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Halfway Home -- Chapter 2

Title: Halfway Home
Author: wolfsbane
Rating: PG-13 to R for language, violent themes, and (possibly) some kisses and gay love. (Not R because of the gay part, just the lovin’)
Disclaimer: Contains themes of abuse! Please, if you are not comfortable with this, don't read. Set at the beginning of season 2. The characters and story lines belong to Joss Whedon. No profit is being made off of this fic.
Feedback: Yes please! Reviews pet my ego, and encourage me to write. More reviews = more writing.
Summary: After her mother's death, Tara confides in someone about her abuse. Her life is changed when authorities move her to a home in Sunnydale....
A/N: Thanks for the reviews! That, Belle and Sebastian, and Grizzly Bear should be credited with this chapter. Self-edited (along with spellcheck.)



Tara sat mutely in the car, rubbing the plush interior with the edges of her fingers. She dimly registered that through the humid layers of cleaning spray she could still smell the nicotine embedded in the fabric.

Holy fuck. She inhaled as if to stretch her lungs to bursting and released without a sound, her eyes darting to the woman in the driver’s seat. Is this what nicotine feels like? Her placid skin beguiled the tingles ebbing and flowing down her nerves. Is this the rush of addiction? Her body felt tranquil for the first time since... god knows when, but the vacuum nestled in her gut raced, knocking at her innards, buzzing like a fly in her ear, begging her breathlessly to run a marathon or lift a bus above her head.

Those emerald eyes lingered on her skin.

Her shoulders jerked as she struggled to fight the shiver trickling through her spinal cord like a drop of sweat.

“Tara? Tara, are you listening?” Joanne asked with a smile, her eyes glancing from the road for an instant to check on her charge. She doesn’t deserve those worry lines. What god would place all that pain on one child?

“S-sorry ma’am.” Tara looked down at her hands fighting each other in her lap. She rubbed the flesh on either side of her middle fingernail and seemed to find some comfort in it.

“Hey, you don’t have to do that. Please, I’m just Joanne.” As she paused at the red light, she turned to see Tara nod imperceptibly, her eyes never leaving her fingers.

The social worker sighed and wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. “As has been explained to you before, due to your age it would be impossible to find you an adoptive family and... really, nobody deserves to be shuffled through foster care,” Joanne scoffed. “Not many people know about this acclimation program, but it’s effective at getting older teens in your situation used to caring for themselves, while still under government care. I know you heard this already, but I need to make sure you understand the full implications of this.” She adjusted her grip on the steering wheel.

“There will be a supervisor there for emergencies. If a fight breaks out, if there are drug or alcohol problems, or... or if an uninvited family member decides to visit, he or she will be there to help out. Other than that, the check you receive in the mail is yours to do with what you wish. You’ll have to budget the rent, utilities, et cetera, but if you want to live on Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew for a month you can.” She winked at Tara. “You are responsible for your schoolwork, and getting to school on time. There will be no one around to keep you from skipping school -- not that I’m condoning it. There probably won’t be much room for extra spending money, but there is no rule against getting a job. There is a rule against cars--”

“N-no getting in, even if I know the person, right?” the blonde piped up.

“Exactly. They’ll have to go through an application process with us. I know it sounds like a pain in the ass,” she smirked, seeing Tara’s eyes widen in surprise. “But it’s all for your safety. We want you guys to grow up without being in that situation, and this really is the only way we can go about it. Any questions?”

Tara took a steadying breath. “Um, about the checks? Wh-when I get them in the mail, what do I do?”

“Shit. Wasn’t James supposed to explain that to you? He was supposed to be waiting with you, too, until I got there. The nerve of him. What if something had happened to you?” Ms. Jenkins ranted, more to herself than to her companion. “I’ll have to report him when I get back. Anyway, what was I saying again?”

Tara huffed softly in laughter. “Money?”

“Oh! Right! There’s a bank account set up in your name. In that bag at your feet is all the information you need about cashing checks, withdrawing money, and managing your funds. If you’re having any trouble, the bankers there are pretty helpful.” She paused and rubbed her lips together, like her mouth was struggling to properly form the words. “It also includes a copy of your mother’s will. There being only one beneficiary made it rather simple for the accountant to sort everything out. For safety reasons, since the Personal Representative was so closely linked to your family, the DFPS collected the items for you.”

Tara stared intently out the window and widened her eyes to keep the tears seated precariously on her lower lids from spilling out onto her cheeks. “I--” she choked out. “I-I, I’m sorry, b-b-b-b-but what does this mean? I’m j-just so c... confused.”

Maneuvering the vehicle to the curb, she put it in park and unbuckled her seatbelt. Joanne turned to Tara and said in a low, even tone, “Tara? Tara, please look at me.” Her lower lip trembled as she faced the woman. “From what I’ve heard, your mother loved you very much. She made this will separate from any legal influence your father may have had due to their marriage, and deposited a box along with it. It’s in the trunk, next to your duffel bag.”

Tara’s hands shook as they were brought up to delicately swipe the tears from beneath her eyes. “Can I j-just have a minute?” she hiccuped.

The older woman nodded and climbed out of the car. “I’ll be on that bench right over there if you need me,” she said with one last consoling glance, and shut the door.

She cried, a low keening sound crescendoing into a raw yell, the back of her throat rattling with phlegm from the exertion. Maybe if she screamed enough, she could scream out the full ache that settled in her chest. Her heart felt like a tight muscle, sore from overuse and abuse; why couldn’t it expand anymore and pump out the bad blood stagnant in the ventricles? She reached the end of her lungs and gasped, the fire in her lungs matching her rent heart. Maybe if she inhaled enough, the air could fill the gaping hole in her stomach? It rested where she assumed her heart should be, but as that was busy being broken in another place, it was full of Nothing. The Nothing that her mother should have occupied, with her corny jokes, consolation, lullabies, and tears of her own, fears of her own. Why couldn’t I have helped her? She always told you not to, such an obedient little girl, weren’t you? I should have seen the signs, should have known how much he hurt her, how much she thought she couldn’t live without him. She bit her lip and drew her nails across her scalp, bending hairs at the follicles.

I wish I could hug her once more. Tell her how amazing she is. How she deserves so much more. She was my best friend, when nobody at school would be.

I wish I told her that I’m gay.

She deserved to know.


She struggled to imprint it all in her mind before she forgot: the late night gossip sessions, the cooking lessons, being tucked to bed at night and sung to sleep, her perpetual aroma of vanilla and flour.... The times she’s picked me up and told me I’m worth the world after he punished me. I should have done the same.

And already the memories were beginning to fade, swallowed up in the amorphous memories of her past. Had it always been that hard to remember?

I love you Mama. I’m so sorry.

******************

Tara stayed in the car for a while, allowing her mind asylum. Eventually, a ferocious thought popped into her mind? What if I can’t do this? How can I be an adult?

What are you talking about Tara? You’ve practically been an adult your whole life.
I can do this. I can live the way Mama always wanted me to. I must. For her.


Tara flipped down the visor and looked in the mirror attached to it. She certainly had never thought anything of her appearance, especially not after she cried, but as she looked, she couldn’t help but feel pretty. Her red-rimmed eyes were a watery shade of blue, sorrowful but with a ebullience hiding within. Her skin was pale and smooth, her cheeks rosy, punctuated by small dark birthmarks here and there. As she looked closer at her hairline, she noticed the thin blonde hair of her childhood was gradually being replaced with a thick, honeyed brown at the roots.

Sniffing once more, she stepped out of the car, and leaning with her arms crossed atop the roof, she called out to the child protection agent. “H-hey. Sorry about th-that. I’m r-reeaaady,” she hiccuped a sob. “I’m ready to go.”

Joanne raised herself from the sagging wooden bench and, after straightening the pinstripes of her skirt, climbed in the car and put the keys back in the ignition. She turned to the teen, pursing her dark lips.

“Tara, would you like to listen to music?”

Tara blushed and nervously swatted at the heated flesh. “I’m okay with w-whatever--”

“No, I’m asking you what do you want?

She gulped and graced the older woman with a lopsided smile. “I w-want to listen to m-m-music, please.”

“Sure thing. Let me see,” she said, shuffling through a stack of CD’s. “How do you feel about Belle and Sebastian?”

“I love them!” she gasped gleefully. She quickly ducked her head.

Make me dance, I want to surrender
Your familiar arms, I remember


*************


The silver sedan coasted to a stop in front of a red brick apartment complex which sported a rusted, white chipped paint sign declaring it to be “SunnySide Living.” The building was square, lego block-like in architecture. Much like Tara herself, the building seemed to have been through the ringer several times and had come out a little worse for wear. Pipes hung off the side of the building, exposing decomposing bits and the yard was austere; it’s square pavement boarders and no-nonsense, evenly cut grass brought no images of summer barbecues to her mind.

But in the staid windows of the third floor, character blossomed. In the boxes of one window, purple pansies peaked down at Tara. Out of the one to the left, a spiraling wind chime swirled in the breeze like a modern dancer, inventing new elegance in it’s journey. Posted to the glass of yet another window were posters of various celebrities and bands that she had heard the girls at her school squeal about.

And on the lawn next to the decrepit edifice towered a weeping willow tree, it’s white buds wafting towards Tara.

She sniffed the lush air and pivoted to pick up the light duffel and the box, jostling the bag of files hanging from her wrist as she did so.

“Here, let me take something for you,” Joanne suggested as she trotted from the front of the car. With a surprisingly wrinkled hand she grasped the strap of the duffel bag and slung it over her shoulder. Her stilettos tattooed tick-tacking noises onto the pavement as she approached the oak door.

She ran her finger over the names on the buzzer, and, tapping upon finding the right name, pressed the grimy, beige button firmly.

“Hello?” a crackly voice called over the intercom.

“Hey, Dan? It’s me, Joanne, with Tara Maclay,” she responded, leaning into the speaker.

“I’ll be right there.”

Joanne turned to face Tara once more, rocking on her heels and moving the strap of the duffel higher up on her shoulder.

“Once I get you settled in with Dan I’ll be heading back to the office. He’s a very nice man, and guarantee you, he’s been excited for your arrival.”

Tara quirked her eyebrow in question.

“The other nine kids got here two weeks ago, just in time for the Fourth of July, and he’s been really excited to get you settled with your roommate.”

Her head snapped up to view the woman, her eyes wide.

“I have a--”

The door opened to reveal a handsome blond man with a slight gut that was accentuated by the button-up shirt tucked into his jeans. His kind face, unshaven and covered with laugh lines, was offset by a panicked expression that brought his brow low over his small, blue eyes.

“Sorry we’re late, Dan. It took a little while for me to get Tara sorted out; apparently James decide there was something more important than work--”

“Jo--” He cut himself off and turned to Tara. “I’m sorry, but could you excuse us for just a second? If it weren’t as important, I wouldn’t...” he trailed off desperately.

“It’s f-fine,” Tara stammered; her insides churned with curiosity.

Dan’s expression barely registered the comment as he ushered them inside from the concrete stoop, glancing around furtively before shutting the door solidly behind him. She gracefully lifted the off her shoulder and set it on the floor next to Tara with a soft “plop.” With a gentle hand on her elbow, Dan pulled Joanne around the corner of the hall. Tara strained her ears to hear the hushed conversation, as if her ears could reach out and grasp the words from their mouths if she stretched them far enough.

“Dan, what on earth--”

“Sh! Do you want her to get worried? She’s been through enough already.”

Tara unconsciously rubbed her fingers across her hip and winced.

“You’re right. I’m sorry, but what the hell is going on?” The voices had gotten even quieter; Tara went to peak her head around the corner, but pulled back at the last minute. Tara heard a heavy sigh.

“James wasn’t skipping out on us. He’s dead. They found him this morning at his house, said it was another neck rupture.

“Oh my god.”

The sound of fabric rubbing together permeated the air.

“I’m glad you’re okay Jo.”

There was a long pause, during which Tara could scarcely breathe. No.... One of them cleared their throat.

“Well, we’d better get back to Tara. The office is saying that once everybody’s done, they should go straight home. No extra work today,” he murmured pointedly.

Tara straightened up and attempted to look enrapt in the mailboxes across from her.

“Hey there! Sorry about that, just some boring work stuff,” the man said cheerily. “I’m Dan Bernstein. I live right up the hall from you guys. Don’t worry, I’m not here to be your babysitter; I’ll go to the office every weekday, but if there’s ever a safety problem, do not hesitate to come to me.” He smiled but his brow was still set low.

Tara nodded in understanding.

“Well, that’s my cue to leave,” Joanne piped in. “If you ever need anything -- even just a person to talk to -- call me.” She tucked a card into Tara’s palm. “Good luck, Tara.”

Just as the woman turned to leave, the teen resolved herself and enveloped the woman in a hug.

“Th-thank you. For everything,” she said as they separated. Joanne nodded, her mouth quirked in a tight-lipped smile.

“See you tomorrow,” Dan called out to her, just beating the slam of the door. “Alright, where were we?” He bent down, picked up the bag with a grunt, and hefted it atop his shoulder, bypassing the strap altogether. “We’ll all be living on the same floor, the third, no elevator,” he explained as they began climbing up the stairs. “There aren’t really any rules; pay your bills on time, go to school, and keep everything legal are some good rules to follow, but we won’t be here to make you. However, legal authorities will intervene if you decide to misbehave.”

“Th-that won’t be an issue,” she quickly assured him.

“I’m sure it won’t,” he said through a smile. “Unless you get a bike, you’ll be hoofing it to school. If a friend’s parents wants to drive you, they’ll have to fill out some forms. You’re welcome to invite friends you make at school over....” He hesitated. “This isn’t a rule per se, but it’s strongly recommended here in Sunnydale: make sure you know who you let in the building and in your room after dark. I know it sounds weird, but always check before you open the door or invite someone in. It’s an extra safety precaution we like to take.”

It can’t be....

As they rounded the curve of the second floor’s stairwell, Tara caught Dan checking his watch and glancing out the window nervously.

“Hopefully there all in by now. It’s also best that you don’t stay out too late after dark; I don’t want to freak you out, but weird stuff tends to happen around here, and we may act like it doesn’t, well, just be prepared.” He shifted the bag to his other shoulder when they reached the third floor landing.

Hellmouth. I’m on the Hellmouth. Mom always said... but I never imagined...

Tara shook the thought from her head, if only temporarily.
“Mi-- Joanne s-said s-s-something about a roommate?”

“Yeah! She’s a really cool girl. I was hoping that you two would get along. The others haven’t really meshed that well with her; she’s a bit... out there. Charming, but I think she’s intimidated some of the other girls, and I thought each of you would like to have somebody to hang out with. Ah, here we are,” he sighed, pulling them to a halt in front of a door labeled 3h.

“I have a set of keys for you, but I’m gonna knock first, just in case she’s... indisposed.” He lifted his hand to rap against the soft, grainy wood, but before his knuckles had the chance to knock, the door swung open to reveal a dark haired teen, too busy rubbing the sleep from her eyes to notice that her dark tank top had fallen dangerously low.

“Shit, Dan, you wanna wake the whole floor with those hooves of yours? Heard you coming since the third floor.”

“It’s nice to see you to. I’d like to introduce you to your new roommate, Tara Maclay.”

The brunette grinned, crossing her arms over her chest. “Roommate? And here I was thinking that you brought me an early birthday present; you know how much I love blondes,” she said, winking at Tara. Tara, for her part, had the tact to turn as red as a tomato, and in the process of trying to avoid eye contact somehow got her gaze stuck in the girl’s cleavage. Realizing this, the girl smiled a bit more earnestly, and stuck out her hand.

“How’s it hangin’, T? I’m Faith.”

******************