The door to Willow's bedroom creaked as it opened and Tara winced at the sound, over-loud in the silent darkness of the house. She remained still for a moment, hesitating to move for fear of disturbing the slumber of the residents, but when there were no further signs of life, she stepped into the hall. The jogging pants she wore, being at least one size too big and likely borrowed from Xander, dangled over her feet and gave her the impression of shuffling along the ground, despite her attempts at stepping lightly and being quiet.
Yawning hugely, Tara made her way down the stairs and into the foyer. She looked around with some confusion, still disoriented by the unfamiliar house, but soon located the kitchen. The room was nearly pitch black, lit only by the soft blue glow of the microwave clock, which proclaimed the time to be 2:57AM. Fumbling in the dark, Tara managed to find the stove, and she clicked the switch to turn on its light. It was dull, but had the added bonus of not blinding sleepy eyes.
Tara reached for the nearest cabinet and pulled the door open, peering into its depths but finding only assorted boxes and packets of dried food. Closing that door and moving to the next revealed stacks of plates and bowls. Again Tara shut the cabinet. She turned to try the next, but a startled gasp ripped from her throat, and she took an involuntary step backward. Buffy stood not five feet from Tara, her arms crossed and a look of cold steel on her face. The Slayer's hair was mussed and she, too, was wearing baggy, comfortable clothing that was rumpled and left no question that she had come straight from bed.
As though her heart would leap from its usual home without her hand there to block its escape, Tara clutched at her chest and fought to regain control of her breathing. Buffy had no sympathy for the other woman's alarm and her gaze remained narrowed and suspicious.
"Need something?" inquired the Slayer with a casualness that was so obviously false it was almost insulting.
"I w-w—" began Tara, tripping over the words in her frazzled state. With a deep breath, she lowered her hand and tried again. "Just a glass. For water. I was thirsty."
Not allowing her eyes to drift away from the other blonde for even a moment, Buffy reached to open the cupboard by her head, retrieved a glass and handed it over.
Tara accepted it with a quiet "Thanks," which received no response. Carrying the glass to the sink, she filled it quickly with water and drained it within a few deep gulps before ducking it under the steady stream to fill it again. Buffy's scrutiny never ceased, and her subject was only too aware of the attention. "You know," Tara advised in a gentle voice without glancing at the Slayer, "if you ask, maybe we can get past it quicker."
"What are you?" was the immediate demand.
Twisting the knob by the faucet to shut off the water, Tara turned to face her accuser. "Just a girl, like you."
"I am not 'just a girl'," responded Buffy defensively, the underlying warning clear.
"You used to be." Tara's eyes dropped to the glass in her hand. "So did I," she added softly.
The Slayer remained unmoved. "I don't believe you're her."
"So were you, once."
Anger steadily rising, due in no small part to the fact that she could glean no reaction other than calm from the woman in front of her, Buffy took a step forward. "I'm not going to let you spit on her memory." Her tone was harsh and resolute. "I won't let you hurt them."
For a moment, there was no response. Then Tara's lips began to curl upward in smile that, were she in a more generous mood, Buffy might have described as affectionate. It did nothing to improve the Slayer's mood. "What?" she spat, almost challenging the blonde witch to speak her mind.
"You learned to live again," replied Tara, her smile growing wider. "Buffy, that's wonderful. I'm so glad."
The reply was startling, and for a moment Buffy seemed unsure of how to respond. But it was the briefest of stumbles, and the Slayer quickly regained her composure. Her lips pressed into a thin, hard line. "You don't fool me," she growled, her voice low and dangerous. "With your smile and your words and your ..." Almost abstractly, Buffy waved her hand as though to encompass all of Tara, although her tone was nothing but certain. "You can't be her."
Tilting her head slightly, Tara frowned at Buffy, like she was trying to unravel a complex puzzle. "Why are you so afraid?" she wondered aloud.
"Afraid? Of you?" The snort was almost mocking. "You wish. I've done the evil counterpart thing a couple times now. Believe me, you don't even rank."
Still frowning, Tara shook her head. "No, afraid that I'm telling the truth."
Buffy's mouth opened immediately to retort, but the action was reflex and no words emerged. Appearing to not notice, Tara sighed heavily and, clenching her eyes tight, pinched the bridge of her nose. She suddenly looked bone-weary, as though a strong gust of wind could knock her to the ground. "Maybe we can finish this tomorrow?" she implored. "I'm really tired."
"Sure," agreed Buffy with ease, stepping to one side and sweeping her arm out in a grand, welcoming gesture. "Coming back from the dead takes it outta you, I know." She didn't make even a token attempt at faked sincerity.
Choosing to simply let it go, Tara walked past Buffy, the full glass gripped firmly by both hands. She was nearly out of the room when the voice reached her.
"I'll be watching you." It wasn't a threat; it was a promise.
Tara glanced over her shoulder at the Slayer. "I know you will."
The bright morning sunlight streamed into the house as Giles pushed open the front door, a white pastry box resting neatly in the crook of his arm. "Hello?" he called out, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. There was no return greeting, and Giles' brow furrowed as he set the box down and pulled off his coat. Sounds of life soon drifted into the room and, reclaiming the package, he followed the noise into the dining room.
"Good morning, everyone," he announced pleasantly. "I've brought ... bagels?"
The reason for the slight falter in his arrival quickly became only too apparent. Tension levels in the dining room were steadily approaching unbearable, and already Xander was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. Everyone was situated around the large oak table that occupied the bulk of the room's available space; it gave the scenario an odd civility that seemed at odds with the open hostility that was only just being constrained by the tiniest of threads.
Willow sat at the head of the table farthest away from Giles and directly across from Buffy. For all intents and purposes, the Slayer appeared unaware of the furious glares directed at her from Willow and Dawn, given that the totality of her attentions were focused on Tara who was seated next to Dawn on Willow's right. Plates of food had been served to each person, but while Willow and Dawn had already emptied theirs, and Xander was clearly well on the way to eating more than his fair share as well, Buffy's helping remained untouched and ignored. A fact that had clearly not escaped Dawn's notice.
"Dawnie, it's okay," assured Tara, anxious to diffuse the situation. "Buffy doesn't have to eat them if she doesn't want them."
The teenager was less forgiving. "Yeah, well, she doesn't have to be such a bit—" Every eye turned to regard Dawn, cautioning her with their expressions. "...such a big dork about it," she hastily amended.
"I am not being a 'big dork', or anything else beginning with 'B'," Buffy protested.
"Apart from 'Buffy'," responded Xander with an overly large smile. "Can't really escape that one."
But Buffy was ignoring him. "I'm just not interested in hearing everyone fawning over 'Tara''s pancakes," she explained somewhat less than patiently.
Unobtrusively, Giles entered the room and slid into the vacant seat between Buffy and Xander. He set the bagels on the table and glanced over, meeting Buffy's concerned gaze.
Consequently, neither noticed Willow turning a deeper shade of red. "Wouldja quit that?" she exclaimed, her irritation pure and undeniable.
"Quit what?" an exasperated Buffy responded.
Xander leapt in, his attentions flitting nervously from Buffy to Willow and back again. "With the food wasting. Right Will? Cuz, y'know ... starving kids an' all. My mom always used to—"
"The way you say her name!" the redhead interrupted, as though Xander hadn't even spoken. "Like ... like you-you're doing ... this—" Willow wiggled two of her fingers on either side of her head in the universal symbol for quotation marks, "only you're not doing this—" Raising her hands, she repeated the gesture, "a-and ... it's irritating!"
"Sure it is," Xander readily agreed in a light and cheerful tone that was painfully forced. "It's been scientifically proven that 98% of the world's population finds that—" he echoed the motions, "irritating."
"Really?" Buffy shot back at Willow, paying no attention to Xander's attempts at levity. "Well we can always ask 'Tara' if she thinks it's irritating."
An accusing finger was thrust at the Slayer from across the table as Willow's mouth opened and closed of its own volition. She looked at the others for support and confirmation, as if to say, "See??"
Tara offered neither, however, as a flash of pain crossed her features. Pushing to her feet, she mumbled, "I'll ... I'll just clean up," and grabbed the nearest two plates before hurrying into the kitchen.
Tracking her every movement, Buffy even went so far as to pivot in her chair and lean over to keep an eye on the blonde witch, once again causing her to miss the look of complete disgust on Dawn's face.
"God, what is wrong with you?" Dawn all but yelled. Her chair was slung back with a loud scrape and the teenager snatched her backpack. "And I'm the immature one?" she boggled as she stomped out of the room without glancing back. "I am so filing this."
"Hey, how about those funnies this mornin', huh?" asked Xander almost immediately. "Oh, that Cathy and her quest for a swimsuit." He held his hands up in a lame parody of shock. "Ack!"
Willow was too busy scowling at Buffy from across the table to respond. "This can't go on," she stated flatly.
"You're right, it can't," agreed the Slayer with the same note of finality. "And I'll see that it doesn't."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Her tone softening, Buffy regarded the redhead compassionately. "Will, you're already way too caught up in this to see straight. Please, let's just—"
Buffy's pleas fell on deaf ears. "I can't see straight? I'm not the one acting like the ... the bitch queen of ... Bitchonia!"
Xander leaned forward, extending one hand to each of the women. "Okay gal pals, let's take a breather," he suggested firmly with no lingering traces of good humor, forced or otherwise.
But the Slayer's world had narrowed to include only herself and Willow. All else was strictly background noise. "If you'd stop and think for like two seconds, you'd know I'm right," she countered with almost reserved self-assurance.
"Oh, yeah, sure, of course," scoffed Willow bitterly, "Buffy the Great can't ever be wrong. You're such a—"
Xander shot to his feet and grabbed Willow's arm. "Okay, you an' me, outside, now," he ordered, tugging the redhead out of the room.
Finding herself alone with Giles, Buffy sighed wearily and ran a hand through her hair. She glanced at her Watcher, clearly unhappy with the recent turn of events.
Giles offered her the white box. "Bagel?"
Xander and Willow walked side-by-side at a determined pace set by the fuming redhead. The neighborhood street was mostly deserted and despite a setting that was otherwise picturesque, Willow was deeply engrossed in thoughts that were – judging by her expression – anything but pleasant and sunny.
With his attentions solely on Willow, Xander must have been trusting to blind luck that he wouldn't run into anything. His face betrayed deep concern as he watched his friend stomp next to him. In a tender voice he asked, "Don't suppose you wanna talk abou—"
"Who does she think she is?!" burst out the witch. "Oh, no, wait, we know who she thinks she is ... Boss of the whole gosh darned universe, that's who she thinks she is!"
"Okay, guess you do wanna talk about it," Xander smiled.
Her lip curled back in a sneer as her tone became nasal and mocking. "'You don't know what you're doing, Will. You're letting your emotions cloud you, Will.' But when it's someone she's got a yen to smooch? Then suddenly it's all about ... chains and souls and basement dwelling."
The answering shrug carried a defeatist, 'what can you do?' air. "It's the Slayer Reflex. We've all fallen victim to its obsessively protective charms at one point or another."
"I wanna keep Tara chained in the basement too!" protested Willow. A small frown crinkled her forehead. "And that didn't at all come out like I meant."
"Filing away that rather interesting visual for later, I know what you mean," the carpenter commiserated, although he quickly became stern. "But I think Buffy has a point. We still don't know for sure that Tara's come back, and if she has – why? How? The resurrection mojo's bad stuff, Will, we know that firsthand."
Choosing not to respond, Willow continued her relentless pounding of the pavement. "She just can't get it through her thick little blonde skull that maybe, just maybe, we can get a happy ending now and then too." She raised her hands, as though to defend against an imagined verbal assault. "But god forbid it happen to somebody not her."
Disapproval appeared in Xander's expression for the first time. "That's not fair," he countered. "Nobody wants you to have a happy ending more than us, and that includes Buffy."
"Buffy," the redhead spat, viciously kicking at a rock in her path. "With her big threats and her big martyr complex and her, 'It's for your own good, Will.' I'll show her my own good!"
"You know you stopped makin' sense about five minutes ago, right?"
Like a balloon, Willow suddenly deflated and her shoulders slumped. "I just want her to be happy for me," she explained, her voice thick. "For us. I know Tara's dea— ... I know it really hurt her too. So why can't she just be happy? Why does she have to be so ... Buffy about it?"
Xander's expression softened immediately and appeared to want nothing more than to wrap the witch in a huge hug that would make everything right with the world. "She does want you to be happy. Safe-happy. That's all any of us want," he assured her with a sad smile. "We just need to all sit down and talk about stuff, all rational-like without the shouting and the nasty, muscle-cramping tension." As he spoke, the carpenter became more confident. "We're best friends, we'll get through this. If you two can talk to each other as well as you've been talking to me, then—"
For the first time, Willow turned to regard the man next to her. She blinked in surprise. "Xander, you're still here?" Stuck in mid-speech, Xander's mouth dangled open, but the redhead was too busy taking in her surroundings to notice. "Whoa, total space out," she marveled with a shake of her head. "Look, I'm gonna get back, I don't wanna leave Tara alone too long with you-know-who. Especially not when weapons are in easy reach. You're good, right?"
Not really waiting for an answer, Willow turned and began to jog away, leaving Xander to call after her. "Oh, sure, no problem. I'll just head to Banan's, I got some work waitin' for me. So that's where I'll be. If you, y'know ... need me."
But Willow was already out of earshot, leaving Xander standing alone on the quiet sidewalk. With a sigh, he continued walking away.
Inside "The Bazaar," Xander was putting the finishing touches to his latest project for Henry Banan – a series of oval shelves nestling within a tall cabinet crafted from polished Asian Rosewood. The appearance of the store had improved significantly thanks to the carpenter's skill with his tools of the trade. It was now stocked with a multitude of intriguing imported objects d'art and assorted fascinating knick-knacks, all tastefully arranged and displayed to their best advantage. The wide bow-fronted window currently exhibited an impressive collection of unusual Egyptian curios: an amulet of lapis lazuli engraved with a snake devouring its own tail; a large communal bowl carved from haematite bearing a circlet of ibis heads around its rim; a green jasper scarab beetle; a bronze statuette of Ptah; and a dazzling variety of ankhs fashioned from copper and silver, some encrusted with tiny splinters of cornelian or onyx. No sham effigies of King Tut's sarcophagus or busts of Nefertiti found their way into The Bazaar's elite inventory.
The interior of Banan's emporium might have seemed over-crowded were it not for the cunning positioning of the cabinets, each one designed to hold specific treasures and reflect the culture of the ethnicity represented. Fierce dragons of jade crouched ready to pounce from their bamboo shelves, while milky-white elephants of shola pith could almost be heard to trump from within their neem tree homes.
In front of the Rosewood cabinet, Xander tilted his head and then nodded with satisfaction as the bubble in his spirit level found its perfect center on each of the shelves. His complaining voice, however, held no such tone of that satisfaction.
"I just feel so torn, y'know? On the one hand, I'm totally with Buffy. Somethin's not kosher about this."
The carpenter returned the level to his toolbox and began to vigorously polish the satiny wood with a soft cloth. "An' if it's not right," he continued, "I don't see this endin' in anything but pain and misery. And that's best-case scenario."
Disgruntled and muttering to himself as though he were engaged in some inner argument, Xander stuffed the duster into his toolbox and snapped the lid shut. He grabbed it by the handle and carried it over to the seemingly uninhabited marble-topped counter.
"But then," he stated, voice loud and audible once more, "you start talkin' to Tara, and ... god, it's like nothing's changed. Well, you know, apart from the obvious, but ..."
From behind the counter where he had been docketing a new shipment of wares, Banan suddenly appeared. His mode of dress was as sophisticated as ever, pale yellow silk shirt tucked into a pair of deep brown trousers whose creases were knife-sharp. Puffing a little, he hoisted a rather large cardboard box onto the counter while his darkly intelligent eyes regarded Xander with puzzlement.
"And what is that 'obvious' again?" queried the owner of The Bazaar.
The carpenter blinked. "Uhh ... that Tara ... left. Two years ago, she left Willow. All of us. She didn't really have a choice, but ... Anyway, now she's back, but she won't really tell us anything about it. It's all very suspicious." He paused and pointed to the box. "This the stuff?"
"Yes," Banan confirmed as Xander took the container to the newly installed shelves in the Rosewood cabinet. The shopkeeper gazed thoughtfully at the carpenter's retreating back. "So," he added, "she has secrets. Secrets are sometimes necessary, you know."
"Oh sure," Xander readily agreed. "Take my secret stash of Twinkies and other fine Hostess snack foods. But for the most part, secrets kept between friends? Pretty much bad news."
The carpenter set the container down on the floor and began sorting through its contents. They were mostly unique little oddities and various other curiosities that fell into no particular cultural category. With a keen eye, Xander leisurely placed them on the oval shelves made especially to hold these diverse pieces.
"What about your other friend, Willow," said Banan in his refined tone which bore just a trace of some unidentifiable accent. "What does she think?"
The carpenter let out a mighty sigh. "God, Will's been up and down like a yo-yo. Believe me when I say that for me to even notice is a huge comment on her emotional state. She seems to be levelin' off a bit now, but totally settling into 'Protect Tara' mode ... which leads to lots of sparky joyous fun with the Buffster. And I'd like to Biggie Size my sarcasm."
The Bazaar's owner pushed the point. "But does she seem happy?"
Xander contemplated the question for a moment as a small frown creased his forehead. "Well mostly at the moment she seems pissy, but ... yeah. She's got a sort of peace that I haven't seen her have in ... a really long time. Longer than I'd like."
Banan's tiny smile was inscrutable. "She must have loved this Tara very much."
The carpenter's eye grew very wide. "Oh yeah. It was your typical ill-fated, opera-type, tragic romance." He paused for a moment and considered his statement. "We've had a few of those, actually," he added as an afterthought. "They never end well."
Banan's smile widened a tad. "Maybe it's time one did. If your friend is happy, isn't that the most important thing?"
Xander treated the storekeeper to something of a skeptical glance. "Unfortunately in our world, things are kinda not that simple."
Banan shrugged his shoulders. "It seems to me that you, for the most part, are understandably cautious and concerned for your friend, but that the majority of the conflict comes from Buffy and Willow. Maybe you should just step back and let them resolve it for themselves?"
The carpenter laughed bitterly. "Might not have much of a choice on that one. I might as well have been reading the heating instructions on a package of Pop Tarts for all the listening they did this morning."
He reached into the cardboard box and retrieved an item wrapped carefully in tissue paper. "I want the power..." he began, gazing into empty space as he absent-mindedly unraveled the tissue from a clear quartz crystal alicorn. The tip of the alicorn began to pulsate with a sapphire glow – a subdued blush that flowed swiftly around the fluted spiral before spreading out to cover his entire hand. Xander sighed in his reverie and placed the alicorn, its crystal now a dark blue, onto the shelf, before continuing. "The power to, y'know ... Really make 'em sit down and talk to each other."
Banan, delving back behind the marble counter to retrieve another box of assorted trinkets, offered what he could by way of comfort. "With your help, I'm certain they will. But sometimes these things must get worse before they can get better."
Xander ran his fingers restlessly through his hair. "Yeah, but we sorta tend to raise the bar on 'worse', and I'm really not keen on going there any time soon..."
The carpenter's voice trailed away as he became lost in private contemplation. Almost without thinking – as though on automatic pilot – he continued to unpack the boxed items and position them on the Rosewood shelves.
Retreating into the living room, like it had somehow transformed into her private sanctuary, Dawn did her best to block out the angry sounds behind her. Both Willow and Buffy's voices were easy to discern, though exactly what they were shouting at each other became lost in the noisy chaos. Distress was etched into every line of her face, but she brightened considerably upon spying Xander slouched in his chair in front of the television. Dawn tossed herself onto the nearby couch. "Fifteen minutes straight now," she moaned. "I swear they haven't stopped to even take a breath." The single laugh was completely devoid of humor. "It's like Mom and Dad, The Reunion Special."
Xander grunted, his eyes riveted to the TV screen. "Yeah. Sucks."
As though he had just voiced his complete and unerring agreement rather than two non-committal syllables, Dawn enthusiastically responded, "It totally does!" Wide-eyed, she watched the carpenter expectantly, puzzlement appearing when he displayed no further reaction. "Maybe you should ... go in? Help separate 'em before we lose that side of the house?" she prompted.
"What d'you expect me to do?" he replied in a bored tone, not bothering to glance her way.
The question seemed to take Dawn by surprise for a moment and she was unsure how to answer. "I dunno, that ... that thing you do."
He waved his hand at the television. "I'm doin' a thing."
"Yeah, no," the teenager replied with a furrowed brow. "I mean that you thing do where you make them stop fighting. I don't think ..." She studied the program closely. "...'CSI' is gonna make them stop fighting." After considering it for a few seconds, she added, "At least not the crappy David Caruso one."
Unmotivated, Xander simply commented, "I don't think much of anything's gonna get 'em to stop fighting." Seeming to believe that the conversation was now at an end, he shifted into a more comfortable position in his chair and said no more.
Dawn obviously felt otherwise. "You don't mean that, right? I mean, they can't keep fighting forever, right?"
"Oh, no," he agreed, and Dawn visibly relaxed. "They'll probably kill each other before too long."
"Which at least means we'll get some peace and quiet around here," added the carpenter mostly to himself.
Dawn's eyes nearly popped out of her head. "Oh my god! Has everyone gone insane?"
"All these interruptions are definitely bookin' me a one-way ticket on the Crazy Train."
Holding her hands rigid in front of her, the teenager seemed to want desperately to do something physically, but couldn't quite figure out what. Instead, she settled for gaping at Xander. "I can't believe you're talking like this!"
Letting out an exaggerated, put-upon sigh, Xander rolled his head toward Dawn. "Look, I tried to help out this morning. They ignored me." He shrugged. "What else am I supposed to do?"
"I dunno, maybe try again?"
Clearly unimpressed by her suggestion, he returned to the television. "Not much in the mood for runnin' headlong into brick walls."
Uncomprehending, Dawn stared at Xander's profile. "But they need you!" she insisted.
The sound of feet pounding up the stairs cut off any possible reply. It was soon followed by the faint slam of a door from the second storey, and then the much louder slam of the front door. The silence that descended seemed oppressive and unnatural in the wake of the seemingly endless arguing.
Xander glanced up at the ceiling. "Think the fight ended all on its own," he observed. Sounding genuinely surprised, he pointed out, "And hey, without violence! Go fig."
Dawn was not sharing in the wonder and the carpenter sighed again. "I'll try again tomorrow, okay?" he attempted to placate, but the teenager was having none of it. She eyed him suspiciously, and Xander leaned his head further back into the soft cushion of his chair. "Look, I'm sorry." The apology seemed strained, but heartfelt. "I had a long day, and the constant tension has me on edge. I'll talk to them tomorrow."
She had started to relax, but hearing this caused Dawn to sit upright again and glare, just a little. Xander threw his hands into the air in defeat. "Fine! I'll go up tonight and talk to whoever stuck around."
Finally Dawn had the answer she wanted, and a sunny smile spread across her face as she leapt to her feet. "Yay! You're the best. You'll make it better, I know you can do it." Bouncing over, Dawn kissed Xander's cheek with a loud smack, then hurried upstairs, presumably to give Xander plenty of time to work his magic.
But there would be no magic done by Xander that night. Alone once again, he rolled his eye at Dawn's antics and settled back into a comfortable position, clearly having no intention of moving any time soon and caring little for what was going on around him.