Bringing her boat beside the one Willow had abandoned, Faith looked around, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. Seeing nothing that looked out of the ordinary nearby, she peered into the boat, finding a small pile of clothes inside. Picking up the shirt, she recognized it as the one that she had seen Willow wearing earlier. The brunette's brow creased in thought as she wondered why Willow would want to be naked out in the middle of the ocean.
She realized, however, that the answers to those questions didn't really matter at the present time. What did matter was that the clothes provided evidence that Willow was somewhere nearby. And when she found her, Faith would get the answers she wanted. Moving to collect the scuba gear she had rented along with the boat, she stripped out of her tank top and shorts, revealing the lifeguard swimsuit that she had gone back to the shelter to put on, knowing she would have to go into the ocean. The swimsuit that, Faith noted soberly, still had traces of Buffy's blood across it. Faith never had time to wash it after she got home last night. And to be honest, she wasn't sure if she was ever going to do it. Thinking for a moment about that, the brunette wondered if she was trying desperately to cling to the past by not washing her swimsuit. By not doing that, was she trying to preserve something of Buffy's life in her mind? Was that psychologically sound? Surely being reminded on a daily basis of the blonde's death wouldn't do wonders for her mental health.
But the simple truth of the matter was that she didn't have anything else to wear that was appropriate for what she had to do. And it had been a good idea to wear her tank top and shorts over it as she went to the dive shop, since anyone who looked her way (and given her figure, most people did) would no doubt see the blood and start to get ideas that Faith really didn't want others to start cultivating about her.
As she moved to strap on the gear, Faith hoped that Willow hadn't gone too far. And that despite what she had just learned, she could phrase her comments more diplomatically. All things considered, it would be easier for her to get the answers she wanted from Willow if she didn't snap at her like she did last time.
No matter how badly she wanted to.
Willow glided through the ocean, breathing as easily as if she were breathing from a tank. Despite all that had happened, it was still an incredible and indescribable feeling for her to be able to do this, and she knew that it should be making her happier than she had ever been. But no matter how much she wanted to enjoy what she was doing, the knowledge of her ability's origin, mixed with her feelings towards the task at hand, unsettled her. Her concern was no longer out of fear for what happened to Buffy, but the unshakable feelings of worry about how to explain her recent revelations to Tara.
She had been thinking about it ever since she had woken up, and the more she had, the more Willow realized that no matter what evidence could be presented to convince her otherwise, Tara had nothing to do with what had happened to her best friend. If there was one thing that Willow knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was people's capacity for doing things in the heat of the moment they later regretted. After all, if she hadn't been such a spaz about revealing her deepest secret to Buffy, Willow wouldn't have felt the need to invite her to go visit Tara, and the blonde would still be alive. And though Tara had no real role in what happened, there was no doubt that she was blaming herself for everything. After all, in her mind, she had hurt Willow. And Willow could only imagine how much that was troubling Tara, knowing how important her safety was to the blonde.
They were both going through an incredible amount of pain right now, and Willow hoped that each of them could help the other through it. Seeing Tara's cave as she came back to the present, Willow looked around to see if there was anyone nearby, then swam towards the entrance. Pausing for a moment to collect herself, she entered the cave, one hand moving to graze the stone wall.
Sitting on the edge of the boat, her back to the water, Faith clamped her lips around the regulator of the tank and drew a breath, the act causing a burst of air to travel down her throat. She smiled around the device, thankful that the equipment she had rented was in proper working order. Not that she believed that it was damaged or anything, but it never hurt to make sure. After all, she was putting her life in the hands of equipment that was not her own and could fail at any moment. Even though she had worked well with others and was as much a team player as her job required, she still found it difficult to put her life into the hands of anything that might not be dependable. It had a lot to do with the way she lived. Living on her own for as long as she had didn't make it easy for her to open up to others about her feelings. Buffy had been the only one with whom she felt comfortable doing so, and now she was gone. It would have been easy for Faith to believe that the fact that she had opened herself to Buffy was the reason why she was gone. But that wouldn't do her any good. Willow was still the only one who could explain what happened.
Having already put on her fins and weight belt, Faith moved to slip her mask on over her eyes and nose. Once it was on, she secured both it and the regulator to her face with one hand and dove into the water. The minute she hit it, Faith immediately felt a tingle pass across her body, a feeling that persisted and began to grow as she swam away from the boat, the only sound she heard the rhythmic pulse of her own breathing. As the tingling of her skin intensified, Faith began to think how funny it was that she had never thought about doing this before. Having been taught the basics of diving while being trained as a lifeguard, she knew how to do it without putting herself in danger. And since she knew how, she could have easily decided to do it during her free time. But it had never really occurred to her to go diving for anything other than rescuing trapped individuals from boat wrecks and downed planes. And it really made sense for her to think that. Doing things for the fun of it wasn't something that she did very often. The minute she started doing something for her own enjoyment, it became less about helping others and more about fulfilling her own desires. And she never wanted to do that. Other people came before she did.
And it was because of other people that she was here. She wanted to make sure that she had a reason for Buffy's untimely and unnecessary demise. The time for letting Willow off the hook had long passed. And one way or the other, Faith was going to get an answer now.
Looking around, Faith tried to see if there was anywhere that Willow could have gone. Seeing no evidence of either the redhead or a place where she could hide nearby, Faith began to swim around, looking to see if there was any place for Willow to run off.
Tara sat on the rocks inside her cave, waiting for Willow to arrive. She could feel that the redhead was close, her unmistakable imprint permeating through every one of Tara's senses. Despite her happiness at knowing that Willow was coming, Tara was still unsure about what it was that she wanted to talk to her about. The apprehension Tara felt before was amplified tenfold now, knowing that the redhead had decided to come to her to discuss it, something that Tara couldn't believe Willow would do. For her to do what she was doing was incredibly risky and dangerous to her life.
It was easy for Tara to feel so conflicted about Willow approaching her. Being in the redhead's presence was something that had brought her incredible pleasure every time it had happened before, even if every time had been punctuated by an incident that had cast a cloud over her feelings. That cloud had done a great deal towards making her fearful about what was happening now. In order to get past the patrols guarding the borders of her colony, she had used her magic to cloud her presence. It was a simple spell, and one that could be easily enacted without anyone noticing a major disturbance in the life force of the Mother Ocean. But that still didn't make Tara feel better about doing it. If anyone were to discover that she was missing, the Elders would send someone to search for her. And if the search party were to find her together with Willow, then they would both be in trouble.
Tara tried to push those thoughts from her mind, telling herself once again how much the perfect union she and Willow had formed would be good for the entire clan, no matter how much the Elders claimed otherwise. It was starting to become her mantra. Every time she thought about the negative aspects of her current situation, she would repeat that what she was doing was for everyone's benefit. It helped to assuage her fear for a time, but it would always come back, stronger than it had been before.
For a fleeting moment, Tara wondered if it would ever reach the point where even saying that wouldn't make her feel any better. And for an even briefer moment, she almost wished that someone from the clan would find the two of them together. Then she would be able to show them without any fear or doubt how much love could indeed bring about a much needed change in the way they lived. But the thought was too selfish to remain in her mind for very long. For while Tara wanted to show others that she loved Willow very much, she also wanted the redhead to be safe. And she couldn't have both.
Turning her head to look into the water below, she saw someone approaching. Recognizing it as Willow, Tara faintly smiled as she saw the redhead approaching the surface, the fear and trepidation she still felt within her heart making it less prominent on her face. But she promised herself to try and make sure that her happiness would be apparent to Willow. Despite all that had happened before, Tara knew that both of their lives would change forever in the next few minutes, and she didn't want her fear to be a negative influence.
Breaking through the surface of the water, Willow was pleased to see Tara lying nearby, as if she had been waiting for her to arrive. Not that it was surprising to find her here. After all, this was her private place. But Willow thought that she would have to wait for her to show up. Something about the way that Tara held herself, however, made Willow feel uneasy. Although she no longer felt any hostility or suspicion towards Tara, Willow couldn't help but feel that the blonde was once again keeping something from her. Whatever it was, she hoped that Tara would have the courage to tell her. After all, there should be no secrets between friends. And if they truly considered each other friends despite all that had happened, revealing that secret would be the first act in rebuilding the bridge they had made that the actions of others had nearly shaken apart.
Swimming over, Willow moved to join Tara on the rocks, the faintest of smiles on her lips. “Hi...Tara."
“Hi, Willow," Tara said in reply, then cast her gaze down over Willow's nude body. Noticing this, Willow let out a small chuckle. “I...I thought that you might like to see me...like this." She then looked deep into the blonde's eyes.
“Tara, I need to tell you something..."
Tara turned away, raising a hand. “Please, Willow. If you have come to say your goodbyes, then please do it quickly. It's...it's not safe for us to be together anymore."
Concerned about Tara's feelings, Willow reached out and brushed her fingers across the blonde's arm. Tara held back the impulse to flinch at the touch, knowing that it might be the last time Willow could do this to her, and she wanted the redhead to enjoy the touch of their bare skin together. “Tara, please. Let me explain. I...I feel bad about what happened."
Tara raised an eyebrow. “About what? Willow, you shouldn't feel sorry about what happened. It was my clan that killed Buffy and harmed you. We brought great pain down onto you."
“No, Tara. You didn't do that to me. Your kind didn't do that to me. I...I did it to myself."
Tara could feel something change with Willow's statement, and cast her senses out to pick up on the source of the change. She was surprised to find that it was coming from Willow herself. The redhead's aura, vibrant with passion and life during their previous encounters, was now cloaked in a blanket of insecurity and pain. It was a feeling Tara knew all too well, having felt very much the same way when she had feared to tell Willow that she had nearly caused the redhead's death.
Willow looked at Tara, noting the confused look on her face. Hoping that what she was about to say would be more understandable, Willow continued, “I...I never really talked to anyone in high school. You know, aside from Buffy." Willow involuntarily winced at the sound of Buffy's name, the pain from her loss still too recent. Seeing Tara do likewise, she looked around the cave before continuing, “I told you that...water is something...special to me. And I always feared that if I told anyone, they would make fun of me. I was afraid that people would make me feel like I didn't belong. That I was...I was weird. I...I guess I started using that as an excuse to explain why I could never...never really be open about myself to anyone." At Tara's curious stare, she quickly added, “I mean, having told you and Buffy, I know now that it's not that big of a thing. But back then, I let it eat away at me until I managed to convince myself that it was something about me that was bad and shouldn't..."
Her eyes tearing up, Willow looked away from Tara and glanced out at the water. Crawling over to the edge of the rocks, she extended a finger and dipped it into the liquid. Raising it after a few moments of immersion, she watched water drip from her fingertip. “I let that kind of thinking rule my life, taking me to a place I didn't really want to go. But, as much as I don't like where it took me, I can't..."
Turning back to look at Tara, Willow tried to smile, the roller coaster her emotions were riding making it difficult for her to make it seem genuine. “I can't really...argue about what I found."
Tara stared at Willow as if the redhead had suddenly sprouted a second head. “Willow?"
Willow choked down a sob, her resolve to keep herself under control slipping with each passing moment. “Tara, I'm sorry. I really am. I never should have thought that you...that you had anything to do with what happened to Buffy. It was my fault. All my fault. It could never have been you."
Tara couldn't believe what she was hearing. Was Willow really accepting the blame for what had happened? It was certainly noble of her, but it wasn't right. “But it was, Willow. I know it was. At least, I think it was. I don't know. I had to have done it somehow. I didn't plan for every problem. I didn't take everything into account. I was so concerned about your life that I never thought about..."
Crawling back to where Tara sat, Willow brushed away a strand of the blonde's hair that had been covering her face and stared directly into her eyes. “No, Tara. Don't blame yourself. It wasn't you. It couldn't have been you. I know how kind and caring you are. Like I said before, you wouldn't have saved me if you weren't. And besides...I can't really blame you for what they did to Buffy. I mean, that wouldn't be fair, and I don't like to form opinions about other people right away." She blushed slightly. “Well, except in one case, but I think I've been able to work things out with this person. At least, I hope so."
Willow's words made Tara nervous. “Willow, this person, can...Can you tell me about her?"
Willow could detect the uneasiness in Tara's voice, but wasn't sure what was its cause. Did the blonde fear that another person had been made aware of the secret of her clan? Of course she did. What Willow had said made it appear as if she had done exactly that. Of course, Willow had done no such thing. She never would betray Tara's secret to anyone. All Faith knew about what happened was that Buffy had been killed by unknown assailants. She had no way of knowing that Buffy had been killed by a race of xenophobic underwater people.
That made it somewhat easier to tell Tara about Faith. “Well, she's someone I disliked because...because I was afraid of her. And it reminded me of how I felt when I first met you." Seeing Tara flinch at this, she quickly added, “But it was different. I mean, I grew to love you for who you are and look past the fact that others in your clan feel negatively about humanity." Reaching out with one arm, Willow took Tara's hand into her own and gently squeezed it. “And I do, you know. Love you, I mean. Never forget that."
Tara smiled as Willow continued, “But with this other person, I immediately disliked her. It seems silly now, but at the time, I looked at her and knew that she was everything that I could have been had I been more...I don't know. I mean, Faith might have been..."
Willow tilted her head at Tara's remark. “That's her name. Faith. Anyway, I think that maybe I was...jealous, you know? That Faith might have been the person that I could have been if I had been...more open about who I really was. I mean, she was confident and charismatic and everything I always wanted to be." She looked out into the water then, a pang of subconscious guilt hitting her chest as she realized that she was doing it again. Thinking like that made her believe that bringing Buffy to meet Tara was a good idea. And no matter what kind of a spin she tried to put on it, she was still making snap judgments about other people. And it hurt.
Willow felt a touch on her shoulder then, and turned to find Tara smiling at her. “Willow, you don't need to change who you are. I mean..." The blonde's words stilted and Willow could tell that she was thinking seriously about whether or not it was a good idea to say whatever it was that she had to tell her.
“Tara, whatever it is that you have to say, please tell me. I won't be afraid."
Tara looked away, her face disappearing behind her long hair. “Willow, I don't know how to say this, but..." She began to sniffle, tears welling up in her eyes. “I...I've done things that I never would have done before had I not met you. I broke the rules of my clan; I endangered both my life and yours; I kept Buffy's death a secret. And I did it all because...I love you, Willow."
Willow was caught off guard by that statement. Although it was something she had been wondering for a long time, to actually hear it come from Tara's lips was quite a surprise. It also shattered some of the doubts and fears that she still subconsciously held. It hurt her, however, to know that not all of them had completely disappeared with Tara's words. There were still some lingering concerns about why Tara had said that. Obviously saving her life and making love to her should have been enough to prove to Willow that Tara did feel that way, but on some level, she needed more. “You do?"
Tara shook her head. “I do, Willow. From the moment when I first met you, I felt something for you. It was as if a connection had been made between us. One that's...different from anything I've felt towards anyone else. I've never felt the way I do about you before. And...and I'm willing to do...whatever it takes...to make you...h...happy and s...sa...safe."
And with that, the lingering doubts that Willow still had towards Tara disappeared completely. Enveloping the blonde in a hug, Willow squeezed tightly, feeling the touch of Tara's skin against her own. It was a comforting touch, one that made her feel comfortable and safe, as if she was wrapped in a security blanket. Knowing that Tara would protect her from all the dangers that would come made her feel as if there was nothing that could harm them.
Suddenly she could feel a change in Tara's demeanor, the comforting sense of her warmth changing rather abruptly to a cold dread. Looking into Tara's eyes, Willow could see them growing clouded with worry.
“Tara? What is it?"
Tara looked at Willow, fear rising in her chest. Somewhere in the ocean, a monumental shift had just taken place, one that foretold of coming doom for both of them. Closing her eyes and reaching out with her senses, she could feel the familiar auras of several mermaids approaching the cave, including one who exuded power and authority. No doubt the Elders had found out she was missing and had decided to head out themselves to find her. Along with the mermaids, Tara felt one other presence. It was this presence that bothered her more than the thought of the approaching Elders. She could feel very familiar impressions from this one. Whoever this person was felt very much like Buffy had when Willow had brought her here: concern and suspicion mixed with anger that clouded her judgment. This meant that whoever it was most likely wasn't aware that she was being followed.
Opening her eyes, she looked deep into Willow's green spheres, which, like her own, were beginning to grow concerned. And though the situation was indeed dire, Tara couldn't bring herself to lie to the redhead. She couldn't reassure her that everything was all right. But there was no way for them to realistically escape from here without being spotted by those approaching the cave. There was nowhere in the cave they could hide, either.
It occurred to Tara then that even if there was some way they could safely escape the cave, there was nowhere she and Willow could safely run to. They could try to hide, but with the mermaids' magical ability to track her, there was nowhere in the ocean they could go where they wouldn't be found.
"I had hoped to deal with this much later, if only to save Willow unnecessary grief now. But if it is the wish of the Goddess and the God to test me now, then it is not my will to dispute them. Let them come. Let whoever this unknown person is come. Let my clan come. I will show them all that peaceful relations with humanity can be achieved. And I will protect Willow with my dying breath. Goddess, may she know that what I do now I do out of my everlasting love and devotion for her. And that no matter what, I will always treasure the time we had together."
Checking her air pressure gauge, Faith saw that she still had plenty of air. Comfortable that she would be able to continue her search for Willow for a few more moments, she turned and saw a cave nearby. With no other place in the immediate area that the redhead could have gone, it made her wonder why Willow would have gone there. Had she hidden something in there that needed to be recovered? It didn't really matter, as far as she was concerned. All it meant was that Willow had trapped herself in that cave, and that the only way for her to get out was the way she had come, meaning that Faith had her cornered.
Deciding not to wait for her to come out on her own accord, Faith swam over to the entrance of the cave and took a look inside. It seemed reasonably safe, so she decided to continue. Hoping that she wasn't making a mistake, the brunette kicked her feet and swam into the cave.
The mermen had first been alerted that something was wrong when the Elders sent word that someone among them had gone missing. Though the discovery had come through the use of magic, it was considered enough of a serious problem, in light of the current situation, to be investigated. It had taken several hours, but they had been able to discover that Tara, daughter of Miranda, was no longer among them.
This deeply concerned the Elders. Tara was something of a maverick in their society, and under normal circumstances would not have been allowed to get away with many of her transgressions, whether or not she was fully aware of them. But the death of her mother, at their own hand for doing many of the same things, had made them uncharacteristically forgiving towards her. Even though they knew that what they had done was necessary to preserve their way of life, they also knew that the loss of her mother had affected Tara deeply, and so they could not bring themselves to chastise her.
But in this circumstance, they were not going to let her get away with what she had done. She had used magic to deceive them. For what purpose, only the God and Goddess knew for certain. That act alone was cause enough to punish her, but her disappearance at this moment, when their society could be on the verge of invasion by surface dwellers once again, had given the group cause to wonder what role she could have played in bringing the humans to them.
Fearing a repeat of the situation that had happened with Lorelei so long ago, each of them set out with patrolmen to try and find her. But instead of finding her, one had found yet another human who had entered the water dangerously close to their territory and was making its way towards a small cave near their colony's borders. Informing the others of what was going on, the group that spotted the human decided to follow her inside the cave.
They would eliminate this human from their waters. Then they would find Tara.
And then the Elders would punish her for what she had done, whether or not she had actually done it. If she had done anything, then her punishment would suit her crime. If she had done nothing, then her punishment would serve to discourage others from following in her footsteps.
One way or the other, Tara would suffer for this.