Return to Coming Back Chapter 13b

Coming Back

Author: GayNow
Rating: R
Disclaimer: BtVS characters, concepts and dialog belong to Mutant Enemy, Fox, The WB, UPN and others. The story, however, came out of my delusional little brain.

Buffy stood outside the apartment door, her backpack over one shoulder and a small carry-on bag at her feet. Both bags were bursting at the seams and her shoulder was beginning to ache. She'd wanted to travel light; she didn't want to drag around a bunch of luggage. On the other hand, she didn't know how long this trip was going to take, and she wanted to be prepared. She could barely zip the small bag she'd stuffed full of necessary clothing. With the exception of her toothbrush and a few other basic necessities, she had foregone most toiletries in hopes of lightening the load.

Now, here she stood, waiting as her second knock on the door went unanswered. Taking a step nearer to the door, Buffy put her eye up to the small peephole in hopes of getting a glimpse inside. But she didn't have any luck. She knocked again, harder this time, and put her ear to the door. Music. There's music playing in there.

"Willow! It's Buffy!" She used the side of her fist to pound on the door. "C'mon, Will, open up!"


"Alright, think, Summers," Buffy mumbled to herself. She removed the backpack from her shoulder and dropped it next to her other bag. Placing her hands on her hips, Buffy took a moment to survey her surroundings. Longish hallway, no welcome mat, no one walking around. She paced slowly in front of Willow's door, pausing briefly to knock once again in passing. Willow always locked herself out of the house. Another quick rap on the door. If I were Willow, where would I hide a spare key? Buffy looked upward, toward the top of the door frame. No way. She's barely taller than I am...she'd never reach it. She took a deep breath of realization. "Exactly the reason Willow would put it there." After looking around for anything to stand on, Buffy finally resigned herself to simultaneously jumping and reaching for the top of the door jam. A few minutes later, she gave up. Damn! "Where did you put it, Willow?" she whispered, hoping no one had witnessed her vertically challenged leaps moments earlier.

She moved through the hallway, searching through the various fake decorative plants, hunting for any sign that Willow had hidden a spare key. C'mon, c'mon...I know you've locked yourself out. Where did you put it?

Buffy quickly removed her hands from the base of a faux fern and straightened up when she heard footsteps ascending the stairs. Maybe that's Willow. Maybe she just left her music on.

Buffy's hopes sank when a young woman with long brown hair appeared from the stairwell. As the woman walked by, Buffy nodded her head slightly and gave a mumbled greeting. God, I must look like a stalker.

The brunette returned the nod and looked carefully at Buffy. Her eyes narrowed, her features taking on a look of intense thought. She stopped at the door next to Willow's apartment and unlocked the door. Before stepping in, the woman turned quickly toward Buffy, her eyes wide.

Here it comes, Buffy thought. She's going to call the cops.


"I'm not a stalker!" Buffy blurted out the words and took a tentative step backwards. She reached out quickly to catch the fern she'd nearly knocked over in her haste.

The brunette giggled and moved toward Buffy. "I know you're not." Her smile revealed gleaming white teeth. "You're Buffy, right?"

"Um...yeah. Do I know you?"

"Nope," the woman laughed, "and I don't know you..."


"But...I know of you. You're Willow's friend from California, right?"

Buffy stared wide-eyed at her hallway companion. "Um...yeah." Real expansive vocabulary, Summers.

The woman held out her hand to the confused blonde. "Hi, I'm Dawn. Nice to meet you."

Still feeling somewhat addlepated, Buffy took the proffered hand. " knew that. How did you know that?"

Dawn released Buffy's hand with a giggle and tilted her head toward the fern Buffy still held firmly in her left hand. "You could probably put that down now."

Buffy looked down at the plant. She'd completely forgotten about it. When she returned her gaze to the tall woman before her, Buffy saw the glint of mirth in Dawn's eyes. Suddenly, she realized how silly she was being and laughed. "Yeah, I probably could," she said as she placed the fern back on its table.

"I know who you are because of Willow, of course," Dawn replied with a wink. "She has a picture in her apartment of the two of you."

"Oh, then you must be friends with Will." Buffy hoped this new acquaintance could give her some information about her best friend's whereabouts.

"I wouldn't say 'friends' so much as 'friendly neighbors.' Because of our schedules, we rarely see each other. But when our paths cross, we take a few minutes to talk." On seeing Buffy's confused expression, Dawn chuckled. "Sorry, I'm being vague. Willow's grocery bags broke one day when it was raining. I helped her take them to her apartment. She invited me to stay for hot chocolate."

"Oh!" Buffy exclaimed, the puzzle pieces falling into place. "And that's when you saw the picture and Willow must have mentioned my name. I got it now." Took ya long enough, Buffy.

Dawn nodded and casually leaned on the wall, dropping her bag beside her. "Exactly. But, she did more than mention your name. She thinks you're the bee's knees. You Though I didn't see a picture of her."

"Well, if I'm the bee's knees, Tara is the cat's meow," Buffy giggled at the banter. This Dawn person seems I've always known her, but not really. "Um, Dawn, have you seen Willow lately?"

"Nope...not for about two weeks, but I know she's there. I can hear her moving around."

A frown crossed Buffy's features as she stared thoughtfully at the door to Willow's apartment. "Yeah," Buffy said thoughtfully, "that's about the last time I heard from her."

"She's not answering the door?"

"No, but I can hear music in the apartment." Buffy gave Dawn a sheepish look. "You actually caught me searching for a spare key to the door. She's notorious for locking herself out."

Suddenly, the door on the other side of the hall opened and a head with curly blonde hair popped out. "Did someone find a key? I lost my key!" the new arrival exclaimed. "I need to find my key so I can go home!" Her eyes moved back and forth between Buffy and Dawn, an expectant look on her face.

Dawn merely giggled at Buffy's dumbfounded expression and then rolled her eyes at the other woman.

"No, Glory," Dawn began in a placating tone, "no one has found a key. We're looking for a key."

"Well, damn!" Glory pouted and stepped into the hallway. "I need to go home next week and my folks are out of town. I need that key to get in the house." She looked at Buffy and smiled. "Well, aren't you a cutie with your perfect hair and perfect clothes...who are you?"

Buffy's eyes went even wider. Her mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out. The smile on Glory's face made Buffy think of a sugar substitute -- all of the sweetness of sugar, but it was fake. She continued to struggle with her voice as she watched Glory slowly move toward her, like a lion stalking its prey.

"Hmm," Glory practically purred, "kitty's got the cutie's tongue."

Buffy took a step toward Dawn, as if looking for protection. Luckily, Dawn didn't disappoint.

"Alright...down girl!" Dawn said as she stepped between Buffy and Glory. "This is Buffy...she's Willow's friend. Where is Ben?"

Glory tore her gaze from Buffy to scoff at Dawn. "Hmph, my 'better half'? Dear brother is at some old folks home or something...being a do-gooder."

"Well, go back to your apartment and be a good little girl and I'll suggest he take you out to buy a new dress or something."

Glory stomped her feet and shook her fists, letting loose with a whiny growl for added effect. She gave in when the added effect didn't work. "Fine," she pouted, turning to re-enter her apartment. Before closing the door, she gave Buffy and Dawn one last look. "If you find my key, let me know. I want to go home!" Without waiting for an answer, Glory shut the door.

"What in the hell was that?" Buffy asked -- once she'd recovered her vocal abilities -- as she stared at Glory's closed door. At the sound of Dawn's voice, she turned to face the brunette.

"That was Glory," Dawn replied. "She and her brother moved in about a year ago. Ben's okay. He's actually kinda cute. But Glory...she's a piece of work. Thinks she's God's gift to the world." Dawn smirked and gave Buffy a wink. "Must have been a gift from a Hellgod."

"Wow. I should think so."

"Sometimes she's pretty entertaining. Mostly, she's annoying."

Dawn crossed her arms over her chest and stood with her weight on one leg, her hip thrust out. In many ways, Buffy thought Dawn looked like a pouty kid. But there's something very put together about this woman. Gotta make sure not to underestimate her.

"So," Dawn began, looking at Buffy with raised eyebrows. "Shall we find this elusive key? Willow's...not Glory's."

"That's okay, I can look for it. I don't want to keep you. You probably have better things to do."

"Please," Dawn said as she took a step toward the petite blonde. "Classes don't start for a month. I have nothing important planned before then." The smirk on Dawn's face disappeared and a concerned expression took its place. "Besides, if you haven't heard from Willow yet...well, that's got me worried too. I guess I was wrong earlier. We're not close, but she is my friend. One I hope to get to know better."

Buffy felt a renewed faith in humanity flood her being. "Thanks, Dawn. I appreciate it."

"No problem, Buffy." Dawn clapped her hand and rubbed them together. "Now then, where should we start?"

An hour later, Buffy and Dawn sat at the kitchen table in Dawn's apartment enjoying tall glasses of iced tea. Well, not exactly enjoying...their key search had not proven to be fruitful. They'd searched though every plant in the hallway, real and fake alike, but had come up empty. Dawn, being about 4 inches taller than Buffy, rechecked the top of the doorframe. Still nothing. Buffy tried knocking on Willow's door numerous times, but the redhead still didn't answer. The only indication that Willow was still in the apartment was the increased volume of the music-as if she had been trying to drown out the sound of Buffy's raps on the door. Finally, Buffy and Dawn decided to take a short break to collect their thoughts and form a plan.

"Do you think the apartment managers would open the door for us?" Buffy asked after taking a slow drink from her tea.

Dawn let out a derisive snort-it was something between laughter and a grunt. "Sure, if you can find them. All they care about is the rent money. Otherwise, we just don't see them. We send our rent checks to a PO Box, so we don't even know where they live. The only reason I stay here is because the price is reasonable. So, no, they won't be much help."

"Well, damn." Buffy stared into her glass, hoping the cool beverage would somehow lend an insight into the workings of Willow's mind. She has to have a hidden key around here. It's not like Will to go without a contingency plan. She smiled slightly at the thought of her friend's obsessive sense of organization. Buffy knew Willow had a plan for everything. Her eyes began to grow wide, her smile fading as if to compensate. Suddenly, Buffy jumped up from her seat, banging her knee on the leg of the table as she did, startling Dawn.

"Are you okay, Buffy?" Dawn asked and looked on curiously as she watched Buffy's wide-eyed expression. "What's up, Buffy?"

"I know where the key is," Buffy said as the smile on her face returned in force. "C'mon!" She didn't wait for Dawn to reply; she just dashed out of the kitchen and headed for the door leading out of the apartment.

Dawn raced after Buffy, her curiosity overcoming her confusion at the blonde's odd behavior. "Buffy, wait up! How do you know where the key is?"

"Something Willow always says," Buffy called over her shoulder as she moved swiftly down the hallway. She came to a stop just before running into the emergency fire hose hanging on the wall. "Willow always has a plan B. She used to say, 'I'd rather put out a small fire than have my house burn down.' And that's how I know where the key is!" She noticed the increasingly confused look on Dawn's face and winked at the younger woman. "Watch."

With a knowing smirk, Buffy turned the handle on the glass door of the case holding the hose. It opened easily. She then ran her hand underneath the to pledge of the small cabinet, murmuring quietly as she did. "C'mon, I know you're here. Voiląa!" Buffy turned to Dawn with a triumphant grin and held out her hand. Lying on her palm was a silver key with tape on one side to hold it against the metal. "That's my Will...never make it easy."

"Wow, Buffy. That's pretty impressive." Dawn felt a sense of relief now that the key had been located. She didn't know Willow well, but the small bits of time that she had found to talk with the redhead were enjoyable. She'd hate to see anything happen to Willow. Her expression turned sad as she and Buffy walked back to her apartment to retrieve Buffy's belongings. She wanted to follow Buffy to Willow's apartment, to check on her neighbor. But, Dawn knew this wasn't the time. Buffy would help Willow. Buffy would check in later and let Dawn know what was happening. There were ways Dawn could help; she would have her chance. "Now get in there and help your friend, Buffy. I have a feeling she needs you. I don't know a lot about her, but it just doesn't seem like her to lock herself in her apartment and not contact anyone. It has me concerned."

Placing her hand gently on Dawn's shoulder, Buffy gave the brunette a sad smile. "Thanks, Dawn. You're right; it's not like Willow to act that way. But I'm not going to forget your help. I'll be here for a while, I think. I'd love it if we could get together and get to know each other under better circumstances."

"Yeah," Dawn said and grinned. "That would be nice. Now get going. And tell Willow hello for me."

Buffy slung her backpack over her shoulder and picked up her bag. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she made her way to Willow's door. I hope this is really her key...otherwise someone is going to be upset with me. When she reached the door, she slowly slid the key into the lock and turned.

Buffy let out the breath she didn't know she was holding when she heard the lock open and dropped the key in her pocket. Slowly-almost painfully slowly-Buffy turned the knob and opened the door. The first thing to assault Buffy's senses was the air in the apartment. It was stagnant and stale, as if a window hadn't been opened in weeks. Probably hasn't been...and for a California girl, this is like not breathing at all. What are you doing, Willow? She looked around the living room as she closed the door behind her. It was a Willow's standards, anyway. The coffee table in the center of the room was bare except for two Starbucks cups, a coffee mug with a teabag molding in the bottom, and a layer of dust. Buffy dropped her bags on the couch and turned toward the still-present music playing from elsewhere in the apartment.


There was no answer; the music kept playing. Buffy made her way down the short hallway. As she passed the bathroom, she noticed that the room was almost impeccably neat. The towels hanging on the walls were perfectly aligned; they looked almost pristine. The music stopped. Then it began again. The same song? She's listening to the same song over and over? She listened carefully, trying to recognize the song, as she moved toward the room at the end of the hallway. The door was slightly ajar, allowing Buffy a glimpse into the room. She could see the bed, unmade and covered in clothes, but Willow wasn't on the bed.

"Willow?" she called once again as she pushed the door open and stepped into the bedroom. The floor was covered in letters and news clippings and syllabi; two scrapbooks lay empty at the end of the bed. The music was loud. Buffy looked around for the source of the music and quickly turned it off. She took the CD out of the small shelf top stereo and looked at the title. "Britney Spears?" she whispered incredulously. "What the hell?"

"Go away, Buffy."

The sound of a voice not her own surprised Buffy, but only for a moment. She turned toward the voice and released a shocked gasp at the sight before her. "Oh my God." Willow was sitting on the floor in the corner of the room, pressed in between the wall and the nightstand. Buffy hurried to her friend and knelt before Willow. She gently laid a hand on Willow's knee only to have it pushed away, weakly.

"I said go away."

There was no fire, no spirit in Willow's voice or actions. Buffy noticed that, in fact, Willow seemed barely able to muster the strength to move. The redhead was pale and drawn. It appeared as though she hadn't eaten or gotten a good night's rest in days...perhaps, over a week. Her clothes were wrinkled and it was clear that she'd been wearing them for a while. Tears formed in Buffy's eyes at the sight of Willow, alone and closed in on herself.

"I'm not going away, Will," she whispered, doing her best to hold back her tears. She wasn't successful. She swiped her eyes quickly with the back of her hand to clear away the few that had escaped. "I came all the way out here to see you; you're not making me leave right after getting here."

Willow raised her head to look at Buffy. Her normally bright green eyes were a dull grey. There was no spark; the typical twinkle was gone. "Then leave me alone. Just...leave me alone." She turned her head away from Buffy's gaze to lean her head on the wall and stare into space. "And turn my music back on."

There was nothing Buffy could do except stare at Willow. Her mind was reeling. This isn't Willow. Not my Willow. "Willow," she whispered, trying once again to reach the redhead, "please, talk to me. Tell me why you're doing this to yourself." She extended her hand and softly moved Willow's hair behind her ear. "I love you, Will. Please let me help you."

"Leave. Me. Alone." Willow's voice was dull. There was no emotion. It was as if she were indifferent to everything. Her eyes never strayed from their focus, or lack thereof. The only part of her body that moved or reacted was her mouth. She was a shell.

Buffy couldn't stop her tears. She let out a sob and covered her face with her hands. Her crying was cut short by the sound of movement. Buffy looked up from her hands to see Willow slowly stand and walk the short distance to her stereo. The redhead replaced the CD and, after some quick programming, went back to the corner to resume her earlier position. Buffy watched Willow for a few minutes, wondering why Willow was like this. She'd seen Willow sad before, but this was beyond depressed.

As she stared at the thin woman before her, something galvanized inside of Buffy. No. This will not happen...I won't let it. She stood quickly and looked down at Willow. "Willow, I love you. I'm not going away and I'm not leaving you alone. You're just going to have to deal with that." Her voice was firm and steady; it left no room for interpretation. Walking purposefully to the stereo, she once again turned off the music and removed the CD. This time, however, she didn't stop there. She moved to the bedroom window and pulled the window open sharply.

When the music had stopped, Willow's head snapped up and she watched Buffy. Her eyebrows furrowed as she followed Buffy's movements toward the window. She started a bit at the sound of the window being opened so forcefully, but she didn't move from her spot on the floor. Willow just watched.

The air that blew through the open window gave Buffy's resolve added strength. She felt refreshed by the breeze and took a deep breath before meeting Willow's eyes. She held up the CD. "No more." She paused and then flung the disk out of the window, hoping it wouldn't hit a passerby on the head in the process. The sound of the disk hitting the pavement assured her that she hadn't hit anyone. Buffy saw a flicker of...something in Willow's eyes. Anger? Sadness? C'mon, mad at me. Show me something. "This ends now, Will. You're going to get up, get in the shower, and get yourself together. Now."

The flicker was gone and Willow simply turned her head away to lean on the wall again.

"Oh no. You don't get to turn away from me. You don't get to tell me to leave. You don't get to do anything except pull it together." Buffy strode the few steps necessary to reach Willow and held out her hand to the redhead. "C'mon, Will. I'm here to help you."

Willow's gaze slowly lifted until she met Buffy's eyes. "You can't help, Buffy. There's nothing anyone can do. Please, just let me be. I'm fine." She closed her eyes and drew farther into herself.

Buffy stood perfectly still, amazed that this was the same person she'd grown to know and love over the previous six years. She couldn't see the bright, effervescent girl Willow was. Even when she first met Willow in their sophomore year, when the redhead seemed sad much of the time, Buffy had never seen this level of despair. This will NOT happen! Buffy let out a heavy sigh, finally resigned to what she knew she had to do.

"Will, I'm not a psychologist or a doctor or even a school counselor, for that matter. But I am your friend. I'm not going to just stand by and let you do this to yourself." She reached out and took Willow's hand in her own, squeezing it firmly. "I love you, Will. Believe me, this is for your own good-and maybe a little bit of mine," she said, the last mumbled under her breath, as she gathered all of her strength. She moved as quickly as she could, pulling a shocked Willow to her feet before swiftly draping the redhead over her shoulders in a 'fireman's carry.'

"Hey!" Willow shouted, finally showing some semblance of emotion. "Put me down, Buffy!" She tried to struggle out of Buffy's grasp, but the petite blonde was stronger than she appeared...and Willow was just too weak.

"I will not put you down, not yet," Buffy replied with a clenched jaw; she was struggling slightly. Just a bit further, she thought as she made her way out of the bedroom. "If this is what it's going to take to get you to feel something, to get you to talk to me...then so be it." As she turned into the bathroom, careful not to knock Willow's head or feet against the doorway, Buffy could feel Willow's attempts to struggle. "Fight back all you want, Will. It's no use. You obviously haven't been taking care of don't have any strength left."

"Buffy, please, put me down!"

Willows pleading feel on deaf ears. Buffy's right arm, which was hooked under Willow's leg, reached across her own body to grasp Willow's wrist, keeping the struggling woman from breaking free. With her left hand, Buffy quickly drew aside the curtains to the shower. She deposited Willow in the shower, dropping her none too gently on her ass, and turned on the cold water.

Willow sputtered as the water flowed down her face and she struggled to get up from her spot on the floor of the shower. But Buffy held her down and she was still too weak to break free. "Buf- ...stop...can't breathe," she gurgled in between gasps for air.

"What difference does it make, Willow?" Buffy asked as she leant most of her weight into holding her friend in place. "It's not like you're living now! What's the point in breathing?" She knew the words would hurt Willow; saying those words hurt her own heart too. But this wasn't a time to be soft and weepy. Willow needed a shock to the system. God, I hope this works.

Willow's movement stopped and she stared at Buffy with wide eyes. The disbelief came through clearly, and Buffy could have sworn she saw a flash of green in the dull grayness. Both women were breathing hard. They simply stared at each other, neither making the move to break contact.

Buffy relaxed her hold slightly on the redhead. It was a mistake. Without any warning, Willow's fist connected with Buffy's jaw, causing the blonde to stumble and fall into the shower with Willow. She didn't have time to be shocked.

Willow was moving quickly, trying to get her legs out from underneath Buffy's body. As she scrambled for the edge of the shower, attempting to pull herself away from the cold water and the even colder treatment from Buffy, Willow felt strong arms wrap themselves around her waist. "Let me go, Buffy!" she shouted as she grasped Buffy's wrists, trying to loosen the blonde's hold.

"No, Will! I will not let you go." With a sudden burst of strength, Buffy pulled Willow completely into the shower. The redhead was virtually sitting in Buffy's lap, still struggling to break free. But Buffy held Willow to herself, drawing the waifish woman closer. She completely enveloped Willow, using her own body as a cocoon. "I love you, Will."

The grunting sounds of Willow's struggling began to subside. What little strength remained in Willow's body was quickly fading. Her attempts to pull Buffy's arms from around her body changed to ineffectual squirming, hoping she could wrest her body away. But even that stopped as she slumped forward.

The keening sound came from deep within her.

It came from her broken heart.

It came from her bruised soul.

Willow cried as she had never cried before.

And Buffy held her.

"I won't let you go, Willow," she whispered as she rocked her defeated friend, her own tears mingling with the water running from the showerhead. "I'll never let you go."

Buffy felt Willow's hands wrap around her forearms once again. This time, however, the hands weren't trying to pull Buffy's arms away. Instead, they were holding Buffy, pulling Buffy's arms more tightly around Willow's body. This time, they were seeking comfort and strength. This time, Buffy did what Willow asked and held on more fiercely.

"I'll never let you go," she repeated. "You're my family, Will. You're not getting rid of me any time soon."

The two women sat under the running water, holding each other and crying. Neither spoke. Buffy began to hum an unidentifiable tune as Willow's sobs slowed. Once the crying turned to occasional sniffing, Buffy spoke quietly.

"You're shivering, Will. C'mon, let's get up and I'll turn on the hot water so you can take a bath."

Willow simply nodded, her eyes cast down.

Buffy stood first, and then gently helped Willow stand and exit the shower. She quickly turned on the hot water, switched the water flow to the faucet and plugged the drain. As she turned back to face Willow, Buffy noticed that the woman hadn't moved. She just stood there, her arms hanging limply at her sides, her eyes unfocused and red. I'll bring her back, she thought and moved to stand in front of Willow.

"Willow," she began quietly, "look at me please." Eyes glimmering with tears slowly met her own. "Are you okay?"

Willow's jaw clenched and Buffy could see the effort the redhead made to prevent more tears from spilling. Willow swallowed a few times as her face contorted with her effort to keep from crying. Long moments passed as Buffy waited for Willow to respond. Finally, she cupped Willow's cheek with her hand and looked at her friend with compassion filled eyes. "Will?"

Willow cried then, though not as she had earlier. Instead, the tears merely slid down her cheeks.

These were not the heartbreaking sobs of a soul in pain.

These were the silent tears of a soul in pain.

Looking at Buffy through her grief, Willow shook her head and whispered, "No." It was said so quietly, Buffy nearly didn't hear it.

"Oh, Will," Buffy said as she gathered Willow in her arms and hugged her. "I'm here. I'll help you. I'll never let you go." She rubbed Willow's back comfortingly as the redhead quietly cried on her shoulder. After a few minutes, she pulled out of the embrace. "Will? I think your bath is ready. Do you want me to help you?"

Willow shook her head again and took a step away from Buffy, reaching to the hem of her oversized t-shirt as she did. She tried to lift the wet, heavy material up her body and over her head, only to find that she simply couldn't exert that much energy. Dropping her arms back to her side, she let out a self-deprecating snort and gave Buffy what might have been considered the beginning of a smirk. "Um...yes, please."

Buffy's heart leapt when she saw the corner of Willow's mouth twitch and heard Willow's voice, decidedly raspy from the crying. She's not completely lost. My Willow is still in there...and she's not far away. "C'mon, let's get you out of those clothes and into the hot tub before you get sick."

For as forceful as Buffy was with Willow when she dropped the redhead in the shower, she was now infinitely gentle with her friend. Fortunately, Willow was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, so there weren't lots of zippers, buttons and snaps to deal with. Unfortunately, Willow was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, so the wet material clung to the redhead's body.

After finally succeeding in fighting against cotton and fleece, Buffy stared at Willow's body. She'd seen it before. Years of communal showers after gym class and countless sleepovers attested to that. But Buffy was still shocked at what she saw. Namely, she could see, with great definition, each and every one of Willow's ribs. Her heart broke all over again at the sight of Willow's hipbones protruding sharply from her body. Oh, Willow. We'll make it better. Willow's voice brought Buffy out of her thoughts.

"Don't get any ideas, Buff." Willow's voice sounded as if she'd just been yelling for hours non-stop. "I love you, too...but not like that."

The brief twinkle in Willow's eye didn't go unnoticed by Buffy. Neither did the look of sadness. She knows what I'm seeing...and she's not proud of herself. Good.

"While I admit that you have a nice ass, I've never had the urge to squeeze it," Buffy deadpanned. "I think your virtue is safe." She gave Willow a small smile and a wink, happy to see a small grin form on Willow's features in return. "Now, into the tub with you...let's go." She stood back and watched as Willow carefully stepped into the tub and began to sink into the hot water. Willow's sharp intake of breath brought Buffy to her side immediately. "What's wrong?" she asked as she grasped Willow's elbow.

"Just hot. It's alright."

"Oh, okay." But Buffy didn't relinquish her hold on Willow's arm; she held on until Willow was safely seated in the tub. She looked down at her own drenched clothes and suddenly realized how uncomfortable she was. Why do women participate in wet t-shirt contests? This feels awful. "Um, Will? Think you'll be okay while I go change into dry clothes? I mean, I love these jeans, but right now they are getting just a bit too intimate, ya know?"

Willow nodded and looked up at Buffy. "Sure, go ahead, Buffy. I promise I'll keep my head above the water."

The implication of those words hit Buffy in the chest and she dropped to her knees beside the tub. "Oh, God, Will," she whispered fiercely. "Don't you dare." A lone tear streamed down her cheek.

"No, Buffy," Willow replied quickly, her eyes widening as much as her strength would allow. "I would never..." Her head fell back against the wall and she closed her eyes for a minute. When she opened them again, she looked at Buffy, the corners of her mouth forming a sad smile. "I'm sorry. I was trying for 'look at me with the levity...I must be okay.' But it didn't work out so well. And...and I'm not okay. But I will be."

The blonde took a deep breath and returned the smile. "Yeah," Buffy murmured as she reached out to push a lock of red hair behind Willow's ear. "You will be. I'll make sure of it. I love you, Will. You're the only sister I have, and I'm not letting you go."

"I love you too, Buffy." Willow took Buffy's hand in her own and placed a kiss on the blonde's palm. "Now go change. I'll be fine."

"Okay. I'll be right back and then I'll wash your hair for you, alright?"

"Yeah, that sounds good. Thank you, Buffy."

Buffy watched as Willow leant back in the tub and closed her eyes. After a few moments, she turned to retrieve her own bag from the living room. Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy saw the picture of her and Willow at graduation just over three years earlier. It was displayed prominently on Willow's bookshelf. It had a shelf all to other photos, no books. Just the picture. And I'm sure Tara's picture has a space just as special...even now.

It didn't take Buffy long to change her clothes. She'd remembered to grab a towel on her way out of the bathroom, knowing that she must look like a drowned cat and would need to dry off. As she dried her hair, once again comfortable in dry shorts and a tank top, Buffy looked around Willow's bedroom. It was fairly sparse; there wasn't much furniture. The full size bed dominated the room. The bed needs to be made. We'll work on that tomorrow. I'm sure the sheets need a washing. There was a small nightstand next to the bed; it sat fairly near one wall of the room-creating the small space where Buffy found her friend just over an hour earlier. On the opposite side of the room was a dresser, right next to which was a door. Closet. There was a modest rocking chair in the corner of the room near the window, a small stack of books on the floor next to it. Otherwise, the room was bare. The walls held no pictures or posters. The room was very...crisp. Dusty, but crisp.

Surprisingly, she felt good, energetic. She was worried about Willow, no doubt, but she had seen glimpses of the girl she'd met years earlier in high school. That was enough to give her hope that her friend wasn't lost. But even if she were, I'd find her. I'll always find her. Even so, Buffy knew that her trip to Boston wouldn't be a quick one; she would have to stick around for a while. She would need to make sure Willow did get better. And until she was sure of that, she would stay. Even if it meant taking a semester off from school. I bet Dawn will help. It made Buffy feel more confident knowing that Dawn was there. She'd only known the dark-haired woman for a few hours, but she had a feeling that she could trust her. Besides, if Dawn were a psycho freak, surely Willow would have mentioned it. As it was, it seemed as though their interactions to date had been pretty uneventful since Willow hadn't brought Dawn up in any correspondence. But at least Willow will have a friend right next door rather than on the other side of the country...or world. This brief memory of Tara brought Buffy back to the task at hand.

Buffy returned to the bathroom a few minutes later; she'd pulled her damp hair back into a ponytail to keep it out of the way. Willow still had her eyes closed. I don't think she's moved since I left. Kneeling next to the tub, Buffy listened to the steady rhythm of Willow's breathing. The redhead was asleep. She looked peaceful for the first time since Buffy arrived. Buffy dipped her fingers into the water, testing the temperature. Finding that it had cooled quite a bit, Buffy decided she needed to wake Willow and help her dry off and get dressed. First things first.

"Will?" she said quietly, not wanting to startle her friend. "Hey, Will...c'mon, time to get up." She placed her hand gently on Willow's shoulder and squeezed lightly. Buffy couldn't help but smile as she watched Willow's eyes scrunch up in aggravation at being woken. "Let's go, sleepy. We gotta wash your hair and dry you off. You can go to bed soon."

"Buffy?" Willow mumbled as she slowly opened her eyes, squinting against the light in the bathroom. "I was sleeping? How long?"

"Just long enough for me to dry off and change...and notice that your bedroom looks like it should be in a hospital," Buffy explained as she turned on the hot water and grabbed the showerhead. "Put your head back." She quickly wet Willow's hair and proceeded to use the shampoo she'd grabbed from the small shower shelf. "Feels good, huh?" Buffy asked when she noted how quickly Willow relaxed. Willow's quiet hum was all the answer she received. As she worked the shampoo into a lather and massaged Willow's scalp, Buffy returned to her earlier train of thought. "What's up with that, Will?"


"What's up with your room? It looks like there should be a plaque outside the door saying 'Rosenberg General.'"


For a few moments, Buffy wasn't sure if Willow was going to respond. She decided to leave her friend alone with her thoughts for the time being; but she was determined to make sure Willow answered her.

"Close your eyes." Once the lather was rinsed away, Buffy leaned over and pulled the plug in the drain. She grabbed a towel and stood up, ready to help Willow. She was pleased to see that the soak in the hot bath seemed to give Willow a bit more energy. Willow was getting up and stepping out of the tub on her own. She was still a little wobbly, but she didn't need Buffy to hold her up.

"I'm ready for more pampering," Willow said, holding her arms over her head-an invitation for Buffy to wrap the towel around her body.

Buffy snorted and tossed the towel at Willow, hitting the redhead squarely in the face. "Pampering my ass. Get yourself dried off and I'll hang up the wet clothes. I'll meet you in the bedroom." She picked up Willow's clothes from the floor and turned to leave.

"I took them down."

The sound of Willow's voice stopped Buffy in her tracks. Its tone had once again become the voice of the dejected. She turned to look at the redhead, who was standing in the middle of the bedroom, holding the towel close to her body. "What?"

Willow's eyes locked with Buffy's. "Pictures, posters...I took them down."

"It's okay, Will...I'll help you put them back up."

"They remind me of Tara," Willow whispered. "All I did was think about her when I saw them. So I took them down."

"Will." Buffy took a step forward and waited for Willow to look at her. Once she saw the tear-filled gray-green eyes, Buffy continued. "I have a feeling that you think about Tara whether you see them or not. Right?"

"Yeah," Willow sighed.

"That's what I thought." The smile on Buffy's face showed both her understanding and her amusement. "I'll help you put them back up."

Willow nodded and turned away to dry herself.

Buffy returned to the bedroom and began to rummage through the closet for some empty hangers. She held the wet clothes in her left hand, careful to keep them away from her body and the dry clothes she wore. What they really need is to be washed, but that's not happening right now. The thought of smelling moldy clothes made Buffy shudder. "Blech! Dry now...hamper later." As she'd expected, Buffy didn't have to do much rummaging. Willow's closet was organized very carefully-skirts, then pants, then blouses, then dresses. Separating the clothing for above the waist from the clothing for below the waist was a collection of hangers, just waiting to be used. She pulled out a couple of hangers and made short work of covering them with their clothes. On her way back to the bathroom to hang them on the shower rod, Buffy passed a dry and more alert looking Willow.

"Well, you look a bit better. Guess that bath did you some good, huh?"

"Yeah," Willow said with a sheepish expression, "I'm not proud about saying that it's been a few days. But, definitely better. I feel slightly alive again." She looked down at the towel wrapped around her. "I think now I'm going to put on some clothes...some real clothes."

"Yep," Buffy called out as she made her way to the bathroom, "That should help. I've always found, in my very long life, that fashion is a sure way to take in all that life has to offer." She came back into the room and flopped onto the bed. "The only difference between us and the apes is fashion...and we don't have the excessive body hair."

By this time, Willow had donned a pair of jeans and a loose fitting blouse. "Well, most of us don't. I admit to seeing a few guys who made me wonder...the only thing that said human was their ability to stand upright."

"Sounds like some of the guys I've dated," Buffy chuckled, rolling onto her back and linking her hands behind her head. "I have no idea what I was thinking."

Willow joined Buffy on the bed, also lying on her back, but with her head popped on Buffy's stomach. "Do you ever see Jason the Poopyhead?"

"I've seen him once or twice. Amazingly, I never had to say or do anything to him. Cordelia came to my rescue, if you can believe that. Once she was through with him, I think I heard a rumor that he was joining a Tibetan monastery."

"I still can't believe you and Cordelia are going to school together...and that you're friends."

Buffy laughed lightly, which turned into a full giggle when she saw Willow's head bouncing up and down on her stomach, and reached down to absentmindedly play with Willow's hair. "I wouldn't call us friends. We've come to an understanding. She's no longer the big fish in the little pond, and I'm no longer competing with her for boys. It's a good truce." Buffy playfully mussed Willow's damp hair. "But we're not here to talk about Cordelia or my love life. We're here to talk about yours."

After a long pause, Willow heaved a sigh. "Or my lack thereof." She brought her forearm to her head and covered her eyes. "I don't know how it happened, Buffy."

Buffy gave Willow a nudge, indicating that the redhead should sit up. Once Willow had moved, Buffy followed suit and sat with her legs crossed directly across from Willow. "Well, let's start with the basics. I'm willing to bet next year's tuition money that this is about Tara." At Willow's nod of confirmation, Buffy continued. "And now I'm willing to bet your tuition money that it has to do with that ill-fated conversation on the computer last month." Another nod. "Well, I'm out of tuition money to bet, so you're just gonna have to pick up from here."

A mischievous smirk formed on Willow's face as she looked into curious hazel eyes. "I am going to graduate school. You can always bet that money too and keep guessing."

Buffy didn't share Willow's amusement. Instead, she gave Willow a hard glare. "That remains to be seen, Will. I talked to Doc Harry." Buffy waited for this news to sink in. Willow's smirk quickly faded and was replaced with a grimace. "I couldn't reach you here, and you didn't return my messages. So I looked up the number for your department and called there looking for you. I figured maybe you were there long hours working on a project or something. The secretary said she hadn't seen you and offered to transfer me to your advisor. I took what I could get," she said, the last with a slight shrug. Buffy reached out and tilted Willow's head up, so that they were eye to eye. "Will...he said you hadn't been to his summer class. He said he called you and emailed - even looked up your address and came by here one day. He's worried about you." Buffy dropped her hand back to her lap and sniffed, trying to hold back tears. "That's when I really knew something was wrong. And that's when I got on a plane and came here." A sly smile appeared on Buffy's lips. "Only a major life crisis would keep you from going to class."

The look on Buffy's face must have given a full depiction of her worry and hurt. Willow reached across the empty space between them and enveloped Buffy in her arms. "I'm so sorry, Buffy," she whispered into Buffy's ear. When she felt Buffy shaking, Willow tightened her embrace. "Oh, God, I'm sorry. I've been such a dope."

"Why, Willow?"

"Why what?" Willow pulled back to look directly at her friend, her confusion apparent.

"Why did you close yourself off? Why did you ignore all of the people who care about you...who love you?"

Willow gently wiped Buffy's tears away and gave a sad smile. "I told you...because I'm a dope." She got up from her seat on the bed and moved to look out the window. Willow could see the discarded CD on the pavement below. "You know, we're gonna have to go down and get that soon. I really like that CD."

"Don't try to change the subject, Willow," Buffy said as she watched the myriad emotions cross Willow's face. She's just not good at hiding things...unless I'm not in the room. "Yeah, you were a dope. But why? You know I love you. Why did you shut me out? Why didn't you call me?"

"Because..." Willow took a deep breath. "Because I don't deserve it." She continued to look out the window, staring out at the blue sky.

Buffy remained silent at first, wanting to give Willow the chance to say what she needed to say; she knew this could get to the heart of the matter and didn't want to give Willow reason to keep it in again. But she was getting antsy. C'mon, talk to me, Will. Please, talk to me. But the redhead continued to gaze out the window. Buffy got up slowly and quietly crossed to stand directly behind her friend. She continued to wait for Willow to say more, to notice that Buffy was there. But Willow didn't speak. The only motion was to wrap her arms around herself and allow her shoulders to drop. It was the body posture of a person who knew she needed to say the words, but just didn't want to.

"Will..." Buffy whispered as she moved forward to wrap her arms around Willow, covering the redhead's arms with her own and holding her tightly. "Talk to me. You need to get it out. You know you can always talk to me."

Willow released a shaky breath. "Why?" She continued to stare out the window.

"Because it's not good to keep things bottled up inside...I learned about it in my psychology class."

Buffy's attempt at levity, while aimed with good intent, didn't quite hit the mark. "No!" Willow said, vehemently, as she pulled away from the embrace - almost roughly - and took a few steps away from Buffy. She did not turn around, instead choosing to lean her forehead against the wall. "I mean why...why can I always talk to you? Why are you always there for me?"

The shock Buffy felt at that moment made her knees give out. She blindly reached behind her, quickly finding the old rocker and dropping into it. She stared at Willow with wide, incredulous eyes. "Why?" she nearly whispered. "How can you ask me that, Willow? Why? Because you're my best and oldest friend; because you've always been there for me, because you're Willow, my Will. Because I love you, dammit! How many best friend-slash-sisters do you think I have?"

"I still don't know why," Willow whispered, her eyes closed as she rolled her head back and forth, her forehead pushing more firmly into the wall.

"I, I don't understand what you're saying, Will." Buffy spoke calmly, figuring erratic, emotional tones would not be the best way to go at this juncture. She has something to say...gotta get her to say it. "Please, can you just explain it to me?" Apparently, calm wasn't the best way to go.

"You got a fourteen-forty on your SATs, Buffy, you shouldn't be having so much trouble with one-syllable words," Willow snapped at Buffy. The hurt look on Buffy's face made Willow wince. "See what I mean? There I go, saying shit I don't mean and therefore shouldn't be saying. I keep doing that, don't I? I keep fucking up."


"No Buffy, no placating words. No trying to make me feel better with promises that I haven't fucked up. Because I have." Willow had pushed away from the wall by this point and was staring at Buffy, her fists clenched tightly at her side. Her gaze moved from Buffy's eyes to the blonde's jaw-Buffy's cheek was beginning to swell, the skin beginning to turn purple. "God, Buffy," she continued in a harsh whisper, "I hit you." She held up her right fist, staring at it as she opened and closed her hand, flexing the fingers. "How can you still be my friend after that? How can you possibly say you love me?" Willow held out her fist, offering evidence of her transgressions, and looked Buffy in the eye once more. "I punched you! And, it wasn't a reflex reaction. I meant it! I made the conscious decision to have my fist make contact with your face. And yet, you sit there and tell me that you love me, that I'm your dearest friend. And I simply don't know why."

The two women simply stared at one another-Willow looking to Buffy for answers; Buffy looking to Willow for...something. She didn't know what.

Buffy raised her hand to her face and lightly touched her bruising jaw, her eyes never losing contact with Willow's. Buffy had forgotten about the scuffle in the bathroom. Well, she hadn't completely forgotten...she remembered quite a bit of it, in fact. But Willow's physical assault on her face had slipped her mind. Until Willow mentioned it, Buffy hadn't felt pain...not even when the contact was made. The adrenaline had been flowing so furiously throughout her body; she simply hadn't felt the blow, except to register her shock at Willow's momentary show of violence. It wasn't enough that Willow had allowed herself to become closed off and withdrawn, but she had struck out at Buffy in anger. She'd never done that before...with anyone. Willow had always spoken out against solving problems or sending messages with fists. But, she had hit Buffy-as hard as she could-and she had meant it. So, no, Buffy didn't feel the physical pain of the blow. She felt it emotionally.

After moments went by without a word from Buffy, Willow closed her eyes briefly and shook her head. When she opened them again, the fire from her earlier outburst was gone. "You should put some ice on that. I think there is some in the freezer." Her arms hung limply at her sides and she leaned back against the wall. She slowly slid down the wall and, once seated, pulled her knees to her chest.

Once she realized the signs of Willow closing up again, Buffy knew she had to snap out of whatever haze she was in and help her friend. Those green eyes need to sparkle again. I need babble. She pushed herself out of the rocker and took a few steps across the room to stand next to Willow. Buffy looked down at her friend, seeing only the top of Willow's head, her red hair still damp and a bit tangled. Looking quickly to the dresser, she spied Willow's hair brush perched on one end and gave a shrug. Well, can't hurt. At least she'll look good being ultra-depresso girl. With another glance at her friend, Buffy quickly took the two steps to the dresser to grab the brush, returning to Willow's side just as quickly. She knelt next to Willow and placed her hand on the redhead's shoulder. "Will?" Buffy received a sideways look in return, but the contact held - Willow didn't turn away. "What do ya say?" she asked, holding up the brush. "Ponytail? French braid? Cornrows?"

Willow raised her eyebrows, the look on her face appearing to say, "I can't believe you just asked me!" She shook her head slowly and returned her gaze to the area just in front of her toes.

Well, crap, Buffy thought, defeated. Buffy racked her brain for some way to get Willow to open up, to talk to her, to smile. Don't think I'll be able to convince her to go out for mochas...probably doesn't want to be heading out anywhere right now. Watching a movie is out...she likes action, I don't. I like romance, she doesn't need to watch those right now. Buffy was so lost in her thoughts, she didn't notice that Willow had turned her head and was staring at her furrowed brow.


The sound did interrupt Buffy's mental meanderings and she looked at Willow with a confused expression. "Huh?"

"Pippi...Longstocking. I've got the right color hair."

A smile quickly split Buffy's features when she saw Willow's sly smirk. " got it," she said, moving to sit at the edge of the bed. She patted the side of the bed, inviting Willow to sit between her knees. As the redhead crawled to the spot, Buffy grabbed a pillow and placed it so that Willow could lean back comfortably. Once Willow settled, Buffy began her task of brushing the bright red hair.

It had been years since she and Willow indulged in this particular activity. The summer before our junior year, Buffy thought idly. Whether they felt they had outgrown the need to braid each other's hair or they simply didn't have the time, Buffy wasn't sure. Their sleepovers had certainly lessened in number once classes began. Buffy guessed it had been a combination of circumstances-increased difficulty in their classes; preparation for the SAT, which Willow insisted they begin a full year before the actual test; Buffy started dating Steve-they just didn't have the opportunity for sleepovers as often. Yep, lack of opportunity, not lack of want.

"I'm sorry I hit you."

Willow's voice was so soft, Buffy wasn't sure she'd actually heard the redhead speak. But when Willow turned around to face her, Buffy knew that her friend had, in fact, spoken.

"I really am...sorry. You didn't deserve to have me treat you like that, Buffy. I hope you can forgive me one day."

Buffy ran her fingers through Willow's now detangled hair and smiled. "Oh, Will. You were forgiven before your fist ever made contact." She gave Willow a playful pinch on the nose and urged her to turn back around. "C'mon, Pippi braids await."

A comfortable silence settled over the room as Buffy continued her task. She could tell that Willow was relaxing-a sucker for having her hair brushed-and hoped her friend might open up soon. She wanted to let Willow tell her what was going on in that busy mind on her own terms, but Buffy was also getting impatient. She missed her friend. She missed happy Willow. She was getting tired of waiting. As it turned out, she didn't have to wait long.

"Why didn't you hit me back?" Willow asked, her tone incredulous. "I mean, you should have hit me back."

"Well," Buffy began, not ceasing her ministrations on Willow's scalp, "there are a couple of reasons. First, you know I'm not a violent person. I prefer to talk something out rather than get physical." She quickly amended her statement when she heard Willow scoff at the comment. "Okay, so I get physical-and, um, sorry about that-but I avoid violence, you know that. Second, I was too damned shocked that you hit me in the first place to really react. Then with you trying to scramble out of the tub, I didn't have time to do anything but keep you in place. And, finally, I know you didn't mean it, Will."

"But I did, Buffy." Willow tried to turn around again, but Buffy used the two handfuls of hair to keep Willow in place. "I actually thought about balling up my hand into a fist and lashing out at you. It wasn't just a knee-jerk reaction. I debated in my head whether or not to hit you...and I did. Consciously. Deliberately." Her head dropped as far as it would go, considering the grip Buffy had on her locks. "You should have hit me back."

Buffy stopped work on the current braid and gently pulled Willow's head back so that the redhead was leaning back far enough to look up at her friend. In turn, Buffy leaned over Willow so that the two were making direct eye contact. Once she was sure she had Willow's undivided attention, Buffy spoke slowly and pointedly at her friend. "No, Will. You didn't mean it. You may have debated it and made the conscious decision to do it, but you didn't mean it. Not deep down. Not where it counts." She leaned down and placed a kiss on Willow's forehead. As she continued speaking, she moved Willow's head forward again so that she could continue her hairstyling. "I walked into your closed up little world unannounced, Will. Hell, I barged in. I didn't give you a choice. No, I didn't expect you to go all Rocky Marciano on me, but I figured there would be some kind of extreme reaction. In fact, I was hoping for it."

"You were?"

"Yup. Figured I needed to do something drastic to get through to my hard-headed friend," Buffy replied playfully. She was pleased to hear a quiet giggle from Willow. "You're a passionate person, Will. Sometimes it takes extreme measures to register with you. I mean, you get so caught up in things...they become obsessions. I knew I had to do something to get your attention. And, I guess I did a pretty good job of that."

Willow was quiet for a few minutes, obviously allowing the wheels in her brain to turn at a furious rate. But Buffy could still tell that she was relaxed, calm-or as calm as Willow could be. And so, Buffy waited-again-for her friend to speak and continued her braiding.

One braid was finished, but Buffy didn't have a rubber band to hold it together. Knowing that Willow was still lost in thought, she gently reached down and grasped the redhead's hand, bringing it up to the completed braid. She put the end of the braid into Willow's hand and closed the woman's hand, holding the hair in place. A small smile split her face when she noticed that, sure enough, Willow's hand stayed in place, seemingly oblivious to being moved. My very own puppet, Buffy giggled to herself, I could have some fun with this. Instead of finding other interesting ways to pose Willow's arms, Buffy got up and walked to Willow's dresser, searching for hair ties. When she returned to the bed, she couldn't hold back an audible chuckle-Willow hadn't moved. The redhead's brow was drawn in concentration; she was clearly contemplating all that Buffy had said to her and, knowing Willow, a few things Buffy didn't say too. She's processing. That CPU in her head is just going a mile a minute. Buffy thought about breaking the silence and asking Willow what she was thinking about, but she resisted the urge. I'll know soon enough. She started on the second braid.

"I'm an ass."

"I knew it wouldn't take long," Buffy laughed.

"What?" Willow asked, a bit shocked at Buffy's response, "For me to figure out that I'm an ass?"

"No, ya goof!" Buffy laughed louder. "For you to start talking so I could know what's happening in that brain of yours." She punctuated her statement by giving Willow's head a gentle push before separating what remained of the unbraided hair. "Hell, I've known that you're an ass for years."

Willow reached back to give the blonde a playful slap on her leg. "You should have let me in on that secret a long time ago...we probably could have avoided all of this."

"Just exactly what is 'all of this,' Will? I mean, what happened?"

"Oh, Buff, if that were an easy question to answer, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Willow whispered. "I sank so far so quickly...and I know that I'm still down there."

Buffy knew it wouldn't be easy to get Willow back to normal, but hearing her best friend verbalize it, hearing Willow actually say that she was still lost, made Buffy's heart ache. She fought back the tears and rebuttals that were quickly forcing their way to the surface and took a deep breath. Breathe...always remember to breathe, Summers. And remind Willow too. "Yeah, Will, you are. But I'm here to help you. I'll never let you go." It had suddenly become her mantra-I'll never let you go-and it would remain for as long as necessary, even longer.

"Pfft," Willow quietly scoffed, "at least there's one person who still wants to be involved in my life."

"What are you talking about, Pippi?" Buffy had finished with Willow's hair and playfully tugged on each of the tightly woven braids. Dropping the braids so they could stick out from Willow's head, Buffy leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Willow's shoulders. "Of course I want to be involved in your life. Who wouldn't? You're a great person, Will."

"Tara," Willow murmured, "Tara wouldn't...doesn't."

Buffy tightened her embrace. "That's not true, Will," she whispered. "Tara's still your friend. She loves you just as much as I do...probably more...and probably in a very different way."

"Then why haven't I heard from her, Buffy? It's been over a month and...nothing." Willow took in a shaky breath and moved out away from her friend. She walked back to the window to look out at the slowly setting sun. "I wrote to her...emails, letters...I even called her once and left her a message. But, nothing. Silence. It's deafening, Buff."

"I don't know what to tell you, Will. She's...processing, I guess. I mean, that was a nasty argument. There were some things said that just...well...probably shouldn't have been." Buffy's voice trailed off. Probably not helping, Buffy.

"We've already established that I'm an ass, Buff...don't need to rub it in." It was said in an even voice, but Buffy could see the hint of anger and guilt flash in Willow's eyes.

Nope...not helping.

"I'm painfully aware that what I said to Tara that night was completely out of line...and mean spirited." Willow spat the words, as if they were venom. Her hands repeatedly clenched and relaxed by her sides. "She should hate me. It just hurts so much to think of a life without Tara. Up until now, I've never been able to imagine a life without Tara right there in the center. And...that's what happened. I started to imagine it." Willow turned slowly and walked the two steps toward the rocker; her body dropped into the rocker and she leaned forward, her head resting in her hands. "I, I guess I kept hoping, you know?" Her eyes meet caring hazel and she held the contact. "Kept hoping that Tara just needed time and that...I don't know...that she would finally forgive me. But, the day came...and the day went. And Tara's still not here."

Buffy crossed the room to join Willow at the rocker; sitting on the floor by Willow's feet, crossing her legs and resting her elbows on her knees, she gazed intently at her friend. "What day, Will?"

"The day she was supposed to be here," Willow whispered, the pain evident in her voice.

"But, you knew she wouldn't be here, sweetie," Buffy reminding gently, "why would you keep thinking she would come? She said she couldn't afford it after what happened with Donnie."

"I know, Buffy. I didn't expect her to magically show up on my doorstep...not that I have a doorstep. I mean, yeah, I have a door, but there's no step or anything...and what in the hell am I talking about?" Willow gave Buffy a sheepish smile. "See what happens when you're around? I babble."

"Good! I've missed your babble," Buffy said with a grin. The grin quickly faded and a look of confusion took its place. "But, if you didn't expect her to show up, what did you expect?"

Willow sighed and leaned back, her arms falling over the arms of the rocker, her hands hanging limply by its sides. "I don't know. I guess...I figured maybe by that time she would have had the time she needed...that she would write or...or call...and we could talk about it. I'd finally have the chance to really apologize. That was my internal deadline, I guess...that day." A sad smile formed on Willow's face and she shrugged. "Silly, I know, but you know how my mind works. I always have to have something solid to fall back on."

Buffy dropped her gaze and reached out to play with the hem of Willow's jeans. "Something solid to fall back on." She sat thinking for a few moments, unconsciously creating cuffs on her friend's jeans. The silence in the room apparently had become uncomfortable.

"Buffy?" Willow spoke quietly, her tone confused.

The silence continued for a few more moments as Buffy removed the cuffs from Willow's jeans. Finally, Buffy spoke: "I'm not solid." Buffy drew back her hands to fold them in her lap and stared down at them. A tear rolled down her cheek and fell onto her clasped hands, her fingers flexing and twisting as she worked through the thoughts in her head. She didn't make any attempt to wipe the salty liquid away. After another splashed on her leg, she spoke again. "I'm sorry." It was a pained whisper.

Willow watched on, the confusion showing clearly on her face. She clearly didn't follow Buffy's seeming non-sequitor. "Sorry for what?"

Buffy's tear-filled eyes met Willow's, her pain and sorrow was clear. "I'm not solid."

"What?" Willow's eyes were wide as she slid off the rocker and landed with a slight thump on the floor across from Buffy. She took the petite woman's hands in her own, unclasping them and preventing Buffy from twisting her fingers even more. "What do you mean?"

"You said you have to have something solid to fall back on," Buffy whispered and took a shaky breath, her chin dropping to her chest. "You didn't fall back on me...I'm not solid." She looked up again, the tears falling liberally down her face. "I'm...sorry," she choked out before her body was racked with sobs.

Buffy was in Willow's arms in an instant. The arms that, a short time earlier, were too weak to remove a t-shirt were now filled with strength and comfort as they held Buffy tightly. The hands that had very recently hung lifelessly over the edges of the rocker now ran over Buffy's back in soothing strokes. The body that had lain unmoving in the tub now cradled Buffy's sobbing form, slowly rocking the blonde comfortingly.

Great. Come all the way across the country to help your friend and end up with her holding you. Really good.

But Buffy's actions betrayed her thoughts as she sank deeper into the warmth she felt from Willow's embrace. The soothing words Willow whispered in her ear did, in fact, help to sooth Buffy's flailing emotions. A few minutes later, the sobs ceased and she sat up, gently pulling away from Willow to wipe her eyes with the hem of her shirt.

"Buff?" Willow questioned quietly as she moved Buffy's hair from her face, hooking it behind the blonde's ears. "You okay, babe?"

"Sure," Buffy scoffed, "except for the part where I'm a terrible friend, I'm great."

"You're the best friend there is, Buffy!" Willow grasped Buffy's shoulders and held her in place. But the blonde's head was still bowed. "Please, Buff, look at me." Buffy lifted her head so that she was facing Willow, but she didn't make eye contact. "No, Buffy, look at me." Finally, Buffy raised her gaze and looked into sparkling green eyes-eyes that were shiny with newly shed tears. "You are the best friend I've ever had, Buffy. Ever since that first day, when I lent you my book in class, you've been my best friend. You are NOT a terrible friend. And you ARE solid."

"Then why didn't you fall back on me, Will?"

Willow's grip on Buffy's shoulders loosened and she ran her hands down Buffy's arms. "Remember the aforementioned statements about me being both a dope and an ass?" Upon seeing Buffy's slight nod, Willow smiled guiltily. "That's why. Because I'm a dopey ass."

Buffy squeezed Willow's forearm and returned the smile. "You're not an ass, Willow...dopey, yeah...but you're not an ass." She ran both hands though her hair, straightening what had become a shaggy mess, and took a deep breath before continuing. "I'm sorry, Will. I came all the way out here to be here for you, and now you're the one lifting me up. This wasn't supposed to happen."

"And this is why we're best friends, sisters. Because we can fall apart and know the other will be here to put the pieces back together." Willow stood up and held out her hand to Buffy. "Let's go sit in the living room; I'm getting tired of this room."

Once comfortably ensconced on the couch, each woman with a mug of coffee, Buffy decided to continue the conversation that had been left unfinished.

"Will, you didn't really answer my question. What happened? Why didn't you call me?"

"I don't know. Honestly, I thought about it...a few times." Willow let out a heavy sigh and closed her eyes. After a moment she shook her head and looked at Buffy again. "But, it's like I said earlier...I didn't think I deserved it."

"Didn't deserve what?" Buffy took a sip of her coffee and placed the mug on the table. She pulled her legs up and curled them beneath her, leaning one arm on the back of the couch so that she could look directly at Willow. The redhead was staring into her own mug, her brow furrowed in thought. Patience, Summers. Let her take her time. She reached her arm across the couch and idly played with one of Willow's braids as she waited for her friend to answer the question. These are cute...gotta teach her how to do these for herself.


Willow's voice startled Buffy out of her follicle fantasy. "Huh? Friends?"

If Willow noticed Buffy's lapse in attention, she didn't show it; she continued to gaze into her coffee, tilting the mug in wide circles. "Yeah. After that internal deadline...I really fell into my own mind. I relived the conversation we had...I reread the transcript I'd saved. I kept looking for where it all went wrong. If I could find that one spot, then maybe I could find the right thing to say or do that would fix everything." Willow quickly looked at Buffy and then lowered her eyes once again to her drink. She let out a mirthless chuckle. "Well, that obviously didn't work. All it did is make me realize what a selfish bitch I had been that night. A-and, I couldn't fix it."

"Will, you're not the only one to blame here," Buffy offered, choosing her words carefully. "Tara said some things that weren't exactly sunshine and lollipops wasn't just you."

"But I was the one who started it...I went immediately into insensitive mode and didn't listen to what she was trying to tell me." A thoughtful expression crossed Willow's face. "Well, not listen...cuz, hello, we were typing and not, I guess read... I should have read what she was trying to tell me. In any case, I should have paid attention." She shook her head and looked at Buffy, her green eyes showing guilt and sadness. "I know Tara better than that, Buffy. I should have known that she had no choice...that not making the trip hurt her as much as it hurt me...probably more. She was right to take care of Donnie first. He's her brother. But it was all 'me, me, me' and I didn't think for a second how Tara must have been feeling."

"You didn't mean it, Will. You were hurt and confused."

"Again, I'd like to reference an earlier part of our conversation today...remember the 'I made the conscious decision to punch you' part of our talk? Well, same applies here. I knew what I was saying. In some cases, I chose my words carefully. I knew what would make the most impact...but I guess it backfired on me, huh? Didn't realize just how impactful I could be."

The expression on Buffy's face quickly went from concerned and understanding to questioning. "Is that a word?"


"'Impactful'-is that even a real word? It doesn't sound right."

"Yeah, it is. I used it in a paper last semester...I looked it up. You should know that got the higher verbal score." Willow playfully poked Buffy in the ribs and smiled when the blonde giggled.

"Back to the matter at hand, Will...I would also like to reference aforementioned conversation and remind you of what I said...I still contend that you didn't mean it." Buffy paused for a moment, a mischievous glint shown in her eyes. "You were distraught and your perception of what was appropriate and/or justified was off kilter. You may have been deliberate in your choice of words in hopes of achieving a desired impact, but your emotional condition skewed your intention."

"And now you're just showing off...stop flaunting your vocabulary," Willow laughed.

Buffy looked smug as she joined in the laughter. Keep it light, that's it, Summers. If she's giggling, she can't cry. Not as much, anyway. "Gotta do what I can to keep up with the Rosenbergs...this Rosenberg, anyway, Miss 'You'll have two degrees by the time I have one.'" The pride in Buffy's voice made it clear that she didn't begrudge Willow her academic achievements. And Willow blushed at the good-natured teasing. "But, seriously, Will...I still say you didn't mean it. I mean, you were upset and you needed to lash out. Unfortunately, Tara was the one to bear the brunt of that. If you really meant everything you said, you wouldn't be as upset as you've been for the last month. And, if Tara knows you as well as you know her, I'm sure she had a few deliberately chosen words for you in that conversation. You two know how to push each other's buttons...and that didn't sound right, did it?"

Willow laughed and slapped Buffy on the knee. "Gutterbrain," she giggled and gave Buffy a look of genuine adoration. "But I still love you, so it's okay. But, yeah, you're right. We do know how to get at each other I guess. But Tara didn't deserve what I said. She kept trying to explain to me, to apologize. I think she might have even tried to talk about a different time for her to come visit, but I was just focused on how much I was hurting. I didn't even ask about Donnie. I'm sure that made her feel really swell."

" wasn't one of your brighter moments," Buffy said, rather sheepishly, "but it doesn't mean you need to start imagining a life without Tara's presence. I feel bad saying this, Will, but...that's a little extreme, don't you think?"

Willow opened her mouth to protest Buffy's declaration, but snapped it shut quickly. She pursed her lips together tightly as if trapping the words in her mouth, preventing their escape.

That's right, Will...think about it for a minute. Don't talk until you've thought about it, Buffy thought as she raised one eyebrow at Willow, daring the redhead to challenge the statement.

Finally, Willow blew out a heavy breath and closed her eyes. "Yeah, it is a little extreme," she agreed and then opened her eyes. She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, her hands tightly clasped in front of her. "But, you know me...'hyperbole-girl'-have to blow everything up so that it's not even recognizable let alone manageable."

"And that's one of the many reasons why I love you, always find a way to keep things interesting."

"You know, Buffy," Willow began, twisting her body to face the blonde, "I always thought Tara was the only person in this world who really knew me." She gave Buffy a wide smile. "But, I was wrong. I think you may know me better than anyone...even Tara."

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far, Will, I mean-"

"I would," Willow quickly interrupted. "Tara used to know me better than anyone. But, she's been gone for 7 years. And, with the exception of that first year by myself, you've always been there for me. You're the one who really knows me...the real me. And I'm really glad you're here. Thank you for coming to my rescue."

A lone tear slowly rolled down Buffy's cheek. She leaned over to embrace Willow, wrapping her arms firmly around her friend-my sister-and whispering, "I'll always come to your rescue, Willow. Always."

A knock on the door momentarily startled the women, breaking the comfortable-and comforting-silence that had fallen over the room.

"Expecting someone?" they asked in unison, stifled giggles quickly followed.

"Why would I be expecting anyone?" Buffy replied. "I'm not the one who lives here."

Willow got up and headed toward the door. "Good point." She peered through the peephole in the door and then turned to look at Buffy. "It's my neighbor...I wonder what she wants. She never comes over."

Oh I hope it's Dawn and not Glory.

Buffy got up to stand behind the couch, watching the door carefully. She tried to hold in her simultaneous hope and dread as Willow carefully unlocked and opened the door. With an audible sigh of relief, Buffy relaxed.

"Um, hi," Dawn began. She stood in the doorway, a nervous smile on her face, and looked back and forth between Willow and Buffy. Her arms were loaded down with food-two extra large pizzas, bread sticks, and a six-pack of Diet Coke. "I, uh, ordered too much. Anyone hungry?"

Willow and Buffy shared a quick glance and smiled. "As a matter of fact-and rather surprisingly-I am," Willow replied. After a quick wink in Buffy's direction, Willow turned to the girl in the doorway and made a grand motion waving the girl in. "Welcome to the Rosenberg Emotional Rollercoaster. Please, enjoy your ride.

Tara sat on the floor of the room, absorbing everything that Buffy had just told her about Willow. Over the course of Buffy's account, Tara had gradually moved to a corner of the room; her knees were pulled against her chest and her arms held her legs tightly. She hadn't spoken-she didn't dare to interrupt Buffy. Her eyes had barely left the smaller blonde as Buffy recounted the events from a year earlier. The only changes to her facial expression was the occasional widening of her eyes-eyes which frequently shed tears throughout Buffy's telling. Tara listened to Buffy carefully, storing away every word, every image. She continued to listen.

"I spent the next month with Willow, doing everything I could to prove to her that she was not only loved, but worthy of that love. And we talked...a lot." Buffy, who had been walking around to stretch at the end of her account, sat at the edge of the bed. "And it took an entire month before I felt comfortable enough to come back home." She looked pointedly at Tara, making sure the blue eyes registered her words. "I would have stayed." Buffy waited before continuing, to make sure the meaning behind her words hit home. "Fortunately, Willow made enough progress to not only handle things without me being around, but she was able to make up the class she missed with Doc Harry. And Dawn was there."

"D-Dawn?" Tara's voice was raspy from lack of use while Buffy was talking. "Dawn knows what happened too?"

"She knows enough."

Great, Tara thought, dropping her forehead to rest on her knees, everyone knows how horrible I am.

"I'm sorry, Buffy." Tara hadn't lifted her head and her voice was muffled. She could feel herself trembling and tightened her grip on her legs, attempting to regain control. When she finally looked up, she again saw the fierce fire that lay behind Buffy's eyes. "For what I did to Willow...for what I did to you...I'm so sor-"

"No, Tara!" Buffy interrupted, getting up from her seat. She took a step toward Tara and squatted down so that she was at eye level with the blonde. "You don't get to take credit. This isn't about you." She stared at Tara and kept her voice level and cool. "This is about Willow." Buffy could see the anguish on Tara's face. Taking a deep breath, Buffy dropped to the floor, sitting cross-legged in front of Tara. "Look, I know this was-is-hard on you too. And, I really hope that you had a friend near you for the past year. I tried to be there for both you and Willow. But there was only so much I could do, you know?" Buffy's voice had lost some of the vehemence from moments earlier. She was tired. "I was hard enough being at the other end of the country with Willow. But, with you, God...there was a country and an ocean. Not to mention that I'd never even met you...there was that too. But when it comes right down to it, the heart of the matter for me is Willow. I love you, Tara. But I love you because of Willow." Buffy ran her fingers through her hair and rubbed the back of her neck. When she dropped her hand back to her lap, she continued. "Willow is the one who really matters to me right now. So if you have apologies and explanations, I'm not the one who needs to hear them."

Once again, Tara absorbed Buffy's words. She felt like she should be crying...but the tears just didn't come. Because she's right. She tried to speak, but her mouth simply opened and closed again; no sound came out. Instead, she simply gave Buffy a slow nod.

"It's late," Buffy said and then looked at the clock. "Okay, actually it's early. I still need to go to work, so I'm going to spend a little time gathering my wits and then I'm going to get ready to leave." She stood up and walked to the door, stopping when her hand grasped the doorknob. For a moment, she thought about leaving the room without another word, but there was one more thing she had to say. Without turning to look at Tara, Buffy spoke in a quiet, but firm voice. "I'm sorry that I made you lose your balance earlier, Tara. But I'm not sorry for what I've said."

And then Buffy left the room, gently closing the door behind her.

The silence in the room...well, it was silent. And it was oppressive. Tara could hear her own breathing echoing through the room. The sound of her heartbeat was deafening. Her ears rang, hearing Buffy's words over and over again. And yet, the silence around her remained.

It was too still. Everything around her was too quiet. She needed noise from without to drown out the turmoil within. She got up quickly and crossed to her messenger bag at the other end of the room. After a moment of digging around, Tara pulled out her portable CD player and dropped back to the floor. With the earphones firmly affixed to her ears, Tara turned the volume as high as it would go...hoping desperately for something to penetrate the din.

But it wasn't working.

Tara pushed the 'next' button repeatedly, desperate to find a song that would take her mind off what Buffy had told her. Every song that floated or crashed through the headset reminded her of Willow. Of course it does, made this CD while thinking about her. Finally she tore the earphones off and tossed the CD player on the bed.

If I'm going to think about her, then I want to see her.

She rose quickly and made her way to Willow's room across the hall. At the door, she slowed down and moved carefully, afraid to wake the redhead and have to explain what she was doing. She turned the doorknob slowly, but determinedly. The door made a slight creak in protest, causing Tara to wince and stand perfectly still. When there was no indication that Willow had woken, she let out the breath she was holding and slipped into the room, leaving the door just slightly ajar. Not risking another squeak from these, sir.

Tara looked around the room, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness. The curtains were drawn back, leaving the windows uncovered so that light from the low-lying moon shone through. She followed the path of the moonbeams until she could see a mop of messy red hair peeking out from underneath the blankets on the bed. A smile crossed her face and Tara immediately felt herself begin to relax.

"Willow," she breathed.

Moving carefully and quietly, Tara crossed to the opposite side of the bed so that she could see Willow's face. Her eyes didn't stray from Willow's form beneath the covers as she walked. As soon as she got to a place where she could see Willow clearly, she gently sat on the floor and just watched the redhead sleep.

She still has that cute little snore, she thought as the smile on her face grew. So beautiful. How could I have treated her so badly?

Tara stilled as she heard Willow release a soft whimper. Willow was frowning and clutching at the blanket, her dreams clearly upsetting her. Tara rolled over onto her knees and quickly crawled over to the edge of the bed. She reached up with one hand and gently smoothed Willow's hair, briefly daring to caress Willow's furrowed brow with her thumb. The soothing touch seemed to work; Willow relaxed and her breathing returned to normal. What's going on in that head of yours, Will? Tara continued to run her fingers through Willow's hair as she brought her other arm up to rest on the bed. She rested her head on her forearm and continued to watch Willow sleep. If I have my way, I'll get to do this every night for the rest of my life...but I have to tell her first. I have to talk to her. God, I hope she can forgive me. The emotional turmoil of the night had finally caught up with her physically, and Tara's eyes slowly closed and she drifted into a light sleep.

About twenty minutes later, Tara opened her eyes. Okay, when did I close them? I was looking at Willow and... Her thoughts drifted off as she caught the sight of the woman sleeping. Instinctively, she began to play with the soft hair she had been smoothing earlier. Tara's head popped up from its perch on her arm when she realized that she couldn't move her other hand. She closed her eyes tightly and opened them again, trying once again to adjust her eyes to the faint lighting. When she was able to focus on the hand she had attempted to move, her eyebrows shot to her hairline.

At some point during Tara's brief nap, Willow had taken the blonde's hand in her own and was now holding it closely to her, nestled between the pillow and her cheek. The frown that was apparent earlier had been replaced with a small grin.

Just like the night before I left.

Tara yawned through her smile, never taking her eyes off Willow. Realizing that she could begin to hear the birds chirping outside, Tara decided that it was time she go back to her own room and get some sleep. She very carefully extracted her hand from Willow's grip and ran her fingers through the soft, red hair one last time. Just the last time tonight...I will not let this be the last time ever. With a final wistful gaze at Willow, Tara stood up from her spot next to the bed, stretched, and headed toward the door. She stopped just as she reached the door, a quiet voice grabbing her attention.


Tara looked back over her shoulder to see sleepy green eyes looking back at her.

"Are you okay, Tare?" Willow asked, propping herself up on her elbows and blinking her eyes sleepily.

"Yeah," Tara replied, walking slowly to the near side of the bed, stopping about a foot away. "I was on you. Making sure you were sleeping okay." Oh, good, Maclay! Now who looks like the stalker? "I'm just heading to bed. I-I'll talk to you in the morning...or, uh...later. Goodnight, Willow." She smiled and took a step backward, regretfully heading once again toward the door.

"No...don't go," Willow whispered and held out her hand to Tara. "Please stay."

Tara couldn't speak, so she just nodded and took Willow's hand. As she climbed under the covers, Willow shifted her position so that her back was to Tara.


Tara did as Willow instructed, sliding closer to the redhead. She felt her hand and arm being pulled across Willow's body.

Soon, Willow was tucked snuggly against Tara's body. She hadn't relinquished her hold on Tara's hand and she brought it up to her cheek, returning it to it's earlier position.

"Much better. Good night, Tara."

Tara leaned forward and placed a kiss on Willow's shoulder before resting her head on the pillow, her nose nuzzled in Willow's hair. She breathed deeply, basking in the scent, and tightened her hold on the woman in her arms.

"Good night, my Willow."

Continue to Coming Back Chapter 14a

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