The library was a cacophony of protestations. Almost everyone was expressing their personal objection to the proposition, but Willow was undoubtedly the most vocal.
"Tara?" protested the redhead. "Going off, alone, to who knows where to face who knows what and get who knows who? There are too many 'who's' in that sentence! I demand full disclosure!"
Tara attempted to restore calm. "Willow, I'm perfectly capable of—"
Buffy scowled. "Bad idea. Bad, bad idea."
"Oh yeah," nodded an emphatic Xander, wagging a foreboding finger at nobody in particular. "On the top ten list of bad ideas, I'd say this is at least a seven or eight. Right up there with New Coke."
"But I think that—" began Tara. Her opinion was apparently of no consequence.
"Kinda gotta agree," interrupted Faith. "Seems pretty convenient, this chick popping up just when we need her, an' then wantin' us to split up?"
"No splitting!" warned Willow. "I'm putting my foot down on the split issue! We need to—"
Tara frowned. "Hey!" Her tone was forceful and the clamor hushed immediately, every eye turning to look.
The blonde flushed a little at her sudden outburst, but soon regained composure. "I appreciate everyone's concern, but ..." She paused and then turned to Giles. "Who is she?"
"Well ... I'm not altogether certain," Giles was forced to admit.
Instantly, Willow sucked in a lungful of air, undoubtedly in preparation to unleash a new barrage of objections. She got no further than her mouth opening, however, before she caught Tara's warning glance. Willow scowled her reluctance but nonetheless, held her tongue.
Tara's attention returned to Giles and he continued. "She didn't give us a name, per se. She simply insisted that we needed her help, then gave me her conditions. However Miss Harkness recognized her energy signature almost immediately. She called her 'Keeper of the Wing'."
The blonde frowned and pondered the information, before quietly echoing the name.
"Does that mean anything to you?" the Watcher asked hopefully.
"No ...?" admitted Tara slowly. Then, more definitely, "No. But it sounds ... impressive?"
"Or really pompous," huffed Buffy.
Willow regarded Giles seriously. "Giles, you can't—" Her eyes wandered to Tara. "I-I know you can handle yourself and everything, but ... some woman just saying, 'Come find me, I know stuff'? Are we really that desperate?"
The Watcher was at a loss for words. With a heavy sigh, he lowered himself into a chair. Stepping forward, Hannah took it upon herself to answer.
"Yes and no," she told the gathering. "We're sure that, eventually, we'll be able to find Robespierre. But can we do that before his Slayers become more powerful, or before he begins his insurgency, or attacks us again?" She puffed out her cheeks and shrugged. "The bottom line is, the sooner we find him, the sooner we stop him."
Xander for one was not convinced. "But there's gotta be some other way, right? Some way where we don't have to play chauffer to freaky old ladies?"
Hannah moved aside as Giles reclaimed the lead. "We can, and will, continue our research of course," he stated with certainty. "Now that we suspect we know what's happened to the missing Slayers, perhaps Willow can draw some correlation between that data which will give us a clue as to their whereabouts."
"Say we find him, then what?" asked Faith. "Just one'a them girls nearly ripped us a new one, an' I'm guessin' there's more where she came from."
Unfortunately, nobody could provide an answer.
"What did she say?" queried Tara. "This Keeper woman?"
"She said she had information," replied Giles adjusting his glasses. "Vital information that would help us in our upcoming battles. She offered it, willingly, with no strings. Her only requirements were that we would have to provide her transportation. I offered to have one of our jets sent and arrange for a car to bring her to the airport, but she was most insistent." He was obliged to chuckle in remembrance of the conversation. "She said she'd lived far too many years on the ground to start leaving it now, and that she wanted someone sent to bring her to Trillium – Tara Maclay."
"That's just so freaky," commented Dawn as she turned to Tara. "I mean, how does she even know you're here?"
The blonde shook her head as a tiny frown creased her forehead. It was obvious that she was unable to provide any type of explanation.
"So that's it, we just ... we're taking her word for it?" asked Willow in total disbelief, looking from one person to the next. "'La la la, I know something you don't know, now come find me'? I can't believe we're trusting this demented unknown lady! She- She's demanding, a-a-and aviophobic ... and she butts into private conversations, which is just rude!"
"She's not entirely unknown," the Watcher replied. "According to Miss Harkness, the Keeper of the Wing was once a-a very powerful and respected witch. One of the most powerful in the Americas, in fact. But one day, many years ago, she completely severed all ties with the Covens and refused to have any further contact with them. She's remained in self-imposed isolation ever since. Also," he added, "I doubt very much that she's demented."
"Ah-ha! That's just what she wants you to think!" came the triumphant retort.
Giles was befuddled. "What?"
"C'mon Giles, you gotta admit it sounds super suspicious," insisted Buffy. "This powerful witch suddenly deciding to pull out of her Greta Garbo just when we need her?"
Giles dug in his pocket for a handkerchief. "I admit the timing is convenient, but I've Miss Harkness' complete faith that this woman is indeed who she claims to be, and that she has never been a champion of dark forces." He removed his glasses and began to polish vigorously.
"Let her go get the woman, then!" recommended a petulant Dawn. "Why does it have to be Tara?"
Giles sighed with exasperation. "I'm not sure, but we can—"
"I'll go," Tara interrupted. The room immediately fell quiet. She looked to Giles. "It'll help, right? I mean, we need to learn everything we can, and if she says she knows something ..."
Giles nodded. "I believe that she does. And yes, this will help. But Tara, this is your decision." He regarded her gravely. "I'm sorry if I've put any undue pressure on you, but please know you don't have to do this. We'll find out what we need to, with or without this woman. Your safety is much more important than anything she could possibly tell us."
The blonde acknowledged her understanding with a bright smile. "Good, then since it's all my decision, I'll go and you won't feel guilty about it." Giles inclined his head gratefully. "Besides, I've never been to the east coast." She frowned at the statement, correcting, "Well, I mean, I'm here now, obviously, but I was sort of ... you know, teleported, so I missed the whole sight seeing migration thing."
"You don't even know where you're going yet," Willow told her with something of a pout.
Tara retained her sunny smile. "Wherever it is, I've probably never been there before."
Leaning forward, Xander rested his elbows on his knees. "Great then. But Greta wants to see Tara, she gets the package deal and we all come with," he insisted, circling his fingers in the air to encompass the entire group. "We load up the cars, we caravan to wherever she is, and if she's not legit, we kick her wrinkly butt and stop off for cheeseburgers on the way home."
"Yes, well, that's part of the problem, you see," returned Giles with no little reluctance. "She insisted Tara come alone."
In a heartbeat, the ruckus of dissent erupted anew. This time, it was Buffy who dominated the voice of resistance. "No. A thousand points of no. Giles, I won't let—"
Raising his hand, Giles spoke loudly so he could be heard over the disapproving din. "And I was equally insistent that this was not going to happen. So she has agreed that one other person may come with Tara. I assume—"
"Me," announced Kennedy firmly.
The room fell into a hush as every surprised eye turned toward the brunette. It was the first time she had uttered so much as a word since Giles had delivered the Keeper's ultimatum and it seemed that the majority had even forgotten she was in attendance.
The Slayer arched an eyebrow at the others. "I'll go with her."
"Kennedy, what ...?" stammered a bewildered Willow.
"It should be me," insisted Buffy. "I can keep Tara safe."
Kennedy shot the blonde a penetrating glance. "You saying I can't?"
"What?" queried Buffy with a shake of her head. "No. I just—"
"Good," replied Kennedy, her tone seeming to indicate that the discussion was at an end. "Then I'll go."
Confused, Tara frowned in Kennedy's direction, and the brunette steadily met her gaze. "Should be fun," she added.
"But you ..." Willow's eyes reflected anxiety. "I can ..."
Kennedy huffed and looked heavenward. "Please, you two can hardly be part of a crowd of people without one of you almost imploding, you think you can stand being alone in a car together for however long?"
Willow was unable to disguise her opposition, but she also seemed to realize the truth in Kennedy's statement. Her mouth became tight and she said nothing, but appeared far from happy with the enforced silence.
With a challenging look, Kennedy surveyed the room. "Any other objections I can shoot holes in?"
"What if I don't want you to come with me?" asked Tara.
There was a long pause as Kennedy carefully considered both the proposer and the proposition. She shrugged. "Then I guess you can tell me not to come."
Yet another long pause ensued as Tara studied the expectantly waiting Slayer. The blonde's gaze was piercing and intense, broken only by Giles speaking her name.
She glanced quickly at Giles and then returned to her scrutiny of Kennedy. Another moment or two passed before Tara looked back to Giles. She nodded briefly.
"When do we leave?"
As Faith approached Hazel's room, she saw that the door stood open. Nevertheless, she drummed a 'rat-a-tat-tat' before entering. The area that had formerly belonged to Judith remained empty and devoid of any adornment, but Hazel's half had undergone some recent redecoration. The poster of Russell Crowe had been replaced with one of Colin Farrell and she had added a cork board, littered with photographs of Pennsylvania's sights, Trillium souvenirs, and snapshots of girls more or less her own age. Some of the pictures had been taken in Slayer Central, but still others had been taken at night, several in cemeteries where groups of Juniors, brandishing wooden stakes and other assorted weapons of destruction in a menacing fashion, had mugged for the camera. One photo depicted Faith and Hazel together in one of the training rooms – a flushed Hazel grinning broadly and flashing a huge thumbs up as Faith gave her a dubious but amused look.
Also on display were pictures of Hazel's family and friends from home, the older photographs blending seamlessly with the newer ones. It was one of these older photographs that currently captured Hazel's attention. The girl was lying on her bed, Willow's open laptop ignored for the moment. In her hand was a silver-framed photograph, showing a much younger Hazel alongside an even smaller girl, each seated in the laps of a smiling couple who could only be their parents.
At Faith's entrance, Hazel glanced up and smiled. "Found some parts for you," she informed, setting the frame to one side.
Faith blinked a little in surprise. "Hey, thanks."
"No big," shrugged the younger girl. "I have some time to kill before classes start. So, you're all done?"
Faith threw herself onto Judith's old bed with a bounce. "Yup," she replied, surveying the bare half of the room curiously.
"How'd it go?" asked Hazel with interest. "Everyone gearing up to beat the bad guys and save the world?"
"You think the world needs saving?" asked Faith with a slight chuckle.
"I've heard the stories," confided Hazel. "It seems like it's pretty much always needing a save or two."
"True that. Went okay. Glinda and the Brat get to go road trippin'."
"'Glinda and the Brat'," giggled Hazel. "Sounds like a bad cartoon show."
Faith grinned wryly. "Might turn into one," she admitted. "Not sure I'd wanna be in the car for all that."
Hazel nodded confidently. "I'm sure it'll be okay. You guys'll find out what you need and save the day." She smiled brightly.
"Just gotta have faith?"
With an eye roll at the terrible pun, Hazel replied, "You just need to know the score. You guys are heroes. Heroes always win."
"I'll remember that next time I blow off training with Oxford," remarked the older Slayer as she leaned back on one elbow. "Sure he won't mind, seein' as how us winnin' in the end is a given an' all."
"You know what I mean," insisted Hazel, screwing up her nose in an expression of mild irritation.
"Yeah." Casting her gaze at the bare walls surrounding her, Faith gestured toward the empty area of the room. "So what's up with this?"
Pushing herself upward, Hazel sat Indian-style. "What's up with what?" she replied, clearly not understanding.
A lazy circle of Faith's hand indicated her half.
"Oh!" Hazel stared, almost as though she were only just truly seeing it as it was. "I dunno, actually. Just never seemed right to put anything there, I guess. Like it's not really mine, you know?" A disdainful snort escaped and she added, "Not that I miss Judith or anything. Definitely not with the hero vibe." She shook her head vehemently. "Anyway, I didn't really wanna talk about her."
Faith shrugged. "'Kay then." She focused on Hazel and waited.
The girl opened her mouth to speak, but then appeared to change her mind. Her eyes drifted to the discarded picture frame, but still she remained silent. Faith frowned and an expression of concern crossed her face as she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. Patience had never been Faith's forte, but she fought to maintain an unhurried air. She succeeded admirably for several seconds, but each tick saw Hazel clearly feeling worse, and the condition directly impacted Faith's ability to remain silent.
When it seemed the Junior was on the verge of real tears, Faith nearly panicked. ""Whoa, hey, what is it?" she demanded. "What's wrong?"
Hazel sniffed and swiped a fist across her eyes. "It's my parents."
"Something happen to 'em?" asked Faith gently. She reached out an unsure hand that then faltered and returned home, the Slayer plainly having no idea what she was supposed to do with it. Eyes glued to the photograph at her side, Hazel failed to notice but she nodded miserably.
Clearing her throat uneasily, Faith cautiously prompted, "Are they ...?"
Hazel looked up quickly. "No, no, they're okay." She shrugged despondently. "I mean, kinda okay, I guess. They're—" Her gaze drifted back to the smiling couple, a moment captured in happier times. "They're getting divorced," she confessed in a small voice.
The announcement was met with a relieved puff of air. "That all?" asked Faith, all of her tension pouring away. "Christ, I figured it was somethin' really bad."
At the easy dismissal, Hazel shot the older woman a wounded look. Faith immediately grimaced and shook her head as she hastened to correct, "No, I ... I mean, that's ..." She paused, searching for the best way to explain herself. "That sucks, sure, but on the grand scale of things that coulda been bad, you gotta admit, this is pretty low."
The clarification did little to improve the girl's pained expression.
"Or not," the dark-haired Slayer floundered. "I just ..." She sighed heavily and ran a hand through her hair before trying again. "Look, you obviously think this is a big thing, an' that's all that matters, right? So, okay, let's start there. Why's that upset you so much?"
There was a long and uncomfortable pause. "I think it's my fault," Hazel finally replied.
"How can it be your fault, you haven't been there in over six months," Faith pointed out.
"Exactly!" Hazel's tone made it clear she felt Faith had cemented her argument. "It's just been my parents and my little sister, and believe me, she's irritating enough to make saints start hating each other. But seriously, I just keep thinking that if I'd been there, I could've ... I dunno, maybe seen what was happening? Tried to fix it?"
Faith scratched the back of her head in a helpless gesture. She seemed to be valiantly racking her brains for the right words. Apparently, she could come up with nothing.
"You think this is stupid," muttered Hazel in a self-recriminating tone.
"No, I don't," Faith replied in all seriousness. She threw her arms to the side and sat back, a frown firmly in place. "Just ... I got no clue what to say. It's new ground for me, y'know? Wasn't no 'divorce' in my place. My old man just up and left one day. An' frankly, if they had gotten a divorce first, can't say I woulda cared much."
Hazel's face fell even further into the depths of dejection, causing Faith to lean forward again, anxious to say something right. "But you do care, an' that's great," she insisted. "You should. I'm not the standard here on what's normal feelin', trust me."
It had little effect. Completely out of ideas, Faith sought out and found the other girl's eyes, locking them with her own. "What can I do?"
Hazel smiled at the sincerity of the offer, but shook her head. "Nothing, I guess." She made a visible effort to brighten. "That's okay, though."
Glowering, Faith looked away first, seeming angry at her inadequacy.
"Fiver, for real – it's okay," assured Hazel. "This is really my thing." She reached out and moved the picture frame from the top of the notepad sitting near the laptop. With a clean jerk, she ripped the top sheet of paper free and extended it toward the Senior Slayer.
"I wrote down the names and phone numbers of some places you can get cool parts." She shrugged and smirked then, confessing, "At least I think they're cool parts. They said they were on the web site."
Getting to her feet, Faith accepted the piece of paper, regarding it ruefully.
Hazel next closed the laptop with a snap, offering the machine as well. "And make sure you put this back, or Willow'll ... I dunno, turn you into a newt or something."
Faith was obviously plagued with other thoughts. "A newt?" she asked, vaguely perplexed.
"You'll get better," grinned Hazel.
In total confusion, Faith looked from the laptop to Hazel's face, which was now plastered with a happy if somewhat forced smile.
"I'm okay," the young girl told her without the hint of a grudge. "Really. Now go on – don't you have a world to save?"
Absently-mindedly, Faith nodded and took the computer, tucking it under her arm. She headed for the door, but paused at the entranceway and glanced back. It looked as though she was going to say something, but Hazel – all smiles – shooed her off with a brisk wave. Faith glanced at the paper in her hand and frowned. Then, with a deep sigh, she exited the room, her face a curious mixture of regret and anger.
Xander peered cautiously both left and right as his fingers drummed on the steering wheel of the family car. He repeated the action two more times before easing into traffic, his caution enough to make any driving instructor proud. The car was full packed, every available seat occupied.
Seated quite happily in the front passenger seat, Dawn's long legs were slightly bent as she had scooted the seat forward to avoid completely squashing Tara behind her. Willow had considerably less legroom, sitting behind Xander, but she was at least better off than Buffy, who was crammed into the center hump of the backseat that clearly was designed to function in a seating capacity only as a last resort. Thankfully, Buffy's attentions were focused on matters other than a steadily numbing and uncomfortable behind.
"You have everything?" she asked Dawn, leaning forward and peering intently at the teenager.
"Ye-es," her sister replied, the eye roll audible, if not visible.
This time Dawn turned in her seat, making an effort to ensure that Buffy could see as well as hear the irritation. "I swear, if you ask about my underwear?" she warned. "I'm getting emancipated."
"Pretty exciting trip, Dawnie," enthused Willow, caring little about the indignant 'humph' from her best friend. "Philadelphia for the night? Birthplace of liberty, home of large Benjamin Franklin statues ..."
"Hear they got a bell too," added Xander. "Kinda cracked. They should get that fixed. Get some caulk, a little bronzer ..."
Dawn laughed. "Dork," she proclaimed. "Anyway, it's for school, so fun will be limited. But it's still way cooler than being in class." She twisted her neck in the hopes of seeing Tara over the headrest. "Will you be back before me?"
"It'd probably help me answer that if I knew where I was going," Tara told her dryly. "Mr. Giles said that the Keeper would contact him with the directions and stuff once she was sure I'd agreed to come."
An rather uncomfortable hush reigned for a moment.
"And she'd know this how?" inquired Buffy curtly.
Tara chuckled just once and smirked at the Slayer. "That's a good question, isn't it?"
"I don't like this," huffed Willow, crossing her arms and slinking back into the seat.
"For real, Will?" Xander's look of amazement fooled no one. "An' here I figured all that complaining was just a token protest."
He winced as the redhead poked the back of his head. "There will be silence from you, Mr. Harris," she commanded.
Tara craned her head around Buffy to look at Willow. "I'll be fine. And this'll be good. Good for me. To get away." She gave the redhead a quick smile before settling back into her seat, consequently missing the flash of pain that crossed Willow's features at the words.
"I hear you," agreed Dawn wholeheartedly. "'Getting away' was one of the biggest selling points for this trip! That, and then we come back to the whole 'no school' thing."
Buffy frowned. "I'm still not sure. There's your headaches, and—"
"My headaches, which have pulled a complete no-show for, like, a month," Dawn hastily pointed out.
Buffy remained unconvinced. "Still," she muttered darkly.
"And you've already talked to each of the chaperones," added Dawn.
"I know," admitted a reluctant Buffy.
"And I'm rooming with Brenda, who has sworn that if I so much as look like I'm getting a headache, she's calling 911," Dawn threw in for good measure.
Buffy nodded her head approvingly. "Good. Smart girl, Brenda. Always liked her."
"So stop worrying," instructed Dawn firmly. "I'll only be gone one night, and look – school's just up the street so it's too late to back out now."
Xander glided the vehicle to a smooth halt at the cusp of the 'U'-shaped driveway in front of the school. "Service and a smile," he announced, flashing a toothy grin. "See, if it weren't for this complete lack of depth perception, I could totally be a chauffer."
"But since you're not," Dawn reminded him, "I don't have to tip you!" At his exaggerated glower, she rolled her eyes yet again and leaned over to kiss his cheek.
The carpenter beamed. "I'm easily placated."
Dawn grabbed her overnight bag from the floor of the car and hopped out, toting both bag and backpack.
"Have a nice time, Dawnie," called Tara with a smile and a wave.
"Take lots of pictures!" ordered Willow, using Xander's seat to pull herself up. "And don't break my digital camera, or I'll be forced to sabotage all your future college essays!"
With an "eep" of alarm, Dawn nodded in quick agreement.
As her sister closed the door, Buffy clambered into the front seat. Willow frowned as her lap was used for leverage by two floundering feet and Xander grimaced with pain as an elbow found its way into his ear while fingernails dug sharply into his shoulder.
Quickly getting situated, Buffy rolled down the window. "Have fun," she called out. "If you start to feel—"
"—feel light-headed or any pain of any kind whatsoever, tell someone," finished Dawn. "I got it the first fifty thousand times. Wanna write it on a note and pin it to my shirt?"
Buffy's eyes widened at the proposal, as though it were a fabulous idea. "Anyone got a pen?" she queried.
"Okay, I'm leaving now." Dawn swiftly replied, but she could get no more than half a step before Buffy was leaning out of the window, cheek first. She watched the teenager expectantly from the corners of her eye. When it was clear that Buffy had no intention of letting her go before the unspeakable could occur, Dawn gave her sister a lightning fast peck on the cheek and then dashed away with a hasty "Bye!"
The Slayer watched as the crowds swallowed up Dawn and Xander urged the car into motion once more. "Do you think we embarrassed her enough?" she wondered aloud.
"I think we could've done better," appraised Willow with a shake of her head. "I rate us a 6.5, tops."
"I thought you should've gotten out of the car and made her hug you," Tara supplied.
"I can always drive back, an' you can yell out the window about her having clean underwear," offered Xander. "I'm sure she was kidding about the thing from before." He considered for a moment then shrugged. "Pretty sure."
He glanced at Buffy, the grin on his face swiftly fading as he noted her apparent sober contemplation of his suggestion.
"Nah," she finally decided, much to his relief. "I'll just save it all up and chaperone her prom. That should complete the requisite emotional scarring." She glanced over her shoulder at the witch sitting behind her. "Besides, we need to be getting back. Tara still has to pack and stuff."
"Yup," agreed the carpenter, also regarding Tara, though via his rearview mirror instead. "Better get used to the car environment – it's gonna be your close personal friend real soon."
The car keys in Giles' pocket jingled merrily as he walked into his office. He was mumbling to himself as he sorted through the maps and other assorted documentation in his hands, seeming to be running down a mental checklist.
Seated behind the desk, Hannah was terminating her telephone conversation. "Excellent, thanks very much," she concluded. Replacing the receiver, she turned to Giles.
"That was Lamarque, with Canadian immigration," she told him. "He's going to make a few phone calls, so the girls shouldn't have any trouble at the border."
The Watcher held aloft a small book. "I got Tara a passport, just in case."
Hannah nodded. "Wise move."
Moving to the front of his desk, Giles deposited the stack of items he was carrying and then, digging into his pocket, placed the car keys on top. That done, he sighed heavily and slumped into one of the leather chairs.
"Rough day at the office?" smirked Hannah.
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. "Don't be cute."
"It's inherent, I can't help it."
The Watcher simply sighed in response.
Hannah rose from her seat and moved from behind the desk. As she walked past, she gave Giles' hair an affectionate tousle, entirely ignoring the glare of annoyance she earned for her trouble. She claimed the seat next to him and smiled encouragingly.
"This is a good thing," she reminded him. "You said it yourself, the information in the old Watcher's Council diaries about Robespierre's movements is minimal at best."
"No, I know," Giles admitted grudgingly.
"But you're still worried," concluded Hannah. When he didn't refute the statement, she shook her head. "Tara seems to be a remarkably levelheaded girl, and you know how impressed you've been with Kennedy's capabilities."
Giles sighed heavily. "I just wish we didn't have to keep sending children to fight our battles."
The blonde gave a throaty chuckle. "I think they stopped being children some time ago, Rupert." Glancing in his direction, it was clear that Giles was locked in a dark mood and not particularly inclined to be budged. "Do you really think they'll be in danger?" she asked with the faintest note of concern.
"Kennedy and Tara?" replied Giles, rubbing the nape of his neck and wincing at the stiffness. "Only slightly more than usual. I have confidence in the Covens that this is indeed the woman they claim, but ... why her? Why now? It only raises more questions."
Getting to her feet, Hannah brushed away his hand and began her own relaxing massage of the tight muscles. Giles closed his eyes with satisfaction. "And you're grouchy because she just blasted into your head," she told him with a mischievous dig of her fingers.
"Well it's very intrusive!" he exclaimed in a huff. "She might learn to use the bloody phone." His tone assumed a more somber note and he pulled away from Hannah to regard her directly. "This could be crucial. Honestly, I don't know how much more luck we're going to have in finding them at this point. And we must find them. With an army of enhanced Slayers behind him, I'm afraid that nothing short of nuclear weaponry will be able to stop them. That's a theory I'm not particularly eager to test."
The Tara Room was, slowly but surely, transforming into a more lived-in space that reflected its namesake. Although still sparse, particularly as compared to the other bedrooms in the house, it now looked like a room in transition from one state of being to another. Though Tara clearly wasn't there for decorating purposes at the moment, intent as she was on packing an overnight bag.
With her back to the door, she failed to notice as Willow hovered in the doorway. The redhead said nothing for a long moment, simply watching Tara's every move without comment, until she finally inquired, "Got'cher toothbrush?"
Tara turned at the sound of the redhead's voice then, with a smirk, held up the referenced item. "Check," she said confidently.
Tara chuckled. "Okay, Buffy."
Willow grinned as Tara went back to her packing.
"So ..." she mused. "Canada, huh?"
Tara nodded. "Mm-hm. Very cool. I've never been out of the country before."
"Me neither," Willow informed the blonde and then frowned. "Well that's a lie. I mean, I went to England, but most of that was, you know ... big blur. Big, gray, rainy blur. With horses."
"I'm expecting this to mostly be a big, cold, snowy blur," Tara replied. "Less horses. Which is a shame, because I wouldn't mind a horse or two."
Willow smirked. "Never did understand that."
"Maybe you would have if you'd ever let me teach you." She turned to Willow and wagged an admonishing finger. "You know you still owe me that ..." Her voice trailed away, lost somewhere in a mixture of embarrassment and sadness. " ...riding date," she finished very quietly.
Turning her back on the redhead, Tara continued packing.
"Tara?" queried Willow, her tone reflecting her unhappiness.
"Huh-huh?" replied the blonde, focus remaining fixed upon the task at hand.
Willow ventured further into the room, a look of determination invading her face. "Why don't you ..." She paused and shook her head. "What's wrong with us?"
Tara refused to turn around. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yeah, you do," challenged the redhead softly but firmly. Moving to the edge of the bed, she took the heavy sweater that Tara had already unfolded and folded half a dozen times and tucked it neatly into the bag.
"At the club, you said we were gonna talk," Willow informed her gently. "But here we are, and I've been waiting for the talk, but we're all talk-free a-and now you're running away to Canada, and—"
"I'm not 'running away' to Canada, Will," protested Tara. "I'm on a ... a mission. I'm Mission Girl."
"You are," the redhead agreed, "but if you weren't, you'd still be here not-talking. I'm getting tired of—" With a deep sigh, she tried again. " I know there's stuff. Lots of stuff, and it's important, and I want us to deal with it."
"I am dealing with it," came the response.
Willow adamantly refuted the statement. "No! No, you're not! You keep ... acting like everything's okay, but Tara—"
Tara averted her eyes. "I know."
"Tara, you were dead."
"I know that!" snapped the blonde, immediately looking regretful for her outburst.
Willow, however, was unfazed. "Well then let us help you!" she insisted. "Let me help you!" Tara promptly diverted her gaze in another direction and the furrow of Willow's forehead became deeper still. "That's all I want," she implored in a thick voice. "I just ... I don't know how."
The silence seemed to endure for an eternity as neither woman said anything.
"You can let me go," murmured Tara.
"Go?" Willow repeated, the word ending on a high, fearful note.
"Just let me do this," Tara pleaded. "Let me ... I need to think. To be away for a while."
Eyes glistening, the redhead blinked rapidly and pursed her lips together. "You mean away from me," she translated, her voice level.
Tara offered no reply, she simply resumed packing. Taking the silence as confirmation, Willow swallowed hard, tears brimming in her eyes but not falling. "You're not gonna come back, are you?" she asked.
"'Course I'm gonna come back," Tara replied, her tone light in an attempt to alleviate the heavy mood. "I've got a witch to deliver. If I don't get her here within two days, then she's free."
That brought a tiny smile to Willow's lips, and smoothly broke the rapidly escalating moment. "Okay, so you'll come back, but then after. You're thinking about ... about leaving. Not like, 'new apartment' leaving, but 'new zip code' leaving. 'New country' leaving."
"I don't know," the blonde admitted in all honesty. "Maybe. This isn't ..." She turned to Willow with a sigh. "I've been here for a month now and I'm not ... It's getting worse. And seeing you every day is—"
Tara clamped down on her words and, almost as quickly, broke away from Willow's gaze to continue packing.
Instinctively, Willow's arms wrapped around herself as she watched item after item disappear into the depths of the overnight bag. Her expression remained fixed, but her jaw continued to work constantly, almost as if it had a mind of its own. Still though, the tears that threatened to spill remained in check. Barely.
The disconsolate hush that fell over the room was broken by the faint honk of a horn, quickly followed by a summons from below.
"Tara!" called Buffy. "Kennedy's here!"
Both women glanced toward the open doorway and then at each other. Tugging on the zipper, Tara closed the bag and threw it over her shoulder, looking to Willow once more but saying nothing. She gave the room a cursory sweep with her eyes and then headed out.
"I don't want you to go," whispered Willow.
Tara stopped and turned back.
"I don't mean now," clarified the redhead. "I mean after. But if you ... If going away will help you ... then you should go. I'll understand." She nodded with a shaky smile, which faded fast despite her best efforts to keep it plastered in place.
They simply stared at each other for a long moment. Then Tara turned toward the door and walked away.