Faith was now in a room she did not know, but after a quick look around her, she thought she recognized the place, having heard a lot about it. She was in a shop. Shelves of books and of a lot variety of objects were aligned in front of her. To her right was a counter. Behind her, she could see out a wide windowpane that night had just fallen. A few feet ahead of her, Tara was walking toward a ladder leading upstairs.

They were alone in the magic box and everything was silent except for Tara's footsteps echoing softly in the room. Faith followed her and soon found herself perched on the first floor's balustrade, bending her head over Tara's shoulder. The blonde had grabbed a book on a shelf and was slowly flipping trough the pages, holding a little plant in her right hand as she did so. She looked very focused and worried at the same time, and Faith wondered what kind of monster or apocalypse she was researching. It looked pretty serious if the blonde's expression was any indication.

At last, the witch's flipping came to an end and she stopped at a page where the little plant she held was drawn at the bottom left near a paragraph reading "Lethe's Bramble: Used for augmenting spells of forgetting and mind control". Tara's face clearly crumpled. She did not cry but Faith experienced a pain so intense that she felt as if she had been hit in the stomach. She looked curiously between Tara and the book several times before finally asking:

"What's in the book?"

Tara did not turn to her to answer in a dark tone:

"Betrayal"

At that precise moment, the doorbell rang. Faith turned round and spotted Willow and Buffy coming in. Tara had turned as well and was looking blankly at the redhead. Faith looked between the two of them once or twice, and finally Tara repeated as she closed the book:

"Betrayal"

***

This time, Faith recognized at once the place where she was now standing. The Bronze. The Bronze in good old Sunnydale. Late and crowded on a Saturday night perhaps. She took some time to take in her surroundings, to remember the times when she had herself come here, and for an instant, it felt good to feel like coming home. The moment did not last though, as her eyes met Tara's. The blonde stood right in front of her, with Willow at her side. They were on the balcony above the dance floor, leaning over the railing, and both lovers were staring at the crowd beneath them, obviously looking for someone. Tara looked worried.

"I'll just shift everyone who isn't a fifteen-year-old girl into an alternate dimension." Was saying Willow, cracking what, to Faith, looked like a very proud smile.

"What?" protested Tara in a shocked tone, holding the redhead's wrist as if preventing her from doing something.

"No, it'll be for like a fraction of a second. They won't even notice." Replied Willow casually.

"Will, no, you can't!" insisted Tara, her voice still sounding horrified at the prospect.

"Why?"

"Well, what if something went wrong?" argued the blonde.

"Well, it won't!"

"But w-what would Giles say?"

That did not seem to be the good argument to use. Willow did not answer, and instead turned back to the crowd again and said "Sukut!"

To Faith's astonishment, every noise in the bar died away, leaving the place perfectly silent, although no one but Faith, Willow and Tara seemed to notice, people continuing to dance and the band on stage keeping playing as everything was normal. Apparently satisfied with herself, Willow turned back to Tara and asked in a harsher tone than Faith had expected:

"Are you taking his side now?"

"This isn't about sides." Answered Tara calmly, though Faith could tell she indeed felt very uneasy.

"You two have been talking about me behind my back." Willow went on.

"No! God." Exclaimed Tara, protesting vehemently.

"You know how that makes me feel?" resumed the redhead, as if Tara had not even spoken.

"Willow, you are using too much magic." Finally admitted Tara, trying to reason with her girlfriend. "What do you want me to do, just, just sit back and keep my mouth shut?"

"Well, that'd be a good start."

Tara looked terribly shocked, but Faith could not tell who the most shocked was between the two of them. She had known first hand that Willow could be harsh and cruel and was not only the nice and innocent girl she once appeared to be. But she had also believed that Willow kept her wicked side only for people she thought might deserve it. Like herself. Obviously, Faith had been wrong. And as Tara's hurt expression told her, the blonde had been wrong too about what Willow was capable of. Faith felt her fighting threatening tears back as she cried out:

"If I didn't love you so damn much I would!"

And the blonde turned around and stormed out, hoping somehow that Willow would run after her and beg for her forgiveness. But she did not.

***

Sewers. Dirty cold sewers.

Faith leaned against a wall without thinking but just as her back touched the concrete rock behind her, she abruptly stood straight back and cast the wall an annoyed glance. Only then she noticed the girls lying down at her feet. Tara had her back against the dirty ground while Willow was stretched out over her. They stared intently into each other's eyes and Tara reached out at Willow's face, brushing locks off her face. They both smiled shyly, and Willow bent down very slowly, as if willing to kiss Tara but giving her time to move back if she wanted to. Faith could not help but grin and whistle at the sight.

"God, Tara, I thought you were kind of romantic. There're better places for that sort of things!"

Someone groaned – not in pleasure – and Faith looked up. She noticed Xander getting up a few feet away from the lovers. The young man winced as if he had been hit or had suffered a shock of some sort and he walked forward. As he was taking the second or third step, something cracked under his foot and he looked down, surprised. Faith saw a brief green light appearing and disappearing under Xander's shoe. He stopped moving and appeared to feel a little dizzy for a brief moment. Faith's gaze then came back to Willow and Tara. Willow had stopped her gesture inches from Tara's lips and the look in Tara's eyes had nothing left of the fondness Faith had seen in them just a few seconds before. She moved to get free from Willow and the redhead moved along. They both sat up and looked at each other. Willow looked ashamed and looked down while Tara's expression was somewhere between angry and hurt. Faith did not quite understand why the mood had so suddenly and so dramatically changed. Tara then stood, just when Dawn, whom Faith had not noticed before, came to Xander's side. All three of them were staring at Willow with an expression of anger and disbelief.

"Looks like Red's in trouble." Faith commented.

She saw Willow looking down at her belt and touching something there. Her face crumpled a little as she did not find what she was searching.

"We should get back," said Xander.

He and Dawn did, walking past Willow and Tara and getting away in the sewer. Willow finally stood and looked sadly at Tara but the blonde looked away, refusing to meet her eyes. Without saying a word, Willow turned around and followed Xander and Dawn.

Tara remained alone, and only then, Faith noticed her unusual haircut. She probably would have joked about it if she had not felt so sad all of a sudden. So desperate. So empty. So cold.

The air had strangely become icy and thick. Oppressive.

Tara wrapped her arms around herself and Faith did as well, trying to keep as warm as she could. But any trace of warmth or joy or hope seemed to have vanished off the face of the Earth. Tara started to cry. Not noisy and loud sobs. Just quiet tears rolling slowly down her cheeks and Faith felt her heart wringing at the sight. The blonde then walked to follow the others and Faith felt colder than ever as she passed beside her.

"It's damn cold here," said the Slayer, turning her head to the blonde at her side.

Tara stopped for a brief second and gazed at Faith, eyes tear-filled.

"Not really a welcoming place to be or to come back," she answered.

"What just happened there?" asked Faith, even though she was not really keen on the idea to get Tara to explain, but nevertheless really willing to understand.

"Betrayal" replied Tara coldly. "Ultimate betrayal".

Faith was ready to ask for more details but Tara walked past her. The Slayer looked at her retreating into the sewer up to the ladder leading back into the magic box until she disappeared out of sight.

***

The motel room looked all too familiar to Faith. They all looked familiar she thought as she looked at the white walls, the tiny bed and the spare furniture. This one looked nevertheless quite cleaner than the ones the brunette was used to. But it felt depressing as well.

It was probably exactly that kind of ambiance Tara had been searching by coming here. Sure enough, the blonde was in there. Near the bed, three cardboard boxes were piled up, containing all the witch's belongings. She was sitting on the floor near an old armchair, her back against the wall facing the bed, her legs stretched in front of her, her hands resting on her sides. She was perfectly still and silent, not even sobbing despite the flood of tears pouring down her dirty cheeks.

Faith collapsed into the armchair beside Tara, stretched her legs and crossed her arms behind her head. She looked sideways at Tara from time to time, the blonde just crying softly for a long time before Faith asked:

"Still Willow drama?"

Tara did not answer nor move even a muscle. Faith waited, but minutes passed in silence and she grew impatient.

"Did not know you two were so much into drama," she said.

Still no reaction.

"Kinda thought you would be more like the perfect couple," added the Slayer.

She turned to Tara while saying this but the blonde did not register nor reacted any more than previously. Faith sighed.

"So what? I'm supposed to watch you cry and cry for hours? Days maybe? I get it, y'know, Willow and you weren't that..."

She was interrupted by a soft knock and jerked her head round toward the window. Her eyes widened in surprise and she sat up abruptly. Behind the opened pane stood the unmistakable blonde vampire Spike. She looked at him, jaw-agape for a few seconds before turning to Tara. The blonde appeared to have hardly noticed his arrival and she showed no sign of acknowledgement of his presence. He rolled his eyes and knocked once more.

"You shouldn't leave that window opened Blondie," he said in his typical British accent. "Something dangerous could get in."

Tara quickly wiped away her tears with her sleeves and to Faith's great surprise, she actually answered:

"Something like you?" she said, turning slightly to the window.

Spike grimaced and mimicked an offended look.

"I'm not dangerous anymore, remember?" he asked, gesturing to his head, referring to his chip. "And besides, I can't get in."

"As yourself noted, the window is opened. What on earth could prevent you to get in?" Tara told him, and Faith could not help but notice that she wasn't stuttering at all.

"I am a vampire," explained Spike in a bored tone. "I can't get in if I'm not invited to."

Tara looked around her before staring at him again with an annoyed look on her face.

"I thought vampires needed invitation to get in private places. Does this look anything like home?" spat the blonde bitterly.

Spike looked unsure of what to say for a moment, then he answered in a softer tone than before:

"You've been living here for a few days if I'm not mistaken. So that's your home for now, so I can't get in if you don't invite me."

"And why would I do that?"

Spike raised his right arm and produced a pack of beers.

"To have a drink," he said.

Tara looked puzzled and she shrugged.

"To have a beer with a vampire?" she repeated slowly. "That's your plan?"

Spike got annoyed at Tara's dumbfounded expression and lack of enthusiasm. He gazed pointedly around the room before saying:

"I did not think you had better plans. But I might be wrong. Maybe you're waiting for someone after all."

Tara's face crumpled a little and they stared at each other briefly before she gestured at the window. As Spike did not make a move, the blonde finally breathed:

"Come in,"

"At last," he muttered while pushing the window wide opened and straddling the windowsill.

Tara did not move to greet him but he did not seem to mind. He looked around and glanced at the armchair where Faith had collapsed, obviously considering it as a good option to settle in. The Slayer jumped out of it when she noticed, but finally Spike decided for the floor and flopped down beside Tara. He put down his pack of beers beside him, not on Tara's side and pulled two bottles out of the pack. He opened both and handed one to the witch. Tara turned slightly her head toward him and hesitated. He shot her an annoyed glance and shook the bottle lightly under her nose. She sighed and finally grabbed the handed beer. He smirked and held his bottle to clink it with Tara's.

"To love," he said.

As Tara did not answer, he turned to her, arched an eyebrow and asked, not before swallowing a long mouthful of beer:

"Not drinking to love Blondie?"

She did not reply and considered blankly the bottle in her hand.

"Why are you here?" she interrogated, ignoring his question.

"Told you already," he responded. "To have a drink. I thought you'd be in a mood to have a drink."

"I thought vampires only drank blood."

"Then you were wrong," answered Spike flatly. "We drink blood to feed. But we have nothing against a good pint of something else every once in a while. Plus, having a pint of blood with you? I thought you wouldn't be in."

"Yeah," Tara commented, absent-mindedly. "Probably."

He drank again, not paying much attention to her. He was nearly reaching the very bottom of his first drink when Tara asked again:

"Why are you here?"

"To have a…" he began but the blonde interrupted him, following her train of thoughts:

"Have one of them sent you?"

Seeing Spike's puzzled expression, she tentatively added:

"I mean, Buffy or Dawn or Wi-Willow?"

She had stuttered for the first time, Faith noticed, tripping over her ex-lover's name as the Slayer had heard her doing several times in the past few months.

"I'm sorry to have to disappoint you here," replied Spike. "But I'm here on my own. Did not talk to Buffy since your ex erased all our memories."

He looked away while saying this and Faith could see he was lying. But absorbed in her own thoughts, Tara did not notice anything.

"Oh," she simply whispered.

She remained silent for a while, then, as realization had sunk in, she turned slowly to him and said:

"That's it. That's why you're here."

"Uh?" asked Spike, interrupting his gulping of his second beer.

"Buffy. Because you haven't talk to her in days. You're drinking to your love for Buffy," she looked appalled now. "With me." She sat up.

"So what?" asked Spike with annoyance.

She stared at him silently for a few seconds, and then resumed her position back against the wall.

"You should get over it, Spike." She said in a more detached tone. "She's the Slayer, you're a vampire. Don't you see why she can't love you?"

Tara finished her sentence by finally taking a sip or two at her beer. Spike shrugged and drank as well.

"Lucky you, you didn't live long enough to see B getting all lovey-dovey about him." Faith couldn't refrain herself from commenting.

Tara glared at her.

"Just sayin'," the Slayer added.

Oblivious to the interruption, Spike responded to Tara's question:

"It's not like she never did it before," he pouted. "The loving a vampire thing." He clarified.

"It was different," stated Tara.

"Pff." Grumbled Spike. "And why is that?"

"He has a soul"

"And what about that?" the vampire asked. "Your honey has a soul, didn't help to prevent her from hurting you."

Tara had been ready to answer something before he finished but as the last part sank in, her mouth closed without a sound. The blonde looked so hurt and sad that for a second, Faith felt the burning urge to grab the vampire's head and slam it against the wall behind him with all her might.

"She's not my honey." Tara said harshly, looking away from him as tears threatened to fall again.

She drank frankly at her bottle this time and Spike looked surprised, maybe at her tone, maybe at her drinking, maybe at both.

"You'll find someone else." He tried in a comforting tone.

"Says the vampire stalking a Vampire Slayer," shot back Tara ironically.

"I'm not her stalker," protested Spike.

Tara rolled slightly her eyes in sign of protest but she did not answer anything. They drank again in silence for a moment, Spike finishing off his second then third beer while Tara only started on her second one.

"You never speak about her to anyone, don't you?" suddenly asked the witch without turning to the vampire.

He put his empty bottle away in the pack and grabbed the last remaining beer. Then he turned slowly his head toward Tara and wavered a little before answering:

"Well, not that much," he finally said. "Do you?"

"What?" shot back Tara, "Talking about Buffy?"

He rolled his eyes annoyingly at Tara's pretence of silliness.

"About Willow of course," he croaked.

She shrugged, and the simple evocation of her lover's name filled her eyes with tears again. She looked away and he did too, probably embarrassed. Tara did not notice, but Faith found that odd: Spike was a vampire after all; he should be trying to find a way to eat Tara, not chitchatting with her about how cruel love was. He probably had reached the same conclusion as he suddenly said:

"Good Lord, look at what I've become because of her! I was a feared vampire for dozens of years, I would have eaten you without batting an eye, and here I am, sounding like a girl, talking about love with you! Not exactly how I like to spend my nights."

Eyeing the witch out of the corner of her eye, Faith had the distinct impression that Tara could not care less about Spike's changing mood, so she almost jumped in surprise when Tara angrily snapped:

"What should I say?" the blonde had jerked her head toward him and looked truly at him for the first time since he had come in. "I had a home, a family, someone I loved and respected more than anything, someone I thought loved and respected me as well. I shared with her the most precious gift my mother had left me. And to what end? To be just as controlled and abused as I was all my fucking life until then! I thought I finally had my chance and it all goes to crap! Exactly like my father promised me every time he had the chance! Look at me: do you really think that sharing beers with a vampire in a crappy motel room is what I ever had in mind?"

For a brief moment, Spike looked surprised at the blonde's outburst. But he did not abandon his trademark British composure as he replied:

"Never knew you could get all angry and shouting" he simply said.

As she opened her mouth to add something else, he interrupted her:

"Don't get mad. I get it. We are two poor little things."

He held his beer to his mouth and gestured for her to do the same.

"Let's have a drink," he encouraged. "Beer makes it a better." He paused. "To this crappy evening."

She shrugged once more and glanced absent-mindedly at the bottle between her fingers before clinking it with Spike's.

"To this crappy evening." she concluded dejectedly.

***

Faith appeared in a bedroom bathed in the sweet light of a sunny spring afternoon. She was standing beside Tara, and the blonde looked far much happier than she did previously and probably happier than Faith had ever seen her. The reason to the bright smile on Tara's face was standing right in front of her in the person of Willow. They both looked delighted and after all the tears and suffering she had witnessed, Faith found this new ambiance soothing.

"No more Willow drama at last?" commented the Slayer.

Tara was fondly gazing at Willow while the redhead put away some clothes in a drawer of the dresser. It took Faith some time to recognize Joyce's former bedroom where she had once held Buffy's mother hostage. The memory was soon chased away by Willow's voice:

"Think they're making up?" she asked over her shoulder.

Faith wondered who she was talking about and a quick glance out the window told her the answer: Buffy and Xander were in the backyard.

"I hope so. That's the best part." Replied Tara with that crooked smile of hers.

Faith half-smiled despite herself. But then again, the moment did not last. She heard the window breaking as if it was a long-distant event and felt a searing pain striking her, as if her heart had been ripped out of her chest by a silver clawed hand. Her vision became instantly blurred and the sight of Willow in front of her grew unclear, yet she could only perceive a very red, almost shiny stain on her shirt. Faith's head jerked round toward Tara and she saw the blonde opening her mouth and say something but she was unable to catch the words. She did not have time to feel anything else more than a little surprise before everything turned to nothingness.

***

Tara was sitting on a narrow and empty bed in a little bare room. There was no window on the walls and the only light brightening the room came from the opened door. Except for the bed, there was nothing at all in the room, no other furniture, and no decoration of any kind.

Beside the blonde stood a tall man. His hair was graying and he had a little gray beard and mustache. He wore a maroon monk's robe whose sleeves' ends were decorated with golden borders. He was examining Tara like a doctor would do with a patient. The witch wore a white tunic showing her arms and half her legs. Her feet were bare. She was alarmingly pale and thinner than ever. There were all sorts of adjectives to describe Tara, and thin had never been one of them until that point. The man was manipulating her as she was a doll, raising her arms, turning her head, bending her knees, and she let him do so without showing any sign of reaction. Even when he opened her eyes wide between two of his fingers, she did not move at all.

"Okay," the man said after a long and careful examination. "That'll do it. This is perfect work. I think you're ready to leave."

She looked up at the sound of his voice and her blonde locks moved aside, revealing her emaciated face. She looked blankly at him but he did not appear to notice how empty her gaze was.

"I have a few clothes for you here," he announced, walking out of the room, and seizing a little bag put down near the doorway.

He came back to the bed and handed it to her. As she showed no sign of taking it, he ripped it opened and pulled a white shirt and a pair of blue jeans out.

"You'll find underwear and a pair of shoes in the bag as well," he explained. "It's not much but that will do until you find your friends."

An indescribable glimmer shone in her blue eyes at the mention of her friends, but the light was gone as soon as it appeared.

"Now get dressed, I'll be back in a few minutes."

With that, he strode off the room, leaving the door wide-opened and disappeared in the corridor. His steps echoed during a minute or two before Tara found herself alone in complete silence. She stared at the clothes Gideon had handed her and started to dress like a robot. Every gesture took her a much longer time than necessary, as if she had to think about every single thing she did before actually doing it. When she finally finished tying her shoes very carefully, she sat back on the bed with her hands folded in her lap and waited for Gideon to return. It was not long before the warlock reappeared in the doorway.

"Great," he happily exclaimed when he took sight of Tara fully dressed. "You're doing so really well Miss Maclay, you're making me proud!"

The blonde did not appear to register or to react to his beaming expression and did not move until he came to her side and seized her right arm.

"Come on my dear, it's time to go."

They left the room, Tara slightly at Gideon's side as he held her shoulder. They walked in several bare damp rocky walled corridors, climbed a long spiral staircase before following more corridors whose walls were now covered with crimson fabric.

They finally emerged outdoors, in what looked like an old abbey courtyard. The ground was made of old rocky slabs, broken in some places, mostly covered with moss. Above their heads, the sky was a clear blue behind layers of clouds.

Gideon pushed Tara up to the large wooden door of the court and it opened in front of them, though no one was there to activate the mechanism. Once at the doorway, they stopped. Leaving from the door, a small dusty path was winding its way up to the top of a hill in front of the monastery where it disappeared from sight.

"See that path?" Gideon asked.

He turned to Tara who was looking blankly in the distance and went on, whereas the blonde had not shown any sign of listening.

"You have to follow it, climb the hill and once you're far enough from the monastery, you'll be teleported to Cleveland where your friends are waiting for you."

He probably thought it was enough information but Tara did not move in the slightest and she turned to him as he started to back away. He noticed and turned back to the hill, before looking at her more carefully.

"Okay Miss Maclay, I know this is a hard time for you. But it'll get better I promise. You and I – and especially I – have made a wonderful job these last few weeks. Now you just have to follow that path and you'll arrive in Cleveland and find your friends, find Willow Rosenberg. Understand?"

Tara slightly trembled at Willow's name but beside that, she had no particular reaction.

"Go up the hill," repeated Gideon. "Your time here is done. My work is done. Time to do yours."

He gestured to the hill, gently patted her shoulder and turned away from her to go back inside. As soon as he was half his way to the door leading inside, the large wooden door closed and Tara found herself alone. Despite herself, she began to walk slowly on the dusty path and got way from the monastery. She did not glance back once, until she arrived at the top of the hill. Once there, she turned back and stared blankly at the building for a very long time, her face worn and indifferent, her gaze dull and empty. Then, she turned her back on the monastery and headed forward on the path until she vanished of the landscape as Gideon had foretold.

***

The night had already fallen when Faith awoke to an empty room. She felt better, her mind was clearer and she knew, somehow, that her nightmares were over. She looked around to see if there was any sign of Tara. Finding none, she got up and went to take a look in the bathroom: it was deserted as well. The Slayer slipped her shoes and her sweater on and she left the room. She went down the stairs and after a quick glance in the common room, she wentout.

Tara was there, sitting on the highest of the three steps in front of the hostel. The blonde had wrapped herself tightly in her coat and appeared to be lost in thoughts despite her blue eyes staring at the starry sky.

"Don't ask me how, but I knew I would find you there" Faith said softly as she came to stand by her side. "Whatever was going on, it's over. I'm fine now."

"I'm glad" replied Tara absent-mindedly with a slight nod of her head.

For some time, neither of them found what to say or felt the need to say anything. They just stayed there, looking at the stars still appearing in the darkening sky. Finally, Faith was the one to break the silence with unexpected comments.

"My watcher's name was Sara Marple. She found me when I was living on the streets after I ran from the foster care in Boston. At first, I wasn't really thrilled about her or the whole Slayer thing. I thought she was making fun of meor that there must be something going on there she wasn't telling me. That she was trying to play me. But she wasn't. I think she actually liked me very much. For the first time in my life, I had someone who actually cared about me. When Kakistos killed her right in front of my eyes, I promised myself I'd never let anyone get so deep into my heart again. When this bastard ripped her guts, - her voice slightly trembled with both grief and rage- I felt like he ripped my heart of my chest as well. That woman had been my only family for my entire life and it had just lasted a few months. I... - she wavered, searched for her words – I've never really felt like talking about her."

She fell silent and glanced at Tara, whom she had not looked at all for her entire speech. The blonde was looking at her with an unreadable expression on her face. She did not ask why Faith was telling her all this: the Slayer could tell she knew. Tara looked silently at Faith for a moment, but before it became uncomfortable, she simply said:

"I'm glad you told me"

Faith felt stupid then, not knowing what to do next. She was torn between the usual urge to be alone and run away, and the uncommon need to stay. Finally, not really knowing what she was doing, she sat on the steps beside Tara. She took her cigarettes from her pocket and lit one. She dragged several long puffs before asking in the most casual tone she could:

"So, being gay has been that hard in high school?"

If Tara was surprised, she did not show it and replied in the most natural way:

"Being gay has never been hard. Being gay is not the problem. It's the way people feel about it that is one."

"Well, if you want" commented Faith. "It doesn't make a difference in the end."

"Of course it makes a difference." Tara protested. "It makes a huge difference. Gays are the not the problem. I'm not the problem. People who don't like me because I'm gay are the problem."

"Yeah," Faith admitted with a smile, quite surprised at Tara's passionate reaction. "That's for sure"

She kept quiet for a second, time for her to drag another puff and then asked:

"So, you never got to kiss that Hope chick again? Hot by the way" the Slayer added in a casual tone.

Tara looked at her, slightly surprised, then answered with a half-smile:

"I did actually."

"Really? She looked pretty freaked if you ask me"

"She came to see me at home the next summer, while Donnie was away, traveling the country before he graduates. She came to apologize and to tell me she was actually really interested in me. We spent the next three weeks literally always together before she left for college. She's been my first"

Faith smiled lightly too at the peaceful expression this memory had plastered on Tara's face. She kept silent, allowing Tara to retreat to this so rare and precious time. She finished off her cigarette and lit another one while Tara returned to her looking at the sky.

"I'm sorry"

Faith again was the one to disrupt the silence. Saying this, she did not turn to Tara, but instead looked right in front of her. Her tone was brisk but sincere.

"I mean," Faith went on. "I've been an ass since the whole crap thing with Kira. And well, I..."

She failed to find something accurate to say, but Tara did not mind and even came to her rescue.

"I understand, Faith. Really. I exactly know how you've felt. You've felt like I violated your mind and you perfectly had a right to think that way."

"I know you probably had to do what you did, but still, it's so weird y'know, you seeing all those things..." Faith resumed, relieved by Tara's intervention.

"I know," the blonde answered sincerely. "I really do. I mean, I think we're kind of even now, aren't we?"

"I guess so," Faith hesitantly said. "I know it shouldn't make me feel better about what happened, but somehow it does. Maybe it's just a plainly stupid reaction."

"It's not" Tara replied. "I get it. Really."

Faith did not answer but dragged another puff instead. Neither talked for a moment, but the silence was a comfortable one. But again, Faith was the one to speak up:

"You should have told me when we met Leo."

"What?" Tara asked, surprised.

"Why you knew he wasn't a demon."

They gazed at each other for a few seconds, then Tara shrugged and looked away.

"I'm not sure it would have changed anything at the time."

Faith did not answer and Tara did not elaborate on that matter. For a moment, the Slayer searched for her words, wavered about what she was about to say before finally breathing:

"May I ask you something?"

"Sure"

Faith wavered; the question was burning her lips, but she feared the answer Tara could give.

"What is it Faith?" the blonde encouraged in a sweet voice.

The witch's expression gave Faith the courage she needed:

"That place… That very dark place with insects…The screaming… You see?"

Tara's face crumpled a little at the evocation but she nodded slightly.

"Was it… was it where you went after you… after you…"

The words were failing her, but after a quick moment of confusion, Tara understood where the Slayer was getting.

"No," the blonde interrupted. "No, it wasn't. It was Glo-glory who did that to me."

"Oh," was the only answer Faith came up with. "Okay"

They stared at each other for a second, and finally Faith asked:

"How long did it last?"

"I don't know" replied Tara and she looked away at the painful memory. "It felt like forever to me"

Again the silence. Faith waited for Tara to regain her composure to ask the next question on her lips.

"Do you remember how it was after you…"

Then again, Tara understood the question before it was asked and interrupted Faith to answer:

"No, I don't" she said.

Seeing Faith's disappointed expression, she went on:

"It's fuzzy. I think I remembered quite well just after I came back… But it's disappearing… Like a dream you remember when you awake and that vanishes as the day goes off"

The Slayer nodded and she returned to her silent smoking. After another set of minutes spent in silence, Faith, who apparently had trouble to keep her thoughts to herself, interrupted Tara's reverie once more.

"There's something I have to tell you" she breathed without looking at her, so low that the blonde hardly heard her.

Tara turned to her curiously, intrigued by the Slayer's solemnity.

"What is it?"

Faith glanced at her and their eyes met briefly before the brunette looked away again.

"I'm making you a promise I can keep now: if I ever cross the path of any member of your family, I swear I'll make them pay for everything they did to you. Oh, I won't kill them, but I swear your father will regret each single time he used his belt to hurt you, each single time he lied to you about this demon-thing"

Tara stared at the Slayer silently, slightly bewildered at first. She tried to suppress the crooked smile appearing on her lips but did not manage completely. She hesitated, not knowing how to react to Faith's unexpected promise. Finally, she could not help herself: she turned to the brunette, grabbed her hand and squeezed it lightly between her own fingers.

"Thank you," she whispered.

Now, Faith felt uneasy. She tried a slight smile, fidgeted her arm a little but did not quite remove her hand from Tara's. The blonde finally noticed the Slayer's discomfort and released her. Wishing to ease the awkwardness of the situation as soon as possible, the witch was, this time, the one to speak up:

"You know, the beating wasn't that bad," she said, and as Faith was about to protest, she immediately resumed: "I mean, my father hitting me with his belt or with something else did not happen really often. In fact, it probably did not happen more than three or four times for my entire life. My brother had been way more brutal with me than my father."

"This bastard…" Faith commented in a dark tone as Tara made a brief pause.

The blonde stared into space for a second then looked away from the brunette's inquiring gaze as she went on:

"It's not for this that I hate my father" she whispered in a darker tone than Faith had ever known her. "I hate him for making me believe for years that I was something -not even someone - horrible and nasty that could be dangerous for anyone who would be fool enough to care about me. I hate him for locking me down for hours, sometimes for days, and telling me it was for my own good. - Her voice trembled slightly – I hate him for making my mother his unwilling accomplice. I hate him for lying to me on purpose and making me that shy, fearful, awkward, weird girl. I hate him for letting me believe I wasn't worth anyone's love or care."

She fell silent and Faith saw at the way her chin trembled, that she tried to contain tears of rage.

"I know the feeling," The Slayer breathed.

"I know you do," Tara whispered.

They turned to each other and their eyes met frankly. Tara quickly wiped away tears at the corner of her eyes and tried a weak smile as she repeated:

"I know you do,"

Faith failed to find something to add, but the moment probably did not need anything more to be said. The brunette relaxed and both girls enjoyed the silent company for a long moment until Tara started to shiver with cold.

"You should go back inside," Faith commented. "You're going to freeze to death."

"I don't want to go inside. I like being here."

Faith did not answer but stood and went inside without a word at Tara's great surprise. She still had not decided how to react to the Slayer's departure when she came back with two steaming cups in her hands. Faith sat back beside her and held one of the cups to the blonde.

"You should drink this," she advised. "'Will warm you up."

She took a sip in her drink and gestured to Tara to do as well.

"What is it?" the blonde asked while warming up her hands with the hot cup.

"Irish coffee," the Slayer answered with a knowing smirk. "Sort of."

"I like it better with way much cream," Tara commented, considering the lack of said cream in her cup.

She nevertheless took a sip and enjoyed the hot feeling running though her veins as the liquid went down her body.

"Thanks," she mouthed as she drank some more. "It's very kind of you"

"I knew you'd like it" Faith commented. "So, where are we heading?" she added after a brief pause. "Back to Portland?"

"If you want to go back there to get a hold on Kira, you can give up on that idea," Tara answered. "I called the coven," she explained when Faith frowned. "They have no clue who she might be."

"Great," grumbled the brunette.

"She could be anyone, anywhere," Tara went on carefully.

"Great," repeated Faith.

"So, what do you think?"

"Well, maybe we could just do as planned and join up with the road on the coast and following it up to San Francisco?"

Tara smiled with relief but could not help asking:

"And what about Kira?"

"I'll call Giles about her. With all his contacts, he'll find the girl in no time. Meanwhile, we'll have some fun."

"Yeah," snorted Tara. "Just like we were supposed to when we came here."

"Don't be so negative," Faith protested. "There won't be Kiras at every corner"

"When have you become the optimistic gal?"

"We're heading to San Francisco," resumed the Slayer, completely ignoring Tara's question. "You really need to get laid, y'know"

Tara almost choked with her Irish coffee at Faith's unexpected comment, coughed once or twice before spitting her last mouthful of coffee.

"What?" she exclaimed when she was able to speak again.

"What what?" Faith smirked. "Think about it: When was the last time you get laid?"

As Tara opened her mouth to answer something, Faith shook her head and raised her hand to interrupt her:

"Okay, you don't remember, and that's perfectly normal. It was way too long ago. It explains all this grumpiness. You'll feel better later on"

Tara looked bewildered for a moment but it did not last.

"If you have reached that conclusion because you find me grumpy, then you need to get laid way more than me!"

"I knew you'd say something like that," Faith retorted. "But if you think about it, I'm naturally grumpy, which is not your case if I believe, not what I've been seeing for months, but what B told me about you. So, it doesn't have anything to do with grumpiness for me. Plus, you must be missing sex."

"Are you?"

"What?"

"Missing sex?"

"Well, it's not like I've been extremely active these days, but I don't need to go on a crusade to get someone in my bed. I could have anyone if I wanted to."

"Do you mean that I need to go on a crusade to find someone?" asked Tara in an offended tone.

"I mean that it's been a long time and you probably forgot what to do to get someone to your bed. Plus, you're gay, and I'm not sure we'll find too many lesbians around here. And to add another level of difficulty, I'm sure you're not easy to please."

"Isn't it a good thing?" Tara replied, defensively. "I wouldn't sleep with anybody. Which is not your case obviously."

"Hey!" It was Faith's turn to sound offended this time. "I wouldn't sleep with anybody! There're lots of people I wouldn't bang!"

"Name one"

Faith looked taken aback by Tara's almost serious tone and she grimaced slightly at the blonde.

"Well," she hesitated. "This Mrs. Applefresh for example. Looks nice and all but…"

"A man," interrupted Tara. "You're straight. Name a guy. Not just any anonymous guy. A guy we know."

"I'm not sure we know the same guys." Protested Faith.

"We know some." Tara cut. "Let's take an example: Xander. But you can't say you wouldn't have sex with him 'cause I kind of remember you already did."

"You know about that?" asked Faith, a little bit surprised. "Five minutes of pleasure, years of trouble" she muttered immediately after.

Tara smiled at this but she nevertheless did not drop the matter.

"So?" She insisted.

"Giles!" the Slayer cried out. "I would never bang Giles!"

"Really? I heard you found him sexy when you first met him."

"You know about that too?"

Tara did not reply and just smiled knowingly at Faith.

"I hate you." The Slayer grumbled. "I was young and I just wanted to bother B. I would never…"

"Someone else?" Tara went on, trying to remain serious.

"I could tell you the name of Spike," Faith announced in a defeated tone. "But then, you'll tell me about that time in the bronze when I told him I could ride him at a gallop and…"

"Never heard about that one…" the witch smirked. "Looks, well… Interesting."

"So, I still have some secrets for you?"

"Looks like it"

"Good then."

They fell silent and finished off their cups of Irish coffee nearly at the same time. Then, Faith took back the cups and stood to go back inside.

"You should come inside now. It's late and cold."

"Just a few more minutes." Tara said. "I'll meet you in the room in five minutes, okay?"

"Okay," the Slayer replied as she turned on her heels to join the common room of the hostel. "But don't you think you made me forget about your need to get laid. We'll take care of that as soon as possible!"

"Yeah, I'm sure you will!' Tara grumbled and rolled her eyes.

Faith did not see her doing so, but she could picture the mimic as well as she had seen it, and smiled broadly, obviously very happy with herself.


End of "Welcome to my own personal little hell"

To be continued in "Come back before dark"