"Are you sure you're up for this Will?" Buffy was eyeing her partner cautiously as their car pulled up outside the address she'd been given over the phone.
Willow had not bothered to change out of the clothes she'd been wearing when Buffy showed up at her apartment. She was wearing a very rumpled tracksuit with her hair done up in a scruffy ponytail. Although she looked a mess, Willow's manner was all business. She carried with her palm pilot and was already making notes.
"I'm fine," she replied, although not meeting Buffy's gaze.
Buffy was not at all convinced, "Because if you need some time off I'm sure I can rope one of the other guys into helping me out on this one..." Buffy said as she turned off the key and the car fell silent.
Willow finally turned to face Buffy, there was a brave attempt at a smile fixed on her face, "I really appreciate your concern but I'll be fine... trust me, the blonde is already a page in the past."
Buffy raised her eyebrows suspiciously, "One of those pages that is dog-eared and keeps getting re-read over and over again... you know, like page 104 in your copy of Tipping the Velvet?"
"Buffy!" Willow spluttered indignantly, "What do I have to say to convince you to let this go?"
"I'm just worried about you Willow... you being cut up about a girl, it's totally new territory for me as a best friend. I just want to make sure you're not going to go all hermit on me because seeing you watching the Sound of Music? That was pretty disturbing."
"The sooner you drop it, the sooner I'll be over it Buff."
"You sure, cos'..."
"Buffy," Willow said a little more firmly, "Our discussion is over... ok? We've got a job to do."
Buffy nodded, "Let's get in there then."
The two detectives made their way up the short flight of stairs and inside the seemingly ordinary house. It was a standard brownstone belonging to an apparently affluent family. The air of dread was palpable as soon as they entered. Uniformed cops were standing in the foyer, they nodded solemnly as Buffy and Willow walked past.
"Up the stairs to your left," one said in a sombre tone.
As they walked up the stairs Willow glimpsed into the living room to see a young woman sobbing into her hands. A pale-faced man was standing at her side, awkwardly patting her shoulder. Her heart began to sink already and they hadn't even seen the bodies yet...
"Oh god no..." Buffy whispered quietly as they walked into the room.
The room was a large nursery decorated in bright blue tones, a frieze of sailing boats trailing around the wall. It had within it all the usual furniture one would associate with a small child, a crib... changing table... beautiful toys. Willow glanced up to see a mobile swirling from the ceiling, the small planes flying around and around in their never ending circuit. She glanced to the crib, the blankets were thrown back, a teddy bear the only occupant.
In the middle of the carpeted floor there were two circles, the same as in the warehouse. One contained a black robed man, his face non-descript, a pool of nearly dry blood staining the surface beneath him. The chalk markings around him were barely visible on the carpet and yet they were there... Willow checked her palm pilot to find them identical to those at the first scene.
Both Willow and Buffy were avoiding casting their gaze to the second, much smaller circle for what lay within it... neither wanted to ever have to see. Yet it was their job... Willow knelt down and felt her heart get stuck in her throat.
"Parents woke up at six this morning, both thought it was weird they weren't woken by the baby crying and the father came in to find this," a cop informed them.
"They didn't hear a thing?" Buffy asked incredulously, making a circuit of the larger circle.
The cop shook his head sadly, "Nothing... and their room is right through that door there."
He made a swift and very grateful exit from the room after that, leaving the two detectives and the forensics team who were dusting the room for prints. They wouldn't find anything.
Willow said nothing as she knelt, she just stared at the tiny body lying in the centre of the circle. They were supposed to stop things like this happening and yet all they ever seemed to do was clean up the mess. How could they have stopped this? She stood and forced herself to do the job she was paid to do.
Like the professionals they were, Buffy and Willow went to work straight away although neither could glance at the victim without feeling sick to the stomach.
"Will... look at this..." Buffy pointed with her pen at a line on the inside of the larger circle.
It followed the same path as the sticky substance they had found in the first circles at the warehouse. Although as Buffy pointed out, there was a small patch of dried plant-like substance remaining. Obviously it had failed to congeal with the rest of it. Buffy drew a small plastic bag out of her coat and scooped up a small amount with her pen. She sealed it and stood, holding it up to the light for a better look. Willow stood at her side with a frown on her face,
"Some sort of herb?" Buffy suggested.
"It would appear so but I don't think it's sage or thyme or any of your other garden variety cooking ingredients," Willow was still making notes on her palm pilot.
"I guess it's off to the lab with this," Buffy waved it before making to hand it to one of the forensics guys.
"You know what Buffy," Willow held out her hand for it, "I have a better idea."
Buffy looked suspiciously at her partner but she waved the forensics guy away and handed it to Willow.
"We'll only run into the same problem we had last time, the lab will be able to tell us what it is... but not what it is you know."
"I do know... I was never any good at chemistry," Buffy nodded.
Willow's face was a business-like mask, "Well I am, and I still can't make heads or tails of the report. I think I know who can tell us what this is."
Buffy frowned, "Who?"
Willow set her lips tightly, "First thing tomorrow I'm going to that Magic store..." she glanced quickly at the awful sight and her fingers whitened as they held the small bag, "I want this... whatever it is, I want it to stop."
"Will... are you sure that's such a good idea? I mean... I can just as easily take it there..."
"Thanks Buff... but I have to do this, besides, it's just business..." Willow's thoughts shifted to those haunting blue eyes and the look of sadness that seemed to reside there, "It's just business..."
"I think we need to talk Tara," Giles said softly.
Tara looked up from where she was standing on the balcony that overlooked their back alley. She was leaning against the railing as she sipped a cup of herbal tea, watching Ashley play indoors. Giles stepped outside to join her, closing the French doors behind him.
"Faith told you?" Tara took a deep gulp of tea in an effort to calm herself.
"All she told me was that she's worried about you... and I think I can say now that we both are and I think I ought to know exactly what it is you did."
"G-Giles, I can't... please don't ask me to tell you..."
He reached out and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, "If this spell could harm you in any way... then I believe you should tell me Tara."
Tara shivered, not at the contact but at the realisation that she would indeed tell him absolutely everything. A story she had never told anyone before and it more than frightened her speechless. Giles withdrew his hand when he felt the blonde woman tremble but the sincere expression on his face remained.
Tara looked at Giles over her shoulder, "Everything?" she asked in a small voice.
He shrugged, "Everything that is relevant."
"It's all relevant," Tara replied, turning to face the rooftops once more, "Every aspect of my life before I met you and Faith... every aspect of a life I want so desperately to be able to forget but he'll never ever let me..."
"Who won't let you forget?"
"Tara... I thought you found out your father died last year?" Giles said in a sympathetic voice, even though his daughter had not lamented the man's passing.
"Giles... if anyone should know death isn't the end then it's you," Tara rebuked mildly.
Giles nodded in agreement, "So your story starts with you father?"
"Hmm, no, it really begins with my mother... you see, I never knew her. She died when I was no more than a baby and I can't remember her at all..."
"I'm so very sorry Tara," Giles said softly as the young woman's eyes misted with tears.
Tara blinked them away furiously, if she started crying now she would never be able to get the story out, "There's nothing to be sorry about... I just wish I was given the chance to know her... sorry, I'm supposed to be giving you the facts not dreams... did I ever tell you I am from Oregon?" Tara asked even though she knew full well she hadn't.
"No," Giles replied quietly.
"There is nothing special to note about my childhood, other than the fact that I was decidedly unhappy throughout most of it..."
Tara pressed her hands to her temples as the deafening roar of the cries around her aggravated her already pounding headache. It was the aftermath of a high school football match and not just any, the team had just secured their place in the final of the state championships by narrowly beating their long-standing rivals in a match the town would be talking about for years to come. It seemed as though the entire school and half the town had come to the after-party and it seemed as though every one of those people were drunk or well on their way.
"Babe, you okay?" Tara looked up at the sound of the soft voice, it was Roy Epstein... the star quarterback and her brother Donnie's best friend.
"Roy... hey..." Tara managed a weak smile.
He held two bottle of beer in his hands and passed one to Tara. She took it with a small smile even though she had never been much for drinking.
"Not having a great time I take it?" he asked, taking a seat on the bench beside her, "These things do tend to deteriorate as soon as everyone gets a few into them."
"I should've gone home as soon as the game was over," Tara took a small sip of her beer out of politeness, "I guess..."
"I'd stay out too if I had to go home to your Dad!" Roy laughed and then immediately bit it back, "Sorry Tar, that was uncalled for... it's not my place to comment."
"No, it's alright... my Dad's an arsehole and everyone knows it," Tara said bitterly.
"Yeah, your Dad's always been a bit wacko though, my Mom said he was even like that when your Mom was alive... although you and Donnie turned out okay despite him... and just think, in a few years you'll be heading off to college!"
Tara shook her head sadly, "I don't think so... Donnie is going to college, I'm never going to leave here."
She tipped her head back and drained the bottle half empty in one go.
"You're going to miss him when he goes huh?"
Tara just nodded, "It'll just be me and Dad. Y'know, he's been really weird lately though... saying odd things... asking me why I don't have a boyfriend. It's really getting on my goat all the hints he keeps dropping about my getting married and moving out of home and having kids, he doesn't seem to realise I'm still in high school! It's a little scary too..."
Roy set his beer down on the ground and turned to regard Tara calmly. She stared back, noting that he really was quite cute despite his crooked nose... why on earth wasn't she interested in him? Tara sighed, the answer to that question was fairly obvious. Roy smiled slightly.
"You're worried your Dad's going to freak if he finds out you're gay," he said calmly.
Tara began to stutter a denial but when she saw the look on his face she felt oddly reassured, "Yeah."
"I used to think you were friends with my sister just because you wanted to be close to me... typical arrogance talking... I mean, how could you not be interested in me? It never crossed my mind you really were her friend... and more... I saw you two kissing once and suffice to say I was pretty shocked... but it's cool... I guess it really sucked for you when Chris chose to go to university abroad."
Tara drained the rest of her beer and shrugged in reply, "She made the decision that was best for her..." Tara felt a little dizzy, "R-Roy..." the empty bottle slipped from her grasp and she put her head in her hands.
Roy supported her in a gentle arm, "It's okay Tara, you've just had a little too much to drink... I'll take you home."
"Th... than..." Tara couldn't quite get that one simple word out as she slipped into unconsciousness.
Tara blinked in confusion as she opened her eyes. Sun was streaming through a gap in the curtains as she lifted her head weakly. Her head was throbbing as though she had drunk a lot more than two beers the night before. She couldn't remember the ride home with Roy at all. Yet she was here, safely in her own room.
Tara sat up and felt a little queasy... she felt weird all over as she swung her legs onto the floor. Someone had taken her shoes off and set them neatly beside her bed. Everything was just fine... but why did she feel as though something had happened.
She was even surer of the fact when she scurried downstairs to make breakfast only to find everything already ready. Her father was in the middle of ladling more eggs onto her plate.
"I'm sorry I slept late..." she began, moving to help her father.
"I've got it honey... you sit down and eat up," he waved towards her seat.
Tara sat down without a further protest, although not without a certain amount of weirdness. Something was amiss but for the life of her she didn't know what... well, besides the fact that her father was never this nice...
Tara walked up the steps to her grandmother's front porch, she felt awful she hadn't been by to see her for two weeks at least. Especially when she usually stopped by every afternoon on the way home from school. Her grandmother was the only connection she had to her mother and she loved the strong elderly woman dearly. She had taught her so much about Wicca and how to use the magic that resided within her.
The old woman was standing, washing dishes at the kitchen sink when Tara knocked and entered.
Aurelia Weaver did not even have to look up to know who it was, she only knew one person who radiated such an air of pure delight wherever she went, "Where have you been for the past two weeks Tara?... I've missed your company."
Tara smiled apologetically as she set her school bag on the floor next to the table, "I'm sorry grandmother... I-I haven't been well."
She turned from the sink and smiled warmly, extending her arms towards her only granddaughter, "Come here kiddo... let me take a look at you."
Tara submitted herself to her grandmother's gentle inspection which was mostly just an excuse to be able to touch and hold her granddaughter. As her cheeks cupped in the strong, callused hands Tara instantly felt better. It was as though the way she had been feeling for the past two weeks had all been some sort of bad dream. She stared into her grandmother's pale blue eyes. Her close proximity meant that she could not fail to notice the reaction that spread over her grandmother's face. She went pale and began to tremble noticeably.
"Grandmother?" Tara asked concernedly.
"Tara... what happened to you?"
The young girl frowned, "When? Nothing... I've just been a little nauseous over the past few days... and my Dad has been weird, not letting me stop by and see you. He doesn't know I'm here now."
Aurelia shivered and gripped Tara's shoulders tightly, "Tara sweetie... this is much too soon, I haven't had the time to teach you everything you need to know to keep her safe..."
"Her? Her who?" Tara asked, beginning to think that her father wasn't the only relative who was acting strangely around her these days.
"Your daughter," Aurelia replied calmly, as though those words would not send Tara's mind reeling.
Tara's mouth gaped but she knew it couldn't be true... there was no way on earth... absolutely none at all. She'd never even kissed a boy let alone gone any further...
"What are you talking about?" Tara asked, her hand reaching out for the table behind her so she could steady herself.
"There's no time... he'll be wondering where you are soon... I'm surprised he's even letting you out of his sight to go to school... Tara, listen to me... your daughter is not evil but they want her for something that is... she will be the last and most important piece in their plan... the final sacrifice..."
"Wait a minute!" Tara interrupted, "Sacrifice? Who's 'they'? And daughter... are you trying to tell me I'm pregnant?"
"You are pregnant... and for now 'they' mostly means your father..."
Tara felt her legs give way beneath her and she had to put both her hands on the table just to keep her from falling over outright, "My father?"
Aurelia looked at the clock, "I wish we had more time..."
"More time for what?" Tara asked in a bland voice, she was still trying desperately to digest the fact that she was pregnant. <Oh god... I can't even organize my own life let alone worry about someone else who's totally dependent on me, what's my father going to say... and hello! How the hell did this happen?>
"To explain... you just have to trust me when I say it is not safe for you here... well, it's not safe for you anywhere but as far away as you can get is best... you have to leave... oh, I'm going to be in so much trouble with the Coven for not preparing you better," Aurelia sighed and shook her head even as Tara stared at her with a wholly perplexed look on her face, as though her grandmother had suddenly gone quite mad. It did indeed seem that way as she kept talking about things which seemed to make absolutely no sense, "They'll find a guardian for you... so you don't have to worry about being alone for too long... yes, they will find you a guardian but for now, you have to go..."
"Go... where shall I go?" Tara asked weakly.
The old woman left Tara for a few minutes as she disappeared from the kitchen into her bedroom. As Tara listened to her rummage, she finally took a seat at the table. The frightened young girl put her head in her hands and tried to sort through all the information that had been flying at her in just the past few minutes. Firstly she was pregnant for no apparent reason... and secondly she had to leave her home, also for no apparent reason other than that her grandmother said so.
Although, in the midst of her terror Tara's hand crept down to her stomach. It rested there, cradling her belly as though she could already feel it swelling even though her child was barely formed. Something powerful swept through her body, past the confusion and the fear... settling at her very core, in her heart. She was going to have a daughter! Tara felt a sense of peace descend, not completely dissolving her fear and yet giving her a measure of confidence. She would protect the life growing inside her... even if it meant leaving behind everything she knew.
Tara looked up in fright, <Okay... how the hell did I go from freaking out to accepting the fact that I'm a mother... oh god, oh god, oh god.>
She was seeing stars when her grandmother returned, the edges of her vision gradually folding in on her.
"Breathe Tara, just breathe," Aurelia was saying as she came to fold Tara into her arms.
Tara lent her head against her chest, a firm hand stroked her hair even as her shoulders began to shake.
"I can't do this," Tara whispered.
Aurelia pushed her backwards and held her at arms length, she pressed something into Tara's palm. The young blonde glanced down to see a wad of carefully folded bills. She glanced back up sharply.
"It's all I've got, drive my truck into town and get yourself on a bus... anywhere, just as long as it's going away from here..."
"A bus?" Tara asked weakly.
Tara shook her head stubbornly, there were so many questions flooding her mind they all tried to spill forth at once, "Where? How will I know when to stop? I can't leave you here! Can I not go home?"
"No... you can never go home again, or anywhere he can find you! You must... go!"
"So I went," Tara took a sip of her almost cold tea, her hands were shaking, "I got on a bus and just kept heading east. The whole time trying to reason out where I was going and what I would do. I began to think... and hope that my grandmother had been wrong," Tara looked up at Giles, remembering those times and the fear she had felt at leaving her home behind without the slightest notice, "And yet for some reason... I knew there was life inside me... I arrived in this city with almost nothing, searching for... I don't know, a sign..."
"That's the day you first set foot in my store," Giles remembered fondly.
"You offered me a job..."
"How could I not? You were the prettiest girl that ever walked into my store," Giles smiled, "And you knew the difference between newt and salamander eyes."
"There is no difference," Tara replied promptly, "Except to the price tag."
Giles nodded, then his face became serious once more, "The spell Tara... where does it come into all of this?"
"My grandmother had one last gift to me besides money... a protection spell known as Heart's fire..."
Giles paled instantly, "A powerful spell. It renders you invisible to dark magicks... meaning no one can use dark magic to find you and, depending on the strength of the caster, it also has the ability to repel dark magicks. I've researched it in depth because I once considered using it to protect Faith. However, to cast it requires a power that I could never have... It is a spell so powerful it consumes the life force of the one who casts..." Giles studied Tara's reaction, if she had seemed sad before... it was nothing in comparison to the expression on her face now. She cast a tiny glance inside, where Ashley was busy with her Lego blocks, a glance that almost confirmed Giles' suspicions and he continued in a soft but urgent voice, "Or those who cast it... Tara?"
"My grandmother had a lot of power," Tara whispered, "But it wasn't enough..."
Tara had the key in the ignition of her grandmother's truck, she was about to turn it when she froze all of a sudden. There was something powerful at work. She opened the truck's door and bolted back into the house. Her grandmother was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, surrounded in a glowing ball of yellow light. Her face was showing the strain of whatever spell she was casting... her brow wrinkled in pain.
"Grandmother?" Tara stretched her hand out towards the ball.
"Tara..." Aurelia's voice was strained, "Go!"
Tara set her jaw determinedly and in one swift movement stepped into the circle. Feeling her skin burn as she passed through the golden barrier. She sat opposite her grandmother and linked hands with her. Immediately she felt her energy being drained from her body. It was as though something were reaching inside of her, deep down and drawing out her essence through the very pores of her skin. She felt as though she was being ripped apart and her mouth opened in a cry of soundless pain. The ball surrounding them grew blindingly bright until Tara had to shut her eyes. There was a deafening white noise in her ears for a few seconds and then all was suddenly silent... her grandmother's hands went limp in her own as she fell forward into her lap. Tara opened her eyes and gently shifted to support the old woman better. Her eyes were closed and her breathing laboured.
"Why... did you step into... the circle?" she gasped.
"You needed help," Tara replied, smoothing the pale blonde hair out of her eyes tenderly, "What on earth were you casting?"
"Heart's... fire... to... protect the two of you..." her breathing became shallower by the second, "But now you're a part of it..."
"Grandmother?" Tara whispered.
"Go kiddo... always love you..."
She smiled softly and with a last shudder her breathing stopped altogether and she went completely still in Tara's arms. Tara stared, unable to comprehend what had just happened... she was dead. The person she loved more than anything was dead after casting a spell Tara had never heard of...
"I did a lot of research on Heart's fire... during the times you were out of the store of course, and everything you said is true..." Tara sighed, one hand resting on the pane of the glass door as she watched Ashley, "I don't regret what I did... I don't know why she is important and I don't know who she's important to... but I do know I would gladly die for her..."
"Tara..." Giles said in a broken voice.
Tara sighed, "It's failing anyway... at least I think it is, someone did find me..."
"Who Tara?" Giles asked urgently "Are you in danger?"
"No," Tara shook her head, "At least... I'm not sure but I can feel the spell working to push her away and I want it to stop... I want her to stay with me but at the same time I know that's impossible..."
Giles had a realisation, "Willow," he said softly.
"Yes," Tara ducked her head.
Giles grabbed Tara by both shoulders and pulled her around to face him, when she lifted her head there were fresh tears in her eyes, "Tara... is Willow a witch?"
"No!" Tara snapped furiously, refusing to believe that Willow was concealing her true identity. She drew in a hasty gulp of air to calm her racing heartbeat, "I mean... I don't think... I don't feel that she is. The magicks lie dormant..."
"The dark magicks," Giles emphasised.
Tara had to concede his point and she nodded, "There is darkness within her... a powerful magic I felt when we first met. The Heart's fire spell is trying to push her away and yet at the same time there is something drawing her to me... Giles, I want her close despite what her presence does to me... each time she leaves it's as though she's taking a part of me with her."
"You're in love with her?"
Tara was shocked by such a question coming from the older Englishman, "I-I don't know... I do wish I had the chance... I want to be given the chance to know her, to explore what it is that I... f-feel for her."
"Even though Willow is the type of person your grandmother died protecting you from?" Giles asked matter-of-factly.
"Willow doesn't know what is inside her..."
"You're thinking maybe we can help her?" Giles knew the young woman too well, she would never pass up an opportunity to help anyone.
"Maybe," Tara breathed, I hope so!
Giles studied the wistful expression on Tara's face, an expression he very rarely saw unless she was with her daughter. In this particular instance he knew that it was a certain red head her thoughts were dwelling upon.
"Willow Rosenberg aside Tara, I think the spell has served it's purpose. Your grandmother's sacrifice allowed you to find a new home and people that care about you and your daughter very much."
"You think I should revoke the Heart's fire?" Tara asked slowly.
"I know you want to protect Ashley but your father is dead and although I know better than to say the danger has passed... I think it is pointless to sacrifice your life to maintain the Heart's Fire spell. You know Faith and I will do anything to protect the both of you," Giles' brow furrowed, "And what if the spell starts taking Ashley's life force after it's done with you?"
"You think I would let something like that happen?" Tara shook her head quickly, "No, it can't... I can't explain why but what my grandmother had... my mother... what runs in my veins... Ashley doesn't have it, I mean, I'm her mother, I'd feel it if she did... trust me, there's nothing for the spell to take."
"I never realised," Giles said quietly, "I just assumed you would instruct her when you decided she was ready... even so, a revocation would still save your life."
"My grandmother said 'they'... it wasn't just my father..." although even as she said it Tara couldn't take her eyes off her girl, "I can't Giles..."
Faith entered the lounge and joined Ashley in the construction of her Lego town, the Slayer said something amusing and Ashley laughed loudly. Tara could hear it from outside and it stung painfully. Faith pounced on the young girl, tickling her which sent her into even wilder fits of giggles. When Ashley tried to squirm away, she was picked up and swung around the room, still laughing uncontrollably. Faith looked up and saw Tara and Giles watching, coming to the conclusion that the looks on their faces were ones of reprimand for her boisterous behaviour. She smiled apologetically and the two 'children' went back to sedately playing.
Tara would die for Ashley without question... but by no means as she wanting to rush into that death. If she maintained the spell it would consume her and she would die. There were some days when she felt it already, drawing on her strength, leaving her exhausted... how long could she keep it up? A year? Ten?
"I'm scared Giles... what if something does find us?"
"If it ever does, we'll be waiting... Tara?"
Tara sighed, "I'll do it... I'll revoke the spell..."
"And then we can decide what to do about Ms Rosenberg," Giles added quietly.
"That scares me too," Tara whispered.
Willow stared blankly in the bathroom mirror as she brushed her teeth as vigorously as she possibly could. She lost herself in the mundane task, just watching the movement before she realised she was becoming scarily engrossed in the act of brushing. Spitting the paste out she buried her head under the faucet, losing herself beneath the flow of cool water as though it might wash away her strange behaviour of late. The water ran...over her cheek, dribbling down her chin. She cupped her hands beneath the flow and splashed her entire face, squeezing her eyes shut for a few moments while she fumbled for a towel. Willow daubed at her face before lifting her head to stare into the mirror.
Willow saw her own pale visage staring back at her, a last few rivulets of water snaking down the planes and curves of skin. And in the centre were two coal black eyes instead of her familiar green ones. They stared back at her, huge, dark and empty. An ice-cold feeling gripped her entire body.
She blinked once and opened her eyes to find her ordinary green eyes staring back at her, wide with confusion. Willow frowned and peered intently into the mirror, studying her eyes for any hint of the dark hue she had just seen... was she beginning to see things now? Willow shivered and she quickly left the bathroom to make her last preparations before bed.
A few minutes later she flopped into her bed and drew a blanket up over her head, trying to get that image of herself with black eyes out of her head. First thing tomorrow she would go to the Magic Box...
Her eyes turning black... or seeing Tara again... Willow wasn't entirely sure which was more terrifying.