Willow awoke to find a vague shape hovering over her, a shape that slowly began to morph into the outline of a face. Thinking that the face belonged to Tara, she felt an extreme sense of adulation. Even though she had delivered an eloquent speech about how her death would bring about what Tara wanted, the blonde still felt the need to protect her from all the dangers that life threw her way.
But as her vision began to clear, Willow saw that the face was not Tara's. It was instead that of an elderly woman with long silver hair. The scales on her forehead immediately told Willow that she was a mermaid, but that made Willow question her behavior. After all, hadn't the last mermaids she had encountered threatened to harm her because Tara had revealed to her the secret of their society?
Smiling as she became aware of the fact that Willow had awakened, the mermaid reached out and brushed her fingers past the redhead's forehead. Involuntarily arching her back at the touch, Willow took a breath and found her strength returning. Though she felt better, she had a splitting headache, no doubt due to her collision with the rock.
Opening her mouth, Willow tried to speak. "Who...who are..."
The mermaid smiled. "My name is Baji. And you must be Willow."
Willow tried to move her head, but stopped and groaned when a sudden jab of pain flashed behind her eyes.
Moving to help Willow up, Baji said, "I'm sorry for all that you have gone through because of us, Willow. Tara never wanted to harm you. All she wanted was your love, and she hoped that together, you could make our society see the error of its ways. I do think you've managed to accomplish this. From what I understand, your words had a major impact on the Elder you encountered. He told me that he will speak to the others about how wrong they were in their views of humanity." She sighed. "Tara got what she wanted. I just wish that she could have lived to see it."
"What? What did you..."
Willow's shock at that statement was quickly replaced with horror as she saw Tara's prone form lying near the water close to where she and Baji were sitting. Shrieking, Willow shot towards the body and turned it over, seeing the pained look on the blonde's face and the wound on her chest where the knife that had been thrown at her had impacted. The knife, Willow noticed with a lack of genuine surprise, was nowhere to be found, obviously having been retrieved by one of the mermen when they had left with the Elder.
Crying at the sight of Tara's corpse, Willow was, for the first time, sorry that she had felt the need to constantly protect her from harm. Had the blonde not shoved her out of the way of the knife, it would have impacted against her instead. It wasn't a fate that Willow terribly wanted, but it would have been more preferable than witnessing this.
Cradling Tara's body in her arms, Willow began to rock back and forth, her loud sobbing reverberating throughout the cavern. Feeling a hand on her shoulder, Willow turned and saw Baji, whose face was kind and understanding.
"I'm very sorry, Willow. I'm sorry that our actions have caused you to lose Tara. She was something that was precious to you, and I feel your pain. "
Willow's face contorted at hearing that. Tara had been killed senselessly, and all the elder mermaid could say was sorry and that she felt the pain that the redhead was going through? That wasn't possible. If Baji truly felt the pain Willow did, she would be as dead as Tara was right now. She couldn't accept that there was nothing that could be done to save Tara. There had to be a way for the blonde to live. There just had to be. "Isn't there anything you...anything others can do to save her?"
Baji hesitated. "There is nothing I can do, Willow. I told Tara that if she took the path that led to this moment, there was nothing I could do to prevent the consequences of her actions. True, I never predicted that this would happen, but that does not mean I can do anything about it."
Willow snapped her head around to look at Baji, an act that, for the briefest of moments, made her wonder if it was going to do more harm to her, given her recent head trauma. But that thought was insignificant in light of the information she had just been given. That was more harmful to her than any head injury, or any other injury, she could suffer. "What do you mean? Tara can use magic. That must mean that there are others in your society who could. She even mentioned a caregiver. Maybe she could help us. There has to be some sort of spell that could bring her back!"
"There is," Baji said. "But..."
"Then find out how to do it!" Willow shouted. "Get someone here who can perform it and bring Tara back to life."
"We cannot," Baji insisted. "Willow, please try and understand. I am sure that Tara told you how magic was responsible for how we came to be the way we are today. That is something I am sure she would not have kept a secret from you. Since then, magic has been considered harmful, and those who can use magic have tried to teach others how not to use our gifts to harm the environment."
A flash of insight sparked through Willow's mind. "But Tara's already done that. I mean, she gave me the ability to breathe underwater. I mean, she did it before, but it was only temporary then. But she decided to give it to me permanently." At Baji's distressed look, she quickly added, "Not that I would have abused it. I mean...I promised her I wouldn't misuse her gift, and I never go back on my promises. And...And she gave me the ability to understand your language...well, you obviously know that, since we're having this conversation..."
Willow fell silent at Baji's rebuke and looked down once more at Tara's body. Brushing aside one strand of Tara's honey-colored hair, she whispered, "I'm sorry, Tara. I truly am." Lying down over Tara's body, Willow began to sob quietly. "It's my fault. I never should have come back. You would still be alive if I had just used her pearl to talk to you. I could have said what I wanted to say that way. But I had to come back. I had to make sure you saw me when I laid myself bare to you."
Baji took this in with interest. "Tara...gave you the Pearl of Sicily?"
Looking up, Willow looked at Baji through tear stained eyes. "The what?"
"The Pearl of Sicily," Baji answered. "It was a gift that I had given to her on her thirteenth birthday. I told her to give it to someone she considered special in her life." Looking into Willow's eyes, she saw the green irises of her eyes twinkle like gemstones, obviously coming to the conclusion that Baji was the caregiver she had spoken of earlier. "The Pearl of Sicily is not something to be given lightly, Willow. Tara giving it to you is nothing less than a proposal of marriage. Do you understand that?"
The redhead nodded, a faint smile forming on her face. Tara giving her the pearl was more special than she had thought at first. At the time, Willow had seen it as something that was exchanged between friends. It never really occurred to her to think of what had happened as being anything more than that.
"I've known that you were special to Tara, Willow," Baji said. "I've known almost from the moment that she first spoke of you. If you had known her for as long as I did, you would realize that what she has done here is atypical of her normal behavior. Though she has at times done things that the Elders despised, she had never broken the rules in a manner such as this. It would not have been a thing that she would have done for anyone else, Willow. And she must have truly loved you for her to give you the one gift that meant more to her than anything in this world."
Moving over beside Willow, Baji gently took her away from Tara's body. "You have already lost too much because of us, Willow. I will make sure that you lose no more because of us."
Willow's eyes slowly widened as she realized what it was that Baji was telling her. It was almost too good to be true. "Does...does that mean that...you'll bring Tara back?"
"I will." Noting Willow's expression, Baji added, "But you must understand something, Willow. What I am about to do is very dangerous. I don't think that I can do it alone. I will need your help."
"Me?" Willow flustered. "But...But what can I do?" Crawling back towards Tara, she ran a hand through her hair and sniffled. "I'm...I'm not like you. I'm not like Tara. I'm not...unique. I'm...not special."
"But you are, Willow."
Willow brought her head up to look at Baji at that, finding the silver haired mermaid looking at her with sadness, compassion and love. "You may not think that you are special because of what has happened, but look beyond the negative. See how much you have affected us. You have given the Elders serious reason to rethink how we live, telling them that not all humans are bad. You have also affected Tara. She never went against the edicts of our clan in a manner like this. She thought that you were special enough to save from drowning to death in the Forbidden Cave. She thought you were special enough to save from the misguided actions of one of our kind. Look inside your heart, Willow, and do what needs to be done. Not for me, not for yourself, but for the one who has already done more for you than you can ever imagine."
Willow looked down at Tara's body and brushed her fingers across her skin. It was simple to think that she wasn't special. Having spent the majority of her adolescence hiding what was a vital part of her character, it had the side effect of unfortunately creating a lowered opinion of her own self worth. There wasn't anyone she felt comfortable being herself around. Buffy had been the closest thing to a confidante she had ever had, but that didn't mean Willow ever felt comfortable revealing everything about her to the blonde. And the minute she decided to do so, everything had gone wrong. Tara was the only one she could truly feel comfortable being around without having to put up a front or keep things a secret.
Willow looked up into Baji's face, a neutral look on her own. She had lost Buffy because of her fears and insecurities. She would not lose Tara to those same fears and insecurities, especially when the blonde had been vital in helping her to look past them to see the wonderful woman that she truly was.
"I will. I'll help you." Willow tenderly brushed her fingers over Tara's face. "I'll do anything in this world if it means Tara will be brought back to me."
Baji nodded and smiled. "Then let us work quickly. We do not have much time."
Willow sat across from Baji, holding the elder mermaid's hands in her own. Between them lay Tara's body, the sight of which made the redhead nervous about what she had to do. Baji had explained that, while she would be the one to perform the spell required to bring Tara back to life, Willow would need to act as an anchor that would funnel her energy and keep her centered on the task at hand, as even the slightest distraction would be disastrous not only to Tara, but to themselves. Given all that had happened to her in the last few days, Willow wasn't sure that she could control her emotions well enough to do what Baji wanted.
But she had to try. This was the only way to bring Tara back. And that alone was enough for her to make the effort.
Willow nodded as she closed her eyes and tried to control her breathing, centering her mind and body on the task at hand. Seeing this, Baji closed her eyes as well and began to hum. Willow could feel something behind the melody, an indescribable feeling of pure pleasure washing over her, cleansing her being of all doubt and concern. The redhead realized then why Baji was doing this. The mermaid, whether or not she believed that Willow was prepared for what was about to occur, wanted to make sure that she was truly calm and focused, knowing how badly things could go wrong if either of them were to be distracted. Willow was truly glad for Baji's help. Anything that could be done to help keep her mind focused on bringing Tara back would be a benefit.
After a few more moments, Baji began to chant. "Goddess Amphitrite, we call upon you now. God Poseidon, we beseech you, make your presence known. We ask for your help in returning to us the life spark of one who was taken from us. May you, in your everlasting wisdom, see the need to bring Tara back to us so that Willow may find the comfort that she so rightly deserves, a comfort that we have unknowingly denied her."
Willow shivered slightly as she felt a breeze pass across her naked flesh. Curious as to where it had come from, she opened one eye and looked up, and was surprised to find a dark cloud beginning to form above them. She involuntarily clenched her hands and immediately felt a sense of guilt about doing so, wondering if her act had broken Baji's concentration.
If it did, the mermaid didn't voice it. "Goddess Amphitrite, we command you, bring Tara back. God Poseidon, we command you, bring Tara back."
Willow tried to maintain her calm, but the fear that she was beginning to feel about the situation was growing, in no way helped by the fact that, after opening one eye to look at the cloud, she saw that it was getting larger by the moment. And though Willow wasn't sure, but she swear that she heard the unmistakable rumble of approaching thunder.
"Goddess Amphitrite, in the name of the Mother Ocean, bring Tara back to us."
A blast of lightening erupted from the cloud, striking the rocks dangerously close to Tara. Willow flinched as her brain registered the noise, but otherwise did not move from her seated position. Her fear was reaching uncontrollable levels now, and she hoped that whatever Baji hoped to accomplish, that it would happen soon, as she wasn't sure how much longer she could remain calm.
Another strike of lightning. Another. And another.
And another directly against Tara's chest.
Willow let out a shocked yelp, the only way she could express the surprise she felt at seeing what she had just taken in without doing anything that could seriously jeopardize what was going on. Despite the fact that it was strange to her, she knew that it was necessary for what needed to occur. But knowing that didn't help allay her growing fear.
"Goddess Amphitrite, God Poseidon, we call upon you. Bring Tara back!"
Baji's words brought about another lightning bolt that impacted against Tara, followed by another. Willow involuntarily winced at each strike, her fear beginning to grow despite her knowledge of the event being played out in front of her. To calm herself, she put the thought of Tara's body the way it had been before into her mind. The blonde's warm skin against her own when they had made love immediately came to mind, and she smiled at the recovered memory. Despite all that had happened, that had been the only good thing to come out of this entire situation. It was the first time she had truly felt alive.
That memory triggered something in the back of the redhead's mind, and she could feel her strength increasing ten fold. The sudden increase cascaded over Willow like the crest of a wave, leaving her a little disoriented, leaving her unprepared for what happened next. Whatever it was that Willow felt mixed with Baji's magic, creating colossal force of energy that erupted from the magically created cloud and struck Tara's body dead center in the blonde's chest.
And that was the last image that Willow's mind perceived as she blacked out.
As Willow came back into consciousness, all she could think about was how much time had passed while she was out. And that she was beginning to get sick and tired of being knocked for a loop. What was this, the third time it happened in as many days? The fourth? Did it matter? Not really. She just hoped that it was all worth it, and that Tara was alive. Opening her eyes, Willow looked around, finding herself alone on the rocks. Tara's body was gone. So was Baji. Panicking, Willow scrambled to the edge of the water and looked into its depths, finding nothing.
For a moment, Willow thought of swimming out of the cave to try and find them, but she rejected that. For some reason that she couldn't figure out, Willow knew that it was important for her to stay where she was. As she thought about that, she also wondered why staying here was so important. There was no explanation that Willow could come up with that made any sense. If Tara had been brought back to life, then she and Baji should be here now, comforting Willow and reassuring her that everything was alright. If Tara had not been brought back to life, then Baji would be there to comfort her and offer her sincerest regrets that she had failed in her task.
Either way, there should be someone here with her. But aside from herself, the cave was empty. That could only mean one thing: that what had happened did not work. Was that why Baji was not here, Willow wondered? Did she take Tara's body back to her people so that they could perform a burial? The thought that Tara was truly taken from her, despite everything that had happened and their efforts, made Willow feel as if a vital piece of her being had been torn away. It was too much for her to take. Buffy was dead. Faith was dead. And now Tara was taken from her.
Crawling over to the corner, Willow curled herself into a ball and began to cry. Despite everything that had happened, she was surprised at the act. After the pain, grief and loss that she had suffered over the course of the past few days, it was a surprise for her to find that she still had tears to shed. But these tears were different. The tears she had shed before were for Buffy, whose loss was like losing a sister, a pain that Willow would feel for some time, but would eventually fade. The thought of Tara being out of her life, however, was a pain that was like a cancer, working its way into her body and infesting her vital organs, slowly but surely driving the life out of her.
She felt a hand on her shoulder then, and through her tears, Willow looked up to see a sight that should have been impossible. There was no way that it could be true. But it was.
Tara got down on one knee so that she could look Willow directly in the eye. "Hello, Willow."
The sound of that voice made something snap in the back of Willow's mind, and the redhead enveloped Tara in a fierce bear hug, her crying growing more intense. She held onto Tara tightly, fearing that letting go of the blonde would cause her to be taken from her.
"Willow...air's becoming an issue..."
Looking up into Tara's face, Willow smiled. "But what about your gills?"
Tara's smiled back. "You got me. But...Willow...You're kinda hurting me..."
Willow's immediately released her grip on Tara and looked into the blonde eyes. "Sorry." Then the reality of what was going on set in. "But...if you're here...then that means..."
It was then that Willow noticed two others nearby. One of them was Baji, her face radiating happiness and love as she looked at Willow. The other was the merman that had been here before. Willow immediately grew wary at seeing him, remembering what had occurred the last time he had been in her presence.
As if he could read her thoughts, the merman spoke then. "Willow, I've spoken to the other Elders. We...We've learned about what we have done to you, and we are truly sorry about the pain that we have caused you. We see now that there can be peaceful coexistence between us and the surface dwellers." Staring directly at Willow, he asked, "Tara has told you of the story of Lorelei?"
"At that time, we had thought that the human she had encountered had done something harmful to her, that he would spread the knowledge of our existence to others of his kind and that they would send others to kill us all. After we enacted the Spell of Transformation on our race, we grew to be disgusted by the fact that we had to reshape ourselves in the image of an apparent enemy because of that misguided belief. We allowed our anger to twist itself into a distrust of all human contact."
The merman cast his glace towards Tara. "There are those who were born following this who came to wonder why we did it. We've never bothered to explain to them what truly happened, telling them only that it was because of an incident that happened long ago. We helped saturate that belief by creating social stigma about the cave where Lorelei and the male consummated their love." He shrugged slightly. "It was perhaps inevitable that there would be those who would find out that the two were related."
"My mother wanted to disprove their theories about the cave, so she went there," Tara spoke up. "And when she did, they murdered her in order to make sure that the rest of our society continued to believe that the cave was not to be visited by others."
Willow looked at Tara, an expression of empathy on her face. The blonde had said before that she suspected the role of the Elders in the death of her mother, so it must have been especially heartbreaking for her to hear it confirmed.
"Tara told us that she encountered you entering the cave," the merman said. "And fearing for your life, she rescued you." He glanced at Tara. "We would have merely punished her for that, had she not allowed you to see her. But it would seem that the two of you had formed an immediate bond, even if neither of you were aware of it. That compelled her to stay with you until you were brought back to life. Had we been more aware of what was going on, we would not have reacted in the manner in which we did."
Tara looked down. "I was...I was unsure of how you would react. I feared for Willow's life. I had to make sure that she...that she..."
"We understand now, Tara," the merman replied, placing his hand on Tara's shoulder. "And we are truly sorry for the pain we have brought down on Willow." He turned to look at Willow. "And we intend to make up for it...if she is willing."
"What?" Willow asked.
"We want to adopt you into our society, Willow," Baji said. "I can perform the Spell of Transformation on you to allow you to become one of us. You no longer need to be fearful on the surface. You can live with those who understand how you feel." She looked at Tara. "And those that you love."
Willow couldn't believe what she was told. To be like Tara...a mermaid...to live among a society of underwater creatures...to be with Tara...to have their love be acknowledged and respected. It was everything of which she always dreamed.
So why was she hesitating in giving her answer. It was true that what she was being offered was special and something that she always wanted. But what of her life on the surface? Was she really willing to give it up so easily?
"Can I have time to think about it?"
"Of course," Baji responded. "Please take as much time as you need. This is not a decision you should make immediately, after all."
Willow looked into the face of the elderly mermaid and smiled, but lost that smile when she looked at Tara and saw the haunted and pained look in her eyes, as if she could not believe that Willow would need to think about this decision. Willow could sympathize with her, but as much as she wanted to make this decision now to appease her, the redhead needed to have time to figure things out in a way that could make a decision easier to come to.
After returning to the surface, Willow got onboard her boat and, to the best of her ability, dried herself with her t-shirt. Once she had done this, she got back into her clothes, leaving her sopping shirt on the deck. Sitting down, her thoughts turned to the offer she had been given and the pros and cons of her choices. It was certainly a tempting offer, but now that she had time to think about it, Willow wondered if she was truly worthy of it. After all, although her actions had brought about a peaceful end for Tara, it had come at too heavy a price for herself. Buffy was dead at her own hand. Not directly, of course, as she could never think of lifting a finger to harm the blonde. But directly or not, her best friend was still dead because of her hasty actions, and it continued to gnaw away at her.
And then there was Faith. Though Willow didn't feel as responsible for her death as she had for Buffy's, it still made her sad. Could it have been prevented if Faith had stayed where she was like Willow wanted? The redhead shook her head, knowing that such thinking was self defeating. It made no difference now to think about what might have been. What mattered was the here and now.
And here and now, she had a choice that would affect the rest of her life. Bringing her boat alongside Faith's, Willow reached out with one hand and grasped its side. As soon as she did, she began to make her way back to the docks, all the while thinking about what to do with the offer she had been given.
Arriving home as the sun began to set after bringing the boats back to the docks, (and ignoring the stares she had gotten from others given her near topless state despite the fact that she gamely attempted to cover herself), Willow walked into the apartment and made her way to Buffy's room. Looking once more at the legacy of her best friend's life, she got to work packing it away, starting with Buffy's clothes. She made sure to take the time to fold them and put them into the boxes in such a way that they did not crease. She followed up on this by packing away the blonde's trophies, medals and certificates, doing as good a job as she could manage at putting them away so that they wouldn't break while being transported.
As she put the last trophy away, Willow looked around the room, deciding that she would leave the books and everything else for tomorrow. Going to the phone, she picked up the receiver and dialed a number. After a few moments of listening to the phone ring, someone on the opposite end of the line picked up and a voice that was unmistakably feminine responded.
Willow swallowed, knowing that this conversation was going to be difficult. "Hello, Joyce."
The pause that seemed to stretch into infinity following her words was punctuated by Joyce's small gasp, followed by, "Willow? Is that you?"
From the sound of Joyce's words, Willow figured that she had been crying when she picked up the phone. The redhead wondered how long she had been doing it. "Yes, Joyce. I wanted to call you about...about Buffy."
Willow could hear Joyce crying at the other end of the receiver, and she immediately felt guilty about mentioning Buffy by name. But was there any good way to mention her that would not bring about this response? As with wondering if Faith would still be alive if she had stayed where she was, it was pointless to dwell on it. It had happened, and there was no use trying to think about what might have been.
Taking a deep breath, she asked, "Joyce, I don't want to sound insensitive, but...how are you feeling?"
"How do you think I feel, Willow?" Joyce snapped. "My baby girl's dead, and I'll never know how or why..."
Willow felt a fresh stab of pain and guilt at hearing Joyce speak to her like that, not only because she knew not only why Buffy was dead and how it had happened, but because she could never tell anyone about it. It had been the same way she had felt when she told Buffy about Tara and the existence of mermaids, and it had gotten the blonde killed. And on the other side of the coin, not telling Faith about Tara and the existence of mermaids had gotten her killed, too. It was the perfect example of a Catch-22 situation. "I'm sorry, Joyce..."
Apparently calmer, Joyce responded, "Don't be, Willow. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped. I know how much Buffy meant to you. I can remember like it was yesterday the first time that you came over and stayed the night at our house. Buffy told me how excited she was about the fact that you were going to be here. I baked you two chocolate chip cookies. Buffy always liked them..."
Willow could tell that Joyce's recovered memories were going to cause her to start crying again, so she decided to say something before that could happen. "Joyce, there was another reason I wanted to call you. I was going to ask that you come down to pick up Buffy's things."
"And...that you pick up some of my things, as well."
"How come?" Joyce asked.
"Because..." Willow hesitated, coming to the decision on the choice that she had been mulling over ever since she had been given it. "Because I'll be moving out of the apartment."
Exhaling, Willow tried to explain her decision to Joyce in terms that would require her to actually explain it. "Joyce, I've decided that...with Buffy dead...there's no reason for me to stay here. And I don't want...to keep the things that will remind me of her. I want...I want to go somewhere that I can get a fresh start. Somewhere where I think I can find someone that can...help me get through my pain and grief."
Joyce sighed. "Willow, this really isn't the sort of thing you should be talking to me about. Maybe you should call your parents..."
"Joyce, my parents never cared about me," Willow blurted. Then, before she could catch herself, continued, "They always tried to shelter me when they went on their trips. They never let me come with them, fearing I would hurt myself. If they really cared about me, they wouldn't have made such an active effort to stunt my emotional growth. That's why I always spent time at your house with Buffy. It was there where I could..."
Willow hesitated. She didn't want to say that it was at Buffy's house where she could be herself, because that wasn't true. No matter how much she let others know about herself, be it her talent with computers or her sexuality, the fact that her status as an aquaphile was always the one thing she feared to reveal to anyone. Telling Buffy certainly hadn't been that great of an idea, though whether or not it was doing that or her overcompensation afterward that had proven to be the disastrous move was yet another situation in which looking back on the situation did little good.
"Where you could what?"
Jolting back into reality at Joyce's question, Willow answered, "Where I could feel like I belonged, where someone could accept me for who I was." She hadn't time to consider her words, but looking back on them now, she could see how appropriate they were. They were obviously enough to appease Joyce, at any rate.
"Thank you, Willow. I won't pretend to be your mother, but I would suggest that you think about your choice. Dawn and I will come by tomorrow to pick up Buffy's things and what you will be willing to part with. We'll see you then."
The line went dead, and Willow put the receiver down. Moving back to her own room, she flopped onto her bed and thought about what she had said to Joyce. She had thought about it, and it was a decision she would not regret. Tara and the others were willing to go out of their way to accept her, though there was the possibility that they were doing it out of a sense of guilt. On the other hand, perhaps they were genuine in their concern for her welfare.
And of course, there was Tara. How could she think of abandoning her now? Tara had risked her own life, and indeed had lost it, in making their love known and accepted by her kind. To say that she didn't want to be with her now would be rude in the grandest sense of the word. And, of course, she had nothing on the surface to keep her here. Buffy was gone. Her parents were never around. And she had no other person to keep her here.
In a way, by killing Buffy, Tara's clan had made this decision easy for her. That, more than anything, was the great irony of the situation. And as Willow drifted off to sleep, she allowed herself to think one thought.
"I'm going home."