I stuttered, Tara thought, shaking her head at herself as she left the building with a set of keys in her hand. I haven’t stuttered like that since Dad… With a shudder she shut the thought down.
She had gotten up to go appeal to the university housing committee, prepared to beg if necessary, for a dorm room, somewhere of her own to stay. It turned out four students had suddenly disappeared just last week, and there was a single available. One really disturbing point for living on a Hellmouth, she thought, her chest heavy and tight as she walked through the campus.
Feeling exhausted and barely able to breathe, let alone beg, Tara had stumbled through her plea. “Um, I n-n-need a place to s-stay. Are there a-any d-dorms avail-available?” The looks she had gotten then, an infuriating and humiliating mix of pity and aversion at her affliction. Looks she hadn’t seen in nearly two years. A week ago, she would have said something about those looks. A week ago, she wouldn’t have stuttered.
She thought she was stronger now. She had stood there, saying the words as best she could as she felt the weight of her new reality. Living alone, in the dorms again. A portion of her mind and all of her heart cried out for Willow. Her Willow. Willow’s love and acceptance had given her the strength to believe in who Willow saw, to believe that Willow’s Tara could be the true Tara. To speak knowing that someone would care about what she had to say, the stutter not even an afterthought.
And the Scoobies, they treated her as if what she was saying was worth listening to. At least after a while they did. Willow had always looked so proud when Tara offered a new view on a situation, or imparted some before unknown knowledge about whatever beast, demon, or mythic rites they were dealing with.
Everything had changed with Willow. She was no longer the girl who walked through the world, furled like a tight fern bud, her shoulders curved forward; arms securely tucked protecting her vulnerable heart. An ever-present veil of hair. Her own personal energy subconsciously reduced to a speck, keeping her hidden from the eyes of the world. Protecting herself.
Tara was aware enough to know that these actions were a product of decades of lessons, often harsh and humiliating, of how to protect herself. But meeting Willow, loving and being loved by Willow, had unfurled her, and Tara had bloomed. And now, one night without Willow, and Tara felt seventeen again. The thing was it wasn’t just losing Willow, leaving Willow. When Tara realized what Willow had done, something had cracked, exhuming pains left buried.
That night, like too many nights in Tara’s recent history, had delivered an overflow of emotions to untangle. They had just learned that Buffy had been in heaven, that they had taken her away from paradise. Everyone was devastated, but Willow was inconsolable. Tara felt it too, the horror, the guilt; and perhaps because she too needed comfort, she laid in bed with Willow wrapped around her, the betrayal she’d discovered just hours before pushed to the side and labeled ‘less important’. Again. But in Tara’s core, Willow’s actions had terrified her and that feeling had lingered and shaped everything that came after.
Walking the long way back to the motel, to clear her head and, truthfully, to avoid running into someone she knew, Tara felt like she was in a daze. Her world had been turned upside down abruptly, like an undiscerning older brother, flipping his toddler sister by her heels. She was lost and she was scared. She felt seventeen.
She stopped at a drug store for an alarm clock, some deodorant, and some cherry popsicles. Finally reaching her destination, Tara gathered her box of belongings, most still packed away, and checked out.
She treated herself to a cab back to Dormer Hall, not because she felt like she deserved it, but because she didn’t care about spending the little money she had. It’s not like she’d be using it to eat anytime soon. Thinking of food made her abdomen seize and forced a shaft of air that stuck in a ball at the base of her throat. The only thing she could possibly fathom were the popsicles, her mother had always given her one when she was sick; it had made her feel better then. She wished she could talk to her mom.
Tara was thankful the cab driver wasn’t chatty as she stared out of the dirt splattered window, focusing on nothing.
She fumbled for her keys, not wanting to set down- and pick up- her belongings again, and opened the door to the dorm her grants paid for, thankful that one had been available. She had wanted to hold on to her old dorm. “Just in case” she had said to Willow, uncertain that her place at the Summers’ house would be permanent. It wasn't her house and she didn't want to intrude. In the end, she had acquiesced to the barely concealed terror in Willow’s voice when she had questioned Tara’s need for the room. Large green eyes had silently pleaded for reassurance- of her, them; and Tara knew she would give up the space for Willow. Now, Tara couldn’t help but wonder if she had somehow known she’d need it.
Tara took in her new home; the empty walls a blank canvas- echoing loneliness. She unpacked her single box, determined to make things as normal, as comforting as they could be, to deafen the starkness with blankets and color. It was worse than the motel room- at least that had a TV to try and block out the thoughts. But she would make it hers.
She had taken one sheet, her star-covered blanket, and her pillow with her; these went onto the bed first. She placed her books on the pine desk that was included with the lightly furnished room. Her shoulders tightened as she set a few candles and placed crystals next to them. Clothes were folded reverently and placed in thin drawers. With careful hands, she placed the picture of her mom, bright and beautiful, on the nightstand.
Tara hadn’t brought a picture of Willow, or herself and Willow, with her. She couldn’t see that face right now, that beautiful, adoring, deceitful face. She missed that face already.
With nothing left to do, she sat on the edge of her newly adorned bed. Hands grasped in a ball, resting in her lap, she stared at the blank wall in front of her. A sudden force of sobs ripped through her, making her feel dizzy with lack of air; spinning, wild thoughts adding to her internal chaos. She lay down and curled up on the left side, knees tucked into her chin, blanket pulled tight, swaddling her in stars, and wept until the thoughts eased and she was captured by sleep.