Title: Cunctari Moribundum
Author: Lint
Email: CrashDarby@aol.com
Disclaimer: All Buffy folk belong to Joss, Mutant Enemy, and UPN.
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Willow struggles in the aftermath.
Author's Note: Post Grave. Loosely based on spoilers about Willow going to England with Giles at the beginning of season 7.

***

cunctor -ari dep. [to delay , linger, hesitate];of things,[to move slowly].

moribundus -a -um [dying , expiring; subject to death, mortal; causing death, deadly].

-From the Latin Grammar Aid and Wordlist.

***

It happens in a split second.

A smile. So wondrous, warm and inviting. A body. So molded, so soft, so cherished. A girl. So perfect, so kind and caring. A love. So infinite, endless, and pure. A bullet. So quick, so hard, so brutal.

The blood hits her cheek before she can even flinch at the sound of glass breaking. The words that leave her lovers lips forever etched into her mind. The concern in the arbitrary phrase. Like a stain on her shirt ever mattered. Only the substance of that stain did. The life it shed from earth with the last dying beat of the heart ripped into pieces. The sound of her body hitting the floor. The sight of the light behind her eyes fading into nothingness.

The sadness.

The hatred.

The rage.

Blood is everywhere. On her shirt. On her hands. On her soul.

She is forever tainted.

She is forever dying with each passing second.

Warren stares calmly down at her; his body language indicates no knowledge of the fact that there is not an inch of skin upon him. His eyes are as round as marbles. There is apology in them, perhaps a note of sorrow. He doesn't speak. He never does. She doesn't want him to be here. Not in the intimate setting of her final moment. Of her lover's last breath. He killed her. She killed him.

Eye for an eye.

Life for a life.

An exchange that had resulted in nothing.

Emptiness and pain wash over her in a wave of loathing and self-pity. She can't stand the feeling of coldness under her fingers. The stare those lidless apologetic eyes gaze upon her. She can't take it. She is weak. It surprises her to feel such a way after being so strong.

The body in her arms grows colder and the sight of the dead pathetic madman does not help her grief.

Tara is dead and gone.

Warren is dead and gone.

It does not help her troubled mind to know she had played a part in both of them.

It does not help to know she could not have stopped either.

Nothing ever seems to help any longer.

She strokes a blood-covered hand through damp, limp hair. Tara is not moving anymore. Warren still stares. He opens his mouth.

She screams.

The bullet happened in a split second.

One she's forced to watch on replay in her mind forever.

***

The sheets are soaked with her sweat when her eyes snap open. She throws them swiftly from her body and moves to sit up and catch her breath. She had hoped the dreams would fade since she's returned from England. She sighs and knows the hope is futile. It is her penance. Her purgatory. She does not wish to be redeemed. She knows that she does not deserve it. Would not accept it were it ever offered.

She feels a warm hand on her shoulder and a glass of water is pressed gently against her lips. Her eyes lift to a concerned face standing over her. The skin underneath the eyes is purplish and the rest of the face pale from lack of proper sleep. His price for remaining ever vigilant by her nightmare riddled side. The water is cool and feels smooth sliding down her parched throat. She takes the glass from his hand a finishes the contents before setting it down in the table beside the bed. She looks at the clock. It reads 3:47 in the morning. It was more sleep that she'd gotten in awhile. Her eyes close against the ache of her mind begging for more rest. She knows it will not come so easily.

The mattress sinks against his weight and she feels his arm wind around her shoulder, his lips against her damp forehead. She sinks into his embrace and allows herself to feel calm for a little while. He does not have to ask. He knows it's the same dream over and over again.

Warren.

Tara...

She shudders and his arm around tightens around her. The tears fall before she has a chance to fight them and he gently wipes them away. He offers no words of comfort, no soft cooing in her ear. No telling her it would be okay. He'd tried once and she'd asked him not to. Placating one's misery never produces a favorable result. He is merely there. And for that she is grateful.

Minutes pass, and eventually the tears run dry. Not because she wants them too. She thinks the glands are overworked and simply refuse to produce more. The ache inside her head grows and he offers a pill and another glass of water. She always forgets why she tries to sleep naturally. She takes the small blue oval into her mouth, swallows a gulp of water, and allows the chemical whirlwind to take hold. He pulls her back to the bed but does not let go. Her breathing slows, regulates into induced slumber. Her last thought before succumbing is gratitude he has not given up on her.

At least not yet.

***

Breakfast is already on the table when she walks into the kitchen. Scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee. She had the brief urge to ask for a bowl of cereal, but quells it. She always eats what he makes for her. She sits and takes a sip of coffee from the cup already waiting for her. Two creams three sugars. Just how she always takes it. The caffeine counteracts the last remaining effects of the sleeping pill, and she lifts a fork to scoop up a bit of egg from the plate. The toast isn't buttered but she barely notices, only takes another sip of coffee when the dry crumbs crawl slowly against her throat.

She watches his sleep depraved form fix his own helping of eggs, feels the ache of guilt at the sight of his sagging shoulders as he works the spatula. He'd been suffering from insomnia as long as she could remember. Never by choice. She doesn't like the fact that he choses it for her.

He smiles at her as he takes a seat and begins to shovel the food into his mouth. The size of his coffee cup is twice as big as hers. She watches as he lazily butters a piece of toast and takes a bite. She puts her fork down, the churning in her stomach ruining her appetite once again, and sips more coffee. She wants to thank him for last night. She's wanted to thank him for every night but never seemed to find the words. She thinks he knows, or at least has a vague idea.

Her eyes wander past him and out the window. The sky is cold and gray and reminds her briefly of England. Giles still calls. Usually on Mondays when he knows Xander isn't here and they can talk freely without awkwardness of the third person phone syndrome.

"Eat," he says softly between a bite. "You hardly eat anything."

She looks back to him, stares at the slightly haggard face, and beaten eyes that look ten times worse during the day. He does not sleep unless she does, which is barely at all. If it weren't for that fact she probably wouldn't take sleeping pills at all. He doesn't like the fact that she welcomes her torment. She doesn't like that fact that she keeps him up. They're at a small compromise. It seems to work for now.

"I...," she begins.

"Don't talk," he interrupts. "Eat. Your ribs have been progressively getting more visible." His voice softens to nearly a whisper. "Just because the mind is ill doesn't mean the body should suffer."

She wants to scream at him then. To conjure up that old black magic and make him take back his words. It scares her that even after all that time with Giles; the urge for magic still resonates. It scares her more that she would want to direct it at him. He stopped her from destroying the world. And now he tries to stop her from destroying herself.

She sighs and scoops up a small portion of egg and slowly puts it in her mouth, and washes it down quickly with more coffee. His smile is tired and slow, but she still enjoys the sight of it. He leans across the table and kisses her forehead.

She washes the dishes and he leaves for work. It is the only time he is ever away from her. In some ways she enjoys the solitude. In more ways she enjoys his company. She leaves the dishes on the counter to dry and walks into the bedroom to make the bed. He does not say it, but she knows he thinks that his apartment hasn't been this clean since Anya still lived here. She figures it's the least she can do.

***

Usually she avoids Buffy's house as much as she can. The scars are still too fresh. The memories too vivid. A small part of her hasn't forgiven her best friend for burying Tara while she was away, and probably never will. When she is in the house she never goes upstairs. Mainly she'll talk to Buffy in the kitchen. It's a safe room. The one with the least amount of memories. She rarely talks to Dawn anymore. It's hard to carry on a conversation with someone when they can barely look you in the eye. It bothers her more than she shows. But she knows that it is just how Dawn is. She takes things hard, and anything surrounding the source of that hardship is unwanted. She hopes she'll grow out of it soon. Dawn is the last piece of Tara that she can bring herself to look at.

She knocks softly and Buffy smiles from behind the door and gestures for her to enter. They head straight for the kitchen, the blonde haired girl knowing the status of acceptance with the room. There is tea sitting on the counter and she politely refuses. She'd had another four cups of coffee at Xander's. She didn't need more caffeinated liquid charging through her bloodstream.

Buffy had asked her to come over, knowing she won't come of her own accord, but didn't say why. She knows it's mainly to check up on her. To see for herself what she constantly asks Xander. That yes, she is still sober of magic, yes she is still living, still breathing.

"Anya said hello," Buffy says, an ignored cup of tea resting in her hand.

Willow hasn't seen Anya in months. They were never really friends, and the vengeance demon never transports herself to the apartment, and Willow never sets foot in the magic shop.

"Tell her I said it too," she replies automatically.

Pleasantries feel strange as they throw themselves off her tongue. When one suffers loss, and then uses the anguish of that loss to embark on a revenge induced mass destructive path to destroying everyone and everything she'd ever cared about, the need for niceties seem so useless. Silence hangs in the air like an unwelcome guest and she wonders again why Buffy had asked her over.

"How is Xander?" Buffy asks, vainly gripping for pleasant conversation.

Xander refused to leave her side for long periods of time besides having to go to work. She didn't go to Buffy's, therefore neither did he. The magic shop was no longer the epicenter of slayer activity. Anya and Xander didn't talk anymore. Willow was banned from entering. Only Buffy and Dawn ever set foot in the place. Three were not enough to keep the lively hood of a home base active.

"He needs to sleep more," is her reply.

"He's still having trouble sleeping?"

Buffy doesn't know Xander's reason for his insomnia. He would never tell her.

"Yes."

"Has he tried to take anything?"

"No."

"Why not?"

Because he gives them to me, she thinks.

She shrugs and Buffy's eyes grow worried for a second, and she sips the nearly forgotten tea.

"Did you ask me over for a reason?" She asks, the urge to leave the house growing with each passing second.

"I need to have reasons now?" Buffy replies.

Willow shrugs again.

"I don't... You know I can't..."

"I know," Buffy replies. "I just thought that, well you could get over it through confronting your demons."

Willow flinches at the term. Confrontation with Buffy usually meant victory. Stand up and fight. Win. And everything is instantly all right. She is mildly curious to ask how the slaying has been all summer. Xander wouldn't talk about it with her, and Buffy never offers any information. Asking Anya and Dawn was out. The words are forming on the tip of her tongue but she doesn't ask.

"Could we go for a walk?" She asks. "I mean, I know you mean well, but..."

"Can't get out of here fast enough huh?"

She knows it is a joke, but doesn't find it funny. She feels the tears coming and knows it is out of her control. Buffy sees this and is immediately apologetic.

"I understand," Buffy says quickly. "I'm sorry. I thought that... I'm sorry. Just let me clean up here and then we can go."

She wants to say thank you, but her mouth is still.

***

"Dawn misses you," Buffy says finally after their third circle around the pond in Waverly Park.

She had begun to enjoy the silence before Buffy chose to spoke. It made it easier to close her eyes and pretend it was Xander walking next to her.

"How can she?" Willow replies.

"Willow," Buffy says, mildly shocked. "You really think that she doesn't? That she wouldn't?"

"I don't see why she would."

The comment causes the blonde to stop dead, but the redhead keeps moving. After a minute or two Buffy jogs to catch up.

"I don't believe you would think that," she says.

"She can't even look at me Buffy."

"You know Dawn..."

"Yes I do, which is exactly I could say what I did. Why I could believe it."

"I don't."

Willow sighs and keeps moving.

"It's not for you to believe," she says calmly. "Dawn will come around. I know she will. But for now she'd rather not think of me, or be near me. I understand Buffy. Really I do. I know she doesn't miss me. Not yet. But she will. At least I hope so."

Buffy doesn't say anymore. And eventually Willow walks home alone.

***

She is sitting on the couch staring at nothing when Xander walks through the door. He leaves his hard hat by the door and moves to sit next to her on the couch. She closes her eyes and lets herself enjoy his calming presence next to her, smells his earthy, sweaty construction worker scent. She leans into his shoulder and his arm wraps comfortably around her. She is glad he no longer tries to make small talk. He's the only one who doesn't. He is just there. He'd always known exactly what she wanted.

She makes dinner and barely touches it. She only eats a few small bites of lettuce from the salad and one or two nibbles from a piece of bread. Xander doesn't tell her to eat again. He knows he can only get away with that once a day. She tells him that she saw Buffy today. He asks how it went. She has no real answer. She'd gone through the rest of her interaction with calm distance. Buffy didn't understand her anymore. A fact her friend had not come to accept. She thinks that maybe that's why Dawn chooses to stay away from her. It's one of many possibilities.

Xander finishes eating and takes her nearly full plate away. She goes back into the living room and listens to him wash the dishes. She doesn't turn the TV on; it's only a distraction that provides no real comfort. When Xander watches, she doesn't pay attention. She is merely content in sitting next to him.

He comes into the room and sits next to her, clicks the TV on and flips through an endless sea of channels with nothing worth watching. It all seems so pointless to her. Talking pictures and moving images. They didn't mean anything. They didn't cure, didn't care, and didn't feel. Her stomach flips and she's glad she didn't eat enough to warrant throwing up.

"I feel so empty," she says.

He turns the TV off, lifts his hands to wipe away tears she hadn't realized had fallen. No words of comfort. No attempts of understanding. But he does understand. To her, through the best way possible. Not even trying. His eyes are caring and tired. She cries and lets him hold her.

***

Blood is the sound, the texture, the smell and the sight of everything in your life you never wanted to see, hear, or feel again.

Tara's silent and still body is bathed in it.

Warren's skinless form wears it like a uniform.

His eyes are no longer apologetic. His mouth no longer moves to speak.

For a second she thinks something is burning. It takes a moment to realize it is her.

Her hands are bound behind the giant wooden pole, the flames dance so elegantly at her feet. She knows she is being burned for her sins. For once it is a dream that doesn't bother her. She welcomes the end. Begs for it. She is tired of living a life where forgiveness is so easily offered. She wants to burn. Needs it. She wants to pay for her crimes.

Warren's dead eyes watch as the fire slowly trickles to her feet. Tara remains unmoved, the hole in her chest still leaking out life.

The pain is incredible as the fire spreads up her legs. She does not cry out. She lets it rip at her nerve endings, rake through every cell with unforgiving heat, unrelenting anguish. The smoke billows around her. She breathes it in, lets it blacken her lungs.

Tara, she thinks. I'm coming for you.

***

Xander's head is resting on hers when her eyes slowly open. They are still on the couch and the TV is still off. Her shoulder is numb from where is arm is still propped across it. She tries to wriggle out from under him, and is mildly confused when he doesn't move right away. She listens to the gentle rhythmic breathing and realizes he's asleep. She angles her head to try and look at his face. She hadn't seen him sleep a minute since she'd come home. Four months, twelve hours, thirty-six minutes and not a wink. She wants to see his eyes closed. She wants to witness him rest. She thinks of him as her knight in shining armor. Always has, and now it seems, always will. She was going to kill him, and still he said there was no place else he'd rather be. He told her he loved her. That he would never stop. In her mind it is one thing to say such things, and another to mean them. She'd learned the hard way that nothing is forever. He was trying his best to show her some things still could be.

Her lips touch his brow faintly and she makes herself fall still. She does not want to take this from him. She doesn't want to take it from herself. She concentrates and wedges her right arm between his back and the sofa, careful not to disturb him, and winds her left arm across his waist. She knows that as soon as she closes her eyes another nightmare will come. In this setting it somehow doesn't seem so terrible.

***

His lips are on hers in a whisper of affection.

Hands run through her hair.

His body presses into hers.

She does not have to open her eyes to know who it is.

She'd felt this way once. Had her heart trampled on because of it. Love realized and lost. She hadn't wanted to kiss him in years. She finds that once it is happening, it is truly not so bad. There are no significant others to concern themselves with. No backstabbing, no secrecy.

His lips taste like a promise she wishes he could keep.

One that would make everything all right.

One that could ease the pain.

And suddenly he stops. Her eyes open at the shock of the stilled movement. The peace and goodwill the kiss brought fades with each tick of a second. He is not looking at her. He is looking past her. Her brows knit together and she wonders would could be so damn appealing that he felt the need to stop. A chill runs down her spine when she feels it. The small bundle of energy patterned to a witch as telltale as a fingerprint. Her body shakes with recognition.

She slowly removes her limbs from him, tears falling and mouth hung open in relative terror. She already knows what she is going to see.

Tara is lying in a heap on the floor, the shredded remains of her heart visible through the hole in her chest. She bites her tongue to keep from screaming when she sees that her eyes are open. They are dull and unfocused, but the former witch knows they can see her. Warren is behind her, hidden in shadow, buried in dust. She wants to cover her ears so she cannot hear him laughing, but Tara's mouth starts to move.

"What about me?" She asks faintly with the breath of the dying. "What about me?"

***

She feels his hands gripping her shoulders roughly; shaking her from the images as her head bobs violently back and forth. His voice sounds like she is underwater, floating, drowning. His voice calls higher and her eyelids refuse to move. There is a sharp sting of pain rapped across her cheek, the heat from it spreading slowly across her face. When she finally wakes up he is immediately apologetic. Rushed and mumbled words of remorse for his action. He says she was screaming, he says he was shaking. She is not angry. It had worked. Her eyes were clear. Tara wasn't here. Warren wasn't laughing. His lips are soft against the reddened skin.

"I'm sorry," he says again.

She lies back onto the couch, her eyes finding and roaming across the ceiling. She knows he is blaming himself for her screams, for her nightmare. He feels weak if he falls asleep before her. If she is awake without him. She does not want him to feel that way. She carries enough grief and misery for the both of them. She takes his hand in hers, pulls on his arms so that he moves forward and they lie face to face. Seeing the deep concern in the chocolate brown orbs, she sighs. She is beginning to feel like a burden.

Her lips arch up and press against his in a silent thank you. She is glad for the grin that stretches across his mouth. Tara and Warren are not here watching them.

But somewhere deep inside it still feels that way.

***

The last person she ever expected to see on the other side of the door was the tall, longhaired brunette she hadn't seen in nearly two months. The knock itself was so soft she wasn't entirely sure she'd heard it. Dawn stood in the hall fidgeting with the ends of her hair, her eyes darting everywhere else but at the person in the doorway. Willow wonders how long the stand off will go on and Dawn opens her mouth the second the thought is finished.

"Aren't you going to let me in?" She asks.

Willow nods slowly and steps aside. Dawn brushes quickly passed her and wanders into the living room, tracing a finger along the back of the couch. Willow closes the door and follows after Dawn, safe to keep a respectable distance between them. Dawn stops moving and keeps one hand propped on the end of the couch. Willow knows that she isn't going to be the one to speak first. She's pretty sure Dawn knows that as well. Minutes pass as she waits for the teenager to speak.

"You're too skinny," she finally says, still keeping her gaze fixed somewhere else.

Willow instinctively looks down at her figure, sees the sharp angle of her hipbones protruding from under her plain black skirt. Sees the individual lines of her ribs rippling across her thin t-shirt. Xander has told her this many times. She was beginning to think he was the only one who'd noticed. She wants to tell Dawn the reason she can't eat is because nothing could ever taste the same after the last thing she can clearly remember lighting up her taste buds was the sheen raspberry lip gloss of her lover's mouth. Dawn wouldn't like that answer. She says nothing.

They both listen to the sound of the clock tick, tick, ticking away on the far wall. It is the only sound in the apartment. Willow wonders if Dawn is waiting for her to talk. She has no idea what she would say. She'd tried to apologize once to no avail. Dawn had simply run away from her. It was only the one incident, but it was enough to make her stop trying.

"Buffy told me what you said," Dawn says.

Willow's anger that her friend would tell her sister what she'd said is swift and venomous. She makes a small note to herself never to say anything revealing again, if it would be not be taken as such.

"You're wrong," the brunette says quietly.

Her stomach drops at the sincerity in the words, her heart tightens inside her chest. Dawn missed her. She knows that she missed Tara more, both of them did. But it didn't diminish the fact that after all she'd done. The power, the pain, the carnage. The horrible things she'd said....

Dawn would be forgiving.

Willow turns away from her guest at the realization. She does not want that. Not yet. Not when she feels she does not deserve it. She wanders into the kitchen and Dawn doesn't follow. She makes herself busy with rearranging the spice rack, and clearing a few empty soda cans out of the sink. She can hear Dawn in the living room, waiting for her to come out. Willow wants her to leave. She doesn't know what made Dawn come over. Yes, she said she'd missed her, but if that was the case, why choose today to come over and tell her? Had it really been that important that she was convinced otherwise?

"It's hard to see you without her;" the teen's voice says softy from behind.

A stabbing pain shoots through her chest to the spot where she could no longer feel her heart beat.

"It's hard to be without her."

The words just slip out.

Dawn understands the weight of them. She doesn't press the issue any further.

"Dawnie..." She begins.

"Please don't call me that."

The tears come without her noticing. She's tired of them constantly sneaking up on her.

One more thing lost.

Dawn doesn't come any closer. After ten minutes Willow still doesn't speak or move.

Dawn leaves and doesn't say good bye.

***

The next time she is at Buffy's house she is glad Xander is there with her. She sits at the kitchen table sipping a cup bland tea. She thinks it funny that Buffy drinks so much tea now. Perhaps it is her mild way of keeping Giles around. She stares out the window and tries her best to ignore the argument going on upstairs. The two of them knew she would not follow, perhaps not even hear, as they tossed conflicting ideals back and forth between each other. She thinks that they aren't aware of just how loud they are. She can hear nearly every muffled word through the ceiling.

Xander is telling Buffy that he didn't want to bring Willow to the house, that she does not want to be here. Buffy refuses to accept that. Xander says that maybe she doesn't know Willow as well as she thinks she does. Buffy says the same about him. The words spin off into a thousand other forms but the subject remains the same. They are fighting over her. She sighs and sips the tea and nearly wishes Dawn was around. Not for the company, but she thinks at least the awkwardness of sharing the same space so soon would be enough of a distraction.

There is the sound of something crashing to the ground, and their voices rise even higher. She admits to herself that Xander is right about one thing. She doesn't want to be here.

Footsteps thumping down the stairs, Buffy rushes into the kitchen, adrenalin pumped and wild eyed. She's seen the look many times before. Fresh from a fight. Willow eyes her curiously. She hadn't heard what was said to make her come storming downstairs. Xander appears behind Buffy, his eyes locked to the back of her head. He wasn't finished yet. Buffy is about to say something when Willow's eyes catch Xander's. She watches as the anger on his face quickly fades away. She realizes why when the warm droplet of water splashes against her hand.

Crying again.

She's stopped bothering to notice.

He pushes passed the blonde and stands in front of Willow, puts his arm on her shoulder. She thinks she'll form a groove in her skin if he keeps doing this. The argument was about her, but she wasn't exactly involved. Willow's eyes catch Buffy's and whatever the slayer had to say never makes it into verbal existence. Buffy looks at them and sees Xander's heartfelt concerns. Sees for maybe the first time the objective distance from the outside world the redhead put herself in. Buffy sees all of this and knows that everything she was yelling about was wrong. That she was wrong. Willow is surprised her friend is taking it so easily. Defeat is a concept she usually refuses to accept.

Xander lifts Willow up from the chair and walks her slowly to the door. Buffy doesn't move from her spot in the kitchen doorway as they pass her. When they reach the door Willow seems like she is not even there. Xander looks back at Buffy coldly and she only nods. She is sad but agrees.

Willow knows that she won't have to come back here unless she wants to.

***

Xander holds her hand in a loose comfortable manner as they walk around the pond. Tara had never been to Waverly Park. It is one of the few spots in Sunnydale she is free from her presence. It is one of the few places she'll let herself relax. He stops and they sit on a bench nearest the water. There are several ducks floating along the surface of the pond and Xander takes a package of crackers from his pocket and tosses bits and pieces to them. There is no small talk. He doesn't speak because he knows she doesn't need him too. Sometimes it still feels strange to her that he could be so silent. His mouth had rarely ever slowed down as long as she'd known him. Maybe learning to shut up was part of growing up.

She watches the ducks gobble up the crackers and she thinks of Dawn. She and Tara would do this together at other parks, with other crackers and other ducks. She thinks of how happy she was that Dawn and Tara were bonding. She thinks of how Tara would come home and her aura would nearly be singing from such a mundane activity.

The thought of Tara's happiness forms a pit in her stomach and she clenches her teeth against the discomfort.

How happy is she now with six feet of dirt resting upon her head?

She will not touch the crackers in Xander's hand because she remembers smelling the salt on Tara's fingers.

The pit grows into a cavern and before she can help it, her nails are clawing splinters from the bench.

The sharp sting of pain from the tiny pieces of wood pushing their way into her skin is a welcome relief from the memory. She feels the small warm rivulets of blood dropping from her fingers; the smell of Tara's salty hands will not fade. She stares across the pond and can see her lover's pale form standing on lily pads, the hole in her chest still spilling. She clenches her eyes shut but when she opens them again she is still there.

"What about me?" She hears on the wind. "What about me?"

She clenches her eyes shut harder, and claws deeper into the bench. Sharp stings and warm revelations.

The blast of energy is manifested in grief and escapes before she can even feel it form. The ducks scatter fearfully from the water and she snatches the crackers from Xander's hand and pitches them in. She feels his body tense and become rigid, feels him begin to inch away. Her anger dissipates instantly. She feels that all the months in England were suddenly a waste and clutches her bloodied hands wildly against his. She feels his impulse to move away from her, to run for his life. He'd stopped her once. He doesn't know if he can do it again. He still tries to pull away and she tightens her grip.

"I-I'm sorry," she whispers frantically.

His body is still tense, his eyes wide and uncertain. She feels the fear seeping from him and nearly bites a bit off her lip to keep from crying out. He is the last person in the world she wants to cause fear in.

"Please don't be afraid of me," she pleads. "Please."

His body relaxes instantly. She dares to look up at him and sees that once again he'd pushed all of his emotions aside. Like he'd always been doing for the last few months whenever she had needed him. A need that showed no signs of slowing and only grew with each passing day. She almost wishes she could be afraid of it.

His embrace is soothing. It always is. He doesn't say a word. He never dares speak of what she'd been and what she'd done. But it is always there. Now it seemed that even the mildest hope of that not being true was gone. Just as well. He carefully lifts her hand to his mouth, avoids the sticky redness drying against the skin, and places a chaste kiss on the back of it.

"Never," he says firmly. "Ever."

He gently pries her from their seat and walks her to the nearest bathroom. He washes her hands with oddly discolored and funny smelling water. He uses the tweezers from his Swiss Army knife to remove the splinters. She yawns and suddenly feels so tired. For once she doesn't think she'll need a pill tonight. The nightmares will come. They always do. Right now the thought didn't seem as terrifying.

It's a fact she thinks she's beginning to accept.

***

It happens in a split second.

A smile. So wondrous, warm and inviting. A body. So molded, so soft, so cherished. A girl. So perfect, so kind and caring. A love. So infinite, endless, and pure. A bullet. So quick, so hard, so brutal.

The blood hits her cheek before she can even flinch at the sound of glass breaking. The words that leave her lovers lips forever etched into her mind. The concern in the arbitrary phrase. Like a stain on her shirt ever mattered. Only the substance of that stain did. The life it shed from earth with the last dying beat of the heart ripped into pieces. The sound of her body hitting the floor. The sight of the light behind her eyes fading into nothingness.

The sadness.

The hatred.

The rage.

Blood is everywhere. On her shirt. On her hands. On her soul.

She is forever tainted.

She is forever dying with each passing second.

Warren stares calmly down at her; his body language indicates no knowledge of the fact that there is not an inch of skin upon him. His eyes are as round as marbles. There is apology in them, perhaps a note of sorrow. He doesn't speak. He never does. She doesn't want him to be here. Not in the intimate setting of her final moment. Of her lover's last breath. He killed her. She killed him.

Eye for an eye.

Life for a life.

An exchange that had resulted in nothing.

Emptiness and pain wash over her in a wave of loathing and self-pity. She can't stand the feeling of coldness under her fingers. The stare those lidless apologetic eyes gaze upon her. She can't take it. She is weak. It surprises her to feel such a way after being so strong.

The body in her arms grows colder and the sight of the dead pathetic madman does not help her grief.

Tara is dead and gone.

Warren is dead and gone.

It does not help her troubled mind to know she had played a part in both of them.

It does not help to know she could not have stopped either.

Nothing ever seems to help any longer.

She strokes a blood-covered hand through damp, limp hair. Tara is not moving anymore. Warren still stares. He opens his mouth.

She screams.

The bullet happened in a split second.

One she's forced to watch on replay in her mind forever.

***

Her eyes snap open and it takes a minute to realize she isn't screaming. One of the same dreams. Always the same. She thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold and wonders when she'll stop shivering. The moon shines outside the window and stray beams of light cascade across the bed. She feels Xander's arm draped protectively across her waist. He is asleep. He'd fallen as soon as she had. There are tears in her eyes but she will not let them fall.

She is so tired of living in a world without Tara. So tired of having to live with the fact that she'd killed Warren. Tired of Dawn not being able to look at her without seeing something missing. Of Buffy being so blind to her feelings when they had once seemed so transparent. Of Xander giving up so much of his time, his life, himself. Tired of the knowledge that she is capable of so many atrocities. So many people hurt. So many words she can't take back. She is tired of dealing with all these things. So tired she can't even bring herself to close her eyes.

Tara is dead.

Warren is dead.

She realizes that she wants to die too.

She knows she is broken.

She knows she can't be fixed.

Death is not calling for her.

Not yet.

She is still here.

She is still breathing.