Disclaimer: BtVS characters, concepts and dialog belong to Mutant Enemy, Fox, The WB, UPN and others. The story, however, came out of my delusional little brain.
Note: This story uses two fonts to represent Willow and Tara's handwriting in sections. These fonts are available for download here: CatholicSchoolGirls BB and Hybi 4. If these fonts are not installed on your PC, sections of this story will be rendered in large text. Fonts sourced from dafont.com.
Tara tapped her fingers on the steering wheel impatiently and glanced down at the speedometer. Why does 67 mph seem so much slower here? She'd been driving for about an hour, but it seemed like much longer. The blonde sighed and reached over to change the radio station.
"Stupid DJ banter"
"Neil Diamond? UGH!"
Tara turned off the radio and returned to tapping the steering wheel. Eventually, she gave in to whining.
"M-o-o-o-o-o-m? Are we there yet?!"
Willow sipped on her mocha as she ambled down the streets of Sunnydale. She'd been away from her hometown for much of the previous 4 years, only returning a few times to visit when she had a break from school. The redhead sighed as she looked at the familiar surroundings. I've really missed this place.
The park came into view as she rounded the corner. Willow carefully examined the area and subconsciously gave a satisfied nod. It really does look good...even better than I expected. She caught the sight of a swing hanging from the large oak in the middle of the park. Our swing. Smiling, she made her way to her favorite childhood spot.
She reached the swing and lovingly ran her hands over the metal seat. She lifted the rectangular seat and turned it over, looking for the familiar marker. There she saw the telltale sign that this was, in fact, their swing. Willow dropped the seat to its normal position. Gingerly sitting on the swing, Willow tested the strength of the ropes. Once she was sure the swing wouldn't break, she wrapped her arms around the ropes, linking her hands in front of her, and rested her head on the rope to her right. The momentum of the swing caused her to sway in slow, lazy circles. Wow. That was almost 10 years ago.
"Donnie! Leave Willow alone and get over here and help me!" Donald Maclay, Sr.'s voice boomed across the grass-covered field.
Some 30 feet away, Donald Maclay, Jr. stood with his left hand on his hip and his right hand on the forehead of a rather agitated 12-year-old redhead. Donnie kept his arm extended and he bent slightly at the waist, keeping his torso and legs just out of the reach of the flailing girl in front of him.
"But, Dad, she's the one who's trying to whoop on me! I'm just holding her back...out of self defense!"
The redhead paused her attack for a fraction of a second to give the older - and much larger - boy a heated glare. She quickly resumed her passionate, yet futile, efforts to give Donnie a good old-fashioned whoopin'.
"You picked on Tara and chased her and made her fall! AND YOU LAUGHED! No one picks on Tara and gets away with it!" Willow argued vehemently in defense of her best friend and attempted to kick Donnie's kneecaps. Before she knew it, Willow found herself flat on her back.
"Whoa there, Pixie! Y'alright?" Donnie reached down to help Willow back to her feet. "Guess your legs aren't quite long enough, Pixie. It was a good try though."
Willow's eyes became small, angry slits as she stared at her tormentor. "I don't need your help you...you...boy!" Willow spat the rather lackluster insult at Donnie as she swatted his hand away. Standing up quickly, her ego bruised more than her backside, she added, "And don't call me Pixie!"
Donnie raised his hands in mock surrender and took a step back. "Okay, okay, WIL-LOW!"
The fiery redhead was about to launch into another ill-planned attack on her enemy when she heard the faint sound of whistling coming from behind her. She turned to see Tara walking calmly as she returned from the small stream where she had rinsed off her scraped knee. The young blonde had a bunch of flowers in the crook of one arm. Every now and then, the whistling ceased so that Tara could inhale the sweet scent of the bit of nature she held in her hands. Smiling at the sight of her friend coming toward them, Willow headed in Tara's direction. A hand on her arm stopped her and she whipped around quickly, prepared to bite the offending appendage off at the wrist.
"Hey, calm down, Pix-," Donnie stopped short. He could have sworn he saw steam coming from the little redhead's ears. "Willow. Calm down, Willow. Just hear me out for a second, okay?"
"Make it quick, Goof-boy." Willow crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Donnie.
"Listen. I didn't mean for Tara to fall and cut her knee, okay? I...just..." Donnie trailed off, taking a moment to gather his thoughts. Willow cocked her head to one side, a gesture of defiance and challenge. "Yeah, okay, I pick on her! But, I'm her big brother! It's what I'm supposed to do. Honest, I would never really try to hurt her."
Willow's demeanor softened - just a bit - as she peered at the boy before her. "Do you really mean that, Donnie? Or are you just trying to get me to not be mad at you anymore? Cuz if you don't mean it, I'll be really mad!"
"I really mean it. I don't want to hurt her." Donnie squirmed under Willow's glare; he was not oblivious to the fact that the girl before him was his sister's biggest defender, despite her small stature. "Look, don't ever tell Tara I said this, because I'll say you're lying if you do, but, well, I kinda love her." He looked over to where Tara was still winding her way across the field. "As little sisters go, she's pretty okay." His gaze returned to Willow. "Okay?"
Willow dropped her arms to her side and relinquished her defensive stance. After a few moments of staring intently into Donnie's eyes, she relented. "Okay, Donnie. I believe you. But if you ever even think of hurting Tara, I will tear your eyeballs out and use them for marbles. Got it?" Not waiting for an answer - because, after all, she knew what his answer had to be - Willow turned and ran to Tara's side.
"Tara!" Willow yelled out to get the blonde's attention. She reached her friend and gave her a crushing hug. "Are you okay? Did he hurt you? Should we go to the hospital?"
"Willow! I'm fine...except...I can't breathe."
Willow pulled away from Tara, loosening her grip on her startled friend. "Oh my God! You do need a hospital! I'll get your dad!"
For the second time that afternoon, Willow felt a hand stopping her movements. This time, however, the action was accompanied by laughter.
"I don't need a hospital, Will. You were hugging me so tight I couldn't breathe." Tara gave her friend a lop-sided smile.
"Oh...um...sorry." Willow looked sheepishly at Tara and gave an embarrassed chuckle. "I was just worried. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, Will. It's just a scratch. That's what I get for being so clumsy, I guess."
"No, Tara, it wasn't your fault!" Willow's green eyes flared with protectiveness. "Stupid dumb Donnie made you fall. It's his fault, not yours. I beat him up for you." Willow stuck out her 12-year-old chest - or what little was there - in pride.
Blue eyes widened and stared at the tiny figure before her. "You did what?" Tara's gaze sought out Donnie, who was deftly climbing across the branch of the oak tree to tie off the ropes. "He, um, he doesn't look very beat up, Will." She gave Willow a teasing smirk.
Willow's pride-filled chest deflated, though the only true difference in her appearance was the embarrassed expression on her face. "Well...okay...yeah...so maybe I didn't beat him up. But I sure made him think twice about hurting you again! He won't be picking on you again any time soon, that's for sure."
Tara laughed again, tickled at the adorable actions of her best friend. "Yes he will. It's what he does, Will. I'd be worried if he didn't pick on me."
"What?! You like it when he picks on you and chases you around?"
"I never said I like it. I just expect it. If he weren't picking on me, I might think he was ignoring me. At least this way, I know I exist...he notices me. And he never really hurts me. I know he's playing. I'd rather be teased than ignored." Tara's smile lasted throughout her speech, her eyes showing a joyful wisdom beyond her years.
Willow, on the other hand, stood dumbstruck, thoughts whizzing through her head. "But, Tara...wouldn't you like it better if you weren't teased or ignored? I mean, wouldn't it be better if he treated you nice, like he should?"
"Geez, Will, what color is the sky in your world?" Tara nudged the redhead and gave her a teasing grin. "That would be too perfect, Will. There's no such thing as perfect. My family is real, not some family on a stupid TV show."
Willow noticed that Tara's expression had turned serious as the blonde idly played with the flowers in her hands, her eyes glossed over as if lost in thought. "Tara? What is it?"
The blonde looked into the green eyes of her friend, her own eyes carrying a sadness that made a shiver run up Willow's spine. "We're lucky, Willow. You know that, right?"
"Well, yeah, Tare. I know we're lucky. We each get to live in a nice house and we have lots of stuff." The wondering expression never left Willow's face; her brow furrowed even more as she realized Tara looked even sadder. "Tara, c'mon, what is it?"
Tara sighed and looked at her friend. "It's not just that, Will. Yeah, we're lucky to live in nice houses and have nice things. But...think about it, Will...Kim Nelson lives in an even nicer house than either of us. She's not very lucky though, is she?"
As she thought about their classmate, Willow began to understand what Tara meant. Kim's parents and younger sister had been in a horrible drunk driving accident. Both of her parents had been killed and Marci, her 9-year-old sister, would be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Their grandparents took the siblings in, but made it clear they were not happy about it. After the funeral, Kim's grandparents hired a live-in nurse and a nanny, and then went on a trip to Europe. Kim and her sister wanted for nothing -- except love.
Willow's eye shimmered, tears threatening to spill, as her gaze shifted from the grass at her feet to Tara and then to Donnie, who was currently hanging from the branch of the tree by his knees, playfully swiping his father's hat as Mr. Maclay passed by.
"I get it, Tare," Willow whispered and turned back to her friend. Looking into Tara's eyes, Willow understood for the first time how lucky she truly was. Grasping Tara's hand in her own, Willow took a deep breath to steady herself. "I get it. We are pretty darned lucky."
Tara gave the redhead's hand a gentle squeeze and smiled. "Very lucky. C'mon. Let's go over and make sure Donnie isn't rigging the swing to be a slingshot."
Both girls giggled and walked toward the large oak tree. "Hey, Tara! Let's invite Kim and her sister on a picnic!" The redhead turned excited eyes toward Tara. "What do you think?"
"That's a great idea, Will. I'll ask Daddy to talk to the nurse and make sure it's okay."
"Cool! I know it won't fix everything, but maybe we can help Kim and Marci have some fun now and then. We can share some of our luck." Willow's enthusiasm to bring a little joy into the lives of others made her skip rather than walk.
"You're a goof, Will," Tara said through her laughter. "I'm glad you're my friend."
"Me too, Tare. I'm glad too."
Don Maclay looked up to see the girls approaching the tree. "There you two are! Tara, how's your knee?"
"Oh, it's fine, Daddy. It's just a scratch. But look at the flowers I found for Mom! I think she'll like the colors. She doesn't have any like this in the garden." The blonde smiled at her father and held up the bouquet for him to sniff.
"Those are nice, sweetheart. Your mom will love them." He gave Tara a kiss on the forehead and then, clapping his hands once and rubbing them together, turned to both girls. "So, who wants to be the first to try it out?"
Willow's eyes widened in excitement and she did a happy dance around Tara. "Yay! It's ready!" Willow stopped and regarded Tara's father with grateful eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Maclay."
"Let me show you something, girls." The older man placed a gentle hand on the girls' backs and guided them both to the tree. "If anyone ever wonders who first called dibs on this tree, all they have to do is look." As he finished speaking, Mr. Maclay lifted the seat of the swing, flipped it over, and showed it to the girls.
On the bottom of the swing, hand etched into the metal, were the words "This space claimed by T.M. & W.R." Willow and Tara looked at each other with grins that could light up a moonless night.
"Now this place really is ours, Tara."
"Yeah. Our very own special place." Tara threw her arms around her father and hugged him tightly. "Thanks, Daddy."
"You're welcome, sweetheart." Mr. Maclay stepped back from his daughter and addressed the two happy girls. "Now, you two have a good time testing out that swing. Be home in time for dinner, okay?"
"Donnie, let's leave these two to their girl-talk and we'll go work on that bike of yours." Mr. Maclay gathered up his tools and began walking across the field.
"Coming, Dad!" Donnie hopped down from the branch, landing right next to Tara. He quickly, but carefully, wrapped his arm around Tara's neck, effectively trapping her in a loose headlock. With the knuckles of his other hand, he rubbed the top of her head. "Watch what you're doing there, Kid. Don't want to scrape up that other knee."
"Donnie! No noogies!" Tara yelled through her giggles, trying her best to push her brother away from her.
Willow looked on as Tara and Donnie playfully wrestled, a small smile tugging at her lips. She thought about what Tara had said - she'd rather be teased than ignored. She thought about what Donnie had said - he'd never really try to hurt her. She got it; she understood. Donnie was apologizing.
Suddenly feeling left out of the fun, Willow decided it was time to jump in and save the day.
"Donnie Maclay, leave Tara alone this instant!" The little redhead stomped her foot and balled her hands into fists, planting them firmly on her hips.
Donnie looked up to see Willow glaring at him - SuperWillow, protector of little sisters everywhere. He let go of Tara and gave her a gentle pat on the top of her head. "No harm done. See? She's okay."
Willow remained still and continued to glare at the older boy.
"Hey, Dad! Wait up!" Donnie turned and began to jog after his father.
"Oh no you don't, Mister! Tara, stay here. I'll be right back." Willow ran after Donnie, closing in on him as she sprinted across the field. "Donnie, stop!"
Donnie looked over his shoulder to see Willow running after him, the look on her face was pleading, rather than demanding. He slowed down and came to a stop, turning to face the redhead.
Willow stopped a foot away from Donnie, her back facing Tara. With a nearly imperceptible nod over her shoulder toward the blonde, Willow whispered, "Make it look good, okay?" She winked and then raised her voice so that Tara could hear her, "Donnie, I told you to leave Tara alone! You'd better make sure you do!" And then she punched Donnie in the stomach, pulling her fist back just before making contact.
Understanding what the redhead was up to, Donnie doubled over a bit as if the punch had really affected him and wrapped his arms around his midsection. "Geez! Ya didn't have to hit me, ya dork! You'd better watch your back, shorty."
Willow smirked and again spoke quietly so Tara couldn't hear her. "You're okay, Donnie."
"You too, Pixie."
Knowing they finally understood each other, Donnie and Willow smiled and turned away from each other - Donnie jogging to catch up with his father and Willow trotting back to push Tara on the swing.
Willow sighed as she came back from her memories and gently grasped the ropes. Pushing off the ground, she set the swing in motion. She leaned back as far as possible once she'd gained some momentum, her hold on the ropes the only thing keeping her from falling backwards off the swing. Viewing the world while moving and being upside-down gave Willow a heady rush. It's like floating. After a few minutes, she hopped off the swing and moved to sit against the tree. Glancing at her watch and realizing she was about 30 minutes early, she smiled as she let the feelings of that afternoon so many years ago wash over her.
She chuckled lightly as she thought of Donnie and the hell he put her and Tara through back then. He certainly held up the standards of big brothers everywhere, picking on Tara every chance he got. But, after that day, Willow noticed the twinkle in his eye as he teased his sister. He'd never really hurt her.
And Tara...Tara dutifully fulfilled her role as the tortured little sister, chastising Donnie for his behavior toward her and calling him a dork whenever possible. Willow heard Tara's voice echo in her head: "I'd rather be teased than ignored." The redhead's smile faded from her lips and was replaced with a pained grimace.
That's just what I did, isn't it? I ignored her, ignored her feelings. I didn't stop to think, I just went on a self-pity spree. It was all about me. I didn't even consider how Tara felt. I don't blame her for not talking to me anymore. I wouldn't blame her if she didn't show up today. Hell, I wouldn't blame her if she hated me.
Willow's body tensed as she felt the sting of tears at the backs of her eyes. She quickly shook her head, as if clearing unpleasant cobwebs from her brain. No. I'm not going to think that way. She sent the postcard. She said she remembered. She promised. Besides, Buffy said she'd love me. Buffy wouldn't lie to me.
Her thoughts turned toward her friend. If it hadn't been for Buffy, she would have spent all of her time in high school either in the library or her room. Willow felt a grin sneak up on her as she thought of Buffy. She was different from the rest of the kids at Sunnydale High. Buffy didn't give up on her like the rest of them did. Buffy liked Willow for Willow...not for Willow's grade point average. Buffy understood that she could never replace Tara in Willow's life.... and she didn't try. Buffy carved her own little niche in Willow's life...and her heart. No, Buffy was definitely not like the other kids, Willow chuckled to herself. She's my rock.
It was Buffy who kept Willow on track for the last year. She kept her promise to Tara, writing to her every now and then to let her know how Willow was doing. In turn, she made sure Willow knew that Tara was doing well. Buffy and Tara had formed a unique friendship during their correspondence with each other. Willow was their connection to each other. But apart from discussing Tara's well being with Willow, Buffy maintained Tara's confidence in all other respects. She did not serve as a messenger for Willow and Tara; she did not try to mend what was damaged. Buffy knew that was something only Willow and Tara could do together. The redhead's respect for Buffy grew exponentially.
I wouldn't have made it through the last year without Buffy.
Willow sighed as thoughts and memories washed over her. Drawing her knees to her chest, Willow wrapped her arms around her legs and watched as the children ran through the playground on the other side of the park.
Tara arrived in Sunnydale without having to consult her map. Somehow she just knew where to go, even after all her years away. Noticing that she was a few minutes early, Tara decided to park a block away from their meeting place and walk the rest of the way. After sitting on a plane for hours and then driving from LA, she figured she'd give her limbs a chance to stretch.
Face it, Maclay. You're stalling. You don't know if she's gonna even be there and you're scared to death that she won't be.
Despite the warm summer weather, Tara shivered and crossed her arms tightly over her chest. She walked with her shoulders hunched and her head down, blonde tresses falling to cover her face. Suddenly she jerked her arms away from her body, straightened her posture and began walking with determination. Tara hardened herself to the task ahead.
Damn! Why do I do this to myself?! If she isn't there, then she isn't there. I'll just have to live with that. After all, I brought it on myself. If she is there, she may decide she doesn't want to be in my life anymore, and I'll have to live with that too. At least I'll have the chance to apologize before heading back to L.A.
Almost as suddenly, Tara's gait slowed. The tension she was unconsciously holding in released slightly as she reconsidered her thoughts.
But, this is Willow. She wouldn't do that, would she? Just shut me out like that? I did it to her, though. She would have reason to shun me. I hurt her so badly by breaking off contact. I took my friendship away from her without giving her the chance to make amends.
Tara came to a halt and sat on a bench at a nearby bus stop.
But, why should she have to make amends? Why should she have to do all the work? We both said things we didn't mean. I was as much to blame. But I turned my back on her. She tried to apologize. She tried to bridge the gap and make things right. But I ignored her. I just ignored her. And when I realized what I had done, that I was just as much to blame, what did I do? Did I write to her? Did I call her? Did I apologize? No. I kept my silence. I hurt her more than she could ever hurt me.
Tara stood and resumed her walk. Her determination, while not as fierce, had returned. She had somewhere to be.
I will not screw this up.
As she approached the area she remembered from her childhood, her heart sank. Their special place had been turned into a modern public park. Tara looked around trying to reorient herself with her surroundings. Everything was different. The area that was once covered with trees and wild flowers - where she and Willow could hide away from the rest of the world - was now jam-packed with people. There were families enjoying the warm summer weather at the picnic grounds. Children climbed through the jungle gym in the playground. Lovers sat arm-in-arm on the benches - many surrounding the fountain that was prominently displayed at the center of the park. Tara walked closer to the fountain to have a better look. The large sculpture in the middle of the fountain brought a wistful smile to her lips. It showed two young girls playing under the shade of a large tree - one pushing the other on a makeshift swing hanging from the tree's largest branch.
Out of the corner of her eye, Tara caught a glimpse of red as a group of teenagers left the area and headed toward the hotdog stand. She would have known that color anywhere. She'd spent years painstakingly mixing paints until she achieved just the right hue. It was etched in her memory.
She's here. Tara took a moment to catch her breath and then began to walk toward the friend she'd only seen in her dreams for the past 8 years. Willow was sitting at the foot of the large oak tree they had played under as children. Our tree. As Tara slowly approached the tree, she took in Willow's profile. Willow sat against the tree, her knees drawn up to her chest, her chin resting on her arms, which were crossed over her knees, her eyes closed. Tara could tell that Willow was lost in thought, a myriad emotions playing across her face. She stopped before reaching her destination to watch Willow and marveled at her friend's beauty. Willow's hair was waving slightly in the late afternoon breeze. Soft...I'll bet it's soft. Tara's gaze moved downward to take in Willow's face and she noticed the small smile on her lips. Soft...I'll bet they're soft. After spending a few more moments taking in all that was Willow, Tara brought herself out of her daydream and again began moving toward the tree.
As she walked, the tension and anxiety melted away. All that existed in that moment was Willow.
Willow had lost track of time as she sat wrapped in her memories. She made herself focus on the good memories - of her and Tara under the same tree, of Buffy goofily drawing little stick figures on her letters to Tara, of having a letter or email from Tara brighten her day. At the same time, she was trying to calm the pterodactyls that had been flapping around in her stomach. She'd thought about this day nearly every day for the past 8 years. She'd agonized over it every day for the past 2 months -- What if Tara didn't come? What if she changed her mind after she sent the postcard? What would she do? No...no...she'll be here. She has to be here. I need her to be here. Willow soothed herself by closing her eyes and easily pulling up the image of Tara's prom picture in her mind. She could never forget that image - the half grin that made her heart skip a beat, the wheat colored hair flowing over her shoulders, the piercing blue eyes that seemed to dance. Willow was brought out of her thoughts by the sound of a melodic voice to her left. Though she hadn't heard the owner of the voice speak in 8 years, she knew without a doubt that it was Tara. She's here. She came.
"Give me your hand
Make room for me
to lead and follow
beyond this rage of poetry."
Willow smiled as she listened to the voice, which seemed to move closer with each word. Hearing a brief pause, she decided to pick up where the voice left off.
"Let others have
the privacy of
and love of loss
Give me your hand"
Her eyes were still closed as she finished the final lines of the poem. Willow took a brief moment to simply be. Without looking toward her friend, Willow broke the short silence.
"Maya Angelou, 'A Conceit.' It's my favorite."
"I remember. 'Women Poets of the 20th Century.' Your fall 2002 'just because' class."
Willow's smile widened. She remembered. She remembered and memorized my favorite poem. Her eyes still closed, Willow basked in the feeling of Tara being near. After a few moments, she spoke again.
"I was hoping you'd really be here." Willow spoke just above a whisper.
"Of course I'm here. We have a date."
Willow finally turned her head toward Tara and opened her eyes-instantly making contact with the blue eyes she missed so much. The smile never left her face as she took in the sight of Tara casually leaning against the tree, her arms lightly wrapped around her waist. She felt a surge of warmth run through her body as Tara's lips curled into the half smile Willow adored. Willow's eyes followed Tara as she moved away from the tree and knelt in front of her - the two women gazed at each other, finally, eye to eye.