Title: They Also Serve

Author: Jedi Buttercup (jedi_buttercup@yahoo.com)

Disclaimer: All your Buffy are belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy.

Rating: PG-13 to R. Language, mild (canon) slash, and some violence.

Pairings: Canon (Willow/Tara, past Xander/Anya).

Summary: While the Slayer's in L.A., the Duo still want to play. It's up to Xander and the girls to figure out what's going on.

Spoilers: Up to B:tVS "Normal Again" (6.17), AU from there, incorporating some events through the end of the season. Fragments of dialogue borrowed from "Seeing Red" (6.19).

Series: This is the third novella in the "Lesser Men" series, following "Lesser Men" and "From the Shadows".

Feedback: I live for feedback!

Archive: Just let me know where it goes!

Notes: This novella takes place from the POVs of Xander and Tara. So, not so much Jonathan or Wesley goodness, you'll have to wait until the next one for that. =)

Notes 2: Given the canon "slash" of Willow and Tara, you shouldn't read any farther if you object to a loving relationship between two women. I'm not an NC-17 writer so no sex, but they do make with the smoochies. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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Chapter One: Found

"To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides."
~David Viscott


Teenagers are many things, but stealthy is not one of them. The sudden rush of footsteps up the stairs was not exactly quiet, and the impatient hand of youth wrenching at the doorknob impossible to ignore. Tara smiled against Willow's lips as she heard Dawn's sudden gasp from the hallway, and the faint click of the catch as the girl pulled the door shut again.

Willow sighed happily and pulled back far enough to return the smile. Her face was glowing with joy, as bright and warm as a stained-glass candle cup when the flame's been set inside, and her green eyes were suspiciously shiny. "Was that Dawnie?" she whispered, shooting a brief glance at the door.

There was another brief thunder of footsteps from the direction of the stairs, and Tara laughed softly. "I think so."

The luminous smile on Willow's face turned slightly wicked, and she bit her lip thoughtfully before closing the distance between them again. "Good," she whispered, her warm breath feathering over Tara's lips. "She'll warn the rest of them not to interrupt us."

Somewhere deep inside, Tara was still wondering if she'd made the right decision. There was one side of her that still cringed at the thought of Willow's record with the dark magics and the spells that had tampered with her memory ...

(( There's just so much to work through. Trust has to be built again on both sides. ))

... but there was also the other side, the side that craved her Willow's love, that would never be complete without her. It was a little more than two years now since the two witches had first met, and Tara had been falling ever since. She'd found the strength somewhere to move out when things had gotten so bad, but every day apart had been a serious test of her resolve. Surely it had been long enough.

(( Can we just skip it? Can, can you just be kissing me now? ))

Needless to say, it was the hopeful half of Tara's spirit that was winning, that had brought her here tonight. She shivered slightly at the passion in Willow's eyes, and closed the tiny gap to weld their lips together once more.

It felt like heaven; it felt like coming home. Tonight, the rest of the world might as well not exist; this was all that mattered.

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The world came into focus again sometime the next morning, with a wash of sunlight spilling into the room and a Willow wrapped snugly around her girlfriend. Tara took a deep breath and ran her fingers gently through the red hair spread across her stomach, basking in the peace and completeness she felt. It couldn't last; it never did, but now, now was very good.

Willow yawned and stirred, rubbing a sleepy smile against Tara's skin. Then she blinked and looked up, squinting towards the window.

"When did morning happen?" she asked.

Tara giggled at the fretful tone in Willow's voice. "After the moon went down," she teased.

"But morning means we have to get up!" Willow continued, schooling her features into a tragic expression.

Tara tried to look stern, but she couldn't help the smile that twitched at the corners of her mouth. "Morning also means breakfast, and showers, and, and happy Dawnie faces," Tara scolded her gently.

Willow widened her eyes, doing her best to look innocent and put-upon. "But it also means clothes and research and making with the space between us," she said, letting her lower lip tremble a little.

"And toothpaste," Tara said, defying the pouty lip with a twinkle in her eye. "D-don't forget the toothpaste."

Willow giggled suddenly, and her petulant expression broke into a happy grin. "Aw, like I care about your morning breath." She scooted up the bed a little, leaning in for a kiss.

Tara shrank back against the pillows, giggling again as she tried to avoid Willow's lips. "Who says I don't care about yours?" she objected, pretending to be offended.

Willow slipped back into the mock-pout, pressing a hand against her heart. "Don't you love me?" she wailed dramatically, then faltered a little, her expression turning more serious.

She'd just been thinking the peace couldn't last, but this was ridiculous. A whole bouquet of negative feelings threatened to unfurl -- hurt that Willow doubted, guilt that she'd left Willow *to* doubt, upset that Willow always seemed to put her own pain first -- but Tara cut that line of thought short with a bright smile. Later, much later, would be soon enough to get serious.

"Of course I do, silly. That doesn't mean I have to kiss you before toothpaste!" She lifted a hand to trace the curve of Willow's cheek. "N-not that I won't anyway."

Willow's flagging smile lifted at the corners again, and she leaned back in for quick, closed-mouth kiss. "Okay, I get the hint. Toothpaste and showers and breakfast it is." She bounced up, suddenly energetic, and started scooping clothes off the floor. "And I still have to help Buffy track down the Empire of the Nerds, but the rest of my time is all yours."

Tara stretched, and slid slowly out from under the covers. "Sounds good to me."

A sudden knock startled Tara, and she clutched at the sheets again, then blushed at her reaction. It was probably just Dawn.

"Um, hello?" Willow called, clutching several loose garments in front of her.

"Good, you're awake," came a cheerful, male voice from the hall.

"Xander?" Tara asked, exchanging a puzzled glance with Willow. "W-why are you here?"

There was silence on the other side of the door for a minute, and then a cautious, embarrassed question. "I, uh, didn't interrupt anything, did I? Sorry, Tara, I forgot you were here."

"We were just getting dressed," Willow hastily assured him, then frowned a little. "Is something wrong?" She glanced at Tara again, then towards the window, and then her eyebrows rose comically. "Where's Buffy? Did something happen to Buffy?"

"No, she's fine!" Xander said hastily, responding to the alarm in Willow's voice. "She and Dawn had to go to L.A. this morning to meet with her Dad, but Giles is with them; they'll be okay. Anyway, that leaves us on Slay-duty, so I thought I'd bring doughnuts by and see if you had any leads on the Evil Trio? Or Evil Duo, I guess, if Jonathan wasn't lying when he said he bailed ..." His voice trailed off.

"Whoa! Whoa! Buffy's in L.A.? Jonathan talked to you guys? When did all this happen?" Willow gaped at the door, sounding almost affronted.

Tara put a hand to her mouth to cover a sudden smile, then cleared her throat and spoke up, cutting off any reply Xander was about to make. "D-doughnuts sound great, Xander! We'll be right down."

"Right, great," he exclaimed, sounding relieved. "I'll just go keep the doughnuts company, then." There was a brief moment of awkward silence, then footsteps retreating down the hall.

Willow was still staring at the door, blurting questions to herself. "And what does Buffy's Dad want with them anyway? And didn't Giles just get here? ..."

Tara slid back off the bed, wrapping herself up in the top sheet in lieu of a robe. "Questions later," she said, stopping in front of Willow with a mischievous smile and placing a finger over the the other girl's lips. "Did I leave some extra clothes here?"

"Oh! Um, that green shirt, I think, the one with the slightly flared sleeves? And that maroon skirt, I think they're still in the back of the closet."

The rest of the morning routine went quickly. With Xander waiting downstairs, they didn't really have time to dawdle, but all the same, it was ... nice, sharing a sink again, bumping elbows at the mirror as they brushed their hair, stealing kisses as they dressed. The day had started out kind of morning-aftery, but as the minutes passed the problems seemed to evaporate; it was like they'd never been apart.

Willow paused at the top of the stairs as they finally headed down to meet Xander, clutching tightly at Tara's hand. "You know, I had forgotten how good this could feel," she said softly. "Us. Together." She paused, then added, "Without the magic."

Tara smiled back at her, and squeezed her hand. Magic or no, they'd always been great together. "There was plenty of magic," she said, and leaned in for another kiss.

Willow sighed happily, and they continued down the stairs.

Xander had the box of doughnuts out on the coffee table, along with a short stack of napkins and three to-go cups from the Espresso Pump. He popped up when he saw the girls coming down the stairs, then moved around the table to give Tara a careful hug.

"Hey, welcome back," he said, cheerfully. "You've been missed." Then he stepped back, waving a hand over the coffee table in a grandiose gesture. "Look, I went for coffee, too. All we need now is Willow's computer and a stack of heavy books, and we're ready to go."

"Are you sure you want to give me caffeine this early in the morning?" Willow teased him, settling onto the couch and picking up one of the cups. "And what's with the black? Not that it doesn't look good. It just looks like you fell into Spike's wardrobe."

Tara settled down next to Willow and reached for one of the other cups, taking in Xander's outfit as she did so. Willow was right; he was all in black today, from the long-sleeved tee and jacket to a pair of tight jeans and heavy boots on his feet. That was unusual enough that she gave him a closer look, and realized that there were new shadows in his eyes, too, and something seriously different about his aura.

"Hey," he was saying, answering Willow's questions. "It's past ten, and I'll use Tara as a buffer if I have to," he joked. "And I guess I didn't feel like color today. Found this lying around in the back of my closet," he plucked at the front of the shirt, "and figured it would make for good sneakwear, if we're going to catch us some evil geeks."

Willow rolled her eyes at him. "Are you sure that's not macho-speak for 'I'm depressed'?" she asked, carefully. "Because of Anya, and everything? I mean, we all saw her do the demon face last night."

His face shuttered up abruptly, losing its characteristic Xander openness, and Tara was struck again by how different he was today.
"Anyway," he said dismissively, sitting back down and rubbing his palms together. "About that video feed. I remember you telling Buffy you could trace it?"

Willow blinked, then shifted from her place at Tara's side to get up and fetch her laptop computer. "Um, yeah," she said, switching into research mode with a visible effort. "I pretty much figured out where it was coming from, I got a phone number, I just need to cross-reference it with an address. They'll be long gone by now, I'm sure they noticed me snooping in their system, but we might be able to find some clues there."

"Oh, I can go by myself," he said, smiling a little as he picked up a doughnut and began to inhale it. Whatever was different about him, it certainly hadn't affected his appetite. "I mean, you guys probably want some time to yourselves today, right?" He waggled his eyebrows at them. "And besides, like you said, they're probably gone. I'll just walk in, Sherlock around, and walk back out. Easy."

Tara blushed a little at the eyebrow-waggling, and immediately chastised herself silently for being so silly. She'd known him for how long now? And she'd been dating Willow for most of that time. Joking innuendo from Xander's direction was nothing new. Except that *he* was new today, somehow, and he was making her a little uneasy.

"Oh, here it is," Willow blurted, and reached for a napkin. "Gotta pen?"

Xander leaned over and scavenged one from under the coffee table, then sat back up and handed it to her. Willow took it and hastily scribbled an address on the napkin, then handed the napkin to him.

"That's the address," she said, and locked eyes briefly with Tara, hope warring with duty in her expression. "Are you sure you want to go by yourself? Because, we're totally ready for action," she said, earnestly.

Something must have shown in Tara's face then, despite her attempt not to smile, because Willow suddenly giggled and corrected herself, looking back at Xander. "Uh, I mean, bad-guy-fighting action."

Xander suddenly smiled back, one of his trademark goofy grins, as he tucked the napkin into his jacket. "Oh, that's okay. I'll be fine, Willow. You guys have fun, I'll stop by again in a couple of hours with whatever I find. Sound like a plan?"

"S-sounds like a plan," Tara agreed, with a quick smile.

"Then I'm off." He stood quickly, picked up his coffee cup and another doughnut, and headed for the door. "I'll see you guys later."

"Wait!" Willow called after him. "What about Buffy? And Jonathan? I had questions!"

Her only answer was the sound of the door shutting behind him, and she blinked, non-plused. "Is it just me, or is he weirder than usual today?"

Tara frowned after him through the window, then exchanged a worried glance with Willow. "It's not just you," she said, quietly.

TBC