"I said no, Dawn."
"Yeah, but you're not giving me a reason why not."
"I don't think…it's just," Tara struggles.
"Exactly." Dawn crosses her arms over her chest and tilts her chin up defiantly. "You don't have a good reason."
"Buffy didn't want you to," Tara says, raising a stern eyebrow and ladling some pancake batter onto the heated skillet. "She didn't want her little sister mixed up in the dark arts, and I think it's important to respect that."
"Buffy isn't here anymore," Dawn says. Tara can hear her grief screaming even though she tries to mask it with anger.
"No," she snaps, blinking rapidly to keep her tears at bay. "Buffy isn't here and there's nothing we can do about that. But all the vampires and demons? They're still out there, Tara. Buffy wanted to protect me, but she couldn't. Not from everything."
"Dawnie," Tara tries again, but Dawn cuts her off, keeping her eyes focused intently on the island counter.
"If I can't count on her to save me anymore, I want to be able to count on myself."
Tara doesn't say anything, considering.
"I smell pancake-y goodness," Willow says, breezing into the room with an armful of books. She sits next to Dawn and looks between her and Tara, reading the tension in the room. "What's up with you two? Are we in slay mode?" Her brow wrinkles and she looks genuinely concerned. “I’m still working on cleaning out all the, erm, extra programming, and Buffybot’s not quite up for another patrol.”
"I was just asking Tara to—" Dawn starts.
Tara jumps in over her: "To make funny shapes. But I didn't make enough batter. I don't think we need to assemble the Scoobies for this one."
Dawn glares at her.
"Baby, you know your eyebrows come together funny when you lie," Willow says, sighing in relief.
Tara frowns and focuses on flipping the pancakes. "Dawn wants to learn magic."
"Great!" Willow says. "You happen to have two very capable teachers right here."
"I'm not sure it's a good idea. B-Buffy didn't w-want," Tara says, getting flustered.
"I just want to learn a few spells," Dawn pushes, gaining fervor now that Willow's in the room to back her up. "If things get out of hand or I light something expensive on fire we can stop. I just want to try." She clasps her hands together under her chin and pouts out her lower lip.
Willow mimes Dawn's position, giving Tara the wide puppy-dog eyes Willow knows she can't resist.
Tara sighs and loads down both their plates with breakfast. "You promise to listen to us? Magic isn't a toy and you have to start off slow."
Dawn squeals. "I promise!"
"The second things get out of hand, I'm calling off the lessons," Tara says.
"Deal," Dawn says, squirming excitedly out of her seat after only a few bites of pancake. "Can we start today? Can we?"
"Totally!" Willow answers.
At the same time, Tara says, "If you bring home your American Government final with a B or higher."
Dawn rolls her eyes and grabs her backpack. "Fine," she says. As she's walking out the door, Willow and Tara hear her add, "Xander's going to be so jealous when I can bag more vamps than him."
"Now sit up straight…close your eyes…take a deep breath…let it out slowly."
They're in the backyard at 1630 Revello. Dawn's sitting cross-legged on the ground as Tara walks slow circles around her, giving her commands in a soft, wispy voice.
Willow's leaning against the trunk of the oak tree, her mouth set in a scowl leftover from her and Tara's spat.
"Aw, come on," Willow had said when Tara presented her with the lesson plans she'd prepared for Dawn. "Meditation is no fun. We should start her on a glamour. Or, ooh, floaty pencil!"
"It's important that we do this right, Wil. Not everyone's you; their first spell can't be a soul restoration."
"What's the supposed to mean?" Willow had stood taller, immediately getting defensive. Much like Dawn, she'd been masking her grief, but—under all the bravado—Tara could feel her sorrow and desperation bubbling.
"I didn't," Tara had started before taking a deep breath, gathering her words carefully, and trying again. "It wasn't meant as an attack, sweetie. Your training was unconventional, that's all. I'd love to be able to teach Dawn the way my mom taught me."
At the mention of Tara's mother, Willow had softened and relented. But she hadn't quite shaken her combative aura.
"Good," Tara praises Dawn as she lets out a slow and steady stream of air through pursed lips. "Find your center; that place inside you where you keep all your most private thoughts. The place where, no matter how much your try to ignore it, your true self shines through."
Dawn inhales through her nose, her spine straightening as she draws in the air.
"I want you to get comfortable there, familiarize yourself with how it feels.”
Dawn lets her held breath out in a rush and wrinkles her nose. “Um, Tara?”
“I feel kind of, I don’t know, Holden Caulfield-style phony. How do I know I’m doing this right?”
“That’s easy,” Willow says. “It’ll feel like crawling under a bunch of fuzzy blankets or reading a particularly good book by candlelight. It’s total tranquility.”
Tara smiles gratefully at Willow, who grins back tentatively, and then turns her attention to Dawn again. At the sight of her daunted expression, Tara is quick to add, “But it’s okay not to feel that the first few times. Meditation is a powerful tool, and, like any skill, it takes practice. The important thing is to try to relax.”
Dawn nods and closes her eyes, breathing in deep and steady.
“Once you find your center,” Tara says, “you find your power. You’re magic comes from there, but so does your control. You find your center before you attempt any spell, and go back to your center whenever you need restraint. It’s important that you master this before we move on.”
“So hurry up, Dawnie,” Willow says. “I want to show you how to distort reality…or how to cast a protection spell! Those always work better when you have more than one witch, and Giles has been extra complain-y about getting knocked out during our group patrol sessions. Of course, we can’t tell him about the spell or else it’ll be broken, so it probably won’t completely stop his whining…”
Tara frowns at her girlfriend. The last thing Dawn needs is to feel pressured.
“Oh, that sounds really cool! I wanna do that: help Giles and cast spells with you guys,” Dawn says, turning expectantly toward Tara.
“And you will. Eventually. You remember what I said about magic not being a toy?”
Tara waits for an answer, so Dawn sighs and answers, “Yes.”
“Prove to me that you’re responsible enough to use it by listening to my instructions.”
She sounds so serious, and Dawn hangs her head, nodding. “Yeah, okay.” She rolls her shoulders, straightens her back, and closes her eyes. “Find my center.”
Tara smiles, pleased.
Willow’s scowl comes back and she slumps against the tree.
The trio meets in the backyard every day after Dawn gets home from school and every morning once summer break starts.
Dawn’s not Willow-level powerful, certainly, but Tara is surprised at how quickly she picks up the basic tenets of magic. She does get easily distracted with what she can’t do, so there’ve been plenty of accidents, but, thankfully, no one has been seriously hurt.
Though Tara is nervous about today's lesson….
“Summoning the elements,” Willow says, “is one of the simplest ways to defend yourself. The more powerful and practiced you get, the more damage you can do controlling them, but for now we’re just going to focus on how calling on them feels. Once you've gotten used to that, we'll work on using the elements as protection.”
Dawn nods eagerly and bounces up and down in place. “I want to shoot fire at vampires and manipulate holy water." Tara sees Willow's eyes light up at that idea and anticipates a trip to church soon. "You know," Dawn continues, "I wonder why more slayers aren’t practicing witches. They could do a lot more damage, don’t you think?”
“They already have a lot of power to control,” Tara says. “Maybe using magic would be overkill.”
“I don’t know; Dawn has a point.” Willow conjures up some lightning and shoots it into the oak tree’s branches. A stick falls to the ground, charred but pointed at one of the ends—a perfectly crafted stake. “Seems to me like there is no overkill when it comes to vamps and demons.”
“I’m going to write a strongly worded letter to the council,” Dawn says.
“I’m sure they’ll be very receptive,” Willow says dryly, making a skeptical face at Tara, who giggles. “Anyway, back to the lesson. Close your eyes and find your center. I'm going to lead you in a guided meditation.”
Dawn does as she’s told, standing up tall and taking a couple deep breaths. She gives a small nod when she’s ready.
“We’ll start with air. I want you to picture yourself in an open field of wheat. It seems to stretch on forever in all directions—golden-yellow. As you stand there, a warm breeze comes from the north and sends the wheat rippling. Feel it on your skin. Smell the rich earthy aroma. Hear the rushing, the soft swish of the grass.”
Dawn sighs happily and a gentle gust of wind rustles the leaves of the oak tree. Willow glances over at Tara, clearly impressed.
Tara is nodding in encouragement, focused intently on Dawn.
Smiling fondly, Willow continues, “Now picture a lawn. Someone’s recently planted grass seed, and the earth is covered with dirt and hay. A flock of birds is pecking at the ground and searching for food. You move, startling them, and they all take flight at once. Hear the flapping of their wings. Feel the wonder as you watch them ascend toward the clear, white-blue sky.”
The light wind Dawn created becomes more intense and focused, and a flower pot falls over into a bed of dirt.
“Now you’re in the passenger seat of a car, driving down the highway so fast the landscape is blurred on either side. You roll the window down and stick your hand outside where it’s pushed and pulled by the powerful wind. You shove your head out into the gust. Feel it tug your hair at the roots. Taste the dry, crisp flurry on your tongue as you open your mouth to scream. Hear the emptiness as your voice is sucked away, one with the rest of the rushing air.”
Dawn’s wind picks up, so concentrated and strong that a large branch breaks out of the oak and falls to the ground. Tara rolls out of the way to avoid being conked on the head.
“Oh no, I am so sorry,” Dawn says, her trance broken. “I didn’t mean—I wasn’t—oh my god, are you okay?”
Tara laughs breathlessly and brushes herself off as she gets to her feet. “It’s fine. Everything is okay, Dawnie. You’re doing really well. Once you’re able to control the elements instead of just having them work through you, that won’t happen.”
Dawn nods, looking kind of shocked and more than a little winded.
“That was impressive,” Willow says, beaming proudly at her. “You’re quite the force to be reckoned with.”
When Dawn doesn’t answer, Tara asks, “You wanna take a break?”
“I think so. My tummy feels funny.”
Willow frowns, disappointed, but remains quiet.
“Come on inside. I’ll make you a peanut butter and banana sandwich.”
Dawn’s face lights up and Tara smiles brightly. “Then can we go to The Magic Box? I want to see what books Giles has on the elements.”
“Of course, sweetie.”
They start inside, but Tara turns around when she notices that Willow’s not following. She’s still standing in the middle of the backyard, a faraway and lost look in her eyes as she stares pensively at the fallen tree branch.
“Are you coming, Wil? I can make you a peanut butter and jam sandwich. We have strawberry…your favorite.”
Willow shakes away whatever sobering thoughts she had been thinking and bounds after them wearing a too-cheery smile that makes Tara’s stomach flip.
They take Dawn patrolling five times before overconfidence gets the best of them and something goes wrong.
“It’s okay, Dawnie,” Tara coos, supporting Dawn up the stairs while Willow heads for the kitchen to prepare some magical-strength ointment, Buffybot in tow.
“Shouldn’t I be following them?” Tara hears Buffybot ask.
“No,” Willow answers shortly, her voice tense.
“Dawn is my sister. It is my job to care for her,” Buffybot continues, unfazed. Dawn’s broken sobs intensify.
“Time to power down,” Willow snaps as Tara gets Dawn to the second floor landing. The Buffybot goes silent.
As soon as they’re in the bathroom, Tara gets to work gingerly stripping off Dawn’s ruined tank top and jeans. The burn wounds are worst on Dawn's stomach and arms but start to fade into overly-flushed skin at her collarbone and shoulders. Tara tries not to wince at the shiny, violently-red flesh. “I’m going to need you to stand in the cold water for a few minutes. Can you do that for me, sweetie?”
Dawn moans and sniffles incoherently, stepping out of her pants.
“It’ll help with the pain,” she adds.
Dawn nods then and wobbles toward the tub. Tara helps her over the lip before turning on the water and letting it pool around Dawn’s feet. “Does that feel like an okay temperature?”
Again, Dawn nods.
Tara pulls up the pin and water shoots from the overhead sprinkler.
Dawn lets out a pitiful cry of pain and starts to shiver. Tara murmurs comforts as she saturates a washcloth with water and soap and dabs gently at the burned skin.
Once the tears slow and then stop, Dawn stands there in removed silence. Tara finishes cleaning the wounds, pats Dawn dry, and then helps her into bed.
Willow is already waiting in Dawn’s room, gripping a bowl of salve tightly and staring out the window with her eyebrows drawn.
“Can you bring that here, Wil?”
Willow doesn’t move a muscle.
“Wil?” Tara tries again before getting up and squeezing her shoulder. “You okay?”
“What? Oh, yeah, everything is A-OK. Present, alert, and accounted for!”
Tara smiles sympathetically and asks, “Did the spell work?”
“On the first try and everything,” Willow says. “Healing ointment with extra cooling powers du jour.”
As soon as Tara takes the bowl, she goes back to staring out the window.
Dawn’s skin twitches where it comes into contact with the cold balm, but her sigh of relief lets Tara know that it’s okay to keep applying.
Once the wounds are dressed, Dawn falls asleep almost immediately. Willow seems deep in her trance, so Tara draws her knees into her chest and dozes in the chair next to Dawn’s bed.
Around 2:30 in the morning, Dawn wakes up with a start and a groan, waking Tara, too. Willow is slumped on the ground below the window, snoring softly.
"Tara?" Dawn asks.
"I'm right here, sweetie."
"Can I have a glass of water?"
"I'll be right back," Tara says, already stepping over Willow to get to the door. Once she gets back to the room, water in hand, Willow is awake and situated on the edge of Dawn's bed, running her fingers through the girl's hair.
"What happened?" Dawn asks groggily, accepting the glass from Tara and sitting up with a cry of pain.
"Careful," Willow says, guiding her movements. After she's settled, Willow asks, "What do you remember?"
"We…we found a nest," Dawn says after swallowing several gulps of water.
"That's right," Tara says.
"And I…one of the vamps cornered me." Willow and Tara nod solemnly. "I remember panicking and then…things are kind of foggy."
"You tried to throw a fireball at it," Willow says, hanging her head. Tara can hear her guilt like it's a tornado siren: loud and rattling and unable to be ignored. "It took out the vamp, but you were knocked unconscious by the explosion."
Dawn grunts, focusing intently on the water in her cup. After a stretch of uncomfortable silence, she says quietly, "I guess this means we have to stop the lessons now."
"Why's that?" Tara asks.
"This was one of the conditions. I said I'd stop if I lit something expensive on fire."
"Dawnie," Willow's voice cracks. "You're not expensive, you're invaluable."
"Well that makes it even worse, doesn't it?" Dawn moans, sniffling.
Tara places a hand on Dawn's knee and squeezes. "We'll only stop if you don't feel comfortable anymore."
"But I proved that I can't handle it, right? I'm too reckless to use magic."
"What you did was not reckless," Tara insists, squeezing herself onto the bed so that she and Willow are on either side of Dawn. "That was good instinct. You just need more practice controlling your power."
Dawn lets her head fall onto Tara's shoulder. "You mean it?" she asks hopefully.
"Of course, sweetie. You've already proven yourself a responsible witch. No one here thinks this is your fault."
"It can't be your fault," Willow says, "because it's mine. I pushed you into the higher level element spells. I shouldn't…if I hadn't…it's my fault you're hurt."
"Willow, no," Tara says.
"You're a great teacher," Dawn adds. "I practically begged you to show me those spells. This isn't on you."
"We could have lost you tonight," Willow says, tears spilling out of her eyes and rolling down her cheeks. "I can't…," she breaks off with a sob, unable to complete her thought.
"Let's agree to pace ourselves from here on," Tara says pragmatically, reaching behind Dawn to smooth her hand over Willow's hair. "Learn from this experience moving forward. Dawn should heal in a few weeks, and we'll postpone lessons until then."
"Okay," Dawn says, though she sounds a bit stung.
"Pace ourselves," Willow repeats, staring into Dawn's comforter without seeing anything.
In the following silence, Dawn falls back asleep, her head lolling on Tara's chest.
"Looks like I'm spending the night here," Tara whispers, combing some hair out of Dawn's face.
"Yeah," Willow says, standing. "And the bed's not big enough for three. I'm gonna…," she trails off, heading for the door.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Tara asks, referring to whatever's been weighing on Willow's mind.
Tara can't see her expression in the dark, but it looks like Willow might be scowling. “Maybe in the morning," she says, her chilly tone making it clear she has no intention of seeing that through. Tara sighs but doesn't push, knowing that'll only force Willow deeper into her own head.
Nearly an entire month goes by before Dawn's blisters fade enough that Tara feels comfortable starting up lessons again.
Unsurprisingly, neither Willow nor Dawn is too excited about her suggestion that they ease back into Dawn's training with some healing rituals. They don't argue with her, though.
While Tara guides Dawn in some breathing exercises, Willow brings the Buffybot out into the backyard. "I'm going to try to fix some of the bugs," Willow explains when Tara gives her a questioning look, sitting the robot by the tree and opening it up.
“‘Bugs’ can refer to glitches in programming or insects,” Buffybot informs them brightly. “I have the former.”
Tara smiles politely, and Dawn scowls at the bot.
“Sorry,” Willow says. “I can turn her off.”
“No, that’s okay,” Dawn says, pointedly focusing her attention back on Tara, who can feel all her confused emotions bubbling to the surface whenever the bot is around. "What were you saying?"
Tara exhales, collecting herself. "Right, so, I want you to focus your attention on your wounds. Feel your skin and imagine the cells regenerating, growing to blanket your injured arms…your stomach. Now inhale, drawing strength from the earth. And exhale, banishing the pain and negativity."
"There's no room for negativity when you're fighting monsters," Buffybot comments. "Positive thoughts keep you alive."
Tara peeks at Dawn out of one eye in time to see her gritting her teeth, trying to stay focused and calm.
"In a manner of speaking, anyway," the bot continues. "I am not really alive."
Buffy's voice saying those words triggers an intense reaction from Dawn, and Tara is hit with a weak echo of all her grief.
"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" Dawn screeches angrily.
"I did not mean to hurt you," the Buffybot says apologetically. "You are my sister."
The rest happens in the blink of an eye.
Riding a wave of chaotic emotion, Dawn conjures up a bolt of lightning.
Realizing what she's about to do before Tara does, Willow cries, "Dawn, no!"
But it's too late: Dawn's already lobbed the crackling electrical energy at Buffybot.
"I…love…you," the bot struggles, its voice slowing to a mechanical whir as it shuts down entirely. Fried.
In the seconds that follow, Tara watches in stunned shock as Dawn seethes in place.
Willow marches over and slaps her right across the face, her eyes getting dangerously dark. "You insolent child! Do you realize what you've done? Do you!?" Willow roars, grabbing Dawn by the shoulders and shaking.
"Willow!" Tara scrambles to her feet. "Stop it! You're going to hurt her!"
Dawn's pain morphs into guilt and then tears as Willow continues to stare her down, powerfully furious.
"You've made everything harder! You've endangered the entire world, you idiot!”
"I'm sorry," Dawn cries. "I'm so sorry."
"Willow, get off her," Tara tries to break them apart, a hand on each of their shoulders, but Willow is too strong, too focused on making Dawn pay.
"I can't believe we ever trusted you with magic, you temperamental brat!"
Dawn's eyes are wide with terror as she says, "I'll stop! I don't even want to learn magic anymore, just please let me go. Please!"
When Willow tightens her grip instead, sneering, Tara spells them apart. "Te solvo!"
As soon as she's been released, Dawn runs into the house.
"Oh, god, Dawnie," Willow calls after her, seemingly broken out of some kind of trance. "Dawnie, I didn't mean it."
"Are you okay?" Tara asks Willow, ready to charge after Dawn the second she's sure Willow isn't hurt.
Willow starts sobbing, though, and Tara lingers. "I can't do it, Tara. I can't. I don't have super-strength or leadership skills. I can't be Buffy."
She gathers Willow into her arms. "No one's asking you to, sweetie."
"They didn't have to!"
"It'll be okay," Tara says into Willow's hair, rocking her back and forth. "It's going to be okay."
After Willow's cries slow and then stop, she pulls away from Tara's chest, resolve clear on her face. "You're right. It will be okay." Tara nods encouragingly. "I know what I have to do now…what we have to do. We have to bring her back." When Tara stares, uncomprehending, Willow's eyes darken and she says, "We're going to bring Buffy back."