THE POWER OF THREE
Book 2 Part 15

By DragonWriter17

 

Rating: NC-17 (for language and sexually explicit material)

Disclaimer: All of the materials borrowed from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel belong to Joss Whedon and to the entities and companies associated with their creation.  I have borrowed them for creative and entertainment purposes only.  No compensation has been or ever shall be received for the writing below.  No copyright infringement is intended.

My Website: http://www.dragonwriter17.net/

Feedback: Yes, but only if it’s of the non-flamey variety: DragonWriter17@aol.com

Distribution: My personal site. (If you are interested in posting my story on your site, please contact me first for permission.)

Spoilers: The end of BtVS Season 4’s “Wild At Heart” and beyond.

Pairings: Willow/Buffy/Tara

Author’s Notes: (1) I thought that I could wrap things up in Part 15, but I just couldn’t. So I broke up the chapter, and I’ll finish in Part 16 still to come. This part starts out pretty heavy but lightens as it goes, so hang in there! (2) I didn’t mention it in Part 14, but I’ve borrowed a character from Watchers. It’s Althenea Dimmons. She is a witch and a friend of Giles. She is also a therapist, and she’s counseling Tara, Buffy, and Willow after the recent traumatic events. (3) Thanks, as always to Lilly, for the constant support, encouragement, beta reading, and editing.

Number of Chapters: 16

Complete: 16

Chapter Summary: Tara, Willow, and Buffy experience the highs and lows of recovery in the weeks after Caleb’s attack.

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PART ONE       PART TWO       PART THREE       PART FOUR

PART FIVE     PART SIX       PART SEVEN       PART EIGHT

PART NINE       PART TEN       PART ELEVEN     PART TWELVE

PART THIRTEEN     PART FOURTEEN     PART FIFTEEN     PART SIXTEEN


Two Weeks After Part 14

It had been two weeks since Tara had been released from the hospital and since she and Willow had moved in with Buffy at the Summers home on Revello Drive. Thanks to repeated healing spells courtesy of her witch and her slayer, Tara’s bruises had vanished, her cuts and burns had diminished into scars, and her cracked ribs had mended enough that she could move about normally without experiencing excruciating pain. Physically at least, Tara was well on her way to recovery.

Tara’s psychological progress was another matter entirely. There was no magic that could restore what she had lost, no spell that could hasten her emotional healing—or that of her lovers, Willow and Buffy. Their counseling sessions with Althenea Dimmons, Giles’s friend, were helping, but the road that lay ahead of them was rocky and treacherous. Still, tiny step by tiny step, the Three were forging ahead and rebuilding their lives, though at times it felt as if they were losing ground more often than they were gaining it.

Like today.

For several days now, Tara had been having recurring nightmares. The trauma of reliving Caleb’s torture and the cumulative lack of sleep had pushed Tara to the edge. Instead of reaching for the comfort of her lovers’ arms, however, she had holed up in the guest room. At the moment, Buffy and Willow were doing their best to coax Tara out of the room for a little while.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Willow called out to Tara, who was facing the window.

Tara merely shook her head, refusing to turn around.

“Yeah, we can walk down to the ice cream parlor…maybe split a fudge mountain sundae?” Buffy added.

“No, I don’t want to,” Tara replied sharply, still keeping her back to her girlfriends.

Willow and Buffy looked at each other, then cautiously moved to the window. They stopped a few feet away from Tara.

“Sweetie, you need to get out of this room,” Buffy gently pleaded.

“Even if it’s only for a few minutes,” Willow added. “You’ll—”

“I’ll what?!” Tara shot back as she whipped around to face her girlfriends. “Feel better? Stop hurting? Seem like my old self again? Well, let me give you a news flash in case you haven’t figured it out yet: I will never be like I was, and it’s all your fault!!!

Their eyes widened in surprise at Tara’s unexpected attack, but neither Buffy nor Willow had time to formulate a response before Tara went on.

“You knew we were being targeted, and you left me alone! You let him take me!” she accused, pointing viciously at them.

Buffy and Willow flinched at each accusation but made no reply. Their faces twisted in anguish when Tara’s voice began to crack.

“And…and…when I reached out to you…when he was hurting me…you cut off our link!!! You just…left me there…you left me alone with him…” Tara’s gaze bored into theirs.

“Oh god, Tara, we’re sooo sorry!” Willow wailed before covering her face with her hands.

“We tried to find you in time,” Buffy insisted tearfully. “We did…” But then she trailed off, knowing it was useless to attempt a defense. They had failed Tara, and now she was paying the price. Buffy wrapped her arms around herself and whispered, “We’re sorry…”

When Tara saw the effect of her rash words, her rage instantly transformed into regret. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” she blurted as she rushed over to Willow and Buffy. “I didn’t mean it…God, I didn’t mean it…” She started to touch their arms but felt as if she didn’t have the right, so she just hung her head and cried.

Buffy and Willow pulled her close and held her as she sobbed against them. “It’s not your fault,” they told her repeatedly. “It’s not your fault.”

When her tears had subsided enough, Tara lifted her head and looked at her girlfriends, her eyes pleading for forgiveness. “I’m sorry,” she said in a choked voice. “I’m all broken inside, and I don’t know how to fix me.”

Buffy and Willow reached out to caress Tara’s hair and to gently wipe the tears from her cheeks.

“So are we,” Willow told her, “but we’re gonna get through this.”

“We love you,” Buffy affirmed.

“I love you, too,” Tara replied before pulling Willow and Buffy into another desperate hug.

After this intense moment, Tara allowed Buffy and Willow to lead her downstairs. Although the Three didn’t go for ice cream, they did sit on the front porch for a time. They didn’t say much, but that was okay. They didn’t need to; togetherness was enough. At least for now.

***

That evening, two of the Three—Buffy and Willow—were sharing a table with Xander and Anya at the nearby World of Waffles. All four were deep into plates piled high with various types of waffles, all smothered in different syrups and toppings.

Buffy finished off a mouthful of maple-syrup waffle and then waved her sticky fork in the air. “Okay,” she said, “I was skeptical at first, but I have to admit...waffles for dinner instead of breakfast...totally awesome idea.”

“I completely agree,” Willow added, swooping her fork down for another bite of strawberry-and-whipped-cream-covered waffle. “Excellent choice of venue, my good man,” she quipped to Xander, who sat across from Buffy.

“Thank you, my dear,” Xander answered, putting on his best Thurston Howell III impression. “You simply can’t imagine what it cost me to reserve this table.”

After indulging in a fun giggle, the four friends resumed eating. Suddenly, though, both Buffy and Willow grimaced and reached for their stomachs.

Both Anya and Xander noticed. “What’s wrong?” Xander asked.

“It’s Tara,” Willow answered after the queasiness subsided. “She’s in her counseling session with Althenea.”

“Must be a bad one,” Buffy said sadly to Willow.

Willow nodded and reached for Buffy’s hand. The two took a moment to connect with each other and find equilibrium. Then they turned back to their plates and pushed their half-eaten waffle dishes to the center of the table.

Anya gleefully snatched the abandoned plates and pulled them over to hers.

“Anya!” Xander scolded.

“They surrendered them,” Anya insisted.

Their appetites completely gone now, Willow and Buffy just shrugged in agreement.

Anya gave a happy squeal, then started swiping strawberries from Willow’s plate. After popping a small berry into her mouth, she said, “So when are you guys going to make a decision about Caleb?”

Xander sank a little in his chair at Anya’s question, but Willow answered it.

“We don’t know,” Willow said. “Tara hasn’t mentioned it, and...”

“...we’re giving her the space and time she needs,” Buffy finished.

Willow and Buffy shared an uncomfortable glance.

***

“I hate this!”

Tara paced around the room and then stopped. She whipped around and faced the other person in the room—her counselor, Althenea Dimmons.

“I hate him,” she added with a maniacal kind of look in her eyes. “For what he did to me...” she said as she circled back around to her chair. “...for what he’s still doing to me...”

At that point, Tara’s rage gave way to grief, and she let out a sob before sinking back into her chair and wrapping her arms around herself.

“I can’t stand having this hate inside me...”

Althenea let Tara cry for a time. Then she said gently but firmly, “It’s okay to hate him. Let yourself feel that.”

Tara looked up, anguish in her eyes. “But it hurts...”

“I know,” Althenea said with sympathy. “But the more you let it out, the more you express it, the less hold it will have on you.”

Tara took in a deep breath and let it out, nodding in understanding.

***

Meanwhile, at Giles’s apartment, Vamp Willow paced in front of the bar like a caged tiger.

“What’s taking you so long?” she griped loudly to Faith, who was still primping in the bathroom. “It’s patrol! It’s not a fashion show!”

Faith swept out of the bathroom and struck a pose. “I can’t just be good,” she said as she twirled a stake in each hand. “I have to look good!” She laughed and tucked the two stakes into the pockets of her leather jacket.

When she looked up, she didn’t find Vamp Willow laughing with her. Instead, the redhead was still pacing. Faith moved in her direction.

“What’s up?” she asked, concern on her face.

“I’m on Roller-Coaster Tara by proxy,” Vamp Willow growled.

“Ah,” Faith replied, recognizing the problem.

Vamp Willow abruptly stopped in place. “I don’t understand why she’s being so...so... wimpy!” She let out an exasperated huff and slapped a strand of her hair out of her face. “About Caleb, I mean. She wants to make him pay. I can feel it. There’s a part of her that wants to rip him apart with her bare hands.”

Faith gave her a skeptical glance. “Are you sure you aren’t just picking up Willow’s feelings on that point?”

Vamp Willow shook her head with certainty. “No, this is definitely coming from Tara. Via Willow, yeah, but it’s Tara’s stuff. It’s just…every time she lets herself feel some of that good ole retribution vibe, she caves into guilt. It’s so frustrating!”

“Maybe it’s not just guilt,” Faith offered. “Maybe it’s fear.”

“Fear?” Vamp Willow shot back. “Fear of what? If she wreaks vengeance on that bastard, he’ll be good and dead. Nothing left to fear.”

“There is,” Faith countered. “It’s herself she’s scared of. She’s afraid of what taking a life will do to her. It’s the same thing Buffy’s afraid of, what I’m afraid of.”

“You kill things all the time,” Vamp Willow pointed out.

“Things. Demons. Not people,” Faith clarified. “If I actually killed a human, I-I-I don’t know what might happen.” Faith hung her head. “I guess I’d end up like this world’s Faith. Off the deep end.”

Vamp Willow threw her hands into the air. “Well, when it comes to Caleb, it’s not like you guys have to ‘do the deed’ yourselves, all personal-like. We can find a way around that.”

Faith nodded but then said, “Still...” She stared off, thinking deeply. After a moment she said, “I just wish I could do something to help the other me, ya know? I mean, I can’t make those murders go away, but if I could just talk to her, maybe I could...” She looked away and sighed, “I don’t know.”

Vamp Willow latched her arm around Faith’s and tugged her toward the door. “Well, you can’t. She’s in a coma. Maybe on our next inter-dimensional visit. But right now...I realllllly need to kill something. Preferably several somethings.”

***

The next morning at the Summers home, Joyce and Giles were in the kitchen having breakfast together. They were alone since the girls hadn’t come downstairs yet.

“We should talk to Buffy,” Joyce said. “I know it’s almost moot at this point, but we owe her that.”

“Agreed,” Giles said. “So when are you going to tell her?”

Me?” Joyce replied, giving Giles a nudge. “Did you miss the We’s in there?”

“Oh, um, well, I-I-I just assumed that...”

Joyce nailed him with a raised eyebrow.

Giles cleared his throat and said, “When shall we meet?” Then he flashed her a smile.

She smiled back. “As soon as possible, I think.”

“Morning,” Buffy greeted as she entered the kitchen.

As her daughter headed straight for the coffee pot, Joyce whispered to Giles, “Like now, maybe.” She turned to Buffy. “Hey honey. Are Willow and Tara coming down? I can whip up some eggs and—”

“Don’t bother,” Buffy replied. “Willow’s still in the shower, and Tara’s not up yet. Don’t think any of us feel much like eating this morning.”

“Rough night?” Joyce asked sympathetically.

Buffy took a long sip of her coffee and then nodded. “Tara had a really tough session with Al last night.” Buffy sadly stared into her cup. “She barely spoke to us when she got home. She went straight to the guest room. Stayed there all night. Again.”

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry...” Joyce said, rubbing her daughter’s arm.

“It’s okay,” Buffy said, forcing an optimistic smile as she lifted her gaze. “I-I-It’s what she needs right now, and it’s not forever. We know that.”

Giles and Joyce smiled back at her, but after a brief moment of silence, Joyce glanced at Giles to let him know she was ready to speak with Buffy about what was on their minds.

“Sit down, Buffy,” Joyce said, gesturing at the empty bar stool next to her. “We want to talk to you about something.”

Buffy got a worried look but did as she was told.

“You know that Rupert’s been staying here during Tara’s recovery,” Joyce said.

“Yeah...” Buffy said warily, glancing back and forth between her mother and her watcher.

Giles picked up the topic. “But, um, now that Tara’s doing better—”

“Oh my god! You’re not leaving, are you?” Buffy leaned onto the bar counter in alarm. Giles tried to answer, but Buffy’s words kept tumbling out. “’Cause-’Cause...we still need you! I-I-I know we’re doing better, but we’ve got a long way to go, and-and...well, Mom too. I mean, I probably shouldn’t speak for her, but...I thought things were cool between you guys...” When she saw Joyce and Giles giving her a long-suffering stare, she sheepishly said, “But I should probably let you finish.”

While Joyce smirked, Giles went on. “As I was saying, now that Tara’s doing better, your mother and I felt that we should speak with you about something that has, um, been on our minds of late. Now, we don’t want you to think that we’re attempting to circumvent the avenues of propriety, but—”

“Oh for goodness’ sake, spit it out,” Joyce said teasingly to Giles before turning to Buffy. “I’ve asked Rupert to move in permanently.”

“A-A-Assuming you don’t have any objections,” Giles quickly added.

Buffy looked at the two adults like they were crazy. “Are you kidding me? Of course, I don’t have any objections!” She jumped from her stool and ran to pull both of them into a fierce hug.

“What’s with the hug fest?” Willow asked as she came into the kitchen.

Buffy turned to the redhead and excitedly motioned her over. “Guess what? Giles is moving in!”

Willow looked confused. “I thought he was already in.”

“He was, he is, but now he’ll be permanently in,” Buffy crowed proudly.

Willow’s face lit up, and she joined the group embrace. “Oh! Yay!” She gleefully rocked the others back and forth, causing them to chuckle. Then she separated herself and touched Buffy’s arm. “I hate to break up the happy huddle, but we better get going. We don’t wanna be late for our appointment with Althenea.”

Buffy nodded solemnly. Then she and Willow made their good-byes and headed out.

***

A short time later, Buffy and Willow were beginning their session with Althenea.

“So...how are things going with Tara?” Althenea asked.

Willow and Buffy exchanged a glance and then shrugged.

“Okay, I guess,” Willow answered.

Althenea gave them a small smile. “And how are you two feeling?”

“We’re fine,” Buffy answered automatically, putting on a brave face.

Willow began to snicker. She leaned over to Buffy and said, “You said ‘fine’.” She gave Buffy a mock frown of chastisement. “Don’t forget what she told us about the word ‘fine’.”

“Yeah, yeah...I know...” Buffy replied good-naturedly. “‘Fine’ means Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotionally unstable.” She paused to think. “Actually, that’s probably a pretty good description right now,” she said, slumping sadly. Willow’s lightness faded as well.

“Things have been...intense, I presume?” Althenea guessed.

Buffy nodded.

Then Willow said, “Tara’s been pretty lash-y lately.”

“I mean, we understand,” Buffy interjected. “We know she doesn’t mean it, but...”

“It’s hard,” Willow said. “We feel like we’re walking in a mine field, all the time. We never know when we’re gonna make a wrong step and set one off. She always apologizes after, but...”

“It still hurts,” Buffy added. “A lot.”

A few tears trickled down their cheeks. They both glanced down at their laps before wiping the tears away. Althenea waited until they looked up and met her gaze.

“I know that it’s difficult,” she told them, “but you need to remain vigilant. You are doing exactly what you should be. I promise you, the lashing out will lessen, but it will take time. She’s filled with emotions that are much larger than herself. They will spill out. And, more importantly, they need to.

***

That evening, while Joyce and Giles were at the opening of a new exhibit at the university gallery, the Three were having dinner together in the dining room. Although Tara was physically present, her mind was obviously elsewhere.

“So what are you and Vamp Willow working on tonight?” Buffy finally asked Willow, changing the topic to one she felt might interest Tara.

“Fireballs, I think,” Willow replied excitedly. “At least I hope it’s fireballs. I really want to learn how to dust vamps like she does.”

Buffy chuckled and turned to Tara. “I think Will’s trying to take over my slayer job, don’t you? Tara?”

At the sound of her name Tara jumped to attention. “Um, yeah, sure,” she answered automatically, flashing a small smile.

Willow and Buffy smiled back, not knowing what else to do.

A short time later, Willow was on the porch, making her good-byes to Buffy just outside the open front door.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Willow whispered, tilting her head toward the living room, where Tara sat on the couch, staring at the TV but not really watching it. “I can stay if...”

“No, you go. These sessions are important. I can handle things here.”

Willow nodded and then gave Buffy a warm and thorough kiss. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Be careful,” Buffy warned.

“I will,” Willow promised.

After another quick kiss, Willow turned and hurried toward Joyce’s SUV in the driveway. Buffy took a deep breath, stepped back inside, and shut the door.

***

Once she had locked the front door and switched on the porch light, Buffy turned back to the living room. Sadness filled her eyes as she took in the sight of Tara sitting alone at the far end of the couch, so quiet and so withdrawn. Although the bruises on Tara’s face had faded, it was clear that the emotional wounds within her were still very much present.

Letting out a sigh, Buffy returned to her seat on the near end of the couch. She tried to focus on the television, but she couldn’t—not while the sense of separation between herself and Tara was so keenly evident. Physically, they were only a few feet apart, but emotionally, it felt like light years.

At least she came downstairs, Buffy reminded herself. Be thankful for that.

Hanging onto that thought, Buffy turned and looked at Tara. When Tara didn’t reciprocate, Buffy began slowly reaching out to her with the special connection that the Three shared. Just as she was about to make contact, however, Buffy abruptly pulled back and turned away.

Tara had been so unpredictable lately—sometimes gratefully receiving the mental touch, at other times sharply rejecting it. Buffy didn’t want to give Tara a reason to bolt after she had made such an effort at participating that evening.

Most importantly, though, Buffy couldn’t face the possibility of another rejection. Her logical mind understood the reasons for Tara’s reactions, but her heart could only hurt; it could only feel the anguish of their apartness.

Buffy felt hot tears begin streaming down her face. She squeezed her eyes shut and ordered herself to stop.

You can’t do this now! she thought urgently. Not in front of Tara!

But Buffy couldn’t stop. The tears kept coming, and she was forced to put her hand over her mouth to keep from sobbing aloud.

“Buffy?”

Buffy jumped when she heard Tara softly speak her name. She couldn’t bring herself to look in Tara’s direction. She just started wiping at the tears on her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted while getting to her feet. “I shouldn’t be—  I’m sorry...”

Buffy ducked her head and started for the bathroom, but she found her path blocked by Tara, who had risen from the couch and intercepted her. Buffy kept her eyes locked firmly on the floor. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words would come. And still the tears fell. She didn’t look up until she felt Tara take her shaking hands in hers.

“I’m sorry,” Buffy whispered, finally raising her head to meet Tara’s gaze. “I try to be strong, but...”

“I know,” Tara whispered back, her own eyes full of tears.

“I miss you, Tara,” Buffy said as she let the sobs finally come. “God, I miss you so much...”

Tara pulled Buffy into her arms and held her. “I miss you, too,” Tara cried. “Both of you. I love you.”

***

Meanwhile, across town, Willow hurriedly pulled Joyce’s SUV over to the side of the road and put it in park. Then she fell crying against the steering wheel, her body heaving with sobs just as Buffy’s and Tara’s were.

Thank you, thank you, she thought, taking a moment to send a prayer of gratitude to whatever deity was responsible for this small but much-needed gift.

When she had calmed down—and had felt Buffy and Tara do the same—Willow put the SUV back into drive and soon made her way to Elmwood Cemetery, where she was scheduled to meet Faith and Vamp Willow. After exiting the vehicle, she swung her bag over her shoulder and headed into the graveyard, keeping her eyes open and her hand on a stake.

When she arrived, she called out a “hey” of greeting and put her bag on the ground. In reply, Vamp Willow shot a glare in her direction and then went back to studying a meticulously prepared set of multi-colored note-cards. Willow turned to Faith, who gave her an apologetic glance before leading her several yards away from her vampire counterpart.

“What was that for?” Willow asked in a low voice.

“You made her cry again,” Faith explained.

“Oh,” Willow replied. Then she brightened into a relieved expression. “This was a good cry, though. Trust me.”

“Try telling that to Miss ‘Bad-Ass Vamps Don’t Cry’.” After sharing a smirk with Willow, Faith sobered and said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something that’s kinda related. Is there any way that you and Red can communicate with each other once we go back to our dimension?”

“I’m not sure. Why?”

“Well, we can’t just zip over here every time she gets a psychic stomach ache. We won’t know what’s important and what’s not. Not that we wouldn’t love to visit, but...we do have our own world to protect.”

Willow nodded solemnly and then thought for a moment. “Do you have a copy of the ritual that got you here?”

“I don’t, but Red does. Plus that crystal thing we gotta use to get back. They’re probably over at Giles’s place.”

“If she can get those things to me, I’ll take a look and do some research.”

“Great!” Faith said. “Talk to her about it tonight, okay?”

“Will do,” Willow assured her.

Faith fidgeted in place as if she had more to say. Willow noticed but merely waited expectantly. Eventually, Faith spoke up again.

“Look, I know you and Buffy have your hands full with taking care of Tara and everything, and will for a while, but...” She trailed off, causing Willow to prompt her.

“Faith, what is it?” the redhead asked with concern.

After a long pause, Faith answered. “It’s...it’s the other me...your dimension’s Faith. I know she killed people and hurt people, especially you guys, and I know that she’s seriously fucked up, but...” She stopped and sighed heavily before going on. “If her past is anything like mine, then...she needs help. I mean, she was barely outta juvie when all that went down. I was lucky. I had my watchers. If they hadn’t stepped in at the right time, I might’ve ended up just like her.” Faith’s tone grew urgent. “And if someone doesn’t reach out to her, then this Faith is gonna wake up one day to a world that still doesn’t give a shit about her, and—”

Faith stopped and looked at Willow intently, her eyes glistening as tears threatened to come. But she quickly glanced away, swallowing hard before throwing her hands up in helpless confusion.

“I don’t know what I’m trying to say,” Faith continued. “I don’t know what I expect you to do. She probably won’t even wake up. And even if she does, I can’t expect you and the others to just—I mean, you don’t owe her anything, but...” Faith shook her head. “Never mind. Just forget I said anything. I’ll go check out the cemetery while you guys are working.”

At that, Faith turned away and walked off. Willow called after her, but Faith didn’t reply. Willow watched her leave, a worried expression on her face.

***

After a fairly successful session of fireballing, Willow and her vampire counterpart were reviewing the details of the spell. With Faith still away on patrol, Willow took advantage of the opportunity to ask about the troubled slayer.

“Has Faith told you much about her past?” Willow asked.

“No, not really,” Vamp Willow replied. “I gather it wasn’t pleasant, though, from the few comments she’s made. Why?”

Willow shrugged. “She just seems really concerned about our Faith.”

“Yeah. Kinda hard seein’ the you that might have been, ya know? Only the not-so-good you.”

Willow laughed. “Oh, I can totally relate to that.”

Vamp Willow gave her a mock-glare. “News flash...I’m good now. Thanks to you.” She tilted her head in thought. “Well, sort of. Most of the time.”

“But you weren’t when you popped into our Sunnydale the first time,” Willow pointed out playfully. “You were so evil and skanky, and I thought you were kinda—”

“Skanky?” Vamp Willow said, incensed. “Skanky??!

“Oh, uhhh, well, you had the, um, the leather a-a-and the makeup and the...” She glanced at her breasts and made a gesture as if pushing her breasts up. “...you know.” When the vampire glared at her for real and stalked toward her, Willow squeaked, “Uh-oh...”

***

Over the next several weeks, the Three stayed the course, continuing their sessions with Althenea, experiencing both the highs and lows of recovery. Slowly but surely, they began to see real progress. Tara spent less and less time in the guest room and seemed at last to be becoming more like her old self, although she still had occasional instances of lashing out. At the moment, she was discussing her latest lash-out with Althenea.

“I don’t understand why I keep doing that,” Tara said. “I know it hurts them, but I keep doing it anyway.”

“When you’re lashing out at them, you’re actually lashing out at Caleb,” Althenea said. “You need closure with him.”

“I know,” Tara said, hanging her head. “But…I-I-I’m not ready yet.” She looked up and changed the subject slightly. “Of course, sometimes they really do hover too much. I’m trying really hard not to run away to the guest room all the time, but I don’t know what else to do.”

“Talk to them,” Althenea urged. “Be honest with them. Speaking up won’t hurt their feelings any more than running away will. In fact, it may hurt them less. Just say it with a smile, ‘Honey, I love you, but you’re hovering’.”

Tara laughed a little and then nodded. “Okay, I’ll try.”

“Now…back to Caleb,” Althenea said. “I know you feel that you’re not ready, but I have an idea I’d like you to consider.”

***

That same evening, Tara shared Althenea’s idea with Willow and Buffy. She didn’t get an enthusiastic response.

What??! Willow blurted, hoping she had heard incorrectly.

“I want to spend the night in my old dorm room,” Tara repeated. “Alone.”

Tara, that’s just crazy,” Buffy said. “Why would you want to put yourself through that?”

“Althenea said there’s this cleansing ritual I can do there, and—”

“This was Al’s idea?” Willow asked incredulously.

“Yes, but—”

“No,” Buffy insisted. “It’s a bad idea. Going back to where you were first attacked, dredging all that up again when you’ve come so far, it’s just…wrong.”

“Buffy’s right,” Willow said. “I can’t believe Al is even suggesting it.”

“She thinks it’s time for me to face some things—outside my comfort zone.”

“Can’t you be outside your comfort zone somewhere else?” Buffy objected. “Why does it have to be there?”

“Because it’s where all of this started,” Tara explained. “And because it’s a place that used to be mine, a place where I used to feel safe. I need to reclaim that place.”

“But why?” Willow pressed. “You’re not going to live there anymore.”

Tara sighed slowly and patiently. “It’s not the actual physical space that matters. It’s what that space stands for.” She put her hand over her heart, and finally she saw the light of understanding show up in her girlfriends’ eyes.

“But…by yourself?” Willow asked. “Can’t we—?”

Tara reached out and pulled Buffy and Willow to her. “I know you want to help. You’ve helped me sooo much—more than I can ever explain or thank you for. But this…this I need to do alone.”

Buffy and Willow looked at one another and then back at Tara. They opened their mouths as if to speak, but no words came out. Tara didn’t give them to chance to come up with any other objections.

“And when it’s done,” she promised them, “I want to talk about Caleb.”

Not knowing what else to say, Willow and Buffy reluctantly agreed to Tara’s plan.

***

The next morning, Buffy and Willow let Althenea know exactly how they felt about Tara’s plan—and Althenea’s role in planting it in Tara’s mind.

As the two girls paced, pointed, and accused, Althenea calmly listened, her hands steepled over her lap. When they reached the end of their rant and slammed the ball back into her court, Althenea just abruptly changed the subject.

“Have you been intimate since Tara was attacked?”

“W-W-Wha…what?” Buffy asked, confused.

“Of course not!” Willow replied angrily. “Not after what she’s been through!”

Althenea raised her hand to stop the girls’ objections. “I don’t mean with Tara,” she clarified. “I mean you two alone.”

“No!” Buffy insisted in an appalled tone. “Not without Tara. It wouldn’t be right.”

“It’s going to take a while for Tara to be ready,” Althenea explained. “You mustn’t neglect your own needs during that time.”

Willow and Buffy exchanged awkward glances before plopping back into their seats.

“But…she can sense what we’re doing,” Buffy said, a bit embarrassed.

“Yeah, we don’t want to rub her nose in it,” Willow added. “ ‘Woo-hoo! Look at us, we’re having sex without you, and look at how much fun we’re having!’ That’s only gonna make her feel worse.”

“Don’t you think she can also sense the sexual need in you, the frustration you’re feeling?” Althenea said gently. “She knows that you’re denying yourselves because of her.”

Buffy frowned. “Did she tell you that?”

Althenea shook her head. “No. She doesn’t have to. I can sense it in you, and I’m not even bonded with you.”

Buffy rolled her eyes and snorted. “That obvious, huh?”

“To some, yes.”

“Is that why she won’t sleep with us sometimes, why she goes to the guest room?” Willow inquired worriedly. “’Cause we’re giving off all this needy negative sexual energy?”

“It could be part of the reason,” Althenea said. “Much of it has to do with Tara feeling safe.”

“A-A-Are you saying she doesn’t feel safe with us? Like we’re going to do something to her?” Buffy interjected. “’Cause we’re not, I swear!”

“She knows that,” Althenea assured them. “But right now, her physical and emotional selves still haven’t quite convinced themselves that the danger has passed. As a result, even the most well-intentioned touch can be interpreted as an attack, a potential violation. Her logical self, of course, knows otherwise, but logic alone isn’t enough to override her gut reactions to these situations. It’s extremely frustrating and frightening for her...to feel so out of control. Her way of coping has been to withdraw.”

“Then why are you encouraging her to pull away even more by doing this ritual?” Buffy demanded.

“Your support of Tara, your love for her, and your bond with her have been immensely important in her recovery, but some steps she simply must take alone,” Althenea explained. “It’s time for Tara to take back her life.”

Buffy and Willow shared an uneasy glance.

***

Over the next week, Tara spent a lot of time on the phone with Althenea, who wouldn’t be back until the night Tara would be staying in her old dorm room. As they finalized the details of Tara’s ritual, Althenea continued to encourage her so that she wouldn’t back out.

Despite their misgivings, Buffy and Willow also showed their support of Tara’s decision. At the same time, however, they were struggling with the issue that Althenea had raised in their last session—namely, their own sexual frustrations. The night before the ritual, while Tara was on the phone with Althenea, Buffy pulled Willow aside to discuss the matter once again.

“We should just do it,” Buffy suggested. “You know, be all Nike-like, and just do it.”

“Without talking to Tara first?” Willow questioned.

“Now’s the perfect time. Tara’s all distracted by this ritual stuff, and we can do it really quick. She’ll hardly know it happened. It’ll be like…ripping off a Band-aid.”

“Gee, honey, when you describe it like that, I can hardly contain myself,” Willow said sarcastically. “Take me now!”

“Take you where?” Tara asked, startling the other two by her sudden arrival.

“Uhhh…” Buffy stalled while flashing a panicked look at Willow. “To the…ummm…”

“…video store!” Willow interjected lamely.

“Yes, the video store!” Buffy joined in. “We have to hurry before they close in…” She glanced at the clock on the wall and winced. “…four hours.”

Willow laughed nervously but kept up the lie. “Gotta beat the crowd! I mean, otherwise the only thing that’ll be left is The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and we sure don’t wanna go there, do we?”

After a brief but entirely too loud span of laughter, Buffy and Willow abruptly went silent and stared wide-eyed at Tara, hoping that she would believe their hastily improvised fib.

Tara wasn’t buying any of it, though, and raised a skeptical eyebrow in response. She let them squirm for a full minute before letting her lips curl into an amused smirk.

“You guys really suck at lying, you know that, right?” she teased.

Even though they were busted, Willow and Buffy immediately relaxed, grateful that Tara wasn’t angry at them. Tara reached out and took her girlfriends’ hands in hers.

“If you were talking about what I think you were talking about,” she told them, “it’s okay. I don’t mind. Don’t hold back on my account.”

“A-A-Are you sure?” Buffy asked worriedly.

“We don’t want to do anything that might hurt you,” Willow added.

“If there’s even a chance that it would make you—”

Buffy’s objection was cut off by an earnest kiss from Tara. She planted a similar kiss on Willow. Then she looked at them fondly.

“I love you both so much, and I want you to be happy, not frustrated. So please…do what you need to do. It’s okay to go ahead without me. I’m sure I’ll be joining you in no time. Besides…” Tara ducked her head for a moment. When she lifted it, she flashed them a very different kind of smile—a smoky, sultry one, full of promise. “…I’ve heard ‘catch up’ sex can be as good as ‘make up’ sex.”

Buffy and Willow grinned widely and somewhat stupidly as their minds simultaneously went to very naughty places. After letting out Xander-worthy gutter-chuckles, they sobered up and gave Tara a warm hug.

“We love you, too,” they told her.

***

Willow and Buffy didn’t take advantage of Tara’s generous offer right away. With the time for Tara’s ritual rapidly approaching, they chose to stay close to her instead. In fact, the next night, when it was time for them to leave Tara alone in her old dorm room, she practically had to shoo them away.

“Look,” she told them, “Al is right down the hall in the lounge, I got a brand new door here courtesy of the college physical plant, I’ll be just fine. And no smart-ass comments about me saying ‘fine’.”

“I wish you didn’t have to cut yourself off from us,” Willow said, frowning.

“I know,” Tara replied, “but I have to.”

“If you need us—” Buffy started.

“—I’ll contact you,” Tara finished for her. “Now go! Faith and Vamp Willow are waiting. They promised me they’d keep you busy till I was done.”

“Okay,” Buffy said with a pout as Tara guided her and Willow out of the room.

“We love you,” Willow said.

“I love you, too,” Tara said sincerely before making herself shut the door.

Willow and Buffy lingered in the hallway until they felt Tara invoke the shielding spell that cut her off from everything outside the room, including them. They had a momentary gut wrench as they remembered the last time their special connection had been severed.

No, this time it wasn’t severed, they reminded themselves. It was merely blocked. Temporarily. For just this one night. It won’t even be for a whole day.

They looked at one another sadly, let out a heavy sigh, and then trudged away to meet Faith and Vamp Willow outside.

***

After shutting the door, Tara instantly moved to the center of the room. She bowed her head in supplication and said aloud, “Sacred be this chosen place, shield it now from every face.”

When she felt the magic barrier surround the room, she let out a long, shaky breath and dropped the brave façade she’d been wearing in front of Buffy and Willow. She hadn’t wanted them to know how scared she was. It would’ve been too easy for them to coax her out of doing the ritual. As terrified as she was, she knew that this time of cleansing was necessary. She prayed that she would be strong enough to see it through to its end.

***

Hours later, at the Bronze, Faith and Vamp Willow were in the corner, re-evaluating their distraction plan.

“Okay, the all-you-can-eat at Buster’s failed miserably,” Vamp Willow analyzed. “I should’ve known they wouldn’t have an appetite.”

Faith glanced over at the worrywarts, Buffy and Willow, who were standing by the bar, looking lost. “Apparently the Bronze ain’t workin’, either,” she noted.

“However,” Vamp Willow went on, “the breaking and entering at the blood bank worked for a good hour at least.” She stopped theorizing and shot a ‘duh’ look in Faith’s direction. “I mean, where did they think I got my blood from anyway? I don’t do pig’s blood unless I absolutely have to, and it’s not like the blood bank just hands out the good stuff to needy vamps.”

“They probably thought you got it from me,” Faith said.

“And I dooo,” Vamp Willow purred as she pushed Faith against the wall. She ran her tongue up the side of Faith’s neck and then whispered into her ear, “But if I drank from my deliciously hot slayer as much as I wanted, I wouldn’t have her anymore, would I?”

“That’s right,” Faith said with a grin. “I’m the top o’ the line…gotta ration me out…make me laaasssst…”

At that, the two came together in a smoldering kiss. They let their hands roam freely along each other’s body for a long moment before finally tearing themselves apart. They were breathing heavily as they looked toward the bar where Buffy and Willow still stood.

“Guess we better get back to the babysitting,” Faith grumbled.

Vamp Willow poked her lip out in a petulant pout. “Sometimes I really hate being good…”

***

A few hours later, Buffy and Willow were battling a nest of vampires in a nearby cemetery. While they dealt with the core of the pack inside a mausoleum, Faith and Vamp Willow were running down the stragglers outside.

After magically fireballing the last vampire inside the crypt, Willow raised her arms in the air and let out a triumphant “woo-hoo!” As she started to let out a second, she found herself cut off by an urgent kiss from Buffy.

After kissing them both breathless, Buffy pulled back and said in a husky voice, “I need you, Will…I need you now.”

“Good,” Willow replied desperately, “’cause I need you, too.”

As they came together in a series of crushing kisses, Buffy back-kicked the door closed and then maneuvered them toward the sarcophagus in the rear of the mausoleum. They stopped kissing long enough to take off their jackets. Then Buffy practically tossed Willow on top of the stone slab before leaping up to join her there.

Willow had barely finished scooting down the stone when she saw Buffy land like a cat at the end of the slab. As she felt Buffy slink predator-like into place over her, Willow thought, Looks like I’m gonna get my first real taste of slayer lust. Thank God! At that, she grabbed a handful of Buffy’s shirt and yanked her down for a searing kiss.

***

Meanwhile, outside the mausoleum, Faith came striding up to the door but stopped short when she heard what was going on inside. It’s about time! she chuckled to herself. Thought those two were gonna pop before they finally did something! Then she turned from the door to jog toward Vamp Willow, who was heading rapidly in her direction.

“Hey, guess wh—mmmm?” Faith’s words were smothered by Vamp Willow’s lips closing over hers.

When the redhead pulled back, she didn’t waste time with seduction or foreplay. Instead, she commanded, “You. Me. Sex. Now.”

Faith laughed and then said, “Yes, ma’am.”

They kissed their way to a wide, waist-high tombstone, shedding jackets and shirts as they went. As Faith slammed Vamp Willow against the side of the headstone and pressed against her, Vamp Willow pulled her even closer.

“I know we didn’t think we’d have the chance tonight, but pleasssse tell me you’re packing,” the redhead begged.

Faith smirked and said, “What can I say? I’m an optimist.” Then she guided her lover’s hand down to feel the slight bulge of the dildo inside her jeans.

Vamp Willow kissed Faith hungrily as she began unbuckling the slayer’s belt and unbuttoning the fly of her jeans. She felt Faith do the same, unzipping her leather pants and shimmying them past her hips. Before Vamp Willow could finish her unbuttoning, though, Faith flipped her around and shoved her face first onto the top of the headstone. Within seconds, Vamp Willow’s pants were crumpled around her ankles and Faith was inside her.

As she heard her vampire let out a lengthy moan that was as much growl as it was groan, Faith grinned wickedly and started a merciless pace of thrusting. It wasn’t long before they both roared and shuddered their way through a massive simultaneous climax.

It was just the first of several, and by the time they were done, both slayer and vampire were completely spent. They were nothing but a trembling tangle of naked limbs.

***

Meanwhile, inside the mausoleum, Buffy and Willow were in a similar state of complete exhaustion. As they lay side by side on the stone, the only movement they were capable of was breathing…and now talking.

“God, I needed that,” Buffy said.

“Me too,” Willow agreed. “Wouldn’t-a picked a dusty ole crypt to do it in, but at this point…I am definitely not knockin’ it.”

The two were quiet for a moment. Then Buffy wondered, “Do you think Tara could feel us?”

“I don’t know,” Willow replied. “I hope not. I mean, not if it was gonna make her feel bad, like left out or something.”

“Let’s go see if she’s done,” Buffy blurted, suddenly no longer exhausted.

“Okay!” Willow chirped, apparently as equally energized by the thought of seeing Tara.

The two scrambled to redress themselves and then hurried outside.

***

As Buffy and Willow exited the mausoleum, they scanned the area for their patrol partners, Faith and Vamp Willow, but didn’t see them anywhere.

“You don’t think something happened, do you?” Willow asked worriedly.

Buffy didn’t answer. Instead, she yelled out, “Faith? Hey Faith!”

Willow called out for her vampire doppelganger. “Willow?”

After a few seconds, they heard Faith reply, “Over here.”

Willow and Buffy headed in that direction, weaving among the tombstones until they got to a secluded one.

“Hey,” Buffy said as they approached, “what’s going—oh good golly!”

Buffy and Willow immediately averted their eyes when they saw the other two women half naked in front of them, still in the process of redressing.

“Guess we’re not the only ones gettin’ down and dirty…” Willow murmured under her breath.

“We’re, um, we’re gonna go check on Tara,” Buffy told the others while still not looking up. “Catch ya later?”

“Yeah, sure,” Faith said, giving the two a distracted wave of her hand as she glanced around the area. “Where’s my bra?” she asked aloud to no one in particular.

“Leaving now,” Willow said as she and Buffy quickly scurried away.

 

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART SIXTEEN…
 
 


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