Otherwise a Perfect Sky
(the Crashing Down Remix)
by Aadler
Copyright April 2010

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss
Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.

This story is a remix (done for Remix Redux 8) of "Come Crashing Down", by Deird1.

Season: AU Season 6 (Buffy)
Spoiler(s): "the Gift" (Buffy, S5-22)

There were no good days, not anymore. There were bad days, and there were worse days, and sometimes there were good moments in days that weren't too bad —

But no good days. No.

Not anymore.

~ – ~ – ~

The day Buffy died, that was a bad day.

Tara wasn't there when it happened, but she knew the news wouldn't be good when she heard the engines. There weren't enough of them. The big rig had gone out with a full crew and a four-truck escort, a driver and gunner in each, for a total of twelve bodies, and only three pickups were returning. Turned out they were triple-loaded, most of the original team plus the surviving remnant of a dozen-odd civilians the convoy had chanced across on its foraging run. Go out with twelve, come back with seventeen … net gain, except they'd lost the eighteen-wheeler when the roadway collapsed under it, along with four of their own people and seven of the refugees when the Altcchon demons that had undercut the highway launched their follow-up attack. The casualties could have been fewer, but the humans had fought instead of fleeing, because they'd loaded the truck with the canned stock from one of the few supermarkets that hadn't been looted already, and those supplies were needed back in the Safety Zone. They gave it up only when Xander convinced Buffy there was no way they'd ever get the truck out of the sinkhole, and some of the wounded needed serious medical care.

So they left the truck and they left the supplies and they left the dead, and when they realized one of the Altcchon was still trailing them, Buffy sent the rest of the convoy ahead while she waited to kill it. And she never rejoined them, even though there was no way trucks going over rough ground could out-pace a Slayer, so that meant she never would. Nobody wasted time hoping for miracles anymore, because they'd run out of miracles ten months and eight days ago.

Tara got the rest of the story from the others later, but Xander supplied the basic facts thirty seconds after stepping out of the lead truck. Body slack with exhaustion and grief, face taut and eyes like live coals, voice bleak and empty. She saw the fear begin to sweep through the group that had gathered to hear the news, heard the hushed whispers and felt shock begin to edge into terror. For most of a year their salvation had rested on two pillars and now one of them had been destroyed, the Slayer was dead, their leader was gone, what was going to happen to them —?

She saw it begin. She saw it grow. And then Xander's shoulders came up and it was as if something had been switched on inside him, he started giving instructions and naming group leaders and somehow every doubt was transmuted into purpose. It was a deeper and more startling magic than any Tara had ever seen before, and she gave herself to it gladly because it was the only thing that might (might) allow them to survive.

For three days Xander was everywhere, keeping the current flowing with praise and correction and determination, smile or shrug or thoughtful nod or quizzical frown as the situation demanded. It wasn't until he slept through most of the fourth day that Tara — that anyone — realized he hadn't slept at all in the meantime.

~ – ~ – ~

She never had any problem with the color of the sky. Most people did. Xander had compared it to key-lime puke, back before he gave up on humor as a coping mechanism, and that had seemed to be the consensus among those who offered an opinion. Tara couldn't see it, either her vision went deeper or theirs did. Green, yes, Willow's barrier changed the light that passed through it, but it was a green that seemed as natural as the blue of the outside sky, and Tara felt as much at home under the one as the other. There were those, however, who reacted to it as to cabin fever, who had to go out as much for relief as to search for food or ammunition or survivors or news. Blayne Mall was like that, and the Guzman twins, and the guy who insisted on being called Crazy Jay and hurled himself into every fight like he was actively trying to die. Since it didn't bother her to stay, Tara had spent most of her time in the settlement, working on inventory and cooking and healing chants and morale, whatever she could offer.

No longer. Buffy was gone, and Xander had automatically taken over all her burdens, and Willow loved Xander and Tara loved Willow (even if it was no longer feasible for them to be together), so Tara stuck close to Xander. She had dispensed with dresses a long time ago, now she wore bush shorts and Doc Martens and a shoulder holster, she'd dropped fifteen pounds the first month after … after, and another twenty pounds since. All the softness was gone from her, lean to the edge of gauntness, she'd always been a nurturer rather than a warrior but now nurturingmeant killing the things that might otherwise kill the people who mattered to her. Xander went out more now, pushed himself harder, took more chances, but with Tara beside him he wouldn't throw his life away, not when it would mean wasting her life as well, so she stayed beside him. Sometimes Carol rode along, or Devon, or occasional others, but increasingly it was just the two of them.

This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

But then, nothing was. Not since the night on the tower.

~ – ~ – ~

It hadn't been possible to stay in Sunnydale, too many extradimensional demons had made it through before some rifts had closed and others shrank, and they had set up nests or bases atop the Hellmouth. There had been nearly sixty vehicles in that first caravan, the one that pushed hundreds of miles into the more temperate areas of the Golden State. Most had been Sunnydale High alumnae, those who remembered Buffy Summers and made a snap decision that following her offered better survival odds than otherwise. (Or, maybe, remembered her and weren't willing to stay any place that could make her run.) Others, from other communities, had fallen in with them during the trek … not enough, but some, and those who weren't ready to fight learned better quickly or didn't live long enough to learn. Even with the losses along the way, they still had close to two hundred people when Willow set up the first barrier. The casualty rate slowed after that, and they had time to organize for something beyond an endless running battle.

Tara couldn't help wondering sometimes if it would have been better if Anya had been more quick, or had made her decision sooner. She didn't like the thought, but too many had died afterward to allow her to simply dismiss it. Ruthless, pragmatic, straightforward Anya: stop the blood flowing, close the gates, and you couldn't even call it selfishness because she hadn't had time for subtlety, she'd put the knife into Dawn only a fraction of a second before Buffy cut her nearly in two. Too fast for anyone else to move, too fast for Xander even to scream, and then they'd all been too busy with the aftermath.

Tara's sanity had only been back for a few minutes by that point, but she knew what she had seen. She just didn't know if it was as clear to everyone else. Buffy had killed Anya in an attempt to stop her, not from retribution, though retribution would probably have been just as swift and terrible. Even if he had seen it, though, Xander must have felt as if he himself had been cut in half. The woman he loved had killed the other woman he loved, and his only possible response had been to fall in with the killer and give her every ounce of support he could muster.

At the end, when Buffy died, there had to have been a part of him that felt she'd deserved what she got. And hated himself even more for feeling it.

~ – ~ – ~

The demons had spread across the world, while the Safety Zone grew as Willow's power centered, firmed, increased. The searchers found other pockets of survivors, brought them back. Less often, survivors found them. A family of four that had traveled eighty miles on foot, moving only by day and watching the sky every step of the way, freezing motionless at any sight of wings. At night they had buried themselves, buried themselves, piling earth on top of blankets, breathing (as quietly as possible) through snorkel tubes. A man who rode in on a stumbling, sweat-frothed quarter horse, carrying a pump shotgun and a bloody brush machete. The man lived, the horse didn't. A young woman, barely more than a teenager, who drove an armored car into the settlement and through the wall of one of the out-buildings. Inside the cab were dozens of weapons, mostly automatic rifles but also an honest-to-God .30-caliber Browning belt-fed machine gun, World War II era, with ten belts of ammunition and — rolling around in the floorboards — the scattered links and empty shell-casings from maybe another two belts. The woman-girl, though, was burning with fever from a hip wound that had gotten infected. She died without ever coming out of delirium, calling for her father and, unexpectedly, for Xander. Xander had been out on a supply run just then, however, so they took a photograph before burying her, showed it to him when he came back. He studied it for a long time before sighing, shaking his head, and moving on to the next urgent matter.

They got good use out of the Browning, and the armored car, before the team fielding them had failed to return from an exploratory expedition to San Francisco. Giles had been leading the team.

Another bad day, and five weeks before the day that brought Xander back without Buffy.

~ – ~ – ~

The first bad day, the first really bad day, had been when Jacie Li died. Bad for Chris Sorenson, too, but the Hakklusch had torn him open before anyone could have reacted, they hadn't even known it was there until Chris had gone down, choking and spraying blood. Jacie went at the demon with an axe — maybe a mistake, maybe she'd have had a better chance if she'd tried for the shotgun in the front seat, or maybe there just wasn't time — while Tara was still struggling to draw her pistol. Jacie was down, too, most of her throat missing, when Tara emptied a clip into the Hakklusch, three interminable horrifying unforgivable seconds too late. Then it was up to her to drag the bodies into the Tahoe and carry them back, because she was the only one left to do it.

There had been so many deaths already, and most of them worse than this. For Chris and Jacie, at least, it had been fast, and far less painful than it easily could have been. But Jacie wasn't just a loss, she was a failure. She hadn't died from bad luck or bad judgment or overwhelming odds. She had died because Tara was too slow getting her weapon out of its holster. Not less-than-Slayer-speed too slow, but clumsy fumbling should-have-could-have-ought-to-have-done-better too slow. Failure that had killed a brave nice cheerful girl that Tara hadn't known that well and never would now.

After a day to let her nerves settle, Tara had begun practicing. Slowly, smoothly, taking her time, getting all the motions right. Printing it into her muscles. In a cheap novel she'd have kept at it till her fingers bled, but what good would that have done? She wanted her fingers to work, quick and sure and right and quick. So, she did it until her fingers ached, and then she rested, and then she did it some more. Getting it clean, getting it perfect, and then gradually getting it faster and faster.

She trained in shooting, too, some calibers were scarce but they were replete with nine-millimeter, and she developed a fair degree of accuracy. Mostly, though, she worked on the draw, because that was where she had failed. Worked it until the weapon would leap into her hand with a thought, or sometimes before the thought had time to form.

Seven months later, when she was caught up in other and harsher duties, Tara was still practicing her draw for an hour in the morning and an hour after sunset. It wasn't enough, she knew that. She would find other ways to fail, that was just how the world was now. But she would never repeat this failure.

~ – ~ – ~

Esther had been a kindergarten teacher the day the walls between the worlds had come crashing down. Maybe a little New Age, a bit on the trendy side, but no more than that. Now she was … what? almost a high priestess to the only power that was still preserving them. Tara talked with Esther when she could, because that was as close as she could get these days to what Willow had become. Was still inexorably becoming.

"I'm not even sure she sleeps anymore," Esther told Tara, while they split a precious ration of instant coffee. "Maybe she just needs less than we do, maybe she does it after I fall asleep and wakes before me. I can't tell, she's always so still. Even when she's looking at me, talking to me."

Tara nodded. She had heard the remoteness described, often enough, and knew (or at least had been told, by people whose word she trusted) that only that psychic detachment allowed Willow access to and control over the power that maintained the barrier around the Safety Zone. Which was likewise the source of the necessary distance between the two of them now, prior emotional attachments challenged Willow's equilibrium and Tara's presence posed a stress that couldn't be risked. Much as the separation hurt, it was a bearable price for the community's survival. "How's Kimber working out?" she asked Esther.

"Good," Esther said. "I'm taking it slow, don't want to rush her in too quick, but it looks like she has the … whatever,that Willow needs around her. It's a relief, I can tell you. I was starting to wonder how long I could keep it up."

Tara regarded her, concerned. "It's that hard?"

Esther sighed. "Not the work itself, no. You move soft and quiet, keep your mood calm, give her whatever she needs, and write down anything she says without letting yourself get excited … it's not rough duty. What was getting to me was how much depends on it. We need her, and she needs to be kept steady, and I was afraid I'd crack just from fear of what would happen if I cracked. With Kimmie looking like she can spell me now and then, I'm not so scared." She tried to smile. "And it helps to get outside more often, even if it's under that sky."

Familiar words. Tara let them slide by. "We all appreciate what you've been doing." A soft breath. "Iappreciate it."

Esther didn't reply for a long time, and when she did speak, it was hesitantly. "How … how different was she? Before?"

Tara considered it. The facts were clear, but choosing the words that would communicate the full truth required some thought. And however much more Willow might have withdrawn since, the biggest change had come almost at the beginning.

From Amy, Amy Madison. How it had happened, or been done, Tara didn't know. She had tried on occasion to help Willow work through whatever subtle obstruction was keeping Amy enspelled in rat form, but the problem had remained opaque to both of them. Then, when so many gates had been opened (though Anya's knife had stopped the threatened collapse and merging of multileveled realities), Amy had suddenly been there among them, human again, and the margin at the time between desperate struggle and hopeless defeat.

It all rested on Willow now, but in those first awful days Amy had been the powerhouse. According to Xander, the girl's abilities hadn't been so potent before her long imprisonment. Whether she had grown since, or was tapping into new forces on her emergence, or just pushed her way past instinctive dampers with the need so dire, there was no way of knowing. The result, though, was undeniable. When the caravan had found its way blocked by a Lei-ach army on Interstate 5, Buffy had led the charge, wreaking slaughter with a bastard sword from Giles' collection and a grenade launcher looted from a National Guard armory … but Amy had ripped through the demon throng by the hundreds, tearing them with titanic blasts of blue-white lightning and incandescent fire and howling winds. Transcending all her limits, burning bright, sizzling and terrible and magnificent. Dying in the last flare that left the blockading army just reduced enough for the beleaguered caravan to force its way through.

And what was it that Tara had heard Willow murmuring over Amy as the life faded out of the other girl?

What did "vino de madre" mean?

And why had Willow's face seemed so alien in that moment?

"The sun and the moon," Tara told Esther. "The difference between the sun and the moon."

~ – ~ – ~

She knew when the nightmares began to haunt Xander, knew from the first. Even so, she didn't immediately recognize how often they came, or how deeply they affected him. He had been carrying so much responsibility, for so long, any fraying of his stability could have a legion of origins … When she heard him crying out in his sleep, though, four nights in a row, she knew this fresh threat had to be met directly, so she started sharing his bed.

Just sleeping. A body next to him, someone to put her arms around him and whisper soothingly to him if he began to thrash and moan. And it worked, and the lines in his face weren't etched so deep, and the feverish energy didn't seem to be eating him up from the inside. And then it stopped working, and he lay stiff and unmoving beside her in the dark, and Tara began to understand, and that called for long and deep and careful thought. And then, when she had thought about it enough, she put her hands onto his shoulders one night and turned him on his back, he resisted but wouldn't actually fight her, and when he stopped resisting she moved to straddle him. As coldly deliberate as a whore, she had come to bed in a long t-shirt and no underwear, and she got his pants open and lowered herself onto him, rocking above him until she felt the jerk and spasm of his release, and then she shifted to lie beside him again and wouldn't let him go.

It felt so odd, so foreign. Not bad, but not right, this wasn't the way her body was supposed to work. But they needed him, and he needed this, so that was just how it was. It was insane, it was senseless and mindless and destructive and crazy and he needed it, needed to go a little crazy, and this was a way he could do that and still function. So they worked together during the day, straightforward and matter of fact, he met her eyes when they talked and he listened and agreed sometimes, and sometimes he cut her off and overruled her, but it was working again and that was what mattered. And at night, he clutched her to him so hard, he left bruises.

Sometimes he wept. Silently, great aching soundless sobs that shook them both. She pretended not to notice, even when her tears mixed with his.

~ – ~ – ~

Cordelia saw something, one of her visions, and Xander was abruptly shunted to inactive status. Nobody else could have forced that, but Angel and Cordelia carried serious weight, even if they and their own band insisted on operating independently. (Because of Lorne. Tara was still sorry for that, but you couldn't wait to see if a demon was friendly before killing him. You just couldn't. Lorne was a tragic exception, but still an exception.) Xander would have fought it, but Willow sent word to confirm the edict, so that was that.

Why they put him with Fred, though, that was a mystery. Tara didn't oppose it, you didn't argue with a seer and you absolutely didn't argue with what Willow was turning into, but she was concerned. So, rather than try to break the quarantine, she began visiting with Fred, during times the older woman (except that she acted like a chattering teenager, and Tara felt triple the weight of her own years) was willing to accept company.

"He's sad," Fred told Tara during one of the visits. "Wesley was like that, after we lost Gunn and Faith — you never knew Wesley, did you? the others did, some of them, but you're new like I'm new, you didn't get to meet Wesley — he just looks at you and there's so much pain behind those eyes, it seems like it should burn."

"Are you all right with him there?" Tara asked. "It doesn't … upset you?"

"No, no." Fred shook it away. "He's good company, he hurts but he doesn't jangle, he's just there. Doesn't get impatient with the crazy girl. It's restful."

"I'm sure you're not …" Tara stopped. She wasn't sure at all.

Fred looked at her with eyes that seemed too big for her face. "Not totally. Not usually. But I skate at the edges, like a body in stable orbit around a black hole." She tilted her head. She was stick-thin, fragile as a bird. "Sometimes I feel the tug. Sometimes the sky tries to sing to me. Uh-huh, I know, crazy talk, but that's what happens." Her voice went so soft as to be barely audible. "There were two suns in Pylea. They weren't nice suns, either, but the sky was the same color as ours. As ours used to be. Not like now."

"I'm sorry," Tara said. "I know the sky bothers most people."

The look Fred gave her was almost pitying. "It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Like the sun is an emerald."

Tara was stunned. Fred was describing what she saw, that no one else ever did … "Emerald?" she repeated dumbly.

"You have the same light sometimes," Fred told her. "When the tug is there, I see that light in you. Just a flicker, but I see it." Her gaze seemed to go elsewhere. "That light … I don't think it's a wave or a particle, I think it operates from a different set of physics."

The only person who saw the same sky Tara did, and there were serious questions regarding her sanity. Not reassuring.

Then again, if this world ever started not to feel insane, it would be time to worry.

~ – ~ – ~

Something changed, and Xander wasn't on lockdown anymore, but by then there was the problem of Spike. He'd been doing a long scouting trip of his own when Buffy was lost, so there was no knowing how long it had taken him to get the news. Esther had relayed word from Willow (whose awareness, while not all-encompassing, could seemingly touch any part of the globe) that their vampire 'ally' was back in the area. And he hadn't come into the settlement, so that meant he knew.

Xander was convinced that Spike would dedicate himself to killing them all, chip or no chip. Tara wasn't sure. She had never doubted Spike's devotion to Buffy, but it came from a dark place because, well, he was evil. And, though Tara would have gambled on that steadfast, stubborn protectiveness extending to cover the Slayer's mother and sister as well, they were dead, too. Bottom line, she just didn't know. She had felt genuine respect for Spike's determination to reach beyond his basic nature, to offer love as giving and self-sacrifice instead of just passion and possession. He was more than merely a vampire … but he had never been less, vampire he remained, and his history justified ample paranoia.

Xander went to Angel for help, but the timing was bad, Angel and his entire crew were about to leave on something they counted as more important. Xander shouted and swore, he never lost control that way anymore but somehow Angel could still get under his skin. It was Cordelia who delivered the final word, however: "Visions, Bucko. Live with it."

When they left, she stopped to kiss Xander, the kind of kiss someone would give if they wanted to have a memory to hold onto. Angel had said they would try to return in two weeks, and they'd have time then for the Spike problem. Seeing that kiss, Tara wondered if Cordelia suspected, or knew, that she wouldn't be coming back.

Xander watched them leave, and then he went to see Willow. It wasn't a chance he took often, this was only the third time in six months, but he was grimly insistent. Tara, waiting outside, saw the sky change four times, green to blue to green to blue and finally back to green, each shift only a stuttered fraction of a second but as tautly terrifying as steel strands snapping in an elevator cable. When Xander came out, his face was set. "She can't track him," he said to Tara. "She can't spare the attention. But she's set the barrier to keep him out, just like other demons. I managed to get that much."

"It's enough," Tara assured him. "Just two weeks … we can wait."

He only looked at her and shook his head, and she knew he was right. They were already down to emergency rations, nothing would grow under that beautiful verdant alien sky and their food stocks were never more than a few days from running out, and Anne was becoming strident in her demands for more antibiotics. If they went out, they risked dying, but that was nothing new by now. If they didn't go out, people would begin dying anyhow, in the settlement. He couldn't allow it to happen.

For that matter, neither could she. "We'll be careful," Tara told him, not trying to disguise the surrender. "We'll go quick, and we'll be careful, and it will work out. We'll make it work."

~ – ~ – ~

The day Xander died, that was a very bad day.

It started out good. They found seven civilians, four of them in the cab of a WalMart truck carrying a full load of supplies and the others following in a Range Rover. Under demon attack, of course, but the attack broke when Xander and Tara and the others came roaring in with all weapons firing. Best of all, the new people were looking for them, had heard of the Safety Zone and were seeking refuge, so there was no need to spend time persuading them to join and follow. (Or, worse, using the advantage in firepower to force the sharing of supplies they had to have.) Even though they'd taken casualties in the rescue, three of the four were almost certain to live and two would probably be able to return to duty in a month's time. So, yes, worth the risk and effort and cost.

Then Spike crashed a tow truck into the Range Rover. They heard it coming, saw it, but waited too long because they'd assumed a human driver. They got everybody else into the remaining vehicles and took off for the settlement, only to have him pop up in their rear view mirrors minutes later, pelting after them hell-for-leather on a motorcycle, it wasn't night because they didn't go out at night but it was edging toward evening, and there was enough overcast that a vampire bloodthirsty enough or crazy enough or obsessed enough could force his way through the sunlight that seeped past.

And Xander looked at Tara, calm and serious, and said, "I'll slow him down. You get them back. Don't stop for anything, don't let the gas pedal off the floor till you're all inside the Zone. Promise me."

So she did, because she had to, because this was how it was now. She let him out by the roadside to wait for Spike (who could simply ignore him and blow straight past, only they both knew he wouldn't), and she led the others on a run for safety and left Xander to die. Exactly as he had left Buffy, except he had expected Buffy to survive, and there were no such illusions in this case.

Her own pain was so overwhelming, she didn't realize how exact the parallel was until she was back in the settlement delivering the news, and saw the same fear growing again in the eyes regarding her. Hope was fragile, it had to rest somewhere, and she hadn't expected this and she wasn't ready and she only had one pattern to call on so that was the one she followed. "Spike isn't going away," she said to them, voice rising clear and firm with false assurance. "Even if he would, we can't wait that long, so we have to take the fight to him. That's going to take coordination —"

She did it the way Xander had done it, keeping them engaged, keeping them purposeful, never giving them time for doubts. Reason told her he must have been juggling just as frantically as she was now, but it seemed impossible that anything so desperately makeshift could ever have worked, she was making it up as she went, snatching at any inspiration from one moment to the next and praying no one caught on, realized how unsuited she was to the role she suddenly couldn't avoid.

They got Spike three days later in a live-bait play, Tara went out on a bright day but her truck mysteriously broke down and by sunset she was still a mile short of the barrier, on foot, when Spike rose up in front of her. Her draw was every bit as quicksilver-smooth as she had practiced, and he just laughed and came straight at her. His eyes in the fading light were dilated huge with pain suppressants — to overcome the chip, she realized — he must have counted on those and his inhuman constitution to weather the bullets, but the bullets were only a distraction. The gallon Ziploc bag of holy water that Tara had been levitating for the past three hours hit Spike at the bottom of a hundred-foot plummet, and the shots had been a signal for others to come tearing to her position in Hummers and dune buggies. He was still screaming curses at them when they doused him with gasoline, and the fire was still blazing behind them when they passed back through the barrier and into safety.

And, with that finally finished, Tara shut herself into the room she had shared with Xander and quietly fell apart.

She hadn't known, she hadn't known, it had been too impossible for her to even think of watching for it, but she loved him. Making love to the wrong body, but his spirit had burned fiercely inside him, and they had shared burdens and need and remorseless duty, had given till there was nothing left and then found a way to keep going anyhow. She would have died for him, but she had thought that was just part of her commitment to the greater good. Now, with him gone, she didn't know how she was supposed to keep living.

She gave herself an hour for grief, despair, desolation. Then she washed her face and went out to continue his struggle. Because there was no other choice.

~ – ~ – ~

Whether vision or premonition or whatever, Cordelia's farewell kiss had been the right call. She didn't return, nor Angel, nor any of the people who had departed with them.

Others, making shorter forays outside, likewise failed to come back. Mary Claire, Percy, Crazy Jay. Devon lost an arm, started teaching himself to shoot left-handed.

Tara became adept at feigning command and confidence. She lost more weight, though, and the face in her mirror would have alarmed her if she had seen it on the street a year before.

Esther turned all her night duties over to Kimber, and moved in with Tara. And it was the same, it was exactly the same, Esther was no more inclined toward women than Tara toward men, but Tara took what was offered just as Xander had done. At least this time, when their tears mingled in the aftermath, there didn't seem to be any reason to hide it.

She kept on. It couldn't last, but she was determined to keep on for as long as she possibly could.

~ – ~ – ~

The day Fred died wasn't even close to being the worst of all, but it was the breaking point. Tara had too many other responsibilities now, she didn't have time to deal with Fred, but she looked around one day and Fred was staring at her, white-faced, and then began to cry. "I'm sorry," the girl blubbered. "But you're just so bright. Oh, God, you're so bright!" Then she fled, ungainly sobbing stick-figure bouncing off people in her blind flight, and twenty minutes later someone brought word to Tara that Fred had hanged herself.

Even without the suicide as impetus, Tara would have acted, because what she had heard in the distraught girl's voice had touched memories she wouldn't have been able to ignore. With the news of Fred's death, though, decision was instant, and Tara went to call on Willow for the first time in … ever. Esther, taking the day shift, was alarmed, for it had been drummed into all of them that this above all else was to be avoided. "I … I don't —" she began, then caught herself. "Anything you need to ask her, I'll be glad to —"

"Esther," Tara said, and her own voice amazed her. "Don't try to stop me. I don't want to hurt you."

The first sight of Willow was a new shock, and at the same time no surprise at all. Her eyes had gone completely black, and dark streaks ran through her hair in a way that seemed to shift according to the angle of her head. Her skin was pale as porcelain, which made sense because by all reports she hadn't been outside this central room in months. The stillness Esther had described, that was the biggest difference. She looked to Tara with no change of expression, and murmured, "Hey, baby. Long time."

"You said it had to be that way," Tara pointed out.

"And now it's almost ready to come together," Willow agreed serenely. "A couple of weeks ago, you'd have been taking a big chance, messing with my balance like this." The faintest suggestion of a smile. "But that was a couple of weeks ago."

"I felt it," Tara said. "Every time I passed through the barrier. I didn't think about it because it was supposed to be a transition point —"

"And it is," Willow said. "Transition from one reality to another."

Her nonchalance was terrifying. This changed everything, this destroyed everything, and Willow was behaving as if none of it mattered. "Fred is dead," Tara said to her.

"Who?" Willow asked, though her tone didn't convey any real interest.

"That's right," Tara said. "You never actually met most of these people, did you? Fred was a hero. She hung onto her sanity for years, in one of the lesser demon dimensions. Angel and his people rescued her, brought her back just in time to watch the world fall apart." Willow's face showed nothing, and Tara heard her own voice rising. "She lost it, finally. She killed herself, not an hour ago. At the end, though, I think she was seeing something when she looked at me. The way I could see what Dawn really was, back when I was crazy."

"Ah," Willow said. Only the one syllable.

"The thing is," Tara went on, "from something she said before, I think maybe she was seeing exactly what I saw. The same energy. The same color as the sky, here inside the Zone."

"I needed it," Willow said, with that same inhuman calm. "Nothing less would do."

"But why?" Tara insisted. "Why would the essence of the Key be inside me?"

For a long time there was no answer, as Willow sat in preternatural immobility. Then, rising from the low chair, she said, "You know, I believe this would be a good time to go outside. I worked hard on this world, but I've never really seen it."

The house where Willow had been staying had an interior courtyard, and in it a rose garden. Nothing could grow here, that was one of the facts of their existence, but the roses didn't seem to be dying, either. More of Willow's power? Standing under the emerald sky, with the woman who had been her lover in a different lifetime, Tara asked again, "Why would she see Dawn's energy inside me?"

"Because you're the reason," Willow told her. "The reason for everything. I lost you, and I tried, I tried, but the gods shut me out. So I reached back, looking for a turning point, looking for the moment when I could make it change."

Tara stared at her. "You did this," she whispered. "Everything that's happened, everything we've gone through …you did this."

"I've been holding on for so long," Willow said. "Stretching the probabilities, holding the line, making this world BE. All the power I took, all the forces I realigned, and still I had to hold it into place, every second of every minute of every hour of every day. Everything I had, everything I could steal, was just barely enough." She looked to Tara. "But we're there now. It's almost solid, almost set. Soon, it'll stand without me having to keep it standing. And then, finally, we can be together again."

"No," Tara said. "I won't let you do this."

"You can't stop me," Willow observed. Dismissive, dispassionate. "The amount of power I had to pull together, to accomplish what I have … By now, there's nobody in this reality who could stand against me."

"I know," Tara said. "I know."

The pistol was in her hand with instant effortless fluidity. Even so, her one-time lover could have stopped her, but as always Willow trusted too much in her own invulnerability. One shot, and the sky spun and tore and began to run like watercolors, she was on her back and Willow was standing over her, screaming, that crystalline detachment shattered at last.

The day Tara died, that was the first good day in a long, long time.

As her vision dimmed, she saw that her blood had spackled the front of Willow's blouse. And, in a way that didn't have to make sense to make sense, that somehow seemed right.