Ari (creature of dust, child of God) (wisdomeagle) wrote,
Ari (creature of dust, child of God)
wisdomeagle

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Jossverse fic "Now We Are Six"

Title: "Now We Are Six"
Author: Ari
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer x Angel
Pairing: Buffy/Faith/Fred/Giles/Tara/Willow
Rating: NC-17 lite
Spoilers/Timeline: AU "Orpheus," AU "Chosen."
Notes: For buffyverse1000. Obviously. Honestly not as crackful as it sounds from the pairing. One of those end of the world things. Title is the title of a book by A.A. Milne, unrelated to this fic in every possible way.
Summary: The lone survivors of a failed attempt at saving the world take to the hills.


Now We Are Six

Fred has never liked anyone as much or as immediately as she likes Willow. Well, Angel, of course, but there were extenuating circumstances at the time: first real human contact in years, plus he saved her life, plus really, really attractive. Of course, Willow is kind of the same way, the light at the end of the tunnel. If you've been sitting around in a cave all day, or worse, living in a cave with seven other people (and demons and vampires and basically your run of the mill forces of darkness) who are equally as far gone as you are, any kind of human contact feels like relief.

But Willow is more than that. She's like the sun coming back all over again, and this time with freckles, just a few, scattered across her face, like a mystery maze puzzle. Or all of the above. Willow is a savior, just like Angel once was, only she's as gentle as Charles and as smart as Wesley - smarter, even - and unlike them, she seems like she really, really likes Fred just for Fred. And she doesn't seem like she'd go around screwing skanky brunettes either, especially evil ones who try to kill your friends.

If it weren't been for Angelus and all the things that he told them, about how Cordy slept with Connor and how Charles was jealous of Wesley and how poor, confused Wesley had slept with the bitch lawyer from hell, then Fred might've chosen to stay behind. She considered it, as it was. They need her there; that's painfully clear. Even with Angel back on the good side, things are looking bleaker than bleak. She really doesn't want to be in LA right now. Still, if it weren't for the aftermath of Angelus, she might've chosen to stay behind. Then, if it hadn't been for Angelus, she wouldn't ever have met Willow.

And right now she can't imagine not being with Willow, can't imagine not simply basking in her glowing presence, drinking in her speech patterns as she tells them all about Sunnydale and how it's full of people, full of all these potential slayers.

"Dude," Faith says. "It's Slayer City. What do you need me for again?"

"We'll need every hand we can get," says Willow. "It's kinda looking like this could be the big one, bigger than big. Bigger than Glory, bigger than the Mayor -"

Fred doesn't understand any of it, notes that Faith flinches at the Mayor's name and that Willow seems like she's talking mostly to Fred, not to Faith, and that Faith is chewing gum like crazy and keeps asking about Buffy.

"She's still Buffy, a little worse for having come back from the dead, and from basically spending last year in some freaky purgatory of her own, but yeah, on the whole, Buffy's fine."

"Good. That's good," Faith says, and Fred tries to focus on the one thing that she's got to remember, no matter what happens.

Willow is seeing someone. So that means that there will be no private moments with the books, translating together like she used to do with Wesley, and no earth-shattering kisses, and no snuggling together in a corner while the apocalypse comes down around them. Because Willow is seeing someone, and Fred would never take someone else's girlfriend away from her.

Willow's girlfriend is probably sweet. She'd have to be, for Willow to love her. Sweet, and probably with way more magical power than Fred has. Fred's just pretty much empty of magic; it's all book-learning and dull physics for her. Willow makes the physical properties of magic come alive, glowing off her, coloring her eyes and her aroma and everything about her. Fred loves that, and is a little scared of it, the way she's scared of the way she go in Pylea, the way she's scared of what she did to Professor Seidel.

But it's Willow, and that means it's got to be okay.

Sunnydale, and Buffy, and Buffy's house, and everything, are not like she expected. They took on mythic proportions in Fred's mind, like Buffy was this incredibly beautiful princess who lived in a palace and had all these faithful Scooby servants to keep her stakes sharpened and her grapes peeled. She hadn't expected the chaos of slayers in training everywhere, punching invisible enemies and gossiping about who knows what, like some insane boarding school.

This girl with dark hair and wicked eyes comes down stairs and kisses Willow hard once they get in the door with all her bags and Faith's one bag. "This is Kennedy," says Willow, when she disentangles herself from the kiss. "My girlfriend. You can have our room; Faith, Buffy'll work something out."

"If she's feelin' forgiving, I might even sleep on something soft," says Faith.

"Maybe even have your own room," says Buffy, who appears behind Kennedy with her arms full. She's smaller than Fred had expected, and her face is cold. She finds it hard to believe that Angel could love someone like her, but then, she is a champion, and Angel has a thing for champions.

After so many introductions, the only name she's recollecting other than her own is Andrew's, only because he's introduced himself several times, asked once if she's a drag queen, and tried to interview her for his video at least four times. He's not trying to be annoying, she can tell; he's just scared, so she sits down with him and tells him her story.

"Another dimension?" he says. "That's so... wow. You're like a real hero. So, tell me, was it another dimension like, a world where you were raised by wolves? More like a quantum shift, or just freaky, with green-eyed aliens and things?"

"The second," she says, and then, "My theory is that it was just a dimension that split from ours a really long time ago. Fundamentally the same form as ours. I mean, gravity still works, and so does the weak force, or else..."

"No cohesion, good point!" says Andrew, and grins. Fred likes him. He's the only person in this whole house who doesn't seem to be running on empty.

Basically it's all a blur to her, a horrific blur of names and faces and occasionally the news that another slayer in training has died. She mostly researches with Dawn, who wants to talk about clothes, discovers that Fred has spent most of the past year fighting a horny scaly beast thingie, and decides she'd prefer talking with Amanda about high school, and how much it totally bites, especially now that it's likely gonna get blown up.

She doesn't think of LA, not even once. They haven't been watching the news, fearing that it would just bring bad news, and Fred makes it almost a religion, avoiding news from the outside. Sunnydale becomes a microcosm, their own little world where maybe they're only fighting for themselves, but they're going to get through this, somehow. Somehow, they're going to stop evil in its tracks.

She plays cards a lot with the guys, and sometimes she catches Andrew looking at Xander while she's Willow-watching, and they share a moment.

Giles has refused to look at her, and Xander, she thinks it's Xander, takes her aside and explains it's because if he looks at her too closely, he'll regret it if she dies. She stares at him, and he sighs and shrugs and accidentally rubs at his eye patch, and Fred wonders what she's doing here.

They kick Buffy out one day, and Faith scrambles around trying to lead them. Then Buffy comes back, and then...

Then they take the fight to them. Her job is to watch Willow while she calls on powerful primeval magicks and harnesses the power of the Slayers. Kennedy wanted the watching job, but Buffy told her absolutely no way; she got the fighting job (and probably the dying job, Fred realizes, and that's scary.)

"It's just us," Buffy says. "Just the Slayers."

"You 'n' me, girl," says Faith, and Fred kind of thinks they're having a private moment that she shouldn't intrude on, but maybe not. It's hard to tell. There are so many hormones, so much bubbly, fizzy excitement, coupled with the certainty of death. It's not a good atmosphere.

So she plays D+D. She figures, if she's gonna die, she's gotta play one last round of D+D before she does. Even if Andrew is a horrible DM and Giles clearly has no idea how to play and Willow is possibly off having sex with Kennedy right now. Yuck.

Doing the spell with Willow is the most intense thing ever, and she can tell it worked, because Willow goes all glowy and white and stays that way, sighing and moaning like she's having an orgasm or something, and Fred feels dirty for watching her, until Willow just collapses and writhes on the floor and Fred grabs her and kisses her and kisses her and kisses her and knows she's gonna die, she came to Sunnydale just to die, just with Willow.

"RUN!" says a voice, and it's Faith's. Buffy is rounding the bend after her; she waits for Rona and Vi and the other new Slayers, but it's just Faith and Buffy. Giles follows them, maybe a minute later, and he pants the same message: run.

So Fred pulls Willow to her feet and takes off running, not even knowing where she's going. Not even knowing why she survived. Just that they've got to run, got to run fast and far.

She waits till they've caught up with the others, way away from the high school but not far enough. Faith pants out, "hundreds of them. Thousands. Too many. We're doomed. All the others..." Fred never said goodbye to Andrew, she thinks. Then closes her eyes and starts chanting. Willow, still sort of dazed, grabs hold of her hands and pulls her into this glowy white space and seems to suck the incantation out of her, and then suddenly they're just not there anymore. They're elsewhere.

She prays as hard as she can, then opens her eyes. Thank God. Not Pylea.

She's not sure where they are at, but it's not Pylea, she knows that, and it's not Sunnydale, about to be eaten by a giant manifestation of the First Evil. Buffy stares blankly at the rest of them. "Okay, what was that?"

"A spell, we did a spell," says Willow, panting. "It was really, really powerful; I just need to sit down now, okay?" And she faints.

"Allow me to rephrase. What the fuck -- sorry Giles -- was that?" says Faith.

"A spell. Or an incantation. It's kind of hard to explain. The thing of it is, we're here." She doesn't tell them why she memorized the spell, how hard it was to get it just right, how afraid she was, that first year, of being lost without a map. They don't need to know that. No one needs to know that except her, and maybe Willow, if Willow ever snaps out of her dazed state.

"Er," says Giles, "Miss? Would you mind telling us where exactly we are?"

"I don't know," she says, and realizes that now all three of them are looking at her oddly. "I got us out of there, okay? The world was ending, right?"

"Yeah..." says Buffy slowly. "But it's our job to save it, not run away from it. Now take us back."

"Now wait just a moment," says Giles. "I know that you and Faith share a sacred calling, but your strength and skills are still intact. You can fight demons in more than one dimension." He stares hard at Buffy. "Do you understand?"

"Yeah, we got it." It's Faith who answers, and she's looking at the grass like she expects creepy crawlies to start devouring them. Fred remembers landing in Pylea, about how nice and homey and green it was. She thought she'd fallen into paradise. "Yo, I'm exhausted. I'm going to lie down for a bit, if that's okay with you."

"We should all rest," Giles points out. "But someone ought to keep watch, until we have a clearer idea of where we are." He glances over the group of girls, noting that Willow is still moaning softly, that Faith and Buffy look about ready to collapse. "Will you watch with me?" he asks Fred.

"Sure."

They don't say anything for awhile, giving the others the silence they need to fall asleep. They'll all need to rest eventually. Finally it's Giles who speaks. "What were you thinking?" he asks, somber.

"That we had to escape," she says. "That we had to get out of there. The others, they're all - they're all dead, aren't they?"

Giles nods once.

"So there's nothing left for us there."

"Nothing at all," he says, and Fred notes for the first time how tired he looks, like he's been walking for his entire life and has only just now finally gotten a chance to sit down. "We'll need to find somewhere to stay," he says. "Find some demons to fight. The girls -Faith and Buffy - will need to start patrolling. They need to fight. It's in their nature."

Fred's never really thought about that, about needing to Slay. "And Willow?" she asks, because Giles seems like the kind of person who should have all the answers.

He takes a deep breath. "I haven't the faintest idea," he says. "We knew this was a risk, did we not?"

"I didn't know," she says. "No one told me anything. Just to stay watch Willow, so I watched her, and she never came back."

Giles sighed and bowed his head. "You do realize - what's your name?"

"Fred. Winifred Burkle."

"You understand, Fred, that your friend - our friend - is lost? We can't rely on her coming back."

Fred nods slowly, but she thinks it can't be true. No one is ever gone for good. When they thought they'd lost Angel, she called Willow, and Willow came and saved them. A momentary realization: everyone in LA is probably dead. If the First and Its army got out of the cave below Sunnydale, then - she might as well admit - there is nothing left for them there. She closes her eyes. She can survive. She has been lost before, and now she has friends who are lost with her.

"Giles?" she says.

"Fred?"

"Will we be okay?"

Giles looks at her for a long time, then glances towards Buffy and Faith, sleeping on either side of their banked campfire, prepared to leap to action at a moment's notice. He looks at Willow, curled up, her hand still clutching a flower that she picked earlier in the day.

"I hope so," he says at long last. It's the most promising thing Fred has heard in a long time.

Three days pass in this same cycle: they walk for awhile, then they keep watch for awhile, then they sleep while Buffy and Faith keep watch. She's not sure when she decided that she and Giles were a team the way Buffy and Faith are. She knows it makes more sense, logically, for a Slayer always to be awake, guarding the rest of them. When she mentions that to Buffy, though, Buffy gets a haunted look in her eyes and says, "I'd rather stay with Faith." Fred doesn't like to think about that, though she knows what it means. It's like a secret, something they're keeping from Giles, because it would hurt him to know.

Faith and Buffy are lovers.

When she takes her place beside Willow at night, curling her body around Willow's as if that could somehow keep them both safe, letting her hands wrap around Willow's while Willow dreams of other girls, other lovers, Fred can hear the sounds that Buffy and Faith make as they stretch. They help each other work out, every night (days are for walking) and then they go patrolling, leaving Willow and Fred and Giles alone, unprotected. Giles is a sound sleeper, doesn't realize this. Fred doesn't tell him; she has decided it is her job to keep Buffy's secrets.

She doesn't care for Faith at first. Faith laughs at Willow, calls her a nutcase - and worse. Fred remembers when her own mind went wandering away from her, when she didn't remember what was real and what wasn't. So she understands. She doesn't want Willow to be hurt, even if she doesn't seem all that smart anymore. She seems mostly, and Fred hates to admit this, like she's not all there. "Did it work?" she'll say, clutching towards Fred's hands, ecstasy on her face. "Giles will be so happy. It worked. I did the spell, and it worked." Sometimes, she babbles, and Fred can't understand. "Buffy won't have to kill Angel now! She'll be so happy, she'll love me, don't you think she'd love me if she didn't have to kill Angel?" Then Fred holds Willow very tightly and makes shushing sounds, so Buffy won't hear. Sometimes it feels like all she's doing is keeping secrets.

On the morning of the fourth day, Willow mentions Tara for the first time, just in passing. Fred is worried, so she takes Giles aside and asks, privately who Tara is. Giles clears his throat and mutters something Fred can't understand, so she asks Buffy, but Buffy just looks at her sadly, so she finally resorts to asking Faith.

"Tara? That was the witch's first woman-friend, if you know what I mean. Man, they were tight. I don't think I've ever seen a gal more pussy-whipped than Tara was."

"Tara is my everything," says Willow, a dreamy look on her face. "She's my center. My baby." That's when Fred gets her idea. They can find Tara.

She doesn't mention it to the others at first, because she isn't sure herself if they've got the strength to go dimension hopping. But if they find Tara, she thinks, maybe Tara will be able to find Willow, who's disappeared into herself, who's hiding from her friends because ... well, Fred doesn't know why. But she knows Willow's lost in a cave in her own mind, and she's just got to help her out again.

A night arrives when Willow cries for Tara in her sleep, and Fred knows they need to try.

Giles, naturally, is opposed to the idea. Fred stares at him, envisioning squiggles of seriousness and properness and "thou shalt nots" steaming from his ears. She giggles. "What's up?" Faith asks, taking a break from her job, which is to walk in front and look serious and occasionally cast glances at Buffy that Fred just knows mean Faith wants to fuck her, right there, in front of the rest of them.

"I want to find Tara," she says, a little hesitant, because this is Faith, after all. "To see if she can help Willow."

Faith smiles a little. "Yeah, I see that." They keep on walking, and Fred glances back once in awhile to make sure Giles is taking care of Willow okay. Faith looks at Fred up and down, then says, "You really like her, huh?"

"Willow?" Faith nods sharply. "I think she's - I've never - yes. I like her a lot. When she came to LA she... she had the brightest smile I'd seen in months."

Faith stops short, turns around, and stares at the trio following them. Giles has an arm around Willow, and he's guiding her. She can walk okay on her own, but she has a tendency to wander off into the woods if no one holds her. Buffy is about ten yards behind them, glancing this way and that, a hard look on her face. Faith sighs and turns around again; they walk in silence for awhile. Then Faith says, "Buffy's smile was like that too."

"Wha-What do you mean?"

"The first time I saw her, man, she was like a dream, you know? Watching her Slay; it was like seeing the world the way it was s'posed to be. She never made any mistakes. She was like a machine and an animal at the same time. Me, I'm all animal," and she growls to demonstrate, "but B had it down pat. She was perfect."

Fred doesn't say anything, wasn't sure if there's anything she could say. But that night, while they're eating dinner - some herbs that Giles found and claimed are edible - it's Faith who mentions Fred's plan to find Tara. Buffy looks skeptical, but Faith shoots her a Look, then whispers something in her ear, and Buffy says, "Well, sure. It's a plan. A good plan. We'll do it."

Giles looks appalled. "Just a minute!" he says. "Was anyone planning on putting this to a vote?"

"Hey, Watcher," Faith says. "Winifred." Fred isn't sure why she lets Faith get away with calling her by her full name, but somehow it seems okay. "We gotta talk. B? Give us five."

"We'll be right back," Fred whispers to Willow. "Don't worry."

Faith spreads her hands as if to say, hey, I'm an open book and says, "Uh, Giles - listen. Buffy needs to get the fuck out of here. It's tough for me; I'm fucking dying for a smoke, but B is wound tighter then a virgin ass - oh, God, sorry Giles."

"Please, continue," he says, pinching his nose.

"Fred here says she can get us outta here. Sure, she wants to go on a wild goose chase. I mean, finding Red's dead ex-lover? So not gonna happen." Fred blanches. "But we gotta move. Right? So let's move. The sooner the better."

So soon they are all five holding hands, reciting the syllables that Fred has memorized. She feels Willow's energy, strong as ever, and new feelings, too. Giles's magic is green and coppery, and it rolls around in her head like a stately presence. Buffy's power and Faith's power feel the same to Fred: strong and ancient, black and twisted. She tries to hold her breath and talk at the same time, almost coughs, almost laughs, holds onto Willow's hand tightly - and they're there.

They're running again, quickly this time, as a huge black and green beast looms over them. Fred wonders how all those teeth could even fit in its mouth, and it smells like rotting meat. It oozes as it moves, and they can see that there's slime everywhere. Fred runs, but Faith suddenly spins and runs back towards the beast. She catches it off-guard with a swift left-footed kick.

"Faith, no!" Buffy calls, and runs after her. Fred waits half a second to make sure that Buffy can handle herself, sees that she's thrown herself into the fight, and grabs Willow with one hand and Giles with the other. They run.

When they are a safe distance from the beast and the Slayers, they watch the fight from a nest of slime. Faith holds nothing back, clawing at the monster with her fingers and clobbering it with her boots, while Buffy searches for an adequate weapon. The beast never stood a chance, Fred thinks. She was impressed with Angel's fighting, but this is beyond impressive. This is magic.

When Buffy administers the killing blow with a sharp piece of wood, she screams "We have to go now," before the green thing is even dead. Fred starts reciting the words they need to escape.

They pass through dimensions that are endlessly blue, through worlds filled with colorless, jellyfish like creatures, through a crater that strongly resembles Sunnydale. They pass through portals and dive into shimmering caves. They stay in one dimension for a week until they learn that Tara is dead here too. They don't tell Willow, who fades out of reality more often now. Fred worries that their constant magic use is hurting Willow.

Then, after an afternoon spent dodging falling lava, they find themselves on a quiet street in Sunnydale. "Don't get your hopes up," says Buffy, who's smiling. Last time she talked to Fred, Faith reported that Buffy was feeling better for their regular encounters with otherworldly creatures, but she was still very reserved. Fred wonders if maybe Buffy hasn't gotten lost, herself, but she can't worry about that. Faith will take care of her. That's her job. Faith takes care of Buffy, Fred takes care of Willow, and Giles - Giles takes care of the rest of them.

The first place they go is Sunnydale U, where Fred can access student archives. They're an odd bunch - none of them has changed clothes in weeks, and most of them wear the hangdog, hopeless expressions of people who have lost their reasons for being. Only Willow smiles at the students who pass them in the library, and Fred can tell the passersby are a little scared of her, of all of them. She can't worry about that, though. She has to focus on finding Tara. She pages through a student directory.

It's impossibly simple, but there she is. Tara Maclay, living on the fourth floor of Stevenson in a single room. There's her telephone number and everything. She doesn't bother to see if Buffy or Willow go to school here. Doesn't bother with anything, just grabs Willow's hand and beckons for the rest of them to follow her.

Only when she's knocking on Tara's door does she realize how absurd a spectacle they are, especially if Tara doesn't know any of them in this dimension. She tries hard not to think about that, focuses on knocking. Once. Twice.

"Hel-Hello? Buffy?" The girl who opens the door - Tara - flings herself at a surprised Buffy, who returns the hug. Then Tara frowns, pauses, and says, stuttering madly, "I th-thought - Mister G-g-giles said you were -- Giles!" And Giles, standing behind the girls, face unreadable, receives a hug of his own.

Fred hardly notices any of this. Her eyes are on Willow, who's beginning to tremble rather violently. She refuses to look at Tara, but is saying something under her breath, so quietly that only when Fred strains to hear can she tell that Willow is saying, "Tara... Tara... Tara..., " over and over, faster and faster, until it becomes a blur. "Taratarataratara."

Tara, finally releasing Giles from the hug, spares a glance for Willow. She frowns, puzzled, and says, voice full of wonder, "Who are you?"

~~~

Fred is becoming rapidly convinced that their efforts to explain everything are only making Tara more confused. They all sit in the student lounge, sipping tea - except for Faith, who found a Coke machine and started singing Hallelujahs - and trying to talk. Tara is very quiet, and she keeps stealing looks at Giles, or touching his arm, trying to prove to herself that he's really there. Willow hasn't said a coherent word in hours, though she's still reciting Tara's name under her breath. Buffy is trying to carry the conversation, but it's clear that Tara isn't comfortable with her presence. The Buffy in her reality died and stayed dead, the way people are supposed to. Buffy looks pained by the implication that she ought to be rotting in the ground, and Faith shoots menacing glares at Tara every time she says, "But you were dead..."

Finally, Giles, who hasn't said much, suggests that Faith, Buffy, Willow, and Fred find a hotel - he loans Fred his Visa and says he hoped it's still good - while he talks to Tara. Everyone is relieved at this suggestion, and Buffy especially seems to bounce out of the student center.

"We'll have a real bed tonight," she says. "Clean sheets and running water. I think I might be in heaven again, after all."

Faith grins at her. "Plus, you know, hotels have vibrating beds."

"You're wicked," says Buffy, in a voice that means just the opposite.

Fred smiles to herself, and is shocked when Faith touches her arm and said, "You too, Winifred? Wanna take a Slayer or two for a test run?"

"You want me to --?"

"Hey, that's what we're made for," Faith says, and Buffy offers no objections.

They're sprawled on their hotel beds, luxuriously soft and sparklingly clean, trying to figure out who gets the first shower, and all Fred can think about is Faith's offer. They want to make love. With her. She feels disloyal, for a minute, when she sees the glazed look in Willow's eyes, the tears that are threatening to gush forth if Willow relaxes her guard. But then she remembers that they're here to find Willow's girlfriend, remembers that cavalier "I'm seeing someone," and wonders if maybe it's time to have some fun. Goodness knows they've had enough work to do in the past couple of - years.

She's surprised by how soft it is. Faith, who's usually rough and chafing, is suddenly soft like Willow's hair when she slides a hand along Fred's stomach. And Buffy is light as a feather, laughing at the absurdity of it, diving into Fred's mouth with a tongue that tingles with delight. Fred glances at Willow once in awhile, but soon enough she forgets to feel guilty, loses herself in gentle roughness, slick heat, fingers running through her hair and gliding into her pussy.

Giles wakes them at eleven in the morning, and Fred is shocked by how late she's been allowed to sleep, but Faith takes a huge whiff of the late-morning air and says, "It's good to be back."

"I've got something to report," Giles says, and it occurs to Fred to wonder where he slept last night. "Would it shock you all very much to learn that, er, in this reality, Miss Maclay -that is, Tara - and I were, er -"

"Doin' the nasty?" Faith suggests.

"We were, uhm, lovers, yes," Giles says faintly.

"I knew it. I always had that girl figured out. She has the hots for someone, she can't keep her eyes off 'em."

Giles sits down, clearly relieved that his revelation is over with. "I'm afraid I don't know where Willow is in this, uh, dimension. It seems likely she left Sunnydale after graduation, as Tara has no recollection of meeting her. Tara sought out the Slayer herself, sensing dangerous magical energies afoot, and she, uh, joined our little band of demon-fighters." The corners of his lips quirk upwards. "I believe that Buffy died two years ago, much as she did in our reality, and that I, er, the I in this reality, died, er, shortly afterwards. Miss Maclay is a most resilient young woman, and she was most surprised to see us arrive in her dormitory."

"Well, duh," says Buffy.

"There's something else," Fred says. "Isn't there?"

"She'd like to, uh, travel with us. Or rather, with me. She refuses to let me go."

"Where is she now?" asks Buffy.

"Waiting in the hallway."

They let Tara in, and Fred smiles at her encouragingly, but Faith was right. Tara has eyes for no one but Giles. They stand around awkwardly for a minute or two, then suddenly Willow, who had seemed asleep, sits straight up in bed, and says, "I knew my girl would come back to me." Her voice is clear and regular, without a hint of magical buzz. She stands up, walks straight to Tara, and grabs her hands. Tara looks up, down, at Fred, everywhere but Willow's eyes.

Then Giles puts a hand on Tara's shoulder and says, gently, "I told you this might happen."

Tara gulps visibly, then rests her hands on Willow's shoulders. "It's going to be okay," she says. "We'll figure it out."

Willow smiles happily, and Fred realizes, with a sinking feeling, that she's not really all better. Her eyes are sparkling with love, sure, but there's a manic gleam lingering deep, and something sickening about the way she says, "That's my girl."

That night, Willow and Tara share a bed, Willow grasping at Tara the way Fred hung onto Willow at first. Now, Fred lies between Faith and Buffy, curled up safely, nestled in their strength. Giles sleeps in a chair.

The sleeping arrangements are flexible as they wander through the next few weeks. They walk most of the time, because the five of them are used to it and because Tara is willing to do anything that Giles okays. Nighttime, Buffy and Faith patrol, sometimes with Giles, sometimes just with each other when Giles wants to be alone. By default, Fred spends a lot of time with Tara. They talk of books and magicks, but neither really understands the other.

One night, before patrol, Faith asks Tara if she wants to go drinking. Tara, who's spent the last three weeks trapped in various hotel rooms or walking endless miles, agrees quickly, and Buffy trudges after them – she follows Faith everywhere. Fred feels a tiny twinge of jealousy, but she hasn't slept with Faith and Buffy since the first night. It was a one-time sort of thing.

Giles stays in the room tonight, looking through a huge book he's carried on three days' worth of walking. Fred is impressed with his devotion to research.

"May I ask you something?" says Giles suddenly.

"Yes?"

"Do you think that it would be -- wrong to, er, renew my – or rather, not mine, but his -- courtship of Tara?"

Fred laughs at that. "Wrong? In this universe? There's no such thing as right and wrong. Just the six of us and an occasional vampire."

"Yes," Giles muses. "Just the six of us." And he kisses Fred.

She's not really surprised, actually. It's not like they haven't been looking at each other awkwardly, all of them, not like she hasn't wondered why Giles stays out of the games that Faith and Buffy play. She puts her arms around him, pulls him closer to her. He deepens the kiss, and his face is rough with several days' growth of beard. His scent is strong, and Fred leans into him, eager to drink him in. She doesn't think about Willow, doesn't think about anyone, just Giles, just his fingers struggling to release her from her shirt and bra.

They fall back onto the bed, clawing at each other in quiet desperation. Fred's fingers slip down to Giles's dick, and there's no going back. They rub and touch, fingers everywhere, his tongue circling her nipple.

Tara's cry of shock is the first coherent sound Fred hears. She looks up from Giles's crotch, sees the pain on Tara's face, and sighs. She waits. Sure enough, Faith is the one who says, "Why be sad? There's plenty of room on the bed for all of us."

Fred loses track of whose tongue is whose, which hands belong to which of her friends, which slick passage is Buffy's pussy and which is Tara's mouth. If it weren't for his dick, even Giles would be indistinguishable in the mass of bodies, curling and twisting and sucking. Occasionally Tara gasps or Faith moans, but there are no other sounds. There is no other reality than this, fingers tongues mouths and hands.

Then Fred feels an unfamiliar hand on her back, and she's not sure how she can tell it's unfamiliar until Willow, smiling almost happily, appears above. She isn't sure how she can tell, but she knows that Willow understands, that the magic has released her, maybe only for an hour, and that she is herself again. She is biting back tears and smiling at the same time. Giles looks up from Buffy's breasts, does a double take, then grabs Willow's hands and holds them in his. Everything stops; they're all looking at Willow. She takes a deep breath, shrugs back her tears, and says in a sunshiny voice, "Mind if I join in?"

Fred has never loved anyone as much or as immediately as she loves Willow.
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