"I don't know, I just thought he was a really weird guy." Eddie shrugged. He was sitting with Andrew, Carl, and Faith in a circle on the floor of Andrew's dorm room. In the center lay a pile of dice, and he picked through them for a matching set. "You didn't think so?"
"No, he seemed nice enough to me," Carl said.
Faith scoffed. "The guy's a total whack job." She peered at Andrew's dice. "Hey, you took the lucky green d8. Give it here."
"Who's a whack job?" asked Buffy as she entered the doorway with Cordelia in tow. "Hey, guys. Willow here yet?"
"Tara's dad," Eddie said. "And no, she's late."
"You met her dad?"
Andrew interrupted. "We all did, at the diner yesterday. You were invited, too. Didn't you get the invitation?"
Buffy frowned. "Invitation? Nuh uh. Where'd you call?"
"I didn't; Tara did. Your dorm room, I assume."
"Ah. Can't do that." She waved her cell phone about. "All communication goes through ..." She trailed off when an incoming text message drew her attention. "Hang on a sec." She excused herself from the room.
Cordelia rolled her eyes and flopped down into the chair beside Andrew's desk. "God. Those two never stop talking. It's nauseating." She spun lazily in the chair. "So Tara's that girl Willow's always hanging out with, right?"
Andrew nodded. "Yup. She works with Faith and me."
"Why's her dad a whack job?"
"Bad breeding?" Eddie offered.
"I mean, why do you think he is one? What did he do?"
"Personally, I thought he was a nice guy," Carl insisted.
"Yeah, too nice," Eddie said. "Like that cheerful geezer who lives next door and builds lots of model ships and crap, and always waves at you when you go out to check your mail? And then one day the police raid his house, and you read in the newspaper that they found three dozen bodies buried in the guy's backyard."
"He didn't seem very sincere," Andrew agreed. "I kind of feel like his meeting us was part of this weird thing, like he's trying to control every aspect of her life."
Faith nodded. "I can't tell you how bad I wanted to scream on him."
"Why didn't you?" Cordelia asked.
"'Cause he'd probably turn around and take it out on T."
"Take what out?" Buffy asked as she wandered back into the room, still rapidly tapping the buttons on her cell phone. Jumping into the middle of conversations never seemed to phase her.
"Willow's not here," Cordelia pointed out. "Can we go now?"
"What did you guys stop by for, anyway?" asked Andrew.
"I wanted to check whether Willow was here to see if I could get class notes from her," Buffy answered. She turned back to Faith. "Take what out?"
"We think Tara's dad is a psycho," Eddie told her.
"Yeah, you said so. What's he taking out on Tara, though?"
"Psychosis? I don't know. Faith was saying if we yelled at him, he'd turn around and yell at her."
"Worse," Faith said darkly.
Buffy scowled. "You mean he's abusive."
"Probably. T's real close-lipped about it, though."
"It's really hard to do anything about domestic violence unless the individual who's being abused steps forward," Cordelia offered.
"No shit," Faith snapped. "That's what I'm saying. She doesn't admit it's going on."
"Well, excuse me for trying to help."
"Guys, chill," Buffy ordered. She looked at Faith. "Do you know for sure?"
Faith sighed and ran a hand through her hair while giving the question some thought. "Yeah," she said at last. "I'm positive. It's got to be her dad."
When he saw she was distracted, Andrew nabbed his lucky die back from Faith and left another in its place. "Maybe we should have Willow talk with her?" he suggested. "I mean, Tara seems to have, uh, warmed up to her."
As if on cue, Willow appeared in the doorway and chirped a greeting. "Hey guys!" She waltzed into the room. Her good mood was obvious; she was practically glowing.
"Hey, Wills," Buffy greeted her. "What's with the yay-rays?"
"It's been a long day; I'm just happy to have a second to relax." She sat down in a space in the circle the others cleared for her. "What are you two doing here?"
"They're here to join the game," Faith said. "B's going to be a badass demon hunter, and Cordelia's going to be a - " she eyed the girl up and down " - something else."
Willow looked even more excited. "Really?"
"No," Buffy said. "Actually, I was looking for you. You didn't happen to maybe take really excellent notes during Monday's lecture?"
"In my binder, in my book bag, upstairs," Willow sighed. "You shouldn't skip class."
"Won't happen again!" Buffy promised. She beckoned to Cordelia. "Okay, now we can go eat." The two girls headed out the door.
Andrew began handing out the players' character sheets. "So," he said without looking at Willow, "Tara invited you over again?"
"What? ... Yeah." She looked surprised. "She asked if I could come over to help her brother with his biology homework. Did she tell you?"
"Lucky guess," he chuckled. The others in the circle had varied success at covering their smiles.
Willow harrumphed. "That's fine. Insinuate all you like," she said loftily.
Tara's heart clenched when she heard the knock at her apartment door, and she hurried from the bathroom to answer it. She tugged the towel from around her hair, which fell in damp tendrils to her shoulders, and used a corner of it to dab at her forehead. Go figure-not fifteen minutes out of the shower, and already she felt overheated. She swung the door inward and watched a smile form on Willow's lips. Tara opened her arms and welcomed her with a hug, although it required awkward positioning to keep her towel away from the book bag slung over Willow's shoulder.
"Long time, no see," Willow joked.
"Mm. Miss me?"
"Oh, dreadfully." They parted, and Tara held the door and stood aside so Willow could enter. She had scrambled to tidy up and vacuum the apartment before Willow arrived, and now she was happy to show off the living room, which she felt looked significantly nicer than it had during the last visit. Willow's attention, however, did not stray to the room, but remained fixed on Tara. "Are you wearing makeup?" she asked.
"Uh ... " Caught. "W-well, I mean, from work ..." No, Willow would know she had just showered. "Uh, yeah, a little."
Willow grinned. "So!" She strode into the room, slung the book bag to her font and unzipped the largest pocket. "Let's see ... Bio. Here we are." Several notebooks and a heavy textbook materialized from the depths of the bag. Colored tabs stuck out of the top of the book. Tara guessed that they served as chapter markers. Willow thumbed through the pages. "Do you know what section Donny is on?"
"Mm. About that-while I'm making embarrassing confessions, I should admit that, uh ... D-Donny didn't ask me to invite you over." She blushed. "It was-it was my idea. Donny didn't say he needed any help. Although, between you and me, he really hasn't been doing well in the class. He thinks it's boring, I guess."
"Boring? Biology?" Willow gaped. "Preposterous! It's ... it's ... well, it's the study of life itself! How can that be boring? You get to learn about the very pieces of you. What you're made of. Where you came from. How you function in surrounding environments. It's fascinating!" Her words slowed, and she frowned. "You're laughing at me."
Tara shook her head and tried to suppress her smile. "No, no. Not laughing. Just ... it's ... you-you get so - " she shook a clenched fist in the air " - RAWR, and you're ..." She swallowed. "You're very cute when you're all worked up like that."
"Oh." Willow's expression relaxed. "Well, that's okay, then. Uh, so should we ... ?" She hefted the biology textbook and nodded in the direction of the hallway.
They approached the bedroom, and Tara knocked before peeking around the door that had been left ajar. When Donny grunted a greeting, she shuffled in and beckoned Willow to enter. Donny saw the two of them and groaned. "Tare ..."
"I know, I know," she said, "you don't need any help. Just-just humor me, okay? Willow's got - " she glanced at Willow and grinned " - well, sort of a boundless enthusiasm for science, and it might make it seem, you know, a bit more interesting."
Donny threw his pencil down on the desk, and it rolled to a stop at the edge of his notebook. "Fine," he sighed.
An hour later the girls stepped out of the room together, and at once Tara enveloped Willow in a hug. "Thank you so much, Willow! I've never seen him take an interest like that!"
Willow puffed up proudly. "My tutoring skills might be getting rusty, but they haven't disappeared entirely."
"You were great." Tara reluctantly let her go. "Do you have any interest in teaching?"
"Some. I've been thinking about signing up to do the SI program in statistics next semester. That's Supplemental Instruction-it's like a weekly session for students who are having trouble keeping up with the pace of the class, and need a little extra review for each chapter. It's opt-in, too, which I like because it means the people who are there probably want to do better in the class. As far as teaching for a career, though, I don't know. It's a lot more likely that I'll end up doing something with computers."
Tara chuckled. "I'm not so computer-savvy."
"Well, we've never owned one. I mean, I used them in high school a little. Typing classes and stuff, but I've forgotten most of it. I remember that F7 spell checks. That's about it. Oh, and there was this game where letters fell down from the top of the screen, and you had to type each one before it reached the bottom."
"I loved that game!" Willow gushed. She made a face when her stomach gurgled. "Have you eaten, yet?"
"Mm hm. Donny and I had dinner earlier. You?"
She shook her head. "Not really. I've been snacking all day. You want to go to Late Night at the dining hall? They have milkshakes and stuff. I've got so many points I need to use up."
"Oh, uh, I don't know if-well, let me call my father. Hang on." She used the phone in the kitchen, and Willow paced around the living room while waiting. She caught pieces of the conversation. "Yes, he did it all ... Just Willow and I ... It's on the campus ... I will ... Thanks so much! ... Okay, I'll see you tonight." When she reappeared, Tara looked giddy. "Let's go!"
Willow rubbed her tummy and sighed contently as they made their way back across the campus toward the apartment. "Oof. I'll never get tired of milkshakes," she mumbled.
"I can't believe you snarfed that whole thing down already!" Tara said. "It was huge!" She was still working on her own shake, which was in a much smaller cup than Willow's had been. It was a thick shake, and she'd given up on the straw several minutes ago. It was hard to walk and drink at the same time, so she kept slowing while taking sips, which caused Willow to trot back several steps to keep apace.
Willow hopped down a curb and turned to see Tara with her drink raised to her lips. "Oh! Watch your - " she grimaced as Tara took a misstep and flailed to regain her balance " - step." Tara managed to stay upright, but strawberry shake dotted her nose and dripped from her chin. She wiped at it bashfully. Willow categorized the moment in her mental Tara file. 'Precious.'
Time always seemed to pass too quickly and nights always seemed to end too early when she was with Tara. Already the day was drawing to a close, yet Willow felt their time together was only just starting to blossom. It didn't seem fair. She stopped walking, and Tara turned around to see why. "When do you think your father will get home?" Willow asked.
"I'm not really sure. Midnight? Twelve-thirty?"
"Do you want to do something? I know it's getting kind of late, but-"
"Definitely," Tara assured her. "Ten o'clock, though ..."
Willow nodded. "Right. So we'll be at your apartment. But we could still ..."
"Watch another movie?"
"Will you be able to stay awake for it?" she teased.
Tara smiled. "I promise."
"Then, sure. Anything, really."
"Anything in particular you want to see?"
"Well, I picked last time. It should be your turn."
"All right," Tara chuckled. "But remember that letting me choose was your idea!"
Tara punched a button on the remote, and the television screen went black. "So? What did you think?"
"That was really bad," Willow admitted.
"I told you it was goofy. It's funny, though, and the characters really grow on you." She ejected the video from the player and slipped it back into its plastic case, then returned it to its place on the shelf-right next to the rest of the Xena tapes. She set the remote down atop the television and looked over at the sofa. Willow reclined across the majority of it, her head resting upon a faded brown throw pillow. Donny hadn't joined them; he'd taken one look at their viewing fare, declared, "Oh, heck no," and retreated to the bedroom. Tara began scanning the other videos. "We can watch something else."
"Oh, no, it's okay," Willow said. "It's silly, but enjoyable. Plus, I mean, it ran all those seasons, so it must get better. Right?"
Tara reached for the tape. "No promises," she chuckled.
Willow watched the opening warnings and disclaimers while Tara excused herself to the kitchen for a glass of water. When she returned, Willow asked, "You know that whole subtext thing ... ? About this show?"
"Yeah, I don't know if I'd call it subtext. It's pretty much ... well, text. It gets pretty blatant." Tara nudged the pillow, and Willow scooted down enough for her to sit. Tara positioned the pillow against her leg so that Willow's head would be propped up.
Willow nestled against it. "That's sort of what I heard." There was an awkward silence, but it was soon broken by the show's blaring theme music. Tara hastily lowered the volume. Willow took a steady breath, then asked, "What do you ... what do you think about it? I mean ... with the characters ... ?"
Tara was quiet, and for a moment Willow thought she wasn't going to answer. Finally, she said, "In a lot of the episodes, I like it. But sometimes it makes some of the darker bits of the show all the more aggravating to watch. Like, they kind of whack you over the head with 'these women are in love,' but then they do some really horrible things to each other." Tara glanced at Willow, and realized the girl wasn't looking at the show at all, but was instead watching her. "The show would be totally different without it, though," she admitted. "Uh, between you and me, it's ... it's sort of the reason I started taping it in the first place."
Willow's nod was barely perceptible. Tara gave her a nervous smile, and Willow's warm one answered it. Their attention was snapped away by Gabrielle's voice as the episode started, and soon they were both engrossed in the show. A few minutes in, Willow shifted onto her side so that her head was no longer twisted at such a sharp angle. Moments later, Tara's fingers found their way to the side of her neck and searched for sore spots. They were easy to find by listening to the groans and sighs that escaped Willow's lips.
When the episode ended and the screen filled with grey snow, Tara reached for the remote with her free hand and muted the television. With the other, she stroked Willow's hair. Willow had gorgeous hair, full and fiery, and Tara desperately wanted to see what it would look like tousled and tangled from a night of urgent lovemaking. She knew it wasn't good to think such things; Willow was in the middle of a breakup, and the last thing Tara wanted to do was to further complicate things. But her fingers threaded through Willow's hair, and she watched Willow's body respond-lashes fluttered, breaths became quick and shallow, plaintive mewls tumbled from parted lips to match each stroke-and Tara knew. She knew Willow wanted her just as badly.
"Willow ..." The word was half spoken, half pleaded. Willow's eyelashes swept upward, and her eyes found Tara's. "Sweetie ..." She almost died when Willow's tongue darted out to moisten her lips. "I want to kiss you so badly right now ..." she breathed. Willow's eyes widened at the admission. "I know I shouldn't. I-I shouldn't even be saying it. B-but I want to ..." It took all of Tara's willpower to hold her gaze on Willow, when every instinct told her to look away.
"Wow," Willow whispered. For once, Willow Rosenberg was at a loss for words. Tara gauged her expression; it seemed at once both hopeful and cautious, a mixture she understood too well. She could almost see the gears churning behind those beautiful eyes. At last Willow asked, "What would ... what would happen if you did?"
Good question. Tara sighed and slumped against the sofa back. "Honestly? It would probably be utterly scorching, and I'd need to kiss you again ... and again ..." She grimaced. "And then my father would be due home any moment, and you'd have to go back to your dorm, and I'd stay up all night worrying about it, and by tomorrow morning I'd feel horribly guilty about the whole thing, and I'd be a total zombie at work."
Willow frowned. "Oh. I don't like that ending." She struggled to sit up, scooted closer to Tara, and snaked an arm around her back. "It had such a promising start, too." Tara leaned into the half-hug and rested her forehead against Willow's shoulder. "Tara, about Oz ..."
"Andrew told me there was a fight, and that he left," Tara let her know. "Please don't be mad at him. He knew I liked you."
"You already know?"
"N-not the whole story. Just-just the fight, and that you seemed really unhappy beforehand."
"He ... had some issues-outside of our relationship-and he withdrew from the University over the weekend. I knew we weren't going to make it; I guess I was being stubborn about it. Oz wasn't ... his heart wasn't in it, any longer."
"He was awful to you," Tara said pointedly. "Every time he upset you, I wanted to scream."
A sad smile crossed Willow's lips. "The truth is, my heart wasn't in it, either. It hadn't been for a long time. I just ... I hated the idea of failing at a relationship. I wanted to believe I could get it right the first time." She shook her head. "But it wasn't going to happen with Oz. We didn't fit together in too many ways. At one point I started to picture the relationship like was this huge scale, with all the good things on one side, and all the bad things on the other, and I felt like it was taking more and more energy to bail out stuff from the bad side. It was draining."
"I'm sorry," Tara said. She didn't feel like it was enough.
Willow nodded. "Yeah. It's better that it happened. Maybe it's mean to say this, but ... I'm sort of relieved that he withdrew from school. I mean, if it helps him collect himself and stuff, that's obviously great, but just ... I think it will be easier to deal with him being totally gone than it would be to deal with the awkwardness of bumping into him all the time."
"I can understand that."
"Why would ... I mean, if you already knew about the breakup, why would you feel guilty about ... ?"
Tara frowned. "Because of the breakup. It was only a few days ago. I didn't really know what had happened, or what you might be feeling about it, and-and I didn't think telling you, 'hey, your new friend wants to kiss you senseless, and oh yeah she's a girl, too,' would make that process any easier." She sighed. "Even though that's exactly what I ended up doing. It's-it's kind of ugly to come onto somebody right after they've had a breakup. I'm sorry."
"No, I'm glad you said it," Willow assured her. "I've wanted to, for a while. Since the party." She paused. "Since before the party."
And there it was. The admission sat between them heavily, both awkward and exciting. Tara didn't know how to follow up. In her mind, she was closing the gap between them as much as possible, fastening her lips to Willow's until oxygen became a serious problem, and tasting every freckle on her skin. But to say so-to do so-would fly in the face of good taste. No, she would wait. She would be infinitely patient while Willow ... did whatever it was a person had to do after a relationship failed. Did that every really work? She took a slow, steadying breath and pulled her gaze away from Willow's mouth to her eyes. Willow's stare was melting her. A knowing smile turned the corners of Willow's lips, and when she stretched a band of milky skin peeked through the narrow gap between her jeans and top. Oh hell, Tara thought, this wasn't going to be easy.
"So ... I'll see you again soon?" Willow asked.
Ninety agonizing minutes. That's how long Tara had sat with Willow after her confession. Ninety minutes of pretending to watch Xena outmaneuver various thugs and warlords. Ninety minutes of trying to keep her hands to herself-and failing miserably. They seemed to be sentient, and rather single-minded at that, automatically drifting to Willow whenever her focus ebbed.
Now that the torture was nearing an end, Tara wanted to prolong it. Only the thought of her father stumbling home at any minute prevented her from drawing out the goodbye. She twisted the door handle unconsciously and nodded. "Definitely."
Tara watched her turn and retreat. She eased the door closed and immediately slumped against it. A frustrated groan passed her lips. Tomorrow, she knew, she'd be able to tell herself that she'd done the right thing. Tomorrow she'd be proud of herself. Right now, however, she had a heated, curled knot low in her stomach, and she'd just let Willow escape unsmothered by kisses.
"Tara Maclay, why do you do this to yourself?" she asked rhetorically. She shook her head, straightened and stretched her back, then reached out to hit the light switch. Sleep was the answer. Just get to sleep, and she'd feel better in the morning. She paused near the sofa to retrieve the glass she'd left on the end table, when she heard a tapping. Curious, she set the glass back down and shuffled back to the door. She had just enough time to open it and blink once at Willow's wide eyes before the girl lifted herself up on tiptoes, laid a hand on Tara's cheek, and kissed her soundly.
By the time Tara's mind caught on to what was happening, Willow had backed away, breathing heavily. She nodded definitively, as though affirming her own thought. "Goodnight, Tara," she said.
Tara's fingers strayed to her lips, which were still parted in surprise. They seemed to tingle, and her cheeks felt very warm. "G-goodnight, Willow."
Willow hovered over her, propped up on her elbows. She was studying Tara's face intently. She inched lower and pressed her lips to the underside of Tara's chin. Another kiss fell at the edge of the first, and another in line, each gently nudging her jaw upward. Tara sucked in a searing breath and arched her head back, exposing her throat. She felt Willow's finger trace a line down the center; it rose and fell over the wave as she instinctively swallowed, then it circled the shallow dip above her collarbone. Every place Willow's fingers touched, her lips soon followed; each moist contact sent heated charges in arcs through Tara's body.
Wisps of Willow's hair grazed Tara's neck and shoulders while she continued her exploration. Tara needed to move. She wriggled and bucked until some part of Willow-she didn't care which-rested heavily between her thighs. She gripped with her heels, lifted, and shuddered as she dragged downward. Again. Willow pressed a hand to one of her hips, stilling her motion, and Tara voiced her need for relief with a low, insistent growl. "Willow, please ..."
Somewhere in the building a door slammed loudly enough to penetrate the layers of her sleep, and Tara's eyes blinked open. She rolled over, buried her face in the pillow, and groaned woefully. Oh, what a blessing it would be to not have any neighbors. Not to mention her own room ... Usually Tara could overlook the many ways that sharing space with a younger brother interfered with her day to day life, but moments like this really drove the point home. She sat up in bed and drew in several slow, even breaths. It didn't help much; her dream had left her thoroughly aroused, and still her body hummed with pent-up energy. "Oh, to hell with this," she muttered. She slid out of bed, gathered up one of the heavier blankets, and trudged out into the hallway.
It was cold on the porch, even with fuzzy slippers and a comforter for a coat. The tips of her ears were the first to register the chill, and her teeth chattered. She dragged one of the plastic chairs into the center of the porch and sat after making sure it hadn't collected any water. She pulled her knees up under the blanket so that her feet perched on the front edge of the chair and her bare legs were protected from the air. Already the details of her dream were receding into the grey nothing of lost memories. She desperately tried to reclaim them, to let them act as fuel, but all she knew now was the chill and the snug cocoon of her blanket. She craned her neck and looked up at the starless sky. Against the ruddy backdrop she watched her breath turning to mist.
They were holding hands, standing before a marble headstone. A brisk wind whipped through the cemetery, tugging at their hair and rustling their clothes. It was chilly, and Tara nestled up against Willow to share her warmth, resting her head on the girl's shoulder. She sighed, tucking her cold fingers into the pockets of Willow's heavy pea coat. Willow reached an arm around Tara's waist and gave her a comforting squeeze.
"You're not alone."
Tara twitched out of her reverie. Where had that memory come from? It had been a phantom thought-appearing from out of nowhere, strikingly vivid and familiar, but already flitting away. No, not this time. She could capture it. She could hold on to it. Tara let the blanket slide from her shoulders as she stood, braving the cold, and reached for the paint-spattered canvas tarp that covered her folded easel.