Willow pushed the door to her bedroom and held it open for Tara. From the hallway, Tara could easily see the redhead's desk, complete with its cluttered, scattered system that to the outside observer might represent an incomprehensible, chaotic mess. Whereas the familiarity could have brought the blonde comfort under different circumstances, it was only too obvious none was being drawn at that moment. Taking great care to avert her eyes from room's owner, Tara stepped over the threshold and entered. She soon sighted the bed against the far left-hand wall, and crossed toward it. Her gaze loitered briefly upon the framed photograph residing on the nightstand. Hesitating, she seemed for a second to harbor a desperate desire to dive deep into its depths and return to happier times. But such was impossible and reality was lurking. Tara tucked a lock of still-damp hair behind her ear and seized the nearest pillow. Clutching it tightly to her chest, she settled on the bed in its place, leaned back against the headboard, and looked to Willow. Waiting.
The redhead hadn't budged from the doorway, although she followed Tara's every movement. Now though, it was her turn and momentarily, Willow's muscles tensed. She looked as if she might turn and run back down the stairs but instead, she inhaled deeply and then slowly exhaled. Although the breath shuddered in her throat, her jaw had set in firm resolution and there would be no backing down. Following Tara's path, Willow stepped into the room and pulled the door closed behind her. The click reverberated in the silent hallway like a gunshot.
Hovering by the foot of the bed, Willow made no motion to join Tara – rather, the redhead stood several feet away, as though to touch the bed would send a bolt of electricity coursing through her body. She wrung her hands nervously and stared at the coverlet.
Whereas before, the blonde witch had focused on anything and everything that was not Willow, now her attentions were directed nowhere else. Her face was a mask however; a tight restraint, which held not even the faintest trace of emotion. She looked every bit a porcelain doll – save for the protective manner in which she clung to the pillow.
Neither said a word and Tara continued to wait patiently. Then, without warning or preamble, Willow began to speak. Her stare remained locked upon the bedspread although her expression was equally as blank as Tara's, even as she gestured absently toward the window and then at her shirt, like an unenthusiastic tour guide pointing out ancient but still lingering scars and stains.
Willow began to pace, walking toward Tara and then pivoting in a constricted circle before slowly returning. But she never encroached closer than about the mid-point of the bed, stopping each time at some finite barrier visible only to her, being either unable or unwilling to move beyond it. She continued to shy away from the bed itself, keeping herself confined to a small rectangular "safe zone" while stalking its length repeatedly. The redhead's fine control had begun to slip and tears threatened to spill. Her speech, however, had not slackened and her story persisted relentlessly.
Face still impassive, Tara said nothing. But whereas before, her gaze had been aloof and detached, the blonde's brows were now furrowed and her eyes shone as she watched and listened.
Standing rigid, Willow had ceased her restless pacing. Her gaze was fixed on a spot to the right of Tara, but it was clear she wasn't seeing the wall. The words tumbled, as though now the tale had come this far, it could not, would not be halted. But it was her face that was most disturbing. Ensnared in moments past, Willow appeared almost like another person. Her expression was cold, but infused with unyielding drive and determination. There was no trace of anything human or compassionate about the redhead.
Tara stared in disbelief. The change in Willow, although in attitude only, was undeniable and the blonde was clearly shaken by it. No longer even feigning detachment, Tara had become a living, breathing part of Willow's narrative. She clutched the pillow tightly, seeking a solace she could not feel.
Rooted to the spot, Willow remained trapped within events long since passed, but awareness had gradually returned. Restively, the redhead's eyes darted back and forth, but she did not meet Tara's piercing gaze. Instead, she chose to stare at her feet as her arms came up to hug herself. The story resumed, without the earlier fervor, and then abruptly ceased. Willow's head dipped even lower.
Several seconds passed as Tara waited. When it became clear that Willow had no intention of continuing any time soon, the blonde regarded her carefully. Then for the first time since entering the room, Tara spoke. Questioning, prompting.
There was little force behind the interrogation, but Willow obviously heard. Still, another long moment passed. The redhead didn't lift her gaze when she next spoke, but the words could not have carried a more powerful impact.
Horrified, Tara violently recoiled as the blood drained from her face. She thrust a hand out toward Willow, as though to ward off any further details, as the other clamped across her mouth. Launching to her feet, Tara rushed past the redhead on her way to the open bathroom door across the room. She fumbled for the light switch, finally managing to locate it, and the interior was soon bathed in an unnatural florescent glow. As the door slammed shut, Willow was left standing by the bed, head bowed and shoulders slumped in defeat, alone with nothing but her thoughts and memories for company.
Perched tentatively on the edge of the bed, Willow was seated directly opposite where Tara had initially placed herself. That spot, however, was now vacant since Tara was on her feet, stomping back and forth angrily as she listened.
The redhead's eyes drifted to the photograph on her nightstand as she spoke. The picture showed a cluster of familiar faces, captured in a moment of perpetual happiness. Giles stood in the center, smiling indulgently with one arm draped around a grinning Buffy and the other hugging a gleeful Dawn. At the rear was Xander, mugging for the camera as he held two fingers in a "V" just behind the unsuspecting Watcher's head. Standing at the carpenter's side, Anya tried to stifle a giggle with only moderate success. At the front of the ensemble, apparently oblivious to the attentions of the camera and with eyes only for each other, sat Willow and Tara in profile, their fingers intertwined.
As Willow's focus shifted from the photograph back to the enraged blonde, her cheeks were drenched with tears that had fallen unchecked and unheeded. But Tara offered no comfort. Willow resumed talking, her body shuddering as her breath came in staggering gasps, but then Tara interrupted with a furious exclamation. With a raised voice, the blonde threw her arms in the air and then gestured sharply to the door leading to the rest of the house. Willow simply folded her hands in her lap and remained quiet, volunteering nothing to aid in her defense.
Arms wrapped around her knees, Willow huddled on the bed, rocking slowly back and forth. Her eyes were transfixed solely upon the image of Giles. Countless emotions played across her features as she continued to speak.
Tara stood several feet away. There were no remnants of anger remaining, only deep, profound pain as she watched the fragile redhead. Willow stumbled briefly over her words, choking back a sob as she clenched her eyes and shook her head violently at the images which assailed. Immediately, Tara stepped forward. She reached out to the redhead, but then hesitated and pulled back, wrapping her arms around herself instead. She contemplated Willow carefully, head tilted and gaze narrowed. Searching desperately, the blonde appeared to be trying to find something very specific, but it was impossible to tell from her expression whether she had been successful.
As a sense of relative peace settled over Willow, her crying slackened to only the occasional tear that managed to sneak free and trickle down her cheek. Glancing once more at the photograph, the redhead turned toward Tara, her feet dangling over the side of the bed and resting lightly on the floor. Suddenly, her hand lashed out, fingers curled into cruel talons that sliced at the air. She considered the digits curiously, as though they belonged to someone else, then lowered them to her lap. Smiling with a tinge of affection, Willow shook her head slightly before resuming, and after a moment began pummeling with all her strength into the empty space before her. This too lasted only briefly. After a few more words and a shuddering sigh, she permitted herself to unravel, becoming limp and seeming incredibly tiny seated as she was, alone on the edge of the bed.
Hands clasped beneath her chin, Tara's body also relaxed, yet she continued to remain apart from the scene before her. Fearfully, Willow glanced in the blonde's direction, allowing a tiny glimmer of hope to creep into her eyes at the softer expression she found.
But still, Tara stood nearby and said nothing.
Willow gazed blankly at the floor. For better or worse, her story was done and she steeled herself for the consequences. There was nothing more she could add, nothing further to explain, nothing else left to say. She simply waited. Tara stared at Willow's bowed head. She frowned and her forehead became furrowed. Her fingers were laced, palms pressed downward as the knuckles showed white. Her shoulders were hunched and her eyes veiled. Neither uttered a word. And Willow simply waited.
The question with which Tara shattered the silence roused Willow from her abstract reverie. Continuing to stare at the floor, she responded, but her voice was low and faltering as she radiated waves of guilt and shame. The blonde shot another question and, after a brief pause, Willow nodded almost imperceptibly. Tara looked helplessly around the room in search of guidance before clenching her eyes shut tightly. Turning her back on Willow, she began to pose another question, but choked on the words. Swallowing hard, Tara tried again, succeeding this time, although the tone was rasped and barely audible.
Willow's head jerked up as though she'd been punched in the gut. Crying heavily, her bottom lip quivered even as she vehemently responded in the affirmative. So much strength was forced into the reply that Tara was compelled to face Willow again, just as the rush of emotion fled and left the redhead drained. Wilting once more, shadows obscured her features. But as she bitterly added another comment, the self-hatred was only too evident.
Tara could endure no more. Her face crumpled and she dashed to Willow's side, gathering the broken redhead into her arms. Eyes scalded by blinding tears, Willow collapsed into Tara's open and forgiving embrace. She clung to Tara fiercely, body convulsing in soundless anguish. The redhead refused to relinquish her hold on sanctuary as Tara, unable to stem her own outpouring of tears, whispered words of solace and showered the top of Willow's bright head with a rain of comforting kisses.
Buffy wearily entered the house, dragging her injured foot and looking as though she were only a few heartbeats away from falling asleep standing up. Automatically, she closed the door behind her and locked it, stripping off and hanging up her coat even as she was in the process of heading for the stairs. Before reaching them, however, she glanced into the living room and was surprised to see Willow there. The redhead, obviously awake but looking every bit as exhausted as the Slayer, was bundled in her plush forest green robe and sitting Indian-style on the couch. Both hands were wrapped around a mug of untouched coffee. Her eyes were distant and lost in thought. For the briefest of moments, the earlier irritation resurfaced, then Buffy sighed, relenting, and ducked into the kitchen. She emerged seconds later with a steaming mug of her own and joined Willow on the couch.
The action jarred Willow out of her reverie and, smiling gently, she looked over to Buffy. "Hey."
"Hey," Buffy echoed, blowing on the coffee to cool it.
"How'd it go?"
At that, Willow raised a surprised eyebrow. "Evil glasses? That's new. What was it, some special offer from Lenscrafters? Your glasses imbued with evil in about an hour?"
"Something like that," agreed the Slayer, still not entirely relaxed.
With a 'tsk', the witch shook her head. "What kinda world are we livin' in?" she lamented.
"The kinda world where you can come home from a hard day's work to find a friend who's been dead for a year and a half sitting at your dining room table eating the last egg roll."
Willow blinked at Buffy mutely for a moment, then turned away and sipped her coffee.
Clearing her throat, the blonde tried again. "So. I'm surprised you're down here and not up with—"
"She's asleep," Willow interrupted with a glance at the ceiling. "We were talking for hours." She paused for a moment before adding in a quiet voice, "We had a lot to talk about."
Buffy flashed her friend a sympathetic look. "Did you tell her everything?"
The answer didn't come right away. Willow stared into the depths of her mug, as though it held some crucial, hidden secrets. "Yeah. Everything," she replied with a sigh.
"God," breathed the blonde, her eyes drifting away in contemplation. "How'd she ... How did she take it?"
Shrugging with a nonchalance she clearly didn't feel, Willow tried to smile. "Well, you know. Some parts better than others. She took the news about Anya's death pretty hard."
"I can imagine," Buffy commiserated. She hesitated briefly before asking, "And what about the ..."
Willow picked up where the Slayer's voice had trailed off. "The flaying? Harder. She ..." Setting the mug on the table in front of them, the witch searched for the words. "I dunno, Buffy. She couldn't even look at me for a while there, she was just so devastated. Which I get, totally," she hastened to add. "And she says she forgives me, which is just ..." Again Willow tried to vocalize her feelings, but she could find no words to describe them and shook her head, abandoning that thought. But an edge of fear crept into her expression as she returned her gaze to the blonde. "But I have to wonder ... can she ever look at me the same again? Will she ..." The redhead swallowed the lump in her throat. "Can she still love me after everything I've done?"
Without hesitation, Buffy also set down her mug and covered Willow's hand with both of her own. She stared into redhead's scared eyes, holding her friend fast. "If there's one thing I can be sure of in this world, it's that Tara loves you and always will, no matter what."
Blushing slightly, Willow favored her with a smile. "Thanks, Buff."
"But Will ..." continued the Slayer. "Whoever or whatever's upstairs ..."
The witch pulled back her hand as her smile vanished. "Tara, Buffy. It's Tara."
Keeping her tone level and as full of understanding as possible, Buffy responded, "I know you think it's Tara, but—"
"I don't think it, I know it," Willow insisted. "I know it like I know my own name. It's Tara."
Patience with the day clearly shot, frustration was beginning to seep into the blonde's voice. "After all this time? How is that even possible?"
"What, you hold exclusive resurrection rights or something?" came the snapped retort. "You just fought a guy who was killing people because of his evil glasses. After all we've seen, how can this even surprise you?"
"Okay, I grant you that it's not outside the realm of possibility," the Slayer quickly conceded. "But Giles says she won't tell us how she's back, she won't tell us exactly why she's back ..." Taking a deep breath, Buffy tried once again to make Willow see reason. "I know you want it to be her, Will. I do too. But with all this bad juju out there, with super-strong baddies busting heads and Slayers disappearing, it's just ..." The blonde's own fears began to swim to the surface and she fixed Willow with an imploring expression. "You've already been attacked once. How can you trust her?"
Willow's answer was simple. "I trust her because she's Tara. That's enough for me, and it should be enough for you, too."
The moment of calm rationale passed beyond the two women like the eye of a hurricane. "Willow, you are letting your feelings for Tara cloud your judgment!" Buffy all but yelled.
"Oh, and you wouldn't know aaanything about that," the redhead countered derisively.
Immediately cautious, the blonde eyed Willow warily. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"When Angel came back from hell, you were convinced that he wasn't evil. We knew nothing about why or how he came back, but he did. And despite what he had done, or what he could do, you asked us to trust you, because you just knew."
The Slayer stiffened in her seat. "That was different, Angel—"
"You're right, it is different," Willow cut off, her voice thick. "When Angel died, he was trying to end the world after a joyful spree of murder and terror. When Tara died, she'd done nothing, Buffy. Nothing." Brushing a hand angrily across her eyes, Willow leapt to her feet, putting some distance between herself and her best friend. "Tara's never hurt a living soul in her entire life, but you're so quick to just assume that she must be evil." Willow spun around, glaring at Buffy furiously. "Where the hell do you get off judging her?" she demanded between gritted teeth.
"I just don't want you getting hurt!" Buffy exclaimed, her tone incredulous.
"Then just be happy for me," pleaded the witch. "Be happy that I finally have back the one thing I need to make me complete again." She took a step closer. "I trusted you, Buffy. Despite what Angel had done, when you asked me to, I trusted you." Willow rested a hand on her chest. "Trust me. It's Tara."
Buffy stared at Willow for a long time, taking in the entreating expression on the redhead's face. But then she dropped her gaze and looked away, saying nothing.
With a fatigued sigh, the witch moved toward the entranceway. "I'm going to bed. I don't wanna wake Tara up, so I'll be in the guest room." Before exiting the room, Willow stopped, although she didn't turn back. In a soft voice, she told the blonde, "I know it's hard. I know you think you always have to be the Slayer. But try, just for a little while, to be plain old Buffy Summers and you'll know it's her." Glancing over her shoulder, Willow looked her friend in the eye. "She's come back to me, Buffy, and I won't let anything take her away from me again. Not anything."
Their gazes remained locked for a heartbeat, and then without another word, Willow turned and walked away.