For the first time since she had moved into the spacious apartment years earlier, Tara didn't want to spend time there. Something about the air was tainted, the walls seemed to close in on her and no matter what she did, where she loitered, she saw Willow.
Friday had been a horrible day. Not the worst of her life, that title was reserved, but it was awful all the same. After Willow had left, Tara had gone back to bed. She hadn't slept, not right away. Instead she played the last few days back in her mind, picking through every interaction with the redhead to try and figure out what she had done wrong. Because clearly, she had done something. The tension, the averted glances; that wasn't the result of a preoccupied mind worried about work, or a friend, or anything outside of the two people who were currently sharing this space. Willow was upset because of Tara, possibly even with Tara, and it killed the blonde.
She had slept a bit, waking cranky around noon, her natural rhythm off with the late start. She showered quickly, dressed, and then made her way downstairs. She opened the refrigerator door with every intention of making herself a quick something to eat before heading into her studio for some therapeutic brush work, but upon seeing the forgotten bowl of omelet ingredients, her stomach soured. She closed the fridge door, and looked to the pine secretary table next to the door. She imagined Willow sitting in the chair, her movements nervous, her eyes downcast, cheeks flushed. The blonde felt sick.
She grabbed her keys and her wallet, and headed out, with no clear destination. She could go to the gallery, get some early work with Marissa done setting up the space, but that was what Saturday was for, and showing up now might interrupt Marissa's schedule. Tara walked along the sunny boulevard, the fog receded for the day. She thought about showing up at Buffy's work, to see if the petite blonde would be interested in an afternoon beverage, but that idea quickly lost purchase. She couldn't talk to Buffy about this, especially if the reason Willow was so uncomfortable was because she had misunderstood the blonde's signals.
But had she really misunderstood? I mean, isn't there a part of me that was hoping that Willow would respond to my gestures, romantically? Just because she hadn't been overtly making a pass, didn't mean that it wasn't there, at least subconsciously. Perhaps it wasn't as subconscious as I thought... Tara grumbled internally. Or maybe Willow's just ridiculously perceptive. She tacked on ruefully. Or maybe, Willow is just hyperaware around me because she has a problem with my being gay.
Tara stopped abruptly on the sidewalk, her last thought striking through her like a bolt of lightening. It was an idea that she had never considered. What if Willow was uncomfortable with her, not because she didn't like her as an individual, but because the girl was homophobic. Tara exhaled, disturbed to her very core by the thought. But Bryan... She thought, moving to lean against the nearby apartment building, her legs suddenly weak. It's different with gay men. Maybe she's the type that's fine with gays, so long as they're not trying to be gay with her. Tara shook her head. No... this feels wrong... She had been out when they had spent that day in the park three years earlier, and no way Willow would have moved in with her if she was that uncomfortable with Tara's sexuality.
But that was before you started buying her drinks, and touching her... Tara thought. No. No, no, no- Willow's not like that. Tara shook her head and pushed herself off the wall. It has to be something else. I have to have done something else. She sighed again, and resumed walking. She didn't know where she was going, but she couldn't go home. Not with Willow's shadow hanging around. She walked around the city until the fog rolled in and the lights came on, then returned home and feel into a fitful, dream-plagued sleep.
Saturday was at least busy. She rose early, again taking a quick shower and dressing, this time in overalls and a black long-sleeve shirt. She bypassed the kitchen altogether, choosing instead to grab breakfast downtown. The gallery space was nice, large white walls, high ceilings and copious amounts of both natural light, and soft track lighting. It was one of the first large showings Tara was to have on her own, as part of a larger series titled 'Women Artists of San Francisco'. The paintings had been delivered to the gallery the previous week, and it was up to her and Marissa to choose how order them along the walls, hang them, and fill out the necessary paper work for pre-sale.
There were precious few disagreements, Marissa and Tara both agreeing on all fifteen's placement by three in the afternoon. Tara had stepped out to check her messages then, two calls from friends asking about the gallery showing pre-party she was planning at her house Wednesday night, and one from a very tense Buffy.
"Tara, this is Buffy. I know you're at the gallery today... I tried to get a hold of you yesterday, but just got the machine. Let's get together? Tonight? Tomorrow? I need to talk to you."
Tara hung up and her jaw set. Buffy wanted to talk, and she sounded upset. About... Well it could be anything, Tara thought. But it was probably Willow. What if Willow called Buffy, told her how the blonde had apparently hit on her, or told her whatever else it was the blonde had done to make her want to drive six hours south through weekend traffic after a late night and long day's work, and Buffy now wanted to rip her head off. Tara shook her head. She tucked her now-turned-off phone back in her pocket, choosing to not call Buffy back, and returned to the gallery. She spent the evening at Marissa's with her partner Michelle and their mutual friend Anya. It had been a relaxed evening, despite Tara's continued internal Willow monologue. They spent the time drinking wine and discussing the other artists on the scene, pleasant enough topics for a distracted mind. Tara returned home around 1 a.m., her answering machine light blinking. She sighed, and pressed the play button.
"Tara, Buffy. Your phone's off, or you forgot it today when you went to the gallery, or whatever. Anyway - I really need to see you. I know you have gallery stuff on Sunday, but maybe we can grab lunch, or dinner. Your place, my place, restaurant... call me."
Tara pursed her lips, staring at the phone. Buffy definitely was upset, but it didn't sound like she was angry. Perhaps Willow hadn't called her, and she was just bummed about being ditched by the redhead. Tara suddenly felt awful about not calling Buffy back earlier. She shook her head, thinking about how tight her stomach felt. She turned and made her way to bed.
Sunday morning had been a late start. She rose, wandered listlessly around the apartment for a half an hour, avoiding the kitchen even though that's where the coffee she so desperately wanted was. She finally broke down and made herself a batch, careful not to look to where Willow had stood when they last spoke. Coffe poured, she moved to sit on the couch and drink the hot liquid. She sat cross-legged, and took a sip from the rose colored mug. Her eyes inadvertently drifted up, and she took in the large canvas across from her, floating just above the fireplace. The one that Willow had described as, 'just paint'. Maybe I should change the title to that... Tara smirked, her stomach constricting.
The thick, raised paint cast shadows on smoother parts of the canvas, the late-morning light causing the effect. She let her eyes wander over the large surface, taking in the different colors, the waves of paint. She could be destitute and she wouldn't sell this piece, and if her house ever caught fire, she would risk everything short of her life to save it. To the world it was 'Untitled', and Marissa frequently pressured her to show it.
"It's your best piece. Bring it to the gallery; you don't have to sell it, just, put it out there. It would make you, Tara."
But Tara wouldn't risk it. So many little things could go wrong, and if anything ever happened to it... She shook her head and took another sip of her coffee. She turned her head and looked at her phone. I should call Buffy... She frowned at her aloofness. It was awkward, to not run to Buffy with this problem. The girl was like a sister, certainly the best friend she'd ever had, and here she was hiding out, turning off her phone so she could screen calls. And Buffy sounded upset. Selfish, Tara. She picked up the phone and dialed.
"B-Buffy, it's Tara." Tara rolled her eyes at her stutter.
"Hey, I was worried about you - where've you been?"
"Around. Gallery stuff. You know." Tara said, the same false timbre that she used with Willow Friday. Her stomach clenched.
"Cool." Was Buffy's reply. Something was definitely wrong. "Tara, could we get together today? I know things are crazy with the gallery opening and stuff-"
"What did you have in mind?" Tara interrupted.
"Lunch? Ethiopian, maybe."
"Meet me a Massawa's in an hour?"
"Sounds good." The blonde replied. They hung up, and Tara turned back to the painting. She frowned, hoping that Willow wasn't going to be the subject of conversation. I've thought way too much about that woman the last few days. Her eyes drifted to the secretary table, and again she swore she saw the redhead for a split second. She sighed, and stood.
Massawa's was located on Haight, and Tara dodged the tourists and local street kids crowding the famous avenue to get there. Buffy was waiting for her at a window table, and when Tara approached, the petite blonde stood and gave her a hug. Tara hugged her back, feeling ashamed for the defensiveness she was feeling. They sat, ordered iced tea, and fell into silence as they looked over the menu. Buffy asked a few questions about the gallery, which Tara answered briefly, and they again became quiet.
Tara's thoughts were spinning. On the bus ride over, she had seen a redhead on her phone, smiling and giggling at the person on the other line. She remembered Willow's face when she talked about Bryan, and Tara found herself thinking about that relationship as she had walked to the restaurant from the bus stop. The redhead had called Bryan, 'my Tara'. At the time, Tara had been so flushed at hearing Willow say those two words, that she didn't really think about what that meant. But now... Were Willow and this Bryan as close as Tara and Buffy, or was he just her best friend at school; which wouldn't mean that he was her best friend in the greater scheme of things... or even necessarily a particularly close friend, over all. Tara had reasoned. Or maybe, maybe the redhead had been referring to the gay thing.
Is that how Willow sees me? She thought, dodging yet another unkept youth asking for spare change. As Buffy's 'gay friend'. Is Bryan her one gay friend? The one she had so she could say, 'see, I have gay friends'? Tara shook her head. It just didn't seem to fit the redhead. The theory was so disingenuous and cold; not at all how she had come to see the girl in her mind.
But you lo- like her. Tara thought. You're hot for her, maybe that's getting in the way and you're just creating this ideal person who would never be freaked out by something that freaks out a lot of people. You don't know the girl well, haven't you been bemoaning that for weeks? Maybe now, true colors are being revealed. No... Tara shook her head again. No.
Buffy looked up from her menu and noticed Tara's pensive face as the girl stared out the window. She had wanted to talk about Willow with the blonde, but the look clouding the girl's face stopped her from proceeding. "Are you okay?" She asked. Tara turned to her and nodded. "Right." Buffy said, tacking on, "liar."
Tara smiled at that, relieved. No way Buffy was mad at her, not with that playful dig. "Just have a lot on my mind, lot of stuff I need to figure out..." Tara said, thinking immediately of how she had felt when Willow had used the same phrase days ago.
"Yeah, that's going around apparently..." Buffy grumbled, looking back down at her menu. They ordered, and Buffy picked up her iced tea for a long pull.
Tara regarded her long-time friend, and unable to keep the thought from being spoken, blurted out suddenly, "Buffy, am I your token gay friend?"
Buffy looked up from her drink, the straw between her lips and stared at Tara like she had three heads. "Um, no..." She said, putting the drink down on the table. "I kinda prefer to think of you as my fifty dollar bill gay friend." Tara frowned and Buffy continued. "Cause tokens? Only redeemable for crap. I'd like to think that if I was to turn you in, I'd get something better than an asbestos filled stuffed bear."
"Ha ha." Tara deadpanned.
"Actually, now that I think about it, I'm not even sure I could get a token for your gayness. Maybe a paper ticket." Tara's frowned deeply. "Oh come on, I mean, the only gay thing you've got going for you Tare is the self-identified 'I like women,' and really? Lotta guys say the same thing and that's not true..." Tara shook her head. "Besides, if you were my token, what would that make Pam, David and Faria?"
"Is Bryan Willow's token gay friend?"
Buffy's face suddenly became serious. "Why would you say that?"
"Nothing, forget I said anything," Tara said, immediately regretting her questions.
"Uh, sorry no. Tara," Buffy said, confused. "Do you think that?"
Tara sighed, unsure of how to proceed. She shook her head, looking down at the table, before looking back up. "Does Willow have a problem with my being gay?"
"What?" Buffy said, truly surprised.
"I just, I get the feeling that there's something about me that she's uncomfortable with, and I thought maybe that was it."
"Tara-" Buffy stopped herself and thought for a moment. "No. Willow's not like that."
"Okay." Tara nodded, eager to get off the subject. So it is just me that she doesn't like...
"Tara..." Buffy sighed. She thought for a long moment and then looked up. "Willow's been acting weird since she moved out here. I don't know what it is for sure, if it's... the job, or what. But this Willow, this isn't the real Willow. I mean, she's always been a spaz, but the way she's been acting the last two months; this is like spaz on spaz-enhancing steroids, and it isn't her."
"Okay." Tara said, still hoping the topic would go away.
"Did she say something-"
"No, I just-" Tara stopped. "I bought her a drink at the club on Thursday, to say thanks for paying for the cab ride, and I didn't know if she thought maybe I was hitting on her-"
"Were you?" Buffy asked.
"No." Tara shook her head. Sort of. She whispered internally, kicking herself for not being completely honest.
"And so you just thought she might have taken it wrong because...?" Buffy trailed off, not sure she understood the blonde's paranoia.
"She was upset Friday morning. I thought that might have been it-"
"That wasn't it." Buffy said, her lips tightening. Tara looked at Buffy quizzically, the petite blonde looking up apologetically. "I've known her since she was 15 years old Tara, and she's not homophobic, at least, she's never expressed anything like that to me. And I know she likes you, if she's not giving you that impression... it's because something else is going on. Do you want me to talk to her about-"
"No." Tara said firmly. "No, I don't want her to feel any weirder around me than she already does."
"I'm sure she doesn't feel weird around you." Buffy said sadly. She shook her head, frustration building and Tara watched the girl across from her closely. "Xander..." Buffy muttered, her tone implying that he was somehow the cause of Willow's odd behavior. Buffy's face was getting redder by the second, and Tara's stomach turned into a knot at the mention of the name.
Because Tara Maclay hated Xander Harris.
That's not true... Tara thought to herself, frowning, her stomach tight. 'Hate' is a very strong word, a word that should only be used for mass murderers, o-or people that hurt animals... but still...
Tara Maclay intensely disliked Xander Harris.
She really had no right, he had never done anything to her, but she felt it all the same. It hadn't always been the case. When they had met six years ago, she had been positively smitten with the young man. (As smitten as an out teenaged lesbian could be with an 18-year old boy.) He was handsome, outgoing, friendly and charming; all the things she didn't know boys her age could be (not having had male friends before). He was visiting a homesick Buffy on their second weekend at school freshman year, and he had gone out of his way that long weekend to get to know Tara, in turn allowing Buffy to get to know her roommate. It was after he left that Tara and Buffy's friendship had begun in earnest, and Tara had been grateful for the boy's early help as the girls relationship blossomed.
But the positive opinion had begun to change about four years ago. She had heard the stories for years... of how Willow loved him, had always loved him, since they were young. She heard about the fluke, how they had briefly become romantically involved, and how that had damaged Willow's relationship with her high school sweetheart, Oz. How it had damaged Willow herself. Tara remembered clearly how upset she had been the first time Buffy had told her about finding Willow in a deserted high school bathroom, crying alone in a stall about Xander losing his virginity to another girl. Tara had cried a bit herself that night as she tried to fall asleep, thinking of how the beautiful redhead must have felt.
Tara had watched Willow and Xander closely the first time she had seen them together, at the Halloween party Buffy and her had thrown. The obvious affection between the two, the way Willow gave him her full attention, even when her now-college sweetheart Oz was nearby, competing for it. It was obvious that Willow loved Xander, and it had made Tara furious.
Because the schmuck didn't love the redhead back.
What kind of idiot is he?! She had thought at the time. She would shake her head, thinking, if Willow ever loved me, I'd thank my lucky stars, my unlucky stars, even my stars that didn't seem to have a disposition for luck one way or the other. But not Xander Harris. He just flounced around like a big dumb dog, hurting Willow with his yo-yo affection. Holding her, calling her his best girl, when he knew how madly in love she was with him, how she probably clung to each caress thinking 'maybe one day...' Jerk.
Her ha- Intense dislike, Tara internally amended, intensified two years ago, when the man quit his near-minimum wage job and moved to Boston for several months. Tara remembered the fight Buffy and Xander had had at the time, how she had sat on her bed in her room and listened while the two old friends battled in the living room, siding with Buffy all the way.
"Just exactly how insensitive are you Xander?"
"She finally breaks up with Oz, gets a chance to be single, see other people and you're going to move out there? Why?"
"Why not? This is a good opportunity for me; I'm not going to sling pizza and live in my parent's basement forever. Moving, it's a chance to make a change-"
"So make a change! Don't go torture Willow."
"I'm not going to torture Willow - she needs me right now," was his simple explanation.
"For what?!" Buffy had exclaimed, exasperated. "So she can be in love with you and you can do your whole, 'I'm not interested in you Willow' routine while giving her mixed signals, the impression that one day, things might change?"
"It's not like that. She's been over me for a long time now."
"Oh please." Buffy had snarled. "Is that why she looked at you this past weekend when we were all home like you were the only one who understands her, the only one in the world who she could talk to-"
"Willow's going through a tough time right now-"
"And she has friends in Boston to help her with that! She has Bryan, she has Amanda, she doesn't need you there, being all unattainable on your pedestal."
"It's not like that Buffy. I wish I could explain to you in great detail what's going on, but that's between me and Willow-"
"Right, noble Xander." There had been a long moment of silence. "This is b.s. and you know it."
"Well, I'm sorry you think so." Xander had replied evenly. Buffy had stormed out at that, and moments later, Xander had left.
Their relationship had been strained since. They spoke, emailed and called, but saw each other less than before. Buffy still held Xander responsible for Willow's not having dated since Oz (thinking the girl was patiently, pathetically, waiting for him to come around), and Xander continued to steadfastly deny that Willow loved him "that way", continuing with his affectionate behavior toward the girl. Neither spoke to Willow about the rift, and Tara wondered if the redhead even knew of the problem.
"She's down there with him now." Buffy said. "It's what I wanted to talk to you about, cause I'm just so... He breaks up with his girlfriend earlier in the week and what does Will do? She drops everything and runs to him, to throw herself at him again." Buffy shook her head, obviously upset about the situation. "She's so much better than that, she's so... She's so special, Tara, she deserves to be with someone who loves her back. This unrequited stuff is crap."
Tara nodded along, agreeing completely. What kind of moron wouldn't recognize that look in the redhead's eyes? Wouldn't do everything in his power to be with the girl if she showed even the slightest bit of interest?
"I think that's why she's been so off..." Buffy said, apologetically. "Maybe why she's been so weird around you? Me..." She trailed off sadly. "I'm worried she thinks that now that she's back in California he's going to... change. Finally love her like she loves him." She paused for a long moment. "He's not going to change."
Tara looked down at the table, her heart tearing in two for the redhead. But... even if Willow was preoccupied with Xander, was going through the pain of loving someone who didn't love her back--
Been there... Tara thought, ruefully.
Even if the redhead was going through all that, it didn't change what Tara knew in her heart to be true. Whatever happened on Friday morning had been between them, been a result of their awkward relationship, and until she knew what it was that she had done to the redhead, she had no idea how to make things better.
Buffy and Tara continued to chat about the situation, eventually moving on to other things as they worked their way through their meal. When they left each other with a hug, they promised to talk the next day, and to see each other at Tara's Wednesday for the gallery opening pre-party. They each walked in separate directions, Buffy returning home for some moping, Tara heading to her friend Anya's. Not unsurprisingly, neither friend felt better after their talk.