THE POWER OF THREE
Book 2 Part 13

By DragonWriter17

 

Rating: R (for language and references to violent rape)

Disclaimer: All of the materials borrowed from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel belong to Joss Whedon and to the entities and companies associated with their creation.  I have borrowed them for creative and entertainment purposes only.  No compensation has been or ever shall be received for the writing below.  No copyright infringement is intended.

My Website: http://www.dragonwriter17.net/

Feedback: Yes, but only if it’s of the non-flamey variety: DragonWriter17@aol.com

Distribution: The Mystic Muse, Near Her Always  (If you are interested in posting my story on your site, please contact me first for permission.)

Spoilers: The end of BtVS Season 4’s “Wild At Heart” and beyond.

Pairings: Willow/Buffy/Tara

Author’s Notes: (1) I have kept to the BtVS/Angel canon in some ways, borrowing directly from aired episodes; however, I have also made significant changes: deleting certain storylines, moving some, changing others, as well as adding some completely original plots.  If you haven’t read my backhistory story for Tara, “Out of Shadow into Light,” you need to because it is critical to Book 2. (2) Special thanks to Lizzrd and Lilly for re-motivating me to work on "The Power of Three."

Additional Note: I’m making a change to the story as presented in Book 1. In Book 1, the Senior Partners of Wolfram and Hart knew about the Power of Three rising and were involved in sending Lindsey to Sunnydale. I’m changing that so that the Senior Partners don’t know. Only Holland knows. He planned to deal with the Power of Three on his own and thereby raise his own status in the firm.

Number of Chapters: 16

Complete: 16

Chapter Summary: Tensions continue to be high as Tara, Buffy, and Willow begin the long road to recovery.

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PART ONE       PART TWO       PART THREE       PART FOUR

PART FIVE     PART SIX       PART SEVEN       PART EIGHT

PART NINE       PART TEN       PART ELEVEN     PART TWELVE

PART THIRTEEN     PART FOURTEEN     PART FIFTEEN     PART SIXTEEN


***

“I wish you had...”

Willow’s statement hit Buffy like a rock hurled at her chest. She crossed her arms over her heart and hunched in, hugging herself, holding her breath, as if halting that life-giving function would somehow stop the pain inside.

She wishes I had killed him, she thought sadly. I couldn’t do it, and now I’ve let her down. I’ve let Tara down.

The need for air finally forced Buffy’s lungs to expand. Her heaving breaths came as hiccupy near-sobs that she had to struggle to suppress. It took her several moments to regain control. When she had done so, she wiped her eyes and then cast a troubled glance at the bedroom door. She longed to reach out to Willow telepathically, but didn’t dare to—not when the redhead was so upset, so angry...at her.

Buffy glanced away. Then she turned off the lamp on her nightstand and curled back up in the bed, facing away from Willow’s side.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, she imagined telling Willow in her mind. Why can’t you understand? I just...can’t. I want to so bad, but if I do...

Buffy closed her eyes tightly. She couldn’t bear to think of it—what would happen if she gave in to the dark rage seething inside her. She sighed and tried to focus on going to sleep.

***

Her tears now gone, Willow stood at the sink, holding the edges of the counter with both hands, her white knuckles attesting to the intensity of her grip. She was staring at the polished chrome of the faucet, breathing slowly and deliberately as if trying to calm herself. Finally, she looked up at the mirror above the sink and met her own eyes. They were blazing with barely-controlled rage.

She had him. Right there, right in front of her, and she—

Willow stopped her thoughts and growled, pushing off the counter to pace around the small bathroom. She clenched and unclenched her fists multiple times, feeling a dangerous energy building inside her.

Doesn’t she care what he did to her, what he put Tara through?

Willow let out another frustrated growl and then stopped at the sink once again. She took a deep breath and slowly released it. When she turned to her reflection this time, her gaze was hard and cold.

Caleb deserves to die, she thought. And if Buffy won’t do it, then I will.

***

When Willow came back in the bedroom, she found Buffy seemingly asleep. The blonde was in bed, with her lamp off, and she was giving no indication that she had heard Willow come in. But Willow could sense that Buffy wasn’t asleep. The angry expression that the redhead  had been wearing softened a bit, and she padded over, turned her own light off, and eased into the bed.

At first, she lay on her back, almost halfway sitting up. She stared at the far wall, her face constantly changing, as a tide of emotions rolled through her. She looked over at Buffy, how the slayer was turned away from her, and frowned at the sight. Willow could feel Buffy’s pain—or at least the portion of it that was seeping past the slayer’s mental shields—and she longed to do something to ease it. But Buffy’s positioning had made it clear that she didn’t want to talk. With a heavy sigh, Willow scooted down in the bed and turned onto her side, away from Buffy.

Though they were only a small distance apart, it felt like a gaping chasm between them. Yet neither one spoke or made a move toward the other. They simply lay there, staring into the darkness, praying for sleep to take them.

***

Meanwhile, at the hospital, Xander and Anya were keeping watch over Tara. As she slept, the couple sat quietly on the bench nearby. Xander had a worried gaze locked on Tara, but Anya was completely absorbed in the notepad she was writing on.

Tara was frowning in her sleep and tossing her head from side to side. When she began to whimper slightly, Xander rose to his feet and stood next to her bed. He put a gentle hand on her forehead.

“She must be having a bad dream,” he said softly.

“Not to worry,” Anya assured him, holding up her pen but not taking her eyes off her notepad. “I know just what will make her feel better when she wakes up.”

Xander turned from Tara and cast a suspicious eye in his girlfriend’s direction. “What are you up to?”

“Just makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice,” Anya answered, once again not looking up from her work. Suddenly, she stopped and shot an inquiring glance at Xander. “Does ‘disemboweled’ have one L or two?”

Xander merely slumped and rolled his eyes upward in a heaven-help-me expression before turning back to Tara.

***

Later, about an hour before dawn, Faith and Vamp Willow were finishing up a long night of patrolling. At the moment, they were in the middle of dispatching a fanged foursome near the Mercer mausoleum. After slaying her two adversaries, Faith turned to watch her lover in action.

Whirling with practiced skill, the redhead was systematically pummeling the two vampires, alternating from one to the other until they were both just tottering on their feet. She could have dusted them much faster, especially if she had used her magic, but she was intentionally prolonging their demise—a pattern she had been repeating all night. When the fight was completely gone from the pair, Vamp Willow eyed them with disgust and staked them.

“Good work,” Faith complimented.

Vamp Willow gave Faith a haughty side-glance and refused to speak—another pattern she had been repeating all night. Then she stomped away.

Exasperated and somewhat annoyed, Faith hurried to catch up with her. “Look, I said I was sorry, okay?”

Vamp Willow stopped in place and whipped around. “Sorry for what?” she shot back, finally ending the silent treatment.

“For what I said.”

Vamp Willow just glared at Faith expectantly until the slayer was forced to go on.

“For saying that I didn’t expect you to understand.”

Vamp Willow stared at Faith intently for a long moment. “You don’t have a clue, do you?” she accused.

“About what?” the slayer asked.

“About why that pissed me off so goddamned much!!!”

“I, um...uhhh...” Faith looked totally lost.

Vamp Willow shook her head and started stomping off once again. Faith ran after her and grabbed her arm to stop her.

“You’re right...I don’t,” Faith admitted. “But I wanna know.” The slayer’s voice was sincere, and her eyes were pleading.

The irate vampire sighed and glanced at the ground for a short time. When she looked back up, the anger in her eyes was tinged with hurt. “Just because I don’t have a full soul doesn’t mean I’m less than you.”

“I know that,” Faith said defensively.

Vamp Willow huffed in disbelief and took a few steps away before giving the slayer a skeptical eyebrow lift. She watched Faith’s brow furrow deeply as she struggled to understand what her girlfriend was trying to tell her. She wasn’t encouraged by the confusion she saw in Faith’s expression, and she felt her anger rising once again. She let her eyes bore into Faith’s.

“If all I am to you is some soul-less plaything,” Willow told her sharply, “then this is not gonna work.” She gestured between herself and Faith. “This...whatever it is we’re doing. I won’t be somebody’s bitch, not even for you!” She crossed her arms tightly and turned away.

“You’re not,” Faith insisted as she closed the distance between them. She stood in front of the redhead and reached out to touch her shoulder. “I swear.”

Vamp Willow didn’t respond to her touch and didn’t appear to be the least bit mollified by her words. Faith reluctantly went on.

“I...I didn’t realize...how it sounded...what I said,” Faith offered. “I...I’m sorry.”

After several extremely long seconds, Vamp Willow finally met Faith’s gaze. “Okay then,” she said in testy acceptance of Faith’s apology. She pulled out of the slayer’s grasp and walked a few feet away. Then she stopped and glanced back at Faith. “We should go,” she told her. “It’ll be dawn soon.”

At that, she strode away, with an only slightly less confused Faith following.

***

A short time later, Faith and Vamp Willow were at Giles’s apartment, cleaning up after their night of slaying. Vamp Willow had showered first and was now in the bedroom, halfway through getting dressed. Just then, a naked Faith walked in, towel-drying her wet hair.

She found her girlfriend sitting on the edge of the far side of the bed, intentionally faced away from her. It was obvious from her current posture and her return to silence that—despite her earlier acceptance of Faith’s apology—the redhead was still holding a grudge.

Faith made a silent sigh and went about the task of drying off and putting on her underclothes. When she sat down to put on her socks, she cut her eyes in Willow’s direction. The redhead was fiddling with her hair, clearly stalling any need to turn around.

Faith turned back around and slumped for a moment as she thought deeply. Then she took a deep breath, got up, and walked around to Vamp Willow’s side of the bed. She knelt at her feet and took both of the vampire’s hands into her own.

“I’m really sorry about what I said earlier,” Faith began. “I don’t think of you as less than me or as some disposable plaything.”

She gave Willow’s hands a squeeze, and the redhead returned the gesture, looking deeply into Faith’s eyes as she went on.

“What we have—whatever it might be—it matters to me. A lot. And I don’t want to lose it. Or you.”

Vamp Willow gave Faith a tiny smile and nodded but said nothing in reply.

“So, what do I need to do to make things right?” Faith asked.

Instantly, Vamp Willow’s face lit up in a brilliant but mischievous grin. “Pony time?” 1 she offered with hope-and-lust-filled eyes.

Faith groaned in mild complaint and let her head fall back against her shoulders. Then she laughed at herself and turned back to her girlfriend. “Walked right into that one, didn’t I?”

Vamp Willow’s grin became a sexy smirk. “Uh-huh!” she chirped in a pleased-with-herself tone.

Faith laughed again and then gave her lover a nod of acquiescence. Before she could even finish her nod, Vamp Willow was on her, growling and taking her to the floor.

***

Later, but still fairly early in the morning, Buffy awoke in her bedroom. She blinked her eyes groggily, slowly but surely remembering where she was and why. When her mind brought back the memories of the previous night’s events, she quickly looked over her shoulder at Willow. The redhead was asleep, still curled up on the other side of the bed, as far away from the slayer as the slayer had been from her.

Buffy sadly hung her head. She considered waking Willow up so that they could talk but then decided against it, choosing instead to let her girlfriend sleep and to give herself time to think.

Silently, she slipped out of the bed, donned her robe, and left the bedroom. As soon as Buffy had gone, Willow’s eyes popped open. She sat up in bed and sighed, staring at the back of the closed door.

***

When Buffy trudged into the kitchen, she was surprised to find Giles there. His face was unshaven, and his hair was tousled, and he was going from cabinet to cabinet and peering inside. She couldn’t help but grin at the sight.

“What are you doing here, mister?” she called out in a stern voice.

Giles jumped and turned around. “Oh! Buffy. You startled me.” He nervously adjusted his robe and glasses.

Buffy crossed her arms and tried to glare. “Listen here, I don’t recall giving you permission for a sleep-over.”

“I, um...well, you see...uhhh...i-i-it was late, and-and Joyce and I were—”

“Relax,” Buffy said, interrupting her watcher’s babble. She walked over and gave him a playful jab in the arm. “I’m just giving ya a hard time.”

Blushing a bit, Giles laughed in relief. “Good, good,” he said. “But, um, if my staying over upsets you in any way, then I can—”

Once again Buffy cut Giles off. “Giles, I’m cool with you and Mom. Really.” She paused and then said, “More than really, actually.” The two shared a warm, sincere smile before Buffy spoke up once again. “Now...can I help you find something?”

Giles held up a cup and said somewhat sheepishly, “Tea?”

“You’re in America now, Giles. You should learn to drink coffee in the morning,” she teased as she went to the correct cabinet and pulled out a box of English tea and handed it to him.

“Well, if you Colonists hadn’t gotten your knickers in a knot about taxes, you’d be drinking tea right now,” he countered with a grin.

“Yeah, and we’d all be singing ‘God Save the Queen,’ too.”

“Precisely,” Giles said as he dropped a tea bag into his cup and headed for the kettle he’d already set to boiling on the stove.

Buffy, on the other hand, walked over to the coffee maker. She checked to see that it was set and then punched the brew button. Soon, the rich smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the air. She sniffed and sighed and retrieved a cup from the cabinet. Before long, both watcher and slayer were seated at the dining room table sipping their hot beverages and nibbling on toast and jam.

More than once as they ate, Buffy looked up at Giles as if she wanted to say something, but every time she quickly turned back to her food without speaking a word. After the third or fourth occasion, Giles reached across the table and placed his hand on hers.

“What’s troubling you, Buffy?” he asked.

She looked surprised at first and then just ashamed. She pulled her hand back and dropped her gaze to her lap. Finally, she spoke, but in a voice that was barely above a whisper. “I tried to kill Caleb last night.”

Her eyes flickered up to gauge her watcher’s reaction, but his expression was unreadable. So she went on.

“It was when I went to check the security at the Initiative. I took a knife with me and convinced the others to leave me alone with him.”

“And what happened?” Giles asked in an even voice.

“Faith stopped me. She talked me out of it.” Buffy gave a rueful laugh. “Ironic, isn’t it? Faith lecturing me on the slayer morality of not killing humans.”

Giles chuckled briefly and said, “Yes, I must admit it is. But she’s not our Faith.”

“I know,” Buffy replied. “But sometimes when I look at her, I remember what happened—what our Faith did, what I did, and...” She trailed off and was quiet for a moment. “Maybe we’re not that different after all.”

“You are not like Faith,” Giles said firmly. “Our Faith, I mean. You proved that last night by not killing Caleb when you had the chance.”

“But I would have, Giles,” Buffy said in a choked voice. “If Faith hadn’t stepped in when she did, I would have.” Tears were trickling down her face as a rage entered her eyes. “I would have taken that knife and stabbed it right in his heart and then kept on stabbing and...I would have liked it.”

Buffy began to cry in earnest then, and Giles left his chair and came around the table to wrap his slayer in a warm hug. Buffy accepted the hug but not for long. Soon she pulled away and looked into her watcher’s eyes.

“I scared myself last night,” she confessed. “Even when our Faith tried to kill Angel, what I felt then...it was nothing like what I felt when I stood over Caleb with that knife. If Faith hadn’t been there and kept me from going through with it...I don’t think I would have come back from that. I think I would have been lost. Forever.”

Giles nodded in agreement and sympathy. But Buffy withdrew even more, hunching down in her chair, a pained expression on her face.

“Buffy, what is it?” Giles asked. “What are you not telling me?”

It took a while for Buffy to get out the words. “When I told Willow, she got really upset.”

“Well, I’m sure she did,” Giles said. “She loves you; it’s natural that she’d be worried about you.”

Buffy shook her head. “No, not like that. She was upset that I hadn’t killed Caleb.”

“Oh, I see,” Giles replied.

“What if she’s right?” Buffy asked. “I mean, what are we supposed to do with Caleb now that we’ve caught him? Turn him over to the police and the justice system? They can’t handle someone like Caleb.”

“Well, um, I believe that the Initiative may be our best avenue for permanent imprisonment,” Giles suggested. “They have access to the latest weapons and best technologies the government has to offer, and they have experience in capturing and containing a wide variety of demons.”

“But they don’t understand and respect magic,” Buffy pointed out. “Induced coma or not, how they can possibly deal with a sorcerer of Caleb’s caliber?”

“They can’t.”

Buffy and Giles turned to the sound of the voice and found Willow standing several feet away at the doorway to the hall.

“That’s why we have to deal with him ourselves,” Willow continued as she stepped inside the room. “And there’s really only one way to do that. We have to kill him.”

“So...what?” Buffy challenged. “We’re judge and jury now? We get to decide who lives and dies?”

“Buffy’s right,” Giles said. “We mustn’t—”

“We don’t need a jury!” Willow shot back, ignoring Giles entirely. “Or a judge or a trial. We know he’s guilty. We were there, remember? We felt what he did to her, we saw him in Tara’s mind. He deserves to die!”

“No,” Buffy said, shaking her head. “Slayers don’t kill humans.”

“I didn’t say you had to do it,” Willow answered sharply.

Buffy clenched her jaw and swallowed hard. “Last night you said you wished I had.”

“Yes, I did,” Willow said, “and I do wish that. I wish more than anything that he was dead and in the ground right now! What I don’t understand is why you don’t wish it too.” Her eyes filled with tears, and her voice grew strained. “For God’s sake, Buffy...he raped Tara, he tortured her, he—”

“You think I don’t know that?” Buffy asked. “You think I don’t want to see him punished for that?”

Willow shook off her tears, and her anger returned. “Then why are you standing there pleading for mercy for that bastard?!”

Giles attempted to step between the girls, but Buffy just pushed past him.

“I am not pleading for mercy!” Buffy shouted back. “I’m just saying that—”

STOP IT! RIGHT NOW!

Buffy and Willow and Giles turned to see a furious Joyce Summers approaching them. She made brief eye contact with Giles but then stalked right over to the girls.

“What the hell is the matter with you two?” she accused.

The girls glanced angrily at each other for a second then warily met Joyce’s eyes. Once she had their attention, she continued her reprimand.

“Tara is in the hospital, out of her coma less than a day, facing God knows how much recovery time, and you two are here arguing about Caleb!”

Both Buffy and Willow dropped their heads in shame. Joyce let them stew in their guilt for a long moment; then she reached out and touched their arms to make them look at her.

“Tara needs you,” she told them. “Both of you. Together. So, put your differences aside for now. Caleb can wait.”

Reluctantly, the girls made eye contact with each other and then nodded at Joyce.

“Good,” Joyce told them. “Now go upstairs and get showered and dressed. I’ll have breakfast ready for you when you come back down.”

Without a word, Buffy and Willow did as they were told. Once the girls had left, Joyce turned to Giles. Deep worry was in her eyes.

“How are they ever going to get through this?” she asked.

“They’ll make it, you’ll see,” he said with a reassuring smile.

Then he gave her a kiss on the forehead and pulled her into a comforting hug, which she gratefully accepted.

***

A short time later, while Giles went to pick up Faith and Vamp Willow, Joyce drove Buffy and Willow to the hospital. When the three women arrived, they went straight to Tara’s room. When they came in, they found Xander and Anya inside, but Tara and her bed were gone.

“Oh God! Where’s Tara?” Willow asked in alarm.

“What happened? Why isn’t she here? Why didn’t you call us?” Buffy added, just as frantic.

Xander held up his hands to stave off the panic attack. “Don’t worry...nothing’s wrong with Tara. They came and got her earlier to run some tests, that’s all. She should be back just any time now.”

“We shouldn’t have left last night,” Willow said, turning to Buffy. “Then we would have been here when she woke up, before she had to go for those tests.”

“I know, I know,” Buffy agreed sadly. “We shouldn’t have let her talk us into it.”

“Okay, okay,” Xander said, walking over and putting an arm around both girls. “Enough with the guiltapalooza. Tara was completely okay while you were gone, I promise.” He guided them to the bench and sat them down. “As you’ll see in just a few.”

Just then, there was a knock at the door, and both Buffy and Willow jumped back to their feet, their eyes expectant. When the door opened, though, it wasn’t Tara. It was a very chipper Vamp Willow. Buffy and Willow’s faces fell.

“Oh,” Buffy mumbled.

“It’s just you,” Willow finished.

Then both of them plopped unhappily back onto their bench.

Vamp Willow’s grin became a pout, but only for a moment. She was in too good a mood to let a little morning grumpiness from the others get her down. She ignored the remark and turned to prop the door open so that Faith and Giles could enter.

As Faith came in the room, she was moving a bit slower than usual, and every so often, her face would scrunch into a quick grimace. Despite her best efforts to hide her discomfort, the others easily picked up on it.

“Faith, are you all right?” Joyce asked in concern.

Faith involuntarily cut her eyes in her girlfriend’s direction. Vamp Willow merely crossed her arms and smirked. A slight blush entered Faith’s cheeks.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Faith said, shrugging and trying her best to stand up straight and act nonchalant. “Just sore.” Instantly, she clarified, “From slaying! Patrol, you know, last night.”

“Must’ve been rough if it’s got you walking like that,” Willow commented.

Vamp Willow shot another smirk at Faith. “It was rough all right.”

“Did ya go up against some extra-bad-ass demon or something?” Xander asked.

“She sure did,” Vamp Willow answered, grinning wickedly now.

“Well, you’re here in one piece, so I guess you came out on top,” Buffy noted.

Vamp Willow snickered. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.” When she gave Faith a playful nudge, the slayer blushed even more and took a step away.

“Can we stop talking about me now?” Faith said grouchily. “Where’s Tara?”

“Getting some tests run,” Xander answered.

“How was she this morning?” Buffy asked worriedly. “You know...before they took her for the tests?”

“Just groggy,” Anya said, joining Xander. “She was asleep when they came for her.”

“Did she sleep okay? Was she in any pain?” Willow pressed.

“Barring a few instances of wake-up-for-vitals-check, she slept just fine,” Xander said.

“Well, except for the bad dreams,” Anya added matter-of-factly. Xander gave his girlfriend a glare, but she didn’t notice.

Both Buffy and Willow looked stricken. “Bad dreams?” Buffy asked.

“Understandable,” Giles interjected gently, “given what she went through.”

Everyone grew silent as their minds went unwillingly to their own imaginings of what Tara had endured while in Caleb’s clutches.

Xander got a look of disgust on his face. “That guy really needs to pay, and I mean pay.”

“No kidding,” Vamp Willow said grimly. “And the sooner, the better.”

Willow gave Buffy a vindicated glance but said nothing.

“Fear not, my troubled friends,” Anya announced proudly. “I have the solution.” She waved her notepad in the air and then went on. “Having served as a vengeance demon for over a thousand years, I possess a certain expertise in this area, and I’ve devised a list of what I feel are crime-appropriate punishments for Caleb—including some of those terrific ideas we came up with right after he was captured.” She smiled and turned to the first page in her notepad. “Okay then, let’s start with basic torture and work our way up to the truly horrific. Then we can—”

No!” Buffy barked, making everyone jump. She got to her feet and walked to an unoccupied corner. “We should not be talking about this right now!”

“Yes, we should!” Willow countered angrily. She got to her feet and faced Buffy. “Until that man is dead on a cold, hard slab—”

“‘That man’,” Faith said, cutting Willow off. “Do you hear yourself? Like it or not, Caleb is human; he has a soul, and we don’t have the right to—”

“So what?!” Xander said. “Ted Bundy had a soul. Does that mean the State of Florida shouldn’t have killed the son of a bitch?”

“But that’s not the point,” Anya said. “It’s punishment we should be talking about, not quick execution. I mean, zap-zap-he’s dead...where’s the justice in that?”

“He Doesn’t. Deserve. To Live.” Willow enunciated each word with icy deliberateness.

“He’s too dangerous to live,” Vamp Willow added.

“But at the moment, he’s not a danger to anyone,” Joyce interjected. “Which means we don’t have to make a decision right away.”

“Joyce is correct,” Giles said. “The Initiative is holding Caleb in a deep comatose state. There’s no way he can harm anyone.”

That we know of,” Xander pointed out.

“Exactly!” Willow told Xander. Then she turned back to Buffy. “Look, if we don’t do something permanent about him, he could come back. He could hurt Tara all over again! Is that what you want?!”

A hurt and appalled expression came over Buffy’s face. “Of course not! God...how can you even say that?!”

“Here we go,” came a nurse’s sing-songy voice from the hallway. It stunned the arguing Scoobies into immediate silence.

When they turned toward the open door, they saw an overly-cheerful nurse wheeling Tara’s bed back into the room. They quickly moved out of the way, sending smiles Tara’s way, hoping that she hadn’t heard any of their heated debate.

Once the nurse had finished and left, Buffy and Willow went immediately to Tara. Caleb was forgotten, and nothing else mattered but the woman they loved. They took Tara’s hands in theirs and looked deeply into her eyes. Then, as one, they whispered her name. Tara smiled and let out a shaky breath as she gave their hands a squeeze in return.

For the longest time, no one said a word. The Three had temporarily retreated into their own little world, and the others were reluctant to disturb their moment of re-bonding. It was Xander who finally broke the silence.

“Well,” he said, slapping his hands together in announcement fashion, “I believe Anya and I have earned ourselves a waffle breakfast and a long day in bed.” He took Anya’s hand and then turned to Faith and Vamp Willow. “Care to join us?”

“He means the waffle part, not the bed part,” Anya clarified.

Vamp Willow snorted. “Don’t be so sure,” she told the ex-demon before giving Xander a steamy up-and-down look.

Anya’s eyes widened and then narrowed. She gave Vamp Willow a glare and pulled Xander closer, literally latching onto his arm.

Faith rolled her eyes and muttered, “Just a sun-free ride back to Giles’s place will be fine.”

“Rupert and I have some work to attend to as well,” Joyce said, giving Giles a pointed look.

For a split second, Giles didn’t get it. Then he caught on. “Oh! Yes, that’s, um, quite right,” he said, joining Joyce near the door.

Buffy chuckled. “Real smooth exit, guys...but thanks.” Willow gave them a grateful nod too.

At that, the Scoobies made well-wishes to Tara and then slipped from the room, closing the door and leaving the Three alone.

***

Outside Tara’s room, Joyce and Giles met briefly with the others.

“Get some rest,” Giles told them. “We’ll call you if anything changes. Otherwise, we’ll meet back here this evening. Agreed?”

The two couples nodded then headed off down the hallway. Joyce and Giles watched them go and then turned back to Tara’s door. They stared at it for a long moment, with deep concern in their eyes. Joyce finally spoke up.

“Could I interest you in some boring small talk over a really bad cup of coffee?” she offered with a self-deprecating grin.

Giles grinned back. He took her hand and kissed it. “I assure you,” he said, “conversations with you are the very antithesis of boring.”

“Flatterer,” Joyce teasingly accused as they started down the hallway. “Go on,” she quickly added.

With a shared chuckle, the two made their way toward the elevator.

***

Meanwhile, back in Tara’s room, the Three had reverted to just a silent basking in each other’s presence. Through the simple touch of their hands, they reconnected on both a physical and an emotional level.

“We missed you,” Buffy said.

Sooo much,” Willow added.

“I missed you, too,” Tara replied.

“We’re sorry we weren’t here when you woke up,” Willow said.

“Yeah,” Buffy echoed.

“It’s okay,” Tara said. “It was like the crack of dawn when they came, anyway.”

“What did they do? What kind of tests did they run?” Willow asked.

“What didn’t they do?” Tara answered wearily. “I must be the most highly-tested patient in the hospital.” She sighed and started the list. “They drew blood, took another set of x-rays, put me in two different kinds of scanners. I’m probably glowing from the radiation.”

“Is that what that is?” Buffy said, peering curiously at Tara’s head and body. “And here I thought you were just extra glowy because of us.”

Tara rolled her eyes then smiled warmly. “I’m always glowy for you,” she said sincerely as she gave her girlfriends’ hands a squeeze, which they happily returned.

“Did they give you something for the pain?” Willow asked, brushing her fingers against Tara’s forehead.

“Earlier,” Tara said. “It’s worn off a little, but I’m okay,” she assured them. “Really.”

“What did the doctor say?” Buffy asked.

“I haven’t talked to him yet,” Tara said. “The nurse told me he’d review the test results and see me this afternoon.”

“Maybe he’ll let you go home soon,” Willow said encouragingly.

“I hope so,” Tara said.

“Oh! About that,” Buffy said. “When you get out, Mom wants us to move home with her. You know, till you’re well again. But I told her I’d have to ask you guys about it.”

When neither Tara nor Willow answered right away, Buffy nervously went on.

“I mean, true, our apartment is closer to the school, but it’s still a wreck from the move, just a bunch o’ boxes with hardly any furniture, a-a-and we’re off for the summer anyway, so I figured it might not be such a bad idea, you know, having some extra help, ’specially if Giles stays over, but i-i-if you guys don’t want to do it, then that’s okay, it’s not like I’m super-glued to the idea or anything, but...” Buffy trailed off when she realized Tara and Willow were staring at her. “What?” she asked.

Willow turned to Tara and said, “She’s so cute when she babbles.” Tara giggled in agreement.

Buffy let out a long-suffering sigh. “Okay, okay...enough with the Buffy-tease. Do I get a Yea or a Nay on the offer?”

Willow turned back to Tara and looked at her questioningly. When Tara nodded in the affirmative, Willow turned back to Buffy and said, “That would be a Yea. Two of ’em.”

“Yay!” Buffy blurted excitedly. “I’ll tell Mom when she comes back. She’ll be really happy to hear it.”

For a few moments more, the Three discussed the ramifications of the move and made other safe small talk, but eventually they grew quiet. It wasn’t the peaceful silence of before; it was the awkward tension of unresolved issues and unasked questions.

“So, um, w-w-what was going on earlier?” Tara asked hesitantly. “W-W-When I came in?”

Both Buffy and Willow looked at a loss. They worriedly locked eyes as if debating how to answer Tara’s question.

***

Meanwhile, in a hospital in Los Angeles, Lilah Morgan lay uncomfortably in her bed. It wasn’t her injuries that were causing her discomfort—it was the presence of one of the senior partners of Wolfram and Hart...and the man in black who had accompanied him. Whether the man in black was a telepath or an assassin or both, Lilah didn’t know.

“I know that you’re still recovering from your ordeal, Ms. Morgan,” the senior partner said, “but I and the other partners have questions that need answering.”

“Yes, of course, I understand,” Lilah forced herself to say.

“Who did this to you?”

“Angel,” she said, clenching her jaw tightly.

“ ‘Touch the Three’,” the partner said. “What was Angel referring to?”

Lilah knew that her interrogator knew the answer, but she replied anyway. “The Power of Three, the guardians of the hellmouth. Angel’s ex, Buffy Summers, is one of the Three.”

“How is that you knew of their rising?”

“Holland told me.”

The senior partner just crossed his arms and said nothing.

“H-H-He had this big plan to somehow take out the Three,” she stuttered in panic. “I-I-I  warned him, but he insisted he had a way around the curse.”

“And Angel got wind of this plot, I presume?”

Lilah nodded, frowning in remembrance. “He wanted...d-d-details...He...” She trailed off, unable to put into words what the vampire had done to her.

“And you told him, didn’t you?” the senior partner said coldly.

Lilah’s eyes darted from the partner to the man in black and back again. “Yes,” she finally admitted in a frightened whisper.

For the longest time, the senior partner just glared at her, but eventually his expression softened.

“Thank you, Ms. Morgan, for your candor,” he said. “We hope that you have a speedy recovery, and we look forward to seeing you back at work soon.”

At that, the senior partner and his companion left the room. After a long moment, Lilah finally let out the breath she had been holding.

***

At the same time, Holland Manner was sitting in his office, looking very unsettled. He glanced frequently at his phone, as if he were expected an important call. His wall-mounted television was showing a news anchor doing a teaser commercial.

“...and authorities are still investigating a mysterious explosion that occurred yesterday at a hospital in Sunnydale,” the anchor was saying. “We’ll look at these and other stories on KCAL 9 News at Noon.”

An anxious look on his face, Holland used his remote to turn off the television. He glanced at his phone, thought a moment, then activated his secure line. He punched in the number for Caleb’s cell phone and waited.

“Hello?” answered a male voice.

Holland sat up straight in his desk chair. “Who is this?” he demanded.

“Who are you?” the voice demanded right back.

Holland instantly hung up the phone. His eyes, once merely worried, were now extremely frightened.

***

At the Initiative, Riley pulled Caleb’s cell phone away from his ear and looked at it. The screen still showed no identification of the number that had called. A cable ran from the phone into a computer system, where a technician attempted to analyze the call statistics.

“Did you get it?” Riley asked.

The technician made a few final strokes on his keyboard and then sadly shook his head. “Sorry, man. Couldn’t track it.”

“Damn!” Riley swore.

***

Tara grew impatient with the lack of response to her question, so she asked it again, this time more sharply. “What was going on when I came in?”

“Oh, umm, it was nothing,” Buffy said, attempting a dismissive wave.

“Yeah,” Willow agreed. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

Tara’s expression tightened. “It was about Caleb, wasn’t it?”

Once again, Willow and Buffy just looked at each other without answering Tara. It was obvious that they were having a telepathic conversation that did not include her.

Stop talking behind my back!” Tara’s sudden outburst completely startled her girlfriends.

“S-S-Sorry,” Willow said. “We just...”

“We just didn’t want to upset you,” Buffy finished.

I...am not...a child,” Tara enunciated slowly and with great emphasis. “So tell me.”

After a deep breath, Buffy admitted, “Yes, it was about Caleb.” She quickly added, “But don’t worry...he’s safe. All locked up at the Initiative. He’s not going anywhere.”

“What were you fighting about, then?” Tara asked.

“We weren’t fighting...exactly,” Willow said. “We were just...debating.” She paused then said, “About what to do with him.”

“I see,” Tara said in a not-pleased voice. “And you were just going to decide all that without me?”

Buffy and Willow looked at Tara and then each other. They didn’t know what to say, but Tara’s tone was starting to scare them.

“Do you think I’m helpless?!” Tara accused angrily. “Or-or mentally incompetent?! Do you think I can’t make decisions for myself?!” She was practically screaming at them.

Buffy and Willow flinched at her words and pulled away, taking a full step back from the hospital bed. They had never seen Tara like this—never seen such rage in her. And they had certainly never been on the receiving end of it. All they could do was hang their heads and stare at the floor.

“We’re sorry,” Buffy whispered.

So sorry,” Willow added.

The two kept their gaze averted until they heard a small sob from Tara. When they looked up and saw her crying, they rushed back over to her.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Tara told them over and over, in a voice choked by tears.

Willow and Buffy took her hands in theirs once again. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” they both reassured her as they stroked her hair and caressed her shoulders and arms.

“I-I-I...I don’t know why...I s-s-snapped...like that,” Tara said, still hiccupping a bit as she struggled to get her crying under control.

“It’s okay,” Buffy said, tears rolling down her own face. “You’re allowed.”

“But I don’t wanna be,” Tara said. “It hurts.” She closed her eyes and whispered, “Everything hurts.”

Tara began to sob again, and Willow and Buffy quickly joined her. For a time, it was all they could do—just cry. But at least they were together, and soon they felt the worst of their pain subside.

Buffy and Willow leaned over to place twin kisses on Tara’s temples. “We love you,” they told her. “No matter what.”

Tara smiled a tiny bit and said, “I love you, too.” Before Buffy and Willow could pull away, Tara reached up and grabbed their shoulders. She locked her eyes on theirs and said, “Is Caleb really secure?”

“Yes, he is,” Buffy said firmly. “He’s in the Initiative, being kept in a deep coma in the most secure room they have.”

Tara acknowledged that and then glanced away for moment. When she looked back, she said, “Then just keep him that way. For now. I-I-I need time to think. Okay?”

“Okay,” Buffy promised. She looked over at Willow and got a nod from her.

At that, Tara relaxed somewhat, and the Three turned their conversation to less stressful topics.

***

About an hour later, Tara was asleep. The morning’s tests and the high emotions had taken their toll, and she had drifted off right in the middle of talking with Willow and Buffy. They didn’t mind, though. They were grateful that she could rest, and they prayed that her sleep would be undisturbed by bad dreams. Once Tara’s breathing became deep and regular, they slipped their hands from hers and stepped away.

They moved to the end of the bed, where they simply stood and watched Tara sleeping. Their expressions grew pained as they took in the sight of Tara’s still battered condition. Although the swelling had gone down, the bruises on her face had not yet begun to fade. After a long moment, they drew their eyes away.

When they looked at one another, they realized that they were standing a least a yard apart. On any other day, they would have been side by side, hugging or holding hands, touching in some way. They both looked away, not knowing what to do next.

After a seemingly interminable series of seconds, they finally turned to each other and blurted out simultaneously, “I’m sorry!”

When Tara stirred at the noise, they froze and waited until Tara was still once again. Then they closed the gap between them and took each other’s hands.

“I’m sorry,” Willow whispered urgently.

“I’m sorry too,” Buffy echoed.

They fell into a long and desperately needed hug. The intensity of their reconnection moved them both to tears.

“I don’t like it when we fight,” Willow said in a choked voice.

“Me either,” Buffy agreed. She sniffled as she pulled them apart. “So let’s not, okay?”

“We need to be together in this,” Willow affirmed. “Not just for Tara, but for us too.”

“Right,” Buffy said. She reached up and wiped the tears from Willow’s face with her thumb. “We’ll deal with Caleb, and he’ll get what he deserves,” she told her. “I promise. But right now, let’s honor Tara’s wishes and just keep him on ice.”

When Willow nodded, Buffy leaned in and gave her a heartfelt kiss, which Willow gratefully returned.

***

Meanwhile, Holland Manners was at his office, cramming items into his briefcase. When he was finished, he forced case shut and hurried for his office door. When he opened the door, he found the man in black who had been in Lilah’s room waiting for him outside. Holland froze in place.

“The Senior Partners would like to have a word,” the man in black said.

“No...” Holland said, backing away. “No...”

At a nod from the man in black, two burly guards rushed inside and grabbed Holland, causing him to drop his briefcase. Holland began to struggle and scream, but it was no use.

As the guards dragged Holland away, the man in black calmly picked up the briefcase and followed after.


TO BE CONTINUED IN PART FOURTEEN...

FOOTNOTE:

1 There is a separate story that dramatizes what is left out here. It's called "Pony Time," naturally. Click here to go to this NC-17 side story: "Pony Time"

Click here to return to the "Pony Time" line above: Return.
 

 


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