Absolution: Part II
by Minim Calibre
He was lying when told himself he didn't think about her. The first week, he thought about her every time Tara was up all night fussing and crying, wishing she was there to feed her and rock her to sleep. Lord knew he wasn't having any luck with it. Sleep was limited to the five minutes in between the baby's screaming fits, if he was fortunate.
After a week, he remembered what Angel had said about the vacuum and was pleasantly surprised when it worked. Sleep measured in hours rather than minutes was something of an improvement, even when he took into account the images that occasionally found him waking drenched in sweat, the memory of blood under his nails and bruises under his fingers forcing its way to the surface. He was lying when told himself he didn't dream about her, if dreaming was really the right word.
There were other dreams that interrupted his sleep, and just as violently. Dreams of a creeping panic that paralyzed him, trapping him in a world of empty cribs and unnatural silences. After those, he would stand by Tara's crib and watch her until she woke up.
To keep himself sane, he started several journals, each one devoted to a different aspect of Tara's development. To keep them afloat financially, he started tutoring language students at the university while sending off applications for teaching positions at small community colleges. The identity he'd paid for had a skill set close to his own, a smattering of experience, and some decent-but-not-glowing references. When Tara was six months old, he accepted a position one state to the north, gave notice to his landlord, and moved them from one small, run-down house to another.
In time, he learned to answer to his new name, although he still couldn't think of himself by it. Tara, who at eleven months was showing signs of being just as chatty as her mother, called him by whatever collection of syllables she found fitting, depending on which language he'd been using with her that week. When it seemed like she was going to stick with one which, thanks to her baby slurring, could be misconstrued as something not suitable for polite company, he decided to start sticking to human languages exclusively.
He didn't have much interaction with adults outside of the campus, so he found himself increasingly fascinated by his child. He tracked her likes and dislikes, and peculiar eating habits; carrots, bananas, and squash were deemed acceptable for putting in her mouth--as were the telephone and remote control--while peas and almost anything green were seen as purely decorative, presuming one was decorating the floor. He made the rare attempt to go out on dates, but babysitters were expensive and Tara didn't seem to like any of the women when he had them over for coffee, so second dates were rarer than souled vampires, and third dates rarer than souled lawyers, although he did manage a few casual flings.
Tara didn't say anything about her motherless state until she was four. After a playdate, she came home and announced almost proudly that she was bad.
"Why are you bad?" he asked, wondering if he really wanted to know what mischief she'd gotten into.
"Jenny's daddy said if she was bad, her mommy would leave. Mine left, so that means I'm bad. Bad bad bad!" She ran off to terrorize her stuffed animals, and he made a mental note that any further playdates with Jenny would not take place at Jenny's house.
Following that, she occasionally asked about mothers and where hers had gone. When a simple "away" no longer sufficed, he found other ways around the queries, and she soon stopped asking. On her birthdays, she opened her two cards without question, thanking him for his and filing the other with the feathers and shells and other scraps of some importance she kept in her room.
They lived a fairly Spartan life, which allowed him to purchase a modest house within a few miles of his job when Tara was six. The neighborhood wasn't the best, but it wasn't the worst, either. It was close to several parks, and just far enough off the main arterial that it was safe for her to play in the front yard when supervised. He liked to watch Tara behead dandelions and poke at slugs with sharp sticks, although her unceasing and sometimes bloodthirsty defense of the garden reminded him more than a little bit of her mother. He fancied she had something of the look of Buffy about the face, although Tara's height and coloring had come from him.
He wasn't sure which one of them had contributed to her extreme stubbornness. Somehow, he suspected she came by it from both sides.
As soon as she was able to make arguments that went beyond the simple negation of a request, she delighted in them. Worse, she was convinced that she had the right of it, and that her father was simply failing to look at things in the correct light. Eating her supper before asking for dessert was considered a ridiculous notion, as was making her bed, which was just going to be slept in again at night.
Homework turned into a battleground on which neither side would easily yield. Although her test scores were always above average, he soon got used to uncomfortable discussions with her teachers about making certain she was living up to her full potential. Her nose was always in a book, but not, it seemed, her school books. The older she got, the more uncomfortable the discussions, and the more firmly entrenched she and he grew in their respective positions.
"I just don't see why," she complained when confronted with her grade seven marks, "if I'm getting A's on all the tests, it should matter if I do the busy work."
"It matters because at some point, you won't be able to simply coast through things. You're going to require a certain amount of discipline in your studies." It seemed a perfectly obvious thing to him, but his daughter wasn't convinced.
"But I don't need it now, so what's the hurry?" At his skeptical look, she sighed and rolled her eyes before explaining further. "It's not that I don't like to study, it's just that if I don't need to, why should I? I mean, it's not like I'm not already fluent in all the languages they offer, my grammar's just fine, and I'm getting by in math and Earth science."
"Your marks are going to matter when it comes time for you to apply for university."
"I'll worry about that when the time comes. Right now, I've got more important things to think about." Tara winced at the airy pomposity with which she'd spoken.
"Heaven save me from thirteen year olds who are going on thirty. You're a truly obnoxious child, do you know that?" He sipped his coffee to hide a smile.
Tara grinned, looking a little embarrassed. "Don't forget lazy and ungrateful."
"Yes, you're also those, especially the first. Will you at least try to turn in your schoolwork?"
"Buy me a pony?"
"No, but I may raise your allowance."
She looked at him, considering the offer. "Okay. I'll accept bribes. Want to watch a movie?"
They settled in and watched a classic horror film that she'd insisted they rent the night before. Tara was engrossed; he catalogued the numerous factual errors, thankful that it was just a werewolf movie. He wasn't certain if he could stand to sit through Dracula. As it turned out, he soon found that if he just pretended it was a parody, he was fine. Tara, it seemed, had developed a taste for the things.
That summer, he had the opportunity to take over teaching a fencing class. Tara came along for the first few sessions, but soon begged off.
"All the women are flirting with you, Dad. It's gross, and I'd rather not sit and watch it," she informed him. "I'll just stay here and try not to think about it."
He laughed at the notion, but somehow found himself going out for coffee with one of the students, a woman named Amy. She had bright red hair, a wicked sense of humor, several animals, and a job she hated. By their third date, he found himself wondering if he'd accidentally made a sacrifice to some minor deity. By the fifth, he started wondering in all seriousness if it was a missing sign that an apocalypse was coming.
Tara refused to admit that her father was dating someone for as long as she could. When Amy started to spend several nights a week in their house, she grudgingly stopped referring to her as "that woman" and began to refer to her as "Dad's girlfriend." She was generally polite, saving her snits for the times when it was least convenient and most embarrassing, like right before he and Amy were supposed to go out with some of his fellow teachers.
"I'm certain she didn't mean it." Wesley handed Amy a stiff drink and a box of tissues before going off in search of his daughter.
She was in the backyard, whacking a broken branch against the trunk of the apple tree.
"What?" She didn't look up or stop wielding the branch.
"You should apologize to Amy for what you said. We're staying in tonight. She doesn't really feel like going out anymore."
Tara shrugged and hit the trunk harder. "Whatever. It's not like I said anything too bad."
"You called her the Whore of Babylon. I can't imagine what you were thinking that was worse, and I certainly don't want to hear it. Now go in and apologize, please."
She complied, and the three of them ended up on the couch watching a Film Noir marathon. He listened to them discuss the movies, for once feeling quite happy to not be part of the discussion. Tara and Amy had a fair amount in common, and when the relationship ended, Tara took it almost as badly as he did. It had been an amicable enough parting, but they both missed her.
Life went back to its regular routine. Tara completed her first year of high school with high marks and a fairly hefty allowance. She had a small but close group of friends, and spent any time that wasn't assigned to homework or chores in their company. He saw her mainly in passing, and tried to quell the sense of unease that fact produced.
The nightmares started a few weeks into summer break.
Tara was no stranger to nightmares. She'd had bad ones for as long as she could remember: vivid dreams of paralysis where she had something important she had to say but her lips wouldn't move and so she just stood there, mouth frozen, while everyone around her went away and there was nothing she could do to stop them. These new nightmares were different. For one thing, they didn't feel like dreams.
She woke up after the first one, breathing hard and not certain how she'd gotten from the street to her bed before she realized that it wasn't real, that she'd been asleep the whole time. She looked at her hands, puzzled by the lack of blood and dust. One hand crept to her throat; her pulse was definitely racing like she'd been doing something a hell of a lot more strenuous than just sleeping, and her skin was damp.
Too many monster movies, that was all, even if it wasn't like any monster movie she'd ever seen, and she'd seen a lot of them. She looked at the clock. 4:47. Even if she could go back to sleep, the sun would be up soon. Tara wasn't really a morning person, but she decided she could always nap if she got tired. She got out of bed, went to the living room, and curled up on the couch to watch infomercials and home shopping channels with the sound off until she figured she could move around the house without waking up her dad.
He frowned in her direction when he came downstairs. "What on earth are you doing awake?"
Tara hit the off button on the remote and unfolded herself from the couch. "Couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd just kill time until morning."
"What was it this time? Too much coffee, or did you just sleep in for too long yesterday?"
"Neither. Just a bad dream, that's all."
She was exceedingly thankful when he let it pass without comment. Sharing things like nightmares with him had been uncomfortable since the first time she noticed the flash of guilt that appeared on his face whenever she'd bring them up. Sometimes she wondered if it had something to do with her mother, but she knew better than to open that can of worms.
The next night she had the same dream and woke up in the same disturbed state. Tara was starting to miss the normal collection of nightmares; they just left her depressed, not twitchy and filled with some sort of dreadful anticipation. She didn't bother to go downstairs to kill time with the television, choosing instead to count the books on her shelf and reorder them by genre, author, and publisher until it was time to get breakfast.
The shadows under her eyes gave her away.
"You didn't sleep again last night, did you?" her father groused from across the table.
Tara shrugged her shoulders. "I slept some."
"More nightmares?" he asked quietly.
"Have you thought that perhaps you might want to avoid watching horror films before going to bed?" She loved it when her parent stated the obvious as though it were some pronouncement from on high.
"I'll try that." She'd also try finding things to do to distract herself from the long, boring summer days. If her mind was going to insist on being over active, she'd just have to give it something new on which to focus. Leigh probably had some ideas. Which reminded her, she wanted to move her bedroom somewhere a little more private--having one right next to her dad's meant he could hear everything she did. "I was thinking maybe I should change rooms. Maybe it's the light from the street that's doing it."
"You're alarmingly transparent at times, Tara. If you want to sleep in the basement bedroom, you may."
"More so. I haven't heard anything that flimsy in, well, in quite some time, at any rate."
Switching rooms didn't stop the nightmares, but it did leave her more room to distract herself. She disabled the alarm on the egress window, knowing full well that if everything went as she hoped it would, she'd need to use it to get in and out of the house undetected.
Any relationship has rules, some spoken aloud and spelled out with their own distinct set of punishments and consequences should they be broken; others never mentioned, formed from reactions to events.
Tara's relationship with her father had several of both. The first set included such things as "don't leave your things scattered around where anyone might trip over them," "no going out without checking in first," and "no taking the last cup of coffee without brewing another pot." This sort of rule had exceptions and loopholes, all of which she was quite adept at manipulating. The second set was trickier. By the time she turned fifteen, she knew better than to break any of them.
No asking about her mother; no wondering about grandparents, aunts, or uncles; no speculation about what her father had done at her age. No questions about the past, period.
She didn't even know her mother's name.
In the rare instances she was mentioned at all, it was always "your mother." "Your mother did what she had to do, she hadn't much choice" or "of course your mother loved you." Once, on the only occasion she'd ever seen her father drunk--right after the break-up with Amy, when Tara was doing her best to try and cheer him up--it was "you look just like your mother when you do that."
She looked in the mirror, trying to see it. Everyone had always told her she looked just like her father, but then, they couldn't really be expected to say anything else, could they? All she saw in the reflection was the same thing she saw every day. A tallish girl with an untidy mop of dark brown hair and a figure that wouldn't have looked out of place on a twelve-year old boy. All things she could trace back to her father.
She moved closer to the mirror, ready to get on with the second part of the daily ritual. Maybe there was something of her mother in the eyes? They were the same shade of blue as her dad's, but the shape was different. His crinkled up when he smiled, where hers always looked a little sad. Maybe it was her mouth, its softness and hint of an overbite just slightly at odds with the gawky angles of the rest of her.
It had to be somewhere. He wouldn't have said anything if it wasn't.
She ended her reverie the same way she always did: a splash of cold water on her face and a grim smile. At least she knew damned well which side of the family had given her the gluttonous need to torture herself. In that, at least, she was very much her father's child. She was just more skilled than him when it came to hiding it.
There was still a third of a pot of coffee left when she made her way to the kitchen, as well as half a box of doughnuts. Sweet, starchy food. Dad was either researching or grading papers.
"Is it ridiculous to expect at least one of them to use a spell-checker?" he grumbled by way of greeting.
"In that case, yes, it's ridiculous. Especially seeing as it's summer quarter. Why are there no maple bars?"
He didn't look up from the stack of papers. "I must have eaten them. There should be some jellies left, however."
"No thanks. I think I'll just have coffee."
She stared at him over her mug, comparing his features to her own.
Yes, the eyes were certainly different. The mouth, too.
"Do you have plans tonight?"
She blinked. She did have plans, as usual. Not that she'd wanted to mention them to him. She somehow doubted he'd approve of her latest hobby.
"I'm studying with Leigh and Emily. Catch up on our summer reading and all that. Why?"
"Oh, nothing. I just thought perhaps you'd like to see a movie."
"Maybe some other time. Besides, I already told you, no more creature-features for me."
He frowned. "There are other types of movies besides horror, you know."
"I know. Like I said, some other time. We can have a 90's film fest and eat popcorn until our stomachs hurt, but tonight is for studying."
It wasn't a complete lie. They'd be studying, just not books.
He went back to grading papers. She was willing to bet he didn't know she knew he was only doing it to hide his disappointment. It had been just the two of them for so much of her life; the year and a half during which he and Amy were together was the only serious relationship of his that she could remember. Maybe if she hadn't been such a needy pain-in-the-ass of a daughter, it would have worked out. She hadn't intended to drive a wedge between them, not really. She'd liked Amy.
Introspection was, as always, a bitch. She rinsed her cup and brewed a fresh pot by way of silent atonement, then mopped the floor for good measure. The house was always cleaner when she was feeling guilty about something. If her father had noticed that peculiarity, he hadn't let on.
Satisfied that she'd done enough to make up for her minor deception, she retreated to the coolness of the basement. Somehow, despite an obviously English origin, her father was more than capable of dealing with the August heat, keeping the windows closed unless it made it above ninety. She, on the other hand, was perfectly happy to spend summer curled up in the basement room she'd claimed as her own until night fell and the heat dissipated. She flopped on her bed and flipped idly through a book of Lorca's poetry, comparing the translation to the original and suspecting she could have done a better job of it. Although, seeing as it was an old edition, perhaps some of the nuances had been left out intentionally.
She ended up losing herself in the words and didn't have much time to get dressed before she was supposed to meet Leigh. Nothing seemed quite appropriate for their endeavor, so she settled on a tight pair of black pants and a tank top. Make-up would have to wait until she was out of the house. Dad might have his head in the books more often than not, but she suspected he'd know full well that heavy eyeliner and dark lipstick were not really study appropriate. She tucked what she needed into her purse and rushed out the door.
"If it gets late, I'm crashing at Leigh's, okay?" she called out as she left.
If it got late, Leigh would be crashing at Emily's. If it got late, Emily would be crashing at Tara's.
Round-robin was the oldest trick in the book. Tara felt giddy with getting away with it while at the same time wondering why it was parents were still so trusting. She said as much to Leigh when they walked to the bus stop. Leigh laughed.
"I don't know about your dad, but my folks are just kind of self-absorbed rather than trusting. I'm sure if they pulled their heads out of their asses and thought about it for five seconds, they'd have it figured out."
"Dad's not absorbed with anything but reading, grading papers, gardening, and me. In his case, I'm pretty certain it's an excess of trust." Tara had the grace to look a little bit guilty. "It's starting to drive me insane."
"What, the fact that he trusts you in spite of reams of evidence to the contrary?"
"No, that I'm fine with. In fact, that part I like. It's his lack of a life outside of work and me that's making me want to pull my hair out. And there aren't reams. Small piles, carefully hidden, but no reams."
Leigh snickered. "Let me guess: your dad wanted to hang out with you again tonight, didn't he?"
"He kind of deflated when I told him I needed to go work on my summer reading list with you and Emily, so yes, you could say that."
"Must be rough." Leigh's voice was distinctly lacking in sympathy. "All that love and affection. Ouch! Shit, Tara, why'd you do that?" She rubbed the spot on her arm where Tara's fist had connected.
"If you really have to ask, I don't think I feel the need to answer."
"Jesus, sorry to mock your stable home life. Next time, though? Pull your punches. I don't have any clothing that goes with the fresh bruise you've given me."
"Bite me. I barely touched you."
"If that's barely touching, remind me to never seriously piss you off. Any harder, and I think you'd have broken something. For such a string bean, you're pretty damned strong."
"Whatever." Tara tried not to think about the jam jar she'd shattered while attempting to open, or the big hole in the plaster of the bedroom wall, the one she'd hidden behind her Pulp Fiction poster. All she'd been trying to do was nail up a coat hook. She changed the subject. "So, where's this one at? Emily meeting us there, or do we have to wait for her?"
"It's down on West Marg. Same place as three weeks ago, and she'll meet us there. I think she's trying to convince Ryan to come with."
Tara pulled out her compact and smoothed a quick coat of gloss over her lips before going to work on her eyes while they waited for the bus. "If she manages it, is he driving? I'm not so sure I want to walk home, and I'm starting to wonder if the neighbors have noticed the number of late-night taxi stops on our street."
"Yeah. I kind of think that's why she's trying to get him to go."
"And not, of course, because she thinks he's hot."
"Okay, Tara. Eww. Your taste may be that bad, but I don't think Emily's is." Leigh scrunched up her nose at the thought of Ryan, and Tara punched her again, careful to pull it this time.
"I didn't say I thought he was hot, did I? No." The arrival of the bus signaled the end of the discussion.
The place was already packed, the smell of sweat and incense clinging to every corner of the shabby warehouse. The first time they'd gone to one of these, Tara had been almost overwhelmed by guilt, the noise, and the sheer amount of sensation. She'd wanted to go home, until she realized she couldn't even hear herself think, and let the thrill of being somewhere so totally alien wash over her. As long as they stuck to some basic rules--no more than one or two drinks, no setting your drink down, no accepting drinks from strangers, and no leaving the building--it seemed pretty safe. Actually, it was starting to feel almost tame.
Leigh seemed to feel the same way. Tara noticed her flirting with a tall blond in an outfit that was just a little too retro-Tarantino, accepting a drink from him and tossing it back, then asking for another. Great. She'd have to remember to keep an eye on the two of them. Asking a guy for a drink just seemed to be a little too close to asking for trouble.
Midway through a long and not-very-danceable set, Tara noticed them sneaking towards the door to the alley. She brushed off the boy who was talking at her, and followed Leigh and her companion out the door. Leigh was stumbling and laughing too loudly, her motions loose enough for Tara to suspect there was something more than alcohol in whatever the man had handed her.
The sight of them sloppily making out didn't alleviate her suspicions. She hoped she could figure out some way to get Leigh away from him and get them both the hell home without much of a fuss.
Then Leigh screamed and Tara stopped caring about whether or not there'd be a fuss, just so long as they could get out of there with their skins intact. She rushed him without thinking, pulling him off of Leigh and hitting him as hard as she could manage. Looked up at his face when he growled and stopped breathing. She'd seen that face before, seen it every night for over a month.
He's not real, he's not real. This isn't happening.
He hit her across the face and she flew backwards into the wall. Oh fuck. She could see Leigh trying to stand, one hand pressed against her neck and blood flowing from between her fingers. He was coming towards her... what had she done in the dream? Fuck. Fuck. She couldn't think.
He grabbed her, and she noticed how cold his hands were against the skin of her upper arms. She kicked him, twisting her body around and struggling against him until he lost his grip and she hit the pavement. Her hands reached out in blind panic and found a broken branch. She lifted it as he came back at her, pushing the jagged end of it hard against his chest, and then he was gone and she was covered in a soft layer of dust.
It couldn't be real; she had to be sleeping.
She could hear Leigh crying and turned to look at her. Leigh's face was ashen, the red gashes on her neck still seeping.
"Leigh, get up. We have to get out of here."
Leigh looked at her. She seemed to be having trouble focusing. "Where'd he go? He's gone, right?" She made no effort to stand, so Tara pulled her up.
"Come on. Up. You can do it."
Tara managed to get them several blocks away from the warehouse before her knees gave out. Leigh was shuddering, and her skin felt too cold. Tara dug through Leigh's pockets until she found the phone, then dialed the emergency number. There was going to be hell to pay, but she didn't have time to worry about that.
"Hang on, Leigh. It'll be fine. It'll all be fine." Tara pressed her hand against the wound and waited for the ambulance to arrive.
The telephone rang at 1:30 in the morning, jolting him from sleep.
"Yes, yes. I'll be right there."
He hung up and just stared at the phone for several minutes, trying to remember where he'd put his clothing before he'd gone to bed. He needed his wallet and his keys, and they were still in his pants. He checked the hamper twice before remembering that he'd left them in the bathroom. All things considered, it was a miracle he didn't run any lights on his way to the hospital.
The emergency room was crowded, full of drunks and junkies in various states of withdrawal and overdose. Under the harsh fluorescent light, they all looked like walking corpses. He hadn't been in an emergency room since he'd left California, not even when Tara was going through the usual childhood battles with ear infections. He'd forgotten just how much he hated the places.
As bad as they had been as a patient, they were infinitely worse as a parent. He looked around with bleary eyes, wondering what in God's name she'd been doing, and hoping she was all right. She hadn't said much when she'd called.
He spotted her huddled in a corner and talking to the police. With her face streaked with mascara and dried blood, she resembled a child caught playing a particularly macabre version of dress-up. Her shirt was ripped, and there was a bruise on the side of her face, but except for that, she seemed to be intact. He let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding and walked towards her, fragments of what she was saying reaching his ears.
"He vanished." She sounded like she'd said it a thousand times and couldn't quite understand why they were asking her the question again.
"So you said, miss, but if you can remember anything about where he went..."
She cut him off. "He didn't go anywhere. I told you, he vanished."
"You're trying to tell me that you hit him with a stick, and he just disappeared?" It was obvious that the officer didn't believe that part of her story, writing it off as hysterics brought on by the attack.
The doctors had him sign some papers, everyone, it seemed, saw fit to lecture him on his skills as a parent, then they were free to go. They made the drive back to the house in silence. She stared out the window, his coat wrapped around her to cover the torn clothing. He could think of a million things he wanted to say to her, but none that would be of any use in the long run, and none that he wouldn't regret saying in the morning.
When they arrived home, he locked the door behind them then gestured for her to sit down. He remained standing, watching her, still unwilling to speak. She looked around at the floor, the wall, her hands, at anything that wasn't him. Finally, words came out of her mouth, haltingly at first, as she told him where she'd gone.
It turned out it wasn't the first time. It was summer, she explained. She and her friends were bored, and hitting the underground club scene had seemed, if not like a good idea at the time, at least like a mostly harmless one. He must have made some sort of sound, because her head jerked up and she met his eyes for a second before looking away and admitting that no, actually, it had seemed like a bad idea; that was the appeal.
She started to babble about the nightmares that had been keeping her up earlier that summer, and he thought for a moment that the tangent was meant to explain why she'd been sneaking out of the house. Then she described the dreams, spoke of men with faces like deformed lions, their flesh cold and smooth, teeth sharp and cruel as they tore into the necks of their victims. She talked about running them through with weapons of wood, of watching with glee as they crumbled to dust, and the words hit him like drops of acid. Acid turned to ice when he realized that the tangent wasn't a tangent, just a prelude to her description of the attack.
He didn't want to believe what he was hearing, and tried to quell the first suspicion that came to mind. What she'd run into was blindingly obvious, but the meaning, even with the dreams, wasn't necessarily clear. One didn't have to be cursed with a calling to come out ahead against a vampire. One simply had to be lucky.
He repeated what the police had said almost verbatim, including their mention of Leigh's had claim that she'd seen the man escape. What Tara thought she saw and what had happened were not the same thing. They couldn't be. She tried to tell him that she knew what she'd seen, but he interrupted her.
"Tara, what you're suggesting is impossible." It didn't really feel like a lie. There were things, which, if she just avoided courting danger at every turn, she didn't need to know about. Seattle was a safe enough place, and frankly, they were things he couldn't begin to explain.
She looked for a moment as if she was going to argue, then her shoulders slumped. "You're right," she mumbled. "It's impossible. Can I go to bed now?"
He nodded. "Yes, of course... and Tara?"
"I think that this has been punishment enough for you, but you need to remember the rules. If you want to do something, for goodness' sake just ask, and if you think I'll say no, there's probably a good reason why."
They didn't discuss the matter again. She tried to say something about it a few days later, but he stopped her before she could get any further than "about the other night".
"Tara, this matter is closed. I trust there will be no repetition of it."
She nodded, and changed the subject.
It was stupid. It was crazy. It was any number of things, none of them good. Tara didn't care. It was something she had to do.
Getting the address of the warehouse had been easy enough, and pinching money from Dad's wallet had provided enough money for cab and cover. She'd make it up to him somehow. The short, tight dress didn't leave her any place for the pieces of driftwood she'd sharpened, so she'd stashed them in the pockets of a black leather jacket she'd found in the attic.
Two weeks and the dreams hadn't stopped. If anything, they were more vivid. When she woke up drenched in cold sweat every night, she could still taste the ashes in her throat. It couldn't be from memory. When she'd hit whomever--whatever had attacked them that night, she'd been too shocked to breathe.
She recognized some of the revelers from earlier warehouse parties, some of them just from around. She had felt better when she didn't see any familiar faces at these events. What had felt like slumming was starting to feel like home.
Tara looked around, trying to spot anything different about the crowd. It was no use. They were all pale, slim, and unhealthy. Nothing to set them apart from one another. Nothing that gave her a hint as to what she was looking for. It had happened. No matter what anyone said, it had happened. There had been no knife, no weapon. He hadn't run away.
He'd savaged Leigh, and Tara had stopped him. The way she always did in dreams. And that had been that. He was gone, no body, no trace save for a smattering of dust.
She wasn't crazy.
It had happened.
A dark-haired man in the corner caught her eye. He was staring at her as if he knew her, although she was certain she'd never set eyes on him before tonight. She'd have remembered. He was that kind of guy.
"Can I get you anything?"
She jumped, startled by the voice. She'd been so lost in her own world; she hadn't even noticed him coming over to her. Not that she minded.
"Aren't you a little young for that?"
He must not have been to very many of these to ask a question like that. "Look around you, buddy. Aren't we all?"
He was older than she'd thought. Too old for this crowd, in years at least. He looked at her with opaque brown eyes for a minute before going and getting her what she'd asked for.
"If I'm going to be corrupting a minor, least you could do is tell me your name."
"Tara. That's a pretty name; it suits you. You know, you might want to be careful, talking to strangers in a place like this."
"Why, do you bite?"
"No, but some of the other people here do. You should watch your back."
Then he was gone. She downed her drink, trying to figure out if he'd been warning her or warning her off. Whichever it was, she wished he'd given her some sort of clue as to what to watch for, apart from her back. Not only had he not told her anything useful, he hadn't even told her his name.
She set down the empty glass and took to the floor. Eyes closed, she let the thrum of the bass surround and fill her. Her mind relaxed and she remembered why she kept coming to these things long after the rush of bad behavior had faded and passed. There was a comfort in the darkness and the noise, company in the loneliness of the crowd.
She felt someone next to her, felt the slight disturbance of the air around her as it slid close to her, smelled the Nag Champa and smoke and somehow knew it was one of them, one of the creatures from the nightmares. Cool fingers brushed the heavy fall of her hair from her neck, and she opened her eyes and smiled.
It was good-looking in this face, smooth pale skin and deep hazel eyes, a shock of auburn hair and full red lips. Pretty, very pretty. She wondered how much of it was due to cosmetics, and how much it owed to being what it was.
"You remind me of a ballerina."
Pretty, but none-too-bright. So much the better. She widened her eyes and raised her brow, letting her mouth part slightly in question.
It leaned in closer, so close she should have felt it exhale against her skin. She felt nothing, not even when it whispered, "It's your neck, so long and elegant," in her ear. She shivered, whether at the absence of breath or the slow caress of its fingers on her collarbone, she couldn't be certain.
"Come with me." Its voice was as warm as its touch was cold. "Let's go somewhere a little more private."
She let it take her by the hand and lead her through the crowd and out the small door that lead to the alley. The door closed behind them with a dull thud, and the thing shoved her hard against the metal, cold lips forcing her mouth to open as it used one knee to push apart her legs. A taste of something coppery hit her tongue. Blood. She wondered if it was her own. The face above her twisted and changed, teeth scraping against her lip until she could feel her flesh tear and didn't have to wonder where the blood was coming from.
It pulled its mouth away to speak, voice still all warm seduction when it told her she should feel free to scream.
"No one will hear, but you might feel better."
She pulled the bit of sharpened wood from her pocket, thrusting the thing between its ribs when it pulled back to strike, the impact hard against her fist before softening as the thing crumbled to dust.
"I thought for a while there you hadn't listened to me."
Her cryptic companion from earlier stepped out of the shadows, where he had no doubt witnessed the whole thing. She glared at him, tucking the weapon back in her jacket. Blood from her lip was smeared down her face, bits of dust clinging to it. It wasn't quite how she wanted anyone to see her.
He pulled a handkerchief from his coat and wiped the worst of the mess away. "You like cutting things that close, or do you just have a thing for vampires?"
Two weeks spent thinking she was crazy while everyone denied the evidence of her own eyes and suddenly here was someone not just giving name to the nightmare, but acting like it was an everyday thing?
"No on both counts. I just had to be sure."
"Sure of what? What he was--or what you are?"
"What do you mean, what I am?"
His lips curved in a slight smile. "You'll find out soon enough. Here." He handed her a small box. "You'll be needing this. Until you find out why, though, you might want to think about avoiding the late nights."
He walked away; pausing when she called out, "Wait! You still haven't told me your name!"
"You can call me Liam. It's as good a name as any."
She watched him leave, thoughts flying through her brain too quickly to take hold. Not wanting to wait for a cab, she started walking. It was an hour's trek uphill, but at least it would give her a chance to think. She opened the box she'd been clutching. The large silver cross with its sturdy chain forced one thought to take firm root.
He'd been looking for her. He probably knew more about what was going on than she did. Of course, that wasn't saying much. Maybe she was losing her mind, after all.
She pulled the scuffed leather of the coat tight around her. The buzz of thoughts was fading, leaving her all too aware of the nervous clenching of fear in her gut and the taste of cheap scotch, blood, and ashes in her mouth. She was shaking so hard she could barely walk.
If she wasn't losing her mind, they were real. She'd killed two of them. She'd enjoyed doing it.
Her stomach turned in on itself, and she doubled over, splattering the scotch, blood, and bile on the pavement. He'd told her she'd find out what she was. She wasn't sure she wanted to know.
When she got home, she stared at the house for a long time before letting herself in through the basement window. The narrow city lot and carefully-tended garden looked all wrong, too peaceful and serene, the cross-gabled roof standing out too sharply against the pink-stained city night. Instead of looking like home, it looked like a facade from a community theatre production. She fell asleep still trying to force the image from her mind.
//The dream was different; wherever she was, it was warmer, the air heavy instead of crisp, and the terrain flat instead of rugged. She spun, arms and legs moving in ways she didn't remember learning. A quick spin and flip and a backwards jab took care of one of them. The dark-haired girl beside her took care of the other before flashing her a cocky grin. Turned around and they were in an alley, the red-haired creature from the club rushing them, but then he shifted and was someone else, someone human. Heard her voice--no, not her voice, but coming from her mouth--heard a voice scream "Faith! No!" as the blood pumped from the hole in his chest and spilled from his lips which were suddenly Liam's. "It's what you are" spilling out with the blood before he burst into flames.//
She woke up covered in sweat and still queasy from the night before. Fighting the urge to vomit, she dressed and stumbled upstairs to the bathroom. This time when she looked in the mirror, she didn't bother trying to find anyone other than herself.
Her father was waiting for her when she entered the kitchen. He watched with searching, reproachful eyes as she poured her coffee.
"Where were you last night, Tara?"
The quiet, clipped voice, accent more pronounced than usual, set a thousand alarm bells off inside her head.
"Don't attempt to play dumb with me, young lady. Someone rang for you late last night. You were not in your room when I went downstairs to inform you of that fact, and before you attempt to fob me off with 'I must have been in the bathroom', I heard you come in well after two. I'm only going to ask you this once more, and I expect an answer: where were you?"
"I was out."
"Without telling me or checking in? And you still haven't told me where you were. Tara, you know the rules."
She did. Even the new one: "do not mention the incident". There was nothing she could say by way of an explanation that wouldn't involve breaking it.
"As am I. I'm sorry you don't trust me enough to tell me whatever it is that you've gotten yourself into, but it has to stop. You'll move your things back into your old room by tonight, and until school starts up again, you're not to leave the house without me. I trust I've made myself clear?"
She'd expected as much. All things considered, house arrest was more of a relief than a punishment. She gave a nod of understanding and watched his face soften.
"Tara, I'm sorry I haven't been a better father. I don't mean to be harsh, but I'm at something of a loss as to how else to deal with this."
Nothing like a fresh punch of guilt in the gut to wake a girl up after a long night. She pressed a kiss on his forehead and ruffled his hair. "It's nothing you've done, Dad."
As true as the words were, she wondered why they rang hollow in her ears.
He'd had the same pit of terror in his stomach when he'd found her room empty as when she'd called him from the emergency room. When he'd entered her room after she'd come in and found her curled up under his old leather jacket, a fine layer of dust still clinging to its surface and the sharp end of a stick poking from one pocket, terror was no longer a strong enough word.
He'd been numb when she'd babbled her confession two weeks before, some part of him refusing to accept the obvious. He wished he was still numb and able to take refuge in denial.
Sleep proved impossible. Not for the first time, he found himself regretting the loss of his books. He knew of one or two places that might have something he could use, but none of them were open at three in the morning. Besides, most of what he needed to know was locked away inside his head; he just needed to write it down to jog his memory.
Three notepads and four cups of coffee into it, it struck him that Faith must be dead. He hoped, for her sake, that it had been quick. He supposed she could have died anytime during the past fifteen years, but he preferred to think it had been recent. If it hadn't been... well, he didn't want to think about it. All the girls who might have died in the name of a war he no longer believed in... he couldn't think about it.
The Council must be aware that a new Slayer had been called, and that it wasn't one they'd managed to find ahead of time. Tara had made her first kill a fortnight ago, and at least one since then. It was only a matter of time before they would manage to track her down; he thought it strange that they hadn't already. If it would do any good, he'd pack everything and run. Only the sure knowledge that they would catch up with them kept him from it.
He wished she would confide in him, but after his reaction to recent events, he couldn't blame her for not doing so. Bringing it up himself would only lead to questions he wasn't prepared, wasn't willing to answer. He looked down at his notepad, startled to notice that he'd let the pen rest against it until it a thick smear of ink had spread across the bottom of the page.
He stared at it, hoping to see answers in the pattern, but there were none. He turned the page and continued to write down everything he could remember from his training. No matter how much he knew, he feared it wouldn't be enough. He didn't bother to ask himself enough for what.
One thought kept forcing itself to the front of his mind, blotting out all others no matter how often he pushed it away. She could easily have been killed. She had to have known, and it hadn't stopped her. By the time she stumbled upstairs, pale and puffy, he was coldly furious.
He let her get a cup of coffee before he spoke.
"Where were you last night, Tara?" He was shocked by how much he sounded like his father.
She made a cursory evasion, and he listened as his father's voice berated her, demanding answers he knew she wouldn't give, watched as she took it all stoically. None of this would be happening if he'd been a better father, if he'd had some idea of what needed to be done.
He didn't realize he was saying as much out loud until she kissed his forehead.
"It's not anything you've done, Dad."
Except that it was. Things he had done, things he'd undone, things he hadn't done correctly. They were all a part of whatever tangled skein of fate was in charge of this mess. He smiled at her as best he could.
"I'll help you move your things back upstairs, then we'll watch a movie. I haven't had much of a chance to spend time with you lately."
He watched as Tara poured cereal and milk into a bowl and sat down across the table from him. She ate a few bites, then prodded the rest of it with the back of her spoon. She'd lost weight, not that she'd had any to lose, but she didn't seem interested in eating. There were dark circles under her eyes, and one side of her mouth was swollen, making her look more like a battered housewife than a teenaged girl. She pushed the cereal away and poured another cup of coffee.
"You should finish your breakfast, Tara."
She looked down at the bowl and pushed at the soggy mess. She raised her head and looked at him, eyes bruised and forlorn. "Daddy, make me pancakes?"
All stoicism and bravado had faded from her face, leaving just the frightened girl underneath. Faith must have been like that once. He should have known, but the Council had prepared him for dealing with the Slayer, not the girl. Had they bothered to prepare him for both, perhaps things would have been different.
He took the coffee cup and cereal bowl to the kitchen and dumped them both in the sink. He'd make them tea to go with the pancakes. Neither of them needed to be any more on edge than they already were.
The familiar ritual: warming the pot, measuring the leaves, pouring the water over them and waiting, had been neglected as of late. There hadn't been many opportunities to just sit down and have a quiet morning together. He doubted there would be many more in the days and weeks to come.
She added milk and obscene amount of sugar to her tea, and smothered the pancakes in an equally obscene amount of syrup. His teeth hurt just looking at it.
"Thanks, Dad." she said between bites.
"You're welcome. Would you like another batch?"
She could handle not going out. In fact, she was in favor off it. Groundings and curfews had never seemed more appealing. House arrest? The best invention since sliced bread. Sleep was still an uncomfortable tangle of memory and foreboding, but other than that, everything was fine. Or would be, if she could just keep telling herself that.
Tara lasted all of two weeks before starting to sneak out of the house again. She tried to play it safe at first, but avoiding the usual haunts meant she didn't have a huge amount of luck finding her quarry. After a week of bussing and hitchhiking to the trendy coffee shops of Capitol Hill, she went back to the familiar rotating series of warehouses. Every couple of nights, she found one. Every couple of nights she'd lure it some place secluded and go for the kill. And every night, he was there, watching her.
It made her feel a little safer, almost like she had a chaperone for these little hunting excursions. Neither of them made any effort to speak, although she made a point of making eye contact at least once a night, usually right before she lured her victim off the floor. For reasons she didn't want to examine too closely, she wanted him to see it happen.
There were other things she wasn't examining too closely as well. Things like why it was that she dressed up carefully before going out, her clothing too tight and her make-up just a little too strong, or why she felt her pulse quicken in a way that had nothing to do with fear when she slipped into the nooks and crannies with one of them. During the day, she made a point of studying for the upcoming school year and doing her chores without being asked. With her face scrubbed clean, and her figure clad in scruffy jeans and t-shirts, her daytime self and her nighttime self weren't connected by much more than a body.
It was easier that way.
She hadn't talked to Leigh or Emily in weeks, but she didn't really miss them. They'd just be in her way, anyhow. Besides, it was almost time for school to start up again, and she'd see them in class. The thought of school was another thing she was trying to avoid, as her summer hours weren't exactly going to fly when she had to be on campus by 7:05 and she really didn't want to deal with it. Too much crossover between night and day. As a result, she wasn't really prepared when the first day rolled around.
It wasn't that her classes were hard. Tara was just so tired that she had trouble understanding simple spoken English, much less reading books and handouts. Fourth-period library T.A. duties couldn't come fast enough. At most, she figured she'd be assigned some mundane book filing or have to listen to the new librarian prattle about said duties for the better part of an hour. Either way, it would be a welcome break.
She walked through the heavy double doors and into the homey comfort of scuffed Berber, humming fluorescent lights, and the soothing musk of a thousand well-thumbed pages. There didn't seem to be anyone around, so she rang the service bell at the check-out station and waited. When there wasn't a response, she rang twice more, her foot tapping with impatience.
A red-haired woman in a new-agey outfit poked her head out the office door. "Sorry! I was unpacking and didn't hear you come in. You're Tara, right?"
"I'm Ms. Rosenberg. You've figured out the part where I'm the new librarian, right?"
"Kind of, yeah. The whole adult-in-the-library thing gives it away."
"Come in and have a seat."
Tara wound her way around the counter and into the small room adjacent to it. Unlike the rest of the library, it looked fresh and cheerful. The walls were a pale spring green, and the overhead lighting had been eschewed in favor of a couple of torchiere lamps. She moved a box off of the spare chair and sat down. Ms. Rosenberg closed the door and sat behind her desk. She looked at Tara with a degree of excitement Tara wasn't used to seeing in a teacher. Maybe the library was in a state of extreme disorder, or maybe Ms. Rosenberg was a little off. Tara was pretty certain it was the latter.
"You know, I had a whole speech prepared, but I've kind of forgotten it, or, rather, decided it was a little dated and decided to just cut to the chase. Ever thought about your destiny? 'Cause, you've got one."
Tara blinked. Definitely the latter. "Umm... okay? So, what is it? Filing? Entering ISBN information into a database? Beating up kids with late fees?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of slaying vampires, though there will also be some of the first two. The beating up I don't think I can rightfully condone." The words tumbled from her mouth in a chipper rush that took a moment to decipher.
"Slaying vampires? Is this a joke?" Tara felt her hands clench and beads of sweat start to form in the small of her back.
"It's not a joke. You're the Chosen One, and, well, I'm kind of the one they've chosen to watch you."
"Chosen... who? What do you mean, watch me? Who's 'they'?"
"The Watcher's Council assigned me as your Watcher. I train you and help prepare you for slaying."
"Huh. Well, seeing as I already know pretty much everything I need to about killing them, I don't see where that's necessary."
Willow blinked. Okay, that wasn't quite the response she'd expected. Yes, it had been a couple of months since the death of the last Slayer, and maybe they'd been a little thrown by the who/what/where problem, but she hadn't anticipated that the new one would already be active in the field. This could be trouble. It was troublesome. Troubling, even.
She looked at the girl for some sign of what to do next. Cool blue eyes looked back at her from a face wiped clean of any expression except faint boredom. It was uncomfortably close to the look most often seen on Buffy's face in the months after the resurrection.
"Who's that? Your daughter?"
The subject change was abrupt, and it took Willow a minute to realize what Tara was talking about. She glanced at the black and white print in its beaded frame, surprised by how fresh the old familiar pain felt.
"No, I don't have any kids. That is--was--my girlfriend."
"Bad break up?"
"You know," she said slowly, "that's not the sort of question you really should be asking someone you've just met. But no, well, yes, but we got back together, and then she died. Her name was Tara, too."
Tara, this Tara, winced. "Sorry. Honestly, I normally do think before speaking. I guess it was just a bad choice of subject changes."
"Don't worry about it. Do you want to save the ooky-spooky destiny discussion for tomorrow so you can prepare a list of questions or something?"
"Okay then, let's start with cataloging, filing, and late fee policies."
They spent the rest of the period going over library policies and procedures and studiously avoiding saying the "V" word. When it ended, Willow watched as her new T.A. gathered her books from behind the counter and exited the library. She waited until the passing bell rang, then got up and locked the heavy double doors. She hadn't been so happy to see lunchtime since the apex of her Xander crush.
Nothing about Tara was anything like what she'd expected. Willow went back into her office, took a thick file out of her briefcase, and tried to figure out what she'd missed in her research. There were a few new things she hadn't had a chance to look at; maybe they held the key to the puzzle.
She started with school records. Tara Bardsley, date of birth: December 8, 2002--seven months and one day after Willow's life had shattered, time stopping and re-forming in a haze of broken glass, blood, and thick black ink. She'd saved two lives, not one, when she'd extracted that bullet--bonus points on the plus side of the cosmic balance sheet. It wasn't exactly news--everyone who knew Buffy well had learned to walk on eggshells around her in December, just like everyone knew to be extra-careful talking to Willow in early May--but it hadn't really clicked in her head until today.
Duh, Willow--it's all connected.
Father, Terence Bardsley. No new information there. She'd been trying for months to learn more about him, but he remained pretty much a cipher. All the background information checked out, but there was nothing in it to connect him to Buffy, and it just felt a little... off. Still, whoever he'd been a decade and a half ago had been pretty good with the track-covering. Mother, well, that fake identity wouldn't have been too hard to crack--Xander could have figured it out in less than an hour--Joyce Maclay.
School records all said the same thing: good student, tendency to slack off if not challenged, a pleasure to have in class. No record of behavior problems. A little digging showed she'd been involved in some sort of incident over the summer break--from the looks of the ill-gotten police report, a classic vampire attack thwarted.
She dug through the papers, frowning as she tried to find a pattern in the information and kept coming up short. It would be so much simpler if she could just call up Buffy and ask. Willow thought about it often enough that she'd even gone out and purchased some Lethe's Bramble, just in case it became necessary.
She didn't even feel all that guilty about it.
Parent-teacher night proved to be something of a revelation midway through. Walking through the doors of the library took him back to the Hyperion, to the last time bad news came in the form of a slight witch with appalling taste in apparel. There were certain differences--this time, she had no idea she was delivering it. He had no idea why he was so certain she was sent by the Council. Perhaps it was just that anything else would have been one coincidence too many, and he'd learned not to trust in coincidence.
"Hi, I'm Willow Rosenberg. You're Mr. Bardsley?"
There was no hint of recognition in her face, but of course, he no longer resembled the man she'd had a passing acquaintance with back when she was still little more than a child. Time had a way of doing that to people, and he supposed that for once, it was something of an advantage.
"Yes, I am."
"Tara's a good assistant. She's got a real thing for books. Does she get that from you or from her mother?"
As if she didn't know very well that Tara's mother... "From me, I'm afraid. Her mother isn't a part of our life."
He took a grim sort of pleasure in her obvious discomfort, and, as their allotted ten minutes wore on, an even grimmer sort in withholding the answers she was obviously hoping to draw out of him. On the drive home, he wondered absently if she was still in contact with Buffy.
There hadn't been any death notices in the Sunnydale newspaper, nor any notices of any kind--engagement, marriage, birth--with Buffy's name attached, though he'd seen all off the last three for Dawn. It was something he felt he needed to be aware of, for whatever reason. Though in all honesty, he knew very well what the reason was; it was the reason for most of his habits, and it was, unless he had very much missed the mark, sneaking out of the house just as he pulled up.
"What are you doing, Tara?"
She looked up at him, panicked and on the defensive. "Going out."
"On a school night, and without permission? Get back in the house. Now."
For a moment, he thought she'd defy him. Something in her eyes and the set of her shoulders told him she was willing to go through him if she felt it necessary. It flashed and was gone in a heartbeat, and terrified him. Then her shoulders slumped, and she went back inside.
"Where, if I might ask, were you headed?"
Tara stared at him, her face masked beneath heavy make-up, and her expression harder to interpret than an ancient prophesy. "I was going to go get coffee."
"We have coffee in the house, a ready supply of it."
"You know what I mean."
"No, I'm afraid I don't. I thought I was quite clear after the incident over the summer, but it would seem I was mistaken. If you'd like, I could install bars on your windows and a lock on the outside of your door."
She gave a tight, unpleasant smile before answering. "Go ahead, I dare you." When he didn't answer, she stood and made to leave the room, telling him as she did, "I can tell when you're bluffing, Dad. Still, next time, I'll ask."
For the first time in a very long time, he drank himself to sleep.
Inventing afterschool activities proved to be the ticket to freedom. It helped that she had a teacher's approval to do so. Tara still wasn't certain how she felt about having some sort of secret society in charge of her extracurricular activities, but if it helped her get out of the house, who was she to quibble?
Of course, she'd had to change her fighting habits (a lot more walking around and waiting, and a lot less going out in search of the dustable), and there was a fair amount of time spent just studying instead of fighting. Not that she didn't enjoy studying, but it didn't fill her whole being with a buzzing, thrumming heat like the fight did.
More like a buzzing, thrumming headache at the moment, actually.
"This is sort of a weird place to be the Slayer," Ms. Rosenberg was saying. "Most of the vamps you get here are imports."
"Why is that?"
The Watcher's enthusiasm was almost contagious. "Well, for starters, did you know that Seattle hasn't had any new cemeteries since 1908? And it has one of the highest cremation rates in the whole country as a result. So, not a lot of undead problems here, which is funny, because it's the closest you'll get to a Hellmouth without actually being on the Hellmouth."
"Slow down. What's a Hellmouth?"
Ms. Rosenberg grew even more animated. Tara hadn't thought it possible. "Well, pretty much just what it sounds like. Lots of ooky badness, end-of-the-world sort of stuff. It's also where I grew up, so I'm kinda fond of it in a weird Stockholm Syndromey way. When I was studying to become a Watcher, I thought maybe I'd see if there were other Hellmouths, and while Sunnydale remains the one and only, it turns out there are a handful of what you might call Hell Sinuses. I did my whole thesis on it. I have this theory that they run along geological fault lines, but it's still unproven."
Tara tried to turn her laugh into a cough, and failed. "Hell sinuses?"
"Smaller concentrations of demonic energy. Less with the apocalypse-ishness, and more with the easily-channeled-for-personal-benefit. Cases in point: Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft. The first shopping mall was birthed here, if you needed any more proof--gotta love the commercial applications of dark powers. So in some ways, you've got it easy."
"Well, the nasty stuff here is mostly integrated and not really a threat, therefore not really our problem."
"Good to know, I guess."
"Of course, there's always a catch. In this case, it's that the vamps you do have to take on are a little smarter and a little stronger than your average fresh-from-the-dirt type."
"That hasn't been a problem. Wouldn't new ones be like shooting fish in a barrel? If so, they don't sound like they'd be much fun."
She got a stern frown (or something that tried to be a stern frown--Ms. Rosenberg's face wasn't really the stern frown type) for that comment, but no rebuke other than the standard reminder that fun and killing weren't exactly things that should go together before she changed the subject. "So, ready for weapons practice?"
"When am I not?"
When they finished up with practice, Ms. Rosenberg surprised her by declaring that there wouldn't be any patrol that night. "It's time for mid-terms. You should study, and besides, I've already checked out the obits and hacked the coroner's office. Nothing's stirring that's not already up. I'll drive you home."
Tara walked around to the back of the house, then hurried to the alley. Just because there wasn't anything new on the horizon didn't mean there wasn't anything out there for her to kill. She wasn't quite dressed for it, but oh well. She could make do, and at least she had a weapon handy. It was still early, so she started walking. She had plenty of time. She was a few blocks from her destination when he stepped in front of her and spoke.
"You haven't been around much."
As usual, she hadn't heard him walk up to her. "Liam. I take it you've been looking for me?"
"I wouldn't say that necessarily."
"But you've noticed my absence, which implies a certain degree of awareness of my presence."
"I notice things. Doesn't mean there's any deeper meaning to it."
"Doesn't mean there isn't, either. What do you want?"
"Who says I want anything?"
"You're talking to me instead of just skulking in the shadows and watching me, so it seems as reasonable an assumption as any."
He shrugged and gave her a hint of a smile. "Doesn't mean I want anything in particular."
"Right, well, in that case, shall we just go back to the skulking and watching?"
Afterwards, she wasn't certain quite what had happened. One moment she was trading barbs with him, the next, they were surrounded. Maybe she'd let her guard down, maybe he wasn't the only one who'd been following her around. It didn't matter, because seven to two meant the odds weren't exactly in her favor, and she didn't have time to think about it.
Well, she'd been wanting a fight.
She took out two easily enough before she realized that Liam was fighting just as well as she was, if not better. When she took out the third, she got a good look at his face and froze; he was one of them. One left, excluding Liam. She dusted it almost as an afterthought as she rushed towards him.
He was pinned and she had her arms raised to drive the stake home before she realized he wasn't fighting her. Not normal behavior for a vampire. Not normal behavior, period.
"When? When did this happen?"
Laughter was the last thing she expected. "Two and a half centuries ago, give or take."
"You expect me to believe that you've been a vampire the whole time I've known you?"
"It's the God's honest truth." The hint of an accent slipped through with the words, a lilting memory, nothing more, ancient and dusty. It stopped her.
"What are you?"
"Just what you think I am."
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you right now." She meant it as a threat, but somehow, it came out closer to a plea.
"Because I have information you need, and because I'm not like them."
"Why should I believe you?"
"Because you know it's true. And, when it comes right down to it, because I could have killed you at any time over the last few months if I'd wanted to."
"That's hardly proof of anything more than a certain degree of patience, and you know it."
"I know a lot of things, but there's one thing I don't know. Maybe you can answer it for me, before you kill me, that is."
His voice grew cold. "Does your father know you're out doing this sort of thing?"
The unexpectedness of the question confused her. "Of course not. Why would he, and what business is it of yours? You give me a cryptic warning and some jewelry, watch me for weeks without speaking, and then, when I find out what you are, you ask me if my father knows what I'm doing? What the fuck?"
"How much do you know about him, Tara?"
She a spiral of unease start in her stomach and curl outward. "He's a teacher, doesn't really have much of a life, and he doesn't have any contact with any family he might have, if you don't count me."
"What about your mother, does she know what you're doing?"
"I don't have a mother."
"Everyone has a mother, Tara, and you're more like yours than most people. Your father knows it as well as I do. Ask him about Buffy. That should provide you with all the proof you need."
His words had a ring of truth to them that she couldn't begin to understand. She let him go, then ran all the way back home, the spiral rolling back in on itself until it formed a hard lump of dread in her gut.
The slam of the front door alerted him that something was wrong; Tara knew better than to endanger its leaded glass window that had survived earthquakes, neglect, and poor remodeling decisions on the part of previous owners. Wesley set down his book and went to see what had happened.
Since the night of the conference, he'd felt as though he were living in the eye of a hurricane. He'd used the lull to research obsessively and come to the conclusion that, as usual, there wasn't a bloody thing he could do to avert whatever tragedy was looming. It wasn't going to stop him from trying, but he recognized the futility inherent in the effort.
Tara was standing in the living room, covered in sweat and dirt, and looking as furious and lost and broken as anyone he had even seen, including himself, Angel, and Faith. They were outside the protection of the eye, and into the full fury of the storm. He braced himself as well as he could for what lay ahead.
She didn't speak for several minutes. Instead, she looked at him, her eyes searching for something. If he'd any idea what it was she was attempting to find, he'd have given it to her readily just to break the silence. The steady ticking of the mantel clock seemed to grow louder and fill the room, or perhaps that was just the thudding of his heart.
The question, when it came, was both unexpected and inevitable.
"Who's Buffy, Dad?"
He froze, staring at her with and expression she hoped she'd never see again. She couldn't tell what it was exactly--some horrible concoction of guilt, fury, and despair, and a little of something else entirely. He didn't look anything like the father she knew, this stranger with familiar features.
"Who have you been talking to, Tara?"
The expression was new; the voice wasn't. It was the same frigid diction that he'd used when he'd caught her sneaking out. Her stomach felt like she'd been swallowing hot coals, and no matter how much she wanted to believe Liam had been lying to save his skin, it was starting to look like that wasn't the case.
"Just answer the question: who's Buffy?"
"I presume you're simply asking for the sake of confirmation?"
"Don't. Don't you dare take that tone with me. I'm not one of your fucking students. I'm only going to ask one more time: who's Buffy?"
"Your mother. But then, you already knew that, didn't you?"
"She was like me, wasn't she? Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. She was cursed like me, and you knew it, and you didn't bother to warn me."
"There was no way of knowing--"
She cut him off. "You lied to me." She could feel her voice start to break and hated herself for it. "You let me think I was losing my mind. You put me in a position where I had to lie to you, had to hide who and what I was. But you've known the whole time, haven't you? How could you do this to me?" She was crying--sloppy, messy, runny-nose, dry-heave crying--and he was just standing there.
When he finally said something, she almost missed it. "I didn't want it to be true."
Tara wiped her face on her sleeve and laughed. "Which excuses everything, of course. News flash, Dad, I didn't want this to be true, either. I've been risking life and limb, and trying to hide it from you, trying to protect you from what I am, and now I find out that there was never any need. So I'm through with it. This is me telling you that I have to take off and patrol now. I imagine you know what that means. So glad I could be honest with you."
She walked away, half-expecting him to call her back so he could explain. He didn't, so she let herself out and closed the door with a frustrated bang for the second time that night.
At first he thought the sound was the echo of the slamming door. When he realized it was soft applause from the porch, he looked out the open window into a pair of familiar dark eyes. Lovely. It had wanted only this. He supposed he should be shocked, but that ability seemed to have vanished.
"How much did you hear?"
"Enough to know you just don't learn from your mistakes, do you Wes?"
"What do you want, Angel?"
"I want a lot of things. I want my son back, I want to play beach volleyball, maybe get a tan. And--oh yeah, I want you to suffer, just like I did. Come on, Wes. Admit it; you always wanted to be just like me. Well, now's your chance."
"She's not responsible for the sins of her father."
"Neither was Connor, but that didn't stop you or Holtz, now did it? You know, even after he took Connor, I didn't understand where Holtz was coming from. It wasn't until I had to destroy the monster he created that I finally got it. So I guess you could say what I really want Wes, is justice."
"Where does it stop? You took Holtz's family from him; he, with my complicity, took yours. Now in the name of justice, you want to take mine? What happens after that, Angel? She has a mother and an aunt, neither of whom would sit back idly if she were hurt, and they would find out, eventually."
"I'm not planning on hurting her, Wes, just taking her from you. Any pain she feels, you laid the foundation for a long time ago."
"You'll what? Take her under your wing after severing her ties to me? Let the Watcher's Council raise her? She's a fifteen year old girl. I'm all she knows; you'd destroy her."
"But she doesn't really know you at all, does she? I'd say if anyone's destroying her, it's you. An eye for an eye, a child for a child. Be seeing you, Wes." He tossed something through the window and vanished the moment Wesley bent to pick it up.
A neatly-tied roll of thick paper overlaid with a handful of lines of charcoal could, it seemed, slice into a person as neatly as a sharpened blade.
It hardly seemed a likely weapon. Soft cotton paper, soft lines portraying a face softened by a smile. A pretty picture of a pretty girl. One captioned in a careful hand: Delicta maiorum immeritus lues. It lacked a signature, but of course, it didn't need one.
He noted absently that it was a good likeness, one that under other circumstances he'd have framed and hung in the hallway with the collection of school portraits and snapshots. The teacher in him wondered if perhaps 2nd Samuel 12:14 would have been a more appropriate citation, but he supposed Angel wasn't the sort to spend a good deal of time with the Bible.
It wasn't the best time to be pedantic, but he couldn't help it. Pedantic was marginally better than panicked.
The confluence of events had hit such a level of absurdity that he found himself almost looking forward to the denouement.
The Council had found her, Angel had found them both, sixteen years of secrets were forcing their way to the surface like so many worms in a downpour, and all he could do was nitpick the choice of wording in an implied threat.
Perhaps he was looking for the devil in the details.
He stared at the face in the image, fingers tracing the grin he'd not seen in far too long.
She hadn't mentioned meeting a man who pulled smiles from her lips and put them on paper. Then again, she hadn't mentioned much of anything since the incident over the summer. He should have told her the truth, that what she'd seen was real, what she'd done was right. He should have told her something other than suggesting it was a trick of a scared mind seeing things in the dark.
But that would have meant admitting out loud that there were things from which he could not protect her, no matter how much he wished otherwise.
Angel wanted her to suffer for her father's transgressions. Wesley wondered if he realized it was already happening.
He checked the clock. It was quarter after ten. If recent events were any indication, she wouldn't be home for at least four more hours. He picked up the phone and dialed the number he'd gotten at the parent-teacher conference. There was no sense in putting off the inevitable; it was time to come out of hiding.
The voice on the other end was cheerful. "Willow Rosenberg speaking."
"This is Terence Bardsley, Tara's father? I spoke to you at the conference and you asked me to call you if I had any concerns?"
"Yes, I remember... how can I help you?" The tone was cautious.
"I'd like to meet with you to go over some issues that have come up with regards to Tara."
"Sure. I'm normally in my office until around 6:30 on school nights, if you'd like to drop by."
"I afraid it can't wait until tomorrow, Ms. Rosenberg. I'd very much appreciate it if you could meet me tonight. I know from Tara that you have our address. It would be in your best interest to hurry. Oh, and one more thing?"
"Kindly tell the Council they can fuck off. While you're at it, you may want to tell them to come up with something other than librarians for their covers in the future. It's a dead giveaway."
He hung up before she could respond.
He could tell the exact moment she figured out who he was. Her mobile features stalled like a car in the wrong gear, then slid from confusion to horror to comprehension. It was, he thought testily, somewhat insulting.
"Wesley? You're Tara's dad? I mean I knew that you were Tara's dad, cause, hey, met you already, but I didn't know you were Tara's dad. What? How? Why?"
"You've already answered the what of it, in the usual way, and as for the why, it's probably some sort of divine retribution. If you're finished with your litany of interrogative pronouns, could we please discuss the matter at hand?"
"Still kind of processing the whole 'You're Tara's dad' thing."
"Is it going to take you much longer?" he snapped. "I'm not certain I have a great deal of time."
Willow straightened and her face grew serious. "What are you saying?"
"I need you to answer some questions, before Tara returns from wherever it is she's run off to this time. Which, oddly enough, is not what concerns me most. She's done it in the past, although to the best of my knowledge, not since she's been under your command, and at least this time she informed me of her plans. What have you told her about who she is?"
"Pretty much the standard destiny speech, jazzed up for the 21st century. You should know it--after all, you did used to be a Watcher."
"You've told her nothing about her parentage? About--"
"About Buffy? What do you take me for? Buffy doesn't even know about this."
It confirmed what he had suspected: Angel had been the one to tell her. He took no comfort from the knowledge.
"Tara, as of sometime this evening, has learned about her mother. To say she isn't taking it well is something of an understatement, but there are any number of things she isn't taking well at the moment."
"She's been losing weight and sleep since the summer, her mood has been erratic, and even before this most recent revelation, she's been increasingly willful. It shouldn't be too difficult for you to see that she's not well-suited to being the Slayer. You always were the most intelligent of the lot."
Her expression softened slightly, a touch of compassion evident in the downward curve of her lips. "What do you expect me to do?"
"I need to know if there's a way out." There was no keeping the desperation from the words; he didn't even bother to try.
"You already know there isn't."
"It's killing her."
"As much as I hate to say this, that's part of the job description. Again, something you already knew."
"It's what I fear the most." One more monumental failure in a long list, and he couldn't be certain if it was a trick of the fates or punishment for his own arrogant attempts to thwart them. He felt like a bizarre combination of Job and Atreus.
"Wesley, I'm sorry."
He stared at her, trying to find something more to say without revealing everything. "There is more happening than just this," he finally settled on. "I'm afraid my past has decided now is as good a time as any to haunt me. I need you to keep a close watch on her, if nothing else."
She nodded, and turned to go.
"One more thing, Willow."
"If you put her in any unnecessary danger, or even necessary danger, without first informing me, I'll kill you."
He kept researching; Tara kept deteriorating. Her grades were slipping, she no longer bothered to hide her nighttime activities, and the updates he was getting from Willow were disheartening. He more than half-expected to get a call from the police, the coroner, Child Protective Services--or perhaps all three--at any given time.
Angel on his front porch was actually something of a relief, all things considered.
"What are you doing here, Angel?"
"Talking. Man to man. Trying to figure out what bothers me more: you having a child when you're the one responsible for the loss of mine, or the fact that you had her with my ex-girlfriend. Was one betrayal just not enough for you?"
"It wasn't about that."
"From where I'm standing, I can't see how it could be anything else."
"Contrary to what you seem to think, not every mistake I've made in my life has involved you, nor have my decisions been made simply for the sake of spiting you."
"Why is it I don't believe that?"
He shrugged. "Perhaps you simply don't want to believe it."
"Did you love her?"
"Buffy. Did you love her? Did she have a choice when you took her child?"
"So that's what this is about. I see. No, Angel, I didn't. Perhaps I could have, had the circumstances been different, but they weren't, and I didn't. My raising Tara was her choice; I do not envy her the making of it."
"When? How long?"
"After my stay in hospital. It was a chance encounter, and would have remained nothing more had it not been for the consequences. Then, for about five months surrounding her confinement and recovery. It was never about you, Angel. I was half out of my mind with despair and painkillers, and she was there. It isn't something I'm especially proud of, but there you have it."
"Did she know what you'd done, that you took my son?"
"Yes, she did. She knew everything. It seemed only fair."
"Why did you do it, Wes? Why didn't you tell me about the prophecy? Did you hate me that much?"
Wesley looked at him in disbelief. For someone with two and a half centuries of experience, Angel could be remarkably dim at times. He'd almost forgotten that aspect of him. "No, Angel. I loved you that much."
"You have an interesting way of showing love."
"Would you have believed me if I'd told you? Would you have set down your tiny hockey sticks, and listened to a word of it? Not one of you wanted to hear anything unpleasant, anything that would disturb your fantasy of him as a normal boy. Besides, even if I had told you, it wouldn't have stopped Holtz. I thought I was protecting you."
"From what? My demon urges, from a false prophecy? Tell me, Wes, what exactly was it you were protecting me from?"
"You still don't know, do you? From Holtz, Angel. He gave me twenty-four hours to take the child, and his word that he and his people wouldn't go after you or the rest of them. I was simply fool enough to believe him."
"Do you know what he did?"
"Connor. Would you like to hear how your noble rescue attempt turned out? It's not a pretty story."
He didn't want to hear it, but need and want were two very separate things. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"I thought I had him back. When he came back to the hotel, when he asked me to train him. I thought I'd gotten another second chance. Until he welded me into a box and tossed me into the Pacific with the help of Justine."
"I didn't know. No one bothered to inform me."
"Doesn't matter, does it? What would you have done?"
"Everything in my power. As I said, Angel, I loved you."
Angel winced almost imperceptibly and continued. "He stuck with Justine, until he started to scare her. Connor's ideas about right and wrong were all black and white. Maybe she was still feeling guilty about slitting your throat, but she ended up going to Fred and Gunn to tell them what she'd done. That's where things got ugly."
Wesley closed his eyes. "Go on."
"They found me, eventually, half crazed with hunger and hallucinating, but they found me. Then Connor found out. There was so much blood... I remember licking the floor, the walls, the bodies. It was still warm, still tasted of fear. Fred got me out of there, the same way she did in Pylea. Only she didn't have a bag this time; she used Justine's head as a lure."
"You said bodies, plural." No, he didn't want to hear this.
"Gunn and Justine. Only Fred made it out alive, and that's a mixed blessing. Her parents make sure she'd always have the best care, but it hasn't helped. Do you want me to continue?
"What I want is unimportant. Yes, continue."
"Not much left to tell, really. I tracked him down, told him I loved him, and snapped his neck. And the whole time, I remembered what he'd been like, what he'd smelled like, the feel of him in my arms, fast asleep with those little spit bubbles at the corner of his mouth."
Wesley looked at his hands, wondering why he couldn't see the blood on them.
"If you had it to do over, Wes, would you?"
"I'm not sure." He forced himself to meet Angel's eyes. "Even if I knew it would save you, save them, God help me, I'm not sure."
"Because then Tara would never have been born. She's all I have, Angel; for the sake of what once was between us, leave her be. You know what she is, and you know that the odds are against her surviving until her eighteenth birthday. If you want to see me broken, at least have the decency to wait."
He managed to keep himself together until Angel left, then he stumbled to the kitchen sink and threw up for a quarter of an hour.
She was letting things go further with each new kill. Body slack and passive, she let cold hands roam under her shirt and cold lips roam over her neck. And all the while, she kept her eyes open, glued to where he lurked in the shadows. Angel wondered if she was doing it for his benefit, or if she was daring him to save her. It wasn't like she needed saving; she'd perfected the art of staking in the back.
So far, she'd avoided his.
The outings weren't as frequent as they had been over the summer; regular patrol was probably taking up most of her time. He wondered what excuse she made to go and do things her own way. From the smell of her, she enjoyed this form of hunting a little too much.
"You can come out now, Liam. She's dust."
He stepped out of the shadows. "I'd noticed."
"You don't have to watch me, you know. Unless, of course, you're enjoying it."
"I can't say that I am."
"So stop." She smiled as she said it, and it sounded like more of a dare than a suggestion.
"You're going to get hurt if you keep this up. Someone has to keep an eye on you."
"I have a Watcher; someone already gets paid to keep an eye on me."
"Your Watcher's not doing a great job if you're still sneaking out and going to places like this."
"What I do on my nights off is none of her business. It's not really any of yours, either. But then, that's never stopped you, has it?"
"I thought we'd been over that."
"So tell me, what's your place in the passel of lies that seems to have formed my entire life? Why is it you've decided to be a noble pain in my ass?"
"Maybe I'm just a nice guy."
She raised an eyebrow in disbelief. He didn't know which one of her parents she reminded him of at that moment--or for that matter, why he felt like he'd been run through with a piece of rebar. Nostalgia and envy really didn't go all that well together, he figured.
"You remember that you're not even human, right?" No more taunting or daring, just a quiet statement of fact.
"I never forget it."
He had been, once. For a day. He'd given it up, and he still hadn't been there when it mattered. Buffy had died, and he'd moved on. She'd come back, and he hadn't. Maybe it was pointless, the struggle, the regret. Maybe if he hadn't given it up, Tara could have been his. Of course, maybe if he'd never tried atonement in the first place, a lot of people would be better off, and the New York City rat population would be half its current size. There were a lot of maybes in the world, and most of them he couldn't really do anything about.
"You really know how to push your luck, don't you, Liam?"
That threw her. "What?"
"My name is Angel. Liam is who I was, but not who I am." Not even all of who he was, just part. She'd stepped close enough to him that he could hear the steady beat of her heart, the blood pulsing through her veins, could smell her slowly-fading arousal. Angelus was still in him, still delighting in the sensations.
Tara simply shrugged razor-thin shoulders. "Whatever. It doesn't really matter, does it? None of it does."
"Aren't you a little young to be so nihilistic?"
"You said the same thing about me drinking, if memory serves."
"I was right about that, too."
"Why haven't I killed you? I should have, you know." The words were dull and broken.
"I already told you, you just didn't listen."
"Told me what? That you weren't like them, that you had 'information' I needed? How am I better off knowing that my whole life has been a lie? Couldn't you just leave well enough alone?" Buffy's voice, resigned and melancholy, spilling from Wesley's lips. He couldn't take it. Couldn't take it out on her either, though.
Being around her was like picking at a wound he'd have been better off letting heal.
"I guess not," he said.
"I don't need you looking out for me, or pretending to. I don't need someone else lying to me."
"What do you need?"
Bleak eyes devoid of hope met his. "To rest. I just want it all to stop."
Everything came together in his mind with an uncomfortable snap not unlike a dislocated limb being shoved back into place. It was a horrible, awful, terrible idea, one worthy of Angelus. And if it worked, a brilliant one.
If it didn't, well, he'd hand Wes the stake and dip it in holy water beforehand. It was the least he could do.
He woke to frantic pounding on the front door shortly after he'd passed out from exhaustion at his desk. Checked the clock--4:07. Had he remembered to tell her that he loved her? He couldn't remember. She hadn't been home in two days, and she hadn't checked in with Willow either.
It wasn't the phone. At least it wasn't the phone.
It was Angel, with Tara draped over his shoulder.
"Let us in, Wesley."
"What have you done?" He was shaking, wishing for some kind of weapon. "What have you done?"
"Wes, let us in. Please." Angel was starting to sound frantic.
"Why does she need an invitation into her own home?" His voice was much calmer than it had any right to be, given the circumstances.
There weren't words to describe the excruciating relief that shot through his body at Angel's obvious confusion. "She doesn't. I do, and I need to be here until I'm sure she's okay."
He grabbed hold of Tara before they were even through the threshold. She was warm, perhaps even a touch feverish, and breathing in shallow wheezing gasps. Thank God. He helped her to the sofa before rounding on Angel and repeating his question.
"What have you done?"
"What I needed to. I killed her."
Blind rage, it seemed, was not simply a figure of speech. When the fog cleared, Wesley was on his back clutching a broken chair leg, with Angel on top of him, his hands holding Wesley's arms against his sides.
"She'll be fine, Wes." Same quiet voice he'd used before he'd tried his hand with the pillow. Wesley heard laughter; it appeared to be coming from his own throat.
Words followed quickly on its heels. "What did you do?" He was incapable of asking anything else.
"Remembered an out. For her, for you. Who knows, maybe for me."
"Killing my daughter is an out?" He struggled unsuccessfully against Angel's bulk.
"You were a Watcher for two Slayers, Wes. You should know why I did it."
When he finally understood what had happened, he released the broken piece of wood and let Angel help him to a chair. When he was able to speak without crying, he called Willow to let her know what had happened.
It was an absurd situation; he wondered at the etiquette of it. There simply weren't any guides that would tell him what to say to a former friend, once deeply loved and then more deeply betrayed because of that very affection; an erstwhile compatriot who had returned the betrayal in kind, one who by doing so had perhaps freed them both. Lacking words, he and Angel watched Tara as she huddled under a blanket, eyes glued to the television.
It was Angel who finally broke the silence, his gaze never leaving the girl.
"Think she'll forgive me?"
"In time, perhaps. Given enough of it, she may forgive us both."
"Think you will?"
"Forgive you? I haven't decided. A large part of me wants you dead, but there's an equally large part that wants to thank you, and a very small part of me that thinks I deserved it."
"You didn't," Angel said quietly.
"Maybe I'm just getting old, maybe I had another epiphany. You asked me once where it all ends, well, this is where. Neither of us can change the past, Wes, and too many people have paid for mine. When it came down to it, I couldn't let that continue."
"You certainly chose to end it with a flourish."
Angel smiled a little sheepishly. "I do that sometimes. What about you, Wes? What will you do next?"
"That depends on any number of things, including the temperament of the next Slayer. Assuming she's better suited to the calling than Tara--which seems a fair enough assumption--we may end up going to England."
"The Council's offered me a position; it would be mostly research and translation, and training new Watchers. I've no doubt it's because I'm Tara's father--my career with them was, as you recall, a spectacular failure--but I could do some real good there. Willow says they've changed quite a bit in recent years. There seems to have been some trouble a while back that forced some major restructuring." He paused and took a sip of water. "Besides, I could be myself again."
"You could always come and work for me."
The offer was so unexpected, and voiced in such sincere, hopeful tones that Wesley couldn't help but laugh. Tara and Angel both looked at him: she with weary confusion, he with a sort of nostalgic affection.
"Angel, we'd kill each other within a week. Too much has happened."
Angel smiled. "Yeah, you're right. It has, and we would."
"Thank you, though. It's a lovely thought, but we can't go back to what we were."
The lull that followed was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. It just reflected the continued absence of adequate words for the situation. All the fear, all the dread, the panic, the anticipation--all of it was gone, leaving him drained and exhilarated. He'd felt this way before, just after Tara's birth.
"It's all come full circle, hasn't it?"
"What has, Wes?"
"All of it. My life, my career, Tara. It's all starting over again." He wondered if it made any sense to anyone other than himself. If he'd thought it possible, he'd have clarified, but there were other things that he needed to deal with before he could sort everything out in his head. "Angel, I need to ask a favor of you. I need you to look after Tara while I take care of something. Can I trust you to do that and not kill her again?"
"I'm stuck here until nightfall, so I think I can handle that, and she'll be fine. I might end up a pile of dust, but she'll be fine."
Wesley left them in the living room and went up to the attic. After moving aside the boxes of Christmas ornaments and old clothing, he pulled a small wooden box from the back of a shelf, then took it to his office. The box went in a larger plastic box already filled with journals and notebooks dating back nearly sixteen years. He stared at them, wondering if perhaps he should take out the more damning entries from the last few months, then closed it before he could do so. The truth would come out at some point; it made no sense to try and gloss over it.
He didn't bother to call ahead--Willow was almost certainly awake and trying to make sense of the previous night's events. She'd taken them almost as poorly as he had, although for reasons that were her own. As expected, she answered the buzzer with alacrity.
"Just a sec--looks like you've got your hands full. I'll come let you in."
She appeared at the door a minute later, her face drawn and her eyes red and shadowed. Once inside her apartment, she gestured towards the box and asked, "What's in it? And hey, why are you here? Shouldn't you be with Tara?"
"Angel's with her."
"Oh that's comforting. What do you plan to do next, tell her she should take up smoking or go play in traffic? 'Hey, Tara how 'bout I just let the guy who just killed you babysit?'"
"Willow, she'll be fine. He means her no harm."
"And you trust him?"
"I trust that he's telling me the truth when he says she'll be safe with him. If you don't, then let me do what I came here to do so I can rush back."
"Oh. Right. Good point. I guess what you came here for has something to do with the box?"
"I need you to take it to Sunnydale. There's no need to keep Tara hidden anymore. Obviously, the Council knows about her, as do any number of vampires and demons--although they may not be familiar with her lineage. I've no idea if Buffy is interested in the minutiae of her daughter's existence, or if it would be too painful for her to even look at, but she deserves the chance to decide for herself. I owe her that much, at least.
"It's mostly notebooks, although there are the requisite school portraits and family snapshots, as well as report cards, art projects, saved assignments, her baby teeth, a few locks of hair from her first haircut--those are in one of the notebooks, along with descriptions of the events and her reactions."
"So, kind of the world's biggest baby book?"
"Something like that, yes."
"It'll mean a lot to her. She doesn't talk much about Tara--your Tara, that is--but I can kind of tell when she's thinking about her, which is pretty often."
"Thank you. Would you also let her know, when you see her, that if she wants to get in touch with Tara, I won't stand in her way. If I do decide to take that job with the Council, I'll make certain she has access to our contact information."
Willow nodded. "I'll do that."
He set the box down and let himself out; it was time to go home.
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Minim Calibre
|Home/QuickSearch + Random + Upload + Search + Contact + GO List|