Disclaimer: Not mine.

Spoiler Alerts: Canon for Seasons One and Two of BtVS. Storylines from the rest of BtVS, as well as AtS will occur in an AU way. Read at your own risk.

Author's Notes:

This is a Buffy/Tara or Buffy/Faith pairing... though it may not always stay either way. As previously stated, everything up to the end of Season Two is canon. Buffy ran away to L.A after sending Angel to that Hell Dimension, met Tara there and never came home for the beginning of Season Three. Faith became the Slayer of Sunnydale and never sided with the Mayor. Relationships and events changed due to Faith staying on the side of good and Buffy building a life for herself in L.A… which leads us to where everyone is now.

Story Notes:

Buffy now goes by her middle name, Anne, and the last name of Jones after Fred from Scooby Doo. Didn't want you to get confused when she is referred to as Anne Jones. I almost went with Blake after Daphne from the same cartoon, but I felt that Anne Blake was too close to the Anita Blake character by Laurell K. Hamilton… another vampire slayer, funny enough.

The story picks up right before the episode, Doomed. Things will be confusing at first, but where everybody is and what has happened will eventually come to the light of day. Be patient on when people start to show up. Also, the time-line is a little… off. I have bent things around to meet more of what I wanted to happen, so anyone with technicality issues (i.e., when episodes actually happened in canon vs. when I've got them) can file their complaints elsewhere. And finally, there will definitely be some OOCness. People changed under different circumstances and in some cases, I changed motivations and such... well, you get the idea.

Unless otherwise stated, the POV will be from Tara.

Enjoy the ride.

…ooo000OOO000ooo…

PROLOGUE - Secret Window

Unknown POV

In most cases, it might be expected that when someone stayed late in their office for several nights in a row, the only illumination remaining along the entire floor of the tall, imposing building, being cast from the lone lamp resting on the corner of that same someone's desk, that the future outlook was bleak and ominous. The desk and corner table, not to mention the couch and shelving along the wall, to be covered with files and books and papers. A cacophony of unstructured silent chaos.

That the end was near.

But in this case, such an assumption would be wrong. In fact, the desk was actually neat and orderly... almost scarily so, with the figure taking the time to make a few last minute notations and thoughts to the folder resting quietly on the desk, unassuming and non-threatening. From its cover and innocent label... two names written instead of the normal one... a casual observer would ignore the very passing of any thought that would suggest a nefarious danger to what lay within, the belief that paper and ink could not be among the very threads of destiny that would change the lives of so many... that proof truly existed how mighty pen could be against the mightiest and most magickal of swords.

Ignoring what is written, the focus is more on the various newspaper clippings contained within, the body of work not even needing to be studied, the titles of same said articles enough to get the point across as most are Front Page headlines:

Sunnydale Resident Crippled After Home Invasion

Halloween Candy Laced With Hallucinogenic Drug – Chaos in the Streets

Wild Dog Attack Victim Identified as British Tourist

Earthquake in Sunnydale – Experts Baffled

Mayor Richard Wilkins III Murdered

City Hall Fire Deemed Arson – Murder and Arson Linked

But that such articles made news across the country, Fox News and CNN both having carried the stories in some of the quieter down times, it is some of the smaller notices and announcements and back page news that are also contained within that would strike many as noteworthy. Not to mentioned downright terrifying when one considers the locations of this office and who said office was assigned to. Smaller and less shocking, those few stapled in with the others would make an interesting read for those in the know:

Summers and Giles Engagement

Missing – Have You Seen This Girl?

Search For Missing Georgia Girl Called Off

Ye Olde Magick Shoppe – Grand Opening This Tuesday

Cave-In at UC Sunnydale Reveals Hidden Burial Ground

All interesting reads, all containing a bounty of information that, to those that would greedily swallow each and every word printed, be prized and cherished and, to a dangerous point, could even, in fact, have altered what is into what could have been. But this was the reality of today leading into the possibility of tomorrow.

And so it begins...

…ooo000OOO000ooo…

CHAPTER ONE - Hellbent

Tara's POV

If you ignored the boxes scattered and stacked throughout the small, trendy apartment, the various instructions and definitions of the haphazard contents contained within marked across the cardboard in sparkly purple Sharpie, the clutter of clothes and assorted… well, just stuff, nothing placed properly or where it had originally been placed, strewn across the floor, you could see that the soon-to-be ex-residents were of similar goal and purpose to get as much done as possible in the little time that was left available. The shorter of the two women, her impossibly green striped among her more natural blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her clothes were mismatched, most likely just thrown on in a rush to be covered, was currently finishing the pulling out of clothing from her dresser. The other woman, only slightly taller and a bit more curvaceous and still blessed with her natural hair color, was running boxing tape along the top of already full boxes, her darker blonde hair pulled back under a scarf.

Neither woman seemed to be paying much to the other, each resolute in trying to finish their self-assigned tasks before lunchtime, and to the casual observer, it would seem that too much was happening for either to note what each other was performing… but to those in the know, a very few select and privileged friends, the two roommates… best friends… lovers, were well aware of the proximity of their significant other and were actually trying to be good so that they could be finished before the moving truck finally arrived.

There was no need for either to chastise that the reason they were rushing was due to their procrastination… or to the idea that they had spent most of the night previous and subsequent morning enjoying one another for the last time in the first apartment that they had ever shared. It might also never need to be mentioned aloud that they had slept wonderfully; each embraced in the arms and legs of their lover, and had only awoken barely thirty minutes past.

"I blame you, Anne."

At hearing her name, the shorter of the two blew a stray lock of emerald hair from her face and arched an eyebrow in question towards her girlfriend for the past seven months. She would have, as per her usual reaction, cocked a hip to the side and crossed her arms across her chest, but seeing as her arms were full of random tees, she decided to forgo any attempt at silent torture and decided to be blunt.

"Right. What for this time?"

Tara grinned over at her as she stood and moved over to another opened box. "I think that if we'd stuck to the original plan…"

"The one you wrote on a napkin last week at that little barbeque place you had to try before we left?" Buffy interrupted. "The same place that you lost the bet at and James made me color my hair this atrocious leprechaun fantasy? That place?"

"… and done a little bit of packing at a time," Tara continued as if Anne had spoken. It had been good barbeque... and it wasn't like she didn't look fab with green streaks. Definite hotness for the Crayola. "We could be done and sharing a beer by now… instead of running around like a chicken with its head cut off."

Anne couldn't help but laugh. "A chicken?" Her eyes sparkled as she threw the clothing in her arms into the top of the cardboard packing crate at her feet. "Is that another one of your Georgia Mountain country phrases?"

The older of the two huffed. "Listen up, valley girl cheerleader…"

"You know you love this valley cheer girl." Anne refused to let Tara finish her thoughts.

"Look, little miss green-haired Bring-It-On. I think that…"

"Don't think, baby." Anne laughed playfully, thrusting her hips forward provocatively. "You and me? We're into feeling. Not thinking."

"Flower girl, huh? Sure you're not actually named after a flower or something?"

Anne grinned. "Never heard of a Buffy flower… hmm… maybe a thorn bush."

"Fine." Tara dropped the tape dispenser on the desk and wiped the sweat from her forehead. "Yes. You win. You're my hot little girlfriend that sexes me up whenever the mood strikes her. Hippie 'lil nympho."

Anne laughed. "What can I say? You turned me off of stick. I'm a girl's girly girl now who has needs that only you can fill."

The taller girl moved a box from the desk's chair and sat down quickly, a sigh escaping from her to get off of her feet, frowning at the dust staining the knees of her sweatpants. They may not have been packing long, but she was tired. Who knew that two girls with nothing barely to their name could get together and amass such an amount of useless junk in so short a time? She let her muscles relax as she watched the former vampire slayer skip along happily at having won the verbal sparring and finish throwing random items in for their big move.

Anne picked up three boxes at once and carried them out of the bedroom and towards the front door. Tara had been amazed that she had made a joke about her first name. Buffy. For so long, she'd hidden away that part of herself, scarred by the horrors that she'd had to face when fighting against her former boyfriend, Angelus.

All apparently unnecessary after what they'd discovered recently. Angel once again. But now alive… well… not in a Hell Dimension... as Anne had apparently mistakenly believed. But for every silver lining was the rain cloud to follow from bad to worse; Angel was apparently living here in the same city. It was only her belief in the Return of Three under the Goddess that had kept Tara from unleashing her displeasure in a most Wicked Witch of the West type way. Anne meant too much and so many things could so easily go wrong.

That she and Anne both had gotten that scholarship from Wolfram and Hart had been a gift from above. The Goddess provides her children with what they need. Like the wind. Exit L.A., stage right.

Tara sighed as she thought over how so much had happened in such a short time. Never mind the whirlwind friendship slash romance that seemed to slap them each over the head without a care for what they might have felt previously. Tara had always been drawn to the female side of the fence, a fact that her Southern family seemed unable to accept… all but her mother. No. Her family's attitude, not to mention the emotional blackmail and abuse; Tara ran as soon as she could. Anne, really, was not a lesbian in the strictest since, ignoring that she was making with the bumping and smootching and grinding with a woman. No. Anne had fallen in love with Tara… something Anne professed she would have done whether she was female or male or demon. Involuntary shuddering, so happy that her mother had told her the truth before passing on that the women of the Maclay family were not, in fact, demons like her father preached.

That could have been a real mood killer.

She couldn't help but chuckle at how fate interceded. California had seemed perfect for running away after Mom was gone. Passed away. Tara had her high school diploma and good enough grades for a partial scholarship to a small university in a California town called Sunnydale. Everything seemed okay until the bus connection terminal she was waiting at was just a few blocks down from the hole-in-the-wall diner, sadly named Helen's Kitchen, that Anne was working at. Tara had wanted food and it was upon immediately entering the greasy spoon that she saw her destiny. For her, it had been love at first sight, though it took some persuasion to get Anne to see it.

But it took time for Fate to put them together and in love. Tara had been too shy to approach Anne that first meeting and had decided to go back to her waiting bus ride. A bad car wreck and a fist fight among the two drivers involved interrupted those plans… the fight led to a stabbing. Cops got called in and it was then that Tara met Detective Kate Lockley. As a material witness, she had been requested to make statements and more, causing her to miss her connection. Fate and the Goddess might be true bitches, but they offered Blessings like no body's business.

Aunt Kate, as she and Anne now called her, actually knew Anne Jones, the alias that Anne was using then and now, the two of them interacting due to the several times the small night-shift waitress had been able to help prevent bad things from happening to the people that lived near the diner. Anne was a regular knight errant, and everyone loved her for it. Kate introduced Tara to the object of her lust and that led to the two becoming roommates when Tara decided to say to Hell with Sunnydale and yes to the possibility of something so much more and Anne was looking for someone to help cover expenses.

Not that it was easy. Tara had thought her big reveal about being a Witch was going to be a potential deal breaker before anything could even begin. Color her flabbergasted when Anne had let it out of the bag that she was the Slayer. Well, the first one. Seemed there was a second one taking care of the Hellmouth. Oh, yeah. Imagine that the college scholarship she had been heading to was over a Hellmouth. And that didn't even cover what her love had been through before fleeing to Los Angeles.

"You lazy little lay about." Anne's voice cut into Tara's musings. "You complain about all we need to get done and I leave you for a second to find you sitting on your cute ass doing nothing."

Tara felt guilty for a moment until she noticed that Anne was chewing on something. What could she be eating? She started to ask when a sudden realization jumped into her mind.

"My egg rolls!"

She knew she was right that the little minx was eating the remains from their dinner last night when Anne tore out from the doorway laughing as Tara chased after her.

It would have been the perfect foreplay except that the moving truck guys knocked on the door right as Tara caught the younger girl. Damn but that she felt Anne had planned it that way. Tara had to get her back. Yes. Vengeance would be hers... maybe another tattoo...

…ooo000OOO000ooo…

Tara's POV

Welcome to Sunnydale.

At least, that's what the sign said. She'd reserve her opinion until they were settled and Anne and she had gotten through all of the drama that was sure to hit.

Anne… Buffy… returning to Sunnydale.

Her mom.

Her Watcher.

Her friends.

Being in love with another woman.

Hmm… maybe that last one should be moved up a few spots.

And who knew what else there was. Were any old enemies waiting? Anne had mentioned a vampire that she'd let run away in exchange for his help in stopping Angelus. Did he stay gone? And the female he wanted… Druwella or something. What if she was looking for payback?

Tara felt Anne snuggle closer in to her shoulder, her nose itching from the former Slayer's hair tickling her nose. They'd gotten everything packed and loaded even with all of the shenanigans they pulled on one another after the movers had gotten there. Anne doing so much work on her own while the two guys were not looking. Poor girl had worn herself out. But 'nanigans of the she variety and secret super-strength liftings by the Slayer aside, the moving truck was finally on its way to the small, off-campus apartment they had called about previously and already put a deposit down for, leaving them only the task of taking the bus to Anne's former home.

What fun.

But classes were picked. Jobs were lined up... well... one job. Tara's boss at the book store had gotten in touch with the new occult book store slash magick shop slash antiquity dealer in Sunnydale and gainful employment was ready for her in a week. Anne... well, Anne had something else set up.

It had not been an easy thing, Tara's convincing her lover to return to Sunnydale. Sure, they'd had a pretty good life in L.A. She'd put the college dream on hold and found work in a small occult bookstore, off the radar enough to not attract attention. And Anne had finally gotten out of Helen's... actually working at that trendy bar, D'oblique, that had just opened and had only been a few blocks away. That had given her time during the day to study and pass her GED, as well as for them to build up a tiny sum of actual fundage.

The original plan had been a few courses at UCLA, but the cost had been so outrageous. Anne had offered to let her take all that they had to pay for classes, but Tara had been adamant. It was a both or nothing deal. She wouldn't stand for anything less... though the offer had earned Anne a night of sexual fantasy fulfillment that had had Tara blushing for days after, as well as Anne having a satisfied smile, too.

No. They might have had a start of the start of a start according to the costs in the UCLA brochure and online guide, but it would take some serious funding of the millionaire type for Tara's dream to have a chance to teach to become real. Her prayers to the Goddess had been of the nightly and of the serious for several weeks. It had seemed hopeless until one of the weekly dinners with Aunt Kate that the policewoman had suggested applying for private scholarships; that several of the larger companies in the city offered to pay for schooling as long as the recipient of said generosity was willing to either pay back in a timely manner or accept employment at said business, as a first offer.

It was a prayer for a miracle.

That miracle ended up leading them both to Wolfram and Hart... but more specifically, had led to Lilah Morgan.

Lilah had been everything that Tara and Anne had needed, without their ever knowing what was needed. She was a lawyer, and as such, had been able to cut through so much of the red tape and other roadblocks that had acted like a literal minefield for the two of them to stumble their way around. No. Miss Morgan had explained every form and contract that had to be signed and had, at no cost to her very valuable time, spent countless hours changing the mountains of papers from legalese... possibly Klingon, according to Anne... to something more in the realm of Going To School For Dummies. The only danger that they had faced, through it all surprisingly, had been that Anne Jones was fiction. Buffy Summers was the reality. Tara had put her big toe into the treacherous waters of explaining the realness of late-night network horror movie life to Lilah, who now considered herself their legal counsel. Once again Tara was metaphorically head slapped, as the lawyer had admitted to already knowing the four-one-one about the both of them. It was, apparently, pretty common practice for firms as large as W&H to actually, you know, research all applicants.

The life and times of Tara Maclay was an open book. They knew who Anne really was, as well.

All of this had ultimately led to where Tara was now sitting comfortably on a bus racing past the welcome sign, with her partner cuddled up in a kitten-cute way and soundly sleeping on her shoulder. Yes, there was a lot to be afraid of... but when had anything worth actually having been of the easy.

University of California – Sunnydale... make way for Tara and Anne. Here we come.

...ooo000OOO000ooo...

Tara's POV

"Do you think I'll get employee discounts?" Tara asked after regaining her breath.

The new apartment was of the fab, rock-star crib type of home; something that MTV or other cable channel would be glorifying and poking around in. Not to mention that the cameras would have two smoking ladies christening all of the rooms and semi-hard surfaces located about. Yeah, Lilah had really come through for them. Again. Snickering, she had to consider that at the rate she and Anne were coming to depend on their legal representation that they might be indentured for life; though not a horrible thought when you considered the perks of drinking the fruity, powdery drink mixture that was being offered.

It had taken the better part of two days to complete the task, but all of their personal knickknacks were properly placed around the furnished rooms. Pictures had been hung. Their videos and CD's on the stand under the television and beside the stereo system... no particular order. Clothes for her had been put on the left side of the drawers and the right side of the walk-in closet. Anne's on the opposite in each case. The chest of weapons Anne had amassed after Tara finally convinced her to return to Sunnydale sat next to the sectional sofa as a decorative conversation piece. The refrigerator was currently the proud container of a nearly full case of locally brewed beer; two unopened bottles of red wine; six half eaten containers of Thai food from a local place Anne knew about that delivered; one carton of Half Baked Ben and Jerry's ice cream and a half empty disposable case of assorted fruits.

Oh... and the bed had been properly made and then unmade due to the hour and a half of fucking that started as soon as they could politely throw the movers out of the apartment... which, of course, led to the proper placement of Tara's favorite blue bra to be hanging from the ceiling fan. A fact that both of them could now appreciate as they cooled down from their lovemaking, the naked bodies still shiny and glistening.

"Discount?" Buffy laughed from where she was laying beside her, the sweat from their bodies cooling down from the bedroom activities. Tara ignored that she was licking her fingers one at a time. "What happened to your box of alter and magicky stuff? Did it break?"

Tara rolled over onto her side and rested her head on Anne's stomach, enjoying how easily they fit together. "No. But I need to Bless this space and ward it against anything seeking to harm us. That'll kill most of my current stash."

"Stash." Her living pillow replied airily. "You make it sound like we need to run behind the school gym and score some weed or something."

She wiggled her eyebrows even though Anne couldn't see her facial movements. "I could look around for some of that, too, if you want. The last time we did that we had a great time."

"Yeah. Great. You weren't the one that ended up naked and dancing in front of the open window,"

"Its not my fault you lost that bet with James..."

"Not your fault?!" Anne all but screamed. Taking a deep breath. "Let me kindly state for the official record that you, in fact, were the one that lost that bet! More to the point, you keep losing these bets and I keep ending up having to be the one to pay for 'em."

Grinning, Tara was glad that she was still faced away from the love of her life. Lying had never been her strong suit; the childhood stutter always returning to give her away... not to mention the blush that surely had her face copying a tomato at the moment. After so many months together, this was the first time that Anne had ever come close to understanding that she and James, her co-worker at the bookstore, had these bets rigged so their significant others would end up doing some really embarrassing shit.

"That's it, isn't it?!" Anne sat up, effectively pushing her off. Tara guiltily looked up at her, trying to hold the laughter in for as long as she could. "You little bitch! All those bets. All those things me and Hilary had to do. You and James set us up!"

She nodded meekly. Her stomach butterflies started to dance as she watched the green and blonde haired girl across from her narrow her eyes. "I have a tattoo of your name on the small of my back... have green hair that will not wash out from my natural hair color for who knows how long... two tickets for indecent exposure in public... Hilary and I had to act as maid and housekeeper for you and James for a whole weekend while the two of you watched the Charmed marathon..." Anne's voice kept going up and up in decibel level to the point that Tara considered that soon dogs down the street would start responding. "I have more sexy role play costumes than most Trekkies have Mister Spock ears... and, lest we forget, I had to pose for those dirty pictures you wanted..."

"Are you mad?"

Anne's gaze could have cut through stone. Tara swallowed at the look, realizing that her hens had come home to roost. It had all been in fun and stuff... and she knew Anne would be okay with all that had happened, as Tara had wanted each of those things to happen. But a retaliation of this magnitude might let Anne gain the upper hand in their relationship... and Tara enjoyed being the top; Anne naturally being the bottom of their pairing. Tara very much liked that Anne looked for someone to take charge and make the decisions when not in a slayage type of sitch. But something of this size would have Tara groveling for a while now, and tops should never be beholden to their submissive.

"Darling." The former vampire slayer smiled wickedly. "You've finally given me reason to try and get you exactly where I want you."

"Th-that doesn't s-s-sound s-so bad." She offered weakly. Yep. She was screwed, but it was all still a Tara in charge kinda world. All was right and good.

"We'll see."

Taking a deep breath of air to try and calm herself down, Tara nodded to silently signify that she would accept her punishment graciously, reached out to intertwine her fingers with Anne's and moved on to safer ground. Well, safer than what they were currently discussing. "Have you thought about Lilah's offer any more?"

"Not really."

"Why not?"

Anne leaned back into the pillows, her eyes closing. Since she hadn't let go of Tara's hand, that meant Tara was pulled along for the ride and found herself comfortably snuggling up with the smaller girl. Once they were both settled and happy, Anne chuckled darkly.

"When we learned that W&H was in the supernatural business and stuff... that they were like an American version two-point-oh of what the Watchers were like over in jolly 'ol England, it kinda pissed me off that we were both getting dragged back into that sorta life, ya know?"

"Anne..."

"No." She interrupted Tara's attempt to respond. "Let me answer, kay?"

After she nodded at the request, Anne continued. "I know you weren't stopping being a witch. But I left that life. I never wanted it to begin with. And, well, after having to send Angel away. It was too much. Sure, you and I helped Lily after we found what happened to Richie, but other than the occasional mugger of pickpocket, I was outta the game.

"And then Lilah answers our prayers and we're going to college and everything seemed to finally be going my way... I thought that karma had finally wanted to give me some sorta balance. Something for me. And don't get me wrong, we still are getting a lot. I shoulda been ready for the strings and fine print. But they're asking for a lot, too."

Tara knew she was frowning. "Is it too much?"

"Not really. I was glad to stop that Scourge army dudes that were trying to run the streets. And I was happy to help Aunt Kate stop that body-snatcher demon before it could mess with my bar, but they're wanting me to start acting like the Slayer again."

Tara ran her thumb along the back of Anne's hand. "Would it be so bad to try being the Slayer again? I know at times, especially late at night, that you miss it. Its a part of you."

Anne sighed softly. "Yeah... but from what we've been able to Mission Impossible, there's a new Slayer here. Kendra's replacement has been called, signed, paid for and delivered. I'm not needed."

"As the Slayer, maybe." Tara offered. "But Lilah just wants you to check some things out for her occasionally. Would that be so bad?"

"I don't know. What happens if I say no?"

"Then you say no. We're not required to work for them until after graduation." She poked her finger at Anne's waist. "That's at least four years away for you. Five or six for me if I get what I want."

When she didn't react, Tara rolled off of the bed and picked up her discarded shirt from the floor. "Well... we don't have to decide anything right away. How about I run to check out the Magick Shoppe and go ahead and pick up my supplies. I can grab some dinner on the way home."

Her spirits lifted as she heard Anne getting up from the bed and looking around to find some of her clothes, as well. "Does anything sound good? Suggestions?"

The former Sunnydale native ran her fingers through her hair. A lost cause, if ever there had been one. "If you'll run by the store and grab milk and cereal for breakfast in the morning, I'll order pizza."

Tara grinned. "Alright. Give me an hour or so to meet my new boss and then I'll make the run. Say meet up here around seven or so?"

Anne walked over and kissed her before throwing Tara a bra from the dresser. "Go, babe. I'll have a thin crust veggie waiting on you."

"Love you."

"You, too."

...ooo000OOO000ooo...

Tara's POV

There had been a plan. Well. Not really a plan, per se, but an agreement of certain areas to avoid at all possible until an actual real and agreed upon plan was decided and ready to be put into action. The Espresso Pump was considered a hot spot, as was The Bronze night club; apparently the only dance action place for miles around. There were a couple of delis that a few of her high school friends were known to hang, and the art gallery one street over from Main was where Mrs. Summers was manager. Anything close to the high school was a maybe, as all of her friends should have graduated last year, but who knew. The Mall was a world of no.

Ultimately, the corner market down the block and the grocery along Whedon Boulevard were probably bad, too, but the lack of choices for actual staples and necessities for actually living and surviving was where Tara drew the line. They still had some time before the new semester began, so she was willing to humor Anne's witness protection routine of hiding at the apartment and Tara would re-con the lay of the land and do the walking. She'd even had the ability to hold back any sighs and eye-rolls when Anne had insisted Tara have some defensive spells ready.

But here she was, finally, sitting outside the Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Tara took a moment to absorb and enjoy the positive energy the seemed to seep along the very foundation of the building. It was such a relief, the goodness of the building and stuff hidden inside, that she could finally release the doubt and worry that had plagued her since accepting the job position... not knowing if she was gonna find a black aura. It had been a serious worry that could now get thrown away.

Squaring her shoulders and checking her reflection in the tinted window, Tara pushed firmly on the door, a smile gracing her face as she listened to the tinkling of the old fashioned door bell directly above her, an angel having just earning its wings. Inhaling the wonderful mixture of incense and parchment and candle wax that seemed to literally hang in the air around her, she took a cursory glance around the tables and shelves near the front door, immediately dismissing their wares as for tourists and posers. There was a flicker of worry on if the shop was real, but after walking down the steps to the lowered center floor, her body nearly humming at what was all around her, Tara let the smile grow. This was the closest that she would ever come to a home away from Anne.

Now... if she could get Anne down here, the world and stars would be aligned perfectly.

"Welcome to the Ye Olde Magick Shoppe." A sweet voice called out. "How might I help you?"

The voice had the faint undertone of being British, but was soothing in a fatherly type of way that immediately added to the comfort and hominess that the store had imbued. Her eyes traced over the man, easily in his forties or so, though in fairly nice condition. His face was tired, a man that was obviously used to knowing the truth of the world around them, the world hidden above and below... but he had not been defeated, though there had been loss. He was nicely dressed, a bit... well... maybe not exactly what she expected, but it fit him.

Realizing that the gentleman was patiently waiting on her, she blushed slightly and put out her hand. "Hi. I'm Tara Maclay. I think somebody is expecting me..."

"Oh, yes." His eyes lit up. "Of course. Of course. Mister Greenhilt from Bryce Books had called me. Said you were the best employee he'd ever had the pleasure of hiring."

"He's sweet, Mister Greenhilt."

"Quite." She watched as the apparent owner walked over to a counter and started looking underneath for something. He straightened up and opened a manilla folder. He read a document inside before lifting his eyes back to meet hers. "I thought we agreed you would start on Monday."

Tara nodded. "Oh, no. I mean, yes, I start on Monday. But I came in today to meet you and to make sure I could find the store and to look at restocking my supplies."

She liked that he smiled as she spoke.

"Supplies?" He asked. "What were you looking for?"

"I'm doing a basic ward and Goddess Blessing on my apartment. That sort of thing."

His expression darkened only for a moment before the smile was back in place. "Which Goddess' blessings were you looking at?"

"A basic Gaia. Nothing too far out there."

He nodded again. "Wiccan?"

Taking a deep breath, she decided to go with honesty. "Wiccan and a practitioner."

Nodding, she watched as the proprietor and possible owner of the shop turned and walked over to a shelf next to a ladder leading to a small upper level. Pulling a few pre-wrapped packages from several bins, he slowly started mumbling the herbs and spell components under his breath as he handed each to her. He was a practitioner, too! She greedily took everything he offered and silently started trying to remember where he was pulling each thing from. After a moment, she watched as he stopped and looked back at her, his eyes carefully considering.

"Do you understand what you are warding for?"

Ah. Nodding, she glanced around before speaking. "Vampires. Demons. General badness of the yucky kind."

"Yucky kind." He parroted. "Quite."

Feeling like she had passed a test, she followed him over to the counter. She started to reach for the cash she had shoved into her pocket before leaving the apartment, when she watched him take the supplies from her hands and drop everything into a sack.

"I think that should cover everything." At her blank look, he picked up a pair of glasses laying on the counter and put them on. "Do you think you'll need anything else?"

Tara shook her head in response. "No. That was more than enough. I was just going to pay?" Taking a breath, she asked, "Do I get an employee discount?"

The man chuckled. "Well, yes... but for something like this, there will be no charge."

"Oh, no. I couldn't..."

"My dear," his voice was gentle. "I insist. Sunnydale has quite the special needs and, for someone like yourself, I must insist you be safe first. After you are settled, we can come up a fair discount for your personal needs. But on this, I am in charge and I say that you will be taking it."

She was about to thank him for his kindness, when the bell above the entrance rang. Both of their gazes went immediately to the door. Tara watched as a very nice looking woman walked in, dressed in a very understated fashion and walking with a very ornate cane.

"Dear." She heard her new boss exclaim as he quickly moved around the counter and moved over to the new arrival.

"Rupert."

Tara watched as the two embraced, doing everything she could to keep a smile and pleasant look on her face. Goddess save her... Rupert. English accent. Practitioner. Her boss was Rupert Giles; Anne's former Watcher. Why wasn't he at the high school? Wasn't he Sunnydale High's librarian?

She was pulled from her internal explosion of a mental meltdown as she watched him pull back from the hug and turn them both around to face Tara.

"Tara Maclay. Might I have the pleasure of introducing you to my wife, Joyce Summers-Giles." He turned to look at the woman who was smiling at her now. "Joyce. This is the young lady Bryce Books referred to help me out around here, Tara Maclay.

The woman... Joyce... Joyce Summers. Joyce Summers-Giles. Mother of Buffy Anne Summers. Apparently the now wife of Rupert Giles... the Watcher and surrogate father-figure for that same girl. That girl who was now her love. Anne was right. Sunnydale was evil in the worst sort of way. The blonde witch watched as the woman carefully limped over took Tara's hands into her own. She had only briefly glimpsed the woman once before... Mrs. Summers, now Giles, had been making a delivery to Angel at the same time that Tara had been meeting with Aunt Kate... she hadn't noticed that she was hurt. What had happened?

Goddess, but the world was a much smaller place than anyone ever really gave it credit for being. Tara forced down the lump in her throat and smiled up at the woman who was currently speaking.

"It is so nice to meet you. We weren't expecting you until tomorrow. Is there anything you need?"

The absolute kindness and welcoming feeling the woman exuded only made Tara want to run away so much faster. These two people represented so much of Anne's past. They were the building blocks and guides for a large part of who she became... but the wiggies were starting up again in the back of her mind. Mister Giles had been her Watcher, and while he seemed sweet and caring, Tara knew that all was not kittens and rainbows. This was the man that pressured and ordered her to not have friends… to not have a life. She was to be the Slayer and that was all that mattered.

And her mother: this is the woman that kicked Anne out. Told her to never return.

Shaking the woman's hand, she forced a smile on her face. "No, ma'am. I'm fine. Your husband is taking care of me quite well." Thinking of Anne at home waiting for her, she could feel the smile on her face becoming more real. "I just came in early to meet him and to pick a few things up."

Mister Giles walked back over, his arm casually around Joyce's waist. "So... we open at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. Does, say, nine-thirty sound good?"

"Rupert. Don't run her off just yet." Anne's mother admonished. "Tara, dear, would you like to join us for dinner? Its nothing fancy, but maybe a home-cooked meal to fill you up. I remember how hard it was for... well... it was difficult moving to a new city."

Tara caught the momentary slip, but let it slide. "That sounds wonderful, but my girlfriend is back home and we have a date planned for tonight. I'm going to be late as it is."

The three talked for a few minutes more, the offer for dinner extended to include her girlfriend, as well... the fact that she was involved with another female not seeming to be causing any problems. At least, none until they actually met said girlfriend. Tara finally excused herself from the conversation, pointing out that it would be dark soon, which unfortunately led to offers of driving her on her grocery errand and then home; all offered freely and quite nicely. They were offers that, if Anne had not been who she was, that would have been graciously accepted.

She and Anne were going to have to make plans... and, like, right away.

...ooo000OOO000ooo...