Willow woke with a start and a stiff neck. She had fallen asleep at her desk, sprawled over her laptop, again.
She rubbed her eyes, tried to relieve the pain in her shoulders by stretching her arms out, and checked her work had been saved properly.
Noted by the darkness outside that it was still late, or early, depending on how one defined the day.
She glanced over at where her roommate should be, and noted the unmade bed. Buffy was at Riley's again. A pang of regret passed through her, at her own missed chances (well, it was just the one), swiftly replaced by rapid self-admonishment. She was happy that her friend had at last gotten over a string of bad relationships - Angel, Scott and Parker, and seemed to have found happiness with the most wholesome farmboy she had ever met.
She took a long drink of water to clear her furry mouth, then continued to work on her program. School work was the only thing that mattered to her nowadays, she had ambitions to finish with 4.0 GPAs in at least 3 majors in less than 4 years. It was achievable, if she didn't get distracted. She would not allow herself to be distracted.
She was still tapping away when Buffy returned just as sunlight started to filter through the drapes, post-coitial glow all to evident by the ear-to-ear grin and jaunty skip.
"Okay, Will, don't tell me you've been like this all night, that's how I left you 12 hours ago and this is how I find you. Did you get any sleep?" a Buffy-sized grilling was underway.
"I nodded off for a while," Willow mumbled sleepily.
"Did you actually get out of your seat or you just ended up face down on your desk?" Buffy pursued.
Willow shrugged non-commitally, watching as Buffy gathered clothing and toiletries for a shower.
Buffy looked at her friend sadly, trying to figure out why she was so miserable, and decided to continue her probing after her shower, when she would physically drag the tired redhead to the cafeteria.
She was finishing off her hash browns with gusto, and noted that Willow hardly touched her plate.
"Hey Wills, me and Riley and a bunch of the guys are Bronzing tonight, Xand and Anya are coming too, wanna join?" she asked.
The answer was not unexpected. "No thanks."
"Unacceptable," Buffy pouted. "If you don't come I'm gonna lock your laptop up and chain you to your bed in a totally non-kinky way until you sleep for at least 18 hours."
Willow looked at her friend in dismay. "You wouldn't," she protested.
"Try me," was the Buffster's reply.
Willow decided that may be a night at the Bronze wouldn't be so bad. "Okay, okay, I'll come."
She hadn't been to the Bronze for a while, actually she hadn't been out at all lately, so it was an odd but familiar feeling as she met the gang inside.
"Wills! At the Bronze! Look out hot guys!" she was enveloped in a giant hug that when she finally managed to untangle herself, turned out to be a Xander-shaped hurricane. He was obviously pretty high.
By the time she found appropriate words, he had already moved onto his next target, Riley's rock hard upper arm muscles. She worried about how intoxicated Xander was becoming but he had just been dragged to the dance floor by Anya. She would have to wait to talk to him.
Buffy came back with drinks and sat with Willow, determined to shake her best friend out from behind the ice wall her best friend had retreated into.
"How's it going, Will?" Buffy began.
"It goes," Willow answered quietly, noting that Buffy had gotten them one of those alcoholic fruit drinks. She remembered the first time she tried these, and who with, and winced.
"You've been kinda distant lately, what's the what?" Buffy pressed as she sipped her drink.
"Nothing's the what. I have a lot of classes and a tankerload of coursework I have to deal with. You know me, usually I'm 2 or 3 weeks ahead, now I'm just-in-time, if I'm lucky," Willow stated.
"I know you're always the overachiever, but this is beyond that. You're unhappy about something, my spidery senses are tingling, but you're not telling me nothin'," Buffy said.
"Really, Buff. I'm okay," Willow replied.
Buffy was skeptical, but she knew her friend wasn't going to talk about whatever it was until she was ready for it.
"So, seen Tara lately?" Buffy decided it was better to have a pleasant conversation without any of the deep stuff. She wasn't prepared to see the color to so quickly drain from Willow's face when she said that.
"No," Willow managed to squeak out.
"Uh huh, guess she's been busy, I tried emailing her, but I only get short replies that border on rudesville," Buffy said.
Willow seemed to have temporarily recovered from her shock. "You email each other?" she asked.
"Trying to keep in touch, like I invited her tonight but she never replied," Buffy sighed. "What? You mean you don't have contact? What happened?"
"We, well, she's busy and I'm busy. No time," Willow explained.
"Listen to yourself, Will. It's Tara, not some umimportant buffoon like Harmony, who frankly I don't care if I never speak to again. But you guys were like this close, it's not as simple as busy schedules is it?" Buffy asked.
Willow looked away in dejection. How could she possible start telling Buffy about her feelings? Did she even want to?
"We had a kind of a falling out," she finally sighed.
Buffy regarded Willow for a moment. "Come on, it's not worth dwelling on things like that, surely you guys can talk and sort the argument out. How bad can it be? Things are never so important that you lose a friendship like yours, I mean, all those years -"
"- like sisters ... you what?" Buffy interrupted herself.
"She kissed me, I kissed her, I don't remember who started it. At the Prom, it was just one kiss, very brief," Willow recounted.
Buffy's jaw seemed to have hit the floor. "Oh. Oh. Oh," she repeated.
"Are you freaked?" Willow asked slowly.
"May be a little. Wait, no, I'm not, it's just unexpected. But not in a bad way," Buffy backtracked. "Is that why you fought?"
Willow stared at her mostly finished drink, mentally reliving their conversation at her house, and the last few months of mutual avoidance.
"We didn't fight. We tried to talk about it, what happened between us, but it wasn't the best talk we've ever had," she paused. "She told me she just wanted to be friends."
"And you?" Buffy asked.
"I don't know. At the time I wanted more. But I respect her wish, so yeah, I let her go," Willow lamented.
"So instead of throwing yourself at her, you threw yourself into classes," Buffy said.
Willow half-shrugged. "I didn't want to push. And, it was only one tiny, small kiss. I may have put too much significance into it."
"What about Tara, apart from wanting to be friends, what else?" Buffy asked.
"Nothing. She moved out of the house after she got her job and we've exchanged no more than 50 words since then," Willow answered shortly.
"Why?" Buffy wondered.
"Initially, I was hurt, so I stayed away from her, I, I think I was a bit cold to her for a while. Then she stopped returning my calls and emails, or when I do get her she's on the phone or her boss needs her or something," Willow's shoulders slumped at the thought of Tara's rejection.
"Something alright, I'll say. Look," Buffy muttered under her breath.
Willow followed her friend's line of sight and ended at the crowded dance floor.
Or not so crowded, as her tunnel vision focused and blocked out all the light and people.
All except one Tara shape.
In an almost lack of clothing situation, the miniest of skirts and the skimpiest of a halter top that were a very small step from crossing the line into indecency.
What the hell is she wearing? she thought angrily, feeling a sharp pang of jealousy flaring through her.
She watched helplessly as Tara grinded and gyrated against a brunette all decked out in black leather and oozing raw sexuality. It was when the other girl lasciviously brushed her hand up and down Tara's back that she saw red and jumped off her stool.
"Whoa, tiger, where are you going?" Buffy shouted after the whirlwind of red.
Willow didn't reply.
She tapped on the shoulder of Miss Leather Hotstuff. "Mind if I cut in?"
"This ain't the ballroom, Red, shove off," came the rebuff.
Tara cut in, "Faith, it's okay."
The girl gave Willow a dirty look, but nevertheless moved away to another target on the dance floor.
They danced a much more restrained version of what Tara was doing with Faith.
"How are you," Willow asked gently.
"The usual," Tara shrugged.
"I miss you," Willow whispered.
"Been busy," Tara said shortly.
"Too busy for even one phone call?" Willow challenged.
Tara stopped and glared at Willow. "I have so much crap in my life now, I really don't have time for socializing."
"But you have time to do the heavy with your girlfriend there?" Willow retorted.
"She is not my girlfriend, why are you so obsessed about that? She's with a client," Tara snapped.
"Your job description now includes selling yourself and 'entertaining' clients now?" Willow rebuked.
Tara froze and with a dark look at Willow, walked off the dance floor.
Willow realized the severity of her words and pushed through the crowds to follow the blonde.
"I have nothing to say to you," Tara fumed.
"Tara, I'm sorry. I overstepped. I-i-i, I just want to know how you've been, I miss you, and I didn't expect to see you see here and looking like the way you look, it's totally not the you I know so I just want to know if you're doing okay," Willow apologized.
Tara closed her eyes for a long moment and sighed. "Look, Will, I'm not like you, I'm not enjoying the carefree student life. I'm trying to stay out of debt and get ahead in my job, it took me a hell of a lot of growing up to not be photocopier girl anymore. That's life, it's not a bed of roses for me, remember what I've always wanted? To make it big by myself? I'm willing to go to any lengths," she said with a hard edge to her voice.
"But this is not you, flaunting your body ..." Willow shook her head.
"This is what I am becoming, accept it. If you don't like it you can just leave," Tara declared.
"I don't know what to say."
Willow was going to say more when the Faith girl interrupted. "Hey Red, you done with the little missus yet, cos you're gonna have to let her out to play soon, Faith is gettin' mighty lonely if you know what I mean," she wagged her eyebrows suggestively.
"It's fine Faith, we're all squared. Should I get you another drink?" Tara flashed a toothy, but impassive, smile at Faith, who promptly led her back to the dance floor.
Willow could only look on with despair.
She pushed open the creaky gate and made her way slowly to the main door. Ran her fingers down the list of occupants until she came to the one marked 'T. Maclay' and pressed the buzzer.
And waited an eon for an answer.
She pressed again.
After the encounter at the Bronze Tara had completely disappeared. Did not answer phone calls and her emails bounced back.
Finally Willow could take it no longer and made her way to Tara's apartment. I don't care if we fight, or make up, or what, I need to see her again.
"Are you looking for Tara?" a neighbor's head popped out of the window above.
She strained her eyes against the sunlight. "Yes, do you know if she's in?"
"She moved out," was the reply.
She felt as if a large bucket of ice-cold water had been poured over her head. "Do you know where?"
She went to the law firm.
"I'm looking for Tara Maclay, she works here," she said to the receptionist.
"Worked," came the shock.
"She left. Went to work at one of our clients'," the bored woman revealed.
"Did she leave a number?" Willow asked desperately.
"Don't think she has one yet, she's probably still trying to get settled."
"Get settled?" Willow echoed stupidly.
"Yeah, that's what you do, when you move to another part of the country."
It took Willow a massive amount of self control not to faint.