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

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 Post subject: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Mon Oct 21, 2002 11:21 pm 
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3. Flaming O

Joined: Sun Jan 10, 2010 11:27 am
Posts: 50
Location: So Cal
A special note: This story was posted to the KB over a period of 15 years. As a standard manuscript, it's about 800 pages in length. I've heard reports of missing sections, possibly due to server changes, and complaints of typos, missing words, and grammatical tangles (all my fault). Shoot me an email at technopagan78@yahoo.com if you would like a better proofed and complete PDF. Eventually, I hope to find a site that will allow for a quick DR download. In the meantime, I am working on cleaning up the KB posts.

My deep thanks to the KB and all the kittens who've been so very kind to me as I taught myself I could in fact write a novel.

If anyone wants to beta this puppy, I will forever be in is her/his debt.

***


Author: Technopagan78 aka Technopagan21 aka Tecnopagan (you get the idea)

Title: Doppelganger Redux

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. All Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters are the intellectual property of Mutant Enemy. All non-BTVS characters are the intellectual property of the author, as is the story.
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Pairing: Willow/Tara
Rating: R for scenes of intense violence, minor strong language, and minor spicy bits (the spicy bits are strictly PG-13). If you’re looking for PWP, keep looking, DR will disappoint.

Summary: In this story the terrible events of season six’s closing have happened, as well a few events of the events from season seven. DR springs in large part from two season three episodes: The Wish (Marti Noxon) and Doppelgangerland (Joss Whedon). At the story’s beginnings, Willow has returned from England and the caring of Devon Coven’s Miss Hartness as a shaken and sobered young woman. The Magic Box has been rebuilt and is being run by Anya, who is also keeping up with her vengeance duties. Buffy, Xander, and Willow are trying to rebuild their friendships. Willow is returned to UC Sunnydale. Dawn is enduring the horrors of high school and puberty. Tara is dead. Things begin to happen.

Explanation/Feedback: After writing two short pieces of fanfiction (circa 2001) which have mercifully slipped off of the Web, I began writing DR in 2002. Sometime in late 2003, I hit a wall and the story went into hiatus. In 2005 I tried punching through the wall, but failed. And then in late 2009, as the Southern California summer slid into autumn slid into winter (think fire, rain, mud), I started writing again, because I was missing BTVS, because I was missing writing, because I owed it to a group of people I’d promised a happy ending. So, with the comments from the famed Kitten Board (and a few very old emails) to cheer me on, I started work, first reading what I’d written, then editing (fixing continuity errors, layering in details, adjusting tone and grammar) and writing and writing and writing. Thank heavens for my long ago outline. My aspirations to have DR complete by spring 2010 turned to naught, however. I became stuck in the narrative yet again. But with October 2010 came the frisson of new ideas and I began writing once more, determined to finish DR once and for all. But then life kept getting in the way, and so now here I am in the year 2017, 15 years later, finally posting the final installments of what has become an epic.

Now, given DR’s length and the likelihood many fans have moved on to other fandoms, I’m not sure who will be willing to follow me into the complex world of DR and its two heroines Willow and Tara. If any do, please drop me a comment. I would love to hear from you.

A Second Warning: This story is long. It exceeds in word count Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (would that it even approach Austen’s brilliance in writing ). It took 15 years to write and it will take hours to read. There is violence, disturbing imagery, minor spicy bits, smoochies galore, sentimentality, cold rationality, narrative complexity, and everywhere my deep, deep love for a set of characters who charm me to this day. Did I mention DR is long? Do not read it in one sitting lest you over tax your eyes. Really, there’s just way too much in this story, chock-full with magick and falling in love and memory, absolutely full to the brim and I just couldn’t bear to leave anything out. The story covers seven weeks and through the magic of memory, a twenty some year life.

Dedication: And finally, this story is for my “what-if” girl. The girl I almost kissed after we’d gone to see a Hitchcock movie, the girl who wore Renaissance fair dresses for everyday, whose sense of humor was often arcane, and who sometimes tripped over her own shadow. It is she who always keeps me thinking about the consequences of turning left or right, choosing A or B, leaning in for the kiss or letting fear take hold. Yes, this story is for her.

Spoiler: None (the series jetted off the television airwaves years ago!)

DOPPELGANGER REDUX, PART ONE

CHAPTER ONE



Consciousness returned slowly. She noticed first the concrete floor: cold, hard and damp against her bare skin. She’d landed face first. Every muscle hurt, her heart was pounding, and she could not stop shivering. A mouse scurried across the floor, but aside from that the room was quiet. Too quiet? After a few minutes, she opened her eyes. The room was darkly lit and it took another minute or two for her eyes to adjust. She moved her head and felt the pull of dried blood upon her forehead. The girl assumed she’d hurt herself when she’d landed on the floor.

Not sure where she was, not sure “when” she was, the girl tamped down the fear rising inside her chest and took a deep breath before pulling herself up on to her hands and knees. She moved too fast. The floor seemed to shift beneath her knees and her stomach threatened to rebel. The girl bent over to press her head against the concrete until the room stopped spinning. Moving more slowly this time, she stood up, only then noticing she’d cut her head from the fall.

With dirty fingers, she wiped away the blood and gently fingered the wound. The cut was about mid-way above her left eyebrow. Fortunately, it wasn’t more than half a centimeter or so long and did not seem very deep. No need for stitches. She rubbed the blood from her fingers on her thigh, trying to rid herself of the stickiness. She hated the feeling of blood on her fingers, almost as much as she hated blood’s sick, sweet scent.

Finally adjusted to the dim light, her eyes took in her surroundings. She’d arrived inside a basement, presumably unused. The floor hadn’t been swept for a long time, and the air was musty. Streetlight spilled haphazardly from the four small dirty windows that lined two sides of the ceiling. High as they were, at least the widows weren’t barred. A doable, if not easy escape hatch. Of course there remained the small matter of clothes; nothing is ever simple Sam’s voice reminded her.

She wondered how long she had lain unconscious and then dismissed the thought. It didn’t matter. First things first. She surveyed the rest of the room. Broken down shelf units, most of them empty, lined two of the walls. A large washtub sink dominated another wall, and an open-step, metal staircase lined the fourth. She could see the outline of a door at the top of the staircase. Another escape hatch, things were looking up, maybe. Still, she wasn’t going anywhere until she found clothing.

The girl advanced on a dozen or so packing boxes tucked underneath the staircase. Good fortune was on her side, and a silent prayer of thanks was sent, as the girl sorted through several boxes stuffed with used clothes. Near the bottom of the first box she found a well-worn pair of boy’s jeans that more or less fit once she cuffed the legs. In another box she found three well washed tee shirts, all white; a man’s long sleeved red flannel shirt with a hole in the elbow; and an oversized sweatshirt. She slipped into one of the tee shirts, pulled the flannel shirt over it and rolled the rest of the tee shirts inside the sweatshirt. She didn’t find any underwear or socks, but she did find an old pair of women’s sandals. They were slightly large on her feet, but they would do until she could find better.

After sorting through the rest of the boxes, and discovering a few more useful items, she rewrapped the rest of her bounty inside the sweatshirt. Almost ready to go, she stopped to do one last thing. At the sink, she tried turning on the faucet. Again, luck was on her side. Cold water ran from the tap. Using one of the two bandanas she’d found amid a box filled with Christmas tree lights, dish towels and deflated pool toys, she washed her face, trying to clean away the blood as best she could without soap. Some of the blood had gotten into her hair, and she tried to wash that away as well. It seemed as if the cut had closed again. The girl wished she could look in a mirror and examine the wound to see for sure. The last thing on earth she needed was to appear vulnerable. She used the second bandana as a scarf to tie over her hair and forehead. It wouldn’t be very attractive, but it would hide the cut from view. The girl looked around the basement one last time, checking to make sure she hadn’t overlooked anything. Confident she’d made use of all the available resources, the girl took a deep breath. It was time to leave to discover if her calculations were correct.

The girl, long practiced at moving quietly, crept up the stairs and pressed her ear to the door. There were no sounds on the other side. She twisted the doorknob; it was unlocked. Slowly, she pushed the door open only to jump back when the door’s hinges made a sudden and unexpectedly loud squeak. The noise sent the girl into a terrible fright until she realized there was no one around to hear it but her. She took another deep breath in an attempt to calm her nerves, but then fell into a fit of hysterical laughter. Who did she think she was Nancy Drew? Then she wondered if Nancy Drew was even a part of this world; it was all too confusing. Best not to think about it, she decided, best to stay focused on the moment and the task. She had a job to do. There was nothing else.

The door led into another large room. Streetlights shined through two large show windows, lighting the floor space of what was apparently a hardware store. She panicked, her eyes searching for the flash of a silent alarm system. She saw nothing. No bars on the windows, no alarm system, maybe she’d found Mayberry? Smiling, the girl stepped inside, and then nearly tripped over several low stacks of floor tiles. The girl cursed as she rubbed her now bruised shins.

At the front of the store was a cash register. The drawer contained about thirty dollars and some change. The money was American and only slightly different in appearance from the money of her world, and the denominations were the same except this world still had a penny. A quick exploration of the store’s aisles led to a small hunting and fishing department. There the girl found a canvas backpack that would hold her clothes and an insulated water bottle. She wasted several minutes trying to jimmy open a small lock before using a rubber hammer to shatter the glass door of a showcase holding hunting knives. She chose two, one serrated, the other smooth. Both were well balanced and came with leather carry cases; quality knives for the professional demon hunter she thought chuckling to herself. The girl slipped the blades into one of the backpack’s deep side pockets where they would be easy to reach when she ran into trouble. If she was confident about anything, it was that trouble was a true constant. From hunting and fishing the girl moved to arts and crafts. She was tempted to take a drawing pad, but instead gathered up a few other makeshift weapons including several wood dowels that could be easily fashioned into stakes. A demon hunter could never be too careful.

Before she left the girl offered a blessing upon the shop owner, believing a thank you note would only add insult to injury given the petty theft and minor vandalism. The blessing was simple; one she’d learned from her mother. She then slipped into moon dark streets.

About an hour later the sun was rising and the girl had covered twice the town’s center, which wasn’t saying much. In addition to a city hall, and a police station, the six-block grid consisted of several office buildings, dozens of small shops, restaurants, and a two block open-air shopping mall. While a few store signs were written in Spanish, most were written in English. Another small blessing, her Spanish was limited to say the least. The faint scent of sea salt told her she was near the ocean, and one long street lined with churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship of every possible kind told her she must have landed on another hellmouth. But that was inevitable, and at least this one seemed less active.

There had been some human activity outside a bail bondsman office near the police station, but she’d been able to avoid being spotted. Other “life” was found near a cemetery. She easily evaded a trio of vampires and a small smattering of demons. Astonishingly, none of them seemed organized on a hunt. Maybe this town was truly different from the one she’d left behind. One thing she knew for sure, the relocation had worked; she wasn’t in Sunnydale anymore.

Another certainty, she needed to sleep. The girl backtracked to a burned out shell of a building she’d noticed on her initial survey of the town. A high fence had been erected around the perimeter, but, after tossing her backpack and sandals over to the other side, she was easily able to scale it. Near seven years practiced at running, climbing, and hiding had turned her once soft body hard with muscle. The girl crossed a weed-infested parking lot that led to a wide entrance with four doors. All of the doors were locked. A good sign, she thought. The building was probably free of squatters. Since she was an accomplished trespasser, the breaking and entering took little time.

Inside, after a short exploration, the girl concluded the building must have once been a school and the students wealthy. She’d searched a few of the lockers at random and found cash, twenty-seven dollars in bills and coins, several small bags of what she took to be marijuana, and a wide variety of wards, charms, and talismans. She’d also found a narrow notebook labeled in neat, cursive script, book of shadows. Maybe this world was more like hers than would first appear? In a cavernous room that appeared to have been a cafeteria she constructed a shelter for herself underneath a large table using her sweatshirt as a blanket and her backpack as a makeshift pillow, taking care to keep both of her knives within easy reach. She knew she needed to sleep, but the after effects of her journey had not fully abated. Hating herself for her weakness, she made herself relax by remembering a song her mother sang to her when she was a child. She’d always thought her mother had the most beautiful voice in the world. It was a small comfort, and one she did not feel entitled.

Her dreams took her back to her childhood home. It was evening; a harvest moon hung above the foothills and the air was thick with the perfume of night jasmine. A few fireflies circled over the flowerbeds and, in the distance, she could hear neighborhood children playing basketball.

She was playing on the swing-set with her brother, hanging upside down from the monkey bar while her brother played on the swing, laughing as he pumped himself higher and higher into the sky. She noticed she was wearing her favorite turquoise shorts and a white sleeveless top with turquoise rickrack. Already the details of the dream were wrong. She’d received the outfit for her eighth birthday, but on the night her life changed forever she was already ten and the outfit was long outgrown.

Her father sat on the back porch swing, reading the newspaper, and she could hear her mother moving about the kitchen, washing the dinner plates. The girl heard her mother close the cabinet door and then make a small sound of surprise. Moments later, her mother was screaming. Her legs gave way and she slid to the ground in a small heap; her eyes locked on her father as he leaped from the porch swing and ran into the house. Her father’s scream came next.

The girl’s brother continued to swing back and forth, as if he did not hear his parents’ cries for help. She jumped to her feet, caught her brother by the arm and roughly pulled him from the swing. “We have to hide,” she whispered. “They’re coming for us next.”

Almost dizzy with fear, she dragged her brother by the arm towards the woods that lined the back of the family home. Together, they hid in the family hidey-hole until the girl decided it was safe to come out. She thought her heart would pound out of her chest as she made her way back to the house. Near the back door she stopped. Even though she knew already what she would discover on the other side of the door, she called out to her parents. She heard no response.

The girl told her younger brother to wait for her outside, and watched as the little boy agreeably crawled up on the porch swing, where he promptly curled up and went to sleep. He did not seem to understand what was going on. She wished she were little again, so that she would not have to go in the house. But she was a big girl, almost eleven. It was her responsibility to take care of things.

The screen door on the back porch led into the mudroom. The girl brushed by dirty shoes, coats hung from hooks, and her mother’s new washing machine. The next door led into the pantry. She slipped inside the darkened room, reaching for the light switch. The electricity must have been turned off, because the overhead light remained dark. On tiptoes, she crept towards the kitchen door, nearly tripping over something that blocked the floor. The girl reached down and ran her hands over something. What was it? She continued to feel around. Her fingers brushed over something sticky, warm and wet. Slowly, she realized it was blood. The girl swallowed her scream; they might still be in the house. She remembered her father kept a flashlight in the mudroom and went back to fetch it.

With flashlight in hand, the girl crept back into the pantry. The light flashed over her father’s face. All of her life she’d been afraid of him. With the unerring accuracy of childhood wisdom she knew he preferred her brother to her. She knew he feared she was like her mother. But now, with his eyes starring upward and his mouth open, as if he were caught in an unending scream, she felt only grief at his death. She tried to close his eyes with her hand, but they would not stay closed. Unable to bear the idea of leaving him that way, she searched about the pantry until she found an old dishtowel to drape over his face.

The person she loved most in the world was found crumpled on the kitchen floor. Her mother’s dress was ripped open and her neck was bruised and torn; the flesh marred by two deep fang marks. The girl bent over and retched on her mother’s clean floor, and then on her hands and knees the girl crawled to her mother’s side. The body was still warm. The girl lay down next to her mother and pulled the dead woman’s arms around her. Only then could she begin to cry. Time seemed to pass, and shift. Her mother’s body grew cold. The girl heard noises in the front room of the house. She thought she heard her brother’s voice.

She left her mother’s embrace and headed down the hall that led to the front room. Somehow, she must have gotten turned around, because she ended up back in the pantry. She wished she’d remembered to take the flashlight with her. Something seemed to be moving in the pantry, but she could not see it, only an ill-formed shadow. A chill ran down her spine. The girl backed up towards the kitchen. She’d nearly made it to the door, when a hand grabbed her by the arm.

The thing dragged her away from the kitchen door and towards the mudroom. The girl fought, trying to get away from it, but she was too weak. She soon lost her balance, and stumbled, falling to her knees. The thing did not stop; it dragged her out of the pantry, through the mudroom and out into the backyard.

The sun had fully set, but the moon now hung high in the sky casting the backyard in blue and black shadows. The thing flipped the girl on to her back and the girl looked up into her father’s face. She began screaming. She lost control of her body, and a warm stream of urine ran down her thigh. As her father leaned down to sink his fangs into her neck, she looked into a pair of golden eyes set deep underneath a thick brow ridge.

The girl fought her way out of the nightmare, screaming herself awake. When the sleep left her, she jumped to her feet, her eyes casting about for intruders. There was no one else present. Still shaking from the effects of the dream, the girl gathered up her meager belongings and made her way out of the building. Not until she stepped back into the warm sunlight did she notice she was running a fever. Great, she thought, all she needed was to be sick on top of being lost. She also noticed she’d wet her pants in her sleep. Even better. Feeling humiliated and more alone than she’d ever felt before, not knowing what else to do, the girl searched the grounds of the building. She found an enclosed patio and waited there until her pants dried. By then it was going on noon, and she knew she needed to find food, bandages and aspirin.

The day was warm, but the fever chilled the girl, and she pulled the sweatshirt over the flannel. It was navy blue; the front sported a large picture of Mickey Mouse. Apparently, in this dimension, as in her own, the mouse held a place of importance. She was sure old Walt Disney would be proud. The girl was less sure she could scale the fence a second time, not while she was running a fever and weak with hunger. The girl looked about and found a place where she could crawl underneath. Once outside the perimeter, she brushed the dirt and dust away as best she could, readjusted her bandana to ensure the cut on her forehead was hidden and began walking back to the town’s center.

The girl remembered seeing a drug store the night before. Still, it took her a while to find it again. Inside, she was able to buy a box of bandages, a small tube of antiseptic, aspirin, two pairs of thick cotton socks, and a cheap pair of canvas shoes. She did not waste her money on food; if this town at all resembled the towns of her world, city dumpsters and park trashcans would be filled with the stuff. But she did buy a bag of chocolates, she might be twenty-two years old, but she still had her childhood sweet tooth.

While she paid for her purchases, she caught her reflection on a mirror behind the counter. It was obvious she’d slept in her clothes. Below her bandana hung poorly cut hair, and the gash on her forehead had opened again, staining the navy blue cloth. The girl knew from his expression that the clerk wanted her to leave as quickly as possible, and she obliged him.

Back on the city streets, the girl marveled at the sight of humans moving freely and without fear. Mothers pushed children in strollers, old people sunned themselves on city benches, men and women in business clothes hurried about, and kids and teens roamed on bicycles, skateboards, and on foot. It reminded her of old television shows and the few movies she’d seen as a child. Here, no one seemed worried, although many people appeared to look at her with disdain. The people might not live in fear, but they displayed little tolerance for the poor. Another wave of loneliness fell upon her as she realized there was not a single person in this world that knew her. She reminded herself that the number of people from her own world that knew her and continued to live were few in number; it was cold comfort.

Across the street from an open-air food court, she re-found a small city park with a public restroom. Inside, she took off the bandana and examined the cut in the mirror. The edges were reddened and seemed warm to the touch. Ignoring the sting, she washed the wound using the restroom hand soap and then applied the antiseptic and a Band-Aid. Her hair was a mess and she wished she’d thought to buy a comb and brush at the drug store. Fortunately, she spotted a rubber band lying on the floor underneath the sink, and after giving it thorough washing, she used it to pull her hair back into a ponytail. With her hair pulled back, notwithstanding the Band-Aid, she thought she looked more presentable than with the bandana. The girl carefully folded the cloth and placed it inside her backpack. Now ravenously hungry, she decided to go search for her lunch.

A thorough exploration of the park’s waste cans produced someone’s discarded, half-finished sandwich and some cold French-fries. The food was reasonably fresh, and it would hold her until she could find better. Another trashcan produced a copy of the local newspaper. Aware two older women were watching her from a nearby park bench, not wanting to invite conversation or further suspicion, the girl quickly headed to the other side of the park and claimed her own park bench.

From experience she knew she’d be likely to lose it if she ate too quickly, so the girl made herself eat slowly, carefully chewing each bite. Only after she’d finished with her lunch did she allow herself to look at the newspaper. One glance at the front page and everything became clear to her. She wasn’t entirely surprised. It only stood to reason. With some food in her belly she could see the resemblance. The city blocks more or less matched up and some of the older architecture matched brick for brick. A quick survey of the skyline revealed a large billboard erected on top of a six-storied building proudly announcing the city’s name and a new housing development on the town’s east side.

The girl carefully read the newspaper from front to back. The local and national news convinced her this reality was far closer to her own than would even seem possible, which was good news and bad news. Judging by the newspaper’s date, she had seven weeks and change to prepare. Seven weeks was good. Seven weeks was plenty of time to plan. The girl ignored the small voice in the back of her thoughts challenging if her plan was even possible. The girl made herself remember Sam, who had often said anticipating the worst helped make the worst possible. This was no time to start feeling sorry for herself.

Long experienced at being homeless and sick, the girl waited to make sure her lunch was going to stay down before pulling out the aspirin bottle. The cap was surprisingly difficult and frustrating to remove. By the time she figured it out, her head was pounding. She washed three tablets down with water from her carry bottle, and sat back waiting for her fever and headache to lessen. After a while, the girl noticed a police car had passed by twice before. Between her ragged clothes and unkempt hair, the girl realized she appeared suspicious. Not wanting to have to explain why she had no identification or two long hunting knives in her possession, the girl smiled at the police officers, revealing straight white teeth and a beautiful face. She wasn’t surprised when it turned out that that was enough to make the officers continue on their way.

Knowing it was better not to move until she had a plan, the girl sat back and considered her situation. What she needed now was a place to blend in and the city center wasn’t it. Soon enough a smile crossed her face. She wouldn’t really belong, but she’d fit right in. The girl took off her sandals and put on her new socks and shoes. There was at least a two-mile walk ahead of her.

CHAPTER TWO

Willow Rosenberg awoke to sunlight filtering through the curtains of her bedroom. Dust motes danced about the room, darting back and forth like little fairy lights. She watched their movements, enjoying for a moment their graceful, if unmotivated dance. Without thinking, she reached to her right, and found the empty space next to her. For a moment the grief was too much to bear. She tried to breathe it out, let go of the pain. But the best she could do was to push it to the side. It had been almost five months since that awful day when normal life ended.

The voice came from the overstuffed chair that stood in the far corner of the room. “Are you going to keep lying there feeling sorry for yourself, or are you going to get up?” The voice was a gentle alto and as familiar to Willow as the back of her hand. She turned to look at her lover. Tara was sitting on top of the pile of clothes Willow had heaped in the chair the night before.

“Sorry our room is such a mess,” Willow offered as she rolled out of bed and began to stretch out some of the tension in her back. “I should really clean it up.”

“I know it’s hard, baby,” Tara said, smiling. “But you have to keep trying to live.”

“But I miss you so much.” Willow’s voice broke. She struggled for a moment to regain her self-control.

“And I’m still here with you, in your heart, in your head. I’ll always be there. I’m your always. Remember?”

“But you’re not real,” Willow said, her face flaming over the betrayal.

“I’m as real as you can imagine me, my Willow, my love,” Tara said, stepping up from the chair and crossing to her.

Willow closed her eyes, and imagined she could feel her lover’s touch. For a moment it seemed as if she felt the warmth of a hand. She turned into it, trying to breathe in her lover’s scent. Nothing. When she opened her eyes, Tara was gone. Not until after she’d made the bed and picked up all of the clothes strewn across the room, not until the room was tidy once more did she open the top drawer of their dresser and pull out the silvery silk pillowcase.

She pressed the soft cloth to her face and inhaled the now almost faded scent. Tara’s family had left it to her friends to dispose of their only daughter’s things, and most of them had ended up in Buffy’s basement, carefully stored in several watertight chests. There they had sat until Willow returned home from England for the fall semester. Buffy had raised an eyebrow, if not a quarrel when Willow reclaimed Tara’s prized doll’s eye crystal from one of the storage chests, returning it to its place on the nightstand. They both knew Willow was through with magick, dark and white. The crystal and a few other things that had belonged to the shy and gentle witch were now nothing more than mementos.

Reassured in ways she didn’t understand, Willow returned the pillowcase to its hiding spot inside one of their favorite shared sweaters and continued with the process of getting ready for school. Showering, getting dressed, and a quick breakfast, it was only a means for getting through the morning and moving to the next phase of her day. Her life had become processes, following procedures, taking one step after the next. She wasn’t living life in any real sense, but it was as close to living life as she could get. School, homework, and studying, sleep and meals somewhere in between: they were a series of tasks that she could chain together to make a day. Tasks to move through as she thought about Tara, missed Tara, and hoped whatever it was Tara had become would return to her another time.

Before leaving the house, Willow checked to make sure she’d placed her extra laptop battery in her shoulder bag. Wednesdays were her long day at school. She had three classes, plus her evening computer lab. Usually, she had dinner on campus, sometimes with friends, more often alone.

Since UC Sunnydale had begun its latest building craze, parking had become next to impossible. Most days, Willow caught the bus to school. But, since it was Wednesday, and she did not like to ride the bus after dark she took her car. For once she was able to find a good parking spot. By sheer luck Willow pulled into the main student parking lot just as someone was leaving. The small triumph put a smile on her face. From the passenger seat, Tara teased, “Hey, it’s nice to see that smile for a change. I miss it, you know.”

Tara was dressed in one of her peasant tops and a long brocaded skirt. She had her hair pulled back into a ponytail, and Willow thought she might be wearing the lightest touch of lipstick. “Must be my lucky day, huh.” Willow rested her hand on the seat, behind her lover’s head. She imagined she could feel the faint wisps of blond hair wafting against her hand. “You look beautiful.”

Tara acknowledged the compliment by blushing slightly. “I know it’s your long day at school, so I thought I’d get dressed up in one of your favorite outfits.”

“You really spoil me, you know?” Willow joked.

A wide grin crossed the Tara’s face. “Who else do I have to spoil, Will? Anyway, it’s time to head for class. Maybe I can meet you for lunch?”

“By the trees near the science building?” Willow asked while checking to make sure her parking permit was hanging securely from her rear view mirror.

“It’s a date.” Tara promised.

Willow turned back, already knowing Tara would be gone. She ran her hand over the car seat. The upholstery felt warm to her touch. An effect of the sun? She placed a kiss on her fingertips and pressed it to the headrest. “It’s a date.”

When Willow had put together her schedule, she’d signed up for the course on nineteenth century British novels thinking it would be a low stress way to start the day. Unfortunately, the professor had a droning voice, and easily managed to make the most interesting novel seem dull. She would have dropped the class, but for the fact it was a necessary elective, and she was trying to finish all of her general education requirements by the end of the semester.

Undecided if she was running away or trying something new, Willow was contemplating applying to the study abroad. Although she’d missed the preliminary due date, since she was pre-accepted to Oxford as a student in full standing Willow’s college advisor was confident she could write a successful late application for the spring term. But only if she finished the last of her pesky generals, which meant persevering though today’s boring lecture on Wuthering Heights.

Already three students were dozing and one was lightly snoring. Professor Noxon soldiered on unperturbed, analyzing Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff as forces of nature. Willow took careful notes, as much a hedge for keeping awake as preparing for next week’s midterm. Someone towards the front coughed loudly, pulling Willow’s attention to the lecture hall’s western corner. Tara was sitting in the front row listening attentively. Willow knew to stay focused on the professor; if she watched Tara too long, she would disappear and maybe even miss their lunch date.

By the end of the lecture, Willow had five pages of neatly written notes ready to be transcribed into her computer. After years of teasing about her habit of organizing her lecture notes by color coding and transcribing them on to note cards, Willow had discovered not only was it more efficient to retype them into her laptop, her word processing program allowed her to color code the text to her heart’s content. For a while she’d tried writing her lecture notes directly into the computer but the inability to doodle during the dull parts soon quelled her of that practice. And, as she liked to remind Buffy, the process of transcription provided an invaluable review system that helped guarantee her continuing position on the dean’s list.

As was her routine, as soon as Professor Noxon dismissed the class Willow headed to the campus coffee shop for a post-lecture hazelnut Americano, planning on studying until her next class. But once there, despite her best efforts, she found herself unable to concentrate on the extra-credit assignment for her network security class. Instead she began an email to her mother. Since coming back, she’d made more of an effort to keep in touch with her parents. Willow now emailed her mother once or twice a week at the University of Chicago, where Dr. Rosenberg was on sabbatical, and she kept a first Tuesday of the month dinner date with her father. For so many years her parents had seemed completely irrelevant to her life, but after Tara’s death everything had changed.

Grief, terrible, aching grief, became a bridge for bringing parents and daughter together. Willow could not help but appreciate how much they tried to say the right things, even if they could not entirely understand the scope of her loss. Buffy and Xander understood better, but the only person who could even begin to fathom the emptiness in her heart was Tara, or the person or thing or whatever she was that came to her as Tara. Afraid Buffy, Xander and the rest would think she’d lost her mind, or, even worse, fallen back into dark magicks, Willow did not tell them about her faithful visitor. Only in her journal did she let herself speculate about her phantom friend. Sometimes, Willow wondered if she was indeed losing her mind, but she could not deny that since Tara had started coming to her, her days had been easier, her sleep less troubled. At the very least, Tara or not, Willow knew spending time with the apparition helped to hold back the depression that seemed ready to engulf her at any minute.

Lost in thought, Willow soon forgot the time and would have been late for class but for the sudden interruption of a nearby cell phone. Drawn too quickly out of her reverie, Willow looked around the coffee shop, momentarily confused. Finally, noticing the hour, she repacked her book bag and rushed off to her network security class.

While her computer science professor did not drone as badly as her English professor, Dr. Whedon had his own unrelenting method for sending his students into catatonia, which to be fair was mostly due to subject matter, the finer points of advanced network security procedures far from scintillating fare. To stay awake during lecture, Willow not only took prodigious notes, but also kept a running tally of students as they dropped asleep. By the end of the semester, Willow thought she would have sufficient evidence to be able to chart the professor’s student boredom rate. The research would make a terrific, if anonymous, addition to the UC Sunnydale computer club bulletin board. As always, the eighty-minute class passed slowly, and by the time the professor dismissed them with a reminder about the upcoming mid-term, Willow was nearly ready to jump out of her skin.

Willow hurried out of the lecture hall, smiling at a couple of friends, but not stopping to say hello. As usual, the sidewalks were crowded with students walking, skateboarding and bicycling to their next class or to lunch. Expertly weaving between the crowds of students, Willow didn’t notice her pounding heart, or how it stilled as soon as she spied a familiar figure sitting on the grounds in front of the science building.

Tara, now wearing a purple and black sundress Willow had always liked, had claimed a prime spot underneath a large pepper tree. Willow sat down next to her. A wide smile crossed her face as she pulled her lunch sack and water flask out of her book bag. She’d packed a sandwich, a small bag of cookies and a banana at home.

“Peanut-butter and jelly? Will, what will I need to do to get you to eat something green?” Tara asked, lying back on her elbows, a half-grin decorating her face.

“The banana’s green. Well, I suppose it’s yellow. But it fits the sprit of greenness,” Willow protested, before biting into her sandwich.

Tara wrinkled her nose. “Okay, the banana counts. But you need to eat more good stuff and less processed sugar.”

“Hey, it’s not as if I made my sandwich on Wonder bread,” Willow declared, laughing as she took another bite of her sandwich.

“No, but Dawnie’s back to eating Wonder bread again.” Tara twisted a piece of grass between her fingers. “You really need to talk to her about that. Dawnie’s still growing, and I don’t want her to get rickets, or something.”

“Rickets?” Willow asked, softening her question with an affectionate grin. “Sweetie, I think you’re taking Professor Noxon’s English novel lecture way too much to heart. Dawn is in no more danger of developing rickets, than scurvy, or the vapors for that matter.”

“Okay, maybe rickets isn’t something we need to worry about, but Dawn’s eating habits are becoming atrocious. She’s not been this bad since––” Tara trailed off, turning to look up into the sky.

Willow swallowed a large chunk of her sandwich. “Not since Buffy died.” More than anything she wished she could hold Tara’s hand, instead she added quietly, “I know, baby.”

“I feel so guilty. Dawn was starting to do really well. And now, I’m afraid, Will.”

“Afraid of what?” Willow held her breath, worried that if she pushed to hard Tara would retreat and go away.

The silence hung in the air for a moment. Tara looked towards a ring of students playing hacky-sack. “What will happen?"

Tara had given her an opening. “You mean, what will happen to Dawn if I leave for England?” Willow asked.

“Yes.” Tara sighed. “I shouldn’t say it. You need to get on with your life. But she’s lost so much.”

Finished with her sandwich, Willow placed the plastic zip bag back in her lunch sack to use for another day. She started to peel the banana; it was her turn to look away. “I worry too. I worry about Dawn, and Buffy. And I feel selfish because I worry most that if I go, I’ll lose you.”

Tara sat up, leaning toward Willow. “Sweetie, you’ll never lose me. My love for you is forever, remember?”

The question spilled from Willow’s lips without warning. “What are you?” She asked it knowing there was no answer; at least no answer Tara could give her.

Tara smiled at her lover. “I’m what I’ve always been. Yours.”

The crisis passed the two fell into a companionable silence while Willow finished the rest of her lunch. Willow thought she could hear Tara’s breathing, slow and steady. But she couldn’t be sure. Birds flew overhead, and a gentle breeze ruffled Tara’s hair. Trying not to think about it, she let her fingers slide in the grass towards Tara’s. At the last second, Tara moved her hand to brush over Willow’s. Willow thought she felt the warmth of a hand, but she could not be sure. Green eyes locked on to blue.

“Dawn misses you. She tries to hide it from me, but I know. It’s all been so awful for her. We’d just given her her heart’s desire, and then it got taken back. Maybe if we hadn’t gotten back together before—“

“Will, it’s not our fault.” Tara’s voice was sharp.

Tara was right; it wasn’t their fault Tara was shot. But maybe it was her fault that Tara was in danger in the first place. “You’re right. It’s not our fault. That blame belongs to Warren.” Willow’s lips twisted around the hated name. She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. “But, if you hadn’t been at the house. If I hadn’t been so stupid thinking Buffy had everything under control.” Willow felt her throat constrict. “Maybe you wouldn’t have—“

Tara didn’t let her finish. “Willow, I came to you. I was the one who showed up at your door. You can’t claim that guilt for yourself. It was just really bad luck. Just like you cannot claim responsibility for Dawn’s grief, or for the mistakes all of us made underestimating Warren and the gang”

“I know where my guilt begins,” Willow began.

Again, Tara interrupted. “And you need to know where it ends. Only then will you be able to get better, only then will you be able to help Dawnie, and Buffy, too. And only then will you be able to let yourself heal.”

Heal, Willow thought, there was no healing. Not for herself. “So what do I do for Dawnie?” She asked, the misery in her voice undisguised.

“You love her. You let her know everyday that you love her, and you remind her how much I love her until she learns to hold our love in her heart instead of the grief. And the same goes for you.” Tara’s finger’s brushed over Willow’s cheekbone. “You let go of everything but the love.”

Willow thought she could hear the grass growing underneath her fingers. There could be no mistake. She could feel Tara’s gentle touch. Her senses extended beyond her body, reaching into the air and the earth, tying her to the moment, sheltering her from the past. Her eyes held on to the women she loved more than life itself, and she wondered if it were possible to die of love, like Cathy and Heathcliff and all those other ill-fated characters that seemed to populate so many nineteenth century fictions. Tara’s smile made her let go of the thought, and, for a moment, the pain lifted. They sat together until it was time for Willow’s afternoon class.

Willow stood up, slinging her backpack over one shoulder. “Will I see you again tonight?”

Tara looked up at her lover. While Willow had eaten her lunch, she’d pulled her hair loose from its ponytail, and now blond tresses spilled over her shoulders. Her eyes squinted against the sunlight. “I’m there when you need me, Will.”

Willow nodded. She turned to walk away, forcing herself not to look back until the last possible moment. Tara was still seated on the ground, seemingly watching the hacky-sack players. Willow’s strained her eyes trying to decide if the figure she saw was solid, or translucent. Part of her wanted to know the truth, but another part wanted to simply accept Tara’s presence as a gift. Blessed be.


Last edited by Tecnopagan on Tue Apr 04, 2017 7:05 am, edited 3 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Mon Oct 21, 2002 11:57 pm 
Really great start. Have you been peaking into my life or something? I loved Wuthering Heights, not to mention the Tuesday dinner with dad thing...and UIC, well I live here. Stop..it's scarring me LOL

Tara nodded in agreement "She has magic fingers." TheWisdom of War, Chris Golden

" When things get ruffy, he hides behind his Buffy" Anya Once more with Bitterness- er....Feeling.



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 12:21 am 
Hey, this is so great!

I found your story a couple of days ago on Wiccan Ways and i was totally hooked! :D :bounce

You write really well. I love this story and i'm SO waiting for an update!

Great work! :clap



------------------
"I got so lost"
"I found you, i will always find you"

Edited by: snuggle79 at: 10/22/02 12:35:36 am


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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 4:08 am 
The girl's history and obvious ability to look after herself show us that she's had to cope with a lot in her 22 years.



Willow being guided through her grief by "visits" from Tara, so very poignant. Emphasising very well how alone she is.





Adding up the total of a love that's true, multiply life by the power of two
Indigo Girls



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 7:25 am 
Yay for TP! I'm glad you listened to yammering fans and posted here. It's really beautifully written, and I'm excited to see how you deal with all the complex memory issues to come.



I'll stop here cause I've read all of Part One and don't want to give anything away from those who haven't.



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 7:40 am 
This is very painful, although it's somewhat reassuring that Willow can't let Tara go so easily, and vice versa. I really enjoyed the simple details in this, the notion that they can barely touch one another. So close, and yet so far away.



Thanks so much for this. :)


----------
"You exquisite little tart!" ~ Diana Lethaby



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 8:41 am 
Unfortunately, I haven't got the time to read this at the moment but I've copied it to word so I can read it tonight. :) I'll be back and post my comments soon. :D



Caz

Tara: I got so lost
Willow: I found you... I will always find you



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 Post subject: ...
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 10:13 am 
yay! you posted here! this is such a great fic.



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 Post subject: Re: ...
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 10:41 am 
Dare I admit that I've cried my eyes out? Ok. I cried my eyes out.



I understand why your fans wanted you to post here too...

Looking forward to your next installment!



Excuse me while I go fix this mess my mascara made...

"You are Willow Rosenberg, vixen-y lighter of the flame and keeper of my heart.”

(Camp Flutie by Rane)



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 Post subject: Re: ...Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 11:03 am 
Hey--First of all, great title! I'm really intrigued by the different worlds implied by "the girl"'s inner dialogue. You do a great job of introducing the idea of "him," the person she has 6 weeks to prepare for. You also paint a very poignant picture of grief and how hard we try to cope w/ loss. You're walking a nice balance b/w making Tara physically real and available while maintaining the surreal or supernatural nuances of her appearance.



Finally--kudos for the references to the Doctors of Droning. Very sly, and also quite effective in capturing what so many of us feel right now: How could they take something so vibrant and render it dull?



I look forward to future installments, in whatever time line works for you.



M



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 Post subject: Re: ...Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 11:38 am 
great start...very painful and sad..*sniffsniff* :cry



I liked the references made toward the prof.s..hehe..



oh, but the visuals of Tara, very sad...please please continue

Tk's new and improved "GrrArgg"...Tk's Heaven

-----------------------------
Tara was similarly riveted, her body on slow burn as Willow's lips parted and her mouth opened, the food slipping inside and being consumed. Never in her life had Tara ever wanted to be a chicken casserole so badly...Later that night..."It's good to be a chicken casserole," Tara murmured, before passing out. ~ Answering Darkness by Sassette



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 7:24 pm 
WiccansIllusion, I promise no peaking into the lives of the Kittens. On the other hand, if you have green eyes and a tendency to add a "y" to your nouns and adjectives, I'm a little worried.



Snuggle79, Thanks for the positive comments. I'm hard at work on Part 2.



Mollyyig, I hadn't thought of it that way, but what a lovely and sensitive reading.



tommo, Ooooooo, praise from a moderator. Watch out. You will turn my head for sure.



BigDummy-Stay tuned, Part Two is coming! (And thanks for not giving away spoilers!)



Caz, Whatever you do, don't start printing. Part One runs about 120 pages of text. Save the trees!



Rane, Thanks again for the sweet encouragement.



saule77, Please dare to admit anything to me.



AntigoneUnbound, Hey, great handle. Regarding the "Doctors of Droning," I'm really only telling tales on myself. Today, I put at least two students to sleep. Ooops.



tkheaven, Again, I promise part two is on the way, and I'm posting chapters 3 and 4 of D.R. Part One, tonight.



TP21



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 7:47 pm 
Update



Chapter Three



By late afternoon, the girl found herself walking among crowds of people her own age. In addition to the expected coffee shops and bars, Sunnydale's student ghetto had the requisite number of taquerias, pizza joints, burger palaces and cheap Thai noodle houses. No longer feeling quite so conspicuous, the girl ventured into a used bookstore, and spent an hour or so perusing the shelves. While there were only a few useful magick books, she did find some unexpected and welcome titles in the science fiction and fantasy section. The store also had tarot packs for sale. The girl carefully weighed her options. Nicking a pack, or coming back for one after the store closed were both possibilities, but with money in her pocket she could not justify another theft. After some careful deliberations, she picked out a pocket-sized Rider pack.



Buying something allowed her the chance to question the sales clerk about the neighborhood. The good news was that the college offered dozens of night courses, which would make it all the easier for her to blend in after nightfall. The bad news was that the college was only two miles from an active cemetery. Once the sales clerk, an older man who introduced himself as Gene, understood the girl was open to extreme possibilities, he went on to tell her where she could find magick supplies, as well as the locations of Sunnydale's two demon bars, its most popular youth hangout, and three coffee shops that let customers sit for hours without complaining about loitering.



Gene, who turned out to be the owner of the store, was an engaging conversationalist, and she soon found herself sitting behind the counter enjoying a cup of peppermint tea and sharing her chocolates. He did not seem surprised to find out she was homeless, which made the girl even more curious about her new community, and he was kind enough to tell her about the local food banks and youth shelter. The girl accepted the information even though she knew she would go to them. She'd been a thief and an outcast for far too long to start accepting charity. The two spent an hour or more talking about favorite books, but, knowing she needed to continue her explorations, the girl eventually had to beg her leave. She left promising Gene she'd come back later in the week and with Gene's promise to have homemade cookies on hand the next time she stopped by.



It was still several hours before nightfall, leaving the girl with plenty of time to explore the college library and to scout out three additional spots to crash for the night if she couldn't make it back to the burned out high school. Like every other library she'd been too, she quickly uncovered numerous places to hide out during the day. Unfortunately, she also spied numerous motion sensors, telling her that hiding out after closing was not an option.



The girl spent some time in the library's reference room learning more of the local history before venturing back outside and losing herself amid the sea of students. The campus was huge. At the center was a large bell tower that rang in each of the hours of the day. Most of the science labs and an obviously state-of-the-art science and engineering library were located on the north side of campus. Along the eastern side were the campus commons; several classroom buildings, most of which seemed to date back to the 1930s; and her new hangout, the humanities library.



While she searched for a safe place to spend the night, she could not help but envy the people her own age. Watching so many of them walking about carefree and unaware, she felt a burning inside her chest. When she was a child, she'd wanted someday to go away to college. Her mother had gone to college and studied literature and art, aspiring to become a teacher. The girl did not know why her mother gave up on her ambition, she only knew that somewhere along the line her mother had met and married her father, and become a wife and mother, what her father called a woman's one true vocation. She also knew that after her father would go to bed, most nights her mother would stay up to read. For some reason, even as a child, she knew that the books her mother read were important. That there were ideas in them that she would some day need to know. Years later, long after the night she lost her mother and father, the girl would go back to the family home to see if she could find her mother's books.



After their parents had been killed, the girl and her brother successfully hid in the woods for nearly a week before they were caught by juvenile authorities and placed in foster care. She'd tried to keep in touch with her brother, but he stopped writing back within months of their separation. Unlike her, he'd been quickly adopted into a family wanting a son more or less the same age as he to replace a son they'd lost. She was not so lucky. Bounced from home to home, the girl tried her best to keep up with her schooling, even if she no longer had any hope of going to college. She quickly became accustomed to hard work and menial chores. Most of her foster families wanted an older daughter to look after their younger children, or someone to help around the house. In time, she became a quite good cook and a reasonably accomplished seamstress. She also learned to keep a low profile, and hide her talents for magicks.



The world she lived in was falling apart. Each year the demon world encroached further into the human world. When her town fell to vampires, no one had ever heard of such a thing, and the story was easily suppressed. But soon other towns fell. Death by vampire and injury by demon became commonplace. Within three years of her parents' deaths most humans lived with a constant low-grade fear of the demonic. By the time the girl was a young teen, there was resurgence in witch persecutions. While uncommon, stoning and burnings were not unheard of in most places. Witches and demons became one in the same in the peoples' eyes, and thus the world lost its best hope for a return to the way things used to be. The idea of fighting fire with fire was strongly discouraged. The scientists and the military jealousy held on to their power, even if it was obvious that neither the scientists nor the military had any idea how to stop the demon incursions. Luckily for the girl, her mother's gifts were not known and thus no one suspected her of having the talent. Still, the girl could not deny her calling.



At thirteen, she would wake in the night, her body responding to the moonlight filtering between the window coverings. Sometimes she would rise from her bed and sneak outside to watch the moon's slow passage across the night sky. By fourteen, she could barely hide the quickening of her heart at the Spring Equinox or the frisson she felt with the coming of the Summer Solstice. Her talent called to her in her sleep, begging her attention and disturbing her dreams. She quickly discovered that so long as she kept to her chores without complaint, no one noticed her abilities or interests. Spending her Sunday afternoons in the local library reading dusty old books with cracked leather bindings and ragged pages meant only that she was out from underfoot and a fool. For only fools spent their time reading. The smart ones built higher fences. And so she slipped by unnoticed by anyone. When people thought of witches, the shy and quiet blonde girl came to no one's mind, even as her talent grew day by day. At fifteen, she mastered the tarot; at sixteen, she began her Book of Shadows



And then, one night, she ran away. A few weeks earlier, on her way home from babysitting a neighbor's three children, she'd been attacked by a vampire. It was female and beautiful. Thin as a reed, with delicate bones, the vampire grabbed the girl from behind. The girl struggled to get away, kicking and screaming, but no one came to her aid. She broke free for a moment, and started to run, but then tripped over some broken pavement and fell to the sidewalk. Within seconds, the vampire captured her a second time, pulling her up by her arms. She knew she was lost, but still she struggled in the vampire's embrace. As she felt the press of fangs against her neck, the girl looked into the vampire's emerald eyes. Flecks of gold and hazel decorated the iris. The girl prayed that she would die and not be turned. And then, inexplicably, the vampire pushed her away. She fell a second time to the sidewalk her head slamming against the cement. The girl looked up, noticing through her daze that the vampire's hands were startlingly graceful and that its fangs were pure white and rested against thin blood red lips. The vampire stood above her, seemingly frozen, but then spoke words of such contempt and derision that they took the girl's breath away. The vampire left the girl lying on the pavement, bloodied and beaten.



Shaking with fear, the girl watched the vampire's fast retreating back until it turned the corner and disappeared back into the night. Only then did she struggle to her feet. She limped home crying and desperately missing her mother. The loneliness of living without a real family ached inside her chest.



As soon as she returned to her house, the police were called. Her foster parents responded with concern, but the girl could not ignore the truth; she was a stranger in the house. The care she received was perfunctory at best; it was the concern one might show a long distant relative. Adding to her sense of isolation, the girl's clearest memory of the attack was the vampire speaking to her, calling her nothing but a ghost. She didn't understand what the vampire meant, but she knew there was a morsel of truth in the statement.



She had no ties to anyone; she had no kith or kin. Suddenly, it all became clear to her. She knew what she had to do. Vampires had stolen away her family, her home, her future and her birthright. She left intending to get some of it back, and that meant going home. It was autumn when the girl left, heading due south and following the coastline. Not long after crossing the unofficial border between the human lands and the demon territory, she found her first human cadre.



Unlike the most of the world, the cadres valued the talent of a witch, even one who was still a fledgling. They were heading into the deepest parts of demon territory; places the military had already given up. The girl explained she was trying to get back to her family home, and her new friends understood. Like her, most of them had lost their families and homes to the demons. Like her, they had lost their connections to the past and thus felt lost in the present.



In her cadre the girl discovered what it meant to belong again. For the first time in her life she felt welcome, a part of something bigger than herself. Still, after so many years on her own, the girl found it difficult to feel close to any of her new companions. Friendship finally came from the most unexpected source.



Larry and the girl could not have been more unalike, but a friendship was formed nonetheless. He was big, clumsy and loud; she was small, delicate and shy. Larry loved physical humor and practical jokes, while she loved poetry and music. At first she was afraid of him, but soon she realized that underneath his bluster was a caring heart. They bonded over a shared desire to go home.



Unfortunately for him, home was located in the belly of the beast. To protect their only son his parents had sent him away to live with his grandparents in Oregon long before things completely unraveled in Sunnydale. After the city fell to the demons, he'd heard nothing from his family. Larry wanted to see for himself what had come of his community. He'd also heard there was a growing human resistance group among those who were too stubborn or, possibly, too stupid to give up their homes and leave Sunnydale for safer ground, and so he still had vague hopes that some members of his family continued to survive.



Bonded over their shared loss, they became brother and sister to one another. Larry taught her to fight both hand to hand and with weapons. He instructed her in the use of the crossbow and practiced her in the ways of killing vampires. From him she learned not only how to fight and how to defend herself, but also the necessity of protecting the weak and helping the helpless. Under his tutelage, the girl became a warrior.



It took the group nearly five months to reach the halfway point to Sunnydale. Between skirmishes with demons and the attempts by the military to quell local human rebellions, many of the original members of the group were lost. Few jobs had a higher mortality rate than demon hunting, and the girl was grateful that Larry was alive and well when it came time for her to leave the cadre and head off in a different direction to go home. The two friends promised each other they would hook up once again and made a plan to meet in Los Angeles in two years. Even though both knew it was unlikely they'd make the date, they left each other hoping it were true. When she kissed Larry goodbye, she realized he was the first person she'd kissed since she'd bid goodbye to her little brother.



Once she left the group, the girl steered away from the main roads and took to traveling cross-country. Miles of farmland had once surrounded her hometown, but now it had turned to ruin. She stayed clear of the farmhouses, leery of what might be lurking inside. Three weeks later, she reached the Blackbird city limits. Utterly deserted, whoever or whatever had taken over the town was long gone, the only reason humans had not reclaimed it was that it was too deep inside demon territory. She spent the first few days exploring the town itself, finding again her elementary school, the parks she'd played in, the stores where she'd picked out birthday gifts and school clothes. At night, she found shelter inside an abandoned department store, sleeping inside the bottom of an old display case. The girl had spent nearly a year finding her way back home, but now when her home was within her grasp, she found it almost impossible to complete the final leg of her journey.



The reason was simple. Even though she knew it was pure fantasy, the girl held on to the hope that her mother had somehow survived the attack. For years, deep down in her most secret thoughts, she imagined that her memories were wrong and that she hadn't seen her mother's body. She would make herself forget how the warmth in her mother's limbs had slowly faded away, and she would try to erase from her memory the sounds of her mother's screams. The girl knew that the moment she saw her old house her hope would vanish from her heart. On the forth day, she found the strength to abandon her childish dream. She walked the familiar streets and paths that led her back to her childhood home.



She came the back way, climbing over a neighbor's fence, and pushing through an overgrown hedge, until she found her way back to her old swing set. Slowly, she walked across her backyard, stepping through the fallen leave of a large maple tree. The crush of leaves reminded her of backyard picnics with her mother and little brother, of the three of them eating cold sandwiches and playing board games or cards. Overcome with loss, the girl went to sit on the back porch swing, staying there nearly an hour before venturing inside the house.



Her mother's washer and dryer had been stolen from the mudroom, as well as the television and stereo from the front room. Some of the downstairs furniture had been trashed--a table in the foyer and her mother's china cabinet--but the upstairs was largely intact, although someone had riffled through all of the dressers and closets. She found her mother's remains on the kitchen floor; a few bones scattered about by animals. She cried as she collected them, placing them inside a cardboard box that she and her brother had once used to hold their stuffed toys.



The girl buried the box in the backyard, near the back fence where her mother had kept roses and carnations. The ground was hard and dry and thick with dead root systems. Burying the box took most of the afternoon; afterwards, she recited one of her mother's favorite poems and finally said goodbye to the one person whose love she'd never lacked.



Even though the town seemed free of vampires, the girl set up a three-tier barricade before retiring for the night to her childhood bed. Her sleep was restless, disturbed by dreams and ill portents of the future. When she woke, she determined her course for the coming weeks.



Over the years the girl had slowly come to remember and understand her parents' odd habits. Still, she was past thirteen when she remembered that the house she'd grown up in had belonged not to her father but to her mother, handed down to her mother by her mother's mother. As she grew older, she began to understand better her father's jealousy and suspicion. He'd never accepted his wife's talent, and he'd always feared the day when his daughter's abilities would manifest. She didn't understand why, but instead of making her bitterer, remembering her father's weaknesses only made her love him more and mourn all the greater his terrible fate. During her time with the cadre, she also began to remember other things about her family home: books kept under lock and key, secret rooms and strange pots of herbs and roots.



It took days to find the hidden catch that opened the door to her mother's secret library. Hidden behind false walls, accessible through a panel door in the dining room, the library was filled with books collected for centuries by the past generations of her mother's family. Many of the books were in languages she could not begin to decipher; a few volumes dated back to the centuries before movable type. The room itself was no more than six by seven feet and probably had originally functioned as a pantry. Whoever redesigned it had sought to ensure it remain a secret.



With the exception of a small desk and two metal filing cabinets, mildly recessed bookshelves covered the walls from floor to ceiling. A rolling ladder had been installed, but the girl quickly discovered that after years of non-use she would need to oil the tracks before she would be able to move it, which meant for now she was could investigate no higher than the first five shelves.



The few air vents had been closed, leaving the air stale, but the room more or less dust free. It soon occurred to her that the library would be an ideal place to hide at night. The girl dragged her bedroom mattress down the stairs and into the room, and then carefully disguised the drag marks so that if anyone came into the house there would be no clue to her presence. She had enough food to last for several days, and so she did not leave the house until the end of the week.



It did not take her long to develop a routine. Mornings and evenings were spent combing through the library, learning her history, and learning the craft. Afternoons were spent on her daily chores and gathering supplies. Evenings were spent studying the languages of the books, first using the few dictionaries and grammars she found in the library, and later using books she took from the long-abandoned public library.



She lived on the canned food and other goods scattered amid the abandoned stores. Clean water was harder to come by, but careful conservation helped until she figured, at long last, how to pull water from the family well. Most of the neighborhood gardens had grown wild, but she often found fresh fruit, and so long as she did not grow tired of zucchini, she often had fresh vegetables. The girl celebrated the day she figured out how to run the old emergency solar generator behind the house. By turning off the electricity everywhere in the house except the library, she figured she could easily run the library's three fluorescent lamps. She also found that she could run an electric hot plate and teakettle, and no longer had to rely upon cooking over the living room fireplace.



Nearly three months passed before she found her mother and grandmother's Books of Shadows. Carefully hidden inside other books, the girl wept at the sight of her mother's familiar hand. Slowly the girl began to understand her true heritage; slowly the girl began to learn to cast. The simple glamours and spells she'd once struggled with became child's play in comparison to calling upon the elements, riding the astral planes of existence and conjuring talismans. On the day the girl learned to cast a stable protection net, she finally began to feel safe in her own home. Likewise, although it took nearly a month, on the day the girl learned to cast an invisibility cloak she finally freed herself of the fear of being caught outside after dark. She channeled most of her talent into defensive white magicks, fearing the power of offensive dark magicks. Still, the girl learned half a dozen incantations for overcoming demonic attack. And yet, none of her early studies prepared her for the performing of conjures. When she began to cast the patterns and the signs, she finally learned the power of magicks.



By the time winter came, the girl was well settled into her new life. Some days she was lonely, and she missed Larry's friendship, but most days she enjoyed the quiet. Not since her earliest memories of childhood had she felt as safe from harm's way. She continued her physical training and she taught herself to hunt. If she was going to become useful to the cadres she needed to prepare herself for all kinds of fighting. Witchcraft could not put a stake through a vampire's heart.



In the end, the girl spent nearly fifteen months reading from her mother's library. When it came time to leave, she carefully shut the house down, cloaking it with her strongest protection net. She took with her only her clothes and her own Book of Shadows in which she'd carefully transcribed her grandmother's and her mother's wisdom. She knew what she had to do. She could only pray that she would be up to the task.





Chapter Four



Willow left campus immediately after her evening computer lab. Bobby and Katie tried to interest her in going out for beers, but she declined the invitation, a little surprised that her regret was real. The ride home was uneventful; along the way she stopped at the grocery store to pick up some fresh vegetables and other supplies. Tara was right, both she and Dawn were reverting to diets better suited for elementary school children.



When she arrived home, she found Dawn and Buffy watching television in the front room. She surprised them both when, after putting away the groceries, she sat down to join them.



Buffy made room for the hacker to sit next to her on the sofa. "I thought you hated all things David E. Kelley, Will?"



"Oh come on, Buffy, characters that preach to one another instead of speaking dialogue, endless reliance upon popular music to set every mood, and sophomoric humor, what's not to love?"



"I like the hair and the fashion." Dawn said, speaking up from the floor.



"Which is the most important part of any one hour television drama. Well, that and the wall paper." Buffy added.



"Not to forget the home furnishings." Willow reached for one of the sofa pillows and poked it behind her head. "Was it just me, or did anyone else notice that the all the hotel rooms on the planet Risa appear to have been furnished by Ikea."



"It wasn't you. Face it, Will. The influence of Scandinavia goes well beyond yuppie North American households."



Willow grinned. "You're saying Ikea has truly gone where no decorator has gone before."



Buffy turned to look at her best friend. "Wait a second. That was your third joke in a row. What's happened? What's put you in such a good mood?"



"I guess I just had a good day." Willow said, quietly. She felt Buffy's eyes upon her and studied her gaze on the television. She knew Buffy wanted her to open up more, to talk about what was flying around in her head. But she couldn't. Opening up would mean telling Buffy about Tara, and she wasn't prepared to share that knowledge. Not yet, not while she did not understand what was going on.



The three girls watched television together for another hour before heading up for bed. And for the first time in weeks, Willow's dreams were happy ones. When she woke up the next morning, Tara was sitting in the chair near the bed.



"Good morning, sleepyhead." Tara was already dressed for the day in a pale blue, scoop-necked sundress. Willow had to think before she remembered it was the dress Tara had worn to the Renaissance Fair two years prior.



"I've always loved that dress on you. It brings out your eyes."



Tara smiled. "You always checked out my breasts whenever I wore it."



Willow felt her face grow hot. "I did not."



"Yes, you did. Don't even try to deny it." Tara crossed over to the bed and sat down next to Willow. "After all, I'm not denying that I liked to make you look." Using the tips of her fingers, she brushed Willow's hair away from her forehead. "Scoot over a bit, okay."



Willow did as she was asked, making more room for the taller girl. It seemed as if she could feel the bed move as Tara shifted on the mattress, but she couldn't be sure. She closed her eyes, and soon, already half asleep, she felt loving hands brushing along her shoulders and arms reminding her of the many sleepy mornings she'd spent locked in Tara's embrace. She did not wake again until her alarm rang an hour later. Tara was gone.



Since her first class did not meet until early afternoon, Willow spent the rest of the morning at home reading ahead for her British novel class. As soon as they finished with Emily Bronte, they would move on to Jane Austen. Willow quickly lost herself in the world of Northanger Abbey, nearly forgetting that she needed to catch the eleven thirty-five bus if she wanted to mass transit it to school.



Thursdays were her easiest day, one class and no labs. As soon as she was finished on campus, she headed over to the Magic Box to help Anya with some special orders. When she arrived, Anya was busy with a customer, so she parked herself at the reading table and took out her computer. As soon as one customer left, another one seemed to come through the door. Knowing that Anya needed the business, Willow passed the time adding to her email letter to her mother.



Eventually, Anya found a free moment and went to the table. "I'll never understand why people persist in faxing their order to me in Latin" Anya complained, standing over Willow's shoulder as she unceremoniously dropped the pile of orders on to the table. "I mean it's not as if I could read the language when it was widely spoken."



"Maybe they just don't know the modern words for things?" Willow ventured distractedly as she put her laptop to sleep.



"Then they should learn them. The clock is not ticking backwards. If anything, Latin will be entirely forgotten in the next century."



"And now that you've reclaimed your demon powers, you'll get to see it happen." The hacker said with far less irony than might be expected.



Anya smiled happily. "Yes, I will. Wow, that puts me in a much better mood." The vengeance demon patted Willow on the shoulder in an awkward but sincere gesture of appreciation. Reenergized at the idea of another language falling into oblivion, Anya returned to her inventory work behind the counter, leaving Willow to herself.



"Glad to oblige." Willow muttered under her breath, not trying to hide her grin. She wasn't surprised to notice, minutes later, Tara sitting next to her. Apparently interested in widely exploring her former wardrobe, Tara was now dressed in an emerald green pullover sweater, dark slacks and a pair of clogs that Willow thought she remembered Tara throwing away long before the blonde witch moved into the house on Revello Drive. "Want to help me figure out these orders." She whispered.



Tara shook her head. "Nope, you're the language girl, not me. I'll just sit here and watch."



Willow nodded, and returned to the work at hand. In addition to Latin, two orders were written in ancient Greek, one in modern French and one was written in what Willow eventually realized was Aramaic. Even with her now considerable language skills, Willow still needed to use her computer's translation software to figure out some of the idioms. The majority of the orders were for surprisingly mundane things, although one was clearly an order in support of dark magicks. The hacker put a post-it note on it, already knowing Anya would refuse the order. After last spring's events, all greeted any contact with that kind of power, however minimal, with deep trepidation.



Tara sat quietly, but after a while she rose from her chair and began exploring the shop's shelves. From the corner of her eye, Willow watched the blonde examine the tarot packs near the back of the store. Not sure why, the red head made sure that Tara was unaware of the surveillance. She did not want to be suspicious. But she could not help but notice that over the past day or two Tara seemed to be growing more substantial, more real. Or was it simply Tara seemed more real to her? Unwilling to pursue her questions, Willow pushed them from her head and concentrated more deeply on the task at hand.



As soon she was finished, Willow repacked her computer and bid Anya goodbye, awkwardly hugging the reinstated vengeance demon goodbye. Things were still strained between the two of them, but slowly they were building a real friendship. The jealousy and resentment over Xander that had always colored their relationship, while not forgotten, had eased considerably, and more than anyone else, Anya understood the events that happened that horrible day when Tara died.



Stepping out on to the street, Willow was surprised to find that the sun had already set. There was the hint of a chill in the air indicating winter was on its way and a full moon hung in the sky, reminding the red head of the many times she and Tara had walked along the beach under moonlight. Even though it was getting late, Willow decided to enjoy the night air and walk home instead of waiting for the bus. She did not bother to hide her smile as her lover soon fell into step next to her. "You know, if I talk to you people are going to think I'm crazy."



Tara linked her arm around Willow's. "Would that be so bad? You could always say you were just thinking out loud."



"But what if someone heard me asking you a question?" Willow objected.



"I'd be more concerned if someone heard you asking me out on a date." Tara replied, a smile dancing over her face.



Willow grinned. Tara was up to something. "A date, huh. Was that a hint? Are you suggesting I never take you places anymore?"



"Well, I did really want to see that Jody Foster movie, and it is playing at the second-run movie house all this week."



"You know I don't think I ever really chastised you enough for your Jody Foster fetish."



Tara's voice was as dry as the Sahara. "No, it's more like you overlooked my Jody Foster fetish so long as I overlooked your Angela Jolie obsession."



"I am not obsessed with Angela Jolie." The hacker said, somewhat more vehemently than she'd intended.



Tara started to laugh. "Come on, honey. Why else would you have gone to see Tombraider three times, the dialogue?"



More embarrassed than miffed, Willow replied. "I thought you promised never to bring that up."



"No, I think you made Buffy promise not to bring that up so long as you kept quiet about her love of all things Dorothy Hamill."



Finally remembering her sense of humor, Willow began to laugh. "This is much more complicated than I remember."



"Are you really trying to get out of taking me on a date, or is this just some weird attempt to drive me crazy." Tara asked, a slight skip in her step.



Willow turned to take the short cut through the alley. "Nope, no weird attempt to drive you crazy. One crazy person in this relationship is enough. And since I'm the one talking to a ghost, I get the crazy label."



Tara let go of Willow's arm and stepped in front of her, stopping the red head in her tracks. Hands on hips, a wide grin spreading across her face, she stated. "So you've decided I'm a ghost."



Willow let her eyes run down Tara's figure. "Or a beautiful apparition."



Tara's voice was soft. "I'm liking the sound of that." She moved closer, reaching out to her lover.



The hair on the back of her neck rose as Willow felt Tara's arms close around her waist, and the tickling of her hair as Tara rested her head on her shoulder. She breathed in and, for the first time in months, Tara's familiar scent flooded her senses.



Her voice filled with wonder, Willow whispered, "I'm not asleep."



"No baby, you're necking with me in the alley." Tara giggled.



A shiver traveled down the red head's spine. "Baby, I'm not asleep. I'm not even near being asleep and I can feel you. Really feel you."



"What?" Tara asked, pulling back.



"Tara, it's not a fantasy. Look, I'm going to close my eyes and then you touch me, okay."



The blonde nodded her agreement.



Willow closed her eyes; within seconds she felt fingers brush over her lips. "You just touched my face. You ran your fingers over my lips." Willow said before opening her eyes.



In obvious shock, Tara questioned. "You really felt that?"



Willow nodded. She looked into her lover's eyes. "Do you think there will come a time when I can touch you?"



Tara spoke tenderly. "I wish I knew the answer. If I did, I'd tell you." Her eyes closed as she leaned into her lover.



Willow felt Tara's hair brush her face. "I miss touching you. I miss running my fingers through your hair. I miss kissing you."



"You still can, at night, when you sleep, in your dreams," Tara murmured against Willow's neck.



Willow turned her head slightly, only barely resisting the impulse to try to wrap her arms around her lover. "When I was a kid, I hated sleeping. It always seemed to me to be such a waste of time. But these past few days, I can't wait"



"Even though sometimes you dream about unhappy things," Tara asked, drawing Willow closer into her embrace.



"If it's the price I have to pay to dream you whole again, I'll pay it." Willow whispered.



"You've paid too much, my love." Tara whispered back.



Willow closed her eyes as Tara began to pull her fingers through her hair. She wondered if the heartbeat she heard pounding was hers or Tara's. Did ghosts have heartbeats? Was she slowly going insane? Because right now, at this moment, she believed with the kind of certainty she usually reserved for scientific fact that she could feel the warmth of Tara's breath against her neck. Willow stepped backwards until she felt her back press against the brick wall that lined the alley. When she finally felt Tara's lips graze against the pulse point in her throat, she thought her knees might give way.



Lost in the press of her lover's kiss, she did not hear the vampire as it quietly made its way down the alley. Without warning, two hands caught her around the waist, picking her up and slamming her against the wall. Disoriented, she did not immediately fight back. The vampire picked her up a second time, again slamming her against the wall. Her head snapped back against the brick, and the air rushed from her lungs preventing her from screaming for help.



Her eyes blurred with tears of pain and anger. Finally, she began fighting back. She tried to kick herself loose, but already she was too weak. The vampire grabbed the back of her hair, pulling her head back, and exposing her neck. Pure terror rushed through her body. This was it. She tried to think of Tara's face. And then, without warning she fell gracelessly to the ground, her legs folding underneath her, hands and knees hitting the pavement, hard.



Unable to focus her eyes, she heard rather than saw the impact of a roundhouse kick against the vampire's head. Blinking furiously, she barely made out a shadowy figure snap off another vicious kick, this one to the vampire's chest. As if energized by the blow, the vampire sprung off the ground and knocked Willow's defender to the ground. Only to be forced back, as the defender leaped back to his feet, snapping off a second kick to the vampire's chest. Enraged, the vampire raised a trashcan over its head and hurled it at Willow's defender, knocking him back to the ground. Willow watched in horror, as the vampire repeatedly kicked him in the solar plexus, the lower back and the ribs. Again she tried to get off the ground, thinking she could push the vampire away. But then the defender rolled to his other side and grabbed the vampire by the foot, toppling the demon to the ground. The two struggled, and for a moment Willow thought her defender was going to lose the battle until the vampire suddenly burst apart in a cloud of dust. She heard voices calling out and realized others were coming to help. Willow started to pull herself to her feet, only to fall backwards as her defender seemed to leap into the air and fly away.



Still disoriented, her head pounding, it took Willow a moment to realize someone was calling her by name. She waved her hand, trying to draw the person closer. Choking and crying, Willow slowly climbed back to her feet, but then nearly collapsed again as familiar arms closed around her.



She could feel Buffy's fingers sifting through her hair, yet her friend's voice seemed to come from far away. Willow closed one hand around the lapel of Buffy's jacket, gripping the material between her fingers, trying to reorient herself in the moment. Her entire body ached, and she hadn't felt so afraid since high school. The careful guise of self-control she'd maintained since returning from England fell apart. Overwhelmed and scared, she began to cry, huge gulping sobs.



Buffy pulled Willow into a tight embrace and began rubbing her hands up and down the red head's back, crooning soothing words. When her sobs began to quiet, Buffy looked over her best friend's shoulder to Willow's other life support. "We need to get Willow to a hospital. She's going to need stitches."



Xander swallowed hard, turning his eyes away from Willow's head wound. "I think I'm going to be sick." Even now, five months later, blood bothered him as it had never bothered him before. In his dreams, he was still haunted by the sight of Buffy's blood spilling over his hands and watching the coroner zip Tara's bloodied body inside its black vinyl shroud.



Buffy's voice was firm, but understanding. "Xander, I need you to hold it together. We have to get Willow to a hospital." Worried Xander was about to faint, she pulled out the big guns and mouthed the words, "Willow needs us."



He nodded. "I got it. It's just the blood. Ever since-" He smiled weakly; not finishing his sentence, acknowledging that now was not the time to fall apart. "I'm okay." Xander squeezed Willow's shoulder affectionately. "Come on, Will. We're off to our favorite Thursday night hangout, Sunnydale Emergency. If you're good, you'll score an ice cream cone."



Feeling embarrassed over her outburst, Willow pulled back slightly, and looked up at Xander's worried face. "With sprinkles?"



"Sprinkles, M&Ms, whatever you want." He said, forcing a smile on his face even as his stomach continued to churn.



Buffy caught Willow's eye. "You good to go?"



The hacker nodded her head slightly, before stepping back. "Can someone find my laptop bag?"



Xander spotted it lying next to the wall. "Got it." He picked up the bag and slung it over his shoulder. "Great googily woogily, Willow, what do you carry in here? Bricks?" He teased, coaxing a smile from his childhood friend.



"Yep, bricks and many, many heavy blunt objects." Willow quipped.



"Because you can never have enough blunt objects on hand," Xander bantered back.



"Or stakes," Buffy added. "I go through them like water."



Xander circled Willow's waist with his arm, leading them out of the alley. "You know Buffy, with just a little bit of extra effort you could probably learn to conserve on stakes. While they are a renewable resource, that doesn't mean it's okay to be careless."



"You're right," Buffy agreed, taking Willow's free hand in her own. "I need to be more conscientious about stake waste."



As usual, the emergency room at Sunnydale Memorial was full with an assortment of victims of car accidents, gunshot wounds and neck punctures. Buffy and Xander settled down near the television to wait while Willow went through the intake procedures, but only after extracting a promise from the duty nurse that Buffy would be called in when it came time to stitch the wound. Some two hours and five stitches later, Xander dropped off a very tired Buffy and an exhausted Willow with a promise to take the two of them, plus Dawn, out for ice cream the next night.



Willow needed Buffy's help up the steps and inside the house. Her entire body ached from the pounding she'd taken from the vampire. And she was worried, Tara had vanished when the vampire attacked and had not returned since. Leaning heavily on Buffy's shoulder, she dropped on to the sofa.



Buffy stepped back and appraised the red head. "Will, your shivering. Do you want some chamomile tea? Or I could go get a blanket?"



Willow looked up from the sofa. Her voice was quiet. "Tea would be great."



Buffy nodded sharply. "Coming right up. Don't move, okay."



"Not moving. This is me sitting very, very still." Willow leaned back against the sofa cushions and closed her eyes. She heard Buffy head into the kitchen. Moments later, she felt Tara sit next to her. Tender hands brushed over the small bandage that stretched along the side of her head. Willow turned into Tara's touch. "They had to shave away part of my hair."



"My poor baby." Tara murmured, pulling Willow into her arms.



"Buffy made sure that they only took away the littlest bit and that the rest of my hair would drape over the part they shaved, but it's still going to take months for my hair to grow out." Willow pouted.



"Hush, sweetie. Your hair looks fine. Really." Tara soothed.



A ghost of a smile played over Willow's lips. "You're just saying that because you love me."



Catching Willow's smile, Tara joked. "Well, duh, Willow. Would you expect anything different from me?"



"Nah, you were always were a soft touch. They could have shaved half my head and you'd still say I looked fine."



"What can I say? I've always been a sucker for a pretty face." Tara brushed her lips against Willow's hair. "I'm just glad you're okay."



"Did you see what happened?" Willow asked, and then wondered at the sanity of her question.



A stricken look passed over Tara's face, and she pulled Willow closer. "No, I got thrown out."



Willow looked into blue eyes. "Thrown out?"



"Where I go, when I'm not with you." Tara looked away. "I hate it there. I hate being away from you."



"Can you tell me what it's like?" Willow asked, quietly. It was the first time Tara had mentioned where she went when she went away.



Tara turned back to her lover. "It's like I'm drifting. Not rooted to anything. It's not unpleasant. But it's not like this, not like home." Tears spilled down Tara's cheeks. She shook her head, trying to regain her self-control. "I shouldn't complain. Not when I get to spend so much time with you."



The question spilled from Willow's lips, and she immediately wished she could take it back. "What would happen if I let you go?"



Tara's voice was hesitant. "I don't know."



"Would it be better?" Again, Willow hated herself for asking the question, but she had to know.



"Nothing could be better than this, holding you in my arms. This is heaven." Tara leaned down to kiss Willow's forehead just as Willow turned her face. Lips brushed over lips.



Willow's body arched up against Tara's as if shocked by an electrical current. The red head felt her lover's kiss pass throughout her body, extending along her arms and legs, stretching throughout her nervous systems. Her lover's scent seemed everywhere around her, enveloping her, permeating her hair and clothing, filling her lungs.



Willow opened her eyes and stared deep into her lover's. She tried to form words, but could not make any sound. She swallowed several times, before trying again. "Tara." Her throat constricted around her lover's name. She swallowed again. "Tara, my love."



Tara's eyes widened in fear, "Did I hurt you? Are you okay?" She asked in a panic.



"I'm fine. Oh god, sweetie, I'm okay." Without thinking, Willow reached up to brush her fingers against Tara's cheekbone, only to feel nothing under her fingertips. Uncontrolled disappointment passed over Willow's face.



More tears spilled from Tara's eyes. "Baby, I'm sorry."



"It's okay." Willow whispered. "It's okay, don't cry." She forced her features into a reassuring smile.



"Did you say something, Will?" Buffy asked coming back into the room carrying a tray holding two mugs and a plate of cookies.



Willow's head jerked around, causing pain to shoot from pulled stitches. "What?" Her heart still pounding, she pushed herself up from the cushions, trying to regain some semblance of self-control.



Buffy lowered the tray on to the coffee table and sat down next to her best friend. "I thought I heard you say something." A confused look passed over the Slayer's face.



"No," Willow lied. "Not unless I was talking to myself unaware."



Not convinced, but willing to go along with Willow's explanation, Buffy grinned at the red head. "Which would not be a good sign. Not after a head injury. And you know. Not knowing when you're talking to yourself is twice as bad as knowing when you're talking to yourself. If you know what I mean?"



"That would be the worst kind of talking to yourself. I mean the kind of talking to yourself when you are thinking you are talking to someone when no one is really there" Willow continued, following Buffy into babbledom. Next to her, she heard Tara whisper, "Easy, baby, if you don't stop you're going to hurt yourself." Startled by Tara's sudden reappearance, the red jumped, and a short squeal escaped her lips.



No longer willing to go along with the subterfuge, Buffy asked. "Will, are you okay. They gave you an x-ray, didn't they?"



The hacker blushed. "Yeah, and I checked out fine. Shows what they know, huh." In an attempt to regain her composure, she picked up one of the mugs and blew over the hot tea before taking a sip. Feeling more in control, Willow leaned back into phantom arms, smiling slightly at the familiar feeling of Tara's breasts against her back.



Buffy nodded, unconvinced. Willow had been acting strangely since she came back from England and over the past few days had only become more out of character. "Yeah, shows what they know." The Slayer dissembled as she watched her friend settle back into the sofa. She waited a moment before asking, "So, are you going to tell me what you were doing walking alone in that alley."



The taste of Tara's kiss still filling her senses, without thinking, Willow blurted. "I wasn't alone." She blushed a second time.



Buffy's confusion was evident on her face. "Who was with you?"



Willow took another sip of her tea and tried to steady her thoughts. She felt Tara's hand drawing circles over her tummy, one of the blonde's favorite ways of making her lover settle down. Only then did she remember the person who saved her. "I wanted to take the short cut home." She began, adding in response to the expression on Buffy's face. And I know that was dumb, really dumb. I should know better."



"Yes, you should." Buffy's voice was harsher than she intended it to be. "I mean what if Xander and I hadn't been patrolling downtown. God, Will. We could have lost you." Buffy picked up the other mug of tea and took a long sip. "You just can't take chances, Will. Not now. Not after everything. We can't lose anyone else."



Willow watched her best friend fight not to cry. Hurting Buffy was the last thing she'd intended to do. "Buffy, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I scared you, and Xander, too."



The Slayer shook her head. "I don't want an apology. I just want you to be careful, Will." A faint smile crossed her face. "You don't want me going all mama bear on you like I do with Dawn."



Willow snorted. "Right, you're going to start giving me curfews and making me wait for rides."



"Hey, it's a thought." Buffy said, chuckling, as she eased herself into her usual corner spot on the sofa.



The two girls continued to drink their tea. Willow felt Tara shift behind her, ghostly hands wrapped more tightly across her stomach. A sure sign her lover was upset. But over what, the attack, the kiss? The hacker couldn't be sure. Slightly off-key and very softly, Willow began humming a tune she used to sing to Tara during the time her lover had been injured by Glory, not stopping until she felt a ghostly kiss press against the side of her forehead.



Buffy's voice was soft. "I haven't heard you hum that tune in a while." She starred into her mug. "Not since Tara." Her voice trailed off.



"Died." Willow said supplying the word no one ever wanted to say.



"I miss her." The words spilled from Buffy's lips. "I miss her making us pancakes, and helping us with the research, and just being around for Dawnie. And I miss the two of you together."



Willow's heart broke as she watched her best friend force herself to stop, as if grief were something any of them could control. The red head's voice was soft. "I miss her too. I miss us. Not just me and Tara, but the us that was you, Dawn, Tara, me, Xander, your mom, Giles, even Anya. I miss all of us together, the way we were that one Christmas. God, I miss that." Willow put her mug back on the coffee table and reached for Buffy's hand. It felt cold to her touch. "I'm sorry that I scared you."



"I just want things to get better, but how can they." Buffy moved closer to her friend, and then leaned down to put her head in Willow's lap.



Not sure where her words came from, Willow declared, "They will. Things will come together again. It's just this living through the present thing." She felt Tara's arms squeeze around her waist.



"Sucks, doesn't it." Buffy said, her face now buried in Willow's lap.



Willow smiled. She began running her fingers through Buffy's hair. When they were in high school, they used to spend hours braiding each other's hair, pretending that Buffy wouldn't have to go out on patrol later, pretending they were normal teenage girls. Tara was now pressing soft kisses on the back of her neck. For a moment she let herself sink into the comfort of being with the two of the three people in her life who knew how to comfort her more than any other. Relaxing as the effects of the tea and the pain pills took hold, she let her thoughts turn back to the person in the alley. She had never been able to make out a face. "Did you see the person who helped me?"



"Person?" Buffy asked, shifting on to her back so that she could look up at her friend. She took one of Willow's hands and held it between her breasts making Willow smile. Lately, no one besides the red head got to see Buffy's vulnerable side. Willow saw the gesture as small proof that the two of them were moving forward from those terrible days in May.



"Yeah, someone came and helped me. Poofed the vampire and everything." Willow looked away, trying to remember the scene more clearly. "The vampire grabbed me from behind and kept slamming me against the wall. And then this person came, and pulled the vamp off of me."



"What happened next?""



"The two struggled. And I thought the vampire was going to come out on top, but then the vampire went kablooie. Dust to dust. And then you and Xander were there." Willow looked back at her friend. "You guys really didn't see anyone?"



"Nope." We heard a struggle in the alley and came running. We saw you sitting on the ground. Your head was bleeding. I wasn't even thinking about how you got hurt. I just wanted to get you to the hospital." Buffy gently squeezed Willow's fingers.



Willow smiled and then glanced out the window and into the street as a car passed by. "I wish I knew who helped me."



"He didn't stick around to get thanked. How very Spiderman." Buffy remarked, grinning.



The hacker thought for a moment, an image tickling the back of her mind. "Not Spiderman. More like Spidergirl." Willow felt a ghostly hand drift down her arm, pausing for a moment to tickle a sensitive spot near her elbow. She fought back a smile. "When it happened I thought he was a he. But now, I'm not so sure. He might have been a she. I mean I think the person was a woman."



"You don't think it could have been Faith, do you?" Buffy asked, the worry evident in her voice.



Willow spoke quickly. "Goddess no, Faith probably would have just passed on by. I was never her favorite person." Willow reached for her tea and took a sip of the still warm brew. "You remembered to put honey in this, thanks."



Buffy looked deep into her friend's eyes. "Will, no more walking down alleys, okay." Before Willow could respond, the Slayer turned on her side, refusing to brook any argument.



Willow understood. The Scoobies couldn't take another loss. "I promise to be more careful." She took another sip of her tea, enjoying the moment, treasuring the feeling of being cuddled between her ghostly lover and her best friend. She watched the steady rise and fall of Buffy's chest, and realized her friend was close to sleep. "Buffy, we should get to bed."



Buffy opened her eyes. "Right, bed." She sat up on the sofa and stretched her neck. It made an audible popping sound. "Do you have class tomorrow?"



"Nope, I have Fridays off this semester."



"I thought so. Dawn has the day off tomorrow, some school in-service day thingy. Anyway, I promised her I'd take her to the beach. Can you come, too?" Buffy gave Willow her most winning smile. "It could be just the three of us. Like when we were fifteen. Except, this time we won't have to wait for my mom to pick us up."



"Or listen to the lecture about the proper use of sun screen." Willow added, giggling.



"Mom always did have a thing about you and sun block. I think it was the red hair. In her eyes you were in the greatest risk group." Buffy got up from the sofa, and put out her hand. "Come on, to bed with the both of us."



Willow let Buffy pull her off the sofa. "So what time did you want to leave?" She asked following Buffy up the staircase.



"Probably around eleven. We can take our lunch. Do the picnic thing." At the door to her room, Buffy asked, "Is that okay?"



The hacker smiled. "Sounds like the second best offer I've had all week." She responded to the quizzical look on Buffy's face with her most enigmatic smile and then slipped into her bedroom and closed the door. She wasn't surprised to see Tara already sitting on the bed. "How'd you get up here ahead of me? Last time I checked, you were sitting on the sofa."



Tara moved off the bed towards her lover. "Magic." Her fingers glided over the bandage. "I wish magic could heal this. Does it hurt much?"



"The pills they gave me took down my headache right away." Willow started to get undressed. She noticed that the collar of her shirt was stained with blood. "Great, I'll never get this out."



Tara stood to the side. "Sweetie, just rub some hand soap into it and soak it in cold water overnight. It'll come clean."



"Would it be awful of me to admit I miss the way you always took care of the laundry?"



"You got used to doing your own laundry while I was away."



"Used to it, I guess. But I didn't like it."



"You know that I always loved it when you would get all pouty." Tara moved back to the bed, watching Willow get into her pajamas. "You would get this expression of absolute disgust and annoyance that was so endearing."



Willow cocked her head to the side. "Endearing to you, maybe. But, trust me, most people just find it annoying."



"No, really, Will." Tara disagreed, shaking her head. "Your eyes would get all scrunched up, and your nose would wrinkle." Tara fell back on to the bed, laughing. "Confession?" She offered.



Willow sat down on the bed next to Tara. She struggled with the urge to reach for Tara's hand, wanting more than anything to be able to touch Tara's skin, but knowing that her hand would simply pass through Tara's, destroying their illusion of normalcy. And then she wondered when it was she'd come to believe that the illusion was a shared one. Not wanting the mood to be broken, Willow played along. "Confess away."



Tara rolled on to her side and curled her body around Willow's "Sometimes I would act like I wasn't going to do something just to see you get that look on your face." Tara gave Willow her half smile. "I wouldn't do it often. And I know it was terribly manipulative. But no one pouts cuter than you, honey."



Willow made a great show of rolling her eyes, knowing it would make Tara laugh even more. "Great. Willow Rosenberg, master of pouting. I'll add the line to my resume."



"Right after, Willow Rosenberg, champion screamer."



"Now what kind of screaming did you have in mind." Willow leaned down, as if ready to kiss Tara's lips.



"Don't you need to finish in the bathroom first?" Tara teased, giggling as Willow raised her eyebrows.



"Am I being reminded to wash my face and brush my teeth?" Willow asked, putting on a look of indignation.



"And don't forget to brush out your hair, too." Tara added, unrepentantly.



"You really know how to kill a mood. You know that don't you." Willow said, hiding a smile as she got up and pulled on her robe. "You are so going to get it when I come back."



Tara refused to give an inch. "Promises, promises."



Willow couldn't hold it back any longer. The smile spread across her face. "Don't go anywhere, okay?" She waited for Tara's nod before slipping out the door, only to stop dead in her tracks at the sight of Buffy standing on the other side of the hallway. "Hey. Wasn't expecting to see you there. Uhm, did you want something?"



Buffy looked confused. "Were you talking on the phone?"



Blushing furiously, it took a moment for Willow to think up a reasonable lie. "Yeah, I just called Katie to let her know I was going to have to miss our study date, tomorrow." Willow looked behind her; Tara was sitting on the bed, her hands covering her mouth as if to hold back the sound of laughter. Willow looked back at her friend. "Did you need something?"



Buffy's face flushed slightly. "No, I just heard voices, or rather I heard you. And I was worried."



Willow gave her friend a reassuring smile. "Buffy, really, I'm fine. I just got cracked on the head. No permanent damage done."



"Okay, I just wanted to be sure." Buffy gave Willow a peck on the cheek and then headed back to bed.



Willow finished in the bathroom and came back to find Tara snuggled under the covers. She tried to not to wonder how the covers could seemingly conform to Tara's body, and simply crawled underneath to lie next to her lover. Willow held her breath, as Tara slid next to her, laying her head down upon Willow's shoulder as she'd done every night they'd lived together. The hacker closed her eyes, and tried to quiet her heart. "Good night, sweetheart."



Tara, sounding half asleep already, murmured. "G'night, Will."



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Tue Oct 22, 2002 11:16 pm 
Hey~~You do a mean character development! Your fic has such a wonderful combination of real-world tangible and surreal, amorphous elements. You painted such a strong picture of "the girl" growing up, and the ways that she had to grow up so much quicker than she should have needed to. And Willow...I really like how you're adding tiny bits of physical presence to Tara--smell, touch, etc. You're doing a great job of drawing out all of these developments. I really enjoy reading this work.



Mary



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Wed Oct 23, 2002 4:19 am 
More backstory on The Girl. Her self sufficiency further explained, and her proficiency with magic. The run in with the vampire is most intriguing.



. . .more than anyone else, Anya understood the events that happened that horrible day . . . Willow's burgeoning friendship with Anya is nice to see.



Really interesting that Tara's form is now able to touch Willow. Willow's defender has me speculating, but I'm probably wrong.



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Wed Oct 23, 2002 5:18 am 
Yeah, I'm speculating too... Between sobs. AGAIN.

I absolutely love this story. I love the style, it flows so well. And it affects me, touches me to the core.

I'm hooked.



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Wed Oct 23, 2002 11:19 am 
Hey, this is great so far. It's so different, and I'm liking the way you are developing and rounding out the life of The Girl...that image of her walking away from the house with her Book of Shadows was great.



You have a nice mix of sadness and humor here, too, the gently humor of Willow and Buffy and Xander making jokes. It's just right...the humor works BECAUSE you are not erasing the grief like a certain TV show that will remain nameless. I think B and X and W would make little jokes to cheer each other up; that's human, and it's real, and people DO smile and go on. But they also grieve and miss their loved ones, and you allow those things to remain in a constant tension. Really nice.



And I love seeing Willow being cared for by Tara...however she's there. Thanks.

"And I'm eating this banana. Lunchtime be damned!" -- Willow in "Doppelgangland"



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Wed Oct 23, 2002 12:01 pm 
i caught this fic on Wiccan Ways. there is lot further for this story to go. I would recomend anyone to stick with it I think it's fab. I t such a differebt story but the essence of the characters are still there

These five words in my head scream "are we having fun yet?"



Chad Kroeger



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Wed Oct 23, 2002 9:12 pm 
So far, I like this very much. Of course I have my own (fairly obvious) theory about The Girl's identity. But foremost, I'm interested in seeing what's going to happen...

Edited by: BytrSuite at: 10/23/02 9:37:02 pm


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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Wed Oct 23, 2002 11:43 pm 
Hello and thank you to Tulipp, Chad and Zahir al Daoud. I'm happy to hear all of your are enjoying D.R.



AntigoneUnbound, mollyig, and saule77, this next installment is for you.



Warning, spicy bits ahead... ; )



Technopagan



Chapter Five



The girl hid within the shadows of the fire escape, careful not to move lest she alert the others to her presence. She'd seen the vampire dart down the alley and heard the struggle. At first, she thought two humans were under attack, but she quickly realized it was only one, and the woman was losing the battle.



The girl dashed down the alley and kicked the vampire away from the woman. He was big, at least a foot taller than she, and he soon had the upper hand. He knocked her to the ground repeatedly, quickly wearing her down. For every punch or kick she landed, the vampire was able to fire back twice as many blows. Blood dripping into her eyes, her every breath an agony, the girl started to doubt she could win the fight. Only the knowledge that her death would deliver a terrible danger to an innocent world kept her from giving up. She had no right to give up. The danger was her fault. Tears flooded her eyes; pain emanated from every nerve in her body. Finally, she found her opportunity; she plunged the stake into the vampire's heart, and a cloud of dust filled the air. Seconds later she heard footsteps. Others were coming, humans. Not wanting to get caught, using her last burst of adrenaline, the girl leaped to her feet and up to the fire escape.



From above the girl watched a woman and man run to the victim's side. They seemed to know one another, and the girl tried to listen to what they were saying, but she could barely hear over the pounding of her heart. Desperately, she tried to quiet her breath, lest they hear her above them. Fortune favored her once again. After a minute or two, they left, the man and the woman helping the victim out of the alley, apparently in route to the hospital.



The girl settled against the rusted metal grating of the fire escape and, despite her better instincts, wished she could go with them. She didn't need to see the wound on her forehead to know she now needed stitches. And she'd had enough experience to sense the difference between cracked ribs and simple bruising. Angry with herself, the girl wrestled with what might have been a fatal mistake. How could she expect to complete her mission if she was hurt and sick? What was she thinking? By rushing to the stranger's aid, she'd jeopardized everything; reminding herself that it was her mission to save others helped only a little.



The girl waited a few more minutes before climbing down from the fire escape. All of the adrenaline that had been coursing through her blood stream was now dissipated. She took a couple of steps and fell to the ground, her ankle twisting underneath her weight. Pain wracked her body, causing her to bend over, gasping for air. She sat and waited to regain her breath before getting back up.



She found her backpack lying next to the dumpster. Not sure if it was time or not, the girl swallowed four aspirin tablets. The water and tablets hit her stomach hard. While breathing through her nausea, her mind whirled from one thought to the next. She needed to find shelter, and food, but the high school was miles away, and the park was in the opposite direction. She needed to get her hands on a needle and thread to close the cut on her forehead, but where? Maybe the drug store was still open?



The girl carried her backpack by the handle, unable to sling it over her shoulder. She ignored the temptation to leave it behind. At the very least, it provided a counterweight to help her balance. When she left the alley, she looked up and down the street trying to reorient herself. It was too confusing. Her head, ankle and sides hurt, and she was bleeding. Not sure of her direction, the girl turned to the left and started walking.



The girl kept to the shadows and remained wary. Where there was one vampire, there was always another, and she was in no condition to put up another fight. The sound of voices pulled her attention down the street and she spotted people congregating around a coffee shop. Fearful of their attention, she immediately crossed the street, only then noticing a brightly painted sign hanging above a shop door, "Magic Box."



A smile crossed the girl's face. It was the shop Gene had told her about. She went to the door and saw the "closed" sign. What did she expect, she wondered? It was past nine o'clock at night. Frustration and hurt turned in to anger, and the girl seriously considered breaking through the front door. Reason returned slowly. The girl stepped back, and looked around her. She soon spotted an alley running along side the building housing the shop. Maybe there was a back entrance?



After checking the building for alarms, it took less than five minutes to pick the backdoor lock. She stepped inside what appeared to be a practice room. Weapons hung on the walls, a punching bag was suspended from the ceiling and padded floor mats covered much of the floor space. The girl searched the room, eventually finding a well-stocked first aid kit, including a small pack of sterile needles and suturing thread. She grabbed what she needed from the kit, and headed for the interior door. It was unlocked, and led into the shop itself. The girl searched the herb racks for comfrey to hasten the healing and goldenseal to help with the infection. Finding what she needed, the girl locked herself in the public bathroom.



Six stitches later, after retching into the toilet twice, the lack of food and proper medical treatment caught up with the girl. She passed out on the bathroom floor, a small face down crumpled heap.



She woke slowly. Someone was saying something to her. The voice was female, oddly even in its speech and strangely precise in its choice of words. The girl felt hands poking at her sides. Unable to stop herself, she cried out as fingers brushed over her hurt ribs. The voice was insistent. She was being told to get up and get out. The girl pulled herself to her knees, her hair falling in front of her face. She reached for the sink and tried to pull herself to her feet, only to feel her legs collapse underneath her. She was freezing cold; the room seemed like ice. If only she could find a blanket. The girl could not help it. She started to cry. Her entire body hurt. Ashamed of her weakness, she pulled herself to her feet a second time. The voice was becoming more strident, telling her to get out before she called the police.



The girl pushed her way out the bathroom door, and fell forward once more. She hit the floor hard, crying out in pain. The voice was angry and scared. Hands pulled at her clothes and the girl tried to scoot away. Suddenly, she was flipped on to her back; the girl looked into a pair of very startled blue eyes. She passed out as she heard the woman say her name.



Chapter Six



Willow woke in the middle of the night and found herself wrapped in Tara's arms. The blonde's long hair tickled her face, and she could feel the steady rise and fall of her lover's breasts against her back. She luxuriated in the comfort, not wanting to break the spell. After a moment or two, soft lips pressed against the back of her neck, beckoning Willow to turn over. Their lovemaking was slow and quiet. When Willow came, she felt as if a huge weight had lifted off of her heart. Fully spent, she settled back into sleep, filled with happiness. Hours later, she woke again. Tara was gone and someone was pounding on her bedroom door. She called out something to indicate she was awake, more sound than spoken word, but it did the trick. The youngest Summers burst into her bedroom and leaped on to the bed.



Willow pulled open the covers and let Dawn snuggle next to her. It had been over a year since Dawn had wanted to be cuddled. In the weeks following Buffy's death, Dawn had often reverted to her five year old self, invading her and Tara's bed, wanting to be treated like a little girl again instead of the teenager she'd become.



Her voice still thick with sleep, Willow finally asked. "Dawnie, what time is it?"



Dawn spoke from deep underneath the blankets. "Six o'clock. Buffy's still asleep, but she left a note saying the three of us are going to the beach today. Is that right."



"Right as right can be, kiddo." Willow wrapped her arms around Dawn's narrow shoulders. "So what brings you in here at such an early hour."



"I missed you."



To the point, simply put, as always Dawn knew how to say volumes with the fewest number of words. "I miss you," meant a whole range of things, from "I'm lonely" to "I love you very much" to "I want us to be friends again" to "I had a bad dream and I want you to make me feel better." Well skilled at hearing all the levels of Dawn-speak, Willow accepted Dawn's words, and pulled the teenager even closer.



"I've been missing you, too." Willow said, smiling as Tara appeared on Dawn's other side and began to gently stroke the girl's long, brown hair.



Her voice sleepy, Dawn asked. "Can I stay with you until it's time to get up?"



"Sure baby, you can have sleepovers with me anytime you want."



The teen mumbled against Willow's shoulder. "I dreamed about when Buffy died, and I needed my Willow and Tara."



Willow looked over Dawn's blanket covered shoulders and into Tara's blue eyes. Her voice was soft. "Then you've come to the right place." Moments later, sleep overtook the red head as well.



It was past nine o'clock when Buffy jumped on Willow's bed, startling her little sister and best friend awake. "Get up, get up, get up." Buffy crowed evilly as Willow and Dawn jerked up from under the covers.



The sudden movement pulled at Willow's stitches, causing the red head to yelp in unexpected pain.



Buffy was immediately contrite. "Oh my god, Will. Did I hurt you? I totally forgot about last night."



Dawn, responding to the concern in her sister's voice, jumped into high panic. Her voice more a squeak, the teen questioned, "What happened? Is everyone okay?"



Willow quickly interrupted. "Dawn, everyone is fine. I just bumped my head. No biggie. Except they shaved my head where they had to put in the stitches." She tilted her head to let the teen see the small wound on her scalp. "I get the stitches out in a week, but really I'm fine." Her own heart beginning to slow down from the sudden awakening, the red head looked past Dawn to Tara, who now sat behind the younger Summers.



The teen responded quickly to Willow's reassurances. She moved up on her knees to check out the wound, a relieved grin crossing her face. "You're sure you're okay."



"Totally okay and ready for a fun day at the beach." Willow confirmed, even as her wide grin turned into a frown as a horrible thought suddenly crossed her mind. "Damnit, how am I going to wash my hair?"



Dawn gasped an audible sound of glee. "Did you hear that Buffy? Willow just swore over hair."



"You'd be swearing too if someone cut away some of your hair, Rapunzel." Buffy declared, looking away as a grin crossed her face.



Ignoring her sister's jibe, Dawn explained. "I can help you. We can wash your hair in the bathroom sink, I watched Mom wash Buffy's hair like a thousand times when she had stitches. It's easy, really." Dawn leaned over to check the wound a second time. "Does it hurt much?"



Her mind still preoccupied with the issue of hair care, Willow explained distractedly. "No, not really. It only stung because I moved too fast. I just need to sit still for a while."



"Which is just what's been planned for today. Lots of sitting still interspersed with the eating of junk foods and guy and girl watching." Buffy climbed off the bed. "I need to go to the store and get some stuff for our picnic. Why don't you guys get up and get ready while I'm gone. If we head out of here by ten thirty, we'll get a good parking space."



"Sounds like a plan, Buff." Willow slowly moved off the bed. "I don't suppose there's any coffee."



Buffy looked over at her sister. "Dawnie, why don't you go make a fresh pot for Will"



Happy to have a task, Dawn bounced off the bed, out the room and down the stairs.



Willow looked at Buffy. "What's up?"



Buffy looked uncomfortable. "What do we tell Dawn about last night."



"The truth. That I made a really dumb mistake. Got myself brained by a vampire and was very, very lucky." Willow crossed over to Buffy and took her friend's hand in her own. "We all decided to stop keeping secrets. Let's not start up again, okay." As she spoke, a twinge of guilt twitched inside her heart over the secret she was keeping.



Buffy nodded sharply. "You're right. You want to tell her while I'm at the store."



The hacker smiled, watching Tara nod behind Buffy's shoulder. "That's a good idea. You go ahead. By the time you get back, we'll be all set."



Again, Buffy nodded a ghost of a smile crossing her face. "Be back in a few. But no hurries. Take it easy, okay. This is a fun day."



Willow watched Buffy close the door behind her before turning to look at Tara, who now stood next to the dresser. For reasons unknown, Tara had switched from the silk nightgown she'd been wearing earlier to a pair of white flannel pajamas with little pink flowers.



"Dawn's going to freak over me getting my head bashed in." The red head went to the closet to put on her robe.



Tara's voice was firm. "Will, you and Buffy both promised to stop trying to shelter her from stuff. She needs to stop finding out things the hard way."



Embarrassed, Willow directed her gaze to the floor. "I know. I just feel like such a dope. I should totally know better."



Not wanting all the blame to fall on Willow, Tara interjected. "Sweetie, it was my fault too. I should have said something when you turned down the alley. I wanted you to myself so much I didn't stop to think what I was letting you do."



"Tara, I'm responsible for me. Not you. If I start letting you blame yourself for my mistakes." Willow paused, thinking for a moment. "Well, that would just be some whole new level of dumbness. After all, you are-"



"A ghost?" Tara supplied, helpfully, as she crossed the room and took Willow into her arms.



Willow sighed as warm arms circled around her. "Or something. I don't think ghosts can hold their girlfriends quite this close."



"Or make love to them, outside their dreams?" Tara asked, quietly.



"You do seem to be developing many unusual and very much appreciated skills." Willow gasped, as Tara leaned down and brushed her lips over her tee shirt covered breasts. Not prepared for the sensation, Willow stumbled, fallings backwards and instinctively closing her arms around Tara, and then nearly fainted when her arms met substance.



Tara pivoted Willow towards the bed, helping her to sit down. "Honey, sit still." Tara knelt before her lover. "Willow, what's wrong? You almost fainted."



Willow took Tara's hands in her own. "Nothing's wrong. Everything's so right." Tears spilled down her cheeks. "Tara, can't you feel it. I can touch you."



Tara looked down, her eyes widening in amazement at the sight of hers and Willow's hands interlocked. "You can really feel me." Her voice betrayed her doubt in her own senses. "This isn't just a dream? You really can feel me?"



"More than a dream. So much more." Willow confirmed. Unable to stop herself, Willow leaned forward to kiss the gentlest lips she'd ever known. She slid off the bed and into Tara's arms, pressing her body into her lover's, running her hands through Tara's soft hair. Her mouth opened, and Tara's tongue pushed inside. She lost herself in Tara's kisses, underneath Tara's hands. Her tee shirt was quickly pulled over her head, exposing her skin to the cool morning air, as Tara's warm mouth closed over her breast. Willow fell backwards to the floor, pulling Tara on top of her, needing her lover's weight to anchor her to the world.



For several moments they lay together on the floor as their bodies rediscovered the way they'd once interlocked as one. Willow looked into her lover's eyes. Her voice was choked with desire. "I need you." In one motion, she pushed Tara on to her back. She was almost frantic as pulled at her lover's pajama top, quickly opening the tiny buttons and spreading apart the sides of the garment. Again she paused, her eyes drinking in Tara's form. "Your skin is so beautiful it hurts." She leaned down to kiss Tara's breasts as she murmured, "I love you."



Desperate to feel skin against skin, Willow quickly shucked off her own pajama bottoms as she simultaneously robbed Tara of hers. With her hands she retraced the familiar sweeps and curves of her Tara's lush body. She pushed Tara against the floor, draping her body over her lover's, letting her own weight push apart her lover's legs. The sensation of wetness against her thigh sent her heart soaring. She became entirely caught up in sensation, and no longer capable of thought. With her tongue, she traced a line beginning at the pulse point in her lover's neck, down and over Tara's breasts past the soft rise of her stomach, to the folds of her sex. Tears ran down Willow's face she tasted her lover, savoring the flavors that could belong to no other. She drew Tara to her release, even as the sounds, the scent and the taste of it sent Willow off on her own climax. Their bodies shuddering against one another, enveloped in all encompassing pleasure, Willow thought she could experience no greater happiness.



The sudden pounding on the bedroom door caused her to fall abruptly back to earth. Nearly out of breath, she called out to Dawn. "I'm getting dressed. Hang on, okay." When she opened her eyes, she wasn't surprised to find Tara gone, or herself lying on the floor naked. The moisture from Tara's body cooled on her thighs; she brought her fingertips to her mouth and tasted her lover's rich flavor. Another pounding on the door convince her to get up. "I'm coming." Groaning quietly, she pulled on her bathrobe. "Where's the fire, cutie?" She asked as she pulled open the door.



Dawn stood patiently in the hallway holding out a mug of coffee, which Willow gratefully accepted. "I thought you were getting dressed?" She asked quizzically.



"No, I was getting undressed, for my shower." The blushing hacker explained as she took a deep sip, letting the warmth of the coffee pull her back to reality.



Explanation accepted Dawn pivoted on her heel and headed to the bathroom. "There are a couple of shower caps underneath the sink. I'll pull one out for you. Why don't you take your shower, then I'll wash your hair for you in the bathroom sink and then I'll take my shower."



Caught in the afterglow, Willow nodded absent-mindedly and followed Dawn into the bathroom.



The teen pulled a pink shower cap out of the cupboard beneath the sink and placed it on the counter. "Do you want me to put out some cereal for breakfast?"



Finally noticing her rumbling stomach, Willow grinned. "That would be great, Dawnie." She reached past the shower curtain and turned on the faucet, only then noticing a very naked Tara standing inside. An even wider grin crossed her face. "I'll try to be quick." She said, although her tone indicated that she doubted her own promise.



"No hurries. You know how long it takes Buffy to go grocery shopping" Dawn declared, as she pulled the door closed behind her.



By the time Willow finished in the shower, her fingertips were thoroughly wrinkled. Now running more than a little late, the red head dressed quickly, pulling on a pair of comfortable shorts and a soft blue short sleeved polo shirt. She completed the outfit with a pair of sandals and then called Dawn up for help with her hair and to explain the events of the previous night.



True to her word, the youngest Summers was able to wash Willow's hair without getting the stitches wet, even while she admonished the hacker for walking into a vampire trap. Styling Willow's hair proved more challenging, and Willow soon accepted the fact that she was going to be a flat head for the foreseeable future. Now dressed and ready for her day, she hopped downstairs and wolfed a bowl of cereal, finishing just as Buffy returned from the grocery.



Working together, the three quickly packed their picnic lunch and were on the highway by ten thirty much to Buffy's delight. Unfortunately, California traffic was far less efficient, and before long Buffy found herself caught in the middle of gridlock Sunnydale style. What should have been a twenty minute drive turned into a forty minute crawl past an overturned big rig and an injury accident. But all was well again as soon as they reached the beach.



It was one of those perfect Southern California summer days. Westerly breezes drifted in from the ocean, cooling off the sun-baked sand. Boats floated off shore. Brightly colored sun umbrellas and beach blankets decorated the sand. Kids raced about in the surf and teens drifted from point to point.



Willow sat down on the large picnic blanket and leaned back on her elbows, letting the sun's warmth seep into her limbs. She didn't want to admit it, but the minor excursion from home to the beach had tired her. Feeling sleepy, it took her a moment to realize Buffy was speaking to her. "Uhm. Yeah, I put on some sun block, so did Dawnie, back at the house." She answered turning to watch Dawn romp about in the waves.



Buffy put the tube of sun block back into the picnic hamper and then rolled on to her stomach. After a beat, she turned to look at her best friend. "Will?"



The red head looked towards her friend. "What?" She could tell Buffy had something on her mind, and she could guess what it had something to do with her.



"Want to tell me what's going on?" Buffy's voice was gentle.



The hacker hesitated. She almost deflected the question, but then her words from last night came back to haunt her. It was time to 'fess up. As if to prove her point, Tara's finger's brushed along her cheekbone. Willow relaxed against her lover's touch, before turning back to face her best friend. "Lots of stuff. Some of it is pretty confusing. Some of it you might not like." She said, quietly, looking off into the ocean.



"Maybe you could start with how you ended up in an alley by yourself after dark?" Buffy said, the challenge in her voice muted by her smile.



Willow took a deep breath. "Actually, it starts before then, about four weeks ago. Not very long after I came back from England." The hacker rubbed her fingers along the nap of the blanket, watching Tara move so that she could sit cross-legged between the two friends. "I started seeing Tara." She stopped knowing Buffy would need to take in what she was saying.



Buffy almost spilled the can of soda she'd been drinking. "Seeing Tara? You mean, like her ghost, or something."



"Or something." Willow moved forward slightly, until her leg brushed against Tara's. "We're not sure what she is."



"We're?" Buffy stared at Willow her eyes filled with disbelief. "You mean you and Tara aren't sure?"



"I know it sounds totally nuts. But I swear to you, I don't think I'm losing my mind. She's too real." Willow looked into Tara's eyes. "She's sitting between us right now."



Buffy looked from side to side. "I'm not seeing anything, Will."



Willow grinned, fully aware that she sounded like a crazy person. "I know. No one sees her but me."



"Will, let me try something." Tara reached towards her lover and gently pushed her fingers through Willow's hair, sifting it again and again.



Unable to stop, Willow's eyes closed and she leaned into her lover's gentle touch.



"Sweetie, say something to Buffy." Tara asked, breaking her lover's reverie.



Willow's eyes fluttered open. "What?" Confused for only a moment, she quickly regained her senses and turned to Buffy. "Did you see?"



Buffy closed her mouth and swallowed. After a moment, she responded. "Your hair. That was Tara?"



Willow whispered. "Yes."



Obviously uncomfortable with what she'd just seen, Buffy moved to the other corner where she could now face her friend. "Maybe you need to start over."



The hacker felt Tara's hand close over her own, reassuring her that it was time to tell the truth. "It began, as I said, about four weeks ago. I was getting ready to leave for school. I turned back to grab my networking textbook and I saw Tara sitting on our bed." Willow grinned. "I guess I freaked."



"You screamed." Tara teased. She gave Willow's hand a squeeze. "Admit to Buffy you screamed."



"I didn't scream. It was more like a yelp. A not very loud, completely understandable yelp." Willow said, while attempting to stare down her lover.



Unwilling to let go of the point, Tara continued. "Will, you woke up every dog within a three mile radius."



Willow tried desperately to hold back her smile. "I did not-"



Buffy looked back and forth between Willow and possibly, she could not be sure, Tara. "Are you two arguing?"



Seizing on the high road offered by Buffy's question, Willow explained. "Sorry, Buffy. Tara is distracting me."



"Teasing you about screaming?" Buffy asked, doubtfully.



"I am not a screamer." The hacker responded firmly. Only to have both respond in identical tones of voice, "Will" Willow stared both of them down. "Just admit it, I'm not a screamer."



Buffy shook her head. "Will, you're one of the best screamers in all of Sunnydale, which is possibly the scream capital of North America, possibly the world, if you exclude Budapest."



The red head looked surprised. "I am?"



Tara nodded, solemnly. "Absolutely, one of the all time best, Buda and Pest included."



It took Willow a moment to figure out that her best friend and her ghost lover had somehow managed to combine forces and trick her into submission. "I forgot what it was like when the two of you ganged up on me. But now I'm remembering." The hacker's eyes narrowed. "Both of you are just lucky I'd rather finish my story." She paused for emphasis, before adding, "For now," and greatly enjoyed simultaneous looks of apprehension on Tara and Buffy's faces. A ghost of a smile danced over the red head's face. "As I was saying, I saw Tara sitting on our bed. We stared, or at least I stared at her for about a minute. I may have screamed, but I don't think we said anything. Anyway, at some point, I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, she was gone."



Willow looked out to the ocean to check on Dawn, who was now talking to a group of kids her age. "I saw Tara three other times before we were able to speak to one another. After a week or so, Tara could stay longer. Soon we were spending time together, after class, talking in my room at night." Willow turned to look at Buffy. "I know I should have said something, but having Tara to talk to made everything so much easier to deal with."



"So you really haven't been talking to yourself, have you?"



"No, and I wasn't talking to anyone on the phone last night. I was talking to Tara." Willow squirmed uncomfortably. "I'm sorry I lied to you."



Buffy looked uneasy as she tried to find words for what she had to say next. Finally, she simply blurted it out. "Will, I saw something touching you. That's a lot more than talking."



"It started yesterday. Tara can touch me now, and," a look of pure wonder passed over Willow's face, "and since early this morning I've been able to touch her."



Again, Buffy looked uneasy. "Will, I don't want to accuse you of anything, but you haven't been in with the dark magicks, or anything, right?"



The red head blushed and shook her head vigorously. "No. I swear Buffy I didn't, haven't done anything. Tara just started coming to me." Willow turned to look at her lover, gazing deeply into the eyes she knew so well. "At first, I thought I was really losing it. But everything about her tells me that this is my Tara. Every word, every gesture." She returned her gaze to her friend. "Buffy, I don't know what's going on. Neither does Tara. All I know is that it's something wonderful."



Buffy smiled at Willow's obvious happiness. "I'm not judging you. God help me, I'm having a hard time not believing you." Buffy looked away for a moment, composing her face into a more serious expression "But we should try to figure this out, Will."



Willow nodded. "I know." Again, she looked into her lover's eyes. "I should have started doing research right away. But a big part of me doesn't want to know the truth if it means I might lose her all over again."



Tara turned away, tears spilling down her cheeks. "Will, I'm so sorry. I never meant to cause you so much pain."



Stricken and without thinking, Willow reached forward and gently drew Tara's face back towards her, brushing away her lover's tears. "Tara, stop. You're the joy of my life; you're my everything. Please don't cry. We'll figure this out."



Neither girl noticed the look on the Slayer's face. Buffy leaned forward; she stared at Willow's hand, watching as her best friend's fingers molded around something. Her eyes widened and she reached to pull Willow's hand into her own.



"Will, your fingers." Buffy whispered.



Still caught up in Tara's upset, it took Willow a moment to realize what Buffy was seeing. She brought her hand into the light and her own eyes went wide over the sight of teardrops glistening on her fingertips.



Half in shock, Willow again reached for her lover, and began to gently run her fingers through Tara's long hair. When she pulled away, two long strands of blonde hair clung to her fingers. Willow held her hand out to Buffy. "Do you see what I'm seeing?"



Buffy reached for Willow's hand and pulled the blonde strands away. She held them under the sunlight; turning her fingers back and forth and watching them seem to glitter under the sunlight.



"Okay, this is giving me a serious wiggins." Buffy looked at Willow. "This is happening, isn't it?"



Willow rubbed her forehead. "I don't know how, or why. But, yes, this is happening."



Tara had been silent as her lover and dear friend tried to come to terms with what they were seeing, but spoke up as she spied Dawn coming towards them. "Will, Dawn's coming. Both of you need to snap out of it."



The hacker looked back over her shoulder, saw Dawn approaching and turned to face Buffy. "We need to cool it, Dawnie's heading back."



Buffy, still stunned, tried to register what Willow was saying. "Right, Dawn." Her eyes caught on her little sister, still a good fifty feet away. "What do we tell her?"



Tara grabbed Willow by the hand. "Nothing. You tell her nothing. Dawn doesn't need to know anything until we know what's going on. I don't want her disappointed."



Catching her lover's sense of urgency, Willow explained. "Tara says we don't say anything, not now. Not until we know what's going on."



Buffy nodded, even as another thought crossed her mind. "But we need to go do research. We should be at the Magic Box right now."



Before Willow could respond, Tara declared. "Will, tell Buffy no. This is Dawnie's afternoon. You two owe her a happy day. Please."



"Buffy, Tara doesn't want us to spoil Dawn's day." She smiled at her lover. "And she's right. We do owe her a happy day at the beach."



Several expressions passed across Buffy's face. Finally, she nodded. "Okay. We don't say anything to Dawn. And we spend the afternoon at the beach. But tonight, and I can't believe I'm saying this, we're seriously hitting the books."



Just as Buffy finished speaking, Dawn came running up to Buffy and Willow. "Hey, did you see who I was talking to?" She asked dropping down next to her sister.



Buffy switched gears quickly. "You mean the cute guy with the killer smile?"



"Kevin Berman." Dawn confirmed. "I can't believe he talked to me. Kristie would just die if she found out."



Willow felt the press of Tara's lips on her cheek and heard her lover whisper her goodbye. Distracted and disappointed over Tara's departure, it took the hacker a moment to recognize the name of Dawn's junior high nemesis. When she did, she immediately asked, "What do you mean, Dawn? Why wouldn't he talk to you? You are so much cuter than Kristie."



"I just hope Kevin thinks that." Dawn said, watching as the boy walked further up the beach. She turned to look back at her sister and Willow. "What were you two guys talking about? You looked all intense."



Buffy nonchalantly leaned back on her elbows. "Just Scooby stuff. We need to do some research tonight. It might go kind of late. Maybe you could call up Lisa and see if you can spend the night."



"Buffy, I'm old enough to stay by myself until you and Willow get home." She raised her hands as her sister began to protest. "But it doesn't matter because Lisa and I already made a plan for me to sleep over, tonight. If it's okay with you, that is. We want to hang out and maybe tint Lisa's hair, and tomorrow her mom said she'd drop us off at the movies. I should be home around five."



Buffy thought over Dawn's plans. "Okay, just so long as you don't come home with purple hair tints like you did the last time you and Lisa had a hair coloring party."



"No, Tara was right. I'm much better as a true brunette." Dawn said, and then immediately looked guilty for mentioning Tara's name.



Willow leaned over and gave the toe of Dawn's sneaker a squeeze. "Hey, it's okay to mention Tara around me."



Needing confirmation, Dawn asked. "Are you sure? I don't want to make you feel sad."



A tender smile crossed Willow's face. "Dawnie, you never make me feel sad. Okay." She opened her arms letting Dawn move in for a warm hug.



"Are you two going to get all maudlin and weepy on me. Cause if you are, then I'm going to have to go take a walk." Buffy declared, laughing.



The hacker looked up over Dawn's head. "Nope, no being maudlin. Today is all about fun in the sun." She quickly rubbed her hands up and down Dawn's back. "Isn't that right, kiddo?"



Her mood switching with typical teen alacrity, Dawn pulled back to sit cross-legged next to her sister. "Can we eat now? I'm starving."



Buffy grinned as she pulled off the lid of the picnic hamper. "One picnic coming up."



The sun was low in the sky by the time the three girls packed up their belongings and headed back to the car.

Since Buffy had driven to the beach, Willow volunteered to drive back, reassuring her best friend that her head injury probably increased her ability to understand California driving patterns. Volunteering to act as the designated driver also gave the hacker control of the radio, an important bonus since she wanted to listen to NPR during the drive home. Before they even reached the highway, Dawn was fast asleep sitting in the backseat and Buffy was dozing in the passenger seat next to her. Willow looked in the rear view mirror and smiled at her lover, who now sat next to Dawn and was gently stroking the teen's hair.



To no one's surprise the drive home took even longer than the drive there; by the time they returned to Revello Drive, the sun had nearly set and Willow had to make a serious effort to rouse both Summers women from their sleep. The three stumbled in the house leaving the sand covered blankets near the front door, but taking the leftovers from lunch to the refrigerator.



While her sister and Willow went upstairs to change out of their beach clothes, Dawn checked the answering machine for messages. To the teen's intense annoyance none of the messages were for her. All three messages were for Buffy and all three were from Xander. Since, Dawn had already packed her overnight bag, they were on their way as soon as Buffy and Willow were finished upstairs.



"Did Xander say why he needed me to call him?" Buffy asked, as she made the right turn on to Lisa's street.



"Nope. What does it matter, didn't you guys have a Scooby plan for tonight anyway?" Dawn asked as she checked her backpack to make sure she'd packed the CDs she and Lisa planned on converting into music files.



Not enjoying lying to Dawn, Willow interjected. "Yeah, we did. Xander probably just wanted us to bring pizza or something. I'm sure it's no big deal."



Dawn jumped up in the back seat. "Can I have some money so Lisa and I can order a pizza." The teen wheedled. "It's not like we had dinner."



Buffy caught Dawn's eyes in the rear view mirror. "Okay, but how you could eat any more given all you ate this afternoon, I'll never know." The Slayer pulled into Lisa's drive. "You have everything you need?" She asked as she pulled a ten-dollar bill from her purse and handed it over the back seat.



Dawn took the money with a grin and checked her for her backpack and purse. "Yep, just pop the trunk and I'll pull out my duffel bag." She leaned over the front seat of the car and kissed both Buffy and Willow goodbye. "See you guys tomorrow." She called out as she leaped out of the car to get her bag.



As soon as the trunk slammed shut, Lisa popped out the front door of her house. The two teens greeted each other as if they'd been separated for years and not a mere twenty-four hours. Buffy looked over her shoulder as she backed up the car. "The kiss was a nice touch. Always makes me fell less like the Bank of Dawn"



Willow grinned. "You know Dawnie, she's total mush ball. Just like her big sister."



"Right." Buffy scoffed. As she turned the car back on to Main Street, the Slayer asked, "Any idea what's on Xander's mind?'



Beginning to feel nervous about seeing Xander and Anya, the hacker admitted. "Not a clue."



"Are we going to tell him about Tara?"



Willow glanced out the window, her eye catching on a pre-Halloween display in a grocery store window. "Yeah, we tell him. And Anya." The red head looked at her best friend. "The only person we keep this from is Dawn, and only as long as its necessary."



Chapter Seven



The girl slowly came to her senses. Unsure where she was, she opened her eyes, looked about and then shut them again as her headache quickly worsened from a dull pounding to mind splitting pain. She was surprised to find herself in the practice room of the Magic Box. She would have expected to be in jail or in the hospital.



Someone had covered her with a blanket and she quickly realized she was lying on top of a stack of rubber floor mats. The scents of chicken noodle soup, old sweat and liniment mingled in the air. Moments later, she felt the air stir as someone came to sit down next to her. After a moment or two, the person spoke.



"Are you awake?" The voice was gentle, and male.



Unable to resist, the girl opened her eyes and looked into a familiar yet unfamiliar face. He reminded her of someone, but she wasn't sure whom. "Who are you?" Her voice sounded thick, as if her tongue had grown twice in size.



"A friend, I hope." Chocolate brown eyes widened in sympathy. "I bet you're in a world of hurt right now."



The girl nodded, not sure what to say.



The young man continued. "You have a pretty bad cut on your forehead. There are some seriously bad bruises on your sides, and I think you may have cracked rib or two. From your fever, I'm guessing you have an infection. And you looked half starved." He reached behind his back and picked up a small covered cup. "Which is why I brought you some chicken noodle soup."



She was surprised at how calm he seemed, as if finding an injured stranger was an everyday occurrence. "Do you have a name?"



"Xander." The young man seemed nervous asking his next question. "What do they call you?"



The girl tried to speak, but her body began seizing in a coughing fit. Xander put the soup cup on the floor and helped her to sit up, holding her in his arms until her breathing normalized. While he held her, the girl could feel his heart pounding. She wondered why he thought she was a threat? She knew instinctively that he meant her no harm. But that didn't mean she shouldn't be cautious. "For a long time now, it's just been 'girl'."



Xander grinned. "Okay, 'girl,' soup's up." He reached for the soup cup a second time and carefully removed the lid. From his shirt pocket her produced a spoon, handing it to her with the container. "Why don't you try to get some of this down first? Anya is making you some goldenseal tea from the herbs you-" He trailed off for a moment, but then finished his sentence. "You stole."



Blushing with embarrassment over the thievery, the girl accepted the container from Xander's hands. "Anya?"



"The person who found you passed out in the bathroom." The young man explained.



The girl was surprised. "She called you for help?"



"Yeah," He looked even more uncomfortable than before. "I'm sort of the ex-boyfriend."



The soup was delicious. At first, she ignored the spoon and sipped the soup directly from the cup, but soon she dug in using the spoon to capture the thick noodles, bits of chicken breast and chunks of carrot and celery.



The girl hesitated to ask, but her curiosity got the better of her. "Anya, she's not h-human like you. She's a demon, right?"



Clearly startled by the girl' observation, Xander explained hastily. "Yes, but-" He trailed off for a second; seeming to rethink his words, and then blurted out. "Anya's a very good person. Okay, she's a little unusual, but I'm sure you'll like her. You did before."



"Before?" The girl asked, her confusion over Xander's assertion turning into complete mystification as she watched her benefactor turn a very peculiar red.



"I mean you didn't dislike her when she found you, right?" He explained, weakly.



Still confused by the direction of the conversation, but not wanting Xander to think she thought badly of the young woman, the girl nodded her head. "She must be very kind to let me stay here, instead of calling the police to take me away. After all, I did b-break in last night."



"Anh has her moments, that's for sure." Xander said, a grin spreading across his face as he regained his composure. "But she's not big with the police. She's kind of independent that way."



The girl grinned back. Curious, she asked. "What kind of demon is she?" And then was disappointed to see Xander's grin quickly fade.



Looking at his shoes, Xander mumbled. "Vengeance. Anya's a vengeance demon."



Startled by Xander's response, she'd never heard of a vengeance demon becoming romantically involved with a human, she lost her train of thought. The girl took another sip of her soup, savoring the taste. The broth was unusual, spiced with cilantro and something else she could not identify. She could not remember the last time she'd tasted freshly made soup. It soon crossed the girl's mind that if this young man knew about the demon world, he might prove helpful to her mission. "Xander," she began, surprised at how much she liked the sound of his name on her tongue, only to be interrupted as the young man jumped to his feet, clearly upset.



His voice was still gentle, but it was obvious he was on the brink of tears. "Look, I don't know why you came here or what you want. And, right now I'm just waiting for Buffy to call back, or something." He looked deep into the girl's eyes. "But if you're here to hurt my best friend-" He stopped, seeming not to know how to finish the threat, or even why he was making one.



Again, she had no idea what the young man was talking about, and her head hurt too much to try to figure it out. The girl let her eyes close, shutting away all other concerns. She had her own problems to solve. After a moment, she opened her eyes again to look at the young man. Smiling slightly, she explained, "I don't think I'm m-much of a threat to anyone right now." Tired despite the food, she put the cup down on the floor, lay back against the mat and pulled the blanket underneath her chin.



His upset passed as quickly as it came, Xander asked, "Are you cold?" He waited for the girl to nod and then looked towards the alley door to the practice room. "My car is parked outside. I have another blanket in the trunk. I'll run and get it."



Not sure why he was helping her, but grateful all the same, the girl nodded. Before he came back, however, she drifted back to sleep. By the time she woke, she could see from the exterior windows that night had fallen. Suddenly afraid, the girl sat up too quickly, pulling at her sore ribs. She fell back again, crying out in pain.



"Hey, take it easy." Xander sat next to her and adjusted her blankets. "You've been asleep for almost four hours." He paused, his expression troubled. "It sounded just now like you were having some pretty bad dreams."



The girl looked into the same familiar, but still unidentifiable face. "Have you been stuck here watching me all day?'



"No, I spent a lot of the time rebuilding the store loft. I'm surprised you could sleep through all the pounding.'



"Rebuilding?"



"We had an..." he paused as if searching for the right word, "an accident of sorts a few months back." Xander pointed over his shoulder. "I needed to rebuild the interior wall between the practice room and the storeroom, first, and then build a bunch of show cases for the merchandise. We decided to put the loft off until the end."



Interested in learning more about a magick shop that was run by a vengeance demon, the girl asked. "What's the loft used for?"



"It's where we keep the library. Until a week ago, most of the books were stored in here."



"Books?"



Xander considered his words. "Books we use for research purposes." He looked at the girl carefully. "We should take you to a hospital. But-"



"No," the girl interrupted, "no hospitals, please. I'll just go." She struggled to sit up; thinking it would be better to leave than get involved any further with these people.



Xander gently pushed her back against the makeshift bed. "Hey, settle down. If you say, no hospitals, then no hospitals, I promise. Just lie back for a while. No need to leave."



Unused to kindness, her question flew off her tongue. "Why are you helping me?"



His reply was simple and direct. "It's what we do."



Not really understanding the young man's reply, but knowing he was telling the truth. The girl simply nodded. She decided it was time to change the subject. "You said Anya was your ex-girl friend?"



"Ex-fiancée, ex-girl friend." Xander looked away from the girl, a pained look crossing his face. "I screwed things up. Now I'm hoping I can fix them."



The girl sighed. "Not as easy as fixing walls or rebuilding a loft."



"Not nearly." Xander agreed. He reached over and pressed his hand against the girl's forehead. "Your fever is back. It probably isn't a good idea for you to take any more aspirin on an empty stomach. Think you could tolerate some more soup."



The girl thought for a moment before responding. "Okay."



Xander stood. "I'll go get another cup from the coffee shop across the street. Do you need anything else?"



"I could use the bathroom." The girl admitted as she struggled to sit up.



"Why don't you let me help you?" Xander asked, offering the girl his arm to lean on.



The girl made it to the interior door, before needing to rest a moment, and then through the door, into the store and to the bathroom. As she passed through the store, she noticed Anya watching them. Like Xander, it was obvious that the demon found her disturbing in some way. Unable to meet Anya's gaze, she looked away, not sure why the shopkeeper made her feel nervous and not remembering that Anya had called her by name.



She was washing her hands when she heard the bell above the store's front door jingle. Immediately, there was some kind of commotion. Xander was saying something about Buffy should have called first, and telling someone named Willow she should leave right away. Not sure what was going on, the girl opened the bathroom door and looked outside.



Two women were standing in the front of the store, a red head and a blonde, both with their backs to her. She looked at Xander who shook his head vigorously. Thinking he didn't want her to come out, the girl stepped back, only to lose her balance as another wave of dizziness passed over her. The girl clutched at the doorframe as she slid to the floor, trying desperately not to start retching again.



A cold wave of fear passed over her as she placed one of the voices. She heard a rush of footsteps. The girl looked up and saw her worst nightmare. The vampire rushed towards her. In a panic, she tried to crawl back into the bathroom frantically looking for a weapon. Not seeing any, she pulled herself to her feet and tried to run to the practice room. There were plenty of weapons there. But her legs were too weak and her ankle unstable, and within a few steps she found herself sprawled across the floor. Only then did she notice the vampire was crying. The girl looked over her shoulder and saw the blonde woman holding the vampire around the waist, sheltering it with her body, just before she passed out.



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2002 4:09 am 
So brave of The Girl to go to Willow's defence despite being so weak. I'm glad she ended up in Buffy's training room, at least she had the equipment necessary to see to her wounds. I had a feeling Anya wouldn't take kindly to the breaking and entering, though her annoyance changed I'm sure when she saw who it was had infiltrated her shop.



I've got a theory (heh) about why Tara has become so much more substantial. It's good it took Dawn so long to make the coffee. I was pleased that Willow felt able to confide in Buffy, so much better than if Buffy found out accidentally.



So it was VampWillow that attacked The Girl in her own world? Brilliant!





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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2002 11:56 am 
Well, this is getting cooler and cooler! I'm looking forward to what happens next. And what, I wonder, is it The Girl (wink) "had to do?"

"GOD created Man in his own image. Man, being a gentleman, returned the courtesy." -Voltaire



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2002 12:21 pm 
This really is just such a cool story. I love seeing Tara get more and more real--the tears, the hair. That was great. I have no idea what Mollyig's theories are about what's coming up, but then, I never know what's going to happen next. But I'll be reading avidly!

"And I'm eating this banana. Lunchtime be damned!" -- Willow in "Doppelgangland"



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2002 3:35 pm 
Your narrative style has such substance, that I find myself utterly captivated with what's going on in this story. I love how deeply you're prepared to go into the characterisations here; and how you're not worried about taking your time over the story itself. This is truly fascinating; it's bittersweet and sad and joyous all at the same time. Thank you. :)



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2002 5:30 pm 
This is such an engrossing fic. What a pity that Joss and Co. don't have such imagination. What a great story. Looking forward to more.

"I'm insane, what's his
excuse?" - Spike about crayon boy Xander - STSP




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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2002 7:56 pm 
Technopagan- I was gonna shoot you an email but saw that you hid it :( feel free to shoot me one if you want to chat at all.

Tara nodded in agreement "She has magic fingers." TheWisdom of War, Chris Golden



You don’t really think this is like… Psycho Buffy Cheer Squad central, do you?-Xita ala Julia "Lessons Parody"





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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2002 12:26 am 
Wow, thanks to all of you for the kind words. They are truly appreciated. Here is tonight's installment. Sorry for the lateness. I've been editing the text as I've been moving it over from Wiccan Ways to here, fixing the stray error and typo.



Chapter Eight



Buffy parked her car behind Xander's "Three separate messages to call? Wonder what the big deal is? We must have just missed their first call. Whatever is up it's been going on all day." She said while stepping out of the car and on to the sidewalk.



"No clue here. I haven't spoken to Xander since yesterday. Maybe he found out something about last night's attack?" Willow joined her friend outside the front door of the Magic Box.



"Is Tara with you?" Buffy glanced at the ground, clearly uncomfortable with her question.



Willow shook her head. "She was with us on the ride home from the beach, but she vanished when we got out of the car to go into the house."



"Do you know where she is?" Buffy asked, leading Willow to the front door of the store.



"Not really." Willow admitted. "She told me that sometimes she gets 'thrown out,' whatever that means, and she's someplace else. Tara doesn't understand what's going on anymore than I do."



Buffy stopped in front of the door. "Has she said what this other place is like?"



Willow knew from her friend's posture alone that she was wondering if Tara was speaking of a heavenly dimension. Even though Buffy no longer talked about her time in heaven, Willow could tell it still played upon her mind. "She hasn't said much. Only that it's not a bad place. That it's peaceful, but that it's not here, with me. And here is where she wants to be." Willow looked in the store's window and spotted Anya at the counter working on her ledgers. "We should go inside. It looks like everyone's already here."



"We tell both of them, right?" Buffy confirmed despite already knowing the answer.



Her expression serious, Willow nodded as she pushed the door open and stepped inside. Anya looked up from the front desk, and she spotted Xander standing next to the door to the bathroom. Happy to see Xander, Willow called out, "Hey guys," but was then surprised to see her oldest friend charging towards them, clearly upset.



Xander looked past Willow and nearly shouted at Buffy. "I told you to call me. God, what are you doing here?"



Not understanding Xander's concern, Buffy simply raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"



His agitation growing, Xander reached for Willow's arm. "Willow, you need to get out of here right away. It's not safe for you here."



Now clearly concerned, Buffy stepped between her two friends and pushed Willow behind her. "Safe? Xander, what's going on?"



Out of the corner of her eye, Willow spotted Anya coming towards them. "Anya, can you explain what Xander's talking about." Willow asked hoping the vengeance demon could shed some light on why Xander was acting like a crazy person, but only to be disappointed when Anya only echoed Xander's concern.



"Willow, Xander's right. You need to get out of here right away." Anya reached around Buffy, grabbed Willow by the arm and started physically pulling the red head to the door. "We'll explain later. Go get a coffee across the street. Just do it."



Buffy's voice was sharp. "Hey. Someone needs to fill me in on what's going on. If Willow's in danger, how's it going to help if she's alone at the coffee shop?"



Willow jerked her arm out of Anya's grasp. "Look, you need to tell us what's going on. We're not going anywhere until you do."



Xander stepped back, holding his hands out in an accommodating gesture. "Will, you know me, if I'm telling you to get out, it's important to get out. Please, Will. I'm trying to protect you." He implored.



The hacker could see Xander was sincerely upset and started to agree to leave when she heard someone behind her and automatically turned to look. Her eyes blurred and the floor seemed to shift beneath her feet.



Willow watched as the girl's eyes focused on Xander. For a moment her hands clutched the doorframe, but then she started to fall backwards and slipped to the floor. Willow said something, not registering her own words. She saw a cold look of fear pass over the girl's face. In an obvious panic, the girl clumsily rose to her feet and started stumbling towards the door to the practice room.



The hacker heard Buffy say, "Willow stop," but she pushed past her friend's out stretched arms and started towards the girl, only to feel Buffy catch her around her waist, picking her up and stopping her from getting any closer. Her eyes locked on the girl, watching as she made it halfway across the store, before collapsing in a heap on the floor.



Somehow, Willow broke free from Buffy's embrace and ran to the girl's side. She dropped to her knees, only vaguely registering Xander's warning to be careful because the girl was hurt. Her hands gentle despite the pounding of her heart, she turned the girl over and looked into Tara's face.



She was thinner, just skin and bones, but she was Tara all the same. Unable to think, the hacker ran her finger along the familiar hairline, and cheekbone. It was Tara; it could be no one else. Stunned to the core of her being; for the first time in her life Willow felt her brain simply stop until she noticed blood oozing thickly from a poorly stitched wound on the girl's forehead.



Willow pulled off her sweatshirt and pressed one of the sleeves against the cut trying to staunch the blood. She felt the air move as Buffy sat down next to her on the floor and watched as the Slayer's hands expertly ran up and down the girl's sides. A deep frown on her face, Buffy lifted up girl's shirt. Angry bruises mottled the flesh on the girl's sides. Someone had kicked the girl repeatedly, the mark of his boot clearly visible across the right side of her ribs.



Still overcome, the hacker slowly took notice of the girl's clothes. She was wearing a pair of boy's jeans, a tattered white tee shirt and a pair of cheap tennis shoes. Her hair was tangled and unkempt and her skin was filthy. As gently as possible, Willow turned girl's bruised face, her eyes picking out a narrow white scar that ran from girl's left temple to just below her ear. It was only then that she noticed the girl was burning up with a fever.



Xander crouched down next to his oldest and closest friend. "Will, she doesn't know us. None of this is familiar to her." He pressed his hand against the small of Willow's back. "I know who she looks like, but she's not Tara, at least not our Tara."



Willow continued to look at the face she loved. Without thinking, she ran her finger along the delicate curve of the girl's ear and forced herself to accept Xander's words. She was Tara, but she wasn't her lover. An acrid taste formed in her mouth. The girl had obviously been beaten. She was hurt and sick. She might be dying. "We need to get her to the hospital." Her voice sounded hollow to her own ears. How could any of this be? And why did she run from her?



Xander disagreed. "She said no hospitals. I promised."



Willow swallowed back her tears. "We can't leave her here."



"I know that." Xander pulled Willow's hands away from the girl and held them between his own. "Will, she was adamant about not wanting to go to a hospital."



"Did she say why?" Buffy asked.



"No, only that it wouldn't be safe." He said, turning to look at Buffy.



The Slayer thought for a moment. "Safe for whom?"



Xander shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not sure. She keeps passing out."



Buffy nodded and then said, "Okay."



"Okay?" Willow exploded. "What do you mean okay? She needs to see a doctor."



Buffy grabbed her best friend by the shoulders. "I know that Will, but I think we need to do as she says." Buffy forced Willow to look her in the eye. "Will, listen to me. She probably knows what she's talking about. We need to take her at her word"



Willow swallowed her rage. She knew her friends were right. Until they knew otherwise, they needed to take the girl at her word. "Can we at least take her home?"



Buffy grimaced. "That's probably the best place. Thank god Dawn has a sleep over. I don't know how we'd explain this to her."



After collecting the girl's backpack from the practice room, and moving Xander's more spacious car to the alley, Buffy carefully picked the girl up, carried her outside and laid her down in the backseat. To Willow's intense concern the girl remained unconscious. No one was surprised when Willow insisted on riding with Xander, slipping into the passenger seat, and leaving Buffy to ride home alone.



For once the hacker was grateful for Xander's careful driving. It was obvious that the girl had been through a great deal of physical stress and the last thing on earth she needed was to be bounced around any further. The entire ride home she could not take her eyes away from the girl, quietly fearing that if she looked away the girl would disappear.



Back at Buffy's house, they carried the girl to Willow's room and carefully laid her on the bed. Buffy and Xander stepped back as Willow took charge, leaving the room for a moment, and then returning with a basin of water and several towels.



"We need to get her out of these clothes and cleaned up." Willow looked at Buffy. "And we need to do something about this head wound. Do you know anything about suturing?"



Buffy shook her head, clearly unnerved by the thought. "Giles does, maybe we could call him. Although, I think it's the middle of the night where he is."



Xander stepped forward. "I think Anya knows. How to suture I mean, not what time it is in London."



"Somehow I'm having a hard time picturing Anya doing the Florence Nightingale thing." Buffy interjected.



Barely able to concentrate on Buffy and Xander's conversation, Willow began to bathe the girl's face, cleaning away dried blood, even as the wound continued to bleed. She looked over her shoulder at the Slayer. "Anya's a lot closer than Giles."



Buffy nodded, but then said, "Why didn't Anya come with us in the first place?" The annoyance in her voice was obvious.



"She said something about needing to look something up." Xander explained, somewhat defensively. "I told we'd call later."



Willow turned back to look at the girl. "Maybe you better call now. Until we get this cut closed, there's no way she's going to be able to fight off infection."



Xander's voice was barely above a whisper. "Willow, I am so sorry you are having to go through this."



The hacker simply nodded. She switched to a clean cloth and began bathing the girl's neck and arms.



Buffy moved to sit on the opposite side of the bed. She spoke carefully. "Do you think this has anything to do with your Tara?"



Still not looking up, Willow shook her head.



Xander moved to sit next to Buffy on the bed. "What do you mean by 'have to do with your Tara'? What does our Tara have to do with any of this?"



"Xander, it's complicated." Buffy responded, before Willow could say anything.



Obviously confused, Xander argued. "No, we all agreed last spring. No more with the 'it's complicated' defense." He folded his arms across his chest. "Explain complicated."



Willow looked up at her friend; a weak smile passed over her face. "I think I've been seeing Tara's ghost."



Stunned, Xander's arms dropped to his sides. "Tara's ghost?"



Willow rung out the washcloth, put it down next to the basin and picked up one of the towels. "Since I came back from England, she's been visiting me."



Buffy shifted on the bed. "Will, it's more than that. She can touch you, and sometimes you can touch her."



Xander, his eyes blinking as he tried to take in what his friends were telling him, interjected. "Wait a second that doesn't sound like a ghost."



Willow looked at her friend, wanting him to understand. "I don't know what it sounds like. I mean I don't know what she is or how she is able to come to me. All I know is that Tara's been coming to me."



"Is she here now?" Xander asked, glancing about the room.



The hacker stared down at the bedspread. "No, not since--" Her voice caught for a moment. "We came home from the beach." The red head turned to look at her friends. "Xander, I promise. I don't know what's going on. All I know is that--" Willow stopped herself, not wanting to call the girl by her lover's name. "I mean, all I know is that she is really sick and we need to help her." The stress of the situation catching up with her, Willow's voice broke as she pleaded with her oldest friend. "Please, can you call Anya and ask her to come. We have to stop this bleeding."



Xander put a comforting hand on Willow's. "I'll go downstairs and get right on it." On his way out the door, he stopped and looked over his shoulder. "We'll work this out, Will."



The red head gave her friend a weak smile and nodded. When he left the room, she turned her attention back to the girl. A thought tickled the back of her mind, but she couldn't bring it forward.



Buffy waited until Xander closed the door behind him to ask, "Will, can you do this? Take care of her? If it's too hard, I can do it."



Willow looked into Buffy's eyes. "I need to do this."



Concerned, Buffy asked, "If she wakes up. What will you do-?"



"I can handle this, really." Willow gently interrupted. "Trust me."



Buffy waited a moment, thinking before asking, "Can I help?"



Willow went to the closet, searched a moment, and came back a sewing kit. Inside she found scissors. "We probably should try to move her as little as possible, but we need to get her out of those dirty clothes." Willow looked at Buffy. "I thought we could cut them off of her."



"Just like on ER, huh." Buffy said, reaching to pull back the blanket covering the girl.



Willow picked up the hem of the tee shirt and began cutting up the center of the shirt. The intimacy of uncovering the girl bothered her and she kept her eyes averted from the girl's face. After cutting through to the collar band, she cut apart the shirtsleeves and then slid the material out from under the girl's body. While cutting away the lightweight shirt was simple, the girl's pants were less so. Willow eventually handed the task of cutting through the denim to Buffy. Only after they'd cut away her clothes, did Willow fully realize the extent of the girl's injuries.



In addition to the cut on her forehead and the bruises on her sides, there were additional cuts and scrapes on her arms and legs. Her right ankle was swollen, possibly from a sprain, and there was a long gash on her lower back. The thought that had been floating in the back of Willow's mind took root and the memory of the vampire's book kicking her defender sprung forward. She knew who had saved her. There could be no doubt.



For a moment Willow was completely overcome. Whoever this young woman was, she was hurt because of her. A part of her foolishly wished Ben still were part of the picture. The girl needed medical attention; her injuries were far beyond what they should handle. Adding to the horror, the girl's body was a road map of scars. The worst were two sets of claw marks. The smaller set spanned across her lower abdomen; spaced about a quarter of an inch apart, the set of four pale white lines stretched on a diagonal from mid-waist to the girl's pelvis. A wider and longer set spanned the girl's back, running from the girl's right shoulder blade down to her left hip. Willow had never seen anything like it. What ever had clawed her had been big.



As best she could, Willow bathed the rest of the girl's skin, while at the same time desperately trying to ignore the girl's resemblance to her lover. Buffy helped hold the girl on her side, while Willow put antiseptic and a bandage on the girl's back, and then carefully lifted the girl up, while Willow pulled open the sheets. Together, they tucked her in, neither of them mentioning that despite the movement, the girl had yet to waken.



The hacker sat down on the side of the bed and brushed the girl's hair from her forehead. "I keep wondering what's her life been like." When Buffy did not immediately respond, Willow added. "And by the way, so far as I know Tara doesn't have a twins sister."



Buffy stood to the side. After a moment, she observed. "She has more scars than me, I think. So I'm guessing, pretty rough."



Willow looked towards her friend. "I'm pretty sure she's the person who saved me the other night."



Buffy startled. "In the alley, you mean?"



The red head turned back to look at the small figure lying on the bed. "She's the right size. If it was her, than we know how she ended up somebody's kick boxing dummy."



Buffy reclaimed her spot on the edge of the bed "That cut on her forehead looks older."



Already knowing Buffy's likely response, Willow could not help but ask if they should ignore the girl's wishes and take her to the doctor.



"Will, Xander said she didn't want to go to a hospital. Until she wakes up, we need to take her at her word." Buffy's voice was firm. "Maybe she's just worried about cost or something." She added, although her voice was far from confidant.



Distractedly, Willow slid her fingers through the girl's hair. "In the car, Xander told me that he and Anya had searched her backpack. They found some cash, old clothes, a pair of sandals, a tarot deck, some first aid supplies and two, very sharp, hunting knives plus one hand-carved stake." Willow met her friend's gaze. "I'm thinking she's here hunting something."



"The knives could just be for protection. Somebody who's been hurt that many times probably doesn't take a lot of chances."



Before they could further debate the point, a knock sounded on the door. Xander walked in with Anya in tow.



"We came as quickly as we could, but we needed to pick up some stuff at the drug store." Xander explained, holding up a small shopping bag.



The vengeance demon went to the girl's side and peered closely at the cut on her forehead. "This is a mess." She said, with her usual bluntness.



"Can you close it?"



"Yes, but there's going to be a scar." Anya turned to look at Willow. "You might want to clear out of here for a while."



Bristling slightly, Willow responded. "I know she's not Tara, at least not my Tara. This isn't a problem."



Anya's expression softened. "I meant you might want to clear out because I'm going to need to do some casting." She turned to look at Buffy. "A spell to ease the pain."



Buffy turned to her friend. "Will? Maybe you should wait downstairs? This has got to be hard."



Embarrassed for her weakness, not wanting to waste any time, Willow nodded and stood up. "I'll go downstairs."



Buffy looked at Xander. "Maybe we should all clear out of here and give Anya some room."



Xander moved towards the door "Yeah, besides, we need to talk."



"I'll call if I need anything." Anya said to the three, as she spilled the contents of the shopping bag on the bed.



Downstairs, Willow and Buffy curled up in opposite corners on the sofa, while Xander dropped into one of the easy chairs. The three stared at one another, each unsure how to begin.



Xander cleared his throat. "Want to fill me in on Tara's ghost."



Willow looked towards her friend. "She started coming to me when I got back from England, at first for just a few minutes at a time, but then longer. Now, she can stay for hours." She watched with pain as Xander's expression changed from confusion to dejection.



"You've been hanging out." Xander said, flatly. He covered his face with his hands for a moment, before continuing. "Will, you should have said something."



Unexpected anger rose inside of her. "What? That I've been having lunch with my dead girlfriend. You guys would have thought I was nuts, or back on the dark magicks or worse." Embarrassed at her reaction, she muttered, "Sorry," and was grateful when Buffy and Xander ignored her outburst.



Buffy picked up one of the pillows and held it on her lap. "This is all so freaky. First you start seeing Tara's ghost, now we find Tara's double."



"Coincidences don't have to be meaningful." Willow pointed out, even if she found it hard to believe the two events were unconnected.



"Why don't we concentrate for now on our upstairs visitor." Buffy suggested.



"So who is she? Cause I'm thinking she isn't Tara's wacky identical cousin from England. For one thing, she doesn't have an accent." Xander asked, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees.



Needing her friend's support, Willow moved closer to Buffy. "I'm guessing she comes from the same dimension as my vampire self."



Buffy took Willow's hand in her own. Her voice was not surprised. "Why do you think that?



"I've been thinking about her reaction to me. It was pure terror." The hacker turned to look in the mirror that hung over the fireplace unconsciously checking to make sure she still had a reflection. "From what we know that world was pretty dangerous, and you and I saw all her scars. Plus, if she's the person who fought off the vampire the other night in the alley, it would explain why she's so experienced at the whole slaying thing."



"Wait a second." Xander interjected. "Fought off the vampire?"



"I think she might have been the person who dusted the vamp that attacked me last night. I saw the vamp kick the person in the sides a bunch of times. She has the right set of bruises."



Xander nodded, following Willow's reasoning. "Okay, we might be leaping to conclusions, but I'm willing to let that go. Let's get back to Tara's ghost."



"I'm not sure she is a ghost." Willow admitted. "She'd not even sure. We don't know what she is."



"Ghost, spirit, whatever. You say the two of you can talk to each other?" Xander asked in disbelief.



"I know it sounds insane. But we talk, we listen, we joke around with each other." Willow trailed off, uncomfortable with sharing the more intimate details of the relationship.



Xander's voice was calm. "Will, I'm not saying I think you're nuts, but are you sure. Has anyone else seen her?"



Buffy cleared her throat. "This afternoon I watched something run its fingers through Willow's hair." She brushed a few stray hairs away from Willow's forehead, distractedly mimicking Tara's gesture from earlier in the day, before adding. "I also saw tears and a couple of strands of blonde hair that came from whatever she is."



Xander sat back stunned. "Tears, hair. Guys this isn't a ghost. Ghosts don't leave stuff behind."



"I know that." Willow responded with a little more heat than Xander deserved. The red head took a deep breath and tried to steady her nerves.



"But you didn't tell us anything." Xander said, flatly.



"I'm telling you now. We were going to tell you. That's why we were coming to the Magic Box." Willow stopped as she realized she should have told her friend sooner.



"We were coming over to do research." Buffy explained. "Look through the books, see if we could find any examples of I don't even know what."



Willow took a deep breath. "Guys, I'm sorry. It was dumb to keep this a secret. Xander's right. I should have said something." A smile crossed her face as familiar hands began rubbing her shoulders. She leaned back into Tara's arms.



Buffy looked over at Willow, her expression curious. "Will, did Tara just come in the room."



The hacker was surprised. "Yes, just now." Willow looked over her shoulder to smile at her lover, who was perched on the arm of the sofa. "She's sitting right here next to me. How did you know?"



"Slayer sense, I guess." A gentle smile crossed her face. "Or maybe I'm just thinking of all the times Tara sat there while we were just hanging out."



"Tara's really here, right now." Xander asked, his voice cracking slightly.



"Will?" Tara spoke quietly.



Willow turned in Tara's arms. "Yeah, baby?" She asked, her voice barely above a whisper.



"I want to try something." She looked uncertain. "I think I can do this. Hang on, okay."



Mystified, Willow nodded, before finally remembering that only she could here Tara's words. "Uhm, guys, Tara says she wants to try something."



"What?" Xander asked.



"She didn't-" Willow's voice fell silent as she watched the air begin to shimmer around her lover.



As Tara slowly materialized, Xander stood up. He tried to speak, but the words would not come out of his mouth.



Her eyes widening, Buffy slid down the sofa towards Willow. She reached out her hand towards the apparition. "Tara?"



"I don't know if I can touch you." Tara explained. She reached across Willow, but when their hands met, Tara's passed through Buffy's. Tara jerked back. "I'm sorry."



"No. Don't be sorry." Buffy said, holding her hand against her face. "God, I can smell you on my fingers. The lavender soap you always used." Tears fell down Buffy's cheeks. "Oh, god Tara. It's really you."



Xander crossed the room to kneel in front of Tara. His hands were visibly shaking. He reached out, passing his hand along her shoulder and arm. "I can't feel you. But I know you're here. It's more than just seeing." He looked to Buffy for confirmation. "Isn't it?"



"Much more." Buffy confirmed.



"You have been missed so much." Xander began only to have his voice fail him.



Tara smiled. "I've missed all of you, too."



"Tara," Buffy began, "Osiris told Willow you died a natural death, that we couldn't bring you back. So how-" until her voice also failed.



"I don't know." Tara slumped a bit against the sofa. "Guys, I can't stay much longer. I need to-" Her voice trailed off as she looked at Willow.



The red head's voice was filled with love. "We understand. It's okay. We'll figure this out."



Tara nodded, and started to fade, but then stopped for a moment. "She's me, you know?"



"We know." Willow whispered turning her head away as Tara faded away.



Xander moved back to his chair and dropped in it. The three sat, each lost in his or her thoughts until the sound of the bedroom door opening broke the silence. Anya came down the stairs, wiping her hands with a towel.



"I took out the stitches that were there, and replaced them with nine more. She's going to have a scar for sure."



Willow sat up against the cushions, pulling herself together. "I'm sure you did the best you could."



Anya nodded her acceptance of the compliment. "She's from the other world. The world where you two," she glanced at Willow and Xander, "are vampires. But I guess you probably already figured that out." Anya dropped the towel on the coffee table and sat down in the other wing back chair, drawing up her legs and tucking in her feet.



The four fell into an uncomfortable silence. Several minutes passed before Xander stood up and moved to the window to watch some kids passing by on skateboards. "You know when I was their age I would have been totally grounded if I'd been out this late on my skate board." He turned to look back at the others. "How can any of this be? I thought Bizarro Sunnydale was just what our world would have been like if Buffy hadn't come here."



"Vampire-Willow had no problem crossing over." Buffy disagreed, reminding Xander of Willow's counterpart as she crossed her arms behind her head.



Anya pulled at a loose thread in her skirt. "When I granted Cordelia's wish the boundaries between two realities were lifted, and they became one in the same. As soon as Giles smashed my amulet and broke my spell, the worlds separated again." She looked up at the others. "They're supposed to be separate. I don't know why people seem to be able to keep crossing over." Anya suddenly looked away, her eyes narrowing in thought.



"Identical worlds, but not." Buffy murmured. "That is really so totally weird."



"Kind of like the 'many worlds idea' in theoretical physics, huh." Willow offered, distractedly. Noticing Buffy and Anya's stares, she added. "Also popular in science fiction."



Xander moved back in his chair. "You mean like beatnik Spock in the episode, Mirror, Mirror."



"Actually, I was thinking of the Entendent on Deep Space Nine." Willow explained, a smile forming on her face. Tara had never appreciated Star Trek until the hacker had compared the Entendent to her vampire self; after that her lover became hooked on the adventure series.



"Same universe, different century." Xander countered as Anya made a loud and audible sigh. Xander looked towards his ex-fiancée. "What?"



"Why are we talking about Star Trek? Your example is unnecessary. Star Trek will not provide any answers to our questions."



"Guys, let's try to stay on task here." Buffy interjected before Xander and Anya launched into a full on spat. She looked to Willow for help.



Willow nodded briskly. "On task." She confirmed and turned towards Anya wanting to bring the vengeance demon up to speed. "There's something that I need to tell you. Something else has been going on."



"You mean about Tara's essence?" Anya asked.



Buffy sat forward quickly. "Essence?"



"Anh?" Xander questioned, his elbows on his knees.



"The other afternoon at the Magic Box. She was sitting with you, watching you work." Anya's expression was confused. "You knew she was there, right?"



"Yes, I just didn't know anyone else could see her." Willow rubbed at her eyes, tiredly. "How come you can see her? I mean she just put herself out of commission making herself visible to Buffy and Xander."



Anya avoided looking at Xander. "Demon, remember? Someone left me at the altar, broke my heart."



Xander replied quickly. "Nobody's forgotten."



"Please, guys. We need to stay on the current crisis. Okay." Buffy stood up. "Listen. Let's take this into the kitchen. I'm starving, and there's some left over pizza in the fridge."



Willow started to argue, not wanting to stop the discussion, but the looks of relief on Anya's and Xander's faces convince her otherwise. "And there's also some left over sandwiches and potato salad from lunch."



Once they were in the kitchen, Willow realized she was hungry, too. She pulled out all of the leftovers from the refrigerator and then handed out plates and forks. Silence fell upon the group a second time as they quietly ate.



Outside the window, Willow watched a helicopter circle in the western night sky. Usually that meant there had been a boating or swimming accident at Sunnydale beach. She offered a silent blessing for anyone in trouble and then realized that everyone in the kitchen and especially the young woman lying upstairs in her bed could also use a blessing. Thoughts of blessings tumbled into musings about the girl. She had to be a witch; how else could she have crossed over from her reality? More and more questions flooded Willow's mind, so much so that she was caught off guard when Xander finally broke the silence.



"Anya, if you saw Willow hanging around with Tara's ghost, why didn't you say anything?" Xander asked as he took his plate to the sink. There were a half dozen glasses in the sink already. Needing to keep his hands busy, he began filling the sink with hot water and started searching for the dishwashing detergent.



"Not ghost, essence." Anya corrected. "And what was I supposed to say. That's Willow's business, not mine. It's private."



"Anya, you never mind your own business." Buffy argued, and then blushed. "Sorry, that came out a lot more hostile than intended. I just meant you don't usually hang back on things."



Not offended, Anya waved away Buffy's apology. "If I'd walked up to Willow and asked how she likes hanging around with her girlfriend's soul that would have been rude, and I've been trying to reduce my rudeness, even if most of the time it's unintentional, and all of you are overly sensitive about it." The vengeance demon twitched her head. "I don't know why I bother."



"Wait a second," Xander said, stopping Willow from speaking. "Soul? That's what we saw, tonight? Tara's soul?"



"Well, yeah. Uhm, made visible in human form." Anya explained as she took another bite of her pizza slice.



A roaring sound filled Willow's ears, and her legs felt weak. She leaned against the counter, clutching at it with her hands to keep from falling. "Soul?" Willow's voice was a high squeak. She felt Buffy wrap an arm around her waist and heard someone ask if she wanted to sit down. Willow shook off Buffy's arm and stepped back. "Soul? But that means Tara isn't dead. We can bring her back."



Anya put down her slice of pizza, came around the counter, and took Willow's hands in her own. "No, Willow you have to listen to me. You need to accept that your Tara is dead. At least the physical and spiritual aspects of her. We can't bring her back. She died a natural death." Anya's voice broke. "I would do anything to change that, but none of us can."



"But, you said Tara's soul" Willow argued, trying to pull away.



Anya wouldn't let her. "The soul is eternal. It doesn't die. It gets reborn."



"But why is Tara's soul still here. Why isn't it being reborn?" Willow asked, stubbornly holding on to hope.



Anya swallowed before speaking, as if gathering together her courage. "Tara was murdered. She died in her lover's arms, in your arms. More than that, she died in the arms of her soul mate. Two souls so deeply intertwined that it's almost impossible to separate them again. Tara's essence can't move on because it hasn't been able to let go of its mate, of you. It hasn't said goodbye."



The crashing sound of something falling in the front room ended the conversation. For once beating Buffy's superior reflexes, Willow was out the door before anyone else had time to react.



Chapter Nine



The girl woke to the feeling of clean sheets rubbing against her skin. Warm for the first time in days, she snuggled deeper into the soft pillow underneath her head. The homey scent of dried lavender and roses wafting about in the air told her she was no longer at the Magic Box. Hesitantly, fearful that her headache would return, she opened her eyes. The pain was bearable. She looked around; the room was lit by a small lamp near the door and two candles on the nightstand next to the bed.



She decided after a quick visual survey that the room belonged to a young woman. The pictures on the walls, the colorful dress suspended on a hanger from the top of the closet door, and the array of knickknacks scattered about every possible surface left no other conclusion. Looking around the room some more, she decided the room must belong to a student. She spied several textbooks stacked on the floor next to a small table on which rested what she thought was a computer, although it was far smaller than any she'd ever seen before.



Gingerly, she used her fingers to probe the cut on her forehead. Someone had neatly re-stitched the wound. Her side still hurt, and she could tell her ankle was sore, but she was reasonably certain she could get up. The girl moved cautiously; when the room did not immediately start spinning, she took it as a sign to try to stand. It was only then that she realized she was naked.



Time to find new clothes, she thought. As soon as she moved from the bed, she felt the pull of the bandage on her lower back. Whoever was caring for her had done a thorough job, but she did not have time to rest. She needed to get back on task. She'd been in this reality for just over four days and was no closer to figuring out what to do about her enemy now, than she was when she'd first arrived. Time was too precious to waste.



A twinge of guilt whispered down her spine as she searched through the closet and dresser drawers. She hated invading people's privacy, but what other choice did she have? She quickly found a pair of drawstring pants and a tee shirt that would fit, as well as underwear and socks. Her shoes had been left in the front of the closet, but not her backpack, which worried her. She hoped her pack hadn't been lost.



The simple act of dressing caused her to lose her breath, and she had to sit for a while on the side of the bed until her heart stopped pounding. While sitting on the bed, she wondered what had happened to Xander. Her search for clothing had uncovered only women's apparel, confirming her idea that the room belonged to a young woman. It didn't seem likely that this was Anya's room, either. Few vengeance demons kept stuffed toys poked in among their books. A smile crossed her face; this world was turning out to be a lot more interesting than she'd expected.



Her heart calm once more, the girl rose to her feet, waited a moment to be sure her legs would not give way, and then limped to the door. The room opened on to a short hallway that led to a three other rooms and a staircase. She looked inside the open doors of the two other bedrooms and the bathroom and decided only women must live in this house. While in the bathroom, she checked her appearance. Although she'd end up with another scar, the stitches were neatly executed, much better than she was capable of doing. She also noticed someone had carefully washed her face and neck.



The girl limped down the stairs listening for sounds of the house's residents, but she heard nothing. It seemed unlikely anyone would leave a stranger alone in his or her house, but for the moment that appeared to be the case. At the landing she found the foyer, to her right the front room, and to the left the dining room. She spotted her backpack leaning against the wall near the front door. She crossed over to it, thinking she should just leave, but the idea of going back out into the cold was too awful to bear, and it was obvious that whoever lived here wanted to help her. Comfort won over better intentions, and she needed to thank whoever was helping her even if their charity was unnecessary. Still, a memory tugged at the back of her mind, something had gone wrong before, but she couldn't quite remember what.



Voices coming from another room distracted her from the problem. Not sure why she did not simply call out a hello, the girl crept through the dining room, taking account of the room's contents of the as the voices led her to what she guessed was the kitchen. She recognized Xander's voice immediately, and then Anya's. The vengeance demon sounded concerned, and was quietly arguing with someone else. The girl listened carefully. She was unable to make out most of what was being said, but she soon recognized the other voice and her blood ran cold. The girl turned quickly; she needed to get out of the house immediately.



In a panic, she started to edge backwards and crashed into a low bureau filled with dishes and other glassware. Terrified that the noise would draw out the vampire, the girl turned and stumbled a second time, catching herself on a dining room chair, even as she knocked another chair over. Tripping past the tipped over chair, the girl propelled herself out of the dining room and towards the front door, only to feel her ankle give out from under her as she reached the door handle. She fell to the floor grabbing for her backpack. Just as the vampire reached her, she freed her knife from the side pocket of her backpack. To her surprise she quickly had the vampire in a chokehold with one arm, her knife pointed at its throat. She reached back and was ready to take the vampire's head off when Anya came rushing into the room.



Her eyes wild with fear, the vengeance demon yelled at the top of her lungs. "Stop. Don't kill her. She's human."



Before she could process Anya's words another person, the short blonde from the Magic Box, pushed past the vengeance demon and with unbelievable speed reached out and captured her wrist. The blonde viciously twisted her arm back over her head, smashing her hand against the door behind her. The blonde's voice was surprisingly calm. "Drop the knife or I'll snap your wrist in two."



Stunned, the girl did not immediately respond. The woman's hand clamped tighter. Her strength was that of a demon. Unable to stand the pain, the girl let go of the knife, hearing it clatter to the floor behind her.



The blonde didn't move an inch. "Good. Now let her go."



Too frightened to disobey the girl did as she was asked. The vampire moved away from her only to turn around and reveal large green eyes filled with concern.



"Did you get hurt in the fall?"



The person who spoke was human. Amazed by the sight of a slow and steady pulse in the red head's neck, the girl did not register the woman's question and instead explained. "I t-thought you were a vampire."



The red head face lit up in a friendly smile. "I'm not. My name's Willow" She said leaning forward, but stopping quickly when the girl jerked back. Willow held up her hands. "Easy. Just take it easy. No one wants to hurt you. We just want to help" Looking pointedly at the girl's hip, she asked. "Did you hurt yourself when you fell?"



The girl closed her eyes and tried to understand the impossible. In this reality, the vampire was human. Her body began to shiver uncontrollably, the room was freezing and her stomach was doing flips.



Willow asked her another question and the girl wondered how she could have thought the human's voice was in any way frightening. It was high-pitched, almost girlish, and was incredibly soothing. Not at all like the vampire's lazy drawl. The girl swallowed and forced herself to calm down. "I t-think I twisted my ankle worse than before and my hip is going to be pretty sore. Other than that, I'm g-good." She explained, opening her eyes again.



Willow shook her head. "No you're not. Your fever is back." She inched forward slightly. "Is it okay if I help you up from the floor and over to the sofa?"



The girl nodded. Willow moved forward and wrapped her arms around the girl's waist. The red head was wearing perfume, a light spicy scent that suited her perfectly. Together, they rose to their feet. The blonde, Xander and Anya all moving back as Willow helped her limp to the front room couch. She settled back into the cushions, watching the others as they took seats around her.



"You probably should eat something before we give you any more aspirin for your fever. I've got some tomato soup that I just need to reheat. How does that sound?"



"Good." She replied quietly. Confused and embarrassed by Willow's kindness after she'd attacked her, the girl focused her eyes on the wool rug lying on the floor beneath her feet.



"Hey, you don't need to get all shy with me. It's only soup." Willow said, coaxing her the girl to look at her.



The girl raised her eyes. She knew the woman was human, but part of her was still afraid. She wished the attention would shift on to someone else. As if sensing her wish, the red head directed Buffy to come help her in the kitchen and asked Xander to fetch the spare blanket from her bedroom.



Xander moved to his feet saying, "I'm on it," and headed up the stairs.



The girl watched the blonde called Buffy follow Willow towards the kitchen.



Once the others left the room, Anya cleared her throat. "You can't go attacking Willow like that. First of all she's not a vampire and second of all Buffy will kill you."



The girl nodded her agreement. "How did you know I thought she was a vampire?"



"Well, besides the whole running and cowering in fear, you tried to remove her head, the favorite method for poofing vampires after staking." Anya sunk back into her easy chair. "Also, a while back we met the Willow from your reality." For a moment the demon looked uncomfortable. "Vamp-Willow wasn't very pleasant, well at least not by human terms."



The girl was finding it difficult to take in all of the information. "You know I've come from another reality and that in my reality your friend is a vampire?" Even as she asked the question, she knew the answer could only be yes.



"It's an obvious conclusion." Anya replied, somewhat smugly.



Worried what this meant in relation to her mission, the girl asked. "Have you met others from my dimension?"



"Just the one, really." Anya explained. "Of course, there was that brief period of time when the two realities coincided. But that didn't last long."



Not understanding what the demon was talking about, the girl prompted. "How'd that happen?"



Anya spoke quickly. "Someone made a wish that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale and your world and our world became one."



The girl could sense that the demon was uncomfortable with the discussion. For whatever reason it was clear the demon felt responsible for the melding of the two realities. She thought for a moment, wanting to steer the conversation to safer ground. After a moment, she observed. "Buffy must be pretty important."



"She's the Slayer." Anya explained, simply. Her pose once again relaxed.



The girl let her mind wrap around Anya's explanation. It made sense. Buffy had superior strength, but she was obviously human. Not sure why, the girl explained. "The Slayer in my world died years ago. Another one was supposed to come but didn't."



Anya nodded her understanding. "This is her house, by the way. Buffy, I mean. She lives here with Willow and her little sister, Dawn. By little, I mean younger, Dawn is a teenager and is at least three inches taller than Buffy." Anya turned away to watch Xander return from upstairs, a blanket draped over his arm.



"One nice comfy blanket coming up." Xander declared as he draped the blanket over the girl's shoulder and then dropped in the easy chair next to Anya.



The three sat in uncomfortable silence until Xander cleared his throat. "So have we all gotten acquainted?"



"I just explained that this is Buffy's house and it would be wise not to attack Willow a second time since it would only further antagonize Buffy."



"Good thinking." Xander replied. He looked around the room as if noticing Buffy and Willow hadn't returned. "I should go see if Buff and Will need help in the kitchen."



The girl nodded, while Anya said nothing. The young man rose to his feet and headed off to the kitchen, his eagerness to leave the room palpable. The girl surreptitiously watched the demon, curious as to know how a demon might have become so significant a part of a human cadre. She shifted uncomfortably against the cushions, the bandage on her back was pulling at her skin and her headache was quickly returning to its previous intensity. She was grateful when Willow returned carrying a small tray holding a bowl of soup, two slices of thickly buttered rye bread and a tall glass of water. The red head placed the tray on the coffee table in front of the girl.



"Careful, the soup is hot. Don't burn yourself on top of everything else." She pulled an aspirin bottle from her pocket and began to struggle with the cap. "Oh, and I dropped in a couple of chunks of cheddar cheese. You could probably use the protein and the fat will help jump start your immune system."



The girl sat forward, and picked up the spoon. Before raising the spoon to her mouth, she mentioned. "Those c-caps are really difficult to remove. Why is that?"



The red head appeared mystified for a moment and then smiled. "You mean the child proof cap. They make them that way so that kids can't open up medicine bottles. Most things don't have childproof caps."



"Your world is very different from mine." She observed before trying a spoonful of the soup. It was homemade and delicious. Usually not very effusive, the girl found herself exclaiming. "This is w-wonderful. How'd you guess I liked cheddar cheese?" Only to see her question meant by unexpected nervousness by all around her.



The red head placed three tablets on the tray next to the soup bowl. "Just had a feeling." She moved around the coffee table and sat down on the other end of the sofa. "You should swallow the aspirin before you finish your soup. The heat of the soup will drive the medicine into your body faster."



Not sure that she fully understood what Willow meant, the girl took the red head at her word and washed the tablets down with a sip of water before continuing her meal. Her mind preoccupied by the food and Willow, who kept looking at her and then looking away, the girl forgot about the Slayer and was startled when Buffy unexpectedly moved to sit down on the ottoman near Xander's feet. The girl jerked back, causing some of the hot soup to spatter on her hand. She hissed with pain.



Willow was at her side in an instant. Her voice was gentle. "Hey. You need to relax. You're safe here." She picked up the napkin to brush away the soup. "You don't need to get yourself any more banged up than you already are." She softly added.



Surprised by Willow's tenderness, the girl smiled at the red head and was about to remark on Willow's gentle touch when she noticed the cool look in the Slayer's eyes. Buffy stared protectively at the red head. Clearly, the vengeance demon was right, Buffy had no patience with anyone who threatened Willow.



Xander broke the silence. "We were wondering how you came to be so 'banged up'?" He said, nodding at Willow. "



The girl put her spoon down, finished with the soup. "I got my side hurt when I got in over my head with a vampire. And, I hurt my ankle when I tripped over some broken concrete." Not wanting to go into details about her head injury, she paused before adding. "I think I banged my head a couple of days ago. Pretty c-clumsy, huh?"



"How'd you happen to get into a fight with a vampire?" Buffy asked, drawing her knees to her chest.



While the Slayer's tone seemed less hostile than before, the girl sensed she needed to offer a full explanation and paused for a moment organizing her thoughts. "I was walking around downtown Sunnydale last night when I heard a commotion happening down a side alley. I went to look and saw a vampire attacking someone." She rubbed her head ruefully. "I ran down the alley and knocked the vampire away. He was bigger than me and he managed to get in a few kicks before I staked him."



"What happened next? Was the woman okay?" Buffy prompted.



"Other people, humans, came running down the alley. I didn't want to h-have to explain who I was, or why I was carrying a wooden stake, not to mention two h-hunting knives." She said, nodding towards the Slayer. "I pulled myself up on the fire escape and hid until everyone left. They all seemed like friends, or at least they all knew each other."



"What would you have done if no one else had come?" Buffy asked, her tone challenging.



The girl flinched, unable to hide her distress over Buffy's question. "I w-would--"



"Buffy, stop, enough with the interrogation." Willow interrupted.



Undeterred, Buffy continued. "You told Xander people call you 'girl." Do you have any other names?"



The girl began to anger. She'd made a mistake, but they all knew why she'd attacked Willow. Her tone barely controlled, she explained. "My mother called me Tara, but s-she's long gone." Her eyes flashing, she continued. "And the members of my cadre sometimes called me Witch, but that was a term of respect, which I doubt you'd want to accord me. Most people don't need a name for me so I go by girl"



Xander leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "Whoa, guys, lets settle down here. We don't need to get excited over a misunderstanding." He put a hand on Buffy's shoulder, but she shook him off.



"She pulled a knife on Willow. I'd call that more than a misunderstanding." Buffy declared, her anger still getting the better of her.



Willow stood up and moved to Buffy's side, sliding between Buffy and Xander. She took Buffy's hands in her own. "Buffy, I'm okay. Nothing happened. Xander's right, it was just a misunderstanding."



"She thought Willow was a demon." Anya offered, trying to be helpful.



Still in the heat of her own anger, the girl hissed. "Her counterpart in my world was known for her viciousness. She did things that you cannot imagine-"



"And in this world, your-" Buffy interrupted, unaware that the girl would not have been able to finish her sentence.



Willow yelled, preventing the Slayer from finishing her sentence. "Buffy stop it. None of this matters right now."



"I think we're making some important progress." Anya disagreed. "We should probably just try to get everything out in the open. Like why she shows up here just when we find out that-"



Xander rose to his feet. "Anh, now would be a good time for you and me to take Tara's dinner tray back to the kitchen."



"Fine." Anya said, letting her irritation be known to one and all. "Xander and I are going to take away Tara's dinner tray. Does anyone need anything from the kitchen?"



"Could you put on a pot of chamomile tea?" Willow asked.



"For you, of course." Anya said, using her eyes to make her point that her largess did not extend to Buffy and Xander. She stood up and followed Xander out of the front room.



The girl watched the red head calm the blonde by slowly rubbing Buffy's hands between her own. She forced herself to calm down as well. Buffy was right to be suspicious. While her actions were the result of a misunderstanding, she had indeed attacked Willow. Observing the two friends interact triggered a memory of Larry, and for a moment she allowed herself to feel her grief over his death, but she quickly shucked off the feeling. Weeping over the past wouldn't avenge Larry's death, or any of the others. Trying to keep her own loneliness at bay, she remarked. "You two have been friends a long time, huh?"



"Since sophomore year of high school." Willow explained, before getting up to sit in Xander's vacated chair. "That's when Buffy came to Sunnydale."



The girl thought for a moment. From what little she knew history had unfolded differently in her world. "In my world, the Slayer didn't come until years after the Master rose, well after the first demon conquests. By the time she got there, most of the three surrounding communities had already fallen, and new hellmouths had opened in Iowa, Texas, and Maryland, plus someplace else that I can't think of at the m-moment."



Her calm returned, and her interest in the girl's story peaked, Buffy asked, "What happened when she got there?"



The girl could not remember the precise details. "She tried to stop the Master's latest invention, but the m-mission went wrong, I guess."



"You guess?" Buffy's eyes narrowed.



Not sure why she needed to explain herself, the girl said. "I wasn't there. I only heard the story third hand."



Buffy sounded impatient. "What did you hear?"



The girl closed her eyes and tried to recall the few details she was sure about. "The Master was holding a large group of humans for some kind of mass feeding. An attack was staged and a lot of vampires were killed, including your c-counterpart." The girl explained, nodding towards Willow. "She was well know and greatly feared in m-many parts and so her end was widely reported"



She paused, not wanting to continue but knowing she was expected to finish the tale. "But the Slayer died in the battle, along with a bunch of W-White Hats." To the girl's surprise Buffy seemed unmoved by the news her counterpart had lost her battle with the Master. She was less surprised to see that Willow appeared almost pleased with the idea that her counterpart was no more.



Her hostility abated once again, Buffy prompted, "White Hats?"



"The name of a human cadre based in Sunnydale." The girl thought for a moment. "They were led by a librarian named Giles who was supposed to have been the Slayer's Watcher." She added, sadly. My friend Larry was part of their group. He d-died in the battle. I miss him."



Another wave of grief swept over the girl followed by anger. First towards the Master and then towards herself, so many had died because of him, and now many more might die because of her. Lost in her thoughts, she missed Willow's next statement and had to ask the red head to repeat it.



"I only mentioned that our Giles moved back to England about a year and a half ago." Willow smiled faintly. "We were pretty lucky here. Having a Slayer and a Watcher probably made all the difference."



The girl could tell that something about the Watcher's leaving bothered the red head. Not entirely sure why, she wished Willow would say more, but seeing the slim woman's discomfort, the girl turned her attention to Buffy and asked. "I take it that here the Master was vanquished?"



"It took some doing, but yes. There's nothing left of him except dust and a lot of bad memories." Buffy explained looking over her shoulder as Xander and Anya returned carry the tray now laden with five mugs.



"Hot chamomile tea for Will. The same for Tara. Hot chocolate for the rest of us. Unless Tara would rather have hot chocolate." Xander set the tray down and handed the mugs around.



The girl accepted hers with a smile of thanks, unaccountably pleased that he'd guessed she would prefer tea to hot chocolate. She tried again to place his face. Maybe she'd seen him on the street during her explorations of Sunnydale? One thing was certain; he cared deeply for Willow. She watched as the red head as accepted her mug before relinquishing her chair back to Xander and returning to the couch.



Anya reclaimed her chair as well. "Is everyone over their mad?"



Laughing, Willow nodded. "I think so." She took a sip of her tea. "This is wonderful, thank you."



The girl took a sip of her tea as well, but immediately fell into a coughing fit making her sore ribs hurt all the more. Afraid she was about to spill her tea, she started to put the mug on the coffee table only to have Willow pluck the mug from her hands. "Easy, just breathe slowly." The girl nodded as she leaned back into the couch's soft cushions.



Her expression concerned, Willow brushed her hand over the girl's forehead. "You're starting to burn up again. I thought the aspirin would have brought your fever down, but its not working like it should."



"We need to get her some antibiotics." Xander ventured.



The girl could not hide her alarm. "If that would mean going to the hospital, I would rather not."



"Scared of needles?" Anya asked, sympathetically. "I hate them myself."



Not sure if they would understand, the girl explained. "In my world, few people who go into hospitals survive. Most hospitals are little more than vampire feeding grounds."



"Well, that's not the case here. But I should be able to get you some antibiotics." Willow said, confidently.



Xander grinned. "You planning on hacking into the pharmacy computer?"



"Hacking?" The girl asked over the unfamiliar term.



"I use the Internet to break into a medical record data base." Willow rubbed her forehead. "The Internet is a computer network. I can hook up to it using the phone line--" She added, before trailing off.



The girl could see Willow was trying to measure how much she needed to explain. "I think I know what you mean. In my world, it's called cracking."



A wide grin appeared on the red head's face. "Your world has an World Wide Web, too."



A corresponding grin formed on the girl's face. "Yes, but not many people where I grew up had computers at home." The girl's forehead wrinkled. "There were computers in the public library, but I never used them. Is what you're going to do hard?"



Willow stood up. "I've done it before. My laptop is in the bedroom upstairs." She looked at the girl. "I can bring it down here and log on using the downstairs phone line so that you can get back to bed."



The mission jumped to the forefront of the girl's thoughts. She couldn't afford to allow herself to grow dependent on other people's kindness. "I appreciate all that you've done. But you don't have to take care of me. I've already imposed too long."



"You're not imposing, and you're hurt. What sense would it make to leave?" Willow argued.



The girl watched the Slayer's eyes flicker at the red head before returning to her. "I appreciate all you've done. But I should go." She began struggling to her feet.



Buffy spoke quickly, her voice stopping the girl mid-movement. "Like where, the park. You can barely stand up. You should spend th


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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2002 4:07 am 
Interesting to get Willow's viewpoint as she and Buffy entered the Magic Box. I'm glad you started the chapter this way.



The constant friction between Xander and Anya is very well done, totally credible seeing, as Anya puts it Someone left me at the altar, broke my heart Anya showing how useful she is, first caring for the girl, then her insight into why Tara's essence has remained.



Willow's resolution to help The Girl, despite Buffy's obvious concern, is typical. It must be so hard on her though, to care for that form that is so like her Tara.



I'm intrigued about The Girl's mission.



Brilliant update. Thanks so much.

Adding up the total of a love that's true, multiply life by the power of two
Indigo Girls



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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2002 8:56 am 
Gosh, DoppelTara is in such a bad state.. maybe she should go to hospital. Her condition is worrying me (as are her feeding habits in the parc and such), she definitly needs to rest/feed before going anywhere. Loved Willow being all helpfull here.



I wonder how DoppelTara expects to perform ANY mission since obviously something at the beginning went wrong already. I'm guessing she intended to go back in time to fix things but accidentally jumped sideways into an alternate reality instead. Very little to fix in this one, at least very little that would effect DoppelTara's reality. Would be interesting to know what she wants to do now, does she have any close friends left alive in her reality ?



I actually like Anya in this fic. No longer they woman with *only* the childish/annoying comments but actually helpfull. Good girl :D .



P.S. Having just read _Sidestep Chronicle_, this line in this fic made me smile: "Witchcraft could not put a stake through a vampire's heart."... riiiiight :)



Grimmy

"You hurt Tara," Willow said too calmly. "The last one who tried that was a god. I made her regret it." -- Unexpected Consequences by Lisa of Nine

Edited by: Grimlock72 at: 10/25/02 8:58:50 am


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 Post subject: Re: Doppelganger Redux
PostPosted: Fri Oct 25, 2002 11:22 am 
God, i wish i could already read the second part of your great story! I'm sooo curious and sooo impatient. And it's still sooo long till next year.. :(

:sigh ..gotta learn to be a bit more patient, i guess..huh? :



Snuggle79 :wave





--------------

"I got so lost"

"I found you, i will always find you"

Edited by: snuggle79 at: 10/25/02 2:01:35 pm


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