Demon in the Closet by CDS218
Send comments to cds218@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: The characters, monsters and everything else in this story belongs to to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, WB, and whoever else was smart enough to cash in. I'm not making any money off this story.
Author's Note: I fully expect that come season five all of this will be contradicted by "official events."  But it's something the chew over for the next couple months anyway.

Tara did this sometimes, crawled from the bed, from that spot of perfect warmth and enclosure and pulled up a chair to watch her lover sleep. She did not know why, but some part of her felt like the deprivation, the removal, held some virtue. It was as if total immersion in that bliss held a lingering guilt.

She liked to see Willow's form in the deep-night's glow---what anyone unschooled in the ways of Wicca would call darkness---cross-hatched by the amber glow of the dorm's safety-light that was mounted a floor above their window and filtered through their blinds. It made her look like some lithe animal. A jungle cat, Tara supposed, but she wasn't good with similes and she couldn't imagine Willow as anything predatory.

Willow moved little during sleep, so every faint rustle from beneath covers quickened Tara's breathing, every slow scissoring of her legs made Tara's breath catch. The curves, the arcs, the interlaced lavender and amber slashes across her body---this was the essence of Willow, Tara sometimes thought. Beneath the exterior guise (which she also adored) there was this creature, this primal force of pure joy.

She watched until she heard him arrive behind her, but she didn't look back. She spoke first. "I love her," Tara said simply, her voice catching, but (mercifully) not stuttering.

"I know," he answered.

"I'd do anything for her."

"Don't worry," he soothed, "I'm not here for her."

Tara turned, faced him in the night's glow. He wore his human skin. "Why don't you go away and leave me al-lone."

He smoothed the crease of his blazer. "We're not done yet, dear heart. We will be soon, but not yet."

He smiled and Tara began to cry. 

1

"You'd think that her slayage quota would be way up, with Riley in Washington and all, but I swear, just getting her to go on patrol is like, like..." Willow looked around for an appropriate metaphor, her gaze settling on the kitten rolling on her back before her. "Like getting Pandora to take bath." She rubbed the kitten's exposed belly, causing the feline to squirm and writhe and gnaw Willow's hand with her sharp little teeth. "Isn't that right Panda? Yes? Yes?" Pandora mewed obediently.

Tara cocked her head as she always did before speaking. "You know you're not supposed to give cat's baths. They take care of that themselves."

"I couldn't help it," Willow sniffed coquettishly, "she rolled in your ginseng."

"Well, then you deserved to get scratched," Tara leaned in and quickly raked her blunt fingernails across Willow's exposed shoulder. Willow recoiled, giggling, and fell backward on the bed. Tara knelt beside her, causing the bed to list dangerously to one side, and leaned in only to be blocked by Pandora, who took the opportunity to run interference. Tara laughed. "Hey! Get out of there!" She scooped up the kitten and fell onto her back beside Willow. Pandora promptly curled into a black-and-white ball and went to sleep on Tara's chest.

They lay there a moment: the kitten sleeping and purring contentedly, glancing sidelong at one another, and gently lacing and unlacing their fingers, enjoying the simple, tactile joy of it, when Tara said: "Do you think that'll be us? You know when we're ap-apart?"

Willow broke her gaze and stared at the ceiling. "We can still e-mail. Call and stuff. I'll visit...when I can."

"The camp has three open weekends," Tara said, too quickly she realized. Willow was just saying things to...well, say them. As late, a veil had fallen between them, thin and gauzy enough to nearly be invisible, yet it was there and it was stifling communication.

"I've never been to Montana," Willow said with enthusiasm which, while forced, was at least well-disguised. But Tara knew her lover better than that. She knew every pitch and inflection of her voice, and she knew that Willow was being false.

"How did the ap-apartment-search g-go?"

"I couldn't find anything. I think that all the upper-classmen got the off-campus housing already. I'll try again."

Tara's gaze flitted over to where the uncreased, still-folded Real Estate section of the local newspaper sat beneath a pile of Willow's books.
 

2

"All right, so that brings us to the Weimar Republic," Doctor Flockerzie lectured while the slower students-the ones ill-prepared for the impending exam---scribbled furiously. Study sessions were always good to tell the wheat from the chaff.

But Willow wasn't paying attention to the academic prowess of the students around her. She was prepared for the exam, and really didn't need to be at the study session today, but it got her out of the dorm and (she was sickened to admit) away from Tara.

Tara. The name conjured up new images. A horse camp beneath the endless sky of Montana, three months away from her stretching into the distance like a vast, empty hallway leaving her with only questions. Huge questions.

Willow was thinking of triangles and rainbow stickers and words like "lesbian" and "dyke." She was thinking of female police officers and gym teachers and porno films. With Tara she was Willow-friend, fellow witch, lover. Without her she was...what? One of those things? Another campus lesbian? A college girl experimenting with her sexuality? The moment Tara left her, she would have to face up to definitions, explanations, descriptions. The idea of it numbed her.

Willow sat, ignoring the lecture, trying to ascertain if she'd ever been attracted to any of her female friends when she felt it. She could not say what--- a prickling, crawling up her neck, invisible eyes boring into the back of her head. She looked around, twisted in her desk to survey the entirety of the dull, cinder block room, but could see only bored stares and manic note-taking.

But the sensation stayed with her even after the bell had rung and the room emptied out. When it did, Willow was one of the first out the door.
 

3

The trees were low, but thick here, not attractive, but entwined into a thick mass of branches and bramble that formed a border between the worn footpath and the bank of Dumpsters. No one came here---not even to cut across campus from the Humanities quad to the Science quad. This area was simply too ugly. Tara selected it for just that reason. If anyone saw her talking to him they'd think she was nuts, well...if they didn't already, she thought.

"She's not...it's like she isn't r-really in the room with me..." Tara absently kicked at a smooth stone that half-protruded from the dirt at her feet.

"She's drifting away," he said.

Tara didn't look at him, just kept kicking at the obstinate rock. "I love her. She kn-knows that. What else..."

"It's not that simple," he explained patiently, almost paternally, using the tone that helped her forget the savagery he was capable of. "She hasn't fallen out of love with you----that much is obvious. But you're leaving her for three full months. And I'm willing to bet you haven't spent three weeks apart since---"

"No," Tara admitted.

"She's disengaging emotionally. It's involuntary. Poor thing probably doesn't even know why she's acting like she's acting. Just that she is and she's hurting you and she can't stop it."

She looked up. Faced him, though it was the last thing she wanted to do. She couldn't place his features, for they were as inconsequential as his clothes. His essence is what marked him. "What can I do?" she asked.

"Unfortunately, the emotional distance she's placed between herself and you has a nasty side-effect. Self-doubt. It was all good fun when it was just the two of alone. Two lonely social outcasts in a small room together doing spells and..." he smiled wryly, "exploring their sexuality----for the first time in the case of one of the girls."

Tara's face flushed hot and she looked at the ground again.

"That's easy. But when you're gone she has to face the L word and G word and the D word. She has to face her friends---one of whom she's had a relationship with already. Her parents. And she has to face all of it alone. And that, my dear is scary. Could cause a lonely girl to do something rash and destructive to her relationship in the long run. This is California, home of sun-bronzed, hormone-obsessed brainless male animal..."

"But w-what do I d-do?" Tara exclaimed hopelessly.

But he was gone. Tara kicked the rock again, but it didn't come loose. He would return, but from now on, she knew, he would make demands. And she'd never been able to refuse him before.
 

4

"Isn't that cute," Rachel said, her voice all syrupy venom.

"Everybody loves somebody sometime," Gina concurred. Jennifer Prentiss knew they weren't looking at her, but she felt hot anyway. A few tables away, under the shade of a listing poplar tree the two dykes were laughing and passing a soda back and for the between them.

"Cute couple," she said, her gaze zooming in on the blonde. The redhead's name was unknown to her. The blonde she knew. Tara. Tara Kinsey. She remembered it magic-markered on the construction-paper Calvin and Hobbes that had been on her door the first week of school: Hi! My name is Tara Kinsey. The RA thought that name tags were a good way to get the floor top mix and meet.

As if she'd want to meet a fat dyke like her.

Tara's eyes flittered toward her, and Jennifer felt her heart quiver in her chest. Bitch! She must have told the redhead by now, Jennifer thought. And who knows what spin she put on her version of things.

For her part Jennifer never told anyone about that day in the locker room after phys ed. It had been a dumb-shit thing. Her mind was someplace else, sure not on the generous curves and peachy flesh of the blonde girl from her floor. The mind did that sometimes Jennifer had noticed in the tense, disgust-fueled days after that event. The mind wandered and you just ended up stupidly staring at something you weren't even seeing. She was just...someplace else. Not staring at the cleft of the girl's ass or the swell of her breasts or the nipples tinged pink from the shower's sting.

But the bitch had noticed her and thought (mistakenly!) that Jennifer had been looking to, well, to look. Jennifer still remembered with revulsion, the way the girl had coyly shoved her lank, wet hair behind her ear and stuttered a hello. And then the horror of it hit her like a hammer: the girl was a dyke!

Not surprising, Jennifer thought later. After all, here they were in SoCal, where there are just some standards as to how you make yourself up, and this girl was dressing like a freak. And she was fat, too. Lesbians were mostly fat, Jennifer had learned (or theorized---she forgot which), and that just made sense. What kind of a guy would want a chunky lard-butt like her when there were plenty of honey-tanned, spa-hardened bodies like hers for the taking? And on top of it all, the dumb bitch had the luck of being a natural blonde---Jennifer knew that for a fact. No dye job necessary. Who else but a fucking dyke would take blonde hair for granted? Get born with it and let herself get all fat.

Jennifer had vacated the locker room as quickly as she could without talking to the girl, but she'd been thoroughly creeped out. The next few days she'd had to totally fake it with her boyfriend, because she kept seeing that girl in her mind while Kyle was doing her. When she heard rumors that the girl was witch, she figured she'd probably put a spell on her for not returning her attention in the locker room. Shit, she still sometimes thought of the witch when she and Kyle had sex, or when she was naked in her shower.

"The other one looks normal," Rachel observed. "I mean, she's not hot or anything, but..."

"But she could get a guy. She doesn't look like she goes for the Ben and Jerry's every five minutes. Wonder what her deal is?" Gina concurred as she picked at her salad.

"Maybe a bad relationship. Made her gay."

"Maybe she was born that way."

"Maybe she's, like, from New York. Or San Francisco. They're all gay there."

Jennifer felt a slow heat at the back of her neck. She inhaled through her nose. "Why don't we just ask them?" she whispered between tight lips.
 

5

Willow saw the three girls walking toward them, and knew instinctively there would be trouble. The triad didn't speak to one another, just tried to look elsewhere while they maintained a steady, predatory gait. Tara was too engrossed in her discussion of a spell that would allow them to commune with the spirits of the wilderness to even noticed, until they stood over them, their shadows clashing in an imperfect rectangle on the table. Only then did Tara slowly look up. "Uh...h-hi," she managed.

"Can we help you with something?" Willow asked in what she hoped was a pleasant voice that didn't quaver too much.

"Yeah," the ringleader, sharp-faced blonde with exposed roots said patronizingly. "We were wondering if you two were dykes because you had bad relationships and, like, wanted to swear off men, or if you were just born wanting to go down on other women? If you could answer that it would really help a lot." The other two girls-clones of the first with slightly different outfits-giggled at their friend's audacity.

Willow's face flushed. Did they know? Did she know? Did it even matter anymore? It was all what other people thought anyway...

But then she saw Tara staring morosely at her food like a kicked puppy, and protectiveness shoved aside her anxiety so fiercely it even surprised her. "Why do you think we're lesbians?" Willow asked, vaguely surprised by the calmness of her own voice. "Because we ate lunch together? Or is it because we don't sleep with as many guys as you do? Because if that's what it is, you should know that we're really trying to meet your quota, but you keep pushing it up..."

"Fuck you!" the blonde snarled and leaned in, but noticed that her friends weren't with her in this. They'd drifted a bit, not anticipating a full-out confrontation. The girl let Willow boil in her glare for a moment, then straightened up. "Guess we know who the man of the relationship is." She stormed off with her friends. As they departed Willow heard one last barb: "Redhead definitely wears the strap-on..."

Tara's eyes only slowly lifted from the table. "I'm sorry," she said nearly inaudibly.

Willow managed a lopsided smile. "It's not your fault. Some people are just stupid. And...narrow-minded. And...well, really mean."

Tara smiled back and they finished their lunch in silence.
 

6

The evening hadn't shown as much overt tension as she'd expected, but Tara still felt Willow growing distant as the night wore on. She tapped furiously on her laptop for a report she claimed was due for her Western Philosophy class, while Tara worked on some sketches for her final in Pencil and Line Drawing course. They barely spoke until about 1:30 or so when they climbed into bed. Willow spooned easily enough and made small talk in the dark about her finals and the weather and next year's living arrangements. But when Tara had cupped her breasts from behind and slowly kneaded the nipples to hardness, Willow had apologetically pulled away, telling her that she had to be up early the next morning for a study session.

And so all she could do was sit and watch her lover sleep beneath a film of sheets and glowing star stickers pasted to the ceiling.

She watched until she heard him arrive behind her, but she didn't look back. She spoke first. "I love her," Tara said simply, her voice catching, but (mercifully) not stuttering.

"I know," he answered.

"I'd do anything for her."

"Don't worry," he soothed, "I'm not here for her."

Tara turned, faced him in the night's glow. He wore his human skin. "Why don't you go away and leave me al-lone."

He smoothed the crease of his blazer. "We're not done yet, dear heart. We will be soon, but not yet."

He smiled and Tara began to cry.

"Hey..." he consoled her, his voice simultaneously affectionate and taunting. "None of that." He placed a claw on her shoulder-though it looked like a hand. "What would you do without me? You haven't exactly been doing a bang-up job sustaining and maintaining this relationship so far, have you? Now granted your altercation today was probably unavoidable, but you could have handled it better than burying your face in you food like you so often do when you are troubled. Hence all those aliases you went by in high school. Let's see, there was 'Tubby Tara'---not terribly abrasive that one, and rather obvious. 'Tub-'o-Lard Tara,' which has a workmanlike vulgarity making it somewhat effective despite its general lack of originality. There was...uh...'The blonde Blimp,'----again, crude but effective..."

"Stop it!" she whispered frantically.

"...and what was the one Ronnie Feaver used? Oh you remember him, don't you? How you'd get all mooney-eyed----well, more so than usual----during class and write his name in your notebook. And you'd fantasize about marrying him and running your own ranch in Montana? Cute stuff..."

"Please!"

"But then, your best friend Amber gave him that story you wrote about it, and they all laughed...What he call you? Help me out here, complete the sentence: 'No way in hell I'd be seen in public with that blank. What was it? Surely you remember. It goes through your head an any given moment, right before you tongue gives out and you start sounding like Porky Pig. What was it? 'No way I'd be seen with...'"

Tara whispered words etched into her heart. "He s-said...No w-way he'd b-b-be seen with that f-fat-ass f-f-freak..." Hot tears rolled down her cheeks. She wiped them away furiously. She hated it when she cried in front of him, but she always did.

"Well, hey, as much of a jerk as Ronnie turned out to be, you did weigh about, what? One-sixty or so? You were an Orca. Never quite lost it, either. Just sort of grew into it, didn't you? Still, this is sunny C.A. Notice how concentration camp-skinny everyone is? Unhealthy, but, hey it's the fad. Nothing you could do about it. Should have gone to school in Minnesota or Wisconsin, where everyone's chubby due to the harsh winter climate and all."

She pulled away, but his claw dug into her shoulder and brought her near his fangs.

"But you wanted to go someplace where you'd fit in, didn't you?" he demanded. "And what a bang-up job you've been doing so far. Which one is it that wears the strap-on anyway?"

More tears. A floodgate. Her heart was pierced and bleeding. He was right. He was always right. He knew her mind and her heart. He knew she was alone, here in this place where'd run to escape the bitter loneliness of her childhood. And she was losing the one anchor to happiness. "What do you want?"

"You know what I want. And what I want can only serve to help you. You know that, too."

Tara looked him in the eyes----past the false human corneas and irises and into the flaming red of his monstrous essence. "I don't want anyone else to get hurt."

He glanced at Willow. "You want her though? You can't have both. Time to decide what you're willing to sacrifice for happiness."

Tara closed her eyes, the decision already made.
 

7

"And then yesterday, well, this group of girls----I shouldn't say girls. It's not politically correct and also they weren't that nice. Right now, I'm thinking of a lot of other names to call her..."

Buffy spun, bending at the knees so that the Raptor Demon's clawed wing/arm/appendage/thingee hissed through the air above her.

"I don't know," Willow sighed exasperatedly and shifted on the log. She pulled her knees up beneath her chin like she did when she was a little girl, then hunched slightly as the Raptor Demon's appendage whistled through the air above her. "I feel like...something's wrong, but I don't know what."

Buffy pressed her attack, pivoting into a roundhouse kick from the hip that sent the demon staggering backward on its thin, taloned legs. "Did you have a fight?"

The demon ducked and lunged, letting out a shrill, cawing war cry. Buffy fell into a defensive stance.

"No. Everything's been fine. It's been more than fine. It's been...well...like when I was with Oz, you know? She's sweet and I feel, like, twenty feel tall when I'm with her, you know?"

"Ah yes. The invincibility factor." Buffy agreed warmly as she blocked the demon's attack with a quick blow from her forearm. It had been a close one, the demon was quick and there was power behind its swing. That'd leave a mark.

"But now...it's like when she tries to get near me, I just...I don't know. I get cold. It's like my heart is closing off to save the rest of me? Does that make any sense?"

Buffy ducked to a crouch as the demon's appendages swished above her, razor-sharp feathers splitting the air. "A little, I guess." She swept one of its legs, but they proved more stable than she'd expected. Her kick bounced off and she found herself splayed in the dirt. "Sounds like you're scared of something."

"I think I am...But it's like...you know, before when it was just the two of us together in her room. Willow and Tara, and we had our thing. Now it's all different."

Buffy leapt to her feet. "Because we know?"

"Kinda. Yeah."

The demon's lunged, its horned beak jutting out like a spearhead. Its scarlet eyes narrowed with fury when Buffy easily dodged the attempted perforation.

"It's not that I didn't want you to know or anything like that, but...now its this thing, this...real thing..."

The demon's long neck whipped the head and pointed beak around, but Buffy was well outside its arc. "Will, you know I'm not judging..."

"I know, but you shouldn't have to tell me. We shouldn't even have to talk about this. But we do."

"We don't have to. We're too close of friends for that." The demon recoiled, squawked again. It's thick, muscular tongue lashed out like a fleshy bullwhip, throwing a glittering spray of saliva. Buffy cringed. "Ick! Demon slobber!"

"But now..." Willow reached up to brush her hair over her ear like she used to do in high school, only to remember that she didn't have the same long hair she did in high school. "Now there's...the names. I mean, it's not just the two of us anymore. We're a couple now, and...we're a definite kind of couple."

"You mean a..." but Buffy had to duck again as the demon pushed for a full frontal assault.

"Yeah, and now I don't know if we have to get one of those triangle stickers or go to meetings. People send us fliers for rallies and marches. I haven't marched in anything since band!"

The demon's foot came up, talons poised like steak knives.

"And I just...I just want to be Tara's special person. Not her lesbian lover or her gay friend or anything like that. I mean...Does this mean I can't like boys now? I still have feelings for Oz. I think I always will. I still feel a little soft mushy thing for Xander--what does that make me?"

The foot pounded down, Buffy rolling out of its way with millimeters to spare as the ground shook and the Raptor's claws buried nine inches into the earth.

"People are bisexual, Will," Buffy said as the demon tried unsuccessfully to dislodge its foot.

"But I don't want to be bisexual...I mean...I don't know. When did I get this way? How did it happen? How can anyone say I'm bisexual when I don't even know. And...I'm scared."

The demon wrenched itself free in a small cloud of dirt and rushed Buffy. She met the challenge, punching underhand with her left hand, while grasping firmly on the thing's beak with her right. "Knew it was there somewhere."

Willow felt her eyes well up. "Well...this summer Tara's going to Montana to work at an equestrian camp. You know, taking disabled kids horseback riding?

"Aww...horseys!" Buffy used her left hand to draw a stake from her sling. "That's so cool!"

"But what if...Buffy, what if it's easier when she's not around? When I don't have to think about all these questions?"

The demon made pinched, huffing noises and struggled to break free of Buffy's grip.

"Will, when you're in love every moment they're away, is a moment you're a little less alive." Buffy struck once, solidly, with the stake. There was an abbreviated cry from the demon, then a cloud of dust, and then just Buffy facing Willow from behind her outstretched arm and clenched stake. "Take it from one who know. I can tell you exactly how long until Riley gets back."

"I don't know if I'm going to feel that way when she's gone. Tara." Willow felt warm tears break and roll down her cheeks.

Buffy stowed the stake. "You have to find out."
 

8

Alone. Again. She was becoming more aware of it. During high school and much of her first semester here, she'd accepted the loneliness and isolation. They were close companions. But now she had Willow and being away from her felt like being cored.

She studied the cards to pass the time. Night had slipped in about an hour ago, and the room was lit only with a few, small candles. She arranged the two cards she'd drawn: the heart and the mind. Cupid had spirted psyche away and made mad, passionate love to her in the dark so she would not know he was a god.

But she drew a third card. A fearsome-looking beast. It fit between heart and mind. Tara shivered and reached for a fourth. Hands. Manus.

The night was solidifying beyond her windows, becoming black as onyx. She would be late. She would go slaying with...

The card suddenly blew away to every corner of the room, propelled by a localized whirlwind that set Pandora's fur one end and drove her into hiding beneath Tara's sarong puddled in the closet.

"Buffy," he said from where he crouched across from her. Candlelight painted the left half of his face orange and showed off his smooth-shaven complexion. The right was lost in darkness, but Tara thought she could detect the long, boney form of his natural in the blackness, just faintly.

"W-What?" she stammered.

"That's who she's with," he said simply. "Out slaying things together while you sit here playing the Goth version of solitaire."

"Sh-she helps them out a lot. Th-they..."

He waved a hand airily, causing his silk tie to swing like a pendulum. "Yes, yes. Slaying demons. All very noble and protective. I watched them. The slayer did most of the slaying--appropriately enough, I guess----while Willow just poured out her heart."

Tara didn't know what to do, so she picked up the Tarot deck and absently shuffled it.

"They're very close."

"She's Willow's b-best friend."

"Sure seemed that way," he said conversationally, but Tara knew that nothing he did was casual.

"Uh-huh," she concentrated on the cards.

"So...Buffy is her best friend, then I guess...you're not?"

"I'm different. I'm her girlfriend."

"So...Buffy is her friend. She's certainly a girl..."

"It's different!" Tara snapped. "Willow loves me!"

"And she doesn't love Buffy? They've faced death in the eye together how many times? Laid down their lives for one another."

Tara tried to look up, but couldn't. She just stared at the images painted on the backs of the cards. "It's not the same..."

"You taught her something about herself. She may take what she's learned and apply it to her 'best friend.'"

"That's not true." Tara's eyes couldn't leave the deck of cards. So useless. She felt useless, too. "They're not like that."

"You're sure?" he asked innocently. "She's very pretty, the slayer. Blonde. Petite. Glowing smile, brilliant eyes. She really has a...what? Vibrance? Vitality? It's infectious."

Now Tara did look up and into the false, human eyes, glowing with tiny reflections of flames in his irises. "She wouldn't do that! She loves me!"

"She wouldn't while you're around, but once you're gone and mounting those horses in Montana it's a whole different ball game, isn't it?" He leaned in and whispered, "How long do you think it will be once you're gone before the face before the face she sees at night when she touches herself isn't yours anymore, but hers? Her best friend. Who she's know for years and.."

"No!" Tara hurled the cards at him, but they scattered on the other end of the room like dandelion seeds blown by a child. He smiled sadly and touched a claw to her cheek.

"Dear-heart, listen carefully: She has a friend that she trusts with her life and has shared the most intense moments of her life with. This friend is beautiful. Easily more so than you. She's just learned that she enjoys sex with women. You'll be gone for the summer. So will the slayer's boyfriend. You do the math."

Tara said nothing. She'd already done the math a hundred times, moments before her breath caught in her chest and she reached out in a darkened bed to assure herself that the nightmare scenario still hadn't come to pass. That her lover was still beside her and hadn't actually left her for her beautiful best friend. That Willow hadn't yet realized that anyone in their right mind would rather sleep with Buffy than with fat, awkward, Tara Kinsey?

"I can help you. But I need the energy. The strength. And I need you to help restore me."

Tara felt the fear run her through like a medieval lance. "I can't..."

"You can," he soothed. "You already know the perfect candidate."

Tara met his inhuman gaze. He was right, of course. She did know the perfect person...
 

9

Jennifer Prentiss scowled at the row of books that towered above her. Stupid, ugly, hardcovered books. Pain in the ass. No 'find' commands. No quick-searches. Just stupid old books from, like, the seventies before anyone knew anything. She couldn't believe she was reduced to this: visiting the book part of the library, rummaging through dirty, smelly books for some obscure passages that would look good in a paper's bibliography.

What she really couldn't believe was that on this beautiful evening when by all rules of modern society she should be at the beach, huddled around a bonfire with Gina and Christa and Steve and Clay, she was stuck doing this shit. Stupid paper. Stupid final. She consoled herself with the fact that there were only a handful of weeks left before summer break.

She scanned the books-God, some of them didn't even have titles stenciled on the spine! When were they printed, the stone age? A movement from her right caught her eye, but she didn't respond. Just some other poor loser visiting the library. No reason to look...

But when the person coughed, she did look over. And felt her stomach drop out.

The dyke was there. Tara-whatever. Jennifer felt her skin crawl, prickle with gooseflesh. Her hands felt ice cold. The girl was dressed almost normal in a summer dress. Better than a skirt and halter which would show off all that flab. Instead it showed off her swelling chest, and Jennifer found the unwanted image of those naked breasts and stimulated nipples thrust into her mind.

She felt hot now. Fury. The girl had put the image in her brain, she was sure of it. She began frantically trying to think of a way to get out this place without calling attention to herself. But the dyke spotted her first.

"Hi," she said in the brain-dead voice. Just the way she did in the locker room...

"Hi," Jennifer muttered, staring intently at the books in front of her. She wondered if the dyke's girlfriend was here. The redhead with the mouth.

"Um...I gotta get a book. For a class. Probably gonna read it out back. You know, by the back entrance and the safety gate? There's a big light there."

What? Was the girl a stoner and a dyke and a witch? Jennifer just made a noise, but couldn't manage to say anything.

"So, I'm gonna go there now. Maybe...if you need a study-buddy...you know..." The dyke stopped talking, but Tara still felt her gaze on her. A moment passed and she left.

Jennifer stood there for a minute, fuming. Angry at that stupid bitch for keeping after her like one of those annoying little dogs. Angry at herself for backing down. First she got humiliated by the redhead at lunch, now she totally wimped and probably gave the dyke the impression she liked her...

Unsolicited, she saw the girl's curvaceous legs in her mind, being toweled off while heavy breasts jiggled.

She felt fury again and remembered something.

The back entrance was always deserted...
 

10

By the time she found the girl----reading one of those stupid books beneath a white safety light----Jennifer had thought of dozens of things she wanted to do to make the girl pay. She thought of just kicking her fat ass (an ass she'd seen), but that wasn't enough. This girl needed to be humiliated She needed to be brought to her knees. Maybe her dress ripped off, so she had run through campus naked with everyone seeing her fat. Or maybe just made to kneel and beg for...she didn't know what. But the kneeling and begging got her blood rushing. Maybe (she shuddered inwardly) she'd make the girl eat her. It wasn't like a sex thing, just pure power. She wouldn't get off on the sex-just the power of it.

The girl looked up from her book and started to say something, but Jennifer slapped it out of her hands. It landed with a thud that no one would hear. Behind the dyke was solid brick. Behind Jennifer was an access road that was never used. She saw the fear in the girl's eyes and felt her nipples tighten. Now she'd pay. Now...

Jennifer grabbed her face with one hand, savoring the fear in her stoner eyes. "Bitch," she whispered, suddenly realizing she was breathing heavily, "you don't want to fuck with me. Understand?" She grabbed the dyke's face with both hands now, mentally practiced the motion: pull her near, then slam her skull back against the brick. Yes...

She pulled her near...

...Then lunged and pressed her mouth hungrily against the girl's mouth.

Her body went to flame, her panties moistening. She moved the dyke's body against the wall and moved one hand down to fondle those luscious boobs while her tongue flashed against the girl's. She'd never kissed a girl before, and it wasn't as bad as she thought.

Her hand touched bare flesh and a hard nipple, and she knew it was time to take this to the limit. She broke the kiss and stared into the girl's panic-rimmed eyes. She was a mess now-blonde hair mussed, dress bunched and stretched aside showing off one hard breast and the generous curve of another. "You're gonna do it for me, understand? You're gonna fucking do it for me," she gasped. She wasn't making sense, but the dyke nodded anyway. Sheer compliance through terror. This would be sweet.

Jennifer's free hand went to her jeans and she fumbled with the snap. Something behind her made her look furtively over her shoulder...

...and see something that broke her mind.
 

11

Tara pulled away, fixing her dress and spitting the girl's taste out of her mouth. She tried not to watch him feed. Tried not to watch his true form emerge, embrace the girl in his claws and wings and draw the girl's essence from her very skull.

She'd seen it too many times before.
 

12

The late-morning sun only intensified the torpid quality of Giles's living room, and Buffy found herself doing mental exercises just to keep alert. She was reviewing the history of the British monarchy of the 18th century in her mind. It would be necessary information for her British History exam in three days. It also kept her from nodding off and jerking back awake, as Anya was doing, on the couch. Educational, yet practical...who knew I was capable of such synergy?

"Well," Giles managed, leaning against his desk and trying to balance two, large hardbacked texts, "There is some mention---vague, mind you----of a demon that, erm, breaks the mind, I suppose one could put it."

"Is it related to David Lynch?" Xander asked from the couch where Anya had just slumped against his shoulder. "Because I just watched Lost Highway last night, and I gotta say; my mind was plenty broke after that. I mean, what was up with the President from Independence Day turning in to the kid from Young Guns?"

"Xander, stop looking at Patricia Arquette's boobs," Anya murmured sleepily into his shoulder. "Mine are right here..."

"Okay, honey? Wake-up time, here."

Giles blinked a few times in his direction. "Lost what?"

"Giles!" Buffy snapped exasperatedly. "I'd love to catch you up on the last decade of avant garde American filmmaking, but not now! The demon?"

"What? Oh yes, demon. Well, seems there are some legends----local folklore, clustered particularly around the Eurasian subcontinent some four centuries ago--refers to a----" he let one book drop and favored the other, "yes, here's the translation. 'Crazes the mind and scores the heart.' Of course the translation from what seems to be Eremitic doesn't exactly conform to our modern-day tenses and definitions. 'Crazes' for example refers not to 'crazy' or 'insane' but rather to glass and what happens to it when it becomes heated and warps. Likewise, 'scores' refers to creasing or..."

"Xander, turn the boring channel off," Anya slurred. "Why are the English so dull?"

"Honey?" Xander tried to shake her awake.

"Not like James Bond at all."

"Oh, honey?"

Buffy sighed.

"But there's just this one little reference?" Willow asked from the table where made short work of the last grapefruit she'd found in Giles's refrigerator. "So it could be nothing, right?"

"Well, yes...technically...I suppose so..."

"Don't you have some sort of Janes Guide to Demons?" Xander asked. "Something a little more definitive?"

"I'm afraid it doesn't work that way-"

"Look," Buffy said, "I've got three papers to write and two more finals this week alone. If this thing might not be something or just a figment of some Eremite's over-active imagination, then I gotta go with studying over slaying." She caught herself. "Did I just say that?"

"It's okay," Willow cooed. "Your man isn't here. You're probably not thinking straight."

"But the reports are confirmed," Giles insisted. "This girl was found wandering aimless with severe emotional trauma. Completely non-compliant except for basic motor coordination. That is not normal."

"It is exam time," Willow suggested.

"Which brings us back to point one," Buffy continued. "I can't do both. I have to go light on the slayerism if I want to keep my grades up."

"'Go light?'" Giles sounded personally affronted. "You can't go light on your duties as slayer any more than Les Paul can go light on his musical abilities. No. You have to hunt this demon."

"Okay," Buffy countered. "Putting aside the fact I have no idea who you're talking about, it's a matter of practicality, Giles. If I fail my exams, I pretty much flunk out of college. And it's going to make carrying out my duties as slayer all the more difficult if I'm a big slack-butt, living at home with my mom."

"God," Xander shook his head disgustedly, "can you imagine anything worse than...Hey!"

"No offense."

"I know, but...Hey!"

"Well," Giles stammered, "that's a very good point, but...but...well, we have to find some way of, ah, dovetailing these pursuits..."

"I could hack into the Humanities Server," Willow suggested sprightly. "Most of the freshman core classes use standardized exams and grading. I could download the exams for Buffy then change her grade if does too lousy."

"That an...Hey!"

"Attagirl, Willow," Xander stabbed the air with one hand. "Catch 'em goin' and catch 'em comin'"

Anya stirred. "No, Xander, not yet. You always do it too soon!"

Xander attempted to sink into the couch's upholstery.

"Well..." Giles fiddled with his glasses. "I can't abide by cheating, but we appear to have little other choice."

"Besides it puts you in such esteemed company as Milli Vanilli, the 1929 White Sox, JFK," Xander added. "It's the great American way to get ahead."

"Oh, you always want that," Anya pouted, and Xander vanished into the cushions again.

"Well?" Buffy, looked at Giles expectantly. He tugged at the collar of his light, knit sweater.

"I have long believed that standardized testing is a poor barometer for academic achievement..."

"Good. Then it's settled." Buffy stood. "So. What do we know about this girl?"

"Not much, I'm afraid." Giles admitted and handed over a thin file. "This is report from the campus police."

"How did you get this?" Buffy asked as she opened it up and saw the first page featuring a photo of the girl and her name typed haltingly in the form's first field.

"It..uh...it appears that one of the campus policewomen is somewhat of an Anglophile, and...well, offered this in exchange for what I believe she termed a round of, ehm...'Good Cop, Bad Cop'?" Giles shook his head uncomprehendingly.

"Okay, we're just going to halt this avenue of conversation right here and now, before my brain gets crazed," said Buffy, completely unaware of Willow, looking over her shoulder at the report, ashen-faced.
 

13

Of course it could be coincidence, right? Sure it could. After all, it wasn't a huge campus, and since demon activity seemed to gravitate toward this place, and...and...that girl probably did a lot of stuff...at night. When demons were out. Sure, it was probably just a coincidence.

But Willow couldn't make the notion stick. Like an oft-visited HTML form, she had to keep reposting the data. She had to keep rolling the reasons around until they took.

Problem was, she couldn't make much sense out of the other side of things, either. There were no spells that she knew of that could control a demon or cause it to attack someone for you. But Tara seemed more versed in Wicca than she was (though Tara denied this over and over again), and perhaps she knew of some obscure tethering spell. Still, why a demon? That didn't make sense. There were plenty of spells she could cast on that girl to make her lose her hair or some teeth or a killer case of acne or something. Besides, what happened to that girl was really, really nasty. That required a level of sadism and cruelty she didn't believe Tara capable of.

So it was probably all a coincidence. Just a coincidence, right?

Willow went through the reasons again.
 

14

Tara frowned a little, then went back in for another try.

"I just think, you know, it's such a nice night. And if we go to the rock circle we can probably see the wood nymphs dancing. It's th-that kind of an evening."

But Willow, hunched over her laptop, didn't even look back at her. "I can't. I really can't." Her fingers tapped the keyboard, providing the only sound in the room for several moments. Tara rolled over on the bed, making it squeak. She wasn't sure what to say next, but felt she should make some noise. Otherwise, she might just vanish and leave only a faint impression on the bedspread.

"So, um...what are you doing?" Tara wondered why she hadn't asked that question before. She was so stupid sometimes.

"Oh, I'm looking some stuff up on the campus servers," Willow answered brightly. This time she did turn around and her face was as animated as her voice. She got that way when she talked about computers. She was thrilled right now to be explaining her work, her moves on the computer. Tara knew that Willow would respond this way to anyone asking the question. It wasn't just her.

"What kind of stuff?"

"Oh, exams and stuff. I'm being bad, I know. But we decided today at Giles's that I could sorta, you know, help Buffy out with her exams in order for her to be a more effective Slayer. It's all time-management."

"Buffy," Tara said.

"Yeah. She's pretty busy with exams and stuff, but Giles wants her out on patrol, so we had to compromise."

"Okay," Tara replied quietly, her stomach suddenly tightening.

There was another tense silence, until to Tara's surprise Willow broke it. "We think there might be a demon on campus." Her voice was as brittle as dead wood.

Tara took a breath. "Oh?" Did she sound nonchalant? She hoped so. She was so bad at acting.

"That girl. You know the one who...said those things about us. She's had a breakdown."

"I heard about that," Tara replied. "I felt bad. Thinking all that bad stuff about her. I even found a sp-spell that would give her real bad BO. Now I feel all g-guilty. Do you r-really think it was a demon?"

"We're not sure. It could be. Buffy's on patrol in case it is. That's what makes the work I'm doing here so important."

"Oh," Tara said, and the silence fell again. After a half hour she left.
 

15

She went back to her room, cavernous and empty with just her in it. She studied for a little while, listened to some Ani DiFranco CDs and obsessed over Willow. Willow, who was at present moment committing multiple felonies for Buffy and thus too bust for her.

After an hour or so, she lay on the bed, listening to another CD. Willow's scent was on the sheets and it wasn't long before she was dwelling on the better aspects of their relationship and touching herself gently.

Tara couldn't do this easily. She was too shy, too squeamish about her own body to bring herself to a full, healthy orgasm---the kind she had with Willow. But she found that she could fondle her breasts without embarrassment while softly stroking herself through her panties and bring about a small, thrilling moment of climax.

She kept her eyes closed and let the music wash over her in tandem with the sensation---chills and gooseflesh from her hardened nipples, warm desire from her moistening sex. The flat of her left hand alternated rubbing breasts, while the fingertips of her right teased through the cotton of her underwear to the special little button beneath.

Tara felt the sensation beginning, the steady climb to orgasm which made her whole body shiver like a live wire, and she thought Willow. Nude, undressing, pleasuring her with her hands, her mouth, her firm small breasts. She thought the times they made love. During the blackout after Oz left, when all knowledge of her came from her hand. Or the thunderstorm when the pounded so loudly on the dorm windows that they were free to cry out in pleasure with wild abandon.

She saw them, their bodies entwined amid the tangle of sheets, as if from above, and the image helped bring her closer and closer to her sweet destination.

The scene changed. Tara gasped, squeezed her eyes shut against an image her eyes weren't bringing her. Willow and Buffy, nude and thrashing in a wide, cool bed. Willow and Buffy giggling, undressing one another. Willow and Buffy making shameless, brazen love to one another, performing acts that she and Willow were still too shy to try themselves. She saw Willow doing special things to Buffy. Things she'd only done for her.

No! Tara stopped and rushed to the bathroom, her blouse fluttering half-off, her pants still unbuttoned. She could smell her sex on her clothes and hands and the sudden realization that it might soon be Buffy who shared her scent with Willow caused her to double over, retch and throw up into the toilet.

After cleaning herself up, she sat down at her desk. He wasn't there, but she knew that he must know what she'd seen. Feeling emotionally gutted, Tara went into the locked drawer of her desk and withdrew the silver dagger with shaking hands.
 

16

It was still a lovely evening to watch the woodland nymphs, and Tara wasn't going to let it pass. It took a particular combination of coolness, dryness of the air, light at dusk, and a certain phase of the moon. Even so, divining when the woodland nymphs would reveal themselves was more art than science.

A few months earlier, Tara had found a perfect place to watch them. It was an outcropping of rocks on a slight hill overlooking the thick foliage which encircled the University of California at Sunnydale.

It was actually quite simple: a few incantations, some totems, and complete calm. Contrary to what some of the more straight-laced texts said, the nymphs didn't mind observers----as long as they didn't interfere. Tara went through the steps and then pulled her knees up beneath her chin and remained very silent until she saw them.

To the uninitiated they would appear as ghosts or specters----loose, billowy forms, bare will-o'-the-wisps as if a ground fog had solidified into humanoid shapes or someone had sketched people, them smudged them out with a gum eraser. They danced and twirled in the silvery moonlight, darting between trees and saplings, meeting briefly to kiss, then to play in the wilderness some more. Tara counted ten...no, twelve all twirling and dodging and playing.

And then the horror intruded.

She saw his hand wrap around one---not his human hand, but razor-taloned claw of his true self. The nymphs cried out----a sound like a strong breeze whistling through wooden slats----and abruptly dissipated into mist and then nothingness. Tara stood bolt upright, her breath catching in her chest, seeming to constrict her wildly beating heart. He slowly walked the path up to her, his form human except for the one, monstrous claw, stopping in front of her.

"Thought this might get your attention," he said pleasantly.

"D-d-don't h-hurt..."

"You did a good job yesterday. The girl was...nourishing."

"Good," Tara breathed. "Now m-maybe you c-c-can..."

"Oh, we're not done yet," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm going to need a little more from you. And then, you know...we'll see."

"I c-c-can't!" Tara sputtered, unable to take her eyes of the squirming, struggling wood nymph trapped in his claw. The vaporous head was taking shape, forming fear-slitted eyes and a screaming mouth. She thought she could hear the sound of its keening, like the screams of a baby rabbit.

"You can. You always could. This is not an area where you need doubt yourself, dear-heart. In your abilities to socialize, carry on a conversation, hold a person's interest, or be even remotely desirable----yes. But not this. You do so well for me."

"B-b-because you w-w-won't leave me al-alone."

"Now, now," he gestured absently with the thrashing nymph in his claw, "if it wasn't for me, how many friends would you have had in high school? Two? Tops? And they were only your friends because you made them look good by comparison. Remember what they used to say?"

Tara stared fixed at the nymph, as if there was some refuge to be found in the nymph's semi-solid form.

"Do you remember?" he goaded.

Tara said nothing, just felt eyes well up again. Stupid, stupid stupid...all you can ever do is cry!

"Do you?"

"You kn-know I do! Why do you keep asking?"

"Tell me. What was it they said?"

Tara inhaled through her nose, felt the floodgates of her wounded heart begin to open. No! Not this time. I won't let him...

He held the nymph up before her and began to tighten his clamp-like grip around it. She heard its screams clearly now. "Tell me," he said gently as he tortured the nymph further.

She took a deep breath, shut down her mind. No emotion. Just words. Just a sentence. Nouns, verbs, clauses. Just parts. "They said..." her voice caught and she started again, articulating carefully. "They s-said that an-anyone looks good w-when they're standing next to T-Tara." She felt tears on her cheek again. Stupid. She always cried.

"That's right," he answered. "But I was there for you, wasn't I? And I'm here for you now." He lowered the nymph. "And I'm even gonna help you out with your little romantic dilemma. You want to be rid of me? Fine. Give me something substantial enough and I'll take wing and you'll never hear from me again."

"I d-d-don't believe..."

"I don't care," he answered simply. "It's the truth. You want me hanging around for the rest of your life, fine by me. Be the only long-term companionship you ever have and, truth told, it's kinda fun for me. Your pathetic life's an endless source of amusement..."

"What do you want?"

He smiled and touched her cheek with his free hand----the one shaped like a human hand. "Gimmie a slayer. Let me devour a slayer's essence and I'll be fed enough for a millennia."

"No!" Tara shook her head. "I c-can't..."

He sighed condescendingly, as if having to explain a ludicrously simple point to a dull-witted child. "Look, you either bring me the slayer or I'll take the other one-"

Tara attacked.

She had known she could do this if given enough time to work up her courage, but the mere mention of Willow was enough to coil her nerves and set her off in an explosion directed at his heart. In an unpolished, awkward movement, she drew the dagger and plunged it into his chest, a small, dark part of her relishing the solid crunch of impact.

He stagged backward a step with the impact, but no more and she found herself looking up into his amusement, her hands still wrapped tightly around the dagger, now planted hilt-deep into his chest.

"Wow," he said. Tara stood still. It always ended like this. "What is this? Fourth time you've tried to off me with the dagger forged beneath the moonlight? Still haven't gotten it to work yet have you?"

Tara stepped back, lost her footing and fell, her summer dress fluttering in a shapeless heap around her.

"Must be frustrating, since all the texts label this as a sure-fire way of offing me. Oh well..." He suddenly leaned down, his face inches from hers. "Tomorrow, I get either the slayer or your one true love. Understand?"

Tara only nodded.

"Good," he said, then plucked the dagger out of his chest and dropped it at her feet. "And just so you don't forget who you're dealing with..." He held up the keening nymph and crushed it like a dead leaf, then dropped it beside the dagger. He vanished, leaving only the charcoal-gray corpse of the nymph, which vanished in a few seconds.

But Tara continued crying long after that.

17

The day came and went. Tara spent in her room, curled in a fetal position crying and sleeping, only venturing out to eat. But even then she could manage only a few bites before slinking back to her dorm. She stupid and ashamed. Useless and powerless. Her she was, dumb, fat Tara once again unable to do anything for herself and being under the control of another.

But she wasn't wallowing in self-pity. He let the pain lacerate her and let the wounds bleed while a cold, calculating part of her--the ruthlessly objective part that assessed her body, her manner, her social skill----thoroughly and deliberately assessed her situation and arrived at the only conclusion possible.
 

18

Night was falling, painting the sky the color of a fresh bruise when she found Buffy cautiously strolling down a quiet path, her eyes alert for whatever monsters the night might bring.

They nearly ran into one another and exchanged awkward hellos. Buffy wasn't used to dealing with Tara without Willow present, and Tara was finding it difficult to look at the beautiful slayer. After a few brief salutations, Tara blurted her well-rehearsed lie. "I'm having something for Willow tonight, and I was hoping you could m-make it."

"Okay," Buffy cocked her head birdlike. "A party something or an intervention something..."

"No...j-just a...I guess I don't really know. I j-just feel like we're competing for her time before summer, and I d-don't want it to be that way. You m-mean a lot to her and I th-think we should do more together. I w-was going to rent a movie..."

Buffy smiled slightly, her whole face brightening. She really did radiate life. Tara wondered how anyone could refuse her. "That's really sweet."

Tara blushed and shoved her hair over her ear and ducked her head tortoise-like. "Thanks."

"I'm on slayer detail, but...what Giles doesn't know can't hurt him. Besides, no self-respecting demon runs amok before two AM anyway."

"G-great. I'll see you about nine o'clock then."

"Okay."

They should have moved on, but Tara didn't move, and Buffy sensed there was more. Another awkward moment passed before Tara looked up at the lithe women. "I lover her, you know."

Buffy looked confused, but went along with it. "I know."

"No. I never told you. And I know that you're one of the most important people in Willow's life----her very best friend. I just thought I had to t-tell you. I would never hurt her for anything."

"I know," Buffy said again. Quietly and with sincerity.

"No," said Tara, "you don't."
 

19

Tara waited in silence, though she knew he was there. Behind her, or perhaps above her, but watching of course. Always watching. As he'd always done since she was a girl, that first night he'd came to her in her room. She'd only been ten years-old, but he talked her as if she was an adult and not a child. She'd liked that. He didn't visit very often at first. Once every few months. It was only later, when she moved in teenagerhood that he began to visit more frequently. And tell her things about herself she'd preferred not knowing.

He'd been quiet since she came to UCS. She thought for a while that Willow's power had staved him off. But that wasn't the case. And now here she was again----like those times in high school and junior high school. Only this time, she didn't think Buffy would come out of the coma in a six months or a year. He would take everything the Slayer had and leave her a vegetable. Tara was positive of that.

Just as positive as she was of her only option now. She didn't anything. No fear or pain or loss or sorrow. The heart's own safety protocols had kicked in and shut everything down. It was all she could do, now. The only thing. She wasn't even worried about the ramifications.

Buffy was strong. She could look after Willow...

The door opened. Tara slid off the bed to meet---

----Willow!

Tara couldn't even disguise her fear and shock.

"What is it?" Willow asked as she strode into the dorm room and headed for her usual place at the foot of the bed.

"No! You've got to get out of here! You've got to go!" Tara grabbed one of Willow's slender arms and tried to pull her to the door, but Willow could surprising strong. Tara had forgotten that Willow's sinewy body was almost all muscle.

"Tara, what is going on? Why do you want me to..."

Then the door opened again, and Buffy entered. She looked back and forth, had only time to look puzzled.

Then he lunged.
 

20

It was as if the world had spun off its axis.

Willow had come here to spend just another evening with Tara. The kind they used to have before her own fears and insecurities paralyzed her. She hadn't come to any great moment of satori, only that she missed Tara and wanted to be with her.

Yet, from the moment she walked in the door, Tara had been panicky, trying to get rid of her. And then Buffy had walked in, and Willow saw the look of apocalypse in her eyes.

Tara...and Buffy?

No, that just didn't make sense...

And then she saw the blur. In the room lit only by candles and Christmas tree lights, it seemed at first to be an optical illusion----and after-image left on one of her retinas.

But then it took human shape, became a man for only a moment before the human form peeled away like a shabby coat of paint and revealed...

God!

It lashed out at Buffy with long, spindly arms the color of dead corn husks. It's arcing, misshapen head reared up on a thin, corded neck and transfixed Buffy with blood-red eyes. A mouth filled with sharp, triangular teeth opened in an obscene smile.

Buffy still didn't move. She seemed drugged or dazed or

And then, Willow understood.

The hands gripping Buffy's head glowed and the Slayer's eyes began to roll back.

"No!" she screamed, but Tara was already in motion. She'd drawn a narrow, silver dagger from her backpack and leapt at thing, knocking it away from Buffy and against the cheap, University window-frame. The glass shattered, fell away from them in a glittering shower as Tara plunged the dagger into the things body again and again and again.

Off-balance and disoriented from the attack, it raised its hands to Tara's own head.

The glow enveloped them both.

Willow screamed with a primal rage and fear and launched herself at her dying lover.

21

Tara, strangely enough, felt a curl of euphoria swirl through her. Fear, sorrow, rage all began to drop away with the finer points and details of her world. He was destroying her mind, she knew. He'd begin with Buffy and would not be able to stop. He'd need to be sated.

And this would free her...

Then she heard Willow scream, dredging up pieces of reality not yet burned away by his touch. And then the girl's arms encircled her, and Tara's blissful void was interrupted by a wave of ferocious protectiveness.

"Please, Tara, no!"

Tara felt as if her heart had swelled to fill the inside of her chest, then it seemingly exploded, fueled by Willow's touch, in a burst of power so raw and furious that she couldn't even give name to it.

Her right hand burned. Looking down, she saw that the dagger in her hand had turned pitch black. She drew back, then lunged as if guided by a master, and plunged the blade into his heart.

She felt it give. He writhed, impaled on the forged metal, screamed something long and loud and inhuman, then shuddered.

Tara's vision closed in, but she remained standing long enough to see his form----his withered, lizard-skinned body----lose all cohesion and fall into dust.

She fell, didn't feel anything when she hit the floor, but saw Willow in her fading vision, face streaked with tears and grief.

"I love you," she heard Willow say. The last thing she heard.
 

22

"A what-cubus?" Buffy asked somewhat dimly. She'd been given a clean bill of health by the ER docs in Sunnydale General Hospital which loomed behind the group out of the late-night fog like a sea creature rearing up from the depths. Still, she felt sluggish, like she'd pulled three all-nighters in a row.

"Incubus," Giles explained. He stood, while the rest lounged against a chain-link fence by the ambulance bay: Buffy, Xander, and Anya. Willow was still inside.

Xander cocked his head. "Don't incubi generally, ah, have sex with you to death?"

"Yep," Anya confirmed. "You know who's an incubus? Warren Beatty. I'm not kidding."

"Yes," Giles interrupted, reasonably sure she was kidding, "well, not all incubus actually kill..."

"So is that weird philosophy prof with the beret," Anya continued. "And Billy Bob Thornton."

"I knew it!" Xander exclaimed.

"Guys," Buffy brought them back. "We need a little attention here. Big explanation of all the weird stuff and everything."

They returned their attention to Giles. Xander looked cowed, Anya annoyed.

"As I was saying, not all incubus feed off, erm, sexual energy. There are accounts of some that draw from a victim's fears and insecurities. Relationship between demon and human can go on for years with the demon feeding off the sense of inadequacy and self-loathing it instills in its victim."

"But what was it doing to me?" Buffy asked. "My brain. And the brain of that other girl?"

Giles shrugged. "Probably a defensive mechanism of some kind. But the real sustenance was its ability to use Tara to procure victims."

"He got off on braking her spirit," Buffy said darkly.

"Typical male," Anya sniffed.

"In case you weren't following, this was a demon," Xander replied defensively.

"What I don't understand is how it died? What did it?"

"A type of dagger," Giles answered. "A particular type."

"But if Tara had it, why didn't she use it before?"

Giles just shrugged. The truth that it must have been Willow's love for Tara and vice-versa which activated the magical properties of the weapon simply wasn't any of their business.
 

24

Willow had to whisper, since visiting hours were long over.

"You could have told me," she said as she stroked Tara's bangs.

"I couldn't," Tara replied softly. She was still weak from her concussion, but the doctor's said they'd be releasing her in a day or two. "I couldn't tell you I'd done those things. That I'd deliberately m-messed up the spell to contact Thespia and that I h-had a demon..."

"It wasn't your fault," Willow said, moving her fingers from Tara's bangs to her smooth cheek. "I would have helped you."

Tara blinked moist eyes. "I was afraid of losing you," she said hoarsely.

"You won't. Not that easily."

Tara managed a smile. "It's okay. I know you're s-scared about...everything, and I understand..."

Willow put her finger to Tara's lips, silencing her. "I'm nervous, yeah. And I don't know how everything's going to work out--with my family and stuff----but I'm not letting that get in the way of what we have. The truth is, I happy when I'm with you, and miserable when I'm not. It's just that easy."

a tear slipped down Tara's cheek. "Kiss me," she whispered. Willow leaned down to her and did. It was a long, delicate kiss, the kind shared by lovers that is built upon a past and promises the future. When they parted. Willow kept her gaze on Tara's glistening eyes as she slid out of her peasant blouse and long skirt.

"W-what are you d-doing?" Tara asked, excitement making her voice quaver.

"I'm going to keep you company. A positive attitude is crucial for the healing process." Willow slid the covers back and slipped into the stiff, starched sheets beside Tara. She put an arm around her girlfriend's midriff and squeezed her close.

"I'm not..." Tara started. "I m-mean, my head still h-hurts p-pretty bad, and I don't think..."

"Shhhh," Willow whispered in her ear. "Just go to sleep. I'll be here with you. Just get some sleep."

They turned on their sides, spooned, and fell asleep in each other's embrace.
 

END

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