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Loved and Never Really Lost

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1.
Tara stands at the back of the line and watches the battered Greyhound bus pull into the station. Her father said the bus was dangerous. He said Sunnydale was dangerous. How could a place with a name like that be dangerous? she'd wondered, but she'd kept her eyes on the floor and said nothing. Maybe her father heard her thoughts because he'd added, "If you go, you'll never be cleansed."

Her hands had shaken when she'd bought her ticket. She'd taken deep, calming breaths while she packed her things. Her duffle bag was small -- too small -- but she didn't know what in this life she wanted to keep. Still, when the long line of passengers starts moving toward the bus, she can barely breathe. Her hands are shaking again; her ticket is rattling like a leaf in the wind. She can't look the conductor in the eye. He snatches the ticket from her outstretched hand. Freedom beckons, but she shakes her head and walks back toward the safety of the station.

She never thinks of Sunnydale again.

2.
The redhead in her Wicca group is a real witch. Tara can feel the power humming through her skin. At night, she imagines how other things would feel too: soft bright hair slipping through her fingers, smooth skin under her palms, tiny callouses where the girl -- Willow -- holds a pencil. In the dark, her imagination wanders further, to things that make her blush and stammer every time she tries to look Willow in the eye. Not that it's hard to make Tara blush and stammer; she does that all the time, no matter whom she's facing.
She skips Wicca group next Tuesday, and the one after that, until not going becomes a habit. Soon she has a girlfriend, someone more suited to her. Kate blends in; Kate doesn't notice magic. Tara says she's happy, but when Kate says "I love you," she never can say it back. Every once awhile, she sees a flash of red and longs for electricity under her skin.

3.
"I think we should take Dawn away from here," Will says. Their bedroom, which used to be Joyce's, is dark except for the moonlight slanting through the blinds.

"You've been thinking about that for a long time," Tara says. Something had been bothering Will, but she hadn't asked what; Willow liked to share in her own time, after she'd already thought things through.

 

"Yeah," Will says, vaguely guilty, and Tara squeezes her fingers to tell her not to feel bad. "I -- I want to think we can stay here, one big happy demon-slaying family. But we're not Buffy. And I don't think Dawnie's happy."

"No," Tara says quietly. No one could be happy with the Buffybot in the house. Not that Tara had said anything about that. She'd thought everyone would know. "Who will protect Sunnydale if we go?"

"I don't know. Not us." Willow sounds resolute now. "We can't do this. We're not chosen."

"We were chosen to protect Dawn," Tara says. She rolls over to face Willow and takes a deep breath. "B-before she died, Buffy asked me to...to take care of Dawn. If something ever happened to her."

Now it's Will's turn to squeeze Tara's hand. "I'm not mad that she picked you. You're the best mom-sister-person Dawnie could have."

Will stops talking about bringing Buffy back from the dead, and for that Tara prays a silent thank you to the Goddess every night. Starting a new life in a new city with a minor child who's not their own isn't easy, but they manage. Will is a whiz with a budget spreadsheet, and Tara had learned how to cook cheap when her mom was sick and her dad was out of work. Dawnie stops screaming in the middle of the night, and instead of fighting about whether she can slay vampires, they argue about math homework.

They've been living in Chicago for two years when Dawnie creeps into their living room late one night and hands Tara a mug of hot chocolate. Then she sits carefully on the coffee table, which is actually just wooden planks supported by cinder blocks, and says, "I know we only have eleven cents in our checking account. You gave me the last ten dollars for the school carnival."

"It'll be okay, Dawnie. Will gets paid on Friday." She wishes she knew how Dawn had found out their bank balance, but she's always hated questions like how do you know; they make it sound like Dawnie doesn't have the right to information.

Dawn looks down at the floor. "Willow's not the only person in the house with hacking skills. I don't want you to be mad at me."

"We should have talked to you about the money," Tara says. "You're old enough." She remembers how much she'd hated being left in the dark about her mother's illness, forced to glean what she could from whispered conversations and medical brochures left on the kitchen table.

Dawn shifts uncomfortably. "I didn't mean about the bank hacking," she says, and Tara purses her lips. Only Dawn would confess to stealing bank information and not apologize. Now isn't the time for judgment though. Dawn swallows, and Tara tries to imagine the words lodged in her thorat.

"I didn't apply to the University of Chicago like we talked about," Dawn says, looking at her hands. "I applied to the Watcher's Academy. I know how much you and Willow did for me...to give me a new life here, I mean. I'm grateful...I just want to help people like Buffy, you know?"

Tara tucks a strand of hair behind Dawnie's ear. "You'll make an amazing Watcher. I'm just glad you got the chance to be a girl."

Tara thinks about fighting demons and smiles in the dark. She likes Chicago, and surviving on a budget is less stressful than slaying vampires -- but she knows which one makes her feel more alive.

4.
Tara packs as fast as she can. She knows she's leaving things behind -- her books mingled on the shelves with Willow's, the clothes still wadded up at the bottom of the laundry hamper. It's not like her, doing things so fast, but she's not sure which scares her more: what Willow had done to her, or the possibility she might not leave. When her suitcase is zipped, she walks slowly to the bed and plucks the flowers from the sheets. Lethe's bramble, an aid in forgetting. She will leave anything in the house but this. She will carry it with her and keep it safe, and if she ever forgets why she left, she'll pull it out and remember the woman she'd loved had tried to wipe away her memory.

She never goes back to the house.

5.
On the morning Warren comes to their house with a gun, Tara drops an earring on the floor. She and Willow bend over to search for it, and a bullet flies above their heads.

Goddess, Tara thinks. She could have died.

6.
Sometimes Willow wants to follow Tara into the earth. Giles hadn't killed her, but that didn't mean she deserved to live. It definitely didn't mean she knew how to face the world she'd almost destroyed or the best friend she'd almost killed. Embarrassment was a shitty reason to commit suicide, and thinking about it makes her feel guilty, which makes her feel self absorbed...it's a whole big cycle, and Tara would have known how to break it. Tara had known a lot of things about Willow no one else had known. She'd tickle Willow's belly to shake her out of a bad mood, and she'd always kept two pencils in her bag instead of one because she knew how much Willow hated odd numbers.

Willow had known things about Tara too. Not secrets, which some people give away too casually, but tiny things you could only know from loving someone everyday. She pretended to be all healthy and crunchy, but she loved green gummy bears and marshmellow cream. There was always a small collection of socks underneath the sheets at the bottom of the bed because Tara wore them to sleep and kicked them off in the middle of the night. She always washed her hands for the exact lnegth of the happy birthday song, just like her third grade teacher had taught her.

And she was brave. A lot of people -- most people -- didn't realize that, but she was the bravest person Willow had ever known. She'd come to Sunnydale alone, and she'd fought quietly for the happiness her father said she didn't deserve. She'd taken Willow back even after all her mistakes.

Willow was the last person who'd really known Tara, and if she died, she'd take a hundred little pieces of Tara away with her. Dying would be easy, but Willow's done enough easy things this year. Now it's time to do something right.

She stands up and brushes the dirt from her jeans. There's a little stone in her pocket, smooth from the river, and she puts it carefully on top of Tara's gravestone. The sky is blue. Trees sway in the wind. Sunnydale beckons in the distance, and somewhere Buffy is waiting for her. Time to be brave.