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Ten Candles

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She visits Tara in her dorm room a few times, after Tara and Willow break up. No one else knows; she tells Dawn and Willow she's going to work, as though it's something that has to be hidden.

Not that it is. After all, she hasn't done anything – well, not much, and even if it's more than a little bit Tara and Willow are broken up, so it's okay, right? Buffy plays with the candle that's burning on the kitchen table, swishing her fingers through its flame, too fast to burn.

"I touch the fire and it freezes me," she sings under her breath before realizing what she's saying. Buffy puts out the candle and walks out of the kitchen.

*

She can argue this through as many times as she wants, though, and she still needs the comfort. So when she's got a few hours before her shift at the Double Meat Palace, she leaves early, runs all the way, and knocks on Tara's door.

There's no answer. She knocks again, and waits again, and when it's been fifteen minutes she resigns herself to the fact that Tara isn't there.

"Buffy?" someone says behind her, and she jumps, and Tara is there with a plastic bag with a bunch of herbs and two long, slim red candles sticking out of it. "Did something go wrong outside? Is someone hurt?" she asks, anxious, and at this point Buffy remembers that it's eight o'clock at night and getting dark out and she should be patrolling.

But she doesn't want to. All the stupid people out there are getting themselves killed and she should go out and save them, she should want to save them because she's a Good Guy, but Tara's worried eyes are focused on her and she's asking if Buffy's alright.

Buffy nods, then has to be honest and shakes her head, no. No, she's not okay, she hasn't been okay since she woke up in her own coffin and oh god, it was so small and she couldn't breathe, she couldn't breathe, she couldn't…

Buffy opens her eyes and realizes Tara has been calling her name for the last minute or so, and is looking even more worried. She blushes and mutters something about needing to get to work and bolts.

She's supposed to be okay, now. She's the Slayer, it's her job to be okay. It's everyone else who's supposed to fall apart.

*

That night, while she's flipping burgers and smiling, smiling so perky so cheerful so happy at the customers, she has plenty of time to wish she'd talked to Tara, instead of pacing the streets and staking maybe two vampires. She also has time to be embarrassed about how she ran off; if Tara was concerned about her before, she has to be even more worried now.

After she gets off work and crashes for a few hours, she waits around anxiously for it to be an okay time to visit. Now she kind of wishes she'd already told Willow, because Willow would know Tara's schedule and when she gets off class and when she's available. But she hasn't and doesn't want to explain things now, so she paces and waits until it's early afternoon and damn it, if Tara's not there she can camp out on her doorstep.

No, if Tara's not there she can go get a coffee and wait like a nice normal okay person, but she doesn't have the money for coffee and damn it she's not okay, if she was okay she wouldn't need to talk to Tara so much for reasons she doesn't want to explore, so maybe she will camp out on Tara's doorstep.

She gets to the door and knocks, and Tara answers it, but there's another girl with strawberry blonde hair, an orangey bob cut that seems a pale imitation of Willow, and three candles set up in a triangle on the floor with a rose in the center and Buffy blushes, mutters something about forgetting she had to pick up Dawn, and once again flees.

*

She comes back in a few hours and knocks on the door. This time, Tara's there and by herself, and Buffy manages to come in and smile and say hello like a normal person.

"What's new?" Tara asks, and Buffy thinks, I'm having sex with Spike and Willow crashed a car with Dawn in it because she was high on magic and I don't think I'm getting better, I'm still dreaming about waking up in a coffin underground.

"Not much," she says, smiling. "How about you?"

Tara talks about courses and the Wicca group and has her come into the room, lit by a row of four candles on the dresser, to get the date for the next bake sale. Buffy promises to come, even though she can't really afford to buy much and she definitely can't cook anything for them.

Tara writes the date and time down on the back of her hand in purple ink, and Buffy shivers at the contact with her fingers.

God, you're horny, she thinks to herself. No wonder you're boning Spike, you're checking out Tara. Your best friend's ex-girlfriend, who's also, y'know, a girl.

*

Buffy's in the checkout line at the grocery store; first Tara, then Xander have been doing the shopping but Xander has to work and Tara's obviously not available and she'd love to say it's the lack of nutrition, but really she's all out of Doritos and coke, and how can you wallow in misery properly without Doritos?

"Buffy!" someone calls, and she turns and sees Tara.

Tara, who has a pack of chalk and two tea light candles in one hand, three in the other, walks up behind her. "Hey, it's good to see you," she says, smiling.

The bottom of Buffy's stomach drops into oblivion, and she smiles, nervously. "Hey," she says.

*

Buffy knocks on Tara's dorm room at ten to midnight, after patrol, because she's got a badly scraped and bleeding knee and it's closer to stop here and get bandages, easier than bleeding her way home.

Tara answers the door in a pale blue nightgown. Her smile turns into a yawn when she sees Buffy, and she invites her in.

There's a circle of six candles around the bed. "Nightmares," Tara says, shrugging, and Buffy nods in understanding.

"Can I borrow some bandages?" she asks, knowing that they all have well stocked first aid kits. Tara fusses over her and makes her tell her about how everyone is doing, and once Buffy's told her about Xander and Dawn and Willow and Giles she says, "And what about you?"

*

There's a power outage in Sunnydale. Tara's come to stay with them for the night, because, she says, "The dorm's really loud – I mean, half of my floor's decided to have a keg party, and I couldn't sleep."

Buffy remembers the circle of candles, and wonders if that's the only reason she can't sleep. But it's Buffy wakes up choking and gasping for air, and Tara who holds her.

"Let's go down to the kitchen, I'll light some candles," she says, pulling an assortment of mismatched ones from a drawer somewhere. Two smooth, long white tapers, a stocky scented pink one, a trio of tea lights, and an orange one that smells like pumpkin pie and reminds Buffy of the strange girl's hair.

She wonders if Tara's getting over Willow, wonders if the girl's a rebound fling, wonders if Tara imagines Willow in her arms when she's kissing other girls.

Finally she has to stop wondering. Buffy leans across the table and kisses Tara, who gasps and returns it.

*

Tara digs out an eighth candle and takes it into the living room, because, she says, the kitchen chairs are too uncomfortable for this kind of thing.

They lie on the couch. Buffy kisses Tara, kisses her lips and her eyelids and her neck, and then she bends and kisses the insides of her ankles, her knees, her thighs, and then hesitates.

Tara laughs and says it's her first time, there's no need to rush, and she works her fingers into Buffy's sweat pants slowly, what feels like an inch at a time.

*

Next time Buffy visits her in her dorm, Tara has the circle of candles that wards against nightmares, apparently, set up.

When she sees it's Buffy, her face seems to light up and drop at the same time, somehow. She tells Buffy she'd better let Tara take it slow this time or she'll tie her to the bed.

Buffy thinks she's joking, but later, with her wrists bound to the headboard with hemp cord that she thought Tara had for spells, she gasps and writhes under the witch's touch. Her eyes focus on the mirror, over Tara's head; three of the candles are reflected in it, making nine points of light in the room.

*

Buffy lights the candles slowly. There are a couple of tea lights, what Tara seemed to prefer, and one of the red candles that might have been the ones she saw Tara taking to her dorm, and the pink scented candle they used in her own kitchen, and then there are a jumble of other candles. She lights them all, ten, in a circle, and stands in the middle.

She's uncomfortable, but it's the best recollection of Tara she can create. It's early summer now; Tara's dead, Giles and Willow are in England, Spike has gone fuck knows where – not that she cares – and Anya's off somewhere, trying to get over Xander.

Everyone's gone, but it's only Tara she can hold the memorial for. Only Tara she can grieve.

She wonders what her friends did for her, what her funeral was like, and makes up her mind to ask Dawn and Xander. She can grieve Tara – and herself.