Title: Need

PART EIGHT

"Hey Tara," said Willow enthusiastically, cradling the phone under her chin.

"Willow! Hey. So how's Buffy doing?"

Willow's smile drained away. Didn't Tara wonder how she was doing?

"Um, good, I guess. Nothing new. Seems like same old Buffy. Except she's a little bit cranky, but let's not jump to conclusions on that one yet."

"No more bird incidents?" asked Tara.

"Nope. Not since yesterday morning. Dawn's still a bit freaked. Buffy told me she slept good last night and our Slayer does seem to be rested energetic girl. Except for the crankiness," added Willow.

"Well, that's to be expected, if it was an incubus. Guess my spell worked."

"Of course it did. You weave some potent magic there, girl!" smiled Willow.

"Did you talk with her yet? About Spike, I mean."

Willow frowned, frustrated that Tara didn't pick up on her magic allusion.

"Not yet," sighed Willow. "It's sort of an awkward subject, especially if Dawn's around. You sure Dawn doesn't know yet?"

"I don't think so. But don't underestimate her. She picks up on things."

"Least someone does," muttered Willow.

"What's that?" asked Tara.

"Nothing. I'll talk to Buffy. Soon. It's just...sometimes it's easier to avoid uncomfortable subjects, pretend they aren't there, all hovering over your head and awkward like. You know, stuff like ripping someone out of heaven, almost killing a sibling, jealousy over...well, do I have to go on?" whined Willow.

"No," soothed Tara, trying not to laugh. "But I see a pattern developing here, don't you?"

Willow drew in a deep breath and nodded.

"Yeah. Guess I do. Gotta make with the talking. It's what best friends are for."

Neither of them spoke for a moment.

"Um, Anya asked me what form the incubus took. She knew we were hiding something. She kinda knows about these things," said Tara.

"What did you tell her?" asked Willow anxiously.

"I told her it looked like Xander," whispered Tara, cringing. The phone was silent.

"What!?"

"Well, I didn't know what else to say! I did tell her to keep it a secret. And you know, I think it had an unexpected benefit," hinted Tara.

"What could possibly...oh!" said Willow, suddenly understanding.

"Yep. Got her jealous. You haven't seen them much lately, have you?" laughed Tara.

"They were bickering a lot," giggled Willow. "Pre-wedding jitters, I guess."

"Is she really going to wear white?" snickered Tara.

Willow laughed but then the phone was silent again. She could imagine Tara slowly exhaling, puffing out her cheeks, trying to think of something to talk about. Something other than them.

"Willow?"

"Yes?"

A moment's hesitation, then Tara spoke.

"How are you doing?"

And Willow smiled.

*****

With a sigh that slumped her shoulders, Buffy stared into her open drawer, looking for something to wear and preferably something she didn't have to iron. Then her eyes settled on the silk scarf. Her hand hesitated but still reached for it. Even before her fingers touched the soft fabric she smiled. She held it loosely between two fingers, slowly stroking the wispy cloth...and her eyes drifted up towards the photo of Giles.

Buffy shut the drawer.

"I don't know if you can hear me now...maybe it doesn't even matter. You don't have to hear my words. You, you understand. Giles, it's time," sighed Buffy, reaching out to touch the frame. "It's getting harder to get through the day without you. Please come home. If only to see the look on Xander's face when he finds out."

Buffy laughed out loud, but then her smile faded.

"A relationship...love...is more than sex. That's all I have with Spike. And that's not what I need."

Buffy glanced over her shoulder even though she knew she was alone in the house. She turned back but closed her eyes, not wanting to look at the photo. And her voice was now barely a whisper.

"Please."

She opened her eyes and found her gaze drawn to the single black feather on her dresser. Dawn had placed it there and Buffy hadn't touched it since. Still not looking at his photo, she turned and left the room.

*****

"Buffy, I'm going now. Janice's mom is cooking Mexican again and I don't want to be late," said Dawn, already heading for the door.

"Okay, but the sun already set. You wearing a cross?" asked Buffy.

"Yes, mom!" groaned Dawn, rolling her eyes.

"Good. And don't forget to look both ways before crossing the street," teased Buffy, though her tone was serious. Dawn only shook her head. But she hesitated as she opened the door and looked back at her sister.

"Buffy? Why haven't you gone to see Spike, see how he's doing?"

"Well, you know, been busy and stuff. Spike'll be fine," nodded Buffy.

"I'm going to go see him tomorrow if you don't," replied Dawn.

"Okay. Maybe...maybe I'll go with you," said Buffy. "Bye."

"Bye."

Buffy walked over to the refrigerator, wondering what should have for dinner. Eating alone. Again. Suddenly she wasn't so hungry. Then the doorbell rang.

"Who could that be?" said Buffy out loud, puzzled.

The doorbell rang a second time. Buffy walked a little faster towards the door.

"I heard ya the first time," muttered Buffy. She opened the door...and froze. She didn't breathe, she didn't blink, she couldn't speak. It was him.

"Giles?"

Giles almost laughed.

"Why are you surprised?" he asked. Everything within her cried out to hug him, yearned to feel his arms around her shoulders. But she didn't move.

"I'm not asleep," she stated, her voice shallow, almost questioning.

"No. No, you're not," agreed Giles, his voice comforting. He set down the lone suitcase he carried, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, a gesture so familiar, so natural...and yet so discomforting Buffy had to look away. Yet she didn't know why.

Giles slid his glasses back in place in a motion so practiced it was like breathing to him. Buffy took a step back. And she cautiously stared at him. Instinct took over and she crouched just a bit lower with her weight back, ready to fight and just as ready to run.

"Buffy...aren't you going to invite me in?" he laughed. And then his eyes were drawn down to her slowly clenching fist. His mouth fell open and his eyes searched hers, begging to understand her hesitation, her doubt. Giles slumped his shoulders and slowly shook his head.

"Who, who are you? What are you!?" barked Buffy.

"Buffy, it's me," winced Giles.

"No, this...this is some kind of spell," replied Buffy, but her voice lacked conviction.

"There is no magic strong enough to replicate this," sighed Giles. "Not what we have."

Buffy sniffed back a tear, wondering, wanting to believe him. Yet she still didn't move.

"Buffy?"

She only stared at him, but she unclenched her fist.

"Maybe I should go back to my place. I'm not sure what's wrong but...call me."

Giles reached down and picked up his suitcase. Barely catching her eye, he turned to go.

"Wait," whispered Buffy.

Giles stopped but didn't turn around. Buffy left the door open and turned away, walking back to sit down on the couch. Giles followed her in but left his suitcase outside. He sat down on the other end of the couch. Buffy slowly raised her eyes and waited for him to talk.

"I am Giles. That's who I am. I didn't lie about that."

Buffy took in a deep breath, so wanting to believe him.

"As for what I am..."

Buffy tensed and inched further back along the couch. Giles flinched.

"Have I hurt you? Have I done, even once, anything against your will?" asked Giles. Buffy chewed on her lower lip.

"No," whispered Buffy.

"Then why...never mind. I knew, I, I just knew," said Giles softly, shaking his head, his face suddenly so despondent, so dejected. "But I had to try."

"I don't understand," said Buffy, suddenly wanting desperately to hold him.

"It's a lot harder for me to, to be here, like this. Perhaps a little easier because the sun set, but..."

Buffy simply waited for him to explain. He took a deep breath and glanced at her but looked away.

"If you had a mirror right now you'd see that I'd have a reflection," smiled Giles.

"Just be straight with me," said Buffy, the slightest edge to her voice.

"Straight?" smirked Giles. "I prefer my love to have curves."

Buffy didn't smile.

"I'm here because I didn't want to lie to you, not because you wanted me here. You friend Tara is very clever. She almost guessed right. Her spell should have worked. Funny thing about magic...close isn't good enough," said Giles with a single nod, a hint of a smile on his lips. Buffy understood that it was a sign of approval, as an adversary would acknowledge an opponent's skills.

Buffy relaxed and not just because they were far apart on the couch. She believed what he was saying. And she was no longer afraid of him.

"Buffy...I'm a succubus," whispered Giles.

"A...but, but that's the female form of the demon. A succubus goes after males," said Buffy, scrunching her eyebrows together.

"Not all of them," laughed Giles.

Buffy thought about that for a moment and then her mouth dropped open in surprise.

"I told you I prefer my love with curves," he said with a wink.

"You're gay? You're...a lesbian succubus?" asked Buffy, wide-eyed.

"Why is that so hard to believe? Your best friend is gay," said Giles.

"You did lie to me!" accused Buffy, almost getting up.

"No!" answered Giles. For the first time there was a hint of anger in his tone. Buffy sat back down.

"No?"

Giles shook his head.

"I am Giles. And it's not just because I can take on any form I choose. Um, getting ahead of myself here, but I really don't choose. I am want you wanted."

"Huh?"

"Buffy, I don't just have his memories. That would be...boring. His wants, his needs, his desires, everything is imprinted upon me, ingrained. If he didn't have feelings for you, I couldn't have come to you. Not in this form. And I only came to you because you needed me," sighed Giles.

"So you one of the good guys?" asked Buffy mockingly. "Er...I mean girls."

"I don't know," shrugged Giles.

"Huh?"

Giles took another deep breath.

"Show me your true form," said Buffy firmly.

"You don't understand! This is my true form! I don't exist without your need, without your desire," frowned Giles.

It was Buffy's turn to look away, to think about his words.

"And what is there that doesn't excite desire between lovers?" he asked softly, watching for her reaction.

"Mushrooms," replied Buffy. Giles hesitated, confused, thrown...and then he smiled. Buffy blinked, then slowly looked up at him.

"You didn't sleep with a woman if that's what's bothering you," said Giles dryly.

"That's so far down the list right now," countered Buffy.

Giles closed his eyes and swallowed hard.

"I was once human, but I have no memories of who I was when I was alive. Not even my name."

"None?" asked Buffy in surprise. Giles shook his head.

"Sometimes," began Giles, glancing at her and suddenly looking uncomfortable, almost embarrassed. "Sometimes, when I make love with someone, I remember, almost like seeing. But it's only a glimpse, a fleeting image, lost in fog. And then it's gone."

"What do you see?" asked Buffy warily.

"I know that I was a young woman, about your age, with red hair not unlike Willow," smiled Giles. "When we...well, you know...I see how I died. I feel it. I remember."

"Oh my God. Then why do you..."

"Because without it I don't exist! It keeps me out of the darkness. Believe me when I tell you that I understand your pain, know what you don't feel after coming back from the grave. So you see? We help each other. I want to live, to feel. A need so fierce, so consuming...yet it's better than the numbness. Or the pain," he added, his voice trailing off.

Giles looked at her, for approval, for disgust, maybe even for forgiveness. He only saw a frightened girl.

"I just wish I knew what I did that was so wrong, what it is I'm being punished for," whispered Giles, his voice breaking.

"Punished? Maybe by helping others you're redeeming yourself," suggested Buffy.

"But I never remember the others," sighed Giles.

"What?"

"After I leave here, I won't remember any of this. I'll go back into the darkness, until I feel someone's pain, someone's...need," replied Giles, his voice full of dread.

Buffy grimaced, looked away and then glanced back at him.

"Will I..."

Buffy stopped, folding her hands in her lap but rubbing her thumbs together.

"Will you what?" whispered Giles. "What were you going to ask?"

Buffy tried to take a deep breath but couldn't.

"Will I remember?" she asked, her voice small.

"Yes. I'm sorry," shrugged Giles.

"Don't be," answered Buffy quickly.

And Giles beamed gratefully. He had to turn away to wipe an eye with the back of his hand.

"And if you stay?" whispered Buffy.

Giles quickly turned his head to look at her, but his excitement, and hope, faded when he saw the doubt on her face.

"I can be anyone you wish, anything you desire. I could be Giles when he was younger, at your age. I could be Willow if you're curious about that. I can be Spike...if that's what you need. And no one would know. We could be together as little as once a week. I only mention that because of how tired and weak you are afterwards, and it isn't safe for you to patrol in that condition."

"Once a week. Is that all you need? To exist, to live?" questioned Buffy.

"Yes."

"Why did you hurt Spike?" asked Buffy.

"A mistake. I exist only in emotions and, well, my excuse was that I thought he'd leave you, that he'd believe you'd broken up with him. But it was plain jealousy. I'm sorry," said Giles.

"And the crows? What's up with that?"

"Ah, the ravens. The qualm before the storm, as Anya would say. They won't harm you, Buffy. They feed on carrion...they can sense the dead. I don't understand why, but my presence attracts them, provokes them...annoys them. Hell, it annoys me," sighed Giles. And Buffy almost allowed herself a slight smile.

"Giles..."

Buffy hesitated, realizing that she still thought of him as her Watcher. Had just called him that.

"I need you, Buffy. Just as much as you need me. I thought you of all people would understand that. When...if I go, you'll feel as numb as you did before. Maybe even worse, because you'll remember what you don't have, the memory of a love that never was," said Giles sadly.

Buffy winced and stood up, keeping her back to him. She sensed that he had stood up as well but she wouldn't turn to face him.

"I can help you," pleaded Giles, his voice a whisper.

"But...you're not real. Just like what I have with Spike isn't real," said Buffy, swaying, a little unsteady on her feet.

"Yes, I am. I am," begged Giles.

Buffy closed her eyes and shook her head.

"You held me for comfort, not to comfort me," argued Buffy softly, trying to convince herself more than him. But she knew it was a lie.

"Do you know why he left? The real reason?" challenged Giles.

Buffy opened her eyes.

"You took him for granted. And that hurt him, deeply. Even more than knowing you could never allow yourself to return his love." His voice wasn't cold but his words were harsh.

Buffy gasped and turned to face him.

"If nothing else, believe that," nodded Giles convincingly.

"No," whispered Buffy, shaking her head.

"Buffy, let me help you," cried Giles.

Giles reached for her hand and she allowed him to grasp it. But instead of comforting her, his touch only brought tears.

"If I want this...if it feels so right, so good...why am I so afraid?" pleaded Buffy, her voice halting, in ragged gasps.

"Only you can know your heart," replied Giles, bravely trying to smile. "Maybe, maybe you're afraid to trust. To allow yourself to feel again."

Buffy let go of his hand.

"I only have to ask you to go...and then it's over?" asked Buffy, looking up at him. Giles nodded once.

"It's your choice. You don't have to decide now. Think about it," said Giles. "Please."

Buffy looked down, away from the agony in his eyes.

"This is real. My feelings for you are real," sniffed Giles. "And I know what you're feeling, you can't hide that. Not from me."

Buffy took a deep breath, resisting the urge to hold him, to somehow ease his pain as he had done for her. But when she looked into his eyes, she remembered his touch upon her skin. And her doubts that this couldn't be Giles faded. Without hesitation she stepped up on her toes, reaching for his lips with her own. Giles eagerly returned her kiss.

Buffy broke away, her eyes still closed. Reluctantly she slowly opened them. Buffy's eyes met his and, startled, her mouth opened as she sucked in a breath. He was in pain, unrelenting anguish. His face tried to hide this, but his eyes...

"You'd better go," she whispered.

Giles hesitated, wincing at her request. But without trying to dissuade her, he walked for the door. Buffy watched him go and smiled when he stopped. Some part of her wanted him to stay, needed him to convince her...but Giles didn't turn around.

"He does love you, Buffy. So deeply. Call him. If not for you, then for him."

And he left. Buffy's legs would no longer support her and she fell back down onto the couch. With her head in her hands, she cried, yet found no comfort in the release.

*****

There was a knock at the door, three soft raps repeated slowly, as if the visitor was hoping no one would answer. Tara flipped her book over on the bed to mark her place, kicked off the covers and peered through the peephole. She smiled as she unlocked and opened the door.

"Hey," smiled Willow uncomfortably, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

"Hey," smiled Tara in return, trying not to look at Willow's hands as she absently rubbed her palms together.

"I didn't wake you, did I?" cringed Willow. "I didn't think it was that late."

"No. Well, I might've dozed, but I was just reading. Come on in," invited Tara.

"Oh no, this won't...what I mean is, I don't want to bother you. And you're already in your PJs and, well..."

"You're not bothering me. Okay, you're starting to but that's because you're being silly. Now get in here already!" laughed Tara.

"Thanks," smiled Willow, her face turning a bit red. Tara shut the door behind her.

"Can I get you something?" asked Tara. "Tea?"

"No, thanks. Hey, the room looks...great. I like it," nodded Willow in approval.

"You should. I haven't really changed anything around since..."

Willow looked down for a moment and took a deep breath. Tara didn't finish her sentence.

"I would've called, but I wanted to say this in person. I just wanted to get something off my chest. Wow. I remember when that meant my shirt and bra," laughed Willow, but it was a forced laugh. Still, Tara smiled at her attempt at humor.

"Sit down," offered Tara, sitting on the edge of her bed. Willow hesitated, her eyes flashing from the bed to Tara and back. Tara patted the bed beside her as encouragement.

"I, um, just wanted to apologize," began Willow, finally sitting down. "To believe, even for a minute, that you and Buffy were...well, together in a couple sorta way. You would never do that to me. And neither would she and not because she isn't gay although when you think about it...okay, not getting sidetracked. She's my best friend and neither one of you would ever do anything to hurt me. I just wanted to say I'm sorry."

Tara couldn't help but smile.

"It is kinda funny," grinned Tara.

"Yes, in a tease and embarrass and mock Willow sorta way," pouted Willow.

Tara tried biting her lower lip but still burst out laughing. Willow's face grew even redder but she too was trying not to laugh.

"Okay, have your fun," sighed Willow, though she was still smiling.

Tara clamed down and shook her head, now trying not to laugh as well.

"I know it's at your expense, but it's good to hear you laugh again, even if it's an almost laugh," said Tara.

"Does that mean you can almost forgive me?" asked Willow in a childish voice.

Tara nodded and brushed her hair away from her eyes. Willow smiled but looked upset at the same time.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. It's just...that look. You probably don't even remember," said Willow.

"Um...huh?"

"It seems so long ago now. Back when we couldn't speak and you helped me moved that soda machine? After, when we talked...and you told me that I was special...your hair kept slipping down, covering your eyes. Just like that. I wanted to reach over and touch it. See, I thought you were being all mysterious and all," smiled Willow.

"Aw," smiled Tara. And Willow lowered her voice to a whisper.

"And, not that I knew it then, but that was when I lost my heart to you."

"You're wrong. It doesn't seem so long ago. Seems like yesterday," nodded Tara, fighting back tears.

"So, it's over?" asked Willow, abruptly changing the subject.

"What's over? Oh! You mean the succubus."

Willow nodded.

"Yeah, I think so. Buffy told me what happened. But it was just...I don't know," shrugged Tara. "Too easy?"

"Yeah. I mean, I never really thought about them. You know, succubi. It's like she should've been more evil or dangerous or something. Instead she was just lonely," said Willow.

"It is kinda sad," agreed Tara.

"But understandable," answered Willow, perhaps a little too quickly. She looked away to avoid Tara's eyes. Tara wasn't sure what to say and the room suddenly seemed smaller than it did a moment ago.

"Tara?"

"Yes?"

"I always said that I would find you. I promised you that," whispered Willow, still not looking up. "But Tara, it's me who's lost now."

Willow dared to look up and winced when she noticed that Tara wasn't looking at her. Wiping her eyes as the tears began to form, Willow stood up with her back to Tara but didn't take that first step towards the door.

"I'm sorry. It's late. I should go," said Willow, her head hanging low.

"This has to stop," whispered Tara, her voice breaking. Willow face fell, torn between the hope she heard in Tara's words and the doubt that fueled her fear of rejection.

"You want me to leave?" gulped Willow, afraid to turn around.

"No," sighed Tara. "No, I don't."

Willow smiled and turned around. And her eyes opened wide in horror as Tara plunged a stake into her chest.

"It doesn't work that way, does it?" spat Tara.

"Tara!" gasped Willow, clutching at the wooden stake with both hands. She looked into Tara's eyes and saw nothing but contempt. Willow stumbled forward a step and Tara quickly backed away as Willow fell to her knees, feebly grasping the stake.

"How did you know?" begged Willow. "How?"

"Your aura. I can sense it. Or at least I should be able to," answered Tara slowly. "You don't have one."

Willow nodded and winced in pain. She looked down at her hands, now smeared in blood.

"Gotta admit, you did your homework. Holly. Works on both incubi and succubi," gasped Willow.

"So what happens now?" demanded Tara, her voice firm despite her fear.

"I forget," replied Willow.

"You don't remember?" asked Tara suspiciously.

"No. I forget. The people here, what I've learned. It's as if it never happened...at least for me," sighed Willow, coughing weakly. "I'll disappear again, into the void...waiting, until someone's pain seeks me out, their need becoming my own. I'm not evil, Tara. I'm not. I only want to help...well, and in return, maybe ease my own suffering. Even if it's just for a little while."

Tara took a deep breath, reminding herself that this thing in front of her was not Willow.

"Why me? Why didn't you go to Willow?" asked Tara.

"You don't know?" laughed Willow, faltering. But her voice was harsh and Tara trembled as if cold water had been thrown on her.

"Know? Know what?" asked Tara, proud that she hadn't stuttered.

"Your pain...it's so much deeper than Willow's. I couldn't go to her. My will is not my own. I had no choice! Tara, how can you bear it?"

"Sometimes...sometime I can't," whispered Tara.

"I must've done something so terrible in my lifetime, so...at least you have hope. You can go to her...try to make things right, seek solace," sniffed Willow, beginning to cry.

Tara winced, fighting back her own tears.

"I'm, I'm sorry," shrugged Tara.

"Don't be," whispered Willow, finally letting go of the stake. "You think you've ended my misery, my agony. You haven't. But...but I thank you for trying," grimaced Willow, her body trembling.

Tara's mouth dropped open. And then, like Tara was awakening from a dream, the Willow in front of her slowly dissipated. The stake, smeared with blood, echoed sharply as it landed on the floor.

*****

He knew she was there even before he felt her ease into the covers beside him. He turned and smiled, was about to tease her with some witty remark when he saw her face, really noticed her expression. His smile faded as quickly as it had formed. Even though she was naked, she wasn't here because she wanted him. And he understood. Sex is what she thought he wanted and by offering up her body she hoped that she would get want she needed in return.

Spike raised himself up on one elbow but she wouldn't look at him. He reached over and gently brushed her hair away from her eyes, his fingertips glancing across her skin. Buffy hesitated, but then nervously looked at him. Such sadness in her eyes, he thought. She wet her lips with her tongue, waiting...but Spike only smiled. He cupped her cheek with his palm and she pressed against it, her eyes never leaving his. When he leaned towards her she turned her mouth to him but Spike only kissed her hair, letting his lips linger there, taking in her scent.

Encouraged by a soft nudge, Buffy rolled onto her side with her back to him. He pressed against her but only wrapped an arm around her, cupping one breast with his hand. She tensed when he softly kissed her neck, but Spike simply held her. Buffy put her hand over his, comforted by the touch of his skin against her own. She wanted to close her eyes but couldn't. She wanted to smile, to loose herself, to finally let go...but she didn't dare.

Content, Spike closed his eyes and lay still, listened to her breathe, felt the gentle rise and fall of her chest. Buffy lay still, her eyes wide open, feeling his still body against her own, unable to accept from him what he offered, what she needed. But it was better than being alone.

*****

Buffy opened the door and smiled at Tara.

"Hey. Come on in," greeted Buffy.

"Morning, Buffy. How are you feeling?" asked Tara as Buffy closed the door behind her.

"Rested. Not sure if that's because I slept good or because this whole nightmare is over," shrugged Buffy.

"I'm sorry I called so late last night, but I thought you should know what happened," said Tara.

"Believe me, I'm glad you called. Knowing it was over and really believing it, well, let's just say I think I slept easier after our talk," sighed Buffy appreciatively.

"Still, it's so sad. She doesn't even remember her name," winced Tara.

"Yeah," nodded Buffy, unsure of what to say.

"Um, Buffy, I was wondering about what she told you. About Giles?"

"What do you mean?" asked Buffy hesitantly.

"Well, it's just that I don't think she would lie. She seemed so sincere."

"And?" said Buffy, maybe a little harsher than she meant to.

"Um, never mind. It's really none..."

"No, I'm sorry. Guess I'm still a little thrown by it all," apologized Buffy, touching Tara's arm with her hand. "What were you going to say?"

Tara paused, realizing that she was unsure of what to say. But Buffy smiled for her.

"Go on," teased Buffy. And Tara nodded with a smile.

"Are you going to call him? It's the only way you'll really know if he has feelings for you," said Tara softly.

Buffy lowered her hand but kept looking at Tara and slowly inhaled.

"Do you? Have feelings for him?" whispered Tara.

Buffy slowly smiled and nodded.

"Yes."

"So you're going to call him?" asked Tara excitedly.

"No."

Tara blinked, thrown by her reply.

"But...but why? Buffy, Giles might love you. Are you afraid he might not come back if you told him?"

"No. I'm afraid he would," whispered Buffy. She stared at Tara, watching for her reaction. But Tara just stood there, gaping at her. And then Willow came down the stairs.

"Hey Tara! I didn't hear you come in," smiled Willow. And then her eyes narrowed. "Are you two up to something again?"

"Nope. Cross my heart and everything," smiled Buffy quickly. "In fact, I think you two should have a little time together. So...talk or something."

Buffy bounded up the stairs without looking back. Tara watched her as she left.

"Something wrong?" asked Willow, following Tara's gaze.

"Um, no. No, not at all. I...I mean we were just talking about last night," said Tara, glancing one last time up the stairs.

"Yeah, Buffy told me after you called last night. So how did you know?" asked Willow.

"Huh?"

"How did you know it wasn't me?" asked Willow, smiling. And then Tara smiled.

"Already told you, silly. No one has hair like my Willow."

Willow smiled gratefully and took in a deep breath. Her face turned red and she laughed. Tara smiled in return. But again that awkward silence grew between them.

"Tara, I was wondering if..."

Willow glanced at Tara but then looked down at her feet. Not sure of what to do with her hands, she put them in her pockets. Tara waited patiently, not offering any help. If Willow had looked she would have noticed that Tara wasn't making eye contact with her either.

"I mean, would you...would like to go out for coffee sometime? During the day. With lots of people around."

Willow swallowed nervously, now watching Tara for her reaction.

"That sounds...nice," nodded Tara, smiling.

It took her a moment, but then Willow's smile burst forward. She brought a hand up to her mouth.

"Really? Oh, it does. Sound nice, I mean!" grinned Willow enthusiastically.

"But I can't," sighed Tara.

"That's...wh-what? But I thought, you know, with the people and, and the daylight and...the people. We wouldn't be alone. And, and...Tara, I don't want to be pushy girl, but if there's a chance..."

Willow paused to take a deep breath. Tara tried not to look at her but knew she had to.

"If there's a chance that you and I could be you and me, together, we need to try. No matter how slow we take it or, or, okay, if you need more time, I can wait. Waiting can be good if it's something you really want. But Tara, I need to know. Is there? A chance?" asked Willow, her voice trailing off to a whimper.

Tara closed her eyes.

"Willow we've never..."

And now Tara opened her eyes, her voice stronger, more determined this time.

"We've never talked about what you did to me."

"I know. And I'm so sorry. All I'm asking for is a chance to make it up to you," cried Willow. "Tara, please..."

"You still don't get it. This isn't about me," snapped Tara.

Willow blinked in confusion.

"You need to think about what happened to you. Why you thought you needed that power. Why you let it consume you," finished Tara softly.

Willow looked down, embarrassed.

"We need some more time," sighed Tara. Willow didn't move, didn't look up. Tara turned to go but couldn't take that first step away from her.

"You don't know me," whispered Willow, still not looking up.

Tara turned back to face her but didn't speak.

"Without the magic. You don't know," sniffed Willow, afraid to look at Tara but forcing herself anyway. "And that scares me."

"You don't know who you are without the magic either. And that scares me. But I'd like to help you remember that girl. Yeah, I'd like to see that girl myself," smiled Tara.

Willow wiped her eyes. Tara took a step towards her and kissed her quickly but gently on the lips.

"Call me," said Tara, hugging Willow before she even realized what she was doing. Tara walked away and Willow was too stunned to move. She glanced back once over her shoulder, smiling, and gave Willow a wink. Willow raised a hand up and touched her lips, remembering their kiss. And she smiled.

*****

Upstairs, Buffy stood in front of her dresser, holding the framed photograph of Giles in her hands. She wouldn't cry. Not now. Maybe later, when she was alone. Maybe.

She brought the frame slowly up and, with her eyes closed, kissed the cold glass. And then she put the photograph in her top drawer, covering it with some clothes.

No, she wouldn't cry. Not now. Buffy slowly backed up until her legs bumped into the side of her bed. She lowered herself down into a sitting position on the floor and stared at the phone by her bed. But she didn't cry.

*****

"Dawn, you sure you don't want me to walk you to school?"

"Buffy, go back to bed! We'll do something this afternoon. Stop being stalker-mom!" teased Dawn.

"Okay," pouted Buffy. "And I know I've said this a few times this morning, but I'm only tired because..."

"You were out late patrolling," finished Dawn, rolling her eyes as she quickly walked to the door.

"Got your lunch?" called Buffy. Dawn held up a brown paper bag.

"Bye!" yelled Dawn, closing the door behind her. She shook her head and glanced at her watch. She'd have to pick up the pace if she didn't want to be late.

It was a beautiful day, warm with just a slight breeze. Dawn shifted her backpack into a more comfortable position on her shoulder and looked both ways before crossing the street. There was no traffic coming but Dawn just stood there on the curb, looking up.

There, in the tree above her, on the lowest branch just above her head, perched a large raven. Its head was tilted to one side, its beak was slightly open with one dark eye staring at her. Dawn stared back at it, not blinking. It simply watched her, unmoving, unafraid.

THE END