Willow eased herself out of the chair she had been sitting in for the better part of an hour. She moved slowly. At 76, her bones and joints were less limber than they had been at 60, or even 70. The herbs and minor spells she did helped somewhat, as did her arthritis medication, but nothing could turn back time and reverse the effects of aging completely - not even magic.
A nurse knocked on the door, and opened it. "Ms. Rosenberg? It's just about time, dear."
Willow smiled at the nurse. "Thank you, Louise. I'll be there shortly."
Louise smiled back and left the door open, moving down the hall to the next resident's room.
All in all, Willow liked the nursing home. Though nothing could replace the home she had had with Tara, she was comfortable here. She and Tara had moved in and occupied a room together four years ago when Tara's rapidly advancing arthritis had necessitated that she have more help than Willow was able to provide alone. For a while the home had seemed almost like a return to college - albeit with students who had white hair and walked with canes or walkers - when their friends Buffy, Xander, and Anya had moved in.
They all had different reasons for moving into the nursing home. Buffy, ever the athlete, had broken her hip three years ago while on her daily walk, trying to scale a fence. During her convalescence at the home, she had appreciated the social activities and her proximity to Willow and Tara so much that she had sold her condominium and moved in permanently. Weight gain had finally caught up to Xander and he had developed a case of Type II diabetes over the last several years. His failing eyesight and fear of a third heart attack meant that he needed constant care. And his wife, Anya, had a progressive case of Alzheimer's disease and needed as much or more help. They occupied a double suite for married couples in the assisted care wing.
Willow looked around her room as she slowly put on her slippers and a cardigan. This room was smaller than the suite she and Tara had shared - after Tara's death earlier that year, just days after Valentine's Day, she had moved into a single room. She didn't need all the space for herself.
Her friends had been concerned about her, treating her gingerly and fearing that she would be overcome by grief - except for Anya, who most of the time thought Tara was still alive. Willow had grieved mightily, and still did. Part of her would always feel a huge hole in her heart from her wife's absence, it was true, but on the other hand, Tara had been in a huge amount of pain for the last months of her life, and Willow was truly glad that Tara wasn't suffering daily anymore. They would be together soon; Willow had no doubt of that. Besides, she knew something that the others didn't know.
Her knobby hands slowly did up the last button on her cardigan, and she moved out the door and into the hallway, heading for the common room.
As she made her way down the hall, she saw the group of young people from the local high school that had come to play for the nursing home residents on Christmas Eve. They were gathered in a semicircle and looked well-groomed and clean-cut in blazers and khaki pants. Willow smiled to herself; she knew that they students were probably much more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts, as she had been at that age. It was nice that they had made the effort tonight.
Willow seated herself on a sectional sofa between Buffy, who looked up from her knitting and smiled a greeting, and Xander, who was sitting near the bend in the sofa holding Anya's hand. His cane leaned up against the coffee table.
Anya peered around Xander's belly and said "Willow, where is Tara?"
Xander patted her hand. "Hon, Tara died in February - remember?"
Anya frowned. "Nonsense. Tara was at lunch earlier, sitting next to Willow. I saw her."
Buffy leaned forward. "That was me, Anya."
"Oh, of course," Anya said, but she looked confused nonetheless.
Willow spoke up. "It's okay, Anya - I like to think that Tara's still around, and that sometimes I see her too."
Anya relaxed and smiled. "Well, finally someone here who has some sense."
The Activities Director cleared her throat at the front of the room. "Good evening, everyone. Tonight we're welcoming students from the Sunnydale High School band, who are going to play some holiday songs for us." She gave the room a broad smile, which was returned by some of the residents, while others just stared into space.
A dozen high school students stood at the front of the room, holding a variety of instruments - flutes, piccolos, clarinets, and one student with an oboe. There was also a band director with them, who raised his hand and counted off the time. They started off with a rousing rendition of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."
Anya raised her voice to be heard above the din. "Santa Claus doesn't really exist. He's just a myth based on a vengeance demon named Saladin Klaaz who wreaked vengeance on all the husbands who didn't buy presents for their wives."
"I know, An," Xander said, pulling her close and kissing her cheek.
Willow leaned back into the couch, enjoying the music. Despite a few missed notes here and there, the band was good. The high-pitched piccolo meshed well with the clarinet's more mellow sound, while the flute provided a nice bridge between the two. The oboe's notes wove in and out of all the other instruments, providing a pensive note that mirrored Willow's thoughts.
It was times like this that Tara's absence nipped at her consciousness. Though she was surrounded by friends and she had come to acceptance, she still felt Tara's absence achingly - especially since it was the first holiday season she had spent alone. After a lifetime spent together, it was still strange for her to have a thought, turn to share it with Tara, and then remember that she was gone. It was worst at night when she lay in her narrow single bed, covered by layers of blankets but unable to feel truly warm. And when she was asleep, Tara was always in her dreams.
Such were her thoughts as the high school band played through a variety of Christmas, Hannukah, and other holiday-themed tunes. Willow looked around the room at the other occupants. Some were paying close attention, while others barely seemed to notice that there was a concert going on. A few were asleep. Buffy kept knitting steadily, bobbing her needles in time with the rhythm. Xander was paying close attention to the players, while Anya seemed to have drifted away for the moment, lost in her memories.
Willow paid particular attention as the band started a new number.
I'll be home for Christmas
The melancholy lyrics and the dreamy notes merged lulled Willow into a reverie until she glanced at her watch. It was just after sunset, and twilight was fast approaching. Soon it would be dusk. She stood up abruptly - which wasn't actually very abrupt given her stiff joints.
"I'm going to bed," she told her friends.
"But the concert isn't even over," Buffy protested. "You haven't eaten any dinner!"
"Tell Tara I said hi," Anya said. Xander put an arm around her and murmured quiet shushing words into her ear.
"Night, Will," he said over his shoulder before turning his attention back to Anya.
She gave them a tiny smile and a wave as she carefully walked around the couch and into the hallway. She knew that her friends, Buffy in particular, were worried about her and refused to fully believe that she was okay despite her protestations. Buffy was always trying to make her commit to activities and to jolly her out of her pensive moods, certain that her quiet sadness was indicative of a deeper depression. Leaving the concert early tonight would certainly spur Buffy to pester her to join the community bridge club or go for a walk tomorrow, but it wasn't grief or loneliness that had made her get up to leave.
She just didn't want to be late.
She hastened down the hall, trying hard to pick her feet up from the shuffling pace that was her normal gait these days. She reached her room and turned the door handle. The dark room was lit in the middle by a small glow that grew in intensity as she entered the room.
Willow felt a wave of relief wash over her. She had believed, but there was some tiny part of her that was afraid that it wouldn't happen. That the Powers would have forgotten the promise they made to her so long ago, back when she was young and helped to save the world - that if she and Tara were ever separated by death, they could see each other once a year until they were reunited.
And it was Christmas Eve that Tara would come to her.
She had kept this knowledge to herself along with her secret fear that the Powers would forget. She wasn't sure she would be able to bear the disappointment coupled with everyone else's sympathy.
But there was no need for disappointment - even as she watched, the glow grew stronger and brighter. It became almost too bright to look at, and a shape coalesced. As the figure in the middle gained form and definition, the light faded away until standing in front of Willow was a very alive and youthful Tara, exactly as she had appeared in her 20's.
Tara gave her a bright smile and her eyes sparkled with excitement. Willow started to go to her, her heart hammering away in her chest, but stopped, suddenly self-conscious about her thin, old body and arthritic hands and the comparison to Tara's youth and vibrancy. Truth be told, she was somewhat taken aback by Tara's appearing as a young woman instead of as Willow had last seen her. She wondered, was this really Tara? Were the Powers trying to placate her with an approximation?
Tara seemed to understand and she took a step forward to grasp Willow's hands.
"It's okay, Willow - just hold on."
Willow's hands thrilled to the touch that had so long been absent. As she held Tara's hands and gazed into her blue eyes, she felt the years slipping away from her. The ache in her hands lessened until it was gone. She felt the wrinkled skin on her face tighten up and smooth out. Most of all, she felt a sense of...vitality coursing through her veins.
Willow suddenly threw her arms around Tara, overcome.
"I missed you so much," she finally managed to choke out.
"Baby, I did too," Tara said, rubbing her back in a soothing manner.
Willow pulled back, still clinging to Tara but searching into her eyes for reassurance. "But my body...how..." she trailed off.
"A parting gift from the Powers," Tara said. She grinned. "It's temporary, so tomorrow you'll be back to your normal self. But I think they figured if they were giving us a night together that we should be able to enjoy it to the fullest."
The mischievous grin that the blonde gave her was all Tara, and Willow felt the last vestige of doubt leave her. It was replaced by love, happiness, and a sense of gratitude.
"Merry Christmas," Tara added.
"Merry Christmas," Willow replied, just an instant before Tara's lips covered hers.