Red's Service Station sat just off the two-lane highway officially called State Route 68, but more commonly referred to as 'the road to nowhere.' The station wasn't much to look at. Seventy-odd years had taken its toll on the squat wooden building. The slant roof over the garage slumped in the middle, while the gutter along the west rim was precariously attached with bent coat hangers. The front wall, facing the highway, was recently painted a gleaming white, but the dull gray paint on the rest of the building was chipped and peeling. A tattered piece of cardboard duct-taped to one of the two gas pumps read 'out of order' in faded black marker. Even with the friendly 'Yes, we're open!' sign in the front window, some passersby invariably assumed the station was abandoned.
Red's was one of a handful of business left in what had once been a thriving town, before The Depression and The War lured most of the residents to the coast with promises of steady jobs and cheap housing. Those few that remained either worked from home or commuted long distances, the latter often grumbling about packing up and leaving for good. Red's grandpappy had built that station, though, and Red was in no hurry to go anywhere else. In recent months, several newcomers had bought property in the area, far away from the pollution and traffic of the cities. And despite the highway's unfortunate nickname, there was always enough business to keep Red's going.
A hand painted metal sign hanging from a rusty pole swung lazily in the breeze, one side cheerfully proclaiming: 'Last gas before Sunnydale...fill your tank for less!' while the other ominously warned 'Last gas 'til Canada (so far as Red knows)...why take chances?' On the outskirts of the desert, with the mountains looming far off in the distance, the latter statement did not seem too far-fetched to many a weary traveler. Skiers en route to the mountains and lost tourists made up the bulk of business, but they'd invariably stop for a fill-up and a coffee. Sometimes just the coffee...Red had a strict 'customers only' policy for the bathroom, and at 25 cents a cup, well...on some days Red had to make several fresh pots.
Today was not one of those days.
Tara walked around the side of the building, fidgeting with the bandana draped across the back of her neck. The record-breaking heat and stifling humidity had set her head pounding, and she flinched at the loud slam of the bathroom door behind her. The cool cloth brought some relief as she shuffled toward the shady side of a red pickup truck parked adjacent to the gas pumps. Her hiking boots kicked up small clouds of dust, the itchy particles sticking to her bare, sweaty legs, but she felt too lethargic to pick up her feet.
Tara let her hand graze lazily over the right front fender, the smooth metal hot under her fingertips, but not uncomfortably so. She sat down on the narrow running board and gently rested her throbbing head against the door panel, stretching her legs out in front of her and closing her eyes. Tuning out the occasional clang of metal and whir of a pneumatic wrench coming from the garage, Tara focused on the twittering of a pair of birds, their voices seeming to converse in the stillness of the waning morning. Five minutes of meditation in the gentle breeze eased her aching head, and she slowly let her eyelids flutter open, her gaze drifting through the spotless picture window to the station's office, where she spied a pair of green eyes watching her intently.
Willow's fingers paused over the keyboard as the blonde came into view. Expecting her to approach the office, Willow frowned slightly when the woman instead walked over to the pickup parked out front, sat down, and closed her eyes. Willow sighed and returned to her work, but after several minutes her curiosity got the better of her, and she peered out the window.
She could practically see the tension melting off the woman's face. Willow let her gaze wander down the long neck and bare shoulders, her work momentarily forgotten as she lingered over the swell of the shapely chest well displayed by a snug white tank top. Willow's eyes clouded as they surveyed the expanse of long legs stretching out from faded cut-off jeans, and started back up again, only to find sparkling blue eyes looking back at her.
Startled and embarrassed to be caught ogling, Willow jerked her head down and tried to appear to be studying the monitor in front of her. Laughing self-consciously at the absurdity of her behavior, she cast a sidelong glance back out the window, and her jaw dropped.
The blonde's eyes were again closed and her face was the picture of euphoria as she stretched her arms above her head, her back arching with the motion. Her breasts strained against the material of her tank top, which rose up to offer a tantalizing sliver of tanned stomach. All subterfuge abandoned, Willow stared openly and unconsciously stroked her fingertips over the keyboard. The ancient air conditioner hummed loudly behind her, blasting cold air across her back but doing nothing to stop the flush permeating her skin. Willow licked her dry lips when the woman stood and began walking toward the office. Quickly wiping her sweaty palms on the bib of her overalls, she leaned back in her chair.
Tara watched with pleasure as the woman's gaze paused on her chest, and smirked outright when the green eyes met hers and hastily looked away. She linked her fingers and raised her arms leisurely, deliberately arching her back into the stretch. The bandana slid off her neck and a delicious shiver raced down her spine as the breeze kissed her wet skin. When she looked through the window again, she saw that her action had achieved the desired result, and she rose from her perch.
A blast of cold air greeted her entrance into the small office, raising goose bumps over her exposed arms and legs and hardening her nipples-perceptibly, to gauge the redhead's reaction.
"Nice rack," the woman murmured.
"What was that?" Tara asked, approaching the counter and laying her forearms on the worn Formica, the pose bending her over just enough to allow her shirt's neckline to sag a little. Enormous green eyes snapped up from the view of her cleavage.
"I said, uh, nice truck!"
The redhead gestured out the window. Tara swiveled her hips and contemplated the vehicle for a moment. The 1949 Chevy was in pristine condition, its cheerful bright red curves standing out in stark contrast to the muted tan and gray lines of the landscape. Tara had fallen in love with the truck the first time she'd laid eyes on it.
"It's broken," she stated with a touch of sadness.
"Well, good thing this is a garage," the redhead answered brightly.
"Mmhm," Tara replied. She wrenched her gaze away from the window and raised an eyebrow at the woman. "So you must be Red?"
Willow nearly fell off her chair at the question. There was no mistaking the blatantly flirtatious tone of the grinning blonde, and after collecting herself, Willow smiled back and pointed at her hair in silent answer.
"You can call me Willow, Miss, uhh-"
"Tara. So what seems to be the problem?"
Tara pursed her lips and frowned, clasping her hands together on the countertop.
"I think it's the engine. It just won't turn over. It's almost like...like it's stuttering."
"Stuttering? Hmm...stuttering is usually indicative of a block in the system."
"I thought it might be," Tara agreed. "I tried gunning it to force-"
"That won't work with every engine," Willow interrupted. "I find that a gentle touch works better. Starting slow, letting it warm up a little before easing it higher. Maybe that would work for you?"
"Maybe," Tara enthused, her voice thick and low. "I can feel it struggling, like it wants so badly to break loose...it rumbles like crazy and it's soo close, but I just can't seem to get it to...purr."
Willow swallowed hard. Her hands felt clammy and her heart thumped wildly in her heaving chest.
"Can you help me...get it going?" Tara's eyes dipped coquettishly. She looked up through her lashes and winked.
Is she suggesting-she can't possibly mean-
"Uhh...on second thought, maybe it's just overheated, and if you wait a while it'll cool off."
"I don't think that's going to happen," Tara murmured, her eyes locked on Willow's. "In this atmosphere I think it's only going to get hotter."
"Hotter?" Willow mumbled, suddenly fascinated by the tiny beads of sweat at the base of Tara's throat. She felt moments away from pinning the blonde against the counter and licking them off one by one.
"Mmhm. I think I'm going to need-"
"Parts!" Willow squeaked, spinning around and grabbing a stack of flat boxes from one of the shelves on the wall. "Auto parts, 'cause this is an auto parts, garagey, car fixing place!" She dropped them in a heap on the counter and beamed at Tara, who shook her head and chuckled.
Way to go, Tara, you blew it, the blonde chastised herself. Noticing the conflicted dismay on Willow's face, she forced down her own disappointment and picked up one of the boxes, which were labeled 'Gold Brand Piston Rings.' Her nose crinkled in amusement at the logo: a naked woman with long, flowing hair, wings, gold tinted skin and-a tail?! Tara snorted. Someone's got a quirky imagination.
Tara set the box down and regarded Willow, who grimaced apologetically.
"Are you sure about this?" Tara asked. "Maybe I just need to be jumped."
Willow's eyes darted to the door marked 'Garage' and back to Tara. She shook her head rapidly. "I don't think a jump would be a good idea."
"Well, you're the expert," Tara sighed heavily. "How much are these, anyway?"
Willow picked up a box and squinted at the faded label.
"Um...$5000. And you'll need uh...four of them."
"$5000?! Each?!" Tara guffawed, snatching the box out of the redhead's hand. She inspected the label and rolled her eyes. "That's $50...you missed the decimal."
"Oh. Well, what is a decimal, anyway? Just a place marker for a number...a-a lazy, good-for-nothing number that isn't doing its job!" Willow nodded her head sharply, seemingly pleased with her argument. Tara narrowed her eyes and stepped around the counter, backing a squirming Willow up to the wall.
"You know what I think? I think you're trying to take advantage of me. Maybe I should take my business elsewhere."
"What? No! It was a mistake! No advantage taking! And look!" Willow pointed to the 'Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back' sign on the counter.
Tara tilted her head from the sign to Willow, and took another step forward, humming with delight when her bare thighs pressed against Willow's denim-clad legs.
"Satisfaction guaranteed, huh? I'll take that offer."
Willow had no time to respond before Tara's mouth covered her own and firm hands gripped her hips, drawing their bodies together. Startled by the bold maneuver, Willow melted into the kiss, relishing Tara's dominance for breathless minutes before raising her own arms. Her hands slipped under Tara's tank top, fingertips gliding over the smooth muscles and tickling the soft skin of her lower back. Willow let her fingers dip down the back of Tara's shorts and smirked in satisfaction when the blonde growled and thrust her tongue into Willow's willing mouth.
Both women's eyes snapped open at the creak of door hinges, and they jumped apart, blushing furiously and looking everywhere but at each other. Willow hopped back onto her chair and began typing frantically on the keyboard. Tara scooted around the counter, bumping into a potted cactus plant decorated with silver tinsel, and smiled bashfully as the door from the garage swung fully open.
"Hi, Mr. Morris." Tara waved at the elderly man, who peered over his thick glasses and smiled.
"Feeling better, Tara?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Good, good," he replied, wiping his oil covered hands on a rag and stuffing it into the back pocket of his coveralls. He smoothed down an unruly shock of white hair, still tinged with flecks of auburn, and made his way to the counter. "But I told you to call me Red...'Mr. Morris' makes me feel old."
"Yes, sir," Tara nodded.
Red chuckled, knowing full well the young woman would never be able to bring herself to call him Red, and appreciating her manners despite his teasing.
"How're things coming along, Willow? Can I declare bankruptcy yet?"
"Red!" Willow laughed, offering the man a freshly printed spreadsheet that he waved aside. Willow slid it into a labeled envelope and propped it against the computer. "You're actually doing very well, but you really need to be better about entering your invoices...like I showed you? There were bills you hadn't logged in since the last time we were here...in July."
"Has it been that long? Five months, already?" Red scratched his head and leveled a stern glance at Willow. "I guess that explains all the gunk in your oil filter."
"That'll teach you to lecture your elders, young lady," the old man laughed, retrieving several boxes from the shelf. "I trust I'll see you two more often when we're neighbors."
"Yes, sir," Tara confirmed, trying not to think about how much they still had to do before the movers arrived in two weeks to bring them to their newly renovated farmhouse. As daunting as it was, she couldn't wait to get started converting the small barn into a workroom, her budding business having long outgrown the spare room in their Sunnydale apartment.
She'd started the venture as way to focus her energy and pass the time during her and Willow's separation. Anya was the one to suggest she market her hand made candles and soaps, and even offered to help-for a small percentage, of course. Tara had respectfully declined, but Anya had insisted on stocking the Wiccan goods, and to Tara's surprise, they'd sold.
She would have been content with the limited business, but after the Geek Trio blew up The Magic Box-and themselves-Tara figured entrepreneurship just wasn't in the cards. Following her reconciliation with Willow she didn't have the time, anyway. It wasn't until after they'd graduated and Tara was job-hunting with little success that Willow suggested Tara give it another shot.
Sunnydale's co-ops, gift shops and feminist bookstore had provided ample outlet for her products, but now that they were moving to the country, she'd be doing a lot more mail order business. Thanks to Willow she not only had a website up and running, she also had a full stock of labels for her 'Witchy Wicks' candles and 'Sacred Scented Soaps.' The one thing she did not have was a vehicle large enough to carry her stock for shipping or transport to area craft fairs. Willow's Toyota Prius just wouldn't cut it.
"Mr. Morris?" Tara asked timidly, and Red paused in the doorway to the garage. "I, um, I noticed the For Sale sign wasn't on the truck...," her soft voice trailed off.
Red nodded and cringed at the forlorn expression on Tara's face. "Had a buyer call last month. Been getting it ready ever since."
"You got it running?" Tara's eyes lit up, excitement momentarily surpassing her sadness at the thought of never seeing the antique car again. "That's wonderful, sir."
"Yes, well," Red waved off the attention and held up the oil filter. "I'll just pop this in so you can get on the road. Don't want to keep Sunrise waiting."
Tara laughed at the oft-made joke. It was on the first of many subsequent trips transporting Dawn to or from Arizona State University that they had met Red. The old man had provided them with directions, coffee, and a fair amount of amusement.
"Muffy? Sander? Anyanka? Don't any of you kids have normal names?"
Tara gazed out the window at the truck she'd first seen that day. A new or slightly used vehicle would have been more practical, but the Chevy was the spitting image of the one her grandfather had owned, and it conjured long forgotten memories of summers spent at his farm, away from her father and brother. Her mother had taught her horseback riding there, and when she was older, had taught her to drive with that truck.
Tara sighed, leaning back into Willow's arms when her girlfriend embraced her.
"You okay, baby?" Willow whispered, kissing Tara's shoulder.
"Yeah," Tara replied, absentmindedly stroking Willow's forearm. "I'll just miss it. I thought someday, maybe..."
"We could buy it?"
Willow lifted a hand to Tara's cheek and gently turned her head, guiding their lips together in a tender kiss. Tara turned in Willow's arms, wrapping her lover in a tight hug and burying her face in Willow's neck.
"You know," Willow said, her voice softly lilting, "I was going to wait til tomorrow to give it to you, but I want you to have your Christmas present now."
Tara giggled, her lips buzzing against Willow's skin. Despite the fact that she was raised Jewish and now observed the Wiccan holidays, Willow persisted in calling their December gifts 'Christmas' presents.
"Are you sure, Sweetie? Christmas is still eight days away."
"Pfft...official days be damned! I think you deserve it now."
"Really?" Tara said, kissing her way up Willow's neck to her ear. "Have I been that good this year?"
"Ohhhhh, yes," Willow moaned.
Tara planted a quick kiss on Willow's cheek and hopped back, much to her lover's dismay.
"Where's my present?" Tara asked gleefully.
Willow crossed her arms and rolled her eyes, grinning all the time.
"Nuh-uh. You have to find it...but I'll give you a hint!" the redhead quickly added, dispelling Tara's pout. "It's somewhere on my person."
Tara's right eyebrow arched dangerously and her lips curled up on one side. She took a step toward Willow, who gulped audibly. Tara threaded her fingers through Willow's hair and pulled her into a kiss, which went on uninterrupted while Tara's hands spread over her lover's neck and shoulders, down her spine, and slipped into her back pockets, where they kneaded Willow's bottom for several minutes before retreating with a playful pat.
Tara stepped back and raised a hand to her lips, sucking the edge of her index finger thoughtfully while her eyes pored over Willow's body. Willow was literally bouncing with energy, fueled by the dual excitement of having a secret and Tara's ravenous expression.
"Not in the back pockets," Tara muttered, walking slowly around Willow until she stood behind her, one arm wrapped around the slim waist. "Where could it be?"
Willow's only response was a groan as Tara reached over her shoulder and stuck a hand down the bib pocket of her overalls, pushing it to one side to tease a nipple with the rough fabric. All too soon the hand retreated from the empty pouch and joined its twin at Willow's hips. In tandem they plunged into Willow's front pockets, pulling the redhead back into Tara's body.
Tara smiled into the back of Willow's neck as the fingers of her left hand touched something solid. She licked the sensitive skin and withdrew her hands, allowing Willow to turn and kiss her deeply before looking down at her present.
"Willow?" Tara's voice was little more than a whisper. A gold key ring lay in her shaking palm. Attached to it was a small plate, inscribed with the initials 'W' and 'T,' separated by a big red heart.
A single key dangled from the ring.
"We can't take it now, cause I don't think Dawnie would appreciate riding in the back, but we'll pick it up tomorrow on the way home, okay? Dawn can drive the Prius to Buffy's."
Tara raised watering eyes to Willow's. The redhead nodded to the window, and Tara followed her gaze, her head spinning and her heart fluttering at the sight of her truck. She turned back to Willow, whose smile seemed to stretch the length of her face, and the dizzy feeling increased tenfold. Throwing her arms around Willow's neck, she kissed her with boundless enthusiasm, passion, and love.
"Thank you," she sighed into Willow's lips.
Willow returned the kiss with reverence.
"Merry Christmas, baby."