She watched the trees pass by the window as the train plowed its way across a desolate countryside filled with empty fields and the occasional patches of trees. The train carrying her to her new home and post.
Of course, she could just teleport there, but she had opted to travel by train to give herself some time to think things over, deal with her issues. But now, halfway through the trip, she wished she'd just teleported, considering how miserable she felt now and still only being halfway through the trip...
One moment, she had it all. A girlfriend who loved her and whom she loved so much, a beautiful home, friends, a good job. Then, a single, devastating moment... and she'd lost everything.
Tara just... had to get away from Sunnydale as quickly as possible. She just couldn't handle the fact that beautiful Willow hated her now. And why shouldn't she? Tara not only hid things from her, but also endangered her life. The cloak... how could I have been so stupid?! Tara squeezed her eyes shut. Willow had donned the cloak and phased into an ethereal state... without the required training and acclimatization. The Reapers had an intensive training program which starts from the age of 4. A new Reaper would learn how to phase and then remain in an ethereal state for short times to start, not much more than a few seconds. Learning how to phase should be like easing into a hot tub... not dumping yourself in the hot water like Willow accidentally did. The experience must have been so painful and disturbing... and it's all my fault...
Tara found herself reaching for her handbag.
But Tara's hands seemed to move out of their own volition.
Out came a set of pictures. One was of all of them, Herself, Willow, Buffy, Faith, Dawn, Xander and Anya sitting in front of the tents during their last camping trip, smiling happily and eating hotdogs while Xander, being not of the patient, was in the process of running back to the camera to check if he'd set the timer correctly.
Another picture, of herself and of Willow, trying to make silly faces at Buffy who had taken the picture. And then... a picture of her Willow, looking up from her computer and giving her the cutest smile she'd ever... Tara just pressed the picture to chest and cried quietly. No... Not my Willow anymore.
She put the pictures back into her handbag. The pictures and the memories were all she had left now. And she'd start with her new life soon, a new posting... As soon as she'd gotten to the Head Office, she'd asked her baffled coordinator for a transfer. At this point, only one was readily available, for the one and only reason that nobody else wanted it. But she needed to get away, and it suited her fine.
'Loving enough to let her go'... The person who said that should be kicked in the shins... Still, it's only slightly less worse that 'Better to have lost and loved than never having loved at all'. The person who said that should be hit over the head repeatedly with a piece of heavy mining equipment, Tara thought bitterly, only to feel ashamed at having such violent thoughts a moment later.
She opened her eyes and saw someone handing her a paper hankerchief. She looked and saw that the elderly lady she was sharing her compartment with was smiling at her. Tara took the hankerchief and dried her tears.
"It can't be that bad, dearrie," the lady smiled. "It's a matter of the heart, isn't it? Don't worry, dearrie. You'll get over him. You're very pretty and there's plenty of other fish in the sea."
"No," Tara replied softly. "There's nobody else for me."
"Today it feels like the end of the world. But it'll get better with time," said the lady. "Trust me on that one."
"You know, Wills," Buffy smiled when she watched Willow play on her computer. "I might not be big on the whole computer game thingy, but even I know that the point of Frogger is to get the frog across the road safely... not steering the frog right in front of a truck."
"Frogs are pure evil," was Willow's only response. "I'm takin' out the trash!"
"Well," Buffy said when moving to Willow's desk. "These are the books you picked up from the library yesterday? 'About Death and After', 'American Way of Death', 'Death and Dying', 'Philosophies of Death', 'Death : Folklore and Legend through the Ages', 'What Happens When We Die?'. Little light reading, Will?"
Willow paused her game. "It's, um, for a project I'm working on for my philosophy minor. Summer course..."
Buffy picked up another book. "'Fundementals of Quantum Mechanics', 'Advanced Quantum Mechanics', 'Quantum Mechanics and Experience'? I feel my IQ shooting through the roof just by reading the titles."
"Buff, thanks for sleeping over," Willow said softly. "It's... just so quiet here with Tara... out of town."
"Yeah, I know," Buffy sighed. "I miss Faith too. She's not returning my calls, so I guess that big insurance fraud case is keeping them really busy."
"Yeah," Willow pouted and avoided her friend's eyes.
"Faith," a dreamy expression took hold of Buffy. "Did you know, of all the people I've dated, she's the quickest to say the L-word to me."
"Lovecraftian?" Willow frowned.
"No!" Buffy smirked. "You know what I mean... It's ironic, really, but of all the guys I've dated, the greatest one turns out to be a girl... Oh, well, gotta get going. Teaching a class... Oh, and you're eating at our house tonight. Dawn's orders. She's making home-made bread. Tara taught her how to bake it."
After Willow and Buffy said their goodbyes, Willow returned to her computer and clicked away the game. Now that Buffy was gone, Willow could continue her research and could finally take off this brave face she'd been wearing around Buffy. A few days ago, when Tara had left, she'd left Willow confused, but determined. Determined to figure out just what had happened to her, and to find the answers to the questions that were plaguing her mind. And determined to find the love of her life and bring her back.
The net, as always, was the tool of her trade. All she had to go on was her weird experience and the odd 'costume' that Tara'd hidden away. Now, obviously, Tara's cloak and probably her scythe too, held some kind of power she had yet to understand. But from reading the books, she knew that Quantum Mechanics allowed the principle of two objects existing simultaneously in the same point in time and space, given the right circumstances. From her experience, Willow knew that this was more than a theoretical premise, and she knew she was dealing with a valid scientific principle, rather than something of a more 'oogy boogey' nature. It gave her some comfort, at least.
Now, dealing with the fact that her girlfriend was the Grim Reaper... now, that was something else. In a weird way, it all made sense. Of course, Death was something that could not be seen, so Death used a cloak to become invisible and move among the people. But the Grim Reaper was a concept... and old concept. First of all, she doubted Tara was as old as that concept was.
And that wasn't the only thing. When she was four, Willow had questioned Xander's belief in Santa Claus, because how could one person bring presents to every single kid on the whole world in one night? Despite the fact that four-year old Xander's answer of 'You're just a girl, what do you know?!' didn't apply here, the same basic principle did: Tara couldn't be the only one, people a lot of people died every day all over the world. So, Willow had come to the conclusion that there had to be lots. Lots and lots and lots of Grim Reapers.
That conclusion led her to delve into ancient and more recent history. Death had always been a profound experience in every culture, and in an effort to understand Death, many cultures personified the concept into something more tangible. Willow wondered if these depictions were really personifications or... something more tangible. The further back in time she went, the vaguer the references.
Art of the Middle Ages gave more evidence, though. Mainly Pieter Breugel's Triumph of Death was a painting that Willow found profoundly disturbing. Death, depicted as an army of demonic skeletons, were killing the people in the painting in a variety of ways, no matter their station in life, while the painting itself was littered with symbols of destruction and decay. Still, there were many other paintings of a very different nature, mostly from later areas. Paintings as La Mort de Fossoyeur showed Death not as an enemy, but as a companion, an angel come from the heavens to alleviate worldly pain and concerns and guide the souls of the dead to their rightful place.
To examine her findings in more recent times, Willow had to look at websites that were more sketchy... but still, the outcome disturbed her. She found her most promising leads on a big site filled with all kinds of conspiracy theories about aliens, three-headed monkeys being bred in captivity and several bullets fired from a grassy knoll. Hidden away in a corner of the site, were a series of pictures, old and new, of famous disasters : the sinking of the Titanic, the Hindenburg crash, the Challenger Space Shuttle... There was some pictures, fuzzy pictures... very fuzzy pictures, of black-robed people being present at all these events. Of course, the site named these people 'Men-In-Black' and claimed them to be aliens scoping out the planet for conquest. The clearest picture on the site was that of a trio of these cloaked people standing in a trench during World War I.
Juxtaposing this, she read personal accounts of people at death beds of family and friends. Many people felt that they weren't alone in their pain, that there was someone else with them, to take care of the person they loved. Angels that carried the souls of their loved ones off to heaven. Almost the complete antithesis of the traditional Grim Reaper-image. Willow found this a confusing contrast.
But the real goldmine turned out to be the runes on Tara's cloak. Willow had to close her eyes, think very hard, and finally was able to write a few of the runes on Tara's cloak on a piece of paper. She found a forum of ancient languages and texts and posted it there. When she returned to the board a few hours later, she found that it was set aflame with discussion, debates and more than one flame war. Many claimed the runes were fake, others that they were real. Amidst the torrent of discussions, Willow met a nice boy called Malcolm, who was a student of ancient languages, and who actually took the time to take a look at it rather than just spouting drivel. According to Malcolm, the runes had a basis in ancient Sumerian cuneiform writings, with elements of Linear B, with heavy influences of Norse Runes and Sanskrit. He also said that these runes looked to be part of an active and developing language that was now stagnating. Though the rune sequence was incomplete, Malcolm had been able to deduce that the runes appeared to be part of some sort of mystical binding spell. The one thing that he had been able to translate for certain was a symbol that was lifted straight from pure Sumerian cuneiform. According to Malcolm, it meant 'Gatherer and Protector of Souls, Superior', and was a sort of rank insignia.
From this all, Willow had been able to draw several conclusions:
A) Death is a real person that walks among us in secret.
The why and the how of it all was still a mystery to her, and she was hoping Tara'd be willing to shed some light on that, if... No... when. When I find her. Of course, this research did nothing to help her find Tara, but it at least gave her peace of mind.
She checked up on the progress of WillowSnoop, which was a program she had written a while back to do in depth searches among the net servers. It was a little program to help her out when Google wouldn't suffice for a pin-point accurate search. Right now, WillowSnoop was looking for Tara Maclay. Or, at least, any references to her personally. A single check let a disappointed Willow know that still nothing had turned up.
"Tara," Willow whispered to the screen, feeling her eyes brimming with tears yet again. "Tara, where are you?"
Willow sighed heavily and decided to pour herself a cup of tea. Buffy'd put on a pot for breakfast and it was still on the heater pad. Just as she was about to take a sip, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck starting to itch. She turned around and shrieked when she saw a cloaked figure just standing inches away from her. The cloaked figure roughly shoved her against the wall and, before she knew it, Willow was staring at the business end of the scythe pressed against her throat. With a free hand, the cloaked figure, pulled off her hood.
"The only reason you're still alive," Faith menaced, "is that Buffy and Tara would never forgive me if I slice you in half!"
"F-f-f-f-f..." Willow gulped, the fact that there's a big sharp object pressed against her throat seriously impaired her ability to speak clearly.
Willow looked into Faith's eyes, but did not see anger there, but rather a sadness. "Do you know what it feels like to hear your best friend crying herself to sleep, knowing there's nothing you can do or say to help her?"
"T-tara?" Willow whispered. "Tara! Where is she?! Please, you have to tell me."
"So you can do what? Tell her to her face that you hate her?" Faith spat. "How could you do that? She loves you, she just... " Willow could see that Faith was crying now,"messed up, that's all she did. She made a mistake... So what?! Big deal! I mess up all the time!"
"H-hate her?" Willow blanched. "Oh, god... Oh, god, please don't tell me she thinks that. I don't hate her. I could never hate her."
"Shut up!" Faith spat. "I'm here to knock some sense into you! If ever loved Tara at all, you'd do your damndest to find her, Red, or I swear, I'll make you regret it!"
"Uhm, Faith?" Willow started to say while looking at her computer. "I, um, was already trying to find her. Cause, you know, when the love of your life makes weird stuff happen that scares you... well, that doesn't mean she isn't still the love of your life. It's not some button in your brain that you can switch off, you know? I can't say 'well, today you were cranky so I love you one-third less' or 'well, today we had icecream together so I love you one-forth more'. When you love someone you love them, no matter what, and I'm really sorry I made Tara think I hate her. I could never hate Tara and I just wish she'd come home so I could tell her that. So that's why I'm trying to find her... I want her to come back..."
Faith bit her lip for a moment.
"Yeah," Willow said, wiping away her tears.
"Well, forget I said anything then. Uh, sorry about the scythe-against-throat-thingy."
"Okay," Willow felt a bit faint.
"So what are you standing here babbling at me for?" Faith said when she took the scythe away and clicked it closed. "Go find her already."
"I, uh," Willow pouted. "Kinda don't know where she is yet. Could you, um..."
"If you really love her," Faith interrupted, "you should find her yourself."
"A hint would be good. A teensy little hint to get me on my way? You see, if Tara had used her creditcard to pay for any trips, I'd have found her by now, but... her creditcard is still upstairs, in her dresser."
Faith nodded briefly. "Okay," she said and paced slowly. "She took a train to Canada. She has a new post there."
Willow smiled briefly. "Thanks Faith... Say, while you're here, I..."
"I'm not here to answer any questions, Red," Faith sighed. "I'm going to be answering plenty of questions a little later. Got a... big confession to make."
Faith brushed past Willow and pulled a cold beer out of the fridge. "Little dutch courage," she smirked to Faith. "I'm scared shitless, Red."
"You're gonna tell her you're one of the 'Death Bringers'?"
Faith blinked. "What have you been snorting, Red? We're called Reapers. But, yeah... 'So, hey, B. Guess what!' No, that wouldn't really work, would it? 'B? Ever hear of the Grim Reaper? Well, here she is!' No, no, no. 'Hey, B! I can start a pandemic. Wanna see?'."
"Pandemic?" Willow blanched. "How about 'I love you very much, Buffy, but there's something I have to tell you'?"
After Faith had left, or rather, disappeared right in front of her eyes, Willow still had her clue. Seeing Tara had been travelling by train, she only had to hack into the Amtrak central records to find Tara.
When Willow was seventeen, she had gained a notoriety among the hacking community under the username 'Red Baroness'. To her, hacking had been a way of dealing with Amy's betrayal. For one year, Willow hacked her way through government and corporate networks. Like an avenging angel, she plagued homophobic and other hate-crime related websites with a measure of relentless electronic terrorism that brought their webmasters to tears and made her somewhat of a hero in certain circles of the net. Then, when she felt she was finally starting to deal with her issues in a somewhat more healthy manner, mostly through help from her friends, she stopped... mostly.
But, just for this one time, Willow pulled the Red Baroness out of retirement. She found out that Tara had booked passage for a trip all the way to Edmonton in Canada. Further hacking revealed that Tara was staying at a small hotel.
Willow wasted no time and left for the railway station, stopping by the bank first. Willow had put the money Amy had returned to her on a savings account... but this seemed like a good reason to use that money.
Willow hesitated for a moment, but then flipped open her cellphone and dialed.
"Dad?" Willow said.
"Willow, it's so good to hear from you," Ira replied. "Your mother isn't here right now. If you want to talk to her..."
"I don't really need to talk to her. In fact, I'd rather not talk to her until next year or so."
"You might not believe this, but your mother does love you, Willow."
"Last week, she literally asked me to stop being gay and grow up," Willow replied with a sigh. "I've had enough, dad. I meant it what I said..."
"If she asks me that again, she's out of my life. Not that she was in my life much to begin with."
"Willow, I've talked to her. She..."
"I don't want to hear it right now, dad," Willow sighed bitterly. "I can't deal with this now. I'm going to Canada for a little while. To find Tara."
"Did you have a fight with Tara?" Ira asked. "Buffy's mother mentioned that you were upset."
"No," Willow said. "Well, maybe. But... I let this happen. And now I have to make things well again, dad. I have to fix it."
Willow's father remained silent for a while. "Alright, go find the person you love, Willow. Take good care of yourself."
"Dad?" Willow asked. "Would you call Xander and tell him I'll be away for a while? He can fill in the others."
"My train's leaving in a couple of minutes," Willow said. "I'll be back when I've found Tara. Love you, dad."
"Love you, Willow."
Tara sat in the dreary little cabin just outside the city limits of Yellowknife that the Head Office had arranged for her. It was barren, dark and cold. But she didn't care...
Under different circumstances, Tara would have enjoying exploring the mountain mining town of Yellowknife. There was a gorgeous lake, lovely woods... but, she just couldn't bring herself to it.
Unfortunately, the town of Yellowknife wasn't her assigned post. Rather, her assigned post were the outlying counties, the entire part of the Canadian North Western Territories that was just below the artic circle. She'd learned quickly why nobody ever wanted this post. Already she'd been called to collect: some drunk lumberjack managed to saw himself in half. When arriving onto the desolate mountainside to collect his soul, Tara didn't blame him for drinking on the job. It had to be one of the loneliest places on Earth.
Coming here had been a mistake. Rather than getting away from her feelings and her now lost love, she found herself thinking of Willow all the time and just how much she missed her.
She just threw another log on the fire in a near-futile attempt to get the cabin to warm up a little. The heater was broken, and the repairman wouldn't be around until tomorrow. She rubbed her hands and held them close to the fire. Yet she wondered if the chill inside of her would ever go away.
"Tara, I know it might not look like it now, but this is for the best."
"Dad," Tara sighed. "Stop."
"Tara," he placed his hands on her shoulders. "I'll put in a good word at the Head Office. We'll have you transferred to a more prestigious post. If it's your career you're worried about..."
"Well, you should be," her father told her. "Trust me, you'll only benefit from not having to deal with a mortal in your life, like I said."
"Dad, please don't say 'I told you so'."
"Tara, I'm just looking out for you."
"Dad, could we just... not do this now?"
Donald nodded and pulled on his hood after saying his goodbyes, leaving Tara to her sorrows. She wanted Faith to be around now... Faith was the only person in the world she had left. But she knew her friend had her own problems right now: she'd stayed with Faith and she had done her best to cheer up Tara... even made her giggle once when Faith had started juggling pomegranates... In the end, Faith had told her she was going to 'come out' to Buffy as a Reaper. She hoped all would go well and that Faith would find happiness with Buffy.
Tara figured she had no one to blame but herself... She truly felt like the loneliest person on the planet.
Willow was in a bind. She'd spent a long time on the train feeling a mixture of regret and worry. Regret for not being there for Buffy... who knows what kind of a wiggins she'd be having right now? And worry... for not knowing. What if she couldn't find Tara? Tara could make herself invisible, so if she really didn't want to be found, there'd be no way Willow could ever track her down. Willow was never good at dealing with situations where there were no clear-cut answers. She'd just have to slog on.
After finally arriving in Edmonton, she hurried to the small hotel where Tara had been staying, only to find out that Tara had checked out a few days ago. It was a small country inn, ran by a nice elderly couple, who tried to be helpful. Willow had showed them a picture of Tara and she felt like crying when the lady told her that it was so nice to see a smile on the face of the girl that had been so sad while she stayed with them.
Sadly, they had no idea where Tara had gone to. Tara had met a young couple who were going in her direction and they had given her a lift. Tara had used no cab, no credit card, no train, nothing Willow could track electronically. All she knew was that Tara had gone 'somewhere up north'. Never mind the fact that she could spent all her life scouring the northern regions of Canada and never find a single trace of Tara.
So here she was. A dead end. Not only that, but her money was running out. This trip had been more expensive than she expected.
Willow decided to rent a room at the inn and sleep on it. There wasn't more she could do and a rest might help her organize her mind.
She got ready for bed, changed into her nightshirt and fuzzy-bunny slippers and, almost on a whim, decided to plug her laptop into the port in her room. She checked her mail... nothing from Buffy, which was a good sign. Xander had sent her some more quiz-lists, but at the moment, she wasn't really interested in knowing what kind of potato she was.
Anya had forwarded her some stock tips, Malcolm had some more info the runes which wasn't very helpful right now, some deposed Nigerian prince was offering her money and she really didn't feel any need to get a penis extention. Her dad had sent her a good luck message, she smiled at that one.
Almost on a whim, Willow dialed in to her desktop at home to check on WillowSnoop's progress... and almost fell over backwards when she found that the program had actually found a usable reference. There is was... a lead!
Tara's name was in what seemed to be some kind of personnel list. Willow knew it was relevant because Faith's name was on the list as well. Immediately, Willow entered hacking mode, loosening the Red Baroness on an unsuspecting computer network.
But when she tried to scope out the central network, she was in for a cold shower. Willow reluctantly admitted that she was impressed with the sheer amount of defenses this computer system had. Layers upon layers upon layers of customly designed firewalls and triple data encryption. The place was an electronic fortress: no backdoors, no unprotected ports, no chances. The Red Baroness had met her match.
Willow sighed in frustration. Given a few weeks... months, Willow mentally corrected herself, she might be able to have the run of the place, but she simply didn't have that much time. Her best bet was to go back to the personnel list she had found and take it from there. After some probing, Willow came to the conclusion that the file was on a server that had been somehow overlooked when whoever run this network had put up the defenses.
Sadly, the server didn't field any open ports of backdoors, but it did have a phone number of some sort of regional manager in Los Angeles in another unprotected file.
Willow took out her cellphone, took a few deep breaths and dialed the number. It rang once... twice...
Willow stiffened when she heard the pleasant voice of a lady on the other side. "Uh, yeah, hello, I..."
"Please key in your personal password" said the lady.
"Great, a recording... And a password," Willow sighed. And without the help of the tools she had on her computer, she could only play the guess game.
She dialed in W-I-L-L-O-W.
I guess that was too much to hope for, Willow sighed. She redialed the number and tried again.
And yet again.
And yet yet again.
And yet yet yet again.
This was getting frustrating. She was so close and yet so far away. Come on, Willow. Think. Think! If I were Tara, what would be my password? Come on, think Tara... Think Tara. Okay, I'm Tara now. Hi, everybody, I'm Tara Maclay and I'm deeply and incredibly in love with Willow. Oh, and I'm great in bed and make Willow squirm, moan and intensely satisfied every time we make love. And I, um... I think Willow's good in bed too, or at least getting better. Ah, no, I already tried 'tongue'. Think Tara... Okay, now I'm Tara again. I love my friends and would do anything for them, because that's the way I am. I'm a bit shy, but I'm always there when someone needs me. I have a great sense of humor and...Oh, that's it!
Willow dialed in S-W-E-E-T-I-E. Her heart almost skipped a beat when the phone started ringing. God, what have I gotten myself into? Breathe, Willow, breathe...
Darla was stressed. There was no other way to put it. The past few years she had been living in a permanent state of stressy badness. Even though she was in her late twenties, she already had a nice little family of ulcers growing in her stomach.
When she was offered this position, it all sounded to wonderful. A cushy deskjob, they'd told her. No more field-work, they'd told her. Good pay, they'd told her. Of course, what they didn't tell her was that her office staff would be reduced from 12 to 2 right after she was assigned to become Collector Coordinator of the state of California. How did that make sense?
She was just about to fill out a form in triplet for the umpteenth time today, when the phone rang. She cursed and ripped the receiver off the hook. "What? What?! WHHHAAAAAT!!!" she screamed into the phone.
"Uhhh..." sounded on the other side of the line, more of a strangled croak than an actual coherent answer.
"I'm a busy woman, so speak up!"
"Oh. OH! Oh, hi, I'm, um, looking for Tara Maclay, please?"
"Well, you're too late," Darla replied. "She tranferred to another sector just a few days ago. Shame to lose her, really. She was competent and dedicated. Now, if that's everything?"
"WAIT! Don't hang up. Um, could you tell me where she is now?"
Darla remained silent for a moment. "Who is this?"
"This? Oh, you mean, me?"
"That's a stupid question!" Darla heard the voice on the other end of the line say. Darla punched up a couple of numbers on the phone, revealing that the caller wasn't calling from inside the Head Office. Great, Darla sighed. A Field Operative. And with that level of arrogance it can only be a Head Hunter.
"You people really are ghouls," Darla spat. "It's bad enough that you steal my crew away, but that you have to take advantage of a poor girl like Tara when she's down on her luck is really low."
"Huh? Oh, no, no! I'd never do that. I just... want to talk to her, that's all. Make sure she's okay."
"Ah, you're councillor!" Darla sighed. "Why didn't you tell me that before. Are you..."
"Yeah, I... want to make sure she's alright and maybe even convince her to come home and... go back, uh, doing death related stuff?"
"So you're telling me to keep her post open and available for her, is that is?"
"Yes! Definitely available, cause she's coming back. I'm sure she's coming back! In fact, don't even think about giving away her post."
"Fine, I'll keep the position open for now. Tara lives at... Ah, here it is. Pine Road 2 in Yellowknife in the Canadian Northern Territories. Death only knows what possessed her to take that post. She must really have had her heart broken badly."
Again, there was that strangled croak on the other end of the line.
"I'm going to bring her back," sounded the voice on the other line, laced with determination. "Count on it."
"Good," Darla said. "Now, if that was everything, I've got work to do," Darla concluded and hung up the phone. Honestly, some people.
Willow felt like doing a backflip across the room... but then remembered she wasn't much of a gymnast and just let out a 'yippeee'. It hit just what she had just done and mentally patted herself on the shoulder for being such a wickedly good sleuth. She'd have to get underway immediately, before Tara'd move on. She had to see her, had to make things better.
Just as she had ran outside the room, she realized she was in her nightshift... and when she went back to her room, she found out the door had shut behind her and her keys were inside.
But not even that could spoil her mood.
Tara lay on her couch, quietly reading. Not many people had needed her yet, except for that one lumberjack. She got the impression not many people died... or rather, lived, up there. And so here she was, feeling alone and without purpose. No neighbors to talk to, and she really didn't feel liking going into town right now.
She closed her book and put it on the table. She just couldn't get into it.
Tara suddenly heard a knock on her door. She almost dismissed it as a figment of her imagination, but then she heard it again.
Wondering who it could be, Tara strolled over to the wooden door and opened it, only to experience the shock of a lifetime.
"W-w-willow?" Tara stammered when she saw Willow standing at her front door, hugging herself but still shivering. She wasn't dressed for the cold weather this far north.
"Tara," Willow sniffed. "I've found you! I've really found you!"
Like a speeding bullet, Willow rushed inside and wrapped her arms around Tara. A baffled Tara slowly returned the hug, feeling Willow's body pressing into hers. The smell of her hair. Her breath brushing her skin. The closeness of it all.
It felt so good.
It felt so right.
"Willow, you're f-f-freezing," Tara said, when felt just how cold Willow was. "I... I'll w-warm some c-c-chocolate milk for y-you."
"Tara, wait, I... I don't hate you, Tara," Willow said. "I could never hate you."
Tara didn't answer. She was afraid she'd fallen asleep while reading and this was nothing more than a hopeful dream. And even if it was a dream, she wanted to savor it.
Willow took her hands and squeezed gently. Oh, goddess... this is real... She's really here!
"Tara, baby," Willow sniffed. "I... I want you to tell me everything. I'll listen, I promise. And we'll deal with it."
"E-everything," Tara replied with a smile.
"I love you, and I missed you." Willow cried. "Most of all... I just want you to come home."
The two crying lovers embraced again, sharing tears of happiness now.
"I could really use a cup of hot chocolate now. I've lost feeling in all my limbs."
Tara took a moment to rub away Willow's tears. "Coming right up, sweetie."