At first she pretends she doesn't, but she remembers. Not everything, of course, and not clearly - it's more of a fuzzy half-recollection, the way she feels when she awakens too soon from a dream, or dozes off in class and jerks back into consciousness at a sudden change in pitch, or an alarm, or a foot kicking into the back of her chair. She wouldn't even really call them memories, not yet; they don't yet have the clarity or the sharpness or, perhaps thankfully, the pain. It isn't as though she has to relive every awful moment the way she remembers other things, like her mother, or how the poison of her father's prejudices eked their insidious way into the years of her childhood.
But she does remember things, and she remembers more every day, and those things aren't fun. She remembers the feeling of falling, of grasping, of knowing somewhere deep inside that things weren't right as they were, that they were meant to be so different, but not having any idea why. Anya, tactful as always, had asked her shortly afterwards if she, the real Tara, had been buried somewhere in there the whole time, if she could remember, what it had felt like. She hadn't meant anything by it - Anya rarely did - and the question hadn't bothered her as much as she might have thought; it certainly didn't bother her as much as it bothered Willow, who had snapped at Anya to stop being so insensitive and then immediately changed the subject. And Tara had said yes: yes she knew, yes she was there, but it wasn't true. Her memories, such as they were, were retrospective, retroactive, but at the time, Tara's world had been in her mind. It was sick, it was foggy, it was dark and twisted and lost, so lost, but it was, for the duration of those awful seconds minutes hours days, the only concrete thing that she knew.
So she said yes, and now they don't ask many more questions, and she's happy. She doesn't want to talk about it, not yet, not when she's hardly had the time to understand it herself. She was lost and then she was found and then she was standing there in Willow's arms, Willow's warmth around her, at the base of Glory's tower, and Buffy was dead. Buffy was dead. Dawn was safe. Glory was gone. Buffy was dead. Spike was crying. Buffy was dead. Buffy was dead, and it didn't matter to anyone, least of all to Tara herself, that she'd spent the last several days on a mental jaunt to the land of the lost.
She's quiet about it. She knows that the's most helpful thing she can do. Anya's over-enthusiastic perkiness is almost driving Willow to blows, so Tara conducts interventions at regular intervals, usually in the form of suggesting that they go check on Dawn. As well as being important, that's also always an effective measure to get people to stop arguing, turning their grief and their anger and their frustration, weapon-like, on each other.
"I'll go this time," Tara says, squeezing Willow's shoulder, already standing when Willow starts to protest. "It's okay."
They've been hanging out in the Summers' kitchen pretty much non-stop since the funeral; Giles has had the shop open on restricted hours, sharing shifts with Anya, but right now they're both here. It's Saturday night, and they're all trying desperately to fill the silence with their words, the emptiness with their own presence. It makes them all restless.
"Are you sure?" Willow asks, reaching after her, hand at the hem of her shirt. "She was pretty pissy the last time I tried."
Tara shrugs. "If she wants to be left alone, I'll leave her alone, but it can't hurt to try." She grabs a bowl of pasta from the centre of the table, where Xander has just placed it, pours a glass of orange juice from the carton in front of her.
"What about you?" Giles asks. "You should eat something, too."
"I know," Tara says. "I'll be back."
She heads up the stairs, hands full, and performs a slightly awkward non-spillage manoeuvre to knock on Dawn's closed bedroom door. "Dawn?" she calls.
Tara can almost feel the room go still on the other side of the wood; a pause, then: "Tara?"
"Yeah, it's me."
"Okay. You can come in."
She does. "Thanks. I brought you some-- uh. Dawn?"
Dawn looks up at her from the floor, all innocence. "Yes?"
"You know Spike's here, right?"
"Yes," she says cheerfully. "We're playing chess. He's not so bad, for a guy who hasn't played since the Dark Ages."
"I'm not that old," Spike grumbles, and moves a knight. "You're turn, Bit."
But Tara is still stuck on something. "Wait, how did you get here? Did you climb in her window?"
Spike looks guilty - as guilty as he can look, anyway - and says, "What's it to you?"
"Don't be childish. You could use the front door, you know. We would let you in."
He glances at her, almost mistrustful, and she holds his eyes; they aren't friends, never will be, but Spike has always seemed to respond to her honesty. "Yeah?"
She remembers the way Spike folded to the ground when he saw Buffy's body, like his legs could no longer support his weight; she remembers the dark, heavy grief in his eyes, the disbelieving pain that crossed his face before he crumpled and sobbed. "Sure," she says. "You have the family-approved right to enter."
Something like understanding flickers across his face, lightning-fast, and then he's Spike again. "Yeah. Well. Maybe I'll use the door next time. Just felt like mixing it up, is all."
"I brought you some food," Tara says, placing it onto the carpet beside Dawn. "But you can come down and eat it with us, if you want? You too, Spike."
"You all there, then?" Spike asks. He fumbles with a chess piece, twitchy, and Tara wonders if he needs a cigarette; she wonders if a dead person can even be addicted to nicotine, or if it's just a habit he acquired sometime ago in an effort to look casual and cool. Combined with the heavy bruise above his left eye, and the deep scratch running the length of his cheekbone, she has to admit it sort of works.
"Yeah," she says, "Just the usual crowd. Thought we'd eat something before we headed out on patrol."
She can almost feel the vague light in Spike's eyes go dim, even before it happens. He looks away from Tara and back at Dawn. "Whadaya reckon, kid?"
Dawn just grins at him, gestures at the board. "Checkmate."
"You know what, maybe I could do with some..." Distasteful, he inspects the contents of the bowl, "...gooey yellow stuff." He turns to Dawn. "Come on, then. Bring your supper. Winners need to fuel their brains, you know."
Dawn rolls her eyes in an exaggerated manner, but she picks up the bowl and the glass anyway and follows Tara down the stairs. She doesn't ask Spike about the bruise and the cut, doesn't ask him why he's favouring his right leg a little too obviously, doesn't ask where he's been. She knows she'll find the answers soon enough.
They walk into the kitchen single-file: Tara, Spike, Dawn. When Tara enters, empty-handed, Willow stands and says, "How is she? She didn't want to--" and then, "Spike!" and then, "Dawn!" as they trail in behind her. Spike stops just inside the doorway and scuffs his shoes on the linoleum floor of the kitchen, and for a moment, Tara imagines she can see him as he was, before he was turned.
"Howdy, folks," is what he says.
"Howdy," Willow says back, over-chipper; she seems, as has Tara, to have decided to go the ignoring route. "Hey, Dawn. Whatcha been up to? Come have a seat." Willow clears away the stack of books from the place beside her and pushes the stool out.
"We've been playing chess," Dawn informs them, taking a seat and setting her bowl and glass down in front of her, poking around her pasta with a fork. She doesn't look like she's planning to eat anything just yet, but it's a start.
"You and Tara?" This from Giles, who is leaning against the stove with a mug of tea in his hand, nonchalant as ever. "That was quick."
"Nah, me and Spike." She looks over at him with a too-angelic smile. "I totally creamed him. It was funny. Well, it was funny for me. It was mostly embarrassing for him."
Spike points a black-nailed finger in her direction and tries what Tara presumes is intended to be a menacing look. "Watch it, kidlet, or do you want me to do that thing I threatened to do?"
Dawn, eyes wide, shakes her head and raises her hands in surrender. "Oh, no, no, I take it back. Promise."
Xander is on his feet, surprisingly large hand around Spike's throat, before Tara can blink twice. "What the hell are you playing at, Spike? What did you threaten to do to her?"
"Xander!" Three voices, varying levels of irritated, belonging to Anya, Willow and Dawn - he turns, shocked, to look at each of them in turn. "What is happening? Have I just entered bizarro alternate universe land?"
"Xander," Willow says calmly, "let him go or I'll turn your fingers into jelly."
Tara wonders if that's a legitimate threat and then realises, from the arch of Willow's spine and the curve of her neck, that it probably is.
"Why are you all siding with Spike now? What did I miss?" Xander is grumbling, but he releases Spike and steps away, though he doesn't sit down. "He ups and disappears for nearly over a week without a word, turns up out of the blue in Dawn's bedroom, hello creepy, and you're all like, 'Hey, dude, good to see you! Hardly even noticed you were gone while we fought here on our own!' What is this? How do we know he isn't--"
"Xander, shut up."
If the looks on her friends' faces are any indication, they're as surprised as Tara is that Dawn made that outburst.
Xander gobs, fishlike, and then says, "Dawn, I--"
"Okay, so Spike left. But as you've all noticed, he came back, and I'm glad about it. I want him to be here, okay?" She crosses her arms over her chest and cocks her chin. "Besides, his 'big threat' was to start singing. So if you any of you have a problem with him being here, you're going to have to go through me. Understood?"
It's only now, here, sitting in the Summers' kitchen, eating at the Summers' crowded kitchen island, the Summers' house empty but for the only Summers woman left, standing and glaring and so, so like her sister, that it finally hits Tara, too: Buffy's gone. "All clear, Dawn," she says, and manages a near-genuine smile, something that mirrors on Dawn's face the moment she sees her stand has been respected, accepted.
"I can confirm that Spike was just hanging out in a totally unthreatening way," Tara tells them. "Oh, and that Dawn creamed him. I can confirm that too."
"Fantastic," Spike grumbles. "Now would somebody pass me some of this damned bloody bloodless tomato sauce? A bloke can get hungry listening to people insult his strategic skills all day."
Obliging, albeit with a vaguely exasperated look on his face, Giles passes Spike some food. Dawn smiles at him, warm, a reward for the act of peace-making, and takes a bite of pasta, chews consideringly; takes a second. She seems to have found a bit of appetite after all.
Now's the chance. Tara checks her watch and announces, "I'm going to go to the basement, stick the clothes in the dryer. They should be done by now."
"Okay," Willow says.
She is just leaving the room when she hears Anya say, "I still don't understand what just happened. Spike, why are you back? And why did you leave in the first place?"
That ought to keep them occupied for a while.
Tara is careful to walk neither too quickly nor too slowly, careful not to draw attention to herself in any way; she heads to the basement, just as she said she would, and sees that the washing machine still has five minutes left to go in the cycle. She folds herself down in front of it, in the near-dark, and stares at the clothes spinning and spinning and spinning before her eyes, listens to the gradual increase of volume as it picks up speed, finds a strange kind of peace in the rhythmic thudding of the machine against the floor. When she was a child, she'd always expected the thing to sprout wings at any moment and fly away, or whirl out the door, or crash through the walls and escape into freedom, into the night. She stills sometimes thinks it will happen now. She'd also been afraid of the noise, when she was small, afraid by the fact that such a comparatively small apparatus could make the sound of an aeroplane on the runway. They'd lived in a big suburban house, then, and her room had been right next door to the laundry; when her parents washed their clothes, and she was sitting in her room, playing or reading or sleeping, she would run out and find her mother, if she was there, curl into her side, or -- and this was her favourite, in the early days, before her father got wind of it and kept an eye on stopping it before it could start -- she would let her mother perform a spell to shut out the sound, so Tara could fall asleep in peace.
Now, though, in the basement of a friend who died far too young, the sound is more a comfort than a terror, more a mask for her pain than a raw exposure of her fear; she listens hard to the sound, and she wallows in it, deep, and she cries. This is the first time she's done so in the two and a half weeks that have passed since the funeral. Before, it never felt right; Willow was devastated, in so much disbelieving pain that it was written plainly across her face, but trying her hardest to hold the group together. Xander was almost mute, staring blankly at the wall, or the floor, or the ceiling, Anya pale and lost beside him and hanging onto his arm so tight that she left bruises he didn't even seem to notice. Dawn sobbed, wretched and heartbroken, her face mashed into her pillow so hard Tara wondered how she could even breathe, wondered if she was maybe trying to stop. Even Giles, the stoic, solid, ever-present centre of their collective, had trouble getting a sentence out to anyone but Dawn in the first few days. For Dawn, they all tried. For Dawn, they found a way to somehow keep going, to not break down, to not give in to the weight of the world.
Spike left, and Tara understood. She'd expected the others to be pissed, to feel betrayed or to feel that this only confirmed that Spike's only interest had been to get Buffy into bed, but they'd all seen him at Glory's tower, the way he spun out of control in a way they never would have predicted, and none of them -- Xander excluded, it would seem -- could blame him. Tara didn't. She hadn't known whether she could expect him back, soon or ever, but quietly, from the moment they'd first realised he'd taken off, Willow had said she thought he'd be back, for Dawn. "I know Buffy could never love him -- could never have loved him," she'd said, voice low and raw in the darkness, warm arms wrapped around Tara's waist as they lay in bed, sleepless, at some impossible time of the morning. "But I think he's changed. I think she underestimated how much he cared for her."
"You do?" Tara had asked, surprised at her conviction.
"Yeah. I've been watching the way he treats her--" That time she hadn't corrected her own tense mistake, and neither had Tara, "--but even more the way he treats Dawn. At first I thought he was just doing it to try to get into Buffy's good graces, but I don't think that anymore. He wouldn't look out for Dawn the way he does if he didn't really care. About both of them."
Willow's been so strong, Tara thinks, hasn't even grieved; it's like she's fighting with all her might to push the truth away, to focus on how they're going to move on and take care of Dawn, fighting so hard that grieving hasn't even been an option. And with Willow so determined not to let it get the best of her, natural emotional process be damned, Tara has known the whole time that it isn't her place to grieve either. Not when Willow and Xander have been best friends with Buffy since the beginning, the Scooby gang, the unstoppable three; not when Giles has lost his Slayer and his charge and his friend, his someone dearer than a daughter. It wasn't Tara's place to grieve, wasn't her place to cry and make a scene and ask why her? and why us? and why now? Those are questions she didn't -- doesn't -- have a right to ask, and that's why she's taken this moment and this place, carefully selected, to expel the grief that is crushing her, that is causing her near-physical pain from its weight and its strain on her heart.
"I'm so sorry, Buffy," she whispers, and there is no one to hear her, no one to see the tears she doesn't have any right to be shedding; she sees nothing through the blur, and her words are swallowed up by the hulking machine in front of her. "I'm so sorry we couldn't save you. I'm so sorry we couldn't say goodbye. I'm so sorry I spent my last week with you out of my mind." She wraps her arms tighter around her knees, makes an effort to stop crying, wipes her eyes on the knees of her pants. "I miss you," she mumbles into the fabric, and the words feel good; forbidden and selfish and good, because they're true, and wherever Buffy's spirit is, whether she can hear them or not, Tara likes to think it's better that they're out there, that she maybe has a chance to know. "I wish I'd known you longer."
Warm hands slide over the back of her shoulders and down her arms to grip at her wrists, and Tara jumps; it's reflex, caught somewhere she shouldn't be, doing something she shouldn't be doing, even though she already knows who it is. She just hopes Willow didn't hear what she was saying.
"You miss her too," she murmurs, soft, her warmth at Tara's back, her voice soft in her ear.
No such luck.
Tara gulps in a large breath of air, blinks the last of her tears away, forces a smile that she half-directs over her shoulder. She leans back, sinks into Willow, takes glorious, indulgent refuge in her scent. "I'm sorry," she whispers, and her voice cracks. "I know I have no right, I haven't even known Buffy two years, but I--"
"Hey, what are you talking about?" Willow shifts from behind her to look her in the eye, grasps her hand and squeezes hard. "Of course you have a right. You're as much a part of the gang as anyone."
"Come on, Willow, you know that's not true. I didn't go to school with- with you guys, I didn't see half the things you saw -- and that's okay," she adds, when Willow's face falls. "I don't need to be a part of that history. I can't be. But it also means that I can't really feel the way I do about Buffy being--," but she can't say the words, she can't form them on her tongue, not with Willow looking at her like that, all gentle eyes and sympathy, "--about Buffy."
Willow hugs her then, tight, sitting on the basement floor in the Summers' house, next to a now-quiet, now-finished washing machine. "Don't be silly," Willow murmurs, kisses a soft trail down her ear that sends a shiver right through her. "You may have come in later, but you are well and truly a part of the gang. Your relationship with Buffy was different to mine, sure, and it didn't develop until later, but everyone had a different relationship with her. Look, put it this way, if Spike is allowed to cry about it, you're allowed to cry about it too. Okay?"
"Yeah, okay. But I didn't want this, God, Willow, I don't want you to have to comfort me, that's just -- that's completely wrong, it's just unfair, I should be the one comforting you, you just lost your best friend and instead I'm here--"
"Woah, hey." Willow pulls back and looks at her, and there's so much love in her eyes that Tara thinks she might just melt into a puddle right on the basement floor, to slide down the drain and never be seen again. "We comfort each other, remember? That's the good thing about this whole girlfriend deal, it goes both ways, you know?"
She's nodding seriously, waiting for confirmation, and Tara can't help smiling. "You're sweet, but--"
A finger across her lips, and Willow shakes her head. "No buts. You have been comforting me. You've been my rock since this happened, Tara, and I have no idea what I'd do without you." She presses their foreheads together, winds her fingers through Tara's, and for the first time, Tara hears the slight hitch in her voice that she's been hiding so well until now. "Most days, I can only get up in the morning because I wake up and know you're beside me. If I didn't have you to help me through this, I seriously don't know how I'd -- I just -- I couldn't. I just couldn't do anything." She kisses her, sweet and slow. "You hear me, girl? You've done a helluva lot of supporting, and you're allowed to grieve too. I'm just sorry you didn't tell me about it."
"I'm sorry too," Tara murmurs, sinking back into Willow's arms and sighing heavily over her shoulder. "I just didn't want to be a burden. I didn't want to make things harder for you than they already are -- I know sometimes one person breaking down is enough to destroy all the strength you've, you've worked so hard to build up." She squeezes Willow a little tighter, just for good measure. "I didn't want to risk being that person for you."
Willow smiles at her, soft. "You've got a good soul, you know that?"
Tara shrugs. "Not always, but I try."
"And you can always tell me things. I want you to. You would never leave me to go through something like this alone, so how could you think I would want you to do the same?"
"I'm sorry, I--"
"No, I don't mean it like that. I just mean, I can be strong because you help me to be strong. We strengthen each other. And our strength gets stronger when we, you know. Talk."
"Always," Tara says softly, stretching her fingers out to caress Willow's cheek.
"Speaking of which--" A momentary feeling of dread she can't identify, and Tara flashes back to that awful fight they had just before Glory stole her mind, Willow looking so betrayed and disappointed and disgusted, Tara hopeless and confused, completely unable to work out when their perfectly rational conversation went so far off the rails. "--I want to talk to you about something. To do with Buffy."
Cowardly relief that she shouldn't be feeling floods her nerves and Tara relaxes, terribly, unspeakably glad that there's something else on Willow's mind. Tara swallows the relief, a lump in her throat that she forces down, and manages, "What is it?"
"I wanted to talk to you before, but with everything going on I didn't--"
"Guys? Are you down here?"
Xander, poking his head down over the staircase railing, too-long hair flopping into his eyes. He needs a haircut, Tara thinks. Really.
"What's up?" Willow asks.
"We may have a problem," Xander says. "Of the vampire variety."
They'd used up a lot of Buffy's weapons stash during the final battle and the fight to get there, and what's left is a sad-looking pile of standard fare: a couple of bottles of holy water, a couple of crosses, a few stakes. Compared to the arsenal they've needed in recent weeks, this seems like it won't get them anywhere, but Willow starts distributing things quickly and efficiently; she even remembers not to hand a cross to Spike, who acknowledges the thoughtfulness with a nod and a grab for a stake.
"What happened?" Dawn asks, face stricken; she has just returned from the bathroom and stops dead in the doorway. "What is it now?"
"Nothin' much, Dawnster," Xander says. "Giles took out the trash and thought he heard something on the street corner, so we're going to check it out."
"We aren't alone," Anya says. She furrows her eyebrows in a way that makes her look like a confused child. It's sort of endearing, Tara thinks. "There are five of us."
Dawn scowls at her. "I mean without Buffy?"
It had been Giles' idea to keep it hidden from Dawn, the fact that they'd been patrolling. They'd been going in shifts, one or two of them always staying with her, starting only very late, when she'd gone to bed. Tara isn't sure it was the right idea, but she can see where Giles was coming from. Dawn's terror at losing anyone else in her life was a huge and terrible force, and without Buffy, without even the comfort of the Buffybot's comparative strength, with Spike temporarily gone and their morale crippled, it was a real possibility that one of them would get staked. Willow had hardly been able to perform any magic at all for the first couple of days after she'd returned Tara's mind to her.
But now, Dawn standing there with a sceptical look on her face, Tara thinks it's probably time to be honest. She curls a hand around Willow's wrist and squeezes, nods at her when she looks over. She hopes Willow will understand, hopes she will agree, because Willow is the unappointed but universally accepted One in Charge.
Willow takes a breath and says, "We have to, Dawnie. Maybe the four of us together still aren't as strong as Buffy, but we've patrolled before, when Buffy wasn't around, and the four of us together might stand a chance."
Dawn frowns. "The four of you?"
"Giles will stay here with you."
Tara is privately pleased about this; Giles has been pushing himself, pushing to share the workload and to get back to his normal duties, but his injuries still slow him down significantly. She's willing to bet Willow has chosen him to say behind for exactly this reason -- as well as because he and Dawn get along.
But Dawn crosses her arms over her chest and harrumphs. "I'm not a kid. I don't need a babysitter."
"Yeah, we know." This from Spike.
"I could go out on patrol with you, you know. I'm not so much younger. If I'm not a kid then why are you--"
He gets right up in her face, glaring. "Because you're the only one left, Summers, and I'd sooner dye my bloody hair pink before I lose you too." He pulls back. "Er, we, I mean. Before we lose you too. You hear me?"
Wide-eyed at the unexpected outburst, Dawn looks down at her shoelaces, but she nods. "Fine," she sighs. "Whatever. Giles, let's go watch TV. I think there's an episode of Gilmore Girls on soon."
"Jolly good," Giles says, trailing behind her into the living room with an expression that makes Tara want to laugh.
They wait until they're all outside, door swung shut behind them, before Willow says, "Thanks, Spike."
"Didn't do nothin'," Spike grumbles, finally lighting the cigarette he's probably been itching to light since he arrived.
"Even I have to admit it's good to have you back," Anya declares, "and I don't like you at all."
"Feeling's mutual, Demon-Girl."
"Watch it, Undead."
"Guys!" It takes Tara a moment to realise she's the one who's spoken, and that they're all looking at her. "Save it for later, o-okay? Right now we have vampires to worry about."
"Right now," Xander mutters.
"Where were you, anyway?" Anya asks Spike. "You never answered. You just disappeared, and now you're back. Where did you go?"
"Away," Spike grunts, takes a long drag.
"Well, I figured that part out. But where is away?"
"Anya, give it a rest." Willow doesn't glare, exactly, but her look brooks no arguments. "Tara's right, we don't have time for this."
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Giles' instincts were right on the ball; they race down to the street corner, turn down one of the dark lanes that leads to the cemetery, and see the body: a girl, no older than any of them, puncture wounds visible, colour all but drained from her face. Dead.
"God," Tara chokes, just as Xander says, "We're too late, screw this."
"I never know if it's better to be dead or be turned, if those are the only options," Anya says thoughtfully, and Xander hushes her.
"We're not too late," Willow snaps, and picks up her pace in the direction of the cemetery, Spike beside her, the others close behind. "We can still stop him from doing it again."
It's working in their favour that this vampire is drunk on blood and success, because she -- it turns out it's a she -- is sloppy and cocky and not the brightest bulb in the box; there's a strangled cry and a terrible cliché of an evil cackle, and then Willow's hand is out and she's saying, "Separate."
The vampire goes flying, head thumping into a gravestone a few metres away, but she recovers quickly and leaps up, snarling, headed for Willow, as Tara races over to help her almost-victim up and urge her away. She hoists her up, can feel her shaking all over, her arm bloody and twisted unpleasantly from where she's landed hard on a rock, and she flinches as she looks at Tara. "Who are you?"
"We're on your side," Tara tells her. "Can you walk?"
The girl shakes out her left leg and then her right and nods jerkily.
"Good," Tara tells her. "Now run. Run as fast as you can and don't stop until you reach your house. We'll take care of her."
The girl nods, grips Tara's arm. "Thank you," she whispers.
"Run," Tara says again, and she does. Once she sees that the girl is out of the cemetery and headed back down the street the way they'd come, she races back to the others, just in time to see Anya land a clean blow to the vampire's cheek, distracting her long enough to give Spike the opportunity to stake her. The vampire disintegrates, the dust tickling Tara's nose the way it always does, no matter how many times this happens, and Spike tucks the stake into his back pocket.
"Good job, guys," Willow says, tucking her unused bottle of holy water back under her arm. "At least we managed to stop her killing a second person."
Xander kicks at the ground, dirt fanning out across all their shoes. "Why is that in no way comforting?"
"Because the other girl died before we could get there," Anya says helpfully.
There is a moment of silence, awkward, charged, and then Spike breaks it by laughing. "God, woman, you are somethin' else. I like it." He almost sounds impressed.
The look on Xander's face is deadly, and Tara decides to step in before the bickering can escalate again. "What about the body?" she asks, and they all turn to her.
"What?" Xander asks.
"What about the body?' Tara asks again. "The girl back there. The vampire who killed her is gone, but what if there were others lurking around? What if they were to realise something's up with the Slayer and start looking for a fight?" She's got their interest, and the realisation makes her stammer, but she keeps going. She's been worried about this, and it's important, and this is the time to make the most of their attention without worrying about Dawn overhearing. She glances around and lowers her voice before she continues. "I think we, we have to be realistic here. It takes at least three of us to stand a chance against one vampire. What would we do if a whole gang of them came after us?" She takes a deep breath, prepares to say the thing she hasn't been brave enough to say, the thing she's wanted, needed to say since the day Buffy died. "The only reason Sunnydale is still in one piece is because all the vampires and demons think we have a Slayer." She doesn't need to say but we don't; the unsaid words ring around them, weighted and dark and necessary and true, and she's nervous, wired, but she's glad she's said it.
When Willow says, "You're right," she's even gladder. "We need to do something about it."
"Yeah?" Spike asks. "Like what, Red? Bring her back from the dead?" He scoffs, reaches again to tug his cigarette pack out of his coat. Tara wonders if the others have noticed that he never says Buffy's name, anymore. "Great plan. Foolproof. 'Cause resurrection spells are dead simple, pardon the pun, and they never go wrong at all."
Willow rolls her eyes but doesn't contradict him, and a spark of awareness lights up in Tara's mind, one that tells her she should follow this up later, when they're alone.
"I want to tell you guys something. I've wanted to tell you for a few days, but I've been waiting for the right time. It doesn't seem like it's going to get any right-er than this."
Xander's face is pale in the moonlight, drawn and radiating concern; he has never seemed the type capable of successfully hiding his feelings. "What's up, Willow?"
She takes a deep breath, hooks a half-smile at Tara and says, "I've been working on repairing the Buffybot."
That's not what any of them was expecting, that much is clear; Spike stares at Willow for a moment, dumbfounded, and then says what all of them are thinking. "But... it doesn't have a head."
"Yes, it does!" Willow says, and perks up in a manner that Tara might have to deem morbid if she didn't find Willow's enthusiasm for technology so inconveniently endearing. "I got her head back on - yesterday, actually - but there are still a few programming changes--" Here she glances quickly over at Spike, and then back again, "--I still need to make before she'll be patrol-fit. It's... tricky stuff, guys. I've never worked with technology this advanced before, and when I started, I wasn't even sure I'd be able to re-capitate her, let alone make any progress with the robotics." She looks apologetically around the group. "I didn't want to tell you in case it came to nothing. Or in case it... would be too hard to hear." She swallows, eyes somewhere off in the distance. "I don't know if it would better to have a fake robot Buffy or no Buffy at all."
"Tough choice," Xander mutters, but he doesn't look angry.
Anya grumbles, "How come it's okay when she says it?"
"Now's not the time, An," Xander says gently, and wraps an arm around her. Anya leans into him, head on his shoulder, and sighs.
"So how's it going?" Tara asks. "How much progress have you made?"
"A lot more than I thought I'd be able to. When I first reattached her head she was just babbling, her speech processors were totally wigged out from crossfire in the battle, but I've mostly managed to get that repaired. I tried to explain to her that Buffy wasn't here anymore, but she didn't really seem to get it." She shrugs, slipping her hand into Tara's and shifting closer, their arms pressing together through their jackets. By wordless agreement, they've all started heading back towards the Summers house; it's getting really late, now, and they all feel better when they're closer to Dawn, even though the danger to her, in the form it once took, technically no longer exists. "Given another day, two at the most, I think we'll be able to send her on patrol, or at least take her with us. The systems that control her fighting and strategic skills were mostly intact, so I've only had to reprogram a few minor details. What do you guys think?"
"It's kinda creepy," Xander admits, "but Tara's got a point about the Hellmouth-partiers turning up when they realise we're down a Slayer. We shouldn't risk it. The longer those guys think we're fine and fightin', the safer we all are."
"Agreed," Tara says, giving Willow's hand a squeeze.
Willow turns to the guy stomping along beside them, trailing smoke. "Spike?"
Tara can feel the way she tenses as she says it, can feel the way she's bracing for his biting retort, but he just nods.
"Got a brain in that head of yours, Lesbowitch. Right you are." Spike has referred to Willow in this manner a number of times already, and it's always less insulting than it ought to be; Tara is impressed, sometimes, at Spike's ability to say incredibly politically incorrect things to people and come off sounding positively mild. Must be a British thing. "We send Robobuffy out every night to stake a few vamps - present company excluded, of course - so the sinister side of Sunnydale don't get wind of our problem, and just hope she doesn't short-circuit when she's the only thing standing between us - or, well, mostly you - and a blood-sucking undead future."
"Pretty much," Willow says.
"You know, I thought you'd be more against this," Willow tells him. Tara is almost surprised at her boldness in saying that so directly, but she's noticed that Spike and Willow seem to have a kind of understanding. She doesn't know what it is or where it comes from - whether it has to do with the story Willow told her about Spike crying on her shoulder over Drusilla, before he tried and failed to bite her - but it's certainly proven useful at times. Spike seems, in his special grudging way, to respect her, and Willow him. It's probably because it was Willow who asked the question that Spike's response is to shrug, rather than throw things or set someone on fire.
"What can I say, I see the importance of keeping the demon crowd out. And," he murmurs, his voice suddenly low and as far away as his eyes, "it's better for Dawn. Better if we can charge up her legal guardian once in a while and say, hey, check it out, kid's being looked after." They're almost at the front gate, and Spike stalks off ahead of them, butts out his cigarette and actually tosses it in the trashcan on the porch before heading inside, calling out something unintelligble.
"Well," Xander says, "would you look at that."
"What just happened?" Anya cries, scandalised. "What did I miss? Does Spike have feelings now?"
"Spike's had feelings for a while," Tara murmurs. Willow just smiles.
It's no surprise that Dawn greets them with an exaggerated tilt of her head and a highly sarcastic, "Wow, congratulations, you actually all managed to make it back alive... except Spike, obviously, since he's dead already," but it is a bit of a surprise when she agrees to go to bed with comparatively little stomping and eye-rolling. She makes a show of things, sometimes, and Tara can understand that she does; thinks she's maybe even a little entitled to do it. But she also thinks that deep down, Dawn is relieved that they're all there and making such an effort to keep her safe and protected in their caring, if admittedly dysfunctional, company.
She heads up the stairs with a promise to beat Spike at chess again tomorrow, and the others wait until they they hear the bathroom door slam, the sound of water running through the pipes, before they relax enough to speak.
Tara looks over at Giles, who is tiredly wiping his glasses clean on the edge of his sweater. "How is she?"
He pauses a moment, thinks, before he answers. "She was quite all right. As well as I've seen her in days, really. She watched her television program, made us both an abominably sweet cup of tea, and then proposed we play a game of Scrabble." He glances at Spike. "She mentioned you once or twice. She's glad you're back."
Spike says nothing, just nods. It's a gruff nod. Tara supposes it must take a special kind of talent to be gruff even without using words.
"I, uh--" Giles hesitates, cleans his glasses vigorously for a third, fourth time, even though they must be gleaming by now, and then looks daggers across the kitchen island at Spike. "I trust you understand that leaving again under these circumstances would be an... unfavourable course of action."
So smooth, so calm, so threatening. So Giles. Sometimes, Tara thinks, they have not even begun to comprehend the depth of this man's power.
"Yes, mate, I get it, don't go, you all love me and miss me too much when I do, blah blah."
Xander snorts. "Speaking of which, Spike, you care to tell us where the hell you did skip off to in the middle of the greatest crisis we've ever faced?"
Spike glares at him. "None of your business, idiot." Then, "You have stupid hair."
Xander runs a hand through it, protectively. "What the--?"
"He does not!" Anya cries, grabbing a pair of tongs left over from the abandoned pasta bowl on the table and brandishing them towards Spike. "Take it back!"
"Anya," Giles sighs, "please return the kitchen implement to its appropriate location. Spike, please refrain from being any more obnoxious than is strictly necessary."
"Pretty big margin of error there, if you ask me," he huffs, but he lets it go. When he sees that everyone is staring at him, Giles patient, Xander pissy, Anya glaring, Willow expectant, he sighs and tugs a little on his own hair. "It was important, get it? It was important and it had to be done so I left, and now I'm back. I'm..." he stops, looks almost pained at the words that are about to come out of his mouth. "Look, I'm sorry I left without tellin' you lot, right? And I'm sorry I left the kid. Wasn't thinking," he mutters.
No one has much to say to that, but Tara thinks she's starting to understand.
"Now that that's settled," Giles says, and he still sounds so tired, "might I suggest that we all go our separate ways and reconvene tomorrow?" The question mark he tacks onto the end of the sentence is merely an obligatory matter of politeness; they all know it isn't really a question. The clock on the stove reads 2:02am, they've heard the sound of Dawn turning off the taps in the shower, the sound of her feet padding across the floor to her bedroom, the door clicking shut. It's time for all of them to go to sleep. Tara is hit with a wave of exhaustion so strong and so sudden that it nearly bowls her off her feet; she tightens the muscles in her jelly-legs and leans against Willow, so unspeakably grateful for her presence, for her courage and her warmth; laces her fingers through Willow's and gives a small tug.
"Come on, sweetie," she murmurs, "let's go to bed."
Willow probably wouldn't want to admit it, but that basic spell from earlier seems to have thoroughly exhausted her; she climbs into bed, murmurs a few unintelligible words into Tara's collarbone, and then collapses, asleep in seconds.
For Tara, it's slower. She lies there, taking comfort in Willow's even breathing, in the tickle of Willow's loose hair on her skin, and she thinks. She thinks about Dawn, and about Joyce, and about Buffy, and then she stops because she can't, because it's too much and it's too painful, even though she'd have thought she'd at least have made a dent in the overwhelming sense of grief that had propelled her down to the relative privacy and security of the basement earlier.
She thinks about Willow, and her chest feels warm, and her fingers brush softly through her hair, caressing, because she doesn't want to risk waking her up. She thinks about how she doesn't understand how or why she's lucky enough to have Willow, how she doesn't really believe that it's fair, somehow, or that she's worthy of it; that somewhere deep inside her, in the black, empty place that continues to exist, no matter how often she tries to get rid of it, she'll always harbour the fear that she doesn't deserve it, this happiness. She wants to - she wishes that she could - but she isn't convinced.
She thinks about Glory, about how Glory is no more, how she can't hurt them any longer. She can't. She thinks about the way Glory's hand reached out and crushed her knuckles into a bloody mess, the way Glory's fingers wound their sick, twisted way into her brain and made everything cloud over, made her so lost and now she's gone, she's gone, she's gone, she can't come back--
Tara realises how tense she is, realises her arm is too tight around Willow's shoulders and she might wake her up, and she slips the arm, shaking, from beneath Willow's head; she stirs, makes a small noise of protest, and Tara holds her breath, still, but Willow just readjusts her position and goes back to sleep. Tara sighs in relief; she might be a lost cause tonight, but Willow needs her sleep, and damned if Tara will let anything get in the way of that. She is as quiet as she can be as she slides out of bed, careful to avoid the dodgy springs about three quarters of the way down the mattress on her side, and tiptoes out of Joyce's old room, closing the door softly behind her.
She heads past Dawn's room to the bathroom, treading carefully on the carpeted floor, and when she gets out, Dawn is standing there, leaning against the railing of the staircase. "Hey," she says.
"Dawn, hey," Tara exclaims, then lowers her voice. "Sorry, did I wake you?"
Dawn shakes her head. "Nah. Wasn't really sleeping anyway."
Tara thinks about the warmth of the bed just down the hall, about curling up against Willow and drifting off to sleep; she thinks about how she felt when she lost her mother, how long it lasted, how she can't imagine having lost a sister as well. "Me neither," she says. "You want to come downstairs with me and I'll make you a cup of tea?"
Dawn ponders this. "Will you make me a cup of your magic hot chocolate instead?"
That makes Tara smile, and she nods. "Deal."
They head down the stairs single-file, veering towards the right side because the loudest creaks are always on the left, and shut the door once they get inside the kitchen. Tara's magic hot chocolate is only magic because it usually has amaretto in it; at that moment, she makes an executive decision that a splash of the stuff in one cup won't hurt. And if anyone wants to know, it's almond essence.
Tara doesn't feel the need to make conversation; now that she's up and about she's noticing how tired she really is, and she's happy to go through the motions of spooning out cocoa and heating milk in silence. She doesn't expect it when Dawn speaks.
"I'm glad you're here, you know. You and Willow."
Tara smiles, adds some sugar. "We're glad to be here too, you know."
Dawn looks sceptical. "Seriously? You don't have to say that just to be nice. Like, I know you are nice, but you guys must have better things to do than look after some kid."
"You're not a kid," Tara says, catching Dawn's eye. "You stopped being a kid a while ago." When your mother died, she doesn't say. "And I don't mean in a Key way," she adds, gesturing with a teaspoon. "That's not important."
Dawn doesn't say anything for a moment, and then, "Thanks. I know you get it, more than the others do, anyway." Tara isn't sure about this, isn't sure that the grief the others are feeling over the loss of Buffy is really any less than what Tara felt for her mother, but she doesn't argue; there's no point. "It helps that you're here," Dawn is saying, looking at the floor while Tara finishes pouring warm milk into the mugs, "because I see you and you're so, still so good to people and stuff, and I think maybe I can try to be good too."
"That's sweet of you," Tara says, and she hands Dawn her hot chocolate, keeps the other for herself. "But you know, Dawn, I'm really nothing special. I just try to do what's right and not hurt anyone."
Dawn smiles, and in that moment she looks older and wiser than Tara's ever seen her, a pure blend of the best of Buffy and Joyce, and Tara has to swallow against the sudden lump in her throat. "That's exactly what makes you special. You can't grow up the sister of a Slayer and not learn to see that."
Tara takes a long sip of hot chocolate, savouring the sweetness. "You know that I didn't, uh, didn't know Buffy as well as the others did, but I think she... Dawn, I really think she would proud of you right now."
Dawn is looking at the floor again, restless fingers tapping the rim of her mug, but Tara can tell she's listening. "And for what it's worth, I think you're an amazing young woman. I admire your strength." Should she say it? She isn't sure; maybe it will be a mistake, but something in her feels that she has to dare. "I would, I would be so proud if you were my sister."
Dawn glances up at her at that, and her eyes are wet, her face a heartbreak, and Tara sets her mug down on the counter and, "I'm sorry, Dawn, I didn't mean to upset you, I--"
But Dawn gives her a watery smile and, to Tara's surprise, puts her own mug aside so she can pull Tara into a hug. "It's okay," she whispers. "They're good tears. Well, that's a lie, but they're at least partly good, and that makes a change."
Tara laughs a little and hugs her back, keeps it up until she starts to feel Dawn relax in her arms.
"I just miss her so much," Dawn whispers. "That's lame, huh? It's like, well, duh, of course I miss her, I just... I can't believe how much. Half the time she drove me crazy, and now I would do anything she wanted, I would never slam the door or hog the bathroom or eat her chocolate or be a bitch to her, ever, if it meant I could get her back. You know?"
"I know," Tara murmurs. She pulls back and brushes a tear-matted lock of hair out of Dawn's eyes. "It sucks."
Dawn laughs, hiccoughs, laughs again. "Yeah. It sucks. But there's nothing we can do." She slants her eyes sideways. "I know. We've looked."
Understanding doesn't so much dawn as it appears in Tara's awareness like a bland hallway painting, the kind of thing that's always been there but that hasn't quite made it presence known until the moment you first realise that it's there. "You mean Spike," Tara murmurs, and Dawn nods.
"Please don't tell on him, I don't - I don't want them to get pissed and make him leave. He was only trying to help."
Tara shakes her head. "I won't tell," she promises, and finds she means it. "But I don't think they would be mad at him even if they did know. It's normal to try to look for ways to change things. It's nothing the rest of us haven't thought about too. That's why he disappeared then, huh? He went to do research or something?"
Dawn nods. "He went to visit some dude he knows, a demon I guess, somewhere near L.A. I'm sorry I didn't tell you guys. He didn't even tell me not to, I just... somehow I didn't want to even say the words, you know? In case that would make it not work." She shrugs, a defeated look on her face. "Guess it didn't anyway."
There is no comfort to be given here, and Tara doesn't try; instead she says, "That's why you didn't seem as surprised as we did when he turned up today. You were expecting him."
"Sort of," Dawn admits. "I didn't know when he would be back. He just said he would come back soon, and he did. I guess he's not such a bad guy after all."
She thinks of Spike, jittery and chain-smoking and pulling at his hair, worrying about Dawn, even though she knew where he'd been. She thinks of Willow, who'd suspected that from the start. "I guess not."
"He really was just trying to help," Dawn says again.
"I know," Tara says. "I believe you." She drains the dregs of her hot chocolate, takes Dawn's mug when she's done the same, and fills them with water to leave them in the sink overnight. They head back up the stairs, avoiding the creaks, and stop outside Dawn's room. Dawn leans over to hug her again, briefly, and smiles the most genuine smile Tara's seen from her in days.
"Thanks, Tara," she whispers. "You're a good friend."
Tara smiles. "So are you. You're a good sister, too."
Dawn is about to disappear behind her bedroom door when Tara says, "Hey, Dawn?"
She pokes her head through the crack. "Yeah?"
"How would you feel if the Buffybot were still around?"
She hadn't expected the question, Tara can tell, but she gives it some thought. "It would be okay, I guess. Kinda weird, sure, because the Buffybot is totally weird, but maybe also sorta... nice. Almost like she wouldn't really be gone."
She doesn't ask why Tara's asked, and Tara finds herself unspeakably relieved. "Goodnight, Dawn," she says. "Sleep tight."
The door clicks shut behind her and Tara waits for the sound of the springs as Dawn dips onto her bed; hopes that she really will be able to get some sleep tonight, even if it's only a couple of hours. She walks back down the dark corridor to her makeshift bedroom, slips inside, walks quietly over to the bed and performs a slow-motion acrobatic routine designed to keep Willow from waking up, when Willow says, voice laced with amusement, "I know you're here, you know."
Tara laughs, plonks onto the bed and scoots over to wrap herself back around Willow, head on her shoulder.
Willow runs her nails rhythmically down the skin of Tara's arm, up and down, soporific and soothing and so good. "Where were you?" she asks.
"Went to the bathroom," Tara says, around a huge yawn. "Dawn was up so I made her a hot chocolate. We talked a little."
"Yeah," Tara smiles, "I think she is." She falls silent, burrows further into Willow's warmth, enjoying the comfort of the blankets after standing so long on the cold kitchen floor.
"What are you thinking about?"
Glory. Buffy. You me us.
It's nothing the rest of us haven't thought about too.
Bringing Buffy back.
"Tell you tomorrow."
It's Sunday, the next day, and there is an unspoken agreement that sleeping in will be done and only the lazing-around kind of fun will be had; this is why Tara doesn't think much about it when she scrunches open one eye and sees that the clock radio on Willow's - Joyce's - nightstand already reads 10:23. She reaches out for Willow on instinct and finds the space beside her vaguely warm but empty, opens the other eye and sees her there, sitting on the floor of the bedroom, hair glowing through a shaft of light streaking in through the curtains, surrounded by a veritable Stonehenge of books.
"Morning," Tara croaks, sits up to reach for a glass of water; the hot chocolate from last night has dried out her throat.
Willow looks up and smiles, and it's blinding. "Morning, babe. How do you feel?"
They haven't talked about the fact that Tara doesn't sleep well, not since Glory gave back her mind and she started to remember, but she isn't foolish enough to assume that Willow doesn't know. You can't share a bed with someone and not figure out that they're not sleeping, even when you are. Everyone has to get up to pee sometimes.
"Okay," Tara answers, honestly. "Sleepy."
"You look it." Willow giggles. "You have shark hair."
Tara makes a half-hearted effort to pat it down. "Better?"
"Mostly?" Lying is really not Willow's strong suit.
Tara swings around so her feet are on the floor beside the bed and yawns, jaw cracking. "I guess I should go have a shower, get breakfast started."
"I made coffee and eggs already, they're on the stove."
"You've been up a while." It isn't a question, though Tara was, for once, so knocked out that she has no idea when Willow first got out of bed.
"Yeah," Willow shrugs, looks a little guilty. "I, uh. I got the Buffybot working. I put her in Buffy's room to charge. Do you think that's okay? Maybe I should move her, I don't wanna freak out Dawn. I don't know if she ever goes in there."
"I think it's okay," Tara says. "We'll just tell her about it at breakfast so she doesn't get any nasty surprises, and she'll deal. She's tough."
"That she is."
Tara moves to put in the great effort it takes to stand up on a Sunday morning, assigned-laziness Sunday though it may be, when the look on Willow's face stops her.
"Nothing, just -- well. Something." She frowns. "Can we talk? After your shower? It isn't bad. I hope."
Tara frowns back. "This isn't exactly filling me with encouragment, honey."
"Sorry," Willow sighs, "you know me, I'm not too good at the talking about talking thing."
Tara walks over to her and pushes a stack of books to the side to make space, then folds herself down onto the floor. "Then how about we just skip straight to the talking thing itself and avoid the foreplay?"
"That doesn't sound in any way resemblent of your usual opinion," Willow says, waggling her eyes in a ridiculously exaggerated manner that makes Tara smile. She gets distracted for a few moments, kissing her, then finally breaks away and tucks a lock of Willow's hair behind her ear, presses their foreheads together. Willow's hands are running up and down her back, maddening, and she forces herself to focus.
"You, you wanted to talk about something? I know you're trying to distract me, and it's, it's working pretty well, but it doesn't mean I'm going to give it up." Tara eyes her firmly. "Tell me now, before Dawn wakes up and Anya and Xander arrive and we don't have any alone time for the rest of the day."
This is probably the most Tara has ever said within five minutes of waking up, and Willow seems to notice it, seems to get that she's serious, because she sighs and says, "You're right, as usual. I'm being childish and avoid-y and it's stupid. I should just talk."
Tara nods; this is progress, this is a notion she can get behind, regardless of the frisson of terror that started to run the length of her spine the moment Willow said the word 'talk'. It's absurd but it's there, and Tara breathes in, out, one-two, tries to be rational. It isn't bad. I hope. She tries to focus on the first part.
Willow sets aside the huge, musty volume she's been poring her way through and reaches out to take Tara's hands; her fingers are cool, soft, familiar, and Tara takes comfort in the strength of their grip.
"So, I've kinda been avoiding this, but I want to talk to you about -- about Glory," she says it in a rush, almost embarrassed, and then looks away, for long enough that Tara supposes she doesn't have time to see the surprise cross her face, because it must have; she really hadn't expected that. She says as much.
"I know, and I'm sorry - I didn't want to bring it up and cause you any more trauma than it already has, but now I -- I know you haven't been sleeping well," she murmurs, thumb stroking soft nonsense patterns over Tara's thumb, "and I waited, I wanted to give you the chance to bring it up if you wanted to, but now I think, well. I think maybe we should talk about it. If you're ready," she adds hurriedly, and Tara gives her hand a squeeze, shifts closer to her on the floor.
"I think I am," she says. "I mean, I am, and don't worry, I'm not mad at you for asking. You shouldn't be sorry." She laughs, and hears the nervousness creep in. "I'm the one who should be sorry. And if anything, you should be the one to be mad at me, because I haven't been totally honest with you."
Willow doesn't tense, exactly, but she does still; it's minute, but Tara is so tuned in to the subtleties of her body that she notices. "What do you mean?" Willow asks, voice steady.
Tara fixes her gaze on the elegant jut of Willow's collarbone and says, "I haven't really been honest about what Glory did to me, and about how much I remember."
Now Willow looks concerned. "You said it was like you were there all the time but trapped in a little corner somewhere. Was it not like that? Was it worse?"
"Yes and no," Tara says slowly. "I know I told you I could remember, but I, I lied. At the time, I couldn't remember anything. Nothing at all." Willow is wide-eyed but silent, and Tara takes it as leave to continue. "It's like, I was sitting there, on that bench at the fair, and Glory was there, and it was horrible and I wanted to get out so badly--" Willow's eyes scrunch up at that, pain on her face, and Tara grabs her other hand, too, "--but I couldn't, and then I heard your voice, somewhere, or maybe I just imagined it, and then there was nothing. Just fog."
The horror on her face is difficult to bear, but Tara forces herself to hold eye contact. Finally she says, "But... I don't understand. You knew me. You must have been there, because you knew me, and you were... oh, Tara, you were so scared, and so lost, but when I left it was... it was worse. Sometimes you only calmed down if I came to you."
Tara nods. "I know."
"Now, I know. At first there was nothing but darkness, and fog, but a little later things started to get clearer. I don't know when, but I guess it was, was around when the boundaries separating Ben and Glory started to break down. Then I could see things, could understand some things again, just for a few seconds. Then the fog came back."
Willow shakes her head. "I'm so sorry."
"It's, it's okay," Tara shrugs. "It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't remember anything, really, it would just be like I took a really long nap." She swallows; this is the hard part. "The problem is..." Willow's thumbs are at the base of her neck, stroking, and Tara sighs. "The problem is that I remember it now. Ever since you put my brain back, I've started to remember, little bits at first, but now more and more. And it's so," her voice cracks and she looks at the carpet, suddenly ashamed, "it's so awful to relive it, to remember these things happening that I was there for but also not, to remember how I did nothing when we were in so much danger, and to remember how I couldn't -- that Buffy --"
Then, "Shhh, baby, it's okay," and Willow is cradling Tara's head to her chest, muttering nonsense that is still so comforting because it's Willow, because Willow is here and she's safe and she understands. Tara isn't crying, but it's a close thing.
"Remembering it now is so weird. I just feel so helpless, I'm so scared knowing how vulnerable I was, even though it's over. The worst thing is just, is being inside my own mind again and somehow not recognising it anymore." She swallows. "It's like, like someone's given me a map of my hometown and blacked out the half where I lived, so I know some of the streets, but I can't really remember how they fit together." She's rushing and she stops. "Is that crazy?"
"No way," Willow assures her, pushes her hair out of her eyes. "It's awful and terrifying and God, I really hate Glory, have I said that often enough? I would so kill her if she wasn't already dead. I'm so sorry, Tara. I'm sorry I didn't realise there was more going on." She shakes her head. "I'm sorry you've been going through this alone."
"Hey, it was my choice," Tara laughs, but it's weak to her own ears. "I could have told you. It just seemed so selfish, so stupid, when... Buffy was just... just lying there, and there was Dawn all alone, and after their mom, I... it just wasn't right to be complaining about suddenly being able to remember my confusion."
"I think 'confusion' is putting it a little lightly," Willow says, eyebrows shooting up to her hairline. "'Brain-stealing nightmare experience' is more the phrase I'd be going for."
Tara says nothing, and silence stretches; Dawn is still asleep, it seems, the house quiet but for the birds chirping in the tree right outside their window. Tara hopes she's asleep, anyway. She needed her sleep.
"So you're not mad at me?" she finally ventures, because it's silly and it's insecure but she needs to know.
Willow scoots closer, cups Tara's face in her soft hand. "Not mad. I'm sorry you didn't tell me sooner, but I also get it. I dunno, but I guess, under the circumstances, I probably would have done the same."
The relief at hearing these words is almost a physical thing, and Tara tries not to let it show too greatly; if the look on Willow's face tells her anything, it's that she's probably failed.
"So that's why you haven't been sleeping so well, huh?"
Tara nods. "But actually, in the interest of honesty..." she holds Willow's eyes and then says, "I kind of want to talk to you too. Can we handle more Serious Talk Time today, or does that equal overdose? Should we reschedule?"
Willow smiles, a little self-deprecating, but she nods. "I think we're adult enough to manage, don't you?"
"Hopefully," Tara says. Now or never, she thinks. Now. "So what I wanted to talk to you about was, uh, the thing we fought about, before. Before Glory."
Willow doesn't appear tremendously shocked by this development, which Tara hopes can be considered a sign of progress.
"And please hear me out, please don't get mad -- I don't want to make you upset, you know that, right?" Willow nods, like, of course; more progress. "But I really, um. I really think this is something we need to get out in the open." She gestures vaguely at the borrowed space around them, so quiet, so empty, so full still of Joyce, as though she might walk in at any moment and ask what they're doing on her bedroom floor. Tara still feels kind of funny about them staying here, but Dawn had pronounced with confidence that it was allowed, that if anyone should stay there, it should be them, and so they had, but it still feels like an intrusion.
Willow's face goes hard for a moment, unreadable, but then she seems to make a decision: from one second to the next, the tension falls from her face and she sighs, and she looks suddenly so, so tired. "I guess you're right. It won't go away on its own, and then... yeah. So let's talk."
This is Tara's cue; this is her thing, and she has to take the lead. She has to, and it's important enough that she will. "I think the problem is that we never really talked about it," she says slowly, "this thing between us. It just kind of--"
"--happened," Willow finishes, and smiles at her, a half-smile that warms Tara from the inside out, despite the fact that she's only dressed in pyjamas.
"Yeah. And we never talked about categories or labels or anything, and I, I think that's really scary in the beginning."
Willow has started to get this guarded look in her eyes, the one she gets when she feels like her sexuality is being invalidated, and Tara rushes to correct herself. "I don't mean that you don't know that, obviously you do, I just mean... God, this is hard to talk about. I just mean, I think it's more important, sometimes, in the beginning. To have a label. It helps you figure out who you are."
"But you said 'in the beginning'," Willow says. "You mean it's more important than later?"
"Kind of, I guess... well, yeah. For me, anyway. Like, in the beginning, I was so terrified to be into girls that I... I really needed that word, lesbian, to feel like I wasn't some freak." She tries to laugh but it comes out all jagged. "I was still a freak to my father and brother, of course, but it was at least better to be a freak that belonged to another group of freaks. You know what I mean?"
Willow nods slowly, still cautious.
"You seem to think of me as some c-confident out-and-proud woman," she says, and the irony of her stuttering over those words isn't lost on her, and presumably not on Willow either, "and I love you for that, for, for seeing that in me, but it took me years to feel comfortable with the definition. With the fact, I guess, that I was gay. It didn't make it less true or more true or whatever, it just was." She swallows, mouth dry. "It just took me some time to feel totally okay with it."
"And then it was like, one day I was really okay with it. I don't know when it changed, it just gradually did. And after that I was still gay, I still am, but it somehow wasn't as important to my, my identity. Because I was sure about it, so I didn't think about it anymore. Like, you have red hair, and that's part of who you are, but you don't walk around all day thinking about how you're a redhead. I mean, I assume." Willow cracks a smile at that. "Do you get what I'm saying?"
There's a long moment during which Tara tries her best not to fidget, and then Willow says, "Yeah, I guess I do. I hadn't really thought about it like that."
Tara reaches over and pulls Willow to her, right into her, so that's almost sitting in her lap. "You had it tough, too, Willow. You were going through so many changes, and it's so confusing, and you didn't have anyone to talk to about it..." she runs her finger across Willow's eyebrow, down her cheekbone, over the shell of her ear, revels in the way it makes Willow's breath catch. "You must have felt so alone."
"I'm sorry I got all crankypants on you," Willow murmurs, turning her head to kiss Tara's fingertips, once, twice, lick, bite. "I just got so mad, and also kind of freaked, when I thought you thought I wasn't serious, I just... yeah. I would change my whole life for you if you wanted me to, you know? I just didn't deal so well, I guess." She stops, chewing on her lower lip. "But do you get why?"
"Of course I do," Tara says softly, tugs her closer. "But I also don't think there's anything wrong with not being 100% sure what's going on with you from day 1, you know? I love you, and we're together, and that's what matters. That's all. Well, it also matters that you love me, but you know what I mean. And that wouldn't change if you found a guy hot. It wouldn't even change if you slept with a guy." She frowns. "But I hope you don't."
Now Willow laughs a little. "I won't. I have no immediate plans to cheat on you and/or leave you for anyone else, male or female or undecided or otherwise."
"Glad to hear it. What about unimmediate pla--?"
Willow shuts her up with a kiss, and Tara thinks: yes, communication is the key. Communication is great.
Communication is also the reason that, twenty minutes later, Tara is lying sprawled across the bed with Willow's head on her stomach, breathing hard and enjoying the thorough bonelessness of all her muscles. It is also the reason that she nearly jumps a foot in the air when someone knocks loudly on the bedroom door.
"Room service!" Xander calls. "Are you decent?"
"No!" They both yell out, and they can hear Xander groan from the other side; they'd probably both have said that no matter what the true answer was, just to mess with him, because Xander's reactions are just too satisfying to miss. As his footsteps edge further down the hall, Tara hears Anya say, "They were probably having sexual intercourse. I was once informed by Buffy that many couples make use of the extra time available on weekend mornings by scheduling in such activities..."
They both dissolve into giggles, and Tara takes a moment to savour the truth of that statement by kissing her girlfriend, long and warm and thorough, before she climbs off the bed in search of her clothes.
Dressed and decent, they head for the door, but at the last moment, Tara turns around and stops, looks at Willow, at her gorgeous eyes, at her growing hair, at her kiss-pink lips, and asks softly, "Are we okay?"
Willow laughs, wicked. "You ask that now?"
Tara blushes, she can feel it; that's probably by Willow said it. "Wench," Tara says mildly. "I mean it, are you - are we okay on this? All of this?"
"Yes," Willow says, firm, and Tara has to believe her. "We're good, we're happy, the air is clear - the air is so clear it's like I mirror I can see my face in." She stops. "Wait."
Tara laughs, opens the door and nudges Willow out in front of her. "I think that sufficiently answers my question -- hey, wait." They stop, just in the corridor, and Willow turns back.
"All those books on the floor, just now - what were you reading?"
"Oh, I. I should have talked to you about that, too." She glances down the corridor, but the door to Dawn's room is still firmly shut. She lowers her voice. "I've been doing a little research and I... I maybe have an idea. I don't know if it will work, but -- wait, why are you smiling?"
Tara shakes her head, but it's true; she's smiling, because she knew it. She knew. "I just think I have an idea what you're going to say, that's all."
Willow raises an eyebrow. "That would surprise me."
Tara leans in, brushes her lips against Willow's ear and whispers, "You want to try to bring Buffy back."
That's shocked her. "But how did you -- did you see the books?"
"Not exactly." She takes Willow's hand in her own and squeezes. "I wondered if you would say something right after it happened, but then you didn't, so... well, I had the suspicion, but I really only figured it out yesterday." She won't say anything about Spike, because she promised she wouldn't; he was the catalyst to her understanding, sure, but she'd have worked it out eventually anyway.
"How?" Willow asks, and Tara pulls back to look at her.
"Because you didn't grieve."
They head down the stairs to breakfast, to the remains of Willow's now-cold eggs (the others had been mysteriously eaten already) and the waft of sugary goodness as Xander slides a stack of pancakes across the table to Dawn, who had obviously woken up and headed downstairs already while Tara and Willow were... otherwise occupied. Tara can feel herself blushing again, so she sits down next to Anya and reaches for the orange juice.
"Morning, Dawnie," Willow says, reaching over to hug her from behind, "how'd you sleep?"
Dawn glances across the table at Tara and smiles, glances back to Willow. "Not too bad."
"Glad to hear it." Willow ruffles her hair and Dawn bats her hand away, scrunching her nose up, just as Willow eyes the near-empty pan and says, "Hey, who ate all my eggs?"
"Not my fault the chef was engaged in, uh, more important activities, is it?"
Willow whacks Xander on the back of the head with a mostly-clean spatula and then plonks down on the empty stool next to him, holds out a plate. "I will take three pancakes as recompensation, payable only with an interest of maple syrup."
"Done," Xander proclaims, plopping a great dollop of syrup onto Willow's plate with a flourish.
Willow's mood is infectious, more optimistic than it has been in days; Dawn's smile is like the rain after a long, hot day, like relief, and there is a family here, and it's broken, but it's going to be whole again. Tara watches Willow, watches her laugh at a stupid joke of Xander's, a tiny dot of maple syrup beaded at the side of her lip, and she suddenly knows, absolutely, feels it in her gut, a relevation, like the chilling certainty of love or fear: Willow will do it.
She'll bring Buffy back from the dead.