It was hard to blink. Willow's eyes felt hot and dry, the lids stiff. The sunlight beat down on her as she continued to kneel next to Buffy, but there was no heat. Willow was cold all the way to her bones.
"Ma'am, I need you to move." The voice was soft yet insistent. "Please. I need to look at your friend."
Willow shook her head. She wasn't leaving Buffy. Not for anything.
Unfortunately, gentle hands gripped her shoulders. "Sweetie, let them help Buffy," Tara said. She tugged until Willow climbed unsteadily to her feet. "Come on." Tara wouldn't let her hover over the paramedic. She forced Willow to stumble back to the deck.
Once Willow was clear, the backyard erupted in chaos. Paramedics swarmed Buffy, hiding her from view. Police officers swept the perimeter and questioned Xander. Willow watched it all unfold as Tara held her hands and whispered in her ear.
Only moments before, Tara's touch had aroused and comforted Willow. Made her world return to a normal verging on perfect. But that was over. Willow felt nothing. Heard nothing. She was hollow; Buffy had occupied so much of her life. Now it was all gone.
Then the mass of bodies around Buffy moved. Two paramedics carried a stretcher covered in yellow plastic across the yard. One corner of the plastic rustled in the afternoon breeze, revealing a small tennis shoe-clad foot.
Willow's frozen emotions erupted. Rage consumed her and the magic lingering in her channels surged. The bright sunlight faded. The day turned monochrome, the people in the yard darker shadows against a gray background. This wasn't real. It couldn't happen. Buffy wasn't leaving like this. Not if Willow could help it.
"Don't do this!" Tara's fingers clutched Willow's until they ached. "Willow, pull it back!"
The words flow over and around Willow without making a dent in the wildfire of pain and power blazing in her mind. Buffy was dead, and someone was going to pay for that. The pressure built inside until Willow shook from the force. A tendril of magic escaped and snaked across the yard.
One of the paramedics staggered as the seething power coiled around his ankle.
Satisfaction surged, thickening the magical strand. Willow deliberately pulled in even more power to fill the void. They were going to regret letting Buffy die.
With a thought, Willow sent the magic up the paramedic's leg. Across his torso. Until it caressed the man's chest and neck. Like a lover, the energy tenderly wrapped its hands around his neck. Still trapped by Tara's fingers, Willow strained. The magic fought her control, and she had to bend it to her will. Mental exertion triggered a physical response. Slowly, Willow's fingers curled within Tara's grasp until the nails dug painfully into Willow's palms. The action gave her just enough sway over the magic.
The stretcher wavered; the plastic fluttered. "Martin?" There was burgeoning panic in the second paramedic's voice as his partner went to one knee and one end of the stretcher touched the ground.
Peripherally aware that the interlopers invading the backyard were on the move again, Willow savored the pain and fear looping back from her victim. He should be afraid. She had more power at her command than he could imagine.
He would be the first but not the last. She'd make them all pay, one by one. They were all responsible for Buffy's death. The Keystone Kops. They'd all looked the other way as Buffy had put her life on the line night after night for years to keep them safe. And now she was dead because of their incompetence.
First, though, Willow needed more magic. She'd nearly drained the ley line she'd tapped in order to heal Buffy, and reaching for the paramedic had stretched the power in her channels to the breaking point. She had to refuel. Diverting her attention was harder than she expected. Without complete focus, her grip on the man's throat eased. She heard him cough; saw him stand unsteadily.
That wouldn't do. Anger rose again. Willow gave up on finesse. Brute force would do just as well. Willow stopped searching for an external power source and looked deep within. Pain, anger, and a burning need for revenge still pulsed in simmering red waves. She narrowed her focus and pushed at the emotions. Words she'd read during one long night of research in Giles' precious and forbidden books sprang from her lips, "Azag galra sagbi mu unna te. Namtar galra zibi mu unna te."
The words actually hurt to say. They cut and tore Willow's throat and lips. Blood trickled from her mouth. She faltered and felt something twist and coil inside. Something deadly. Something waiting to burst out.
"Willow, please." Willow's concentration further wavered when Tara wrapped her in a fierce hug. "Sweetie, I know you're angry, but you can't do this. You can't lose control. Please, let the magic go. Ground it." Tara's voice wavered and broke. "Please…"
For a split second, Willow looked up into Tara's tear-reddened eyes. A headache pounded fiercely behind her eyes. "Buffy's dead," she said while the terrible something inside continued to stretch and grow.
Trembling lips brushed Willow's cheek. "I know." Tara sobbed brokenly. "I know, sweetie. But this won't bring her back."
No. Willow had given up on that when she realized Buffy was against it. She'd always done what Buffy asked. Right now, though, Willow was more primal, more powerful, and so very angry. She wasn't poised to petition Osiris for help. She was poised to punish the people responsible for Buffy's death.
"Buffy wouldn't want this." Releasing her grip on Willow's hands, Tara stepped away. She stared at Willow while more tears stained her cheeks. "Please, Willow."
Willow stood on a thin, twisting line. It wasn't visible, but it was there. She sensed it as she met Tara's eyes. Was Tara right? In her memory, Tara's pleading voice mixed with Buffy's – and the message was the same: let Buffy go, no matter how much it hurt.
Let Buffy go. Let go of her best friend. Her confidant. The first person to see past the shy nerd to the brilliant girl.
As Willow accepted that horrible thought, as she silently swore to let Buffy's soul slip away, a scream erupted deep within. A scream that manifested in a single, broken sound that slipped between Willow's lips.
"That's it, sweetie. Let go." Tara's arms were back, so tight around Willow that she struggled to breath. She sucked in air, nearly choking on its thickness. "Let it go." There was an odd note of command in Tara's repetition.
Burrowing her head into Tara's shoulder, Willow stopped fighting the tears. They burned down her cheeks and scalded her neck when they got trapped against Tara's blouse. "'k," she whispered. But she didn't want to let go. Letting go meant Buffy was really gone. Buffy… Willow shuddered with the force of the sob pressing against her chest and throat. Buffy.
Her grief grew too much for silence. Sobs, choked pleas to the Goddess… Willow tried them all.
Tara remained solid and supporting through it all. Her hands caressed Willow's shoulders and neck. Her fingers brushed away tears. Her soft, soothing voice sought to comfort Willow's pain.
Eventually, though, Tara's gentle voice changed. Firmed. "You have to ground the magic, Willow. You still have an aura, and your skin..."
The comment – and the tone – were odd and out of character enough that Willow pulled in one last, shuddering breath and raised her head. Tears still blurred her vision and she swiped impatiently at the wetness.
That's when she realized what Tara meant. Terror eclipsed grief. Thick, writhing black veins shifted under the skin of Willow's arms and hands. "Tara? What…how…" Willow panicked, and the energy filling her channels surged. It was like a living, breathing thing.
"You have to ground the power," Tara repeated implacably. "You didn't shield yourself, Willow. You didn't plan ahead."
It was an oft-repeated refrain from earlier arguments. Willow hadn't paid attention then. She'd been too consumed with the flush of power, and she'd brushed off Tara's attempts to teach her. It was a mistake Willow might not live to acknowledge. She could feel the unnatural twist and burn of the magic inside. And the dark veins were a visible sign of the black nature of the power she'd grabbed. "Can you help me?" Willow begged in a small voice.
Tara had tried to teach her back in the first days of their hesitant courtship. Hours spent whispering and giggling, talking about magic and spells.
If only Willow had listened.
"I'll try, sweetie." Tara's voice trembled, a clear indication she shared Willow's fear. "C-Can you still feel the ley line?"
It was hard – nearly impossible, in fact – for Willow to center and focus. The magic fought her will; the power inside coalesced into a fiery ball in her chest. Closing her eyes, Willow pushed past the pain and fear. She reached out slowly.
It wasn't there! She couldn't find the ley line.
Panic overwhelmed Willow until Tara pressed a soft kiss to her neck. "You can do it, sweetie. I know you can. Keep looking."
Some of the choking fear receded. Enough for Willow to feel the tiny yet clean signature of the line. There was only a residue of magic in the nearly empty conduit. Willow had stripped it when she'd gone to help Buffy. Luckily, she didn't need more power. She needed less. "Got it," she murmured.
"Just let the energy flow back into the reservoir." It sounded so simple, and Tara's reassuring presence filled Willow with confidence.
Unfortunately, returning the energy was not simple. Sweat, not tears, now stung Willow's eyes as she strained to shape and steer the power inside. It resisted her efforts, clinging to nooks and crannies in her channels. Willow forced the energy out, and her channels cleared inch by inch.
She was shaking by the time the last drop slithered away and into the ley line. Willow leaned into Tara and shook uncontrollably. "Goddess." The word slurred; Willow was completely drained, and the headache had reached epic, debilitating levels. Sweat or tears dripped near her chin. Willow swiped at her face, and her hand came away stained in red. "Tara?"
Sure fingers raised Willow's chin. "You have a nosebleed, sweetie." Tara pressed her lips to Willow's. "And a reaction headache, from the looks of it."
Her touch helped a little so Willow moved closer.
Someone coughed nearby, and feet shuffled against the porch steps, interrupting their embrace. "Ma'am?"
It took too much effort to raise her head. "Go away," Willow mumbled into Tara's shoulder.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry. I need to ask you some questions. Your friend," the cop, Willow noted when she looked in his direction, flipped open a notebook, "Mr. Harris, said you were there when…when Ms. Summers passed away. It's important for us to get all the information now, while it's fresh in your mind."