DISCLAIMER: All characters and an occasional bit of dialogue are borrowed from Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. No copyright infringement intended.
SPOILERS: Through BTVS season 5, "The Gift."
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I am addicted to beta readers. It makes any story better, and I can't imagine writing without them. Ruth helped me see stylistic tics I didn't even realize I had; darkmagicwillow asked the right questions and helped me see Tara more clearly; and Ruby challenged some assumptions, even though I decided to keep them in the end.
PAIRING: Willow/Tara

By Tulipp


Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone;
it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time,
made new.
      —Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven

Months later, on a hot September day, Willow would let her fingers rest lightly on the steering wheel and look ahead at the yellow center line of highway disappearing under the hood of the car.

It would be strange to be driving after years of walking through Sunnydale. Walking the streets at night. Haunting the cemeteries waiting for newly turned vampires. Patrolling with Buffy.

Sunnydale would seem already to be far away, a dream she'd had once. Sometimes a nightmare with monsters and demons and pain and fear, but sometimes the kind of dream you don't want to wake up from because the people that you love are in it, and they smile at you, and they touch your arm, and when you make a joke, they laugh, even though it's not that funny.

She would think back on the summer, and she would let herself—just for a little while—forget the nights of not sleeping. Holding Dawn while she cried for Buffy. Holding Tara while she cried about Glory. Those things were important, and they were real, and she wouldn't want to forget them for long. But with the window rolled down, the wind lifting her hair off her neck, she would let the summer breeze past her and hold onto only a handful of moments when things had changed: A June night. A July morning. An August afternoon. Moments when hope had come back when she had almost stopped looking for it.

The way the best things always happened when you weren't looking for them.

Sometimes, she would think, the world went up in flames; your best friend flew into the fire like a bird, fell into the flames like a feather, and was burned up. And you knew everything was different—you knew—because the flames reached your own ankles and scorched you. Because all that was left of a hero was ashes. Because your heart wouldn't spark, and you couldn't find the match that would make it blaze again.

But sometimes…sometimes the world changed so slowly you almost missed it. As if someone had turned the oven up a little bit, and the kitchen was just slightly warmer than it had been. And then suddenly everything was different, and you couldn't put your finger on what had happened to make it that way.

Then Willow would shake her head a little. She would turn to look at Tara, who would be shredding the last loaf of bread and tossing the crumbs out the open window. And Tara would smile sheepishly at her, as if she'd been caught doing something strange, and make a joke that wasn't very funny.

Willow would reach over and touch Tara's arm, and she would laugh at her joke, and in that quiet moment, something unspoken would rise warm and soft between them: a quiet heat.

And Willow would drive.

Part I: June.

Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs …
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.
      —Gwendolyn Brooks, "My dreams, my works, must wait till after hell"

Willow almost forgot.

A soft sound had tugged her out of not-quite-asleep, and blinking in the dark of Joyce's bedroom, she almost scooted across the bed to fold her fingers into the hollow of Tara's hip bone. Almost nuzzled Tara's neck with her nose. Almost slowed her breathing down so that they were inhaling and exhaling together. But then she remembered, and …with Tara only inches away…Willow was alone again.

She wished she had forgotten. She wished she could forget Buffy's death. Anya's wheelchair. Giles' absence. Dawn's shuttered look. Tara's quiet ache—all of it.

Hugging her hands to her sides, Willow wished she could forget what it had felt like to slice into Tara's head. To rend. Sure, in the end it had worked, but her fingers had scraped the inside of Tara's mind, the inside of Tara, and that wasn't hers to touch. It wasn't hers to feel shards of memories, sharp and glassy, that Tara had never shared. It had been a violation. She had violated.

Willow couldn't forget that, and she wouldn't let her fingers hurt Tara that way again, so she had been keeping them to herself. Tara didn't need more touching right now; she needed someone to be strong, to take care of things. She needed someone to be brave.

But it was getting harder. Her mind wouldn't let her forget how much it had hurt to touch Tara, but her body remembered how much she needed Tara's touch.

She heard the sound again—it was a knock—and she closed her eyes for a second, in disappointment or relief, she wasn't sure which.

"Come in," she called out, seeing Tara shift and sit up as a thin hand appeared around the edge of the door. Dawn shifted from one foot to the other in the doorway, her hair long and loose around her shoulders. She looked very young.

"Bad dream, Dawnie?" Willow asked softly. It wouldn't be the first time, not for any of them.

Dawn edged into the room. "I…." She bit her lip. "Could I…sleep with you, just this once?" The words came out in a rush, and Dawn took a breath. "Sometimes….when Mom was sick, Buffy would let me sleep with her, you know, when she wasn't patrolling, so really…well, it was just the one time since she was usually patrolling, and…." She broke off suddenly, smiling weakly, and crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm starting to sound like you."

Propping herself up on her elbow, Willow patted the sheet beside her. "Hop in, Dawnie," she said. "We can be a Wiccan sandwich. With…with Summers sausage." She glanced at Tara for confirmation, but Tara was already reaching to the floor for an extra pillow.

"Jeez," Dawn said, crawling over Tara and settling between them, "more like Summers squash. How do you guys sleep in the same bed?" Willow heard Buffy's tones in her voice.

"Thinking about Buffy?" Tara said softly, slipping an arm around Dawn's shoulders. Willow wondered how she did it, set aside her own pain so easily to comfort someone else. It seemed so effortless. So impossible.

But Dawn leaned back against the headboard, sighing. "I miss Buffy," she whispered. "Everything seems wrong, like…like…." She faltered, drawing in her breath sharply, on the verge of tears, and Tara looked helplessly at Willow. Maybe it wasn't so effortless, Willow thought suddenly, sitting up a little higher on her elbow and taking charge.

"I know, Dawnie," she said lightly, using her little girl's voice, and she felt Dawn exhale with relief. She saw Tara's tense shoulders relax. "It feels like…like a bike shop without a Huffy."

Tara smiled at her then, and Willow went on, heartened. "A cat without the fluffy," she added, giving Dawn a little poke and watching her squirm. They needed this, all of them.

"Like…billy goats without the gruffy," Tara jumped in. "Come on, Dawn, you do one."

Dawn thought for a minute, biting her lip. "Like a library without the stuffy?" she asked finally, and Tara hugged her arm a little closer around Dawn's shoulder.

Tara paused, tilting her head to one side so her hair fell over her cheek. "A bruise without the puffy," she said finally, and the mood shifted again, the sigh seeming to come from all of them and hover over the bed. No one spoke for a moment, and Willow searched her mind for a sentence, some string of words, to blow that sigh away again. Words, she just needed words.

"Ooh, Macbeth without Macduffy," she said suddenly, and this time, Dawn giggled. Willow felt a little better hearing it.

"No fair," Dawn said. "That's college. We haven't gotten there yet." Willow caught Tara's eye and was rewarded with the relief she saw there.

"Oh, sure, literature," Tara said, squeezing Dawn's hand playfully but looking gratefully at Willow. "Willow wins again."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Willow always wins," she yawned, and Willow knew there would be no crisis that night. She watched Dawn settle against the pillow and curl against Tara, who smoothed her long, sleek hair. Willow reached out and rubbed Dawn's back lightly; for a moment they were the same, she and Tara, offering the only comfort they had to give.

Dawn's breathing slowed into sleep after a minute, but Tara kept stroking her hair, and Willow kept rubbing her back. Listening to Dawn's quiet breath, Willow inhaled that sweet nighttime teenage scent—antiseptic and baby powder, and then, as she brushed her hand lightly up Dawn's back, and Tara brushed her own hand down smoothly over Dawn's hair, their fingers touched, and they both paused.

Willow held her breath for a moment at the contact. She wanted Tara to wrap a hand around her fingers, to hold onto her and not let go. She wanted Tara to make some move that said it was okay to touch her again. She couldn't do it herself.

In that moment before the rescue and the reunion, before Willow had seen Tara come home to herself, she had felt something true: she and Glory were the same. They could stick their fingers in people's brains and twist their memories and perceptions around. They could find pain, but they could also make it.

So she waited. But after a few seconds Tara started to stroke Dawn's hair again, and Willow reluctantly pulled her hand away before it remembered and reached for Tara itself. She saw Tara not looking at her. She saw another month of near misses ahead.

And she saw something else. Across Dawn's shadowed body and Tara's remote face, if she squinted in the dark, she saw a bowl of dried herbs on Joyce's dresser. At the bottom of that bowl was a last resort. A just in case. Something for a rainy day, when the not talking and the not touching became too much to bear.

But for now, she closed her eyes against the image of the dried herbs, and she turned away from Tara and Dawn, and she tried…alone…to forget.

Tara exhaled silently when she felt Willow turn away from her. They had been so close for a second, so near, and Willow had still not touched her. Had not made the gesture that Tara had been wanting for weeks. She swallowed against the disappointment in her throat.

She repeated to herself, silently, the only words of comfort she could find: Time will help. Time heals all wounds. Give it time. Take your time. Time is a bandage, a giant tissue. Saying these things to Dawn in the daytime made sense. But here, in the dark, she knew they were running out of time; it was slipping away.

She couldn't blame Willow for not wanting to touch her. She was sickened herself when she remembered the way she'd felt, the way she'd been. Maybe being fed wasn't so bad, but to have your girlfriend bathe you, dress you, clean you after you used the bathroom…it made her shudder. It made her feel like a baby. It made her want to pull back, to wrap her arms around herself and shut down, like she used to do. Like she did with Glory. Like she had always done before Willow.

Something had happened between them in that moment…among all of them, really: Willow and Glory and herself. One moment, her mind had been smudgy, inky with confusion; the next moment, fingers like blades had sliced into her head, and everything had gone sharp. They were together inside that sharpness, each feeling the others as herself: Three gods. Three witches. Three girls.

And then from within the triangle—that brief union—a separation had grown and exploded, sending them all flying. A moment later, Tara had been panting and aware, and Willow had been crawling toward her through the rubble, and they had been themselves again. But this time…they weren't two anymore. They were one and one.

They were alone, together.

Closing her eyes now, Tara knew that they would go to sleep, separately and silently. In the morning Willow would retreat into the basement and work on the Buffybot, and in the afternoon Tara would take Dawn to a movie to escape the oppressive silence of the house, and the next night they would go to bed again, each alone. She had hoped, when Dawn slid into bed between them, that it was a chance. She had hoped that Dawn would be a conduit, a lightning rod, a key; that her very presence would somehow magically unlock the door between them so they could reach for one another again.

But Dawn was just a girl now, not a key.

Stroking Dawn's hair, Tara watched the sharp line of Willow's shoulder until she could see it relax, finally, into the slow rise and fall of sleep, and only then, pulling the sheet up to her neck, did she close her own eyes and dream.

In the dream, all things happened at once, each moment taut and pitched low and held out, overlapping and simultaneous: Bird. Mirror. Kitchen. Bread.

A bright-hot blue day outside the Summers house. Through the kitchen window, Tara could see Willow, red-ponytailed and aproned, moving from sink to stove. She was singing to herself, a tuneless, longing hum; she was making bread.

Above, a small, iron-colored bird flew in lazy circles around the house, encircling. Protecting. Tara shielded her eyes with one hand to squint up at it, trying to spot the feathers clearly for a moment, to see the soft downy gray of its belly, but only the fine hairs of her own arm came into view. The bird was supposed to rest. She had to feed it. She had the food right here in her hand.

Except…she didn't. She turned her empty palm over and felt anxious; the bird couldn't eat nothing. She would have to go into the house. Glancing down, she saw the empty wicker basket by her feet and then the shrubs, covered with freshly washed white sheets drying in the sun. Shimmering like silver.

Reaching down to pick up the basket, her arm was long and pale and slender, almost as if it were someone else's arm. An arm she knew but not her arm.

Around her, the air trembled and changed: the shrubs became a chair and a coat rack, the white sheets morphed into walls and windows.

How had she gotten into the hallway? The high singing murmur of Willow's little-girl voice drifted out from the kitchen, and Tara wanted to go to it, to go to her, but the white-silver wall shimmered on her left and caught her eye like a magnet, pulling. Compelling. She turned to see…

Her reflection in the mirror on the wall. Tilting her head, Tara looked at her own blue eyes. She watched her right arm lifting up to touch the finger in the mirror; she watched the reflected finger come closer and closer. That slender arm in the mirror…not her arm. The light in the hallway flickered, casting a shadow across her face in the mirror: her long, pale face. Her sharply defined nose. Her curly hair. Her…curly…hair? No, it was Joyce's curly hair, Joyce's slender arm, Joyce's face starting back at her.

Tara snatched her arm back from the mirror, but it was too late.

"We're the same," Joyce whispered, and Tara felt her own lips form the words.

Then the hallway changed and trembled, the mirror flickering and becoming a refrigerator that took shape as she approached slowly, slowly.

The kitchen came closer—Willow came closer—so she knew she must be walking forward. Willow's hair was black, her fingers crackling red, but Tara knew it was Willow because she was talking about buns. "Buns in the oven," she was giggling. "The fruit frogs put their buns in the oven."

Saying "Willow." Swallowing and saying "Willow?"

Willow started to turn, and Tara's head swam on a wave of relief. She raised her eyes to take Willow in and saw…

The long and wavy blonde hair, the wide lipstick smile, the black tank top clinging to her round breasts. "Tara!" Buffy said, putting her hands on her hips. "You shouldn't be here." Tara recognized that familiar wide and not-quite-friendly smile.

"I'm supposed to feel safe h…here," Tara said. "I think I should s…stay." Over Buffy's shoulder, she saw the counter, dusted with flour and cluttered with white-silver tins.

"Little girls belong with their daddies," Buffy said firmly. "Go ahead and take her, Mr. Maclay." Tara's eyes snapped to the kitchen door, but the man standing at the threshold and reaching a hand out to her was a stranger.

Tara stared at him for a moment, and then her eyes tracked back to Buffy, who smiled and clapped her hands together. "I almost forgot!" Buffy said. "I have a present for you!" Buffy's hands were full of stakes, and the blonde of her hair bled into red again, the red ponytail.

Tara shook her head slightly at Buffy…at Willow? "For…me?" she asked. She didn't want them. She wanted to back away.

"No, baby," Willow's voice scolded her gently. "That's not what I do. That's not what I'm for. Now close your eyes."

It was better with her eyes closed because the sound of Willow's voice was clear, so it had to be Willow approaching; it had to be Willow telling her, in that sing-song voice, to keep her eyes closed and hold out her hand; it had to be Willow's thin hand on her head, caressing her hair. Tara leaned into that hand and inhaled, trying to catch the scent.

"You must be tired of applesauce," Willow was crooning at her now, "so I made you a sandwich. Now open up."

Then Tara's hands were filling up with the sandwich, warm and soft and…squirming… and her eyes were flying open and wide at the moldy bread crawling and green. She was shoving her arms away from her and wiping her hands on her jeans and backing away, unable to take her eyes off the lump of bread and tuna on the floor.

"It's perfectly natural," Willow was saying, but when Tara dragged her eyes upward to look at her, it was Glory, big-haired and red-lipped, who was grinning in Tara's face.

"If you leave nummy treats where they don't belong, they go bad," Glory laughed. "That always happens." And then fingers—whose fingers were they now?— piercing, and Tara going cold and metallic.

But the kitchen was already dissolving around them, the butcher block counter top flickering into the wooden bench in the backyard, the tins on the counter now a row of shiny bird feeders.

Tara sat in the backyard and watched the bird fly in circles that were smaller, and closer, and nearer until it alighted on the bench next to her. She blinked, and it was Buffy, calm and not smiling now, her silvery blonde hair spilling over the white sheet wrapped around her.

She swallowed, shivered. "This is set down," she said to Buffy. "Our edges are blurring; it's all set down."

"No," Buffy said quietly, with her calm, sad face and her calm, peaceful eyes. "Only some of this is true. Why can't you see what you're holding?"

Slowly, Tara looked down at her clenched fist, turning it over and unfurling her fingers. But she saw nothing there except air. And the criss-crossed lines of her own palm.

Waking with a start, Tara squinted in the dark at her empty hand. Who are we? she thought, and then wondered where the question had come from. Aren't we ourselves anymore?

Dawn was there, curled against her, and Tara could see that on the other side of Dawn, Willow slept, hunched on her side and turned away from both of them. The dream was already blurring, its tumble of images fading and leaving her with only an empty hand, so empty it ached.

She saw Buffy's face again, clear against that graying, shaded dreamworld. "Why can't you see what you're holding?" Buffy had said, and Tara wanted to see.

She wanted to be holding Willow. She wanted it more than she wanted to protect herself, more than she wanted to hide away that lingering skim of shame. More than she wanted to stay awake and puzzle over a dream that returned to her most nights.

Taking a breath, Tara carefully, carefully reached across Dawn until she could feel Willow's pajama top in her fingers, and she clutched at it.

The flannel was warm where it had touched Willow's back, and Tara closed her eyes and pretended that it was Willow's hair she was touching, or Willow's skin, soft apricot fuzz on the back of her neck and her arm. Holding the fabric between her fingers and trying to conjure up Willow in her touch, she felt her heart slow down again, and eventually she fell back asleep.

Dawn woke in the early morning from a dream of trickles and rivers and knew she couldn't put off going to the bathroom any longer. She sat up slowly, reluctantly peeling herself from the cocoon that Willow and Tara's bodies seemed to make around her, and scooted to the end of the bed.

When she came back out, tugging at the drawstring in her cotton pants and yawning, she noticed that something was different. Stepping back, more fully awake, she realized that in the two minutes she had been gone, Willow and Tara had curled into one another, clinging to one another in their sleep the way they never did now in the daytime.

Dawn had never seen them so unguarded together, had never been free to look at them so openly, and at first, she took in the sight of them with hunger. Tara's front pressed against Willow's back, an arm draped over Willow's stomach. Dawn could see that, underneath the thin blanket, their hips were matched, their knees lined up. Even their feet seemed to be intertwined: a little pile of feet.

She couldn't stop looking at them; it was as if she was seeing them—really seeing them—for the first time.

It seemed like her vision of Willow and Tara was always shifting. She was never sure in the morning who was going to be who that day. After Buffy died, Tara had been timid like a little girl, and Willow had seemed like her mother, fussing over her and making her eat and go to bed early. But only a few days ago, when Willow had mentioned casually at dinner that she was thinking of fixing the Buffybot and taking her out on patrol, Tara's eyes had flashed dangerously, and suddenly Willow was a petulant child and Tara was an angry mom.

But now…they didn't look like mother and child now. They looked like.... Dawn's mind stopped making words and understood that Tara's arm was too high to be holding Willow's stomach. She realized that not only Tara's hips but also other things were pressed against Willow.

Dawn's cheeks went hot, and she took a step backward. Part of her was curious, intrigued, and in her toes she felt a flush of something warm that wasn't comfort.

She'd seen Willow and Tara together lots of times, of course she had; she'd seen them sleeping in the same bed. But somehow…somehow she hadn't thought of them as separate, as their own thing. They were just…Buffy's friends. Like, when Buffy and Willow and Tara had taken her out to the movies, she'd thought of it as one big girls' night out. Now, she realized Tara and Willow had kind of been on a date, too. She'd just…never really thought about it that way before.

Her mind flashed her a memory, a twilight glimpse past the half-closed door of a van parked on the street: Oz and Willow necking, and Oz squeezing Willow through the fabric of her jeans, and Willow making the softest sound and reaching down…Buffy had yanked her away then, and later, Willow was red all over and wouldn't meet Dawn's eye. Now, Dawn's mind flashed her a replacement image, one she had never actually seen and never really imagined: Tara and Willow necking, and Tara squeezing Willow through the fabric of her jeans, and Willow making an even softer sound and reaching down….

Part of her was curious, but another part blinked rapidly at this thing that was so private and so grown-up and so…sexual…and she edged toward the door and away from these two girls who were suddenly not just her sisters' friends who held hands sometimes while they were taking care of her but…girlfriends, actually. Lovers.

The word tested itself in her mind, and she found nothing there to dislike. But also nothing she was quite ready to see. Not like this, in the dark. In a bed.

She closed the door softly behind her and let her breath out in the darkened hallway.

Back in her room, she hugged Buffy's old teddy bear to her chest and drifted over to her dresser, where she had tucked photos of her family into the edges of her mirror. There was Buffy at 15, shrieking as Dawn threw a bucket of cold water at her on the beach. And there was her mother, glancing back over her shoulder at an art gallery opening, her curly hair and gentle face framed by splashes of bright color. There was herself, her mouth stuffed full of sandwich and laughing. And there was her father, smiling and slicing tomatoes in the kitchen of their old house in L.A.

Dawn had taken that photo herself; she remembered. She tugged it out of the mirror frame and studied it.

She had been sullen and tearful when Buffy and her mother had gone off for a grown-up lunch and shopping without her, and she had sulked around the house for awhile until she found her father in the kitchen, making soup and listening to old man music.

He had made her chocolate milk and coaxed an explanation out of her, something about still being treated like a baby when she was really almost nine, and he had smiled and then pretended he wasn't smiling.

"What's so great about growing up?" he had asked her. "More homework and wearing high heels to the mall and eating…what…quiche?" Dawn had made a face at the thought of that, and they had both laughed, and then she had watched as her father sliced tomatoes and bread and cheese and made them both gigantic sandwiches.

"There's enough demons when you grow up, Dawno," he had said then, seriously. "You don't need to invite them in so early."

She had nodded solemnly, wanting him to think she understood, but things had gotten hard after that. Her mom and dad had started fighting, and then they had moved to Sunnydale, and then they didn't really see him anymore.

But…touching the shiny paper of the photographs with her fingers….Dawn knew that none of it had happened. Not really. She was an invention. She was new. And although she could remember growing up—her tongue could recall the taste of that sandwich, and her eyes could recall her mother's face, and her arms could recall lifting the bucket—even though she could remember it…it hadn't happened. Sometimes she wanted to do all those things now so that they really would happen. To be a little girl still, and to not grow up. To find out for herself what her father was like, what it was like to have a father again.

She'd tried, eyes squeezed shut, to convince herself that Willow was Buffy and Tara was her mom, to pretend just for a second that nothing had changed and the three of them were piled in bed together after watching movies, but it hadn't worked. Buffy was gone, and her mom was gone, and she loved Willow and Tara a lot, but it wasn't the same. No matter how hard any of them tried, they could never be people they weren't, and they could never change the past….the real one or the made-up one.

Dawn wiped the paw of Buffy's bear across her eyes, a little dizzy from thinking. Chocolate milk would help, maybe. But tiptoeing down the stairs, she realized that her fingers still clutched the photo of her father, and she felt how real it was. It was paper and ink, and those things were real. As real as any memory. Realer.

In the kitchen, calculating the time difference in her head , Dawn decided it was late enough to call, and she picked up the phone. In the early-morning pause she could hear the birds waking up outside, chattering sleepily at each other, and she knew that after this phone call everything would be different.

She punched in the numbers, and she waited for the click and the ring as the call went through, and then the fuzzy male voice answering on the other end. She took a breath, and she glanced around at the kitchen as if it were the last time she would see it, as if she had to memorize the unwashed glasses and the Xena magnet on the fridge and the half-melted candles Tara had been burning the evening before and Willow's laptop and a dove-gray jacket of Buffy's that was still hanging on a hook by the back door because no one had been brave enough to take it down yet. And she took a breath.

"Dad?" she said, not recognizing the little girl squeak of her voice. "Daddy?"

Part II: July

Your hands are sweeter than nut-brown bread when you touch me.
Your shoulder brushes my arm—a south-west wind crosses the pier.
I forget your hands and your shoulder and I say again:
Nothing else in this song—only your face.
Nothing else here—only your drinking, night-gray eyes.
      —Carl Sandburg, "Paula"

Dawn's ears popped a little as the plane descended into a place that wasn't California, and she wondered what she would say to her father when they got back to his house—her house now—and she stood in the kitchen of her new life.

She didn't really know how she felt. She wanted to see her dad, but her stomach also hurt a little bit about leaving. She'd hardly even been anyplace other than California. Peering out the rounded window as the plane took off a few hours earlier, Dawn had been amazed at how small Sunnydale looked from the air. When you lived over the Hellmouth, she'd thought….everything was life and death. The world was always about to end, and sometimes it did. It was huge.

But from the air…well, it was just so tiny: Little streets. Little houses. And somewhere under the ground….tiny little vampires. And she was high above all of it, sitting in an airplane, feeling partly sad…and partly excited. She was heading off to a place where the breakfast menu every morning was not going to be Scrambled Sad with a side of Wishful Thinking.

Running a finger over the soft, buttery cover of the book in her lap, Dawn thought how strange it was to be sitting alone in the sky, sandwiched in between a heavy man with a shiny suit and a heavy woman with curly red hair. Not in between Buffy and her mother.

Not in between Willow and Tara...who hadn't actually seemed that surprised when she'd sat them down at one morning and anxiously explained her news: she'd called her father, and he wanted her to come; of course he did. If Dawn didn't know better, she might have thought that they were just a tiny bit relieved. If she didn't know better. The truth was… she was more than a tiny bit relieved herself. It wasn't that she didn't love them; she did. But…but it was new where she was going, and the people there—at least her father and his secretary—were living. They were just living. And when she got there, she'd be just living too.

She had said goodbye to Willow the night before. It was Tara who had awakened her early the next morning, creeping into her room in the gray dawn and shaking her lightly. Tara who had pointed out the gray birds chattering on the roof when they'd pulled out of the driveway. Tara who had driven her to the airport and waited with her for the plane, alternately thumb wrestling and going for hash browns and orange juice.

"The plane's going to be a little late," Tara had announced finally, wandering back from the ticket counter, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her lace-trimmed jeans and stretching her shoulders. "I guess we might as well get comfortable for a little while. We could..." she considered, her eyes crinkling as a mischievous smile twisted one corner of her mouth. She pulled her hand out of her pocket and held out a fistful of tiny elastic bands. "Do you want to give me crazy braids?"

Squealing, Dawn bounced a little bit and then couldn't help glancing around to make sure no one had seeing her acting like a kid. Tara folded herself onto the floor in front of Dawn's chair and crossed her legs, resting one hand on each knee. Dawn set the pile of elastic bands on the seat next to her and wiggled her fingers. Tara hardly ever let her do crazy braids.

Tara's hair was soft but not fine. It fell like feathers when Dawn let it sift through her figers, but it was heavy when she held it; strong. She liked that about Tara's hair. You couldn't really braid Willow's hair, and Buffy had never let her. She would swat her hand away.

Dawn felt instantly sorry, instantly sad again, for thinking something bad like that, and she tried to focus on the fifth tiny braid, starting over Tara's ear and weaving the hair backwards. But her hand shook and pulled a little.

"Hey, sweetie," Tara said without turning around. "What are you thinking about?"

Dawn concentrated on the braid. "Maybe I shouldn't feel excited," she said quietly, and then Tara did turn around.

"I just," Dawn stretched the elastic band in her fingers. "I felt happy for going to see my dad, you know? But then…feeling happy makes me feel sad again."

"Did you ever make bread?" Tara said, and Dawn looked up in confusion. Sometimes Tara said the strangest things, and even when you wanted to just go with it….well, just sometimes Tara said the strangest things.

"If you make bread…from scratch, you know?…you have to let it rise." Tara's voice was calming, but Dawn still raised her eyes. She shook her head helplessly; she didn't see the connection.

"Just listen," Tara smiled. "It's this lump of dough, and you have to punch it down, and then you have to cover it with a towel for awhile and leave it alone, and all by itself, it starts to rise up. It gets light and puffy, but then you have to punch it down again, and it rises up again. You know what I mean?"

"Um, not really," Dawn said, noticing that Tara's braids looked crooked from the front. She would have to start over. Right now, while it was still just the two of them.

"You have to have both, the punching down and the rising up?" Tara had said, taking Dawn's hand in hers and looking at her closely. "To get bread in the end…you have to have them both."

Now, angling for an inch more room on the armrest, Dawn thought she might write it down in the book Willow had given her: Tara's thing about the bread. It made sense; at least it had at the time. But then the plane was touching down with a series of little bumps, and she peered out the tiny window at Not California, and she forgot about the book in her excitement to see her father. She copied the people next to her: waiting for the light to go on before unbuckling her seatbelt even though she could hardly sit still, then reaching for the bag she had stuffed under the seat in front of her.

One foot in front of the other, she edged off the plane and toward the train that she had been told would take her to the main terminal where people waited. She knew that every step took her a little further from her mother and her sister and the daily presence of two girls she loved almost as much. She knew that she was walking away from her family. But she knew that she was walking towards a different family.

Dawn stepped off the train, and followed the crowd toward the escalator, and as she rose on the moving stairway, she scanned the faces of the people coming into view at the top. Anxious faces, most of them, searching for the people they were waiting for. Maybe that was how everyone greeted planes from Sunnydale: never quite sure if their loved one was going to emerge, alive and whole, from a town where people routinely disappeared. A surge of relief as they caught a glimpse of tanned arm.

Then Dawn saw him. The lines of his face were familiar, and Dawn felt her throat tighten and her heart beat faster as she walked toward him: a little uncertain, a little nervous. She registered that another man she recognized stood just behind him—the secretary—but she had eyes only for her father.

He was just yards away now, lifting his hand in the familiar half-wave she hadn't seen in months and months, and the bones of his hand looked strong and solid against the memory of everything that had crumbled.

Dawn smiled. And she ran the last few steps.

The house was empty when Willow woke, and for a moment, she felt confused, unsure what day or week or month it was. As she blinked in the sunlight, it could have been any of a dozen mornings that summer when she had woken alone, unable to say where Tara had gone or whether she had taken Dawn with her. But this morning was different. Willow felt rested. She had slept deeply, and she felt…a little better.

Sitting up, Willow saw her stuffed dog in perfect yoga position, face down on the rug with his little doggy rear end in the air, and she was glad to see him there. If he had been on the bed, in her arms, that would have meant she'd been clutching him all night to stop herself from reaching for Tara. But he was on the floor, so she hadn't dreamed Tara wrapping around her in the night, Tara murmuring into her ear as she drifted into sleep.

"It's okay to touch me," Tara had whispered, and her fingers had traced the words on Willow's hip. "It's okay to need me." It was progress, too, that the words had not pulled Willow wide-awake again. They were lavender words, sleepytime tea words, and they had become the pillow under her head and the sheet pulled up to her shoulder, and she had nestled in and slept in them. In Tara.

That was movement. That meant it was July now, and not June, and time was happening around them just as she'd known, but not really believed, it would.

All the same, as she strained to hear Tara in the shower or Dawn watching television or…anything…she could feel that the house was quiet, the bathroom—when she peeked around the slightly open door—empty of steam. Noting the dry towels and the closed blinds, she walked through to the hallway, still listening for any noise of girls in the morning and hearing none.

They had really gone, then, and she was—for a little while—alone.
Willow knew there would be no answer, but she tapped on the door to Dawn's room anyway and waited; when no answer came, she had a moment of déjà vu. She could remember easing Dawn's door open weeks before, holding the adopted teddy bear to her face and finding that the brown plush held nothing of Buffy's scent. She had distracted herself by poking around in a snarl of beads and necklaces on Dawn's dresser and finding…caught in a cheap, shiny chain…a dried flower.

She could remember reminding herself to have words with Anya about casually letting a teenager take home—even by accident—an intact sprig of Lethe's Bramble. But even more, she could remember the shiver of recognition as she twisted the peculiar, branching brown flower in her fingers.

She had wished, then, that she'd had the nerve to do it, to wipe her and Dawn's and Tara's memories clean of the Big Bads that haunted them. But instead, she had sighed and tucked the bramble into the bowl on Joyce's dresser where it had remained since. She still thought about it most days, still considered using it. It was a ridiculously easy spell; a baby could pull it off.

The temptation always itched more when she was alone in the house; Willow had noticed that early on, and she had kept herself busy to avoid it. Helping Anya run the store from her wheelchair, posting Xander's on-line resumes, e-mailing Giles with updates. And working on the Buffybot—although Tara had finally convinced her that even with an imitation Slayer, they were no match for the forces of darkness.

"What happens if something goes wrong and the Buffybot slips a circuit or pops a rod or whatever happens and there we are in the alley with a bunch of demons?" Tara had asked, incredulous and gently scoffing. "We take up axings? Can you just picture me doing that?"

Laughing, Tara had raised an eyebrow and gone back to making soap, the latest development in what Willow teasingly called her lesbian commune tendencies.

In fact, trying to picture it was…impossible. Willow couldn't see it. No matter how she turned the idea in her mind, squinted, turned her head…she couldn't find an image of Tara holding up an axe or Tara fighting off vampires with her fish-swimmy fists that would come into focus. It just seemed so…not Tara. Willow didn't know how else to put it.

Dismantling the last pieces of the Buffybot, Willow had run her fingers over the silicone cheekbones one final time. She had understood that she couldn't hold onto Buffy that way. They couldn't bring her back. Without Buffy, they were just…without Buffy. Buffyless. No longer in the Buff.

It hurt. God, it hurt, but it was the truth. Tara couldn't be not Tara. And she herself….she couldn't be Buffy. When she tried to be Buffy—to find a way to keep the Slaying going—she only succeeded in being
not Willow. Not being Willow, she had corrected herself, but it sounded more true the first way. She couldn't be not Willow. She could only be herself.

And with the thought, something strange had happened. It had been a hot July day, and even the basement had felt dry and warm, but with the thought something chill and dank had pressed up against her, raising the gooseflesh on her arms and the hair on her neck and then, just as suddenly, moved on. She had stood up abruptly, Buffybot pieces clattering to the floor around her, but there was nothing there.

And she was only herself.

She thought it again now, June becoming July once more as she eased the door to Dawn's room open and peeked inside at the bare furniture, the blank walls. Dawn was still going to be Dawn but just somewhere else, and Tara was still Tara, and she…she was only herself. Always herself. Herself alone.

Except…except that she wasn't alone. Well, she was alone in the house at the moment because Tara was probably still at the airport, but really…she wasn't alone. They were.

Willow stood with her hand on the doorknob to Dawn's empty room, it sank into her skin that she and Tara were…alone. Really alone. Alone for the first time in months.

Not in the "only two people in this kitchen and one of them better be making coffee" kind of alone. Or the "only two people in the shop for five minutes before Xander finishes playing healing touch with Anya in the back" alone. Or the "there you are on your side of the bed for seven hours and here I am on mine" alone.

No. They were alone now in the "when I look up from my calculus homework, you're the only one in the house, and I kind of like it that way because we don't have to close the door to our room so I can just grab you now" kind of alone.

Willow shivered. She could remember the last time she and Tara had been alone that way.

It had been just an hour, a brief recess from Glory and fear and death. Willow had pulled off her sadness with her boots. She had unclasped her fears with her earrings and cradled them in her palm, setting them gently down on the night-table: they would be safe and protected until she could come back to them. She had watched Tara slide off her sympathy as she slid off her jeans. They had looked at one another and smiled in a way they would never have let Dawn or Buffy see, not in those days. It had been relief, that smile. It might have been temporary, but it was real.

And then…they had touched one another, and it had been free and frolicky and actually kind of embarrassing, if Willow thought about it now. To be on your knees, pushed up against a headboard or a wall or a closet door so that all you could see was your own hand holding yourself up. To have someone very naked behind you touching your very naked places. To lose your balance and fall over and take your very naked person with you and to laugh, both of you, so hard that you fall over again and end up in a very naked tangle on the carpet. And then to look up and stop seeing very naked and only see your person and to reach for her….

Willow let go of the doorknob. It had been so good. For one hour, it had been so good. But everything had changed after that hour. They had never gotten a chance to get comfortable in their clothes again.

Until now, maybe. Dawn had gone off with her father, and Giles had called to say he would be staying on a few more months in England. Xander and Anya had finally decided to get one good thing out of the summer and go get married, and Willow and Tara were alone. No one to comfort but each other. No one to be with but each other. It was just the two of them.

Willow let her fingers graze over her hip and recalled Tara's hand resting there the night before. It was just the two of them now, alone in an "I can hear you breathing when you stand inside my life with me" kind of alone.

Willow had to try out the picture in her mind, to see if the edges stayed blurry when she tried to imagine it. She was so used to being one in a group and two in a group that it was hard to visualize being just two together. And it was also sad and a little lonely because it meant that people she really, really loved were gone.

But—Willow heard the distant click of the kitchen door and began to pad quietly down the stairs—but it was also a little bit exciting. Was she a terrible person to feel that way? To feel a little glad and a little not-sad at that moment? Willow paused in the kitchen doorway for a moment and watched Tara backing through the door with canvas bags of groceries. Even from behind, she looked calm, almost peaceful, and Willow saw the picture in her mind sharpening, the blurred edges becoming crisp.

They were alone.

"Something smells good."

Turning around to set her bags on the kitchen counter, Tara saw Willow hovering in the kitchen doorway, frowsy and rumpled in her pajamas. She looked so…cute, Tara thought with surprise. So young and pretty. It wasn't that she was surprised that Willow was pretty; it was just…when had Tara stopped noticing that? When had she started seeing only the older, darker woman where there was also this young girl wearing a pair of Hello Kitty pajamas that Tara was fairly certain she'd swiped from Dawn?

She smiled and glanced at the kitchen clock. "You're up early, in a noon kind of way," she teased, and Willow ran her hands over her pajamas.

"They're just so comfortable," Willow said, the corners of her mouth lifting in a smile. She looked different, Tara thought. Hopeful. Eager in a quiet way. She watched as Willow reached for the cabinet where they kept the coffee, yawning and looking ten years old. Her pajama sleeve looked fuzzy, and Tara remembered that it felt that way, too.

She had woken up in the embrace of that fuzzy pajama sleeve…when had it been…only this morning? Yesterday? "I want to touch you," Willow had whispered, and the words had been warm breath on Tara's neck and pink cotton under her cheek and fresh air at the window. Those words had been her morning. She went soft for a moment, remembering.

"So?" Willow mumbled through her yawn.

"So what?" Tara handed her the jar of coffee from the fridge.

Willow spooned coffee into a filter. "So what smells good?" Tara watched Willow go through the entirely routine motions of sliding the basket into the coffeemaker and filling the carafe with water and flipping the switch, and for a moment she could scarcely speak. She felt overcome. She had gone through so much, lost so much and almost more, and now she stood in the kitchen watching her girlfriend make coffee. She was so lucky.

But Willow was still waiting for her answer. "Oh, I stopped to pick up a few groceries on the way home, and there was this new bakery, and I could smell it from the car, and…I don't know…I just had to stop." She nodded at one of the canvas bags and grinned sheepishly as Willow began pulling out white paper-wrapped packages. "I might have overdone it a little."

"I don't know," Willow said, smiling shyly at Tara. "I'm pretty hungry." The coffee bubbled into the pot, and when it spluttered out its last little splutters, Willow reached for two mugs. Willow liked her coffee strong, Tara knew, and she was learning to like it that way, too.

When Willow turned back around, Tara was holding one of the baguettes, still tucked into its paper cover, and she walked backward with it through the dining room, holding it out in front of her. Willow followed, balancing the mugs carefully, eyes on the bread.

They sat side by side on the sofa, Willow's long legs stretched out onto the coffee table in front of them, and sipped their coffee. Willow reached for the baguette and ripped a piece off, and when she bit into it, she made a little "mmph" of satisfaction. Hearing it, Tara thought that everything felt different today, different lately. It wasn't that things were perfect….she knew better than anyone that you couldn't just shake off the death of someone you loved as if it hadn't happened…but today….

"My mother used to make bread every morning," she said abruptly, stretching her fingers around her coffee mug until they met in the middle. "Did I ever tell you that?" She pretended not to notice Willow's sharp sideways glance. "Well, almost every morning," she admitted. "Talking to Dawn at the airport made me think of it."

Willow sat still for a moment, and then, a little too casually, lifted her coffee cup and sipped. Tara had told Willow little about her family, only dropped occasional bits and pieces for her to puzzle together. And she knew that Willow had only a dark sense of the Maclays: the glimpse she'd seen when her father and brother came to town, the taste she'd swallowed when she had restored Tara's sanity.

"Sometimes at night, when I went to bed, I would feel so hopeless, like…nothing would ever change. My father would yell, and Donnie would…." Tara stopped, shaking her head. That hadn't been what she'd meant to say. To Willow, her past had been pain, but it hadn't always been like that. Not always.

Willow's eyes were trained on her coffee cup, but her body was rigid with listening. Tara closed her eyes to get back to the memory she had wanted, and then she smiled a little, remembering. "I always knew when it was morning because I could smell the bread baking downstairs. My mother…she would get up really early and make the dough and let it rise, and then—I never needed an alarm clock because I would be lying there, kind of half-awake, you know?" Willow just listened.

"Well, I would just sort of drift in and out of sleep, thinking about what kind of day it was going to be, and then the air would go…buttery. I could smell the bread just starting to bake, and I knew it was time to get up. I knew that everything could be okay that day—normal—because my mother was downstairs, and there was bread…."

Tara faltered, her eyes full of an image of her mother, waist-long blonde hair twisted into a knot at the nape of her neck, arms bare and dusted with flour. If Tara closed her eyes and concentrated on the heat of her mug and the fresh scent of the baguette on the coffee table in front of her, she could almost be back there, in her mother's kitchen. She could feel her mother sitting at the round brown table, sipping tea and waiting for her to slip down the stairs so they could talk a little while before the upstairs shower went on and her father's footsteps sounded above.

There had been a small mirror hanging by the back door, hung on a nail with a ribbon, Tara remembered with a small shock. She had almost forgotten.

Once, she had managed to creep down the stairs silently; pausing in the doorway, she had seen her mother not at her usual place at the table but standing in front of that mirror, staring at her reflection. Silently, Tara had watched her mother lift one pale, slender arm and touch the image of her face in the mirror. She had looked…blank. As if she didn't recognize her own reflection in that tiny mirror. As if she were looking at someone else. But she had caught sight of Tara then and turned toward her, toward the warm oven and the fresh loaf and her daughter, and everything had been fine.

Except that after that day, Tara had always been careful to step heavily on the creakiest steps when she came down in the morning.

The touch of Willow's thigh against hers, just a whisper of contact, brought Tara back to the present with a start, and she turned up one side of her mouth apologetically and looked up through the hair that had fallen across her face. Tara lifted her legs onto the coffee table, too, so that her foot bumped up against Willow's foot.

"She made it almost every day, right up until the end, when she was too sick?" Tara went on. "And then I would make it and take it up to her. She couldn't always eat it, but she loved the smell. She said it made her feel human. I think I kind of understand now what she meant, you know? Just human."

Tara turned to Willow again and this time came face to face with the rumpled red hair and the gentle green eyes and the bittersweet, morning scent of fresh bread. Willow said nothing, only held her gaze, but Tara could see that she understood: What she meant. Why she had told her now. All that she had said, and all that remained unspoken between them.

"How do you do it?" Willow asked finally, the lines of her mouth softening. "How do you forget everything you've been through and go on like you do?"

"I don't," Tara said gently. It was a window into Willow, that question, and she knew it. "I don't forget. I try to remember; that's all I can do." She searched Willow's eyes for confirmation. "That's all we can do: remember."

She watched as Willow's lips pressed together, and she felt Willow's fingers, still warm from her coffee cup, touch her cheek. "You're so brave," Willow whispered.

Tara shook her head dismissively. "Oh, Will," she said, sighing. "When will you get it? My mother…she was the bravest person I ever knew, and all she really did was teach me some Wicca and bake bread." Reaching to touch Willow's cheekbone, Tara followed the line of her own hand up past the knuckles to her fingertips and an inch past that to eyes that were soft and wide open and green. Willow's fingers were hot on Tara's cheek, and Willow's cheek burned under her fingers. It was the closest they had been in months.

After a moment, Tara let her fingers fall again, and Willow took her hand back to reach for another piece of bread. Wrapping her fingers more tightly around her coffee cup, Tara let her head drop sideways onto Willow's neck and felt an arm slip around her shoulders. Closing her eyes, she felt as if the soft, moist warmth of home had enveloped her: A heated oven. A hotly damp kitchen. The scent of hot bread baked fresh.

Part III: August.

Oh my swan, my drudge, my dear wooly rose,
Even a notary would notarize our bed
As you knead me and I rise like bread.
      —Anne Sexton, "Song for a Lady"

She wasn't dreaming.

Still, Tara paused outside the back door to the Summers house and glanced at the blue-hot August sky above. Through the kitchen window, she could see Willow, red-ponytailed and aproned, moving from sink to stove. She was talking to herself, it looked like, although Tara couldn't hear her. And she was…she was making bread. Could Willow even make bread?

She had to be dreaming.

Tara glanced up, shielding her eyes with one hand to look for a gray bird that wasn't there. The air was still, the sky quiet. And her other hand held a canvas bag of groceries.

She shook her head; it wasn't a dream. But the sun glinted off the glass panes of the back door, and as she reached for the doorknob, Tara caught sight of her pale, bare arm and glanced up sharply, half-expecting to see Joyce's face reflected back to her. It was just her, though, hot and damp and ready to be home.

Tara turned the doorknob, the moist scent of yeast overwhelming her as she stepped into the kitchen. It had been years since she'd been inside a scent like that; it slipped around her like an embrace. If she'd closed her eyes, she could almost have been walking into her mother's kitchen. But she kept her eyes open; instead of the round brown table, she saw the butcher block island. And instead of her mother, she saw Willow.

As she watched, bemused, Willow threw down a sludgy gray lump and sagged forward onto the counter, dropping her head into her hands. "Stupid dough," she muttered.

"What's all this?" Tara glanced around at the flour-covered counters and bowl-filled sink. Torn yeast packets littered the floor, and a stack of open cookbooks teetered dangerously on the edge of the butcher block island; the top page was wet. Next to a pair of empty loaf pans sitting empty on the stove, the salt shaker had fallen over. And it looked as if Willow had simply upended the utensil drawer onto a cutting board: Tara saw several sets of measuring scoops and a pile of wooden spoons and…three?…rolling pins. As for Willow…..

Willow stood up quickly, narrowly missing the edge of the cabinet above her. She wiped hastily at the sweat on her forehead and—Tara peered at her suspiciously—at her eyes. "Hi!" Willow said too brightly, crossing and then uncrossing her arms before finally clasping her hands.

"What's all what?" She seemed to notice the mess for the first time, glancing around the kitchen guiltily. She bit her lip and crossed her arms again. "Nothing."

"It looks kind of like something," Tara observed innocently.

"Well, see, it's nothing," Willow ran her hands through her damp hair. "It was supposed to be a something, but it turned out to be a nothing, so don't make something out of it, or I'll…I just…" She stopped suddenly, sighing heavily, and then she lifted her chin and looked directly at Tara. "I wanted to make something for you; I wanted to make bread for you."

Somehow, it was the last thing Tara had expected. Her arms went weak, and she lowered her bag to the floor. "For me?" she managed to say, shaking her head slightly. "You did this for me?"

"Well, I tried," Willow sulked, pushing at the hair around her face. "But it's not working right. I thought it would be easy, like making cookies, but it's not at all. Your mom did this every day? I don't see how; it takes forever, and it's a mess. I'm a mess, just look at me!"

There was anxiety in Willow's voice, but Tara couldn't stop her slow smile. She knew she shouldn't smile; she could see that Willow was upset, but she couldn't help it. Willow was a mess. Most of her short hair had escaped the sloppy ponytail, and her tank top clung to her skin in patches; her short skirt was streaked with flour. And she was breathing hard, the tip of her tongue caught between her teeth. She looked…perfect.

"I am," Tara said simply.

"No!" Willow shook her head; her eyes traveled the room, looking everywhere but at Tara, who just waited. Finally, sighing, Willow shrugged and dropped her arms to her sides.

"Look at me, Tara," she said, her voice climbing. "This is me. This is what you get now. I can't save people—not without Buffy—and you've seen how my spells go all wonky. I mean, okay, yes I did a little damage to Glory, but I had to swallow half a magic shop to do it, and the aftertaste wasn't exactly minty fresh, not that I would want it to be, and…." She waved her arms around at the kitchen. "And look at this place…I can't even make a loaf of bread without destroying the whole kitchen." She leaned back against the counter, looking defeated. Still, Tara waited.

"I just...I really miss her, you know?" Tara nodded, listening.

"And it's like I don't know who to be now. I mean, I was Buffy's sidekick for five years, and now…I'm just some girl now. That's all I ever used to be before I met Buffy. I was a geek, Tara, a computer nerd. You always thought I was powerful, but I was just some girl until Buffy came along. And now she's gone, and…you never even met that girl." Twisting her hands, Willow looked at the floor.

"Hey, hey," Tara said softly, crossing the room; she stopped inches away and reached to tuck Willow's hair back behind her ears. "Buffy never looked at you and saw sidekick; she only saw her friend, her best friend. And as for me, well, the day I met you…remember? At the Wicca group? I wasn't looking for a super mega witch, and I wasn't looking for some kind of, I don't know"—she cast about for something appropriately ridiculous—"slayer in training. I was just looking for a girl. For you."

Willow's face softened at that, and she raised her eyes to Tara's. "Well, you found me," she said. "Happy?"

"Yeah," Tara said solemnly. "Yeah, I am." She caught Willow's chin between her fingers. "For a long time before I met you, I was just… cold? And when I talked to you the first time, the very first time, I thought 'that girl can warm me.' And you did. You do. You're my fire, Will, my own private oven….only softer."

The corners of Willow's mouth turned up slightly, and she made a little dismissive noise. "Well, your oven kind of stinks at baking."

Tara brushed some flour off Willow's cheek and let her hand linger a moment before lowering it to fiddle with the strap of Willow's tank top. "My oven is wonderful," Tara corrected her.

She didn't know how else to say it. Willow could always find a sentence to argue back with, as if she had a formula in her head that could add two positives together and still come up with a negative. Words weren't always an answer. And the scent of the dough—even the slightly off-color aroma of the gray lump that Willow had managed to produce—was beginning to work its way inside her like a memory. She wanted it now, fresh bread. She wanted to make it with Willow.

"I'll show you," Tara murmured, leaning forward to touch her lips lightly to Willow's forehead, to her left cheek, to the corner of her mouth. When she finally pulled back, her lips full of heat, Willow was smiling again, her eyes soft and longing.

"Show me," Willow said. "I want you to."

Tara's stomach rumbled slightly; for a moment she couldn't remember if she'd eaten that morning. Or was it that deep down, she sensed that the separate parts of her life were blending? The soft wheat color of her mother's hair, the salty tears of living with Donnie and her father, the way her heart rose around Willow, the way Willow looked at her with hunger. They were the necessary ingredients. They were all part of her now.

Willow bent down to pick up an unopened yeast packet from the floor, and she handed it to Tara as if it were a gift. Reaching out, Tara accepted it, and she felt Willow's fingers warm against her own.

It took time, making the dough.

Willow watched as Tara set the sponge, as she mixed the yeast with salt, water, and flour until she had a ball of dough the size of a cantaloupe. She panicked a little when Tara stepped back and nodded at her expectantly, but she thought she could at least try.

She tried to pat the dough into shape, but the movement didn't come naturally, and after a minute, she felt Tara come up behind her, reaching around to cover Willow's hands with her own.

"Like this," Tara said; Willow relaxed and let Tara move her fingers, let Tara show her how to knead. Together, they turned and formed and punched and shaped, and Willow stopped trying so hard to turn the dough into something that looked like bread and just watched her hands moving with Tara's.

Together, they lifted the smooth oval of dough into a bowl, and Tara draped a tea towel over top. Willow was going to turn around then, but Tara's hand pressed hers onto the counter again, her warm, slick fingers tracing patterns on the backs of Willow's hands.

Willow became aware of Tara pressing lightly against her back, of the softness of Tara against the sharp angles of her shoulder blades. She watched as Tara's fingers played over her knuckles, drawing outlines in the flour on the backs of her hands, flicking under to tease at the undersides of her wrists.

Tara was kneading her.

Willow shivered at the touch, and a slow smolder lit deep inside her as the fingers moved up, leaving traces of flour on her arms. She could feel Tara's breath hot on her neck, the ends of Tara's hair brushing against her bare shoulders. She could feel the cool edge of the counter press against the bare skin of her stomach, below the hem of her tank top.

Willow turned around so she could reach, so she could slide her fingers inside Tara's shirt and up to her shoulder blades, and then she was kneading, too. She closed her eyes and felt only the stretch and pull, the shapes her fingers made on the skin of Tara's back. The give of the flesh as she pressed into it. The same thing happening to her own back, to her arms, to her breasts.

At first, she was aware of everything, every detail in the hot, humid kitchen: The ends of her damp ponytail clinging to her neck. The bare skin of her thighs against the hem of her short skirt and the satiny strap of Tara's bra smooth over her thumb. A sharp ray of sunlight glinting off the flour tin and the quiet whir of the fan on the counter and Tara's hand sliding up her waist to curve over her breast and the yeasty scent of the dough rising in the bowl behind her.

She tried to fire up her brain, to plan ahead, to remember the recipes that had always worked in the past: who to be with Tara and how to touch her; where to put her hands; when to place her mouth and when to lift it again; what to do next.

But then Tara kissed her, a swirl of tongue against her ear and on her throat and up, up to her lips, damp and wanting. And the kiss melted everything else away: layer after layer of memory and forgetting until there was just the two of them: her and her. Inside the movement of lips on lips. Inside the warm slick of a tongue. Inside the hot oven of a mouth. Inside them.

They kneaded one another.

"The bread," she remembered to say later, gasping the words around the corners of Tara's lips, but Tara's hands were everywhere, insistent and ravening and tugging gently at her tank top and not so gently at her skirt.

"It needs more time," Tara murmured from deep down in her throat.

Leaning into Tara's neck, Willow inhaled the salty tang of light sweat, and she tasted the buttery skin of Tara's fingers when they passed over her lips, and she felt the light dusting of flour on Tara's arms when she turned them both around so that Tara's back was to the counter.

Greedily, hungrily, she pushed Tara's long skirt up her thighs and, reaching underneath, pulled down the fabric her fingers found there; Tara stepped out of the circle of yellow and kicked it aside, and then Willow helped her raise herself onto the counter.

Tara closed her eyes, leaning back onto the flats of her palms, and Willow sank down, flickering her lips along the length of Tara's thigh and pressing gently against the insides of knees so she could reach, and then it was all feeding and soft fluttering, time passing as she shaped Tara's skin with her tongue; as she tasted.

When she pulled back to catch her breath, she saw only the whites of Tara's knuckles where her hands gripped the edges of the counter, and she heard only the sound of Tara's wanting in the air above her, and she felt only the smooth shapes of Tara's heels touching her back.

She wanted only one more thing: to touch Tara, to feel her inside, smooth as butter but warmer, more liquid. But a flash of that night by the tower, months ago now, stopped her—an image of her hand getting ready to pierce Tara's scalp, and her fingers hesitated.

"What do you want to do?" Tara asked her, lifting her fingers from the counter to trace the hollow of Willow's throat. The touch was so loving, so tender, that Willow couldn't speak for a moment.

"I don't want to hurt you," she whispered finally; her mind was all flame and few words. "I just want…."

"You've never hurt me, Will," Tara said, her voice low and moist. "You only thought you did." Tara's hand traveled up and cupped her face, and she leaned into it, feeling the humid warmth of Tara's palm on her cheek. She could almost believe it; all that was left was the touching.

Willow held her breath for a moment as she leaned down to kiss Tara's knee, and then she trailed her hand up Tara's leg again and closed her eyes.

It wasn't the first time they had touched each other that summer; it wasn't the first time they had pressed up against each other's naked skin, quiet and shaking. But it was the first time in months that Willow had been this brave.

This time, her fingers weren't scraping Tara but smoothing her. And the memories her fingers found weren't sharp shards of nightmares from Tara's childhood but soft, fluid dreams they had shared before: a dark night tinged rosy-pink, a petal against her thumb, a word pressed into the small of her own back with fingers like fairy-lights. That's how it always was with them; she remembered it now. All of it.

When Willow felt Tara's thighs go taut around her, when she felt one hand grip her hair, when she heard her own name curling from Tara's mouth, she bent her head again, pressing her tongue hard against that warm place to memorize the flavor.

And Tara rose.

This is how we do it, Willow thought, dropping her head onto Tara's thigh and opening her eyes so she could see the quiet trembling up close. It wasn't a resurrection. It wasn't a forgetting. It wasn't even magic, at least not the kind you did with spells. It was just what it was: homemade. From scratch, every time, until you could see and taste and smell the thing you had made with your own hands. Until you could touch it.

"You can use all the metaphors you want," Tara laughed into Willow's ear later, lifting the damp red hair from her neck. "It's still sex on the kitchen counter and…um… floor." Willow giggled into her shoulder and leaned back, settling across Tara's lap. "I think maybe we should get dressed." But she shifted so that the cabinet handle didn't dig into her back quite so much, and she moved her hands down to Willow's shoulders.

"Why?" Willow complained lazily, letting her head fall back. "No one's here but us. Giles isn't due back until tomorrow, and Xander and Anya have physical therapy until six, so…we could…"

"Yeah, but you know Anya," Tara said, smiling. "She might want to show us her ring again, and you've seen how she manages those wheels. Xander might try to get her to finish her session, but he can't keep up with her when she drives that thing."

"He's never been able to keep up with her," Willow said drily, raising an eyebrow. "Besides, Anya's never needed to stand up to get moving."

"Willow!" Tara pretended to be shocked, but it was true. And Anya had been remarkably matter-of-fact about her injury. After a thousand years of walking around on high heels, she'd said, she was perfectly content to look at things from a different perspective for awhile, and she was already talking about a roller derby costume for Halloween. As for Xander, well, he had been building ramps all over Sunnydale since they'd returned from their honeymoon.

"Willow!" Tara squeaked in a different way as Willow's hand moved downward. But the ringing phone startled them both, and before Willow's hand could go much further, Tara pushed it away playfully and reached for her blouse.

"Tara!" Dawn's voice squealed into her ear when she snatched the phone out of its cradle on the third ring. "What are you guys doing?"

"Dawn, sweetie," Tara winked at Willow and bit her lip. "Um, nothing. Just, you know, hanging out in the kitchen. The usual." She watched Willow blush as she tugged her skirt back down and looked around for her tank top.

"I miss you guys so much, but Dad and Monty are taking me fishing next weekend, and I met this girl who lives down the street—Elizabeth—and guess what?" Dawn's voice dropped to a whisper. "She has tarot cards. She said she'd teach me how to use them and everything."

Tara smiled. "Just be careful, Dawn, okay? Take it slow."

"Don't worry," Dawn said, and Tara thought how good it was to hear that lift in her voice. "I saw her mom's room the other day, and she had some of the same stuff you and Willow have…you know, books and candles and…stuff. She's super nice, Elizabeth's mom, I mean."

Dawn went quiet for a moment, and Tara could hear wistfulness coming across the phone line in waves and then a click as Willow picked up the extension.

"Hey, Dawnie, we miss you," Willow's voice said in her ear.

"Willow, my dad's been telling me what Buffy was like when she was just little. She had this doll she carried around all the time. Can you just imagine Buffy with a doll?"

"Yeah," Willow said softly. "Yeah, actually I can." Tara walked with the kitchen phone to the hallway, until she could see Willow holding the other phone in the living room, twisting the cord in one hand. She caught Willow's eye and held it for a moment.

"I can't wait to see you guys," Dawn said after a brief pause. " It's so cool that you're going to be living like an hour away. We can see each other all the time. When are you leaving again?"

"Well, we told Giles we'd help him get the house ready for the real estate agent to show," Willow said, her voice perking up again the way it did when she had a list to work with. "But we're packing today; I think we'll probably leave on Saturday. We just have so much to do, and you know, my parents want us to have dinner with them before we go. They're so relieved I finally decided to transfer."

"Me, too," Dawn said excitedly. "Maybe Elizabeth's mom can show you this cool spell she can do. First, you have to have a frog, so…." Willow dropped the phone onto the sofa abruptly and stepped back. Tara just smiled and leaned against the wall to listen to Dawn talk about magic.

A few hours later, packing up candles and jewelry in the bedroom, Tara's hand knocked against a ceramic bowl and spilled the contents over the top of Joyce's dresser. The scent of lavender reached her nose as she swept the dried herbs and flowers into her palm, and she saw one sprig that she didn't recognize. She held it up to the light, squinting at the tiny brown latticework of the branch.

"Hey, what's this?" she asked as she felt Willow's arms slip around her from behind. Willow's chin rested on her shoulder, and for a moment, they looked at the dried flower silently.

"Oh, nothing special." Willow's lips brushed Tara's neck before she pulled away, plucking the flower out of her grasp. "Just…something I thought I might need some day."

Tara watched, curious, as Willow turned the flower over in her fingers speculatively and, without warning, crumbled the flower in her fingers and dropped it into the trash bag on the floor, brushing her hands on her skirt.

"Not anymore, huh?" Tara had the sense that something important had just happened, but they had a lot of packing to do, and whatever that dried flower had been, it was only dust now. Nothing of importance, just one more thing to leave behind. She thought about all the Willows she knew—shy and sweet Willow; supportive Willow; self-doubting Willow; smart Willow; sexy Willow; even the almost sinister Willow of dark magicks and revenge that she had glimpsed through Glory. She loved them all; she did. They were all her Willow.

The Willow who turned to her now was smiling and inches away, her green eyes wide open and unguarded, and Tara thought that she loved that Willow best.

"No," Willow's voice was calm. "Not anymore."

Tara could smell the bread baking downstairs, and she knew she had to remember to go take it out of the oven in a few minutes. She had to remember to take one of the loaves over to Xander and Anya later; she had to remember to pick up Giles at the airport the next morning; she had to remember to call the agent in Massachusetts and make sure that the electricity had been turned on in the tiny apartment they had rented. And she had to remember to ask Willow about every little thing that had ever happened to her in her entire life and to tell her the same in return.

But then, as if she had forgotten that only hours before they had been half-dressed and sweat-chilled, kitchen tiles pressing into their thighs, Willow kissed her. And after a moment…Willow kissing her was the only thing she could remember.

Epilogue: September.

Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone;
it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time,
made new.
      —Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven

On a hot September day, Tara sat beside Willow in the front seat of the car and saw, in the rearview mirror, the dashes of yellow highway line blurring and fading into the road behind them.

Tara laughed inwardly at herself as she shredded the last loaf of the bread she and Willow had made, tossing the crumbs out the open window. Perhaps she was only being superstitious: the gray bird circling the house this morning as they packed up the car had not been Buffy's spirit watching over them; it was just a bird. But being reminded of the bird in her dream, being reminded of Buffy, she felt a flutter of sorrow. Buffy had sacrificed herself to save them all; she had flown into the portal and given the rest of them wings.

And here she was, flying down the highway toward a place that was new and exciting and just theirs. She was sad for Buffy but grateful…so grateful. And she was leaving a trail of crumbs on the road out of the Hellmouth; it was the only thanks she could think of. She saw Willow's quick, questioning glance, and she smiled sheepishly; she couldn't explain. Some things she could never explain.

She and Willow had a car full of stuff, an address in Massachusetts, and each other: that was all. Maybe it was selfish, Tara thought, to leave the nightmare behind. To leave that particular fight behind for another Slayer and her friends to face. Or maybe—closing her eyes, she felt the hot September wind in her hair—maybe their ordinary life, the life of two girls together, was hard enough without vampires and monsters and demons. Maybe it was brave.

"I feel like an explorer," she said suddenly. "Like Captain Cook, only without the part where I get eaten by the lesbian natives." She blushed when she realized what she'd said, and then, winking shyly at Willow, she added, "No, actually, I think I'll take that part, too."

It wasn't that funny. It wasn't even a joke. But Willow reached over to touch her arm and laughed, and in that quiet moment, something unspoken rose soft and warm between them: a quiet heat. A whole conversation without words. A future without tragedy. A life of daily things like school and love and bread.

Tara smiled, and catching Willow's hand in hers, she studied the shape their laced fingers made.

And Willow drove.

The End

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