< /TR>


Chapter Seven

"So, let me get this straight; you and Tara went to another planet, for a quick bite to eat, where you stumbled across a fire breathing Genie burning the natives to a crispy crisp," Buffy sighed. "I don't know what I find more disturbing; the fact that you said that with a straight face, or that I actually believe you. I've been living on the Hellmouth too long." Tara shifted uncomfortably in her seat as Buffy threw her a glance brimming with questions.

"Yes, yes, your life is full of Hellmouthy goodness," Anya cut in, before Buffy could open her mouth. "Now, can we please kill the demon before it kills us?"

Buffy sighed. "We'll need more information. We have to know how to find this kind of demon, and who would have the power to summon one…" her voice drifted off and Anya snorted.

"Oh please, we all know who makes it to the top of the suspect list," she said, tossing her hair. "This stunt has Willow's paw prints all over it."

"N-n-no," Tara said. "She not using magic anymore. She wouldn't, not after what happened to Dawn."

Anya sighed impatiently. "She's an addict, Tara, and you'd be surprised how easily an addict can justify falling off the wagon."

The Doctor, his face solemn for once, leaned back in his chair. "She may have a point, Tara," he said. "From what you've told me, this seems very in character."

For a moment, Tara entertained the thought, but swiftly brushed it aside. "No," she said firmly. "It isn't Willow."

The Doctor studied her face for a moment, then smiled slowly. "So, it isn't Willow," he pronounced. "Who would be next on the list?"

"Rack!" Anya said suddenly, jumping to her feet. "It would be just the kind of slimy trick a guy like him would try! Especially as we all know that Tara is probably the only real reason Willow has kept on the straight and narrow…no offence to Dawn and her broken arm," she added lamely

The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "Rack?"

"Warlock," Buffy said simply. "Specialises in feeding off the magic of others and sends them on a happy trip in return."

Tara sighed. "He's going to be difficult to find," she said. "He moves location a lot and keeps his place hidden under a cloak."

"Willow will know," Buffy said softly.

The Doctor slid back his chair. "Then I suppose we should pay her a visit," he said lightly, but his eyes were full of concern as he looked at Tara.

She took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, we should," she said, ignoring the knot in her stomach as she got to her feet.

"She's at home," Buffy supplied. "She hasn't been going out much lately."

The Doctor took Tara's hand in his and smiled down at her. "You have to do this anyway," he told her. "You can't leave it fester for ever."

"I'll join you," Buffy said, raising an eyebrow at the handholding. It was funny, Tara had so easily accepted the Doctor's touchy feely ways that she'd forgotten what it might look like to others. Her mouth quirked as she wondered if Buffy thought she'd suddenly gone straight.

Her mood lightened, she ventured a smile. "Come on," she said, pulling on his hand

"That's my line," he said, only half jokingly as he let himself be dragged to the door.

"Hey, this is my turf," she teased. "Here, you get to be the sidekick!"

"And what does that make you? Wonder Woman?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of Hermione."

"Ah, but she's a secondary character," he pointed out smugly as she opened the door. "Doesn't count."

A giggle from behind them caught Tara's attention, and she looked over her shoulder to see Buffy grinning widely. "What?" she asked, self-consciously.

"Oh, nothing," the Slayer said, smirking. "Although, you might want to tone down the double act and the handholding when we get home. Willow is a bit fragile at the moment and she might get the wrong idea!"

"What!" the Doctor looked momentarily flustered, then quickly recovered. "I can hold hands with you, too, if you'd like," he offered cheekily. "Give them real fodder for thought!"

Buffy let loose a gale of laughter, and Tara stared in surprise. It had been so long since she'd heard Buffy really laugh; she'd almost forgotten what it sounded like. "How about you let me lead," she said, smirking as she brushed passed them and onto the street. "That way you two won't have to argue about who goes first."

"Is she always like this?" the Doctor muttered out of the side of his mouth.

"She's the Slayer," Tara said under her breath. "Being bossy kind of goes with the territory."

"I heard that," Buffy said, in a singsong voice, tapping her foot on the pavement. "Super Slayer hearing, remember."

The Doctor pouted but winked at Tara as they followed Buffy down the street. There was a bounce to her step that Tara hadn't seen in a long while and it occurred to Tara that maybe the Doctor had actually manoeuvred Buffy into taking the lead on purpose because he'd already figured out she'd be happier that way; she wouldn't put it past him.

The doctor suddenly grinned, and Tara suddenly had the uneasy feeling he knew what she was thinking. "So, this Rack fellow, how bad is he?" he asked Buffy.

"In terms of sliminess, pretty bad," she admitted. "But kind of a nobody in the bigger, Hellmouthy apocalypse scheme of things."

"But he's definitely the sort of person who'd have a genie in a bottle," Tara mused aloud. "He'd get a kick out of having that kind of power over a demon."

Buffy nodded in agreement. "Yup, just his style."

They walked companionably through the town centre, the Doctor peering about curiously as he asked Buffy about her life. Surprisingly, Buffy answered quite openly, although Tara did note she skirted around the topic of boyfriends.

Nevertheless, by the time they'd reached Buffy's driveway, the Doctor had pried all sorts of strange, personal minutiae out of her. Some of them, like Buffy's penchant for ice-skating, had come as a bit of a surprise. Tara watched in amusement as Buffy listened in wrapt attention to the Doctor's description of an ice world, called Rean, where skating was literally a way of life.

"I'd like to see that," Buffy eventually said, and Tara heard the longing in her voice.

"Oh, ya never know, maybe something could be…hallo, who's that?"

Tara followed his gaze and frowned as he saw who was coming down the driveway. "Amy," she said tersely.

"The one who was a rat?" the Doctor asked curiously

"Still is, as far as I'm concerned," Buffy muttered under her breath, crossing her arms as Amy approached. "I thought I told you not come back here," she said coldly.

"Just wanted to see how Willow was coping," she said smoothly.

"She's coping just fine, so why don't you toddle off and find a new playmate." Buffy declared, and Tara mentally cheered her on.

"Don't worry, I'm leaving," she said, raising her hands in a gesture of defeat. "I already got the message from Willow."

"Not a nice girl," the Doctor observed quietly as she strolled down the street. "You know, maybe we should put another name onto our suspect list."

Startled, Tara looked at the serious expression on his face. "You don't think…?"

"Oh, but I do," he said flatly. "I most certainly do."