"Is that the last box?" Willow asked the burly man in overalls as he wheeled a dolly down the ramp bridging the space between the porch and sidewalk.
He gave her an impatient glance. "Yeah. Furniture's packed up. I'll put this in the truck and we're good to go. You got anything else you want us to take?" There were probably dollar signs dancing the tango in his head. He'd already scalped them over the quick turnaround time on the move.
Shaking her head, Willow shattered his dreams. "The rest is in our car. We'll meet you at the apartment." She wasn't quite ready to leave yet. Leaving was so…final. This house – Buffy's house – had been the only real home she'd ever had.
And now it belonged to someone else.
With slow strides, Willow walked through the front door and into the kitchen. So many memories. Xander and Buffy trying to open the jelly jar after the Cruciamentum. Before-school breakfasts at the island with Joyce and Buffy. She wandered out of the kitchen and up the stairs. She'd stood right here, Willow turned and looked back to the first floor, the Halloween they'd turned into their costumes. Buffy had been at the foot of the stairs, and her eyes had grown huge when Willow came out as a ghost and not as Street Walker Willow.
Each room echoed with laughter and shouting matches. Ghostly images of slumber parties and stake sharpening sessions. Buffy, Xander, Joyce, and Dawn. They permeated the house. Sinking to her knees in Buffy's old room, Willow whispered, "I miss you. Every day. It's like a part of me died with you. I don't…I don't know what to do, Buffy. You were my best friend and sister all rolled into one.
"Did you know Dawnie's gone, too? And Xander. He's missing. I haven't seen him since the day Warren shot you. I'm so scared. I can't lose him, too. What am I supposed to do?" Her words were lost in the empty room. Lost just like Willow. "Oh, Goddess, Buffy. What am I going to do without you?" Her hands curled into fists as she bent forward over her knees. Sobs caught in Willow's throat. She wouldn't cry. She hadn't cried since the funeral. She didn't have time for tears.
Pushing back her grief left room for anger to escape. Willow screamed in sudden rage and pounded the floor. "This is all my fault!" she shouted. "I brought you back. I thought I was saving you from Hell. And you hated me for it. I didn't know, Buffy! I didn't know you'd been in Heaven!"
No one answered her. In fact, the silence seemed to mock Willow's outburst.
Willow slumped in defeat. She'd tried everything: crying, pleading, shouting. Apparently, it was time to move to the next phase, accepting. Willow wasn't sure she had the energy for that. She was absolutely sure she didn't have the desire for it.
She climbed to her feet and plodded from the room without another glance. There was nothing here for her now. Willow would carry the memories with her.
If there were tears in her eyes when she locked the door for the last time… No one was around to see them.
"What do you want for dinner?" Tara didn't actually sound enthused about the concept, and Willow glanced up from her intense study of nothing. Dark circles marred the skin beneath Tara's eyes, and there was a sallow tint to her normally creamy complexion.
"I'm not really hungry." Food hadn't seemed important. Scanning the haphazardly-stacked boxes in their tiny living room, Willow asked, "Do we even know where the dishes are?" Did they even have food in the apartment? "We could call for take out, I guess. Thai?" Her stomach rolled just thinking about eating. Adding spices to that would certainly be a mistake of epic proportions. "Soup from the place on campus?"
The questions appeared to stump Tara. She watched Willow dumbly.
"Why don't we go out?" It was absolutely the last thing Willow wanted to do, right behind eating. But she'd never seen Tara stretched so emotionally thin. And it wasn't like she loved sitting on their threadbare couch feeling the walls closing in. "Come on. My treat." She'd cashed in all of the savings bonds her parents had started for her when she was younger. Although the move and rent had eaten into the funds, there was enough for a meal out.
Standing up, she held out a hand for Tara. "What's your pleasure tonight, my Lady?"
A slow smile tilted Tara's lips. "Mmmm. I think I like your suggestion of the campus deli, Sir Willow. Shall we take your trusty steed," she gently mocked the battered, ancient car they'd bought after selling Joyce's Jeep, "or does a frolic through the meadow appeal?"
"Unfortunately, the meadow is infested with black knights, my Lady." And Willow had forgotten how to frolic. Even smiling took effort these days. "It would be safer if we took the steed." The Sunnydale nightlife had been on a non-stop frenzy in the five weeks since Buffy's death. "Would milady care to add a movie to our evening's entertainment or will a feast and time with her favored knight suffice?" It had been so long since they'd done this, played these lover-like roles. Willow felt awkward and out of sync with the flowery speeches and teasing.
Tara shook her head and entwined their fingers. "No, Sir Willow. Just the pleasure of your company at our private feast." Raising their hands, she kissed Willow's fingers. "I've missed you, sweetie." She must have felt the strain of their play, too. Her voice wobbled on the final words, and her grip tightened for a moment.
Willow almost protested. She hadn't gone anywhere. She'd spent the last three weeks on the couch, right here in the room. But she knew what Tara meant. "I'm sorry." Nothing seemed to matter anymore. Willow hadn't been able to muster the energy or the motivation to do more than exist once she'd shut the door on their former lives the day they'd left the Summers' home. She'd been mentally and emotionally absent for weeks.
"Don't be sorry, Sir Willow." Using their hands as leverage, Tara pulled Willow outside.
It was a beautiful night. Cool with the hint of a breeze. Even the starts had come out to play. Tilting her head back, Willow took the time to enjoy the sight and hunted for familiar constellations. "Remember that night on the roof?"
"The one where you laughed at my names for the stars?" Tara climbed behind the wheel while Willow tried to find a reply that wouldn't put her farther into the doghouse. "Oh, for Goddess sake, get in the car. I was joking, sweetie." Leaning across the front seat, Tara shoved the passenger door open in invitation.
Willow trotted around and slid in. "I'm..."
"If you say you're sorry, I'm going back inside, Sir Willow." When had Tara gotten so commanding? "We are done being sorry. Tonight is devoted to merriment." Reaching across the console, Tara stroked Willow's fingers. "I knew you were teasing, Will. I remember that night, too."
Some of the lighthearted mood faded. Willow closed her eyes and concentrated on the soothing feel of Tara's fingers. She wasn't going to ruin the evening. She wasn't...even though tears sprang up out of nowhere. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she reopened her eyes. Tara was right. They needed to go out and have a good time. She had to stop wallowing in misery. "Please don't desert me, my Lady." With as much dramatic flair as she could muster, Willow clasped her hands over her heart. "It would wound me grievously were you to grow weary of me."
It was a good enough performance to garner giggles from Tara as she pulled out of their parking spot. "It seems like forever since we've been out." Slowing for a stop sign, Tara glanced across the car. "I've been thinking..."
That was bad. Not the thinking. But the "what" behind the thinking. Willow raised her eyebrows and waited.
"Don't you look at me with that tone, missy," Tara warned. Which prompted Willow to cross her arms and push her brows even higher. "Oh, fine. You win. Goddess." She failed miserably at pretend outrage. "I got a call from one of my professors last week. There's an opening for a research assistant in his department."
"Really?" Willow had been a Scooby for so long that non-demon related jobs had fallen off her radar. "Are you...are you considering it?" What would that mean for them? How could Tara work and still help with patrol? Ah. Patrol wasn't an issue. Willow stared out the windshield, pressure building in her chest. "What kind of a job?" The words hurt to say. Willow's throat had constricted. She worked around the problem, however, and turned her attention back to Tara.
Tara bit her lip. "I was. We need the money, sweetie. And maybe Mr. Giles was right. Maybe we do need to move on with our lives," she nearly whispered, glancing worriedly at Willow. "But let's talk about it tomorrow. We need a night out. Please. Just forget I said anything for right now."
Making a conscious effort not to overreact, Willow took off her seat belt and scooted across the front seat. "Did you say something, Tar? I couldn't hear you." Leaning closer, she kissed Tara's abused lip. "Hmmm, I'm the only one who gets to nibble this. Remember? It was our second rule. Right after 'no hiding behind your hair.'" Tara had changed so much since then. They all had, she silently acknowledged. Willow kissed Tara one more time before reclaiming her seat.
"Sweet talker." Blushing and smiling Willow's favorite crooked smile, Tara turned into the UC-Sunnydale campus. It was nearly deserted this time of year. Only graduate students and faculty worked through the summer months. That meant they managed a close-in parking space, and Willow quickly ran around the car to assist Tara from behind the wheel. "You have such manners, Sir Willow."
"Only with you." Willow winked. "My mother always said I was a bull in a china shop when it came to interpersonal relationships."
"Not a bull, sweetie." Tara's smile went past teasing and edged toward pure deviltry. "More like a clumsy puppy, all bounce and no coordination." She relented at Willow's overdone pout, bending to kiss Willow's outthrust lip. "I suddenly wish we'd decided to stay home for dinner," she said softly.
Ooh, horny Tara had arrived at the party. All of Willow's worries went into temporary hiding. She'd never been able to resist Tara in this mood. Leaning in, Willow lightly pushed Tara back against the car. "We don't have any food, Tar." Her hands found a home on Tara's hips, fingers stroking Tara's lower back. "And by the time you let me out of bed, it wouldn't be safe to come back out." Well, it wouldn't be safe for normal, non-witchy people.
There was a moment where the world stilled; the only thing moving was Tara. Willow stared, spellbound, as Tara raised a hand and traced a single finger over Willow's cheek, lips, and throat. "I love you," Tara murmured. "I missed you every day we were apart; I should never have given up and walked away."
"Shh." Ducking her head, Willow caught Tara's finger in her teeth and nibbled for a second. "Don't, baby. Don't beat yourself up." Willow had done enough of that to last a hundred lifetimes. And it hadn't solved anything. "It's over; we're together, and I love you. That's all that matters." Linking their fingers one more time, she pulled Tara away from the car. "Stop stalling and take me to dinner. I'm not letting you welsh on our date."
When they entered the tiny restaurant, the deli wasn't empty. Several tables held groups of students or a single student accompanied by a pile of books and a laptop. Willow found an empty table near the door and pulled out a chair for Tara. "Your usual?"
"Tonight feels different, like a fresh start." Tara quickly scanned a menu left on the table. "In honor of that… I'll have half a club on wheat with a bowl of tomato soup."
"Living dangerously, aren't you? Pretty soon, you'll chomping on a double cheeseburger with all the fixings and an extra large serving of onion rings." Shaking her head in mock disapproval, Willow hurried to the counter to place their order. As she waited for their food, she leaned against the counter and watched Tara.
When they'd first begun dating, they had eaten here at least once a week. Corner tables or tables tucked away behind potted plants were the norm. Neither of them had been comfortable flaunting their relationship. And Tara… She was nearly unrecognizable as the shy witch who'd huddled at their nearly-hidden table with her hair masking her face. The new and improved Tara met Willow's eyes across the small restaurant and blew a kiss. Right out in the open for everyone else to see.
Right there, in a cheap campus eatery, Willow realized one undeniable fact: She was a very lucky woman. Through luck or the Goddess' divine plan, she'd survived five years of active Scooby duty and twice won the love of the most beautiful woman in Sunnydale. Tara was right. Something about tonight did feel different.
"Here you go," the cashier interrupted Willow's musings. "You need anything else?"
"Nope. I've got everything I need," Willow said, only partially referring to the food on the tray. She made a pit stop to fill up their Styrofoam cups and then carried dinner back to the table.
It was full dark when the waitstaff shooed Tara and Willow out of the restaurant. They'd had so much to catch up on. Even though they'd met at the Pump for coffee several times over the last few months, things had been awkward. Willow had been afraid to push too hard, to act too desperate for Tara to come back to her. Every conversation had been filled with emotional minefields.
Not tonight. Tonight, Willow felt… Well, free wasn't quite right. There had definitely been new, emotional traps to avoid. After a few false starts, though, they'd talked and even managed to laugh. Held hands. Shared a few kisses.
Snapping on her seat belt, Willow waited for Tara to start the car. As if Tara heard her thought, the engine sputtered to life and the headlights sprang on. The illumination highlighted two people struggling at the far side of the quad. "Tara! Stop!"
Willow fought her way free of the seatbelt she'd just fastened and shot out of the car. She sprinted toward the figures. "Hey!" It might not be a vampire. Not every danger in Sunnydale had fangs.
But this one did. With a snarl, the vampire flung the co-ed he'd had been about to snack on to the ground. His yellow eyes gleamed in the dim glow of the sidewalk lights.
Chanting, Willow whipped her hand forward. The energy drain was immediate...and far more than she was expecting. It was a simple spell. At least, it was supposed to be. The tiny, golfball-sized fireball she'd anticipated resembled a basketball, though. Willow blinked against the glare and watched the fireball zoom toward her intended target.
The vampire disappeared in a cloud of dust seconds before the fireball exploded uselessly against a nearby tree, setting the bark and low-hanging branches on fire. Willow watched flames slowly turn into sullen embers and wisps of smoke in confusion. What had just happened?
Tara jogged past. She helped the dazed and shaky college student to her feet. "Our car's right over there in the parking lot," Willow heard her say. The rest of the conversation was an unintelligible murmur.
Willow had finally found an answer to her unspoken question on the ground where the vampire had been. Lying in the pile of dust was a deadly, sharpened stake.