Standard disclaimer: The characters aren't mine. This should come as no surprise. I am simply a teller of stories that occasionally claw their way desperately out of my head.

Setting: The summer between Seasons 6 and 7.

Notes: This story came to me in the form of the opening paragraphs last night as I went downstairs for a snack. No, I don't know what that has to do with anything either. I was tired and told it to go away, but it came back to niggle at me as soon as I got up this morning, so here it is.

(11 December 2003)


My first thought was about the carpet. Isn't that ridiculous? I mean, there you were … dead. And all I could think was that when you woke up, you were going to be SO pissed about the stain on the carpet. One thing about having the Slayer for a sister? You get to appreciate just how difficult blood stains can be.

Even as I hid in the corner and cried, I kept trying to think of ways to get rid of the stain. Maybe hot, soapy water and good ol' fashioned elbow grease, as Mom used to say. But there was … so much blood that I didn't think it would do the trick. Then I thought about this infomercial I had seen on TV the other night, when I snuck downstairs at 2am, unable to sleep anymore. Some sort of super miracle cleaning thing. It claimed to be able to clean any mess. I wondered if it could start with Casa Summers.

Things … Things were so bad when you left. It was, like, you were the glue that held our twisted little family together, you know? Without you around every morning, things felt incomplete. Like something was missing, and we'd all spend our day wandering around trying to find something to fill the void. I wonder if the void was round or funny-shaped?

I can't eat pancakes any more, you know. Bad enough that bastard had to destroy our lives, but he took breakfast too. Just the smell of maple syrup makes me want to barf.

I know that I should feel bad about what Willow did. And I do, really, on some level. I wasn't there, but I heard Buffy and Xander talking about it after they'd stopped her and brought her home. They thought I was in bed, Buffy reverting to her old "protect Dawn from all the badness in the world" ways almost immediately. (Don't ever tell her I said this, but right then? I felt like I needed some protecting.) They were both crying, and I cried too, and all Xander could talk about was the screaming and the smell.

They said that he probably suffered before he died. They weren't sure just what Willow had done to him, but Anya knew that Willow had stopped in the woods for a good few minutes before they caught up to her, so your imagination can fill in the rest. I smiled when I heard that. I hoped it hurt.

That's one of things I'm having the most trouble with right now, because I know you'd hate that. If you were here, you'd give me that disapproving frown, like the time you caught me flipping through one of Giles' demon books for fun. Or the time I was mocking Anya behind her back. Or the time I put the empty carton of milk back in the fridge. I used to get that look so much, I don't think I could ever forget it. And I know that if you were here, knowing how my heart was cheering at the idea of your murderer dying a slow, painful death, you'd give me that look. But you can't. Because he killed you. So I cheer.

You know what else makes me want to barf? The smell of popcorn. Popcorn equals movies equals me never getting another Big Movie and Milk Shake Fun Day. The last movie we saw together was My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Surprisingly, that does NOT make me want to barf. Well, it DOES, but just because it was so sappy. And you liked the movie, too. That probably helps with the not barfing.

I never got the chance to thank you. For everything you did for me. You know, when Buffy died. At the time I didn't appreciate it. At the time, I didn't think about it. All I knew was that Dad was gone, and Mom was gone, and then Buffy was gone too. I'm still not exactly sure how I made it through those first few days, but I do know that I wouldn't have if not for you. You always just … knew. When I needed a hug, or a smile, you'd be there in seconds, and things were just a little less crappy, even if only for a moment. You and Willow became the center of my world. I lost count of the number of nights I would wake up from yet another nightmare and go into your room. I'd crawl between the two of you, like I was five years old again, shaking and crying. You'd give me that warm, patented half-smile and a kiss on the forehead. Willow would hug me and promise to make things better. For like a month, those were the only times I could really sleep, you know?

The nightmares are back. I- I don't really think about them much. I try not to, anyway. When I wake up in the middle of the night, my first instinct is to go to you. Then I remember that you're not there, and boy, doesn't THAT improve my mood? I'm learning again that I can go to Buffy, but even that's hard; I got so used to her not being here that I think it's going to take a while before I think of her first. Going to Willow would probably help, since she's the only one that I know misses you as much as I do, but … Well, that's not an option right now.

You know, I hated you when you walked out. Just for a second, but god, I hated you SO much. I couldn't believe that you'd leave me after everything I'd gone through. Because, of course, it was all about me. I didn't know about the promise she'd made to you, I didn't know about the other spell. Honestly, I don't think it would've mattered if I HAD known. The only thing that mattered was someone else was leaving me. I know I hurt you when I turned away, and part of me was glad because you were hurting ME so much. Thinking back on that, I was afraid that maybe I'd hate you now, too. I'm glad to see that I don't. Hey, look at me, I'm growing and maturing. You'd be so proud.

I don't hate Willow either, although I almost wish I did. All of this would be so much easier to deal with if I didn't love her so much. You get that, though, I know. She said some … terrible things to me that night. I can't even comfort myself by saying that it wasn't really her, because I know on some level that it was. She tried to kill me. She tried to kill us all. But I can't hate her, because I understand. And if I had Willow's power? I can't say that I wouldn't do the same thing.

Things looked so good that morning. Discovering that you two had reunited was about the happiest moment of my life. I just knew that everything was going to be okay. My two favoritest wiccans were together again, and there were signs that Buffy was coming back to us too. That morning, as I ran squealing back to my room like some crazed N'Sync fan who'd just met Justin Timberlake, I felt for the first time since Mom died that life could be good again. It's amazing how one second can change the whole world.

So I don't hate you, and I don't hate Willow. You'd be happy about that. What I hate is a world that lets something as beautiful as what you two had be destroyed so carelessly. Your thoughts on that? Probably less happy, but I can't help it. I'm so angry that God, or Gaia, or whoever it is that's in charge of these things could take someone like you away from those of us who love you. Who need you. Because we do, you know? I need you.

Do you remember that night after Buffy's funeral? If you could call it that. No big memorial service like Mom had. Giles hadn't even wanted to give her a tombstone, he was afraid that if a particularly observant vampire or demon or something saw it, they'd know the truth – the Slayer was dead. Xander and Spike had both flipped out at that, screaming at Giles and accusing him of never really caring about Buffy at all. I think it was the only time in my life I've ever seen the two of them actually agree on something. I also think it was the only time I've ever seen Giles truly angry, and our broken little family almost fell apart right then and there. It would have, too, if not for you. I was too stunned to say anything, and Willow was barely keeping it together herself. Anya was still in the hospital, and so it fell to you to make everything right. I don't remember what you said, I only remember how you said it. You have-- had the most comforting, soothing voice I've ever heard, and as you spoke, the anger and tension left the room. Buffy got her tombstone in the end, and we all said our goodbyes around it without much ceremony. Buffy would've preferred it like that, I think. Maybe I'll ask her later.

I'd been holding everything in up until that point. Like some part of me believed she'd walk through the door at any moment and yell at me for borrowing her clothes, so long as I never admitted she was gone. At the funeral, though, it all clicked into place. My sister was gone and she was never coming back. I amazed myself by not falling to pieces then and there. I was so proud of myself. I thought I was so brave. Everybody came back to our house afterwards, but nobody said much of anything, and eventually they all drifted away to mourn alone. You and Willow hadn't officially moved in yet, but after a discussion with Giles, you both volunteered to stay the night with me. I said I didn't need you, or anybody else. I was brave. I was strong. Strong like an Amazon, you replied with a smile, and then went into the kitchen to make cocoa. No marshmallows, just the way I like it. I got so angry. I screamed at you for trying to take Buffy's place and ran into my room. Then I lost it.

I've never cried so hard in my entire life. I cried for myself. I cried for Buffy. I cried for Mom. I cried for all of us. But mostly, I cried for guilt. Because when all was said and done, I knew that I'd killed her. If I hadn't been the Key, she would still be alive. If I hadn't let Glory capture me, this never would have happened. If I'd been strong or fast enough to jump off the tower myself, Buffy wouldn't have had to do it. I felt so … evil. All the hurt and pain of the past year had been caused because of me. That hurt worse than anything else.

I don't know how long I'd been crying alone, and I don't know how long you were there holding me before I noticed. I don't remember talking aloud, but I've never forgotten what you told me. You held me tight, rocking me back and forth like a baby, stroking my hair and telling me that I wasn't evil. And you knew, because you'd seen me. You had seen the real me.

The fact that I never talked to you about what you went through during the moony pajama phase (you never liked us calling it "brain suck", so I hope that name is better) is something I will always regret, because I think you really needed to talk to someone about it, and I would've liked to be that someone for you. With Buffy's death and the mountain of problems that came with it, your own personal nightmare got lost somewhere along the way. Not that you ever let me see what it had done to you, but I'm not so naïve as to think that your encounter with Glory scarred you any less than it did me. I just hope to god that Willow or Giles or someone was there for you.

But that night, you reminded me that something good came out of the whole deal – you saw me. All green and glowing. You had called me beautiful, and that terrible night when my world was collapsing, you refused to let me forget it. You had seen through the little girl costume the monks forced me to wear. You could see, you said. And you didn't see evil. I wasn't sure I believed it when Glory said it, or when Spike said it. But somehow, as I lay there sobbing into your shoulder, I believed it when you said it.

I never thanked you for that, either.

Buffy moved into your room today. We don't know when (or if, though no one ever adds that part) Willow will be coming back, but Buffy figured it was for the best that she not have to face sleeping in your room. Xander fixed the window without being asked. I think he was just grateful that there was something he could do. I get that. As for me, I helped Buffy box up what little stuff of yours was left in the room. Since you hadn't officially moved back yet, there wasn't much. I'm not sure what will happen to the stuff in your dorm room, but Buffy said she'd take care of that. I think she's been trying to reach your father, but without much luck. That pisses me off too, but we're your family, not him, so screw 'em. Fathers. They suck.

I was right, by the way. Blood stains on carpet? A bitch to get out. I scrubbed for at least an hour but it's still there. To be honest, it gives me the wiggins. Buffy bought a throw rug to cover it up, but I don't know how she's able to walk across that spot every day. I don't go in that room very much anymore. I'm always afraid that when I walk in, I'm going to see you lying there again.

But you're not lying on the bedroom floor any more, are you? You're lying right here, in a tiny box in a tiny hole in the ground. And just like when I found you, I don't want to leave you all alone. The ceremony was nice. I think. Anya told me it was nice. I don't really remember much about it. I think you'd be surprised by how many people showed up, though. You touched more lives than you ever gave yourself credit for. Of course, Willow wasn't there, and I really wish she had been. You would've wanted her to be. She's in England right now though, learning how not to be evil. Buffy says Giles says she's doing okay, but I'm not so sure. After what she's done, how can she really be okay again? Before she had a reason to get better – you. Now? I don't know.

I miss you, Tara. I miss everything about you. I miss your hugs and your smiles. I miss thumb wrestling. I miss your understanding and your patience. I miss knowing that I could come to you about absolutely anything. I miss watching cartoons with you until we both passed out on the couch. I miss the tickles you and Willow used to attack me with when I got too moody.

I miss you, but I think I'm starting to deal. I know you wouldn't want me to go all hateful, and I owe it to you to be better than that. I'm finally starting to feel better. Cleaner, somehow.

Buffy's starting to get edgy about getting me home. It's nearly dark, and you know how it is – nighttime, Sunnydale, cemeteries. Never a good combination. I think … I think I'm finally ready to go now, though. Thanks for listening. Thank you. For everything.

You know, I'm actually starting to feel hungry again. I think there's a stack of pancakes at home with my name on 'em. I'll even leave off the peanut butter, just for you. You're welcome.