The streets of downtown Trillium were packed with shoppers, each with an eager eye for a good bargain. The clothing stores were selling their winter merchandise at greatly reduced prices while offering the spring fashions at what was proclaimed to be pre-season discounts. The other proprietors had taken such a crowd-drawing opportunity to also display their merchandise in an arresting manner. The prospective purchasers were in a jovial mood, obviously anxious to spend the money in their pockets, faces beaming beneath the sunlight of a bright and satisfying day.
Within their midst, however, one lone figure failed to share the pervading atmosphere of pleasurable anticipation. Her step was purposeful and her face plainly betrayed the seething inner anger. Faith made no attempt to disguise her sullen mood and paid those around her not a single glance. She moved through the throng largely unnoticed, for these were individuals bent on happier pursuits and Faith had no part to play in such an activity.
Mirrored in the storefront windows, Faith's reflection was akin to that of a dark avenger, but she was unaware of the portrayal, eyes locked as they were upon some undeterminable point ahead. Occasionally, the reflected image would be obliterated by a shop door or section of brickwork, only to manifest itself again once the solid barriers has been passed, the image no less grim than it had been before. Faith's reflected expression was a fixed mask of cold and furious intensity, her determined stride seemingly set on an unalterable course.
The mirrored image continued its path and disappeared from sight, consumed by the wall that separated one store from its neighbor. Within seconds, another reflection appeared, obviously tracking the first. Buffy paused for a moment. Like Faith, she was oblivious to the impression created within the depths of the store window. Also like Faith, she exuded an aura of determination but it was coupled with concern. Buffy's image lingered for a brief moment, still and silent, as her eyes followed Faith's retreating figure. Then she too moved forward, her reflection soon swallowed by the masonry that had devoured the dark-haired Slayer's shadowy form.
Open reference books and notepads covered with hastily written scrawl littered one of the tables within Willow's sanctum. The windows had been thrown open wide, allowing sunlight and fresh air to invade the room. Moving with a sense of personal purpose, Willow and Tara each set about making spell preparations. The redhead was casting the circle while the blonde was busy cleansing the area, lighting incense and positioning candles with a precise hand. Each time Tara came within close proximity, Willow would shy away. The movement was slight but nonetheless perceptible, its motive clear – the redhead obviously remained fearful of making physical contact. This did not go unnoticed by Tara and her forehead furrowed in deep concern, eyes betraying the hurt such actions caused. Nonetheless, she refused to dwell upon the implications. There was far too much to be done.
Having poured the sand, Willow bowed her head and began to mutter. Her portion of the incantation complete, she glanced to Tara, who had taken position at the opposite side of the circle. The blonde echoed Willow's actions, dropping her head and reciting the required words. A muted glow gradually replaced the ring of sand until every grain had transformed into a delicate shimmer, which lingered only momentarily before also fading into oblivion. Moving toward the double windows, each woman pulled one shut, neither paying any attention to their prominent reflections before drawing the heavy drapes and enveloping the room in hushed darkness.
Standing before the open armoire in his office, Giles stared into the oval mirror that had been fitted inside the door. His profile was set and determined but otherwise betrayed no sign of emotion. With eyes transfixed upon his reflection, he seemed to be searching, as though trying to discern some important secret that doggedly persisted in eluding him.
The Watcher turned abruptly as the door opened and Xander's head appeared through the opening. For a moment, it appeared as if the younger man were about to make an announcement, but any such thought was quickly discarded at the sight of Giles' brief, almost weary nod of acknowledgment. Quietly slipping away, Xander closed the door behind him. In solitude once more, the Watcher's gaze drifted back to the mirror. The image that met his eyes was no less dour than before and equally as enigmatic.
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prosed by: Novareinna & Jet Wolf
Original Airdate: Monday, 6 December 2004, 6pm EST
In a room located not far from where the Super Slayer had been incarcerated, Xander, Dawn and Kennedy sat at a small table, each holding Uno cards. Xander and Dawn peered at the discarded pile in front of them and then furtively scrutinized their hands. Kennedy had gathered her cards into a single stack and was tapping them with some irritation on the wooden surface, eyes transfixed upon the open doorway and her mind obviously not on the game. Indeed, she seemed to be ignoring the playing field altogether, except in the most abstract fashion.
Across the room, Hannah was seated at a separate table, chin cradled in her palm as she worked away at a crossword puzzle, occasionally tapping the end of a pencil against her teeth and more frequently glancing toward Kennedy, diligently noting the Slayer's mounting lack of patience.
With a challenging air, Dawn threw a red seven atop a green seven and then looked suspiciously at Xander. He met her gaze evenly and, mustering all the decisiveness of a general ordering troops into combat, dispatched a red three. His eye narrowed as he regarded the teenager with a 'that's right, you're goin' down' expression before both turned expectantly to Kennedy. They waited for a moment, anticipating a play but none was forthcoming. Pointedly, Xander cleared his throat but still there was no reaction.
"Unless they dramatically changed the rules of Uno," commented the carpenter, "I think the object of the game is to actually get rid of your cards."
He tilted his head and waited for a response. It came in the form of an even more irritated tapping of cards.
"Kennedy?" queried Dawn hesitantly. "It's sorta your turn?"
Eyes glued to the door, Kennedy selected a random card and pitched it toward the middle of the table. It skidded to a halt in front of Xander, whereupon both he and Dawn inspected it with skepticism. It was a yellow two.
Xander leaned forward on his elbows. "Ahh, Uno," he began wistfully. "The game of many complex and mysterious rules. Rules such as 'same color' and 'same number'." Retrieving the errant card, he offered to Kennedy. "Of which a yellow two is neither."
Without looking, the Slayer reached out and snatched it away, stuffing it into her hand before haphazardly choosing another. This time, it was a blue six. With an exasperated sigh, Xander opened his mouth to speak but never got the chance as Kennedy, pushing herself back from the edge of the table, tossed her cards to one side. The action clearly indicated that the Slayer was done playing.
"This is stupid," she snapped.
"No, you can't quit now!" protested Dawn. "I'm about to throw down two 'Draw Four's on Xander!"
Xander was in agreement. "Yeah, it's—" He paused as Dawn's statement penetrated his consciousness. "You know I hate that," he accused with a frown at the teenager, who simply treated him to a smile. With a dismissive wave, the carpenter turned toward Kennedy. "What else can we do? It's better than sitting here doing nothing."
Kennedy's lips were tight. "We should be in there."
Her eyes narrowed as she got to her feet and strode purposefully for the door but Hannah swiftly barred her exit.
"Rupert's handling it," the blonde sharply informed Kennedy, putting herself between the Slayer and her intended path of departure.
Kennedy glowered darkly at Hannah. "What's he doing, reading her to death?"
The response was calm but determined. "Kennedy. He's handling it."
Clearly not in the mood to be pacified, the Slayer retorted, "If he was 'handling' it, then we'd have answers already."
"And we do," assured the blonde, her voice laced with authority. "As I told you, we now know that there are at least fifty girls, no more than 10 or 15 of whom are approximately as powerful as those that invaded this morning." She met Kennedy's incriminating glare with a level expression.
"Yeah," huffed the brunette, "and that took you how long to get?"
"These things require a delicate touch," sighed Hannah.
Kennedy's hands curled into tight fists. "I'll give her a delicate touch all right, right in her fu—"
The appearance of Giles in the doorway cut short the Slayer's threat. His face was weary, stress seeming to pour from every furrow; the Watcher looked to have aged several years in a short period of time. Stepping to one side, Kennedy and Hannah gave him space to fully enter the room as Xander and Dawn abandoned their card game and hurried forward.
"Anything?" asked Xander anxiously.
The returning nod was jaded and deeply fatigued. "I believe we now have as much information as she is going to be able to give us. There are—"
As he surveyed the room and noted its inhabitants, a frown appeared on Giles' features and he turned to the others with some confusion. "Where's Buffy?"
Using extreme caution, Buffy walked the narrow and near-deserted streets of Trillium's warehouse district. The towering buildings with which the area was lined cast an oppressive gloom and she moved with great care, all senses on high alert. Her body stiffened as sounds of destruction assaulted her ears – wooden crates being smashed, steel drums being overturned and the noise of objects being hurled violently to the ground. Turning quickly, she moved back the way she had just come, soon reaching an intersection. She paused, looking back and forth, obviously uncertain as to what path she should take. Frowning, she took a step to the right and then heard the splintering of glass from behind. Rapidly whirling, she sprinted in the opposite direction and found herself before an abandoned warehouse, its door, surrounded by slivered wood, slowly swaying on one rickety hinge.
The building's interior was dark, although shafts of bright sunrays penetrating through skylights set into the vaulted ceiling did afford some illumination. Buffy entered the structure warily, drinking in the sight of devastation with a heavy sigh. The place had been thoroughly ransacked; no corner had escaped investigation and no possible hiding place had been left untouched.
At the now familiar sounds of wanton destruction emanating from outside, Buffy raised her eyes from the pillaged floor and noticed a metal staircase that led to a second level catwalk where a window had been efficiently shattered, leaving wicked shards dangling from the frame. Swiftly moving into action, she took the steps two-at-a-time until she reached the opening. Looking down, she took stock of the height from there to the ground and without hesitation, leapt through the fragmented glass.
Landing securely on her feet, Buffy instantly surveyed her surroundings. She was in a back alley with only one other building entrance anywhere nearby. The door to this structure had been demolished in its entirety, kicked so savagely that even the framework barely maintained its precarious hold on the masonry. The blonde Slayer dashed inside and quickly appraised the interior damage, but it was much like the other warehouse – very little worthy of note save for the total devastation. With a frown, Buffy strained her ears and eyes for any telltale noises or signs of movement, but could discern nothing.
High in the rafters, with body tensed and unmoving, a crouched figure keeping close to the shadows watched Buffy move toward the exit. The blonde Slayer paused for a moment and then ruefully shook her head before leaving the apparently abandoned building.
The unfinished game of Uno now having been abandoned by all players, the room's inhabitants were listening intently to Giles.
"She doesn't know much about the upper workings," he admitted before adding, "Not terribly surprising, I suppose. She owes her allegiance to Robespierre, and it is unwavering, but she's simply a soldier."
"Was she brainwashed?" asked Dawn. "I mean how did he get so many Slayers?"
The Watcher removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. "I suspect a certain amount of manipulation and brainwashing perhaps, but mostly, I believe he simply appealed to each of them in some way. The promise of working together to make the world a safer, better place."
"Familiar pitch," Xander stated with more than a touch of cynicism.
This earned the carpenter Giles' attention, but the older man appeared to have no appropriate response. Instead, his eyes adopted a faraway expression as flashes of remembrance swam into view – a balled fist lashing out, a girl's neck snapping to one side by way of a heftily-delivered blow, the sharp gleam of a well-honed metal object. The Watcher shook his head slightly as if to clear the images and began to polish his glasses with a crumpled handkerchief fished from his trouser pocket.
"Okay, so what now?" demanded an impatient Kennedy.
Clearing his throat, Giles focused upon the Slayer and then swept through the group. "Even she isn't aware of their headquarters location," he continued. "When they are dispatched, the girls arrive and leave courtesy of portals. Most of their Slayers exist entirely within the facility, never leaving. Tara has uncovered a spell that will enable us, with Ruth's help, to, in the vernacular, 'bring the fight to them'."
This announcement obviously made Dawn nervous. "But what about ... I mean, they kicked our butt. And Hannah said there's, like, a thousand of them."
Hannah regarded the teenager with a gentle smirk. "I'm pretty sure the number I gave was significantly below that."
"Yeah, okay," Dawn dismissed, "but there may as well be, right? I mean, only three attacked us, and we couldn't ... A-And Hazel and everyone else ..." Her strained voice trailed away and Xander hastened to make the teenager feel better.
"Hey, no worries Dawnster," he told her, throwing a comforting arm around her shoulder. "Will's workin' on something now, right?" He looked to Giles who nodded affirmatively. "There, see? D'you really think she's gonna let you down?"
"Glad we have something, else pressure? Pretty much crippling," came a wry comment from the doorway.
Every eye in the room turned toward the entrance where Willow was now standing.
Replacing his glasses, Giles considered the witch with a serious expression. "Can you do it?"
Willow smiled nervily. "Banish the extra power?" She took a deep breath. "I think so." The others moved aside as the redhead entered the room. "There's— It's like there's more than one of them. In their body. What you were telling me, about how Judith started acting after Hazel ... a-and the voice thing?"
"Way freaky," agreed Dawn with a shudder. "Like someone talking into a really crappy microphone. It sounded like—"
"Like there's more than one of them talking?" concluded Willow, nodding at Dawn's confirmation. "Right. So. That observation in mind, and a theory or two ... What I— Well, 'we', Tara-and-me we— We're gonna go into the Super Slayer's mind and see if we can't sort of ... yank out the extra stuff. The other personalities." She smiled with enforced perkiness.
With a narrowed glance, Xander regarded the group with a mounting sense of unease. "Okay, is this sounding really, really dangerous to anyone else? I've seen way too many episodes of 'Star Trek' to think poking around in someone's brain leads to anything but 50-plus minutes of personal reflection and the tantalizing offer of a cheerful new life as a vegetable."
"Vegetable?" repeated Dawn in a tight, high-pitched voice. "Vegetables are bad. All leafy and gross." She shook her head for emphasis. "Just say no to vegetables."
Taking a step toward Willow, Giles' expression betrayed his anxiety. "This is incredibly dangerous to both you and Tara. Are you sure you're up to the task?"
Hannah's tone was also infused with concern. "Not to mention that we're talking about a small army of these other Slayers. We don't even know if it's possible on one yet."
"Well that's why I figured we'd do a test run." The witch jerked her head toward the exit and thus the hallway, ostensibly indicating the interrogation room. "We'll have to go carefully at first, find out exactly what we need to do." She turned abruptly as Tara entered the room and her smile became more confident. "But if it works, I think we can just ... juice it up and hit 'em all at once."
"We think we can do it without frying their brains too," added Tara hopefully, "which is ... sort of a plus. If we're gonna rehabilitate them or ... whatever you do with ex-bad guys."
Willow's smile quickly turned into a smirk. "Big yay for rehabilitation."
"Great," Xander proclaimed in a tone that indicated he didn't find the proposition particularly great at all. "We can work out group therapy for whoever's left after the big clash." His eye affixed intently on the two witches. "But call me kooky, I'm a little more worried about your minds in the frying pan."
Willow nodded just once but with great enthusiasm. "Equally supportive of not doing that. But there's this ... Ever since the scythe spell, I've had that sort of connection to all the Slayers. I-I think if I use that, let it be a sort of ... of path to untangle the base personality and powers from the one's she's taken."
She widened her eyes and waited for some type of consensus, but received little in response save worried expressions. She shared a brief glance with Tara and then turned to the remainder of the room.
"I think we can do this," she reassured in all seriousness. "With Tara helping to keep us centered ..." She hesitated and then continued with more firmness. "We can do this." She smiled at Tara, who instantly reciprocated the gesture with a positive nod.
Xander and Dawn fidgeted uncomfortably, apparently far from satisfied with the plan. However any lingering doubts Giles may have harbored were swallowed and his expression was nothing but supportive and confident. "What will you need?"
"We have everything," Tara replied. "I just finished the last of the preparations, so we can do this whenever ... but the sooner the better."
Hands thrust deep into his pockets, Xander shuffled forward and stood in front of Willow. The face that gazed up at him glowed with purpose and resolve.
"I hate this," he muttered darkly.
He shrugged. "I hate that we always have to ..." Pausing, he looked from side to side as though in search of something elusive and then sighed heavily. "You know, just once I'd like to save the world in a way that's fun and easy. Like, 'You can divert this apocalypse by playing twenty straight hours of "Dynasty Warriors".' Then the only thing we have to worry about is a bathroom break."
"Maybe next year," she offered brightly.
Smiling sadly in response to her optimism, he agreed, "Maybe."
On impulse, Xander scooped up Willow in an all-compassing hug, which she didn't hesitate to return. For a moment, she simply enjoyed the comforting embrace, then glanced over to see Dawn and Tara engaged in an identical display of affection.
"I love you," the teenager declared in a thick voice.
Tara smoothed Dawn's hair. "I love you too, sweetie. We'll be fine, don't worry."
With a final rib-crunching squeeze, Xander released Willow and made his way to the table where, shoulders hunched, he busied himself with gathering the scattered Uno cards. The redhead watched him for second and then turned to Kennedy who, though obviously very concerned, managed to hide it efficiently beneath a resolute mask.
"You better make it back," the Slayer commanded. She looked to Tara, whose embrace with Dawn had also come to an end, although the teenager continued to hover nearby. "Both of you," Kennedy instructed firmly. "Either one of you gets all lost or dies or something, I'm so gonna kick your ass."
"Yes ma'am," Willow agreed with exaggerated seriousness as the Slayer wrapped her in a brief but intense hug. Kennedy then returned her focus to Tara, treating the blonde to a sincere albeit fleeting smile. Turning her back on both women, she did not meet the eyes of either again.
"Good luck, girls," was Hannah's earnest wish.
"I know you can do this," the Watcher urged.
Willow smiled sunnily. "Then what the heck are we all so worried for?"
Wrapping an arm around Willow's shoulders, Giles extended the other for Tara and she happily accepted the fleeting moment of security being offered. He held them both for several heartbeats before releasing them with a warm smile.
He was rewarded with matching expressions, although Willow's was watery around the edges. Nonetheless, she maintained her composure and joined Xander at the table, where the cards he had been gathering now lay forgotten on the surface.
"I got next game?" she asked. The carpenter smirked and nodded his agreement.
"I've got two Draw Fours to play on Xander," Dawn announced proudly.
"Oo, he hates that."
Dawn nodded emphatically as her face broke into a beaming grin.
Willow moved toward Tara who was already waiting by the doorway. The redhead hesitated and then turned back to the room. "Once we start, disturbing would be bad. But if we're not out in a few hours ..."
She allowed the implication trail away and glanced to Tara for support.
"We'll be back soon," the blonde guaranteed with authority.
Waggling her fingers in a farewell wave, the redhead made her exit, closely followed by Tara. Those left behind stared at each other for a moment and then began to mill aimlessly about, apparently not in the frame of mind to do very much of anything.
Opening the door to her sanctum, Willow stood to one side, allowing Tara to enter first. The blonde went immediately to the books that littered the long table at the opposite end of the room and finding the one she needed, flipped quickly to a certain page. Swiftly scanning the text to verify her facts, she turned to look at Willow who had now closed the door, providing the pair with necessary privacy. The redhead nodded at Tara's raised eyebrow and both approached the center of the room where the circle of sand had earlier been drawn. Although the glowing ring was no longer visible, each woman seemed to instinctively be aware of its perimeter. From opposite arcs, their eyes locked and with simultaneous steps, they crossed its boundaries.
Situating themselves comfortably across from each other, Tara extended her hands toward Willow. The redhead hesitated in her apprehension, regarding the outstretched fingers and then the blonde's soft blue eyes. A tiny tendril of fear invaded Willow's features, but Tara simply smiled gently, her infinitely patient expression making a statement that needed no voice – 'trust me'. With a deep breath, Willow reached out and placed her hands lightly upon Tara's upturned palms. An involuntary shudder coursed through their bodies at the connection and their eyes instinctively closed. It seemed as though a sudden flash enveloped the room and everything contained within.
When the flare faded, Tara and Willow were walking through complete, absolute darkness. The area surrounding them on all sides was featureless, and despite the fact that they could easily see each other, there were no light sources to be found anywhere within the all-pervading gloom.
"Huh," commented Willow with some dissatisfaction. "This is pretty disappointingly stereotypical."
"We should've packed a flashlight," added Tara thoughtfully.
"Luminaire," was Willow's response. She waited expectantly but nothing at all remarkable happened. "Oh," she said after a moment with no reaction. "That's probably not good."
Squinting, Tara continued to move forward. "I think there's someone down there," she murmured and then called out, "Hello?"
There was no welcoming greeting and Tara looked to Willow quizzically as the redhead came alongside. She also peered intently into the murk and confirmed the blonde's suspicions. There did indeed appear to be two figures loitering some distance away. With a shared glance, both witches set out toward the indistinct forms.
As Willow and Tara continued their journey, apparitions began to materialize to the side and slightly behind the couple – reflections undergoing a constant change while continuing to echo the motions of the two women. Neither noticed the shifting shades that followed their every movement – to the left of Willow and to the right of Tara – but they occupied some plane of existence just the same. The mirror images seemed to adhere to no logical pattern of emergence and came in rapid bursts, somewhat like a flipbook. Each frame afforded dominance for only the single blink of an eye.
A joyous Willow dressed in white, holding aloft the newly-signed ketubah; a Willow with blood smearing her hands and dress; a tiny tearful Willow clutching a broken crayon; a vampiric Willow with wicked fangs; a beaming Willow, delighted at the trio of pencils that floated and twirled in the air before her; an aged Willow, alone and abandoned, hobbling with the aid of a cane; Willow as a young mother, lovingly cradling an infant within her arms; a Willow of younger years, nose buried deep in a book as a canvas satchel bounced upon her shoulder.
A small Tara who cast fearful looks behind with every step; a soft-eyed Tara blowing a puff of powder from her palm; a Tara with twisted features and forked tongue; a Tara who danced elegantly in time to music only she could hear; a weeping Tara child whose face bore angry bruises; an ancient Tara who remained youthful in form and features; a delighted Tara who proudly displayed a gold band on the ring finger of her left hand.
The two witches moved closer to the shadowy images directly ahead, even as those images themselves moved closer to the two witches. As the shades that followed them, unseen and unnoticed, evaporated on each side, Willow and Tara realized they were standing in front of a mirror.
Tara blinked for a moment, as did her reflection. "Well. That's ... interesting."
Willow seemed less enchanted with the revelation. "I wish we could see something," she murmured.
Her wish was instantly granted. The area became flooded with light, revealing that the pair was in the middle of labyrinth composed entirely of mirrors. Flinching at the burst of sudden illumination, both women surveyed their surroundings with some bewilderment. At every turn, their eyes met with reflected duplicates. Some were distorted images – gigantic heads supported upon tiny bodies or vice versa – and some were normal in appearance. Some showed the two standing side-by-side, while others framed only a separate Willow or a separate Tara. Some flickered with tableaux from the past and still others seemed to be playing scenes from some as yet indefinable future. The assault upon the senses was disturbing and confusing. Both witches spun in constant circles until they were dizzy, trying to regain their bearings. It was a well-nigh impossible task.
Willow forced herself stop reeling. "Okay," she breathed, "remind me to never, ever go in a funhouse again."
Tara's whirling also came to a halt. "Yeah. I think someone forgot the 'fun' part." She shook the fog from her brain as she steadied herself. "We need to focus, remember why we're here."
Willow nodded as her forehead creased with concentration. "Right. Right. Focus." She glanced to the side and caught sight of her reflection once more. Her eyes opened wide. "Oh god, is my butt really that big?"
The redhead twisted slightly, desperately peering over her shoulder for a better view and apparently hoping that the mirror was of the distortion variety. Unfortunately, it appeared to be of the common and garden type and she grimaced.
Helplessly amused, Tara nevertheless suppressed her smirk. "Focus?" she reminded.
"Super Slayer," affirmed Willow, dragging her eyes away from the distressing image. "I'm focused."
Once again, the two women began to move cautiously through the maze of mirrors, Willow sighing as she caught one final discouraging glimpse of her retreating rear end. Reaching an intersection, they turned a corner and stopped short. As far as the eye could see, a series of flickering images displayed a vast array of differing scenarios. Willow and Tara glanced briefly at one another before centering solely upon the rapidly animated reflections. They appeared to be visual memories taken from life, but not Tara's life and not Willow's life – not even one life.
The image of the captured Super Slayer was easy to identify as she sat upon the grass and threw a ball for a small dog to retrieve, smiling with delight as the pup bounded toward her. The other fleeting passages from past times were of unrecognizable figures. A willowy blonde who led the field as she sprinted toward the finish line – a strikingly attractive dark-haired girl who stood proud in her traditional Cherokee Tear Dress – a young redhead blowing out the candles on a birthday cake – and an even younger brunette who twirled a baton on stage with supreme ability.
As though caught in an infinite loop, the foreign images of the girls played through a cycle of captured memories before each ended in a terrifying final moment. The two mirrors closest to the witches displayed flashes of a brutal battle between the girls and a glistening, hairless hound-like creature lacking eyes; the two farthest away showed nothing but the Super Slayer's twisted, mirthless grin and a glowing fist.
The reflections moved at a giddying pace, leaving in their wake impressions of stolen innocence. Willow's jaw became set in a tight line and Tara's eyes glinted with sadness at what might have been.
"Do you think we can save them?" Tara asked, although her voice indicated that she already guessed at the answer.
Regretfully, Willow shook her head. "I don't think so. There's nothing left of them, you know? Their bodies are completely gone. It's all just ... trapped thoughts and power now. They should've already moved on."
Swallowing hard, Tara nodded and turned to Willow, her tone firm. "What do you think then? Smash the mirrors?"
Willow arched an eyebrow. "Wow, I don't wanna even think how many years of bad luck this is gonna net us."
"I guess we'll have to take that chance," replied the blonde with authority.
Moving in unison, both witches took a step forward, to all appearances intending to do the job by hand. They got no further than that step, however, before the echoes of a deep and menacing chuckle seemed to reverberate from everywhere and nowhere. The two women stopped short, searching for the origin of the sound, and their actions brought forth another burst of restrained chortling. The second outburst appeared to pinpoint the source with more accuracy, and Tara and Willow turned back toward the intersection, peering warily down the corridor that had been their initial port of entry into the labyrinth. For a moment, they could discern nothing and then they spied movement within the rows of mirrors.
Strolling slowly, as though he had all the time in the world, came the image of Robespierre. Walking within the mirrors, he glided from one to the other with a smooth gait. Tara's breath caught in her throat in recognition of the fleeting glimpse and she squinted down the hallway seeking a physical presence, but there was no solid figure to be seen – no tangible form to cast a reflection. Involuntarily, she took a step backward as Willow shuffled protectively closer to her side.
As Robspierre's stride took him from one mirror to the next, his likeness suddenly became that of Madrigan. The transformation was swift and fluid – the shift so polished and skillful that it was impossible to determine whether the morph was real or simply a trick of the mind.
Pausing for a moment in his relentless onward journey, Madrigan chuckled again. It was a rich and robust sound. Willow looked uncertainly to Tara, who seemed frozen into immobility and unable to react. The redhead's gaze returned to the mage and she watched apprehensively as Madrigan approached the last section of mirrors. His hands were clasped casually behind his back as he sauntered along, cowl pulled over his head and a smile on his face. With only two mirrors remaining to be traversed, he favored the two waiting women with a broad and rather pleasant grin. Then, with no more effort than it would take to step down from a train, the mage simply made a suave transition from mirror to hallway.
Although he radiated power and malice, there was an underlying trace of genuine amusement and even some delight as he faced them. Willow and Tara exchanged uncomfortable looks at his proximity but stood their ground. Seeming to find this display of bravado entirely endearing, Madrigan beamed at both of them as he gallantly inclined his head in greeting.
"Miss Rosenberg. Miss Maclay. Welcome."
Xander and Dawn had resumed their Uno game while Giles sat alone at a small table nearby, staring into a styrofoam cup as though it were a scrying device that would provide all necessary answers. His concentration was direct and focused – he might have been the room's sole occupant for all the attention he was paying to anything around him.
With a triumphant "Ha!" Xander tossed down a card.
"Ha ha!" was Dawn's response as she threw down one of her own.
The carpenter carefully selected another card and smacked it atop the pile. "Fear my 'leet Uno skillz."
Dawn rolled her eyes. "God, don't talk like that. Your lameness runneth over." Her gaze narrowed as she scrutinized her hand. "And, by the way – Ha." With a grand flourish she added another card to the discard stack.
"My lameness?" came the brisk retort, followed by the throwing down of yet another card. "I believe that I am holding only twooooo—" Xander waved his pair of fanned cards tauntingly before Dawn's face, "—cards, whereas you have onetwothreefourfivesix in need of rapid disposal."
Dawn regarded him with pity for a moment and then announced, with a smirk of victory as she slapped down cards in speedy succession, "Draw Two, Skip to me, Draw Two, Reverse to me, Reverse to me— Uno! —ha." She leant back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest.
Dismayed, Xander stared for a moment, his remaining cards held within limp fingers. He scowled at Dawn's smug expression before stating, "I find it unspeakably distressing that I can't seem to win at this game. I think I could only feel worse by a 10-game losing streak of Candyland."
"Oo, wanna play that next?" she offered brightly.
"No. I wanna find out your secret, you Uno-playing fiend!"
"No secret. You just suck."
"Oh no. You've got a secret, an' you better spill if you know what's good for you!"
Within his solitude, the Watcher continued to stare into his cup. There was the brief flash of a scene perceived through the eyes of a seated figure over which Giles loomed menacingly, fist raised and tightly clenched, knuckles showing white against the flesh – but the vision was fleeting.
Xander regarded Dawn with narrowed eyes and his voice adopted a rather bad German accent. "You sink you vill not talk? Ve have vays of makink you talk."
Dawn squealed with laughter as Xander lunged for her across the table, his fingers wiggling with untold menace.
Giles appeared to be paying the two no attention whatsoever, but his mind's eye flashed blurred and indistinct images of violence as he heard Dawn's shrieks as though from the end of a long tunnel. He closed his eyes for no more than a heartbeat and then stared once more into the depths of his cup. The reflection that regarded him solemnly from its creamed coffee contents was weary and haunted.
Madrigan's eyes sparkled with undisguised enthusiasm as he looked from Tara to Willow. He virtually bounced on the balls of his feet with glee, rather like a fanboy who had finally managed to meet his idols. His delight was obviously rampant, but the air of danger continued to linger. For their part, the two witches regarded the mage with no little nervousness and a great deal of suspicion.
"Wow," he announced with excitement. "You know? Wow. This is ... It's huge. I gotta tell you. Big fan. And to think we almost didn't get to see this – you two, together again ... It's like the Rosenberg/Maclay reunion world tour. Man, this is bigger than if we brought back John and George and had a Beatles command performance." He paused for a moment as his eyes lit up. "Note to self: good idea."
"It was you," accused Tara. "You resurrected me."
Smirking at her realization, Madrigan twitched an eyebrow in acknowledgement. "Some of my finest work."
"But why?" the blonde pressed. "I mean ..." She looked to Willow and then back at Madrigan. "I know what I was told, but ... It wasn't just for that, was it?"
"We all have our parts to play, Miss Maclay," he replied, steepling his fingers and adopting the air of imparting great wisdom. "It's a pretty piss-poor director who won't let his talent spread her wings."
Willow, who up until this point had simply been standing by and listening warily, felt her temper begin to rise. She took a challenging step forward. "Who are you?" she demanded without preamble.
"That's really not important," he chuckled dismissively. "No, what's really important is – who are you?"
"You know who we are."
"Well sure," Madrigan readily agreed, "but do you?"
Willow and Tara regarded each other with confused expressions. Madrigan smiled brightly and bobbed his head in confirmation. "That's what I thought."
Tara frowned. "We don't have time for games."
"No? You should make time. Games are what make this crazy life worth living year after tediously boring year. The way I see it," he lectured, wandering back and forth like a college professor talking about his thesis work, "life's got two modes: the fun and the serious. The serious ..." Madrigan paused to snort disdainfully. "Well, we've got the embodiment of that already, don't we? Ahh, but the fun?" The grin he threw the two women was wide and fiendishly wicked. "That's what it's all about. I mean sure, we've all got our plans and our destinies and our blah blah blah." He waved a hand in the air in random patterns to emphasize his point. "But what good's any of that do you if you don't have fun with it, you know?"
Coming to a halt, he exhaled with a long, deep and intrinsically contended sigh, seeming to be lost in another world. Willow glanced to Tara with an expression that screamed 'is this guy for real?'. The returning look was no less wondering in nature. Suddenly, Madrigan roused himself from his reverie.
"But listen to me, blathering like some crazy super villain going on about his world philosophy." As the spoken words sunk in, he tilted his head to one side. "Huh," he murmured, contemplating the irony for a moment, then shook his head. "Anywhoo, not why we're here."
"Is why we're here to kick your butt?" queried Willow hopefully with narrowed eyes. "Cuz personally, I think that'd be a lotta fun."
Thrusting his hands in the air, Madrigan took a step backward. "Whoa-hey!" he exclaimed as he turned to Tara. "Behold the snark! Gets sorta covered up by the whole pixie-ish exterior—" To the redhead he added, "—which I gotta tell you, by the way is dead sexy." As Willow's mouth opened and closed in silent protestation, the mage's yellow eyes focused once again on the other witch. "Guess you haven't really seen much of that side of her though, have you?"
Tara sighed heavily. "Have we gotten to the part that's not tediously boring yet?"
Throwing back his head, Madrigan let loose a howl of laughter. "And again!"
Shaking his head, he calmed and wiped the tears of hilarity from his eyes before grinning at the pair with an immense display of affection. "You two have been great. So I tell you what ..."
Before either Tara or Willow could react, the mage lashed out with both hands. A stream of energy burst from his fingertips, snaking toward the witches and encircling them like a whip. As he violently jerked his arms apart, Tara and Willow were thrown toward opposing walls, each on a direct collision course with one of the suspended mirrors. But instead of the glass shattering, it rippled to accommodate the arrival and swallowed its victim whole before undulating back into a smooth and unmarred surface.
Madrigan stared at the location where the women had been just moments before, a smile of satisfaction tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"No more games."
In one of the more seedy areas of Trillium, Buffy paused at the door of an establishment whose sputtering pink neon sign proclaimed it to be named 'After Midnight'. She cautiously entered and surveyed the interior with a critical eye. Despite its sleazy location, it appeared to have once been a rather high class watering hole. However, stools which had bordered the bar were now demolished, intimately-placed tables and chairs had been smashed almost beyond recognition, televisions positioned at each corner of the room had been totally destroyed, and an arched annex which had formerly housed pool tables displayed every indication of having been hit by an unstoppable tornado. In short, the saloon had been utterly trashed.
Moving warily, Buffy navigated the ruins in search of any sign of life and heard noises emanating from the back room. Quickening her pace, the Slayer burst through the beaded curtain and was surprised to find a woman wielding a broom with much ferocity, muttering darkly as she tried to salvage what she could from the devastation. Buffy's eyes narrowed as she took note of the proprietor's exotic appearance – flawless skin and luxuriously-curling hair the color of polished mahogany – but otherwise seemingly nothing more than a particularly striking example of the female species. Buffy's offensive posture relaxed.
Equally taken aback at the sudden arrival, the woman blinked at Buffy through her almond-shaped jade eyes and abruptly dropped the broom, raising her hands in defense. She inspected the Slayer from head to toe and then defiantly flicked her hair over one shoulder with purple-painted fingernails.
"Great," she commented with an angry toss of her head. "Just great. Come to finish the job?"
Buffy took a step forward. "What?"
Reacting quickly, the woman retrieved the broom and waved the handle warningly in Buffy's direction. "Was there one tiny corner of my livelihood that you Slayers haven't destroyed?" She glanced around and spied something that apparently fit the bill. "Yes! There was this glass!" She dashed to the undamaged item, scooping it up protectively as she glared. "Glass," she reiterated. "Note I am using the singular form of the word. This solitary, lone glass."
Holding it aloft as though it were a sacred object, the proprietor suddenly hurled the glass violently to the floor, where it smashed immediately upon impact. Acting on reflex, Buffy skipped backward.
"There!" announced the woman with something akin to satisfaction, her arms thrown wide. "Nothing left to destroy now, so you can go on home!" Pitching the broom to one side, she placed her hands upon her hips and faced Buffy.
"Look ..." the Slayer began, prompting for the bar owner's name.
The woman arched an elegant eyebrow, but complied with the unspoken request. "Sam."
"Sam," agreed Buffy with nod. "I can tell you've had a real ... stressful day, so just answer a couple questions and I'll let you get back to your ..."
"Sweeping up the shattered remains of my once bright and promising future?" Sam suggested in a cheerful but slightly manic tone. "Gee, that'd be swell."
Letting the sarcasm slide, Buffy continued, "I'm looking for someone. Dark hair, a little taller than me, probably pretty upset—"
"Likes to smash stuff?" came the interruption, followed by a pursing of the glossed lips. "Yeah, I think I might know her. She's one of you, right? A Slayer. She comes in here not ten minutes ago, starts screaming about finding demons, vampires ... 'Anything in need of a good killing', she said. I don't know why she came looking here."
Buffy waited for a moment before stating, slowly but succinctly, "Maybe because this is a demon bar, typically frequented by said demons?"
For a moment, Sam simply blinked, and it looked as though she might refute the charge. Instead, she shrugged. "Well okay, grant you," she yielded reluctantly. "But come on – it's, like, two in the afternoon. The place is called 'After Midnight' for a reason you know. Besides the fact that I like Clapton," she added with a tiny smile of appreciation.
Swallowing down a sigh of frustration, Buffy's quest for information continued. "Okay, so Faith comes in here—"
"Her name's Faith?" Sam's tone was incredulous. "My Irony Sense is tingling."
Buffy let her 'Slayer Face' slip into place, and Sam straightened under the penetrating glare, any further color commentary wisely being kept internal. "Faith comes in here," the blonde repeated, "and demands the demons. You tell her there aren't any, and she ..."
Gesturing at the surrounding shambles, Sam regarded Buffy with speculation. "Pretty sure you can fill in the blanks, princess."
Buffy followed the encompassing sweep of Sam's hand before her gaze returned to the bar's proprietor. The Slayer's eyes narrowed and for a moment, it seemed as though Sam's show of bravado was about to falter. She shuffled somewhat apprehensively, tugged at the hem of her tight halter top, and apparently found her skirt to be of immense interest. But the nervousness was fleeting and Buffy's scrutiny was soon challenged.
"What?" demanded Sam.
Buffy tilted her head. "You're not human, are you?"
"Hey, look at me," responded Sam, executing a perfect three-point turn with arms extended. "Do I look like a demon to you?"
"No," granted the Slayer, "but I learned an important lesson a long time ago. Something about books and covers."
Sam took a tiny step backward.
"I'm not gonna hurt you," promised Buffy with sincerity.
Sam sighed. "Like I could even run in these heels." She rolled her eyes. "Yeah. Yeah, okay, I'm a demon. But I'm vegan," she assured emphatically. "Do you know how many grams of fat are in the average human torso?"
"EW," Buffy replied with a thoroughly disgusted expression.
"Okay, forget I asked."
"Why didn't Faith kill you?" questioned Buffy, a small frown creasing her forehead.
The demon snorted a laugh. "I've asked myself that question an awful lot today. I guess ..." She shrugged her slim shoulders . "I guess she didn't know. She thought I was human."
"Let's hope that line stays nice and unblurred," the Slayer whispered to herself as she turned and hurried out of the bar.
Watching the blonde's departure, Sam's exquisitely chiseled features transformed into an ugly sneer. She was obviously less than happy with Buffy, Buffy's friends, Buffy's casual acquaintances, Buffy's ancestors, and was apparently harboring just enough 'not happy' for any of Buffy's future progeny too. She sighed and reached for the broom, attacking the clean up issue with renewed vigor.
"I knew I should've bought 'in case of Slayer' insurance," she muttered with a final reproachful glare toward the door.
Tara lay on what was presumably ground, immersed once again in the darkness that had greeted her and Willow upon their arrival in the Super Slayer's mind. She was still, unmoving, not even twitching at the voices that echoed around her – a man and a woman. The sounds were hollow and tinny, like an ancient phonograph recording of the past.
"...talk about our feelings..."
As the last voice drifted away, Tara stirred and sat up with a groan before examining her surroundings. Her features crinkled into a frown as she realized she was alone.
Tara sat nearly frozen, her ears straining for a reply. When none was forthcoming, she got to her feet and more thoroughly inspected the darkness. It remained as featureless as she had originally discovered, but then Tara spied something off to the side. Cautiously, but without hesitation, the blonde made her way toward it.
It was a mirror, identical to all those she had encountered thus far, save for the images it projected. Almost as though she were looking down from a second story window, Tara could see someone moving on the other side – Willow. Like Tara, the redhead appeared to be searching for something, her lips moving although it was impossible to hear what she was saying.
"Willow?" Tara tried again, raising her voice. "Can you hear me?"
The Willow in the reflection gave no indication that she heard anything at all and Tara moved closer still, reaching out toward the mirrored surface as she did so. Before contact could be made, Willow turned suddenly on her heel and hurried away until she was out of range and could no longer be seen. As though attempting to reach through to the woman on the other side, Tara extended her hand, fingers resting on the glass.
The instant her flesh made contact, an image materialized, perfectly mirroring Tara's posture as would be expected of a reflection – but instead of the blonde, the figure that appeared was Willow herself. Only this was not the Willow that Tara knew. This Willow was a cruel and twisted mockery, with jet-black hair, soulless eyes and tiny veins standing out against alabaster skin. The Willow in the mirror grinned maliciously at Tara, and the blonde ripped her hand away, stumbling back from the reflection that had already vanished in the absence of contact.
Tara barely noticed as she staggered past Madrigan, who had seemingly appeared from nowhere and without fanfare. He stood to the side, watching with great amusement, hands clasped casually behind his back. "Hey there," he greeted amicably.
Still fighting to calm her racing heartbeat, Tara looked at Madrigan through narrowed eyes. "You again."
"Me again," he confirmed cheerfully. "It's a small world, after all."
His attempt at light conversation died a quick and painless death. "Where's Willow?" demanded Tara, straightening and leveling her best glare at the mage.
Her intimidation techniques clearly had little effect. Rather than answer, Madrigan snorted a tiny chuckle. "Heh. Alliteration."
"Where is she?" the witch insisted, anger slipping into her tone.
With an abstract wave of his hand, Madrigan replied, "She's around. She's fine." He gave a small shrug. "Or, well, as fine as she ever can be, I suppose."
"I want to see her."
Madrigan gestured toward the mirror. "You just did. You're the one that pulled away, not her." A smirk formed on his lips and he tilted his head, regarding Tara thoughtfully. "That's par for the course though, isn't it?"
"That wasn't Willow," Tara vehemently denied. "That was some sort of evil ... " She swallowed down the slight tremor that had crept into her voice. "That wasn't her."
"Sure, you keep telling yourself that," replied the mage with a condescending laugh. "That was pretty much Willow: Unplugged. Something, isn't she?" he admired aloud.
It was clear Madrigan was alone in his feelings and Tara was quick to move on. "What do you want from us? This is ... This is some sort of- of game, is that it?"
"You can call it ... The Game of Life." There was a slight pause while he considered this with a frown. "No, wait, that one's taken ..."
"No more jokes!"
The strength of Tara's outburst appeared to echo in the void, but despite its abruptness, Madrigan didn't seem particularly surprised to have heard it.
The blonde took a deep breath, steadying herself. "I want to see Willow," she commanded in a tone that brooked no argument.
"All you had to do was ask."
Madrigan waved his hand toward Tara, and the previously empty space behind her suddenly became alight – a new mirror, complete with new images. Unlike the earlier appearance of a mute Willow searching in similar darkness, this vision contained both sight and sound.
The nightmare vision of Willow, her Dark half, was standing in the woods in the dead of night. Before her, tied by all four limbs to the trees that surrounded him, was Warren Mears. The man's shirt hung half open, and he twitched nervously, struggling helpless against his bonds. Glinting in the bright moonlight, hovering mere inches away from Warren's chest, was a small spinning metallic object.
"I think you need to," Dark Willow decided. "Feel it."
As though amplified a hundred times over, the sounds of squelching flesh assaulted Tara as the bullet was magickally driven into Warren at a snail's pace. The man's helpless whimpering – not quite screaming due to the thick black sutures that had sewn his lips together – joined the macabre symphony, and Tara recoiled violently from the mirror.
"I don't want to see this!" she cried out, eyes squeezed tightly shut in an effort to block the images.
"Of course you don't," soothed Madrigan, gazing at Tara like a parent dishing out a painful but necessary punishment. "Ignoring things you don't like is one of your favorite pastimes. But it's okay if you donít want to watch. We a have a nifty audio track too."
Suddenly the area exploded into chaos – Warren begging for mercy, Willow's screams of rage and pain, Buffy pleading with Willow to stop, Willow taunting Giles – these were just a few of the sounds that stood out in the pandemonium.
Grinding her teeth together, Tara's hands clamped over her ears, but no matter how hard she tried, she was unable to block the sounds. Her lids flew open and she glared at Madrigan with barely contained fury. "Stop it!!"
Almost before she had finished shouting her command, the area was again blanketed in silence, even the image in the mirror fading away to reveal only seamless darkness.
"I already forgave her for this!" Tara exclaimed, her eyes gleaming with unshed tears.
Madrigan brushed the argument aside. "Forgiving is the easy part. Forgetting ... that's a bit harder." He smirked cruelly. "Sometimes."
To Tara's right, yet another mirror glowed to life, featuring an image of Willow dressed in a long-sleeved pajama top. In her hand was a dried flower and on her face was a cool, almost detached expression.
"Forget," the mirror image intoned as the flower glowed with imbued power.
Madrigan's voice pulled Tara's attention away from the past. "Have you ever wondered how it might've turned out if you lived?" he inquired thoughtfully.
Lips forming a tight line, the witch considered Madrigan with angry eyes. "We're done here," she declared with finality. Saying nothing more, Tara turned and walked in the opposite direction, but she'd gotten no more than five paces before Madrigan was there again, his posture unchanged. Surprised, Tara stopped short, and the mage continued as though her outburst had never occurred.
"Though I guess time's a bit messy for you, isn't it?" he pondered. "I mean, as far as you can tell, the two of you just made up a couple months ago."
Tara spun around as another mirror flashed to life, depicting her and Willow in their room at the Summers' house. Willow was perched on the edge of the bed, picking nervously at the coverlet as reflection-Tara, clad in a dark leather jacket, continued her speech.
"It's a long, important process and ... can we just skip it?"
This time, Tara voluntarily turned from the memory, her jaw set determinedly. She didn't speak, she simply stomped away. As with before, she got no more than a few paces before Madrigan was there.
"Can you really skip over all that stuff, though?" the mage questioned. "The lying, the mind-rape ..."
At that word choice, Tara looked at him sharply, but Madrigan was unrepentant.
"The darkness is in her," he persisted. "I mean, you know that, you can feel it. She's not just walking on the edge, she's doing a freaking Irish jig on it. How much do you think it'd take for her to take a big ol' swan dive over?" Madrigan curved his hand in an arc, a pantomime of just such a dramatic trajectory.
"Willow won't do that again!" protested Tara with conviction. "She- She knows what she's capable of and she would never—"
Madrigan cocked a knowing eyebrow. "Never?"
Another mirror flashed to life, displaying Dark Willow standing atop Kingman's Bluff in the bright light of a new day. The magicks swirled and flowed around her, sucking the life force from everything it touched in an ever-increasing circle of death.
Turning back to Tara, Madrigan wore a satisfied smirk. "Never say never."
Clearly it would take more than that to shake Tara's faith – or at the very least, make her doubts rise to the surface. "Willow's stronger now," the blonde told him in a firm tone. "She's seen the darkest part of herself and she beat it."
There was no immediate retort to Tara's refusal, simply the same expression Madrigan had been wearing – one that hinted of being gifted with true understanding, and delighting in the fact that he alone was enlightened. The mirror containing the image of Dark Willow disappeared and another faded into life nearby. Unlike those that had come before, this was a moment unfamiliar to Tara and she looked on warily as the scene unfolded.
It soon became evident that what was being shown was the final act in a much longer work. Willow stood in a graveyard, only her back and slumped, defeated shoulders visible. Her shirt was ripped and torn, blood oozing from wounds that looked deep but not fatal. Willow paid them no mind.
Buffy approached slowly from out of the darkness, looking to have taken the brunt of the battle. She limped painfully, her face barely visible discernable a roadmap of cuts and bruises. Her arm dangled uselessly at her side, her other hand clutching a double-headed battleaxe with white knuckles that hadn't yet received the message that the fight was over. The Slayer ignored all of this, however, her gaze locked onto her friend. "Willow ..."
There was no response. Willow didn't give even the slightest indication that she had heard. As Buffy came closer, she followed the redhead's line of sight, her face crumpling at the image before her.
Despite being the dead of night, there was enough illumination to make out the figure on the ground with perfect clarity. It was Tara, her eyes open and staring up at the sky, glassy and unseeing. A raw and gaping wound at her neck showed where her throat had been viciously ripped out and blood drenched her clothes, bathing them in a too-dark red. Oddly enough, her face was relatively untouched by either stain or injury, and if one were able to blot out the grotesque injuries just below, it might have looked as though she were simply sleeping. Were it not for her vacant, lifeless eyes.
"God ... Tara ..." Buffy choked as Xander approached the scene.
Like the others, Xander bore the marks of an intense battle, but his attentions were focused entirely on the tableau before him. "Oh no ..." he whispered, shaking his head against the images that assailed him.
Through all of this, Willow had not moved, had not twitched. Buffy turned to her with an expression filled with pain. "Willow, I—"
The words were spit from behind teeth clenched together with such force it seemed they might almost crack under the pressure. Willow turned to Buffy, her cheeks soaked with tears. But Willow wasn't crying any more. There were no tears left in the solid black eyes that focused on the Slayer.
"You didn't save her," Willow accused.
Once the words had been spoken, it was as if a dam had burst in the witch and her rage began to infuse every fiber of her being. Starting from the roots, the usually vibrant red of Willow's hair gave way to inky blackness. "You didn't save her."
Buffy attempted to explain, her voice pained and guilty. "I tried. They were ... There were just too many of them, and I couldn't—"
"No more excuses," interrupted Willow with cold finality. "That's two you owe me."
As soon as the words had been spoken, the witch's eyes flared. Bright embers of pure hellfire appeared in their centers, and suddenly Buffy was burning. She barely had time to realize what was happening before the intensity increased to such a degree that, within seconds, both Buffy and the flame had dissipated. Nothing was left save for a few ashes that drifted slowly to the scorched earth.
Willow gazed upon the remains with no trace of emotion. "It's time I collect," she concluded.
Just slightly behind her, Xander's eye bulged in his socket in complete disbelief. "Oh god, Buffy ..." he murmured in complete horror before affixing his gaze on the witch. "Willow, what did you do to her?"
His words served but one purpose, however – to attract Willow's attention. She turned toward her oldest friend with nothing like affection; her eyes were as dead as Tara's. "I'll show you," she offered in a flat voice, and then Xander was also afire. It took only a second, then he was gone.
"I should never have let you stop me the first time," Willow told the space where Xander had been. She turned to regard the body on the ground – the only one left to bear witness. Willow stared at Tara for a long moment, seeming to memorize the image at her feet before it too was consumed by flames.
"We'll all join you soon, love."
Madrigan stepped in front of the mirror with a beaming smile, snapping the mounting tension into a dozen tiny pieces as he regarded Tara with anticipation. "What did you think? Now be honest – it's my first wholly independent film."
He waited expectantly for the blonde's response, heedless of the fact that she was hugging herself tightly, tears trickling down her cheeks. "She couldn't do that again," Tara stated, though the strength of her conviction had noticeably dipped.
The answering chuckle was filled with something akin to affection at her naivety. "Murder's only hard the first time."
Defiantly, Tara shook her head. "No. The memory of what she did, how it felt ... She's sorry for what she did."
"You really believe that, donít you?" Noting the blonde's confidence in her statement, even if shaken, Madrigan couldn't seem to resist making a little noise, as though Tara were fashioned from all the cutest things in the entire world. "That's so adorable."
This seemed to jolt Tara back into place, her beliefs now reinforced with anger. "Don't patronize me," she snapped. "You think you know Willow? You don't know anything about her."
"I know she's never lost one second of sleep for Filet o' Warren," Madrigan retorted matter-of-factly. "Do you honestly think she regrets skinning your murderer alive? Come on, Miss Maclay, you're far too practical for that."
Tara looked like she wanted to tell Madrigan he was wrong. She wanted to do that more than anything. But she couldn't.
Madrigan's lips curved upward in a smile. "There's my girl," he congratulated like a proud father on graduation day. He began to pace again, his hands clasped behind his back. "Here's what I think you think, and correct me if I'm way off base here. You believe she's strong enough, that it won't get the better of her, right? You're thinking she'll ... pick you over the magicks?" The mage chuckled at the thought. "She doesnít exactly have a good track record for that though, does she? And even if she does, how does that work if you're not there any more?"
"I believe in Willow," was the simple reply.
"Well see, I do too," agreed Madrigan, "which is why it's so cool that we can talk like this. What I believe in though is the real Willow." He shot a smirk at Tara. "That'd be the one you were telling yourself couldn't exist. Ah, but now you know better, don't you?"
Coming to a halt, Madrigan glanced over his shoulder as another mirror appeared. This one showed Willow, dark eyed and raging at Buffy, who was pinned helplessly against the wall of Willow's room in Trillium. As the Slayer's hands scrabbled at her throat, neither paid any attention to the Tara in that scene, visible just behind Willow. A long, black-handled dagger was clasped tightly in that Tara's fist, poised and ready to plunge between Willow's shoulder blades.
Still smirking, Madrigan turned back to the real Tara. "Yeah, you know better."
If replaying recent events was intended to wear down the blonde, Madrigan was bitterly disappointed. Instead, the memory seemed to give Tara strength and renewed her confidence. "I saw her take control. She's stronger than the power, and you know what?" Tilting her head at the mage, Tara echoed his knowing smile. "She's stronger than you, too."
Madrigan absorbed this information and seemed to process it, mulling it over in his mind as he began to murmur to himself. "She just might be. Wouldn't that be something?" Snapping out of his musings, his inhuman eyes again found Tara, unaffected by her certainty. "But there's someone out there I don't think she can resist for too long. Wanna guess who?"
For the first time, Tara suddenly looked afraid. "Me?"
"Ehhh!" responded the mage, doing his best imitation of a game show buzzer. "Ooo, but nice try."
Stepping to one side, Madrigan all but removed himself from the focus of Tara's attentions, just as another mirror began to glow. Tara turned toward it as a figure materialized from within. Her brow was furrowed in a confusion that soon died as recognition took its place.
Tara took a step backward as Dark Willow smirked from behind the glassy surface. Willow glanced up, examining the reflective prison with vague interest before she stepped forward and out of the mirror entirely. Now every bit as real as Tara, Dark Willow's eyes lit upon the blonde and she smiled.
"Hey baby," she greeted, her voice oozing a familiarity that caused a shiver to run up Tara's spine. "Miss me?"
Hands thrust deep into his pockets, Giles walked one of Slayer Central's main hallways. His stride was purposeful but lacking in urgency. Wherever he was bound, the Watcher was obviously in no great rush to reach his destination. He stopped abruptly at the sound of his name being called and turned to see Xander rapidly approaching.
"Come with me," was the carpenter's command.
Giles was puzzled. "Xander, what...?"
But Xander had already spun on his heel and was returning back down the corridor. The Watcher hurried after the departing figure as Xander disappeared around a corner. Increasing his pace, Giles sped toward the intersection and then came to an abrupt halt as he saw the carpenter simply waiting just beyond, leaning against the wall.
"Okay, change of plan," admitted Xander. He looked Giles squarely in the eye. "I was gonna hit you just now. But it won't actually make me feel any better, and it occurs to me that we don't really have time for that. They always said that it's the thought that counts, though. So know I was thinkin' about it real hard."
Giles returned the challenging stare. "I assume this is for earlier?"
Xander did not waver. "This is why you're the smart guy."
"I'm sorry," the older man began, "but I—"
Pushing himself away from the wall, Xander forcefully interrupted. "No. No, 'sorry' is what you say when you spill someone's drink or hit 'em with a football." The carpenter jabbed his finger toward Giles. "'Sorry' is not what you say when you deliberately punch someone in the face."
Giles also pulled himself up to his full height, not wilting beneath the angry glare. "All right," he admitted, "I'm not sorry for hitting you. But I am sorry that it's clearly upset you so much."
"Upset me so much?" Xander let loose with a scathing chuckle. "Giles, you broadcast it pretty loud and clear that I had nothing to offer. I was better off sitting on the sidelines with the minor and someone who I think may in fact have been in high school when life took its first tentative step out of the ocean. I'm not sure 'upset' begins to cover it."
Expression softening just a little, Giles allowed his posture to relax slightly. "I didn't mean anything quite like that. Simply ... These girls are dangerous, Xander. They can and will kill you without a second thought."
"Right," the carpenter retorted bitterly, "and that's so different from the normal stuff that likes to kill me how?" Clearly building up a good head of steam by this point, Xander continued, "I spent years – multiple increments of 365-day chunks – doing nothing but wanting to help. I've milked the 'I'm useless' card for all it's worth, and I do not plan to revisit." His rant on pause for just a moment, Xander seemed to be challenging the Watcher to refute his declaration.
Giles was hesitant with his response. "There are ... things. Experiences ..."
In a flash, the image of the captive Super Slayer appeared before his eyes, her head thrown back in agony – he saw himself standing in front of a table, the girl seated behind him, head slumped heavily upon her chest, as he wiped a cloth along a long, thin serrated blade which glistened with freshly-drawn blood.
Blinking the visions from his mind, Giles concentrated upon Xander's determined face. "Situations that you – none of you – should have to go through."
"Which is sweet, don't get me wrong," the carpenter was willing to concede, "but I think we're old enough to make those decisions for ourselves. You don't have to protect us."
Presumably, Giles had no appropriate response. Instead, he began to rub absently at his knuckles. Xander regarded the bruised and swollen joints with a tiny frown.
"Got that from me, huh?" he questioned, his voice taking on a note of false pride. The Watcher neither confirmed nor denied the accusation, but Xander pressed on regardless. "Good strong bones. Guess Mom was onto something when she made me drink all that milk."
The shadow of a smile crossed Giles' lips, but failed to reach his eyes.
"Don't try to keep me out of this," warned Xander, the weak moment of levity past. "I'm not just gonna wave a pom-pom chanting 'Go Team Go' while you, an' Buffy an' Willow an' everyone do something." He pointed a cautioning finger at Giles. "If you try that again, I'll knock you on your ass. I mean it."
For a long moment, Giles considered both Xander's sobering statement and the carpenter's grave expression. He smiled with genuine admiration. "You'd hit a man with glasses?"
"Please," scoffed Xander, "you have four times the number of eyes. You get no play from me, my friend."
Giles nodded in reluctant agreement. "No. I suppose that's fair." He met the carpenter's steady stare without faltering. "I won't keep you out of the fight Xander, I promise." The wheels appeared to be visibly turning in Giles' mind as he added, "In fact, I think I have just the task for you ..."
Within one of the forested areas on the outskirts of Trillium, Buffy was on the prowl. Although her concentration was focused intently upon her search, she could not fail to sense that she too was being stalked. To anyone observing the scene, it would have impossible to discern prey from predator.
With eyes narrowed, the blonde Slayer stopped moving and stood up straight. "Faith ..." she murmured, ears cocked for the slightest sound. "I know you're out here. I know you can hear me."
All was silence as Buffy began to turn in a slow circle. She made another attempt.
"Listen," she continued with heartfelt sympathy. "I know this hurts. Bad. I know it feels like the whole world is collapsing and like nothing is ever going to be the same again. But Faith, you shouldn't be alone. We can help you. What you need is—"
Buffy's words of consolation came to an abrupt halt as a figure leapt from the overhead treetops and landed nimbly behind her. Instinctively, the blonde whirled to be met by a boot that lashed out and connected solidly with her jaw. Sent sprawling to the ground, Buffy was momentarily stunned. Before she could assess her bearings, the breath was knocked from her body and she found herself firmly pinned. As the blonde's vision cleared, she discovered she was staring up at Faith. Straddling Buffy, the dark-haired Slayer's knees had immobilized Buffy's shoulders while her hands kept a tight grip upon the blonde's wrists. Nonetheless, Buffy made no move to extricate herself.
"Know what I need?" snarled Faith, declining to wait for a response before adding, "A good Slay."
She drew back her hand and clenched it into an enraged fist before bearing down with a punch aimed directly at Buffy's face.
All senses on alert, Willow carefully examined the featureless darkness that enveloped her on all sides, doing her best to take stock of her surroundings. "Tara?" she called out hopefully. "Hello? Anybody?"
There was a decided lack of response, and Willow added to herself, "Well maybe not just anybody – I mean I haven't really met anybody here I'd like to see again but ..." She raised her voice once more. "Tara?"
Eventually, a promising reply reached her ears from somewhere far away. There was no mistaking its owner – it was Tara.
The redhead whirled. "Tara? Don't move!" she urged. "Just- Just stay there, I'll come find you!"
Without further hesitation, Willow hurried in her search, led by the echo of the blonde's voice, still eerily lingering. Even in her eagerness to seek out Tara, the redhead continued to survey the all-pervading darkness with some curiosity. "And if I could find me at the same time, that'd be really swell," she muttered softly.
Steadily increasing her pace, Willow pressed forward with great determination. She had not gone much further when Madrigan appeared beside her, matching the redhead's stride with uncanny precision.
"Do you know where you're going?" he asked cheerfully.
She gave him a cursory glance and refused to be awed at his sudden presence. "Oh, it's you," she practically sneered. "I don't have time for you."
Madrigan recoiled with comic exaggeration. "Ohh, re-jec-ted. Dude, lemme tell you, if my friend was here? He'd be going on about this for months." He chewed the statement for a moment before adding, "Well not verbally ..."
Completely ignoring Madrigan's grin, Willow's pace did not lessen. She simply kept moving forward, almost as though to engage him in conversation would be a gross waste of time. "Tara needs me," was her only response, and that was clipped and curtly delivered.
Madrigan didn't seem to take undue offense. "That right?"
"She's waiting for me."
With a brief and amused snort of irony, Madrigan was suddenly holding something in his hand. "Think fast," he advised, tossing the item in Willow's direction.
Acting on instinct, Willow plucked the object from the air and came to a halt in order to examine it more closely. Her forehead crinkled with curiosity. It was a bottle fashioned of opaque red glass, sporting a long neck and squat bottom, relatively small and unremarkable, save for a rather attractive brass cork.
Willow shot Madrigan a puzzled look. "What's—"
"Oh, that was Miss Maclay's home for, eh – about a month, give or take," he replied casually.
"What?" the witch responded incredulously as she scrutinized the bottle.
"Well, her spiritual home," the mage amended. "Had to keep her somewhere while we fixed her body, didn't we?"
Unwilling to believe her ears, Willow seemed unable to tear her eyes away from the bottle in her hands. "You kept Tara in ..."
"In that very bottle," confirmed Madrigan, pointing to the artifact. "Handy little things. The warlocks who make 'em got all wiped out in some war a couple hundred years back, so be careful with that, they're hard to replace." His cautioning eyebrow had little effect as Willow was transfixed on the glass. "Same sort of basic principle they use for djinn though – binds the spirit, but keeps the personality and all that good stuff intact. Whew, soul energy? Not easy to keep together once you harness it. Though I guess you know a little bit about that." He grinned admiringly at the redhead.
Turning the bottle within her hands, Willow's gaze was distant. "Keeping her together ... " she pondered, her mind churning with the implications. A sudden thought struck her and looked at Madrigan with horror. "So she knew?"
"About being in the bottle?" The mage bobbed his head back and forth in a gesture that said 'sorta'. "Not necessarily knew knew. I mean, if you could've asked her where she was, she could really only tell you 'trapped'." He slowly shook his head in profound sympathy. "I don't think it was too pleasant. Is she still having the nightmares?"
Willow's face crumpled as her expression became wounded.
"Oh you don't know," he concluded with a pitying expression.
"She never ... " began the redhead miserably. "She hasn't talked about it."
"Well she probably just doesn't want to make you feel bad," he offered by way of consolation.
The witch's eyes drifted back to the bottle in her hands as Madrigan continued to enjoy the sound of his own voice.
"I think probably the week before she took her first breath was the worst," he relayed with some regret. "See, you can't just slam a soul back into its previously dead body like that without running a serious risk of snapping the mind altogether, especially not a body as far gone as Miss Maclay. Vampires, they've got the demon to help cushion things a little bit, but a regular human? Once they're gone, they're gone. Not really meant to get a curtain call, you know? That's why zombies and stuff aren't really big with the higher brain functions." He chuckled with amazement. "Makes what you did to your friend Buffy seriously darned impressive, lemme tell you."
He watched Willow carefully for some sign of reaction to his words of praise, but there was none. The redhead could do nothing but stare at the bottle, lost in thought. With a dismissive shrug, Madrigan resumed his informative tale.
"So anyway, if you can't put 'em all back at once, the secret is to start funneling the mind into the body during the final stages of regrowth. Just in chunks, so they don't drive themselves mad with the pain, but—" He stopped as Willow whipped her head in his direction.
"Why?" she demanded with a withering glare, tears stinging her eyes. "You would ... You hurt her like that just to kill me?"
Yellow eyes blinked innocently. "You wish we hadn't brought her back?" He chuckled in disbelief. "You're honestly telling me you'd rather her body still be rotting away into nothing beneath a collapsed Hellmouth. Cuz I mean, if you'd really rather have that ..."
He gestured toward the redhead, and a mirror faded into sight behind her. Its surface illuminated instantly, revealing a Tara who was isolated within her own patch of darkness. Raising his hand, crackling energy began to form around the flesh, building in intensity before its inevitable release.
Willow's eyes grew wide with panicked horror. "No! No, please!" she entreated.
Madrigan immediately acquiesced. He lowered his hand and the mirrored image vanished. As though there had been no interruption at all, his dissertation continued. "It was all pretty easy, actually," he confided, not bothering to disguise his cockiness. "Relatively speaking. For you I guess it's simple, but I think we can all agree that you wreck the hell outta the curve. Most of us, though, finding just the right soul is tricky business. And you don't wanna go putting the wrong soul in the wrong body, that's just ..." He gave an exaggerated shudder. "Well, it's just unpleasant for everyone."
"Easy?" queried Willow sharply. "What did— If it was so easy, why ..."
Madrigan had anticipated the question. "Why couldn't you do it?" He cast a sideways glance at the redhead. "Who says you couldn't have if you'd looked in the right places."
Willow's expression became a jumble of conflicting emotions and it was obvious that she truly didn't know quite what to think.
The mage waited for a moment, then sensing that no response would be forthcoming any time soon, he pressed on. "But with Miss Maclay, she was right there. When a human dies, their soul moves through a sort of ..." He waved a dismissive hand. "Eh, the specifics of it all is pretty boring. Hell dimension, heavenly dimension ... Typically speaking, you wind up in one or the other, and the mechanics of both are mostly the same. It's a dimension, that's really all that matters, and I know a little something about dimensions. So when I first went looking for Miss Maclay, it surprised the crap outta me that she wasn't where I thought she'd be. I thought maybe you or someone else had beat me to her, but nope. I was just looking too many steps ahead – she'd never gotten far enough to pick where to go. Girl was pushing right at the edges of our world, just sorta hovering there." Madrigan's voice took on a wistful, almost nostalgic note. His hand reached up slowly, gently. "All I had to do was reach in—" His fist clenched around nothing at all. "—and take her."
The dramatic soliloquy complete, he turned to Willow with a beaming smile of accomplishment, not flinching at her undisguised expression of loathing.
"So you took her out of peace and you put her through hell," seethed the redhead.
Madrigan pondered on this then shrugged. "From a 'glass half empty' viewpoint, sure."
"Why?" spat Willow viciously.
But the mage didn't provide an answer. Instead, he focused on a point over Willow's shoulder with an air expression of rapt interest. There were the sounds of someone gasping for breath – frantically sucking in one lungful of air, closely followed by another ragged rasp. Spinning toward the source of the distressing noises, Willow was met with the image of an almost skeletal Tara lying on what appeared to be a medical examination table. The pitiful body had very little muscle tone and Willow visibly winced with pain at the sight.
As the redhead watched through unheeded tears, Tara took yet another deep breath. Her eyes slowly opened – eyes reflecting unspeakable suffering within a pallid face that was drawn, weary and almost totally drained. The lips moved but the vocal chords, mute for so long, obviously struggled against the demand. When she was finally able to speak, Tara's voice sounded ancient and was little more than a croak. Willow moved closer to the image, her expression almost mirroring that of the blonde. She strained her ears to catch the whispered word.
And then, Tara became swallowed once more by the empty darkness.
Madrigan sighed. "That was her first word in this new life." He looked toward Willow. "Ah. It just gets me here." He thumped upon his chest where resided his heart.
Willow's trembling hand seemed locked in place, extended toward the area where the mirror displaying Tara's piteous image had recently been, as though she were trying to reach into the past and ease Tara's agony by sheer force of will. She didn't turn at Madrigan's remark.
"Why are you telling me all this?" Her voice was deceptively calm.
Madrigan shrugged nonchalantly. "I just think it's important for you to understand."
Still, Willow did not face him. "Understand what?"
"That this is all your fault."
Faith's well-aimed punch met its target with solid ferocity and Buffy's head snapped sickly to one side. Before she could fully recover, another was landed with equal force as an expression of nearly blind rage crossed Faith's face. She drew back in preparation for a third, but Buffy managed to kick Faith aside before the trio of intended attacks was successfully accomplished.
"Okay," warned the blonde as she got to her feet, a trickle of blood oozing from her bottom lip, "that's about enough of that."
"Whassa matter, B?" asked Faith with raised fists as she hopped lightly on her toes. "Thought you were gonna help me. Helpin's what we do, right?"
Buffy probed her mouth gingerly with her tongue. "Help you, yes. Let you beat my face into hamburger, not so much." She leveled a threatening stare in the direction of the dark-haired Slayer.
"What can I say?" Faith shot back. "I got anger issues."
Her eyes narrowed as she launched another assault, but this time Buffy was ready and easily avoided contact. The blonde Slayer seemed bent on defensive maneuvers only – for the time being at least – effectively curbing the instinctive desire to counter attack.
"C'mon," scoffed Faith disdainfully, "this ain't gonna be nearly so satisfying if you don't at least gimme a little challenge."
Buffy shook her head. "I'm not going to fight you, Faith."
"Sure you will," came the sardonic response. "Fighting's all we're good for."
She lashed out again but Buffy was more than prepared and blocked the blow, knocking Faith off-balance and sending the dark-haired woman sprawling to the ground, face first.
Gazing down at Faith with sympathy, Buffy responded with quiet determination. "It's not all we are. Not anymore."
Faith rolled onto her back. "Right," she readily agreed with a humorless laugh. "Then there's the dying, can't forget that." She sprang to her feet and regarded Buffy with something akin to madness reflected in her eyes. It was plain at that moment that the dark-haired Slayer was literally hanging by a thread and Buffy was acutely aware of the fact.
"I'm gonna make this simple:" Faith informed Buffy in a flat tone. "You take me down, or I give you a permanent dirt nap. My guess?" She shrugged, a cruel grin on her face. "Third time for you might just be the charm."
The blonde crossed her arms, looking nauseated. "Suicide by Slayer? Is that what this is? You couldn't find a vamp nest to do it for you, so you're looking for me to be your judge, jury and executioner?"
Faith smiled bitterly. "Got the first two covered, thanks."
"You disgust me," came the clipped reply.
"There's a news flash."
Buffy took a step forward. "Faith, you don't deserve to die—"
"Hazel didn't deserve to die," the dark-haired Slayer snapped. She dropped her arms, although the fists remained clenched at her sides. She cast her eyes upward at the darkening sky. "She was ... For Christ's sake, B, she was sixteen years old. And she ... It was supposed to be me. Judith came for us, an' she was tryin' to ..." Her head slumped. "It was supposed to be me."
Buffy ventured even closer. "This isn't your fault."
"No, see, it is," replied Faith. She regarded Buffy seriously. "I went and got her. I walked into her house, stood in her living room, an' gave the whole sales pitch. I convinced her to come here. She was one'a my girls, an' it was my job to teach her to be a Slayer." Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "What's rule number one, B?"
Buffy warily extended a hand. "Fai—"
"What's rule number one?!" shouted Faith. Buffy involuntarily recoiled.
"Don't die," she whispered.
Faith nodded emphatically. "Don't die." Her lips tightened. "I didn't even teach her the first freaking rule."
Spinning on her heel, Faith drove her fist into a nearby tree. The impact was so savage that the bark immediately flattened beneath the force of the blow. Splinters of wood spewed out on all sides, but Buffy refused to react in kind to the violent outburst and maintained her air of calm.
"Hazel was a good Slayer," she reminded.
"If she was a good Slayer, she'd still be here, wouldn't she?" challenged Faith, delivering another brutal blast to the tree trunk. "So go ahead – tell me again it's not my fault. More'n that ..." She turned slowly to face the blonde. "Tell me how it's not your fault."
"My fault?" echoed an incredulous Buffy.
"Your idea, wasn't it?" snarled Faith. "Awaken all the Slayers, make 'em fight our battles for us?"
Buffy was quick to refute the accusation and her eyes narrowed to little more than slits. "It wasn't like that. You were there, you saw what we were up against. I didn't have any choice, I had to—"
"Where was their choice?" questioned Faith with scorn. "I remember, you know – you whinin' all the time 'bout destiny an' not asking to be the Slayer. Funny how you had no problem changing the lives of a few hundred girls."
Crossing her arms, Buffy flatly responded, "That was different."
"Always is with you," Faith shot back. "Oh, but don't worry – I got plenty of blame for everyone," the brunette grinned madly and spread her arms wide to encompass the world. "Your plan, yeah, but Red's the one who did it. Giles got us this cushy set up play with his personal toy soldiers ..."
"You're so anxious to blame someone?" rejoined the blonde. "How about putting it where it belongs?"
Faith's expression darkened, a murderous gleam appearing in her eyes. "Don't worry, I'm saving the super-sized portion for Judith."
Buffy shook her head. "I'm not talking about Judith or Robespierre, or me, or Willow, or Giles, or you. I'm talking about Hazel."
Faith's expression became ugly. "Blame the dead girl? And I disgust you?"
"She's who you're really mad at," accused Buffy with a steady gaze.
"Transference, that it?" returned Faith bitterly. "Got an earful of that psychoanalytic crap at the girl's school. Figured it was full of it then, too."
"It was Hazel's choice to protect you," the blonde insisted. "Hazel chose to die for you."
Faith's fists clenched even tighter. "Shut up."
The command was ignored. "And that's what's killing you. It wasn't that you didn't teach her how to be a Slayer ..."
"... it's that you taught her too well."
Faith could take no more. With a bellow of primal, uncontrolled rage, she lunged and seized Buffy around the waist, bringing them both crashing heavily to the ground.
With deliberate slowness, Willow lowered her hand from the mirrored surface and finally turned to face her accuser. "All my fault?" she echoed.
"What else do you think she stuck around for, the in-flight movie?" Madrigan countered with a touch of sarcasm. "You gotta lotta blame on your shoulders, kiddo. Let's see ..." He began to check off the pertinent facts. "You insisted she be part of the 'Scooby Gang' and the oh-so exciting life you all lead. Given front seat on the Crazy Bus thanks to Glorificus ... and you, of course," he added with a gesture to the redhead, "since you'd just gotten all defensive and weren't there to protect her." He frowned with concentration, tapping his fingers against the perpetual stubble on his chin. "What else, what else ... Well, there's always your little game of forget-me-not that sent her running in the opposite direction. And if you hadn't made her leave, there would've been no big reunion, so you probably wouldn't have been in the bedroom when Mr. Mears—"
"Okay!" Willow exclaimed throwing her hands into the air and letting them drop against her legs with a loud smack. "Okay, fine, i-i-it's all my fault! Is that what you wanted to hear?"
Shrugging his shoulders, the mage appeared nonchalant. "It'll do for starters."
"Good," confirmed the redhead bitterly. "Great. Fine. Bye."
Turning, Willow resumed marching in the direction she had been going before Madrigan had appeared with his game of catch and visual roadblock. He watched her determined stride with some amusement but made no attempt to stop her or even follow. She hadn't gone very far before the sounds of weeping invaded her ears. A tiny frown creased her forehead as her pace slowed.
"Tara?" she called, peering into the blanket of darkness.
The crying became more intense and Willow strained to identify the owner. Her eyes widened with horror as realization hit like a sledgehammer. "Dawn?" Her tone held a hint of panic. "Dawn, where are you, honey? Can you hear me?"
The answering voice seemed to originate from some distance away, but the words could be heard with much clarity, even though they were interspersed with heart-wrenching sobs.
"How could you?" was the despairing inquiry. "We love you."
The declaration was quickly followed by a woman's laugh – deep and spiked with malevolence. There was a brief scream from Dawn, but it was swiftly stifled.
"Dawn?!" Willow called out desperately, taking another step forward.
"I thought you were leaving?" came Madrigan's taunt from behind.
Whirling, Willow's posture became entirely offensive. Her hand struck out as though she were casting a spell, but nothing materialized. She blinked with surprise as Madrigan chuckled with infinite amusement.
"You're in the mental playground," he pointed out with a grin. "I think you'll find your magick's not gonna do you much good here. Which sucks for you, cuz really – without that, what've you got?" He treated Willow to a questioning gaze and waited for a satisfactory answer.
Willow, however, was ignoring the question. "Where is Dawn?" she demanded.
The mage waved dismissively. "Oh, she's not here, you know that. It's all in your mind." He snickered to himself at the word choice, quite obviously chuffed with his own brand of humor.
"I've had enough of this," the witch announced, her anger almost tangible it was so intense. "Give me back Tara. Now."
Throwing her a 'sure, what the hell' look, Madrigan gestured cordially at the space next to him, resulting in a mirrored surface immediately becoming illuminated.
The scene that appeared was one of total devastation, but still instantly recognizable. It was the Scoobies' living room in Trillium, but practically each stick of furniture had been demolished and every window smashed. Kneeling in the center of the ruination was Dawn, tears coursing down her cheeks as she surveyed the wreckage. Beside what remained of the couch, the broken body of Giles lay upon the carpet in a pool of blood, eyes already glazed and lacking the spark of life. Nearby was Xander, also still and unmoving, though the body was thankfully face down and hiding features that now undoubtedly bore a death mask. Obviously badly injured, Dawn began to drag herself in agonizingly slow movements toward another body. With a shaking, outstretched hand, the teenager reached for the prone body of her sister, but then suddenly looked upward with a horrified expression.
"You," she whispered fearfully.
Leisurely stepping into view, as though she had all the time in the world, was Tara – or some nightmarish creature who had once been Tara. Her hair was black as night and ebony eyes shone like polished carbon. The skin was smooth and flawless, glowing with a pale but vital luminance and the svelte figure was clad entirely in white. The bodice of the low-cut satin gown was a form-fitting bustier. The flowing fabric flared from the hips, falling in graceful folds to the ankles. The fingernails and cupid-bow lips were painted scarlet and the effect of the gleaming tresses, which framed the enchanting face to nestle intimately upon the creamy flesh of the bare shoulders, was breathtaking. This was a Tara comprised of pure contrast – the light and the dark. It was all too apparent which side now assumed dominance.
Tara looked down at Dawn, paying no need to the teenager's battered and bleeding body. "Hey, sweetie," she breathed, a serene smile touching her lips before glancing at the bodies of first Giles and then Xander. Her gaze briefly rested on Buffy and then returned to the shivering teenager. "You're the last one standing," she remarked, tone soft but deadly. "Sort of makes me proud. Surprised maybe, but proud."
Dawn choked back a sob. "How could you do this to them?" she demanded in a broken voice.
Sighing heavily, a tiny furrow appeared between Tara's dark eyebrows. "It's always about everyone else, is that it?" Sounding bored, it was as if Tara had pondered the deepest mysteries of this question for year after year. "I have my place in the group dynamic and I'm supposed to say in character. Supportive Tara, good girlfriend Tara ..." The words which followed were virtually spat forth from the sneering mouth. "Sweet. Little. Tara."
With a movement so swift it was almost a blur, she lashed out with her magicks, lifting Dawn into the air and slamming her against the wall where the teenager remained pinned like an impaled butterfly. Though obviously terrified, Dawn's expression revealed both anger and immense sorrow.
"It wasn't like that!" she offered sincerely. "You weren't important for some role, you were important for you, and we—"
Tara rolled her inscrutable and unsympathetic eyes. "Dawn? Shut up."
The teenager's mouth continued to move soundlessly. Shock crept across her features as she realized both the futility of her pleas and her inability to provide them voice.
Taking great care, Tara shook out the folds of her gown. "God, I've been wanting to say that for years." She sighed with contentment as she considered the massacre that surrounded her on all sides. "You know, at first I was just so excited to have a place to belong, I think I would've gone along with just about anything to keep in with 'the Scoobies'. Wow, you know? Actually having friends – big new concept." Turning in a slow circle, Tara was clearly unmoved by the destruction of all she had once held dear. "But I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, Dawnie, and I've come to an important conclusion: You're all holding me back."
Her head snapped around to shoot the teenager a look of total derision from over her shoulder. "Especially you."
Dawn's struggles were fruitless and only barely noticeable as Tara tucked a lock of black hair behind her ear and completed her inspection of the damage. "What was I playing at?" she mused aloud. "Being a big sister? Mom-figure? I don't even know. What do you think?"
Coming to a stop, she tilted her head to one side and waited expectantly for an answer. Dawn's mouth persisted in its effort to form words, but none could be vocalized. Once more Tara rolled her eyes at the trials she was forced to endure, then waved indifferently in her hostage's direction.
"—help you," Dawn spluttered in mid-sentence. "Tara, please. You don't want to do this."
Tara chuckled in a way that might have been considered friendly, were it not for the complete absence of any humor or humanity in her bottomless eyes. "Actually, I'm pretty sure I do," she corrected. "I think we've dragged this out long enough. Once upon a time, sitting here and chatting to you all day would've ... been torture, honestly." She shook her head in amused disbelief at countless wasted hours. "But I would've done it anyway. New Me is sorta low on patience, though. I mean, there's a whole world out there that I haven't even lived in yet. I think it's about time to call it a day."
She flashed the teenager one of her trademark half-grins, but it appeared to have been painted on her lips with a brush dipped in consummate evil. The implication was not lost on Dawn; she knew instinctively that her life's hourglass had run out of sand. Glancing at the bodies scattered on the ground, she also knew that nobody would be coming to save her.
The teenager leveled her gaze at Tara. "How could you? We love you."
The response was a dismissive shrug. "That's not enough."
Refusing to falter or shed another tear, Dawn continued to lock Tara's cold eyes with her own, but the witch met the look easily and displayed not even the tiniest drop of remorse. With a forceful jerk of her hand, a sickeningly loud crack filled the room and Dawn's head slumped to her chest, spinal cord snapped by forbidden magick.
Tara stared at the limp form for a moment and then, with a careless wave, released her hold. She watched with disinterest as the lifeless teenager tumbled to the floor, coming to rest next to Buffy in a wilted heap.
With desperate eyes glued to the events being played out within the mirror, tears streamed unnoticed down Willow's cheeks as she faced her most horrific innermost fears portrayed in stark, vivid, living color. "It's not real," she assured herself in a quivering, high-pitched voice, but could find no comfort in the unconvincing statement.
As though she had heard Willow's words, the vision of Tara turned toward the mirror's surface and smiled again. "There you are," she purred with sparkling eyes.
Hips swaying, Tara glided forward and emerged effortlessly from the mirror. Willow stumbled backward, shaking her head in refusal, trying valiantly to deny the image. Madrigan moved to stand next to the dark witch as she paused in her stride, licking her lips as she savored the time it took to survey the redhead from head to toe.
The mage looked to Willow with raised eyebrows. "You don't like?" He appreciatively checked out the woman at his side. "Mm. Just look at her. She's a work of art, my friend."
The object of Madrigan's admiration clearly lapped up the compliment, but he was otherwise inconsequential. The totality of her focus remained on the wide-eyed redhead who was unable to look away from the image that began to saunter confidently toward her.
"All that purity, all that good ... " Madrigan continued, not in the least put out by Tara's inattention, instead cocking his head to one side and indulging in the view. "You never wondered? We've all got our dark sides, right? How much more devastating are they when you never let 'em out to play?" He smirked. "I guess that's a rhetorical question for people like you and me."
Not once did Tara falter along her relentless path. She radiated with assurance, malevolence and above all a sexuality that Willow was powerless to ignore. Nevertheless, she took a further step backward.
"This is ..." The redhead hesitated as she swallowed dryly. "This is sick! I-It's wrong!"
"Oh no," breathed Tara with a toss of her head, causing her black hair to ripple. "This is right."
Desperately, Willow looked to Madrigan for assistance. "Make it stop!"
"Now?" Tara visibly pouted, still slinking forward. "But baby, we haven't even started. Just think ... you and me ... We'd be unstoppable. Nobody could ever hurt us again." She gazed at the other woman from beneath heavy lids. "That's what you want, isn't it?"
Willow momentarily closed her eyes against the nightmare image. "Yes! No! Yes, but—" When she opened them again, Tara was still there, though now only arms length away. Making a stand, the redhead refused to back away further, instead facing the figure that crept inexorably nearer.
"Tara. Listen to me," Willow reasoned. "I understand. I know what it's like to have all that power, and ... and I know it feels—"
Brilliant eyes shimmering, Tara beamed. "Wonderful?" she suggested with a delighted laugh. "Oh Willow, I get it now. Being above everything. Untouchable. All those times I came down on you for using magick, trying to stop you from being who you are ... I had it so wrong."
Willow felt the panic begin to rise. "No, you didn't. The power I have, that we have ... I-It's just a- a tool. It's what we do with it that matters, a-and it's not enough to do something just because you can. That's what you tried to teach me."
"That was then," dismissed Tara with a shake of her head and a tiny smile. "I didn't have a clue back then – as usual. Just spouted off what I was told, you know? Mommy said it's bad, so it must be bad. Thinking for myself never really was my strong point."
Willow shook her head vehemently. "That's not—"
"But now?" she interrupted as Willow could only stare mutely like a deer trapped in the headlights. "Oh, now I can see. I feel it, the strength just flowing through me. It's ... it's incredible. I can do anything. I want to." Tara's voice dropped to a secretive, intimate tone reserved for lovers as her eyes seemed to bore straight through to Willow's soul. "And you do too, don't you Will?"
Willow's denial was weak at best. "No."
The tip of Tara's tongue brushed her forefinger and she slowly dragged it across the contours of her parted lips. "I think you do."
"Tara, please ..."
The pair were now only inches apart as Tara leaned toward the redhead, who found herself unable and even unwilling to pull away.
"Shhhh," came the whispered command.
Willow's final effort at rationalization met with little success, although she struggled heroically. "This isn't you. This isn't you," she muttered, as though repeating the denial would somehow make it true.
"This is both of us," Tara responded in a voice loud enough for only Willow to hear. "I'm who you made me."
She reached out and cupped Willow's face with surprising tenderness before allowing her hands to trail lightly down the arms and encircle the redhead's waist. With a fierce tug, she pulled Willow close before stealing her lips in a kiss conveying a passion that was nearly overwhelming. Willow possessed neither the strength nor the will to deny her mounting desire. With a low moan, she surrendered totally to pleasure and, running her fingers through the dark hair which caressed her cheek, returned the urgent kiss with her own unbridled hunger.
Almost every inch of the large communal training room was being put to good advantage. It was here that the majority of the Juniors had instinctively gathered, not to engage in intense workouts but to give vent to a little pent-up steam and fine-tune their skills. Several had joined forces to spar lightly with each other or share in muscle-toning exercises. The exchanges were mild compared to what usually took place within this area, no girl willing to overtax herself or run the risk of even a minor injury. Nonetheless, the energy level ran high. Dominating a large section of the mat positioned in the far corner of the room were Kennedy and Dawn.
"Stop holding back," insisted the teenager with a small pout.
"I'm not," Kennedy replied and then paused, lowering her fists. "Okay, that's a lie. This just isn't what you should be working on. Why don't we try working on your 'run away fast'."
"I don't want to run," persisted Dawn. "I want to help."
"You could run and get help," came the response. "Two birds, one stone." Kennedy looked to the teenager with an expectant smile.
Dawn simply rolled her eyes at the suggestion. "Will you just show me already? We could be attacked again at any moment – I am not going to be the girl in the plastic bubble every time something evil comes to visit."
Relenting, the brunette puffed a huge sigh. "It looks like the Super Slayers can pretty much shrug off any direct damage, and if you punched one, you'd probably just break your hand." Kennedy ignored the peevish expression that crossed Dawn's face. "But it doesn't matter how tough they are, physics still applies." She began to bounce nimbly on her toes, gearing up for a demonstration. "So to keep them off balance, what you do is ..."
By the open doorway, Giles watched the buzz of activity, but seemed to concentrate upon Dawn and Kennedy in particular. He showed no interest in taking part or interfering with what was occurring within the confines of the room, apparently content to simply view the scene from his vantage point. He didn't turn his head when Hannah joined him, but knew she was there nonetheless.
"How is everything?" she asked, looking first at Giles' profile and then assessing for herself the situation in the room. She seemed to be appreciative of what was transpiring.
The Watcher leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb and folded his arms. "As well as can be expected. All of the critically wounded Slayers have been taken the hospital. We've assembled the rest – I've had Spencer and MacDonald doing the debriefings. Buffy will, I hope, return soon with Faith, and Willow and Tara—"
A tiny smile formed upon Hannah's lips. "I meant with you."
"Yes, I know," acknowledged Giles, turning his eyes toward her. "I was rather hoping you would allow me to feign ignorance."
Her gaze was steady and unflinching.
Giles shrugged. "What do you want me to say?"
"It's a pretty simple question, Ziggy," came the gentle reply. "I shouldn't have to make it multiple choice."
There was a long period of silence, eventually broken by Giles. "I did what had to be done." His focus returned to the exercise areas.
"Which I was already doing," Hannah informed him with an arched eyebrow. "You should've left it to me. You didn't need to do this to yourself."
Giles shook his head. "No. That wouldn't be right. It's important to ... to remind myself of the price. It's very easy to simply ... give commands a-and review the results. It's casual." He turned back to Hannah, his expression grim. "This must never be casual."
With the calling of his name, the Watcher's glance transferred to Dawn, who was hopping delightedly on the mat and waving her arms.
"Giles! Giles!" The teenager's face was beaming. "I just managed to keep Kennedy from being able to kill me for, like ten minutes!"
With hands placed firmly on her hips and legs astride, Kennedy gave an exaggerated eye-roll. "Maybe thirty seconds," she corrected, a touch of amusement in her voice.
Dawn was in no mood to be quashed or bogged down by trifling increments of time. "Ten whole minutes!" she reiterated. "Isn't that just the coolest? Watch her entirely not kick my ass!"
The words were barely out of her mouth before the teenager spun on one heel and aimed a kick in Kennedy's direction. It was easily avoided, but Dawn's excitement continued to run rampant and she seemed far from discouraged by the evasion.
Giles looked back to Hannah with a hint of despair. "I'm fairly certain most girls Dawn's age should be interested in reading frivolous, brightly colored magazines about untalented people who happen to be photogenic."
"Depends on the age, perhaps," the blonde shrugged. "Dawn could be anywhere from three and a half to ... infinity. You're bound to find the age bracket in there somewhere that prefers learning to not be hit." She threw the Watcher a grin, but it was not reciprocated and a long rather uncomfortable pause fell between them.
"She's probably Dawn's age," Giles finally stated. "Younger."
"Yes," Hannah agreed. She stared at Dawn's enthusiastic attempts to catch Kennedy off-guard.
"Do you know what frightens me? Truly?"
With a brief shake of her head, Hannah regarded Giles patiently, waiting for his confession.
"The fact that that doesn't matter."
The relative tranquility of the wooded area was shattered by a thunderous crack as Faith barreled through the trunk of young tree. Its upper limbs crashed to the forest floor as the dark-haired Slayer's body continued its flight and made impact with a far sturdier specimen. With a sickly thud, she collided with the thick trunk and tumbled heavily to the ground. Stunned for only a moment, Faith was already struggling to get to her feet as Buffy approached. Somewhat drained, she rested for a second on her knees and forearms, but was nonetheless able to throw the blonde a smirk which displayed more than a small measure of self-satisfaction.
"This doesnít matter."
Buffy appeared offended at the statement. "Oh, now that hurts," she pouted. "All this time bonding, and you're saying it meant nothing?"
With a disdainful snicker, Faith dug her toes into the soft ground and began to rise, but Buffy was swift to ram her boot squarely in the middle of Faith's back and the dark-haired Slayer found herself once more facedown in the dirt.
"Uh-uh," Buffy cautioned, taking a step back. "We're done with the violent exchange."
Pushing herself upward again, Faith regained her previous position, but made to further actions towards rising to her feet. "C'mon B – just gettin' started."
"No, we're just getting ended," countered the blonde with finality. "This is a waste of time and energy, and we're going to need as much of both as we can get. You wanna beat on someone? Fine. Save it for the bad guys."
"Case you didnít notice?" Faith spat between clenched teeth, "We kinda got no clue where they are."
"That was then," came the clipped reply.
Finally, something seemed to get through to Faith, and she deliberately turned her gaze upward, peering intently at Buffy. The blonde's posture remained tense and ready for anything, but Faith didn't attack. She searched Buffy's face as the implication of the statement continued to sink in, but could find no treachery there.
Slowly, Faith sat on her haunches. "You found them?" she asked, her eyes narrowed.
"We found how to find them," relayed Buffy. "Willow and Tara have a spell that'll take us right to them." The blonde paused to allow this valuable piece of information to fully penetrate. "So. Would you rather keep trying to—"
Faith was already on her feet. "When do we leave?" she asked tersely.
"Guess that's my answer," Buffy muttered under her breath. To Faith, she replied, "Giles is still getting some final bits of information, but soon. Could be any time now."
The dark-haired Slayer nodded, her expression an inscrutable mask as a veil dropped to shroud her eyes. She was no longer wild or uncontrollable, even the air of insanity had disappeared, but it left in its wake something which seemed much more terrifying and intense.
"Sooner the better."
Faith strode purposefully along the path that led to the edge of the wooded area, heels churning the loose gravel. After several paces, however, she stopped short. She did not turn around. Her tone was low, even dangerous in its timbre, but the words could be heard with impeccable clarity.
"Judith's mine. Anybody else tries to take her, I'll gut 'em without a second thought. So you make sure everyone knows. She's mine."
She didn't wait for a response, simply continuing her determined march, leaving Buffy to stare for a moment at the rigid back before following.
Tara could only stare in wide-eyed shock and disbelief as the pale, evil version of Willow strolled casually back and forth before her, reveling in the newfound corporality.
"I cannot tell you how good it is to be back. Stretch my legs, work out those cramped muscles ... Not have to listen to a 24/7 internal monologue whining about 'the big bad power'." Black eyes rolled dramatically in their sockets in an attempt to convey every last ounce of bitter resentment harbored by the dark witch. "So tedious."
"You're not real," Tara defied, but the bold declaration lacked strength, sounding more like a desperate, wishful plea.
Tutting loudly, Willow regarded Tara as though the blonde were a small child who had just woken from a nightmare and tried to assure herself that monsters didn't exist. "Baby, I'm as real as it gets. Which y'know, or ..."
She gestured toward the other woman's right hand. Tara glanced down and was surprised to see a dagger there, the very one she had wielded against Willow on Buffy's birthday. Face registering complete shock, Tara looked up and was treated to a knowing smile.
"...y'wouldn't have that,' Dark Willow concluded.
"N-N—" Clenching her eyes shut, Tara took a deep, steadying breath. When her gaze met Willow's once more, she insisted, "No. I don't have— I wouldn't—"
"Sure you would." The chuckle was full of scorn and no small amount of derision. "Or, well, you'd try. I donít blame you, though," Willow commiserated. "I mean, hello! World-destroying wicca babe, big with the power trip, right here!"
Tara was anything but impressed with the egotism. "Willow doesn't need you any more." Her voice was stronger now, more confident.
Exhaling a sharp puff of air, it was obvious Dark Willow put little stock in Tara's assessment. "She's always needed me. I'm the thing that keeps her going. I'm what gives her the strength to keep fighting."
"No," the blonde refuted, calm and assured. "All you are is rage and vengeance and darkness."
A laugh in her voice, Willow shot Tara a sidelong glance as she replied, "You say that like it's a bad thing."
But Tara didn't rise to the bait. "Willow won't choose you again." It was a statement of fact.
Shaking her head ruefully at the blonde's painfully ignorant simplicity, Dark Willow began to close the gap between them with deliberate, purposeful strides, one foot in front of the other. "Tara, baby, sweetheart ..." she began, almost seeming regretful to break the news. "As much as she loves you? She loves me more."
As Willow pulled back from Tara's doppelganger, her hand lingered, just for a moment, in the other woman's dark tresses. A grin spread across Tara's face as Willow's drew away, the locks of hair sifting through her fingers.
"You like me like this," Tara told her, fully confident of the answer.
Looking almost dazed, Willow gave a tiny smile. "I think that outfit has a lot to do with it."
The answering chuckle was deep and sultry. "It's more than that. You see yourself in me." Empty eyes seemed to sparkle with satisfaction as they focused on the redhead. "I make it okay for you to be who you are."
"That's actually true," agreed Willow. "Or, well, not you you. The other you. The one that's less brunette."
This evil vision of Tara refused to dwell on Willow's distinction. She slowly unfurled her arms, stretching them wide as she arched her back, luxuriating in the myriad of sensations now assailing her. "I'm powerful ..." Her gaze once more rested on the redhead. "... and you so love power, don't you, Will? Nothing can hurt me again, and you like that too. I'm strong."
Utterly out of place given the situation, Willow laughed, a truly mirthful sound. "This isn't strong," she responded with certainty and a self-depreciating smirk. "Believe me. Strong is staying true to yourself, even when it hurts more than anything."
"This is her true self," Dark Willow asserted, continuing to advance on the blonde witch. "I – am always – there. Just waiting, and trust me when I say I will not be ignored. If I gotta boil a bunny or two, I can do that. She'll have to fight against me every waking moment for the rest of her life."
No longer retreating, Tara stood resolute, her back straight and tall. "But every day it gets a little bit easier for her, doesn't it?"
"One step forward, two steps back," Willow dismissed, coming to a halt a few feet from Tara. "She'll slip eventually. And when she does? I'll be there."
"And if she does," countered Tara, "I'll be there too."
The declaration seemed to amuse the black-haired woman like the punch line to a comedian's joke. "You think you can stop me?" she inquired, an incredulous laugh in her voice.
"I think I don't have to. Willow can do that just fine on her own." With a smirk, Tara shrugged as though her involvement was a foregone conclusion. "I'll help anyway, though."
"You're just a shade," Willow told the specter of Tara, no trace of fear remaining. "A nightmare I've had. But you don't exist. You never have. I've been so scared of you ... but you're not real."
"I'm real," Tara promised smoothly. "Just because you haven't seen me yet doesn't mean I'm not there."
A wave of Willow's hand rebuffed the intended impact of the words. "Oh, well, sure," she agreed in an almost amicable tone, "on some metaphorical level, I know that." Bright green eyes met impenetrable black, and the redhead smiled with authority. "Tara does too though, and there's where you'll lose. I can't see you unless she lets me. And I know she won't do that."
"She would've said the same thing about you, once."
"But she isn't me. Me, I'm not so sure about sometimes. But Tara? I know her."
Willow seemed fortified by the unquestioning faith in that belief, and wore it proudly like a badge of honor. "What's more ..."
"I recognize you," Tara informed Dark Willow.
"... I know what you are," Willow continued, her gaze affixed upon the evil Tara.
"I'm not afraid of you anymore," the two witches proclaimed in unison.
As though this had been the opening salvo in a fierce, epic battle, Willow suddenly lunged at the doppelganger before her, just as Tara did the same to her twisted opponent. Both shoved with all of their strength, sending the evil visions stumbling back into the mirrors from which they had emerged.
Dark Willow snarled in furious defiance as the black-haired Tara hissed like a wild, feral creature, but the protestations were futile. The mirrors easily accommodated their spawns, absorbing them completely until all that was left were a few ripples in the reflective surface. Then even they dissipated, leaving only smooth glass in their wake.
Almost immediately, Tara cocked back her arm, the dagger clenched tightly in her fist. Elsewhere, Willow echoed the motion, the bottle artifact remembered at last. With unerring synchronicity, the two witches pitched their respective items toward the mirror.
The dagger collided handle first with the fragile glass, splintering it into a thousand sparkling shards.
The bottle shattered on impact, adding red fragments to the countless others that joined it from the mirror it had destroyed.
As the jagged pieces tumbled to the ground, they began to vanish, swallowed by the ever-present darkness until no traces remained – no mirror, no frame. Only a clear view of what lay on the other side.
Tara's face crumpled, her eyebrow's furrowing in a deep line as she began to process the sight before her. "Willow?" she asked tentatively. Hopefully.
Willow's eyes lit up as she heard her name, the very sound of it seeming to answer a thousand unspoken questions. "Tara?" she broached, although the certainty in her voice could not be denied.
It was real. Both women seemed to reach this conclusion at the same moment, and with that knowledge came the desire – the very need to act. The time for hesitation was long past, and Willow and Tara rushed toward each other, driven to close the distance that had remained between them for far too long. They met in the center, coming together first with arms then bodies then lips.
Willow captured Tara's face between both hands, gentle but insistent, tugging her closer and closer still with every frantic movement of her mouth. Even a fraction of a millimeter was too far away. Willow drank from Tara like a dying survivor finally finding an oasis in the desert. It seemed she might never quench her thirst.
Tara's arms ensnared Willow, holding her tight, as though to relinquish her grasp even in the slightest might leave her once again stranded alone in the unceasing, all-consuming darkness. Her mind might occasionally be fooled into thinking only months had passed, but her heart, her soul knew better. It had waited for this moment. Tara's lips consumed Willow again and again. Not taking – reclaiming what was always hers.
After a moment that seemed to last forever and yet end far too soon, the two pulled apart with a final, promising caress. Their foreheads rested together, tears coursing unchecked. Tara's hands moved in slow, easy circles against Willow's back. Willow's thumb caressed Tara's cheek, wiping little patches dry only to have them soaked again almost immediately.
"Hey," Willow greeted in a shaky voice.
"Hey," Tara echoed with a smile.
The redhead swallowed hard, fighting to keep her emotions in check. "I've missed you. So much."
"I know. I missed you too," confessed Tara with soft understanding. "This has all been really ..."
"I was gonna say 'freaking nuts'," chuckled the blonde. "B-But 'weird' works too."
A sudden burst of anxiety exploded through Willow, and her eyes bored into Tara. "Don't ever dye your hair black, okay?" she all but pleaded.
Another subdued laugh escaped. Tara brushed Willow's bangs back from her forehead, her hand trailing down her face until it came to rest against the cheek. "Well I was thinking about a bold, radical new look," she teased, "but okay."
"Okay," a relieved Willow agreed before her expression lit up excitedly. "Hey, you wanna maybe go see a movie tonight? You know, after we get outta Mirror World and kick the bad guy's army's butt an' all."
A familiar voice interrupted the tender reunion. "You know they're not gone."
For the first time since coming together, Tara and Willow looked away from each other to regard Madrigan standing nearby. Neither woman exhibited any fear or concern at his renewed presence, they simply stared at him.
Their attention was enough for Madrigan. "You can't just smash a mirror – which, by the way? Really cool – and dump your 'B'-side. All those fears, all those possibilities ... they don't go away. You'll always have a reflection."
"Maybe," acknowledged Tara. "But unless we give it substance, a reflection's all it is."
Ignoring Madrigan completely, Willow turned to Tara. "I think I've had about enough soul searching for one day, you?"
Similarly, Tara faced Willow, paying the mage no further heed. "Most definitely."
On some unspoken cue, the witches' hands shot out and firmly clasped. As one, they sharply turned to Madrigan.
He didnít have time to react – one moment he was on his feet and the next he was careening through the air, propelled backward by some unseen force. It seemed at first as though he might continue sailing through darkness forever, but then he collided with a mirror that materialized suddenly behind him. It didn't smash; it simply accepted him. Effortlessly, Madrigan was absorbed within its depths until he was gone.
Almost immediately after the mage had vanished, the mirror burst outward in a violent explosion, spewing tiny shards and powdered glass into the area. Two on either side, previously unseen, followed almost instantly, erupting in an identical manner. Another two shattered directly after, and then another, all of the mirrors self-destructing in a relentless domino effect. Nothing was spared, including the narrow hall housing the Super Slayer's stolen memories. In rapid succession, the image of each girl was decimated, reduced to ruin.
The air was filled with the deafening sounds of thousands of sheets of glass breaking as fragments rained down from all sides. At the center of the chaotic maelstrom, unaffected by the devastation that surrounded them, stood Willow and Tara, their hands still tightly linked together.
With an infinitesimal jerk of the head, Madrigan cracked open first one eye and then the other. He blinked rapidly until full consciousness had been regained, wincing a little as he massaged his forehead.
"Ahhhgh," he groaned ruefully. "Head rush."
From one side of the Circle's room, Seneca approached with a glass of orange juice. Madrigan eagerly accepted the offering and inspected it carefully through one squinting eye.
"No pulp?" It was more of an accusation than a question.
As the white-haired man nodded his affirmation, Madrigan took a long pull and then, with a satisfied smack of the lips, sat the glass down upon a nearby table. He gingerly pried both eyes wide open and glanced toward Seneca, who was regarding Madrigan with an expression of thorough condemnation. Hovering close to the tall man's right shoulder was a plush brown bear, arms magickally crossed in a posture of severe rebuke.
"Uh-oh," Madrigan grimaced, "looks like Mr. Peebles isn't a happy teddy."
Seneca's eyes narrowed as the indignant Mr. Peebles twisted his head in curt disapproval.
Madrigan sighed. "Come on," he urged. "They were right there. I couldn't resist."
Seneca arched a dubious eyebrow.
"Alright," admitted the mage grudgingly. "I could resist, I just didn't want to."
Considering Madrigan gravely through his bright black-button eyes, Mr. Peebles stroked one furry arm across the other in the universal 'shame on you' gesture. His little stitched mouth was pursed reproachfully. The mage was not amused.
"Screw you, Mr. Peebles."
The bear recoiled in shocked surprise at the acidic jab, but the mage paid the plushie no mind. Instead, he turned to Seneca with a long-suffering sigh.
"What did I do? Really?" he demanded peevishly. "Made them face the nasty stuff that was keeping them from working the joint mojo, right?" Seneca inclined his head like a king graciously granting a boon. "Something we all agree they would've done – eventually – on their own, right?" continued Madrigan. There was another concurring inclination of the chin. "Well okay then." Madrigan paused momentarily before driving his point home. "So all I did was give 'em a nudge to speed things up, which can only be good." He looked to Seneca hopefully and was repaid with a reluctant nod.
Madrigan smirked mischievously. "And if I can have a little fun in the process, even better."
The mage blinked innocently at the upbraiding glare this statement earned him, but then treated Seneca to a charming grin.
"You—" he announced, with a challenging prod of the forefinger in the tall man's direction, "—are a worrywart."
With an imperceptible toss of the head, Seneca simply sniffed.
"C'mon," cajoled Madrigan with a sneaky grin, "don't be like that. You enjoyed it and you know it."
Seneca shuffled uncomfortably for several long seconds, disinclined to admit the charge. Madrigan steepled his fingers, leaned back in his chair and waited patiently for the other man to come around. He was finally rewarded with a perfunctory shrug and a cursory nod of accord. Madrigan's grin became a huge smile of gratification.
A shadow of indulgence crept over Seneca's face as he jerked his head meaningfully toward Mr. Peebles, who continued to maintain an air of huffiness and wounded umbrage – no small achievement given that he was essentially inanimate and composed largely of cotton fluff.
Madrigan's eyes narrowed. "Dude, I'm not apologizing to the bear."
Mr. Peebles visibly crumpled beneath the leaden weight of this most unfortunate news. His furry shoulders slumped and he hung his head in forlorn misery. Seneca's forehead furrowed into a deeply recriminating frown and Madrigan sighed dejectedly.
Rolling his eyes, the mage cleared his throat. The words that followed almost lodged in his craw. Indeed, it appeared for a moment as though he might even choke on their verbalization. Nonetheless, they were duly delivered, albeit without even the remotest hint of sincerity. "Sorry, Mr. Peebles."
Madrigan's lower lip jutted and he sulked for a moment like a chastised toddler but instantly, all was well within Mr. Peebles' plushie world and he danced a jaunty little two-step.
Seneca turned to Madrigan with a beam so bright, it almost illuminated the room. The mage shook his head in utter disbelief – whether at Seneca's dogged persistence for retribution or at his own caving to the unspoken demand of a fake-fur bruin, was difficult to determine. It may have been both.
He regarded Seneca speculatively. "We have got to get you out more."
With a gasp, Willow and Tara jerked out of their trance, still seated in the heart of the Sanctum. Confused eyes scanned the immediate surroundings, seeking familiar sights and reminders that they had emerged successfully from the Super Slayer's mind. It took a long moment, but then reality began to settle in – for where they now were and for what they had recently experienced.
Willow's gaze dropped to Tara's hands, still clasped within her own since initiation of the spell. Almost mesmerized, Tara watched as the redhead lifted their arms and leaned forward slightly. With infinite tenderness, Willow pressed her lips against the back of Tara's hand. Her eyelids drifted closed as she savored the lingering, reverent kiss.
After a long moment, Willow glanced up and their gazes locked once more. Neither moved at first, then the blonde reached out and stroked Willow's face before tugging her closer. She immediately complied. They came together in a fierce embrace, each holding onto the other as tightly as possible. Rocking back and forth it was clear that neither wanted to let go ever again.
A mirror hung on the wall nearby. It reflected only one thing – the clear, unmarred image of Willow and Tara, reunited.
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