Disclaimer: None of the characters or situations is strictly mine and all that. They belong to Joss&Marti and ME and others with way the heck more money that I do.
Spoilers: "The Wish," "Doppelgangland," and BtVS sixth season.
HUGE, MUY IMPORTANTE NOTE: This story is a total departure from my usual. For one, it's got outright romantic elements (the pairing is more or less W/T, and you'll see what I mean by "more or less"). For another, it's going to get Jossed very quickly once the new season arrives. I don't care, though; the idea was just too strong not to write down. Consider this part of an AU seventh season after the summer break, not as anything that will ever fit into canon. Also, the references to Angel and his gang are making the assumption that Joss & Co. will clean up the bizarre situation they've created there sooner or later. And I'm really sorry about the lack of Spike.
Thanks to: My beta team of Tanja, Gyrus, Aurora, and Chris Kamnikar. Without you guys reassuring me every step along the way, this story wouldn't have gotten written.
One moment, the ground was solid underneath her feet. The next, the whole universe liquefied, and she was being swept along as if by an ocean tide.
Then she fell. Solid ground rose up to meet her again. She hit hard, but instinct had her on her feet even before she'd completed a bodily inventory to determine whether or not she'd been hurt. The first thing she did was to scan the area for her attackers. There was no sign of them, but she did hear voices.
People were talking somewhere close by. The young woman glanced around, realizing she was outside on a manicured lawn of some sort and it was nighttime. Silently, she crept behind a hedgerow beside a large, brick building and peeked out, searching for the source of the voices.
A small group of men and women stood on a walkway about fifteen feet away. They looked like students to the watching woman, holding book bags and dressed casually. Not one of them looked familiar.
Where am I?
She looked around for any signs to identify where she was, but couldn't find any. There was a tree-sheltered walkway nearby that skirted the bright floodlights lighting the apparent college campus she was on. As the chattering group broke into a peal of laughter, the woman used the covering sound to make a break for it. Once on the path she paused, trying to get her bearings.
Warm, she thought. Not too unlike home. Too many people around, though—if they are people. They don't act like vampires, and I haven't seen any game faces, though, so—
Her thoughts came to a screeching halt as two figures came into view, walking toward her on the path. Figures that were all too familiar.
"Say, Will, how many hours did you put into this thing, anyway?" asked Xander.
"Not too much. Say, oh, fifteen. Part of that was research, though." Willow pointed out one of the soldiers on her model of the Battle of Antietam. "Getting these guys painted up would've taken forever if Dawn hadn't volunteered for the duty. She's getting pretty artistic."
Xander grinned both outwardly and inwardly as Willow continued to explain the model he was carrying. It had taken a long time for Willow to recover, but now, six months after Tara's death, the old Willow was finally peeking through, even if her eyes were still shadowed far too much of the time for his liking. He was glad to take whatever he could get, though. And if that meant ferrying her and her stinking huge model to and from her History of the Civil War class, so be it.
"How do you think you did on the project?" he asked his best friend.
"Dr. Halberstam liked it. Said he had one just like it, only bigger, when he taught at Wesleyan."
"Willow going for the 'A' again. Now, if I were taking your classes—"
Both stopped dead. The person who had just appeared in front of them on the walkway couldn't possibly be there. For a moment, they just stared at her in shock, and she stared right back.
"Tara?" gasped Willow.
The features of the woman who couldn't be Tara suddenly twisted with fear and hatred. Her hand shot up in front of her. "Incente!" she cried, and flames leaped from her fingers.
Xander reacted instinctively, throwing the Battle of Antietam into the line of fire, grabbing the stunned Willow, and pulling her down to the ground with him. There was a confused moment as Willow shook off her shock and Xander's arms and stood, calling, "Tara!" into the darkness beyond the burning model. Then she ran toward the last place they'd seen the other woman.
Xander jumped to his feet and followed. As they came into the open, he found Willow standing rigid, intently scanning the campus for any sign of her murdered lover's doppelganger.
Willow turned to him, eyes wide and face pale. "You saw her, didn't you, Xander? It was Tara!"
"It looked like her," Xander said more cautiously.
"It was her!" Willow insisted, an edge of hysteria in her voice. "Her eyes, her face—I could feel it, that was Tara. How?"
"I don't know, Will. If it was Tara, why'd she just try to barbecue the both of us?"
Willow looked away from him, shaking her head a little. "Her eyes—did you see the look in her eyes? Why would she look at me that way?" She looked at Xander in sudden horror. "Oh, God, Xander, what if she knows? What if she knows what I did? Oh, God, she'd be so disgusted with me—she'd hate me! What if she hates me?"
Xander grabbed his best friend's shoulders, giving her a light shake and making her look into his face. "Will. Listen. I don't understand any of what's going on, not any more than you do. How about we skip the hysteria and head for Chez Summers so we can figure this out, okay?"
Through her tears, Willow managed to nod, and Xander steered her toward his car.
Tara ran as though hell itself was chasing her. Considering who she'd just seen, that wasn't much of an exaggeration.
How? she thought. They're dead. Aren't they? Didn't Oz say he'd killed her?
The blond ended up in a queue of students getting on a city bus. Absently, she paid for her ride, then grabbed a pole, unwilling to be off her guard even for a moment. She surreptitiously stole a glance at the driver's mirror. Everyone was reflecting.
No vampires. Tara breathed a sigh of relief. Glancing out the windows of the bus, the relief quickly became curiosity.
"It's Sunnydale," she murmured to herself, attracting a few odd glances from the other riders. It was Sunnydale, but a different one than she'd known. People were out after dark, for one thing. Storefronts were lit up, beckoning pedestrians inside. Pairs and knots of young people roamed the sidewalks. The bus stopped at a red light next to a minivan packed with a small family.
It was all too peaceful to be Sunnydale, but Tara recognized the landmarks. For confirmation, too, several of the students wore UC Sunnydale shirts or carried bags emblazoned with the college's emblem. Tara's brow wrinkled. That was where she'd been? As far as she knew, the construction of UC Sunnydale had been abandoned a good six years ago.
Frowning, she glanced out the windows as the bus rolled into another stop. A sign caught her eye: The Magic Box. Tara abruptly made for the exit, hoping someone she knew would be inside. If this were indeed Sunnydale, perhaps Pauline or Celeste would be there. If not, the witch decided she would make for the high school. It was her next best option.
She paused only briefly on the sidewalk before pushing the door open. As soon as she was inside, she took a brief look around and found the store much as she remembered it.
"Can I help you?" asked a familiar voice as a familiar man came into view, and Tara had her first welcome surprise of the night.
A dead woman was clinging to him, and Rupert Giles had not the faintest idea of what to do.
"Giles! Thank God!" Tara cried, her voice muffled against his chest. "Giles, what's going on? Where am I?"
Almost of their own accord, his hands came up to take Tara's shoulders. "Tara," he said, his voice sounding like it didn't belong to him. He moved her just far enough away that he could look into her face. "Tara, it's you."
"It's me." She looked into his face, her expression confused, frightened. "Giles, what's happened? Everything's so strange."
"Tara?" Anya's sharp voice came from the entrance to the stockroom, where she'd been fetching new inventory. The box she'd been holding clunked to the floor as she dropped it. "Oh, my God. You're not dead!" The demoness came closer, then stopped abruptly. "You're not dead, are you? Not a zombie or a vampire or anything like that?"
"Of course not," said Tara, whereupon Anya promptly pounce-hugged her. "Um, who are you?"
"It's me, Anya." Anya pulled back, giving Tara her brightest smile. "You know, Xander's fiancée. Well, until he dumped me at the altar. And just so you know, I'm a demon. Again. Is that okay with you?"
Tara shrank back against Giles. "Who is she? Giles, please, what's going on."
Anya gave her a puzzled look. "Okay, did Willow resurrect you? Because that would explain the weirdness. She's not really supposed to do that, you know; you'd think she'd have learned after the last time."
Giles slowly turned Tara around so she was facing him again. He searched her face with his eyes. A faint scar ran across her forehead. Another, from what had obviously been a vampire bite, marred her neck. She seemed thinner, too, and something was harder about her eyes, but it was unmistakably Tara. Feelings he couldn't even put a name to welled up within him as he looked into the eyes of the lovely, gentle young woman who had been so cruelly taken from them.
"I'm afraid I haven't the faintest idea what's going on," he said in answer to Tara's question. His hand, he found, had risen to cup her face tenderly. "Tara—you're alive."
A million questions hung between them as the fear and confusion in Tara's eyes grew ever deeper. Whatever thoughts she had, though, were scattered as the door burst open again.
"Giles, something really weird—" Buffy's sentence was cut short. "Oh, God," she breathed as she saw Tara.
Tara's eyes went wild as the group came in. She clutched Giles' arm. "Giles, they're still alive. How?"
Giles stared at Tara in confusion as Dawn broke away from the group, her face shining with joy. "Tara! Is it really you?" She ran toward the witch, but Tara leaped away, utter panic in her eyes.
"Dawn, stay back!" Giles ordered. The teenager stopped, confused and hurt. "Everyone, stay back."
Dawn looked at Giles. "Was she—was she resurrected?"
"I think not," said Giles. "As to what has happened, I'm afraid I'm at a loss."
Willow stepped out from behind Buffy. "Tara? Baby? It's me."
"I know who you are. What you do," said Tara. "Giles, why isn't she dead?"
"Tara, stay calm," said Giles.
Willow, tears running down her face, descended the stairs. "I'm sorry, baby, I'm so sorry. Everything I did, I'm so—"
Tara's fist closed around a vial of holy water, and in a moment, it was shattering against Willow's chest. The redhead gasped. The frown between Tara's eyes grew deeper.
"Why didn't that burn her?" the blond asked. "She's a vampire."
"Willow's a vampire?" Anya asked.
"No, she's not," Dawn insisted.
Giles grabbed a cross and tossed it to Willow, who automatically caught it. Tara's eyes widened as Willow distinctly didn't burn.
"She-she's not a vampire?" asked the blond witch.
"No, she's not," answered Giles. "Look in the mirror behind the cash desk, Tara. There are no vampires here."
Tara did so, her eyes shifting from the mirror to the group itself and back again. "And him?" she asked finally, indicating Xander.
Xander calmly took the cross from Willow. "No burny here. It's just me, Tara."
Tara's hands went to the sides of her head, and tears overflowed her eyes. "Giles, what's happening? What's happened to me?" she asked again piteously.
"Tara--" Willow stepped closer.
"Don't come near me!" Tara shrieked. "Just stay back. Stay away from me."
Xander's hands gently pulled the weeping Willow back. Buffy approached Tara.
"Tara, listen to me," said the Slayer, her voice low, soft, and confident. "Whatever's happened, we'll figure it out. We'll make it right. Okay?"
Hesitantly, Tara nodded. Giles stepped to her side, and the witch leaned against his chest. "I'm scared," she whispered.
"I can well understand that. But no one will hurt you here, Tara. I promise."
Tara allowed herself to be led to a nearby table. Much to her relief, Giles sat on one side of her, and the little blond with the calm green eyes took the other side. The witch looked at the others—the strange girl called Anya, the pretty, blue-eyed teenager, and Xander and Willow. She knew their names too well. What she knew of them, though, clashed with these incarnations. The perverse, gleefully sadistic pair she'd dreaded weren't present. Instead, there was a young man with gentle eyes and a vulnerable, teary-eyed redhead.
At least Giles was familiar, right down to the scent of his aftershave. Tara realized she was clutching his hand in what had to be a painful grip, but she couldn't let go. He felt like an anchor.
"Who are all you people?" she asked.
"You don't know us?" asked the teen.
Tara shook her head. "I know Giles, and I've seen those two," and she indicated Xander and Willow, "but the rest of you, I've never seen in my life."
The petite blond held out her hand. "I'm Buffy."
Tara shook her hand. The teen reached out next. "I'm Dawn. You're sure you don't remember me?"
"I don't," answered Tara. "This place—it looks like Sunnydale, but it's different. Everything's changed."
"When did it change?" asked Giles. "Have you been gone?"
"No. I was just out patrolling with my group this evening, and everything was normal."
"Patrolling with your group?" Buffy asked.
"Uh-huh." Tara looked at Giles. "As a matter of fact, we called you when we found that circle. Remember? You and Amanda were going to come take a look."
"Amanda?" asked Giles. "And what circle?"
Tara was looking ever more puzzled, and the entire group could sympathize. "We found a circle someone had cast. It was burned into the lawn at the old UC Sunnydale construction site, and I sensed some powerful magic. That was when we were attacked by vampires. I set a couple of them on fire, and then all of a sudden . . . it was like I fell through the ground or something, and that was when things started to get all weird."
"I think you skipped a dimension," opined Anya. "It's always disorienting."
"I think Anya may be right," said Giles. "Tell me, Tara, what is Sunnydale like, as far as you know?"
"Like hell on earth," she said. "The Children of Aurelius run the town. It's the center of the Master's power, but it's also the center of the human resistance."
"The Master?" Buffy's eyes were suddenly intent. "Really ugly vampire, looks like a fruit bat, wears leather, truly pretentious?" Tara nodded. "Okay, how's that possible? I dusted him, like, years ago. Smashed his bones. He's supposed to be good and dead."
"Wait a minute," said Anya. "You said you thought Xander and Willow were vampires, right?"
"They were," said Tara. "They were dusted a few years ago, but everyone knew about them."
Anya pointed at Willow. "Was she seriously skanky? Wore skintight black leather that made her all" Anya gestured at her own breasts "cleavagey?"
Tara's eyes flicked to Willow, then abruptly away again. "Yes."
Looks of comprehension ran around the table, skipping Tara. "She's from the same dimension as evil vampire me?" asked Willow, eyes growing huge.
"That one I opened up because of Cordelia's wish," said Anya, slapping the table and making Xander, Dawn, and Tara jump. "That would explain everything."
"Oh, God, that universe is still out there somewhere?" asked Buffy.
"Well, if we could bring Evil Willow through . . ."
Tara turned to Giles, eyes pleading. "What's everyone talking about?"
"A few years ago, Xander here cheated on his girlfriend, Cordelia. With Willow, I might add," Anya explained. "I'm a Vengeance Demon, so I came here to grant her a wish. For whatever reason, she blamed Buffy here for the whole thing, so she wished Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. And since Buffy was the one who stopped the Master from rising in the first place, needless to say, that world was a bit of a mess. Then Giles stripped me of my powers and this timeline was restored."
"How is it possible, then, for Tara's world to have gone on existing?" asked Giles.
Anya shrugged. "A Possibility is a very powerful thing. You can't destroy it just because one little Vengeance Demon loses her pendant."
"So we've got what, parallel universes going on?" asked Xander.
"It appears so." Giles took off his glasses. "And Tara here seems to have slipped through."
"Could anything else have slipped through?" asked Buffy. " 'Cause I'm really not wanting to deal with Ol' Prophecy Butt again. Killing him once was hard enough."
"You killed the Master?" asked Tara, whipping her head around to face Buffy. "Maybe that's it! Maybe someone wanted to come through and bring you back to our world so you could kill him there. No one else has managed to; he's killed three Slayers since he rose. If you came back—"
"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute," interrupted Buffy. "First of all, there's no guarantee I could do it again. Second, I have responsibilities here, like taking care of my sister and keeping a lid on the Hellmouth. This Hellmouth, I mean. I don't want to go anywhere unless there's a guarantee I can get back."
"But you've got to!" Tara's voice was desperate. "If someone doesn't stop him, he'll take over the whole world. His armies have already spread across North America; there's no telling where he'll go next."
"I'm afraid any talk of Buffy going anywhere is purely academic until we find out exactly how Tara was brought here," Giles pointed out. "Tara, do you think you could take us to the place where you first appeared?"
"I-I'm not sure. It was somewhere on the university campus, I think."
"Was it near where we saw you for the first time?" asked Xander.
"Yes," answered Tara, not looking directly at him.
"Then I think we can find it," said Xander.
"Let's go, then," said Buffy. Everyone got up from their chairs. Tara suddenly found herself with an armful of Dawn.
"Uh," commented Tara.
Dawn pulled back, blushing, eyes moist. "Sorry. It's just . . . it's so good to see you again, Tara. Even if you're not, you know, our Tara."
Something clicked in Tara's brain. "Um, am I . . . am I dead here?"
There was silence for a moment. Giles broke it. "Our Tara died this past spring."
After that, the group was silent as they exited the shop and Anya locked up. Tara followed Giles to his car. Willow took a step after her, but Xander caught her arm.
"Will, I think you should give her some space," he said softly in her ear. "If she knew your vamp-twin, it might take her a little while to get over her wiggins."
"It's just . . ." Willow made a helpless sobbing noise. "She's Tara, Xander. She's Tara."
"But she's not our Tara," Xander reminded her as gently as he could. "She doesn't know what you and Tara had together. Hence the need to give her space. C'mon—let's get in my car."
Anya and Dawn joined Giles and Tara in his car, and Buffy got in Xander's with Willow. The cars made their way to the college campus, and in twenty minutes, the whole group was gathered beside the Science Center where Tara remembered standing up for the first time.
"There is magic here," said Willow. "A lot of resonances, like there's something waiting to spring open again."
"It's like what I felt in my world, right by the circle," said Tara. "Only it was stronger and even more unstable."
Giles took off his glasses as he thought. "Inter-dimensional magic is a dangerous business. I shouldn't like to do anything until we've had the chance to study it more."
Willow looked at him. There was still magic inside her, powerful magic that she had learned to control with the help of Giles and the coven in Devon. She was none too eager to use it, though—the lesson of what magic could do to and through her when used carelessly or with the wrong motivations had been hard and unspeakably bitter.
She finally spoke, weighing her words carefully. "I could probably pop it open, but the thing is, I can't tell if it would open a portal from our world to theirs or from theirs to ours. Could go both ways, too."
Out of the corner of her eye, Willow could see Tara watching her intently. The redhead tried not to show she'd noticed, but Tara's eyes flicked away quickly anyway.
"All the more reason to study it," said Giles.
"Speaking of study, Dawn's got school in the morning. I need to take her home to get some sleep," said Buffy.
"Buffy," Dawn started to protest.
"Dawn." The teen subsided under her sister's stern look. "Think this can keep until morning, Giles?"
"Certainly. If the portal rips the universe apart, I suspect we'll all know eventually." He turned his eyes to Tara. "Tara, would you be willing to stay at least one night, until we can ascertain more about what's happened?"
Tara nodded a bit hesitantly. "Sure. You're right; this sort of magic is too powerful and unstable to mess with if you don't know what you're doing. I don't mind waiting until we know more."
"You can stay with us," offered Dawn urgently. "We've got a big house, and it's just me, Buffy, and Willow, and besides, we've got a bunch of your old—I mean, our Tara's old clothes still, so you can borrow them if you need to."
"Um, s-sure." Tara looked even more hesitant. "I guess that would make sense." Her eyes flicked to Willow again, then back down.
"You don't have to," said Willow. "I-I mean, if you don't want to, or I could stay with Xander, if that would make you feel better."
Tara shrugged, not meeting Willow's eyes. "Whatever. I don't want to be an inconvenience."
There was an uncomfortable silence. "Sounds like as good a plan as any," said Buffy finally. "Let's head back to my place."
"She hates me," Willow whispered to Xander as he drove them away from the Summers house.
"It's what I deserve. Maybe it's the universe striking back at me for trying to destroy the Earth. It sends me Tara—a Tara who can't even stand to look at me."
Xander glanced at her sideways. "She doesn't even know you, Will. All she knows is that you look like a vampire she's not too keen on. As for the universe—hey, it didn't zap Angel for trying to destroy the world."
Willow's lips twisted. "He went to hell. And then he had to leave the woman he loved."
"Okay, so wrong there, but I'm still right about Tara. She was the same way with me, and I'm the one who stopped you. That's justice for what?" Willow didn't answer. "Look, I like my pity parties as much as the next guy, but this is just something you're going to have to deal with. Tara's here. Not our Tara, but somebody's. She needs our help. Isn't that what matters?"
"Yeah," murmured Willow. But she sounded far from convinced.
The thing that disturbed Tara most about Buffy's house was her own face. She kept seeing it in the pictures sitting around the living room, hanging on the walls, and decorating the bedroom she was led to. It was her face, but the girl in the pictures wasn't her. She was happy, carefree, posing with people Tara didn't know and wearing clothes Tara would never wear.
"This is . . . this used to be our Tara's room," said Dawn. "Buffy's downstairs bringing up a box of her clothes so you can at least change." The teen paused, watching Tara walk around the room, picking up small items and examining them. "You okay?"
Tara looked up at her. "This is just . . . strange, is all. It's like seeing what my life could've been like and wasn't."
"Things were hard where you come from?"
"Very." Tara picked up a picture, one in which the girl with her face was snuggled up next to Willow. "Dawn, were Willow and your Tara—were they girlfriends?"
Dawn nodded. "Yeah. They moved in here last summer after Buffy died." Tara looked at her quizzically. "Long story. We got her back. While she was gone, though, Willow and Tara took care of me. It was kinda 'Dawnie Has Two Mommies.'" The teen smiled fondly at the memories.
Tara continued to look at the picture. "Ironic," she murmured.
"What?" asked Dawn.
Before Tara could even begin to form an answer, Buffy walked in bearing a box that was rather larger than herself. It thumped to the floor.
"That should do ya," said Buffy. "Just in case you need them. There's nightgowns and stuff, too, and fresh undies."
Tara set down the picture and walked over to the box. "Thanks." She lifted out a few items and examined them critically, frowning a bit. "Your Tara was into the frou-frou, wasn't she?"
Dawn giggled. "That's one way to put it."
Buffy checked her watch. "It's going on midnight, Dawn. You need to be in bed an hour ago." Dawn pouted at her sister. "Bathroom, jammies, bed, now."
Dawn sighed, but said, " 'Night, Tara. Sleep tight," and left the room.
Tara caught the concerned look on Buffy's face. "She seems excited to have me here."
Buffy nodded. "Yeah. She misses our Tara something fierce."
"I-I don't mean to re-open old wounds—"
Buffy waved her hand. "Not your fault you got dumped in our dimension. Don't worry, though; we'll figure out what happened. Well, Giles and Willow will, anyway."
Tara looked back across the room at the picture of Willow with their Tara. "About Willow—I don't mean to hurt her, but . . . it's just that the Willow in our dimension—she was a monster. It's hard to look at that face and . . ." Tara trailed off, her own old wounds flaring up again.
"I get it," Buffy said softly. "So does Willow. Don't worry about it."
The blond witch nodded, breathing deep to clear her own agitation. "Your Giles, on the other hand—he's exactly like my Giles, right down to the way he cleans his glasses." Tara smiled and sat down on the side of the bed.
The same fond smile graced Buffy's face. "And the way he starts to stutter when he gets embarrassed?"
"Exactly the same. And then there's the glare . . ."
". . . when you know you've pissed him off. Sounds like my Giles, all right." Buffy sat down by Tara. "He's what, the leader of the resistance in your world?"
"In Sunnydale, yeah. There are other cells, too, but ours is always on the front lines." Tara looked at Buffy. "You're the Slayer here, aren't you?"
"She who hangs out in graveyards, yeah."
"You're not like the other Slayers I've met."
Buffy looked a little bit startled. "Just how many have you met?"
Tara sighed, eyes distant. "Let's see—the current Slayer is Amanda. She's just a kid, can't be any older than your sister. She's tough, though. Good. Before her, there was Christianne, who was French Canadian and kind of a snob, but boy, could she fight. Then there was Faith."
"Faith?" Buffy demanded. "Faith was a Slayer in your world, too?"
"You know her?"
"Yeah, she's a Slayer here, too. I died. It was a thing. Anyway, there's two Slayers now, and Faith's the other one."
Tara nodded. "Is she still alive here?"
Buffy sighed. "Yeah, but she's in prison. She kinda . . . she got careless with human life."
"Oh." For some reason, that didn't surprise Tara very much. "That's sad to hear. She didn't last too long as a Slayer in Sunnydale in my world. She was . . . impulsive. Took the Master on without backup. It was just like her, though. Faith was always a firecracker." Tara smiled a bit at her memories. "She was wild. Poor Giles didn't know what to do with her. When she was fighting, it was like she lost everything else. I mean, while she was alive, she did serious damage to the Master's ranks. It was just . . . she burned so hot, so bright. Never did anything halfway. She was a real tigress in bed, too."
Buffy sat bolt upright. "You mean you . . ? and Faith?"
Tara grinned. "Well, when you wake up to a gorgeous woman crawling all over you and demanding a good screw, what's a lesbian to do?"
"Oh. Well, I-I just never knew Faith was . . . I mean, she jumped Xander in our world, so I kinda assumed . . ."
"Oh, Faith would jump anyone she thought would give her a good ride," said Tara wryly. "You mean she never made a move on you?"
Buffy blushed deeply. "Not that I know of, no."
"Bet she did." Tara chuckled. "It was only a few times. It wasn't like we had a relationship or anything. I kinda slept around when I was eighteen anyway. It was . . . I wasn't doing too well that year." She looked down, eyes darkening. "After losing . . . people and almost getting killed a couple of times, I guess I went a little crazy."
"Does get you kinda hormonal," agreed Buffy. "You know, looking back, I can see what you mean—I think Faith would've gone for me if . . . while she was here, though, I was involved with someone else. A man. I'm straight. Not that there's anything wrong with being not-straight, but it's just me."
"Well, if you ever decide to switch sides . . ." Tara gave Buffy a thoroughly dirty look.
Buffy blushed even deeper and giggled. "Okay, you're not so much like our Tara."
"What was she like?" Tara asked, deeply curious.
"Tara was . . ." Buffy gathered her thoughts. "Gentle. Kind of shy. Loving. She was . . . wise. She had a way of knowing you, looking deep inside and seeing the real you. What other people missed. You felt like you could tell her anything, and she'd never judge you. Little things didn't freak her out. All the things of everyday life that make other people crazy, Tara could deal with. She always reminded me of my mom that way. I've missed her a lot. We all have."
Tara nodded. "She was lucky to have all of you."
Buffy was looking at Tara curiously. "What's your story, Tara? I know that our Tara came here to go to college, but somehow, I don't think that's what you came here for."
"No." Tara shook her head. "The university was never finished in my world. I came here because of a girl. My girlfriend, Marnie." Buffy looked interested, so Tara continued. "When I was seventeen, my mother died of ovarian cancer. It was so hard after that, being with my family. I just—you don't know what they're like."
"Actually, we do," said Buffy. "We had the pleasure of meeting them a few years ago when they came here to fetch Tara and take her back to wherever. We objected, she stayed, they left, thank God."
Tara smiled wistfully. "I'm glad to hear that. In my case, I wanted to get away so bad. I started looking into colleges on the sly, because my family wasn't going to let me go. But then Marnie came along." Old memories made Tara smile. "She was eighteen, a solitary practitioner witch, a lesbian, and a free spirit. She was kind of a gypsy in a way, never staying long in one place. I met her and fell in love at first sight."
Tara remembered bright sunshine and warm nights, secret assignations in quiet places, the heady excitement of first love. She remembered Marnie's voice telling her, "You gotta get out of this place, girlie. Sooner or later, it'll eat you alive."
"You okay?" asked Buffy's voice, and Tara realized she'd lost herself in the past.
"I'm fine. Marnie told me that there was something major going on in the West. She felt it. I could feel it, too, and some of my mother's coven friends had talked about it. When she told me she was going to California and asked me if I wanted to come along, I . . . I just left with her. Never even let my family know, just left.
"We ended up in L.A., where we were attacked by demons the first night we were there. I know we'd have died then if it hadn't been for Doyle and Gunn."
Buffy started. "Hey, I know those guys! Well, not really personally, but they're friends of a friend. I mean, Doyle's dead, but Gunn's still in L.A."
"Really?" It was a strange feeling, talking about her friends and hearing about their counterparts. "Doyle died in my world, too. I don't know about Gunn, though; I haven't heard from him in a long time. Anyway, they were running a resistance group, and Marnie and I hooked up with them for a few months. After Doyle's death, though, Marnie said she wanted to go to Sunnydale and work on the front lines. She told me I didn't have to come with her if I didn't want to, but I couldn't leave her. I couldn't let her go . . ." The pain that came with the words was sudden and sharp, and Tara almost gasped with it.
"She died, didn't she?" Buffy's hand rubbed across Tara's back, warm and comforting. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Tara nodded, fighting to keep the pain from overwhelming her. "I stayed on after she died. I wanted to make her death count for something. Besides, I made a lot of good friends there, so that's the long and the short of it."
"I guess so." Buffy shook herself lightly. "Look, it's late. Why don't you get some sleep? You're safe here; all the Big Bads know that the Slayer's house is off-limits unless you've got a few lives to spare."
"I'll bet." They both stood. "Thanks for letting me stay, Buffy."
"No problem. Sleep tight."
"You, too." Buffy turned and headed for the door. "Buffy?"
The Slayer stopped. "Yeah?"
Tara walked over. "You really stopped the Master from rising?"
Buffy nodded. "Yeah. It wasn't easy, but I had a lot of help."
"Well, just in case no one ever told you . . ." Tara leaned forward, cupping one side of Buffy's face with her hand and pressing her warm, soft lips to the other side. She pulled back and looked into Buffy's eyes. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Buffy said, her voice suddenly tight with emotion. "Good night."
"Good night." Tara watched Buffy leave, pulling the door shut behind her, and then dug out some pajamas from the box. A few minutes later, she crawled into the bed and turned out the lamp. Even in the darkness, she could pick out the picture of her counterpart and Willow.
"Marnie," she murmured into the night.