A little after one in the morning, she wakes up, her mind stirring awake and tripping over the tail end of a dream, a dream sent forth from her unconscious mind to remind her of something important, something that isn’t always in the forefront of her memory. Her heart feels a mix of emotions when she remembers. . . sadness, nostalgia, anger, and oddly enough happiness.
Though the blankets form a warm and heavy cocoon around her, her limbs gather energy, and she swings her legs over the side of the bed so that her bare feet find the cool hardwood. With one hand, she fumbles for and clicks on the bedside lamp so that a soft yellow light leaves her squinting. She pushes back strands of hair that have fallen in a scarlet wave over her forehead and field of vision.
She notices that her usual bedmate isn’t with her, but she isn’t surprised. He’s always been a night owl by nature. He usually shows up beside her around four or five in the morning before the sun comes up but well after she has been slumbering. She loves snuggling up against him for the two or three hours before she has to get up for work, and he holds her until she falls back to sleep again. She feels protected in those hours, not that she doesn’t always feel safe and protected with him in her life.
Her best friends don’t understand how they ended up together, but she does. Somehow, she’s always known there might be something between them, long before even he had an inkling. Now he gets it. There’s truly something about magic that binds two beings together, highlights their similarities but also their differences, and paves the way to fit those pieces together in a way that works. . . sometimes in ways one would never expect.
She smiles a little. She’s never been happier and more content.
But still, there’s something she has to do. She does this same thing every year on the same day. She hasn’t ever missed this day. He doesn’t know about it, and she isn’t sure she wants to explain her actions. . . this ritual to him. She isn’t sure he would understand, and more than anything, she doesn’t want to hurt him. Her brain must work in mysterious ways because the timing is perfect.
She pulls on her large, oversized robe, which is warm and plush despite how many years she’s had it. Tugging on her favorite pair of fuzzy socks, she muses that her taste in fuzzy clothing has morphed over the years from sweaters to loungewear.
Then, she finds her way upstairs from their cozy basement bedroom to the first floor of their condo. No lights are on, and out of habit, she calls forth her little blue light to guide her through the rooms to the cabinet she’s looking for. Pulling open one of the doors, she nudges her tiny glowing companion into the small cavern.
What she’s looking for in the far right corner of the storage space, and the nostalgia from earlier intensifies. Her fingers find the smooth wax surface, and she brings the candle out and to her chest.
Biting her lower lip as tears bring a haze of mist over her vision, she makes an almost imperceptible movement with her finger. The light bobs and weaves around her shoulders to find its way in front of her as she quietly makes her way to the back door. Pushing back the deadbolt and unlatching the lock, she finds herself exiting their home and padding across the concrete to the thick iron railing that encircles the porch.
When she blinks, the blue bit of magic dissipates, and she uses the brilliant roundness of the full moon to help her position the familiar candle in front of her. With a soft whisper of Latin, the candle’s wick lights, and a warm flame grows until the inside of the candle is shimmering and strong, pushing itself against the darkness.
Her heart filling with so many emotions that she can’t pull out individual ones, she whispers, “Happy birthday, Tara.”
She stares into the miniature fire and remembers her love. . . her heart. Today is the day she allows herself to feel what she felt the day she admitted that she was in love with her. . . the beautiful blond witch who would become her world. She presented her new love with this particular candle, and through all the moves and the destruction of Sunnydale, she managed to hold onto this bit of the past, hiding it in the back of a cabinet to be pulled out once a year to acknowledge a love that moved her so powerfully that she almost destroyed the world. On this day, she acknowledges this love and allows herself this small ritual that belongs to just her and the girl she loved. . . the girl that a part of her will always love.
She’s so caught up in her own memories and emotions that she doesn’t hear him until he is right behind her. Of course, he’s quiet like that. . . a product of being a vampire.
Without a word, he slips his arms around her waist despite her thick robe. She stiffens but then relaxes just a bit. He bends down and puts his cheek on the side of her head to view what she sees. . . the flame flickering as the wax melts.
“Hey,” he whispers. “What’re you doing?”
His words are so gentle that her eyes fill with tears again where they stay welled up so that the candlelight blurs and becomes a smear of orange in her sight. She also can’t lie to him. . . not if he asks her with so much kindness. “A ritual. It’s an anniversary of sorts.”
“Oh.” He’s not pressing her.
“It’s silly.” A tear escapes.
Of course, he sees the slow trickle sliding over her pale cheek, and he kisses the salty liquid away, turning her toward him and pushing aside the sides of her robe so that her body comes flush against his large cool one. “It’s obviously not silly.”
Still, he doesn’t push, so she finds the words, “It’s Tara’s birthday.”
He strokes her hair and holds her close. “An important day then.”
She nods against his chest. “Yeah.”
“A day to honor her.”
He is silent for a several seconds, and a few more of her tears slip free. “You know I understand that, right?”
She knows he gets how she feels; he’s had enough painful losses to fathom the depth of her emotion. Her arms reach out to embrace him back, and she sighs as every muscle unfurls and the tension melts away. She’s so grateful to have him in her life that she makes an effort to cherish every moment to the extent that is humanly possible in a world of stress and supernatural warfare.
“I’m sorry I hid this from you,” she manages.
She can almost picture his frown. “You don’t need to apologize. This is something special to you. I should be the one apologizing.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s obviously something private. . . something that’s just for you and her. You’re allowed to have that piece of you.”
She suddenly realizes that he has those pieces of him tucked away, too. . . pieces that aren’t hers, and she feels relieved. Of course, he does. “You have them, too.”
“Things that are just yours.” She doesn’t say, “Things that are yours and Buffy’s.” She doesn’t have to.
He hesitates but admits, “I do.”
She squeezes her eyes shut and hugs him tighter. “I love you, you know.” She means that she doesn’t love him any less for the parts that aren’t hers, but she doesn’t say that out loud either.
He pulls her up into his strong arms so that she is cradled against his chest, robe tucked under her legs. “I love you, too.” His cool lips briefly brush over hers. “Let’s go to bed.”
As he takes her back inside to their safe, cozy cocoon, Willow peeks over his shoulder and flicks a finger. The candle snuffs out for this year, and she sends a silent good night into the ether for Tara. She decides that she’ll put the candle back in its special hiding place tomorrow, and she safely tucks away her long ago feelings. She smiles as she imagines her sweet angel watching over her and her new Angel.