The Degrees of Grief

She makes it back to our room.

It's been a long and awful day. After we left for the hospital, she held it together. Turned into the backbone of the group, looked after Buffy and Dawn most of the time, made sure they ate something, had a hug for everyone.

But she makes it back to our room, and when the door closes she breaks down. She just stops in the middle of the floor, turns to me and holds her arms out.

"Tara... please..."

As I go to her, she falls apart. We end up on the bed, her curled up in my lap as she cries her eyes out. I stroke her hair, torn between wishing I'd known Joyce better and being grateful that I didn't; Willow needs me, and any grief of my own will have to wait.

We were doing the uninvite spell for Dracula the first time I met Joyce. I liked her right away, even if I barely dared talk to her – especially after Willow's little stunt.

"...He seemed so nice and normal. A little pale."

"A good Sunnydale rule of thumb? Avoid white-skinned men in capes."

"I'm not like this. I don't invite strange men over for coffee, it's just... Oh, when you girls are older you'll understand. It's hard to date. Sometimes you just... feel like giving up on men altogether."

We both smiled at that. I thought it was just a private joke, but then Willow took my hand and lead me over to Joyce.

"Yeah, speaking of... there's something I-we need to tell you, Joyce. Remember how I introduced Tara as a study buddy?"

"Willow, of course I remember. It was ten minutes ago. I'm not THAT old."

"Yeah, well, that was kind of a little white lie. We're... sorta... I guess the phrase is we're more than friends. As in girlfriends. As in in love. Which is kind of a weird sentence, I know, and I probably should have planned this better or one of you should have stopped me before I got this far and... OK, shutting up now."

Joyce looked at us. "Oh. You mean... OH." Confused and uncomfortable, but at least not outraged. That's a start, though I couldn't be sure who was redder, Joyce or me. She looked back and forth between us, obviously taken completely by surprise.

"I'm telling you because, y'know, we always hang out here and I don't want to have to sneak around. But-but also because I really hope you're OK with it. It would mean a lot to me."

There were hugs then - awkward, but still. It seemed weird to me that she would come out to Buffy's mother long before I even met her own. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made . When Willow talks about her life in Sunnydale, Joyce turns up twice as often as Sheila. She had always been around for the gang, the one dependable thing in their life, always kind, always strong. I guess she had to be. To tell the truth, I'm not sure Joyce was ever completely comfortable with me and Willow... Goddess knows her oldest daughter still isn't 100 percent there. But she cared so much for Willow that she made every effort, and I grew to like her a lot, while my supposed almost-mother-in-law is still a distant and pretty scary figure. For both of us. Joyce was one of the best people I've met and I'll miss her, but she's in a better place; it's worse for the ones who need to learn to live without her.

Willow is still crying, though the sobs are less violent now. She's weeping for Buffy and Dawn, but for herself as well. It breaks my heart to see her like this and I really wish I could make it better, but all I can do right now is be here for her. Tomorrow she'll have to be strong again. Support Dawn and Buffy, help them take care of the day-to-day stuff, probably patrol... put her own emotions on the backburner for a while. But tonight, she needs to crash. And so I hold her. Rock her. Kiss her. Love her. As she mourns the closest she had to a mother.