Pieces of the Puzzle

Author: Useful_Oxymoron
Rating: R. Angst here, as well as dark themes and a swearword. But there's also a lot of fuzzy stuff.
Disclaimer: Well, I don't own Willow or Tara. And if I did, I'd set them free.
As some of my readers pointed out, I've taken a few creative liberties in this story. It is a piece of fiction and even though psychiatric wards should be places of healing and caring, they are not, unless you have the moolah to pay for a private clinic and even then... The Willow in this story has more issues than being overworked, so if you're considering to check in voluntarily just for rest and relaxation, check yourself into an airplane to the Bahama's instead. You'll be much happier for it.
Feedback: Is cool. It's always nice to know somebody likes the crap I write. Viernadevir@hotmail.com
Summary: Willow's co-owner of a gamestudio and has collapsed under the pressure of her work. Buffy and Xander convinced her to check in voluntarily for a month of complete rest in the psychiatric Institute under the care of her mother. There, she bonds with one of the patients, a girl in infinitely worse shape than she is.
Notes: Influence for this story : K's Choice - Everything's Free. Lyrics here.
Some references to the song are in the story as well.

Willow figeted with her clothing. No matter how much she adjusted, pushed and pulled, the white linnen suit she was wearing still didn't fit properly. She sat in Dr. Joyce Summers' office at the Sue Blake Mental Institute for Young Women, the psychiatric hospital she was checking in on a voluntary basis. Willow had long been a friend of Dr. Summers' daughter with whom she ran a business, together their mutual friend Xander. It was them who were certain that Willow she couldn't go on the way she did and asked Buffy's mother to help them convince her to slow down.

"It's going to be alright, Willow," Joyce smiled encouragingly. "Think of it of a vacation, just not at a resort. All the responsibilities you will have here will be to clean up and take good care of yourself."

"That'd make a nice change," Willow said sincerely.

"Well, shall I take you to your room?" Joyce asked gently, seeing that Willow was nervous and tried to calm her slightly. "I've roomed you up with a kind and quiet girl. I'm sure you'll get along fine and..."

Willow's head snapped to the door when it was opened suddenly. A buff african-american orderly with a shaved head entered, looking somewhat miffed. "Joyce," she sighed. "Dr. Pryce is making trouble on ward two."

Joyce groaned and rubbed her temples slightly. "Lord, help me," she grimaced. "I'm sorry, Willow, but I'll have to look into this. Would it be okay if Gunn shows you to your room?"

"That's okay," replied Willow.

"Don't worry," Gunn smiled. "I don't bite."

Together, Gunn and Willow walked through the corridors of the mental ward and Willow had to admit it looked better than she had expected. The corridors were well-lit and filled with nary a fancy illustration and more plants and flowers than Willow could count. The Institute was located in a quiet leafy environment, and was truly an institute of healing, rather than the institute of torture that Willow was expecting to find. No cold baths, no psychotic guards with truncheons, no electric fences or locked doors. Joyce had been on the level : here, the girls lived together in peace, to help each other through their ordeal.

"Who's going to be in the ward with me, mr..."

"It's Gunn, just Gunn. We are all on a first-name basis here... well, except that it's actually my last-name, but it just sounds much better than 'Charles'," Gunn said. "Okay, your next door neighbor is Faith. She's another voluntary check-in, like yourself, but she'll probably be around for much longer than you will. She seems healthy and sane and has a very down to earth attitude, unlike some of the others, but she can have sudden violent outbursts."

"Violent outbursts?" Willow asked. "That doesn't sound very encouraging."

"She doesn't attack people. Not anymore, at least, but property is still not safe around her. We've put her in a separate room just to be on the safe side."

"Who are the others?" Willow asked.

"Cordelia, that's a sad case," Gunn sighed. "Cordelia's blessed with a lovely natural beauty but was always unable to see it. She's been addicted to plastic surgery to smooth over imperfections nobody else could see. She even got a job as a secretary at a plastic surgery practise and often took operations instead of payments. One night, she was working late and attempted to operate on herself, which went disastrously wrong and left her sightless in one eye," Gunn shook his head. "Her parents finally woke up and took her to Joyce for treatment."

"That's horrible," Willow replied.

"She's gotten a lot better since Joyce's added her to her special program," Gunn said. "Cordelia's roommate is Harmony. She, um, thinks she's Jesus."

Willow blinked.

"Yeah, I know," Gunn said while they passed the REC room. "She thinks the Church put her here to cover up the fact that the second coming is, in fact, a girl and the world wasn't ready for that. She's also written a lot of angry letters to Dan Brown over the last few months, I can tell you that."


"There's Fred," Gunn continued. "She's an autistic savant. She's a brilliant mathematician, but is unable to function socially. And then there's Drusilla, she, um, well, she's convinced she's a psychiatrist, actually, whose gone undercover to study the mentally impaired as one of their own. Don't let her medibabble and the white coat fool you, Willow. She is definitely one of the patients."

Gunn and Willow finally arrived at the room she'd staying in. "You'll be rooming with Tara. Just remember to keep the door open at all times. She can't stand being locked in. We've put up a dressing screen for you if you require privacy and you can lock the shower room."

"Why is Tara here?" Willow asked. "Is she looking to rest?"

Gunn grimaced for a moment. "I can't tell you why she's here, because she's here by court order. But let me tell you, Tara has a kind and gentle soul and I would love to spend five minutes alone in a room with her family. Tara suffers from acute agoraphobia, night terrors and anxiety attacks. When something happens to her, call me or Joyce and we'll take good care of her. Tara's our special girl here. Be gentle with her."

Willow stepped into the room. It was bigger than she expected, and considerably less white than she expected. In fact, the room was alive with vibrant colors. One bed, hers stood at the left side of the room, and came with a nightstand. There was no TV, as Joyce had ordered Willow to have as little contact with the outside world as possible and Tara watched very little TV anyway. There was a table, two seats, two dressers and a couple of beanbag chairs.

"Damn," Gunn checked his buzzer. "Gotta go. Dr. Pryce situation here. Joyce and I will be checking up on you later. Enjoy your stay, Willow."

Willow thanked Gunn and explored the rest of the room.

Tara's corner of the room was nice and cozy. Her bed was located in the right corner and above her bed hung seven completed puzzles, glued on a piece of plywood and lovingly mounted to the wall : A horse in a meadow, the Sierra half-dome, a lush forest, two dogs sleeping in the yard... Puzzles that looked very difficult to do, consisting of at least a thousand pieces each.

And then she spotted Tara, who was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall in such a way that she could only be seen when Willow was far inside the room. Tara was a pretty young woman dressed in the same white gown that Willow was. Her long honeyblonde hair hung loose around her shoulders while her blue eyes were transfixed on the puzzle that she was doing. She was quite far ahead too : the kittens in the grass were only missing fifty or so pieces. With grace, Tara picked up a loose piece and quickly placed it in the puzzle, completing the kitten's nose.

"Uh, hi?" Willow greeted.

Immediately, Tara's eyes darted up and locked with Willow. Willow was shocked to see so much fear and sadness in those beautiful azure eyes. Tara's mouth moved like that of a fish... wordless. She then darted towards her bed and pressed against the wall in a fetal position, mewing softly.

"Oh, hey, I'm... I'm so sorry," Willow rushed up to the trembling girl. "Just look at me, big ole spaz," Willow pouted. "I didn't mean to scare you. Please, I'm so sorry. I'm Willow, I'm going to live with you for the next month and I really didn't make a good impression, did I. Look, I..."

The other girl slowly turned towards Willow and locked eyes with her. Bewilderment and fear slowly turned into curiosity. "W-w-w-w-willow?" Tara asked softly, her voice a shrill croak.

"Yeah, that's me, SpazzySpazMcSpaz," she smiled gently. "I'm so sorry."

"I'm T-t-t-ara," Tara replied.

"I'm getting really fed up with that guy," Gunn said as he and Joyce made their way to their ward.

"You said it," Joyce sighed. "I just hope Willow's doing well."

"Why is Willow here?" Gunn asked.

"Willow, my daughter Buffy and their friend Xander are running a successful company that makes computergames. I'm afraid Willow's too much of a perfectionist. She wanted to oversee aspect of the process, and seeing their company is now making three games at once, Willow's been having 140 hour workweeks for the last two months," Joyce said.

"Ouch," Gunn grimaced while the two rounded about the corner.

"Yes," Joyce smiled. "I've known Willow for years and she's always had a bit of a problem with delegating and now she's buckling underneath all the responsibilities. I think a full month of rest and no responsibilities at all will do her a world of good. And I think putting her with Tara might help her as well."

"I'm not sure," Gunn said. "Tara doesn't usually take well to strangers..."

Gunn and Joyce approached the room Willow and Tara shared. The first was surprised to see Willow and Tara sitting at the table. The red-head was silently telling Tara about herself while the honeyblonde listened quietly. Next to him, Joyce merely smiled knowingly.

"Quiet!" sound the white-coated Drusilla while she tapped the pencil on her clipboard. "Sssh, we must all be quiet or Dr. Joyce shall be very annoyed."

The support group was gathered in a room with large windows and a view on the garden outside. Seven chairs were set in a circle and all patients were waiting for Joyce to arrive.

"Oh, screw you, Dru," Faith scoffed. "If you're a real doctor than I'm Mickey Mouse."

"Hush!" Drusilla gritted her teeth. "Or I shall have you put in isolation!"

"Oh, shut your goddamn..."

"HEY!" Harmony broke in. "What's that you were going to say about my Father?! I'll have you know he's listening in right now and getting ready to fire a lightning bolt up your ass, Faith!"

"Look, whatever!" Cordelia adjusted her fuzzy pink eyepatch. "I mean, just look at these shoes. Grey and white? That's so nineteen-thirties, heelllooooo..."

Willow regarded the people around her and wondered if coming here was such a hot idea to begin with. Both Fred and Tara seemed every withdrawn, Tara even moreso. While Fred was actively looking around, Tara was trying to hide in her own seat.

Joyce came in and quickly took her seat. Immediately, all the girls quieted down.

"Dr. Joyce?" Drusilla said, handing Joyce her clipboard. "We're ready for roll-call."

"Thank you, Dr. Dru," Joyce smiled. "But I think we'll skip roll-call this time around. Girls, we have a new member to our little family..."

"... our perfect little nuclear family," Faith quipped. "Post-nuclear, more like."

"Faith, hush," Joyce said forcefully, to which Faith crossed her arms and glowered in silence.

Willow scraped her throat. "Hello, I'm Willow and I'll be staying with you for the rest of the month."

"Tell us something about yourself, Willow," Joyce smiled.

"Well, I'm 24 years old..."

"...The square root of 24242424 is 4923.65961455," Fred spoke up.

"I'm the co-owner and head of the programming department of ScoobySoft, a company that makes computer games. My friends Xander and Buffy, Joyce's daughter, founded it, own it and run it. And I'm here because... I was crushed by my job. We reached crunch-time for three games at once and I'm used to things being hectic but... this was just too crazy, I guess. Xander said he found me on the floor of my office, shivering and crying. Don't remember much after that, but... I guess it wasn't pretty."

"Now, girls, Willow is here to rest, so don't do anything to upset her or make her feel unwelcome,"

"Oh, this is bullshit!" Faith shouted to no one in particular. "Why are we still doing this crap?!" she added while raising her chair over her head.

"Now, now, Faith," Joyce said. "You'll going to have to sit through it. You can throw the chair through the window all you like, but I'm still not sending you to isolation."

Reluctantly, she put down the chair and plopped down on it. "Wait," Faith suddenly said. "ScoobySoft? The company who made Grand Theft Vehicle?!"

"The Grand Theft Vehicle is part of our studio's line-up, yes," Willow smiled. "That's Xander's baby."

Faith said nothing, but her eyes seem to be saying 'I'm not worthy'.

"Faith's been playing your games in the REC room," Joyce explained. "The video-game program I set up helps her channel her aggression into non-destructive activities."

"Gotta know!" Faith perked up. "Is GTV four in development or not?"

"Well," Willow frowned. "Officially, I can't tell you anything. Unofficially, expect an announcement really soon."


Joyce moved on to the next person in the circle, which happened to be Tara. "Tara? Would you like to say something to the group?"

Tara merely looked away shyly, making herself tiny in her chair.

"Are you sure, Tara?" Joyce smiled.

"Oh, come on," Cordelia scoffed. "Who wants to listen to her?!"

"Cordelia, shut up!" Faith threatened. "Now let Tara say what she wants or you'll be wearing TWO eye-patches!"

"I... I..." Tara stammered.

Joyce put down her clipboard and tried to encourage Tara to come forward. "Yes? Don't be afraid."

"I r-really like W-willow," Tara said, almost a whisper, before withdrawing again and making herself tiny.

"I like you too, Tara," Willow replied warmly.

That afternoon, right after support-group, the girls made their way to the REC room, where they were joined with two other groups. Mostly the girls kept to themselves, but Willow enjoyed a quick game of chess with Harmony... who couldn't believe she lost because she was the daughter of God and, thus, the laws of chance should be in her favor always. Now, Willow was looking for something to read, but found the Institute's library to be somewhat lacking. She poured over the library list and considered asking for a book about plants.

Joyce was observing in a corner while the girls performed their free activities. Faith, as usual, was stealing cars and driving over old people on her playstation. Cordy was playing make-up with one of the other girls, while Fred was pouring over mathematical formulae. Tara was sitting alone at one of the tables, still working on her puzzle while Willow looked over the top of the library list from time to time.

Suddenly, the honeyblonde girl was the very essence of radiance. Her smile was most beautiful and happy that Willow had ever seen when the girl took the piece of plywood the puzzle lay on and carried it over to Joyce.

"Joyce, Gunn!" she called. "Look!"

Joyce and Gunn smiled when Tara presented them with the now completed puzzle. "Well done, Tara," Gunn smiled and put his hands on her shoulders. "Are we proud of you! I'll glue this puzzle to the wood and hang it over your bed, Tara."

Tara looked at Joyce expectantly. Joyce took the hint, headed to one of the storage locker and fished out a box containing a completely new puzzle. Tara gratefully took the box and hugged it briefly before bringing it back to her table, waiting for Gunn to bring her a new piece of plywood.

Willow stepped up to Joyce and nodded at her. "Tara sure likes those puzzles."

"Hm," Joyce said while Gunn came out with a new plate of plywood. "It's a new kind of therapy. The puzzle provides a physical representation of her own shattered mind."

"Oh?" Willow frowned. "So by making these puzzles, she's actually putting together her own soul?"

"You might put it that way," Joyce said. "When Tara came to the Institute, she was so far gone she couldn't even walk anymore. But she's been making amazing progress. Tara's got a strong spirit."

"What happened to her?"

"Can't tell you that," Joyce sighed. "But let's just say thank god that the sheriff insisted on inspecting her family's house before leaving again."

Willow said goodbye to Joyce and walked over to Tara to say hello. The other girl, who had already eagerly started with her new puzzle, looked at her shyly.

"I think this piece goes over here," Willow said, immediately cursing herself for interfering with Tara's therapy.

Tara, however, looked at the piece, and the puzzle and the piece again. With a broad smile, she placed the piece where Willow had said it would fit. "W-will you h-help?" Tara asked shyly.

Joyce looked on with a smile as Willow and Tara were making the puzzle together, pointing out to each other where each piece could fit best. They seemed to be really enjoying themselves. She decided that putting Willow and Tara together had been a very good idea.

The only thing that could spoil her day would be the arrival of Dr. Welsey Wyndam-Pryce. The stoney-faced doctor with the tiny glasses strolled along the girls, as if they weren't even there and headed straight towards Joyce.

"Well, here we are," he said in an annoyingly chipper fashion. "Another day among the nutjobs, ey Joyce?" he added oblivious to the fact that everybody in the room could hear him.

"Dr. Pryce," Joyce glowered. "These girls are sick people who need our help and understanding, not our judgment. And if you think differently, then you should reconsider your career-path, doctor!"

"Joyce," Dr. Pryce gulped. "I was just saying that..."

"That's Dr. Summers to you, Dr. Pryce," Joyce said before stomping off, to the loud applause of the gathered girls.

Evening had finally fallen, and Light's Out was fast approaching. Willow dressed into her nightshift behind the dressing screen, but actually didn't notice much of a difference between the day and the night clothes. Tara was already dressed in her nightgown and lay on top of her bed, staring at the ceiling.

A knock sounded on the side of the open door. Gunn appeared with the puzzle that Tara had finished today, glued to the plywood. "Hello, Tara," Gunn said. "I got this finished just before Lights Out. Where'd you like me to hang it?"

Tara motioned Gunn to bend forward and whispered something in his ear. Gunn smiled to himself and walked over to Willow's bed and took out his tools. "Well, Willow," Gunn said while Tara blushed and looked away. "Looks like Tara's given you a gift."

"Thanks, Tara," Willow said, causing a deep blush to appear on Tara's cheeks before she dove underneath her covers and lay in a fetal position. A few moments later, the puzzle of the two happy kittens was hanging over Willow's bed.

The next morning, it was time for breakfast. Today Willow and Tara had breakfast in their own room, listening to Harmony saying the Paternoster in her own room on the opposite side of the hall.

"Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Dad, if you're still listening to me.

Willow snickered briefly and returned to her peanut-butter sandwich and tea.

"More tea?" asked Willow. Tara shook her head. "What are we going to do today?"

"P-puzzle?" Tara asked hopefully.

"That goes without saying," Willow replied.

Tara looked at Willow long and hard for a moment. "T-they think I'm c-crazy."

"I don't think you're crazy, Tara."

"T-they don't k-know that I l-like it here, it's n-nice in here," Tara sniffed. "It's s-safe in h-here."

Willow frowned. "Don't you want to get out of here, Tara? I mean, it's a big world out there, plenty of beautiful things to see and do."

Tara quickly shook her head 'no'. "N-no. I'm s-safe h-here. I'm in here. T-they are out t-t-t-there. Safe h-here, not out t-there. Nobody w-wants to h-hurt me in h-h-here."

Try as she might, those were the last words Willow would hear from her for the rest of the day.

"Alright," Joyce said the next day, when her patients were free to roam the yard and was ready to assign spots. "Faith, you got the basketball court with Harmony."

"Yessss!" Faith grunted her victory.

"Now, Tara," Joyce asked a stricken Tara. "Would you like to go outside today?"

Tara was obviously torn, glancing from the door back into the hallway to the door leading outside and back again. Fear eventually won out, and Tara shook her head 'no' vigorously.

Willow sat down next to Tara and put an arm around her shoulders. "Would you like to go outside with me, Tara? We could go together."

Tara looked Willow deeply in the eyes and looked at the garden beyond the door... and slowly nodded. And so Willow took a very nervous Tara by the hand and led her outside.

"It's okay," Willow said when she noticed the other girl's first instinct was to run inside again, to safety. A few moments later, the two girls sat together in the warm grass, their puzzle in front of them. Even though Willow's presence was obviously comforting, Tara's eyes kept darting around the garden, as if looking for people or things that would try to hurt her. Still, Tara seemed to be radiant, with the sun warming her skin.

"Why are you so scared?" Willow asked Tara while putting a piece in the right place.

"I don't w-want to be h-hurt," Tara said. "Even t-though I deserve to be h-hurt."

"What?" Willow took Tara's hand. "Tara, nobody deserves to be hurt."

"I d-do," Tara bowed her head. "Because I'm e-evil, f-filthy and d-disgusting. He w-wants me to s-suffer."

"Who?" Willow asked angrily. "Who wants you to suffer?"

"God," Tara said. "D-dad said G-god h-hates me and w-wants me to be in p-pain. I l-like g-g-girls," Tara blushed. "In... t-that way. T-that's why God h-hates me, d-dad said. And t-that's why, w-when I die, I'll go to H-h-hell to b-burn forever."

"Oh, Tara," Willow felt hot tears stinging her eyes. Her own parents had been very accepting of her sexuality, and only now did she realize how lucky she had been. "Look, Tara, nobody could ever hate you. I like girls too... in that way. And my dad doesn't think I deserve to suffer."

"You?" Tara frowned.

"Well, I mean, I haven't had much time for dating since... well, ever, but I'm still of the gay, I'm sure of that. And nobody I know wants me to suffer for that. Well, maybe Rush Limbaugh, but I don't know him personally."

"B-but... you're kind and s-sweet. You're n-not e-evil or f-f-ilthy."

"Neither are you," Willow said sincerely, and was rewarded with the sweetest smile she had ever seen.

Willow looked over her shoulder to see Drusilla diagnosing her long-suffering boyfriend Spike with all manner of psychiatric ailments. All around her, her wardmates were receiving visitors, but hers was late... as usual.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry," her oldest friend Xander Harris spoke as he plopped down in the seat and presented her with a giant chocolate-basket filled to the brim with all kind of chocolate goodness. "This is from the entire company. We all chipped in."

Willow licked her lips. "Yummy. But you do have to realize I'll have to share with the entire ward, right? Couldn't Buffy and Dawn make it? What about mom and dad?"

"Your mother said it's best if you only receive one visitor at a time. Only once every week. And absolutely no news from ScoobySoft," Xander pointed out.

"Oh," Willow pouted. "At least tell me how we did at the E3."

"Perfectly. And that's all I'm going to tell you," Xander replied.

"Is Reynolds still sick? Is there a replacement?" Willow asked. "What about the beta-testers? Have the new 7900GTX's arrived yet? And what about the art department? Have you hired new people for Age of Imperials 2? Who did you gave my code for NeverSummer Nights to? And... I'm doing it again, am I?"

"Will," Xander said. "Buffy and I can run the company. We all love the games and we all love you. Do you realize how horrible it was to find you like that in your office?"

Willow nodded. "Xander, can you do me a favor? It's not in any way related to ScoobySoft, I promise."

"Okay, then. What can I do for you?"

"I want you to find out something about my roommate. Her name's Tara Maclay. She's from Alabama, I think. A rural area. Came here about 6 months ago."

"Not much to go on, but I'll see what I can do.

Joyce Summers rushed to her ward only to find Gunn arguing with Dr. Pryce and Tara sitting on the ground sobbing and hugging herself while her puzzle lay shattered in hundreds of loose pieces at her feet.

"What the hell is going one here? Tara?" Joyce moved to Tara, but she recoiled and cowered against the wall.

"Ah," said Dr. Pryce. "Now you'll get it, Gunn. This orderly has mutinied against my authority."

"He wanted Tara locked up in isolation!" Gunn replied angrily.

"You what?!" Joyce gritted her teeth. "What's the matter with you, Wesley?"

"The girl broke the rules. She went outside to the garden outside of the allotted hours and picked one of the flowers in the garden," Dr. Pryce said. "Both are offenses and mean a full day in isolation."

"NO!" Tara cried in terror. "Don't put me in the box again, daddy! Please don't put in me in the box! I promise I'll be good!"

"Dammit, I gave her permission to go outside and pick that flower," Gunn snarled. "That flower was for Willow!"

"Nobody is going to hurt you, Tara," Joyce tried, then turned back to Wesley. "You're going to lock up an acute claustrophobe and punish an equally acute agoraphobe for finding the courage to step outside on her own?! You've just ruined months of her progress! This is it, Wesley. Clean our your desk, I'm tranfering you out of here."


"Do it! Before I'll ask Gunn to throw you out on your ass!"

"Oh, please ask me that," Gunn glowered at Wesley. Joyce turned to Gunn as they regarded the shivering girl. "I don't like it, but I think we might have to sedate her. God, I'm going to hate myself in the morning for that."

As soon as Welsey withdrew, Willow rushed in to find Tara sobbing wildly. Immediately, Willow pushed past Joyce and Wesley and hugged Tara tightly.

"Sssh," Willow whispered. "It's going to be okay. I'm here for you now. It's going to be fine. Don't cry. You're never going to have to cry anymore..."

"Our p-puzzle. Dr. pryce did..." Tara said, referring to the puzzle that Dr. Pryce had knocked out of her hands, and now lay on the ground, pieces all apart.

"It's okay, Tara," Willow whispered. "We'll fix it. We'll find all the pieces and then we'll fix it together. You and me. Together forever."

Willow frowned as she regarded her creation. Crafts was never her favorite subject, and it showed. All around her, the girls were working with clay to give vision to their innermost thoughts under the supervision of Joyce. Fred was rolling numbers from her clay, while Cordelia was molding a new chin for herself. Faith was mostly throwing clay at other people.

"W-what's that?" Tara giggled.

"Well," Willow chuckled. "It's supposed to be a bird, but I think it looks more like a splat. I think I'm going to try a car next. What are you making?"

"You," Tara blushed slightly. "It doesn't look l-like you yet, but it will."

"You're stuttering less," Willow noticed.

"Did I?" Tara asked. "I didn't n-notice. Maybe it's because I w-want to give you t-this."

Tara reached under her desk and showed her a clay puzzle-piece, lovingly painted with reddish colors. "I m-made it for you l-last week, when you didn't come into c-crafts."

"It's lovely," Willow said. "And appropriate. How many puzzles did we do together now?"

"31!" called Fred from the other side of the room.

Tara quickly kissed Willow in the cheek, before returning to her work, blushing furiously.

The next week Buffy came to visit and they had a lovely chat. Buffy also smuggled in a newspaper clipping Xander had found in the archives. And what she read made her blood run cold. Tara had been the daughter of religious fanatics who were none too happy that their daughter was a lesbian... AKA the unnatural spawn of the devil. Her father and her brother had converted the basement into a make-shift prison to try and exorcize the demons that they thought had taken over Tara's body with daily beatings and all manners of both physical and mental abuse. On really bad days, they would put her into a sweat-box for hours on end without water. This went on for a total of six months.

Six months of torture. Willow couldn't even begin to understand what Tara had gone through, but a person as kind and gentle as Tara was certainly wouldn't have deserved it. When she was finally found she was mentally unstable and dangerously underfed. Doctors feared for Tara's life, but she pulled through.

Willow smiled briefly. Tara was a fighter. She's survived everything they'd thrown at her, and she would make a full recovery... Willow would see to that.

Willow hid the clipping and waited for Tara to return for Lights Out. When she finally did return, Willow asked her after she had changed into her nightshift : "Don't you want to go outside? Really outside, I mean. If you know your family wouldn't hurt you, would you want to go?"

Tara lay on her bed, staring at Willow for a moment. "Y-yes," she finally said. "But that just a d-dream. T-they're out there. T-they'll get me. They'll take y-you away from me."

"They're locked up, Tara," Willow broke in. "In a place like this, only far less nicer," she said. "They won't be getting out anytime soon. You'll be safe outside."

Tara remained silent for a long time. "S-safe?"

"Safe," Willow confirmed.

"You'll l-leave s-soon," Tara asked. "B-but I'm not r-ready to g-go yet."

"Then I'll stay," Willow promised. "I'll stay here with you until you are ready to go outside with me."

Tara got out of her own bed and slid under the covered with Willow. Willow gladly accepted Tara's arms around her, even though she clutched onto her so tightly, Willow fears her eyes might explode from her sockets. And so they held each other for the rest of the night.

And so a one-month stay turned into a two-and-a-half month stay, until Joyce finally convinced Willow she could do more for Tara from the outside of the Institute. Though Willow resumed work at ScoobySoft, she made much shorter days and visited Tara almost every day after work.

The big day finally arrived almost one-and-a-half year after they had first met. Willow was waiting at the gate of the Institute, waiting for her Tara. Because today, Tara would be released from the Institute and would move in with Willow.

And there she was, looking alive and radiant in her summer dress. Though her first steps were still tentative, Tara was determined to go through with it. Moments later, Willow took her Tara into a fierce and loving embrace.

"Ready to go home?" Willow asked.

"You're my home, sweetie," Tara said. "Forever and always."

"I love you, Tara," Willow said.

"I love you too, Willow," Tara cried softly.

And from a window in the second floor, Joyce looked on, thinking that patients were sometimes best off helping each other.


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