Thanks again to Ainon for her beta skills. I own practically nothing.
On the fifteenth floor of the Watcher’s Headquarters in downtown Chicago, Xander had built a small room, as well armored and insulated as the armory. It held a wall full of locked cabinets, a long workbench, and, at one end, an open area with a bare concrete floor, which had a pentagram painted on it. Willow liked to call the room Magic Central, and the only people who held keys to it were her, Giles, and Willow’s assistant, the slayer Kennedy. It was equipped to withstand any siege, and even featured its own air supply, bathroom, and first aid equipment.
Kennedy had been put in charge of magical supplies, which she thought was ironic considering she’d spent most of her life denying the existence of magic. Pretty much everybody assumed she had the job because she liked to hang around – and on – Willow. Pretty much everybody was right.
But there was one other person who had no trouble getting into the place.
Kennedy was doing inventory when that person walked through the door. Not opened and walked through – just walked through. Her clipboard flew through the air, but otherwise she thought she handled it pretty well.
“Sorry.” Looking startled herself, Tara caught the clipboard in midair.
“You can knock now, you know.” Having Tara around could be weird enough, without these occasional shocks to the system. Luckily, Kennedy had brought in a CD player; the Latin dance music made a ghost’s appearance somewhat less frightening than silence would have.
“You’re right – I keep forgetting.” Tara gave Kennedy that shy, apologetic smile, guaranteed to melt anyone. In fact, that smile was one of the reasons Kennedy had gotten herself into her present situation.
“Doing inventory?” Tara asked, looking at the clipboard.
“Yeah. Lucky for you I got that job. So … are you here for …?”
Tara glanced around a bit guiltily. Hardly surprising, considering how much trouble they both could get into for not clearing this with Giles – or Willow. “I don’t think so.”
“Good, because it’s hard for even you to sneak replacements in for the items we’ve been using.” She tried to sound severe – she’s been involuntarily drafted into this whole thing, after all – but in truth, she was curious about whether their experiment would work. Especially after she started researching, and discovered things even Tara didn’t know. “So – no backsliding?”
Tara shook her head. “Just the opposite. When that Angorrah Demon attacked us in Vermont, I wasn’t able to concentrate enough to avoid its venom.”
“You mean mucus.”
“I prefer calling it venom.” Tara made a face. “It actually burned me. I don’t think I’ve felt pain since I died, but that really hurt, and I had to leave to get it off.”
“But you healed?” Kennedy had been wondering about the effect of injuries under Tara’s new condition.
“I desolidified, and when I went solid again the burns were gone. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d stayed solid.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know about this.”
“I guess that’s why I’m here.” Tara perched on one of the stools lining the work bench, and rested her forearms on the hard wood surface. Kennedy still found such mannerisms strange – she could only picture ghosts as floating along, connected to nothing. But then, Tara wasn’t exactly a ghost anymore, was she?
When Tara turned to her, Kennedy could see worry in her eyes. “I have to know it’s permanent. Sometimes spirits just disappear, get drawn away. It almost happened to Spike. I like it here, and I have responsibilities –“
“Wait a minute – are you the one who called Spike?” Knowing someone had called the Wolfram and Hart L.A. offices from his office phone had been driving Giles nearly insane for weeks.
Tara clapped a hand over her mouth, but couldn’t disguise a giggle. “No, I took a trip over there to see him, when I found out he’d become solid. It was Dana who called him.”
“What?” Dropping the clipboard on the bench, Kennedy leaned forward. “Dana called Spike?”
“Please, don’t tell anyone. Dana thinks nobody knows.”
“But – why?”
“She wanted to apologize for cutting his hands off.”
“Huh.” Just imagining how that conversation went made Kennedy smile. “Her secret’s safe with me. I’ve been keeping a lot of secrets, lately.”
“I’m sorry,” Tara said, her face reddening.
“Don’t worry about it.” Using the key she kept on a chain around her neck, Kennedy opened a cabinet and took out what looked very much like an oversized “Star Trek” tricorder, and worked much the same way. “It’s not the first time I’ve kept secrets.”
Without hesitation, Tara unbuttoned her white silk shirt and pulled it off, an act that Kennedy found more disturbing than being alone in a room with a dead person. Beneath the shirt was a white lace bra. Did ghosts need bras? Or was it one of those acts of normalcy that the not quite departed spirits needed, to root themselves to the real world? And why, when she had spent all her life never hesitating to speak what was on her mind, did Kennedy have trouble asking such questions now?
Kennedy began hooking wires to the instrument. One clipped over Tara’s index finger, and another to her ear lobe. Still another led to a cuff around her upper arm. The slayer brushed Tara’s hair aside to patch leads to both sides of Tara’s upper chest, and another to her left side.
Tara shivered. “Those are cold!”
Cold? She’d never complained of that before. Touching Tara’s arm, Kennedy was surprised to find it a great deal warmer than the surrounding room temperature. “When you were alive, what was your normal temperature?”
“Ninety-seven point eight. But now I draw heat instead of putting it out, of course.”
Looking at the tricorder – Willow and Andrew had designed it, and never gotten around to giving it a name – Kennedy noted the temperature reading: 97.8. She ran a hand down Tara’s arm, then across her back. Warm.
“What are you doing?” Kennedy jerked her hand away, but Tara didn’t look uncomfortable – just curious.
“You’re, uh, hot. I mean, giving off heat.”
“Really? I shouldn’t be.”
“We don’t know much about the spell’s long term effects.” This worried Kennedy. Tara, dead or alive, was a knowledgeable Wicca, but far from the most knowledgeable, or the most powerful. “Look … I know you don’t want to involve –“
But Tara quickly shook her head. “I don’t want Willow to know about this. She’ll freak out, and feel guilty, and it would screw up your relationship with her.”
“I appreciate your concern.” In fact, she felt like fainting from relief to realize they shared the same fear.
“She loves you, but she’d feel loyal toward me. It would tear her apart.”
“Well, we could do the threesome thing. Lesbian, ghost, lesbian. Do you snore? Hog the covers?” False bravado, Kennedy thought. All her life, she’d only had two public faces: over confidence and false confidence. If the first didn’t get her through, she’d lean on the second.
“I’m very cuddly,” Tara said with a smile. “But of course, you and I both know that wouldn’t work.”
Kennedy ducked her head down, pretending to study the tricorder’s readouts. Willow had never come right out and said it, but the slayer could read between the lines. Tara had been cuddly, and gentle, and all the things Kennedy was not. She even had incredibly smooth, pale skin, the type that a person would want to touch all day. Was she like that before, or could she make herself look as she wanted, just as she could appear in any clothes she wanted?
It wasn’t, Kennedy supposed, uncommon to be jealous of a past love. But how common was it for that past love to come back from the grave? And why was she helping Tara become something that might someday take Willow away from her?
She stared, unseeing, at the readouts, remembering the book she’d found while researching the spell they did together. A book about spirits. A book that had a whole chapter on how to get rid of spirits. Quickly. Sometimes quietly.
Her eyes focused again, staring at an electronic display. It said, 76/76. Come to think of it, hadn’t the spirit before her just blushed?
Tara, the spirit, had a blood pressure. Not a heartbeat, but a blood pressure. That helped explain the warmth – blood was again moving through her body, somehow – although it still didn’t explain how the warmth was being generated.
Swallowing, Kennedy examined the other displays. Electrical activity, blood pressure, body temperature … reaching out, she shaded Tara’s eyes with her hand. The pupils dilated.
“What’s wrong?” Tara asked, looking frightened. “Have the readings changed?”
The spell had never been used this way before, and there was really no way to tell what the end product would be. Tara wasn’t alive, but it seemed she was no longer dead, either. The internal furnace in her body had reignited. “Tara, are you hungry?”
“Am I --?” The spirit – if spirit she still was – tilted her head. “Well, I’ve been craving food, but I don’t know if I’d call it hunger. I don’t know what would happen if I tried to eat. Would it be like “Casper”, with the food falling straight through me? Or would it get stuck inside?” She looked queasy at the idea.
So, Tara hadn’t gone to the bathroom. But, she hadn’t eaten either, or drunk anything, so the process of digestion hadn’t been restarted – if it could be. Could it be? How far would this go?
What would Willow say if the love of her life became, in all ways that really mattered, alive again? Even Tara understood the possible consequences of that.
“Everything’s fine.” Kennedy walked over to a cabinet, one in which she’d stockpiled some special supplies earlier. It contained a small jar with a mix of herbs, a hunting knife, and a single book – the book about spirits that she’d found earlier. She unlocked the door, reached in, and removed the jar and the knife. “Just a few more tests to run. A few tests, to see how this will end.”
“Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” Tara, busy craning her neck to see the tricorder readouts, didn’t watch Kennedy approach.
“I have an experiment,” Kennedy said, holding the jar and knife behind her back. “Close your eyes and stick your tongue out.”
“A taste test?” Looking amused, Tara followed directions. Her tongue, Kennedy noticed, was moist: Tara was salivating.
Kennedy sprinkled some herbs on the table, brought the knife up, and chopped the mix into still smaller pieces. Then she pinched a bit between her thumb and forefinger and sprinkled it onto Tara’s tongue.
“Ack! Eugh!” Reeling back, Tara spit desperately until Kennedy handed her a cup half filled with tea she’d poured earlier. Tara swallowed it, right down to the dredges, ignoring the fact that the liquid had cooled to room temperature. “Ew! What was that?”
“The fixative from the last spell we cast. I had a little left over.”
Looking horrified, Tara tried to take another drink, but the cup was empty. “But I inhaled the smoke from burning that! It’s not supposed to be eaten!”
“Relax. I did the research – it’s perfectly harmless. I was just testing your taste buds.”
“They work.” Tara still looked as if she’d swallowed a bug.
So they did. Touch, taste – all her senses were back, which meant there was one more thing to do. Taking a breath, Kennedy removed all the wires, then moved the knife and jar aside and motioned to the table. “Lay down on your back, please.”
“One more test to do. Trust me – you put me in charge of the researching, remember? I know more about this spell than whoever – or whatever – created it.”
Looking doubtful, Tara scooted herself onto the workbench and gingerly lay back. She looked trusting and defenseless, still without a shirt, her bare legs visible between the hem of her skirt and the top of her black boots. “Whatever you’re going to do, hurry up – this counter is freezing.”
Kennedy did have to hurry, before she lost her nerve. Not to mention, proper timing was vital. She’d read both the spell books related to this situation, all the way through. This was a critical moment, and she knew exactly what to do that would make a permanent difference – one way or another.
This time she went to a shelf by the door, and quickly pulled out a first aid box and a yellow case the size of a small laptop computer. She hit the “on” button, hooked wires to the case, and peeled stickers from two pads that she stuck to Tara’s chest and side.
“Now, be very, very still. Try not to breath.” Tara had been breathing, although Kennedy wasn’t sure she’d realized it.
“Okay, but –“
“Trust me” Kennedy glanced at the wall clock.
“Checking,” the machine spoke. “Don’t move the patient.”
Tara blinked. “What?”
“Just hold still.” Kennedy, her heart racing, took a deep breath and held one hand over a red button on the machine.
“Shock advised. Charging.” An alert tone rose in volume.
“What?” Tara said again.
Someone knocked on the door. Kennedy looked at the clock again – Tara was late for afternoon class.
“Give shock now.”
Kennedy pushed the button.
The electric charge made Tara’s muscles contract, and her body jumped as her back arched. An eerie groan emerged from her open mouth, as the force of the jolt forced air from her lungs. Then she flopped back down on the bench and lay still, her eyes open and staring, unseeing, at the ceiling.
The knocking on the door turned to a rapid pounding. Someone outside had enhanced hearing, and now knew something was very, very wrong.
“Checking,” the automatic cardiac defibrillator said. “Don’t move the patient.”
Grabbing up the knife, Kennedy Cut off Tara’s bra, exposing her chest. Hesitating for only an instant, she sliced into her own wrist, then held her arm over the still form before her. Blood spilled out, pooling between Tara’s breasts, while Kennedy chanted in Latin.
The door crashed open and three figures hurtled in, then came to a shocked halt in the entrance.
“Stop there!” Kennedy yelled, brandishing the knife.
“What are you doing?” Kara yelled back.
“Shock advised,” the machine said. Kennedy pretended to ignore it, but she was remembering her CPR class: Four to six minutes before brain
damage started, no more.
“Is she –“ Dana took a step forward and then froze, staring at Tara’s upturned face.
“She’s not breathing,” the Buffybot whispered. “She was breathing before.”
Staring at the blood, Kennedy intoned, “Gods and goddesses of heaven and earth, hear me. A rival makes a plea. We sacrifice to thee.” Now she turned, looking at the three females standing, horrified, before her. “Will you die for her?”
“Die?” Dana repeated, her voice shaking.
“Answer in the presence of the lords of all dimensions. Will you die for her?” Kennedy held the knife out, aimed toward them. “It’s now or never.”
“If she’s not worth it to you – if you don’t care enough to endanger your own lives for her – she can’t come back again. Not ever.”
Kara shook her head. “But what –“
“There’s no time.”
The world seemed to freeze for a second, with the four figures standing in the room as still as the one who lay, dead, on the table. Then Dana stepped forward, pulled her sleeve back, and held an arm out over Tara’s body.
“I will die for her.”
Without hesitation, Kennedy leaned forward and sliced into Dana’s arm. While blood rained down onto Tara, mixing with her own, Kennedy looked to Kara. “We need the blood of three: a rival, a mystic and a virgin.”
Hurrying to stand beside Dana, Kara held her arm out.
The knife, now stained with red, did its work again.
They were silent for a moment, the three of them, as their blood flowed over Tara’s still body. Behind them, very quietly, Buffybot whispered, “I don’t have any blood.”
“It’s okay, Bottie,” Kennedy told her. “It’s already working. Look.”
The pool of blood faded, as if soaking into Tara’s skin, then disappeared.
“That’s it.” Spinning around, Kennedy grabbed bandages from the first aid box and threw them to Dana and Kara. “Stand back!”
They did, looking confused, and as soon as they were clear of the bench Kennedy punched the red button on the automatic defibrillator. Tara’s body jumped again, and a streak of bluish light played over her form for an instant; then it was gone, and she lay still.
An hour later Tara still lay on the bench, with four other females hovering over her in various stages of exhaustion. They’d backed away only long enough for Buffybot to properly dress the knife wounds.
“It’s been a long day,” Kennedy finally said, which brought scowls from the other three.
“You’re telling me,” came a barely audible voice from the bench.
They looked down to see Tara had finally regained consciousness, and the walls almost bulged outward from the communal sigh of relief. “How are you feeling?” Kara asked, taking her watcher’s hand.
“I feel … really bad.”
Kennedy glanced back at the tricorder, which she’d reconnected after removing the defibrillator. Temperature 87.5, blood pressure 106/60, respiration 16, pulse –
Pulse. A nice, steady 76.
She turned back to find Dana staring daggers at her. “You said we’d die,” the slayer accused, holding out her bandaged arm. “We’re not dead.”
“I didn’t say you’d die. I asked if you’d die for her. You had to be absolutely committed, or it wouldn’t work.”
“What wouldn’t work?” Bottie asked.
Tara, who was now cushioned by a pillow and covered with a blanket, looked up at her. “The spell was just supposed to make me more solid.” Her voice remained weak, but color had begun to spread back into her face.
“Not that spell. Another one, which I found while researching the idea.”
“What idea?” Kara demanded.
“I wanted to be real,” Tara told her. “I thought it would help me to be a better watcher, if I was visible, and solid all the time.” She turned to regard Kennedy, who was relieved to see no anger in her eyes. “What did you do? I can’t be alive again.”
“Well, not exactly. I used your spirit, and the magic within you, to construct a new body. It’s similar to the way Dawn was turned from a ball of energy into a real person. You’re still a spirit – but you’re a spirit within a flesh and blood construction. If the books are correct, you’ll still have that side of you that can commune with the spirit world, but you’ll breath and eat, feel and hurt – it’s a loophole, you see. You’re not alive again – but you are.”
Tara stared at her for a moment. Then she let go of Kara’s hand and reached out to take Kennedy’s. “Why did you do this?”
“Because …” Kennedy swallowed and looked away. This was the part she’d feared the most. “Because once I knew it could be done, I knew it was what Willow would have wanted.”
Tara squeezed her hand, but Kennedy barely noticed. She was thinking of how things would change, now that her life with the woman she loved was over.
“Willow can never know,” Tara whispered.
“You gave me what I wanted. Now I’m giving you what you need. I’ll be all right. I have my friends, and my job, and I’ll have the memory of what you did for me. But I couldn’t go back to the way things were, not even if you weren’t here.” Tara gathered her strength, and spoke more forcefully. “Willow can never know.”
Kennedy nodded, and used her free hand to wipe a tear from her cheek. It seemed they’d both been given a gift, today. “Okay.” Then, because she never liked to show her feelings, she shifted attention to the star of the day. “Your new heartbeat’s getting stronger. How are you feeling?”
“Like I was someplace else, in a dream.” Tara pointed at Kara. “You were there, with your brains.”
She gestured toward Dana. “And you were there, with your heart.”
She turned to Bottie. “And you were there, with your courage.”
Finally Tara looked again to Kennedy, who wondered if she was to be Toto or the Wicked Witch. But Tara said, “And you – you’re not a humbug at all. You’re both a good person and a good wizard.”
“You’re delirious,” Kennedy said, her voice shaking. “And you’re human, so I guess we have to take care of you, now. Can we get you anything?”
Tara’s smile widened. “Chocolate.”