Willow doesn’t like how cold it gets at night in England. It’s not the kind of thing she should probably complain about, given the fact that her death wouldn’t have been an unwarranted treatment of her issues. But it’s cold in England at night and she grew up in California where it was warm enough that some Christmases she slept outside with Xander.
She’s not a big fan of any cold, and the weird wet coldness that works its way into her room every night even though it’s summer is no exception. It’s a dumb thing to focus on, how much she hates the cold in her room at night. But it beats focusing on the blonde figment she sees smiling at her just for a moment before she disappears every morning when Willow wakes up. It beats wondering if she’s going insane, being haunted, or still asleep.
So, Willow hates the cold. Especially on the nights when the figment stays, or gets closer like sitting on the edge of the bed, or reaching out a hand only to pull it away at the last second. It’s nice for a while. Willow can pretend it’s Tara, pretend she hasn’t doomed herself to both a life and a maybe-afterlife that will decidedly not be the place that someone as good and as kind as Tara would be.
She can pretend that the room doesn’t get colder every time she sees that crooked smile, and she can pretend she doesn’t see it slowly get wider night after night until it doesn’t look right but she still can’t look away. It’s not Tara. She knows that, every piece of her knows that. Including the one that has known since the moment she saw it. There’s too much missing, her eyes are soft but they’re not the same, and sometimes her mouth moves like she might be laughing but the lines in her face are different.
It’s tiny things, insignificant things, but ones Willow misses too much to not notice their absence. Ones that she doesn’t know how to bring up to someone as proof that she’s seeing Tara. Or, decidedly Not-Tara. But she wants it to be Tara so bad, even though it’s selfish and means she’s not safe and means there’s something wrong. She wants it to be Tara.
So it is, because Willow decides it’s her. She doesn’t know if the figment knows, or can tell, or even cares, but something changes. She’ll wake up and she’ll actually be laying next to her. Or she’ll be brushing her teeth and she’ll look up and she’s smiling kindly at her. Or she’ll say something, because she talks now. The first thing she says comes when Willow is trying to balance a laptop and a notebook in her hand as she tries to focus on the tome Althenia has offered her to look over.
It’s quiet but it feels like Tara. It feels like early mornings in the dorms, when they were having sleepovers but Willow still thought it was because they were good friends. It feels like Tara’s tentative compliments and the burning in Willow’s cheeks that would last for hours. It’s simple, but it hurts a little too much, still never enough for Willow to want her to leave, though. “I like your hair long, it looks so soft.”
It’s a stupid thing to be sad about, Tara never seeing her hair this length. But she is. It’s not like she likes her hair long, it’s just what happens when your life is filled with apocalypses to keep you busy so your girlfriend starts trimming your hair for you and then she dies unexpectedly.
But the point is, the thing that definitely isn’t Tara but is starts talking and it’s mostly noncommittal compliments or teasing words or just soft greetings when she comes back to her room sometimes. But then, it changes. Willow doesn’t think it means to. But it does. And the voice in her head that sounds a lot like the one offering the soft little greetings grows louder as not-Tara’s voice grows harsher.
Not outwardly, probably not intentionally. But whatever it is must be getting lazy or too comfortable because they lose Tara’s voice. It’s still painfully familiar but there’s words Tara wouldn’t use, inflections she never had. Willow spent days with that realization, wondering if she actually knew Tara’s vernacular that well or if she was just forgetting pieces of it.
She’s still not sure, but she figures there are moments and things that aren’t forgettable at this point. Tara is most of them.
But Tara is still gone, and there’s something keeping Willow up at night that very much might be a demon or a spell or an issue in her brain chemistry. Whatever it is, dealing with it will mean the memory of Tara stays Tara and not whatever Willow has been seeing. And that’s what needs to happen. So, Willow wanders her way into the lowly lit study that the coven leaves empty for Giles’ visits.
He’s there, Willow thinks he always is. His glasses are on the desk in front of him and his hands cover his eyes as he rubs them like someone who's seen a ghost. He looks up as Willow closes the door behind her and grins a small self-deprecating smile. Willow wonders if her face is so obvious or if he just knows her well enough to ask, “What ghosts have you been seeing?”
Willow laughs because she has to if she wants to get through this conversation. “Tara’s?”
At Giles’ wide but certain eyes, she clarifies, “I don’t think it’s her, but whatever it is… it’s a pretty good impression.”
Giles tilts his head in understanding. “I’ve, uh, been seeing something as well, quite the impressionist.”
Willow sees something flash across Giles’ face that hits a little closer now. Longing. And Willow pieces together that her dead girlfriend isn’t the only one whose image has been popping up.
Giles lets out a soft chuckle. “It’s strange, isn’t it? The way it looks so much like her while still looking so wrong?”
Willow nods. “She had this smile that… it made me feel like… there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do as long as she was there smiling like that. But, they get it wrong, it’s always too big or too small or unfocused. For a little while I thought…”
Giles finishes for her. “That it was you? You were forgetting something.”
Willow meets his eyes with her wet ones. “Yeah.”
“Jenny used to make these little gasping noises after she laughed. Whatever it is, they always forget those little noises when they laugh at me. I thought I was misremembering, adding memories where there aren’t any because we didn’t get enough time.” Giles replies.
Willow sniffs. “There’s never enough… It won’t ever have been enough time with her. And she’s gone and I know she’s safe wherever she is and I know she’s probably somewhere good. But, sometimes I let them be her, I let it be her but she’s just changed or I’ve misremembered because then maybe she’s still here and we can still be together.”
Giles smiles softly at Willow in the soft yellow of the room and moves over to sit next to her while placing a gentle hand on her knee and says, “I’m going to tell you something a friend of mine told me when it was still fresh and I was stilling looking for the woman I loved in ghosts in the hopes that then I wouldn’t have to look back and the places where she wasn’t anymore. She would never be this mean. Tara wouldn’t… she wouldn’t come this close just to keep your wounds open.”
Willow laughs softly as the tears finally spill over her cheeks. “I know, I just… I miss her. And at least if it was her then… she wouldn’t be all gone.”
Giles nods, his eyes a mirror of Willow’s. “You know as well as I do that she isn’t gone. But I quite understand the sentiment. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that if something can possess her image then maybe her image still exists somewhere on earth that isn’t something as fragile as a memory.”
Willow leans into his shoulder and says, “Yeah. Yeah. I miss her, all the time. Over stupid things like my hair or an animal that I know she would’ve fawned over.”
Giles laughs. “Sometimes I hold a book and I can almost feel her leaning over me with a pen jokingly threatening to mark it up. Nearly every time you or Xander do something particularly romantically stupid I hear her laughing and making the dumb parental-figure inheritance joke she used to make.”
Willow smiles sadly. “She used to tell me about these horses she grew up near that her neighbours let her ride. And she always wanted to come here - England, I mean. It feels the weirdest mix of terrible and also warm to be here in a place that she would love without her.”
Giles exhales through his nose. “Yes, I… I spent weeks trying to stop thinking about how interested Jenny would’ve been in The Initiative.”
Willow bumps her shoulder against his. “Me too.”
She clarifies at his furrowed eyebrows. “I thought about her a lot then, too. She would’ve probably loved to read all The Initiative files we ended up getting. I… it was dumb and habitual from back when you two were broken up and Buffy was mad at her and I was pretending I didn’t still care about her because I love both of you but I made this file to put things she’d be interested in before I remembered that she was dead.”
Giles smiles softly at the admission and offers, “After Xander talked you down and we were back at the house while you were essentially dead to the world, I thought to myself that I should stop by to see Tara for tea before I came back here. Our heart’s refusal to listen to our memories can be a tricky thing.”
Willow nods. “Yeah. Yeah, it can.”
Giles spares a glance to the wooden clock emitting loud ticks on the bookshelf and winces to himself. “Sleep would probably be best.”
Willow follows his eyes and nods, getting up to leave. Giles adds, “I am always here for you, if you ever need help carrying this unfortunate burden we share.”
Willow smiles, soft and kind and warmly. “Loving Tara was - is - a lot of things. But a burden has never been one of them, not one that wasn’t worth it, anyway.”
Giles nods, a concise agreement on his lips as the brightest memory of Jenny he has being one of her glittering eyes as she teased him and not the empty ones lying in his bed as the proof of Willow’s very sentiment.
And Willow, remembering a shy smile and a warm hand instead of the taste of blood in her mouth and a shocked look on Tara’s face, heads back to her room.