Tara felt a little silly the following morning when she noticed the dark rings under her eyes from her fitful sleep.
"Get a grip, drama queen" she said sarcastically to her own image in the mirror. She braced herself before splashing her face with ice cold water to wake up.
She walked very fast on her way to the opera house, feeling the need to be close to Willow like a siren call inside of her.
Arriving at the stage door, she deliberately slowed her steps down so than she wouldn't come running like an impatient child. Approaching her dressing room, she noticed Willow's door was open and there was someone moving animatedly around in there. Tentatively, she walked up to the door and froze solid.
Staring at her from within the little room was not only a happily grinning Willow, but a camera crew. A fairly large one. Tara felt completely devoid of coherent though as she tried to process the scene in front of her.
"Tara! There you are! These are the people from the South Bank Show!"
"The South Bank Show...?" Tara heard herself repeat it like a parrot, still not taking it in.
"Oh... I forgot to tell you? Sorry, I guess I've been pre-occupied lately..." Willow smiled a saucy, private smile at Tara, who still just stood there like a deer caught in the headlights.
"The South Bank Show is a pretenti...eh programme about the arts" Willow explained patiently, not being able to interpret Tara's reaction.
"I know what it is. But why is it h-here?" Tara said tunelessly, with the same petrified look on her face.
"Miss Maclay! What a pleasure to meet you! Ms Rosenberg has talked so much about you, we've all been dying to meet you! Ms Rosenberg has described you as the next Cecilia Bartoli, you know."
Tara threw a terrified look at the perky journalist who kept talking at her.
"Willow?" she croaked out, "can I talk to you?"
"Excuse me", Willow said politely and stepped outside the dressing room and around the corner to escape the camera's prying eye.
Willow put her arms around Tara's neck and kissed her tenderly on the lips.
"I missed you yesterday..." she mumbled and kissed her again, brushing her lips over Tara's.
"Mmm" she hummed against Tara's lips, goose bumps happening on her arms, her olfactory senses filling up with the scent of her skin.
"I can't be on television." Tara croaked out against her lips, still struggling with the chock of finding half of Channel Four in her girlfriend's dressing room.
"What?" Willow mumbled, becoming slowly aware of the fact that Tara was, for probably the first time, showing no interest in her amorous attentions
"I can't be on television". She repeated, which a slight note of hysteria in her voice.
Willow looked at her panic face and remembered that Tara had seemed shy when she first came to the opera house. She had gotten so used to her own Tara, who was anything but shy... She obviously just needed some positive reinforcement!
"Ok, I know that cameras can be a bit scary in the beginning, I was terrified when the BBC did this documentary about me and Buffy a couple of years ago and I just kept dropping things and stumbling over cords, so they had to shoot everything like five times, but don't worry about it, I promise you'll get used to it! Well, sort of, I'm still not quite used to it, but fear not, I will protect you! Besides, if you turn out half as well in moving pictures as you do on still ones, then , you know, wow..."
Tara just stood there, listening to the monologue, feeling more ad more trapped. How would she be able to explain...?
"N-no, you don't understand, Willow, I really can't be on television. I really can't."
"But baby, why? It just takes a little getting used to, that's all...?"
Tara searched desperately for a plausible explanation. Sure, she knew people perceived her as shy. Could she tell Willow that she was simply too shy? Nope, that wouldn't compute. She was an opera singer after all. If she had been abnormally shy, she would never have made it through Music College and those constant performances. She thought about telling her the truth for just a nano-second, but shook her head. That was out of the question. That would be insane.
"I suppose you're right." She said with mock bravery.
"Right then! Let's get ready for our close-up, then!"
Willow kissed Tara on the cheek and took her hand.
With a lead-heavy heart, Tara forced her reluctant feet to follow, praying to whatever deities she had abandoned long ago, that this edition of the South Bank Show would have low ratings.
"Right, we're back!" Willow smiled at the camera crew, who sported curious faces.
The reporter inched closer.
"Secrets?" He pricked up his ears and awaited the answer eagerly, practically sitting in attention on the edge of Willow's dressing table.
"Nope, no secrets!" Willow declared breezily.
Well, maybe one or two... Tara thought sadly
"What a shame..." the reporter purred.
Tara smiled against her will and despite of her anxieties. The man's enthusiasm was contagious.
He held out his hand for her
"A pleasure to meet you Ms Maclay. I'm Lorne Greene."
"Right, so what's on our plate today, then? Any chance of a bit of costume rehearsal, like you half promised me?
"I've actually managed to persuade the infamous Gloria Van Neederwelt to let us peruse of our costumes. I endured a steady stream of invective, of course, so I hope you appreciate the effort, Mr Greene..."
"Lorne, please. Oh, I do, I do! I too have, erhm, survived Ms van Neederwelt. Did an interview back in 2004. That's where this scar comes from."
The reporter pointed to his ear, which seemed to be missing a small portion.
Tara envied the ease with which Willow related to people. She occasionally still had to combat the instinct to flee when faced with ebullient strangers. Her childhood had been very quiet. At least socially. Her stutter had made new contacts a source of discomfort and inviting people home to socialize after school had of course never been a possibility. She still remembered with discomfort how she had had to lie to the other children at school, about why they could never see where she lived.
Contrary to what Tara believed, Willow's grace in handling social contacts had cost her far more to learn than her elaborate coloratura singing technique. Tara would have known this, had she just known Willow a few years earlier.
"Tara, are you coming?"
"What?" she was yanked back from her reveries.
"I believe we have been promised the flower picking duet... Right Ms Rosenberg?"
"Willow. Well, I might sort of have mentioned something about that, yes. You don't mind, do you? We do that duet so well..."
Mind isn't the word Tara thought as she had to combat the urge to run. This meant she would definitely be filmed.
Willow inched a little closer just let her fingers run ever so lightly along Tara's lower arm and wrist.
"I guess I should have remembered to tell you that as well, huh..."
The soprano gave her an apologetic look. Her thumb moved soothingly along the mezzo's sensitive skin.
Willow smiled at Lorne Greene.
"I've had to learn a lot of new things lately. Guess that made me distracted..."
She turned to Tara.
"Do you think it would be ok, ba..erhm, Tara?"
Tara felt suddenly sick of her own reserve, sick of hiding like a mole in a hole. If the woman she loved wanted a duet, she was bloody well going to get one.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather have just Willow?" she said hopefully, just for good measure.
"The more the merrier, Ms Maclay."
Whenever Tara encountered another undiscovered part of the gigantic Royal Opera House, she was awestruck with the sheer enormity of it and the history behind every little thing.
"Ok, so this is like totally irregular, but just crap on the designer, that's ok, that's what usually happens, because hey, let's suck up to the opera singers with fashion senses of dung beetles and never mind my problems, because hey, I'm just like an ARTIST and I just used to work for like Prada!
"Shut your pie hole and cough up my costume, hellbeast", Willow growled.
Tara tried to fight it, but she liked Lorne Greene a lot. Soon, the mezzo found herself giggling and talking animatedly about favourite operas. She tried to make herself sound as boring as possible and look down a lot, so that the cameraman would focus on Willow, who was her usual high-spirited self, but she suspected that she was failing.
"Oh, that's beautiful!
Lorne quivered excitedly at the sight of Tara's costume. The mezzo wholeheartedly agreed. Neederwelt might be hell on wheels, but she sure knew her outfits.
The dove grey silk made her fingers tingle when she ran them over the rich material. She frowned a little when she saw the sturdy looking corset that came with it, but to be honest with herself, she couldn't wait to wear it.
"May I?" Lorne looked imploringly at her.
"Great, I just looove working with amateurs..." Van Neederwelt sighed and rolled her eyes.
The costume was like putting on a really well fitting glove.
"Well, look at that... Miss Hippie Revival actually looks good in that... Who would have though, eh? Just don't bend over like, ever, or the audience will have your nipples for breakfast, Curves".
Van Neederwelt shoved Lorne Greene to the side and pulled violently at the corset, making Tara gasp from the sudden pressure on her ribcage.
"I'm not sure if it's possible to s-sing in this..." she said gingerly.
"Oh, geez, I'm really interested in your problems, I mean really but like hello, it's called STYLE, yah know, Cleavage?"
Tara sighed. Van Neederwelt had a point. It was much more comfortable than it looked. And it was by far the most beautiful thing that Tara had ever worn. The wrap-around frock that came with it was covered in an abundance of finely embroidered pink cherry blossoms.
"Sometimes, I wish I had your job instead of mine, Ms Maclay."
Lorne stroked the fabric of the garment lovingly.
"Oh and by the way, Nature Girl, I've made it quite clear to hair and make up that that ‘look' has go to go, ok?" Van Neederwelt tugged at Tara's uncombed and hair product-free hair disapprovingly and gazed at her makeup-less face with a look of distaste.
It wasn't really a question, so Tara said nothing, resigned to her fate.
When she turned around, there was Willow, glaring at Van Neederwelt, eyes glistening like dark and angry embers. Her skin was shockingly reflected by her jet black frock, scattered with fiery poppies. In the heavy corset, the soprano looked fragile. Until you looked up into the furnace heat that burned in her eyes.
"You're beautiful..." The soprano's voice was low and filled with restrained emotion.
Tara noticed how Willow's eyes raked over the exposed skin of her chest, pausing to take in the generous swelling of her breasts. The mezzo felt her desire on her skin as physically as if touched by warm hands.
"Y-you too." Her mouth was dry and the words came out like a whisper. She wished she could have said more, but she was afraid that she wore her heart on her sleeve. She wondered briefly if these emotions really weren't visible to anyone who looked.
Willow shook her head and tried to snap out of her Tara-induced coma.
No touching, she told herself sternly, resisting the impulse to press the mezzo's skin against her own. Not to mention the impulse to run her tongue over the creamy skin of the oh,-so-tempting cleavage served up in front of her like a delicious human breakfast.
She chatted companionably with Lorne Greene on the way down to make-up, paying no attention to what she was saying; the sound of Tara's crackling silk steps causing her to look over her shoulder frequently.
Tara tried to keep a straight face, but a smile threatened to break out at the corner of her mouth, as always when Willow was in a good mood.
Lorne Greene hovered excitedly around them in make-up.
Tara stared in wonderment at the mirror as she was transformed. Someone different looked back at her. Someone beautiful, with an exciting, harrowing face.
"Honestly, Tara, I've worked with a lot of faces in my days, and yours is a make-up artist's dream. You have bones to die for!"
Tara looked at the make-up artist with a dropping jaw. No-one had ever commented on her bones before, let alone called her face a dream.
She cast a glance at Willow, who looked back at her with such pride and desire that Tara got a mental image of what it would be like to have Willow here, on the dressing table. Left to her ministrations, Tara would have made sure that none of that poppy red lipstick would have stayed on. And that frock wouldn't have been so pristinely pressed either... She took a deep breath and returned to reality. Later, Tara...
The wig was surprisingly comfortable. As with the rest of her outfit, it was a lighter shade than the jet black mane that came with Willow's ebony costume.
The mezzo was ready a few minutes before the soprano. When Willow saw her standing there, her eyes bright in the unforgiving light, she froze. The mezzo was Peking opera extreme, the upper part of her face made up with icy blues and cheekbones and lips in frosty pink. The outlandish brownish purple of the hair looked curiously right on Tara. The soprano's body reacted without thinking, not living with self-censorship as a second nature the way Tara did. Swiftly, she closed the distance between them and put her cheek against Tara's, lightly, just to feed the need for skin on skin contact. They stood motionless for a few moments. Tara said nothing, but Willow could feel her, feel how she was reaching out, as certainly as she could feel her breath on her neck.
The warm and comforting touch of Willow's cheek made the sharp corners of Tara's world smooth out and the lights to soften. She noticed that the cameraman looked surprised when they stepped apart. Lorne's expression was inscrutable. Tara was grateful for every moment of tenderness from Willow, but she was surprised by her openness.
Just generally, there was something different about Willow today. She always had a lot of energy, but today she was buzzing, electrified, soaring. Something in her smile was new to Tara. She hoped she would be able to figure it out.
Down by the stage, Sir Rupert was waiting for them with the same slightly harrowed look as usual. The accompanist was their old bad-tempered friend. Without waiting for consent, he struck up the music for the flower-picking duet.
An intense activity erupted, as cameras were moved and microphones showing up out of nowhere.
So quickly had singing with Willow turned into her comfort zone that she only glanced at the cameras a few times before being able to focus whole heartedly on her singing. She felt a little guilty for stealing Willow's thunder like this, but she also thought that she knew why Willow wanted her there.
The first reason was probably that she had never had any hang-up about the flower duet. Singing together with Tara gave her an excellent excuse not to sing "Un bel di". Maybe she was still afraid that her problems with it would return under pressure. Tara still felt all warm and fuzzy inside at the thought of Willow really needing her.
But she also strongly suspected that this was Willow's way of forwarding her career. Darling Willow, how was she to know that the last thing that Tara wanted was a career? It was bad enough as it was, with her in the public eye like this...
Unexpectedly, it was... well, fun actually, to sing in the empty opera house with just the appraising look of Sir Rupert and the enraptured face of Lorne Greene watching. And she couldn't take her eyes off Willow. Despite what the soprano thought herself, she was Butterfly on stage. She was one of the few opera singers in the word who were truly believable as a fifteen-year-old geisha. To be honest, it was a little frightening as well. Willow's intensity on stage made Tara feel lacklustre as a performer and had her wondering if she was even close to knowing this woman? But that had always been one of the most alluring things about Willow: the double nature of her sweetness as a person and her almost demonic quality of her stage presence.
Tara had always felt clumsy, so she tried to keep a keen eye on cables, mikes and wires. They sang very well, as always when they were together.
Lorne Greene thanked them profusely when they had finished.
"Ladies, I see spectacular careers in your future!" he sad magnanimously.
Willow was convinced that he shared her view on the superior quality of Tara's voice. Tara was of course equally convinced that he was impressed only with the lyrical genius of Willow.
They were still holding hands. Tara laughed at something Lorne Greene said and Willow's eyes fell shut and she breathed in carefully not to reveal what that sound did to her. She could feel the vibrations going through her body through her firm grip of Tara's hand. Tara-laughter. Was there ever a better sound? Maybe... She smiled.
Tara let out a sigh of relief now that it was over. She pictured herself in a t-shirt with an "I survived the South Bank Show" print on it.
As it turned out, she was not out of the woods yet. She tensed up when she realised that Lorne expected to get to interview them both.
As expected, she liked the interview situation far less than the singing. She focused so hard on not stuttering that her body ached with the effort. Willow stroked her back lovingly when feeling her tension, which made her even more nervous. What if they showed that on television?
The mezzo felt like throwing up when the journalist asked about her childhood and background. She talked briefly about her mother's singing talent and waited patiently in silence until Greene dropped the subject and moved on. Sensing that he was running out of questions, the stiffness in her shoulders let up a bit.
Until the bomb dropped.
"Before we conclude this, might I be so bold as to ask if your relationship is... erhm... official, or not?"
Tara froze and gave Willow a panicked look out of the corner of her eye. To her surprise, the soprano smiled.
"Sort of. It's very new, so we haven' gotten round to being official yet".
"But friends and loved ones know?"
Willow took Tara's hand.
"Some of them."
Her thoughts drifted back to that morning.
Buffy had been freaked, no doubt about it. But on the whole, it could have been much worse...
"Will, I've been thinking", Buffy had said thoughtfully, hugging her coffee cup.
"Isn't it about time you got out there? Back in the saddle so to speak. I know that you and Osbourne had a bad break up, but honestly, Will, I think the best way to get over him is to get out there and meet new people."
"Erhm" Willow didn't know how to begin. She hesitated and swallowed to try to get rid of the lump which suddenly lived in her throat.
"Well, actually, Buffy, I sort of already have..."
She waited for an eruption.
"Will, you sneaky woman!! Tell, tell!"
"I've started seeing someone." She could hear the hesitation in her own voice and took a deep breath.
"Tara. I'm seeing Tara." She tried to sound no-nonsense about it.
"Oh, come on Will! I don't mean work! Spending a massive amount of time on voluntary rehearsals, which is slightly insane, by the way, does not replace dating! I'm talking about meeting guys again, Will. I'm sure Tara's a really nice girl and very rewarding to work with, but no girlfriend time can replace dating."
"Actually, it can... Buffy, I mean that I'm seeing Tara. Like seeing seeing."
She held her breath and waited.
"How do you mean?" Buffy looked puzzled.
"Well, you know..." Willow blushed a little and shrugged.
"You mean that you and Tara...? Like seeing seeing? Oh."
Buffy became quiet and suddenly very interested in the contents of her coffee cup.
"Buffy, are you freaked?"
Her best friend had said that no, she wasn't freaked. But Willow could tell that she was.
"I think I love her, Buffy.... No, I know that I love her."
Buffy walked over to her suitcases and got ready to leave. In the doorway, she turned around.
"It's great, Will. Really. Just need some time to get used to it, that's all, Will. So, it's love, huh...?"
Willow nodded slowly. There it was. She was officially in love...
"Have you told her?"
Willow shook her head.
Buffy smiled a funny smile.
"Well, I guess you'd better, then."
"You said that it had to be two months, or it was creepy..."
"That's just silly, Will, never mind that. Just tell the...girl how you feel."
Buffy sounded a little nervous. But she would come round, Willow knew she would. Buffy always came through in the end.
Finally having told someone made Willow feel as if she could suddenly breathe freely again after holding her breath. It felt great.
Some of them!? Some of them!? Tara's mind screamed inside her head and waved its arms excitedly.
"Tell you what ladies, mum's the word. I'll just let you get to that in your own good time. But if I can be so frank, I don't see how anyone could miss it. And might I add that you make a lovely couple."
Willow felt drunk from her own boldness as she caressed Tara's hand and replied:
"Yes, I know."
She told people about us? She told people?
Tara's heart beat so fast it was uncomfortable. Unconsciously, she had probably never thought they would be a couple in the eyes of the world. In her head, she only saw them tucked away at restaurants or in her hotel room. Her fears seemed like nothing now, compared to the hugeness of Willow having told someone. Questions remained, of course: Were they girlfriends? She doubted that it was possible that Willow would love her they way she loved Willow, but did she love her? She thought that she might, but who was she to know? She would have given anything to get to know what Willow had said about them... She thought it had to have been Buffy that she had told. To the best of Tara's knowledge, she was the only person Willow had seen for any length of time after leaving her outside the pub.
That's big, Tara... The best friend...
She realised that her grip on Willow's hand was vice-like, so she let go a little. But just a little.
The afternoon saw ordinary rehearsals and by that time, it was as if the camera crew had always been there. Tara would never have suspected that being in love and having good sex would do so much for the quality of your performance. William Bloodsworth actually snapped at her for being too perky. Not something she was used to, but she just couldn't keep the smile off her face...
Willow came to her dressing room in the break.
"Are you still on for Anya's concert tonight? As awful as she is, she a brilliant singer. Afterwards, we could go to my place...Buffy's in Berlin, so we've got the house all to ourselves..."
The soprano smiled a smiled that promised a thousand delights and pulled the mezzo closer.
Tara could hear from the tone of Willow's voice that she expected no answer, so she just nodded and kissed her.
She was glad that they both had their lipstick removed, otherwise they would have looked a mess. Flushed and short of breath after their passionate kissing, Tara broke away.
"Did you and Buffy have a good... talk last night?"
Tara sighed in exasperation. Willow took pity on her.
"We talked about dating. Buffy thought it was about time I started dating again"
"I see." Tara tried to keep her voice neutral.
"So I said that I already had."
"And what did Buffy say?"
"Well, it's understandable that she's, you know, surprised."
Tara, the empathic one as ever. Willow stepped back into her embrace and kissed her on the lips, feather light. This was love, she was certain of it.
The mezzo walked toward her hotel to change and collect some things.
The many wonders of this day was almost too much to bear: She had survived an interview, sang well despite the spying eye of the camera and most importantly: Willow had told Buffy...
She hummed contentedly to herself when she caught an image in the corner of her eye. She whipped her head round in a panic, but it was gone.
Had she really seen it? The grey coat? That coat? But surely...? It was gone now, but she had seen it, hadn't she?
"Not now..." she whispered to her self "Not already, please..." She didn't know who she was talking to. Something started to trickle down from her nose. She reached up and touched it. With a sinking feeling of horror, she saw her hand being covered in blood.