Unknown

By Sweetprincipale

This is set in my non-canon, but canon-esque series following Uncontrollable and Unmentionable. If you haven't read those first, please do, or this won't read nearly as well or make much sense. Unknown begins a few weeks after the end of Unmentionable, around the beginning of season five.

Author's Note: This was a very difficult chapter to write. There is some subject matter that had to be handled delicately, which I did to the best of my ability. I ask you to bear with me. Also, slight smut warning.

Dedicated to: Alexiarrose, ginar369, omslagspapper, Dlillith21, Sirius120, Jackiemack916, Jewel74, Illusera, cavemenftw, rosalea12, kerry220, jhiz, Alottalove, mike13z50, skeezixx, and Juggling. Thank you, my dears! You are my inspirations, I couldn't do this without you!

Direct Quotes are obviously not mine, but belong to the fabulously talented and creative people who wrote them. In this case, some of season five's dialogue will be used.

Disclaimer: Nothing of Buffy belongs to me, except my sincere admiration. However, this story is all mine.

Part XVI

"Mom, you don't have to come. It's um- it's just Slayer-stuff." Buffy tried to prevent Joyce from putting on her sweater.

"All you seem to do is Slayer stuff, Sweetie. Besides, if I have to lay on this couch and watch soaps for one more hour- I'll pull out the rest of my hair." Joyce tried to joke.

"A cancer joke? See, that's proof you need more rest."

"Or that I'm dealing with it like a good little soldier." Joyce teetered from weariness but shouldered her bag with a smile. "Like someone else I know." She forced herself to smile at Buffy playfully. Forced herself not to confront or question her about the thing both of them were avoiding discussing outright. Once in two days was painful enough.

"I can have all the guys come here if you want a non-television night. You can watch the real drama that is Scooby research. Will Xander tear a page? Does Giles really have some secret Watcher power that enables him to carry five hundred pounds of books in one trip?" Buffy joked back eagerly, with much the same purpose of avoidance in mind.

"Well, that settles it. All the books are there. I can't ask Giles to bring his entire library over here, and it's the first time he's had a night at his own house in a week." Joyce marched out the door, and winced at lowering sun, hand to her eyes.

"Mom?"

"I'm fine, the - the pain is just always a little sharper the day after treatment." Joyce continued.

"Well," Buffy scurried after her, still attempting to sway her, "if you're in pain now, you really wanna stay home! Um, research sessions, long, headache-y, boring... dusty." Her mother stared at her with arched eyebrows and suspicious look. "Paper cuts?" Buffy tapered off lamely.

"I'm going. I won't get in the way of your precious research, I'm just going to help make a nice meal for everyone. I've barely cooked since I started treatment, and I know all of you are living on cafeteria and take out food. I might be a little tired but I can still make one dinner."

"I know you can, Mom." Buffy didn't think it would be kind to remind her mom that they'd all been living like that for the last year- it was called college. And Xander- well she was pretty sure Xander had lived like that throughout his entire life, or ever since Mrs. Harris found out about the joys of afternoon martinis.

"I want to see Rupert. And all of you at once. It'll be my way of thanking everyone for all their help."

"You don't have to thank us! We love you, of course we'd help!" Buffy joined her mother in the car and watched nervously as she squinted while driving, her light sensitive eyes shutting halfway in pain.

"It's still something I want to do." Joyce insisted firmly.

"Promise me you won't tire yourself out? I know you wanted to come back to the gallery tomorrow."

"I've been away from it too much." Joyce sighed. "I'll just come for the afternoon until closing tomorrow. And if I'm tired I'll nap upstairs."

Mom sleeping in Giles' bed. While we're downstairs. Wince. No, no wincing, don't think thoughts like- oh crap, too late. Buffy plastered a fake, tight smile on her face and said, "That'll be good." If she doesn't worry about what I do with my boyfriend, I won't worry about what she does with hers. Or at least I won't mention it.

Joyce gave her daughter a sideways glance. She and Rupert had never- well, not in his place. And they weren't going to start now, with a room full of teenagers- former teenagers, downstairs. He has that open plan loft. Darn it. She flushed. I'm too tired to do anything tonight anyway. Making dinner for half a dozen people will probably make me sleep for eight hours. The strong single parent and business woman in her felt a flash of particularly vicious hate for her disease. She cursed what was weakening her and exhausting her, and she cursed the fact that she had to let it show. She didn't have to let it show so visibly, though. Poor Joyce, she made dinner and now she has to lay down. Joyce is napping by seven thirty.

"On second thought, Buffy, after dinner I think I'll drive home. Have an early night, so I can actually be useful tomorrow afternoon."

"Okay, Mom. I mean, I don't think anyone would care if you took a nap upstairs. Nope. I wouldn't. No problem." Buffy reassured with an overdose of guilt-ridden support.

"You can stop, Sweetie." Joyce chuckled.

"Stop what?"

"You know."

Buffy shook herself internally. Grow. Up. Oh, and be grateful your Mom has a cool guy like Giles who seriously would take that hard lumpy couch all night just so she could sleep peacefully, and would probably wake her up with scones and tea in bed in the morning. "Mom, seriously. As long as you're happy."

I'd be happier without the gnawing pain and always feeling like I need to sit down. "I think I'd be happy cooking and eating with you, and then curling up in my robe and falling asleep to Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn on my own couch." Joyce smiled.

Buffy was relieved. Her mom and slay-related research should not combine. They would be researching things from the dream, things her mom could probably handle. Still, Spike, Giles, and herself would also be looking for clues to those monks, the Order of Guardians, and Dagons, and Keys, and souls as everyone else was plowing through books. Things they needed to keep hidden. Still- research. Not something her mom needed to know or worry about. "Sounds good, Mom."

"You can get a ride home from one of your friends, can't you?" Joyce asked with reflexive maternal instinct.

"Sure, Spike will bring me home after patrol." Buffy replied, equally automatically.

Both of them thought back to yesterday's conversation. Spike. Bringing Buffy home. Late at night. Because they're friends. No. Because they're in love. "Oh. Will Spike be there tonight?" Joyce asked nonchalantly as possible.

"Mhm. When it gets darker." Buffy's voice was somewhat strained.

"I haven't seen him in a few days."

"Yeah, well... schedules and -stuff." Buffy dug her fingers into her knee as Joyce turned far too sharply into Giles' parking area.

"I see." Joyce parked and turned off the motor.

"Mom, I-"

"Grab the groceries out of the trunk for me, Sweetie? I need to get those potatoes peeled right away. I hope Rupert remembered to get out the big stock pot. Rupert?" Joyce was walking rapidly up the steps to his flat.

Buffy sighed and lifted brown bags out of the backseat. So much for avoiding the boyfriend topic. This is going to be a really fun family dinner.


"Tara?"

Tara dropped her peacock feather earring with a gasp as the familiar voice suddenly crashed through the shut door of her dorm room. "Dad?" Tara opened the door with suddenly sweating palms.

"Hello. I'm glad I caught you in." Her father strode into the room, pressing back on her like a tidal wave, making her hastily back away. "The door wasn't locked. Anyone could've come in here. This isn't the country, young lady, you need to exercise some precautions, or you could get hurt."

"I-uh-I was just h-heading out t-to -" Tara stuttered, backing away further.

"I don't suppose it matters much in your case. But after tomorrow, it will. You could hurt someone."

Tara blinked, startled. "I...?"

Her father ignored her and looked appraisingly around the room. His dull eyes sparked with sudden disgust as he saw the cache of magical supplies and objects Willow and Tara had set up in their "witchy corner". "You don't even hide it. Like all the women on your mother's side..."

"Th-those are just candles, Daddy, candles and crystals, and I would n-never hurt someone with them." Tara moved with a swish of her long skirt, sweeping up all of their carefully organized materials in one arm and dumping them onto one of their hand loomed casting rugs, bundling everything up and stuffing it in her old wooden trunk.

"Well. At least you're packing. Although I don't want you to bring those- those things with you. Bringing you home means keeping you safe and keeping others safe. You can't bring your demon nonsense with you."

"I'm n-not a demon, I'm- I'm just good with healing people. Reading people. Mom was -"

"Don't you bring your mother into this! Her demon blood killed her! And those damn rocks and toys-" he rolled a crystal angrily across her bureau, "made it worse. You're not going to end up the same way, Tara."

"I only-"

"I wasn't done speaking. Is that how you show respect to your father?"

"No, Sir. Sorry, Sir." Tara felt overwhelmed, trapped and spinning in the wind at the same time. Panic was beginning to rise in her.

"I'd hoped maybe you'd gotten over the whole 'witchcraft thing'. That if we let you go, you'd ... get it out of your system. It'd stop feeding the evil inside you."

I'm not evil! I'm not!

But there is something inside me.

Tara's father put his hands in his pockets and sighed. "I had hoped you'd be ready to leave by the time I arrived."

"L-leave?"

"You did get my letters?"

"I did, b-but-"

"I know your birthday isn't for another two days, but we needed to pick you up before then, of course."

"We?"

"Donny and Beth came. I was hoping if you wouldn't listen to me, you'd listen to them." He knew full well that was unnecessary. They were there for guilt, to prevent her from making a scene. Tara was too docile to make much of a fuss, but the insurance wouldn't hurt.

"Why? What are they going to say?" That you already haven't? That you haven't hammered into me since Mom got sick? That you haven't reminded me of every day since she died, that you haven't written to me about hinting, scaring, making me afraid of my own shadow? I'm not afraid of myself anymore.

I wish I could stop being afraid of you.

"They shouldn't have to say anything. We shouldn't have had to come down here, we shouldn't have had to drag you back home, make you act responsibly. You're turning twenty! You know what that means."

Yes, she knew what he said it meant. She didn't think it was true. No. More than think. Never had been sure it was true, now she knew it wasn't. Only she had never been able to go against her father. She had tried to tell him things before, but he never listened.

Visibly upset, close to tears, Tara's pale skin was turning pink as she tried to word it so that he would hear her. "I don't think my birthday- I don't think it's ... it- it won't mean that-"

He became impatient, as he always had. "You still speak in tongues, don't you? You had a hard time speaking ever since you were a child. Your brother had no trouble. I knew the demons were already choking you." He said it in a manner of despairing conceit. Almost as if he was satisfied.

Almost as if he was twisting everything she said.

He always takes the darker view. Not like he doesn't believe me- like he wants to make me wrong. Tara's eyes narrowed suspiciously and her quivering lips stilled.

Her father saw it and his voice became even more sorrowfully grave. "I see it in you, Tara. That look you give me... what's poisoning your mind?"

Tara shook her head suddenly, and she was ashamed. It wasn't as though magic was something totally pure. It could be, or it could be pure evil. People were ignorant. People were mislead and unkind. She had always tried to be better than that, kind, patient, gentle.

"Nothing, Dad. I just don't think anything will happen this week. Wh-when I have my birthday. Nothing evil. I p-promise."

Mr. Maclay shook his head. "Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it'll be next year. The year after. All I have to go on is what your mother told me. When she was twenty-"

Tara shook her head. She had heard this story before- from both parents. "Grandma taught her the old ways, she was just t-teaching her!"

"No! Your mother got her 'powers' at twenty because that foul demon spawn started to hatch inside her!"

"M-mom always had powers!" Tara's shaking fingers curled into fists.

"And where do you think those powers come from?" He slammed his hand down hard on the dresser, make up and jewelry rattling and crashing. A black blur streaked out from under it and scrambled under the bed.

"Miss Kitty!" Tara gasped and began to kneel.

"Oh, no. Even a black cat? Are you trying to bring yourself to damnation?"

"She's got a white tummy!" Tara stopped halfway to the floor. She had no desire to expose the trembling little cat to her father's anger any further. She slowly rose to face him.

He was done reasoning. "It's going to happen. Something is in you."

"I know." Tara whispered.

"Do your friends know?"

"Y-yes." Tara nodded slightly, trying to hide a guilty flash in her eyes. They know I have something in me. A Channel. A way to let voices be heard. They don't know what I'm 'supposed' to be, according to you.

"Are you lying to me?" His daughter's head drooped farther, and he took it as an admission of guilt. "Tara, you're coming home with us. You know it's the only way."

"Home?" Home is here. Home is Willow. Home is her love.

"You can't control what's going to happen. If you do have friends, you staying near them just puts them at risk. If it doesn't happen this week, if it doesn't happen this year, every day you spend close to them just puts them in line to get hurt. You'll be the one to hurt them. How do you think that'll feel?"

Tara felt her knees buckle. His verbal assault was every bit as strong as physical blows she'd received in her life, and like she had done in the past, she stopped struggling. "I w-won't hurt them."

"You have evil inside of you and it will come out. And letting yourself work all this magic is only going to make it worse. I know you think it's some gift, but who do you think gives you that gift? Can you tell me you know that?"

She couldn't. "I just know it doesn't feel evil. Sir." Tara murmured softly.

"Evil never does."

He said it with quiet conviction. Absolute certainty. He was either a very good liar, or he truly believed it. Tara felt some gnawing doubt resurface.

"I was hoping we'd all go out for a family dinner, but I don't feel much like eating right now." He walked away from her, then paused. "I'll give you some time, but we need to be gone by morning of the day. Need to have you indoors and away from people by nightfall."

Tara felt her head head bob once, like something tugged it. The pain in her throat blocked any words.

Mr. Maclay paused as he grasped the doorknob and pulled it shut. "I know it's hard. But your family loves you, Tara, no matter what. These friends you've made in just a year- they don't really matter. How do you think they're going to feel when they see your true face?"

A muffled sob burst from her. He nodded knowingly. "It's for the best. You'll see."


"How nice to see you, Joyce. Looking well." Spike walked into Giles' flat, nodding at him, smiling at Buffy- and laying it on thick for Joyce.

"Spike... I hope you like roast and mashed potatoes. If I had realized you were coming I would have bought some blood while I was getting the beef."

"Oh, I have some." Giles spoke up hurriedly.

"That was the awkward small talk portion of the greeting." Xander hissed into the Watcher's ear.

"Which you've just ruined. Thank you for taking a turn, it's usually me." Anya put a bowl of steaming mashed potatoes on the coffee table.

Buffy took Spike's arm and rescued him from the middle of the entryway. "We're eating in the living room. Since Giles lacks a large enough table and the right number of chairs."

"I don't lack them... they're in storage." Giles said huffily. "I had to downsize, my larger dining set was interfering with the bookshelves."

"As in the fact that you think it's more important to have 5000 volumes on magical whatsis than a place to sit down and eat?" Xander made a grab for the serving spoon and Anya smacked his wrist.

"If you had previously worked in a library which had to be condensed into a living room, you'd make sacrifices as well!" Giles snapped.

In the midst of the bickering and place setting, Joyce slipped back into the kitchen.

"Don't pick on Giles." Buffy pouted at Xander.

"You were going to organize these books over the summer, and look at this place!"

"People kept borrowing them! This place does more business than the library during finals week... not that I'd know from personal experience."

"Speaking of people obsessed with books and academic achievement, has anyone seen Tara? Or Willow?"

Spike silently ducked out of the confusion. Playing nice with all of these people still gave him the urge to shout at them to shut up sometimes. A lot of the time actually, especially when they all decided to talk over each other, and all about nonsense.

"Came to get m' mugful." Spike smiled crookedly at Joyce and tried to unobtrusively get into the fridge.

She stepped out of his way, a small smile that didn't reach her eyes in place. "Right. Your mugful. Full of blood?" Joyce's voice was even, not cheerful, not negative.

"Right from the butcher's." Spike smiled more stiffly.

"Of course."

" Right then. I'll just pour this into a mug and into the micro, and bob's your uncle." Spike reached behind her and pulled out a chipped yellow coffee cup. "This one's mine. Old man- I mean, Giles, keeps it for me. Case I pop in peckish." Spike yanked open the bag and began to pour.

Joyce grabbed his wrist as he began to move his drink to the microwave, firmly pushing it back to the counter. "Buffy told me. You know that, don't you? She's told you, too, I hope." Joyce hissed, worried fire dancing in her eyes.

"Buffy told me what?" Spike let her push his wrist down and hold it there, mildly concerned by the sudden whispering fury, coming out of nowhere. Or exactly where. "Oh! That she-"

"Loves you. She told you she loves you, and she told you that I know it now?" Joyce insisted, darting a quick glance out into the living room where Willow had just arrived, minus Tara, and everyone was in full cry. No one had noticed their absence yet.

"Yes. Yes, I know that. Know you aren't thrilled, but I appreciate that you -"

Joyce closed her eyes briefly. "Yes, yes, I'm trying to be supportive and understanding. To Buffy."

Spike's inside's fell, his smile faded, but he tried not to show his disappointment. Buffy's the one that matters. Joyce'll come 'round. Or not. Long as she doesn't drive Slayer round the twist.

"She loves you. How do you feel about that?" Do you understand love, like they say you do?

Spike answered unhesitatingly. "I know I feel like the luckiest man in the world."

Joyce let go of his wrist and clutched the counter for support. "But that's it. You're not a man. You're a-"

"Vampire. Don't deserve her love. Not a man." He said evenly.

Joyce looked at him quizzically, having expected an argument. "Yes. That's it. Not a man."

"But she treats me like one. She treats me better than that, even, 'cause I've been a man, a human man in love before, an' had my heart broken. Stings long enough that even immortality doesn't wash away the pain. Not until you get somethin' truly better." Spike's head swiveled out towards the living room. "You ever had that? Where you know you don't really deserve it? Can't figure out why they pick you, but you fit, an' you know it's better than you thought it could be? Even if the rest of the world is still a mad old place?"

Joyce followed his gaze, then past it. Rupert. Better than she expected. Better than many would say she deserved. What made them click? Stubbornness, things in common, circumstances?

He knew he shouldn't prod, but he was never one to play it safe, enjoyed the trouble so much more than the calm. Really need to learn the difference between pokin' the bear an' kickin' it in the head, Spike thought, and queried her again, voice dropping, rasping as he nudged her with his words. "Ever had that feelin', Joyce?"

"Not until recently." Joyce murmured, still studying the handsome man in the next room.

"You know then. You know it's not somethin' you'd hurt or harm or muck about with."

"No, I wouldn't!"

"Nor would I!"

Joyce scowled for a split second realizing how he'd manipulated the conversation until they were compared. With one very important contrast- I was never evil. Moody and not very open-minded, I admit that, but not evil. Unless possessed by that witch-hating demon, or bad chocolate.

"Funny thing is... when you ask them, in there," Spike jerked his head towards Buffy and Giles, "they say they're the lucky ones. Ask 'em. His life was emptyin' out an' you've come along and filled it back up. Her life- well, she's the Slayer, she doesn't have to have anyone, that's what they say. What the all powerful ones in charge of Slayin' should've said was that it's hard to find anyone who's gonna stay around, who can keep up. Whitebread couldn't. Broody Boy wouldn't." Spike was no longer really speaking to Joyce, his poetic side was wrapped up in his girl, and he was just talking about her, thinking aloud about her, like he found himself doing every so often. "I'll love her like a man. I'll fight for her like a demon. And turns out that's all she really wants. Somethin' for each side."

Damn him. Oh, and bless him, too. Joyce made a small frustrated noise and suddenly latched onto the neckline of his black teeshirt, fist curling under his chin. "That's a beautiful sentiment, and if you mean it I'm really happy to hear that's how you feel about her."

Spike's nodded and gulped slightly, suddenly wondering if Giles would be stupid enough to leave fire axes around.

Joyce continued. "I'm still not happy about this entire situation but I won't say anything right now. I understand lot of what Buffy's going through, even though she doesn't think we're anything alike."

"Oh, I always knew you were. The iron fists in the velvet gloves, Luv." Spike muttered nervously.

Internally slightly mollified, Joyce didn't let him see it. "I just want you to remember something." She gestured with her free hand around the kitchen, around the house in general. "Anything wooden is a deadly weapon in my hands. I don't need an ax."

"Was wondering when you'd bring that up."

"A coat rack, a wooden spoon, even some of my African art or my Queen Anne pieces- I will push them straight through your heart- if you ever break hers." She looked into his eyes with dead seriousness and let him know she meant every word of it.

Spike nodded once, and felt her fingers loosen on his collar. Then he smiled broadly, that irresistible, charming smile.

"I'm not joking!" Joyce reminded him sharply.

"I know." Spike didn't stop beaming. He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "If I ever break her heart, we gotta date, you, me, and somethin' wooden. But just to let you know- it's a date I'm not gonna be around to keep."

"You might be fast, but hell hath no fury like a woman with a sobbing daughter and a jerk ex-boyfriend."

"Understood. But the only reason she'd have a broken heart over me is 'cause of grief. And the only reason I'd give her grief is if I took the fall... so she didn't have to."

He'd die for her.

He became brisk. "But don't tell her that, alright? She an' I have a deal where neither of us leaves, an' that's what I plan on stickin' to, without mentionin' the other." He sniffed in, business concluded. "Don't plan on lettin' anything separate us."

Joyce nodded, letting go of him completely, all at once aware of her behavior. She came down to reality with a thud. "Oh, the carrots! The carrots are scorching."

"I need to get this heated up." Spike remembered the blood on the counter.

Joyce turned off the burner and poured the carrots into a bowl before they burned, and then called, "When all of you stop arguing, there's dinner in here that needs to find its way onto plates if it ever wants to be eaten!"

"I'm there!" Xander lept over the back of the couch and took broad strides to the kitchen. "Not to be rude and all, but I vote we don't wait for Tara. I'm starving."

"And everything's hot now." Anya added.

"I'll call our room again." Willow, who had apparently arrived while Spike and Joyce had their verbal showdown, frowned, but nodded.

"Willing hands here." Buffy came into the kitchen, and noticed who was in it. Who had been in it alone, for several minutes probably. "Uh, Mom? What can I do?"

"Take these napkins out there and tell Rupert we need something to put the roasting pan on so it doesn't leave a mark on his coffee table." Joyce said without meeting her eyes.

"Will do."

"I'll come with you, Slayer." The microwave beeped and Spike hastily grabbed his mug.


"Well?" Buffy hissed.

"If I ever hurt you, I'm a deader man." He joked in a whisper, lips brushing against her ear.

"So, same old, same old?" She tried to smile, but all that came out was mildly pained grimace.

"Nah, Slayer, it's better. She's not too bloody happy, but she's not callin' for holy water and pitchforks."

"My dating life sucks."

"That's okay. This isn't 'datin'. This is more than datin'." Spike reminded her.

Buffy felt a pleasurable shiver course through her, not undoing the knot of stress in her stomach, but loosening it. This is more. This is serious. This is very serious, on epic levels of seriousness. "I can't wait to get home tonight." She said suddenly, softly, just for his ears.

He knew she meant their place. He couldn't wipe the smile off his face.


"Let me carry that, my love." Giles sidestepped the open oven door and lifted out the roast. "Mm. You spoil me so."

Joyce laughed, her eyes twinkling at him. "I think you meant to say you spoil me."

"Hardly." Giles kissed the spot behind her ear that always made her -

"Rupert!" She giggled.

"Conclusive evidence." He smiled roguishly. He prepared to turn and head out of the kitchen when he noticed just how pale his paramour was. How pronounced the dark circles suddenly were under her eyes. "Joyce?"

"I'm fine." She smiled brightly.

"Oh, yes, that's convincing." He set the pan down and felt her forehead. "You've spiked a fever."

"Probably." Joyce gave a harsh laugh.

"What?"

"Spike. Buffy. This thing between them, Rupert..."

"Causes you concern, and you're letting yourself get worked up." He frowned.

"Don't treat me like a child." Joyce warned.

"I won't. May I treat you like I care about you?" He pressed, looking pointedly over the rims of his glasses with a hint of a smile.

She melted. "Yes. Yes, you may." She leaned against him, and then wonderful feeling, found arms going around her, maybe slightly hesitant arms, but arms that held her tight.

"I can't get hold of Tara, so I think she must be on her way ov- oh. I- I'm sorry." Willow turned on her heel, blushing as she'd blundered into the kitchen and the couple.

"It's alright!" Giles assured, but blushed as well as he pulled back from Joyce. "You didn't need to cook."

"But I wanted to. It's not-" she struggled for words, "it's not easy letting people take care of you all the time, after you've learned how to take care of yourself. Completely. Without anyone." Because you couldn't count on anyone.

"I know, Darling, but we don't consider it 'taking care of you'. Simply helping. As you help us. Now, not treating you like a child, but you are going to go sit down." He steered her from the kitchen and with a single glance cleared the couch.

"You look pale." Anya said at once.

"Shh." Willow hissed. "Joyce? Water?"

"Yes, please." Joyce gave in and nodded. "But then no one fusses. I just- feel a little tired. After dinner I'll head to bed early, and let you have your little research party."

"Hrm. As we're almost all assembled, let me get the main dish in here, and we'll dig in." Giles bobbed his head and turned away quickly, to hide the concern on his face, so he wouldn't have to see the secretive, worried looks everyone else was throwing around the room. It's all part of the treatment. Part of fighting it off. That's all. That's all it is, everything will be fine.

Dash it, how many times do I have to say it before I believe it?


"Tara? Are you okay?"

Willow hadn't stayed long after dinner. In fact, no one had. Giles took Joyce home. Spike and Buffy went out to the warehouse district and to Willy's, listening for, looking for something, but nothing they elaborated on. Xander and Anya had apartment related stuff to do. Tara had never shown up, and never called back. Willow worriedly entered the dorm room, flipping on the lights.

"Willow." Tara sat up from under a huddle of blankets on the bed.

"Tara! Baby, what's wrong?" Willow dropped her bag on the floor and slammed the door after her in one fluid motion, gliding over to the bed with wide, frightened eyes.

"Shhh." Tara had been lying in bed, alternately angry and crying, alternately planning to run away, just for a little while, and planning to confront them, planning to tell Willow, and planning to keep it a secret. No one needs to know my little problems. That my father's insane and superstitious. There's so much going on right now. Joyce being sick, these dream portents, all of us juggling everything- no one needs to hear about me.

I've never been very important.

With those unfortunate, self-belittling thoughts running through her head, Tara clung to Willow in a confused mass of kisses and shushing sounds. "I'm okay as long as you're here."

"I was so worried." Willow confessed, kissing her back, all over her cheeks. And her puffy eyes. "Sweetie, were you cry-"

"Nox." Tara extinguished the lights with a word. "I-I'm fine. Just need my Willow." She half-lied.

"You have me. You have me right now and forever and ever. Not going anywhere." Willow stroked back her hair, and let her fingers flow down her neck. She let them keep flowing as Tara clung to her convulsively.

"Need you."

"I'm here. Need you, too." Willow frowned momentarily, but Tara's fevered kiss wiped it from her mouth.

Tara was one born to comfort. She didn't know what it was like to need it and receive it willingly, or she had forgotten until she met Willow. She still found it difficult to say what she wanted, as she didn't quite know at this moment. She fell back on feelings her father generated in her. Guilt. Confusion. Worry.

"I'm sorry I missed dinner. I sh-should have called." She wrapped the blankets around them as Willow kicked off her shoes.

"I was just worried." Willow snuggled in, happy inside. "We all were. But you're a big girl. You can handle yourself. Just call me protective. Or a worry wart."

The light teasing words were felt much more deeply than Willow would have imagined. "I love that you're protective of me. That you worry about me." Tara ran her fingers through the scarlet hair. "Makes me feel loved. And safe."

"You are. Loved and safe." Willow's frown was returning. "Tara, did something-"

"I just want to snuggle up in your arms all night. Maybe all of tomorrow too." The blonde tried to giggle as she nestled in and interrupted.

The worrying feeling Willow had wouldn't go away, but it faded. "Snuggling hooky. Missing school to ravish my beautiful blonde goddess. I could see myself becoming a B student if this turns into a habit."

Giggling. Kissing. Touching. Soft, slender fingers under loose cotton, warm, slightly shaky hands undoing denim buttons.

"You cold, honey? Oooh, I could try that spell to-"

"Just hug me really tight instead. You're my kind of magic." Tara pressed their naked forms together. Guilt surged again. She didn't want Willow to see their magic supplies were all tossed carelessly into the trunk. She didn't want magic right now. No powers, good or bad, just love. Love is supposed to be the most powerful thing anyway. She loves me no matter what.

Willow slid her hands down and caressed the gloriously heart shaped hips and the curves, the silky soft wonderland just for her. "So beautiful. How'd I get someone so beautiful?"

"You asked nicely." Tara ran her hands over the slender pale shoulders over her. Such a gentle, powerful woman, my Willow. She bends with me. Never forces...

A sudden dark spiraling thought shut down the sweet reverie and Tara tensed up.

"Someone missed me." Willow murmured a singsong chant and she slid her head down to follow her hands, leaving little kisses as her lover's spine suddenly arched and the hips locked up.

"I-I did. I missed you." Deep breath. Deep, even breaths, it's Willow... Just Willow. The spine relaxed, the hips came down and widened, receiving the first fluttering kisses, which sent hot prickles dancing down to her toes. "Mmm."

"Mmm agreed." Willow swirled her tongue over and down, still feeling somewhat like a novice trying to impress a master craftsman. A delicious master craftsman. Pure honey. Honey and some sort of sweet spice. Wicca flavored, Willow thought as she giggled under the sheets and invaded the valley further.

Darkness was lifting from Tara's mind as she felt her lover tending to her, hands were clasping, bodies twining. This is how it should be. And no one should ever take us apart. She would love me if I was a demon. I told her, she knows what I thought, and she knows it's not true, that it doesn't matter at all to us. I'm not going to run away. I'll stand there and face them. They can't hurt me.

And the darkness was back. They would let her be hurt. Demons are made to be hurt.

"Gentle!" Tara screeched suddenly.

Willow sat up guiltily, her slender finger withdrawn from its intended caress and now curled well away. "I- I'm sorry! I'm sorry, honey."

Willow's apologizing to me. Even in the dark I can see the pain on her face. Please don't cry... Guilt and sadness turned into anger.

Hurting me again. And now they're hurting her.

Her soft voice shook in the darkness. "I'm sorry. It's not you. You w-were gentle."

"I must have- um- I must've done it wrong." Willow whispered, hesitantly stroking her sweetheart's inner thigh. Only she was always slow and soft going in, and when they worked up to a peak, when they found a rhythm, it was always so good. Sometimes it was surprisingly hard and fast. But it never hurt before.

"You did it just fine!" Tara sat up as well, sheet wrapped protectively over her round, full breasts, face half-hidden in her hair.

"Oh, I-I like to learn! You have more experience anyway." Willow shook her head. "Should I have - sh-should I not do it that way?"

"You should do it just like that. You're not the one who- hurts people."

Willow paused. "Hurts people?" She asked in a second.

Tara nodded.

"Tara... I know there're some things we don't talk about, but, Baby, if someone hurt you... you could tell me." And I would kill them. I would kill them. In the midst of gentle reassurance something black and hard woke up in Willow.

"No one hurt me. Today." Tara instinctively pulled her legs together tighter and pulled the blankets up to her chin.

"Right." Willow moved closer, and opened her arm. Tara leaned into her. Wrapping her up close, they slowly laid back, unspeaking. Because no one knows what to say. Except, "I'm sorry."

"Thank you. N-not your fault. A-and I didn't mean t-to bring it up l-like this." Tara closed her eyes and then hurriedly opened them. She didn't like the images she saw when her eyes were shut.

"You can bring up anything, anytime! I love you. I will always love you and you will always be- be perfect to me." Willow choked out, throat suddenly way too tight. I'm not supposed to be weak. I'm not supposed to cry, she's allowed to cry. Her pain.

But when you love someone this much, everything that hurts them, hurts you too.

"Thank you." Tara whispered, lying still, letting herself be held, trying to let everything bad roll away, off her shoulders. But it didn't. The shoulders shook once. Shook twice. Didn't stop shaking.

"Are you cold? No, of course you're not. Oh God, should I get off? Should I leave? I can go stay with Buffy tonight or my parents, if you want to be alone." Willow began to scramble up, hands retracting, no more contact. I'm so stupid. No touching, no sex. I know what happened to her wasn't 'sex', but it's the same parts and maybe it's the same memories and maybe... maybe I really suck at being a girlfriend.

"Don't leave!" Tara grabbed her wrist, then released it, pulling her terrified fingers back to her trembling mouth. "I mean- I mean, I don't want you to leave. Unless you don't want to be with me right now." Or maybe ever.

"No way I want that!" Willow locked her fingers through Tara's and held on tight. "I just want to help and I don't know how. I feel... helpless, and that's bad! That's bad, because I have to be strong for you."

"You are. You're my strength. And my air. I breathe you in, an-and everything is okay again."

Willow laid her thumbs under Tara's overflowing eyes, brushing single tears back, kissing them softly away as she leaned in to breathe against her temple. "I'll make everything okay, Baby. Everything. No one hurts my girl. I promise."


They were wrapped together again, and it was slow. It was beautiful. Nothing hurt. Nothing ever felt so safe, as being in her arms and hearing her say nothing would hurt again. Showing her whatever wounds there were, whatever pains were left inside- they were not strong enough to separate the two of them.

There wasn't the sharp and consuming pleasure they'd learned to enjoy, but it didn't matter. It was long and comforting, perfect for a night like tonight.

"I love you. You know that, right?" Willow looked up at the golden girl atop of her.

"I know." Tara managed a genuine smile and rolled off with a kiss, then lay on her side. For a moment everything was blissful.

Then she recalled that the peace wouldn't last. She still had to see her father. Her brother.

Tara shivered again.

Willow chewed her lip. "I'll listen." She finally hazarded.

"Nothing to s-say."

"Okay."

Silence that had been drowsy and pleasant was now tense. Willow tried again. "D-did something happen today? Or was it just me?"

That does it. Tara couldn't let Willow blame herself.

"My dad is in town. My brother and one of my cousins, too. They're in town."

Willow's mind blanked. "Okay?"

"I-They- I..." Words wouldn't form. "Seeing him reminds me of what h-happened."

Willow resisted the urge to sit up and scream out questions. Instead she waited for several agonizing moments, before asking, "Who?"

"Not sure. It was d-dark." That stammer came out worse and worse the more panic stricken she became, the more she remembered, the more she retold. Tara's nails bit into her palms as her fists clenched.

Willow felt sick. Sick in her stomach and her heart and soul.

"I think it was one of Tommy's friends. That's my-"

"Your brother."

"I- I think Dad knew- after, or he guessed. I think Tommy knew before."

"What?" Willow's mind refused to wrap around this horrible concept. "How could he know before? Unless he-" Willow's words died abruptly. Unless he let it happen. Or wanted it to happen.

"Yeah." Tara felt a wave of nausea crash over her and the room spun.

"But- but why would he? Why would they- how could they?" Willow clutched the blankets, clutched her hair, hysteria beginning to well up. It wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to exist at all, but if something happened, it was treated as a terrible tragedy. A horrible experience that your family would offer you love and support for and get you through. Support groups and maybe you would go to counseling and the guy would be caught and if you were a witch you would fry his testicles with a convenient curse.

"He said he didn't know. But um- I think h-he was lying. Or maybe he only knew after. I know he didn't think it was serious. I d-don't know for sure."

"Not serious? But the police-"

Tara shook her head. "No one saw it happen. Or heard it. I knew no one believed me... It never happened again... Um. So." Tara felt ashamed. Should have fought back more. Should have used a spell, only I couldn't think of one, only it was so fast. Should have gone to the police. And have my dad come get me and call me a troublemaker who was 'loose' with a boy. Or a bad seed.

"So?" Willow growled.

Tara shrugged helplessly. "I should've done more. I just wanted to forget it happened, I wanted it to never happen again. I wanted to get away, go to college. Go away and never come back. It was just one more horrible thing that happened at home." The pale blonde closed her eyes, and tried to block it out.

Willow wanted to throttle herself. "Sorry. I'm sorry, Tara. You did whatever you had to. You're here and you're okay now and that's all that matters. I didn't mean to- to get angry. I'm not angry at you!"

"I know you're not." Tara assured.

"I just don't understand why they would act like that."

"Because I'm evil! I'm cursed! I'm part demon. My blood is full of demon blood, just like my mother's, my power is from the devil." Tara burst out, hugging her goose bump covered arms.

"What are you saying?" Willow demanded in bewilderment, green eyes wide.

"What my dad's been saying! What my brother says. All the women on my mom's family have p-power, and when my mom got sick... then when she died... I don't know. They always had problems, Mom and Dad. He didn't like things she was doing. Magic things. She tried to hide them, but he always found out and it just made him angrier."

"That doesn't excuse him for ignoring-"

"Except Donny said nothing happened. Nothing at all. But if it did- he said it was nothing I- I didn't want. Didn't ask for." Tara gave a fragmented, sorrowing smile. "Happens all the time. Women get blamed." Tara studied her hands. "I wasn't acting like myself after Mom was gone. Kind of out of control."

"There's a big difference between acting weird and suddenly making up a huge lie!"

"With no proof, and having to choose whether to listen to me or Donny- of course Dad listened to him. It's only the women who have 'demon blood', so Dad believed my brother, not me."

"That doesn't make any sense." Willow shook her head vehemently.

"I know that, Willow." Tara murmured painfully. She skipped over the attack. "Evil things happen to evil people. Demons make men do things. B-bad things. If it was even a man. Donny said maybe I'd been possessed. Or dreamed some 'devil's dream'. Demons having a taste of hell..." Tara looked through Willow, seeing someone else's face, a gaunt, hard set face that turned from hers and went back to reading the evening paper, ignoring the trembling, quavering women in front of him. She echoed his words. "If you're part demon, whatever evil happens to you- is all your own f-fault."

Rage at something so utterly ludicrous was about to make Willow's skull explode. She knew there were black spells she could easily cast that would make someone else's skull explode instead. No matter what, or who, or how- it would never be your fault, Baby. But Tara was still speaking.

"My mom was my age when she started to really develop her powers. Dad thinks this week- on my birthday- the demon blood is going to take over. So I have to come home."

"What?" Willow screeched "Is that why he's here? To bring you home? But- but this is our home! You and me, and Miss Kitty. And Buffy and Xander and everyone! You don't want to leave. Do you?"

"No. Never."

"And- I know you're not, but, just to go along with whatever is wrong with your dad's brain, why does he want you back home if you're 'evil'?"

"Because. I'm their responsibility. They have to keep track of me, keep me there where they can 'protect' me from myself, where they can keep m-me from hurting someone else."

"You've never hurt anyone." Willow spat vehemently.

"You're right. I wouldn't. But if I stayed home- my father said I would be safe. If I had wanted to stay, maybe I could've learned to be good, or at least fight it off. Oh, not really good, because I'm still 'tainted'. But not as bad. I believed them, at first. Until - well. Bad things happened, and it was supposedly my fault. Evil attracts evil. Evil causes evil. And- I'm-I'm evil."

"Baby, no..."

"Does it matter?" Tara tilted her head with a wan twitch that might've been a smile. "It's how people treat you. They were wrong. I couldn't wait to leave." The normally sweet, soft spoken tone turned hard. "I'll never go back with them."

Fists clenched around clenched fists, gentle warriors combining strength. "You can't leave. I need you. You're mine and I promise- I swear- no one ever hurts you again." Willow repeated her oath once more, and magic flickered over their joint hands.

Tara nodded, with an answering spark. "I know."

"Good."

"So why am I still so scared to tell them?"

Willow had no words, just another long embrace, hungry kisses meant to speak for her. Finally she pulled back with a sniffle. "You are so strong. So much stronger than anyone else knows."

Tara grinned tightly. "I don't like the reason for this strength, okay? I don't w-want to let people know-" The thought of telling them- of telling Buffy and Spike, or sweet Mr. Giles, or Xander- oh God. She felt a cold sweat pop on her brow. "Please d-don't say anything to them. N-not right now."

Willow noticed Tara had avoided most of the details, and she could understand it. She hastened to reassure her. "Of course not! But just so you know- we wouldn't love you any less. And all of us love you."

Tara flushed "You love me best. Best I've ever been loved."

Funny how it only took a few months. But it's so true. "You love me the best I've ever been loved, too."


"Hi there, former roomie and current best friend." Buffy slid her tray, bearing cereal and bananas, across from Willow and sat down. "We haven't had breakfast together in forever. I was thinking we- Oh my gosh. Willow!" Buffy put her hand on the redhead's elbow. "Are you okay? You have sad Willow face."

Willow looked up, unable to make herself smile. Her puffy eyes and taut face were a silent confirmation for her best friend.

"Oh my gosh!" Buffy repeated and leaned forward, hissing and looking around furtively. "You have 'vampire ate someone we know' face! Who is it? Where did you see it?"

"It's not that." Willow listlessly pushed her untouched bagel away.

"What is it? I haven't see you look so upset since you and Oz-" Buffy stopped abruptly and switched tracks. "Tara. Willow, nothing it wrong with her, is there? She didn't come over last night, but that was just 'cause she had to study, right? Please say that's right." Buffy frantically begged.

Willow looked at her with dull eyes. "Her family is in town for her birthday. They're pressuring her to go home."

"Ohh, Wills. For her birthday?"

In a manner of speaking. Willow swallowed and nodded.

"I know you worked so hard planning her party at the Bronze, but- we can throw it another night." Buffy said with a resolute little pout of her lips, crossing her arms. "We'll teamwork it, like everything. Scoobies unite. I can blow up a lot of balloons on short notice. Slayer lungs." Buffy patted her chest.

"Not for her party. Go home for her birthday- and not come back."

Does not compute. "Not come back until when?" Buffy frowned in confusion.

Willow raked her hands through her hair. "Not come back until never! Never come back."

Usage of double negatives. Willow meltdown in three, two, one-

"Ugh! They're such stupid, bigoted, back-watered- gah!" Willow slammed her fists down and bits of bagel combusted. People stared.

We're not used to that by now. Buffy glared back at them, and heads hastily turned the other way.

Buffy wiped cream cheese off of her hand and scooted to the chair beside Willow instead of across from her. "Hey, easy with the baked good projectiles. Wanna go for a walk? I'm not hungry."

"No. I can't move." Willow felt drained. Hours of being strong and comforting while controlling blinding rage and the urge to search for some magical solution to the problem had taken its toll.

"When did all this happen?" Buffy asked gently.

"Just yesterday. Well, they'd written to ask her to come home before, but... her dad showed up with some big ultimatum. They'll come get her and take her back with them. On her birthday. Buffy- you don't know what's it's like... when you finally find someone, then suddenly you might lose them..."

The hell I don't. "I do know, Wills, I really do. But," Buffy rubbed Willow's shoulders, "Tara's an adult. It's not like they're going to storm in and haul her off, stuff her in a trunk and-" Willow's face gave her a despairing look, a doubtful, depressed one. "Oh. They- they would?"

Willow nodded. "Maybe."

"Holy crap."

"No kidding."

"What's going on? Why do they want her to come home enough to turn into creepy kidnapping people? Is Tara overreacting? Maybe?" Oh, boy. Bad mistake. Willow's eyes sparkled with a sudden tinge of shining black

"No. She. Isn't." Willow's tone was glacial.

"Okay, I believe you!" Buffy placated. "Willow, you need to calm down. You can't help her if you're this upset."

"I know. I know." Willow twisted her hands frantically and a half-sob escaped her. "Buffy, they can't take her. They can't. I love her. I can't lose her. I thought it was bad with Oz, but this... Buffy, just thinking about this hurts so much I - I feel like I can't breathe 'cause if I breathe in too hard my heart's gonna break and -"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Buffy pulled her friend against her as Willow seemed about to hyperventilate, trying not to absorb her words too much. But yet she knew just what she meant. Angel leaving, Riley's break up- so much sadness, so much anger, betrayal, abandonment, the whole bad emotion buffet. If Spike was suddenly, unwillingly taken? World endage. At least her world. "Nothing is going to happen, Willow. Nothing Tara doesn't want to happen. I know she loves you like crazy, so she'll choose to stay right here. Tara's quiet, but we know what she's like inside." Buffy hugged her friend tighter as Willow suddenly gave a spastic twitch and a loud gulp. "She's the anchor. She's special. She's strong. Like you."

"I'm only strong 'cause of her." Willow whispered brokenly.

"Liar." Buffy smiled down on her. "You're strong whenever you have to be. I think it's a "I graduated on the Hellmouth' thing. Or maybe a Scooby thing. We do strong on demand."

Willow smiled back shakily and sat up. "I'm sorry. I was fine until- I had to talk about it."

"I am an expert on that." Buffy nodded knowingly.

The cafeteria was emptying as the breakfast rush was over and the later morning classes began. "You have class?"

Willow nodded. "I do. Tara's already at the library typing a paper, then I think she's heading over to the gallery after classes. I'll meet her there this afternoon."

"I'll be over as soon as my last class is done." Buffy volunteered. "You two can go spend some time- um- somewhere else. Not working."

"I think she'll want to stay. Take her mind off of- stuff."

"Right. Working is a good thing. Or slaying. Researching. Something." Anything but worrying about what happens next.

Willow distractedly began gathering her things and pushing her breakfast into some sort of order. "I'll- I'll see you later?"

"Totally." Buffy got to her feet as well, putting the bananas in her bag for later, tucking her hair tentatively behind her ear.

"See you."

Buffy hesitated for a second, and then caught up to her friend. "You never told me what's actually going on. Why do they want her back so badly? What's happening?"

Willow paused at the threshold of the building, broad shafts of fall sunlight glinting off her red hair as she turned to her friend. Willow licked her lips, then gave a small, helpless smile. "It's not something I can tell."

Buffy blinked. "I just wanted to help."

"I know. But I keep her secrets, Buffy." Willow's eyebrows lifted slightly. "Just like you keep his."

And we all try to be okay with it- until it's time to share. If it's ever time to share. Around here, it all seems to come out, slowly or all at once. We just have to roll. "Thanks, Willow."

Willow dropped her head. "I figured you would understand. It's..." She groped for an explanation.

Buffy supplied one easily. "It's what you do, when they need you to. It's what you do when you're in love."


To be continued...