Sunday morning dawned sunny and cloudless, another beautiful California day. Dawn was in the backyard kicking a soccer ball around dressed in the Manchester United shirt that Will had bought back with him on his last trip to England. He had even had the name of her favorite player Ole Gunner Solskjaer printed on the back. She kept up an imaginary commentary as she played. "Giggs crosses, Solskjaer heads on to Van Nistlerooy who scores!!! Or kicks it over the fence to next door; damn."
Dawn grabbed a chair and used it to vault over the yard fence. She quickly spotted the ball when she heard a voice.
"I take it you're from next-door and not here to rob my parents?"
Dawn turned to face a small blonde woman who sat on a garden chair, a book at her side.
Buffy let out a small gasp. "D-dawn... I"
"Hey, you must be Buffy. It's nice to finally meet you," said the teenager giving Buffy a friendly smile as she picked up her ball and threw it back over the fence. "You didn't see me climb over the fence. My sister and your Mom keep telling me to walk around or I'll hurt myself."
"Don't worry," said Buffy, doing her best to respond even though her mind was in turmoil. "Your secret's safe with me."
Dawn flashed another smile as she shinned up a tree and used one of its branches to swing back over into her own yard; she did it with such ease and grace it was obviously something she had done many times.
Buffy put her head in her hands and wondered if her mind was slipping again. She couldn't believe what she had obviously seen.
Joyce looked up from the vegetables she was preparing as Buffy walked into the kitchen. "Morning Sweetie, you were up early?"
"I wanted to enjoy the sunshine. It was nice just being outside. Hmm do you need a hand with anything?" Asked Buffy.
"No, everything is just about done. You don't mind that I asked the girls from next door?" Asked Joyce.
Buffy shook her head but she could feel the worry worming in the back of her brain.
"Will, there is plenty of food in the fridge if you're hungry," said Tara.
"You know you don't have to mother everyone. I can manage. Just go have a nice afternoon and meet with the nutty neighbor."
"William," said Tara shaking her finger at him. "You could be nicer."
"I know it's more fun being wicked and shocking you." William went to the fridge and handed Tara a bottle of wine. "You're forgetting something."
"Do you think it's appropriate? I wasn't sure?" Asked Tara.
"Tar, you don't have to worry about every little thing she hasn't been in re-hab, so just treat it as a normal meal," said William pushing her out of the kitchen.
Tara narrowed her eyes at him. "Do you have someone coming over?"
"No... honestly. I just want to relax... but if I had someone..."
"He better be gone before I come home with Dawn," said Tara sternly.
"Cool," said Will relaxing slightly.
Tara knocked on the Summers' door and was greeted by Hank.
Hi Tara, Dawn, come in. you know the way to the dining room."
Tara handed him the wine and walked through.
"Buffy, this is Tara and Dawn," said Hank before walking to the kitchen for a corkscrew.
Tara smiled at the tiny, frail looking young woman who was staring at her in a very un-nerving way. "H-hi."
Buffy couldn't believe it. She couldn't stop staring at the woman in front of her. The last time she had seen that beautiful face it had been lifeless on her bedroom floor. Buffy had to hold back on her first instinct, which was to hug Tara. She gripped the edge of the table, sure the blanket of madness was enveloping her mind once more, and then suddenly everything shifted back to as Joyce came in with the food and Dawn's exuberance took over as she started to talk about her week at school and her soccer game that weekend.
The frail blonde said nothing as she ate; she tried to look at Dawn and Tara without openly staring at them. She looked at Tara's long ash blonde hair, blue eyes and the same quirky smile that she remembered. One thing Buffy didn't remember was Dawn resembling Tara so much but apart from Dawn's darker hair they were so alike. Why hadn't she noticed it before? Or maybe reasoned Buffy, it had never been there in the first place.
Buffy had no idea how she made it to the end of the meal, but as soon as she was done she stood up. "Tara, Dawn, it was nice to meet you both, but I'm tired, do you mind if I go lie down?"
"Of course not," said Tara and then was surprised as Buffy hugged her and then Dawn, before leaving the room.
Joyce stared after Buffy before turning to Tara. "I'm sorry about that."
It's f-fine. It must be weird for her," said Tara as brightly as she could manage.
"Do you want to sit in the garden or do you need to go home?" Asked Joyce as they rest of the party finished their lunch.
"Dawn has home work to do and I have a couple of designs I am working on, but nothing that can't be off for an hour or so," Tara added the last part after she saw Dawn's face fall.
"I'll open another bottle of wine," said Hank.
Joyce felt torn, pleased Tara and Dawn were staying but worried about her daughter. She followed the girls out to the garden and gratefully accepted a glass of white wine from her husband; she sipped at it for a few moments, not really taking in the conversation buzzing around her. She then stood up abruptly. "I'm going to check on Buffy."
Hank got up to try and stop her, but she was already gone.
Joyce took a deep breath before knocking on her daughter's bedroom door.
"Come in," said the voice behind the door.
"Hi," said Joyce, now feeling stupid about her sense of dread, seeing her totally lucid daughter. "Are... we're in the garden if you want to join us. We have nice wine and homemade lemonade."
Buffy smiled sweetly. "That sounds nice... Mom?"
Yes, Sweetie?" Joyce replied, picking up the question.
"How long have Dawn and Tara lived next door?" Asked Buffy.
"About 5 years," Joyce frowned, surprised by the question.
"Did you talk about them when you visited me in hospital?" Asked Buffy.
"Not at first, it took me a while to get to know them, but I did; why?" Asked Joyce, her curiosity peaked.
"It proves your visits were good then, Mom, because I feel like I know them," admitted Buffy, but in her head she was rejoicing. Tara and Dawn hadn't been in her fantasy world from beginning and she figured her mother talking about them had eventually led to her incorporating them into her other world. It was a relief to Buffy that she was able to figure this out.
"That's good dear," said Joyce, sitting on the corner of the bed. "You know I used to spend hours at your bedside talking to you. I was never sure if it did any good." Joyce felt pleased, like another connection had been made between them.
Buffy stood up. "Mom, I think I will come down into the garden with you."
This Buffy decided was the hardest part; when she had entered the garden she had been rewarded with one of Tara's cute little half smiles. It was hard to believe that was something she had imagined or picked up from her Mother but Buffy quickly put it to the back of her mind.
"Hi Sweetie," said Hank. "Are you feeling better?"
"I was just a little tired," explained Buffy.
Dawn full of excitement and curiosity asked a question that the adults would have refrained from. "So what are you going to do now, you know with your future and everything?"
"Dawn..." warned Tara a little embarrassed.
"No, it's okay," said Buffy, giving Dawn a warm smile. "We've been talking about it. I am going to help Mom in the gallery. I'm going to community college to get my diploma and Mom said we might get a tutor."
Try one of the Universities. They usually have a list of students who do some tutoring," said Tara.
"That's an idea, I wasn't quite sure how to go about it," admitted Joyce. "Thank you Tara."
Tara looked at her watch. "I'm s-sorry to seem rude but I have work to do."
Goodbyes were exchanged and Dawn and Tara walked around the fence to their house.