Breakfast that morning was a silent affair. Tara and Donnie sat at the table while their father busied himself at the stove. The smell of bacon and eggs filled the air with a rich scent but only Donnie looked excited at the prospect of eating it.
Tara sat and stared at her plate until her father slid her food onto her plate. A generous slice of bacon and scrambled eggs that failed to stir any desire to actually eat. As he moved around the table to Donnie, Tara looked up him closely. He was so old! There were deep lines creasing his forehead where less than half a year ago there had been none. Even his tousled blonde hair had now lost its shine, looking dulled with age. A few grey hairs had now begun to appear at his temples. Tara poked absently at her eggs. It was her fault that he looked so old.
The family's cosy little world had collapsed on the day the police came to tell them about Mrs Maclay. As if losing a wife and mother were not bad enough, Tara had been taken away by the military. The months spent being studied, away from her father and brother, had been horrible beyond description. Yet even after she had come home things had been far from normal. The small girl was terrified, at every moment expecting the strange men in uniforms to swoop down and take her away again. Although the next time they would not let her go... ever
"Eat up sweetheart," he father urged.
Tara looked up, he was attempting a smile. She stabbed half-heartedly at a piece of bacon and put it in her mouth, chewing as though it were a tasteless piece of cardboard. She then gently placed the fork on the side of her plate.
"I'm not hungry Daddy," she whispered, her stomach felt as though it were churning.
"I'll eat it!" Donnie piped up, his appetite the healthy one of a young boy fast approaching manhood.
Tara pushed her plate across the table to her brother and took a small sip of her juice instead.
Robert Maclay looked worriedly at his young daughter. Ever since she had returned she had been withdrawn, her appetite almost non-existent. He sighed and looked back to his son who was polishing off the last of Tara's bacon. If anyone could succeed in pulling Tara out of her misery it was her older brother.
Robert glanced up at the clock on the mantel and rose to collect the lunch tin from the kitchen bench. He knew that Donnie would forget it if he did not put it in his satchel.
He managed a small smile as Donnie pushed his plate aside, sculling back his juice, "Hurry up or you'll be late for school son."
"Isn't Tara coming as well?" Donnie asked with a glance at his little sister.
"No... not for a while at least," their father replied quietly.
A few minutes later Tara watched as Donnie waved goodbye over his shoulder before he broke into a run to catch up with his friends who were further down the road. She sighed and looked up at her father standing next to her on the porch.
"Daddy," she whispered quietly, "I want to go back to school."
"But don't you want to stay here with me?" he asked gently.
Tara wanted to say that she missed her friends and her teacher but she just smiled and slipped her hand inside her father's huge, leathery one. She gripped it tightly.
"Of course Daddy."
Later that day, both Donnie and Tara were attending to their chores around the family farm. Tara sat astride a fence as she polished the saddle in front of her. Donnie was shovelling manure with a scowl on his face... it was not his favourite chore.
"How was school? What did you learn?" she asked to break the awkward silence that had been hanging between them.
"It was boring," Donnie wiped his brow with the back of his hand, "School's always boring... I don't understand why you don't think so as well."
"I like school," Tara shrugged.
"Aggie, Francis and that freckle-faced girl were asking after you at lunch. Your friends are such giggling idiots..."
"You like Aggie," Tara replied knowingly.
"I don't like little girls!" Donnie snapped, although a grin was beginning to form on his face.
He stood the shovel up against the wall and admired his handiwork in the corral with a sigh of satisfaction, "Come on, I'm done... let's go inside, wash up and then you can do my homework for me."
"Really?" Tara asked eagerly.
"Sure," Donnie reached up and helped Tara down from her perch.
Tara woke, she was shivering and soaked in sweat from head to toe. Her breath came in short, frantic gasps as though she could not get enough air. It had been the worst nightmare by far... she had watched as the big, scary monsters had killed her Daddy and Donnie. Everything had seemed so real, their screams... her own helplessness. She shifted uncomfortably and realised with embarrassment that she had wet her bed for the first time since she was an infant. Tara sniffed back the tears that threatened to come and shuffled out of bed. Feeling even younger than her years, Tara padded out of her room and down the hallway to her fathers room. He slept in the big bed which he had once shared with her Mommy. Maybe she could sleep the rest of the night tucked in his arms, at least that way she would feel safe.
She stopped in the doorway, faint light revealing nothing but shadows. It was eerily quiet... her Daddy usually snored softly.
"Daddy," she spoke up clearly as she moved farther into the room, closer to the bed, "Daddy..." she lowered her voice to a whisper in case Donnie was awake and overheard her, "I wet my bed."
There was no sound from the bed. She felt blindly and her hands found the edge of the mattress. She keep moving upwards until she found a foot. Tara shook it but still there was no response.
"D-daddy?" she ran her hand up his leg but something was wrong.
Tara drew her hand away and felt something hot and sticky covering it. She began to tremble uncontrollably as she tried to find the lamp. Her foot kicked the dresser and she yelped in pain. Her hand closed over the shape of the lamp and she flicked the switch on. The room was bathed in a soft light... and yet darkness met her gaze.
Her father lay on his back in a pool of blood on the bed. Sightless eyes stared up at the ceiling, mouth slightly open as though he was surprised. Tara ran her eyes over his body, his stomach was a mess of intestine and torn flesh... there was so much blood everywhere. Tara stared at the horrible sight in shock for a few moments while she was trying to comprehend what she was seeing. He was dead...
Tara fell to the floor in a limp heap and her stomach heaved, she vomited on the floor and lay dry-heaving for several minutes. She then stumbled to her feet and ran in an awkward lurching gait to Donnie's room.
"Donnie, Donnie, wake up!" she flicked on the light switch and was met with a similar sight to the one in her father's room.
Tara took a few steps towards the bed, willing that what she was seeing was all some kind of illusion... or even a nasty trick. It was not so...
She stumbled back into the hall, her eyes darting from her brother's doorway to her father's. She had to do something, call someone. The doctor? Tara finally let out a broken sob... they did not need a doctor, they were dead! The sobs then came fast and furious until she started choking. She collapsed to the floor and huddled into a ball, rocking backwards and forwards.
<It's a dream... they're okay, it's a dream...>
She repeated it over and over yet knowing full well that her nightmare had become a reality. Her whole world had been ripped out from beneath her and nothing would ever be the same again.
Willow stood casually with her arms folded as Giles briefed them before their very first actual flight in the Guardian. The group of pilots stood shivering on the side of Angel Island's runway as the bespectacled scientist offered them a few last words of wisdom. Given that they had already spent the last two weeks undergoing extensive training on every aspect of the jet-propelled aircraft, there was very little he could say now that would make any difference.
Willow was itching all over, she just wanted to be behind the controls that she knew so well yet had never actually tested in flight. She was fairly bouncing on the balls of her feet in anticipation, willing Giles to hurry up with his spiel. She stood next to Tara, the blonde as calm as ever, especially in light of what had happened between them during the past two weeks. The brass had predictably turned a completely blind eye to their very continued relationship. Willow and Tara were able to blatantly flaunt their love for one another... well, as much as too women who wanted to be private about their relationship could possibly flaunt it. They knew they were being watched closely and yet both had since ceased to care as long as they were allowed to be together.
On a more personal note, Tara had begun instructing Willow on ways to stay safe while she walked the dream plane at night. Tara was sure that the LGFs could sense fear, it drew them like moths to a flame. While it was almost impossible to ask Willow to not be scared at finding herself in a place where monsters hunted to kill, she knew at least that she could mask her fear by holding on to images of Tara.
Willow was beginning to get an idea of the randomness of the dream walks when two weeks passed and she had not been drawn in once. This was despite falling asleep in Tara's arms every night of those two weeks. Hence the reason the redhead was feeling almost perky that morning.
She glanced across to Tara, fearing that Giles would never shut up, to find a dark mask over the blonde's face. Her usually expressive blue eyes were stony, cold. When Willow reached out a gentle hand and laid it on her shoulder Tara flinched away.
"Baby?" Willow asked in a whisper.
Tara looked at Willow and blinked as though she had just been somewhere very far away. Her eyes were misty but they quickly cleared.
"Are you alright?" Willow asked softly.
"Yeah," Tara replied in an uncharacteristically vacant voice.
Willow frowned concernedly and tried to touch Tara again. She eased her gloved hand into Tara's, fingers gently prodding their way between hers. Just as she thought Tara was going to clench her fist and shut her out completely, the fingers relaxed and gradually entwined. Willow tightened her grip in what she hoped was a reassuring gesture.
One corner of Tara's lips curled upward ever so slightly, "You're cute when you're concerned... I'm fine, really... just got lost in my thoughts for a little while."
Tara's smile was infectious and Willow found herself responding with one of her own. Mischievous thoughts floated unbidden, but certainly not unwelcome, into her head.
"Captain Rosenberg," Giles suddenly turned his attention to Willow and the red head looked away from Tara with a fright, Giles continued with a hint of amusement in his voice, "Since you seem to be so intent on being somewhere else then you can be the first to go up."
Willow gaped for a split second before a grin spread across her face, "Cool."
Tara stood on the wing while she strapped Willow into the cockpit of the Guardian. She resisted the temptation to lean down and plant her lips on Willow's in a manner most unbecoming professional fighter pilots. She had to settle for a tight-lipped smile that betrayed her nervousness.
"Okay, Will... no stupid stunts alright?" she double checked the straps to make sure they were as tight as possible. Willow gave her a 'look' and Tara managed an uneasy grin, "Alright hot shot... no life-endangering stunts then. I'd rather have you back to me in full working order."
Willow grinned and winked playfully, Tara patted her on her helmet before jumping down from the wing. She turned and waved even as Willow slammed the cockpit shut. She ran back to the side of the runway to stand with Giles and the other pilots.
"Fingers crossed," Giles said in barely a whisper.
Tara looked up at him sharply, "Fingers crossed?"
"Well... it is a very tricky aircraft to handle and there has not been near enough time for the proper training... I'm just curious as to how this flight will go..."
"Giles!" Tara snapped, thumping the scientist in the shoulder.
Anxious eyes turned back towards the jet. The engines had since fired up and it was taxiing to the end of the runway. Tara held her breath as the engines gunned in a deafening roar, she could just see Willow in the cockpit. She felt the urge to run out into the middle of the tarmac and stop the plane from taking off, stop Willow from flying in that death trap.
With a roar it swiftly accelerated, shooting past the onlookers and then up into the sky. It climbed sharply and at the top of it's climb banked sharply and circled the airfield smoothly. Just as Tara's racing heartbeat was slowly beginning to return to normal the plane flipped over suddenly and she let out an involuntary squeal. Heads turned to look at her before turning back as the Guardian performed a perfect barrel roll
"Oh... my... god," Tara whispered, "She's trying to give me a heart attack."
Even in the pale winter sunlight, Tara had to squint as she watched the now tiny shape high above their heads. She watched as Willow rolled the jet over onto it's back and then down into the beginnings of a large loop. It flattened out perilously close to the ground and with a roar came closer until it swooped over their heads. Tara's hair swirled about her face and she had to hold it back with her hand. With the annoying strands out of hair out of her face she watched as the steely plane slowly circled back into land. With the screeching and squealing of tyres the wheels grounded and the jet went screaming past even as it started slowing.
Gradually it lost it's tremendous speed and near the end of the runway the plane turned about. It came to a rest adjacent to the group and in a few moments the pair of engines were silent save for the hiss of escaping gases as they cooled. The cockpit slid backwards and Tara saw the flash of red hair as Willow pulled her helmet off. She made to break into a run towards the plane but stopped herself. The last thing she needed was to make a scene in front of her comrades over such a silly thing. Instead she waited calmly as Willow leapt down from the cockpit and started walking towards them. She was still a few meters away when she stumbled and fell forward onto her hands and knees. Tara was at her side in a heartbeat, reaching down to support her around her shoulders.
"Willow?" she asked worriedly.
The redhead's sweat-covered face broke into a huge grin.
"That was so cool!"
Willow was smiling broadly as she made her way back to the barracks after a late night trip to the kitchens to grab a few snacks for her and Tara. For some reason she always felt hungry at this time of night. Tara jokingly said that her body was storing up on energy for their late night activities and Willow had to agree with her. She took a bite from her sandwich and almost spat it back out again when she saw Buffy leaning against the side of the corridor up ahead.
"Still spying on me and Tara?" Willow quickly swallowed her mouthful, the sandwiches in her hands preventing her from assuming a more offensive stance.
"No... just waiting for you,' Buffy replied in an even voice, as though she were fighting to keep a reign on her temper.
"Well?" Willow arched an eyebrow.
"There is something that I've been meaning to talk to you about... have you got a moment?"
Willow looked down at the sandwiches in her hands and then wistfully thought of her beautiful girlfriend waiting in bed for her. Talking to her former best friend was not on her list of fun things to do for the night.
She sighed, "Sure. Spill."
"I know things between us haven't exactly been hugs and puppies since... well, for a long time now," Buffy said quietly, tugging her jacket tightly around her.
"Ah, Buffy... that's a little bit of an understatement don't you think?" Willow snipped back.
"I used to want you dead," Buffy admitted honestly.
"That's more like it," Willow nodded emphatically, "Don't you still want me dead?"
Buffy shook her head, a little sadly, "Willow, I know you have every right to be angry with me but please don't make this any harder than it already is."
"Sorry," Willow mumbled and took a massive bite of her sandwich to help keep herself quiet.
"After... everything... I was so angry. Well, angry doesn't even begin to cover it really... the fury I felt towards you blinded me to the things that should have been so obvious at the time. I blamed the accident on you and yet there was no way it could have been your fault, Willow, you're the best pilot I know a-and if there had been anything that you could have done to prevent it..." Buffy forced the words out as though each one was a struggle, she paused to draw in a deep breath, "I used to want you dead... but the more I thought about it... the less I realised I wanted it... until one day I didn't want it at all... one day, I missed you a-and t-then you and Tara... happened."
"If I remember correctly, which I do, you practically tried to break us up!" Willow spat angrily, "In case you forgot... you beat me into a bloody pulp because of it... and hello! Ouch!"
"You want to fight some more?" Buffy asked in a resigned voice, her shoulders slumping slightly.
Willow saw the look on the blonde's face and her anger faded until it was replaced by empathy. She knew exactly where Buffy was coming from. They were in the middle of a war and they were quarrelling as though they were at high school.
"No," Willow replied in a small voice, "But I don't see where you were coming from, trying to ruin the best thing that's ever happened to me..."
"Willow... you don't understand, you didn't know anything about Tara... about what she could do to those she loved... and she loved you from the moment she saw you... I feared for you..."
"You tried to break us up... to save my life?" Willow asked incredulously.
"To save both of you actually. You didn't know Tara before Will... she couldn't say boo to a mouse."
"No Will, let me finish... I knew Tara when she could not say a single word without stuttering and being in a room with more than five people in it made her break out in a sweat. She was so scared of everything... I wanted to help her straight away but of course she wouldn't let me," Buffy smiled slightly in remembrance, "We were stuck together on an overnight exercise, completely lost..."
"I remember you were pretty good at getting people through those," Willow added.
"Well, to cut a long story short... I know who Tara was... and I know who she is now. She's happy now, that's what. In the middle of all this misery, she's happier that I've ever seen her... and it's all because of you... She loves you Willow... for who you are... despite your temper and your womanising past... unless you neglected to tell her that little aspect of your past?" There was a hint of amusement in Buffy's voice, remembering all the times they had spent dancing and drinking at clubs.
Willow blushed slightly, "She knows... some of it," she tightened her lips again, "So... a little realisation and no more bitchy Buffy? Forgive me if I seem a little less than fully convinced but Buffy... I'm not stupid..."
Buffy's face was serious once more, "I had my orders and a friend that I wanted to protect more than anything but in the past few weeks, well, yes there was the realisation, most importantly that... it's not my job to protect Tara... it's yours."
Willow saw a warmth in Buffy's gaze she had not seen for a long time, "She's in good hands, trust me."
"I know she is," Buffy replied quietly.
Willow felt her stern gaze soften and for a moment she felt like they were both five years younger and everything was back to normal. She took a step towards Buffy.
"Buffy, if it could have been me instead of Dawn..."
"Willow," to Willow it sounded as though Buffy were about to launch into yet another a tirade about how it was her fault Dawn had died, "I... know," it sounded forced and yet it was what Willow had been waiting five years to hear.
Willow impulsively threw her arms around the shorter woman and the sandwiches squashed against Buffy's back.
"Will, thanks but get off... I think there's another woman you would much rather be hugging right now."
Willow drew back and looked at the somewhat squashed sandwiches in her hand. She took another bite of hers, "Still good," she said with her mouth full.
"Get going kiddo, Tara will be antsy wondering where you are," Buffy smiled slightly, "By the way... that was some fine flying this afternoon."
"Thanks," Willow nodded and moved past Buffy as she continued down the corridor.
She glanced back once to check that Buffy had actually been there and she had not simply dreamt up their reconciliation. Buffy waved slightly, Willow responded with one of her own, inadvertently flinging cheese to the ground. A small smile crossed her face and she increased her pace as she made her way back to her room where Tara was waiting. She couldn't wait to tell Tara about Buffy... although the telling could wait until after Tara-touch...
Tara's tongue brought her over the edge of reason and Willow's back arched in the throes of her passion. Her fingers gripped the sheets as Tara's tongue continued stroking and licking, finding every last drop of moisture. Eventually, when Willow's cries had subsided to whimpers, Tara moved up her body to lay along her length. She cradled the still shaking red head in her arms, stroking her sweaty flank with a firm hand.
Willow slowly felt her racing heart return to a moderately normal pace as she snuggled into Tara's arms. The blonde stroked her hair from her eyes and her face so she could claim her lips. Willow responded hungrily, loving her own taste on Tara's lips... almost as much as she loved the taste of Tara on her own. Almost... but not quite.
They pulled apart, Tara pulling the blankets up over their bodies before they began to feel the cold once more. She tenderly drew it up to Willow's chin, the redhead clutched it in her small fist. Tara planted a kiss on her cheek and lay down, spooning her from behind.
"What were you thinking about?" Willow asked as she snuggled into Tara's arms.
"What? Just now?" Tara asked in a bemused voice, "I was thinking how wonderful you taste."
Willow wriggled backwards until their bodies pressed tightly together. Tara's arm was around her stomach, keeping a firm, possessive grip on her.
"No," Willow replied softly, stroking Tara's hand.
"Today, at our briefing... you were somewhere else, far away."
"I really don't..." Tara began and then stopped suddenly, she drew in a breath, "I was thinking about my father and brother... about the night I found them..."
Willow did not know how to respond. Tara had imparted very little information as to how her family had died, other than that they had died in the dream scape and in turn been killed where they slept. Having seen what the LGFs did to people firsthand, Willow knew full well that it would have been messy and so terrifying for a small child...
"Tell me about them," Willow asked quietly.
"Okay... my Dad, he... he was the kindest man in the world, of course every little girl thinks that about her Daddy but in this case I was definitely right. I remember the way he would take me in his great big hands and swing me up onto the saddle of my pony. Everything about him was solid, no fuss... just plain, hardworking... and I loved him so..."
"I wish I could've met him," Willow said quietly.
"He would have liked you."
"Even though I would have been stealing his daughter from him?"
"I'm sure you would have won him over," Tara nestled her cheek against Willow's, "And my big brother... no one could make me laugh like Donnie, and of course no one could make me so angry. There was one time he tied my favourite doll to the topmost branch of this big old tree we had out back. I could never get more than a few meters off the ground before I chickened out and couldn't go any higher..."
"You were afraid of heights?" Willow asked incredulously.
Tara laughed lightly, "I know, seems funny now but at the time I was terrified. Anyway, he refused to bring it down for me and the thought of my doll spending the night up in the tree all alone was just terrifying. I climbed, Donnie was right there the whole time... and eventually I made it to the top. Climbing trees was never a problem after that... although I did hate Donnie for a good two days after that."
"I don't have brothers or sisters, although Buffy and Dawn were as good as... better even because I never had to share my toys with them," Willow yawned and snuggled further into the pillow.
"No, hungry," Willow responded, although she yawned again.
Although even as she said it her eyes closed slowly and sleep pushed insistently at the edges of her consciousness.
Tara stroked her head gently and soothingly, "Go to sleep sweetie."
"I'm not afraid," Willow said quietly in what had almost become a mantra, "I'm not afraid, hear that beasties, I'm not afraid of you ugly brutes..."
"We don't want them to hear you Willow... quiet as a mouse remember?" Tara laid her other arm around Willow's stomach, "And remember I'm right here, you're safe in my arms."
"I know," Willow whispered as she yawned and waited for sleep to come.
"Sweet dreams Willow," Tara laid a gentle kiss on Willow's head.