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I Hold The Key

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Tara came awake slowly, gradually becoming aware of the weight of Willow’s arm over her waist, the slivers of sunlight peeking through the blinds. For a moment she experienced the now-familiar confusion at her surroundings, before realizing that she was in the master bedroom at the Summers’, in Joyce’s old bedroom.

The pang at Buffy’s death was still there in the back of her mind, but far less debilitating than it had been in the immediate aftermath- particularly now that she and Willow had begun to whisper about bringing Buffy back. It was tempting to hide in their bedroom all day, to keep doing research and scheming, but they had promised Dawn that they would spend the day doing fun things in town.

She stayed in bed until Willow started stirring, making the snuffly noises that always preceded her eyes opening. Willow almost always woke before Tara, so on the occasions that Tara woke first, she made it a point to stay in bed, watching Willow in rare moments of stillness.

Eventually Willow’s eyes fluttered open, and she immediately looked at Tara with a smile.

(Sometime early on in their relationship, they had stopped vocalizing a lot of things - good morning, goodbye, thank you, I love you. At the time, Tara had thought that it was in deference to her stutter, which, while diminished with Willow, was still present. But now her stutter was mostly gone, and still they communicated with a touch, a glance. Maybe, she thought, it was just a positive sign about their relationship, that so many of the most important things could go unsaid but still known.)

Willow had an incredibly expressive face, and Tara watched her go through the same flicker of emotions - sorrow, acceptance, and the brow furrow that Tara called The Plotting Line - before she leaned up to give Tara a kiss.

“Do you think the new books will get here today?” Willow whispered hopefully.

Tara couldn't help giving her an indulgent smile. “Maybe, but we promised to spend today with Dawnie, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. The bonding, girlie-day.”

“Dawn’s really excited about it.” Tara leaned over a bit, propped her chin up on the top of Willows head. “We've been spending a lot of time in the house since… everything. It’ll be good to go do some fun stuff.”

“Yeah.” They lay in silence a moment longer, and were interrupted by the gurgling of Willow’s stomach. “Breakfast first, though.”

---

Dawn evidently had the same idea, for when they got downstairs, she was industriously mixing together the contents of several cereal boxes.

“Uh, Dawn? What'cha doing?” Willow sounded torn between amusement and honest curiosity.

“We don’t have enough for a full bowl of any of the cereals, so I’m combining them. They’re all pure sugar anyway, no one can actually tell the difference between Lucky Charms and Captain Crunch.”

“I think we’ll just stick with some toast,” Tara said, unearthing the loaf of bread from the pile of mail sitting on the counter. “Don’t eat too much, Dawnie. We’re going to the diner for lunch and you know you’ll be disappointed if you don’t have room for dessert.”

“Oh, I’m so ready for today,” Dawn promised. “I've been fasting since dinner last night. And I have a list of things we need to go buy.”

Willow swallowed down a laugh, messily spreading peanut butter all over her toast (and a bit of the counter). “Sounds good. Can we add the hardware store to your list? I need to grab a few things for the Buffy-bot.”

Dawn wrinkled her nose. “That thing gives me a wiggins. Do you really have to fix it?”

“It’s a good back-up,” Tara pointed out. “We’re not going to have her out all the time, and we’re definitely not letting her anywhere near Spike, but we’re safer if the baddies think that Buffy is…”

“Still alive,” Dawn said quietly. “You can say it.”

Tara often thought that Dawn was stronger than they gave her credit for, and especially as they tried to adjust to the new normal of Buffy being gone. The fact that Willow and Tara had moved into Joyce’s old bedroom was a constant reminder of the outcome of the battle against Glory, and of Joyce’s aneurysm, but they still never really talked about it, went out of their way to avoid making any references to the missing Summers women.

They all told themselves that it was to avoid upsetting Dawn but, truth be told, the youngest Summers seemed to be adjusting better than anyone else.

“Look,” Dawn said. “Buffy’s not coming back. I get it. I just want to have a good day with you guys, you know? Go spend money on stupid stuff and do girly things, and make fun of Xander when he does something dumb, and laugh at Anya saying something inappropriate.”

Willow met Tara’s eyes over the peanut butter jar. Sometimes their ability to have silent conversations really came in handy.

“That sounds fun,” Willow finally said. “Where are we going first?”

---

Apparently they were first going to the nail salon. None of them really liked having other people pick at their cuticles, but Dawn had heard from her friend’s brother’s girlfriend that the salon had accidentally ordered an extra case of nail polish that it was selling wholesale, in order to get the box out of the lobby.

The great thing about cheap nail polish, Tara decided, was she didn't have to decide if she liked the sparkly teal or the pink-purple better, because she could just get them both.

They hadn't planned on going to the bakery, but since it was right next door to the salon and they could see trays of cookies coming out of the oven, they decided that they should stop in. Mrs. Reynolds, the lovely, grandmotherly woman who ran the shop, insisted on giving all of them free samples and tossed in some day old brownies with their purchase.

They left the bakery discussing the best foods to combine with chocolate, and stopped their conversation short when they ran into an eight-foot demon with horns who was swinging a baseball bat at a police car.

“Uh… what do we do?” Dawn asked. “This is a Scooby thing, right?”

“I guess?” Tara said. “Willow, do you recognize that demon?”

“I think it’s a Prio Motu,” Willow said slowly. “I've never seen one in person before, but it looks just like the illustration in Demons, Demons, Demons. They’re supposed to have destructive instincts, which would explain why he’s, y’know, beating up a car.”

“Speaking of which… where’s the cop?”

Just after Dawn’s question, two police officers came out of the grocery store, and immediately drew their pistols upon seeing the demon. One of the bullets hit the creature, bouncing off as though it were wearing body armor. The demon still noticed and gave an outraged roar, refocusing its attention on the cops. The rest of the bullets went whizzing by, taking out one of the back tires on the police car and a shop window across the street.

“If we don’t do something someone is going to get shot, and I don’t think it’s going to be the demon,” Tara yelled, still barely able to be heard over the sounds of gunfire and screaming.

“We could try binding it?” Willow yelled back. “I’m not sure how long we could hold it, but at least the cops would stop shooting!”

The witches reached for each other, hands forming the familiar link out of habit. Tara didn't have mastery over the spell in question, but she understood the basic energy of it, and she closed her eyes and pushed that energy towards Willow. Willow’s left hand, the one not holding Tara’s, was extended out towards the demon, fingertips crackling with blue electricity.

Tara could feel the magic building, surging towards the demon and then bouncing back, before it finally left them in a great whoosh, the rigidity going out of their clasped hands and freezing the demon where he (she? it?) stood.

The cops stopped shooting, and the sudden lack of sound felt like a vacuum, like time and space had suddenly frozen around them, captured by the residual energy Tara could feel between their palms.

Once the shock wore off, the people on the street started moving again. A SWAT van pulled up and put the statuesque-demon in the back. Tara briefly wondered if it was going to wherever Riley was now, and then realized that they needed to move before someone pointed out that they had been facing the demon down instead of running away. She gestured to Dawn, gave a quick tug on Willow’s hand, and they scurried down a side street towards the diner.

---

It was sort of odd, Tara thought, to be eating cheese fries and burgers in the diner, pressed hip-to-hip with Willow as though nothing had happened. Over the years she’d gotten good at avoiding the official inquiries, whether they be from the police, school administration, or someone’s parents, but part of her always wanted the Scoobies to go to someone else for help.

(Of course, the reality of the situation was that the Scoobies were the most qualified help to deal with all the supernatural threats in Sunnydale, but sometimes Tara liked to pretend that she and her friends weren't all that stood between the town and death.)

Dawn was telling a story, something about a boy that she liked and his little sister, and how cute they were together. Willow was making the appropriate noises, even though Tara knew she was still getting used to the idea of Dawn being interested in boys, especially boys that weren't Xander. Dawn’s most recent growth spurt had her taller than Tara, even more so when she wobbled around in heels, and Tara already had a contingency plan or two in mind for the inevitable freak-out from the rest of the gang when she started bringing boys home. (Or girls, although Dawn seemed exclusively interested in boys.)

As promised, they ordered a brownie sundae, a monstrosity of warm brownie and vanilla ice cream and hot fudge, and somehow managed to finish the whole thing. Tara felt moderately concerned that she now had cavities forming, and was really concerned about the state of Dawn’s teeth, but decided that one day of excessive sugar probably wouldn't do too much harm.

The weather looked to be turning, the kind of gray sky and ominous clouds in the distance that signaled a bad storm, so they abandoned the rest of their shopping in favor of hurrying back to the house before the rain came.

---

“Do you ever wonder what this movie would look like in color?” Dawn asked.

Willow tilted her head to the side. “Not really? I guess I’m so used to it being in black and white. It would be cool to see the colors on the dresses, though.”

They were on the couch in the living room watching Gone With The Wind, which happened to be the next film on the “100 Classics” list Dawn was trying to work through that summer. The movie was long and kind of dragging, which had led to the conversation about coloring the black and white imagery. (They had also discussed the merits of various food items in the film, and who would be in the movie if it were re-made.)

“You know,” Dawn announced at the end, “I don’t think I liked any of the characters. Except maybe the kids, and that’s because they didn't have enough screen-time to do something stupid.”

“Well, the next movie on your list is Casablanca, which I think you’ll like a lot more,” Willow pointed out. “Not as much stupid, and it’s a lot shorter.”

“Thank goodness.”

---

Sometimes Tara wondered why they bothered with the smoke detector, especially when she was standing on a chair to take the batteries out (again) because Willow had burned something in the kitchen (again).

She was mostly just glad that Spike hadn't stopped by. He had mellowed out some since Buffy’s death, especially when Dawn was around, but the constant smell of burning in the kitchen had become quite a source of amusement for him.

“What were you trying to make?” Xander's voice was raspy from the smoke, but still obviously amused. She hadn't heard him or Anya come in the house, but that wasn't all that surprising considering that they had their own keys, had long since dispensed with things like ringing the doorbell, and knew how to avoid the super creaky spot in the hallway..

“It used to be pasta,” Willow said. “I got distracted reading this new book that came today, and I guess the water all boiled off.”

“That must be some book.” Tara could practically hear Xander's eyebrows go up.

“Yeah, I’ll tell you about it later.” Tara could practically see Xander's lightbulb moment.

“Right. Later.”

Dawn came thundering down the stairs, laughing when she saw Tara in the hallway with the smoke detector in her hands. “Does this mean more cereal for dinner?”

“How about Chinese? Not like it’s much healthier but protein is good, right?”

Dawn shrugged. “Chinese works. Get extra egg rolls.”

---

Xander and Anya produced a stack of DVDs while they were waiting for the food, handing them to Dawn to make the first pick. “I know you’re really into your classics right now,” Xander said, “but we figured it couldn't hurt to have more options.”

There was something cathartic, Tara decided, about watching a spoof of horror movies that still hit pretty close to the truth in many ways. And while Scary Movie might not have the cinematic quality of one of Dawn’s classics, she had to admit that it was pretty funny.

They had given up on actually sitting around the table to eat ages ago, and instead were all in the living room, clustered around the cartons that took up most of the coffee table, Tara sitting on the floor and leaning back against Willow’s legs. Dawn and Xander had already had a brief duel with their chopsticks over the lo mein, and despite ordering extra, the egg rolls were already gone.

Dawn and Anya had a quick scuffle over the fortune cookies - or, more specifically, Anya's attempted theft of Dawn's fortune when Anya was dissatisfied with her own. Xander resolved the fight by pointing out that there were extra cookies Anya could open, and she let go of Dawn's wrist with a sigh.

Halfway through the movie Dawn seemed to finally be crashing from all of the sugar she’d eaten, the heavy Chinese food contributing to her exhaustion, and she fell asleep on the couch as the killer was chasing down yet another insipid teenager.

“Man, I miss being able to fall asleep on the couch,” Xander said. “I mean, I still can, but the back pain when I wake up… it’s just not worth it.”

“One of many disadvantages to being human,” Anya commented, still cracking open the rest of the cookies.

“Do you think we should get her upstairs?” Not that Tara had any idea how they would do such a thing.

Willow gave Dawn a considering look, then shook her head. “Nah, she’s fine where she is. I don’t think she’s been sleeping well, so I don’t want to wake her up if we don’t have to.”

“Speaking of which,” Xander interjected, rubbing his palms together. “Any developments on the whole… you know. The thing.”

Willow and Tara exchanged a look, then stood, gesturing towards the kitchen. It wouldn't do to have Dawn wake up and overhear what they were planning- they had all agreed that it was better to keep her in the dark than to have her get her hopes up and be disappointed.

“We got the rest of the books today,” Willow whispered. “I think we have all the right spells now. Tara and I just need some time to make sure we have the translations right, and we need some more materials.”

“Good thing we’re getting good at eBay,” Xander said. “Hopefully none of this stuff is too pricey. Not that it’s not worth it,” he added quickly, seeing the looks he was getting from the three women. “Just pointing out that my credit card does have a limit.”

“We’re almost ready,” Tara said softly. “Just a few more weeks, and we’ll be ready to try. Spike already said that he would stay with Dawn anytime we needed to go somewhere, so we won’t have to worry about her.”

They lapsed into silence, almost as if they were waiting for someone to give them instructions. While they had elected Willow as their leader in the endeavor of raising Buffy, they were all so used to having a Slayer (or Slayers) to follow that it seemed odd to be scheming without that powerful presence in the room.

Tara and Willow had spoken many times about the power vacuum, Tara taking the position that Willow was the right person to fill it, Willow being less sure, and both of them missing their friend.

But they had always been stronger together than apart, so until they could bring Buffy back, they whispered to each other in the darkness of their bedroom, and were in almost constant touch during the day, and they found ways to make it work.