The Buffyverse and its inhabitants are property of Joss Whedon and a bunch of suits. I'm adjusting their realities for fun, not profit, as I own nothing and have the credit report to prove it.

This changes back and forth between Buffy's and Willows POV, beginning with Buffy. POV changes after the ruler line.

I never felt so relieved as when Willow appeared or materialized or whatever she did on the floor of that cave. Hurt, but alive. "I missed you so much," I told her, falling to my knees to take her hand.

I saw the relief on her face, and then the pain took it away again. I was glad I killed that demon. I wanted to kill it again for hurting her. I didn't let go until the paramedics made me. Xander rode to the hospital with her, but her eyes and mine were locked until the ambulance door closed and I couldn't see her anymore. I wanted to stay with her, but that thing had hurt Dawn, too, and I had to make sure she was all right.

It was late when I went to check on Will. Dawn was asleep, and I had finally showered and I didn't want to go to bed again without knowing for myself how she was. Willow was sitting cross-legged on the bed. It was hard at first, like we still didn't know what to say to each other. I stayed in the doorway so I could leave if I had to.

She was so different. And still my Willow. "I missed you," I told her. Meaning that I was too late again, and I knew it. Too late getting to the airport to say goodbye meaning I'll be waiting no matter how long it takes. I thought I loved Riley, when Xander's words sent me to the heliport too late. But my last look at Willow…she was so, so, I can't even describe it. And to have my next be her still in pain, still bleeding, and it's my fault again. Always my fault. Every time she hurt is because I've failed her some how. And she still welcomes me.

Like now. Smiling. Making it easy. I was so worried when she wasn't at the airport. What if she changed her mind? What if she decided this isn't home anymore? And then with everything that happened. I didn't want to think she would do that again, but I had to ask. And apologize for asking.

I felt the moment everything went back to normal. She did too. It showed in her eyes, and a few moments later, she welcomed me to sit with her. To share. I can do this for her. Be strong. Like she always is for me.

Odd, that it's the first time we've meditated together. Wish we had done it long ago. No need to talk. We witness, and know each other's wounds. Many are the same, seen now through the other's eyes. All the times we told each other no before even asking a question. We were afraid. And now that we've seen the worse, the absolute bottom for both of us, there's nothing left to fear. We are who we are, who we have always been with each other.

She knows now, too, what I kept from her for so long. What I used as a shield between us. And I know what she never dared offer. Curse Cordelia again for the years she tormented Willow and made her fear herself.

We're both exhausted, emotionally and physically, and fall into each other and into sleep. For the first time, I hold her the way I've wanted. Secure against me. She's warm and smells so good. Her hands cover mine, like she's afraid I'll stop touching her.

This is how I wake up: Wrapped around Willow and unable to move without disturbing her. "You awake?" I whisper.

"Yeah," she answers quietly, but doesn't let go.

"I'm glad you're home. I missed you."

"I missed you, too." She squeezed the hand lying just above the bandages on her stomach. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't know how." It's true. I didn't even know how to live for a long time. And I was angry with her. For bringing me back, some. But more for feeling guilty about it. She kept apologizing. I thought she was sorry I was alive. "You didn't tell me, either."

"I did," she answered.

I realize it is true. She told me she loved me dozens of times. Each time I accepted her statement without examining it. I buried my face in her hair. "Please don't leave me again."

She turned in my arms so we were face to face. She slid one arm under my neck and stroked my back. With the other, she pushed hair away from my face. I mimicked her. "I can't," she answered hoarsely. "I need you." Her eyes closed and she lowered her head to my shoulder. I rolled onto my back and pulled her along. I held her against me and kissed the side of her head.

"I'm so sorry, Willow. About Tara. We buried her next to Mom. Dawn planted another rose bush, and Xander put a willow tree there." She's shaking so hard, but silent. Not crying. I keep running my hand the length of her back. "Mom liked Tara. She was happy for you, Willow, that you wouldn't be alone. She told me that as long as you were okay, she didn't have to worry about me." I'm crying. I miss my mom. I miss Tara. Willow is still shaking, but holding on to me. "We can go later. Dawn will want to go. She's glad you're back, too."

Willow lifts her head and puts one finger against my lips. "Breathe," she tells me, and wipes my tears away. I can't read her expression. Her eyes are as dark as the ocean after a thunderstorm. I do what she tells me, watching her eyes. When my heart rate slows, she drags her finger from my lips across my cheek and down my neck. I shudder against her and swallow hard.

When I open my eyes, she's smiling at me the way I always wished she would, and I can't help it. I moan her name and watch her smile bloom. I know it isn't the right time, but my body doesn't care. It recognizes Willow and it's tired of waiting, imagining, pretending. I'm careful not to hold her too tightly. I don't want to hurt her. I don't want to scare her.

"Thank you." She is just holding my cheek. Her palm is warm and damp, Maybe from my tears. "I miss her so much, Buffy." She lowers her head to my shoulder again. "I still can't believe she could just be gone."

"I know." I remember finding Mom. All the death I've seen, all the death I've caused, couldn't prepare me for that one body. For the nothingness that's left when the soul leaves. And Dawn sat with Tara for hours. I wondered if Willow knew that. Or that Xander cried the whole time he ripped up the rug and laid its replacement. I heard each sob and knew that I had failed again. You were in England then. We buried Tara and Anya and I packed it all up. Everything of Tara's. Everything of yours. The boxes are in the attic with Mom's stuff.

You're crying now and all I can do is hold you. I've never seen anyone cry like this. "I've got you, Willow," is all I can say. Your whole body is shaking.

"I'm sorry, Buffy."

"Shh, no, Willow, it's okay."

"You hurt so bad and you kept trying to come to me. I let you down."

"No, Willow, you didn't let me down." I smooth her hair and rub her back. "It was my fault, I'm sorry I didn't save her."

"Not your fault."

"Not yours, either."

"Okay," she says waveringly, but the tears are still coming. I wonder whether she grieved at all for Tara, or whether they kept her distracted. I can't remember when I saw her cry last. Was it so long ago?

Eventually it slows, and ends. She slips back into sleep. Relaxed but still holding on to me. I've got her, too. She doesn't sleep long. This time we get up. She's got shiny pink new skin in stripes where that damn demon started snacking on her. Whatever I show on my face causes her to lift it to hers and say, "I'm fine."

I smile tightly and bend to put tiny kisses all over the new skin. She shivers and giggles and lets me. Understanding that I need to be sure she's fine. Because nothing hurts my Willow and lives. Except Oz and that's only because I couldn't get my hands on him.

I sit up before things happen that we aren't ready for. I'm not ready, not yet. She needs to say goodbye to Tara. And there's something coming. Something big. We both know that's why she came home. Everything else, well, everything else is gravy. Or destiny. Yeah, I read some of Giles' musty old books. A lot of them. Especially interesting were the Slayer diaries. And their Watchers' journals. I'm still reading them, a couple pages at a time. The Slayers who lived the longest had something to fight for. Families they went home to. Someone who loved them and who they loved in return. Something I still have to learn. Or learn again.

I wasn't surprised that they weren't at the airport. I hadn't even told Giles what flight I would be on. And I wasn't sure that I would go back there until the plane was in the air for the last leg of the trip.

But when I couldn't find them anywhere, I got worried. And then there was that body and I had to wonder, did I do that?

Spike wasn't any help. He was odder than usual, though he made sense they way Drusilla had made sense to him. It was really weird. Anya was Anya. Some things never change, y'know?

I was scared that the demon was telling the truth, that they had been and left me there. Because I wasn't worth anything to them. Except Anya told me they were there, and Buffy killed the demon, and then we could see each other.

My stomach hurt a lot once the demon was dead. I held Buffy's hand, squeezing as tight as I could. Xander whined, but Buffy stayed right there until the paramedics took me away. I wanted her to come to the hospital, but it was Xander who got into the ambulance with me. Buffy was nowhere to be found when I got home, so I got cleaned up and tried to rest. My stomach hurt so bad, I sat up and meditated, trying to grow new skin.

I was surprised when Buffy came to my room. She looked troubled, and hung near the door like she was afraid of me. I guess I earned, that, too. She apologized for thinking that I could have killed that guy, and looked a little relieved when I told her I wondered myself whether I had done it.

The longer we talked, the closer she came. When she sat on the bed with me, I knew we would figure it all out somehow. And then she offered herself to me, like she had so many times before. This time, I accepted.

As soon as she touched me, I knew why we had never meditated together. She was completely open. For a second, I thought I would drown in her, and then I got my bearings. It was the most sensual experience, to be engulfed in Buffy, as we gave and took and rebuilt the connections between us.

It was hard work and tired us both out. I don't know when we fell asleep. I had a moment of panic when I woke. She was warm against my back, and my arms and hands covered hers. I stayed still and enjoyed it. Too soon, her voice, raspy from sleep, is asking, "You awake?"

"Yeah." She doesn't move, so I don't, either.

"I'm glad you're home. I missed you."

"I missed you, too." I squeeze her hand, telling her that I mean it. "Why didn't you tell me?" I half expect her to use Tara as an excuse.

"I didn't know how," she told me, then paused. "You didn't tell me, either."

"I did," I protest. I did everything but strip and throw myself at her. I held her hand and patched her up and kept her secrets. I tried to shelter her when it got to be too much.

Buffy doesn't answer me right away. "Please don't leave me again," she says finally.

I have to see her. I have to let her see me. I turn toward her without breaking our embrace, and slide one arm under her. With the other, I push her hair off her face. "I can't, I need you." I look into her eyes, making sure she understands, until I can't any more. I put my head on her shoulder.

She gathers me more tightly against her and rolls onto her back. Her hand strokes the back of my head, and she erupts. "I'm so sorry, Willow. About Tara. I buried her next to Mom. Dawn planted another rose bush, and Xander put a willow tree there."

I didn't expect that from her. It comes tumbling back, all of it. I'm trembling, and Buffy's keeping me grounded. Her hand moves in a patient loop on my back. She keeps talking. "Mom liked Tara. She was happy for you, Willow, that you wouldn't be alone. She told me that as long as you were okay, she didn't have to worry about me. We can go later. Dawn will want to go. She's glad you're back, too."

All those words at once. Like she's afraid that if she doesn't tell me now, she won't have another chance. I put one finger against my lips. "Breathe," I tell her, and move from her lips to her cheeks. I brush her tears aside.

We just look at each other. When she isn't being the Slayer, her eyes are so expressive. They change color. I missed her so much. We saw each other every day for years and then I was alone. Alone like I was before Buffy came to Sunnydale. It hurt so much, to wonder all summer whether we were still friends.

"Thank you." I knew somehow that they would take care of Tara. That Buffy would. "I miss her so much, Buffy." Just thinking about it makes me feel sick. I can't look at Buffy any more, and hide my face in her neck. "I still can't believe she could just be gone."

"I know," is all she says. From anyone else it would be patronizing. And it is the last thing I can take. I'm safe, finally, and I can't help falling apart. She is holding me and I don't have to be brave or strong or pretend that everything is fine.

"I've got you, Willow," she says, over and over.

"I'm sorry, Buffy."

"Shh, no, Willow, it's okay." I feel her lips on my head.

"You hurt so bad and you kept trying to come to me. I let you down." That is the thing I'm sorriest for, that I didn't want to see how bad she was hurting, that I turned away from her. Before she … and after.

"No, Willow, you didn't let me down. It was my fault. I'm sorry I didn't save her."

"Not your fault," I gasp. I can't believe she thinks that. How could it be her fault?

"Not yours, either."

It takes a moment to accept that. "Okay," I tell her finally. But I can't stop crying.

The next time I wake up, she's all ready awake. One hand is running through my hair over and over. "Feel better?" she asks gently.

"Yeah." I pick up my head so I can look at her. "Thank you."

She smiles. "You're welcome. Thank you."

"You're welcome." I put my head back on her chest. She returns to stroking my hair.

"How's your stomach?"


"Let me see," she demands, so I sit up and move back, straddling her knees, and raise my shirt. Buffy removes the bandage. She looks, frowning, and touches, so gently I can barely feel it. Her frown deepens, and I raise her face toward mine.

"I'm fine, Buffy."

She looks at me, then nods. Before I realize what she's doing, her lips are brushing my stomach. Over and over. I am so torn. This is what I've always wanted, and it feels so good, and I am not ready for anything. It's like Buffy reads my mind as she sits up again, and covers my hand with hers. We pull my shirt down, and Buffy pulls me back down with her. One hand goes into my hair; the other rests at my waist. I don't want to leave here and go back into my life. Or anyone's life. I want to stay here and listen to Buffy's heart beat. I know we can't. She has a destiny, and a sister, and we have to be adults.

Getting up is hard, but we have to. Dawn is up all ready. I heard her get out of the shower a while ago, and now she is tromping down the stairs. She sounds no angrier than usual, just annoyed that she has to get up so early.

I don't want to let Will go, but I do. I go to shower and start my day and her room is empty when I check it. I make conversation with Dawn while coffee brews. She has everything she needs for school, and Xander is giving her a ride, and she knows to call me if anything Hellmouthy happens. I can't believe they built the new school in the same place. The library is over the damn Hellmouth again. Xander showed me the plans one night. Spread them across the dining room table and pointed out all the similarities. We laughed. What else could we do?

Dawn is good this morning. She is concerned about Will, who stood at the refrigerator for a few moments, then bolted into the back yard. She didn't even say anything, very unWillowy, hence Dawn's concern.

I startle Wills out of her reverie by touching her shoulder. She takes the coffee I fixed for her, and we stand in the yard, my arm around her waist until it slides down to her hip like it belongs there. It feels like it should, and Will scootches closer while a small sigh escapes her. She thanks me for her coffee, and I ask the first thing that comes to mind. "Should we move?"

"I don't think I'm the one to ask," she answers finally.

"One day I want to and the next I don't." Depends on what kind of day it's been. Even though the couch is new, I see Mom on it sometimes. I hear Tara singing like she did while she cooked. Some days those things hurt as much as coming back. Others, they are the only comfort in my day.

"What does Dawn say?" Willow, ever sensible, asks.

"She says we have a destiny, the three of us, and we need to stay." I sip some coffee. "I don't want her to have a destiny, Will. I want her to graduate and go to college far away and never come back here. I want her to have a life."

"Sometimes we don't get to choose."

"Tell me about it," I answer sourly. Before I can elaborate, Dawn changes the subject for us.

"Buffy," she yells from the kitchen. "Xander's here. I'll see you after school."

After she leaves it is too quiet. We stand in the yard, and panic bubbles up. "I'm so bad at this, Willow."

"You're doing great," she reassures me. She transfers her mug to her other hand and slides the newly freed one around me.

"I just don't want to mess us up." I add 'again' to myself. Because if I mess it up this time, I don't think we'll be able to fix it. She pushes my shirt aside and finds skin and everything is somehow all right.

"You can't," she says with confidence I don't feel. And if I concentrate on that, and the feeling of her touching me, we won't move from here.

"What's on today's agenda?" I ask, mostly to have something else to think about.

"Errands," she answers, but she isn't here with me. She's thinking about what she has to do today. Some of those things I know will pull her further from me, and I try to bring her back.

I say her name four times before she acknowledges me with a small look and a, "Sorry."

"You don't have to do everything at once," I tell her. But I recognize the look in her eyes.

It's the little things that are the hardest, and Tara's memory swirls around me in the kitchen. Dawn is getting breakfast and Buffy is in the shower. The kitchen was Tara's place. We washed dishes and cleaned up, but she cooked. She kept the grocery list. It's still on the refrigerator, with milk, eggs, cheese, flour, grapes in her hand and a few of Dawn's requests under it. The whole time Buffy was gone, it was Tara and Dawn and me here. In the kitchen every morning for pancakes. "Funny shapes or rounds?" Tara would ask, and they always came out looking like something. Flowers. Bad silhouettes. Bugs. Hearts.

Now, it is Dawn, sullenly eating cereal. Tara's handwriting sends me into the back yard. It's too much, too much to be here, to remember how she made us a family. We were all broken and hurting. Tara, too, coming out of the terrible place that Glory put her. But somehow, she knew what to say and what to do to hold us together. Sometimes it was literally that, the three of us huddled together, crying and comforting each other, with me on one side of her and Dawn on the other, and her arms around us. Mostly it was her determination. And love. So much love. In the end, it made everything right. It gave Dawn stability. It let me believe in happily ever after. Even when she left me, I knew we would find that. I had it in my hands, waking up with her in our bed. I was alive that morning, and she was glowing, and

Buffy's hand on my shoulder startles me, and I jump. Just as well. Where I was going with Tara thoughts was a bad place. Not at first, but I always end up there, and it's just as well that Buffy's hand slides down around my waist and rests at my hip. Her other hand has two mugs, and I take the one closest to me. Coffee, hot and sweet. Hers has more milk than mine. "Thank you."

"Welcome." She sips her coffee and asks, "Should we move?"

"I don't think I'm the one to ask," I tell her.

"One day I want to, and the next I don't," she says.

"What does Dawn say?"

"She says we have a destiny, the three of us, and we need to stay." Buffy sips her coffee again. "I don't want her to have a destiny, Will. I want her to graduate and go to college far away and never come back here. I want her to have a life."

"Sometimes we don't get to choose," I tell her softly.

"Tell me about it," she grumbles.

"Buffy," Dawn calls from the kitchen. "Xander's here. I'll see you after school."

The next sounds are the door slamming and Xander's car starting and driving away. We are alone in the back yard, and it is suddenly too quiet.

"I'm so bad at this, Willow," she says softly.

"You're doing great," I reassure her, wondering which this she's referring to.

"I just don't want to mess us up."

"You can't." I transfer the mug to my other hand and slide my arm around her. My hand pushes her shirt aside so it can rest on skin at her waist. We both sigh at the contact. We stay like that. It is a clear, warm day, and dappled sunlight filters through the big tree at the back of the yard. But, as Burns said, nothing gold can stay.

"What's today's agenda?" Buffy asks.

"Errands," I answer absently. A bunch of them, each making Tara a little more gone. The bank, and the university, and the attic. The thought of it makes my heart beat faster. The attic another day, then.

Buffy is saying my name, like I didn't hear her before, or the time before that. "Sorry," I answer.

"You don't have to do everything at once," she tells me.

But I do. I can do it once, or maybe twice, rip the bandage off and face what's left. After that, I can't promise. Hell, who am I kidding? I can't promise that I can do it once, but I have to. Tara isn't here, and I have to do these few things that make her really gone. But not alone. The pressure of Buffy's strong fingers on my hip tells me that she'll be there with me every step. "Do you want me to go with you?" she asks.

"Would you?" I offer her an out.


I don't know how she can do this. Before we left, she gathered a bunch of papers into a folder. At the first stop, the bank, I found out what they were. Copies of the power of attorney that Tara gave her. Tara's birth and death certificates. Suddenly my mind is full of questions. Do we need to do these things for us? What about insurance? And the house?

We are at the bank almost an hour, and when we leave there, I pull Willow across the street to a small cafe. The morning rush is over and there are few people there now, so I find a booth for us. I push her in and slide in beside her, and order for both of us when the waitress asks.

Will is paler than usual and silent. She stares at the envelope on the table, and for the first time, I see the neatly printed list on it. When I look back at Willow, tears are sliding down her cheeks. She doesn't react when I put my arm around her, or when her coffee arrives. She stares silently at the envelope, and cries silently, and I let her while I choke my own tears back.

Our coffee is cold when she wipes her eyes. "I knew she was dead," Willow whispers. "I knew it when I held her and she died. But it was surreal, and this tiny voice kept saying, it's not real, she'll be back." Willow turned the envelope over so all that showed was its blank front. "It stopped when I signed the first document at the bank. She's really gone. Really, truly gone." She turned to look at me, and she hadn't looked like that since we were 16, since the Master.

I wanted to fix it. I always want to fix it. I don't know how to fix this. There's nothing I can kill. Nothing I can say. We don't use the w word, but if I had one, I would give it to her.

"We did this," she said, and tapped the envelope on this, "just in case. Because we were at the hospital so much, and you hear horror stories about peoples' families coming in and making trouble, and you know her family, and mine, and I could just see Mom treating Tara like her own family did. I know you wouldn't let her, but what if you weren't there? So we went to a lawyer and got what we needed to make sure it couldn't happen. There's copies all over the place, at the hospital and her doctor and mine, and we gave a copy to Xander and Anya, and Giles. The day after Tara left me, I knew she would talk to Anya, and I left a message with her for Tara, that if she wanted to revoke her power of attorney, I would understand, but I was leaving mine alone. Every day I checked the mail I was afraid I'd find that envelope, but I never did. Sometimes that was the only thing that kept me…trying. To not use magic."

She stopped again and pushed the coffee away. Willow hung her head, and I waited for her to finish. "Now I can't not use magic. It's part of me. I can't push it away or give it away or pretend it isn't. Like Tara." Willow's eyes and voice softened as they always did when she said Tara's name. "This is so hard, Buffy. Every time I check off another task, Tara's that much more gone."

"She'll never be gone, Will." I wait for her to look at me, and she does. "We love her and she'll always be with us as long as we remember her."

After what feels like a long time of us looking at each other, she asks, "When did you get so smart?"

The atmosphere is different, and I know she'll let me touch her now, so I take her hand and squeeze gently. "I think it was the last time I died," I say teasingly. "Or maybe the time before that."

Willow smiles, tentatively at first, then a full-blown Willow smile. "You goof," she says affectionately.

"Your goof," I answer, and her smile gets bigger.

"Yeah?" she asks.

"Yeah," I answer, and squeeze her hand again. "You want some coffee this time, or what?"

"No," she shakes her head, and becomes somber again. "Let's just get this done."

"You sure?" I know she has to do these things, but they can wait for another day.

"Yeah," she nods.

"Okay." I slide out and stand, reach in my pocket. I have a little money today, and I leave a five and some ones on the table for our coffee and a tip. Being a waitress sucked, and I always overtip when we get good service. This waitress deserves it for knowing to leave us alone.

Will slides out and stands beside me and our hands join. It's so natural to walk around holding her hand. We've been doing it forever. Well, until Tara. After that, it was awkward, and we didn't. I was trying to hide everything and I wanted Willow to be happy, and she was. I didn't want to complicate it or make her have to explain, so I stopped touching her. Sometimes she'd be asleep when I came in and I would watch her. But she wasn't mine then, and it was easier to distance myself physically and emotionally. It was a habit I practiced just like training.

We head out again. Who knew there was so much to do that I hadn't done when Mom died? Giles must have handled those things. All I did was sign papers. I never wondered where they came from or what they were for. Giles said sign here, here, and here, so I did.

Our next stop is another bank, where Will goes through the same routine again, plus more, because Tara had a safety deposit box. We go into the room and get the box and the bank lady leaves us in there. Willow takes a deep breath before opening the vault. There isn't much in there, a couple pouches and a small jewelry box and two old books. Willow doesn't stop to look at anything. She picks up each item with shaking hands and transfers it to her bag. She's wearing her resolve face, refusing to cry, and we leave the key and the metal drawer on the table and walk back out into the sunshine.

There are a couple more stops, and then we head over to the college campus. In some ways, it's easiest there. They're used to students dying and it takes only a few minutes to complete Tara's business. Willow's requires an appointment with the dean, and we get it and leave.

I knew I'd have to do these things when I got home, things that Buffy and Anya and Giles didn't know about or didn't think of or couldn't do. I mean, that's why we drew up powers of attorney for each other. I haven't been able to take Tara's from my wallet, but I guess I'll have to. I mean, after I do these few things, it will be invalid. Not invalid, because it's a durable power of attorney, but I won't need it. Not that I need it now, with the original in my hand, but we carried them just in case. In case of anything short of an apocalypse. I thought I might need it at the emergency room one night or something like that.

The originals are where we left them, in a big envelope with a check list on the front, taped to the underside of my desk drawer. I never thought we would need it. It was just another thing to do to cover all the bases.

The only thing that isn't there are the copies of the death certificate, and I get them from my still packed suitcase. I pull the envelope holding them out and stuff it into the big envelope and I'm ready to go.

No I'm not. These actions will sever Tara from the official world. She'll be just another statistic somewhere. She deserves more, I think, but other than not dying, I don't exactly know what.

Buffy accompanied me. I'm grateful that she did. Especially after the first time I go through everything. I'm shaking so hard I can barely sign the forms, and when we leave the bank, she steers me to a restaurant and puts us in a booth in the back.

I hang my head and let my hair hide my face, like Tara did so often. Tears drip down my face. I don't know who I'm crying for, or why, and focus on the envelope. Official and simple and cut and dried, and who do I think I'm kidding?

"I know she's dead. I knew it when I held her and she died. But it was surreal, and this tiny voice kept saying, it's not real, she'll be back." I turned the envelope over so I didn't have to look at the damn list. "It stopped when I signed the first document at the bank. She's really gone. Really, truly gone.

"We did this," I tapped the envelope, "just in case. Because we were at the hospital so much, and you hear horror stories about peoples' families coming in and making trouble, and you know her family, and mine, and I could just see Mom treating Tara like her own family did. I know you wouldn't let her, but what if you weren't there? So we went to a lawyer and got what we needed to make sure it couldn't happen. There's copies all over the place, at the hospital and her doctor and mine, and we gave a copy to Xander and Anya, and Giles. The day after Tara left me, I knew she would talk to Anya, and I left a message with her for Tara, that if she wanted to revoke her power of attorney, I would understand, but I was leaving mine alone. Every day I checked the mail I was afraid I'd find that envelope, but I never did. Sometimes that was the only thing that kept me…trying. To not use magic."

For the first time, I saw the coffee cup in front of me, and I pushed it away. I lowered my head again. "Now I can't not use magic. It's part of me. I can't ignore it away or give it away or pretend it isn't. Like Tara." I wiped my eyes again. "This is so hard, Buffy. Every time I check off another task, Tara's that much more gone."

"She'll never be gone, Will," Buffy tells me, and I look at her. "We love her and she'll always be with us as long as we remember her."

I look at her while I think about that and realize that Buffy is right. "When did you get so smart?"

"I think it was the last time I died. Or maybe the time before that," she says with a little smirk.

It isn't funny, but the way she says it makes me smile. "You goof."

"Your goof," she answers.

"Yeah?" I am amazed that she would say it.

"Yeah." Buffy squeezes my hand and asked, "You want some coffee this time, or what?"

I want this to be over, and I could make it happen, but that way danger lies. So I tell her, "Let's just get this done."

"You sure?"

Buffy's still trying to protect me, but it won't work. These things have to be done. There're laws and stuff. "Yeah,"

"Okay." Buffy stood up and put some money on the table and offered her hand. I accepted and we headed over to the Bank of America, where Tara kept a safe deposit box with her grandmother's jewelry and book of shadows, among other things. Things she would miss and ca – couldn't replace.

We go through the process again. It isn't any easier. I can't let myself cry again or I won't stop. Buffy isn't saying anything. She tries not to look bored as papers pass back and forth across the desk. Amazingly, she doesn't ask about any of the things I put into my bag.

She takes my hand as we cross the bank lobby. It helps so much, to have her with me today. Apart from what we're doing, it's a lovely day. We walk through town at a comfortable pace. Buffy looks good today. Not that she doesn't look good every other day, but today doesn't weigh as heavily on her. Or something like that.

I thought the school stuff would be harder, but it's routine for them. There were three other people there doing the same thing. My school stuff was a little harder. I have to talk with the dean before I get back in, so I got an appointment for tomorrow.

We get home just before Dawn gets home from school. It's obvious from how she and Buffy move through the house talking that they worked out a lot of things over the summer. And Dawn grew up a lot. I'm sorry I wasn't here to see it. Of course, I wouldn't have seen the magnitude of the changes so clearly.

Dawn gets out a cookbook and starts making dinner. Buffy and I stay out of the way. I'm relieved a cookbook is involved and that Dawn's not just going to wing it. She fixed Tara and I some truly horrible meals before we introduced her to Betty Crocker and her ilk, and a few after. Dawn teases that I'm lucky it's her turn to cook, and Buffy protests. Dawn tells us every excruciating detail of her day. I am positive we weren't this shallow at her age. Of course, at her age, as she frequently points out, we were patrolling every night and trying to keep the world from ending.

She must have run out of things to talk about, because she said my name. It caught my attention enough to hear what she asks: "What did you do today?"

I stall for a second, and decide to be honest with her. "I had to finish Tara's business," I answer, and watch the pall of discomfort settle around the room. "It's okay to talk about her," I tell them quietly.

But neither of them says anything more.

Will says it's okay to talk about Tara but I don't know how. It seems so long ago. The summer was endless. It was the first one I ever had on my own. Xander and Anya have a life apart from me now, and I'm happy for them. Dawn was with her friends or at the part-time job she found at the beach. We spent time together, but mostly it was just me. And way too much time to think, wandering through cemeteries at night. Every night I went by Tara's grave, and Mom's. Just checking on them. I had way too much time to think. And what I thought about most was how much I missed Willow.

"I'm sorry, Willow," Dawn says quietly.

"There's nothing to apologize for, Dawnie. Tara was here, she loved us, and we love her."

Dawn pays complete attention to whatever she's stirring on the stove. Willow goes over to her, and puts her arm around Dawn's waist. Whatever she's telling Dawn too quietly for me to hear causes the frantic stirring to slow, and Dawn's head to lean against Willow's for a moment. I smile at them, my family, the two women I died for, the one who brought me back. Willow gives Dawn a squeeze and leaves her, then leaves the kitchen. She heads upstairs and I hear the door close quietly. I push my chair back to get up, and Dawn says, "Give her a few minutes, Buffy."

I sit down again, and Dawn puts a lid on the pot and turns down the burner. Then she leans on the counter across from me. "She'll be back soon."

"I'm afraid she'll disappear again," I admit.

"She won't." Dawn reassures me.

"How do you know?"

"She said she won't."

"But her magick's all wonky."

"It's not the magick, Buffy." Dawn is trying not to use the tone of voice that says she thinks I'm an idiot.

"What if she thinks this is a mistake?" I ask quietly.

"She doesn't." Dawn reaches across the counter and squeezes my hand. "It isn't. She's only been home a day."


"Okay," Dawn answers, and returns to the stove. I use a lot of self-restraint, and stay in the kitchen.

Willow returns a few minutes later. Her eyes are red, and her face is freshly washed, and she's wearing her "Brave Little Toaster" smile. I smile back at her, and her smile changes to a genuine Willow smile.

She sits beside me again, and asks Dawn, "Are we eating here, or do you want me to set the table?"

"Here's good," Dawn says, and checks another pot.

Willow gets up and gets things for dinner, plates and glasses. I get silverware, napkins, salt and pepper.

A few minutes later Dawn dishes out rice covered with some kind of chicken and vegetable gravy. We sit down to eat, and conversation becomes easier, until it's like old times. Xander and Anya let themselves in the front door while I'm drying the dishes. Xander appears in the kitchen soon after. "You up for some Bronzing, Buff? We got Willow talked into it."

"Sure." I put the last dish away and turn to him. "How'd you talk Will into it?"

"Bribery," he grins. "Guilt and whining also played a part."

I shake my head and smile at him, then take the arm he offers. Everyone is standing near the door. I ask Dawn, "Homework done?"


"Good. Then you can come with us."

"Only if I don't have to sit with you," Dawn smiles.

The Bronze is like it always is. Dawn makes a beeline for her friends as soon as we're in the door. Xander goes to get drinks, and we take a couch. I sit on one end. Willow sits beside me, and Anya sits beside her, but moves when Xander returns. They go to dance, leaving us alone.

Willow is twisting her hands in her lap and I cover them with my own. "You okay?"

She gives me a tight smile. "Yeah." She lets me separate her hands and hold one.

"We can go if you're uncomfortable."

"I'm okay, Buffy."

"Want to dance?"


We go to the dance floor. I don't know what it is that's playing, but it's loud and fast, so we don't have to look at each other or talk. The next song is slow, and Willow tries to leave the dance floor, but I don't let her. She surrenders gracefully, and we dither for a few seconds before my hands go to her hips and her arms go around my neck. The distance between us doesn't last. There's another slow song after this one, and Willow stays with me, swaying in the smoky darkness. Her cheek is smooth against mine, and I want so much to kiss her.

After that song, we head back to the couch. We sit and watch Dawn and her friends, and Xander and Anya. Sometimes they come and sit with us. Xander is all jokes and grins. When he's sitting on the couch, he keeps an arm around Willow's shoulders. I get her off the couch for a few more dances, and it's nearly 10 before we realize it. I ask Willow to patrol with me, and Xander smiles when she agrees. He volunteers to corral Dawn and take her home, and Will and I head out into the night.

We got through our usual routine, to the park first, then through the cemeteries. There aren't a lot of vampires out tonight. I'm glad. It makes it easy for Willow to listen when I tell her to stay out of the way. Habit takes me to Mom's and Tara's graves. Willow doesn't flinch. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a small stone. She puts it on top of Tara's marker. Her hand lingers there while she says, "I miss you, baby." Then she turns away and begins to walk faster than normal.

It's easy for me to catch her, to stop her and pull her into my arms. She's crying again and all I can say while I stroke her hair and hold her loosely is, "I'm sorry." Whisper it over and over while she cries herself out.

When she's done, she raises her head and wipes her eyes. "I'm sorry I'm such a mess."

"My shoulder's always here for you."

"I know," she smiles. "Thanks." She squeezes me gently. "Can we go home now?"


I keep my arm around her as we head home. Hers is around me, too. It feels like something we've always done. When we get home, she goes to her room, and I get a snack. When I get to my room, she's in my bed, sleeping on her side, facing the windows. I get ready for bed, climb in behind her, and pull her close to me.

"I'm sorry, Willow," Dawn says quietly.

"There's nothing to apologize for, Dawnie. Tara was here, she loved us, and we love her." I can tell she's stressing, and I go over to the stove. I stand beside her and put my arm around her waist.

She's gotten so tall, so she bends her head a little to hear what I'm saying. "Tara loved you, Dawn. She'd be so proud of you, just like your mom. They're not here with us anymore, but they're still with us. If we pretend they aren't, if we pretend they were never here, then they are gone. I don't want that."

"Me, neither."

"Then we talk about them, and if we cry a little, we cry." I squeezed her affectionately.

"I miss her a lot."

"Me, too." The pain is fresh and new, and I squeeze her again and leave the kitchen. Every time I think I'm done crying, I start again. I'm able to hold back the loud, choking sobs until I'm in my room, with the door closed and my face in the pillow.

The tears don't last long, and when my breathing is under control, I go into the bathroom to wash my face. The cool washcloth feels wonderful on my eyes, but it's still obvious that I was crying. I practice smiling in the mirror until I'm sure I can, then go back to the kitchen.

I slide back into the chair beside Buffy, who smiles reassuringly at me. The room is still tense and thick with things said and more things waiting to be spoken. I ask Dawn where we'll eat, and Buffy helps me get the things we'll need for dinner.

After we eat, Dawn hangs at the counter while Willow and I clean up. Willow washes and I dry. The doorbell rings and the door opens. Dawn hops down and goes to see who it is. She doesn't return, and when the last thing is washed, I go to see why, leaving Buffy drying and putting everything away.

Xander, Anya, and Dawn are laughing at something when I come in, and they all smile genuinely at me. Xander swoops down and pulls me into a big hug. He is safe and warm and gives great hugs. When he lets me go, he asks about the Bronze. I shake my head, and he asks again, showing puppy dog eyes. Finally, he says, "You may as well say yes, cause I'm not gonna stop until you do." He flashes his most charming smile and says, "Plus, I'm buying."

Anya punches him. "Hey!" she protests, and I know it's about the money he just offered to spend, and I smile at their bickering. Dawn and I look at each other and shrug, then start giggling. That interrupts their spat, and Xander turns to me again. "So, we Bronzing or what?"

"Sure," I accede.

"Cool," Xander enthuses. "Where's Buff?"

"Kitchen," Dawn tells him, and Xander goes in that direction, leaving Dawn and Anya and I looking at each other. They both return a few moments later, and Buffy asks Dawn, "Homework done?"


"Good. Then you can come with us."

"Only if I don't have to sit with you," Dawn smiles at her.

The Bronze is the same as it always is. Under the façade, I see so many ghosts. The memory of Tara is everywhere I look: at the dance floor, where we danced on her birthday; under the stairs, where we would sneak away for kisses and groping; at the pool table, where she won piles of cash from everyone who disbelieved her skill the first time.

Dawn breaks away from us as Buffy leads me to one of the sofas. She evicts the high school kids with a fierce look, and Anya and Buffy flank me while Xander goes for drinks. When Xander returns, Anya moves to let him sit beside me. They stay for a few moments before Anya pulls Xander away to dance.

I don't realize until Buffy stops me that my hands have been moving convulsively against each other. "You okay?" she asks.

"Yeah," I tell her while she insinuates her hand between mine and laces her fingers into mine.

"We can go if you're uncomfortable," she says earnestly, searching my eyes for something.

"I'm okay, Buffy." I give her a small smile, and it seems to satisfy her for a few moments.

"Want to dance?" she asks.

The music is loud and fast, so I tell her, "Sure." If I'm moving around, maybe I won't see Tara in every shadow. Buffy leads me to the dance floor. She has always been so graceful, and I try to follow her. That song winds down, and the next one is quiet and slow. I turn to go back to the couch, but Buffy catches my hand.

We look at each other for a moment and Buffy takes a step toward me. Her arms reach for me, and I just look at her for a moment. She rests her hands at my hips and I try to figure where to put my hands. My arms finally go around her neck, and Buffy pulls me closer.

We're not really dancing. Our feet don't move much, and we don't talk or even look at each other. Buffy's cheek rests against mine, and for a moment I'm able to just be there with her. That song bleeds into another, and Buffy keeps us on the dance floor, but when another fast song starts, we head back to the couch without talking.

For the rest of the night, we sit on the couch and watch our family. Xander and Anya come and go. I can feel his relief at the return to normality this represents each time he puts his arm across my shoulders. Dawn stays with her friends, but glances over occasionally to check on us.

I dance once or twice with Xander, both of us ignoring Anya's glares. Once when I look at the couch, both Buffy and Anya are wearing identical glares. Buffy's is directed at Xander and Anya's at me, and I can't help but laugh. Xander doesn't ask why. He grins at me, and his contentment is obvious.

Buffy turns down all offers to dance, but she and I return to the floor a few more times. I am surprised at how quickly time passes, and at 10 pm, Buffy reminds me that she has to patrol. "Wanna come?"

"Sure. What about Dawn?"

"We'll take her home," Xander volunteers.

"Thanks," Buffy tells him. She gets to her feet and holds out her hand, and I put mine in it and stand up, too. Dawn sees us and nods at Buffy, who heads toward the door.

Buffy checks around the Bronze first. Then we go to the park, sweeping the bushes for vampires and the benches for couples. After that, we start on cemeteries. It's a quiet patrol, and when Buffy says get down, I do.

I don't realize where we are until I see the small willow tree sheltering two headstones. My breath stops for several seconds, but I keep moving beside Buffy. She stops between the feet of the graves and looks at the stones for several seconds. I dig in my pocket and pull out a small piece of quartz. It was rough when I acquired it, but I've handled the sharp edges away. I move close to Tara's headstone. It is simple and beautiful, and I carefully place the quartz atop it. My fingers linger on the marble marker, and a thousand images of my beautiful Tara flood my brain. "I miss you, baby," I whisper, and walk away. I'm going to cry again, and Buffy doesn't need to see it again.

Seconds later, Buffy's arms are around me. She pulls me close and brings my head to her shoulder. Buffy whispers an apology over and over, but I don't know why. Her hand moves again and again through my hair.

When the tears slow, I raise my head and wipe my eyes before looking at her. "I'm sorry I'm such a mess."

"My shoulder's always here for you."

"I know," I smile at her. "Thanks. Can we go home now?"


When we turn to leave, our arms are around each other's waists. It's been so long since we walked like this, close and not talking because we don't need to. When we get home, I go up to our room – my room – I correct myself, to change. The rug is new, but I can see the pooled blood on it, hear the thud of Tara's body landing, all ready gone from me. I clench my teeth and get pajamas.

There's no neutral ground tonight, and my teeth chatter even as I try to brush them. I finally stop and rinse my mouth and turn out the light without looking in the mirror again. I go to Buffy's room, to her bed. I can't be alone tonight, and I can't stay in that room. It still reeks of blood to me, with undertones of Tara.

I don't want to talk or think anymore. I just want some rest. I slide between Buffy's sheets and stare at the window. I hear Buffy on the stairs and close my eyes. Buff thinks I'm sleeping, and I feel her relief that there won't be another scene. She changes into pajamas, spends a few minutes in the bathroom, and turns out the light before getting into bed. She moves toward me, and slides one arm under me. The other goes around me, too, and she kisses, once and lightly, my neck before closing her eyes.

- 30 -