Disclaimer: Buffy and co. belong to Joss and other brilliant-yet-sadistic people. I own the MacPherson twins and the musings that follow.
Spoilers: up to the 6th season finale and "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones."
Note: Many thanks to Christina (Chris, Kiki, Chaos) Kamnikar and Gyrus for the betas!
Note II: The poem Giles reads is "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Mandy and Matt, the MacPherson twins, are having a pool party for their sixteenth birthday, God help us all.
"Buffy, come on!" begs Dawn. "Why can't I get a bikini?"
Okay, God help me.
I sigh. "Dawn, I am not letting you go to a pool party in something that leaves 99.9% of your skin exposed. I didn't get my first bikini until I was eighteen; you can wait." I pull a glittery one-piece off the rack. "How about this?"
Dawn gives me that look she has that makes me feel approximately 8,000 years old. "No one will be wearing a one-piece. I'd be laughed out of the water!" She yanks free a couple of painfully trendy little scraps of fabric. "How about this?"
"Over my three-times-dead body."
"You know, you said you wouldn't be trying to protect me from the world anymore," Dawn argues.
"Not from demons so much," I agree. "But hormonal 16-year-old boys? Way worse. No bikini. But," I say, stopping her next whine before it gets out of her mouth, "I'll compromise on a two-piece. How about a tankini?"
Dawn bounces a little and heads off toward suits with a little more coverage than she'd like and a little less than I'd like. She pulls off a blue tankini and holds it up for my inspection.
"Isn't that a thong?" I ask.
It is. Dawn makes a face at it. "Ew. Butt floss. How about this one?"
Eventually, she settles on a two-piece with a full-coverage top and a boy-cut bottom, all yellow, orange, and hot pink stripes. I don't fully approve. What's with swimsuits nowadays? I swear they were never that bad when I was 15 and 16. But it's better than standing around Wal-Mart arguing all day.
Truth be told, though, I'm happy just to be arguing with Dawn about swimsuits. Something so ordinary, like the things Mom and I went back and forth about when I was Dawn's age. I think that deep down, Dawn's happy, too, and that's exactly what I want. It's a bit of normalcy creeping back in.
As we leave the store, purchases in hand, Dawn turns to me. "Um, are you going to go see . . ."
"I was thinking about it, maybe later, while you're at the party," I say.
There's a shadow back in her face. "I was thinking . . . I should go with, one of these times."
My first instinct is to tell Dawn no, she shouldn't have to deal with these things, but I stop myself.
"Yeah," I say instead. "Whenever you're up to it, let me know, and we'll go see Willow together. She might like hearing your voice."
Sheila Rosenberg is at the hospital when I get there, sitting by her daughter's bedside. I've gotten to know Sheila a lot better over the past few weeks, and I've gotta say, she's not nearly as bad as I thought she was when I was in high school. Willow made a real effort to get closer to her parents after my mother died. We talked about it, and Will said that even though she doesn't think her parents will ever understand her, she knows they love her. Even if they don't quite know how to express it. I'd say she's right. One or both is over almost every day, trying to get Willow to come back to us.
It's been several weeks since Tara's death and Willow's rampage. Not even Giles can quite define what Willow became after she allowed all that dark magic in, but whatever it was, it took a serious toll on her body and mind.
After Dawn and I climbed out of the ground, we headed for the Magic Box, afraid of what we would find there. I can't describe the joy of seeing Giles walking out of it, leaning on Anya. She was all protective and wouldn't even let Dawn hug him until we got to the hospital. Then the three of us—me, Anya, and Dawn—headed to the bluff.
We heard Willow before we saw her. She was sobbing and howling in grief and pain, screaming, "What did I do?" and "I'm sorry!" and crying Tara's name over and over and over while Xander held her. I'll never forget the sound of her voice. I've never heard such agony in anyone else's, except maybe Angel's when he stood on a bluff one Christmas morning, waiting for sunrise.
All we could do was cluster around her and Xander and wait, and finally, she passed out. She turned so white that we got concerned enough to take her to the hospital, and it's a good thing we did. By the time we got there, her lips and fingernails had turned blue.
It was anemia, according to the doctors, severe and acute. They had to do a cut-down in order to find a vein to put an IV in. Still, by the next day, physically she was well enough that she could've gone home. Mentally, she wasn't present. Eyes open, but nobody home. That's how she's been ever since.
All we've told Ira and Sheila is that Willow's lover was murdered, and she had a breakdown. It's close enough to the truth without getting into the paranormal of it. Or the ripping-off-of-skin of it. And it's enough. They knew Tara, accepted her and Willow's relationship with her. I've gotta say I respect them for that. What makes me like them even better is that they insisted Tara be buried in the Rosenberg plot.
"Willow made it clear that she considered Tara to be her life partner," Ira said. "That's good enough for us."
So Tara's laid to rest in a Jewish graveyard, with a gravestone that reads "Wise Woman." I can't think of a better epitaph.
As for Tara's so-called "family," if they actually make an effort to communicate with her, I'll let them know she died. I doubt they will. And if they do, and they come here wanting to take her body back to Podunkville, Arkansas or wherever the redneck hell they come from—well, they'll find out what a Slayer is.
"Hi, Sheila," I say as I enter. "Hey, Wills. I'm here to give you your daily news update."
"Buffy," says Sheila. I'm so glad she's gotten over calling me "Bunny." Not only is it not my name, it freaks Anya out. "I'm glad you're here. I've got a meeting to go to, and I didn't want to leave her alone."
That's Sheila down to the floor. She's been making calls, getting people Willow knew to stay with her as much as possible. Booking Willow's friends is her way of trying to get some control over the sitch. If it helps her get through this, hey, not arguing.
"No prob," I say. "Xander usually swings by after work, and I can keep her company until then."
"Good. Ira will be here this evening. Thanks, Buffy." Sheila leans down to kiss Willow's forehead, then rushes away.
"Your mom's a bit wacky," I tell Willow. "You were right, though: she does love you." I sit down by her bedside and put some music on. Today it's Michelle Branch, who made the top of the Willow Hit Parade a few months back. Then I pull out a local newspaper. "Let's see—Town Hall is being renovated again. They're debating calling it the Richard Wilkins Memorial Town Hall. If they put it up for a vote, I swear I'm stuffing the ballot box with 'no' votes. Speaking of politics, the California Legislature finally got out of deadlock. I'm sure that's important to someone. Oh, and in News of the Weird, you remember that thing a few years back about that six-foot, two hundred pound woman in Bakersfield who beat the hell out of some ninety-eight pound weakling who goosed her? Get this: they just got married. Geez, and I thought my relationship with Spike was left-of-center. Speaking of which, we've seen neither pasty white hide nor bleached hair of him for a month now. Don't think I'm gonna get comfy until I know just where he is . . ."
I don't know why I do this, not really. I give her the news almost every day, always talking fast and making snarky comments on everything, like maybe I can trick her into laughing or rolling her eyes or doing some damn thing other than laying there staring into space.
At first, I just held her hand and told her I loved her and begged her to come back. There's only so long you can do that, though, before you realize it's Just Not Working. Don't know what will work, unfortunately, so pretty much stuck being a newsreader for now.
So I update her on local, state, national, and international news, trying to keep it light. Which makes the "international" segment of the Buffy News Brief very, well, brief, but the local news more than makes up for that.
"Just did the spring cleaning of grindylows out of Lake Wilkins," I tell her. "Betcha you're sorry you missed that. Dawn filled in for you, though." Killing grindylows means someone—and by that I mean me—has to dive into the lake, locate the annoying little water demons, and toss them up on the shore, where her handy accomplices—and by that I mean the Scoobies—douse them with saltwater or cut them to pieces with sharp things. Messy, yeah, but a good introduction to Slaying for Dawn. "I'm training her now, you know. She was right; she needs to learn how to defend herself. She needs to learn how to make her way in this world. I can't always protect her, not if I want her to experience anything. Mom got that with me. I'm just getting it with her. She's so amazing, Will. She's just so amazing."
I look at the clock. "Listen, I've got to start my shift at the Doublemeat soon, so I'm gonna leave. Xander will be here any minute, though, so you just hang tight." I swallow the lump in my throat. "I love you, Will. I really, really love you. Please come back soon." I lean over to kiss her face and brush a hand through her hair, then leave.
"I might have expected this," said Giles when we first realized Willow had checked out. "Catatonia. She can't deal with what she's done, so she has retreated from the world."
"But it wasn't all her," Xander protested. "I mean, she was on some pretty serious mojo. There was barely any Willow left in all that."
I rang in, too. "She kept saying she wasn't Willow anymore. Was she possessed or something?"
"That's not entirely accurate. Yes, to a great degree, the dark forces she conjured took her over, bringing out every negative aspect of her personality and augmenting them, while forcing her soul into retreat. But Willow is also aware that she allowed those forces in for the sake of vengeance. She's also aware of the fact that—that the negative aspects the magic brought out in her were already present. They are present in all of us, of course, but most of us keep them in check. Willow has been forcibly introduced to the violence in her own nature and has seen the ultimate result of it."
Giles finished his explanation, and no one else talked—not me, not Anya, not Xander, not even Dawn—for a long time. I know my personality has a dark side. I've walked way too close to the edge as the Slayer. It's hard enough for me to deal with that, but for someone like Willow, who's inherently a good, gentle person . . . I can't imagine.
"So what do we do?" Xander finally asked, sounding sick.
"Just what you did," said Giles. He looked at Xander with so much pride in his eyes it brought tears to mine. "We cannot deny what she's done. It may seem counterintuitive, but to do so would be to drive her further back, as she would feel she has to hide from us. If we acknowledge how far she went, however, and still assure her of our love and support, I believe we will ultimately reach her."
"What if we don't?" Dawn asked. "I mean, I hate to think about it, but what if—what if she doesn't come back?"
I remembered something then. "What about that spell Willow did when I went blanko after Glory took Dawn? Could we do something like that?"
"Not any of us," Giles said. "I do know of adepts who could, however, and if it comes to that, I'm sure they'd be willing to aid us. For now, though, I feel it would be best if we try to reach her through non-magical measures."
So that's what we've done. Day in, day out, we've gone to Willow, played her favorite music for her, read to her, talked, everything we could think of. I don't know if we've even registered.
Xander tries the hardest, of course. He's at Willow's bedside every day. He talks to her about when they were kids, mostly, reminding her of the freckle-faced cutie she was in the pictures her family's placed by her bed.
There's a bond between the two of them no one can touch—not Anya, not Giles, not me, not even Tara, while she was alive. Xander is the brother Willow never had, and she's his sister. That's why he could reach her, like the way only Dawn could reach me. It's a bond that goes deeper than magic ever could.
"I get it now," Xander says to me one day while we're sitting on my front porch together.
"What 'it' do you get?" I ask him.
"You and Dawn. What you said before the battle with Glory. I get why you couldn't sacrifice her. Not that I ever thought it was a great idea," he adds quickly. "If it had come down to—to having to kill Willow . . ." He shakes his head. "Even to save the world, I don't think I could've done it." He looks at me. "Makes me respect what you had to do with Angel even more."
"I know exactly what you mean." It's good to hear what Xander just told me. He understands, really understands now, in a way no one has before. Not ever. "Let's just be thankful it didn't come to that."
"Already there. Big time."
I smile at him. "It just took your heart. Your love. And that's a better weapon than anything I've got in my toy box."
"Oh, yeah. I'm the Love Warrior!" We both laugh. "I'll have to put that on my business cards: 'Xander Harris, Carpenter and Love Warrior. Framing Your House—Saving Your World.'" He looks down at his hands. "So if my heart's so great, why does it keep making huge mistakes?"
"Maybe because you don't trust it enough," I say.
"Yeah, well . . ." Xander heaves a sigh. "Love makes you do the wacky. Guess I should've figured that out by now. I've now got this world to deal with where by best friend who I'd have sworn would never hurt a fly went on a rampage and tried to destroy the world, while my ex-fiancée, a demon, tried to help us stop her. And here's the wacky: I love them both." His voice breaks a little on the last word. "God, I wish I could stop loving Anya now that she's a demon again. I wish I could just be mad at Willow for what she did. I wish things could be clear, the way they used to be."
"Things not so easy for the Love Warrior," I say in complete sympathy.
"How many people do you think Anyanka's killed?" Xander asks quietly. I've got no answer, and he nods. "Exactly. Probably more than Spike. Maybe even more than Angel. She had a thousand years, give or take. So why can't I feel the same way about her as I do about the aforementioned bloodsuckers?"
I sigh myself, trying to figure out how to help him. "If it makes things any better, comparing Anya to vampires is kind of apples and oranges. Vampires kill for food and fun. Anya just showed up and took the vengeance scorned women told her to take. It's not like she did the evil thing for its entertainment value."
"No, not like some geeks I could mention. It's all screwed up, Buffy. I don't know what to believe anymore."
He's so confused, and I'm not much better off. So I do what I can: I hug him. He hugs me back.
"Xander giving out hugs?" asks Dawn's voice from inside the door. "Can I get in on that action?"
Xander lets go of me and holds out an arm to Dawn. She practically pounces on him and ends up sitting in his lap. He looks kinda startled. Dawnie needs the physical contact, though. For all her bravery, this has been incredibly tough on her.
"What'cha talking about?" she asks.
"I'm the Love Warrior," Xander announces. Dawn giggles. "That, and the world's really screwed up. Not sure if the two are connected."
"You know what I was thinking? I was thinking we need to have some fun," Dawn says. "Just the three of us, maybe Giles, just to get our minds off of things. The new Star Wars movie is out, and Hayden Christensen is a total babe. How about we go see it?"
"I think the kid's got a terrific idea," I say.
"Yeah, go and see a movie about strange creatures, mystical warriors, battles between good and evil—sounds all escapy to me," says Xander. Dawn elbows him. "Oof!"
"You deserved that," I say. "What do you say, Xander? Take a couple of your favorite girls to a movie?"
He squeezes Dawn around her waist. "I'm gonna go with the yeah. I'm buying, no arguments."
"Who was gonna argue?" asks Dawn.
Dawn and I are washing up the supper dishes, waiting for Xander to pick us up for the movie, when she drops a bomb.
"Buffy," she says, "why don't you and Xander get together?"
I just about drop a dish. Thank God for Slayer speed, and for the fact that Giles is elsewhere. I make with the hemming and hawing, since words don't seem to be presenting themselves.
"I'm serious," she says. "Xander knows all about your Slayer-ness, he's okay with it, he likes helping with fighting the bad guys, he loves both of us, and he's such a sweetie, and you've gotta admit he's kind of a hottie. Why shouldn't you two go for it?"
I finally manage to get my vocal cords and my mouth working at the same time. "Well, um, you're right: Xander is all those things. He's wonderful, and I could do a lot worse." I make a face. "Okay, have done a lot worse. I couldn't love Xander more, I really couldn't. It's just that . . ." Damn. The way Dawn puts it, only a crazy person would turn down Xander. But then, I've never been big with the mental health. "Look, there are some guys you feel that way about, and there are some you just don't." I pass her a glass to dry. "Xander's my big brother. If he and I wanted to do the romance thing, we might be able to make it work, but . . . who would be my Xander then? I know I'm not making sense . . ."
"No, not really," agrees Dawn.
I shoot her a Death Glare. "What I'm trying to say is that things are so good between us now that I wouldn't have it any other way. Boyfriends are good and all, but someone like Xander comes along once in a lifetime, if you're really, really lucky. That make sense?"
"Yeah, I guess it does." Dawn finishes drying the last glass, and I let the water out of the sink. "It would sure simple things up, though."
"No arguments there. On top of everything else, though, I think he's still got Anya Issues. It's gonna take him some time to figure that out." I finish drying my hands, and as soon as I do, the object of our discussion comes in the door.
"You two ready for some Star Wars action?" Xander asks.
Unfortunately, the movie turns out to be about as escapy as Xander predicted. Watching Anakin Skywalker's mother die in his arms and his revenge on the Sand People reduces all three of us to tears. Luckily, there's enough action afterward that we can pull ourselves together enough that when we leave the theater, we don't look like we've just been to a funeral.
"It's so sad," says Dawn as we walk back home. "I mean, we already know what he'll turn into. It's like Willow: he got everything wrong."
"Hey, but don't forget that we already know the end of the story, Dawnie," Xander reminds her.
"Yeah," I say. "Remember, Leia leads the Rebellion to victory, and Luke brings his father back from the Dark Side. It's all good in the end."
"I guess so. It's just hard, y'know, that he has to go through all of that. And what about Padme? She loves him, and he's gonna go all evil on her." Dawn sighs. "I wish . . . oops, better not. It'd just be nice if things didn't have to get so screwy before they get better."
"If it wasn't for the bad times, we wouldn't know what to do with the good times," I say.
"That makes absolutely no sense," says Dawn. She's probably right. "On the other hand—Hayden Christensen. No bad there. He's a hottie!"
I'm glad she's changed the subject, so I go along with it. "I dunno. I kinda prefer Ewan McGregor."
"Strangely enough, neither of them do a thing for me," says Xander. Dawn elbows him again. "On the other hand, gotta love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Yoda. Who knew he could lightsaber-fight like a gnat on crack?"
"So if he can do that, why does he have to walk with a cane?" asks Dawn.
"Good question," says Xander. He spends the rest of our walk home coming up with weirder and weirder theories about Yoda's cane.
On balance, it's been a pretty good evening.
I'm teaching Dawn kickboxing. It's a good style for someone small and slim and without the advantage of being a Slayer. She's just starting, but I can already tell she's going to be good at it. Xander rigged a heavy bag in our backyard, and we work out almost every day. Dawn and I go jogging together to improve her stamina, do t'ai chi for balance and concentration, and I've got her on a strength-training regimen with the weights I salvaged from my pretty-much-wrecked workout room behind the Magic Box. I'm also teaching her to use the lightest of my swords. She sits in on my training sessions with Giles, too, now that he's back. I train with him mostly for old times' sake, because I need his presence, his familiarity. I need him.
Dawn likes the training because it shows her I'm not trying to shelter her anymore, but prepare her; I like the time together. How could I have wasted so much time when I could have been helping her grow up? Fifteen is such an awful age. Mine was horrible because I was a new Slayer; Dawn's is horrible for a bunch of other reasons, like Mom being dead, the adults in her life all going blooey, people dying . . .
But I'm back with her now. Every day brings something new for me to be awed by in her. She's so strong, to have survived the past two years and not even be in a mental institution. So smart, so beautiful, so tall—how did she get so much taller than me, anyway?
"Maybe Slaying stunts your growth," Dawn suggests.
I thump her lightly on the head with a hairbrush. I got out of the habit of doing her hair, but it's something we both love, so I've been making up for lost time. Dawn's got such gorgeous hair, too, so thick and shiny and you can do anything with it. Lately, she's been lobbying for highlights. I'm not so sure about that.
"So, working at the Doublemeat until nine," I tell her. "After that, I'll pick you up at Janice's, and you can patrol with me, Giles, and Xander. It'll just be a light sweep; not a whole lot of vamp activity here during the summer. And after that . . ."
"Movie and ice cream!" Dawn finishes. "My night to pick the movie, too, remember?"
I remember. "Just nothing with Freddie Prinze, Jr. in it, okay? For some reason, he creeps me out."
During the day, Dawn's a teenager. She laughs, she shops, she flirts, she giggles, she whines about as much as any teen (and considering how much more she has to whine about than most teens, I can't say I'm complaining), she obsesses about clothes, makeup, and boys, all the ordinary stuff that most kids her age do. Aside from our training sessions, it doesn't look from the outside like she's anything other than a nice, well-adjusted fifteen-year-old girl.
But at night, she whimpers and cries in her sleep. Sometimes I wake up to find her crawling into bed with me or dragging a blanket and pillow in to sleep on the floor beside my bed. I pretend I'm asleep, and she pretends she doesn't know I'm awake. All the things she can crowd out of her head during the day come back with a vengeance at night. I wish I could make them disappear.
But I can't.
One afternoon, I find Giles at Willow's bedside, reading to her. I listen from the doorway.
"I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely,
Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go; but
I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,--but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,--
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."
Giles closes the book, giving Willow that penetrating stare that makes you think he can see your thoughts. I sigh from the doorway, and he looks at me.
Having Giles back isn't exactly what I expected. I was sure he'd be incredibly disappointed in me for all that's gone on while he was away. Somewhere in my mind, too, I expected him to find some way to reverse all the damage.
Wrong on both counts. He's not disappointed in me, but he can't undo what's been done. I'm so glad he's here, though. Giles is a part of me. He stood by my side as I went through some of the toughest times of my life. My own dad—I still love him, but he can't deal with having two daughters. Giles may not be related to me by blood, but he's somehow managed to deal. That makes him my father in the best way, the real way.
We walk through the park, him in his casual clothes, me in my sundress, with my arm through his. Just like any other father and daughter on a beautiful May afternoon. I know he's not much for physical contact, but to me, it just feels right. Besides, Giles always smells so good. Dunno what it is, his aftershave, his cologne, his soap, but whatever it is, I love the way he smells.
I've explained a lot of things since he got back, and he's asked a lot of questions, but there's one subject we haven't touched. Mostly because it scares me half to death. I finally can't stand it anymore.
"When are you going to ask me about Spike?" I finally burst out.
"I assumed you would tell me when you were ready," he says.
I take a deep breath. "It just seemed like he was the only one who understood what it was like to crawl out of your own grave. He didn't expect me to be totally okay right away, and he wasn't disappointed when I wasn't. And then I got to thinking—the thing is, his chip didn't work on me, and he was convinced I'd come back part demon or something, and I kinda figured maybe I did, and things were seriously screwed up, so . . ." I sigh, afraid to look at Giles. "Bad decisions. It went on for a few months, and then I realized I wasn't doing either of us any favors, so I called it off. He didn't take it too well, and now he's who-knows-where doing who-knows-what."
Giles doesn't say anything, and I have to ask, "Are you totally disgusted with me now?"
"No. No, Buffy, I'm not," he says, and I know he's telling the truth. "You may have made a bad decision, but believe me when I tell you that you are far from the only person in the world to make a bad decision about who to-to sleep with while under stress. For God's sake, you're not the only person in this conversation to have done so."
He sounds embarrassed. "Do I wanna know?"
"I should say not," he answers. I think he may be right. "I still do wonder if I might have spared you a painful lesson, though, if I'd been here."
I shrug. "I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. But it happened, and it's not like you can protect me from everything. You left because you thought it was best for me."
He sighs. "Perhaps. But perhaps, too, my motives were not entirely unmixed." I look at him. "I've wondered if the truth is that I left for my own sake as much as yours. When the musical demon was in town, you nearly died. I-I don't think I could go through that again, watching you die." I squeeze his arm a little, trying to comfort him. "Perhaps, too, I was looking for a life of my own, outside being a Watcher. It's all I've ever been. Well, that, a librarian, and a shop owner. Perhaps I was only being selfish."
"Enough with the self-torture," I tell him. "Giles, when you signed on to be my Watcher, you were just expecting to do some training and order me around. You didn't ever expect to play Dad to a bunch of kids with incredibly complicated love lives. You went way above and beyond for five freakin' years, even when the Watchers fired you. You are the least selfish person I've ever known."
He looks at me, and I can see the pride in his eyes. "Then that makes me second only to you."
Giles has never said the words, and I can count on my hands the times we've hugged each other. Doesn't matter, though. No one can make me feel as loved as he does.
The next day, Dawn asks to go with me when I visit Willow. I nod silently, and the two of us head for the hospital.
Xander's already there. He looks so tired. I wonder if he's been sleeping?
"Hey, Buffy, Dawnie," he says when he sees us.
"We thought we'd drop by and help you entertain the captive audience," I say.
Xander cocks his head toward Willow. "You know, she puts up with my puns much better when she's like this."
I head for the CD player and put in a little Matchbox 20. Xander stands up from his chair, and Dawn goes to stand at Willow's bedside.
"Hey, Willow," she says. "It's me, Dawn. I-I wanted to say hi, and I miss you, and-and I wanted to tell you I know you didn't mean all those things you said. It's okay, I'm okay. I just—I just want you to come back. I know it hurts, but . . . please. After Buffy died, you helped me, you helped me so much. You just need to know that whatever you're going through, we want to help you, so you just need to-to come back . . ." Dawn trails off, turning away, her eyes bright with tears. "I can't," she whispers.
Xander puts an arm around her shoulders. "Hey, listen, they've got frozen yogurt in the cafeteria. How about we get some?"
Dawn nods, sniffling just a little. Xander looks at me.
"I'll join you in a minute," I tell him. "Just wanna talk to Willow a bit first, okay?"
Xander nods and leads Dawn away. I turn and face Willow. There are some things I haven't said to her that I need to, and that maybe she needs to hear.
"You're really pissing me off, you know that?" I say. "Don't get me wrong: I still love you, and believe me, I know what it's like, not wanting to come back. Been there, done that, multiple times. But you're stronger than this. You always have been. Problem is, you never saw it."
I take a deep breath, trying to stay under control. "It wasn't magic that made you strong. It wasn't Tara who made you wonderful. You were all of fifteen when I first met you, this incredibly shy, quiet, smart little thing that didn't let the vampires intimidate her. I was the Slayer, and I wanted to get away from it all. You were the one who wouldn't run from it. I was supposed to keep you safe, but you couldn't just let me do my job; you had to help. You offered me everything you had.
"I told you, remember? When you were getting off the magic, I told you, 'You were never just some girl.' Didn't you listen? Did these past few months without the magic, and without Tara, tell you absolutely nothing? Didn't you once ever look around at the people who loved you and say, 'Gosh, I must be someone special'?" I'm crying a bit myself now. "Why didn't you listen? Was it our fault? Did we not say it enough, or not in the right way? Help me out here!"
I sniffle back some tears, get myself back under control. "We're going to get you back. Hide for now if you have to, but we're going to find some way to bring you back, and then we're all going to face this—together. No way are we letting our Willow go." I lean down and kiss her forehead. "I love you. See you tomorrow."
Dawn's had another nightmare, probably brought on by the visit with Willow this afternoon, and it sends her into my room. Her entrance startles me awake. There's no hiding it, and Dawn hesitates until I reach out an arm for her. In a second, she's burrowing into my bed and my arms. I hold her while she shakes and cries, and in a little while, she calms.
"Buffy, can I tell you something really awful?" she whispers.
"You can tell me anything," I say.
Dawn sniffles, then starts talking. "I know Tara's got to be in heaven, just like you were. I mean, there's no way she's not, right?"
"Tara is so in heaven."
"I know. But the thing is, I still want her here so much that if someone could bring her back, I'd want them to." Dawn gives a soft sob. "It just hurts so much, knowing I'll never see her again. I'll never be able to t-talk to her again. She'll never make me funny-shaped pancakes, or sing, or tell me what colors mean, never again, and I hate it! I wish she was here!"
"Shh." I stroke my little sister's hair as she cries, and I think about what to say. When she quiets down, I know what I need to tell her. "Dawnie, don't feel guilty about wishing Tara was still here. She was beautiful, and gentle, and loving, and wise. She made the world a better place by being here. Tara deserved to have a long, long life, filled with all the best things this world had to offer. She and Willow should've had years and decades to love each other. They should have grown old together, surrounded by friends and family. And only then, when she'd experienced everything she wanted to, she should've gone to heaven. Someone stole that from her, and it's not right. It's good that she's in heaven, but it would've been even better if she'd had a full life on Earth first. It's okay for you to wish she'd had all that, and that you'd had more of her."
Dawn hugs me tight. "You should have that, too."
"You know what?" I ask. "You're right. And I plan to. I wonder who the oldest Slayer on record was?"
"Ask Giles," Dawn suggests sleepily.
"I'll do that. I'll bet I can blow her out of the water."
"Betcha can." Dawn moves, turning over so that we're spooned. I wrap my arms back around her.
While Dawn is here in my arms, I know she's safe. I know I can comfort her, help her deal with everything that's wrong in her life. And I savor it, because she won't be here forever.
"I love you," I tell her.
"Love you, too, Buff," she murmurs.
She drifts off to sleep. I stay awake and hold onto her because I can. For now. I won't always be able to, and I'm okay with that.
For now, she's mine. Xander's at his apartment, alone. Anya's a demon. Giles is in town. Willow's in the hospital. Spike's who knows where.
It's all a mixture of the good and the bad, but I'll take it. It's called life, and I'm living it as long as I can.