As was fast becoming the norm, Giles' office was littered with books. Some had been left open at specific passages, while others had obviously been tossed aside, and yet more displayed small pieces of paper protruding from the top to mark certain pages. Sitting at his desk, it was clear that the Watcher had been in that position for some time. His tie was loosened around his neck and the cuffs of his shirt were unbuttoned and rolled up. His forehead rested on his hand as he avidly read the volume before him and he occasionally ran his fingers through his hair which, judging from its disheveled appearance, he had been doing for most of the evening. Across from him sat Buffy, her feet propped up in the chair next to her. Radiating weariness, she nonetheless poured over the book in her lap with a grim determination.

Three mugs assumed center stage on the edge of the desk. Buffy's was partly drained and another, which had apparently once contained tea but was now empty, had been pushed to one side. Giles reached for the third, filled with black coffee. He lifted it to his lips and took a sip, grimacing almost immediately.

"Good lord that's foul," he shuddered.

Continuing to rapidly skim the text in front of her, Buffy didn't look up. "I told you to sweeten it first."

"No no," protested the Watcher. "Can't have that. It's only the dreadful bitterness that keeps me going."

"Wuss," Buffy smirked, reaching for her own mug and quickly draining it.

Raising his eyes, Giles regarded Buffy with concern. Fatigue was apparent in her face. His gaze returned to the volume on his desk but only for a moment before he looked up again and opened his mouth.

"Don't say it," warned Buffy.

"I know you don't want to hear this ..." began the Watcher.

"Then don't say it."

Giles refused to be deterred. "... but I don't think we're going to find the answer tonight."

"You said it," she accused. "I told you not to and you said it anyway. Why do you never listen to me?"

The Watcher sighed heavily. "Buffy ..."

With an angry snap, the blonde closed her book. "Answers, Giles. You promised me we'd find them."

Giles nodded and offered a small smile by way of consolation. "And we will, but these things take time to—"

"Time?" charged the Slayer. "How much time? Time enough for my little sister to worship the ground she walks on? Time for Willow to start falling in love all over again? Oh, hey, look at that – already happening! Time's out of stock and on backorder, Giles! We need this taken care of now. Not in a few days, not next week – now."

The Watcher's fingers traveled once more through his tousled hair. Studying the blonde for a moment, he appeared to consider arguing the point but instead, rubbed at his forehead and relented.

"All right," he conceded with a sigh. "Let's go over the possibilities."

Grabbing her legal pad, Buffy poised a pencil over the sheet of scrawl. "Shape shifter."

"Unlikely," admitted the Watcher. "Shape shifters can only maintain their borrowed identity for relatively short periods of time. Between Willow, Dawn and yourself, that time period has been far exceeded without the creature reverting to its true form."

With heavy-handed strokes, the blonde scrubbed out "Shape Shifter" and moved to the next line. "Glamour?" She looked at Giles expectantly.

The Watcher paused for a moment, head tilted to one side. "I considered this for a time; a glamour or- or a more potent disguise spell. However the more I think on it, the less I believe this to be the case."

"I'm about to ask why," stated Buffy in a weary voice. "Please note that I'm operating on about five functioning brain cells, and that was the count before I drank my weight in coffee. I'd appreciate an explanation that's largely monosyllabic."

"Simply put," said Giles with what he hoped would be a tone of reassurance, "a glamour is a physical change only. Making a table lamp look like a- a jet engine, or a head of lettuce. There's no way to account for how convincing the charade has been, not only in appearance, but mannerisms and details. She's demonstrated far too intimate a knowledge of past situations and events to be someone wearing a glamour. Besides anything else, Willow would know almost instantly, and I find it difficult to believe she would react as she has towards an obvious imposter."

Far from happy, the blonde also scratched through "Glamour" before hovering her pencil over the next item on the list. "Alternate reality?"

"Strange though it sounds, this is actually the best possibility we have thus far. Save for the fact that this Tara appears to have died as well." Giles shook his head and regarded Buffy, an apology evident in his features. "I think I'd rather try to deal with just a resurrection rather than a resurrection and a cross-dimensional situation. It seems to unnecessarily complicate an already extremely complex scenario."

"Well that's all we've got," snapped the Slayer, throwing the pad on the desk angrily. "Almost ten hours we've been at this, we've only got three options and you just ripped through all of them."

"Well there is one other ..." Giles regarded Buffy expectantly, seeming to wait for her to pick up on his cue. She had no response for him, however, and simply focused a pointedly inquiring gaze. After a moment's pause, he added, "This really is Tara."

Buffy's mouth set in a firm line and she vehemently shook her head. "No." The rejection was unconditional and final.

"It is possible," the Watcher prompted gently.

The reply he received was absolute. "It's not her."

Giles treated Buffy to a bewildered stare. "I don't understand your stubborn, almost belligerent insistence against this option."

The Slayer shrugged, her response clipped. "It's just not, okay?"

"But Buffy," Giles persisted, "if we eliminate the impossible—"

"It can't be her!"

Taken aback at the violent outburst, the Watcher fell silent.

The blonde swung her feet from the chair and began to pace, her step measured and driven. She clasped her hands behind her back as she walked, eyes traveling from the floor in front of her to Giles and then back again. "It's my fault," she began. "All of it. I should've stopped Warren long before it got to that point. When he stole that diamond. When he killed his girlfriend. But I didn't. I just couldn't get my act together. And because of it ... Warren killed Tara. More than that, he killed Tara while trying to kill me." She snorted a tight, humorless laugh. "Makes it my fault, pretty much every way you look at it, huh?"

She stopped pacing and stood before Giles' desk, her arms crossed. "Tara died because of me, Giles. Because of me. There aren't any ‘do-over's for that. And that's how I know it's not her. Because for a mistake that big, I don't get second chances."

Arms resting on his desk, Giles absorbed his Slayer's testament, eyes never leaving Buffy's face. Then, uncertain of what to say, he glanced down.

Slowly, Buffy resumed her former position on the chair. "So," she said pointedly, "what else you got?"

"Uhm ..." stammered the Watcher as he flipped through random pages of the volume before him. "I'm about out of drastic alternatives. I believe our next course of action is going to be to explore the options of necromancy in some form."

"Is any of that stuff even possible?" frowned Buffy. "You told me Willow said she tried that right after but got the big ‘no way'?"

"True," confessed Giles, attention still focused on the open page. "Osiris prevented her from performing a resurrection in his name. However he is but one god in a multiverse practically overflowing with them. Although I'm thinking more along the lines of a- a shade of some sort – a shadow of our Tara, if you will. A creature moulded from the residual memories and- and impressions of a once living individual."

"Sounds nasty," Buffy admitted.

Giles dragged his gaze from the book and confronted the Slayer face-to-face. "Yes, well, they're rarely conjured for altruistic reasons. But it's only one possibility. The necromantic arts are- are forbidden by all but the most ... unscrupulous of spellcasters, and the information is notoriously difficult to acquire."

"And yet," mused the blonde, "I find myself particularly motivated. Though I'm guessing it's gonna take more than logging onto ‘evil-r-us.com' and browsing their extensive online library?"

A modicum of confidence returned to the Watcher's voice. "Considerably. I'll place a phone call to the Covens. They themselves don't practice, but have an impressive store of information on all branches of magicks. At the very least, they can perhaps point us in the right direction."

"Sounds good," the Slayer agreed. She sat up straight in her chair. "I wanna know fast what this thing is, Giles. For all of our sakes."

Giles nodded and gave a fleeting smile. "Of course." He glanced quickly at the clock, noting the time – 5:00AM. "Oh," he remarked, his smile broadening as his eyes focused once more on the blonde. "Happy birthday, Buffy."

All was darkness. Impenetrable and dense – complete and inviolable. Nonetheless, voices could be heard penetrating the void. The words were easily understood, but lacked distinguishing details and echoed as though emanating from within some hollow chamber.

"She'll kill me. If I do this, Buffy will kill me."

There was a slight pause, and almost a sense of the speaker wearing a smirk. "If you do this, will you care?"

With a wrenching gasp, Tara sat bolt upright in bed, apparently jolted abruptly from an exceedingly unpleasant dream. Small beads of sweat glistened on her forehead and her pillow was damp. Disoriented, she looked around the room in confusion and alarm. Slowly, her wits began to return. Clenching her eyes tightly shut for a moment, she opened them again. Obviously in much distress and looking more than a little physically ill, Tara swept handfuls of hair away from her flushed face and shivered.

Drawing her knees to her chin, she rocked back and forth. "This can't go on."

"Second Chances"

Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prosed by: Novareinna
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 14 September 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

"Oo!" cried an excited and enthused Willow. "Over here!"

Having already searched diligently through most of the clothing stores housed within the multi-level mall, the redhead was delighted to have finally found what she considered to be the ideal outlet. Tugging on Tara's arm, she steered her toward a rather small shop, its front window adorned with fashions that, while not overtly trendy, were interestingly unique.

"It's just a party, Will," the blonde protested. "I'm okay with just a pair of jeans and a top. We don't have to go looking everywhere."

Choosing to ignore the voiced objection, Willow almost skipped as she led Tara inside and made her way toward the closest rack, beginning to rummage happily through its display. "It's not just a party," the redhead insisted. "It's your first party since you've been back. And- And everyone will be together in a merry, celebratory manner. And while I admit that my feelings toward Buffy haven't been particularly festive as of late, it is her birthday, gosh darnit, and we're gonna party like it's ... 1999. Or some other similar yet more modern colloquialism."

Exhibiting a huge grin, the redhead looked up at Tara, obviously expecting some show of amusement at her Willowness, but the blonde was thoughtful and withdrawn, causing Willow's expression to transform into one of worry.

"O-Or if your heart's just totally set," she quickly amended, "jeans are keen. Bordering on nifty, even. 3.5 billion Levi's can't be wrong."

Tara shook her head and refocused. "Sorry," she apologized. "I was ... This is fine."

Willow lightly laid a hand on the blonde's arm. "You sure you're okay? You've been sort of ... I dunno, spacey?"

"Just tired," Tara assured. "I didn't sleep too well."

Willow's eyebrow crept upward. "Nightmares?" The blonde shrugged. It was a noncommittal gesture. Involuntarily, Willow's fingers delivered a gentle squeeze of comfort. "Is it because ... Because of ..." She shuffled nervously before continuing. "You know, how you were ... and ... and now you're not ..."

"Because I was dead?" asked Tara, her tone direct.

The redhead visibly winced at the use of the "d" word, but managed a quick nod.

Tara chuckled softly, but it was without true mirth. "Sort of. But it's okay. I'm kinda used to them."

Almost absent-mindedly, Willow moved to another rack and began to sort through the clothing in a distracted manner. "So you were back for a while then? Before this week, I mean."

Uncomfortable with the question, Tara's eyes darted around the small shop. It was obvious that the blonde really didn't want to pursue this train of conversation, but felt unable to back out in a graceful fashion.

"Yeah. I, uhm ..." she faltered uncertainly. "I had a lot to ... you know, sort of learn."

"About this evil thing?" asked Willow in the most casual manner possible as she continued to push hangers around abstractly.

Tara nodded tensely. "...Yeah."

Allowing her hand to drop, Willow turned to the blonde, revealing an expression of openness and complete understanding. "You know you can tell me, right?" she confirmed. "Anything. It doesn't matter what. Nothing changes. I still lo—"

"I know," Tara hurriedly interrupted.

Willow nodded with satisfaction. "Well okay then." She waggled her finger admonishingly. "And don't you forget it, missy."

A small smile invaded Tara's lips, but it was merely a token gesture and her heart wasn't really in it. Nonetheless, it was sufficient for the redhead and she returned her attention to the rack, ransacking the clothes with renewed vigor.

"So I was thinking," mused a hopeful Willow, "tomorrow's Saturday, we can maybe catch a movie or something? Or rent a DVD? Not that you really missed much while you were gone, but hey, can't hurt to play catch-up. I have my training with Giles at 10:30, but we could get together after, say noonish?"

Folding her arms, the blonde frowned. "Training? What kind of training?"

"Magick training," Willow responded, moving further into the store, Tara following close behind. "You know, get the ol' magick muscles in shape. Heh, got a liiiiittle too much voom in me sometimes." She turned back to the other woman and leaned close, conspiratorially. "Word of advice? If someone comes up and asks you to just punch a hole in, like, one of the world's oldest, most potent and complex spells? Consider sayin' ‘no'. And not just because'a the guaranteed headache."

Willow turned back to her examination of the clothing as Tara watched closely. "You're pretty powerful now, huh? I-I mean, you were powerful before, but now, it's ..." Tara narrowed her eyes and directed a concentrated gaze upon the redhead. "Wow, it's just ... it's everywhere."

"Hence the training," chuckled Willow, suddenly spinning toward the blonde with evident excitement. "Oh! You haven't seen my Sanctum! You'd love it, it's all ... earthy and magicky and ..." Her tone grew soft. "It reminds me a lot of you. I sort of created it how I think you would've ..." She suddenly stopped and abruptly changed course. "But now you're here! So you can give me the thumbs up, or go all ‘Trading Spaces'."

"Where you do all your magick and stuff, huh?" Tara queried. Willow nodded positively and smiled. "I'd love to see it," she confirmed.

Willow's eyes glowed and then widened as the spied what she considered to be the perfect outfit. Pulling it from the rack, she held it out toward Tara. It was an enticing but very stylish dress of midnight blue satin-backed crepe. Cut on the bias, it draped beautifully and sported a low-cut scooped neckline complete with shoestring straps.

"How ‘bout this?" suggested the redhead as she considered the superimposed image carefully. "Mm. Nice."

Tara surveyed it critically and, much to Willow's disappointment, appeared to reach a negative conclusion. The blonde subconsciously fingered the area on her chest where the mark lay concealed underneath her shirt.

She shook her head and smiled apologetically. "Not really my style."

Juggling an armful of textbooks and struggling valiantly to keep the heavy backpack situated on her shoulder, Dawn walked through the halls of Trillium High. Upon spotting Grip leaning casually against a row of lockers, the teenager's step faltered. He was talking and laughing with a group of friends and Dawn's eyes widened in abject fear that he might notice her. Quickly turning on her heel, she began to hurry away in the opposite direction, but had only gone a few yards before she brought herself up short and began to mutter.

"This is so stupid," she reprimanded under her breath. "Why can't I just ask him? I had a really nice time and he said he had a really nice time so why can't we both just have another really nice time? Why is this so scary?" She hugged the books tighter to her chest. "Oh, yeah, because every other time I've liked a guy, I've either nearly been turned into a vampire or run over by a train. Good reasons."

Shaking her head, she took another step forward and then stopped again.

"No, wait," she told herself sternly. "Bad reasons. Logical, true, but bad. Neither of those are gonna happen this time. I've seen Grip in sunlight and he didn't dust, and I made him take his jacket off at the 14th hole and I felt the same ... So this is clearly very different."

She shifted her load of books to the other arm and took a deep breath. "Okay, what would Buffy do?" The teenager pondered the self-imposed question for a moment and then shrugged. "Buffy would obsess over him until they slept together, then when he's evil, she'd kill him."

She nibbled nervously at her bottom lip.

"Okay, what would Xander do?" She chewed over this query for another moment before deciding. "Propose, break his heart and leave him at the altar, but still want to date."

Exasperated, the teenager blew out a breath of air.

"Okay, what would Willow do?" Yet another moment of contemplation provided no satisfactory answer and Dawn groaned. "I so need new role models." She inhaled deeply and steeled herself. "Okay, I can do this. Just turn around and—"

"Dawn, hey," greeted Grip from behind.

Startled, the teenager jumped and emitted a strangled squeak. Turning, she saw Grip standing before her with a mischievous grin.

"Hey!" spluttered a jittery Dawn.

"Haven't seen you around lately," Grip admitted, the grin plastered in place. "I thought maybe at first you were avoiding me, but then I remembered my totally awesome performance against the windmill obstacle and decided that there was absolutely no way you could resist."

Dawn laughed. The sound was overly high-pitched and totally skittish but Grip seemed unphased.

"No, not avoiding!" the teenager swiftly assured, then reconsidered. "Well, actually, yes, avoiding, but for bad reasons. Uh, I mean, I've been wanting to—"

The sudden ringing of the bell heralding the beginning of the next class startled Dawn again. The halls started to empty as kids surged toward classrooms and Dawn looked at Grip with more than a trace of panic crossing her features, as though afraid he would shortly be leaving her presence and yet another window would slam shut. On the other hand, Grip gave no indication that he was going anywhere in a hurry.

"Take your time," he told her as he leaned casually against the nearby locker. "I got Stevenson for Physics – believe me, I'm in no rush to initiate that pain."

Relaxing somewhat, Dawn smiled with relief.

"I've been wondering," she began hesitantly, "if you're not busy, if you'd maybe want to ... to do something. Tonight." Then, as though it were an afterthought, she added, "With me."

"Hmm, I dunno," mused Grip, scratching his head as though faced with an unsolvable dilemma. "Spend time with a beautiful girl ..." Dawn blushed fiercely at this remark "... or eat popcorn while my Mom catches up on her weekly soaps. Tough choice, but I gotta go with the less emasculating option." The smile he gave Dawn was reflected in his eyes. "You wanna catch a movie or something?"

Trapped somewhere between executing a joyous jig of victory and melting into a puddle of gooey delight, Dawn missed the suggestion for a moment. With a shake of her head, she snapped back to attention. "Uhh, actually, tonight's my sister's birthday. I was wondering if you maybe wanted to come with me to her party, at the Vortex?" Her expression dissolved into one of vague disgust and she stared at the floor. "God, that must sound so totally lame."

Grip dipped his head and smiled as he caught her eyes. "Actually I was just thinking it'd be an awesome chance to meet on neutral turf. I'm really not at my most charming under duress."

"Yeah?" she asked hopefully.


Dawn treated him to a huge smile. "This'll be so cool!" she bubbled. "There'll be balloons and streamers and presents ... Not that you have to get her a present or anything!" she hastily assured.

Grip adopted a mock crestfallen attitude. "Aw, but I had this bag of Reece's picked out all special and everything."

He grinned and Dawn grinned back, unable to disguise her pleasure.

"So," said Grip standing straight once more, "what time should I come pick you up?"

"Seven should be good," Dawn told him gleefully. "Buffy'll have already left by then – she's such a child when it comes to presents – and you avoid any pre-party unpleasantness."

"Seven it is then," confirmed Grip. With a parting smile, he turned and set off in the opposite direction, presumably heading for Physics and the pain-inflicting Stevenson. With a thankful sigh, Dawn watched him leave and then hopped into the air.

"Yes!" she declared. "And two seconds to the buzzer, Summers makes a daring play and—"

Spinning, she looked up to see a teacher standing in the doorway of a nearby classroom, leveling a very disapproving teacher-glare.

The teenager settled her books more comfortably into the crook of her elbow and tugged at the backpack that was slipping from her shoulder. She pointed vaguely down the hall.

"... I'll just be going to class now," she muttered before rushing off.

At the open-air café scheduled to open its doors for business some time during the coming week or so, Xander was carving designs into a wooden railing that lined the outside of the establishment. The proprietor had requested daisies and black-eyed Susans. It was detailed work, but the carpenter relished such intricate exercises as much as he did constructing eight-foot-tall cabinets. A major section of the railing had already been completed, although as yet remaining unvarnished and unlacquered. Working steadily, Xander was a man happy in his element. Contentedly, he whistled while he whittled and more than one person turned to admire his artistic ability as they passed by. However, one individual in particular seemed to be taking more than a fleeting interest.

With her head tilted to one side, a dark-haired woman had stopped and was taking note of the carpenter's handiwork with open engrossment. For his part, Xander was oblivious to her presence until she spoke.

"So, can I buy you?"

The carpenter jumped, unaware that he had acquired an audience.

"Huh? What?" he stammered.

"Can I buy you?" the woman repeated, as though it has been a perfectly normal question.

"Buy me?" queried an astonished Xander. "Are you window-shopping? Is this something kinky?"

The brunette chuckled, and her dark eyes held a certain indefinable twinkle. "No, nothing kinky."

"Cuz if it is," continued the carpenter with a grin, "I might possibly pay you."

The woman laughed. It was a heartfelt, genuine sound revealing white teeth that stood out against her olive skin. "You amuse me," she told him.

"Well my sense of humor's not really for sale," Xander responded with a shrug, "but you're welcome to rent it."

The woman gestured toward the railing. "I was talking about your woodwork."

"I should point out," said Xander in all mock seriousness, "that I'm resisting at least fifteen comments that would be inappropriate, considering I don't even know your name."

She smiled and extended her hand. "Serafina."

The carpenter accepted with a firm shake. "Xander." He paused for a moment before grinning again. "They still feel inappropriate, so moving on."

The woman traced a fingertip over one of the carved daisies. "This is really beautiful. I'm impressed."

"Thanks," he beamed. "I'd say that it's some transcendental manifestation of my artistic soul, but in reality? I think it's just me channelin' my desire to destroy stuff."

Serafina frowned in confusion, clearly missing the implication. "Destroy stuff?"

"Yup," affirmed the carpenter with an enthusiastic nod. "Chunks of wood flyin' everywhere, sawdust spraying in the air. Don't let those Home Depot ads fool you – it's not home improvement, it's a Bolshevik revolution. With doweling." Serafina's brow creased, confusion obviously increasing. "Don't worry," Xander assured her. "I hear they're revoking my license to speak any day now."

"Bolshevik revolution?" echoed Serafina doubtfully.

"Well it was that or ‘French'. And I don't care how many heads went rollin', anything prefaced by the word ‘French' immediately sounds wimpy. Plus, ‘Bolshevik' is just a fun word."

"Almost as much fun as ‘obfuscate'," she smirked, "which sort of sums up this conversation right about now." Her tone was mocking, but the smile on her face provided indication that she was, in actuality, thoroughly enjoying the exchange.

"Right, so, back to the purchasing of me?" inquired a curious Xander.

"Do you take requests?"

"I take many things," replied the carpenter cheerfully, "requests being just one of them."

"One of my little nephews has a birthday coming up next month," Serafina explained, "and I've got something special in mind for a gift. I think you might be able to help me out."

Xander inclined his head. "Just your luck, I happen to be a source for all things special."

Serafina smiled and Xander suddenly found her smile to be rather contagious. He returned the gesture.

"I was thinking," she continued, "of a wooden Noah's Ark. Complete with the little animals, two-by-two, you know. Could you do that?"

"Not a problem," the carpenter stated with certainty. "I already know how to make ducks and everything."

"Fantastic." She took a quick glance at her watch. "Listen, I gotta get going. Do you have a card or something?"

Eye widening, Xander looked panicked for a moment. "A card? Oh no. That would just be too professional." He grimaced and appeared somewhat distressed at his lack of business etiquette, but Serafina didn't seem to find the fact troublesome.

"Here," she suggested, thrusting her arm toward him. "Just write down your number and I'll call you later."

Anxiously, the carpenter looked around for a pen, but none materialized. Reaching into his tool belt, he extracted a black felt-tip marker and held it up hopefully. "This is permanent," he warned her.

"Good," replied Serafina emphatically. "Then barring horrific, disfiguring accident, I won't lose it."

In the heart of the memorial clearing, Buffy sat alone with her knees drawn up to her chest. Her gaze was fixed upon the sapling, although in actuality, it had really outgrown such a label as it continued to thrive. Within this area, it was always pleasantly warm regardless of the season. Cooling breezes constantly played among the branches of the trees and birds tweeted with a carefree chirp.

The blonde sensed rather than saw Kennedy enter. On the other hand, Kennedy spotted Buffy immediately and walked directly toward her. She stood to the side of the blonde for a moment and looked down at her with an expectant expression, knowing that Buffy was aware of her presence. But Buffy continued to ignore the brunette for several minutes more. Nonetheless, Kennedy knew it was only a matter of time.

"You'd wait there all day, wouldn't you?" sighed the blonde eventually.

"Wouldn't you?" Kennedy countered.

"Yeah," acknowledged Buffy, glancing up. "This sort of quiet patience ... new look for you," she remarked dryly.

Kennedy shrugged. "Feels wrong to start yelling here."

"It does, doesn't it?" replied Buffy in a quiet voice.

Without waiting for an invite, Kennedy joined Buffy on the grass. She sat Indian-style and leaned back against the tree behind them.

"So," she began conversationally. "Craziness, huh?"

Buffy continued to stare at the sapling. "You didn't come here for small talk."

"Really didn't," agreed the brunette, leaning forward and regarding Buffy with a serious expression. She decided to plunge straight in and adopt the straightforward approach. "Did you find out what it is yet?

"No," admitted Buffy reluctantly. "Giles is following up on some new theories, but at the end of the day? No clue. Less than no clue. We're in a clue deficit."

"There's an easy way to find out," said Kennedy purposefully. Buffy tore her gaze from the sapling and regarded the other Slayer with a quizzical expression. "We ask. Real nice." The cracking knuckles were a meaningful addition to the suggestion.

Buffy allowed herself a small chuckle. "Questions and answers, the Slayer way."

"What can I say?" offered Kennedy with shrug. "I'm a simple girl at heart. When something works ..."

"Believe me," returned the blonde ruefully, "so almost there. And if there's no other way, then I'll be first in line. But she just ..." Throwing her hands in the air, Buffy turned toward Kennedy. "I wish she'd do something. This waiting is making me crazy. Not to mention more than a little grumpy, and just the slightest bit paranoid."

"You should make her talk now," insisted the brunette. "You should have made her talk the second she walked in the house."

Buffy sighed heavily and returned to her study of the young tree. "Yeah. Yeah, maybe."

Kennedy peered at Buffy curiously and with some disbelief. "Don't tell me you think it's really—"

"No. An overt, forceful no." Buffy waved vigorously in dismissal of the very idea.

"Because my readily acknowledged bias aside?" she added, "I've never met a formally-dead thing that I liked." With an arched eyebrow, Buffy turned to Kennedy, who played over her words and then shrugged off-handedly. "I guess you're okay. Sometimes."

"Gee, thanks," replied the blonde in a flat tone.

"My point is," stated an undeterred Kennedy, "things generally aren't supposed to come back. Death's supposed to be, you know ... it. She says she's come to fight some big bad. Well that's great, but what is it? If it's so evil, why won't she tell us about it so we can get ready? And what the hell is Glinda the Good Witch supposed to do about it anyway? From what you guys've said, she wasn't even all that powerful when she was alive. So I'm thinking: big lie. I mean, if you're already evil, what's a little fib?"

She paused momentarily, allowing this hypothesis to sink in. Buffy's gaze drifted back to the sapling and although she provided no response, she did appear to be listening.

"We can't wait for it to make the first move," prodded Kennedy, hoping to elicit agreement. "By then, it'll be too late." She considered the blonde at her side intently, obviously desirous for some type of accord.

Nevertheless, Buffy maintained her silence, eyes remaining glued upon the sapling. Kennedy fidgeted and began to huff, becoming frustrated at the lack of definitive reaction she was seeking.

"I know this is hard for everyone," Kennedy declared, her tone rising just a little, "but we can't afford to keep waiting. Not with Willow's life on the line. If Giles can't come up with something, then I'm—"

"No," Buffy told her. She turned sharply toward Kennedy and reiterated her position on the subject. "No. It should be me. This thing, this ... It's made it personal. I'll handle it. One way or another."

"I get that," the brunette nodded her acceptance. "Okay. Whatever you need, I'm there."

Buffy's posture relaxed and she went back to studying the young tree. "I know. Thanks."

Kennedy nodded again and stood up. Glancing down at the blonde Slayer, she seemed to contemplate saying something more, but then appeared to decide against it and walked away.

Buffy didn't bother to watch her leave. She just kept staring at the sapling.

Ensconced in his office, Giles flipped through the pages of an organizer until he found the telephone number he was seeking. Marking the place with his finger, he picked up the receiver and held it to his ear by his chin before dialing a long string of digits. Slowly closing the organizer, he listened to the muted ring tone and waited.

"Yes, this is Rupert Giles," he said upon hearing a greeting at the other end. "I need—" he paused. "Fine, thank you." Listening, he paused once more. "No, not yet, though I'm expecting to hear back from the agents I sent to Sunnydale any time now."

He nodded at the response, saying, "I imagine so," before nodding again. "Actually, I was calling in- in regards to, uhm ... I know this sounds most unusual, but I need information on- on necromancy." The Watcher frowned for a moment and moved from his chair to perch on the edge of the desk. "No, not to cast. It appears as though someone who is— o-or was quite dead is suddenly ... well, not."

He picked up a pencil and twirled it around his fingers. "We were quite shocked as well," he agreed, then fell silent again as he listened. "That's the extraordinary thing, she seems to be the exact same girl she was when- when she, uhm, when she died." He tapped the tip of the pencil thoughtfully on his desk. "Almost two years ago." He tilted his head. "I've tried several so far, but all spells report back nothing particularly out of the ordinary. There are the sorts of- of ‘spikes' if you will in her energies, but they're even less remarkable than those that surrounded my Slayer upon her return."

Tossing the pencil on his desk, Giles watched it roll slowly to the floor and then began to pace within the confines of the phone's cord. "Unfortunately Willow is rather ... personally involved in the identity of the individual in question, so her participation is—" He hesitated at the interruption and then sighed. "Maclay, yes."

Listening attentively, the Watcher prodded at the pencil with the toe of his shoe. "Yes, well that was rather our concern as well." His ensuing nod was quite emphatic. "Almost exactly the same, correct. There are moments where she seems distant, but given the circumstances ..." He considered for a moment. "She appears to have perfect awareness of her death and claims she was raised and sent to battle some sort of evil force, but she seems disinclined to give any further details." His tone grew more definite. "Quite suspicious, I agree."

His eyes narrowed at the information being relayed. "As expected. Willow believes entirely that she is whom she claims. Buffy's younger sister Dawn feels the same way." He sighed before continuing. "Yes, very close." Absent-mindedly, the Watcher massaged the back of his neck and followed the trail of the pencil as it disappeared beneath his desk. "Certainly," he assured into the phone. "Not at all, I expected as much. Though I suppose I needn't point out that any expediency would be greatly appreciated ..." He nodded in satisfaction at the reply. "Excellent. I'll be awaiting your call."

Returning to his chair, Giles gently replaced the handset into its cradle and reached into the top drawer of his desk. With a heavy sigh, he retrieved a hefty set of keys and crossed to one of the cabinets located at the rear of his office. Sorting through the key ring, he selected one and slipped it into the lock. The doors creaked their objection as he pulled them open, almost as though they had been closed for quite some time. The cabinet's interior was filled with a multitude of assorted items. The Watcher's expression was grim and he appeared reluctant to remove anything sequestered within. Nonetheless, he extracted one book from the many volumes stored there. Relocking the cabinet, he tugged hard on the handles to ensure that it was indeed safe and secure.

Carrying the text to his desk, he squirreled the key ring at the back of the drawer and then turned his attention to the book in front of him. It was obviously an exceedingly ancient tome. The green leather binding had begun to crack and the brass corner decorations were dulled with age. Nevertheless, the wafer-thin sheaves, their edges embellished in gold leaf, remained intact and its title could still be easily be read: Vasharal Lexicon. Polishing his glasses, Giles took a seat and reverently opened the volume. Carefully riffling the delicate pages, he moved through chapter after chapter, finally reaching a section that bore the words: "Resurrection and Rebirth". He hesitated, but only for a heartbeat, and then turned the page.

Rotating slowly, an apple floated in mid-air. As it spun, the skin pared away in a long, thin, spiraling strip. However, when the peeling reached around the halfway point along the apple, the fruit began to twist in an odd fashion. The spasms, almost imperceptible at first, soon became increasingly violent until the apple exploded, sending chunks of decimated fruit flying. However, although the apple had indeed self-destructed, it was contained within some form of invisible magical bubble, which prevented Willow, Tara, and the contents of the Sanctum from being sprayed with juice and mangled pulp.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Willow was situated within close proximity of the explosion. Behind her stood Tara, fingers extended toward the bubble.

The redhead grinned sheepishly. "Applesauce, then?"

The worried frown on Tara's face did not lessen at the attempted joke. With a gesture, the blonde directed the mutilated apple-in-a-bubble toward a trashcan by the door. With a visible shimmer, the transparent globe dissipated and the pulverized fruit slopped wetly into the garbage.

"What happened?" asked Tara as she executed the act of disposal.

"Well, that's part of the whole ... you know, control thing," Willow shrugged nervously. "But I'm working on it. Really hard. A-And I'm better than I used to be – I got it half done this time! When we first started working on this exercise, I-I sort of ... detonated a whole bushel of apples. All at once. It was like a Gallagher concert! I swear I smelled like an orchard for a week."

Tara's frown deepened. "Wow. That's kinda ... That's something."

"Giles has been incredible, though," confided the redhead. "That week I got a— Oh! It's so great, you know what he does? He actually grades me on the exercises! Isn't that sweet? He promised he'd give me a final grade and everything."

She beamed as though this were simply the coolest thing ever dreamed by man, but Tara's expression remained troubled.

"Do you ever ... Lose it?" asked the blonde hesitantly. "Control, I mean. Really bad, like with the ..." She waved her hand in front of her eyes by way of explanation.

Willow dropped her head, ashamed. "Sometimes," she admitted quietly. "I mean, I'd love to say no, but sometimes I do. When I get impatient, or lose my temper. But ..." Glancing up, her eyes met Tara's. Fear was evident. "It's always there. I can feel it. Sometimes I think I can hear it, like it's actually talking to me, you know? Calling for me."

She dropped her gaze again, and as a consequence missed the worried line that appeared between Tara's eyebrows. Absorbed in her own words, Willow seemed oblivious to Tara's mounting concern. "Giles says that it's pretty much always gonna be this way. The only answer is control."

The redhead considered this for a moment, and then nodded her head firmly, confidently. "And if that's what I gotta do, then that's what I'm gonna do." Glancing upward once more, she threw Tara a look of total sincerity. "I don't ever want to be that person I was. Never again." She shook her head regretfully and then tried to lighten her tone. "So how's about you toss me that orange?" she asked cheerfully. "I got a hankerin' for something citrus-y."

Tara retrieved an orange from the brown paper bag resting on a nearby table. She tossed it into the center of the room. With intense focus, Willow captured it within her magick and steadied it in the air. She purposefully fixed her concentration and then, much like the apple, the orange began to rotate as its skin started to peel away in one long strip. For a second, Tara closely observed the revolving orange before turning her attention to Willow. She noted the fierce determination radiating from the redhead's face. Unfortunately, it seemed to do nothing to alleviate her apprehension.

With trembling fingers, the blonde rubbed her forehead as she whispered sorrowfully to herself. "It's not enough."

Act Two

Seated on the low parapet that lined the front steps of Trillium High, Tara waited. Lost in thought, she paid little attention to the bell signaling the end of classes for the day and was startled when kids began to pour out of the school. They streamed past in chaotic and gleeful hordes, not giving the blonde a second glance as she watched the exit door expectantly. Finally, the figure she had been eagerly anticipating emerged and Dawn descended the stone steps, chatting in an animated fashion to a couple of her friends. Tara waited until they had said their goodbyes before standing up to wave.

"Dawn!" she called, attracting the teenager's attention.

Dawn was initially surprised, but that was soon replaced by a look of pleasure. She hurried toward the blonde.

"Hey!" she greeted with a broad smile. "What're you doing here?" The smile began to fade as a worried frown creased the teenager's forehead. "Nothing's wrong, right?"

"No, no, nothing wrong," Tara quickly assured. "I just thought we could, you know ... walk and talk. Do some more catching up."

Dawn beamed happily. "So preferable to something being wrong."

Shifting her backpack to the other shoulder, the teenager threaded her arm through Tara's and hugged it tight. Tara smiled at the girl with great affection as they started to walk away from the building. The further they got, the more the pedestrian population thinned until they were virtually alone.

"How's stuff going?" Dawn asked. "You doing okay? You don't need anything, do you?"

Tara shook her head. "Nah, I have everything." She turned to Dawn with a wry grin. "I'm pretty low-maintenance."

"Well if there's anything you want," the teenager insisted, "just tell me. Not that I'm financially independent, but I know where Buffy hides the credit cards."

"And have your sister come after me for leading you into a life of crime?" Tara admonished. "I think I'll pass."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Yeah, like we need more fuel for that inferno." Her tone adopted a more serious note. "I'm so sorry for, like ... everything Buffy-related. I can't believe she's still acting like a little ... overbearing despot."

Tara quirked an eyebrow. "'Despot'?"

"World history: it's not just for sleeping anymore," smirked the teenager.

"You shouldn't be too tough on Buffy," Tara softly told the girl, gently squeezing her arm. "She's just ... She works so hard to keep everyone safe."

"Yeah," replied Dawn grudgingly, "but that's just it: we are safe. I mean, you know, if you were some big demon monster then I'd understand. But you're not. She's just being a ... a thing that I really want to say but that I'd probably get in trouble for."

The blonde nodded her understanding. "I know it can be frustrating. But she only gets that way because she loves you. All of you. She has to make really tough decisions sometimes to keep the people she loves safe. It's ... That's not easy."

"But she loves you, too," insisted Dawn, hugging Tara's arm even tighter. "We just have to convince her that you're the real deal and you're not here to murder any of us."

She smiled into Tara's face but was met with an uncomfortable silence. The pair's walk slowed to a stop and Dawn gazed at the blonde with a puzzled expression.

Tara turned to the girl and reached out with her free hand to stroke the silky hair. "Dawn ..." she began. "You know that I love you, right?"

Dawn's smile grew wide. "I know."

"And I always will," the blonde continued. "No matter what happens. To me, or to ..." She paused, breaking the thread of conversation before adding, "I always will."

The teenager's smile visibly faltered. "What's wrong?" she demanded. "Something's wrong."

"I just wanted to be able to say that. I didn't get to last time, and ... I wanted to make sure you knew."

Tara moved to continue their walk, but Dawn wasn't going along. With a jerk on the arm she still held tightly, she returned Tara to a halt. "Are you leaving again?" she asked, a trace of accusation creeping into her voice. "You are, aren't you?"

Holding the teenager's gaze, Tara shook her head. "I don't want to, Dawnie, but sometimes things happen that—"

Tears began to well in Dawn's eyes. She shook Tara's sleeve. "No," she commanded. "No, you can't do that! You can't just come back and leave me again!"

The blonde reached a hand toward Dawn's cheek, but the teenager backed away. "Honey ..." Tara pleaded.

"What about Willow?" asked a tearful Dawn. "Do you even know what happened to her last time you went away? It took her over a year to look like breathing wasn't painful! How can you even think about hurting her?"

Opening her arms, the witch enveloped the teenager within her embrace. Dawn exhibited a token protest but immediately relented. "Shh," soothed the blonde. "I don't wanna leave, I promise. I just ..." A laugh totally lacking in humor escaped Tara's lips. "I learned the hard way that sometimes bad stuff happens, you know? Whether you want it to or not, that's just how things go sometimes."

"Well it needs to stop now, okay?" Dawn requested with a smothered sniffle.

Tara chuckled but failed to respond. She simply continued to hug the teenager, smoothing her hair as Dawn basked in the affection.

Dawn sniffed again. "Can we get some ice cream?" she asked in a muffled voice.

"Solves all problems, huh?" replied Tara with a rueful smile.

Dawn pulled away slightly and looked at the blonde. "It at least makes them smaller for a while," she whispered.

"Well sure," agreed Tara. "Who can worry about anything else when you have the dilemma of 31 flavors?"

Slipping her hand into the crook of Dawn's elbow, Tara led the teenager away. Dawn scrubbed at her nose and managed to force a weak smile. The blonde appeared gratified that the teenager's tears were at least subsiding. Together and arm-in-arm, they walked in the direction of the ice cream shop. Borne on a sudden gust of chilly wind, Tara's voice floated heavenward.

"So, did you finally ask him?"

Dawn nodded with much exuberance and snuggled closer to the blonde.

"Tell me all about it," Tara happily insisted, allowing herself to indulge in the intimate huddle. "I wanna hear everything."

"You don't wanna hear anything I say!" accused an infuriated Willow, hands flailing wildly.

"Of course I do!" rejoined Buffy at the top of her voice. "When you stop saying crazy stuff!"

The atmosphere shrouding the living room was so charged that it could have supplied power to the whole of downtown Trillium for at least a day and a half. Standing, the two women faced each other from opposite ends of the couch. The Slayer, arms firmly crossed, glared at Willow. The witch, fists clenched and rigid against her thighs, glowered at Buffy. Xander sat uneasily on the edge of the middle cushion, his body tense and his expression distressed. Vainly, he tried to instill some rationalization into the agitated situation.

"Guys," he urged in a tone he desperately hoped was pacifying, "this can't be healthy. Just ... just stop. Stop and talk. For the love of all that is good and decent."

Willow continued to fix the Slayer with an angry stare, while Buffy's eyes almost appeared to be shooting tiny but deadly daggers in the direction of the witch. Xander looked from one to the other for a moment and then seemed to come to a decision. Reaching out, he seized each woman by the hand and pulled them both onto the couch. With no regard for his own safety, he maintained his central position as mediator. Neither Buffy nor Willow put up much of a struggle, but they did not go gracefully.

"Sitting," confirmed the carpenter with a forceful nod. "Sitting is good. I applaud this bold first step. Now we seem to be goin' in circles. Very tight, nerve-wracking circles that are causin' my blood pressure to skyrocket. So we're gonna do this nice and orderly-like. Buff, why don't you go first?"

The Slayer took a deep and calming breath. "Willow," she began, "you are probably the smartest person I've ever met in my entire life. So why you insist on being so stupid about this—"

"Stupid?!" The redhead's voice was shrill and she would have stood up again if not for Xander's restraining grip.

"Let's try talking without the added bonus of being insulting," suggested Xander, refusing to release either combatant. "Will?"

But the witch's record appeared to be stuck in the same groove. "Stupid?!"

With an agonizing groan, Xander threw his despairing hands into the air before employing them to cradle his pounding head.

"Calgon," he implored, "take me away."

Xander paused at the entrance to the private training room. "Hey, Faith, y'got a minute?"

Dressed in a form-fitting black tank top and a pair of sweat pants, the Slayer straddled a padded bench, back to the door, performing curls and working zealously on her injured arm. The sling was gone and although her shoulder still sported surgical tape, it was less so than before. She turned slightly at the sound of the carpenter's voice and grinned to see him hovering nervously on the threshold.

"Buy me a drink at B's party tonight, y'might even get two," she told him, her arm continuing to pump.

Xander wholeheartedly agreed. "Deal."

Venturing into the room, he joined Faith on the bench and sat across from her, facing the door. The Slayer's cantilever action never ceased, but she threw him an attentive glance.

"I've got a problem," he stated with finality.

Faith shrugged. "Figured you weren't here for the scenery."

"It's Buffy and Willow," confided the carpenter.

"Still actin' like guests on Jerry Springer, huh?"

"Only without the big bald guy to pull ‘em apart," affirmed Xander wearily. "It's just ... I mean yeah, okay, completely sick of it. That's a given. But here's the thing – I don't know what to do. They're both so defensive right now, I don't think they're even listenin' to each other any more. It's like, they just get pre-pissed, an' one of ‘em could say, ‘You know, I really like Werthers,' and the other would start screaming about it."

Faith tossed her hair back from her face. "Lock ‘em in a room, make ‘em fight it out?" she suggested. It was impossible to tell if she was being serious or not.

"I thought about it for all of three seconds before realizing that I'd probably wind up with at least one, possibly two less friends," Xander muttered miserably.

"Yeah, guessin' that would be a problem," she admitted. "Gotta be a limit on how many people in the world can put up with you, need to keep the ones y'found in one piece."

Faith grinned – an attempt in her own small way to cheer him up. Xander returned the grin, but it was an insipid effort at best and his heart wasn't in it.

Shifting to a more comfortable position, Faith increased the rate of her lifting. "Wanna maybe spilt ‘em up? I can hijack B for the weekend, you keep Red occupied? Maybe it'll burn off if they're not around each other."

"I don't think that'd work." Xander's tone was of the defeatist variety. "I don't think Buffy'll let Tara out of her sight for more than a few hours at a time, an' Will's so paranoid right now, she'd probably think Buffy's off assembling an army or something."

The Slayer blew out an exaggerated puff of air. "All this over one person," she marveled. "Y'know, I met her once. Wasn't completely myself at the time, but still. Can't say I was too impressed. Scared little thing, stutterin', totally moon-eyed over Will."

"It's cuz'a her we figured out an' reversed your brain-swappin' hostile takeover."

"That a fact?" said Faith, considering this newly acquired information. "Huh. I always wondered."

Xander's fingers drummed an impatient rat-a-tat on the leather cushion of the bench. "Trip down memory lane's not really the issue here," he pointed out. "I wanted your advice on how to handle ‘em."

Faith hesitated mid-lift. "You wanted my advice?" The carpenter nodded. "On how to deal with people?" The carpenter nodded again, with more enthusiasm this time. "Damn," cursed Faith, "you gotta be desperate."

"What?" queried a puzzled Xander. "It's not so weird."

Faith tilted her head to one side and shot him a 'yeah, right' look.

The carpenter had the good grace to appear abashed. "Okay, it's a little weird. But see, here's the thing – you're the perfect choice cuz you're devoid of feeling."

"No, please, stop," Faith told him flatly. "I'm blushing."

Xander hastened to clarify. "Not on everything. But on this. See, it's like ... I know you like Willow okay an' all, but you're not like best buds or anything, right?"

"She's still got this little grudge about me an' a knife," admitted the Slayer, "and I still got one for ... well, cuz that's what I do. So yeah, okay," she conceded with a nod.

"An' Tara," persisted Xander, "you said it yourself – you only had one conversation an' that was like four years ago, so no real bond there either, right?" Receiving further confirmation, Xander continued with renewed enthusiasm, apparently feeling as though he were finally getting somewhere. "Okay. Well I don't have that detachment. Buffy an' Willow're my best friends, and I like Tara a whole heck of a lot, so I can't really see clear. Dawn's almost as wrapped up in this as Will, just the thought of havin' this conversation with Kennedy makes my fillings hurt, an' Giles is so busy being Mr. Objective that I can't get anything outta him that's not 115% neutral. An' I gotta talk to someone. Stepping away from my characteristic frivolity for a second, I'm seriously worried someone's gonna get hurt over this. We're not talkin' paper cut, tiny Band-Aid hurt either."

Faith smirked at the over-long explanation. "You couldn'a just said please?"

Lowering the weighted dumbbell to the floor, the Slayer grabbed a nearby towel and mopped her forehead. Her expression grew serious as she pondered the proposition. "Geez Xan, I really dunno what to tell ya. I mean, me? Somethin' looks threatenin', my gut instinct is t' take it out. End of problem, end of story." She rolled her shoulder in order to work out the kinks before adding, "But I'm comin' to learn my gut instinct ain't always the best way t' go."

Dropping the towel, she executed an arm swing and Xander scooted backward out of harm's way as a clenched fist whizzed past his ear. "Speakin' as the appointed outsider here," Faith continued, "the root of all the problems is this Tara chick. She's the linchpin here, yeah?" She looked to the carpenter for affirmation and he nodded. "Can't figure anythin' else out before you know what'cha gotta do about her," the Slayer counseled. "An' really, that one's pretty simple: either she's who she says she is or she ain't. Figure out which one's right an' go from there. Seems to me like everythin' else'll just fall into place."

She grinned cheerfully – case closed.

Xander was nowhere near as optimistic. "Or fall apart," he mumbled darkly.

Alone in the library sat the solitary figure of Tara. Engrossed in the open book before her, she had occupied a small table some distance from the entrance, but still within view of anyone who happened to be passing. Dressed in a Victorian-style high-necked blouse of embroidered pale green muslin, complete with floor-length skirt of a heavier material and more emerald in color, the blonde was apparently ready for the upcoming evening's festivities. She wrinkled her nose a little at the musty smell – an odious combination of myrrh and clove oil – which emanated from the ancient volume of spells as she turned the pages. The script was archaic in nature and not easy to decipher, but Tara was determined. She paused at a page entitled "Ad Agnosco Pondera" and ran her forefinger down the list of components that included a variety of specific herbs and at least one personal item belonging to the spell's intended subject.

Absorbed in her reading, Tara failed to notice Willow enter the room. The redhead, bearing a rather large box wrapped in Powerpuff Girls gift paper, had obviously also made a conscious effort to dress in accordance with the impending occasion. Attired in a calf-length wool skirt of burnt sienna and a cowl-necked sweater of almost the same shade, the color perfectly complemented her auburn hair and she had polished her brown boots to a brilliant shine. Declining to immediately announce her presence, Willow chose instead to watch the blonde from the doorway and her eyes radiated heartfelt affection. She drank deeply of the image for a few moments and then shook herself free from the self-indulgent reverie before moving further into the library.

"Hey, you," the redhead greeted cheerily.

Startled, Tara's hand instinctively snaked across the table toward another book that stood open. As casually as she could, she slid the volume closer and laid it atop the one in front of her. The movement was smooth and natural and if Willow had noticed anything untoward, she certainly didn't draw attention to the fact.

"Hey," replied Tara softly, turning in her seat. She glanced at the box Willow was carrying. "Party time?"

The redhead nodded enthusiastically. "Just about. I put your name on the card too. I figured you didn't have time to get anything, and who wants to be the odd girl out when it comes to gift giving? That's just all kinds of awkward."

Tara smiled. "That was sweet." Willow beamed brightly at the words and basked in the warmth of the endearing smile. "So" continued the blonde, "what'd we get her?"

"Oh, well, a few months back, Dawn broke Buffy's discman. On accident, of course. Anyway, for days Buffy wouldn't stop going on about how Dawn's been breaking her stuff ever since she was little. And she was oddly fixated on this one Christmas, where she got a Lite Brite. You remember, those big box things with the light bulb inside, a-and little plastic pegs you could use to make pictures?" Tara nodded. "Well anyway, before the year was out, Dawn broke Buffy's, and this has apparently been an unhealing scar Buffy's carried for nearly two decades."

Her explanation partially complete, Willow proudly displayed her wrapped box before resuming.

"So I went on eBay and I found her one. Not one of those new cube things either, but the real thing. With- With pegs, and even some picture sheet sets!" The redhead glowed with pride. "My Little Pony and Barbie."

Pushing the books away, Tara stood up. "No Rainbow Brite?" she questioned. "I would've thought the Brite-to-Brite synchronicity would've been irresistible."

"Oo, I should've thought'a that," grinned Willow. She drew herself up and nodded decisively. "That settles it, I'll never shop without you again."

Tara smirked in return, but the gesture was fleeting. It seemed that the blonde had much on her mind.

"You ready?"

"As I'm gonna be," Tara sighed.

Giles stood before an open cabinet in his office. The interior of the door had been fitted with an oval, mid-length mirror whose frame was made from white ash. Obviously an antique of some significant age, its border was intricately carved with coiled serpents, winged dragons, grinning skulls and satanic-type images. The Watcher examined his reflection to ensure that his hair was neatly combed and his tie straight. Satisfied, he smiled at the image – a stark contrast to the malevolent expressions of the etched demonic faces, with their wicked horns and cruelly-forked tongues, which leered at him from the ash frame.

Closing the cabinet with a soft click, Giles deposited the key safely into his pocket and crossed to his desk to retrieve a package. The long and slender box he picked up and tucked beneath his arm had been wrapped tastefully in gold foil and adorned with red satin ribbons. Turning, he made his way toward the door but his hand had barely grazed the handle when the telephone summoned. Hurrying back to his desk, the Watcher had the receiver to his ear before the second ring.

"Hello?" He listened for a response. "Ahh, Miss Harkness, yes. I spoke to one of your—" Giles paused and lay Buffy's birthday present on the desk. "Yes," he affirmed, drumming thoughtfully on the slim package with his fingertips before saying " Yes ..." again. A small frown creased his forehead. "I see." In a distracted fashion, he toyed with the satin ribbons. "What information do we need to be certain?" The Watcher nodded briefly at the answer. "Ah. Of course." The frown deepened. "No, I agree, until we know for sure." He continued to listen attentively. "Yes," he replied, his tone slightly unsettled. "No, no, thank you," Giles quickly assured. "Yes, of course. As soon as I know anything," he added. "Thank you for the offer, though I'm sure you can appreciate my hope that it won't come to that." The reaction he received seemed to afford a small amount of comfort. "Yes. Thank you again."

The Watcher sat quite still for several seconds, the handset still at his ear. Then, finally realizing that the other party had broken the connection, he replaced it in the cradle. Removing his glasses, he tossed them onto the desk, where they would have slid to the floor had Buffy's gift not halted their momentum. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

"Oh, dear."

Act Three

Gift box tucked securely under one arm, Giles entered the Vortex. He winced involuntarily at the volume of noise that assaulted his ears and glared almost balefully at the strobe lights gyrating in dizzying fashion, somewhat in sync with the equally gyrating sea of dancing bodies. Peering into the dimness that remained in the wake of the flashing beams, the Watcher edged forward and nearly collided with a passing waitress. She didn't slow down to excuse herself or even favor him with a fleeting glance as she hurried on her way. Giles sighed, assuming that near misses were the norm in such a crowd, but still – his expression was a combination of apology for his own blunder, annoyance at the girl's lack of good manners and resignation to the inevitable. He glowered for a moment at her departing back as she disappeared into the masses and then shrugged off the threatening ill temper, determined the incident should not spoil his evening.

Squinting behind his glasses, the Watcher scoured the area for Buffy and the rest of the gang. Indeed, he would have been delighted to spot anyone or anything that was recognizable, but it was virtually impossible to make an identification or even see much of anything at all in detail. He took a few more faltering steps and then noticed a hand waving above the swarm inhabiting the dance floor. As the strobe lights circled, Giles was able to distinguish the owner of the hand – Faith.

The dark-haired Slayer, dressed in a black suede mini with matching knee-high boots and scoop-neck scarlet sweater which stopped short of her navel, was apparently having the time of her life as she danced with three highly-attentive males. It seemed Faith also enjoyed variety in her partners, since one was a tall blond, another a well-built brunet and the third a rather stocky redhead. Hovering on the fringe of Faith's entourage, a leather-clad young woman sporting a nose-ring and a myriad of other facial piercings, regarded the small group with something akin to yearning while she eyed the Slayer with undisguised approval. Faith smirked and with a twitch of her head invited the girl to join in. Nose Ring was only too happy to comply and immediately began pumping her arms energetically in time to the beat, almost as though she were milking a gigantic cow. Faith arched a dubious eyebrow for a second and then gave a 'what the hell' shrug.

Spinning on her heel, she turned and grinned at Giles, gesturing to the hyperactive young woman behind her and rolling her eyes. Amused at the scenario, the Watcher's good humor returned in full force, particularly since he had finally found someone he knew. Tucking the package more firmly under his arm, he began to approach the Slayer but Faith directed his attention upward. Giles blinked in confusion.

Twirling, Faith realized that Giles had not moved from the spot where he had been standing since her last rotation. She pointed again, prodding a finger toward a flight of stairs illuminated by a large fluorescent sign sporting a livid green "UP" arrow. Giles smiled his thanks as the penny dropped and Faith threw him an answering nod before turning her full attention back to the dance.

With numerous apologies, the majority of which went ignored, the Watcher weaved his way amid the herd and climbed to the second level. Here, the noise was more muted, but still loud enough to make Giles cringe. Settling his glasses on his nose, he scrutinized the many tables and couches that composed the upper floor. Most were occupied – people just hanging out and talking – but still Giles spotted no familiar faces. Glancing around, he spied a private room in the far corner and, through the window, could see Buffy and Xander. Breathing a heavy sigh of relief, he scurried toward relative sanctuary and then noticed the sign on the door that read: "Reserved for Summers".

Upon entering, the Watcher was instantly set upon by an overly energized Buffy. She oozed excitement and glee as she bounded toward him. Giles smiled warmly, delighted to note her apparent upbeat attitude and the expression of happiness. It made such a nice change from the constantly angry Buffy of late. The Slayer's complexion was radiant and she had obviously dressed with great care. The classic 'little black dress' was seductive but stylish, and tiny diamond chips sparkled in her ear lobes. Opting for the sophisticated look, the Slayer had piled her blonde hair high upon her head and she had draped a black silk shawl over her shoulders. It was a particularly beautiful item – heavily embroidered with white roses.

Xander, on the other hand, had gone for 'smart but casual.' In honor of the occasion, he had ditched his customary plaid overshirt and tee in favor of a very nice knitted polo of pale gray with a pair of charcoal cords. He had even stenciled a silver star on his patch. Giles nodded his commendation in the carpenter's direction, which was returned with a broad grin and something of a jaunty swagger.

Buffy prodded the Watcher's arm, impatiently eying the box. "Oo! Pressie!"

"Yes, quite," acquiesced Giles dryly. For a moment, he seemed to consider broaching an unpleasant topic, but taking in Buffy's excited expression, he instead smiled fondly. "Happy birthday, Buffy," he said, treating her to a one-armed hug. The Slayer reciprocated, but only for a second.

"Now gimme gimme!" she demanded.

Giles sighed indulgently. "Such a dear, sweet child."

He duly delivered the package and Buffy hurriedly added it to the pile on the table that had clearly been set aside for gifts. Continuing to exhibit an overstated saunter, a grinning Xander approached Giles with drinks in hand.

"Greetings, Watcher Man," smirked the carpenter as he offered one of the glasses. "Prepared to get down and get funky?"

Giles took a tentative sip. "Most assuredly not."

The Watcher visibly shuddered at the taste of the alcohol and examined the liquid with a critical eye. Xander rocked back and forth on his heels, looking exceedingly pleased with himself as he took a large gulp of his own beverage.

"Ahh," scoffed the carpenter. "We get a few'a these in you, we'll change that tune."

"It would take a considerable number," Giles stated matter-of-factly. Steeling himself, he took another sip, handling the unique flavor much better now that he was prepared. "Replace this dreadful screeching with Tyrannosaurus Rex," he confided, "and we'll talk."

Downstairs, Dawn virtually skipped through the entrance to the Vortex. She was wearing a ruby-red velvet dress and had secured her hair at the back with a matching clip. Her face glowed and she was obviously ecstatic that she had a date in tow to show around. For his part, Grip, dressed in a nice velour shirt of sky-blue tucked into a pair of navy Dockers, appeared to be genuinely happy just to be there. Under her arm, Dawn carried a somewhat flat, oblong box wrapped in gift paper smothered with smiley faces, all sporting birthday hats and surrounded by colorful streamers. Grip followed close behind her in a rather protective manner as she ventured further into the club and he steered her safely toward the stairs.

From the window of the private room, Buffy saw them coming – Dawn with an unmistakable spring in her step and Grip, now strolling casually with his hands behind his back. She rushed to the open doorway.

"Hey. Glad you got here okay."

Dawn turned to smile at Grip. "I had a bodyguard."

"I did a whole Tae Bo workout tape once," Grip revealed with exaggerated pride.

Shaking her head, Buffy chuckled and then accepted the package that Dawn thrust toward her. The Slayer turned it first one way and then another, regarding it with no little suspicion.

"It's not gonna blow up, is it?"

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Geez, are you gonna say that every year? It stopped being funny when I was, like, two."

"Please," huffed the Slayer. "When you were two you still found having gas funny, I hardly think you're a good judge of humor."

Dawn's eyes widened in typical 'I can't believe you really just said that!' mode, but Buffy accepted the gesture in an impassive fashion before stating cheerfully, "Well, that's the obligatory sister-embarrassment out of the way. Nice to see you, Grip, thanks for coming."

"No problem," Grip replied. "I figured this being your birthday and all, you'd be a bit too busy to go for interrogation round two, Marathon Man-style."

Buffy pursed her lips. "That entirely depends on if you come bearing gifts."

With a grin, Grip produced a bag of Reece's Pieces, complete with a shiny silver bow, from behind his back. The action was reminiscent of a magician pulling a bunny from a top hat and the Slayer beamed.

"Ooo, peanut butter!"

"In a crunchy candy shell," added Grip for good measure.

Buffy patted his arm. "Thank you, it was very sweet."

"Don't thank me," he told her, still grinning. "Thank 7-Eleven. Convenience, and hideously oversized drink cups."

With a small shake of her head, the amused Buffy moved to deposit her newly-acquired gifts on the table, which was rapidly running out of space.

"That went well." Dawn's tone was one of relief.

"Yeah," agreed Grip. "And check it out, I escaped without forced dentistry."

Lost in deep thought, Tara sat at the end of one of the couches in the private room. Momentarily disoriented, she looked up in confusion as Willow approached with a big bowl of candy.

"Hey, look!" announced the redhead. "Reece's!"

She sat down next to Tara, who absently shook her head ‘no thanks'.

"Aww, come on," urged Willow. "E.T. and Drew Barrymore can't be wrong."

Tara's reply was distracted, almost offhand. "I'm not really hungry right now. Maybe later?"

Sensing the blonde's discomfort, Willow set the bowl on a small table in front of her and frowned worriedly. "You okay? If you don't wanna be here, we can go. I mean, you know, it's Buffy's birthday – being here probably isn't too healthy anyway."

"No," insisted Tara. "You should be here. You should- You should try to make up with Buffy."

The redhead frowned and shot a bitter glance across the room toward her best friend. "Sure, just as soon as she stops acting like we're at orange alert on the ‘Buffyland Security Advisory System'."

"That doesn't sound very make-up-y," Tara gently chastised.

"Yeah, well ..." Willow muttered, waving a hand in muted defense. "I bought her a Lite Brite."

The blonde stifled a smirk. "And I'm sure she'll love it. But it's her birthday. Come on, you know you don't like anything even remotely grumpy on your birthday." Tara crossed her arms decisively. "I seem to recall a two-hour speech to Miss Kitty on the ‘karmaness of birthdays' when she decided your laptop was perfectly prey-shaped and attacked. What was it now? Something about how everyone in the world has a sacred duty to make the birthday girl happy and smiling, with balloons and fluffy clouds..."

Willow hung her head in defeat. "Okay ..."

"...and didn't you work in something about daffodils and bundt cake?" pushed Tara.

"Okay, okay!" agreed a despairing Willow. "Geez, pull out the big guns!"

Tara smiled sweetly.

The redhead dragged herself up from the couch. "I'll go talk to her. I'll try to do the best friend bonding thing." She paused and turned to look at Tara, her expression deadly serious. "But if she starts goin' off about you again—"

"Just try," entreated the blonde. "Please."

Rolling her eyes, Willow gave a dramatic sigh. "I'm such a wuss."

Her step tentative, the redhead cautiously approached Buffy as Tara watched. The posture of both women was stiff and their demeanor unsure, but it was a start and at least they were talking – if only for the moment. Tara smiled warmly at the tentative reconciliation.

"Hey, look, Reece's," announced Kennedy loudly, appearing ostensibly out of nowhere and flopping down on the cushion next to Tara, where Willow had been sitting mere moments before. The Slayer had taken only minimal effort to dress for the occasion – a violet sateen shirt and pressed blue jeans. Around her neck, she sported a tie, fastened loosely beneath the collar of her shirt. It was airbrushed with the image of James Dean, leaning nonchalantly against a wall, thumbs hooked into his belt loops and the ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips.

The sudden arrival caused the blonde to jump nervously. Leaning forward, Kennedy grabbed the bowl and began to shovel a handful of the candy into her mouth. She offered some to Tara with a familiarity that was clearly false. Tara simply shook her head in a polite "No" and exuded a decidedly uncomfortable air.

Kennedy shrugged. "You just looked so lonely over here," she commiserated through her crunching. "You know. By yourself. Unsupervised." She shot Tara a quick glance. "Figured I'd keep you company."

Her smile tight, Tara nodded with what she hoped would be taken as a token of gratitude. Kennedy propped her feet on the table in front of her, presumably content with the lack of conversation, so long as the blonde was fully aware that the Slayer would be watching her every move. Kennedy slouched back into the depths of the couch, settled her shoulders and then relaxed, obviously prepared to spend the entire evening sitting right where she was, provided Tara did the same. Popping another handful of Reece's, Kennedy munched heartily and noisily. She half-turned to Tara with an encouraging grin. Somehow, she managed to make the gesture look more threatening than anything else.

With the gifts moved to the middle of the private room, and tables and couches having been cleared out of the way to leave a big open space, Buffy had assumed center stage and rested on her heels, knees tucked beneath her, on the floor. She was surrounded by presents – some opened, some yet to surrender their contents. To one side was a pile of books, a stack of CDs and an assortment of generic Bath and Body Works items. Beaming, the Slayer surveyed the faces, all focused on her. She sighed happily. Apart from the usual gang, there was quite a crowd, and even a good assortment of Watchers were in attendance.

Reaching for the smiley-face package, Buffy tore the wrapping from Dawn's gift. She tugged at the lid until the box revealed a blouse cushioned in white tissue paper. The Slayer gasped. The garment was fashioned from exceptionally fine pointelle silk, blush-pink in color with long sleeves, collar and cuffs covered in ivory Belgian lace, like that usually reserved for expensive bridal veils. The buttons were made of luminescent mother-of-pearl.

"Dawn," whispered Buffy. "This is ..."

The teenager was overjoyed at her sister's reaction. "You like it?" Impressed, Buffy nodded her approval. "And the best part is: share time!" enthused Dawn.

The Slayer pulled a little 'of course' face and then began to examine the blouse for any security tags.

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Hello, I bought it. I still have the receipt and everything if you don't believe me."

"How'd you get the money?" challenged Buffy with a frown.

"I beat up kids at the playground and took their lunch money," Dawn told her with crossed arms before stating emphatically, "I worked for it." She waved toward the Watcher. "I helped Giles organize his books and stuff, and ..." She pointed at the carpenter. "Xander paid me to clean up his workshop."

"Dawn's handy with a broom," the carpenter confided to Grip in a whisper. "Don't let her play the ‘undomesticated' card if you get hitched."

Grip smirked, but thankfully Dawn failed to hear the secret exchange, busy as she was leaning down eagerly to accept Buffy's anticipated hug.

"I love it, thank you," the Slayer told her and then stated with firmness, "You cannot borrow it."

"Aww," pouted Dawn.

Releasing her sister, Buffy refolded the blouse and carefully laid it on the tissue, setting it to one side with the rest of the opened presents. She held out her arms. "Gift me!" she commanded.

Giles swept the assembly with a questioning glance. "I suppose I'll go next, shall I?"

Since there were no objections, he reached for the long gold-foil box and placed it in Buffy's waiting hands. Eyes twinkling behind his glasses, he watched her rip at the paper and began to explain his choice. "We found this recently while reviewing various inventory houses left behind by the old Council. It was thought to have been lost centuries ago."

The gift now devoid of its wrapping, the Slayer lifted the lid and stared in awe. Before her was a katana sheathed within a scabbard which had been encased in bright sapphire-blue enamel. The burnished surface had become slightly muted with the passage of time, but it still shone with polished care. The end-fastenings of the scabbard and edges of the weapon's hilt appeared to be fashioned from pure gold, as was the singular image emblazoned upon the katana's case – a hummingbird sipping nectar from a flowering honeysuckle. The heavy silken cords enveloping the sword's handgrip were likewise sapphire in color, interspersed with threads of golden-yellow in a precise and alternating pattern.

For a moment, Buffy was speechless. "Giles ..." was all she eventually managed to whisper and the Watcher beamed as she reverently lifted the katana, absently-mindedly allowing the box which had held the treasure to fall to the floor in front of her. Her eyes glittered with admiration.

"It was the favored weapon of a Slayer known by the name ‘Yuugana Fumeiyo'," Giles told her. "She was, up until her death at the hands of a vampire in 1606, one of the oldest Slayers at 19-years of age."

With infinite caution, Buffy withdrew the katana from its scabbard, openly marveling at the gleam of the steel blade. The sole area of the sword that did not reflect a mirrored light was the sharpened and tempered edge which ran along its length – a zigzagging design created with a matte finish. The Slayer delicately touched the tip of the blade with her forefinger and let out a low whistle as Giles continued.

"She named her sword – that sword – ‘jiyuu tobitatsu'. It means ‘freedom flies'. She claimed that with this weapon at her side, she could never be bested in combat."

Standing side-by-side behind Buffy, eyes wide with blatant appreciation and a certain degree of envy, Faith and Kennedy had been listening as intently to Giles' story as had the Birthday Girl. Now, in unison, all three Slayers raised an eyebrow at this information, given that the original owner had been killed despite the weapon's purported power of protection. "She didn't happen to be carrying it at the time," Giles hastily added.

His gaze focused solely on Buffy. "It's my hope that Yuugana was correct, and that this sword will inspire and remind you that you can succeed at every challenge life throws in your path."

With a soppy smile, Buffy scrambled to her feet and wrapped her Watcher in a huge hug, the hilt of the katana still gripped tightly in her hand but held safely to one side.

Wholeheartedly returning the gesture, Giles gently kissed the top of the blonde head and when he was finally able to speak, his voice was strained from the force of Buffy's embrace. "Although wrestling challenges to the ground and choking them into submission works well also."

The room had fallen silent, wrapped up in the emotional exchange – even the blaring music seemed to have taken a momentary hiatus. Consequently, Tara's departure went unnoticed. Edging slowly away from the group, she soundlessly crossed to the exit. Then, with a final glance at the gathering, an expression of what appeared to be intense longing creeping over her face, the blonde slipped out of the room.

With a tiny sniffle, Buffy disentangled herself from the Watcher's arms and looked challengingly around the room. Immediately, everyone averted their eyes and began to mill about, chatting in an animated fashion about nothing in particular. For his part, Giles zealously polished his glasses, holding them up to the overhead light in concentrated inspection before returning them to his nose. Faith had taken full advantage of the situation to retrieve the scabbard that had been placed on the floor. She balanced it carefully on her palms, nodding with approval at its weight.

"So, B, you think maybe—"

Quickly retrieving the scabbard, Buffy sheathed the katana. "You cannot borrow it," she told Faith firmly.

"Aww," complained the dark-haired Slayer.

Assuming her former opening-presents position, Buffy set the weapon back in its box with due respect for its worth and pointed to the large gift wrapped in Powerpuff Girls paper.

"Okay Will," she grinned, "the suspense is killing me. What've we got?"

Gleefully, Willow hopped over to squat down next to her friend. "Okay, so, you know how Dawn busted your discman...?"

"Accidentally!" protested an indignant Dawn with a roll of her eyes.

Not surprisingly, given that she was still at Buffy's birthday celebrations, Willow's room was in darkness. However, there was a hovering presence. Reaching out a hand to the switch of a lamp sitting on a dresser near the door, Tara bathed the area in a soft glow. She lingered on the threshold for a moment, listening intently for any sounds of life but the house was, of course, empty. Turning her focus to the room, the blonde seemed to absorb the location of each and every item then, with a deep sigh and a resolute straightening of her shoulders, Tara entered, carefully depositing a bag of items on the top of the dresser.

Moving swiftly, she began to search the room. Her movements were somewhat frantic, but she took time to ensure that nothing would appear to have been disturbed. From her demeanor, it was obvious that she was seeking something very specific – however, she seemed to be doubtful regarding exactly what that certain something might be. She picked up a plush Pooh Bear from Willow's pillow and considered it for a second before returning it to the bed. The blonde then turned her attention to Willow's jewelry box and rifled through its contents, eventually extracting a small rose quartz dolphin suspended from a slim chain, but that too was soon returned to its former resting place. In turn, she studied a chrome-framed photograph and a small statue of a wolf howling at the moon that stood on the bookshelf. Each time, she cradled the object within her cupped hands and closed her eyes in heavy concentration, only to shake her head in a dissatisfied manner. Becoming increasingly frustrated and now nervously casting glances toward the door, Tara moved toward the dresser that housed the lamp illuminating the room and where sat the bag she had brought with her.

Breathing heavily, she tugged at the top drawer of the dresser and ransacked its contents. The search proved fruitless. The second and third drawers also yielded nothing. Becoming more anxious, Tara knelt down and pulled open the bottom drawer. Her hands swept through the jumble of clothing stored there until she met with something more solid and substantial than cotton and wool. Her eyes widened as she made contact with the item. About the size of a child's fist, the base was vaguely conical in shape with a crown of smooth, glass-like spears. Grasping it tightly, she drew it closer and closer, finally holding it under the light.

A shiver coursed through her body as she gazed at the doll's eye crystal. Obviously shaken, her expression was a confusing mixture of surprise, apprehension, sentimentality and more than a hint of sadness. With clouded eyes, Tara seemed to dwell for a moment on happier times but then, with a determined and decisive clip of her head, it became abundantly clear that this crystal fell squarely within the category of that certain something she had been seeking.

Grabbing the bag, she moved swiftly to the center of the room and knelt, facing the door. Hurriedly, she emptied the bag of its contents: two large, fat candles – one black and one white – which could stand alone without a holder; numerous tiny packets of assorted herbs; a small oval pewter bowl; a book of matches; a sheet of glossy computer paper bearing the image of a solitary but smiling short-haired Willow; a small square mirror with no handgrip; and the final item, a long, thin, double-bladed knife which, without looking, Tara laid atop the redhead's image, its blade resting on her throat.

Standing at the bar, Xander raised his voice to be heard over the noise and continued shouting his order. "... Jack an' Coke, Tequila Sunrise, Zipperhead, an' two Sprites."

The bartender put a hand to his ear. "What was the last one?"

"Two Sprites," bellowed the carpenter. "Just plain Sprite."

With a nod, the bartender headed off to make the drinks.

"Which does not belong?" inquired a voice from behind.

Startled, Xander turned to see Serafina. His face split into a broad smile. "Oh, hey."

"What's the Sprite," she asked curiously, "some new trend in chasers?"

"Nah," the carpenter grinningly dismissed. "It's for my best friend's kid sister and her new little cuddle monkey. They're minors."

Serafina's dark eyes twinkled. "And yet they're allowed to be called ‘cuddle monkeys'. Interesting world you inhabit."

"You have no idea," puffed Xander. He gestured at the woman's arm, where his telephone number was still blatantly visible. "I warned ya."

"Hm?" queried Serfina and then followed his gaze. "Oh, no, this is great. When guys ask me for my number, I'm just gonna flash ‘em this one. Should save much time and aggravation. So, yeah, heads up for the phone tomorrow."

Xander smirked. "Just think of the bafflement when I answer. I can hardly wait." He paused for a moment and stared at the dance floor before asking, "So, can I buy you a drink?"

Serafina frowned. "I should have one coming." She leaned toward the bar and in a pointedly raised voice added, "Any day now!"

Xander cocked his head in appreciation of her gumption. "You sure?" he questioned. "I figure, you being a client an' all, I can write it off on my taxes."

Serafina appeared to give the proposition dutiful consideration. "You make a convincing argument," she told him.

"I would'a been a lawyer," confided the carpenter, "‘cept they had this whole crazy ‘college' thing."

"And," added Serafina with conviction, "lawyers are evil."

Xander seemed inclined to agree. "But they sure dress real pretty."

Serafina grinned and Xander delighted in making her laugh.

Upstairs in the private room, Buffy poked in a distracted fashion among the debris of wrapping paper and ribbons littering the floor to see if there were any more presents to be had, but the cupboard had finally been stripped bare. The crowd of guests had now thinned considerably – some having called it a day and still others having taken off to dance away the remainder of the night. Willow had turned into a busy bee, grabbing armfuls of shredded gift-wrap and stuffing it into a large plastic bin while transporting the presents to a safe place. Off to one side, Giles was talking to Dawn and Grip, although from Dawn's expression, he might well have been delivering some type of lecture and Buffy, inbetween her absent-minded poking, cast anxious glances at the doorway.

"Geez," declared the huffing redhead, "big time loot here. It's like ... like the Birthday Sheep just came and opened her Wooly Pouch of Gifting and dumped it all over you!"

With a frown that clearly indicated 'the girl's insane', the Slayer pulled her gaze from the door to regard Willow. "Birthday ... Sheep," she repeated in flat tone.

"Well sure," replied Willow. "Don't you think it's weird that every other major holiday gets some sort of anthropomorphic representation but not birthdays? That's just unfair."

Buffy's face was a study in perplexity. "But a sheep."

The redhead shrugged. "I was runnin' outta cute little fluffy animals."

Frowning in complete bewilderment, Buffy nearly missed the movement at the entrance to the room. She turned to see Kennedy standing there with a seriously worried look invading her features, curtly shaking her head at the blonde's query delivered via a carefully arched eyebrow.

Buffy bit her bottom lip and moved toward Willow.

"So where's Tara? " she asked as casually as her concern would allow. "I haven't seen her in a while."

"She said she wasn't feelin' too good," the redhead told Buffy with a tinge of regret. "So she went to the little girl's room. I think she's stressin' a bit, being in big crowds?" She gathered yet another stack of presents and carried them to the gift-receiving table.

The blonde Slayer fought hard to maintain a neutral mask as Willow turned and reached for her hand. "Buffy ..." she began, her voice laden with sincerity. "I just wanted you to know that what you said earlier, about really giving Tara a chance? It meant ..." The redhead shook her head, searching for the right words. "I can't tell you what it meant to me. That's all I've wanted, just a chance for you to see the real her."

Buffy squeezed the fingers interlaced with her own. "That's all I've been waiting for, Will."

Warmly returning the answering smile, Buffy turned her gaze to the doorway as Willow scooped up the last remnants of wrapping paper. The Slayer's eyes narrowed as the smile faded from her lips, replaced by an expression of inexorable resolve and grim determination.

Act Four

In the center of Willow's room, Tara sat crossed-legged on the floor, hands resting on her knees with palms turned upward. The doll's eye crystal was within easy reach. Her eyes were closed and she appeared quite relaxed. The blonde's lips moved in a soundless incantation as her fingers instinctively sought out the nearby photograph of Willow. Taking a deep breath, Tara began to chant in a low and even voice. The timbre of the words held an almost melodious quality until an unexpected interruption shattered the witch's absorption.

"Fancy meeting you here."

Tara's eyes instantly opened wide in alarm and focused upon the figure standing in the open doorway. "B-Buffy!"

The image of the redhead fluttered to the floor as it slipped from Tara's grasp and Buffy watched its descent with narrowed eyes. "Quite a Kodak moment, wouldn't you say?" she queried, her tone menacing.

"I can't let you stop me," stated the witch with conviction.

"Funny," retorted the Slayer. "I was just thinking the same thing. Only it involved more me hitting you and you stopping."

Offering no response to the threat, Tara quickly turned her attention to the crystal before her. Her expression was dour and determined as she uttered a few more words, apparently in a rush to complete the disrupted enchantment. "Aperio profectio obviam il terminus!"

"No!" cried out Buffy as she lunged forward, but the Slayer's attack was suddenly brought to an abrupt halt by Tara's upraised hand.

Frozen in place, Buffy struggled violently against the restrictive barrier holding her back. Strain showing plainly on her face, Tara fought to maintain the force, but it quickly become obvious that Buffy would win the battle for control and the witch would soon run out of time. Swiftly diverting her attention to the likeness of Willow, Tara watched the picture begin to disintegrate. Horrified, the Slayer renewed her crusade to break free but could do nothing to stem the obliteration of the image. The ashes that remained began to spiral upward and then drift toward the doll's eye crystal, which consumed the particles in their entirety and adopted an ominous glow.

Skirt hitched up to her knees and with a worried frown, Willow took the stairs leading to the second level of the Vortex two at a time. Bursting into the private room, she spied Grip and Dawn chatting, seated close together on one of the couches. She hurried toward them.

"Dawn!" she demanded breathlessly. "Have you seen Buffy?"

The teenager considered for a moment. "Not for a while. She rushed outta here, muttering something about—"

But Willow declined to remain for the rest of Dawn's answer.

Dawn blinked at the redhead's retreating back. "Bye then."

"Your family is strange," declared Grip before adding, "Which is cool. I mean, you know. Any girl could have, like, an overweight dad and a brain-dead sister, but you ... You've got, like ... Well, I honestly don't really know how to classify everyone, but I know it's not overweight and brain-dead."

"Yeah," agreed Dawn, "but you know, I could do with a dose of normality for a nice change of pace."

Grip offered an open bag of chips, giving the contents a brisk shake. "Will you settle for Doritos instead?"

In Willow's room, Buffy leveled a forceful punch at the invisible field of entrapment that was immediately followed by a bright flash. Still sitting, Tara visibly recoiled as her head jerked backward, almost as though she had personally taken the full brunt of the blow. Without hesitation, the Slayer broke free and, rushing forward, kicked the crystal to one side along with the other components of Tara's spell. Skidding slightly, both the knife and the crystal stopped short of disappearing beneath the bed. Seizing her by the shirt, Buffy hauled Tara to her feet.

"I knew it!" she spat between clenched teeth, shaking Tara so violently that the witch's neck whipped back and forth. "Give me a reason. Give me one good reason to not take you out right now."

Dropping her gaze, Tara provided no response. The Slayer shook her again until Tara was obliged to look her attacker in the eye.

"No," warned a furious Buffy. "No, you do not get to do that whole shy, demure thing! Do you know how hard this is?! Do you even care?"

An expression of anger crept into Tara's features and she clenched her hands into tight fists held stiffly against her sides. "Yes I care! I care—!" The burst of anger evaporated, leaving Tara looking drained. "...I care more than you know. You- You don't understand."

"Well then why don't you explain it to me? Huh?" enjoined Buffy, ignoring the tears that were prickling at her eyelids. "How could you do this to us? Why her?"

Tara swallowed as her face dissolved into one of commiseration. "Sweetie ..." she murmured.

"Don't you dare!" raged Buffy, giving the figure before her yet another ferocious shake. "Don't you dare act like her. You think that's gonna stop me?"

The answer was a resigned whisper. "... no."

Shoving Tara viciously against the wall, the Slayer brought up her forearm and pressed it across the witch's throat. Teeth bared, Buffy was the epitome of vengeful retribution and Tara gasped for breath as the pressure on her windpipe increased, effectively cutting-off what little oxygen remained. Then, with a blinding bolt of light and heat, the Slayer found herself being hurled backward and away from the choking witch. Tara tipped to the side and fell to her knees, chest heaving in its urgent search for life-sustaining air.

As Buffy made heavy contact with the opposite wall, her head swiveled toward the open doorway. Almost simultaneously, Tara raised her streaming eyes in the same direction. There stood Willow, radiating an intensity of rage that made the Slayer's former displays of anger pale in comparison to a mild form of petulance. The redhead's posture was undoubtedly dangerous, but what was most immediately striking were the eyes – twin unfathomable pools of deep, endless black.

Willow's declaration was flat and virtually devoid of emotion. "I'm gonna stop you."

Appearing rushed and a little irritated, Giles hurried into the private room, cell phone pressed closely to his ear. Finding the area empty, he closed the door firmly behind him and although the music still managed to trickle in from outside, it was severely muffled.

He breathed a sigh of relief into the receiver. "There, now perhaps we can hold a civilized conversation."

At the perimeter of an immense crater located in a sunset-drenched desert, Hannah nodded briefly at the sound of the Watcher's voice. Behind her, Wood was climbing out of the huge pit, which was virtually all that remained of the town formerly known as Sunnydale. Both Hannah and Wood were covered from head to toe in a thick gray dust – as was the littered array of gear they had brought with them and an SUV parked nearby.

"Not enjoying the scintillating sounds of ..." Hannah paused and concentrated on the muted strains which filtered through the phone. "Is that Avril Lavigne?"

"I have no idea and less inclination to find out," Giles replied impatiently. "How are you, did everything go smoothly?"

Hannah grimaced as she tried to shake off the ashen particles clinging to her blonde hair. "It was more than a little creepy, but quiet. We had to move slowly, due to the fact that the entire town threatened to crash down around us at any moment, but no problems." Glancing back toward the ruins, she raised an eyebrow. "I sincerely hope Sunnydale looked better when you lived here."

"Marginally," the Watcher admitted dryly. "What did you discover?"

Hannah nodded to Wood as he began to load the gear into the SUV. "Amazingly, there appears to be precious little disturbed. We followed the trail to what, based on the debris scattered around the area, appeared to be a cemetery."

Giles blanched at the news. "What?" he uttered in a tight voice.

"A cemetery," reiterated his ex-wife. "We couldn't be completely certain of course, but there were a rather unpleasant number of caskets, and the ruins of crypts and statues all over the area. Perhaps they were looking for an artifact of some sort? You mentioned an inordinate amount of them turned up on the Hellmouth."

"A body," the Watcher realized.

"Yes, I suppose that's also possible," agreed Hannah, not seeming to consider the suggestion as disturbing as Giles did. "There's certainly enough of them around. But to go to all this trouble, it must've been for someone very specific, else why bother?"

"They had to have it," Giles murmured and it was almost as though he were talking to himself. "They couldn't have brought her back without it."

Hannah frowned. "Bring who back? Rupert, what are you talking about?"

The Watcher either failed to hear the question or chose to ignore it. His eyes widened and glimmered with apprehension behind the lenses of his glasses as he severed the connection. "Buffy ..."

With surprisingly little effort, Willow was holding Buffy fast by the employment of her magick. The Slayer's feet dangled uncomfortably a few inches above the floor and although she thrashed with all her might against the restrictive force, her efforts were proving fruitless. As though enveloped within a raging storm, the redhead's energy appeared to be emanating in spikes that literally crackled.

"You lied to me," Willow snarled.

Buffy vehemently protested. "I didn't! You don't understand, she was—"

"You lied!" yelled the redhead in a tone that brooked no further interference. "You told me – You looked me in the eye and you told me you were going to give her a chance. You wanted her back too, you told me that!"

"And I do!" the Slayer insisted, refusing to be cowed. "But Will, that thing—"

Buffy's body twitched in agony as Willow's fingertips inflicted another spasm of pain. "She is not a thing!"

"—it was casting a spell on you! Just stop and look around!" came the desperate explanation.

But Willow ignored the commands, her entire demeanor indicating an absolute and infrangible lack of concern.

Behind the redhead, Tara was now breathing normally once more, her gaze transfixed upon the scenario being played out before her. Slowly, she reached for the doll's eye crystal, its depths pulsating with a dark flicker. Cradling it within her palm, Tara began to extend her trembling hand toward Willow before pausing in a moment of dread. Then, swallowing hard, she increased the focus of her attention. Instantly, the crystal appeared to take on a life of its own. Seeming to immediately absorb all source of surrounding light, the crystal glowed as though it were made of luminous ebony silica. Tears coursed down Tara's cheeks at the grim transformation and she looked as though her heart were breaking. Fearfully and with regret, her gaze traveled to Willow, whose hunched shoulders and squared stance only strengthened Tara's conviction that the redhead's malice was continuing to soar.

"You want to take her away from me!" Willow accused Buffy with a narrowed frown, her tone almost childish in its peevishness.

"I am trying to keep you safe!" countered the despairing Slayer.

Trapped in a wave of overwhelming emotion, Tara choked down her rising fear and searched wildly for a solution to this confrontation. Her eyes alighted on the black-handled dagger and she scrambled for the knife with something akin to relief. She held the weapon loosely between her fingers, regarding it with awe as though it was something foreign to her. Then, with a resolute setting of her jaw, she tightened her grip and rose to her feet. Taking a bold step forward, she focused on a point between Willow's shoulder blades, the dagger clenched in a deathlike grasp at her side.

Willow threw Buffy a caustic smile and her words dripped with lethal calm. "I told you nothing would take her away from me again."

The Slayer shook her head in disbelief. "Willow, would you look at yourself?" she urged. "Do you want to be this again? Would Tara want you to be this?"

Tara hesitated at the accusation. She lowered the arm that had been pulled back in a strike position, its fist curled around the knife that stood ready to plunge into Willow's back. Holding her breath, Tara waited.

"I don't care. I don't—" avowed the redhead, but her tone was far from certain.

The Slayer leapt upon this potential opportunity for salvation. "You do care, and you know it. Willow, this is against everything that Tara stood for. Her memory deserves—"

"Shut up!" the redhead commanded. With a flick of her chin, Willow promptly put an end to Buffy's dissertation. The Slayer's hands scrabbled frantically at her throat. Not only was she no longer able to talk, she was also unable to breathe. Alarmed at the turn of events, Tara held the dagger aloft once more, knuckles showing white against the skin.

"I need ..." Locked in desperation, Willow visibly struggled. "I need ..."

Pausing again, Tara's step faltered, although her raised arm remained rigid and poised.

The redhead blinked rapidly at Buffy, seeming to realize for the first time what she had been about to do. "Tara, I—" Her mouth quivered. "Oh god, Buffy."

Apprehensively, Tara opened her left hand. The crystal still gripped there emitted a strange glow and Tara held it up with a wondering expression. Formerly dark as pitch, the interior of the doll's eye crystal was now beginning to shift – slowly at first, but swiftly gaining momentum. The color glimmered black for a moment and then reflected a silvery gray. The ensuing shimmy transformed the crystal to a blindingly pure white. As though captured in something of a flux, the crystal vacillated between these colors, seeming to be experiencing an inner conflict for control. Tara gazed upon it in utter confusion and then, she allowed a tiny trace of hope to penetrate as Willow released her magickal hold on the Slayer.

Buffy dropped like a stone, her feet landing on the floor with a resounding thump. Sucking in great gasps of rasping air, she staggered back to hit the wall and Willow rushed to her immediately.

"Buffy! Oh god, are you alright?"

Still clutching at her throat, the Slayer nodded, but her eyes widened in panic as, over Willow's shoulder, she spied Tara – the knife clenched in her fist and braced as though ready to deliver a fatal blow. Engrossed as she was in the changing crystal, Tara failed to notice as Buffy thrust Willow behind her, effectively placing herself between the two witches.

Willow was instantly alarmed. "What are you—?"

And then she could see what Buffy was seeing. The redhead regarded Tara with something akin to confusion, although the expression was mild in nature, given the circumstances. "Baby?" she queried softly.

At the familiar term of endearment, Tara's gaze moved from the doll's eye crystal to Willow and then back again. Its interior was engulfed only with white now – a pure and virtuous glow. Appearing totally stricken, Tara's face was a jumble of far too many emotions to be easily discerned. Grimacing with disgust, she tossed the athame to one side, drawing on all the strength she could muster to ensure that it landed as far away as possible.

Cupping the shimmering crystal in both hands, she held it out toward Willow. "I—"

But Tara never got to finish her explanation. Suddenly, the mirror over Willow's dresser began to reflect a rich blue that permeated the entire room and enveloped it in an ethereal light. The glow pulsated; breathing, it seemed, with a life of its own.

"Miss Maclay," boomed a voice. "Since it seems clear you are not going to perform the task which we dispatched you to complete, you have rather outlived your usefulness. But we thank you for providing riveting entertainment."

As the mirror fell dark once more, the fabric of Tara's shirt that covered her heart began to flare. It licked hungrily at the material to reveal the mark of the Circle, blazing as it had done before with Judith. Horrified, Tara looked down at herself and then at Willow, her expression indicating the all too apparent belief that she was about to die. She murmured only one word. "Willow ..."

The redhead's response was instantaneous. "No."

The solitary proclamation was one of absolute defiance, stated with utter composure and unerring conviction. It was undeniably obvious that Willow had no intention of allowing this to happen. Her singular statement carried the ring of irrefutable truth. It was a fact – plain and simple – and the redhead extended her hand without displaying even the slightest evidence of concentration.

Confounded and unsure of what to do, Buffy looked from Willow to Tara and then from Tara to Willow, an exercise she performed several times before the area surrounding the redhead suddenly erupted into a wall of white fire. Instantly, Tara became engulfed with the same inferno. Closing their eyes, both witches rolled their heads in unison as the flares emanating from Circle's mark were contained. Momentarily, the area continued to smolder with a greater degree of intensity then, as quickly as they had materialized, the flames were smothered and the mark of the Circle had burned away in its entirety, leaving no lingering trace whatsoever. However, where the brand had been, there was now a cauterized scar in its exact shape. Its appearance was raw, pink and puckered, but it looked somehow natural – the body's way of healing a terrible wound.

As the flare snapped out of existence, both Willow and Tara lurched. Managing to catch the redhead before she hit the floor, Buffy laid her down with great care and then turned immediately to Tara.

"Alright," she demanded. "What the hell is going on?"

"It's over now," an exhausted Willow told her.

"Over?" questioned the Slayer incredulously. "What's over?" She raised up from the kneeling position she had assumed by Willow's side and continued to direct her interrogation toward Tara. "What was that voice, what did mean, you won't ‘perform the task'?"

Although sounding equally as tired as Willow, the blonde witch appeared somewhat less drained by the harrowing ordeal. "To k-kill Willow. They wanted me— I thought I ..."

Tara paused and looking to Willow, met the steady gaze of the redhead's eyes.

"But I won't," she continued. The smile she gave Willow was one of immense pride. "I don't have to."

Willow returned Tara's smile with one of her own, which only served to enhance Buffy's confusion. Tara's following statement did little to alleviate the Slayer's obvious state of discombobulation.

"But I would have," the blonde witch informed Buffy, her smile slipping and her tone matter-of-fact. "And I know what you have to do," she added quietly.

With much effort, Tara stood up straight and tall. She held her arms away from her sides slightly – a gesture of acceptance for what she firmly believed was about to transpire. Thus exposed to Buffy's expected retribution, she offered no retaliation and expressed no defense for what she knew had been perceived as an ultimate act of betrayal. With eyes wide, Willow struggled to get up from the floor, but her energy was totally spent and she was unable to move.

Nonetheless, the redhead managed one plaintive cry. "Tara, no!"

With a smile laced in sorrow, Tara looked upon Willow's ravaged face. The exchange lingered, almost as though Tara were committing the moment to memory. Seeming to radiate an aura of peace, she turned back to Buffy with an air of serenity and sufferance as she patiently waited.

Buffy stumbled to find the words. "I ... I don't understand."

Tara declined to respond. She simply waited.

"Buffy, please!" implored Willow, somehow finding sufficient strength to struggle to her feet. "She didn't ... She thought she had to!"

But Buffy wasn't listening. The Slayer scrutinized Tara with a piercing gaze. Slowly, a gleam of recognition seemed to invade the searching eyes, almost as though Buffy were seeing the woman in front of her for the first time. "Oh god," she whispered.

For a long moment, Buffy simply stared as her eyes welled and her stoic demeanor began to crumble. Hot tears spilled to scald her cheeks, and she emitted one lone, strangled sob. It was soon followed by another and then another, until the Slayer's body was wracked with tremors and she buried her face in her hands. Initially, Tara could only blink in astonishment. Then the implication of what she was seeing soon registered, and her own face folded in sympathy. Moving to Buffy's side, she gathered the anguished Slayer into her arms.

"It's okay," she comforted softly. "Shh, it's okay ..."

Clasping Tara closely, Buffy enveloped the blonde a gigantic hug, crying even harder at the soothing embrace. Standing unsteadily to one side, Willow too was indulging tearfully but jubilantly in the touching reunion.

The sound of feet pounding up the stairs went virtually unnoticed by the three women until Giles' voice invaded the hushed atmosphere. "Buffy! Buffy," he called with some urgency. "It's her! It's Tara! Buffy—"

Coming to an abrupt stop at the doorway, the Watcher drank in the scene that presented itself. Immediately behind, Xander also screeched to a halt. The two men regarded each other solemnly for a moment and then their eyes returned to the room. Neither seemed to know what to say.

Smiling through her tears, Willow glanced in their direction. "She knows, Giles. She knows."

"I've been alive again for ... about a month now?" Apparently, Tara was far from certain. "I'm not exactly sure. The days all sort of ran together."

In the living room of the house, now dressed in an old t-shirt and jogging pants, Tara was huddled in Xander's chair, distancing herself for the moment from everyone and everything. Willow sat on one end of the couch, looking somewhat better but still appearing rather wiped out from the earlier experience. Xander was next to Willow, an arm draped protectively but unobtrusively over the back of the sofa. At the other end of the couch, by the carpenter's side, sat Dawn, hands clasped loosely in her lap.

As Giles absorbed Tara's story, he paced back and forth, whereas Buffy, her arms crossed and back rigid, watched Tara intently as she spoke. The Slayer's posture was no longer threatening, but a defensive air continued to linger. Displaying no outward evidence of her previous emotional display, Buffy's expression reflected chiefly confusion with a tinge of anger. Nonetheless, everyone listened raptly as Tara continued.

"It was hard. At first. I had a lot of ... My body sort of had to get strong again, you know? And before that, I was ..." Frowning, Tara shook her head as though deciding to drop that train of thought.

"They told me I'd been brought back to fight something evil," she told them in a small voice before looking up and deliberately concentrating her gaze. "Willow."

Ashamed, the redhead averted her eyes and allowed her head to droop. Xander looked from Tara to Willow and then back to Tara once more. His arm curled around Willow's shoulder. She shot him a grateful glance before returning her focus to the floor. As for Dawn, she recoiled as though someone had just informed her that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were running a drug trafficking and prostitution ring in Tijuana. Giles displayed little reaction to this news, although his eyebrow twitched involuntarily upward, and Buffy merely aborbed the information as though what Tara had just revealed was common knowledge.

Tara waited for a second, gathering her thoughts. After several moments, during which silence reigned, the blonde resumed her tale.

"I didn't believe them. Not at first. But then they began to tell me stories. About W-W-Warren. And then they ... There was a scrying pool. They made me watch. Again and again, and I wasn't so sure anymore."

Tara squirmed uncomfortably in her seat and blinked several times, as if she were reliving the enforced images all over again.

"They told me about the other spell, the one to activate all the Slayers?" She leaned forward and it was obvious that at this point, her comments were directed solely at Willow. "You were redeemed, they said, but that the power ... There was so much. Too much. Nobody could have that much power and stay in control. It was only a matter of time ..."

Sighing, she leaned back in her chair. "If you slipped again, there was no more redemption. They said if you gave in to the power, if you let it control you again ... there would be no peace for you. Not ever."

"What are we talkin'," interrupted Xander sharply, "like a ‘soul damned for all time' kind of thing? Eternity in hell, no hope for parole?" He stared pointedly at Tara, waiting for a reply.

Hugging her knees, Tara met the carpenter's inquiry only briefly before nodding and then looking down, hair falling to cover her face.

"So," persisted Giles not missing a stride, "you came here to kill her, before she could damn herself."

"Yes," agreed Tara, her tone soft.

"But you had chances," Buffy pointed out, trying to make sense of what she was hearing. "You could've killed her before any of us even knew you were back."

Raising her head, Tara looked Buffy straight in the eye. "They might've been wrong. I couldn't just ..."

Also lifting her head, Willow looked up and threw Tara a quick, reassuring smile, although the gesture quickly became self-effacing. "I'm sorry I let you down."

"You didn't," assured Tara. "That's when I knew they were wrong. It'll be hard, Will, and you'll probably have to struggle your whole life. But you're stronger than the power, you always have been. You just had to learn that for yourself."

"But the spell ..." persisted a frowning Buffy.

Tara attempted to expand on her explanation. "The spell was to show me the source of Willow's power. I had to see it for myself. I had to know before I ... before I did ... anything."

"Okay, but the ..." Xander gestured to his chest, the spot over his heart. "The mark of badness. I mean, you were obviously workin' with some nasties, an' they obviously wanted you to killster the Willster. But now – what? Some flashy special effects an' that's all gone? How do we know you're not still under their control or anything?"

"She's not," Willow stated with utmost confidence as every head in the room turned in her direction. "The link, between her and them. I severed it, it's closed. I can't sense it any more."

The carpenter turned to face her. "No offense, but how can you be so sure? You didn't sense it before."

Wringing her hands, the redhead paused before answering. "I did."

The ensuing silence that permeated the room could have been cut with a knife.

Buffy titled her head as though she hadn't heard correctly. "You what?" she demanded in disbelief.

"I did. I-I could." She glanced at the Slayer and then immediately looked away as though it were impossible for her to meet Buffy's accusatory glare. "I knew."

"You knew?" echoed the Slayer, her tone incredulous. "You knew she was here with some evil plan and you just, what? Let it go?" Throwing her hand to the side, she glowered at Willow. "You could've said something! What if Tara hadn't decided to put in overtime and get her own info? Do you know what kind of danger you were in? What kind of danger we were in? You didn't know what she was even here for!"

The challenge was met with convincing denial. "I did," the redhead insisted. "They wouldn't have—"

"They wouldn't have sent Tara for anyone else," Giles announced firmly, his incessant pacing finally coming to a halt as he became the focus of everyone's attention. With a grave expression, the Watcher removed his glasses and seriously considered each face. "The best weapon for the best target. Bringing Tara back would have been ... terribly painful for all of us. But a-as a weapon, she was only really effective against Willow. With the kind of power they must have at their disposal to achieve the sort of resurrection the Covens told me about, there are few they could not raise. Had they wanted to hurt you or Dawn, Buffy, who do you think they would have sent?"

"Mom," whispered the teenager, catching Buffy's eyes.

"Or Anya for Xander," continued the Watcher, "or ..." He dropped that line of thought, pausing for a moment, before further explaining. "We each have experienced a loss that affects us more than any other. Tara could bring out that kind of vulnerability in one person only."

"Fine," Buffy grudgingly agreed, "but that still doesn't make it okay. She could've killed you, Will!"

Willow hesitated in providing a response. Then, with eyes fixed on Tara, she stated quietly, "If I was so evil that she thought I had to die ..." She allowed her voice to trail away.

The blonde looked stricken that Willow had been aware of the subterfuge almost from the beginning and had so readily turned over her fate. She searched Willow's face, but found no trace of blame. An aura of uneasiness enveloped the room and no one seemed to know what to say. It was Giles who eventually shattered the troubled silence.

"Tara, I presume you won't mind if we double-check?" he asked replacing his glasses. "Make certain that there are no lingering traces of any connection, verify what we can? I have some members of a Coven in England who have offered to come and assist us. Perhaps we can find out more about the spell used to bring you back, and its casters."

She threw him a tiny smile of accord. "Of course."

"Excellent," declared the Watcher, his tone lightening. "I'll contact them in the morning." Tara nodded her assent. "Until that time," urged Giles, infusing his voice with optimism, "I suggest we all get some rest. Tomorrow will be a new day."

The Circle's main room was empty, save for Madrigan and Seneca. As the former knelt to pour over the casting circle, the latter watched from behind. A flare of bright, blinding white filled the room before dissipating and, for a moment, both continued to simply stare at the marking. Then, Madrigan turned to Seneca with a broad grin.

"Blinded by the light," he sniggered.

Wearing amber-tinted Ray Bans and holding a giant glass bowl filled with popcorn, Seneca tossed a handful into his mouth and munched appreciatively. As Madrigan moved to take a seat, Seneca followed and two chairs slid obligingly into place to accommodate them. Seneca deposited the bowl on the table in front of him, not bothering to shed the sunglasses as he settled down comfortably.

"Sorry about us losing Miss Maclay," commiserated Madrigan. "I know you liked her."

Seneca shrugged a little, then gestured with his head toward a magazine lying further down the table. It lifted of its own accord and turned toward Madrigan displaying its cover. The publication was a current copy of "MAD" with Alfred E. Newman all too prominent.

"What, me worry?" grinned Madrigan. Its task complete, the magazine was promptly returned to its former resting place and Madrigan leaned back in his chair. "About what?" he queried curiously. "Maclay actually killing her? Nah. We worked out it was – what? A hundred to one odds she'd actually go through with it? And if she did, then okay, we're set back. We've been waiting this long. It'll all happen again."

He threw out his arms. "But hey, she didn't. And everything's right on track." Grinning with delight from ear to ear, Madrigan got to his feet. He was every inch the happy little mage.

"Now c'mon," he cajoled. "This calls for a celebration – I think Lifetime's got a ‘Suddenly Susan' marathon."

With a huge grin, Seneca also stood, the bowl of popcorn rising from the table and following him from the room.

"I'm in a pizza mood," announced Madrigan without turning around. "You feel like Dominos or Papa John's?"

"Don't you love her?" asked Dawn, her voice full of youth and confusion.

"More than anything," Tara stated with infinite conviction.

"But then why?" the teenager demanded. She shook her head. "I don't understand."

Both were in the otherwise abandoned living room. The remainder of the house was now dark and quiet – a sense of everyone else being fast asleep was the overriding impression. Tara still sported her t-shirt and sweats, Dawn opting for a tank top and pair of boxers, although she had wrapped herself in a warm blanket to stave off the chill. They shared the couch, talking in low voices.

The blonde pondered seriously and long over Dawn's question before providing an answer.

"If something horrible happened," she began slowly, "and Buffy got turned into a vampire ... would you dust her, despite how much you don't want to? Or would you let her kill people, knowing that the real Buffy would never ever want that?"

Dawn gave this an equal amount of consideration as Tara had given to her own query.

"... wow, " she eventually murmured.

"Yeah," agreed the witch.

"Wow," murmured Dawn for a second time.

Tara agreed again. "Yeah."

Lost in thought, the teenager twisted her fingers for what seemed to be a very long time.



Having climbed the stairs, Tara moved soundlessly toward her room. The door exhibited a bright and cheery sign, decorated with rainbows and winged faeries, which happily proclaimed it to most certainly be "The Tara Room".

As she approached Willow's bedroom, the blonde hesitated and, for a second, moved toward it but then stopped and continued on to her own room instead. Her hand was on the knob when Willow's door opened and Tara quickly turned. Given what she had recently been through, the redhead's demeanor was oddly calm. However, it was blatantly apparent from the state of her hair that she had been in bed, although judging from the fatigue in her eyes, sleep had been no easy conquest. "Hey," she smiled.

"Hey," returned Tara shyly.

For several seconds, the two women maintained their distance. Then, in unison, they both took a few steps forward and met on middle ground.

"You okay?" asked Willow anxiously.

"I don't know," Tara hesitantly confessed. "No? Maybe?"

Willow's arms twitched, as though they wanted nothing more than to gather the blonde in a loving embrace, but she took no action to that end. "I'm really sorry."

"For what?" queried Tara, her lips curling into a tiny smile. "I'm pretty sure I'm the one who should be all Sorry Woman."

The redhead shook her head bitterly. "If it wasn't for me—"

"If it wasn't for you," interrupted Tara gently, "a lot of stuff never would've happened. Some of it's bad, yeah, but a lot of it's good, too. You have so much potential in you, Will. It's up to you which way it goes."

Willow's shoulders drooped. "Sometimes it's just so ... hard. You know? Once you see that darkness in you, once you know what you're capable of ... I-It's like you become this whole new person, and ... you have to learn how to live with you all over again."

The upper corner of the blonde's mouth twitched upward in a smirk. "I kinda get that."

"Yeah," Willow chuckled softly. "Yeah, I guess you do."

The prevailing silence which followed fell somewhere between uncomfortable and not so much. It was Willow who broke the hush.

"You wanna come in?" The redhead jerked her head backward toward her room. "Just for a while. Just to ... talk, or- or whatever. I mean – heh – here we are, all in the hall, all in our jammies. Least I got a heater in my room?" She flashed a hopeful, albeit goofy grin.

Tara's returning smile was nothing but sweetness, yet still, she shook her head. "I don't— I should really go in my own room."

Willow stifled her disappointment with admirable grace. "O-Okay. Sure, no problem, since, you know, it is your room and all, you're pretty much entitled to just go on in it whenever you want. No problem. And- And I'll just go. To my room. Which is over here." She unnecessarily pointed behind her.

With a quick nod, the blonde moved toward the door of her room and turned the handle. Stepping backward, Willow returned to her own room as well. Then, pausing on the threshold, she softly called Tara's name. Tara hesitated in the open doorway and looked over.

"You know I forgive you, right?" questioned the redhead, her tone unmistakably sincere. "Whatever you did do or would have done ... I forgive you."

With downcast eyes, Tara allowed this statement to fully sink into her consciousness before responding. Nodding briefly, she acknowledged the absolution and then regarded Willow with a wistful expression.

"But I don't forgive me," she whispered, entering her room and closing the door firmly behind her.

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