The Greatest Gift of All

Author: SithLordWiccan
Rating: NC-17
Feedback: Feed the beast, otherwise it dies a meaningless and painful death.
Spoilers: Significant spoilers for "Under the Sea." Reading that first makes enjoying this much easier, though I would like to think that it can stand on its own, if need be. (Which is why I made half of this a recap of that fic.)
Disclaimer: Willow and Tara are the exclusive property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox, UPN, WB and others. Original storyline and characters are mine.
Summary: Mere hours after her transformation, Willow encounters a problem that threatens to bring her new life to a disastrous end.

Willow slept soundly on the stone bed, her naked chest rising and falling at regular intervals as the arm of her newly found love rested against her. It was the kind of situation that the redhead had always dreamed of, yet one she had convinced herself was impossible to obtain. Never in her entire life had Willow thought that she would find someone who loved her for who she was, accepting her for her strange quirks.

Strangest of all was how she felt when she immersed herself in water. From the time when she was a teenager, when she had her first sexual experience in a public swimming pool, Willow had kept a great secret about herself from those who loved her most. Although she kept it a secret, Willow wasn't about to deny herself the opportunity to engage in sexual self exploration while in the act of swimming underwater. So she had, whenever she could be alone, allowed herself to fully explore how she could feel being immersed in the bathtub, a pool, or even, once she got her full certification as a diver, the ocean itself.

Allowing herself to recall the events that had led to this moment, Willow first brought to her mind's eye the incident that occurred mere days ago that had begun the journey which led her to her current situation. Seeking a private place in which to bring herself fully to a state of heightened pleasure, she had damaged her oxygen tank and, having lost the rope which she had used to mark her path, got herself lost deep in a nearby cave, where she would have surely drowned to death had she not encountered a being that seemed imaginary at the time, looking to all appearances to be ripped straight from the pages of a fairy tale. A very beautiful, and very naked, blonde woman, whom had rescued her and, using some form of magic that she was adept in, brought her back to life without any apparent ill effects.

The redhead felt an immediate connection to the blonde, whose name she had learned was Tara. She had hoped to find someone that shared a passion for the water and the intense feelings that it brought, and there would certainly be no person better at understanding that than one who was born there. Willow had also come to learn something else about Tara: she had been the one who was responsible for getting her lost inside the cave by pulling out the rope, an act which she had greatly stressed was because of her innate curiosity, and not out of the inherent violence her race had towards humankind, which she had also explained to Willow as resulting from a similar situation concerning one of her kind who had also fallen in love with a human.

The pair had, despite all of their concerns, decided to consummate their relationship, feeling that the strong positive feelings they had towards one another greatly outweighed the potential negative ones that threatened to destroy their love.

It would be that choice which set Willow down a downward spiraling path that saw her best friend get killed. She recalled more pleasant memories of Buffy, whom she had met in high school and had been best friends with ever since. The blonde had never once made Willow feel anything but comfortable about her life, even escorting her to the prom despite the very obvious embarrassment she would suffer at the hands of the more popular students. She had even been the only one Willow told when the redhead decided to come out of the closet, a decision that Willow had agonized over a great deal, and thus was surprised when Buffy easily accepted it.

She had also easily accepted the fact that Willow found something intensely sexual about being underwater. As a champion swimmer during high school and a lifeguard at Santa Monica Beach, she had told Willow that there were a great many things that people found sexually exciting. And that if Willow's was water, then that was all that would be said about it.

The ease at which Buffy had taken this had made Willow suggest, rather abruptly, that she come with her to see Tara. The moment she had done so, she knew that it was a bad idea, a situation further exaggerated by the fact that from the moment they first met, Buffy seemed to be ill at ease being in the same presence with her.

Willow couldn't blame Buffy for feeling that way, but she knew something that Buffy did not, namely that Tara did not appear to be anyone who would knowingly harm anybody. That line of reasoning had been brought into serious question when, after returning to the surface with Tara, and hearing her talk about what she had felt while they made love, Willow came to the realization that Buffy had been brutally murdered by others of her kind.

Willow tried hard to believe that Tara had nothing to do with that, but despite all her effort, doubts began to subtly creep into her consciousness. Had Tara, when bringing her back to life, somehow placed her under a hypnotic spell that caused her to bring someone she loved to them with the intention of killing them both in a sacrifice to some god? Did Tara truly save her from accidentally killing herself only to turn around and offer them to others of her kind?

Willow vehemently refused to believe it. Someone who expressed genuine sorrow at that loss would not be someone who would have been a knowing participant in it, and Tara would not have granted her the ability to breathe underwater without assistance to someone she planned to kill at a later date. A gift like that was something special, and something that would not be frivolously given away.

Willow had decided to return to Tara in order to try and figure out where the two of them stood. But before that, she had encountered the one person who had ended up making her life more complicated than she could have accomplished on her own.

From the moment Willow had first met Faith, she had felt an immediate dislike towards her, which was unusual in and of itself, for she had never felt an immediate dislike towards anyone, even the bullies that had tormented her in high school. But there had been the way that the young and impossibly beautiful looking brunette had carried herself that put Willow off. She knew that, in different circumstances, Faith could have been her. And it was that, more than anything else, which made her question her motives.

Well, perhaps that had not been everything. There was also the fact that, acting purely on speculation and a full head of steam, Faith had accused her of killing Buffy in cold blood, which Willow stressfully denied to her. And although Willow had been glad that Faith appeared to accept that, any hopes of being able to form a lasting friendship with her were dashed when, having gone back to meet with Tara, Willow had inadvertently led Faith, and others of Tara's race, to them.

Willow had felt remorse at that, especially since it had led to yet another senseless death, this time Faith's own at the hands of the mermen. It had been sad for her to play yet another unwilling part in the death of an innocent, especially since she realized that it was her need to keep secrets from others, and nothing anyone else could have done, which had been largely responsible for what had happened.

The situation didn't get any better when those mermaids, having found Faith, believing her to be an intruder and followed her into the cave where they discovered Willow and Tara together, revealing to them their forbidden relationship. Willow had done a great deal to try and change their attitudes towards humanity, saying that if she could accept them after all they had put her through, and that she would willingly die to keep that secret.

Things looked to be turning around for both her and Tara when one of the other mermen, apparently not to be easily swayed as the others were, had taken it upon himself to end Willow's life himself. Tara had tried to protect her, with disastrous results. And it was only through Willow's love for Tara, and the knowing self sacrifice of one of her friends, that Tara was brought back to the land of the living.

It was then that Willow had been given a chance to join Tara's clan, an opportunity that Willow, after taking the time to think about it, readily accepted. So Tara and some of the most powerful magic users in her clan had transformed her into her current state, as much a child of the ocean as they were, and giving her the life and body she should have been born into. All that she kept of her former life was a small golden mirror, something that she was going to give to Tara as a compliment, echoing the blonde's own offer of a small pearl as a gift to her.

Willow's eyes shot open as she recalled the mirror, realizing that she did not have it in her possession. Gently getting out of the bed so as to not wake Tara, Willow began to paddle across the room, doing as best an approximation of pacing the area as she could, given the fact that the room she was in was completely filled with water.

She tried to recall the last time she had the mirror, remembering that she had entered the cave where she was transformed with both it and the pearl in her possession. Her fears about the situation being put aside, she wanted to move quickly in order to begin the process as soon as possible. In order to do that, she had dropped...

A worried look appeared on Willow's face as she realized, to her horror, that she had done something bad. Not only had she left something precious that she wanted to give to Tara back in the cave, but she had been careless with one of the blonde own possessions. She had to recover them before Tara woke up. Otherwise Willow would never be able to forgive herself.

Making her way from the house, long red hair billowing in her wake, Willow began her journey back to the place where her life had both ended and truly begun.

Willow was not as accomplished a swimmer as Buffy had been, but she had comforted herself with the knowledge that one did not have to be a champion swimmer in order to be a good diver. So it surprised her that she was able to make her way back to the cave in record time. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that before she had been weighted down by heavy equipment that, while necessary for her survival in that environment, made certain tasks all but impossible under the best of circumstances. But now that her body had been conditioned to be more accepting of the environment, Willow found herself being able to swim faster than Buffy could have even on her best day.

A pang of guilt rose from Willow's heart as she thought of her friend. Her death had truly been needless, as was that of Faith's. She had led both of them to Tara, and both had paid with their lives for it. Whether or not she was truly responsible for their deaths didn't matter. She knew that by exposing them to Tara's world at a time when they were unwelcome was her fault, and that made her as guilty as if she had killed them herself.

Entering the cave, Willow made her way down the labyrinth of tunnels and passages, all the while casting her glance at the floor, trying to pick up any glimmers of light among the darkness of the rocks. After a few moments, she arrived in the cavern and, diving as far under as she could, looked around the seafloor for any hint of either the mirror or the pearl. She remembered having both until she had reached this place, so if they were anywhere, they had to be here.

But minutes of searching had yielded no sign of either of them, and Willow, distraught, made her way to the surface, crawling over to the rocks and collapsing onto them, all life drained from her body as she realized that Tara would hate her for losing her most precious gift. And that she would never be able to give her something that meant as much to her as Tara's gift had meant to her.

Tara slept, her thoughts turning backward over the past several days. So much had happened during that time, and not all of it for the best. But it had brought her and Willow together. She knew that there would be those among her kind that disapproved of that, of course, seeing Willow only as yet another case where magic had been used to fundamentally alter their society. Those people still held a great deal of resentment towards the first change, when they had remade themselves in the image of humanity in order to hide the truth from a child that should have been put to death as his parents had been.

Well, those people could think however they wanted. The Elders knew of Willow's plight and how much she had been led astray. They, like she, knew that Willow was not a human being brought into their midst and changed in order to make her feel more comfortable, but a wayward child that had, through no fault of her own, been cast adrift on the surface, with only the barest hints of her true life as a mermaid manifesting into her personality.

Tara's eyes opened at that moment, feeling that someone was in distress nearby. Reaching out with her senses, she realized that it was Willow. But that couldn't be true, Willow was right here with her. A quick glance to her side, however, disproved that theory.

Closing her eyes, Tara tried to focus her powers and pick up exactly what it was that made Willow so upset. If Willow was now beginning to feel that her decision to become like them was the wrong one, she would be very unhappy.

Concentrating, Tara could feel Willow's pain, and faintly was able to determine that whatever it was that was making Willow upset, it had something to do with something she had recently lost.

Opening her eyes, Tara realized that Willow must be missing her best friend, and she couldn't help but feel some sympathy for the redhead. In the brief time she had known her, and from what Willow had told her, Buffy had been someone special in her life. Under the right circumstances, the three of them could have been together now.

Getting out of the bed, Tara made her way out of her home and towards Willow's location, wanting to be with the young woman who, in a short period of time in her life, had gone through so much, and didn't know how to deal with it.

Tara would help Willow deal with her pain, as the redhead would help deal with hers.

Arriving at the mouth of her formerly private cave, Tara could feel Willow's emotions more vividly now, though what it was that upset the redhead still eluded her. She also became aware of the fact that Willow could feel her approaching, which did nothing to alleviate her growing fears. This concerned Tara greatly, as she knew that if there was anything that Willow should not fear, it was her. After all, they had shared and done so much together. There was nothing that Tara could think of that would make Willow fear being near her.

But there was one way she could find out. And, against her better judgment, Tara decided to pursue it. Whatever it was, she wanted to make sure that Willow knew that it wasn't as dreadful as she thought it was.

Tara broke through the surface of the water to see Willow cowering in the corner, crying as if she had lost something deeply personal. Tara knew that she had, of course, yet she also knew that distress was not the cause of Willow's current suffering.

Looking up, Willow squeaked, "Tara. I'm...I'm sorry."

Swimming up to the rocks, Tara smiled faintly, hoping that doing so would make Willow feel more comfortable. "There's nothing for you to be sorry about, Willow. You've done nothing wrong."

"I have, Tara. I have."

Tara could tell that Willow was keeping something from her, and this became her primary concern. After all, it was not all that long ago that she had said that there was no use for secrets between friends. Hoping to coax it out of Willow without making the effort seem insensitive, she began, "Willow, you once said that there need be no secrets between friends. And I would like to think that, in this case, the student can help the teacher."

Willow sniffled, and realized what it was that Tara was trying to do. It didn't make doing what she had to do any easier, however. But she knew that doing so would be better than keeping it from her. After all, time had already proven how disastrous it would be to keep secrets from them for too long.

"I...I lost it."

"Lost what?" Tara asked.

"I lost...your pearl." Hastily, Willow added, "And...and something I...I wanted to give to you, you know. You had given me something precious of yours, and I wanted to do the same. So I brought something of mine from home with me, along with the pearl. But I lost them, and I tried to find them, and I...I didn't know what you would think when you found out..."

Tara's expression dropped slightly as Willow began to cry once again, realizing why Willow was so upset. But then again, there was something Willow didn't know.

Reaching out with one hand, Tara brought her palm onto Willow's arm. Willow looked up at Tara's face, and found that it held no anger. As she felt her brow creased, Tara raised a finger to her lips, then whispered. "Wait here."

Tara made her way back into the water, and dove under. Willow looked at the spot where she had been for several moments before Tara surfaced once again, with two very familiar objects in her hands.

"The mirror! And the pearl! But how?"

Willow sat in astonishment as Tara came over, putting the mirror, which was in her right hand, down as she got down on one knee. Taking her hand, she picked up Willow's and placed the pearl into her palm. Willow immediately wrapped her fingers around it, not daring to let it go for an instant.

"As I came into the cave," Tara explained as she picked up the mirror and gave it a cursory glance. "I saw them on the floor. I knew that you had the pearl, since that was how you you contacted me. Then I saw the mirror, and thought that it must have belonged to you, seeing as how I found it with my pearl. So I decided to keep them safely tucked away until the morning, when I was going to go back and get them." She smirked. "Apparently I should have brought them to you earlier."

"No," Willow said. "It's OK. At least I didn't lose them." Letting out a sigh, and noticing the curious look on Tara's face, she explained, "Well, like I said, I wanted to give you something that was special to me, like you had done by giving me that pearl. And...well, that was the only thing I could think of. There was something about it that made me think of you. It was almost as if this mirror and you...go together, you know?"

Tara smiled as she ran her finger across the edge of the mirror, seeing what Willow was talking about as she gazed into her own reflection. Her own face looked back at her, but for some reason, Tara knew that it was...different. That she looked somewhat more...vibrant. Powerful, even.

That may have been why Willow was quite distressed at having lost both it and the pearl. Those two things, relatively simple on the surface, each represented the best of what the other had to offer. When she had given Willow the pearl, she had done so in the hope that Willow would use it to heal her own pain by giving the redhead a connection to both herself and the sea. And Willow, in wanting to give the mirror to her, wanted to do the same. It was a connection to the surface, a place that Tara, even with Willow at her side, believed she would never truly belong.

But perhaps it didn't matter. For both of them, the sea was their home. And the mirror was nothing more than a simple gift, given freely out of love, as was the pearl.

When one came down to it, material possessions did not matter. The fact that they were together was. They could be rich beyond the dreams of both mermaid and humanity, or they could have absolutely nothing. As long as they had one another, that was all that mattered.

Tara took Willow's hand into her own, their other hands holding on tightly to their new treasures. Together they made their way back to their home.

Tomorrow was to be the first day of their new lives together.


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