"So softly death succeeded life in her,/She did but dream of heaven, and she was there."
--John Dryden, from Elonora, Line 315
"For death and life, in ceaseless strife,/Beat wild on this world's shore,/And all our calm
is in that balm--/Not lost but gone before."
--Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton
I found her sitting outside on one of the greyest afternoons I had seen since living in California. Cloud-filled skies let me enjoy a bit of the daytime from which I normally hid. Vampires were not generally fond of sunlight. Raindrops swept lightly through the air as if trying to decide whether to flood the ground. Like a child completely lost in an activity, she did not take notice of the liquid splattering against her bare arms and face. Her jeans were muddy from the dirt she was digging up around the grave. The wind suddenly decided to blow her blond hair across her face, brushing the earthy smell of precipitation and a vague scent of vanilla across my nostrils. Oblivious to the mud on her fingers, she tucked the erstwhile golden strand behind her ear, lightly streaking brown across her cheek.
As I approached, she jumped distractedly, her eyes taking in my form. Instant recognition lit up her face. I was taken aback by the intensity of her smile. In the last week after my return to Sunnydale with a soul, we had only just discussed the botched wreck we had made of our past relationship. I assumed she would still have a remnant of bitterness toward me. None registered in her expression, however. Some of the apprehension in the pit of my stomach eased as her comfortable aura surrounded me.
Deciding to speak, my voice sounded almost deeper and clearer in the low drone of the changing weather and the distant rumble of thunder, "Hi." No slayer or pet or love or any of my usual nicknames for the girl before me spilled past my lips. I was not sure what to call her now.
"Hi." She turned back to her work, but somehow I did not sense that she was ignoring me.
Kneeling in the grass beside her, I heard her intake her breath a little more sharply and observed her shoulders tighten a fraction. At first, I was concerned that she might fly away like a frightened deer. Then, she adjusted to my presence and relaxed, returning to her work. I watched as she made little pits in the dirt with both hands. Granules of dust and death sifted between her fingers. Tiny bundles of green and purple and scarlet filled her hands one at a time as she buried the slender roots of each plant in the ground. Her movements were flowing and almost mesmerizing, so I was startled when her voice cut through her work.
"It seemed like a good time to plant them."
"What do you mean, love?" I could not resist the nickname, not when she filled my senses with such familiarity.
"The flowers need water. The sky is raining. Perfect time for them to be exposed and transplanted. Flowers are fragile, you know." Her voice was soft but steady. I was silent at her words, listening for what she would say next. "You're outside. During the day."
"Yea. Cloud cover helps. Don't have to wear as much sunscreen."
Almost shyly, she glanced at my face before persisting with her cultivation project. "No kidding."
She continued to plant the flowers in the swirl of the changing weather. Imitating her rhythm, I reached forward and dug my fingers into the damp, rich earth. The roots of the plants were cool against my skin before I folded them into the ground's warm blanket. Time passed as we labored together amicably. Her hand brushed mine at one point when she reached across my lap for a plant, but she did not flinch away. Soon, a somewhat crooked line of brightly colored petunias enclosed us on top of the grave.
Placing her hands lightly on her shins, she gazed at the finished product with satisfaction. "Done."
"Do you do this often?"
The wind blew harder for a moment, causing her hair and the loose sleeves of her shirt to dance lightly. "Yea. Every few weeks. I try to keep it beautiful here...peaceful." She knotted her hands together, picking at the dirt under her fingernails. "R-reminds me of her. Tara would have wanted the place where she rested to be peaceful, especially when..." Tears glistened in her eyes that she was determined to keep unshed.
Her voice dwindled away. In that instant, she seemed almost ethereal and breakable... nothing like the slayer who slaughtered demons and saved the world from eternal hell by night. She was staring forward, and my eyes focused on the object of her attention. I surveyed Tara's simple marble headstone engraved with her name and years of birth and death. A dove with wings outstretched was carved in the upper left corner. Tara was like the symbolic dove, quiet with an intense inner strength that hinted at a wisdom beyond her years. She had been the perfect stabilizing force in her friends' life.
"Especially when what?" I gently nudged her to continue.
"When she died the way she did...the way I should have died from the bullet."
"I'm grateful that Willow saved you." The admission was easy for me to make.
"Yea. Me, too...even though she went half crazy with the dark magick trying to do it." She paused. "She's coming home...Willow, I mean. Tomorrow. I had to make it pretty here."
"It's wonderful. You did a lovely job. Red will appreciate what you did for Tara," I reassured her.
"Did you know her hair turned black when she absorbed the material in the dark texts?" I shook my head, but she hardly noticed because she continued speaking in a jumbled mix of words that I had difficulty comprehending, "I mean, it's red now again...her hair. You should have seen her then. She didn't seem like Willow anymore."
"People change," I stated.
"I wonder if she'll be...you know, still Willow."
"She will be. A little scarred up, a little sore, but she'll be Willow...a better Willow, stronger."
"Funny what life dishes out to make us stronger."
I smiled, agreeing without saying a word.
She resumed, "It's like every time something like this happens...when someone is taken away or leaves or dies..." With trembling fingers, she began tracing the carved letters in Tara's headstone. "...it gets harder. Just when I think that it can't hurt any worse. Bam. Life hits you with something that hurts deeper than you've ever been hurt before."
She turned to me, then, and fixed her green eyes on my blue ones, seeking comfort and the truth. "Why is that?" she asked me.
I gave her what she needed. I always would. "It's different every time, pet. That's why it hurts more. You let yourself open up just a little wider than the last time. You let yourself grow and feel and be more than you've been before. That's why the each new ending hurts more than the last one."
"And why do we keep letting ourselves do that...get hurt?" she murmured, already knowing the answer.
"Because that's what we do...all of us. We challenge ourselves. We live; we grow. It's our choice how to handle what we've been dealt. In the last year, you taught me that by showing me first hand," I maintained, referring casually to her struggle and growth through her recent and literal return to life.
She peered at me from around her hair but did not respond. I longed to reach out and feel nature's mist that coated her hair, but doing that was no longer my right. Therefore, I was shaken when she wiped her dirty hand onto the clean portion of her jeans and then ran her fingers through my hair with fascination and tenderness written on her visage.
"Did you know that your hair curls more in the rain?"
Without a word, I nuzzled my face into her palm overwhelming my senses with the earth and vanilla I had merely tasted earlier. She moaned almost imperceptibly at my touch. Then, just as quickly as she came closer, she drew away. We both shivered anew in the cold of being alone...immersed in the memories of what we shared in the past. For the first time in a long time, I was the first to break eye contact.
In the echo of the breech we created, thunder cracked sharply causing her to jump. I heard her heart begin to beat faster. The clouds were growing darker over our heads, and the rain drops were falling more thickly. We were both on our feet in an instant. Without thinking, I grabbed her hand, which she grasped firmly, and we raced toward my crypt.
Once inside the crypt, I noted that the musty smell from my absence remained. Cobwebs still coated the windows and the candles. Hoping she did not mind, I cleaned off the cushioned chair for her. Then, I found two semi-clean towels for drying off. After we dried ourselves as best we could, she took the towel from my hand and folded the cloth to lay across her own. In one motion, I scooped her up and set her in my lap. Although she had never previously balanced on my lap of her own free will, she snuggled down immediately with her forehead pressed against my neck, sharing her warmth with me.
Silence reigned for several minutes.
I thought she was sleeping because her heart rate was slower and her breathing deeper. However, her voice was distinct and eerily unemotional when she spoke, "Sometimes I imagine what Warren must have been thinking when he polished the gun...as he planned what he was going to do...to me."
"What do you believe he was thinking?" I asked what she wanted me to ask her.
"He was probably really angry at me for getting his buddies thrown in jail. Maybe he thought that he could end everything by showing me that even the daylight wasn't safe from death and monsters. He probably knew that of all the forces, a gun was something that I could not defeat...a last resort for him. I could defeat vampires, witches, demons of all sorts, a goddess, but not a gun, not a bullet. And if I couldn't protect myself from a bullet, how could I protect my friends?"
"You're not supposed to be perfect."
She removed her head from my chest to stare with fire into my eyes. "Aren't I? When it comes to slaying monsters and protecting the people I love, aren't I?"
"No. No one's perfect." I fleetingly thought about all my mistakes...how I had failed to protect the people I cared about.
She broke eye contact and frowned. "I should have known that Warren would take action after I struck so close to home with his friends...that he'd be crazed with hurt and fear and anger...crazed enough to do something as stupid as what he did." Her voice took on a note of pain. "And then, he shot Tara...with a bullet that was meant for me. I should be dead, not her. Then, Willow wouldn't have gone off the deep end with the dark magicks and wouldn't have killed Warren. And no one else would've gotten hurt."
My response was immediate. "You're wrong. No one could have predicted Warren's behavior. He only acted after careful planning previously. And everyone would have been just as hurt if you had died. We'd all be back to square one with the pain of losing you a second time....Dawn, Xander, Tara, Willow, the whole lot would be grieving all over again." I intentionally left out how I would have agonized over her death again, especially if she had died before I was able to address the problems we had in our relationship.
Guilt shone through in her eyes. "But, at least my death would have been expected. Slayers die in the line of duty. The pain would be familiar...but somehow right. Then, Willow wouldn't have come close to nearly destroying herself. She needed Tara."
"Willow would've done it to herself eventually, pet, with or without Tara's support and guidance." I stroked her rigid back muscles until they relaxed. "It's not the magicks that caused her to do what she did. Willow has a lot of anger and insecurity within her. If it hadn't come out as a magicks problem, it would have come out another way."
Her voice whispered across my eardrums. "And I couldn't stop her."
"Willow had the choice to stop herself a long time before now."
"Maybe she didn't realize what was going on inside of her. The rest of us witnessed her difficulties numerous times and never fully confronted her on them."
"If she didn't recognize and accept her actions and feelings as problematic, nothing you could've said would've stopped her...no matter how many times you tried to talk with her about the issue." I paused thoughtfully realizing how my words applied to myself as well. "And sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom and feeling like you have nowhere to turn for you to make some changes and realize that you're only hurting yourself and other people. Maybe Willow hadn't hit rock bottom when we thought she had."
"Yea." She glanced back into my eyes. I couldn't tell whether she picked up on the additional meaning behind my words until she said, "Like you...." She bowed her head. "And me. We both hit the bottom."
"Yea." Our emotionally and physically abusive relationship had been an expression of our inner turmoil. She had chosen to break things off between us, and after hurting her even more, I had chosen to fight for a soul in response.
A heartbeat later, she murmured, "I miss Tara."
"Me, too, pet, me, too. She was very wise."
"Even though she recognized the truth of things about all of us, she challenged us with grace, strength, and gentleness. She had everything together."
"And we will, too," I reassured her.
"At some point?" She chewed her bottom lip.
"At some point. Then, we'll be faced with another obstacle."
"That will make us even stronger," she stated with new confidence before she settled back against my chest.
Within moments, the small woman in my arms had fallen asleep, granting me a tentative and unexpected trust. I only hoped I would not betray her with my actions again. Perhaps I could follow Tara's example.