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Looking Back / Don't Know Which Way I Came

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One:

“Darkness”, both the concept and the thing itself, has never been a particularly frightening thing for Tara.

She’s always been a twilight creature, a nighttime entity; the time of faeries, enchantment, dreams—the things that came to her long before anyone ever told her there was such a thing as a Goddess-worshipper.

And now—she’s immersed herself in a world that sees as the beginning and ending of everything that same thing she moved through intuitively as a child. The dark of unbeing, the dark of the unconscious, the vastness of space without a star, the dark before birth. The liminal spaces where time and space split and twist and fracture. A counterpoint to the religions and philosophies of light that cast her out, bright and rational and eschewing the emotional, the intuitive, the chaotic, the chthonic—the forces that have surged wild against Tara’s consciousness as long as she can remember.

(It wasn’t only her father’s dire predictions that made her afraid of what she would become if she let her own inclinations run wild, after all. If she acknowledged the thing always at the margin of her awareness.)

Because it’s an experiential reality: Scratch the surface of that “light”, and you’ll find all the things they disavow: Emotion, unreason, brutality, deception, and a thousand other things. But “light” was what they branded themselves, nominally.

And conversely, the places that Tara went for solace were all places, nominally, of darkness. A healing darkness, an affirming darkness.

So “darkness” has always had a special meaning for Tara. An empowering one, even. An integral one.

It’s hers. Her Goddesses live there: The Moon, the ruler of the dreams and the tides and the unconscious and intuitive; and the Night Herself, the body in which all the stars are suspended, the bookend and the setting of every light. Day and light and life are all things that adorn Her, not the other way around.

Buffy, on the other hand, is definitely a child of the Sun. Cliche, fine, but true; she’s like a shard of sunlight in the darkness. She was meant to be.

It’s a lonely place, Tara thinks, walking somewhere you weren’t meant to be. Out of place.

 

Two:

It’s not like Buffy needs a reason to be coming in alone at four, five in the morning from patrol. But that’s just it; she doesn’t need to hide it, either. This is, after all, her house. More or less. Even if more (and different) people live in it than she’s used to.

And maybe she’s completely crazy, but that’s the vibe that Tara gets from Buffy lately.

After Buffy came back—after Willow brought Buffy back, it’s not like Buffy just wandered back to the world of the living—Xander and Willow and the rest of them wanted to spend so much time with Buffy. And of course that made sense—Tara was so happy to see her, as much as it hurt, seeing the confusion and disorientation and plunging wrongness in Buffy’s expression when they saw her again.

But Buffy didn’t look happy when they were around. Retrospectively, that should’ve been a flag that something wasn’t what they thought it was. But what were they going to do—take it back? Put Buffy back in the ground?

After everything, that’d be unthinkable.

But every time Tara would catch that look on Buffy’s face—she looked the way Tara felt when she was around her blood family. Like she’d rather be anywhere else. Sick with unbelonging, even with people she was supposed to belong with.

Tara can’t stand to be part of putting someone else through that.

Tara’s job lets her out early enough to be back home and done with her studying and other errands and ready to fall asleep by one in the morning. A lot of times, she’ll stay up with Dawn, when Dawn can’t sleep, watching cartoons or movies. Raising a teenager, even one as serious and well-behaved as Dawn can be (Buffy’s face when Tara said that) because of all the people she lost in the last year—it’s tiring. Even if Dawn’s not Willow’s or Tara’s responsibility, they weren’t going to let down Joyce or Buffy like that.

But sometimes, when Buffy comes in after patrol, Tara isn’t asleep, or isn’t as asleep as she seems. And she notices things: The caution Buffy opens the door to her own home with; the way she moves through it like it’s a foreign space, treads lightly even though the house itself is pretty quiet and not-creaky—and even if it was, it’s not like people would be mad or wake up if Buffy made a little noise. People tend to sleep like the dead around here—no pun intended—once they finally get to sleep.

So Tara doesn’t think it’s just politeness that has Buffy acting so small in her own home.

Sometimes, Tara thinks that not being seen is the easiest or kindest thing for Buffy—whatever the reason: Trouble adjusting to being alive again, PTSD from being tortured in a Hell dimension, trauma from being pulled out of Literal Heaven. Space, and time, and distance, and not so many eyes on her—maybe that’s what Buffy needs most, after being pulled back into this world by people who needed her more than they were willing to let her rest.

So when Buffy comes back late-late, and Tara is awake or semi-awake on the couch, she pretends to be asleep. Or, if she’s obviously awake, she’ll pretend she doesn’t notice, or doesn’t see. For some reason, as quiet as Buffy is in those moment, lurking back in the shadows, it feels like something Buffy doesn’t *want* her to see, doesn’t want *anyone* to see. Something that, maybe, Buffy would want to be held in confidence. And Buffy deserves that.

So Tara does.

//

“Oh! Buffy! I-I d-didn’t see you there!” Tara’s stammer always flares up when she’s trying to lie to her friends. It’d really help sell the “surprised” act if they didn’t all know that was a sure tell.

“You didn’t see me standing very obviously in the kitchen next to the fridge you just opened?” Buffy’s arms are crossed, and the black turtleneck/black leather jacket with the gold cross on its slender chain go really well together with her hair, glinting and faintly edged, like Buffy’s wry smile. She’s very—gold. And shadow. She has one hip kind of cocked in a signature stance that Tara reckons is mostly habitual posturing, but still really damn effective and intimidating.

The question is a fair one, but also a bit false: Buffy looks like she’s part of the shadows. Someone less skilled or practiced at spotting the extraordinary among the ordinary certainly wouldn’t have.

Still, that is definitely a skill Tara has developed over the last two years.

“S-sorry, I th-thought you—“ Tara catches herself as her stutter starts to spiral out of control. “It s-seemed like you d-didn’t want—” Tara closes her eyes.

When she opens them, Buffy’s stepped out of the shadows, arms unfolding, brow furrowed slightly, like she’s concerned. Like she means to comfort Tara somehow, but isn’t sure how. She looks less “supernatural being” and more “concerned friend”.

The spell is broken. Tara shakes her head, articulating her words carefully. “I got the vibe that you wanted to kind of… do your own thing.”

That seems to get Buffy’s attention. “My own thing?” Buffy parrots, sounding uncertain. Tara’s heart rate jumps. Oh boy, this went downhill fast.

“Like you were out, doing your own thing, and you wanted—To kind of… stay in your zone?” Buffy still looks confused, but now, she looks faintly amused, too. “Like you wanted privacy.” She manages to get the last sentence out clearly. Buffy’s eyes go wide with understanding, momentarily, before she relaxes—not glum, thankfully, but not incredibly happy, either.

“Oh.” A delicate, conflicted sound.

“I didn’t mean—” Tara rushes, “I-I didn’t mean that I thought you wanted to be left alone—”

“No.” Buffy says, “No, I—thank you.” Buffy finally says after a few long moments’ silence.

She looks at Tara with the proverbial “new eyes”, the most alert and engaged and Buffy Tara has seen them this whole time since she came back from the dead. Tara’s heart does a double-flip and lodges high and thrumming in her throat. *Willow will be thrilled,* she thinks, before she catches herself. Buffy doesn’t want this shared.

Still, that look means so much, Tara knows it does. And her heart beats for both her sake and Buffy’s and Willow and Xander’s.

Buffy looks at her, fully relaxed.

What else can Tara say? (A lot, is the answer. But Tara tries to keep it short, for both her and Buffy’s sake.) “Of course.” As if she’d have done anything else.

//

After that, Buffy starts being less guarded around her nighttime entrances. Tara knew she was being quiet on purpose, discreet; but she didn’t *quite* get how much.

But Buffy is doing that less, now. That’s good. She trusts them. Tara feels a small glowing swell of pride in her chest every time Buffy comes back and doesn’t flat-out avoid her and (a usually sleeping) Dawn. She’s not loud, by any means. But there’s no point in being so quiet when she trusts people to not just… pounce on her, Tara thinks.

Tara is nervous and stammer-y, at first, when Buffy just… appears in the doorway there, with a glass of water, or Gatorade (in a bottle, not a glass) and that small wry smile and mostly says nothing apart from a quip about the TV/horrible late-night TV infomercials, or whatever Dawn’s hair or face is doing in her sleep.

(“Awkwardest ball of mystical energy ever,” Buffy observes one night. Without thinking, Tara responds, “No, that’s Willow.” —She would say herself, but Willow has been on her to stop being so self-deprecating, so Tara defaults to Willow, since Willow volunteered. Buffy laughs, genuinely, surprised—which, of course, wakes Dawn up.)

Tara’s job lets her out early enough to be back home and ready to fall asleep by one. She’s usually the only one awake when Buffy trudges in after a closing shift smelling like grease. Buffy will complain about how she walks around all night and fights literal vampires while she’s on patrol, but somehow an eight-hour shift on her feet hurts worse, even though she’s objectively (a) in no danger, and (b) definitely moving around less. Tara only barely launches into an explanation of why when she sees the first hint of Buffy’s eyes glazing over, catches herself, and says, “… That wasn’t a question, was it.”

Buffy shakes her head, a small smile forming at one corner of her mouth. “No. But I appreciate the thought.”

Buffy is a lot more open at night, Tara thinks. Maybe the dark is kinder to her, too. It’s not exactly scintillating conversation, but it feels more natural and deeper than a lot of the interactions Buffy has with… any of them, during the daytime.

Tara thinks that Willow and Xander would be happy about that. That it probably counts as progress.

 

Three:

Tara expected she’d lose everything after the breakup, when it came down to it. Sure, Buffy had welcomed her into the family, but that was because Tara was attached to Willow like a shadow.

Dawn, of course, wouldn’t speak to her. She’d done it; she’d broken up Dawn’s family all over again, and now she was leaving, just like her dad, just like her mom, just like Buffy.

But this was never Tara’s house; Willow and her had only ever held it together, but if only one of them got to stay, it would be the one who’d known Buffy since the beginning of high school, who was Buffy’s friend, not just attached to Buffy’s friend group. If one of them got held close, of course it was going to be the one they loved best, even if they needed help.

Tara wants Willow to be okay. She’s going to be okay on her own. And if Dawn ever lets her, she’ll be there for her, too. She meant what she said.

If Dawn misses her at all, a small part of Tara thinks.

Carrying her boxes of personal belongings out of Buffy’s house and staring at them stacked in her new apartment is the loneliest feeling. The sunlight outside and through the window is cold and concrete-hard. The white walls of her apartment are bare, a disjointed play of white and brighter white. She’s exposed and small in a way she doesn’t know that she’s ever felt before.

This is all Tara has ever owned, by herself.

//

The funny thing is that, somehow, Tara is more welcome over at Buffy’s house than Willow seems to be (the last part isn’t really all that funny, though). Dawn wants to see her, eventually.

It’s after just one such evening—after a case, and then watching cartoons with Dawn and Dawn refusing to fall asleep until almost 3 am—that Tara sits down with Buffy and tells her about the results of her research. Buffy isn’t a demon.

Buffy’s reaction is confusing: She doesn’t seem convinced, and then she seems convinced of the opposite.

And then it comes out.

“Don’t forgive me.”

Tara holds Buffy’s head in her lap and strokes her hair and feels a conviction cement in her chest that she won’t—she doesn’t need to. There’s nothing to forgive.

She doesn’t really know what to say, but again—that’s not what Buffy seems to need. So she holds her and reassures her, as much as Buffy will let her.

After Buffy’s wrung out, Tara’s faced with the challenge of moving a sleeping Slayer without disturbing her. Magic is definitely called for, here. A few soft words and gestures, and Buffy’s lifting off of Tara’s lap, gently and naturally, head perfectly supported. Buffy doesn’t seem to register the shift or movement at all. Another few gestures, and the jacket and shoes are stripped off, socks following, folding up next to the shoes & jacket.

Next, Tara moves out of the way and gestures Buffy’s sleeping form back over to the couch, until she settles there, still apparently sound asleep. Tara gestures with her left hand, and a blanket settles over Buffy’s sleeping form. Tara feels a sense of satisfaction settle in her. She’s asleep. She trusted them. One of them, at least. She’s asleep. Tara turns to go upstairs.

“Thanks.” A voice says softly from the couch just as Tara’s about to head upstairs.

Not so asleep after all. Tara turns around, a heart racing a little for no apparent reason, fully aware of the irony of being “caught” by a Buffy she thought was sleeping. Buffy is peering over the edge of the blankets. She looks really small.

“Yeah.” Tara says. “Of course. You’re welcome.”

She always was a lot steadier when she was helping other people.

//

Tara thinks a lot about Buffy that night. Morning. The sun is already starting to rise when she finally collapses in her bed.

She thinks about their encounter bu the fridge, weeks ago; how smug Buffy looked—to be fair, she looks perma-smug, it’s part of her Slayer-sona—how… together.

Tara knows that looks don’t always match what’s inside—that’s kind of Buffy’s whole thing, looking like one thing and secretly being more—but this opens up a pit in her stomach, for some reason.

She meant what she said; it doesn’t matter if Buffy loves Spike or not. It’s more complicated than that. It always is. But the way Buffy looked. How convinced she was that there was something wrong with her, she had to be inhuman to enjoy what she had with him, whatever she did with him…

Tara knows Buffy is, as far as things go, fairly vanilla, at least pre-Slayer days. And Tara knows from Willow that Buffy likes feeling normal, that she misses it, too.

But had they all missed some kind of… internalized hang-up? Had they all missed something big? Buffy didn’t bat an eyelash at her and Willow, any more than any straight girl Tara had ever seen—quite a bit less, actually. And, fine, BDSM or kink is not the same thing in peoples’ minds (except it is, part of her says, so often; it’s all “sexual deviance” to people from the outside, and her and Willow are accepted insofar as they seem “normal” and “not deviant”).

But something about what Buffy said—“I came back wrong. This can’t be me.”—plucks something in Tara’s memory, and it makes her skin crawl.

//

“I know you probably don’t want to talk about… anything we talked about the other night.” Tara sees the blood drain from Buffy’s face and hastens to explain herself. “I just have one question. Honest. And it’s just… for me. For my sake.”

Buffy’s face empties of dread. Instead, she looks puzzled, quizzical.

“Did he ever say… you weren’t human?” Tara asks.

Buffy’s look says more than words can: the slumping shoulders, the gaze flicking downward, the blush that isn’t a blush at all, that’s shame, that’s honest-to-Goddess shame in her face.

Tara feels like she’s been kicked in the gut. Buffy, alone, struggling, surrounded by people who don’t understand her—someone mystically endowed, mystically chosen, someone who’s sacrificed so much for her family and her friends and the whole world

And someone took advantage of that to tell her she wasn’t human because of it.

Tara doesn’t want to believe it. She doesn’t want to believe that it was Spike, the same Spike that protected Dawn so loyally, who took care of her, who stayed with them—out of love for Buffy.

But it doesn’t change what Spike said. It makes sense what Spike thought it meant. But she can imagine—

*”You’re a piece of work. I like you.”*

He knew.

“Buffy.” Tara’s shoulders slump, and Buffy’s eyes widen at the sympathy in her voice, and then her shoulders slump too. She looks down. “You need to know you’re still human, Buffy,” It all comes pouring out, faster than Tara can make herself stop to think about it, “And even if you weren’t, that doesn’t mean you have to let anyone make you feel that way, I promise—“

Buffy’s eyes get wide, and then her shoulders slump further. She looks down.

Tara can hear what must be going through her head: You don’t know. You’re not like me. You’re like them. She feels her fists open and close. Punching things isn’t her strong suit. She wishes it was, right now.

“I had someone tell me that, too.” She says. Buffy looks up. “I had someone tell me that I was a monster. That I had the Devil in me.

“And before I met you, a lot of people told me that my father loved me, that he was just doing his best, that sometimes we hurt the ones we love.” Tara shakes her head and looks down at her nails. When she looks back up, Buffy is staring at her. “But that’s not what that means.

“Sometimes, people tell us that we’re bad because they want us to feel bad about ourselves, because they think it’ll make us behave the way they want us to. Or—because it matches up with what they want to believe about us.

“But they don’t get to take you away from us. They don’t get to make you feel like a monster. They don’t get to speak for us on whether or not we still want you. Okay?” Tara searches Buffy’s face for any sign that this is landing, that Buffy understands. Buffy doesn’t look convinced; but she doesn’t look shut down, either. Tara gathers her nerve and presses forward. “And I'm not going to tell anyone else about what you told me, so I'm going to speak for them:

"We still want you. Even if you were a demon, we’d still want you.”

Tara reaches out, tentatively, towards Buffy’s white-knuckling tangled fingers in front of her on the railing. Buffy doesn’t move, not a single hair. Tara wonders if she’s even breathing.

She watches her fingers slide over Buffy’s. No movement. No pulling away. Buffy lets her.

Buffy is still.

When her hand is securely over Buffy’s, Tara dares to look up. Buffy looks back at her, haunted.

“You’d be our demon-Buffy.” Tara cracks, completely inappropriately. But she sees Buffy’s mouth twitch slightly. “But you’re not, okay?

“And I—I know we haven’t been there for you the way we need to. But you are. Our family. You’re my family. You took me in. You did that, Buffy. Not just Willow. You stood up and you protected me. You weren’t afraid of demons, or my family, or me, and—I won’t be scared of you, either. None of us will be. And you don’t have to be scared of yourself, either. Or what you want, or what you’re going through.”

Tara is so busy watching to see if Buffy’s understood her, if what she’s said has made a difference, that she doesn’t understand what it means when Buffy’s eyes flicker down, or when she starts to lean in—or even that she’s started to lean in at all.

But she understands that when Buffy kisses her, it’s not a confession of feelings. Buffy’s mouth—thin, but soft, and warm, and uncertain—lands on hers, and Tara’s brain short-circuits. It’s not Willow, is all part of her can think.

No shit.

Tara responds, though, instinctively, kissing back. Buffy doesn’t come on strong; Tara lets her set the pace, partly not to spook her, but partly because her brain is going holy craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaap. For a generally straight girl, Tara thinks, Buffy doesn’t kiss her like she’s expecting a tongue down her throat. The tongue—when it finally does happen—is slow and light. Tara feels her hand sliding into Buffy’s hair, cupping the curve of her head, and feels faintly relieved that some part of her knows what she’s doing. Hopefully, that will keep Buffy from bolting immediately after this.

Tara lets the kiss end naturally, and leans her forehead against Buffy’s, keeping her hand firm but gentle in Buffy’s hair. Buffy tenses, but relents quickly. Slowly, the tension drains from her.

“We can talk about this later,” Tara murmurs, trying to keep her “I’m the elder gay and I know what I’m doing” aura in place, also so Buffy doesn’t spook. She feels herself smile, millimeters from Buffy’s lips. She opens her eyes. Buffy seems—a lot of things. Concerned. Confused. Worried. Relaxing. Tara tries to keep herself as steady as she can, grounding herself down into the Earth. “Right now—We’re okay.” She says, letting her hand tighten gently on Buffy’s head, a reassuring gentle squeeze. “We’re okay.” A thread of doubt. “Are we okay?” She opens her eyes again.

Buffy looks ruffled, but steady. Almost—it seems like—smiling. “Yeah.” She affirms. “We’re okay.”

“Okay.” Tara pulls back, letting her hand slide free. She can’t help but smile a little as she pulls back, feeling Buffy’s lip gloss on her lips, slick and sweet. Buffy smiles back, just a trace. What’s really telling is the way she doesn’t immediately leave; how she relaxes and doesn’t even lean away from Tara’s presence.

“I have some ideas,” Tara starts after a moment, and wants to smack herself in the face as soon as she hears the sentence start. “—Not involving kissing.” She looks over at Buffy, blushing. Buffy’s smirking slightly, a light blush on her cheeks. Tara’s chest feels lighter. “About some of the stuff you mentioned. It’s… not a miracle cure. But if you want to feel connected… I have an idea.”

Buffy tilts her head, considering. Then, she nods.

“Okay,” She says. “I’m open to it.”

 

Four:

Tara has the presence of mind to ask Buffy if she wants a little more coverage on the windows than just blinds. Buffy perks up. Tara isn’t prepared for the feeling that surges in her chest at that, sharp and directed out at a shadow under a blanket that may or may not be lurking beneath one of the trees out there.

Or in them. You never know, with Spike.

Buffy hesitates. “Could we… at your place?

Tara nods, not needing or expecting any explanation. “Sure.”

Buffy’s the one who goes there: “Spike’s never been invited in there. Right?”

Tara has blackout curtains for daytime magic, so she closes those, too.

“Alright.” She says, turning back around. Buffy is standing in her bedroom, one arm crossed over her body, fingers digging in. She looks small, Tara thinks, even against the wall of her bedroom. “Are you still okay with this? Do you still want to—“ Tara notices at that moment that her bedroom is kind of a half-unpacked mess. Doesn’t really look lived-in at all. “Do this?” Tara rubs her suddenly-sweaty palms on her thighs.

Buffy doesn’t look sure. But she nods, slowly and slightly at first, and then stronger. “Yeah.” She says. A determined look settles over her face like this is one of their battle-planning “tabletop” discussions where Buffy is making a hard choice to take the fight to their enemy—

Maybe Tara does pay a little bit too much attention to Buffy in their meetings, sometimes. Is there such a thing as “paying too much attention” in a pre-battle planning session? She feels like this counts as “too much”, somehow. If there is such a thing.

“This isn’t a vampire.” Buffy’s gaze jumps up to Tara’s eyes, surprised. Tara feels herself smiling wryly. “You look like you’re about to beat this meditation into submission. This is about building connection, not tunneling through a mountain.”

Buffy tilts her head. “But that could be the same, if I’m a train tunneling through the mountain.”

Tara nods. “Fair point.” She lets Buffy have her moment, then: “But this is a trance, not a train.”

Buffy scrunches her mouth up. “Darn.”

Tara jerks her chin in the direction of the bed. This’ll be the easiest. “Get on the bed. Cross-legged. Shoes off.”

“Yes ma’am.” Buffy comments, voice shifting and resonating differently as she bends and takes off her shoes.

“Mhm.” Tara hums, setting down her bag. “Damn right. My house. Er. Apartment.”

Buffy’s smirking at her when Tara turns back around, bag- and jacket-less. Tara gestures to the bed. Buffy sighs, then flops down on her back with as much drama as Dawn can muster on a dramatic day.

Tara feels herself smirk. “Guess we know you and Dawn are related.”

“Please. I’m much cuter when I’m being dramatic.”

Tara has to stifle a laugh. “In that case, I can’t comment. If it got back to Dawn—“

“Aha! So I am cuter!”

“Alright, scoot.” Tara makes a brushing motion with her hand, and Buffy folds up into a sitting position fluidly. Tara feels significantly less graceful plopping onto her own bed. Well—it’s her bed. She’ll plop if she wants to. “So. Guided meditation.” Tara considers her options for a moment. Buffy has never been one for sitting-still-type meditation, so the fact of her being here at all is an indication of just how bad this has gotten. Explaining it in a way that won’t fundamentally turn her off seems key.

“Did you ever pray, as a kid?” Tara starts with.

Buffy’s face does the kind of grossed-out middle-class absentee church-goer face that someone makes when they're being asked a serious question about a religion they really have no relationship with. “Yeah…? I mean, it was just like, prayers at bedtime, or prayers at Thanksgiving. Mom was—” Buffy stops. Tara feels the tug of weight, so much weight, on her chest, warping the fabric around them. “—My mom wasn’t very religious. And I kind of… spent more time stabbing things than going to church.”

Right. Buffy is a soldier, not a theoretician like Giles. “Right. Of course. I’m sorry. That’s fine, just—“ Tara stops and bites her lip. Buffy frowns. “Trying to think of a good example.” Praying was really the first reference Tara had to use; but that doesn't work for a lot of people, and it sounds like Buffy is one of those people. Tara pauses, thinking. “So, you know how repetition is important when you’re training?” Buffy frowns. That may have been too basic. Tara plunges ahead. “You kind of start to fall into a trance, after a while, once you get into it?” Buffy’s face clears, and she nods.

Hey, Tara’s made some observations.

“Meditation is kind of like training, but just for your brain. So people have different techniques, to get them to that state, but the point is—they’re all repetitive, generally monotonous, mostly kind of ridiculous if they’re out loud, and eventually, your soul kind of leaves your body.”

Buffy smirks. Tara blushes. “Sorry.” That’s kind of an in-joke between her and Willow and a few other hardcore Wicca nerds on campus.

“No, that’s a pretty good description of training.”

“Oh. Okay. Good. So—repetition. Gives you something to focus on. The part of your brain that’s always active, always chewing on something—you’re giving it something to chew on. And then you’re going to step back. And that,” Tara puns lightly, “Is when the magic happens.”

Tara blushes. That came out horribly nerdy. These puns don’t land quite the same with non-witchy types. Slowly, though, Buffy starts laughing, until she’s shaking silently.

“Alright.” Buffy finally says. “What’s our training dummy?”

Tara’s caught off-guard by the reference, but her brain catches up after a minute. “Oh—Um, take my hands.” She holds out her hands, vertical, palms out. Buffy’s hands—smaller than hers, Tara thinks, or at least slenderer and more delicate-looking—settle against hers. Tara closes her fingers down gently, feeling a familiar circuit complete—one that Buffy probably can’t feel yet, but hopefully, Tara can help with that.

Or maybe Buffy can already feel it. Who knows.

Buffy sits ramrod-straight, hands in Tara’s, arms light and ready, the kind of effortless symmetry and singular energy focused all on her, and suddenly, with that alert gaze, Tara is sharply aware that she has an exceptionally well-trained Slayer expecting her to actually teach her something meaningful. She swallows, heart beating faster than she’d like. She knows this. She was sure it could help just a few minutes ago.

This can still help, she insists. She wouldn’t have pulled Buffy in here if she wasn’t sure of it.

“I’m the dummy. I mean—” She realizes how that might sound. “—Feel my hands.” She squeezes gently. Her palms feel a little clammy. Gross. She wipes her hands on her thighs and tries again. “Pay attention to my hands.” Buffy dips her chin, eyes going slightly unfocused. “What do you feel?”

“Warm?” Buffy offers, wincing.

“Good.” Kind of her to say so. “What about texture? Weight?”

Buffy’s brow furrows. “Soft.” Tara does have calluses, for the record. They’re just not as developed as Buffy’s. Buffy’s left thumb slides down along the back of Tara’s hand. “Palms rougher. Sorry.” Buffy apologizes, and Tara remembers that’s supposed to be a bad thing.

“No, don’t be,” She shakes her head vigorously, “Attention to detail’s the point. Keep going.” Buffy’s eyes unfocus again obediently. Tara isn’t used to having a pupil who’s so keen all of a sudden. It gives her whiplash just a little.

This may be easier than she thought. Buffy is familiar with the basic idea of this, after all.

“Strong.” Buffy says finally, after a moment. Her voice is soft. Distracted?

“How?”

“You do this a lot.” Buffy responds automatically, eyes still unfocused. “You get close and you hold tight. You’re not afraid to make contact.”

“It is a habit.” As interesting as being read by Buffy is, though, this might not be the most productive direction.

Just as she’s getting ready to encourage her in a slightly more granular direction, Buffy’s brow furrows slightly. “Is that—your heartbeat? Or mine?”

There we go. “Could be either. Put your thumbs on my wrist. Just below the part under the thumb.” Buffy moves her thumbs. “Good. Listen.”

They’re silent for a long time. Tara starts to cycle through a breathing technique to slow her heartbeat.

“I can feel it.” Buffy’s brow furrows again and her eyes flicker to Tara’s face. “I can hear your heartbeat.”

“You have way better senses than most new witches.” Tara deadpans. Buffy smiles briefly. They’re finally ready, Tara thinks. “Pay attention to that,” She says, falling into a familiar speech, “To my heartbeat. To the way I move. You can close your eyes, if that helps. But you don’t have to.” Buffy’s chin dips in an almost-nod, and her eyes start to slide shut.

Tara cheats, a little bit; but also, the technique she uses is based off this meditation technique. She’s just been doing it longer. She’s aware—of the tiny movements of muscle, can zero in on Buffy’s heartbeat, her breathing, tiny tugs on what she’s always felt as strands in a fabric. Every movement affects something else, knocking molecules into different positions, creating the sensation of breath, of air moving ever so slightly on her skin, of heartbeat, a minute shift communicated down Buffy’s arms that means she’s adjusted her shoulders slightly.

Connection.

She narrates it, briefly, too: “The breath emanates out from the center of the body, along the limbs. So does the heartbeat. One thing moves into another.

“Everything touches something else. And each movement moves along the chain, like a strand in a web being plucked.” Look, that’s what the book says. “Listen.”

From her position, Tara can feel Buffy slipping towards her version of the same place; her heart rate slows, speeds, synchronizes with Tara’s. Her breathing changes to match Tara’s. Tara closes her eyes, reaching into that place she’s trained until she can reach almost on command, the truth she learned in all the twilight flickerings in and out of her life:

Day is a brief moment bookended and wrapped in night. The dark is the body the stars hang suspended in, filaments of light tracing blue and red and a thousand colors the human eye can’t imagine, but Tara has seen. She’s seen them. The web of light like a mad pattern laid out over a body that can’t be comprehended, only glimpsed; that extends beyond vision, beyond flesh and bone, beyond thought, beyond time

Tara opens her eyes, sightless, seeing everything.

She can feel everything. Buffy’s heartbeat like it’s part of her own body, because it is—part of the greater body. Buffy’s heart rate spiking, a sharp shock curling inward, as her awareness slides outward along the ropes of being. Tara passes over the scar, not unfamiliar for Tara just based on everything she’s seen, but it’s personal in a way it never is with a student or someone she stumbles on in the course of a meditation. This is Buffy. And the wound is something so boundless and dark that it doesn’t even feel at all, not properly. A wound that stretches far beyond Buffy, bending the fabric of her being and the dimensions around it like a little neutron star.

Tara skates over the surface of it, light and disciplined, steady. These kinds of psychic wounds can be infectious. One of them has to be sober enough to not get sucked into it.

Buffy’s eyes fly open, meeting Tara’s wordlessly. Tara stares evenly back. Somewhere beyond sight, the universe shimmers and flickers and trembles, and Tara’s control strains. She could be infinitely powerful, in the sense that Giles and the Watchers and ninety percent of all the witches in this world think of the word, she could spread her touch along every filament of this web that she can wrap her mind around, and this would still be so much bigger than her. These places, those spirits, they can roll you under and crush you like a tin can at the bottom of the Marianas Trench if you’re not careful.

And she feels Buffy. Breath, heart, digestion (if she really wants to pay attention, which, she doesn’t). She can see out of Buffy’s eyes, if she really wants to. She can see herself through Buffy’s eyes, even, looking back at Buffy.

She feels Buffy’s emotions, too, vaguely; the physical sensations of them more than the “feelings” themselves. It’s enough, though: The uptick in her heart rate when the world unfolds for her, the strange durable fragility of carrying around the emptiness inside herself, wearing it like armor over empty space.

A heart beating near her own. Their twinned chests, rising and falling, oddly doubled, quadrupled, out and out and out—while also staying stable, the two of them, separate, but each one in the other.

And then she feels the rush.

Buffy is wild; not in a feral sense, but in the sense that she’s kind of all over the place, still. Her discipline when it comes to these things—feeling things—is frayed. She really does just want to feel.

Tara doesn’t blame her for that. But it does make Buffy susceptible to going under a little farther than she planned to. And, well—Tara isn’t prepared.

It’s something neither bad nor good, just true: Connection begets connection. Tara can feel it—and Buffy can feel it; if one of them can, so can the other—the fiery threads spiking and multiplying in her gut. Their gut. A thickening cord of heat stretched between them.

It’s small, relative to everything else, to the universe around them. But it’s big and all-encompassing to them. More than that: for Buffy, it’s a relief. It’s unfamiliar. It’s hard to hold at bay because of that—more, Buffy doesn’t want to hold it at bay. And even if she does, for reasons more to do with personal embarrassment than anything else, it tugs down to the core of her being.

So when the feeling hits Buffy, Tara feels Buffy kindle and flare, feels it like it’s part of her own body, the heat sliding like embers along the edges of her being, eating inward, and the sweet pull of it, the relief, the inevitability, sends shivers along the threads connecting them—to each other, to the world around them, to the greater universe. And it catches.

Tara breathes through the thick hot feeling in her throat and the sudden sharp tension in the pit of her stomach and feels the flames licking at her, too. And the sudden rush of longing into every limb: Her hands, her head, her legs, her gut. She gasps with Buffy’s shuddering in-breath.

For a moment, she’s pulled in, called by the ache, the openness, the desperation in the arch of Buffy’s back, the offering that begs acceptance. She tastes what Buffy wants, a pattern suddenly so familiar she wonders how it could have been foreign to her a moment ago: The fire that would spread under Buffy’s skin beneath her handprint, the shivering rise and fall, the yes yes yes humming in every cell of Buffy’s being, shock hot like lightning. She could be the shadow whose hair Buffy curls her hands in, the mouth that knows where on her neck sends sparks through her body, pulling her higher—

She could the pressure, solid thigh right up against the place the aches, sliding and pressing and grinding like an answer to an unasked question.

Tara breathes through the thick hot feeling in her throat and the sudden sharp tension in the pit of her stomach and refuses to let herself go up in flames. It’s obliterating, freeing; it’s healing.

But it’s not her experience to participate in. It’s not her job, tonight. And stretched out beyond this moment, along the lines of consciousness, Tara exists beyond the solar flare of this moment, the sudden inversion of the scar she’d passed over a moment before.

Tara grounds down. Like a water line, the heat recedes, the pull becomes less inexorable.

And slowly, that bleeds into Buffy.

When Tara opens her eyes, Buffy is staring up at her from on her back on Tara’s bed, flushed and breathing hard. She looks wild, eyes darting back and forth between Tara’s eyes and her mouth, like she might lunge up; the urge echoes in Tara’s gut. Tara’s lips buzz like they’ve been kissing.

Gently, Tara places her hand on the bed next to Buffy’s shoulder and pushes up, scooting backwards on the bed so Buffy doesn’t have to sit right on the edge when she finally sits up. Buffy follows a few heartbeats later.

There’s a lot of reasons for this to be awkward. The sexual energy and the directions and the manifestations that they tend towards are all swirling around them, so much debris and swirling water in the aftermath of a broken wave—and now, that knowledge is embedded under their skins. Maybe eventually it will become awkward—but for now, they’re both just two people who have ridden it out.

And Tara can’t think about what might be. Because Buffy is here in front of her, and she asked Tara for help, and Tara can’t fall apart on her now.

“Hey.” Tara says, reaching forward and placing one hand on the bed next to Buffy’s knee. “We’re okay. We’re okay.” She realizes that shouldn’t necessarily be an assertion. “Are we okay?” She tries.

Buffy looks at her, and Tara is careful to not listen to the cosmic background noise that’s so readily available and look Buffy in the eye.

Whatever else, she needs to listen and respond to what Buffy says.

Slowly, Buffy nods. And as she nods, she seems to relax. “Yeah.” She says. “Yeah, we’re okay.” She reaches forward and places her hand on Tara’s. Tara’s mouth curves into a smile. They’re silent for a long moment after that, but it’s an easy silence. “That was… something.” Buffy finally says.

“I’m sorry,” Tara starts immediately, “I should’ve seen that coming, people have really strong responses to this exercise when it works, and it worked—”

“No, it’s okay. Um, I mean, I don’t know that we should’ve, y’know… gone any further.” Buffy ducks her head. The tension between them still hovers in the air, a thin sheet of ice over something dark and deep.

“No, that’s fair. That is not what you signed up for.” They both laugh a little at that. “Um, maybe we should call it a day for this, though.”

Buffy nods, something shuttering in her face. “Yeah. We should.”

“Before we do, though, we should ground. That’s important after stuff like this.”

Buffy’s eyebrow arches sharply at the word ground. “How do we do that?”

“A very complicated magical ritual.” Tara pauses for dramatic effect. Buffy’s eyebrow remains sharply arched. Tara delivers her judgment decisively. “Pizza.”