Dawn was glad to have her bed back again.
Not that sleepovers weren't fun and having Tara back was...god, there wasn't even a word for it, but Dawn definitely missed being able to sprawl without having to worry about smacking someone in the face. Plus, when her bedmate kept shifting and waking at all hours, it was kind of difficult to get a good night's sleep. She loved Tara, of course she did, but that didn't stop a happy sigh from escaping as she flopped openly on her bed like a starfish.
It's funny, Dawn thought, how awkwardly Tara had broached the topic. She was in the middle of her evening routine when Tara had knocked on the bathroom door and asked if she could talk to her about something. Tara had gnawed her lip and looked a little guilty as she stumbled through asking if would be okay to sleep in Willow's room tonight.
If Dawn hadn't been so unbelievably thrilled, she would have rolled her eyes. It was obvious that something had shifted between them the night the evil apparitions had come for everyone.
It takes her a moment to figure out what it is that seems so off. But as soon as she crosses the threshold and turns towards the dining room, it becomes perfectly clear. Willow and Tara are both in the kitchen, laughing softly together, unaware of Dawn's presence. They look . . . relaxed. Loose. For a moment, Dawn is dizzy with deja vu, remembering back to last summer and the countless times she'd walked onto this very scene. But it had been so long; it had been lifetimes.
The only thing Willow and Tara did these days was skirt around each other, Willow in her cocoon of worry and guilt; Tara in her bubble of quiet but conflicted anger. They barely spoke to each other this past week. And, Dawn wonders, had they even touched?
Now they're standing practically hip to hip at the sink, passing dishes back and forth to wash.
Dawn stands gaping, absorbing the scene in front of her, afraid if she moves or blinks, it will disappear like a dream and she'll wake up. She stands so quietly, it takes them a while to notice her. It's Tara who finally catches her out of the corner of her eye. She blushes, almost shyly, before glancing quickly at Willow, who turns to follow Tara's gaze, and blushes in turn when she makes eye contact with Dawn.
As they face her, Dawn notices how rough they each look. Sees the exhaustion crusted around their swollen eyes, yet there's somehow a brightness to them that gives off an aura of freshness. Or maybe it's the way they approach each other, as familiar and united as two parts of the same. Their shyness, now, reminds her of that morning all those months ago, of catching the two of them together in the hallway, flushed and blushing and in love.
Barely holding back a squeal, she'd given a good-natured eye roll and simply said "Omigod, Tara, please. You don't have to ask if it's okay to sleep with your girlfriend." She'd flushed at the unintended phrasing, but Tara didn't seem to catch it.
"She's...we're not…" she stammered instead, unable to form a coherent sentence.
Dawn's heart plummeted at having caused distress. "Hey," she interjected quickly, trying to ease Tara's discomfort, "It's okay if you guys don't know what you are yet." Tara shot her a grateful look. "But," now it was Dawn's turn to look sheepish as she couldn't help herself from asking, "Is there a 'yet'?"
"It's still early," Tara tempered expectations, as if trying to tell Dawn not to get her hopes too high yet. "There's still a lot to work through on both sides and we're not skipping anything this time, so we'll take it slow. But after everything the last few days…." Tara tries in vain to stop a smile from taking over her entire face. That more than answers the question and Dawn doesn't remember the last time she'd seen her so happy.
There wasn't anything to say after that, except more excited smiles and some well-earned giggles.
It feels like things are starting to fit right again. Maybe even for the first time, really. Like the last few months - no, years- had been a bad dream and they were slowly leaving it all behind where it belonged. Every passing hour the nightmares fade further until the very shape of them is blurry and distant and they are merely wisps of ghosts with no names.
Two people she loved torn unfairly from her came back and there weren't miracles enough for it. Though, she thinks wryly, she isn't too keen to try it a third time. If people could just stop dying in the first place, that would be way better. Dawn hugs her pillow and lets out a happy squeal, just because. She'd stopped updating her diary some time last year when everything was so miserable, there hadn't felt like a point. Now, though, there were things worth writing again. Pulling it out from the nightstand she cracks it open, turns to a clean page, and smiles.
Tara stretched and sighed into her pillow, sunlight warming her back against the soft, soothing sound of ocean waves kissing the shore. It took a moment for that to process and Tara straightened up in alarm, staring at a wide, empty expanse of beach located near the water's edge. Receding waves reach just to the edges of the bedskirt, and Tara gaped, dumbfounded.
"I always found the place where the land meets the sea to be a magical one."
Though she swore no one had been there a moment ago, suddenly a woman materialized a few feet from the bed. Though she appeared to be a beautiful woman in her late 50s, there's something more ancient to her long, narrow face as if she's survived far too many things. "It can be rather contemplative, don't you think?" she mused conversationally, angling her head toward Tara.
Something vaguely familiar hummed at the back of her mind, but Tara couldn't quite place it. "Do I know you?" she queried with a squint.
"I should hope so," the woman replied with a patient but amused look. "You did pray to me after all."
"Your Holiness," Tara bowed hastily, flustered and awed.
"Oh come now, child, none of that," Isis chided. "I wasn't fond of the cult of worship thousands of years ago, and I don't like it now. Please do stand. That's better," she said as Tara rose, blushing.
"You worry, about there being a debt owed for the actions earlier today. You did not ask me for renewed life, Tara. You were given it as a gift and gifts do not come with a price: they are given freely. Like love. And trust."
Though Tara yearned for the words to be true, she found she could not let go. "But...I was always taught to respect the proper order of all things. Was it natural, my coming back?"
"What is 'natural'?" Isis gestures with her hand rhetorically. "Osiris' resurrection was no less natural than yours. Both of you had natural deaths, but so were your resurrections in the cosmic order of things. I have the power over fate itself, my child. My dear husband likes to forget it was I who found the pieces of him scattered across Egypt and put him back together again. In reuniting the fragments of him once more, you were able to be restored as well."
Tara frowned in confusion, "So, I'm back on a technicality?" She couldn't help but feel unsatisfied by the answer.
"No, of course not," Isis scoffed, "I'm a god, I don't bow to 'technicalities'. My husband deals with Justice, which can be cold and hard. Life does enough of that on it's own. Besides, what is 'Just' does not always mean it is fair. So I granted you your plea. Your death was not your choice; it so rarely is for humans. But your life, however, is what you choose it to be."
"But…" Tara stammered for words, desperate to try and express what she had so feared and still does not understand, "Why me?" Why me and not others? Why me and not my mother? Why not the thousands who die as cruelly or unfairly and are just as worthy of a second chance? "I-I didn't want-"
Isis interrupted gently, as if taking pity on her. "It is precisely because you did not expect life to be given to you that it was granted. A true prayer is not to express hope that the future bends to your will, but to experience closeness to the divine- appreciation of the gods' bounties, connection with the rest of creation, discovery in the meaning of your life, and a sense of wholeness and peace.* That is what true prayer is, Tara. And that is exactly what you did."
It had been a long time since Tara felt cared for and basked in a motherly glow. A great swell of love rose through her and she wiped away tears that she only just realized were there careen down her cheeks. A lightness she'd felt few times since her mother died - like that night in the Magic Shop when a new family had chosen her, claimed her as their own, freeing her from the past and giving her the endless possibility of a bright, shining future all her own - chokes through her tears and breaks through in laughter. Hope swells. "Is it really over?" she smiles wetly, overcome.
"No, my child," Isis said with infinite tenderness, cupping Tara's cheek as the light shines so brightly it slowly encapsulates the ocean and Isis herself in its' glow. "It is only beginning."
Tara blinks. Darkness thrums back at her, memories of a dream fading away like the tide against the shore. She frowns, not knowing why she feels a little sad to have woken, but a feeling of a sublime peacefulness lingers. The feeling grows as the rest of her senses register the scene around her: the warmth of Willow; the smell of her shampoo; the soft steady sound of her breathing. And the particular familiar way she's managed to hog the covers, twisted up inside like a little Willow burrito. Tara quirks a groggy grin and shakes her head.
She represses the urge to snuggle up next to Willow, not wishing to disturb her slumber, settling for a feather-light forehead kiss instead, and heads downstairs. Willow hums, an unconscious smile pulling at her lips. Shuffling towards the muted glow coming from the kitchen, Tara remarks how strange it is that the dining room is no longer a research station.
Somehow she isn't surprised to see Buffy sitting at the kitchen island nursing a beer. There's an eerie familiarity of having seen the Buffybot at the same spot numerous times. This Buffy though, of flesh and blood, turns at the sound of footsteps. She stands, wordlessly passes Tara, opens the fridge and hands her a cold bottle before heading back to her stool. Tara takes the seat next to her and fumbles with the lid for a moment before giving up and handing it back to Buffy, who pops the lid off effortlessly with a flick of her thumb.
"Will still out?"
Tara nods as she angles the bottle up for a deep swig. "Like a light." They sit side-by-side in mellow silence in the kitchen glow.
"So," Buffy recaps slowly, after Tara takes a few sips, "I didn't have a cosmic sunburn."
"Nope," Tara says measuredly. "Apparently you had part of a god in you and I was accidentally part of his mystical prison."
"Huh," Buffy grunts.
"Huh," she repeats, not blinking or changing facial expression.
"Yeah." Tara takes a long swig of her beer. Processing is quiet, even as it thunders through them with each heartbeat.
"How long has he been out there?" Tara motions to the door, where the porch light illuminates Spike's outline against the darkness.
"Long enough that I'm starting to smell like an ashtray." Tara's nose scrunches in disgust. Buffy takes a sip as she fingers the label, peeling off the bottle from condensation. "Do you think it'll get easier, the forgiving?" She looks almost embarrassed at having voiced the admission.
Tara can see the conflict warring in Buffy the same way it waged battle in her over the last several weeks. She thinks back to her own anger at Willow, the anger that felt like it would swallow her whole and never let her go. Anger that felt like it would consume the world in another abyss of loss.
Buffy's words from days before about the world moving without her had rung true. Everyone else had six months' head start on healing and forgiving Willow under their belt, and it was only in the past few days that Tara's begun to not feel consumed by her anger and grief, able to find a foothold and follow the rest of the Scoobies down the same path.
Tara stops fiddling with the bottle and places it on the table, mulling the question. "I think forgiveness is a lot like love; it shouldn't sit there like a stone.** But I don't think it's something we should carry, either. It's too heavy; we have to put it down and let it go."
Buffy looks off into the distance. "That price you mentioned earlier? I think we've all paid it. It feels...done. I dunno why I know that, but I do. Slayer-Deep. Something else- something bigger- is most definitely going on, but this? This whole thing with you? It's over, you're home. For good." Buffy raises her beer and Tara joins her as their bottles clink celebratorily. "And if not?" Buffy adds with a shrug while Tara is mid-swig, "I've killed gods before. One more won't be hard."
Tara's surprised that the part of her that had tugged with such doubt and uncertainty is quiet. Without knowing why, Tara smells salt and ocean and finds herself believing Buffy with a steady sureness. It's over. She takes Buffy's hand in her own, and Tara is on firm ground***, exactly where she belongs.
*From either Siddur Lev Shalem or Machzor Lev Shalem, I'm not sure which
**Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, inspired by Tulipp's Bread
***Terra Firma by Tulipp