Teaser

Tara drove.

The streetlights were sparse in this part of town. The moon shone brightly overhead, easily dominating a night sky left open and exposed without the competition of the big city. But the moon provided no warmth, and Tara shivered. Maintaining a firm grip on the steering wheel with one hand, she extended the other to the instrument panel of the rental truck and turned up the heat.

Her eyes never left the road. The map in the passenger seat went ignored. Unneeded.

<ring-ring>

<rin—>

Hello?

Hey.

Hey, baby! You there already?

Signaling left, despite there being no other cars visible on the dark streets, Tara turned onto a gravel road. She drove slowly, almost reluctantly, seeming mesmerized by the sound of stones crunching beneath tires. It was the only sound for miles.

'Already'?

Well I guess thatís relative. Did you find the hotel okay? How is it? Oo, do you have little mints on your pillow?

I'm checking my pillow now, and ... no mints. But I think I have my very own complimentary bottle of shampoo.

I love those. They're so cute! And yet, functional!

It has a bed and a bathroom, so it's heaven in my book. I feel like I've been traveling for 10 hours.

14, according to my timetable.

Well at least now I have an excuse for the half of my brain that's fast asleep. Speaking of, I woke you up, didn't I?

Me? Piffle. I was wide awake.

Sweetie, just because I can't see the yawn doesn't mean I can't hear it.

The truck had stopped. Tara said nothing, made no motion to leave its safety. She sat, staring straight ahead. The knuckles of both hands were turning white as she clenched the steering wheel.

Okay, a tiny bit asleep. The smallest possible allotment of sleep that could still be called sleep. Napping! It was half a nap. A-A catnap. Not even that advanced. A kittynap. And anyway, it doesn't matter. I wanted to know you got there okay.

Hence the calling. I should let you go, though.

No, not yet! I mean, you're depriving me of Tara Snuggles here – the least you can do is ... ease me to sleep another way.

Ms. Rosenberg, you have a dirty mind.

Mm, you love my dirty mind.

Tara slowly sucked in a lungful of air and held it, the action seeming to break her free from the trance. Just as slowly she exhaled and turned to the vacant passenger seat. Brushing aside the map, she retrieved a small sealed manila envelope with "MACLAY" handwritten across the front along with several official markings and checkboxes.

I do, but after 14 hours of travel? It's competing with my love of a nice warm shower.

Okay, shower! Shower good. Let's go with that. And you can stop laughing at me now.

I'm sorry.

You're not even remotely sorry.

I'm really not. I do miss you, though.

The two-story house had been solidly built to withstand the ravages of time. Unpretentious in design, the interior was nonetheless spacious if somewhat lacking in imagination, most of the rooms being traditionally square-shaped. Swathed in darkness and illuminated solely by virtue of a blanched moon and the shimmering headlights of Tara's truck, the home radiated no welcoming message. Abandoned and desolate, its only neighbors were a nearby forested area and an ancient oak with gnarled roots, which seemed to stand guard over the uninhabited dwelling.

I miss you too. I-I know you wanted to be all- all big and brave and conquery and stuff which I think is really awesome and surprisingly sexy, but if you maybe ... need me...?

You know I always need you. But—

Cuz I can be there in a few hours. And I have absolutely no problem in abusing Council resources, unlike some of us.

I just ...

The envelope tore open easily, and Tara tipped its contents into her open palm. Out tumbled a house key on a thin, cheap keyring, labeled with markings similar to those on the envelope. They gave the key a sterile, impersonal feel.

The key slipped into the lock without resistance, however Tara couldn't seem to bring herself to turn it.

... this is something I have to do. Does that make any sense? At all?

I don't think voluntarily choosing to fly coach when you can have a private plane will ever make sense. But the other stuff? ...yeah. I get it. I just wish I could do— Oh! I-I can call you, every night!

That sounds great, but I don't think you can. The phones in the house must've been cut off when ... A-And I won't be there long enough to make an appointment. You can think about me every night, though!

I always do. And you are definitely getting a cell phone when you get home, Missy. ... Hey, you okay?

Tara hovered in the family room entranceway.

Despite a lack of direct lighting, the area was surprisingly visible. Moonlight shone through the paper-thin curtains, revealing a room that seemed almost at odds with itself. A dust-covered mantle framed the cold, dark fireplace in the far wall, its surface adorned with two framed photographs and two trophies. Their positioning was perfect, staged so as to catch the eye of anyone who might come calling. The furniture had clearly seen better days, and with its generic floral prints, managed to be anything but inviting. The television, the coffee table, and even the framed pictures that hung on the walls revealed no sense of true character. It was as though someone who had only a vague, Better Homes and Gardens idea of how a family room should look had decorated the area, but had themselves never found a use for one.

Her shoulders tucked close, hands folded before her, Tara stood at the threshold but did not cross.

Yeah. I ... It's hard. I didn't think it'd be this hard.

My poor baby. I wish you hadn't found out like that.

There's really no good way to find out your ... your father's dead.

In Tara's peripheral vision, she caught the sight of a shadowy figure standing in the darkness nearby. The figure made no move toward her; in fact, it made no movement at all. Tara watched it suspiciously from the corner of her eye for a moment before turning to face the figure, only to discover it to be a tall rack. The musty coat draped over one of the hooks had not been worn in some time, the hat atop it perhaps longer still. Tara's eyes narrowed, and she turned away.

... Though if I had to hear it from anyone, I'm glad it was you.

I don't like being the bearer of Things That Make Tara Upset. I'd rather be the bearer of- of chocolate. And a nice foot massage. So next time you need me to help you contact someone you haven't seen for a while ... well, then I'll still do it. But I'll bring the chocolate with me first.

Sounds like a plan. And speaking of contact ...

No joy. I can't find anything solid for your brother. I've got a couple phone numbers that don't answer and a few addresses you can try, though.

Thanks. I'll call and get those from you before I head for the house tomorrow. I'm meeting the executor at 1:30 ... I just hope he'll have more information about Donny.

With the aid of a lantern that looked like it should be on the shelf of a rural Americana-themed restaurant somewhere, Tara made her way down a narrow hallway. The flicker of the light illuminated patches of the walls in orange-tinted bursts, revealing photograph after photograph. Some were clearly old, their subjects worn and difficult to discern as the black and white gave way to yellow and sepia. Most, however, contained the same focus: two children, a boy and a girl.

The most cursory of studies easily identified Tara as the girl – the same basic features remained unchanged from her toddler years. The boy, too, was clearly the same individual in each photograph, from his russet hair to the cruel smirk that never seemed entirely hidden. Each picture was clearly a professional work – there was no room for random moments captured on film.

The main focal point of the gallery, the vertex point for all other pictures, was a photograph of the entire family. A dour-faced man sat in the center, his family gathered around him. To his right stood the boy, aged to around eight-years and looking uncomfortable in his three-piece suit. Sitting on the man's left knee, and doing her best to appear as though it was the most natural place in the world for her to be, was a six-year old Tara. And standing behind Tara, at the man's shoulder, was a woman who looked astonishingly close to how Tara herself might appear in years to come.

No one in the portrait smiled.

As Tara walked past, she made no attempt to look at this or any other picture.

I still can't believe he up and left everything there. And he didn't even try to tell you!

Well given that it happened over a year ago when I was still pretty dead myself, I think he should sort of be excused.

No! No excuses of any kind! He left it all there! The house and the land and just ... fwoom! Leaves a huge mess behind that you have to go clean up! Oh, but I betcha by golly when it's time to collect the money, he'll be right there expecting his half!

He can have all of it as far as I'm concerned. I don't care about the money. It's ... I grew up there. It's my home. You know? It deserves better.

All the doors in the hallway were tightly shut, and none bore any outward personalization to indicate which rooms had, once upon a time, belonged to whom. Tara remained focused straight ahead, paying them little heed. If her pace quickened as she passed by one door, reinforced with steel and with a sliding bolt on the outside, she didn't seem to notice.

And so do you.

You can't see it, but I'm smiling.

Then I'd like to transfer some of those karma points I just earned into a fine souvenir.

A souvenir? Hope Falls isn't exactly a tourist hub, Will.

The lantern hung from the branch of a nearby tree, casting its light over a generator that had seen little recent use. An open and mostly empty gas canister rested on the ground nearby as Tara repeatedly tugged on the generator's pull cord.

Well no, okay, but ... Montana! I've never been to Montana. Can't you get me, like a ... a black bear cub or something?

I'm pretty sure that's a no. Oh, but maybe a cheap trinket that we can pretend was really made by a Native American?

Deal.

Dragging a hand across her forehead, Tara clenched her teeth and pulled back on the cord with all her strength. She was rewarded by the generator spluttering to life, and her determined expression immediately gave way to a bright smile. Several lights within the house began to flicker, uncertainly at first then with renewed strength. Tara took a step back, her enthusiasm fading as she regarded the newly-lit house and couldn't seem to find it any more inviting.

I-I should really go now. It's a pretty long drive from here.

It's really the pull of those sumptuous hotel showers, isn't it?

It totally is. I just can't stand the suspense any more: is it a thin drizzle or needle-like streams?

Let the allure of variable-speed shower heads speed your return. And ... take care of yourself, okay?

I will.

The lantern creaked as Tara lifted it from the makeshift hook and opened the small glass door. It only took a small puff to extinguish the flame.

Whatever happened back then, it's back then. It can't hurt you any more. Remember?

I'll do my best. I love you.

I love you too. Night.

Night.

<click>

Tara stood on the overgrown and unkempt grass, not caring as the dampness soaked into the cuffs of her jeans. She took a deep breath.

"Back then is back then," Tara muttered to herself. "It can't hurt me any more."

She walked inside the house, closing the backdoor behind her.


"Coming Home"
Story by: Jet Wolf, Novareinna and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prose by: Novareinna and Jet Wolf
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 7 June 2005, 8pm ET


Act One

Tara tossed and turned in the four-poster bed. The sheet that had been draped across the bare mattress became rumpled by her restlessness and the singular blanket wrapped around her tightened uncomfortably within the throes of her fretful dream. Her eyes moved rapidly beneath the twitching lids.

"No! No, please!" came a young girl's plaintive appeal.

The response was gruff. "Enough'a that now! Carryin' on don't do nobody good."

"I didn't mean to!" The entreaty continued, followed by a desperate promise. "I'll never do it again, I swear I won't!"

"You know you can't."

"I can!" The girl's protest was instantaneous and very shrill. "I do! Please!"

"This brings me no pleasure," the man told her in a low and surprisingly gentle voice. "But if you don't learn control now, it'll mean the worse for all of us."

"No! No!"

But the fearful supplication fell on deaf ears. Almost immediately, there was the sound of a heavy door slamming shut and the grating of a sturdy bolt being slid firmly into place.

The girl's voice wavered with threatening tears. "Don't, please don't, please..."

There was little comfort in the muffled reply. "There's evil in you. Y'not human, you never will be. You can't be cured, but by God, you will be controlled."

"Not this, please!" she begged miserably, voice no more than a whisper. Her sobs grew weaker. " Don't leave me here!"

"I'm sorry," he told her sincerely. "But for bein' who you are, this is your punishment ..."

"Daddy, please ..."

"...and mine."

A despairing cry pierced the dismal night. "Daddy? Daddy!"

Tara awoke in a panic, eyes wide and staring. Her hair was damp against the pillow and tiny beads of sweat glistened on her forehead. She struggled against the suffocating bonds of the blanket until her arms were free, throwing them wide as though feeling out the space around her. Her breath was ragged and labored as she battled to recover from the effects of her dream. Tara's eyes drifted to the window, where an early morning sun peeked curiously between the net curtains. Her body relaxed as she gazed toward the ceiling and took a few much-needed minutes to gain composure and become reoriented with her surroundings.

The area was relatively small and had been stripped virtually bare. However, given the delicate flowery nature of the wallpaper, it had probably been a young girl's room once upon a time. Totally devoid of any sense of personalization, it resembled a vacant dollhouse – only a plain white dresser, a few empty white shelves and the four-poster bed upon which Tara was laying. A thick coat of dust covered almost every surface.

Sitting up, Tara rested her elbows on her knees and massaged her temple. "'Do you want some company? We can come with you'," she muttered. "'No no, this is a big spiritual thing. Very metaphorical. I have to do it all by myself.'" She heaved a rueful sigh. "Good move, Tara."

Tossing the blanket aside, she swung her legs off the bed and shook out the flannel pajama bottoms that had snaked around her ankles while an absent hand tugged at the hem of her shirt. A tad snug around the bustline, it proudly stated, "Penn State Computer Science" on the front. The back displayed the representation of a computer power button above the words, "CS Turns Me On."

Kneading the tense muscles of her neck, a weary Tara left the room and made her way down a hallway toward the staircase. She paused at the upper landing and peered over the wooden banister to the first floor.

"I can do this," she murmured with hopeful conviction. "Take care of the whole house. Make it clean how daddy liked it. Sort through every last thing. And it won't be at all morbid and creepy. Right? Right."

She drummed her fingers on the railing in a moment of silent contemplation.

"You know talking to yourself is the first sign of madness." She arched an eyebrow. "Yeah, but you're okay until you start to talk back."

With an amused shake of her head, Tara made her way downstairs.

With a stack of books tucked under her arm, Buffy walked toward Penn State's Union. It was a busy area, abuzz with students coming and going, when above the cheerful hum of voices one in particular stood out.

"Buffy! Hey, Buffy!"

Stopping, she turned to see a young man sprinting in her direction. He was certainly no Adonis, but cute and appealing in a boyish way with his floppy, out-of-control hair and self-conscious smile.

Buffy reciprocated the gesture as he came closer. "Hi! Uhm ..."

"Simon," he provided, buoyancy not in the least deflated by her apparent lapse of memory.

"Simon, right," agreed Buffy. "We're in Chemistry together."

Simon nodded, obviously delighted that she had remembered him.

"Huh, maybe that ginkgo does work," she mused. "So Simon, what can I do for you?"

"It's more like what you can do with me," he told her, smile growing broader by the minute. "I was thinking we could maybe go out for coffee? Or ... ice cream? Or Indian food, or new computer parts, or comic books," he rattled off in rapid succession, "since it occurs to me that I don't have the slightest idea what you like. I'm pretty much good for going out for anything." Buffy opened her mouth, possibly with a suggestion of her own, but the brakes were out in Simon's brain. "Or in, if you want, but that probably sounds really creepy and maybe sexist, which I wouldn't know because I'm not a woman. Not that only women are subjected to sexism," he hastened to clarify. "I mean there's Chippendales, and that one Diet Coke ad ..."

Buffy held up her hand in an effort to stem the flow. "So basically what we've learned here is: sexism bad, going out good."

"Yeah," Simon confirmed, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "Sorry about the verbal regurgitation there. I ... sort of ... lose the ability to control my mouth when I get nervous."

"I'm surprisingly used to it," Buffy dismissed.

That was apparently encouragement enough. "So, would you? Like to go out?"

His expression was so hopeful that Buffy couldn't help but favor him with a smile. "Well it just so happens I'm free toni—"

"Buff!" interrupted Xander, sidling up from behind. "You little minx!"

Taken by surprise, Buffy looked over her shoulder. Xander threw her a wide grin. It remained firmly in place as his gaze moved to Simon.

"I'm afraid Ms. Summers is otherwise engaged," he informed briskly.

Registering disappointment, Simon blinked at Buffy. "You're engaged?"

"I'm engaged?" echoed a bewildered Buffy. "I'm not—" She turned to face Xander. "I'm not engaged!"

"She's destined to wed a life of tragedy," said Xander with a regretful sigh. "Sex, oil and family, my friend. No, wait, that was 'Dallas'."

Xander's amusement diminished somewhat as Buffy's elbow buried sharply in his ribs. He only barely managed to get out an extremely strained "Ow" before all possible resources were pooled into remaining upright.

Unsympathetically, Buffy turned to Simon and rolled her eyes. "Ignore him, if that's even humanly possible I'm not engaged. There is no sex and oil." She paused for a second, as though considering that declaration, but with a small shake of her head, pressed onward. "And I would love to—"

"Willow," murmured Xander with a pained expression.

Buffy was only marginally less confused than Simon. "What about Willow?"

It took some effort, but Xander managed to pull himself to his full height, although one hand hovered protectively near his tender side. "Uh, well you know. It's Mopey Night."

Tilting her head to one side, Buffy queried, "We're scheduling those now?"

"This looks pretty major," interjected Simon, tone revealing obvious discomfort at being privy to what seemed to be a private exchange. "So ... so I'm gonna go."

"No, no, this isn't major," protested Buffy. "This is ..." Her attention returned to Xander. "Is this major?"

He raised a meaningful eyebrow. "Tara there. Willow here."

Reluctantly, Buffy regarded Simon once more. "This could be major," she admitted with a sigh.

Simon jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Hence the go."

"But I do want to do something later," Buffy assured. "When things are a little less crazy. Which, now that I think of it, will probably be the 5th of never, but ... maybe we can work something out?" Now it was her turn to sport a hopeful expression.

"I'd like that," he agreed sincerely. Taking a few paces backward, he turned and left the pair alone. Immediately, Buffy treated Xander to an accusatory glare.

"I thought you were off somewhere, mapping out your now – and I quote – 'distressingly empty future'," she snapped.

Xander waved a hand at the thought. "I got bored. Besides, it's Friday, and since I'm now functionally unemployed, I thought I'd pick up you and Will and make with the weekend funfest."

"I'm not even sure we'll have to," Buffy pondered aloud. "Tara's been gone for two days. Will's been fine."

"Ahh, but those were days filled with higher-level brain functions," he swiftly corrected. "Weekends are the time when all the earth's creatures wallow in their misery of choice. Trust me on this." He nodded wisely.

"I bow to the master," conceded Buffy. "Okay, so we kidnap Willow. Then what?"

Throwing his arm around Buffy's shoulders, Xander prepared to outline out his intricate plans, but he never got the chance.

"Well if you're plannin' on asking for a ransom," Willow cheerfully announced from behind, "I gotta warn ya – we have a strict policy against negotiating with terrorists." Her expression became thoughtful. "Though between you and me, I am worth at least a shiny bottle cap."

Xander threw his free arm around Willow's shoulders and pulled both women closer. "Hey, Will! Just the girl we were talking about!"

"Which I kinda gathered," remarked Willow wryly, "with the kidnapping and all."

"It's an amazing coincidence," he agreed. "So let's see ... Your classes are over, Buffy's classes are over, and I was never insane enough to sign up for classes in the first place. Xander Math says all that adds up to 'night o'rollickin' fun'. Whaddya say?" Removing his arms from their respective perches, he clapped his hands together expectantly. "What do you want to do first?"

"Uhm, go meet Jessica for the night o' rollickin' fun I already had planned?" suggested Willow.

"Sounds great!"

"It didn't sink in yet," Buffy observed.

This was Willow's conclusion as well. "We'll give it a sec."

"Wait, what?" asked Xander.

"There it is," declared Buffy.

Xander's bottom lip visibly pouted. "You have plans?"

"Really do," she confirmed. "Look, I get what you guys are doing, and it's really sweet from a 'wow, where's the confidence?' perspective. But I'm fine. Tara needed to do this alone, a-and I agree with her." She gave an affirmative nod. "This is her deal, and she has to know that she can face it."

"Nicely put," Buffy stated with a smirk. "That's the speech you gave her before she left, huh?"

"Only with 'you' instead of 'she'. But I meant it both times." Willow hugged Xander's limp arm. "You're sweet, but I'm fine. You two have fun though, okay?"

With a farewell wave, Willow left Xander and Buffy to their own devices.

"So," ventured Xander after a moment of silence, "night o' rollickin' fun?"

Buffy glared. "You messed up my potential date for nothing."

"Okay, okay," Xander yielded with a sigh of extreme martyrdom. "You can bring the sex and oil."

With an eye-roll, Buffy resumed her walk toward the Union.

"Just the sex then?" Xander revised, before following in her footsteps.

The P&S Diner sat in a prime location on Hope Falls' Main Street. With its barrel roof and porcelain enameled metal sheathing, colored gray with red stripes, the small diner was a distinct relic of the 1940s. Inlaid with polychrome tiles of black-and-white, the floor sported a checkerboard pattern while the main counter, fronted by half a dozen stools, was a reddish slab of polished marble. All six stools were occupied, each inhabitant pausing occasionally in their meal to glare suspiciously toward one of the occupied booths.

Sitting in that booth, Tara did her best to remain as unobtrusive as possible, focusing intently on the diner's tempting bill of what was described to be "wholesome home-cooked fare."

"What'chu doin'?" The young boy's tone was accusatory and demanding.

"Nothin'," came the response. "Coloring."

Still holding the menu, Tara's gaze slowly drifted upward to look at the kiosks directly in her line of vision. Two booths away she saw a family of four. The small boy, perhaps around eight years of age, sat closest to the window and next to his father. Across from the boy with her back to Tara, sat his mother. The woman smiled fondly upon the blonde head by her side – a little girl who happily swung her legs in the aisle seat. All were wearing their Sunday Best, and Tara watched them with interest.

"Duh," was the withering reply. "Colorin' what?"

"Pictures."

The boy rolled his eyes in dramatic fashion, clearly indicating that in his opinion, the girl was the single most unintelligent thing to have ever roamed the earth. Still, he half-leaned across the table to get a better look at the drawing.

"Ugh!" he declared, wrinkling his nose with disgust. "Looks like someone barfed!"

"It's supposed to," she told him in a superior tone. "It's your barf."

The girl couldn't control her laughter at the ensuing display of overly exaggerated heaving and revolting sounds of nausea. But the merriment was swiftly smothered by her father's words.

"Hush!" he cautioned with a frown. "We don't bring that kinda talk to the table."

"Yessir," came the suitably chastised and unified understanding.

"Tara started it," declared the boy, tossing an ugly sneer in his sister's direction, clearly disgruntled to find himself in parental hot water.

"Donny," warned his mother gently but firmly, "don't argue with your father."

With an injured huff, Donny crossed his arms and slouched in his seat, lips twisted into a sullen pout. With narrowed eyes, he deliberately kicked at the table leg but wisely kept his mouth shut.

Tara leaned close to her mother. "It's not really barf," she revealed softly.

"See, that's a shame," confided the woman seriously. "I really wanted a good barfy picture to hang on the refrigerator." She arched a conspirative eyebrow.

The answering giggle was the sort that managed to sound totally grossed out yet highly amused anyway. The little girl's mother grinned in return, but the smile evaporated when her husband pointedly cleared his throat. She shot Tara a playful, 'Oops, we're in trouble' look before the lighthearted atmosphere died completely.

A waitress in a pink uniform approached the booth. Perhaps in her mid-20s, she was attractive in a mediocre way, with blatantly bleached hair styled like that of Madonna. The nametag pinned to her perkily rounded bosom proclaimed her to be 'Peggy.'

She hovered nervously at the fringe of the table, expression betraying unease as she glanced first at the small girl and then at the woman. Having returned to her coloring, Tara was oblivious to any discomfort, but it did not escape her mother's astutely trained eye. The lingering remnants of her earlier cheer faded, and she allowed her gaze to drift to the street outside.

"So, uhm ..." stammered Peggy, pulling a small pad from the pocket of her apron. "So what can I get you ... folks?" She dug deeper for a pencil, before remembering it was tucked behind her right ear.

"I'll have the t-bone steak special," the man told her briskly. "No gravy on those potatoes, now. Chicken parmesan for my wife, and the kids'll have—"

"Pancakes!" exploded Donny.

"Ice cream!" announced Tara.

"— fishsticks," came the voice of authority.

"Aww," both children complained in perfect sync.

"Donny, sweetie," explained the mother patiently, "pancakes are more for breakfast time."

Despite having been given the order, Peggy still lingered, appearing transfixed in a mildly terrified manner upon the woman in the booth. Noticing her continued presence, the man narrowed his eyes.

"But pancakes're good any time!" protested Donny.

His mother smiled indulgently. "Well maybe if you behave, I'll make them for you tomorrow."

As the pair chatted amiably in the background about such a delightful possibility, the man took note of the waitress' nametag.

His tone not unkind as he commanded her attention. "Peggy," he prompted.

With a slight start, Peggy turned toward him. Engrossed in their conversation, mother and son were unaware of the unfolding situation, but Tara keenly observed. She watched curiously, still and silent, but paying close attention.

"You got our order," he quietly reminded. "Go on, now."

Peggy's eyes instantly widened. "Yessir. I'm sorry."

Tucking the pencil behind her ear, she immediately scurried her way to the kitchen. Ignorant of what had just transpired, Donny and his mother remained locked in their discussion.

"Because we're a family, Donny," his mother was attempting to patiently explain. "Families share, that's what they do."

Obviously that answer didn't sit well at all and Donny huffed loudly for the second time that day. "You said you were gonna make 'em for me," he objected sulkily. "I'm gonna be hungry and I'll want 'em all."

"Oh, I'm pretty sure I can make more than you can eat."

"Nuh-uh!"

The woman couldn't help but smile at her willful son. "Don't think so, huh?"

Clutched between thumb and forefinger, Tara's green crayon was all but forgotten as she watched Peggy from across the room. The waitress was talking with an individual who appeared to be the cook. She kept throwing furtive glances toward the booth, gesturing urgently while delivering her words. A frown appeared on the little girl's forehead as she tried to imagine what could be causing such agitation, but her concentration was broken when her father tapped the paper in front of her.

"What's that you're drawin', Tara girl?"

She looked to her father and then at the drawing. Immediately, she fidgeted rather uncomfortably and then shyly pushed the creation toward him. He picked it up and held it at arms length. Turning it first one way and then the other. It bore no resemblance to anything in particular – simply a swirl of bright colors. Still, given that the artist was probably only six years old and her materials no more sophisticated than a box of basic Crayolas, it was aesthetically pleasing, in and of itself.

With great care, he deposited the paper back on the table and smoothed the corners. "What is it?"

Tara appeared even more embarrassed than before. Try as she might, she just couldn't seem to look her father in the eye.

"Happy, sir," she informed earnestly.

The description was pitched with such sincerity that he couldn't help himself. For the first time, his dour expression melted somewhat – the transformation was barely discernable, but it showed nonetheless, and he glanced across at his daughter with affection. Eyes bright, she swiftly pointed to a black-and-white blob off to the side. Two extremely thin sticks supported the blob.

"And a cow," she added.

His display of approval broadened slightly at this proud announcement and he slid the drawing into her waiting hands. Tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth, Tara painstakingly returned the green crayon to its box and selected an orange one instead. Then she sat up straighter in her seat and peeked around the side of the booth to look behind her. She half-smiled, and gave a tiny self-conscious wave.

With an identical smile, Tara waved back. Her hand continued to be poised in mid-air when the abrupt clearing of a throat shattered the reverie. Blinking in surprise, Tara looked up to see a waitress hovering over the booth. Sporting an expression of undisguised boredom, the middle-aged and overweight woman extracted a pencil from behind her right ear, impatiently tapping the sharpened lead upon a small pad. In her pastel blue uniform, which almost matched the color of her frizzled hair, she radiated all the tedium of having done the same job for more years than she truly cared to remember. She regarded Tara through bleary, red-rimmed eyes.

"What'll it be, honey?"

Tara was taken off-guard. "Oh! Oh, a, uhm ..." she stuttered, fumbling through the sticky, plastic-coated pages of the menu.

The waitress frowned. Her expression of bored indifference transforming into one of vague recognition. She studied the blonde at the table with concentrated diligence.

Sensing the scrutiny, Tara leapt upon the first item that might possibly fall within the palatable category. "Uh, a- a turkey club sandwich, please. And an iced tea."

She waited for the waitress to leave, beginning to feel decidedly uneasy. From the corner of her eye, she could see the pencil dangling from limp fingers. Tara quickly glanced at the woman, who nodded distractedly.

"Sure thing, honey."

Still, she made no effort to move.

Tara suffered through the inactivity and prolonged examination with admirable fortitude, until it became virtually unbearable. Fighting the near overpowering urge to fidget, an expression of total bemusement crossed her face.

"Is ... something wrong?" she finally asked.

The waitress shook her head. "Nah, nah ..." It was a less than convincing denial. She leaned forward and Tara instinctively scooted along the seat. "Do I know you?"

A crease invaded Tara's forehead. "I, ah ... I-I don't think so ..." Her eyes traveled to the nametag pinned above the sagging bosom. "Peggy," she added.

Peggy frowned. "You sure? B'cause I swear I seen you before."

Tara tried one of her most charming smiles. "Maybe I just have one of those faces?" she suggested.

Peggy immediately dismissed the notion. "Nuh-uh, no." She paused for a moment and then her eyes grew exceedingly wide and round. She snapped her pudgy fingers, dropping the pencil in her excitement. "I remember ..."

"Have you ever been to California?" Tara hastily inquired. "I used to g-go to school there, and maybe—"

"You're a Maclay!" It was a revelation. An accusation. And a not particularly subtle outburst.

Every head in the diner turned to Tara. Each pair of eyes revealed clouded apprehension and open hostility.

Tara sighed and continued to herself, "Maybe you recognize me because my family's lived here for about ten generations?"

Peggy jabbed an agitated finger in Tara's direction. "That's it, ain't it? You're a Maclay!"

Tara was trapped. "Uhm ... yes?"

"You're that one that run off!" declared Peggy, caught up in her own deductive reasoning. "Donald an' Emma's girl! Taryn!"

"Tara," came the subdued but steady correction.

"That's it!" confirmed Peggy, as though she'd been privy to such information all along and had simply been testing. She regarded Tara with heightened suspicion as another thought occurred. "I thought you was dead?"

"That was a ...uhm, a- a ... misunderstanding."

As she absorbed this thoroughly confusing news, Peggy's expression spoke volumes: on top of everything else, this Maclay woman was clearly quite insane.

Tara's gaze traversed the diner's inhabitants. All ears were glued to the exchange, with no one even attempting to pretend otherwise. Taking a deep breath, Tara made sure to speak loud enough so that nobody would have any trouble hearing her words.

"I'm only here for a few days," she announced. "For the house. I just have to clean it up and clear it out so they can sell it. That's all."

She lowered her voice to normal conversational tone for the waitress. "Though if I could maybe get my sandwich before then, that'd be really great."

Peggy's expression was far from what it should have been for an individual mostly living on tips. However rather than prolong the confrontation, Tara simply let it go. Peggy soon departed, leaving the object of her scorn to do her best to ignore the piercing stares leveled her way from the diner's other patrons.

"It's good that nothing changed while I was away," Tara murmured.

With a gigantic yawn, Buffy threw open the door to her room and flipped on the overhead light. Stretching, she began to get ready for bed, throwing her dirty clothes into the hamper and snuggling into her sleepytime attire. Her actions were accompanied by sour mutterings.

"'Just a quick patrol, Buffy,' he says. 'You can't allow your Slayer duties to lax,' he says. 'Sure thing, Giles,' I says. 'And take these 25 super-young newbies with you,' he says. Oh, but does he also says, 'They're secretly planning on driving you insane before you're 30'? Of course not. Please, leave that part out. Why ruin the surprise? Besides, I LIKE spending my Friday night chaperoning a fieldtrip both to and from hell."

Pulling back the coverlet, she prepared to climb onto the mattress, but then paused. "Whoever you are," she curtly advised to seemingly nobody, "you should know that I'm tired and grumpy, and there's a very small part of me that enjoys killing things. Consider this wisely before keeping me from sleep."

Willow hovered on the threshold. "If you're busy, I can go." She hesitated only a moment before drawing her own conclusions. "You're busy. I'll go."

"No, it's okay," reassured Buffy. "I probably wouldn't get any sleep for a while anyway. My brain's still running around trying to keep an eye on a bunch of hyperactive Slayers." She collapsed on the bed and stared at the ceiling. "I tell you, whoever came up with the rules, I think they were onto something. I'm firmly convinced that it's 'The Chosen One' and not 'The Chosen Pack' for a reason." She eyed Willow, who continued to hesitate in the doorway. "I mean it used to be all about saving the world and defeating evil. Now it's like an excuse to socialize, chat about boys, and then get a mocha afterward. Where's the dignity we had back in our day?"

Willow entered the room with an ironic smile, quietly closing the door behind her. "We probably left it on patrol back in Sunnydale, some time between talking about Angel and/or Oz and going to the Espresso Pump."

"See?" Buffy enthusiastically agreed. "It was completely different." Leaning on one elbow, she peered at her friend. "So what's up?"

"I have a problem," admitted the redhead ruefully.

"Always a cheerful way to open a conversation." Buffy patted a spot on the bed.

"You know how sometimes it can be really hard to sleep?" began Willow, gratefully accepting the invitation. "You just get used to certain stuff. It has to be your bed, or- or your own pillow. Like it can be really hard to sleep in a hotel room, or people who- who live in a super busy city their whole lives only get like two hours of sleep when they visit the country cuz it's so gosh darned quiet. Or maybe it-it's the presence – or absence – of air conditioning or a ceiling fan. And so you try and try to sleep, but you just keep rolling over and flipping your pillow to the cool side, and then if you do that too much you start to run out of cool sides, and who can sleep with a warm pillow and would you even want to try?"

The question was apparently rhetorical, as Willow didn't even wait for an answer.

"Plus while you're doing all that flipping, your ears get majorly alert, like a dog or something, and then you start to hear sounds you wouldn't normally hear. Like- Like the electricity going into your alarm clock, which – have ya noticed? – never seems to glow quite so bright unless you're glarin' at it. So you've got the warm pillow and the buzz, and the blinding clock-glow, and—"

"You can't sleep," interrupted Buffy, having determined that there would be no suitably lengthy pause coming any time soon. "Got it."

Willow nodded miserably.

"Have you tried Nyquil?" Buffy suggested, trying to be helpful. "Even Slayer powers crumble under the might of Nyquil."

"It's not that. It's ..." Willow's fingers began to twist over themselves in her lap. "I don't like sleeping alone."

"Will, you used to sleep alone all the time," Buffy pointed out. "In fact, I think if you looked at your lifetime average of sleeping alone versus not alone ..."

Buffy clearly wasn't getting it. "I know that," responded Willow. "But since Tara and I got back together, she's been there every night and ... and now she's not and it feels like it did those other times when I knew she should be there and she wasn't. I- I know it's not the same," she quickly interjected before the obvious could possibly be spoken, "but when I'm lying there ..."

A tiny smile of amusement crossed Buffy's lips. "I thought you were fine with it?" Her tone was mildly teasing. "'I'm understanding, I'm supportive, I'm the patron saint of girlfriends.'"

"Yeah, well, I'll be her again tomorrow," sighed Willow, sounding more than a little exasperated. "Tonight I'm just needy, so can I sleep with you or what?"

With an amused shake of her head, Buffy slipped between the sheets, pulling back the comforter and scooting over to make room for Willow. With a grateful smile, Willow snuggled down.

"Don't steal my covers," Buffy told her sternly.

"I won't."

"And if you snore, I'm elbowing you," she cautioned.

"That's fair."

"And if you have cold feet, don't—" Buffy's warning was cut short by her sudden yelp of surprise. There was silence for a few moments.

"Okay, so night then."

Bracing the heavy box with one knee, Tara pushed open the front door, stumbling as she made her way into the crisp night air. Her breath crystallized as she struggled to carry the burden toward the rented truck. With a sigh of relief, she hefted it onto the lowered tailgate and dragged the back of her hand across her forehead. The action left a dirty streak in its wake, but then her general appearance was one of grubbiness – from the dusty, loose-fitting denim overalls to the fingers that she now used to tuck a few wayward strands of hair back into the scrunchie. Hoisting herself onto the flatbed, she pushed the box toward the cab of the truck, where it joined others that had been stacked there earlier.

Mission accomplished, Tara sat on the tailgate to catch her breath. She seemed content, simply enjoying the cool breeze, until a female voice softly called her name. She quickly glanced over her shoulder, and the slight frown she was wearing transformed swiftly into a sad smile. Easing down from her perch, she began walking toward the front of the vehicle.

Tara approached the figure seated on the ground, back resting against the trunk of the massive oak that dominated the front yard. The resemblance between the teenage girl, long skirt swirling the tiny mounds of fallen leaves, and the woman beneath the tree was striking. Emma Maclay patted the area next to her as Tara drew closer. The invitation was accepted without hesitation and the pair sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes.

"It'll be okay," Emma assured quietly.

Tara regarded her mother with an expression that indicated she didn't believe a word of it, although she would have very much liked to. Emma's chin drooped almost to her chest. Apparently, she was well aware that her statement carried little credulity.

"I'm sorry," murmured the older woman regretfully. "I thought— I hoped that maybe it was done. That it would have ... I don't know. Skipped you."

Clasping her arms around her knees, Tara listened but said nothing.

"I know it all seems harsh and cruel," added Emma, "and it is. But the powers that we have ... If we don't let them—"

"I know," Tara interrupted.

Reaching out, Emma smoothed her daughter's silky hair and arranged it carefully about the shoulders. "They only want to keep us safe," she continued. "From ourselves and others."

Tara had no reply.

Emma's fingers trailed gently over Tara's cheek. "You're special though, Tara. I could tell from the first moment I held you."

A small smile invaded Tara's lips at the loving compliment, but it was plain she found this no more believable than the earlier claims. Her mother immediately sensed the doubt.

"You are," she insisted firmly. "Your spirit, your ..." Emma swallowed hard, as though trying to dispel a lump in her throat. Tears prickled at her eyelids, but she kept a tight rein on her composure. "I ... I want you to promise me something."

The gravely serious tone captured Tara's undivided attention. Emma peered nervously in every direction, checking to make sure that nobody else could hear the conversation. She seized Tara's hand and held it fast.

"I want you to promise me that if you get the chance, you'll escape."

Tara shook her head and frowned. "What?"

"I want you to leave." It was more an urgent demand than a simple request. "Your grades are good and you work hard, maybe a scholarship, or—"

Tara seemed genuinely appalled at the suggestion. "I-I-I can't l-leave!"

But her mother wasn't listening. "—a job with a company. Maybe you can go to school in Europe, I know you've always wanted to go there."

"I can't!" protested Tara. "I ha-have to ... W-We can't leave! We can't ever leave, Daddy says—"

Emma gave her daughter's hand an encouraging squeeze. "You're almost seventeen, Tara. You'll graduate high school next year, and then there's still almost two years before your twentieth birthday. Two years is a long time, baby girl, and I want you to have them."

Tara remained unconvinced. "B-But—"

"Please, Tara." Emma all but begged. "Promise me."

Wonderingly, Tara searched her mother's face. It displayed a look of open desperation – but there was something more. The complexion was pallid, skin stretched tight over the delicate bone structure. Dark blue smudges beneath the eyes stood stark against the almost translucent flesh.

"Both, then," Tara hastened to guarantee. "We'll b-both go. I'll get a scholarship, and w-w-when I leave, you'll c-come with me."

With a sorrowful smile, Emma entwined her fingers with those of her daughter. "You're too young to be this old." Leaning forward, she kissed the smooth forehead, lips lingering for a long moment. "Do you promise?" she finally whispered.

Tara gripped the anxious fingers tightly. "I promise," she vowed.

With a relieved smile, Emma leaned wearily against the oak, seemingly calm and content now that she had extracted the earnest pledge. Gently cradling her mother's hand, Tara also rested against the tree trunk, looking up into the near barren branches, as a leaf drifted slowly toward the earth.

Tara watched its lazy downward spiral before glancing to her left. The area was empty, but nonetheless, a smile of unending gratitude crossed her lips.

Brushing away the small twigs clinging to her overalls, Tara got to her feet and headed for the house as the breeze gained strength. It stirred the piles of dead and decaying leaves on the ground, and the dry rustling creating the illusion of hushed voices. As Tara closed the door behind her, the breeze continued to intensify until it became a bracing wind. The whispers grew louder. More articulate.

Witch. Demon. Escape. Escape. Witch. Stay. Leave. Never leave. Escape. Demon. No escape. Witch. No escape. Forever.


Act Two

An early morning breeze softly rattled the blinds at Buffy's bedroom window. Curled up at Buffy's side, Willow had one arm thrown across the blonde's stomach, her head cradled comfortably in the crook of Buffy's elbow. Buffy's hand rested lightly on Willow's shoulder. Neither opened their eyes at the gentle rap upon the door. Slowly, it creaked open and Xander's face appeared. He spoke in a hushed voice, apparently reluctant to wake the sleepy Slayer, while at the same time feeling compelled to do so.

"Buffy?" he whispered. "Have you seen Willow? She's not in her room, and—"

Xander's jaw dropped several inches as he contemplated the scenario before him. Raised eyebrows almost merged into his hairline and for a few moments, he seemed afraid to move – afraid to say anything else – afraid to even gasp for oxygen. He simply stared.

"Nine years, I've waited for this moment," he eventually breathed as though awestruck, "and I only have one eye to enjoy it. Life hates me."

His gaze became fixed. He even went so far as to tilt his from one side to the other, in order to commit to memory more than just one perspective for future recall. With a sly smile, he slunk from the room, closing the door behind him.

On cue, Buffy carefully cracked open one eye and peered across the room. She grinned wickedly.

Willow's grin was no less evil, even though her eyes remained shut. "That was so wrong," she admonished.

"Aw, how can something so wrong feel so right?" queried Buffy with a mischievous pout.

"We shouldn't toy with him like that," replied Willow, smirking as she rolled onto her back and engaged in a routine of luxurious stretching.

"Well then he shouldn't ruin any more potential dates for me," declared Buffy firmly as she swung her legs to the floor.

"It's good that we're beyond revenge."

"Please," scoffed Buffy, "sometimes a touch of vengeance is the only thing that makes a Slayer get up in the morning. But enough about scary things which motivate Buffy." She looked down at Willow, who had yet to roll out of bed. "How about you? Feeling better?"

Willow nodded. "Yeah, I am. And thanks for last night." She favored Buffy with a smile of appreciation. "I just wish I could stop worrying."

"The worry part is pretty typical whenever someone you love isn't around," shrugged the blonde matter-of-factly.

"Yeah, but it's more ..." Willow shook her head and decided to try again. "Sometimes it's like everything's so different. Like there's this- this whole new jigsaw puzzle. A-And when you put it together, the picture's still the same, but the pieces? They don't go where they used to." She sighed heavily. "I just get so scared sometimes that when we put it all together ... the piece that's me won't fit any more."

Buffy halted her rummage through the closet to consider Willow. "Well speaking as someone outside looking in, I'd say you're the only piece that Tara knows still fits."

With a smile of gratitude for the kind words, Willow tossed back the covers with a yawn. "So," she decided. "All I can hope is that Tara's doing what she needs to. And, if she's lucky, sleeping better than me."

With a violent start, Tara woke from yet another bad dream. Quickly orienting herself, she rubbed at her eyes and uttered a low noise which was somewhere between a groan and a growl.

"I had a plan," she stated, plainly aggravated. "A good plan. Talk to my father, tell him I'm still alive, get some stuff cleared up, move on. One less item in the 'nightmare fuel' column."

Tossing the blanket to one side, she swung her legs off the bed. Clearly in a bad humor, she marched out of the bedroom and headed for the stairs. Upon reaching the kitchen, she slammed down a cereal bowl and angrily shook the contents out of a Crunch Berries box. At least one-fourth of the crispy nuggets failed to reach their intended target, bouncing gaily along the surface of the counter before rolling to the floor. They were ground to powder beneath her feet as she stomped her way to the icebox. The act of milk-pouring was treated with equal animosity as Tara continued her tempestuous rant.

"That part, as it turns out – not so possible." She viciously scooped up the bobbing berries and shoveled them into her mouth. "Okay, fine," she mumbled. "If there's one thing I've learned, it's to be adaptable. So sure, I'll clean up the house, do the whole bit." Tossing the spoon into the now empty bowl, she dumped both into the sink.

Upstairs in the bathroom, she ran her toothbrush beneath a steady stream of water, the uncapped tube of Colgate ready in her hand. Seemingly lost in thought, she watched the bristles become soaked, frowning at the brush as though it were the root of all her problems.

"It's been kind of a rough year, you know?" she remarked with vexation, giving the brush an irate shake. "Little bottles, body regrowth, an almost-murder ... Maybe it's not so much to ask for a decent night's sleep!"

The outburst reverberated for a moment, soon followed by the explosion of breaking glass. Involuntarily, Tara clenched the tube in her hand and a stream of toothpaste erupted, landing wetly in the sink. Abruptly, Tara raised her eyes to the mirror, which had shattered from the center almost as though it had been savagely punched. A myriad of fractured images regarded her with astonishment from within the jagged shards barely clinging to the frame. Tara blinked rapidly at the reflections of surprise and peered closer, not quite believing what has just occurred. Carefully, she took stock of the situation and nodded.

"I'm thinking that the quicker I do this? The better."

As what remained of the mirror succumbed to the law of gravity, Tara took a quick step back to avoid the rain of splinters which hit the porcelain countertop with a sharp tinkle. She blinked again and gave another affirmative nod before tossing both toothpaste and toothbrush into the wreckage.

"Right."

Stiffly, she turned and left the room.

Dressed in baggy dungarees and an oversized plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves, Tara tackled the kitchen. She scoured the crockery and glassware until they gleamed, before wrapping them in newspaper and placing them carefully in boxes. She scrubbed the interiors of now empty cupboards and swept grime from the floor with a corn broom, methodically working her way into every nook and cranny.

Across the room, at a high counter of solid pine, Emma Maclay held two eggs in one hand and deftly cracked the shells against a large bowl before dropping the unbroken yolks into the mixture. Standing next to her on a three-legged footstool, Tara was just tall enough to lean her elbows on the counter. Expectantly, she watched her mother smoothly fold the yellow-gold batter. Presumably captured in hopeful anticipation of being able to lick the wooden spoon, Tara was unprepared for the flour-coated finger that poked the tip of her nose, leaving a little white smudge. She crossed her eyes in an effort to see the mark and then giggled. Emma continued her rhythmic beating and pretended to be unaware of the recent occurrence. Reaching across the counter, Tara gathered a handful of flour into her tiny fist and tossed it at her mother in retaliation. With an expression of complete and utter horror, but with a twinkle in her eye, Emma immediately placed both palms on her daughter's cheeks and then firmly squished. The end result was two perfectly-formed handprints. Sporting a mischievous grin, Tara reached for the flour canister and dragged it toward her, digging deep. Soon, both little girl and woman were enveloped of a flurry of white.

Glancing over her shoulder, Tara surveyed the polished pine surface of the counter, shaking her head with amusement before moving on.

Standing in the doorway, Tara's eyes roamed over the mountains of clutter that had been shoved into the room with no apparent rhyme or reason. Several ancient steamer trunks littered the floor, while overstuffed boxes had claimed most of the remaining space. Once upon a time, Tara might have looked upon the room with the eager anticipation of a child on a treasure hunt, but today she simply sighed heavily at the Herculean task before getting to work.

Boxes were emptied, sorted and repacked. Piles were created with no visible logic. Slowly but steadily, entire sections of the room were transformed from chaos to order.

Wincing at her aching back, Tara straightened and moved to a wardrobe tucked into a nearby alcove. Standing on tiptoe, she began to clear the top shelf, pulling out plastic bags and brown paper carriers. In a far corner, she unearthed a cardboard box buried beneath a stack of old magazines and tossed it to the floor along with the rest of the jumble. Sitting cross-legged, she began to sift through the items. There seemed little of value and it was with an increasingly bored expression that she eventually turned to the box and removed the lid. Abruptly, her demeanor changed and she peered at the interior with heightened interest.

Reaching inside, Tara extracted a rather pretty crystal about the size of a small rock. Indeed, the entire contents of the box contained paraphernalia of mystical use and origin – small bunches of dried herbs tied with faded ribbons, tiny phials of colored powders. Tara balanced the crystal on her palm and gazed into its depths. Then, exhibiting much surprise and a goodly dose of fear, her head snapped toward the door.

In Tara's eyes, the figure of her brother almost filled the entirety of the opening, despite being only a youth of average stature and no different from most gangly teenage boys of 17. For a moment, his expression was intrinsically suspicious but upon realizing the significance of the spectacle before him, he grinned maliciously. As Donny strode purposefully across the floor, his younger sister visibly cowered at his approach.

Donny's expression said everything. He would tell on her. Tell what he had seen her doing, and take infinite pleasure in doing so. Reaching down, he roughly tore the crystal from her hand. His eyes narrowed and his lips curled into a contemptuous sneer as he made his way to the door.

It was with some shock that he felt a restraining grip on his arm. Amazed at Tara's foolish audacity, he spun around to face her and was taken totally unawares when she snatched the crystal from his grasp, secreting it behind her back.

This new development shocked Donny, but far less than it angered him and he demanded the return of his prize. Pleading eyes reflecting anxiety, Tara slowly shook her head. This did nothing but steel Donny's own resolve. Fearful of his calculated move in her direction, Tara scuttled backward, but the room was small, overcrowded, and she could find no sanctuary. Again, he forcibly insisted upon repossession of the crystal, but again, Tara refused. Shaking her head once more, she instinctively crouched in a corner and curled herself into a tight defensive ball.

With a jarring flinch, Tara opened her eyes and gazed solemnly at the crystal cradled in her palm. She quickly stole a look at the vacant doorway before depositing the object back into its box. Replacing the lid, she put the package carefully to one side and began to clear the cluttered bottom shelf of the wardrobe.

The Hoover emitted a low hum as Tara vacuumed the living room, occasionally glancing at the well-worn lounger that seemed to somehow dominate the room. She pushed the sleeves of her plaid shirt further up her arms and vacuumed with even greater dedication, conscious of her father's watchful gaze. But he sat in silent observation – saying nothing, doing nothing. He simply stared at her while she worked. She found the scrutiny to be disquieting, but continued without comment nonetheless.

Rays of the late afternoon sun danced upon a spotlessly clean living room carpet as Tara sorted through a tall bookcase. She inspected each edition as it was removed, but the collection was largely unremarkable, consisting of well-worn novels, a smattering of fairy tales and a few historical biographies. As she pulled out the last stack on the top shelf, a volume that had apparently been pushed flush against the back of the bookcase fell forward with a muffled thud. The cover was of a dull brown leather and bore no identifying title. Tara redeposited the stack of books in her hand and took hold of the new discovery.

Perching on the top step of the small ladder she'd been using to reach the higher shelves, Tara balanced the book on her knees. It was a relatively nondescript item, somewhat large in size yet not so bulky that it could not be easily hidden. Layered with dust and apparently unopened for quite some time, the spine cracked as a curious Tara peeked inside.

It was a photograph album, and Tara wonderingly flipped through the pages. She moved through them too quickly to take in many details, but two things were readily apparent: most of the pictures within were old and the subject of each one was female.

In Xander's workshop, Dawn was helping reorganize. She hefted a particularly heavy box full of partially-finished items from one of the countertops to the floor, groaning with the effort.

"You better hold up your end of the bargain for this," she grumbled, dropping the box with a thud.

"I said I'd talk to your sister about getting you a car," Xander replied, sorting through drawer of jumbled tools. "Didn't say I'd succeed."

"I know," agreed Dawn reluctantly, "but come on! Next year I'll be a college student. A student of college. Just like her, right? So it's like we're practically the same age."

Xander threw a thoughtful glance over his shoulder. "Is that how it works? So all Ponce de Leon had to do was go back to high school, huh? Silly little Spanish man." He shook his head in deep regret before returning to his task.

"I think it's good that you're doing this again," Dawn told him, waving her hand to encompass the entire room and its contents.

"I never really stopped," Xander responded, pulling out a handful of screwdrivers of varying lengths. "The whole carpentry thing just sort of went on vacation for a little while."

"But it's back?" probed Dawn meaningfully.

"Honestly? Not sure," he admitted with a wry grin. "I don't really know what I want to do now."

Dawn chuckled. "You sound like pretty much everybody at school."

"Well it is one of the great questions of our time," conceded Xander, closing the now neatly-arranged drawer. "But until I figure it out? This is good."

"I'm still not sure you should've quit being a Watcher, though." Dawn's tone grew huffy and indignant. "Somebody needs to kick Giles in the butt."

Xander raised an eyebrow. "Have you talked to Hannah lately? Iím thinking somebody might."

"I mean seriously," Dawn continued, tossing her hair over her shoulder and glaring out of the door as though the object of her vexation were standing there, "what is his deal?"

Xander's response listed toward bitterness. "I dunno, but I've still got a bit too much mad left to care right now."

Somewhat taken aback at jolly old Xander's lack of empathetic concern, Dawn's expression turned from annoyance to mild anxiety, however she was interrupted before there was a chance to pursue the issue.

"Hi, Mr. Xander," came a hesitant voice from the open doorway.

Xander turned, a delighted smile already plain on his face in recognition of the visitor. "Chrissie! How's my favorite little hero-in-training?"

"Okay ..." she replied, sounding very far from 'okay.'

"Uh-oh," remarked Dawn with a wise nod. "I know that lie when I hear it."

Xander too had an abundance of experience in that area. "What's wrong, Munchkin Land?"

He pulled a rocking chair from the corner and patted the seat. Chrissie readily obliged. She scooted back, feet dangling several inches from the floor. Placing his palm against the headrest, Xander pushed gently, and the chair began to rock back and forth while he waited patiently. Hopping up on a large crate nearby, Dawn sat Indian-style and leaned her elbows on her knees, also waiting and willing to provide whatever help she could.

"It's Mrs. O'Brien," Chrissie began with a sniff. "I don't think she likes me."

"I don't think that's possible," Xander rebutted. "You don't have the 'unlikable' gene."

Dawn was missing a crucial detail. "Mrs. O'Brien?"

Chrissie threw her a miserable glance. "My new Watcher."

"Ohh," acknowledged Dawn as everything clicked into place. "Why do you think she doesn't like you?"

"She doesn't smile like ever, and she always sounds mad, and ..." Chrissie pouted, "she makes me do pull-ups." Her head hung woefully.

Confused, Dawn looked to Xander for an explanation.

"Chrissie hates pull-ups."

"The bar's always so high!" she complained with extreme vehemence. "Mr. Xander never made me do them, but Mrs. O'Brien does, and she just never smiles!" Swiveling in her seat, Chrissie regarded Xander with appreciation shining from her eyes. "You always smiled, Mr. Xander! Even when you didn't!"

This time, it was Xander's turn to be confused and Dawn's turn to provide the explanation.

"Twelve-year old logic," she advised sagely. "Just go with it."

Xander continued to push against the chair whenever it reentered his range and Chrissie swung her legs in sync with the comforting rhythm.

"Mrs. O'Brien wants you to be the best Slayer you can be," he consoled, "just like I do. I promise she doesn't hate you, she's just really, really ... frumpy."

Chrissie was less than satisfied with the assurance. She searched Xander's face hopefully. "Mr. Xander, can you be my Watcher again?"

In the manliest way possible, Xander's expression visibly melted. His reaction paled in comparison to Dawn, however. Emitting a high-pitched sound of adoration in the back of her throat, she looked as though she might actually dissolve into a gooey puddle right there on the spot.

Xander crouched by the side of the chair. "You know that my quitting has nothing to do with you, right?" he insisted.

Chrissie stared at her fingers, twisting themselves into knots within her lap. "I know."

He tilted her chin so she was facing him. "I can't do the Watcher thing right now, but you're the best Slayer a Watcher could hope for. Don't let Stormy Face O'Brien make you think otherwise, okay?" He straightened and peered down at the young girl with exaggerated sternness. "That's an order."

It clearly wasn't the answer she really wanted, but Chrissie seemed to take the order to heart and resolved to do just that. For a second, anyway, because her expression soon wilted once more.

"Can we still maybe do stuff some time?" she asked plaintively. "I miss you."

Dawn's vocalization made a repeat appearance, although increased in pitch and volume.

"You bet we can," enthused Xander. "Hey, how about tomorrow? We can—"

"Zoo!" declared Dawn triumphantly.

"We can zoo?" queried Xander, apparently befuddled.

"Go to the zoo!" corrected Dawn with an eye-roll. "All of us! It can be a big trip, with the monkeys and the tigers and the monkeys and the monkeys!"

A huge grin invaded Chrissie's face. "I like monkeys!"

"Clearly," Dawn intimated with a smirk, deliberately looking in Xander's direction, which earned her a glower in return.

But then, Chrissie's exhilaration began to evaporate a little and she appeared regretful. "Oh, but I promised my friend Rae we'd do something tomorrow."

Xander was not about to permit the bursting of any bubbles. "Well, how about making that 'something' the zoo then? Dawn's right – bring your friends, we'll make a day of it. My treat."

"Can I bring more than Rae?" inquired an overjoyed Chrissie, almost bouncing with excitement.

Xander was more than willing to comply. "You betcha."

"Yay! You're the best, Mr. Xander!"

Chrissie's delight was virtually tangible and certainly infectious in its enthusiasm. Dawn and Xander smiled happily at each other.

"Now all you have to do is keep repeating that to everybody you ever meet," Xander firmly instructed as Chrissie giggled and hopped out of the chair mid-rock. With a goodbye wave, she ran from the workshop, presumably to seek out Rae and inform her of this most excellent news.

As the excitement began to die down, Dawn looked at Xander with a critical eye. "I repeat: I'm still not sure you should've quit being a Watcher."

With a semi-shrug and half-bob of his head, Xander shoved the rocking chair back into the corner.

At the P&S Diner, Tara sat in one of the booths, a dish of pasta salad on the table in front of her. She consumed the meal in absent-minded fashion, totally immersed in the photograph album she had brought with her.

Even more so than the previous day, she was bombarded by darkly suspicious looks from the other patrons. Carrying a pitcher of iced tea, Peggy stopped briefly to refill Tara's glass, the expression on the waitress' face no less mistrusting than the rest of the diner's inhabitants.

Tara didn't notice, and it was doubtful at that moment she would have cared if she had.

It was with much reverence that Tara turned the pages. The pictures ranged from shots of a solitary young female, to photographs of the same woman, now older in years, accompanied by a small girl – presumably her child – to images of that child at varying ages. The pattern was repeated throughout the album.

As Tara studied the faces, captured in moments past, she was struck by the similarities – not only to each other, but each also possessed at least a passing resemblance to her own features. Although she would never have been mistaken for any of the subjects, there was a certain familiar quality: in the bone structure perhaps, or maybe the shape of the eyes, or even the curve of the smile. Regardless, it was all too plain that she was most assuredly descended from these women.

Tara turned toward the beginning of the book and studied one of the images there. It was a tintype that portrayed a young girl probably in her mid-teens, dressed in buckskin and standing by an oak tree with a rifle hoisted onto her shoulder. Further into the album was a sepia-toned picture of a woman wearing a blouse and peg top trousers, the working uniform easily associated with the war years of the early 1900s. Further still, black-and-white photographs became more dominant: a woman seated in a rocking chair upon a familiar porch, dress typical of the masculine style dictated by the 1930s with wide shoulder pads and head-hugging curls. The vividness of the oldest color photographs had faded considerably with age, but Tara smiled at one particularly engaging image: a woman with hair rolled into a beehive, sitting on a lawn and holding a little girl who could have been no more than two years of age. With an expression of rapt concentration, the toddler tentatively offered a carrot to a baby rabbit.

There were no names or dates written on the backs of any of the photographs. No identifying information to be found anywhere in the album. Tara didn't seem to mind.

Toting a fresh supply of cleaning materials, Tara walked along the main shopping thoroughfare, photograph album tucked securely and protectively under her arm. Deep in her own thoughts, she was oblivious to the scowls on the faces of those she passed. Proprietors peered around establishment doorways, glowering in her direction, while pedestrians deliberately crossed to the other side of the street at her approach, shooting daggers from accusatory eyes. Even the town's vehicles slowed to a crawl in order that drivers and passengers alike might cast a hostile glare upon the unmindful figure. It seemed that every resident was acutely aware of her presence and harbored no doubt as to her identity.

Only seconds after Tara has passed by the window of a shoe store, the door opened and a young woman emerged onto the sidewalk. Around the same age, she watched Tara continue on her path. The green eyes were fixed in a concentrated stare – intense and probing, with a glint of personal interest that had not as yet been displayed by anyone else who made their home in the fair town of Hope Falls.

Tara sat on the porch swing, lazily pushing herself back and forth. Dusk was beginning to fall, but there was still sufficient light for her to easily see the photographs. The album lay open in her lap and she had already moved through a large portion of its contents. She tucked a few strands of hair behind her ears. Turning another page, a look of excitement crossed her face. The color picture portrayed a woman with her young daughter, both apparently seated on the very swing where Tara had recently taken up residence. Dressed in lilac, with pale yellow ribbons in her hair, it seemed that the small girl had just received an Easter basket and it sat on the wooden floor of the porch directly in front of her. Clutched lovingly to her chest was a plush pink bunny and she beamed with delight. She was young – probably no more than 5 years old – but for Tara, recognition was instantaneous. Tears prickled behind her eyes and her smile faltered for just a moment.

"Mama ..."

Tara's gaze lingered for a long moment on the happy image before moving on. There were a few more photographs of Emma Maclay, some taken with Tara's grandmother and some not. However, once Emma had reached the age of 16 or so, her mother made no more appearances. Tara regarded all these photographs with a twinge of sadness, but it couldn't mute the joy she felt at seeing her mother once more.

Turning yet another page, Tara chuckled to find herself as a baby, rolling her eyes at the overly-chubby cheeks and prominently bald head.

"Tara?"

Startled, Tara snapped the album shut and peered toward the direction of the voice. It was the young woman from the shoe shop who had subjected her to such extreme scrutiny earlier that day. However, the face rang no bells within Tara's memory.

"Oh my god," continued the stranger in a hushed tone. "It is you. I mean, I heard, but I didn't ..."

Her words trailed away, followed by a bewildered shake of the head.

Now totally confused, Tara placed the album next to her on the swing. "I'm sorry," she began hesitantly. "Do I know—"

She squinted into the descending gloom and suddenly, her eyes widened. Standing before her was a girl about 9 years of age. With an impish grin, the little girl waved and then beckoned for Tara to join her. Tara blinked rapidly at the image and it wavered, quickly being replaced by the figure of the woman once more.

"Brooke ..." whispered Tara.

"I can't believe it," Brooke was continuing, still shaking her head. "I mean, it was weird enough how you just up and left like a month after graduation without saying anything to anybody. To me."

Tara found some amusement in the open accusation. "I ... seem to remember that you sort of stopped talking to me first."

At that, Brooke averted her eyes.

"Just before high school, wasn't it?" mused Tara, taking uncharacteristic satisfaction in Brooke's obvious discomfort. "Something about a new school, new friends, and a chance to not be lumped in with the demon girl?"

"Peer pressure?" Brooke tried to explain with a weak smile. At the disbelieving arch of Tara's eyebrow, she wilted. "I know, I know, like that isn't the lamest excuse ever."

Delving into the back pocket of her jeans, she pulled out a rumpled pack of Virginia Slims, showing it to Tara with a self-depreciating smirk and shrug. "They got me in all sorts of stupid ways."

Producing a disposable lighter, she lit the end of her cigarette. It glowed brightly in the near-darkness.

"Of all the dumb stuff I did in high school – and believe you me I did a lotta dumb stuff – wrecking our friendship was the dumbest of 'em all." She tossed a rueful smile in Tara's direction. "It took me a long time to figure out what I threw away, and by the time I did, you were gone. I always hoped you'd come back one day so I could apologize ... but then we heard that you'd ... died." She scrubbed at her nose with the back of her hand and inhaled deeply.

Tara listened attentively, apparently disinclined to interrupt.

"It's been years, but it still eats me up sometimes." Brooke sighed heavily and took another drag of her cigarette. "I hated the idea that I'd never get the chance to say I was sorry. Maybe buy you a drink." The eyes that searched Tara's face were hopeful. "Maybe try and get my friend back?"

The wistfulness lingered for a long time, but Tara seemed impassive to the plea. She simply regarded the woman in front of her unemotionally until Brooke, assuming the silence to be an indication of negativity, dropped her cigarette to the dry earth and ground it beneath her heel with an expression of disappointment.

"Okay then," she nodded after a moment. "I ... I donít blame you." She smiled cheerily, trying to be upbeat. "Well, I can get one outta three, at least. Tara, Iím so—"

"Is The Oasis still open?"

It was some time before the open-mouthed Brooke completely absorbed the implication behind the question. Then, her eyes twinkled and she gave a broad grin.

Tara pushed herself up from the swing. "Well I donít know about you," she stated pointedly, "but I'm feeling a little parched. Care to join me?" Her lips curled into a tiny but genuinely forgiving smile.

It was a gesture that Brooke happily reciprocated.

The Oasis was loud, smoke-filled and proudly exhibited a total lack of sophistication. Still, Brooke and Tara didn't seem to mind as they sat across from each other at a small table, each nursing a sweating bottle of beer and chatting amicably. Toward the rear of the establishment, an enthusiastic dart tournament was taking place while in a large annex to the left of the main room, groups of both men and women tested their skill with a pool cue. In front of the bar, individuals in varying stages of inebriation struggled to maintain their tenuous perches on the padded stools and slurred their demands for more.

Tara sipped at her drink. "So I took a few years off, but I'm back in school again now."

"In Pennsylvania!" Brooke seemed truly amazed. "What on earth made you to run all the way east?"

Tara shrugged. "Oh, well ... It's where all my friends wound up, so ..."

Brooked gave a knowing smile. "Followed someone special, huh?"

"Something like that," returned Tara with a mischievous grin.

Brooke regarded her seriously. "And all that time, you never remembered us back here?"

"I-I did sometimes," Tara admitted. "But after my birthday it was sort of like ... I just didn't want to think about it, you know?"

"Heck," continued Brooke, "I still have trouble believing you left in the first place."

"Sometimes even now I can't believe it," agreed Tara.

Brooke shook her head in astonishment. "I mean, I've heard of people doing some selfish, ungrateful things before, but—"

Tara wasn't at all sure she'd heard correctly. "What?"

"—you take the cake." She narrowed her gaze at Tara. "You know it broke your father's heart, don't you?"

Tara shook her head. "I ... I don't ..."

"He sat up in that house, wasting away because of you," Brooke accused. "When all he ever tried to do was love you. Keep you from hurting decent folks. You're all the same though, aren't you?" She sneered. "The Maclay women. All of you evil, right to the core. Oh, but you, Tara – you've gotta be the worst."

Although obviously hurt at the accusation, Tara refused to stifle her mounting indignation. "I'm pretty sure there are people out there worse than me," she pointedly rebutted.

Brooke chose to ignore the argument. "When my family first moved here and we became friends, the whole town tried to tell us." She waved a hand, as though encompassing the entirety of the bar and beyond. "Everyone knows about the Maclays. Hell, they even make you keep your maiden name as warning! My mom and dad didn't believe it, though." She shook her head at the obvious naivety. "Small town superstition, they figured. 'Cept even superstition's gotta come from someplace."

Her expression grew ugly. "And look at you now. Walking and talking like you ain't the dead thing we all know you are. Guess your daddy was right after all, wasn't he?"

Focused solely on Brooke and her unexpected tirade, Tara failed to notice that all surrounding activities were grinding to a halt as the clientele settled in to watch the show.

"So you brought me here to ... to what?" she challenged. "To embarrass me? Just to be cruel? I thought— I thought we'd ..."

Tara's words trailed away as she hung her head, furious with herself for being duped so easily.

"Thought we'd what?" snickered Brooke. "Have a beer, chat a bit then ... kiss and make up?" Her lips curled. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

A light flush crept into Tara's cheeks and her eyes flashed with anger.

"Oh come on," Brooke told her disdainfully. "I know that's what you wanted." The laugh that followed was almost a cackle. "As if anyone could stand to have you trailing after them like a little puppy dog. God, just the thought makes me sick."

Tara fixed Brooke with an unwavering stare. "No, you know what's sick? The fact that for a second, I really thought there was something good left in this horrible place, something that hadn't rotted from the inside!"

Brooke didn't seem fazed by the barb. "You brought all this on yourself," she explained without sympathy. "You never should've left, Tara. If you'd listened to your father—"

"If I'd listened to him," Tara interrupted, her voice sharply confident. "I'd be as dead as you are now."

Pushing away from the table, Tara got to her feet, the conversation now clearly at an end. With jaw set, she strode toward the exit, nearly colliding with several patrons along the way. In silence, every pair of eyes watched her departure and then, with the closing of the door, the hush was broken by an excited buzz of discussion and speculation.

Finally dragging her gaze back to her beer, Brooke raised the bottle to her mouth. She didn't turn around when a hand was laid upon her shoulder.

"Don't sound too regretful, does she?" she remarked quietly.

The owner of the hand provided no vocalized response, simply delivering a reassuring squeeze before the fingers slipped from her shoulder. Brooke continued to focus forward as the individual followed Tara out the door and into the night.

Throwing open the front door, Tara stormed into the house. Her eyes prickled with unshed tears, but they were as much from anger as anything else. Nonetheless, she was extremely upset and every ounce of it was on display. Composure lost, she didn't bother to close the door behind her and the howling wind played havoc with the fallen leaves littering the porch, while the swing groaned a protest at being forcibly thrust from side to side upon its chains.

Emotions running riot, Tara paced back and forth across the floor, struggling to find some type of channel to release her pent-up energy. Then her attention focused on the worn armchair and she launched a heartfelt attack.

"Why? Why did you do it? Why did you hurt us?!"

The chair remained impassive. No presence lingered within the threadbare cushions, not even the vaguest shadow of a memory. Still, Tara continued her undeterred outrage as rush of scalding tears coursed down her cheeks.

Beyond the door, the wind's unfettered wail intensified and with it, the sounds of whispered voices, muted and indecipherable.

"Was it— Was it really control?" she demanded of the innocuous chair. "Were you that afraid of us? She loved you! Mama loved you s-so much! A-And so did ..."

The outside mumblings grew steadily more clear, but Tara seemed oblivious.

Demon. Witch. Evil. No escape. Forever.

"Why do you hate me?" sobbed Tara, her desperate eyes burrowing deep into the faded upholstery.

Hate. Evil. Forever. Witch. Evil.

Tara swiped away her tears, but more seemed to follow. "No."

Trapped. Hate. Demon. Witch. No escape.

The recriminations became more insistent, overlapping as though an invisible tongue was tripping in its anxiety to verbalize. The words became increasingly difficult to comprehend and Tara pressed her hands over her ears in order to smother the vicious charges, but it did little good.

"No, no," she appealed, shaking her head and stumbling backward until she collided with the wall.

The accusations reverberated with violence as Tara clenched her eyes tightly shut. She continued to protest, attempting to raise her voice even higher in the hopes of drowning out the ominous assertions but there was no escape. In a panic, she searched blindly for sanctuary but the room, even the house itself, seemed to be closing around her. Whimpering, she slid to the floor, curling into a compact ball that she might be as small as humanly possible. Her eardrums ached from the sheer pressure of her palms, but still the crescendo persisted, building toward a monumental climax.

And then, silence. Blessed and tranquil silence.

The voices abruptly ceased. The wind was stilled, barely stirring the dead leaves outside the door.

Cheeks drenched with tears, Tara lowered her trembling hands and cautiously opened her red-rimmed, swollen eyes. The sense of dread rapidly evaporated, as though someone had suddenly flipped a switch. Totally confused, Tara took stock of her surroundings and then visibly jumped to see her brother looming over her.

Donny grinned, every bit as real as Tara herself.

"Hey sis. Welcome home."


Act Three

Crouching at the baseboard, Tara seemed unconvinced by Donny's apparently friendly grin and ignored the hand affably extended to help her to her feet. Instead, she inched her way up the wall under her own steam.

"What are you doing here?"

Donny shrugged amicably at the refusal of assistance and laughed. "It's my house. Last I checked, man had a right to walk into his own house. Prob'ly more right'n you got, all things considered."

"B-But you don't live here," refuted Tara hesitantly. "We tried to- to get in touch with you, and—"

Donny nodded. "Yeah, I don't much come up this way. Me an' my girl Brooke, we got us a place outside'a town."

"Brooke?" questioned Tara with surprise.

"Sweet young thing, 'bout your age," her brother clarified. "Hell of a looker. You know the type." He favored Tara with a knowing wink.

An expression of mild disgust crossed Tara's face. "Because this day wasn't disturbing enough already."

Donny frowned and thoughtfully scratched his head. "Hey, weren't you and her friends way back when?"

"Don't play coy, Donny," Tara told him with some irritation. "You're too smug to pull it off."

Thoroughly amused by her observation, Donny's face broke into a huge grin. "Y'know, I think I might kinda like this new you."

"Much as I'd like to say the same about the old you," Tara retorted, "I'm sort of beyond the polite lie stage." She fixed him with a pointed stare. "What do you want? And please don't feed me some line about wanting to see me."

Donny appeared injured at the remark. "No line, I really did," he assured. "Hell, last we heard'a you, some friend of yours is callin' with funeral information! Then last night I get word you're back home like nothin' happened? Damn girl, do I need a bigger reason?"

It was a point well taken by Tara and her defensive aggression dropped a tiny notch.

"Like what'cha done with the place," Donny approved, surveying the room in detail for the first time. "Ain't looked this good since you left. Kinda bare, though."

"Most everything's boxed up outside," explained Tara. "I-I figured I'd donate it to Goodwill, but if there's something you want...?"

"Yeah, nothing wrong with that stuff," he acknowledged with a firm nod. "Once we get this place in shape, you just go ahead an' put it all back."

Momentarily taken unawares by the implication, Tara recovered quickly. "Oh, y-you're moving back in? I mean that's perfectly fine, it's not like I was totally thrilled with selling it, but—"

"Sure I'm movin' back!" Donny told her with confidence. "You need someone here knows how t'deal with you."

Tara blinked. "Donny, I'm not ... I'm not staying here."

"Sure you are," chuckled Donny as though anything else would be beyond the realm of reason.

"No. I'm not."

"Tara, don't be stupid now," he chided, beginning to sound less than friendly. "Runnin' around out there done filled your head with all sorts a' craziness. Daddy may've lost sight'a what you are, but not me." He confirmed the fact with a stubborn jut of his jaw. "No sir. I know exactly what you are."

Tara's hands formed themselves into clenched fists at her sides. "Trust me, whatever you're thinking? It's mutual."

Donny took a step toward her. "You got a smart mouth on you, you know that?"

"Yeah, I've heard it's good for all sorts of things."

The minute the words had slipped from her tongue, Tara visibly struggled to regain control of her temper and bring a halt to what was fast becoming a deteriorating situation.

"Look, this is ... It's been a pretty stressful day," she attempted in soothing fashion. "I'm sure for both of us. Why don't we, you know, meet for coffee tomorr—"

But Donny wasn't listening and he swiped viciously at the air between them. "Who the hell do you think you are?!"

Gone was the amicable facade. There was a nasty glint in his eyes and his lips were pulled back in a vicious sneer.

"Or we could just jump to the part where you're psychopathic?" Tara muttered, although Donny was beginning to seethe with rage and she was becoming increasingly frightened. He stalked toward her menacingly and she scuttled even further into her confining corner.

"You're nothing, Tara." Donny's voice was heavily laced with contemptuous scorn. "You were nothing then an' you're nothing now. You're a mistake Daddy should'a fixed before you were even born."

Digging deep, Tara probed her fear and unearthed a solid nucleus of well-founded anger.

"He was easy on you," continued Donny. "Gave in to you too much, made you think you were a person." His mouth twitched into an ugly smirk. "Oh but don't you worry none – week or two in the Quiet Room'll set you straight in no time."

"You really believe that, don't you?" challenged Tara. "That I'm some horrible, evil thing?"

"Sure as I am the sun'll rise tomorrow and you won't be there to see it."

With narrowed eyes, Tara leaned closer to her brother. Her tone was soft, low and conspiratorial.

"Then it must just kill you that Daddy would've rather spent his time with a demon like me," she whispered, plainly savoring each and every scathing word, "than a completely worthless failure of a son like you."

With a silent snarl, Donny's hand lashed out and brutally seized a fistful of long blonde hair. He jerked Tara's head until her face was mere inches from his own and when he spoke, the voice was eerily calm, but overflowed with threatening promise. His free hand curled into a fist, knuckles white against the skin.

"I think someone needs to teach you a hard lesson, little girl."

As he sailed through the virtually bare living room, Donny's feet never even grazed the floor. He impacted the bookcase with a sickening thud, shattering several of the now empty shelves, before collapsing like a limp rag doll. Dazed but conscious, he let out an agonized groan and began to raise up shakily on one elbow. Blood gushed from his nose and a huge goose-egg pushed its way through the scalp at the back of his head. Although his face was contorted with pain, he couldn't mask the overriding display of terror. Fearfully, he focused upon the daunting figure in the doorway.

"You were probably expecting the old me." He was duly advised. "The one who'd just stand there and take it."

Towering at the entrance, Tara seemed larger than life. She emitted a foreboding vitality, radiating sparks that originated from some inner source and crackled with dark energy, and her clear blue eyes exhibited no remorse or repentance for her actions. Donny gasped, breath catching in his throat as he wilted beneath the intimidating presence.

"Out with the old, big brother. In with the new."

The morning promised a perfect day for an outing to the zoo. The sky was clear and pleasantly blue. The air was crisp and exhilarating. In the foyer of Slayer Central, Xander, Dawn, Buffy and Willow were the first to arrive.

"Well this is new," announced Buffy. At the inquiring glances, she elaborated, "This whole 'fieldtrip' motif I'm working on. Twice in two days. We're not the Council any more, we're a really dangerous day care."

"Stop bein' so grumpy," chastised Willow. "I, for one, am looking forward to this." An expression of delighted anticipation crossed her face. "Oo! You think they'll have the petting zoo part open?"

"We can feed the lambs!" declared an equally enthusiastic Dawn.

Both zealots virtually bounced with excitement at the proposition and even Buffy perked up a little.

"Okay," she conceded. "The little lambs are cute."

"And besides," added Xander, "it's not like we're taking everyone. It's just Chrissie and a couple of her friends."

As if on cue, one of the doors leading from the main section of the building into the foyer burst open. The buzz of excited chatter preceded the appearance of bodies – a dozen bodies to be exact, including Chrissie and her friend, Rae, who led the entourage. All twelve girls were clearly pumped about the upcoming excursion. At the sight of them, an expression of shock slowly crossed Xander's face.

Standing on tiptoe to whisper in his ear, Willow offered what comfort she could. "Maybe we can get the group rate?"

Buffy blew out a resigned breath of air. "I'll tell Giles we need the van," she announced, heading for the opposite door.

Much to Xander's consternation, the troop of hyper Juniors immediately clustered around him. He peered into each lively face, and began to look a little ill. Shaking her head in amusement, Buffy darted through the door and made her way toward Giles' office. It was a crowded route and she had to deftly skirt several Watchers along the way. Rounding a corner, she nearly collided with a another figure, also in an apparent hurry. Both quickly voiced their apologies before realizing to whom they were speaking.

It was an awkward moment, as Faith stared at Buffy and Buffy stared at Faith. Neither seemed to know what to say, and so nothing at all was said for a long moment.

Eventually, Faith nodded a curt greetings/farewell combination and started to make good her departure, giving Buffy a wide berth. She hadn't gone more than a few steps, however, before Buffy called out to her.

"Faith, wait."

Complying with the request, Faith stopped and turned. She regarded Buffy with wary eyes. But having now secured Faith's attention, it seemed Buffy wasn't exactly sure of how to continue. She hesitated and took a deep breath before blurting out a question.

"What are you doing today?"

Faith appeared a little curious at the inquiry and provided a cautious answer. "Not much. Work out a bit. Maybe tinker with my bike. Read a book. Day 'a rest an' all. Figure I can't much go wrong with rest."

She waited for Buffy's reaction. The unspoken 'why are you asking?' implication lay heavily between them.

"Do you maybe want to go to the zoo?" asked Buffy hurriedly, as though she were trying to get the words out prior to them deserting her completely.

Faith's face registered astonishment. "The ... zoo?"

"Yeah, the zoo," Buffy confirmed. "You know ... big place, smells funny, lots of cages."

"I can think of a few things fittin' that description," smirked Faith.

"This is the one with giraffes," Buffy clarified with a tiny smile. "We're all going." She paused and fixed Faith with a guarded but still hopeful gaze. "You could maybe come with?"

The smirk intensified. "Why B, are you actually inviting me to join you an' the Superfriends?" Faith asked with grotesquely exaggerated flattery.

The line of Buffy's jaw tightened. "Never mind. Forget it."

Sharply, she turned on her heel and began to walk away. Faith watched for a brief moment and then, with a self-reproving sigh at her attitude, jogged to catch up.

"Wait," she called. "I'm sorry. My mouth don't always get permission before it does stupid crap."

Buffy bobbed her head in a noncommittal gesture of acceptance as she turned around. She didn't appear overly-aggravated and Faith was encouraged. "I'd like to come." She thrust her hands into her pockets before self-consciously adding, "Thanks."

The smile Buffy threw her way was small and a little uncomfortable, but essentially genuine. Before the moment could grow out of control however, Buffy gestured with her head down the hall, and the two resumed walking.

"Why the zoo?" queried Faith.

Buffy shrugged. "It's Xander's thing." She chuckled softly. "It looks like he's taking half of Slayer Central, too."

"Well if they give us crap, we can toss 'em in with the lions," responded Faith with complete seriousness.

Buffy nodded. "Nice idea, liking it ... I thought you weren't supposed to feed the animals, though?"

"We'll make an exception."

From an intersecting passage further down, Hannah emerged and looked from side to side. Spying Buffy from a distance, she hurried toward her.

"Buffy! I've been looking for you."

"Well you found me," Buffy responded amicably. "What's up?"

"We need to talk," confided the older woman. "There are some matters I'd like your help on."

A frown creased Buffy's forehead. "You sound serious."

"Quite possibly because I am," affirmed Hannah soberly.

"Okay, when?"

"As soon as you can," urged Hannah. "I donít really want to delay this any longer than is absolutely necessary."

Considering this for no more than a heartbeat, Buffy faced Faith. "I think I'll pass on the lion feeding today. Can you tell the others to go ahead?"

"Sure thing," agreed Faith cordially.

"And you'll need to get the keys to the van."

Faith nodded. "On it."

She continued her path toward Giles' office as Buffy focused her attention on Hannah.

"I'm all yours," she told her. "What's the tragedy du jour?"

Taking Buffy's arm, Hannah steered her along the corridor.

"It's about Rupert."

The overly-cheery radio announcer declared the time to be 11:30 a.m. and promised an upcoming afternoon of mild temperatures and the possible threat of isolated sprinkles. In the kitchen, Tara poured milk into a ceramic bowl and rearranged the two sandwiches that she had carefully cut into neat triangles and placed upon a paper towel. Satisfied with her handiwork, she redeposited the carton into the practically empty fridge and grabbed a long piece of cardboard. Tucking it beneath one arm, she picked up the bowl and both sandwiches before leaving the room.

Once in the hall, she made her way toward a door that, up until now, she had studiously ignored. Reinforced with steel, it displayed a sliding bolt on the outside. Taking a deep breath, she stopped in front of the fortified room and put the items she was carrying on a nearby small table, resting the cardboard strip against the wall. Reaching out, she slid back the rusty cover of an eye-level grille and peered inside.

The Quiet Room was amazingly small, its dimensions perhaps even less generous than the standard prison cell. There were no windows, although it was dimly illuminated by a recessed light fixture in the ceiling. The four walls were completely bare and featureless. The furnishings too were dismally sparse, boasting only a humble cot in the far corner complete with a single pillow and some blankets. Upon the makeshift bed, back against the wall, sat Donny. On either side of him, embedded into the brickwork, were shackles but Tara had apparently declined to utilize them. Donny still appeared somewhat groggy. His lips and nose were swollen, and the lump on his head hadn't decreased in size, but he seemed in relative possession of his faculties given the circumstances. He glanced at the barred grille as it grated its way open and snorted a subdued laugh to see the inquisitive face of his sister.

"Guess you're lovin' this, ain'tcha?"

Tara's answer was sincere in its regret. "No, I'm really, really not."

The look he fired in her direction conveyed all the significance of a shrug, lacking only the shoulder action.

"How are you feeling?" she asked with concern.

"Like I got my butt whupped," came the rueful answer, followed by a frown. "My head's sorta fuzzy."

"That's probably because of the sleep spell," Tara stated. "I cast it, last night? After I sort of ... used you to kill the bookcase."

He wrinkled his nose and then grimaced as it trickled blood. "Ticked off as you looked, I'm surprised I didn't wake up a goat on Mrs. Richter's farm."

"I like Mrs. Richter's goats," protested Tara. "I wouldn't do that do them."

They shared a chuckle, although Tara's good humor faded fast. It was clearly she was troubled, but determined to shake it off for the moment.

"About that," she offered. "The scary magick thing. I'm sorry. I don't usually ... It was stress, a-and sort of a gut reaction and ... and I'm just glad I didn't hurt you." At Donny's wry look, she added, "More."

"Still not gonna let me outta here, are, you?"

With a smirk, Tara confirmed the assumption and Donny's expression indicated he already knew such was a foregone conclusion. He wiped his nose with the cuff of his shirt. The bleeding had all but stopped again.

"I made you some lunch," Tara told him brightly.

Grabbing the cardboard, she laid it on the ground, placing the bowl and sandwiches at one end. Glancing up at the grille, she noted that Donny had moved closer, peering curiously through the lattice.

"Stand back from the door," she instructed.

He shuffled away a few steps and Tara opened another slat at the bottom that was almost twice the size of a regulation letterbox. Using the far end of the cardboard, Tara pushed the meal through the opening. Bending down, Donny retrieved his bounty and Tara quickly pulled on the improvised tray. Within seconds, the grate was safely secured once more.

She peeked through the grille to find Donny examining the half a sandwich held in his hand. He flashed a boyish smile of genuine thanks. "Peanut butter and jelly."

"It's raspberry," confirmed Tara, returning the gesture.

Donny's smile broadened. "My favorite." Opening his mouth as wide as he could, he took a huge bite and began to eat, noisily and appreciatively.

"Donít no one make food like you, Tara," he mumbled around the satisfying snack. "You an' mom. You two done spoiled me for any other woman's cookin', y'know."

A light blush crept into Tara's cheeks. "It's just a sandwich."

Donny wolfed down the remainder of that half and then instantly grabbed another. "Well it's been a while." Hungrily, he licked a glob of jelly from his finger. "I'll take what I can get."

As he lifted the bowl of milk to his lips, Tara hastened to explain.

"I already packed the glasses, so ..."

But Donny didn't seemed to mind. Indeed, it was doubtful he was even listening. He slurped happily while Tara watched with a melancholy smile. Frowning, she made the conscious decision to finally broach what was on her mind.

"Donny, about last night ..."

Immediately, Donny's enthusiastic consumption slowed and his expression grew guarded.

"What about it?"

"Were you maybe feeling sort of ...," she began and then shook her head before making another attempt. "Last night, before you came? I was hearing ... voices."

That earned her a chuckle. "And I'm the one locked up?"

"Not just that," she insisted. "Since I came back, I've felt ... I don't know. Trapped?" She glanced hopefully in Donny's direction. "Like there's this ... this itch, almost. In my spine. Like a- a pressure that I have to try to leave because I'm afraid I won't be able to."

"Conscience, maybe?" suggested Donny helpfully.

Tara sighed and decided on a different course. "Why did you leave?"

Her brother seemed taken aback at the question. "Huh?"

"The house," she persisted. "You said you have a new place now, and it's clear nobody's lived here for ages. I know you, Donny, you're cheaper than Dollar Tree. Why would you leave?"

Donny fixed Tara with a penetrating stare, his gaze narrowing. He looked vaguely angry at her doggedness, but the response came across pleasant and casual.

"Cuz'a you, actually. Daddy wasn't never the same after we found you in Sunnydale. The tricks you used to stay there—"

"They weren't tricks," Tara swiftly corrected.

Her brother shrugged. "Whatever, they sure as hell worked. When we got back here, it's like he just ... stopped. I swear he didn't move outta that damn chair for a week. I tried tellin' him: we couldn't convince you to come home, we could damn well make you. He wouldn't hear it. Eventually says I could either shut up about it or leave." He grinned sardonically at the remembrance. "Turns out he was right in the end – I never knew when to keep my trap shut."

Tara was confused. "But he's been gone for over a year now. The house was yours. Why did you stay away?"

Seeming a little uncomfortable, Donny averted his eyes. "I dunno."

"Come on, you can do better than that," urged Tara, thoroughly dissatisfied with the lame non-excuse. "A huge house, lots of land, no mortgage? I mean, okay, maybe you don't want to live here, but then you don't even come clean it out so they can sell it?"

Donny swirled the few drops of milk remaining in the bowl. "I just don't like comin' up here, is all."

Tara was nothing if not relentless. "But you showed up last night and started talking about moving back in, so if you don't like it then why—"

"I don't know! I just ..." He refused to meet her piercing stare. "I had to."

"Because of me?"

"Yes! You can't leave, Tara." It was an order that tolerated no potential discussion. "I can't let you. It's your job to keep that evil inside you under control, and it's mine to see that you do."

Apparently, Tara couldn't believe her ears. "Are you even listening to yourself? It doesn't make sense! Why are you so convinced that you have to do this?"

"Because I am! I feel it!" Donny clenched the bowl tightly in his hand.

At last, Tara experienced the gratification of being vindicated. "Exactly, that's what I'm trying to say. I think there's something going on here. Something that's affecting us. Last night, the things I said ..." Her fingers curled around the bars of the grille. "I-It was like someone was pushing me to say them, egging me on? But more than that. It feels real, and it feels ... personal."

"There's nothin' else, girl," scoffed her brother. "There's you, there's me, and there's a demon thatís been runnin' free for way too long."

Tara rubbed at her forehead and sighed. "Then can you at least maybe think of something new to hate about me for a few minutes? The demon thing's starting to get tedious."

"Witch," he whispered.

It was only one word, but its content paled to the manner in which was delivered. It was spoken in a flat timbre – cold, calculating and spiked with a bottomless hatred. Something in Donny's vapid tone caused Tara's eyes to widen with apprehension. She took an involuntary step backward and bumped into the small table behind her.

The dish slipped from Donny's fingers, shattering on impact and causing Tara to jump. "Evil. Witch. Never escape. Forever."

"Do-Donny?"

"—can't figure out is why you lied," he continued in normal fashion.

Tara blinked rapidly. "What?"

Donny frowned at the splinters littering the ground by his feet. "About you dying," he added reflectively.

Between the current conversation, what she'd heard only moments before, and Donny's apparently distorted recollection of the whole thing, Tara was utterly confused.

"See, this is what rages me more'n anything else." He ground the jagged shards to a fine powder with the heel of his shoe. "Some part'a Daddy never stopped thinkin' he could ..." He paused just long enough to give a snort of derision, "... make it all up to you. Hearin' he never would near killed him on the spot. That why you had those friends'a yours lie for you? Just to hurt him more?"

"It wasn't a lie," Tara replied distractedly, her mind dwelling on other matters.

Totally confounded, Donny watched his sister as she analyzed everything going through her mind. Then he began to do the same, wheels churning at a furious pace. His thought process followed a presumably logical path. Tara dying wasn't a lie and yet, she stood before him, clearly alive. His eyes began to widen.

Tara turned to her brother. "Did you say anything? Like, 'Evil Witch' anything?"

"Comes to you," he retorted condescendingly, "I say it all the time."

"I don't mean in everyday conversation," replied Tara with an understated eye-roll. "I mean like right now. Just a minute ago."

"Sure as hell thought it," he asserted with conviction.

Tara pushed the point. "But did you say it?"

"No."

This was all Tara needed to verify her conclusion and she gave an affirming nod. An expression of determination invaded her features.

"There's something going on here, Donny. Something weird. I-I don't know if it's the house or- or something else, but I'm going to find out."

Turning sharply, she moved down the hall with a quick and purposeful stride.

"You sayin' the house is haunted?" asked Donny uneasily. He paused, waiting for a reply that never materialized. "Tara?" he called nervously. Still nothing.

He made his way to the open grille and gripped the iron bars, craning his neck to look down the empty corridor.

"C'mon now, girl, this in't funny." His response was silence. "Tara?" he repeated anxiously.

There was yet another agonizingly long hush and Donny warily surveyed his surroundings.

"Mr. Ghost, Sir?"

This met with no more success than before and Donny crept quietly back to the cot. Curling into a tight ball so as to make himself small as humanly possible, he huddled in the corner and nibbled on the remains of his lone half sandwich.

Arriving at a building that rather provisionally declared itself to be Hope Falls Library, Tara climbed the stone steps and tentatively opened the door. The interior was small and seemed to consist of a singular floor. Nonetheless, it was crammed to overflowing with neatly-shelved books and there was not a solitary speck of dust to be seen anywhere.

"Hello?" she called in a subdued voice, failing to see anyone occupying the tiny check-in/check-out desk.

A startled shriek could be heard from behind one of the bookcases and a woman emerged, hand clutched to her chest. Her age was indeterminable. She could have been anywhere from a prematurely-advanced 30-something to a 60+ senior to whom the years had been quite kind. Her hair was fastened in a prim bun and horn-rimmed glasses were perched on the tip of her nose. Wearing a navy two-piece and sensible flat shoes, she was the epitome of a standard-issue librarian.

Tara blinked. "Oh! I'm sorry."

Smiling, the woman brushed aside the apology. "No, no, dear, that's quite alright. I'm surprised, but pleasantly. I'm not used to having people visit the library. If I didn't know better, I'd say that nobody in Hope Falls ever bothered to learn how to read."

"Maybe you just need books with more pictures," suggested Tara in friendly fashion.

"I'll keep that in mind for the next book drive," assured the librarian. Tara wasn't exactly sure whether or not her remark had been taken seriously, but she certainly recognized scrutiny when she saw it. Indeed, it had become depressingly familiar of late.

"Do I know you?" asked the woman with frown.

Exhibiting some hesitation, Tara launched into her now parrot-like explanation. "I'm Tara. I used to live here."

"Tara, Tara ..." pondered the librarian. "No, I can't say that's ringing any bells."

"This probably sounds weird? But I'm actually glad to hear that."

"Well, Tara-who-used-to-live-here, how may our humble library be of service?" The librarian favored her visitor with a sunny smile.

"I was hoping you had something on town history? I'm doing research for ..." Tara paused for a moment, "... a novel."

The woman greeted this snippet of information with a great deal of enthusiasm. "Oo, a novel about our little town?" She moved closer. "What kind of story?"

"A mystery," Tara immediately replied.

Beckoning for Tara to follow, the woman made her way to the rear of the library. "That's very exciting, isn't it?" she virtually gushed. "A murder mystery?"

"More like something stolen."

Nonetheless, the librarian appeared to be suitably impressed. She led Tara to an adjoining room and stopped in front of a long table, upon which sat a cumbersome and boxy contraption that looked as though it could have been the original prototype of a personal computer. Tall file cabinets lined three of the walls. The librarian gestured at the electronic dinosaur and its associated trappings with a broad smile.

"We don't have any books, but I'm proud to say that our periodicals collection is quite extensive! Every newsletter, every leaflet and every single edition of the 'Hope Falls Herald' can be found here on microfiche!"

"Every edition?" inquired Tara dubiously, the threat of being overwhelmed beginning to creep in.

"Three days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 137 years," the woman announced with immense pride.

"That's ... Wow, that's something." Tara acknowledged the achievement with all due reverence, before asking meekly, "Uhm, I don't suppose they're online in an easily-searchable format?"

The librarian cheerfully confirmed Tara's worst fears. "Oh heaven's no. I'm hoping to maybe get a computer in a few years, but we haven't had any sort of major upgrade since the microfiche machine back in '86."

"Of course," muttered Tara, mostly to herself.

"If you need anything, just let me know!" the woman told her, leaving Tara to her own devices – and the ancient one that awaited her command.

"Well, Detective Maclay," declared Tara softly with a sigh of yearning for more modern technology, "Time to do the Solo Scooby thing."

Taking a deep breath of resignation and preparing herself for the long haul, she pulled open the first file drawer.

Xander consulted the map in his hand and then stared bewilderedly at the confusing signpost with its vast array of directional arrows, some of which appeared to be pointing nowhere in particular. He scratched his head and peered at the map again. He was sure of his present location however – the very heart of Merchandise Land. He was surrounded on all sides by restaurants, concessions stands and souvenir shops. There wasn't so much as a genuine feathered, furred or scaled tail in sight.

The area was pretty much packed, although most people were skirting his immediately vicinity. More than one disapproving eye was cast upon the hapless Xander and his demanding bevy of young girls, each of whom could have easily snapped him in half with no more than an offhand gesture. He was visibly crumbling beneath the clamoring bombardment for anything and everything money could buy – at an exorbitant price, of course.

"Mr. Xander, can I have a hot dog?" asked a diminutive blonde.

"Sure, I—"

"Look at the cups!" A Junior with huge brown eyes hopped excitedly from one foot to the other. "Mr. Xander, I want a Coke in a big elephant cup!"

"Just a sec, I'll—"

"Will you get me these, Mr. Xander?" a shrill and unidentifiable voice inquired from behind an armful of exceedingly trashy and overly-priced toy knick-knacks. It was impossible to see her face, so extensive was her load.

Xander looked at the swag with disdain. "God, why?"

There was a tug on his shirt sleeve. "Mr. Xander, where's my cotton candy?"

"I think it's taking over my brain," he groaned despairingly.

"Buy me this, Mr. Xander!" Willow implored, holding aloft a stuffed gray wolf toy. "It's sooo cuuute!"

Xander's lone eye narrowed menacingly. "No."

Jutting her lower lip into a pout, Willow reluctantly returned the wolf to his pack of identical brothers and left Xander by himself to cope as best he could. She joined Faith at a nearby table. The dark-haired Slayer was thoroughly amused as she sipped on her drink and watched Xander's vain attempts to maintain some modicum of control. She nodded affably in Willow's direction as the redhead sat down.

"Where's Dawn?" Willow asked, searching for the teenager but not finding her.

Faith gestured toward one of several souvenir shops dotting the area. "In there. She an' Chrissie're teaming up to take Xander for every cent he's got."

Willow tossed her hand in the air with a puff of exasperation. "See, I should've tried subterfuge instead of hoping for distraction."

"Good to see all those classes on tactics and strategy are finally payin' off," Faith observed.

As Willow watched, Faith would dunk the straw into her drink, use her thumb to draw up some of the liquid, then pull the straw out again and watch it dribble back into the cup. Both women seemed somehow entranced by this, and they watched several rounds in companionable silence.

"So," Willow eventually asked with a chuckle, "having fun?"

The straw was plunged back into the Cokey depths. "Eh. Don't much like zoos, actually. Got a thing about keepin' animals in cages." With an obvious smirk, Willow opened her mouth to speak, but Faith didn't afford her the opportunity. "An' I already made my obligatory prison joke today, so don't."

There was a fraction of a second of hesitation, but Willow's jaw quickly snapped shut. "As if I'd even," she scoffed, but was clearly keen to move on. "I get what you mean, but they do help. Zoos, that is, not prisons. Well prisons help too, though less with the whole big conversation thing. And- And zoos help keep species from becoming extinct." She regarded Faith seriously. "Better for 'em to be in a cage than dead, right?"

Faith shrugged. "Guessin' nobody ever asked the animals that."

Willow dug for a response, but couldn't seem to form a good counter-argument to that. "No pets growing up then, huh? Birds, or ... or fish or anything?"

"Didn't really grow up in what I'd call a pet-friendly place," Faith informed matter-of-factly. An expression of mild embarrassment flashed across her features. "But I got a fish," she admitted.

Willow's face exhibited delight at the revelation. "You had fish when you were little? Me too. Only I wasn't so much little, a-and it didn't end well. But hey, fish! What were their names?"

Faith still appeared rather uncomfortable with the confession. "Just one fish," she corrected. "An' it wasn't when I was little, it's ... now. I got a fish now. In my room. Well, in a tank in my room," she hastened to qualify, "not just floppin' around on the floor or in the sink or nothin'."

In something close to amazement, Willow considered this new information. "Huh, didnít see that coming." She frowned slightly. "But if you donít like the captive animals bit, then why? Not that you need a reason or anything," she hastened to assure, "but ..."

The response was provided hesitantly. "Dr. Lombardi – she's this doc I saw back in London ... She thought it'd be good for me. Give me somethin' to take care of or whatever." Faith waved her hand, her expression unimpressed. "Buncha psychobabble, I tune most of it out. But when I got back here, I just ... I dunno." She shrugged. "Wanted a fish."

The smile she received was bright and genuine. "Well I think that's nifty," Willow decided emphatically. "So what's his or her name?"

Faith's answer was a while in coming. A tiny stream of soda poured from one end of the straw. She looked oddly vulnerable and did not wear it well.

"Nemo."

The conversation was abruptly interrupted by the arrival of Dawn and Chrissie. Each clutched a moderately large stuffed animal and Chrissie sported a new t-shirt that she had donned over the one she was already wearing. It bore the proud inscription: "I belong at the zoo!" The pair looked exceptionally pleased with themselves.

"Mr. Xander's the best!" enthused Chrissie, holding a giant pretzel approximately the size of her head.

Willow's eyes grew bright, as a brilliant, albeit devious, idea wormed its way into her brain.

"Hey Chrissie." She beckoned for the girl to come closer. "You know what I think you need next...?"

"Those." Hannah punctuated the selection with a determined poke of her finger. "Lots of those."

Facing the door, she and Buffy shared the far end of a long table in one of Slayer Central's conference rooms, scrutinizing several items laid out in front of them.

Buffy was doubtful. "Are you sure?"

Hannah nodded emphatically. "Positive. This won't be possible without them."

"I bow to the master," acquiesced Buffy.

Silence reigned for a moment as they both concentrated.

"Hannah, do you think we ..." Buffy sighed. "I'm not sure we should do it like this."

"If you have a better suggestion, I'm open to hear it," Hannah offered. When her expectant silence went unfilled, she claimed victory. "It's for the best. And, I might point out, his own good."

Still, Buffy remained somewhat unconvinced. "Look, I know lately he's been a real ..." She searched for an appropriate designation.

Hannah was only too happy to supply one. "Bastard?" she offered brightly.

Buffy was reluctant to concur, but obviously compliant to a certain degree. "Not exactly the word I'd pick," she replied hesitantly, "but for the sake of argument, I'll go with it. But this?" She threw Hannah a dubious glance.

Hannah said nothing, merely regarded Buffy with a raised eyebrow. Accepting defeat as gracefully as possible, Buffy threw up her hands. "Okay, okay, you win."

The two returned to the materials in front of them when Hannah cocked her head. "How about something like this?"

"Hmm ..." pondered Buffy. She began to lean forward for a closer look when, from the corner of her eye, she spotted movement outside the door. Her neck snapped sharply upright.

Glancing into the room, Giles seemed pleased to note its inhabitants and crossed the threshold with a smile of greeting. "Buffy, Hannah. Good afternoon."

Hannah declined to reply. She favored him with nothing more than a level, detached gaze. Not exactly a glare, it still managed to effectively convey an icy chill. Buffy did at least acknowledge his existence, but she too was distant.

"Hey Giles."

Giles turned toward Buffy, although his eyes remained locked on Hannah, as though he simply couldn't look away. He wore an expression of concern, but Hannah was immovable, and he finally focused on Buffy.

"I thought you were spending the day with the others?"

She shrugged dismissively. "Something more important came up."

Giles waited for further clarification. None was forthcoming.

"Ah," he eventually commented. "I see."

It was plain that he didn't 'see' at all. His gaze drifted back to Hannah but her attitude was no less aloof than before.

"Is it, erm ... Can- Can I help? With anything?"

Buffy shook her head. "Nope, pretty much got it covered."

Another unpleasant silence blanketed the room until the cell phone in Giles' pocket emitted its noisy demand for attention, effectively interrupting the non-conversation.

"Excuse me," he muttered with a hesitant smile that wasn't returned.

Slinking away, he retrieved the insistent device from his jacket and randomly punched a button. He brought the mobile to his ear, whereupon it jarringly continued the quest to be answered. Cursing under his breath, he scoured the possible options and tentatively depressed another button. He sighed with relief as the discordant jangle ceased.

"Rupert Giles speaking." He paused and smiled delightedly at the response he received. "Tara! Lovely to hear from you. Is everything going well?"

Sitting at the librarian's vacant desk, Tara cradled the handset of the rotary phone against her shoulder.

"Oh, it's ... you know." She sighed a little. "Could be worse. You?"

Giles glanced back in the direction of the conference room. "Everything here is quite ... dreadful, really," he admitted.

"Oh. Sorry," commiserated Tara.

"Not to worry," Giles assured with all seriousness. "I'm sure it'll regain its equilibrium to vaguely intolerable before long."

"Let's hope?" offered Tara uncertainly. "Uhm, actually, if you have a minute, I wanted to ask you something."

"Of course."

"Have you ever heard of ..." Tara briefly consulted the paper before her, "... the Belastung?"

"Belastung ..." pondered Giles, narrowing his eyes in thought. "Yes. Yes, I remember something about that." Seeming pleased to have something besides his most recent encounter on which to focus his mental energies, Giles increased his pace. "A demon, if memory serves. Particularly fond of decimating new colonies. Very charming." He threw open his office door and headed for the bookcase, eyes swiftly searching the volumes. "He was known for bringing about plague, famine, and other assorted flights of fancy."

Tara again examined the sheet in front of her, focusing on certain words that seemed to leap from the printed text: Hope Falls; The Belastung; disaster; crop failure; dead livestock.

"Sounds about right," she confirmed. "Do you know what happened to him?"

Finding the tome in question, Giles moved toward his desk, propping the cell phone under his chin as he attempted to flip through the pages.

"I believe he, erm ..." With a satisfied smile, he finally found the section he needed. "His last reported sighting—" The phone abruptly slipped, but he managed to catch it before it hit the floor. He settled it back under his chin and deposited the book on his desk. "His last reported sighting was in 1859. He's credited with turning the frontier town of Old Mountain View in California to ... t-to cannibalism during a particularly harsh winter."

Tara grimaced. "Ew. That's ... bad."

"And you're not even looking at the photographs," murmured a disgusted Giles.

"But after that?" prompted Tara.

Giles scanned the text. "No mention. The Belastung was quite prolific up to that point, so it was theorized he returned to his home dimension."

Tara peered more closely at the sheet of paper. It was a printout from the microfiche of a newspaper dated in 1963. The banner headline read: "Hope Falls Celebrates Its Birthday! A Look Back at 100 Years".

"Would it be possible to destroy him?" inquired Tara.

"Most everything can be destroyed, given sufficient effort," Giles replied.

"How much effort?" pressed Tara. "For him. I mean, could anyone do it?"

A frown of concern crossed Giles' forehead. "Tara, is something wrong?"

"Could they, Mr. Giles?" she persisted.

With a sigh, Giles supplied the information. "At that time, Belastung was extraordinarily powerful. He'd roamed the Earth for- for centuries, gaining power, destroying hundreds, if not thousands of villages." He thought for a moment. "For a spellcaster of any reasonable proficiency, I'd say the best they could hope to do would be entrapment."

More details seemed to leap from the article: according to legend; spirit healer; tricked the devils.

"What would that do to the demon, to Belastung?"

The furrow on Giles' brow deepened. "Provided the spellcaster were skilled enough, he or she could conceivably seal the demon away forever. Physically, at least."

Tara shifted her weight in her seat, sensing she was on the verge of a breakthrough. "And would he know?" she ventured. "What had happened, what was going on around him?"

Giles spoke with utmost certainty. "Oh yes. His consciousness would remain alert, although trapped."

Tara drew a sharp breath. "So I guess he would be angry."

"Quite exceptionally so, I would think," corroborated Giles. His expression became grave. "Tara, what's all this about?"

"I think I know what happened to Belastung, Mr. Giles."

The Watcher began to pace back and forth. "What have you—?"

"I'll answer everything later, I promise," vowed Tara. "But first ... you said anything could be destroyed? I need to know how."

Giles' anxiety promptly escalated. "I know we haven't entirely tested the boundaries of- of your power since your return, but Tara, to truly defeat a demon of Belastung's level, you would need a personal connection to the demon," he cautioned. "Something that binds the- the two of you together. A way to gain additional power over him above and beyond that of a regular witch."

"Don't worry." The tiny smile on Tara's lips was enigmatic. "I've already got that."

She gazed at the printout. Prominent upon the page was the grainy reproduction of a photograph, but despite the poor quality, it was easily recognizable. The caption beneath the picture read: "Although her name has been lost to time, according to the popular town legend, this woman is the spirit healer who tricked the devils during The Belastung, banishing them and saving the fledgling settlement that would one day become Hope Falls."

The replica was an exact duplicate of the tintype in the photograph album – a young girl in her mid-teens, dressed in buckskin with a rifle hefted over her shoulder. The tree next to which she had posed was also familiar to Tara's eyes. It was the ancient oak that grew in the front yard of her house. In red pen, Tara had circled something on the trunk. The image was fuzzy and somewhat indistinct, but upon concentrated focusing, appeared to be the outline of a face – a snarling face that glowered with malevolence upon the girl standing nearby.

"And I think she'd approve," added Tara. "So ... how do I destroy Belastung, Mr. Giles?"

She listened intently to the detailed instructions, careful not to miss so much as a single word being communicated to her. Consequently, she failed to notice the librarian hovering only a few feet away. The woman strained her ears in an attempt to catch the exchange of conversation, her expression growing increasingly baleful with every passing second.


Act Four

Lightning forked through the clouds as they sped across an overcast dusk sky. The wind had worked itself into a frenzy, whipping between the branches of the lofty oak with a shrill whine. At each jagged flash, the tree appeared more sinister. Its roots had been twisted by the passage of time, but the ancient and sturdy trunk had withstood nature's elements with amazing fortitude.

Tara stood at the base of the oak staring up at the topmost limbs, which quivered with something akin to barely restrained anger. She seemed pitifully small by comparison, like Jack in the presence of his enormous beanstalk. She straightened her shoulders.

"Okay, Tara," she whispered. "Here you are. It's just you versus the Big Bad Tree."

In her hands, she held the printout from the library, together with the album that contained the original photograph. The yard was relatively well illuminated by the porch lights and occasional burst of lightning, but she carried a heavy-duty flashlight nonetheless. Opening the album, she shone the torch upon the appropriate picture and compared it to the replica. It was a faithful reproduction, complete with the ugly countenance snarling from the depths of the tree trunk. Her eyes darted toward the oak, but there was nothing remarkable skulking within the bark. Moving backward, Tara positioned herself at the approximate spot where the photographer had probably been standing at the time the shot was taken.

Squinting into the darkness, she directed the strong beam toward the tree. From this distance, the trunk's appearance was most definitely gnarled and sprinkled with knotholes. With a little imagination, a variety of images might be created from its knobby surface, but certainly nothing that resembled a face. Tara frowned and studied the tintype once more.

"What are you?" she asked doubtfully. "Are you anything? Or do I just want you to be?"

Puffing a disappointed sigh, her eyes drifted toward the oak again. This time, what met her gaze caused her to let out a scream and take a defensive stumble backward. The contorted face was plainly visible and it regarded her with naked loathing. But as she blinked rapidly at the repugnant visage, it seemed to meld into nothingness.

Tara's breath came in short, sharp gasps. "Validation. That's good," she assured herself before adding quietly, "And so's my new heart attack."

WITCH.

The accusation was delivered with an almost tangible malignance. It was as though the mouth of hell had decided to exercise its vocal chords and assume residence in Tara's head. She winced painfully and staggered at the assault, as if she had been physically struck.

The ensuing assertions were no less malevolent.

NO ESCAPE. FOREVER. FAULT. YOUR FAULT. WITCH.

The violent onslaught brought Tara to her knees, and the denouncements only increased in volume and intensity.

PUNISH. TRAP HERE. TRAPPED TOGETHER. DEMON. WITCH. HATE.

Grinding her back teeth, Tara managed to spit out a reply. "Hey we've ... all got ... issues ..."

The defiant challenge was met with a shriek of uncontrollable rage. The wind appeared to echo the sentiment, wailing like an infuriated banshee. Battling the ferocious gusts, Tara struggled to her feet.

"You're mad ... I get it ..." she shouted with all the force she could muster. "But back off!"

The resulting effect was a ripple of energy that radiated from Tara's body, engulfing everything within its radius. The shrill screech vibrated for a brief moment and then all was silence. Fully regaining her equilibrium, Tara took stock of her surroundings, employing caution and a healthy dose of distrust. Her suspicions were not unfounded. Within seconds, a low chuckle could be heard emanating from the oak. It was a thoroughly unsavory sound, spiteful and venomous. Refocusing on the tree trunk, Tara visibly flinched at the malicious expression worn by the inhuman face staring back at her, and when it spoke, it was with a quality not of this world.

"Maclay witch."

"Belastung."

"Thus we are named."

Tara returned the unwavering gaze. "I'm here to destroy you. I thought you might like to know."

The creature chuckled in response. "You are unique among your line, Maclay witch," it told her. "For over a century, none escaped me. As I was entrapped, condemned to remain in this hell for all eternity, so too was your fate."

Tara crossed her arms. "If you're waiting for me to apologize, I think it'll be a little while."

"You are here now," it responded in casual fashion. "You will not leave again. This is sufficient."

"And that's all you want?" queried Tara, a tiny frown creasing her forehead. "Me to stay here?"

"Yes. You will remain," confirmed the Belastung. "Your men will see to it." The tone became almost gleeful in its anticipation. "I expect they will be cruel."

"So you're twisting them, is that it? Donny, my father ..."

If the Belastung had possessed shoulders, they undoubtedly would have been shrugged. "The will of most humans is pitifully weak. It does not take much. A whisper on the breeze, a thought in the ear." A self-satisfied grin materialized. "You would know, Maclay witch – you too have heeded my words."

From the dark perimeter, Tara could hear voices beginning to rise. Countless numbers of hushed whispers, virtually impossible to understand, but every so often, a snippet could be discerned:

Alone. Pathetic. Worthless. Unloved.

Jaw set with determination, Tara glared scathingly upon the Belastung's smug countenance. "That was a lifetime ago. I don't believe your lies anymore."

"No?" The reply was unmistakably patronizing.

Tara took a step forward. "No."

The Belastung was unimpressed. "You will again."

Slowly, Tara shook her head. "We're never going to find out."

Raising her arms, she readied herself for the spell she was about to cast, but the Belastung simply cackled with amusement. "You are unique, Maclay witch ... and stupid."

Sensing something amiss, Tara slowly began to look over her shoulder. She was greeted by what appeared to be the entire populace of Hope Falls. En masse, they closed in, moving as single entity with fiery torches held high. She allowed her hands to drop to her sides as her bravado evaporated.

"Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh," grimaced Buffy, wrinkling her nose.

The four remaining residents of the Scoobies' house had decided to spend the evening watching television. Resting her elbows on a pillow, Dawn occupied a space on the floor, lounging comfortably on her stomach. Xander was stretched out in his chair, while Willow had commandeered one-and-a-half couch cushions. On the screen, a very old, badly-preserved, black-and-white movie flickered across the screen.

At Buffy's muted exclamation, she commanded everyone's attention. She was bearing a large bowl containing a mound of something that was slightly brownish in color and thoroughly distasteful in appearance.

"'Uh-oh'?" echoed Willow.

Dawn rolled her eyes. "God, what did you do now?"

Buffy peered disconsolately into the bowl. "I think I sort of broke the popcorn."

"Buff, it's popcorn," Xander explained with magnified patience. "You put it in the microwave and hit 'Popcorn'. Orville couldn't have made it simpler."

"I dunno," returned Buffy dubiously, "but it's this sort of ..." She prodded the contents with a cautious finger, as though they might disintegrate at any second, "...papery browny stuff." She sniffed warily. The action was followed by another nose wrinkle. "This is not butter-flavored goodness."

Willow swung her legs to the floor. "Just throw it away. I'll try my luck with the old radiation box."

"That was our last bag," Buffy admitted ruefully.

The room filled with disappointment at movie snacking opportunities lost, but Xander wasn't about to let the matter end there. Bravely, he held out his hand.

"Well gimme what we got then. I, for one, am not tempting the gods of Movie Night by refusing to sacrifice some 'corn in their name."

With a expression of uncertainty that clearly communicated a 'don't say I didn't warn you' message, Buffy dutifully relinquished the bowl and reclaimed her allotted portion of the couch. She flopped down next to Willow just as Xander popped a fistful of kernels into his mouth.

"Ewww," the girls chorused.

Xander did his level best to chew without actually allowing the stuff to touch his tongue. "You're sayin' it," he mumbled from around a bulging mouthful, "but Iím livin' it."

Anxious to be distracted, Dawn refocused on the television set. "You know," she commented, "I almost sorta feel bad for these guys."

Running rampant, a horde of peasants, all torches and pitchforks, were storming a castle.

"I mean, what've they got?" asked Dawn of nobody in particular. "Straw huts and monsters, and that's about it."

"Plus a healthy dose of pyromania," added Xander, contemplating another fistful of what could only be considered "popcorn" in the most literal of senses.

"Probably not the best mix with the straw hut," Willow observed aloud.

Buffy pondered the possibilities. "I wonder if it really used to be like that. Peasants storming castles all the livelong day."

"Hey," declared Dawn, glancing over her shoulder with rounded eyes, "maybe there are peasants rising up, even as we speak!"

"C'mon," scoffed Xander. He delved deeper into the bowl with a 'what the hell' shrug. "It's the 21st century. Stuff like that doesn't happen any more."

The bolts of lightning were more prominent now and occurring with increasing frequency as thunder rumbled in the distance As the mob moved closer, every face could be clearly seen, limned by orange torchlight. There was no common denominator, save for the fact that each expression indicated a willingness to gleefully gut Tara for the price of a nickel. The horde was abuzz with muttered accusals, echoing those of the demon itself mere moments before.

Tara whirled back to the tree, only to find that the image had vanished once more. She opened her mouth as though to address the Belastung again, but a voice rang out from the shadows before she had the chance, and Donny made sure that nobody would miss a solitary pearl of his wisdom.

"Did you think we wouldn't figure it out?"

Tara blinked at her brother with surprise. "How did you—?"

Emerging from the gloom, Brooke took Donny's hand into her own. She grinned smugly in Tara's direction. "You really shouldn't leave your door unlocked." She paused to deliver a reproving 'tut' of her tongue. "Honestly, anyone could just walk on in."

The exchange held little fascination for Donny however, and he continued as though he hadn't been interrupted. "You was dead, Tara, yet here you are." His challenge was direct. "How'd you 'xplain that?"

Faltering, Tara nervously noted the droves of torch-wielding townspeople steadily pressing in and seemed to be working to formulate the least incendiary response possible.

The silence was enough of an answer for Donny however. "Know how I explain it?" He paused for dramatic effect. "Magic. Yeah, you were dead, all right. Dead as can be, rottin' in the ground. Then the darkest kinda evil done pulled you out an' set you back on this earth."

"That's not—!" Tara immediately refuted, but was then forced to admit, "A-Actually, that may be true. But it's not that simple!"

"Sounds all kinds'a simple to me," Donny informed her matter-of-factly.

By now, most members of the approaching crowd had begun to spit furious obscenities in Tara's direction. Their faces were near unrecognizable, and they didn't so much resemble human beings as they did a pack of savage beasts hungry for the kill. The atmosphere was openly antagonistic and Tara fought to stifle her mounting anxiety. An abrupt clap of overhead thunder served only to inflame the animosity and the mutterings grew even more sinister.

Eyes affixed upon the restless mass of bodies, Tara listened as her brother resumed his tirade. "You got the same curse momma had, an' her momma, an' her momma before that. You all got it. It's in your blood, you can't do help yourselves. It chases you down, and it will be in you every day for the rest of your life."

Pulling his hand from Brooke's grasp, Donny scrambled atop a small hillock and gestured for the throng to gather round. The majority complied instantly, ears straining to catch each upbraiding word, expressions rapt with attention. He smiled down upon them, his disciples.

"Thou shall not suffer a witch to live," he proclaimed.

Tara was horrified. "Donny, plea—"

Her entreaty was cut short by a weighty rock whizzing past her left ear. Taken off guard, Tara spun to face the perpetrator and only narrowly managed to dodge the path of another jagged stone. The third, however, made solid contact with her shinbone and she gave a tiny yelp of pain. Missiles of all shapes and sizes were now being hurled toward her at an alarming rate. Thrown off-balance, Tara started to buckle beneath the unremitting onslaught.

Tara had been driven to her knees when it began to happen. Subtle at first – a simple raising of the chin and set of the jaw. But then, as a rock hurtled toward her at lethal speed, her head snapped up and she stared at the projectile. Mere inches away from her temple, it froze, halted in the mid-flight. It didn't fall to the ground, instead dangling motionless as though suspended from an invisible thread.

Gracefully regaining her footing, Tara straightened to an upright position, the faintest shimmering silhouette of white outlining her body against the dark backdrop. Slowly, she pulled her arms close, fingers curling inward as though she were drawing upon a source of power buried deep within. Her eyes, now the color of pale aquamarines, seemed to verge for a moment on a silvery hue, but then sustained their light blue caste. They radiated a carefully restrained wrath.

"Let's not, okay?" she quietly warned.

As the engulfing nimbus grew brighter, the unruly crowd became immobilized, almost as though they had gazed upon the image of Medusa herself and been transformed into living statues. Only the eyes were afforded freedom of movement, darting frantically from side-to-side in their sockets, betraying bewilderment and the hint of panic.

Even Tara herself appeared somewhat stunned by the turn of events. She spared a quick glance at her hands, but wasted little time on the phenomenon. There was a far more important issue to be dealt with and her focus quickly returned to the oak.

"Killing me?" she accused, gesturing to the frozen mob behind her. "What happened to trapping me here forever?"

"A little too far, perhaps," Belastung grudgingly admitted as his visage rematerialized. The expression grew sullen. "You made me angry."

"Get used to it."

With Hope Falls' populace effectively out of commission and posing no threat of interference, Tara closed her eyes and bowed her head in concentration. Her lips moved in a silent chant.

Belastung seemed intrigued. "What do you do, Maclay witch?"

If it expected a response, it was sadly out of luck. Tara ignored the curious query and continued her cantillating. The Belastung pressed its face against the bark, twisting first left and then right in an attempt to hear the invocation. A forked flash of lightning snaked its way from the heavens to the earth, accompanied by a deafening clap of thunder. As if by design, the wind began to whip itself into a fury, seeming to amplify Tara's soft voice.

"...beastia di despero, beastia di vastatio, diutius ibidem..."

The Belastung chuckled with the same sort of unaffected yet amused ridicule typically reserved for yappy little dogs, convinced of their own worth in fending off intruders.

"Destroy me, Maclay witch?"

Tara paid the taunt no heed and remained steadfast in her chanting. Overhead, the storm clouds rolled across a violently churning sky that sparked with released energy.

"I shall savor breaking you like no other," the Belastung promised. "And make no mistake, broken you shall be."

Tara disregarded the ominous message, never missing a beat in the midst of her incantation.

"...lues di terra, lues di aetas, per meus mos ego evinco vos..."

The face of the Belastung twitched within its wooden cell. "There is no escape for you save death, and yet even in this you are defiant. You forget – I know you."

"...beastia di despero..."

"I have known you since before you were born," it growled. "Every secret you hide, even from yourself."

"...lues di aetas..."

"Every hope you dare not foster. Every fear still buried in your heart."

Tara's recital gathered strength, her voice becoming more insistent and more desperate with every uttered syllable.

"...diutius ibidem..."

A crooked fork of lightning briefly illuminated the image of the enraged Belastung. "Maclay witch, I am in everything you say. Everything you do."

"...lues di terra..."

"Yesterday."

"...lues di aetas..."

"Today."

"...per meus mos..."

"Tomorrow."

Tara's eyelids snapped open as the wind lifted her hair. Her fingers jerked and then involuntarily splayed apart. The enveloping white glow became blinding in its brilliance.

"...ego evinco vos get out of my life!"

It was as though Tara had called upon the very heavens themselves. An ear-shattering thunderbolt rocked the area and the ground quaked beneath the force. All the townspeople, Donny included, were terrified – or as terrified as could possibly be displayed when the only form of expression was restricted solely to movement of the eyes. Even the Belastung was visibly shaken.

"What is—?" it asked anxiously.

Tara's hair continued to whip about her shoulders. "Your time is done," she stated flatly. "You don't know me any more."

She closed her eyes again and took a deep breath. Trapped in a wave of panic, the Belastung began to search for a way out. Its face rapidly disappeared and then reappeared at varying locations around the trunk of the oak. With each new re-emergence, it thrashed frantically against the surface from within, straining to break free. The bark stretched like a rubber mask from the immense pressure, but held fast. Mouth gaped wide in mute horror, the Belastung was all too aware that the frenzied efforts were doomed to end in failure. There was no escape.

With the opening of Tara's eyes, the Belastung's vocal chords were restored. It bellowed in agony and outrage, just as a fork of lightning struck the topmost branch. The deadly shaft and its devastating trail of electrical fire journeyed swiftly downward, as though its path were predetermined. Tara raised a protective hand against the debris, but otherwise didn't flinch, not even when the primal howls of desperation began to issue from the oak's core.

As the anguished shrieks grew weaker, finally fading from existence, the storm took its leave of Hope Falls, carrying with it the thunder and the lightning and the violent wind. An aura of tranquility settled over the area and, one by one, the local inhabitants realized they were no longer bound by paralysis. They exchanged guarded looks of confusion and uncertainty. Many of them appeared to be on the brink of losing consciousness.

No longer sporting a glowing outline, Tara sagged and looked like she wanted little more than to crawl into bed and sleep for the next 72-hours or so. Even exhaustion couldn't dampen her spirits however, and she turned to the recuperating crowd with a broad smile. Her gaze immediately sought and found her brother, and she managed to muster the energy to stand straighter. "It's over now."

Donny regarded her with confusion, seeming not to understand.

"Belastung. The- The demon, in the tree?" clarified Tara. "It was his fault. Revenge. All these years he's been ... been poisoning you and daddy. Everyone. Making you think that we were dangerous, and evil, but—"

She took a step forward, her eyes brimming with expectations of a fresh start, a new connection. But then Donny backed away, and the hopeful expression died.

Scanning the faces of the townspeople, Tara found nothing but more of the same. Although not a one again attempted to lash out at her, either verbally or physically, it was obvious the yearning to do so remained in full force.

Her gaze returned to Donny. If at all possible, he exhibited more fear than anyone – and more hatred.

Tara didn't again try to reach out.

In stony silence, the men and women of Hope Falls began to file back to their homes. Tara made no attempt to stop them. Donny was the last to depart. Tara also allowed him to leave without protest. She stood alone in front of the old family dwelling and watched the flickering torchlights become absorbed into the night, as the tree continued to burn brightly in the background.

<ring-rin—>

Hello?

Hey.

Hey, you! I've been waiting for you to call! Are you...?

Tara's footsteps echoed as she made a final check of the house, walking from room to room. Each area had been practically stripped bare, save for some of the more bulky items of furniture. Nothing personal remained.

I'm back in Helena. In the hotel. Still no mints.

Aww, my poor mintless Tara. I'll make sure there's one lovingly placed on your pillow by the time you get home. And if you're very good, it'll even be Andes.

You spoil me.

Not nearly enough.

I can't wait to see it. And you.

This time tomorrow! So, was it...? How was it?

Tara hesitated for a moment outside the Quiet Room. Then she turned the handle, throwing the door open wide before walking away.

It was ... necessary.

Sorta vague on the opinion there, baby.

I'm, uhm, still sort of vague on it myself. It's a lot to digest. It's all been very ... intense.

Yeah, I kinda gathered that. A-About last night ...

That was you, huh? Thatís what I figured.

Well, technically it was you.

The good people of Hope Falls sort of ... got together to express themselves.

Tara entered the diner for the last time. The former atmosphere of fear and suspicion had, for the most part, dwindled to only fear. Behind the counter, Peggy took a step backward, obviously wanting to keep a safe distance between herself and the customer who was now coming through the door.

There were torches and everything. It was all very B-movie.

Huh. That answers that question. So were you burned at the stake? Cuz I hate that.

No. Oh, but they did try to stone me.

Fans of the classics. Grr. Stupid peasants. You're okay, though?

Just fine. What about you? I'm really sorry about the power suck.

Baby, you can suck me any time. Which, wow, not how I wanted that to sound.

But I didn't hurt you?

Tara walked down Main Street, a brown carrier bag for take-out labeled "P&S Diner" in her hand. Upon reaching the truck, she opened the cab and through the window, spied a small girl with blonde pigtails regarding her curiously. The bright blue eyes were unafraid and the little one wiggled her fingers in friendly greeting. The child didn't look too much different than Tara had herself a lifetime ago and with a smile, she returned the wave. The girl's expression registered sudden surprise as she was swept up into the arms of her mother. The woman cradled her daughter protectively, treating Tara to a hostile glare as she hurried away. Tara deposited her paper bag on the seat and climbed in after it.

Nope! Surprised, sure. Scared, you betcha. But I just got sort of ... limp and non-movey for a little bit. The gang was there, though. They took care of me. Mostly I was just going nuts out of my head worrying about you. There I am, floppin' around, demanding airlifts and that Buffy run really fast to go help you. "It's only 2000 miles! You call yourself a Slayer? You're no Slayer!" I calmed down pretty quick, though. I could just sort of ... of feel you were okay. A-And you are, right? Okay?

The bright sun lent a glimmer of gold to Tara's hair as she stood, two small flower arrangements in her arms, looking down with a sorrowful smile. The pair of marble headstones were side-by-side, almost touching. The name on one read, "Emma Leah Maclay." The other: "Donald Joseph Landers, Sr."

Yeah. I really am. There's a lot to take in, and there's still some stuff I'm not sure about. Resurrection stuff. I still have questions and everything, and some of them are sort of unpleasant, but it's like ... I think it's time I stopped worrying so much about why I'm back, and ... and finally just enjoy the fact that I am.

Tara ...

Maybe when I see you, we can talk about it?

I'd like that. I'd really, really like that.

Me too.

... So! Did you get me a souvenir?

After securing the boxes with a length of stout rope, Tara lifted the tailgate until she heard the satisfying click of closure. Moving to the front of the truck, she climbed in and took a few seconds to make sure she had everything she wanted. Next to her was the photograph album. Her fingers brushed across the dull leather and lingered for a moment.

I sort of got us a souvenir.

"Us" is one of my favorite words. Oh, but if you do happen to find one? I'd really like a t-shirt that says, "My girlfriend went back to her craphole home town to confront her past and get stoned, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

I think I saw one of those at the airport.

Hey, it's my lucky day. And with that yawn, I'm thinkin' it should be the end of yours. Get some sleep, missy. That's an order.

Yes ma'am.

I'll see you tomorrow. I can't wait to see you tomorrow. But I'm glad you did this.

So am I. But you know, Will?

Tara turned the key in the ignition. Through the back window of the truck, the house and charred ruins of an ancient oak gradually receded further and further into the distance as she drove down the gravel road.

I think it's time I came home.


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