Disclaimers;
In the beginning there was no life on Tuesday's prime-time schedule. Then the great Joss said, "Let there be Buffy!" And it was good. Joss owns all he surveys, I'm just hangin' out in his universe.

Author's note;
This is my follow-up to "Life Is Sweet", where I explore the relationships between Buffy, Willow and Tara in new ways that Joss would never even consider. Well, he'd probably consider them, he'd just never try to get them past the sensors.

Rating; R

Summary;
In a desperate attempt to save Buffy from a nasty demon, Willow and Tara unleash a spell whose long-term consequences will change the lives of all three women.

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THE THIRD POWER
Written by Kirayoshi
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Chapter One;
Join Together
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"When you hear the sound a'comin',
Hear the drummers drummin'
I want you to Join Together with the band!

We don't move in no particular direction,
And we don't make no collections,
I want you to Join Together with the band!"
--The Who
"Join Together"

"C'mon, ugly!" the battered young woman shouted through broken teeth, hiding her fear behind a curtain of rage. "Is that the best you can do?"

It hadn't been going well for the Slayer. She was on the ropes and she knew it. Two hours ago, Buffy was partying at the Bronze with two of her best friends, Willow and Tara, now she was fighting for her life against the arch demon Asmodeus. And losing.

Asmodeus was an archetypal demon-lord; his mahogany skin covering a muscular frame, his countenance fearsome to behold, his features angular and saturnine. He towered over the diminutive slayer, his legs stood two meters apart, his terrible cloven hooves scraped the ground with every step, his massive arms spread out, preparing to crush Buffy's body like squeezing an orange.

Buffy cursed herself for not heeding Giles' warnings earlier that week. Spike had heard rumblings from the demon community about some new arch demon planning to move in on Sunnydale. Now that Adam had been eliminated by Buffy and her friends just a couple of months ago, there was a vacuum in the demonic power structure of Sunnydale, and Asmodeus was just the demon to fill that hole. But he had enough sense to recognize the threat of the Slayer.

So he chose tonight to ambush her.

Tonight, when she was preoccupied with her friends Willow and Tara. Tonight, when she and Willow were celebrating the start of their sophomore year in college and Tara's return to Sunnydale after visiting her parents for the summer. Tonight, when the pain of losing Riley, of hearing the hateful things he had said, finally dissipated under the love and friendship of these two wiccan beauties. Just two hours ago the two of them had burnt up the dance floor at the Bronze, undulating and spinning in close orbit around each other, oblivious to anything and anyone else. Buffy couldn't remember a time when she felt so free, so happy. Just to be with Willow, her closest friend and secret love, even if she wouldn't tell Willow about her love, that was enough. And the fact that Tara made her happy. Willow was with someone she loved, and she still cared enough about Buffy to include her in her life. And for the Slayer, that was blessing enough for one lifetime.

Now, she had become a punching bag for a powerful demon. Asmodeus knew that she would oppose him, so he made the first move against her. And now she was being thrown around like a rag doll. She had managed to push Willow and Tara out of the way, just before the onslaught began, but she wasn't able to create an opening in the fight. Just any opening where she could hit back and retake the offensive. The savage attack of this demon had kept her on the defensive; he was tiring her out, and she knew it. He had already managed to connect a few blows, breaking her jaw and nearly swelling her left eye shut in a livid shiner. But she had no way to conserve her strength. If she stood still for only a split second, just one more direct blow from that demon would be enough to end her life. And she knew that she couldn't keep fighting at this pace for long. She was tiring fast, and Asmodeus knew it.

Willow and Tara stood stock still as Buffy fought for her life against the mahogany skinned demon. Willow refused to run and hide while her best friend was on the ropes. She and Tara just stood there, afraid for their friend, scared that she would be killed before their eyes. Willow had the prescience to carry a dagger forged of cold iron, the one metal certain to kill demons, but she didn't see the opening to use it.

"G-goddess, Willow," Tara stammered, her nervous stutter returning as her fear levels rose. "What can w-we d-do to help her?"

"I'm thinking, Tara," Willow said calmly. "There's one way, but it could be dangerous for us. But it might be the only way." She suddenly turned to Tara. "Do you trust me?"

"With my heart and with my life, Willow," Tara vowed solemnly.

"Remember the enjoining spell I used to back Buffy against Adam?"

Tara's eyes opened wide with understanding. "You think that will work again?"

"Probably better than before," Willow nodded. "My spells have always been more powerful when we worked them together. But we gotta hurry!" She cocked her head toward the battle, as Buffy was slowing down, and Asmodeus's blows were getting closer to connecting. "Buffy's down for the count!"

There was no hesitation on the blond witch's part. "Let's do it," said Tara.

Willow took Tara's hands in her own, an said, "Concentrate on Buffy. Send all your thoughts, all your strength, all your love to her. Relax, take calming breaths." Tara began to meditate, to clear her mind, to concentrate on the Slayer, her friend, her defender. Willow calmed herself, found the center of her being where her magic was strongest. She connected that center with Tara's, and felt her powers grow as they always did when she joined this way with the one she loved. She began the incantation;

"The power of the Slayer and all who wield it!"

Tara concentrated on the ancient words as Willow shouted them.

"Last to ancient first, we invoke thee!"

A vortex of arcane powers formed around Buffy and Asmodeus as they battled. Neither was aware of the vortex, but Buffy felt a strength growing inside of her. She now stood on trembling feet, feeling her arms grow more firm, more solid.

"Grant us thy domain and primal strength!"

Willow had to shout louder to be heard above the din of the storms. She was handling large amounts of power, forces she would never have dared attempt were it not for Tara's assistance, support and love.

"Accept us in the power we possess!"

Buffy's strength continued to build. Unaware of the spell her best friend was casting, she felt at first as though she was getting her second wind.

"Make us mind and heart and spirit joined!"

Willow and Tara felt the strength building in them as well. They felt more assured of their powers, more confident in their abilities as wiccans. Yes, they both thought, they could do this.

"Let the hand encompass us!"

As she took the battle with Asmodeus on the offensive, Buffy started to recognize the sensations coursing through her. The gathering power, the greater strength than she had ever possessed. Just like when she took on Adam. Willow had cast the enjoining spell.

"Do thy will!"

And now where she was sprawled on the ground, awaiting the killing blow, she now stood up on confident feet, feeling her renewed strength, and the strength of all the slayers before her. And something more, the strength of two powerful wiccans who cast the spell to restore her.

Asmodeus' eyes widened as he took in the sight; this woman who should have died under his attack was now standing before him, her wounds healing before his eyes, her arms rising with restored strength, her strong sinewy frame infused with great power. Even her broken teeth were made whole again. Her eyes glowed red, boring down into him like angry suns. And in the cold black pit of his heart, Asmodeus knew fear.

"You had your chance, Ass-Backward-Us," Buffy hissed at her enemy. "You had me on the ropes. But that don't matter now!" Without any further warning, she unleashed a devastating flying scissor kick to the demon's jaw. He crumpled to the floor, black blood pooling from his mouth. "Because I just got me a whole new shipment of whup-ass, and I'm spending it all on you!"

Buffy's attack was brutal and swift. She was giving no quarter, and taking no prisoners. She delivered a massive flurry of kicks with both speed and deadly accuracy. Before Asmodeus could regroup himself to counter, she rammed his solar plexus with her shoulder, sending him tumbling to the ground.

"Willow!" Buffy shouted, "The dagger! Let's end this!"

"On it!" Willow fished the dagger out of her book-bag. Buffy expected Willow to simply toss the dagger to her so she could take out Asmodeus once and for all. Willow, however had a different approach. She held the dagger's tip between her thumb and forefinger, took aim, and threw it with deadly accuracy. The dagger imbedded itself deeply into Asmodeus' chest, into the demon's festering heart. Asmodeus lurched angrily, clawing at the air, before his body disintegrated into a shower of ash.

Buffy coughed slightly as the demon's ash got into her lungs. "Geez, Wills, give a Slayer some warning, will ya?"

"Sorry, Buff," Willow smiled innocently, but Buffy wasn't fooled for a second. "I just had a feeling that would work."

"Yeah," Buffy crossed her arms over her chest and smirked at the red-haired witch. "You were just trying to impress your girlfriend."

"Hey," Tara defended Willow. "I'm impressed."

"Well," Buffy admitted as she bent down and picked up the dagger from the pile of ash that was once Asmodeus, "I'm impressed with the both of you. Nice spellwork, girls."

"We aim to please," Tara announced.

"But what possessed you to try that enjoining spell?" Buffy asked.

"Desperation, Buff," Willow answered. "Pure desperation."

"Well, Wills," Buffy smiled, "you should get desperate more--UNGH!" Suddenly Buffy collapsed to the ground. Willow and Tara immediately rushed to her side, each one taking her by one shoulder. "Buffy?" Willow pleaded. "You okay?"

"Oh, fine," Buffy answered, a glazed look in her eyes. "But there are two of you, Willow." Her speech was slurring, and she looked confused. "Hey, that's perfect. Tara can have one of you, and I can have the other."

Willow dismissed Buffy's words as the ramblings of a woman disoriented by a powerful spell. "That's nice, Buffy. Now how about we get you back to the dorm?"

"No, really," Buffy sounded more drunk than anything else. Willow and Tara started to worry about the power that they had channeled into their friend. "We-we could get together, we could--" Buffy looked closely at Willow's face and gasped. "Oh, my God," she exclaimed. "You have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen!" She turned to an increasingly embarrassed Tara, asking, "Doesn't she have the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen?"

"Yes, Buffy," Tara said, trying to hoist the incoherent Slayer back to her dorm. "Th-they were the first thing I n-noticed."

Buffy then regarded Tara with a gimlet eye. "But your eyes are beautiful too. A sort of charcoal grey-blue." She glanced at Willow, then at Tara. "You both have beautiful eyes. I can't decide. I love them both." She wrapped her arms around her rescuers tightly, shouting, "I love you both! I, Buffy--Buffy--hey, Wills, what was my last name again?"

"Summers," a mortally humiliated Willow sighed.

"Thanks, Willy." She cleared her throat dramatically, then continued; "I, Buffy Summers, hereby declare that I love these two women, Willy and Taters!" She giggled suddenly, saying, "Sorry, Tara, I called you Taters. I'm going to go nite-nite now." With that, her head dropped down, and she started to snore loudly. The two exasperated Wiccans then quietly took the sleeping Slayer back to Stevensen Hall.

They opened the door to Buffy and Willow's dorm, and brought the Slayer inside, hoisting her as carefully as possible past the furniture. "Let's get her to her bed," said Willow.

"Personally," Tara grunted under the weight of the unconscious Buffy, "I don't think she'd notice if we left her in the fire escape."

"Tempting as that idea might be," Willow lamented, "I think we'd better bring her to the bed." They managed to steer her body to the bed, and unceremoniously dropped her onto the mattress. They watched as the Slayer dozed soundly, unaware of her surroundings, or even her identity. "Well," Tara announced, "that was an eventful evening. You gonna call it a night?"

"Yeah," Willow answered. "I'd walk you back to your dorm, but I don't wanna leave Buffy alone. She crashed pretty hard from that enjoining spell."

"No problem," Tara answered. "I can stay with you. That is, if you want."

Willow regarded her beloved with a slight smile. "Sure, but I'm not up to anything hot and sweaty tonight." The fact was, despite some innuendo to the contrary from Xander, the two young lovers had yet to go "all the way" in their physical relationship. They kissed, they groped, they occasionally caressed each other topless, but that's as far as they've gone.

"No rush, Willow," Tara said. "I just thought you'd like the company. Besides, if I went back to my dorm, I'd just lay awake worrying about Buffy." Tara slipped off her shoes, and sat on Willow's bed.

Willow sat next to Tara, and instinctively wrapped her arm around the blond witch's shoulder. "Thanks for helping back there, Tara," she whispered into her ear.

"No problem," Tara smiled as she felt Willow's lips on her ear. She lay herself down on the bed, and Willow lay behind her, spooning her body against Tara's. "I love you, Willow," she added with a yawn, as she slowly leaned into Willow's embrace, and drifted to sleep.

"Love you too, Taters," Willow giggled drowsily. The two witches nodded off smiling.

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Two days earlier;

"So, Buffy," the handsome blond had asked her. "You going to be at the Bronze tomorrow night?"

"Yeah, Riley," Buffy sighed as she chatted with Riley at the Espresso Pump over mochas. "Tara's coming back, so Willow and I are going to party with her."

"Tara," Riley repeated dully. He sipped his mocha, and said, "I just thought that you'd want to spend some time with me, now that you're back in the dorms. I'm assuming you're living alone this year."

"No," Buffy answered. "Willow's rooming with me again."

"Oh? I thought that she'd be rooming with Tara." Buffy detected the faintest twinge of vitriol as he said the name of Willow's girlfriend.

"She does hang with her a lot," Buffy said casually, "but seeing as how they're dating, that's to be expected."

"And this doesn't bother you."

Buffy didn't mistake the scorn in his voice that time, and her own outrage started to rise. "Why should the fact that my best friend is happier than she's been for a long time bother me?"

"Oh, I dunno," Riley countered, suddenly feeling defensive against his girlfriend. "Just that she's getting her rocks off with another girl."

"You have a problem with Willow loving another woman?" Buffy's anger threatened to overtake her voice, but she was determined to keep her calm. Reason would win out over emotion.

"Oh, no, no. You wanna hang out with a dyke, that's your business."

Buffy regarded Riley with the same stare she usually employed against vampires she was preparing to stake. "Excuse me, but did you just call my best friend a dyke?"

"Hey, now, look, Buffy," a suddenly scared Riley tried to explain himself. "I didn't mean it like that, I was just--"

Buffy grabbed Riley by the collar of his shirt, saying, "I just asked you a simple yes-or-no question, Riley; Did. You. Just. Call. My. Best. Friend. A. DYKE?"

Riley gulped hard, knowing that there was no escape, and probably no forgiveness for him. And the cold fury in Buffy's eyes chilled him to the core. "Uh, well," he said timidly, "yes. I didn't mean--"

Riley's sentence was interrupted by Buffy's fist landing on his chin, hard enough to draw blood. Riley toppled back in his chair, landing gracelessly on the floor. "Riley Finn, I'm only going to say this once, so you'd better make sure you understand; I never want to see your miserable face again as long as I live. Don't you ever look me up, don't call me, don't run into me on campus, don't ever contact me in any way, form or fashion. If you happen to notice me on campus, make damn sure I don't see you. I want to go through the rest of my life without being reminded of the gutter trash who dared to insult my best friend. No," she added when Riley tried to speak, "I don't want to hear it! Accept that I will never forgive you for what you said about Willow. Don't say a word, just nod once if you understand."

Riley nodded, and Buffy got up from her seat, and looked at the man she once claimed to love. "It's funny, Riley. I can't even work up enough energy to hate you. You're just not worth it. I just don't care enough." She took Riley's mocha, and tipped its contents onto his sprawled body. "Goodbye, Finn," she spat out, before walking out of the Espresso Pump and out of Riley Finn's life.

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Buffy woke up slowly, as the sunlight crept slowly up the length of her body. She squinted as the light hit her eyes, as her head throbbed with the mother of all hangovers. Funny, she thought to herself. I don't remember getting drunk. She chased that line of thought, asking herself what she did remember.

When her memories came to her, she felt a strong desire to bury her head in a pillow, and pray that Willow wasn't in the bed next to hers. She turned hesitantly to the bed, and noticed a body sitting there. But it wasn't Willow. The dirty-blond hair, the slightly different shape of her curves, they weren't Willow. They were...

"Tara?" Buffy asked. Tara smiled at the sound of Buffy's voice, saying, "Good morning, Sleeping Beauty. Good thing it's Sunday, or you'd have missed your first day of classes."

"Wha-what happened? Where's Willow?"

"To answer in reverse order," Tara said, "Willow's on a bagel run. She said you liked the Everything bagels, and she'll surprise us with the others. As for what happened, you crashed after you beat Asmodeus. We used the rejoining spell to empower you, and once the adrenaline conked out, you were disoriented and euphoric."

"Oh, God, I remember. I remember saying I loved the two of you." Buffy then dropped her head in her hands, mortified of her behavior and afraid that she jeopardized her friendships with Willow and Tara.

"Don't worry," Willow said as she entered the dorm with a large brown paper bag. "You were just out of it, we won't hold you responsible for anything. Besides," she grinned mischievously, "you're apparently in love with Willy and Taters. Whoever they are." Buffy smiled as Willow placed the bag on the nearest level surface. "I got three Everything bagels, three pesto, and three of those cranberry nut jobs that you like, Tara. All sliced and freshly toasted. I also got cream cheese," she withdrew three small tubs and a plastic knife. "Garden vegetable, smoked salmon, and apple cinnamon. I'd recommend that last one for the cranberry."

"You are a giver goddess, Willow," Buffy got out of the bed, noticing for the first time that she was wearing the same clothes she wore last night. "Did you guys sleep in the same bed last night?"

"Yeah," Willow said. "We didn't want to leave you alone after you zoned out, so we brought you here, took off your shoes and let you sleep it off. We took the other bed and fell asleep in our street clothes."

"Hey, thanks for getting me here, guys," Buffy said, as she located her purse, which Willow hung from the doorknob. "How much do I owe you for the bagels?"

"This one's on us," Tara insisted. "You saved the world, the least we can do is spring for breakfast."

"Thanks," Buffy said, as she spread some salmon cream cheese over her first bagel and munched down. "So, how did you guys sleep?"

"Oh, not too bad," Tara mused. "B-but I did have this weird dream."

"Hazard of working the Hellmouth," Buffy observed. "Weird dreams are part of the territory. What was it about?"

"Well," Tara recalled, "I was you, I think. I was having a mocha with Riley, and he started talking about me and Willow. He called Willow a dyke, then you--that is, I--decked him, and told him I--I mean, you, never wanted to see him again--"

"Then I poured a mocha on him." Buffy finished.

"Yeah," Tara said, perplexed. "How did you--"

"That's exactly why Riley and I split up for good two days ago," Buffy said, her nerves flaring. Something wasn't right here. "But I never told you guys about it. You described it perfectly."

"Wait, wait," Willow backtracked. "You mean Riley called me a dyke?"

"His exact words," Buffy said ruefully.

Willow's eyes lit up like a Menorah on the last night of Chanukah. "And you dumped him because of what he called me? Wow, I've never had my honor defended like that before!"

"Hey," Buffy countered. "He can pick on me, but nobody picks on my friends. Anyway, he's out of my life, and I don't even miss him."

"Don't worry," Tara consoled Buffy. "He wasn't worth it, if my dream was any indication."

"You're damn right," Buffy agreed. "But I'm worried about your dream. Y'see," she hesitated, then continued. "I had a dream last night too."

"What about?" Willow knew the cold caste that formed on Buffy's face. Something was happening.

"I was in a crypt," Buffy began. "I saw Oz, he was naked, and there was someone else there. I didn't quite recognize her--"

"Veruca," Willow whispered. "You dreamed about Oz and Veruca?"

"Yeah, sorry," Buffy admitted. "And the weird part, I was you, Wills. I knew I was you, and I knew that Oz had slept with Veruca. Hey, I'm sorry if I'm dredging up something you wanted to forget--"

"No, it's all right," Willow said, "he's in the past. And I had a bizarre dream too." As Buffy and Tara turned to her, she continued; "I was walking through this school hallway," she started, as more of the dream became clear to her memory. "Someone named Simone had been expelled, that much I knew when the dream started,--"

"Simone DaCosta?" Tara asked.

"Yeah, that was her." Willow looked at her. "You knew her?"

"Yeah," Tara said bitterly. "She's the first girl I ever kissed. Senior year in high school. The principal caught us behind the bleachers, and expelled her. My folks were able to keep me in school, but word got out--"

"And everyone steered clear of you," Willow finished. "That was in my dream. Two quarterback punks started to lob rocks at me--"

"Bobby Jacks and Hector Garcia," Tara supplied the names.

"Oh, dear Goddess," Willow breathed, "I didn't know you went through that. No wonder you took so long to open up to me." She rushed over to the bed where Tara was sitting, and draped her arms around her love's shoulders. "I'm so sorry, Tara."

"It's okay, Willow," Tara soothed her beloved. "I have you, now, and Buffy. I'm all right."

"But this is too weird," Willow stated after disengaging the hug. "I dreamed I was you, Tara. You dreamed you were Buffy, and you, Buffy, you dreamed you were me. What's happening?"

Buffy looked at her two friends long and intently. She could practically feel their fear, their confusion as well as her own. She rolled it around in her mind, until she had an idea.

She opened her foot locker, and pulled out a throwing knife. "Willow," she handed the knife to Willow. "Last night, you demonstrated Slayer's skill with that dagger. Can you hit the dartboard from thirty paces?"

"I'll try," said Willow, as she marked off thirty paces from the dartboard Buffy had hung on the front door. She looked at the target, took aim, and threw the dagger.

The tip imbedded itself dead center.

Buffy examined the dagger in the dartboard, her suspicions confirmed. She stood before Willow and Tara, and made an announcement that stunned the two wiccans, especially when they realized that it was the only explanation;

"Ladies, we're still enjoined."