Return to Neverland Chapter Thirty-Five


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. Songs in order: 'La la la la' is The Shins' "Saint Simon", the songs in the first part are The Features "Exhibit A" and "Blow It Out", then for the second part, song 10 is The Features "The Idea of Growing Old", song 11 Gemma Hayes "4:35 AM", the bebop is Johnny Griffin & Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis "Second Balcony Jump". The jazzy e;ectronica that starts the third part is Cinematic Orchestra "Flite". Oh yeah, Willow and Tara are in there somewhere too ;)

Willow climbed the final step and entered her room, closing the door softly behind her. A slight smile was still on her lips, and her mind sang along with what she knew the chorus of the song playing downstairs to be. La la la la... She took a few steps into her room and let her eyes inspect the increasingly less-bare space. She looked down to the small canvas held gently in her two hands and shook her head in awe. Amazing... She looked back up and again canvased the room. She could put the small 'painting' on her nightstand, or hang it from a tack on the wall next to her computer, or-

She froze as she caught her reflection in the mirror to her left. She immediately noticed the green of her eyes, and she smiled at herself, the edges of her lips curling up happily. The color of my eyes reminded her of poetry... Woods, lovely, dark and deep... She said they were 'amazing'. Or, at least, the color was amazing. That's something though, right? The redhead moved closer to the mirror and leaned in until she was inches away from the reflective plane. She stared at her eyes, experimenting with the light as she tilted her head up, and then down. She saw specks of brown dancing around her pupils, and of course the green. Always so ordinary before today, but now... She put the canvas next to her face and compared. Just... There were no words, really. She had known Tara was a talented artist, the paintings she loved were evidence enough of that, but to see her in action, to see the skill and natural ability was breathtaking.


Willow sighed and pulled back, biting the corner of her lip as she lowered the canvas to her side. She had held her breath and tensed when Tara had initially stepped into her space to paint her, and Tara had noticed. Noticed and pulled away, stuttered and almost didn't paint her eyes. Luckily Willow had recovered, grabbed the blonde's arm and reassured her she was fine, but it was a close call. Why do I keep doing that, Willow thought. Why do I keep doing things to make her pull away?

The redhead turned away from the mirror and sat in the chair in front of her computer. If it had been Buffy that had stepped into my space, I would have laughed. Maybe poked her in the ribs. Giggled when she told me to look up. Willow's brow furrowed. Nerves. It had been nerves that had caused her breath to catch at Tara's proximity, but... hadn't she decided this morning as she lay in bed that she wouldn't let her nerves rule her? That she'd relax around the blonde? They were friends now, their recent sharing of space, the coffee this morning, lunch... yet, there was still this, this, nervousness, that would rear its head, and it was effecting how she acted. Worse, she now realized, it effected how Tara reacted to her.

We had fun though, Willow thought, that slight hiccup aside. She might not have been able to relax completely as Tara stood close, but their conversation throughout the afternoon had flowed. Been easy and interesting, silly and serious. Natural. The redhead rested the canvas against the base of her second monitor and leaned back into her chair. The spontaneous spelling bee, lunch... She absently moved her hand over and guided the mouse's cursor to iTunes; she clicked twice and a bouncy tune spilled from the speakers. She turned in her chair away from her computer and let the uptempo music settle around her.

Tara had revealed so much to her today, and so casually. The names of the paintings, the bit about her mom. The redhead paused for a long moment, and let that process. The blonde had been relaxed as she shared her tales with her, and that made Willow happy. That she could inspire that kind of, comfort, and trust in Tara. She trusts me... Willow realized, blinking her owlish eyes in quick succession as that sunk in. She. Wow. For the second time in minutes, the redhead shook her head in awe.

And then there was the flirting. Teasing. Willow quickly corrected. Flirting? She shook her head. The... teasing, she continued tentatively.... they were doing a lot of that lately. She smiled, then frowned slightly, wondering about the distinction between 'teasing' and 'flirting'. Both definitions denoted a playful interaction, although one did have a distinct romantic connotation... how do you tell the difference? She remembered her painful teen years, when she wasted time hanging her romantic hopes on every teasing word Xander threw her way, and how she had almost gotten caught up, okay, did get caught up, in the same mess with Tara last week. Willow sighed; she knew she had an active imagination, and that if she wasn't cautious, she could see things where there weren't things to see. The party had proved that, right? You could turn Tara saying 'pass the salt' into 'have my babies'. She admonished herself before frowning. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The redhead leaned back more fully in her chair and twirled slightly, the tips of her toes staying in place on the floor as she swivled side to side. It's all in the interpretation... she thought. For instance, if Buffy said she was 'cute', she'd take it as a mild tease, a compliment worthy of perhaps an eye roll, or a proud 'thank you' depending on the day or mood. If Tara called her 'cute'... I'd pass out.

It had been almost a week since she stood on the top of the stairs in the middle of the night and asked Tara if they were friends. Now, they were, and the redhead had no idea how to handle it. She wanted more. To be closer, to have things develop romantically. That the blonde was interested in a friendship, a close friendship, was increasingly obvious, but something more...? Willow groaned. It was so frustrating. It would be easier if she knew more about Tara's other friendships, maybe how things developed with Jill. All she had to go on really was the blonde's interaction with Buffy, and that was hardly typical or representative of what was happening between them. Buffy and Tara... they were best friends, different rules governed their interactions, different at least from whatever it was that Tara and she currently shared.

The redhead thought about that other friendship. Tara and Buffy teased each other incessantly, just as Willow and Buffy did. Actually... Willow thought, her head cocking to the side with interest, my relationship with Buffy, and her relationship with Buffy... sorta similar. After a careful moment spent reviewing the two friendships, with their similarities and minor differences, Willow hopefully speculated that she and Tara were moving into a similar kind of dynamic, that they had the potential to be very close friends, much the way each was with Buffy. This potential development pleased the redhead to no end. If her friendship with Tara was going to be like the blonde's friendship with Buffy... that means lots of touching and teasing; push aside the platonic thing and we're talking a relationship!

Touching Tara... The redhead spaced out for a moment at the thought. When was the last time I intentionally touched Tara? The redhead pursed her lips and sighed. She couldn't remember. Maybe the party, with the hand to Tara's bare back...?

'Touching Tara' was something she had planned on implementing with military precision the previous week, yet had all but abandoned after the party. She knew she was still somewhat hesitant about physical interaction with Tara; this afternoon, the extent of her initiated touches had been bumping shoulders with the girl while washing dishes. God, I'm like a fifth grade boy... she internally groaned. What am I so afraid of? Willow boldly confronted herself. I was all large with the determination to touch her last week, and then the party sort of, derailed things... But, things are good now, super good. What's stopping me now? She paused and her conscious mind sprung into action. Well, you could always start with an innocent touch, brush your hand across her arm and accidently touch her boob, lose control at the sensation, and end up pinning her against a wall and kissing her senseless... Willow's wide eyes blinked as her brain supplied the visual. Oh yeah.

The truth of the matter was, if it wasn't for Tara's initiated touches, there wouldn't be any at all. Willow thought about that. Tara touched her all the time. Little tugs on her sweatshirt, caresses of her hand, the hug after the fairy lights. The redhead didn't read too much into it, she couldn't, she rationalized as she sat in her chair; touching, it was how the blonde treated friends, how she treated Marissa in the few times Willow had seen her interact with the gallery owner, how she treated Buffy. The difference, Willow realized, between her and those two women, was two fold. First, Tara's touches with her sparked a desire that she was afraid she was going to be unable to control much longer, and two, the other women reciprocated those touches. Willow sighed. If it wasn't for Tara's initiative, they might not have a friendship at all...

If she could only just relax some more into this new dynamic, Willow mused. Tara seemed to be, relaxed, that is, confidently stepping close, nudging her, teasing her. She was so brave. Okay, maybe 'brave' is a bit big with the melodrama, but... Willow knew if she had asked Tara out to a film and the blonde turned her away, she would have sulked off to her room, and limited her interactions with the blonde over the next few days. Instead, Tara pushed, returned with her jacket and offered cake. She liked that Tara pushed. It made her feel... special. Wanted. Willow thought about that. Tara wanted her. Even if it was totally platonic, the blonde did want to be around her, wanted to share things with her. Was it completely out of the realm of possibility then that that want could turn into... more?

The world would not end if I was 'friendlier', Willow thought. She thought again about Tara and Buffy's friendship. Like Willow and Buffy, they were affectionate friends, physical displays were not uncommon. If Buffy was tired she'd rest her head on the blonde's shoulder; if she was excited she'd grab Tara's hand while she spoke. They were so comfortable with each other, fluidly sharing space and touches. I should do that, too. Willow thought. I did do that, in the park, before my stupid brain figured out what my heart already knew and ruined everything, made me all nervous and spazzy... She paused. I can do this. Just, friendly little touches, no big whoop... She was Tara's friend now, good friend, actually, and it wouldn't be stepping over any boundaries if she threw in a touch every now and again. Tara wouldn't mind.

So that's it, Willow thought. I just need to be brave like Tara.

Willow reviewed her numerous conclusion. First, she was becoming a close friend of Tara's. Yay! The painting names, talking about her mom; it was clear that Tara wanted her around, and enjoyed her company. Second, she needed to be braver with regard to this friendship. If Tara felt comfortable enough to touch her, she should touch Tara in return. If Tara shared, she should share too. She should follow the blonde's lead, and if all else fails, just treat her like you'd treat Buffy. Willow nodded to herself. This was good. It was like, this 'good friend dynamic' could mask some of her stronger feelings until she was ready to come out. Allow them to grow more comfortable with each other, closer, push the line until the teasing and touches became flirting and touches. Just don't go nuts and kiss her, Willow instructed herself. If she did what she had just concluded she needed to do, the result, hopefully, would be a close friendship that both girls enjoyed. A friendship, that could grow into more.

Willow pressed the increase volume key on her keyboard. 'If you're happy and you know it turn the volume up and blow it out'. She was happy, and she knew it was because of Tara. She nodded her head along to the catchy tune and turned toward her computer.

I wonder why that one painting was called 'Confusing'... she absently thought before clicking on her mail application and diving back to work.

Tara wasn't sure what possessed her to put Willow's CD back on. Perhaps it was to fill the void of the redhead leaving. Or maybe she really was just that sick of her own music. She didn't know what to expect when she pressed play. She hoped, desperately, as Willow left her studio that the next song in line after where she had previously left off wasn't... sexy. She couldn't take more 'sexy' music today, not after her earlier fantasy, and not after their afternoon flirting. Teasing, Tara quickly corrected. Flirting? To her immense relief the song hadn't been sexy, or sensual. It was instead a happy ditty with an infectious chorus and complex, dense verses that she knew she'd have to listen to again (and probably again) to glean any meaning from. La la la la... Tara smiled as the chorus cycled again through her brain. She knew that one of these days, she'd have that line stuck in her head.

The second song, the tenth? tune on the CD, had surprised her. It was wonderful. So great that the blonde had listened to it three times in a row, and probably would have listened to it a fourth if she hadn't grown self-conscious about the replaying. The song reminded her of all of the time she had been spending with Willow lately. It was an ode to domesticity, a catchy tune that sold the idea of a pair in love, for life. It was an attractive love song, different from the earlier songs that while hot and bothered, spoke about love like it was now or never. Like it was just lust.

Not to say that lust isn't a part of being in love, Tara thought, washing her blue brush in the studio's sink as the song played the second time. It definitely was, the blonde conceded, remembering with a bright blush her earlier thoughts about the redhead. She wanted to make love to Willow. Badly. Wanted to touch her and kiss her and make her scream. But, she wanted more than that too. She wanted to spend time with the girl in her studio, tease her and be teased about stupid things like paying bills online while they ate minestrone soup and turkey sandwiches. She wanted to read the paper with Willow in bed, share opinions and laughs, then push the paper aside and take the girl. Everyday, for the rest of her life.

She wondered what Willow would look like as she aged. What she would look like when her fiery red hair went white and lines crossed her face, little wrinkles framing her lips and eyes. Tara turned and looked at the glass palette resting at the bottom of the easel across the room; seeing the green, she smiled. Willow's eyes undoubtably would still sparkle when she was old, and Tara was sure that she'd still see Willow as she was now when she looked into them, at any age. She'd always see the girl she fell in love with. Tara shook her head as she turned off the tap and dried the brush on the rag at her waist.

What is the deal with this day? She thought, dazed. It owned her. The morning fuzz of a dream unremembered, a mid-morning fantasy that set her blood on fire, followed by the quiet calm of time spent with a new, increasingly close friend. And now this, daydreaming about growing old with Willow. 'We can lay around and count the number of times, I've acted foolish and you've rolled your eyes. You turn me on to the idea of growing old...' I'll probably spend the night picking out names for our never-to-exist kids, she grumbled with a light sigh.

It had been a good afternoon. A great afternoon, Tara admitted as she felt a smile pull at her lips. She closed her eyes, remembering the warmth of standing close to Willow, and brought her hand up and touched her fingertips to her cheek, then her lips, thankful for the memory of the redhead's breath covering both. I should have told her what I was planning on doing before just stepping into her space, Tara thought, opening her eyes and remembering how her roommate's breath caught. How she had, for the second time in 24 hours, pulled away from the redhead. Thank god Willow had grabbed her arm, reasssured her that everything was okay, that she was just surprised.

Probably could have gone without all the 'wet' talk too... she added on contritely.

The blonde shook off the embarrassment and thought about how easily she had shared the names of her paintings, and the stories behind them. Never, never with anyone else have I done that... Not Buffy, not Marissa. No one... Tara turned her head, taking in 'Confusing' leaning against the wall under the window, and she chuckled. Thank god she didn't ask for the story behind that one. She walked over to the minimalist painting, and picked it up, resting the bottom of the frame against her hip as she looked it over. "How did you get in with the finished stuff, huh?" She started to walk it over to the incomplete pile and stopped as her eye caught 'Fillmore's' empty space. She looked down at the painting in her hands, and then back to the space. Without much deliberation, she walked 'Confusing' over, and hung it gently on Fillmore's two lonely hooks. It sat lower than the other paintings on the wall; they had wire support about two-thirds of the way up the back, while 'Confusing' only had the top plank of it's simple wood frame to hold it up. Tara took a step back and shook her head as she looked at the painting. Ridiculous...

She returned to her easel as the eleventh song came on. It was soothing, with a bassline that reminded her of a lighthouse, or more accurately the fog horn in the Bay; an undulating, gentle notice that warned travelers away from the rocks, and contrasted nicely with the female singer's soft lilt. She swayed slightly as she considered the painting before her, singing along in harmony with the chorus the second time it came around. If I pair red flames with the frost it will be more striking visually... but blue flame is hotter, and maybe the idea of white hot heat will be more interesting... She bit her lip, then turned her head toward the stereo when a lazy drum thump was introduced near the end of the song. She quirked her brow and rewound the tune, listening to the drum line's introduction again. It was like the downbeat of a resting heartbeat, low, constant. Comforting. She replayed the song again, this time as she stood over her notebook at her desk with a pen in hand. When the drum line came in late in the song, she quickly wrote down, 'ear to heart'. She thought about that visual, imagining snuggling with Willow on the couch, a fire roaring across the room, rain running down the window, the redhead's chest rising and falling under the blonde's head as the girl beneath her napped. Bliss.

She turned the CD off before the next tune could start, content with the image in her mind, and not wanting to risk running into another 'Xander song'. Three songs, no Xander; lucky as it was... She fingered through her CD book and picked out a new disc. She put it into the player and pressed play, the bebop strains of a 'dum dum dum dum'ing upright bass filled her space. She moved back to her easel, carefully moving the unfinished frost painting to the wall, and replacing it with a new, empty canvas. She picked up the glass palette and her green brush, and began to fill the rectangle with the color of Willow's eyes.

Be brave, be brave, be brave...

The soft knock at the door surprised Tara, and she looked up from the canvas in front of her with wide eyes. It was night, several hours after she had ventured out into the kitchen for some dinner at what she had approximated sunset to be, and she wasn't expecting to see Willow again for the rest of the evening. Certainly not down here. "Yeah?" The blonde called out over the jazzy electronica filling her room. The door opened slowly, and Willow stood just inside the entrance smiling. Tara turned down the music, noticing the redhead was wearing a snuggly jacket; she tucked the remote in her pocket and asked with amusement, "going somewhere?"

The redhead nodded. "It stopped raining, so I thought I'd run down and get a cup of coffee before it starts up again. You know, stretch the legs and stuff." Tara looked to the window, surprised she hadn't noticed the break in the weather and then turned back to Willow. "Can I get you something," the redhead asked, twisting her fingers. "Or, you know, do you want to go maybe?" She smiled hopefully, and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet.

"Um," Tara stalled, looking from Willow to the half-finished work in front of her and back. "Sure, why not." The redhead smiled widely and Tara replied in kind. "Let me just wash up a bit, take me just a minute."

"K," Willow replied. She looked around the room, as Tara moved to the sink, the sound of running water accompanying Willow's moving gaze. She spotted the blue painting Tara had been working on earlier in the day on the floor. Frosty, she thought, taking in how the white lines crossed over the blue, giving a fractured ice-like appearance. She wondered about the other half, still blank. Would it end up like 'Confusing', only partially painted, or did the blonde have plans for that empty half? She scanned the room and her brow knit when she noticed 'Confusing' hanging on the wall, somewhat unmajestically, in 'Fillmore's old space. But... I thought it was a commission...sold already...

"All done," Tara said with a smile, tossing the rag that had hung from her waist to the canvas tarp underneath the easel. They shared a smile and walked out into the main room, Tara pulling on her jacket and shoes, Willow hovering nearby and forgetting about the odd painting's new location as she watched the blonde's nimble fingers lace up her tennies. "Okay, before we go let's establish one thing," the blonde said with mirth, Willow raising her eyebrows innocently. "We're each paying for our own drinks," she said, standing and buttoning her jacket. "None of this 'no let me, no let me' stuff."

"Okay," Willow said with a smile, happy to see Tara's half smile in return. They exited the apartment, turning off the lights and locking the door behind them, and then descended the stairs to the street. They locked the second door and pulled their jackets close around them.

"Brrr," Tara said, and Willow smiled.

"We have a window of about fifty minutes according to the latest Doppler radar reading. Then it's big rain and pseudo-hibernation again." Tara chuckled.

"Have everything?" She asked, patting her own pocket for her keys.

"Yup," Willow replied, holding out her wallet before tucking it safely into her jacket pocket.

"Do you have your phone so you can monitor this Doppler situation while we're on the move?" Tara teased as they started down the hill.

"Nope, no phone," Willow replied breezily, her steps bouncy and happy.

"No phone." Tara stopped dead in her tracks, causing Willow to do the same a step later. "O-Oh my god," the blonde deadpanned. "Are you feeling alright?"

Willow rolled her eyes. "Shush, you. I can be without my phone." Tara smiled and Willow mirrored the expression, stepping close as they started to walk again, and casually slipping her arm around Tara's.

What- The blonde tried to keep her face impassive, to not show her surprise as they walked along their quiet, dark residential street, arm-in-arm. Okay, she internally gulped, her mind firing fast as the right side of her body warmed with Willow's presence. This is new...

Be brave, be brave, be brave... Willow repeated, the left side of her body snuggly locked into Tara's right, the sides of her jeans occasionally connecting with Tara's cargo pants. She smiled slightly to herself, pleased that she had pulled off what in her mind had been such a risky maneuver. See? Just two friends walking down the street...

"So where's your mom flying in from," Tara asked, searching for a neutral topic that would take her mind off of Willow's arm rhythmically rubbing into her side.

"Oh," Willow said, surprised by the question. She wants to talk about my mom? The redhead thought nervously. Okay... "Uh, Durham. Well, Durham by way of Atlanta, Chicago... maybe Milwaukee." She smiled at the blonde. "She's visiting my dad, so..."

"He's still at Duke?" Tara asked. Willow nodded and Tara shook her head. "That must be so hard for them," the blonde said, wondering how Willow's parents managed living on opposite coasts.

"I think they're used to it," Willow said with a slight shrug of her shoulders. "This is the third semester they've done separate sabbaticals in as many years so... I mean, it's not easy, being apart, but they see each other often enough I guess." She smiled softly. "They're weird."

The blonde flashed a lopsided grin, appreciating the redhead's obvious affection for her mom and dad. "When was the last time you saw them?" Tara asked as they crossed an empty intersection, the bright glow of a late-night corner laundry mat illuminating the square from one side.

"Boston," the redhead replied. "Before I moved out here. They came to help me pack." Willow chuckled at the memory. "Actually, my dad tried to help me pack, my mom told him to stop in case 'the heavy lifting' threw out his back, and so I sort of ended up doing all the work while they told me how I could do it better and more efficiently." She smiled widely. "But it was fun seeing them. We went out to dinner, did some sightseeing, you know, normal family stuff."

"Sounds nice," Tara said softly.

"Yeah..." Willow replied, immediately kicking herself. 'Normal family stuff'. Great thing to say to someone who's parents have died and who is estranged from her only brother. Willow took a slow deep breath, the faux pas running through her mind again in slow motion. Stupid, insensitive-

"What's your mom coming out for?" Tara asked, not noticing Willow's momentary retreat into her mind.

"Just a visit," Willow replied absently, forcibly pulling herself out of her shame spiral to elaborate. "She has to speak up in Seattle on Sunday, so she agreed to come here first."

"That's nice of her," Tara said. "Lots of travel for one day. Is she going to be staying at the hous-"

"No," Willow interrupted. She's not coming anywhere near the life I have with Tara. "I mean, uh, she has a hotel room, downtown. I'm going to go to her, for dinner probably."

Tara nodded and they walked a few steps in relative silence. See, Willow thought ruefully as the silence stretched, Perfect example. She asks about your family and you reply, and now you're walking along and no one's talking. It's totally one sided. Say something. "How about you? Is, Donnie still living up north?"


Oh god, wrong something... Willow internally panicked as she subtly watched a range of emotions tear across the blonde's face.

"Uh..." Tara stammered with a tight smile. She sighed, her smile turning genuine as she looked over at Willow's concerned face and they turned onto the main street, cars passing and splashing water under their tires. "That's, um, that's really a question for the lawyers, I think..."

"Still?" Willow asked, her brow quirking in sympathy. Tara looked at her questioningly and the redhead hastily explained. "Sorry, Buffy told me about- not that we talk about you or any-"

"I'm glad, it means I don't have to go back and tell the whole story..." Tara squeezed Willow's arm and smiled slightly. "Yes, still. The arbitrator that was supposed to make the ruling on my dad's estate retired unexpectedly and so they've had a tough time getting it in front of someone new. Small county and all, probate process is kind of, sluggish. Doesn't help that Donnie's lawyer keeps slowing things down... I just..." She sighed. "I just wish he'd agree to let me sell the land so we could split the profit and move on." Tara looked over at Willow and smiled wearily. "If someone ever asks you to be the executor of their estate, say no. Nothing but trouble and lawsuits..."

Willow nodded. She knew how stressful the last two years had been on the blonde. How when her father had died she had been surprised to find herself being asked to be the executor of his modest estate, how the blonde had agreed to the job thinking it was what she should do, unaware of exactly how much work it would entail and exactly how angry Donnie would be at the development, feeling passed over as the older child. Tara had thought acting as executor was just a matter of signing a few papers, but when Donnie hired a lawyer and contested her plan to sell the land and split the profit between them... it was then that Tara realized how bitter he really was at her leaving for college (and the opportunities it provided) years before. How difficult he was planning on making their current situation. How much he hated her for taking her small inheritance from their mother's death and cutting all ties with her 'blood kin' as she settled in to city life. How much he resented that she had done all that, yet still managing to be the apple of their father's eye.

Tara, Willow knew via Buffy, herself still felt lingering bitterness toward Donnie regarding how he had treated his small inheritance from their mother. It was an emotion the blonde struggled with, wishing instead that she could fully forgive and forget. The young man had chosen to pawn her mother's wedding band, engagement ring and solitaire necklace for cash a few weeks after the woman's death in anger at not being given what Tara was given. The 17 year old blonde could do nothing but watch as the only physical reminders of her mother's life with her father were sold and dispersed. Her inheritance, money from the sale of the lodge, was in a trust, and her earnings at the diner were not enough to buy the baubles back herself. Willow knew Tara fell out with her father over the sale of the heirlooms when he refused to stop Donnie from selling them, and then refused to buy them back so that they stayed within the family. It wasn't until the man was taken to the hospital with the early stages of heart failure during Tara's sophomore year of college that she began to mend ties. Too late, in Donnie's approximation.

Willow spotted the cafe just up ahead, the bright orange sign jutting out from the brick structure, a number of folks loitering outside smoking. It amazed her how well Tara had handled the situation with her brother, how adult the young woman was. Willow hadn't even been able to move out of her apartment in Boston without her parents help, didn't do her taxes without first having her dad look them over and yet here Tara was handling estates and lawsuits. It seemed that Tara was further along in life than she was. Responsible, mature, experienced (in more than one way)... The redhead couldn't help but feel slightly inferior, like a child compared to the blonde. Add to that her big mouth... I should have known better than to ask about Donnie... Willow thought, feeling her usual antipathy for Tara's older brother settle in her stomach. The redhead turned to Tara's profile and said, "I'm sorry," alluding both to Tara's situation with her father's estate, and to her own carelessness in bringing it up.

Tara nodded her head and smiled at Willow. God she's special... the blonde thought, slightly tightening her grasp on the redhead's arm. Everyone else just, walks on eggshells about the whole situation, the lawsuit, dad's death, Donnie... Even Buffy never asks, just listens politely when I need to vent, changing the subject quickly, afraid of the tension... Tara stole a look at Willow's profile and smiled. "Don't be," she replied sincerely. "Most people avoid the topic, it's..." she paused, thinking about her words. "It's nice to know that someone cares, is interested, you know?"

To say the redhead was surprised by the sentiment would be an understatement. A wash of warmth flooded her small frame, and Willow felt a proud smile pull at her lips. She subconsciously snuggled into Tara's side, an ounce of her previously deteriorating confidence returning. "Thanks. You know, if you ever want to talk, about it, or-"

"Okay," the blonde said simply, the girl's sharing a look that conveyed the offer and acceptance. Tara smiled as they stopped in front of the cafe doors to disentangle and walk into the building. The space was hot compared to outside and of course, aromic. A young woman with an acoustic guitar sat on a stool on a makeshift stage toward the back, singing a maudlin tune about love and the earth. Willow raised her eyebrows a little, taking in the sparse crowd, noticing the number of guitar cases and earnest types sitting throughout the room. "Open mic night," Tara said into her ear and Willow smiled.

"Yippee," the redhead deadpanned quietly, turning and smiling at the blonde as they took their place in line behind a man with a ponytail and cowboy hat currently ordering.

"I want sugar free, because I'm pre-diabetic but no soy milk, because I'm not lactose intolerant," the man said in a nasally voice. "However," he continued instructionally. "If you have skim milk I would appreciate you using that because I need to watch my weight. But not because of the pre-diabetes, just because I don't want to have my coffee to have a high calorie load." The young punk rock girl manning the registered stared at the man blankly.

Willow arched an eyebrow and Tara quietly giggled at the redhead's expression. "I know I'm a little frou-frouy with the mochas," Willow whispered as she leaned into Tara's side, "but at least I don't give my life story when I order."

"Oh and can I get that in a ceramic cup?" The man added as the punk rock girl was joined by the indie boy working the coffee machine. "I have this guilt-complex about using paper cups... you know how it is with the environment, Humvees running down Market..."

"Oh boy," Willow breathed out softly and Tara pushed her lips together in an attempt not to laugh out loud. The two shared a smile and looked away, fearful of bringing on a chortle that would alert the man to their mocking presence. The man dug into his pocket and produced a pile of change, and the punk rock girl sighed.

Tara shook her head as the man started to count out nickels, and leaned into Willow's side. "What are you going to get?"

"Double mocha," Willow replied evenly. When Tara raised her eyebrows the redhead chuckled and poked the girl's side. "Single mocha- god you're easy."

"You're going to be up all night," Tara said with feigned disapproval, shaking her head side-to-side to sell the act.

"I refuse to drink a decaf mocha," Willow replied, noticing ponytail man moving on to dimes. "I'm convinced the yummy taste is in the caffeine. Or, at least, half in the chocolate and half in the caffeine. Or, three-fourths in the caffeine, since there's caffeine in chocolate." She paused as the punk rock girl's eyes started to glaze over as ponytail man added pennies to the mix, and indie boy accidently applied a thick layer of whipped cream to the top of ponytail man's drink before realizing his mistake and starting over. "What are you getting?"

"Cappuchino," Tara replied. "And... I guess I'll go with a regular if the taste is in the caffeine."

"You'll thank me," Willow said with a sly smile. "Probably at 4 am because you'll still be awake," the redhead joked, "but it'll be worth it. I promise."

"Well only if you promise." Both girls shared a wide smile and then looked to the counter as ponytail man used both hands to push the stack of change toward punk rock girl.

"If the girl behind the counter had a fork she'd have stabbed him by now," Willow observed and Tara again chuckled. "Hey, do you maybe want to sit down, stay for a while?" The redhead asked as she took in the number of empty tables-for-two. "We still have a bit of a rain-free window if we want to linger a bit, appreciate some of the local amateur talent."

"That would be nice," Tara replied with a nod, both girls moving forward as ponytail man retreated to the small counter at the end up the bar under the 'Pick-Up' sign. Each girl ordered and they dropped back to the pick-up portion of the bar as well, opting to stand away from ponytail man, who was carrying on a one-sided conversation about consignment stores with indie boy. The girl playing acoustic guitar on stage finished up with a quick strum of the strings, and a middle-aged woman in a one-piece dress stood and stepped on to the stage, patting the girl on the shoulder before taking the mic.

"Okay, that was Stacey, give it up for Stacey." A smattering of applause could be heard throughout the room and Willow and Tara exchanged a smile as they clapped politely.

"You should sing here," Willow said as the applause died down.

"What?" Tara asked, surprised by Willow's directive.

"You should sing here," the redhead repeated, a little louder as she leaned in, wondering how the blonde had missed her the first time.

"I heard you," Tara said, her brow crinkling. "Just..."

"You have a really pretty singing voice," Willow explained, and Tara looked back at her speechless. "I can hear you sometimes when you're in your studio?" The redhead said, suddenly wondering if she should have kept all of this to herself as the blonde blushed bright red. "But it's good," Willow quickly said, her right hand shooting out. "You're good, with the good singing, well, great, really, and-"

"Thanks," Tara replied with a sidelong look, stopping the redhead's babble before it could really take off. "You can hear me all the way upstairs?" The loud roar of the espresso machine's steam valve partially obscured the sound of the woman on the stage and Willow shook her head in response to the blonde's question.

"No, only when I'm going from the kitchen to the stairs." You know, when I walk really slowly so I catch every note... the redhead guiltily amended internally.

"Oh," Tara said simply, both turning their attention to the stage as the woman started to introduce the next act.

"Next up," the MC said, a stressed smile on her face indicating she was unhappy with the turn out. "Is Radiophonic Oddity!" She looked over at a man with wild dreadlocks and glazed eyes, and silently shook her head as she returned to her seat along the wall, immediately taking a large drink from a coffee cup that Willow suspected wasn't filled with coffee. The lanky, serious man took the stage and immediately started in on a fast-paced spoken word piece about robots and armaggedon. Before either Willow or Tara could react to the odd string of vitriol, the man whipped out a harmonica, placed it against the microphone and began to blow in wheezing puffs, creating a sound that more so resembled the howls of a dying cat than music. Finally, as if the 'poetry' and 'harmonica playing' wasn't enough of an eclectic display, the man started to strangle the microphone stand as if it was an anaconda sprung from the marsh to take his life. Willow looked around the room, saw the people nodding along in appreciation of the performer's work and her brow furrowed. Why do I feel like I might not belong here...

The redhead hazarded a look over at Tara, and saw her staring at the stage with a perplexed look on her face. The blonde looked at the redhead innocently and they both looked away quickly, the brief connection sparking a desire in both women to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all until they cried. Willow looked at her feet, the wall to her left, anything to keep from looking at Tara while the blonde bit her lip and took slow and steady breaths to keep her own laughter in check. After about three minutes, Radiophonic Oddity moving on to stomping on the stage, Willow turned her back to the man and moved close to the blonde, careful to keep her voice to a whisper and her gaze averted as she spoke. "I know I shouldn't laugh, cause it takes a lot of courage to get up there, and I could never do it myself but-"

"It's a travesty," Tara whispered back, her lips close to Willow's ear. She turned to the guy making coffee and said "can we get those to go?" The man nodded and the redhead took a step back. She mouthed a grateful 'thank you' and Tara smiled 'no problem'

Five minutes later they walked out of the coffee shop, paper cups in hand and low giggles coming from their lips. "Oh god, I thought I was going to die," Willow chuckled. "Between ponytail man and the, 'performance' piece... I swear, how do people get the guts to do stuff like that? I mean, hasn't anyone told 'Radiophonic Oddity' that he looks a little, you know, insane?"

Tara chuckled at that. "Yeah he was pretty um, nuts, but how about the people sitting in the crowd nodding along. It's one thing for the performer to be insane, but to have everyone buy into it..." She arched an eyebrow and Willow chuckled. They turned off the main street, and Tara turned to Willow. "So, you have a thing about performing?" She asked, taking a sip of her drink, and smiling as she felt Willow's arm slip around her own again.

"Oh yeah," Willow said, adjusting her arm around Tara's for maximum comfort. "Can't do it. I mean, I can do it, it's not physically impossible, I just... Okay, in high school, Buffy and Xander and I had to do a scene from Oedipus for the talent show. You know, 'oh, ruler of my country, Oedipus see our company around the Altar, blah, blah, blah'. I ran off the stage half way through."

"You did not," Tara said with a disbelieving smile.

"I did to!" Willow retorted. "Just, scampered right off into the wings, left Buffy and Xander swinging in the breeze."

"What did they do?" the blonde asked, rapt.

"Kept going. And you know, royally chewed me out once they finished." Willow shrugged. "Kinda funny now, but then... whoa frightening terror."

They came upon the empty intersection once more, the still bright lights from the laundry mat shining into the street. Instead of crossing and walking toward their home, however, Willow tugged on Tara's arm, guiding her left toward the 'Wash and Spin'. The window's were steamed up from the dryers running inside, but Tara could see through the open door a single man folding clothes by a wall of machines near the back.

"I've even had dreams about performing," Willow carried on, oblivious to Tara's confusion. "You know, nightmares? I had this one where I was an opera singer but I don't know any opera so..." Tara only listened half way as Willow continued with her tale, their steps taking them closer to the laundry mat all the while.

The blonde's brow furrowed as they stepped up onto the sidewalk. Does Willow know this guy? Does she, want to say 'hi' or something? They stepped through the door, the man turning slightly to see the new arrivals and Tara smiled at him slightly as Willow let go of her arm. Is she checking out the prices, cause we have washer and dryers downstairs in the basement-

Tara's confusion grew as Willow pushed a white plastic lawn chair in front of the glass and then stepped up on the wobbly seat, the redhead still going on about how she had contemplated learning the major operas after her dream so she would never be caught unprepared should her bad dream come true. The blonde watched as Willow quickly used her pointer finger to write something in the condensation on the glass, the sound reminding Tara of washing windows as a kid. The redhead smiled briefly and then jumping down after she finished, however, before Tara could decipher the symbols, Willow grabbed her arm and gently dragged her outside. They turned the corner of the building and Willow smiled as she looked up at her handiwork. 'I heart San Francisco' was written large across the glass for the world to see, and Tara was amazed. She wrote that, that fast in mirror image?

Willow smiled at the blonde, slipped her arm in Tara's and pulled her to start walking toward their home. "But seriously, like I'm going to learn German just so I can maybe sing an opera some day."

The blonde felt like her brain might be broken. That was so cute, Tara thought in wonder as they stopped on the corner to let a car pass. That was so incredibly cute...

As a second car passed, an innocent Willow looked over at Tara. Seeing the blonde's blank stare directed at her, she slightly tugged on the girl's arm and asked, "what?"

"That..." Tara started and then stopped, her wonder and confusion plainly written on her face. She looked back at the redhead's work and then back to Willow. "That was..."

Be brave, be brave, be brave... Willow summoned up all of her courage, and said, hopefully, "adorable?"

Tara stared with her mouth slightly agape. A slight smile tugged at the corner of her lips and she pressed them together as the lopsided grin grew. "Goof," she said, bumping Willow with her side, seeing the girl light up out of the corner of her eye. "Yes, adorable," she added, rolling her eyes as they started to cross the street. "Although I was going to say... well I was going to say nothing, because I was sort of speechless. How did you do that?"

Willow shrugged, her voice momentarily seized as she internally screamed, she thinks I'm adorable, that's a definite confirmation!!! her heart racing at the interaction. "I look at x-rays backwards all day, I guess I've kinda, gotten used to working in mirror image..."

Tara shook her head as they crossed the street again. "But- why-"

"Why not?" Willow said, taking a sip of her coffee. "I mean, all that condensation going to waste like that..." She smiled mischievously. "You're just lucky I didn't write something saucy and embarrassing." The blonde howled as the redhead waggled her eyebrows, and they bumped each other playfully, settling into silence as they neared their house, still walking arm-in-arm.

They stopped in front of their front door and the blonde fished for her keys. She inserted the metal bit, and turned to Willow with a huge smile. "You're quirky."

"Hey, better than insane," Willow replied, and they entered their home giggling.

At 2:30 am, Tara turned off her studio lights and headed for the stairs. Her back hurt, her neck ached, and she longed to just lay down. I'm coming bed... She turned with the stairwell, and quirked her eyebrows when she saw Willow's door open, the light on, a quick tap-tap-tap of the keyboard softly echoing into the hallway. The blonde took the last step and moved to the redhead's room, rapping her knuckles against the open door and smiling when Willow turned to face her.

"Hey, you're up kinda late..." she said, seeing what looked like an x-ray on the monitor facing her and... she smiled. My canvas on her desk...

"So are you," Willow replied, her neck protesting at turning without stretching. "Up late..."

"Are you still working?" The blonde asked, her voice soft and concerned.

"Maybe..." the redhead replied, knowing she was busted.

"Workaholic huh," Tara said, shaking her head.

"I'm just finishing up now," Willow said, indicating with her hand the work spread across two monitors. "Get everything done downstairs?" She asked, nodding to the floor to indicate the studio.

Um... Tara internally blushed, a flash of naughtiness racing across her tired mind. "As much as I could..." She leaned against the door frame, groaning slightly when she was able to take some weight off her knees. "I need to go to Anya's tomorrow for more paint though, all out of white."

"Want some company?" Tara arched her eyebrow and Willow smiled sheepishly. "I sort of, did all of my work for the next two days tonight..."

Tara chuckled and nodded sluggishly. "Yeah, if you don't mind seeing Anya..."

"Uh, sure?" Willow said. "No, I should be fine."

"Okay," Tara said with a brief head bob. "I have a couple of other errands to run though, the gallery-"

"My schedule's wide open, I can go anywhere," Willow assured the blonde.

"Okay..." Tara said, backing out of the room. "10 o'clock?" Willow started to nod, but the action was interrupted by an unexpected yawn. The blonde chuckled as Willow covered her mouth. "Let's say 10:30... we might need that extra half hour..."

Willow smiled sheepishly and Tara put her hand on the doorknob. She nodded to the handle and Willow replied, "please." The blonde smiled, and started to pull the door closed behind her.

"Goodnight..." Tara said. "Thanks for recommending the caffeine drink yesterday..."

The redhead chuckled at the playful dig and said, "you're welcome; goodnight." As soon as the door was closed, her shoulders sagged and she quickly turned off her computer, turned off the lights and moved under her covers, her head hitting the pillow heavily. Staying up late to see Tara one more time before bed will probably hurt tomorrow, she thought, wincing as she saw the taunting red numbers on the clock. But it was worth it, she added, a smile gracing her lips as she quickly dropped off into dreamland.

Continue to Neverland Chapter Thirty-Seven

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