Return to Neverland Chapter Twenty-Four


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.

They were laughing.

Real, honest-to-god laughing. It wasn't the over-the-top kind where tears streamed down beet-red faces, or the kind that was done nervously to ease a tense situation. It was relaxed, affectionate and best of all, done together. Tara just couldn't believe her luck. Here she was, sitting across from Willow in a restaurant laughing. And it felt wonderful. Right. She was floating on air and couldn't imagine a time where she had felt more... more... just, more, everything. Happy and alive, satisfied and in love. It was perfect, and it was only Thai on a Thursday night.

The whole evening so far had been amazing. Just amazing. The blonde's face rested in her palm, and she watched as Willow told her story. The redhead was animated, using her wide-eyes and constantly moving hands to build the story's dramatic tension. She had a habit of rotating each hand at the wrist, fingers splayed and curled slightly as she described the details of her tale; it was a uniquely Willow movement, and Tara smiled each time the redhead did it.

Was Tara's earlier confusion gone? No. Willow was still straight, she still loved Xander and for the time being Tara just didn't care. She was sitting across from the redhead, the object of Willow's full attention and Tara thought her heart was going to burst. All that other stuff didn't matter right now, not when Willow was staring at her like that. Not when Tara could still feel her back tingling from where the redhead had touched her.

Willow had touched her three times, in fact, on the way to the restaurant. The first Tara didn't even think about. They were walking side-by-side and bumped hands. "Sorry," Willow quickly apologized, and the blonde had just smiled reassuringly.

"No problem." Tara had thought she had seen a spark in Willow's eye before the redhead turned away, and when she felt Willow's hand on her elbow, urging her to cross the street, she had smiled to herself. Willow never touched her; never. It wasn't as if the redhead was incapable of the small touches; after all, Tara had watched the girl walk arm-in-arm with Buffy enough, just Willow wasn't affectionate like that with her. Not since...

Tara giggled as Willow made a hilarious, faux-shocked expression from across the table, and then sighed as the girl continued with her storytelling, the blonde completely enraptured. Amazing...

The third touch was when Willow held open the restaurant door and had guided Tara in with a hand on the small of her back. The redhead's touch was equal parts soft and firm, and Tara had blushed as she walked ahead of the girl. Again, an innocent touch that she had seen the redhead employ before with Buffy, but not with me, never with me, not since...

Tara chuckled as Willow flapped her hands in front of her face, and the blonde thanked the stars that she was allowed to sit across from this gorgeous creature and stare at her. Stare at the girl's sparkling green eyes, framed by freckled, pale skin and fiery red hair. How she was allowed to notice the way the girl's cheeks would curve as her lips curled up in a mischievous smile. The thin top lip matched with a fuller bottom, her teeth exposed. The tongue that darted forward and pushed against the teeth as she finished her story gleefully, waiting with a beaming smile for Tara's reaction. If I died right now, Tara thought, I'd die happy.

"So it was on her desk?" Tara asked, crinkling her nose in mock disgust, chuckling at the conclusion to Willow's tale.

"Yup," Willow replied with a proud grin. "Its little hands on the keyboard like it was going to type out an email." She pressed her lips together in a wide grin, reveling in the radiant smile Tara was giving her. She's having fun. I'm telling stories and she's having fun. She's having fun because of me! Yay! Willow thought excitedly, no longer worried that a silly story about her office's pest problem would be inappropriate dinner conversation.

"That's amazing," Tara said, nodding her head. "A-And a little gross," she added.

"Tell me about it," Willow said, pushing the remnants of her dinner across the plate. "Khalil-he's who I went to Portland with," Willow interjected before continuing. "He's been saying for weeks that he'd seen them in the bathroom, behind the vending machine, in the stairwell... but of course do they believe the programmers? No. Have to wait until office-manager-Debbie sees one on her desk and runs screaming through the halls like her hair was on fire before they take it seriously."

"See," Tara said, smiling slightly. "This is what I miss working at home."

Willow took a sip of her iced tea and put the drink back on the table. "I thought you liked working at home..."

"I do," Tara reassured. "It's just, nothing exciting ever happens. I mean, it's pretty much just me and my paint." She flashed Willow a half-smile and the redhead's stomach fluttered.

"Yeah, but if you love it..." Willow said, looking down at her plate and then back up quickly so as not to be caught staring. "I mean, I personally think rats and screaming office managers are highly overrated benefits of being forced to spend a minimum of forty hours a week in an always freezing cold office." The redhead shook her head. "Would it kill them to adjust the A/C every now and again? Or you know, turn it off."

"Have you ever thought of working from home?" Tara asked, taking a sip of water. "I mean, I don't know if that's an option-"

"It is," Willow said. "They'd let me telecommute a day or two a week if I wanted to, I just," Willow paused trying to think of how best to explain. "I'm kind of a workaholic, and it's not really... healthy, to have my work at home. I'd just spend all my time working. Literally. Kind of a big fan of the all night research party."

"You don't already work at home?" Tara asked, a little confused. "I mean, at night, I thought..."

"I do," Willow replied. "But I don't have access to the office's server so it's pretty much just stuff I bring home. It's kinda, finite; I work until I'm done. If I worked off the server I might never stop. Unlimited supply!" Willow said as she shook her head. "It was, kind of a problem, thing, when I was in college. Bryan said I came in two modes. Work-mode and unconscious. Besides," Willow said, taking a deep breath as she continued, saying somewhat vulnerably, "I'd probably get lonely if I worked at home."

"Lonely?" Tara asked. Wasn't expecting that...

"Yeah," Willow said, with a bit of forced cheer. "I mean... pathetic as it sounds, work is kind of social for me." The redhead smiled sheepishly. "I don't, have a lot of friends here, besides Buffy, I mean."

"And me," Tara added with a soft half smile.

"And you," Willow said, a huge smile on her face. "It's just, if I worked from home-"

"No, I get that," Tara said. "I was really worried about that when I started working at home, but, I don't know, you find ways to keep busy, meet people."

Willow nodded. Unless you're a total spaz like me, she thought.

"So what's going to happen?" Tara asked, her brow wrinkled in concern. "I mean, rats, that's... usually, bad."

"Eh, I don't know," Willow replied with a shrug, pushing the ice cubes in her drink around with her straw. "We're supposed to have a meeting about it tomorrow."

"I can't believe you're not, um, f-freaked out by this," Tara said, shaking her head.

"Why?" Willow replied, curiously.

"Because... they're rats." Willow didn't respond with anything more than a quizzical look, so Tara chuckled. "Nothing, I guess you're just relieved your office isn't infested with horses."

The color ran out of Willow's face and Tara laughed. Adorable... she thought as she smiled, mischievously. "Or ponies, frogs, spiders..." she ticked off, looking at the ceiling. When she looked back down at her dinner companion, Willow had a mock grim expression. "Am I missing any?" Tara asked sweetly, her eyebrow arched teasingly.

"Tadpoles," Willow said, almost too softly. Tara laughed, smiling brightly at the redhead and Willow frowned, mock indignant. "What? They grow up to be frogs!"

"I'm sorry, of course," Tara said, clearing her throat and putting on her best straight face. "It's a very valid fear."

"Darn tootin'," Willow said, nodding her head resolutely, a grin on her face. We're flirting! Willow thought. I mean, I'm flirting. But she's definitely teasing me, and that's flirty-like, right? She felt her heart flutter and she sighed happily. Tara's teasing me...

"Have you seen any?"

Willow's face scrunched up, confused. "Tadpol-?"

"Rats," Tara chuckled, shaking her head. Simply adorable...

"Oh, no." Willow said. "I mean, there was that scritching sound I told you about in the wall of my office, but I haven't actually seen one. Of course, that might change tonight, at least, virtually," she said, bouncing in her seat excitedly. "See, I wrote up this program to work with my web cam; the camera is motion automated, so if anything furry crawls across my desk, the computer will come to life and record the vermin's secret midnight activities." She smiled widely, proud, puffing out her chest.

Tara shook her head, chuckling. She raised an eyebrow and asked, "you set up rat surveillance for your desk?"

"Well, yeah," Willow said, her excitement fading as she realized how lame this must sound. "Cause... I'm, a dork..." she finished weakly.

"You're not a dork," Tara said, rolling her eyes. "I think it's clever," she added, nodding her head sincerely.

"For a dork," Willow amended, her cheeks burning hot. Great job, she internally chastised. Why don't you tell her about how your mom used to pick your clothes out for you while you were in high school while you're at it, I'm sure that'll be a real turn on too...

"Willow," Tara chastised, ducking her head to make eye-contact with the flushed redhead. "You're not a dork."

"Yeah, I am," Willow said, looking up with a weak smile. "It's okay, it's who I am, I know that," she admitted sheepishly. When Tara continued to stare at her, a confused, concerned look in her face, the redhead continued. "No, seriously," Willow said, waving her hand in front of her dismissively. "I get, abnormally excited about really nerdy things, which pretty much makes me, you know, a nerd."

"Willow..." Tara said. She can't really think that about herself; this, gorgeous, intelligent, funny-

"I mean, I could have bought a car with the money I spent on my computer monitor," Willow said, continuing on with her examples, looking down at her fingers, which she twisted in her lap. "Granted, it'd be a crappy, used car that would probably break down and backfire a lot but still... dork."

Tara couldn't believe her ears. "Willow, you're not-"

"I watch movies over the phone with Xander," Willow said, offering the activity as punctuating proof of her dorkiness.

Tara swallowed hard. She had to bring up Xander... the blonde thought, as she looked down at her lap. The touches, the maybe flirting... Xander. Tara looked up at Willow's expressive, worried eyes, and although the blonde knew that what she was about to say would hurt, she couldn't let Willow get away with what she was saying about herself. "That doesn't make you a dork..." Tara said reassuringly as she took in a deep breath, forcing herself to say the words spinning in her mind. "You love him." She paused for a split second before continuing. "You want to spend time with him." Tara looked up into Willow's bright eyes and added softly, "I get that..."

Willow watched Tara speak and her heart melted. The blonde understood. Without ever having talked about her relationship with Xander at any great length with Tara, the girl still managed to understand how important her friend was to her. Could she be any more wonderful, any more caring... Willow offered up a gentle smile, her brow quirking slightly for a moment before she nodded. "I do," she said softly, awed by Tara's perceptiveness. "Love him I mean, want to spend time with him. He's... my Xander, you know?"

Tara just nodded, her stomach clenched into a tight ball. She felt like she had swallowed glass, and her skin felt cold. The open look on Willow's face... the obvious deep affection... it was almost too much.

"I wish he would move up here," Willow said, looking down at the tablecloth. "I miss him. I mean, I talk to him on the phone almost everyday, but it's not the same..." Willow thought about her best friend, running her finger absently along the edge of the glass of iced tea in front of her. "He says it's too expensive, the Bay Area, which I get... I just. I don't know. I should just be happy for him because he's got this great job in Sunnydale, and he has his own place but..." she trailed off, not sure she was making sense.

Tara took a deep breath and said quietly, "you want more..."

Willow nodded. "Yeah, I guess I do." She looked up at the blonde, offering the girl a warm smile. "But it's his life..." she said with a shrug as she looked at Tara's bowed head and tried to figure out the blonde's mood. The silence was broken by Willow's phone ringing. The redhead made no move for her jacket pocket, her eyes trained on Tara's form.

"Y-You're not going to answer?" Tara stammered, finally looking up.

Did I say something wrong...? Willow thought. She shook her head. "I'd rather talk to you."

Tara swallowed and nodded. "Answer it," she replied softly, needing a reprieve from Willow's attention so she could pull herself out of the quickly expanding darkness she was finding herself falling into.

"Okay," Willow said as she reached into her jacket pocket and opened the phone, smiling when she saw the name on the screen. "Hey Buffy, what's up?" The redhead smiled at Tara. "How's NYC? No, just out to dinner with Tara. Yes, that Tara," Willow said, rolling her eyes. Tara smiled weakly. "We're at this new Thai place down on 16th. Um, coconut milk chicken with basil. Yeah it was good." Tara started to stand and Willow looked up, wide-eyed.

"Bathroom," Tara mouthed and Willow nodded, smiling at the girl walking past her.

"What?" Willow said into the phone. "Pad thai," she replied, willing herself not to turn and watch Tara walk away. "I don't know," she said frowning slightly into the phone. "Because I asked her and it seemed like fun?" There was a slight pause and Willow frowned even more. "What do you mean it's weird?"

Tara entered the bathroom in a rush, her eyes stinging, her hand on her stomach. She felt like she was wearing a corset laced too tight, and she couldn't breathe. She turned on the sink and thanked god that the room was empty, tears stinging her eyes. Hearing the words, hearing Willow confirm what she knew about the redhead's feelings for Xander was too much, too painful. Tara put her hands in the water and then pulled the wet palms to her face, breathing deeply to try and stave off hyperventilating as she pressed her fingertips into her eyes. She pulled her hands away and then reached out for a paper towel, quickly wiping the excess water from her eyes. She caught her panicked reflection in the mirror and froze.

What are you doing? She stared at her reflection like it was a stranger, yet it so obviously was not... This woman in the mirror... this was the same person who a half an hour ago was glowing because of Willow's attention. The same person who forty minutes before that had swooned when she felt the redhead's hand on her back. The same person who hours earlier had asked Morgan if she could bring Willow to the party instead of asking the brunette on a date as planned. So what changed.

Did she know a half an hour ago, two hours ago, six, that Willow loved Xander? Of course. Yet here she was, on the verge of sobbing in a public bathroom because of... What? Tara asked herself. Because Willow said what she already knew? Because something she had chosen to ignore as she got wrapped up in Willow's presence had forced itself into her conscious mind? The sparkling green eyes. The beautiful smile. The touches...

Willow is straight. She loves Xander. Tara said as she stared at herself. You knew that... you didn't need to hear it to know that...

She looked down at her hands, white from tightly gripping the edge of the counter. Willow's voice had been so tender, so affectionate. Tara's chin trembled and she took a deep breath to fight off the tears. She looked up at her reflection again, the whites of her eyes tinged with red. So now what? She asked herself. She sighed and shook her head. The sixty-four thousand dollar question... What do you do now?

Tara returned to their table about five minutes later. "Hey, long line?" Willow asked, looking up with a smile.

"Uh huh," Tara replied as she sat, averting her eyes, and taking a quick sip of water.

"Are you, okay?" Willow asked, her face turning concerned. She looks kinda... shaky... Willow thought.

"I'm fine," Tara replied with a forced smile. "So t-that was Buffy?"

"Yup," Willow said, not entirely sure Tara was telling the truth. "She said to say hello. She was kind of in a rush, otherwise she would have said hi herself." Tara nodded and Willow swallowed hard as she prepared herself for her next set of questions. "So, I know this is more of a, Friday question, and today is still Thursday but - any big plans this weekend?" She smiled hopefully at the blonde.

"Um, I'm going over to Oakland with Anya on S-Saturday morning," Tara said. "She's thinking about expanding her business, and she wanted to go check out a site o-over there." Tara looked up and noticed Willow's hopeful gaze. "Why?"

Anya... Willow thought with disgust as she started to answer Tara's question. "I was just, wondering, if you wanted to have lunch with my uncle Roger and me. But if you're busy-"

"I t-told her I'd go a couple of weeks ago..." Tara said apologetically, her heart racing at turning down more time with Willow.

"That's okay," Willow said, the slightest touch of disappointment lacing her voice as she smiled. "Another time."

"So, y-you're having lunch...?" Tara asked, eager to get the girl across from her talking. She wasn't feeling very conversational, as the stutter proved, and if she could get Willow going...

"We're going to go look at condos," Willow said nonchalantly. Tara's head snapped up at the words.

"C-Condos?" Tara asked, simultaneously relieved and fear stricken. She's going to move out? She thought, torn about whether she should encourage this house-hunting or reassure Willow she really didn't have to move. Ever.

"Yeah," Willow said blithely. "My mom is really insistent that I buy like, now. She doesn't seem to understand that everything is really expensive and you know, not so nice. So she called Roger, he called some people and now I'm going condo shopping. I'm not feeling too optimistic though."

"Y-You're not?" Tara said, her mind whirling. Willow might move out... Willow's going to move out... oh god... this is good, right? Right?

"Nope," Willow replied. "I mean, first of all, $500,000 for 1,000 square feet?" She twisted up her face to illustrate how crazy that was. "And they're all in SOMA. I mean, I know that neighborhood is supposed to be getting nicer, what with all of the new development, but 'nice' is just another word for 'gentrified' and I don't know if I want to be one of those high-tech money people that destroys neighborhoods with their austere, over-priced lofts and Starbucks on every corner." Willow paused. "I've mentioned that my parents were hippies, right?"

Tara nodded. Willow moving out... That's what she wanted, right? It's what she resolved to bring up when she left the bathroom. So why did it feel so wrong now that they were talking about it?

"Ideally I'd stay in the Mission," Willow continued. "Or you know, maybe Noe Valley? It's just, there haven't been any places in those neighborhoods in my price range for the past month or so and... Tara?"

"Yeah?" Tara snapped her head up, her eyes wide.

"Are you sure you're okay, you look a little... " Willow's eyes went wide. "You're not sick, are you? Food poisoning? I researched, this place didn't have any health violations-"

"What? No," Tara said, flushing red at the thought of her conflicting emotions being so obviously written across her face. She sighed and looked up, crinkling her brow. "I'm fine, really. I'm sorry, I just... have a l-lot on my mind, I guess."

"Oh," Willow said. "Do you want to talk about it?" She asked tentatively. The waiter showed and dropped off the bill. Tara reached for it but Willow beat her to it. "My treat, remember?"

"You don't need to..." Tara said. "You bought me breakfast-"

"To make up for my totally rude-o lack of manners," Willow said.

"I didn't let you clean. I seem to recall sending you off to bed," Tara replied.

"I didn't have to listen," Willow smiled softly. "Besides, you bought the ingredients and then did almost all of the cooking; all I ended up doing was the sauce. Let me. Please."

"Okay," Tara nodded, knowing that she's just look prideful and perhaps ungrateful if she further insisted on helping with the bill.

Willow quickly looked at the bill and pulled out some money from her wallet, placing the greenbacks in the little sleeve. "So..." Willow hesitantly said as she placed the sleeve on the edge of the table, Tara looking across the table at her confused. "The, lot on your mind... do you want to talk about-"

"It's no big deal," Tara said, her stomach clenching a bit as she started to lie about the origin of her dis-ease. "I just, sold another painting-"

"Congratulations!" Willow said through a huge smile, bouncing in her seat. Tara blushed under the redhead's happy gaze.

"Just means I need to paint yet another new one before the show..." the blonde explained, hoping she wouldn't have to continue talking about this.

"Oh," Willow replied. She had no idea if that was an improbable task, or if it would take the blonde ten minutes. I wonder if she's going to be stressed out all week, if I should maybe offer to spend the weekend elsewhere...

"It's not a big deal, really," Tara said, eager to get onto a new topic. "I have a couple I'm working on. Just means some time at home this next week." Tara looked over at Willow, who appeared to be considering her own thoughts. "Wanna go?"

"Sure," Willow said, her mind now reviewing when it was that Tara's mood had shifted. The bathroom...? Or was it just before then... As they walked out the front door, Willow reached out with her right hand and rubbed the back of Tara's left arm reassuringly. "I'm sure you'll do great with the paintings."

Tara nodded, her arm on fire from the touch. How does she do that... Tara thought as she waited on the sidewalk for Willow to get situated. One minute I'm almost crying in the bathroom and the next I'm flying, euphoric... The blonde looked at the redhead as the girl pulled her jacket tight around her. How am I ever going to love someone else this much?

"Ready?" Willow asked. Tara nodded and they began to walk toward their home. "Where did this cold come from?" Willow said, shivering slightly.

"Yeah, it is a bit chilly," Tara said, looking up the street toward the fog-capped hill.

"Are you cold?" Willow asked, turning to look at the blonde. "Do you want my jacket?"

Tara couldn't help but smile widely. "No, I think I'll be okay for the next few blocks," she said, the teasing tone matched perfectly with her dancing eyes. "Besides, then you'd just be cold and I'd have to give you the jackets... it'd be a vicious circle of unneeded thoughtfulness."

"Okay," Willow said, looking to her shoes, grateful that her blush was obscured by the dark. "So what are you going to do for the rest of the night?" She asked, hoping she wasn't sounding too desperate.

"I thought I'd work on those paintings," Tara said, fully aware that Willow was fishing for more time together tonight. I need to be alone, no thinking, just mindless activity... "I didn't have much time today, what with the meeting..."

"How'd that go?" Willow asked, moving the conversation along and away from her awkward attempt at garnering more Tara-time.

"I-It was fine, kinda boring." Tara said, flashing the redhead a quick smile. Willow smiled in return and they settled into a comfortable silence. Tara thought back on the meeting, about how easily she had ignored Marissa as she thought of Willow, how she had agreed to go to the party... The party... Tara thought, remembering that she hadn't yet asked Willow to go.

Should I? Tara asked herself as they walked in silence up the slight hill toward their apartment. I mean, should I? If Willow goes, will I spend all of my time with her? Will I spend time with Morgan... I should spend time with Morgan... The blonde frowned and looked over at the redhead as Willow opened the front door. Willow stepped aside, holding the door open, brushing her hand against Tara's arm as the blonde entered. Again with the touch, Tara thought, leading Willow up the stairs. God, if she only knew what she did to me... she thought, blushing bright red in embarrassment, as she fumbled with her keys and opened the second door.

Tara entered, hearing Willow close and lock the door behind them, placing her keys on the secretary desk. Tara swallowed hard. Ask her or not? I don't know... There was an awkward moment of silence, both women wanting to say something, but unsure of what needed to be said.

"I had fun tonight," Willow said to Tara's back, twisting her fingers together nervously.

"M-Me too," Tara said, turning to take in the redhead. They smiled at each other awkwardly.

"Thanks for going out with me," Willow said, quickly amending with, "to try that new place."

"You're welcome," Tara said. "Any time," she tacked on before she could stop herself. Willow's face brightened and Tara couldn't help but wonder at that. She's driving me nuts...

"Well..." Willow said, swinging her arms as she walked sideways toward the stairs, not daring to take her eyes off of Tara. "I better, leave you to your painting." Tara nodded and Willow hit her palm against her fist. "Okay... goodnight."

"Goodnight," Tara said softly. Willow nodded and placed her first foot on the bottom step. "Will?"

Willow froze, her heart growing big. Will... "Yeah?" She said, turning to look at Tara.

"D-Do you want to g-go to a party tomorrow night?" Tara asked, immediately holding her breath as she waited for the answer. This is probably a really bad idea Tara...

She wants me to go to a- "Yes," Willow blurted out. "I mean, yes," she said, nodding, slightly embarrassed by her over-eager response.

"Cool," Tara said, nodding her head, breathing. "It's a um, red party?" Willow looked at her quizzically and Tara continued. "So everything is going to be red; red food, red drinks... all the guests are supposed to wear at least one item of red clothing, although..." Tara trailed off, smiling, "you probably wouldn't have to, what with your hair."

Willow smiled widely. "I think I have a shirt that would work." Tara nodded. "So, is this, 'red party' at a club, or..."

"No, just a regular house party. Marissa and Michelle will be there-"

"Oh, cool," Willow said, smiling. "I like them."

"Cool," Tara repeated, bobbing her head. "I figure, we'd need to leave here around 8 or so, it's up in North Beach."

"Okay," Willow nodded. "I can do that," she added, sweetly. They both settled into a moment of silence, before Tara spoke.

"I better," she nodded to her studio and Willow nodded once.

"And I do have some work that I could do." Willow smiled. "Goodnight."

Tara smiled, "goodnight," she said, as Willow disappeared up the stairs. Oh boy... the blonde thought as she walked in a daze to her studio. Oh... boy.

Continue to Neverland Chapter Twenty-Six

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