Rupert Giles felt every year of his age as he slipped into the worn armchair tucked into one corner of his workroom. Once his weary bones were settled he unfolded the scrap of paper that had been nestled in his clenched first and recalled the scene just an hour ago when a confused but hopeful Willow had presented him with her discovery.
There was no need for him to confirm that the note was indeed written in the hand of Abraham Van Helsing, Willow knew her own brother's writing as well as he. He could however confirm truthfully that he had never seen such a note before...however he was somewhat ashamed to acknowledge that was where the truth stopped and the concealment began. The note gave him more than an inkling of where the skull could be and yet without confirmation, it was not something he could share with the young woman...not yet. He had sent Willow home again with a few firm reassurances that he would conduct further ‘research' and divulge his findings as soon as possible. Willow had left with a worried but confident expression on her face that almost caused him to confess then and there, it took the old warlock an immense amount of effort to let her go. As soon as she disappeared out the door, he was racked by a guilty conscience.
When Myles had shown up some minutes later to see if there was anything he needed help with, Giles had immediately sent him to fetch Tara...the one living being who would have seen the skull's location.
Giles remained slumped in the arm chair with his chin resting on his fist. He did not move until several minutes later when he heard the door to his workshop open, followed by barely audible footsteps. He looked up and met Tara's piercing blue gaze.
The vampire looked strangely different until he realised that she was not wearing the black, woollen cloak that seemed to move as though it were a part of her. She stood before him wearing an unadorned black shirt with a high collar that nestled beneath her jaw, tucked neatly into a plain black woollen skirt that reached the floor. The lack of a cloak also left her white blonde hair bare, and she had tied it in a loose bun that sat at the nape of her neck. Despite her pallor and unnaturally bright eyes, she looked like a young widow.
Without speaking, he extended the note towards her. She crossed the distance between them and accepted it wordlessly. As she read it, her lips slowly parted in shock. When she lifted her head a few moments later her brow was furrowed with concern.
"Did Willow find this?" she asked quietly.
Giles nodded once, "Tucked into the back of a portrait she keeps at her bedside..."
"My portrait," Tara whispered in an odd voice. Although she spoke the truth plain enough, it seemed strange now to claim to be the carefree young girl in the drawing. She lowered her gaze and read the note through once more, as though thinking the words might have changed since she read it last. When she looked backed to Giles, her confusion had not lessened and her concern registered clearly in her voice as a slight tremor, "How much have you discussed with Willow?"
She thought she saw a flicker of discomfort pass across Giles's features. However when he paused overly long before replying, she realised he was indeed uncomfortable.
"I must confess that although my speculations ran wild upon reading the note, I have discussed nothing of any substance with Willow," Giles admitted, "I merely promised her that I would do my best to uncover the mystery through research...and speaking to several unnamed sources...which was stretching the truth to say the least. I have but one source and she is standing in front of me now."
Tara lifted her eyebrows in surprise for a moment but she quickly composed herself and waved the note at Giles, "Before we ascertain whether or not I can shed any light on the skull's whereabouts, did you not immediately have doubts as to the authenticity of this note?"
Giles bristled as though offended but stopped short of an indignant retort. "Of course I did," he noted quietly.
"Then you would have asked yourself whether Abraham truly wrote this note, I cannot vouch for his penmanship but I can say with certainty that he died not knowing we would bring his sister back from the dead!" Tara stated emphatically, the note now crumpled slightly in her fierce grip.
"That thought vexes me greatly," Giles agreed, drumming his fingers on the arms of his chair, "but my instincts tell me that Abraham Van Helsing wrote that note, whether he ever intended Willow to actually find it or not."
Tara's previously wide-eyed gaze was now narrowed with suspicion, indicating she was far from convinced. However she grudgingly allowed Giles his reasoning, "And you believe you know where it is?"
Giles rose smoothly to his feet and felt the need to smooth out the wrinkles in his waistcoat before replying. "The only conclusion that I can reach is that Abraham buried the skull with his sister...it makes perfect sense, she died for that skull, he would see her coffin as its rightful home..."
"It makes no sense!" Tara interrupted in a frustrated hiss, whirling away from Giles and slapping her palm down hard on a table in front of her, the contents of several specimen jars shook with the force of the impact. "Damn you to hell, Abraham Van Helsing!"
Giles barely paused before continuing in a decisive tone, "And yet...you and I know that there is nothing in Willow's coffin. There are no bones, nothing...and certainly not two skulls. It is why I did not initially give voice such a thought in front of Willow...it is not the sort of speculation that she does not need to hear in her state."
It was only when Giles finished that he noticed Tara to be swaying slightly on her feet, with her lips trembling noticeably. If it were possible, she was an even paler shade of pale than she had been a minute ago. Her entire body slumped against the workbench that lay in front of her.
"Tara?" he asked with a slight frown at her strange reaction. "Is something wrong?"
Tara's head jerked upwards before she replied, "Abraham would not have left the skull in the coffin...it is much too obvious..."
"It is too obvious," Giles began slowly, still concerned at Tara's reaction, "which is precisely why Abraham would have chosen it...and you know as well as I that the protections I placed on that grave were significant, they have been disturbed but once in the time they have been in force...and that was by you."
"Oh god," she whispered, pressing both hands to her temples as though she suddenly had a splitting headache.
"Tara?" Giles asked firmly, as though he were a father demanding answers from a wayward child. He crossed the short distance between them and took one of her wrists in an iron like grip to force her to remain aware of his presence.
Tara wrenched her wrist free but met his gaze, in a very quiet voice she admitted, "The skull may very well have been in her coffin."
"What the bloody hell does that mean, demon?" Giles demanded, reverting to his old way of addressing Tara from a time when the relationship between them had been less than amicable.
Although the tone of his voice unnerved her, Tara did not shrink away. She angrily threw the crumpled up note in his face.
"I said it plainly enough!" Tara snapped, clearly angry at herself as opposed to Giles. Just looking at him now, she remembered the spite in his voice as he ordered her to dig up Willow's bones. He knew full well that such an act would cause her immense pain...and he had been right. The thought of seeing Willow as nothing more than a decaying pile of flesh and bones wrapped in mouldy, damp fabric would have broken her...had she actually looked inside the coffin.
Giles stared at her in silence for almost a minute before it dawned on him what she had done. His lips parted in horror and shock at the realisation. "I remember exactly what you said that night...you spoke of her bones...and the suffering it caused you to have to see them...I remember because of the perverse satisfaction I took from your suffering."
Tara turned her back on Giles, and lowered her elbows to the workbench so she could hold her head in her hands.
"I lied," she whispered, her anger giving way to shame, "I barely opened the coffin...and certainly not far enough to see Willow's body. I used a spell to grind the bones to dust and funnel them into the jar. When I say that the skull may very well have been in her coffin I speak the plain truth...it may have been in there, and as such it would have been ground to dust along with her mortal bones."
"The skull cannot be destroyed..." Giles began in a desperate voice, although he realised his error before he finished the sentence.
"The bones were not destroyed!" Tara gave voice to Giles's thoughts, her shoulders sagged further, "Giles, if the skull was in her coffin..."
"We do not even know for sure that it was..." Giles retrieved the note from the dust covered floor, he unfolded it from its crumpled state and read it again, hoping fiercely that he would be able to find another way to interpret Abraham's words.
"If the skull was in her coffin!" Tara repeated stubbornly, her voice muffled as she continued to hold her head in her hands, now digging her fingertips into her flesh.
Giles looked up from the note. Instead of seeing Tara standing in front of him he saw Willow handing him the note, the clue she had found. She appeared to have every expectation that it would lead them to the skull...and he had promised her that it would help immensely. The skull was the one thing they needed...and for all this time it had been hidden in plain sight, right in front of him, Willow.
"Then it would be a part of her," he finished lamely, "The skull is a part of Willow."
There was a sudden crash behind them, from near the door to the workshop. Giles spun on his heels and Tara lifted her head just in time to see one of Giles's gadgets hit the floor and smash into a dozen pieces. They both saw a flash of red hair a split second before its owner disappeared out the door.
"Good lord," Giles exclaimed quietly as he ran his hands through his thinning hair. "How much do you think she overheard?"
"More than enough," Tara whispered, pressing a trembling hand to her forehead. She felt like vomiting.
Giles rose swiftly to his feet and crossed to his coat hanging by the door. However before he could tug it on, Tara reached out and grasped his elbow to stop him.
"Please Giles, this is something I must do," she said earnestly.
He gave her a long, steady look. His gaze spoke of caution and concern, "Tara..."
Tara was ready with an answer to his unspoken question, "I don't know if I'm ready to confront her, Giles...but I do know that I am more than ready to confess I never stopping loving her."
With that she drew a deep breath and followed Willow out of the door. Giles watched her go with a troubled countenance. He knew this latest revelation was more than capable of pushing Willow over the edge...and if she fell, she would take Tara down with her.
Willow landed hard on the cobbles as she leapt down the steps of the British Museum and out onto Great Russell Street. Several pedestrians had to urgently scramble out of her way as she ran straight through the middle of the crowded thoroughfare. She ignored the verbal protests and outraged expressions as she continued running, shouldering aside anyone who happened to be in her way. She was almost hit by a carriage crossing the street but she ignored the foul curses of the driver and his startled horses. The only thought in her mind was reaching Gordon Square and the safety of her own home.
As she ran, Willow cursed herself for having gone back to Giles's office. He'd told her to go home and that had been her intention until another thought had popped into her mind. Quite innocently, she'd decided to raise it with him before she left. She had been more than surprised to see Tara talking to Giles. However her surprise had quickly morphed into something else altogether when she saw the way Tara was slumped over a table, and the expression on Giles's face. Then their words had hit her, they had hit her like a ton of bricks and sent her reeling.
If the skull was in her coffin...then it would be a part of her...the skull is a part of Willow.
Willow's first instinct had been to lash out. She'd spied a mechanical gadget close at hand and violently dashed it to the ground before sprinting out of the office as fast as possible.
She continued sprinting, her legs continuing to pump long after exhaustion set in and her head began to throb painfully. Not until she bounded up the steps and slammed the door shut on her home did she slow...and even then she did not stop moving. Taking the stairs two at a time she made her way to her bedroom and slammed that door shut as well, as though the simple wooden barrier would be impassable to those who sought to find her.
Once inside Willow was at a loss as to what to do. She paced the floor towards the bed and back, running her hands through her stringy, unwashed hair. Willow wanted to scream out loud in frustration but she could not bring herself to vent her emotions in such a manner. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her own pacing form reflected in the silver framed mirror. As though suddenly gripped with an urgency of a different sort, she moved up close until her nose was almost pressed against the glass. She placed her hands to her face and prodded and probed the flesh stretched across her skull as though her explorations would reveal the innate evil that lay beneath her skin. Without thinking, Willow dug her nails fiercely into her skin and ignored the pain.
In front of her eyes, the reflected Willow took on a manic gleam in her green eyes. Her fingernails continued to delve into the skin of her face until slowly but surely she broke through the skin. Then clawing and tearing in a frenzy she stripped away the bloody flesh of her face until staring back at her was a grotesquely blackened skull. Willow heard a scream tear from her throat, it sounded hollow and miles away. She lifted a bloody fist to pound against the glass of the mirror. As soon as her fist struck the mirror's surface, her own reflection was back and the blood was gone from her hands.
A sob tore from her throat as she stumbled away from the mirror. However terrified she was, she could not look away from her reflection.
She was still staring at it a few minutes later when a shape moved in the room behind her. Willow held her breath as her own ashen face was joined by a second, even paler face just behind her shoulder. Recognition eventually brought with it a calming influence and the initial shock subsided. The chills remained however, as the air in the room itself suddenly felt cooler.
"If I turn around...will you be there?" Willow whispered to the reflection, she lifted a shaking hand and pressed her fingertips to the mirror as though touching the face.
"Why would I not be here?" the reflection asked in return.
"Because I do not know what I want," Willow found herself unable to raise her voice above a whisper. In the mirror, she saw the woman move a few steps closer and she shivered as she heard the ever so slight creaking of floorboards that accompanied the movement, "One half of me does not want you to be here...but the remaining half would be heartbroken if you were just another figment of my tortured mind."
"Then I fear that one half of you will be grievously upset," Tara answered.
The floorboards creaked once more and Tara's reflection drew even closer. Willow found herself taking an involuntary step backwards, further from the mirror and closer to Tara. In the mirror she saw Tara lift her hand, stretching it out towards her.
Willow almost leapt out of her skin as she felt the hand close on her shoulder. Before Tara's fingers could settle there, she sidestepped free of her touch and spun to face her. After all the times when the mirror had lied and given her a false reflection, it was an immense shock to realise that Tara was physically in the room, standing in front of her. On trembling legs Willow circled the vampire warily. She did not move further away from the vampire, but she did give herself a clear path to the door.
"What would you have me do, Willow?" Tara asked sadly as she saw Willow glance over her shoulder in order to confirm her escape route.
"Leave," Willow whispered hoarsely.
"You want me to leave...and yet you want me to stay?" Tara ducked her head with a sigh, "I cannot do both."
"Goddammit Tara, I want you to do both!" Willow was finally able to manage more than a whisper. She stamped her foot like a child, angry that Tara could not bring herself to continue looking her in the eye, "I want you to leave because I am terrified I will act out my dreams and kill you...and I want you to stay because I need you." Willow had to pause and swallow awkwardly, when she continued her voice was again reduced to a mere whisper, "I fear if we remain apart any longer then I will die."
Tara's shoulders slumped and for a split second she almost fell towards Willow. I cannot not fall apart, not now...not with so much at stake. It took an immense effort for her to reign in her emotions. After a moment she was able to lift her chin, when she finally did speak her voice was cold and to the point, "You cannot die from a broken heart, Willow."
Willow bristled; again angry, this time at the fact that Tara would seek to brusquely dismiss what she felt. She squared her own shoulders. "Do not spout those falsely placating sentiments in my presence!" she almost yelled as she stabbed a shaking finger in the vampire's direction. "You cannot deny that a broken heart drove each of us to our deaths!"
The air between them was heavy with emotion and beneath its weight Tara sagged. It was too much and her fragile composure wavered. She had to duck her head again as Willow's accusing gaze stung painfully, "You have a second chance at life, I am still dead."
When Willow moved forward without warning, Tara lifted her gaze in surprise. Willow crossed the already short distance between the two of them and firmly laid her hand on Tara's chest. She clearly felt Tara's heart thumping firmly beneath the palm of her hand.
Even though the fabric of her dress kept her skin separate from Willow's, Tara's entire body jolted at the sudden, intimate contact.
Willow's gaze was challenging and her question direct, "Do beating hearts reside in the chests of the dead, Tara?"
Tara opened her mouth to speak. Although it was her intention to offer Willow a decisive reply, all that emerged was a strangled gasp. A myriad of words invaded her mind, all seemingly valid responses to Willow's question and intended to leave her in no doubt as to what her former lover had become. Whatever the attributes of the curse Abraham Van Helsing had bestowed upon her - her soul, a beating heart which kept blood pumping through her veins - she was still a vampire. There was nothing she could do that would change her state of being. She knew she was condemned to spend the remainder of her existence as a mutilated creature, not fully human, not fully vampire...and accepted by neither.
However despite all of those well-reasoned thoughts, despite everything she had previously convinced herself, it was all rendered meaningless standing as close as she was to Willow, with Willow's hand resting on her chest. With the chaos in her mind threatening to tear her apart, Willow's presence was the only point of solidity she could cling to.
There was only one coherent though running through her mind, If I tried to kiss her, would she pull away in revulsion? Or would it be exactly as it used to be..., "Will..."
Before she could finish even finish Willow's name, Tara was unexpectedly cut off. In her surprise, it took her several seconds to realise what had happened. Gradually she began to digest the sensations that were coursing through her body, starting at her lips.
Willow was kissing her...
Tara froze, with Willow's lips pressed to her own she found herself incapable of moving either away or towards Willow. She stood awkwardly, adjusting to the warmth radiating throughout her body just from the one small, but significant point of contact between them.
Willow paused with the pretence of giving the blonde a moment to adjust to what she had just done when in fact she was trying to come to terms with it herself. She felt Tara's rigid body relax almost to the extreme point of falling over. Before she could do anything of the sort, Willow firmly wrapped both arms around Tara's body and eliminated the last of the space between them as she crushed their bodies together. Insistently she moved her lips against Tara's, small movements at first until the blonde's lips parted with a whimper.
What had began as the hesitant and awkward kiss of two people kissing for the first time, quickly became the passionate merging of lips of two lovers who knew each other intimately. All reservations were swept aside as Willow and Tara desperately strove to make up for decades of lost time with just one kiss. When their tongues met in a violent caress both women unleashed guttural moans of pent up longing.
Willow shifted one hand from the small of Tara's back to clasp her neck tightly as though she feared Tara would try and break away from the kiss. When Tara did exactly the same thing a moment later, Willow realised that they both wanted and needed the contact as much as the other. The roaring need in her mind had now reached a crescendo, she could hear nothing outside of their urgent gasps for breath and drawn out moans. When she felt the room spin around her she thought it was all in her mind, but when her back slammed against something hard she realised Tara had spun her around and forced her backwards. She felt a chill creep beneath the clothing at her back and knew that Tara had thrown her back against the mirror. A part of her was troubled by this, knowing that she and the mirror did not have the best relationship at times...but the larger part of her could not care less, she only wanted Tara's hands on her skin.
With their lips still locked together, Tara grasped the front of Willow's shirt and with one savage tug she tore it apart, sending buttons flying unheeded in all directions. She felt the maddening fabric of Willow's undershirt still barring her path to the creamy skin she desired and she had to break their kiss and put both hands to the wool in order to tear it apart. As soon as the fabric parted Tara sought out Willow's chest and she inhaled the intoxicating aroma of her skin greedily. She felt Willow pump her hips forward insistently and took her blatant desire as a cue to fumble for the buttons of her pants. Tara desperately sought out the heat between Willow's legs even as she was dimly aware of moisture between her own.
"I need..." Willow whispered breathlessly, trying to stifle another moan as she spoke, "I need your fingers inside me..."
Tara felt an icy chill run down her spine and she drew away immediately despite the moans of encouragement coming from Willow's throat. At that moment Tara had realised that everything about what was happening was a re-enactment of what had happened between the two of them in that dark alley so many decades ago.
"I don't care if you're lying..." Willow whispered, completely losing herself to Tara's knowing hands, "...but if you're going to turn me, can you please fuck me first?"
"I knew you were hungry for me from the moment I drew back my hood...the need was obvious," Tara drawled, dragging teasing fingers across Willow's inner thighs.
A small whimper escaped from Willow's throat as Tara fingers travelled everywhere except where she needed them most. Her hips jerked forward repeatedly of their own accord, thrusting in search of much needed friction.
"I need..." Willow's sentence was cut short as she suddenly cried out with a throaty gasp, one of Tara's fingers worked its way between her folds and grazed the engorged nub within, "Oh gods...please, I need your fingers inside me...now!"
Her soulless self had taken Willow urgently, with the intention of securing her trust, only to betray her days later. Although it had effectively been someone else in that alley, she clearly remembered the things she had said and done. Her cheeks burned with shame.
Willow's eyes were open and she was staring at Tara in confusion. As Tara stared at her, with her clothing ripped open and her hair dishevelled, she marvelled at how beautiful the woman was. Things had changed, she was no longer that evil betrayer...and yet she could not bring herself to get over that memory.
With a grunt of frustration, Willow seized the front of Tara's shirt and drew her close again, claiming her lips in an effort to restart what Tara had interrupted.
"Willow...please," Tara whispered desperately after tearing her lips away from Willow's for a second time, "We have to...stop...before this gets out of hand."
"Why should I for heaven's sake?" Willow demanded fiercely, her breath falling hot, fast and moist on Tara's cheek, "Can you look me in the eye and tell me you don't want this as much as I do?" Willow placed a hand on Tara's cheek and roughly forced her to turn her head. She could not stop her knees trembling as Tara's face filled her entire vision, she exhaled shakily, "Tara?"
Tara tried to turn her head again but Willow held fast, her fingers digging in sharply with determination. She was forced to continue staring into the face of the woman she loved more than life itself. It was torture and yet she could not think of anything else she would rather spend the rest of her days staring at.
Tara swallowed awkwardly as her rapidly blinking eyelids fought a loosing battle to stem the inevitable flow of tears that were about to fall. "With all my heart, yes," Tara finally replied to Willow's question, "I want this," she claimed Willow's lips for a brief moment...she had difficulty breaking away, "And I want you...but we can't do this, not now, not with so much at stake."
"Because I am going to die...again?" Willow asked bitterly, letting her arms fall to her sides.
Tara's expression instantly turned to one of shock mingled with horror. She reached up and cupped Willow's face in both hands, "Oh god, Willow, no..."
"Do not suddenly attempt to show your concern!" Willow cried as she jerked herself free of Tara's grip and stumbled backwards a few paces. She turned her back on the vampire and folded her arms stubbornly across her chest like a petulant child. "These past months you have done nothing but run and skulk in the shadows!"
That is what I have done for the past three decades, Tara thought with a sharp ache in her gut, I am done with running...and I will be damned if I am going to let you die again, regardless of wherever that bloody skull is. "I know I broke a promise to you just yesterday, Willow...I told you I would be there when you woke from your injury, but I ran into the night rather than face you in the morning," she admitted as she looked towards the window. "I am sorry for that...and I am sorry for having to leave you now."
Willow spun around in time to see Tara moving towards the window. "Will you always run from everything and everyone?" she demanded indignantly, extending her hand to try and halt the blonde.
Tara paused at the window, "It is not my intention to run...there is something I must do first."
When she turned and looked over her shoulder Willow saw tears glistening on her marble cheeks. She took a few steps forward and when Tara did not move away, she closed the gap between them until Tara was once again nestled in her arms with her tear streaked cheek pressed against her own.
Willow thought of the lonely cemetery in Hampshire and the grave with the marble headstone that bore her name. She shivered at the memory and the premonition of standing apart from her body, watching as she was lowered back into that grave.
"My grave," Willow stated simply, her voice muffled slightly as she spoke into Tara's skin.
"I have to see," Tara nodded once in confirmation.
"I know what you will find," Willow whispered, touching her own face, "It is odd, I have never felt it before and yet now that I know I can feel it crawling beneath my skin, in every bone...it is inside me."
She felt Tara draw back slightly and when she looked up she saw an all too knowing look in Tara's eyes. Willow transferred her hand from her own face to Tara's, tracing a line from her forehead, down past her eyes and over her cheeks. Tara understood exactly what it was like to have evil lurking beneath her skin. She was condemned to live with it every day.
"I know the skull must be destroyed," Willow finally gave voice to the thoughts she had tried to suppress in the brief time that had elapsed since she overheard Giles and Tara. "And I know that it is inside me," she glanced up at Tara with a smile on her face but no laughter in her eyes, "That has got to create a rather nasty conundrum for Giles."
Tara let out a shaky breath, she was most definitely not amused, "I hope to god you are wrong, Willow." She ducked her head; her declaration was far from convincing even to her own ears.
Willow lifted her chin defiantly, "Whether I am wrong or not, if I have to let you go then I'm coming with you."
Tara drew back and looked Willow in the eyes, she lifted her hand and laid it gently atop the bandage covering Willow's forehead. The simple movement said it all, Willow knew just how badly she had been wounded in her fight with Dracula and that she would be of very little use to Tara.
"They will be watching your grave, especially now that I am no longer one of them. I cannot risk..."
Willow cut Tara off by pressing a finger to her lips, "I know," was all she said, even though the Van Helsing part of her felt like protesting vehemently.
"Please believe me when I say that I want nothing more than to stay here with you, Willow," Tara whispered in a breathless voice as she repeatedly stroked Willow's face, "I want nothing more than for us to remain here and make love to one another...just being here with you, having tasted you again, it's torture wanting more and yet..."
"I know you have to do this...I heard you," Willow finished with a sigh, "Even though I myself cannot see the difficulty in choosing. When there is a choice between duty and being with you...I would choose you every time."
Willow closed her eyes and tightened her hold on Tara as though that would keep her from leaving. She knew with an aching heart that it would not be enough.
Tara ran a shaking hand through Willow's hair, even though she was still physically standing in Willow's arms, her mind was already somewhere altogether. Duty...was she doomed to be haunted forever by that word? Although Willow had not intended to re-open old wounds, Tara could not help but remember that it had been her own devotion to duty that had separated them in the first place. She sighed and deposited a gentle kiss on Willow's forehead.
A brief moment later Willow felt her arms go slack as Tara's body disappeared. When she opened her eyes once more all that remained of Tara's intoxicating presence was a faint trail of dark mist drifting through a slight gap in the window.
"I love you so much, Willow," the soft voice sounded as though it were being carried away on the wind.
Willow let her legs give way beneath her and she sank onto the cushions of her window seat. She pressed one hand to the cool glass of the window and the other to her still-warm lips, the memory of Tara's kiss still lingering there.