Tara tossed and turned in the four-poster bed. The sheet that had been draped across the bare mattress became rumpled by her restlessness and the singular blanket wrapped around her tightened uncomfortably within the throes of her fretful dream. Her eyes moved rapidly beneath the twitching lids.
"No! No, please!" came a young girl's plaintive appeal.
The response was gruff. "Enough'a that now! Carryin' on don't do nobody good."
"I didn't mean to!" The entreaty continued, followed by a desperate promise. "I'll never do it again, I swear I won't!"
"You know you can't."
"I can!" The girl's protest was instantaneous and very shrill. "I do! Please!"
"This brings me no pleasure," the man told her in a low and surprisingly gentle voice. "But if you don't learn control now, it'll mean the worse for all of us."
But the fearful supplication fell on deaf ears. Almost immediately, there was the sound of a heavy door slamming shut and the grating of a sturdy bolt being slid firmly into place.
The girl's voice wavered with threatening tears. "Don't, please don't, please..."
There was little comfort in the muffled reply. "There's evil in you. Y'not human, you never will be. You can't be cured, but by God, you will be controlled."
"Not this, please!" she begged miserably, voice no more than a whisper. Her sobs grew weaker. " Don't leave me here!"
"I'm sorry," he told her sincerely. "But for bein' who you are, this is your punishment ..."
"Daddy, please ..."
A despairing cry pierced the dismal night. "Daddy? Daddy!"
Tara awoke in a panic, eyes wide and staring. Her hair was damp against the pillow and tiny beads of sweat glistened on her forehead. She struggled against the suffocating bonds of the blanket until her arms were free, throwing them wide as though feeling out the space around her. Her breath was ragged and labored as she battled to recover from the effects of her dream. Tara's eyes drifted to the window, where an early morning sun peeked curiously between the net curtains. Her body relaxed as she gazed toward the ceiling and took a few much-needed minutes to gain composure and become reoriented with her surroundings.
The area was relatively small and had been stripped virtually bare. However, given the delicate flowery nature of the wallpaper, it had probably been a young girl's room once upon a time. Totally devoid of any sense of personalization, it resembled a vacant dollhouse – only a plain white dresser, a few empty white shelves and the four-poster bed upon which Tara was laying. A thick coat of dust covered almost every surface.
Sitting up, Tara rested her elbows on her knees and massaged her temple. "'Do you want some company? We can come with you'," she muttered. "'No no, this is a big spiritual thing. Very metaphorical. I have to do it all by myself.'" She heaved a rueful sigh. "Good move, Tara."
Tossing the blanket aside, she swung her legs off the bed and shook out the flannel pajama bottoms that had snaked around her ankles while an absent hand tugged at the hem of her shirt. A tad snug around the bustline, it proudly stated, "Penn State Computer Science" on the front. The back displayed the representation of a computer power button above the words, "CS Turns Me On."
Kneading the tense muscles of her neck, a weary Tara left the room and made her way down a hallway toward the staircase. She paused at the upper landing and peered over the wooden banister to the first floor.
"I can do this," she murmured with hopeful conviction. "Take care of the whole house. Make it clean how daddy liked it. Sort through every last thing. And it won't be at all morbid and creepy. Right? Right."
She drummed her fingers on the railing in a moment of silent contemplation.
"You know talking to yourself is the first sign of madness." She arched an eyebrow. "Yeah, but you're okay until you start to talk back."
With an amused shake of her head, Tara made her way downstairs.
With a stack of books tucked under her arm, Buffy walked toward Penn State's Union. It was a busy area, abuzz with students coming and going, when above the cheerful hum of voices one in particular stood out.
"Buffy! Hey, Buffy!"
Stopping, she turned to see a young man sprinting in her direction. He was certainly no Adonis, but cute and appealing in a boyish way with his floppy, out-of-control hair and self-conscious smile.
Buffy reciprocated the gesture as he came closer. "Hi! Uhm ..."
"Simon," he provided, buoyancy not in the least deflated by her apparent lapse of memory.
"Simon, right," agreed Buffy. "We're in Chemistry together."
Simon nodded, obviously delighted that she had remembered him.
"Huh, maybe that ginkgo does work," she mused. "So Simon, what can I do for you?"
"It's more like what you can do with me," he told her, smile growing broader by the minute. "I was thinking we could maybe go out for coffee? Or ... ice cream? Or Indian food, or new computer parts, or comic books," he rattled off in rapid succession, "since it occurs to me that I don't have the slightest idea what you like. I'm pretty much good for going out for anything." Buffy opened her mouth, possibly with a suggestion of her own, but the brakes were out in Simon's brain. "Or in, if you want, but that probably sounds really creepy and maybe sexist, which I wouldn't know because I'm not a woman. Not that only women are subjected to sexism," he hastened to clarify. "I mean there's Chippendales, and that one Diet Coke ad ..."
Buffy held up her hand in an effort to stem the flow. "So basically what we've learned here is: sexism bad, going out good."
"Yeah," Simon confirmed, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "Sorry about the verbal regurgitation there. I ... sort of ... lose the ability to control my mouth when I get nervous."
"I'm surprisingly used to it," Buffy dismissed.
That was apparently encouragement enough. "So, would you? Like to go out?"
His expression was so hopeful that Buffy couldn't help but favor him with a smile. "Well it just so happens I'm free toni—"
"Buff!" interrupted Xander, sidling up from behind. "You little minx!"
Taken by surprise, Buffy looked over her shoulder. Xander threw her a wide grin. It remained firmly in place as his gaze moved to Simon.
"I'm afraid Ms. Summers is otherwise engaged," he informed briskly.
Registering disappointment, Simon blinked at Buffy. "You're engaged?"
"I'm engaged?" echoed a bewildered Buffy. "I'm not—" She turned to face Xander. "I'm not engaged!"
"She's destined to wed a life of tragedy," said Xander with a regretful sigh. "Sex, oil and family, my friend. No, wait, that was 'Dallas'."
Xander's amusement diminished somewhat as Buffy's elbow buried sharply in his ribs. He only barely managed to get out an extremely strained "Ow" before all possible resources were pooled into remaining upright.
Unsympathetically, Buffy turned to Simon and rolled her eyes. "Ignore him, if that's even humanly possible I'm not engaged. There is no sex and oil." She paused for a second, as though considering that declaration, but with a small shake of her head, pressed onward. "And I would love to—"
"Willow," murmured Xander with a pained expression.
Buffy was only marginally less confused than Simon. "What about Willow?"
It took some effort, but Xander managed to pull himself to his full height, although one hand hovered protectively near his tender side. "Uh, well you know. It's Mopey Night."
Tilting her head to one side, Buffy queried, "We're scheduling those now?"
"This looks pretty major," interjected Simon, tone revealing obvious discomfort at being privy to what seemed to be a private exchange. "So ... so I'm gonna go."
"No, no, this isn't major," protested Buffy. "This is ..." Her attention returned to Xander. "Is this major?"
He raised a meaningful eyebrow. "Tara there. Willow here."
Reluctantly, Buffy regarded Simon once more. "This could be major," she admitted with a sigh.
Simon jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Hence the go."
"But I do want to do something later," Buffy assured. "When things are a little less crazy. Which, now that I think of it, will probably be the 5th of never, but ... maybe we can work something out?" Now it was her turn to sport a hopeful expression.
"I'd like that," he agreed sincerely. Taking a few paces backward, he turned and left the pair alone. Immediately, Buffy treated Xander to an accusatory glare.
"I thought you were off somewhere, mapping out your now – and I quote – 'distressingly empty future'," she snapped.
Xander waved a hand at the thought. "I got bored. Besides, it's Friday, and since I'm now functionally unemployed, I thought I'd pick up you and Will and make with the weekend funfest."
"I'm not even sure we'll have to," Buffy pondered aloud. "Tara's been gone for two days. Will's been fine."
"Ahh, but those were days filled with higher-level brain functions," he swiftly corrected. "Weekends are the time when all the earth's creatures wallow in their misery of choice. Trust me on this." He nodded wisely.
"I bow to the master," conceded Buffy. "Okay, so we kidnap Willow. Then what?"
Throwing his arm around Buffy's shoulders, Xander prepared to outline out his intricate plans, but he never got the chance.
"Well if you're plannin' on asking for a ransom," Willow cheerfully announced from behind, "I gotta warn ya – we have a strict policy against negotiating with terrorists." Her expression became thoughtful. "Though between you and me, I am worth at least a shiny bottle cap."
Xander threw his free arm around Willow's shoulders and pulled both women closer. "Hey, Will! Just the girl we were talking about!"
"Which I kinda gathered," remarked Willow wryly, "with the kidnapping and all."
"It's an amazing coincidence," he agreed. "So let's see ... Your classes are over, Buffy's classes are over, and I was never insane enough to sign up for classes in the first place. Xander Math says all that adds up to 'night o'rollickin' fun'. Whaddya say?" Removing his arms from their respective perches, he clapped his hands together expectantly. "What do you want to do first?"
"Uhm, go meet Jessica for the night o' rollickin' fun I already had planned?" suggested Willow.
"It didn't sink in yet," Buffy observed.
This was Willow's conclusion as well. "We'll give it a sec."
"Wait, what?" asked Xander.
"There it is," declared Buffy.
Xander's bottom lip visibly pouted. "You have plans?"
"Really do," she confirmed. "Look, I get what you guys are doing, and it's really sweet from a 'wow, where's the confidence?' perspective. But I'm fine. Tara needed to do this alone, a-and I agree with her." She gave an affirmative nod. "This is her deal, and she has to know that she can face it."
"Nicely put," Buffy stated with a smirk. "That's the speech you gave her before she left, huh?"
"Only with 'you' instead of 'she'. But I meant it both times." Willow hugged Xander's limp arm. "You're sweet, but I'm fine. You two have fun though, okay?"
With a farewell wave, Willow left Xander and Buffy to their own devices.
"So," ventured Xander after a moment of silence, "night o' rollickin' fun?"
Buffy glared. "You messed up my potential date for nothing."
"Okay, okay," Xander yielded with a sigh of extreme martyrdom. "You can bring the sex and oil."
With an eye-roll, Buffy resumed her walk toward the Union.
"Just the sex then?" Xander revised, before following in her footsteps.
The P&S Diner sat in a prime location on Hope Falls' Main Street. With its barrel roof and porcelain enameled metal sheathing, colored gray with red stripes, the small diner was a distinct relic of the 1940s. Inlaid with polychrome tiles of black-and-white, the floor sported a checkerboard pattern while the main counter, fronted by half a dozen stools, was a reddish slab of polished marble. All six stools were occupied, each inhabitant pausing occasionally in their meal to glare suspiciously toward one of the occupied booths.
Sitting in that booth, Tara did her best to remain as unobtrusive as possible, focusing intently on the diner's tempting bill of what was described to be "wholesome home-cooked fare."
"What'chu doin'?" The young boy's tone was accusatory and demanding.
"Nothin'," came the response. "Coloring."
Still holding the menu, Tara's gaze slowly drifted upward to look at the kiosks directly in her line of vision. Two booths away she saw a family of four. The small boy, perhaps around eight years of age, sat closest to the window and next to his father. Across from the boy with her back to Tara, sat his mother. The woman smiled fondly upon the blonde head by her side – a little girl who happily swung her legs in the aisle seat. All were wearing their Sunday Best, and Tara watched them with interest.
"Duh," was the withering reply. "Colorin' what?"
The boy rolled his eyes in dramatic fashion, clearly indicating that in his opinion, the girl was the single most unintelligent thing to have ever roamed the earth. Still, he half-leaned across the table to get a better look at the drawing.
"Ugh!" he declared, wrinkling his nose with disgust. "Looks like someone barfed!"
"It's supposed to," she told him in a superior tone. "It's your barf."
The girl couldn't control her laughter at the ensuing display of overly exaggerated heaving and revolting sounds of nausea. But the merriment was swiftly smothered by her father's words.
"Hush!" he cautioned with a frown. "We don't bring that kinda talk to the table."
"Yessir," came the suitably chastised and unified understanding.
"Tara started it," declared the boy, tossing an ugly sneer in his sister's direction, clearly disgruntled to find himself in parental hot water.
"Donny," warned his mother gently but firmly, "don't argue with your father."
With an injured huff, Donny crossed his arms and slouched in his seat, lips twisted into a sullen pout. With narrowed eyes, he deliberately kicked at the table leg but wisely kept his mouth shut.
Tara leaned close to her mother. "It's not really barf," she revealed softly.
"See, that's a shame," confided the woman seriously. "I really wanted a good barfy picture to hang on the refrigerator." She arched a conspirative eyebrow.
The answering giggle was the sort that managed to sound totally grossed out yet highly amused anyway. The little girl's mother grinned in return, but the smile evaporated when her husband pointedly cleared his throat. She shot Tara a playful, 'Oops, we're in trouble' look before the lighthearted atmosphere died completely.
A waitress in a pink uniform approached the booth. Perhaps in her mid-20s, she was attractive in a mediocre way, with blatantly bleached hair styled like that of Madonna. The nametag pinned to her perkily rounded bosom proclaimed her to be 'Peggy.'
She hovered nervously at the fringe of the table, expression betraying unease as she glanced first at the small girl and then at the woman. Having returned to her coloring, Tara was oblivious to any discomfort, but it did not escape her mother's astutely trained eye. The lingering remnants of her earlier cheer faded, and she allowed her gaze to drift to the street outside.
"So, uhm ..." stammered Peggy, pulling a small pad from the pocket of her apron. "So what can I get you ... folks?" She dug deeper for a pencil, before remembering it was tucked behind her right ear.
"I'll have the t-bone steak special," the man told her briskly. "No gravy on those potatoes, now. Chicken parmesan for my wife, and the kids'll have—"
"Pancakes!" exploded Donny.
"Ice cream!" announced Tara.
"— fishsticks," came the voice of authority.
"Aww," both children complained in perfect sync.
"Donny, sweetie," explained the mother patiently, "pancakes are more for breakfast time."
Despite having been given the order, Peggy still lingered, appearing transfixed in a mildly terrified manner upon the woman in the booth. Noticing her continued presence, the man narrowed his eyes.
"But pancakes're good any time!" protested Donny.
His mother smiled indulgently. "Well maybe if you behave, I'll make them for you tomorrow."
As the pair chatted amiably in the background about such a delightful possibility, the man took note of the waitress' nametag.
His tone not unkind as he commanded her attention. "Peggy," he prompted.
With a slight start, Peggy turned toward him. Engrossed in their conversation, mother and son were unaware of the unfolding situation, but Tara keenly observed. She watched curiously, still and silent, but paying close attention.
"You got our order," he quietly reminded. "Go on, now."
Peggy's eyes instantly widened. "Yessir. I'm sorry."
Tucking the pencil behind her ear, she immediately scurried her way to the kitchen. Ignorant of what had just transpired, Donny and his mother remained locked in their discussion.
"Because we're a family, Donny," his mother was attempting to patiently explain. "Families share, that's what they do."
Obviously that answer didn't sit well at all and Donny huffed loudly for the second time that day. "You said you were gonna make 'em for me," he objected sulkily. "I'm gonna be hungry and I'll want 'em all."
"Oh, I'm pretty sure I can make more than you can eat."
The woman couldn't help but smile at her willful son. "Don't think so, huh?"
Clutched between thumb and forefinger, Tara's green crayon was all but forgotten as she watched Peggy from across the room. The waitress was talking with an individual who appeared to be the cook. She kept throwing furtive glances toward the booth, gesturing urgently while delivering her words. A frown appeared on the little girl's forehead as she tried to imagine what could be causing such agitation, but her concentration was broken when her father tapped the paper in front of her.
"What's that you're drawin', Tara girl?"
She looked to her father and then at the drawing. Immediately, she fidgeted rather uncomfortably and then shyly pushed the creation toward him. He picked it up and held it at arms length. Turning it first one way and then the other. It bore no resemblance to anything in particular – simply a swirl of bright colors. Still, given that the artist was probably only six years old and her materials no more sophisticated than a box of basic Crayolas, it was aesthetically pleasing, in and of itself.
With great care, he deposited the paper back on the table and smoothed the corners. "What is it?"
Tara appeared even more embarrassed than before. Try as she might, she just couldn't seem to look her father in the eye.
"Happy, sir," she informed earnestly.
The description was pitched with such sincerity that he couldn't help himself. For the first time, his dour expression melted somewhat – the transformation was barely discernable, but it showed nonetheless, and he glanced across at his daughter with affection. Eyes bright, she swiftly pointed to a black-and-white blob off to the side. Two extremely thin sticks supported the blob.
"And a cow," she added.
His display of approval broadened slightly at this proud announcement and he slid the drawing into her waiting hands. Tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth, Tara painstakingly returned the green crayon to its box and selected an orange one instead. Then she sat up straighter in her seat and peeked around the side of the booth to look behind her. She half-smiled, and gave a tiny self-conscious wave.
With an identical smile, Tara waved back. Her hand continued to be poised in mid-air when the abrupt clearing of a throat shattered the reverie. Blinking in surprise, Tara looked up to see a waitress hovering over the booth. Sporting an expression of undisguised boredom, the middle-aged and overweight woman extracted a pencil from behind her right ear, impatiently tapping the sharpened lead upon a small pad. In her pastel blue uniform, which almost matched the color of her frizzled hair, she radiated all the tedium of having done the same job for more years than she truly cared to remember. She regarded Tara through bleary, red-rimmed eyes.
"What'll it be, honey?"
Tara was taken off-guard. "Oh! Oh, a, uhm ..." she stuttered, fumbling through the sticky, plastic-coated pages of the menu.
The waitress frowned. Her expression of bored indifference transforming into one of vague recognition. She studied the blonde at the table with concentrated diligence.
Sensing the scrutiny, Tara leapt upon the first item that might possibly fall within the palatable category. "Uh, a- a turkey club sandwich, please. And an iced tea."
She waited for the waitress to leave, beginning to feel decidedly uneasy. From the corner of her eye, she could see the pencil dangling from limp fingers. Tara quickly glanced at the woman, who nodded distractedly.
"Sure thing, honey."
Still, she made no effort to move.
Tara suffered through the inactivity and prolonged examination with admirable fortitude, until it became virtually unbearable. Fighting the near overpowering urge to fidget, an expression of total bemusement crossed her face.
"Is ... something wrong?" she finally asked.
The waitress shook her head. "Nah, nah ..." It was a less than convincing denial. She leaned forward and Tara instinctively scooted along the seat. "Do I know you?"
A crease invaded Tara's forehead. "I, ah ... I-I don't think so ..." Her eyes traveled to the nametag pinned above the sagging bosom. "Peggy," she added.
Peggy frowned. "You sure? B'cause I swear I seen you before."
Tara tried one of her most charming smiles. "Maybe I just have one of those faces?" she suggested.
Peggy immediately dismissed the notion. "Nuh-uh, no." She paused for a moment and then her eyes grew exceedingly wide and round. She snapped her pudgy fingers, dropping the pencil in her excitement. "I remember ..."
"Have you ever been to California?" Tara hastily inquired. "I used to g-go to school there, and maybe—"
"You're a Maclay!" It was a revelation. An accusation. And a not particularly subtle outburst.
Every head in the diner turned to Tara. Each pair of eyes revealed clouded apprehension and open hostility.
Tara sighed and continued to herself, "Maybe you recognize me because my family's lived here for about ten generations?"
Peggy jabbed an agitated finger in Tara's direction. "That's it, ain't it? You're a Maclay!"
Tara was trapped. "Uhm ... yes?"
"You're that one that run off!" declared Peggy, caught up in her own deductive reasoning. "Donald an' Emma's girl! Taryn!"
"Tara," came the subdued but steady correction.
"That's it!" confirmed Peggy, as though she'd been privy to such information all along and had simply been testing. She regarded Tara with heightened suspicion as another thought occurred. "I thought you was dead?"
"That was a ...uhm, a- a ... misunderstanding."
As she absorbed this thoroughly confusing news, Peggy's expression spoke volumes: on top of everything else, this Maclay woman was clearly quite insane.
Tara's gaze traversed the diner's inhabitants. All ears were glued to the exchange, with no one even attempting to pretend otherwise. Taking a deep breath, Tara made sure to speak loud enough so that nobody would have any trouble hearing her words.
"I'm only here for a few days," she announced. "For the house. I just have to clean it up and clear it out so they can sell it. That's all."
She lowered her voice to normal conversational tone for the waitress. "Though if I could maybe get my sandwich before then, that'd be really great."
Peggy's expression was far from what it should have been for an individual mostly living on tips. However rather than prolong the confrontation, Tara simply let it go. Peggy soon departed, leaving the object of her scorn to do her best to ignore the piercing stares leveled her way from the diner's other patrons.
"It's good that nothing changed while I was away," Tara murmured.
With a gigantic yawn, Buffy threw open the door to her room and flipped on the overhead light. Stretching, she began to get ready for bed, throwing her dirty clothes into the hamper and snuggling into her sleepytime attire. Her actions were accompanied by sour mutterings.
"'Just a quick patrol, Buffy,' he says. 'You can't allow your Slayer duties to lax,' he says. 'Sure thing, Giles,' I says. 'And take these 25 super-young newbies with you,' he says. Oh, but does he also says, 'They're secretly planning on driving you insane before you're 30'? Of course not. Please, leave that part out. Why ruin the surprise? Besides, I LIKE spending my Friday night chaperoning a fieldtrip both to and from hell."
Pulling back the coverlet, she prepared to climb onto the mattress, but then paused. "Whoever you are," she curtly advised to seemingly nobody, "you should know that I'm tired and grumpy, and there's a very small part of me that enjoys killing things. Consider this wisely before keeping me from sleep."
Willow hovered on the threshold. "If you're busy, I can go." She hesitated only a moment before drawing her own conclusions. "You're busy. I'll go."
"No, it's okay," reassured Buffy. "I probably wouldn't get any sleep for a while anyway. My brain's still running around trying to keep an eye on a bunch of hyperactive Slayers." She collapsed on the bed and stared at the ceiling. "I tell you, whoever came up with the rules, I think they were onto something. I'm firmly convinced that it's 'The Chosen One' and not 'The Chosen Pack' for a reason." She eyed Willow, who continued to hesitate in the doorway. "I mean it used to be all about saving the world and defeating evil. Now it's like an excuse to socialize, chat about boys, and then get a mocha afterward. Where's the dignity we had back in our day?"
Willow entered the room with an ironic smile, quietly closing the door behind her. "We probably left it on patrol back in Sunnydale, some time between talking about Angel and/or Oz and going to the Espresso Pump."
"See?" Buffy enthusiastically agreed. "It was completely different." Leaning on one elbow, she peered at her friend. "So what's up?"
"I have a problem," admitted the redhead ruefully.
"Always a cheerful way to open a conversation." Buffy patted a spot on the bed.
"You know how sometimes it can be really hard to sleep?" began Willow, gratefully accepting the invitation. "You just get used to certain stuff. It has to be your bed, or- or your own pillow. Like it can be really hard to sleep in a hotel room, or people who- who live in a super busy city their whole lives only get like two hours of sleep when they visit the country cuz it's so gosh darned quiet. Or maybe it-it's the presence – or absence – of air conditioning or a ceiling fan. And so you try and try to sleep, but you just keep rolling over and flipping your pillow to the cool side, and then if you do that too much you start to run out of cool sides, and who can sleep with a warm pillow and would you even want to try?"
The question was apparently rhetorical, as Willow didn't even wait for an answer.
"Plus while you're doing all that flipping, your ears get majorly alert, like a dog or something, and then you start to hear sounds you wouldn't normally hear. Like- Like the electricity going into your alarm clock, which – have ya noticed? – never seems to glow quite so bright unless you're glarin' at it. So you've got the warm pillow and the buzz, and the blinding clock-glow, and—"
"You can't sleep," interrupted Buffy, having determined that there would be no suitably lengthy pause coming any time soon. "Got it."
Willow nodded miserably.
"Have you tried Nyquil?" Buffy suggested, trying to be helpful. "Even Slayer powers crumble under the might of Nyquil."
"It's not that. It's ..." Willow's fingers began to twist over themselves in her lap. "I don't like sleeping alone."
"Will, you used to sleep alone all the time," Buffy pointed out. "In fact, I think if you looked at your lifetime average of sleeping alone versus not alone ..."
Buffy clearly wasn't getting it. "I know that," responded Willow. "But since Tara and I got back together, she's been there every night and ... and now she's not and it feels like it did those other times when I knew she should be there and she wasn't. I- I know it's not the same," she quickly interjected before the obvious could possibly be spoken, "but when I'm lying there ..."
A tiny smile of amusement crossed Buffy's lips. "I thought you were fine with it?" Her tone was mildly teasing. "'I'm understanding, I'm supportive, I'm the patron saint of girlfriends.'"
"Yeah, well, I'll be her again tomorrow," sighed Willow, sounding more than a little exasperated. "Tonight I'm just needy, so can I sleep with you or what?"
With an amused shake of her head, Buffy slipped between the sheets, pulling back the comforter and scooting over to make room for Willow. With a grateful smile, Willow snuggled down.
"Don't steal my covers," Buffy told her sternly.
"And if you snore, I'm elbowing you," she cautioned.
"And if you have cold feet, don't—" Buffy's warning was cut short by her sudden yelp of surprise. There was silence for a few moments.
"Okay, so night then."
Bracing the heavy box with one knee, Tara pushed open the front door, stumbling as she made her way into the crisp night air. Her breath crystallized as she struggled to carry the burden toward the rented truck. With a sigh of relief, she hefted it onto the lowered tailgate and dragged the back of her hand across her forehead. The action left a dirty streak in its wake, but then her general appearance was one of grubbiness – from the dusty, loose-fitting denim overalls to the fingers that she now used to tuck a few wayward strands of hair back into the scrunchie. Hoisting herself onto the flatbed, she pushed the box toward the cab of the truck, where it joined others that had been stacked there earlier.
Mission accomplished, Tara sat on the tailgate to catch her breath. She seemed content, simply enjoying the cool breeze, until a female voice softly called her name. She quickly glanced over her shoulder, and the slight frown she was wearing transformed swiftly into a sad smile. Easing down from her perch, she began walking toward the front of the vehicle.
Tara approached the figure seated on the ground, back resting against the trunk of the massive oak that dominated the front yard. The resemblance between the teenage girl, long skirt swirling the tiny mounds of fallen leaves, and the woman beneath the tree was striking. Emma Maclay patted the area next to her as Tara drew closer. The invitation was accepted without hesitation and the pair sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes.
"It'll be okay," Emma assured quietly.
Tara regarded her mother with an expression that indicated she didn't believe a word of it, although she would have very much liked to. Emma's chin drooped almost to her chest. Apparently, she was well aware that her statement carried little credulity.
"I'm sorry," murmured the older woman regretfully. "I thought— I hoped that maybe it was done. That it would have ... I don't know. Skipped you."
Clasping her arms around her knees, Tara listened but said nothing.
"I know it all seems harsh and cruel," added Emma, "and it is. But the powers that we have ... If we don't let them—"
"I know," Tara interrupted.
Reaching out, Emma smoothed her daughter's silky hair and arranged it carefully about the shoulders. "They only want to keep us safe," she continued. "From ourselves and others."
Tara had no reply.
Emma's fingers trailed gently over Tara's cheek. "You're special though, Tara. I could tell from the first moment I held you."
A small smile invaded Tara's lips at the loving compliment, but it was plain she found this no more believable than the earlier claims. Her mother immediately sensed the doubt.
"You are," she insisted firmly. "Your spirit, your ..." Emma swallowed hard, as though trying to dispel a lump in her throat. Tears prickled at her eyelids, but she kept a tight rein on her composure. "I ... I want you to promise me something."
The gravely serious tone captured Tara's undivided attention. Emma peered nervously in every direction, checking to make sure that nobody else could hear the conversation. She seized Tara's hand and held it fast.
"I want you to promise me that if you get the chance, you'll escape."
Tara shook her head and frowned. "What?"
"I want you to leave." It was more an urgent demand than a simple request. "Your grades are good and you work hard, maybe a scholarship, or—"
Tara seemed genuinely appalled at the suggestion. "I-I-I can't l-leave!"
But her mother wasn't listening. "—a job with a company. Maybe you can go to school in Europe, I know you've always wanted to go there."
"I can't!" protested Tara. "I ha-have to ... W-We can't leave! We can't ever leave, Daddy says—"
Emma gave her daughter's hand an encouraging squeeze. "You're almost seventeen, Tara. You'll graduate high school next year, and then there's still almost two years before your twentieth birthday. Two years is a long time, baby girl, and I want you to have them."
Tara remained unconvinced. "B-But—"
"Please, Tara." Emma all but begged. "Promise me."
Wonderingly, Tara searched her mother's face. It displayed a look of open desperation – but there was something more. The complexion was pallid, skin stretched tight over the delicate bone structure. Dark blue smudges beneath the eyes stood stark against the almost translucent flesh.
"Both, then," Tara hastened to guarantee. "We'll b-both go. I'll get a scholarship, and w-w-when I leave, you'll c-come with me."
With a sorrowful smile, Emma entwined her fingers with those of her daughter. "You're too young to be this old." Leaning forward, she kissed the smooth forehead, lips lingering for a long moment. "Do you promise?" she finally whispered.
Tara gripped the anxious fingers tightly. "I promise," she vowed.
With a relieved smile, Emma leaned wearily against the oak, seemingly calm and content now that she had extracted the earnest pledge. Gently cradling her mother's hand, Tara also rested against the tree trunk, looking up into the near barren branches, as a leaf drifted slowly toward the earth.
Tara watched its lazy downward spiral before glancing to her left. The area was empty, but nonetheless, a smile of unending gratitude crossed her lips.
Brushing away the small twigs clinging to her overalls, Tara got to her feet and headed for the house as the breeze gained strength. It stirred the piles of dead and decaying leaves on the ground, and the dry rustling creating the illusion of hushed voices. As Tara closed the door behind her, the breeze continued to intensify until it became a bracing wind. The whispers grew louder. More articulate.
Witch. Demon. Escape. Escape. Witch. Stay. Leave. Never leave. Escape. Demon. No escape. Witch. No escape. Forever.