Part One

-Bath, England, Present-

"Slayer Central" was peacefully secluded in the English countryside. In the cold, snow-covered, English countryside. Buffy was still getting used to the fact that weather was capable of changing in wintry months like February. Everything had come together so fast. Eight months after Sunnydale's crater-ization, they were an established operation. Due primarily to Giles' connections, as well as his--and the old Council's--deep pockets.

Training facilities, offices, dormitories, a library, and a cafeteria sat on their property. As did a spacious house that Buffy, Dawn, Xander, Willow and Kennedy called their own, so they were always nearby if something should happen. Giles lived on his family's estate nearby. They'd gotten used to living under the same roof. Weren't there as often as they wanted, what with everyone having lots of responsibilities requiring them to travel around the world often, but it was nice to have a home.

To know that, as much as things had changed because of what they'd accomplished, when in that house together, nothing had changed at all. It was a good life. A busy one, and still dangerous, but good.

The fate of many was in their hands, so the motto was, "Be different." Don't follow the old ways, don't make the same mistakes. She, Xander, Willow and Giles were all involved in the decision-making. Kennedy too, if it pertained to one of the next generation. Faith, when she dropped in to take a break from her nomadic existence, added her piece to the mix also. Being democratic was a conscious choice.

Xander was "Tactics and Strategy," Willow handled all things mystical and magical, Giles as always did the research (which he turned over to Dawn whenever he had to deal with keeping this place running, in whatever form that took, and Dawn was quite the fount of knowledge these days), Kennedy was Buffy's second-in-command when it came to training new slayers...and Faith? Faith liked to administer "final exams" in the field. She put the girls through their paces, toughened them up.

While Buffy was involved in a little bit of everything, including being a bit of an ambassador, what she lived for was taking a group on their first mission. Every slayer who agreed to join their team--it was completely voluntary--had been led into battle by Buffy. She liked seeing their faces after they'd saved someone's life, or just simply worked together to win and survive. They were all connected, helping to keep the world spinning; it was an overwhelming job if you thought about it, but there was no other feeling like it. Buffy herself felt more comfortable in her own skin then ever before.

So if everything was going so well, why was she standing alone in the stable, pensive expression on her face, brushing the horses' manes? Yes, they had a stable. So...why?

Because this was where she thought about the person who should be here and wasn't. A person whom she owed for seeing her through a dark time, and putting her on the positive path that brought her here. Instead, she repaid them by placing them in a position to be killed. By a goddamn, stray bullet of all things. And rational or not, Buffy would never, ever forgive herself.

Tara liked horses.

"'Cuse me, Ma'am?" Someone was intruding on her solitary.

Buffy sighed. She was nowhere near that old. "You all really have to stop calling me that, Nadia."

"Sorry, Ma', Buffy." Nadia hastily corrected in her Russian accent. "But Mr. Xander, Willow, Miss Kennedy and Dawn...well, they-they are all in Mr. Giles' office. I'm supposed to come get you."

Furrowed brow. "What's going on?"

"I don't know, but I believe they were crying."

Crying? That wasn't a good sign.

Giles had two offices in one, really. A large, outer office where he met with bigwigs of both human and demon variety, held meetings, etc. Then there was the cozier, more intimate one where he would read and drink his tea in peace and quiet. No one was in the large office when Buffy entered, so she went to the other door, and knocked. He let her in with a welcoming smile. Walking past, her smile was uncertain.

Candlelight burned on her watcher's desk, which was pressed against the wall immediately to her right. Xander sat there, but faced the couch. He was wiping at his eye. In the far right corner to her left, Willow and Kennedy sat on soft, high-backed arm chair. The redhead had clearly been shedding tears. Next to them, a stocked bookshelf.

Finally looking to the couch, she moved around onto the circular rug, so she could see who occupied it--her breath caught in her throat. Her sister was there, clinging to an arm. An arm belonging to someone they'd all believed gone. Buffy ran through an automatic checklist in her head:

'Dawn's touching her. Not the First'
'She's breathing, isn't pale...not a vampire'
'Which means...'

"Tara?" Buffy questioned whisperingly, afraid to break the illusion.

Tara stood, Dawn reluctantly freeing her. "You let your hair grow." She smiled her smile. "You look so healthy, too...oh, I'm proud of you sweetie."

The slayer's lower lip was trembling. "Please be you."

Tara made the move first, wrapping her arms around her friend. "So far."

Buffy's arms instantly wrapped around Tara in kind, and the dam broke. Tears she didn't even know she had in her, she wept. Didn't want to let go.

And what did she think? She thought Tara was warm. She thought Tara was alive.

-Sunnydale, January 2002-

Buffy's choked sobs rang loud in Tara's ears, despite being partially muffled by her lap, where a blonde head lay. Sitting on the couch, she thought about how the otherwise silent, dimly lit living room only served to amplify the sounds. It wasn't just empty--like every room in the house, it wasn't warm anymore, either. Maybe it was as lost as the rest of them. "Depressing" came off as too weak a description for their lives lately.

Yet, with everything going into a seemingly endless spiral, Tara had somehow been able to find positives within herself.

And currently, within Buffy. Realizing the inevitability of the slayer's collapse now, she felt grateful to be here, honored. Because while seeing this broke her heart, there was also beauty beneath the pain. What was beautiful about a fallen hero? These outpouring emotions proved that Buffy could feel, did feel, and was very much human. Her friend wouldn't recognize that in such a fragile state, though.

Still rubbing Buffy's shortened locks comfortingly, she softly spoke. "Buffy? Buffy, sweetie, look at me."

From the floor, the blonde lifted up her head, her eyes shimmering and puffy. Tara had never seen her so vulnerable; she'd only seen her cry openly once before: after Riley left town. Also, from her and Willow's talks, she'd learned how rarely Buffy had let go in the past, and Willow was her best friend: when Faith murdered the Deputy Mayor, when Angel broke up with her, and then later, emerging from her coma--triggered by losing Dawn to Glory. Bottling things until you have a major meltdown hardly seemed healthy.

It wasn't that they made a habit of discussing Buffy behind her back, but all of the Scoobies knew their leader closed herself off, distanced herself. That practice had become more frequent with each passing year, as life and slaying continually took their toll, and they became more concerned; no matter what they did, nothing changed. Because they cared so much, it was extremely frustrating. As well as sad.

This moment, however, had to be the worst. Her abrupt exit from a blissful, heavenly dimension, being resurrected by her friends--which forced a frantic, clawing escape from her own grave--whom she didn't feel able to turn to, having to face bills and raising her sister alone without her mother, Giles leaving, her best friend nearly getting her sister killed, discovering that Spike could hit her, thinking she'd come back wrong, using him for all led to this overload, to the release she could no longer contain.

Again, inevitable. Necessary. Except Tara was allowed to be a witness. And because she could count, on one hand, the number of times Buffy revealed her vulnerability, revealed that she wasn't always the rock that could weather anything, that's why the witch felt honored. Plus, there was another positive. This might have been the hero's worst point, her lowest, but now that that anguish wasn't trapped inside, she could start climbing. Feeling Buffy cling to her waist suddenly, Tara knew she'd be steadying the rope a while.

She didn't mind.

As far as Buffy's actions, Tara's words hadn't gotten through. Placing her hands on Buffy's arms, she silently urged her up, telling her there was nothing to forgive. But if forgiveness was needed, then it was hers to have. Buffy rose just enough to quickly sit herself on the couch beside the taller blonde, and embrace her apprehensively. Only when she felt the gesture returned, when she felt herself hugged strongly, did she respond in kind. Forgiveness was communicated through the act itself.

Regardless of how tight Tara's hold on her petite frame was, Buffy held on tighter, feeling protected, safe, feeling nothing other than good energy. Exactly the opposite of what Spike offered. However, like with him, she knew as soon as Tara was gone, the feelings would follow. She wished they didn't, she wished she wasn't this dependent on another person, she wished she were in control, confident...

In the several minutes they sat there together, she wished a lot of things.

"It's all right to need someone. To let go. Even just once in a while." Tara whispered, almost reading her mind. "And nobody sh-should ever be alone if they don't have to be. Including you. So don't feel ashamed, okay? Because I st-st-still think you're pretty amazing." She blushed while Buffy's muscles relaxed. That small embarrassment was worth it, then. "I'm...I'm glad I'm here; thanks for trusting me."

"Why wouldn't I?" Buffy was beginning to smile when she released and looked at her friend. "You're the most non-judgmental person I know. It's weird actually, because we don't hang out much, do we?" Pause. "Except, if it was Willow or Xander...I wouldn't have gotten this far. I don't think I could've. Admitted this to them, I mean. Guess I should be able to, but I can't." Wiping her eyes, she took a deep, cleansing breath. "Anyway...I really am trying to find a pretty specific point. Which is, I'm glad you're here, too.

"And yunno, I'm thinking we should hang out more often, starting now. S'long overdue."

Tara smiled back in return. "I'd like that."

"Some friend, huh?" The slayer smirked, shaking her head. "Here I am dumping all my stuff on you, and I haven't even asked how you're holding up. Sorry. 'Rude Buffy's' outta the building, I promise. 'Polite Buffy's' in charge, and she's asking if you want something to drink, then if she oughta mind her own business."

"No apologizing." The witch ordered, but then cracked another smile. She saw that Buffy was away from the dark place for the time being, and she was going to allow her to set the pace. "But if you're sure you're up to there still hot chocolate in the cabinet?"

"I dunno. Let's check. Could always use more warming." The girls got off the couch, and Buffy subconsciously brushed her fingers lightly over Tara's before they began walking to the kitchen. "Definitely up to it, though--I'm all cried out for tonight. Not a hundred percent sure about tomorrow, but tonight? I'm good. Or close to it, at least."

"Aha." Buffy remarked as she pulled an unopened box from the cabinet to the above-left of the sink. "Consider your question answered--it's kinda hard to believe, but powdered, cocoa beans? We're stocked with 'em. And they come in handy packets. So you want, right?" She turned to Tara, who was heading for the fridge. "Sit." She gestured to the island, and then broke the box's seal. "Hot chocolate's one of the few things I know how to make without the kitchen going 'boom.'"

Tara opened the refrigerator door. "You're too late; I'm already helping." She rooted around inside while her host got a smallish-sized pot from one of the lower cabinets.

"Okay, now my arm's twisted. Ya happy?" The slayer grinned as she thwacked two packets of cocoa mix against her thigh several times while waiting for the milk. "Help. Go nuts." Then she remembered how the witch had gone nuts not too long ago. "Or...don't, because I'm pretending I never suggested it." Sigh. "Takes foot out of mouth," Having set the packets on the counter, she pantomimed her words, "and even though she's tempted to apologize--" Milk gallon and cream in both hands, Tara gave her a look as she walked over, "--she resists the urge, not giving in."

"Good." Tara said, placing her items down on the counter beside the packets. "Because I wasn't even thinking...about Glory; it's been m-m-months since I have." Closing her eyes, she breathed in, and calmed herself. "And usually, if I do?"

"Like now? Cause I've got guilt issues and couldn't just quit?"

"If I do," Uh oh--that look again, "I don't...fall apart anymore. Took a long time, though."

"Yeah, I can imagine." The petite girl was in her own harsh mindset, but she wasn't arrogant enough to believe that her pain was on the level of someone who'd spent what must have felt like an eternity in a dark, empty void searching for a way out. "Sorta."

There was a sad smile on Tara's face. "Willow w-would always..."

Buffy could tell this was difficult for her; Tara was annoyed with herself. She had thought, in these nearly two months since breaking up with Willow, that she'd gained confidence, the ability to stand on her own two feet, some semblance of self-identity...yet she stuttered and stumbled over things she believed handled. Awfully fast, too. But the slayer would've thought her perception was skewed, having seen a very assured woman walk into the house.

A woman who finally seemed comfortable in her own skin. More comfortable than she, at any rate. It was probably a giant part of why defenses were lowered back there--because she knew Tara was in a position to withstand it. No, a change certainly occurred. It was still occurring. Both were aware of that, so Tara, by trying to rush it, by corking her emotions...

...Well, she wasn't following advice she'd given mere minutes before, which was rather hypocritical. Maybe whatever change remained was being prevented--by avoiding the whole, unresolved issue of a redhead, and separating herself from people she called "family." And if she was holding back to spare Buffy, that was just silly.

"She really hurt you." It was a statement, not a question. As much as the small blonde wanted to help her best friend, unfortunately, her best friend didn't make it easy to sympathize. "Do you miss her at all?"

The witch was silent only briefly, considering her response. "I miss how she used to make me feel."

Nod. "I get that."

And Buffy wasn't kidding. There were two periods in her life where she could identify--back with Angel when she was eighteen, and most recently, her present situation. She missed how being alive used to make her feel. Interlocking digits, it was her turn to let Tara know it was okay.

"Uh, shouldn't we finish making...?" Tara started and trailed off, self-conscious.

"Right." Buffy said, still gripping her hand. "Then we can go sit and--"


"Right." Hand released, she cleared her throat, concentrating on the task ahead. "Oh, is there whipped cream? And cinnamon?"

"Are you attractive?" Buffy asked Tara after careful consideration.

"Mm, I guess?" Was the uncertain response given. "I mean, I wouldn't go out with them, but..." Her eyebrows rose. "You really think he's attractive?"

Around a half an hour later, they were in the dining room drinking their mugs of hot chocolate, and playing Guess Who? The game involved an exaggerated assortment of cartoon, male and female characters on two, separate boards. It asked the players to guess which character their opponent had picked at the beginning of the game.

Flicking the male characters down she deemed unattractive, the slayer hesitantly answered. "Probably, yeah. You know, compared to the other people..." Tara smirked good-naturedly, but she was embarrassed nonetheless. "Like you didn't gawk at Jessica Rabbit. And hey, she didn't even have a nose."

"No," The witch agreed trying to hold back a shy grin, "but that wasn't so bad. And she made up for, elsewhere." While Buffy chuckled, she posed her next question. "Do you wear glasses?"

"'Fraid not." Buffy said before taking a sip from her mug while the non-glass wearers were flicked down across the table. "It just keeps my 'Poor Guy Choice' streak alive. Gotta say, wouldn't mind if it dried up." She tapped her fingers on the side of the mug for a few moments. "You think Spike loves me? Meaning, sincerely?" Next she chewed on her lip, thoughtfully. "And d'you have a hat on?"

Tara double-checked her character's card and shook her head. "Uh-uh, sorry." She was glad that Dawn was at a sleepover and that Willow was crashing at UC Sunnydale's library tonight. The redhead had fallen behind on her assignments, and was trying to play catch up, according to Buffy. "I think he tries to. Except it isn't...exactly pure love."

"Because he doesn't have a soul. And he's a vampire." The petite blonde stated, mulling over things. "But it's in him somewhere? Cause, I never got that impression."

"Maybe you didn't wanna notice." Tara said, bringing the mug to her lips. Drinking and putting the mug back down, she saw that the game had ceased being a priority. "Last year, it seemed like he wanted to be the kind of person he th-thought you'd respect"
"And fall for? I noticed. Only, most of the time he was playing stalker and stealing my clothes for his psychotic, underground ode to all that is me. Or whoever he wishes I was--enter 'Robo Buffy.'" Buffy was still bitter and unsettled about that. "Spike having his own, personal sex toy was plenty disgusting enough, but adding the 'way too chipper' factor? Whole, new level of creepy."

Both silently realized that if the robot had survived, Spike would no longer have need for it. Buffy now fulfilled its role, and there were times when she felt robotic herself. Hmm. Maybe "dehumanized" was a more appropriate word.

"I meant..." The witch started to explain her side better, but the will left her, because frankly, her side wasn't holding up well. "N-n-never mind. I'm probably wr-wrong."

"You aren't, Tara. I'm just...focusing on the non-pure, I know that." The slayer admitted that for Tara's sake, not because she accepted the parts of Spike that weren't villainous. "But him suddenly being emotionally schitzo when he's supposed to just be regular, old evil? Yeah, doesn't change the fact that I can't love him."

"Do you want to?"

"What? No." Denied a touch too fast. "Even if he had a soul I'd..." She heaved a large sigh, unable to turn down the idea flat. "...rather not go there. But, seeing him, it's never about love; it isn't even about the part where we actually have sex, cause during, I'm numb. Didn't start out that way, only like everything else in my life lately, whatever I felt wore off fast."

Tara was afraid of what she'd hear next, but the question came regardless. "Then why?"

Ashamed, Buffy lowered her head already. "Violence tends to, um, happen a lot with us. Especially before...if-if we're alone." Yet she felt her friend's warmth again. Tara reached across the table and laid an encouraging hand on her forearm. Looking up, she was met with saddened but understanding eyes. "He'll tell me how I don't belong around people; in his mind, that's somehow the perfect reason for why I should hide in the dark instead. With him. Then, cause I don't wanna believe what he's saying, I'll get angry and we beat the hell out of each other." Pause. "After we're…done, I kind of hurt everywhere. It lasts a-a couple days, but once they're over there's nothing, and--"

"Spike's there." It was clear that while Buffy might've been using him, he wasn't innocent in this. He was trying to break her mentally, which Tara found far more horrible--she had firsthand experience with that kind of abuse. Multiple experiences.

"Pain's generally the one thing I can count on; reminds me I'm still breathing." Buffy knew the taller blonde was searching for words that weren't available, so with hands shaking just enough to draw attention to themselves, she finished her hot chocolate in a single gulp and tried to recall where they'd left off. "Please let it be your turn."

Her eyes did little to conceal how much she hoped it was.

Though it'd been her turn to guess, Tara knew Buffy had stopped caring about their diversion. No, it was also her turn to talk, because her friend was understandably exhausted. As she started summarizing life post-Willow and packing the game in its box, Buffy took their mugs to the dishwasher. Getting this part out was easier if she didn't have to fear eye contact; she was nervous enough.

Only when the slayer returned into the dining room did she respond to what she'd heard. "Really? You're dating?" Leaning against the adjoining entranceway, she seemed mildly surprised, but not upset. "Like, how exclusively? Very? Not so very?"

"Oh, not." Tara was quick to shake her head. "May-maybe I shouldn't have said 'dating.' It's more just...getting to know people. In, um, public places."

"Are drinks and/or food involved?"

"Well, s-sometimes there's coffee." All right, so it did bare a strong resemblance to "dating." She smiled unsurely, and then half to herself, "Okay, wh-when I thought it? Could've sworn it sounded a lot different."

Buffy smiled as she came further in and took the box off the table. "You're just fishing--it's allowed." She continued into the living room. "More than. It's required."

"'Fishing'?" Tara hadn't ever fished before; she'd only watched her father and brother. Though she highly doubted her fellow blonde, who was sliding the game underneath the couch, meant literally.

"Yeah...where you water-test and find out who your options are. Then after a few practice casts, y'see if one of 'em wants to maybe bite. Or nibble." Buffy was on her way back into the dining room as the suggestive nature hit her. "Nibble your lure, I mean." Well, that wasn't much cleaner. Redness. "Wow. That kinda spiraled. I was going for a PG-rated metaphor in the beginning, except since it's doubling as a euphemism now...think I'll stop before things get worse. Which they could. Easily."

The witch gave her patented half-grin. "If it makes you feel better? I think I am fishing. Only it doesn't go past PG. Nobody ever..." Slight match in redness. " my lure. They don't even see the bait. That's all I'm comfortable with for now."

"Understandable." The slayer said, laughing with her friend, who had a side to her she hadn't seen before. "Wanna go sit out back? Cause I'm not through with you yet." She then reconsidered. "Unless you have an early class you have an early class tomorrow?"

A blonde head shook, as Tara stood up from the table. "My first class isn't until two."

With that settled, to the backyard they went, sitting beside one another on the bench. Fresh air and a clear sky didn't solve Buffy's problems, but being here certainly felt less oppressive than being in the house. She thought it might've been easier for Tara too, when talking about other girls, if the young woman was free of the building that held memory upon memory of times with her ex. Seemed logical.

And if she also happened to enjoy Tara's presence and wasn't ready to face a house where she was the sole, lone occupant, was that a crime?

"Nice night." Buffy commented, looking up. "Almost makes you forget there're all those demons loitering everywhere being evil. When they're not playing poker for kittens." Tara looked equal parts perplexed and horrified. She assumed they didn't give their winnings good homes stocked with catnip. "Well, only some demons. Like Spike."

This was as close as the listener would ever get to being glad that Miss Kitty Fantastico had been the unfortunate, accidental target of Dawn and a crossbow--at least the cat wasn't something's lunch. But more important, it was evident that the sooner Buffy was weaned off of Spike and what she believed he offered her, the better she'd be.

Tara wanted her healing ASAP. "What time do you work tomorrow?"

"I got stuck with the late shift." Came the grumble. "Why?"

"Do you w-w-wanna...?" Annoyed, the witch stopped and started over. "There's something I think you should see," She was apprehensive, "and I was wondering if I could show you. Do you mind getting up early?" Not hearing an immediate answer, she chickened out. "If you--"

Raised eyebrow. "How early?"

"Before dawn."

Gape. "Dawn as in, the time of day, 'dawn'?"

"Um, yes." Tara confirmed, resisting the temptation to hide her face. "I'll bring a thermos. With coffee."

Why did this sound awfully familiar? Oh right. "Regular, decaf, or date coffee?"

Sounded familiar to the embarrassed, blue-eyed blonde as well. "R-r-regular. Of course. I want to help, uh, as a fr-friend, so I--"

"It's okay. M'only teasing." Said the hazel-eyed blonde lightly, putting a hand on a tense shoulder. "And somehow, I'll find a way to wake myself up on time; either by drinking much water before bed, or replacing the batteries in my alarm clock. Depends how lazy I feel. Then we can go where I'm betting you won't tell me."

Smile. "Not yet. But it'll be worth it. I hope."

"Fine, but I'm taking a lot on faith here. Surprises are over-hyped as it is." Pause. "So, the real dating. When did that start?"

Tara breathed deep, and got underway. "About three weeks after we...after I broke up with Willow." She sat a little straighter. "I wallowed for a while, second-guessing myself about whether I did the right thing...and then I was here making pancakes for Dawn, and Willow came in with Amy, who suddenly wasn't a rat anymore--they'd been doing magick all night. She didn't care, Buffy. So I decided, to hell with it, you know? I needed to move on."

Buffy nodded. "I remember that morning. I came in at the tail end, but...was pretty strong, Tara."

The compliment was shrugged off. "I had to just do it, finally; I was sick of feeling miserable. And going out, meeting different people, who for some reason wanna meet me...we have a good time. No one's looking for a commitment, and we both know what the boundaries are. Plus it's honest; I know what to expect." A second wave of nervousness hit, then. "I didn't think I-I'd be able to handle being on my own, but it's made me realize," Her expression saddened a bit, "I don't need Willow. Which scares me to death, because I thought it w-was a given. That I always would."

"Well, you weren't around for Angel, but believe me when I say, there was a time when he was my entire world. We're talking tunnel-vision to the point of absolute sureness that I couldn't survive without him. Only I am. Not in the greatest way, but I've figured out he can't just swoop in and fix everything, no one can; so long story short, he's in the 'I love you, but I'm not in love you' file cabinet these days." The slayer was trying her best to relate. "Is that where Will is?"

There was a long beat before Tara spoke the truth aloud, with some resignation. "I think so." Somewhere it shifted, and that was that. Beyond her control. "Goddess, she is. That's new."

Buffy automatically returned the earlier favor, offering a supportive, firm hug. "I wanna hear steady breathing; no hyperventilating on my watch." She rubbed Tara's back in slow circles while the sinking in passed. "Sneaks up on ya, doesn't it?"

"Uh huh. A little too well." Tara confirmed, following good instructions. "Wish it woulda made more noise. Tiny squeaks at the most."

The slayer wasn't going to subject her to another tale of "Angel Drama," but she couldn't help reflecting back again on being eighteen, on how badly she tried to make it work once he returned from Hell. Her body still wanted him, her brain was wary, and her heart was confused. But they were "Buffy and Angel"; he had a soul again. He was what all of her wanted to want, if that made sense.

When he ended their relationship in that sewer tunnel and she wept to Willow, it was more because she let herself know then, she was no longer in love with him. Not like she'd been pre-Angelus. And recognizing that was a painful experience--if your world isn't cutting it anymore, what are you supposed to do? A question which pounded relentlessly during the prom, during their dance that was as sweet as it was bitter.

She never did quite find a satisfactory answer, either. Releasing Tara, Buffy's eyes told the story well enough. They told the witch she understood firsthand, and that was the message she really wanted to convey. "Gonna be okay?"

"I might hafta dismount and stretch my legs." Tara responded, making Buffy's forehead crinkle. "Before getting back on the horse again...a-a second time." Comprehension came as a silent "Ah," and she added, "Thanks."

Pressure-less dates had passed the minutes nicely, but she wasn't ever sure what they were passing towards. Though she still wasn't, she was sure they weren't heading Willow's direction. Feelings and attraction existed at a respectful, fond, figurative distance--she had indeed moved on. Inside she was rather hectic, however.

"Haven't felt very helpful since I got back--I didn't know I missed it." The petite, resurrected woman kind of smirked at the odd disconnect that was her life. "But does this mean you and Willow aren't gonna re-couple if she beats her, uh, magick problem?" Beat. "Sorry. Stupid question." Just, knowing Willow's perspective...

Smartly gathering why it was posed, color began to drain from the witch's face. " that why she stopped? To win me back?"

"She may be hoping she can, yeah." Buffy called it as she saw it, because she'd gotten that vibe from the redhead in spades. "She also stopped cause of that whole night with Dawn, but you're tied on the list. I think she thinks you guys are temporarily--"

"No." Confidence rang in that small word. "I told her if she could stop for a week, I'd stay. I didn't want it to be an ultimatum, a threat like that, but she wasn't listening to anything else; I was worried, and...pretty desperate." Tara shook her head disappointingly at the next turn of events. "She couldn't even last a day. Instead she did that spell on everyone. So we'd forget. She m-manipulated my mind. Twice, without having any idea why it was wrong."

Her eyes were angry, yet another side Buffy hadn't seen. "When I left the house, it wasn't to teach her a lesson or to get her to quit casting--she already had that chance. It was for me. Coming to Sunnydale, I swore I w-wouldn't let somebody control me that way again. Not...after my dad." She smoothed out a wrinkle in her dress before resuming. "I'm happy Willow's doing what she's doing, but it should only be for herself. Her body absorbed lots of dark energy; once she finishes getting rid of it, she has to find a place to learn. Magick's part of her, she has to want to take the time to respect it, or she'll never..."

"Can't you--?"

"I can't be with her, Buffy. As much as I'd love to give in sometimes, and wish we weren't--"

"No, not..." The slayer got hung up on what words to use, and decided not to use any, bypassing it altogether. "Can't you tutor her? 'Friend' tutor?"

Tara silently apologized for jumping to conclusions, and had the grace to look sheepish. "Spending time with an experienced coven is her best choice. When she's ready."

"Does she know all that?" Buffy wondered. "Because she's one hundred percent magick-free, and isn't the keenest on bippity-boppity-booing. Past the cleansing period, or ever. No offense." The Cinderella reference sort of snuck in there.

"The Fairy Godmother's a positive role model--plus just a nice, old lady. So none taken." The three-dimensional witch said of the two-dimensional one, smiling. After a moment, returned to the matter at hand. "Willow probably doesn't. Know."

"She needs to, then. You should tell her." The Chosen One stared in a manner reserved usually for demons. A stare that said she wasn't backing down. "Everything." Thought. "Hey--at my party next week. You're coming, she's coming..."

She identified with Tara, she didn't begrudge the woman her choices, and had gained a good deal more respect for her tonight to go along with what'd been there. But Willow remained her best friend despite tough times, and she deserved to have all the facts, so she could try moving on as well. Short-term heart breakage was a sad side effect.

"We'll talk." Tara assured, then seized an opportunity. "That reminds me, Dawn thinks she found you the perfect present; she keeps saying how excited she is whenever we're out. I bet she-she'd give away a couple hints if you asked."

Ooh. Clever. Respect kept on climbing. Like that little man in the Price Is Right game.

"Okay, that's fair." Buffy accepted, ruefully. "I'm not in the running for the 'Bestest Big Sister of 2002' award. If there's a top fifty, I'm overshooting last place by a continent, and won't even rank this year."

"The year just started"

The blonde's eyes widened in disbelief, and her voice was laced with a tone Tara couldn't nail down. "Uh, remember that meltdown about an hour and a half ago? I'm pessimistic now. Terminally." Sighing, her mask withered. "Dawn wants me to be her sister: her never dead, never resurrected sister. But I don't know where that person is, and when Dawn wants to hang out and bond, I'm scared she'll talk to the unrecognizable substitute instead.

"I don't want that. I'm sorry she's upset, but it's better than the alternative." She pondered that. "Unless the alternative was Joan. She seemed to like Joan. Heck, I liked Joan--she was 'Older Buffy' without the five years of negativity build up, cause they were a downer. And she was perkier, don't forget. Naïve, but perkier." Before she succumbed to regret, she held it in for Tara's sake. To her, Willow's spell wasn't a violation. It was a welcome dream. "Joan isn't the alternative, though. The real one? That's hard to recognize? She feels ugly. Inside'n'out."

"Dawn doesn't need protection." Tara countered with her rebuttal. "She needs to feel useful, to know she matters. You don't have to share all the details with her, but trust her to handle the basics--she's grown up fast."

"Then why's she act so childish?" That was blunt. And snappish to a person who didn't deserve it. Buffy bit her tongue in penance. "Wasn't directed at you. It just...came out. Plus I think it was rhetorical." She trudged onward. "Even if I thought she could deal, I can't. First I hafta explain who I am to...whoever I am."

Tara was probably looking for a different result, one where she rose above her issues and decided to see Dawn in a new light. Buffy was conscious of how selfish she seemed, but it wasn't as if she enjoyed being lost to herself. She believed she would be no good to friends or family, until "Buffy" resurfaced. How to achieve that was a mystery to her, though the person she shared bench space with, had that even more mysterious idea.

"That's what morning's for." Tara didn't press her on Dawn. "Well, as a start. If-if it doesn't work, we'll try something else." A wordless stretch of crickets and car engines signaled that the evening had naturally run its course. She stood. "I should..."

"Leave me to avoid Willow?" Buffy queried with faux-innocence. "In case she comes home early?"

"An-and to let you get s-some sleep." Tara wasted zero time in adding. "I know you're tired."

The slayer had taken baby steps. She generally hated complaining to anyone other than herself about her problems; she dealt in private, sparing her friends to keep up the facade of strength. But Tara being Tara, angst was brought out with ease, and didn't make her feel weak. She wouldn't call this experience "cathartic" per se, because she wasn't exactly lighter and re-energized, but unleashing her dark secret and not being crucified for her actions was the first hurdle she had to clear.

Recovery wasn't guaranteed, but by choosing Tara, the odds had improved. She'd managed an intelligent decision--good omen? Or wishful thinking?

"You're right. I'm pooped." Came the agreement, and she pointed to her vocal chord area. "Don't have any 'heavy-talk' left in here."

"So go inside, go to bed...and dress warm tomorrow."

The shorter blonde smiled. "Want me to walk you?"

"To the driveway?" The witch said, mirthfully. "I'm sure I'll find it." While her friend blushed at the silliness of the offer, she had one more thing to say. "But, Buffy? You are absolutely not ugly; please don't believe that about're-you're beautiful."

Blushing carried on, but was tempered with being flattered. "From a 'friend' viewpoint, or a 'gay woman' viewpoint?"

Tara's half-grin, more enigmatic than usual, more than she even realized, claimed her face muscles again. "Good night."

"Night, Tara." She'd do her the courtesy of not pressing, either.

Buffy watched her disappear around the side of the house, listened to the car pull away, and sat under the stars a couple more minutes before greeting her mattress with a bona fide, happy sensation that went straight to the bone; she was alone, yet the fire hadn't been completely snuffed. Encouraged by that, she banked on her internal clock wanting to go off in time for Tara, so she didn't bother with the alarm. Or the water.

Meanwhile, on the drive back to campus, Tara puzzled over what hell-spawn had possessed her back there, because she didn't seriously do that of her own volition.

Part Two

"The beach?" Buffy said with some confusion as Tara brought her car to a stop the next morning. "I was expecting a giant mountain with a monastery at the top. Or Disneyland."

"I don't think it's open." The driver pointed out, hoping her passenger wasn't too let down.

The slayer countered with, "Well, factor in the driving time, and by when we got there it would be. Ooh, and if you have a VIP pass, they let you in before everyone else." Then she had to dejectedly concede a sad truth. "Which I don't have. Yet. But someday." Unbuckling her seatbelt, she took a deep breath. "So...the beach it is." Her gloved hand reached for the door handle.

"Don't forget your coffee." Tara removed the Espresso Pump cup from the car's holder, and gave it to her company.

"If I'da known 'make coffee' meant 'buy coffee,' I would've given you money. Shoulda told me." Buffy blew through the lid's "drinking hole" to cool the liquid off. "Cause one of us obviously has a really sad grasp of the English language. Or, best case scenario, an out-of-date dictionary. With missing pages. That starts with 'Zork' and hasn't even heard of the letter G."

"We had a coffee machine in the common room, but when I woke up, it wasn't working."

"Or that. How scary's it gonna get later?"

"Um, well...the people who brought their own from home better have strong doors. And maybe a-a good spot to pray."

"So, caffeine-deprived, zombie madness." The petite blonde stated casually, following her friend outside and closing the door behind her. "Too bad. It's my day off." She took a sip. "Wow. That's perfect. And not just kind of. To a T."

Tara smiled, somewhat proudly, at Buffy's surprised look. "When we had 'Greek Art' last year? You'd usually bring a cup to class, and have three, sugar packets and a cream stuffed in your pockets. I guess I...j-just remembered."

"Yeah. To a T. Okay, that's my phrase of the day." With one step they were off the gravelly parking lot, and touching sand. They passed through a section of tall grass that exited onto the main beach, quietly consuming coffee until, "Let me pay you back for this."

"Sure, I could," Tara began, turning up the collar on her long, brown, wool coat and half-grinning, "but then today would be completely ruined."

Eye roll. "What's the plan exactly?"

"The, uh, first part? Treating you." 'Like a human being.' Her brain added. "And I, you know, like my plan. A lot." The wicca's mind was set. "Save your money, Buffy."

"Fine." Smile. "But next time we switch."

For some reason neither could place, hearing that sentence silenced them again. Arms across her chest, Buffy listened to seashell fragments crunch under Tara's boots, glad she'd followed the witch's wise instructions. Her leather jacket, white scarf, gloves and black, knit-cap fought off the early morning chill nicely. Despite red hues coloring the sky, the sun refused to heat them, still not having risen above the horizon.

Tara's coat took advantage of every, last button, acting as a snug shield. One hand rested in a pocket, leaving the other to hold her beverage. They were bare--she didn't use as many layers as her friend. A friend who would've been freezing. But she seemed content. Even more, she seemed radiant, long hair blowing lightly in the breeze like it was. With that quality going for her, Buffy guessed UV was sort of redundant.

Soon they were standing just shy of the encroaching and receding water, blue ocean before them, getting a big whiff of salt. "Phew." The slayer uttered, crinkling her nose. "Don't get me wrong, this is doing wonders for my sinuses, but other than that..."

"That's not the reason we came." Smirk. "Not that clear sinuses aren't totally important."

Buffy suddenly found herself listening to a lack of environment. There was no sound. The water's motions wouldn't make a whisper, and the commonplace noise of seagulls apparently wasn't so commonplace this morning. After a few minutes she turned around to view the beach, then swiveled her head to Tara, and the odd sense of déjà vu that bugged since leaving the car, forced her to sit down before she fell down. So she did, right on the sand. What did this remind her of?

"What's wrong?" Tara asked concernedly, crouching down beside her.

Blink. "Huh? Oh. Nothing. 'Mummy hand' moment." That was now the slayer's shorthand for every time she felt like she'd done something before. Except she immediately retracted her brush off, even though it had felt ridiculous. But then again, there was no "embarrassment worry" with Tara. "Or...maybe nothing. I'm remembering being someplace with you. I think. Someplace like here. And it was...I dunno." She let out a frustrated "grr." "Ignore the unstable slayer; her and reality aren't chatty today."

"Thank god." The witch's reaction brought forth a pained frown from Buffy. "N-no, this is why we came. More or less." She had her confirmation; the experience hadn't been hers alone, which was a long-delayed comfort. "Before anything else, I thought we n-needed to talk about it. We probably should've a long time ago, but it didn't...feel right."

"Talk about what?"

"When I was borrowed."

That was it. Recollection now spilled from Buffy's lips easily, the details coming to her in quick flashes. "Desert, anti-social first slayer, cheese guy with shaky symbolism..." She drew in a surprised breath. "That was really you? In my...? Get out."

"I wanted to; because she didn't, ask exactly." Tara moved from the crouch to a full on, Indian-style sitting position facing her friend. "I-I was just there, and what she made me tell you--"

"That slayers make great loner-types?" Came the rhetorical question. "Kinda not wrong."

"Maybe. But you chose not to just accept her history like the others did; you've kept people by your side. It's-it's brave, and smart, and right. Nobody should ever be alone." The arguably more stable twenty-something echoed her words from last night. "I hated being f-forced to say those things. I didn't believe any of it, and still don't."

Buffy could have replied with how she preferred solitary away-ness from her friends now, right or wrong, but that would've just been rehashing, doing neither of them any good. She also could have declined what sounded like an apology, telling Tara it wasn't her fault that she was hijacked and used by her primal relative, but that would've only dredged up the witch's history of being used and manipulated, again serving no purpose.

Instead she only asked, "Were you in Willow's dream, too? I mean, you were together at the time and sort of, uh, connected."

"If I was, it's because she dreamt me up, the way it's, usually supposed to happen. But it wasn't really me." Pause. "I was actually put in yours. I shouldn't remember it, but I do...every moment. And I'm s-sure I wouldn't have even made a crinkle in your regular dreams. I definitely wouldn't have been--"

"--real. Except you were. Because, hey, my insomnia would've been more normal than the 'sleeping' that night. To a freakishly scary degree." The slayer said, wryly. "Okay, so...why you? We barely spoke to each other back then. Why not Janet Reno? Or Dorothy Hamill?"

"I guess they were busy?" Smart-alecky Tara was something Buffy still had to get used to, and she could only roll her eyes again. "Dorothy Hamill?"

"I went through an 'ice-skating' phase. When your parents are falling apart, it's a good distraction; there should be an ad campaign. And now that I'm thinking, it probably would've been a healthier, less stressful one than the currently--that has a big, 'unhealthy violence and death' theme." The lost hero laughed hollowly at that, disbelieving how far she'd gone astray. "How's 'hindsight' work again?"

For what must have been the trillionth time, she fought the black mood as best she could. Had to focus on rebounding. For the next, several minutes both females watched the sun rise, feeling those first rays light their faces. Out on the ocean, the water sparkled, leaving Tara awed. Not for the first time, either. Buffy's reaction, however, amounted to indifference. Her mind knew that what she was seeing was beautiful, but her heart just didn't seem to care. Which was sad.

"This is what I wanted to show you." Tara eventually revealed, though her eyes were still focused beyond. "I know it's not what you were hoping for, and it might seem a-a little silly, but every morning I feel like I don't know why I should get up? I come here. When you have to face pretty horrible things almost every day, eventually it can hurt so much, the horrible things are all you start to notice.

"But here, or...out-out there, I mean," She gestured to the big, blue vastness that was the ocean, "always makes me think of The Lion King, and it, um, gives me perspective."

"They lost me after Beauty and the Beast." Buffy responded, rather confused as to where this was going.

"Oh." The blonde witch had thought that reference would explain it all, but it looked like she was going to have to plow through. "Well there's this song in it, called 'Circle of Life'? Which is kind of what the whole movie's about. This cute, lion cub..." She stopped herself quickly, because the movie itself wasn't the point. "And I should really finish the example I started with." She laughed at herself, wishing she'd written something down to make this easier.

"M'still onboard." The slayer assured her, putting a hand on her knee. "Don't worry, the concept sounds vaguely familiar. Life and death as a big cycle, stuff dies so other stuff can live...right?"

Tara nodded, very conscious of the hand touching her, even if it was gloved and over fabric. "All that's happening under the water. She doesn't realize it, but right now a fish is eating algae to get bigger and stronger so it can feed another fish, who can go feed his family; but first she'll have laid her eggs, and one day they'll hatch, then it'll start all over again. When you only look at the poor, mother fish, you never see the rest.

"It's sad that she gets gobbled, except that that lets everything else keep surviving. We're more complicated, yes...but I-I guess what I'm trying to say, is even though it seems bad now--and it wasn't 'til Sunnydale that I honestly understood--there are reasons. As long as you're willing to learn what the sad parts hafta teach, the happy parts do come back. Maybe not exactly the same, but, what doesn't change?"

Buffy worked that all around in her brain, as she drank more coffee. "So I need to believe there's a bigger picture and a light at the end of a tunnel, even if I can't see either of those things?"

"Yep." Okay, so her explanation took the winding route. But at least Buffy got the point. Now came the answer. "But I'll try to do my part. I think the reason the First Slayer chose me to be in your dream, is because she knew that I'm supposed to g-guide you, and took advantage." This felt like a nice juncture for her own coffee break.

The petite young woman wasn't surprised by Tara's theory. It fit--not in any way that could be rationally spoken aloud to anyone of course, but a definite intangible vibe existed. The first hint of it, if she thought back, was when she sat with the witch in the hospital on the day of her mother's death. It was a unique feeling then too, that the person beside her could somehow see her through the pain; that she understood before a word even got out. Not because there'd been a shared experience of loss, though there was, but because she was just...meant to.

She kind of dismissed it at the time, especially because it wasn't long after that Tara was taken from them by Glory.

Smiling, she again assured her friend that she wasn't alone in her thoughts. "Sure you want the job? Not that I don't appreciate the mystical whatever-they-ares for hiring you, but most of the time I'm like that guy who got stuck pushing that huge boulder up the hill and never stops."

Tara stood, and replied as she helped Buffy up. "I'm okay with pushing--more muscle-y than I look."

"Funny, so am I." They went further down towards the tide, and walked along right where it began to recede. As they did, Buffy considered her ancient predecessor, leading to something finally clicking, and she breathed, "Damn."

"What?" The witch asked.

"The First Slayer. That's who I feel like these days. A demon warrior girl, who forgot how to be normal, and wants to shove 'Buffy' completely out of the way." Voicing that revelation, her brow furrowed concernedly. "And that might be literally." It went a long way towards explaining her present routine and attitude.

Maybe it even explained Spike to an extent.

"Then we shove back and kick her ass." Tara's toughness and mildly-blue language emerged because her friend's realization meant that her choice for a first step bore fruit, which made her think that maybe she could really be there for her companion.

Buffy found herself laughing, and even catching a bit of the enthusiasm--she considered dubbing it, "The Tara Effect." "What's next then, Zagat?"

"You want me to recommend a restaurant?" That headed toward "dating" territory again.

The slayer turned red at her flop of a joke. "See? She's killed my punning ability! It's getting hopeless."

"Small steps, sweetie." Tara told her, and after finishing off her coffee, she linked their arms in support. "But, next is the party. It'll let you relax and just be with your family, which'll be good for you."

"And have cake and presents." The smaller blonde added. "I remember 'Buffy' liking cake and presents."

"That too." The taller grinned while Buffy swallowed the last of her coffee as well.

A few more feet passed before they decided to turn back to go to the car, though Buffy had one more thing to ask. " did Sunnydale prove to you that badness has a reason? Because in this town? Usually 'badness' doesn't need a reason for occurring. It just does."

Tara prepared her words carefully. "If my father and my-my brother treated me better, if my mom didn't teach me a-about magick, if she didn't...die when she did," Just because she saw the bigger picture now, the events that crafted it didn't hurt any less, "I wouldn't have left home. I wouldn't have met Willow, I wouldn't have loved her, and I'd probably still believe I was a demon. I also wouldn't have been made a Scooby, or been able to help keep people safe. Buffy, when you accepted me, wh-when you all did, that was th-the best day of my life. I never thanked you for that."

Well that solidified the slayer's understanding pretty handily. "Don't have to. You're kind, awesome, and slightly quirky--which, plus. You belong with us, Tara; all I did was make it official. But I'm thanking you." She said, with eyes that wanted no argument. "For this morning, and future mornings. I'm lucky t'have you to turn to, and the quiet strolling nice." Considering they weren't done yet. "Even though I'm still not past the dead, mama fish and picturing the ocean as 'that deep, soggy place you drown in,' I do get the philosophy. Hopefully someday soon we'll share."

An embarrassed wicca said the only thing she could say. "You're welcome." Back at the car, however, she had recomposed. "Before I drop you off at the house, how about I treat you to breakfast? I know a great diner that's open this early."

"Hah! 'Zagat' a T. Knew it'd pay off." Buffy sighed contentedly as Tara giggled. "Hey, silver lining."

-Bath, England, Present-

Night had fallen. They spent half the day talking with Tara, not wanting to let her out of their sight. Buffy still didn't, which was why she sat beside the witch on her living room couch, in front of the active fireplace, wide-awake. Everyone else--with the noticeable exception of Kennedy and Willow--had gone to sleep. Her sister's head rested in Tara's lap, and Dawn snored away contentedly.

"I can't believe how--" Tara began to utter.

Buffy finished for her. "--taller, prettier and more trendy than me she's gotten? Thanks for pointing that out." Mock-glare. "But legally, she has six more months of 'jailbait' status, so watch it."

Tara blushed crimson. "You kn-know I'd never..."

"I do--again, teasing." The petite blonde grinned broadly--she missed Tara so much. Then came the unmistakable sound of Willow moaning from upstairs. "Which Kennedy apparently stopped doing." They were both blushing now. "Can't say no to a tongue-stud...s'what I hear, anyway." Literally.

"Wow." Willow's ex was rather impressed.

Throat clearing. "Wanna go to the kitchen? Away from the acoustic happies of comfort-sex?"

Nodding readily, Tara eased herself off the couch so as not to wake Dawn. She put a pillow under the girl's head, then took the blanket draped over the back of the couch, and laid it over her. Around Tara, Buffy noticed a transformation in her sibling. Willow was like another sister, but Tara had always been a surrogate mother to Dawn.

Buffy gripped Tara's hand, and gave one, last look up at the ceiling. "That's why Xander lives back in the basement."

Well, that was partially true. He also had his workshop down there. It was his sanctuary of maleness in a house full of women. Women he cared deeply for, but he needed a space to call his own. Where sounds had to pass through two floors and died before reaching him, meaning he could get his necessary Zs.

The witch stifled laughter with her unoccupied palm, and they headed to the kitchen. Wasn't anything overly fancy about it, it just was larger than Buffy's in Sunnydale, giving more room to maneuver during the breakfast and dinner rushes. Crossing its threshold, Tara wondered, "Have any hot chocolate?"

"Practically always." The slayer smiled again, enjoying the déjà vu. She realized then, that to get the drinks, she'd have to sacrifice her hold on Tara. "Hmm. K, promise me you aren't, like, 'The Touchable Ghost of Groundhog Day' now, and won't disappear, and I'll let go." Her tone was light, her eyes serious.

"I promise." Tara spoke sincerely, but her friend remained hesitant. "Everything I said's the truth, Buffy. I wouldn't come here and lie to everyone. To Dawn." Her voice got softer. "Especially not to you--not af-after everything you've been through. I promise." She squeezed her hand, and then slowly smirked. "Besides, you um, would've been able to tell if I did. I'm pretty b-bad at telling stories."

"Remind me to let you meet Andrew." Buffy said sardonically, and their hands separated.

She went to gather the teapot, while Tara asked, "Mugs?"

"Top left." Buffy pointed to the cabinets as she filled at the sink.

The returned woman moved to grab a couple. "Um, so...w-why is it comfort sex?" When Buffy looked at her with a "huh?" expression, she gestured upwards, "Willow and Kennedy."

Cough. "Oh, uh, I-I dunno. It was just a guess." Buffy replied. "I mean, she went all 'Uber-Bad' and killed Warren, because he killed you. Spent a long time coming back from that, and she knows how wrong it was, but I think part of her probably still justified an, 'eye-for-an-eye' way." She sat the pot on the stove and turned on the burner. "But now you're alive again, and, she might be feeling...not so justified anymore." Beat. "She'll be okay, though; Kennedy's been great to her. In bed and out of."

Tara frowned some, thinking about Willow going through that guilt because of her, but it turned into a bit of a smile. "I knew she'd find someone." She sat the mugs on the counter beside the oven, then guessed where the packets were.

"Kennedy kinda found her. All signs pointed to 'rebound.'" Buffy smirked, leaning back against the counter to face Tara--who guessed right--while the water heated. "Shows how much I understand relationships."

She watched Tara retrieve the milk carton from the fridge, place it by the mugs, and then empty the cocoa mix into them. It was still sinking in that yes, Tara was genuinely here. Though embarrassed when she saw she had an audience, Tara half-grinned regardless. Hazel eyes darted away. They were right next to each other.

"So you believe me? About what happened?" Tara needed to be sure.

Buffy's gaze refocused. "Believing isn't the issue. You could tell me puppies are gonna cause the next apocalypse, and there'd be no questioning." There was zero trace of a joke in there. "But it's like you said. After everything--the First showing up wearing the faces of people we cared about, and knowing resurrections have steep downsides--I keep expecting the other shoe. 'Cause when you don't, that's usually when it drops on your head." Tara's case was different, but still. "Tara, you being here is," Body-relieving sigh, "honestly? The next, best thing to getting my mom back. The universe is being nice...since when is the universe nice?"

"Well, it wasn't the universe really. Cordelia's the only reason the chance."

That alone made the slayer's head spin. "I wish I coulda known her, post-high school." Her grateful smile had a dash of regret as well. She'd only heard tales of the ex-cheerleader's maturity--had never seen it. News was, Cordelia died in her sleep a week ago; she hadn't ever emerged from a mystical coma. "Wish I coulda thanked her, too."

"I w-won't ever say it enough, but, I have every day." Tara revealed. "She gave up her life so I could have mine back."

Both reabsorbed the weight of that for a moment.

"The Lion King' was a very wise movie." Buffy spoke first, suddenly remembering the "Circle" talk, and it clearly applied.

Tara remembered too, chuckling. "Yeah."

In the lull following, each became aware of their relative closeness, and Buffy found herself spontaneously hugging Tara for the fifth or sixth time today (she'd lost count), and Tara made it mutual for the fifth or sixth time. Neither of them could help it; it was almost a pull, a need to stay in contact. Might've been their bodies way of not letting them put off what, in hindsight, they shouldn't have a couple years ago.

The women were in the miraculous position to have another shot, so mid-hug, Buffy just came out with it. "All right--somebody hasta start kissing somebody, here."

-Sunnydale, March 2003-

Willow was standing over the Summers' living room couch, folding the household laundry and placing it back in the basket, which Buffy sat opposite of. Considering the household was packed with a bunch of teenaged girls who had the potential to become the next "Chosen One," the pile was a bit on the "immense" side. However, the chore was "everyday" and relaxing, and it allowed she and Buffy to talk; something they didn't really get a chance to do anymore.

Buffy had a date with her boss tonight. He was principal of the new Sunnydale High, and all reports were, he seemed cool and pleasant. The problem was, he could be evil, as his office was situated right over the Hellmouth. So this first date was half-motivated by wanting to have a nice evening, and half-motivated by wanting to uncover any possible threat. Willow had already had her first date. With Kennedy, the oldest Potential.

It ended disturbingly, whereby she was forced to become and confront Tara's killer. Through Kennedy's help, she did, and the healing process continued. Felt like she'd turned a corner. She'd made her peace and finally moved on--they were a couple now.

Tara had broken up with her long before she was killed, but Willow hadn't really put herself out there again. As a result, when the tragedy occurred, Willow snapped more than she might have. She lost herself in dark magick, and it escalated beyond revenge--she'd very nearly destroyed the world. Thank god for Giles and Xander, who both worked in their own ways to bring her back from the brink.

After it was over, she heeded Giles' advice (advice Tara had given months prior), and went with him to England where she trained with a Coven over the summer. But this wasn't about her personal trials and tribulations. This was about her best friend's date.

"Buff, if he's really interested," Willow said with an excited smile, "are you interested back?"

Blush. "I don't know." Buffy hadn't given it much thought from her end. "He's good-looking, and he's-he's solid, he's smart, he's normal. So, not the wicked energy, which is nice 'cause I don't want to only be attracted to wicked energy. Or what if he is wicked, in which case, is that why I'm attracted to him?"

"I'm gonna wait for that sentence to come around again before I jump on." The redhead quipped. "But if he gets all check-pluses in the 'Not Evil' column, why wouldn't you be? You haven't dated since Riley. Oughta get back on the horsie." The slayer didn't respond--she seemed lost in her head somewhere. "Didcha notice how I totally skipped over Spike?"

"Why's everyone in this house...?" Buffy began exasperatedly, but trailed off. She wanted to date, had been wanting to. Had a person in mind and everything, only that ship sailed. She probably shouldn't say these next, several sentences, because it could damage a long-standing friendship, but Willow was the only one who'd understand. "Will, I...I wouldn't because, uh, there's this problem where...he isn't Tara."

"Who is?" Willow asked rhetorically, and then dropped the socks she was holding. "Wai...huh?"

Buffy reached down for the socks that had escaped, and picked at them so she wouldn't have to look Willow in the eye. "Y'know how she was helping me find, um, me, last year?" The witch nodded mutely, but she didn't see it. "First I thought it was a 'patient/psychiatrist crush' type deal--and it's sad that that's the best analogy--but, after Riley blew back into town and I ended things with Spike, and started to feel...connected again, how I was feeling about Tara didn't leave. It set up shop.

"Got to where, if she wasn't in my day at some point, the day fell short of 'good.'" Willow had been there. "Was happy just being in the same room. Didn't even hafta talk. But I could forever when we did, and-and her hugs...god. 'Tara Hugs.'" The blonde looked at the redhead, then. "I might maybe have possibly been sort of somewhat in love with her. And it's kinda continuing."

"Oh." Came Willow's even more dumbstruck reaction. "Really?"

"Yep. Really." Buffy echoed, still not able to gauge how this was being taken. "Never acted on, though. You were deep in the 'coping' stage, and it just...would've been a bad. Plus, 'awkwardness' loves piggybacking on rejection, which I didn't wanna risk." She exhaled. "The general plan was, once stuff settled and you had somebody new, we'd have a conversation almost exactly like this, you'd say it was okay, and I'd ask her out.

"Then, dinner at the most upscale-sounding place my wallet could afford, wearing my most expensive-looking outfit. And the night'd go great--a.k.a., 'be normal.' As defined by every dictionary not made in Sunnydale." Wasn't exactly a surprise that her perfect date was simple. "Finally capping with--"

"Smoochies?" Willow completed, beginning to grin. "From 'Tara Lips'?" She let herself remember how it felt, closing her eyes. "Kennedy'll kiss for hours, but Tara knew how to make just one? Feel like hours."

Buffy pouted, not doubting that. "At Xander and Anya's not-wedding? With the dresses that were probably designed by a colorblind, Slurnix demon?" She sidetracked a moment. "Ooh, hey...'cause they hermit in yak butts and only need an air-refill every other decade, bet that explains the style-impairment." The redhead blanched at the visuals she was seeing. "Anyway, Tara? Yeah, still looked amazing...she looked amazing in pretty much anything."

Willow was going to concur, but then she started giggling. "We-we should ask Anya if the demon looked like a yak-ass."

That got Buffy going. It couldn't be verified, but its likely there was a snort or two in the mix. Why? Who knows? It wasn't that funny.

After collecting themselves, Buffy dried her eyes with a sock and asked, "How come no yelling at?"

"Because she was super easy to fall in love with." Willow replied now that the surprise was over, but looked grumpily at the used sock. "Can't blame you." The smitten look on the blonde's face was all-too-familiar. "Sure, seeing her with anybody who wasn't 'me-shaped' woulda been hard, but Tara happy and you happy? All I ever wanted. And if that meant two of my most favorite people being together, then woo."

Seeing Buffy smile a smile of both gratitude and "What could've been," and seeing peepers well up, Willow moved to embrace and comfort her friend. "No, no crying. 'Cause then I definitely will, and...and then all our socks are gonna be soggy. Nobody likes soggy socks."

Buffy laughed thickly into the redhead's shoulder. "Nothing wrong with 'Willow Hugs,' either."

"Well, I practice lots." Willow joked, pulling back, and scooching next to Buffy on the couch. "I want her to be here too, Buffy. She...she was Tara." And that was plenty explanation. "Now I don't get to tease, or-or coach..." The slayer's eyebrows went up-- 'Coach?' "She woulda felt so lucky, and it woulda been so fun."

"That's what my imagination was hoping. Shame the universe has a policy about sucking at the worst times ever." Buffy griped, beginning to visibly mope and be the quiet masochist she was at her core.

The universe was just a stand-in, so Willow wouldn't know where she truly rested the blame. Shame her face sold her out.

"Jump off the 'guilt train'; as soon as like, this second." Willow's face quickly bore her honed look of resolve. "I'm writing the conductor an angry email. In all caps. Wait'll he sees how emphatic my text is." Then just as quick, her features softened. "It wasn't your fault. It wasn't anybody's fault except mysonystic Warren's, and whoever taught him being like that was neato." Pause. "Trust me--learned the tough way."

"Willow, if I caught him at the amusement park, or wasn't out back when Xander came by to talk...if-if I hadn't asked her to move back in..."

Sigh. The witch had been friends with Buffy long enough to realize nothing she said could change her mind, so she tried a different tack. "Know what she'd tell you?"

Buffy certainly did. "To stop. Because life's full of 'tragic'n'unfair,' no matter what we do. But I hafta keep reminding myself that reasons exist for why."

"Also that you're a dummy."


The petite blonde understood that Tara dying sent Willow over the edge, which was the thing that brought "Buffy" one-hundred percent back. She felt fear, and worry, and love for her friend. All thought was about wanting to help. Willow survived, and needing her "veiny self" to never appear again finally got her taking the extra step towards the Coven. Facing her problem instead of pretending it was something she could quit.

So fine, there reasons were. But why'd Tara's death need to be the catalyst? Why that extreme? And the purely selfish part of Buffy was stuck on why they couldn't have just been given a chance.

-Bath, England, Present-

Turns out, the answer was because an unlikely messenger for the Powers had given them one now. No, Buffy didn't think Cordelia's sacrifice was driven by a desperate, last wish to play matchmaker from on high or anything, but nevertheless, it did open a door that would've otherwise stayed permanently locked. Better late than a lifetime of never.

If Buffy had been in Cordelia's situation, just meeting Tara and learning the circumstances of her death would've made the decision all that much easier. Though she'd admit to carrying a hefty bias around. That was getting weightier and weightier, because Tara was kissing her. Just the way Willow said.

She didn't take the act of, for granted. Nor was there rushing--every second got used up to its fullest. Tara took as much care with kissing as she did everything else; it was about giving, making the kissee feel how much they were loved. Slow, calming and constant, maximizing all possible points of lip contact. And it spread throughout, until bone-deep, leaving you peace. Big, powerful emotion and the toe-curling physical--undoubtedly worth the wait.

Those not wanting to do Tara's technique justice, might say she kissed like she had all the time in the world, and cliché aside, they'd be mistaken. If shorthand was absolutely necessary, then Buffy would say Tara's technique was that of someone who knew how precious and fleeting the concept was, and how important it was not to waste. In fact, nobody grasped better, given what she'd experienced.

Buffy hadn't expected her to initiate. At least not without warning. Once bearings returned however, she was kissing back, following her fellow blonde's example and lead. Unfortunately, the teapot chose to whistle rather interrupting-ly. The slayer of course made a valiant effort to turn off the stove by reaching blindly behind her for the knob so they didn't have to stop, but the effort was not succeeding.

Irked, she spun away from pleasant lips, turned the knob, and roughly "escorted" the teapot to a burner that wasn't hot. "That's it--rest of my life? I'm vowing to destroy every teapot I lay an eye on; don't see any other choice. They're obviously evil, so its my duty to slay 'em. Violently." During this proclamation, she'd faced Tara again, who was amused as well as nervous. But Buffy's dazed grin, as she seemed to fall right back into the previous moment, wiped the nervousness away. "Fire pretty, tree bad."

Tara smirked, and was a tad pleased with herself. "Sometimes."

Laughter bubbled up out of Buffy, and she smacked her new, hopefully sooner-rather-than-later, girlfriend. "Thank you." Hearing the sincerity in those two words, Tara became bashful. "'Course, everything's happening totally backwards, but I don't exactly mind adjusting. There're worse ways to screw up a plan."

"I forgot," The witch lightly touched Buffy's arm, "you wanted to go to dinner."

"Yeah, I...hey." Before Buffy made it very far into her reply, she realized something didn't add up. "How'd you know that? You weren't even..." Then it came to her. "You watched us, didn't you? When you were being...higher being-y."

"There wasn't, um, much else to do." Tara attempted to look shamed for, in essence, spying, but she couldn't quite muster it. "And it's why I said yes when Cordelia came. I wanted to at least be able to see everyone. Eve-even if I couldn't be there."

"You know, now that I'm mulling, s'very 'Tara.' Selfless, considerate, sweet." Buffy was most assuredly love's bitch. Thing was, she didn't find anything negative about that. Their hands found each other yet again. "But wasn't it hard to leave? Or...oh. Was your heaven dimension defective?"

Tara shook her head. "Nope. It was nice, just--"

Dawn walked sleepily into the kitchen right then, somehow remarkably perceptive after her once-over of the blondes. "I knew it."

The elder sister's eyes rolled at the younger, who Tara turned to acknowledge. "You knew squat."

"Did so." The brunette retorted, and then spotted the mugs. "Can I have some?"

"Sorry, strictly a 'Date' batch. For people on dates. Like me. And Tara. Finally." Buffy deprived, and saw Tara's curious glance out of the corner of her eye--the witch wasn't aware that what they were doing had such a label. "Go with it."

"Geez, sorry, Tara." Dawn addressed her with a frown, shaking her head.

"What for?" Tara quizzically wondered.

"For my sister." The frown morphed into a wry grin. "Being so-not-unbelievably cheap."

Buffy's jaw set. "One, I'm 'thrifty'." She corrected, emphasizing the distinction. "Two, the blizzarding? Outside? Had to improvise. And three, why aren't you asleep?"

"Teapot woke me up."

Tara really couldn't believe this older Dawn. "But upstairs didn't?" Referring to the now quieting utterances of alternative, sexual bliss.

"No way--I had a room down the hall from you and Willow for half a year, almost. Became like, my lullaby." Dawn kept going, unaware at first of Tara's crossed arms and a stare that got continually more disapproving. "Besides, you guys were way louder. It was freaking n..." Dawn heard her sister's throat clear, which directed her attention to the blonde witch. "...nothing I oughta be retelling any people ever. Sorry, Tara." She looked sheepish and chastised. "Copied loud'n'clear. Uttingshay upway about really private stuff." Pointed out the way she'd come. "Heh. Whaddaya know? Time for us broken Keys to find our beds. Night, sis."

Buffy smirked and waved. "Night, Dawnie."

Dawn was going to just say the same to Tara and be off, but she ran to her and crushed her waist in a bear hug instead. "I am so-so-so-so-so-so-so-so so happy you're back. I feel like a Disney movie on tainted, designer drugs. Seriously. You have no idea." She felt Tara's hand brush along her hair, and said innocently, "Never thought I'd eat your pancakes again."

The witch smiled. "Ohh...see? Shoulda known there was a motive. All makes sense now." Dawn released her, still looking innocent. "Want me to cook you some for breakfast tomorrow?"

"Yes, please. Funny shapes." Then the teen stared at her sister untrustingly. "If Buffy stops hogging you all to herself and lets the rest of us have 'Tara Time.'"

Buffy's look in return unconvincingly said, 'I have no clue what you're talking about.'

"With me or my food?" Tara could tell the girl thought she was in trouble again, so she took pity on her. "Your nose'll smell 'em soon as you get up in the morning. Sleep cozy."

"You too." Dawn grinned like she expected something to happen when she left. "I'm sure you will. God knows you both dated enough times already."

"Those weren't dates." Buffy and Tara spoke immediately in unison, as if they'd had to tell her that before.

"Whatever." Shrugging at them like it made no never mind to her, she then finally walked out of the kitchen.

"Ready for hot chocolate?" Buffy queried after a noticeable stretch of silence.

Silence they used to consider the younger Summers' words. Those times spent together were to help Buffy. They weren't dates...were they?

Tara didn't want to ask this, but she didn't see any way around it. "Isn't the water probably cold again?"

It had been off the burner even before Dawn came in.

"Damn, evil teapot." Buffy had that "slayerly" gleam in her eye.