Terra Firma

By Tulipp

Copyright © 2003


Rating: R

Disclaimer: All characters and an occasional bit of dialogue are borrowed from Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No copyright infringement intended.

Spoilers: Through Grave.

Feedback: Yes, please, especially if it's constructive

Pairing: Willow/Tara

Acknowledgments: Much thanks to Tommo and Ruby for beta reading.

Summary: When Tara returns three months after Grave, Willow and the Scoobies must learn how she came back...and why.

Chapter 1: Horizon

"So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots
a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs."
—Rainer Maria Rilke

The blue suited her, Willow thought wryly, looking down at the long sleeves of her t-shirt. The shirt had been pink once, but an early experiment of Dawn's had gone wrong and turned all of the clothes they'd taken with them to England the same shade of murky blue. Dawn had minded, at first, but Willow hadn't cared. What difference did it make, after all, what she looked like? And she didn't think Dawn had thought about it since. Willow thought perhaps that Dawn, like herself, found it appropriate somehow. Clothes of mourning.

It would be morning in Sunnydale now, Willow thought. Dawn was asleep beside her, and they had endless hours of flight time ahead of them. They were going…home.

It hurt even to think that. Home was Sunnydale, yes; home was the Scoobies; home was her friends, but home also was…home used to be…Tara. The name sliced her open, as it always did, and she felt the familiar steel grip her chest. She couldn't not think about her, of course. Thoughts of Tara were, these days, the only wound. But thoughts of Tara were also the only cure.

At the prospect of returning to a home without Tara, though, she felt the panic rising, and, as always, she had to fight to resist it taking her over.

She resisted now, uncrossing her legs, resting her hands palm up on her lap, closing her eyes. She breathed in and out, in and out. She focused on seeing a pinprick of light in the dark of her eyelids, a single point on a black horizon, and as she slowed her breath—in, out, in, out—she approached that pinprick and let it grow until everything was light. Then, in that soft, solid white place, the memory could come.

The spell had worked. Willow had crossed into the nether realm and saw what she needed to see. She didn't move there, didn't think, simply was , and she could see the answers clearly. It was a warm place, earthy and damp and familiar, though she'd never been there before. She wanted to stay forever.

After, Tara had called to her through the pink haze of the nether realm and brought her back. For a moment, Willow had lain where she'd fallen back on the pillow, her chest heaving. All her nerve endings felt alive; her fingers tingled. Then Tara had leaned forward and placed her hand over Willow's heart. Willow could feel the blood racing in Tara's palm. Something had passed between them. When Tara took her hand away, she had held a tiny ball of light in her fingers.

They were both soaked with sweat.

Tara had taken Willow by the hand then, led her through the deserted dorm hallway to the bathroom. In the shower stall, they had undressed without speaking and stepped under the spray. They had washed each other. It was a chaste kind of touching, but Willow's skin crackled wherever Tara's hands passed over her. They had stayed there for a long time, the water washing over both of them, their fingers washing over one another. In that wet and quiet moment, everything was ahead of them. It would all happen. It was happening already.

Willow had never felt so clean.

Willow's eyes were wet, but she stayed in the memory until the last trace of panic had tucked itself away again. It was not gone, it was never entirely gone, but she'd learned that she could sometimes make it subside a little. It left in its place one of the other constant companions of her last few months, a vast and consuming emptiness.

She opened her eyes and found Dawn watching her carefully.

"You were thinking about her, weren't you," Dawn said. It wasn't really a question.

Willow smiled weakly. "I'm always thinking about her, Dawnie," she said. She wiped at her eyes. She had once thought that surely she would cry herself out eventually, that there would be no tears left. But they needled at the backs of her eyelids, always fresh. Always new. A shot through the heart every time.

"But sometimes it hurts more than others," Dawn said. She looked down, twisted her beaded bracelet. "Will it always hurt this much?"

Willow looked at the teenager with whom she'd spent so much of the last few months and wished again that she could lie to her, wished she could say that the movies were right and that time would make everything okay again. But these words of comfort caught in her throat.

Instead, she reached for the in-flight program. "Maybe we should see what the first movie is going to be, Dawnie," she said.

"We should go see a movie," Xander said. "You know, something to do to take our minds off…you know." He and Giles were sitting with Buffy in her living room. The plane wasn't due to arrive for hours and hours, but they were sitting. Waiting.

"I hear they're doing a Steve Martin revival downtown," Xander continued brightly. "You know, "My Blue Heaven," "L.A. Story." We could catch a double-feature before we go to the airport, you know, kill some time."

Giles looked up, his teacup halfway to his lips. "I'm not sure I understood Steve Martin the first time around, Xander," he said carefully. "Perhaps a revival will only confuse matters more."

"Besides," Buffy said, leaning back and resting her feet on the new coffee table that Xander had finished only the week before. "I kill enough already. I don't want to kill time, too."

Giles and Xander both looked at her.

"Okay, okay, not one of my most original puns," she said huffily.

Xander leaned forward. "Um, Buff," he said, "Granted, your jokes usually slay me." Giles rolled his eyes. "Okay, my point is, I may not be Mr. Knowledge, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't actually a pun."

Buffy sighed. "Whatever. Look, I am definitely not up for the Steve-a-dore. Find me something better, and I'll consider it."

A movie actually didn't sound like a bad idea. Although she was trying not to show it, Buffy was anxious about seeing Willow and Dawn again. It would be hard, she knew. Not that the summer hadn't been hard. The past months had been difficult beyond the telling. They had all had to rebuild. They had all tried. But constructing anything out of the rubble they were left with after Tara died had been painful for everyone. And slow-going.

For Buffy, it had been an odd summer. She had felt the grief of Tara's death, of course, and she had ached for Willow, but underneath that pain she had been aware of a renewed sense of life, a vigor that had been missing since she had come back. She had often felt a little guilty about that, as if it were wrong to feel any kind of peace when Tara was dead and Willow was lost and alone. But if Buffy was honest with herself, a kind of peace was there.

And it had been a necessary peace. Without it, she wouldn't have been able to remain strong for the rest of her family, crushed by grief and destruction. She wouldn't have been able to comfort and soothe her sister, who had seen too many people close to her die. And she wouldn't have been able to take care of Willow those first days, when she had been so fragile. Shattered. Buffy hated to think of it even now.

Knocking on the bathroom door. Calling quietly, "Willow? Willow, you've been in there for a long time." No answer. "Willow, I'm coming in." Turning the knob and crossing the room to the slight figure huddled in the tub. The liquid grip of panic in the pit of her stomach at the flash of steel in Willow's hand. Kneeling in front of the tub to turn Willow's arms over. The flood of relief that the skin on Willow's wrists was unbroken.

"Willow, this is not an answer," she had said gently, taking the razor away from her friend and putting her hands on the knees jutting out of the water. "This isn't you."

"I couldn't even do that right," Willow had said desperately. She was shivering; the water had grown cold.

Buffy reached into the water and pulled the plug. She slipped her hands under Willow's arms and lifted her out of the water. She reached for a towel and wrapped Willow in it, rubbed her dry, led her into her own bedroom, sat her on the bed.

Willow was still shivering. "Buffy…" she had whispered, "I can't do this, I can't get through this." Buffy had swallowed back the urge to cry; she had needed to be strong for Willow right then. She had to be an anchor.

"Willow, I know how hard it is now, but you have to hang on. You have to let us help you."

"No!" Willow had sobbed then, tears spilling down her cheeks. "No, I can't." Her shoulders shook. "When I close my eyes…I see it over and over again…the blood, the falling." She took a shuddering breath. "So I open my eyes, but then I see all of your faces, and I remember the rest of it, and…God, Buffy, it hurts, it hurts." Willow clutched at her chest, gasping the words out. "God, it hurts too much. I can't live through this. I can't, I can't, I can't." It was the most she'd spoken since before the funeral.

Buffy had recognized the hysteria coming and slipped a gentle hand behind Willow's neck. "Put your head down for a second, Will," she'd said softly. She pressed, and Willow let her head drop to her knees. Willow was gasping for breath, keening. Buffy rubbed her neck softly, trying to calm her.

Eventually, with the pressure of Buffy's hand on her neck, Willow's labored breathing had slowed, and she'd lifted her head. "Buffy, I have to go away," she had choked out. "I have to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Please let me go."

They had looked at each other for a long moment, Willow's eyes pleading, Buffy's eyes searching and understanding. A promise passed between them, a wordless agreement that Buffy would let Willow go, and that Willow would come back. "Let me talk to Giles," Buffy had said, and Willow had started to weep again, but with relief as well as the despair that had colored her every moment since she had crumpled into Xander's arms on the bluff.

Willow had allowed Buffy to button her into pajamas and comb her wet hair. She had accepted a sleeping pill without protest, obediently swallowing it with the water Buffy handed over. She had allowed herself to be tucked into Buffy's bed.

Buffy had looked at Willow, at her pale face and trembling body, and then she had climbed into the bed herself and gathered Willow in her arms. She had hummed something tuneless and held her friend, stroking her red hair. And Willow had gradually faded into a drugged blackness, her cheeks still wet.

"Buffy?" Xander said, and Buffy jerked herself out of the memory.

"What?" she turned to see him peering at her suspiciously..

"I said, maybe before the movie you want to go see what we've done with the new and improved Magic Box?" Xander narrowed his eyes at her. "The grand re-opening is tomorrow night, you know, but maybe you deserve a sneak preview?" Giles was watching her, too. Buffy sat up, stretched her arms out in front of her.

"Sounds great," she said, trying for cheer. "Let me just change, okay?"

"Oh sure, no problem," Xander said, throwing his hands up and reaching for the remote control. "Now's a great time to change…why not color and curl your hair while you're at it?"

Twenty minutes later, in the car, Buffy tuned out Xander's enthusiastic description of the most recent changes to the Magic Box. She would see them soon enough. She was still thinking about Willow. Two months was kind of a long time, and her phone calls with Dawn over the summer had assured her that Willow wasn't about to do harm to herself or anyone else, but still.

She looked east, trying to identify the point on the horizon from which the plane bringing Dawn and Willow home would come. She felt sad and uneasy. She knew that Willow was still living a minute at a time, and she didn't know what to do to make it better. After all her experience with death, she didn't know how to kill this kind of demon.

The hours on the airplane dragged, but they drugged themselves with movies, watching one after another as the time crawled and Sunnydale grew closer. Meals arrived, and Dawn watched Willow push her food around her tray as she always did, these days.

"Willow, please eat a little bit," Dawn said, as she always did, and Willow obediently pushed a few forkfuls of pasta into her mouth. But Dawn knew that ten minutes later, Willow would be unable to say what had been on her plate. Dawn sighed and turned back to her own tray. It didn't actually look that good; it was kind of orange. She unwrapped her small, square brownie instead and finished it in a couple of bites.

Willow took her headphones off suddenly and turned to Dawn. "Tell me a story about Tara, Dawn," she said.

It was a habit they'd gotten into, in England, when the day's training was over and the evening stretched in front of them, empty and aching. They would walk, anywhere—everywhere—and they would talk about Tara.

Now, Dawn settled back into her narrow seat now and thought. "Did you know that Tara came to see me the night my arm got broken?" Willow shook her head slowly. Every detail of that night was tattooed onto her memory; it was needle-fresh.

"She did," Dawn said. "She said not to tell you," she added hastily, apologetically, glancing at Willow. She thought suddenly that maybe there was a reason she'd never mentioned this particular visit before. But Willow smiled faintly, nodded, and settled her head against the back of her seat.

"She brought me a milkshake," Dawn said now, smiling. "I think maybe she'd been crying, but she pretended she wasn't, and she told me a story about a camel. Wait," her brow furrowed. "Maybe it was…could it have been half a camel? Yeah. Anyway, she sat by my bed, and she held my hand, and she told me that I should forgive you."

Willow lifted her head again. "What?" she asked, her voice hoarse.

Dawn glanced at her worriedly. The Guides at the coven had told her that remembering was good for Willow and for her, and that she should talk about Tara whenever she wanted. Still, it felt weird sometimes, and she knew it was hard for Willow. But Giles had told them both from the moment they'd left that the Guides knew what they were talking about. And Giles knew best of anyone.

"She did, she said I should forgive you, that you would never hurt me on purpose. She said what you needed most was for me to show you I loved you." Dawn was quiet for a moment, remembering. "She said she had forgiven you," she finished, her voice low.

The flight attendant arrived at their row then, and Dawn felt grateful that there was the business of packing up trays and handing them over to distract them both. But after the cart had rolled past and they were alone again, Dawn looked over at Willow.

Willow's face was calm, her eyes dry. But she reached for Dawn's hand and squeezed it in her own, and then she turned her face toward the window, toward the blue sky, and folded, as she always did eventually, into her own private grief.

All Dawn could do was hold her hand. So she always did. That's why she'd come in the first place, wasn't it?

Dawn had been standing in the doorway when Buffy came downstairs after checking on Willow. She'd been gone a long time, and they had all heard the sobbing from upstairs. Xander had cried again, although he'd pretended he hadn't, and gone to find a measuring tape to start planning the new coffee table.

"She's asleep," Buffy had said quietly, sliding into a chair and dropping her head into her hands. Dawn drew back a little, into a shadow. Sometimes the others talked more freely when they thought she wasn't listening.

"Cup of tea?" Giles had asked, not waiting for an answer before setting a steaming mug in front of Buffy. She had wrapped her hands around it.

"Giles, she's not getting any better," she had said.

Xander had come back then. "Buffy, it's only been a week," he'd said, too sharply. "Willow's world just ended; she might not be able to get over it to fit into…" He had stopped then, backpedaled. "Hey, I'm sorry, I just mean it's going to take time."

Buffy had nodded. "I meant she's not getting any better here," she said. "It's hard for her to be here. After…you know… after everything she did. This house, Sunnydale…it's all hell for her right now."

Giles had sat next to Buffy, put a hand on her arm. "What are you thinking?" he asked.

"I think we should send her somewhere," she said slowly. "I don't know where, but I think we have to listen to her. She says she needs to go." She looked around the room, met Xander's and Giles' eyes. Dawn had just listened.

"I don't know, Buff," Xander had said. "I mean, it's great that Willow's talking at all, let alone actually saying she wants something, but…I don't know. Maybe she won't get all world-endy on us again, but she shouldn't be alone right now."

Buffy had shaken her head. "I remember how I felt after Angel died," she had said quietly. "I had to be alone; I had to get away. I kind of know how she feels."

Giles had taken off his glasses, wiped them with the tail of his shirt. "Xander, I understand what you're saying, but Willow couldn't do anything truly terrible right now even if she wanted to. The pure magick infusion took a toll. She's very weak."

"All the more reason not to send her off alone, then," Xander had said, his voice echoing in the quiet room. "She's not strong enough to be on her own."

Giles had shaken his head thoughtfully. "There is a place," he said slowly. "I can't promise anything, but there is a coven in England that might be interested in working with Willow… helping her and…perhaps training her."

Xander leaned on the table. "What, a little witchy therapy?"

"Well, Xander," Giles said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I wouldn't go quite that far, but the coven might give Willow a safe place to go, and we would, well, we would know where she was."

Buffy had nodded. "That could work," she had said slowly. "I'm sure the coven knows what it's doing."

Xander wasn't sure. "I don't care if Dr. Ruth Wicca-heimer herself is there," he said. "I'm not sending Willow off on her own. She feels abandoned enough already."

Giles had tilted his head. "Unfortunately," he had said, "the coven doesn't take men, and I'm not sure Buffy should leave her duties here just now, so I don't…."

Dawn had seen her chance. "Let me go," she had said, uncrossing her arms and stepping into the room. "Buffy, let me go."

She'd been right. They'd forgotten she was there. She took advantage of their surprise to push on. "Buffy, you said yourself that you wanted to show me the world, right? Well, this is the world." They had all hesitated. Dawn had crossed her arms over her chest. "Buffy, Willow isn't going to hurt me. Be real here. I'm the only one who can go."

Buffy had looked at Giles. Xander had looked at Giles. Giles had looked at Dawn and nodded.

"Buffy, Dawn may have a point," he said. "And she…well, she was closer to Tara than any of us."

Buffy frowned. "What if Willow doesn't want Dawn to go?" she asked.

Giles poured more tea. "I don't think," he said firmly, "that she has a choice in the matter."

And so it had been decided. Buffy had packed and dug up passports; Xander had bought comic books for the flight. Giles had called the coven and arranged to bring Willow and Dawn for the summer. The coven agreed to let Giles stay long enough to settle them in. A few days later, Giles, Dawn, and Willow left for England.

And now, two months later, Dawn and Willow were going home.

Dawn smiled to herself, allowed herself a tiny hop in her seat. They were going home. She would see Giles and Anya and Xander and Janice…and Buffy. She could sleep in her own bed. She could wear something that wasn't blue! It had been a long summer.

She reached for her discarded headphones and prepared to settle in for another movie. She slipped the headphones over her ears and reached for the volume, then stiffened. It was happening again.

Her hands clutched the headphones to her ears as her mind filled with a screaming white noise that pierced her eardrums from both sides. She clawed at her head, ripping the headphones off, but the screaming continued. "Oh, ow," Dawn cried, pressing her hands against her ears to make it stop. It was heavy metal guitar pitched high, nails on chalkboards, wailing sirens. And underneath the fever pitch that turned her vision to solid white was the other part, the low pounding. It had a rhythm, a voice almost.

Dawn lost any sense of how long it had been going on; the pain was endless. Then, from somewhere outside the white place, she felt a familiar hand on her arm, and on the horizon, a dark spot emerged, and Dawn yearned toward it with every ounce of energy she had. The voice was mumbling at her, mumbling, mumbling, but she ignored it and reached for the horizon. It came closer, and the noise faded, and the white receded, and she was alone again in her mind.

But not really alone. "Dawnie?" Willow said beside her. Willow had leaned forward and was brushing Dawn's hair back from her forehead. "Dawnie, did it happen again?" Dawn opened her eyes and looked into Willow's worried face.

"She's coming, Willow," she whispered, letting her head fall back against the seat. She was exhausted. Drained.

"Who, Dawnie?" Willow asked. She handed Dawn a bottle of water. "They're getting worse, aren't they? The headaches?"

Dawn swallowed. "I don't know who she is, Willow. I don't understand it. But she's coming."

Chapter 2: Rebuilding

"The house of my body has spoken
often as you rebuild me like blocks,
and promise to come visit
when I'm finally adjusted on safe land,
and am livable, joist to joist
with storm windows and screens…"
—Anne Sexton, "There You Were"

Out of the rubble, they would rebuild. In the aftermath of that night, they'd been left with destruction, with detritus and dust and disappointment. She had not succeeded. The world had not ended. They'd had to start again.

This was a minor setback.

On a sunny June day, he had walked the perimeter of the old site, traced the ruins with his feet, leaving an imperfect circle of prints in the dust. He had run a thoughtful finger over a pile of bricks. He could see then that there had been much to do.

Now, mere months later, they were nearly ready. Ready to start again. Ready to return her to her rightful place in the world. Ready to begin the ritual. The ritual would be the key.

It would happen right here, on the dust heap of the last failed attempt. Her true essence had slipped away here, and here is where they would raise it up. Give it new form. A new house.

There were still preparations to be made, people to gather. But in just another day, she would be back.

Tomorrow night.

It would be glorious.

"Okay, Xander, you did good," Buffy said, draping her shoulder bag over the banister at the bottom of the stairs. "Halfway decent movie, completely impressive Magic Box. It's definitely ready for the big re-opening. Dawn will love it. And I think Willow will be really…."

"I hope she's okay with it," Xander interrupted her. "Anya is a little nervous about having her in the shop again." He caught Buffy's eye and held it for a long moment.

Giles elbowed the front door open, balancing two paper bags of groceries. "I don't think that Willow is going to be thinking about the Magic Box," he said. "She's only been gone a couple of months. She will be thinking about…other things."

Giles looked at Buffy, then at Xander. No one spoke.

Buffy turned away abruptly. "How is Anya," she said, reaching to straighten a picture on the wall. "I haven't seen much of her lately."

"Oh, she's pretty much down with the VD these days," Xander said.

"Oh, what a shame," Buffy jumped at the chance to talk about anything other than Willow. "I thought we were about to see another episode of the Xander and Anya Temporary Relapse series that Giles and I have been watching all summer."

"Um, hello, Buffy? VD," Xander raised his eyebrows. "Please get your mind out of the gutter and go back to Sesame Street 101. V is for vengeance, D is for demon."

Giles looked up at the ceiling. "Good grief," he said.

"Well," Buffy said. "It's kind of a repetitive show anyway. You know, every episode is the same. Xander and Anya get back together, but it only lasts for one night."

Giles hefted the paper bags. "I can't believe I'm saying this," he said, "but I think I actually miss Anya. At least we expected her to make inappropriate comments."

Buffy peered at Giles, then at Xander. "You're blushing," she accused. "You're both blushing."

"I am not," Giles said. "Tea. Tea, perhaps. I think we could all use a cup of tea before we go to the airport, don't you?" He headed for the kitchen.

"Great, tea," Xander said, shoving his hands in his pockets and tilting his head at Buffy. "Cause we haven't had any tea in a while." But he followed Giles to the kitchen, Buffy noticed. The three of them—well, it was the four of them when Anya was around—tended toward one another these days. None of them really wanted to be alone. There was some small comfort to be found in numbers. And in tea.

It had been a lonely few months. No Dawn. No Willow. No Spike…but Buffy didn't really want to think about him. Not much Anya either.

And no Tara.

Buffy felt the ache of Tara's absence. She had felt it every day, all summer. She and Giles and Xander had spent the summer talking…and not talking…about Tara. Not really believing that she was gone. Not wanting to believe it. It was so sudden. So meaningless. So wrong.

She had come to think of Tara as a constant. And a friend.

An image flashed into her mind, a feeling.

Kneeling on the floor in the living room. Her hands on Tara's knees. Weeping. Dropping her head into Tara's lap. Sobbing out "please don't forgive me; please don't forgive me." Strangely familiar hands touching her head, tentative first, then surer. Stroking her hair.

Tara had murmured soothing words, smoothed Buffy's hair until she was quiet and just knelt there, breathing, her head resting in the comfort of Tara's lap. It felt familiar, and soft, and warm. It felt like home. It reminded Buffy of her mother. Tara's hands on her hair were solace. They were acceptance. And, in spite of Buffy's pleas, they were forgiveness.

Eventually, Buffy had lifted her head and sat back on her heels. She had wiped her eyes with the back of her hands. Tara had just looked at her, concerned. "Buffy, are you going to be okay?" she had asked. Her voice was gentle.

Buffy had thought about that for a moment, and then she had nodded. "I think so," she said. "Now." She had stood and moved to the sofa, sat next to Tara. Their shoulders had touched easily.

They had sat in silence for a little while. Buffy had looked sideways at Tara, at her composure and concern. "I get it now," she had said softly. "I really get it."

Tara had turned her head, her forehead wrinkling. What?" she had asked.

"Why Willow needs you so much," Buffy had said. Tara had looked down, twisted her fingers in her lap.

"Why we all need you," Buffy had said. It hit her hard then. "Tara, please come home."

Home. Buffy looked around the empty hallway. She sighed. And then she headed to the kitchen for Giles and Xander. And more tea.

He had thought, soon after the failure of that blackest of nights, that the foundation could not be reconstructed. The rubble was too deep, the structure too rickety. And it had continued to fall apart over the summer. When he returned to the site a few months later, the structure had collapsed. Shards of metal—beams and bolts—had littered the ground.

The tower wasn't, in the end, important. He knew that now. It was the place itself, the hallowed ground where her essence had been lost. If he could gather enough Followers to his circle, if he could help them to focus their energy on the chanting, if they could concentrate….then they could bring her essence back.

And after the blood-letting ritual had failed, the Followers had dispersed, shuffled off into the night. He had never gotten a good look at any of them. He had been…otherwise occupied…that night. Perhaps a few of the Followers had people to take care of them, to take them in. Some had ended up in the mental ward at Sunnydale Hospital. Some had drifted into a kind of half-life on the streets. Most had probably become vampire food long ago.

He hadn't seen them leave, hadn't seen any of it. He had fallen…been pushed, actually…and when he had come to, it was quiet. Time had passed. Dust and debris filled the air. He hadn't known quite what had happened, but he had known that the ritual had not worked. And he had slunk away to repair his skin. To lick his wounds. To mend.

All he needed now was the Followers. And the ritual.

It was nearly time.

They were nearly…home. Willow glanced out the small window, imagined the desert expanse she knew was there, a great distance below. She could almost summon enough emotion to be glad the plane would be landing soon. She was tired of being in the air.

Willow frowned as she turned from the window to look at Dawn, who had fallen asleep on her shoulder. The headache had faded away quickly; they always did. But this one had been more violent than usual. And they were going to have to tell Buffy. Willow wasn't looking forward to that.

She had wanted to call Buffy after it had become clear—perhaps a month before—that the headaches were becoming a pattern. She had roused herself enough to speak to Dawn about it, to plead with her to call her sister. But Dawn had refused.


"What would be the point?" Dawn had asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

Willow sighed. "Buffy would want to know," she said, trying for an urgent tone. Even to her ears, though, her voice had sounded flat, monotonous.

"Willow," Dawn said. She stepped forward and put her hands on Willow's shoulders, holding them there even when Willow flinched at the touch. "It's not like Buffy could do anything about it, so far away. She would just worry."

Willow said nothing, looked off into the distance.

"Besides," Dawn continued. "If we told her, she might make me come home. I would have to leave." She paused. "Willow, do you want me to leave?" Dawn's voice caught a little on the last word. A squeak.

Willow looked back up at her then, saw the anxiety in Dawn's eyes. She swallowed hard. Do this, Willow, she ordered herself silently. Do this.

"No Dawnie," she said finally, softly. "I don't want you to leave."

Willow had closed her eyes as Dawn threw her arms around her, willing herself to hug back. It might be cold comfort, but Dawn needed it. And as she allowed herself to lean into the hug, she realized something. She needed it, too.

She had a lot to thank Dawn for, really, she thought now, patting the sleek brown head on her shoulder. Dawn had left her life in Sunnydale behind for the summer to go with Willow to England. To take care of her. Buffy and Giles had never said that, but Willow knew—she would have known then, if she had cared enough to think about it—that it was true.

And Dawn had taken care of her. Even at the beginning, when Willow refused to look at her or anyone, or get out of bed, or talk. Safe at last from the violent and invasive sympathy of her friends, she had withdrawn. But Dawn had checked on her.

"Willow, I'm leaving now," Dawn had said loudly. "I'll be back later." Willow did not acknowledge her. She stared at the wall. She tuned out the voice. Dawn must have left then, but Willow did not hear her footsteps, did not see the door close. She stared.

She lay curled up in a narrow and unfamiliar bed, her arms tucked over her breasts, facing the wall. She was hollow, left with only the hangover of weeks of crying to fill her mind, to pulse red-hot and dry against her forehead and her chest. She wanted to be emptied out. She wanted to fade away. She wanted to disappear.

In that state of half-consciousness, she stared. At the wall, at a tiny chink in the plaster. The door opened and closed. People came and went. Willow stared, unsleeping. Time passed.

Until she became aware that a voice was whispering to her, seeping into the dry plaster world she was creating. "Willow," the voice hummed. It was low tones of cello and clarinet. It was cool fingers around the drywall of her mind. "Come with me, Willow."

Willow blinked, and she wasn't facing the plaster anymore. She had rolled over. When had she rolled over? The room was blurry.

A woman stood in the doorway, soft and solid and white against the shadow of the darkened hallway behind her. Her face shimmered. "Come, Willow," the voice hummed again. It came from the woman—Willow could feel that—but the lips hadn't moved. As Willow blinked again, she saw that the woman wasn't really standing. She was floating. Barely. Her feet hovered just over the floor.

"I don't want to," Willow started to say, but she found herself rising from the bed. Had anything in her life been more difficult than those first steps? Had she ever felt guilty of such betrayal as when she stepped from the doorway of her room into the sun…what had happened to the hallway?… and turned her face upward for warmth?

She took another step, like walking on knives, and found herself sitting, legs crossed, on a wide and grassy heath. Everywhere around her, the faint tinge of heather colored the air lilac. And the low hum, a gentle music.

"You have to rebuild yourself, Willow," the voice came. Willow sat still. She focused her eyes on the woman sitting across from her, smiling. Willow could not quite make out the woman's features. But she knew that the lips had not moved.

Why should I. The thought passed through Willow's mind. She did not speak, but she knew with certainty that she had been heard, or understood.

"You're too weak." Humming again. "You will waste away."

I want to, the thought came. What else do I have now? She was aware of a burning, pained place inside her, but it was distant somehow, removed. Was that her heart, that hot and desperate place? Strangely detached, she watched this thought, too, drift across her mind. The words formed and floated.

The glowing woman's eyes locked onto hers. "You will be like them," the hum pressed at the edges of Willow's awareness. "You will be bones and dust, walking."

Yes, Willow thought. She had nodded, but she was perfectly still. Her hands rested on her knees. Anchored them.

"You have your friends," the hum grew a little, purred, deep and rhythmic. It surrounded Willow. It licked at her. "They need you, Willow. The girl needs you. You must rebuild." Willow tried to shake her head. She still sat, calmly.

I won't, she thought. I am done.

The voice grew louder. The wind blew Willow's hair back, away from her face. It glinted red. The tops of the heather quivered. "You can't help it," the voice purred. "You can't stop it. It's in your nature."

No, Willow thought. She'd meant it to be desperate, but it seeped out of her as calmly as before. No.

"Look at your hands." The hum was back, lessening, low musical notes fading away at the end of a song. "You're already doing it."

Willow blinked. The white shimmered and turned faintly green at the edges of her vision. Slowly, she turned her eyes downward, to the dark ground. She was still sitting, legs crossed, on the heath, but it was night. She saw, as if from a great distance, that her hands were forming a pile of small gray stones into a shape. Where had they come from? She tilted her head and looked at what she had made. As she studied it, detached, it took shape: a little wall. A monument. A headstone.

Willow dropped the stones she still held and scrambled to her feet. She kicked out with her foot and knocked the little shape over. She backed away, horrified. No.

As she stood, stunned and staring, the air around her moved, the stones sank into the ground. The heather dissolved. The heath disappeared. The black night turned pink. The hum faded, faded, and was gone.

She blinked again. She looked at the plaster chink on the wall, felt her hands still clutched to her chest, felt the ache in her head and in her heart. The door to the hallway was shut.

She had lain there for a long moment. And then she had done the hardest thing she had ever had to do. Would ever have to do.

She sat up.


Dawn sat up, rubbed her eyes. Willow turned to her and half-smiled. "Are we there yet," Dawn asked, leaning over Willow to peer out the window. And they were.

The cabin lights dimmed. "Please return your seats to their full and upright positions," the flight attendant's voice sounded throughout the cabin. "We are about to begin our descent into Sunnydale."

Chapter 3: Little Headaches

"The point of vision and desire are the same."
—Wallace Stevens, "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven"

From the hallway of the Summers' house, Buffy saw Willow hesitate on the threshold of the front door. "Willow, come in," she said. Willow stepped through the door, and then, she and Buffy both recognized the exchange for what it was. Their eyes locked for a brief, uneasy moment.

Xander following behind, missed it. "I really thought you guys would have more stuff," he said lightly, setting the bags down on the hall floor. "Little broomsticks or maybe hats. You know, souvenirs."

Willow stood still near the base of the stairs, her eyes traveling the territory of floor and wall, seeking out the familiar. And the new. She didn't seem to hear him.

"There was a village, but no gift shop," Dawn said. She, too, glanced around the hallway.

"Well, maybe it was better that way," Xander said, standing up. "No temptation for y…."

"Right then, "Giles interrupted, frowning at Xander. "Willow and Dawn must be very tired after. . . ." His voice trailed off. Dawn had joined Willow, and they were both looking at a framed photograph that Buffy had hung in the entryway after they'd left.

It was Tara, seated at a table in the Magic Box. The open pages of several books were just visible on the table in front of her. Tara was looking up, at something or someone just outside the frame of the photo. Her lips were slightly open, as if she was about to speak. One braid fell forward, brushing her shoulder. Her blue eyes seemed to dance.

Willow lifted a hand and touched the image of Tara's face. Her finger trailed down the glass, lingering. Buffy, leaning against the doorframe, watched her. Xander and Giles both looked away. The room was dead silent.

After a long moment, Willow seemed to rouse herself. She turned her back with effort. "That's nice, Buffy," she said quietly. Buffy hadn't realized she was holding her breath until this moment, and she let it out with relief.

"I think," Willow said. Her voice was low, and the others strained to hear her. "I need some sleep. But…." She glanced at the stairs, then away.

"Willow, you're in Dawn's room tonight," Buffy stepped forward and touched Willow's arm. "It's already made up for you. Dawn and I are going to do the whole sister sleepover thing in my room." She glanced at Dawn, who nodded. "Unless maybe you want to sleep over too?"

Willow exhaled. She reached for Buffy's hand and squeezed it. "I think I just want to be alone tonight," she said, her eyes darting to Xander, then Giles, then Dawn. "I'm sorry…I just…."

Giles took a hand out of his pocket and patted Willow's shoulder. "We're glad you're back, Willow," he said. "We'll all be here tomorrow." Willow swallowed but didn't move.

Xander swung into action, scooping Willow's bag off the floor. "I'll carry your bag up, Will," he said, gesturing toward the bag. "Settle you in?" Willow's eyes flitted from Dawn to Xander. She nodded.

The others watched them go. Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with a tired hand. Buffy had thought the summer had been hard enough; she'd spent it grieving for Tara, her friend. But now she needed to help Willow grieve for Tara, her lover. The hard part was just beginning.

But Dawn was waiting, and Buffy turned to her sister. "So," she said, "what's with the matching outfits?"

"Dawn, tell me." Buffy made room for her sister on the bed. "How are you, really?"

Dawn settled herself back against the pillows. "I'm okay, Buffy," she said. "I miss Tara." She plucked at the bedspread. "I can't believe she's gone. I mean, I know she is, but it's like I can't really believe it. I keep thinking that she's just going to walk through the door."

Buffy propped herself up on one elbow. "I know what you mean," she said softly.

"It's like when Mom died." Dawn nodded.

"Yeah," she said. "I miss Mom, too."

Buffy scooted a little closer to Dawn. "Dawn, I'm proud of you," she said. Dawn looked up, surprised. "You helped Willow. I know she's still in a bad way, and I know it's going to take time, but at least she's…I don't know…talking."

Dawn bit her lip. "She cries every night," she said softly. "Her room was right next to mine. And I think maybe she has bad dreams."

Buffy nodded. "I know," she said. For a moment, her eyes clouded over, and she seemed to Dawn to have gone away. Then she came back.

"So what was England like, anyway?" she asked.

Dawn thought.

England had been cool and green. For Dawn, it had also been sadness and confusion. And headaches. When she thought of it now—from the distance of a day and a flight—she remembered the landscape as the wrinkles of migraine, as the green-tinged white that seared her mind and brought with it noise. And voices.

They hadn't begun right away, the headaches. Not until after Willow had dragged herself out of her week-long catatonia. In fact, when Dawn thought about it, she thought that in some weird way, the headaches had actually been a good thing. Not that she wanted to go through that blinding pain, but…had the headaches actually helped Willow? It had seemed so, the first time….

Dawn didn't remember exactly what she had been doing when Willow first crawled out of bed. She had been standing in the hallway, on her way to…or from…somewhere when the door to Willow's room opened, and Willow…thin and gray faced…looked into the hallway and saw Dawn.

"Did…" Willow's voice was hoarse from disuse. "Did you see someone?" Dawn looked around.

"Someone?" Dawn asked. "It's just me out here." Willow started to turn away, but she seemed uncertain. Tentative. And she looked…awful.

"Would you…maybe…want to take a bath?" Dawn suggested quickly. She didn't want Willow to close herself up in her room again. "I could…get you some clean clothes. Maybe something to eat?" After a pause, Willow had nodded.

After Willow had bathed, and dressed, and accepted a few spoonfuls of soup, she let Dawn lead her outside, into the park. They had just walked, not together really, but near.

Dawn had stopped to tie her shoe, and while she knelt, Willow had wandered ahead. Dawn could see her when she looked up, receding; she was walking along the low stone wall that separated the park from the drive.

She'd glanced back at her shoe, and then her field of vision had gone white, and she had fallen to the ground, her hands flying to her ears, to block out the power drill pitch and the low mumbling roar.

"Dawn!" she had heard the shout from under the din, and she tried to focus on it.

When she opened her eyes, she was lying on her back on the grass, and Willow was kneeling next to her. Dawn's first thought was relief that the noise had stopped. And her second was that there was, behind the grief that had shrouded Willow's face for so many days, a spark of something. Concern. Worry. Life.

That had been the first headache, Dawn thought. And it had only been a little one.

"Dawn?" Willow had said again, laying her palm on Dawn's forehead.

"Dawn," Buffy said again. Dawn realized that she had spoken out loud. "What headaches?"

Chanting. The Followers were chanting. He had gathered them from alleys and underpasses, a surviving handful of hangers-on. But they were enough. And with his energy focused on the ritual at hand, he was able to calm them from the muddle of mice and insects and dark spaces in which they seemed trapped and to focus them on chanting. It was sensational, really, that these muddied minds could concentrate so completely on the necessary words. But the Followers' minds had been made for chanting such as this. Literally. And it was music to his ears.

His own personal cabaret.

Doc smiled.

He had found the ritual almost by accident, after months of poring through the most ancient of Hell God worship texts. It was so short that he had nearly missed it, a few words scrawled in pale ink on the margin of a closely printed page.

And the concept was fairly simple, too. To make her essence incarnate at the point of its disappearance from this world. It required so little: attendants who had been near at the time her essence departed. Twelve hours of chanting. A bowl of milk. A circle of knots. A door. Oh, and of course blood.

If it worked, it would bring her back in the body that had housed her essence before it departed.

And he would be waiting.

Breakfast was eggs and toast and, for Willow, a murky orangish drink in a tall glass. She looked at it, surprised, when she entered the kitchen late the next morning. Buffy followed her glance.

"Dawn brought me the recipe," she said. "She said it's the only way to get any calories in you. Does it taste awful?"

"It's okay," Willow shrugged. "I've gotten used to it."

"Drink up, Will," Buffy said. "And then, if you're up for it, we'll meet Xander and Giles at the Magic Box. Did you see the flier?"

Dawn came into the kitchen then, pulling her hair back into a long ponytail. "Hey, Willow, look!" She pointed to her pink t-shirt. "Color!" Dawn looked pointedly at Willow's own clothes, the same murky blue of the day before. "Don't you want to wear something different to the Magic Box? I mean, you have a whole closet full of clothes upstairs."

Willow looked up from her drink. "Do you think I should?"

Buffy put down her coffee cup. "I'll get you something, Will," she said quickly.

"No. It's okay." Willow pushed back her chair. "I have to…I have to go in there sometime." She should do it now, before she changed her mind.

"Want me to come with you?" Dawn asked.

Willow shook her head. "I can do this," she said uncertainly.

Buffy frowned. "Willow, we'll be right here."

Willow gathered her strength as she walked up the stairs. She tried to relax into a focusing technique that the Guides at the coven had taught her, a way of seeing memories as a collection of images. Like watching a music video, only without the music. It had helped her to avoid drowning in the waves of Tara that broke over her upon waking every morning. She could play the images in her mind at a distance and then sink into one memory, calming herself.

At the door to the room she hadn't entered since…that day…she paused. She took a breath and turned the doorknob.

Standing. She was at least still standing. The room was bright with sun, and it was dusty; Willow could see the particles floating. She let her gaze travel around the room…over the armoire, the star-shaped mirror, the box of clothes still sitting on the chair by the window…and the bed. Her eyes rested there for a moment, halfway closed, as if she could keep from seeing the worst part of it. Then the wave started to crash toward her from the horizon, and she forced herself to break it down into a series of discrete images.

Tara combing her long blonde hair by the window.

Tara eating ice cream when she thought Willow was asleep.

Tara tossing pillows off the bed.

Tara choosing from a tangle of necklaces and then fastening one around Willow's neck. Fingers on her collarbone, trailing, trembling.

Tara talking. This is the room. Brave.

Tara running a cool hand down Willow's back.

Tara running a hot hand up Willow's thigh. Breathing in and out.

Breathe, Willow thought. In and out.

It was too much, though, thinking about Tara this way, here, and Willow stepped backward and changed her mental tape. Now, the room looked different, shadowed.

A whispered word in front of the mirror.

A dried flower under the pillow.

The sound of Tara packing.

An empty dress.

An empty bed at night. Every night.

Night sweats.



That was better. Punishment. She deserved to feel that. That feeling sustained her as she pulled open a dresser drawer and grabbed at a tangle of shirts. She pulled out a handful of fabric without looking at it, and then backed out of the room.

She turned around and leaned against the closed door, safe from the flood for a moment. She clutched the shirt to her chest. But the flashes of those empty months, those harder than hard days after her last visit to Rack, stayed with her. And reminded her. She still had to talk to everyone. Apologize. Atone. And she had to do it alone.

"Tara," she whispered into the empty hallway. "Tara, I miss you."

It was time.

The twelfth hour approached, the blood beaded, and the Followers chanted. The red rope that connected the Followers to one another was pulled taut as the Followers moved back, enlarging the circle. Doc inhaled. He felt the pressure building, the climax of all his preparations. He closed his eyes.

A shiver moved around the circle, a tremor passing through the rope from hand to hand. There was in the air a current, a portent. Time seemed to level, to spread thick around the Followers.

In the center of the circle, the bowl of milk fizzed and frothed, as if it were being whipped. As the ropes pulled tighter, as the chanting voices grew louder, the milk in the bowl spiraled. And then, as the Followers reached the stroke of the twelfth hour of their chanting, the milk churned and spewed out, splashing the wooden doorframe in the middle of the circle. The Followers all pulled back, dropping the rope. In a series of quick bursts around the circle, the knots released. There was a great gust of wind. Doc squeezed his eyes shut.

There was a wrinkle.

And then nothing.

Doc felt the surge of anticipation rush through him. He savored the moment. He was ready to welcome Glory through the doorway and back to this dimension. To witness her rejoining the earth at the very spot where she had left it. To see her essence embodied. To begin the second phase of his preparations.

A greeting ready on his lips, Doc opened his eyes.

But the circle was empty.

Across town, in the newly opened Magic Box, from the quiet corner into which she had sunk for a moment of peace from the swell of customers and the constant, unspoken comfort of her friends, Willow heard the sound of shattering glass. She turned in time to see Dawn drop to the ground, her hands over her ears, her eyes screwed shut.

Buffy turned, too, but Willow got to her first, gathered Dawn in her arms, smoothed her forehead. "Come on Dawnie," she whispered. "Come on out." Buffy knelt next to them. Willow could see Buffy's fear and the alarm of the customers who hung back, watching. "It's okay," she said, to Buffy as much as to Dawn. "It'll be over in a minute."

And it was. With the touch of Willow's hand on her forehead, Dawn began to calm. Her hands relaxed, and she opened her eyes. She was panting, but her face was no longer contorted in pain, and her eyes were alert and clear.

Buffy touched Dawn's arm. "Dawn?" she said tentatively.

Dawn, still lying in Willow's arms, turned her head to Buffy. "I think she's here," she said.

There was a wrinkle, a kind of sigh, and Tara opened her eyes.

She stood by the window, looking at the dim bedroom. That was strange; it had been so light just a few minutes ago…she must have lost track of time again. The hours since she had returned to Willow had blurred together nicely. She smiled.

Tara turned her head, expecting to see Willow, but the room was empty. She shivered and crossed her arms over her chest. She should be dressed, shouldn't she?

But, of course, she was. Tara caught sight of herself in the mirror; she looked at the blue t-shirt she wore, the sleeves covering her arms, the hem resting an inch above the waistband of her cotton pants.

"Your shirt," she said.

Why had she said that? And with the question, a tremor passed through her mind, a white-green flash. It didn't hurt, exactly, but it made her feel a little dizzy. Tara touched a hand to her temple. "My head," she said.

Chapter 4: In the Flesh

"Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come."
—William Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"

"My head," Tara said again, but the tremor passed, the sense of a wrinkle faded, and she felt…fine. She felt wonderful, in fact. Whole. And new. As if in these last days with Willow, she had grown a new skin. Been reborn.

She looked at her reflection in the mirror, at the long-sleeved blue shirt, the inch of skin visible above the waistband of her cotton pants. That was her body. She didn't know why this basic knowledge, this simple recognition, should seem so profound, but it did. She felt it deeply.

Watching herself in the mirror, she touched her face with her hands. Her skin felt warm. She slid her hands down to her neck, felt the pulse. She drew her fingers further downward, smoothed them over her breasts, her stomach, her hips. She traced the path that other hands had so recently traced. This was her body; this was…Willow's body.

Tara flushed, remembering the past two nights. Tangled sheets. Rough carpet. Damp skin. Willow's head in her lap. Her lips. Nothing, nothing had ever felt as good as the first touch of those lips after months of separation. Except maybe the second. And then the third. In the fierce reunion of those first caresses, the rest of it—the anger, the betrayal, the hurt—had all been stripped away. Leaving only need. And desire.

How had they managed those empty months apart? She wondered that now. But she knew the separation had been necessary. Willow had needed the time to gain perspective, balance. And she had needed time to get in touch with herself again. It had been so easy to lose herself in Willow.

But now she had found herself in Willow again.

It seemed so fresh. She could almost feel the imprint of Willow's hands on her skin, the brush of fine red hair on her neck. And it was fresh, she thought; it had only been a matter of minutes…surely…since she had last slid her hands up. . . .

Tara shook herself, opened her eyes.

Where was Willow? Hadn't she been here just a moment ago?

Look at me, Tara smiled. I'm so addled, I can't think straight. She moved away from the mirror. As she passed the bureau, she pushed an open drawer shut, and she went to find Willow.

Willow and Dawn were paging half-heartedly through the reference books Giles had spread out on the research table. Buffy glanced over at them at every break in the stream of customers who pressed at the front counter. They sat close together, not touching, but close. Neither seemed to be finding out anything about headaches.

Willow sat there, Buffy suspected, because it gave her a reason to hide out from the customers. Dawn…well, she thought Dawn was pretending that she sat there because Buffy had insisted she rest after the headache episode. But Buffy had noticed Dawn's quick glance at Willow before she sat down, and it had given her a moment of pause.

Customers had crowded the Magic Box all day. It seemed that most of magically-inclined Sunnydale had run out of supplies over the summer. Now they were intent on restocking and didn't care how much money they had to spend to do it.

The shop looked like new after the months that Xander and his crew had spent restoring the destroyed interior. They had had to replace walls, rebuild the staircase, hang new windows. Once the crew had moved on to its next job, Xander had stayed behind to make some private improvements. He'd extended the shelf space in the loft. Added built-in, locking weapons cabinets in the training room.

Giles had hidden extra protection charms in the areas where the more volatile books were kept. It wouldn't prevent powerful magick users from finding what they needed, but quick access to their reference sources, Giles had reassured Buffy, was their first priority.

Buffy had worked hard in the Magic Box all summer, as well. From the moment it had become clear that Giles planned to stay in Sunnydale permanently, Buffy had quit her job at the Doublemeat. Even after the debris had been cleared away, there was still a great deal to do. Books had had to be rebound, supplies fixed or cleaned or thrown away. Plans made.

"Why can't Anya be here to do this," Buffy grumbled now as she made bagged a deck of tarot cards. "She's supposed to be all, 'yay, customers.'"

Xander handed Giles another box of essential oils for the display rack near the front counter. "Vengeance duty calls," he said shortly. "She doesn't get to pick and choose. She goes where she's assigned."

"Well, bully for her, but she's missing all the money. And this is, like, her favorite part." Buffy glanced again at Willow, slumped over the books. An untouched sandwich sat on the table beside her.

Xander headed with his own box of books for the alcove near the front door. "Well, when I see her, I'll tell her," he said over his shoulder.

Buffy closed the cash register and looked up to greet the next customer. "Giles," she said softly. "It's slowing down. Maybe Dawn and I could finish that, and you could…you know."

Giles looked at Buffy sharply and nodded. "Yes, of course," he said. "Quite right." He handed the last bottles to her and, removing his glasses to rub them with a handkerchief, approached the research table.

Buffy watched him go. She and Giles had talked a lot over the summer; she had learned things—about him, about the Watchers Council. Some of what Giles had told Buffy had been for her, she knew, for her growth as the Slayer and for her relationship to Giles and her friends.

But some of the telling had been almost like practice. She'd known that. Some of the telling—the hardest part—was meant for Willow.

Willow wasn't there.

The house felt still. As Tara walked down the hallway, glancing into empty bedrooms and descending the stairs, she began to feel a whisper of concern. Where was everyone? Had something happened?

At the base of the stairs, she caught sight of the clock. It was much later than she'd thought. Had she and Willow taken a nap? That seemed…unlikely. Granted, they had stayed in bed all morning. But where had the rest of the day gone? Willow had only just left the room. Hadn't she?

As she turned toward the silent living room—no cartoons on the television, no feet on the coffee table—an unfamiliar frame caught her eye, and she crossed to the wall to look at it more closely. A photograph of herself, one she'd never seen before, hung near the front door. She looked…serene. Tara didn't often think of herself as particularly photogenic, but in this picture, she looked happy. When had Buffy hung this photo? Or had Willow put it there during the months that Tara had not been living at the house? Tara puzzled over this. Wouldn't she have noticed it before now?

Then again, she hadn't spent the last few days looking at the house. Or at anything other than Willow.

In the kitchen, there were dry dishes in the rack, coffee cups in the sink, a mostly-empty glass of something thick and orange on the counter.

A red light flashed on the answering machine. She pushed the button and heard Xander's voice. "Hey, where are you guys? I hope this means you've already left; I guess I'll just see you over at the Magic Box." Tara frowned. Surely she would have known about this, remembered this? Willow and the others wouldn't have left without telling her?


Unless something had happened, something bad. Maybe they had had a lead on Warren and Jonathan and that other guy, the blonde one. It must have been serious for them to have left so suddenly.

But Xander didn't sound at all worried, just normal. Tara played the message again. No, he sounded fine. And the kitchen looked awfully tidy to have been deserted suddenly.

Reluctantly, she considered the possibility of a spell…magick. That strange orange concoction. She sniffed the oily liquid tentatively. She smelled chamomile…that suggested calming or healing. Lavender, definitely…for peace, or the lifting of despair. And orange bergamot…that was supposed to soothe anxiety. It was a logical combination, even if it did smell a little odd. Any of those ingredients might be used as a mild relaxant. It was harmless.

She set the glass back down, relieved but a little ashamed. It might not be Willow's drink. She scolded herself for thinking that Willow would have misused magick again. That wasn't even a question. Those days were behind them. She shook the thought from her head.

At least Xander's message had told her something. With a last glance around the kitchen, Tara left the kitchen. She paused one more time by the photo of herself in the entryway, looked at it speculatively.

Then she pulled the front door closed behind her and headed for the Magic Box.

When Giles slid into Dawn's chair at the research table, Willow shrank back. He wanted to talk. She'd half been expecting this, half dreading it. Giles had, with the others, sent her off to the coven without recrimination and without expecting anything from her. She'd known even then, wrapped in her quilt of despair, that it was a kind gesture. One of the kindest of her life.

But she was back now. And it was only fair to expect that she would need to explain, to start making reparations. She had done things, after all. Terrible things.

"Willow," he said quietly. "We must talk."

Willow swallowed. She knew they had to talk. She had tried hard to avoid talking, even thinking, about…that night, the night after Tara died. And the Guides hadn't pushed her.

But it had itched at her anyway, prickled at her skin from within. As drained as she had been, the dark magicks had left an edgy energy inside her, a restlessness. It had sometimes felt like the night sweats she remembered from the previous months, sometimes like insects, crawling just under her skin.

"It's there, isn't it?" her Guide had said to her during one of her first meditation sessions. Willow and the Guide sat cross-legged on the heath, facing one another. It had been very early, not yet dawn.

Willow tried so hard to concentrate as she was told, to become calm, to let the pain drift away, if only for a moment. But always, always, there was this irritation under the skin. She remembered, with uncomfortable clarity, the connection she had felt after Giles had infused her with the pure magicks. She had felt—as a living, pulsing organism—an oppressive, suffering darkness. The pain of the world.

She could feel the echoes of it still. In the cells of her body. In the blood. In the flesh.

"It's not going to go away," the Guide had said. "It will stay with you. You must learn to accept it, to embrace it."

But embracing had only made Willow think of Tara. And there had been no meditating that morning.

Giles touched her shoulder gently. "Willow," he said again, and she pulled herself back to the present moment, rubbed the goosebumps on her arms. "There are some things I want to tell you…not right now, but soon. Things I should have told you long ago."

Willow frowned. This was not what she had expected, not what she had prepared for. "Things?" she repeated.

"I am so very sorry," Giles continued, "that I didn't realize long ago how much alike we are, you and I." He looked into her face, caught her eye. Willow held his gaze.

"I want to tell you about my past," he said. "And about magick."

Willow would be at the Magic Box. Tara repeated this to herself as she walked.

The night was warm. It seemed almost like autumn, not late spring. California could be confusing that way. But it was a nice evening for a walk, and the sun hadn't set. Again, Tara's brow furrowed. How could it possibly be evening? She hoped that the others would have some answers. Whatever else was going on, she was clearly missing some time.

At least, that's what she told herself at first. But as Tara walked down the street toward the Magic Box, she began to be aware of small signs that here, in Sunnydale, it was most definitely not spring. It was awfully brown, for one thing, and the leaves on trees she passed looked tired, wilted. Maybe she was being ridiculous, seeing things that weren't there.

But no. There were other things. A "Back to School" sign hung in the window of a clothing shop. Stapled to a telephone pole was a poster for an Oktoberfest promotion. And when she stopped to look more closely at it, she saw another flier for a Labor Day parade. How strange. Those things were months away.

No, Tara corrected herself. They should have been months away, but they weren't. She thought backward, adding up the evidence: the ads, the landscape, the clean kitchen, the photograph on the wall. Willow's absence. And she looked around her again. Her sense of unease grew.

There was a convenience store on the next block; she walked toward it quickly. Just inside the glass doors was a stack of newspapers. She grabbed one and stared at the print for a moment. No. That couldn't be right. It couldn't. But it was right there in black and white.

Cliches always did come from somewhere, she thought to herself ridiculously.

Tara dropped the newspaper back on the stack, her hand shaking a little. She pushed back through the doors and, once on the street, wrapped her arms around herself. She felt suddenly chilled.

Three months.

Three months were missing, gone. Okay, Tara, think, think. She took a breath and focused on calming her racing mind. Breathe, Tara, she told herself. Breathe. This was Sunnydale, so it could have been any number of things. A wish. A curse. A time loop. A dimensional portal opening. An alternate reality. A demon kidnapping. Willow.

Willow was missing. All her friends were missing. She had to find them. She had to find Willow. Willow might be just as confused as she was, not understanding what had happened. She might be hurt. She might be. . . .

Tara broke into a run as she covered the last blocks to the Magic Box.

The last of the customers had finally gone. Buffy leaned on her elbows on the counter, exhausted. She looked over at the research table, where Giles was talking to Willow in a low voice. "Soon," he was saying. "We'll talk soon. Once you've had a chance to settle in." Willow just nodded. She looked drained.

And then, with no fanfare, no commotion, Anya was there, standing next to Willow at the table. Willow flinched.

"Hey, it's our local vengeance demon, in the flesh," Xander said, lifting his chin off his hand.

"Xander," Anya said. "You say that every. Single. Time."

"Perfect," Xander went on as if she hadn't spoken. "What would a party be without a mysterious unexpected guest showing up out of nowhere."

Anya leaned forward, onto the table. "Willow, you're back," she said. "Welcome home." She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes critically. "You look awful," she said. "Where's Dawn?"

Dawn started toward Anya, but the sound of the bell ringing over the front door interrupted her. "We're closed," she called out. "You'll have to. . . ." Her voice caught, then died. She stared, uncomprehending, at the woman who stood just inside the door.

"Thank God you're all here," Tara said, hurrying forward. "Listen, something's happened. Something bad."

No one spoke. No one moved.

And then Anya turned back to Willow, slowly, reluctantly. "Willow," she whispered. "What have you done?"

Chapter 5: Missing Time

I came to see the damage that was done
And the treasures that prevail.
—Adrienne Rich, "Diving Into the Wreck"

8:19 p.m.

No one moved. No one spoke.

God, look at Tara.

Willow couldn't breathe. She looked so beautiful. Tara stood just across the room, wearing her blue shirt, the one that didn't quite tug down to her waistband. It was okay. "Clothes," she murmured, the whisper of a smile touching her lips. Tara was right there. Relief flooded her eyes. "Clothes," she said again.

Better not get used to 'em. A phrase buzzed in her ears. Better not get used to 'em. Blood rushed through her head. Blood. The words echoed. Willow blinked. No, it was okay. She had a white shirt on. She looked down. Her shirt was white. It was a white t-shirt. It was white. And Tara's shirt was blue. It was okay.

She should go to her. Move her away from the window. Before something… happened. Willow pushed her chair back, put her hand on the table to push herself up. She looked at the table her hand rested on. The table. The research table. At…the Magic Box? And Tara was wearing her blue shirt at the Magic Box?

A gunshot thundered in Willow's mind, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She stumbled and grabbed the edge of the table to keep from falling. She was too late. Not again. No, please no, not again.

She felt her heart begin to speed up, her blood pound, her breath quicken to shallow gasps. Tara was going to fall, and she couldn't do anything to stop it. She couldn't watch it again. She couldn't do it again. It was too much.

"Willow, what have you done," Anya whispered to her, her voice tinged with horror. Willow heard the whisper as if from a great distance. She had done this. Her wrist buckled, and she slid to the floor. Her hip banged against the seat of the chair. Had she done this?

She was hallucinating. Okay, that was better. Or it was worse. Better or worse? Focus, she told herself. It wasn't magick; she had done no spells. They wouldn't work anyway. She'd been told that. She was hallucinating. She had done that.

She hadn't meant to—but God, how she had wanted to. How she still wanted to. How she wanted nothing more than to close herself up in the private Tara-world of her mind, turn her face to the wall, and live there, together and alone, forever. But she had swallowed the bile of that wish down and pulled herself up. To live.

She had not swallowed hard enough, though, because here, standing across the room, and looking right at her, was the wish. It had come back, or she had returned to it.

Her skin itched, her flesh pulsed, her head swam. The familiar panic pressed at the back of her eyelids, and she knew how easy it would be to give into the hysteria, the way she gave into it at night, pressing her face into the pillow and screaming with emptiness until she exhausted herself into a few hours of half-sleep.

And so she covered her eyes with her hands and pressed back against the nightmare she craved so much. She reached into herself for that white-hot match of strength that the Guides had taught her to light, and she grabbed it. She pulled until it flamed, and then she smoothed her burning palms down over her face, feeling the heat spread through her cheeks, willing her breath to slow as she passed her hands over her lips, willing her heart to slow as she passed her hands over her chest.

She crossed her legs and rested her hands on her legs. Her knees burned. She blocked out the hallucination, blocked out everyone, and focused instead on the pale spine of a book on the shelf in front of her. Breathe, breathe, she repeated to herself. In, out. In, out.

She focused on her breathing and on the pale book until the rest of the room receded and went white, and the searing heat turned to ice, and it numbed her to the pain, and she gave in to it.

8:19 p.m.

No one spoke. No one moved.

Omigod, it was Tara.

Dawn could not take her eyes off Tara. It was Tara, wasn't it? Probably she was supposed to be suspicious and think about demons or vampires or something, but…but it was Tara. She looked absolutely real, and she stood in front of them, her brow furrowed, her eyes darting from one face to another. Dawn stared.

Seconds later—it seemed like longer—Dawn felt, at the base of her skull, a gentle hum, a massage with sound, and it rubbed upward through her mind, soft and soothing fingers kneading away the wrinkles of fear and disbelief and doubt. Her mind felt warm. Relaxed. Safe.

Dawn took a step forward, and then another, and the warm hug in her mind settled in. This was the right thing. This was the most perfectly right thing. As she passed the others, she saw Buffy's eyes turn to her, saw her sister open her mouth and speak, but the words—whatever they were—did not reach her. She only saw Tara, and she yearned toward her as she might yearn toward her mother, if her mother were here.

She heard a noise behind her, a thud, and turned to see Willow stumble and fall to the floor. Xander sprang across the room and dropped on his knees next to her, but by that time, Willow had already folded into herself, shut out the rest of the room. Her lips moved, but she sat perfectly still. Xander leaned in.

"It's okay," Dawn said, her eyes drawn back to Tara. She had seen Willow go into meditation mode all summer. Willow was just calming herself down. That made sense. It was fine.

Dawn stared at Tara, at the familiar slight wrinkle between her eyes that appeared when she was concerned. Dawn had seen that wrinkle plenty of times. Like when she had stayed out too late with Janice last summer, and when Tara had tried to explain about leaving Willow. The warm hum in her mind told her that this was really Tara, but when she saw that little wrinkle, she knew it was true.

"Willow?" Tara said now, but Dawn laid a restraining hand on her arm, and she faltered. She looked from the arm to Willow.

"You're back," Dawn said.

"I," Tara started to say, but then she looked at Dawn's arm again. She pulled Dawn into a hug. "Dawnie," she said instead. "I'm glad you're okay, sweetie," she said softly. Dawn leaned into her. The warm feeling in her head soothed her, assured her that this was right, that this was Tara, and she gave into it gladly and squeezed Tara tight.

Dawn heard Giles speaking to her and pulled out of Tara's embrace reluctantly. But she stayed close, her arm touching Tara's. "I don't know," she answered him. "I can't explain it, but I can feel it in my head right now. She's Tara. She's not a demon, she's not a ghost, she's…Tara. The same Tara she was a few months ago. I can feel it."

Tara stepped back, then, away from her.

Dawn didn't know how it was possible, but she didn't care. Tara was normal, and Tara was herself, and Tara was alive. She was the same Tara who had taken care of her after Buffy died. The Tara who picked her up when she called from a drunken party at the beach last summer and didn't ask any questions, didn't even tell Willow, just half-smiled and bought her a milkshake. She was the Tara of pancakes and candles.

And she was home.

8:19 p.m.

No one moved. No one spoke.

Oh, God, it was Tara.

Familiarity clenched like a fist around Buffy's throat, and her eyes instinctively dropped to Tara's hands. Thank God. They were clean and dry, the fingernails intact. She closed her eyes with the relief of it, and when she opened them again—only a second later—she realized that Tara's blue shirt was clean and dry, as well. There was no blood. There was no gunshot wound. Thank God.

She saw, in her peripheral vision, Dawn moving toward Tara, and she reached out to her sister. "Gently," she said, with effort, but Dawn didn't appear to hear her, or at least didn't respond. Buffy opened her mouth again, but her voice wouldn't work.

Willow. Where was Willow? She pulled her eyes away in time to see Willow stumble and fall to the floor. But before she could move, Xander was there, his hand on Willow's back while Anya looked from Willow to Tara. Xander would take care of her.

A touch at her elbow startled her, and Buffy turned to see Giles. His head was turned toward her, but his eyes were on Tara. "Buffy," he said quietly. "We must figure out what's going on here." But Buffy already knew. She knew it deep in her bones, Slayer-deep. Tara had come back.

It wasn't crazy. After all, she had come back from the dead. And so had Angel. It happened. Things didn't always make sense. Sometimes people died for no reason. And sometimes they came back, too. Because they still had work to do. Because their time was not over. Because they were needed.

Buffy realized that she wanted this to be Tara, she wanted it desperately. Not a vampire, not a demon. But she had to know. She faced that fact reluctantly. She had to know. Because if this weren't Tara, then she would have to act. Before Willow got her hopes up.

She turned to Giles, but Anya was already answering him. "It's obvious," she said, but with no malice. "Willow brought her back. She went all dark magicky again and brought Tara back."

"No," Buffy shook her head. "I don't believe that. She wouldn't."

Giles frowned, looked hard at Tara for a long moment. "I agree," he said in a low voice. "No, Anya. I feel no dark magicks at work…at least not here…and Willow has done nothing. This must be something else. I'm just not sure what."

"Well, it's not a wish" Anya said firmly. "D'Hoffryn keeps me in the loop on these things, and I think I would know."

"Then what?" Buffy asked. She looked helplessly at Giles. "We have to move fast on this, Giles. Look at Dawn. She's already. . . ."

"Dawn," Giles said suddenly. "Of course. The headaches. There must be a connection." His eyes were still fixed on Tara. "Dawn," he said. "Is this what you meant when you said she was coming? Did you mean Tara?"

Dawn's words reassured them all. Buffy could see it when she glanced at the other faces. Something had happened, some force was at work, but whatever it was, this was still Tara. Who stepped back, holding a palm out against them. "What is going on here?" Her voice shook. "Why are you all staring at me? And why is Willow doing that? Talk to me, someone, please."

Xander stood up, stepping protectively in front of Willow. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Maybe we want some answers first," he said, his eyes narrowing. "Like, what did Willow wear to her eighth-grade graduation?"

Tara looked at him blankly.

"Xander," Anya said sharply. "You're being ridiculous. We've already decided that this is Tara."

"Okay, okay," he said. "Maybe Tara wouldn't know that one. I know, how did we prove to your dad that you're not a demon?" He raised his eyebrows at her and nodded smugly.

"Spike," she started to say, automatically, but then she shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut. When she opened them again, Buffy saw resolve. "No, wait, wait," Tara said. "Someone tell me what's going on. Right now." Her voice resonated in the room.

Buffy realized with a start that Tara didn't know she had been dead.

8:21 p.m.

No one spoke. No one moved.

Finally, Anya cleared her throat. "You died," she said simply.

Tara heard the words through a fog. "What?" she asked. "What?"

Anya's eyes softened. "Three months ago," she said. "You were shot, and you died. But you're back now," she added encouragingly. "It's so good to see you."

Tara covered her ears with her hands. "No," she said. "I don't understand. No, that can't be true. No."

Dawn touched her arm. "Tara," she said softly. "It's true. I sat with your body all day. I saw you."

"Mr. Giles?" she asked quietly.

He smiled sadly at her. "Tara, I'm sorry," he said, confirming. "But you're here now. And we'll figure out the rest of it as soon as we can."

Tara could not process what was happening, could not understand it.

But it made a kind of sense. As she tried to grasp what had happened, some calm part of her mind detached itself enough to go through the evidence again. The empty house. The photograph of herself on the wall. The calming drink. Willow. And was the Magic Box…a little different?

Her head felt muddy, dizzy. She turned her head—like trying to run in a pool of water—to look at Willow, who sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes open, lips moving silently. Tara allowed herself really to see Willow. Even from across the room, Tara could see that she was different. Thin. Pale. Her shirt was wrinkled.

This wasn't the Willow who had sat in the bathroom and cried silently while she'd packed her things to move out. This wasn't the Willow who'd looked at her with desperately sad eyes outside the Magic Box. Tara had seen Willow mournful, had seen her regretful and sorry and in pain and feeling alone. But this Willow was different. This was Willow grieving and empty. This was Willow without hope.

Agonizing as it was to look at Willow from a distance and not go to her, Tara knew she had to concentrate. She focused on Willow, and a tremor of grief passed through her, and she felt, in a heartbeat, the abyss of three months of mourning. It seeped from Willow into the air around her. There was something else, too, something she couldn't quite put her finger on. But it was mostly a profound and aching well of despair.

Tara felt in that moment that it was all true. It hit her like a gunshot. She had died, and Willow had been shattered. The knowledge—and she accepted it as knowledge—ripped through her skin and cells, a bullet of truth. She swayed.

Giles put a hand under her elbow. "Tara," he said gently. "Come sit for a moment. You've been through…well…quite an ordeal."

Tara shook her head again, slowly. "Willow needs to know I'm here," she said. "I can't let her suffer any more. She needs to know I'm back." She looked at Giles, almost pleading, and he nodded.

"I can do it," Dawn offered. "I've seen her do this lots of times. She usually comes out on her own, but I can help if you want."

Tara smiled sadly at Dawn. She swallowed against the lump in her throat. "Thanks, sweetie," she said, "but no. Let me." Dawn nodded.

Tara walked to Willow and knelt on the ground in front of her. Willow didn't seem to see her; she continued to stare at a point on the wall behind Tara. Occasionally, her lips moved. She was breathing deeply. Tara searched Willow's face. Up close, she looked gray, gaunt. Her hair pulled back in a careless ponytail. Her lips chapped, cracked. And she wore no jewelry…no necklace, no bracelet, not even earrings. She was unadorned. Grief and loneliness waved over Tara.

She knew she needed to take this slowly. She didn't touch Willow, not at first.

"Willow," she said softly, her face inches from Willow's. "Don't be scared. It's me, I'm back. I know you must think I'm a hallucination, but I'm not. I'm here, I'm… alive." The word caught in her throat. Willow did not respond, but her breathing quickened for a moment, and then slowed again.

"Willow," Tara said again with effort. "I'm here."

She was holding her breath, Tara realized. She exhaled, calming herself. She lifted her hands and gently, gently rested them on Willow's shoulders. At the touch, Willow blinked, and her eyes seemed to focus for a moment.

"Willow," Tara said. She felt the tension in Willow's shoulders, heard the sigh that started somewhere deep in Willow's throat and emerged as a moan.

"Oh God," Willow's voice was small and strangled. "Oh God, I can't take this…." Tara swallowed. She moved her hands to Willow's face, laying them softly, so softly, on Willow's cheeks. At the touch, Willow's eyes closed, and she made that sound again. A quiet keening.

The sound tore at Tara. She tried again.

"Willow, baby," she said. "Willow, I'm here. Look at me. I'm really here."

Tara held her breath, and Willow inhaled. She covered Tara's hands with her own. And she opened her eyes.

8:23 p.m.

From deep within the calm, Willow heard Tara's voice. She felt Tara's touch. It was real enough to undo her. The fingers on her cheeks. The warm breath in her face. The scent of freshly washed hair and oatmeal soap and something else….herself.

Was it real? It felt real. Hallucinations didn't have form and breath and scent. They didn't say her name. Only people did that. Only Tara did that. Hallucinations didn't have familiar fingers that had touched Willow in her deepest places and now cupped her face so gently, so very gently.

It felt so real. And all she had to do was open her eyes and see.

Willow breathed in and out, in and out. She listened with her body for the warnings, for the itchy skin, the crawling flesh of magick. Or the racing pulse of panic. Or the great yawning black hole of sadness. Where had those familiar feelings gone? She felt calm. She was calm. She could open her eyes.

But first, she covered Tara's hands with her own, feeling the knobs of the knuckles and the blunt, smooth nails and the cool planes of the fingers. She breathed in. These were fingers she knew. These were Tara's fingers. She breathed out. And then she opened her eyes and looked directly at Tara.

"I'm really here," Tara whispered to her. Willow caught her breath as she met Tara's eyes, as their hands trembled together.

"You're really here?" she echoed. "You're really here." And saying the words, she knew it was true.

It was real. It was Tara.

Chapter 6: Breathe

But to me the darkness was red-gold and crocus-coloured
With your brightness,
And the words you whispered to me
Sprang up and flamed.
—Amy Lowell, "Summer Rain"

Dawn, jetlagged and exhausted, was nearly asleep. She hoped she would dream tonight, happy dreams of Tara. And Willow. And Tara and Willow together, like the happy endings in the romance novels Janice was always telling her to read. She felt better than she had in a long time, and she wanted that good feeling to last.

A tiny doubt still pricked at her, though. A worry. It was probably nothing, but still. . . . She turned her pillow over to the cool side.

Xander and Anya had driven the three of them home before returning to patrol with Buffy and Giles. Tonight, of course, it wouldn't be a patrol so much as an investigation. Buffy had said they needed answers. Giles had said they needed questions.

In the car, Tara had held Dawn's hand. Dawn had noticed that she reached out and patted Anya and Xander's shoulders a lot, too. She didn't seem to mind when Dawn and Anya kept plucking at her sleeve, fingering her hair, touching her knees. Willow had folded herself into a shadowed corner of the backseat, on the other side of Tara. She had wrapped her arms around herself, as if she were cold, and she just watched Tara silently, with wide and hungry eyes. And Tara had simply looked back at her. She had touched everyone else, but she had looked only at Willow.

Dawn wasn't sure that was…really normal. She could hardly believe what had happened, that Tara had come back. So shouldn't Willow have been even more…touchy? They should have been holding hands, shouldn't they? And talking? It made Dawn feel a little woozy, as if she were holding her breath.

The touching took hours. Just touching: the path of fingers tracing skin. Reacquainting. Reminding. Confirming. Willow convincing herself that yes, Tara stood before her, live and breathing and whole. Tara convincing Willow that yes, the skin she touched, the hair she ran her fingers through, the mouth and cheek she felt with the palm of her hand were all real.

Flesh and not illusion. Body and not imagination.

In the car, it had seemed safer to Willow to tuck her hands away, to press herself back against the cold metal of the car door. Once she touched Tara again, she wasn't sure she would be able to let go. She would cling, clutch. She would collapse.

And anyway, even without touching, without the finger-kiss of skin on skin, Willow had felt Tara's gaze as she had felt it in the Magic Box, when Tara had hugged everyone but looked at Willow. She'd felt it physically, as an embrace. It had encircled her. Her friends' touches in the last months had sought to protect. And to comfort. But this touch—the clasped hands of this long, blue gaze—had held her completely.

It had been enough. It had been more than she'd ever expected to have again.

Once inside Buffy's room, Willow had leaned against the closed door. Tara, thumbs hooked in her back pockets, glanced around the room. A calendar on the wall had caught her eye, and her forehead had wrinkled slightly. Willow had watched her silently. She'd heard enough in the Magic Box to know that Tara didn't remember. She didn't know she had died. She didn't know anything that had happened. No time had passed for her.

What did that mean?

But when Tara turned her blue eyes toward her, the warmth of her gaze spread like kneading fingers through her body. It meant that Tara was okay. Willow could see that. She hadn't been in pain. She hadn't suffered. And she hadn't seen…what Willow had done.

She knew she had to tell her. Yes, it might send her away. But Tara was alive, and so Willow could learn to live with that. It only mattered that she was safe. Should she tell her? She should tell her. But maybe…maybe not tonight?

Now, Tara reached for her, and Willow held her breath. They stood only inches apart, fingers barely touching. Willow's eyes asked the question, and Tara's eyes, clear and deep and knowing, answered. For that moment, words hung in the space between them, whole paragraphs of fear and concern and shame and uncertainty and reassurance.

And then Tara slid her achingly familiar arms around Willow and pulled her in, fierce and possessing. Willow leaned into the body she'd mourned, gave herself over to the soul she'd grieved. It was a miracle. The first embrace.

And they touched for hours.

There were no candles.

The curtains sifted only a thin stream of moonlight into the darkened room. But it didn't matter. Tara could see what she needed to see. All she needed to see.

She could see Willow, finally here, finally safe.

Willow raised her arms, and Tara tugged the wrinkled shirt over her head, undressed her completely. Then she pulled her own clothes off, and everything that was tentative between them, everything that was uncertain, fell with the fabric to the floor.

They stood, face to face, naked and alive and sure.

Tara was growing slowly, slowly, into the understanding that somehow, she lived after having been dead. That her body was new. Without wound. Without scar. She did not feel that she had been…away…exactly, but when she concentrated, she was aware of a space, a tiny white pocket of empty time in her mind, when she had been…resting.

The only thing she knew for sure about that empty time was that Willow had not been there. And that she had missed her. That so much more than time and distance and grief had separated them. She thought maybe she hadn't been aware of that gulf at the time, but now it peeled back the thin skin over her sorrow. For Willow. For herself. But mostly for Willow.

She watched Willow's breasts rise and fall unevenly. She studied Willow's eyes, pooled with wanting and a relief so vast it encompassed them both.

And then Tara leaned forward. With the softest of soft touches, with a whisper of lips on lips, she breathed life back into Willow's mouth.

It felt like a first kiss.

It felt like the first time.

It felt like…when had the first time been? At the touch of Willow's lips, a flood of deep and cellular memories washed over her, through her, crashed under her skin.

Was it when Willow had first knelt in front of her, her red hair brushing the tops of Tara's thighs? She had clutched at that hair, legs burning, and she had thrown her head back, not recognizing the raw, animal cry in the shape of Willow's name that had ripped from her own throat, from her bones, at the touch of Willow's tongue.

Or was it when they had first buried their fingers deep in one another, surrounding, encircling, wrapped in warmth? When the electricity had suddenly come back on, the soft white of the fairy lights along the wall had thrown Willow's body, sitting above hers, into relief. Her eyes half-closed, her chest heaving, she had seen the ends of Willow's hair, backlit, as flaming red sparks around a dark and pulsing center. Moving above her, pressing down.

Was it earlier? Was it when she had first bent her lips to Willow's breasts, her mind translating the sensation into pepper and apricots? This is what red tastes like, she had thought to herself, and then she hadn't thought at all as Willow arched into her mouth, gripped her back with the nails of both hands, her moan low and liquid and full of wanting. Wanting Tara.

That was the first night Willow stayed.

But no. No, their first time had been earlier still. Fully dressed, sitting cross-legged in a circle of magick, fingers touching, breath matched, eyes half-lidded and heavy. When Willow had fallen back, Tara's wrist had flexed back from the current, and an electric tongue had licked its way up her arm to her chest and down, down. As Willow's body bowed, as her red shirt lifted to reveal the pale skin beneath, Tara's breasts had ached. She had been overcome. And everything that had happened after that spell…every hesitant gaze, every knowing touch…was the confirmation of what they had already tasted. What they had known since the beginning.

The images sparked and flamed, red dots against the black of her closed eyelids, and Tara pulled her lips away from Willow's. She felt that each time they had been together—each caress, each conversation—was tattooed on her nerves, inky memories. Each touch lived just under the surface.

Her skin was needled with the imprints. It burned from the inside out.

Had she lived…well…had she been without this touch for three months? Could that really be true? And could she have chosen, before that time, chosen to live without this touch for so long? It seemed impossible, when Willow's every touch—every breath—coursed through her. So familiar. So necessary. Well, they would lay that time to rest.

She took Willow's hand and led her to the bed.

She had been dead, and now she was alive. She had been reborn.

This was her rebirth. This was the first time.

Starting right now.

They lay side by side, breasts touching, legs entwined. Willow's head rested on Tara's arm. In the half-light, her face was shadowed. Tara moved closer. She wanted to press out the grief, to squeeze the mourning and sorrow from that pale body.

Willow was quiet, one palm pressed against Tara's chest, feeling her heartbeat, listening to the pulse with her skin. Her breasts rose and fell. Tara draped the ends of Willow's hair over her collarbone, like a necklace.

Tara touched her fingers to Willow's cheeks, and they came away wet. She held the fingers to her own lips, tasting the salty damp. Three months of pain rested on her tongue. She wanted to take the tears away from Willow, to bear the grief for her, wear it on her skin so Willow could see that it was all that remained. She rubbed her wet fingers on her own face, smoothing two streaks of sweat and tears below her eyes.

She anointed herself with Willow.

Tara moved over her in the moonlight, one hand buried in Willow's hair and the other like licks of flame against her thighs. Her long hair brushed against Willow's face. Her breasts pressed against Willow's breasts. Her lips grazed Willow's forehead, her mouth, her neck.

Willow wanted to memorize every curve on Tara's shadowed face. She wanted to pull her so close that there was no longer any distance between them, so close that they were inside each other. So close that they were part of each other. She wanted to hold on.

She held on. She felt the contours of Tara's back with the flats of her palms. Her neck. Her hair. Her hands remembered what to do. Her mind was still numb with shock, her heart pounding with relief, but her hands knew how to press the space between Tara's shoulder blades. How to trace a finger along the edge of one ear. How to hold on.

Willow gripped Tara's shoulders and closed her eyes. She held her breath. She was afraid to exhale, afraid to open her eyes, afraid to change any small piece of this one perfect moment, in case it was, after all, only her wish. If this were the only moment they got, she wanted it to last forever.

But Tara spoke against Willow's mouth.

"Breathe, Willow," Tara whispered to her, and her hands echoed the words against Willow's restless body.


Willow breathed, and her breath came out as a cry, piercing the darkness of the room as the last echoes of her grief left her. She breathed, and her breath came in as a long, shuddering gasp of life and peace and prayer.

It was a communion.

Around her, the air was honey-scented with Tara, and her skin was damp with Tara, and when her body exploded and her mind broke open into a thousand white and shining fragments, the arms that held her were trembling with Tara.

And when she opened her eyes again, spent and weeping with relief, Tara was still there.

Dawn awoke with a start to the sound of a cry. For a disorienting moment, she thought she was waking up in her room at the coven, hearing Willow sobbing through the bare walls. She resigned herself to it, to the familiar sound of Willow at night.

Then she heard the cry again, and as the sound penetrated the quiet of her room and then faded, faded, she recognized it for what it was. She might be only a teenager, but she lived with adults. She lived with their wants and their needs and their loves, and she knew sounds when she heard them.

She knew this sound.

It was a cry not of pain but of release. A cry not of grief but of healing. It was a cry of pleasure. It had been so long—so long—since she had heard that sound from Willow.

She rolled over, turned her pillow to the cool side, and smiled to herself, feeling that she, too, was finally safe and warm and home in Tara's embrace.

Dawn breathed deeply and slept.

Continued in the next chapter...

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