Title: Beer Very Bad
Author: Golden Waffles
Rating: T. For minor language and occasional mentions of sex.
Disclaimer: Of course I don't own the characters or settings of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just the situations I put them in here.
A/N: Hi everyone. It seems we're here in delay-land again. I had to move, and my computer also crashed after months of being in a death spiral. I sent it in to get its faulty logic board replaced, so hopefully it will stop freezing and crashing on me now. Many of the crashes took writing progress with them, so this is actually the third or fourth incarnation of this chapter. Hopefully you'll enjoy. On the upside, this ended up being a fairly long chapter because I decided to give it a full arc. So… there's that.


Chapter 24:
Safe

Footsteps pounded against the ground, trying to keep pace with the frantic heartbeat driving them. She was late. Too late. She knew it. Something bad was happening at Kresge, and she was too late to stop it. Her feet fumbled as she dodged around trees and people and streetlights, trying to get there in time. It felt like she was running through water, fighting for each step, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't run fast enough. There was also something slippery under her feet, which she could only see out of the corner of her eye. Red-backed playing cards, like puddles of blood on the ground, spilled across her path, threatening to trip her.

As she ran, sick fear and anticipation welled up inside her, turning her stomach and making her eyes sting. She had to be getting close. She could see the doors now, looming like the gates to a graveyard. It was surely only a matter of seconds before she would reach them. Maybe she could still get there in time, before the Bad Thing happened. The Bad Thing that would eclipse all other Bad Things that had ever happened.

She reached the door and threw herself against it. For a second, the door became a soda machine in a laundry room. The next second, it was a barred door, like the ones that had caged Oz as a wolf. Then a black iron gate to a graveyard. With a cry of frustration, she rattled it with her hands until it turned back into the double doors of Kresge. But it still didn't open.

From the other side of the doors, she heard a low growl, which crescendoed into a deafening roar. Then came a heart-stopping scream of terror. The grotesque sound of something tearing. A cry of pure agony. The howl of a monster. The whimper of a girl.

"Willow!"

Now Tara's panicked voice called her name. Willow, with renewed determination, threw herself against the ungiving wood, ramming it with her shoulder, clawing at it with desperate fingers. Another roar came from behind the door, and a crash. Tears welled in Willow's eyes. She had to get through. She had to save her. Protect her. But she couldn't. She was too late. Too weak. Like always. She collapsed against the door, sobbing as the guilt and shame consumed her.

"Willow!"

Light flooded her vision as she started awake with a shuddering gasp. Her heart slammed against her chest like it was trying to break out, and her face was wet from cold sweat and hot tears. A foreign pressure held her upright, and she had to blink several times before her swimming vision cleared enough to see what was there: a pair of deeply concerned blue eyes peering down at her.

"Tara…" Willow breathed. Great, sweeping relief instantly loosened the nightmare's grip on her, and she gratefully buried her face in the crook of Tara's neck. The skin there was soft and warm, and Tara's pulse thudded reassuringly against her ear.

"It's okay. W-whatever it was, it was just a dream," Tara promised, gathering her close. Willow let out a shuddering breath, repeating silent mantras in her head. Her heart still ached from the memory of the night terror, like a hand was clenched around it, squeezing it painfully.

She's okay. The monster didn't get her. The monster's gone now. She's alive. She's safe. She's here. She's okay.

Even with Tara's soothing ministrations, it was a few minutes before she really felt steady again, at which point she realized the inherent wrong-ness of the situation. She froze as it sank in. This was backwards. Tara was comforting her, stroking her hair, whispering reassurances of safety. It was supposed to be the other way around. Tara was the one who had been attacked and hurt, not Willow. Tara was the one who deserved comfort. Willow braced herself. Going against every instinct she had, she pulled back out of Tara's embrace and put on a brave mask.

"I'm okay. It was just a bad dream," she said, as Tara gave her a questioning look. She clenched her hands over her jeans to keep them from visibly shaking. Tara's terrified screams still echoed in the back of her head. "Nothing serious. Just the usual. I, um, failed a test. And– and it was raining frogs." She forced a weak, self-deprecating chuckle. The crease between Tara's eyes suggested that she wasn't completely buying it.

"Are you sure? You… You seemed pretty scared. You were crying." Tara's hand cupped her cheek and her thumb wiped at the moisture there. Willow blushed and pulled back again. She scrubbed at her cheek with her sleeve, trying to erase the evidence.

"Yeah. You know how dreams can get. Weird things can seem really normal, and normal things can seem really weird and scary." She cleared her throat, which felt tight and sore from crying. "I'll be fine."

"If you say so…" Tara reluctantly dropped the subject and returned to the scattered cards on the rec room floor, pushing them back into place. They had been sitting together, building card castles on the stubby, mottled carpet, but it looked like Tara had set up a game of Solitaire while she slept.

"How long was I asleep?" Willow asked, wiping her face again for good measure.

"Not long. Only about twenty minutes," Tara answered, still watching her warily out of the corner of her eye. "We could go back to my room. You know… if you're still tired. We could lie down. Together."

Willow shook her head stiffly. She was exhausted from her all-night vigil, her body tense and sore, and her twenty-minute, adrenaline-charged, upright nap on the hard floor hadn't helped. Still, she didn't want to risk sleeping. If she had that dream again, she knew she would fall to pieces. And Tara needed her to be strong.

"I'm fine. We can stay here." She forced herself to shift closer and observe Tara's solitaire game. The blonde's hands were steadier than the day before, but her bright eyes still flickered to the door almost compulsively, as though waiting for something or someone to burst in. "What about you?" Willow gently touched the blonde's arm. "Are you still feeling okay?"

Tara hesitated for a half-second, but nodded.

"I think the sleep helped. I feel better today." She raised her head to meet Willow's eyes seriously. "Thank you for staying last night."

Willow's eyes widened in surprise.

"Tara, you don't have to thank me for that. I needed to stay. I never could have left you alone after something like that."

"Still… Thank you. Really."

Willow tried to smile at her.

"It's not like I had something more important to do," she pointed out. "Unless you count all the painful ways I came up with to teach Jonathan a lesson. Some of them involve big rocks."

At Willow's eager tone, Tara's hand paused. A black six hovered over a red seven as she spared Willow a curious glance.

"You don't think he learned it already?"

Willow shook her head firmly.

"Not enough. He deserves to understand the damage that he caused. Magic isn't some toy that any random guy can play with. The cost was too high." A shiver ran down her spine as the dream forced its way back into her consciousness. That cost is too high. Too high for anything. If the monster had killed her…

"He didn't know the cost when he cast it, though. He didn't think he was going to hurt anyone," Tara pointed out. She had been told the full story that morning, over a breakfast of dry cereal from a box by her miniature fridge. She hadn't felt up to a trip to the cafeteria yet, especially if it involved walking past the attack site again and subjecting herself to the gazes of her dormmates.

Error messages popped up in Willow's brain at her response.

"You're defending him?" It didn't compute.

Tara was quick to clarify, waving her hands awkwardly, "No. Not really. I mean… What he did was wrong. Obviously. Really wrong. And I'm not sure I can forgive him for it– at least not yet. But… I can kind of understand why he did it."

Willow was no less baffled by the explanation, which seemed entirely beside the point.

"I don't care why he did it. It doesn't matter. He should have known what the spell would do before he cast it. He should have made sure it wouldn't hurt anyone."

"Probably." Tara conceded. Still, her head canted a bit to the side and she continued speaking. "I'll bet he was lonely, though. That can make you pretty desperate." She bowed her head lower, focusing her gaze on the cards a little too intently.

Willow found herself fidgeting, imagining a younger, lonelier Tara, all alone in a small, miserable town. A Tara who might have been sorely tempted by an instant-love-and-respect-from-everyone spell. To her chagrin, part of her felt a twinge of sympathy for Jonathan. She didn't like it. Her nerves were still on edge from the nightmare, and she felt like she needed to move. Moving would keep her head clear and keep her from falling asleep again.

"Hey, why don't I go grab us some lunch?" she suggested abruptly, disrupting the lengthening silence. Tara tilted her head at the change in topic.

"Are you sure?"

Willow nodded, already half-rising to her feet with aid from the couch.

"Yeah. I wanna stretch my legs anyway, and it's getting late for lunch."

"It's only one-fifteen," Tara pointed out. Willow felt her face grow a little warmer as she was caught in her excuse.

"Okay, so maybe not that late. But I'm getting pretty hungry." This excuse at least had the benefit of being true. The tiny bowl of cereal that had served as breakfast had not been enough to sate a night's worth of hunger, any more than the twenty-minute terror-nap had been enough to make up for a night's worth of lost sleep. What she really needed now was a big lunch and an enormous cup of coffee.

"Okay. If you want," Tara murmured, still looking slightly thrown.

"Yeah. Unless you need me to stay…"

Tara was quick to wave her off.

"No, I'll be okay. I mean… as long as it's just grabbing lunch. That shouldn't take too long, right?" Her eyebrows knitted a little, making her nonchalance a little less convincing. Willow's heart gave another twinge, and she was quick with reassurance.

"Of course. I'll only be a few minutes, I promise." She caught up Tara's hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. The blonde offered a weak smile in response.

"Okay then."

Willow hesitated for a moment, rethinking her departure. But her stomach ached with hunger, and her muscles were taut with nerves, so all she did was lean in for a swift goodbye kiss, which Tara was happy to provide. As they pulled apart, Willow touched their foreheads together for a second.

"I'll be back soon."

Tara nodded silently as the redhead straightened up on cramped legs and, with a final glance back, stepped from the room.

Willow descended the stairs as quickly as her tired legs would allow. There were several places around campus where she could get both food and caffeine, but she was on a tight schedule. She picked a direction where she knew there was a nearby café and resumed her brisk pace.

The warm breeze of the great outdoors was a relief after so much time in the stale, musty air of the dorm. It revived her ever so slightly, but she still had trouble turning her mind away from the nightmare. The idea of Tara being killed… She shuddered even in the warm sun. Tara did seem better today, though.

That fact, however, was a double-edged sword. Of course she wanted Tara to get better. Obviously. But if Tara was better, then she couldn't necessarily justify staying the night again, and she didn't relish the thought of returning to Stevenson to sleep. If she had another nightmare, she wanted to be near Tara, so she could reassure herself that she was okay. A smaller part of her also just plain enjoyed the thought of staying the night again, under less harrowing circumstances. It had been unbelievably nice, curling up together like that.

But that's the problem. Willow released a silent sigh as she reached the café and stood at the back of the line. Now that they were officially dating, she almost felt like there was something illicit in sleeping over. Their relationship had technically only reached the level of kissing, but it was still true that they had had sex already, even if only one of them remembered the experience. Although she had never kissed Tara before yesterday, Tara had already kissed her– and much, much more– months ago. It was a weird predicament to be in. Their relationship had started so far ahead that, in backtracking, things had slowed to a crawl. But there was still that one night, always lingering in the background. It was still hazy and dark in her own head, but Tara remembered. And Tara was the one holding back.

She reached the front of the line and promptly bought the largest size coffee they would sell her, plus an array of sandwiches and chips. She had a brief moment of confusion trying to remember if Tara drank coffee, and finally decided to just get a hot chocolate. Hot chocolate is comforting. Maybe it'll help.

She paused as she paid for the food, noticing a number of candy bars by the cash register. She quickly added a few to the order. They could both use something sweet to take the edge off the day. She finished paying and turned tail to begin her trek back to the rec room, where Tara would be waiting for her.

She managed to keep herself distracted with thoughts of their relationship progress (and simultaneous lack thereof) until she reached the doors to Kresge. The sight of them, innocuous as they were, made a shiver run down her spine. She could still remember pounding on them, sobbing, while Tara screamed on the other side. Bile rose in her throat, but she took a moment to squeeze her eyes closed and steady herself. She's fine. She'll be fine. It's just a nightmare. It didn't happen. It's okay. With a shaky breath, she continued her journey.

Another shudder claimed her as she passed the supply closet. The door and frame had been removed for repairs, but Willow's sweeping glance caught a faint pinkish-red stain still discoloring the floor. Blood. Tara's blood. She was suddenly glad she hadn't eaten much that day, as her stomach once again threatened to turn over. She gritted her teeth and stubbornly marched forward towards the staircase, out of sight of the horrible place.

It was a relief when she poked her head through the rec room door and spotted Tara right where she left her, but it wasn't quite enough to shake the tension in her muscles.

"Hey," she called softly. Tara jumped at the sudden noise, and looked up for the source. A half-smile warmed her face when she saw Willow.

"Hey. You were quick."

"Yeah. I just grabbed some sandwiches and stuff. Nothing too fancy." The exhausted redhead approached and sat down next to her girlfriend, producing the bags that held their lunch.

"Sandwiches are good," Tara assured her, gingerly picking one from the paper sack. Willow just took a long drag from her coffee cup. The taste was bitter and bracing. It wasn't what her stomach wanted, but it was what her head needed. Tara, for her part, seemed somewhat cheered by the hot chocolate.

Their lunch was eaten in relative silence, Willow devouring well over half of the food to combat the night's hunger and the huge serving of coffee. Tara just munched noncommittally on whatever she happened to pick up, still mostly engrossed in her card game. Willow could have sworn she noticed her glancing at her out of the corner of her eye, however, and it set her a little on edge.

It wasn't until after she had distributed the candy that Tara finally spoke up. She finished her card game, shuffled the cards back into a single pile, and gave another sideways glance to the now twitchy, jittery, but still completely exhausted redhead.

"Willow, are you sure you're okay?" She finally turned to look her straight in the eye, deep blue concern and sympathy coloring her gaze. "You still look k-kind of… um… spooked."

Willow shook her head briskly, half in response and half to try and physically rearrange her jumbled thoughts, which now shifted seamlessly between images of Tara cowering in the closet, Tara kissing her, Tara screaming behind the locked doors, and Tara lying naked next to her in bed. It was a disturbing slide show.

"I'm fine. Really," she lied, gritting her teeth into what even she knew was more of a grimace than a smile. "I'm not the one to worry about. Not today. You just focus on getting yourself better."

As the words sank in, Tara's expression cleared a little, and her eyebrows rose an inch.

"Oh," she breathed, as though coming to a revelation. "Is... is that what this is about?" She leaned a little closer, laying a hand on Willow's knee. "Will, you're allowed to be scared, too. You don't have to act all tough for my sake. I know this was scary for you, too."

Willow blushed, ashamed, and broke eye contact, focusing instead on a dark stain on the carpet by her shoe.

"It's fine. I'm not." Even to her own ears, it was incredibly unconvincing. She gave up with a sigh, shaking her head. "Look, I'm not going to make this any harder on you than it has to be."

Tara's eyebrows knitted again in confusion.

"You're not." Her voice was bewildered. A warm hand touched Willow's cheek, turning her head until she was forced to meet Tara's eyes again. This time, her voice was soft, but forceful. "Willow, I'm a big girl. I've been through…" She paused. "…a lot of things in life. Including things m-m-much worse than this. I can handle it. You don't need to drive yourself crazy trying to protect me. I don't need that, and you don't deserve that."

Willow squeezed her eyes shut as tears burned there. Part of her wanted so badly to give in, to let Tara be the strong one for a moment. She was so tired…

"I just… I don't…" She grasped for words, but came up empty. Tara's other hand came to rest on her cheek, so that Willow's face was held entirely in her grasp.

"You look exhausted, sweetie. Did you even sleep last night?" Tara's eyes implored her, and she couldn't bring herself to lie or deflect again. She was too tired.

"You kept having nightmares. I wanted to make sure you got enough rest."

Tara raised her eyebrows.

"So you stayed up all night?" Her voice was surprised, but still gentle. "You didn't have to do that."

"I wanted to," Willow promised, giving her a pleading look. Tara looked like she wanted to argue for a second, but instead a tender expression took over her face.

"I understand. And I want to do the same thing for you." She leaned forward and set a chaste kiss on her lips. "Please."

Willow took in a slow, shaky breath, willing the war in her head to end.

"Okay."

Tara rose to her feet in a single graceful move, and offered a hand down to Willow. Willow let her lead her back to her room, locking the door behind them, and together they stretched out on the bed. Tara scooted up to sit against the headboard and guided Willow's head into her lap. Willow settled down, the warmth from Tara's body and the weight of the blankets comforting her and driving out the bad thoughts.

"See? That's better, right?" Tara murmured, running her fingers through her hair. The sensation made her yawn. The chill left her heart, replaced by a strong sense of gratitude.

"Much," she admitted. She closed her eyes and let the pleasant feelings wash over her. Tara's fingertips traced over her face with a featherlight touch. "Thank you," she whispered.

"Anytime," the blonde answered. Willow felt a hand trace its way down the back of her neck, gently rubbing at the tension there. She breathed a long, relieved sigh as the last dregs of stress gave way to oblivion.

When she opened her eyes again, she could barely see anything for the dim light, but she felt a pair of soft, steady hands in her own.

"Tara?" she asked softly. In response, the hands squeezed her own.

"I'm right here," Tara's soothing voice promised. Willow took note of their surroundings. They seemed to be in some kind of closet. She thought she felt the edge of a bucket digging into her back.

"Are we–" A rattling noise sounded as the door shuddered. Willow looked up sharply, but she wasn't afraid. She and Tara were together. They had kept each other safe from the Gentlemen, and they would keep each other safe from anything else.

"Shh. It's okay. It can't get in here with us." Tara reassured her regardless. "We're safe."

Willow felt her shift closer, bringing them into closer contact. Willow just smiled and leaned forward, pulling her into a brief, but telling kiss.

"I know."