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Wilderness

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The past week Willow had done everything she could to keep busy and distracted. She had devoured the book on transmutations and was now indulging in a newer work on translocation with an equally ravenous appetite.

Scooby meetings had been infrequent, Buffy herself had been infrequent, arriving home after Willow most nights. Willow sometimes wondered if her housemate came home at all. Dawn largely avoided her, either shutting herself into her room or out at Janice’s house. It stung, but a part of Willow had been glad, Dawn looked at her and she could see the hurt she was avoiding reflected in light blue eyes.

Willow’d had coffee with Xander a few days after Tara left. A shudder of annoyance and betrayal shimmered then sat cold in her belly as she thought of that day. She remembered the white strain of her knuckles as she gripped her coffee mug, afraid if she loosened her grasp, she would cause a scene in the middle of the Espresso Pump. She liked the Espresso Pump and didn’t really want to be kicked out. But she had caused a scene, and left before a peeved barista had a chance to get to her.

“Maybe this should be a wake up call, Will” he said. “Tara loves you, she wouldn’t have left if she wasn’t really worried,” he said.

Willow had reacted. “If she were so worried then she wouldn’t have left!” Her anger was quick and biting, her eyes filling with tears looking to dispel some of the overwhelming emotion.

Xander had taken her hand and held it, had spoken softly, evenly. It made Willow feel like a child. “I think she’s scared, Willow. For you, yes. But also for herself. Will, what you did-"

Willow wrenched her hand out of his grip, more forcefully than necessary, and stood before him. Her voice, which started as a hiss, ended at the crescendo, “I know what I did! It was a mistake, it was a mistake and I can’t take it back! I can’t take it back Xander!” The tears were now a deluge dropping like a rainstorm off Willow’s trembling chin.

Xander had stood, hands outstretched, offering an embrace. “Will, I know,” he started, “I know how much pain you are in, I just think that there might be some things to learn from this.”

The young man felt his hands pushed away as Willow turned. He could hear the tight hitches of breath that interrupted his friend’s words.

“I didn’t need a lecture, Xander. I needed a friend. I need just one friend.” She walked slowly, leadenly, out the door, not even pausing when Xander reassured her that was always her friend.

And so, Willow spent most of her time away from the people who had so consistently been her world. A small part of herself nudged a bigger part to forgive Xander, to take in what he had to say, to recognize that he was trying to help. It nudged until it was swept away by the flood that was guilt and shame and despair, and that nudge was kept at bay on the other side of the dam Willow built back around herself.

Most nights were spent out with Amy, one-upping each other with magical dares. Late nights out meant sleepy mornings and days trying to catch up with school work and magical study. She had asked Amy how she had retained her skills after her long time as a rat. “I told you rat time is different,” Amy began before turning to Willow with a sly smile, “besides, I’m a witch. It’s in our blood.” Willow had beamed at that, the ‘our’. This was where she belonged, where she wanted to belong.

Amy was safe. Amy was fun- and most importantly, Amy was supportive. With Amy, Willow felt like she could be herself without judgment. If Willow wanted a blue drink instead of a pink one, Amy recognized what it was, a simple spell that hurt no one and made Willow happy. Besides, she and Amy were learning from each other. That levitation spell Amy had done had been wild.

Willow occupied her brain and if she thought of Tara- when she thought of Tara- she busied herself with spellwork, experimenting with different soothing charms. It was in the mornings when she caught off guard, right at that moment of waking. It was as if her defenses were too slow to rise, hitting snooze repeatedly while the reality of the loss of Tara buried Willow alive. This was the only time she cried, this was the only time she fully felt her heartbreak, until the pain inevitably kicked the defenses out of bed and they started to do their job.

Only, she had cried yesterday, during the day and well into the night. She had been so despondent, so in need of escape.

After her afternoon economics course, Willow had stood up from her seat in the lecture hall, rubbing her temples lightly as she swayed, woozy from lack of sleep. Equilibrium gathered, she proceeded out the hall doors and toward the campus coffee shop, hoping a piping hot double mocha would kick her brain into gear.

She had reached the halfway point to the Coffee Shack when she saw her. Tara was standing, arms folded protectively in a stance Willow recognized immediately. Tara’s gaze was upward, soft eyes seemingly dancing across the even lobes of leaves, reddish-brown against a late Autumn sky. Willow felt her sneaker scuff as she stopped abruptly in the middle of the campus pathway. She inhaled sharply and then unwittingly held her breath as she watched Tara’s long fingers trace along the grey ridges of the oak tree. Tara’s touch was reverent and solemn, each stroke like the lines of a melancholy poem, spoken only to the oak.

Without exhaling, Willow pulled in a shaky breath then felt her tired, mushy mind begin to breakdown on itself. She stood, unmoving, a lighthouse in a sea of students who blew past her like a windstorm. Green eyes could not tear themselves away, and with every second of that look, Willow felt her dam fragment, slowly ushering in the murky waters of heartbreak and grief and loss. She stood and she was swimming. She stood and she was drowning. Until, like a buoy being tossed from the side of a ship, Willow was dislodged from her frozen, drowning state by a young woman rushing to get somewhere that was else. “Sorry!” the dark –haired girl called over her shoulder as she scurried on. Willow watched her leave, her senses still on overload, until she turned her gaze back to Tara. Tara was kneeling now, her long blue and green patterned skirt pooling at her feet, and gathering her belongings. Willow fled, darting the direction opposite from the Coffee Shack, opposite from Tara. She wondered now if Tara had seen her. If she had felt her.

Willow headed directly for the lot where Joyce’s, now Buffy’s, SUV was parked, walking so quickly she was constantly at risk of stumbling. She absently reminded herself to thank Buffy for letting her use the car. Not that Buffy had agreed, or not agreed, she had pretty much just grunted when Willow had asked. She'd decided to take that as a yes. The bus had been fine, but now, without Tara, the long ride just provided too much time to think. The car was quick and driving kept her mind busy.

By the time she reached the asphalt she had the keys squeezed in her right palm, ready for use. With a tense grip and eyes fixed on her destination, Willow fled. This had been the first time she had seen Tara since- the thought jolted Willow to a halt in front of the driver’s door. She momentarily placed her palm against the warm metal roof, taking deep breaths to combat the threat of the tears stinging in the back of her eyes. Shaking hands unlocked the door, and Willow drove.
She drove too fast and blared music obnoxiously, but she couldn’t think. Thinking meant falling apart. Falling apart meant unbearable pain, so Willow turned up the heavy bass of the Chili Peppers and pressed her foot down on the gas pedal.

Pulling fast into the driveway, nearly missing the mailbox, Willow jerked the parking brake, pulled out the keys, abruptly ending the blaring song, and shut the door behind her. She turned to walk to the front door and noticed Amy sitting on the front step of the porch, a bemused smile across her lips.

“What’s up, party Willow?” Amy stood with eyebrows raised in amusement, and met her halfway up the front walk.

Willow froze. In spite of the music, she had imagined herself dashing through the front and flying head first onto her bed. She had imagined wailing into her pillow, the slow jagged shards of heartbreak burrowing into her chest. This wasn’t her plan and she was at a loss of how to be. She stood, head bowed, arms crossed protectively around her torso, crinkling her jean jacket and pushing a metal button painfully against her rib. She gave a quick glance up as she shifted from foot to foot “Hey.” She mumbled, dropping her gaze back down to her shoes.

Amy frowned slightly as she ducked a little to see the tear streaked face. “What’s up? Bad day?”

With a shrug, Willow shifted again, “I just, I-“

Amy cut in, wanting to forestall the fresh tears she saw gathering in Willow’s eyes, “Hey, I wanted to see if you wanted to go for dinner. Dad is preparing for a date and I so need to not be near that.” She finished with a bright smile, hoping to lighten Willow’s mood.

“Oh, yeah,” Willow nodded, the offer reminding her of the distraction she was looking for. With a deep breath she finally raised her head, meeting her friend’s eyes. “Just, um, need a few minutes to change.”

Amy took a step back and cocked her head to the side, giving her friend an appraising look. She waved her hand in a vaguely figure eight pattern. “Fidentia induviae.” She took another step back and gave a satisfied nod, “Presto Chang-o! Let’s go-o.”

Amy snickered at herself, then admired Willow’s newly acquired outfit- flattering dark jeans and an emerald blouse with fluttered sleeves. Damn, I’m good, Amy thought with a quick blow across her fingertips.

Willow fingered the newly formed curl in her hair, taking a quick glance at her wardrobe change. “Can we go somewhere with alcohol?”

“Of course” Amy said brightly as the girls began their walk to downtown. After a pause she hedged, “What happened?”

“I saw Tara,” Willow said simply, though the deep catch in Willow’s voice as she said her ex-girlfriend’s name did not go unnoticed. She took her leather jacket, now slung across her arm, and slipped it on with a slight shiver. The air was cooling quickly in the early November evening, but the jacket was for comfort as much as the cold.

“Oh wow, lots and lots of alcohol” Amy nodded as she slipped her arm through Willow’s, directing them toward their destination at a determined, and peppy, pace. She was worried for Willow, she was sad for her. But she also really really just wanted to have a good time tonight. She had a lot of time to make up for. It’s not like the world had waited for her.

The two women settled at a small round bar table, Willow needing to use the adjoining stool to hoist herself up. Willow immediately took a large swig of her Cape Cod before she realized Amy had held her own drink up for a toast.

“Oh.” Clink. “What, um, what are we cheersing?”

There was a moment’s pause as Amy pulled in nearly half of her Whiskey Sour. With a satisfied gasp for air, she grinned at the other woman, “Freedom. And Happy Hour!”

“Well, I’m with you on Happy Hour, but freedom doesn’t seem like the right word-“ Willow cut herself off and shut her eyes briefly, “you mean, the not being a rat thing, not the me- the me nothing- yay for freedom from cages and tails and whiskers and cheese- although not really cheese cause I mean, who doesn’t like cheese? Well maybe if someone was lactose intolerant-"

This time Amy stopped her, “Will, it’s all good. And I didn’t mean just that. I know you are hurting right now but think about it, we’re young, hot, bad ass witches. The world is at our fingertips. What better time to be single?” Amy put up her hand when she saw the protest forming on Willow’s lips. “Or, maybe Tara-“ she paused and took another drink, a crinkle rising on her brow as she looked squarely at her friend, “Do you want her back?”

Willow sat back slightly, surprised by the question. “Yes! More than anything!”

“More than magic?” Amy leaned back on her seat, “That’s what she wants you to give up.”

“I know,” anxious fingers began tearing small squares out of a drink napkin. “And I’d like to think I would do anything for her. But, its- its such a big part of me, I just- I need it--- to keep people safe, I just wish Tara would see, that she would understand and we could put this whole thing behind us.”

“Yeah…. Well look, she either will or she won’t.”

“What if she doesn’t?” Wide, pleading, green eyes again begged for reassurance.

“Will, I get that you love her,” Amy started, looking into her nearly empty drink, shaking the ice around to gather more liquid. She waved at a cocktail server, keeping one eye on his arrival as she continued. “But do you really want to be with someone who doesn’t want you to be who you are- to be powerful?”

There was a pause in the conversation as each girl ordered another round. Willow watched the server tuck his paper notebook into his apron and walk towards the bar before she spoke again, her voice low and confessional.

“I hurt her-"

“You were just doing what you had to.”

“No- I mean-"

“Look, Will people hurt each other. And then they decide if they can forgive each other or not. It’s that simple.”

“It just, it hurts. It hurts so much being without her. I don’t know if I can-” Willow tucked her head down and to the side, wiping away the forming tears as the server returned and placed their drinks in front of them.

Amy placed her hand on his arm, “Can we get the check?”

“Of course,” the server reached into his pocket again and placed the bill in front of Amy, he smiled and walked to the table behind them.

“You’re having a bad time, aren’t you?” Willow’s voice rose up panicked and ashamed, “I’m sorry. I’m trying, I really am, but I can’t- ” Shakiness overtook her voice as a sob rose up. Willow caught it in her hand, cupped around her nose and mouth. She was crying again, she couldn’t seem to hold back, not after seeing Tara, after being so close and so far away from the woman she loved.

“I can’t stand feeling this way. I feel like I’m dying. Like everything in me is just rotting away.” Replaying the words in her head, Willow sighed loudly and shook her head, trying to play off the dramatic statement. Despite its truth.

She took an unsteady sip of her drink and then attempted a smile through still trembling lips, “Isn’t there a way to magic this alcohol to work faster?” She giggled pathetically, slumping her shoulders forward at the sound. Willow covered her mouth to catch a broken sob, “I can’t take it, it’s so much. I need – do you know a spell or anything? Like what you did at the Bronze? Only, I think- I need more, I just need to forget.”

Amy quirked an eye at the distraught woman, “Finish your drink. I know of a place.” She stood before Willow had a change to agree, downing her Whiskey Sour and pulling her jacket sleeves over her light sweater.

Thrown by the abrupt move, Willow just watched until Amy raised an eyebrow at her. Willow took in the rest of her drink, sputtering as the alcohol burned in her chest. “Right behind you.”

Willow pulled her jacket tighter around her torso as she warily took in her surroundings. They were in a narrow alley near the warehouse district, walls lined with large dumpsters and enormous metal roll up doorways, all shut. The wind was concentrated in the narrow space and several degrees cooler as it rolled in off the ocean. Willow looked ahead to her friend, Amy’s chunky heeled boots clacking with each confident step.

“Um, Amy?” Willow finally hedged, her skin rippling with goosebumps. She hated the feel of this place. She wasn’t afraid, she knew she could take care of herself. But, something in her bones told her this place was- wrong.

“Shhhh. I’m trying to feel -” Amy splayed her fingers, her gaze shifting back and forth in a small arc in front of her.

“Feel what? Diseased ra- um, mice scurrying across your feet?”

“No, I’m looking for his place, it’s cloaked, but I think it’s-” Dropping her hands, Amy turned to Willow with a wide smile. She jerked her head to the empty space. “Here. Ready?”

“It’s cloaked?” Willow asked, clearly impressed. Amy nodded, eyebrows raised. “Who’s place is this?”

Amy turned to Willow and smiled, a mischievous gleam in her eyes, “Rack’s.”

Two young women stepped through an unseen door.