Willow gripped the steering wheel as the car's headlights illuminated yet another blind curve. She stepped on the brake and the car fishtailed to the left. She turned the wheel into the skid and somehow managed to keep the car from sliding off the road.
She exhaled in frustration. Ever since leaving the highway twenty minutes ago, she and Tara had been driving on a winding secondary road on the way to their rental cottage. While the highways had been plowed and clear of any snow and slush, the plows clearly didn't service this particular stretch of road. Instead, there was a well-packed layer of snow blanketing the asphalt that would likely stay until spring melted it.
"I cannot fathom how these people drive on this road every day," Willow grated. "These roads are impossible, especially in the dark." They were the first words that either of them had spoken in well over an hour.
Tara cleared her throat. "I think I read that instead of braking on snow, you're supposed to put the car in a lower gear, and then you won't skid."
Willow pursed her mouth in irritation. "Why didn't you tell me that twenty minutes ago?"
We wouldn't be driving in the dark if you hadn't made us late leaving. Instead of giving voice to this thought, Tara looked out the window.
Ahead of them was a uniform stretch of snowpacked road, a ghostly ribbon unwinding ahead of their car, looking otherworldly in the bluish-purple expanse of light cast by the modern headlights of their car. Framing both sides of the ribbon were pine trees, standing tall and somber like sentinels, their branches slumped down under a heavy load of snow that must have fallen a day or two ago. Every now and then they would cross an intersection, and Tara would scan for the road where they were supposed to turn. So far they hadn't come upon it, and Tara was worried they might have missed it. She had spent just as much time fuming at Willow as she had looking for their road, but she was reluctant to admit that she might have missed it.
How did we get to this point?
It didn't help the atmosphere in car that neither girl was used to driving in the snow. Their formative driving years in southern California had prepared them to deal with sunshine and extreme traffic, but not the intricacies of driving in freshly fallen snow, or weeks-old snow packs with an underlayer of ice, or any of the other varieties of hazardous driving conditions that the mercurial winter climate produced in Michigan.
Their move to Michigan had been precipitated by the most usual reason that anyone packed up and moved across the country - a job. Willow's job. She had called Tara at home one day in May, so excited she could barely form complete sentences.
"Baby, I got it, and they want me to start for this fall but I can...oh, I have so much to do, I have to freeze those...and I'll get to... Wow!"
The move to Michigan had gone as smoothly as it could have, with the flurry of packing, finding a place to live, and arranging to have their possessions transported by movers. Tara had ended up having to pack most of their belongings herself, since Willow was in full panic mode freezing and packaging the bacteria, DNA, and plants that she'd need to bring to start up her own lab. Buffy and Dawn had come down on the weekends to help, though, so Tara didn't have to do it all on her own.
With all the tasks to complete, there had been no time to drive up to Sunnydale for a goodbye with their friends, so Xander, Anya, Buffy, Dawn, and Giles all came down to L.A. to wish them well and help carry the last of their things into the moving truck - with Anya making a few jokes about the U-Haul to break the tension. Tara had burst into tears as she hugged them all goodbye, and even Willow got weepy. With promises to visit soon and often, they had bid their friends farewell and climbed into the cab of their truck.
If the move had gone smoothly, Willow's transition to assistant professor of biology had gone even better. It seemed like she had been born for the job. The research was ambrosia, the teaching her nectar. She was confident and excited, whether she was ordering equipment for her lab, mixing up solutions, writing multi-million dollar grants, taking on new graduate students, or planning her course in plant biology.
Things hadn't been so easy for Tara. More of an introvert by nature, she worked from home as a freelance writer and didn't have any human interaction during the day - unless she ventured out for coffee or grocery shopping, and that didn't really count. She was unprepared for the weather after ten years in the temperate climate of southern California - to her, Michigan seemed unbearably humid. Relief came in the autumn, but the mild weather only lasted for two weeks before a bitter cold descended on the state.
Dropping temperatures outside were mirrored by dropping temperatures at home. Willow spent long hours in her lab writing grants and doing experiments while keeping up with her teaching load. She was determined to get tenure, and an institution like Michigan would expect her to publish at the rate of about one paper per year for a span of six years in order to secure a promotion and tenure.
The first year of her work would inevitably be the hardest, since she would have totally new graduate students who were unfamiliar with her particular organism, as well as to molecular biology techniques, in some cases. In order to keep the work moving forward, this meant that Willow spent an inordinate amount of time doing research herself, in addition to writing grants and teaching her classes. She left for the lab at 7:30 every morning, and often didn't return until 8 or 9:00 p.m. each night. There were a few nights she spent on the couch in her office, running experiments that required her to take samples at four-hour intervals.
Tara tried to be as supportive as she knew how, bringing dinner to Willow in the lab to make sure she ate, doing all the household chores, and not burdening her partner with her unhappiness about living in this new place. Willow sensed Tara's discontent anyway, and suggested that she try auditing some classes, but Tara rejected this idea. It wasn't that the thought of taking a class was repellent; it was more that she had begun to resent the university that took Willow away from her so much, and she was determined not to associate herself with it too closely.
Time on the weekends was all too brief, though Tara tried to make the most of it. She would plan outings to the surrounding communities, but after a few nice autumn weekends, the weather turned too cold to make being outdoors enjoyable. Willow seemed relieved, though she didn't say so, since she was often too exhausted on the weekends to fully enjoy traipsing around small towns and state parks.
Despite her vow to be supportive, Tara found herself more and more resentful of Willow's job - or maybe it was Willow herself; sometimes it was hard to differentiate between the two. Tara wasn't an expert on biology, but it seemed to her that the university couldn't require all of its new professors to work this hard. The pressures of a job like this would surely mean that only a few introverts would stay in biology, given such unreasonable demands. She suspected it was Willow herself who was manufacturing the pressure, determined as always to be the best.
When Willow would call home and tell Tara she'd be home in 30 minutes or an hour, Tara automatically doubled that length of time in her head, knowing that invariably some emergency would crop up to delay her. Tara tried to be understanding and supportive, but there was a tiny part of her brain that wouldn't shut up, saying things like Why is it so hard for her to leave that damn lab when I'm here at home, waiting for her? I do her laundry and all the cooking and cleaning, and why doesn't she ever give anything back? Why am I always the one who makes the effort to spend time with her?
And gradually, imperceptibly at first, things started to change. Tara grew tired of bringing dinner to Willow in the lab, with constant interruptions from graduate students and Willow's own distraction. She would invariably eat a few bites before needing to rush out into the lab to attend to an experiment, or worse yet, would make small talk with Tara but not listen to Tara's answers to her perfunctory questions. It was clear to Tara that while Willow enjoyed the attention, she also wanted to get back to her work, so Tara stopped coming and ate dinner at home. Rather than always preparing a home-cooked meal just for herself, she started eating frozen dinners or cereal, which didn't improve her mood much.
By November, things had gotten even more strained between them. When Willow arrived home late and slipped into bed, more often than not Tara would pretend to be asleep. On weekends, she would sit on the couch icily ignoring Willow's presence if she felt particularly piqued, or making monosyllabic conversation if she was merely unhappy.
It was during a rare warm period around Thanksgiving that Willow had suggested they take a trip together for Christmas up to a cottage in Canada, just the two of them. The prospect of a week alone with Willow, away from the lab, away from laptops and the internet and cell phones and PDAs, in the middle of the woods proved tempting to Tara, and she threw herself into researching vacation destinations with gusto. Finally she settled on a rental in the cottage country two hours northeast of Toronto. Most of the cottages in that area were summer cottages, but Tara found one that had been winterized and looked very cozy in the pictures on the internet. She happily booked it, and dreamed of their week together, just the two of them, rediscovering each other and rekindling their love.
Their relationship enjoyed a few weeks of relative tranquility, especially as Willow's grant deadline of December 1 had passed, but as the vacation date loomed, Willow's hours, already extensive, seemed to lengthen. Taking a week off for a vacation, especially when the students were gone - a week that she could have uninterrupted research time in the lab - seemed an unnecessary extravagance. A week before their departure date, she had tentatively broached the topic of staying home instead, to which Tara simply replied:
" We already paid. It's non-refundable."
That simple statement seemed fraught with other meaning, and Willow didn't pursue the topic. But the mood of the trip seemed spoiled already to Tara. Things came to a head, though, when on the morning of their departure, Willow at the last minute insisted on going into the lab.
"Tara, I swear, it'll just be an hour. I just need to put a couple of cultures in the fridge, and I'll be right back. You'll barely know I'm gone."
Of course one hour had turned into two, and it was 11:00 a.m. before the women finally left their house. Tara was in a foul mood, and didn't make conversation as she drove the first leg of the trip. Instead, they listened to the radio. Tara kept the car's radio tuned to the local NPR station - she spent so much time in her day listening to the programs that she almost thought of the commentators as personal friends.
After three hours of NPR, Willow had grown tired of it. Her query about whether they could listen to a CD instead was met with a clipped "fine," and soon after Tara had pulled over at a service station to fill up the gas tank. At that point Willow took over the driving, and after a couple of hours Tara stated that she hated the CDs Willow had chosen, and Willow had said "Fine. Let's not listen to anything then." Then Tara had snapped off the radio, and they had driven on in silence for an hour as night fell around them.
Tara spotted a road sign in the distance. "There is it - Cambray Road. Turn right here."
Willow silently complied, gearing the car down in preparation for the turn, and completed the turn without skidding.
"What's next?" she asked after the car was heading in the right direction.
Tara consulted the directions, squinting in the faint light. "Look for Cottage Drive on the left. It should be coming up soon."
Willow spied the Cottage Drive sign easily.
"Number 42," Tara said. "On the right."
Willow pulled their vehicle into the driveway. She turned the car off and shut off the headlights, not before she and Tara had caught a glimpse of the squarish, well-kept yard that was surrounded by tall pine trees.
They unloaded their bags and located the key under the stone frog near the front door. Willow shuddered internally. A bad experience with frog dissection in her undergraduate lab class - her frog had not been quite as anesthetized as she had believed - had created an aversion in her to the amphibians. Under normal circumstances she would have made a joke to Tara about the frog, but tonight she just silently slipped the key into the lock and entered the cottage.
Both Willow and Tara were struck by the scent of cedar and pine as they walked in. Tara located the light switch and flipped it on.
The cottage was cozy; that was the only word to describe it. A cushy couch with a plaid blanket sat in the middle of the living room flanked by two deep armchairs. A short bookcase was on one wall, containing paperbacks that looked twenty if not forty years old. The kitchen, to the left, wasn't really a separate room, but was part of an L made by the interior of the cottage. There was a small drop leaf table and three chairs in the kitchen, and Tara saw a hallway at the end of the living room that led to the bedroom and bathroom. A few lamps dotted the living room besides the one near the door that was connected to the light switch. The worn wood floors were well-swept and clean.
It's so small, thought Tara, dismayed. How are we going to survive a week together in this tiny place? In earlier days, she would have been delighted by the intimacy that such a setting would afford them, but after the silence in the car for the last hour, the cottage didn't seem cozy - it seemed claustrophobic.
Willow dropped her bags and picked up a note that was on the kitchen table next to a hacksaw.
Dear Tara Maclay,
Willow silently handed the note to Tara, picked up their bags, and carried them into the bedroom.
Tara stood reading the note as she heard Willow in the bedroom unzipping their bags. Though the cottage was indeed warm and toasty, she felt frozen, like the warmth enveloped her clothes and skin but didn't penetrate inside of her, to her heart.
She thought about going into the bedroom to make some conciliatory gesture - to help Willow unpack the bags, offer to rub her feet after the long drive, even just a small kiss on her shoulder, but something held her back. Resentment over their late departure, the objectionable music, Willow's snapping at her in the car, all of the annoyances seemed to settle in the pit of her stomach and she felt her jaw set. Why am I always the one who has to apologize or make the first move?
Willow removed the last of their clothes from the bags and closed the dresser drawers. She had unpacked all of their belongings, and Tara hadn't come into the bedroom to offer a hand, or even to sit on the bed and talk to her. Willow wasn't particularly surprised, but she did feel a certain amount of pique. It's not like this fight was all my fault. I had to go into the lab, but just mention science to Tara these days and she practically flips out.
She sighed. Rather than endure the uncomfortable silence that permeated the cottage, she decided to try to kill two birds with one stone. She walked into the living room, where Tara sat on the couch wrapped in an afghan, flipping through one of the ancient paperbacks.
"I'm going to drive into town and get some groceries," Willow announced.
"Fine," said Tara, not looking up.
"Okay," said Willow. "Be back soon." Though it had been her plan to give Tara some space to decompress, as well as trying to score points - no, just to do her a favor - by offering to do the shopping, she found herself mildly irritated that Tara didn't offer to come along. She scooped up the car keys and banged her way out of the cottage.
On the couch, Tara tossed aside the paperback she had been pretending to read and pulled the afghan closer around her shoulders. She was mildly stung that Willow hadn't asked her to come along. Clearly the redhead was tired of her company after spending six tense hours in a car together.
Willow pulled back into the gravel driveway and cut the engine. She opened the trunk and carefully threaded her hands through the handles of the plastic grocery bags. With her hands filled with four bags each, she used her chin to close the trunk of the car and carefully walked to the cottage's front door, banging on it with her foot.
Tara opened the door to allow Willow to bring in the groceries. "Is that all there is?" she asked in a tone that, while it couldn't be called friendly, was definitely warmer than neutral.
"Yep," Willow replied, unloading the bags onto the kitchen table and rubbing her arms. "That should last us for the week." She began to unload the groceries and to put them away. "I got you soy milk," she said with a tentative smile as she placed it in the fridge, along with regular milk for herself.
"Thanks," Tara replied. She stepped over to help unpack the groceries, but stopped short when she pulled out a bag of salad.
"Why did you get the kind with radicchio?" she asked.
Willow glanced over. "I like it, and we haven't had it in a while."
Tara felt the resentment, which had receded somewhat while Willow was at the grocery store, surge back into the pit of her stomach.
"Well, I don't like it," Tara said, fighting to keep the petulant tone out of her voice but not succeeding. "It's bitter."
Just like you. Willow prudently kept this comment to herself.
"Listen, baby, I forgot that you didn't like it, okay? I'll eat the radicchio, you don't have to eat any of it." Her tone was placating, but hopefully not, she thought, condescending.
"Nevermind," Tara said.
"Seriously, I'm sorry. I didn't realize it would be such a big deal."
"Just forget it. You seem to be good at that." The instant the words were out her mouth, Tara regretted them, but she couldn't unsay them.
Willow's hands stilled, but quickly resumed putting away the groceries, and she began to wad up the plastic bags to store away in a drawer.
Torn between wanting to apologize and feeling righteously indignant, Tara finally elected to go brush her teeth.
Willow waited in the kitchen until she heard the water stop running and the sound of the lamp in the bedroom being switched off. Only then did she go brush her own teeth, change into her pajamas, and slip into bed next to Tara, who seemed to be asleep already - just as she always did lately when Willow got into bed.
Beside her, Tara took measured breaths to feign sleep, or maybe to fight off the tears that wanted to come. She held herself carefully, not wanting to accidentally touch Willow. If she did, she was pretty sure she wouldn't be able to hold back a flood of tears.
Willow felt herself floating in the half-awake stage that precedes full wakefulness. Truth be told, for some reason she felt like she didn't want to wake up. Maybe it was that the air in the bedroom was slightly cold - especially in comparison to the total warmth she felt underneath the sheets and thick down comforter. Or maybe it was the soft, pliable body she was spooning, her right arm wrapped around a yielding middle, her hand tucked under the other person's chin. As she floated toward consciousness, she frowned and shook her head, trying to evade it.
She opened her eyes. Oh, right. We're fighting.
She didn't move immediately, trying to figure out what to do. Usually she woke before Tara, slipping out of bed for an early shower, and was dressed and ready to leave for the lab by the time Tara woke up. On weekends she caught up on some much-needed sleep, and Tara was up and out of bed long before she woke. It hadn't happened much in recent memory that Willow had the opportunity to laze around in bed after waking up, and certainly not after a fight where they had gone to bed angry and without speaking. Willow lay perfectly still, not wanting to break the spell.
Soon an urgent need to use the restroom propelled her out of bed. She eased her arm gently from Tara's grasp, stealing out of bed quietly and trying not to jostle the mattress too much. If I'm quiet enough, maybe I can slip back into bed and hug her again without waking her. She used the restroom, cringing a little at the loud sound when she flushed the toilet.
Her plans appeared to be in vain, though - when she returned, Tara was awake and sitting up. When Willow appeared in the doorway, Tara swung her legs around and got up to use the restroom. Willow stepped aside to let her pass, and sighing quietly, went into the kitchen to start the coffee brewing.
In the bathroom, Tara stared at herself in the mirror. She had been awake for at least a half hour, sleepily pleased to find that Willow had rolled over and spooned her in the night. She had imagined that Willow would wake up slowly, and hug her tighter, and nuzzle her neck like she always used to do when they woke up, and that all the hurtful words and hurt feelings of yesterday would fade away.
But instead Willow had removed her arm and slipped away from her like a thief. Clearly she found something about their position uncomfortable or objectionable. As Tara looked at her reflection, she observed her mussed hair that was sticking up on one side, her plaid pajamas, and the faint lines on her left cheek from lying on the blanket. At first glance, the reflection was of someone who should be happy, content, secure in her life and her relationship. Only a closer look revealed the lines of worry that lined her forehead, the corners of her eyes, and around her mouth. Not for the first time, she wondered - are we going to make it?
In the kitchen, the coffee pot was happily gurgling and butter sizzled in a skillet. Willow looked up as Tara joined her and took a seat at the kitchen table.
"Scrambled or fried?" she asked.
Willow nodded, and cracked an egg on the side of the pan. Catching herself before she tossed it in, she asked "Do you want milk in them?"
Tara shook her head, and Willow carried on. She knew it was silly, but she felt a little hurt that Tara hadn't requested fried eggs. Fried eggs were a favorite - both because they liked them and due to their running joke about "sassy eggs." She tried to let the feeling go as she stirred the eggs. While they cooked, she poured them both a cup of coffee, and delivered the steaming beverage to Tara along with the soy milk from the refrigerator.
Tara silently stirred milk into her coffee. She knew what Willow was doing; it was a familiar pattern with them. When Willow knew she was in the wrong, she did chores and favors instead of apologizing. Making breakfast was her nonverbal way of saying she was sorry for making them late yesterday. Or, she reflected, maybe that was giving Willow too much credit. She might just be hoping to win Tara over with her thoughtfulness.
This line of thought was souring Tara's stomach. Determined not to spoil her breakfast, she pushed the troubling thoughts aside and concentrated on her coffee.
Tara stepped out of the shower, toweling off her hair. She felt new resolve after her shower, determined to talk to Willow and clear the air so they could have a decent chance of enjoying their vacation. She dressed in a leisurely fashion, rehearsing the words she had developed in the shower.
Willow sat on the couch dressed in jeans and a sweater, reading a magazine. She looked up with a smile as Tara joined her.
"What do you want to do today?" she asked.
Tara cleared her throat. "Actually, I'd like to talk before we do anything." She felt her heart rate increase. So strange, that she was feeling nervous initiating a serious conversation with the one person with whom she had always felt most comfortable. Her shyness and stutter had always seemed to magically disappear around Willow, but today she felt almost like a stranger. Or worse than a stranger. Estranged.
Willow put down her magazine, and her expression become serious. "Okay," she replied.
Tara began to speak the first part of the words that she had practiced. "We haven't been getting along very well lately," she said haltingly.
"I'd like to talk about why," Tara said.
Willow nodded again.
Tara bit her lip. "I think you work too much." She hadn't meant to state it so badly, but Willow's silence had flustered her. Although, she thought, it was a typical Willow tactic - try to smooth things over by doing nice things, and retreat when a difficult topic came up. She stared at the redhead, determined not to say any more until Willow contributed to the discussion.
"I'm sorry you feel that way," Willow finally responded.
Tara stared at her. "That's it? You're sorry I feel this way?"
Willow crossed her arms. "You're attacking me. Sorry if I don't feel like defending myself right now."
"What about how much you work?"
Willow sighed in exasperation. "I know I work a lot. That's what the tenure track is like. It's demanding, and long hours. You've known this all along."
Tara couldn't believe what she was hearing "In my wildest nightmares, I did not know that your being an assistant professor would mean that you would work 16 hour days and I'd barely see you at all during the week. Are you serious? Are you happy?"
Willow didn't answer right away. "With my job? Or with us?"
"I don't know. Either. Both."
"I'm not thrilled with the hours I'm keeping. But next semester, when I'm only teaching one class instead of two-"
Tara interrupted her. "Then you'll spend more time in your lab, doing research. Don't even say it, Will."
Willow opened her mouth to deny Tara's accusation, but then closed it. "Well. Maybe, yeah. But this first year is really hard. If I don't produce, then I'll never catch up. And I need your support, Tara. I love you."
Tara wasn't ready to let it go so lightly. "You've got a funny way of showing it."
Stricken, Willow looked at her. "Do you really doubt that I love you?"
Tara was torn. In her heart of hearts, did she doubt that Willow loved her? No. But she also believed that love wasn't just an emotion - it was an action. Time spent together, talking, preparing meals, making love, deep conversation, or even just watching TV together. And Willow was never around.
Finally she responded. "I'm so sick of having the same argument over and over again."
Willow bit her lip. "So am I." And she was also sick of feeling like the bad guy all the time. She felt resentment build - usually she stuffed that feeling down, covered it up with guilt because she knew she worked too much, spent too much time away from Tara. But here it was, making its presence known, telling her Willow, you can't take all the blame for this. You always do, and you don't deserve it. You have a demanding job. What you need is a supportive partner, not a harpy who nags you all the time.
She stood up abruptly. "I'm going for a walk."
Tara was stunned. "You're going for a walk, right in the middle of this discussion?"
Willow donned her coat and pulled on her hat and gloves. "If we keep having this discussion right now, I think we might say things that we both regret."
Without another word she left, letting the screen door slam behind her.
Tara sat on the couch. Part of her was furious with Willow for leaving. Another part of her recognized that what Willow said was true - if they had kept having the discussion, it would have devolved into an argument, and she was pretty sure we would have said things she couldn't take back. And the rest of her felt sad, scared, and alone. The question that had haunted her earlier that morning - are we going to make it? - hit her with such full force she almost felt it as a physical blow. She struggled for breath.
She felt an impulse to get up, run after Willow, beg her to come back, to say she was sorry. But she fought the impulse, knowing that if she took all the blame on herself at this moment, she and Willow would be stuck in the same situation as they were in right now.
Sitting on the couch didn't seem to be a very good idea either. Tara knew that if she didn't get up and get moving, she would sulk, go over the conversation again and again in her head until she worked herself into a self-righteous frenzy, and she would jump on Willow the instant she came through the door.
Finally making a decision, Tara stood up and got her coat. She left the cottage and followed a set of footprints into the forest.
Willow walked across the yard toward the edge where a path led into the pine forest. She had pulled her hat down low over her ears and shoved her gloved hands deep into her coat pockets, but still felt the cold seeping in through her jeans. Her running shoes crunched on the snow, and sounded unnaturally loud to her. But that was probably because it was the only sound she could hear - no far-off whine of traffic, no birds, no wind. And no Tara beside her talking or laughing.
Willow shivered as she walked further into the forest. The path seemed well-trod, probably more so in the summer because she couldn't see any footprints in the snow.
Had she been wrong to walk out? She didn't think so, although it didn't feel good. She had felt her temper growing short, and the combination of guilt and resentment she carried around made for an explosive mix. She knew she worked too much - knew it, without a shadow of a doubt. But what could she do? It was publish or perish at the university. She had been driving herself for so long that it seemed almost automatic now. She could trace her drive back to her parents, who always expected her to be the best. But she couldn't figure out the exact moment in time when she had assimilated their expectations and taken them on as her own.
Building a relationship and a life with Tara over these last several years hadn't always been easy - her graduate work and postdoctoral research had taken time and attention, of course, and in many ways she felt she had less freedom than people who had chosen other career paths. But they had always managed to make it work.
It was the job, Willow thought. She had been unprepared for the sheer volume of work that would hit her - it had felt like the time that she had gone to the beach as a child and raced into the ocean, only to be smacked full in the face with a wave and knocked over into the sand. And then she was dragged on the ocean floor, sputtering for breath and with sand working its way into every crevice of her body. When she had arrived in Michigan and toured her new lab space, her mind had raced with the possibilities. Three months of summer time to do research - she felt confident that she could have a paper written by then.
But before she could do research, she had to order equipment for the lab, and she spent days poring over catalogs from scientific companies, wanting the best brand for everything but with an eye for costs as well. Then she needed to order supplies for the lab - more time with the catalogs. Every time she started to begin an experiment, she would be confronted with a lack of this chemical or the right kind of flask, and would have to order again. Things that were plentiful in her old lab simply didn't exist in this new space. Her colleagues, while helpful and sympathetic, simply didn't have everything that Willow needed, which made borrowing difficult or impossible.
And then there was a technician to hire, which meant posting a job description and wading through all the applications. Not to mention preparing for the classes she would teach in the fall - the university had asked her to teach two courses instead of one, since another professor had unexpectedly left earlier that summer. And then, like a whirlwind, it was almost fall and there were new graduate students to train, the courses to teach, and committees to serve on. Endless committees. Willow felt her shoulders tighten at the thought of it. Really, it had felt like ever since she had arrived in Michigan she, had been knocked down by a wave and dragged out to sea, and had been fighting ever since just to tread water - never mind swimming back to the beach. The job was impossible.
And yet, Willow admitted to herself, that wasn't the whole story. Yes, her job was demanding, and yes, this first year was bound to be harder than any other. But wasn't it true that she kept up a pace that was unrivalled by any other assistant professor? And didn't she do things in her lab that she could have left to her technician, or a graduate student? Yes, both of those things were true. Most of the time she just thought to herself - it will take less time for me to do this than to train someone else to do it. But under the surface, there was an undeniable truth - that she didn't trust anyone else to do it as well as she would.
Lost in the uncomfortable revelations that were surfacing in her mind, Willow didn't hear the footsteps at first until they were almost right behind her. She looked around sharply, startled, but relaxed when she saw that it was Tara, who had caught up to her and fell into step beside her.
Tara looked up and made brief eye contact with Willow, and then focused on the ground in front of them as they continued to walk, now together.
Willow held her breath, wondering if Tara had followed her to resume their earlier argument, but as the moments passed and Tara didn't speak, she relaxed. The silence between them seemed comfortable rather than awkward, as so many of their silences had become.
After the two had walked for a few minutes, Tara finally spoke.
"I thought we could look for a Christmas tree." She indicated the hacksaw, which she had brought along.
Willow nodded. A joint project, a kind of détente, something they could do together while their hurt feelings and raw emotions had a chance to recede a little.
She tried a little joke. "Glad that's why you brought it, and not to kill me."
Tara gave her a sidelong glance, with her mouth slightly quirked. The joke had been all right, then.
They were probably about a half-mile into the forest, and the tallest of the evergreen trees towered above them, blocking out the sun. A carpet of brown needles covered the ground, along with pine cones and a thin layer of snow - whatever had fallen to the ground through the dense layer of branches above. It was noticeably darker in the forest, and the trees seemed to provide insulation from the cold. Maybe that was just in Willow's mind, but it did seem slightly warmer now than it had been in the exposed landscape near the cottage.
There were trees of all sizes and heights - Alberta spruce, Douglas fir, Bristlecone pine, as well as a few species that Willow couldn't identify immediately. Some Scotch pine also, which was non-native to North America, though it could be found in many places, having been imported for landscaping and ornamental purposes. Willow was surprised to see that it had penetrated this deep into the forest. She inhaled deeply, appreciating the pine scent.
Tara had stopped walking and was looking around at the trees. She pointed to a tree that was about fifteen feet high.
"Will, what makes a tree grow that way?"
Willow followed her gaze to a medium-sized pine tree that seemed normal, except that instead of coming to a point at the top, the tree seemed to have two tips now that were growing equally, in kind of a V shape.
"Pine trees grow taller from their tips - the apical meristem, or what's more commonly referred to as 'the candle'," Willow began.
"The candle. I like that," Tara said.
"Yeah, it's a lot more poetical than 'apical meristem.' Anyway, it's embryonic tissue and it's how the tree knows how and where to get longer."
"So why does this one have two?"
"If the candle breaks off before it's finished its growth cycle, then next spring the tree doesn't know where to start - it doesn't remember. So it'll grow in two places, sometimes three."
"What makes the candle break off?" Tara asked. Her face was somber.
"Mostly wind. Violent storms. Sometimes other trees falling on it, that kind of thing," Willow answered. She was aware of Tara's serious and somewhat stricken expression - were they still talking about trees?
"You can't control the wind," Tara said, looking off into the distance.
Willow nodded. "That's true." She crossed her arms and looked down.
"How can the tree protect the candle?"
Willow looked up. "Um, well, we're in a forest, which provides a pretty good windbreak - the trees shelter each other from the worst of most of the storms. So I guess choosing where to grow is part of it."
"A tree can't control where it grows, though."
"Well, no," Willow answered.
"It reminds me of that poem by Robert Frost," Tara said.
"Birches," Tara answered. Willow look at her quizzically.
"You know, the birches are flexible, so they bend in the ice storm but don't break. I guess that, by analogy, the more flexible a pine tree is, the less likely the candle is to break."
Willow nodded. She sensed that Tara was going somewhere with this, and didn't want to interrupt her train of thought.
"I love that poem," Tara continued dreamily, closing her eyes.
"It's when I'm weary of considerations,
Willow felt tears beginning to prick behind her eyelids. She held her breath, not wanting to say anything that would change the moment. If she could have, she would have preserved it in a bottle.
Tara opened her eyes and her gaze met Willow's. They stared at each other for a few moments, and Willow's heart began to pound.
Just as Willow was about to speak, Tara's eyes focused on something behind Willow.
"I think we found our tree. Look!"
Willow turned around. It did seem to be the perfect tree. It was about seven feet high, the perfect height to fit in their cottage. It had a uniform shape, sloping up to a perfect, single tip, and the branches grew thickly and evenly on all sides. The needles were thick and lush, and the tree seemed to exude health and vitality even in the barren winter landscape.
They walked toward the tree, and circled around it, admiring its shape. Willow looked at Tara.
"Think we can carry it all the way back?"
Tara nodded. "It's not that far, and between the both of us I think we'll be okay. It's not that huge." She unclipped the hacksaw from her belt and knelt down by the base of the tree.
Suddenly a commotion ensued as she moved the branches aside, and she dropped the hacksaw and fell back in surprise, landing heavily on her butt.
"What was that?" she said breathlessly as Willow rushed to her side.
Willow put her arm around Tara's shoulders and helped her up. "I'm not sure."
The redhead knelt down where Tara had recently been, and peered cautiously into the dark recesses of the tree.
"Oh," she said softly. "Tara, come look at this."
Tara joined her and looked.
Underneath the tree was a single gray partridge. It shifted on the ground and stood up, resettling itself back onto the shallow scrape of pine needles.
"What kind of bird is it?" Tara asked.
"It's a partridge," Willow said in wonderment.
"She's cute. Why is she on the ground? I thought birds nested in trees."
"Partridges nest on the ground, usually, in brush. I guess this tree is sort of like brush," Willow said. She gently eased the branches of the tree back into place and stood up next to Tara.
Tara reached for Willow's hand. "Well, we definitely can't cut this tree down."
"No," Willow agreed. They stood that way for a moment, leaning against each other.
Willow turned to Tara, her eyes filling with tears. "Tara, baby, I'm sorry," she began.
Tears welled up in Tara's eyes. "Will, you don't have to..."
"No, I want to," Willow said, sniffling. "I've been so scared about...everything - that I'm not going to be good enough - and all I can seem to do when I feel that way is work. And I've been neglecting you - and leaving you alone, and I know you don't like it in Michigan, and I don't know what to do, and I'm so scared, and so I go work some more. I'm afraid that you're going to leave me." With this admission, the dam burst and she began to sob.
Tara gathered Willow into her arms. "Sweetie, sweetie," she said, holding her tightly as the sobs racked Willow's body. Tears streaked down Tara's face as she held the shaking girl.
As Willow's sobs subsided somewhat, Tara disengaged from the embrace and held Willow's face in her hands. "Willow Rosenberg, listen to me. I love you. All I needed to know was that you still love me too. I've been blaming you for my being unhappy, and that's not fair to you."
Fresh tears welled up in Willow's eyes and she attempted to speak, but Tara shushed her.
"Please, if I don't get this out now I'm not sure I'll be able to say it later. I-I haven't made much of an effort since we moved here, and I've been taking it out on you. I'm not saying that I want you to keep working as much as you have been, but I guess...I want to be supportive, like I used to. I just need you to be, I don't know, in this with me. I need us to be in this together."
"I've known that you were unhappy, I just didn't know what to do about it," Willow said. "And I felt guilty that I dragged you all the way out here for my career. Every time I thought about talking to you about it, I got stuck. I just didn't know where to start, and I felt so guilty, and stressed, and I just...I chickened out."
Tara sniffed and blotted at her tears with the back of her glove. "I doubt that I was the most approachable person, especially recently. I'm so sorry."
Willow wiped at her own tears and took a shuddering breath. "What do we do now?"
Tara tenderly kissed at the tears on Willow's cheeks. "I think that we're both probably pretty drained. Why don't we go back? We need to talk about all of this, but let's not try to do it all at once."
Willow gave her a watery smile and nodded her assent. They turned around and began retracing their steps along the path back to the cottage. They held hands gingerly, as if they both thought the other was fragile, and didn't want to break the newfound understanding between them.
As they walked, Tara stole sidelong glances at Willow. Willow's posture seemed different somehow - her shoulders were less slumped than usual, as if a weight had been lifted. It made sense, Tara mused, since it seemed that Willow had been shouldering a heavy burden these last several months. She realized that she hadn't seen Willow smile, or laugh, or be really carefree in the way that she used to back when they first met, and she missed that Willow.
"Will the partridge be okay?" she asked.
Willow nodded. "They're hardy. She'll be fine."
The rest of the walk back was in silence, but not an uncomfortable one. The forest brightened up as they reached the edge of the woods and more sunlight filtered in through the thinning branches.
They walked out into the yard, and regarded their cottage.
"Well, I guess we won't have a Christmas tree this year," Willow said.
"Not necessarily," Tara said. "Just because we didn't cut one down doesn't mean we can't have one."
Willow looked at her. "How's that?"
Tara unclipped the hacksaw from her belt and laid it on the porch, then knelt down and gathered up a large handful of snow. It was going on mid-afternoon, and the sun had made the snow slightly tacky. She rolled the snow around, growing a snowball.
Willow caught on, and with a grin she scooped together her own handful of snow. Soon the women had two medium-sized balls of snow between them.
"Okay, give me a hand with this one," Tara said. They knelt down together to lift one of the snowballs. Willow frowned in concentration as they placed the one on top of the other, and Tara found herself visually tracing the delicate line of Willow's cheek and jaw, and how her red hair fell in soft waves around her face. It felt almost like she was seeing her for the first time.
"Are we making a snowman?" Willow asked.
"Not quite," Tara answered. She brushed some snow off the top snowball, shaping it to a point, and added more snow to the bottom. After a few minutes of fussing, she stepped back and critically viewed her efforts.
"Oh, baby!" Willow said. "You built us a snow tree."
"Yeah," said Tara. "Let's decorate it."
Some fallen pine cones made handy ornaments, and as a finishing touch, Tara knelt at the base of the tree, shaping a small pile of snow. She cast about for some small stones and pine needles and added them to her creation. As she worked, Willow stood by and watched. She loved the way that Tara bit her lower lip in concentration when she was immersed in a project, and realized how long it had been since she had observed her lover thoroughly enjoying herself.
"Aw, a little partridge," Willow said. She put her arms around Tara.
Tara encircled Willow with her arms, and mischievously touched the redhead's neck with her still-wet and snowy gloves.
"Hey!" Willow cried, twisting away. "Ooh, that was not nice," she said, wiping at her neck. "You're going to regret that," she said, bending over to gather a handful of snow.
Tara chortled. "You'll have to catch me first," she said, backing up several steps.
Willow let her snowball fly, which Tara easily dodged.
"All that time in the lab hasn't helped your throwing arm much," Tara taunted.
Willow laughed and packed another snowball. "Maybe not, but my aim is pretty good." She feinted a throw, and when Tara moved, she threw her second snowball, nailing the blonde in the chest.
"Beginner's luck!" Tara said, brushing off her jacket. "Actually, let's cut out the middleman here." She ran directly toward Willow, tackling the girl, who let out a surprised "Oof."
They tumbled gently to the snow, Tara on top, both intent on stuffing a handful of snow down the other's neck. Tara held the other girl's arms down, but couldn't then maneuver her own arms close to Willow's neck.
"I'm bigger than you," Tara said. "I'll wear you down eventually."
"Yeah, but I'm wiry," Willow responded, digging her right heel into the snow and flipping them suddenly so Tara was on her back.
Willow gazed down at Tara, suddenly forgetting their snow fight. It had been a while since they had been in such an intimate position. Tara looked back, her eyes dilating.
Willow's heart began to throb almost painfully with the intensity of her feelings. Slowly, she lowered her lips to Tara's. Their kiss was gentle, but gradually built in intensity as Tara parted her lips to accept Willow's seeking tongue.
As they broke the kiss, both women opened their eyes. Tara cleared her throat and said unsteadily, "Maybe we should go inside."
Willow nodded. "How about some hot chocolate?" she said as she raised herself up. She extended a hand and helped her up, brushing off the snow from the back of Tara's coat.
"That sounds good."
They opened the door of the cottage and took off their wet boots and coats, hanging them to dry. After so long outside in the cold, the cottage seemed almost too warm.
Willow walked into the kitchen area and opened the cabinet doors, looking for the kettle. "Hmmm, we might have to use a saucepan," she commented.
Tara leaned against the door as she watched Willow bend over, searching through the cabinets. It had been so long since she had been able to look at Willow without resentment or anger clouding her view. It seemed that she was again able to appreciate just how attractive her partner was - her slim hips and compact bottom were presenting a very inviting package. She walked up behind Willow and put her arms around the girl. Her voice husky, she said "Why don't you forget about the hot chocolate."
Willow circled in Tara's embrace and regarded her lover. Tara's cheeks were flushed, from more than coming in from the cold. Willow's heartbeat sped up - it had been quite a while since they had been intimate together, but the signals weren't hard to read, and Tara's intent was clear. In that moment it hit Willow almost full force how much she had missed her partner, and how much she truly loved her. She felt her knees go weak with the strength of her feelings.
Their mouths joined in a fierce kiss. Willow felt a surge of passion that began in the pit of her stomach and radiated outward to her breasts, her nipples, and between her legs. She claimed Tara's mouth, seeking the other girl's tongue with her own. Her hands roamed everywhere over the blonde's body, caressing her back, her breasts, her stomach. She wanted to touch everything at once, and was unable to spend very long in any one place.
Tara felt her own rising urgency, and returned Willow's kisses and caresses with ones that were equal if not greater in intensity. Their clothes seemed to be an unnecessary hindrance, and she began to tug at Willow's sweater. Frustrated by the awkwardness, they broke apart momentarily and swiftly removed their own sweaters and t-shirts, tossing aside their bras on the kitchen floor.
Willow reached for Tara's pants and undid the button, pulling the zipper down and yanking the pants off over Tara's hips. Tara finished taking them off and left them in a heap on the floor. She removed her panties in one motion while Willow fumbled with her own pants, desperate to remove the last clothing that separated their bodies.
They joined back into another fierce kiss, and Tara began to lead Willow into the bedroom. Willow's pants were still around one ankle and dragged behind her, almost tripping her as they passed the couch. Impatiently, Willow kicked at her pants and stumbled the last few steps onto their bed.
She ended up on top of Tara and sought the other girl's mouth again. Tara clasped Willow to her desperately as Willow kissed down her neck, her hands roaming all over the redhead's back and cupping her bottom.
The love between them had lain dormant, smothered by bad feelings, and now with a path cleared through the pain and hurt feelings the flames of their passion flared up again. Denied so long, it was an almost irresistible force that drove the women at a frenzied pace. Their hands were everywhere, cupping breasts, stroking nipples, and kissing each other's necks and shoulders with abandon.
Tara moaned into Willow's neck, wanting more contact. Understanding the unspoken imperative, Willow rolled over onto her side, sliding her fingers in between Tara's legs and without prelude, into Tara's slick center. Tara groaned, and sought Willow's entrance with her own fingers.
Ensconced in each other, they moaned into each other's mouths as they rocked back and forth. Willow settled into a rhythm with Tara, thrusting deeply as she felt the other girl tremble. Wanting to taste her lover, wanting everything at once, she nimbly extricated herself from the embrace and scooted down to the foot of the bed.
She covered Tara's sex with her mouth and lovingly licked her folds, quickly finding the clitoris with her tongue and beginning a steady rhythm that she matched with gentle thrusts of her fingers. Tara arched her back and moaned, and a few more moments of gentle licks from Willow brought her to the edge, and then to a shuddering climax. She threw her head back and cried out her release.
Breathless, she reached down and clasped Willow's head between her hands. She sat up and drew the redhead to her, kissing her deeply, tasting herself on Willow's lips and tongue. Willow returned the kiss deeply and straddled Tara's lap, wrapping her arms around the other girl. Tara sought Willow's sex again with her fingers, and Willow gasped as she entered her. Willow rode Tara's hand, not breaking the kiss, thrusting her hips in increasing urgency as her breath came in ragged gasps, until she also felt herself sailing over the brink. As she came, she dug her fingers into Tara's back and buried her face in Tara's neck.
They collapsed onto the sheets, Willow cradled in Tara's arms, seeking the warmth of her embrace. They were slightly sweaty from their frenzied coupling, and Tara pulled up the sheets and blankets before the cold could reassert itself. Their breath still came in gasps and only gradually did their breathing slow down to a more normal pace.
"I love you, baby," Willow said, muffled into Tara's neck.
Tara shivered from the sheer bliss of holding Willow in her arms after such a long time. "I love you too," she whispered. They clung to each other, still trembling from their climaxes, and the pent-up emotion that had finally been released.
"I know that this doesn't make everything all better. We definitely have more to talk about."
Tara kissed Willow's forehead. "You're right; we do." She stroked the redhead's back. "A lot to work on."
Willow raised herself up on an elbow to regard the blonde. "I'm willing to do it. You're the most important thing in my life." She caressed Tara's cheek with her fingertips.
Tara didn't think it was possible for her to cry anymore, but she felt tears welling up nonetheless. "Willow, I love you," she said again.
"Me too, baby, so much."
They kissed again, this time more languidly, taking their time as they felt the rekindled passion between them building up again into a slow burn that was likely to last all night.
Outside, a partridge hopped into the yard, rooting for the food that was hidden beneath the layer of snow. The wind picked up and a light snow began to fall, but the partridge was unalarmed and simply carried on about its business. Inside, the two women snuggled closer, more secure and warmer than they had been for a long time.