by s.a.

Tara was settling into her chair for some light reading before going to bed when she heard a sharp knock. Puzzled, she climbed out of the tangle of blankets she had cocooned herself in and went to open the door. None of the Scoobies had come by her dorm room since she had left the house on Revello drive. She told herself that she didn't mind; she needed time to settle into the largish room in the Johnson dorm. The people on her floor had been friendly enough, but they were already far into the semester and had formed bonds she couldn't bring herself to break into.

She shook her head slightly as another knock brought her from her thoughts. She smoothed her skirts, and opened the door to reveal Spike. A small whoosh of breath left her when she saw how misshapen his face was. She hadn't seen him this beaten up in a very long time. Not since this summer, after fighting a Deftiune demon. Her gaze moved beyond his haggard appearance to his eyes. Tara paid enough attention to her friends' faces to know that there was something bothering the vampire in front of her, something other than the apparent beating he had taken.

She hadn't realized how long it had been since she had last seen him. He hadn't been around much, since Buffy had been resurrected, or the singing spell was cast. It wasn't at all like this summer, when he had been a constant presence in the house. He had basically claimed the couch; it was why she and Willow had put those heavy curtains up in the living room in the first place. Pulling herself from her thoughts, she beckoned him in, and he nodded his head slightly in thanks before clearing his throat. "You've got to say it, love."

"Right. Sorry. Come in Spike." She moved to let him by her, and the black leather of his jacket caught her in a small breeze. He immediately plopped down onto the chair that she had just been sitting in. There was no pretense between them; she had developed trust in him. Originally, it was because of their protective instinct towards Dawn. Giles hadn't really been the same father figure to Dawn as he had been for Buffy, so Spike and Tara often stepped in when she was having troubles or needed to talk. More than once they had sat down together to compare notes about her, but they had soon moved on to other friendly conversations.

That still didn't explain why he was now in her bedroom, tapping his fingers rather annoyingly against the sole of his boot. She settled into another chair, patiently waiting for him to tell her what was wrong.

He seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, so Tara let her own wander. This summer, despite the agonizing loss of Buffy, served to bring the people she left behind closer together. They had become a cohesive team, worrying about each other, taking care of each other. When one of the Scoobies saw another falling into grief, there was comfort there, peace. It was wonderful for Tara, to have family like that. She hated that this care had only came from Buffy's death, but she found a calming joy in being able to be with people who loved her.

Breakfasts were the best. After a night of patrolling, when the Bot was powered down and everyone was too exhausted from chasing demons to go home, Giles would start coffee and Willow would make a fruit salad from whatever she found in the kitchen. Tara would be fixing the pancakes everyone loved. Spike usually commandeered the couch, with Xander and Anya curled up in one of the comfy chairs in the living room while the other three prepared breakfast. Somehow Willow always managed to find energy to talk about the past night and the spells she was researching to help patrol. Giles would entertain her constant stream of babble, while Tara hummed softly, content with the turns her life had taken.

The Scoobies would all drag themselves to the dining room table to eat breakfast. The noise would usually wake Dawn, who would trudge down the stairs, determined to be a part of the group. She wasn't allowed to patrol with the others, but she was always making her presence known in the mornings when she fought with Xander for the jelly donut.

After they had recouped slightly with the help of food, Willow, Giles, and Spike would go over the night's report. Tara would push Dawn back to bed, putting a blanket over Anya and Xander on the way. They usually fell asleep after they ate. After she tucked Dawn in, she would stay at the threshold of the dining room, listening to the threesome talk about tactics and strategy, occasionally arguing about some random thing Spike did. It was pleasant, in a way, to have this routine of simple friendship.

By dawn, Xander and Anya would have been grudgingly sent home, as was Giles after one last check on Dawn. He would spend minutes up there, simply staring at her sleeping face. Tara ached for him. He had lost a daughter, and though he wasn't entirely certain how to handle the younger Summers, he seemed determined to watch over her.

Willow had usually calmed down some and headed up to bed after she cleaned up the remnants of breakfast. Tara usually showed Giles out before making one final inspection of the house. She would check the wards that protected them, examining them closely to make sure that they weren't waning; fix all the locks into place; close the curtains, protecting Spike from the sunlight. It was a calm life, one she remembered with a dull throbbing around her heart.

A glance was sent to Spike's face; conflicted emotions warred in his eyes, and she still kept silent. Her thoughts flickered to her life now, how very different things were. Buffy was back. For which she was happy, really. The world had its Slayer; the Scoobies had their leader. It should be a good thing, but it had gone so horribly wrong. Beyond the fact that Giles left, and Willow betrayed her, and Dawn seemed all but forgotten, Buffy was in such pain. It hurt to look at her, to see her aura so clouded and wounded. She had no idea what to do when Buffy had come to her the other day, but she did as she was asked, and could only hold the sobbing Slayer as she ached for simply being alive.

And now she had the Slayer's lover in front of her. She would have hated being this go-between if she had not missed her friends so very much. Willow had no idea what was lost when she performed the spells of resurrection, of forgetting. The love of Buffy that had held them together in the five months she had been gone all but disappeared when she came back.

It would be so easy to put all this on Willow. A very strong part of her told her that it was all the other witch's fault. Willow was the one who couldn't control herself. Tara might have had some protection against using magic too much because she was raised with it, but she knew that protecting herself like that was a copout. Willow got a touch of power, the kind of power that rips through a person and leaves nothing in its wake. She didn't know where it began - from her resouling Angel, or the simple spells she performed in high school and college. Perhaps it was losing Oz that first time. No matter where it began; it just was. Willow had bypassed the faith involved in witchcraft, moving straight to the spells. She always breezed beyond the religion, the study, the discipline involved in being a true witch. Though Tara had tried so very hard to school her in the ways of witchcraft her mother taught her, Willow always got that grin on her face that meant she wanted to skip to the good stuff. Tara always gave in, her submission stemming from an insecurity that ran so deep she feared it could never be dealt with.

More and more, when she saw the mess that pooled around her friends - no. Her family. When she saw this disaster that was their life now, she felt a burning desire to tap into that same power that Willow abused so well to fix the incredible chaos her lover had made. But she had far more control than Willow, along with knowledge of consequences, though she couldn't imagine what would be asked in return for such a request from the gods.

Yes. She had power. It ran as deep as her fears, locked in a tightly watched box in the back of her brain, preventing her from touching it. She could command herself. How she loved her mother for teaching her that restraint above all else.

For the time being, she simply dealt with problems as they came to her. She called Giles on a regular basis, seeking the comfort of his voice telling her to be strong, that it would all pan out. She left out much of the badness that happened here in Sunnydale, knowing that he could not come back for them again and leave unscathed. So she protected him, as she did the others.

She dealt with Dawn weekly, listening to the young girl chatter on and helping her work through her fears. She suspected the teenager was keeping some things from her, though she didn't press. When Dawn wanted to talk to her, she would be waiting.

Tara did her best to keep Anya and Xander from killing each other with their wedding plans. The Saturday night dinners with Xander, Anya, Tara, and Willow tapered off after the witches had separated; but after the mess with the car accident, Anya had bluntly told her that they missed her and wanted to see her more. So she came, alone, and did her best to enjoy her time there - though the couple was constantly bickering. She had no idea how they would make their marriage work.

She saw Buffy for a few moments when one of them came for Dawn, and though there was some small talk, she hadn't had the opportunity to sit down with her. She honestly didn't know how to act around her, and though she hated to admit it, Tara was scared of her. She hoped now Buffy would be more open to forming a friendship. She certainly needed someone. Someone other than Spike, remembering suddenly that he was still in the room.

Her eyes refocused on the vampire sitting before her, his head in his hands. He was breathing hard, which she knew meant he was trying to control himself. He is so very human, she thought suddenly. Tara did her best to comfort him with her eyes, and when he finally moved his hands from his puffed-up, bruised face, she saw that the troubled blue eyes were panicked. Her heart broke when she heard him say coarsely:

"Love, can you please fix me some pancakes?"


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