"Tara is a demon, and I'm taking her with me. She belongs with her family."
It was odd, Tara thought, that she could actually feel her life crashing down around her. Every moment of happiness she had shared with Willow these last weeks and months, every tentative good feeling of belonging to a group, the nascent friendships she had built, all of it was collapsing.
Not only did Buffy, Dawn, Xander, Anya, and Willow - oh, Willow, I can't stand the way you're looking at me - now know that she was a demon, they also knew she had cast a spell to keep them from seeing demons.
They knew she was responsible for their injuries. They knew she was a liar and couldn't be trusted. That she was a bad person, not worthy of friendship, respect, or love. She could feel the weight of their stares as she stood in the middle of the war-torn Magic Box. It was deathly quiet.
And to boot, her father and cousin Beth had just stormed into the shop and were hell-bent on taking her home with them. There was no escape.
She felt hollow. Hopeless.
I wish I were dead. Well, not really. Even if she were to die, the damage was still done. Her reputation, friendships, Willow's love - they were all damaged beyond repair. Dying was no saving grace.
"I wish I had never been born," Tara said.
What happened next was confusing. A sudden riot of light and swirling colors blinded her, and the people in her field of vision slowly faded away, as did the Magic Box. Tara felt her stomach flip over as she was transported to...
Where was she? It seemed to be an empty room, but there were no walls.
A voice behind her said, "So now we'll see."
Tara spun around. In front of her stood a demon in a dress with wild red hair and strange striations on her face.
"We'll see what?" she asked. "Who are you? Where am I?"
The demon chuckled. "You have a lot of questions for someone who was never born," she said.
Tara's mind raced. "My wish? You can actually grant my wish?"
"Can, and did - it's granted. Tara Maclay, you were never born." The demon extended her hand, and Tara numbly shook it. "The name's Halfrek."
It was a lot to take in all at once. "So I was never born. Why am I still here?"
"Quality control!" said Halfrek. "Just want to give you a chance to check over the world without you in it, make sure it's to your satisfaction. Once you approve, well - then it's oblivion for you."
Tara blinked. "I didn't know that wish-granting demons were so...solicitous."
"Oh, we're not always, as a rule," Halfrek said. "But I have some extra time, so..." she shrugged. "Want to see the world?"
It was a different sensation - kind of like how she imagined flying would be, and a little like falling, too. She and Halfrek were traveling high above the landscape.
"Where are we going?"
Halfrek glanced at her. "Back in time, a bit - a few months. Here we are."
Their speed slowed, and they zoomed in on a house. It was Buffy's house. They came to a stop before the picture window. Tara peered inside.
A girl reclined on the couch, flipping through a fashion magazine. Tara's heart gave a lurch - it was Faith.
"What is she doing here?" she hissed.
Halfrek didn't reply, but grasped Tara's arm and guided her forward. They slid through the window and wall as if it were made of gossamer.
Footsteps made Faith look up, and Joyce came down the stairs. "Hey, Mom," Faith said, tossing the magazine aside.
"Hi, honey," Joyce replied. "What do you want for dinner?"
"Oh, I don't know," Faith said. "Whatever." She got up from the couch and followed Joyce into the kitchen.
Tara turned to Halfrek. "What is going on? Why is Faith living here? Where's Buffy?"
Halfrek nodded toward the kitchen. "That is Buffy."
"What?" Realization slowly dawned on her. "Oh, Faith switched bodies with her. But Willow's going to switch them back, right? Are they just plotting the right time?"
Halfrek shook her head. "Willow isn't as powerful a witch without you here," she said. "Or, rather - she's powerful, but she hasn't had anyone to help her learn to focus and control her magic. Creating the katra that you two conjured is beyond her powers right now."
"How long has it been this way?" Tara asked. "That Buffy and Faith have been switched."
"Oh, just two months at this point," Halfrek said.
"Yes, but don't worry," the demon said reassuringly. "In a couple of months Willow will join forces with a witch who will eventually help her to conjure a katra and switch Buffy and Faith back into their own bodies. Of course, Faith is out there right now wreaking havoc in Buffy's name. No one will ever quite trust the Slayer the way they used to, after this."
Tara felt some consternation, but tried to lay it aside. "Well, at least they do get switched back. That's the important thing."
"Of course!" said Halfrek merrily. "Come on, let's go - I have more to show you."
Halfrek grasped Tara's arm and they zoomed out of the Summers house.
"Where are we going now?"
"Forward a few months," Halfrek said.
Tara felt her stomach drop again as they appeared to circle high over Sunnydale, and then zoomed in again. This time they closed in on the Sunnydale campus, and landed in the hallway outside a dorm room.
"Let's go in," Halfrek said.
It was Willow's room, and Willow sat on her bed absorbed in a book. Her face looked drawn. Tara's heart throbbed painfully to see her girlfriend all alone, and so quiet.
"She looks so lonely," she said to Halfrek.
"You might be right," Halfrek said, her face enigmatic.
The door opened behind them. Tara spun reflexively before realizing that the visitor couldn't see them.
Willow looked up from her book. "Hi, Amy," she said.
"Hey, babe," the woman replied, crossing the room to kiss Willow. The kiss lasted long enough to raise Tara's blood pressure by several notches.
"So this is Willow's new girlfriend, huh?" she said to Halfrek. "Hmph."
"New girlfriend, and old friend," Halfrek said. "That's Amy."
"Amy," Tara repeated. "I don't know an Amy."
"Yes, you did," Halfrek replied. "She was Willow's rat."
"Willow's rat Amy? Willow is dating her rat?"
"When you put it like that, it sounds indecent," Halfrek said. "But Amy wasn't always a rat. She was a girl first. She and Willow were friends all through high school. And Willow had some time on her hands, so she eventually figured a way to change Amy back to her old self."
"And the hussy moved right in on her," Tara said indignantly.
"Well, it's not like she was dating anyone," Halfrek pointed out.
"So what's on tap for tonight?" Amy asked from in front of the mirror, where she was fluffing her hair.
Willow looked up. "Um, nothing, really. Buffy's busy, and Xander and Anya are having date night."
"So it's just you and me?" Amy smiled. "Well, that's great. I have some new spells I've been wanting to try."
She pulled a book out of her backpack and handed it to Willow.
Willow looked at the grimoire. "This is dark magic."
Amy waved a hand in the air. "It's not really really dark magic, Willow. It's harmless. And there are some really cool spells in there. There's a locator spell that's twice as powerful as the one we've been working on."
Willow flipped through the book. "Wow."
"I know!" Amy said. "Just think of all the things we could find. And afterward...well, I have a few other spells I'd like to show you tonight." Her tone was lascivious.
Willow looked up as Amy sashayed across the room toward her, and smiled. Tara could tell that her smile was a little forced. "That sounds great."
"We'll have to work on your sexy talk, lover."
Tara turned away as Amy insinuated herself on the bed next to Willow. "I've seen enough," she said to Halfrek. "Can we go?"
Halfrek nodded, and she and Tara exited the room through the ceiling.
"I can't believe the nerve of that rat!" Tara said once they were clear of the dorm room. "Trying to tempt Willow with dark magic. And it's totally obvious that Willow is not into her. I mean, how could she be? She used to be a rodent."
Halfrek shrugged. "You might be right," she said. "Certainly none of Willow's friends is all that thrilled that she's dating Amy."
"Why aren't they trying to talk some sense into her?" Tara asked.
"You know how it is," Halfrek said. "She's in a new relationship, and she's stubborn. She takes their criticism of Amy as their being discomforted by her sexual orientation."
"But she's clearly not happy," Tara said. "Surely they can see that."
"Well, not necessarily," Halfrek said. "You always saw Willow when her guard was down, and she didn't have anything to prove to anyone. She puts up a good front of being happy when she's around the others. Besides, I think you might be seeing what you want to see - she seemed happy enough to me."
"She did not!" Tara said. "Willow is so strong and self-confident - I can't believe anyone thinks this is the real her."
"Her last relationship ended with her boyfriend sleeping with someone else," Halfrek said reasonably. "She wasn't very confident after that. And Amy - well, let's just say that she's not the least manipulative person I've ever seen. She plays on Willow's insecurity."
"But Xander's been her friend for years," Tara protested. "He, of all people, would call her out on this."
"They've been growing apart lately, and soon they'll stop being friends at all," Halfrek said. "Want to see why?"
Numbly, Tara nodded.
Traveling this time was different - Tara didn't feel her stomach flipping over so much as it felt like it was twisting. Noticing her grimace, Halfrek said "Going forward in time feels different than backward. You'll get used to it."
They came to a halt in front of a small, nondescript brick house. Halfrek led her around to the back and they stopped in front of a window well.
"Xander's house," Halfrek said briefly before grasping Tara's hand. They slid easily through the wall into the basement.
Tara could see the back of Xander's head as he slouched on the couch, the remote control in his hand. Then she gasped as he turned his head to grab a can of soda from the side table. Slowly, she walked around the couch.
Xander's face was covered in angry red boils. It made her wince - even looking at them was painful.
Halfrek joined her. "He doesn't go out much anymore. He does telemarketing these days, works from home."
"What happened?" Tara asked.
"My esteemed colleague, Anyanka happened to him."
"But Anya - why would she do this?"
"Oh, you know Anyanka - she's always been a jealous sort, and no one ever really liked her when she was around. Their relationship just sort of fell apart, and she went back to her old ways. And Dawn had a crush on Xander, but when he told her that it could never be, that he thought of her as a kid sister - well, she made a wish."
"A wish," Tara repeated.
"Yes - and it was effective. She wished that he was so ugly that no woman would ever want to be around him. And Anyanka granted her wish - it's her speciality."
Halfrek was silent as Tara took all this in.
"But I don't understand," she finally said. "Sure, their relationship had its problems - but they didn't seem like they were that...unstable."
"Maybe not when you were around," Halfrek said. "But Willow really didn't like Anya, and without you there to mitigate that, well, poor Anyanka. She never had a chance. But oh well! The mortal world's loss is the vengeance demon world's gain. Are you ready to go?"
"Where are we going now?" Tara asked.
"Nowhere in particular," Halfrek said as they zoomed upward, coming to rest again in that featureless place where they had started out. "I've shown you what the world is like without you. Do you think it's a better place?"
Tara was silent for a moment. "No - not really," she finally replied.
"Do you still wish you were never born?"
"No," Tara said. Her sense of loss was overwhelming. An idea struck her. "Can I...take it back?"
Halfrek eyed her. "Take it back?"
"I don't wish I was never born," Tara said. "Is it too late?"
Halfrek smiled at her. "As it happens, it's not too late," she said. "I don't normally do this sort of thing, but I kept an option out on your wish and haven't completely fulfilled it yet."
"Can I go back?"
"Thank you!" Tara burst out, and enveloped the startled Halfrek in a hug.
As she pulled back, she asked "Why are you doing this? I appreciate it - but I didn't think that vengeance demons normally went for this teaching-a-lesson sort of thing."
"We don't," Halfrek said. "I'll get in a bit of trouble with D'Hoffryn and his secretary, Emmy - she hates unfulfilled wishes, so much paperwork - but it's nothing I can't handle. And hey - it's Christmas."
"The season comes earlier every year!" Halfrek chirped. "Now, get back to your life. And remember - every time lesbians kiss, a vengeance demon gets her wings."
The last thing Tara saw before the world dissolved again into swirling lights and colors was Halfrek winking at her.
She reappeared in the middle of the Magic Box. It was as if she had never left.
All of a sudden Spike's fist connected with her nose. "Hey!" she heard Willow shout.
"He hit my nose!" Tara said, recoiling.
Spike reeled back, clutching his forehead, and addressed her father.
"There's no demon in there. That's just a family legend, am I right? Just a bit of spin to keep the ladies in line. Oh, you're a piece of work. I like you."
Tara gingerly felt her nose, confirming that it was still in one piece, before the import of Spike's action sank in. Spike was hurt when he punched her. She wasn't a demon. Her father didn't have any hold over her.
She looked up and found Willow's eyes, basking in the love she saw reflected there.
Her father spoke. "This is insane. You people have no right to interfere with Tara's affairs. We are her blood kin! Who the hell are you?"
Buffy answered him. "We're family."
One by one the rest of the gang joined Buffy, affirming the sentiment and adding that Tara's blood kin would have to go through them to take her away.
"A wonderful family," Tara whispered, and grasped Willow's hand.