Tara looked at the note in her hand once more and sighed as she read it back.
It was just after ten in the morning Friday, and the blonde stood in the kitchen nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee. She had returned home late the night before; closing up the gallery alone always took longer than she remembered, and she hadn't been surprised to find Willow already in bed. Be honest, you were relieved... she thought, setting Willow's note onto the counter. Tara admitted that Marissa's words from the previous day had unnerved her, and when she turned the key in the door just after midnight the night before, she said a small prayer, hoping Willow would be asleep.
Tara turned her head and read the note again, paying particular attention to how Willow had written her name. A little flair as she crossed the 'T', the 'a's swooping up at the end. She had been disappointed when she found the note on the kitchen counter twenty minutes before, and she chided herself for once again being of two minds when it came to her roommate. Here, not here; which do you want? She turned back to the french press, and topped off the cup in her hand. "Portland for work"... Better than Sunnydale for pleasure. Tara frowned at her pettiness, and turned to the sink, dumping the contents of the cup down the drain. She placed the cup in the basin and made her way to the stairs.
She climbed the stairs, her eyes briefly falling on Willow's room as she reached the top, the door slightly ajar, revealing a made bed. The blonde turned into the hallway and dipped into the bathroom, turning on the shower before exiting and making her way to her room. Her body felt leaden, her every movement slow and sluggish, her stomach tight with tension. "Pining after a straight girl" looped through her brain, and Tara once again found herself in the middle of a familiar war of wills. On one side there was her heart, championing her love for Willow. On the other was her mind, presenting the harsh reality of what would never be. She sighed heavily.
This wasn't the first time she had gone through this, had these thoughts, since she'd met the redhead. It's just the worst, she thought ruefully, as she pulled a towel and her robe from her armoire and moved back to the bathroom. The first time Tara felt the division came the day after their time in Golden Gate Park three years ago... She had known when they left the park that day that she was in love. She had felt... weightless, giddy, and she went to sleep that night knowing why she was alive. It had to be to love Willow. Then the next day. The cold, harsh reality that had shook her to her bones. Willow, was unavailable, would never be available; not in the way Tara wanted her to be. The blonde sighed as she began to strip.
Like a pendulum, Tara's emotional state had vacillated for the last three years between hope and despair. The joy she'd feel when she'd hear Willow's name, paired with the crushing disillusionment she'd feel when it was followed by Oz's, or Xander's. She stepped into the shower and let the tepid water wash over her, sighing into the steam.
It had been Buffy who had suggested Willow move in three months ago. Tara knew Buffy knew things were tight for her then, the current gallery show still an uncertainty, the blonde's other ventures stalled. Having Willow rent from her, it made perfect financial sense, and Tara knew what it meant to Buffy for her to offer to take the redhead in. A large part of her had screamed for her to say no, beg out, do anything in her power to avoid having to share space with the girl she loved but could never have. But another part, a more emboldened part, said yes immediately. There was no thought involved: Willow would be in her home. Near her. Of course, of course Willow could move in.
Tara didn't sleep more than a few hours a night during Willow's first week with her. The redhead was just down the hall; in her bathroom; in her kitchen... The blonde was so hyperaware of Willow's presence, that she forgot that she had a life of her own to tend to. It wasn't until the end of that week that Tara came to realize that Willow wanted to keep to herself. Eat by herself, spend her evenings in her room, the door shut tight. The disappointment had chilled her blood, and she remembered crying bitterly for allowing herself to be so naive, so heartened by the redhead's proximity.
The hope had reemerged a month ago, when Willow began to eat dinner with her on a regular basis. The blonde looked forward to each evening, so much so that each compliment from the redhead about her cooking stoked a longing that she knew she shouldn't even have. And then the trip to Sunnydale last weekend to see a now-available Xander. Tara shook her head, washing the shampoo from her locks. Willow loved him. Tara knew it, it was obvious, not only to her, but to Buffy as well. She felt distaste for the situation, and then distaste for her inability to be a bigger person, to be happy for Willow. But how could she, when her greatest desire was to be with Willow?
Tara dried herself, quickly toweled off her hair then wrapped her body in her robe, and walked to her bedroom. She dressed, then moved to her dresser. The glass bead bracelet. She picked it up, and studied it. She thought I should have it... Tara frowned. Wednesday night had been perfect. Well, aside from the Anya and Kevin parts, Tara corrected, but the gallery... She backed up and sat in the sitting chair near her dresser, and sighed, pulling her legs close to her chest. Their brief handshake... Willow's obvious appreciation for her work... their conversation toward the end of the evening. It had been so intimate. So meaningful. To you, Tara, to you. She looked at the bracelet for a long while, sadly.
Willow needs to move out. Just thinking the words turned her stomach, and she momentarily worried that she'd be sick. She swallowed hard, her eyes filling with tears, the first slipping out and sliding quickly down her cheek before dropping from her chin onto her shirt. I love her, Tara thought simply. I love her.... and having her this close... knowing that it won't be anything more than what it is now... she shook her head. I can't do this to myself anymore.
The tears were falling in earnest now, but she made no movement to wipe them away. Willow moving out wouldn't end this pain; she'd still see the redhead with Buffy, she'd still hold the girl in her heart. But at least I won't be feeling like this every minute of every day... she thought, finally wiping away the tears. She'd bring the topic up casually when Willow returned, asking if she'd seen any new condos lately, if she had found a relator she liked. She'd never outright ask the girl to move, I could never kick her out, but if she could... I don't know, subtly encourage her... Tara thought. She allowed the bracelet to fall around her fingers, the beads encircling her hand, and she finally sobbed, dropping her face into the crook of her elbow. Why did it have to hurt so much?
Willow looked out the plane window. Khalil leaned over her, trying to get a better look. "That's a big mountain," Willow said.
"Yup. Mt. Hood." Khalil answered, leaning back into his seat. "You should see the ones in Denver." He paused for a long moment. "We need to get some doctors in Hawaii to use your program."
Willow smiled widely and looked over to the grinning man, the pilot coming over the intercom to remind the stewards to take their seats for final descent. Willow sighed, happily and looked out the window again.
The plane landed without incident, and after a long, one hour and forty minute ride in a nice mid-sized rental car, the two SutterSoft employees arrived at the Portland Marriott City Center. Check-in was a snap, and after a pleasant dinner, the two retired to their separate rooms.
After a long shower to wash away the travel, Willow entered her room from the steamed up bathroom. She wore flannel pajama bottoms and a white tank top, and her hair was damp despite a vigorous towel dry. She pulled the coverlet on her bed away, and sat on the fuzzy blanket above the sheets, propping herself up on a mass of pillows.
She reached into her backpack and pulled out the snack that the airline had given her. She looked at the package, "Bar-B-Que pretzels," she read. Didn't sound too good, but what the hey. She opened the package and popped one in her mouth. Her face immediately twisted and she chewed hurriedly. Oh god... she mentally gagged, quickly swallowing the foul snack. She stood and crossed to the small bar, opening a bottle of water. She took a long pull, swishing the water around in her mouth to loosen the bits of vile pretzel stuck in her teeth. She shuddered for dramatic effect and then moved back to her position on the bed, water in hand. Airplane food. She shuddered again.
Leaving the note this morning had been hard. She had gone through several drafts, mainly because her mind seemed to betray her each time she attempted to sign off. 'Lov-'. 'Lo-'. Finally she just gave up on any formula for ending the letter, signing 'Willow' and leaving it at that. She had wanted to tell the blonde in person that she'd be gone, perhaps see if they could have dinner on Monday, but Tara hadn't come home until after midnight, and the chances of her getting up in time for a conversation before the redhead had to leave for work weren't good. The note was friendly enough, mentioned that she'd be gone for work without getting into the specifics. All in all, a good note, as far as notes go.
Willow sighed, thinking back over the last few days. The gallery, of course, brought a wide smile to the girl's face. And then her conversation with her mother. Willow rolled her eyes. The anger and hurt she felt as she hung up the phone had dissipated by the time she had stepped into her home that night; it wasn't the first time she had had that conversation (or one extremely similar) with her mother, and she was sure it wouldn't be the last.
It was a game they played. At least, that's the way Willow saw it. For two years now, Willow had been priming her mother for the day when she'd officially come out, casually mentioning 'gay issues' whenever she had the chance, then chastising her mother whenever Shelia wasn't more open and accepting. Willow knew she was gay, and she was reasonably sure her mother knew as well, even if the older woman would never admit it, steering the conversation into safer waters whenever Willow began connecting 'gay topics' like civil unions, public displays of affection between same sex partners, etc. to herself. "If I was gay, I'd hope (insert accepting statement here)". Shelia would voice her disapproval, and they'd move on.
The redhead remembered a particular conversation they had a month previously, when Shelia asked Willow when she was going to start dating again. "When I find someone I want to date, who wants to date me." Willow replied, vaguely. "Why does it matter?" She asked, wondering, and dreading, exactly where this was going.
"Well it doesn't, I suppose." Shelia replied, obviously doing something else on the other end of the line. "Just people ask about you, and I don't know what to say."
"What do you mean, people ask about me?" Willow asked into the receiver. "And why do you need to say anything?"
"Oh you know, Craig, Ellen; they tell your father and I about their children, and they want to know what you're doing, so I say 'well, she's so busy with her job she just doesn't have time to date'-"
"And what's wrong with that?" Willow replied, knowing that wasn't the reason why she was single, but not understanding why that answer wouldn't suffice.
"Nothing." Shelia answered. "It's just, you haven't had a boyfriend in a while, you're living in San Francisco-"
"You're afraid they think I'm gay?" Willow accused, immediately flushing red.
"It would just be nice if I could say, 'Willow is dating, but she just hasn't found The One'-"
"Even if I was dating a woman?" Willow challenged.
"I just wish you had a boyfriend, someone to share your life with," Shelia smoothly continued. "I just wonder when you're going to meet your husband. Move on to the next stage of your life."
"What if the next stage of my life was with a woman?"
"I'd be sad."
The statement had been said simply, as casually as if the older Rosenberg had been contemplating a wilted bouquet of flowers. There was no malice, and Willow was convinced that was one reason why she was having such a hard time saying the words with finality. "I'm gay."
Her mother loved her, she knew that. She was Shelia's only child, born late in the older woman's life after years of trying, and the woman had never made Willow's importance to her a secret. Supportive in every way but this, loving even as Willow became more and more argumentative and distant. It cut Willow to the core when Shelia said she'd be sad because of who Willow knew she was. To disappoint her mother... to know that who she was, a gay woman, would hurt the woman that raised her, the woman that so obviously loved her... Willow almost wished Shelia would disown her, make it easier on her to live for herself, and herself alone. Instead, she was living for her family as well, and the pressure to please, to be who they wanted her to be, was intense.
Shelia's calm detachment in that conversation perfectly matched her words two years before when Willow had decided to take the plunge and come out after a year of struggling to come out to herself. Shelia had said she was having a hard time with Helen and Karen's decision to have a child together and Willow had listened to her mother's concerns, her blood turning to ice. My mom is a closet homophobe... she thought, a mess of emotions swirling within her. She licked her cold lips as Shelia wound down, and tentatively said, "it worries me that you're not more open about gay issues, mom."
"I am open." Shelia said. "I'm not against them doing it, I just worry about how it'll effect the child, having to explain that he or she has two mommies, defend that to people who are close-minded."
Willow meekly nodded her head. "I just mean, you know, what if someday I fall in love with a woman, or-"
"I wouldn't want that for you," Shelia said plainly.
Willow swallowed hard, trying again. "I know. But what if that's what happened, I mean, hypothetically," she tacked on, twisting her fingers nervously. "What if I fell in love with a woman, and we wanted to have a child. I mean, would you be worried about my child?"
Shelia thought about it for a long moment, and then said evenly. "If you chose to live with a woman... like that..." she paused slightly. "I would be disappointed that you would make that choice."
The statement had shocked Willow into silence. I have a choice...? She thought briefly before she fixated on the tone. How even it was. Devoid of emotion, no real reproach other than the words themselves. It was like Willow had said, "I'm thinking about going platinum blonde, what do you think," and Shelia had offered her honest opinion.
Stretching her legs out before her on the hotel room bed, Willow shook her head, absently digging her fingers into the BBQ pretzel bag. She had almost started crying during that conversation, the panic overtaking her. "But why? I mean, if love is love, if that's what you taught me growing up, and all I want is to be loved, to love someone, if that person just happens to be a woman-"
"I would be disappointed with that choice."
The repetition of the statement had killed that conversation. Willow had nodded, numb and Shelia had kissed her forehead after some small talk about what they'd do the next day, and went to bed. Willow stumbled over to Xander's, breaking down the second the door had closed behind her and thus began "The Secret."
Willow popped the pretzel into her mouth and twisted her face, again chewing fast, disgusted by the taste. The Secret. She didn't mean for it to turn into what it became. She didn't mean to leave Buffy out. It's just... by the time Buffy had arrived in Sunnydale three days later, Willow was already backpedaling. Doubting whether she could ever come out, trying to figure out just how bad it would be if she married a man, repressed the feelings it had taken her a year to admit to herself.
Buffy had shown up at her house bubbly. It was so good to see her that way, happy for a change. Joyce's death six months prior had rocked Buffy, and the subsequent custody hearings regarding Dawn's guardianship had almost broken the petite blonde. The last thing Willow could do was unload her "problem" on Buffy at that moment. Not when she was smiling. Not when she was going on and on about this double date she had arranged. How happy she was to finally have some fun. Dating. Spending time with her best friend.
Willow had gone back to Boston two days later, Xander following a few weeks after that. Buffy said she was going to visit them, but she never did, and no matter how hard she tried, Willow couldn't bring herself to come out to her friend over the phone. Not when she still hadn't come out to her mom. Not when she still had so many doubts about what she was doing with her life. Not when it was something that required a face-to-face conversation.
It wasn't until she had interviewed with SutterSoft six months previous to present that she had a chance to see the petite blonde in the flesh. By then... The Secret had been in effect for over a year and a half, and Willow froze up when she saw her friend. "It's going to be so much fun! Willow and Buffy, double dating their way through San Francisco's admittedly small pool of straight, eligible attractive bachelors." Willow had no idea where to start; come out, then explain The Secret. Come clean about The Secret and come out in the process... she didn't know how to do it in a way that wouldn't hurt Buffy. Then there was the added complication of Tara...
Willow popped another BBQ pretzel in her mouth, again twisting her face. "Why am I eating these?" She asked herself, standing and moving to the bathroom as she quickly chewed and swallowed, throwing the small package in the trash. She washed her mouth out with some water, and picked up her toothbrush. She carefully applied the toothpaste, and began to brush vigorously.
The redhead looked at herself in the mirror as she brushed. She leaned in close, checking for blemishes on her face and then stepped back to get a good view of her torso and hips. She twisted to the side, checking out her profile in the mirror and then squared her shoulders once again. She giggled slightly as she saw her nipples poking through her thin tank top, the dark area clearly visible through the white fabric. She brought her left hand up and cupped her left breast, jiggling it softly. Not much, but could be worse. She dropped her hand and turned her back to the mirror, resting her rear against the counter as she brushed.
I wonder what Tara likes... She turned back to the sink and spit, then rinsed out her mouth, again spitting into the sink. She turned off the light and moved back into the main room. Is she a breast woman? Would I be enough? She turned off the main room light, and crawled up on the bed, the bedside lamp illuminating the space. She snuggled up under the covers, and rested her head on the pillow, looking out the window to the foreign city below. Would she like them? Her mind paused. Did she like Jill's?
Willow knew next to nothing about Jill, other than she was the only girl she knew Tara had dated, well, ever. They had been high school sweethearts, of a sort, starting and then carrying out a clandestine relationship during their senior year. Tara's mother had died earlier in the year, a victim of breast cancer, and Tara's father definitely didn't know about the relationship. Apparently Jill's parents were similarly in the dark, and the two girls planned in secret to attend the same college so they could be together, away from home, away from their parents. Free.
Willow remembered her freshman year when Buffy had called her and told her she had a gay roommate. "It's so weird..." the petite blonde had said. "I mean, don't get me wrong, totally cool with it, it's just. I don't know. Different."
"How, different?" A much younger, much more naive Willow had asked quietly, her own roommate asleep several feet away.
"I don't know..." Buffy replied, half embarrassed. "She has a girlfriend, and it's not like they're making out all the time but... it's kinda weird seeing Tara, my roommate who is a girl, look at this other girl like, how you look at Oz." Willow had stayed quiet, as Buffy continued. "They hold hands, but nothing more. Maybe a quick peck on the cheek. I think the girlfriend, Jill, is uncomfortable with the PDA in front of me."
"But Tara isn't?" Willow whispered, curious.
"No, she pretty much told me day one that she was gay, that she had a girlfriend and that she hoped that I wouldn't be weirded out by it." Buffy paused for a minute. "But the totally sad thing? They're only like that in the room. Well I mean, Tara looks at her like that all the time, but Jill... the second they step outside of the room she's like, paranoid about Tara touching her. She tucks her hands under her arms, or in her pockets so that, I don't know, she won't be tempted to hold her own girlfriend's hand."
"That must be hard for Tara." Willow said, feeling sympathy for someone she'd never heard of before that conversation.
"Seriously. She's out, her girlfriend isn't..." Buffy shook her head. "Tara said the girl's family is really religious, strict, but that she thinks Jill'll chill out once she realizes she doesn't have to keep looking over her shoulder. That she's someplace where it's okay to admit who she is. Who she loves."
Young Willow had smiled at that. "That's really sweet."
"Yeah..." Buffy trailed off, agreeing. "I just hope she's right about her chick."
Tara, of course, hadn't been. Jill had lasted a semester before heading home, telling Tara that she didn't love her, that their relationship had been a mistake, that she wasn't 'that way', and she was sure if Tara really looked at her life, she'd see she wasn't 'that way' either. The breakup had been devastating for the blonde, and Willow remembered how she ached for the poor girl, as she heard updates on her situation from Buffy.
Willow shifted in the hotel bed, turning off the bedside lamp. If I ever saw that Jill- a fired up and squinty eyed Willow thought. Well okay, I don't have a clue what she looks like, so just seeing her and saying "oh hey, that's Jill"; not going to happen... But if someone I was with recognized her and introduced her to me, I'd, I'd... Willow's mind spun. I'd say a lot of really mean things. She nodded her head resolutely. That's exactly what she'd do, sticks and stones eat your heart out.
To the best of her knowledge, Tara had been single since. Buffy certainly never mentioned anyone, and Willow was sure that if the blonde had dated someone, she would have told Buffy. Doesn't mean Buffy would tell you though... I mean, why would she? It's none of your business...
Willow sighed softly, the sounds of city traffic moving floors below. I need to come out to my mom. And Buffy. Willow took a deep breath. And Tara. Tara would be last. She owed it to her mom and best friend to be honest with them before she even tried to think about starting a relationship. A relationship with Tara... Willow smiled. She thought back to their handshake at the gallery, their conversation about 'Fillmore'. Her cheeks flushed, and her heart beat a little faster. "I love Tara..." Willow said quietly aloud, a wide smile breaking across her face. When she got back she'd spend as much time with the girl as possible. Take her to dinner, ask if she'd want to rent a movie- Oh! I could take her to a concert at the Fillmore! She'd give Tara the opportunity to know her, really know her. And maybe, if she was lucky, the girl would love her.
Willow sighed dreamily. Monday. I'll tell Buffy Monday. She thought about it, and then slowly, her brow furrowed. Why doesn't that sound right? Dinner with Buffy Mon- "Buffy!" Willow said, sitting bolt upright. She scrambled out of bed and rushed to the side table, bumping into one of the sitting chairs in the dark. "Ow," she muttered, as she located her cellphone. She groaned as she realized that she never turned the phone back on after the flight. Sure enough, there were three messages from the petite blonde. Willow immediately dialed, and muttered "shoot" as she waited for the girl to answer. "Hey, Buff..." she said sheepishly.
Buffy hung up the phone, frowning. Tara sat next to her on the couch, and had tried, despite her burning desire to know what was being said, to appear disinterested in the conversation the petite blonde had just had.
"Well thanks for thinking to tell me you were going out of town." Buffy had said sharply. "Kinda forget we had plans tonight? That I'm leaving for two weeks?" The petite blonde hadn't been angry, more annoyed, and when she hung up, she picked up her drink and took a sip, as if moving on to the drinking directly would get her out of having to explain the tense conversation she just had to the blonde to her left.
"W-Willow?" Tara asked. She of course knew, but it seemed like the thing to say.
"Yeah, just remembered that she was supposed to be here." Buffy said wryly, sweeping her hand to indicate The Living Room Lounge. "I mean, it's work, so whatever, but call a girl!" She shook her head and finished her drink.
"Buffy..." Tara asked hesitantly. Her mood had been somber all day, and she only agreed to go out with Buffy because the girl had insisted, and the blonde knew if she stayed home she'd just end up crying. She thought of all the pain she was feeling, how badly she wanted to confide in her best friend. She swallowed hard, and instead asked, "what does Willow do for work?"
"Computer stuff." Buffy answered vaguely.
"Well I know that," Tara said. "But SutterSoft, that's medical imaging right? Like X-Rays and-"
"I don't know what she does." Buffy said, a little harsher than Tara expected. Wow, I guess Buffy's more angry than she's letting on about Willow bailing on her...
"I'm sorry, I just..." Buffy trailed off. "You want another drink?" She said with a weary smile.
"S-Sure." Tara nodded, flashing her own tired grin. The two girls stood and moved to the bar, neither mentioning for the rest of the evening the redhead occupying both their thoughts.