Tara had waited as long as she could, she was tired and weary. All day she had walked up and down the side street at regular intervals to stretch her legs. But they still ached from sitting on the hard concrete. People had been and gone. Even an accident had occurred when a young man on a bicycle had careered into a smart looking gentleman, because he had stubbornly refused to clear the way when the cycle's bell had sounded. But there was no sign of Zander or anyone from the photo, which had become embedded in her mind.
The darkness had come about 2 hours ago so Tara resigned herself to spending the night by the refuse bins marked with the building's name.
She put down her rucksack intending to use it as a pillow, and hoping the sector was safe, pulled her legs to her chest and tried to stay awake as long as possible in the hope of a familiar face.
But an hour later she had lost the struggle and was dreaming as her body cooled.
Willow had started early today, leaving her apartment at 0300 to visit Icelandic clients who ran their office on Reykjavik time. She had then made use of their sleep pods until noon, so she could spend the afternoon and evening browsing the Castro for pre-quake memorabilia, only stopping to sample real coffee in one of NSFS's coffee shops.
It had been a good hunt, she had found a comic Zander would love, "Female Vampire Hunters." No doubt Anya would hate it, but it had been a bargain too good to resist.
Also in her bag was a vintage black denim shirt; she knew she would have to fight Buffy for.
As Willow fiddled in the dark for her building entry card, considering her options for ordering takeout, she heard a moan from over by the refuse bins.
Pulling down her paper mask, leaving it hanging around her neck, she whispered "Hello?" into the dark.
"Mmmmmmm," was the reply
"You ok there? Are you hurt?" Willow spoke more forcefully.
When no answer came, Willow opened the door to the lobby and dropped her bag inside to free her hands for the stun gun Buffy had given to her, with a stern talk about night safety.
As she slowly approached were she had heard the sound. Willow saw someone all wrapped up in a thick red puffy jacket and woollen hat, curled up in a shivering ball.
Kneeling down she put a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder to shake her awake.
"Hey sleepy, you can't stay here, it's not safe."
"What, mmm, sorry," was the reply, as the sleeper slowly awoke.
"It's not safe out here alone, let me help you get up," Willow said, as she offered her hand to the stranger.
As she did so, she got a first look at a young, slightly angular face, with green eyes which were looking up at her with a mixture of shock and fear.
"Hey, it's ok, see, stun gun, back in pocket," Willow implored, opening her now empty hands widely.
"You have black hair," the stranger said with a slight accent Willow recognised as Off-World.
"Um yeah, my hairs black ....it's ok... I'm not going to call the cops; you don't look dangerous, just very cold." Willow offered her hand again "I'm Willow."
"Tara," the stranger smiled as she was helped to her feet.
"Ouch, ouch," Tara said on shaky legs slowly finding her balance.
"Pins and needles, sorry Ill be ok in a minute," she added.
"Look it's late, do you have a place to stay?" Willow asked as she tried to guide Tara into the safety of the lobby.
"I'm sorry no I don't. I decided to come on the spur of the moment - I'm looking for someone - carpe diem and all that," Tara quietly replied with a half grin.
"Well if the stun gun's not a problem, you can stay at mine tonight. It's too late to look for them now anyway. What do you say? I'd hate to find a street cleaned Tara tomorrow," Willow said with a smile.
"Thank you, that's very kind Willow," Tara replied as she manoeuvred her rucksack through the door into the lobby, feeling the warm air hit her face, instantly causing her cheeks to redden.
"I hope you don't mind elevators," Willow asked looking over her shoulder to the following Tara. "I'm on the 78th so, if you're a stairs person, I'll see you at 78-24 sometime next week."
Entering an elevator, Willow held the door so Tara could put her rucksack on, and once she was safely in, she swiped her card in a panel to activate movement.
"Rosenberg R 78-24. Please enter PIN number now"
Entering her PIN, Willow shrugged at Tara "I know it's just to keep out Synthetic Pet salesman from the upper floors. Poor old lady on the 54th found a lynx prowling outside her door. It had escaped from its salesman and was trying to get at the bacon substitute she had frying for breakfast."
"They sell pets door to door?" Tara looked at Willow with wide eyes.
"Yeah, it's a status thing; real animal's more than synthetic," Willow explained.
Leaving the elevator, Willow again took the lead. Turning left and walking all the way to the end of the long red corridor, followed by the more heavily laden Tara.
Entering her card into the door slot, Willow ushered Tara inside and closed the door.
"I'm sure you could use a hot drink," Willow asked "If you put down the pack in the corner there, I'll bring a coffee to you on the sofa ok?"
As Willow made her way across to the kitchen, Tara took the opportunity to catch her breath. She has black hair, not red she mused. I think I prefer red. Just as she put her rucksack down in the corner, by the metal desk with a computer on it, she heard a female voice say "Reminder Personal - Hairdresser."
"Cancel reminder," Willow shouted across from the kitchen area.
Feeling the heat, Tara finally took off her hat and the thick coat she had been wearing for almost 30 hours now. They were both looking worse for wear and Tara was sure she did too.
"Um Willow... do you mind if I clean up a little...I have my own stuff," Tara asked hesitantly.
"Sure," Willow replied as she busily fixed coffee. "It's over in that corner behind the screen"
"Thanks, you have a really nice place here Willow," Tara commented, as she took another opportunity to Willow gaze, under the pretext of getting her things to wash with.
"Yeah me, and a couple of friends moved to NSFS five years ago. Zander got his first job in this building doing up vacated apartments, got us a good deal."
"Buffy, my other friend, lives a couple of streets away, in a block of two bed apartments with her sister Dawn." Hearing the water start running and a yelp from behind the screen Willow chuckled.
"Sorry, I should have said, the hot takes 20 seconds to heat up - old plumbing."
"Ok," was the high pitched reply from Tara.
Leaving Tara in peace, Willow took the two large Starbucks cups full of her best synthetic coffee and moved over to sit on the couch.
I wonder what brings someone to Earth, with no place to stay, in search of someone.
"Tara what's the name of the person you're looking for? I'll run an online search for them," Willow shouted over the sound of running water
There was a long pause before she heard the water stop and still more silence.
"Um...Willow.....I'm sorry but do you mind of I don't talk about it...it's um personal."
Behind the screen Tara was sitting on the floor, silently willing herself to not lie, "Please Willow don't make me lie to get to know you, I will tell you about the dreams, everything I promise," she vowed quietly.
Willow, taken aback by Tara's words, was thinking. She must be in trouble, or her friend is?
Just as Willow was about to get up and see if everything was ok, Tara emerged sheepishly from behind the screen and went to the corner, putting her wash things and dirty clothes on top of her rucksack.
She then tentatively made her way to the centre of the room, taking position at the other end of the sofa facing Willow.
"Willow, I'm sorry if I sounded...evasive......you've been very kind taking me In. I'm not a criminal I promise," Tara earnestly said, looking directly into blue eyes, feeling every bit as if she was in her dreams.
"It's ok....I just wanted to help...that's all," Willow smiled
"You look a lot better cleaned up, not that you didn't look ok before..." Willow added.
"I was a mess, I'm not usually that grungy, plus I didn't want to get the nice leather couch dirty," Tara said as she ran long fingers along the top of the couch.
"I never worry; it's had its fair share of spills. It's a regular Pizza magnet. Talking of pizza, I was going to order food, do you fancy sharing?" Willow asked keeping eye contact longer than she was sure was polite.
"Mmm...I'm a vegetarian....but if they do half and half?" Tara too couldn't stop herself from just looking.
Willow reluctantly broke their mutual chemistry, to find the phone.
"Can you see an antique phone anywhere, Pink RAZOR, you know from 50 years ago," Willow asked, as she got down on her hands and knees squeaking on the wooden floor.
"Is this it? It was under my legs," Tara smiled holding her prize a lot.
"Thanks, I'm always losing it," came from under the couch where Willow was searching.
As Willow's head emerged from under the couch, and she looked up at Tara.
Tara asked a question, knowing what she wanted the answer to be. "Mmm. Willow, is your hair always black?"
"Actually it's naturally red. But I sometimes have it coloured for the type of work I do - gives off the big bad vibe ...grrrrr," Willow growled making an attempt at a scary face.
"Heehee," Tara burst out laughing. "That's pathetic."
"Hey no laughing at the Big Bad. You don't want my resolve face.....it's infamous," Willow said sternly, trying to hide the happy dance, at the sight of an out of control Tara.
"Ok I'm sorry," Tara chuckled trying with all her strength to stop laughing. "Give me second...that's better," Tara smiled finally gaining control.
"Now O Guest of Mine...can I have that phone," Willow flatly said holding out her hand in mock outrage.
Handing the phone to Willow, Tara noticed the glass end to the apartment and flashes of neon streaking by. As soon as Willow started dialling, she couldn't help but be drawn to the view.
Walking over she experimentally tried to slide the door, but it wouldn't open until from behind her she heard Willow say "Balcony Unlock code 2875," with a reply from the air "Unlock Accepted."
Moving outside onto the small balcony, Tara looked out to the opposing twin building.
"All these people. At least it smells better up here," she spoke into the night.
"I know, the pollution's been getting worse the last few years," Willow said glumly as she joined Tara's side. "It plays havoc with Dawn...she has to wear an oxygen mask to go outside at all."
"I'm sorry that's terrible.....I'm used to clean air, recycled but pure," Tara sadly replied.
"It's not your fault...just us screwing with the environment. You're from Off-World right?" Willow asked.
"Yeah Martian born and bred ...this dark is strange too. I'm used to a red glow at night," Tara said turning to Willow as if to say something.
"If you don't want to its ok," Willow interceded.
"No it's fine," Tara continued "I've had these dreams of Earth for as long as I can remember...it's just.....not how I dream it. That's all."
"Well, I tell you what, why don't we go back inside, and I can start the fire. That has a red glow," Willow said putting an arm around Tara's shoulder.
Once inside the pair returned to the living area. Willow only detouring to turn on the fake wood fire that was inset into the wall in front them.
"That better," Willow said to the fire, "light's 15%," she added, causing the glow of the fire to become the main illumination.
Turning back to her sleepy looking guest Willow sat down next to Tara.
"It's ok if you want to sleep, I can't imagine the concrete was comfortable," she said as she saw Tara's eye's begin to close again.
"I think the extra 5% gravity and inhaling all that stuff has made me groggy," Tara replied.
"I don't advise the cold coffee then," Willow remarked looking at the un-drunk cups of coffee on a low glass table.
"No your right, will the pizza be long?" Tara asked.
"Nope definitely round," Willow smiled back
"You are the Big Bad aren't you," Tara chuckled.
"Grrrrr," Willow made her scary face again.
"Ohh please no ...you'll start me off again."
"It should be here any minute. They have a trade code so should come right up."
"Did you bring any pyjamas?" Willow enquired
"Yeah I did, embarrassing but practical ones why?" Tara looked puzzled.
"I propose a pyjama party," Willow said cheekily.
"I second that motion from the chair," Tara batted back, getting into the spirit of things with a lofted left arm.
"Last one back here cleans up," Willow cried.
"Hey unfair advantage, you have home turf and don't have to delve to the bottom of a rucksack," Tara cried with a scowling face.
"Ok how about a 30 second head start," Willow said with a poker face.
"60," Tara countered with her own poker face.
"Deal, I get the screen right?" Tara smiled suddenly feeling rejuvenated.
"Lets do this properly," Willow added "Computer -Timer- one beep in 15 seconds - second double bleep 45 second delay."
"Beep" Tara jumped up onto the couch, leaping over its back taking the direct route to the corner containing her stuff.
"Cheater, no shortcuts," Willow shouted as Tara reached her rucksack, and started pulling out items to get to the bottom.
Willow now set off, at top speed, for the opposite corner of the apartment where her bed was recessed into the wall and there was storage for clothes. Quickly finding her prize she shed her jeans tossing them into the air dramatically, shortly followed by the blue T-shirt. Deciding to take a shortcut of her own, she donned her pyjamas on top of her bra and panties. Once she had them on she turned and started the run for home, fastening buttons on the way.
As Tara emerged from behind the screen, she saw that Willow had a slight advantage, but she had the cleaner run for home.
"Willow Pizza," Tara cried, not stopping for an instant.
"Nice try," Willow shouted back as she made it though the kitchen obstacles.
As both girls closed in on the sofa, they both slowed down grinning at each other's attire.
"Sheep, flying sheep," Tara laughed.
"At least mine aren't fictional" Willow pointed at Tara's red pyjamas which had lots of little dancing green Martians on them.
"Ok Will, you win. Now go get my pizza," Tara pointed dramatically to the door.
"Loser," Willow chuckled as she opened the door, to a foot tapping pizza girl.
Once Willow had entered her thumb on the payment machine, she took the large package from the young NSF Baseball capped girl and placing a tip in her hand, sent her on her way.
"Dishes are over on the top there," Willow pointed with her nose.
"Got 'em already," Tara replied showing two plates she had placed on the low glass table.
"Then let the feasting begin," Willow proclaimed
As the pair tucked into there respective halves of the meal an easy silence fell over them. Once two slices remained Willow spoke the silence.
"Tara," Willow said gaining Tara's attention. "If you can't find your friend tomorrow, you're welcome to stay longer. You're welcome to stay even if you do find them."
"That's sweet Will," Tara replied lowering her eyes. Feeling terrible for deceiving Willow, Tara made a partial confession.
"I don't know how long I'll be on Earth. I have a job on Mars; I'm a nurse you see. Although they'll probably fire me when they find out what I have done. I didn't get permission to leave Mars...there wasn't time to do things properly."
"Aren't there any special circumstances you could cite?" Willow asked
"I don't think my circumstances are covered in any manual," Tara said, looking straight into Willows eyes. "What was on your half Will?" Tara asked to lighten the mood again.
"Ohh chicken, mushrooms, green peppers and red onions," Willow replied finishing off the last slice of her half.
"Mine was hot, I think they put on extra chillies," Tara commented picking up the box which she had put the used plates on, slowly making her way to the kitchen.
"Leave them on the worktop Tara, come back here...please," Willow pleaded.
As Tara returned, Willow took her hands and pulled Tara down so they were sitting directly facing each other, hands interlinked.
"You feel it too, don't you...a connection," Willow said looking into Tara's eyes
"Yes I do Willow," Tara smiled back..
"Will you answer a straight question for me?" Willow asked keeping eye contact.
"Anything," Tara replied captivated by blue.
"How did you get from Mars to Earth without getting permission?"
"I stowed away."
"On a Passenger Shuttle?" Willow looked amazed.
"No, freight," Tara corrected
"Freight's good, I know someone who may be able to get you back the same way."
Willow's mind was plan hatching, Tara could see it.
"Willow stop," Tara said releasing a hand to stroke Willow's cheek.
"Don't you see...Find friend...Do what you have to do....back to Mars before anyone notices. No harm done. Apocalypse averted. As Buffy would say," Willow continued as she automatically stroked Tara's hand with her own.
"Willow... I don't know if I will want to go back," Tara smiled.
"You mean you might stay?" Willow said excitedly.
"Yes I might....it all depends on the person I'm looking for," Tara grinned.
Willow suddenly pulled back from all contact with Tara.
"May I ask a second straight question?" Willow asked hesitantly.
"Sure you can, call it my race forfeit," Tara replied regaining one of willow's hands
"Is it a boyfriend or girlfriend you've come to find?"
"In a funny way yes, a girlfriend, but not in the way you're thinking."
"Not in a romantic way?" Willow said quizzically somewhat confused.
"It's complicated Willow. It's in a romantic way for me...I've liked them for a long time...a crush you might say. I came to find them....to see if my fantasy was real...or just that a fantasy."
"Wow internet dating....does she even know you like her!" Willow babbled. "She would be mad to pass up someone like you...or at least give it a shot."
"Thank you, Willow for the pep...I might need it," Tara said releasing Willow's hand.
"Do you mind if we turn in, it's past midnight," Tara asked feeling the need to steer the conversation to safer ground.
"Yeah sure...mmm....this isn't something planned...but....my bed's a king's size. You're welcome to it," Willow indicated the pull down bed with her clothes still strewn around it.
"How about sharing, are you a righty or lefty?" Tara said with a raised eyebrow.
"Anyeeee... I have no strong opinion on the left v right debate," Willow grinned.
"Well neither have I so....unless you want to toss for it...let's see where the bodies fall."
And on that, both girls walked over to the bed and after a brief dance settled for Willow on the right and Tara on the left.
"Lights out," Willow commanded.
"What's that light over there Will?" Tara asked.
"Ohh dam I forgot the fire."
"Can you leave it?" Tara requested.
"Does it remind you of Mars?" Willow said as she turned to look into Tara's face inches away from hers.
"Yeah a bit...night Willow."