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Wilderness

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Tara’s mind had forgotten how to connect thoughts. Words were futile and the surging emotions were too tangled and twisted to make sense. Her body had served as communicator; it’s language the silent and steady flow of tears as she packed; the near collapse of sorrow as Dawn slammed the door behind her, leaving Tara standing on the front porch alone, shut out; the shaking that rocked her bones as she rode in the backseat of the cab; the trembling of her fingers as she slid the keycard into the motel room’s front door; the numb heaviness in her eyes as she stared.

She had done it. She had left Willow. She had walked away from the person who felt like home. Willow had been her world, Willow’s love and friendship a constant and comforting eddy. That eddy had been swallowed by a maelstrom.

Tara used a tissue to wipe at the streaked mirror in the cheap motel room. Her single box of belongings was placed on a faded wooden side table. She sat at the mirror, trying to undo the series of small ponytails Dawn had given her just this morning. They’d been quirky and cute, and now they made Tara want to scream. There were too many and she just wanted them out.

She pulled impatiently at the tiny yellow rubber bands, their maddening resistance corroding Tara’s attempt to hold herself together. With each painful snap of a band, she felt her anger surge. Betrayal sickened her as hair was torn from its constraints, leaving stolen strands wrapped around the rubber. Each tug was a reminder of the gnawing ache, echoed in her belly. She pulled frantically, her heartbeat matching in a desperate pace as she tried to get through it all.

Every muscle in Tara’s body tensed and trembled as anger and sorrow warred for dominance, demanding release. She clutched at a particularly stubborn tangle, shoving her fingers forcefully through the mass to pull it loose, only managing to tighten the knot at the end and send pain into her scalp. Body on overload, she shot out of the chair. Her hand grasped the water glass beside her and Tara pulled her taut, shaking arm back into a throwing position. “Fuck!” She wanted to throw it, needed to somehow free the emotions raging within her but she couldn’t go through with it and she hated herself for always holding back. Why couldn’t she let go? Shakily, she set the glass back on the table, telling herself she didn’t want to cause a scene, didn’t want the cranky man at the front desk banging on the door. Tara squeezed and pulled at her hands, her body at a breaking point. It began as a low keen, pouring from the place within that is deep and primal. A soul’s lament. Her knee buckled and harsh sobs assaulted her body. Tara lurched herself at the bed, curling herself into the tightest ball she could as the force of her weeping overrode breath and Tara found herself panting as waves of betrayal, grief, and heartbreak overtook her.

The violent release ebbed and Tara sat up and wiped a hand across her tear streaked cheeks. She used the bathroom sink to fill a glass with water, uncaring about the smudges on the glass, and sat back down in the chair in front of the clouded mirror. There, she resumed undoing her hair. A small, pained smile barely touched her lips as she thought of how proud Dawn had been when she’d finished them. And now, every band that was stripped away felt bittersweet. Every loosened strand changed her from the woman who had left just hours ago. Life had changed and every new thing moved her farther away from Willow.

Tara struggled to pull a nightshirt over her head, exhaustion making her clumsy. Gathering a flat pillow and the top layer of a suspiciously brown bed covering she curled into herself at the foot of the bed. She reached lazily for the remote and turned on the TV, looking for something to hold her attention enough to zone out on, to let her mind rest for a moment. Finally settling on a rerun of Friends, she was out within minutes.

The next morning, it had taken every bit of energy Tara could muster to get dressed, not even able to shower, and make her way to UC Sunnydale. She had slept in spurts, waking with a sudden jerk every two or three hours, snippets of dreams staying with her only momentarily. Each time she opened her eyes, the loss was an immediate, tight, and nauseating throb in her abdomen. Tears exhausted her into the next few hours of sleep.

Check-out was at eleven, which meant if Tara wanted to get to the University Housing Department she had to be on the way to their office by 7:30. She wanted to be able to store her things and not lug them with her. Tara rolled over with as little effort as possible to check the alarm clock; forty minutes to try and rest her swollen, tired eyes just a little more.

Thoughts of an alarm clock startled her as she realized that she no longer had one, it had been left with Willow in the room. It was inane and replaceable and left her feeling wounded and bruised. Tears of resignation stung bitterly as they dropped onto her cheeks, slipping over the slope of her nose and melting into the bedspread. She watched the water as it was absorbed into the fabric, thinking of all the things she would need now, now that it was just her again. No more ‘we’.

Chapter Text

Willow’s head was pounding. Blurry green eyes opened and scanned the room, squinting at the faint morning light seeping through the gap in the curtains. With a groan, she laid her arm across her eyes, trying to come to terms with the fact that she was now awake. There was no hesitation of thought, none of that wonderful amnesia that sometimes hovers in the liminal state between sleep and wakefulness. The truth was stark and immediately present- Tara was gone. Her love had packed a box and walked out on her last night, leaving a sobbing Willow tucked into herself on the bathroom floor. Willow winced as she relived it all, her chest tightening as an imaginary fist clutched her breath away.

After the gang had all returned from the Magic Box, and to their own identities, Willow had headed straight for the bathroom. She hadn’t even tried to talk to Tara on the way back, not after seeing the stricken look on Tara’s face. Her beautiful blue eyes were so pained with heartbreak, with betrayal, again; and Willow knew there was nothing she could say.

She had felt like a ghost walking home, keeping a good distance behind the rest of the group. The way they all looked at her, they were so disappointed. They didn’t understand. Why didn’t any of them understand? She had had to make things right, she had screwed up by bringing Buffy back, by erasing the fight she had with Tara, so it was up to her to fix it. Things were going so wrong, after she had tried so hard. It was her mess and she was making things better. She had to fix them.

And now it was worse. Because Xander had stepped on the crystal, breaking the spell. Ok, she had thought, so the spell hadn’t gone right and they would all have probably been vampire food before too long. But, tears flooded her eyes, Tara had still wanted me then, when we didn’t know each other. And now, now that she did know her, Tara had left. Yes, Willow knew she had screwed up, but no one had complained when she was kicking vampire ass left and right when Buffy had been gone. Much. Besides, who else could have, would have, taken up that mantle? Only Willow, and Spike when he was around, stood a chance of keeping this town together.

Willow hadn’t brought Buffy back because she couldn’t handle the slaying, even if that was the excuse she gave to everyone. In truth, she liked being the big gun; she was good at being the big gun. It was stressful for sure, but she was truly confident in herself, for the first time in her life. It was just others who couldn’t handle what sweet little dog geyser Willow Rosenberg had become. Did they want to keep her like that, meek and insecure and dependent on them? She couldn’t, wouldn’t, go there again.

No, it wasn’t that at all. She simply missed her best friend. And if she had known? If she had known that Buffy was in heaven and at peace? In her deepest confessions, Willow might admit she still may have brought Buffy back.

Pushing the covers aside, Willow forced her body off the bed. With leaden feet she walked down the stairs, so slowly time wavered, and she continued toward the kitchen for some coffee. Her usually active mind was paused in an echoing numbness. Just get through the day, she urged herself.

As soon as there was enough coffee to pour, she reached out and took the pot from its burner, habitually knowing the flow from the machine would pause. She stood, frozen, fingers curled around the handle, her eyes glazed into a lost stare.

The sound of a startled voice brought her back to the present. Turning she watched Dawn rush across the room and flip the switch on the coffee maker. “What happened?” Dawn stood away from the pool of hot brown liquid now spreading across the kitchen tile. “Willow, are you ok?”

With a blink, Willow realized she had let the coffee brew out of the top of the maker, unable to go anywhere but up as the water kept pouring into the basket. “I, um, I guess I spaced out there for a minute.” Willow continued as she waved her hand over the mess, brown evaporating into the air, "You know me and my brain, always ticking. Well, I guess my heart is ticking, which is a good thing, you know, because the ticking means, yay, I’m alive.” The babble was forced, and both parties knew it.

Dawn watched in growing horror as the soaked coffee filter floated across the kitchen, and a magically opened cabinet revealed the trashcan where the filter was dropped. She looked back at Willow who was now sipping at her coffee as she continued her babble.

“Why do they say the brain’s ticking when it’s really transmitting electrochemical signals? I guess that’s not as catchy or easy to say.” Willow ended in a small grin that was not reflected in her eyes.

“I would have helped you clean that up,” Dawn stated, a look of concern shifting across her features.

The sigh was frustration and disappointment, the tone colder “Are you going to start in on me too?”

“What? No, I just-“The teen stepped back twice, putting distance between them.

“You just think I am overusing the magic, right?” Willow fired without hesitation, defensive anger driving her.

Dawn’s voice was direct but soft, “Are you?”

“Why don’t you ask Tara?” The words flew out, bitter and hurtful, and both girls stared in shock. The fact that she had said them made Willow sick. Tears immediately flooded her eyes as she turned to leave. She pushed against the swinging kitchen door and realized that she had never hated herself more than at this moment.

“Do you care that she’s gone?” It wasn’t an accusation. It was an honest question and it hit Willow all the harder for it, freezing her movement. A moment went by as each woman’s breath caught in trepidation. Then, Willow faced Dawn, her features still. She said no words, but the sorrow revealed in her eyes was so deep, it could never have been communicated. Willow quickly shadowed the truth in her gaze before tearing it away from Dawn and disappeared up the stairs. Dawn wrapped her arm around herself as she heard the bedroom door close.

Chapter Text

I stuttered, Tara thought, shaking her head at herself as she left the building with a set of keys in her hand. I haven’t stuttered like that since Dad… With a shudder she shut the thought down.

She had gotten up to go appeal to the university housing committee, prepared to beg if necessary, for a dorm room, somewhere of her own to stay. It turned out four students had suddenly disappeared just last week, and there was a single available. One really disturbing point for living on a Hellmouth, she thought, her chest heavy and tight as she walked through the campus.

Feeling exhausted and barely able to breathe, let alone beg, Tara had stumbled through her plea. “Um, I n-n-need a place to s-stay. Are there a-any d-dorms avail-available?” The looks she had gotten then, an infuriating and humiliating mix of pity and aversion at her affliction. Looks she hadn’t seen in nearly two years. A week ago, she would have said something about those looks. A week ago, she wouldn’t have stuttered.

She thought she was stronger now. She had stood there, saying the words as best she could as she felt the weight of her new reality. Living alone, in the dorms again. A portion of her mind and all of her heart cried out for Willow. Her Willow. Willow’s love and acceptance had given her the strength to believe in who Willow saw, to believe that Willow’s Tara could be the true Tara. To speak knowing that someone would care about what she had to say, the stutter not even an afterthought.

And the Scoobies, they treated her as if what she was saying was worth listening to. At least after a while they did. Willow had always looked so proud when Tara offered a new view on a situation, or imparted some before unknown knowledge about whatever beast, demon, or mythic rites they were dealing with.
Everything had changed with Willow. She was no longer the girl who walked through the world, furled like a tight fern bud, her shoulders curved forward; arms securely tucked protecting her vulnerable heart. An ever-present veil of hair. Her own personal energy subconsciously reduced to a speck, keeping her hidden from the eyes of the world. Protecting herself.

Tara was aware enough to know that these actions were a product of decades of lessons, often harsh and humiliating, of how to protect herself. But meeting Willow, loving and being loved by Willow, had unfurled her, and Tara had bloomed. And now, one night without Willow, and Tara felt seventeen again. The thing was it wasn’t just losing Willow, leaving Willow. When Tara realized what Willow had done, something had cracked, exhuming pains left buried.

That night, like too many nights in Tara’s recent history, had delivered an overflow of emotions to untangle. They had just learned that Buffy had been in heaven, that they had taken her away from paradise. Everyone was devastated, but Willow was inconsolable. Tara felt it too, the horror, the guilt; and perhaps because she too needed comfort, she laid in bed with Willow wrapped around her, the betrayal she’d discovered just hours before pushed to the side and labeled ‘less important’. Again. But in Tara’s core, Willow’s actions had terrified her and that feeling had lingered and shaped everything that came after.

Walking the long way back to the motel, to clear her head and, truthfully, to avoid running into someone she knew, Tara felt like she was in a daze. Her world had been turned upside down abruptly, like an undiscerning older brother, flipping his toddler sister by her heels. She was lost and she was scared. She felt seventeen.
She stopped on the way into a drug store for an alarm clock, some deodorant, and some cherry popsicles. Finally reaching her destination, Tara gathered her box of belongings, most still packed away, and checked out.

She treated herself to a cab back to Dormer Hall, not because she felt like she deserved it, but because she didn’t care about spending the little money she had. It’s not like she’d be using it to eat anytime soon. Thinking of food made her abdomen seize and forced a shaft of air that stuck in a ball at the base of her throat. The only thing she could possibly fathom were the popsicles, her mother had always given her one when she was sick; it had made her feel better then. She wished she could talk to her mom.
Tara was thankful the cab driver wasn’t chatty as she stared out of the dirt splattered window, focusing on nothing.

She fumbled for her keys, not wanting to set down- and pick up- her belongings again, and opened the door to the dorm her grants paid for, thankful that one had been available. She had wanted to hold on to her old dorm. “Just in case” she had said to Willow, uncertain that her place at the Summers’ house would be permanent. In the end, she had acquiesced to the barely concealed terror in Willow’s voice when she had questioned Tara’s need for the room. Large green eyes had silently pleaded for reassurance- of her, them; and Tara knew she would give up the space for Willow. Now, Tara couldn’t help but wonder if she had somehow known she’d need it.

Tara took in her new home; the empty walls a blank canvas- echoing loneliness. She unpacked her single box, determined to make things as normal, as comforting as they could be, to deafen the starkness with blankets and color. It was worse than the motel room- at least that had a TV to try and block out the thoughts. But she would make it hers.
She had taken one sheet, her star-covered blanket, and her pillow with her; these went onto the bed first. She placed her books on the pine desk that was included with the lightly furnished room. Her shoulders tightened as she set a few candles and placed crystals next to them. Clothes were folded reverently and placed in thin drawers. With careful hands, she placed the picture of her mom, bright and beautiful, on the nightstand.

Tara hadn’t brought a picture of Willow, or herself and Willow, with her. She couldn’t see that face right now, that beautiful, adoring, deceitful face. She missed that face already.
With nothing left to do, she sat on the edge of her newly adorned bed. Hands grasped in a ball, resting in her lap, she stared at the blank wall in front of her. A sudden force of sobs ripped through her, making her feel dizzy with lack of air; spinning, wild thoughts adding to her internal chaos. She lay down and curled up on the left side, knees tucked into her chin, blanket pulled tight, swaddling her in stars, and wept until the thoughts eased and she was captured by sleep.

Chapter Text

Willow was curled into her bed, the blanket pulled over her head keeping the world away. She reached under her pillow, pulling an off white nightgown up to her chest, clutching it protectively. It had been a gift from Tara to Willow, a gift for no reason but that Tara had liked it for her love. It was early on in their relationship, and Willow thought of how shy Tara had been when Willow opened the gift bag, how deeply crimson Tara’s cheeks flushed when the intimate garment was removed. Willow had worn it for a week until it became too chilly for night dresses. Over the next month Tara had learned that her Willow was a pajamas kind of girl, and had purchased a cute set of matching top and bottoms with penguins ice skating their way across the thick blue fabric.

Hiding her hands behind her back, Tara approached the bed where Willow lay watching with her head propped in her hand. With a shy smile and knowing eyes, Tara brought her hands forward displaying the fuzzy sleep set neatly folded and tied with a ribbon, “This is a replacement gift.”

With a slight frown of concern, Willow spoke as she sat upright, “Oh baby, I love the nightgown, it’s just brrr cold at night,” Willow gave a mock shiver for emphasis.

Tara sat next to her on the bed, placing the new pajamas in her lap, “Darling, I love you for trying to spare my feelings, but it was wrong for you.” Tara hurried forward, knowing Willow was about to protest, “I had only known you for a little while then, now I know you better. And I want you as you are, no pretense, not even jammie pretense.” Tara’s warm smile was adorably crooked as she placed the gift into Willow’s hand.

Caressing the soft fleece with her fingertips, Willow felt a peacefulness settle in, the type that comes from being known and cherished for it. Tara knew her so well. “Thanks, Baby. But you should keep the nightgown.”

Tara rolled her eyes good naturedly, “Will, you’re much smaller than me, it would be like a tank top on me.” Willow met dancing blue eyes with her slightly darkening greens and with a small smirk wagged her eyebrows comically.  Tara giggled and lightly slapped her girlfriend’s arm; at the same time pressing her body against Willows. She smiled, and admired her love through a heavy lidded gaze, “Vixen”

“I’m only a little smaller than you,” Willow smiled, “Well except here,” the backs of small fingers caressed the sides of Tara’s breasts. The smile slipped into a naughty grin.

“And,” she continued, “the thought of you in that nightie, just a little too tight, just snug enough here…” Willow's hands drifted forward as her thumbs lightly caressed Tara’s tightening nipples.

Willow remembered how her love’s breath had caught, how her eyes had darkened and her voice grew husky, “I’ll go put it on.”

It had remained Willow’s favorite nightgown.

Willow pulled the garment to her nose, inhaling Tara’s scent deeply as her body started to tremble with sorrow. Shaking the thoughts out, Willow forced a deep inhale to ease her weeping. The pain was too much, and Willow was determined to make it go away. She tried to convince herself that Tara would be back. That she would come around, understand.

Willow deeply regretted hurting her love, but it’d been a mistake. The spell wasn’t supposed to have gone that way. Tara had just been scared; Tara was always scared of big magic. But Willow wasn’t. And as much as she loved Tara, she didn’t want to be afraid of this power she had, power she wielded with intelligence and cunning. Willow believed herself smart and responsible enough to know how to use the magic wisely. The big gun, remember? So she would give Tara space and welcome her back with open arms when she came around. It hurt, no, it tortured, seeing Tara leave. God, that look in her eyes.

But maybe, Willow considered, it was good to take some space. For the first time in her life, Willow felt important, needed. Necessary. So why is Tara holding me back? Why doesn’t she see that I am finally powerful enough to be useful? That I like being able to do things, help, fix things? That’s what a Scooby does.

As if solidifying her identity, Willow reached under the bed and pulled out a large tome titled Transmutation, Shapeshifting, and Other Forms of Metamorphosis. It was a title she had ‘borrowed’ from the Magic Box, picked up during the Halloween rush and stowed away into her book bag. It was one of those books, Willow thought with a roll of her eyes; kept away from prying amateur eyes. She was no amateur, not anymore; no matter what Giles had so hurtfully called her. Realizing that she no longer needed to hide the book, Willow let a small but satisfied grin cross her lips as she mentally decided where on the bookcase it would live.

The spells were intense and involved and they fascinated the witch. Her mind churned with ideas for adapting, strengthening, and focusing each one she read. A small scratch and an even smaller squeak pulled Willow away from her studies. With a start she realized she hadn’t fed Amy in over a day. Leaping off the bed, she pulled the rat food from atop her dresser and poured some into Amy’s bowl. The rat squeaked furiously as she dug her nose in before the food was done pouring, small pellets burying the whiskered nose.

“Guess you were hungry, huh? Sorry I forgot you, it’s been a really crazy few, well, weeks really. And not even Hellmouth crazy really, just people-drama crazy. Sometimes I envy you being a rat, you little shapeshifter-“

Willow froze. She pulled the spell book from her bed and flipped to the desired section looking for the undo part of transmutation. Apparently, people weren’t too concerned about changing things back, because, nothing. Willow’s eyes widened as she reached the final page of the chapter, with a note to check the addendum at the back of the book for variations and reparations. Finding the needed pages, Willow looked at Amy with a wide smile. “This will work.”

Chapter Text

Tara chewed at the ends of her fingernails watching the clock tick into another moment of the nauseating guilt and worry that had plagued her since Willow’s abrupt departure yesterday. The inability to act upset her more, because Tara knew she could make this right. She could and should call Willow, leave a message if necessary, tell her the truth, offer to do the spell again with promises of fidelity. But the terror stayed her hands.

Willow had come to Tara for help, had needed her help to find and stop a monster and Tara had done a terrible thing. She lied to Willow, purposefully, when she sabotaged the locator spell. And now the monster- No Tara demanded of herself, Name it. It was a demon, like she was a demon, because what other than a demon would have been so full of deceit and selfishness.  The demon had murdered a child and it could still be loose, could be killing more children and she was so afraid of its likeness that she had essentially set it free.  She had its blood on her hands. She couldn’t cry, she was wound too tight for tears, but an internal wail of self-loathing tore at her as she waited for Willow’s return.

Sabotaging the spell had been a desperate reaction, Tara didn’t think she would ever plan such a selfish move, but did that make it better? What if the demon inside her was what had reacted in haste? She always thought things through, but this time she acted impulsively, on instinct- and she had chosen to deceive. And if the demon controlled her instincts, she was already gone. The thought sickened her and she pushed back. She had panicked and made a rash and poor decision but it was a human mistake. Right?

Things had been going so well with Willow. They had become impossibly close, forming a fast and intimate friendship unlike Tara had ever experienced. There was something powerful between them that, now that it had been found, felt essential. Willow was as necessary as food and water and everything else Maslow placed at the bottom of his triangle. Magically they had a connection that was rare and intense but it didn’t compare to the bond they had formed as friends. Tara adored Willow completely, in a way that went swept up their friendship and kept diving deeper. And sometimes, when Tara was feeling very brave, she might even admit that she thought Willow adored her too. Willow was her instinct, Tara recognized that now, and the love she felt for Willow could not be sourced from any demon. Terror of losing a piece of her life force had caused Tara to hide, to be deceitful. She couldn’t bear any possibility of losing Willow when just thinking it tore her heart apart. It didn’t make her actions any better.

As she sat with eyes closed, Tara called out to her Goddess, asking for a path to self-forgiveness, if only for a respite from the paralyzing shame so she could fix things. Breathing in the earthy scent of the sandalwood incense burning on the window sill, she felt the warm honey touch of the Goddess. In the benevolence of that touch, Tara forgave herself a little with a fervent vow to never deceive Willow like that again, not when others’ lives were on the line. Tears fell in parallel tracks as she thought about what that meant. If the demon hadn’t been found, she would have to try the spell again and if she was exposed she would lose everything. Please don’t let it come to that, she pleaded, implored, and then with a broken sigh relinquished her fate to the Universe. Thanking her Goddesses, she opened her eyes and checked the time again.

It was Wednesday and she and Willow had an informal standing study date after Willow’s last class - which should have ended twenty minutes ago. Shaking away the urge to bite her nails again, Tara stood and smoothed out her long deep red skirt, trailing embroidered spirals with the now jagged nails. She stood on the precipice between hope and sorrow. But she could do nothing right now but wait and the surrender grounded her. Turning slowly, she looked at her room with keen blue eyes, taking in every detail in a panoramic view. It was the here and now. It was the moment before.

A steady knock startled Tara and she placed her fingers on her heart soothing the quick pace as she opened the door. On the other side of the threshold was Willow, shifting her weight from heel to toe in a giddy bounce and Tara couldn’t help but smile at the kinetic wiggling of Willow’s clasped fingers. Tara’s heart fluttered then pounded heavily, trying to assimilate to the rapidity of discordant emotions cycling through her. And then Willows face was alight with joy; she was smiling widely and her eyes danced as green met blue, “Hey.” Tara’s heart stilled, and then it sang.

“Hey Willow,” cheeks flushed with pink, Tara ducked her head shyly and opened the door wider to allow Willow entrance. Tara flicked her eyes up to Willow’s happy face, “Any, um luck, f-finding the demon?” This was the question she had been dreading because the answer meant everything. But Willow seemed joyful, and she was looking at Tara that way again- the way Willow had looked at her often since the night of the Doll’s eye crystal, the look that made Tara believe. And right now Tara felt what she always felt around Willow- safe.

Dropping her bag to the floor and moving to the bed, Willow’s happy face fell into a confused frown, “Well, yes and no. Turns out it wasn’t a demon… er, well, not only a demon- I mean parts were demon. I mean, not that I saw parts! No, no parts for me,” Willow’s hands were flapping in the air until she lowered them with a smile that was somehow both sheepish and flirty. Tara bit her lower lip crookedly to prevent sighing with desire.  “Let me start over,” Willow continued with a pleased tiny grin having noticed Tara’s reaction. Willow noticed everything about Tara, unable to do anything but drink in every sight, smell, touch of the beautiful woman before her, and still Willow wanted more, which meant babbling as her nervous system turned inside out, “Turns out Professor Walsh was playing Frankenstein and made herself her very own pet demon-slash-human-slash-cyborg monster that is now on the loose. It’s what killed Walsh and what killed that little boy.  Don’t people ever read the classics? I mean hello, do any creatures made from hodgepodge parts in a secret lab ever turn out not a big lumbering force of death and dismemberment?”

Tara blinked and opened then closed her mouth. She furrowed her brow trying to pick through the jumble that came out of Willow’s mouth. The important bits were: demon still out there.  Even behind the curtain of hair that now fell over her face, Tara couldn’t hide the guilt that was turning slowly into a sorrowful regret, “S-so, the spell would h-have helped?”

The room narrowed to only Tara in her shame and Willow almost shuddered from the sudden pressure in her chest. She moved her hands into Tara’s, squeezed them once and waited for Tara to meet her gaze. When blue eyes rose, Willow held them in green, letting the moment communicate the trust and love they had not yet spoken of. Willow tugged gently until Tara sat next to her on the mattress. Neither woman let go of their clasped hands.  Evened voice, Willow continued still watching Tara carefully, protectively, “It’s unclear. But Buffy found the monster-robot-guy thingy earlier. She’s knows what she’s looking for now.”

“Oh, good,” Tara’s relief was audible.

“So the spell going wrong doesn’t matter,” Squeezing Tara’s hands again, Willow shook them playfully up and down, the action conveying that all was okay and earning a wide smile and a small giggle from Tara. Eyes met again. Okay? asked green. Okay, answered blue. And fingers relaxed and played delicately together. “But, this thing is strong and really dangerous,” Willow’s voice was hushed, its cadence dancing with the caresses of their hands, “I mean, it’s always dangerous, and a little scary, but this is bigger… like Danger Will Robinson dangerous.”

Unstoppable laughter burst through Tara’s smile – wide and delirious. And Willow had to laugh with her, Tara’s mirth undeniable, “What?”

“Oh- it’s just so close to your own name, you know,” in mock seriousness, Tara was all pinched brow and pursed lips, her voice deep and dramatic, “Danger Will Rosenberg.” And god, she is the cutest, Willow thought as she looked with unsheltered veneration at this girl who was the most precious thing on earth. Tara swallowed thickly awash in their connection.

Silence sat heavy and meaningful until it became too much. With a final squeeze of their joined fingers, Willow pulled her hand back and cleared her throat, “So, I just wanted to let you know- it’s all with the good now.”

“Oh, th-thank you. Do you um, have to go? I mean, help with the-” Tara trailed off unsure how to describe what the Scoobies were dealing with and unwilling to finish the question that might mean Willow not staying. Besides, Tara didn’t want Willow in danger- ever if possible.

“No!... I mean, um, no,” Willow blushed at her own exuberance but didn’t regret the feeling; she wanted to stay with Tara, exuberantly. Forever if possible. “I’m free. I mean, if you are- um, free? We could hang out?” This was how it had been with them for the past few weeks, a constant swinging pendulum between deep comfort and uncertain anticipation. This powerful thing between them was in an awkward adolescence, nervous and a bit naïve but growing into its full identity with both impatience and anxiousness of what came next.  

Squirming happily where she sat, Tara nodded, her wild grin returning. The demon had been found and Willow was here. And then…

“So, why do think the spell didn’t work?” Willow rolled onto stomach, lying diagonally on Tara’s bed, settling in as she had done almost every night these past few weeks. And Tara was back to being torn by her emotions, the ease with which Willow fit in her space made her soar, but she didn’t want to talk about the spell, afraid of the promise she had made to be honest.

“Oh, um,” Tara shrugged, her gaze fixed on the floor, “S-sometimes they just don’t.” This was honesty-lite and Tara knew it, but the fear seized her again and she hoped it was honest enough.

“But there has to be a reason,” from anyone else, it might have seemed like an inquisition, but Willow was just being Willow- insatiable in her curiosity and relentless in her hunt for answers, “You were kind of worried about Thespia, do you think it really was over our heads?” Willow frowned adorably and muttered to herself before shaking her head, “’Over our heads’ is a weird phrase.”

“Well, um, maybe,” Tara hedged, this was a different truth and it felt important too, “I mean, I usually try to, you know, create a re-relationship with a goddess before I call her.”

“What do you mean?” And Willow’s question was why this truth was important. They had learned their magic so differently, Willow and Tara. Through her mother, Tara learned history and folklore, practiced and honed her craft meticulously. She had power, more than even she allowed herself to believe, but it was tempered by respect and fear. The respect was wise, magic was a living force that abhorred entrapment and misuse; but the fear was borne out of her father’s harsh words and lessons. Magic didn’t feel evil to Tara but it carried with it the threat of repercussions from a man, and his son, who believed it was. This was another story Tara hadn’t shared, the lessons and the demon. The lessons for the demon.

Willow’s power was deep and natural and raw, but unschooled. She had learned from necessity and a need for defense. But together, they grew. Tara teaching Willow prudence and lore and Willow gifting Tara with permission to play and explore, to know her own power. And so, Tara shared, laying on her side and facing Willow, “Well, it’s like- you need a favor- you could ask a complete stranger and they might agree but you are much more likely to get a yes, and be able to trust that yes, from someone you know better- have a relationship with.”

“Huh, I guess I always thought the gods just did god things, like bring on a famine or create a rainstorm- I didn’t think they cared much about us lowly humans except for liking to watch us get on our knees for them.” A sensual smile shifted across Tara’s full lips as her head swam with images of sinking to her own knees, ready to worship Willow’s body. Familiar nerves pulsed, and Tara squeezed her legs together as her face flushed hotly. Having studied beautiful blonde for weeks, Willow recognized the smile, well, the smile plus the flush, and knew Tara would stutter and fidget for a few minutes afterwards. In these moments, there was always a warm tremble in the air. Heat excited energy and Willow so fervently hoped that Tara was feeling the same heat that Willow felt move into her core. Every day, she was convinced a little more.

Nervous fingers pulled at a thread in the bedspread beneath them as Tara spoke breathily, “I-I  think, I m-m-mean I’m n-not an expert.” Pleased with her observational skills, and very turned on, Willow placed her own fingers over Tara’s fidgeting ones, waiting for Tara to still and meet Willow’s gaze before nodding to go on. “They n-need us too in a way because we are part of the creation, part of the worlds? And we can act as their, um…”

“Foot-soldiers?”

“You’ve been hanging out with Riley too much,” Tara laughed, knowing that the Scoobies had been on recent lock-down because of Riley and the Initiative. It had been meant as a joke- a rib that said ‘Look how well I know you’ but Willow frowned and Tara lost her smile, “What is it?”

Hand still on Tara’s, Willow linked their fingers together. They were always doing that these days, “Oh, just Riley’s kind of um, out of it, the Initiative has been feeding him some kind of government-special uber-steroid- and he’s in withdrawal. Plus he pushed me.”

Untangling her fingers without thought, Tara’s hand cupped Willow’s cheek, concern etched in her eyes, “He pushed you?” The room became a sanctuary and Willow was willing to be pushed down by very large strung out soldiers every day if it meant Tara would touch her like this. Her cheek warmed as she leaned into Tara’s soft hand, “Yeah, but hey, seasoned monster fighter here. I’m good.” The room was hushed now, the atmosphere palpable and sacred.

Tara’s thumb ran smoothly along Willow’s cheekbone, “You sure?” Wordlessly, Willow nodded, something was happening between them. Right now. The moment lingered, both women terrified to let go, terrified of how much they wanted to. Willow filled the charged moment with words because this was how Willow worked- she babbled to fill voids, uncomfortable in the absence of action, afraid the absence would become permanent. She was unaware of the why, but the compulsion still drove her, “Do you have a goddess?” As she spoke, she realized the moment wasn’t broken, the air still hummed with the promise of them. Because it wasn’t just a moment, it was a movement.

Tara blinked and smiled mischievously, feeling free and bold in this sanctuary of their making,  “Well, not like in a pet way or anything,” she lowered her hand reluctantly but didn’t pull it away, instead resting it over Willow’s arm.

Grasping Tara’s hand again, Willow rolled her eyes playfully in response, “I mean one that you have a relationship with?” Collapsing her bent arm, Willow laid her head down. Tara mirrored the pose, fingers still playing together.

“There are a few, my mother worked with Brigit a lot, and she would ask for Caireen to look over me- when I had nightmares and stuff.” Tara’s features shadowed. It was only a flicker, but Willow noticed and squeezed their fingers together once again. A wave of protectiveness washed into every detail of Willow’s being. She absorbed the wave and it became a part of her. A bright glow replaced Tara’s shadow. Willow mirrored her smile.

“Wow, that’s so cool. I mean not the nightmare ‘cause those are never fun but the goddess thing. I’m not familiar with Caireen.”

 “She’s a protector of children, kind of a mother goddess.”

“So those are you’re…,” nose crinkling cutely, Willow searched for the right words, “Um, your closest goddesses?”

Adorable, Tara thought as she inched closer to the other woman without thought. But adorable was just the tip of the Willow iceberg. Beautiful and brilliant, kind, funny, sweet, sexy, powerful… I adore everything about her. Noticing their proximity, Tara almost shifted back, but Willow’s eyes were shining with an intense joy, curiosity and contentment and longing written in the soul looking through green eyes. Tara’s relationship with her personal goddess was something she had only shared with her mother, treasured as something of her own and unwilling to invite in other’s opinions or interpretation of what she knew was divine. But Tara wanted Willow to know her, because Willow was also divine- in her own human way. Fingers played again as Tara shared, voice soft in the narrow space between them, “I have always felt close to Branwen- do you know her?”

“Welsh goddess of love and beauty?” Perfect, Willow thought dreamily, perfectly Tara.  Their words were barely above a whisper now.

Tara smiled shyly, of course Willow knew, “Right. She had a hard life you know, but she remained full of love and light- she helps when you are in a hard situation, especially at h-home.”  Teetering on a topic she didn’t want follow, Tara focused on other aspects of Branwen, “But mostly, she helps empathic souls. I‘ve, I mean I don’t mean this in a bragging way, but I have always kind of felt really empathic- it can get overwhelming. Branwen helps with that.” This wasn’t dishonesty, not this time, Tara did want Willow to know her, but the air was electric and the little world they had created together was too precious to be broken by sad childhood memories.

“Wow, again. You are empathic- I mean, you radiate empathy… and love, and sweetness, and all that,” elfin lips curved into a self-conscious smile, “But I guess I can see how that could be overwhelming- Buffy one time got poisoned by a demon and could hear people’s thoughts- I don’t think she felt what they were feeling but she could hear it and it definitely overwhelmed her.”

Tara’s face softened as she listened, “Oh, poor Buffy.”

“You know you are the first person who didn’t reply with ‘that’s so cool- I wanna read others’ minds.”

Shifting up slightly in surprise, Tara spoke with passion, “No! N-never. Our minds are the one true place where we should be safe. No matter what else happens, if we have our own minds we are still free- still ourselves.” Tara seemed startled by her own words and she picked at Willow’s fingers, “Sorry.”

“For what?”

“That was cheesy.”

“It was profound,” Willow said, the simple, earnest words strengthening Tara like resin. And Willow’s adoring look that made Tara blush and dip her head, fingers dancing again. This, Willow thought overjoyed by Tara’s reaction, overjoyed that she, Willow Rosenberg, could make this wonderful, amazing girl feel proud and bashful all at once. This is what I want to be doing for the rest of life. Nudging their hands playfully, Willow flirted, “So, what goddess do you think would be for me?” This was one of Tara’s brave moments, she nudged back.

“Mmm…” hooded eyes fluttered, the blue darkened like twilight, “Maybe Athena, but …”

“But what?” Heat excites energy. The air grew warm and thick and Willow thought she might pass out as she tried to find breath. It was a beautiful.

“But… I can’t think of a single goddess that incorporates all of you- I m-mean you might have to find a few.”

Willow’s heart flipped and danced, this was the inexorable movement of them, and Willow wanted more, “Well if Branwen is love and beauty, she is definitely the right fit for you.”

They were flirting, brazenly, and Tara was standing in a lighting storm. She bit her lower lip demurely and Willow swallowed audibly, “Really it’s more the empathic part.”

Heart pounding wildly and nervously licking her lips, Willow spoke slowly and so softly, “So, can you feel me?”  She shifted just an inch closer to Tara’s warming body. Heat excites energy. “I mean, how I’m feeling?”

Tara matched Willow’s move and she could feel Willow’s breath, warm and sweet on her lips. Her eyes blinked heavily and Tara wondered if she might faint, “I’m scared to trust it.” And then Willow’s hand cupped her cheek and their eyes met, deep forest green and twilight blue incandescent in the storm.

“Trust it.”

Lightning struck as their lips met, each slow brush an exaltation. The rain steadied, and it bathed them anew.

 

Chapter Text

Before her stretched a picturesque view of goldenrod flowers, their faces turned toward the sun as they swayed in the cool breeze, singing in celebration of their vitality. Tara knew the highway  was behind her, it had to be, but as she stood at the overlook, she knew the journey opened in the valley below. Then Tara was no longer looking below. She was there in the valley, a part of the meadow , amorphous and vibrant among the flowers. She swayed as they swayed, she turned as they turned. When each petal began to uncurl itself, revealing and exposing each carpel to bask more fully in the light and warmth, Tara smiled – she was growing too. Tara sighed. The golden flowers sighed.

A shadow swept across the landscape, drawing Tara’s eyes upward. Beneath her, around her stomata shuddered and choked. A feminine hand clawed around the dreamscape sun, splaying delicate fingers on either side then pushing into the star opening cuts and gashes from which anguished light poured, disappearing into the sudden night. The flowers stood open-faced, withering in fading sun, petals dropping away as they were robbed of the turning seasons; robbed of a slow, natural death and plunged into decay. Tara’s lungs seized as the flowers died; she choked and gasped as she was wrung out, her essence rapidly squeezed from her shell.

Twisted in bed sheets and drenched in sweat, Tara flew into an upright position. Fear flooded her vision in a terrifying white haze blinding her in the darkness. Panicked, Tara shifted violently to the left, attempting to free herself from the force that held her. She darted her head around frantically, eyes wide and unfocused, unable to make sense of what contained her. She kicked and swatted and pushed and finally with one final tug Tara broke free of the sheets’ confinement, using her feet to push the assailant to the foot of her bed and shoving herself in the corner where her bed lay. She felt aloft, ungrounded, unsure of where or when she was. Tucking legs and arms close to her chest, Tara tracked the room with wide unfocused eyes half expecting to find she was in her childhood bedroom. “Goddess, keep me safe,” she hissed as she rocked in a tight ball of limbs. “Goddess, keep me safe, keep me safe, keep me safe,” over again and again until her voice soothed into a whisper. Until her vision cleared and her breathing slowed. She was in the dorm and safe.

Standing on shaky legs, she pulled a sweatshirt from the back of her chair and over her head, then made her way into the hall and the shared bathrooms to splash her face with water.

As the cold water lifted the last of the fog, Tara turned her gaze upward to meet the mirror. Tired blue eyes, underlined with deep purplish crescents reflected back at her. The haunted stories in that stare made her turn away. Just a nightmare, Tara girl, she reassured herself, but knew that sleep was lost for the night.

Returning to her dorm, she stumbled through the semi-darkness, campus lighting casting a  bluish-gray hue into the night. She took her throw from the bed and sat on the floor, resting her back against the bedside. She missed her old tub chair. She missed her fairy lights and Willow’s scent in the room.  

Turning her gaze out the window, she hoped to find solace in the stars, blinking and alive in the night sky. Breathing rhythmically, Tara tried to still her thoughts, but insistent images of suffocating in a dark grip flooded her mind. Tara finally relented to dissecting the nightmare. There were things that puzzled her- it was a dream after all- like where she had been and why the highway was mentioned in her dream thoughts. And the hands- so familiar in beautiful and terrifying ways as they seemed to shift ownership, two sets of hands that had been inside her head- one taking and one giving- only to take again.

It had been fueled and shaped by other forces, but in the end it was Willow who darkened the world, starving Tara flowers that had basked in her light. Light that had, when they met, sprouted had been just a seed buried under the dirt and too afraid to face the wind on her own. Warmth that had comforted her until she wore her colors, her fragrance, her sexuality, with ease. Under Willow’s sun, she bloomed. And now Willow’s sun was gone. No, it was eclipsed. Tara knew Willow would emerge from her self-imposed darkness. She just didn’t know if she, Tara, would be able to sustain herself under those rays anymore.

On that perfect day in the park Tara had sung the truth to Willow. She had bathed in Willow’s light. She had let it open her petals. And once accepted, it reached into the deepest caverns of her psyche and chased the shadows away. It had been so welcome, so lovely and constant and right. Even in her most insecure moments when she wasn’t sure she deserved it, Tara felt the love in that light. She had never prepared herself for its loss.   

Picking at the stars on her throw, she took in the stars in the sky as if the tangible connection could anchor them together; keep her alive with their radiance. Radiant light that, in reality, had already been snuffed out. But they were here for her now, and Tara would honor them.

 

Chapter Text

Willow watched in fascination as Amy nibbled on another cracker, hands pinched on either side gripping the morsel. Amy’s nose scrunched.

“So, Larry’s dead?” Amy reiterated, scooting onto a cushioned stool next to Willow.

Willow nodded. “And gay. Was. I mean, he came out.” The revelation seemed to take the wind out of Amy much more than the knowledge of his death.

“Wow. That’s really sad. The dying, I mean.”

Willow took another sip of coffee then pushed the mug back away from the lip of the kitchen’s center countertop. After yesterday’s mishap, she was diligently attending to the whereabouts of her coffee.

“It is. A lot of people died at graduation; we, um, had to blow up the school.” Willow looked sideways at her friend; the look a snapshot of the horror filled one-day war at Sunnydale High School.

Amy straightened her spine and sighed with a shake of her head, “Well, I guess there was some upside to being a rat.” She pushed past the current conversation and grinned at Willow. “So you still with Oz? Oh god,” brown eyes widened, “he didn’t die too did he?”

“No. To both those questions. I was seeing someone; someone not Oz.” Willow trailed, a sharp and icy dagger piercing her soul as she realized that she was about to speak the words for the first time, “We just broke up a few days ago actually.”

Amy placed her hand over Willow’s, reading the unmistakable ripple of pain, “Oh, sorry. Did I know him?”

“Her, actually,” Green eyes skirted to Amy’s face, searching for a reaction then deciding the reaction didn’t matter, “and no, we um, we met my freshman year of college.”

“Wow, again. Any more surprising news? Are you pregnant? Did you join a cult? Did Jonathan become the new Bond?” Amy replied; brown eyes dancing with mirth assuring Willow that the information had been filed and accepted.

“No, nothing like that.” With a shake of her head, Willow changed the subject. “What are you gonna do? Are you going to see your dad?”

“Not sure,” Amy grimaced into a shrug before meeting Willow’s eyes directly, “what does he think happened to me?”

Willow shifted, nursing her coffee for a few moments. “We told him the truth. We couldn’t think of anything else that would worry him less.”

“I guess I should go see him. How long has it been? I mean, rat time does not fully line up to human time.”

“A little under three years.”

“I definitely have some catching up to do.” Amy stood resolved, a false bravado her eyes couldn’t help but betray. She smoothed out the lines in the jeans Willow had found for her. The jeans she had hesitantly handed over after Amy had failed to button any of Willow’s first offerings. Placing her hands in the pockets, Amy realized that these must have been the girlfriends’ clothing. She hoped Willow’s ex wasn’t the jealous type.

Willow walked her new and old friend to the door, “Amy?”

“Yeah?"

“You wanna maybe catch up some more tonight? I know I could use some Bronze shaped distraction.” Truth was Willow didn’t want to be at the house at night, Buffy would probably be out anyway and Dawn was awkward and shifty and overly sweet after yesterday’s tiff and it all reminded her that Tara was gone.

“Sure. Meet you here at 8?”

“Sounds good. And good luck.”

“Thanks, Will. See you later.” Willow shut the door, fetched her coffee and made her way back up the stairs. There was a chapter on sense acuity and transmutation just waiting to be read.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t exact, there would be a thicker collection of trees behind the house, sloping upwards towards the Three Sisters, rising into the Oregon sky. The tree in front of the barn would be slightly bent from wind and there would be a pile of cut wood next to it. It wasn’t exact, but Tara was shaken with familiarity as she took in the painting. It reminded her of home, of the house where she grew up. And she couldn’t move.

Later, she would be grateful for the dimmed lights as slides of 19th Century American Artists flipped through most of the 55 minute class. This particular image sat in front of her for maybe seven minutes as the professor rattled on excitedly about the artist’s slight deviation from traditional landscape work.

Tara heard none of it. For seven minutes, her heart pounded as her mind’s eye flashed scenes from her childhood. Her mother making supper, her brother stabbing his fork into the kitchen table, her father’s smoky brown truck making its way to the front door. Tara looking up, wide-eyed, at the sound. Her mother quirking her lips to try and hide the small, forming frown. The scene played over and over in Tara’s mind and remained as an imprint until the last slide clicked off and the lights clicked on.

She slowly stood on numbed legs and picked up her bag. Her open notebook showed a still empty page as she dropped it inside. She felt… removed. As if the world was moving around her as she floated, like a phantom, amongst the people passing her by. The brown truck turned left, stopping just feet from the northern side of the house. She saw it in a loop, over and over. She saw it with more clarity than the faces she knew were here with her now but seemed so far away.

Ducking into the bathroom near the exit, Tara set her back on the sink, and turned faucet on. Filling her hand, she let the icy water shock her, then repeated the action twice more. Finally, she felt her awareness return and she blinked her eyes several times. With a quick glance at the mirror, she pulled a few paper towels from the dispenser, wiping the dripping water from her face and neck. The collar of her t-shirt was soaked, it helped keep Tara grounded. With a deep breath she turned, tossed the paper towels, and headed out toward her next class.

Chapter Text

The Bronze was teeming, twenty-something-ish bodies crushed together as they maneuvered within the space. Willow and Amy pushed through, trying to reach the stairs to the second floor. After third strange elbow jabbed Willow in the shoulder, and with a puff of frustration, she flung her hands in an outward motion, flicking them in opposite directions. The crowded divided, leaving a clear pathway ahead of two the women, both grinning broadly like satisfied cats. With a spring in her step, Willow moved toward the unblocked stairway, “Let’s go.”

“You couldn’t have thought of that at the bar?” Amy teased, pushing up the arms of her deep burgundy shirt, her index finger momentarily caught in the slashes that ran down the sleeve.  Her brown skirt and oversized brown belt had been purchased with her father’s money just hours before.

“I was too busy showing the bartender our brand spankin’ new I.D.’s, years of aging at no charge.” Willow delighted, tongue peeking out between her teeth.

“Since when does the Bronze card, anyway?”

“New management,” Willow shrugged blithely, and then steadied her dirty martini before emerging into the open room. She was showing, as Amy put it, “more skin than you were even aware of in high school.” Her tight olive jeans rode low beneath an equally olive flowing tank with embroidered gold flowers and V-cut that revealed her slim stomach. High school Willow would have crumbled under panic and embarrassment, this Willow wore the outfit with ease.

The upper level was a study in red, dotted with tables, chairs, and a spattering of booths all bearing low glowing candles behind red- tinged votives. While it was less crowded, there were still no seats available. Willow huffed in disappointment before sipping at her drink, “Guess we stand.”  

“Nah.” Fixing a mischievous gaze on a couple against the back wall, Amy uttered unfamiliar words through a self-satisfied grin. The couple rose from their seats and left the area, wearing confused expressions as they passed the girls. “Look, two seats, just opened up.” Willow smiled; this was the fun of magic.

“How was seeing your dad?” She inquired as they claimed their liberated land.

“Weird,” Amy plopped into a cushioned seat, “He thought I ran away. Or that I was dead.”

Choosing a more sedate ease into her chair, Willow winced in sympathy, “He didn’t believe the rat thing?”

“It’s kinda hard to wrap your head around. And Sunnydale, missing teen capital of everywhere, so...”

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Yeah, he said he tried to find out more, but no one ever said anything to him again.” Amy’s words held no anger, but carried a distinct sense of regret.

“I’m sorry, Amy. I mean, I guess I took for granted that he accepted what had happened, since your mom was a witch an’ all.” Willow stared down at her drink where she ran her thumb back and forth over the edge of the protruding olive spear, “Guess we should have kept him updated.”

“Well, I’m sure you were busy,” a thin bitter thread was laced in the otherwise banal statement. It tickled at Willow’s senses and she was unsure what to make of it.

 “It’s been pretty much non-stop crazy. World-endy crazy. But, I am sorry.”

Visibly shifting moods, Amy waved the topic away, “It’s in the past, right?” Pushing her hair back, Amy leaned her elbows on the table and propped her chin on clasped hands, “So…. You date girls now?”

Willow took a slow drink before she answered, her voice throaty and quiet, “Well, one girl, there’s just been the one.”

Amy leaned forward in interest, “What happened?”

Willow blinked in surprise and a small weight seemed to lift from her shoulders- there was no blame or foregone conclusions there. Amy was an impartial, maybe even sympathetic, ear. Still, there was a tremble in her voice when she spoke, “We, um, she was upset with me- for using magic.”

 “Did she not know you?” Amy pulled back slightly, eyes rolling incredulously, “I mean not everyone understands witchcraft but-“

“No, she does. Tara is a witch too.”

“Then what’s with the judgment?”

“She said I was using too much.” Aiming for an air of composure, Willow attempted an easy shrug but it came off stiff and twitchy.

Obviously unimpressed, Amy huffed, “Wow, controlling much?”

“No!” Willow protested, “Tara’s not like that. She just- she grew up practicing, and she has all these rules and restrictions that she really believes in. And I think she didn’t trust me enough to know what I was doing, what I had to do.”

“And what did she think was so offensive?”

Willow told Amy about the last year. Glory. The horror of seeing the god’s hands stealing Tara away, watching Tara struggle, each day more frantic and frightened and helpless. Buffy’s psychotic break, then death. Taking the mantle of leadership over the summer, because she was expected to. Because she could. Fighting every day to keep everyone safe. Bringing Buffy back.

“The magic saved us, my magic saved us. And yeah,” Willow continued, a little too earnestly, “I used it to make party decorations, or to close the curtains sometimes, but that’s like, super simple magic, it's easy- peasy for me now. I use magic to save lives, shouldn’t I be able to use it to make life easier too? I think it’s more than a fair trade.”

“Your ex sounds like a bore, Willow, move on.”

“Don’t.” Willow’s eyes narrowed dangerously, alit by a ferocious flame. Staring widely with alarm, Amy moved as far back as her chair would allow.  “Don’t talk about her like that.” With a blink, Willow softened and tears gathered and sat in tiny pools, “She is the most amazing person I have ever met. We just didn’t see eye to eye on this.” Closing her eyes, Willow appeared lost in reverie.

Tilting her head, Amy observed Willow, flickers of scrutiny barely discernible behind an impassive visage, “Ok, Wills. Subject dropped,” Amy stood, grabbing Willow by the hand, “What you need is some distraction”. With a slight tug, she pulled the reluctant redhead to the railing where they could view the crowd below. “Come on, let’s have some fun.”

Amy searched the couples on the dance floor and at the bar. With a look of satisfaction she turned to Willow, “Found just your style.” A thin line of red mist streamed from Amy’s outstretched fingers, making its way through the people and finding its target. Willow followed the trail to where the mist disappeared into the chest of an attractive young woman with long brown hair; an attractive young woman who until now had been dancing intimately with a taller blonde. The woman stopped her dance, looking directly up and into Willow’s eyes. Her smile promised that no seduction was necessary as she pushed out of the bewildered blonde’s arms and started walking toward the stairs, her gaze never leaving Willow’s face.

“Amy, no, no! I’m not –“ Willow frantically shook her head.

“Ok.” Amy shrugged, and with a flick of her hand, the spellbound dancer stopped cold, a look of pure confusion on her face. Amy turned to see tears return to flood Willow’s eyes. She was shaking and Amy was sure there was a breakdown in sight. Amy knew Willow was trying to have a good time tonight and frankly, did not want her first night back filled with anything but a celebration of walking on two legs again.

Willow looked to Amy just as the other woman pressed two fingers to Willow’s forehead. A heady rush swept through Willow’s small frame, and she grinned as her thoughts melted away.

“Isn’t that better?” Amy asked with a bright smile.

“So much,” Willow practically swooned.

Chapter Text

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 Tara didn’t want to lose that part of her life either, 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, hollowed 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.     

 

Chapter Text

June, 2000

“So, do you come here often?” Willow joked badly, trying anything to combat her nerves. She placed a container of grapes on a star-covered blanket, in between cream cheese rolls and a thermos of apple cider.

“Did you really just ask me that?” Tara giggled and quirked her left eyebrow. She paused her actions, napkins in a momentary hover above the blanket.

A blushing face ducked shyly, “Um yeah, cause like ‘classic line’ right? It’s what you see in all the movies, or is it just in jokes, oh god, am I being the joke?” Willow’s eyes grew as her clasped hands danced anxiously in front of her. “I don’t wanna be the joke, jokes aren’t funny if you are the joke, I mean me-you, not you-you. Cause you aren’t- and I don’t want to be- and so I’m not. No more being the joke” Willow’s expressions took the scenic route through at least six different emotions, ending with a familiar nod of resolve, although the nod was clearly from Willow to Willow.

Tara couldn’t help but laugh, her eyes kind and the bridge of her nose slightly creased. This girl was adorable. “Sweetie,” Tara slipped steady fingers between her love’s kinetic ones.“Sweetie. Are you nervous?”Willow nodded, soothed by the calm deep velvet of Tara’s voice.

Big oak leaves played in the sun, hide and seeking with the help of the wind, sending shadows to dance across Willow’s delicate features. Tara could barely contain a sob that expanded her chest, pushing out to declare such beauty. Half in shadow, half in light, wide, vulnerable eyes looked to Tara for salvation.
Tara shifted to face Willow, drawing their joined hands into her lap, “Why, darling? It’s just me.”

“There is no ‘just you’ Tara. And that’s why I’m nervous. I mean, there’s wonderful you. And amazing you. And so hot I don’t know what to do with myself you.” Willow grinned cheekily for a brief moment and she glanced to the side. She faced Tara again and spoke fervently ,“but there’s no ‘just’ you.”

The words shook Tara with their conviction- she felt her face redden with the adoring attention. “I…um…wow….” the words were stumbled, her cheeks flushed with warmth and ducked her head behind her hair.

“And so, see,” Willow continued, calmer fingers tucking Tara’s hair behind her ears. She moved her hands back into Tara’s and continued tracing the palms of the woman she adored, “I want everything to be perfect with you, because you deserve perfection, always.”

Tara cupped her girlfriend’s pixie face in her hands and drank in the endless deep emerald of her eyes. “Darling, love. That you think any of that about me is extraordinary. And I love you so much for wanting things to go well, but not if it’s going to make you uneasy, make you enjoy the experience less. Because it’s not just about me, it’s about us.”

The kiss that followed was sweet and honest, pouring together two souls in love, two individuals who found each other in the rare, precious space that only the very lucky find, the place where they become ‘us’. The kiss that followed that promised molten lava and the parting of seas.

Chapter Text

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. Willow felt a shudder of annoyance and betrayal as she thought of how he had acted 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 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 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 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.

Chapter Text

“What are you gonna get?” Dawn asked excitedly, her blue eyes wide as took in the overwhelming offerings of ice cream on display. “I can’t decide between Vanilla Gummi Bear Swirl or Chocolate Caramel Decadence,” she continued, not pausing for an answer. The girl was bouncing from foot to foot, long brown hair swishing thickly as she looked between the tubs. Her eyes scrutinized the cold food like she had missed some vital piece of information that would tip the scale toward one flavor over the other.

Where does she put it all? Tara shook her head bemusedly at the kinetic teenager. She stood back, feet away from the display case, the excessive smell of the sugar cones was already making her nauseous, and she couldn’t bring herself to peer at the offerings.

“Tara?”

“Hmmm?”

“Did you decide on a flavor?” Dawn asked, her voice almost cautious and definitely concerned. She was a smart young woman, she had to have seen the noticeable amount of weight Tara had lost just over the past two weeks. She would know that Tara hadn’t been eating well. Janice had always told her that the best weight loss program was the ‘break-up diet’ but Dawn didn’t think one pound was worth the pain Tara was trying to hide.

“No, sweetie, I’m ok.” Tara offered with a shake of head, pushing her lips into a small smile. She was determined to have this go well. Dawn had done nothing wrong and Tara didn’t want to punish her for the actions of her caretakers. And she missed the girl acutely. Dawn was family and Tara loved her dearly.

Her sigh was bittersweet, the love she felt mixed with the sharp awareness of their separation. A tinge of jealousy and betrayal ran through Tara. She had left because of Willow, had had to move away from living with this precious girl because Willow had so devastatingly broken her trust. It was unfair. And she yearned for that feeling of home, of being with her family. And how she yearned for Willow, her bones ached for the other woman’s touch. But she was still so angry, hurt beyond measure.

I am still there for her, Tara reminded herself, her thoughts turning back to Dawn, I will always be there for her. She shook her head, once again, clearing thoughts in the crowded mind She looked up at the younger woman.

Dawn was so readable, she was never able to hide her emotions, if she even tried, and Tara saw a look of sorrow in the girl’s eyes. Tara relented, not wanting to worry the sweet teen, “W-well, um, m-maybe j-just a scoop?”

In truth, Tara wanted nothing else than to get outside, away from the bustle of the shop and the over saccharine smells assaulting her senses. She didn’t want Dawn to worry, the younger girl had had so much worry, too much worry, for a person her age, but the guilt she was feeling about it was pushing into a space too overcrowded by emotions. She needed to get into the open air, now.

“Y-you ch-choose, okay? I, I-I need some fresh air” Tara said backing toward the door, before spinning, almost stumbling on hurried feet. She sat on the bench just outside and leaned her body over her legs, trying to calm erratic breath. Dawn arrived a few moments later with a scoop of ice cream and a cup of water. The teen sat gently next to Tara, extending the cup toward the blond.

“Here,” she offered gently, “I thought you might need this.”

Shaking hands wrapped around the white paper cup, as Tara brought the liquid to her lips. “Thank you.” She sat a bit straighter, exhaling slowly through her nose. “That helped, Dawnie. I’m sorry, I just got, uh, a l-little light headed there.” She smiled weakly and gave a self-depreciating eye roll.

“No big,” Dawn replied with a shrug that was much more a play of nonchalance than true ambivalence, “You still wanna-” her head tilted and nudged up toward the outdoor seating in front of them.

“Yeah, let’s.” Tara agreed, standing on shaky feet, moving to turn, her unfocused mind on auto-pilot. She stepped back to be clipped by a man marching past her, his angry voice biting at whoever was at the other end of his cell phone. He shot Tara a quick, chiding look as he carried on with his tirade. Tara was trying to breath from her belly again, her anxiety reignited, when she heard it.

“You better watch your steps, girl,” the phone man’s voice rose in Tara’s mind, drowning out every other sound. She felt her vision shift as she stumbled backward onto the bench. Her breathing quickened, staccato, as her body started to shake. Tara forced her head down into the position she had been in only minutes before, but the rising panic would not relent. She vaguely heard a worried voice calling to her, “Tara? Tara what’s wrong? What can I do?”

Other voices overlapped cramming into Tara’s brain. “Is she alright?” “Do you need 911?” “Is she on drugs?” “What’s wrong with her?”

Tara pushed through the onslaught and, grabbing Dawn’s hand, pleaded, “Get me out of here, please.”

Dawn didn’t hesitate, Tara’s voice was shaky and graveled, her eyes wide with fear. Pushing her right arm under Tara’s left. The teen led them away from the small crowd and into the service alley behind the shops. Tara's stare was fixed as she made her way to a parking block, using a shaky hand to ease her way down. She started to sob, wracking bursts cutting through sudden incoherent babble.

“I'm seeing it again, in my head, in my dreams. I’m trying, I’m trying.”

“Tara, what? What are you seeing?” Dawn’s face blanched with the terror of helplessness, “Oh my god.” She had only ever seen Tara like this when Glory had…. But there was no hell god here and Tara had been fine, until she wasn’t. Dawn wondered if this was something left over from that time, or if Willow had somehow screwed with her mind. Again, the teen thought bitterly, screwed with her mind again.

“I don’t know what happened,” Tara mumbled, words pouring out like a rush of water over rocks, “Th-the flowers, I couldn’t, I can’t, I keep seeing- it keeps happening, it -”

Dawn felt her heart ache as she took in the pain coming from her friend, her caregiver, her surrogate mother.

“I’m calling Buffy.” It was the only thing she could think to do.

Tara looked up through frantic eyes, “NO!” The thought of anyone else seeing magnified her terror.

“Please Tara, I don’t know what to do” Dawn pleaded, her voice thick and shaken.

“Ohhhhhh Dawnie, oh god , hurt you, I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want, I can’t, my mind, it’s not mine, they take it, they take it.” Large blue eyes, blood shot and watery, stared into Dawn, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Tears flowed as Dawn’s heart pounded in fear and uncertainty. She wanted to respect Tara’s wishes, but this was bad, this was really bad, and she wasn’t equipped to deal with it. She turned and stepped four steps to the right, quickly dialing her cell phone. The call was answered quickly, and Tara could vaguely hear rushed quiet words seeping through her mental fog. The voice nearly as panicked as hers own had been.

Red sneakers stopped before Tara, and Dawn kneeled before her. She spoke, soft and hesitant, “Buffy’s on her way, I’m sorry Tara.”

Buffy, Willow’s Buffy, Tara thought, and pieces fell together. “Don’t tell Willow! You can’t!” she demanded desperately.

“I won’t Tara, I promise.” Dawn reached out cautiously and took Tara’s hand. “Buffy will promise too, just something is wrong and I don’t know what to do.”

The feel of Dawn’s hand pushed through the fog and Tara looked up, meeting Dawn’s eyes, the clouds in her eyes dissipating. Tara fully took in the younger woman’s state, concern for the scared, trembling girl pushing a little of her panic aside.

Tara swallowed, her tongue catching against the dry roof of her mouth, “W-water, can you get?”

Dawn stood, uncertain, her eyes shifting between her friend and the shop behind her, “I don’t want to leave you.”

“P-panic attack, I’ll be ok,” Tara tried to reassure, she knew this feeling, and as much as Tara felt as if she was toppling over into madness, she knew it would eventually pass, “P-please. It’ll h-help.”

Unsure of what else to do, Dawn relented. “Ok, I’ll just be a minute,” she said, feet already rushing to complete her task.

As the teen walked swiftly back to Frenchie’s, Tara wrapped her knees to her chest, rocking as she kept up her mantra to herself, “I’ll be ok, I’ll be ok, I’ll be ok.”

Dawn winced as she heard the sound, the last word rising to a keen, she began to run to her destination, wanting to return as fast as she could. As Dawn flew around the corner to the shop, she saw Buffy, full Slayer speed, charging towards her. Dawn ran past the front door of the ice cream shop and into Buffy’s arms. “I’m so glad you’re here!”

Buffy squeezed her sister tight before straightening her arm, hands on Dawn’s shoulders holding the girl a foot away from her. Buffy gaze was steady, “What’s going on, Dawn? Where’s Tara?”

“She’s down the alley,” Dawn pointed a shaky finger in the needed direction, “At the end. Something’s wrong Buffy”

“And you just left her?” Buffy flared.

“No! She-she needed some water, she said it would help,” Buffy watched as guilt spread across Dawn’s features, immediately regretting her quick judgment. “I wouldn’t have-“ Dawn continued, but Buffy stopped her with a firm but gentle hand on her sisters shoulder.

“It’s ok, Dawn, its ok, go get her water.” At that, Buffy turned full speed, ready to race down the alleyway.

“Buffy!” Dawn shouted. Buffy stopped, a slightly annoyed look on her face, this wasn’t the time for sidebars.

“Go slow,” Dawn said, and it was enough, Buffy understood then.

Buffy eased to a slow walk, stepping sideways with her hands down and splayed, head dipped as if approaching a frightened animal, “Tara?” she said softly.

Tara looked up at Buffy but said nothing, too afraid that trying to speak would unleash her nerves again. She was glad to have the Slayer there, nothing would hurt her then, but Tara didn’t know how to process Buffy being there. Buffy, who is Willow’s best friend. Buffy, who they pulled out of heaven- who hasn’t been the same since. Tara followed Buffy’s movement as she squatted to her eye level. Tara dropped her eyesight, still fighting the last surge of panic. Buffy laid her hands on Tara’s knees, but instead of soothing the young woman, Tara flinched.

“Sorry” Buffy whispered, shifting her body’s weight back until she sat on the ground, giving Tara some space. Tara’s head shot up as she sucked a bit of air in audibly, a contained gasp.

“N-no, i-it’s ok, B-b-b” Tara sighed then, tears pricking the back of her eyes. She hadn’t been able to even get close to moving past B, her body refusing the air needed to form the sound. Face flush with embarrassment, Tara pushed on, “I, just, n-need, need a m-minute,” she breathed out slowly.

“Ok, am I ok here?” Buffy asked indicating her place on the ground, keeping her voice even. Tara just nodded and concentrated on her breathing as Dawn returned with her water.

“Here you go, Tara.” The cup was huge and almost filled to the brim. The absurdity of its size and thoughtfulness of the gesture helped Tara concentrate on the present. She took the offering with a grateful flick of her eyes and drank in large gulps. Finally, Tara set the cup by her side and she pulled in three long breathes, placing her hand on her abdomen to focus its flow. She looked at her surroundings, vaguely mindful that her world seemed to be reforming, like oil gathering on still water. Slowly, Tara stood and looked to Dawn, then Buffy. “I’m okay.” Tara nodded her head, reassuring herself of the truth of that statement.

Standing to meet her gaze, Buffy tipped her head slightly, “You sure?”

“Yes. I just want to go home.”

“Okay, we’ll take you.”

Tara nodded again, giving no argument. The presence of the Summer’s sisters felt like a lifeline, and Tara didn’t want to be alone just yet. Dawn held Tara’s hand the entire walk back to Tara’s dorm. The walk had been quiet, the chaos running through Tara’s body just a short time ago had burned itself out and now she was heavy and silent in her exhaustion. As they slowed in front of Dormer Halls, Tara gave Dawn’s hand a slight squeeze before slipping her hand out and tucking it under crossed arms.

“Thank you both,” she said, whisper quiet. “I feel r-really stupid,” she continued, giving a small crooked smile that didn’t reach her tired eyes. Dawn placed her hand on Tara’s right upper arm and squeezed once in comfort and reassurance.

“No need, Tara,” Buffy stated, “but I’m gonna walk you up. Dawn, can you wait for me here? Or you can start home if you want.”

“Buffy, she should come…” Tara’s eyes pleaded, quickly glancing toward Dawn and back. It was important that she be included, that the young woman knew that what she had just helped Tara through had not been taken for granted.

Buffy sighed, knowing she had reacted out of routine. The one that says, ‘Dawn stays away from the heavy stuff. The routine of being the Slayer. Adrenaline that had built up from before was starting to drop away in large doses, and as it did exhaustion took over. So quickly, Buffy felt weighted and tired. But they had to get Tara inside. Buffy looked to her younger sister and jerked her head, indicating the direction of the door.

The three women walked silently in single file up two flights of stairs to Tara’s new dorm room. The approach of this new space made Tara feel like a stranger to the sisters behind her. This space was separate.

“Did, um, you want to come in?” Tara asked, her tone indicating that she wasn’t sure which answer she preferred.

Buffy opened her mouth to speak, but Dawn’s words cut her off, “Just for a minute. To make sure you’re ok.” Tara nodded and wordlessly unlocked the door, shutting it behind Dawn as the younger girl followed her sister inside.

“I like your room, Tara.” The teen said taking in sparse walls and a well made bed.

Bless this girl. “Thanks Dawnie.”

“It’s somewhere to be, right?”Buffy asked, the words tinged with a cynicism she hadn’t meant to seep through. She wasn’t even sure if she was talking about the room.

“Yeah,” Tara sighed, seeing Dawn wince at her sister’s words, “It’s somewhere to be.”

Chapter Text

Willow was restless. Restless and unfocused. This weekend had been set aside to catch up on her studies. She had used a specific red marker and written it on her calendar and underlined it three times, in a different red marker, to remind her how important this time was. The girl who had never missed a deadline, who had all her papers written at least a week before they were due, had fallen behind. She now had three papers waiting to be researched, outlined, and produced, all due before the Thanksgiving holiday only four days away. It wasn’t like her and she knew it.

Shaking her hands in front of herself, Willow tried to distract away the pull of the magic books that sat on her dresser, mere feet away. Her feet were fidgety and legs on a constant pulse as she anxiously waited for the sun to go down. Rack only took clients in the later hours of nighttime and the anticipation of going there was the only thing keeping her from falling apart. She craved the escape. Escape from what she knew, deep down, was the tick tick tick of a time bomb, lodged in her gut, fueled by the razor sharp sorrow housed in her soul. It simmered, this sorrow, it ran through her blood like screams and pushed up under her skin and, one day, Willow knew she would explode and there would be nothing left of her. So she grasped desperately at the escape Rack’s magic gave her. Magic that allowed her to push away her terror, her gnawing grief, and to just float into an unawareness that was both numbing and euphoric. It was like nothing she’d ever experienced.

She picked up her Computational Biology text and tried pacing while she studied, anything to keep her restive body occupied. Her thoughts would not be so easily harnessed. They drifted over her studies and shifted back to the thrill of being there, at Rack’s, of having access to his kind of power. Most people, most witches, didn’t get to experience this level of magic use. But Willow Rosenberg wasn’t most witches, she was clever and powerful, and she felt like she had earned her way into a secret club. Willow liked the feeling of belonging. She liked feeling like she was at a magical level where she could finally protect her friends. Protect Buffy from dying. Protect Tara from losing her sanity. Protect herself from losing Tara again.

Schoolwork had been pushed aside to maintain these feelings. Through magic. Studying it during the day and experiencing it into the late hours of the night. Sleep became an afterthought, creeping in when the effects wore off and Willow would feel a crushing fatigue; it made focusing while in class near impossible.
So she had giving herself a timeline, set aside these days. And she couldn’t get her head around any of it. Pictures in her mind kept away hope of concentration. She saw Buffy, turning at the Bronze, her hazel eyes a storm of sorrow and pain as she confessed that she had been ripped out of heaven. Guilt flooded Willow’s slender frame and she redoubled her efforts. Buffy’s face shifted to Tara’s and she saw the tear heavy blue eyes. Those soulful blue eyes, eyes whose depths had offered an eternity of grace, eyes that now refused to look at her. Unable to pull herself away from these painful memories, Willow shook her head, effectively giving up the attempt to read.

School work set aside, Willow placed a tome from her dresser in her knapsack and grabbed her jacket off the back of her desk chair. With a quick swirl of her wrist, the window curtains closed and Willow set out for the Magic Box, thinking that a change of setting might help her clear her mind.

She considered using magic to complete at least a few of the papers before deciding she would give it one more try tomorrow. She could pick up some benzoin resin while at the shop, it was good for spells of focus and enhanced academic success.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

February has always been an anomalous month. Still and dark, the quiet death of winter and the quieter birth of spring, all seemingly lost after the fanfare of the new year. Except to witches, who knew that in early February, the earth was alive making way for struggling seeds.

There was, of course, Valentine’s Day, and that holiday certainly could have been a day of planting seeds, especially if looking at its possible Roman origins, but neither Tara nor Willow chose to celebrate it. Willow hated the hearts and saccharine capitalism. Tara saw the good in people expressing love but was always bothered that beautiful flowers had been rushed through their natural growing cycle, or grown in artificial settings, so people could hand them out in the middle of winter, just to toss them a week later. They’d decided that it was unnatural, and so spent the day with Chinese take-out a few lesbian romance movies- Willow insisted she needed those for her “gayducation”. They’d made love under the slanted light of the half- moon which had fanned across their bed. Really it was like every other night, or most of them anyway. Still, despite the light protest, the fact that it was Valentine’s Day affected them, and they both knew, that this first V- Day together as an official couple was a milestone- and that they were very very lucky.

The part about that was on Willow’s mind was that it’s also the one month that actually got cold in Southern California- and Willow was suffering. Wrapped in thermals she only really kept around for these few weeks, she was huddled next to the space heater, turning every few minutes to try and spread the warmth as she and Tara studied. Well, Tara was studying at the desk, and Willow was watching her from her place on the floor. Next to the heater. Tara was definitely in serious study mode - she was wearing her thinky face and everything. That face always made her smile. Each time Tara stopped typing, a small crinkle would form between her brows and she would chew on her full bottom lip, releasing it to mouth words silently- as if just thinking wasn’t enough to fully form what she wanted to convey. Willow was loving every nuance of expression on her love’s face; her love, who was in nothing more than a sweatshirt and pajama pants. Willow shivered looking at Tara so exposed to the elements, or at least the air inside their dorm. Air was an element. And that element was so cold. Just look at her nipples. Or feel them, rather, as they masochistically tried to cut their way out of Willow’s thermal top.

But it wasn’t Tara’s lovely features or her under-dressed state that kept pulling Willow’s gaze her way. It was always a reason, but right it wasn’t the only one. Willow was worried. She knew it was silly, knew it was probably nothing, but logic didn’t stop her insides being all twisty. It didn’t help her busy mind as it tripped over itself with catastrophe. Tara was busy and Willow wanted to respect that, but she had to say something before she blurted something stupid. Closing her textbook and pushing it to the side, Willow pulled the wooly blanket around her body, scooting even closer to the blessed, but tiny, heater, as she watched Tara some more. She needed to find the words so they, she, could get past this. In fact, she decided, this might take more than words. It took some maneuvering to get up while not disturbing the blanket, and her walk to Tara was much more like a shuffle, not unlike a penguin, which in this weather?

Appropriate.

Willow reached her destination and snuck out an arm, braving the cold to loop it around Tara’s neck. She kissed behind Tara’s left ear, “Baby?”

“Hmm?” Tara asked, still focused on the screen before her, but she did lean into Willow’s embrace. It was an unconscious move, like gravity joining the planets in orbit. The attraction of love that is reciprocated. Despite the lean, the distracted response made Willow pause. It would be harder if she had to share Tara’s attention. But she had gotten half Tara’s attention, and saying ‘Nothing’ would make Tara concerned. Neutral ground then. Well as neutral as hypothermia could be.

“It’s so cold, how can it be this cold?” Perhaps it was the tone in Willow’s voice, one that indicated that she was miserable, or maybe it was light kisses that were being dotted down Tara’s neck. Either way, Tara stilled her hands and tipped her neck further to the side, exposing the soft skin to allow more butterfly kisses. Willow increased her attention with a grin - now they were getting somewhere.

Slim fingers wove into Willow’s hair before Tara pulled back slightly and with a twist of her torso pressed their lips together in a playful kiss. Tara teased her tongue across Willow’s bottom lip, giving it a slight nip, before Willow met Tara’s tongue fully, caressing it with her own. Tara mewled in delicious satisfaction as they parted and the sound permeated Willow, leaving her heady and high, a silhouette in an opium haze. She couldn’t remember why she had come over to Tara, and she didn’t care, until Tara snickered. It took a moment for Willow to understand as she watched Tara trying to fight a grin, lips twisting valiantly until she was too amused and gave in. Willow was offended, in a mock ‘I know you’re teasing me but I also know you love me’ kind of way.

“Did you just snicker at me?” If more than one arm had been free, Willow would have put her hands on her hips. One would make enough of a point. Since she wasn’t really mad anyway.

If anything, the response only increased Tara’s amusement because now she was laughing, “Sweetie, you look like a burrito,” and giving Willow, by way of her woolly blanket, a playful tug, added “It’s not that cold.”

“It’s 45 degrees!!” How had Tara possibly missed the fact that it was arctic. Tara wrapped her arms around her girl.

“My poor baby, It’s a good thing there are no actual seasons here, you wouldn’t survive.”

“I would if you were there to snuggle me,” Willow’s bottom lip pushed out, assuming full pout position as she tipped her head coquettishly. Willow needed Tara’s attention right now, so she threw in some fluttering eyelashes for good measure. On most other days, Willow would have respected Tara’s need to work, in fact, she encouraged it, brainy women were hot and Tara was already hot so add studying to the mix and- yowza! But today, tonight, Willow needed reassurance, and the need wouldn’t stop bothering her.

“Darling, I will always be there to snuggle you, and trust me I am tempted, but this paper is due Thursday- I have to get it done.” With a final squeeze, and a small kiss on Willow’s covered chest, Tara released her and turned back to the computer.

“But that’s like two whole days away,” Willow offered, resting her chin on her girlfriend’s shoulder and reading new words appear across the screen. She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice as she continued, “Maybe a day and a half now, but you have no classes after 4 tomorrow so – look how much time you have.”

Tara closed her eyes as she leaned her head against Willow’s, fully aware that her love was being uncommonly persistent, “This coming from ‘Miss I have all my papers written a week early or I can’t sleep at night Rosenberg’ ?”

“Just wanna snuggle my one and only baby, who I love more than anything.” There was something in the way Willow was speaking- it was her ‘I’m leading up to something’ tone. But Tara’s momentary bemusement was kissed away in little flutters that caressed her face and neck. Intoxicating. Distracting.

Tara groaned with the effort of denying this woman. Either Willow was feeling very very frisky or something was bothering her. The fact that Willow had strayed away from the blessed heater reinforced her suppositions. Either was possible. Probably both. “I love you too darling and I’d really rather…”

And now Willow was feeling guilty. How many times had she rebuffed an affectionate Tara when she’d had papers due in the next few weeks? Well, not often, but it happened, and what if Scoobyage was needed tomorrow? Tara shouldn’t be left out because Willow had taken this time from her. Getting work done early was partly so that they wouldn’t be scrambling the night before and then miss a deadline because someone was trying to end the world. It all made Willow a little panicky. She was panicky anyway, for a Tara related reason. Tonight was just going to be a panicky night, but at least Tara could get her paper written.
She resigned herself with a sigh and left one more kiss on the top of Tara’s head, “I know, I’m sorry. You need to be studious,” before moving back toward the heater. Tara watched her go. Something was wrong. Willow wasn’t the best at hiding her emotions, they colored her voice and her painted on her features, but even if they were subtle, Tara could read her. This wasn’t just disappointment about not being able to snuggle.

“Baby, you ok?”

“Just getting’ toasty,” Willow said as she scooted next to the heater, pulling the blanket tighter. But she wasn’t looking at Tara, and there was just a hint of that tone that Willow couldn’t hide and it made Tara frown with concern. Tara left her chair and went to Willow, sitting behind her and wrapping her body around the huddled form of her love.

Willow knew Tara was coming to her, and she felt elated and guilty. And silly. Now that she’d gotten Tara’s full attention, she felt ridiculous for being so needy in the first place. Suddenly, she didn’t want things to be such a big deal. So, she snuggled into the warm arms and went for humor instead. Besides, it was fun to tease Tara, “Ha! It worked.”

Tara had to wonder if she’d just been played, even if the game was mutually beneficial. She didn’t think so, something was bothering Willow, but if her girl wanted to be that way…. With a playful slap on Willow’s arm, Tara shuffled back, loosening their embrace.

“Vixen.”

She wasn’t going to return to schoolwork, not now, but she could make Willow wonder, or hopefully share what was on her mind. And it worked. Two strong hands flew back, holding onto Tara's forearms, effectively stopping her movement. Willow pushed herself back into a firm embrace.

“No, baby, please, I just … I need you to know how much I love you.” Willow spoke with soft conviction that tugged at Tara’s heart. They both held on tighter and Tara swayed them gently back and forth.

“I do know that, what’s going on darling?”

“I just-,” Willow hesitated and snuggled in impossibly more, “It’s been, like, five days.”

Tara was silent for a moment. Willow could imagine the slight pensive crinkle as Tara worked it out. Then.

“Oh,” that hadn’t been expected. Tara loosened her hold a little so she could lay her chin on Willow’s shoulder, mirroring their earlier position. Tara thought of how to respond, this was obviously bothering Willow. “I guess so. That’s what’s bothering you? We’ve gone a few days without before.”

“A few. Not five.”

“Ok,” Tara kissed Willow’s hair, “And that makes you worry. Are you worried that I don’t want to? Because that is so definitely not the case.”

“I know I’m being silly. We’ve both been busy. There’s so much going on.”

“But?”

“Riley left.”

Tara blinked, her mouth opened and closed trying to find something to say, but the Riley thing confused her, “I’m not sure what to do with that, sweetie. What does that have to do with us?”

“It just got me thinking, and that thinking led to worrying and then,” Willow shrugged, “The no sex. I just don’t want us to drift apart like Buffy and Riley did.”

“Baby,” Tara soothed, head tilted as she looked at Willow. Willow leaned back and to the side, gaining a better view of her love and the brief flicker of worry in her wide, deep green eyes faded at the gentle look she was given. It calmed her and the words fell loose.

“And I keep telling myself I’m being silly or a worry-wort, and I don’t want to be silly or,” Willow frowned, “a wort. Of any kind. And I know I love you and I know you love me, and I know that should be enough and it is. It so is. It’s more than enough. It’s everything even.”

Tara held her, listening. And Willow went on. “It’s just, I love you so much sometimes, I-I worry that it’s going to go wrong. That something will happen. And when Riley left, I mean, I wasn’t 100% surprised, but they seemed to be doing ok. And then-” Willow paused and let her gaze fall to the floor and when she looked up again tears formed in Tara’s eyes, clinging to her lashes. Because in Willow’s eyes was that same shimmering gaze, her lips pressed and tweaked fighting the fall of her own tears.

Tara used her hands to move so she was facing Willow. Legs still entwined, she crossed her ankles behind her girlfriend, using heels resting against the soft flesh of Willow’s butt and urged Willow closer into their cocoon. Tara cupped Willow’s cheek, her thumb tucking away an errant strand of hair and caressing her ear before weaving her fingers upward into soft fine red locks. Just once, just enough to make Willow shiver. Then, with her hand on the nape of Willow’s neck, Tara brought Willow forward meeting her lips in the in between. Tara pressed fiercely as she gathered Willow in her embrace, her arms slipping into the wool tortilla blanket and tightening around Willow’s back. With strong hands she fitted their bodies together. It was possessive and generous, a gentle admonishment and a fierce promise. It was the purest response Tara could give.

But Tara didn’t stop giving. She lifted the sweatshirt off her own body, tossing it on the bed and Willow shivered in sympathy. A small place in her mind remembered the chill in the air, her body had already forgotten.

Tara unwrapped Willow from her blanket, rubbing her arms briskly to keep her warm, before pulling Willow’s nightshirt off, red strands waterfalling from the collar and settling on Willow’s bare shoulders.

Tara said nothing. But, through her touch, her lips, her shallowing breath, Tara defined her Truth. She smoothed her tongue across Willow’s lips, parting them and pushing inside, soothing, sucking, dancing their tongues together. She sifted her fingers through Willow’s hair, gathered the strands and tangled them in her fists. She stood, darkened eyes locked with Willow’s own and pulled the fabric of her pants down, hooked her underwear by her thumbs and followed their path, leaving both articles pooled on the floor. Willow reverberated in a breathless whisper as her own bottoms were slid down and then away. Tara dropped her head and sucked Willow’s nipple firmly into her mouth, taking, reminding. Tara showed her Truth when they were naked and Tara held Willow once again with her legs. Entwined. Exposed. Tara read Truth in small bumps of Willow’s sensitive skin, Tara’s hands reading them. Memorizing with touch where bones sculpted her flesh.

Tara kept Willow pressed to her, one hand between Willow’s shoulder blades, the other trailing between her breasts, in a diagonal across her stomach absorbing the flutter of Willow’s want. Tara trailed her hand through damp red curls, caressing the wetness just below. And then, as she entered Willow, as two fingers slid into warmth and stilled, Tara spoke, “I love you.” Then Tara moved in her.

Willow arched, her body restrained in Tara’s arms, breasts flushed together, taught nipples meeting, kissing. The clicking sounds of the heater were smothered by Willow’s moans. Her head thrown back, hips thrusting on stroking fingers. Tara held her from within. And when Willow peaked, desperate hands clenching and unclenching on Tara’s shoulder blades and in her tousled hair, a mantra rose in Tara’s voice, a sacred chant: “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Lost with one another they tumbled in an eternity of ecstasy and conviction.

Finally, they eased each other down with soft kisses and delicate caresses, drifting like feathers to solid ground. Two souls, overwhelmed with joy, reflected in wet glistening eyes, green and blue. Willow felt her chest expand, filling with gratitude and faith for Tara, wondering if she would burst from the pressure. “I love you,” Her breath shuddered as foreheads touched, “Thank you, Tara, thank you.”

Tara lifted Willow’s chin and met her eyes, held her gaze with the truth of them. Then, as her lips formed a half-smile, she leaned in and dotted Willow’s face with quick, playful pecks until Willow laughed, giddy and free. Willow tapped the tip of Tara’s nose and mirth sang in her tired voice, “I thought you were writing a paper.”

“I was keeping you warm,” Tara retorted. She moved to wrap herself closer to Willow’s body when Willow’s body twisted herself away, “Oof, why is this thing still on?” she asked, stretching out and catching the switch on the heater with just the tips of her fingers, clicking it off. Willow turned back, fanning herself with her hand, air puffing from her lungs, “I’m roasting!”

Tara burst into laughter, leaping at Willow. In one fluid motion Willow threaded her hands into Tara’s hair, catching her as she cupped the back of Tara’s head and pulled her into a searing kiss Together, they sunk to the floor.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Buffy was exhausted. She hadn’t even reached Grammerly Cemetary, her first stop on patrol, and all she wanted was to do was drink herself into a stupor or curl into a ball. Or find Spike. She wanted to forget. Since being ripped out of heaven, every drop of her emotional energy had been tapped trying to grapple with her own deep and perseverative pain. On trying to escape it. Being present for Tara, as much as she had been able to, had drained her. She didn’t regret it, Tara obviously needed help. The fact that the usually reserved blonde shared as much as she did spoke volumes about how hard things were for her best friend’s ex-girlfriend.

Her best friend.  

Inside, Buffy felt full of holes, voids where her spirit used to live, and one of those holes held a shape that was distinctly Willow shaped. But Buffy didn’t know how to fit the Willow she saw into that shape anymore. There was the Willow who was the friend with an almost boundless loyalty, who loved Buffy enough to leave behind an Ivy League education to stay and fight, side by side. The best friend whose face had softened and blushed, so relieved when Buffy had thanked her for her resurrection.

That act of gratitude had been the hardest Buffy had ever given, because she wanted to mean it but hadn’t. The truth was she wasn’t thankful. The truth was she resented Willow. This was the Willow that Buffy couldn’t see past right now. It hadn’t only been Willow who had done the ritual, Buffy knew that and there was a dose of resentment for all involved, but it had been Willow who made it real. Willow who had prepared the ingredients and who had reached into magicks so dangerous she had terrified Xander and invoked ire from Giles. Willow who had been so proud of the very act that had left Buffy with an unyielding grief wailing within the voids.  Buffy had been done, she had made peace, and she’d been ripped back into this world. A place that had once been home and now felt foreign and harsh.  

The resentment would not abate. Instead it simmered under guilt, threatening to lash whip-like from her, an inferno caged.  It swirled and grated with anger and despair, and wishing. And all these things: the resentment, the anger, the loss, the sense of being disconnected, and more than anything, the guilt had tipped Buffy into nothingness, into numbness. The numbness remained, a dam against the untenable onslaught, even at the sight of Willow, nearly brought to her knees by devastation when she had, they had all, been told the truth. It was still there, standing in the way, even though Willow had just lost her heart. And Buffy knew she had only a peripheral understanding of how Tara’s departure was affecting Willow. And how it wasn’t. It should have been telling, how fine Willow seemed, but pushing beyond what might have been a veneer required more than Buffy had to give. It required too much bandwidth to push, to see beyond. They lived under the same roof, but they were miles apart, and Buffy knew it was the numbness maintaining the gap.

Everything was falling apart. Everyone. Everyone seemed to be pulled to the end of their capabilities and it only reminded Buffy of the anguish of loss, something that had been replaced by serenity for those three short months. Something that was now the core of her being. Helping Tara tonight had felt right; it had helped her feel connected, if only a little. It had shown her that she could still care. And that scared her, because once that dam broke, what would stop all of the emotions, building and pressing, from drowning her?

“Why so glum, sweetheart?” The lisp as he said “shweetheart” gave it away. The Slayer sighed and turned to see three male vamps emerging through the trees. They moved in a rough triangle, each with their own version of a saunter.

“Well” Buffy cocked her head to the side, “I was feeling lonely,” she shrugged, “but now you guys are here, we can party.” The quip was a little monotone, the shrug half-hearted, but it was the first time Buffy had bothered even joking with her prey in a long time. A little spark of pride surged in her chest. She smiled as she slipped her stake into her hand.

The vamps on either side of her paused, but the one in front of her roared with laughter. He obviously had not been given the welcome tour. “Oh we’ll party, little girl” he slathered. Buffy rolled her eyes. “First I’ll take a turn, then….” Buffy pulled her stake back through the new dust and glared at the vamp to her right.

“Rape jokes aren’t funny,” Buffy wasn’t playing anymore. She threw her stake directly into the vamps heart, not even waiting to see him dissolve as she spun to the one now behind her. Her foot connected with his head. As he lurched sideways, Buffy produced another stake from her sleeve and shoved it into the last vampire’s chest. “Fucking men,” she grumbled as she passed Spike’s crypt.

She thought about Tara again, how shaken she had been earlier. She thought about Willow, in her house, forever looking at her with eyes pleading for forgiveness, for understanding, for thanks. Her exhaustion rolled over her and she halted, just steps from the edge of the cemetery. Steps from the street that would lead her home.

She felt his hands on her hips at the same moment that she heared the whisper in her ears, “Hello luv.”

Turning under his grip, Buffy looked into Spike’s eyes, ready to tell him to let go. She would go home, be with Dawn, talk with Willow. Buffy told herself these things even as she felt her body and mind succumb into the promise of release.

She remained gazing at him as his grip tightened and he bent his mouth towards hers, his lips grazing hers, surprisingly tender, before he captured her in a kiss driven by heady need. She felt the wave of reprieve soften her, and allowed him to take her hand. As they walked back to his crypt she didn’t think about anything.   

Chapter Text

Despite the sudden and unpredicted rainfall, Willow strode with purpose, uncaring as her boot slammed into an oil-slicked puddle, spraying water violently and soaking the ends of her jeans. She kept her pace quick, her body slightly off balance as it tried to readjust to the sudden shifts in equilibrium. She couldn’t slow down. Anger fed adrenaline coursed through her, forcing her muscles on, her overworked mind grateful for something tangible and present to demand her attention. The walk and the destination. Willow tried hard to focus. The walk and the destination. And yet her thoughts, traitorous and unkind, seeped words and accusations.

“I don’t know how to be around her anymore”

“I know, me too. It’s like the magic is all-“

 “Do you care that she’s gone?”

“How could you, Willow?”

 She walked harder, faster. Doubled her intent and concentrated, mentally shooing errant, unwanted thoughts as they arose. The walk and the destination.

And then, there it was. A feeling settled in her bones. She felt it. She knew where to go.

A thrill danced on her spine as Willow recognized she now had the ability to tune in to Rack’s whereabouts, suddenly feeling like she had been giving the password to the best speakeasy in town. Thoughts from the day were split apart and pushed aside, the red sea of Willow’s intent creating a sure path.

The path led through Grammerly cemetery, past Spike’s crypt. Flickering candle light drew her attention to the crypt’s muddied windows, the light blurred and fragmented. Squinting her eyes at the sight, Willow briefly wondered why vampires always played with fire. Immolation, anyone? She shook her head and resumed her pace, turning into the older part of town on the East side.  A few more blocks and a right turn into an alley, and Willow was there.

She paused, bathed in anticipation and held out her hand, fingers splayed, reached and waggling. She reached until she felt the density of the outside air thicken. Stepping forward, Willow pushed into the unseen opening.

She emerged into the same dingy waiting room littered with other magic users, each one anxious for their turn behind Rack’s closed door. Taking in the faces of her fellow witches, Willow’s gaze stopped on Amy, leaning rigidly against the back wall, eyes narrowed, looking directly at Willow. After a beat, Amy’s façade shifted and Willow blinked, unsure of what she had seen, as Amy pleasantly waved her over.

Guilt and hurt vied for recognition, like gremlins in Willow’s mind, as she walked over to Amy. Both had come alone, neither had extended an invitation. Willow put on a smile and an overly cheery tone as she stopped and swung her arms, hands clasped in front of her, “Hey Amy, I didn’t know you’d be here!”

“Back atchya, Willow,” Amy shrugged casually even as her gaze shifted to the side, “it was, uh, kind of a spur of the moment thing.”  

“Oh right, same,” Willow picked-up, “just thought I’d, you know, do the quick drop in thing.” Amy nodded and Willow nodded back. They stood uncomfortably together, shifting as the minutes ticked by until Rack’s door opened behind them.

Immediately, Amy moved forward, sidestepping Willow with a wide grin as she headed for the open doorway. Rack raised his hand in a stop motion and Amy’s grin dropped. She followed his stare, directed past her shoulder and aimed at Willow.

Rack swept past Amy and bent his head to the side, an appraising leer disrupting scarred features. “Strawberry,” he purred, gesturing Willow over and inside.

Willow felt the hairs on her neck and arms rise, a sickening chill ran down her spine. But she continued walking, swallowing the acrid saliva that had pooled beneath her tongue. She was confident he didn’t want her body, but he gained an almost sexual pleasure being inside her magically, that had been clear the last time she had visited. What she was trying not to think about was how much she enjoyed what he gave her, too. It was purely magical, she took comfort in that, but it was also obscenely intimate. Willow sent a fleeting look at Amy as she crossed the threshold.

Hearing the door click behind her, Amy fumed. She turned abruptly, to the bemused stare of an unkempt and twitchy young man .

“What?!” Amy snapped. The onlooker rolled glassy eyes and turned away.

This is why I didn’t invite her! Amy raged internally as she paced the small room. She had been the one to introduce Willow to Rack, she had been the one who knew where to go or even that he existed and from moment one, Willow was favored. Rack had murmured the whole time he first inspected Willow: Willow was ripe, Willow was teeming, Willow had so much power.

Amy tried, she really tried to not be jealous, and part of her knew her reactions were childish. But mainly, she was pissed. Amy was powerful too, and maybe she hadn’t been “ripe” but she’d been trapped in a little cage while Willow went around developing her practice, gaining strength, having a life. Too busy playing with her girlfriend to care if she languished. No aim for maturity could soothe the bitter wound inside. She needed this at least as much as Willow, didn’t he see that?

An hour went by, Amy had stopped her pacing and now sat picking her cuticles, tapping her foot impatiently as she stared at the closed door. It opened slightly and Rack inspected her steadily before gesturing for her to come in. Amy stood, the irritated look on her face negated by the eager trip as her feet hustled to get inside.

She entered the room and looked around as the door closed behind her.

“Where’s Willow?” she asked, the question a jumble of irritation and concern.

Rack simply grinned and raised his hand, his index finger shooting upwards. There, sprawled across the ceiling, was Willow Rosenberg, her shirt riding up her torso, her body twisting in pleasure as her features swam in ecstasy. Amy laughed, the girl was gone. And old Willow had gone with her.

Still smiling, Amy turned toward Rack. She nearly batted her eyelashes as she asked coyly, “So whatcha got for me?”

The man stepped close, brushing his body slightly against Amy’s while he grazed his hand lightly between her breasts. His long, hard knuckled fingers splaying toward Amy’s nipples until he stopped, flattening his palm against her chest. The scents of whiskey and anise assaulted Amy as Rack pressed his mouth to her ear, “Red’s a bit…. engaged. Let’s you and me take a little tour.”

Amy shivered as she let him take her, waiting for the magic to push away her terror, leaving only a numb bliss.

 

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. 

 

Chapter Text

Willow woke, drool crusted down the side of her mouth and chin. Placing her palms flat against the stained rug, she pushed her torso up, arching her back slightly as she blinked to adjust her vision. A wide yawn spread as she pushed herself back, sitting on her heels and rubbing a weary hand across her mouth, then pushed the rest of the way up to her feet. Her eyes scanned the fetid room and she found Amy, half on the floor, half on a blue chair that once could’ve been described as plush, her head pillowed by arms crossed over the tattered seat. Just above Amy and to the left was Rack, his eyes shut as he sat upright on an equally worn green-gray couch, eerily motionless. Willow felt a momentary chill run through her veins, before she giggled at her reaction.

The after-effects of Rack’s magic made her head deliciously fuzzy and she struggled to be subtle as she moved toward Amy. Willow shook Amy’s shoulder and the sleeping woman jerked upward with a loud gasp. Willow attempted to shush her through an amused smile, gaining a sheepish look from Amy. One hand cupped her mouth, muffling snorts of laughter, Willow’s other pointed to Rack and then to the door. Amy stared through glassy eyes, stuck on the still man until a tug on her sleeve propelled her to move. The waiting room was still littered with desperation as they shuffled through and out into the near cusp of night and day.

Amy half stumbled into Willow and rested her weight fully, leaning on Willow’s side. They staggered and giggled together, making their way through the streets and toward the cemetery.

“It gave me the serious wiggins,” Amy said, the statement coming out of nowhere, “I mean who sleeps like that? Was he even sleeping? Maybe it was like meditation or something.”

“He’s gotta sleep sometime, “Willow shrugged as she ungracefully side-stepped a grave marker, “Ooh or maybe not! Maybe he magics away his need to sleep? Like, just gets all meditate-y for a bit and blammo! Sleep-be-gone!”

“I dunno Will, I am pretty fond of it- nothing like a good nap-“ Amy tilted her head slightly, listening. Was that a whoosh? She shrugged and scrunched her nose as she continued, “and suddenly I’m picturing snuggling down on a bed of wood shavings.”

Willow laughed loudly, uncaring of her surroundings even as the heady effects of Rack’s magic was waning.  “Well not sleeping might help me actually get my papers written. I’ve got three due in a few days.”

“You? Miss – every-teacher’s-wet-dream? Behind on school?” Amy felt the twinge of jealousy return but she pushed it away, not ready to leave the bliss that had enveloped her this night.

“Ok, ew,” Willow said as they stepped onto the residential streets, nearing Revello Drive.

The long brown coat of a vampire caught the updraft with a whoosh as he descended from atop a mausoleum. His superior eyesight caught a glimpse of the two women walking dozens of feet away. The blood in his veins hummed as the predator stalked with the shadows, a smug curve to his lips as he listened to the women chat amiably, cluelessly. 

Closer. Closer.

He ran his tongue over his right fang and prepared to attack. A light caught his attention and he realized they were coming from the redhead’s chatty fingers. Sparks. Red and yellow sparks, small but furious, erupting as the woman moved. With wide eyes, the vampire slowly moved backward then ran fast and far. Witches. He’d been undead long enough to know to stay away from them. He reached the other end of the cemetery and took an unnecessary breath, closing his eyes in relief. When he opened them again it was to the sight of a stake speeding toward him. The last thing he saw was the Slayer, hip cocked and twenty feet in front of him. “Fuc-!” Clouds of dust can’t talk anymore.

Chapter Text

Little Cages 

set in S4, after NMR

 

The house stood in front them, large and pleasant. Suburban. From the outside it was a thing of wood, nails, and glass, but on the inside, reminiscences of past emotions and events filled in the foundation. Houses are collectors of memories.

Willow slipped her hand from Tara’s, retrieving her keys from her pants pocket and opening the front door. The interior was silent but for the steady tick of a grandfather clock and an infrequent click-whoosh when the air conditioner readjusted to the temperature. The walls were functional, all wood and plaster and slightly off-white, decorated with folk art pieces collected from her parents’ international travels. There was no one home, Willow had known that; her parents were three weeks into a twelve week ‘working vacation’, a term Willow found both perplexing and manipulative before deciding it wasn’t worth getting upset over. She shrugged to herself, If it makes them feel better… .

Willow turned to see Tara, having entered behind her, taking everything in, her wide blue eyes scanning the room carefully, her lips tipping up into a small wondrous smile. Willow followed Tara’s gaze with a curious frown to see what was making Tara smile, what she was missing. Nothing. Everything was as it usually was: tidy, modern, museum-like. Tara slipped forward, moving further into the large room, looked closely at every inch of space, studied it, wanting to catch every detail.  Somehow, Willow spotted the frame photo, placed at a meticulous angle on the mantle, before Tara did. It was the only picture of them as a family in the main room, taken when Willow was ten, and in her mind, impossibly awkward.

Tara stumbled slightly as she surged forward, pulled by Willow’s sudden grasp, her wondering eyes never faltering while Willow led her up the stairs, hurrying them past the two photographs hung in the upstairs hallway, wishing she had thought about those before asking Tara to come with her that day.

 

They had been officially together for a month and a half, although they had both agreed that there had always been something between them. During long talks, interrupted by stolen kisses, they had admitted their immediate attraction to one another, although that it was a romantic attraction was much clearer to Tara early on. Willow had frowned then, blaming herself for being so clueless that things took as long they did until the frown was kissed away, Tara softly reassuring that they were going just the pace they were meant to be.

After the  night of the “Extra-Flamey Candle”, as they’d named it, any uncertainty of their feelings for one another had been extinguished, carried away in wisps of smoke. They had declared their love in the darkness, freeing the energy to settle into the walls, part of the structure now.

When Willow had asked Tara to come with her to her childhood home, she had just wanted to be with her. She hadn’t thought about what being here would unveil, but now, dread swept through her as she approached the last barrier to her destination. 

She had changed since she lived in that room. Tara knew the new, better, witchier, version of Willow. Stepping into the time capsule on the other side of the door seemed like walking into a graveyard where ghosts still haunted her. If she opened that door, would these ghosts announce themselves? Reveal bits of Willow she had buried in holes that wouldn’t stay covered. She wanted to share herself with Tara, just maybe not now, not so soon after they had found each other. Not when Willow was so smitten with this beautiful girl. But they were here now and she couldn’t ask Tara not to come in, not without hurting her.

 “Ready?,” Willow placed her free hand on the knob, swallowing hard/ Tara stepped beside her, nodding eagerly and bouncing forward on her toes, lifting herself up a bit. And when she smiled she beamed with such delight that Willow couldn’t help being swept up, wanting so much to let herself trust and hope, to close the lid over her worries. She opened the door, her hand ushering Tara inside. The benign embarrassment of tacky posters and childish sheets still lingering, Willow blushed and shrugged, “It’s just my old bedroom.”

“I know,” Tara examined the room, taking in every piece like it was a precious artifact, stored and protected at a national museum, “but it’s like a piece of you from before, I get a glimpse of what littler Willow was like.” Her beaming smile was paired with a look of pure adoration shining from cornflower blue eyes.

 For a perfect moment, forest green eyes accepted and returned the adoring stare, until Willow spied her open closet door, a familiar gingham monstrosity peaking through. Moving hastily, and Willow hoped sneakily, she swung the closet door shut, wondering why she hadn’t burned those old relics years ago.

“Believe me that stone is definitely best left unturned,” Willow said with an exaggerated puff of air and goofy grin which, Tara noted, wasn’t reflected in her eyes. Tara watched carefully, reading Willow’s body language, as Willow moved about her room, getting the box pellet food as she talked to her rat.

“Poor Amy , you’ve got to be hungry,” Willow soothed, taking the empty food tray from Amy’s cage,  “If  we were any later you’d probably start gnawing off her own paws.”

“W-well that’s your fault, you know?” Tara flirted, knowing that she could often bring Willow out of ‘overthinking brain’ when she did. Not that she didn’t mean it. Willow often made her feel flirtatious, even though Tara would swear she didn’t know how to flirt. But, here,  watching Willow’s slender body move, the low waist of her jeans hugging a subtly curved hip, the perfect ass in full view as Willow bent, Tara was feeling very very flirtatious.  She couldn’t help but blush when Willow glanced back at her, eyebrows raised. Tara ducked her head shyly before lifting her gaze under hooded eyes, smiling coyly “I’m-um- not the one who made us late.”

“Sorry ‘bout that,” Willow blushed, turning back to her chore, and then, she felt the slow graze of Tara’s hands around her,  the press of Tara’s body against her. Tara’s low giggle sent ripples down her back and Willow stopped all motion

 “I, um, really didn’t mind,” Tara spoke softly, her low voice both tentative and husky. The warmth spread across Willow’s collarbone as Tara leaned into her. Willow stiffened slightly, pushing her body forward. 

“Good,” she replied, the sound underlined by the tiny sounds of scratching as Amy paced the floor of her cage, “I mean, I wouldn’t want you to really be upset,” Willow continued, focused intently on pouring food into the bowl, “‘Cause, why would you be upset? You aren’t the hungry one. I mean, the one I let go hungry. Not that… I, mean you could be hungry, we haven’t eaten since lunch, but that’s not, I mean, you don’t… um, well-“ A soft hand on her hip stooped the babbling.

“Willow, are you ok?” 

Willow stood quickly, “Yeah, just um, worried about Amy.”  Tara stepped back, giving Willow her space, relaxing when Willow placed a quick peck on her cheek. Willow resumed caring for Amy, moving items around the cage so she could tidy it, but she kept a side eye on Tara who was now looking more closely at the room.

Tara felt Willow’s watchful glances as she peered at the large poster hung over Willow’s desk. It showed the Periodic Table, and Tara wondered if the color coding was the influence for Willow’s habit of using different colored pens. It was organized , she conceded.

There was a framed picture of a middle aged man, sitting in honor on Willow’s bookcase. Tara quirked a half smile as she moved toward it, curious. Quickly, Willow was next to her, hands wringing and a look on her face that said she was ready to explain. Wide eyes met wondering brows.

“Who’s this hunk?” Tara joked, trying to ease the obvious nerves rolling off Willow. It seemed to at least throw Willow off because all fidgeting stopped and Willow’s mouth dropped open.

“Hunk?” Willow asked disbelievingly.

“Well, he h-has to be right? I mean, why else would he be framed?” Tara turned red even as she smirked.

“That’s Neil deGrasse Tyson,” Willow said sheepishly, almost mumbled, in her embarrassment

“The, um, the physicist?” Tara asked watching Willow press her arms down rigidly, her hands squeezed before her. Willow was closing in on herself.

“Um yeah.”  

“Sweetie?” Tara brushed her fingers down Willow’s arm softly, “Are- are you uncomfortable with me in your room?”

“What? No,” Willow protested, breaking easily under Tara’s concerned look. She sighed and crossed to her bed, picking at a loose thread on her coverlet, thick pastel stripes shifting slightly with the movement. “Well, being here kinda makes me feel like I’m still in high school, or worse junior highschool- more like junior hellschool,” Willow grumbled, feeling Tara slip behind her and wrapped her around the middle, “I wasn’t exactly Miss Popularity. I wasn’t even in the same county or state- or possibly even continent- as the popular kids.”

Tara rested her chin on Willow’s shoulder, a sweet smile crossing her lips when Willow laid their temples together “I think I was on another planet,” Tara shared, “but I never wanted to be like them.” Willow tilted her head back and Tara giggled when her hair tickled Willow’s face.

“No me neither really,” Willow agreed with an unsettled sigh, “besides it’s in the past right? I have a brand spankin' new livin' the college life- life and….,” Willow placed a feather light kiss on Tara’s cheek, “a gorgeous girl to spend it with.”

Tara couldn’t speak past the flush that heated her cheeks or the warm breath that caught and remained in her chest. A ridiculous smile wanted to stretch across Tara’s face and live there forever. She closed her eyes and nuzzled against Willow’s lips, “So your parents are out of town?”  

“Generally always,” Willow returned with a knowing smile, “I need to change Amy’s water.” She kissed Tara chastely on the mouth and moved back to the cage, unhooking the water dispenser that hung from its side. “I’m not even sure how great they are at feeding her when they are here.”

Tara followed and crouched beside Willow reaching out her index finger to smooth over Amy’s back, “Why didn’t you just bring Amy to the dorms? That way you wouldn’t have to worry.”

“Because I’m not a sneaky rule breaker like you,” Willow teased, bumping their shoulders together.

“I only break the dumb rules,” Tara said with a sheepish smile.

“Well now that we have Miss Kitty,” a blush swept up Willow’s collarbone to the backs of her ears. It’s that word ‘we’. It made Willow giddy and shy at the same time. It made lumps form in her throat, “I am not sure if it’s a good idea to bring her there, I don’t want to give poor Amy a heart attack.”

The blush seemed to leap from Willow to Tara, two flushed faces gazing just inches apart. “Miss Kitty is a huntress,” The low sensual tone in Tara’s voice said ten thousand lovely things. Amy scratched in her cage and Tara blushed again, feeling too bold and oddly public. She reached her finger through the now closed cage and tickled at Amy’s fur again, “She’s cute.”

“I hope you don’t still think so if I ever figure out how to turn her back.”

“Depends on if she still has these whiskers or not.”

“Tara!” Sometimes Tara was wonderfully strange.

Squirming, Tara shook her head trying to erase the words, “I’m not really into whiskers!”

“I wasn’t really worried.” Willow giggled.

“Good.” Tara stood, desperate to change the subject and wanting to relish in the place where her love spent many years growing up, “I-is it okay if I look around?”

“I mean, there’s not much to see besides my geek infested roots,” Willow said with a shrug and a strained chuckle.

Tara stepped forward and stood before Willow, she ran her fingers through red hair and Willow leaned into the caress, “I love all your roots.”

 A small giggle erupted from Willow, and she nuzzled into the smooth pale skin of Tara’s neck “I thought you were going to say infested roots turned you on.” Tara pulled back in mock horror, “Ew.” There was a moment when neither spoke, a moment where each wondered if they had said something wrong. Then eyes met and both women burst into laughter, squeezing together as one.

“Let’s go back to the dorms, baby,” Willow said, giving her best puppy eyes, “I’ll buy you a mocha on the way home.”

“Sure love,” Tara replied then bent down beside the cage again, sticking her fingers through the gaps and wiggling them at the rat, “Bye Amy, I’m sure I’ll see you again, maybe next time,” her voice dropped to a stage whisper, “Willow will even let me explore.”

“Maybe,” Willow retorted, stretching her hand out and helping Tara stand, “Come on now, those mochas aren’t going to drink themselves.”

“Well, they might,” Tara giggled, shutting the door behind her, “It is the Hellmouth.”