Return to Neverland Chapter Twenty-One


Author: EasierSaid
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: Please don't sue me Mutant Enemy.
Feedback: Please leave feedback on the Neverland thread on the Kitten Board.
Note: Thoughts in italics.

So... Tara thought. Which Willow was going to show up for dinner tonight?

was a question Tara had been mulling over all day. As she pushed the covers off of her body as she rose from bed this morning. As she loaded the grocery cart with their dinner ingredients just before lunch. As she stood now a few minutes before six in the kitchen, patiently awaiting the redhead's arrival. Which Willow would it be?

Would it be the rumpled girl who waited up for her last night? The one who gently inquired from the top of the moonlit stairs if they were friends, and then told her if they weren't, she wanted to be. The inquisitive girl who had visited the gallery during a short lunch break because she wanted to see her paintings again. The thoughtful girl who had bought her a stunning bracelet just because. The girl that so closely resembled the girl from the park, the girl Tara fell in love with three years ago. Or...

Or, would it be the other Willow. The obviously awkward and discomforted redhead from the gay bar. The one that rushed out the morning after upset about... something. The avoidy one that couldn't even answer a simple question about her work. Tara sighed. She wasn't sure which Willow she wanted to see walk through the front door more.

On the one hand, she hoped beyond hope that it would be the latter. That the redhead would show up and immediately fall into the patterns she had developed over the last two months, their conversation on the stairs forgotten. Short answers, fast eating and a night spent in her bedroom. That Willow, she could bring up moving out with that reserved girl. But if it's the other one... Tara shook her head. If it was the girl from last night... I am in big, big trouble.

The front door opened, breaking Tara from her thoughts. She looked up to see Willow enter a bit frantically, shifting her bag to her other hand as she closed the door behind her. Tara couldn't help but smile, as she always did when she laid eyes on her girl. No, no, no 'my girl'. Just girl. Tara nodded to herself as she corrected her errant thought, a chagrined blush crossing her cheek. Willow turned from the door and gave the blonde a sheepish smile.

"I'm sorry I'm late," Willow said, swallowing nervously as she took in the blonde beauty before her. God she's gorgeous.

"You're late?" Tara asked quizzically, looking down to the chicken she was suddenly, and unnecessarily, cubing. Just stay busy, nonchalant, don't look up...

Willow looked from the blonde to her watch. "Oh." She looked back up and again smiled sheepishly. "I guess I'm not. Just, eager for dinner, I guess." She smiled widely and Tara's stomach flip flopped as she caught the sight out of the corner of her eye.

"Well, the chicken is done." Tara said, moving to open a package, her back to the redhead. "I was going to start the noodles now. All we need to do after that is the topping. I figured you might want to-"

"I do," Willow said enthusiastically. "I mean, yes, I do," she amended, slightly embarrassed by her interruption. "Assuming the next words out of your mouth were going to be 'to help', which I think they were, but then again they might not have been, what you meant to say I mean, and you know what they say about assuming things..." Willow trailed off, catching herself before she could finish the phrase. Stop, stop right now before you make an ass out of yourself. She took a quick breath and said, "I just, really need to take a quick shower, change."

"Slip into something a little more comfortable," Tara said, her eyes immediately going wide as she realized how that might sound. "Like sweats." Right. Sweats. Baggy sweats, the blonde thought, happy that her back was to her roommate so that the redhead couldn't see her panic.

"Right," Willow said oblivious, heading to the stairs. She hazarded a quick look at Tara, who was now moving the pasta and pot to the stove. "I'll be down in 10 minutes, tops."

"Take your time," Tara said in her breeziest tone, placing the pot on the stove and turning the dial, a task that seemed to need her total concentration. Willow disappeared up the stairs and Tara sunk into the counter, rolling her eyes. "Slip into something a little more comfortable"... She shook her head and moved to the fridge to start on the salad.

Willow dumped her bag in her room, grabbed a towel and rushed into the bathroom. The smile on her face was wide, and she quickly shucked her clothes after turning on the nozzle, her excitement about the evening evident as she restlessly kicked off her pants. She tied her hair into a haphazard ponytail to keep it dry and jumped into the shower with a little giggle, sighing contentedly as the water hit her chest. She couldn't help it; she was happy.

She had meant to go to sleep early last night. After all, that's what she told Xander she would do after she wound down from her frantic, panicked babbling at around 10. "Just get some rest, sleep on this and deal with it in the morning," he had said. But when Tara still hadn't returned home by 11, and then midnight... Sleep was an impossibility.

True, the initial freak out was about Morgan being... a woman? A woman that Tara might be dating? After all, they'd hung out twice in three days, that seemed... girlfriend like, Willow had irrationally reasoned. But when Tara still hadn't returned home by 11, and then midnight... all thoughts of who Morgan was took a backseat to Willow's concern for the blonde. The redhead shook her head and washed the suds from her body. Tara had looked so upset when she left last night... Willow thought, turning the water off and quickly toweling off. She had spent a good part of the morning thinking about why Tara had come home, only to turn around and head back to the gallery, and still hadn't been able to come up with a satisfactory reason. It had to be gallery related, maybe something about the paperwork she mentioned...?

Willow wrapped the towel around her body and scooped up her discarded clothes, quickly scurrying back to her room. She tossed the clothes in the hamper and thought, what do I wear, what do I wear... Tara had said sweats, but she wasn't going to wear sweats, not to their first dinner as friends. Willow smiled widely at that and moved to her closet, pulling on a pair of underwear and looking at her various t-shirts and jeans. "I want that, too." She pressed her lips together, the smile still wide and felt the blush flushing her cheeks. Tara wanted her, even if it's just as friends, she wants to get to know me better... The redhead pulled on a pair of well-worn, yet flattering jeans, a camisole and a long-sleeved t-shirt, then headed downstairs.

Tara looked up to catch sight of Willow bounding into the room, a broad smile on her face. Tara quickly looked down at the ingredients in front of her and thought, she had to wear the red long-sleeve... She looked up and smiled as the redhead came into the kitchen. "All freshened up?" What? Tara thought, mentally kicking herself for the lame question.

"Yup, and ready to cook," Willow said, stopping a foot away from the blonde. Tara's hair was pulled back, a few errant wisps of blonde hair danced against her neck and Willow subconsciously licked her lips. Soft hair, soft skin... Willow swallowed hard and looked to the counter, placing her hand flat on the smooth marble in an attempt to rein in her thoughts. "So what needs to be done?" She asked energetically, waiting for the blonde's instructions.

"Just the topping," Tara said, stepping back so Willow could look at the ingredients and the open cookbook. "I already blanched the spinach, so all that you need to do is put it in this pot with the rest of the ingredients here and stir till it's smooth."

"Looks easy," Willow said, putting herself squarely in front of the stove.

"Should be." Tara confirmed. "Once it's done, just pour it on top here," she pointed to a steaming bowl of noodles.

"Okay, sounds good," Willow smiled shyly, catching Tara's eyes for a moment.

"Okay..." Tara politely returned the smile and moved to the opposite side of the kitchen to finish up the salad. See, not hard, just keep things breezy, happy... don't stare... They worked in silence for a moment, until a hesitant voice spoke.

"Um, Tara?"

"Yeah?" The blonde turned to see Willow looking at her skeptically, a small bowl filled with brown liquid in her hand. "What," the blonde prompted.

"Soy sauce?" Willow asked. "Really?"

"Um, yeah..." Tara said, wiping her hands on a dishtowel and moving to the redhead's side, quickly looking at the cookbook and then back up at the redhead. "Do you not like soy sauce?"

"No, I do," Willow confirmed, "just. Garlic cheese, spinach, noodles... and soy sauce?"

Tara looked up at the redhead, not following. "Yeah?"

"That doesn't seem... weird, to you?" Willow asked suspiciously, looking down at the soy sauce and then back up at the blonde.

"A little," Tara admitted, "but it's in the cookbook... so I figure it's there for a reason. Hopefully a yummy reason."

"Maybe it's a typo," Willow reasoned, giving the liquid in her hand the eye.

Tara felt a smile brewing. She moved closer to the cookbook and put the dishtowel down. "And the um," Tara said clearing her throat, momentarily biting her lip to keep from laughing. "The picture of the soy sauce bottle?" She put her finger on the cookbook page and looked at the redhead with as straight a face as she could manage.

Willow frowned as she took in the page. "A joke?" she asked, looking up.

Tara couldn't help herself, the laughter came from deep within and escaped in the form of a giggle. Willow frowned at first and then smiled slightly, recognizing it as the laugh from the gallery opening, the laugh that said the blonde was amused by her, but not laughing at her. She should always smile... Willow thought, dazed by the sparkle in the blonde's eyes, the soy sauce forgotten.

"Willow," Tara smiled. "You picked this recipe out..."

"I know," Willow replied, slightly distressed as she remembered the tiny bowl of soy sauce in her hand. "I just, I didn't think about how weird it sounded until now."

"We could um, we could leave it out if you wanted..." Tara said, shaking her head as she continued to smile. She's so adorable, that pout, those wide-eyes...

"You don't think it's a typo?" Willow asked seeking reassurance, finding herself staring at the smiling woman before her.

"No," Tara rolled her eyes, good-naturedly. "Or a joke." When Willow didn't immediately reply, she added, "it'll taste good; if not, I'll make you something else, I promise."

"K," Willow said. The two woman stared at each other for a long moment before Tara arched her eyebrows. "What? Oh-" Willow said, snapping out of the lingering look and pouring the sauce into the pot. "Sorry, spaced out for a second there..." the redhead said, picking up a wooden spoon and stirring the ingredients diligently. Way to get caught staring, she thought, trying to keep down the heat she felt rushing to color her skin.

"No problem..." Tara said, heading back to her side of the kitchen. You staring at me.. not a problem at all... Tara thought, picking up the balsamic vineger and shaking her head. Even if you were just lost in that busy, beautiful head of yours...

"So how was-" both girls said simultaneously, before stopping themselves, smiling nervously and looking over their shoulders to take the other in.

"Sorry, you go ahead," Willow said.

"No, I-" Tara nodded her head once, and continued. "I was just going to ask how work was today," she asked, turning, salad in hand to face the redhead.

"Oh," Willow said, turning back to her stirring, her body stiffening. "It was fine." Tara scrunched up her face at the reply, at the redhead's tense body language. "How was your day?" Willow asked, not bothering to turn and look at the blonde.

"Fine," Tara said, her voice caught a bit at the swift change in the redhead. There she is... 'other Willow'... Tara thought, sighing ruefully. "I'm um, I'm going to put the salad on the table..."

"Okay," Willow replied with faux cheer. Tara exited and Willow deflated a bit. It didn't feel good to constantly change the topic whenever her job came up, but it was necessary. Tara doesn't need reminders... The redhead sighed and poured the sauce over the noodles, then put the pot in the sink, filling it up with water and a dollop of dish soap. She turned back to the bowl holding their meal and picked it up, intending to take it out to the table. She turned and took a few steps, encountering Tara at the kitchen's entrance. They both stepped to one side, then back to the the other. "Wanna dance?" Willow asked sheepishly, joking at their impasse. Tara smiled warmly and reached out with her hands, placing them on Willow's hips. Willow sucked in a breath and Tara walked her to the side, then passed without a word. Oh god, oh god, oh god, Willow thought, her eyes the size of saucers as she walked their meal to the table.

Hands on Willow's hips! Tara thought, blushing bright red as she reentered the kitchen. Why did I do that? Oh god, why did I do that?! She blinked a few times and then thought, why did I even come back in here? Oh, right... She grabbed two wine glasses and walked to the fridge. She grabbed a bottle of white wine, but then quickly thought better of it and instead grabbed a bottle of sparkling water. Don't need any tipsy accidents... Tara thought, imagining the trouble a glass or two of wine could get her into. She took a deep breath and exited to the table.

"This is really nice," Willow complimented as Tara joined her, setting the bottle of Pelligrino down on the table.

"Thanks," Tara replied, taking in her own handy work. The large table had been made small by the removal of the center leaf and the strategic repositioning of the two extra chairs against the wall. She had set the place settings side-by-side instead of across the table from each other, a fact that she was now rethinking as Willow sat down.

"What's this?" Willow said, pointing at the salad. "I mean, I know it's tomatoes, but-"

"Tomato salad," Tara said, sitting down, noting just how close the redhead was to her with this positioning. "They had a bunch of different varieties, so I thought, just add some vineger, parsely..."

"Looks good," Willow said, nodding appreciatively.

"Thanks," Tara replied. Now what... she thought apprehensively. She watched as Willow picked up the bottle of water and poured them each a glass. "So what'd you do today? Besides grocery shop, I mean?" Willow asked, an interested look on her face and Tara smiled, relieved that the redhead had taken over the conversation.

They spent the next thirty-five minutes chatting amiably about the weather and the food as they ate, the back-and-forth more relaxed than either nervous girl thought possible. Each kept stealing quick looks at the other, both taking the opportunity when the other was speaking to really look at the talking girl. Their fingers occasionally touched as they passed items between them, and both girls wondered if the other could tell just how flushed they felt. After a long pause in the conversation, Willow pushed her plate away, thoroughly stuffed, and asked before taking a sip of water, "so will you go to L.A. for the show down there, or..."

"I could," Tara answered, herself pushing her plate away. "But I probably won't, it depends on how the next few days go."

"What happens then?" Willow asked, putting her glass down on the table.

"Well, the whole point of the L.A. show is to show our overflow from this show in a different setting," The blonde explained. "I've already sold eleven paintings-"

"Tara that's great!" Willow interrupted, smiling widely and inching forward in her chair toward the blonde.

"Thanks," Tara said, blushing at Willow's enthusiasm.

"I knew people would see the light," Willow said, smiling proudly and puffing out her chest. "Or, the paintings, as the case may be."

"Thanks," Tara again said, not used to this kind of intense attention from Willow but loving it just the same.

"So, you think you might sell out?" Willow asked, keeping her eyes on Tara's rosy cheeks. She's blushing... doesn't she know how wonderful she is, how talented...? "I mean, you're worried you might not have anything for L.A., and that's why you wouldn't go?"

"Oh, I'll have paintings," Tara said. "I'm kind of, contractually obligated to show in L.A., just, they probably won't be overflow." The blonde reached up and took a sip of water, placing the glass back on the table and continuing. "I'll probably have to put in some hours this next week coming up with a few new paintings for L.A."

"Wow," Willow said, shaking her head, an impressed grin gracing her face. "That's so amazing." She looked up and smiled at Tara. "Congratulations," she said sincerely.

"Thanks," Tara said, looking down at her lap. I must sound like a broken record... she thought. She looked up at Willow, and asked, "what about you? Anything exciting happening for you at work lately?" Answer with something other than, 'no', please... Tara thought, waiting for Willow's reply.

"Nope," Willow said, shifting in her seat and looking down as she shook her head. "So," she looked back up at the blonde with a hopeful, distracting look. "Do we have dessert, or am I doing to have to raid my purse for Tic Tacs..."

Tara sighed and set her jaw, looking down at her hands disappointed. She pulled her napkin from her lap and placed it on the plate, Willow watching the whole time, fully aware that the blonde's reaction was due to her reticence. What, are you just going to do this forever? Change the subject every time she asks about work...? You're supposed to be learning to be friends, good friends- "I was just kidding," Willow said, speaking only to break up the awkward silence. "About the Tic Tacs, it's okay if there's nothing for dessert..." Tara continued to look down, not replying to Willow's words. There was a long moment of silence before Tara spoke.

"Why do you always do that?"

"Do what?" Willow asked as innocently as she could, shrinking a little as Tara's gaze met her own.

"Change the subject whenever I ask about your work," Tara replied simply, evenly.

"I do?" Willow asked, again trying the 'play dumb' route. When Tara ducked her gaze and shook her head, Willow quickly amended, "I mean, I do." Tara looked up at her roommate, searching, waiting for an answer. Willow opened her mouth and then frowned. "I don't know," Willow said. You do know. Just... This dinner is going so well, don't ruin it. Just... gloss it over and move on to other things, happy things, things that will make her eyes sparkle... "I guess because it's boring," the redhead said, hoping the innocuous answer would fly.

"Then why do you do it?" Tara asked.

Willow frowned, caught off guard by the question. Why do I... "I-" the redhead paused for a long second. "Because... it's not boring to me," she said.

"But... it's boring to me?" Tara asked, looking at Willow dubiously. "I don't even know what you do," the blonde said, disbelievingly, Willow looking down at her clasped fingers in her lap. "I mean, how can I already think it's boring if I don't even know what it is?" Willow didn't reply, and Tara watched as the redhead twisted her fingers nervously. What is she worried about... it can't be that I'd think it was 'boring'... "I asked Buffy what you did last week," Tara said, Willow stiffening at the mention of the petite blonde. "And she, your best friend, said she didn't know what you did either..."

Tara was surprised when it looked like Willow was momentarily stung by her words, the redhead quickly hiding her emotions as she swallowed hard and shifted in her seat, looking as if she was mulling over an uncomfortable admission. What... Tara thought confused, before Willow spoke.

"Buffy knows what I do..." Willow said, looking up and then away, her voice hesitant. "She just... doesn't like to hear about the work I do do, so I don't talk about it." She paused for a long moment, before adding, "it makes her uncomfortable."

"Uncomfortable," Tara repeated, not liking how the word sounded, her brow furrowing as she tried to figure out what Willow was saying. "That's... why would it..." A light went on in Tara's mind and the blonde closed her eyes and took a deep breath before looking up in time to see the redhead look away. "Medical imaging," she said softly. Willow shifted in her seat uneasily as Tara pressed her lips together, her mind whirling. "Buffy- you don't talk about your work because the MRI misjudged the size of Joyce's tumor...?" Willow didn't reply, just stared at her plate and Tara's jaw dropped as she further pieced together the puzzle. She looked up at Willow with absolute vulnerability. "Because of my mom?"

Willow didn't look up, instead choosing to stand and stack Tara's plate on her own. "I wouldn't mind a cup of coffee, how about you..." she turned and took off for the kitchen, leaving Tara dumbstruck. The blonde turned and looked to the kitchen when she heard the sink start to run and stood, walking purposefully in after Willow.

The redhead faced the sink, her shoulder's hunched and her back to Tara. Her fingers shook as she placed the plates in the water and she took a deep breath. Just gloss it over, don't get into anything specific... don't make her any more uncomfortable than she's bound to be... Willow thought, sighing.

The blonde entered the kitchen and stared at the lithe redhead's form, watched as one of her thin arms reached up and turned off the faucet. Tara blinked a few times before asking, "you don't talk about your w-work because you think it'll remind me of my mom, what happened to her, w-what the doctor missed?" Tara shook her head, stunned as the words she said out loud came back to her, sunk in with her. "Willow-no..."

Willow turned around and grimaced when she saw Tara's pained face. "We don't have to talk about this-" she started to say reassuringly.

"No, w-we do, Willow-" Tara again stopped herself. "What do you do for work?"

"I work with computers," Willow said, looking down, knowing the vague answer wasn't what Tara wanted to hear, but unable to bring herself to elaborate.

"Doing what," Tara pressed, almost pleading, shock lacing her speech. "I mean, do you... SutterSoft does medical imaging software, do you... do you w-work with, mammograms-?"

"No," Willow said softly. "I mean, I did in college, part of the program I was in, but not now, no."

"So..." Tara led, still confused, still reeling from the thought that Willow was protecting her? Is that what this is? Willow looked up and then back down, before speaking in a tentative tone.

"The project I'm working on now involves bone scans." The redhead looked up at her roommate, her eyes wide, unsure of how the blonde would react. Tara stared at Willow dumbly, so the redhead continued. "Increasing resolution, other... things..."

"My mom had bone cancer," Tara said.

"I know," Willow replied softly, unable to move as the knot formed in her stomach. Her heart going out to the blonde standing before her.

"She had breast cancer, but the first doctor, the one at the clinic, missed it," Tara related, her voice surprisingly neutral. "He wasn't a licensed radiologist and he read the mammogram wrong, told my mom it w-was nothing, that the lump w-would go away." Willow just nodded her head, unable to speak, and Tara continued. "The cancer metastasized. It spread, t-they didn't catch it until she complained about not being able to sleep through the night because her bones ached-"

"Tara, you don't need-"

"You," Tara stopped, her gaze locked on the redhead's green eyes, the words she wanted to say fleeing her. She just stood across from Willow silent, her mind too busy to focus.

"I'm sorry," Willow said. Tara looked at her quizzically, so the redhead continued. "I mean, I'm sorry... I... I know. About your mom." Tara swallowed hard and Willow continued. "I remember when you told me, that day in the park." Tara's brow furrowed. "I didn't..." Willow shifted her weight uncomfortably. "I didn't want, I mean, I remember how upset you were when you told me-"

"Willow that-" Tara shook her head, looking down to try and collect her thoughts. The park... she remembers the park... Tara looked back up at the frightened? redhead, and said, "I was, emotional... But, there were so many other things going on that day," Tara again shook her head. "My dad was sick, and other, stuff..." Tara exhaled and ducked her gaze until she made, and held, Willow's eye contact. "But, you didn't have to keep this from me. Protect me-"

Willow nodded before saying, "it's just, Buffy-"

"I'm not Buffy," Tara said simply, and Willow nodded her head. "I don't, blame the machines, or even the doctor, not anymore..." Tara looked down, then back up. "Willow, I..." she took a deep breath and continued. "I don't w-want you to, hide, who you are from me because you think I won't like it..." Tara paused. "I'll let you know if I can't handle something."

"Okay," Willow said simply. A long moment of silence settled into the few feet between them, around them, the hum from the refrigerator the only thing indicating that time was in fact still moving.

"So," Tara started before stopping. "You," she frowned, trying to word what she wanted to know. "You, create the machines-?"

"No," Willow said, shaking her head. "I just, try and make the output, the images the machines' capture, easier to read. Interpret." Willow dug her hands into the counter, gripping hard as she gingerly explained. "You know, like, add color to a tissue mass that's solid, or something..."

Tara nodded, the silence again creeping in. "Willow..." The blonde paused so she could say what she wanted to say right. "What you do... your work?" Tara caught Willow's eye and nodded to emphasis her words. "It's noble."

Willow shook her head, chuckling nervously. "No, I-" she thought about the best way to counter the blonde without making her feel bad. "I make a lot of money doing what I do," Willow explained, "and SutterSoft is a big, corporate, corporation. It's all about the doctors." Tara just stared at Willow so the redhead continued. "The doctors do the tough stuff, the real work. We just, help, them..." Tara nodded her head, letting the redhead have her modesty. "Besides, what I do?" Willow said, trying to change the mood. "It actually is kind of boring. All, algorithms and code. Not very fun unless you're into that sort of thing, and, I don't think you are..."

Tara didn't say anything, so Willow further racked her brain for a way to ease the tension. "Whenever I talk about work stuff with Xander, his eyes glaze over." Willow looked to the floor smiling slightly at the thought of Xander's empty stare, missing Tara tense at the mention of the dark-haired man's name. "I think he drifts off to his happy place," the redhead continued, her smile widening as she looked up. "Or figures out pizza topping combinations or whatever..."

Tara sighed, nodding. Of course he wouldn't give you the attention and praise you deserve, the blonde thought hotly. Because he's Xander, and he's an insensitive idiot. "Well, you d-don't have to worry about that from me," Tara said, leaning against the counter, wondering if Willow thought others thought her job was boring just because of Xander's reaction. "I don't even like pizza..." she tacked on absently, her mind stuck on the man she was growing to dislike even more.

"How?" Tara was snapped out of her thoughts and looked up at the redhead, confused by Willow's worried tone. "I mean how, how is that possible," Willow continued, looking at Tara like she had announced she didn't like puppies or the sun. "How can you not like pizza?"

Tara had to laugh at the childlike pout on the redhead's lips, smile at the deep, concerned crease on her roommate's forehead. "Um," Tara said, thinking of what to say. "I um, I think because I ate so much of it in college." She smiled as the look on Willow's face turned quizzical. "I O.P.'d." Tara explained. "Over-pizzad," she quickly defined. The blonde mock shuddered and added, "I can't even walk down the Top Raman, Cup O' Soup aisle at the grocery store anymore..."

"Apple juice!" Tara's eyebrows shot up in surprise at Willow's exclamation. "Sorry, me too, with apple juice." The redhead came off the counter a bit, her hands animated in front of her. "It was a sippy cup staple; by the time I got to grade school it was bleugh." Tara chuckled softly as Willow continued. "Same with grape juice, to a lesser degree. Oh, but I'm fine with orange juice."

"How about sparkling grape juice," Tara asked teasingly.

"Ah yes, the underage champagne substitute," Willow smiled, overjoyed at the relaxing of the previously tense atmosphere. "Better, but only because of the bubbles. If it's flat, then bleugh."

"Cider?" Tara asked.

"Hot or cold," Willow smiled. You're flirting, better stop...

"Um... both," Tara said, her efforts to contain the full-blown smile that was threatening to expose every tooth in her head, rapidly failing.

"Hot, I like, especially with cinnamon," Willow said, relaxing as the blonde's lop-sided smile began to emerge. "Reminds me of being cozy on a winter day. Cold, not so much. Makes my stomach all acidy." Tara's warm smile grew.

I love this woman... she thought, before continuing to tease by asking, "Cranberry juice?"

"Very yummy," Willow replied. Oh yeah, you're definitely flirting here, better stop... the redhead thought, wondering nervously if Tara could tell.

"Cranapple?" Tara asked.

"Sneaky..." Willow smiled widely. "But I'm so on to you, trying to slip that apple in on me..."

"What about... cranapple-"

"You already said that one," Willow said with a chuckle, leaning into the counter.

"Cobbler," Tara finished, biting her lip.

"Cobbler juice?" Willow asked confused.

"Cranapple cobbler," Tara said, lightly laughing. "I made one this afternoon for dessert."

Cobbler dessert? "Oooo, yes please!" Willow said, bouncing up and down.

"Are you sure?" Tara asked, narrowing her eyes as her wicked half smile appeared. "Because I do have some Tic Tacs-"

"Cobbler," Willow interrupted with a big smile. "No Tic Tacs."

God, she looks like a little girl... she's so... everything. Everything wonderful... Tara smiled wide and moved to the oven, pulling out the finished product.

"Coffee?" Willow asked, watching appreciatively as the blonde bent over and placed the cobbler on the counter.

"How about some herbal tea..." Tara replied. If she has coffee now she'll be up all night... which wouldn't be a bad thing... but she has to work...

"Tea it is," Willow replied, moving over to start the kettle, taking a few mugs from the shelf and moving to the tea stand. She's amazing, my god, she's amazing... the redhead thought, stealing a quick look at the blonde as she cut the cobbler. I love her.

The two sat at the kitchen counter and ate their dessert slowly, Willow going for seconds as they nursed their teas until the last sips taken were cold. Willow finally covered her mouth and yawned at around 10, and Tara chuckled. "Somebody's sleepy..."

"Not me," Willow countered. "I'm wide-awa-" her words cut off with another yawn. Tara chuckled again and raised an 'oh really' eyebrow. Willow frowned. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Tara said, putting the girl's plate on top of her own. "You were up late last night."

Willow nodded, each girl thinking back on their conversation on the stairs. "Tara?"

"Hmm?" The blonde said, enjoying their close comfortableness.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Willow asked tentatively.

Tara nodded. "I told you, your work doesn't bother-"

"No, I-" Willow blushed as she looked down. "I meant last night."

"Oh," Tara said, looking down. She nodded and looked up. "I'm sure," she replied.

Willow nodded herself, should I press...? "It's just, you looked so upset, and I just wanted you to know-"

"It's okay," Tara said, reaching forward and squeezing Willow's hand before letting go. Willow nodded, her hand tingling where the blonde had touched her.

After a long moment the redhead finally spoke. "I should probably..."

"Yup," Tara said, taking the stacked plates and their mugs and standing.

"Do you want me to help-" Willow asked, also standing.

"Nope, you go get some beauty sleep," Tara said. Like you need it... "I'll take care of the dishes." Willow opened her mouth to protest, but the blonde stopped her. "Really, I don't mind. I'm not tired yet... I thought I could do the dishes and then spend some time in the studio, see if I can't get started on some stuff for L.A...."

"Okay," Willow said. She spoke up as her roommate began to walk away. "Tara?" The blonde turned, an expectant look on her face. "I had a really great time tonight," Willow said sweetly.

"Me too," Tara said sincerely. More than you could possibly know... she thought, delighting in how warm her heart felt, how relaxed and happy she had been during their conversation over dessert.

Willow nodded, but couldn't move. You have to move, she expects you to go to bed. Move! "Well, goodnight," Willow said with an awkward wave.

"Goodnight." Tara said, walking to the sink and starting the water. Willow ducked her head and disappeared up the stairs.

She emerged in the hallway and turned into the bathroom, quickly putting paste on her brush and starting on her teeth. Tara wasn't upset... All this time I thought she'd be upset, like Buffy... Willow shook her head in amazement. She said I was 'noble'... The redhead rinsed and walked to her room, smiling as she heard Tara washing the dishes downstairs. Dinner had been perfect. Well not perfect, the job thing... But even that was okay... Willow changed into her pajamas and turned off the light, climbing into bed. Tara makes everything okay...

The redhead checked her clock, making sure the alarm was set and then settled in to fall asleep. Her eyes were heavy, but her mind was still running fast. After a few minutes of laying still, she jumped out of bed and grabbed her phone from her desk. She returned to bed and snuggled under the covers before dialing. She waited through a few rings, and then said softly in the dark, "Xander? I just had the best night ever..."

Tara turned off the sink and walked around the kitchen bar and toward her studio. She listened closely as she passed the stairs but heard no noise from upstairs. She must be out already... The blonde smiled softly and entered the studio, closing the door behind her as she flicked on the lights. The soft yet bright 'natural' lights illuminated the space, and she walked over to the small stereo she had. She pressed play, and listened as the jazzy strains of The Bad Plus filled the room.

She looked over her supplies, the easel and her smock, and then turned her attention to a wall featuring framed work she couldn't find places for in the rest of the house. Four installation spots, the second to the left empty, as it's inhabitant 'Fillmore' was at the gallery. She turned and looked at the various 'completed' canvas underneath the large window on the opposite side of the room, her gaze immediately settling on one white canvas slashed with a broad stripe of red paint. Tara sighed.

She didn't talk about her job because she was worried it would hurt me... The blonde's brow furrowed as she thought back on the evening. The redhead's consideration and concern... it was almost overwhelming. For three years she held onto what losing my mother meant to me... Tara thought. She felt she had to protect me, keep what is so obviously a big part of who she is from me because she didn't want me to hurt. Didn't want me to hurt like how Buffy hurts... The blonde's thoughts reached out to her best friend. The girl was still so angry over her mother's death, the ensuing custody battle doing nothing to help the petite blonde's distrust of the system. Willow... Tara shook her head, her mind shifting again. That day in the park affected Willow as well...

Tara moved to the wall opposite the door, and sunk down along it's smoothness until she sat on the hardwood floor, her knees brought to her chest, her left palm flat on the ground for support. She stared straight ahead for a long moment and then reached up and took her cordless phone from the drawing table she used as a desk. She dialed a number automatically, and continued to stare at nothing in particular as she listened to the rings. A sleepy "hello" came from the voice on the other end of the line, and Tara spoke.

"Buffy? It's Tara..."

Continue to Neverland Chapter Twenty-Three

Return to Story Archive
Return to Main Page