Pianissimo

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She watches the raindrops hit the windowpane, and almost sings. Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain... The plink and plunk on the gutter above is perfect accompaniment, if she were going to.

She doesn't sing. She doesn't want to sing without Willow.

Tara used to sing with her mother. It's the earliest thing she remembers, Mamma leaning over her crib and singing. Hush, little baby, don't say a word... And later, when she was old enough to sing along, Mamma would fiddle around tuning that old cheap pine guitar, and they'd sing together. Rock and roll from the radio, when Donnie got that itch in his hand to turn the dial. Mamma would smile and say shh... and they'd change the station back before Daddy got home from work. When Daddy was around and listening, it was songs from the top forty Christian station, and those were pretty too, the four part harmony, pretty young voices, weathered old ones, raised together in praise.

Sometimes, when it was just the two of them, all alone, Tara and Mamma, and the wind just felt right, they'd sing old hill songs. Those were the ones she loved best. "True Balladeer." Or "Lily of the West," with Mamma singing the low parts, and Tara making up a descant on the chorus.

Though she tried to swear my life away, she still disturbs my rest. I still must smile at Molly-o, the Lily of the West... In the plink-plunk silence of her motel room, Tara sings a few words, then trails off. It could be the air conditioning, making her feel like her throat is drying up. Bad filter. All those city dust allergies that used to have her coughing and sneezing at school, but never at home, where the wet grass and the willow trees and the pollen in the air only made her want to dance barefoot in it all night.

But mostly, she doesn't want to sing, without Willow.

When Mamma died, her throat closed up almost worse than it was now. Got so she could barely bring herself to talk, couldn't do anything but whisper and mumble. Donnie thought she was going crazy; Daddy, she suspected, thought she was possessed. Staying out late, telling him she'd been at the library, sneaking out the window... He thought she was joyriding with boys, parking, doing things she'd never had a taste for in her life. He'd have been so much angrier if he'd known what she was really doing.

Two in the morning, and Tara was climbing down the blackjack tree next to her window, little cloth bag over her shoulder, and hiking her way up the hill to that bare place in the rocks. Sitting in a clearing of stone, sheltered from the lights of home, the lights of town, by the tall trees all around, with powder and potion and a doll's eye crystal spread out before her. Singing, the only way she could, in a tiny tuneless whisper. Hush, little baby, don't say a word, mamma's gonna buy you a mockingbird... She wasn't asking for what wasn't right. Not digging in the soil down in the graveyard with a jar of adderwort and a conjure-man's spell. She knew better. Mamma had told her better. She was just singing. The herbs were for remembrance. The crystal for focus. The song... She'd just wanted somebody to hear her.

The house was silent, and her throat was sore, by the time she'd finally run. Enoughenoughenough, she'd said to herself, her voice echoing in the empty house as she shoved her things into a carry-bag. Packed up Mamma's trunk, and called a taxi cab to come all the way out to the old house on Rural Route Six, to take her to the bus station. On the way to California, she'd hummed deep in her chest, not loud enough for anyone to hear... She's leaving home... Mamma'd taught her to like the Beatles as much as the Statler Brothers. Anything that she could sing along with, anything at all.

Then...then there was fear, and loneliness, and how could she possibly learn all these things when she'd barely learned how to spend the night alone in her dorm room, without knowing her brother and father were only a few rooms away, nearby if anything should happen? These people in Sunnydale didn't know her, didn't understand her, wouldn't want to hear her if she opened her mouth anyway. Somebody'd handed her a flyer to join the campus Women's Chorus, and she'd almost laughed in the girl's face, except she'd been too busy hiding behind her hair and staring at her shoes.

Then out of the blue, when she was skulking her way around classes, wondering if she should give up on being brave enough to answer questions in American History, and just register for the sign language course, so she could pretend she had a reason not to speak --there was Willow. This girl with the bright red hair who bubbled and babbled constantly, and Tara had been more tongue-tied than ever. Impressed, bedazzled, overwhelmed, and unable to say a single word without sounding like the dork of the century.

Willow seemed to fill in all her silent spaces with sound, though. Even when they were quiet, just sitting together, there was the soft blanket of her breathing, the smooth whisper of the skin of her hand over Tara's forearm, like old, comfortable cotton sheets. The sound of Willow's thoughts, going a mile a minute in her head, so fast and so strong that Tara could almost hear them buzzing.

Willow didn't sing, couldn't sing, laughed when she'd told Tara that her voice made frogs cover their ears. But one night, before they'd ever kissed, even, when Willow had been uncharacteristically silent, Tara had forced the words from her mouth to ask what was wrong, and Willow had said, "I miss Oz."

She hadn't known what to answer. "I know you do? I'm sorry you miss your boyfriend, but I hope he never comes back, because I think I'm falling in love with you? I'd bring him back right now and let you both sleep in my bed, if it would take away the blackness in your aura, the shadows in your eyes?" In the end, she'd just put her arms around Willow, and set her chin on that too-thin shoulder, and sung, very low. There was a girl, lived up on Rocky Ridge... and fairer than the summer sun was she...

She'd sung to Willow while she sat quietly, and she'd sung when Willow began to shudder, and she'd sung when the sobs had choked their way out of Willow's mouth and the head whose hair she stroked had pressed itself into her hand and she could feel the wetness of tears against her palm. At the end, she was down to the lullabyes she'd missed for so long, wondering at how much her voice sounded like her mother's as she promised mockingbirds and diamond rings to the girl who was falling asleep in her arms.

When Willow finally did sing with her, late one night when they were getting too silly to care what they were doing, Tara understood what she meant about the frogs -- but it didn't make any difference. In the privacy of her room, with Willow leaning against her, it only mattered that she sang at all. That her voice joined with Tara's own, a bright wall of sound against the darkness all around them.

A year and a half later, Tara had spun in circles in the sunlight. Spinning and laughing and singing as loudly as any of the spellbound passers-by. Louder, Tara, girl, sing like you mean it, she could hear her mother saying somewhere. Forte! And she did, she sang, not looking to see if anyone was watching her, not caring if they thought she looked like an autumn fool, only seeing Willow's smile, Willow's eyes, Willow's hands as they led her home and took her to bed, and made her sing... Made her throat open up and the song come tumbling out as everything exploded in light and music.

Tara turns and looks at the wall, shutting out the sound of plinking on the gutters, the hiss of the air conditioner. She clutches the motel pillow tighter to her chest, and tries not to hear her own voice. It doesn't work. I'm under your spell... She hears herself singing it, feels her teeth vibrate, feels the crumbly prickles of Lethe's Bramble against the skin of her breast, where she'd tucked it into her bodice that day. Between her fingers, when she'd held it as she read the book that told her what it did. What Willow had done. What...

It pounds in her head now, a discordant jumble of notes. Under your spell.. Under... How much is me, how much is you? Can anybody hear me? Can anybody hear me? Willow?

If that mockingbird don't sing... Tara hears, somewhere in the depths of her mind, drowning out her own song, and Tara curls tighter around the pillow. Pretending it's a warm body. Pretending the voice is her mother's, pretending the empty space in her rented bed is filled with her lover, pretending the music is real, any of it, and the whole world isn't dead and silent as a stone. She swallows the tears, swallows the stone in her own mouth, trying to imagine how she'll ever sing again, when right now she's not sure if she can even breathe.

the end

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Disclaimer: Joss Whedon owns all, I own nothing. "She's Leaving Home" is by Lennon&McCartney, "Under Your Spell," is by Joss, of course, and "Rhythm of the Rain" is by the Cascades. "The Girl From Rocky Ridge," doesn't exist, unless someone decides to write it. All others are traditional.