DISCLAIMER:I do not own any of these characters. I think by now we all know who actually does.
SPOILERS: If you haven't read the original story, Alternate Alternatives, you may want to hold off on this story and read it first, or else this probably won't make a whole lot of sense.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Continuity is out the window. This story takes place in an alternate version of the already alternate world presented to use in the episodes THE WISH and DOPPLEGANDLAND. Some people and situations will be very familiar while others will seem to come out of left field. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Alternate Alternatives 2: Dark Horizons
By Kirk Baldridge
Tara Maclay stood in front of the bathroom mirror in a nightshirt, absently brushing her still wet hair. Her eyes were still red and puffy from having been crying recently. She gave up on the tangles and sat the brush aside, then bent down to splash some cold water on her face.
The bathroom door opened behind her while she was distracted. As she straightened up she felt a body pressing into her back and strong, cool arms going around her waist. She started to smile, until she lifted her head and saw she was the only one visible in the mirror. She gasped. "Whoa!"
"The mirror. Your reflection." Tara licked her lips. "Or the lack thereof."
Willow Rosenberg leaned down and kissed the blonde's neck. "Sorry if I scared you."
"I-I wasn't scared, it's just I couldn't see you, and..."
"No," said the redheaded vampire. "I'm not talking about the mirror."
Tara blinked. "Oh."
"I just wanted to tell you...I wasn't trying to pressure you." Willow stepped back and crossed her arms. "If you're not ready, I understand."
The blonde nodded. "I do w-want to. Please, believe that. It's just...this is a lot to take in, you know? So much of what I knew about the world has changed in the last three days."
"I get it." Willow shoved her hands in her pockets and walked out of the bathroom.
Tara bit her lip. "I'm sorry."
Willow was a conflicting mass of emotions as she took the stairs two at a time and landed in the front hall with an angry growl on her lips.
The house had been chosen at random, after they agreed it was no longer safe at the Magic Box; especially with William on the loose. They had brought some of the books and magical artifacts along with them, and they could always go back to the shop if they decided they needed more.
"I hate feeling like this." The vampire snorted. "No, I just hate feeling." Before Tara came along her world was a much simpler place. The only feelings she ever really had to contend with was the hunger that set in just before a hunt and the satisfaction that came after a good kill. Now, after the botched ritual which eliminated her bloodlust and subdued much of her demonic impulses her humanity was starting to resurface. It hurt, it scared her, and now it made her more than just a little annoyed. "And it's all her fault."
Tara. She was both attracted to and constantly infuriated by the beautiful blonde. Not long ago, less than a week in fact, she wouldn't have even hesitated to rip her heart out. Now the only thing she found herself wanting to rip was whatever clothing Tara had on. "Stop!" Willow slapped herself in the head. "You're doing it again!" The things she was feeling for Tara were so far beyond anything she had ever felt for Xander that it was starting to get really hard for her to think straight. "I need some air." Figuratively speaking, of course.
Willow glanced up at the stairs, then shook her head and walked right out of the house. She didn't have to worry about the sun either; even with all the windows covered up she knew exactly what time it was. Nine forty seven in the evening. That was one of the perks of being a vampire.
The redhead barely made it to the sidewalk before she heard something. Branches rustling--even thought it was a calm, windless night. She stopped in her tracks. "Come on out!" she growled, her hands clenched into fists. "I'm not in the mood for games!"
A figure dropped out of a nearby tree, behind her. Willow turned. Even though it was a new moon and there was very little light, she noted the woman's well-coifed blonde hair and obviously expensive designer clothes. It took a few moments for her to realize she knew her.
"I don't believe it. What the hell are you doing back in Sunnydale, Harmony?"
Harmony Kendall had been one of Willow's biggest nemeses back in high school.
Of course that was before the night Xander showed up on her doorstep, asking to be invited in. After becoming a vampire her mortal life, and all it's 'problems' lost its importance. She had planned to feast on Harmony and her cohorts as retribution, but someone else got to them first. The last she heard they were leaving the United States at the behest of the Master.
The blonde cocked her head. "Willow. Long time no see."
"Speaking of that, you must be dying without a reflection, Harmony. It never bothered me."
"That's 'cause you don't have as much to look at."
Willow snarled. "What do you want?"
"I was told to find you."
Harmony smiled. "My sire."
"Who is that?"
"None of your business." Harmony shifted to her game face, snarled, and leaped at the redhead.
Tara quickly got dressed and rushed downstairs to try and catch Willow. But even though it had only been a few minutes she knew the redhead was probably long gone. She could move really fast when she had to. As she got to the front door the blonde stopped herself.
"Maybe she just needs some space." She wandered over to the couch and sat down.
It was all her fault. The two of them were talking about their relationship, what it was and where it was going, and all of a sudden she was struck by an irresistible urge to kiss the redhead. A kiss which was returned hungrily. One thing led to another and they ended up in bed together. Everything was going great, until the point Willow opened her blouse and began sucking on one of her nipples. She panicked, rolled out of bed while apologizing profusely, and ran into the bathroom. That was where Willow later found her.
What she now wanted to explain, was why.
Willow probably thought it was her. The fact that she was a vampire. And that was part of it, as much as it would have hurt her to hear it or Tara to say it. A small part of her couldn't get past the fact that Willow was an animated human corpse with a demon inside it. A demon which not too long ago was trying to kill her and had in fact killed her friend Amy. But that wasn't the only thing bothering her.
Tara was a virgin. She had been aware of the fact she liked girls 'that way' since she was younger, and once even got to 'second base' with a girl in high school, but she had never actually made love. The thought of her first time, in and of itself, was scary enough. Add to that the fact that the object of her affection was a vampire, and it felt as if her whole world was turning itself upside-down.
"Goddess!" She stood up. "I have to find her!" Maybe it didn't make sense, and maybe it wouldn't work out, but if she didn't at least try to make Willow understand how she felt about her she knew she would regret it for the rest of her life. "I just hope she..." As she got her hand on the knob she stopped, for something hit the door hard from the other side, and now she became aware of throaty, animalistic growls.
The blonde backed away, just before the door exploded inward. Willow flew head over heels into the room, and landed in a crumpled heap at the base of the stairs. Tara started to kneel beside her, then heard a grunt and looked up to see a blonde female vampire running into an invisible barrier in the open doorway.
"Harmony," said Willow, who lifted her head.
"Friend of yours?"
Willow stood up. "Not quite." She nodded. "You're faster than I expected. Stronger too."
"Like I care." Harmony slapped her hands against the barrier. "Come on out and let's finish this!"
"Why should I?"
Harmony sneered. "Don't tell me the Master's lap-dog is afraid to fight?"
"You little..." Willow started toward her, but Tara grabbed her arm. "Let me go!"
"She's just trying to provoke you. You're safe in here."
Willow pulled away. "No way! I'm not about to pass up a chance to pay this tramp back for everything she did to me!" With a roar she leaped out the door and tackled Harmony.
"Willow!" Tara followed them outside. "Willow, stop it! This is crazy!"
Harmony pushed the redhead away and rolled to her feet. "You should listen to your girlfriend, Rosenberg. You were a nothing in high school, and you're a nothing now!"
Willow's face became demonic again. She howled and kicked Harmony in the stomach, doubling her over, then kneed her in the face and sent her flying back into the street.
"Hit a nerve did I?" Still laughing Harmony started to rise, but the redhead pulled a street sign out of the ground and swung it like a makeshift club. It cracked against the blonde's skull and knocked her into a tree, where a thick branch punched through her back and came out her chest. By pure chance it missed her heart, though she was in a great deal of pain. Her face turned human. "Hey! This blouse is real silk!"
Willow shook her head. "You're breaking my heart."
"Damn you, Rosenberg. You'll pay for this!" Clearly weakened, Harmony slid off the branch and slumped to the ground, clutching at her wound. "My sire will make sure of that."
Willow tossed the sign aside as the blonde scampered away. "Why in the world anyone would waste time siring that airhead is beyond me." She started to walk away.
"Will, please." Tara again grabbed the redhead's arm. "You don't understand..."
"I don't?" Willow jerked away. "I think you've made yourself perfectly clear." Her face returned to normal. "You don't want me around. I get it, all right?"
Tara began to cry as she watched Willow walk off into the darkness.
Willy the bartender put away the bottle of O-negative he had poured for one of his regulars, and turned to see a familiar face come walking in the door.
"Well, well. Long time no see, Red." He grabbed a glass as Willow saw down at the bar. "What brings a big shot like you to my little out of the way establishment?"
"I'm not a big-shot anymore," said Willow. "Let me have some A-positive."
"Oh. The good stuff. Coming right up." Willy poured her the blood and then leaned across the counter. "So, you wanna talk about it or what?"
Willow frowned. "How long have you known me?"
"Couple o' years now."
"And how often do I come in here to talk?"
Willy thought about it for a moment. "Never."
"Yeah, but if you were hungry you would have just grabbed the first 'donor' you came across. You walked all the way to Willy's for a reason."
"All the way? Sunnydale's not that big of a town, Willy."
He shrugged his shoulders. "You know what I mean."
Willow sighed. "Fine." She finished her blood, and before she could say anything Willy had filled the glass. "It's a long, complicated story. You sure you wanna hear it?"
"I'm all ears."
Willow told him about the fight she'd had with Tara. About everything that had been happening the last few days in fact. Her falling in love with a human, who she thought returned her affection, and now learning the truth. How lost she felt without the Master and Xander, and how Tara's arrival changed that. All she omitted was the specific nature of the Black Luster Ritual. The eradication of her bloodlust and her altered mental state because of it, was information she didn't need getting out. "So?"
"Sounds like you've had a wild couple of days, Red."
Willow nodded. "And to top it all off, now I've got Harmony to deal with."
"You a singer?"
"No, moron. Harmony Kendall. She's a vampire."
"Ah." Willy started absently cleaning one of his glasses. "An old rival? Or an ex?"
"Neither. I knew her in high school. She got turned not long after I did and disappeared. Now she's back in town and I want to know why."
Willy nodded. "I'll see what I can dig up. May take a couple of days though."
"I got time," said Willow. She thought about Tara again. "Nothing but."
Tara wanted to go looking for Willow right away, but she knew from experience how dangerous Sunnydale was after dark. So she made herself a cup of tea and sat down on the couch to watch television, only to end up staring off into space until she fell asleep.
The next morning she got up and peeked in all three bedrooms, on the off-chance Willow had come back while she was asleep. Of course there was no sign of the redhead. She went back downstairs, opened the front door and stared out into the empty street. Now that it was daytime she would be safer, but the sun itself presented a whole new set of problems for her to deal with.
Willow would no doubt be in hiding by now. Tara had no idea where. She had barely been in Sunnydale two days when she and Willow ran into one another, and she couldn't even begin to guess where to start searching. But she did, at least, know someone she could ask.
Not that she was too thrilled about going back there either.
A little while later, Tara walked into Willy's. He was open in the middle of the day, though while the sun was up the majority of his clientele tended to be human. She did notice a couple of scaly gray demons in a corner booth, who pulled their hoods over their faces when they saw her watching them.
"The Groosalug's don't like being stared at," said a voice. "And they eat eyeballs." The wiry little man behind the bar's face lit up when she turned to him. "I know you."
Tara was surprised. "You remember me?"
"You kidding? Course I do. Most of the faces I see around here are scaly or bumpy, and some of them--and this is the really scary part--don't even have one. A face I mean. So on the rarest of occasions, when a pretty lady like yourself graces my humble establishment, it gets burned into my memory."
Tara felt her cheeks turning red. "Thanks."
"So what can I do for you this fine day...um..." Willy chewed on his lip for a moment, then smiled sheepishly. "I happen to be good with faces, see, but I'm afraid not so hot with names."
Willy nodded. "What a pretty...wait." His eyes widened. "Tara?"
"I knew it." Willy chuckled. "Kid, I gotta say, you must be something pretty special to have Red wrapped around your little finger the way you do. When she was in here last night..."
Tara felt her heart skip a beat. "Willow? You saw her?"
"Yeah, she was here."
"Where is she?"
"Um, I don't know if I should tell you." Willy picked up a glass and started cleaning it. "There is the little matter of bartender client privilege."
Tara crossed her arms. "There's no such thing."
"Yeah, okay, you got me. So what?" Willy lay a towel over his shoulder. "I know you guys got into some kind of a fight. I don't wanna get in the middle of it."
"From the sound of things, you're already in the middle. Just tell me."
He sighed. "She's downstairs. Sleeping." He shook his head when she started toward the back room. "Hey!" Tara stopped, and turned to face him. "Watch it, will you? She's not alone. Some of my customers pay to...umm, sleep over during the day, and they don't like their down-time being interrupted."
"I'll take my chances!"
Tara soon discovered her chances were pretty slim, as it turned out to be far too dark in the basement room for her to do anything but grope around blindly. She didn't dare try and find a light switch either, since she was pretty sure the vampires would not respond well to her waking them all up.
So she stopped about halfway down the stairs and considered her options. If Willow was, in fact, somewhere in the room she would need some way to find her without disturbing the other vampires. Magic was her best option, but what kind of a spell...and just like that, the blonde got an idea. She cupped a hand over her eyes and whispered an incantation from one of Amy's books which would, hopefully, give her the ability to see even in this darkness, though she couldn't be sure how long it would last.
She lowered her hand, and gasped when she saw the difference. Everything was green. It was brighter though, and she was able to make out distinct shapes. Sheets had been nailed up over the windows and a number of small cots and makeshift beds were scattered around the room. Nearly a dozen men and women were sleeping there, though she knew none of them were actually human.
Tara's search proved to be more difficult that she had hoped. It turned out her augmented vision didn't allow for fine definition. She couldn't pick out specific details so she wasn't able to tell one sleeping woman from another without getting uncomfortably close to each. To her dismay she eventually came across one who was not totally asleep, and she stepped back too late as the vampire blinked.
"What's this?" The raven-haired woman sat up. "A snack? For me?"
Tara shook her head. "I-I'm not...I mean..."
"No," said another voice. "She's mine." A figure rose from the floor. "So back off!"
Tara breathed a sigh of relief. "Willow. Thank the Goddess."
But the first vampire did not appear to be impressed. "I don't see any mark. I don't smell you on her. What gives you claim to her?"
"Don't press me, newbie." Willow shifted to her demon-face. "I'm not in the mood!"
One of the male vampires whispered in the raven-haired woman's ear. "Watch it. She's nuts."
"Yeah, whatever." Her face returned to normal. "Eh...take her. I'm too tired to eat anyway." She stared at Tara for a few moments more, then shrugged her shoulders and lay back down.
Willow grabbed Tara's arm and dragged her over to the bottom of the stairs. "Are you nuts? What are you doing down here? That bitch could've killed you."
"I'm sorry, it's just...I was worried." Tara sighed. "About you."
"How did you find me, anyway?" The blonde jerked her thumb toward the stairs and Willow nodded. "I should've known. Willy's always had a big mouth." She frowned. "I'm sorry."
Willow sat down on the bottom step, and Tara sat beside her. "Everything. Pressuring you, running out on you. I realize I haven't been much of a girlfriend, but it's been so long since I've done this. The whole relationship thing, which, come to think of it, I've never actually done at all. I spent my whole childhood in love with Xander, but the big dope never even noticed I was alive until after we were both dead. After that it was nothing sex and killing and I just never took the time to realize I was fantasizing about Miss Calendar or..." The redhead stopped herself. "I'm babbling, aren't I?" She glanced at Tara, who was wide-eyed. "What?"
"You said...you're my, girlfriend?"
"That's all you got out of my little tirade?" Willow asked. She shook her head. "Man, you really need to work on your listening skills." The redhead shrugged her shoulders. "Am I?"
Tara lowered her head. "There's, umm. something I need to tell you." She lowered her voice. "I-I'm..."
"What?" Willow touched the blonde's cheek. "Come on. Whatever it is, it can't be that bad. Just say it. I promise you, I'm not going to run away this time."
The redhead smiled, and then so did Tara. "Okay." She took a deep breath. "I'm a virgin."
Even with her enhanced vampiric hearing, Willow could barely understand the blonde's whisper. And even once she deciphered the words she could barely believe her ears. "What?"
"I've never..." Tara sighed. "That's why I freaked when we were in bed. Part of it, anyway. I've never...you know. It just all hit my at once, and I panicked. So I'm the one who should apologize here."
"You said that's part of it. And the rest?" Willow tucked a finger under Tara's chin and lifted her face. She could clearly see the pain in her otherwise warm, beautiful blue eyes, and she instinctively knew the answer to her next question, yet still felt she had to ask it anyway. "Is it because of me? Of what I am?"
Tara started to cry, and her face sank into her hands. "I'm sorry!" she said between sobs.
"Shh..." Willow put her arm around the blonde's trembling shoulders. "...it's okay. Everything's going to be okay, Tara. I promise. Everything's going to be okay."
Tara spent the rest of the day in that dark room, surrounded by vampires, but she wasn't scared. Any time one of them even so much as looked at her funny Willow stepped forward and growled them into submission. But as the time got closer to sundown some of them started to become more aggressive.
"We might have to get out of here soon," Willow whispered. "I don't think I'm going to be able to hold off some of the older ones much longer."
They were standing off in a corner together, and even though Tara's spell had long since worn off she could see several pairs of glowing golden eyes watching her from the darkness.
"Why are they so afraid of you? I mean I know you're tough, I've seen you fight, but the way some of them act... it's like there's something more to it."
The redhead nodded. "Everybody associates me with the Master. He was such a major influence in this city, and even though he's gone now that still gives me some weight." She frowned. "It also doesn't hurt that my demon was apparently a real psycho. It had me doing all kinds of crazy things, some of them even to other vampires, so that's another reason they usually stay away from me."
"I like having a girlfriend with a rep." Tara smiled, and Willow did too. "We'll leave as soon as the sun is down. I wouldn't want you spontaneously combusting on the way home."
A light suddenly shone on the two of them. "Hey, Red! I need to talk to you." It was Willy, standing at the top of the stairs with a flashlight in his hand. "Someone's here to see you."
Willow frowned. "Don't tell me. Is it a ditzy blonde with a bad overbite?"
"Yeah, that's the one. You know her?"
"Well, she's up here waiting, and she's pretty insistent." He glanced over his shoulder. "She just said she's going to rip my heart out of I'm lying about you being down there. Would you please come up here and do something? I like my heart where it is, thank you very much."
Willow sighed. "Okay, okay." She turned to Tara. "You, wait for me down here."
"Tara, it might be dangerous."
"And staying down here, by myself, with a bunch of hungry vampires isn't?"
Willow looked around. Many of them were starting to move now. They knew the sun was just about down. "You have a point. All right, come on. But stay out of the way."
"I'll try." Tara followed the redhead up the stairs, shielding her eyes as they walked into the light.
Sprawled out across the top of the bar was Harmony, in full vamp-face, with a big smile. "Miss me?"
"Not particularly." Willow looked around. "Where's your sire? From the way you ran earlier, I figured you were going to go home crying to mommy."
"Oh, she's here," said the blonde. "In fact, she's right behind you."
Before Willow could turn around someone knocked her forward, into Tara, who lost her footing as well. At the same time Harmony leaped off the bar. She caught Tara and held on tight while the redhead turned to see another vampire closing and locking the door to the basement. A face she recognized.
"Of course." Willow shook her head. "I never would have guessed, not in a million years, yet somehow it makes perfect sense. Who else could stand to be around Harmony for eternity?"
Cordelia Chase, dressed in really tight black leather, rested her hands on her hips. "Bite me."
If Harmony was the thorn in Willow's side back in high school, then Cordelia was the whole rose bush. She had little tolerance for anyone outside of her own social or economic class; often tormenting and belittling them for no reason other than the way they were dressed.
"Well, I'll say this much." The brunette sauntered forward. "You're dressing better than you used to. At least you stopped seeing the softer side of Sears."
Willow sneered. "I should have known it was you. You and bubble-head over there..." Harmony stuck her tongue out. "...disappeared about the same time."
"Good to hear you still know how to count. Putting two and two together."
"That makes four," Willow said to Harmony. "Just in case you were wondering."
Harmony squeezed Tara's arms until the other blonde cried out. "Shut up! Or else I'll tear your little girlfriend's heart out and feed it to you."
"Girlfriend?" Cordelia chuckled. "I guess you have changed, Willow. Last I heard, you were busy being Xander's little bitch. When you're not sucking up to the Master, of course."
Willow gritted her teeth. "Don't push me, Cordy!"
"Or what? You'll cry?"
The redhead's face turned demonic. "Believe me, I'll do a lot worse than that!"
"You wanna play, huh? Fine by me." Cordelia glanced at Harmony, and noted how her grip was starting to bruise Tara's arms. "Take it easy, Harm. Once I finish this, we can have a snack."
Harmony nodded and nuzzled Tara's neck, smiling when the other blonde shuddered. "Hurry up Cordy. This one smells like vanilla. It's making me hungry."
Willow's hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. "Keep your damn fangs off her!"
"Hey!" When the redhead turned, Cordelia punched her in the face. "You really should keep your mind on work, Will. Your love-life can wait." She grabbed Willow and threw her across the room, where she slammed face-first into a wall and slumped to the ground. "I can't!"
Willy peeked up from behind the bar. "Watch it! I just replastered that!" He ducked out of sight when Cordelia's smoldering golden gaze started to turn his way.
"This is pathetic!" Cordelia grabbed the redhead's hair and began smashing her face into the wall. "You're just as much of a loser now as you were back in high school."
At the last moment Willow brought her hands up, to stop her head inches from the wall. Before Cordelia could counter she drove an elbow back into the brunette's stomach, doubling her over. Then she lurched to her feet, and snarled as she turned on Cordelia, blood seeping from both her nose and lip. "And you're as much of a loudmouth as ever!" She grabbed a chair and cracked it over the brunette's back, driving her to the floor. Holding onto one of the legs like a makeshift stake she rolled Cordelia over.
"Stop!" Harmony came forward, one hand clamped so tightly around Tara's throat that the other blonde could no longer breath. "Let her go or I'll break her neck." Willow didn't move. "I'm not kidding!"
Willow snarled. "Me either." She suddenly spun and threw the table leg. Like a missile it passed under Harmony's outstretched arm, just missing Tara, and sank deep into the blonde's chest. She shrieked in surprise and pain as she turned to dust.
Tara landed on her hands and knees, coughing and rubbing her bruised neck.
"No!" Cordelia staggered to her feet. "Harmony!" She glared at Willow. "This isn't over, Rosenberg!" She bolted out the door before the redhead could make a move to stop her.
Not that Willow had any interest at all in doing so.
With the fight obviously over her only concern lay elsewhere. She ran immediately to Tara and knelt beside the blonde. "Are you all right?"
"I-I think so." Tara's voice was hoarse.
"You're lucky she didn't break your neck." Willow clasped the blonde's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Tara gazed up at her. "For what?"
"You got hurt because of me. They were after me, not you."
"It's okay. You saved me. That's what matters."
Seeing that everything was okay now, Willy stood up from behind the bar. "Glad that's over." He heard pounding and roaring from the back room. "I'm gonna let the others out. You two better take off."
"Yeah. Thanks, Willy."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Don't mention it."
Willow put an arm around Tara to help her walk. "Let's go home."
Cordelia kept pausing to gaze over her shoulder as she made her way through the back alleys and side streets of Sunnydale, crossing and then recrossing her own trail until finally coming to her destination. She pushed through the front doors of City Hall, grabbed the unfortunate maintenance man who happened to come out of an office at that precise moment and drained him dry.
Dropping the still warm body she licked her lips clean and headed for the Mayor's office. The door swung open even as she was reaching for the knob, and without missing a beat she slipped inside. Closing the door behind her she immediately sank to her knees and lowered her head. "I have failed you."
A figure moved in front of the desk. "Rise." She did as she was told. "Now, tell me." When he spoke, it was with a strangely unidentifiable European accent. "What has happened?"
"We encountered difficulties."
"Not a Slayer?"
Cordelia shook her head. "No, master. Another vampire. She fought us both."
"No great loss. She was an annoyance."
Cordelia slowly raised her head. "So, you're not angry?"
"I never said that." Moving faster than her eye could follow a pale hand picked up a stake off the desk and thrust it deep into the brunette's heart. She barely had time to blink before her body turned to dust. "I'm almost ashamed I ever sired her." The pale-skinned man with the long brown hair sat the stake back down on the desk. The flowing black cape he wore swished dramatically as he turned. "Still, the loss of a childe is a painful one for any father. It may take some time for me to recover."
Behind the desk, another man sat in a tall, plush chair. He was plain-looking, with a receding hairline and sharp, strangely hooded eyes that belied his age. "Over it yet?"
"I believe so, yes."
"Excellent." Mayor Richard Wilkins leaned back in his seat. He frowned at the dust on the carpet. "Such a mess. I'm going to have to get someone in here to clean this up."
"You will need a new maintenance person, I'm afraid. She fed on her way in."
Mayor Wilkins shrugged his shoulders. "No matter. Is this going to be a problem?"
"How do you mean?"
"Your...girls. Do you suppose someone is on to us?"
The vampire shook his head. "I saw into Cordelia's mind, just before she died. The one who killed Harmony was an old acquaintance, who happens to still live in this town. It was a fluke encounter."
"I believe the name on Cordelia's mind, such as it was, is Willow."
Mayor Wilkins blinked. "Willow Rosenberg?"
"She is known to you?"
"Willow Rosenberg used to work for the Master."
The vampire nodded. "Yes. One of the strongest of our kind. His loss weakens us greatly." He paused. "And you say this young woman was his associate?"
"His right hand from what I hear. I've never dealt with her personally, but she has quite a reputation." The Mayor studied the vampire's face. It was unreadable. "What is it?"
"I am disturbed."
"The intervention of the Master's offspring. At this time and in this place. Perhaps it is not merely coincidence after all. She may be more involved than I first suspected."
"You really think so?"
The vampire stood up. "It is unlikely, but I think it best we not take chances. Time grows short. The alignment is fast approaching, so this matter must be dealt with quickly."
"Fine." Mayor Wilkins reached for the phone. "I'll call in some of my best men, and..."
"That will not be necessary. There is an old saying I believe applies here." The vampire took his cape in hand. "If you want something done right, do it yourself."
Willow thought they were heading back to the house, but it turned out Tara had something else in mind. Before long she found herself approaching a familiar structure.
"The Magic Box?"
"Yeah. I wanted to pick up a couple of things. I hope you don't mind."
Willow frowned. "You know how I feel about that whammy-wall of yours."
"The barrier spell is perfectly harmless."
"It makes my skin tingle."
Tara nodded. "That's because it's intended to keep out demons and vampires. But I modified it so it doesn't have an adverse effect on you. The tingling is all in your head."
As they crossed the invisible threshold of the barrier spell all of Willow's senses went wild. Goosebumps rose up and down her arms, and the back of her neck grew warmer. She hissed. "See?"
"Hmm..." Tara peered into the redhead's aura. It was speckled with little smoldering red spots "Oh no! I'm sorry, I-I had no idea ...why didn't you tell me it affected you this much?"
"I did." Willow gnashed her teeth. "You didn't listen."
The blonde nodded. "You're right, Will. I'm sorry. I'll work on it. See if I can make it better."
"That, or I'll just stop coming." Willow opened the door. "Let's just get what we came for." She followed Tara in and looked around. "What is that, by the way?"
Tara smiled. "Yes!" She picked up a large crystal laying in the corner. "I knew it."
"What is it?"
"My dolls-eye crystal. I been searching for it the last two days. I hadn't been able to find it since we moved into the house, so I figured it must be here somewhere."
Willow nodded. "Is it valuable?"
"Yes and no. Strictly speaking it's only a crystal, so it's not worth money or anything." Tara sighed. "But it's sort of a family heirloom. So in another way, it's priceless."
"I had something like that once. A dradel my grandmother gave to me.""What happened to it?"
"Xander...""The guy who turned you into a vampire?"Willow nodded. "Yeah. Xander and this other friend of ours, Jesse, decided to play keep away with it. It was fun at first, but then they ended up dropping it in the creek. I cried for a week. It wasn't until my grandmother told me not to worry. 'It's only a thing' she said. 'Nothing to cry about.' I loved that woman so much." Her eyes widened. "I haven't thought about her since before I died."
Tara gently stroked the redhead's lips. "You should smile more often. It suits you."
"Mm...I have great inspiration." Still smiling, she leaned in for a kiss. Before long she wrapped her arms around the blonde and melded their two bodies together.
The embrace and the kiss that came with it went on and on, until Tara finally had to pull away. Only because she needed to catch her breath. "You...that was...incredible."
"Vampires don't have to breath," Willow explained. "It makes us really great kissers."
Tara nodded. "I'm beginning to understand that. Goddess. I wish we were back at the house right now."
"Because..." The blonde's voice was starting to get husky. "...that's where the bed is."
Willow could hear and feel Tara's heart beating faster. She licked her lips. "You know there is a cot here. If you really wanted to, we could..."
Tara shook her head. "Not like this. I'm sorry." Willow flinched. "Listen, please." She took Willow's hand in her own and looked her in the eye. "I want my...our...first time to be something really special. Romantic. Flowers and candles, and music."
"And we don't have any of that stuff here. "I get it."
"I'm so sorry."
"No, it's all right. We don't have to."
"Aren't you disappointed?"
Willow shook her head. "Of course not." She frowned when Tara continued to stare at her. "Well, maybe a little bit. But I'll get over it. You're not ready. We'll just wait until you are."
The redhead crossed her arms. "So can we go now?"
"Actually, since we're here, there are a couple of texts I'd like to look for. They're referenced by the Codex, but I can't find any of them at the house."
"Okay. Tell me what we're looking for."
It took them several hours to find the books Tara was looking for, since there were a lot of volumes at the shop and Amy didn't have them in any particular order.
Willow frowned. "I thought you said there were only a couple?"
A half dozen large, leather-bound books sat on the table between them.
"More or less."
Willow no longer seemed to be in a playful mood. "Can we go now?"
"Of course." Tara could tell that the redhead was becoming agitated. From what she had seen the last few days it usually got worse as dawn approached. She picked up one of the books. Not only was it surprisingly heavy, it was big enough as to be quite unwieldy. "Umm, could you give me a hand?"
The redhead wrapped her arms around all the rest of the books and picked them up effortlessly.
"I'll get the door." Tara shoved the book she was carrying over to her other arm and opened the door, then stood there with a strange expression on her face. "Uh oh."
"What's wrong?" Willow came up behind the blonde and peered over her shoulder.
There was a man standing in front of the shop. He had long brown hair and was wearing a black cape
"Who is he?" Even from this distance, Tara sensed great danger.
"I don't know him. But I don't think he's here to shop."
"Is he a vampire?"The redhead eyes narrowed. "I can't be sure."
"I thought you said vampires could sense other vampires?"
"We can. Usually. Something feels different about this guy, I just can't my finger on it."
"Whoever he is," said Tara. "The barrier should keep him out."
The strange man smiled, baring his fangs. "You think so?" All at once his entire body dissolved into a thick gray mist that started floating forward, against the breeze.
Willow threw down the books and directed Tara back into the shop. She slammed the door closed.
"What?" Tara felt waves of panic flowing off the redhead. "What's going on?"
Willow shifted to her demon-face. "I only know one vampire who can do what he just did. The Master spoke of him only a couple of times, but I think they were old rivals."
"Who is he?"
They both jumped as the mist gushed under the door. Within seconds it had reformed into the dark-haired man, who cocked his head slightly and smiled.
"You may call me...Dracula."
Tara gasped. "D-Dracula? H-He's real?"
"Looks that way," said Willow. "What is it you want?"
"I understand you had an encounter with two of my associates earlier."
Willow blinked. "Wait a second. Don't tell me you're the one who sired Cordelia?"
"So you have been to Sunnydale before."
"Not recently, but yes. Your friend Cordelia caught my eye when last I was here. I permitted her to sire a childe of her own before we left so she might have companionship. At the time I had no idea she would select someone as annoying as Harmony. In truth, I had no idea there were people as annoying as Harmony."
Tara watched Willow's aura as she was talking to Dracula. The redhead was no longer showing any fear, and that emboldened her to step forward and clear her throat. "Mr. Dracula?"
His piercing golden gaze made Tara's skin crawl, yet she couldn't look away. "I was wondering...how did you get through the barrier outside?"
"Oh, that? It's really quite simple. The Dyson's sphere spell is a powerful ward, but it has a serious flaw that can be easily exploited by one who knows how. It is intended to keep out creatures of the flesh, such as vampires and demons. My mist-form is virtually insubstantial, and thus was unaffected."
Willow sensed a shift in Tara's mood, and put her hand on the blonde's shoulder. "Don't worry. It works. No one else I know can do what he does."
That made Tara feel somewhat better, and she nodded.
Willow then glared at the other vampire. "So why are you here? Did Cordy come running to you?"
"As a matter of fact, she did."
The redhead nodded. "Let me guess. You're here to avenge Harmony?"
"I suppose that is as good as explanation as you need to know in your final moments."
Willow's face turned demonic. "Fine. You know, I've never fought a legend before." She smiled. "This should be a lot of fun." She started forward, but Tara grabbed her arm. "What?"
"Be careful," the blonde whispered. "I sense the aura of some kind of magic around him."
"Don't worry about me." Willow turned. "I can handle my..." Her eyes narrowed. "Where'd he go?"
Dracula was no longer standing by the front door.
"Uh oh."A dark figure rose behind the two women. Dracula smiled, lashed out suddenly and punched Willow in the back of the head. She cried out and went down, while he turned on Tara.
"Good evening, my dear."
Tara found herself being drawn into the seemingly boundless golden pools that were his eyes. Her hands fell to her sides and her jaw went slack, while her breathing slowed.
"Your neck," he hissed. "Let me see it." She pulled her collar down to reveal clean, smooth skin. "Excellent. I'm pleased to see you remain unspoiled. It will make this so much more enjoyable." He bared his fangs, and lowered his mouth toward Tara's throat. She held her breath.
Willow jerked back to consciousness.
The blow had caught her by surprise. It hurt, but did no lasting damage.
'I'll kill him.' She raised her head to see Dracula with one arm around Tara's waist. He was about to bite into the blonde's exposed throat. 'No!' She saw a broken chair leg laying on the floor nearby, picked it up and then rose to a rather unsteady crouch and snarled. "Time for round two, big guy!"
Startled, he jerked around, swinging Tara to one side, thus unintentionally giving the redhead an opening to ram the makeshift stake deep into his chest. It missed the blonde by mere inches.
Willow smiled. "Down for the Count."
Dracula let go of Tara, who slumped to the floor, and lurched to one side. A hand clutched at the piece of wood sticking out of his chest. His eyes were as wide as saucers.
Willow checked on Tara. The blonde hadn't been bitten, and she was still alive. She was also conscious, yet was not responding to the redhead's hands touching her face.
"It's all over, baby."
Much to her shock, Dracula rose once again. He pulled out the stake and dropped it. "I think not."
Willow couldn't believe her eyes. "No. It's impossible. I hit your heart. I know it!"
"Indeed you did. Well played. However, as you can see..." Dracula backhanded the redhead, knocking her across the room. She groaned as she struck the far wall, the impact cracking the plaster and slid to the ground, with eyes glassy and her head spinning. "...it has done you no good."
Tara's mind started to clear about the time Willow was saying "It's all over, baby."
She again became aware of her surroundings just before Dracula was stabbed, and her heart skipped a beat as he got right back up and lashed out at the redhead, sending her flying. She looked up to see Dracula in a very relaxed position, no longer paying much attention to her.
'I have to help. But how do you stop a vampire that can't be staked?'
Tara caught a glimpse of something metallic on the vampire's right hand. A ring. It was, she realized, the source of the faint, inactive magic she had been sensing for a while.
'Maybe he's not really as tough as he wants Willow to believe. That ring must be enchanted or something. If it's protecting him somehow, then I wonder how he'd do without it?'
Finding out would not be easy. She couldn't simply grab the ring, he'd be all over her the instant she touched his hand. There was only one chance. So she held up her hand but actually reached out with her mind. She envisioned her magic taking on the physical form of a hand and taking the ring.
Dracula felt it move. "What's this?" He glanced down at Tara. "I see. Clever girl." He ground the heel of his boot into the small of her back, smiling as she screamed in pain. "But the Gem of Amarra is not for the likes of you. It is an ancient power. One I worked long and hard to find. It is why I came to Sunnydale years ago in fact." He did it again, and again, before finally lifting his foot. "And I am not about to lose it now."
Tara's last thoughts--before the world went dark--were of Willow. And...'The ring. Get his ring.'
'The ring. Get his ring.'
Willow woke with those words foremost on her mind. She sat up, groaning.
She didn't know what Tara was talking about or why she could hear the blonde's voice in her head. But she knew that whatever it meant, it was important. So she got up.
"Tara? Where are you?"
Dracula waved, to get the redhead's attention. "I believe the one you seek is here."
As he stepped aside, Willow could see Tara laying motionless on the ground. If she hadn't already been pale, all of the color would have drained from her face at that moment. "N-No." Deep within her subconscious, an old fire still smoldered, and now it began to rage. "No." Tara's face became a distant memory, as the only thing she felt at her very core was blind, unreasoning hatred. "NO!"
Even Dracula was startled by the redhead's savage assault. She crashed headlong into him and shoved him into a set of bookshelves--the only one still standing in fact--which collapsed under their combined weight. She kicked and bit and punched and clawed, roaring wildly as she did everything in her power to inflict as much damage upon him as possible. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.
The Gem of Amarra protected him. His skin remained untouched. All she managed to do was shred his clothes, which were of little concern to the vampire. So long as he had the ring on his finger there didn't seem to be much chance of her actually being able to hurt him, much less beat him.
"Enough!" Dracula shrugged Willow off. Her rage expended she slumped to the ground, sobbing. "I thought you a worthy adversary. Now I see I was merely deceiving myself. You are nothing but a common trollop, who shows more concern for this pathetic human than for your own kind."
As he was speaking Willow found herself distracted by something metallic. A ring. Her eyes narrowed as a part of her mind she was barely even aware of focused on that object. It was important, somehow. She wanted it. Withan angry grunt she lurched to her feet and came at Dracula once again.
"Don't you even have enough intellect to stay down when you're beaten?" Dracula went to swat her away, but the redhead grabbed onto his arm instead. "What do you think you're doing? Release me this instant!" With her entire body weight wrapped around his hand he could not simply shrug her off, even though he was stronger, and now he could feel her wrenching his finger in an impossible direction. All at once something cracked, the ring came off, and he howled in pain. "Damn it! The Gem!"
Willow look from the ring to Dracula, and back again. Then she put it on. Almost immediately her mind started to clear. The demon within her grew quiet again. Blood stopped pounding in her head. And beyond that she felt an unexplainable surge of newfound power.
Dracula sneered. 'I dare not attack her now. I must consult my associate.' He transformed into a mist again, and passed under the door and was gone.
"Tara!" Willow ran to the blonde's side. "Can you hear me? Tara?" She could hear a faint heartbeat, but her blood was not pumping as it should have been. That meant serious internal injuries. "I don't know what to do Tara." Even as she knelt there the blonde's breathing grew ragged. "Oh no." Now it stopped. "Tara!" So did her heart. "Tara, no! Don't leave me! Please!" Silence. "Tara!" It was too late. She was gone. "NO!"
Her cries echoed out into the still night sky. A desperate cry...and something answered.
"Loss. Pain. Anguish."
Willow stood up, angry that someone would dare disturb her time of grief. "Who's there?"
"Called..." The woman's voice seemed to come from all around her. It was soft and melodic, almost childlike in a strange way. "...I come."
The vampire snarled. She couldn't smell or see anyone. "Show yourself!"
Willow gnashed her teeth. "I'm warning you!"
"Anger now. You are becoming confrontational. Such raw emotions."
"Shut up!" Willow desperately wanted something, anything, to hit. "Damn it! Stop talking about me like I'm a lab experiment and show yourself!"
A pillar of eerie green light appeared out of thin air, right in front of her. It spread out and folded in on itself as it metamorphosed into a vaguely feminine human form. It had two arms and legs, bare feet and hands with fingers and toes, the barest curve of what could have been breasts, and a face.
Willow felt energy flowing off the entity in waves. It made her skin tingle. She had never seen or even heard of anything like this. "What are you?"
It wasn't much of an answer. "Where did you come from?"
"I was everywhere, and now I am here. Given form. Thought." It looked at its hands. "Strange, this corporeality. I preferred before. So confined now, to this plane."
"Do you have a name?"
"Name?""Something I can call you."
"Ah, yes. Those who summoned me, called me the Key."
Willow frowned. "The Key to what?"
"I do not know." The entity cocked its head. "Why?"
"Your pain called to me, like a beacon. That is why I came. But I do not understand."
The vampire shook her head. "You wouldn't. Death is a personal, private thing."
"Death? What is that?"
Willow pointed at Tara's lifeless body. "She's dead. I'm sad. Now leave me alone, would you?"
"This is death?" The entity kneeled, so it was closer to Tara, and held out its hand. "Her energies are depleted. Is this why you feel such pain?"
"Then I think perhaps I do understand. You are saddened by her lack of energy. How, then, would you feel if her energies were replenished? Would that lessen your pain?"
"What?" Willow felt an inkling of hope. "Are you saying you can bring her back to life?"
The entity nodded. "I can return the spark of energy. She is not too far gone. But if I did so then her body would simply reject it, because it is too badly damaged. First, I would have to fix it."
"Yes. But not from outside. I would have to inhabit her shell. And there is a risk, that the process of healing her injuries and reigniting her spark might lose me within her."
Willow frowned. "What does that mean? You're too scared to try?"
"Those who summoned me died while giving me form, so they could not answer my questions of why. Perhaps, now, I know the answer. This may be the reason for my existence. I must try, even if it means the end of me." The entities body dissolved into pure energy once again, and it floated toward Tara.
Willow stepped back as the blonde's body was bathed in a bright green light. Then the energy flowed inside her, making her skin partially translucent and allowing several of her organs to be seen glowing. All at once her back arched, her lungs began pumping air, and the vampire could feel her heart beating.
Tara was alive.
The blonde sat up, a look of confusion on her face. "Willow?"
Willow dropped to her knees. "You're alive!" She cupped Tara's cheeks. "You're alive!"
"Aren't I usually?"
Willow shook her head. "Tara, you were dead. Dracula killed you."
"Killed? I don't remember..."
"That's a good thing. Believe me. I remember what it felt like to die. Be grateful you don't."
"But, if I died..." Tara held up her hands. "...then how can I be...Goddess!" Her palms were glowing green. "Umm, Will?" She showed her hands to the redhead. "What's happening to me?"
Willow told her about Dracula, about her death, and about the mysterious entity called the Key.
"And you say this thing went into my body?"
Willow nodded. "It said there was a chance it might lose itself in you. I guess that's what happened. It must have taken all of its energy to revive you. Now it's a part of you."
"That's...I wish I could see it, so I could say thank you. For saving me."
"How do you feel?"
"I don't know. Better. Stronger I guess. It's hard to describe."
"I'm so sorry, Tara."
Tears filled Willow's eyes. "I wasn't there when you needed me. I failed you!"
"Hey, don't talk like that." Tara leaned in and kissed the redhead softly. "You tried. I saw it. Dracula was just too powerful. That ring, it's like it made him unkillable." She smiled when Willow showed it to her. "I guess you have the power now. So how do you feel?"
"Like I could take on the world. Especially with you here."
Tara smiled, Willow smiled back, and then they started kissing again.
"You felt it, didn't you?"Mayor Wilkins, seated behind his desk, nodded. "The Key."
In front of the window stood Dracula. "It's here."
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