Return to All Our Masks Chapter Twenty-One

All Our Masks

Author: Jacks aka WiccanHandprintz
Rating: PG-13, might change later
Disclaimer: Neither Willow, nor Tara, nor anybody else recognizable from the Buffyverse belong to me. The story itself has a good helping of angst in the beginning and will have some action of both the dangerous weaponry and the gay lovin' kinds.
Feedback: YES, please!

"Willow," Tara said after a pause, what should have been a plea but was instead just a word, and Willow could see the way her eyes tightened around the tears, trying to keep them in. The way her mouth twitched down and then firmed, the way her lashes slashed across the blue irises and blinked away the salt. Tara was hardening, right in front of her, the resolve taking her over until all that was left of broken girl was the way Willow's name hung in the air between them, waiting to be allowed inside.

Raimey wasn't watching Tara. Raimey was watching Willow, his eyes greedy on her face, collecting each flinch, each flare of shock that radiated out from somewhere in her chest.

"It's so hard to find good help these days," Raimey said then, shaking his head. "You just never know with background checks."

And that was when Tara twisted, arms still wrenched behind her back, and lunged towards the side of Raimey's head. In the split-second before Raimey let out a startled cry of pain, Willow saw Tara's teeth close on his ear, and then blond hair fell across Raimey's cheek and all she could see was the knife, now that Raimey was over the initial shock, moving towards Tara's back.

It wasn't a sound, really, so much as a movement of air. The room stilled, and Willow felt a cushion of hard wind shove her arm back into her shoulder, a jolt that hurt more than she'd expected. The gun, which she could not remember grabbing, trembled wildly before she realized that it was her own hand that was trembling, and then clattered with a muted thud to the carpeted floor.

Raimey didn't fly backwards like in movies. He didn't scream, either. He just... slumped.

Willow saw it all in freeze frame, Polaroids in her head: Raimey letting out a whoosh of air, his back bowing out, his chin dropping towards his knees; Raimey slumping backwards and sideways across the bed, pulling Tara down against the mattress with his bulk; Tara straightening away from the man with blood smeared across her jaw; a red stain blossoming and spreading across Cole Raimey's chest.

Tara stood slowly, uneven, awkward, trying to wipe her face against her shoulder, trying not to stare at Willow or at Raimey. She got one step away from the bed, and then fell to her knees.

Willow almost tripped over the gun, rushing to the other woman. She knelt, reaching for Tara's shoulders, and gasped as Tara crumpled completely. Willow caught Tara's head against her lap, one hand against the blond's face to keep it turned up, the other hovering over her torso, searching for the wound. It wasn't until she felt the hot seep of blood against her knee that she knew.

"Oh, goddess," Willow murmured, a slow horror flooding her. She didn't dare turn Tara to see, but when she moved one hand beneath Tara's shoulder and felt the wet slice there, she didn't have to. She hadn't been quick enough after all. She hadn't beaten the knife.

"Willow?" Tara asked, and Willow's eyes snapped back to the blond's face. Tara was looking up at her dazedly, her lips parted, face very white. "Is he dead?" she asked, and though her voice was quiet the words were very sure.

"I- yes," Willow said, glancing over her shoulder at the bed. "It's going to be okay, Tara," she added, the hand that wasn't keeping pressure on the stab wound in Tara's back going to her cheek. "My friends are going to come, and we'll get you to a hospital, and you'll be fine."

"Hurts," Tara muttered, almost absently, and Willow felt a scream rising in her. She bit it back, swallowed it down into her belly, and closed her eyes hard before meeting Tara's gaze again.

"I know, baby, but just hang on and we'll get you help. You're going to be just fine." One corner of Tara's mouth crooked up in that sly, half-wicked way that Willow adored despite herself.

"'Baby'?" Tara asked, her eyelids fluttering. Willow, without stopping to think, leaned down and pressed her mouth against the other woman's. When she drew back, Tara's eyes were closed, her features lax. Her head lolled down Willow's thigh, away from her stomach.

"No," Willow said, shaking her head, a light, hysterical laugh breaking through her lips. "No, that's not right." She tilted Tara's face back upright, thumb pressing against the bloody chin. "Tara. Tara, come on, come on," she pleaded, slapping the blond's face with one gloved hand. "He's dead," she explained, rocking towards Tara on the ground. "I killed him; it's over. You're safe. I saved you."

Willow looked up, looked up towards the door. Nothing.

"Buffy!" she shouted, raggedly. "Buffy! Help! Someone!" Back down at Tara. "I need you," Willow said to the woman on the floor, barely noticing that she was shaking. "Tara, I love you!"


"From ashes to ashes," the priest said, hands folded in front of him, "dust to dust." Xander, glancing to his side and seeing the way Willow was trembling in the light fall breeze, reached out and put a careful arm around her narrow shoulders. She stepped towards him gratefully, pale face turned down. He thought about the last time his friend had willingly accepted so much close physical contact, and then looked up at the bright, beautiful sky. Thank you, he thought, hoping she could hear him, somehow. Thank you, Tara.

From Willow's other side, Buffy reached out and took the redhead's hand. As the priest finished and the grave was filled in, Buffy leaned closer to Willow.

"I know this is hard," she murmured, eyes on the headstone. "But you're being really, really strong, Will."

"I have to be," Willow replied, lowly, before stepping away from both her friends. The three of them and the priest were the only mourners at the funeral, and theirs was the sole service taking place in the cemetery. As she approached the grave, Willow reflected that most other people would be outside, too, but in far nicer places than this. It was a gorgeous day, brisk and cool and very clear, the sun light and brilliant against her skin.

Standing in front of the headstone, Willow reached out and laid one bare hand against the top. She felt the chill of the rock trickle up through her fingertips, past her wrist, across the skin of her forearm until it met the short sleeves of her sweater. Willow smoothed her thumb across the stone, watching the way the granite brought out the white lacework of her scars, and feeling a weight against her chest give way. She didn't cry. She didn't need to cry. Not anymore.

"It's okay now," Willow whispered to herself, to the grave, to the lovely blue sky. And, her hand lingering as she did it, Willow turned and walked away.

Xander and Buffy fell into step beside her as they made their way to the car, but none of them spoke during the drive back to Willow's now-police-free home. Once they stepped out of the car and headed for the front door, though, Xander shook his head.

"Still think it should have been... what do you call a Wiccan funeral? Not Christian, anyway." Willow shrugged, reaching for the doorknob.

"Her family is Christian. That's what they'd expect."

"Like we care what they want," Buffy muttered, and then held up both hands at Willow's sharp look. "I know."

"Just being careful," Willow said, and pulled open the door. Inside, it was almost as silent as the graveyard had been. No birds indoors, though. Still, Willow thought with an inner sigh, at least she could see the floor these days. Leaving Xander and Buffy rummaging in her kitchen, Willow tiptoed into the living room. It didn't feel right to walk properly here, now, in this quiet.

Reaching the couch, Willow closed her eyes and waited for her breath to even out. Without her friends in the room, her heartbeat seemed to have a pounding life of its own. Finally, Willow gave up on trying to keep herself under control, and just leaned over the sofa.

"We're back," she said, and that was all the warning Tara got before Willow kissed her awake with enough enthusiasm to make the blond nearly fall off the side of the couch. Tara grabbed Willow around the neck and pulled her down over the back of the sofa, and Willow made sure to avoid putting any pressure on Tara's still-healing wound as she kneeled over the other woman and smiled.

"All w-went well?" Tara asked, blue eyes shining.

"Aye-aye, Captain," Willow asserted, kissing the corner of Tara's mouth. "Everyone who knows you..." Another kiss, this time on the other corner, "...thinks you're dead." The nose. "Raimey did his job..." The left cheek. "...before the cops finally got him." The right. "And we," Willow finished, her scarred hands tenderly brushing a strand of golden hair away from Tara's forehead, "are going to be just fine."

"Or so you think," Tara said, a tinge of wickedness in her voice, and tugged Willow down to show her just exactly what she meant.


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