Return to Neverland Chapter Thirty-Six


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.

Willow groaned and reached across her prone form to kill the incessant beeping blaring from her bedside alarm. She checked the time, and rolled over onto her back with a sigh. She rested her hands on her stomach, picking at the ribbed material of her white tank top beneath the comforter, and furrowed her brow as she stared at the ceiling as if it could offer her the reassurance she was looking for. Today she'd be running errands with Tara, and one of the stops would be Anya's art store. Willow frowned, and her eyes narrowed. Anya.

It had been almost two weeks since her initial meeting with Anya, yet Willow's blood still boiled as if the encounter had happened moments earlier. She had almost lost the plot that night, her slim form shaking, skin flushed red to match her hair and her voice fluctuating wildly up and down her available range as the shock of Anya's words- "you want to sleep with Tara"- settled in. True, the redhead had run into a coffee table while oggling the blonde from across the room, not the most discreet example of her well-hidden crush, but for the bottle blonde to so easily discern, and then give voice, to her truth had been unnerving. What if Tara had heard? she thought panicked before frowning. What if she had heard...

Things had been going so well with Tara recently, the previous nights walk to get coffee had been... wonderful, Willow thought with a slight grin. But what if I mess it up today? Say something stupid or... say something stupid. She was fairly certain Anya would repeat her earlier words, or at least, alternately imply that Willow was hot for Tara, this time, in front of the blonde. It only fit with the frankness of their previous meeting, and the numerous stories Buffy had shared about the salacious shop owner. Willow sighed and licked her lips. What if she said the wrong thing in reply to the bottle blonde's taunts? What if Anya repeated her assertion that Willow wanted to be naked with Tara and the redhead denied it too heatedly as some sort of knee-jerk reaction to maintain her secret, giving Tara the false impression that she wasn't wanted. Or, what if she didn't say anything and Anya pushed, causing Tara to question her. What would she say if Tara asked her if what Anya was saying was true?

"Tara?" Willow asked the ceiling, her hands still twisting the thin material covering her stomach.

"Hmm," came the sleepy reply from a few feet away. Willow turned her head to the left, the pillow rustling as she moved, and she saw Tara's back, the tip of her blonde head the only visible part of her body, the rest burrowed beneath the blanket.

"Do you really have to go get paint today?"

"Hmm," came the still sleepy response, the blonde's voice muffled by the pillow.

"Just," Willow started as she rolled onto her side to face the blonde-topped lump. "I was thinking, maybe you could use the paint you already have..." She reached out under the blanket and ran her hand along the thin material covering Tara's warm side, eventually resting her hand comfortably on the blonde's hip.

"What?" came the somewhat confused, exasperated answer, the blonde not awake enough to process Willow's words.

"You're going to get paint today, right," Willow said as she nervously plowed ahead, scooting closer to Tara's back, her fingers playing with the elastic of the sleepy blonde's pajama waistband as she settled in close to the girl. "But, you can't be completely out of paint. I mean, you probably have some, just, maybe not green or whatever. Maybe you should use what you have first before you go buy more..."

"What," Tara repeated as she rolled onto her back, pushing the blanket away from her face, Willow's hand sliding along her shifting waist until her palm rested on the blonde's stomach. Tara sighed and tentatively opened her eyes in the morning light, using her left hand to drowsily push her flyaway hair from her face.

"It could be like a theme," Willow said, watching as Tara blinked tiredly. "You could call the painting 'Leftovers' or something." The redhead smiled hopefully and Tara stared back at her, her brow furrowed.

After a quiet moment of dazed contemplation, the blonde laughed and ran a tired hand over her face, rubbing her eyes. "Come here," she said, freeing her right arm from underneath the comforter and holding it out from her side. Willow readily accepted the invitation and nestled into the girl's curves, her fingers quickly finding the blonde's pajama bottom ties, twisting them and toying with the fabric as they settled into a comfortable position. Tara brought her right hand up and ran it through the redhead's hair before sliding it down her back. She pressed a soft kiss into Willow's hairline and asked gently, "what's up..."

"Nothing," the redhead replied unconvincingly.

"Uh huh," Tara replied patiently. After a long moment, she said, "you don't have to go you know... if you're worried about seeing Anya...?" The redhead sighed heavily, her breath warm settling against the exposed skin of Tara's neck. "It's okay," the blonde said simply, her fingers trailing small circles on the redhead's back. "I don't mind if you stay home."

"No, I want to go, I just..." Willow pushed herself up on her elbow, looking down at a somewhat surprised Tara. "I'm sort of, nervous."

"She won't bite." The blonde half-smiled before her brow quirked. "At least, not unless you ask her to-"

"I know, it's just-" Willow sighed, discouraged and took Tara's left hand. Playing with the blonde's fingers, she continued. "What she said at the party, the party here before the gallery opening-"

"About you wanting to sleep with me," Tara prompted with a slight nod.

"Right," Willow acknowledged. She shook her head slightly and sighed, continuing to play with Tara's thin fingers as she thought of an appropriate way to voice her concern. "What if she says it again today and you hear?"

"Would that be so bad?" Tara replied, her right hand comfortingly rubbing along the redhead's waist.

Willow looked down to their joined fingers, resting just at the edge of the comforter on Tara's belly and frowned before looking up to the blonde's eyes apologetically. "I'm, I'm just worried that I'm gonna say something stupid," she admitted confidentially before pausing in thought. "What would you say, if she said it to you?" Tara just shrugged and Willow nodded slightly. "I want to go, with you today because... well I want to be with you, spend time with you a-and I want to be a part of your life, you know? And, she's your friend, so I should, you know, get to know her but... Tara," Willow sighed and shook her head. "I hate her."

The blonde laughed and squeezed the redhead's waist. "You don't hate her..."

"No, I do," Willow said with conviction, her eyes wide as she nodded her head. "What she said to me? That was beyond wrong."

Tara rolled her eyes. "You don't hate her Will, you don't even know her."

Willow frowned. "Why are you even friends with her?"

"Does it matter?" Tara replied and Willow shook her head contritely.

"I guess not..." the redhead grumbled. Tara tugged on the girl's waist and Willow settled back down into her side.

"It'll be fine," Tara said, sighing contentedly as she pulled the comforter up and they settled both into each other and the warmth. "You'll be with me all day, and I won't let anything too traumatic happen to you..."

The girls lightly chuckled and Willow squeezed Tara tight. "Promise?" She smiled softly as she felt Tara's lips on the crown of her head. They laid in silence for a few minutes before Willow said, "I want your friends to like me." She pulled back slightly so she could look into Tara's questioning eyes. "Like how my friends like you... Xander- I." She paused and looked down, her fingers having returned to playing with the blonde's pajama bottom ties. "I think you like me. Or, that you're starting to like me, at least. In a maybe, more-than-friends way..." Willow paused as Tara continued to gently rub her back. "I want to fit into your life, Tara."

"Come here," Tara said softly, and Willow looked up, meeting the blonde's lips in a soft, soothing kiss. The redhead pulled back languidly and their eyes met, the blonde taking the opportunity to brush her left hand across the redhead's cheek. Willow's heart fluttered, and she slowly pushed her hand up from Tara's pajama ties, moving the girl's thin night shirt up to expose her stomach as she went. Stopping at Tara's ribcage, the redhead pressed her palm into the warm flesh of the girl's belly, and then deliberately, slowly, started back down.

Tara smiled knowingly and lightly squeezed Willow's side, encouraging the redhead to dip her head toward the blonde's face. "From worried to frisky," Tara teased quietly as Willow's mouth neared her own. "Nifty trick..."

"I'm very talented," Willow murmured mischievously into Tara's lips, before kissing her tenderly and letting her freckled fingers dip beneath the blonde's panties. The redhead's slim fingers tickled the blonde's hair, and Willow smiled into their kiss when Tara shifted her legs open. The redhead settled her weight into Tara's side, and the light kiss quickly turned passionate, Willow's fingers slipping down between Tara's wet folds.

The alarm sounded and Willow groaned, pulling away and sighing. "I'm sorry, I thought I hit 'off' earlier..." She disentangled herself from the blonde, who groaned in protest, and the redhead rolled over to the edge of the bed, reaching across her body with her left hand to press the off button. The alarm stopped, and the redhead rolled back onto her back. She didn't need to look to know that Tara wasn't still with her; she felt the familiar cold radiating from that side of the bed. Stupid dreams... Willow sighed and blinked, sleep sitting heavily on her eyelids. What was with the- Before she could finish the thought, her cell phone rang across the room, the vibrating device rattling against the wood countertop. The redhead grumbled as she extricated herself from her sheets and stood. She moved sluggishly over to the device and answered without checking the screen. "Hello?" She asked with a croak; she cleared her throat and tried again. "Hello?"

"You're not online - are you still asleep?" Came the brisk, incredulous reply.

"No, just haven't used my voice yet today," Willow deftly replied, blushing slightly at being caught away from her post this late in the morning. "What's up Khalil."

"Are you playing hookey today?"

Yes... she thought guiltily before answering defensively, "no."

"Right," came the disbelieving reply.

"What do you want..." Willow replied, slightly irritated, as she rubbed her face. Why did I dream that, that part about Tara maybe liking me? Tara likes me?

"I was looking over your work from yesterday," Khalil started, partially pulling Willow from her fuzzy thoughts. "I was confused about this one menu you built in."

"Which one," Willow said, sinking into her computer chair heavily and clicking on her mouse to wake her computer. Wish someone could click on me and instantly wake me up...

"The contextual menu where you have the metrics," the man replied.

"Okay, hold on," Willow replied, logging into the server and opening the program in question. She clicked on the drawer menu and then on the metrics list. Tara likes me...? "Okay," the redhead said, breathing out as her shoulders slightly slumped. "What confused you?" Willow asked, half of her mind returning to the questions raised in her dream.

Maybe she's lonely...

Tara pulled the top edge of her comforter up across her queen-sized bed, smoothing the puffy down filled cover slightly as she pulled the top edge even with her headboard. She then twisted slightly, reaching to her right to pick up the pillows stacked haphazardly at the base of the bed. She placed the pillows without care against the headboard, and then turned to her dresser, shuffling across the room easily, her feet warmly wrapped in her well-worn scuffs. The blonde hurriedly picked through the jewelry on the dresser top, stopping only when her fingers touched the glass bead bracelet she had received from Willow nearly two weeks before. The blonde sighed, her brow slightly creased, and she picked the bauble up, the beads easily falling around her fingers in a familiar caress.

She has to be lonely...

Tara shook her head to slough off the disturbing thought, and put the bracelet down, picking up her paint-splattered plastic watch next from the fabric covered surface and wrapping it around her left wrist. She latched it with some difficulty as she turned away from the dresser and moved back to her night stand, reaching behind her bedside lamp and turning her fairy lights off. She moved to her armoire, closed the doors and exited out into the hallway.

The girl moved quietly toward the stairs. Willow's door was closed, no sound could be heard and Tara looked at her watch. 9:30 am. Still sleeping - guess she needs that extra half hour... the blonde thought, remembering how tired the redhead had looked the previous evening. Tara's first foot was on the top step when she heard Willow's alarm go off; the blonde stopped when she heard it cut out, her hand touching the wall lightly to balance her as she turned her head slightly to face the redhead's door. After a long moment of continued silence, Tara smiled slightly. Snooze...

The blonde descended the stairs, turning on the lights as she entered the main room before making her way to the thermostat. She pressed the plus button until '70 degrees' read on the small digital screen, and then made her way to the kitchen, the sound of the furnace coming to life the only sound in the room. She picked up the kettle on the stove, testing it to see how much water was inside; satisfied that there was enough, she put it back down and twisted the burner dial to 'high'. She pulled the coffee press from it's place in the corner and then moved to the freezer. She pulled the coffee package from the cold confines, shivering slightly as the frosty plastic touched her skin, and moved back to the press. After pouring the coffee grinds into the press and returning the package to the icebox, the blonde moved across the kitchen from the stove, leaned back into the marble counter and lost herself in thought.

Thoughts of Willow.

Tara had thought it strange last night, when Willow asked her if she could tag along with the blonde on her errands today. The redhead's room had been so intimately lit, dark but not pitchblack, the space between them quiet with both girls obviously tired yet somehow awake, most likely running on the last vestiges of caffeine running through their veins from their earlier coffee jaunt. Tara had leaned her weary frame into the door jamb, while Willow had seemingly melted into her chair. Tara of course said yes to the redhead's request, like I'm going to turn down more Willow time, yet as the blonde moved gingerly down the hallway to her room after saying goodnight, her bones and muscles protesting with every slow step, her brow crinkled. Willow wants to run errands with me...? Why?

The blonde pulled herself back into the present as her eyes drifted across the wide space in front of her to the large windows on the opposite side of the room. It was gloomy outside, dark, but not raining; a pronounced change from the torrential downpour of the early morning. Tara had cracked one of her bedroom windows the previous night to let the fresh air in as she slept, to help clear the nagging thought that something wasn't right about Willow's request, and the blonde found herself roused from her sleep in the pre-dawn hours as the drain pipe outside audibly neared it's bursting point, the rain water angrily rushing through the tin tube. She had listened to the whooshing noise for a while, her misty mind incoherently skipping from wondering whether the roof was flooding to why in the world Willow would want to go with her to see Anya, before the blonde's fatigued conscious mind threw in the towel and allowed her to return to a deep sleep. When she woke two hours later, the rain had stopped but her mind was still busy with thoughts of Willow.

Tara frowned. Why would Willow want to run errands? Sure, the redhead said she was done with her work but... didn't she also say she could always find more work to do? Or, if she didn't want to do work, wouldn't she rather stay at home all day, bundled up in bed reading (as Tara had seen her do in the past), or maybe curl up and watch one of her numerous DVDs? Why volunteer to go out into the cold, the rain, to visit someone who Tara knew Willow didn't like. It didn't make sense.

Unless she's lonely.

After moving past the sinking feeling in her stomach-the thought of Willow sad, lonely or hurting, evoking the same feelings in the blonde-Tara thought about the last four days. It seemed like she had spent all of her available free time with Willow; having lunch, having dinner, getting coffee... If the blonde wasn't painting, sleeping or showering, she was with Willow. Painting the redhead's eyes. Hanging lights. Standing dumbstruck as the redhead ran her finger through the fogged up laundromat window. And the most amazing part? Willow had instigated it all.

The kettle whistled and Tara stepped forward, moving the enclosed pot to a cold burner. She twisted the back knob to 'off', and then moved the kettle over the coffee press; she pushed down on the button on the kettle's handle, the flap lifting up and the hot liquid poured out into the glass cylinder. Satisfied she had enough water, the blonde re-placed the kettle onto the cold burner and moved her attention to the press. As she pushed down on the plunger, the coffee swirling and steam rising, she frowned slightly.

Would Willow be spending this much time with me if Buffy was here?

The blonde pulled up on the plunger, and pressed down again, this time letting go as the press pushed the grounds into the bottom of the carafe. Would she be spending this much time with me if she wasn't fighting with Xander...? Tara questioned, moving to the cabinet to her left, and taking down her favorite rose mug. She placed the mug on the counter next to the press and sighed. Was she even fighting with Xander...?

Tara moved to the refrigerator and pulled a carton of milk from the middle shelf. She moved back to the counter and poured the creamy white liquid into her mug, stopping as it filled the bottom third of the cup. The blonde still didn't know how bad things were between Xander and Willow. She suspected pretty bad; Willow's phone had hardly rung all weekend, and the girl had only mentioned the dark-haired man three times, at least two times simple name drops while explaining a high school memory. An explicit change from the redhead's more familiar 'Xander and I' monologue from months previous, and evidence, Tara thought, that their relationship was faltering. Was fractured, frayed. The blonde frowned, moving back to the refrigerator and she opened the heavy door. If things were better between the two old friends, Willow would probably have spent her free time the past few days on the phone, taking Xander to coffee with her instead of the blonde. If things had been better with Xander, Tara would be on the outside, looking in and pining as usual.

What if she's finally giving up on him? the girl mused, a hopeful thought pushing to the surface. What if their fight Friday was the final straw, and Willow's finally letting him g-


Tara sighed, her lips pressed together in frustration. Stop before you start talking yourself into feeling like you have a chance with her if Xander is out of the picture. A Willow without her crush on Xander... was still a straight Willow. Tara shook her head, shutting the door and moving back to the press. Willow gets over Xander, spends more time with Tara to fill the void, Tara gets her hopes up, starts seeing things that aren't there until Willow comes home, her eyes bright and her babble bubbling with mentions of a new man. A new man, Tara repeated in her mind. She poured the coffee into her coffee mug, and watched as the two liquids swirled. She knew how dangerous her thoughts could be. One positive glimmer could mean a crushing disappointment on the flip side. Better to not allow the glimmer to shine in the first place.

What if she's spending time with me because Buffy asked her to? Tara scowled at that. She wouldn't put it past her best friend to ask Willow to look out for her while Buffy was gone. After all, hadn't the petite blonde asked Tara to do the same? Willow was so loyal... if Buffy asked...

Tara sighed heavily and moved back to her previous place opposite the burner, the mug warm in her hand. She leaned into the counter, the cool marble sinking through the material of her cargo pants and she shook her head. If Willow was spending this time with her because Buffy asked... she was going above and beyond the call of duty. Hanging out once and a while was one thing, but all the time? And that was what was happening, they were spending all their time together. No, Tara finally decided, Willow was a good friend, but nobody's that good a friend... No, Willow was spending time with her because she wanted to. Because...

She's lonely? Tara thought, now unsure about her earlier conclusion. She sighed in frustration. Why did the woman have to be so damn confusing... She pushed the thought from her mind and softly blew into her coffee cup, watching with limited interest as the liquid rippled away from her in tiny waves, the steam from the still too-hot drink rising and lightly dampening her face. She could hear Willow upstairs, moving from her room to the shower. The blonde took a tentative sip from her mug, and then another when the liquid didn't burn her tongue, enjoying the taste and the texture of her creation. There was something about that first cup of the day, comforting and wonderful...

Not that there's anything wrong with the last cup of the day... Tara thought, remembering last night and the walk she had shared with Willow. So incredibly cute, the blonde mused, shaking her head for what seemed like the millionth time in contemplation of the redhead's laundromat act. She had been unable to stop thinking about it last night as she painted, her mind returning time and time again to the sight of Willow teetering on that plastic chair, her perfect small frame wrapped in a warm jacket, her babble continuous and somehow not distracting her from the task at hand, which was just, adorable. Tara rubbed her arm across her side slowly, poorly imitating the touch the redhead had bestowed as they moved arm-in-arm, and the blonde smiled slightly at how snuggled into her Willow had been as they walked. She fit. With me, she fit... Tara observed, noting that there had been no sharp edges, just wonderful, warm, soft Willow.

The blonde was pulled from her remembrences when she heard movement again upstairs, Willow moving back into her room. Tara blushed, wondering just how long she had allowed herself to daydream about her roommate and their friendly embrace last night. Long enough for her to take an entire shower... A muffled Willow-curse floated down the stairs and Tara's eyebrows arched. She stretched her hearing, and heard another, this one even more muffled, traveling through the floor. Tara couldn't hear exactly what was being said upstairs, but she had a pretty good idea and it made her smile to hear it. Who knew she had a blue streak...

Tara took another sip of her coffee and again trained her eyes on the windows across the room. To the external observer, she was calmly considering the day. Perhaps wondering if she should bring an umbrella on her rounds, or trying to remember if she had enough money on her BART card to leave going to the ATM until later in the week. In reality, her stomach was churning from the combination of coffee, and a renewed worry about the day ahead.

Today Willow and Anya would be in the same room.

The thought of the two girls meeting again had filled Tara with apprehension as she drifted off to sleep last night, and now that her mind had returned to the conundrum today... well, she just knew it was going to go badly, or at least, horribly wrong, and that she should have dissuaded Willow last night from wanting to run errands with her, despite her desire to spend every waking moment with the girl, regardless of how confusing it was. There was no way the bottle blonde would hold her tongue in their company, and Tara suspected that there was no way Willow would let the baiting blonde off the hook if she pushed her into the corner. Tara had no idea what it was that Anya had said at the pre-gallery show party to get Willow so fired up (the blonde intentionally avoiding asking either girl for details), but she had a reasonably good idea and that in of itself made her uneasy.

The blonde had to admit that it was sort of funny when Anya wound Buffy up; challenged her 'straight cred', implying that all Buffy really needed was a little sapphic safari to reveal her inner gay. The petite blonde would start out polite with her rebuttals, eventually turning annoyed and sharp tongued until she reached her breaking point and shrieked at Anya that she was "not gay, damnit! I like to sleep with men, men, men! ...No offense Tara." Seeing Buffy get red-in-the-face about Anya's off-the-wall assertions was one thing, but Tara knew it would kill her to see the same reaction from Willow. It was one thing to know that Willow was straight, yet quite another to stand by her side as she emphatically stated that she'd never kiss another girl ever, much less fall in love with one. "No offense Tara..."

She thought about calling Anya, warning her over the phone that if she so much as greeted Willow 'hello', she would take her business elsewhere, but Tara knew it would be an empty threat and worse, that it would probably fan the bottle blonde's need to enflame. Instead she stood with her coffee and worried, thinking of diversionary tactics to keep Anya busy should she do the expected. Could ask about her money... the blonde thought. Maybe imply that a bunch of other artists were using another store... she sighed. Tell her there's a half-off sale at Good Vibrations? Tara frowned and sipped her coffee. Oh yeah, this is going to be great...

The blonde shook her head. She seemed to keep doing this - taking Willow places and introducing her to people that caused friction between them or at least, caused Willow to be uncomfortable. Willow and Morgan, Willow and Anya. It seemed like the only combination that worked from the last two weeks was Willow and me. The blonde smiled slightly at that. Willow and me. Tara had to admit that the last two days had exceeded what she had expected from Willow as a roommate, or friend. When they were in their own bubble, just the two of them it was... wonderful. Confusing, but wonderful, yet, add in another element, her pre-show party, Morgan's party; even Buffy and things became awkward. Willow, became awkward, and having Anya push and prod her today, as she inevitably will wouldn't help.

Why can't we just stay home today...

Tara lightly shook her head, carefully twisting from side-to-side to stretch as she took another sip of her coffee, her eyes moving to the microwave clock just to her left, and then to the ceiling. She heard Willow's hair dryer start up, and the blonde moved to the cabinet, pulling down the mug she knew Willow liked best. She put her own mug down and went about preparing a cup of coffee for Willow. Slightly less milk than she herself took, a cube of brown sugar and then finally, the coffee. She put the prepared mug down next to the french press, picked up her own cup and leaned into the counter.

How in the world did she get herself into this situation? Wanting Willow to go, not wanting Willow to go, questioning why in the world she would want to in the first place... She thought about her life last week. What she had been doing, what she had been thinking, last Tuesday. She had worked at the gallery that day, read through the cookbook Willow had bought in Portland, had left early when Marissa and Michelle told her to, and returned home in the hopes of spending time with Willow, only to be crushed to find her with Xander. Well, on the phone with Xander... Tara corrected with a blush. But still crushed. She remembered the feeling she felt as she held back the tears on the BART ride back to the gallery. How she had spent the entire rest of the evening hiding out in the office, trying to wait Willow out, hoping desperately to return home after the redhead had gone to sleep. And then the stairs. The moonlit stairs, Willow's tousled pajamas, her skin bright in the blue light. How intoxicatingly beautiful she had looked...

Tara looked up as she heard Willow trudge down the stairs, and couldn't help but smile warmly when she saw the redhead's tired pout, the girl shuffling into the room slowly. "Aww," Tara chuckled, pushing herself off of the far counter to move to the kitchen bar, her cup of coffee in hand. "Somebody's not all the way awake..."

"Says the girl already drinking coffee," Willow grumbled as she slide into one of the tall kitchen chairs, putting her phone down and then leaning back against the metal back. She tugged the sleeves of her long-sleeved gunmetal gray shirt, missing the brief look Tara shot at the phone, and the redhead huffed; Tara smiled and handed Willow the pre-made cup of coffee. The redhead brightened immediately when she saw the steaming mug and smiling, said, "thank you." She took a sip and closed her eyes, exhaling happily. "Ohhh, thank you." Tara blushed slightly at the redhead's appreciative moan and quickly took a sip of her own coffee. "So where are we going first today?" Willow asked as she looked up from the mug in her hands and settled back into the chair.

"The gallery," Tara said with a head bob, realizing with an internal groan that with that simple statement she was committing herself to an eventual Willow-Anya meeting. She shook her head slightly and continued. "We're supposed to submit the names of the works we're sending to LA this Friday, but I don't think I'm going to make the deadline." The blonde smiled sheepishly. "I'm going to ask Marissa if I can get the templates for the title card order, the one's they use for the paintings' titles, dimensions and stuff so I can put my selections in with the printer later."

"Is she going to be okay with that?" Willow asked hesitantly.

"No..." Tara chuckled, sighing with exasperation. She shook her head. "I just, I don't know what else to do though, I have... two paintings, maybe? And even those are only half done... "

"And you need four...?" Willow said with a mock wince, Tara nodding across from her. "Are you worried that you won't finish-"

"No, I'll finish," the blonde said with determination. "I have to finish. Just..."

"Can you submit dummy titles," Willow offered helpfully, leaning forward in her seat. "Like, submit titles and then just, put them with the paintings you do finish?"

"No," Tara said with a sigh as she pushed the sleeves of her red turtleneck sweater away from her wrists and turned on the kitchen faucet, dumping the remnants of her coffee into the drain. "I mean, I could, but then the paintings would have to fit those titles..." She sighed as she washed out her coffee cup. "I know it sounds silly, but, the titles are important-"

"It doesn't sound silly," Willow reassured, knowing that it was her suggestion that had been silly. Of course the titles have to fit the work...

Tara nodded in deference to Willow and turned off the water, placing the clean cup in the dish drainer. "After that," the blonde said with a deep breath, "Anya's for paint and frames."

"Cool," Willow said in what she hoped was her most neutral voice, her eyes dropping to her cup to avoid giving her distaste for seeing Anya again away. Tara watched the girl before her, the redhead obviously biting her tongue, pushing a too-obvious dislike for Anya to the side for Tara's sake. After briefly wondering about that, the blonde spoke.

"About today..."

"Do you not want me to come?" Willow asked, her worried eyes snapping up at the hesitant, trailing, tone in Tara's voice.

"No!" Tara said, surprised by Willow's question. "I mean, yes," she corrected, her face showing the confusion she felt. "I mean, I'd like you to go," she said, putting her hands in front of her. "If you still want to-"

"Yes," Willow said, nodding. "I do." I do, I do, I do. "I mean, I'm the one that asked, after all, right?"

"Right," Tara nodded.

"Which, now that I think about it, might have been rude," Willow said, her brow furrowing as she realized she might have insinuated herself into Tara's day. "I mean, was that rude?" She asked, the panic overtaking her features. "Me, all asking if I can come along, la de dah, I mean, the last thing you probably want is me tagging alo-"

"Willow, it's fine, I don't mind," Tara reassured, reaching over the counter and grasping the girl's hand. Willow's speech cut out in an instant and the two stared at each other, the warmth of their hands sending chills down their spines. "I, um," Tara stammered as she let go of the redhead's hand, "I actually like the idea of company..."

"Oh," Willow said, moving her just-touched hand to cup her mug. She noticed immediately that the ceramic mug was nowhere near as warm as Tara's hand.

"I just..." Tara sighed, not quite sure how to start. This is probably a bad idea... "I," the girl paused again. "I just wanted to say... about... Anya."

"Oh," Willow said, ducking her head slightly. Crap, the girl thought, internally wincing, the embarrassment at being caught rushing to her skin. She can tell that you hate Anya; Tara's worried that you're going to be mean, say something-

"If she says anything to you," Tara began, unknowingly interrupting Willow's thoughts, the blonde's brow furrowing in concern over what she was about to say. "I just, I won't mind if you just, walked away, from, her..."

"What?" Willow asked, genuinely perplexed as she looked up and took in the blonde's open face.

"I-If she says something to you, crass o-or mean?" Tara clarified, her eyes wide. "I, I know she can be, crude. Rude, even, and I just... if she says something... I don't, I don't w-want you to feel like you have to say something back, you know?" What I mean to say, is I really, really don't want you to tell her repeatedly that you're straight while you're standing next to me...

"You're worried I won't be nice?" Willow asked, a little stung that her feelings had been obvious enough for Tara to feel the need to say something, and for Tara to actually say something.

"No, not at all," Tara said softly, shaking her head slightly, her eyes sincere. You're saying this all wrong, Tara... "I just, I don't want you to feel like you have to be nice, if she's, not."

"But, she's your friend," Willow countered, confused. "I mean, I'm going to be nice to your friends-"

"I know, that's. I know," Tara said, wondering how her selfish desire to keep Willow and Anya apart could spin off into Willow thinking Tara didn't trust her to be kind. "I just, I don't want you to feel like you have to, for my sake if she's not. If she says something, if she says something y-you can walk away, and I won't mind."

"Walk away..." Willow repeated.

"She teases Buffy all the time," Tara admitted, "makes her upset until she snaps, yells. I- I don't want you to be in that position. To feel like that." Willow nodded her head, not sure what exactly it was Tara was worried about happening. "I just w-want you to know, if you decide to w-walk away, I won't be mad."

"Okay," Willow said softly, nodding her head. Tara smiled gently and Willow returned the smile, still a little unsettled that the blonde felt the need to warn her about her interaction with Anya.

Wow, t-that was incredibly awkward... Tara thought, her confidence about the day wilting. "I um, I have to go make a list of the paints I need," she said, nodding toward the studio as she moved around the counter.

"Okay," Willow said, nodding and cupping the mug in her hands.

"Will you be ready to go in about a half and hour?" The blonde asked, moving to stand a foot from the redhead.

"Yes," Willow nodded, her mind cleared by the blonde's proximity. The blonde blessed her with a half smile and Willow smiled brightly, feeling sparks explode across her skin, the earlier hurt momentarily forgotten as her stomach fluttered wildly.

"See you then, then," Tara chuckled. She moved behind Willow to walk to the studio and the redhead turned her head slightly and arched her eyebrows, her jaw tucked into her shoulder as she watched Tara's hips swish as the blonde disappeared. Willow turned her head back forward, a smile on her lips, and she took a sip of her coffee. I wonder if she knows she-

"Ugh," Willow growled in frustration as the phone to her right rang. She looked at the screen, arched an eyebrow and answered. "What Khalil."

Continue to Neverland Chapter Thirty-Eight

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