Bringing the burning taper to the wick, Tara lights the stubby little scented candles on the window sill. She'd bought them 5 for two dollars at the store last week and promptly forgot all about them. After Willow kissed her goodnight and left to stop by her parent's house - still guiltily making up for lost time - she'd remembered and laid the candles out on the sill. They aren't especially pretty but the scent of vanilla and candy floss wafts slowly across the room.
She always buys those cheap candles because sometimes, just briefly, when the aromas mingle they remind her of the perfume her mother used to wear in summer. At least, she *thinks* so. She can't be sure because the scent is fading, along with her memory of it. Precious few memories remain, and they' re becoming dimmer, less tangible, every day. Seventeen years of growing up seems so blurred, so irretrievable in her mind. Like viewing an image through gauze. But it's so very important that she *tries* to remember. So she burns the candles and looks at the handful of photographs that are crinkled and dog-eared so that she won't forget.
It's raining now. Great rivulets of water sliding down the window pane, racing and running together and forming larger drops. The muted patter of the rain against the glass is like static in her ears. She's always liked the rain, the way it washes everything in shades of blue and grey during the day. At night, the sound of it is almost comforting as she sits in the dark.
But the clouds hardly ever break in Sunnydale.
Miss Kitty rubs against her shin as she sits on the bed. With a smile, Tara reaches down and picks up the little bundle of fur, scratching under the cat's chin, being rewarded with a low hum of contentment. She'd once said that Miss Kitty's purr sounded like a broken lawnmower engine and Willow worried the cat might overhear and develop a complex. Tara had laughed until she realised Willow was serious...
The cat has only just curled up against her side when there's a knock on the door. In fright, Miss Kitty digs claws into the thick material of Tara's skirt and she carefully disentangles the cat from her clothing. It's probably Willow. Always leaving stuff behind by mistake. She'd forget her head if it wasn't screwed on.
Displacing the cat, Tara walks over and opens the door. The automatic but gentle chide has almost left her lips when she sees Buffy and not Willow standing in the hallway. She's soaked to the skin, tendrils of rain-darkened blonde hair clinging to her cheeks and neck, make-up smudged under her eyes. Tara has never seen anyone so usually *together* look so bedraggled and small.
"Buffy? Are you okay?"
Buffy shakes her head in one short, rigid movement. Instinctively, Tara reaches out, hand resting on the crook of the other girl's elbow. "Come in," she says, drawing Buffy inside the room and violent shivers wrack the Slayer 's body as she stands in the middle of the room.
Lifting Miss Kitty off the bed, despite the mewl of sleepy protest, Tara wraps the comforter around Buffy's shoulders and sits the girl on the bed. Tentatively, Tara takes a place beside her on the mattress.
"Did something happen?" Tara prompts gently.
A long silence stretches between them before Buffy speaks. "The spell. Dawn did it." Seeing the shocked expression on Tara's face, Buffy shakes her head. "I nearly opened the door to her - mom - whatever she - it - was... but Dawn broke the spell."
Tara suppresses a sigh of relief. "It's for the best. It wasn't your mom. Not really."
Buffy nods slowly, her eyes watery and dark. "But I wanted her back as much as Dawn did."
"I know," Tara says softly, leaving it at that, knowing that the last thing Buffy needs is a lecture on what *could* have happened. "I've, um, got some stuff you could change into..."
A small furrow appears on Buffy's brow then she looks down at her sodden clothes and the comforter she's dripped all over. "Oh. Sorry."
Tara smiles. "It's okay." She stands and goes over to the chest of drawers. "I don't really have anything in your size... or style -- " She pulls out a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt that she knows will be tent-like on someone as petite as Buffy. Not for the first time, she wonders how a girl so small and waifish can be the 'Chosen One,' how she can burden such responsibility and not crack up.
"Thanks," Buffy says, cutting her off and taking the proffered clothes.
The offer to wait out in the hall has barely passed Tara's lips when Buffy pulls off her sweater and begins unbuttoning her pants. The witch opens and closes her mouth before turning awkwardly away. She isn't used to girls getting undressed in front of her. She's used to Willow, to the pale, delicate grace of Willow's body not Buffy's tanned and subtly muscular flesh. It makes her feel like an impostor, guilty for looking although she isn't. Not really.
So she hurries over to Miss Kitty to give Buffy her privacy, allowing the cat to playfully bat her hands away as she tickles the soft fur of its underbelly. When she finally dares to turn back, Buffy is fully dressed, the sweatpants slung low over her hips, leaving the flat of her belly exposed below the hem of the T-shirt.
Damp clumps of hair still hang around Buffy's face, giving her a wild vulnerability that makes Tara realise that she hardly knows this girl. Tara watches her irritably run fingers through the tangled strands. "I - I have tea. I could make some," Tara says to fill the uncomfortable silence, and feels instantly foolish and clumsy. She puts Miss Kitty back on the bed and walks over to the kettle, looking futilely for teabags in the candlelight. "Mr. Giles recommended t-these Earl Grey ones..."
"Sure," Buffy says, her voice strained, and sits down on the bed again. Tara peers at her in the semi-dark, head bowed, staring at her lap. Hears the sob that escapes Buffy's lips. "Tea would be... nice."
"Oh," Tara says softly, abandoning her search for Earl Grey. She can see the other girl's face scrunched in tears. Taking a seat beside Buffy, she places a comforting hand on Buffy's shoulder. "You don't have to talk if..."
Buffy doesn't speak. She just crumples further in on herself, wrapping arms around her chest, making herself smaller. At a loss, Tara merely stares at her in silence. It isn't the first time this has happened. She remembers when Riley left, how Buffy had burst into tears unexpectedly, and she'd been just as thrown by it back then. She isn't sure what shocked her more: Buffy's unusual emotional outburst or the fact that Buffy had broken down in front of *her*. They aren't close. Not even good friends, really. She hadn't been sure Buffy *liked* her until the blonde, and the rest of her friends, stood up to her father.
So this is disturbing her a little. Because, back in high school, girls like Buffy, even moderately popular girls, wouldn't have looked twice at her. She was shy, stuttering Tara who was plump and jumped if anyone so much as spoke to her. She was beneath the interest of girls like Buffy Summers.
But she knows why Buffy is choosing her. Tara has been through this. Living proof that the world goes on, that someone can survive loss and that there is *something* beyond grief. No matter how desperate and desolate things may seem.
Chewing on her lip, Tara dredges up the words of sympathy that she'd heard so often three years ago. They're almost like a mantra now. "It's good to grieve. Just to let it all - " She pauses, aware of Buffy's tear-streaked, bleary stare, and the fragile hope apparent in it. " - out."
"How did you - how did you cope when your mom..." Buffy trails off, aware of how personal that question is. Of overstepping the invisible boundary that had been drawn sometime, that neither of them was previously aware of. "Sorry."
Tara smiles faintly. "No, it's okay." She picks idly at the folds of her skirt, something to occupy her hands with. "I didn't. Cope, I mean. For a long time."
"I mean, I was so angry. At everything. Sometimes I just wanted to scream."
Buffy nods in understanding. "I get that."
"It didn't stop hurting but... I guess it got easier to live with."
"Is it? Easier?"
Tara's lip curls at the corner. "Mostly." She tries for an upbeat tone, not quite convincing enough because she sees Buffy clutch the edges of the mattress in a white knuckle grip.
"I don't know why I - I wish I could be more..." Tears leak over the rim of Buffy's eyes again, spilling down her cheeks. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
"You'll get through it." Firm reassurance, that's what's being asked of Tara. She can give it. She knows what to say.
"How can you say that?" Buffy gestures helplessly. "There's Dawn, and the house, and everything. I have to be a grownup and - "
Tara squeezes Buffy's shoulder. "You're the strongest person I know." Literally and figuratively.
There's another long silence as they look at each other. In a hesitant movement, Buffy dips her head and soft, pliant lips cover Tara's own for the briefest of moments before pulling away. Tara blinks, emitting a hitching breath. She watches Buffy's eyes widen in shock and the lightly tanned hand that shoots to parted lips.
Tara is still, her mind trying to hotwire itself into action. Buffy looks at her, as if waiting for her to say something. As if she has the answers.
"T-that was - I..." Tara says abortively, almost gulping the words out.
Buffy stands, eyes darting around, that fight or flight instinct setting in. "I need to go. Dawn'll be wondering - "
"No," Tara says, startling them both with the quiet force of her voice. She glances towards the window, the water still sliding down the pain. "It's s-still raining outside. You haven't dried off yet."
"Oh, God..." Buffy slumps to the bed again, rubbing the remnants of eye make-up from her stained cheeks, before staring bleakly out the window.
There's a tiny nervous tick beside Tara's eye. She doesn't know what to say, or how to make this right. Out of her depth and trembling. She thinks about making tea again but her hands are shaking so hard that's worried she'll scald herself.
It seems almost like her mouth is moving of its own accord because she's almost certain that she hadn't intended to speak. "I'm sorry if I g-gave you the impression -" She pauses, uncertain how to phrase this, but the words trip out regardless. "I mean, you're very - a-and I -" She stops abruptly when she sees the expression on Buffy's face.
Stung. A smile so weak like she's never seen. "I feel lousy enough as it is without you saying... *that*."
Tara hangs her head, letting a clump of dirty blonde hair veil her embarrassment. Seems she isn't above such gawky, self-conscious, adolescent gestures after all.
"I really should go." There's so little conviction in that statement that Tara glances up, watching Buffy through her eyelashes, watching her idly stroke Miss Kitty's head. Tara can hear the purr emanating from the small animal from where she stands at the other side of the room.
"I could, you know, call you a cab?" Tara offers but Buffy shakes her head.
"No, I'll walk. Do you have an umbrella?"
"S-somewhere, I think." Several minutes of rummaging loudly through the closet later and Tara finds the slightly dusty plain blue one she bought a few years ago. Some of the prongs are slightly crooked but it's still serviceable.
She's so engrossed in the search that she doesn't hear Buffy slip quietly out the door. There's just her, the cat, and the soft patter of rain on the window. She stands for a few moments, just staring at the space where Buffy had been sitting. Then replacing the umbrella in the closet, Tara turns to the practical task of switching the kettle on - finding the elusive teabags under one of Willow's casually discarded shirts - and making tea.
She takes comfort in the routine task because it allows her to avoid thinking about the kiss. Convinces herself that it's only an infidelity if you seek it out. And she didn't. She really didn't.
So she sips the hot, soothing liquid and sits by the window as the candles gradually flicker out.