Act Four

In the center of Willow's room, Tara sat crossed-legged on the floor, hands resting on her knees with palms turned upward. The doll's eye crystal was within easy reach. Her eyes were closed and she appeared quite relaxed. The blonde's lips moved in a soundless incantation as her fingers instinctively sought out the nearby photograph of Willow. Taking a deep breath, Tara began to chant in a low and even voice. The timbre of the words held an almost melodious quality until an unexpected interruption shattered the witch's absorption.

"Fancy meeting you here."

Tara's eyes instantly opened wide in alarm and focused upon the figure standing in the open doorway. "B-Buffy!"

The image of the redhead fluttered to the floor as it slipped from Tara's grasp and Buffy watched its descent with narrowed eyes. "Quite a Kodak moment, wouldn't you say?" she queried, her tone menacing.

"I can't let you stop me," stated the witch with conviction.

"Funny," retorted the Slayer. "I was just thinking the same thing. Only it involved more me hitting you and you stopping."

Offering no response to the threat, Tara quickly turned her attention to the crystal before her. Her expression was dour and determined as she uttered a few more words, apparently in a rush to complete the disrupted enchantment. "Aperio profectio obviam il terminus!"

"No!" cried out Buffy as she lunged forward, but the Slayer's attack was suddenly brought to an abrupt halt by Tara's upraised hand.

Frozen in place, Buffy struggled violently against the restrictive barrier holding her back. Strain showing plainly on her face, Tara fought to maintain the force, but it quickly become obvious that Buffy would win the battle for control and the witch would soon run out of time. Swiftly diverting her attention to the likeness of Willow, Tara watched the picture begin to disintegrate. Horrified, the Slayer renewed her crusade to break free but could do nothing to stem the obliteration of the image. The ashes that remained began to spiral upward and then drift toward the doll's eye crystal, which consumed the particles in their entirety and adopted an ominous glow.

---

Skirt hitched up to her knees and with a worried frown, Willow took the stairs leading to the second level of the Vortex two at a time. Bursting into the private room, she spied Grip and Dawn chatting, seated close together on one of the couches. She hurried toward them.

"Dawn!" she demanded breathlessly. "Have you seen Buffy?"

The teenager considered for a moment. "Not for a while. She rushed outta here, muttering something about—"

But Willow declined to remain for the rest of Dawn's answer.

Dawn blinked at the redhead's retreating back. "Bye then."

"Your family is strange," declared Grip before adding, "Which is cool. I mean, you know. Any girl could have, like, an overweight dad and a brain-dead sister, but you ... You've got, like ... Well, I honestly don't really know how to classify everyone, but I know it's not overweight and brain-dead."

"Yeah," agreed Dawn, "but you know, I could do with a dose of normality for a nice change of pace."

Grip offered an open bag of chips, giving the contents a brisk shake. "Will you settle for Doritos instead?"

---

In Willow's room, Buffy leveled a forceful punch at the invisible field of entrapment that was immediately followed by a bright flash. Still sitting, Tara visibly recoiled as her head jerked backward, almost as though she had personally taken the full brunt of the blow. Without hesitation, the Slayer broke free and, rushing forward, kicked the crystal to one side along with the other components of Tara's spell. Skidding slightly, both the knife and the crystal stopped short of disappearing beneath the bed. Seizing her by the shirt, Buffy hauled Tara to her feet.

"I knew it!" she spat between clenched teeth, shaking Tara so violently that the witch's neck whipped back and forth. "Give me a reason. Give me one good reason to not take you out right now."

Dropping her gaze, Tara provided no response. The Slayer shook her again until Tara was obliged to look her attacker in the eye.

"No," warned a furious Buffy. "No, you do not get to do that whole shy, demure thing! Do you know how hard this is?! Do you even care?"

An expression of anger crept into Tara's features and she clenched her hands into tight fists held stiffly against her sides. "Yes I care! I care—!" The burst of anger evaporated, leaving Tara looking drained. "...I care more than you know. You- You don't understand."

"Well then why don't you explain it to me? Huh?" enjoined Buffy, ignoring the tears that were prickling at her eyelids. "How could you do this to us? Why her?"

Tara swallowed as her face dissolved into one of commiseration. "Sweetie ..." she murmured.

"Don't you dare!" raged Buffy, giving the figure before her yet another ferocious shake. "Don't you dare act like her. You think that's gonna stop me?"

The answer was a resigned whisper. "... no."

Shoving Tara viciously against the wall, the Slayer brought up her forearm and pressed it across the witch's throat. Teeth bared, Buffy was the epitome of vengeful retribution and Tara gasped for breath as the pressure on her windpipe increased, effectively cutting-off what little oxygen remained. Then, with a blinding bolt of light and heat, the Slayer found herself being hurled backward and away from the choking witch. Tara tipped to the side and fell to her knees, chest heaving in its urgent search for life-sustaining air.

As Buffy made heavy contact with the opposite wall, her head swiveled toward the open doorway. Almost simultaneously, Tara raised her streaming eyes in the same direction. There stood Willow, radiating an intensity of rage that made the Slayer's former displays of anger pale in comparison to a mild form of petulance. The redhead's posture was undoubtedly dangerous, but what was most immediately striking were the eyes – twin unfathomable pools of deep, endless black.

Willow's declaration was flat and virtually devoid of emotion. "I'm gonna stop you."

---

Appearing rushed and a little irritated, Giles hurried into the private room, cell phone pressed closely to his ear. Finding the area empty, he closed the door firmly behind him and although the music still managed to trickle in from outside, it was severely muffled.

He breathed a sigh of relief into the receiver. "There, now perhaps we can hold a civilized conversation."

At the perimeter of an immense crater located in a sunset-drenched desert, Hannah nodded briefly at the sound of the Watcher's voice. Behind her, Wood was climbing out of the huge pit, which was virtually all that remained of the town formerly known as Sunnydale. Both Hannah and Wood were covered from head to toe in a thick gray dust – as was the littered array of gear they had brought with them and an SUV parked nearby.

"Not enjoying the scintillating sounds of ..." Hannah paused and concentrated on the muted strains which filtered through the phone. "Is that Avril Lavigne?"

"I have no idea and less inclination to find out," Giles replied impatiently. "How are you, did everything go smoothly?"

Hannah grimaced as she tried to shake off the ashen particles clinging to her blonde hair. "It was more than a little creepy, but quiet. We had to move slowly, due to the fact that the entire town threatened to crash down around us at any moment, but no problems." Glancing back toward the ruins, she raised an eyebrow. "I sincerely hope Sunnydale looked better when you lived here."

"Marginally," the Watcher admitted dryly. "What did you discover?"

Hannah nodded to Wood as he began to load the gear into the SUV. "Amazingly, there appears to be precious little disturbed. We followed the trail to what, based on the debris scattered around the area, appeared to be a cemetery."

Giles blanched at the news. "What?" he uttered in a tight voice.

"A cemetery," reiterated his ex-wife. "We couldn't be completely certain of course, but there were a rather unpleasant number of caskets, and the ruins of crypts and statues all over the area. Perhaps they were looking for an artifact of some sort? You mentioned an inordinate amount of them turned up on the Hellmouth."

"A body," the Watcher realized.

"Yes, I suppose that's also possible," agreed Hannah, not seeming to consider the suggestion as disturbing as Giles did. "There's certainly enough of them around. But to go to all this trouble, it must've been for someone very specific, else why bother?"

"They had to have it," Giles murmured and it was almost as though he were talking to himself. "They couldn't have brought her back without it."

Hannah frowned. "Bring who back? Rupert, what are you talking about?"

The Watcher either failed to hear the question or chose to ignore it. His eyes widened and glimmered with apprehension behind the lenses of his glasses as he severed the connection. "Buffy ..."

---

With surprisingly little effort, Willow was holding Buffy fast by the employment of her magick. The Slayer's feet dangled uncomfortably a few inches above the floor and although she thrashed with all her might against the restrictive force, her efforts were proving fruitless. As though enveloped within a raging storm, the redhead's energy appeared to be emanating in spikes that literally crackled.

"You lied to me," Willow snarled.

Buffy vehemently protested. "I didn't! You don't understand, she was—"

"You lied!" yelled the redhead in a tone that brooked no further interference. "You told me – You looked me in the eye and you told me you were going to give her a chance. You wanted her back too, you told me that!"

"And I do!" the Slayer insisted, refusing to be cowed. "But Will, that thing—"

Buffy's body twitched in agony as Willow's fingertips inflicted another spasm of pain. "She is not a thing!"

"—it was casting a spell on you! Just stop and look around!" came the desperate explanation.

But Willow ignored the commands, her entire demeanor indicating an absolute and infrangible lack of concern.

Behind the redhead, Tara was now breathing normally once more, her gaze transfixed upon the scenario being played out before her. Slowly, she reached for the doll's eye crystal, its depths pulsating with a dark flicker. Cradling it within her palm, Tara began to extend her trembling hand toward Willow before pausing in a moment of dread. Then, swallowing hard, she increased the focus of her attention. Instantly, the crystal appeared to take on a life of its own. Seeming to immediately absorb all source of surrounding light, the crystal glowed as though it were made of luminous ebony silica. Tears coursed down Tara's cheeks at the grim transformation and she looked as though her heart were breaking. Fearfully and with regret, her gaze traveled to Willow, whose hunched shoulders and squared stance only strengthened Tara's conviction that the redhead's malice was continuing to soar.

"You want to take her away from me!" Willow accused Buffy with a narrowed frown, her tone almost childish in its peevishness.

"I am trying to keep you safe!" countered the despairing Slayer.

Trapped in a wave of overwhelming emotion, Tara choked down her rising fear and searched wildly for a solution to this confrontation. Her eyes alighted on the black-handled dagger and she scrambled for the knife with something akin to relief. She held the weapon loosely between her fingers, regarding it with awe as though it was something foreign to her. Then, with a resolute setting of her jaw, she tightened her grip and rose to her feet. Taking a bold step forward, she focused on a point between Willow's shoulder blades, the dagger clenched in a deathlike grasp at her side.

Willow threw Buffy a caustic smile and her words dripped with lethal calm. "I told you nothing would take her away from me again."

The Slayer shook her head in disbelief. "Willow, would you look at yourself?" she urged. "Do you want to be this again? Would Tara want you to be this?"

Tara hesitated at the accusation. She lowered the arm that had been pulled back in a strike position, its fist curled around the knife that stood ready to plunge into Willow's back. Holding her breath, Tara waited.

"I don't care. I don't—" avowed the redhead, but her tone was far from certain.

The Slayer leapt upon this potential opportunity for salvation. "You do care, and you know it. Willow, this is against everything that Tara stood for. Her memory deserves—"

"Shut up!" the redhead commanded. With a flick of her chin, Willow promptly put an end to Buffy's dissertation. The Slayer's hands scrabbled frantically at her throat. Not only was she no longer able to talk, she was also unable to breathe. Alarmed at the turn of events, Tara held the dagger aloft once more, knuckles showing white against the skin.

"I need ..." Locked in desperation, Willow visibly struggled. "I need ..."

Pausing again, Tara's step faltered, although her raised arm remained rigid and poised.

The redhead blinked rapidly at Buffy, seeming to realize for the first time what she had been about to do. "Tara, I—" Her mouth quivered. "Oh god, Buffy."

Apprehensively, Tara opened her left hand. The crystal still gripped there emitted a strange glow and Tara held it up with a wondering expression. Formerly dark as pitch, the interior of the doll's eye crystal was now beginning to shift – slowly at first, but swiftly gaining momentum. The color glimmered black for a moment and then reflected a silvery gray. The ensuing shimmy transformed the crystal to a blindingly pure white. As though captured in something of a flux, the crystal vacillated between these colors, seeming to be experiencing an inner conflict for control. Tara gazed upon it in utter confusion and then, she allowed a tiny trace of hope to penetrate as Willow released her magickal hold on the Slayer.

Buffy dropped like a stone, her feet landing on the floor with a resounding thump. Sucking in great gasps of rasping air, she staggered back to hit the wall and Willow rushed to her immediately.

"Buffy! Oh god, are you alright?"

Still clutching at her throat, the Slayer nodded, but her eyes widened in panic as, over Willow's shoulder, she spied Tara – the knife clenched in her fist and braced as though ready to deliver a fatal blow. Engrossed as she was in the changing crystal, Tara failed to notice as Buffy thrust Willow behind her, effectively placing herself between the two witches.

Willow was instantly alarmed. "What are you—?"

And then she could see what Buffy was seeing. The redhead regarded Tara with something akin to confusion, although the expression was mild in nature, given the circumstances. "Baby?" she queried softly.

At the familiar term of endearment, Tara's gaze moved from the doll's eye crystal to Willow and then back again. Its interior was engulfed only with white now – a pure and virtuous glow. Appearing totally stricken, Tara's face was a jumble of far too many emotions to be easily discerned. Grimacing with disgust, she tossed the athame to one side, drawing on all the strength she could muster to ensure that it landed as far away as possible.

Cupping the shimmering crystal in both hands, she held it out toward Willow. "I—"

But Tara never got to finish her explanation. Suddenly, the mirror over Willow's dresser began to reflect a rich blue that permeated the entire room and enveloped it in an ethereal light. The glow pulsated; breathing, it seemed, with a life of its own.

"Miss Maclay," boomed a voice. "Since it seems clear you are not going to perform the task which we dispatched you to complete, you have rather outlived your usefulness. But we thank you for providing riveting entertainment."

As the mirror fell dark once more, the fabric of Tara's shirt that covered her heart began to flare. It licked hungrily at the material to reveal the mark of the Circle, blazing as it had done before with Judith. Horrified, Tara looked down at herself and then at Willow, her expression indicating the all too apparent belief that she was about to die. She murmured only one word. "Willow ..."

The redhead's response was instantaneous. "No."

The solitary proclamation was one of absolute defiance, stated with utter composure and unerring conviction. It was undeniably obvious that Willow had no intention of allowing this to happen. Her singular statement carried the ring of irrefutable truth. It was a fact – plain and simple – and the redhead extended her hand without displaying even the slightest evidence of concentration.

Confounded and unsure of what to do, Buffy looked from Willow to Tara and then from Tara to Willow, an exercise she performed several times before the area surrounding the redhead suddenly erupted into a wall of white fire. Instantly, Tara became engulfed with the same inferno. Closing their eyes, both witches rolled their heads in unison as the flares emanating from Circle's mark were contained. Momentarily, the area continued to smolder with a greater degree of intensity then, as quickly as they had materialized, the flames were smothered and the mark of the Circle had burned away in its entirety, leaving no lingering trace whatsoever. However, where the brand had been, there was now a cauterized scar in its exact shape. Its appearance was raw, pink and puckered, but it looked somehow natural – the body's way of healing a terrible wound.

As the flare snapped out of existence, both Willow and Tara lurched. Managing to catch the redhead before she hit the floor, Buffy laid her down with great care and then turned immediately to Tara.

"Alright," she demanded. "What the hell is going on?"

"It's over now," an exhausted Willow told her.

"Over?" questioned the Slayer incredulously. "What's over?" She raised up from the kneeling position she had assumed by Willow's side and continued to direct her interrogation toward Tara. "What was that voice, what did mean, you won't 'perform the task'?"

Although sounding equally as tired as Willow, the blonde witch appeared somewhat less drained by the harrowing ordeal. "To k-kill Willow. They wanted me— I thought I ..."

Tara paused and looking to Willow, met the steady gaze of the redhead's eyes.

"But I won't," she continued. The smile she gave Willow was one of immense pride. "I don't have to."

Willow returned Tara's smile with one of her own, which only served to enhance Buffy's confusion. Tara's following statement did little to alleviate the Slayer's obvious state of discombobulation.

"But I would have," the blonde witch informed Buffy, her smile slipping and her tone matter-of-fact. "And I know what you have to do," she added quietly.

With much effort, Tara stood up straight and tall. She held her arms away from her sides slightly – a gesture of acceptance for what she firmly believed was about to transpire. Thus exposed to Buffy's expected retribution, she offered no retaliation and expressed no defense for what she knew had been perceived as an ultimate act of betrayal. With eyes wide, Willow struggled to get up from the floor, but her energy was totally spent and she was unable to move.

Nonetheless, the redhead managed one plaintive cry. "Tara, no!"

With a smile laced in sorrow, Tara looked upon Willow's ravaged face. The exchange lingered, almost as though Tara were committing the moment to memory. Seeming to radiate an aura of peace, she turned back to Buffy with an air of serenity and sufferance as she patiently waited.

Buffy stumbled to find the words. "I ... I don't understand."

Tara declined to respond. She simply waited.

"Buffy, please!" implored Willow, somehow finding sufficient strength to struggle to her feet. "She didn't ... She thought she had to!"

But Buffy wasn't listening. The Slayer scrutinized Tara with a piercing gaze. Slowly, a gleam of recognition seemed to invade the searching eyes, almost as though Buffy were seeing the woman in front of her for the first time. "Oh god," she whispered.

For a long moment, Buffy simply stared as her eyes welled and her stoic demeanor began to crumble. Hot tears spilled to scald her cheeks, and she emitted one lone, strangled sob. It was soon followed by another and then another, until the Slayer's body was wracked with tremors and she buried her face in her hands. Initially, Tara could only blink in astonishment. Then the implication of what she was seeing soon registered, and her own face folded in sympathy. Moving to Buffy's side, she gathered the anguished Slayer into her arms.

"It's okay," she comforted softly. "Shh, it's okay ..."

Clasping Tara closely, Buffy enveloped the blonde a gigantic hug, crying even harder at the soothing embrace. Standing unsteadily to one side, Willow too was indulging tearfully but jubilantly in the touching reunion.

The sound of feet pounding up the stairs went virtually unnoticed by the three women until Giles' voice invaded the hushed atmosphere. "Buffy! Buffy," he called with some urgency. "It's her! It's Tara! Buffy—"

Coming to an abrupt stop at the doorway, the Watcher drank in the scene that presented itself. Immediately behind, Xander also screeched to a halt. The two men regarded each other solemnly for a moment and then their eyes returned to the room. Neither seemed to know what to say.

Smiling through her tears, Willow glanced in their direction. "She knows, Giles. She knows."

----------

"I've been alive again for ... about a month now?" Apparently, Tara was far from certain. "I'm not exactly sure. The days all sort of ran together."

In the living room of the house, now dressed in an old t-shirt and jogging pants, Tara was huddled in Xander's chair, distancing herself for the moment from everyone and everything. Willow sat on one end of the couch, looking somewhat better but still appearing rather wiped out from the earlier experience. Xander was next to Willow, an arm draped protectively but unobtrusively over the back of the sofa. At the other end of the couch, by the carpenter's side, sat Dawn, hands clasped loosely in her lap.

As Giles absorbed Tara's story, he paced back and forth, whereas Buffy, her arms crossed and back rigid, watched Tara intently as she spoke. The Slayer's posture was no longer threatening, but a defensive air continued to linger. Displaying no outward evidence of her previous emotional display, Buffy's expression reflected chiefly confusion with a tinge of anger. Nonetheless, everyone listened raptly as Tara continued.

"It was hard. At first. I had a lot of ... My body sort of had to get strong again, you know? And before that, I was ..." Frowning, Tara shook her head as though deciding to drop that train of thought.

"They told me I'd been brought back to fight something evil," she told them in a small voice before looking up and deliberately concentrating her gaze. "Willow."

Ashamed, the redhead averted her eyes and allowed her head to droop. Xander looked from Tara to Willow and then back to Tara once more. His arm curled around Willow's shoulder. She shot him a grateful glance before returning her focus to the floor. As for Dawn, she recoiled as though someone had just informed her that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were running a drug trafficking and prostitution ring in Tijuana. Giles displayed little reaction to this news, although his eyebrow twitched involuntarily upward, and Buffy merely aborbed the information as though what Tara had just revealed was common knowledge.

Tara waited for a second, gathering her thoughts. After several moments, during which silence reigned, the blonde resumed her tale.

"I didn't believe them. Not at first. But then they began to tell me stories. About W-W-Warren. And then they ... There was a scrying pool. They made me watch. Again and again, and I wasn't so sure anymore."

Tara squirmed uncomfortably in her seat and blinked several times, as if she were reliving the enforced images all over again.

"They told me about the other spell, the one to activate all the Slayers?" She leaned forward and it was obvious that at this point, her comments were directed solely at Willow. "You were redeemed, they said, but that the power ... There was so much. Too much. Nobody could have that much power and stay in control. It was only a matter of time ..."

Sighing, she leaned back in her chair. "If you slipped again, there was no more redemption. They said if you gave in to the power, if you let it control you again ... there would be no peace for you. Not ever."

"What are we talkin'," interrupted Xander sharply, "like a 'soul damned for all time' kind of thing? Eternity in hell, no hope for parole?" He stared pointedly at Tara, waiting for a reply.

Hugging her knees, Tara met the carpenter's inquiry only briefly before nodding and then looking down, hair falling to cover her face.

"So," persisted Giles not missing a stride, "you came here to kill her, before she could damn herself."

"Yes," agreed Tara, her tone soft.

"But you had chances," Buffy pointed out, trying to make sense of what she was hearing. "You could've killed her before any of us even knew you were back."

Raising her head, Tara looked Buffy straight in the eye. "They might've been wrong. I couldn't just ..."

Also lifting her head, Willow looked up and threw Tara a quick, reassuring smile, although the gesture quickly became self-effacing. "I'm sorry I let you down."

"You didn't," assured Tara. "That's when I knew they were wrong. It'll be hard, Will, and you'll probably have to struggle your whole life. But you're stronger than the power, you always have been. You just had to learn that for yourself."

"But the spell ..." persisted a frowning Buffy.

Tara attempted to expand on her explanation. "The spell was to show me the source of Willow's power. I had to see it for myself. I had to know before I ... before I did ... anything."

"Okay, but the ..." Xander gestured to his chest, the spot over his heart. "The mark of badness. I mean, you were obviously workin' with some nasties, an' they obviously wanted you to killster the Willster. But now – what? Some flashy special effects an' that's all gone? How do we know you're not still under their control or anything?"

"She's not," Willow stated with utmost confidence as every head in the room turned in her direction. "The link, between her and them. I severed it, it's closed. I can't sense it any more."

The carpenter turned to face her. "No offense, but how can you be so sure? You didn't sense it before."

Wringing her hands, the redhead paused before answering. "I did."

The ensuing silence that permeated the room could have been cut with a knife.

Buffy titled her head as though she hadn't heard correctly. "You what?" she demanded in disbelief.

"I did. I-I could." She glanced at the Slayer and then immediately looked away as though it were impossible for her to meet Buffy's accusatory glare. "I knew."

"You knew?" echoed the Slayer, her tone incredulous. "You knew she was here with some evil plan and you just, what? Let it go?" Throwing her hand to the side, she glowered at Willow. "You could've said something! What if Tara hadn't decided to put in overtime and get her own info? Do you know what kind of danger you were in? What kind of danger we were in? You didn't know what she was even here for!"

The challenge was met with convincing denial. "I did," the redhead insisted. "They wouldn't have—"

"They wouldn't have sent Tara for anyone else," Giles announced firmly, his incessant pacing finally coming to a halt as he became the focus of everyone's attention. With a grave expression, the Watcher removed his glasses and seriously considered each face. "The best weapon for the best target. Bringing Tara back would have been ... terribly painful for all of us. But a-as a weapon, she was only really effective against Willow. With the kind of power they must have at their disposal to achieve the sort of resurrection the Covens told me about, there are few they could not raise. Had they wanted to hurt you or Dawn, Buffy, who do you think they would have sent?"

"Mom," whispered the teenager, catching Buffy's eyes.

"Or Anya for Xander," continued the Watcher, "or ..." He dropped that line of thought, pausing for a moment, before further explaining. "We each have experienced a loss that affects us more than any other. Tara could bring out that kind of vulnerability in one person only."

"Fine," Buffy grudgingly agreed, "but that still doesn't make it okay. She could've killed you, Will!"

Willow hesitated in providing a response. Then, with eyes fixed on Tara, she stated quietly, "If I was so evil that she thought I had to die ..." She allowed her voice to trail away.

The blonde looked stricken that Willow had been aware of the subterfuge almost from the beginning and had so readily turned over her fate. She searched Willow's face, but found no trace of blame. An aura of uneasiness enveloped the room and no one seemed to know what to say. It was Giles who eventually shattered the troubled silence.

"Tara, I presume you won't mind if we double-check?" he asked replacing his glasses. "Make certain that there are no lingering traces of any connection, verify what we can? I have some members of a Coven in England who have offered to come and assist us. Perhaps we can find out more about the spell used to bring you back, and its casters."

She threw him a tiny smile of accord. "Of course."

"Excellent," declared the Watcher, his tone lightening. "I'll contact them in the morning." Tara nodded her assent. "Until that time," urged Giles, infusing his voice with optimism, "I suggest we all get some rest. Tomorrow will be a new day."

----------

The Circle's main room was empty, save for Madrigan and Seneca. As the former knelt to pour over the casting circle, the latter watched from behind. A flare of bright, blinding white filled the room before dissipating and, for a moment, both continued to simply stare at the marking. Then, Madrigan turned to Seneca with a broad grin.

"Blinded by the light," he sniggered.

Wearing amber-tinted Ray Bans and holding a giant glass bowl filled with popcorn, Seneca tossed a handful into his mouth and munched appreciatively. As Madrigan moved to take a seat, Seneca followed and two chairs slid obligingly into place to accommodate them. Seneca deposited the bowl on the table in front of him, not bothering to shed the sunglasses as he settled down comfortably.

"Sorry about us losing Miss Maclay," commiserated Madrigan. "I know you liked her."

Seneca shrugged a little, then gestured with his head toward a magazine lying further down the table. It lifted of its own accord and turned toward Madrigan displaying its cover. The publication was a current copy of "MAD" with Alfred E. Newman all too prominent.

"What, me worry?" grinned Madrigan. Its task complete, the magazine was promptly returned to its former resting place and Madrigan leaned back in his chair. "About what?" he queried curiously. "Maclay actually killing her? Nah. We worked out it was – what? A hundred to one odds she'd actually go through with it? And if she did, then okay, we're set back. We've been waiting this long. It'll all happen again."

He threw out his arms. "But hey, she didn't. And everything's right on track." Grinning with delight from ear to ear, Madrigan got to his feet. He was every inch the happy little mage.

"Now c'mon," he cajoled. "This calls for a celebration – I think Lifetime's got a 'Suddenly Susan' marathon."

With a huge grin, Seneca also stood, the bowl of popcorn rising from the table and following him from the room.

"I'm in a pizza mood," announced Madrigan without turning around. "You feel like Dominos or Papa John's?"

----------

"Don't you love her?" asked Dawn, her voice full of youth and confusion.

"More than anything," Tara stated with infinite conviction.

"But then why?" the teenager demanded. She shook her head. "I don't understand."

Both were in the otherwise abandoned living room. The remainder of the house was now dark and quiet – a sense of everyone else being fast asleep was the overriding impression. Tara still sported her t-shirt and sweats, Dawn opting for a tank top and pair of boxers, although she had wrapped herself in a warm blanket to stave off the chill. They shared the couch, talking in low voices.

The blonde pondered seriously and long over Dawn's question before providing an answer.

"If something horrible happened," she began slowly, "and Buffy got turned into a vampire ... would you dust her, despite how much you don't want to? Or would you let her kill people, knowing that the real Buffy would never ever want that?"

Dawn gave this an equal amount of consideration as Tara had given to her own query.

"... wow, " she eventually murmured.

"Yeah," agreed the witch.

"Wow," murmured Dawn for a second time.

Tara agreed again. "Yeah."

Lost in thought, the teenager twisted her fingers for what seemed to be a very long time.

"Wow."

"Yeah."

----------

Having climbed the stairs, Tara moved soundlessly toward her room. The door exhibited a bright and cheery sign, decorated with rainbows and winged faeries, which happily proclaimed it to most certainly be "The Tara Room".

As she approached Willow's bedroom, the blonde hesitated and, for a second, moved toward it but then stopped and continued on to her own room instead. Her hand was on the knob when Willow's door opened and Tara quickly turned. Given what she had recently been through, the redhead's demeanor was oddly calm. However, it was blatantly apparent from the state of her hair that she had been in bed, although judging from the fatigue in her eyes, sleep had been no easy conquest. "Hey," she smiled.

"Hey," returned Tara shyly.

For several seconds, the two women maintained their distance. Then, in unison, they both took a few steps forward and met on middle ground.

"You okay?" asked Willow anxiously.

"I don't know," Tara hesitantly confessed. "No? Maybe?"

Willow's arms twitched, as though they wanted nothing more than to gather the blonde in a loving embrace, but she took no action to that end. "I'm really sorry."

"For what?" queried Tara, her lips curling into a tiny smile. "I'm pretty sure I'm the one who should be all Sorry Woman."

The redhead shook her head bitterly. "If it wasn't for me—"

"If it wasn't for you," interrupted Tara gently, "a lot of stuff never would've happened. Some of it's bad, yeah, but a lot of it's good, too. You have so much potential in you, Will. It's up to you which way it goes."

Willow's shoulders drooped. "Sometimes it's just so ... hard. You know? Once you see that darkness in you, once you know what you're capable of ... I-It's like you become this whole new person, and ... you have to learn how to live with you all over again."

The upper corner of the blonde's mouth twitched upward in a smirk. "I kinda get that."

"Yeah," Willow chuckled softly. "Yeah, I guess you do."

The prevailing silence which followed fell somewhere between uncomfortable and not so much. It was Willow who broke the hush.

"You wanna come in?" The redhead jerked her head backward toward her room. "Just for a while. Just to ... talk, or- or whatever. I mean – heh – here we are, all in the hall, all in our jammies. Least I got a heater in my room?" She flashed a hopeful, albeit goofy grin.

Tara's returning smile was nothing but sweetness, yet still, she shook her head. "I don't— I should really go in my own room."

Willow stifled her disappointment with admirable grace. "O-Okay. Sure, no problem, since, you know, it is your room and all, you're pretty much entitled to just go on in it whenever you want. No problem. And- And I'll just go. To my room. Which is over here." She unnecessarily pointed behind her.

With a quick nod, the blonde moved toward the door of her room and turned the handle. Stepping backward, Willow returned to her own room as well. Then, pausing on the threshold, she softly called Tara's name. Tara hesitated in the open doorway and looked over.

"You know I forgive you, right?" questioned the redhead, her tone unmistakably sincere. "Whatever you did do or would have done ... I forgive you."

With downcast eyes, Tara allowed this statement to fully sink into her consciousness before responding. Nodding briefly, she acknowledged the absolution and then regarded Willow with a wistful expression.

"But I don't forgive me," she whispered, entering her room and closing the door firmly behind her.