Willow was underwater, struggling to free herself from the discarded fisher's net in which she had become entangled. Moaning around the regulator between her lips, she lamented her predicament. Why had she decided to go diving alone in the middle of the night? It was stupid of her to have done that. And when her head began to hurt, she should have realized that something was wrong and headed for the surface. But before she could, a wave of nausea had passed over her and knocked her out. When she came too, all she could think about was getting to the surface as fast as she could. Unfortunately, in her haste, she managed to completely miss, and thus get trapped in, this blasted net.
Panic rising in her chest, Willow tried once again to free herself, but only managed to make things worse. Pausing in her struggles, she grabbed the air pressure gauge hanging from her side and looked at it. Her eyes shot opened as she saw the needle nearing the red zone. Flailing about, she tried once again to free herself from the net, realizing that unless she got out now, or someone came to help her, she was going to run out of air and drown.
Willow's frantic struggling paused as she saw a shape emerge from the depths of the sea, her fear evaporating as she recognized what it was. It was Tara, the luscious blonde mermaid coming to save the redhead, much as she had done before when Willow had been tossed overboard.
"She's going to rescue me," Willow thought, her fear and panic fading. "I knew that Tara would come to rescue me. I knew she wasn't cold and heartless."
But instead of moving to free Willow from her prison, Tara simply floated in front of her, a small smile beginning to form on her lips that suggested neither love nor compassion. Willow's eyes shot open as she saw this, realizing that Tara hadn't come to help rescue her, but was instead going to sit back and watch her drown. She screamed, the regulator falling from her mouth as she did, and continued to struggle against the source of her entrapment, hoping that Tara was just playing around and that seeing the redhead in genuine distress would convince her to come save her.
Clamping her lips shut, Willow stared pleadingly at Tara, noticing that her face was looking more menacing by the moment, all remnants of its former passivity gone. But thoughts of Tara and how she had been were driven from the redhead's mind as she realized that she needed to get fresh oxygen into her lungs immediately, even though she knew that there was none available to her. Willow felt her chest heave as she finally exhaled, sucking a copious amount of sea water into her lungs as she involuntarily inhaled. Trying to force the foreign invasion out of her body only resulted in further intrusions, but Willow could not help herself. Her body quickly began filling with water, oxygen and her strength leaving her body with every convulsion she suffered.
And as her eyes began to glaze over, Willow could only stare vacantly at Tara's face, an anguished look of pain and betrayal on her own. And watch as the blonde laughed at the redhead dying in front of her, her face cruel and contorted into one of devilish amusement.
Willow awoke with a start from her nightmare, the sheets knotted around her body as if she had been acting out the struggle that had taken place in her mind. Shivering, she realized then that her body was drenched in sweat and that her breath was coming in panicked gasps. Turning to look out the window, she could see that the sun was high in the sky, its rays shining through the window down on her body.
Turning around to look at the clock, she was surprised by the fact that it was approaching noon. Moving to get up, Willow glanced at her nightstand, seeing the pearl resting beside her lamp where she had put it last night. Looking at it now, with the memory of her nightmare still fresh in her mind, brought to the surface the redhead's confusing, and still conflicted, feelings for the blonde mermaid. No matter how much she tried, Willow still couldn't decide how to deal with the idea that Tara could have had a hand in Buffy's death. And despite her attempt to send good feelings to Tara last night, and her constant attempts to tell herself that Tara had nothing to do with it, the nightmare she had just had made looking at the pearl now a difficult task. Doing so made her feel a mixture of the love she had always felt for Tara and the cold disgust that had been growing deep in the pit of her stomach that made her feelings for Tara questionable at best. Willow knew that her thoughts were making her feel like she was on a knife's edge and could topple at any moment, and it didn't really do a great deal towards making her feel any better.
Moving to the washroom, Willow took a quick shower, the water spraying against her body in a hard and unforgiving way, as if it was trying to remind her how much her love for it had played a role in the events of the last few days. Stepping out of the shower a few minutes later, she dried herself with a large towel and moved back to her room to put on a fresh pair of underwear and her bathrobe. Walking to the kitchen to make herself breakfast, Willow found herself moving to Buffy's room shortly after making it, the majority of her meal uneaten on the table.
As she stood in front of the door to her best friend's room, Willow's hand moved to the knob as she mentally prepared herself to walk inside the room and see everything that would remind her of happier times with her best friend. Though some time had passed, the wound of Buffy's loss was still fresh enough to make her prepare herself for what she was about to do. Pausing as her fingertips brushed the knob, Willow found herself walking back to her own room, entering it and looking once more at her nightstand, the pearl still resting on it.
Walking over and taking it into her hand, Willow thought about what she should do with the smooth marble. The thought that she should throw it out the window and let it smash into a million pieces on the ground below entered her mind briefly, but left just as quickly. No matter what Tara had done, it didn't seem right to destroy something that was precious to her and that she had given to Willow freely. But could she keep it in her possession knowing that her feelings for Tara were still up in the air? What if she decided that she no longer loved Tara? What would she do with it then?
Willow's thoughts shifted suddenly from what to do with the pearl to what she should do today. Packing up Buffy's things was the first thing that came to mind. It was certainly important and something that she should do with the utmost haste. After all, the longer that it remained in the house, the more likely it would be that she would grow too attached to it and decide not to let it go. Better to get it all out of the house now before she decided to keep it all in a desperate hope to keep Buffy's memory alive.
But on the other hand, perhaps she should, one way or another, find a way to bring closure to her feelings for Tara. It would certainly make packing Buffy's things easier for her if she could decide how she truly felt about the one who could have played a role in what happened, now that she knew for sure what had happened. And despite her pain, Tara needed, and rightfully deserved, to know how she really felt about it.
Closing her hand around the pearl and feeling its energy course through her arm, Willow tried to project a message to Tara, trying also to keep her negative feelings from clouding her mind.
"Tara? Are you there? Can you hear me? Please...talk to me."
Tara sat cross legged near the dwelling she kept inside the borders of her clan, glancing above at the surface of the water. Her attention, however, was focused on her private thoughts. She knew the geography of the area well, and knew that where she was sitting was near the exact center of her clan's territory. And all around her were people that would harm her if they found out that the cause of their current fears and concerns was among them and had been spying on humans ever since she was a child. What could make the situation worse than that was having someone discover what she had done to Willow, not only magically, but physically. That would definitely make people think of her as a dangerous person that was bringing disaster down upon them all, much like they thought Lorelei had done in the distant past.
"I never wanted this," she thought with disgust directed not towards her kind, and certainly not towards Willow, but towards herself. She had known that this was a potential consequence for her actions the moment this began. And she had taken every precaution to make sure nothing bad could happen. But she hadn't counted on Willow bringing anyone else to see her. She hadn't counted on the two of them entering their territory to do so. And though she knew that the Elders would do whatever necessary steps to keep their territory safe, she certainly hadn't counted on their fears and prejudices making them paranoid enough to do something as drastic as killing an innocent person who unknowingly violated them. Those same fears and prejudices had been much a part of her life, yet they were so for reasons that she had, until recently, never really understood.
It was merely the latest obstacle in her struggle to fight between what she was because of her birthright and what she hoped to become through learning and experience. That struggle had eventually led Tara to Willow, who was the first to see her not as a creature that could bring harm down upon others, but as a person of love and care that was special in a way that only the redhead could understand fully. It had made Tara proud to know that Willow looked at her and saw the one link to a place that she had always dreamed of going, yet had until now, had never managed to find.
It was ironic that, despite all of her best efforts, the place Willow had always wanted to go had also been the place where her best friend's life had been brought to an end. For that reason alone, Tara wanted to howl at the top of her lungs. It had been the first time she had to deal with more than suspicion and bigotry on the part of her clan, any injustices they may have committed before the Change being lost throughout time. She had never in her lifetime experienced an act as horrific as this and Tara hoped that she would never have to again.
Her thoughts turned away from the disgust she felt about the act and the hatred of her kind as she became aware of a subtle imprint against her mind. It was as if someone had placed a pair of fingers on the back of her skull and was attempting to work them through the skin in order to get into her head. Shutting her eyes and attempting to concentrate, Tara tried to figure out the source of the invasion into her mind, one she immediately identified when she heard a familiar voice in the intrusion.
"Tara? Are you there?"
Although relieved to hear Willow's voice, Tara quickly recognized that what was going on could easily discovered by anyone with magical talent. Unlike before, when the redhead had imprinted her feelings onto her, there was no danger of what was going on being discovered by anyone else, as there was little disruption in the currents and flow of the energies that could be detected. This time, however, with Willow actually communicating to her, there was a danger. And with the situation the way it was, with everyone on a heightened sense of alert, even the slightest of disruptions would be investigated with the utmost urgency.
Turning her head to look around, Tara breathed a sigh of relief when she noticed that there was no one taking apparent notice of what was going on. But that didn't mean she was safe. What Willow was doing was unfocused, and thus could be easily felt by anyone with even the most basic magical talents. The chances were very good that anyone else who could interpret this would most likely pass it off as a mild headache, however, so that meant she had to act quickly before anyone could have the chance to interpret it as anything else.
"Oh, Tara! I need...I need to talk. I'm going to come back to the place I was when we met.... first met! First met! I don't want to come back to where we had come yesterday and find myself under attack by...whatever attacked Buffy. I...I think that we...need to talk. About us."
Willow's presence left her mind rather abruptly after that final statement, leaving Tara to wonder just what it was that she wanted to talk to her about. Why was she coming back to her? Didn't Willow realize how much danger she was putting herself in by doing this? Of course she did. She had to. Buffy had been killed by others of her kind. Willow had to know this by now. So why was the redhead coming back to her?
It had to be love. It had to be the same love that Willow felt for Buffy and brought her to the decision to bring her to meet Tara. It had to be the same love that had brought the two of them together in the first place. It had to be the same love that had made both of them decide to join together in the one way that could never be taken away by anybody, not even themselves. And it was love that was going to bring Willow back to her, even though it could mean both of their deaths.
Tara tried to keep herself from crying, realizing what it was that Willow was doing. She was once again making a choice that could doom her life. Not only that, she was making a decision that could doom Tara's own and those of her clan. But there was still one very vital question that was unanswered by her thoughts: what did Willow want to say that would make her decide to go to all this trouble and risk the potential danger that her actions represented? If she wanted to say that she didn't want to be near Tara anymore, there were other options for her to do so. She could have spat out a rather blunt series of expletives that would be stamped into the blonde's mind for the rest of her existence. She could have said absolutely nothing at all, the very situation that Tara feared the most. She could have even destroyed the pearl, an act that would have been easy for her to do, and the magical aftershock of which would definitely make an impression on her.
But Willow didn't do any of those things. She said she wanted to talk. That was a start, and it meant that there was still hope for them. That bridge had already been built, and even though there were some loose planks, Willow's words had given Tara the confidence that the redhead wanted very much to repair it. That meant she had to pursue it, regardless of the risk to either Willow or herself.
But how could she, with countless guards patrolling the borders by now and any attempt on her part to leave the borders only serving to confirm her role in what had happened to all?
Tara would find a way to circumnavigate them. She had to get to her private cave. She had to see Willow again.
Even if it was for the last time.
Faith's sandal clad feet slapped against the wooden planks of the docks, the noise created by her actions reminding her of the sound of breaking bones. And, by association, her uncomfortable feelings that she had felt towards dealing with Buffy's body the previous day when she had been fearful of breaking the blonde's limbs as she worked them out of her wetsuit. Trying not to think about that, she instead cast her thoughts back on what she had done since encountering Willow.
Returning to the homeless shelter, she wondered why, with the income that had come from her lifeguard job, she would choose to continue to live in a dumpy, run down building on the bad side of town. It was a simple question that had an even simpler answer, at least in her mind. She did it because, although she was working hard and had the ability to live a better life, she didn't want to forget where she had come from. If she started to live the good life, she would grow accustomed to it. And in her experience, it didn't do any good to try to hold on to that which she knew would never last.
Besides, of all the places she had lived in during her trip to California, it was at that building where her life, a life without trouble, fear or the stigma of being labeled, had really started.
And it was all thanks to that mysterious stranger. Even today, Faith could easily recall the events that had happened the day she had met the man she only knew as Angel. Looking at him, she could immediately tell that he was someone who tried to find the good in everybody, no matter how they acted or how they looked. That had been something in her favor, as she had walked into the shelter that night wearing an ensemble that could only describe as "colorful", though anyone else would have made far less tactful comments.
Angel took her into a room and asked that Faith talk to him about her life. She did, telling him everything about her past and what her life had been like at home, including how much she enjoyed swimming in the water and how she considered it a means to cleanse herself of the pain she often felt when dealing with the pressures of real life. As the conversation continued, Faith began to realize that she was doing most of the talking. All Angel had done was nod politely and say that he understood what it was that the brunette was saying.
And when Faith had finished talking, he had said something that would affect her for the rest of her life.
"Going down the path you're on now will only ruin you, Faith. I think you know this; otherwise you wouldn't be trying to do something about it. But you don't have to go to the extreme in order to make a difference in other people's lives. Sometimes the most powerful change can come from the gentlest strike. You're a rare breed, Faith. You're a person who genuinely wants to do right, even if you have to do something you don't want to do in order accomplish it. And even though you've have a rough life, you keep caring about others. That makes you special. And someone like you can do well in the world...if you know how."
It was then that Angel recommended that Faith get into the lifeguard business. He thought that it was the best way to combine the brunette's two passions: helping others and swimming. And Faith couldn't deny that it had done wonders for her life. She had a purpose now, she knew that she would be doing her best to make other people feel safe, and best of all, she had made a friend that would be proud of her and one that, unlike the others she had made during her travels, she would never lose.
At least, a friend Faith thought she would never lose. Thinking about Buffy made the weight of her loss crash against her once again; a dull ache the brunette knew she would have for a long time. Faith wondered if it would ever fade. Could she go on with her life without being haunted by this memory? Perhaps not, but at least she could try to make the impact she would get from dwelling on that less forceful by finding out what had happened. And since she wasn't going to get it from Willow (which, despite what had happened between them, did more than enough to keep her suspicions of the redhead firmly in the back of her mind), she was going to have to find it herself.
Walking up to the rental agency office, Faith looked at the man on duty, hoping he could give her the answers she wanted. "Hi, I'm Faith. We talked earlier in the day?"
"Ah, yes," the man replied, a small sparkle in his crystal blue eyes. "You're the young woman who inquired to us about looking into our boat rental records."
"If you don't mind, miss, can I ask why?"
Faith licked her dry lips, knowing that it was going to be difficult to get what she wanted. "I'm...investigating an incident that happened the other day at Santa Monica Beach. I have reason to suspect that it happened out in the ocean, and I wanted to see who has been out there recently."
The man gave her a quizzical glance. "Are you a cop, miss?"
Faith paused, but realized that she couldn't lie. It wasn't in her nature to deceive anyone, even when it was for the greater good. "No."
The man went back to his paper. "Then I'm afraid I can't let you see the records. You would need to get a warrant before we can allow you to do that."
Faith swallowed hard. She knew that it wasn't going to be easy to get what she wanted. And the clerk's refusal to help meant that she would have to resort to less acceptable acts in order to get what she wanted. Taking off her hat, she shook her head, shaking out her hair to its full length. She then stretched her arms behind her head, displaying her impressive chest, barely covered by the white tank top she wore, for all to see. It disgusted her to have to do this, reminding her of the times when she had to resort to selling her body on the street in order to get money. She only hoped that it would have the desired effect she wanted, and that it would come quickly, lest anyone besides her target get the wrong impression about what she was doing.
Looking up, the man saw the private display of Faith's charms and blushed. "But I guess I can make an exception in your case, miss. Come on in, and I'll get you started."
Faith was disgusted by what she had to do in order to get what she needed, but at least it had been worth it. She sat in front of a desk, a couple of binders open on top of it. She had taken one, which contained the records of the people who had rented boats for the previous six months, and gone over it, starting at the previous day and working her way backward over the past three months. And though there were many names listed, one stood out among the rest.
Willow Danielle Rosenberg.
Seeing that name on the majority of the pages she had gone through made Faith's suspicions about the redhead resurface. Willow had said that she had nothing to do with what happened. Even if that were true (and she still didn't firmly believe that), what reason did she had to take a boat out nearly every weekend for the last three months, presumably all by herself? What exactly was it that she did out there?
Rubbing her chin, Faith closed the binder and set it aside. Getting up, she made her way to the door and stepped out of the building. As she turned around, she saw a very familiar face walking down the wooden pathway towards the rental office, head thankfully tilted down and unaware of what was in front of her.
Moving to hide behind one of the nearby docked boats, Faith watched as Willow, whom she now noticed was holding a bag in one hand, walked up to the building and began to talk to the clerk. It was all the brunette could do to stop herself from confronting the redhead right then and there. If she did, she knew that she would never know what it was that Willow was up to.
Something about the situation still gnawed away at Faith. She desperately wanted to believe that Willow had nothing to do with Buffy's death, no matter how much the evidence continued to point in the opposite direction. The reaction she had given to being accused of Buffy's murder had certainly confirmed to her that the redhead could not have known about what happened. But Faith knew from past experience how easy it could be for one to manipulate the emotions of another, and it would certainly have been easy for Willow to toy with her on this issue, making a joke out of the fact that she had killed Buffy and, worse than flaunting it to the brunette's face, insisting that she had nothing to do with it.
And being the type of person who would believe almost anything under those circumstances, Faith naturally took all in hook, line and sinker. Even though she still had doubts after what had happened the previous day, she had mostly shoved them to the side out of respect to Buffy. Faith knew that the blonde wouldn't want her to be thinking ill of her best friend. But given what was now readily apparent, she felt foolish at how easily she had been tricked.
And muttering a silent apology to Buffy, she realized that disrespecting the dead may be justified if she was doing so to the blonde's murderer. Watching Willow walk off, Faith cautiously moved out of her hiding place and headed back to confront the clerk at the rental building. "What was that about?"
Jerking her thumb back, Faith said, "The redhead who was just here. What did she want?"
"Oh, her," the man replied. "She comes in every weekend and rents a boat. I guess she just loves the ocean a bit too much. This is the third time this week she's been here. Yesterday she came in with a blonde, but I remember that she came back alone looking pretty distressed, as if something had happened while she was away."
Faith's resolve hardened at hearing the man's words. She had been willing to give Willow the benefit of the doubt out of respect for Buffy. But now that she had evidence that could support her earlier assumptions, Faith was going to confront Willow and find a way to wring a truthful answer about what happened out of her. And this time, she wouldn't accept anything less than the truth.
"I need to borrow a boat."
Willow sat on the boat, looking out at the water around her. Unlike her previous trips into the deep, it was somewhat of an effort for her to do so. For the longest time, she felt as if the ocean was the only thing in her life that made her feel complete. And now the one thing that had given her comfort and love had seen fit to both give to her and take away the only two people who could understand how she truly felt about it.
She shook her head, realizing now that what she was thinking simply wasn't true. It had become painfully obvious to her that as much as Buffy understood her, Tara understood her more. But the redhead still couldn't help but wonder how much of that was lies and deceit. The blonde mermaid had seemed so sincere, and yet the events that had happened since they had met caused her to question how sincere Tara really was. Willow desperately wanted to believe that Tara had nothing to do with what had happened, and she knew that there was only one way she was going to find out.
Getting to her feet, Willow began to strip out of her clothes until they were piled in front of her. Hesitating for a fraction of a second, she moved to take off her bra and panties as well, setting them down on top of the bundle. As she stood naked in the center of the boat, the breeze caressing her bare skin, Willow suddenly became aware of the fact that her hands were beginning to play across her body, her right drifting across her taut stomach before moving up to breeze between her breasts while her left moved to graze at the red curls of her sex.
Quickly realizing what she was doing, Willow forced herself to stop. As she did, a sense of guilt draped itself over her body. This is what the water had done to her; it made her unknowingly do things she knew were dangerous and stupid. The redhead, in realizing this, also realized that Tara may not have changed her at all. Maybe she had always been like this, using the fear and shame she felt about keeping her fetish for swimming and diving private as an excuse to keep her from doing to harm not only herself, but to others. If she hadn't snuck into that pool, she never would have taken up diving. If she had never taken up diving, then she wouldn't have knowingly violated the territory of a secretive and private race. And if she had never done that, she wouldn't have met...
Willow was quickly growing more confused about what was going on in her mind. If things hadn't happened the way they had, then she never would have met Tara. And it made her feel guilty to think about what may have happened to her had she never met the luscious blonde. True, Buffy would still be alive, but she would still be a paranoid recluse, keeping her private self a secret for much longer than she had until she let it out to Buffy in a different way. Would she still be alive if she had done that? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
And as much as Willow couldn't shake the insignificant, yet ever present negative feelings she had begun to feel towards Tara, Willow couldn't completely lose the powerful feelings she had for her either. She had done nothing wrong, after all. True, she did keep the secret of her clan's xenophobia, but she did eventually tell her. Yes, it didn't happen in the most flattering way, but it did happen. And if Tara really had anything to do with what happened to Buffy, would she really have done that?
This realization made it all the more important for Willow to talk to Tara, if for no other reason than to ask for her help in sorting through the jumbled thoughts of her mind. Picking up the bag she had brought with her, Willow withdrew a mask and a pair of fins, slipping them both onto her body. Moving to the side of the boat, she stepped off it, hit the water feet first and began to swim towards Tara's private cave, hoping all the while that she would not suffer the same fate that her friend did.