The Chosen - S8 Logo

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Buffy and Willow walked down the main hall of Slayer Central. Both appeared to be in a good mood and the atmosphere between them was friendly and light.

"Do you think we should tell him?" asked the Slayer.

"But he seemed so proud," returned a pensive Willow.

"Yeah," agreed Buffy wistfully. "Feels kinda wrong to bust that."

The redhead nodded affirmatively. "It'd be like ... like telling a puppy you bought pre-chewed shoes."

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy shot Willow an odd look.

"Or something vaguely similar," Willow hastened to add.

The Slayer shrugged. "Well, I don't see any reason why we can't let him keep on believing it was all his doing."

"Still, being Xander and all, you think he'd've noticed we've been sort back to normal-y days ago," the redhead remarked thoughtfully. "Then we could've avoided all this marching into rooms and being shut in until—" Willow dropped her voice an octave and continued in a passable imitation of Xander. "'You two talk it out, remember that you're best friends, an' kiss-and-make-up'."

"Maybe he just wanted to shut us in a room together to see what happens," suggested Buffy.

The women walked in silence for a moment, considering that situation.

"Okay," said Willow tersely. "Disturbing implications, dropping subject."

Buffy quickly concurred. "Seconded. So how about you and Tara, how's things moving on that front?"

A small pout crossed the redhead's features. "No moving. I think the parking brake's stuck."

"She still feels bad, huh?" commiserated the blonde.

"I'm guessing so," replied Willow. "She won't really talk about it." Stopping short, the redhead laid a restraining hand on Buffy's arm. "I'm worried about her. I think she needs to let some stuff out. She shouldn't be Loner Gal on this, but i-it's like she's scared to even talk to me sometimes."

Buffy patted the encumbering fingers with sympathy. "Tara's been through a lot. From what little she's said, it sounds like it was different for her than it was for me, but still. It's pretty much the big perspective-shifting event. Plus ... she nearly killed you, Will."

"Hey, all with the not judging over here," the redhead was quick to state.

"No, and me neither," the Slayer hastily responded. She frowned, "Well, okay, a little judging, but, you know – I kinda have issues with people out to kill my best friend. It's a thing." Together, they resumed their walk. "I'm worried about her too, though," Buffy reflected.

Willow's tone was apprehensive. "Exactly. She needs to open up and let it out. I-If not with me, then with- with someone. But now with her getting her own place, she—"

"Do wha-huh?" spluttered Buffy. "Her own place?"

"Yeah." The redhead confirmed sadly. "She's going out to look for her own apartment this afternoon."

"But why?" questioned the concerned Slayer. "Did she say why?"

"Not really," admitted Willow, her stride slowing to a halt. Buffy too stopped and stared at Willow. The witch's expression was exceedingly troubled. "She's running away, Buffy. From ... me, or her, or- or 'us', whatever the heck that might be, cuz I sure don't know."

The redhead waved her hands in an ineffectual manner. When she next spoke, her voice began to break. "She hates me." She looked at Buffy, tears threatening to fall.

"Hey," insisted the Slayer. "Hey, she does not hate you. This whole mess, with the nearly-killing of you? That was so not about hate. She's just ... There's a lot of stuff going on with her right now. There's no way for us to know what happened to her, or how it changed her."

As Willow glanced away, Buffy moved to catch her eyes. "But there's one thing that hasn't changed: she loves you," the blonde assured with a definite clip of her jaw.

The redhead bit her bottom lip and threw Buffy a grateful if wavering smile. The Slayer nodded encouragingly, obviously wishing to fortify the air of hope, as doubtful as Willow might believe it to be. Then, she frowned. "But I don't like this 'moving out' thing. She really shouldn't be alone right now."

"Agreeing emphatically," stressed Willow.

"We can play the safety card?" Buffy offered as they resumed walking. "I mean, this is the second attempt on your life now, and our pyromaniac friends with the odd tattoo fetish obviously wanted Tara dead as well. That might convince her that moving out is of the bad."

"Maybe," responded the witch uncertainly. "But if she wants to ... leave, then I won't force her to stay. I want her to be happy." Willow's voice was tinged with sorrow. "Maybe she can only be happy if she's away from ... everything."

Apparently of the opinion that any answer at this point would only add fuel to the fire, Buffy simply gave Willow's shoulder a comforting squeeze and threw her a smile that radiated both support and ruefulness. The redhead tried her best to echo the proffered sentiment and seemed truly grateful for the gesture.

They came to a halt in front of a door and Buffy cocked her head. "This your stop?"

Taking a deep breath, the redhead stiffened her back. "Yup. I'm really overdue."

"It'll be fine," assured the Slayer. "Just be honest."

Willow nodded nervously and then turned her eyes to Buffy. "So what about you, what's next on your agenda?"

The blonde jerked her head over her shoulder. "I think I'm gonna go for a jog around the lake. Get outta here for a bit."

"A jog?" Willow quirked an astounded eyebrow. "It's like fifty-below out there!"

"A little exaggerated," the Slayer smirked, "but it'll be ... brisk. I'll be a brisk Buffy." She leaned in toward Willow with a confidential tone. "Besides, I don't think I can handle more time with Faith and Kennedy right now. Sub-arctic temperatures, definitely an improvement." The two women grinned at each other before Buffy turned to leave. "Good luck," the Slayer added, already trotting toward the exit.

"Enjoy the briskness that will be you," Willow called. Then, taking a deep and cleansing breath, she faced the door. Raising her hand, she rapped lightly.

"It's open," a voice responded.

Turning the handle, Willow entered. The room remained largely as undecorated and non-personalized as it was when Kennedy had first moved in. The overall appearance was somewhat generic and even sterile, with none of the "homey" air that enveloped the Scoobies' house. The Slayer, however, didn't seem to be overly concerned about the Spartan ambience. She lay on her stomach across the bed, Sun Tzu's The Art of War open in front of her. She glanced up as the door opened and twitched her eyebrows in recognition of the visitor.


"Yeah," the redhead corroborated. "Hi. It's me. Though I guess you figured that out already, what with the identifying word and all. Hi."

With a rather surprised expression, Kennedy raised herself to a sitting position and regarded Willow expectantly.

"I checked my schedule," the witch told her with a tiny smile. "It turns out that 'later' was approximately now. I-If you're not busy. If you're busy, then 'later' can be ... you know, later."

Kennedy shook her head. "Just reading about some old dead guys. They'll wait." She closed the book with a snap and placed it on a nearby side table. "C'mon in."

Nodding, Willow shut the door behind her. She twisted her fingers nervously – something which the Slayer's penetrating stare did little to alleviate. Nevertheless, she made a determined effort to calm down.

"I had a whole thing prepared," laughed the jittery redhead, "and I've forgotten every single word."

The Slayer shrugged dismissively. "I don't have a class until noon." She paused and regarded Willow soberly. "You will have remembered by noon, right?" Her tone was serious, but there was a playful twinkle in her eye.

Willow allowed herself a small smile. "Let's hope." She frowned before continuing. "So you know about the whole Tara thing, right?"

Kennedy's twinkle dimmed for a second. "This would be the whole thing where, ultimately, I was right, right?" At Willow's level gaze, the Slayer smirked. "Kidding." She shrugged again. "Mostly."

The atmosphere of geniality and good humour began to fade as the gravity of the situation started to settle in.

"You're still in love with her," Kennedy stated. Her voice lacked any hint of accusation – it was a fact, plain and simple.

"Yeah. Yeah, I am."

The Slayer nodded curtly through a sharp exhale, her expression indicating that the news, while painful, wasn't really anything she didn't already know. "So I guess that's that then."

"I don't know," Willow murmured miserably. "I still ... And she ... Tara doesn't want anything to do with me."

"And you're sure she's the real thing?" questioned a disbelieving Kennedy. The redhead gave a rueful nod. "Then unless she was brought back without a brain," proclaimed the Slayer, "she doesn't not want anything to do with you."

Getting to her feet, the brunette crossed the floor to stand just inches away from Willow, peering at her with an intense gaze. "But what does that mean for us?" ventured Kennedy in a low tone.

"I don't ..." Willow began softly. "Nothing's changed. I still care about you, but ..." Her voice was laced with an immense degree of sadness, but it was resolute as though she had no desire to deny the implied truth. "It's Tara."

"Yeah. Tara." The laugh that escaped from Kennedy's throat was harsh and mirthless. "I couldn't even compete with her when she was dead." Then, she seemed to ponder on the possibilities for a moment. "But if she's a big enough idiot to not grab you with both hands and never let go ..."

Abruptly, Kennedy appeared to allow the thought to die a natural death and the room fell into an awkward silence.

"What does that mean?" whispered the redhead.

For a long moment, the Slayer declined to answer. "I'm really not sure," she admitted.

When the first knock at the Scoobies' house went unanswered, there was a moment of silence followed by a second rap. This time, Tara hurried down the stairs and opened the door. She smiled in friendly fashion at the four teenage girls waiting on the doorstep, but it was obvious from her expression that none of them were familiar to her. The blonde's lack of recognition appeared to be reciprocated.

"May I help you?" inquired Tara.

"Hey," greeted Meghan, "is Dawn around?"

"Oh, you're Dawn's friends!" declared Tara, her smile growing warmer. She stepped aside and the girls filed in, their faces locked in frowns and apparently wondering, with no little curiosity, who this person might be. Tara beamed at each of them in turn, making a great effort to be hospitable.

"I didn't think those were very good Halloween costumes," she joked gently. "Plus, I guess it's a little early. Or late."

The visitors stared at her in confusion. Tara's smile faded a little as she began to feel uncomfortable at their scrutiny.

"I'll just get Dawn, then," the blonde added hastily, going to the foot of the stairs and calling out, "Dawn! Your friends are here!"

"Be right there!" came the faint response.

Tara turned to the group. "She should be right down," she told them with an encouraging nod. "Can I get you guys anything? Soda or something?"

With a polite shake of their heads, Meghan, Brenda and Ginny all declined the offer. Looking at them, Jackie rolled her eyes. "I'll take a Coke if you got it," she informed Tara.

"Coming right up," Tara instantly confirmed. "Nobody else?"

There was another threefold refusal, delivered with all due civility. Smiling nervously, Tara made her way to the kitchen. Four pairs of eyes followed her until she disappeared and then, four heads immediately huddled.

"New face," announced Brenda.

"Who do you think she is?" asked Meghan. "Xander's new girlfriend?"

With a strangled gasp, a stricken expression crossed Ginny's face. Meghan rolled her eyes and patted her friend on the shoulder. The gesture was probably meant to be a sympathetic one, but it seemed to come across as more condescending than anything else. Nonetheless, Ginny appeared grateful for the commiseration.

In the meantime, Jackie was apparently deep in thought, given the tiny frown creasing her forehead. "I'm betting Willow's new girlfriend," she theorized.

This statement brought a blush to the cheeks of Ginny and Brenda, but Meghan seemed to take it all in stride and carefully considered the proposition. As one, the four teenagers leaned over a little and peered into the kitchen. Unable to see the object of their speculation, they leaned back into place again.

"You think?" asked Meghan in a tone that clearly said she did not. But Jackie didn't have time to respond as Tara reappeared carrying a can of Coke.

"Here you go," said the blonde cordially.

"Thanks," replied Jackie, studying Tara intently.

"No problem," Tara responded, turning to include all four girls in her friendly smile. It faltered when she noted that they were now regarding her with avid interest. She shuffled uneasily beneath the blatant attention and called desperately over her shoulder with some urgency. "Dawn!"

The answering cry was muffled as it drifted down the stairs. "Just a sec!"

Tara began to squirm at the ensuing pause and further examination of her person. She displayed an uncomfortable grin. "Oookay. I'm gonna be in here if you guys need anything." She indicated vaguely toward the kitchen and then initiated her retreat. Her parting look was confused and puzzled. The girls watched her departure, eyes narrowed and wondering.

"Definitely Willow's new girlfriend," affirmed Jackie with a decisive nod once Tara had disappeared from sight. "Look at her. They're both, like, total spazzes."

"She looks familiar ..." pondered Brenda.

"I think she's pretty," murmured Ginny wistfully, which earned her three sets of quirked eyebrows and a trio of quizzical stares. Realizing she had spoken aloud, Ginny's cheeks burned beet-red with mortification, but Meghan was already moving on.

"I still say Xander's."

Jackie grinned. "Wanna bet?"

"How much?" challenged Meghan, obviously taken with the idea.

Jackie appeared to be weighing her options. "Two weeks of Math homework."

"Guys," objected an appalled Brenda, "you can't do each other's homework, it's wrong."

"Done," agreed Meghan crisply, with a sharp nod in Jackie's direction.

Brenda huffed noisily. "Can't any of you at least pretend to share my sense of morality?"

"I think it's wrong!" Ginny assured cheerfully.

Brenda tried her best grateful smile. "Thanks."

As Meghan and Jackie continued to shoot gainsaying glares at each other, Dawn descended the flight of stairs. She carried an overnight bag in her right hand and a rolled-up sleeping bag tucked under her left arm. Her backpack was thrown over her shoulder.

"Hey," she said sunnily. "Ready to—"

Dawn's chirpy greeting was interrupted by Meghan and Jackie each grabbing an arm and hustling Dawn into the living room. Brenda and Ginny followed close behind.

"—hijack me?" Dawn squeaked, frowning until her arms were released. "What's going on?"

"The new girl," confided Meghan.

Confused, Dawn surveyed the four searching faces. Bewildered, she shook her head.

Jackie took it upon herself to clarify. "The blonde. Who is she?"

"Oh!" smiled Dawn knowingly. "That's Tara."

Brenda snapped her fingers in realization. "That's it! I thought she looked familiar." She glowed with satisfaction as she became the focus of attention and then turned to Dawn. "She's the one whose picture you have on your wall, the one who helped take care of you after your mom died."

Then, Brenda's delighted expression began to dissolve. It was replaced with a look of perplexity, which was soon echoed by Jackie, Meghan and Ginny. As for Dawn, she bit her bottom lip and appeared worried.

"The one who was shot," mused Brenda slowly.

Suddenly, this fact seemed to fully penetrate and all four girls turned to Dawn.

"Uhh ..." she stammered nervously.

"What's going on, Summers?" demanded Jackie.

"She's ... not dead?" ventured Dawn skittishly.

"Yeah," scoffed Meghan. "Kinda figured that part out."

Dawn laughed. It was an overly-shrill, very tight and anxious sound. "It's, uh ..." She scrabbled for a plausible explanation. "It was all a big misunderstanding. She ... She faked her death."

Refusing to be discouraged by the expressions of befuddlement, Dawn pressed on valiantly. "It turned out that Tara was really ... a spy. For the government. A government spy. And she had to fake her own death to ... go undercover. For a really long time." She threw the engrossed quartet a large but uneasy smile. "But she's back now, and not dead, so yay!"

"A spy," questioned Jackie, her voice devoid of emotion.

Dawn nodded in what she trusted was irrefutable confidence, and then crossed her fingers, apparently calling upon Lady Luck for help in selling the story. "Uh-huh?" she offered.

Brenda tapped a thoughtful forefinger against her lips as she processed the information. "For what, the FBI or something?"

"Or something," Dawn readily agreed.

There was a long skeptical pause and Dawn fidgeted restlessly, shuffling her feet, as her friends regarded each other incredulously.

"That is so ... cool," enthused Meghan.

Dawn let out a long sigh of relief, but her friends didn't notice, wrapped up as they were in the total coolness of the revelation.

"She's, like, that guy from '24'!" gushed Ginny. "Only, a- a girl." She turned to Dawn with awe-struck eyes. "Does she wear a tuxedo?"

Jackie too was suitably impressed. "Dude, I bet she can totally kill a guy with her bare hands. I think that's like standard issue spy training or something."

Brenda also oozed with high esteem. "It's like that movie! That one where the guy fakes his death and..." She paused and frowned. "Well, actually, I can't remember any movies like that, but I'm guessing there's at least one! And maybe two!"

"That is so cool," reiterated Meghan.

"Dawnie?" queried Tara softly as she reemerged from the kitchen. Instantly, all enthusiastic chatter ceased and everyone turned to look at the blonde. Tara took a small step backward at the intensity of the attention, though the change in attitude was palpable. Whereas before, the overwhelming impression had been one of curiosity and suspicion, it now smacked squarely of something akin to reverence. Tara felt a slight blush creep into her face – apparently equally as unsettled with the atmosphere of veneration as she had been with the air of bafflement.

"Is everything okay?" queried Tara apprehensively.

"Sure!" Dawn quickly assured. "Everything's fine! We'll be going in just a sec!"

Crossing to where Tara was standing, Dawn slipped her hand into the crook of the blonde's elbow and jerked her out of earshot from her four friends, who promptly began to whisper in animated fashion amongst themselves, while keeping their marveling eyes firmly affixed on Tara.

"Little glitch," confided Dawn. "They sort of asked who you were and then kinda remembered that you were supposed to be all dead and stuff." Tara stared at the teenager with shock. "Oh, but it's okay," Dawn hastened to guarantee. She gave Tara a conspirative smile. "I told them you were really a secret agent who faked her death to go undercover for a couple of years, so it's all good."

Obviously, Dawn's definition of "all good" differed greatly from Tara's, as evidenced by the blonde's expression of complete and utter disbelief. "You what?"

"And they bought it!" Dawn revealed gleefully. "Can you believe that?" She frowned thoughtfully. "I guess it's some sort of Hellmouth thing to buy any explanation. Huh."

"But I'm not ..."

"Don't worry," interrupted the teenager with a wave of nonchalant dismissal. "If they ask you how to kill someone with your hands, just do the Xena pinch on 'em or something, 'kay?"

Giving Tara's arm a comforting squeeze, Dawn returned to her friends. "I'll be back tomorrow," she told the blonde over her shoulder. "Love you, bye!"

"But ..." Tara protested meekly. The mildly-voiced objection had no effect.

All five girls began to troop past Tara on their way to the door. The looks she received ran the gamut from knowledgeable insinuations to open admiration.

Ginny paused for a moment at Tara's side, "The paisley sasquatch shampoos at midnight," the girl divulged in a whisper, winking broadly before following the others.

Tara blinked and her face adopted a lost expression at the comment, but Ginny had already followed her friends out of the house.

As the door closed, Tara still seemed utterly confounded for a moment, then her face changed to one of serious contemplation. "The name's Bond," she murmured to herself. "Tara Bond."

She pondered on this for a second. Then, she wrinkled her nose and shook her head before turning and climbing the stairs.

Inside the corner newsstand, Xander selected several magazines of choice from the racks, including "EGM" and "American Woodworker." On his way to the counter, he stopped to pick up the morning edition of the "Trillium Tribune" and then eyed the candy display with much gusto. "Ooo, Caramello," he enthused.

Grabbing one of the chocolate-coated gooey caramel treats with boyish delight, he proceeded to the checkout. Piling all his items next to the cash register, the carpenter waited patiently as the employee scanned each of the bar codes. Whistling happily, Xander watched people stroll by as he dug in his pocket for money. A familiar figure with dark hair was among the passing pedestrians and Xander's eye opened wide as he recognized her. Gathering up his hoard of purchases, made a dash for the door. "Sera!" he called with a wave of his hand.

Then, remembering he hadn't paid, Xander hurried back into the newsstand and dumped a handful of assorted bills and coins on the counter before he could be accused of shoplifting. The salesclerk closed his gaping mouth and with a suspicious frown began to count the funds. Not waiting for a tally, Xander headed for the exit once more. Looking from side to side, he spied Serafina halfway down the street and sprinted after her. "Sera!" he called again.

The woman stopped and turned around at the approach. A smile crossed her features and then her face assumed an admonishing expression.

The carpenter skidded to a halt. "Uh-oh. I know that look," he said warily. "That's a look that usually ushers in a night of me gettin' yelled at and sleepin' on the couch."

"I don't have any control over where you sleep, sadly," she told him sternly. "I'll have to make do with my imagination." Her eyes closed and she appeared to be considering the various possibilities of insomniac-related punishment. "Mmm," she smiled contentedly.

"It's lumpy, isn't it?" asked a suitably chastised Xander.

"And covered with that itchy material that has no business being on couches," Serafina told him confidently.

"Yup," the carpenter shook his head ruefully. "Pretend Me's gonna be one tired fake guy tomorrow. But he'll hopefully be out of the doghouse?" he tentatively suggested.

Cracking open one eye, Serafina smiled. "I don't hold grudges well." She reconsidered. "Actually, I do. But you're forgiven for running out on me last week anyway."

With a grin, Xander joined her as she continued her walk. "Yeah, about that. I wanted to apologize." His tone was sincere. "This big ... thing came up. Family stuff."

Serafina appeared genuinely concerned. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah," he assured. "Just another chapter in the Shakespearean drama that is our lives."

"Nobody died in the final act, I hope," she joked.

"Not this time," responded Xander with a warm smile before changing the subject. "So what'd you do with the rest of your night?"

Serafina shrugged. "Oh, well, my boyfriend finally decided to show up not long after you left, so ..."

Xander raised an eyebrow. "This would be the big, hulking weight-lifting boyfriend who could twist me into a pretzel shape with alarming ease. That boyfriend?" Serafina acknowledged the description with a nod and a grin. "Sounds like my emergency was very well timed," he decided.

Serafina waved a hand in dismissal. "Gavin's a big teddy bear; he'd probably just thank you for keeping the vultures away."

"Possibly," pondered the carpenter, "but then we come back to the whole pretzel thing, and suddenly there's just relief bordering on hysteria."

Xander grinned broadly at the earned laughter. "I hope to hear the rest of 'The Serafina D'Alessandro Story' one day," he aspired.

"I should hope so," she told him. "We were just about to get into 'The Preschool Years'. Very exciting stuff. The section on Strawberry Shortcake is not to be missed." She indicated the publications tucked untidily in the crook of Xander's arm. "Hungry for knowledge?"

He held aloft the video game magazine. "Splinter Cell. Man against man, hunters and weapons, life and death ... All in glorious, in-your-face 3D. It's a thing of beauty."

Serafina shrugged off his bold declaration. "I dunno, I'm more looking forward to Halo 2, myself," she dropped casually.

"You realize I could swoon on the spot, and no man on the planet would fault me," Xander pointed out.

Declining to comment, Serafina simply smirked and gestured to the other publications tucked under his arm. "Those can't all be gaming mags."

"No," he confirmed. "The rest ... I have a friend who really needs some help."

Serafina nodded at the vague response and chose not to pry further. The pair walked for a moment in comfortable silence.

"So ..." Xander finally ventured, "Descent or Doom?"

Serafina let out a derisive snort. "Please," she said scornfully. "Quake."

"Oo," returned the carpenter, "you sound like you know a lil' somethin' 'bout that game, missy."

"Frag you," Serafina told him good-naturedly.

In Willow's Sanctum, the two witches were seated across from each other, their eyes tightly closed as they focused all their attentions on the energy that was crackling around them. It was a wildly chaotic flux, bridging from Willow to Tara and then back again. As he circled the couple, Giles studied what was transpiring with keen concentration and no little confusion.

"Most interesting," he observed in an almost detached fashion.

Willow flinched. "Less with the interesting here. More with the—"

"—the ow," finished Tara, her features also indicating a degree of pain.

With a worried expression, the redhead nodded emphatically at the statement.

The Watcher's air of unemotional involvement was immediately replaced with one of concern. "All right, let's ... let's take a moment, shall we?"

Their bodies sagging with relief, Willow and Tara began to relax. The connecting energy field between them subsided until it was completely severed, seemingly reabsorbed by each of them. The flare surrounding the redhead took longer to dissipate, the period of time short but nonetheless noticeable. Even so, it didn't take long for the forceful vibrations to vanish entirely and both witches let out a cleansing breath, appearing drained by the experience. Each gratefully accepted the bottle of juice offered by Giles and took thirsty sips.

"This is all quite extraordinary." Giles' tone held a hint of undisguised excitement intermingled with disappointment. "I'd imagine it would be even more impressive if I understood any of it."

"No closer, huh?" queried Willow.

Regretfully, the Watcher shook his head. "No. Though it's only been a few days, I suppose we mustn't be impatient."

"But'cha wanna know now," the redhead prodded with a slightly teasing tone.

"Yes!" agreed an enthusiastic Giles and then grimaced at his apparent lack of grace. He shook his head. "I-I mean, no. It's all ... very peculiar."

"Do we know what caused it yet?" asked an obviously weary Tara. "The power surges." She paused and glanced from Willow to Giles. "Though I guess it's me."

"But see, that's the weird thing," offered Willow with a frown, "I'm not feeling the surges. Not always. It's ..." She shook her head in confusion. "I dunno. It's hard to explain."

"But there's pain?" pressed the Watcher.

"Sometimes," Tara admitted. "When we try to sort of ... synch up? It's like i-it's sandpaper, sort of grating. It wasn't like that before."

"Maybe it's me," sighed Willow. "All the dark mojo." She grinned at her upcoming joke. "I find it sort of grating sometimes too."

The redhead smirked at her lame attempt to lighten the mood and Tara smirked a little in response, but then she turned back to Giles.

"Is it maybe the bad guys?" The thought obviously troubled Tara. "Maybe the connection's really still there." Absent-mindedly, she fingered the area over her heart, where lay the scar of the Circle's sigil.

The Watcher confidently dismissed the idea. "No, I don't think so. The Coven members wouldn't have left if they weren't convinced you were free from any outside influence." A tiny frown creased his forehead. "I only wish they could've told us more about who brought you back." He looked to Tara. "You can't recall anything more about your experience?"

"Not really," the blonde told him apologetically. "I only saw two people the whole time I was there, and only the one who called himself Robespierre ever spoke. I never got the other one's name. He was a big guy, though. Maybe a bodyguard or something?"

Becoming increasingly perturbed by the conjured recollections, Tara was obviously not relishing having to relive the ordeal, but she struggled to project a brave front and not discourage Giles from continuing to pose questions. Sensing the blonde's discomfort, Willow moved closer to Tara and offered what support she could. The consoling hand she laid on the blonde's shoulder earned her a grateful smile.

Almost reluctantly, Giles forged ahead. "What about this Robespierre, what were you able to learn of him?"

"Not a whole lot." Tara frowned as she concentrated on the memories. "He was powerful. Very powerful. But wherever I was? Magick was all around, me, and I couldn't really focus on him specifically. Still, through all that ... so much power."

The blonde's eyes clouded as she became momentarily lost in the depths of her thoughts, but as Willow gently squeezed her shoulder, she shook herself free from the reverie. Reaching up, her fingertips brushed lightly across the back of Willow's hand, but the touch was fleeting.

"Uhm, Robespierre," Tara pondered as she refocused on the Watcher. "He was kinda old, maybe 60 or 65? And his face ... so cold. And there was a scar, from here to here." She traced a line on the right-hand side of her face from the earlobe to the corner of her mouth and shuddered.

"But his eyes ..." she continued slowly, "there was something about his eyes." Once more, the blonde appeared trapped within her recollections. She wrapped herself protectively with her arms and when she spoke again, her voice was low. "I-I can't remember anything else."

Moving to crouch before Tara, Giles smiled with warm affection. "You've been a tremendous help," he told her gently. "I know how difficult all of this has been for you. I'm very proud of you."

Tara treated him to a thankful smile, which Willow mirrored. Then the redhead gave a small cough, drawing away Giles' attention and giving Tara a moment of solitude to regroup.

"So, who is this guy?" asked Willow quizzically. "The Coven's got their big who's who in the witchy world. If he's got that much power, they musta heard of this 'Robespierre'."

Giles straightened and thrust his hands into his pockets. "No, they haven't. And they haven't found anything, not yet. Nor have they been able to uncover anything about their mark." A troubled frown crossed his face. "Robespierre. I still swear that name sounds familiar to me."

"French dictator?" offered Tara helpfully.

"Overly fond of the guillotine?" suggested Willow with a smirk.

"No," replied the Watcher and then amended his answer. "I mean, yes, but that's not who I'm thinking of. It's ..." He began to pace, his air of annoyance mounting. "No, it's not coming to me," he admitted with an irritated shake of his head.

"We'll figure it out," Willow assured him with optimistic cheer before grumbling, "Though this power thing's really startin' to cheese me off."

Tara nodded her agreement. "It's very strange. It's sort of like ..."

Frowning, Tara tried to put the feelings into words, and her eyes wandered to Willow seated next to her. "Like I can feel there's more out there," she continued in a low voice. Without seeming to realize it, Tara turned slowly toward Willow, who appeared willingly ensnared in the blonde's gaze. "Calling ..." Tara whispered. "Pushing in on me."

Of its own volition, Tara's hand began to move toward Willow's resting nearby. "If I could just ... reach out ..." Her fingers crept ever nearer to Willow's receptive hand until they were no more than a heartbeat away.

The door to the Sanctum burst open and Xander stood in the doorway. He sported a huge grin and had a newspaper tucked beneath his arm. The witches' questing motions abruptly ceased and their hands jerked apart, leaving several feet of separation. At the sudden distance, an arc of perceptible energy flared, but both women were flushed and far too embarrassed to have even noticed. Giles, by contrast, had caught the manifestation, and although he maintained silence, he quirked an extremely interested eyebrow.

"Hey magick babes, babes of magick-ocity!" the carpenter cheerfully greeted. "How goes the search, still proving utterly fruitless?"

The Watcher was visibly peeved. "Xander, this is a delicate process. There are- are a great many difficult and complex questions that we are looking to answer, a-a-and a great deal of- of mounting evidence to support the, uhm ... the continued—"

"Don't have a clue, do ya?" asked Xander sunnily.

"Not as such, no," acknowledged a crestfallen and rather grumpy Giles.

Tara threw the Watcher a sympathetic smile. "But Mr. Giles has been working really hard."

"Yeah!" defended Willow with an abundant amount of zeal. "It's just, you know ..." She gestured between herself and Tara, "us that's all in crazy wonky land." Widening her eyes for a moment, she added, "Whoo. Crazy."

"You guys've been practically livin' in here since those stuffy witchy-types bamfed back to soggy ol' England," declared the carpenter. "We know Tara's got a clean bill of non-possession, and we know that both our resident witches are goin' all spiky-punk with their powers. That's about it, right?"

Removing his glasses, Giles engaged in the ritual of industrious polishing. "In the most banal of terms, yes, you're mostly correct," he confirmed reluctantly.

"Cool. Then I'm bound to be right about this too: break time."

The Watcher returned his glasses to their customary location. "What, now?" he questioned, apparently astounded at the suggestion.

"Yup," corroborated Xander with a definite nod. "I got a date with this little lady."

He moved to stand in front of Tara and extended his hand to help her up. Tara blinked in open confusion.

"A date," she echoed with a shake of her head. "But I don't—"

"An apartment hunting date," the carpenter clarified. "True, you didn't know about it until, oh, now, but still – a date's a date."

The blonde cast a glance at the Watcher. "But Mr. Giles ..."

Giles sighed, a combination of resignation and concordance. "For once, Xander may be correct. We've been pushing quite hard these past few days, and I know you're still adjusting to ... everything. Maybe a break will indeed help." He smiled as he added, "Besides, it'll give me a chance to work with Willow alone. As I'm more attuned to how her powers were reacting and developing before your return, it could help us to learn what's changed."

"Yay, Giles Time!" grinned Willow, before adding in a tone of confidentiality that was laced with a certain amount of pride, "Sometimes he gives me gold stars."

Tara remained unconvinced, although she now accepted Xander's still-outstretched hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. "Okay then, if you're sure..."

"Absolutely," affirmed the Watcher. "And remember what I told you: money is no object."

"I'll pay you back as soon as I get a job," she immediately replied, then she thought for a second. "And some ID first with which to get said job."

"If you feel you must," Giles discounted in all earnest, "but please, don't worry about it. Whatever you need to make you feel more comfortable, that's all that matters."

Tara's smile was grateful and the Watcher returned the gesture one of encouragement. The blonde looked to Willow and raised her hand in a somewhat shy half-wave.

"Have fun!" the redhead told her emphatically, beaming brightly. "I hope you find a- a really cool place that you totally fall in love with!"

As she watched them leave, Willow's radiant expression began to wilt until it faded into non-existence with the closing of the door.

"... so you can move out and be all alone and lonely and not around anymore," she added morosely.

"Willow," Giles chastised gently, "if this will help Tara ease back into—"

"I-I know," interrupted Willow with a sharp nod, "and I want that. I do. Just that—"

Her gaze became transfixed upon the bottle from which Tara had been drinking earlier. The juice began to simmer as miniscule bubbles drifted upward to burst with a tiny gurgle. Within seconds, the churning effervescence increased in speed and volume until the entire contents of the bottle finally exploded with a resounding belch, spewing a spray of fruity liquid into the air like an erupting volcano. Gritting her teeth, Willow's face adopted an 'oh crap' expression and the agitated boil calmed almost as quickly as it had initiated.

With a remorseful grimace, Willow regarded Giles out of the corner of her eye. "So much for my gold star."

Dressed in a warm maroon tracksuit, Buffy jogged in energetic fashion along a rocky path that bordered the perimeter of a lake. To her right was a dense forest of Scotch pine and other evergreen trees. On her left, some distance away, Trillium's taller buildings jutted on the horizon. Small pebbles and sharp stones were kicked aside as the Slayer ran, arms pumping with vigor and puffs of vaporized breath escaping every time she exhaled. The weak sunlight glittered upon the tranquil waters and a brace of Canadian geese paddled contentedly across the lake's surface.

Moving briskly, the Slayer appeared impervious to the chill and sharp snap in the air, but she slowed to an in-place trot as, with a frown, she squinted into the depths of the heavily-wooded area to her right. Craning her neck, she seemed to be listening intently but all was silent. After a few moments of concentrated scrutiny, Buffy shrugged and continued with her physical exercise.

"Paranoia – it's not just for crazy people anymore," she huffed.

The run continued with no indication that anything was amiss until, suddenly and without warning, the Slayer whirled, immediately assuming a defensive stance. Wings flapping, the geese unexpectedly took flight with honks of alarm and Buffy's searching gaze followed their airborne path for a second before returning her attention to the impenetrable area of timberland.

"Okay," she gritted. "Now I really—"

The sound of a polite cough abruptly invaded Buffy's train of thought. It was closely followed by a fast-moving, softly-whistling "phhht!" as a tranquilizer dart embedded itself securely and accurately in her torso. She looked down with some curiosity at the brightly colored feathers poking out from her fleece jacket.

"You know," she theorized drowsily, slumping to the ground as consciousness quickly evaporated, "that just can't be ... good."

  Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all such related things, © Mutant Enemy and many other people with big scary lawyers.
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