Almost a week passed before they finally sat down for The Talk. A painful, angst-filled week that dragged on, exasperated by Ira's brief return into town and his well-meaning but ill-timed attempt to socialize with his daughter and his "temporary" daughter, as he insisted on calling Tara.
He took the girls out to a noisy Mexican restaurant and they talked about school, careers and his lesson learnt on investing money. He appeared not to notice the tension between Willow and Tara, who were monosyllabic and barely present. Willow wondered if he really was that ignorant or that he was extremely sensitive. She doubted it was the latter though.
They had an uncomfortable dinner and Ira flew out the next morning for another meeting. They returned to studiously avoiding each other at home, both opting to hide and eat in their rooms. After lunch as Tara walked past Willow's room she paused. After a short internal debate she took a deep breath and knocked timidly at the door. Though they hardly ever locked their bedroom doors, she stayed outside in the hallway till Willow finally opened the door a crack.
Tara stood immobile, not quite able to look at Willow. "Are you free?" she asked hesitantly.
"Depends," Willow replied bluntly.
"I-, are you free to talk?" Tara asked, pained at Willow's cool response.
"Okay. Now you want to talk," Willow continued caustically. "Well, may be I'm not, I'm in the middle of something." She made motions to step back into her room.
"Will, I know you're mad, please hear me out, please," Tara pleaded.
Willow looked away for a moment, then her posture softened and she released the breath she was holding. "Let's go downstairs."
With that, she closed her door and headed downstairs. Tara followed meekly, feeling her brief flash of courage fast disappearing.
Once downstairs they sat stiffly on opposite sides of the dining table, Willow quietly waiting for the inevitable and Tara trying to find the right words.
Her eyes focused at an invisible spot on the table, she swallowed. "I don't really know how to start."
"Am I that repulsive?" Willow's question came before she could articulate her thoughts.
"Of course not!" Tara's response was louder than she intended, but no less impassioned.
"Then why do I feel like there's something so wrong with me that my best friend doesn't want to talk to me or to be in the same room?" Willow demanded.
"Oh, no, no, no, Willow, that's not it, I'm sorry. I never meant to make you feel worthless," Tara stumbled through her apology. If it were possible, she shrank even more into her seat.
"I know that, Tara, but it hurts so much. I never realized how much it could hurt. There's a big empty space, I want to tell you everything I feel and see but you're not around. You're physically at the house but you're not with me. And it hurts like hell," Willow sobbed.
"I'm so afraid I'm going to hurt you again," Tara said, her voice hardly audible.
Willow looked up through her teary eyes. No, please don't let it be that.
"You're breaking up with me, right? Well, not break up, break up, cos we're not together. But you know what I mean," she said bitterly.
Tara said nothing at first, a bit taken aback at Willow's outburst. "Willow, listen to me. This is not the right time for us to be together, you're starting college and I'm still looking for a job. There's too much going on that needs our full attention, it's just ..." she trailed off.
Willow raised her hand in protestation. "But we're stronger together, we've always known that, we can get through anything."
Tara shook her head. "I don't think it works that way, it's not like doing homework or researching for a science project." She took a resolving breath and looked directly at Willow. "I can't, not now, I'm not ready. All I can offer you is my friendship, the same friendship we've shared since my first day at Sunnydale High. I'm sorry I've been distant lately, I promise I'll make it up to you, if you still want, you know, want to be friends?"
"I never thought we'd stop being friends," Willow said pointedly.
"I'm sorry, I don't know how many sorries I have to say to you but it's a lot. Are you mad?" Tara asked softly.
"I don't know what I'm feeling right now. I was hoping for something, I don't know what," Willow sighed. "But if friends is what you want, I'll deal." She shrugged and her lips pursed together in a rather resigned manner.
"I don't want to be the bad guy here, but I can't give you more. I wish I could but I don't want to pretend and promise something I can't deliver and then I'll just disappoint you," Tara silently pleaded that her friend (could she still call Willow her friend?) to understand, tears were flowing freely down her cheeks now and she wiped them away on her sleeve.
Willow stiffened a little. "I said I'll deal, Tara, and I will. We'll be friends, like we've always been. But can we not start till the morning? Can you allow me just this one night, to lock myself up and cry for what we could have had, and now it's gone forever? In the morning, we'll go back to normal, okay? Okay?" she begged.
Tara was openly sobbing now, but it was her fault, so she was in no position to offer comfort to the upset redhead. She could only watch forlornly as her lost love pulled her chair back with force and disappeared upstairs into her room. Her own turbulent emotions were barely under control.
Tara found a job as a clerk at a law firm, a small local outfit that boasted the Mayor of Sunnydale as its clients, amongst others. It also claimed affiliation with a larger firm with branches in LA, New York, Cleveland, Atlanta and Boston.
"Mostly it's photocopying, hole punching and making up files for the attorneys, mind-numbing menial tasks like that, it's really bottom of the pile crap, but it's a start. It all faded into insignificance of course, as soon as I held my first paycheck in my hands," Tara smiled.
It was Saturday morning, they were meeting for brunch, part of the 'we'll always be friends' effort. Somehow spending time with Willow wasn't as easy or as spontaneous as before, naturally Tara knew what the elephant in the room was, but there wasn't a lot she could do, apart from trying to behave like nothing had happened at the Prom.
"At least the people are treating you fine," Willow said.
"Yeah, but I already have advice on who to avoid, who's a bitch and who has grabby hands and roaming eyes," Tara added.
"Really, that's nice," Willow answered distractedly.
Tara frowned. Before, comments like that would evoke a vehement tirade from the redhead about people who didn't have integrity, and who treated women as objects of desire. At least it would have earned a babble about how Tara had to be careful and wear clothing with high collars to stay away from prying eyes. She signed inwardly as she realized how much she missed the impassioned side of Willow.
They returned to their food, eating silently, all conversational threads seemed to have vanished.
A few paychecks later, Tara told Willow she had found an apartment. A small studio, more like a broom closet, going for a song because the owner's husband had just been sent to jail and they were desperate for income. Tara used her law firm connections to make sure she was not disadvantaged by the deal.
Willow dutifully helped her move, though she said very little during the drive and made an excuse to go home after only a cursory tour round the premises.
Tara slumped down on the hard wooden floor, in the midst of her disarray of boxes, feeling the walls close in, and cried the tears of the lonely.
After she moved out, she hardly saw Willow. There was a big case that involved more paperwork than she had ever seen and it was her job to make sure the files were updated everyday. She also had a little apartment to outfit and it was all she did weekends. She invited Willow on homeware shopping trips, but more often than not, the redhead declined.
She heard from Buffy that Willow had increased her courseload and was enrolled in 3 majors already. The most they did seemed to be exchanging emails and occasional SMS's, but that was it.
After about 4 months, she finally got a little break at work and was relieved to get out of the photocopying room. She also began to catch the eye of certain higher echelons at the law firm, as well as certain clients.
She knew she had to pull off something special to advance in the ugly, cut-throat path of real life.