Summary: What do you do with the rest of your life?
Warnings: Musings on the nature of life and death
Spoilers: All of Buffy and Angel:the Series.
Title, Author and URL of original story: Feels Like Coming Home by globalfruitbat
Author's Notes: Thank you to adarog for the beta and sahiya for additional handholding.
The Wild Iris (Resurrection Remix)
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice
-- Louise Gluck, "The Wild Iris"
The last stone rolled away when Tara pushed it, away down the slope, clattering over rubble, leaping when it hit larger rocks. Her eyes followed it only for a moment before the great brightness overhead drew her gaze, and then her hands, upward. The light touched only the skin nearest the source and left the rest cool. She turned her hands over and the temperatures were exchanged, cool for hot and hot for cool in every cell. She laughed. Then she laughed again at the very sensation of laughing, at the tightening in her belly, the opening of her throat, the air moving over her tongue and her lips. She laid a palm against her mouth and tasted the warm grit there.
As she stood everything changed, not in a beautiful slow dance but with a beautiful startling abruptness. Change, yes, here things changed that way. Stones moved under her hands and feet, shifting and settling and shifting again before she could admire the new shapes they made. She gripped a jagged rock that altered her hand in ways she had forgotten. Another did the same and she remembered to call the differences blood and pain.
Grass grew among the shifting stones. Gray-brown birds, small as her hand, settled at the edges of her vision and fled as she turned her head. Every movement, every thing seemed to offer itself to her, crystalline and present, irresistible. She had to move to see everything, and always there was more outside her vision, beyond her hearing, out of reach. Intricacies beyond intricacies, details within details. Her feet and her skirt made different sounds when they touched the earth. She smelled dust and sweat on her own skin.
At the top of the slope she discovered it was only one section of a deep, wide valley. No, not a valley. A cavity? A wound, bleeding black ribbons across the landscape? Tara shuffled her bare feet in the dust as she turned to see all her eyes could reach. Not a valley, but not a wound, or not an aching one. A wound that was healing. She put a hand into the collar of her shift, and smiled when she found the scar. She let out a shout, throwing back her head and her arms in the bright one-sided light, and laughing to hear her own voice in her ears.
Something shouted back, and she shadowed her eyes to watch the sky for a bigger bird that might make that call. It came again, from the ground, and she turned in search of the source. She saw two unequal figures moving towards her along the ground, their shapes and shadows changing against the horizon. She watched them, but it brought a strange feeling to her head. She dropped her eyes and saw one of the birds settle on an outcropping of stone. She knelt to see it better. It watched her with a bright eye, cocking its head. She cocked hers as well, swallowing a laugh.
"Oh my God."
Tara turned her head. The figures had come while she wasn't looking. That could happen here. And now she knew them, the girl who ran for knowledge and danced to cover her wounds, the man who sealed over both his learning and his hurts with silence, though it was strange to see them shrouded in bone and skin and cloth.
"I'm sorry," Tara said, standing up, her shift whispering over her own strange, changeful body. "I forgot about time."
"Oh my God," Dawn said again. Tara remembered her face now, but the one before her was different, narrower than Tara remembered and more guarded at the eyes. "Giles? Giles..." Dawn hugged an open book to her red blouse as she looked from him to Tara and back again.
Mr. Giles, too, was changed in his skin, more worn but not so stiff, softer around the mouth. He held a twist of dried grasses in one hand and a leather bag in the other. "Tara?" he asked, between quick breaths.
She nodded. "Yes." The loudness of them made her dizzy with things she'd forgotten how to name. She wanted to watch the bird, but when she turned her head the air went thick until she looked at them again.
Dawn closed the book and stretched out her hand. Tara put out her own. When their fingers touched she gasped at the texture and the way the world shook, her own rhythm striking against Dawn's. The clash only lasted a moment; their heartbeats and breaths settled, not conflicting even though not together. Tara laughed again at the wonder of it, and hooked her fingers around Dawn's, leaving their thumbs upright.
"Tara," Dawn whispered, in a voice with a sound like the crater.
"Dawnie," Tara answered, curling her hand closer so Dawn's heart filled her again.
Mr. Giles let the satchel slip from his hand, and he drew something from his pocket. "Vi? No, I'm not sure. There's been... something unexpected. We need the team."
The coven gave Tara a small light room at the top of the big house, where once upon a time scullery maids would have slept, maybe two to a creaky brass bed. It smelled like wood and linen, and when the sun shone, like beeswax furniture polish, and when it rained like the wet slate of the roof overhead. Down the hall one way there was a toilet in a little closet, and down the hall the other way was a bigger closet with a deep claw-footed tub. When she wasn't downstairs answering questions or holding crystals or taking deep breaths, Tara explored. The walls were smooth in some lights and uneven in others, or smooth to her eyes but rough to her fingers, or warm to her fingers but cool to her cheek. The blanket smelled different than the sheets. Her voice was different in the bathroom than in the bedroom. Everything was distinct, different every time.
It was only when Althenea swept the salt and herbs away from the head of the stairs that Tara realized they had wanted her to stay there as much as she had chosen to keep to the few rooms, drinking in the smells and textures and the play of sunlight on surfaces. It was only then that she woke from the dreamy feast of sensation, and felt afraid.
She sat at the top of the stairs, then crept down one step at a time, holding the banister from beneath, ignoring the intricate variations of the wooden treads. All the workrooms were quiet, their dark doors still against the white walls. She went down the next two flights standing, though she brought her feet together on each step, pausing to listen to the creaks and sighs of the house.
At the end the staircase was almost as narrow as by her room, and light and noise and a smell of buttery bread spilled up it from the bottom. She hovered on the last step, then pushed herself into the room.
At first it was all too bright and busy to make sense, but the noise dropped abruptly after a moment, and she could see Mr. Giles at a table, long knife in hand, asparagus on a cutting board before him.
“Why?” she asked him. Her voice was small in the wide space.
He laid the knife down and dried his other hand on the green-and-white checked apron tied over his jeans and fuzzy dark-gray sweater. "We don't know." His mouth and his brows both drew together in apology, or embarrassment, something, she couldn't tell what. "We don't even know how."
"After all those tests? The examinations?" There were a lot of people in the room, moving at the edges of her vision and beyond. Shapes of people, really, because she couldn't feel anything about them beyond what she saw and heard. She pressed her back to the wall by the stairs. There was too much happening, all changing too fast, disappearing before she could feel even a fraction of it.
"Thus far, we've been simply trying to be sure that you're yourself, and human.” He held still, as still as anything here, but his left hand was trembling against the table, and the apron stirred with the movements of his chest as he breathed.
Tara shook, too, with her own breath, with her own heartbeat. “Am I?” she asked.
“Yes," he said at once. "Yes. Yourself, and no more, and no less than yourself, by any measure we can find."
“It's good news, isn't it?” It was a strange voice, from somewhere else in the room.
She gripped the white-painted doorjamb hard and shut her eyes against the noise. "I didn't know," she whispered. "I didn't think about it. I was just... feeling. Like a baby. Oh, God." She remembered snakes and blood and fire and blank eyeballs. Betrayal. Shame and horror. "Should I be here?" She forced her eyes open but looked only at Mr. Giles's quiet face. “Is it wrong?
“That will become clear. And if it is, we will address it. We meaning you as well. But just now it isn't bad. Merely unusual. Which has always been rather our specialty." He smiled hesitantly, though his eyes stayed dark.
"Why isn't Dawn here anymore? Where is everybody? Where's Willow?" He dropped his eyes, and Tara felt cold down to the core. "Where's Willow?"
"Willow is all right," he said, raising his chin and looking at her steadily. "Just now she's in Cyprus, researching bindrunes. She's with some, ah, some colleagues."
"But," Tara said, shivering. "There's a but."
"A great many things happened while you were gone," Mr. Giles said softly. "I think it's time to explain them."
He led her through a dim hallway into a bright living room. He tried to sit her down on a brocaded sofa, but Tara shied away. "No," she protested, "It's too distracting, no." With her eyes she darted over the busy room, finally lighting on a bare corner of floor by the french doors, where she could set her back against the nearly-flat wall. "There, I can sit there."
"Will it be uncomfortable for you if I sit up?" he asked gently, laying his hand on a rocking chair.
Tara shook her head, letting her hair fall over her face as she slid down to sit cross-legged on the varnished boards. She still felt cold.
"All right." He moved the chair out of the circle of seats and sank into it. "My back thanks you."
She watched him rock. He wore black boots that creaked a little when he pushed the chair back on its curved runners. She crossed her arms tightly over her chest and the aching question of why Willow didn't come.
"I don't know if you remember me talking with you on the plane coming back from California," he said, after some time had passed.
Tara remembered the plane only faintly. There had been people making the air thick, and then a pale hand holding a blue crystal, and then she had slept. She shook her head again.
"You were, ah. You were dead for slightly more than four years."
"So long," Tara breathed. She rubbed her hands over her arms to warm the skin there.
"The single most significant change in the world while you were gone is that now there is not one Slayer, or two, but hundreds. Every girl who in previous generations would have been a potential Slayer now is one. It's... a remarkably different world. There are teams guarding all the known Hellmouths, as well as patrolling many of the major cities of the world. Buffy has been managing Southern European operations from Rome. Xander oversees matters in Africa."
"How did it... did Faith die in some mystical... and what about Willow?" All Tara's skin seemed to stir with the memory of Willow: the sound of her voice, the sweetness of her mouth, the soft and the rough places on her body. She shivered with yearning and fear.
"When Buffy discovered the means to activate all the potential Slayers, she asked Willow to implement it. Willow performed..." He shook his head, but in wonder, not disapproval. "the most enormous... there has been no working like it since the first Slayer. She was terrified, but she did it, and the world is changed for good. The crater where you... came back, that was caused by the Hellmouth falling in when Willow activated the Slayers and Spike became..."
Tara cut him off. "That much power, did it make her start using magic to, I mean, like she had been?" She leaned forward, trying to read his face. She could have touched his knee but he was so far away.
"No. It changed her for good as well, I think." He frowned.
"Why isn't she here?"
Mr. Giles stopped rocking. "She doesn't know you're back. Buffy and Viola - Miss Harkness - are en route now to tell her. We agreed it would be best to tell her in person. Buffy... Buffy has been most insistent that it's wrong to keep the information from Willow. But she also understands why we have... and why there will have to be certain questions." He looked seriously at Tara. "Questions to put to Willow."
Snakes. Blood in an urn, snakes in Willow's mouth, Buffy's bloody knuckles. "No," Tara said. "No, no, she knows better, she wouldn't!"
"We have to be sure," he said quietly. "You do see that, Tara. We must know."
"Of course," she whispered.
Willow arrived with Buffy, late the following morning. After a restless night Tara was in the sunny dining room, helping Eleanor set the table for lunch, thinking of nothing but the chiming of silverware, when the front door creaked and a clear familiar voice rang in the hall "...going to see Tara?"
The green china slipped out of Tara's hands. Almost before it hit the floor she was back in the kitchen, then racing up the stairs, the thunder of her feet and her heart together trying to beat out the cold fear and desperate desire warring inside her. "No, please," Tara panted, when Althenea blocked her way on the second flight. "If she did it, I can't, please...!"
Silently Althenea stepped aside, and Tara stumbled up the last narrow set of steps to her eyrie, where she pressed herself, shaking, into the corner behind the bed.
Slowly her heart stopped pounding. She dreaded hearing any sounds from the workrooms below, but she heard only the noise of the spring day outside. She sat quietly, tracing the cracks in the wall with her fingertips.
She stiffened when she heard light steps on the stairs, but relaxed when she heard "Tara? It's Buffy. Can I come up?"
Even after Tara answered, Buffy came in slowly, pausing at the window and then at the foot of the bed, and watching Tara carefully as she approached.
"'S nice up here,” Buffy said, sitting down. “Quiet.” She'd grown her hair out again; it fell in silky waves around her shoulders. She wore a soft-looking brown tunic over blue jeans, and a lot of silver rings on her fingers.
"Sometimes there's too much to feel." Tara explained. She spread her hands on the polished boards of the floor. "I like to... concentrate."
"I know what you mean.”
Buffy looked older than she remembered. Older, but also softer, and not so uneasy in her skin. Tara smiled at her. “I'm getting used to it. I'm almost sorry to, but I am.” She drew a deep breath of the beeswax scent. “There are more things to feel, though. I always wanted to see Fountains Abbey. And eat real fish and chips. And..."
Buffy abruptly leaned forward, putting a hand over hers. “Tara, if you don't want to, if it... “ Her eyes were very bright. “If you need to get out, tell me. Okay? You can tell me."
"Get out of where?" And then, as the import of Buffy's set face and nervous hands reached her, her hands went cold. Her hands, and the pit of her stomach, and the back of her neck. She pulled away. "No! Buffy... that, no, I never, no."
"You can tell me," Buffy said again.
"I don't need to get out," Tara answered. "It... where I was, it wasn't like this, and I won't be sorry to go back there when it's time, but... I don't want to, now. I don't want to die now." She stared into Buffy's closed face. "Do you?"
“No,” Buffy said, after a long moment, as if the answer surprised her. “I... no. But I did. Especially right... after. And I thought maybe you, you... would need help.”
Tara pulled her knees up to her chest. "I am scared," she said quietly. "Everything's so..."
"Hard," Buffy supplied. "And bright. And cold."
"No," Tara shook her head. "So... specific? Small? Transient, maybe? I don't have the right words. Things are always coming and passing away, never the same, and it's beautiful and so much. But I'm afraid there's going to be a price. For me being here. Darkness, and hurt. And that I shouldn't be..." She shook her head. "Just that. I shouldn't be. That's what scares me most." She looked at Buffy. "I don't think it's like it was for you. I didn't have to... I was with Willow, and there was a pain, and then... something else. And then I could see sunlight. I didn't have to be me, alone, in a box, in the dark." She shivered, remembering Glory. "Not then, anyway."
Buffy was crying silently, tears making dark spots on her pale-brown top. Tara made a wordless noise of sympathy, and Buffy gulped. "Sorry. I... sorry."
"Shh," Tara whispered, hugging her knees against the sudden sharp ache in her chest. "Don't be."
"No, I was gonna help you, and..." A sob broke through and Buffy pressed a hand to her forehead as if to push it back. "Sorry. But that's exactly... what it was, exactly... and not just when I was in..."
"In the ground."
"And not just after, but... before. It was so hard, before. And to go back to the hardness after..."
"Shh..." Tara edged closer.
"Tara, while you were gone, it was... it didn't hurt, did it?" Buffy asked urgently. "You weren't... somewhere bad...?"
Tara shuddered all over, remembering Willow's tearful face and urgent words: We can't leave her in hell.
"No, no, no," she shook her head, pushing past the tears. "That's not, not what hurts. While I was gone, I was... complete. And I saw everything. Wasn't scared. Wasn't cold. Didn't have to worry because I knew... I knew. Things I can't remember now. But everyone I cared about was complete, too, and safe, and... like you said."
"But." Buffy said anxiously, putting an arm around Tara's shoulders. "But something. What hurts?"
"It's not like it was for you," Tara said. "I wasn't done, when I left. I didn't... if I'd known what was happening, I wouldn't have wanted... and it's not bad here, Buffy. It's different but it's so amazing, so different, every minute, more things happening than there's time to see... I was happy there, but I'm happy being here, except I'm so afraid it's wrong."
"Wrong to be happy?"
"Wrong that I'm here. Wrong how I came... that there's going to be a price for it, darkness and pain and... like it was for you. But with other people paying. I'm afraid that I shouldn't be..." She let out a breath. "It's just that. Afraid that I shouldn't be. And I like being, Buffy." Her voice wavered. "Is it selfish to...?"
"No. No, Tara, you... It's human. It, it, I think it means you're okay. No okay okay, but... right?"
"I don't know." Tara turned her face into Buffy's shoulder, breathing in the fruity smell of her perfume. "If W-willow..."
"Oh." Buffy went stiff, then held Tara tight. "That's what they... oh."
Tara nodded against her.
"Willow... she had a hard time, after you died, but she's been doing really well. Really, really well. And... whatever happened, Giles and the coven will figure it out. If it's figure-out-able, they'll figure it."
Buffy brought her rosehip tea in a white cup, and when she had drunk it, lay down beside her on top of the paisley-covered duvet and stroked her hair as if she were Dawnie until she fell asleep.
When Tara woke it was gray twilight, still and cloudy outside, stuffy within. She brushed her teeth and then paced, eight steps across the room from corner to corner and back. Through her shirt she worried the scar on her chest.
At last she heard feet on the stairs. Too heavy to be Miss Harkness, too slow for Buffy. Tara stared at the open doorway and waited.
"It wasn't Willow," Mr. Giles said.
Tara's breath caught, quick, twice. "Oh good," she whispered. "Oh, good." She sat down hard on the end of the bed. The duvet puffed up around her and she heard her own little gulp of a laugh and a sob. "Thank... everything."
“Would you like me to... ?” He half turned in the doorway as if to go back downstairs.
“No.” Tara looked up. “Unless they don't know? Miss Harkness and everyone?”
“They know. They helped determine it.”
Tara touched her scar. “I didn't think so,” she said. “I thought I would've known if she had. But I was afraid.”
“And I.” He came around so he was facing her and leaned on the little dresser, staring down at the threadbare rug. "Unfortunately we still don't understand how, exactly, it happened. All we can guess is that the residual energy of the collapsed Hellmouth interacted in unprecedented ways with the spells of binding and warding that Dawn and I were making. It's no longer an active magnet to malign forces, but it remains a mystical convergence, and it's still unpredictable. As, as are Dawn's abilities, really."
A pale orange band of sunlight crept out from behind the clouds, picking out unevennesses in the plaster of the sloping ceiling. Tara held her hands out among the dust motes, and watched the shadows move on the wall. “Is she all right?” she asked. “Dawnie?”
"Fine," he answered, so quickly Tara knew he didn't understand.
"Does she do much magic, I mean? Does she want to?"
He raised his head. "No. She doesn't. We've all been quite careful about that. Including Dawn herself.” Mr. Giles took off his glasses. “Tara, it seems that... it was not intentional. Certainly not consciously. If it was, it wasn't done by anyone known to me.” He looked away for a moment, then back at her. “I'm sorry.”
Tara let her eyes close, but it didn't stop tears from running cool down her face. "No. It's all right." She drew a long breath. "It's all right, then. It's all right."
"Yes," he answered quietly.
She sat up wipe her eyes. "I'd like to see Willow now. If she wants."
They met in the coven's herb garden. In the dim light Willow looked thin and bruised, even her aura smudged with weariness. Like Buffy, she'd grown her hair out, longer than Tara had seen it other than in pictures. Her eyes seemed very big. Tara wanted to run to her but something stronger than the verdant rosemary and basil kept her back. "Willow?" she said, her heart pounding under her collarbone.
“Baby?” Willow said, then flushed. “Tara?”
"Hi," Tara said.
"Are you... are you ok?" Willow asked.
"Yes. Yes. It's not like it was for Buffy. I... it's good. Being here." She searched Willow's pale face. "I'm sorry I ran. I didn't think you... but I didn't know, and I got scared."
Willow dropped her head and picked a frond of rosemary from the bush between them. "I tried," she said quietly. "Right afterwards. I tried."
"But you didn't keep trying. You didn't do it."
Tara put out her hand. Willow raised hers, and their fingers entwined. Tara stepped out of her flipflops and picked her way over the chives until she was close enough to smell Willow's familiar strawberry shampoo through the haze of green scents. Again, something seemed to stop her, and she let go of Willow's hands. "Is there... I was gone a long time. Is there... someone else?"
"No. No, no. There was, for a little while, but no. Never anyone like you," Willow said tearfully. And then, finally, finally, she was in Tara's arms, all the warm soft resiliency of her body, the silk of her hair and the whisper of her breath. Tara laughed out loud and kissed her.
Willow flinched. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
Tara stroked her hair. "Shh, it's okay. Shhh."
"No. I'm sorry." Willow stood stiff, then moved, slightly but deliberately and unmistakeably, away from Tara's touch. "I'm sorry."
Tara stood for a foolish second with her empty arms outstretched before drawing them tight to her own chest. "I don't understand."
"I can't do this." Willow's voice was small and broken. "I can't... the things I did, after you died, the things... I'm not the person you were with. I'm not who you remember. We'd have to find out if..."
"...fit in each other's lives," Tara murmured.
Willow sobbed as if the words were blows. "Yes. Yes. And I can't, Tara. It's too hard. I can't. But, but I..."
For the second time that day Tara turned and ran. She tore around the house and across the drive, the gravel tearing at her bare feet, up the steps and into the hall. She had guessed everyone would be back in the kitchen, but she had, again, guessed wrong. Mr. Giles and Buffy were sitting on the stairs, Buffy leaning against his knee.
"You didn't take me to the coven when I was resurrected," Buffy was saying.
He laid a hand on her hair. "I made a number of very grave mistakes when you were... oh." He stopped when he saw Tara.
"Oh?" Buffy demanded. She looked up at him, then at Tara. "Oh." She scrambled to her feet. "I... oh, God."
"I'm sorry," Mr. Giles said softly.
"Please," Tara said to him. "Take me back upstairs."
NINE MONTHS LATER
"Right." Spike dropped into the wooden booth beside Buffy and raised his pint. "I call this meeting of the Mysteriously-Returned-To-Life-Or-Unlife Society to fucking order." He took a gulp and slammed the glass down. "The honorable yours truly, drinks secretary, presiding, Miss Buffy Summers, president, taking on the shandy duties," he pushed Buffy's glass towards her, "and our newest member, the right irreverend Tara Maclay, proving that we don't all come back from Beyond quite the same, with a double Balvenie and water." He nodded with elaborate courtesy as he handed Tara her drink. "Here's to us. Who's like us? Damn few and they're all here."
Buffy rolled her eyes. "You are still bitter you didn't get to be head cheese of the sixth foible or whatever, aren't you."
"Pay no attention to the lady, she's completely squiffed on fumes alone." He winked at Tara as he sipped.
"I SO should have staked you." Buffy rested a hand on his arm as she leaned across the table. "Seriously, if it starts to be too much, get me and we'll go."
"Okay." Tara nodded. She sat back in the booth, holding her whiskey in both hands. The taste brought a little of the calm of her talks with Mr. Giles in the parlor at the coven, a welcome antidote to the busiest day yet in her new life. "I'm all right, though. The subway was scary, but everything else has been... really good. Mr. Giles went with me to University College and helped me get the application things, and then he showed me a little of the British Museum before he got his train, and I took the coven's book orders to a place on Charing Cross Road. Then I went to the National Portrait Gallery, and saw the horse guards go by on their way to Buckingham... Palace..." she trailed off as Buffy's phone rang.
"Sorry, just a sec... Dawn! Yup, she's here. We just got drinks, but in like half an hour? Where is that? Oh, okay. Okay! Yup, then." She shut her phone. "Dawn wants us to meet her at a club for proper milestone-marking activities."
"Even though being twenty-one doesn't make a difference about drinking here?" Tara raised an eyebrow.
"Hey, it's better than that house at UC-Sunnydale that had the 'Somebody Sneezed' party." Buffy sipped her drink. "So, college?"
"Well." Tara fiddled with the flap of her bag. "Maybe. I thought I should find out, anyway. How to do it." The forms didn't worry her, though she'd been glad to have Mr. Giles to interpret the advice of the woman in the office. It was the students who'd worried her, with their bright bags and shouted conversations on what they called their "mobiles" and their air of urgent engagement. She'd had no idea of how to do that when she'd wanted to; now, when it seemed only silly, the very thought made her tired and sick.
"Sure. Knowledge is good. I mean, knowledge about knowledge. I haven't finished," Buffy explained.
"D'you know what you'd read? Study, major, whatever?" Spike asked.
Tara shook her head. "I, I was an English major. Before." She took a long drink of whiskey to give herself time. "But I wonder if I should do something different now. Something more... useful?"
"I feel like I should want to do something enormous. Like I should risk everything, or anything, because I already died." Tara looked from Spike to Buffy and back. She'd gone with Miss Harkness to Bath for a talk from a returned Doctors Without Borders volunteer, and spent hours on the net staring at program after program in anti-nuclear activism, climate change education, wells in the desert. It all left her with a shameful wish to pretend she still couldn't walk through the orchard without being drawn in by the changing pattern of sunlight through the leaves, or manage the village shop when there were more than three other customers there.
Buffy nodded. "Like what?"
"Like... building wells in Ethiopia, or...I don't even know. But there should be something. Important." She opened her eyes wide, trying to keep back the tears that threatened to start.
"Because you came back," Buffy said quietly.
"Yes." She stared into her drink. "But there's nothing good I want to do."
Buffy took a long, thoughtful sip of her shandy. "I've developed a philosophy," she said. "If you've got a destiny, you'll know. You'll squirm, you'll fight, but you'll go along with it because some part of you can see that it fits you. And if not even a little corner of you feels like it fits, it's not destiny. Might be a good thing, might even be something you could do, but it's not destiny. And if it's NOT destiny, it's okay if you don't do it." Her phone rang again. "Apparently being harassed by my sister is my des.... whoa." She frowned at the display. "This one's business. Sorry, Tara... Faith? Yeah, fine, go ahead. Okay. Okay. Wait, over HOW big an area...? Oh. NOT cool. Yeah, he's down at Westbury, the reception sucks there. Tara?" Buffy looked up. "Do you have the landline number for the coven?"
"Sure." Tara dug in her bag for her phone. "What's up?"
"Trouble in LA. Thanks. Faith, can you write it down, or... yeah, I'll text it. Okay. Tell him to call me after? Okay. Yeah." Buffy closed the phone and sighed.
Spike laid a hand on the base of her neck. "All right, pet?"
"Apocalypse incoming. So, samey same. It's starting to look like the new demons in LA aren't so much moving into new places as bringing their old home with them."
"Dimensional breakdown?" Tara asked.
"I'm hoping more kinda bleedthrough? But I dunno. She's gonna talk to Giles. If it's dimensional there is gonna need to be serious mojo. And SoCal is really weird for that. Uh... not that that's a bad thing?" she added, looking nervously at Tara.
Tara laughed, glad to lighten the atmosphere. "Well, as long as you don't mind expanding the club." She handed over her phone so Buffy could copy the coven's number.
"We may have to start electing members if it gets too popular." Spike drained his glass. "Keep up, chickadees, we should be going to meet the Niblet."
"Here, thanks. The other thing about destiny, though, is that there's other stuff. Even if you've got a destiny, you get to do the other stuff. Especially these days. Like, we had an apocalypse last summer, and I slept the night before! Giles slept the night before! And the world still got saved. Are you...?"
"I'm done," Tara assured her, sliding out of the booth when Spike did.
"Division of labor works better than it did," Spike remarked as they strolled towards Dawn's chosen club. "Even for the chosen folk, stakes aren't quite so high. You've paid your apocalypse dues; you can rest up a little. Finish the English major and let other people save the world from itself."
Buffy nodded. "We get to do stuff for us now. Like, Faith used to say, 'Want. Take. Have.' And I was more 'Want. Whine. Keep whining.' Now it's 'Want. Try. Sometimes succeed.'" She slid her arm through Spike's and kissed him on the cheek, then linked her free arm through Tara's. "Also, dance."
The club Dawn had chosen was raucous. At first Tara didn't mind, since the cacophony made conversation impossible and thus gave her time to think. By the time Buffy and Dawn both were dancing on the bar, however, the noise and the whiskey from their first stop were making her head ache and breaking her thoughts into feeble fragments. She thought she was doing well feigning fun until Spike took her arm and pulled her into a chair.
"Get you home?" he shouted in her ear.
She shook her head, and gathered enough sense to make a silence charm, enveloping both of them in beautiful quiet. "I'm all right. Sitting down. Thank you."
He shrugged. "If it changes, let me know." He leaned against the wall beside her, watching Buffy and Dawn.
"I don't think her philosophy applies to me," Tara blurted out, as Buffy high-stepped around glasses.
"I see how she can..." Tara waved at the dancing. "Because she saves the world. That's her job. But I don't. I didn't. I don't have that credit to use."
"Balls. You were in on two apocalypses, and all kinds of magic in between."
"With Adam I didn't do anything, and with Glory I was useless." She ducked her head to hide how her eyes teared.
"You were vital with Glory!" He paused. "All right, vital while being not entirely in control of your actions, and providing a bellwether for the rest of us to follow, but vital. Uh, sorry."
"No," she giggled damply. "I'm laughing." She let out a sigh. "Didn't you wonder, though? When you came back?"
"Yeah." He pursed his lips and blew as if sending a stream of smoke towards the ceiling. "Yeah. Tried a lot of things, meaning-of-life-wise. Finally gave it up." He looked at her. "Here's what I do. I love Buffy. I help keep the world out of the soup. And I try to have a bit of fun without fucking it up for anyone else with a soul. Which is surprisingly difficult, as a habit, but it works. I'm not looking to collect enough gold stars to become a real boy, or anything. Just doing my bit, and taking care of Buffy as long as she needs me." His head snapped around towards the bar. "Speaking of... cut the spell."
Sound crashed back in around them and Spike shot forward towards the bar, where Buffy had the barman pinned against the cash register, Dawn was trying to pull her off, and a number of other patrons were trying to climb over the counter.
"...just trying to help!" Dawn was shouting at Buffy as Spike and the bouncer escorted them to the door. Tara scurried after them.
"Well, all I could see was his hand on your butt!" Buffy protested, once they were out on the street. "What was I supposed to think?"
"One, that maybe it was an accident, two, maybe I could take care of it?" Dawn waved her hands. "Hello, twenty-one, here!" She stopped. Then she grinned. "The flying leap you did was awesome, though."
"Yeah? Even though I was being hyper-protecto-mom?"
"That part was less cool."
Buffy's phone rang. She patted her pockets. "Oh. Shit. Where is it? Oh, okay, good, still here."
Dawn caught Tara's eye and laughed. Tara smiled.
"Giles?" Buffy's stance changed and suddenly she seemed not even tipsy. "What's the scoop?" A van rumbled by, and she stepped into the mouth of an alley to hear better. Dawn edged back towards the club door, dancing a little to the music that spilled out into the street.
Tara turned back to Spike, seizing the moment before the others came back, and before her pride could freeze her.. "There's no one for me to take care of, though. Except maybe Dawnie, and she doesn't need me."
"Then you take care of you, Maclay," he said gently. "You take as good care of yourself as you did of Red. And remember that philosophy of Faith's. There's more place for it than you might think."
"Sorry," Buffy said, closing her phone. "Spike, can you get us a cab?"
"Where to?" He held up a hand.
"Back to the Council flat to get our stuff, then Gatwick. Giles is calling to get the jet ready. He talked to Faith."
"That bad?" Spike asked.
"Bad enough. Dawn!" Buffy beckoned to her sister. "Apocalypse in SoCal and everyone's invited."
When they got to LA there was a briefing in a conference room at the hotel, with power point slides and everything. Faith paced in front of the screen, thumbs hooked in the loops of her close-fitting dark jeans.
"This? Is a Brayed. They started showing up about three months ago. Turn-ons include eating the flesh of humans and starting fires with their eyes. When they're not turned on, they look - slide? - human. Could be they've been doing the stealth thing for a while and only just got interested in chowing down, or they could be using some mindwipe mojo to get in good with locals.
Her throaty voice shook just a little, and the swagger looked stiff. Faith, invincible madwoman Faith, was nervous. From all Tara had heard she would not have imagined it, but it was true.
"Fighting 'em we can do, once we know who's a demon and who's just grabbing a latte. Figuring that out before the whole Starbucks goes up, that's been the project. Props to local for good work on detection spells. The charmed sunglasses are my favorite - 'Rissa, you're gonna send the report? See Marissa if you want the lowdown on that. Also, we've been doing good on containment with with the 3M teams - medics, magic, and muscle. Two Slayers to fight, medic to fix, someone with the mojo to make sure everybody remembers something they can live with. Map, please." Faith stopped pacing and put her hands together.
"So far so regular. You're all here, though, because it turns out, these guys aren't just moving into the neighborhood, they're bringing their own neighborhood with. And the bad news on that bad news is that they're shipping our 'hood back to theirs. I don't know what they want, but blurry dimensional boundaries ain't anything we need."
"How..." Tara started without thinking.
"Yeah?" Faith looked at her, and Tara ducked her head, but drew a deep breath and spoke.
"Do you know yet how they're moving their homes? If that's what they're moving?"
"Some homes, some landscape. Not too different from what we've got around here, until you trip over someone and get toasted. Or fall into what looks like a fountain but's actually full of tar. And no, not a clue. It's always a switcheroo, though, the missing piece of LA is always right over in their dimension when the seers go looking. So," she clapped her hands. "Two problems. One, slice and dice the demons. Two, put everything back where it belongs. One we got covered; what do we need to make progress on two?"
Tara brought out the grimoires and told herself sternly not to notice how careful Willow was not to brush against her when they bent to look at the same pages. While the conversation swirled onto ever more abstruse magical theory Tara just watched Faith. She looked sublimely easy in her body, especially when the burden of public speaking was over. She prowled the room with a restless grace, teasing the Slayers and sometimes giving a rougher ribbing to the Scoobies.
When they had established the prime avenues for research Faith dismissed the meeting. Tara started packing up the books, but nearly dropped one when she straightened up to find Faith beside her.
"Hey. We haven't really... I'm Faith." She sat on the edge of the table. Tara didn't know where to look.
"H-hi." Tara flushed. She hadn't stammered since she came back, but apparently that didn't mean anything.
"I'm sorry," Faith said abruptly. "For that time at the Bronze, when I was wearing B's face. I fucked with you for fun. I'm sorry."
"Oh." Tara ducked her head, then forced herself to pull it back up. "Thank you."
"Glad you're here," Faith said, and swung off the table and out of the room before Tara could find the words to answer.
Twenty-four hours later they were ranged at the edge of the largest chunk of Brayed territory. Faith and Buffy and fourteen younger Slayers; Spike, Xander, Mr. Giles and a man from Sunnydale named Robin Wood as rear guard; and Tara and Willow to handle the magic.
"Is this... is this gonna be okay?" Willow asked quietly, as they drew their runes in chalk on the sidewalk. She still didn't quite meet Tara's eyes, or her fingers, as she handed over the blue.
Tara breathed deep and thought about the texture of the pavement under her hand and the children who could be waking up tomorrow to find their own parents back after they'd been replaced by demons. "Sure. 'Course."
Willow bowed her head. "Is that 'Sure' spelled 'I am giving the Right Answer?'"
Tara waited a moment, discarding phrase after phrase. "Not the 'Sure' part. The 'of course' part, though," she admitted.
"You don't have to... there are mages, even some I worked with, we..."
"I want to." Tara cut her off and gathered the sweetgrass bundles into her arms. "You have the matches, don't you?"
Willow nodded slowly. "But you shouldn't have to..."
"Let's make magic, Willow." Tara held out the herbs for the flame. "One more time."
Willow nodded again, and struck a match.
It was like a basket of yarn after the cats got in it, or the babies. Loops and snarls, no ends in sight, no way to tell what was attached and what was only tangled. Tara drew a deep breath, gathered her energy, and reached in. Like yarn, but living - like vines from plants so similar you couldn't tell which was which until you found the roots. Slowly, carefully, she went to work, separating strands and passing knotted ends gently through small holes, picking delicately at first one, then another section of a snarl until she found a piece that would move under her steady touch.
She could feel Willow working beside her, carefully but differently. Willow saw something else, some hugely complicated chaotic design, and was teaching the vines a different dance. Tara kept picking, carefully, and passing the strands to Willow to weave into the new pattern.
When at last they finished, Tara opened her eyes and almost laughed aloud to see the physical world still there. Late afternoon sunlight gleamed off the windows of an office building; she could smell hotdogs from a cart. Faith was standing nearby, a bloody blade resting on her black leather-clad shoulder, an expression of deep satisfaction on her face. She turned, and for a long moment her eyes met Tara's.
"Nice work, T," Faith said.
"It was," Tara said, before thinking. She half-raised a hand as if to cram the egotism back in, but then let it fall. It had been nice work - precise and well-executed and satisfying. And she had done it well. "Thanks. You, you too," she added, indicating the sword.
"What, this old thing?" Faith winked at her and sliced the air. "Wonder if they'd let me in the club with it." She sketched a salute and swaggered across the street, shouting for Mindy and LaShonda and Anne, the Slayer squad leaders. "Hey! Don't slack off people, we've got more to do!"
"All right!" Faith shouted, pushing her way through the crowd to the door. "This is how it goes. We save the world, then we party!" She handed an ID to the bouncer, who passed it back and stepped out of the way, letting them flood into the dim glitter of the club.
Tara hung back, avoiding Willow's dutiful attention. It didn't take much to fade away into the melee of excited Slayers confronted with a dance floor and drink specials. She looked for Mr. Giles, but he was at the end of the bar having what, from the direction of their pointing fingers, looked like a serious whiskey-versus-bourbon debate with Robin Wood. Xander caught her eye as two girls pulled him onto the floor, and tipped his head towards the disco ball in a gesture of invitation, but she smiled and waved and kept walking around the edge of the room, stepping carefully to avoid the little tables and the other customers who were looking slightly confused at the noisy party of twenty that had just flooded in.
She realized at she moved that it was only habit driving her to find a spot she could put her back against the wall. She wanted to move, even if not dance, and though she didn't want to talk the dim corner she'd unconsciously aimed for looked too lonely. Her fingers itched to be weaving again, but the task was finished.
When the rush eased she sidled up to the bar. She didn't recognize the name on only bottle of single malt the bartender had to offer, so she ordered a Jameson and a glass of water, and alternated sips while she watched the room.
Buffy and Dawn were dancing together, their left hands clasped, bottles of hard lemonade in their rights. Spike didn't dance, but he found a seat at the edge of the floor and he sat, watching, his pale slim fingers tapping on the glossy black table. Xander danced with more enthusiasm than rhythm, circulating among the younger girls, keeping them laughing and not-incidentally, Tara thought, keeping track of who among the civilians in the crowd might be watching too closely. Mr. Giles and Mr. Wood had a table near the bar where they were sharing a bottle of bourbon and a plate of buffalo wings, and seemed to be using the bones to reenact the recent battle.
Tara finished her whiskey and took a second one with her for another circuit of the room. The slight burn of the liquor countered the itch to work, but left the restlessness untouched. World saved; now what?
One of the Slayers was handing out shots. "Hey! You were awesome!" she shouted to Tara, pulling her in and pushing a glass into her free hand. "You gotta, you gotta do this with us. Okay? Okay? Here's to you," she chanted, "here's to me. Best of friends we'll always be. If by chance we cease to be, then FUCK YOU, here's to me!"
The shot looked like pure sour apple Pucker. Tara took a deep breath and knocked it back, to the cheers of the Slayer who passed it to her and several others nearby. A new song came on, something with a driving electronic beat, and someone took her whiskey out of her hand to draw her into a mass of gyrating young women. She wasn't drunk enough - she didn't think she ever wanted to be drunk enough - not to feel silly jerking her head and her hips, but it took what felt like a long time to dance her way out of the knot.
The song changed again, and she found herself standing behind Faith's bare creamy shoulder, watching her watch Buffy pull Dawn up onto the bar to dance. Spike and Xander were nearby, Xander with his hands half-raised like a spotter, Spike with a gleefully wolfish grin. Faith was staring as if Buffy were growing an extra head.
"They did this last time," Tara said, over the noise.
"Last time I was out with them. Except then, Dawn almost fell off, the bartender grabbed her, and Buffy thought he was trying to feel her up. We got thrown... out..." Tara managed, just barely, not to stutter on the last words as Faith turned towards her, though her breath was suddenly short.
"B? Picked a fight in a club?" Faith laughed, a rough, warm sound, like whiskey. "Hot damn. Who'da thought she'd loosen up like that?" She grinned.
"She's happy," Tara blurted, foolishly, watching Buffy blow a kiss to Spike. "So much happier than when I..." She looked over at Faith and finished, "left."
"Lot of that goin' around." Faith was moving her shoulders to the beat, but she'd stopped watching Buffy. "How about you, T?" Her dark eyes met Tara's, then dropped, and she stepped a little closer.
"Am I happier?" Tara knew it was the whiskey and the sweet liqueur making her knees soft and the background blurry. But it wasn't the drinks making her nipples taut and starting the warm uncoiling low in her belly. That was all Faith, all the wary leonine grace of her, the throaty teasing words and the watchful dark eyes, the restless hands and steady stance.
Faith's dark lips moved. "Yeah."
Tara couldn't stop staring at Faith's sensuous mouth. What did Buffy call Faith's old philosophy? Want, take, have?
"I mean," Faith shifted closer. "Are you and Red...?"
"Oh. Oh, no. I mean, we... I was gone so long. She's not the same. I'm not the same. She was, we were, so happy, then." Tara realized that she had no idea where Willow was in the room. Whether Willow was even in the room. The very indifference hurt, but it was a melancholy ache, not a piercing agony. "But it's different now."
"Bad different?" Faith asked.
Tara drew a shaky breath. "Trying to figure that out."
"Man." Faith tipped her head back, sending her dark hair spilling over her shoulders. The silver and blue lights bathed the curves of silky-looking skin that disappeared into her black leather bodice. "That one's Final Jeopardy for sure."
It doesn't have to be destiny, Tara reminded herself. Sometimes, sometimes, you can ask for what you want. "Faith..." she said.
She put out a hand and rested it on Faith's bare arm. The skin was as soft as it looked. Softer. "Do you want to get some air?"
Faith's hand settled on Tara's hip, tightening when Tara's breath caught. "Yeah. Yeah, I would."