Almost every inch of the large communal training room was being put to good advantage. It was here that the majority of the Juniors had instinctively gathered, not to engage in intense workouts but to give vent to a little pent-up steam and fine-tune their skills. Several had joined forces to spar lightly with each other or share in muscle-toning exercises. The exchanges were mild compared to what usually took place within this area, no girl willing to overtax herself or run the risk of even a minor injury. Nonetheless, the energy level ran high. Dominating a large section of the mat positioned in the far corner of the room were Kennedy and Dawn.
"Stop holding back," insisted the teenager with a small pout.
"I'm not," Kennedy replied and then paused, lowering her fists. "Okay, that's a lie. This just isn't what you should be working on. Why don't we try working on your 'run away fast'."
"I don't want to run," persisted Dawn. "I want to help."
"You could run and get help," came the response. "Two birds, one stone." Kennedy looked to the teenager with an expectant smile.
Dawn simply rolled her eyes at the suggestion. "Will you just show me already? We could be attacked again at any moment – I am not going to be the girl in the plastic bubble every time something evil comes to visit."
Relenting, the brunette puffed a huge sigh. "It looks like the Super Slayers can pretty much shrug off any direct damage, and if you punched one, you'd probably just break your hand." Kennedy ignored the peevish expression that crossed Dawn's face. "But it doesn't matter how tough they are, physics still applies." She began to bounce nimbly on her toes, gearing up for a demonstration. "So to keep them off balance, what you do is ..."
By the open doorway, Giles watched the buzz of activity, but seemed to concentrate upon Dawn and Kennedy in particular. He showed no interest in taking part or interfering with what was occurring within the confines of the room, apparently content to simply view the scene from his vantage point. He didn't turn his head when Hannah joined him, but knew she was there nonetheless.
"How is everything?" she asked, looking first at Giles' profile and then assessing for herself the situation in the room. She seemed to be appreciative of what was transpiring.
The Watcher leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb and folded his arms. "As well as can be expected. All of the critically wounded Slayers have been taken the hospital. We've assembled the rest – I've had Spencer and MacDonald doing the debriefings. Buffy will, I hope, return soon with Faith, and Willow and Tara—"
A tiny smile formed upon Hannah's lips. "I meant with you."
"Yes, I know," acknowledged Giles, turning his eyes toward her. "I was rather hoping you would allow me to feign ignorance."
Her gaze was steady and unflinching.
Giles shrugged. "What do you want me to say?"
"It's a pretty simple question, Ziggy," came the gentle reply. "I shouldn't have to make it multiple choice."
There was a long period of silence, eventually broken by Giles. "I did what had to be done." His focus returned to the exercise areas.
"Which I was already doing," Hannah informed him with an arched eyebrow. "You should've left it to me. You didn't need to do this to yourself."
Giles shook his head. "No. That wouldn't be right. It's important to ... to remind myself of the price. It's very easy to simply ... give commands a-and review the results. It's casual." He turned back to Hannah, his expression grim. "This must never be casual."
With the calling of his name, the Watcher's glance transferred to Dawn, who was hopping delightedly on the mat and waving her arms.
"Giles! Giles!" The teenager's face was beaming. "I just managed to keep Kennedy from being able to kill me for, like ten minutes!"
With hands placed firmly on her hips and legs astride, Kennedy gave an exaggerated eye-roll. "Maybe thirty seconds," she corrected, a touch of amusement in her voice.
Dawn was in no mood to be quashed or bogged down by trifling increments of time. "Ten whole minutes!" she reiterated. "Isn't that just the coolest? Watch her entirely not kick my ass!"
The words were barely out of her mouth before the teenager spun on one heel and aimed a kick in Kennedy's direction. It was easily avoided, but Dawn's excitement continued to run rampant and she seemed far from discouraged by the evasion.
Giles looked back to Hannah with a hint of despair. "I'm fairly certain most girls Dawn's age should be interested in reading frivolous, brightly colored magazines about untalented people who happen to be photogenic."
"Depends on the age, perhaps," the blonde shrugged. "Dawn could be anywhere from three and a half to ... infinity. You're bound to find the age bracket in there somewhere that prefers learning to not be hit." She threw the Watcher a grin, but it was not reciprocated and a long rather uncomfortable pause fell between them.
"She's probably Dawn's age," Giles finally stated. "Younger."
"Yes," Hannah agreed. She stared at Dawn's enthusiastic attempts to catch Kennedy off-guard.
"Do you know what frightens me? Truly?"
With a brief shake of her head, Hannah regarded Giles patiently, waiting for his confession.
"The fact that that doesn't matter."
The relative tranquility of the wooded area was shattered by a thunderous crack as Faith barreled through the trunk of young tree. Its upper limbs crashed to the forest floor as the dark-haired Slayer's body continued its flight and made impact with a far sturdier specimen. With a sickly thud, she collided with the thick trunk and tumbled heavily to the ground. Stunned for only a moment, Faith was already struggling to get to her feet as Buffy approached. Somewhat drained, she rested for a second on her knees and forearms, but was nonetheless able to throw the blonde a smirk which displayed more than a small measure of self-satisfaction.
"This doesn't matter."
Buffy appeared offended at the statement. "Oh, now that hurts," she pouted. "All this time bonding, and you're saying it meant nothing?"
With a disdainful snicker, Faith dug her toes into the soft ground and began to rise, but Buffy was swift to ram her boot squarely in the middle of Faith's back and the dark-haired Slayer found herself once more facedown in the dirt.
"Uh-uh," Buffy cautioned, taking a step back. "We're done with the violent exchange."
Pushing herself upward again, Faith regained her previous position, but made to further actions towards rising to her feet. "C'mon B – just gettin' started."
"No, we're just getting ended," countered the blonde with finality. "This is a waste of time and energy, and we're going to need as much of both as we can get. You wanna beat on someone? Fine. Save it for the bad guys."
"Case you didn't notice?" Faith spat between clenched teeth, "We kinda got no clue where they are."
"That was then," came the clipped reply.
Finally, something seemed to get through to Faith, and she deliberately turned her gaze upward, peering intently at Buffy. The blonde's posture remained tense and ready for anything, but Faith didn't attack. She searched Buffy's face as the implication of the statement continued to sink in, but could find no treachery there.
Slowly, Faith sat on her haunches. "You found them?" she asked, her eyes narrowed.
"We found how to find them," relayed Buffy. "Willow and Tara have a spell that'll take us right to them." The blonde paused to allow this valuable piece of information to fully penetrate. "So. Would you rather keep trying to—"
Faith was already on her feet. "When do we leave?" she asked tersely.
"Guess that's my answer," Buffy muttered under her breath. To Faith, she replied, "Giles is still getting some final bits of information, but soon. Could be any time now."
The dark-haired Slayer nodded, her expression an inscrutable mask as a veil dropped to shroud her eyes. She was no longer wild or uncontrollable, even the air of insanity had disappeared, but it left in its wake something which seemed much more terrifying and intense.
"Sooner the better."
Faith strode purposefully along the path that led to the edge of the wooded area, heels churning the loose gravel. After several paces, however, she stopped short. She did not turn around. Her tone was low, even dangerous in its timbre, but the words could be heard with impeccable clarity.
"Judith's mine. Anybody else tries to take her, I'll gut 'em without a second thought. So you make sure everyone knows. She's mine."
She didn't wait for a response, simply continuing her determined march, leaving Buffy to stare for a moment at the rigid back before following.
Tara could only stare in wide-eyed shock and disbelief as the pale, evil version of Willow strolled casually back and forth before her, reveling in the newfound corporality.
"I cannot tell you how good it is to be back. Stretch my legs, work out those cramped muscles ... Not have to listen to a 24/7 internal monologue whining about 'the big bad power'." Black eyes rolled dramatically in their sockets in an attempt to convey every last ounce of bitter resentment harbored by the dark witch. "So tedious."
"You're not real," Tara defied, but the bold declaration lacked strength, sounding more like a desperate, wishful plea.
Tutting loudly, Willow regarded Tara as though the blonde were a small child who had just woken from a nightmare and tried to assure herself that monsters didn't exist. "Baby, I'm as real as it gets. Which y'know, or ..."
She gestured toward the other woman's right hand. Tara glanced down and was surprised to see a dagger there, the very one she had wielded against Willow on Buffy's birthday. Face registering complete shock, Tara looked up and was treated to a knowing smile.
"...y'wouldn't have that,' Dark Willow concluded.
"N-N—" Clenching her eyes shut, Tara took a deep, steadying breath. When her gaze met Willow's once more, she insisted, "No. I don't have— I wouldn't—"
"Sure you would." The chuckle was full of scorn and no small amount of derision. "Or, well, you'd try. I don't blame you, though," Willow commiserated. "I mean, hello! World-destroying wicca babe, big with the power trip, right here!"
Tara was anything but impressed with the egotism. "Willow doesn't need you any more." Her voice was stronger now, more confident.
Exhaling a sharp puff of air, it was obvious Dark Willow put little stock in Tara's assessment. "She's always needed me. I'm the thing that keeps her going. I'm what gives her the strength to keep fighting."
"No," the blonde refuted, calm and assured. "All you are is rage and vengeance and darkness."
A laugh in her voice, Willow shot Tara a sidelong glance as she replied, "You say that like it's a bad thing."
But Tara didn't rise to the bait. "Willow won't choose you again." It was a statement of fact.
Shaking her head ruefully at the blonde's painfully ignorant simplicity, Dark Willow began to close the gap between them with deliberate, purposeful strides, one foot in front of the other. "Tara, baby, sweetheart ..." she began, almost seeming regretful to break the news. "As much as she loves you? She loves me more."
As Willow pulled back from Tara's doppelganger, her hand lingered, just for a moment, in the other woman's dark tresses. A grin spread across Tara's face as Willow's drew away, the locks of hair sifting through her fingers.
"You like me like this," Tara told her, fully confident of the answer.
Looking almost dazed, Willow gave a tiny smile. "I think that outfit has a lot to do with it."
The answering chuckle was deep and sultry. "It's more than that. You see yourself in me." Empty eyes seemed to sparkle with satisfaction as they focused on the redhead. "I make it okay for you to be who you are."
"That's actually true," agreed Willow. "Or, well, not you you. The other you. The one that's less brunette."
This evil vision of Tara refused to dwell on Willow's distinction. She slowly unfurled her arms, stretching them wide as she arched her back, luxuriating in the myriad of sensations now assailing her. "I'm powerful ..." Her gaze once more rested on the redhead. "... and you so love power, don't you, Will? Nothing can hurt me again, and you like that too. I'm strong."
Utterly out of place given the situation, Willow laughed, a truly mirthful sound. "This isn't strong," she responded with certainty and a self-depreciating smirk. "Believe me. Strong is staying true to yourself, even when it hurts more than anything."
"This is her true self," Dark Willow asserted, continuing to advance on the blonde witch. "I – am always – there. Just waiting, and trust me when I say I will not be ignored. If I gotta boil a bunny or two, I can do that. She'll have to fight against me every waking moment for the rest of her life."
No longer retreating, Tara stood resolute, her back straight and tall. "But every day it gets a little bit easier for her, doesn't it?"
"One step forward, two steps back," Willow dismissed, coming to a halt a few feet from Tara. "She'll slip eventually. And when she does? I'll be there."
"And if she does," countered Tara, "I'll be there too."
The declaration seemed to amuse the black-haired woman like the punch line to a comedian's joke. "You think you can stop me?" she inquired, an incredulous laugh in her voice.
"I think I don't have to. Willow can do that just fine on her own." With a smirk, Tara shrugged as though her involvement was a foregone conclusion. "I'll help anyway, though."
"You're just a shade," Willow told the specter of Tara, no trace of fear remaining. "A nightmare I've had. But you don't exist. You never have. I've been so scared of you ... but you're not real."
"I'm real," Tara promised smoothly. "Just because you haven't seen me yet doesn't mean I'm not there."
A wave of Willow's hand rebuffed the intended impact of the words. "Oh, well, sure," she agreed in an almost amicable tone, "on some metaphorical level, I know that." Bright green eyes met impenetrable black, and the redhead smiled with authority. "Tara does too though, and there's where you'll lose. I can't see you unless she lets me. And I know she won't do that."
"She would've said the same thing about you, once."
"But she isn't me. Me, I'm not so sure about sometimes. But Tara? I know her."
Willow seemed fortified by the unquestioning faith in that belief, and wore it proudly like a badge of honor. "What's more ..."
"I recognize you," Tara informed Dark Willow.
"... I know what you are," Willow continued, her gaze affixed upon the evil Tara.
"I'm not afraid of you anymore," the two witches proclaimed in unison.
As though this had been the opening salvo in a fierce, epic battle, Willow suddenly lunged at the doppelganger before her, just as Tara did the same to her twisted opponent. Both shoved with all of their strength, sending the evil visions stumbling back into the mirrors from which they had emerged.
Dark Willow snarled in furious defiance as the black-haired Tara hissed like a wild, feral creature, but the protestations were futile. The mirrors easily accommodated their spawns, absorbing them completely until all that was left were a few ripples in the reflective surface. Then even they dissipated, leaving only smooth glass in their wake.
Almost immediately, Tara cocked back her arm, the dagger clenched tightly in her fist. Elsewhere, Willow echoed the motion, the bottle artifact remembered at last. With unerring synchronicity, the two witches pitched their respective items toward the mirror.
The dagger collided handle first with the fragile glass, splintering it into a thousand sparkling shards.
The bottle shattered on impact, adding red fragments to the countless others that joined it from the mirror it had destroyed.
As the jagged pieces tumbled to the ground, they began to vanish, swallowed by the ever-present darkness until no traces remained – no mirror, no frame. Only a clear view of what lay on the other side.
Tara's face crumpled, her eyebrow's furrowing in a deep line as she began to process the sight before her. "Willow?" she asked tentatively. Hopefully.
Willow's eyes lit up as she heard her name, the very sound of it seeming to answer a thousand unspoken questions. "Tara?" she broached, although the certainty in her voice could not be denied.
It was real. Both women seemed to reach this conclusion at the same moment, and with that knowledge came the desire – the very need to act. The time for hesitation was long past, and Willow and Tara rushed toward each other, driven to close the distance that had remained between them for far too long. They met in the center, coming together first with arms then bodies then lips.
Willow captured Tara's face between both hands, gentle but insistent, tugging her closer and closer still with every frantic movement of her mouth. Even a fraction of a millimeter was too far away. Willow drank from Tara like a dying survivor finally finding an oasis in the desert. It seemed she might never quench her thirst.
Tara's arms ensnared Willow, holding her tight, as though to relinquish her grasp even in the slightest might leave her once again stranded alone in the unceasing, all-consuming darkness. Her mind might occasionally be fooled into thinking only months had passed, but her heart, her soul knew better. It had waited for this moment. Tara's lips consumed Willow again and again. Not taking – reclaiming what was always hers.
After a moment that seemed to last forever and yet end far too soon, the two pulled apart with a final, promising caress. Their foreheads rested together, tears coursing unchecked. Tara's hands moved in slow, easy circles against Willow's back. Willow's thumb caressed Tara's cheek, wiping little patches dry only to have them soaked again almost immediately.
"Hey," Willow greeted in a shaky voice.
"Hey," Tara echoed with a smile.
The redhead swallowed hard, fighting to keep her emotions in check. "I've missed you. So much."
"I know. I missed you too," confessed Tara with soft understanding. "This has all been really ..."
"I was gonna say 'freaking nuts'," chuckled the blonde. "B-But 'weird' works too."
A sudden burst of anxiety exploded through Willow, and her eyes bored into Tara. "Don't ever dye your hair black, okay?" she all but pleaded.
Another subdued laugh escaped. Tara brushed Willow's bangs back from her forehead, her hand trailing down her face until it came to rest against the cheek. "Well I was thinking about a bold, radical new look," she teased, "but okay."
"Okay," a relieved Willow agreed before her expression lit up excitedly. "Hey, you wanna maybe go see a movie tonight? You know, after we get outta Mirror World and kick the bad guy's army's butt an' all."
A familiar voice interrupted the tender reunion. "You know they're not gone."
For the first time since coming together, Tara and Willow looked away from each other to regard Madrigan standing nearby. Neither woman exhibited any fear or concern at his renewed presence, they simply stared at him.
Their attention was enough for Madrigan. "You can't just smash a mirror – which, by the way? Really cool – and dump your 'B'-side. All those fears, all those possibilities ... they don't go away. You'll always have a reflection."
"Maybe," acknowledged Tara. "But unless we give it substance, a reflection's all it is."
Ignoring Madrigan completely, Willow turned to Tara. "I think I've had about enough soul searching for one day, you?"
Similarly, Tara faced Willow, paying the mage no further heed. "Most definitely."
On some unspoken cue, the witches' hands shot out and firmly clasped. As one, they sharply turned to Madrigan.
He didn't have time to react – one moment he was on his feet and the next he was careening through the air, propelled backward by some unseen force. It seemed at first as though he might continue sailing through darkness forever, but then he collided with a mirror that materialized suddenly behind him. It didn't smash; it simply accepted him. Effortlessly, Madrigan was absorbed within its depths until he was gone.
Almost immediately after the mage had vanished, the mirror burst outward in a violent explosion, spewing tiny shards and powdered glass into the area. Two on either side, previously unseen, followed almost instantly, erupting in an identical manner. Another two shattered directly after, and then another, all of the mirrors self-destructing in a relentless domino effect. Nothing was spared, including the narrow hall housing the Super Slayer's stolen memories. In rapid succession, the image of each girl was decimated, reduced to ruin.
The air was filled with the deafening sounds of thousands of sheets of glass breaking as fragments rained down from all sides. At the center of the chaotic maelstrom, unaffected by the devastation that surrounded them, stood Willow and Tara, their hands still tightly linked together.
With an infinitesimal jerk of the head, Madrigan cracked open first one eye and then the other. He blinked rapidly until full consciousness had been regained, wincing a little as he massaged his forehead.
"Ahhhgh," he groaned ruefully. "Head rush."
From one side of the Circle's room, Seneca approached with a glass of orange juice. Madrigan eagerly accepted the offering and inspected it carefully through one squinting eye.
"No pulp?" It was more of an accusation than a question.
As the white-haired man nodded his affirmation, Madrigan took a long pull and then, with a satisfied smack of the lips, sat the glass down upon a nearby table. He gingerly pried both eyes wide open and glanced toward Seneca, who was regarding Madrigan with an expression of thorough condemnation. Hovering close to the tall man's right shoulder was a plush brown bear, arms magickally crossed in a posture of severe rebuke.
"Uh-oh," Madrigan grimaced, "looks like Mr. Peebles isn't a happy teddy."
Seneca's eyes narrowed as the indignant Mr. Peebles twisted his head in curt disapproval.
Madrigan sighed. "Come on," he urged. "They were right there. I couldn't resist."
Seneca arched a dubious eyebrow.
"Alright," admitted the mage grudgingly. "I could resist, I just didn't want to."
Considering Madrigan gravely through his bright black-button eyes, Mr. Peebles stroked one furry arm across the other in the universal 'shame on you' gesture. His little stitched mouth was pursed reproachfully. The mage was not amused.
"Screw you, Mr. Peebles."
The bear recoiled in shocked surprise at the acidic jab, but the mage paid the plushie no mind. Instead, he turned to Seneca with a long-suffering sigh.
"What did I do? Really?" he demanded peevishly. "Made them face the nasty stuff that was keeping them from working the joint mojo, right?" Seneca inclined his head like a king graciously granting a boon. "Something we all agree they would've done – eventually – on their own, right?" continued Madrigan. There was another concurring inclination of the chin. "Well okay then." Madrigan paused momentarily before driving his point home. "So all I did was give 'em a nudge to speed things up, which can only be good." He looked to Seneca hopefully and was repaid with a reluctant nod.
Madrigan smirked mischievously. "And if I can have a little fun in the process, even better."
The mage blinked innocently at the upbraiding glare this statement earned him, but then treated Seneca to a charming grin.
"You—" he announced, with a challenging prod of the forefinger in the tall man's direction, "—are a worrywart."
With an imperceptible toss of the head, Seneca simply sniffed.
"C'mon," cajoled Madrigan with a sneaky grin, "don't be like that. You enjoyed it and you know it."
Seneca shuffled uncomfortably for several long seconds, disinclined to admit the charge. Madrigan steepled his fingers, leaned back in his chair and waited patiently for the other man to come around. He was finally rewarded with a perfunctory shrug and a cursory nod of accord. Madrigan's grin became a huge smile of gratification.
A shadow of indulgence crept over Seneca's face as he jerked his head meaningfully toward Mr. Peebles, who continued to maintain an air of huffiness and wounded umbrage – no small achievement given that he was essentially inanimate and composed largely of cotton fluff.
Madrigan's eyes narrowed. "Dude, I'm not apologizing to the bear."
Mr. Peebles visibly crumpled beneath the leaden weight of this most unfortunate news. His furry shoulders slumped and he hung his head in forlorn misery. Seneca's forehead furrowed into a deeply recriminating frown and Madrigan sighed dejectedly.
Rolling his eyes, the mage cleared his throat. The words that followed almost lodged in his craw. Indeed, it appeared for a moment as though he might even choke on their verbalization. Nonetheless, they were duly delivered, albeit without even the remotest hint of sincerity. "Sorry, Mr. Peebles."
Madrigan's lower lip jutted and he sulked for a moment like a chastised toddler but instantly, all was well within Mr. Peebles' plushie world and he danced a jaunty little two-step.
Seneca turned to Madrigan with a beam so bright, it almost illuminated the room. The mage shook his head in utter disbelief – whether at Seneca's dogged persistence for retribution or at his own caving to the unspoken demand of a fake-fur bruin, was difficult to determine. It may have been both.
He regarded Seneca speculatively. "We have got to get you out more."
With a gasp, Willow and Tara jerked out of their trance, still seated in the heart of the Sanctum. Confused eyes scanned the immediate surroundings, seeking familiar sights and reminders that they had emerged successfully from the Super Slayer's mind. It took a long moment, but then reality began to settle in – for where they now were and for what they had recently experienced.
Willow's gaze dropped to Tara's hands, still clasped within her own since initiation of the spell. Almost mesmerized, Tara watched as the redhead lifted their arms and leaned forward slightly. With infinite tenderness, Willow pressed her lips against the back of Tara's hand. Her eyelids drifted closed as she savored the lingering, reverent kiss.
After a long moment, Willow glanced up and their gazes locked once more. Neither moved at first, then the blonde reached out and stroked Willow's face before tugging her closer. She immediately complied. They came together in a fierce embrace, each holding onto the other as tightly as possible. Rocking back and forth it was clear that neither wanted to let go ever again.
A mirror hung on the wall nearby. It reflected only one thing – the clear, unmarred image of Willow and Tara, reunited.