Summary: The Scoobies face their greatest challenge yet. Will they triumph?

Spoilers: I've put my own stamp on S6 but I'm sure there will be glimpses of everything canon before that.

Disclaimer: There will be some original characters as this move forward. Those belong to me. Joss and Co. owns the rest.

Eyes drifting closed, Willow gently rubbed her lips against Tara's skin. It had been so long. Too long. "Missed you," she whispered softly, afraid that vocalizing any of the thousand thoughts and regrets zipping around in her mind would end the dream.

"Shh." A finger trailed lightly over Willow's cheek. "Don't, sweetie. Don't," Tara ordered. "I'm here, and I'm not leaving again."

A single, scalding tear slipped beneath Willow's lashes and burned a path down the side of her face and into her hair. "I won't, either," she choked out despite the constriction in her throat. "Not leaving. Not…" Willow sucked in a breath that sounded very much like a sob. "Not for anything." Nothing was better than being here in Tara's arms.

Well, maybe there was something better…

Willow's next breath was less sob and more gasp. Tara shifted, the hand stroking Willow's face sliding lower until it rested just beneath the swell of her left breast, thumb flicking in a tantalizing rhythm over the nipple. "You're thinking again. We agreed, no thinking."

"No…thinking," Willow agreed dazedly. Even if she wanted to think, it wasn't possible at the moment. Her body shivered as Tara licked and nibbled at the spot where her neck and shoulder joined. "Feeling. All feeling."

"That's good, sweetie." Tara was laughing; Willow recognized the suppressed sound in Tara's voice. "Let's see if we can make those feelings stronger, hmm?" The flicking finger suddenly plucked Willow's nipple, pulling it out and away from her chest. Tara's grip wasn't quite tight enough to hurt. Just firm enough to encourage Willow to arch her back, pressing against the tangled sheets with her feet for more leverage.

Before Willow had a chance to crash back to the bed, Tara attacked the spot on her neck again. Then her teeth dragged downward, sensuously scraping the skin until stopping so Tara could suck on Willow's pulse point.

The suction grew, emphasized by a sharp pinprick of teeth. Tara was going to, probably already had, leave a mark. Willow's lips lifted in a smile. Darn it, it was too warm for turtlenecks. People were going to see that. Another sharp nip prefaced Tara releasing the skin, and Willow's already scattered thoughts lost any pretense of cohesion and bounced around in a silent imitation of her usual speech patterns.

"Tara," Willow murmured. Heat ran rampant in her body. Sweat beaded on her lip and pooled between her breasts. Her hips rose and fell in a wordless plea. "Don't…" Don't stop. Hurry. More. Unable to form the words, she frantically pulled Tara closer, wrapping her right leg around Tara's shoulders.

She was just in time.

Both of Tara's hands concentrated on separating the slick folds of Willow's labia. A puff of cool air tickled her clit. Tara's tongue wiggled inside Willow's core – and Willow's hips surged up, helped by the flexing of the leg wrapped around Tara.

Stiffening, hands scrabbling at Tara's back and shoulders before finding purchase in her hair, Willow hovered on the edge of pleasure. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears, a thrumming that matched the pulses in her clit for a second, until she plummeted into the abyss.

She shook and writhed under Tara. "Dear Goddess." It was benediction and compliment in one.

"You always say that, sweetie." Still Tara looked exceedingly pleased with herself as she sat up and wiped her mouth on the corner of the bed sheet.

"And I always mean it," Willow answered fervently. "You are a goddess." Ignoring the lassitude weighing down her limbs, she pushed herself up and captured Tara's lips with hers. The kiss was slow and languid. They'd done fast and furious the night before. And earlier this morning. It was time to savor their reunion.

Unfortunately, Willow's stomach had other ideas. With a giggle, Tara broke away. "Have you been taking lessons from Buffy? That sounds terrible, Willow. Don't you ever feed it?" Her smile was wide as she moved away and stood up. "Get up, sweetie. Why don't we find Buffy and I'll fix some breakfast? I think I saw enough food to throw something together."

The final comment was dry, and Willow winced. "You know none of us can cook, Tara. We've done OK with sandwiches." When they remembered to fix them. "And Dawn spends most of her time with Janice."

"Uh huh." Tara wasn't convinced, and Willow rolled her eyes (at Tara's back) as her girlfriend dragged on her discarded clothing from the night before. "If I find mold on the bread, I'm dragging you to the grocery the second we finish breakfast cleanup. You're old enough – and smart enough – to buy food." The zipper on her jeans rasped up. "Move, Willow. Now. I'm not getting attacked by that monster in your stomach."

"I'm not getting attacked…" Willow mocked in a high-pitched voice. "You have so changed, you know that?" Then, in case Tara thought she didn't enjoy the changes, she hurried on. "All big with the butch now, telling me what to do." She glanced up, eyes bright with mischief. "Taking care of my needs and ignoring your own."

A shirt floated Willow's way. "My needs include eating, Willow. I'm a big girl, and it isn't like we didn't make love most of the night." More confident and forthright Tara might be; it hadn't eliminated her familiar, fiery blush. "Get dressed," she nearly pleaded.

"Fine." Feeling as if her head might split from her smile, Willow dressed quickly and skipped toward Tara and held out her hand.

Tara's hand slid against Willow's until their fingers entwined. "I love seeing you smile, Willow. I missed it." Pulling gently, she drew Willow out of the room. "While I'm checking the cabinets, can you find Buffy? I thought I heard her moving around a while ago."

Willow grumbled good-naturedly as she slowly followed Tara down the stairs. "Do I have to? As soon as the food starts cooking Super Smeller will be in the kitchen ready to eat." It wasn't true, though, she silently acknowledged. Tara had been wrong about Willow's recent eating habits, but she'd nailed Buffy's. The last time she and Buffy had crossed paths, Buffy had looked skeletal.

"You're thinking again," Tara interrupted Willow's thoughts. "We talked about that."

Talking hadn't been all they'd done. Some of Willow's momentary depression lifted, and she smirked. "Is that what you call it?" When she spotted the worried frown on Tara's face, Willow sobered. "Sorry. I guess I've done a lot of damage to all my friendships. If you can get Buffy to the kitchen, it'll be the first meal we've shared since…" Goddess. "Since she came back," Willow whispered.

A fingertip tapped Willow's nose. "I'm here, sweetie. All damage forgiven and forgotten. I'm sure Buffy will do the same as soon as you talk to her."

Willow wasn't so sure. She didn't say that, though. Tara was an eternal optimist; no way was she ruining that on the very first day they were back to being a couple. "Yep," she agreed instead, working only a little more than normal to sound perky and confident. "She's my best friend. I just have to remind her – and myself – of that." They reached the bottom of the stairs and Willow stopped, forcing Tara to stop as well. "You work on the food, and I'll start the Slayer Search, OK?" She leaned in, intending to kiss Tara, when a loud bang sounded from outside.

"I thought Giles was in England," Tara joked. "Or is there another decrepit Citroen belching smoke in Sunnydale?"

A second sharp report echoed. "No, we're Giles Free at the moment." This was another topic Willow would prefer to avoid. Giles was one of those relationships she'd shattered and left in tatters. Their last discussion, argument really, was still too fresh. "Maybe he loaned it…" Her words broke off when a third bang sounded, followed by glass shattering from upstairs.

"That's not a car," Tara stated unnecessarily. She let go of Willow's hand and started back up the stairs. "Find Buffy! I'll see what broke."

Hesitating, Willow stared after Tara. A frisson of unease goose pimpled her skin, and the air around her felt heavy and expectant. Something was very wrong. Willow tore her eyes away from Tara and ran into the kitchen.

It was empty.

Willow turned, only stopping when she glimpsed movement through the patio's French door. "Buffy?" She ran for the door, wrenching it open. "Buffy? What's going on?"

The fleeing figure never slowed down.

"Will!" Xander's shout spun Willow around. "Call 911!" He was crouched on the grass, arms around… around…

The bright sunlight dimmed, and the world went gray and cold.

Shaking her head, Willow tried to make sense of what she saw. Xander held Buffy in his arms. Buffy. Why would he be holding her like that? Willow took a step closer. Was Buffy sleeping? Her foot dropped off the patio, and she stumbled. Pain flared, bright and sharp, as her knee scraped against the railing. Stupid step…

She kept walking, legs oddly disjointed, across the yard. "Xan?" Willow asked. Her voice was high and tremulous, and she cleared her throat. Sweat trickled down her forehead and burned her eyes. "Who was that…?" Willow tried to ask about the person running past her, but her attention was caught and derailed by the dark, spreading stain on Buffy's shirt. "Oh, wow. I bet Buffy wasn't happy about that; it's her favorite shirt."

Xander didn't say anything. His eyes, wide and dark and filled with tears, barely glanced at Willow before returning to study Buffy.

Buffy. The world snapped back into focus. Sunlight beat down on the grass and the blood soaking Buffy's shirt…

Willow's knees gave out and she dropped to the ground as if she were a marionette whose strings had been cut. "Buffy!" The scream of denial ripped from her throat and her hands reached out automatically. To help. To touch. The blood and the terrible stillness in Buffy's body stopped Willow cold. Her hands hung limply over Buffy's chest. "Buffy?" Willow asked. Pleaded.

There was no answer.

"Buffy?" Fighting panic, Willow finally ignored the blood and gently touched her friend. Buffy's eyelids fluttered in response and Willow felt the faintest rise and fall under her palms. "Hey…" She wasn't dead. Buffy wasn't dead. Not yet. Her pallor, though, indicated that death was an option. Willow remembered that color from her last glimpse of Joyce and the legions of undead over the years.

Oh no. She wasn't losing Buffy again. This time, Willow was here in time. Holding Buffy's dazed and unfocused gaze, Willow smiled encouragingly. "You'll be fine, Buffy. I promise. Just give me a minute." Reaching for the latent energy around her, Willow grasped the strongest of the signatures and pulled, virtually stripping the life force from the area. The power rushed through her, pooling deep inside, until Willow's skin tingled and her body felt on the edge of explosion.

"No," a soft, resolute voice announced. Buffy's voice.

Willow reared back on her knees. "Shh," she said, in an unconscious echo of Tara. "I won't let anything happen to you, remember?" A trickle of power escaped her control and created a visible aura around her hands where they pressed against the gaping hole in Buffy's chest. "I can heal this…" The light highlighting her fingers grew muddied as more blood welled to cover them.

Buffy shifted until her head turned fractionally. Resolute hazel eyes glared at Willow. They blazed, holding Willow motionless. "No."

What? Willow frowned, more magic threatening to break free as she grappled with her confusion – and Buffy's clear directive. "You're hurt, Buffy. You don't know what you're saying." She congratulated herself on her answer when the fire went out of Buffy's eyes and just as quickly stopped when she saw pain replace the protest in Buffy's expression.

That pinched, sad, angry expression Buffy had worn since Willow had brought her back. "Why did you do it? Why couldn't you just leave me in…where I was? Do you think I want to be here?" A snippet of one of their many arguments flitted through Willow's mind as she watched Buffy slump in Xander's arms, head turning away in defeat.

Why couldn't you leave me… Surely that wasn't what Buffy really wanted? Of course it wasn't. Willow gathered the reins of borrowed power tighter and prepared to pour it into Buffy.

And stopped.

No. Do you think I want to be here? That silent, irritating, honest Buffy continued to ask.

"Buffy?" Willow begged. "Please. Please let me help you." Let me keep you alive. "I can't…I can't…" I can't live without you. Willow also, she realized, couldn't do this, couldn't heal Buffy, without a signal – any signal – that it was OK.

The signal never came. Buffy's head remained resolutely turned away.

Hands outstretched, no longer to heal, but to entreat, Willow waited. And waited. While seconds ticked away and Buffy's blood continued to leak onto the grass. Magic swirled, pushing for release. "Buffy…" The day splintered into a million crystallized fragments as Willow began to cry. Her hands slid from Buffy's chest to her chin and cheeks, leaving rust-colored trails in their wake.

Slowly, ponderously, Buffy's turned her head. "I love you two. Always." Her lips twitched and then flattened. "Thank…you…"

Willow waited for more, but nothing came except the far-off wail of sirens and the broken sounds of Xander's grief.