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The knock at the door raised Tara out of her nap. Unsure of who would be visiting her, she approached cautiously, despite the fact that whoever was on the other side of the closed door wouldn’t be able to tell. Slowly, she opened the door to see Buffy, her ponytailed hair and solid shoes indicating that the Slayer was on her way to patrol. Either that, or she’s here to kick my ass, Tara thought only in partial seriousness, knowing how protective Buffy could be about Willow.

“Buffy, hey.” Tara’s brow crinkled slightly as she tipped her head slightly to left and waved the other woman inside.

“Hey, Tara,” Buffy returned, taking in the rumbled clothing and slight glazed looked Tara was wearing, she cringed apologetically, “Were you sleeping?”

“Mmm,” Tara half nodded, half shrugged, “I was half-asleep.”

“Mmm,” Buffy repeated, “I just, well Dawn… we wanted to make sure you were ok. So, I’m doin that, checking in.” Buffy shifted her weight from foot to foot, her attention clearly split and she looked, to Tara, like she would rather be anywhere else.

A mixture of shame and hurt ran through Tara as she ducked her head, eyes fixed on the short beige loops of carpet at her feet, “Tell D-Dawnie I’m fine, th-thankyou for checking on me.”

“Ok,” Buffy responded, preparing herself to leave. She turned, grateful that she wasn’t being asked to comfort Tara. . Dawn had practically begged Buffy to check in on Tara and at the time it hadn’t seemed like a big ask. But an uneasiness had settled into Buffy as she made her way toward Dormer Hall. Before, Tara had been sick, it was physical and there were actions to take. The Slayer had taken charge. But now, Buffy was just a woman who had encased herself in nothingness, who had nothing to give. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, she just didn’t care enough, because after being brought back to life those few months ago, nothing seemed that important anymore. And yet, everyone kept wanting from her, asking her for more.

At this she paused at Tara’s door. She isn’t asking for anything, she never does, Buffy realized. With an audible exhale, Buffy pulled slightly out from the walls she had built for herself, unable to shut out Tara’s ache; simply because the other woman was asking for nothing. Buffy turned around to again face her friend. She looked, really looked at Tara, who stood in a flowy black cardigan, arms wrapped so tightly around herself she was almost cocooned.

A sudden mental image brought a short burst of laughter from Buffy’s mouth. It was absurd and out of place and left Buffy wondering if she’d finally cracked. Tara looked up sharply, staring directly at the woman who seemed to be mocking her, silently daring her to continue. Buffy waved her hand in front of face as if her mirth was an irritating fly, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Buffy continued to giggle, “It’s just you look like a bat.” She gestured vaguely toward Tara.

Tara met this comparison with a raised eyebrow, “And,” Buffy continued, “I’m on my way to patrol, and bats, vampires,” she continued, waving her hand to try and demonstrate the connection, losing her steam along the way. “I just thought it was fitting that I was here, and for some reason it was really funny in my head.”

“You, um, may w-want to think about getting a hobby,” Tara raised the left side of her mouth, left eye squinting as if to meet the slight smile. Buffy returned with a slight grin, her fleeting amusement gone, but there was still a spark of warmth in her eyes. The silliness had broken the awkwardness down, if only a notch, and she and Tara regarded each other.

A sudden and audible intake of air signaled that Tara was about to speak. The familiarity of the action elicited a small smile from Buffy. “I do appreciate you being here Buffy, making sure I’m ok, I’m s-sure it can’t be comfortable.”

“It’s n-,” Buffy started to protest, then sighed through her nose, “Everything’s kind of uncomfortable right now Tara.” Her tone was matter of fact, but the words struck Tara soundly.

“I’m so sorry, god Buffy, if we knew, I w-well, if I knew, if I had had any idea…” A worried burrow creased Tara’s brow and she shook her head side to side.

“You didn’t know,” Buffy reminded, not softly but not accusing either, “Besides, we’re not here to talk about that.” Crossing the carpeted floor to sit in Tara desk chair, Buffy indicated she intended to stay.

“I didn’t think there was an itinerary,” Tara let out with what was meant to be a giggle and turned out a mirthless, breathy laugh.

Buffy folded her hands in her lap and leaned forward, her full attention on Tara now, “How are you, really?”

“Um- I-I’m coping, you know, it’s hard, but- it’ll take time, right?” Tara moved to the end of her bed and sat, mirroring Buffy. “Tara, I’m sorry to say this, but you look like death, believe me I’ve seen…. Sorry, have you been having a lot of these attacks?”

“N-no, not like that,” Tara reassured. She wanted to talk to someone, she needed to. After so many years of silence, of locking emotions inside, Willow had shown her the power - the gift - of being heard. But Buffy wasn’t Willow. She was Willow’s best friend. Willow’s friend. It wasn’t like there were sides, but there were loyalties. And Tara wasn’t sure she had the right to ask for any loyalty from Buffy.

“Should I be ruling out the Hellmouth?” Buffy asked. “I-I don’t think its- its anything like that,” Buffy saw Tara pull into herself. Tara’s head lowered, hidden behind loose locks. Her arms pressed against her sides, hands nervously squeezing together in her lap where she had crossed her legs on the bed. Tara’s voice was even, almost detached, even as it softened, “Th-these, um, I used to get, h-have them. They got worse for a while after my m-mother died.”

Buffy studied Tara’s hands, fingers twisting and pressing, “I’m so sorry.”

“I kn-know you know how h-hard that is,” Tara looked up quickly, the understanding of those who have lost their mothers unspoken between them. “I did-didn’t know wh-what they were,” Tara sighed out, “At first.”

Buffy felt horrible about it, but she wanted to run, these reminders, this pain pulling her back to the fact that she had been ripped out of paradise. It hurt. But Buffy hadn’t heard Tara stutter like this since her family… Oh god, Buffy realized, Her family.

Tara had been Dawn’s family even before Buffy died, she still was the best adult in Dawn’s life, Giles included. She owed Tara to stay. As much as she wanted to bolt, to find Spike and forget, she cared enough to stay. With hesitation Buffy asked, “What did you think they were before?” She started to move her hand to Tara’s shin, hoping the touch would comfort her, but her reach stalled and Buffy pulled back.

The almost touch left a void, and Tara pulled her knees up to fill it, pressing them into her front body, arms wrapped securely around them. Tara shifted her gaze to the right, brow knit in consideration of how much she could share. She rocked herself back and forth a few times.

Then, with a deep inhale, she began, “I th-thought they were - the…” Tara couldn’t say it. Her eyes lowered to the floor and her mouth slightly opened, allowing more breath and protecting her from suffocating on the pain.

“Demon?” Tara looked up at Buffy’s direct question, “You thought it was the demon?” Buffy’s hazel eyes met Tara’s blue as Tara slowly nodded. Shadowed eyes dropped again as Tara bit her lip nervously. Buffy shook her head slightly, still disbelieving how cruel humans could be to each other, as cruel as any demon out there.

“My, um,” Tara continued, surprising Buffy, “My f-father said that my mom used to h-have them too, that it made her s-sicker, that it was the demon, f-fed by our magic,” Tara shook her head, soft wisps of hair caressing her shoulders, “I n-never saw it, but I knew she would get so s-stressed, so maybe.”

“So when did you realize what it really was? When did you stop having them?” Buffy’s voice was gentle and it was only partially forced.

“Freshman year I took a Psych course, l-learned about panic attacks and d-did more research, but even then, there- a was p-part of me that still believed, because I felt so out of control when they happened. I would have t-times when I c-couldn’t con-connect with my body. My momma helped with that, the magic, the meditation, it let me feel whole again. And I learned to con-control them when around my father, mostly. I had to.” Tara shook her head, “Today caught me by surprise. I, um, I stopped h-having them after my twentieth birthday.”

Buffy paused. She nodded her head, taking in what Tara was sharing with her, then with hesitancy asked, “Do you think they came back because of Willow?”

“Yes, but not just be-because I left, it’s like I am being haunted by things, things I thought had put behind me. I thought I w-was stronger.”

“Tara, what you’ve been through, the fact that you are who you are today, that is the strongest thing I have ever seen.” Buffy paused, “I told Dawn, before…. I told her that the hardest thing in this world was to live in it, to be strong, be brave. So, as role models go, you are pretty much tops for strong and brave.”

“Thank you,” Tara whispered, Buffy’s praise causing a bashful flush that reddened Tara’s cheeks.

Finally making contact, Buffy placed her hand over Tara’s still clasped hands. “You gonna be okay?”

Tara looked up from behind her hair and nodded, accepting the concern offered her. ”Yeah, I’ll be okay,” she added.

Tara stood and walked Buffy to the door. The two women embraced and Tara lightly caught Buffy’s arm as the other woman turned to go. “Buffy, please don’t tell Willow.”

She asked for loyalty.

The Slayer regarded her with understanding, “I won’t.”

“Thank you, for, you know” Tara exhaled as she sighed, her blue eyes darting up and away.

“You’re family, Tara, that hasn’t changed.”

A small smile, both grateful and wistful, graced Tara’s lips. She nodded. “Say thanks to Dawn for me?”

“Of course, take care of yourself.”

Tara watched the door close behind Buffy. She remained facing the door as she sat on her single bed, placing her clasped hands in lap. She knew she had to deal with this, wishful thinking that it would just pass on its own was going nowhere. She needed to face these demons.