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Wilderness

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Tara was thankful it was Tuesday. She was tired and she knew she looked strung-out, but at least the busy day would, hopefully, force her mind to focus on something other than Willow. Something other than her abrupt and jarring relocation.

Something other than the relentless nightmares that swept in each and every night, waking her every few hours in yet another state of panic. Scenes replayed over and over again. Hands pushing into her skull, seeing Willow’s face there as she looked at her perpetrator, replacing the visage of the hell god. The bleak, angry world where she had lived in those days when the real perpetrator had thrust her into nightmare after nightmare. Dad yelling. Belts and sticks. Being pushed down on the dirt in the corral. Being pushed aside as she walked through her high school halls. Being pushed against the barn door. And the voices, all those voices reminding her that she was worthless, worthless and wrong.

Anything to distract her from the fact that she was so hungry, but couldn’t stomach anything more than crackers and tea for days.

Anything to distract her from the constant tremor of fear that itched at every nerve.

Tuesdays had always been busy days. She had a morning and an afternoon lecture and a seminar for her Mythology in Art advanced course in the early evening. She was determined to stay on track with her classes. Her scholarship demanded it, but more, Tara didn’t want to lose that part of her life; she loved the worlds of knowledge and the challenge of mental expansion that her courses offered. No matter how much a part of her yearned to just stay in bed, holed up in her room, she pushed forward. She had managed to get a few, dreamless, hours of sleep after she drifted off, propped up against her bed. Her neck hurt.

She had tried everything to pay attention in her first class, she drank hot, strong coffee to both keep her alert and give her something to do. The coffee reminded her of Willow, how the caffeine would have set Willow on overdrive, coffee which had no chocolate so Willow wouldn’t touch it anyway. She missed Willow’s touch. Tears began to form in Tara’s eyes and she dug her nails into her thigh, demanding her emotions be focused somewhere else, beyond the ache in her chest, negligent sleep weakening the resolve she valiantly tried to keep.

Her afternoon class was a little more lively, a heated on-going debate over agency and mental illness in Anna Karenina holding her interest enough to forget for several minutes at a time. Maybe a few minutes at a time. Still, Tara was grateful. 

Class ended and she exited the hall to be faced with the melancholy face of Dawn Summers. She stood, leaning against the wall facing her classroom, arms crossed, body slightly rocking from heel to toe. The younger woman’s off-white top almost camouflaged her against the wall.  Dawn looked up as the large hall door was pushed open, students streaming into the walkway. Her eyes found Tara’s and Dawn gave a small, tentative smile, unsure where things stood between them. Tara paused when she saw her then returning a matching smile she walked over to the teen.

“Hi,” Tara offered, the upward lilt adding a question to the greeting.

“Hey, Tara” Dawn replied, arms pressed into her side as she continued to rock. Tara knew Dawn was uncomfortable, the young woman was usually much more animated, words flying out of her mouth as her long brown hair bounced around her face.

Tara was relieved to see her, grateful that Dawn obviously hadn’t written her off, but she wasn’t ready to go over things with the younger girl. She didn’t want to have to explain, and then softly reject any ideas Dawn had of ‘fixing’ she and Willow, the us of them. Dawn would mean well, but she was too young, and somehow after living the life she did, still believed in happy endings. And Tara didn’t have the energy to either absorb or reject that.

With a grounding inhale, she spoke, “What are you doing here?” Tara checked her watch. “Did you come straight from school?”

“Yeah, I came yesterday too, but I guess you weren’t in class,” Dawn shrugged.

“It was cancelled” Tara replied.  She had been so relieved, it was the closest she’d come to skipping another class. She had woken several times throughout the night in a panic and her nerves had been shot. This unexpected extra time had energized her. She even took the longer walk home, passing by the large oak she used to sit by and draw or study. She and Willow had had a sweet picnic there when they first started dating, all shy glances and nervous giggles, young lovers in love.

Tara had let herself remember as she touched the tree’s rough gray bark.

“Oh,” Dawn began, shaking Tara out of past stories and into the present. The teen had obviously taken note of Tara’s appearance. There was little hiding the effects of the stress and fatigue Tara had been under and Dawn openly stared while she twisted her fingers together in front of her. Or, maybe Dawn was just nervous. Either way Tara said nothing, waiting for the teen to continue.

“I’m so sorry Tara. I’m sorry for everything. For how I acted when…. when you left,” the younger girl nearly choked on that last word. As if to say, I am so tired of losing people.   Tara’s heart went out to her, but she knew she couldn’t have stayed even if would preserve Dawn’s heart.

“I understand, Dawn. I’m glad you’re here now, really glad.” At that, Dawn threw herself into Tara’s arms, squeezing her tight. Tara squeezed back with slightly less force, afraid to give in. As if withholding this comfort would help her keep from falling apart. Dawn didn’t seem to mind or notice though as she pulled back, still keeping Tara’s hands in hers. “Are you ok?”

Tara swallowed a sob and she pressed her lips together tightly, her brows knitting momentarily.  With a few blinks to smooth away the worry lines, she took a deep breath through her nose and out her mouth before offering, “I-I’m coping.” A reassuring nod followed the words.

“If you need anything, I’m here. We all are.”

“Thanks sweetie, I know,” Tara lied. Dawn, yes, Dawn would be there.

“And I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner, but I wasn’t sure if I should… like if you needed time or if,” the younger girl paused, shrugging a little, “I didn’t know if you hated me.”

Tara took the girl’s hands into her own and waited for Dawn to meet her eyes, her voice slow and careful, “Dawnie. Of course I don’t hate you. Never.”

Dawn smiled softly and squeezed her hands back, before sighing regretfully, “I have to go,” Dawn said and Tara hated the relief she felt when the younger girl did, she just didn’t have it in her right now to feel guilty over how Dawn was feeling. It was too much and she was starting to feel slightly lightheaded.

“I don’t want to” the younger woman continued, “but, um, Buffy’s expecting me at the Magic Box, so, um….”

Tara winced. That had stung, that had driven home that she was no longer part of that routine, even if by her own choice. She quickly shifted to a small smile, the biggest small smile she could manage right now, letting the teenagers hands drop as she spoke, “Ok sweetie, thanks for coming by.”

“Tara?”

Please go Dawn, before I fall apart. “Yeah?”

“Can we hang out, sometime soon?”

And yet I love this girl to bits. “I’m free Saturday.”

“Great!” Dawn beamed only momentarily, “Oh wait, I um, I don’t know how to get a hold of you,” she realized, the undercurrent of regret obvious.

Tara, determined to get through this conversation intact, offered a truce to their emotions, “Three p.m. at Frenchie’s.” she suggested, a sly knowing twinkle shining in her blue eyes.

Dawn’s own blue eyes grew big and sparkled with the love of sugar. “Ice cream date?” the teen beamed.

“Ice cream date.” Tara confirmed with a nod.

“Yay! Oh, I gotta go! I love you! I’ll see you then,” Dawn called over her shoulder as she made her way down the hall.

“Love you too, Dawnie.” Tara turned to head to her next course, shaken, but feeling a little less alone. A small half-smile graced her lips.