Neutral Ground

Author: Chris Cook
Rating: PG
Summary: Two adversaries-turned-lovers meet on neutral ground in the war between heaven and hell.
Copyright: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and his talented minionators, and Spawn by Todd McFarlane. All original material is copyright 2005 Chris Cook.
Notes: This short story was written for a challenge on the Kitten Board, requiring each submission to contain a date, Buffy saying something Anya-esque, Tara laughing at her own joke then realising it's not funny, and Willow quoting poetry.
Poem: Willow and Tara quote 'Still I Rise' by Maya Angelou.

Setting Note: This story is based on a modified version of the Spawn world. Depending on how much mystery you like in a story, you may prefer to simply start reading, in which case skip the following; if you'd like more background, read on here:

The forces of heaven and hell wage a constant war over the souls of humanity. Neither side is superior - morally, heaven represents dictatorial conformism, while hell fights for anarchic, chaotic freedom. All human souls go to heaven or hell upon death - however, in spite of what the agents of each side would have us believe, there is no judgement involved, merely an alternation that sends one soul to heaven, then one to hell, and so on, for all eternity - thus the balance between the two sides is maintained.

A handful of souls join the Few of their side, when heaven or hell deems them useful to their war. The Few of heaven are the angels, and foremost the Archangels, who represent heaven's warrior elite. The Few of hell exist in chaotic variety, but their champions are the Hellspawn. The vast majority of souls, deemed unsuitable to fight in the endless war, join the Many, and pass beyond the knowing of mortal beings.

Newly-recruited Few on both sides are indoctrinated into the ideals of their masters, and taught that the opposing side in the war represents evil, and the souls which join them do so because of this. Only the shadowy forces commanding the great war know the truth, that a soul's nature has no bearing on which side it is claimed by. If these powers fear anything, it is that the legions under their command might one day learn that the enemy they have been taught to hate and loathe are, in fact, no different than they themselves. Any who seem to suspect this, or question the justness of their cause, are hunted down and exterminated.

There was cold sunlight on a high hillside, glittering in the night's dew left on slivers of grass and the leaves of rambling weeds, and the few hardy vines that curled around the bases of the stark standing stones. The lowlands below seemed very far away, and above the clouds were high and remote, still in the chilly air. A stray leaf, caught in the stiff breeze, whipped across the circle of stones, it and the rippling of the grass the only living movement in the place.

Not long after dawn, Tara walked between the stones, trailing her hand on one as she passed. She looked here and there aimlessly, directing a sad, time-worn gaze at the horizon, but when she turned her attention to the lonely patch of grass encompassed by the stones she managed an honest smile. She leant down and picked a tiny wild flower, and tucked it along with her hair behind her ear, her fingertips lingering on the white petals for a moment as she sat down to wait, carefully arranging her white skirt around her. The quick wind settled, leaving the morning still and quiet.

It wasn't long before she heard sounds of movement from down the slope, and Willow appeared, clambering up from where the ground dropped sharply towards the valleys. The knees of her black jeans were slightly scuffed, and bits of grass clung to the hem of her red hooded duffel coat, testament to a vigorous trek. Her face, set in a scowl of fierce concentration, lit up at the sight of Tara waiting for her, and she paused only to haul up a basket from behind her, before quickly crossing the threshold of the stone circle and kneeling down in front of Tara.

"Hey Angel," she murmured, reaching for Tara's chin, tilting her face up with a single finger and kissing her softly on the lips. Tara closed her eyes in the kiss, leant forward as Willow settled down on her haunches, and gave a contented sigh as their lips finally parted.

"Hey yourself, Red Riding Hood," she chuckled, which brought a laugh from Willow. "What've you got there?" she added, nodding to the basket.

"Food for my dear old grandma," Willow smiled back.

"Oh, can I have some?" Tara asked, adding off-hand: "I'm old enough to be your grandma, several times over." She laughed, but noticed the odd look on Willow's face, and her laughter stilled. "Sorry," she added softly.

"No," Willow shook her head, "it's okay... I'm starting to get the hang of... all this," she finished, waving a hand vaguely. A tiny barbed claw on the end of a chain snaked out of her sleeve and copied her motion, making Tara smile fondly.

"Good," she said. Willow took off her coat and shook it out, the buttons and sleeves vanishing somewhere in the process so that what she eventually laid out on the grass was a flat cloth.

"In a way," Tara went on, as she and Willow sat on the makeshift picnic blanket, "maybe it would have been better if we hadn't met so soon." She shook her head at Willow's startled look. "I mean, if you'd had more time to get used to what you are, now... Before I came along and turned your whole life on its head, again." She glanced off into the distance, and sighed.

"I can't wish I hadn't met you though," she said distantly, but with a smile. "Not even if it was only a little longer to wait." Willow nodded.

"Me neither," she agreed. She looked carefully, speculatively at Tara. "Besides... I know it bothers you. What you were, for so long." She held her gaze as Tara looked over at her sharply, then dropped her gaze and nodded.

"That's true," she said quietly. "Five hundred years is a lot of sins to bear."

"You couldn't have known," Willow said quickly. "Just like I didn't, until I saw you. I'd only been a hellspawn a little while, but I believed it all - when they told me about you I was ready to blast you out of the sky, just like that. Just another callous, hypocritical dictator angel." She held Tara's hand, looking glum.

"I'm glad you missed," Tara said, with a sly grin at the corner of her lips.

"So am I," Willow said earnestly, before she caught sight of Tara's smile and returned it.

"I grew up in countryside like this," Tara said after a moment, keeping hold of Willow's hand as she helped unpack the picnic basket. "Not far from here... there used to be villages, farms... There was a market every third Saturday, people would come from miles around."

"I wish I'd known you then," Willow said as Tara lapsed into silence. Tara shook her head and gave a grin.

"You weren't born until centuries later," she smiled. "And you'd have had trouble even understanding the language. And they didn't have mochas back in the days of the Clan Maclay," she added with a chuckle, as Willow comically shrunk back in horror. Tara leaned over and gave her a quick, sweet kiss, and they resumed setting up their picnic in companionable silence for a while.

"Did you..." Willow began to ask, then shook her head.

"What?" Tara asked.

"No, it's... We should just be enjoying ourselves. We get so little time when one or other of our sides aren't trying to get rid of us."

"All the more reason we should be completely free with each other in the time we have," Tara said gently. "One day - I don't know how, but I promise, one day - we'll be able to be together, always. No more running from death squads sent by heaven and hell, just us. Just us, together." Willow's eyes misted up as Tara spoke, a wistful grin touching her lips.

"Until then," Tara said, "I want to share as much of myself as I can with you. And I'll accept anything you want to share with me. I promise, anything."

"Tara," Willow said, "Tara, sweetness... you can have all of me. Everything I've got and everything I am, for what it's worth."

"It's worth my heart," Tara replied. "What were you going to ask?" Willow nodded and bit her lip in nervousness, but the smile never quite left her face.

"Did you ever go back?" she asked. "After, I mean... Once you'd-" She broke off and looked around hesitantly.

"After I died?" Tara asked softly. Willow nodded.

"Gabriel suggested I shouldn't," Tara said. "One of the first things he told me was that it would be easier if I put my former life behind me, and devoted myself to what I was, now. But things then were... well, not so different to now. Lots of tasks, and few of us to do them. It wasn't long before I was on my own for long enough, and... the first few times I hesitated. But eventually I did go back." Her eyes grew distant, her face solemn as she remembered, and a lone tear trickled down her cheek.

"It broke my heart at first," she admitted. "My father was coping as best he could - he got on with the day-to-day work, and made ends meet, but I could see sadness in him. I don't think he knew how to express it, though. My mother was just... distant. She always called me her 'little soul', you know, and it was... as if when I'd died, she'd been left without her little soul. I saw her and I wanted so badly to hug her, to tell her that I was alright, that... I don't know," she said with a faint smile. "What could I have said? I don't know. Anyway, that first time I'd taken form, I was just some inconspicuous traveller passing by. Later on, when I'd learned to take incorporeal form on the mortal plane, I'd go back whenever I could, just to be around her, and my father, and the children eventually, when they were born."

Tara gave a little shrug, then reached out and put an arm around Willow's shoulders, hugging her warmly and returning her loving gaze.

"She always believed angels watched over her," Tara went on. "I made sure at least one did. And I believe she did know, in her heart, although I really can't say why. She knew her little soul was still with her. And you know, perhaps that's why I'm here, with you - while all the others were filling their days between battles by training and forging weapons, I spent my time with my mother, warming her. Even though I could never reveal myself to her, I was there for her."

"As an angel should be," Willow agreed. "What, um... happened, to her?" Tara nodded her understanding.

"She led a full life," she replied. "And when her time came, she joined the Many. I was there, at the end - in case she was chosen to be one of the Few. I wanted to be there, to help her, the way Gabriel had helped me. But she passed without being called, and the last I knew of her was that she was at peace." She wiped away a tear, and looked down at Willow, whose head was resting on her shoulder.

"This life we lead," she said ruefully, with a faint smile.

"Yeah," Willow agreed.

"How have you been?" Tara asked.

"Oh, so-so, nothing major happening. Some novitiate Drachite took a shot at me while I was transitioning-"

"Are you alright?" Tara interrupted, her wide eyes quickly scanning up and down Willow's form.

"I'm fine," Willow assured her. "I promised I'd call on your help if ever I needed it, remember? I will. He was just a Drachite, I knew I could handle him."

"What did you do?" Tara asked quietly.

"Saw him coming a mile off," Willow replied, casually but without any pride in what she was saying. "Got him with a five megasoul necroplasma cannon the moment he substantiated, and gave him the usual 'leave me alone or else' speech before what was left of him de-planed back to hell to reanimate."

"Maybe one day it'll work," Tara said with a sad little shrug.

"Maybe," Willow said, with a brief smile. "It's been quieter though - you remember what the first weeks were like." Tara nodded understandingly.

"Ever since the last time we fought together," Willow went on, "against that Damnatus colonel I called for your help with? There haven't been so many attempts since then. And the ones that show up aren't so strong... if I had to guess, I'd say they were hotshots looking to make a name for themselves by taking down the rebel 'spawn commander. Nothing organised." She remained silent for a moment, then glanced up at Tara.

"What about you?"

"Oh, nothing," Tara replied. "The same, I guess. The revenant Gabriel is massing heaven's elite for yet another campaign in the Stygies, they don't have many left over to go bounty hunting. And there's still Buffy up there looking out for me, she's managed to get me warning of a couple of newborn archangel warriors who've taken it into their heads to come looking for me. I just avoided them until they got recalled, they never got close enough to strike."

Willow nodded and raised a hand, gently stroking Tara's cheek, and the two remained still and together for a moment, gazing out at the landscape.

"Oh," Willow said suddenly, "that book you gave me? I've been reading it."

"Did you like it?" Tara asked, her smile widening.

"I think so," Willow replied. "You know me and poetry... well, I've told you, and believe me, me and poetry get on like, well, heaven and hell - normally," she added with a grin, "rather than any specific cases that might disprove my argument."

"Like a 'spawn commander and an archangel dating?" Tara chuckled.

"Yeah, like that," Willow nodded. "I don't know, I just don't... people who love poetry, they just seem to see something I don't see when I read it myself. I mean, when you read, it's like... I get it, then. But when I try on my own they're just words on a page, and I'm like, okay, interesting words, but it's not the same. There isn't the, the beauty..."

"Try?" Tara asked. Willow grinned at her, then sighed.

"Alright," she said, "but don't say I didn't warn you...

"Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise..."

"I know that one," Tara smiled.

"Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?"

"Yeah, that reminded me of you," Willow laughed softly. "We should dance more. Sometime, when our sides are distracted by something else, and we can go out of neutral ground together without being noticed... just you and me and dancing."

"I'd like that," Tara agreed. She kissed the top of Willow's head and hugged her. "I love listening to your voice, you know."

"Well then, I'll read poetry to you whenever you want," Willow grinned. "No matter how bad I sound at it." They laughed together, then a sound from outside the stone circle got their attention.

"Is it-" Willow began.

"No, I recognise her," Tara said, relaxing. A column of air just beyond the stones became filled with light, which faded to reveal a slim blonde in white and silver robes, with pure white feathered wings folded neatly behind her back.

"There you are!" she exclaimed. "I've been looking for you for ages!"

"I told you where I was going," Tara said patiently, with a faint smile. She squeezed Willow's hand, calming her.

"'Scotland' doesn't help much," the angel complained. "Do you know how many neutral grounds there are around here? I think I just set some kind of record for ether skipping. Um, hi," she added to Willow, glancing at her nervously.

"What's the matter, Buffy?" Tara asked.

"Yeah, sorry to interrupt, but bad news turned up - actually," Buffy amended, "Anya turned up, which could amount to the same thing. We kind of ran into each other, unofficially-"

"Is there any other way for a recording angel and a vengeance demon to meet?" Tara asked with a grin.

"Not without involving pitched battle," Buffy agreed. "She said she'd heard talk among some of the menials that the Archfiend is organising a war party to go after the Child."

"Oh, not again," Willow sighed.

"Did she say where?" Tara asked. Buffy shrugged, sitting down outside the circle.

"Anya said she had a cipher," she replied. "She said she'd hold onto it for you, Willow, once you two are done bridging the Eternal Divide with your bits... oh god, I just said that didn't I?" Tara and Willow nodded in commiseration.

"Damn it I've been talking to her way too much," Buffy complained.

"I should go, I guess," Willow said with a resigned sigh. She looked apologetically at Tara. "I shouldn't keep Anya waiting, holding a cipher about this could be dangerous if she's found."

"It's alright," Tara nodded, as the two of them stood. "I'll go with Buffy. If we can find the Child before hell does, maybe we can make her listen. Or at least help hide her again, I don't know what Lilith would do if she learned where her daughter was."

"I'll see you again soon?" Willow asked, her expression hopeful, but betraying her need.

"Very soon," Tara promised. "Like the poem - we'll rise." Willow nodded, and leaned in to quickly kiss Tara on the lips. She ignored Buffy, shaking her head in bemusement, and pulled the blanket from the ground, lifting it to her shoulders where it latched on like a cape.

"What the-" Buffy exclaimed. "You're using your symbiote as a picnic blanket?"

"It doesn't mind," Willow said defensively.

"It's a good use for it," Tara said to Buffy. "Come on, we'll need to move fast. Willow..." She paused and stared at the redhead for a moment.

"I love you," Willow said simply. Tara nodded.

"I love you," she replied. "Until next time." She reached up to her ear and took out the tiny flower she had tucked into her hair there, offering it to Willow, who took it and held it gently to her chest in both hands. Then Tara turned and left the circle, her loose white clothes shimmered away to reveal silver armour and huge wings, and she was leaping into the sky, with Buffy following.

"Until next time," Willow repeated to herself. She too turned, and the moment she passed the boundary of the stones her body vanished beneath an eruption of obsidian scales that quickly hardened into a smooth, skin-tight carapace covering her from head to toe. Her cape spread out as she leapt off the cliff, buoying her, while chains shot from her shoulders and wrists, tearing a hole in the sky through which she vanished, leaving the windswept landscape, and its ancient stones, at peace.


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