a cry she came and shuddered in Tara's arms. "Oh god!" she screamed as Tara gripped her crotch and squeezed with supernatural strength pulling another burst of pleasure out of her.
Tara held her close as Buffy calmed, her breathing returning to normal. She finally pulled back and looked into Tara's yellow eyes. She ran a hand along Tara's brow ridges, caressing them. Tara's expression was at once amused and loving at the same time.
"Sorry about your lip," she said and ran her tongue along Buffy's already-healing cut before capturing her lips in another heated kiss. "I wish we could stay here all night," the vampire whispered.
"Why can't we?" Buffy asked, her head clouded from Tara's kisses.
"We've got places to go," Tara answered. "And Spike's back."
"Spike?" Buffy jumped off of Tara's lap as she finally sensed the presence of another vampire.
"Hello, luv," he said to Buffy and then casually turned to Tara. "I got the stuff, Tara. Want some?"
"No thanks, sweetie," she replied with a smile "I've got reservations."
"Right," he said and Buffy breathed a silent sigh of relief that he hadn't noticed. Then he tossed over his shoulder as he went into the house, "Nice frottage, ladies."
Buffy groaned and sat down next to Tara. "He saw," she said and banged her head against the wall.
"So?" Tara asked.
Buffy looked at Tara. "So?" she repeated. "Well, you're with Willow and he's…well, he's still in love with me."
"Yes," Tara said, the paused and looked keenly at the slayer. "You need to put aside your uptight American morality Buffy. At least, for tonight."
Buffy opened her mouth to deny the accusation about her morality, but then she realized Tara was right. She followed the connection through to Tara and chuckled at how ridiculous it seemed. "You'll always be Willow's no matter how many lovers you take and Spike is not jealous of you because he knows that you'll never do anything to stand between him and me," she said.
"Very good, slayer," Tara smiled and then stood up. "Now, shall we move on to the next lesson?"
Buffy looked at the hand the vampire offered and then took it. "Let's go."
The slayer and the vampire walked along the quiet residential street toward downtown Sunnydale, both seemingly caught up in their own thoughts. Buffy's body was still tingling from Tara's caresses and in an uncharacteristic move, she reached out and took the vampire's hand in her own, holding on as they walked.
Tara quirked her lip at the contact, but didn't say anything, rather just allowed Buffy to process her own thoughts in her own fashion.
Suddenly, Buffy asked, "Have you slept with Spike?"
Tara smiled at the question. "No, Buffy, I haven't slept with Spike," she said.
"But you have…" Buffy started and then paused. "I mean, you have slept with men, since you came back, I mean."
Tara nodded. "Willow likes a little stick now and then," she answered. "And boys are fun to play with on occasion."
"So you've only…with Willow?"
"Yes," Tara answered. "I've always preferred women, even before my brother tried to 'make me straight'."
Buffy fell silent again as she thought about Tara's words. Once again she was confronted with the idea that her best friend was not the same person she had met in high school. Just the thought of that Willow having a threesome was ludicrous, but she could see how this new and grown-up Willow might.
"You're changing me," Buffy said. "It's like I'm soft clay and you're molding me into something new."
"Well, I'm no Pygmalion," Tara chuckled, "But I did promise to alter your worldview a bit. I don't want you to judge Willow, Buffy…just understand her."
"I don't know what pygmy lions have to do with anything," she said. "But I'm beginning to get the point. What's next?"
"Dinner," the vampire answered with a grin.
Tara led the slayer to a side street near the docks. The smell of rotting fish and wet seaweed filled the air, creating a fetid miasma that seeped its way into Buffy's lungs.
"What kind of restaurant is down here?" she asked.
Tara laughed gaily. "This way," she said and Buffy felt a moment of disorientation as they passed through some kind of mystical barrier. From the stinking street they were suddenly in the foyer of a nicely appointed home.
"Whoa!" she exclaimed.
"You all right?" Tara asked.
"Yeah," Buffy said, regaining her senses and moving into the main room – what might have been called a parlor in another age – and despite the opulence of the place, it jogged her memory.
"Is this…" she stopped and looked at the young men and women sitting patiently as if waiting for something. One girl sat up straight when she saw Tara, who gave her a small encouraging smile.
"Just a moment, Buffy," she said to the slayer. She moved into the parlor and greeted the waiting people in low murmurs. A blonde-haired woman wearing a light green robe entered the room and smiled when she saw Tara. She bowed to the vampire and held open the door from which she entered. Tara motioned to Buffy to follow.
Inside was another richly decorated room, this one furnished with a large oak desk sporting an expensive looking computer. Opposite the desk was a chaise lounge decorated in Chinese silk and brocade.
Tara moved to the lounge and said, "Buffy, this is Cherise, Cherise, this is Buffy."
"Merry meet," the blonde said with a bow before Buffy. "It is an honor to meet the Slayer."
"Um, yeah…nice to meet you," Buffy stammered.
Tara smiled. "How many tonight, Cherise?" she asked.
"Five, Mistress," the woman replied. "One is new, he was sent here from L.A." Cherise cut her eyes towards Buffy.
"Very well, him first then…better while I'm at full strength," Tara said. "Give us a few minutes, and then bring him in, Cherise."
"Yes, Mistress Tara," the women said and with a bow left the room.
"Okay, what's going on?" Buffy said, feeling totally out of her element. She realized her harsh tone was her slayerish attempt to regain control. "Why do I get the feeling this is one of those magical drug dens like Willow got caught up in?"
"Because that's exactly what it is," Tara answered.
"What?" Buffy said. "Is this what you and Willow are into now? Feeding magic junkies? In return for what? Blood?"
"Calm down, Buffy," she said. "First of all, no…we don't feed magic junkies, not like what Willow walked into with Rack. We help them."
"Those poor kids out there are magic junkies," she explained. "And I do feed them magic, in return for blood. But it's a different kind of magic. It doesn't drain their soul. What it does is weaken their need for it until it eventually disappears. It's like giving an addict methadone to wean them off of heroin."
"And Willow does this?" she asked.
"No," Tara said sadly with a shake of her head. "Willow's magic is too dark, it would corrupt them. My magic is from the earth, more natural than hers…purer, if you will."
"And your magic can wean them off of their addiction?" the slayer asked.
"That's right," Tara said. "Cherise, there, was one of the first Willow and I worked with. She was one of Rack's leftovers and was in bad shape when we found her on the streets. Willow recognized her and we helped her. Eventually, we set up this safe house for them to come to. Cherise is now cured of her addiction and she runs the house."
"What's with all that 'mistress' stuff?" Buffy asked. "More kink?"
Tara laughed. "No, Buffy," she said, still chuckling. "Cherise joined Willow and me in a coven. She calls me Mistress as a title of respect for her high priestess."
"Oh," Buffy said, thinking. "So you and Willow have founded a magic halfway house and in exchange for blood you help them kick the habit?"
Tara nodded and didn't say anything as the slayer continued. "You don't hurt them?"
"No, I only take a little blood. The five I connect with tonight will be just enough for the evening."
"Then why do you do it?" Buffy asked. "I mean, other than the fact that Willow probably feels she has some kind of karmic debt she owes to these people…but what's in it for you?"
Tara thought a moment. "I think it might be better if I just show you."
Buffy took a deep breath and nodded. "All right," she said, and sat down on the desk. "This ought to be interesting."
The door opened and Cherise, followed by a grungy young man, entered the room. Mistress," Cherise said. "This is Jackson. Jackson, this is Mistress Tara."
The boy's dirty blond hair hung in greasy clumps over his forehead. The t-shirt he was wearing used to be white, but was now covered in grime, as were his torn and ragged blue jeans. Frayed Keds covered his sockless feet. Buffy noted with clinical detachment that his sneakers were missing their laces.
Although she didn't recognize this particular individual, she knew the type and more often than not had to clean up their lifeless bodies after a vampire got hold of them. For a moment, she really couldn't believe that she would just sit here and watch as a vampire bit the poor kid.
"Thank you, Cherise," Tara said softly. "Jackson? Please, come sit."
Tara reached out for Jackson's hand, but the young man snatched it back. Cherise put a soothing hand on his arm and said, "It's okay, Jackson…Mistress Tara won't hurt you. Remember why you're here?"
Jackson looked around the room wildly. His eyes briefly rested on Buffy, but then darted around the room again, settling on nothing for more than a moment. Finally, he whispered in a voice so low that even Buffy had a hard time hearing, "That guy…that guy in L.A. said that she could help me…help me stop wanting the magic so much."
"That's right," Cherise said. "Mistress Tara can do that. She helped me, just like she wants to help you."
Jackson glanced up at her, then back down again. "She did?"
Cherise nodded and finally Jackson allowed himself to be led to the lounge. Tara sat next to him, but not too close, allowing a small space between them. Cherise sat on a simple chair sitting near the lounge and took one of Jackson's hands in both of hers. The boy seemed to gain strength from this.
"How?" he asked, glancing rapidly between Cherise and Tara. He totally ignored Buffy's presence. "I mean…how, how do you get rid of the magic?"
"I take away the bad magic by giving you good magic," Tara explained.
"She said…" Jackson tilted his head in the direction of Cherise. "She said that you'll take something in return."
"That's right," Tara said. "I'd like something in return."
Buffy frowned at the mesmerizing tone of the vampire's voice. She thought briefly about Dracula who had used almost the same tone to enthrall her. But then she was surprised to hear Tara's voice change from soothing to gravelly as she switched to her vampire form.
"I'm a vampire," she said. "Do you know what vampires are?"
Jackson nodded with a quick glance at Tara's face. Buffy noted he didn't show any fear and she wasn't surprised when he turned his free hand up to show the scars running from his wrist to his elbow. "Yeah, I do."
Buffy made a mental note to ask the kid later if he got those scars here or in L.A. She had no intention of allowing any blood dens in her town.
"This will be different, sweetie," Tara said, switching back to her human face. "I don't want you to take any drugs first and I don't expect any sexual favors in return."
"But what…" Jackson asked.
Tara seemed to know what he was asking. "All I will do is take a small amount of blood from you. No more than the Red Cross takes when you donate to them, but before that I will fill you with light magic so by the time I take some blood, you won't even feel it."
"What if…" Jackson looked at Cherise and she squeezed his hand in encouragement. "What if I don't want you take any blood?"
"Then I won't," Tara said, simply.
"You'll still give me the good magic?" he asked.
Tara nodded. "Yes, and if you don't want me to do that either then we'll try to help you go cold turkey. But I do have to warn you that way is not pleasant. The withdrawal symptoms are horrible."
"I know," he said. "I tried…I mean, I've tried so hard!"
"I know how hard it is," Cherise said. "Tara's magic is so much better than trying to do it on your own, but the choice is yours Jackson. We won't force you to do anything you don't want."
Buffy thought about the demons from another dimension that she encountered many years ago in Los Angeles. The 'Ken' demon had also claimed to help the poor and downtrodden runaways, but it was just a front for ensnaring human slaves. But Tara was clearly laying everything out on the line for the boy. She even showed her vampire face so the kid knew everything he was getting into. And the other woman – Cherise – showed so much strength and self-confidence that Buffy had a hard time believing that she had once been like this young man.
Finally Jackson nodded and said, "Okay…I...okay. Let's do it. I mean, I've given up my blood for worse reasons than this and I really…I really want to get better."
"Fine," Tara said with a gentle smile. "Now, you won't be free of the dark magic with just one 'treatment.' It'll take a while, but I promise you won't suffer any physical effects from the bloodletting. Okay?"
Jackson nodded. Cherise picked up a small pillow from the corner of the lounge and positioned it on the siderest. "Lay back," she said and he repositioned himself until he was comfortably settled. Tara moved to her knees next to the lounge.
"What do I have to do?" Jackson asked.
"Just relax," Tara said and took his free hand while Cherise maintained her grip on the other.
Buffy watched as Tara and the other witch closed their eyes. Buffy could see their lips moving but couldn't make out any of the words. She realized though that the chant was soothing. Jackson lay still even as a warm glow seemed to shine from where his and Tara's hands were joined.
After about ten minutes of not much happening, Tara slowly moved forward. Jackson tilted his head back as if in invitation. Buffy noted that Cherise had pulled back and was watching closely as Tara gently slid her fangs into his neck. Buffy stiffened and prepared to spring off the desk if the boy seemed in any danger.
What am I thinking? Buffy thought to herself. The kid's getting sucked by a vampire!"
She was about to put a stop to this when she felt Tara through the connection of the link and realized that Tara was sending the slayer her feelings. Buffy suddenly had the taste of blood in her mouth and rather than being disgusted by it, she felt as if it were filling her whole body with warmth and even love. Buffy realized the warm, fuzzy feelings were the result of the pure magic Tara had filled the boy with first and through the connection, she could tell the boy was not in any pain.
Not too much, Buffy warned the vampire.
Of course not, Tara replied and Buffy could feel the amusement in the thought. That's why Cherise is here; to make sure I don't get carried away. Haven't yet.
That's enough! Buffy warned.
Just another drop, Tara said and a moment later pulled away. She gently licked the wounds until the bleeding stopped. Buffy realized that even though she had given away magic to the young boy, Tara was filled with more magic than she had before. It was as if she had gained more in the exchange.
Of course I did, Tara told her. It's the basic Wiccan tenet – what you give, you shall get back threefold.
After a minute, Jackson opened his eyes and smiled. Buffy could see immediately that he looked better and she noted his face was flushed with more health than he had when he first walked in the room.
See? Tara projected towards the Slayer.
Show off, Buffy replied with a grumble.
Tara smiled at the young man. "Cherise will take you to your room and someone will help you get cleaned up."
"Okay," Jackson said and then looked surprised as he yawned.
Cherise laughed. "You'll sleep like a log tonight, Jackson."
"Great," he said and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.
Cherise took him by the elbow and said to Tara, "I'll be right back with the next one, Mistress."
"Thank you, Cherise," Tara said and joined Buffy at the desk as the other two left the room. Tara just crossed her arms and waited.
Buffy could feel the amusement and satisfaction coming from the vampire. "And that's it?" she finally asked.
"That's it," Tara acknowledged. "I'll do the same thing with the others and then we can move on with our evening."
"You mean there's more?" Buffy asked.
"Sure," Tara said. "I don't plan on ending this evening anytime soon, Slayer."
Buffy turned her head to look at the vampire. "Well, at least you've got some color now," she said. With an impulse she didn't really understand, she leaned forward and kissed the smirking mouth. She pulled away a moment later. "Just make sure you brush your teeth later."
"You got a deal," Tara said and hopped off the desk as Cherise came in with the next addict.
To be continued…
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