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Wilderness

Chapter Text

The scent of honeysuckle imbued the morning air, its warmth and citrus carried by the light breeze, caressing Tara’s senses. She hugged her wool sweater tight around her small, ten-year old frame, inhaling deeply. Content, simple, and complete. Wide blue eyes drifted open revealing the world. And at the center of that world was her mother, humming softly as she gathered lemon balm, sage, and juniper. Today was Saturday, hunting day for Daddy and Donny, and the day Tara spent the morning listening to her mother, her voice soft and reverent, as she spoke about the plants’ magical and medicinal uses.  Tara smiled, enraptured.

Shadow crept across the screen, distorting that smile, its presence visceral and bleak. Dread clawed in Tara’s chest, her young features melting into a horror made from guilt. She watched as her mother’s form, her bright tulip colors, was swallowed and rendered gray. A dark silhouette against a monochrome world.  Tara squeezed her eyes shut, denying the vision before her.

“You have a gift, Tarebear.” It was her mother’s voice again, its soft tenor unmistakable; Tara opened her eyes to a smiling face. “I am going to show you how to use it,” her mother continued as she stroked her daughter’s cheek.

“I have a gift Tarebear” the voice shifted to a more recent familiarity. Tara stared where green eyes, wide with curious impatience, had replaced her mother’s blue. “We both do. We shouldn’t turn our back on it.”

“Why do you think this is happening?!” her father roared and Tara was suddenly in her mother’s kitchen, slightly slumped over the counter as her knuckles whitened with the fierce grip she held on its edge.“You can’t even control it, can you? Do you even want to? Do you like being an evil thing?”

 Tara felt Donny’s presence as he was now sat on the counter next to where she stood. He leaned his body toward her, his sneering face inches from her own. “Whatcha gonna do about it, sis?”

Alone again, Tara sat on the edge of her old bed in her childhood home. It felt wrong, she was grown now, and had left that place behind. Something was scratching in her right palm. She unclenched her grip and turned her hand over, opening it to reveal a sprig of Lethe’s bramble. She looked up and into darkened green eyes and Willow whispered, “Forget.” 

The shrill of the phone pulled her awake but not aware. Tara instinctively curled her body into a fetal pose as she tried to make sense of the insistent noise, trying to separate the sound from the ghosts of her dream. The doctor had called, because Tara hadn’t been there, hadn’t been allowed to be there. What if she drained her mother again?

Two rings, then three, and things finally clicked, this was the here and now, and someone else was calling. But this dream had been so vivid, so accurate. It clutched.

Tara stumbled out of bed and across the looped carpet, picking up the receiver just before her answering machine would have clicked on. Her sleep addled voice croaked and split, “Hello?”

“Tara?”

“Dawnie? What’s- What time is it?” Rubbing her free hand across her face, Tara turned and checked her clock.

“12:23, and I’m ok and I’m sorry I woke you, especially after–“ worry and fear laced Dawn’s words as she stumbled on, “I mean, I tried to call Xander but no one picked up.”

“No, its ok. You can always call me,” Tara said, her mind working arduously to clear the rest of the remaining fog, “Wha’s goin’ on? Is someone- is everyone ok?”

There was a slight pause before Dawn answered, “There not here.”

“Who? No one’s there? Are you alone?”

“Yeah, a- and I’m trying not to be a wuss about it, but it’s late and-“ Dawn’s voice tapered away.

“You’re scared.” Tara pulled the phone into her as she sat cross-legged on the floor.

“I guess.”

“Do you want me to come over?” Tara offered softly, sincerely.

The drizzle that had been falling for the last hour quickened to a downpour pulling Dawn’s attention to the living room window. The drapes were closed, but the slight wavy part where the two pieces met let a glimpse of the outside world in. Dawn had been fixated on this sliver of the night until she had finally called Tara, too scared not to.

“No, Tara, it's way too late,” the tone was uncertain, “Just if you could stay on the phone with me for a while?”

“Dawnie, are you sure? It’s n-not a problem to come over, just until someone comes home.” Tara stood up, already gathering a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.

“But….. what about Willow?”

“If…” Tara stilled momentarily before drawing in a steadying breath, “I mean, it’s not about Willow, it’s about you.”

“What was that?” Dawn gasped, startling Tara. She heard Dawn shifting on the other end of the line.

Tara stood paralyzed, her heart thrumming. Her vision began to swim.

Keep it together, Maclay.

Taking a deep breath she pushed away memories of footsteps; of loud abrupt sounds echoing from her childhood living room. “Dawn? Dawnie? What do you hear?”

“I don’t know,” Dawn rushed out, “I- it’s probably nothing. Just like wind through the trees or something. It's kinda stormy out so I’m sure it's just, like storm sounds, right?”

Tara waited and listened, realizing the sounds of rain pouring down. The natural sound reacclimated her to the present and she felt a sigh of recognition leave her. “Okay, Dawnie, I’m coming over.”

Also releasing a small sigh of relief, Dawn attempted a last, obligatory, rebuttal, “But, the storm, and you’ll get soggy shoes.”

A small chuckle tickled Dawn’s ears, “Have you seen my boots? Besides,” Tara pulled on and  laced said boots, her tone falling into a familiar mock-solemnity, “Witches like storms, it’s like Mother Nature is throwing a rager.”

The words sounded so unnatural, yet so endearing, being spoken by the shy woman who so carefully chose her words.

A fond smile was clear in Dawn’s voice, “A rager?”

They both chuckled and Tara could almost see the playful roll of Dawn’s eyes.

“Will you call a cab?” Dawn asked, serious again.

In her room, Tara nodded, “Yes, I will call a cab. I’ll be there soon, everything will be fine, Dawn, okay?”

“Thanks Tara.”

“See you soon.” Tara triggered the hook-switch and dialed for a cab.

Thirty minutes later Tara arrived. She was drenched during the short walk from the curb to the Summers’ door. Afraid to further startle the young woman waiting for her, she rapped softly. Tara saw the drapes shift and wide blue eyes peer out to check who was at the door. The sides of Tara’s lips pulled up into a small smile, the Slayer’s sister, she thought with amused pride.

The door opened, and Dawn pulled Tara in by her sleeve. Without letting go, Dawn shut and locked the door behind her and threw her arms around Tara. Tara returned the embrace fully.

“Ugh!” Dawn protested teasingly, “You’re soaked!”

“Hazard of travelling when raining,” Tara half smiled and bobbed her head wisely, “Besides, you’re the one who hugged the soaked woman.”

“Duh,” Dawn smiled and took Tara by the hand, “C’mon, I’ll make you some tea. And, um, lay down a towel for you.”

“Ha ha,” Tara retorted as she tugged Dawn back slightly. Tara released the other girl’s hand and slipped off her raincoat, hanging it on the hooks just inside the front door. Dropping her hands to her sides, she followed Dawn into the kitchen.

Plates were stacked in the sink, a sugar container left in the middle of the counter, white granules surrounding it. A slight coffee stain sat on the floor. A wave of guilt rushed Tara as she took in the disarray. Her brow creased in self-judgment and she drew in a deep breath, trying to shake the feeling, It’s not that bad, a few missed things. Guilt was smothered by a prevalent sense of dread. A stern male voice rang in her ears This is your ONLY contribution! You think you’re above it? Do you? Seconds stretched into a void of time and Tara swayed. She grasped the door jam, digging her nails into the wood, imploring for some physical pain to pull her out of the fog.

It was a resonant CLANG that brought her back, as Dawn put another plate on the dirty stack, its weight causing the balance to over shift.

 “…. Or herbal?” Tara caught.

“Um, h-herbal, please. You too, you should have herbal.”

“Yeah, I know. Besides, I like the berry flavor.” Dawn faced the counter, pulling tea bags out a drawer and ripping open the pouches. The kettle sounded and Dawn carefully poured the water over the herbs. “Um, Tara?” She hedged, her head lowered bashfully as she held out a steaming drink, housed in a mug inscribed with the Magic Box logo. “Thank you, for coming over, I know you had a hard day.”

Tara reached out and gently grasped the mug, holding it stationary between their hands before drawing it close. She felt the heat warm her abdomen.

“I am always here for you Dawn, you’re family, remember?”

“Yeah, especially when my real family is nowhere to be seen,” Dawn flashed a sincere smile at the older woman as she moved past her and into the living room. Real family Tara echoed internally, the trivial phrase suffocating her. Stop it! Tara steeled herself, eyes closed, mouth pursed, a short blunt exhale through her nose. She was always sensitive, she liked that about herself, but she wasn’t this raw, this insecure. Not anymore. Except, for the last few weeks, this was exactly how she had been feeling. The world felt barren, a sea that had withered away, leaving dry cracked earth in its wake, the sky open and hostile; and Tara walked without armor.

No, Tara resolved, not here. Not with Dawn. And despite the ferocious wind, Tara knew here she was sheltered. Blowing on her tea, Tara returned to the living room and sat beside Dawn. She took a sip before setting the mug on the coffee table.

“Wanna watch TV?” Dawn pulled her sock covered feet onto the couch and tucked them under her thighs.

Tara turned her head and looked at Dawn. A silent moment passed and Tara smiled shyly, gratitude lifting the corners of her lips.

“Sure.” Tara bent over and unlaced her boots, mirroring Dawn’s pose as soon as they were off.

Tara giggled as she watched Dawn fish for the remote; she laughed aloud when Dawn’s arm disappeared into the recesses of the couch, then at the triumphant expression that declared “Eureka!” on Dawn’s face as she yanked her arm free and held the remote above her head.

“Goof,” Tara giggled again, shaking her head in merriment.

The women sat snuggled together, watching late night cartoons and drinking the tea away. Tara knew in time that Dawn would ask questions: about where Buffy and Willow could be, about what had happened at the ice cream parlor just hours ago.

A slight weight lay against her left shoulder as Dawn rested her head and Tara leaned her own head in kind. She hooked her hand around Dawn’s and squeezed once, her eyes never leaving the television screen, where the images blurred in formless animation, an afterthought in her vision. 

Thoughts battled in her mind, concern tumbling over anger, fear grappling with hope. Dawn had mentioned ditches, still close enough to her childhood to use the phrase earnestly. “What if they’re in a ditch somewhere?” And Tara had of course reassured her that no one was in a ditch. Buffy could more than take care of herself, and Willow, as powerful as she had become, would be able to handle almost anything that came her way. With magic. That magic which had taken Willow away, that Willow had chosen over her. That now Tara was grateful for because it meant that Willow could protect herself. It would have been ironic, but the magic wasn’t why Tara left. It was Willow’s choices, her continued overuse and misuse of her power.  Tara hadn’t ever considered asking Willow to stop using magic altogether, but when Willow had offered during that terrible fight, Tara had grasped onto something she could quantify. One week, Tara had conceded. A week where she could see if, without the magic, she and Willow could make it work. It was a desperate move at the time, knowing in her gut that it wouldn’t be enough. They, she, needed time and space to unpack what had happened between them. She’d told Willow “We’ll see”. Go a week and we’ll see. Not a very strong guarantee Tara knew but, as much as her heart was screaming in protest, she couldn’t pretend. Then Willow had tried to take that choice away too, take away Tara’s free will to choose with all the information intact.

And that was what it all came down to. Choices. No matter how alluring the pull of magic, the safety of power, there was always a choice. Until there wasn’t. And that was what scared Tara most of all.

It had to be Willow’s choice and Tara knew that, if she had stayed, she risked being torn into nothingness in the process. She couldn’t, wouldn’t do that herself. Not anymore. Leaving didn’t stop the worry, didn’t cancel the love. Both were there, tangled in the chaos of emotions that had stolen her sleep and disrupted her days. That had become a tumbleweed keening in the desert of her soul, raw and thirsty in Willow’s absence. 

Where was Willow? Neither Buffy nor Willow would have left Dawn alone purposefully. It had to be a misunderstanding. Miscommunication.  Was anyone even communicating? Buffy had become so withdrawn. Willow? Tara truly didn’t know. And then Tara started to think about ditches. 

Tara felt Dawn return her gesture with a quick, weary squeeze. “They’ll be ok,” Dawn whispered, slow and somnolent. Be strong Tara. Be an Amazon. A sad smile tugged at her lips, she felt like no Amazon.

Tara lifted her head and placed a grateful peck on the girl’s forehead. Dawn shifted slightly, rubbing her cheek once on Tara’s shoulders and with a sigh drifted off. Tara heard the shift in Dawn’s breath and she let her eyes close. The thoughts remained, until they too exhausted themselves, and Tara joined Dawn in sleep.