Tara snapped awake, her body jerking up from the bed. Her breathing was labored; she couldn't get enough air, and what little she did take in, didn't want to leave her body.
Closing in. All closing in.
The voices were still there...acerbic...derisive...hurtful.
Shut up! Go away!
She could feel her hair plastered to parts of her face and neck, the sweat dripping down her skin serving as a strong adhesive.
Tara wanted to rip the clothes from her body, the damp material clinging to her, constricting her.
She was trapped.
She couldn't move.
"Can't breathe," she gasped as she worked desperately to free herself.
The sheets and blanket had wound their way around Tara's legs and torso in the night, capturing her limbs and holding them fast. Tara kicked her legs violently as she tore at the bindings.
"Get off...off...off," her mutterings became more frantic. "God dammit...off!" Finally free of the material, Tara swallowed large gulps of air, as much as would fit her lungs.
The voices continued...offensive...incessant...pervasive.
"Be...quiet! Leave me...alone!" She hissed at the emptiness around her, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Knowing she was on the verge of hyperventilating, she closed her eyes and tried to calm herself.
Breathe...in, out...in, out. You're okay. It was a nightmare...not real.
Tara opened her eyes to the cold darkness. She could make out the smallest sliver of light from the streetlamp as it fought its way through the curtains.
Still there were the voices...sneering...harsh...spiteful.
"Go away!" Tara reached out toward that bit of light; it was her only ally, staunchly beating at the menacing blackness of the room.
"Closing in," she whispered to her elusive friend. "More light."
She turned quickly, fumbling for the lamp on the bedside table. Her hands reached out, haphazardly seeking the one thing that would stop the darkness from completely taking over.
"Where?" Tara could feel the panic clutching at her again. "Light...light...where the hell is it?"
She didn't notice the impact until she heard the crash. The sound startled her, but it didn't keep her from her objective. When the room was finally bathed in light, Tara began to breathe again. Slowly, the voices that had continued to taunt her faded away. Keep going, you bastards.
Tara felt the panic leave her, as if it were chasing after the vanishing darkness. She was splayed across the bed, her body fully extended in its quest for light. She dropped her hands from the lamp and rolled onto her back, staring at the ceiling. "Thank god."
Peering over the side of the bed, Tara searched out the source of the crash. The frame holding Willow's photo lay picture side down on the taupe Berber. Tara held her breath as she picked up the treasured object, hoping fervently that the frame had not been damaged. The structure of the wood felt sturdy in her hands and she released a relieved sigh. It's okay.
Upon turning the frame over, Tara's eyes went wide with shock and despair; tears slowly trickled down her cheek. The glass held within the frame was cracked in two places, forming a crooked 'T' across the picture. The largest crack ran diagonally from the upper left corner of the frame to the lower right. It sliced through the picture making its way across Willow's image from her ear, across her chin, and on through her shoulder. The fissure continued its slanted path through Buffy's torso. The second, smaller fracture branched off, nearly perpendicular to the first, cutting through Willow's body.
What was once a 4" by 6" pane of glass was now three sharp-edged pieces. Had Tara not adhered small bits of 'frame space' to the glass, lifting it away from the photo, the edges of the broken glass would have surely harmed the picture. As it was, the cracks in the glass distorted Willow's features...but it was enough. Harm was done.
Tara choked back a sob when she saw the damage and immediately -- frantically -- began to fit the pieces of glass back together. Once they were properly aligned, and Willow's smile no longer appeared to be split in two, Tara placed her index finger over the juncture, holding the pieces in place. With her other hand, Tara grasped the frame firmly, ensuring its safety. She gazed down at Willow's smile and felt her heart skip a beat...and then another.
Tara's eyes moved down to her index finger and she slowly, carefully removed the digit from the glass. An unpleasant shiver ran through her body. The intersecting point of the two cracks was directly over Willow's heart.
"Oh, God," Tara whispered as fresh tears sliced down her face. "Broken."
She brought her finger back to the cracked glass and ran it over Willow's heart, as if trying to mend the wound. "Broken." Tara placed the frame on the bed and increased the pressure of her finger as she continued to press against the crack. "Heal...please...heal." The insistent force on the interstice became too much of a strain; the larger section of glass broke in two.
"No!" Tara quickly removed her finger from the glass. Her hand shook as it dangled inches away from the smiling image in the frame. Her stertorous breathing was the only sound in the room. It was deafening.
Her gaze left the photo and she stared at her hand. You broke her. Tara's brow furrowed and she tilted her head to one side as she watched a drop of blood fall from her finger. I broke her. The new rift in the small pane had cut her finger; yet she felt no physical pain. She continued to stare as another droplet of blood formed in the cut. I broke me. The liquid seemed to move in slow motion as she watched it leave her finger and tumble through the air. It splashed down, landing directly on the glass. Tara continued to watch as the crimson fluid spattered Willow's image. Red...not right...wrong red...wrong...all wrong. She wiped at the puddle with the back of her hand. "Wrong."
She wiped again.
She wiped again.
The once tiny pool of blood was now a smeared red streak on the glass. Tara was about to wipe again, but she saw a new drop of blood fall from her hand; this time the blood came from a small cut on the side of her palm. Her trembling increased as she watched the fluid slowly flow toward the separation in the glass. Oh no. Tara grabbed the edge of her t-shirt to soak up the blood before it could seep through the crack and reach the photo underneath.
"Stay away," she ordered, her voice barely above a whisper. She stared at the frame for a moment before flipping it over and fumbling with the small latches on the back. She was hearing voices again...repeatedly calling her name. Tara ignored them and tried to focus on her task.
"Out...get it out...have to save Willow."
"Tara! Please, look at me!"
Tara looked up to find concerned hazel eyes gazing back at her. "B-Buffy?" Her eyes were wide with fright and confusion.
"It's me, Tara," Buffy assured, "You're okay. Everything is okay."
In truth, Buffy wasn't sure if everything was really okay. Just a few minutes earlier, she had been sleeping peacefully -- visions of mock-ups doing a two-dimensional tap dance to "I'm Every Woman" highlighting her slumber. The jovial routine was interrupted by the cry of a pained voice. Still partly asleep, she tried to identify the muffled sounds coming from beyond her bedroom walls. She heard faint shuffling noises and an occasional quiet exclamation, but she simply couldn't place the sounds.
Just as Buffy was about to curl up under the covers once again, she heard the distinct sound of an object crashing to the floor and breaking. Moments later she could make out the sounds of sobbing and frantic movement. Buffy jumped from her bed and quickly made her way to the hallway. That's coming from Tara's room. Moving quickly toward the spare bedroom, Buffy listened intently for anything that would let her know what was happening. All she could ascertain was that Tara was in some sort of pain. She reached the room and rapped quickly on the door.
Placing her ear to the door, Buffy could now hear Tara's voice. She knocked again.
"Tara...are you okay?"
There was silence for a few moments. Everything was still.
Buffy grasped the doorknob and slowly pushed the door open.
The sound of Tara's voice -- such pain -- steeled Buffy's resolved and she entered the room fully. The sight before her halted her movements and she stared at the scene. Tara sat on the bed, tears streaming down her face; she was running the back of one hand over an object, repeatedly mumbling "wrong" with each swipe.
Buffy felt as if her heart were in her throat. She tried to swallow it down so it would return to its proper place, but she couldn't move. Seeing Tara's suffering kept Buffy frozen in place. Tara too...what has this done to them? Buffy felt a tear travel down her cheek; she didn't bother to brush it away. In that moment, the pain she felt a year earlier when she saw Willow's anguish returned to her in force. The increased intensity of Tara's voice, and her frantic movements, brought Buffy out of her dazed state. "...have to save Willow." Buffy rushed to Tara's side and grabbed her hands, pulling them away from the blood-streaked glass. The contact seemed to reach Tara. Encouraged, Buffy implored the stricken woman to look at her.
Tara was still disoriented, but seeing Buffy there -- actually seeing Buffy and feeling the small blonde's hands grasping her own -- made the lingering haze recede. "Buffy, help me, please." Tara held out the frame to her friend with the hand that wasn't bleeding. "I broke her...and...I...can't...bleeding... can't...get the picture out...to save her. Will you do it?"
The look in Tara's eyes nearly broke Buffy's heart. The two had formed a good friendship via email -- particularly during the last year -- but Tara's correspondence had never hinted at this kind of torment. Buffy gently pushed back the hair that was obscuring the distraught woman's features. Lightly stroking Tara's hair, she gave her friend a comforting smile. "Of course, I'll help, Tara. Don't worry."
She made short work of removing the backing of the frame and extracting the picture from its place. Buffy gingerly removed the broken glass and deposited it in a nearby trashcan. "I'm going to put the picture right over here on the table, okay? It's fine...as good as the day you got it." Buffy turned the frame over in her hands and briefly studied it. "This is really beautiful, Tara. The colors are so...familiar."
Buffy looked up quickly to see Tara gazing at the frame. For the first time since entering the room, Buffy saw Tara's features soften; her eyes were no longer clouded and her lips formed a subtle smile. "Tara? What do you mean?"
"It's Willow," Tara explained, her eyes never leaving the frame. "The colors...her hair...eyes. It took me weeks to get it just right." She reached out with her uninjured hand and carefully caressed the wood. "I finally did, though. I wrote down the mixture levels and saved the paints. I only used them on special things."
"And I guess Willow qualifies as special." Buffy smiled as she leaned over to place the frame next to the picture on the table, happy to see Tara calming down.
Buffy turned back to her friend to see the pain return to Tara's eyes; new tears were forming. "Tara...what is it?" She took Tara's hands in her own, offering the woman what comfort she could. "What's got you so upset?"
Tara closed her eyes and shook her head vigorously, a lock of damp hair whipped across her face and stuck to her skin. "I'm fine. It's stupid...just...just a bad dream. I'm fine." She removed her hands from Buffy's grasp and wrapped her arms around her knees.
Buffy watched Tara close in on herself and knew her friend was lying. She could feel Tara's pain rolling off her in waves. Glancing down at her own hands as she thought of what to say next, Buffy noticed a small smudge of red on her palm. The sight reminded her that Tara needed some minor physical mending -- the emotional patching up could wait a bit. She rested her hand gently on Tara's forearm.
"Tara?" She waiting until the blue eyes looked up. "C'mon...you've cut yourself. Let's go clean those up. I've got a couple band aids."
Tara glanced down at the drying blood on her hand. Wrong red, she thought and wanted nothing more at that moment than to wash away the offending color. Not trusting her own voice, Tara simply nodded.
Buffy got up and stood beside the chair holding the open suitcase in the corner. "Let's get you something else to wear, too...your t-shirt is soaked through."
Again, Tara only nodded.
Buffy waited for Tara to make a move -- any move indicating that she'd heard and understood Buffy's words. No move was made. Not again. Buffy sighed and mentally steeled herself for what she was about to do...but, she'd give it one more try first.
"Tara? Are you coming?"
No move. No sound.
Didn't think I'd have to do this again.
Buffy squared her shoulders and approached the still form on the bed. Firmly grasping Tara's arms and unwrapping them from around her legs, Buffy moved the limbs so that they were resting by Tara's side. She then placed a hand on either side of Tara's face and raised her head until the dull blue eyes were looking directly into fiery hazel. When Tara blinked in confusion, Buffy knew it was time.
"Good," Buffy spoke in a calm, firm voice. "Now that I have your attention...snap out of it! Get off your ass, grab something else to wear, and get into the bathroom so I can clean up those cuts." She released her hold on Tara and leaned away. Her posture and body language made it clear that there would be no argument. That didn't stop Tara from trying.
"No, Tara. Get up. Get your things. Get in the bathroom. Now!" With her last word, Buffy's arm snapped forward and she offered her hand to help Tara stand. No need to be a total bitch. As soon as Tara reached out to take her hand, Buffy pulled the shocked woman into a fierce hug. At first, she felt Tara's body stiffen, but soon she relaxed into Buffy's embrace. Her nightshirt quickly became damp from Tara's tears.
"I'm sorry, Tara," Buffy whispered after a few minutes of holding the crying woman. "I didn't want to be mean. I just couldn't watch another friend become catatonic with grief and guilt." Her voice caught in her throat and she swallowed hard. "Honestly, I don't think I'm strong enough for that."
Tara pulled away from Buffy and used her forearm to wipe the tears from her face. She looked intently at Buffy, her gaze quickly shifting back and forth between clear hazel eyes. "What do you mean, Buffy? Are you okay?"
Willow was right...Tara cares more about others than herself. No wonder Willow loves her.
"I'm fine, Tara," Buffy assured as she turned around to grab a clean nightshirt for Tara. "Here...why don't you go take a really quick shower and I'll go make us some tea, okay?"
"Buffy, you should go back to bed. I'm so sorry I woke you up." Tara lowered her head. "I...I don't know why my brain got so muddled up...it's been so long..." Her voice hitched a bit as her words trailed off.
Buffy lifted Tara's chin so that she could look into her watery blue eyes. "Just.go.take.a.shower." A warm smile graced her features. "I'll meet you back in here with band aids and some hot tea in a few minutes." She dropped her hand and jerked her head toward the door. "Go on," she gently encouraged, "get a move on."
Tara took the nightshirt from Buffy, clutching it to her chest, and made her way out of the room. Just before reaching the door, Tara stopped and turned to face Buffy.
"Willow was right...you have a very caring heart, Buffy."
"You know," Buffy chuckled, "Willow must get tired of being right all the time. I was thinking the same thing a few minutes ago...about you."
Tara bowed her head, her long hair falling forward to cover her features. A moment later, she lifted her hand to move the hair away from her face. She looked at Buffy and smiled.
"I guess Willow just brings out the best in us, huh?"
"Just one of the reasons we love her," Buffy agreed, returning the smile.
"One of many."
Buffy watched Tara turn and leave the room. When she heard the bathroom door close and the shower turn on, Buffy headed downstairs to make the tea she'd promised.
"If those two don't figure this out soon," Buffy mumbled as she trod down the stairs, "I'm gonna have to figure it out for them."
Tara returned to the bedroom 20 minutes later carrying her discarded nightwear. Her hair was still damp and she looked significantly less distraught. She was wearing the nightshirt Buffy had gotten for her. It was really a t-shirt that was about three sizes too big. After pulling it over her head and checking her image in the bathroom mirror, Tara couldn't help smiling.
It was a simple gray t-shirt with "Property of M.I.T." printed in large blue lettering across the front. It was a gift from Willow. Tara remembered the day she received it in the mail. Willow had written a note saying that she'd purposefully gotten the larger size.
I couldn't find a nightshirt at the campus store. Well, I couldn't find one without some silly '10 reasons' list about drinking or partying.
Tara chuckled at the memory and gathered her things. Simply adorable.
"There's a hamper in the closet."
Tara snapped out of her memory, surprised to find herself in the bedroom already. She was only slightly startled to hear Buffy's voice. In fact, her friend's presence was a comfort. Buffy was seated in a chair near the window, a steaming mug of hot chocolate in her hands.
"Thanks." Tara smiled and went to the closet. "You've been busy," she added when she noticed the pile of sheets already occupying the hamper.
"Well, I figured if your clothes were soaked, then the sheets probably weren't too dry. So, I changed them." Buffy shrugged. "No biggie...didn't take long. I did it while the water was boiling."
Tara crossed the room and perched on the edge of the bed nearest Buffy. She folded her hands in her lap and looked into calm, expectant hazel eyes. Tara held Buffy's gaze for a moment, but then let her chin fall to her chest as damp blonde locks obscured her face. Her hands were fidgeting, playing with the bottom of her t-shirt. Tara dared not look up; she knew Buffy was watching her, waiting.
"Tara?" Buffy knew what Tara was trying to do. Hiding won't help, Tare. She'd seen Willow do the same thing so many times. When Tara didn't respond, Buffy sighed internally. Alright, new approach. I knew I'd have to figure this out for them. "I, um, don't like tea, even though Willow tried to convince me that drinking it was 'the European thing to do.'" She chuckled quietly and took encouragement when she noticed Tara do the same. "So, I made myself hot chocolate. I wasn't sure which you'd want...I came prepared for both."
Tara finally looked up to see Buffy gesturing at the tray on the bedside table. She peeked into the two mugs, one with a tea bag and one with a scoop of instant cocoa mix. Behind the mugs was a small thermos. Tara raised one eyebrow at Buffy.
"I liked Fred," Buffy said with a straight face. "I've always had a thing for men with ascots."
The two women looked at each other for a moment and then burst into giggles.
"Actually," Buffy continued, "that was a gift from a little boy I babysat. He gave it to me when he outgrew it and moved on to the Incredible Hulk."
"Well, at least he moved on to bigger things since he ignored better," Tara chuckled. "I'm going to have the cocoa too. Save the tea for the morning." She reached over and poured hot water into her mug.
Buffy pointed to the small alarm clock. "It is morning."
"Oh, God," Tara whispered as she watched the digital numbers switch over to read 2:43 a.m. "Buffy, I'm so sorry. You should really go back to bed...you have to work tomorrow."
Buffy got up from her chair and walked over to Tara. She placed her hand on Tara's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "Tara, It's okay. I'm not even close to being tired. I average about 4 1/2 hours a night...and I've already gotten 3. So I'm good."
Buffy smiled as she noticed Tara relax. She placed her now empty mug on the tray, sat down next to Tara on the bed, reached over to the nightstand and grabbed the band aids she'd brought with her. After quickly opening the small packets, she took Tara's hand in her own and efficiently applied simple first aid to the small cuts.
"Now then," she said in her most maternal tone, "why don't you just scoot back a bit and get comfy. Then you can tell Auntie Buffy what got you so upset."
Tara gripped her mug with both hands and leaned forward, resting her forearms on her knees. She gazed into the mug watching the steam swirl around as the vapor rose upward to make its escape.
"You know, Buffy," Tara began, "I honestly wish I knew." She took a sip of her hot chocolate and let the soothing liquid glide down her throat. Tara took a deep breath and straightened her posture. Releasing a heavy sigh, she placed the mug on the tray and turned to look at Buffy. "Maybe I was just so tired from all the traveling and the excitement of seeing Willow again, that my subconscious mind was all messed up."
Buffy looked thoughtfully at Tara for a moment. "Hmm...well, I'm sure there are many possible theories we can discuss. But, first things first." She paused and gave Tara a stern look. "I thought I told you to scoot back and get comfy."
Tara gave Buffy a weak smile, but didn't move.
"C'mon, Tara," Buffy reasoned, "I want to be comfortable, too." She batted her eyelashes briefly and gave Tara her sweetest smile. Buffy had spent the time while Tara showered plotting out the most effective way to get Tara to relax. So far, it had been working. She didn't want her efforts to be in vain. Can't help if I don't know what's going on inside that head.
"Willow warned me about that," Tara snickered as she gently shook her head.
"Warned you about what?"
Tara pointed at Buffy and gave her a playful scowl. "'Buffy Flirty Face'...she says it's very effective."
"I have a 99.9% success rate, so don't go messing up my stats." Buffy returned the mock scowl and haughtily crossed her arms in front of her chest.
Tara laughed and adjusted her position so that she was propped against the headboard, the blankets covering her legs. She reached next to her and grabbed an extra pillow. With a mischievous look in her eyes, Tara unceremoniously chucked the pillow at Buffy.
"Ooh," Buffy exclaimed as she easily caught the pillow, "a pillow fight! It'll be just like a sleepover -- but without the giggling about boys." She joined Tara's laughter and made herself comfortable. "So, talk to me. I'm assuming you had a bad dream."
"Well," Tara sighed, "it started out as a good dream...lots of me and Willow together. It felt warm...and safe...and loving...and sensual..."
"Oh! Sexy details!" Buffy playfully demanded and clapped her hands gleefully.
"Buffy!" Tara blushed at the implications inherent in her word choice, but giggled at her friend's reaction. "Not sexy sensual, gutterbrain."
"Drat!" Buffy was just glad her pout kept the grin on Tara's face. "Okay, fine. Go on with the non-sexy sensualness."
"Thank you, Miss 'Explainus Interruptus,'" Tara chuckled and gave Buffy a wink. "When I say 'sensual' I mean that everything was so vivid and alive. The fragrance of the wild flowers was so fresh, just like when we were kids."
Buffy watched as Tara closed her eyes and seemed to get lost in the memory.
"I used to pick those flowers for my mom," Tara continued, her eyes were still closed and a peaceful smile lingered on her lips. "Everything was so bright. The colors just...popped. They were so vibrant...and distinct; they didn't bleed together. Willow's hair was shining in the sunlight. So beautiful..." Her voice trailed off, ending in a whisper.
"That doesn't sound so bad." Buffy had remained silent for a few moments waiting for Tara to come out of her reverie. But when she could see that Tara was on the brink of becoming completely immersed in her thoughts, Buffy figured it was time to get things moving again. It was clear to Buffy that Tara did not wake up from a pleasant dream; the longer Tara concentrated on how beautifully the dream began, the more difficult it would be to recount, and deal with, the resultant nightmare. Buffy didn't want her friend to get freaked out a second time.
Tara slowly opened her eyes and smiled. "No, not bad at all. But the sounds were the best part. The rustling of the leaves in the breeze...I could hear the little creek trickling in the distance and the water in the fountain was burbling...and Willow's laughter. We were always laughing when we were kids. Most of my childhood memories include Willow laughing." The smile on Tara's face faltered and she moved her gaze from Buffy's eyes to her own hands, which were now clasped in her lap.
"Tara?" Buffy spoke softly and reached out to gently take Tara's hands in her own. "What happened in the dream?"
"It changed," Tara whispered.
"What changed, Tara?" Buffy squeezed Tara's hands to lend comfort and support. "It's okay. I won't let anything bad happen."
Tara finally looked up, her eyes glistening with tears ready to be shed. "I know you won't, Buffy." She gave a half smile and sniffed before continuing. "The sounds changed." A shiver ran through her body.
"Go on, Tare." Buffy felt the tremor and made sure to keep her voice calm and steady. "How did the sounds change?"
"T-The wind...it ripped through the trees...some of the branches snapped a-and cracked. It made my hair whip across m-my face...and cover my eyes. I-I had to hold it back so I could see." Tara swallowed heavily. "And the w-water from the creek sounded like a f-fl-flood...or rapids...so loud. A-and the water in the fountain churned so violently."
Buffy could feel the lump forming in her throat and struggled to hold back her own tears. I can do this! she tried to convince herself. I can be strong. I've done it before, I can do it again.
Tara pulled her hands away from Buffy's grip so that she could wrap her arms around her knees, keeping herself safe from the onslaught in her mind.
Buffy didn't fight Tara's retreat; she knew -- on some level -- what Tara was going through. She had to let it happen -- just like last time -- if Tara was to heal. "What else, Tara? What other sounds changed?" She already knew, but Tara had to say it for herself.
With a sobbing gasp, Tara allowed the tears to fall freely. "Willow...Willow ch-changed." She pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes, as if she could dam the flood of tears. "My...f-fault." Her sobs choked the words, strangling them, forcing them out of her mouth. They were harsh.
Buffy couldn't hold back her own tears anymore. The image of Tara falling in on herself was enough to send Buffy toward the emotional edge. She drew Tara's huddled body into her arms and held the crying woman close. All the while she rocked Tara -- as one might do with an upset child -- and whispered soothing words in her ear. When she felt Tara's arms wrap around her waist and clench at the material of her t-shirt, Buffy's tears started anew. Well, she thought as she rubbed Tara's back, I cried with Willow, now I'm crying with Tara. It's come full circle. A few moments later, Buffy suddenly released a burst of laughter.
Tara had been steadily calming down and leveling out her breathing when Buffy's guffaw caught her off guard. She pulled away from the embrace and wiped the tears from her eyes. Buffy's cheeks were streaked and wet from crying and her eyes were glistening with newly formed tears. But Tara also noticed a glimpse of mirth -- perhaps even amazement -- in the shiny hazel orbs.
"Did I say something funny?" Tara asked, clearly confused by Buffy's outburst. "Are you laughing at me, Buffy?"
"Oh God! No, Tara!" Buffy quickly pulled Tara into another fierce hug. She felt Tara relax. "No, Tare. A definite no to that question." Buffy briefly tightened the hug before releasing Tara and holding her at arm's length. Looking directly into her eyes, Buffy Smiled. "I just realized how lucky I am, that's all."
Tara gave Buffy a disbelieving look. "Yeah, right," she scoffed. "You're real lucky to have a crying, slobbering idiot keeping you up all night with talk of bad dreams."
"Yes!" Buffy's brow furrowed and she scrunched up her nose. "Okay, wait...you're not an idiot. And, yeah, you're crying. But I wouldn't go so far as to say you're slobbering." She gave Tara a comforting smile. "Drooling a little, maybe...but not full out slobbering."
Tara chuckled, but her tears didn't cease. "Well, better than...foaming at...the mouth, I guess."
"Much better," Buffy replied softly as she brushed a lock of hair from Tara's face. "I'm lucky because of you and Willow." The fact that Tara's eyes sparkled at the mention of Willow's name didn't go unnoticed by Buffy. "My theory goes like this: It's easy to find people to laugh with; it's even easier to find people to fight with. But if we can find just one person to cry with -- really cry with -- well, that's just rare. That's a true friend, a sister." Buff looked pointedly at Tara and smiled through her own tears. "But...I'm lucky...so very lucky...because I've found two."
"I think Willow and I are the lucky ones, Buff." Tara enveloped Buffy in a tight hug. "You've gotten both of us through so much -- and not just the last year. You've been a major force since the day you first talked to Will." She kissed Buffy lightly on the cheek as she pulled out of the embrace and leaned back on the headboard.
Buffy blushed furiously from what was possibly the greatest compliment she'd ever been given. The lump in her throat prevented her from speaking, but she tried anyway, mouthing "Thank you" as she wiped more tears away. After a few moments, Buffy cleared her throat and regained control of her voice.
"Okay, I officially declare this meeting of the 'Mutual Admiration Society' closed." Buffy stood up and went to the dresser across the room to grab a box of tissues. She offered some to Tara before plopping down on the bed and taking a few for herself. "And I won't tell Willow about that little peck on the cheek...she might kick my ass."
Tara's eyes widened in surprise. "Kick...kick your ass?"
"Yeah," Buffy laughed, "she's little, but she's tough. And...well...she's very protective of you." She cast her eyes downward, unable to look at Tara directly. "I found out first hand. I...I talked badly about you once." Buffy took a shaky breath. "I wanted to snap her out of the depressed funk she was in...wanted to see if I could make her angry." She let out a humorless chuckle and shook her head. She chanced a brief glance at Tara, looking away quickly when she saw the hurt in Tara's blue eyes. "I made her angry alright. She nearly took my head off for saying anything negative about you." This time, when Buffy looked up, she made direct eye contact and held Tara's gaze. "'I have to live with the horrible things I said to her,' she told me. 'If I could take back every word, I would. But I can't...they're out there now. So I won't have you or anyone else putting more hurtful, mean words out there about her. Tara doesn't deserve that.'" Buffy sniffed and grabbed another tissue to wipe her eyes. "And she meant it, Tara. A simple question about whether or not you have split ends would have been met with her wrath."
All Tara could do was stare at Buffy.
She couldn't move -- not even to wipe away the tears that were streaming down her face.
She couldn't speak -- not even to clear her throat and push away the lump that had formed there.
She couldn't breathe -- not even to release the sob that was fighting to escape.
Tara's heart was pounding so hard, she thought it might beat right out of her chest. Words. She wanted to run. Bad words. She wanted to hide. They hurt. Tears continued to flow down her cheeks. But through the tears she could see Willow's face as clearly as if the redhead were sitting directly in front of her. Pain, followed closely by anger, glared in Willow's eyes. They hurt so much.
As suddenly as it had appeared, Willow's image was gone -- crushed, smashed.
Buffy had watched as Tara drifted into her own thoughts. She had watched as the fear grew in Tara's eyes. She had watched as Tara struggled to take a gasping breath.
Calling out Tara's name hadn't been effective; it was clear that Tara was hearing a different voice.
Buffy positioned herself directly in Tara's line of sight, hoping she would intrude on whatever Tara was seeing in her mind's eye. But it had no effect. She was about to shake Tara's shoulders, but then Buffy decided to try a combination of stimuli. She held her hands shoulder width apart, palms inward. Without warning, she brought them together, sharply clapping her hands once, and called out Tara's name in a brisk tone.
The movement and sound seemed to have the desired affect -- Tara blinked her eyes rapidly and focused on Buffy.
"Oh, God...I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Tara. It's okay. But, tell me what just happened. Were you remembering something about your dream?"
Tara simply nodded and shut her eyes tightly. When she heard Buffy speak again, she opened them and tried to concentrate.
"Tara...tell me...right now...while it's fresh. Let me help you," Buffy pleaded.
Another quick nod was Tara's response. She took a deep breath in an attempt to steady her nerves. It didn't seem to help. But she knew that she had to talk about it. She had to open up to someone. She had to open up to Buffy.
"Everything was wonderful at first. Willow and I were under our tree having a picnic, just like we used to before I moved. But we weren't kids. It was now...today...at the park Willow designed. I could see the fountain. But, it was still covered in wildflowers like before. A...a combination of both."
Tara paused to clear her eyes and take a couple of gasping breaths. When she felt Buffy's hand settle on her shin, Tara looked up to find that Buffy was still there. The comfort and understanding in Buffy's eyes gave Tara the strength to continue.
"We were t-talking and laughing. It was so wonderful. I don't know what we were talking about. I-I couldn't hear the words we were saying. I just know they were h-happy words because Willow was smiling and laughing. Willow's laugh was so clear, Buffy." It became more difficult for Tara to speak. She began to struggle to get the words to come out of her mouth. "Then I r-remember Willow turning away to...to get something from the p-picnic b-basket. I s-said something...I don't know w-what it was. But when she t-turned around, she wasn't...s-smiling...any...anymore."
"Shh, it's okay, Tara," Buffy whispered. She took Tara's hand and held it tightly, offering her what strength she could. "I'm right here, Tare. Nothing bad is going to happen." She kept her voice soft and soothing. "Tell me what happened next."
Tara took comfort in Buffy's actions and words. She held to Buffy's hand as if it were a lifeline and took a deep breath to steady herself.
"When...when I looked at Willow's face...God, Buffy...she was crying. She was...crying so hard. I reached out to her, but she jerked away from me. That's when everything really started to change. The wind was blowing so hard. Water was lifted out of the fountain and came at us. The branches of the tree started to sway...the force of the wind was making them break. One fell right next to us. But...Willow acted like she didn't notice any of it. She just looked at me with tears streaming down her face. I kept trying to ask her what was wrong...to say that I'm sorry...but the words didn't come out. I tried! I reached out to her again, but she backed away."
Buffy could hear the pain in Tara's voice, see the fear in her eyes. She'd heard that pain and had seen the same fear a year earlier.
"Go on, Tare. I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere."
"T-the leaves started to come off the t-tree. The wind b-blew them r-right at me. I p-put up my hands to try to b-block them, but there were too many...they were too f-fast. Then they started changing...weren't leaves anymore. W-words...familiar...they hurt."
She paused and closed her eyes. Tara could see it happening all over again, as if she were having the nightmare for the first time.
"Tell me about the words, Tara." Buffy wanted Tara to open her eyes. She could see the terror creeping up on Tara's face again. But she didn't stop it from happening. She has to say it out loud.
"Things we said to each other." Tara continued with her eyes tightly shut, telling Buffy what she was seeing. Complete sentences were no longer used; she was seeing in fragments, so she spoke in fragments. "Looked just like the messages. No sound except wind, water. A-and the voices. Oh, God...the voices. Could hear them loudest of all." Tears leaked from the corners of Tara's eyes, forcing their way through her clenched eyelids. "Willow was crying. Willow begging forgiveness. Willow hurting. Words flying at me. Hurtful. Mean. So mean. Words I said to her. Your words...emails...about Willow...hurting...in pain. Willow's words...broken...I broke her." Tara let out a sob.
"No, Tara," Buffy insisted as she moved to wrap Tara in her arms. "No. You didn't break her. She's not broken." She held Tara as the woman sobbed. "Shh...she's not broken, Tara."
After a few minutes, Tara's sobs subsided and her breathing became steadier. But she didn't pull away from Buffy. She needed the comfort and strength. She needed the reassurance that she was there, in Buffy's house, and not under the tree being assaulted by things she had said so long ago. By things Willow had said so long ago.
"H-have you ever seen a tornado, Buffy?"
"Um, no," Buffy began, rather confused by Tara's question. "Not up close and personal. I've just seen them in movies and on TV. Why?"
Tara sat up and pulled her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms tightly around her legs. "That's w-what it was like. A tornado of all the a-awful things we said to each other. They...just b-bombarded me. I cried out to Willow, but she didn't do anything. When I was able to see her through the avalanche of words, she wasn't crying anymore. She was...angry...so angry. And I kept hearing those voices...Mom, Donny, Willow. But, they were different...taken out of context." Tara rested her chin on her knees and closed her eyes for a moment, as if seeing the scene all over again. "The look on Willow's face ripped through me. She looked like she h-hated me." A shiver ran through Tara's body. "That was the worst, Buffy. I can handle anything except Willow hating me."
"She doesn't hate you, Tara. Willow could never hate you."
"It felt so real, though. Everything came at me at once...the stuff Willow and I said to each other when we argued. Things you told me about Willow...how she was doing and how much she was hurting. I-I could hear my mother's voice. I told her what happened only 6 months ago. Whenever she'd ask about Willow, I would just say, 'She's fine...busy with school.' And Mom didn't push the issue. But she knew something was up when I was home for the holidays and I wasn't rushing to the post office to send Willow presents. She confronted me just before I went back to London." New tears formed in Tara's eyes as she looked at Buffy. "She was so upset with me, Buffy...for what I did to Willow. For not contacting her after I'd calmed down and thought about it. Mom said I was being selfish, and she was right. I blamed her for everything, Buffy. And when I finally realized that I was just as much to blame...I did nothing. Nothing! I don't think I'd ever seen my mother so angry...not even when Donny took advantage of the 'if you can reach the bar, you can drink' rule at some taverns."
Buffy chuckled softly. "I think I'd like to meet your brother."
"Oh, Donny and I had a big fight about it when he found out. At first he was mad at Willow...called her selfish and uncaring. But I got all over him for saying that. Then he was mad at me for treating Willow so badly and not calling her or writing her." A small smile formed on Tara's lips as she thought about her brother. "He was so confused by the end of it all...he didn't know who to be mad at anymore." Her smile disappeared quickly. "I heard his voice telling me that I'd screwed up, that I didn't really love Willow. I heard your voice too...from this afternoon."
"My voice? What did I say?"
"It was from our talk at the restaurant...when Willow was playing musical salt-n-pepper shakers. When you said you wanted to know if I was going to break her heart again."
"So that I could start picking up the pieces and putting her back together?"
"I'm sorry, Tara."
"No, Buffy. Don't be." Tara gave Buffy a small smile. "I'm glad you said it. You're a good friend."
Buffy smiled back and gave Tara a quick wink. "Thanks. So, what finally made you wake up?" she asked, feeling more confident in Tara's ability to remain calm. She knew the tears would continue, but believed the sobbing had ended.
"Willow. She just kept watching as more and more leaves turned into all of those words. She watched as they attacked me. And they were attacking me. It was physical. The more spiteful of the bunch were larger and had more force." Tara rubbed her arm as if she could feel the blows even now. "But Willow didn't do anything. She just stood and watched...and she laughed. But it wasn't the kind of laugh from before. It was almost...maniacal. I could hear it over the wind and everything else." She shuddered as a fresh pool of tears formed in her eyes. "Then she turned and walked away. Just...walked away...left me to be beaten by the words. I yelled out for her...and that's when I woke up."
"I heard you yell. I wasn't sure what it was and was about to go back to sleep. That's when I heard the crash from the frame." Buffy saw Tara's nod as if confirming the sequence of events. "What made the frame fall?"
"I did." Tara gazed at the frame and reached over to touch the painted wood. "I'm so glad it didn't fall apart...like I did," she said the last with a smile and winked at Buffy, just to let her friend know she was feeling okay. "It was so dark when I woke up. I didn't know where I was. I felt claustrophobic -- like the world was caving in on me, trapping me. And the voices and sounds were still so loud. I needed light. When I reached for the lamp, I knocked over the frame."
"I'm glad I heard it." And I'm glad you don't seem as upset, my friend. "I'd hate to think of you going through this alone."
"I'm glad too, Buffy. I'm sure I'd still be a mess if you hadn't come in. Thank you." Tara moved so that she sat with her legs crossed under the blanket. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, and glanced at the door of the room. It seemed as if she was trying to see through the door. "I'm surprised I didn't wake up Willow with all of my racket."
"Pfft," Buffy scoffed, "I'm not. That girl could sleep through an apocalypse."
"Really? She was such a light sleeper when we were kids." Tara wondered briefly at the spark of jealousy she felt at the thought of Buffy being more familiar with Willow's sleeping patterns than she was. Get over it, Maclay.
"Yeah...well...she grew out of it. Now she can sleep through an explosion right outside her door." Buffy laughed lightly and shook her head, amused by thoughts of Willow. "When Mom took the two of us to L.A. after graduation, Willow's dad had to let me in the house when we came to pick her up. Willow was dead asleep and nothing Sheila and Ira did would wake her up."
Tara was smiling as she listened to Buffy talk about the redhead. "Will told me about the trip, but she didn't mention this part in her letters."
"She wrote about it in her 'Tara Journal' so you'll still get to read her side of the story."
"Oh, good." Tara paused briefly and then continued in a soft voice. "Her 'Tara Journal'? That's what she calls it?"
Buffy saw the look of wonder and adoration in Tara's eyes. "Yeah, that's what she calls it. She says it's for your eyes only. Even I haven't read any of it. She's told me about some of the stuff she's written, but I've never been allowed to read it. Not that I've asked or tried to read it." She added, just to be clear.
"Wow." The dopey grin from that afternoon at the deli returned to Tara's face. After a moment, she shook her head quickly and directed her attention back to Buffy. "Don't think you're getting off that easily, Buff...how did you wake her up?"
"Easy," Buffy replied, her lips forming a mischievous grin, "I pulled the blankets off the bed."
"That's all it took to wake her up?"
"Well, no...her ass hitting the floor woke her up." Buffy giggled at the wide-eyed expression on Tara's face. Will's gonna kill me for telling this story. "It helped that I wrapped her in the blankets first."
Tara broke into a fit of laughter, obviously not concerned about waking Willow. "Oh God...that's too funny. I wish I could have seen her face."
"Oh, it was priceless," Buffy said as she joined in on the laughter. "She was wide awake after that. She was up, in and out of the shower, dressed and downstairs ready to leave before I even had a chance to get her bags down to the car." Seeing Tara's renewed bout of the giggles made sigh internally. It was good to see Tara genuinely laugh.
"I can't wait to read her side of the story," Tara said after her laughter subsided. "You're gonna tell me more of these Willow stories, right? I have a lot to catch up on."
"Sure I will. I'll tell ya anything you want to know." Buffy's face took on a serious expression for a moment. She pursed her lips together and looked down at the pattern of the blanket beneath her. "Hmph," she quietly scoffed.
Tara noticed the change in Buffy's demeanor and became curious. "What is it, Buffy?"
"I...it...you...I mean..." Buffy stammered before letting out a frustrated sigh. She lifted her gaze and looked directly into crystal blue eyes. Wow. They really do pull you right in...just like Willow said. "It's just...well, it's just not fair, Tara, is it?"
"I know all the stories. I've had seven years of experiences with Willow that you didn't get to have. And it's not fair."
A bit shocked at Buffy's vehemence, Tara quickly searched for the right words to calm Buffy's guilt.
"You're right, Buffy...it's not fair. And I admit that I've been jealous of you sometimes." Tara held up her hand to stop Buffy from interrupting. "But I don't blame you for anything. I don't resent you or your friendship with Willow." She held Buffy's gaze for a moment. "I'm grateful for it, Buffy. You took care of Willow when I couldn't. You were here when I couldn't be. When Willow first told me that she'd met you, I could tell how happy it made her. And since meeting you made Willow happy, it made me happy too."
The sincerity in Tara's smile tugged at Buffy's heart. The look of pure adoration in Tara's eyes whenever she talked about the redhead told Buffy what she'd always assumed, but now she needed to know for sure.
"You really love her, don't you?"
"Yes," Tara replied without a moment of hesitation, "I do."
"Tell her, Tara. She needs to hear it from you."
Tara nodded but didn't speak. She'd told Willow how she felt in letters and emails over the years. Doesn't she know? Tara leaned back and rested her head against the pillows for a moment; she stared at the ceiling. How could she know? I didn't talk to her for a year...what must she have thought?
"Buffy," Tara said as she sat up quickly. "Will you tell me another story?"
"Sure, Tare." Buffy thought for a moment before continuing. "Wanna hear about Prom?"
"Yes, I do, but not right now." Tara gave Buffy a hard look. "I want you to tell me what happened last year."
"Last year? Are...are you sure you want to hear about that right now?" Buffy asked the question, but the expression on Tara's face gave her a clear answer. Tara has a resolve face too. She hesitated, knowing Tara needed to know, but not sure if she was ready to hear it.
"Buffy, please." Tara's voice was firm, confident. She would not take 'no' for an answer; she would not allow Buffy to evade the question.
Buffy took a deep breath before beginning. Screw your courage to the sticking place, Summers. She reached behind her and grabbed the barely forgotten box of tissue and place it between herself and Tara. "You might not need it, but I probably will."
"It's okay, Buff," Tara assured her friend. "I can take it. I'm sure it can't be worse than what I've imagined."
"Well, you two had your argument around the middle of June--"
"Um, right. I guess she was up all night sitting at her computer in case you showed up again. But, um, you didn't."
"No," Tara whispered, "I didn't."
"Yeah, so...um...I got a call the next morning at some God-awful time. All I heard when I answered the phone was someone sobbing. I didn't know who it was at first...thought it was some sort of prank call and was about to hang up. But I heard my name and I immediately knew it was Willow. I'd never heard her cry like that, Tara. It was scary." Buffy shuddered visibly as the memory caused an unpleasant sensation to shoot up her spine.
Tara noticed Buffy's reaction to her own words and gently placed her hand on Buffy's knee. "I'm sorry, Buffy. But I really need to hear this. I have to know."
With a quick nod of agreement, Buffy took a deep breath and continued. "It took me a while to get her to calm down enough to tell me what was wrong. Once she told me, I made the mistake of saying, 'is that all?' That didn't do much to keep her calm."
"Oh, God, Buffy," Tara whispered harshly, "how could you say something like that?"
Buffy grimaced when she saw the flash of anger in Tara's eyes, but then she quickly defended herself. "C'mon, Tara, give me a break! I'd been woken up before the sun was out, last I'd heard you two were all warm and fuzzy, and Willow was hysterical. I was scared shitless!" Buffy realized she was nearly yelling and immediately regretted the angry tone when she saw the expression on Tara's face. "Tara, I'm sorry," she began in a softer voice, "honestly, I was just glad that no one was dead."
Tara not only looked suitably reprimanded, she felt it too. Stupid! Think before you talk, Maclay. "I'm so sorry, Buffy, I guess I get so wrapped up in thinking about Will that I sometimes forget that you went through this too. I understand you relief, really."
"Thanks, apology accepted." Buffy gave Tara a playful shove, but once again became serious as she remembered why they were having this discussion in the first place. "So, anyway...I calmed her down again, apologizing profusely the whole time, of course. She tried to tell me details of the conversation, but she kept getting worked up. Then I heard her whisper, 'fuck it' and she told me to hold on. I could hear her typing on the computer and a few seconds later, she told me to check my email."
"She emailed our conversation to you, didn't she?"
"Yeah...well, slightly edited...I didn't get the beginning."
"She-she kept it?" Tara's eyes were wide with shock.
"Willow keeps everything that has to do with you, Tara. Every letter, every email, every IM conversation, everything you've ever sent her. They're all organized in folders on her computer. And what isn't on her computer is in her journal."
"S-so, y-you know the horrible things I said to her?" It was more a statement than a question.
"Yes, I do, Tara." Buffy saw Tara begin to dip her head, her hair falling to cover her face. But Buffy reached out and made Tara look at her. "And I know the horrible things she said to you, too." As Tara began to protest, Buffy continued quickly to forestall any interruption. "No one is innocent in this scenario, Tara. We've all said stupid things...things we regret. And we've all said a few things we've meant with all our hearts."
Tara closed her eyes and allowed Buffy's words to sink in. She's right. She took a deep breath and, as she met Buffy's gaze, released it quickly. Gently nodding her head, Tara conveyed her understanding.
"Want me to continue?" Buffy asked, constantly mindful of Tara's heightened emotional state.
"We talked for a while and eventually she started to think rationally. She said she would email you an apology and then give you time to process everything. Of course, Willow being who she is, she started getting panicky when she didn't hear from you. So she sent more emails and a few letters. That's when I decided to write you."
Tara just nodded and stared at her hands. She couldn't bring herself to look at Buffy. She knew this part--the emails and letters; she remembered every word Willow wrote in them. But hearing Buffy talk about Willow writing them with such fear in her heart made Tara's guilt compound.
"I remember your email," Tara whispered, "I told you I needed more time." Her guilt continued to grow. "God!" she exclaimed, leaning back rapidly and banging the back of her head on the headboard. "I'm such a bitch!"
"No! Tara, you're not a bitch."
"I am, Buffy. I so am!" Tara could feel the emotion building again; this time, it was anger. "I knew she was hurting...I could tell because her letters and emails tried so hard to not sound like I'd broken her heart. But I did, Buffy. Even when I got your email. I could have written to Willow instead. But I didn't. I said I needed more time. If that's not being a bitch, then I don't know what is!"
"Okay, fine...you were a bitch!" Buffy aimed carefully and she knew she'd hit her mark when Tara looked as if Buffy had just slapped her...hard. "God, Tara! I'm so sick of this self-loathing pity party you and Willow keep hosting every damned time I turn around. The problem is...you two are never at the party at the same time! But somehow...somehow I end up at all of them!"
Buffy was truly yelling; she had reached a breaking point. Forcefully pushing herself off the bed, she began to pace around the room. The air around her rippled as the feelings she'd kept locked inside finally came out. Throughout her rant, Buffy made grand gestures -- the emotional release showing itself physically as well as verbally.
Tara saw the fire in Buffy's eyes and at once realized the prudence in not interrupting. Deep down, she knew she deserved the tirade directed at her. Her eyes followed Buffy around the room and the petite blonde continued.
"You want to know the nickname I gave myself? 'Monkey in the middle Buffy.' That's what I felt like -- a monkey swinging from branch to branch between you two. And apart from outright betrayal, there was nothing I could do!" Buffy's pacing had stopped. She stood at the end of the bed, tears streaming down her face. "Not a fucking thing!!" She dropped to her knees as sobs wracked her body and pounded her fists on the mattress before burying her head in her hands. The power of Buffy's wailing made her body shake. "I couldn't help her," she cried through sobbing breaths, "I couldn't make you forgive her."
Trapped in a state of shock by Buffy's outburst, Tara sat motionless. The sounds of Buffy's pain and anger beat against Tara's eardrums...pounding. But it was Buffy's last sentence that had the most impact. "I couldn't make you forgive her." I never even told Buffy that I'd forgiven Will. Stupid! Stup- "No," she whispered to herself, "no more." Freeing her voice gave Tara a renewed sense of determination. I will not fuck this up. She got up from her spot on the bed and moved next to Buffy. She reached out and placed a trembling hand on Buffy's shoulder, only to have it slapped away. Buffy turned on her with such fierceness that Tara lost her balance and fell back to the floor.
Buffy experienced a quick pang of guilt, but it went away just as quickly. She felt like a volcano that had lain dormant for far too long; the eruption could not be stopped.
"You want to know what happened last year, Tara? Willow gave up...that's what happened! I talked to her every day and every day she would say, 'I'll hear from Tara tomorrow.' Until that day in July...the day you were supposed to be here..."
"Yes, Tara...July 15th. That's when everything stopped." The volume of Buffy's voice had softened, but not its intensity. Not even Tara's stunned expression could stop Buffy from saying what needed to be said...no matter how hurtful. "She stopped calling me. She stopped answering the phone. She stopped emailing. She cut herself off from everyone, even her parents. Sheila and Ira called me to see if I'd heard from her." Pausing for a moment to take a deep breath, Buffy looked pointedly at Tara and held her gaze. "That's when she gave up...on you."