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Summary: Eight months after "Chosen," things are up and running in England, when someone returns. Buffy/Tara pairing.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
BtVS/AtS Non-Crossover > Romance > Buffy/TaraPatKFR13527,52182610,79524 Dec 0627 May 07Yes

Part One

Disclaimer: Everything is Joss' and FOX's. Not mine.



|-Bath, England, Present-|

Everything had come together so fast. So fast, that Buffy was still getting used to weather actually changing. In eight months she'd gone from the crater that was Sunnydale, to the snow-covered, English countryside, co-running "Slayer Central." Due primarily to Giles' connections, as well as his--and the old Council's--deep wallet, they were an established operation.

She went to the stable whenever she wanted to take a break from it all; it was peaceful, just being among the horses. Brushing them, feeding them, watching them. This was where she also let herself remember the one person who should've been a part of what she'd started, but wasn't. Because of a goddamn, stray bullet of all things. Without that person's guidance, where would she be now? Certainly not here.

She hung up the brush with a sigh and walked outside, hands in her pockets, protected from winter’s chill. Still with some amount of awe, she took in all that was theirs. Training facilities, offices, dormitories, a library...it blew her mind. What grounded her though, was having a house close by with Willow, Xander, Dawn, and Kennedy. When everyone was there, things didn't seem so overwhelming. It seemed like nothing had changed at all.

No one was there as often as they wanted. Each of them had responsibilities that often required traveling the world. But having a home waiting made all the difference. Their lives were no less dangerous, yet Buffy had to admit, it was a good life overall.

There were days she wished the fate of many wasn't in their hands, but she wanted to do right by these girls. Which meant doing things differently. Giving every member of the gang a say. Even Kennedy, if it pertained to one of the next generation. Faith, when she took a break from her nomadic existence, added her piece to the mix as well.

Buffy put Xander in charge of "Tactics and Strategy"; Willow, all things mystical and magical; Dawn, research (she was turning into quite the fount of knowledge); Kennedy was second-in-command when it came to training new slayers; and, Faith? Faith got to administer "final exams" in the field. Buffy left the day-to-day chore of keeping their operation running smoothly (in whatever form that took), to Giles. Because she sure as hell didn't want to deal with that headache.

She was a bit of an ambassador, yet what she lived for was taking a group on their first mission. Every slayer who agreed to join their team--completely voluntarily--had been led into battle by her. She never got tired of seeing their faces after they'd saved someone's life, or just simply worked together to win and survive. There was no other feeling like it.

"'Cuse me, Ma'am?"

One of them ran up to her now, intruding on her solitary. Buffy shook her head at how she was addressed. "You really have to stop calling me that, Nadia."

She was nowhere near that old.

"Sorry, Ma'a...um, Buffy," Nadia hastily corrected in her Russian accent. "But Mr. Xander, Willow, Miss Kennedy and Dawn...they-they are all in Mr. Giles' office. I'm supposed to come get you."

Buffy furrowed her brow. "What's going on?"

"I don't know, but I believe they were crying."

_______

Giles had two offices in one, really. A large, outer office where he met with bigwigs of both human and demon variety, held meetings, etcetera, etcetera. Then there was the cozier, more intimate one where he would read and drink his tea in peace and quiet.

No one was in the larger when Buffy entered, so she went to the other door and knocked. He let her in with a welcoming smile. Walking past, hers in return, was uncertain.

Candlelight burned on her watcher's desk, which was pressed against the wall immediately to her right. Xander sat there, but faced the couch. He was also wiping at his eye. In the far right corner to her left, Willow and Kennedy were on the soft, high-backed arm chair. The redhead had clearly been shedding tears. Buffy's eyes swept over the stocked bookshelf next to them, before finally looking to the couch.

She moved around onto the circular rug so she could see who occupied it, and her breath caught in her throat. Her sister was there, clinging to an arm. An arm belonging to someone they'd all believed gone. Buffy ran through an automatic checklist in her head:

'Dawn's touching her. Not the First.'
'She's breathing, isn't pale...not a vampire.'
'Which means...'


"Tara?" Buffy questioned whisperingly, afraid to break the illusion.

Tara stood, Dawn reluctantly freeing her. "You let your hair grow." She smiled her smile. "You look so healthy, too...oh, sweetie, I'm proud of you."

The slayer's lower lip was trembling. "Please be you."

Tara made the move first, wrapping her arms around her friend. "So far."

Buffy's arms instantly wrapped around Tara in kind, and the dam broke. Tears she didn't even know she had in her, she wept. Didn't want to let go.

And what did she think? She thought Tara was warm. She thought Tara was alive.

_______

|-Sunnydale, January 2002-|

Buffy's choked sobs rang loud in Tara's ears, despite being partially muffled by her lap, where a head lay. Sitting on the couch, she thought about how the otherwise silent, dimly lit living room only served to amplify the sounds. It wasn't just empty--like every room in the house, it wasn't warm anymore, either. Maybe it was as lost as the rest of them.

"Depressing" came off as too weak a description for their lives lately. Yet, despite everything going into a seemingly endless spiral, Tara had somehow been able to find positives within herself. And currently, within Buffy.

Realizing the inevitability of the slayer's collapse now, she felt grateful to be here, honored. Because while seeing this broke her heart, there was beauty beneath the pain. What was beautiful about a fallen hero? These outpouring emotions proved that Buffy could feel, did feel, and was very much human. Her fragile friend couldn't recognize this, however.

Still rubbing Buffy's shortened locks comfortingly, she softly spoke. "Buffy? Buffy, sweetie, look at me."
From the floor, the blonde lifted up her head, her eyes shimmering and puffy. Tara had never seen her so vulnerable. In fact, she’d only seen her cry once before, and that was when Riley left town.

She’d learned from Willow how rarely Buffy had let go in the past...and Willow was her best friend. Bottling things until you have a major meltdown hardly seemed healthy. But that was pretty much the slayer’s M.O.

It wasn't that they made a habit of discussing Buffy behind her back, but all of the Scoobies knew their leader closed off, distanced herself. That practice had become more frequent with each passing year, as life and slaying continually took a toll. No matter what they did to help, nothing changed. It was frustrating and sad.

This moment had to be the worst. Buffy’s abrupt exit from a blissful, heavenly dimension, being resurrected by friends she didn’t feel able to turn to, frantically clawing out an escape from her own grave afterwards, having to face bills and raising her sister without their mother, Giles leaving, her best friend nearly getting her sister killed, discovering Spike could hit her, thinking she'd come back wrong, using him for sex...it all led to this moment. Led to the release she could no longer contain.

Again, inevitable. Necessary. Except Tara was allowed to be a witness. And because she could count, on one hand, the number of times Buffy revealed her vulnerability, that she wasn't always the rock that could weather anything, she felt honored.

Plus, there was another positive. This might have been the hero's worst point, her lowest, but now that that anguish wasn't trapped inside, she could start climbing. Feeling Buffy cling to her waist suddenly, Tara knew she'd be steadying the rope a while.

She didn't mind.

Placing her hands on Buffy's arms, she silently urged her up, off her knees. Buffy rose just enough to quickly sit herself beside the taller blonde, and embrace her apprehensively. When Tara returned the gesture it was strong, secure. Slowly, as Buffy's embrace came to match hers, and breaths turned steady and shuddering, Tara smiled.

She wanted Buffy to feel protected, safe...nothing other than good energy. Exactly the opposite of what Spike offered. She wished it could be enough. That when she left here, Buffy would be all better. But it wasn't that easy.

"It's all right to need someone. To let go. Even just once in a while," whispered the witch, almost reading her mind. "And nobody sh-should ever be alone if they don't have to be. Including you. So don't feel ashamed, okay? Because I st-st-still think you're pretty amazing."

She blushed while Buffy's muscles relaxed. That small embarrassment was worth it, then. "I'm...I'm glad I'm here; thanks for trusting me."

"Why wouldn't I?" Buffy was beginning to smile when she released and looked at her friend. "You're the most non-judgmental person I know. It's weird actually, because we don't hang out much, do we?

“Except, if it was Willow or Xander...I wouldn't have gotten this far. I don't think I could've. Admitted this to them, I mean. Guess I should be able to, but I can't."

Wiping her eyes, she took a deep, cleansing breath. "Anyway...I really am trying to find a pretty specific point. Which is, I'm glad you’re here, too. And yunno, I'm thinking we should hang out more often, starting now. S' long overdue."

Tara smiled back in return. "I'd like that."

"Some friend, huh?" The slayer smirked, shaking her head. "Here I am dumping all my stuff on you, and I haven't even asked how you're holding up. Sorry. 'Rude Buffy's' outta the building, I promise. 'Polite Buffy's' asking if you want something to drink, and then if she oughta mind her own business."

"No apologizing," ordered Tara, but she then cracked another smile.

She saw that Buffy was away from the dark place for the time being, and she was going to allow her to set the pace.

"But if you're sure you're up to it...is there still hot chocolate in the cabinet?"

"I dunno. Let's check. Could always use more warming," Buffy admitted.

The girls got off the couch, and Buffy subconsciously brushed her fingers lightly over Tara's before they began walking to the kitchen.

"Definitely up to it, though--I'm all cried out for tonight. Not a hundred percent sure about tomorrow, but tonight? I'm good. Or close to it, at least."

_______

"Aha," remarked Buffy as she pulled an unopened box from the cabinet to the above-left of the sink. "Consider your question answered--it's kinda hard to believe, but powdered, cocoa beans? We're stocked with 'em. *And* they come in handy packets. You still want, right?"

She turned to Tara, who was heading for the fridge. "Sit." She gestured to the island, and then broke the box's seal. "Hot chocolate's one of the few things I know how to make without the kitchen going 'boom.'"

Tara opened the refrigerator door. "You're too late; I'm helping."

She rooted around inside while her host got a smallish-sized pot from one of the lower cabinets.

"Okay, now my arm's twisted. Ya happy?" The slayer grinned as she thwacked two packets of cocoa mix against her thigh several times while waiting for the milk. "Help. Go nuts."

Then she remembered how the witch *had* gone nuts not too long ago.

"Or...don't, because I'm pretending I never suggested," she sighed. "Takes foot out of mouth," Having set the packets on the counter, she pantomimed her words, "and even though she's tempted to apologize--"

Milk gallon and cream in both hands, Tara gave her a look as she walked over, so Buffy had to adjust accordingly.

"--she resists the urge, not giving in."

"Good," Tara said, placing her items down on the counter beside the packets. "Because I wasn't even thinking about Glory; it's been m-m-months since I have."

Closing her eyes, she breathed in, and calmed herself. "And usually, if I do?"

"Like now?” Buffy asked. “‘Cause I've got guilt issues and couldn't just quit?"

"If I do," Tara gave her that look again, "I don't...fall apart anymore. Took a long time, though."

"Yeah, I can imagine. Sorta."

The petite girl was in her own harsh mindset, but she wasn't arrogant enough to believe that her pain was on the level of someone who'd spent what must have felt like an eternity in a dark, empty void searching for a way out.

There was a sad smile on Tara's face. "Willow w-would always..."

Buffy could tell this was difficult for her; Tara was clearly annoyed with herself. She stuttered and stumbled over things she believed handled. Awfully fast, too. But that didn't change the fact that the slayer had seen a very confident, assured woman walk into the house.

A woman who finally seemed comfortable in her own skin. More comfortable than she, at any rate. It was probably a giant part of why defenses were lowered back there--because she knew Tara was in a position to withstand it. No, a change certainly occurred. It was still occurring. Both were aware of that, so Tara, by trying to rush it, by corking her emotions...

...wasn't following her own advice from mere minutes ago, which was rather hypocritical. Maybe whatever change remained was being prevented--by avoiding the whole, unresolved issue of a redhead (despite breaking up two months ago), and separating herself from people she called "family." And if she was holding back to spare Buffy, that was just silly.

"She really hurt you," stated Buffy. It was not a question.

As much as the small blonde wanted to help her best friend, unfortunately, her best friend didn't make it easy to sympathize.

"Do you miss her at all?"

The witch was silent only briefly, considering her response. "I miss how she used to make me feel."

The slayer nodded. "I get that."

She wasn't kidding. There were two periods in her life where she could identify--back with Angel when she was eighteen, and most recently, her present situation. She missed how being alive used to make her feel. Interlocking digits, it was her turn to let Tara know it was okay.

"Uh, shouldn't we finish making...?" Tara trailed off, self-conscious.

"Right," Buffy said, still gripping her hand. "Then we can go sit and--"

"Talk?"

"Right." Releasing her houseguest’s hand, Buffy cleared her throat, concentrating on the task ahead. "Oh, is there whipped cream? And cinnamon?"

_______

"Are you attractive?" Buffy asked Tara after careful consideration.

"Mm, I guess?" The witch’s response sounded uncertain. "I mean, I wouldn't go out with them, but..."

Her eyebrows rose. "You really think he's attractive?"

Around a half an hour later, they were in the dining room drinking their mugs of hot chocolate, and playing Guess Who? The game involved an exaggerated assortment of male and female characters on two, separate boards. It asked the players to guess which character their opponent had picked at the beginning of the game.

Flicking the male characters down she deemed unattractive, the slayer hesitantly answered, "Probably, yeah. You know, compared to the other people..."

Though Tara smirked good-naturedly, Buffy was embarrassed nonetheless. She wouldn’t go down without a fight.

"Like you didn't gawk at Jessica Rabbit. And hey, she didn't even have a nose."

"No," agreed Tara, trying to hold back a shy grin, "but that wasn't so bad. And she made up for it, um, elsewhere."

While Buffy chuckled, she posed her next question. "Do you wear glasses?"

"'Fraid not," said Buffy, before taking a sip from her mug while the non-glass wearers were flicked down across the table. "It just keeps my 'Poor Guy Choice' streak alive. Gotta say, wouldn't mind if it dried up."

She tapped her fingers on the side of the mug for a few moments. "You think Spike loves me? Meaning, sincerely?"

Next, she chewed on her lip thoughtfully. "And d'you have a hat on?"

Tara double-checked her character's card and shook her head. "Sorry." Then she answered the first question. "I think he tries to. Except it isn't, exactly pure love."

She was glad Dawn was at a sleepover and that Willow was crashing at UC Sunnydale's library tonight. The redhead had fallen behind on her assignments, and was trying to play catch up, according to Buffy. If they were here, this conversation couldn’t happen.

"Because he doesn't have a soul. And he's a vampire," said the petite blonde, mulling over things. "But it's in him somewhere? ‘Cause, wasn’t the impression I got."

"Maybe you didn't wanna notice," Tara said, bringing the mug to her lips.

Drinking and putting the mug back down, she saw that the game had ceased being a priority.

"Last year, it seemed like he wanted to be the kind of person he th-thought you'd respect."

"And fall for? I noticed,” replied Buffy. “Only, most of the time he was playing stalker and stealing my clothes for his psychotic, underground ode to all that is me. Or whoever he wishes I was--enter 'Robo Buffy.'"

She was still bitter and unsettled about that. "Spike having his own, personal sex toy was plenty disgusting enough, but adding the '*way* too chipper' factor? Whole, new level of creepy."

Both silently realized that if the robot had survived, Spike would no longer have need for it. Buffy now fulfilled its role, and there were times when she felt robotic herself. Hmm. Maybe "dehumanized" was a more appropriate word.

"I meant..." The witch started to explain her side better, but the will left her, because frankly, her side wasn't holding up well. "N-n-never mind. I'm probably wr-wrong."

"You aren't, Tara. I'm just...focusing on the non-pure, I know that."

The slayer admitted that for Tara's sake, not because she accepted the parts of Spike that weren't villainous.

"But him suddenly being emotionally schitzo when he's supposed to just be regular, old evil? Yeah, doesn't change the fact that I can't love him."

"Do you want to?"

"What? No," denied Buffy a touch too fast. "Even if he had a soul I'd..."

She heaved a large sigh, unable to turn down the idea flat.

"...rather not go there. But, seeing him, it's never about love; it isn't even about the part where we actually have sex, ‘cause during, I'm numb. Didn't start out that way, only like everything else in my life lately, whatever I felt wore off fast."

Tara was afraid of what she'd hear next, but the question came regardless. "Then why?"

Ashamed, Buffy lowered her head already. "Violence tends to, um, happen a lot with us. Especially before...if-if we're alone."

Yet she felt her friend's warmth again. Tara reached across the table and laid an encouraging hand on her forearm. Looking up, she was met with saddened but understanding eyes.

"He'll tell me how I don't belong around people,” she continued. “And that's somehow the perfect reason for why I should hide in the dark instead. With him. Then, because I don't wanna believe what he's saying, I'll get angry and we beat the hell out of each other.

"After we're…done, I kind of hurt everywhere. It lasts a-a couple days, but once they're over there's nothing, and--"

"Spike's there," Tara finished.

It was clear that while Buffy might've been using him, he wasn't innocent in this. He was trying to break her mentally, which Tara found far more horrible--she had firsthand experience with that kind of abuse. Multiple experiences.

"Pain's generally the one thing I can count on; reminds me I'm still breathing," revealed Buffy.

She knew the taller blonde was searching for words that weren't available, so with hands shaking just enough to draw attention to themselves, she finished her hot chocolate in a single gulp and tried to recall where the game had left off.

"Please let it be your turn."

Her eyes did little to conceal how much she hoped it was.

_______

Though it'd been her turn to guess, it was also Tara's turn to talk, Buffy being understandably exhausted. As she started summarizing life post-Willow and packing the game in its box, Buffy took their mugs to the dishwasher. Leisurely.

Tara was grateful. Getting this part out was easier if she didn't have to fear eye contact. She was nervous enough.

Only when the slayer returned into the dining room did she respond to what she'd heard. "Really? You're dating?"

Leaning against the adjoining entranceway, she seemed mildly surprised, but not upset.

"Like, how exclusively? Very? Not so very?"

"Oh, not." Tara was quick to shake her head. "May-maybe I shouldn't have said 'dating.' It's more just...getting to know people. In, um, public places."

"Are drinks and/or food involved?"

"Well, s-sometimes there's coffee."

All right, so it did bare a strong resemblance to "dating." Realizing this, Tara smiled unsurely.

Buffy smiled too as she came further in and took the box off the table. "You're just fishing--it's allowed."

She continued into the living room. "More than. It's required."

"'Fishing'?"

Tara hadn't ever fished before; she'd only watched her father and brother. Though she highly doubted her fellow blonde, who was sliding the game underneath the couch, meant literally. She waited for an explanation.

"Yeah...where you water-test and find out who your options are. Then after a few practice casts, y'see if one of 'em wants to maybe bite. Or nibble." Buffy was on her way back into the dining room as the suggestive nature hit her. "Nibble your lure, I mean."

She reddened. "Wow. Kinda spiraled. Swear I was going for a PG-rated metaphor, except since it's doubling as a euphemism now...think I'll stop before things get worse. Which they could. Easily."

The witch gave her patented half-grin. "If it makes you feel better? I think I am fishing. Only nobody ever..."

Her face matched Buffy’s in redness. "...re-reaches my lure. They don't even see the bait. That's all I'm, comfortable with for now."

The slayer began laughing with her friend, who had a side to her she hadn't seen before.

"Wanna go sit out back? ‘Cause I'm not through with you yet," she said after a minute, then reconsidered. "Unless you have an early class tomorrow...do you have an early class tomorrow?"

A blond head shook as Tara stood up from the table. "My first class isn't until two."

_______

To the backyard they went, sitting beside one another on the bench. Fresh air and a clear sky didn't solve Buffy’s problems, but being here certainly felt less oppressive than being in the house. Might've been easier for Tara too, when talking about other girls, if the young woman was free of the building that held memory upon memory of times with her ex. Seemed logical.

And if she also happened to enjoy Tara's presence and wasn't ready to face a house where she was the sole, lone occupant, was that a crime?

"Nice night," Buffy commented, looking up. "Almost makes you forget there're all those demons loitering everywhere being evil. When they're not playing poker for kittens."

Tara looked equal parts perplexed and horrified. She assumed they didn't give their winnings good homes stocked with catnip.

"Well, only some demons. Like Spike," Buffy added.

Perhaps it was almost better that Miss Kitty Fantastico had been the unfortunate, accidental target of Dawn and a crossbow--at least the cat hadn't died as something's lunch. But the sooner Buffy was weaned off the vampire, the better she'd be.

"What time do you work tomorrow?" Tara asked.

"I got stuck with the late shift," came the slayer’s grumble. "Why?"

"There’s something I th-th-think..." Annoyed, the witch stopped and started over. "I’d like to take you somewhere. In the morning. Do you mind getting up early?"

Not hearing an immediate answer, she chickened out. "If--"

Buffy’s eyebrow rose. "How early?"

"Before dawn."

Buffy then gaped. "Dawn as in, the time of day, 'dawn'?"

"Um, yes," confirmed Tara, resisting the temptation to hide her face. "I'll bring a thermos. With coffee."

"Regular, decaf, or date coffee?"

The question successfully embarrassed the blue-eyed blonde.

"*R-r-regular.*” Then she repeated, less emphatically, “Regular. I just want to help. As a fr-friend."

"It's okay. M' only teasing," said the hazel-eyed blonde lightly, putting a hand on a tense shoulder. "I'll find a way to wake myself up on time; either by drinking much water before bed, or replacing the batteries in my alarm clock. Depends how lazy I feel. Then we can go where I'm betting you won't tell me."

Tara smiled. "Not yet. But it'll be worth it. I hope."

"Fine, but I'm taking a lot on faith here. Surprises are over-hyped as it is." Buffy waited a beat before asking, "So the real dating started when?"

Tara breathed deep, and got underway. "About three weeks after we...after I broke up with Willow."

She sat a little straighter. "I second-guessed myself for a while, wondering if I did the right thing...and then I was here making pancakes for Dawn, and Willow came in with Amy, who suddenly wasn't a rat anymore--they'd been doing magick all night. She didn't care, Buffy. So I decided, to hell with it, you know? I needed to move on."

Buffy nodded. "I remember that morning. I came in at the tail end, but...was pretty strong, Tara."

The compliment was shrugged off as the witch kept talking.

"I had to just do it, finally; I was sick of feeling miserable. And going out, meeting different people, who for some reason wanna meet me...we have a good time. And I know what to expect, because we both know what the boundaries are, what we’re looking for. It's honest."

A second wave of nervousness hit her, then. "I didn't think I-I'd be able to handle being on my own, but it's made me realize," Her expression saddened a bit, "I don't need Willow. Which scares me to death, because I thought I always would."

"Well, you weren't around for Angel, but believe me when I say, there was a time when he was my entire world. We're talking tunnel-vision to the point of absolute sureness that I couldn't survive without him,” the slayer tried to relate. “Only I am. Not in the greatest way, but I've figured out he can't just swoop in and fix everything, no one can; so long story really short, he's in the 'I love you, but I'm not in love you' file cabinet these days.

"Is that where Will is?"

There was a long beat before Tara spoke the truth aloud, with some resignation.

"I think so." The weight of that slowly registered on her face. "Goddess, she is. That's new."

Buffy automatically returned the earlier favor, offering a supportive, firm hug.

"I wanna hear steady breathing; no hyperventilating on my watch." She rubbed Tara's back in slow circles while the sinking-in passed. "Sneaks up on ya, doesn't it?"

"Uh huh. A little too well," said Tara, following good instructions. "Tiny squeaks would’ve been nice."

The slayer wasn't going to subject her to another tale of "Angel Drama," but she couldn't help reflecting back again on being eighteen, on how badly she tried to make it work once he returned from Hell. Her body still wanted him, her brain was wary, and her heart was confused. But they were "Buffy and Angel"; he had a soul again. He was what all of her *wanted* to want, if that made sense.

When he ended their relationship in that sewer tunnel and she wept to Willow, it was more because she let herself know then, she was no longer in love with him. Not like she'd been pre-Angelus. And recognizing that was a painful experience--if your world isn't cutting it anymore, what are you supposed to do? She never did quite find a satisfactory answer.

Releasing Tara, Buffy's eyes told the story well enough. They told the witch she understood firsthand, and that was the message she really wanted to convey.

"Gonna be okay?"

"I might hafta dismount and stretch my legs," Tara responded, making Buffy's forehead crinkle. "Before getting back on the horse again...a-a second time. Thanks."

"Haven't felt very helpful since I got back--I didn't know I missed it." The petite, resurrected woman kind of smirked at the odd disconnect that was her life. "But does this mean you and Willow aren't gonna re-couple if she beats her, uh, magick problems?"

Immediately, she wished she hadn’t said it.

"Sorry. Stupid question."

Color began to drain from the witch's features. "Is...is that why she stopped? To win me back?"

"She may be hoping she can, yeah." Buffy called it as she saw it, because she'd gotten that vibe from the redhead in spades. "She also stopped ‘cause of that whole night with Dawn, but you're tied on the list. I think she thinks you guys are temporarily--"

"No." Confidence rang in that small word from Tara. "I told her if she could stop for a week, I'd stay. I didn't want it to be an ultimatum, a threat like that, but she wasn't listening to anything else; I was worried, and, pretty desperate."

She shook her head disappointingly at the next turn of events. "She couldn't even last a day. Instead she did that spell on everyone. So we'd forget. She manipulated my mind. Twice, without having any idea why it was wrong."

Her eyes were angry, yet another side Buffy hadn't seen.

"When I left the house,” Tara continued, “it wasn't to teach her a lesson, or get her to quit--it was for me. I swore I w-wouldn't let somebody control me that way again. Not...after my dad."

She smoothed out a wrinkle in her dress before resuming.

"I'm happy Willow's doing what she's doing, but it should only be for herself. Her body absorbed lots of dark energy; once she finishes getting rid of it, she better...take the time to respect the magick she has, or she'll never..."

"Can't you--?"

"I can't be with her, Buffy. As much as I'd love to give in sometimes, and wish we weren't--"

"No, not..." The slayer got hung up on what words to use, and decided not to use any, bypassing it altogether. "Can't you tutor her? 'Friend' tutor?"

Tara silently apologized for jumping to conclusions, and had the grace to look sheepish. "She really needs to go learn from a good coven. Anywhere away from here. When she's ready."

"Does she know all that?" Buffy wondered. "Because she's one hundred percent magick-free, and isn't the keenest on bippity-boppity-booing. Past the cleansing period, or ever. No offense."

The Cinderella reference sort of snuck in there.

"None taken," said the witch, smiling. After a moment, returned to the matter at hand. "Willow probably doesn't. Know."

"She needs to, then. You should tell her." The Chosen One stared in a manner reserved usually for demons. "Everything."

She had a thought, then. "Hey--at my party next week. You're coming, she's coming..."

She identified with Tara, she didn't begrudge the woman her choices, and had gained a good deal more respect for her tonight to go along with what'd been there. But Willow was still her best friend despite tough times, and she deserved to have all the facts. Short-term heart breakage was a sad side effect.

"We'll talk," Tara assured, then seized an opportunity. "That reminds me, Dawn thinks she found you the perfect present; she keeps saying how excited she is whenever we're out. I bet she'd give away a couple hints if you asked."

Ooh. Clever. Respect kept on climbing. Like that little man in the Price Is Right game.

"Okay, that's fair," accepted Buffy, ruefully. "I'm not in the running for the 'Bestest Big Sister of 2002' award. If there's a top fifty, I'm overshooting last place by a continent, and won't even rank this year."

"The year just started."

The blonde's eyes widened in disbelief, and her voice was laced with a tone Tara couldn't nail down. "Uh, remember that meltdown about an hour and a half ago? I'm pessimistic now. Terminally."

Sighing, her mask withered. "Dawn wants me to be her sister: her never dead, never resurrected sister.
But I don't know where that person is, and when Dawn wants to do the ‘family bond’ thing, I'm scared of who she’d be bonding with.

"I'm sorry she's upset, but it's better than the alternative."

She pondered that. "Unless the alternative was Joan. She seemed to like Joan. Heck, I liked Joan--she was 'Older Buffy' without the five years of negativity build up, ‘cause they were a downer. And she was perkier, don't forget. Naïve, but perkier."

Before she succumbed to regret, she held it in for Tara's sake. To her, Willow's spell wasn't a violation. It was a welcome dream.

Buffy went on. "Joan isn't the alternative, though. The real one? That's hard to recognize? She feels ugly. Inside'n'out."

"Dawn doesn't need protection," Tara countered. "She needs to feel useful, to know she matters. You don't have to share all the details with her, but trust her to handle the basics--she's grown up fast."

"Then why's she act so childish?"

That was blunt. And snappish to a person who didn't deserve it.

Buffy bit her tongue in penance. "Wasn't directed at you. It just...came out. Plus I think it was rhetorical." She trudged onward. "Even if I thought she could deal, I can't. First I hafta explain who I am to...whoever I am."

Tara was probably looking for a different result, one where she rose above her issues and decided to see Dawn in a new light. Buffy was conscious of how selfish she seemed, but it wasn't as if she enjoyed being lost to herself. She believed she would be no good to friends or family, until "Buffy" resurfaced. How to achieve that was a mystery to her, though the person she shared bench space with, had that even more mysterious idea.

"That's what morning's for." Tara didn't press her on Dawn. "Well, it’ll be a first step. We can always take more."

A wordless stretch of crickets and car engines signaled that the evening had naturally run its course.

She stood. "I should..."

"Leave me to avoid Willow?" Buffy queried with faux-innocence. "In case she comes home early?"

"An-and to let you get s-some sleep," Tara wasted zero time in adding. "I know you're tired."

The slayer generally hated complaining to anyone other than herself about her problems; she dealt in private, sparing her friends to keep up the facade of strength. But Tara being Tara, angst was brought out with ease, and didn't make her feel weak. She wouldn't call this experience "cathartic" per se, because she wasn't exactly lighter and re-energized, but unleashing her dark secret and not being crucified for her actions was the first hurdle she had to clear.

Recovery wasn't guaranteed, but by choosing Tara, the odds had improved. She'd managed an intelligent decision--good omen? Or wishful thinking?

"You're right. I'm pooped," came the agreement, and Buffy pointed to her vocal chord area. "Don't have any 'heavy-talk' left in here."

"So go inside, go to bed...and dress warm tomorrow," suggested Tara.

The shorter blonde smiled. "Want me to walk you?"

"To the driveway?" The witch said, mirthfully. "I'm sure I'll find it."

While her friend blushed at the silliness of the offer, she had one more thing to say.

"But, Buffy? You are absolutely *not* ugly; please don't believe that about yourself...you're-you're beautiful."

Buffy’s blushing carried on, but was tempered with being flattered. "Says whose eyes? 'Friend' or ‘gay woman’?"

Tara's half-grin, more enigmatic than usual, more than she even realized, claimed her face muscles again.
"Good night."

"Night, Tara."

Buffy would do her the courtesy of not pressing, either. She watched the woman disappear around the side of the house, listened to the car pull away, and sat under the stars a couple more minutes before greeting her mattress with a bona fide, happy sensation that went straight to the bone. She was alone, yet the fire hadn't been completely snuffed.

Encouraged by that, she banked on her internal clock wanting to go off in time for Tara, so she didn't bother with the alarm. Or the water.

Meanwhile, on the drive back to campus, Tara puzzled over what hell-spawn had possessed her back there, because she didn't seriously do that of her own volition.
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