Standard disclaimer: The characters aren't mine. This should come as no surprise. I am simply a teller of stories that occasionally claw their way desperately out of my head.

Setting: "The Gift", post-swan dive.

Notes: While working on another project a couple of months ago, I spent a moment examining each person's reactions to seeing Buffy at the end of "The Gift", and soon found myself puttering around in their brains a little bit. Then the puttering turned into a desire to write it down. Probably not surprisingly (to me, anyway) Willow's was written within moments, and I pretty much planned to stop there. Then Anya piped up, and in typical Anya fashion refused to be silent until I had given her ample opportunity to express herself. Just Willow and Anya didn't make a whole lot of sense though, so I decided to turn this into an exercise on finding each character's voice. In some cases, the characters were more than happy to share their thoughts with me. Others, I had to bully into opening up. Silly close-lipped fictional people. Still, all told I think I learned a lot from writing this, and am damned happy to have it finally complete.

(2 January 2004)


On Being Brave and Living
Chapter One: Willow Knows

Oh god. Oh god. Buffy. No. God, no.

The words kept repeating themselves in Willow's brain as she beheld the broken body of her best friend, her Buffy, strewn on the debris from their battle with Glory like a discarded doll. She was limp. Still. Not breathing. Dea—

Please, god, no. Buffy, please.

Willow wanted to run to Buffy's side, to shake her, scream at her, call her back from wherever she'd run, just like she had not a few hours before. God, had it really only been a few hours ago? Buffy had needed someone then, and only Willow could help her. Only Willow had the power to enter Buffy's mind, only Willow had the connection to the Slayer necessary to wander through the hurt and the fear and bring Buffy back to them. Only Willow.

She could do it again. She knew at that moment, clearer than any other thought she had ever had, Willow knew that she could do it again. She would reenter Buffy's mind. The pathway was still fresh; it could be traversed within moments. Go in Buffy's mind and bring her back. Keep her anchored until the others could revive her body. Keep her here. Keep her safe. Not let her go. Never let her go.

She managed to take just one step before her injured leg betrayed her and the arms around her tightened, holding her fast. Dammit, let me go! she wanted to yell. This is all my fault, don't you understand?! Those arms that she'd been so desperate to reclaim, the only things that helped keep the nightmares away were now all that stood between Willow and her redemption. Willow wanted to scream, she wanted to punch and bite and kick. She wanted so desperately to be free, but she could only whimper. She knew at that moment, clearer than any other thought she had ever had, Willow knew that it was far, far too late.

And it was all her fault.

Buffy's voice echoed in her ears. "I need you, Will. You're my big gun." Willow had swelled with pride (and yeah, okay, some fear) at those words. But no jelly-belly for Willow, no siree. They were going to end this once and for all. Get Tara's mind back, save Dawnie, send that Hellbitch running back to whatever skanky hole she climbed out of and all live happily ever after. That was the plan. Willow liked that plan. She loved happy endings.

"You're my big gun." Only where was the big gun when Buffy needed her?

Things started out so well. Willow had taken Glory completely by surprise and managed to do her real damage, acting as a conduit for siphoning Tara's mind back to that beautiful body where it belonged. And hey, nobody's head exploded, so that had to be a big tick in the hero column. The force of the spell had sent them all flying and Willow was knocked unconscious for a few minutes. But when she woke up, rather than thinking about Glory or Buffy or Dawn, Willow had only one thought on her mind.

Tara.

Was she okay? The true effects of the spell were 70% guesswork on Willow's part, and she was terrified that she'd somehow managed to make things worse. How much worse things could get, Willow didn't know, but she wasn't keen on finding out. Not that she wasn't growing fond of the stream of curses, irrational slaps and applesauce facials, but … Well, okay, not fond of any of those things. But Willow could deal. "You're my always," she'd told Tara, and although the blonde had shown no sign of comprehension, Willow had to believe that deep down, swimming somewhere behind those confused blue eyes, the real Tara was listening and had drawn comfort from those words.

But what if Willow had somehow managed to screw things up even more? Those brief, precious moments of lucidity where Tara seemed almost like herself, where she would laugh and grace Willow with a smile full of pure love and innocence … Those were the moments that Willow lived for. To lose even that was unthinkable. Unbearable.

"Tara?" she'd asked, crawling on her hands and knees. "Tara?" she'd asked again, her voice small and full of fear as her love's eyes opened. For a few tense moments, nothing. Willow's heart was thundering in her ears as she felt her hopes plummet. But then …

"Willow?"

And it was the sweetest sound Willow had ever heard.

The world fell away. Despite the danger and violence surrounding them on all sides, despite the looming threat of yet another apocalypse … Despite everything, Willow simply held on as Tara sobbed out all the pain and horror, whispering love and assurance, clinging desperately to her girl as though Tara might slip away again the moment the embrace was broken.

Those were the critical moments. If Willow had been a better person, a better witch, she might have helped her best friend before Buffy had to make with the heroics and save them all. If Willow immediately rejoined the battle, she might have been able to immobilize Glory long enough for Buffy to reach and rescue Dawn. If Willow had broken away from Tara just one minute sooner, she might have noticed the demon slowly approaching Dawn, murderous intent and blind devotion to Glory so apparent; might have alerted Spike to intercept before the demon ever reached its target. If Willow had spent more time researching bigger, better spells and less time looking for ways to bring Tara back, she might have been able to stop all of this before it ever reached the breaking point.

But the worst part of all, the part that was killing her, was that Willow knew that if she had the chance to do it all again, she wouldn't do a damn thing different.

"I need you, Will."

I need you too, Buffy, Willow thought in response, unable to look away from the image in front of her. She felt her body wracked with sobs and almost entirely supported by Tara, but was removed from it, like she was casually observing the physical reactions to her grief in her peripheral vision. I need you too, and I'm going to get you back. You counted on me, and I let you down. I swear to god, it won't happen again. I won't let it.

Willow felt something click inside, like some part of her was waking up from a long nap. It yawned and stretched and decided that it liked what it found. She knew at that moment, clearer than any other thought she had ever had, Willow knew that nothing – nothing was going to stop her.

The world needed Buffy. Willow needed Buffy. So Willow would get Buffy back. It was all really quite that simple.