Willow felt as if she were wrapped in a cocoon, waiting for the moment in which she would be born anew into the world. Her many adventures in the water had always given her the feeling of being reborn, the fear and shame she felt on the surface washing away as she swam. But this time, there was something...different about it. Willow recalled her earlier thought about having become a different person following her experience two days prior. Well, perhaps she had not become different then, but she certainly had become different now. Being given the gift of being able to fully understand Tara was somehow...magical. Special, even. And unlike anything she had experienced before. There was some pain, but Buffy had always said that pain was the body's way of knowing you're still alive.
"Are you OK, Willow?"
Willow heard the words, and realized that she had her eyes closed. Opening them, she gazed into Tara's own beautiful blue orbs, which still held a note of caution tinged with nervousness. The redhead absently wondered why Tara felt the need to be so cautious around her. There had been the feelings she felt when the blonde had first revived her, and now her fear that whatever she had just done had hurt her. These acts made it rather obvious that Tara was concerned for her welfare, no matter what she did.
"But why?" Willow wondered. "Does she have feelings for me? Whoa...where did that come from? I mean, yeah. I have feelings for her, too. But...I don't know what to do with them. And what do I do if she feels the same way? I mean...she's...well, we're different. But...something tells me we're more alike that I think we are. Let's get back on the tracks for a second, though. Gotta make Tara feel better. After all, Mermaid Tara's cute. But Worried Tara? Not so cute."
"Of course I'm OK, Tara," she said aloud, moving her body over to sit beside the blonde, an arm moving to wrap itself around the other's waist. "And you don't have to be so worried. I feel safe with you. I don't know why, and I can't explain it, but somehow I know that nothing you do can harm me."
Tara turned away at that. She was glad that her hair often covered her face, as it helped in situations like this where she didn't want others to see how emotional she could get. Willow's words, though well meant, made her feel ashamed. The redhead remained ignorant of the fact that the person she considered herself safe with was also the one responsible for causing what very well might have been the most traumatic experience she ever had. And though it had gnawed at Tara's conscience ever since, Willow's presence with her here and now made it worse, especially since the blonde knew that she had to tell her everything. That was why she had performed the spell. She had to make sure that Willow could easily understand what it was that she wanted...no, needed to say. Tara only hoped that she could make her understand that it was an accident.
"Willow...there's something I need..."
Willow leaned over, removing her hand from Tara's waist and moving to put it on the blonde's shoulder. "What is it, Tara?"
Tara flinched as she felt the touch of Willow's bare hand on her own skin. It was not a touch she deserved. At least, not at the moment. There was only one way that she could gain the right to be touched in this manner. It was going to be difficult, so the sooner she said it, the better.
"Willow...do you remember...how we met?"
Willow smiled. What had happened wasn't the sort of thing one easily forgot. "Of course, Tara. It was only two days ago. You saved me from drowning in that cave. And I can't thank you enough for that."
Tara turned to look Willow in the eye. "Don't."
The word gave Willow pause. "Don't? Don't what? Thank you?"
Tara nodded. "I don't deserve your thanks. I don't deserve your...love. I don't deserve you. I'm...evil."
This was something that Willow could not believe. Tara was what other people would consider a perfect vision of loveliness. She certainly did not appear to be an evil creature. After all, evil creatures generally didn't look like beautiful naked women. "How? Tara, please. I don't understand. Saving the lives of others isn't evil. How are you evil? Please, tell me."
Turning away once more, Tara crawled to the water, palm outstretched. Willow watched in silence as the blonde dipped a finger into it and began moving her hand in a circular motion, causing ripples to play across the surface.
Tara forced the words out of her mouth, knowing that there was no way they would come on their own. "Willow, you need to understand. I am..." She paused, trying to come up with the right words. "I am a child of the sea. Unlike anything you may have seen before."
Or perhaps not. Tara turned back to look at Willow, a thought from their earlier conversation coming to the surface. "You mentioned a mermaid you knew?"
Willow nodded. "Yes. Ariel. But what..."
"You said she had a tail," Tara interrupted, turning to look at her legs. "We had tails once. But we gave them up when..."
She faltered, her eyes watering. Sliding over, Willow placed her arm on Tara's side once more, her other moving to Tara's chin, lifting the blonde's head until their eyes met. "Please, Tara. I...I want you to feel comfortable enough to tell me anything. I said that there should be no secrets between friends." She paused, and asked the question that she had, for the past forty eight hours, been silently asking herself.
"Are we friends? Can we be friends?"
"Can we?" Tara thought, her brain working fast to comprehend what it was that she was hearing. Being friends with Willow was something she wanted so much, she knew that even despite their differences, that it wasn't even a question to consider. The fact that they shared a mutual interest in the ocean which had brought them together only strengthened their bond. Tara's desire to bridge the gap between her clan and the human race Willow represented also played a factor: she knew she was already stumbling down Lorelei's path, and so all she could do was to hope for a much happier ending than the one which had crushed that dream.
Willow smiled briefly, knowing that the first connection had just been made. Now was the time to see if it could be taken further. Moving her hand to Tara's face, she brushed back several strands of her long golden hair. "And please don't hide your face from me. I like it. It's beautiful.
"Even the scales? And my gills?"
"Even the gills. And especially the scales. They make you look...exotic. And unique. And I like having things that are...unique. Things that I can call...mine."
Tara's small smile, which she had used to keep Willow's mind at ease, slowly morphed into one of genuine happiness, before it melted as she remembered what she had to do.
Looking directly into Tara's eyes, Willow said, "Now tell me what you have to say. I promise that whatever it is, I won't freak out."
Tara nodded. Knowing that Willow wanted to hear what she had to say made it somewhat easier for her to say it. Not completely, but enough. "Thank you, Willow. Now, as I said, there was once a time that my clan of mermaids had tails. That was before my time. Before...the Change."
"The Change?" Willow echoed curiously.
"Yes, Willow" Tara said. "The Change. When our clan underwent a permanent transformation into the type of creatures...into the type of people we are today. We went from being fully aquatic creatures into hybrids of our previous forms and humans." She passed a hand across her body. "What you see before you...is only half of what we once were. The other half...we changed forever through the use of magic."
Willow sat with her mouth open. For any race to undergo such a dramatic change...it was unthinkable. And there was also the fact that their change was mystical in nature. It made her curious. "Can you...tell me about your magical talents, Tara?"
Tara hesitated, wondering how much of her society she felt comfortable enough telling Willow. Certainly the fact that she now knew of their kind was bad enough. But her abilities were another story. It didn't feel right for her to talk about them, even though magic was a vital part of her society with anyone displaying talent training under the elder Mage of the clan. But even before the Change, it was still considered enough of an aberration to the norm that it caused all those who displayed talent to be distrusted, as if they would somehow cause the fall of their society through some mystical blunder despite their training. That feeling had only been strengthened following the Change, as magic had indeed irrevocably altered their society for the worse in the eyes of many. Since that time, magic had remained a vital part of their lives, people like Baji still held very important roles in society and used for communication with sea creatures and healing. But there were those who merely saw this as a way of maintaining the status quo; the Elders obviously taken their xenophobia over the Change a step too far by never outwardly displaying any hint of how much their society had been altered.
Wondering ever so briefly if she was performing such a blunder, Tara continued, "Our clan has some who can...shape the ocean around them. We're taught from an early age how to use our gifts to better the ocean around us without causing any major alterations. But despite that, there are those in our society who...look down on us. They treat us with scorn, distrust and even outright hatred. This became even worse following the Change, when we used magic to change our society forever."
Willow was afraid to ask the question that came immediately to her mind after hearing this, but she knew she had to say it. Otherwise she would agonize over it for a long time. And, in any event, it was something she felt she had the right to know.
"Why, Tara? Why would your clan go to such great lengths to change who and what they were?"
Tara hung her head down. This was the most painful part of what she had to say. "It was...because an anomaly was introduced into our society."
Willow tried to make some sense of this, but it only made her more confused. "Tara, I don't understand. Why would your race go and do something like that? What could have possibly convinced them that it was a good idea to change who and what they were?"
Tara looked up at Willow, her eyes shining with the tears she somehow managed to keep in check. "Love."
"Love?" Willow echoed with some surprise. "Tara, I don't know how it is with your clan, but where I come from, love is something precious and special, and certainly not something to cause anyone to do something incredibly stupid. I mean, yeah, love makes you do the wacky sometimes. And unless it's dangerous, you wouldn't even think twice about doing it. But from the look of you, it certainly wasn't dangerous. I mean, if it could make you look like that..."
Willow realized two things at that moment. She was babbling incoherently as she often did when she was nervous, nearly letting things out that she really should not. But more importantly, her words were making Tara look downtrodden once again. Whether it was from her words or the fact that she had interrupted her, Willow could not tell. At some basic level, however, she realized that it didn't matter. The blonde held a great deal of pain inside of her, and the conversation was making it slowly seep out as if she had suffered a grievous wound.
Willow hoped she could be a band aid for Tara's pain. "I'm sorry, Tara. I didn't mean..."
"No, Willow," Tara replied, a sad look on her face. "You're right. Love is something precious and special. And Lorelei must have known this as well. That must have been why she decided to meet that human and...prove her love."
The pieces fell into place in Willow's mind at that, the picture they formed not a pretty one to see. "You mean...one of your clan met a human, transformed herself and..." She stopped there, the final phrase of her comment unsaid, yet mutually understood between her and Tara, who nodded her head in answer to Willow's question.
"When the Elders of the Clan found out, they put both Lorelei and the male to death. But, it was too late. The anomaly had entered our society."
Willow understood now what Tara meant by anomaly. "You mean a child."
"And so, in order to hide the truth of its origins, your clan transformed themselves?"
Tara nodded. "And that's not all. The incident caused the clan to distrust humans and shun all contact with them. It became a law that any human that violated our territory was to be killed."
Willow's eyes shot open, suddenly growing wary for Buffy's safety. "Am I...did we...Tara, have Buffy and I...violated your territory?"
"No, Willow," Tara answered. "This cave is close to our borders, but isn't inside our territory. I chose it as my hiding place so that I could feel safe, yet be able to..."
"Spy on humans."
Willow's lips formed a smile. Despite all she appeared to be, Tara was someone curious about the outside world. "So...you're like a peeping tom?"
Willow blushed, realizing that Tara had no way of understanding some of the more esoteric human terms. "Someone who watches others from afar while they do things that..." Her brain caught up with her words as she recalled what she had been doing before Tara had rescued her. "You mean you saw me..."
Tara could see how much Willow was getting flustered about that, and swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat. Somehow she knew that this would happen if the redhead ever found out. "You're upset, aren't you?"
Willow grew puzzled at the question, especially considering how much she found herself wondering that exact same thing. She felt that she certainly had the right to be upset. Or, at the very least, be embarrassed beyond all recognition. Masturbating wasn't exactly an activity that one did in the presence of others. That was what made doing it in the pool when she was younger such a turn on. The fact that she could have easily gotten caught at any moment excited her. But no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't be upset with Tara. After all, the ocean was her home, and she had been the one to intrude without permission. It would be akin to her walking into some stranger's house, eating all their food and using their bathroom.
"No, Tara," she said, knowing that her answer was one hundred percent honest, not a single word of it being said in order to make the blonde feel better. "I'm not. It's just that...I spent the better part of my life reading and fantasizing about stuff like that. I never knew there could be anyone out there who could understand...I mean, truly understand what it's like to feel the way I do about water. I...I have a sexual attraction to it, and whenever I immerse myself, I feel as if my body is being caressed by the hands of some imaginary lover. I had my first orgasm touching myself at the bottom of a swimming pool. I couldn't take a shower after gym class because I was afraid of what could happen. I took scuba lessons in order to prolong my fantasies and find new ones. I...I've always felt as if water was the only thing that could...you know, make me feel good in ways I've never felt before."
"People on the surface do this to feel good?" Tara asked, her curiosity piqued by Willow words.
"Some," Willow admitted. "People have specific fetishes that turn them on, but that's one of the rarer ones. It's not exactly a thriving community, despite what you may see on the internet. And, until recently, it was something I kept to myself. I never told anyone. Not my parents, not even my best friend. And I had no problems with it...at least until I got myself trapped in a cave and nearly died."
Tara, who had been growing increasingly happier discussing things with Willow, immediately grew wary and retreated into herself at the redhead's final words. She had forgotten the whole reason that she had started the conversation in the first place. And they had been getting along so well, the beginnings of an emotional bond certainly forming like the links of a chain. But this loose thread popped up once again to shatter her illusions.
She had to do it. She had to say the one thing keeping that chain incomplete. Even if it meant that it would never be fully formed.
"I did it."
Willow looked at Tara, seeing that she had once again hidden her face behind her hair. "What?"
"I did it. I nearly killed you."
Willow smiled. Tara certainly was taking this "delicate, house-of-cards Willow" approach a bit too far, in her opinion. "No, Tara. You couldn't have had anything to do with it. I mean, without you, I would have died. You see, when I went into that cave, I had a piece of rope with me. I tied it to some coral in order to find my way back out. Somehow I managed to lose it. I think the knot must have come loose or something..."
Tara said the word with more force and abruptness than she intended, but it did not matter. After what she had to say, there was the very real chance she would never have the chance talk to Willow again. "I followed you. I had to stop you from getting into that cave. It was where..."
"Where Lorelei and her mate..." Willow added when Tara fell silent. "You mean, that cave is..."
"Yes," Tara confirmed. "The Elders have always said that the cave was cursed. My mother didn't believe them, and so she went there to prove it. I'm not sure, but I think they might have..."
Tara's tale was getting sadder by the moment, and Willow moved to hug her. She wrapped her arms around Tara's waist, resting her head on the blonde's heaving bosom, feeling her chest rise with every breath she took.
Whatever reaction Tara must have been expecting, clearly this was not it. "Willow?"
"I'm sorry," Willow whispered.
Tara couldn't take it. She would not allow her emotions to be played with in this manner. Shrugging off Willow, she retreated to the other side of the rocks. Clearly distressed by this, Willow moved to follow, only to stop short as Tara raised her hands.
"I almost killed you, Willow!" Tara shrieked, her tears flowing forth now unchecked. She buried her face into her knees and continued to cry. "I took away the only thing that kept you safe. I untied your safety line. I was curious. Curious about it. Curious about you. And that curiosity almost led to your death. I thought that I was better than the Elders. I thought I was better than my friends. But I'm not. I'm just as cruel and heartless as they are."
Willow looked down at Tara. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. At the time, she had no idea where the rope had gone. The dream she had the other day had told her, on some unconscious level, that Tara and her near death experience were somehow related. It was a surprise now to hear how right she had been.
And yet...Willow couldn't bring herself to be upset about it. The redhead had known from the moment she had decided to do what she had done that day that she had given her life into the hands of some unknown deity that could take it away from her as easily as it could give it back unharmed. And although that deity did indeed feel it had the right to take her life, it had apparently not counted on Tara arriving to rescue her.
Willow couldn't help but feel more connected to the blonde mermaid than she had before, and she had to let her know this. But first she had to comfort her. "No, you're not."
Those three words caused Tara to hold back further tears and look up at Willow. Instead of seeing the beautiful red haired angel looking back down at her with hatred and disgust, she instead found her holding back her own tears, a look of genuine pain on her face.
"Tara, I don't know much about your clan. But from what I can tell, they are nothing more than a bunch of racist bastards. They think they know what's best for everybody, and do whatever they can in order to maintain their so called perfect vision. But you're different. If you truly were like them, as you say, you would have left me to die."
Tara realized the truth in Willow's words. And it encapsulated what she had thought at the time. Even though she had wanted to go and report the presence of a human so close to their territory, she had instead decided to follow her, ending up saving Willow from what turned out to be a very dangerous situation.
It was true. She was different. And although it was a source of great shame for her for the longest time, at this very moment, she couldn't be happier about it.
Walking back to Tara's side, Willow got on her knees and looked the blonde square in the eye. "Tara, from the moment my eyes first caught sight of you, I've felt something for you. I think you've felt it, too. There's something between us that I think needs to be explored. And I would really like to do so now. You know...if you're willing to as well."
Tara grew ever hopeful, but she still held something back. As Willow's face approached hers, she kept expecting something to happen that would bring an end to this perfect moment. An earthquake. The return of Willow's friend. Something. She didn't know what. All she knew was that this could not be happening.
But as the distance between her and Willow closed, she realized that nothing could ruin the moment. Tara had told Willow the one thing she thought she could never say. And Willow didn't care. Not only that, but she was prepared to give herself completely to the one person who could truly understand what it felt like to be one with the ocean.
Their lips came together. Tenderly at first, then opening and moving more voraciously. Their tongues probed each others mouths as their hands moved to caress each other's bodies.
Willow pulled away from Tara and got to her feet. Tara whimpered as Willow's touch left her, wondering if she had done something wrong. Her fear faded as she watched Willow reach for the ring attached to her garment and began to lower it.
Tara watched in growing surprise as Willow began, with some degree of difficulty, to remove the clothing from her body. Pulling her arms out of the top as she brought the zipper down, the redhead then wiggled her hips in order to get it down over the lower half of her body. Finally, she sat down, working her legs the rest of the way out, fully exposing her body to the chilled air.
Tara took in the sight of the beautiful naked body she had fallen in love with the moment her eyes first gazed upon it as it was revealed to her once again, in all of its wondrous glory. She knew that, unlike the last time, she was now free to look upon it without concern for the redhead's well being. And that now, with Willow's words fresh in her mind, she had the right to touch the other girl without fear.
"There we go," Willow said, a smile on her face as she placed the clothing down near the rest of her gear. Turning back to Tara, her smile deepened. "Like I said before, Tara, there shouldn't be anything between us. Not even clothing."
Tara's heart thumped against her chest as Willow approached her once again. This time, they would come together without interruption. Without hesitation. It brought a smile to her face. A fusion of the land and the sea. And she knew that there would be no regrets between them about it.
From behind the cover offered by the coral outcroppings, the two male mermaids watched as the female human traveled towards the surface. One held a knife carved from a shark bone, dark eyes boring into the female who, unaware of their presence, continued her journey. The pair, like others of their kind, had been patrolling the borders of their territory for days, hearing that there had been an intrusion by humans near their colony. Out of fear of a new human invasion, the Elders had dispatched patrols across their borders.
It appeared that the Elders concerns were valid.
"So it is true," the merman with the knife said to his companion. "The humans are encroaching on our territory."
"This cannot be permitted," the other spoke, blue eyes cold and unfeeling. "We know what we must do."
The first mermaid brandished his knife, then kicked his legs slowly, swimming away, all the while keeping to the corals for cover. His companion followed silently, the pair waiting for the right moment to make sure that the human never returned to the surface.