Willow awoke the next morning to the sound of a loud noise occurring somewhere nearby. Through the fog that clouded her brain, she recognized it as the sound of the call buzzer telling her that someone was outside the apartment trying to get her attention. Fumbling out of bed, Willow sleepily made her way over to the wall mounted unit that would let her talk to whoever it was outside. She let out a croak, pushed down the button, and said, "Hello?"
"Willow? It's me."
Rubbing her eyes with her free hand, Willow recognized the voice as belong to Joyce and said, "OK. I'll buzz you in." Letting go of the button, she pushed the one beside it, unlatching the door to the complex so that Joyce could come in and made her way back to her apartment. Moving back to her room, Willow began to get dressed, pulling a shirt over her head just as someone knocked on the door. Heading to it, Willow opened it to find two people waiting in the hallway, one a middle aged woman with curled blonde hair, the other a sullen teenager with straight dark hair hiding her features.
She smiled faintly, trying to hide the sadness that she felt deep within her heart. "Hi, Joyce. Hi, Dawnie."
Dawn looked up, hair falling away at the act and revealing her face to Willow who, for the first time, noticed that her eyes were rimmed in red. Pushing past Willow, Dawn made her way inside the apartment, not turning back to look at either her or Joyce.
Noticing Willow's hurt expression, Joyce said, "You'll have to forgive her, Willow. She's taken Buffy's...she's taken it hard."
"I can image," Willow responded with as little emotion as she could manage, as she watched Dawn collapse into the sofa, arms folded across her chest. Willow and Joyce went into Buffy's room and spent the next half hour taking the boxes containing the blonde's belongings and loading them into Joyce's waiting van. The entire time, Dawn continued to sulk, neither asking her mother or Willow if they needed help nor responding when they asked for her assistance.
After they had finished putting Buffy's belongings into Joyce's van, she and Willow returned to the apartment and stepped inside the redhead's room. "Are you sure you want to do this, Willow?" Joyce asked. "A lot of this stuff is little more than personal effects. I wouldn't feel right just taking it off your hands."
"I'm sure, Joyce," Willow answered without hesitation. "Where I'm going, I won't need most of this. The rest...The rest is just stuff. I don't need it. I suppose I never really did need it. Keeping these things will just remind me of everything that has happened to me. And where I'm going, I don't...I don't want to be reminded of that."
Joyce raised an eyebrow at Willow's words as she stepped passed the redhead and made her way around the room, selecting several of Willow's things that she would take home with her, mostly consisting of old magazines and books that she figured would be of interest to Dawn.
Willow, meanwhile, watched the sight with genuine sadness. Despite what she had told Joyce, most of her things were valued treasures that, given any other option, she wouldn't want to part with. The most precious of these treasures was the small gold mirror she had bought at a garage sale a couple of years ago. Buffy had said that it wasn't a worthwhile purchase, and that her money could have been better spent getting something more essential. But the moment Willow had laid eyes on it, she knew she had to have it in her possession.
It made the decision to give it up all the more painful.
After ten minutes of looking through the room, Joyce had collected several books and most of the magazines, putting it into one of the boxes remaining in the room. As the older woman walked to the door, Willow stepped to her dresser and opened it, taking out the gold mirror and putting it on top of the box.
"Please, Joyce. Take this, too."
Joyce looked down at the mirror, then back up at Willow. "Oh, no, Willow. I can't. I can't take that."
Willow was caught off guard by Joyce's words. The redhead hadn't expected her to realize not only what it was, but how much it obviously meant to her. "Please, Joyce," she insisted. "I want you to have it. It's...it's the most precious thing I own, and I want to make sure...I want to make sure that it...it's safe."
Joyce sighed deeply, not convinced by Willow's argument. "Are you sure, Willow? If it's as precious to you as Buffy told me, perhaps you should keep it."
Willow thought about Joyce's words, not exactly surprised that Buffy had told her mother about how much the mirror meant to Willow. It was indeed precious to her, and with startling clarity, she realized that it was something that she shouldn't give up. She also realized that Joyce had talked to her about the mirror in terms similar to how Baji had spoken of Tara's pearl: a precious personal object that should not be discarded, no matter the reason.
Reaching out to take the mirror off the box, Willow slipped it into her pocket. "You're right, Joyce. It is a precious thing, and I shouldn't just give it away."
Smiling, Joyce walked out into the living room, turning to look at Dawn. "It's time to go, Dawnie."
Stepping up beside Joyce, Willow looked at Dawn. "It was nice to have you over, Dawn. Joyce is giving you some of my things. I hope you enjoy them."
Dawn turned her head and looked up at Willow, her eyes penetrating into the redhead's soul. "Why?"
"Well," Willow began, thinking of how best to explain the situation to her. "I thought that maybe, because I need...some space in my room, I thought that..."
"No," the teenager snapped, getting to her feet and giving Willow her full attention. "Why couldn't it have been you?"
"Dawn..." Joyce started to say, but before she could continue, Dawn stepped right in front of Willow and slapped her.
"WHY COULDN'T IT HAVE BEEN YOU?!"
"Dawn!" Joyce shouted, scarcely believing that she could have done that. "I know that you feel upset about what happened with Buffy, but not even that gives you the right..."
"No, Joyce," Willow said, turning to look at the older woman. "Let her get this out. If she doesn't do it now, it will just come out in some other way that's more...harmful." She turned around to look at Dawn, seeing the barely restrained rage contained within her eyes. "Go, ahead, Dawn. Let it out."
For a moment, Dawn hesitated, this turn of events clearly not the reaction she had been expecting. Then she began to pummel the redhead in the chest, shrieking like a banshee as she did so. In between the screams, Dawn shouted, "It should be you! You should be the one who died! Not Buffy! Not my sister! She helped the disillusioned, consoled the depressed and cheered up the lonely. Buffy could have changed the world for the better if she wanted to. That was her gift. " Looking up into Willow's eyes, Dawn's expression darkened considerably. "And that's a lot more than I can say about you, Willow. What good have you done for this world? What have you done that's so special and makes my sister's death justified?"
Willow's tongue caught in her throat, knowing the answer to that question very well, but knowing also that she couldn't tell Dawn. Aside from the fact that she wouldn't believe it, Willow didn't want anyone else to know about Tara and her society. Though they had adopted a new outlook on humanity, it wasn't very likely that humankind would look upon them in the same way, at least not in the way that she had done.
"I'm sorry, Dawn..."
Ignoring Willow's attempt to apologize, Dawn turned to Joyce. "I'll be in the van, Mom." She then brushed past Willow and made her way to the door. As it closed, Joyce put a hand on Willow's shoulder.
"Don't let what Dawn said bother you too much, Willow. She's going through a tough time right now. And to be honest, she was always jealous of the friendship you had with Buffy. I think it was because she wanted the relationship she had with her to be like the one the two of you shared. I think she's always felt some sort of hostility toward you, only accepting you because you were friends with Buffy."
Willow blew out a sigh. It wasn't really surprising for her to hear this. Dawn was never really all that talkative when she had spent time over at Buffy's. There was even one time when she had asked Joyce if she could stay over at Janice's when she had been over. It may have been a coincidence, but the fact that she had bluntly asked that the minute she became aware of the fact that Willow was going to be staying the night, and right in front of her no less, had made her curious.
"It's OK, Joyce," she said, turning to walk back into her room. "I don't harbor any ill feelings towards Dawn. She reminds me a lot of the way I used to be."
"Used to be?" Joyce probed.
"I used to be a lot like Dawn," Willow elaborated. "Frustrated and scared by the world around me, lashing out at anything that I thought would threaten my small personal sphere. But...I've grown a lot, especially in the last few days. I've opened my eyes to the way the world really is, and I don't think that I like it."
Joyce didn't like the tone of Willow's words, her concern for what the redhead had said earlier painting an uncomfortable picture of what was going on in her mind. "Willow, what exactly are you saying?"
"Only what I said before," Willow answered. "I'm leaving, Joyce. I'm going to go somewhere that can accept me for who I truly am."
"But where?" Joyce asked, incredulous as to what Willow was talking about.
Looking out the window, Willow saw the beach near the apartment, the water cresting rhythmically onto the sand beginning to grow in sync with her heartbeat. They were as one, she realized at that moment. It had been that way for the majority of her life, ever since her experience in that swimming pool all those years ago. The water had been a major influence in her life. And very soon, she would return there to be with Tara, the only person on this world who truly understood her.
After Joyce and Dawn had left, Willow sat on the couch, going over the second of two letters she had been writing to those she would be leaving behind. Having already composed a letter to the landlord explaining to him why she was leaving and telling him what to do with her remaining personal effects, she was now working on the more personal, and thus more problematic, letter: the one to her parents.
Ironically, it was that letter which should have been easy for her to write. After all, Willow's opinion of her parents was rather negative, and it was partly their fault that she was leaving this world to join Tara and her clan. On the other hand, if they hadn't been neglectful, then she wouldn't have started the journey that led her to the beautiful blonde.
Sighing, Willow put her pen down on the paper, and began the hardest letter she would ever have to write.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Signing her name, Willow folded the paper in half and slipped it into the envelope. Sealing it shut, she collected the other envelope and headed for the door. Pausing as she reached for the knob, Willow took one final look at the apartment, her home for the past seven years. But the more she thought about it, the more Willow realized that it wasn't truly her home. It was just a place that she felt less afraid of the world.
The ocean was her true home. But before she could return to it, there were several other things she had to take care of. First she would deliver the letters, and then she would head to the shelter to make sure that Faith's things were properly taken care of.
In the back of her mind, Willow wondered which of those tasks would end up being more difficult.
"I'm sorry to hear that. Faith was a very special person."
Listening to the owner of the homeless shelter talk about Faith brought about the first feelings of true remorse Willow had about the brunette's death. Despite how she felt at the time, it really was unnecessary, and something that should never have happened. And at the peak of the problems she felt over it was the fact that, at some basic level, she truly wanted Faith to die at the hands of the mermaids. Whether it was out of her need for the secret of their society to remain that way or some latent aspect of her supposedly buried jealousy towards the brunette greatly troubled her.
In response to the man's question, she simply said. "I know. And I just wanted to drop by and take care of her stuff."
Leading Willow over to a door at the opposite end of the room, the owner pointed to it. "This was her room."
Willow nodded as the man walked off and, flashing back to days earlier when she had done the same thing with Buffy's room, stepped inside. As she did, various scenarios flashed through the redhead's mind, trying to give herself a picture of the room that she was about to enter. Despite what she now knew about Faith, Willow couldn't help but see a darkened room with a heavy S & M influence and decorated with posters of heavy metal bands.
Which made her all the more surprised when she saw that the room was as Spartan as any she had ever seen before.
The only things in the room were a simple cot and a dresser, no evidence of any personal effects anywhere. Walking up to the dresser, Willow opened the drawers to find that there was very little in the way of clothing inside, and that which was there was unlike the type of stuff she had expected Faith to wear. The only instances in which Willow had seen her was when she was wearing her lifeguard swimsuit, and the way that it hugged her perfect figure made it seem as if she were the type to wear tight halter tops or leather or something equally outrageous. Instead, there were simple t-shirts, shorts and pants, along with socks and various styles of lingerie, all of modest cut. It looked as if there were enough clothes here to last a week.
That confused Willow. Faith was a lifeguard, much like Buffy. And though the blonde didn't make a lot of money, it was certainly enough for her to live comfortably, if not extravagantly. So why did Faith decide to live in a dumpy run down place like this?
Moving to sit on the bed, Willow glanced around the room, taking in the emptiness of the place. She wondered why Faith had decided to live her life this way, knowing that she could have done better. The explanation continued to elude Willow as she got up from the bed and made her way back to the dresser to collect Faith's things. As she took out her clothes and made her way to the door, a sudden realization flashed through her.
There was a reason why Faith lived like this. She was afraid of the world, just like Willow was. No. On some level, Willow could tell that what scared Faith was not the same thing that scared her. But it didn't really matter. That had to have been the reason why she didn't keep so many possessions. Did she feel that if she had ever lost anything that was important to her, she would do something she would later regret? Given what happened, it wasn't hard to draw that conclusion.
Willow felt a fresh wave of pain hit her, realizing for the first time that she and Faith were truly alike. The world scared both of them, and it made her sad now to realize that circumstances had thrown them together in the manner in which they had. If Buffy was still alive, there was no doubt in Willow's mind that she would have done her absolute best to make sure they got to know one another better.
Buffy had really been the one thing that they had in common. To Willow, she was the sister that she never had, a real friend that she could be herself around. Or, at the very least, be less secretive and afraid. That must have been why Dawn disliked her so much. It must have made her so upset to see Buffy acting towards Willow the way she had hoped her sister would act towards her. The redhead didn't know in what context Buffy was to Faith, though if their conversation at the Il Fornaio and how the brunette had confronted her had been any indication, it was clearly a case of hero worship. That didn't surprise her in the slightest. Buffy was always looked up to by others during high school. Of course, she took it rather modestly, never allowing it to give her a swelled head.
Walking out of the room with Faith's things, she headed for the exit of the shelter and walked down the street. It took her about fifteen minutes to reach the Salvation Army store. Talking to the clerk, she left Faith's clothing with the clerk on duty, who promised to hold them for a specific person that she thought would be worthy of them.
As she stepped out of the shop, Willow took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The letters had been sent and Faith's things had been dropped off. Her life on the surface, such as it was, had come to an end with those two events.
It was now time to head for the ocean and begin her new life.
As the sun began to set over the horizon, Willow sat on the edge of the water, wearing a one piece blue swimsuit that was a near perfect match for the one she had worn the first time she experienced the water in a sexually suggestive way. She had worn something like this when she had begun her journey, so it made sense that as she made completed that journey, she try as much as she could to appear like the teenager she had been.
Willow would have preferred to go into the water naked, much as she had done before. But she couldn't, not with the possibility of being spotted by anyone passing on the nearby street. Willow also wanted to enjoy the sunset, for she knew that it would be the last one that she would be seeing in this fashion.
Glancing down at her hand, she saw Tara's pearl, one of the few things that she would be taking with her on her journey back to the ocean. The only other thing she was going to be taking was the golden mirror, which she was holding in her other hand. Her discussion with Joyce had made her realize that it wasn't something she wanted to part with. For a moment, she wondered if Tara would accept it much like she had accepted her pearl. It wasn't as precious as the pearl, but it was something special to her. Would that be enough of a reason for Tara to accept it?
As the sun went down, Willow let out the breath she didn't realize she was holding and got to her feet. Taking her first hesitant step, she started towards the water, her strides growing larger and more confident with each passing moment. It wasn't long before she had entered the ocean and was swimming out to sea.
Approaching the area near Tara's private cave (and wondering if she should really be calling it that anymore), Willow closed her eyes and held onto Tara's pearl as hard as she could. As she did, she broadcasted her thoughts, hoping that either Baji or Tara would feel her message.
"Baji...Tara...I'm heading back to the cave. I've...I've decided to come home. I'll be waiting for you."
Diving under the ocean as soon as she finished her thought, Willow headed towards the cave, hoping that she would not have to wait long for Tara and Baji to come.
Tara's eyes, which she had closed while she was meditating, opened as she could feel Willow's voice in her mind. It could only mean one thing: the redhead was returning to them. She smiled at the thought, knowing that, with the stigmas towards humans that her clan held no longer factored into the equation, she and Baji would be able to do all they could in order to make Willow more comfortable in the role she was about to take in her new family.
"Do you feel it, Tara?"
Turning, Tara saw Baji approaching. Smiling, she reached out and took her teacher's hand into her own. "Yes, Master Healer. Willow is coming back."
Baji returned the smile, but then her face grew serious. "Are you happy, Tara?"
Tara looked into her teacher's face with concern, not really understanding what it was that she was saying. "What do you mean?"
"About Willow coming to live with us," Baji answered, spreading her arms out in an all encompassing gesture. "But more importantly, I want to know how you feel about being brought back to life."
Tara looked down at that, and Baji could tell that she was visibly distressed. "I am truly sorry for that, Tara. I truly did not want to do this, but Willow was in so much pain by your loss that I could not bring myself to refuse her request."
Looking up, Tara sighed. "I know, Master Healer. But you of all people should know that using magic in that way is dangerous and could pose a risk for the one who casts the spell."
"I know, Tara," Baji said, coming to rest beside the blonde and taking her hand. "And that is why I must tell you something important. I knew when I enacted the spell that there was a danger to myself, so I tried to prepare Willow as much as I could about how to use her talent."
"Her talent?" Tara was confused as to what Baji was talking about, but she quickly came to understand. "You...you mean that Willow...can use magic?"
"She has the innate talent," Baji replied. "And during the spell we enacted to bring you back to life, I could feel a great deal of power coming from her and directed towards me. That, I believe, is the reason why you were brought back to us. It wasn't due to my power. It was because of Willow. Her love for you and her need to have you in her life is a magic that not even my talent can eclipse."
Tara still had one question. "But how can she learn to use a talent that she does not have?"
Baji turned away. "Because, Tara, during the link we shared, I used my magic to transfer all of my abilities to her. She now possesses all of my talents." Seeing Tara's shocked expression, she continued, "I knew this would upset you, Tara. But there was no other way. This is why I insisted on bringing you with me when I went to speak to the Elders. I could not have you run the risk of finding out what happened and telling her, adding to her problems."
Tara had never thought about speaking ill towards her teacher and caregiver, but hearing what she had done made her seriously tempted to do so. But just as she was about to, Tara realized the logic of what she was saying. With the death of Buffy less than twenty four hours ago, the fresh knowledge that Faith had been killed, a death that could have been prevented, and believing that she herself was dead, imparting to the redhead the knowledge that not only that Tara was alive, but that Willow herself now possessed magical abilities, would not have been the best choice.
"Don't be, Tara," Baji said, letting go of Tara's hand and running her own through the blonde's hair. "I am very proud of you, and I am sure that you will help Willow acclimate to our way of life."
Tara immediately grew wary. "Baji, what are you saying?"
Baji swallowed. "Tara, the spell to bring you back has done a great deal of damage to my life force. I'm afraid it's worse than I thought. I am dying."
Tara's eyes widened. "But...but you can't. With the changes that our society is going to be undergoing, you'll be able to be a vital part of our lives once again. And..." Her tongue caught in her throat. "And...there is much that Willow will need to learn about us, and about magic. She will need a teacher."
Tara looked at Baji pleadingly, and saw that the elder mermaid was looking back at her. Comprehension dawned on the blonde's face as she realized the unspoken intent in her gaze. "Oh, no, Baji. I can't...I can't do that. I'm...I'm too young. There is still much I need to know..."
Gently squeezing Tara's hand, Baji brought her panic to a halt. "Tara, listen to me. In all the time that I have guided this colony's magic users, I have never had a student who took to my teachings as quickly as you. You are a very knowledgeable and talented magic user. You have already displayed this in helping Willow deal with the pain she has suffered. All you need is the confidence to use your power without second guessing yourself. Willow will be able to help you, and you will need to be able to help her."
Removing her hand from Tara's hair, Baji gestured towards the water. "Now, go. Let the Elders know that Willow has returned. They will know what to do."
Tara swam off, Baji watching her departure with a smile on her face. A smile that slowly faded as her body began to grow weaker. A slight shiver passed through Baji's body as she fell back onto the rocks, her life force leaving her body. But despite the finality of the act, she allowed herself to feel comforted. Tara had found love, her society was going to accept Willow, and the two of them would become more powerful together than they ever were apart.
"I am so proud of you, Tara. And of you, Willow. Mother Ocean, God Poseidon and Goddess Amphitrite, may you watch over them."
Baji closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of contentment, her final acts as her life force passed beyond the physical ream to join with the Mother Ocean, where she would watch over Tara and Willow with happiness and love.