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Wilderness

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Awkward. Everything felt awkward and it was pissing Willow off. She had arrived at the Magic Box hoping to refocus herself in a neutral but homey place, but from the moment she walked in Anya had been squirrely. The shop owner had been both overly-friendly and stand-offish, asking too many questions about Willow’s intent with the benzoin resin and then watching her out of the corner of her eye for the next forty-five minutes as Willow read.

Xander arrived just as Anya was flipping the open sign to close and the awkward became uncomfortable. The lifelong friends exchanged pleasantries and idle chit chat but every word held a tone of the strain between them. Since their argument, they had only seen each other briefly at the few Scooby meetings that were held. They had played their parts - Willow studious, Xander making goofy inappropriate remarks - but there was something shallow in the way they interacted. Willow thought back to Freshman year when the group started drifting apart, how hurt she had been back then, feeling deserted by her found family. She rolled her eyes as she watched Anya guide Xander behind the cash register, her hand cupping his elbow. Willow felt out of place. It was strange, she had been in this exact chair reading at this table and had watched Anya and Xander sneak off to the side countless times. Couples did that. Tara and I used to all the time, she thought before closing her eyes tightly and stopping the flow of bittersweet memories. Instead, a flush of loneliness imbued her, its effect rushing like air released and finding every corner of her insides to fill.

Quickly, she shook the feeling off, as she lifted her head and jutted out her jaw. I’m in a different place now, Willow reminded herself, I know I’m important and they need me.

The confidence she had summoned faded as soon as she saw Anya’s quick eyes darting between where she sat and Xander’s face. When Xander also shot a look in her direction, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck ripple. With a mumbled incantation, the whispered conversation was now distinct to Willow’s ears.

“What do you mean?” She heard Xander question.

Anya darted her eyes toward Willow again before leaning in closer to her fiancé, “She makes me nervous.”

“Why?” 

“I just, I don’t know how to be around her anymore,” Anya wrung her hands together, her left thumb rubbing into the other palm.

Xander shot a quick glance at his friend before turning his back more fully toward her and confessed, “She’s definitely been on the big magic-mama train-“

That was all Willow needed to hear. She quickly ended the amplification spell, shoved her book in her bag, and left the store. The bell rang, muting Xander’s voice calling her name. The door slammed with a thud.

Willow marched down the street, her mind buzzing as her body tightened with anger. Over and over, she told herself that she didn’t need this. She was stronger, she was powerful and capable. She thought about the summer, how she had taken Buffy’s mantle, led the group the best way she knew how. It had all been on her shoulders and she had stepped up.

And now?!, And now, they don’t know how to be around me anymore?? her thoughts were furious as both hands tightened into fists. Fucking HYPOCRITES!!! Fucking ungrateful hypocrites!!!

Wearing an obvious scowl, Willow fumed her way back to Revello Drive, kicking two different trash cans along the way. The view of the TV flashing through the large curtains slowed her steps and she panted, not even realizing she was out of breath. Dawn was home. She didn’t want to bring this into the house; Dawn had finally stopped edging around her and Willow didn’t want her foul mood to ruin anything. She rolled her shoulders back once and counted her breaths until her heart beat slowed. Calmer, she walked up the front steps and keyed into the house.

Dawn turned quickly hearing someone come through the door. She was mid-stand, an expectant and worried look on her face as Willow stepped into the living room. Dawn visibly deflated and she sighed “Oh” disappointedly, and sank back into the couch.

“Not who you were expecting?” Willow asked, trying to mask the sting from Dawn’s reaction.

“Oh, sorry,” Dawn mumbled, pulling her legs in tighter as she burrowed under a blanket, “I’m just waiting for Buffy.”

Willow regarded the teenager, her brow knitting slightly as she realized how tense the girl looked.

“Dawn?”

“Yeah?” the teen asked, her voice impassive, her eyes still glued to the TV, effectively ignoring the older girl.

Willow waited, trying to figure out what was happening. After a few moments of silence, Dawn turned her head toward Willow, wondering why she hadn’t finished her question. Blue eyes looked up, red-rimmed and puffy and Willow rushed forward; sitting at the end of the couch.

“Dawn, what’s wrong, sweetie?” Willow placed a hand on the top of one of Dawn’s covered feet, squeezing lightly.

“Oh, um, I- just watching a sad movie” Dawn replied, avoiding Willow’s gaze and shifting her own eyes back to the TV screen. She gently tugged her foot back from under Willow’s touch.

Willow didn’t turn her head to check the screen, she could hear what sounded like a rerun of Party of Five. Sure, it had its share of ‘very special episodes’, but Dawn was distraught and her explanation rang false. With a sigh, Willow rose, realizing that Dawn wasn’t going to share with her, not like she used to.

She turned to go upstairs when a sudden chill ran through her. Dawn saw Tara earlier. Buffy had said they were having an ice cream date.

Voice trembling, Willow forced the question out, not knowing what Dawn’s reaction would be, but fearing and needing an answer.“Is- is,” she began, “ I mean, it’s not Tara, right?”

“What?”Dawn squeaked, looking at Willow for the second time that night.

Willow shifted her stance and rubbed her palms together. She suddenly felt like this wasn’t her business, and that shamed her, but she couldn’t not know, “I mean, you saw her today right? Is- is she ok?”

“She’s-“ Dawn faltered, moving her gaze back to her lap. Tara was hurting so much, something was really really wrong and Dawn wanted her to be okay. And maybe Willow could make it okay. Except, Willow was why Tara was – what? Dawn questioned herself. Sad? Broken? Destroyed? Tara never said it was related to Willow. But, Dawn thought, it had to have been the breakup. Seeing Tara so distraught Dawn had thought maybe it was a lingering effect of that memory erasing spell Willow did, but no one else seemed affected, so…. And if it was something else entirely? No one knew Tara like Willow. It was true, right now Willow wasn’t Dawn’s favorite person but maybe, she realized, that wasn’t totally fair. If she hadn’t known Willow practically her whole life, she could have, would have, shut the metaphorical door on Willow, but that wasn’t the truth. The truth was that Willow had always been good to her, even when Dawn was a nosy 5th grader trying to hang with the cool high school kids. Dawn had looked up to Willow, at least until Faith had come along and her admiration shifted to the rebellious and confidant Slayer. And look what happened there. But with Willow, they’d shared a love of knowledge and books. Willow had even gotten she and Dawn matching Ravenclaw scarves. What if it was something else? Tara might need Willow. They were split now, but Dawn couldn’t believe it would last forever. They were… Willow and Tara. It didn’t get more right than that.

Once more, Dawn looked up at Willow, noticing the evident worry in the pull of taut lips, the wide eyes that were both vulnerable and guarded. But, Dawn remembered, Tara had made her promise not to say anything, She had been so upset when she thought Willow would know about the panic attack. Dawn knew Tara wouldn’t want to upset Willow. Upset them both since they couldn’t be there for each other. Couldn’t they?

She had been waiting, nerves tingling with worry, to hear if Tara was better. She hadn’t even thought of dealing with Willow, had just sat with a low simmering anger at the redhead. That maybe wasn’t even totally warranted. No, Dawn decided, Willow didn’t need to know. Deciding didn’t make her any less uncomfortable. Squirming uneasily, she turned her gaze back to the TV.

“Yeah- she’s fine. We had ice cream.”

Willow just stood, limbs made of stone and an expression that was heartbreakingly resigned. She knew she was being kept out, she was being punished continuously and she had learned from when Oz left, no one wanted to hear about her pain. Still, Willow needed to be at peace with something, someone. And she needed to know that Tara was ok.

Inhaling shakily, she asked in a low, weedy, voice, “Did you have fun? With Tara today?” Her gaze was pleading slightly with a hue both hopeful and lost.

Willow’s question was unexpected and the younger woman could not stop the tears that suddenly pooled. Dawn blinked her eyes rapidly to rid them of the evidence and she cleared her throat once. She couldn’t look at Willow, she was too transparent right now.

“Um, yeah,” Dawn finally offered with a single shoulder shrug, “it was fun.”

Silently, Willow absorbed the fact that Dawn was not going to engage. She turned and took the stairs to her bedroom, arms wrapped tightly around her slender torso.

The room felt empty, bereft. The weight of the day threatened to pull her under water. And there she would drown if she didn’t fight. She looked at the phone on her nightstand wondering if she should call Amy. But Amy wasn’t the company she wanted and the truth of that saturated the barren room. Unravelling, Willow pulled a red fabric coat on, placed her purse strap over her shoulder, and walked down the stairs and out the door. Neither she nor Dawn said a word as she left.