Willow swam towards the entrance to the cave, the objects in her hands making it somewhat difficult for her to move as quickly as she would have liked. Pausing at the entrance, she tried to mentally prepare herself for what awaited her inside. This brought up a very important question that had somehow managed to slip from her mind in all of the commotion of the past twenty four hours.
What would her upcoming transformation involve?
Willow knew that it would be magical in nature. That at least had been explained to her. But what hadn't been explained was how it would be enacted, nor how it would affect her. What would be involved in the process? What would happen to her? What would she be like once it was completed?
She knew that these were important questions. Rather unfortunately, however, they also brought up her concern about whether or not the mermen were indeed genuine in their sorrow for what they had done to her. It was thus incredibly surprising for her to discover that those thoughts quickly vanished from her mind without her dwelling on them too much.
Willow tried to find some reason for this thinking, and found that the situation being presented to her wasn't like what had happened earlier. This time she knew without question that it would not be just Tara that would welcome her with open arms. This time her entire race would look at her with happiness and love. That alone made her more assured that the choice she had made was the correct one. No one on the surface would have done this for her, which made it easier to say goodbye to them.
Swimming into the cave, Willow made her way down the tunnels, arriving a few moments later inside the cavern to see that there were others already there awaiting her arrival. As she floated in the water, she counted a dozen merpeople waiting, all of them preparing for some sort of ritual, obviously the one that they would use to transform her into one of them.
"Come, Willow," one of them said, reaching out with one hand and beckoning the redhead forward. "Once Tara and Baji arrive, we shall begin."
Willow made her way to the rocks and was told by the mermen to lie down in the center of the circle which they had formed. The redhead had just completed this action when she heard a splash. Turning her head and peering between two of the mermaids, she expected to see Tara and Baji approaching. Willow was thus surprised to see only Tara coming towards them, a look of contemplative thought on her downtrodden face.
"Tara," Willow said, concern slowly but steadily replacing the happiness she was feeling at that moment. "What's wrong?"
"Yes, Tara," one of the other mermen said. "What is wrong? And where is Baji? We will need her help to perform the ritual."
Looking up to face both Willow and the others, Tara stated simply, "She's...not coming."
It was only three words, but the impact it had on those present was immediate, all of them instantly knowing what she meant to convey with that statement. Of all those present, Willow was perhaps the person who felt sorry for Tara the most, having gone through the pain that the blonde no doubt was going through herself at this moment. For her to have gotten everything that she wanted, only to have the one person in her life to whom it may have mattered more leave this plane must have left a deep wound in her soul. It made Willow question whether or not it was possible for Tara to continue on her own, even with the assistance of the others.
This was obviously something that the mermen realized as well. "Tara," one of them spoke. "If you would like some time to prepare yourself, we will understand. We do not need to do this right away if you feel unable to do this. I'm sure that Willow will understand if you will need time to prepare."
"I agree, Tara," Willow found herself replying. "I can wait a few days for...for this, if that's what it will take for you to..."
"No," Tara spoke, the word coming out quietly , yet with as much force as if it had been shouted at the top of her lungs. Kneeling down in front of Willow's prone body, she continued, "I want to do this now. It is true that I have had a serious loss, but you have suffered more, Willow. And as much as my pain hurts, it should not come before yours. Once you have become one of us, we will be able to help each other. And through our love, find a way to heal one another and become stronger than we ever were apart."
Tara smiled faintly, and Willow returned it with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. Genuine doubts about the blonde's well being, however, prompted her to ask, "Are you sure, Tara? I mean, are you going to be able to...be able to help the others do what you need to do without...harming me?"
Moving to a cross legged position behind Willow's head, Tara smiled as she stroked her fingers through Willow's red hair. "I'm sure, Willow. Knowing that you will be with us makes me feel happy, and that happiness will make sure that what needs to be done will be done. I can do it, Willow. Don't worry."
She may have been calm and relaxed on the surface, but Tara had indeed harbored serious concerns as to whether or not Willow's words of caution were prophetic. With Baji gone, the task of performing the spell fell to her alone. The others would help by channeling their strength to her, though it would be up to her to use that strength to remold Willow to the creature she would become, like a sculptor using sand and coral to create a beautiful work of art.
Tara looked at them now, the dozen who would help her in this task, and saw that all of them were staring back at her with expressions that made her aware of the fact that they were aware of the difficulty she faced, yet silently promising that they would do their best to make sure what she wanted to happen did indeed happen.
It comforted Tara to know this, since it was not that long ago that these men would not have pledged themselves to do this. Indeed, they would have cast a blind eye to the plight of this sad little girl, never bothering to realize how truly alike they really were on a spiritual level, if not a physical one.
Well, soon enough, that similarity would be physical as well as spiritual.
Reaching out with her hands, Tara took into them the hands of those sitting beside her, they in turn taking the hands of those beside them until they were all linked together as one chain, one that would coil around Willow and comfort her during her time of grand change. Closing her eyes, Tara began to breathe slowly, focusing her energy in preparation to help the others enact the Spell of Transformation. After a few moments, she was ready to begin, tilting her head towards the merman opposite her and informing him that she was ready.
"Mother Ocean, hear your children," he intoned. "We ask you now to come and help one of your wayward children find her way home. She has had great pain brought down upon her, pain that was unknowingly brought down upon her by her own brothers and sisters, who were unaware that we were harming one of our own."
As the incantation continued, Tara could feel the beginnings of growing warmth deep in her chest, the energies of her magic coalescing in the pit of her stomach and working its way through her veins as if it were her blood. It passed up her arms and into her fingers, spreading out into the mermen whose hands she was holding. The energy continued to flow from her and passed onto the others, gradually working its way back to her and collecting into her stomach one again, the mixing of energies producing a new untapped power the likes of which she had never felt before.
"Mother Ocean, we ask your humble servants, the Goddess Amphitrite and the God Poseidon, to come help our wayward child complete her journey and return to us. Mother Ocean, we compel you to do what is right and end the suffering and pain this child has suffered."
The energy Tara was funneling through the other mermaids began to take physical shape, manifesting itself as thin wisps of smoke that coalesced out of the air and slowly began to circle Willow's body, growing in thickness as they began to play across the redhead's clothed body. The smoke then began to envelop Willow's body, covering it as if it were a cocoon being formed around an insect. By the time it covered Willow completely, the smoke had grown in thickness to the degree that it rendered her body invisible to the sight of both Tara and the others.
The blonde opened her eyes to see Willow's body covered in the smoke, and looked curiously at the others. "I thought that...When Baji told me about Lorelei, she showed me how she was able to transform herself."
"Spells take many forms, Tara," one of the mermen replied. "With a misspoken word, a spell cast in order to create a whirlpool can accidentally create a tsunami. A substituted phrase could mean the difference between a small crustacean and a large shellfish. The spell Lorelei enacted on herself was one that was quick, and thus brought about a temporary change, one that she would have reversed quite easily had...had we not been shortsighted. This will be different in that it will be a slow and permanent change. And I would think that, given all that she has been through, we would want to spare her the further shock of such an abrupt change to her very being. Do you not agree?"
Tara nodded in agreement, realizing the truth behind the words. Willow had been through enough changes recently, and even though she knew what awaited her at the end of this journey, it would not do her any good to end that trip by encountering choppy waters. Best to prepare herself for her new life insofar as it is possible.
"Now we must complete the ritual." Closing her eyes once more, Tara allowed her energy to flow once more into the bodies of the other mermen, combining with their own impressive talents and funneling it back to her. Now that Willow's body was prepared, it was now time to complete the spell and finish her transformation. They would have to be careful, however, as a single mistake at this point could mean her death.
But the love Tara had for Willow, combined with the others genuine desire to help her, meant that there would be no errors. No mistakes. Everything would proceed peacefully and without interruption.
The merman opposite Tara began to chant again. "We thank you for your help, Mother Ocean, in allowing your servants to help us in our task. Now we ask you to help us complete our task. Help us bring our child home."
The cloud enveloping Willow's body began to shift, its actions borne out of the incantation being spoken. The movements were subtle, but were indeed noticeable to anyone paying attention. As the movements continued, they began to grow more intense, as if they were working on physically reshaping that which was contained within. All the while, Tara kept her energy flowing into the others even as it was coming back into herself, making sure she was performing the spell to her expectations.
Opening one eye, Tara could see that the cloud was beginning to dissipate, growing lighter in opacity as it moved away from Willow's body. And though she knew the work that greeted her when it disappeared was of her own hand, there was nothing Tara could do to prepare herself for the sight that greeted her.
Willow was lying on the ground as she had before, but only her red hair, now grown to a length that equaled her own, gave Tara any indication that this was still Willow, as she was in all other respects completely changed from the woman she had first seen days before. She was stripped of her garment, revealing to all the nakedness she herself had first seen when they had made love. Her body, much like that of the others, was now covered in green scales that range in size from fingernail to thumb, the greatest concentrations of which were on her upper body and legs, with a small line cresting her hairline. Close to her neck, just above her breasts, lay her new gills, which pulsed silently, letting Tara and the others know that Willow was breathing comfortably.
In every way, Willow's body was now the exact opposite of the one which Tara had seen days before and had fallen in love with. But at the same time, it was even more exquisite and lovely than it had been.
Opening her other eye, she looked up at the others, tilted her head slightly and whispered, "Thank you. You may leave us now."
As the other mermaids made their way into the water and swam away, Tara approached Willow's unconscious body, raising a hand and bringing the tips of two fingers down on the redhead's forehead. Following this, Tara brought her head down to Willow's and pressed her lips onto the redhead's, giving her a passionate and heartfelt kiss. It was the kiss she had wanted to give ever since she had first rescued her from drowning to death mere days ago, but now it seemed a lifetime ago. A lot had changed since then, not much of it for the better. But for both her and Willow, it was all worth it.
Willow's eyes opened the moment Tara's lips touched hers, and Tara, raising her head to look deep into Willow's eyes, smiled warmly. "Welcome home, Willow. Dear lost child of the sea."
Willow returned the smile as she got to her feet. "If I'm a lost child, then how about you pretend to be my mother and show me how much you missed me?"
"Vixen," Tara smirked, giving Willow another kiss that was less intense than the one she had given mere moments ago, but was no less passionate. As they broke away, Willow looked down at her body, seeing it in its transformed state for the first time and finding it a far cry from the one she was used to. To Tara's amazement, and her own surprise, she didn't seem the least bit surprised or shocked to see the radical changes the spell had brought upon it. If anything, Willow seemed to be far more comfortable the way she was now than the way she had been before.
Willow raised her arms and looked at the newly grown green scales that had emerged on the backs of her hands and on her fingers. "I look...I look..."
"Different?" Tara asked, worried that Willow was beginning to regret her decision. For a moment, she feared that Willow would detest what had been done to her, accuse her and the others of violating her being, and demand that they change her back.
Tara's fears were allayed when Willow reached out with one arm and wrapped it around her waist, drawing her body close to her own. As she did, she smiled a warm and appreciative smile that acted like the sun itself, burning away Tara's lingering doubts.
The two embraced, each allowing the touch of the other's warm body against their skin without guilt, fear or hesitation. It felt to each of them as if they were frozen in time, the rest of the world passing them by without a care or concern for the two women whose love for one another could now be realized.
Prompted by Willow's voice, Tara looked down to find the redhead looking up, a twinkle in her eyes. "Yes?"
Willow blushed, her red skin contrasting with the green of both her eyes and the scales that lines her face. "You seemed upset that Baji was...was...was not here. What happened?"
Resting her head on Willow's shoulder, Tara tried to find the strength to speak. "She...she..."
Willow could tell that whatever had happened to her teacher, Tara was not yet prepared to speak of it. She understood that the pain was too recent for her to speak of it in a manner that wouldn't cause further anguish, and for that reason, Willow decided to let the matter drop. She knew that when Tara was ready to speak of it, she would tell her everything. Until then, Willow was prepared to let Tara be silent on the issue.
"It's OK, Tara," she spoke, taking the blonde's arm into her hand. "You don't have to tell me now. I'll be here for you. When you're ready, you can tell me."
"Thank you, Willow," Tara whispered, glad that the redhead understood what she was going through, and that while she was willing to help heal the wound, now was not the time to begin.
Right now, all which mattered was that the two of them were finally together, without any secrets and without any lies. And though there was a great deal of pain for each of them to work through, they would have the rest of their lives to do that.
Shortly thereafter, Tara led Willow back to her new home, where she was greeted by others rather kindly, the redhead in turn thanking them for their kind words. All the while, Tara held Willow's hand, letting her know that although everyone was showing their gratitude and love, no one was happier at seeing her in her new home than she was.
There were the select few who looked at them not with happiness, but with abject scorn and barely concealed hatred towards not only Willow, but Tara herself. Tara was used to the glances and the stares, but she could tell that Willow was visibly upset by them, no doubt thinking that they were looking at her and seeing not one of their own, but yet another instance of magic being used to dramatically affect their society.
Tara couldn't help but wonder if those feelings would ever go away. From how Baji had described their behavior, the hostility her kind had endured when they had first undergone the change to what they were now was nothing short of a roaring inferno, but they had also come to learn to live with the change, even if they had never come to terms with it. And even if she had now become like her, Willow was, for all intents and purposes, a living representation of the reasons why they became the way they were. Would some rogue element of the clan take it upon him or herself to rid them of what a potential threat? The actions of one of the mermen when they had confronted her and Willow days before indicated that there would be some hostility towards her, even if the Elders would never allow it overtly.
Guiding Willow towards her home, Tara promised herself that she would not allow Willow to come to harm, regardless of where the threat to herself came from. She had promised Willow that she would be welcomed here, and would do whatever was necessary to keep that promise.
After all, Willow had already proven that she would do the same were she in her position.
As the pair arrived at Tara's home, Willow couldn't help but smile at what was now her home as well. A simply constructed hut, it reflected what she had come to know about Tara and her race: even though there were those who commanded great mystical powers which could grant them whatever they desired, they lived a simple existence, not one to splurge on the grandiose or overabundance that they could clearly give themselves.
Willow recalled her decision to give up the clutter of her surface life, and realized once again how much it had been the right decision to make. On the surface, her life had been a constant state of confusion, rendered in even further disarray by the loss of the one person who could truly anchor her. But down here, life was simpler. No distractions, no confusion.
Life here, she realized, would be pleasant.
As she entered the hut, Willow made her way towards what appeared to be Tara's bed, which consisted of nothing more than a large stone, flat and completely smooth, a blanket composed of seaweed resting upon it. Spreading out onto it, she allowed herself to relax for the first time in a long while.
Swimming into the room, Tara noticed Willow spread out seductively on her bed, and couldn't help but pause and take in the sight of that lusciously beautiful body. It seemed that she was acclimating to her new situation rather quickly. But perhaps that was not as surprising as Tara thought. After all, if what Willow had told her before was correct, she had plenty of preparation at living a life underwater.
Approaching Willow, Tara moved to lie down beside her. "Willow?"
Moving over to look Tara in the eye, Willow said, "Yes, Tara?"
Reaching up to run her fingers through Tara's hair, Willow nodded. "I am, Tara." Her brow creased, wondering why Tara had asked that question, realizing that it must be Tara's desire to see her safe and happy that prompted her to ask that. But why would she feel that way now? There must be something still troubling her, something that had nothing to do with what had happened to Baji.
"Tara, are you all right?"
Lying down on her back, Tara glanced up at the ceiling, letting out a deep sigh. "Yes, Willow," she responded after a moment's contemplation, realizing that she truly was feeling all right. There was, however, one topic of discussion that impeded her feelings of goodwill. One that she knew would have to be broached immediately, lest she discover it herself and harm herself misusing it.
"Willow, there is something that we need to talk about."
Reaching over to drape an arm across Tara's chest, Willow said, "What is it, Tara?"
"When you...when you and Baji...when you decided to bring me back to life, she wanted to make sure that you would be able to do so without any problems. She also knew that doing so would...would cause her life force to..."
Tara cursed herself for being unable to voice her concerns. She wondered whether or not she would ever be able to do so, knowing that in order for her to move on in her life, she would have to accept the loss. Forcing herself to continue, she said. "So when...when you performed the spell, she transferred her talents to you."
Willow's eyebrows rose slightly. "Her abilities? What do you mean?"
"She...gave you her magic, Willow."
"Her magic?" Willow said in surprise, her ability to comprehend what Tara had told her slowly beginning to erode in light of the impossibility of what she had said. And yet, there was no way that she could deny the fact that it could have been possible. After all, she did feel something come over her during the spell that made her feel...powerful, as if there was nothing she could do wrong.
As much as she felt excited about the idea of having magical powers like Tara, one thought immediately concerned her. She had pressured the elder mermaid into doing something to help bring Tara back. If she had known that Baji would have done so at the cost of her own life.
"Tara, I'm sorry."
Turning over, Tara gave Willow a curious look. "What for, Willow? Baji knew what she was doing, and must have felt that your happiness was more important than her own life." She thought for a moment, then added, "And if it makes you feel better, I would have done the same for you."
Willow giggled. And, catching Tara's curious expression, replied, "You did, remember? Back in the cave when you were willing to sacrifice yourself to protect your people."
"I guess you're right, Willow," Tara sighed. "We only wanted to make you happy, even if we had to die in order to do it. You understand that, don't you?"
"Of course, Tara," Willow answered, planting a kiss on the blonde's temple. "And...if you truly want to make me happy, then could we..."
Tara smiled, and moved to position herself over Willow, granting the redhead the full view of her body. Willow ran her hands across Tara's thighs and across her abdomen as the blonde grinded her pelvis, driving her sex onto Willow's own. Biting her lip, Willow moaned at the contact, arching her back to return the contact.
Lowering her head, Tara plated a trail of kisses across Willow's upper chest, taking the time to wrap her lips around the redhead's nipples, flicking her tongue across them and bringing them fully erect. She then brought her tongue down slightly below Willow's breasts, bringing her tongue out and up between Willow's small flesh globes.
Willow's hands, meanwhile, traveled up the expanse of Tara's thighs, gently cupping the blonde's rear, eliciting a watery squeal of delight from Tara, her pelvis grinding itself into Willow's own, bringing a squeal of arousal from her as well. Both of them let out a giggle, a giggle that was swiftly cut off and transformed into an intense and pleasurable moan as Tara pressed her lips against Willow's.
Willow drank in Tara's essence as easily as she could drink a glass of water. The intense feelings she felt at doing so threatened to shut off her higher brain functions. It was that need to keep herself aware of what was going on around her that forced Willow to raise her hands and gently press against Tara's chest.
Confused, Tara got off of Willow and rolled onto her side. "Willow? What's wrong?"
Sighing, Willow turned to look Tara straight in the eye. "I was thinking. Maybe we should...wait."
Rolling over, Willow tried to compose her thoughts, hoping to say what she wanted to say without accidentally offending Tara. She knew, on some level, that Tara felt the same way she did, so she wanted to make sure she said what she had to say in a way that made sure she knew that.
"I mean, you said it yourself," she began. "We've...we've been through a lot of pain, and as much as I want to...prove my love to you, I can't help but realize that it was that...eagerness that played a part in..." Swallowing down the lump that was forming, she continued, "That it would probably be best if we...if we waited." Continuing without taking a breath, she tried to explain her decision. "I mean, you said you had a lot of pain, and I wouldn't want to subject you to something like that before you had a chance to feel better about yourself, because I want to make love to you without feeling...without feeling guilty about it. And even though you've loved me since the day we met, I know that you want to make sure that I'm...that I feel comfortable about who I am...who I am now before we decide to...before we decide to...trust one another like that again. Not to mention the fact that somehow I've got magical abilities, and that's something that's going to take a while to get used to. And I know that you'll...help me in that respect."
Letting out a silent chuckle, Willow knew that the time had come to wrap up this little bit of babble, and concluded by saying, "Do you understand that, Tara?"
Moving up behind Willow and gently caressing a finger across the expanse of her naked back, Tara whispered, "I understand, Willow."
Smiling, Willow turned around to look at Tara, giving the blonde a comforting squeeze. "I knew you would, Tara."
Running one hand through Willow's hair and putting her other hand on Willow's arm, Tara gave the redhead a comforting squeeze, saying more with those gestures than words ever could.
Shifting into a new position, Willow laid her head down on what apparently passed for a pillow and closed her eyes. "I'm sleepy."
Tara watched in silence for several more minutes as Willow drifted of into sleep, then moved to follow suit, lying down on the bed and closing her eyes. She was like this for only a few seconds before she rolled over, draping an arm across Willow's body.
Although apparently unaware of this act, the second she came into contact with Willow's flesh, Tara's face broke out into a smile, one that sparkled brightly and lit the room fully as if one had lined the walls with light bulbs.
Two weeks later, the letter Willow sent to her parents reached them. In a rather uncharacteristic display of genuine affection for their daughter, they made every effort to try and find her, contacting everyone whom they could think of in trying to help. Although the police were quick to put together a team to help search for her, the only person who appeared to be forthcoming with information that could be considered useful was one Joyce Summers, who was as clueless as they were as to Willow's intended destination.
After searching nearly nonstop for Willow for a week, Ira and Shelia gave up hope of finding their daughter alive and returned home, where they spent the next several days in a state of near depression. Their neighbors reported hearing two gunshots four days after returning home, police finding their bodies in the basement shortly thereafter in what was ruled to be a suicide.
Joyce, meanwhile, coping with the dual sting of the loss of both her daughter and her best friend, tried to patch things up with Dawn as best she could in order to help deal with her grief. Dawn, however, could not come to terms with what had happened, and ran away from home days after. Joyce, now having lost both of her daughters, became so distraught that she checked herself into a clinic. The doctors diagnosed her with depression and decided to keep her under their permanent care, lest her case become so serious that she became a danger to both herself and others. Their lives, along with Buffy's and Faith's, had all come to an abrupt and needless end out of the actions of the mermen.
But as bad as that was, one beacon of light shone bright against the darkness. Through all the pain, through all the sorrow, a lost and frightened child had found her way home. And though the road to reach that destination had been fraught with pain and suffering, and though the future seemed uncertain, at the present, those concerns were but a distant memory, to be dealt with at a later time.
All that mattered to her now was that she was home and that she was with Tara. As far as Willow was concerned, that was all that was important.