Story #1: "Who Was That Girl?"
The dormitories and common areas of UC Sunnydale were unusually bright, cheerful and noisy. And why not? After being deprived of their voices by the Gentlemen for two days, everyone was finally able to talk again. Many of the students had gone to bed in depressed silence early the night before, and so they didn’t realize their voices had been restored until they awoke. They had a lot of catching up to do.
Willow wasn’t one of those students, of course. As was usually the case whenever some big evil was brewing in town, not only had she known exactly what was going on, she had been in the middle of the action. Well, not the exact middle, but Willow figured that any situation where death was a possibility counted as close enough to the middle for her.
And what action it was! Willow looked down at her left hand as she walked along, flexing her fingers back and forth. Maybe she was imagining it, but she still felt like her hand was tingling from the night before, as if there were still traces of the magicks lingering in it. The Gentlemen may have taken her power of speech, but they had unwittingly brought her into contact with other powers she had only dreamed of before.
Things certainly hadn’t started out that way. At first, Willow had felt only frustration and worry, as she’d sat in her dorm room searching in vain for a way to defeat the voice-stealing, heart-stealing monsters, knowing that Buffy was already out hunting for them. Next came the frantic noises in the hallway. Willow had gone out to investigate and had promptly been mowed down by a strange blonde-haired girl who was fleeing from two of the Gentlemen and their crazed demonic minions.
At that point, time had stretched for a moment. Willow’s ankle had been twisted in the collision with the girl, but she couldn’t make any sound to acknowledge the pain that shot up her leg. The Gentlemen’s murderous intentions toward both her and the girl had been quite plain, but she could do nothing to let out the terror as it tried to grip her from the inside.
Then came the panicked dash down the dormitory stairs, with Willow’s ankle protesting through every agonizing step and the blonde girl helping Willow along as best she could. They had ended up in the laundry room, with the Gentlemen’s minions pounding on the door and Willow feeling pathetically inadequate as her attempt to levitate the laundry room’s soda machine across the entrance fell woefully short.
That’s when it happened.
Willow hadn’t even noticed when the blonde girl tentatively started reaching out to her, but from the moment their fingertips touched, she had felt a charge on her skin, almost like electricity. When the blonde girl brought their hands together, interlacing their fingers tightly, Willow had felt a surge of enormous power, coming not just from the other girl’s hand, but from inside herself as well, as if the blonde girl was somehow tapping into strengths hidden where Willow herself had been unable to find them.
The blonde girl had stared at her with a gaze that cut through all of Willow’s panic and confusion, and suddenly Willow had known exactly what to do. As one they had turned back to the soda machine, and their combined power had flung it across the room to where it could protect them from harm.
It was exhilarating. It was exhausting. Willow ended up spending several moments staring at her hand as she still held onto the other girl’s hand. It was only then, in her bewildered state, that she had remembered seeing the blonde girl before. The girl had been in the last Wicca group meeting. She had even tried to speak up, in fact, when Willow had suggested doing a few spells and the other girls had ridiculed the idea. What was her name again? Mary? Tamara? Something like that. What was someone with her kind of power doing with the bunch of phonies that made up the Wicca group?
Unfortunately, there was no chance for Willow to get any answers that night. She couldn’t have asked right there in the laundry room, of course, because they still had no voices. They didn’t realize that their voices had returned until one of the Resident Advisors and a few of the other students came down looking for them. In the confusion of the spontaneous party that followed, the blonde girl had somehow managed to slip away.
So now, even though her body was on its way to the library, Willow’s mind was still stuck in the laundry room. Too many unanswered questions had been left there. Too many exciting possibilities depended on the answers.
Worst of all, Willow had no one to share the story of her experience with, and so the feelings it had generated continued to bounce around inside of her. She hadn’t even gotten a chance to talk to Buffy yet. She’d wanted to that morning at breakfast, but the Slayer was unusually distant and preoccupied. Killing the Gentlemen must have been a tougher than average job, Willow figured. Better to let Buffy process and then talk to her later.
But Willow simply had to talk to someone. Maybe later that day she could find Xander and tell him what happened. Or Giles, perhaps. Or maybe...
Or maybe she could talk to the blonde girl herself. Especially since the blonde girl was standing just a few feet away.
Willow could hardly believe it. By some strange coincidence, her path to the library had taken her through the same common area where the Wicca group usually met. And by another strange coincidence - or was it fate? - the blonde girl was standing there, off to the side. Willow wasn’t sure it was her at first, because the girl was hanging her head down, avoiding eye contact with everyone and letting her hair cover her face. But there was something - almost a feeling rather than any visual clue - that made Willow certain it was indeed the same girl.
Elated, Willow turned and went to meet her late-night visitor. But as she did, her excitement quickly turned to nervousness. What was she going to say? "Gee, nifty spells you’ve got there?" She couldn’t even remember the girl’s name. How was she supposed to strike up a conversation about something as important as...
Willow stopped dead as the blonde girl looked up. Their eyes locked for a moment, and Willow felt her stomach turn a back flip. The girl remembered her name! What was she supposed to do now?
"Hey, there..." Willow began hesitantly. So far, so good. "How are you doing today... uhh..."
The blonde girl smiled. "Tara," she replied simply.
"Right! Tara!" Willow exclaimed, trying to keep some semblance of a cool exterior.
Tara’s smile grew broader. "Don’t worry," she said. "I had to ask Cheryl what your name was. She, uh... she lives on my floor."
"Oh!" Willow replied, greatly relieved. She briefly wondered if perhaps Tara had been the one who dripped candle wax on Cheryl’s womyn-power shrine, but quickly decided that someone with Tara’s kind of ability probably wouldn’t go near such a thing.
As soon as Willow’s mind had worked through that small puzzle, though, another question appeared. "You wanted to know my name?" she asked.
"Yeah," said Tara, looking away shyly for a moment. "I, uh... I wanted to find you. That’s why I was out last night, when those monsters chased me."
Willow was amazed. "You were looking for me?" she asked incredulously.
This was better than she could ever have expected. Just a couple of days earlier, Willow had been ready to give up on her Wicca group and feared that her study of magic had reached a dead end. Instead, now things looked exactly the opposite. Maybe the Wicca group had been a dead end, but things certainly looked like it had led her to a brand new beginning.
Story #2: Change of Venue
Willow was having that dream again.
It was the dream she’d had too many times to count over the past few months. The dream that comforted her, tortured her, healed her wounds and reopened them, all at once.
In the dream, it was the past few months that were a dream. The endless days and nights of pain became an illusion, and the phantom she saw and felt became real.
In the dream, she was in bed with her Oz, drifting just at the edge of sleep, but still able to feel his presence. She lay on her side behind him, with her arm wrapped around his middle. She was safe, and warm, and happy. That horrible day when he’d left her crying in the empty shell of his room was no more, a nightmare brought on by too much cold pizza eaten in the wee hours before an exam.
Every time the dream came, Willow wished it would go on forever. Every time she woke up, she ached with the empty longing for what she had lost.
Yes, Willow was having that dream again.
Except... this time, something was different.
For one thing, Oz was larger than she remembered. Wasn’t he the same height that she was, and not slightly taller?
For another thing, Oz was shaped differently. The lines and angles of his body that she knew so intimately weren’t there. Willow felt smooth curves instead. And instead of Oz’s wiry frame, Willow felt only softness against her body. Even the dream smell that greeted her dream nostrils - since when did anyone smell in dreams anyway? - had changed.
Yes, something was definitely different.
Puzzled, Willow cracked her eyes open. She wasn’t sure whether they were her real eyes or her dream eyes. She wasn’t sure whether the light that greeted her was real light or dream light. Whichever it was, the sight told her once and for all that her dream had changed. Even in her wildest fantasies, Oz didn’t have long strands of blonde hair falling down around her shoulders.
Long blonde hair? Her shoulders?
Willow gasped and sat up quickly as realization hit her. She looked around dazedly, trying to get her bearings.
Memories of the night before came flooding back. Yes, the room was just as Willow last remembered it. The small white Christmas lights were still shining as they dangled from their wires. The volumes of magic were still piled on the floor where they had been left. The magic circle was still there as well, with the blackened rose stem still lying in the center of it. Next to it lay Willow’s shoes. She vaguely remembered taking them off when she realized she was too tired to turn another page, let alone make it back to Stevenson Hall.
There was a stirring next to her on the bed. Willow looked down and instantly knew that even if she was still dreaming, she wasn’t dreaming that dream any more.
"Willow?" Tara said with a voice still half-full of sleep. "What time is it?"
Willow glanced around the room, trying to remember where Tara’s clock was. After a moment, she found it. "It’s... uh... six-thirty," she replied.
Tara groaned. "I thought we were just going to rest our eyes for a while," she said. "There was still time to read a little more, so we could find out what made the rose go crazy."
"I know," Willow said. Her mind was racing faster than she could keep up. "I... I guess we... uh, got a little carried away. With the eye-resting, I mean."
Tara sat up, stretching and rolling her head and shoulders to work out a few lingering kinks. Willow suddenly found herself mesmerized by the sight, as if her dream was still reaching up from inside her, opening her to thoughts she had never had before. They were beckoning her, tempting her to look deeper.
Oblivious to what was going on in Willow’s head, Tara turned and gave her a shy smile. "We still could, you know," she said. "I mean, if you have time."
"Still could?" Willow repeated.
Tara pointed over to the books on the floor. "The research," she replied. "I think I saw something in the index of Pfeiffer’s Enchantments..."
"Oh!" Willow exclaimed, puzzled by fact that she hadn’t understood Tara the first time. Things had suddenly become much too confusing. "You know," she said hurriedly, "I really have to be getting back."
"You... you do?" Tara asked hesitantly.
Willow scrambled off the bed and hurried over to her shoes, then quickly sat down on the floor and began to put them on. "Yeah," she said. "I... I promised a friend I’d have breakfast with her. You know, like you do with friends. And she’s been really... busy lately. New boyfriend and all. So I figure I’d better take the chance while I’ve got it."
"Oh," Tara replied. She dropped her head down and stared at the floor, her blonde hair falling in front of her face in that way that it did. Something about the sight made Willow feel...
There. Both shoes were on. Willow got to her feet. "I’ve... probably been too much of a bother already," she said. "I mean, just look... you didn’t even get to change out of your clothes or sleep with your blankets over you. I should get out of your way and let you... you know, freshen up."
Tara looked up. "You’re not a bother," she replied. She gazed into Willow’s eyes for just a moment before looking away again. "I didn’t mind you being here. You can stay as long as you w-w-wwwant."
Willow smiled - a bit broader than she expected. "Thanks," she replied - a bit more earnestly than she expected. "But... I really do need to go... now..."
Tara nodded and showed Willow out. Willow hurried back to Stevenson, still trying to sort through what had happened. Things still weren’t quite right. It was as if at least a part of her was still dreaming. A new dream this time. One she didn’t quite understand yet.
She had to tell Buffy what had happened, Willow told herself. About the rose, another part of her mind quickly added. Yes, about what happened to the rose. That’s all there was to tell, right?
Maybe, Willow thought. But maybe not. Her mind kept drifting back to Tara’s room. Back to Tara’s bed. Back to the old dream she had dreamed so many times before, and the new dream that had come to her today...
No. She couldn’t tell Buffy about that. Buffy would freak. In her "Look at my manly new boyfriend and his manly bunch of military manly men" frame of mind, Buffy would simply freak. Willow had finally started to feel like she’d regained the Slayer’s good graces after what had happened with her "I will it so" spell. Something like... like this... might send Buffy over the edge again.
No, Willow would keep these thoughts to herself, for now. They could stay inside her with no trouble at all.
At least until she dreamed again.
Story #3: Crystallization
The magicks flowed readily at Willow’s command, rising up from the power centers within her, joining with the mystical forces around her. Through her fingers, she could feel the magicks flowing from Tara as well. Their energies mingled and merged, surging around and through each other.
For a moment, Willow toyed with the idea of abandoning the spell and simply enjoying the way her power and Tara’s intertwined. The magicks had always been somewhat intoxicating to her. She still had fond memories of the first time any real power had flowed through her body, back when she cast the gypsy curse that restored Angel’s soul. Feeling Tara’s power added to her own only intensified the sensation.
In the end, though, the call of the spell had its way, and rightly so, since apart from a brief catnap, they had worked all night and well into morning to prepare for it. The enchantment began, and Willow could feel the air around them stirring with it. She opened her eyes and looked down at the floor. Sitting between her and Tara was a large dish full of ice. As the spell took effect, a flame burst from the ice and burned brightly, casting an orange glow on Tara’s serene face.
Willow smiled and gave Tara’s hands a light squeeze. Tara opened her eyes and looked down at the flame as well, then smiled back at Willow. The easy part was done. Willow had brought fire out of ice on her own before - and after the first time, she had even remembered not to do it on her bedspread. The tricky part was next - a full-circle transmutation exercise that Willow had never been able to master. She and Tara had talked about trying it for a few weeks, but neither had felt ready. Now things were different. They had a little help that they hadn’t had before.
"You ready?" Willow asked breathlessly.
Tara nodded, then reached around behind her and brought out their secret weapon - the doll’s eye crystal she had shown Willow the day before. Willow felt the magicks in the room intensify the moment the light from the flame touched the crystal’s surface. It would be just the thing they needed to focus their energies and complete the spell.
Tara set the crystal down inside their magic circle, next to the dish of still-flaming ice, then reached out and took Willow’s hands again. Willow felt their connection grow stronger instantly, and the flame grew brighter. She was sure their spell was going to work.
They began the next phase of the incantation, and the magicks rushed through them more powerfully than ever. Willow started to feel light-headed, and she had to fight to keep her concentration. This was where she had always failed before. They were not going to fail this time.
She looked down at the ice again, hoping for a sign that something was happening. To her amazement, something was.
"Tara, look!" Willow gasped. She didn’t want them to lose their focus, but Tara simply had to see what they were doing. It was too good to miss.
The flame grew higher, melting the ice under it. As it did, it began to change. The bright orange of the flame changed color, becoming a mixture of green, purple and white. When the last of the ice melted, the flame transformed into a mass of flowers, shooting up from the pool of water beneath it. The bowl was suddenly full of vibrant lilies and irises.
Willow smiled, and fought to keep from laughing with joy. They weren’t finished yet. She gripped Tara’s hands more tightly, willing the spell forward. As she did, the flowers stood taller, pulling the water into them and growing larger. Then, when the water was gone, the flowers transformed again, turning into a heap of brilliant crystals. They fell apart from their pile and scattered across the floor, twinkling as they reflected the Christmas lights strung across Tara’s ceiling. They stayed that way for a moment before Willow and Tara brought the spell to its conclusion, returning the crystals to the same ice cubes they had been when the spell started.
"We did it!" Willow cried. "Oh my God! We did it!" The spell complete, she let go of the magicks and let them wash over her as they dissipated. She felt a wave of dizziness, followed by euphoria, and this time she didn’t stop herself from enjoying the sensation. Across from her, Tara looked no less ecstatic. Their hands were still clasped together, and it didn’t take long before they had pulled each other into an embrace, lost in the elation of their accomplishment.
It was several moments before the reality of the situation caught up to Willow. Several moments of laughing and crying and feeling before Willow started to realize how much she felt like she had felt the last time she was in someone’s arms. She pulled away slightly and looked into Tara’s face. Their eyes locked, and for the briefest of moments a thought flashed across Willow’s mind. An impulse that made her feel like...
"Wow," Willow said quickly, breaking her gaze away from Tara’s. "That was some spell," she added. "I mean, I always knew it would be powerful, but I never dreamed..."
"I know," Tara agreed. "It was pretty incredible."
Willow let go of Tara and looked down at the doll’s eye crystal. Her emotions were still spinning rapidly. She still felt good, but she needed something to focus on again, or there would be no telling what she might do. The crystal seemed to anchor her back in the world and in the spells they had been practicing.
She reached out and picked the crystal up. It felt warm in her hand. "And this," she said, "was simply amazing. I read a lot about doll’s eye crystals last summer, but I thought most of it was just... you know, witchcraft hype. I guess it wasn’t."
Tara beamed at her, seemingly amused by her fascination with the gem. After a moment, though, her face turned more serious. "I meant what I said before, you know," she declared. "I really wanted you to have that. I still do."
Willow looked up, her eyes meeting Tara’s again. She saw the sincerity in Tara’s gaze and had to look away quickly, before the impulse she’d felt earlier returned. "Tara, are you really sure?" she asked. "I mean, you just saw what this thing can do."
"I saw what we can do with it," Tara replied.
Willow allowed herself one more glance into Tara’s eyes, but Tara was looking away. If anything the sight made Willow feel even more like her earlier impulse would return.
"It’s okay if you don’t w-w-wwant it," Tara continued. "I mean, I totally understand what you said before, about f-f-fffamily and all..."
"No, wait," said Willow. Her mind was racing again. She looked down at the crystal again, hoping it would help focus her feelings as well as it had helped focus their spell.
Tara was right. The two of them had used the crystal together. It had helped their combined powers reach beyond where they had gone before. Not Tara alone. Not Willow alone. The two of them, together.
Willow liked that thought. It had been increasingly on her mind lately, especially after the dreams started over a month earlier. She wasn’t always sure where her thoughts were leading her. She wasn’t always sure she wanted to know.
But there were some things Willow was sure of, and one of them was how special being with Tara, working their magic together, had become to her. Out there, beyond the door of Tara’s room, things were growing more complicated every day. She barely saw Xander any more, between her classes and his endless job-hunting, to say nothing of his relationship with Anya. Giles, too, was becoming increasingly distant. Willow couldn’t even imagine what he was doing with his time. And now, even Buffy, her best friend and roommate, was becoming more of a stranger, spending all her time with Riley and diving headfirst into the Initiative without knowing its true intentions. It was as if the world Willow had known for three years, the family that had taken shape around her, was coming apart.
But here, within the walls of Tara’s room, with the exotic décor on the walls and the Christmas lights around her and Tara by her side... this had become Willow’s special place. She could draw strength here. She could be secure here. She could feel like someone she wanted to be, and be with someone who... wanted her to be here. Willow wished she could take that feeling with her when she went back out into the uncertain world. Here was Tara, giving her at least a symbolic way for her to do just that.
Willow suddenly realized that Tara was still looking at her, waiting expectantly for what she was going to say. "I suppose," she said at last, "that I could take it with me today. Just to get used to it. You know, get a better feel for the kinds of spells we can cast with it."
Tara beamed again. "Oh, of course," she replied. "I mean, it never hurts to get in some extra practice."
"Yeah," Willow agreed. "And then I could bring it with me when I come back. You know, for more spells."
"Definitely," said Tara.
They looked at each other for a moment, and then Willow held the crystal up to gaze at it again. The confusing flurry of emotions inside her had settled for the moment, replaced by a feeling of calm happiness. A feeling she could now take with her, until she returned again.
Story #4: Fear in a Handful of Dust
Willow slammed the copy of Pfeiffer’s Enchantments shut. Nothing! She had been through the book twice now, and she still couldn’t find any answers. There was no reason why their spell to contact the goddess Thespia had failed so miserably. No reason at all.
She looked up from the books scattered around the floor of Tara’s room and sighed heavily. They had so much knowledge at their disposal, and yet none of it could tell Willow how she went wrong. As far as she could tell, she had mixed the ingredients needed for the spell and set up the magic square correctly. They had said the incantation correctly, Willow had blown her share of the powder into the square at the right time, and she had heard Tara blow her share of the powder as well. But instead of a mist illuminated with a guide to Sunnydale’s demonic activity, all they had gotten was a mess for Tara to sweep off her floor.
It made no sense. Willow was beginning to feel like she was back in the summer before her senior year of high school, when she was struggling through her first experiments with witchcraft. Worse yet, it was the first time she and Tara had suffered a major failure together. Before today, it had seemed like they could tackle anything. Now they just seemed to be floundering.
Willow looked up to the bed, where Tara sat looking through another book. If anything, she seemed even more upset than Willow. She hadn’t been too enthusiastic when Willow first suggested the spell, but she might have developed more of an interest while they were setting it up. Was she trying not to let Willow see her disappointment now?
Concerned, Willow got up and went to sit on the bed at Tara’s side. "I guess the goddess Thespia is harder to contact than we thought," she said.
Tara frowned as she looked up from her book. "I’m sorry the spell didn’t w-w-wwwork," she replied.
Willow put a hand on Tara’s shoulder. "It’s okay," she said. "Maybe it wasn’t so beneath us after all."
"Maybe," said Tara, "but I know how m-m-mmuch you wanted to do it." She shrugged Willow’s hand away, getting up reach for another book. "There are some other spells in here that are probably just as fun," she continued quickly. "We could try some of those instead. If you... um, if you w-w-wwant."
Willow looked at Tara blankly for a moment. Feeling Tara pull away from her touch had unexpectedly made Willow forget how to breathe. Hearing Tara’s halting words made things even worse.
"I... I don’t have to do any more spells if you don’t want to," Willow said at last. "I meant what I said when I came over today. I’m not just here for the spells."
"I know," Tara assured her. "But... I... I just knew you wanted to do one when you got here. Which is totally cool. I like doing s-s-ssspells with you. I didn’t mind."
By now, Willow was berating herself so loudly inside her head that it almost drowned Tara’s voice out. No wonder Tara was acting so upset. The spell to summon Thespia had indeed been the foremost thing in Willow’s mind when she’d arrived at Tara’s room. She had tried to assure Tara that she was interested in more than just doing spells together, but her actions told a different story. Tara must be afraid that she was about to bail now that the spell had fizzled.
Even more concerned, Willow got off the bed and went to take the book from Tara’s hands. She set it back down on the table. "Tara, it’s okay," she said, trying to sound as reassuring as she could. "I don’t have to cast any spells to have fun being with you. It’s just... today was... well..."
"Willow, you don’t have to explain," said Tara, interrupting as Willow’s words became tangled. "I already said that when you got here." Her tone was trying to be conciliatory, but at the same time she pulled away from Willow again, walking to the middle of the room. "You don’t have to tell me everything about you," she continued. "Sometimes it’s good for p-p-pppeople to have s-s-sssecrets."
"No," Willow insisted. "This time I don’t think it is."
Tara turned back and looked at Willow with a mixture of dread and anticipation. It was just enough to make Willow stop and think about what she was about to do, and suddenly the enormity of it hit her.
She was about to tell Tara everything. She was about to tell Tara that the spell had been to help Buffy search for the missing Polgara demon, how they even knew what a Polgara demon was, where exactly it had gone missing from and, most importantly of all, who Buffy was.
No one had ever done that before. In almost three years since Buffy had entered her life and the lives of Xander and Giles, none of them had ever talked. Ever.
Sure, there had been some people who found out about Buffy and her role as the Slayer. Cordelia, Miss Calendar, Oz, Buffy’s mom, Giles’s girlfriend Olivia... but they had all found out the hard way, by being caught in the middle of a Sunnydale Hellmouth crisis. Tara had been caught in such a crisis herself, when the Gentlemen came to town, but Buffy had been elsewhere the entire time. They had never met. Unless the Polgara demon came charging into her room all of a sudden, Tara wouldn’t be involved in this crisis. There was no need to tell her, the way they had needed to tell the others before.
And yet... Tara was involved. Willow had involved her. Willow wanted Tara to be involved - and it wasn’t just because of the spells. The Initiative showing its true colors and turning on them had been a hard blow to take, especially for Buffy. Willow could see it in her friend’s face. But Buffy was gone now, out hunting the demon and leaving Willow behind to worry. It was a time when Willow needed to be with someone she... with someone who meant... with someone she could depend on to help her through.
Yeah, Willow said to herself, and so you went over to Tara’s room and tried to use her. Tried to get a spell out of her so you could go be Helpful Girl and get Buffy’s attention, and tried to get a little support for yourself without telling Tara what was going on. Do you really think that’s fair?
"No, it’s not," Willow whispered, barely realizing she was speaking aloud.
"What is it, Willow?" Tara asked, drawing close to Willow’s side again.
Willow looked into Tara’s eyes and saw a mixture of emotions swirling inside them. Fear, apprehension... and something more, something deeper. Was that something trying to reach out to her, or was Willow only imagining it?
Willow looked into those eyes for a moment more, then turned away before her own emotions became too scrambled for her to do what she needed to do. She had seen all she needed to see. She knew it was time.
"Tara," she said, turning back to meet the other girl’s gaze again, "I know you said I don’t have to explain, but I want to. You deserve it."
Tara looked at Willow curiously. Willow took her hand and led her back to sit down on the bed.
"I’ve got to tell you about this friend of mine," Willow continued. "A whole group of friends of mine, actually. The ones I kind of didn’t tell you about the other night. I think I should tell you about them now."
Tara nodded, her expression becoming less worried and more trusting. Willow was committed now. She had jumped off the diving board, and now she either had to finish the dive or fall on her face.
"My friend," Willow began, "is kind of special. You might say she’s the one girl in all the world who’s like her. Well, actually, you can’t say that any more, because there’s another one, but then again she’s in a coma, and... I’m kind of getting off the subject already, aren’t I?"
Tara smiled in her way that said, for some unfathomable reason, she enjoyed Willow’s babbling. Willow felt Tara’s grip on her hand tighten reassuringly, and she reached out to take Tara’s other hand as well. In only a few moments, she felt balanced and ready to begin again. It wasn’t like jumping off a diving board after all. It was more like knocking down a wall between the two of them. A wall that Willow didn’t want there any more.
Story #5: Ritual Hiding
Willow looked at herself in the mirror, smiled briefly, then frowned. It felt good to be showered and changed after the day she’d had, but she still wasn’t sure the outfit was right. As she was considering whether or not she should change again, the absurdity of her thoughts struck her, and she chuckled to herself.
In her three years as a part of the Scooby gang, Willow had never had such a hard time deciding what she should wear for an evening of trying to keep out of sight.
Of course, it wasn’t the act of keeping out of sight that had sent Willow into a sartorial quandary. It was the person she would be keeping out of sight with. But that merely added an extra layer of absurdity to the affair, for she was spending this particular evening of danger-avoidance with Tara.
Tara. So much had happened in Willow’s life over the past few days, and Tara was becoming an increasingly large part of it all. When Buffy had gone and virtually enlisted in the Initiative, Willow had turned to Tara. When the Initiative’s super-cyber-demon-hybrid Adam had gotten loose, Willow had turned to Tara again. And now that Faith was awake and also on the loose, Willow had gone looking for the rogue Slayer with Tara by her side.
They had worked incredible magic together, and faced failure together. Willow had shared some of her deepest secrets. Now they would be together again, and despite the danger that was afoot and the fever pitch at which things were happening, Willow couldn’t help smiling at her reflection and, in some ways, looking forward to the coming hours.
What did it all mean? Could she really be feeling this way about the blonde witch? It’s not like Tara was Oz or Xander. She was... she was Tara. A friend. A confidante. A partner in witchcraft. That was all, right?
That’s all Willow would ever have expected before, but lately she’d been having doubts. The dreams that had started many weeks earlier still returned regularly. And then there was the other night, when they were all hiding in Xander’s basement home and Willow had slept in the same bed with both Buffy and Anya. At one point she had almost crawled out and curled up on the floor rather than face the stirrings she felt and the reproach from her inner voice over them.
What was happening to her? She wished she had someone to talk to about it all. Buffy and the others didn’t even know who Tara was. Between their various battles against evil and Willow’s battles with her own thoughts, she had never managed to tell her friends about the new person in her life, and now was hardly the time to go up to them all and say, "Hi, let me tell you about this girl and how she makes me feel all strange." Instead, Willow had only shared her anxiety and confusion with Amy, and Amy wasn’t exactly able to offer much advice while still in rat-form. If only...
The door to the room opened suddenly, startling Willow out of her reverie. Buffy charged in, crossing quickly to the windows, throwing her jacket on her bed as she passed it.
"No luck yet?" Willow asked.
Buffy whirled around and seemed to notice Willow for the first time. She shook her head. "I’m sorry, Will," she said. "My mind is in a dozen places all over town. All of them Faith-less, if that answers your question."
Willow frowned. "I couldn’t find her, either," she said. "I even thought about trying to use magic." Actually, the magic had been Tara’s idea, but Willow left that part out.
"I’m not sure we need to get that drastic," said Buffy. "We know Faith’s out to hurt me. I figure she’ll try to do it by going after someone close to me. The hard part’s figuring out which someone and getting there first."
"How are you going to do that?" Willow asked.
"By making this a ‘Buffy visits all her loved ones’ night," Buffy replied. With an ironic smile, she added, "I may end up making all my loved ones sick of me."
Willow returned the wry expression. "And Giles said you could never fit friends and family in with your work," she quipped.
Buffy nodded grimly, then walked back until she was standing in front of Willow. "I don’t think you should stay here tonight," she said. "Faith can probably find a campus directory, and if she does, she might show up here. And she doesn’t have to wait to be invited in."
"I’m already ahead of you," Willow assured her. "I’ve got someplace else to stay. Actually, I was just about to head out there now."
"Really?" said Buffy, looking a bit surprised. "Where are you going?"
Willow’s voice suddenly caught in her throat. Her mind scrambled for a moment, then she finally managed to choke out, "Oh... nowhere special, really. Just... nowhere that Faith would think to look for me. That’s all."
Buffy nodded. "Good," she replied. "I’ll feel better knowing you’re safe." She turned away and paced back to the window. Apparently, she was too preoccupied to press the issue of Willow’s hiding place any further. Willow didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
"Trust me, you don’t have to worry," Willow said after a moment. The conflicting impulses in her head were opening a pit in her stomach, and she hoped that keeping the conversation going might be enough of a distraction. "Faith is definitely someone at the top of my ‘People to Avoid’ list. If I do see her, I’ll be on the run faster than she can say ‘five by five.’"
Buffy’s expression soured. "Oh, God, I was hoping I’d never have to hear that phrase again," she said. "What does it mean, anyway? Five by five what? I don’t think Giles even knows."
Willow laughed, remembering the conversation she and Tara had earlier that day on exactly the same subject. "We were just talking about that," she said.
"Really?" said Buffy. "Who’s ‘we?’ Did one of the guys go with you after all?"
Again Willow momentarily forgot how to form words. "Umm... I meant the last time I was... uh, with the guys," she stammered. "You know, just when we were all talking together."
Buffy nodded, but her attention was drifting back toward the window. She looked out again, scanning the campus outside. As the battle inside her heated up again, Willow found herself wondering if an inattentive Buffy was more trouble than no Buffy at all.
Buffy turned abruptly and headed back toward the door. "I should go," she said. "I can’t stand knowing she’s out there. Besides, I’ve got to go see Riley before he does something heroic and stupid like coming out to help me when he’s still hurt."
"Yeah, that’s probably a good idea," Willow blurted, hoping she hadn’t done so too quickly.
"I just hope he doesn’t start asking me any more questions," said Buffy, pausing a moment at the door. "I mean, I know I shouldn’t hold anything back from him... you know, about the Angel-y stuff... but this is so not the time. That’s all right, isn’t it? Don’t you think it’s okay if I wait to tell Riley about something like that?"
The pit in Willow’s stomach was opening ever wider. "Sure," she said tentatively. "I mean, sometimes you just can’t tell people the things you need to tell them, no matter how big a deal it is or how much you care about them. Sometimes you just need to wait for... for the right time."
Buffy smiled. "I knew you’d understand," she replied. "I just hope Riley will, too, when I finally tell him."
With that, Buffy pulled the door open and began to walk back into the hallway outside. "Wish me luck!" she said. And then she was gone.
"Good luck," Willow said softly. She looked back into her mirror, staring into the confused gaze of her reflection. She may not have left for Tara’s yet, but the ritual hiding had already begun. And at this point, Willow couldn’t decide how pleased to be with her success.
Story #6: Soul Searching
Tara had told Willow that contacting the nether realm would be intense, but Willow didn’t realize just how much of an understatement that was. The magicks had run through her with more power than she had ever felt before, then had exploded through every cell in her body, propelling her into the otherworldly domain.
When she reached the nether realm, Willow’s consciousness had been expanded into new dimensions. She saw and heard and felt and smelled and... had other sensations she didn’t have names for. It took her a while to adjust, but once she learned to control the nether realm forces, she quickly commanded them to take her to Buffy.
What Willow saw next made her think that maybe her control wasn’t as good as she thought. Instead of seeing Buffy, she instead found herself looking at Faith, chained up in the back of an armored car. As she looked closer, though, she began to make out a ghostly image floating around Faith’s body. She could make out Buffy’s blonde hair, superimposed over Faith’s dark hair. Faith’s face seemed to blur, its various features replaced for brief moments by Buffy’s features.
Willow concentrated harder, trying to understand the new nether realm senses she had. As she focused, Faith’s body and the armored car it was in began to fade, and as they did, Buffy’s form became more solid. Finally, Willow understood what was going on. She was looking at Faith’s body, but it was being inhabited by Buffy’s spirit.
But if Buffy was in Faith’s body, then that meant that Faith...
"Yup, Faith was the one at the Bronze tonight. She’s the one who saw you and Tara together. Kind of funny, isn’t it? After all this time, you finally introduce Tara to someone, and it turns out to be Faith?"
Who said that?
Willow looked, listened, felt, smelled, and... well, sensed... in every direction, but there was no trace of anyone who might have spoken to her. She was puzzled, but she didn’t really feel like she had time to dwell on the matter. She had to get back to Tara and start looking for a way to get Buffy back into her own body.
"Oh, no you don’t."
Willow came to a halt, or at least as much of a halt as she could come to in the nether realm. Who was talking to her? What did the voice mean? Was some nether realm creature suddenly going to appear and capture her?
"Don’t you wish. Or if you don’t, you soon will, once you figure out who I am."
The voice did sound familiar. Willow concentrated for a moment, trying to remember. To her great amazement, she realized that the voice was her own.
"It’s about time," said the voice that sounded exactly like her.
"But who are you?" Willow asked. She didn’t exactly talk in the way she was used to in the normal universe. It was more like forming the words in her mind and willing them out from her, through the nether realm around her.
"I’m you, of course," replied the voice. "I’m the voice of your inner self. The part of you that pays attention to what’s going on, even when you don’t."
Willow felt a chill run through her lack-of-body. She was all too familiar with the inner voice that had been speaking to her ever since she began feeling differently about Tara. The voice lurked behind every whim, ready to criticize and berate her for the way her thoughts about Tara had been wandering into territory that had always been forbidden. Had the passage to the nether realm brought her to a place where that voice could come out and attack her in person?
"No, no, I’m not that voice," said the voice. "God, I don’t know why you listen to that one and never pay attention to me. Trust me, I’m a lot more fun."
"Oh," said Willow, not quite understanding. She knew her head was often busy and crowded, but this was taking the concept to an entirely new level. "So which voice are you?" she asked. "What do you want?"
"I want to show you something," the voice replied. "Look."
The nether realm swirled around Willow, forming itself into another view of the physical world. Willow found herself looking back into Tara’s room, at her own now-lifeless body lying there on the floor. Tara had moved since Willow’s departure. She was sitting cross-legged behind Willow, letting Willow’s head rest in her lap. Her arms were outstretched in some sort of supplication, as she meditated or prayed or whatever she was doing to keep Willow anchored to her.
"She’s really something, isn’t she?" said the voice.
"Yeah," Willow sighed.
For one moment, Willow felt nothing but joy in the knowledge of what she and Tara had together. Tara’s voice sounded from her memories of earlier that night. "I am, you know... yours..." Willow’s own voice, another memory, sounded in response. "I trust you."
Then it was gone, and an icy hand clamped down on Willow’s thoughts instead. She turned away from the vision of Tara’s room, wishing she had eyes to shut.
"There you go again," said the voice. For a moment, Willow wasn’t sure if it was the critical voice she usually heard or the one she had been hearing in the nether realm. Fortunately, the voice itself cleared up any confusion. "I still don’t know why you listen to that voice. Weren’t you enjoying what you just saw and felt?"
Willow felt her grip on the nether realm faltering. The competing voices, the competing parts of her own mind, were making her dizzy. For a moment, she feared she would be lost in the confusion, that it would somehow cast her adrift in the nether realm, where she would never be able to return. But just as she began to float away, Willow felt something tugging at her. She turned and looked, straight back into Tara’s room, where Tara had begun chanting.
It was a sight that would have moved Willow to tears, had she not left her tear ducts back in the physical world. From where she was, Tara looked like some sort of goddess, surrounding Willow with her protective powers, and Willow’s body was the picture of tranquility, lying safely in Tara’s embrace. It was impossible not to see a connection between them.
And as Willow’s soul filled with the warmth of what she saw, the icy coldness inside her became more visible as well, until she recognized it for what it was.
Willow quickly searched for the voice that had been talking to her. "I’m... I’m afraid," she told it. "I’m afraid to listen to you. I want to, but I’m afraid of what will happen if I do."
"You’re afraid of being happy?" the voice asked.
"I was happy before," Willow replied sadly. "And that was a normal kind of happy. Well, as normal as you can get when werewolves are involved."
"You’re telling me werewolves aren’t as scary as a beautiful person like Tara?" Willow never knew her own voice could sound so acerbic. She’d have to pay more attention to that in the future.
"I... it’s... it’s complicated," she finally stammered. "Do you really think I’m going to go and... and... and change my whole life? Do something like admit that I... I..."
Willow trailed off, falling silent for a moment. At last she said, "I’m not ready. I’m not sure I ever want to be ready."
"Suit yourself," said the voice, sounding a bit disappointed. "I suppose it was too much to hope that you would finally listen."
"Willow, it’s time to come back," came another voice. Tara, calling to her from the physical world. "Willow, you have to come back to me."
"That’s your cue," said the voice. "Just remember what we talked about, okay?"
Willow tried to nod, but the magicks were overwhelming her again, pulling her back the way she had come. Within seconds, she began to feel heavy again. She could feel herself returning to her body. It was just as disorienting as her original passage to the nether realm had been. Suddenly she was left with only three dimensions and five senses again. The incredible experience of the nether realm began to fade, as if Willow had dreamed it. She fought to keep the sensations with her, before they slipped away completely.
And then Willow felt something else. She could feel herself resting with her head in Tara’s lap, just as she had seen herself. She hadn’t dreamed it after all. Just then, she felt Tara’s hands, reaching down to stroke her cheeks as she stirred. Willow allowed herself a sigh of contentment.
"Willow?" said Tara.
Willow opened her eyes and looked up. Tara’s face was above her, beaming at her. Just this once, Willow ignored the critical voice inside her that told her not to look into such a devoted gaze.
"Hi," said Willow. "I’m home."
Story #7: Shadow and Substance
It was a brand new world. Or maybe an old one. Whatever it was, it was different.
Willow walked across the UC Sunnydale campus, unsure of exactly what it should look like. Was Tom Cruise’s name really supposed to be on the billboards for Mission: Impossible 2? Wasn’t it supposed to be Jonathan’s name? Was Shaquille O’Neal really on the front of the sports pages, leading the Lakers to victory? Wasn’t it supposed to be Jonathan?
Of course, Willow knew perfectly well that it wasn’t supposed to be Jonathan. She had been the one who found the augmentation spell Jonathan cast, when they were searching through Giles’s books the night before. She knew that the universe had been changed and their memories altered so they thought Jonathan was the paragon of all that was good in humanity. She had watched the world change as the spell was broken and everything went back to what was supposedly normal. The only problem was, things didn’t feel normal. The lingering effects of the spell hung on, giving them all two sets of memories. It was very confusing.
Most confusing of all was how Tara fit into the picture.
One set of memories - the more familiar one, actually - told Willow that she and Tara had enviable places in Jonathan’s inner circle. They were his biggest fans. Hadn’t they covered the wall of Tara’s room with pictures of him? Hadn’t they swooned over him together at the Bronze?
More than that, since they were also Buffy’s friends and Jonathan helped Buffy so often, they had been there to help Jonathan in his feats of daring and heroism. Hadn’t Jonathan been the one who taught them how to combine their magic in the first place? Hadn’t Jonathan trusted them to be his anchors when he went into the nether realm to discover that Buffy and Faith had switched bodies?
The other set of memories, the ones that seemed like a dream at first but were becoming more solid all the time, painted a different picture. One that frightened Willow, in some ways more than the prospect of a world without Jonathan had frightened her the night before.
In Jonathan’s universe, Willow and Tara were close. More than close. When they parted company at the end of the day, they would hang onto each other until the last possible second, not wanting to be apart. But it was their mutual adoration of Jonathan that held them together. What else could unite them so completely?
Willow had run through the possibilities in her mind, trying to decipher the riddle. Could their witchcraft be what bonded them in the "normal" world? She distinctly remembered the two of them casting spells together, and some rather intense spells at that. The magicks exposed parts of a witch’s innermost self, which meant practicing witchcraft together could be a very intimate experience. Maybe that’s what she and Tara shared.
No. It went deeper than that. Willow thought back to the day before, when she’d gone to Tara’s dorm and found Tara battered and bruised from the monster that had sprung from Jonathan’s spell. The pain she had felt over Tara’s pain was far worse than simple concern for an injured friend. Could it be that she and Tara were...?
No. That couldn’t be it. The very thought was too alarming for Willow to finish the question, even inside her own head. Didn’t she remember how horrified she’d been to see her vampire self’s fondness for women? And hadn’t Jonathan - no, Buffy - reassured her that the vampire’s personality implied nothing about her own?
And yet... there had to be some sort of explanation. Willow wished that the aftereffects of Jonathan’s spell would hurry up and wear off so that she could think clearly again.
Five seconds after knocking on Tara’s door, Willow didn’t have to worry about the aftereffects of the spell any longer. The very sight of Tara, still bruised and looking bewildered, sent Willow’s heart racing and her mind spinning.
"Willow!" Tara gasped. "You’re here!"
The two of them fell into each other’s arms, holding on as tightly as they could manage, given Tara’s condition.
"I’ve been so confused," Tara said after a moment. "Something happened last night. I was sitting here, thinking about Jonathan, and then all of a sudden I was wondering why I had been thinking about Jonathan. Do I even know Jonathan?"
Willow shrugged woefully. "I don’t remember," she admitted. "He cast an augmentation spell that affected all our memories. It made us all think he was the greatest person on Earth."
Tara pulled away and led Willow into her room, still holding onto Willow’s hand. "Everything’s changed," she said. She pointed to the wall they had filled with Jonathan pictures less than two days earlier. It was bare now. "I couldn’t figure out what was real and what wasn’t."
Willow smiled and gave Tara’s hand a squeeze. "Well, trust me," she said. "At least I’m real."
Unfortunately, the feelings Willow had been trying not to face on her way to Tara’s room were real, too. That much was now certain. But maybe that wasn’t so unfortunate after all. How could Willow be sure? Was she even ready to deal with that question?
Fortunately, Willow had a way to avoid the question entirely, at least for a while. Or maybe that wasn’t so fortunate after all.
"Hey," said Willow, "Buffy and the rest of the gang want to have a picnic out on the lawn. You want to come? It might be just the thing to help you get a grip on what’s supposed to be ‘normal’ now."
Tara considered the suggestion for a moment, then nodded. "If you think it would be okay," she replied. "I mean... I still haven’t been around your friends all that much."
"Oh, don’t worry about that," Willow assured her. "You fit in just fine. Especially after you saved Buffy when Faith switched bodies with her." For a moment, the echoes of Jonathan’s spell tickled the edge of her memory, and she added, "That was you that did that, right?"
"I... I think it was both of us," Tara replied. She smiled. "You and me, together."
Willow smiled as her memories locked into place again. "You’re right," she agreed. "It was. And in that case, it would definitely be okay if we went to the picnic together."
Tara’s smile broadened, and she went to get herself ready to go. Willow found herself smiling as well. All right, she told herself, so something was going on. Something that gave her a pretty hefty wiggins whenever she thought about it too hard. But whenever Tara was around, none of that seemed to matter. When Tara was around, Willow’s fears became almost as ethereal as Jonathan’s spell had become.
Perhaps that was the way things should be, for now at least. Spring was in the air, and the school year still had weeks to go. Why not relax, enjoy the moments, and let the worries worry after themselves for a while?
Tara looked up and caught Willow’s gaze, and Willow let herself revel in the contact. Yes, for now this was all the reality she needed.
Story #8: Touchy Subjects
Willow had always hoped that the first time she invited Tara over to her room would be a happy occasion. Or at the very least, an occasion that didn’t involve the end of the world.
Okay, maybe she was exaggerating. The spirits of Lowell House were only threatening the people inside Lowell House, not the rest of the planet. Then again, Willow didn’t have the current Sunnydale Hellmouth crisis in mind. It wasn’t the literal end of the world that she feared. It was the end of the safe little world she had shared with Tara. The spirits of Lowell House may already have destroyed that world forever.
It had been several weeks since Jonathan’s augmentation spell was broken, and even longer since Willow had gone into the nether realm to search for Buffy. Several weeks now that Willow had been slowly letting herself feel the growing affection she had for her fellow witch. Several weeks of letting herself look a little longer, stand a little closer, touch a little more often. It seemed like every day she pushed her limits a little farther, and was delighted to find that she could.
There had always been a voice in the back of Willow’s mind that rebuked her every time even the slightest thought of Tara surfaced. She didn’t know exactly where it came from - the things her parents taught her, the way she used to be so concerned with following the rules and being "good," the attitudes of her classmates through school - but whatever the source, it had held her in its grip.
She had even been too scared to talk about her feelings with Buffy and Xander, her two best friends in the world, let alone with Tara herself. What if they didn’t understand? What if they rejected her? What if the very same words her inner voice had spoken to her came out of the mouths of those she cared for so deeply? Willow didn’t think she could handle it.
And now she was sure she couldn’t handle it. Because now it had happened. And she had the spirits of Lowell House to thank for the experience.
Willow tried not to wince as the memory of Tara’s voice sounded in her head. It had all happened so suddenly. One minute they were talking about Willow’s bad pony experience, and the next minute Willow’s hand was on Tara’s knee while one of her most forward, flirtatious looks yet was in her eye. It was the spirits prompting her, of course, but that was hardly an excuse. None of the other girls at the party were looking at other girls in the way she was looking at Tara. And Tara reacted... well, the way Willow’s inner voice had always said Tara would react if Willow pushed things too far.
"Don’t touch me!" Tara had shouted. "That’s dis-s-s-disgusting!"
On one level, Willow knew that the spirits were prompting Tara as well. But how much prompting had Tara needed? In Willow’s case, the spirits had only needed to encourage her a little. The feelings she brought out were her own. Was that all they needed to do with Tara as well? Had Tara been disgusted by Willow’s advances all along, and had simply been too timid to say anything?
"W-w-wwwillow?" Tara’s voice startled Willow out of her stupor. "Can you help me with the table?"
Willow turned from where she had been searching for candles and took one side of the small round table they would use for their attempt to contact the Lowell House spirits. With Tara directly across from her, their hands almost touching as they carried the table together, Willow couldn’t help it when her mind wandered again.
It made no sense to think that Tara had been secretly hating the contact they’d shared all this time. Tara had been far too willing a recipient of Willow’s touch, and had in fact reached out for Willow just as often. The spirits must have put the thought into Tara’s mind. Or maybe Tara had an inner voice that was telling her the same things that Willow’s inner voice said. Willow felt her head spinning as she wondered how to know for sure.
For better or worse, the distraction took her attention away from what she was doing, and before she knew it her hand was resting on top of Tara’s as they reached for the same spot on the table. They stayed that way for a moment, neither of them certain how to react. Apart from a couple of brief instances as they were driven from the Lowell House, it was the first time they had touched each other since Tara’s spirit-assisted outburst. Willow looked into Tara’s eyes, and saw the same mixture of hope and fear that she was sure Tara could see in her own gaze.
"Sorry," Willow said. She tried to laugh lightly as she pulled her hand away, but it came out sounding nervous instead.
"It’s... it’s okay," said Tara, sounding just as nervous.
Willow needed something else to focus on. She remembered the candles she was looking for and stepped to the side of the table, just as Tara stepped to the same side, on her way to look for something else. They barely avoided a collision, and ended up standing inches apart. It was as if their selves were conspiring against them.
Willow looked into Tara’s eyes again and decided to make the first move. "Tara... I..." she began haltingly. "About the party..."
"I know," Tara said quickly. "It was..."
"...the spirits," Willow finished for her. "I guess they were affecting everyone, and... and I’m sorry if I did something to upset you... you know, because of them. The spirits."
Tara’s expression changed, growing more surprised. "You did something?" she repeated. "Willow... I wanted to apologize to you, for what the spirits made me feel... and... and s-s-sssay."
"Really?" said Willow. "Because I felt like the way I touched you was..."
"No!" Tara blurted. "I l-l-liked..." She trailed off for a moment, as an odd mix of emotions played across her face. "I mean, um, you didn’t do anything wrong. Nothing at all."
Willow began to relax, but a part of her was still cautious. Her worst fear had already come true once, and she didn’t want a repeat performance. Slowly, tentatively, she reached out and took Tara’s hands, the way she had done so many times before.
"That’s good," said Willow. "Because I would never want to do something that would make you feel like I was... I was dis... disgust..."
Willow stumbled on the last word, the one she had hoped Tara would never say again. Before she could spit it out, Tara was pulling her into an embrace, holding her closely.
"You could never disgust me," Tara said.
Okay, thought Willow, in that case she can say the word. She sank into Tara’s arms, letting the fear drop from her body. After a moment, she pulled back from Tara slightly, looking into her eyes. The impulse she had felt so many times and had always resisted returned to her once again. Now that worry no longer clouded Willow’s vision, Tara’s countenance was once again beckoning, inviting Willow to push past the one last barrier she had not yet crossed. Was this to be the time she finally took that final step?
Knock. Knock. Knock. "Willow? Are you in there?"
Willow smiled and dropped her head. Tara blushed slightly and looked away. One of these days, Willow thought, Giles was going to need a lesson or two in timing.
Reluctantly, Willow pulled away from Tara and went to answer the door. The moment had passed, and now it was time for them to get back to the task of thwarting yet another mystical threat to Sunnydale. But at least they wouldn’t have spirit-magnified guilt hampering their efforts.
As for the more normal guilt, Willow felt reassured about that as well. Her inner voice hadn’t been completely silenced, but at least it was back at the strength she was used to. That was something she could deal with. All she needed was time.
Story #9: The Last Door Opens
The red taillights of the van still shone in the distance, even after the sound of the van’s engine had faded into silence. Willow stood watching them grow smaller, until finally they disappeared as the van turned a corner. As they did, Willow knew that a chapter of her life was about to close forever. The last remnants of her former self would soon be gone, just like the exhaust fumes of the van that had driven away.
Willow sat on the curb and wept, overwhelmed by the stress of the past two days. She was exhausted, both physically and mentally, which left her totally unable to hold back the flood of emotions that came pouring out.
Oz was gone. For good this time, as far as Willow could tell. She was his only reason for coming back to Sunnydale at all, and now she had sent him away. The joyful reunion she had longed for all those months ago was not to be. There would be no happy restoration of their old romance. And despite the fact that it had been preempted by her own choice - despite the fact that a new happiness had come into her life instead - she still needed to mourn the passing of her old dreams. And so she wept.
But only for a while.
When Oz came back, there hadn’t really been much of a question in Willow’s mind of whether she was going to go back to him or go forward with Tara. The question had been how she was going to go forward. How was she going to go forward when that meant taking Oz and everything they had shared and relegating it to her past, with Oz standing there watching her do it? How was she going to go forward when that meant taking all the feelings she had nurtured for Tara and bringing them into the open, where she faced the possibility of rejection by her friends, or worse yet, by Tara herself?
In the end, the answers were surprisingly simple. She did what she had to do, because she couldn’t not do it.
After all, it was her inability to act that had caused things to happen the way they did. If she had been honest with Oz about Tara, he wouldn’t have been so surprised when he found out on his own, and maybe he wouldn’t have gone all wolfy again. But it went further than that. If she had been more open with Tara all the time that her feelings had been growing, maybe she wouldn’t have felt so confused when Oz returned.
Memories of that morning ran through Willow’s mind. The look on Tara’s face, and the tone of her voice when she spoke the words that cut to the center of Willow’s heart and showed her just how wrong she had been.
"Whatever, you know, happens?" Tara had said, "I'll still be here. I'll still be your friend. I know what Oz means to you..."
Those were the words that had opened Willow’s eyes. Poor Tara. She had no idea of what Willow was feeling. She was assuming that Willow’s heart still belonged to Oz, and she was desperately trying to hold on to whatever scraps of Willow’s life she would be allowed to have. No wonder she had held Willow so tightly. No wonder she had asked to borrow Willow’s sweater when they had to leave for class.
Worst of all, when the crisis of rescuing Oz from the Initiative hit, Willow had still not gone back and told Tara her true feelings, which meant that even now, Tara probably still thought she was about to be cast aside. She was probably sitting alone in her room at the moment, unaware of how much Willow loved her.
What was that? Had she finally said it?
Yes, she had. And it felt good, too. The inner voice that usually scolded her for such thoughts was silent, apparently realizing at last that there was no way it could win. Just to be sure, Willow tried saying the words again a few times, and she luxuriated in the peace and joy that she felt.
Willow loves Tara, she thought. Willow. Loves. Tara.
Such news was much too good for Willow to keep to herself, especially when the person she loved didn’t know it. Willow would have to fix that small problem right away, and she had a pretty good idea of how to do just that.
She hurried back to her dorm, grateful that her years of experience hanging out in cemeteries had taught her how to get around in the darkness of the blacked out campus. The obligatory spontaneous blackout party was in full swing when Willow reached Stevenson Hall, but she passed it quickly and went straight to her room. She needed something there. Something that would light her way, figuratively as well as literally, into the new life she was now ready to embrace.
The room was as dark as the rest of the campus, of course, and Willow had to fumble around in order to find what she needed. As she did, she was amazed by the way her newly liberated feelings gave her new insights into the things she happened across. There was the stem of the rose they had used during one of their first spells together, the night Willow had first dreamed of Tara. Willow had later taken the stem home for "research," but now she knew that it had served her better as a memory of that night. Next to it was the doll’s eye crystal. Willow sighed as she picked it up and held it in her hands for a moment, realizing that Tara must have felt something for her almost from the beginning, while Willow had only allowed a fraction of those feelings to reach her. Finally, she ran across the small vessel Tara had used for the ointment they needed as part of the nether realm ritual. Willow found herself wishing she had heeded the advice of the inner voice that had spoken to her on her journey that night.
So much had happened over the months. So many steps along the path Willow and Tara had traveled. Looking back on them now, Willow marveled at the number of chances she’d had to reach out and claim the love that was waiting for her all along. Tara had waited patiently through them all. Willow felt a pang of guilt at the thought, but consoled herself with the knowledge that Tara’s long wait was about to be rewarded.
Ah. There it was. Among the many candles that Willow had collected for various spells - and simply because she liked them - was one that Tara had been especially fond of. They had seen it one day when they were walking through Sunnydale, but they were too broke from an especially large trip to the magic shop to buy it. Willow had gone back as soon as she had enough money, and since then she had been saving the candle for just the right moment. Now, it was exactly what she needed.
With her offering ready, Willow made her way back across campus. She couldn’t help it, though, as new uncertainties crept into her mind along the way. She had been feeling anxious about things her entire life. It was one of her talents. So now she wondered if Tara would be receptive to the love Willow was finally ready to give her, or if everything that had happened with Oz had exhausted her patience. And if Tara was willing to accept Willow’s love, would Willow even know what to do? She had never... well, done anything... with a girl before. Of course, she’d imagined what she would do a number of times over the past few months, but her mind had never let her pay attention to those fantasies for long, and she wasn’t sure how realistic they were anyway. Would it be all that different from being with a guy? Willow had no idea.
Each time a doubt surfaced, Willow focused her energy on the candle flame she held in front of her. The bright glow was like the love that burned inside her, a beacon that kept her focused on what was real in the midst of the dark uncertainty.
She kept that thought in her mind as she reached Tara’s dorm, as she passed through the common areas, up the stairs, and finally to Tara’s door. It was still in her mind as she reached out her hand and knocked.
There was silence for a moment, and then Willow heard Tara stirring inside. She heard Tara’s footsteps making their way to the door. She saw the doorknob begin to turn as Tara gripped it from the other side.
As the door began to swing open, Willow knew that the life she had lived before was only seconds away from ending. But it was all right. She was ready.
Let the new life begin.