DISCLAIMER: These are not my characters; Willow and Tara, the other characters, and various plot events that set up this story belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc, and I am grateful to have them.
Chapter 16: A Charmed Life
Life to life
I lean upon thee, Dear, without alarm,
And feel as safe as guarded by a charm
Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife
Are weak to injure.
--Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Sonnets from the Portugese"
Tara was dreaming, and the dream was white on white. She was in a white place without landscape. A white moment without time. There was no shape, no form, no dimension. She was simply embossed on the surface of a wrinkle.
She had come to this placethe part of herself that stood apart and observed the dream knew thison a tide of red. Crimson sheets on a bed. And the feather touch of red hair. A splash of scarlet on a white blouse.
And then just a white blouse.
And then just white.
In this place, she just was. Like paper, she was blank and unwritten. Like ash in a cold fireplace, she was a collection of remnants without shape or temperature. Like snow after it forms into crystals from rain but before it hits the ground, she was always whole and always separate and always falling and always still.
She was white.
And the white went on and on. It was all colors. It was complete. But something was missing here, something important, something red, like a heart. And some of the time or in some of the places there was something else. A pull, but without gravity. A call, but without voice.
There was a kind of desire to respond, to say "I'm coming." But there were no sentences here. There were no words to form. There were no questions to answer. There was no place to go to and no place to leave from.
There was just the white.
And then .something changed. It was almost white; it was ivory or vanilla. It was a doorway in the middle of the white. She felt did she feel now? were there feelings here? that the door was to be gone through, that she should go through it. On the other side of the door there was more white white in a bowl. White in the air. But there was also
Red. A pinprick of color on the horizon that was the doorway. A point of focus. Something to move toward. And somewhere else there was a voice.
"Tara," it said. "Tara."
Tara woke with a start into the absence of color. Black. It chilled her, for a moment. She lay still, breathing deeply, and gradually, the room adjusted itself back to the gray of night, curtained against the weak moonlight. She glanced beside her and was disconcerted to find herself alone in a bed that wasn't hers. It was obvious that only half the bed had been slept in. That only one pillow bore the impression of a sleeping head. Was she alone after all? Had she gone from that neutral white to something else, to another place without Willow?
Where was Willow? And what was that dream? Tara had a sudden uneasy, overwhelming sense of déjà vu. What if she had fallen asleep and missed three more months? What if she had somehow died again? What if she had never gone back to life but was instead passing through one doorway after another? Versions of a life with Willow. Visions of a life without her. No kind of life at all.
But no. Of course not. She remembered, almost as quickly as she had forgotten, that the bed looked half empty because it had been half empty, because she and Willow had slept so close, pressed so tightly against one another that they had needed only half. Only one pillow. They would have crawled inside each other if they could.
She heard the voice again; she had forgotten it already in the darkness. The door stood half-open, and Tara could see Dawn in the hallway, her long hair falling onto the shoulders of her pajamas.
Tara slid out of bed and padded softly to the doorway. Dawn didn't move. This, too, seemed familiar. "Sweetie?" she asked. She touched Dawn's arm gently, and Dawn blinked and turned her head. Her stiff arm softened at Tara's touch.
"Tara," she said again, surprised. "What are you doing up?"
Tara tilted her head, confused. "You called me," she said. "I was sleeping, and you woke me up. Just just now. Didn't you?"
Dawn glanced past Tara at the darkened bedroom, then looked back over her shoulder at the door to her own room, which was shut. She frowned. "That's weird," she said. "I don't remember closing that door."
Tara opened her mouth to speak, but then she heard another sound, a soft and desperate weeping from the bathroom. She would recognize that sound anywhere, and her first thought was immense relief, immense gratitude. Willow was all right. And that meant that she, herself, was really alive.
Her body yearned toward the sound.
Almost reluctantly, she turned back to Dawn, who was still looking at her closed door as if she couldn't quite place it. "Dawnie," Tara said, squeezing her shoulder. "Go back to bed." Dawn nodded and turned and wandered back down the hallway without speaking.
Tara knocked softly on the bathroom door and turned the knob without waiting for an answer. The room was dim; only the night light burned. Willow was sitting on the floor, leaning against the bathtub, her knees pulled up to her chest, her fingers clutching at the sides of her face, handfuls of hair caught up in them.
Tara felt sorrow rise from her stomach to choke at her throat. Maybe Willow had been right. Maybe they didn't get easy. Maybe Tara would dream of white and wake into confusion every night forever. Maybe Willow would cry every night forever. For what she had lost. For what they had lost.
But that was forever. Right now, Willow needed her, and she would make it better.
She closed the door behind her, and at the soft click, Willow looked up, her face shimmering wet in the weak glow of the night light. "I didn't want to wake you," her breath came in gasps between the words. "You were so tired." She wiped the red sleeve of her bathrobe across her nose and eyes.
"Willow," Tara murmured, sinking to her knees and sliding her arms around the tensed shoulders, pulling the red head against her chest with a gentle pressure of fingers. "I'm sorry, honey. I should have said something about the necklace. I just I thought if it was a protection charm, a little extra help, it couldn't hurt. I should have said ."
"No," Willow sobbed helplessly. "I don't care about that. It's just I thought it was me. I thought I I finally did something right, something worthy of you," her breath came out in a soft, high moan, "and it was that necklace." Tara tightened her grasp on Willow, felt the shoulder trembling with disappointment and the face wet with self-loathing beneath her fingers, saw the white of her own knuckles gripping Willow.
"My poor baby," Tara whispered. "I remember I remember when you could lift us both right off the dance floor. You were so strong, so sure." Tara could feel Willow recoiling at her words, pulling herself away. She tried to touch the red, but Willow's hair slipped through her fingers. Just out of reach.
"That wasn't me," Willow choked out. "That was the magick; it was always the magick. I'm weak." She lifted her face, and Tara's heart constricted at the pain she saw in her lover's eyes. It was naked. "I'll never be more than that, Tara," Willow cried. "I can't ever be more than that, not again."
"Willow, how can you say that?" Tara felt Willow's disgust with herself as a fist in her own stomach. "Look what we've," Tara used the word instinctively, but it rang false in her ears, "look what you've been through. You had to do it all alone. No one's had to be stronger than you." She reached for Willow's hand, but it pulled out of her grasp, and Tara bit her lip.
"That wasn't strength," Willow said thickly. "That was just waiting. And I ." She stopped abruptly, folding herself against the tub, shrinking from Tara.
"Willow, what is it?" Tara's voice came out a whisper. There was something else; she could feel it, and she didn't like it. She wanted to be able to take away Willow's shame, to comfort her, but there was something else. "Willow, please talk to me. Please," she heard the desperation in her own voice.
Willow looked up at her through her tears, through a strand of red hair that fell across her face. "Tara," she wept. "Tara, don't you see?" She pushed at her hair impatiently, pressing her lips together against the tears. "When I'm strong, you get hurt. When I'm strong, you die. ."
Tara didn't hear the end of the sentence. She sat back on her heels, lightheaded and breathless. She squeezed her eyes shut, and for a moment, she saw white. Paper. Snow. Ash. She gripped Willow's hand to remind herself where she was, and she opened her eyes. The bathroom. She breathed.
"Is that what you think?" she asked finally, and her voice sounded distant, tiny. "You think I died because you did something wrong?" She concentrated on feeling the backs of her heels pressing into her thighs. Heels had a shape, so if she could feel them, then she was really here. And Willow's hair had color, so if she could see it, then she was really here. She reached out a trembling hand and touched Willow's hair.
"Am I just an accessory?" she asked quietly, but she felt panic rising in her throat. "Am I just a prop in your life? My death was just to punish you, and my life is some some way to keep you weak? To keep you safe?"
For a moment, Tara felt terrified and empty. Was that true? Was that what she was to Willow? Was that what she was in death and in life? Was that what she was for? To be a charm?
And then Willow's fingers closed around her hand, and she looked through the white haze of her confusion and her shock to see fear in her lover's eyes. And worry. She saw Willow's other hand reach toward her, and when the fingers touched her cheek, she realized that her face was wet, that she was crying.
"Is that all I am, Willow?" she asked through her tears. "Am I inside your head? Am I alive? Am I even here now? Am I just extra?"
"Baby, no, no" Willow said fiercely, and Tara felt herself gathered up by the strong arms she remembered. She let her head fall against Willow's neck, let herself be cradled, let Willow whisper soft words into her hair and onto her cheeks. She let Willow's fingers press reassurance and safety into her back.
And in a moment, the terrified feeling passed, and Tara was just herself again, crying against Willow's neck. The panic, the emptiness that had felt so real only a moment before seemed ridiculous to her compared to Willow's solid arms, Willow's soothing fingers.
Of course she didn't exist to make Willow behave one way or another. Of course she was herself, a separate person. She half-laughed through her tears. It was just sometimes she felt so close to Willow it scared her. And these last few days it was like they were connected. Braided.
"Hey, who's comforting whom?" she half-laughed through her slowing tears.
"I can be comforty, too" Willow murmured, her voice hoarse. She sighed, and Tara leaned into her. The tile was cold under her hip, but Willow's bathrobe was warm. "I think you just reminded me."
For a moment, they sat in silence, exhausted. Tara closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against Willow's skin. This was real. They were real. After awhile, Willow spoke, and her voice was calmer than it had been.
"Tara, I'm sorry," she said. "I've been so selfish," Tara heard the words catch in Willow's throat. She felt Willow's hand in her hair.
"I feel so strange," Tara whispered finally. "I don't know where I was. I don't know how I came back. I don't I don't really know who I am anymore. I only know that I need to be with you." Saying it out loud helped.
Willow's fingers sifted through her hair, and Tara was again relieved that she could feel the pull of the fingers. She could feel the weight of Willow's hand on her back. She could see the bone of Willow's wrist in the dim light. She could feel the cold tile against the bare skin of her thigh. She could hear the drip in the faucet.
"I know who you are," Willow murmured. Tara tilted her head back so she could look up at her lover, so that she could see the tear-streaked face and the eyes shimmering in the dark. "You're everything. You're part of us, and us is everything."
The words sank into Tara's skin like memory. Like truth. But not the whole truth.
"The magick is us, too, Willow," she said softly. "That's who we are. You can't fight that to protect us."
Willow met her gaze at that, and as Tara felt the green of her eyes chase away the last haunting tendrils of white, she realized they had both stopped crying. She tucked her head back into the crook of Willow's neck and felt the familiar face press into her hair. They held onto each other until the tile became too cold, the enamel of the bathtub too hard, the sheer effort of sitting up too exhausting.
And then they went back to bed, wrapping their arms tightly around one another, their heads curled together on one pillow. The room was black, and the sheets were white, and Tara knew somewhere in the back of her mind, as they drifted into sleep, that it was the sleep of lovers who have shared their deepest secrets.
It was the sleep of the charmed.
"Charming," Buffy sighed into the phone. "Well, Xander, you're just going to have to watch the shop until one of us can get there. It shouldn't be long; I think we're nearly finished here."
Willow sipped at her coffee as Buffy finished her phone call. It tasted odd, smoky. She'd forgotten how things tasted over the last few months: sweet or bitter or sour or salty. But it was a cool morning, and the coffee warmed her. Or maybe it was Tara's watchful gaze that did that. Or her hand on Willow's knee.
"So?" Dawn said as Buffy hung up the phone and leaned against the kitchen wall, her hands on her hips. She nodded at the pendulum; it glinted silver on the table. "It's what, some kind of magickal mood ring?"
Giles sighed and rubbed his forehead with one hand. "That's one way to put it, I suppose," he said. He had explained that the pendulum was a relatively simple charm, one which changed color in response to the emotions of its wearer. Its color changed if the wearer felt anger, or pain, or sorrow, anything that mightGiles had said it proudlytrigger the use of magicks.
"You see," he had said excitedly, gesturing at the pendulum that Willow had held out to him, her eyes asking the question. "It doesn't influence your behavior in any way; it doesn't change your choices whatsoever. It merely reflects your emotional state."
"You mean," Willow had said slowly, trying to understand. "You mean it didn't stop me from casting?" The relief had been immense. Consuming. She had done one thing after all. That one thing.
"No," Giles had said, glancing at her with surprise. "No, you did that. But, you see, this could help you if you're tempted to cast again. It can help you, or others, to know how you're feeling. So that you can control situations."
"But Giles," Buffy said now, and Willow thought she sounded tired. "Why didn't you just tell Willow it was a charm? Why the big secret?"
"I .I don't know, really," he said, glancing at her. "I suppose I thought that it would be a useful training tool. I didn't think you would run into a tempting situation quite so soon .I ."
"You didn't think she'd be able to see it," Tara interrupted flatly. "If she wears it around her neck, then she wouldn't know. The rest of us could see it. You could see it. But not Willow." Tara's hand had stiffened against Willow's knee.
Willow closed her eyes against the disappointment. It was always the same. Giles might love her, but in the end, he didn't trust her. He had never trusted her. It had been that way since the beginning. He talked about balance, and pendulums, and walking the line, but in the end he didn't trust her.
But when she opened her eyes again, Giles was looking at her, and his eyes were soft and regretful, and Willow instantly felt sorry. It only made sense that he would want to protect her from herself. He was only trying to protect them all. That was all he had ever tried to do.
Tara was watching her, too. Everyone was watching her. Like everyone would always be watching her if she wore the pendant. Like she would always be watching herself. Always aware of every emotion, always second-guessing, always wondering what would be the next trigger. Just thinking about it, Willow shrank back in her chair. Away from the collective gaze, the endless scrutiny of her friends. And of herself.
But as she sank back, Tara snapped forward.
"Willow's not going to wear that pendulum anymore," she said quietly.
"Tara, I I really don't think you've thought this through properly," Giles said. "It's a simple precaution, a way for us to monitor ."
"Giles," Tara said again, calmly, and Willow blinked. She had never heard Tara call him just Giles before, never. Tara spoke slowly, firmly, and she looked straight at him. "Willow is not going to wear that pendulum any more."
Giles pulled his glass off and turned to Buffy. "Surely," he said, and Willow wondered when she'd ever heard that tone in his voice before. Beseeching. Almost pleading. "Surely we should make it easier for Willow if we can. I of all people know how hard this can be."
The room crackled with tension, and Willow shifted uncomfortably. She felt Buffy's eyes on her and looked up to meet her friend's gaze. Buffy studied her for a moment, tilting her head and really looking at her. Perhaps Buffy would decide, would take the weight of this decision from her.
But Buffy, finally, shook her head slightly, so slightly. "Giles, I think that Willow gets to choose," she said gently. "I know this is hard; I know that, but but you don't get to choose for her." She crossed the room to look up at him.
"Giles, we've talked about this," Buffy said quietly. "Being my Watcher being our Watcher it doesn't mean you get to decide for us. You said it yourself; you said I had to grow up. Well, Willow has to grow up, too, and you have to let her. You have to let this be her choice."
After what seemed like a long time, Giles nodded, and he touched Buffy's shoulder. "I forget sometimes," he said, and Willow thought how like a father he looked at that moment. When he looked at her againhis eyes wary but knowing, uncertain but hopefulshe realized with a start that there was no one left but herself. She was going to have to decide. She was going to have to choose.
Swallowing against her instinctive panic, she looked to Tara, who was watching her with a firm face and soft, soft eyes.
"I trust you," Tara said.
"But," Willow started to say. She opened her mouth to speak.
"I trust you," Tara said again, and Willow remembered with a start. She remembered everything. She remembered when Tara was new, and love was new, and magick was new, when she felt new. Before confusion and death and killing. When trusting people when trusting herself was easier.
The others were watching her. They were waiting for her to say something, to make a decision. Willow glanced at the pendulum, and she glanced around the room at their faces and she looked at Tara.
"I " she began, "I want to try. I want to try it without any charms. I want to try." And as she said it, she realized it was true.
"But Willow," Dawn burst out, excited. She'd been so quiet, tucked into the corner by the refrigerator, that Willow had almost forgotten she was there. "Of course you do." Willow looked at her, confused.
"It's in your nature," Dawn continued. "You're already doing it."
And Willow froze. For a moment, her vision blurred, and she gripped the countertop so hard that her knuckles turned white.
"What?" she said. She blinked rapidly. "What did you say?"
Dawn shrugged. "You're already doing it?" she said slowly.
"No, before that," Willow said. She'd heard those words before. Those very words. Exactly like that.
"Um, I don't know," Dawn said, glancing at Tara quizzically. She bit her lip and shifted her weight to her other hip, crossing her arms over her chest.
"You said 'it's in your nature.'" Willow said slowly. "Where did you hear that?"
Willow remembered getting out of bed at the coven only she wasn't sure she'd actually gotten out of bed. She remembered the hum of the voice, the white shimmer of a woman's face. She remembered that the woman had woken her up.
"You have your friends," the hum grew a little, purred, deep and rhythmic. It surrounded Willow. It licked at her. "They need you, Willow. We need you. You must rebuild." Willow tried to shake her head. She still sat, calmly.
I won't, she thought. I am done.
The voice grew louder. The wind blew Willow's hair back, away from her face. It glinted red. The tops of the heather quivered. "You can't help it," the voice purred. "You can't stop it. It's in your nature."
No, Willow thought. She'd meant it to be desperate, but it seeped out of her as calmly as before. No.
"Look at your hands." The hum was back, lessening, low musical notes fading away at the end of a song. "You're already doing it."
The memory played in her mind like a video in black and white. The moment when she had forced herself to live. The moment afterward when she had gotten out of bedeatenfor the first time in days. Before that moment, she had wanted only to die. And after that moment well, she had still wanted to die, but she had known that she would live.
Willow stared at Dawn, her mouth slightly open, her throat dry. Tara put a hand around her shoulder.
"Willow, what is it?" she asked softly.
Willow shook her head slowly. "Dawnie, how how did you know about that?" she asked. Her voice shook. She remembered the woman in her had it been a vision? a dream? whose face she had never seen. She remembered peeling herself out of bed afterward and finding Dawn standing right outside the door to her room. She remembered the headaches that had started immediately afterward.
Dawn looked back at her, and a current of understanding passed between them. "I know because " Dawn's face twisted, and she touched her head with one hand. "I know because I was there."
Willow saw it happen. And she knew, with a shock, what it meant. With a stab of headache, with a wrinkle on the smooth landscape of her forehead, Dawn remembered.
Chapter 17: Synchronicity
And I knew
That this was the hour of knowing,
And the night and the woods and you
Were one together, and I should find
Soon in the silence the hidden key
Of all that had hurt and puzzled me
Why you were you, and the night was kind,
And the woods were part of the heart of me.
--Rupert Brooke, "The Voice"
Dawn flinched with the stab of a headache, and Willow understood. "It was you," she breathed out, her computer brain kicking in to make connections. She squinted and tried to see in the outline of the hair framing Dawn's face a trace of the figure in her vision. She'd always assumed the woman was one of the Guides, but as she searched through the databases of her memory, she could come up with no details to contradict what she suddenly knew to be true.
"I always forget," Dawn murmured, the groove in her forehead deepening as pain settled in. "I start to remember, but I always forget." She looked up, and Willow saw a question in Dawn's pleading eyes. She wanted to remember.
It could only have been a moment that Willow paused, her hands wrapped around her cooling coffee cup, her eyes locked with Dawn's, Tara's tense fingers stretched across the denim-covered bone of her knee. It could only have been a few secondsjust long enough to think, to remember, to know.
It seemed like longer.
Long enough to fill in the white-blurred face of the woman who had gotten her out of bed and forced her to start living again. To remember that Dawn had been standing right outside when she'd opened the door to see where the woman had gone. To remember that Dawn had had her first headache only hours later. To remember that Dawn had emerged from every headache at the touch of Willow's hands with phrases on the tip of her tongue, phrases like "she's coming."
To rememberand surely she had only missed this before because she had spent the summer clawing her way through a swamp of griefthat after Dawn's headaches, she had always, always felt a little bit better not less sad, never that, but a little less suicidal. She'd assumed at the time that it was the simple relief of distraction.
All this occurred to Willow in a moment.
And that moment was long enough to realize three things. Dawn needed to know what she had done. Tara needed to know how she had come back. And Willow knew how to help them answer their questions with magick. She had to help Dawn see inside that headache. That was where the answers were. That was the key.
She closed her eyes for a moment, breathed in and found that white spot of calm and held on to it, the way the Guides had taught her. She could do this for Dawn. She would do this for Tara.
Lacing her fingers through Tara's on her knee and squeezing gently, Willow spoke to Dawn, whose hand was still curved but stiffening around her fork, whose mouth was twisting. To Willow, it was a familiar sight, Dawn's eyebrows knitting with pain, her left cheek twitching just under her eye, her lips curling back over her small and even teeth. Instinctively, she leaned toward Dawn, ready to press a palm against her forehead, to make the pain stop .
And she realized, abruptly, that she had always made the pain stop before. And Dawn had always forgotten before. Willow sat back.
"I can help you remember, Dawnie," she said. "But you have to trust me. Can you do that?" Dawn nodded, her eyes widening at Willow for just a moment, but her neck was already tensing, her body already going rigid.
"Buffy, it's okay," Willow said calmly, her voice sing-song and lulling. "Dawn's having a headache, and I want us to let her, but it won't last long, and when it's over, she'll be fine. Is that okay?" She knew, even with the pressure of time, that she needed to do this right this time. To ask permission. Not to violate. This was important.
She was aware of Tara and Buffy exchanging a reassuring look, aware of Giles in the background glancing involuntarily at the pendulum, neglected now on the countertop. But she was concentrating on Dawn, focusing on the crease in her forehead, the wrinkle in her mind where memories and answers were folded away.
She felt rather than saw Buffy crossing the room, coming out from behind the counter to stand by Dawn. "Tell me what you need, Will," Buffy said, her voice was calm and firm. Willow resisted the urge to throw her arms around her friend in gratitude, in simple thanks for that warm support. She needed to concentrate on Dawn right now.
"Just stay close," she said. "Don't touch her, but stay close. I think that touching is what stops the headaches, but we need the headache to happen so Dawn can remember."
Buffy nodded. Tara squeezed her knee again and let go. Dawn made a small whimpering noise as she clutched at her head. Willow closed her eyes and focused on slowing down the images that rushed through Dawn's brain, images that clashed against one another, that screeched and railed into a piercing noise.
Willow helped Dawn to remember.
Spike on his knees. Hurting with death and life. Hurting with the memory of centuries' worth of pain inflicted, centuries' worth of harm done. Hurting with having to live again, having to feel again, having to try to stand up under the bloody and heavy weight of the past. He wouldn't stand. He couldn't stand. He grabbed at Buffy's arm, trying to press the point of her stake against his heart, and Dawn's eyes fluttered, Dawn's head wrinkled with pain.
She saw then that there was another her floating in the air: a projection, an image, a Key. And that self was talking to Spike. Well, not talking exactly, but thinking words that Spike seemed to understand. Just as she had first projected herself into Willow's grief, she now projected herself into Spike's anguish. "You still have your humanity," her Key self was saying. "You always did. You must reach into yourself for that life and leave the dust behind."
Dawn knew that it hurt, it always hurt, but it hurt less this time. That was distance, maybe, or practice. And after a little while, Spike stopped trying to grab Buffy's arm. And then he looked up at her.
And before that the Magick Box. Someone nearby had created a doorway, and they were trying to open it, and Dawn felt the chance. She had been calling Tara all summer, calling the name with her mind, sending out signals into the white void and getting no response. No response but Willow's pain. No response but Willow's wounds.
Until today. Today there was a door. Today there was a way. It was white on white a bowl of milk by the chalk outlines of a doorway, and there was a pinprick of red the red of bloodied rope, the red of a birthing chant, the red of sheets on a bed. Dawn had felt it, and she reached out with her mind and she opened the door. "Tara," she called, and she opened the door. And then her mind went black, and she fell back, and when she opened her eyes, she had felt calmer. "She's here," she had said.
And Tara was here.
Tara watched as Willow, without opening her eyes, rested her hands on Dawn's shoulders and murmured a few words. Both sets of eyes then blinked open, and Tara smiled as Willow leaned forward and rested her forehead against Dawn's. She stayed that way for a moment, hands on Dawn's shoulders, but she was smiling, the corners of her mouth turning up with relief, the pink of success flushing her cheeks.
"I opened the door," Dawn said, her voice tinged with wonder. "I opened the door for Tara. I called her, and she came through the door."
For a moment, no one spoke. Tara had felt her pulse quickening as she listened to Dawn talk, had felt her skin warm as she watched Willow focusing on Dawn, her eyes closed, her face serene, her lips slightly open and hinting at a smile. She was never more beautiful, never more luminous, than when suffused by magicks this way; Tara had always thought so. Seeing Willow that way againhow long had it been?reminded Tara of their first spells, of clasped hands and candles and fingers trailing circles of white. Of the way Willow's eyes flashed open with one kind of magick and fluttered closed with another.
For Tara, it had been an odd few moments, listening to Dawn's quiet narration. She was, in a way, hearing the story of her life, how she had come to be again. She had recognized in Dawn's words her own dream, or her own memory. That almost-white doorway in the midst of the white. Hearing her name called. Moving toward the doorif it could be called "moving," that floating and bodiless process of traveling through a series of not-places to a place, a door. Seeing on the other side of the doorway a something a color a pinprick of red. The red hair of her only love. The red sheets of their bed.
She had moved through the doorway toward that red and found herself in her body. In her bedroom. In the Summers' house. Feeling new. And feeling loved. Delivered from white into the red and beating heart of her family.
Buffy had inched over to Tara while Dawn was talking, while Willow was focusing, and now the two stood close, shoulders touching, as they watched Willow smooth her hands down Dawn's hair and over her cheeks. Dawn seemed a little stunned, but at Willow's touch she relaxed, her lips softening and her eyes widening as she realized what she had described. Tara watched Willow's fingers calm Dawn and smiled. She knew what that felt like.
Tara had come full circle, she thought now; they all had. She had seen Willow lose herself in the magick of forgetting, and just now she had seen Willow find herself again in the magick of remembering. She had seen Dawn motherless and hating death, and now she saw her mothering and giving life. And she saw herself, she who had tried to be a mother to Dawn the best she could, now cradled in life by the love of a young girl.
Willow and Dawn still sat quietly, head to head, but Tara realized that both Buffy and Giles were looking at her, asking a silent question. She could only nod mutely. How could she find the words to acknowledge her own rebirth? What sentence could even begin to thank the teenager who had just unlocked her death and opened the door back to her life with Willow? What could she possibly say?
The others seemed to feel the same; Buffy moved silently to put an arm around Dawn's shoulders, and Willow pulled her head back from Dawn's; she opened her mouth but did not speak. She seemed as unable as Tara to find words. She looked simply overcome. Tara moved to touch her. To steady her. To take Willow's trembling hands in hers.
Giles was less speechless. He had been watching thoughtfully, one hand rubbing his chin, but he stirred now and leaned forward on the counter, pulling his glasses off and reaching toward Dawn. His eyes glinted with excitement, his lips parted slightly. Tara had rarely seen him respond that way to anything outside of a book. She liked it.
"Synchronicity," Giles said, his voice holding something like awe.
"What?" Tara tore her eyes away from Willow long enough to look at him.
"Synchronicity," he said again. "The confluence of events that appear to be linked but in fact have no discernible causal relationship. You see " he took a breath, but Dawn interrupted him.
"Um, Giles? Some of us are still in high school?" Dawn raised her eyebrows, and Giles smiled ruefully.
"I suppose you could call it a happy coincidence," he said. "Your mind, Dawn the Key part of your mind was reaching out again and again, looking for a doorway to open, but with no luck. But when it reached out at the same time that the Professor was casting his resurrection spell synchronicity." He nodded to himself, looking pleased.
"As for the headaches well," Giles' brow furrowed with thought, and he settled his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. "They would seem to represent moments of intense mental strain as well as a kind of, ah, channeling."
Dawn frowned. "Channeling?" asked, glancing at Willow a little warily.
"Channeling pain," Giles said gently. "Obviously, we don't have all the answers right now, but from what you've described, it sounds as if your headache was a direct response to Spike's pain. And Willow's. And, of course, Tara's."
"I get it," Dawn said excitedly. "I took the pain away, I made it into a headache." The corners of Giles' mouth turned up slightly, and he nodded.
"But Dawn," he said, tilting his head at her. I can't help but wonder how you knew what to do. On some level .that is, somewhere deep down you had to know that you wanted to do this. But how? How did you know to try and get Tara back?"
Dawn bit her lip, and twisted her beaded necklace, and thought. And Tara watched Dawn remember.
The house had been empty and still, and the bedroom had been quiet. Dawn wasn't sure she had ever been anywhere so quiet. No clock. No water dripping in the bathroom. No birds outside the window. Just quiet.
When she had first come into the room, she had sunk down along the wall by the door, too shocked by the sight of Tara lying twisted on the floor to do more. She had sunk down and pulled her knees to her chest and stared, unable to move or make a sound or even blink. She had simply stared, and her mind seemed full of the word "no."
She had had no idea how much time had passed. She had simply stared.
But at some point later, she had found herself sitting next to Tara on the floor by the bed. Had she crawled there? Had she stood and walked? She had put her hands on Tara's body, had felt the soft cotton of the blue shirt and the rougher cotton of the pants and the silk of the hair and the cool and springy skin.
She had come back to herself with a start, realizing that she was touching Tara everywhere, laying her hands on her. It was to comfort Tara or herself but some other part of her, she knew now, had been paying attention.
Memorizing. As if it might be important later on. As if there might be something to know about the shape and the size and the contours of Tara's body. As if it might be something that later, much later, she would be able to heal.
"You memorized me," Tara said now, and Dawn nodded. It was true. Buffy could see that it was true, and she felt a rush of relief. They knew now. They didn't have to worry about fallout. About Glory, or something worse.
"But that means that Dawn's Keyness would already have started," Willow said, her lips pursing in confusion. "Didn't you say that the events had to happen before the Key powers kicked in?" Giles nodded. "So, that would be first killing without a weapon, and then seeing a wish undone, and then forgiving her greatest threat?"
Willow bit her lip and glanced at Tara, her face paling. "Well, that doesn't work then," she said. "I didn't threaten to kill Dawn until after she sat with Tara's ." Buffy could hardly hear the last word. But Willow seemed to shake herself, then, and she looked at Giles with a firmer face.
"She couldn't have acted as the Key until after that, Giles," she said. "Because I was the greatest threat. You know that. We all know that." Buffy kept her grip on Dawn's shoulder but she reached forward and touched Willow's face with her fingers.
"No, Will," she said softly, smiling at the incomprehension on her friend's face. Willow was so used to thinking of herself as the wicked witch that she couldn't even see when someone else was to blame. "Willow, no, it wasn't you. I knew you'd find a way to blame yourself, so I didn't want to tell you until you could see until we had proof. And now we do."
Willow looked at Buffy searchingly, her mouth slightly open, and then she glanced at Giles. "I don't understand," she said slowly. "I told Dawn I wanted to kill her. What could be a greater threat than that?"
Dawn shook her head. "No, Willow, that's not what you said." Buffy watched her sister's face soften. "You said you would turn me back into the key. Back into a ball of pure green energy."
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "And?" she said. "What difference does it make? I was still totally evil. I was still threatening Dawnie. I mean, I know that everyone has forgiven me"she seemed to choke on the words"but you can't pretend it didn't happen. I did that. You can all pretend to forget that, but I remember." Buffy watched Willow's eyes flash dark with pain. "I remember."
Giles stepped forward, moving past Buffy to put a hand on Willow's arm. "My dear girl," he said, wrapping his fingers gently around her elbow. "You are always so intelligent, so brilliantly smart when it comes to everything and everyone but yourself."
Willow frowned. "But Giles," she started to say, but he held up a finger to shush her.
"Willow, if you had turned Dawn back into a ball of green energy, then she would still be the Key, don't you see?" She looked at him blankly. "You would only have been returning her to her essential nature. She would still be the Key." Giles spoke slowly, kindly, as if he understood that Willow would resist his words, refuse the balm that he was offering her. "You may have been a threat to Dawn's human self, Willow, but you were never a threat to the Key."
Willow blinked and stepped back. "But but I was," she said, her eyes shifting, glancing at Tara, and then Buffy and Dawn, and finally settling back on Giles. "Who else was there?"
Buffy watched her carefully and saw that, as had so constantly been the case since the night of the car accident when Dawn's arm had been broken, Willow could not see past her own guilt. Her own shame. But that had to change; it had to change right now because Willow wasn't alone in her mistakes. She never had been.
"Will, there was me," Buffy said gently, smiling a little in Dawn's direction. She had made her apologies already, and she had never believed in dragging things out. What was done was done. "I tried to kill Dawn. And the Key is part of Dawn. Willow, I tried to kill all of you. And you forgave me, didn't you?"
"But I tried to end the whole world," Willow said; she looked almost angry.
"So did I," Buffy's voice was firm, holding Willow's gaze until her eyes flickered a little with recognition. "So did I. Don't fight me on this one, Will. It was me. This time, the greatest threat was me, and Dawn had to forgive her greatest threat, so she had to forgive me."
And Buffy turned to Dawn. "Do you remember?"
Dawn remembered breakfast. Stacks of pancakes, boxes of cereal, piles of toast. Starchfest. Dawn had wondered if Buffy had been talking to Tara; she always believed in feeding people to make them feel better.
But she had seen Buffy watching her across the counter, practically smelled the guilt wafting through the kitchen. But then, pancakes always smelled like guilt to Dawn when someone besides Tara was making them.
And, yeah, Dawn still felt like there was something to be guilty about. Buffy had tried to kill her, tried to kill them all, tried to end their whole world. Had tried to deny her family. And Dawn hated that, hated how everyone kept breaking her family up. She was tired of that.
"I didn't know if , you know, if you had plans this weekend," Buffy had said with her arms full of cereal boxes, "but I thought, maybe we could ."
"Hey Buffy?" Dawn had said. Buffy had looked at her, and Dawn had felt a need well up. A need to forgive. Not just to feel it but to say it. To show Buffy and to have Buffy feel it. She spoke quietly "I'm gonna be okay with the basement thing. Really. You weren't you."
"This isn't guilt," Buffy said, "I want us to spend time." But a current of understanding sparked between them. They spoke about hanging out, about pizza and movies, but under the conversation, Dawn felt something growing. She felt awake, she felt energetic, she felt animated. More alive than ever before.
It was alive inside her, that energy. Like grass, shooting from the ground, like photosynthesis, this growing thing. It tickled at her, like new blades of grass growing up the inside of her arms, through her veins. She felt alert; she felt strong. She felt like she could do anything, like she could .
"Why don't I come patrolling with you tonight?" she'd asked Buffy. She hadn't thought of patrolling right away, but she wanted to do something, and what Buffy did with her energy was patrol. That was what Buffy always did when she had extra energy. All those late nights. She patrolled.
But Buffy was not pleased. "Oh," she said. "And then? Maybe we can invite over some strangers and ask them to feed you candy."
"Well, you guys went out patrolling every night when you were my age" Dawn had tried another tactic. She wanted to jump and down, to hop, to run, something, to fix things, to do good, to do something.
Buffy had smiled. "True, but technically, you're one and a half." Some corner of Dawn's mind had protested that in a whisper, had reminded Dawn that in fact she was ancient. She was older than any of them, older than Sunnydale, older than California. Older than people. She was the key. She was
She was late for school . And after school after math and gym class and boys and phone calls, she had just forgotten.
But Dawn remembered it all now. It was like waking up in the middle of a dream, in that moment when it was still possible to remember every detail with utter clarity: color and texture and the sharp, sharp edges of objects and events. Usually, a dream like that faded quickly; by the time you went to the bathroom or turned on the light, the edges blurred, the colors faded, and by the time you woke up the next morning it was gone.
But this time, the dream was still with her. And it wasn't a dream, not really. These were things she had done that she simply hadn't been aware of. But now, remembering, she could feel that green energy inside her again, that green that was always there at the edge of the white noise of her headaches. The green of not being ready. The green of growing.
She was the Key. She wasn't one and a half; she was ancient. She could open doors and make people feel better. Look at Spike. Look at Willow. Omigod, look at Tara. She had brought her back. She had somehow used her Key power without realizing it, and she had brought Tara back from the dead. Wow. Wait until Janice heard about this.
But it was kind of confusing. She didn't really understand it: how it had happened, what exactly she had done. And everyone was looking at her. Tara looked overwhelmed. Willow looked grateful. Giles looked intrigued and pleased. And Buffy Buffy looked proud.
Buffy slid her arms around Dawn know, hugging her tightly "Mom told me once that she knew you were precious," Buffy whispered. "Important to the world. And you are."
Dawn leaned into her sister's arms. It felt good, that hug. It felt like family. Out of all of this, that was the one thing that made sense to Dawn. That she had fixed her family. Found a bandage to put over the wound that death had made. That made sense. But the rest the how .
Dawn squeezed Buffy hard and then pulled back, crossing her arms over her chest, shifting her weight to one hip. She wanted to know. "Hello, still a teenager with a teenager brain here. It's not like we get Key Studies in school. What does this mean? Who am I? What do I do?"
"It's simple," Giles said, smiling at Dawn, and it was a real smile, one that curled up into Giles' cheeks. "You are the Key, Dawn, and what you do well, what you do is you heal. You're a healer." He beamed at her and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to dab at his eye, and Dawn blinked. Was he crying because of her? Was he so happy because of what she had done? Not Buffy or Willow or Tara but her?
A healer. She turned the word over in her mouth; it sounded strange, kind of old fashioned. She was a healer, and she was standing in the kitchen with a Watcher and a Slayer and two witches. It was weird. But at the same time, it felt normal. It was something that was hers, something that she could do. And that felt good. She wasn't just the little sister anymore. She was a healer. She was the Key.
The kitchen door opened, then, and Xander walked in, speaking to Anya over his shoulder. "So maybe tomorrow?" he was saying. " I mean, I know it's not much, but we could ."
Xander stopped mid-sentence, and Anya stopped next to him, put her hands on her hips and surveyed the others. "Everyone except Dawn is crying," she said. "And everyone looks so happy. Why does everyone look so happy?" She tilted her head and looked at Dawn, critically at first, but then she smiled slowly. "And why weren't Xander and I involved in whatever event has led you all to share this obviously wonderful moment?" Xander reached for her hand, and she squeezed it and moved a bit closer to him without seeming to notice that she'd done it.
Then Buffy was throwing her arms around Xander, and Tara was hugging Anya, and Giles was hugging Tara, and everyone was talking at once, and the roomthe very airfelt lighter and cleaner and fresher than it had in a long time.
And then Willow was standing in front of Dawn, beaming and tearful, and Dawn looked at her and saw love she thought she might drown in. "Dawnie," she said, and she clasped Dawn to her tightly. "Thank you, Dawnie. Thank you."
Dawn just laughed with delight, and she felt it again, that energy, that breath of life coursing through her, making her feel vigorous and spirited. She was growing. She was a life force, a healer.
She was alive. And she was rooted. And she was green.
Chapter 18: On Firm Ground
As the light in the east steadily increased,
it revealed to me more clearly the new world
into which I had risen in the night,
the terra firma perchance of my future life .
It was such a country as we might see in
dreams, with all the delights of paradise.
--Henry David Thoreau
Dawn thought that the windstorm was finally over.
She sat on the front porch with her open journal on her knees and watched the quiet sprinkling, the mist of rain, all that was left of the storm that had raged through Sunnydale that afternoon. And she was thinking.
It was hard to believe it had only been a week since she had remembered everything, only a week since she had discovered that she had brought Tara back, had healed her and healed Willow. It was still pretty mind-boggly; it made her head spin.
The past monthsall the months since Buffy had diedhad been like like a tornado, or maybe a hurricane: strong winds blowing them all down over and over again, flattening them against walls and knocking over houses and ripping up trees. To Dawn, life had felt like that for so long. Like every time they had all started to stand up again, a new gust of wind knocked them all flat. Blew away hope and life and everything that was normal.
But now, the storm was over; the winds had calmed. Dawn nodded; that sounded good. She picked up her pen again and wrote it down. She was still writing when a high-pitched yelp caught her ear, and she looked up to see Willow and Tara running down the street toward the house. They were both drenched, their hair plastered to their heads, their skirts sticking to their legs, and Willow's furry backpack hanging limply from one hand. Her other hand clasped Tara's tightly.
They were both shrieking with laughter, their hands swinging, heads thrown back, faces lifted to the rain. Dawn couldn't help smiling as she watched them run. She hoped they wouldn't trip.
When they reached the Summers' driveway, they stopped running, and, still laughing, Tara caught Willow around the waist with her free arm and kissed her, and Willow's hands and furry backpack slid around Tara's back. It was a pretty long kiss, Dawn thought, right there on the street, in front of Janice's house and everybody. She giggled. She hoped Janice was watching. If she only saw how much they loved each other, she might get over her heebie jeebies about two girls kissing.
Watching Willow and Tara kiss .well, it made Dawn feel shivery. It made her hold her breath. She wondered if she would ever meet someone who would make her feel like that. Did healers get true love, she wondered? Did Keys?
Janice was kind of funny about stuff like that, though. Dawn had wanted to talk to her about being the Key, but in the end, she couldn't decide what to say. Or when. Or how. She had a feeling that maybe she and Janice weren't such good friends anymore, that maybe things between them had changed. Buffy had said more than once that she should probably have more friends her own age, but but it was just easier to talk to Tara and Willow and Buffy about things. They understood.
And maybe that was okay. Janice could be kind of stormy. And right now Dawn felt more like being calm. Like thinking. There was so much to learn, after all; Giles had already started giving her books to read and talking to her in that earnest and excited way she'd heard him use when he talked to Buffy about training. His Watcher voice. Only now he was going to Watch all of them, not just Buffy. He hadn't said that, not exactly, but Dawn could see that it was true.
Giles had talked to her a lot this week.
"We still don't know much, Dawn," he had said, looking at her seriously over the tops of the glasses that had slipped down his nose. "You brought Tara back, but we have no way of knowing if that was, ah, if that was something specific to Tara herself, or to your connection to her and to Willow, or if ."
"Connection? What do you mean, connection?" Dawn asked, not understanding, her mouth slightly open. She shook her head slightly, but then she understood. "Oh," she said then. "You mean Glory."
Giles had nodded slowly.
"But I thought that she couldn't use me anymore," Dawn felt a momentary panic, a rush of air in her throat. Giles was quick to reassure her, touching her elbow.
"And she cannot," he said reassuringly. "The Professor he was right about that. But there is a kind of connection among the three of you now, Dawn. That trace of Glory in Willow and Tara in some sense, it's in you, too. And maybe that was what enabled you to bring Tara back. I'm just not sure. But," he had looked at her steadily then, "but it might have made a difference. It might not work the same with anyone else."
Giles watched her, his eyes narrowing with concern. He seemed to be waiting for her to say something, and Dawn thought she knew what that was. The thought had occurred to her: if she could bring Tara back, could she heal anyone? Could she resurrect anyone? Could she bring back ? But no. She sighed.
"I know I can't bring back my mom," she murmured, looking down so that her hair fell over her face. She had known that somehow, known that it was too late to save her mother. Too late to save so many people. She'd had a feeling. She had lots of feelings these days that she didn't really understand, white-green flashes that might be memories or emotions or...Keyness.
Giles said that perhaps, with the right training, she could learn to see those flashes more clearly, begin to understand herself. Her power. Dawn thought she could hold onto that. She thought it was something she could do for her mother, for her memory. And then Giles had hugged her.
Dawn hugged herself now as she watched Willow and Tara giggling their way up to the front porch, holding hands and calling out to her. Tara put a hand on Dawn's shoulder as she passed and squeezed gently.
"I hope you're feeling new wardrobey for tomorrow," Tara said, and Dawn nodded eagerly: milkshakes and a movie and buying new clothes for Tara. Unlike so many of the days of the past months, tomorrow had a shape she could recognize.
So often since first learning that she was the Key, Dawn had felt insubstantial, bodiless, without form. As if the slightest breeze could knock her down or carry her away. As if she was the breeze, drifting unseen around the people she most desperately wanted to notice her. To pay attention.
That was what had always attracted her to objects, to the small weight of bracelets or necklaces or key chains or lipsticks. It wasn't just that she could take them without people seeing, although that had been kind of fun, too. In a super evil way, she quickly corrected herself, ducking her head so that Willow and Tara wouldn't see the way her cheeks flushed with shame. But those trinkets they had shape. She could put her hands in her pockets and feel them there, and they weighed her down. They kept her from blowing away.
But she didn't have to worry about that anymore. The wind was no longer a threat. She practiced breathing every day with Willow now, the way they'd been taught at the Coven, and she found that it held her, it made her feel solid. And it made her aware in a way she'd never been before. Sometimes, meditating with Willow, Dawn thought she could see the air inside her mind, see it green and growing. And she knew that everything was going to be okay.
Because she had family. She had her whole life ahead of her. And she had a gift after all: something that was just hers.
Dawn had come in out of the wind. And she was standing on firm ground.
Buffy surveyed the muddy earth of the backyard.
She had, for so long, hated the earth. Hated the way it crumbled for the clawing fists of the endless line of new vampires who rose up through it. Hated the way it teemed with crawling things who eventually ate away at the flesh of the people you loved who had died. Hated the way it had suffocated her when she had awakened in her coffin, choked her dry and pressed against her nostrils and her eyelids and her tightly closed lips. Hated the way the grass had seemed to spin as she lay on it, shot and bleeding and fading, and then shaken and cracked and seemed to spit out monsters when Willow's grief had threatened to swallow them all up.
But now it was different now. Everything was different now. Even the backyard .in the places where the grass had grown sparse over a dry summer, it was muddy. She thought of Tara alive again. Willow casting. Giles home and staying. Dawn writing in her journal. And Xander and Anya maybe dating.
Buffy had been thinking about Anya all day. In some ways, Anya had seemed like a minor presence all summer; she was often gone, off venging, doing God only knows what kind of evil. And yet it was hard to reconcile the vengeance demon with the girl who had checked in on her almost every day all summer. The girl who had asked about Willow each time she and Buffy spoke and who had researched the best grief books to send to England. The girl who seemed to be letting Xander back in despite herself.
The girl who had wanted to stop her from hurting Spike.
Buffy had stopped herself; she knew that. But Anya had come just in case.
"You could have made it happen," Buffy had said quietly to Anya the next day, after she and Xander had arrived at the house and the others had drifted into the dining room to talk. "A wish. You could have, but you didn't."
Anya had matched her even gaze, her eyes smiling but her lips firm. "I don't know what you mean," she'd said.
"Come on, Anya," Buffy had crossed her arms over her chest. "My anger called you there you said so yourself but you didn't encourage me. You could have made it worse, but you didn't. You only showed up to tell me Spike was human, didn't you?"
Buffy had raised an eyebrow.
Anya had held her gaze for a long moment, and then sighed and looked away. "It's not the same as it used to be," she'd said sadly. "Vengeance. My heart's just not in it, you know?"
Buffy had looked at Anya incredulously, and then she had just laughed and laughed. And after a moment, Anya had joined in. When Xander had come into the kitchen to see what was going on, Anya had swung herself down off the counter and kissed him. It was only a peck, but it seemed to ground them all.
Buffy heard laughing in the hallway now, and then Willow and Tara burst into the kitchen, giggling and soaking wet. "I got all my classes," Willow said happily, dropping her wet backpack on the floor. "I mean, I have to retake a couple of classes from the spring quarter, but my other professors gave me Incompletes instead of failing me, so I can just take the finals now and move on!" She bounced toward Buffy and threw her arms around her, and Buffy felt the cold wet seep through her t-shirt.
"Will," she complained, pushing back gently, "you're getting my clothes all wet!" But she smiled in spite of herself, and Willow giggled and kissed the tip of her nose before spiraling back over to throw her arms around Tara again. Tara grinned at Buffy over Willow's shoulder. Buffy didn't think she'd ever seen either of them so openly, so spontaneously happy. They'd been acting like little kids all day, except for the kissing and the oh, well, and the tongues. They were joyous and innocent and in love and normal.
It was all Buffy had ever wanted for any of her friends, to have a little bit of normal. It was all she had wanted for herself, but she'd known for some time, deep down, that she would never get it. And she had worried that Willow might never get it, either, but she had more hope now. With Tara back, she had more hope for all of them. Even she could almost admit it even herself.
As for Dawn well, she wasn't sure. She had wanted, at least since she had known the truth about Dawn, for her sister to have a normal life. She wanted to see her, someday, as just a normal girl, in the arms of a normal boyfriend orshe glanced at Tara, who was patting Willow's face and hair dry with a kitchen towelgirlfriend. That was all she wanted.
Willow spoke, but the words were muffled, and Tara laughed and pulled the towel away. "So tomorrow then, okay?" Willow said, "just you and me and a couple of mochas?" Buffy nodded. She was looking forward to spending time with Willow, just the two of them, like they used to do before life became so hard. It had been a long time. Too long.
"Go dry off, you two," she said lightly, watching Tara put her hands on Willow's hips and push her towards the door. She heard their laughter echoing down the hall, and she felt againas she had felt so often over the past weekgrounded. Willow and Tara touching and laughing Buffy didn't remember laughing much with any of her boyfriends. Not that kind of laughter, anyway: the easy, bubbly, generous laughter of people who have what they want. She sighed, just a little.
"Buffy?" Willow had poked her head back into the kitchen, her green eyes shining. "I promise we'll be back down before everybody else gets here. And we'll clean up. And I'll help get dinner ready." She raised her eyebrows at Buffy and smiled impishly.
"Okay," Buffy said wryly. "You can hold the phone while I tell them which toppings we want."
"You know," Willow said before disappearing again. "I kind of love you." Buffy felt the warmth of her words and the warmth of her eyes from across the room, warmth like the late afternoon sun that had finally made an appearance, starting to dry the rain-streaked windows.
Buffy glanced out at the backyard again. It was such a relief to see Willow smiling, such a relief to see her more rooted than she had been in so long. Full of life on. They were all so much more rooted and full of life.
Like the earth. Buffy realized it with clarity that had been a long time coming. Earth had been only death to her for so long. Death and dust and decay. But now, through the drying streaks of rain on the kitchen window, she could see that the earth was living. It soaked in water and damp and reflected sunlight, and it grew things. It yielded. You could plant things in the earth and watch them mature.
And the earth was solid. You could stand on it and fight the evil that crawled out of it and embrace the friends who stood next to you on it. She might not ever have a normal life, Buffy knew. And she might not have a long life.
But she had family. And she had a purpose. And she had a good fight left in her.
Buffy had reconciled with the earth. And she stood on firm ground.
Tara sank back against the bathtub and let the water lap gently over her breasts and stomach.
More and more, as the days passed, she could feel the distance of the time she had missed, see the ripples it had caused, although she saw them in her friends more than she felt them in herself. Xander and Anya they were still struggling, obviously, but the venom she could remember flaring up in Anya only days before she had died was gone, replaced by a sadness and hope that could only have come about with time. Xander seemed taller, stronger, more resolved, and she thought that, too, had come about with a summer of throwing himself into work. Into creating something after so much destruction.
He had crooked a finger at her when Giles and Dawn were clearing away the pizza boxes and loading the dishwasher, and she'd gone out on the porch with him, a little wary even though she knew that he had finally accepted that Willow would be casting again.
"Listen, Tara, I want to tell you something, and I don't want you to say no, so just hear me out, okay?" He spoke quickly, his eyes darting around, and Tara realized he was nervous. She couldn't imagine what he was going to say. She just nodded and leaned against the house, pressing her palms back against the solid wall.
"I know things are kind of up in the air for you right now, what with no scholarship and no money and well the whole coming back to life thing," he had said, shrugging his shoulders and sticking his hands deep into his pockets. Tara noticed for the first time that he seemed slimmer than he had before, more muscled.
"Yeah," she'd said, sighing a little at the memory. Willow could easily hack into the university's computers and reinstate Tara as a student, maybe adding a note about mistaken identity or something, but the fact remained that Tara's scholarship had been given to someone else, someone who needed the money as much as she did. Tara had refused even to consider taking it away from her.
"Tara, listen. I've saved a lot this summer, enough to help with your tuition and clothes, whatever, until you're, you know, back on your feet. I have enough for you to replace all the stuff you lost and for tuition next quarter and some extra for well, for whatever you want. I'm just going to give it to you ."
"Xander, no," she had said. "I can't take your money. I'll get a job and save up until I can afford to go back. Maybe I can get a loan." She had bit her lip at that, though, knowing that it would be difficult. Who would give a loan to a recently not-dead college student? But Xander had made it easy for her.
"There's not that much I can do," Xander had said, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and tilting his head at her. In the dim yellow of the porch light, the scars on his face gleamed. "I can't do spells, I can't Watch, I can't Slay, I can't unlock anything," he went on, and Tara realized with a start that he wasn't envious of the others' abilities. He was proud.
"But I can build things. And I can make some money doing it." He lifted his chin then, and, looking at him closely, Tara saw how much he wanted to give this to her. For Willow. For herself. And she had been overwhelmed. And she had accepted.
And so those practical worries that had begun to trouble her were receding, like Xander's fears were receding, like Willow's desperation and sadness were receding. Like waves. She moved her hand in the water and made a little wave, feeling the wet wash over the knee that jutted out of the water.
In the outer reaches of Tara's awareness, she heard the drip of the tap, and the quiet sloshing as she moved the sponge back and forth over her legs, and a soft click.
She thought of the familiar terrain of Willow, the pale, freckled landscape of her back. The safe shores of her face. The solid comfort of her hands. Tara lifted her ankle out of the water and imagined Willow looking at it, caressing the curve with only her eyes. She imagined Willow's narrow fingers closing around it, imagined the gentle pressure and then the soft trailing up, up her leg, the bare touch on the outside of her thigh.
She imagined Willow's fingers gripping her hipbone for a moment, squeezing slightly, and then moving again, trailing their feather-weight up her ribcage and whispering at the underside of her breast. She arched her back at the thought, and the tips of her breasts rose out of the water and hardened in the cooler air.
"Oh, see, now you're just showing off." Willow's quiet laugh reached through Tara's daydream, and she smiled but did not open her eyes. She arched again, and then let her breasts sink back under the water, and tilted her head so that Willow could see the way damp tendrils of her upturned hair clung to her neck. She ran the sponge over her arm and then under the water, touching herself with it.
After a moment, she opened her eyes and looked directly at Willow, who leaned against the doorframe, towel in hand, her head resting against the wall. Standing there in her pink leopard-print pajamas, her hair still damp from her own shower, quietly watching and waiting, she melted Tara.
Tara pulled the plug out with her toes and stood, feeling the trickle of water down her legs and hearing only the sucking of the water down the drain and the sea rush in her ears. Willow was waiting with the towel, and Tara allowed herself to be dried off, to be turned and patted down and lingered over. The towel was warm and dry, and Willow's breath on her skin was hot like fire.
Willow took the towel away and held out her robe, and Tara slipped her arms through the sleeves and laced her fingers through Willow's. She studied their entwined hands for a moment, and then she lifted Willow's hand and pressed her lips against it.
"You know what I love about you, well, one thing I love?" she asked suddenly, lifting her head and looking Willow in the eye. She felt, for a moment, the fire that flickered out at her from the green, twin licks of flame that warmed her outside in.
"No," Willow whispered, and for just a second, her eyes flashed hungry and chilled behind the fire. "Tell me. Tell me one thing." So familiar. So Willow.
"You steady me," she said softly, and she saw the warmth flush Willow's cheeks as she smiled. Tara reached up and touched Willow's cheek with the tips of her fingers. She had come back from the dead to see that flush, to feel that warmth. She cherished it.
A little later, in their room their room that used to be Buffy's but was now theirs Tara tossed aside the pink pajamas and stretched her fingers out across Willow's collarbone, feeling the still-damp ends of red hair brush against her fingers and tilting her head as she watched Willow's lips part at the contact.
"I think you're teasing me," Willow said softly as Tara's palms smoothed their way down her chest, barely touching the sides of her breasts before feathering against her stomach and stopping to brush the hollow of her hips until Willow's eyes fluttered closed. She laughed, a light, breathless laugh, as Tara's fingers moved around her hips to her back, one finger tickling the dip at the base of her spine.
Tara pushed Willow back gently until the backs of her legs bumped up against the bed, and as Willow laid back, she shrugged off her robe and crawled up over her. She just looked at her for a moment, looked at her open eyes and her open mouth. Poised above Willow, their breasts near but not quite touching, their breaths matched but not yet mingling, in that long, silent moment of just-before, Tara knew that in her life before returning to Willow, she had felt like a boat on the ocean. Sometimes she had drifted along on the surface of calm, and sometimes she had been tossed about on waves that threatened to capsize her at any moment, but always she had been drifting. In those long months after she had left Willow, she had at least learned to swim better, but still, she had drifted. But now .
Now, she only knew that something had happened to them, something profound and overwhelming, and they had almost drowned in it, she and Willow. But here they were, whole and complete and together.
Slowly, slowly, she lowered herself down onto Willow, who was smiling at her; she lowered her lips onto Willow's lips, and she felt herself buoyed by that solid and familiar landscape, welcomed onto the shores of her homeland.
She had family, and she had a new life, and she had Willow.
Tara had made it through the waves to the shore. And she was standing on firm ground.
Willow woke suddenly from dreams of fire.
She dreamed of the flames of dark magicks shooting out from her own palms. She dreamed of the inferno in her mind when she had drained Rack, of the firestorm it had taken to kill Warren. She dreamed of the scorching empty ache of losing Tara, and the constant, endless blaze of guilt and shame that she had taken life. It burned like the eternal blue fire of an inner ring of Hell.
She dreamed of the red fire of blood and rage. And she woke suddenly, gasping from the heat, desperately thirsty and craving water.
Tara was there, as she always was now, with a cool hand on her hot skin and a glass from the bedside table. Willow sipped it gratefully, and she leaned back against the headboard and closed her eyes, letting Tara's fingers in her hair and on her skin soothe her blistered mind.
"I wish I could forget that it happened, all of it," she whispered, opening her eyes but not looking at Tara. She felt her pulse calming a little with Tara's touch, and she relaxed.
Tara propped herself up on her elbow and reached out to tuck a strand of Willow's hair behind her ear. She let her hand fall onto Willow's shoulder and rest there.
"Sweetheart, you can't," she said softly, and Willow heard the solace in her voice like a salve on a burn. "Willow, I don't know why it all happened, but you can't forget it. We can't forget it. There's something in it that we have to remember, something important."
"I know," Willow sighed, falling back onto her pillow and staring up at the ceiling. "I know. But it just feels so strange, so surreal, like it happened to someone else. Like like I watched it on TV, you know?"
"Like a bad after-school special," Tara said quietly, but there was a laugh in her voice. "What, I'm dead, and you're evil?"
In spite of herself, Willow laughed. "I know, I know," she said. "It's ridiculous. But it just seems sometimes .like it couldn't have been real." She turned her head to look at Tara again, to remind herselfthe way she reminded herself a hundred times a daythat Tara was there.
She relaxed a little and focused on Tara's hand trailing lightly over her skin. She thought of the night before, of Tara's damp back pressed against her chest, of her own lips burning kisses onto Tara's neck, of her fingers sliding around Tara's hips and meeting between her thighs, of Tara's wet gasping. She felt her stomach flutter.
"Maybe," she said, rolling onto her side to face Tara, "we could take our minds off it for a little while." She raised her eyebrows and hoped that Tara could see the suggestion in the dim room. It was early still, and the pre-dawn light had only just begun to filter into the room.
Tara squeezed her fingers, and Willow saw her half-smile. "I have a better idea," she said, dropping Willow's hand and sitting up, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, reaching for her robe. "Put on your pjs."
Willow sat up reluctantly. She found her discarded pajamas on the floor and slid into the pink legs, fumbled with the buttons on the shirt. Then she looked up at Tara, who was waiting by the door, holding out her hand.
They tiptoed down the stairs hand in hand, not wanting to disturb Buffy or Dawn, and Tara silently led Willow through the house to the back door. "Remember this?" Tara asked softly, and her lips twitched in a smile. The sleepless nights after Buffy's death had often ended with a sunrise. Dawn always made things better.
In their old way, Willow sank down onto the bottom step, and Tara sat on the step behind her, her legs hugging Willow's hips. Willow leaned back and felt Tara's arms wrap around her from behind. The sun would be coming up soon, and it was nice to be outside in the dark with Tara. It was familiar and quiet and cool and damp. It felt like Tara surrounded her.
"Will we always wake up with bad dreams?" Willow let her head fall back against Tara's chest. She felt Tara's lips in her hair and then her chin resting on the top of her head.
"For awhile, maybe," Tara said, pulling her closer. "But I guess if we didn't wake up from bad dreams, we wouldn't be up now. We wouldn't see the sun rise." Willow didn't have to look to see Tara's hopeful half-smile.
"We could try just setting an alarm," she said dryly, and Tara laughed softly. Willow hugged Tara's arms to her chest and sighed. "Will I always feel like I can't breathe when you're not around?" Tara's sigh matched her own. "Like none of this is real if I can't feel you touching me?"
"Willow, baby," Tara murmured, hugging her a little more tightly. "I'll always be touching you."
Willow thought about that for a moment. So much was uncertain. So much was indefinite, still. They both had some of Glory left in their minds; they both had magicks in them like blood or breath. The past held death and grief and mistakes and wrong, and the future was unknown.
"Just just stay with me," she whispered. "Will you stay with me, Tara?" It was the one question she'd never been able to ask before, the one question she'd never felt she deserved to ask.
And now she knew the answer. Everything had changed. Everything except loving Tara. And Tara loving her; that was the same as ever. Willow felt the answer in the whisper of lips on her hair, in the clasping of arms around her shoulders, in Tara's knees gently squeezing her from either side as she leaned back.
"Always," Tara said, her voice low and hoarse.
Willow lifted her face to Tara, her gaze flitting from Tara's eyes to her lips and back again. She thought Tara had never looked lovelier than she did at that moment, with her tousled hair and her sleepy eyes, wearing one of Buffy's old and tattered bathrobes. Her throat tightened with want, and she watched Tara blink slowly and lean down to kiss her. At the first soft touch of their lips, she felt a sigh run up Tara's body and down hers.
It was just one kiss, one soft and cool and chaste kiss, but for that moment, it was enough, and Willow turned her face to the sky again. The sun was starting to rise, the beginnings of morning red against the receding night.
They watched silently, curled together on the steps.
Willow had felt for so long that she was on fire, that she was being consumed by flames of fear and anger and, in the end, grief. She'd felt that she was a volcano, always threatening to erupt, always about to consume everyone around her in a river of flame. She had been as scared of herself as others had seemed to be; she had known herself to be a raging force, violent and disruptive. She knew she still felt hot and thirsty. She couldn't promise that she would never erupt again, never make the earth tremble or the air grow hot or the water dry up.
But she knew now she was learning now that magick wasn't a flame that burned you from the inside out. It wasn't a flood of lava that burned everything she touched. Itshewasn't a volcano, raging and out of control. She wasn't about to erupt. She did have fire in her; she always would, and fires sometimes flared out of control. But maybe her fire could be more like a candle, she thought. A candle to celebrate her friends. A candle to help light the way for Dawn. An extra-flamey candle to love Tara.
She relaxed against Tara, who was holding her; she felt the familiar arms wrap around her, and she felt herself soothed by Tara surrounding her, the flames dying down a little as she leaned into the cool blue of her beloved.
She had family, and she had magick, and she had Tara. She had love that was solid enough to stand on.
For once, Willow let the fire inside her warm instead of burn. And she knew she was, at last, on firm ground.
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