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."