Anya counts the money in the register every day at twelve o'clock. Giles buys groceries every Thursday only. Xander would untie his shoelaces and devour vast quantities of Twinkies before any major exam in high school, claiming that he did better on a sugar rush.
Habits are everyday things that you do, sometimes unknowingly, because it feels safe. Because there's always something in your life that needs to stay the same -- no matter what kind of mess the rest of it is.
Her own habits have always been sensible, of course. Practical. Making sure to check that the oven was turned off before leaving the house. Or always doing things in the right order so that nothing would be forgotten.
Visiting Tara was another one, of sorts. Getting up early each morning. Never having more than a cup of coffee; breakfast was always eaten together. Packing down books and magazines and scented candles. Putting on the sort of fake smile you always use when visiting someone at the hospital. Because you can't let on that this is serious, oh no. You smile and bring pretty flowers like it was some kind of goddamn celebration.
"Hi," she says, stepping inside and giving her a bright smile. The happy Willow smile. "You sleep well?"
Tara nods, looking a little tired. "Like a baby." She shifts on the bed, giving Willow enough space to climb up and lie down next to her. The bed was thin and hard, but they manage to cuddle up close enough to fit without risking to fall over.
"Mmm. I spoke to the doctor. He said the chemo's going pretty good. But you're still losing a lot of weight." Tracing Tara's ribs under the hospital gown, giving the hip a small squeeze. No thinner than herself certainly, but somehow it was wrong on this body. Like a grown-up being tucked back into the body of a child.
"I'm downright skinny now," Tara says, crinkling her nose.
"Tell me about it. Soon as you get back home, I'll force-feed you Ben & Jerry's until every single curve is back." Spoonfuls of rich mocha and strawberry ice-cream, sliding across full lips. Could be a better bet than chemotherapy. Healing through ice-cream. If it could help heal a broken heart, why not your body?
Even when they are quiet, it's always a comfortable silence. Tara was much like Oz, in that way. It was the moments when you weren't saying anything that were the most important.
The room is dark now, blinds drawn shut. The antiseptic hospital smell washed away by the scented candles placed around the bed. Roses and jasmine, just like Tara. The darkness and the flickering candles created almost dreamlike surroundings, encasing them like a cocoon. Making it easy to believe this was somewhere outside the frame of time; to imagine yourself anywhere you wanted.
"We're at the sea," she says suddenly, staring up at the ceiling. "There's nobody there but us. We'll just be lying in the sand, listening to the waves roll in, until we see the stars in the sky."
Tara asks with a hint of a smile, "Will there be dolphins?"
"If you want there to be."
"And skinnydipping?" Bodies, nude and gleaming with drops of salty water. Soaked strands of hair sticking to their faces, limbs slippery and wet. She is closing her eyes now, willing it to come true. As if it would just by wanting it desperately enough.
"Plenty. We'll be lying in the water, floating on our backs, and it'll be thick and dark and heavy underneath us, carrying our bodies like -- like in the womb."
"A-and then what? What will we do when morning comes?"
"The same. Diving in the water, warm and turquoise; so very blue now it's almost matching the sky. Feeling the sun on our skin. Collecting shells and building sandcastles, anything we feel like doing."
"With nobody else there besides us?"
"No." She touches Tara's cheek briefly with her fingertips, flesh and bone and so very soft. Childlike. "Just you and me."
The parting moment was always bittersweet.
Bitter because the blinds needed to be opened and the real world let back in. Having to face every time that the world that they lived in was not a cocoon, but consisted of sterile walls and blood cells and antibodies.
Sweet because of the sheer necessity of the moment. Jasmine kisses from Tara's mouth. The customary 'I love you'. Despite their love of silence, there were some words that simply needed to be said; no matter how many times they had been before.
And maybe that's just a bit of everyday perfection right then and there. It doesn't even matter so much that it's broken when the door is opened by a flustered nurse, telling them visiting hours were over. Ignoring the nurse, she bends over and places a last kiss on Tara's lips. "See you soon, okay?"
The box under the bed is small and heavy. Willow carefully opens the lid, lifting out the candles resting on a velvet cloth and placing them in a circle on the floor. Surrounding them with dried up herbs from the dusty back inventory of the magick shop; wreaths of sage and thyme and forget-me-not.
She has been doing this ritual quite often lately, in the privacy of her own bedroom. It had little to do with magick, but rather her way of remembering the loved ones she had lost. Her own private memorial.
The first candle was navy blue and had a crisp scent of peppermint. From Jesse she received her first kiss in fifth grade, playing spin the bottle. Clumsy boy lips, meeting hers for a brief second, then he pulled back and wiped his mouth exaggeratedly while the others were cheering. Xander's friend, not hers. But she still tried to remember him. Not many did.
Miss Calendar's smiles would light up the room. And Giles. So her candle is fiery red and scented with cinnamon.
Then came Joyce's; ivory and lavender. When thinking of Joyce, it was her hands Willow remembered most. Slender and elegant, but lined by age and hard work as a mother and wife. Baking and laundry and working extra hours in the art gallery to make sure her girls were well cared for. Perhaps it was a small mercy that Joyce never had to suffer having to outlive her child. Instead, her candle was placed next to the last one, sea green and vanilla like the girl it belonged to. One of Willow's most beloved.
Sometimes it seemed as if all the the years she had spent with these people belonged to a different life. One where Willow was still shy and quiet, and monsters were things children believed to be under their beds. Because there were no monsters, right? Only in fairy tales.
But she knows better now. That the cruelest and most merciless monster of them all could lie deep within your own body. That happy endings aren't something you should ever take for granted.
She lights the candles, gazing as the thin flames flutter and dance. If she tries hard, she can picture everyone happy and smiling, sitting next to her and lending her their strength. It's a childish thought, of course.
But because she needs it to be true, she believes.
Buried deep down under her clothes in the dresser lies the fifth candle, pale golden and softly scented with roses and jasmine. As with the others, she has made it herself, imprinting it with tears and love. It is not part of the circle yet. She hopes, so very much, that the candle will continue to lie in the dresser for a bit longer. That she will manage to gather enough perfect moments to last her a lifetime. That Tara will stay with her, and everything will be as it should be.
If only a little while.
Willow. Bittersweet. Candles.