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talking to all my ghosts

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“Wil?” Tara sits up in bed, squinting across the dorm room. The lamp at her desk is on, and Willow is sitting there, staring at it.

“Tara,” Willow says. She looks up, and Tara knows something is wrong when Willow doesn’t bother trying to smile at her. Tara’s eyes haven’t adjusted yet, and the lamp behind Willow leaves her face in dark shadows, eyes completely obscured. “Sorry I woke you.”

“It’s okay,” Tara says, yawning and slipping out of bed. She walks over to the desk, lightly brushing Willow’s hair away from her face with one hand. “What woke you up?” Tara lets her hand fall to Willow’s shoulder, and Willow leans into the contact, resting the back of her head on Tara’s stomach.

“Nothing, really,” Willow says. “Just…couldn’t sleep.” Tara hums quietly in acknowledgement, gazing at the way the soft light of the lamp catches the ends of Willow’s hair.

“You can’t sleep a lot,” Tara says. This isn’t the first time she’s woken up like this. It happened more than once when they were still just friends and Willow slept over, and it’s been happening on a regular basis since then, now that Willow spends more nights in Tara’s room than she does in her own. “What keeps you up at night?”

“Lots of stuff,” Willow says vaguely. “Sometimes just your run-of-the-mill, getting chased by vampires nightmares. Sometimes it’s…worse.” Tara runs her thumb back and forth across Willow’s shoulder.

“What was it tonight?” she asks. “I-if you wanna tell me.” Willow reaches up, taking the hand that isn’t on her shoulder and playing with Tara’s fingers.

“Did I tell you about me and Xander’s friend Jesse?” Willow’s voice gets soft on the name, quiet, and Tara’s stomach sinks.

“No,” Tara says.

“He wasn’t as close with us as me and Xander are,” Willow says. “But—we’d known him forever, you know? We slept over at his house in elementary school and middle school and we went to Homecoming as a big group freshman year and—and he died. Right after Buffy moved here. Vampires got him, and turned him, and then he died. Or—undied? Undeath died? Re-died?” Tara chooses not to focus on the grammatical question of how to refer to a vampire’s death. Instead, she leans down and kisses the top of Willow’s head.

“What was he like?” she asks. Willow sighs.

“Good,” she says. “Nice. Um, kinda tempered Xander, a little bit. Kept him from—making some pretty bad choices, over the years.” Willow shifts, leaning further against Tara and closing her eyes. “Xander was the one that staked him,” she says. Tara takes a moment, thinking about everything she’s just heard.

She’s seen pictures of Willow in high school. Tiny, skinny, quiet Willow, hair so long, clothes just as bizarre but much less expressive than they are now. Willow’s told Tara how shy she used to be, how much she let people walk all over her. Tara has an image in her head, a tableau that she may have heard described by Buffy or Xander or Willow herself, or perhaps one she simply came up with all on her own. Willow, her Willow, but so much different, hiding behind the long hair Tara has never seen her with in person.

Tara pictures that Willow losing one of her best friends, and her heart cracks in her chest.

“I forget, sometimes,” Tara says quietly, into the still air of the dorm room. “How young you were when—when this all started for you.” Willow says nothing. “You were fifteen, Wil. You were a child.”

“It was just four years ago,” Willow says. Her eyes are still closed, and she’s leaning into Tara like she’s the only thing keeping her upright. “I wasn’t that young.” Tara shakes her head. She leans down again, presses another kiss into Willow’s hair.

“Still,” she says, resting her chin on the top of Willow’s head. “It’s keeping you up.” Willow slowly stands, and Tara shifts back a bit, giving her space to straighten up.

“Not as much, anymore,” Willow says, reclaiming Tara’s hand. “Not with you here.” That makes Tara smile, and that makes Willow smile in return.

“Childhood trauma is hardly a match for cuddling,” Tara proclaims. Willow grins genuinely now, and Tara feels a little spark of achievement.

I did that. She’s so pretty. I made her smile.

“And you’re a brave warrior when it comes to cuddling,” Willow says, walking them back towards the bed. “The bravest.” They slip back under the covers, curling towards each other. Willow kisses Tara lightly. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Tara says. Willow smiles, and her nose crinkles up, so Tara kisses it. Because she can, and Willow’s cute. “Now sleep. We have class tomorrow.”

“Class, shmass,” Willow says, getting comfortable and closing her eyes. Tara wraps around her, one arm around her waist, legs tangled together.

The next thing Tara’s aware of is the sun coming in the window, and the alarm clock ringing, and Willow, still asleep, still in her arms.