The Kitten, the Witches and the Bad Wardrobe - Willow & Tara Forever

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 Post subject: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/17+)
PostPosted: Fri Apr 28, 2017 9:16 pm 
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3. Flaming O
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Joined: Tue Jun 28, 2016 10:54 am
Posts: 51
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This is a response to the April Challenge: The Anniversary Challenge, but is too long to fit in one post (how?). And is also a sequel to a story (inspired by the March Ice-cream challenge) I haven't finished writing yet. Yes, Craig Lucas and I.

Canon divergent AU. Clearly. Consequently, a lot of universe building allusion and sketchiness.

If I had 3 more hours, I'd cut it by a third. As it is, you get this purple mess.

Notes for non-North Amerikaners: the land we live on is conceived of as resting on the back of a giant turtle. Hence N. America is the turtle island.

Notes for everyone else: it's elephants all the way down. You can't trick me!


Title: Witches of Gramercy Park Part 1/2
(A disqualified response to the April Challenge: Anniversary

Rating: R for copious and gratuitous Reality. Also, maybe, the sex acts.

Slowly she walks through the brush. Taking in the tender shoots. The dew chilling her palm and fingers, thrilling her hands. The clean smell of mist and fog. The condensation settling around her exposed skin turning into drops like a secret rain. Slowly she closes her eyes and lets her senses expand. Floating fur of coyote. Dead pigeon. Norwegian rat. Harvest mouse burrow. Blackbird. Heron. Red-tail hawk. Rabbit trail. The beating heart of a startled mouse. Somewhere far away, an owl. The pulsing beat of wings rustling a branch. Elm bark. Birch dust. The rat-a-tat-tat of beak against branch. Hi, woodpecker. I haven’t seen you in a while. Will you stay? A grey and yellow streak flits from branch to branch somewhere beyond her sight, but so clearly in her mind’s eye. Its little crown stripes spiky in the damp. So strange . . . she thinks, a warbler. They never come here. A gust of wind swirls through the rolling hills, going up and through. Shushing through the growth, until the quickening green of the woods catches the upward draft, and the whuff of breeze falls back to the earth like a falling sigh. The earth is breathing. Breathing itself in, stretching its limbs, unfurling itself luxuriantly in a riot of reds and greens. Softly, she too extends herself like the earth she’s standing on.

Slow, her breath. Slow, her heart. Slow, her mind. And slow, the time.

Breathe, she tells herself, breathe with the earth. And lets it all fall away. Gone, the sparrow; gone, the path she stood on; gone, the smoke; gone, her breath; gone, her body. Gone. All gone to the place where things go when they no longer exist. Gone, the seasons; and gone, the reason for seasons.

Her senses fall away. Her body falls away. Time falls away. She falls into the earth.

Past the surface, past the leaves and the mud and gravel and the stones and the worms burrowing in the earth. Past the blood and bricks. The ashes and the tears. The shell pits and the bones of dead things—dead long ago. Past the screams and dreams of men, women and children—coming, living, dying, burning, crying . . . gone. Past the stratum of man and man-made things. Down into the very bones of the mother herself—broken, pierced shattered. And past her bones into somewhere she can hear the blood of the earth flowing somewhere deep with a molten groan; where the very pulse of the mother begins. Past rock. Past history. Past everything.

Past.

Dark sun. Dark moon. Dark earth. All dark. Darkness on darkness. Restless. Devouring.

No! The voice inside her screams. No, it whispers.

In the beginning was darkness.

Be still, she says to her soul. To become who you are, you must first be what you are not. So be afraid. The darkness is forever. Wait, she says to her soul, until you are not afraid. There is always darkness. Let it fall upon you. The darkness is the darkness of God.

Under her hands, where they have fallen to touch the earth, the stone cuts into the roots of outspread fingers and drinks her blood. The earth is pleased with her offering.

The darkness turns over in its restless sleep. And laughs. The laughter echoes hollowly through her, chilling her to the bone in a body she does not possess.

You have done well today. But one day you will be gone.

One day, she agrees. Yes.

Senses return in the now familiar prickling sensation—like a blanket of needles draping into the inside of her flesh in a sinusoidal ripple, her skin tingling and her heart pounding. This time, she finds herself atop an isolated hill, in a clearing almost like a fairy circle. She is kneeling, with shredded palms, before a rock anointed with the blood of her hands. The shape of her palm heels have left curved blotches on the rock-face, and below them, uneven streaks where her fingers have brushed away. The bloody marks against the wavy pattern of the gneiss and the weathering cracks look like nothing so much as a very old, wrinkly face, weeping with closed eyes.

The sound of a fat, oily plop of rich blood against wet humus brings her completely back to her senses. She unzips the vertical opening under her left breast and pulls out a white handkerchief to sop up the already clotting fluid. Gentle lavage from the squirt bottle from her hip, and some careful tweezing of grit and other vegetal matter, cleans out the wound. Then a quiet prayer of propitiation and thanks before she tapes the pre-shaped gauze pad to her hands, and she’s ready to leave.

Her left knee cracks with the strain as she stands, and she grunts. With fists on her waist she turns first one way and then the other, groaning with the rippling cracks of her spine. Clasping her hands over her head, she arches back into a stretch, which—frilly heck!—cracks the joints in her sternum, before bending over to brush the dirt off her knees. She wonders how soon she’ll be too old for this. Eight years later, and she’s still not used it; each ritual meant to keep the sleeping monsters asleep sapping her body, taking a little bite out of her very soul. She smiles to herself, wryly, mockingly—thirty-eight years old and already feeling the Atlaean burden of her duties. She closes her eyes and takes a centering breath—a thankful breath. It’s a modest price for her sins; and the smallest of tokens for all the joys. Gingerly making her way down the slope courtesy of a rabbit trail that only she (and the rabbits, of course) can see, she takes stock of her body. Back: ok. Butt: tense. Thighs: tense. Knees: tight. Calves: ok. Shoulders: knotted. Upper arms: tight. Hands: ouch! How hard was I gripping that rock, she wonders. Back on the official trail, she kicks her legs loose while pulling on her gloves. With a nylon snap of hood over head, she jogs away towards the water.

The thing about New Yorkers is they’ve seen everything. It could be a rain of locusts and the Hudson turning red with blood, and all they want to know is: 1) is my train on time and 2) is alternate-side-of-the-street parking suspended. Also they like to mind their own damn business. So, of course, the distant sight of the Lululemon lady in the Hudson River leaves barely an impression on the waiter rushing off the bus to report for his morning shift at the café. And if it maybe looked like she was in the middle of the river instead of close to the shore—and that she was treading on the surface of the water—surely that was a trick, of light and a hungover brain with no caffeine. And also you can’t see real good when you’re holding your garment-bagged uniform over your head to save yourself from the rain.

And because New York cabbies have also seen everything and driven everywhere—including from Astoria, Queens to the Philadelphia airport—Sajid Usmani, license number: 3740757, expires: 4/3/2021, did not blink at picking up the crazy, red-headed jogger near the highway on-ramp at a ridiculously healthy hour of morning. Without even umbrella. With the kind of rains this city getting, past few years in April. Who does this? Crazy people, that is what, he grumbles as he rummages about in the trunk for a towel to give to the soaked woman. No problem, madam. Wet seat no good for customers.

Now warm and dry in the back seat of the cab—ok “dry” is an exaggeration, more like warm and not being rained on anymore—she finally gives in to the gravitic pull exerted by the little black body in the right pocket of her Japanese bubble jacket. Because her gloves are damp and she is loath to remove them, she ends up fumbling around with the now over-reactive capacitive screen. Like a chimp, she thinks. No, chimps are smart—a retarded chimp. No, developmentally retrograde . . . “retarded” is rude, rude-o, Rudy McRuderson . . . Just rude. She cycles through the flashlight and night mode before finally getting airplane mode to switch off. Within seconds of latching on to the tower, the screen lights up, dinging with notifications.

An MMS from Xander: Photo of him in early morning darkness on the orange-lit deck of a scow in the middle of a river, looking supremely grumpy.

An MMS from Xander: Photo of him standing atop the remains of an uprooted tree, looking sleepy.

An MMS from Xander: Photo of him standing in front of a filled-in hole, giving a happy thumbs up.

An MMS from Xander: Photo of him standing by a diamond-shaped, red and white checkerboard sign, looking awed. Water as far as the eye can see starting to glow gently orange behind him.

An MMS from Xander: Photo of him in front of a sign, The Meeting of Rivers.

An MMS from Xander: Photo of the view of a bridge sandwiched between the sunrise and his middle finger.

An SMS from Xander: You owe me!

An SMS from Xander: See you soon.

She scrolls past each one, getting more and more annoyed until she gets to the final oldest unread notification; which makes her feel squidgy.

Tara 5:53 AM

Sweetie, ok?

Willow’s face lights up with a radiant smile that wipes away the Xander-induced scowl. She is about reply to the message when she decides that she’d better see what the Voicemail is all about. She recognises the Breast Center’s 646 number right away. Her eyes scan the relevant words in the transcribed message—Jerry . . . Dr. Roy’s office . . . sorry . . . emergency . . . cancel . . . will call—and mutters darkly under her breath. But it’s the ID above that message that she can see arrived only 4 minutes after Jerry’s message that really gives her a turn. Wincing with trepidation, she taps the notification to see what it says. She gets as far as:

Sweet tea Doctor Roy’s office just called . . .

And thumbs the home button on her phone with an angrily muttered, “Darn it, Jerry! I told you . . .”

Wondering what consequences await her back at the ol’ homestead she leans forward, rapping against the driver’s partition, changing the destination and adding another stop. If she’s going to be in trouble, she might as well bring offerings.

***


At the apartment on Park Avenue South—or East 31st street, as Tara Maclay prefers to think of it—the morning is not going as planned. I had a list, she thinks, refusing all hypotheses that she is taking on any spousal characteristics. There was a plan. . . .

But, as they say, Gods and two-year olds are no respecters of such things.

The morning has started with a very unfortunate toothbrush negotiation that while not ending in tears has resulted in resentful pouting; and an addition to her already numerous list: 14) Get Willow to explain why only grownups get electric toothbrushes.

And now the shirtless tyrant is insisting on “totht” even though she normally has no use for it. Not being one to stand in the way of taste-bud evolution, she walks sceptically to the kitchen while shaking her head at the little splashes of milk on the table that have escaped her attention. Bunging a frozen slice of sweet milk-bread in the toaster, she goes back to the fridge to pull out some butter, and the tub of little blueberries (simply a sweet and healthful addition to breakfast, not a bribe, at all).

The toaster dings as she is serving up the washed blueberries in the much favoured Clifford bowl. And she carries the three food-items, plus a butter knife, out to the table. The mistake she makes isn’t that she reserves the berries to her custody. No. The mistake is: not buttering the slice before bringing it to the table. Because as soon the baby in the booster seat realises what’s happening, she pipes up in the time honoured—and much cursed—refrain of her class.

“I do it!”

“Baby,” Tara says patiently, “It’s hot ok? I don’t want you to get an owwie.”

“Noo . . . I wantth to do it.”

“Remember how we talked about how there are some things grownups do for kids?”

Processing this information with the ruminating wiliness of a mule, she accepts the grownups stipulation and sub-clauses it with, “Mommy do it.”

Keeping her tone very reasonable and matter-of-fact, Tara says, “Mommy’s not here. How about, Mama does it?”

Taking in this fresh and sorrowfully devastating news of Mommy’s absence (for the fourth time), she pokes the remains of her soft-boiled egg with a crestfallen spoon. “Nooo . . . Mommy! . . .”

Not sure if she is frustrated or amused, Tara considers her little bundle of joy, the joy of her life, Joy Rosenberg-Maclay, with a tiny frown (and, as personally meaningful as the middle name Eva was to both of them, Tara put the kibosh on that on account of child-abuse via acronym). The similarity of lip-quavering expression between the precocious fruit of her loins and her precious lover is just too uncanny for words. And just as she is about to inevitably escalate the situation, the echoing chimes of iPhone and iPad cut in to interrupt the stand-off.

Hoping to heavens it’s Willow, she flips her phone over to see Buffy calling. “Hey,” she answers the phone.

Wondering at the strangeness of Tara’s manner, Buffy says, “Hey, Tara, it’s Buffy.”

Chuckling at Buffy’s confusion she says, “I know. But your favourite pocket-sized person is having quite a start to her day. So let’s not get her excited by saying your name.”

“Oh, no! Is she being rowdy, slayer-Joy instead of calm, Wicca-Joy? You want Aunt Buffy to talk to her?”

“Bu—” she begins, but catches herself. “It’s okay. You might be too subtle for her,” she deadpans. Then wondering why Buffy is calling she asks, “Everything, ok?”

“Oh? Yeah!” Buffy exclaims. “I was just calling to say, ‘hi’, you know. Maybe say ‘hi’ to the cutie. Oh my God, Tara, I found her the cutest little dress! And just to check in. I’m so excited about tomorrow. Are you excited?”

While Buffy talks, Tara uses the time to butter the slice of toast, and slides it over to Joy, wisely not making the mistake of cutting it into pieces before the child queen has made her wishes known. Tara thinks that Buffy must be really excited if she’s calling to tell her how excited she is. Seventeen hours before she gets on the plane.

“I’m very excited,” she laughs. “Are you sure you don’t want me or Willow to come get you?”

“Don’t be silly. I can cab it. There’s no need to come all the way out. I’m sure you guys have plenty of things to do before the party.”

“We could bring the little queen.”

“It’s okay, I’m just going to—” Buffy cuts herself off. “Just a minute,” she says, and Tara hears muffled voices in the background. “Sorry, Tara. I’ve got to go. But I’ll see you soon, ok?”

“Ok. I’ll see you soon,” she says and hangs up.

Shaking her head at the random and—despite the time difference with London—oddly-timed phone call, Tara taps the phone against her palm. She wonders if she was being entirely honest with Buffy about being excited.

Pleased to see for the moment that Joy is eating her toast and amusing herself quietly with utensils, Tara slides the bowl of blueberries over to the girl. Joy makes happy chomping noises while showing off her teeth; then tears a piece of buttered bread, grabs a berry, rolls it up in the bread and shoves it in her face while making nomming sounds. Strange how she looks like me but acts like Willow, thinks Tara, and snorts.

Thinking about Willow brings her back to her earlier thought of possibly having lied to Buffy about her enthusiasm for the next day’s party. When she had planned the get-together, to celebrate the continuing good news at the end of their 5 year vigil, she had thought they could make a long, family weekend of it. Maybe take time off the day before and relax. But the closer the day has gotten, the cagier and more avoidant Willow has been. And as for today, she can see from Willow’s synced calendar that her day is packed: a phone conference with the Watcher station in Edinburgh, an appointment with the ice-cream shop’s accountant, a theory session with trainees from the Witch squad, an appointment with their tech provider—all, except for the accountant, unimportant; and definitely not urgent. Definitely avoiding.

Her phone pings, and she sees the series of photos from Xander: on a boat, with his eye patch visible; with a stuffed animal of some kind on his shoulder; and finally with his sleeve pulled over his hand while holding a hook. Irrepressible Xander. She realises that the selfies have been sent to her only and she appreciates the unspoken gift of just-between-friends. Then realising where he is and how much earlier in the day it is for him, thinks, Saint Xander—agreeing to take Willow’s latest project all the way out to Illinois. And reminds herself to give him an extra hug when she sees him. And then feels bad for thinking the Watcher phone conference wasn’t important. Because Willow’s been spending all her free time getting this one piece of technology to work around magic so that they can keep an eye on the anomaly there.

“Mama, c’ I have juice, peez?”

Looking up at the very polite request, Tara decides it’s time for payback. “Green juice?” she asks, referring to Willow’s mystery blend of seaweed, bitter vegetables, and best-not-to-ask.

“Echh . . .” is the descriptive sound, accompanied by a shake of her tiny head.

Still playing, as she walks towards the fridge, she says, “But Mommy drinks the green juice.” And watches as Joy’s love of all things Mommy collides with her sugar loving palate. Pulling the plastic jar of turbidly jaunty green fluid she shakes it. “Sure?”

Now genuinely worried that her Mama might make her drink the icky stuff, she vibrates in place. “Noo . . .!” she cries.

Relenting, Tara pulls the pint jar of fresh-squeezed OJ and offers it. “Orange?” she asks. And her lips go wide with mirth at the combo-plate expression of disgust and relief.

While she is rinsing the sippy-cup to accept the juice, the house phone rings. Knowing that most calls to their land-line are less than urgent, she doesn’t hurry to get it. Walking over to the table to deliver the juice, she lets the machine answer. When the incoming message gets to the caller’s voice, she dashes to answer it.

“Hi! Jerry. Sorry. Baby breakfast time.”

“No problem, Tara,” he says. “I just wanted to call to see if I could catch Willow at home. Dr. Roy’s been trying her cell, and just left her a message. But I thought I’d try at home just in case.”

Caught back-footed, Tara loses some coherence. “No, she’s not . . . er. She’s out at, er . . . She’s working early today. Wh . . . why? . . . what’s up?”

“Oh, that’s good. I was hoping she hadn’t left home just to see the doc. She has to cancel because of a patient emergency. But she’ll reschedule once they’ve spoken again.”

“O-okay. Thanks, Jerry. I’ll let her know.”

She walks back to the table thoughtfully. An appointment with her oncologist and no record of it in her calendar. Sneaky. Suddenly, she remembers the last several weeks’ worth of complaints about stiffness, and the rapidly depleting Advil—not just the Advil, but also the occasional Tramadol. Hmm, thinks Tara, Ms. Drugs-make-me-loopy on opioids. And a secret early-morning onco appointment. Tara’s heart races with anxiety before she reins it in. Nothing to be too concerned about, probably just a follow-up. Jerry sounded very relaxed. She taps long fingers on the table, realises what she’s doing, and stops. She glares at her cell phone as the digital clock blips over another minute without a response from the love of her life.

The love of her life. Tara still remembers the moment they met. Willow had been bright like the sun. And she? Doomed (so she thought) to a life of darkness, possibly evil. And the thought of Willow had been a secret fire in her heart. Remembers how for the first time she had felt warm in the wintertime. I thought it was the southern California sun, but really it was Willow. Her springtime girl who had chilled her to the bone that Pink Moon. The girl who gave me her fire. The girl with the flushed face and shaking hands the first time they took their clothes off. The girl who is still shy, until you get her naked. Almost as if once stripped of the shell of her clothes she has nothing left to hide. Like opening the barn doors on a halogen flood. The light now followed always by the shadow—the dark gash in her bright soul that Willow fears, but also sadly accepts.

But for Tara, who knows about things in a different way, the experience is different. The darkness not dimming Willow’s light, but drawing a clear line around it, outlining it—framing it—so that it shines even brighter. A complementing contrast that heightens the light. Like a touch of salt in caramel—startling, but making the sweet even sweeter.

Ironic, that the cruelty of her childhood—the fear of the demon, the shame of her existence—and the gravitational push-pull of magic should serve her so well now. Serve to love her Willow—help her fight her demons. Her Willow, who has always been a keep things to herself until they explode kind of girl; but which Tara has been pushing back against with a combination of kisses, cajoling, and just plain yelling. Her Willow. . . . Whose ass I’m going to kick, from here to Sunday, if she doesn’t come clean soon with what’s bothering her.

***


Willow swings the door closed behind her with a kick of her foot as she steps into the apartment. The door crashes into the frame much (much!) more firmly than she intends. Yikes!

“Sorry,” she yells into the space, grumbling about the hinge as she kicks her wet sneakers off in the hallway.

The metal key-bowl spins and wobbles with a pleasing waung-waouun-waunnn sound as the keys land in it. The dry air in the apartment tickles her nose and she sneezes. Sniffing against the tickle, she starts to unzip, but is shaken by another sneeze. And another. Now exhausted by the sneezing, and feeling too tired to undress in the hallway like a civilised person, she walks herself—wet jacket, wet socks, breakfast loot and all—into the living-slash-kitchen space to undress there.

Leaving the bag on the coffee table, she collapses on to the sofa while shaking the circulation back into her wrist. She bends down to take off her nasty, soppy socks when she hears the plop-flop of tiny feet rushing towards her.

Water dripping from her dark hair, spraying droplets all over the wood floor and utterly sky-clad, a most aggrieved toddler flings her arms around Willow’s head with a wail. “Mama took offmy panths . . .!”

Mama is trailing only a few feet behind with a hooded, Teddy-bear towel—a twisted moue of wry exasperation on her face. Willow notes the randomly dampened strands of disarrayed hair, the deep set of sleep-interrupted eyes, the still-fading pillow crease on her jaw, and the special eyebrow of, Just You Wait Till We Get the Crying Baby Situation Resolved.

Disengaging from the strangle-hold of babyish despair, Willow lifts the girl into her lap. With an exaggerated pouty face of sympathy she looks into wide, tearless eyes. “She took off your pants?”

The child nods a pouting frown of injured dignity.

With confused amusement she hugs the child and mutters, not quite under her breath, “Boy. I should be so lucky.” In her peripheral vision, Willow spots blue eyes narrowing dangerously. Sensing the stern swell of annoyance she quickly changes tack. Re-establishing eye contact with the tea-cup human, Willow says very seriously, “You know, sometimes Mama takes my pants off, but I don’t cry about it.” Hearing the long hiss of indrawn breath, Willow realises that she may have heeled over too much and rights herself. “You had to take a bath?” she asks the most precious cargo in her arms, who gives her a guarded nod in return. “Well, you gotta take your clothes off, dontcha?” she says seriously.

Sensing darkly that there’s no more sympathy to be had, the little squirt simply hides her face in her mother’s neck and whimpers.

In response to Willow’s raised eye brows, Tara sighs, “She wanted to do it herself,” and shakes her head in rueful admiration of the smug little manipulator quietly hogging hugs in her other mother’s lap. She walks over and drapes the towel around the naked child, leaning in to give Willow’s rain-cold lips a welcome-home kiss when she feels a tiny, jealous hand pushing at her jaw.

“No! Mommy kisses me!” the girl proclaims possessively. Stubborn blue eyes accept the salute from Mommy’s lips with the royal entitlement of a queen receiving her crown, before turning imperiously into the lap of her rightful Willow-throne.

Looking down at the consequence-evading cuddle-bunnies burrowing into their members-only hug, Tara squelches a pang of jealousy at being excluded from the huddle and continues with her tale of incredulity. Indicating the situation before her she says, “Then, she wanted only Mommy to do it . . .” Taking a seat, she drapes an arm around her sweetie who—risking the wrath of the little tyrant in her lap, and hoping to deter the wrath of the body regnant by her side—returns the favour with a little smile.

Glad to finally be home, Willow leans her head against Tara’s. “How come such an early bath, baby?” she asks softly.

Knowing that Mommy couldn’t possibly have any other baby, Joy replies for Tara, “I spilted th’ jooth in my pantth.” Completely without any irony.

“But first, she spilt her milk on her shirt. And wouldn’t stop complaining about how cold it was.”

“Rough morning?” Willow whispers.

She shakes her head. Not really. “You?”

Picking at the damp leaves and sodden, tiny twigs still clinging to Willow’s jacket, she enjoys the rumbled hmmm of agreement and is savouring the weight of Willow’s head against hers when she realises: She is picking at damp leaves and sodden, tiny twigs still clinging to Willow’s jacket, which is in direct contact with their child’s freshly clean skin. She also registers the dampness on the arm of her sweatshirt, the cool wetness where Willow’s soggy foot has just started to make contact with her dry one; not to mention the perilous progress of unidentifiable vegetable matter into a two-year old mouth.

Fast as lightning, soft as rain, she snatches the leafy bud out of Joy’s pincer grip. “Dammit. Willow . . .!”

The tired red-head, though, is comfily snuggled into the radiating warmth of toddler heat. “What, baby?” she asks with foggy alarm.

The rules lawyer is quick to interject, “Mama said a bad wuhd. Mama bad.”

Tara huffs in incredulity at her child as she tugs at a pinched handful of the jacket to indicate the problem. “Sweetie, I just gave her a bath. And . . .” she nudges Willow’s elbow with a loose fist, “you’ve got the couch all wet.”

“Ruh-roh!” says Willow, and the child in her lap giggles loudly. “Mommy’s ba-a-d.”

The little mimic is happy to play along. “Mommys bad. Mommys bad!” It’s so much fun when Mama and Mommy are bad

She slides the girl off her lap and wraps the towel snugly around her, settling the hood over her head. “Well, hey there, Boo Boo!” Willow says in her best Smokey Bear voice and gets a soft giggle out of the girl. She leans right for a quick kiss of apology. “Sorry, baby,” she says, and leans down to finish removing her socks. “I’ll go get her cleaned up again.”

When her Mommy stands up, Joy sticks an arm out of her towel and holds it up in the universal kiddy gesture of “pick me up”.

“What?!” exclaims Willows, squelching the wet socks together in one hand. “Didn’t I hear you running all the way here? You can walk back just fine, missy!” Tapping her on the head with one gloved finger, she shepherds the child forward. Turning back to say, “I brought bagels,” she stumbles and cracks her shin on the coffee table. She winces with a sharp exclamation, which draws a delighted laugh from her child.

Falling back onto the sofa, Willow grabs at the girl. “Oh, yeah?” she taunts back from her lying down position, “You want me to tickle you? Hanh? Hanh?” she asks, extending her fingers.

A muffled buzz from Willow’s pocket gives Joy enough of a distraction to dodge away, squealing. The sight of the Caller ID makes Willow spring up in her seat like a sockeye.

“Doctor Ro—” The phone slips out of her glove-clumsy hand, bounces off her knee, ricochets onto the table before finally cart-wheeling to a stop on the wooden surface.

Squealing Girl turns into Giggle Girl as Tara hands the phone back to the sheepish Clumsy Girl with an expression of tolerant concern that Willow knows so, so well. Tara accepts the baton of tickle-monsterness from Willow and extending a toothy jaw to match her extended tickle-claw, chases the now naked girl out of the living room.

“Hey, Dr. Roy! Sorry about that.” She pauses to listen to the voice on the other end. “Yeah, yeah. Just surprised.”

“Willow, I’m really sorry about this morning. But one of my 19th floors had a difficult night. And I wanted to get some things worked out before the family arrived.”

“End of life stuff?” Willow asks softly

“Yeah,” is the serious reply. A small pause and then, “Any way . . . I’m really, really sorry. But . . . Both Diagnostics and Imaging left me presents. For you.”

“Oh.”

“I know you were worried. Because it’s what you do. But everything still looks good.”

Willow gulps a sigh of relief. “That’s good.”

“If all my patients looked this good four years out from surgery I’d be sleeping more.”

“So everything looks good.”

“Willow. This is why I’m calling you. To tell you not to worry. Your scans are clear. The blood work’s fine. You’re fine.”

“So the—”

“The joint pain’s nothing to worry about. Like I said, just Tamoxifen withdrawal. Once your body adjusts to the new hormone levels which are your old hormone levels, you’ll be fine. At least until the real thing happens, and then it’ll be Dr. Pastore’s job.”

“That’ll be fun. A pre-teen and pre-menopause—just a barrelful of . . . something rolling right over ya.” Despite stoppering her throat so tightly she feels the wetness filing her eyes. “Just . . . with the aching and joint pain and the tiredness . . . I was scared ‘cause, you know?”

“Willow, I know. But every year, your panels’ve been coming back solid. You’ve been eating well, exercising . . . You’re in great shape.” Hearing the silence on the line the doctor correctly interprets the hesitation to believe. “The paranoia and hypochondria will get you faster than any disease. Enjoy your life.”

Completely overcome with relief she lets the tears come. “Dr Roy,” her voice is hoarse and starts to crack. “Kaanti,” she says to her doctor, acknowledging they’ve long since moved beyond a purely professional association, “thanks for everything. I don’t know how to thank you for everything.”

“That’s easy—stay out of my office. Stop calling my admin for appointments. Ok? He’ll send you a reminder when it’s time for your follow-ups.” The two women share a laugh. Knowing her point has been made and acknowledged, Dr Roy continues, “You have a beautiful family—enjoy your life.”

“Thank you,” Willow says with a teary smile.

“Also, tell your very lovely wife, thanks for the goodie basket.”

This is the moment Tara walks in on: weeping Willow with her head bowed.

Knowing full well whom Willow is speaking to, her heart seizes. The rational part of herself reminds her that doctors, especially theirs, do not give bad news over phone after they’ve already cancelled an early morning appointment. And manages to wrestle her heart into submission when she catches sight of the tiny upturned corner of Willow’s lips.

“She’s right here,” Willow says, her tiny smile turning into a full blown one. “How do you,” she asks, turning on the speaker, “know it wasn’t me?”

“Oh, so you knew it was Holi last month?”

“Aaaah . . .” is the particular sound of hesitation she makes. “I just put you on speaker.”

“Tara, I don’t know where you found those sweets but my husband ate them for every meal. Plus snacks. I don’t know whether to thank you for how happy he was. Or blame you for all the moaning about tight pants.”

Tara ducks her head with pleasure at the compliment. “I’ll have Willow send you the address. Just a small thank you.”

Willow watches her partner’s bashful pleasure. Still so shy about compliments from strangers, she thinks. Not really a stranger, though, she corrects herself; not wanting to offend anyone even in her thoughts.

“A better thank you would be if you kept her out of my hair. I don’t know how you deal with having two children. And no help at all.”

“Hey!” the Her in question interjects in her own defence.

Tara chuckles indulgently. “I don’t have much of a choice.”

“Lucky Willow. Also, because you’ve been so nice to my husband, I decided to be nice to your wife. Seeing how she likes to hug her reports like a comfy-blanky, I’m sending out a copy by messenger.”

“Thanks, Dr. Roy.”

“You’re welcome. You three take care now.”

Watching Willow put her phone away, Tara sits down on the coffee table. Letting her wife have a moment of avoidance to make herself feel better, she waits until the woman runs out of all her fidgety options. Raising Willow’s eyes to her with a gentle knuckle, she strokes the sweet face. “What’s happening, baby?”

Willow shakes her head roughly—angry at being caught out in her fears, angry at herself for having to be soothed like a baby.

“Tara, stop! I’m not a child.”

Unrelenting, she replies, “Baby, it’s something. You didn’t tell me you were meeting the doctor today. Or that you went in for tests.”

“’S nothing.”

Tara raises an eyebrow at her, “Should I call Dr. Roy back?”

“I was just . . . it’s been hard to sleep . . .” Seeing Tara’s confused frown of annoyance she tests the waters of confession. “. . . With all the joint aches and . . . I’m up all night with all the thoughts . . . I started thinking about what you told me about your mother . . .” Seeing Tara close her eyes, and not wanting a bigger emotional scene, she starts to wrap it up. “And the weird dreams . . . just gets a little crazy. You know. Like always.”

What’s a girl to do? Her baby is a worrier. Always has been. She kisses her softly on the lips. On a cheek. Near her ear. “You know I can help with that . . .”

Not wanting to add more items to Tara’s Willow-Plate-of-Crazy, she cuts in, “I don’t want you up all night! Trying to talk me off a ledge only I can see.”

Tara laughs. “I meant the other thing,” she says, making her eyes soft and blinking slowly. “That shuts all those thoughts up completely.” So funny how Willow still dithers when she’s not the one making innuendoes.

“Sorry, baby.”

Not sure why Willow is apologising, but very sure that she’s now nervous, Tara lets it go. Taking the quiet moment between them, she pulls her love’s hands into her lap and starts tugging the gloves off. “Let me see.”

Knowing that she is overdue for her usual examination when she returns from these periodic rituals, Willow submits quietly to the gentle attentions. “It’s not so bad. Just stings a bit.”

When she undresses the hands and turns them over to examine the damage, she is more concerned by the gelid feel of Willow’s skin. “Sweetie! You’re completely chilled.”

“Just a little rain, baby.”

Hauling her up by the jacket and contemplating the truth in Dr. Roy’s words, she directs Willow towards their bedroom. Shutting the door she begins to undress Willow, first making sure that the wet jacket goes nowhere near any porous surface. “You’re going to catch a cold . . .”

“Ha!” Willow retorts as she allows herself to be bundled into a fluffy white cotton robe, “You don’t catch a cold because of temperature!” “And,” she expounds, hoping no one heard her sneezing out in the hallway,” the virus takes at least 36 hours to incubate.”

“Well, you are, sweetie. And I’m going to say, I told you so. Now,” she says pushing Willow away from her, “get that gauze off your hands. I’m going to run you a hot bath.”

“With the pink salt?” asks Willow hopefully, and bounces at the smile she receives.

As soon as she sits on the bed, a series of jaw-splitting, eye-crunching yawns rip through her. She flops back into the mattress and stretches—all the way to her fingers. The pull of plaster tape against tight skin reminds her of her task and she holds her hands up in front of her face, half-heartedly fingering at the edge of the sticky material, wincing, ow-ing, muttering and pouting like a big baby.

“Hey, what’s Joy up to?”

“She’s teaching Kermit and Big Bird how to sing.”

She frowns in disgust at the thought of the frog. “Too bad you got her all cleaned up. We could have taken a bath together.”

Happy not to have to deal with the splashy mess Tara says, “It’s fine. You guys waste more water than you use.”

“Hey, you know what wastes less water?” asks Willow, perking up a little. “Two people in the tub taking up all that volume.”

“Because we can just sit around in the tub and let the two-year old go unsupervised.”

“Almost two and a half,” Willow corrects, not wanting to cast any aspersions on her Boo Boo’s maturity. “She’s unsupervised now. You’re just mad I asked you second. Jealous, that’s what you are.”

“Yes, Willow,” Tara comes out of the bath room, wiping her hands on a small towel, “I’m just green that you’re going to run away with a younger, cuter version of me.”

“Eww . . .baby! That’s so wrong. She’s my baby.”

“Wait. I thought I was your baby.”

“You’re saying it all wrong. You’re my baby. She’s my baby.”

Shaking her head, Tara approaches the bed. “Ok,” she demands, “hands.” Willow sits up and scoots back on the bed so that Tara can sit down next to her. Taking Willow’s hands in hers she turns the small hands this way and that, taking in the scrapes and cuts, and the deep gouges.

“I cleaned it, see? And I even remembered to take the dressing and tape with me.”

“Does it hurt a lot?”

“Meh.”

“Keep it out of the bath, ok?”

Willow looks so sleepy-soft and pliable, so vulnerable. I bet I could get her to talk to me, she thinks. But the pallor of her skin and the glazed, wideness of pupil stays her intention. Besides she has all sorts of work to get to, as well. The girls’ll need to be briefed about the new spring flavours; it’s time to make sure the new signs go up and that the registers are re-programmed with the new seasonal promotional rates. Later . . . when Joy’s asleep; and they have a few hours. She pulls the sheet and duvet up from the foot of the bed and drapes them over Willow. “Take a nap until the tub’s full,” she says with a kiss to Willow’s forehead. “I’ve set the timer.”

She heads further down the hallway to Joy’s room. Collecting the child and her toys, she hustles the whole caboodle along to the living room so she can keep an eye on little Miss Adventure while she makes her phone calls; still preferring the homey, light-filled atmosphere of the windowed room to the stark orderliness of the organised study.

Online chore time and shop homework slides by quickly and she realises that she hasn’t heard the timer go off; and that the periodic noises of play have vanished from the room. Looking up, she notices that Joy is missing from the room. Hoping she hasn’t gotten into anything too messy, she goes in search of her, and is rewarded by the sound of voices from the master bedroom.

She finds mother and daughter in the bathroom. Joy is standing on her little footstool so she can reach into the tub to splash the water around—the high walls of the Japanese-style tub otherwise reaching as high as her neck. Willow is on the floor, her hands draped over the walls of the tub. The lurid burnt-sienna of her hair drapes over the whiteness of the robe, which is, in turn, stark against the matt black of granite floor and tub, making her skin look even paler than usual. The two are splashing water about, whispering and giggling. Intrigued and charmed by the tableau, Tara interrupts their enchanting conspiracy by clearing her throat. One blue gaze and one green gaze turn to look at her with identical wide-eyed stares: the same rise of brow, the same loose-jawed chagrin; the same sheepish twitch of cheek.

Joy breaks the tableau by furiously splashing the water and leaping down from the footstool with a squeal to whisper something in Willow’s ear that gets them both laughing. But there’s something about the unusual depth of laughter, and languidness of Willow’s movements that prods at Tara.

And then Willow turns a knowingly evaluative gaze at her. The maple-shot fluorite of her irises shrinking into a thin ring around darkening pupils, her voice very low in her chest, she says, “Very pretty . . .”

“What’s going on here?”

“Fishes!” yells the little girl.

One eyebrow goes up. “Fish?” she asks sceptically.

“No . . .!” comes the disgusted reply. “Fishshezz!”

“Oh” she replies, thoroughly schooled. “Really?”

“Yah!” says the girl, with a healthy heaping overtone of “duh!”

“Hey!” Willow scolds gently, getting up to sit on the edge of the tub, towering over the sassy child, “Be nice.”

Mommy’s voice is soft but the tone is rumbly and low. Joy understands that this means business. She purses her lips and ducks her head.

Tara tilts her head at Willow who slowly shakes her head. The muscles in her face twitch. Tara thinks she’s trying to smile but what actually shows is an abstracted grimace. Feeling bad for their little girl, Tara prompts with a smile, “So . . . fishes . . .”

Happy to be in the good graces of the normally strict parent, Joy perks up, rattling off names; looking to Mommy for re-assurance each time she says a difficult name. “ ‘Turgeon, twout, thhunfish. Ummm. Thhaamon . . . Eeuhw! Mmm . . . bo-ny fish . . . benny? . . . mm-m-mi?llow . . .”

Seeing the little naturalist’s strength of recollection, and tongue, fading, Tara throws her a line. “Wow!” she says, “So many fishes!” And tries to discern what it is exactly about the way Willow reaches down to pull the child into her lap. “Did Mommy teach you?”

“Th’ beah tawd me. Many many. So many fishes,” she pronounces sagely. Tilting her head up at Willow with an acutely sympathetic expression says, “Mama dothn’t know.”

With a deep hmmm, Willow pulls the child’s dark brown hair free from the confines of her hug and gently fingers the long strands, gently stroking through the tresses.“Smart Boo Boo . . .”

Is Willow slurring? Tara wonders

The proud bear cub nods—obvious things are obvious—and turns a satisfied gaze at her ignorant Mama.

Tara experiences the disembodied disjointedness of being in two places at once—her own eyes look back at her, the shot brown of the hair being stroked is precisely the same shade as hers; the high plumpness of baby cheeks, stolen from her own childhood. For all the decades that stretch between then and now, Tara is instantly translated in time. Her Mama is sitting at the edge of the tub brushing her hair with a new brush. Not really new. Just new for her. The hog hair brush is old. Special, she explains. Makes your hair shine. The soft bristles won’t pull at your hair, baby.

Really, Mama? Mama doesn’t lie. The brush glides through her hair without snagging and pulling her scalp. Like magic.

Willow rests her chin on Joy’s head and engulfs her in a possessive embrace. Tara feels the echo of the hug both then and now, ripples of feeling dissonating into splintered arcs. Melancholy, loss, anger at loss, the need for love to fill that loss, the powerful need to protect the child she has from the loss of the child she was. And the sudden, desperate upwelling of tooth-aching lust for the woman who loves both these children—especially the one who straddles all those decades that stretch between then and now. The dissipation of the ravening explosion in her stomach and chest into a warmth of tender affection brings her back to the present. This temporal transit comes with the smallest of costs: the excision of only a tiny moment from her momentous life.

Her next experience of awareness is seeing little blue eyes looking up at her from waist-high saying, “Mommy’s cold.”

One hand trailing ever so slowly in the water, Willow seems mesmerised by something in there. With a voice that does not belong to her come the words, “The water’s so dark.”

A shiver runs through her. The water is definitely bright pink with the scented salts. Finally letting her alarm surface, Tara places a stay-here gesture on Joy’s head and moves towards Willow. “Willow, sweetie?” she says with a soft caution in her voice.

She is looking at a fire by the side of a hill. And the moon is reflected on the pool of dark water. The fish are asleep deep below the surface. And from somewhere—not here—come the comforting howls of a small wolf-pack. She looks back to the fire and sees him. Tall and tan. His long hair, let loose for the night, is shiny and dark. She can smell the beaver oil on his skin, glistening in the firelight.

He looks at the spectre in alarm. Whatever she is, she cannot be human. With her skin so pink and raw, like the Creator has not finished colouring her. And the strange colour of her hair. He says to himself, “Machta manito.” Evil spirit.

The strange spirit-woman approaches him. Surely, she won’t cross the fire. The spirits of the underworld, like animals, fear the light and heat. But she doesn’t seem afraid. Alarmed but not frightened—he is, after all, a seer of his clan—he makes a gesture of warding. And here under the full moon, where he has just communed with the spirits of the sky, his powers are strong.

Yet she keeps coming. Right up to the fire. And now he’s frightened. Strange energies rise around her. There is no wind but her hair billows around her shoulders. Her face is painted with streaks of blood. He can see her eyes: black like the deepest night without stars. They are not eyes. They are doorways to that strange, dark place his ancestors left behind when they came to this world; and the door is open. His clan mother had warned him as a small child. Before you become a man, the spirits will test you. He knows the time has come. He readies his blade. She only opens her hands and lets it drip into the fire—the blood falls to the earth as red and thick as any human’s, hissing up on the coals like any animal’s, smelling like anything made from this earth—and the smoke rises in a haze.

The vision is confusing. The hills levelled, the sweet waters gone. Forests of stone where trees used to be. Strange beasts with wheel-legs travelling straight paths, not crooked and dodging to hide their tracks from hunters. The land full of strange, unfinished, white, clay people like the spirit before him. Smoke rising from the plains and valleys. And most of all blood—gorges of blood and all his people swept away. The land without a heart—all the veins and lines of power drained from the arteries of the dying turtle; the turtle’s shell cracking in strange shapes. He tries to pull away from the terrifying vision. Lies! He thinks. Meant to fool him into some action that will betray his own spirit. But as he struggles, he is pulled deeper in. And he sees it. Here in the grave of the hills of Manahachtanànk, the rivers of blood will still; and fill with power once again. A keeper will be appointed. Great, earth mother, the Goddess, will choose one to knit the wound back together. It will be a time of strange manitowak and upheaval, but the organs of the turtle will be restored. The keeper must have a guardian—a guardian as dark as the powers that are coming.

When the blood-smoke recedes from his lungs, he looks at the blood-painted, dark-eyed one—her chest is rent open, two rivers meet where two hearts beat—a strange demon with two hearts. He begins to understand the test—he must bind the guardian to the land—and weeps. Only blood can pay for blood. Weeps like no man in his long house has wept before. Weeps for what he must do. And what he can never have.

She looks up to meet his eyes and blinks. Everything is so hazy in the swirling dark. Where is she? “Who are you?”

The words send a chill through Tara’s spine. And when she meets Willow’s eyes she realises what it is that bothered her before—hands trembling, she approaches Willow, cradles the sweet face in two hands and strokes her cheeks with soft thumbs—the green has not receded with the pupils, it’s filled in with a dark stain.

The scream of sorrow strikes Willow’s heart with a grievous pain. He was fine a second ago, why is he crying? He looks like such a small child, smaller even than her Boo Boo cub. She reaches forward to comfort him. “Hey, hey, don’t cry. It’ll be okay.”

Even though the voice is dark and strange, it is still soft and kind with that familiar childlike hitch. Oh Willow! And through her worry, she smiles and nods, “I know.”

Urging her to her feet, guiding her by the elbow, she leads Willow to the bed. Small, wide eyes look up to her in question. “It’s ok, baby. Mommy’s not feeling well. We’re going to tuck her in. Ok?”

“Mommy has an owwie?”

“Yeah,” she says turning her worried face to Willow as she lays her down on the bed, “she does.”

***


Knowing it would be faster to just take Joy downstairs to where the junior slayers are, Tara still forces herself to make the call and wait for someone to come to their apartment. In the time that it takes someone to hop-to, she packs a small go-bag for Joy; and explains to her that she’s going to be spending some time with her other favoured class of friends. Quite luckily, the small child and Ege, the Turkish slayer, have formed a mutual attachment of great, rambunctious exuberance—the lonely, young woman missing her many siblings and small cousins here in the States. After explaining, in no uncertain terms, that they are not to be disturbed under any circumstances—not for an apocalypse, not for an alien invasion, not for the second coming . . . not for any blessed thing—until she gives the all clear, she hands Joy off. Then calls the doorman to hold all visitors and packages, and turns off the ringer on the intercom and land line.

***


Willow wants to comfort the dark man. There’s something about him that calls to her. Beyond the sadness of his dark, brown eyes, she senses his youth, his innocence and kindness; and his soft reedy strength—so much like her Tara. But as she reaches out her hand to him, she falls through him.

Through the earth, past the surface, past the leaves and the mud and gravel and the stones. Past the rabbit holes and burrows, and the worms tunnelling in the earth. Past the shell pits and the bones of dead things—dead long ago. Past the blood and bricks. The ashes and the tears. Down into the very bones of the mother herself. And past her bones into somewhere she can hear the blood of the earth flowing somewhere deep with a molten groan; where the very pulse of the earth begins.

No! She says. And stops herself.

She wakes up and feels that familiar sense of floating. Like her soul is floating away somewhere else. She needs to find Tara.

***


She finds Willow in the hallway looking distraught, leaning on the wall with one arm out. Tara puts an arm around her waist and holds her up.

“Tara? Baby,” comes the small voice that’s now fully Willow, “something’s happening.”

“I know, baby.” She places an arm around Willow’s waist and guides her back into the bedroom.

In the doorway, she whirls in Tara’s arms—time is going in and out. “I don’t know what’s happening.”

Tara closes the door. “Shh . . . It’s fine,” she says, “it’s fine,” stroking her hair back from her face, comforting her. For the third time that day she leads Willow to the edge of bed and makes her sit. This time, Willow’s arms go around her in a desperate hug, and she buries her face in Tara’s chest.

Rocking herself like a child, before turning swirling, green and black eyes on Tara, she says, “I’m drifting away. You’ve got to hold me down.”

Even though it’s very hard for Tara to meet the disturbing gaze, she doesn’t flinch. Continuing to stroke the hair from Willow’s head, she places a kiss on her forehead and gives her a smile.

Gingerly, Willow smiles back. “You’re so good to me,” she says and turns her head to press many desperate kisses on Tara’s breast.

Circling both arms around Willows head, she pulls her even closer to her heart, and bends her head to lay a cheek on that precious head. She lets herself feel for the strange energy surrounding her girl, and feels her love reaching out for her. Something in her is fragmenting—the sun of her aura wavering and weak, something dark is creeping about. In that second she gets an inkling of whatever emotional turmoil Willow must be experiencing. Willow and Magic are enemies only when she’s upset.

She tilts Willow’s head back and kisses her. Insistently, softly. Then again. And again. When she feels Willow respond to her, she parts her lips and offers her mouth into the kiss. Willow accepts, and they kiss—deeply—tongues stroking wetly.

When they part lips, panting, Willow whimpers once and blinks. She stares at Tara in the shaded twilight of their room—the line of cheek and jaw, the softness of skin, the parted lips, the sweetness of her mouth, her heaving chest—and wonders why their lips are so far apart.

One second she is looking down at an open-mouthed Willow, the next second that mouth is against hers—insisting on hot, deep-tongued caresses. Willow’s hands are everywhere: her face, her ass, gliding down her back, creeping up her waist. She feels the coolness of one hand sliding under her shirt, while another is at her shoulder blades, stroking through the long hair. And that aching, ravening feeling from before comes back with stunning clarity. She pulls back with a moaning gasp, not wanting to give in to that purely physical urge when she’s not even sure that Willow is all here. Tara holds Willow back with a palm against her shoulder when she tries to renew the contact. And again. They stand there panting and heaving.

But this time when confused Willow meets her gaze while licking dry lips, all she sees is green eyes widening dark from the centre—not from mystical forces, just with wonder and desire. With a shuddering gasp she lets herself fall on Willow—tongue and tooth—like a starving predator. The cool skin at her throat still tastes of the outside—sharp, mineral damp; and rich musk of fertile soil, sweet tree-pollen, and city smoke. Pulling deeply on the pulse there, she pushes Willow back toward the bed. Reaching down to the top of run-strong thighs, and lifting as she plants a shin and knee on the solid foam, she heaves Willow flat onto the mattress. Chasing the taste of skin down the V of parted robe, she presses her thigh into Willow’s centre, grinding her own against Willow’s hip. The responsive sound of pleasure sends a frisson skittering up her spine. Crawling after Willow, who heel-and-elbows her way further up the bed, she halts the inching progress by clamping teeth on her chin. Gently, she kisses her way up Willow’s jaw and back along her cheek towards her seeking mouth. Tongues meet again in soft peeking touches and then in suckling caresses in the same rhythm as hips rolling and pressing into each other.

Wanting more sensation—more friction—she settles her weight into Willow and moves her right hand down Willow’s body imagining the softness of skin from the way the fabric of the robe glides so easily against it. Waiting until the moment that Willow’s moving hips are on an upstroke, she slides her hand under Willow’s ass and pulls her firmly into her own body. Releasing Willow’s lips with a sigh of relief, she continues pulling the body below her closer and closer and closer into herself. Burying her nose in Willow’s neck she takes in the rising warmth of her lover’s actual scent as her skins warms up to banish the cool, mineral aroma of the outside world. Sticking her tongue out, she tastes the warming skin, suckling and sucking until she can feel the pulse throbbing under her tongue.

Inspired by the warm scent of Willow’s neck, Tara pushes herself up onto elbows then hands; and feeling for the annoying sash keeping her from her pleasure pulls it away and throws the robe open by the lapels. Without wasting a second she latches on to an already cold-aroused nipple and coaxes it into stiffness with the heat of her mouth.

Willow feels the heat on her breast like a searing brand and arches into the contact. It feel like the whole of her breast is in her lover’s mouth and when she feels the flat of Tara’s tongue drag from undercurve to the length of nipple, drawing the whole of it deep into her mouth with a series of pulsing sucks, she grabs on to Tara’s head not knowing if she should push her away or pull her further into her body. Needing something to hold on to—to ground herself in the moment of pleasure—she finds the band holding Tara’s long hair bag and releases it to let the brown-gold hair fall around her, tickling her face and shoulders, caressing her chest.

The feel of Willow’s fingers massaging her scalp and clenching and unclenching in her hair sends a shiver down Tara’s side. Following the unconscious tug upwards, she tosses the hair out of eyes with a flick of her head, and finds Willow’s mouth again; alternately chasing her tongue and luring it back with her own.

Even though she has no coherent thought, Willow understands she is being tortured—by that juicy tongue, and those hot hands roaming all over her skin, taking what they want and offering nothing in return. The rasp of cool cotton and the metallic scrape of zipper against tender skin is all torture. If only she can touch the warmth she can find some relief.

Tara feels hands desperately pushing at her shoulder fumbling around her neck searching for something, and she realises she is still clothed. Not wanting to give up the taste of mouth and tongue she crawls up, swatting Willows hands away, holding them down to the bed and pressing down in an unspoken command. Kneeling into a crouch, still connected at the mouth, she unzips her sweatshirt and flings it away from the bed. Still bent over Willow, poised in a hungry crouch, she runs her hands up and down the body at her disposal. Taking in the rising flush, the straining muscles, the heaving chest; and most of all the eyes—lidded with pleasure, frank with desire, and burning with lust. Tara leans into Willow’s body like a waking cat—a single glide of hands, arms and body from hips to waist to ribs to breasts and nipples and to the shoulder and down her arms—and pulls her up. Clasping her by the waist she sweeps the robe off one shoulder and then the next. Pulling Willow right up against her chest she hisses with the heat of contact—finally—of chest to chest, stomach to stomach. Willow’s sawing moan rips right through to her centre and she feels a gush of wetness. Sitting Willow on her thigh and astride her hips, she pulls her wet centre into her, encouraging her to ride. Until she realises that the cotton of her pajama pants is soaking with Willows arousal.

With the feel of Tara’s breasts pressed up under hers and the heat of Tara’s skin engulfing hers, the feel of Tara’s arms around her and under her, Willow finally feels warm. Warm but not sated. Spreading her fingers on Tara’s back she pulls tighter, and closer. And still, she wants more. There are words she could say, but her mind is closing against itself, wandering in the dark again.

Tara hears the words before Willow pulls back to look at her with eyes she’s not sure really see her. Then she hears Willow’s voice again, “Please baby.”

Ungently, she lays Willow back on the mattress, making her feel her body against itself. Roughly she drags her hands down Willows body past hips to thighs, watching the furrowing progress of her fingers. And softly skims her fingers up the inner thighs, stroking back and again, silently communicating what’s to come. Leaning over and past her chest, breathing her in, Tara nuzzles into the heating body under her—pressing one hand into the mattress by Willow’s head and pressing the other between her legs, following the wet traces further and further up through her folds.

Falling through time and endless sensation, Willow reaches out in the erotic haze—unfurling green tendrils towards the blue. She clasps a hand around a slender shoulder and lets the rolling sensation pour through her.

The throaty moan from Willow, when Tara strokes through her wetness and right into her is a red hot goad. She suspends her breath as green eyes close in an ecstatic gasp, relishes the brush of hot cheek against her forearm as Willow arches and adjusts into the sensation. Unwilling to let Willow recede from her, Tara pulls her back with a beckoning twist of fingers. Looking into the dark flare of green eyes she swallows against the heat of the moment. "Look at me," she pants. "Let me see you." Green eyes squeeze shut in an anguish of pleasure; with a fervent clutch of shoulder they open helplessly to electric blue.

Letting her heart acclimate to the thudding beat of the erotic surge she begins the rhythm slowly, drawing Willow's hips into a rising cadence with each draw and thrust. Tara pulls and releases until the body beneath hers stops resisting the sensual lure and falls open, giving in to the passionate pleading.

Weaving fingers through the silken fall of brown hair, Willow rests a trembling palm against Tara's hot cheek and strokes gently with her thumb. Falling endlessly through time and feeling she reaches for succour, and finds herself suspended over a nervous precipice held only by her lover’s knowing fingers. Unable to bear the distance of their sweat washed bodies she surges in to the reclining press of the body holding her down. Awash in an ocean of timeless pleasure Willow calls out over and over again for her lover, letting go of herself to reach for her always—seeking with her hips, seizing hold with her thighs.

Each cry pours over Tara with scalding arousal. Her skin flushes and burns, getting tighter with each sound. Each cry a jet hot flare smelting the scaffold of her composure and driving the tempo of their loving—faster and faster and harder and rougher—until they are fucking. The room swells with heat and the guttural harmony of panting breaths against sharp cries. Tara cradles the arching body to her, and feels the heat inside her bloom until she is sure she’s burning up from the inside. She slakes herself in the baptismal evidence of her lover’s desire for her. Unable to stop, she presses the hot nova of lust inside her into Willow, wresting helpless cries with every draw—wanting more and more, needing to know the sensation of that beautiful body, fluttering . . . beating against her, like a heart against its cage. Until finally Willow can take no more and comes undone in her arms with a loud cry.

She comes undone but her arms remain clamped around her love. Squeezing her eyes shut Willow tries to fit the feeling inside her into something containable. The two of them lie on their sides gasping and panting against each other as if arising from some deep submergence. Waiting until the rapid pants of breath and runaway percussion of her heart slow to something bearable, she seizes Tara, burying her face in her neck. When she finally meets the familiar eyes and soft expression, still panting she asks, "What did you just do to me?"

Softly, fingers push sweat matted hair off Willows face and forehead, and soft wide lips taker hers in a kiss. Pulling back wetly, Tara watches Willows heart beating in her neck.

Flipping on to her back and flinging an arm out, Willow groans and laughs.

Tara follows with her, rolling hip to hip, and ends up on Willow’s other side, leaning her elbow by a red head, looking down at half-lidded, green eyes. “Oh, really?” she says, pleased with the free sounding burst of laughter.

Still panting with exertion, the erotic echoes pulsing through her centre, she gasps, “That was . . . that . . . Baby, that was so fucking hot.”

Shade-dimmed cobalt eyes flare with dark satisfaction. Pressing wide lips into a plump moue of sexy-playfulness she kisses the words on to Willow’s cheek, “You should have seen it from my side.” And lets a shiver runs through her.

“Oh,” Willow breathes. “Feel free to do that any time you like, then.”

The shared smile turns into laughter and delirious giggles as they clutch at each other. Breathless again, they separate and gaze at each other, taking the quiet moments to catch their breath.

Stroking soothingly from hip up to waist and back again, Tara asks, “All here now, baby? You with me?”

Willow nods sleepily and reaches the back of her hand to stroke a cheek bone, wondering when it surfaced to break the round face of her girl into these sharp planes. She strokes her knuckles across cheek to jaw, down to chin and back, before following the line of long neck and trailing down to chest. There, she turns her hand to cup the enticing curve of pendent breast, and drags the pads of her fingers back up and towards the cleavage only to stop at the polka dot cicatrice.

As Willow continues to circle her fingers around the long-healed wound with some inscrutable aim, Tara brings her free hand to rest on the lightly-curving scar on the top of Willow’s left breast—the pale pink of semi-newness starting to fade into a ghost white—and smiles wryly. “Matched set,” she says.

Willow’s expression clouds with old anger before softening to sadness. “No. Never say that. It’s not the same.” She resumes her fingers’ walk to the long, diagonal scar, high on Tara’s back where ribs had been sawn away and levered apart to make room for sponges, and hemostats, and that delicate, life-saving graft of metal and polyester.

Tara can feel the strange combination of oversensitivity and numbness where searching fingers dance over the scar—un-concealable evidence of the fragility of life, and some small amount of self-consciousness. “Sorry I can’t wear bikinis for you at the beach anymore,” she teases familiarly, in an attempt to joke Willow out of her edging progress into moodiness. “Do you still think I’m perfect?”

Prepared for a peevish frown, a swat, or a groan—or even a speech of over-assurance at the re-excavation of this hoary, old chestnut—she is stunned when Willow slams a hand over her eyes and sobs. Unsure of what to do she settles for soft kisses on damp hair and gentle shushes.

“Thank you,” whispers Willow, wiping away tears with her wrist and covering her eyes with her forearm.

“For what?” she whispers back.

“Everything,” says Willow. “For being here. For Joy. For our life.”

“Oh, honey, no,” says Tara to the still hidden face. “No . . . It’s you and me. Together. It’s our life. I couldn’t do it without you. Right?”

With a deep sighing breath, Willow nods. “Sorry, I’m being all Weepy Gal. It’s just the hormones.”

“Hey,” she jostles the concealing arm. “How many times do I have to remind you? This is the room . . . Remember?”

Willow nods. “Sorry . . .” she sniffs.

“You’re doing it again,” Tara warns but gets no response. She tries to pull a resisting arm from Willow’s face. “Are you hiding, sweetie?” she asks, watching as Willow bites her bottom lip. “You think I don’t see you? Are you two?”

Willow mumbles something.

“What, sweetie?”

“No,” she protests, exactly as a two-year old would.

Tara finally succeeds at removing the arm from over Willow’s eyes. Looking right at her, she says, “We talked about this. Hiding things from me. You can’t just—”

“Baby?” pleads Willow, “I’m naked.” And adds sadly, “Don’t scold me when I’m naked.”

Tara lies down with her head on Willow’s shoulder and drapes an arm over her chest. Immediately they settle into their favourite position—belly to hip, breast to side, cheek to head—and enjoy the comfort of breathing together.

“Sorry I’ve been the Gone Girl.” Willow finally breaks the silence. “I panicked. I started thinking about mets and got a little crazy.”

Tara nods. “Well,” she jokes, wanting to keep the mood light, “their batting average has been concerning this season.”

“Goof!” says Willow stroking at the draped arm. “You’re funny.”

“Funny odd, or funny ha-ha?”

“Yes.”

After a moment of silence, Willow continues, “And I didn’t want to worry you.”

“Sweetie, it’s my job to worry about you.”

“But you have so many things to take care of. And Joy . . .”

“Honey, it’s my job to worry about both of you. Just like you worry about both of us.” Tara nudges Willow in the rib when she doesn’t get a response, and relaxes when she receives a nod.

“Did I tell you,” asks Willow in a dreamy voice, “how much I love that she looks like you?” Willow smiles when she feels the tickle of smiling lips against her breast. “It’s how I know she’s good. Not like me.”

Tara hears Willow gulp and, instead of a smile, feels something wet tickling her hair. She props herself up on her elbow and sees the tears streaming down the round cheeks and the pressed frown of sadness on red lips. Gently she wipes the tears away, pressing soft butterfly kisses to those lips until they relax. “Oh, honey. She’s just a baby. She was always going to be good.”

Willow shakes her head. “No, see, I panicked because,” and her voice goes rough, “I thought I was going to die,” getting more gravelly with each word. “And I really didn’t want to die. I mean really, really didn’t. And I—”she stops, cutting her confession short.

Worried once again, Tara looks down at her sleep-lidded lover admitting to, but not actually admitting, strange things to her. “Baby, what are you saying?”

Willow objects to an explanation. “Clothes,” she says.

Tara nods her understanding and lies down again, her mind ticking over with all her thoughts.

***


She waits for Willow to drift away into tired sleep. Then she sits up and crosses her legs in a posture of meditation. She brings the upturned palm of her left hand to rest on the thigh, close against her body, the ring finger touching the thumb in a seal of strength; and rests the back of her open, right hand against the knee, index finger curled to thumb in the seal of wisdom. Letting go of her outer senses, she calls on her hidden eyes, using her sense of the vibrations that comprise this world, and concentrates on the sleeper by her knees. Already the heat of their shared connection is draining away from the body before her, colour and life being drained by dark tendrils in the music of her aura. Something is claiming her—stealing the heat from her sun, making her dimmer. Cold. So cold!

She breaks the meditation once she has found the knowledge she seeks and climbs down from the bed. With one last kiss-check to make sure Willow is asleep, she strips off and heads to the bathroom where fragrant steam still rises from the tub. After a shower and scrub, she dunks herself in the fortuitously prepared cleansing bath. And emerges, wringing her hair, anadyomene.

Mostly dry, and dressed in clean clothes and a cloak of conviction, she heads into the living room to find the phone. One call doesn’t go far—only eight floors down to Absolute Zero Inc., a subsidiary of Entropy LLC, a Delaware Corporation registered to operate in New York. Which, is in turn, owned by Heliokoil PLC of Ireland, which—if were you inclined to look into—would be registered as a wholly owned subsidiary of Therophoneus PLC out of Bulgaria. Why Bulgaria? Because someone at the Watcher/Slayer organization is a fan of Xena (and also, apparently, ancient languages).

Tara does not recognise the very young voice that answers the phone. How is it, she wonders, my own child spends more time down there than I ever do, and I helped found the place . . . this is ridiculous. And vows to visit the fifth floor more often. The transformation of the intimately close Scooby gang into the sprawling expansiveness of Scooby Corp. should be no excuse for not knowing the kids who work out of the “office”, right there in her own building. “Erm, hi. Who’s this?”

Modern technology being what it is, Caller ID displays the name—MACLAY, TARA—quite helpfully. Although for the nineteen-year old, recently moved from Dallas, TX, who has just noticed this fact after already having answered the phone, this is not so helpful. The name of one of the more scary-powerful practitioners of magic in the world blinking up at her in 8-bits is enough to send her into a spaztastic tizzy. “Hi, er, Ms. M-Maclay . . . I mean . . . nngh . . . Tara,” she fumbles, remembering the admonition of her older cohorts that Ms. Maclay-erm-Tara doesn’t like to stand on formality. “H-ha-ahh . . .how. Can I help you?” she stammers out before she remembers that she’s been asked a question. “I mean, I’m er . . . My name is, erm, Sheela?”

Tara wryly presses her lips down on the small laugh daring to crack her composure, telling herself to be kind to this clearly very nervous young person; who not so long ago (fine, quite a while ago) might have been her, or even Willow. “Hi, Sheela. We haven’t met but, hello.”

“Hello,” comes the snappy response. “Er, uh, sorry about before. I was . . . aghrrm . . . eating something and the phone surprised me and it was, you know, you . . . and I got a little—”

“That’s ok, Sheela, I get it,” Tara says, smiling. But worried for what she has felt in the strands around her, and sensing the now quiet calm over the line, pushes on, “Is Julie there?”

“Yeah, she is. I mean . . . not, like . . . right here, but she’s around—”

“No, that’s fine . . . Can you find her and tell her to meet me in the basement? Right away? And tell her to bring Miki with her.”

“Basement. Ok. Yeah. I mean, yes, I’ll tell her.”

“Thanks, Sheela. And, and don’t forget to tell her it’s for the basement, ok?”

“Yes, ma’am,” replies Sheela, very smartly, seriously, having caught on to the note of gravity in the caller’s voice.

Another time, Tara might wince at the “ma’am”, or even correct the girl, gently. But for now, she lets it go. “Ok, bye.”

***


Julie frightens quite a few customers when she comes stomping through the entrance of the shop, yelling, “Holy shit, holy shit, you guys! Basement 911! Miki, you—” and stops abruptly when she notices the wide eyes of . . . Oh crap, customers! The clock behind the counter smiles its lopsided 11:13 smile (the shop opens everyday at 11 am).

Smiling a (hopefully not fake-looking) grin, she throws a significant look to the dark, frizzy-haired girl behind the counter and says as calmly as possible, “Sorry, could you come with the keys? There’s a problem with the freezer.” Then with a dopey apologetic look to the shoppers, in her best mid-western gee-whiz, says, “We’re in the middle of a fresh batch back there,” pointing to the closed-off rear of the store, “and it would be just a disaster if the cooling system goes.”

The startled civilians nod approvingly—relieved that their gustatory delights are being protected with due diligence and alacrity—and return to their unconcerned epicureanism.

Knowing that there are no keys to the basement, only an electronic number-pad, Mikayla makes a great show of picking up a set of keys—she has no idea whose—from behind the counter and makes a slow, dignified exit from the shop.

“Really?” she hisses at her fellow witch, “keys?” as they jostle each other around the corner on to East 31st towards the freight entrance.

Julie rolls her eyes, acknowledging the idiocy of her own actions. “I know, dammit! I just freaked. It’s the basement, you know?!” Her shoulders rise with her voice as she stabs repeatedly at the elevator button.

“Girl,” says Mikayla, “you need to calm down!” The furrow between her brows, and her increasing breaths, both, belying her attempts to calm her colleague. “You know you can’t sling magic if y’ all over the place.”

The elevator arrives with a groan, the door sliding open with a tiny motorised screech. And with that the girls take a joint, deep breath and step in, trying to prepare themselves for the gods know what, down there.

***


Making their way past the crated stacks of fresh fruit, the giant tins of fruit pulp, the dairy reach-in, and the walk-in, Julie and Mikayla arrive at the edge of the broad red line marking the danger zone in the basement of the ice-cream shop. The serious cast of Tara’s face whets their nervousness to a keener edge. Moving with urgency, they grab the insulated jackets off the waiting coat-rack and struggle into the heavy garments.

Fumbling with her buttons, Julie steps abreast of Tara with a worried “What’s up?” When the older woman turns grim eyes to her, Julie isn’t quite sure which it is that sends the shiver racing up her spine: the temperature of the room, or the glacial stillness of those determined eyes.

Knowing she is upsetting her protégés Tara smiles, the twinkle of rippling irises doing much to quell the girls’ stomach-bats. “Hey, Jules, Miki. I need to cast a seeing. I need an amplifier,” she says, indicating Mikayla with her eyes, “and an anchor,” she finishes softly, touching Julie’s wrist.

From behind them, where she is still buttoning up the garment designed to protect them from the debilitating cold of the entropic sink, Mikayla asks innocently, “Is Willow ok?” She looks up from fastening the last button at her collar when she hears no answer, only to encounter two sets of gazes on her: one wide-eyed and the other neutrally impassive. She wonders if it’s something she’s said. “Normally, she’s the one . . . working? Down . . . here . . .” she trails off hesitantly, but is immediately re-assured by the ducking smile and crinkle of soft blue eyes.

“How do you want to do this?” asks Julie nervously. Anchoring in the magical chaos of this strange, thaumaturgical field will be something she has never attempted. And in her heart doesn’t want to do . . . is afraid to do. She is not a child. She knows that this place is made quiescent by some sort of spiritual bargain that she cannot yet begin to understand, but has only faintly sensed whenever she has cast with Willow.

Tara makes sure she has the full attention of both young women before she speaks. “Three points in a circle—me to the wind, you’re the ground. Mikayla?” she asks the round-faced girl. “You know how to see the patterns?” and watches carefully as the girl nods without hesitation. Tara’s expression twitches in a half-smile of approval. This is the young woman’s talent, a tremulous sensitivity to emotional and psychic states, like a needle on the most sensitive of seismographs. “Good. Help me make it bigger . . . whatever I see?” The two women—teacher and student—nod at each other. More serious, she turns to Julie. “Don’t let her drift away,” she says before turning toward the space ahead of them.

“What—”Julie begins to ask, but is interrupted by a glancing brush on her shoulder.

“Don’t worry about me.” Her tone is soft but imperative—commanding. A directive from mistress to apprentice.

The three of them push aside the plastic flaps of the cold room and stride into the barely restrained, pulsing coldness of energy-leaving-this-world.

***


The shape all laid out in salt and herbs, they step into the figure. With a gasp of sudden perception Julie realises that only two of them—student and apprentice—are wearing the insulated coats here in this space where her nose hairs tingle and crack with cold, and her breath turns to fog even before the sounds leave her throat. Noticing Tara’s cleanse-dampened hair, she starts to protest. Too late. Tara sits down in her spot—the point of a triangle facing the dimensional singularity. The ritual has begun.

Each woman says the incantation; each adding her voice to the other—first one, then two, then three. Three times three. The circle is cast. A simple geometrical shape transformed into a magical space. As the older woman sinks into her meditation, opening herself to another sight, they complete the magical circuit—anchor to amplifier, and both to seer, but not she to them. She is in the wind, buffeted about by strange currents invisible to all but the most talented.

Sitting at her teacher’s side with her left hand on the woman’s right shoulder, initially, all that Mikayla is sensible of—apart from the stupefying cold—is the heavy warmth extending through her where her right hand is gripped in Julie’s left hand. She concentrates on the candle in the centre of the circle, sinking into the light, separating the incandescent layers of flame in her mind—the successively cooler shades blending outward from hottest to coolest. Then suddenly the body under her right hand seems to explode with a massive surge and she falls into that space between wick and flame where everything burns but nothing is visible. Her breath rises and falls, and is suspended in a durationless instant of time. The surge envelops her; from wick to smoke, her psyche evanesces into sublimating layers of colour and heat. Neurons, glial cells, neural sheaths, electrical impulses, action, feeling, thought—everything—fulminating into insubstantiation. Only the vibrating note at the heart of flame remains. But before her very self can dissipate in that place without place or time, the heaviness asserts itself again. Like a magnetic field in a particle accelerator, the intangible will of the anchor holds the plasma of her spirit confined, tying her to time and space. Slowly? Quickly? Such tenuous concepts are beyond her now in this place where she is cradled in the light. Oh, god! The light! Then she hears the voice: Help me see.

As soon as she takes her place in the circle, Julie’s heart thrums fast like a mouse, like the humming of a dragon-fly’s wing. All she can imagine is green eyes, in the slightest of bodies, swirling with blackness; a voice rumbling so deep with darkness that not even the roaring heat of the sun can block the sound; and the dark, dark clouds full of rampaging destruction roaring into sudden existence above New York Bay. And those same eyes glowing red, suspended by lightning, high above a promontory in the middle of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers—the meeting place of rivers where the blood of the turtle merges, where lines of power that hold this continent together converge. She thinks about the thing that lives under the earth kept sated and pliant only by blood propitiation, and the darkness in the woman who pays that blood. And she is scared. She is a witch—and has been for many years—her mothers and fathers before her holding stubbornly to the wisdom of the old worlds from which they came, and passing it on to her. The simple wisdom of the land, the duty of steward to legacy: care, sacrifice, and harvest; you give to receive; the earth provides to the husbander; the earth is you and you are part of the earth, be careful how you weave the strands of magic lest you unravel them elsewhere. Elemental forces, even primordial forces are something she discovered only when a tall, dark-skinned, bald man and his dark-haired, quicksilver companion with the whisky voice arrived with a proposition for her one summer’s day at her parents’ farm. Forces that can rip through dimensions; destroy reality? These are things that she still hesitates to touch. Her fear threatens to overtake her. The swirling cold outside slowly draws her in, her soul quailing from the sensation yet unable to resist the draw. On one side of her, she feels ethereal—everything dissipating into ghostly non-existence. On the other side, the body under her right hand seems to lift up, swelled by a refulgent light that she can see only in her mind’s eye. The light pushes back the cold, filling her with heat, cocooning her in warmth. So bright. Oh, god! The light! Does she hear the voice? Or does she recall it? “Don’t let her drift away.” She remembers why she is here and pulls her mind back into itself. Drawing comfort from the sun-like warmth, she stretches her awareness into it. She imagines a radicle, a shoot, a plant, a shrub, a tree, uncurling sunward, roots creeping earthward, holding fast to the earth. Solid. Anchored. Simple wisdom of the earth: what you receive you give.

Palms flat on the thighs of crossed legs, Tara Maclay sits with her back to the storm. Aware of the warmth of other palms on each of her shoulders, she can sense the fear, and the fragility bracketing her. But she does not begrudge them this. Were she anyone else, she too might be scared. But as she opens her senses to part the veil between true reality and perception, she imagines for one elusive moment that she can see subatomic particles vibrating at the very frequencies that make up matter. And then she lets her awareness fall into that place between sensing and being that her mother had tried to teach her, but she ended up learning on her own much later in life. She thinks about the place she is sitting in, letting her sight rise all around her: the basement, the shop above, the lobby, the office floors above, the apartments above that, the cold behind her, the shell constraining the doorway, the strange dark spirits growing in this land, the lines of magic slowly knitting themselves back into existence slowly luring these spirits back into waking. . . . The ease with which she finds this place pleases her, filling her with joy, and gratitude for the woman who taught her so much. She may be sitting on a concrete floor in the basement of a skyscraper in Manhattan, but the basement is only a pit deep inside the earth, and concrete is only made from the bones of the earth. Earth to earth, inside the earth. She draws the power into herself—the loose energy of millions of souls traversing the landscape above and around her. Through brick, through block, through stone and schist, along avenues and streets, and secret underground rivers still flowing under the roads, the power flows towards her, into her. She lets the power fill her before shaping it around her in a dome-shield of will. She lets the power flow through her into her two companions. They ground her and she grounds them—earth to earth, within the earth.

Sensing the power and energy collecting before it, the dank pulse howls in rising appetite. Tara ignores it. Shh . . . she whispers to it in her mind, slowly caressing it with the energy she has gathered into herself. The storm leans into her, seeking the comfort of the light; letting her taste the skin of it, letting her hear the voice of it. The voice is a line of music amongst the many strands that make up the world she inhabits: the spiky cacophony of the city floating on the rolling bass of the mountains and rivers around her; the soft tinkling bursts of animals and birds; the alto legato of green things; the many chromatic pulses of people, interrupted by the percussive thumps of births and deaths. Cosmic staves of an unending symphony. So gently, so easily she picks out the colourful strand of her lover—her life. How could she ever miss it? The thread that weaves through her, forever; and now weaves through the very rocks of their home—woven in love and blood, and darkness and light. A thread made of and making this land; a shining thread even the Moirae would tremble to touch. She plucks the thread and it trills in the very core of her: Willow. And then she hears the strange discordant note. Oh, there, my sweet love, she thinks. Wrapped around the shining note of power and harmony is the cold, oily voice of the thing under the earth that sleeps—secretly, sibilantly crooning its song to her love—the dark note twining itself around her light, damping the pure vibration and stealing the energy of it.

Pulling more deeply against the will of the two girls flanking her, Tara draws the shield of light against herself. Dark energies behind her wail against their bonds. She struggles to maintain the balance between just enough energy to sate the thing that rages, and feeding it so much energy that it breaks through. Reaching for the Willow-note with the light, she tugs against the dark strand, repelling and luring it in turn. Like a rudderless boat on the high seas she can feel the crosswinds and waves of magical energy in this place tossing her around. Like a fisherman in that rudderless boat, she can feel the beast thrashing, and pulling at her power like an enraged shark on a line. She can feel her skin frosting over, her breath congealing, her blood sludging. Her controls slips. And before she can clamp her will against it, she is pulled down . . . down . . . down
Down into the earth. Into the memory of earth where she is shattered into fragments as her hills are levelled to farms. Her bones crumbled to gravel and splintered into stones to build houses. Her rivers dammed. Her people killed, their blood choking her lakes. Forests turned to a wasteland of graves, fertilising nothing but the twisted crop of a strange peoples’ greed and killing lust. Where man sheds blood, the earth drinks blood. The more man spills, the more she drinks. Blood is not water, water slakes. Blood is rich, blood it sticks. The more you give, the more she takes. The mouth of the earth to her maws, the more you shed, the more she wants—hot blood, trickling to her hot heart. Giver of life, taker of life. Gullet hot with glut of blood. Molten maws: fire of hell. Well of life, welling with blood. Hot blood, Hell Mother. Hell mouth.

In a soft echo, the words of a frightened girl come back to her, “The earth has teeth.” In a soft echo—of the shining, forever thread winding through her—comes the understanding. She listens for the echo in the echo, letting her time-sense stretch across eras. Listening for the bass of the dark note rolling so slowly through eons, like a sinuous snake riding the wave of time. And riding that long dark vibration of dark, is a glowing dark, a warm dark; so familiar to her—the dark that defends against the dark—Buffy, Faith, all their girls awoken by the ritual of the scythe. The One Power in All the World. And now, twining around and with it, the bright note that sings in her heart, cordis chordae.

No, she realises, not a discordant note. Only the contrary motion, of contrapuntal melody. She lets go of amplifier and anchor—gently withdrawing her energy, returning their wills to them—lets them fall back into themselves, exhausted and freezing in the sweat of exertion. And turns to the dark mouth where the earth now shows its teeth. Smile or threat; who can tell?

Now no longer afraid, Tara Maclay, lover of Willow Rosenberg, protector, witch, faces the teeth of the earth. The energies she has drawn to herself stream outward from her body, pushing her up from the earth, suspending her in an invisible wind. She reaches out her arms, palms outward, almost in a gesture of blessing. Shares her vision—echo of an echo, the melodic counterpoint that must exist to balance the harmony. Cosmic staves of a never-ending symphony. The bright note must play, undarkened. The cord must strike, undampened. Or the harmony is lost.

The cold pulses. An exhalation of mystical laughter that chills her to bone.

You have done well today. But one day she will be gone.

No, she disagrees, the music will always be.

And reaching out with her will, she snaps the dark tendrils still grasping at her love’s soul, ending the drain on her energies; snuffs the candle in the circle with a gesture of wrist, collapsing the dome-shield of light; and brushes the salt with her foot, breaking the circle.

It is done.

***


Willow wakes from her nap all cotton-mouthed and groggy, entirely unsure what time it is. She breathes in the lover-scent on the pillow she’s holding and smiles, “Mmmhhhhnnn . . .”

The languidness of remembered pleasure makes itself known through physical sensation—the swollen fullness of her lips, the tingle of skin on her neck, and the slick tenderness between her thighs. Curling into the delicious sensation, she hugs the pillow tightly, taking a deep inhale. “Mmm . . . Baby . . .” she says, turning over, stretching her arm out to find her lover.

But the bed is empty. The room is dark—the blackout shades have been drawn. And the apartment has the ringing quality of sound that normally goes with emptiness. Frowning, she pushes herself off the bed. Her left palm hurts like crazy with the contact and she sits back down with a petulant, “Ahh . . . oww!” Why is the dressing off, she asks herself. Did I take the dressing off? Cradling the stinging palm she pouts at the absence of her cuddle buddy.

Noticing the gumminess of her mouth, Willow goes stumbling in search of water. But there are no glasses, or tumblers, or anything to drink out of, at the sink. Swaying around like a drunk penguin, she scans the floor for her wooly pajama pants and sweatshirt so she can head to the kitchen. Eventually she finds them neatly folded on the reading chair in the corner of the room. Her hands feel stiff, knuckles and wrist aching; and the fabric brushing against her palms stings as she pulls on the clothes. “Stupid hands,” she mumbles. “Stupid no bandage,” she continues to mutter out loud. Her hands ache again as she swings the back of them against her face to wipe away the sleep and the grainy tear trails. “Stupid hurt. Stupid feelings making it hurt,” she says as she finally arrives at the sink in the bright room. She squints at the water pouring in to her glass, and adds for good measure, “Stupid light.”

The sound of keys in the lock, and of baby-squeals of delight that she loves so much, alerts her to the return of her missing family. Grumpily slapping her feet on the floor, she stomps over to the entryway to register her complaint.

***


When Tara shows up on the fifth floor “office” of the New York City chapter of Scooby corp to rescue her child from the slayers, she thinks it might be other way around. Her little angel’s thrill-seeking gene is in the full flower of its expression: the high-pitched echo of, “Again! Again!” reaches her ears as she pushes open the heavy sound-dampening doors. When she enters to claim the baby being sat—or, she notes with a wince, being thrown around the room—she realises that the office is humming with activity that makes it look like an old time exchange floor.

There seems to be some sort of mission happening in—she squints to read the screen—Georgia (the country, not the state) that many slayers are very excited about. In the other half of the room, which is sectioned off by thick mesh, and glass doors with symbols of protection etched in, a group is gathered around a multi-monitor display—exchanging agitated comments and staring intently at a data-feed that is refreshing by the second. And then suddenly, one of them pushes away from the console with a disgusted expression and storms out of the room. Over the sound of the slamming door, Tara hears something about sending a Watcher to do a witch’s job. And another one goes running after him while shaking her head.

Taking in the craziness around her, and the drained and despondent expressions of her stunned assistants as they take in the activity, Tara decides that maybe they should just come down to the apartment with her and be quiet there. After all, it is close to lunchtime for both her babies. What’s two more?

***


The first thing Tara hears is a sleep-roughened and petulant voice saying, “I woke up and you were gone, baby. And there was no one in the house. You didn’t even leave a note.”

From behind her she hears a throaty noise and turns around to see Mikayla coughing. “Sorry,” says Mikayla continuing to cough, and clearing her throat, “just the damp.”

Julie smiles sympathetically—not at all looking like she just smacked the back of Miki’s head when she started laughing—and waves Tara’s attention back to Willow. The two of them are fine.

Joy is having the best day ever. First she got to eat breakfast shirtless, then there were tub splashies and the bear taught her names of many, many fishies, then there were jumping games and muffins, and then Mama promised for lunch she didn’t have to eat the broccoli stems just the crunchy part on top. And now! Mommy’s still home.

When Tara turns around to look at Mikayla is when Willow realises they have company. She looks sheepish and does the elbow wave thing that she does when she’s feeling self-conscious. “Hey guys,” she greets, and mouths a “sorry” to Tara.

As soon as Mama lets go of her hand, Joy is off like a shot—leading with her head, swinging her arms, and squishing her little fingers—to go find Willow’s hand, which she does, with much squeezing, and tugging further into the hallway. And the all ‘round merriment continues when Mommy makes those exaggerated funny noises of pain. Silly Mommy. Joy knows she can’t pull anyone’s hand off, but it’s just fun to pretend.

Tara decides she had better go get things under control there before Joy manages to open the cuts on Willow’s hand and there are bloodstains on everything. But first, her wrung out assistants.

“The baby’s food has date-labels. So except for that just help yourself to anything in the fridge. Or not in the fridge.”

She starts to apologise for not actually serving them but they both wave her off with a, “please!” and an, “as if!”

“Sorry,” adds Tara as she wanders off towards the blinds, “there’s no meat in the house.” And out of the corner of her eye, she catches Willow looking squirrelly. “Except for Willow’s stash of secret bacon,” she reveals, smiling craftily at Willow, “in the freezer.”

“Baby, no!” Willow protests, looking affronted. “There’s no bacon in the freezer. None!” Hah, she thinks, bacon in the freezer. What a notion. Maybe some guanciale, she grins to herself, underneath the lettuce. In the crisper drawer. How else does tasty carbonara get made?

The two girls shrug. “It’s fine,” says Julie. “I don’t think I could eat anything too heavy right now.”

Mikayla says nothing. She’s vegetarian anyway.

“There’s bean soup, and some braised bean curd with vegetables,” Tara offers, thinking about all the food that’s already cooked. Digressing for a moment she says, “I’m going to open the shades. Is that ok?” She knows it’ll be a shock, but she needs the light after the darkness of the basement. And then, remembering, as she pulls on the bead-chain, exclaims, “Oh! And bagels.”

The two girls look up from their foraging in the kitchen and nod gratefully; then squint, like moles, against the brightness as it comes rushing in through the tall, pre-war windows.

Finally, Tara walks over to the side of the dining table where Willow and Joy are having some sort of negotiation. Willow turns as she approaches and puts her arms around Tara’s waist.

“You didn’t go to the shop,” says Willow, enjoying the weight of Tara’s arms on her shoulders where her wrists are crossed behind her head.

Tara shakes her head. “They can take care of things. I called Trey in.”

Willow nods in approval. Trey is their oldest “civilian” employee. And has been with them almost since the beginning. He can roll out the new flavours and get the register set up, no problem.

Pulling Tara closer in using only her fingertips, Willow gives her a quick nudge with her hips. “Hey,” she prods, with a quick glance at Tara’s assistants, “You guys go to work?” She says “work” with the special tone that indicates “not economic activity” and “yes mystic activity”.

Tara strokes and twirls the sleep-tangled hair by Willow’s neck and leans in for a soft kiss but is interrupted by the large mewling cat pawing at their thighs and trying to weave in through their legs.

But wait! They don’t have a cat. They do however have a child who occasionally exhibits intense resource hoarding tendencies when it comes to her mommas playing kissy-face around her.

Willow ignores the little spoiler and continues leaning forward to make the tender contact. At sound of the whine that follows, she places her hand on the little head and gives it two gentle raps to indicate that she should be quiet.

Satisfied with the connection, Tara licks her lip, leans back and asks Willow, “Feeling better now?”

Willow nods, closing her eyes in pleasure at the slight tug of scalp where her dark-haired beauty still has a hold on her hair.

“You were leaking,” explains Tara. “Or, you were draining. It still had you.” Tara watches the green eyes go wide with a slight parting of lips, and moves her hand to caress a pale cheek. “But you’re all warm now.”

Agitated, Willow tries to pull away from the embrace but is held in place. “Baby! You were casting in the basement? You went walking in the n—”

Knowing that the next phrase out of Willow’s mouth is going to be “nether realms” and knowing that is not what she told the girls, Tara cuts her off with a thumb to her lips. “Sweetie, you’re getting a little excited.”

Undeterred, Willow continues, “That’s . . . that’s . . . crazy! I mean, I’m not saying you’re crazy, just that it was a crazy thing to do. Not that you do crazy things. I mean I do the crazy things. But . . .” and, still unwilling to put down the shovel, continues, “no preparation? Down there? Just like that! Even I don’t . . .” She notices the two other people in the kitchen, each looking up from their individual stages of sandwich prep. Why doesn’t anyone ever go for the bean curd? It’s good. It’s a good recipe. I got it off the chef at Noodletown, it’s great. “You guys okay?” she asks them.

Knowing not to get sucked into drama, they just nod.

Willow turns her attention back to her love, and says sincerely, “Thank you, baby.” And then reciprocating the inspections of earlier in the day begins to pull down Tara’s lower eyelids to check the veins, checks the pupils and colour, and brings the back of her hand to Tara’s forehead to check the temperature. Which then reminds Tara she still has a job to do.

“Sweetie,” she instructs firmly, finally bending down to haul up their little pouter pigeon who has been quietly hugging Mommy’s thigh, “why don’t you sit here with this good girl . . .” The girl tries to hide her proud smile behind a frown but is swept away by the pleasure of the compliment. “And I’ll take care of your hands. Then we can eat.” And waiting for Willow to have a seat, plops the little butt in front of her on the table.

“Hey,” Willow says softly to the toddler, her hands on either side of her tummy, “Mama has to put a bandaid on me. So I need you to sit here and play quietly.”

“Play ony on th’ cawp’t,” the baby says, pointing her fat little finger in the direction of the living room.

“You can sit here on the chair next to me, baby,” Willow says, softly patting the girl’s little stomach.

“Play he-aw?” she asks, and looks intently at Mommy—who nods—before looking uncertainly back at Mama gathering things in the kitchen. Then, wagging her finger-arm from her elbow, she shakes her head blinking emphatically and informs Mommy, “No toyss th taybaw.” Speaking very slowly and clearly, because she knows that Mommy sometimes forgets things, like she herself does.

Without even looking, Willow knows her spouse is laughing at her all the way over there in the kitchen. But she keeps any huffy comment or gesture to herself because for a child to feel safe and secure both parents need to—darn it—be on the same page. Otherwise that’s just not a good dynamic. Not good . . . bad! Gently pushing Joy’s hair off her forehead with the back of her hand she assures the child, and Mama, “Just this one time.” Waiting for her child to acknowledge the condition, she says again, “Only this time,” and twists in her chair to look at Tara. “Right, Mama?”

In reply, Mama detours to one corner of the living-room to grab the small, colourful box as she heads to the table with the medical supplies. “Only this time,” she agrees, as she’d rather not have the girls interrupt their much needed lunch to watch the little trouble-maker while she’s dressing Willow’s hands.

Stimulated beyond belief by the exotic idea of toys at the table, Joy bounces in place like a little maniac, kicking her legs like a Double Crown-winning jockey in second place at Belmont.

Tara sets down the medical supplies and the box full of toys on the table. While she is settling Joy into the booster seat, Willow spots the soft, fabric amphibian in the box and—snagging it quickly it before the child notices—shoves it under her butt. The brunette gives her a look of amazed disbelief, and the unrepentant red-head gives her an exaggerated mock sneer of disgust and sticks out her tongue.

Looking directly into the big eyes of the girl who seems to be vibrating with excitement, Tara says seriously, “Can you play by yourself for a little while?”

“O-keh!” the tiny human responds, in her excitement by-passing her neck and nodding wildly from the waist.

Recognising the echo of her own spazziness, Willow cuts in. “But quietly, ok?”

“Keh,” the tiny voice says seriously.

The proud mommy leans over and kisses her sweet Boo Boo on the head. “You’re such a good girl!”

Like any little puppy receiving happy treats she plays along with the attention. Poking herself in the chest, she proclaims, “I’m be gud!”

As she is up-ending the toy-box for easy access, Tara turns to share a quick look with Willow just to affirm the sheer cuteness of their little girl. Willow holds the squishy horse up to the left side of her face to cover her expression as she bites her lower lip and scrunches her eyes in an expression of, I know, right?

Joy reaches out with both arms to gather the toys to herself with all the expertise of a craps dealer collecting losing wagers. And only just now realising the great injustice that Mommy has perpetrated, she shoots an arm out to snatch the hossy out of Willow’s hand.

“Ow, baby! Be gentle,” reminds a rightly affronted Willow.

Knowing she’s being scolded, she ducks her head in a small pout and nods. Almost as if she is reminding herself of the fact, she declares as solemnly as she asks, “Mommy hass a nowwie?”

Regretful of her sharpness Willow is happy to downplay the extent of her owwie. “Yeah, but just a tiny one.”

When her Mama sits down at the table, emptying the bowl of its contents, she recognises the owwie related cotton balls and scrunches up her nose before arriving at a very insightful conclusion. “Mama gonna fiss it!”

“Darn tootin’!” Willow gives the bouncing girl a one-armed hug before wrangling her child’s already toy-distracted head into a sloppy kiss. “You’re such a smart girl!” Slowly she turns her head and bats her eyes at Tara as she puts her hands out on the table. “Mama always fixes it.”

Joy settles into her chair to build a house for her dinoes and hossies. Froggy is missing but—pleased with this magical phenomenon of being allowed to play with her toys at the table—she doesn’t even notice.

With a sorrowful expression, Tara runs tapered fingers over the scabs gelling roughly over her lover’s normally smooth palms. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says pursing her lips into a deep frown. “I should have looked at these earlier.”

Lifting a gently stroking hand up to her lips for a kiss Willow says, “It’s okay, baby.”

“Honey, these are scabbing over.” And noticing something new, clucks at her, “Some of these still have dirt in them!”

Ever chagrined not to be the good student, Willow pouts a little at the soft rebuke. “Sorry, baby. I thought I cleaned it.”

“Willow” she warns, “I have to open them up again . . .”

“It’s okay, baby.”

“It’s going to—”

“Be very intense?” teases Willow, calling back to their interrupted nether-realms interlude. “Maybe,” she continues, tilting her eyes up to the right in an overblown posture of recollection, “like nothing we’ve ever—” but cuts herself off when she notices the dangerously narrowed eyes giving her a very dubious look.

Willow responds with an overly innocent shrugging grin.

Cracking the seal on a bottle of sterile saline solution, Tara explains “So, I’m going to have to get these wet again . . .” As she screws the rinse cap on, she becomes aware of the straight line she has just fed her punster partner as soon as the words leave her mouth.

“You’ve never minded getting me wet before.”

Mindful of their own privacy, Tara tries to keep her voice low, but the whispering hiss of “Willow!?” is sharp enough to warn the junior witches to stay the hell away from the table with their lunches and detour to the sofa instead. “Little pitchers . . .” she says significantly.

“Don’t comprehend the doubling of entendres.” She turns to see what the girl is up to, and notices one of the plastic horses being walled up, but the little pitcher in question is otherwise unconcerned with any shenanigans of the blue variety. Caught up in her worry about the horse being Fortunatoed, she loses track of her nurse’s progress with the treatment and yelps when Tara runs a wet gauze pad over her hand.

Her caretaker tsks and raises an unsympathetic brow at her, “Don’t be a big baby. You weren’t complaining before.”

Having been scolded before, Willow casts a furtive look at the sandwich-moochers before dropping her voice. “I wasn’t complaining because I was being distracted by,” she cocks her head saucily, “other feelings.”

Happy to have her charge diverted by naughty-talk as she starts to peel off a raspberry coloured strand from her palm, Tara suppresses the amusement on only half her face and ends up with the asymmetrical, knowing smile that makes Willow want to hug herself. “Well, you did seem quite . . . anaesthetized.”

“I definitely wasn’t feeling any pain. Although, doctor,” she leans in confidentially, “I’m feeling a little sore,” and indicates a downward direction with a gesture of her eyes. “Maybe, you could, you know, kiss it better?”

Dr. Maclay pronounces the name, “Willow . . .” sternly, in an attempt to stay on task; but only ends up escalating the flirtatious game when the sound of her lover’s name falls into the pitch of arousal.

Unfortunately for the two of them, just when things are getting real interesting—but very luckily for the innocence of the lounging lunchers—Megasaurus decides to go on a big time rampage, knocking down all the walls and snarfing the horses. Once again, leaving Willow very concerned about the murderous appetites of the little human she has helped to make. Maybe they’re letting her spend too much time with all the slayers . . .

Noticing her mother’s steady gaze on her and miraculously remembering the instruction to play quietly, Joy returns to building a bigger and better house for the hossies—one the dino can’t break so easily.

But Willow’s hand really does hurt now, especially where the smaller jagged cuts that are already starting to heal are being gently coaxed into bleeding again so that the wounds can be thoroughly debrided. She winces each time Tara prods her hand and silently appreciates the sympathetic grimace being offered her by her wife. She lets her attention drift, relinquishing risquéness in favour of letting Tara concentrate on the treatment.

The light from the window shines right through blue pupils—like angled morning sun on a reflectionless Mediterranean sea rippling so clearly against the edge of washed brown rocks—lightening Tara’s eyes from their usual cerulean into a kind of manganese-blue Willow remembers from that one time in Amorgos. She takes in the bent, dark head, the serious eyes looking more deep-set these days, the defined line of cheek and marvels at the woman she is looking at. For a second and a half, nostalgia squeezes a fist around her heart and she mourns the loss of all their photographs from Sunnydale. How many people will remember the baby-cheeked, blonde, nineteen-year old she first fell in love with? She’ll never be able to pull out a picture of their first summer together as a couple, and point to the soft girl with ombré gold hair and say to Joy, Look! There’s your Mama, isn’t she pretty? The thought catches in her throat with suddenness, the melancholiness of it so intensely . . .well, melancholic, that she can’t wait until her hormones even out and she can stop with the emotional see-saw.

“Willow?” her baby’s voice pulls her out of the melancholic thought.

“Mnh?”

At the distracted reply Tara looks up from her own rubber-gloved hands where she’s pressing the lido pad into Willow-hand, and gives her a quizzical look. “Well, I guess it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Willow flashes the familiar, sheepish tongue-peeking grin. “Don’t feel a thing baby.” She flexes and curls her hands. “Good as new!”

“Not yet,” she says as she pulls the gloves off her hand, rolling them up one in the other and putting them in the discard bowl. She spreads a towel between them and, with the crooking fingers of a give-me gesture, says, “Bandage time.”

Very excited to see the tiny, white spray can with the orange cap, Willow makes a little “yay”, celebrating the goodness of finally having the liquid haemoglobin available in the US. She goggles at the red mist settling over her hand and lifts her eyes to share a look with Tara, knowing she’s thinking the same thing: anti-vampire types spraying, essentially, plasticised blood over open wounds. WTF! Something catches her attention and she cocks her head suddenly, looking not unlike a contemplative magpie. “You hear that, baby?”

Tara disengages her attention from the sound of the spray where she is trying for even coverage but hears nothing. “Hear what?”

“You don’t hear that?” she returns her frowning gaze to attentive blue eyes.

Shaking the can of liquid skin she observes Willow’s posture of tense attention, and wonders if the ritual she has just conducted in the basement will need bolstering. She shakes her head. She’s counting off the drying time for the Granulox before she applies the liquid bandage when Willow sits up again.

“There!” she exclaims.

Even Joy looks up at her mother, wondering if her goofy mom-playmate is starting a new game, but goes back to playing by herself when Willow doesn’t meet her look.

Tara waits a second, and then hears it—a soft, insistent buzz. Less than a half second later, she hears it again and realisation dawns. Willow’s phone.

“My phone,” says Willow. And then with rising horror, “My phone! Baby, what time is it?”

“Almost one?” she guesses.

Miki is putting plates in the sink and reads the time off the oven display as she leans against the sink, “12:46. Whoops . . .” she exclaims as the number blinks over, “Seven,” and makes for the fridge.

“Baby!” she twitches in her seat, “I have a meeting at one.”

She says nothing, only swatting at Willow to remind her to stay still. The cut on her left hand is rather large and maybe an actual bandage there will be better.

Meanwhile, the Willow-train of worry is picking up steam. “I was supposed to consolidate the account statements. And the categories . . . And email him the corrected payroll reports!”

Tara begins to explain, “Willow, I—”

But the verbal inertia is strong with this one. “It’s going to take me at least a half hour to get to Alan’s office,” she continues, turning aggrieved, sad-panda eyes to Tara.

Holding her girl’s hand firmly still as she wraps it with gauze, she levels a flat gaze at her. “Willow, I called him. He’s happy to re-schedule for another day.”

Very upset now, she whines, “Oh, but I already cancelled on him once and—”

“Sweetie, October is a long time away.”

“We really needed to go over the categories for the new—”

“Sweetie!” she says firmly, the arch of her eyebrows clearly conveying her exasperation at Willow’s ridiculous fixation on a tax return they’ve already filed an extension for.

But Tara has made a slight miscalculation. Her Willow-will-you-please-stop voice is hardly distinguishable from her Mom voice, and the tone snaps Joy’s attention to her mother’s stern face. With no idea why she’s being scolded, she stares at her Mama with a pitiful expression of wide-eyed sadness, her lower lip starting to stick out with just the teeniest of quavers.

Mikayla, who has been quietly watching this little family drama from her place in the kitchen—where she has now helped herself to a beer from the fridge—purses her lips in an effort to maintain a neutral expression. Aint no reason to be cracking up. ‘Cept that child and her mother got the same damn face on. So much for Darth Rosenberg . . . Snickering quietly, she turns to share a look with Julie, whom she finds unconcernedly flipping through the issue of EW she has cadged off the coffee table.

Feeling Miki’s gaze on her, Julie looks up and rolls her eyes with a small shake of her head, entirely unaffected by what must be the thousandth variation of the same scene. Every damn time, she thinks. And wonders how Ms. Grumpy McPoutyface over at the table ever got crowned the Guardian of Magic. She slumps back into the cushions as she flips a page, and sighs. That Charlie Hunnam is just a hunk! But, she thinks, shaking her head, as wooden as a plank.

Impending toddler tears turns out to be a better distraction than being scolded and Willow rushes to soothe her little pal. “Not you, Boo Boo. Mama’s scolding me. Sometimes, Mommy’s a little silly.” She picks Joy up and transfers the little pouter carefully to her lap. “See?” she points the two of them to face Tara. “Mama’s not mad at you,” she reassures, with a hug, and lays a plump cheek on her daughter’s head. “Are ya?” she asks playfully, with just a touch of the breathless earnestness that never fails to melt Tara.

Tara looks at the open faces of her two adorable girls and smiles helplessly. She leans across the corner of the table. “No, I’m not mad at you, baby,” she says, and releases their child from her duties as a human shield against wifely chastisement. “But your Mommy is extremely silly.”

“Streeemly!” Joy happily mimics her Mama as she kicks her legs.

Tara stands up and hefts Joy onto her hip with an exaggerated “oof!” which makes the baby laugh, and heads to the kitchen. “Come on. Let’s get you fed.”

***


Concluded in Part 2


Last edited by thespian_phryne on Wed May 17, 2017 8:38 am, edited 5 times in total.

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 Post subject: Witches of Gramercy Park Pt. 2/2
PostPosted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 12:21 pm 
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Joined: Tue Jun 28, 2016 10:54 am
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This is a response to the April Challenge: The Anniversary Challenge, but is too long to fit in one post (how?). And is also a sequel to a story (inspired by the March Ice-cream challenge) I haven't finished writing yet. Yes, Craig Lucas and I.

Canon divergent AU. Clearly. Consequently, a lot of universe building allusion and sketchiness.

If I had 3 more hours, I'd cut it by a third. As it is, you get this purple mess.

Notes for non-North Amerikaners: the land we live on is conceived of as resting on the back of a giant turtle. Hence N. America is the turtle island.

Notes for everyone else: it's elephants all the way down. You can't trick me!


Title: Witches of Gramercy Park Pt. 2/2
(A disqualified response to the April Challenge: Anniversary

Rating: R for copious and gratuitous Reality. Also, maybe, the sex acts (but not in this part)


Tara is enjoying the sight of mid-spring sun shining through still denuded branches. The light is warm, and desultory breezes stir the grass on the lawn. “Their spot” has, as usual, been left unmolested by picnickers and sun bathers; probably because the area is mulched and has no grass, but she wouldn’t put it past Willow to help things along with a wink, and a wiggle of nose. The sun is out now, and the rising humidity makes for an atmosphere of sultry languor. For a mountain girl from the Sierra Nevadas, the low waters and concrete jungles of Manhattan are a long way from home. She leans her head against the tree and listens to the music of the city she is learning to love. The chorale of bird songs. The guitar to her right. A saxophone somewhere off to her left. The hissing sound of wheels on tar. Distant sirens. Each spinning their own melodies, yet not fighting against each other.

Two young men toss a Frisbee back and forth—the chuffing sound of the disc’s spiralling arcs as it ascends and glides soothes her in some unfathomable way. Joy runs around and around in dizzying circles—kicking at the mulch around the tree, chasing squirrels, rushing the pigeons with gleeful shouts. From the path comes the clink and click of the dog walker with seven dogs on leash, all trotting along at heel. She closes her eyes and feels warmth of sun on her cheeks.

And then sweaty Willow comes and throws herself into her lap. “Tired already?” she asks, leaning down for a quick peck, before looking to make sure Joy is still within sight.

The expressive recurve of Willows lips curl up mischievously. “I heard you calling me,” she says, batting her eyelashes. “You weren’t calling me?” she asks, slightly breathless.

“I was calling you?”

Willow’s cheeks plump up with mirth, “Yeah, listen . . .” she says, holding up her hand for a long beat, and then marking the air with her index finger when she hears the sound. “There.”

Instead of using her aura sense she simply follows the twitch of Willow’s finger and hears . . . the long arcing whistle followed by the staccato two-tone. One side of her face crinkles and the other rises in a curl of pleasure. She knows exactly what Willow is saying. When she looks down she finds exactly what she thought she would—a shy but naughty grin.

Willow trills the chickadee call for her, like a song. “Heeyy sweetie, heeeyyy sweeetiee.”

“Poor bird,” says Tara.

“How come?”

“Still hasn’t found his sweetie.” Willow cocks a brow at her in question. “It’s a mating call.”

“Oh. That’s too bad. Anyway, I’m glad I found my sweetie,” Willow says with satisfaction and tucks her face into the curve of Tara’s belly while making little happy sounds.

Tara laughs, and pokes her playful lap kitten. “Willow, did you just call me a boy bird?”

“What?” comes the muffled word. “No. No boys, only girls. Women,” she says, face still attached to Tara and burrowing in further, “Very lush, well-endowed women. Woman! You.”

“Willow. Stop wiping your sweaty face on my shirt. I know what you’re doing. And now you know where Joy gets it from.”

Willow neither confirms nor denies the allegation, although, she does turn herself onto her back, and faces away. So there can be no more accusation of ad-hoc wipe-age.

She sees Joy squatting in a mulch pile, examining a section of twig with deep intensity. “Do you think she’s gonna put that in her mouth?”

Tara looks up. “She just might.”

“I don’t wanna get up,” Willow whines.

Tara starts to draw herself up with a roll of her eyes, but before she can displace the head in her lap, Joy sticks the pronged twig in her pocket. And both sigh with relief.

“I’m glad you suggested this, baby. It’s nice. Much better than stupid taxes.”

“Mmmhmm.”

Willow keeps her eyes on the park—seeing the squirrels explode in activity when their commune is disturbed either by an excited child or a dog; seeing the pigeons flocking at the edge of the trees. She runs her eyes over the strange and intricate lines of the new sculpture outside the lawn. Enjoys the sun on her neck, and settles in on her girl’s lap, letting herself get drowsier and drowsier.

As Willow turns her head to get comfortable, Tara sees the faint mark of teeth under her ear, the memory of how it got there sending a soft lurch through her. But she also recalls the other part. Willow’s fragmented energies, her emotional state, and the tears.

Taking a finger to the tiny hairs highlighted by the fall of light, Tara strokes the curve of her ear, bringing Willow back from the twilight of her nap. “Our clothes are on now. You want to tell me about it?”

After a long moment, Willow sits up and takes Tara’s right hand in her left. Twining their fingers together, clasping palms—just like the very first time. Her eyes follow the random motion of their girl. And at some point her gaze drifts away and falls inward with a grim frown. Her breathing speeds up and her grip tightens.

And soon, the words come. In dribs and drabs. Hesitantly. And shamefully. And introspectively.

“I used to worry all the time, you know? I still do. That it’s all gonna go away. That the happiness I have is stolen. I keep doing the math in my head, like Murder Math Problems,” she laughs, but there’s no humour in it. “Willow has 2 deaths, but the universe gives her 3 lives. If Willow disrupts the Slayer line, and the flow of all magic, everywhere, setting the First Evil free to walk this Earth, how many lives does she owe?” The breath she takes flutters in her stomach.

Tara only listens. She doesn’t agree or disagree; or comfort. Just sits there next to Willow. And keeps an eye on their child.

“Back then I told myself, if I die, that’s fair. And right. And if Buffy dies? Well that’s okay, there’s Faith. Am I horrible for thinking that way . . . I’m horrible, aren’t I?” Willow hears the sigh of breath and hurries her next words. “And uh, if you . . .” she gulps, unable to say the words. “I guess that’s a proper punishment. Like going to hell. But better. More torture-y.”

And then she looks up, straight at the small, new person who has now confused all her alwayses. “But her? She’s just a baby. I mean she didn’t ask for any of this. But we brought her into the world anyway.” And now she looks at the blue eyes that have always made her feel as free as the sky, but have always anchored and her held her down when she was in danger of drifting away. Bruised eyes full of reproach. And anger.

Tara bites her lip and turns away, ducking her head so that the fall of hair hides her anger. “How are we having this conversation again?”

“I know . . .”

“How many times are we going to have this conversation?”

“I know . . .”

“How long—”

“I know, baby. I know!”

“No! What do you know, Willow? Tell me what you know. How long has this been going on? That you’ve been sitting on this?”

Willow says nothing only hangs her head.

“You don’t know?”

Still no answer.

“You don’t want to tell me. Because you keep things to yourself. All these years, and nothing’s changed.”

“Sorry, baby. I . . .” and bites her lip to stop the next useless words.

“Yeah . . . ‘you know’. But, sweetie, you don’t. You don’t know that I love you. That I choose to love you. That I know what you’re capable of. Do you know that?

“Do you ever think that I-I know what you’ve done. That I know that the thing you h-hate yourself for is the only reason I’m . . . I’m alive . . . that Buffy is alive . . . that we have a life together? That I know what you can do, and I stay with you. Goddess! Willow. I stay.”

“Yeah, but what if you don’t, baby? Stay, that is.”

“Oh, sweetie, I am gonna—” (she would never) and bites her tongue. “I’m going to do something!” And just like that they’re back to the signature issue of their relationship.

Quietly they sit, fingers still entwined, for several moments, maybe even minutes. Just a middle-aged couple with a child, sitting in the park on a Friday afternoon, having a fight about the same old thing. Still holding hands, still not letting go. Tara huffs out a tiny sigh, and sees Willow twitch beside her.

Tara sighs again, knowing there’s more. “Go on.”

Willow purses her lips, looking very guilty. “So, I know I’m a big dum-dum. But I think that thing in the basement? Where I banished the water-serpent demon spirit? Might be—”

Tara interrupts with a quick squeeze of their intertwined hands. “Sweetie?” she says ducking her head to look at Willow’s downturned one. “I’m going to ask you something—and I won’t be mad—but you have to tell me the truth.” Willow nods. “How long have you suspected the thing you’re about to tell me?”

She starts to respond suspiciously quickly, “Just a couple o—” but stops herself before Tara’s dubious expression has time to coalesce. “Well, I started thinking about it ‘round December. Then when I started having the dreams—you know, the ones about Giles—I sorta. . .” she finishes, bobbling her head along with Tara’s slow nod. “But the visions I had today . . . brrr!”

Well, that certainly explains a lot, Tara thinks. And tucking her hair behind one ear, reaches over to that pouty lipped profile and pulls a smushed cheek over to her for a smack. “I know, sweetie.”

Confuzzled by the change in emotional direction, and by being scooped on the mystical knowledge front, she flaps, “Know? How could you know, I only. . .” And then laughs nervously, “Right. With the castings and the astral projection and such. I did just tell you I’m a dummy, right? Because sometimes I am.”

Oblivious to the proceedings, Joy comes running over and dumps a pile of bosky remains in front of them. Squatting in front of the pile of twigs and leaves she warns Tara. “Mama, this is special. We be quiet or th’ beah comes t’eat you.” And then looking at Willow, who is trying desperately to make sure her face contains no traces of their little chat, says, “Th beah wantth to eat you,” and gives her the v-shaped twig she had pocketed earlier. “But I save you.” And just as quickly goes running back away to rejoin her mulchy musings.

Tara scooches sideways to sit thigh to thigh with her girl. “Look at her, Willow. She’s beautiful. We made her. Do you think she’d be so good, if there was anything really wrong with us? With you?”

“Baby?” Willow says plaintively, her eyes wide with worry, “What if she’s the one that gets chosen? To pay for the things I’ve done. I mean sure, I disrupted the flow of magic across everything and The Powers are real mad at me, and here I am sitting on top of a new hellmouth paying that off.

“But two people are dead. And I’m all . . . la-la-la . . . I’m so happy. I have my girl, I have my friends, I have my baby. Do I even really feel bad about it, or am I just afraid that the two of you will pay a horrible price for what I did? Because, baby? I’m telling you, I’m gonna fight that bill if it comes. Lives, money, power, magicks whatever I can throw at it, I will, because I don’t want anything to happen to you. I’m keeping the two of you here with me for as long as I live and however long I can after that. I hear myself thinking all this sometimes when I’m awake at night and . . . wow! It’s a lot Big Bad-y. And I think, am I it? Am I the thing everyone’s having the bad dreams about? Am I gonna go all Ripley in a power loader, not against a creepy alien thing but the whole world? ‘Cause I almost did that once.”

Tara sighs, letting the breath sink in all the way—down below her stomach—before letting it go. She thinks back to another conversation at another time—to a time before the beautiful, quicksilver cub of their heart existed; to the conversation that eventually dreamed her into existence.

How heavy her sadness had been then, how sharp her fear. How painful the idea of watching another woman she loved die from the creeping, crab-progression of angry cells. How after weeks of avoidance she had finally confessed her fear that she was undeserving of life and the magic of love and happiness. That maybe it was just that she should pay for her life with Willow’s. That by accepting with relief and joy the bright gift of life from Dark Willow she had taken away some essential light from the sun of her life. That she deserved the loss. How sweetly Willow had held her then; and reminded her that if anyone deserved happiness and love, it she should be her—she who had come to the Scoobies as an outsider and become their family, their conscience, and their counsellor. How grim-earnestly Willow had offered to fly to Quincy to kick her father’s ass for ever having made her feel that she was undeserving of anything good. How she had said that maybe if she confronted him “all with the black eyes and the veininess” he would know what a real demon is and finally give Tara the apology she deserved—the first time Willow had ever joked about it. How they had laughed at their bold imagining of impossible occurrences. The girl afraid of not being loved pleading with the girl who thought she was undeserving of love. And how she had finally let herself feel that things would be ok.

Funny, she thinks, looking at the sprite stamped in miniature from her, how the hurts of childhood never really go away. Thrown into the waters of time, they just keep washing back ashore on waves of memory. Maybe a little less sharp and a little more worn by time but, still, right there at your feet, even as the length of your life erodes around you.

She turns to Willow. The line of her jaw is softer, now, and the cheeks a little rounder. But underneath the new laugh lines and stress shadows, and the receding gauntness of disease, she can still see the diffidently wilful Willow of her youth. Bringing their joined hands to her heart before she kisses it, she says, “Baby, if that bill comes due? You do whatever you need to protect us.” She pours the blue sky of her smile into the green of Willow’s earth. “I’ll be here. With my hand on the airlock button.”

All of a sudden, Willow can feel her heart race and her ears get hot. She bumps shoulders with her love and tilts her head sideways. “Nerd . . .” she teases.

Tara lets the comment slide with only a pointed rise of eyebrow and toss of chin.

***


They are headed up and out of the park while swinging Joy between them over every puddle when Willow’s phone rings. She pulls the device from her pocket absently but flusters when she sees the caller’s ID. Holding the phone to chest she flutters at Tara, “Baby, I need to take this. It’s, er. It’s . . . Alan! I, er . . . I. Why don’t you go ahead, baby? I’m just gonna talk to him here where it’s quiet.”

With a resigned laugh—Willow and her damn spreadsheets—Tara nods and resettles the go-bag on her shoulder. “We’ll go use the restroom and clean up a little. I think,” she curves a thumb downwards at the dusty child, “somebody has a soggy bottom and didn’t tell us.”

Willow walks away towards a tree on the path so she can use it as a wind break and a privacy screen. “Hey, Dawnie! Whatcha doin’?”

Dawn rolls her eyes at the persisting diminutive. “Oh, nothing. Just fixing my hair before we land. Gotta look good for the immigration boys. And my favourite niece.”

“You have only one niece.”

“She’s still the best. So, did you manage to sneak her away, is she coming with you?”

“Aahhhh . . . sh-yeah . . . about that . . .”

The tinny sound of pealing laughter echoes in Willow’s ear, “What happened, she catch on? Is your surprise ruined?”

“No, no. No ruination. We just . . . had something come up. So I’m still here. At home.”

“And you didn’t call me?” Her voice pitches upwards in surprise at this very irresponsible behaviour.

“Well, I was gonna . . . text you.”

“Will . . .” she whines, even though her position as baby of the family has been usurped for a couple of years, “We land in, like, a half an hour. I can’t believe you’re not going to be here to get us.”

“Oh, like you don’t have Uber. Or whatever.”

“It’s not the same . . .” she cries woefully.

“So, how’s she doin’?”

“Fine!” Dawn responds sourly. “Still as jerk-y as ever.”

“Dawn . . .” Willow scolds.

“Yeah, I know. She has all kinds of trauma. Why can’t she just go to a shrink instead of hosing us down with her misery?”

“Dawnie!”

“Fine, she’s just a ray of sunshine.”

“Anyway, you don’t have to be all sad and pouty. Somebody’ll be there to pick you up.”

“Ooo! Lackeys?”

“No lackeys. Only Xander. Since I’m kinda bailing on him too.”

“Ohmygod! Xander’s here already?”

“I kinda found him an earlier flight, by making him drive out to Nashville. And his flight is supposed to land five minutes after yours at the same terminal. So I had planned that I’d pick you up at the same time. Like a tiny surprise for ya.”

“Yay! Xander. This is great . . .” Behind Dawn’s enthusiastic exclamations comes the muffled bing-bong of the announcement tone. “Ok, I’m gonna go now. They’re about to shut down the phone and wi-fi.”

“Bye, Dawnie!”

***


Cheered by being the bearer of happy, Xander news, Dawn ignores the peevish looks of all the people waiting to use the toilet. Nodding happily to the sound of descent announcements and seatbelt instructions, she floats happily up the aisle to her row. Ignoring the green-eyed blonde to the right of her, she plops herself down and grabs the arm on her left. “Oh my god. Guess what?”

“No,” comes the terse reply from behind the sleep mask.

“C’mon,” Dawn wheedles, “just guess!”

This time the reply is one of stoic silence.

“Fine, don’t guess,” she says and throws herself back in her seat, accidentally elbowing Buffy.

“Jesus, Dawn!” says her older sister, looking at the long, blue streak now going across her customs form, “Why must your elbows be everywhere?”

Pulling her passport wallet out from beside her, Dawn whips out a new form and slaps it on the tray table in front of Buffy. “Here,” she says disdainfully, “I got spares. I wasn’t sure you could fill it out right the first time.”

Buffy bristles at the sound of the quiet snigger from the other end of the row and mutters something under her breath.

Annoyed once again by the disruption of her happy mood, Dawn decides to pick a safe target, “I don’t know what your problem is, Buffy. If you hadn’t insisted on changing flights you wouldn’t have to fly with me and my elbows.”

“Hear, hear!”comes the low, flat voice from the other aisle seat.

Buoyed by the sudden reinforcement, Dawn continues her screed, “And we’d still have our business seats. Away from the galley. And,” she lowers her voice, “the babies.”

Buffy turns to look at the infant across the aisle who, having been removed from her bassinet, is now awake and fretting once again. “Dawn,” she says with an ironic tone, “not ten minutes ago, you were bouncing in your seat at the thought of seeing Joy. Who, I don’t know how to tell you this, is,” she says with emphasis now, “a baby.” Having thusly demonstrated her point, she continues, “And I don’t see why you can’t bother her about it. She could have just switched reservations with me.”

Having given up on having just five more minutes of quiet time, Faith finally removes her sleep mask decides to bail Dawn out. “What and ruin Glinda’s surprise? Red may be your best friend, but I’ll take the shitty economy seat over her being mad at me any day.”

Buffy snorts in response.

“Besides,” says Faith, “why should I deprive my favourite niece from spending quality time with her favourite aunt.”

The astonishingly boastful comment draws the other favourite aunts up short. They turn twin glares on Faith Lehane; and just like that, the Summers sisters are back on the same team.

***


After making sure that her assistants at the ice cream shop can close out the day without her, Tara comes home to find her girls on the floor of a very neat and tidy living room. From the way Joy is bouncing on Willow’s stomach, Tara thinks that it’s probably a good thing that Willow actually works out now because their tiny child is surprisingly dense for a child her size.

Both heads turn at her “hey, sweetie”, each sure that the greeting is for her only. And when she kneels by them, both pucker up for a kiss, which makes her laugh.

Knowing which side of her toast is buttered she reaches for her tiny duplicate and hauls her into her lap for a big kiss.

Now, Willow sees two sets of upside-down blue eyes looking down at her, and waits patiently for her greeting.

Putting Joy down on her feet Tara asks her, “Were you good, did you and Mommy have a good time?”

Joy nods happily and tells her all about it, “Mommy is a hossy. And we go vewy fatht. I eat the ca-wrots. Hossy ea’s the gwass. Fwroggy lifs in watuh. Not neah hossy.”

Tara nods earnestly at every declaration, “Wow! Such a good time.” And pats Willow on the head, “And Mommy was so good, being a fast horsey. Should we give her a kiss?”

Willow pipes up, “Yes, please!”

Tara taps her on the forehead. “Horsey, sh! Joy hasn’t said yet.”

Joy gives a shy smile and nods, and then Willow receives two sets of upside-down kisses—a sloppy one on her cheek, and a tender one on her lips, which is actually three . . . or four.

“Thanks for cleaning,” Tara says, and gives her another kiss as a reward.

Willow brightly accepts her reward. And, giving credit where credit is due, says, “Joy helped with the Swiffer.”

“What happened to bath time?” Tara asks, knowing that it’s soon approaching bed time.

“Thought I’d keep her up late. So she can get up late tomorrow. And she can stay up late for the party,” Willow says.

“Willow . . .” says Tara.

“What?”

“She needs her routine, sweetie.”

“You’ve been living with me too long. Since when’re you big with the routines,” she teases. “Also, it’s Friday! Friday night is party night.”

Tara rolls her eyes a tiny bit at this declaration as she stands up holding her hand out. “We’re watching Planet Earth reruns. Whoohoo! We’re really painting this town red.”

Willow hauls herself and plops down on the sofa, pulling Tara down with her. “Just a little bit more, ok, baby? Besides I need to recover from having my sides kicked.”

“Want me to rub it?” she says, rhetorically, and proceeds to rub Willow’s side without waiting for an answer. She notices Willow’s twitchiness and the way her eye keeps going to her cell phone. “Expecting a call?”

“No. No calls,” she says, and finds herself making eye contact with their child, standing in front of them demanding to be let in between.

Before Willow can wonder exactly which mom’s cuddle time the jealous, Kermit-wielding monster is trying to horn in on, there is a loud knock on their apartment door and she sits up.

Tara looks at Willow, very confused; because, how could anyone get up here without being announced by the doorman? And they don’t really do the neighbours thing with anyone on their floor. She heads to the intercom panel when she sees that Willow is already half way to the door.

“It’s ok, baby. I got it,” Willow declares excitedly.

Gathering up Joy, Tara stands at the head of the entryway. As the door opens, Tara hears a familiar masculine voice, and Willow’s happy shout of “Xan!” as she is lifted off her feet.

Smiling broadly, she goes back the way she came in only a few minutes ago, and gives Xander that hug she promised herself she would. “Hey, Xander. You came early,” she says, and holds a now shy Joy out to him. “Look, it’s Uncle Xander.”

Plucking the shrinking child from her mother’s arms he engulfs her in a bearlike embrace, and kisses her head proudly when he feels the tiny hand pat him gently under the eye patch with a quiet “Uncuhw Zan”. Resisting Tara’s attempt to pull him in to the apartment, he holds up a finger and says, “But wait, there’s more.” And sharing a wink with Willow pulls the door open again revealing Buffy and Dawn. And Faith.

“Buffy?” says Willow, surprised to see her a day early

“Faith?” says Tara, surprised to see her at all.

“Surprise!” say Buffy and Dawn, not surprised at anything.

“Hey, T,” says Faith to the gawping brunette. “April fool’s, I guess.”

***


Hugging and greeting each other, they trickle slowly into the living room with luggage in tow.

Having stolen Joy from Xander, Dawn asks Tara, “So were you surprised? You were surprised, weren’t you? I did good!”

“Quit hogging the credit, Dawn,” Buffy says, elbowing her, and then stealing Joy from Dawn. “It was Willow’s idea.”

“Ow! Yeah, but I’m the one who did the actual work.”

“With help from Willow.”

Rolling their eyes at the ever bickering Summers sisters they find places on the furniture and the floor.

Grabbing her baby holding bestie by the arm and showing her teeth so happily, Willow plops down in her previous spot. Looking across the coffee table to the floor where Xander is on his back hugging his knees to his chest she accuses, “Sneaky Xander! You didn’t tell me you met Buff at the airport.” Then turning to Dawn, “You too! Called me from the plane but didn’t say anything . . .”

Tara nods in agreement, now remembering what she had thought was a strange phone call in the morning. “And you, Buffy. I spoke to you this morning.”

“Just a day of surprises for you guys,” Buffy grins as she tickles Joy.

“Gotta tell you, Will,” Xander says with a grunt as he relieves the tension in his lower back, “Not a big fan of the being ditched by my oldest friend after driving a hundred and eighty miles through the most boring highway in Kentucky. Also not a big fan of the regional airports. Next time, you go to Missouri, or Kentucky, or wherever the scary, haunted motel hell I was.”

Willow rolls her eyes at his dramatic monologue. “It was Illinois.” But understands it is his way of deflecting the discomfort of returning to the place where Giles died. After all, she couldn’t bring herself to go.

Sitting up now, he says, “It was scary. Miles and miles of nothing but abandoned abdandonedness. I could have sworn there were tumbleweeds.” And pointing from Buffy to Faith says, “But happy to bring you a tiny surprise, to go with the big surprise for your sweetie.”

And all heads turn to look at the missing-for-the-last-few-months woman. Unable to explain herself, and feeling that skipping the awkwardness might be best, Faith dives right in with, “I can’t believe how much the munchkin’s grown,” and wonders if that maybe wasn’t the best thing to say if she’s all avoiding the awkwardness like.

“Yeah, she’s talking in full sentences already,” says Tara proudly, exasperatedly.

“I guess she takes after Willow,” she says, with a quirk of her head. Then tossing her head at Willow, says, “Looking good, Red. Been gettin’ into second servings of your honey’s ice-cream, there?”

Looking down at herself Willow looks questioningly at Tara as if to ask, What’s she talking about?

“You were looking a little skinny there for a while, and the hair . . . you know.”

“Faith,” says Willow as if speaking to someone especially dense, “that was almost four years ago.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. You’re looking good.”

Right confused by someone with an even fuzzier sense of time than her daughter, Willow shakes it off. “You guys hungry?” Buffy nods enthusiastically while Dawn shakes her head. And Faith and Xander shrug. “Pizza it is.”

***


Faith leaves the noise and laughter behind as she wanders down the hallway towards Joy’s room where Tara has taken the extremely sleepy child. Knocking on the door left ajar, she peeks her head around.

“Can I come in?”’

Tara nods and finishes pulling the shirt over Joy’s head.

Watching their bed time routine and seeing how Joy slides off the bed to pick her cuddle toy for the night, when she was rocking around like a fat penguin before, Faith realises she has lost a significant period of time with her friends. Once, four months would have been barely a blip in her radar. Now she feels as if the universe has turned on its axis.

“She’s so grown up now, T,” she says with wonder from her spot by the door.

“She goes running down stairs. Almost gave me a heart attack in the park the other day.”

On her walk back to the bed with the big red dog, she turns around and stares at Faith with eyes as wide as tiredness will allow, before hurrying back to her mother. Faith twitches her nose in amusement at the thought of the mother-daughter predilection for hugging red-heads in bed.

Tara slides off the bed to sit on the floor next to her. “Do you know who that is?” she asks. “Do you remember auntie Faith? Do you remember playing with her?”

Joy turns and whispers something in Tara’s ear.

“You can say it out loud, baby.”

Joy shakes her head and hugs the stuffed toy to herself instead.

“What’d she say?” Faith asks.

“She said ‘airplane’.”

Faith is surprised by how good that makes her feel. “She remembers.”

Tara stands up and pulls back a corner of the blanket and watches as Joy climbs in. “She sees your pictures. There’s a ton of video on Willow’s computer, you know? She sees your face.”

She pulls the blanket up to the child’s neck knowing that she’ll eventually kick it off in the night, and gives her on kiss on the head.

As Tara stands up she hears the muffled demand. “Mommy kisses me.”

Faith and Tara share a silent laugh at that.

“Yes,” says Tara. “Mommy’s coming. You have to stay in bed, though.”

They walk out of the room only dimming the light. They go as far down the hallway as they can without actually being in the living room but where Tara can discreetly signal Willow once she catches sight of her.

Thinking about the arrangement of their bodies in space Tara considers how it’s a metaphor for all the relationships in the room. Faith and Tara: the outsiders on the inside; Scoobies of a kind, but not Slayerettes. She guides Faith to stand at the shaded inside wall of the hallway while she takes a position on the outside wall.

Squaring off, Tara evaluates Faith from her position. Still looking fit, still with the same dark gleam in her eye, but now with a couple of silver strands in her hair; and looking just a little gaunt—but that could just be the long flight. She considers their strange friendship begun so long ago in the aftermath of being shot and in the advancing avalanche of the First Evil. How the less than sunny slayer not from Sunnydale had been one of the few people who understood what Willow was going through in the wake of murderous wrath and killing guilt. And who had helped Tara remember the sweet things about her love even as Willow struggled to understand that the darkness in her magic came not from outside but from inside her own emotional turmoil. Their friendship owing less to the bond arising from facing mystical powers and creatures and more to the shared experience of mundane hurts like parental negligence and childhood insecurity.

A flash of colour catches her peripheral attention, and she softly calls out, “Sweetie.”

Willow approaches them with a tilt of questioning head.

“Mommy kisses her,” Tara reports. And Willow brushes past them with a sheepish look.

Once Willow disappears into the room and shuts the door, Tara resumes her inspection of her unlikeliest friend. “Are you ok?” she asks. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Faith nods for the first and shakes her head to the second, appreciating the directness and how it contrasts with the young woman she first became friends with.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not yet.”

Tara nods in acceptance. Faith’ll talk. Soften her up with a couple of days of dive bars and laziness, and playing with Joy and she’ll talk. She always does. “Do you want to stay here with us? I know we made the room for Dawn. But she can go to the hotel.”

“Naah, I could use a good night’s sleep in a room all my own,” Faith says as they emerge into the living room. “I’m telling ya, I’m getting too old for third-class rail tickets and sketchy pensions.”

“Getting?” calls out Dawn, “You’re the oldest person in this apartment.”

“I may be 41, but at least I’m not passed out on the floor,” Faith retorts, pointing at the lightly snoring man on the floor.

As they all turn to look, Faith calls dibs. “I’m not helping carry him to the cab.”

Realising that the time difference has done them in for the night they break up for the night after planning to meet for an early breakfast at Chez Maclay.

***


Joy is having the best day of her life. This is not to be confused with the other best day of her life. Because that was yesterday. This is the gift of Joy (and loving parents, really, but Joy doesn’t know any better). So new in the world, that every day has the highest potential to be the best day. Today it’s blueberry pancakes and unlimited hugs; not to mention as much hanging upside down and airplane as a little girl can ask for. Best day.

“So whatcha guys up to this morning?” Willow asks as she sops up the last of the yolk with a piece of pancake.

Oh, nothing,” says Buffy

Dawn says, “Shopping.”

Faith Shrugs

Xander is too busy chewing but holds up one finger of his knife hand. After swallowing the last mouthful, he says, “I was thinking I’d go to the zoo. Maybe take you know who with me, if that’s okay.”

“Are you sure?” asks Willow, doubtfully.

“You implying I can’t handle it, Will? I take care of squads of big girl-babies for a living. No, offense,” he says looking at Buffy and Faith. “She’s practically an angel.”

“Yeah,” Willow grumbles, “a real cranky angel if you don’t feed her on time.”

“Sure, Will. Because I never knew anyone like that growing up.”

“Hey!”protests Willow.

“Remember the muffin incident in 7th grade?” he asks, not above occasionally deflating his oldest friend’s ego.

“Heeyy!”

Joy who has been eating hash browns off Buffy’s plate perks up. “Muffin peez!”

Tara rolls her eyes at them. “There’s no muffin, baby. Eat your pancake,” she says putting a fat, blueberry laden piece on Buffy’s plate.

“What about you guys?” Buffy asks, helping herself to another pancake after being inspired by Joy’s morsel.

“Nothing much. Some paper work. Make sure the space is set for us later. Hair.” Willow looks at Tara, “What about you, baby?”

“Just a couple of hours downstairs.”

“You guys are working? Doing paperwork? On Saturday? That’s fu . . . nuts.”

“I’m just behind, on some stuff,” Willow says.

“Yeah, what happened yesterday?”asks Dawn.

“What?”

“You said some stuff came up. What happened?”

“Just, you know, the thing I have to do,” she says holding up her hands as Buffy shoots her sister a look. “And there was a, uh . . .” Willow stammers and looks to Tara for help.

“She was kind of a wreck after. And it was just a nice afternoon,” Tara explains. “We took a family day in the park.”

“Aha!” says Xander. “Playing hooky. I approve this message.”

Buffy nods approvingly. “Especially if someone can get ol’ Will here to do it.”

“Sure,” says Faith, “is that we’re calling it these days? Hope you at least got a baby sitter.” And is utterly unfazed by the looks of reprimand sent her way.

Dawn looks at Willow with sorrowful eyes. “You ditched me to play hooky in the park?” She gets up and goes to Buffy’s seat. “I was looking forward to the car ride with my best girl,” she says, removing the best girl in question from Buffy’s lap. Buffy protests more than the girl does. “And you were looking forward to riding with me,” she says kissing the little girl’s cheek. “Weren’t you?” she adds in a baby voice. “Yes, you were.”

“Please,” says Buffy, rolling her eyes “do you mind? She’s still eating.”

Dawn simply carries the mildly straining child off with her. “She can eat with me.”

Seeing Joy still trying to pull away, Buffy says, “This is why she doesn’t like you, Dawn. You keep ruining her fun.”

“What! Everyone knows I’m her favourite. Anyway, she only wants her pancake, don’t you, cutie?” she says, and demonstrates her point when Joy calms down at the re-appearance of pancake.

Xander shrugs and leans back in his chair with a satisfying pat to his belly. “As the only uncle here, I feel very secure in my favourite status. So, hurray for me,”

Faith simply snorts.

The Summers sisters look askance at this piece of commentary.

“You,” says Buffy, “probably don’t even exist in her memory anymore. Missing her birthday . . .”

“Oh, yeah?” Faith challenges before turning and leaning over the table to get a clear line of sight to the child. “Airplane?” she asks and sees the child’s head go up so fast she almost head butts Dawn. “Wanna go fly?”

Standing in Dawn’s lap, she tries to quick brown fox over Xander to get to Faith, who scoops her up with a triumphant laugh and lifts her over head. Taking her for a long glide around the table, Faith swoops her down by Buffy's head, making the blonde duck and Joy scream and giggle; and spinning away from the table, takes her around the sofa in another gliding swoop.

Ignoring Willow’s look of panicked concern, Tara calls out, “She just ate. I swear, if she pukes . . .”

The idea of puke being, well . . . vomitous, Faith swings her back around to the table and drops her in Dawn’s lap once again. “Sorry, short stuff. That’s it for now.”

“Any way,” says Tara in an attempt to put an end to the aunty antics, “We all know that Willow is her absolute favourite and that’s that.”

“Aw . . .” says Buffy, “She loves her Mommy.”

Catching the quick look between the two parents, Faith jumps in with, “Naah. You’re her favourite.”

“No, really. Willow is. I can spend all day trying to get her do something, and all Willow has to do is ask once.”

“Aw, you jealous, T?” Faith teases.

Willows reacts to this statement with a start. She looks at her partner in toddler crime and wonders if she really does feel inadequate. “Baby,” she says, crinkling her brow, “she loves you. She just thinks I’m her buddy or something. ‘Cause of the whole, you know, how we’re both immature thing.”

Faith agrees halfway. “Sure. It’s a phase. She’s two-ish, she wants to be her own girl. And she wants what her Mama has . . . all oedipal or whatever.” She feels three sets of eyes on her. “What?” she shrugs uncomfortably, “I read. Giles left me books.”

Tara sends her a smile of appreciation, and shakes her head.

“I’ll prove it. Red, switch with Xander.”

“Faith, really . . .” says Tara.

“Yeah,” Willow agrees. “She’s not a dancing monkey.”

At this point realising that the conversation involves her somehow, Joy watches the conversational tennis match with some interest as she uses the remains of a blueberry to draw designs on Dawn’s plate.

“Aw, c’mon! Fine,” says Faith. “Hey short stuff. Who's your favourite mom, Willow or Tara?”

“Mama,” the girl says pointing to Tara. “Mommy,” she says, pointing to Willow.

“Yeah,” Faith agrees. “But who's your favourite, Mommy or Mama?”

She tilts her head with a frown and says again, pointing to Tara, “Mama.” Then pointing at Willow, “Mommy.”

“Little politician,” Faith grumbles when everyone laughs. “Smart kid, aren’t ya?”

The little politician nods happily. Compliments are nice.

“Ok. We'll do this the old fashioned way.” Faith walks over to Willow and asks, “Who's this, is this Mommy?”

Joy looks at her dark, airplane buddy, her blue eyes wide with confusion, and nods.

“Mommy’s nice, hanh?” says Faith, patting Willow on the shoulder. “Can she be my Mommy?” she asks the child before muttering quietly, “Sorry, Willow,” and then laying a big smooch on Willow’s protesting cheek and hugging her. “She’s nice, can she be my Mommy too?”

From Dawn’s lap, the silent girl regards Faith with dark suspicion as she bites her lip.

Getting no more response, Faith goes around Willow and stands next to Tara. “How ‘bout Mama? Can Tara be my Mama?” she asks the staring child.

As Faith goes around to stand next to Tara, the blueberry finger painting comes to a stop. Her little index finger stuck like a needle in a lock groove. All she says is, “Mama.”

Winking at Willow, knowing exactly what she’s doing, once again Faith mutters, “Sorry, Willow.” Then turning back to the tense toddler, says, “Ok. Tara’s my Mama, too,” and sits down in her lap.

Faith looks between Willow and Joy, both of whom definitely have their smiles turned downside-up, and bites down on her laughter while defending herself from the swat Tara is trying to deliver.

Utterly confused by the strange behaviour of her airplane buddy, Joy presses her lips together in a frown and a pout, looking for all the world like a determined but sad eyed pug. “My Mama,” she says piteously, looking at Willow for some kind of help.

Shaken out of her stupor by the sight of that plaintively quivering lip, Willow reaches across the table corner and hauls her little baby into her lap. “Oh, Boo Boo,” she says, hugging the now slack body in her arms. “No. She’s joking,” she says kindly to her sad girl, while still somehow managing to send the glare of death to Faith.

Faith, too, realising she might have pushed it too far, stands up to hug the girl.

Joy tucks her head in Willow’s neck and pushes Faith away with a whine. “No. Don’ wannit!” And then seeing Tara, holds her arms out, while delivering Willow a mulish kick to the ribs to push off in Mama’s direction.

Tara winces in sympathy at the sight but decides that the feelings of the actual baby, instead of the big baby, take precedence and takes her little cub into her arms, gently running a soothing hand up and down her back.

“Told you, T,” Faith declares, as she goes back to her chair. “She loves her Mama.”

“Way to go, Faith,” Buffy pronounces, not meaning it at all.

Xander stands up to collect the plates. “See, Will? She really does need a day in the park with Unca Xan.”

***


While Tara refreshes Xander on all the straps and buckles of the baby carrier, Willow and Buffy conspire as they load the dishwasher.

“Ok,” says Willow in a low voice, “I know everyone’s being all sneaky, but you’re sure she isn’t planning any surprises.”

Buffy shakes her head, “Oh no.”

“How do you know? Have you been talking about it? ‘Cause if you’ve been talking about it, Buff. She probably knows I’m planning something.”

Used to the constant over-thinking, Buffy shrugs off the paranoia. “Will, if she’s planning something, none of us knows. Maybe Faith,” she rolls her eyes, “because they’re such weird good friends and all. But I don’t know. And if she is, then well, that’s great. You’ll surprise each other. And that’s nice, right?”

“Mutual surprises are nice,” Willow agrees doubtfully.

“So what’d you get her, can I see?”

“Anh anh. It’s bad luck.”

Wondering if its superstition or worry that she’ll blab, Buffy counters with, “I’m pretty sure that rule is for wedding dresses and grooms.”

Willow holds fast to the surpriseness of her surprise gift. “You’ll see it when everyone else sees it, Buff.”

“Ok,” shrugs Buffy. “I don’t know what you’re so nervous about. It’s not like you’re asking her to marry you. You did that already and she said yes.”

“No, it’s just,” Willow looks up to make sure they’re not being overheard. “It’s a big deal Buff. I never thought . . .”

“I get it. Hey, how many time have I prophecy died? But . . .” she gestures at herself with sweeping hands.

“I hope she likes her gift,” Willow says absently. “So, do you think she’ll like it?”

“Will, did you seriously just ask me that? Right after you said you weren’t going to show me?”

“Oh, right.” No, she thinks, of course she’ll like it. There’s no way . . . “Ok, so I asked the doorman to leave everything here for you. And the bar is only nine blocks from here. So you should be able to slip out first and set things up.” Stricken by another bout of neurosis she asks, “You think you can get everything set up?”

“Will!”

“Ok, ok. Just being nervous and over planning. But don’t tell Faith. She’ll blab. You know how those two like to talk.”

Buffy rolls her eyes. “I know. Still so weird.”

“Ok,” says Willow, diligently resuming the loading of the dishwasher, “here she comes. Act normal.”

Seeing the two of them all huddled up, Tara asks, “What’s the secret?”

“Secret?” yelps Willow. “There’s no secret. We’re just talking. Besties. Talking.”

Jesus Christ, Will, Buffy thinks. So much for poker face. And steps into the breach. “We were just talking about how weird it is that Faith and you are such good friends. Well, I was talking. Willow was being weird because she thinks you’ll be mad.”

Tara sees Willow’s sheepish smile and just gives her a kiss. “It’s ok,” she says before walking off, “I think it’s pretty weird too.”

Willow sighs an outsized breath of relief and elbows Buffy, “Don’t do that again!”

Buffy barely feels the nudge. “Please!” she says scornfully. “ ‘Act normal.’ Every time you say that it’s a guarantee that you’ll be weird.”

***


The first people to show up at the bar apart from the Scoobies are, of course, the Slayers Gen 2.0. Because the heavens know no slayer’s ever been able to turn down a good time. Not even Buffy Ann Summers. Also? Open bar.

One third of them make a bee line to the bar and pretend to ponder their orders when really they’re ogling Faith Lehane, the last in the original line of succession. Another third of them congregate around the person who is now the senior most Watcher, by reputation if not by age. What hot-blooded girl can resist the scar and the eye patch; and the insane body count.

The other third are split evenly between goggling at mythical Buffy Summers and her best friend, the potential Destroyer of the World. Julie and Mikayla being somewhat outside the slay squaddies, and being somewhat more used to dealing with Very Strange Things that don’t always require killing, find themselves a four-top (they’re not anti-social, after all) and sink their beers. They may be on magic call. But after what they’ve been through yesterday, if anything wants to come for them, they’re welcome to try getting past the very nice witch with the blue eyes.

Dawn, who is engaged in the act of documenting this shindig (she’s not the head archivist and researcher for nothing, you know), takes quite a few prize photos of this action. Especially of Xander attempting to turn down, and/or extricate himself from the social weavings of a couple of, not necessarily so young, slayer types. But mostly what she’s struck by is the fact that most of them seem to clear out of the way as soon as she appears. The smiling pictures of Xander are quite lovely . . . But if these girls are going to hit on Xander at a party thrown by his best friends, surely they shouldn’t object to being photographed by them either.

When Tara’s business and social media crowd show up, they’re surprised—and a little intimated—by the strange crowd of toughs and weirdoes that the small business owner is surrounded by; but chalk it down to the already weird fact of being at a Cajun themed bar so close to Park Avenue. And to Willow’s cover story of running a foundation for juvenile offenders.

If anyone ever thought the weird things people in Sunnydale accepted with barely a shrug were insane. They’d clearly never been to the Big Apple. And what is that apple laced with anyway?

Buffy watches all this action and uses her considerable mental powers of denial to blot out the existence of all the young women in the room who share the power she first inherited 24 years before them. And all she sees is a couple with a child, and their best friends and work colleagues celebrating a happy event. She concentrates on the snippets of mundane conversation around her—the size of someone’s tax return; a cousin accepted at Stanford; the subway line under constant construction; buying a house in the suburbs—and allows herself to feel mundane for a few moments. The paraphernalia of a life she does not have to live. Although, she might—as Giles told her often enough when he was still alive—now choose to live it. And as wistful as that adolescent yearning for “normalcy” is, she recognises it for what is and shakes it away.

Without the “abnormal” she would not have the friends she has. And damn it, she likes the friends she has. No, in fact, she loves them. But not Faith. Or . . . maybe Faith too. Or . . . well, it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t have to decide now. Whatever is coming for her down the line isn’t here yet. Maybe she’s just going to enjoy her fried oysters. And wait for the cake to come out. Oh, no. No cake. Gotta leave room for later. And where is Joy? She really does look so cute in that dress.

Joy is weaving in and out of the forest of tall adult legs, completely at ease with friends and strangers alike. Every so often one of her parents peeks an eye out for her, and assured that she is still in one piece and not harassing Unusually Strong Girls for some kind of head rush, gets back to her interactions. In her bacchanalian peregrinations, by some animal instinct, the pint-sized prodigy manages to locate her Mama.

Slapping Tara imperiously on the calf, she demands level eye-contact. Her mother is just getting ready to give her the eyebrow when Buffy comes upon her in her cute dress and seizes her, and places her on a bar stool. Success! She no longer has to look through people’s legs. But uh-oh, what’s this. That airplane playing usurper is leaning against the bar right there. But today Joy’s been to see the sea lions already with Uncuhw Zan. She is full of determination! And with the astute directness of babyhood says quite clearly—no floundering, flinching or quavering—just to make sure there’s no confusion, “My Mama,” and hugs Tara.

This is the moment that Dawn captures right as Xander is walking up to her—the possessive child in her Mama’s arms and her two adoring, indulgent aunts. She shows the burst capture to Xander who awws and coos over the series. And they both walk over to show off the pictures on the camera.

Meanwhile, Willow is starting to get antsy about wrapping up this party and getting to the main event, but is missing the co-star of honour who has promised to be here today. Right as she steps out of the bar to make the phone call. Dr Roy arrives, and is dragged off into the bar so that they can get to the cake.

Tara too is starting to wonder. Willow has been dodgy again all evening, but since they’ve only just had that talk the previous night knows there’s nothing to worry about. It’s just that it’s getting on past 7 pm and they have the bar only until 8 pm, and there’s cake, and you try informing the open bar crowd that their privileges are now suspended. But just in time, she sees Willow’s red head parting the sea before her, and realises why things have been held up. Walking up to Willow’s doctor she gives her a warm hug. “Thank you so much for coming, I know you’re busy.”

“Not at all,” the plump, dark haired woman says and she leans up to kiss Tara on the cheek. “I couldn’t miss this. But I can only stay for a few minutes. And, oh my god, is that little Joy?” She shares a look of wide eyed appreciation with Tara. “Gosh, I remember when mine were that age,” she says with nostalgia.

Tara crinkles her eyes in thanks. “You’re, erm, just in time for the cake.”

Quickly Tara introduces Dr. Roy to all the people who constitute her family. Starting with Faith, who shakes the doctor’s hand firmly. The rest of the interactions are more physical assaults by tackle-hug than introductions, but they do manage to release the doctor in one piece.

“Sorry,” says Willow. “They’re just happy to finally meet you.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” says the doctor clearing her throat, “I am used to it a little. So, there’s cake?”

Xander and Dawn take their cue, and clear off to find their prize.

“Can we get you anything to drink?” Willow asks.

“Just club soda is fine. I have to attend an institute dinner, and it’s better if I’m sober for at least the first hour.”

Willow nods in sympathy.

Xander and Dawn re-appear giggling and shoving each other, with a very large cardboard box, stacks of sturdy paper plates, forks, spoons, and a ginormous plastic cake-knife.

Tara starts to unbox the cake, but is held back by Xander. “You guys should probably get the speeches out of the way.”

“Yes!” says Dawn. “Speeches first. You don’t want things floating down from the ceiling and falling on the cake. You know for . . .” and shuts up as soon as she realises she’s making a big thing out of it. And helps speed things along by taking Joy off Tara’s hands.

Even though this whole party is essentially her idea, suddenly confronted with the prospect of public speaking, Tara is stricken by nerves and regresses just a little bit. Tucking stray hairs behind her ear, she dips her head and flushes. Then with a clearing of her throat she resumes her confidence.

“Thank you all for coming to celebrate with us. These last few years you guys have really put up with a lot.”

There’s much throat clearing and foot shuffling from the slayer and witch cohorts. And some nervous giggling from the ice-cream shop irregulars.

“But because you guys put up with a lot, Willow, Joy and I were able to concentrate on being a family and getting Willow up to good health again. Dr. Roy, I know we owe all of this to you and your care. But mostly, thanks for putting up with Willow’s craziness.” Then turning to the rest of her family, finishes with, “And you guys—I love you.”

There is a small moment of glacial silence, the usual squeamishness when someone expresses a sincere and honest sentiment in public. So it falls to Faith to slay the awkwardness with, “Yeah, Red. We’re all wicked glad you’re not gonna croak. All us miscreants’d be up the creek.”

The ice broken again, Xander resumes his cake cue.

Buffy takes this moment to pay attention to the unusual excitedness of her younger sister who, yes, has a sweet tooth, but . . . Really, manic much?

With a hand on either side of the cardboard topper, Xander whips it away with a flourish to reveal a peachy-pale, dome shaped confection with a darker very distinctive pinnacle.

As always the astute Boo Boo is correct and instantaneous in her observation. “Boobie!” she says enthusiastically.

Tara’s hand is over her mouth, which going only by her eyes, is covering an expression of either horror or great laughter. Buffy wants to laugh, but is waiting to take her cue from Tara. Faith is tickled as all get out. Dawn and Xander looking eminently pleased with themselves, pump their fists and do a remote high-five. And Dr. Roy’s laughter is deep, hearty and full of appreciation. Willow, her face now a shade clashing with her hair, makes a choked gurgling “hrk” sound.

“Mama! Boobie!” Joy says again from within Dawn’s grasp.

And Willow who is standing next her, ever the mature parent, controls her hrking long enough to say, “Yes, baby. It’s a breast.” That last part almost as if reassuring herself that she is not seeing things.

Tara decides that an adult needs to step up to the plate. Picking up the cake knife she starts to cut a piece. “Would anyone like some cake?” she asks. “I hear it’s the breast. I mean,” she deadpans, “the best.”

***


Pete, the manager, shoves them out of the bar with hugs and handshakes; assuring them that if things start to get rowdy with the kids left behind, he’ll call them before he calls the police. And besides, they are now too old and too well dressed to be seen with his regular Saturday night crowd. They go stumbling out the door, smile-drunk and love-sotted with each other. When Tara moves below her an extra step, Willow pulls her around into a quick kiss. That lasts a few seconds longer than she intended. The loud wolf-whistle from the herd of approaching undergrads draws Willow’s indignant attention, but Tara keeps her in position until she decides she’s done with the kiss. Looking up to tell the boys to mind their manners, Willow realises that it’s the girls in the group grinning and giving them the thumbs-up as they jostle by. Her flush runs deeper when Tara pulls her hand up to show off the wedding band as she smiles indulgently at the group and says, “Seven years!” to the sound of more whistles, and applause. No! Willow wants to say, it’s twenty. She was mine way before we were married. But she keeps her comment to herself and smiles instead.

Hand in hand they walk up the avenue in quiet intimacy—silently admiring the trees bounding the park and the brilliance of spring blooms under lamplight. Tara feels Willow’s fingers pressing rhythmically against the back of her hand and wonders what she could be preoccupied by.

“Do you want to take a cab?” she asks.

Broken out of her reverie, Willow snaps her head up. “No, baby. It’s only six more blocks. It’s a pretty night.

“You know Joy’s fine, right? She won’t give them any trouble.”

“Oh. I wasn’t worried about that, baby,” Willow assures. “Of course, she’s fine.”

“But you are, worried about something?”

Subtly picking up their pace before Tara wheedles out her plans, she asks, “No, why would you say that?”

Tara holds up their joint hands. “You’ve been twitching away for the last three blocks.”

“Oh. Just all keyed up from the party. And also sort of tired a little bit. I wasn’t expecting the cake.”

Tara giggles.

“I mean I was expecting cake. But I wasn’t expecting that cake. Not that there’s anything wrong with the cake we got,” she blushes. “I mean we’re all adults here.”

“Except for Joy,” reminds Tara.

“Except for her.” And reassuring mostly herself, says, “But she won’t remember, most likely. But that was just a little . . .” she starts to look concerned.

“Funny?”

“Funny!?” huffs Willow, almost shouting.

“I thought it was funny,” says Tara knowing that Willow’s only embarrassed, not upset

“Okay, it was a little funny,” she admits. “And it made Dr. Roy laugh. Which was nice.”

Having brought her publicly proper partner back to an even keel, Tara sets her off again. “And it made you turn a funny colour, which was also funny,” she says with an easy laugh.

Willow stops walking and Tara is jerked backwards by her arm. With a gleam in her eye, Willow says, “Just you wait until you get home . . .”

“Oh, yeah?”

Walking again, Willow smiles cryptically

***


Tara thinks it’s strange that the apartment is dark and quiet when they get back.

“Hello,” she calls into the dark entryway as she fumbles for the switch, which is also strange since she should be able to see the glow of the indicator light. She clicks the switch back and forth fruitlessly. “Weird,” she says to Willow. “Must be the fuse box.”

But the outside light is plenty to see by. And as they move further into the apartment she looks across the width of the room to the dining table and notices something in the back light of the city glow. Realising that Willow’s twitchiness all the way up means that she’s been up to something, she gives her a strange look before walking over to the table.

Meanwhile Willow creeps along behind her, fervently hoping that Buffy doesn’t blow her cue.

On one end of the table, is a bottle of champagne and glasses, a small stack of plates and a quarter-sheet cake with a dark message scrolled against the white frosting.

Squinting in the faint light, she sees the writing. “Happy 20th”. The briefness of the laudatory message creates a slight moment of mystification as she wonders whose birthday . . . when she realises what the message really means. Twenty years from one very special night in late April of 2000. She looks up in shock and wonder, the blip of embarrassment at having foregone such an important date lost in the glow of Willow’s smile.

Willow comes up to stand behind her, arms around her waist and looking over her, reads the message out loud, “Happy twentieth.” She steps around to stand next to Tara and picks up something from the table and pantomimes feeling around in search of something. Knowing there’s no suppressing the mischievous triumph of her expression she plays the charade through—holding up the book of matches, and then her other empty hand she says, “No candles?”

Standing in the city glow of the tall windows, looking at the brilliance of her smile and the earnest pride suffusing her face, Tara decides that she has never seen a more beautiful Willow. Not even the Willow who said those words the first time. Because that Willow, that girl, had still only been a dream she had reached for with no hope of holding on to. But this Willow, the woman, was, at once, more than a dream and more than merely real. This Willow was the one she had spent an entire lifetime with; two if she counted her life after the bullet; and three if she counted the tiny life they made together. And what could be more beautiful than three amazing chances at discovering love for and with the same person, with plenty of time left for more.

Willow knows she has done well when Tara fails to notice the light in the apartment come up in a quick fade. Frozen in place with an expression of absolute tenderness she also fails to notice the tiny procession approaching from the bedroom hallway. Willow takes her stunned lover’s hand and points to the person being ushered towards them, nudged along by whispers of encouragement. The tiny spark from both their flames approaches them slowly, and stopping before Willow holds up a little box. Willow picks her up and encourages her to hold the box out to her Mama, who receives the present from the solemn bestower with equal dignity and gives her a kiss in return. Tara opens the box to see a pendant—the palest of round-cut, blue sapphires—pale enough to match her eyes—surrounded by slim, yellow navettes of the same precious gem, arranged in a starburst around the central stone.

Willow watches the slim fingers wordlessly trace the shape of the pattern over and over again. Joy lays a sleepy head against hers and still they stay cocooned in the strange spell they’ve woven around themselves with memory and sentiment.

The silence lingers as the seconds tick by and Tara remains enamoured of the gift in her hand, recalling the pattern etched in the candle so long ago. The candle. Was there any other candle? Could any memory burn brighter? She knows she needs to say something, but her feelings are overwhelming. She knows she must speak soon, but doesn’t rush herself. She knows Willow will wait patiently because there is no reason to doubt her feelings or her response to this moment. She knows she must speak. So she draws her two lives into her embrace and holds them close.

Their friends wait at a distance like restive horses—shifting from one leg to another—but know it is not their place to break whatever spell is weaving itself in the room. And eventually they see Tara draw back from the hug in response to Willow’s quietly spoken, “Happy anniversary, baby,” and wave them over. This sets off a round-robin of hugs and exclamations of congratulations and exchange of tears. The tears as much an emotional reminder of their own long lives and improbable relationships as it is of the very long romance they are celebrating.

Still wiping happy tears from her eyes, Tara says, “I don’t know what to say.”

“How about, how much you like the secret present Willow got for you?” says Buffy. “Is it pretty, is it a ring? Is it really, really expensive? Do you love it?”

Tara opens the box and hands it to the pestering blonde. “I love it. But not as much as I love who gave it to me.”

Buffy eagerly takes the velveteen box wondering what it could be that had Tara enchanted for so long and frowns when she sees the gift. As striking as it is, she isn’t able to understand what about it is so spellbinding. “Is it magic,” she asks.

The two women respond without looking at each other, “Yes.” And smile at their synchronicity, Willow ducking shyly when Tara winks at her—their little secret.

“Oh god!” Faith says with a look of excruciating pain, “You guys are so sweet, it’s actually . . .” she finishes, “sweet.”

Knowing Faith is still not one for open declarations of sentiment, Tara tilts her head and teases her, “I think ditching your secret quest in Europe to come here for our anniversary is sweet.”

“Shut it.”

“Don’t you think it’s sweet, Buffy?” she asks, roping a likely ally into the game, while Faith rolls her eyebrows.

“I think,” Dawn cuts in, “that tracking her down in No Place, Bulgaria was sweet,” and reaches in for another hug from her favourite surrogate parent figure.

Not wanting to be the centre of this game anymore, Faith deflects the attention back on to the instigator, “Yeah, well, I think it’s sweet somebody remembered this anniversary. Not like it was a big number or anything.”

Everyone realises that Xander still hasn’t said anything and turn to find him in a tight hug with his best bud and her tiny buddy. Turning to face the three women staring at him expectantly he says in his best bluster, “I’m only here for the cake.” Then feeling Willow looking up at him with a dangerous glint at the mention of cake, snatches the bottle from the table and says, “And champagne?”

***


Later in the night—after their daughter has been passed around once more from adult to adult like an infant in a monkey troop, and then been taken off for nigh’-nigh’ by Dawn and Xander, and the two slayers go to the kitchen to rinse glasses and load the dishwasher—the anniversarians finally take a moment to themselves again. All night they have stolen shy touches and glances, as if simply celebrating the memory of that night twenty years ago has turned them into the bashful youngsters they were then.

“I can’t believe I forgot,” Tara says, with her arms around Willow’s neck

“You didn’t forget, you were celebrating something else. And anyway,” she teases, “I love you. Even though you’re not perfect.” Ha. Two can play that game. Even if one has to wait more than 24 hours to get a shot in.

“I love my present,” she responds, not wanting to dispel the tender air. “But I didn’t get you one.”

“I’m holding my present.”

“Good present?”

“The best.”

“Thank you.”

“For what, baby.”

Tara smiles, giving Willow’s words back to her. “For everything. For being here.”

“Hey, no copying me.”

“You were super sneaky. How did you get everyone to keep quiet about it?”

Willow shrugs, and grins. “I didn’t tell them until they got here. I thought it would be nice, you know.”

“I still can’t believe I didn’t remember.”

“It’s okay baby. I made you cry that day. I wouldn’t want to remember any cry days.”

“Oh? You made me cry today. Should I forget today?”

“You’d better not.”

“Or else?”

“Or else, Joy’s never listening to you again. Just wait.”

“I don’t believe you. Remember breakfast?”

“Oh,” says Willow recalling Faith’s demonstration and putting on her resolve face. “Should we tell them now?”

“What are you telling us?” Faith asks walking over to a window and sliding it up. The noise of the city rushes in drowning out the quiet atmosphere. “Shit!” she says, “It’s not against some stupid city code or anything is it, smoking on the fire escape?”

“Nope,” says Willow. “No code.”

Thinking that if anyone knows it’s Willow, Faith steps out the window and lights up. “Hey, you guys ok?” she calls from the fire escape, the smoke billowing away behind her. “You’re looking pretty serious there.”

“We’ve got something to tell you and Buffy.”

“She’s in the bathroom,” Faith says, when she sees Willow turning around to look.

Willow nods. They can wait a few minutes.

With a nod and a kiss to Willow’s temple, Tara walks over to the window, sensing the lull in Faith’s defences. She doesn’t even have to say anything, just looks without moving her gaze and Faith twitches and looks away.

Faith takes another deep drag, the stub flaring up in the night. “I had to get away for a while. I was out there in Salisbury or something, at the village market. And I see this old book some geezer’s selling and I think, ‘I bet Giles’d like that’. And I just had to go.”

Keeping her distance, but knowing Faith can see her, Willow nods in understanding.

“You ever think about that day, how we couldn’t save him?”

Only if trying not to think about it counts, Willow thinks. But says nothing.

“And you . . .” Faith asks Willow, sucking her cigarette down to the stub. “You ever think about that?”

“Nothing happened—”

Faith puts out the stub and cuts Willow off. “You ever think maybe the cancer . . .”

Tara looks at her and shakes her head, begging her not to bring this up now. Willow shrugs in avoidance. Some conversations she’d rather only have with Tara.

Buffy walks into the room at this critical juncture and observes the taut triangle and immediately tenses up. Why is there ‘C’ word talk? This whole night is supposed to be about no more ‘C’ word.

“Plus,” Faith adds, “I’ve been having these fucked up dreams.”

Willow’s ears perk at this information. “About Giles?”

Buffy, too, who has been waiting to talk to Willow about this, leaps in to the conversation and makes her presence known with an incredulous, “You too?”

“Yeah!” Faith exclaims trying to express how fucked up her dreams are just with her expression. “Jesus! What the hell happened to us back there?”

“I don’t know,” Buffy replies. “But something’s happening.”

The Big News Girls share a look, and Willow walks over to hold Tara’s hand, the serious look on their faces ratcheting up Buffy’s tension. “What’s going on?” she asks.

“We, er, need to talk to you about something,” Tara says seriously.

Overly-Concerned Buffy is on full alert, and rushes over to the window to join them. “Is everything ok with Willow?” Seeing the start of a grimace as Tara looks at Willow, Buffy jumps to an unfortunate conclusion. “We were celebrating, right? This was a celebration? She’s not sick again?”

Realising that Buffy has connected the dots and come up with Big Pineapple instead of Big Bear, Tara rushes in with, “Yes! Yes—”

“Oh my god, she’s sick?”

Faith, who cannot believe the hysterical turn her fellow slayer has just taken, bursts out with, “Jesus, B!”

“Buffy, no!” Tara explains, “I mean, ‘Yes, this is a celebration’.”

“Tara, don’t scare me like—”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, then!” yells Willow at her best friend

“Cause I can’t—”

“Buffy . . .” Willow tries again.

“Take it, you know—” Buffy continues heedless of the interruptions

“Holy shit!” Faith exclaims at this rising comedy of hysteria.

“I’m . . . I . . . I’m old now.”

“Buffy!” yells Tara.

“What?!”

“I’m older than you are!”

“You are?” Buffy cocks her head in confusion before remembering, “You are! What’s your regimen?” Then, remembering the little lavender-coloured dropper bottle in the master bath asks, “Are you using just the serum? Or the under-eye cream, too? ‘Cause you look . . .” Clapping her hands and shaking her head, “great!”

Before she can stop herself, Tara blurts outs, “Just the serum,” and face-palms, before looking to see if there’s some sort of enchantment in the room, some vanity demon, or some sort of dimensional field of craziness. “Sweetie, can you just . . . Can we focus in for a second?”

Now calm, Buffy settles her shoulders into relaxation. “Ok, so what’s the what with the doom and gloom faces?”

“You know why we live here now?” she asks rhetorically, watching carefully, as Buffy and Faith nod. “So the cold room . . .?”

“Where she banished the Maha . . . magog . . .?” fumbles Buffy.

“Maxa’xâk,” prompts Tara.

The precise pronunciation of the guttural sounds is absolutely no help to the Slayer of Sunnydale. “Yeah, the giant snake guy.” She stops to think about it. “What is it with us and giant snake guys anyway?” she asks, looking at Faith, and then Willow. “You think it’s some kind of weird se. . . eh . . . aahh . . . I’ll stop now.”

“Thanks,” Tara says gratefully, meaning it with a profoundness she has no way of conveying. “So, it’s a doorway . . .” she says significantly.

“A doorway . . .” Buffy repeats, uncomprehending.

“. . . To another dimension?” Faith asks, to confirm her suspicion, and lights another cigarette when she gets a nod. And, when Buffy still doesn’t get it, adds with a disdainful look, “Where demons come and go?”

“Oh . . . a . . . doorway to a demon dimension . . .” she says catching on. “Oh!” she exclaims, “It’s a hellmouth!” Using the word Tara does not want to use, understanding and disbelief warring on her unnaturally youthful face.

Tara breathes a sigh of relief. “We’re going to need somebody more experienced here. A senior Watcher, maybe . . . Or,” she says looking at Faith, “a slayer.”

But Buffy is still on her own track. “The ice-cream shop is on top of a hellmouth? You’re using a hellmouth to make ice-cream. How come this one’s cold? We’re all eating hellmouth ice-cream?”

“And sorbet, Buffy,” says Tara, poker-faced. Amazed that this is the aspect Buffy has chosen to latch on to. “They’re a summer bestseller.”

Now, Buffy realises she’s being tweaked and glares at Tara, who returns a smile.

“Why didn’t you guys tell us?”

“We figured it out yesterday. We’ve had other things on our mind.”

Well, thinks Buffy, new city, new job, Giles dying . . . cancer . . . baby . . . And in a remarkable display of her fully burgeoned maturity, while thinking all of those things, only says, “Which is understandable.” Still nodding sympathetically, she waits for either Tara or Willow, who is staring at her open-mouthed, to speak.

Seeing the expectant stare, Tara concludes, “So, uh, that’s what we wanted to talk to you about.”

“Oh. You made me think Willow was dying!” Smiling broadly in relief, and forgetting her strength, she swats Tara.

Who responds with a loud, “Ouch! You jumped to conclusions.”

“Scaring us for a hellmouth!”

“Jesus Christ,” Faith mutters, avoiding Buffy’s gaze like the insanity is catching, and gives Willow a look of ‘She’s your friend.’

“Hellmouth . . . Pffft . . .” Buffy pooh-poohs disdainfully. Full of confidence she reminds her friends. “It’s what we do.”

All the misunderstandings now cleared up, everyone nods and smiles. Especially Willow who thinks that this has been a very long weekend of confessions, surprises and explanations; and is looking forward to just a normal Sunday of family breakfast and outings. And maybe some sexy cuddle time if they can send Joy off somewhere with the gang.

The four of them stand around the window together, the sounds of the city a cocoon for the communion of silence between them, until Dawn and Xander reappear.

“Hey, Dawnie,” Willow says, “she give you any trouble?”

“No, she was really tired. She conked out after cuddles and a story.”

The parents nod gratefully. Proud that their little angel doesn’t fuss when others put her to bed.

Willow yawns, and Tara decides the day has been long enough. Taking Willow by the hand she says, “We’re going to turn in. But you guys hang as long as you want.

Faith stubs out her cigarette and hops back into the apartment. “Naah, I’m headed out. See what kind of trouble I can find. B?”

Buffy shakes her head. “Beddy byes for me. I promised the juniors a workout in the morning.”

Xander and Dawn nod enthusiastically and start moving.

“Cool,” Faith shrugs and heads towards the door.

As they’re putting on jackets and making sure Dawn has her keys and knows the elevator codes. Xander makes small talk. “Will, I don’t know how you guys did it, but your kid might be smarter than you are. What an imagination.”

“Yeah,” says Dawn, “she told us the cutest story.”

“About the horse and the frog?” Tara asks, remembering the little story from last night.

“Noooh,” Xander says shrugging his jacket on. “Boo Boo bear told us about the Big Bad Bear.

Tara pauses while opening the door.

“Oh, yeah, it was the cutest thing!” Dawn chimes in. “The Bad Bear’ bited’ Mommy’s hand and Mama was ‘vewy thad,’” she giggles, trying to copy the toddler speech.

As Dawn tries to control her amusement, Xander picks up the thread—lowering his voice and hunching his shoulders to add to the atmosphere of the story, “Mommy went to the dark cave to sing a song for Bear. But Bad Bear,” he says wagging his finger, “didn’t listen.”

Now, over her giggles and loving the sound of the girl’s irregular verbs, Dawn resumes the story of the story, “So she ‘bited’ the bear and it ‘goed to thleep’.” And quoting the little bard’s declaration of, “ ‘I sav-ed Mommy’,” she concludes with, “Isn’t she the smartest?”

“That’s just –” croaks Willow.

Tara finishes for her, “Amazing.” Knowing that letting Willow speak any further would be a mistake, unless they want to stay up all night explaining; smiling perhaps a little manically, and rushing as much as good taste will allow, she hustles everyone out the door.

“Baby?” Willow squeaks in question as soon as she hears the deadbolt slide into place.

“Willow,” says Tara firmly, happy—at the moment—for the river to be not just in Egypt, “I’m tired. And this is a long conversation. Can we just . . .”

“Sleep now?” Willow concludes with relief.

Hand in hand they walk down the hallway and take a quick peek into Joy’s room to see her fast asleep with Clifford’s Big Red head under her chin. They share a look and wonder if there’s a support group for parents who have to deal with this sort of thing, before Willow remembers that the woman their daughter is named after sure didn’t.

With so much more on their minds than they ever dreamed of starting last morning, they return to their room. So much for a quiet weekend.

END


Last edited by thespian_phryne on Wed May 17, 2017 8:40 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Wed May 03, 2017 6:35 am 
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I can't believe nobody has replied to this awestome story yet... so now I claim DIBS! :whip
Detailed feedback will follow when I'm not at work ;-) - for now let me just say I'm looking forward to the prequel(s) and sequel(s)!


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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Wed May 03, 2017 5:27 pm 
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Will's redemption wrote:
I can't believe nobody has replied

Prolly 'cause they're still reading. JFC, 's a lot of fkn words.

Will's redemption wrote:
looking forward to the prequel(s) and sequel(s)!

Ahahahahah ahhh. . . .

Yes, well, about that . . .


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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Wed May 03, 2017 8:17 pm 
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thespian_phryne wrote:
Quote:
I can't believe nobody has replied

Prolly 'cause they're still reading.

Yup - I've just got up to “You’ve never minded getting me wet before.” :laugh

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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Fri May 05, 2017 6:32 pm 
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I'm still getting through this but I just had to pause to say:

thespian_phryne wrote:
Georgia (the country, not the state)


:lol

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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Fri May 05, 2017 9:36 pm 
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First of all, I see that view counter rolling. So . . . it's great you all are reading.

Second, this is why I love this whole performance/writing business:
Artemis wrote:
Yup - I've just got up to “You’ve never minded getting me wet before.” :laugh

Laragh wrote:
I'm still getting through this but I just had to pause to say:

thespian_phryne wrote:
Georgia (the country, not the state)


:lol

I mean, I know which bits I like and/or find funny. But then to discover which bits you like . . . when I didn't even think about it while writing is amazing.

Also, I know there are more than a few typos--sorry. I will get around to fixing them eventually.


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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Mon May 08, 2017 11:01 pm 
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thespian_phryne wrote:
But then to discover which bits you like . . .

Dangit, now I look like I have a smutty sense of humour... which is true :blush

Finished (at last) and the word I want to use is 'rich' - everything in the story felt like it had layers to it, like we were seeing Willow and Tara intersecting with other complete stories, about the other characters, and especially the magical goings-on. That felt really developed, a whole larger realm, not just an ability and some random prophecies and so on. It did make reading a slow process, but not in a bad way - I didn't want to breeze through anything, so I was often going over passages a few times, turning them over to test out all the connections.

Love the writing with Joy - I'm torn for favourite moment between the anniversary with the necklace, which was incredibly sweet, and Joy's 'politician' moment with Faith, which was just adorable. Great work :bow

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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Tue May 09, 2017 8:28 am 
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It's taken me a few days to be able to sit down and write feedback for this immense story.

As a cancer survivor myself, who just finished her "five year wait" last June, I can verify that you captured the sensation of fear, worry and paranoia exceptionally well. Almost too well. I had to stop reading several times and walk away, the feelings you brought up too intense for me in the moment.

It's so true, the closer you get to the end of the five years, the more anxious you become. The more vigilant. Am I just tired or am I *too* tired? Is this itchiness due to allergies or *something else*? (Itchiness was my first symptom).

Once I got past my own head/emotional-space, I was able to really settle in and enjoy the story.

It is terrifically well-written and very dense. There were portions I had to read back several times in order to capture all of the details. I will likely go back and read the whole of it over again, because I'm sure I missed things on the first pass.

Thanks for throwing your hat into the writer's circle here on DCP. I hope you will grace us with more as time goes on.

Cheers
DW

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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Tue May 09, 2017 6:41 pm 
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Artemis wrote:
Dangit, now I look like I have a smutty sense of humour... which is true :blush

Oh, don't get me wrong, I giggled as I wrote it. That whole character description of Tara realising she's feeding straight lines was was me talking to myself.

Quote:
Finished (at last) and the word I want to use is 'rich' - everything in the story felt like it had layers to it, like we were seeing Willow and Tara intersecting with other complete stories, about the other characters, and especially the magical goings-on. That felt really developed, a whole larger realm, not just an ability and some random prophecies and so on. It did make reading a slow process, but not in a bad way - I didn't want to breeze through anything, so I was often going over passages a few times, turning them over to test out all the connections.

This pleases me. :strokes fumanchu beard:

But less facetiously, I'm glad it worked in your imagination in that way. Because it is something I wondered. While I don't always shy away from straight exposition, it does feel inelegant. So I try to call up as much imagery as I can.

Quote:
Love the writing with Joy - I'm torn for favourite moment between the anniversary with the necklace, which was incredibly sweet, and Joy's 'politician' moment with Faith, which was just adorable. Great work

\o/

Quote:
:bow


Oh, go on!

No, I mean, go on.

DarkWiccan wrote:
It's taken me a few days to be able to sit down and write feedback for this immense story.

As a cancer survivor myself, who just finished her "five year wait" last June, I can verify that you captured the sensation of fear, worry and paranoia exceptionally well. Almost too well. I had to stop reading several times and walk away, the feelings you brought up too intense for me in the moment.

On the one hand: yay, I did it right.

On the other, more important and less asinine, hand: I'm so sorry. I certainly didn't mean to dredge up that kind of fundamental anxiety. But I know that is-it-coming-for-me-now feeling and yikes! But also, I'm happy for you and your sweetie that you're here and well.


Quote:
It is terrifically well-written and very dense. There were portions I had to read back several times in order to capture all of the details. I will likely go back and read the whole of it over again, because I'm sure I missed things on the first pass.

Oh, gosh, there's that word again.

Quote:
grace us with more

grace :snrrkh:laughing now. How am I supposed to take you seriously, West Long Branch...pshh.

But you guys! Thanks. Ego-kitty thanks you for the effusive stroking.


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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Sun May 14, 2017 9:44 am 
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So, when I dibsed I promised detailed feedback after work - I didn't say which day this would follow... :grin So, it's today:

Let me tell you again how much I loved this story! :applause It was beautifully written, a balanced mix of drama, suspense, romance and humour. I love Joy and that Willow is being the childlike play-buddy in some (most) situations and a mature parent in others. Yay for Tara saving her love from the evil influence of the hellmouth ("big bear" ?) in the nether realms.

With the references to the to us unknown past this story made me feel as if I had just zapped into an episode of a show I once loved, but haven't seen for a few years, coming to the conclusion: this is great, I will watch this again from now on and will get the seasons I've missed on DVD as soon as possible! The only problem here is that there are no DVDs to get, so I just have to hope you will come up with one or more prequel(s).

Just a little criticism: how can they celebrate "5 years no bad news on the cancer front" when the surgery was just 3,5 years ago (as Dr. Roy mentioned during the phone call with Willow)?

And then there is this one sentence that bothered me:
Quote:
The girl afraid of not being loved pleading with the girl who thought she was undeserving of love.


I can't imagine Willow or Tara really thinking the other doesn't love her, even in the darkest of times. I can imagine that Willow often feels that she doesn't deserves Tara's love because she is a murderer und a "big bad" and cosmic justice shouldn't allow that she is loved by anybody, let alone a thoroughly good person like Tara. But I can't see Willow tormenting herself with the doubt "does Tara really love me?".

But this is really a tiny, tiny thing in a perfect story. :bow So let me finish this comment with once again begging you to give us more of this wonderful continuation of the Buffy-series you created (after righting the terrible wrong at the end of season 6)! :pray


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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Wed May 17, 2017 8:44 am 
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Will's redemption wrote:
[....]

Let me tell you again how much I loved this story! :applause It was beautifully written, a balanced mix of drama, suspense, romance and humour. I love Joy and that Willow is being the childlike play-buddy in some (most) situations and a mature parent in others. Yay for Tara saving her love from the evil influence of the hellmouth ("big bear" ?) in the nether realms.

Thanks. Im glad you enjoyed it. It is a fun little piece, isn't it? I was quite chuffed to be able to sustain some level of humorous effect throughout it. I'm usually a mopey tit, so it's very reinforcing to get +ves for it. Gosh, if I could maintain this level of concentration and all the the time, I could probably bang out 2 books a year.

Also, hurray for child dev. and Freud-I classes.

Will's redemption wrote:
With the references to the to us unknown past this story made me feel as if I had just zapped into an episode of a show I once loved, but haven't seen for a few years, coming to the conclusion: this is great, I will watch this again from now on and will get the seasons I've missed on DVD as soon as possible! The only problem here is that there are no DVDs to get, so I just have to hope you will come up with one or more prequel(s).

Ah, yes! What's that over-used phrase, but under-employed device: in media res.

I'm going to try to flesh out the pages I had for the March pages.

Will's redemption wrote:
Just a little criticism: how can they celebrate "5 years no bad news on the cancer front" when the surgery was just 3,5 years ago (as Dr. Roy mentioned during the phone call with Willow)?

Damn. Good catch, thanks. That would be what we call a Freudian slip. Changed it to "four" to be consistent with Part 2.

Will's redemption wrote:
And then there is this one sentence that bothered me:
Quote:
The girl afraid of not being loved pleading with the girl who thought she was undeserving of love.

D'aww...so protective! That's basically my interpretation of their characters from S04 and S05. Willow, the Hellmouth equivalent of a parachute kid, who craves nurturing, affection and affirmation. And Tara made ashamed of her fundamental self. By not saying anything about her family and her Demoniness to the Scooby gang, she's essentially reinforcing her own internal status of not being deserving. I mean, check it out:
Me: (Monster)
You: (Monster Fighter)
Me: Let me lie to to you (a lot!) and endanger your life.

Yes, that's entirely self-preserving and self-respecting

Of course, she would—in the story timeline—know she's deserving of love. But thoughts don't always match re-activated feelings of early impressed inadequacy. For example my whole relationship is basically us taking turns to stick a boot up the ass of each other's childhood spectres (the same ones) over and over again—right down to the "I know" conversation. Only one of us is fully well-adjusted at any given time.

Also, as we all know, I can love someone and still leave her. And for her, the being left can feel an awful lot like not being loved.


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 Post subject: Re: Witches of Gramercy Park (Canon Divergent-AU/Future Fic/
PostPosted: Wed May 17, 2017 8:46 am 
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PS: I did try to clean up as much of the errata as I could. Hopefully I haven't introduced new ones in the process.

So,
Image


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