Return to Neverland Chapter Thirty-Eight


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.

It was adorable, actually. The way Willow's brow creased in a mix of confusion and anger when her phone rang. The huffing puff of air she expelled in annoyance as she saw Khalil's face on the screen. The icy, flat tone of her voice as she answered with a monotonous "yeah." Tara pursed her lips together to suppress a wide grin as she walked down the parking garage's stairs behind her roommate and out onto the sidewalk below, the gray, flat sky sitting just on top of the surrounding buildings' rooftops. The corners of the blonde's lips pulled up despite her best efforts to appear unaffected by Willow's pouting, the redhead protesting her way through the initial greetings with a mixture of contrition and supreme annoyance. There was just something about that tone, the way the redhead's voice went up in pitch, the way she stammered slightly, her green eyes flashing as her intellect and indignation were equally engaged. It was the way Willow would get when Buffy's teasing would hit a nerve, when the redhead would attempt to maintain cordial conversation while barely concealing a feisty temper.

'The Bubbler' is what Buffy called this side of Willow, a fermenting fount of frustration that if played correctly could expose an adorable pout of epic proportions; all without permanently damaging Willow's feelings. "I try sometimes to stop myself," Buffy explained to Tara once, the spoon of ice cream hovering near her lips as they lounged on a couch one Saturday night. "But then that crease shows up between her eyes and her lips go all flatline and I just keep going. It's total knee-jerk, jerk behavior that I can't stop. Kinda freaky."

Tara pursed her lips further as Willow rolled her eyes in reply to something said on the phone, the redhead shaking her head at her fellow developer's feined? ignorance. As much as Tara felt for the redhead, and oh, did she feel for the redhead, it was sort of funny to think of this man Khalil, bored at home, essentially crank calling Willow, probably knowing and enjoying the exact, adorable, huffy look on Willow's face his dense queries created.

The two girls walked to the crosswalk and waited as traffic slowly rumbled by, Willow's frown deepening and the flush in her cheeks rising as the call went on in length. The light turned green and they crossed, Tara trying not to laugh out loud at how quickly Willow crossed the street, her nervous energy seemingly burning off with each stomping step. Tara was actually pleased with the pace, as she was allowed to walk a half step behind the redhead. The difference in stride allowed Tara to sneak looks often, little sly glances and even open stares. She took in the red hair that swirled up off of the girl's shoulders with a gust of wind, the slim, freckled hands that looked like they were screwing open a pickle jar as she animatedly answered a question and of course, the perfect curve of the redhead's rear. Just perfect, the blonde inwardly sighed, staring appreciatively. Tara had meant to wipe the silly look off her face, and was just about to, I swear when Willow hung up the phone with a defiant push of the end call button and spun her head around, catching the blonde looking at her with what could only be described as a contemplative glance. "What?" The redhead said, honestly confused by the clear blue eyes trained on her face.

"Oh," Tara replied in shock, blinking comically before quickly recovering and nodding her head once at the phone in Willow's hand. "Khalil?" She asked, the sincere, faked naivete craftily starting a new line of conversation. One that does not center on why I was staring at Willow with a goofy, lovestruck grin, the blonde hoped beyond hope.

"Yeah," Willow grumbled, taking the bait and again pouting her lower lip out. "Stupid dummy head. It's like he takes pleasure in torturing me with these stupid questions that I know he knows the stupid answers to. I'm sorry," she said, slowing some to match Tara's pace. "I didn't think he'd call so much." Or that I'd be a complete rude-o and answer every time...

"It's okay," Tara said with a slight bob of her head, grateful that her earlier lovesick look hadn't been questioned.

"No, it's not," Willow argued, putting the oversized phone back into her pocket, and bringing her hands out in front of her, clasping her fingers. "I know it's rude..."

"It's work," Tara replied with a shrug, her eyes taking in the gallery's canopy yards away. "I know it's important."

"But that's the thing, it's so not," Willow complained, that adorable pout and crease returning to her face. "It's just... stupid. I'm sorry." Rude-o...

"Willow," Tara said with a bright smile, an inner giggle tickling her words as she took in the creases on Willow's forehead. "If you have to take a call, you have to take a call. I don't think that's rude."

"Really?" Willow replied, looking over to the blonde for confirmation.

Tara rolled her eyes good-naturedly, opening the gallery door wide for her roommate. "Really." And, much to her surprise, she meant it. It really didn't bother her that Willow was on the phone all morning. Much to the contrary, Tara found it delighted her. Sure, she would of course rather have Willow all to herself, but the fact that Willow was willing to work in her presence after the earlier subterfuge, that Willow would share that part of her life with her... well it made Tara feel special, and blessed. It also felt surprisingly natural, sharing their individual lives like this. Willow letting Tara overhear issues at work, Tara allowing Willow to tag along on her errands. It was how she always imagined it could be with them, partners navigating life with the other always near. And truthfully, the thought of Willow ignoring a call from a coworker didn't fit with Willow's nature; to deny Willow her phone time would be like denying Willow a piece of herself, and the blonde couldn't imagine imposing that loss on her roommate. "I know you need that phone like, ducks need water," she added on with a bright smile, a smile that she shared to let the redhead know she was sincere. The blonde was immensely gratified to see her roommate smile back.

"You're absolutely sure?" The redhead replied, partially to elicit a more complete reassurance, and partially just to see the blonde tease her again with that bright smile.

"I'm sure," Tara said, her voice coated in mirth, her lips tugging up in a wide half smile.

"Okay," Willow replied, her own smile wide on her face. She ducked in past the blonde and then stepped to the side so that Tara could lead as they more fully entered the gallery. The door closed behind them and Tara's face screwed up as unexpected, visceral music wrapped around her, its urgency pushing at her from all sides. She looked quickly to her left, to her roommate, whose big eyes were taking in the art and whose head was bobbing along in time with the thumping drumbeat, and then turned to the information desk across the hall. This is... weird... Instead of seeing Lucy, Marissa's faithful assistant she saw Michelle, the gallery owner's wife, sitting behind the pine desk, flipping through a magazine and bobbing her head to some decidedly non-Marissa music. Perhaps it was Tara's confused stare, or cold air from the briefly open door finally reaching her, but for some reason at that very moment Michelle looked up, then down, then double-taked back up, a smile brightening her face at the sight in front of her.

"Hey!" The woman exclaimed, closing the magazine and standing quickly.

"Hey," Tara said slowly, amusement touching the corners of her slight, growing smile as she crossed the large room to meet Michelle at the desk. "Marissa's not here?" She asked the obvious question as she hugged the now standing gallery owner's wife.

"No," Michelle said, squeezing Tara tightly before breaking away to casually lean back into the desk. "She's with Josh talking club stuff. How'd you--" Tara pointed up and around and Michelle's brow creased. "The... ceiling... lights told you she wasn't here?"

"The music," the blonde chuckled. "Not exactly Marissa's speed." A massive understatement, Tara thought, thinking of the usual, calm, melodic music Marissa was partial to playing in the gallery, and how much the anal, frizzy haired woman would hate her space spilling over with the energetic guitar wails assulting the walls now.

Michelle shrugged, a mischevious grin on her lips. "Well you know what they say, when the cat is away, and the mouse is doing the cat a really huge favor, the mouse will play whatever the hell music she wants to listen to..." the woman paused. "Even if the cat doesn't approve."

"So that's how that one goes..." Tara replied, thoughtfully, her straight face causing Willow to break out a toothy grin.

The spikey haired woman nodded in response to the dig, her tongue poking the inside of her cheek with glee and she looked between the two girls with sparkling eyes. "So what's up, gorgeous gals, all out on the town on a gloomy Tuesday morning? That's a little random." She looked directly at Willow. "Don't you have a job?"

"I--" Willow looked busted and quickly glanced at Tara. "I have the day off. Sort of."

"Playing hooky?" Michelle asked with a knowing, sympathetic nod. Willow nodded back, her face contrite and apologetic and Tara couldn't help but chuckle softly. Adorable... "I'm playing hooky myself," the gallery owner's wife explained. She put a thin hand over her stomach. "Officially, I have a dicey stomach, on account of some questionable sushi from last night's business dinner. Unofficially I'm covering for Marissa because I'm still trying to work my way out of the dog house from this last Friday." The thin woman pressed her hands together and bowed slightly in the redhead's direction. "Thank you, again, Willow, for sacrificing your own good time by getting involved in that whole mess at the party, the chaperoning and whatnot."

"It's, okay," Willow said with a quick blush. She had been so worried about seeing Anya that she had honestly not even considered that Marissa-much less Michelle-would bring up the events of this past Friday. The redhead shot a quick look at Tara, who's face was evaluative and even, and wondered what her roommate was thinking. Hopefully not remembering what an ass I made of myself on the sidewalk and then later at home with the big heaving sobs...

"No, no, no," Michelle shook her head, feeling the need to go on. "I'm pretty sure I ruined your fun time that night so a big sorry is definitely needed."

"Okay," Willow said, a slight blush still flush on her cheek. Really, let's not dwell...

"Is Marissa still mad?" Tara asked, her voice even and fair.

"Not mad," Michelle said with a wave of her hand. "Mmm, put out. We worked most of it out that night when we got home, but you know, that fact doesn't make up for how I put Willow in a bad sitch that night and I just wanted to make sure I said sorry."

"It's really okay," Willow replied uncomfortably, not at all eager to continue relieving that night in any way, shape or form. Really would like to forget that night altogether...

"Well, cool," Michelle said with a nod. "Good to get that guilt off my admittedly flat chest."

"Is she going to be out all day?" Tara asked, wishing to get back to why she came in, in the first place. She noticed how talk of the evening caused Willow to tense, and she definitely didn't want the rest of their morning to be tainted by remembrances of that night. Of Willow and Xander's fight... The thought of how angry the redhead had been, how hurt she had been, caused Tara to slightly shudder.

"Most of the day," the gallery owner's wife replied with a wincing smile. "You needed to talk to her though, about..." Michelle trailed off, reaching behind her and grabbing a pad of paper and pen before turning back to Tara with a bright, wide open look. "Labels?"

"Yeah," Tara replied, surprised. How did she...

"Marissa didn't think you'd be ready," Michelle said with an apologetic shake of her head, the pen in her hand making large swooping moves across the page. "Here," she said, tucking the pen behind her ear, and tearing the page free for the blonde. "She's doing the labels through Claude at Commotions, down on Fremont and Folsom. You know where that is?"

Tara nodded as she took the paper. "We were just down there." Michelle's eyebrows arched in surprise.

Willow caught the look and explained. "My office is a couple of blocks away."

"You went by your office when you're playing hooky? That's a little ballsy," Michelle said with a snort of admiration.

"No, I," Willow looked to Tara and then back to Michelle. "It's, nobody's there, there was a rat problem so it's--"

"You work in that big building wearing a tent?" Willow nodded. "I was wondering what was up with that place... huh," the spikey haired woman replied before turning her attention back to the blonde. "Tara, Mar said to say just put the label information in by Sunday at 5 and they'll get to L.A. on time." Tara nodded again, wonder if she'd even be ready by Sunday. "So what else are you girls up to today?" Michelle asked, placing the pad of paper behind her and stretching her palms over her jeans. "Lunch?"

"Well, we still have to go to--" Tara was interrupted by a shrill ring, and Willow huffed, the sound coming from her jacket pocket. Tara smiled slightly, wondering if this would be the call from Khalil that would push Willow over the edge. The thought disappeared completely, however, when Willow removed the phone from her pocket, looked at the screen and smiled. Tara's perplexed gaze followed Willow's locked look to the screen, and staring back at her was the smiling visage of one Xander Harris.

Tara's smile faded quickly, simply melted off her face as she put the two smiles to her left together and came up sick. The reaction was immediate, and surprisingly potent. The lump in her throat, the twisting feeling in her stomach as her skin first went ice cold and then burning hot... Anger rolled over her, and for the first time ever, it wasn't directed at Xander.

It was directed at Willow.

The thought startled the blonde, and she immediately took a major mental step back. Anger at Willow... that's-- Why am I angry at Willow? Because she took the phone from her pocket when it rang? Because she has his face programed into her phone? Because by smiling at his stupid face on the phone now the day isn't about them anymore, it's about her and Xander... Tara concluded. Tara looked up from the phone screen to Willow's face, and realized with a start just how much she hated that smile. The one Willow smiled for Xander, the one that in its brilliance implied that he knew her best of all. That he loved her, worse, that she loved him. The image sat in Tara's stomach like lead, hollowed out her limbs and fogged her mind until she was sure she would eventually just became numb so she wouldn't have to feel at all. Only, she didn't become numb. She became furious. She didn't want to protect Willow from Xander, didn't want to drive to Sunnydale and lash out at the dark haired man for stringing the redhead on. No, for the first time in her life she wanted to do what Buffy always did. She wanted to shout at Willow, tell her how stupid she was being, how stupid she was for loving such a horrible person. And then? I want to tell her how stupid she was for not loving me... Tara realized with a contrite thud.

Willow looked up from her phone and promptly took her smile down a notch, as she took in Michelle's expectant face, and Tara's blank stare. "You going to answer that?" Michelle asked, her eyebrows arched high, half on account of Willow not answering her phone, and half from the mixed, troubled look on Tara's face.

"I don't have to," Willow replied meekly, still so very self-conscious about how rude she had been on Friday, how nervous she was about making a wrong step by ignoring the people around her and hiding in her phone. She looked Tara for a clue, but found nothing. Maybe she's not okay with the whole phone thing after all... She was about to say something to the blonde, when the spiky haired woman interjected.

"You can use the office if you want some privacy," Michelle said, nodding her head toward the door along the back right side of the gallery.

"I can call him back," Willow said with a polite smile, trying to figure out with a few quick looks, the expression on Tara's face. "It's just my friend..."

Friend, Tara internally snorted, her ire and anger with her roommate flaring.

"Don't be stupid," Michelle said. "I saw that smile when you saw who was calling; take it." Willow continued to look unsure, so the woman continued. "Seriously, Tara and I have some seriously boring crap to talk about anyway, so if there's any time to take a call..."

"Are you sure?" Willow asked, the entirety of her question directed to the blonde standing silently to her right. Are you sure?

I can't believe she's asking for my permission... Tara thought. The blonde thought of all she could say, all that she wanted to say to the girl to her left, and instead, just nodded her head slightly.

Willow smiled, relieved to have Tara's approval and nodded to Michelle, who nodded to the office again. The redhead pushed a button on the face of the phone, and held the device to her ear as she quickly strode toward the office. "Xander?"

Xander. It was always Xander. How can she not realize how much he uses her, doesn't she see how pathetic she is? Tara thought heatedly, before a wave of guilt crashed around her heart. 'Pathetic Willow'... it didn't feel right to think, and it didn't feel right to internally accuse, yet there it was, spinning around Tara's mind, coating her eyes as she watched the redhead walk away. The anger that hummed under her skin, for so many years directed at Xander and now, surprisingly and suddenly directed at the object of her affection, just doesn't feel right. Tara shook her head slightly before admitting to herself that nothing about this situation feels right...

"You okay?"

"What?" Tara asked, genuinely confused by the question as she tried to push the swirl of emotion inside her to the side.

"Nothing," Michelle said with a casual shrug of the shoulders. "You just look a little out of sorts..."

"I, I h-have a l-lot on my mind," Tara replied glumly, sighing and putting the piece of paper Michelle had given her earlier into her jacket pocket. Michelle frowned, evaluating the girl before her and Tara sighed when the gallery owner's wife didn't speak. "What." Michelle opened her mouth to speak and then quickly closed it again, her face unsure. "What?"

Willow closed the office door behind her and stepped into the paper strew space. "Hey Will, how--"

"Xander," Willow interrupted, her voice high and irritable. "Where have you been?"

There was a slight pause on the line, and then a clear, sarcastic tone filled the line. "I'm fine Will, thanks for asking. You?"

"Sorry," Willow grumbled, instantly chastised. She flounced down into a brown vinyl bucket chair, her shoulders slumped and her toes turned in toward each other as she melted into the backrest. She started meek, her eyes soft as she picked at the seam of her pant leg. "I just was worried cause you've been Mr. Unavailable lately and, I missed you."

"I missed you too," Xander said, his own voice softening a bit. "And it's okay, I do concede to having been AWOL-man lately. However, I have a really good reason for my recent non-comm status."

"And that reason is?" Willow asked, her voice a little doubtful, her fingers continuing to pick at the seam of her pants.

"You, my friend, are talking to the new field superintendent."

Willow's face twisted and she replied, confused. "You joined a parks and rec league?"

"No, bonafide-genius level," Xander replied, incredulous. "I got that promotion. At the site?"

Willow sat up immediately, a bright smile on her face, her free hand flapping excitedly before her. "Oh my god, yay! Xander! That's so great!"

"Yeah, better pay, more hours, you know that whole Catch-22," the man elaborated modestly. "The best thing though is that the job itself is really challenging," he said, an ounce of pride slipping in amongst his words. "But in a good way. And it's not so much, 'me pound nail' anymore. More like, 'me carry clipboard'."

"Well yeah!" Willow said, obvious pride shining through her words. "That sounds great, you big, field supervisor you!"

"You know," the man replied, ignoring Willow's obvious ignorance about what exactly a 'field superintendent' did. "I always thought if I was a super I'd have a big ring of keys, like that guy Schneider from that old show 'One Day at a Time', but so far its just been a quick succession of tension headaches and a really sore toe."

"Sore toe?" Willow asked, a little concerned.

"Yeah, dropped a thermos of soup on it the other day," the man gamely explained. "Of course, on-site, 'thermos' becomes 'big cement block'."

"God, this is so great Xander," Willow said with a proud shake of her head. "About the job, not the toe. Have you told Buffy yet? Again, about the job not the--"

"Nah, I figured I'd let you do the honors."

Willow's brow wrinkled. That's weird... "Are you sure, cause--"

"Yeah," the dark haired man interrupted. "I only have a few minutes to chat as it is. Tito is meeting me over at the site in about ten minutes. Mr. Carlisle, my boss, promised a big bonus if we finish things up ahead of schedule, so that means I have to get blah blah blah done by Thursday night."

"Blah, blah, blah?" Willow asked.

"Yeah, I figured that's what you'd hear anyway if I went into construction speak, so why not just save us both some time."

"Gotcha" Willow said with a quick nod of her head, easing back into the bucket seat.

"So..." the man began, a teasing tone evident. "How are things with you, my little lesbian friend? Things with a certain blonde artist getting any better?" Willow smiled widely at the question.

"Yes," the redhead replied, her eyes shining brightly. "Things are really, really great."

I'm so stupid, Tara thought, beating herself up again for the fiftieth time since Willow left the room. She was trying to fight her feelings, but they seemed to be acting completely independently of her conscious mind. Mad at Willow, it seemed such a stupid idea, but there it was, coursing through her blood, stinging the backs of her eyes and making her feel like she caused all of this pain by not asking Willow to move out weeks ago. Stupid...

"What was with the big frowny when Willow answered her phone?" Michelle asked, kicking her foot against the desk absentmindedly as she tried to read the washed out look on Tara's face. "It was borderline scowl," she added when the blonde looked up. "I was a little afraid, personally."

"I..." Tara said, her voice seemingly exiting her mind and mouth through a dense fog. She seemed so tired suddenly. Tired of feeling the way she was feeling, sick to death of the same struggles gripping her heart time and again. Same song and dance; I love Willow and she doesn't love me. The blonde sighed again, and a small twist emerged between her eyes as she replayed that thought again. It didn't feel right. Why didn't it feel right? "It w-wasn't the call..."

"Are you sure?" Michelle asked. "Seemed to really put you off..."

"I'm sure, I just..." She sighed, trying to collect her thoughts. "I h-have s-so much to do; I'm not even sure I'm going to be done painting by Sunday, and so to get the labels in..." Way to lie Tara... The blonde looked up at the woman across from her and felt horrible for not just saying to her, to someone, I'm in love with Willow and I'm confused.

Michelle clapped her hands together gently. "Hey, I meant to mention earlier that Morgan's here."

Tara's brow creased and she looked from the woman across from her to the office door, surprised. "No," Michelle said with a flap of her hand and then nod to the front door behind Tara. "She's out getting coffee, but she should be back in a few minutes, so you know, if you wanted to try and duck out..."

"Duck out?" Tara replied, confused. Why would I duck out on Morgan...

"Cause you know," Michelle explained, almost apologetically. "She called you this weekend, you didn't call her back..."

"She d-didn't call," Tara said, genuinely confused before amending her words with a slight shake of her head. "I mean, I d-didn't get a message." Michelle arched her eyebrows and looked to the office door conspiratorily. Tara shook her head side to side. "W-Willow w-would have told me if she had called." Right?

"Well, she said she called," Michelle replied, leaning back into the desk. "Was not too shy about showing that it bummed her out big time that you didn't call her back either." The spiky haired girl cocked her head to the side. "She really likes you, you know." Tara made no noticable response. "I think, though, when you left with Willow on Friday... I think she thought you *left* with Willow, if you get my drift. Especially when you didn't call back."

"W-Willow and I are just f-friends," Tara answered with a sigh. Why doesn't that feel right...? the blonde thought again, confused by how her three-year simple mantra suddenly felt so wrong. Confused by how she could feel angry at the person she loved most at all.

"Right, cause she's straight, yeah, I know, Marissa keeps telling me." Tara's face screwed up in response to Michelle's flip tone. "Come on Tara... Willow had a 'stomach ache' on Friday?" The gallery owner's wife's face was painted with disbelief. "Please. Did you guys have a fight or something?"

"No," Tara replied, "I-- She, s-she just w-wanted to go home."

"Damn," Michelle muttered, before looking past Tara toward the front door, a polite smile emerging on her lips. "Morgan. Wow, you're... fast with the coffee. What, the barista a relative?"

Tara turned to take in the beautiful brunette walking toward them, two coffees in her hands and a warm smile on her face. She looked good, but then, she always looks good, and Tara absently checked her watch to see how long Willow had been gone. "Hey... Tara," Morgan said simply, a slight confusion flashing across her face. The brunette artist looked to Michelle, who offered a hopeful, awkward smile, and then back to the blonde. "It's really good to see you."

The blonde blinked once, and felt the hair raise on the back of her neck, knowing that the love of her life was yards away, behind a simple door, talking to a man that she, Tara, despised. The blonde blinked again and noticed, not for the first time, how kind Morgan's eyes were, how beautiful she was and how easy it would be to give in to her advances, to see what it was like to have a real life, a real relationship, a real future. The blonde blinked a third time, and with a slight smile that betrayed her inner turmoil, softly said to the girl before her, "hello."

"So..." Morgan said, looking between Michelle and Tara before settling her gaze on the wide-eyed blonde standing slightly to her left. "Was... Marissa right? Did you come in for the labels?" Tara blushed and Morgan quickly reached out and touched the girl's arm, flashing a warm and reassuring smile in the process. "It's not a big deal. I don't think half the girls have gotten theirs in. I know I haven't gotten mine in..." The brunette dropped her hand and Tara internally sighed.

Still no tingles...

"The difference though Tara," Michelle said, interrupting Tara's thoughts with a slight eye roll, "is that you're working your ass off to paint new stuff and Morgan is just lazy." The girl mock toasted the blonde with her paper coffee cup, and Tara's brow rose as Morgan chuckled good-naturedly and shook her head.

"I'm not lazy, I just..." She sighed, embarrassed, before continuing in a slight, confessional tone. "I just haven't decided what I'm going to send down. I have five paintings left, but there are only four spots... one of the paintings is going to be an orphan, left out and I--"

"...don't w-want to leave any behind," Tara finished with a slight smile. "I g-get that. I um, I feel the same way sometimes. It's like, choosing between--"

"Your babies," Morgan finished, her statement causing Tara to nod her head slightly in affirmation.

"You artists," Michelle scoffed with a teasing grin. "They're paintings, not people; let it go."

Tara looked quickly to Michelle, and Morgan just shook her head again, tsking slightly. "Don't mind her," the brunette said to Tara with a mischievous grin. "She's just out of sorts cause she saw Alice from 'The L Word' in a Yoplait commercial last night..."

"Uh, with brown hair giggling over a male masseur," Michelle haughtily clarified before frowning in dismay. "Man, I hope that doesn't mean she got canned from the show and she's doing commercials because she needs money."

"Maybe she did it for cultural reasons," Tara joked with a half smile, immediately regretting her c-colossal lameness... when the word play was met with two curious, quiet stares. Morgan's brown knit and after an evaluative pause, she laughed lightly.

"Ha ha," Michelle said, still frowning. "Seriously though, she's the best part of that show and if those-- Damn it, delivery." The gallery owner's wife looked past the artists and put her drink down on the desk behind them. "Excuse me ladies, I need to see what Brown can do for me today." The spiky haired woman nodded to both women to excuse herself before threading between them and crossing to the front door; she greeted a burly man in shorts holding a clipboard, and both looked out the still open door, ostensibly at the to-be-delivered packages.

Tara quickly glanced over her shoulder toward the office door, her ignorance of what was being said on its opposite side causing her skin to rise into small bumps. The blonde looked back to Morgan, who awkwardly stood before her, taking small sips from her cup. Tara bit the inside of her lower lip and thought, okay, so... here goes n-nothing... She leaned into Morgan slightly, so that she would be heard without doubt over the music, and said, "you um, you l-look r-really nice today."

Morgan looked up at the blonde in surprise and then down to her feet, tucking a lock of curly, unruly hair behind her ear as she chuckled, embarrassed. "Thanks, I uh, I certainly don't feel like I look nice." The brunette looked Tara in the eyes, smiling warmly and slightly apologetically. "I was out kind of late last night, sort of had to throw myself together to get out the door in time to meet Michelle. In fact," she joked, "I'm actually really hoping this triple latte kicks in soon, or else I'd say chances are good that I'll be dropping off into a narcoleptic stupor sometime this afternoon..."

"Nothing an Advil and Alka Seltzer cocktail can't fix," Michelle said in passing as she showed the deliveryman pushing a flat filled with boxes across the gallery floor to a back storage closet. Morgan just shook her head again as the two disappeared into the back room.

"Thanks, though," the brunette said sincerely as soon as Michelle was out of earshot. "It's a great compliment, coming from someone as pretty as you." Tara looked to her feet and blushed.


"God," Morgan sputtered, looking to her own hands. "I'm sorry, that sounded really cheesy, I just meant..." Both women looked up and made eye contact, smiling awkwardly. "That's a really pretty sweater."

"Thanks..." Tara replied, blush intact, as she remembered thinking the same thing when she saw the red turtleneck in a Sunnydale store window years before. She had bought it on a weekend trip with Buffy because Mrs. Summers had said she thought it would look good on the blonde; that Willow had had the same in blue, and wouldn't Tara look nice in the red version.

"My friend, Atom, DJs at 111 Minna," Morgan explained, bringing Tara back from her memory. "Every time I go to see him spin, I say, 'I'm only staying until I get tired,' but then, of course, I end up staying two hours past that and heading out to the Lucky Penny for 3am waffles."

The blonde nodded, before saying conversationally, "s-sounds like fun, though." Tara had no idea whether it indeed would be fun, but felt reassured that she had said the right thing when the blank compliment elicited an approving bob of Morgan's head, her lips presently occupied by the cup of coffee. The blonde wondered how she would handle such a night. If she had been there, with Morgan, as Morgan's girlfriend, would they have stayed out all night? Or would they have left early, left for other, girlfriendy things... Would Willow stay out all night? Tara internally frowned as thoughts of the indelible, incredible dream girlfriend Willow snuck into her head. It doesn't matter what Willow would do, the blonde thought testily. Willow's too busy talking to Xander to attend this dream scenario, thank you v-very much... Tara looked over her shoulder to identify Michelle's whereabouts, and again her eyes were drawn momentarily to the closed office door. What is it about watched pots...? the blonde asked herself, turning back to the brunette before her. Her fellow artist was rearranging the sleeve on her cup, as if she was trying to work up the nerve to say something to Tara, and Tara's brow knit momentarily, wondering if the girl's struggles were on account of the blonde's perceived indifference this weekend. Figuring that was probably the cause of Morgan's distress, Tara again leaned forward to be heard above the music. "Michelle, she m-mentioned that you called this weekend--"

"Ah..." Morgan sighed, her face flushing red. She winced slightly, obviously embarrassed that Tara's indifferent rejection of her advances was going to be conversation fodder.

Tara identified the look, and quickly moved to reassure the brunette. "I um, I just w-wanted to let you know that I never got your message." Morgan looked up and Tara made meaningful eye contact. "I d-didn't even know you called until Michelle said something a few minutes ago."

"Oh..." The surprised brunette evaluated the blonde's clear, blue eyes. "Really?"

Tara nodded. "I w-would have called back. I, I'm... s-super busy, with the sh-show preps, and... things..." Willow. "But I still would have called."

"Oh." Morgan repeated, grinning slightly, the smile growing in wattage as the misunderstanding cleared in her mind. "Well, wow, okay, that's cool. Big relief then. I thought maybe I freaked you out this Friday. On the roof."

"No," Tara said with a slight shake of her head, smiling kindly. "The trellis, on the other hand..." She faux shuddered for effect, pleased that her joking caused Morgan to smile.

"Oh, don't worry, the trellis and I have had words," Morgan said with mock authority. Tara arched her eyebrows and the brunette continued. "Oh yeah, I've signed it up for sexual harassment classes and everything." A half smile emerged on Tara's lips. "I was like, 'trellis, you can't go grab-vining attractive artist ladies named Tara'." The blonde blushed. "It was an emotional intervention but the trellis seems open to change, and really? That's all I can ask of it..."

Tara chuckled. See, she's nice, and funny... The brunette in front of her smiled, and the blonde again noticed how loose and relaxed Morgan was, her hip jutting out to the side, her feet pointing away from each other in perpendicular fashion like a ballet dancer. The brunette had an inherent grace that was completely foreign to Tara, and was one reason why the thought of being with Morgan had intimidated the blonde early on. Willow, on the other hand... Tara had seen Willow trip on the stairs leading to their respective rooms as they ascended for bed, seen the redhead slip on the bath mat when brushing her teeth and caught the girl catch a crack of a sidewalk with the tip of her bright tennis shoe just the other day. It was Willow's goofy bounciness that made Tara feel a little bit better about her own, perceived, clumsiness. When Tara pictured herself with Willow, stumbling and bumbling along holding hands... they fit. Could I really fit with Morgan? Tara honestly asked herself as she looked at the girl before her, remembering with a slight flash of anger that the only reason she was even standing here thinking about this possible mis-match, was even speaking to Morgan at all, was because Willow was in the other room talking to Xander. The reminder caused Tara to sigh, and her brow to knit.

"What?" Morgan asked, taking in the perplexed look on Tara's face.

The message... "When you called, did you um, d-did you leave the message with W-Willow?" Tara asked, wondering why she didn't get Morgan's message if she had indeed left one. The blonde had checked her machine this morning, checked it last night, in fact, just after the two roommates had returned from coffee, and both times there had been nothing. Could Willow have taken the message, forgotten to pass it along?

"What?" Morgan asked. "Oh, no, I got your voice mail." Tara's face screwed up.

"A-Are you sure? B-Because I checked my messages this morning..."

Morgan nodded and frowned; she dug her phone out of her pocket and began scrolling through the menu with her thumb, stopping and reading back: "Tara-415.242--"

The blonde sighed; Willow hadn't known about the call. Would that have made you feel better if you thought Willow had kept the message from you...? Tara asked herself ruefully, before explaining to the brunette: "That's my cell phone, I- M-My friend, Buffy? She gave me the phone last year, as a gift, and I sometimes forget people other than her have the number." The blonde winced slightly. "I'm sorry, I don't always r-remember to check the voice mail when I'm home, I guess, because I just f-figure people will call me on my land line, and I was home, so..."

"Ah," Morgan said, understanding, before adding sheepishly, "it's the only number I have for you."

"Oh," Tara replied, and after a moment's pause, said, "then I'll have to start checking my cell phone more." Or... "Or," the blonde said, looking to her watch and then back up. "I could g-give you my home number."

Morgan smiled widely. "I'd like that."

"So things are great, huh," Xander asked, his voice ringing with curiosity.

"Really great," Willow emphasized with a smile, her toes tapping along with the diffused beat from the music playing in the gallery thumping through the office door. "Borderline Tony the Tiger great."

"Well, I gotta say Will, I was expecting a much different answer. One perhaps wrapped in the soft bubble wrap of anxiousness, and secured with a clear, yet sticky swath of hysteria."

"I don't know how to explain it," the redhead said with a slight shake of her head, choosing to ignore the dark-haired man's dig. "Things are just really different, and good. Really good, it's like we're actually--"

"Friends?" Xander interrupted.

"I was going to say 'talking'," Willow softly corrected. "But, yeah. Friends." I'm friends with Tara... the redhead thought with a tinge of wonder and glee.

"I'm guessing this means the drama from Friday night receded..."


"And... Morgan and the case of the mysteriously retied bows?" Xander fished.

"Nothing happened," Willow smiled widely. Nothing at all - whoo-hoo! "Tara said it was a trellis."

"A... trellis."

"You know, those wood thingys that hold viney type plants?" Willow explained, still thinking to herself, Tara and I are friends and nothing happened with Morgan! Yippee!

"Yeah, I know what a trellis is Will, built a few for Joyce back in the day," Xander said. "I just don't understand how the wood thingy with the viney type plants is involved with the half-nakedness of Tara."

"Oh, sorry," Willow said sheepishly, stupid wandering brain. "She said she was trying to snuggle up to a heat lamp and in the process, you know, backed into this trellis and it snagged one of the bows on her shirt." Willow smiled brightly, remembering Tara's silly pantomime at Citizen Cake. "Morgan got her free and retied the bow that got stuck, then retied the other one so that they matched. There was no nakedness, though." Half or otherwise.

"Very chivalrous of her, in a really girly way." Xander paused. "So, getting stuck on a trellis means no smooching."

"No smooching," Willow replied, supremely satisfied with her ability to say that.

"Well that must be a big relief."

"You have no idea," the redhead exhaled, her body relaxing into the chair at the thought.

"Morgan must be pretty bummed--"

"Hey!" Willow protested, sitting up straight and pouting.

"I'm just saying," Xander replied. "Girl spent all night with Tara, didn't get a kiss, and I'm guessing no future dates."

"Nope, no dates," Willow affirmed, grinning like a fool. "Tara doesn't even like her that way. Or at least, she's not sure if she likes her that way yet," the redhead said, the 'yet' making her shiver a little bit. "But she said she's not even sure she wants to date anyone right now, so--"

"Maybe you'll make it to this weekend, come out and get the girl before Morgan snags her."

"That's wildly optimistic, but, yeah," Willow said, reaching out and knocking on the big oak desk before her.

"So, you guys talked about Morgan," Xander lead. "That's pretty cool."

"Over cake," Willow added, smiling.

"Very grown up," Xander complimented. "And when was that?"

"On Saturday night," Willow said. "She asked if I wanted to go to the movies--"


"But I said no," Willow added, a tinge of regret in her voice, "cause I was too busy being a big dummy all wrapped up in my own personal pity party to realize how nice the offer was."


"Exactly, but, she came back like five minutes later totally unfazed with my jacket in hand and asked me if I wanted to go get cake instead." Willow's lips curled up in a smile. "It was very sweet."

"Sounds like it," Xander said, appreciatively. "And then she brought up Morgan."

"No, I did; I asked."

"You, asked..." Xander repeated, to clarify. "Alright," he said, his voice stern and dramatic. "What have you done with my friend Willow."

"It was weird," Willow said, again choosing to ignore Xander's over-the-top taunts. "I mean, Morgan is *it* you know, she's Tara's ideal girl, but when we were at cake and I asked her about it, asked about the whole, Morgan-is-the-ideal... she said that ideals change. Xander..." the redhead sighed as she looked for the words to continue. "I remember that night so clearly you know? The one when she told me who she wanted, what kind of girl she liked. I mean, we spent that day in the park and then the next night she tells me that her ideal girl is everything I'm not. Olive skin, artistic, beautiful--"

"You're beautiful Will," Xander said quickly. "And I'm sure that had Tara known then that she was talking you into full-on basket case mode where insecurity and craziness ruled supreme she never would have said what she said."

"Maybe," Willow said with a shake of her head. "But it's just weird. I mean, she could have said that night that her ideal woman would be named Morgan; that's how close the description was, and now... that's not who she wants."

"It's not that weird if you think about it," Xander replied, unfazed. "Three years ago you were with Oz; think about how much you've changed." Willow pursed her lips in thought, and Xander continued. "It's still crazy that you can remember things from three years ago though; I can't even remember what I had for lunch yesterday.

Willow rolled her eyes. "Like you don't remember the first time Buffy talked about Angel."

"Well of course I remember that, it was the night all of my hopes and dreams were dashed; I think it was a Tuesday..." Willow frowned, slightly, wondering how much of Xander's self-deprecating jokes held a kernel of truth. "Seriously though Will," the man continued. "Three years... that's a long time to obsess about something."

"Indeed," Willow nodded, the enormity of that time sinking around her.

"So I take it you've spent more time with Tara beyond cake," Xander asked.

"Lots," Willow replied. "I went shopping on Sunday, alone, but I bought her these little Christmas lights, like she used to have when she was in college and Sunday night after we went grocery shopping together, we put them up in her bedroom."

"Very romantic, low-lights--"

"Xander," Willow interrupted, unsure of where her friend was about to take things.

"Sorry," the man replied, sheepishly. "Continue."

"That night she said she didn't have any music, to paint to during the week, so I gave her a CD full of songs that really mean something to me, and yesterday she listened to it, and liked it, although I'm not sure if she listened to the whole thing, but that's not important, I mean, just the fact that she was listening at all is so cool."

"Cool, well--"

"And yesterday she let me hang out in her studio, and oh! She painted my eyes; I mean, she didn't put paint on my eyes, of course, more, she looked at my eyes and then painted the *exact* color onto this little canvas, which she gave me, a-and right before that she told me the names of her untitled paintings, which she never does, for anyone, and we had lunch, and then later we went and got coffee together and she called me adorable--adorable, Xander--when I wrote 'I love SF' in some steam at this random laundromat. And now today we're running errands together--"

"Wait," Xander said, his mind slightly spinning from the crush of information. "You're running errands with her, right now."

"Yup," Willow casually confirmed. "We're at Marissa's gallery; I'm in the office, and Tara's out talking to Michelle."

"Willow," the dark haired man chastised, his tone incredulous. "Did we not learn anything from Friday about talking on the pho--"

"I asked if it would be okay," Willow dismissively replied with a roll of her eyes.

"And she said yes?"

"No, she said no and I said too bad." Willow rolled her eyes. "Of course she said yes, you big dork. And, she said that if I have to take a call, that it's okay with her, she understands."

"That's very understanding," Xander admitted.


"Well, it sounds like you guys are having a really good time."

"We are. Although..."

"Although what?"

Willow frowned slightly. "All of this, it feels good, the hanging out and the talking and the laughing but... I still feel nervous, like really, nervous. I mean, it's good, really good, great, but it's not, it's not 'comfortable', like how it is with you, or Buffy."

"Well, you don't want to sleep with us." Xander replied. "Anymore..." Willow rolled her eyes. "I wouldn't read anything into it Will, it's not like you were ever completely comfortable with Oz either, if I remember correctly."

"Ya huh I was," Willow protested with a slight pout. "We dated for five whole years!"

"Will, you couldn't even talk about your sex life with Oz without inventing pseudonyms and wacky settings. That or you really did have a friend named Holly from Hollywood who was worried that her boyfriend wasn't that into her."

"That's different," the redhead frowned. "That's sex..."

"And you're gay, and he's a guy, but still, I just think that the sex aspect is why you and Tara aren't going to be comfortable around each other right away," Xander pointed out. "I mean, you've got to give it time. Sure, you and Tara are friends now, but there's something else going on there, sexual tension--"

"On my side of things," Willow grumbled.

"Sounds like her side, too."

"What do you mean?" Willow asked, her brow creased and attention locked.

"Nothing," Xander said. "Just... if things are going great, maybe...."

"Maybe what?" Willow pushed.

"Nothing," the man said, abandoning the line of conversation when Willow didn't immediately catch on. "Forget I said anything."

Willow frowned, and after a long moment of silence, said quietly, "I'm scared."

"What?" Xander asked gregariously. "Of what?"

"Of, everything," Willow said with a shrug as she resumed picking at the seam of her pants. "This time next week--"

"She'll know," the man said, understandng kicking in.

"*Everyone* will know," Willow said quietly. "My mom, Buffy..." She paused for a moment. "Xander, my whole life is about to change." Everything is going to change.

"Pretty exciting, huh?"

Willow's eyebrows rose in surprise. "It's terrifying."

"With a side of excitement," Xander added, optimistically.

"And a whopping topping of terror," Willow corrected.

"It's going to be okay Will," the dark haired man said, reassuringly.

Willow frowned slightly. "You keep saying that, but the closer it all gets... I start to think about this weekend, about the look in my mom's face, and what Buffy's going to say, and my hands get all clammy, a-and I start to sweat and, I just." She sighed. "I just, wish, that it was next week already."

"It's kind of like sex."

Willow's brows shot to her hairline. "Um, what?"

"It's like the first time you have sex," Xander explained. "You want to do it, but you're kind of scared, yet you do it anyway because the wanting to do it is more important than the being scared."

"O....kay," Willow said, her face still twisted in doubt.

"And, like sex, if it doesn't work out the first time, it's not the end of the world, even if you feel like it is at the time. You just give it time and it'll get better."

Willow frowned. "You do realize you just compared me coming out to my mom with losing your virginity."

"Yeah...." Xander trailed off, thoughtfully. "In retrospect that's not probably not the best analogy, given the players, but you know what I mean, right?"

"Sadly, I do," Willow said. "But if I think about the first time I had sex when I'm trying to come out to my mom--"

"I'm a dead, dead man."

"You betcha," the redhead confirmed with a smile. She thought for a moment, a new plot brewing and said, "Xander...What are you doing this weekend? I mean, you're done with your job, right? You have time off?"

"I do," the man said, the joy at a fast-approaching weekend evident in his voice. "I plan to cram this free time with much frothy goodness and deep, deep sleep. Why?"

"Come up here."

"What?" The dark-haired man replied.

"Come up here," Willow repeated, her eyes wide and bright. "This weekend. Please?"

"And that would be a big no," Xander said with certainty.

"Xander," Willow wined plaintively, slouching back into her chair.

"Willow," Xander replied, firm yet supportive. "Don't you think, that maybe, just maybe, you already have enough on your very full plate as it is? I mean, I know you're a little freaked--"

"A little freaked?" Willow said, sitting up straight, her tone slightly affronted. "I'm like, the queen of Freakadovia."

"Ah, good place, Freakadovia," the man said. "Best known for its cheese and reliance on steam travel, I believe."

"Xander, I'm serious," Willow said, a crease settling between her eyes. "I could really use a friend this weekend--"

"And you'll have one. I'm only a phone call away--" Willow started to interject, and the dark haired man quickly added on, "and I promise that unlike this past weekend, where I lost my phone charger behind a poorly placed hamper of dirty clothes, I will have my phone charged, on, and within reach at all times."

"It's not the same--"


"You could stay on the couch," the redhead cajoled sweetly.

"Or," the man countered, "I could stay in my bed."

"Oh! Or you could sleep in Buffy's bed," Willow blurted excitedly.

"What?" Xander asked, confused.

"It's perfect," Willow said with a flap of her free hand. "I have the key and everything on account of her wanting someone to have it while she was out of town. You could come up Friday night, hang out with me Saturday and keep me all calm and levelheaded before I see my mom and she rips my heart out and stomps all over it."

"I'm sure that won't happen, Will," Xander said softly.

"And then, after the emotional evisceration and inevitable maternal rejection you could help me with Buffy when she freaks out about the fact that we lied to her for three years." When silence greeted her on the other end of the line, Willow pushed on, the look on her face the epitome of desperate hopefulness. "Please Xander. I need you."

Xander groaned. "Look, I get that you're scared--"

"Fine," she said, setting her jaw and resting her head against the top of the chair.


"No, it's okay, I get it," the redhead said quickly, the bitterness barely concealed. "You'd rather drink beer and sleep in than help me."

"Alright, that's not fair," Xander replied sternly. "I've been nothing but supportive of you from day one; I just think that there are some things you have to do on your own." When Willow didn't reply, Xander continued. "I know you can do this Willow, and that's why I'm not in my car right now speeding up 101. You can do this." he repeated, before pausing. "You know I love you, right?"

"I do," Willow replied, regretting her earlier flip remarks.

"I think your mom and Buffy are going to surprise you..." the man continued. "And if they don't, well you have me, and it sounds like, you'll have Tara."

"I can't talk about this with her..." Willow said with a slight shake of her head.

"Of course you can," Xander said. "Whether you want to or not, that's the question. You guys are friends, and if anyone's going to understand where you're coming from... You don't need to come running to me for everything."

"I know I don't," Willow said softly, "but, what if the problem is her, I mean, not her, she's not a problem, but what if what I need to talk about, is not just the conversations with my mom and Buffy, but how I feel about Tara. I mean, I can't really talk to her about that..."

"Of course you can," Xander challenged. "I mean, sure, maybe you don't tell her 'well Tara, I've been miserable today, and the last three years, because I'm in love with you' but maybe you need to start letting her in on how you feel... maybe she can help clear things up. She is involved, after all."


"Eventually you're going to have to tell her everything; might as well start small, let her know that you're freaked out about this weekend."

"And when she asks why I'm freaked out about seeing my loving mother and my best friend?" Willow challenged.

"I don't know," Xander admitted. "Tell her you'll let her know after the weekend's over, or just be vague--point is, you should try leaning on her some; sounds to me like she's up to the task of Willow-comforter."

"Right," Willow said, knowing that Xander was right even as she protested. "Maybe I can talk to her about what a freak I am and woo her with my remarkable spaziness."

"What?" Xander asked. "I don't think you're like that."

"Or," Willow continued. "Maybe I can act like someone else, like Buffy or something, for the rest of the week, give her the illusion of sanity."

"Or," Xander countered. "Maybe you could just be Willow and she'll see your amazing heart and fall in love with you."

Willow sighed. "Please come up this weekend"


"Please, Xander--"


"Please; I won't stop saying please until you at least say you'll think about it."

"Fine, I'll think about it," Xander replied, slightly exasperated.

"Don't say you're going to think about it if the only thing you're going to think about is no," Willow instructed.


"Xander, I'm serious."

"Fine, I'll really think about it." There was a pause on the line. "I'm thinking about it right now."

"Thank you," Willow sighed and then exaggeratedly rolled her eyes when her phone beeped, indicating call waiting. She pulled the device from her ear slightly to see Khalil's face on the screen. "What a jerk!"

"I *am* thinking about it," came Xander's indignant reply.

"Not you," Willow huffed. "Khalil."

"Oh. He calling or something?"

"Again," Willow groaned. "He's been calling me all morning."

"Ah," Xander said, knowingly. "He knows you're playing hooky."

"Pretty much," Willow nodded.

"Well I'll let you go," Xander said, sighing as he stretched and stood on the opposite side of the line. "I need to shower, find my clipboard; you know, superintendenty things." The man paused. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Willow said with a slight nod of her head. "I think so."

"Call me if you need me," the man instructed.

"Think about coming up here, please?"

"I will, Will. Talk to you soon."

"Bye." Willow looked at her phone for a moment and then clicked over to Khalil. "What," she asked, in no mood to put up with more teasing questions. She listened for a moment and her face softened slightly, morphing into a full-blown smile as she sat up. "Really? How much?"

"How are your paintings coming along?" Morgan asked, tucking her phone back into her jacket pocket. Tara watched, knowing she had just taken a major step by offering up her home number, a number that was now safely programmed into the brunette's cell. "I'll admit," the brunette continued. "I'm really surprised to see you out and about, especially after how hard it was to get you out of the studio on Friday; I thought for sure you'd be locked up in your place until you finished all four for L.A."

"I r-ran out of paint," Tara admitted sheepishly. "Our next stop is Anya's, actually."

"Our?" Morgan looked around.

"W-Willow and me," the blonde said, realizing she hadn't mentioned earlier that the redhead was with her. Oops...

"She's here?" The brunette asked, surprised.

"In the office." Tara nodded, thinking back to the smile on Willow's face earlier. "On the phone." She gritted her teeth and tried to appear neutral about the statement. On the phone with *him* instead of out here with me...

"How's her stomach," Morgan asked, her tone kind. "I mean, that's why you guys left early on Friday, right? She feeling better?"

Tara remembered what Michelle said earlier, about Morgan thinking Tara and Willow had left, together, and nodded. "She's fine."

"That's good to hear," Morgan said with a nod of her head. She paused for a moment, about to say one thing and instead continuing with another. "Well, I hope that more paint means more paintings. I really can't wait to see what you come up with." She smiled sweetly.

"Thanks, me too," Tara replied with a rueful smile, wondering yet again how in the world she was going to get all four done before Sunday. Especially if I'm in this mood for the rest of the day, the rest of the week...

"How far along are you?" The brunette asked.

"Not very," the blonde answered with a deep sigh and slight half smile. "I have one halfway, another... I'm not sure where I'm going with that one. I started with oils, but with the time factor... I'm going to have to do the other two in acrylics."

"Have you considered watercolors?" Morgan asked, her demeanor turning focused now that they were talking shop.

"No," Tara shook her head. "I f-figure I should stick to mediums I know, at least, know a little bit."

"I bet you'd be great at watercolors," the brunette said honestly. "You have such a delicate touch... would be very interesting to see that applied to paper." Tara blushed at the compliment, and Morgan paused, cocking her head to the side as she thought. "Tara... I was wondering if you could help me."

"Help you?" The blonde asked, surprised.

Morgan nodded. "As you know, I have five paintings left over from this show, and..." she sighed, frustrated, "I really have no idea which four to send to L.A. I thought, maybe, you could tell me which four you like, which you think would do best. I mean, I know they're not great or they would have sold up here--"

"Hey," Tara interrupted, her voice reassuring. "Just because they didn't sell here doesn't mean they're not great. I really liked your collection."

"Yeah?" Morgan asked, a little surprised. "Thanks. I just... I thought maybe, you know, we could get together this week, and you could help me out. You have such a great eye, and I'd really appreciate your advice."

"Oh," Tara replied. Is she asking me out? Would this qualify as a date? The blonde looked the woman over, wondering if she'd even have time, considering her own work load.

"I know," Morgan said, holding out a hand. "I know you're super busy so I won't take a lot of your time," the brunette assured. "Maybe I could pop by your studio with my portfolio, or we could meet at a coffee shop--"

"You could come by," Tara blurted. What are you doing, what are you doing... "I mean," the blonde said, looking down to her feet, blushing. "T-That's if you don't mind going out in the storm."

"For you?" Morgan smiled. "Not at all."

"Great," Tara replied with a slight smile. Great... she repeated internally, not quite sure what she'd just signed herself up for.

Willow hung up the phone, a satisfied grin on her lips. For the first time all day she didn't want to kill Khalil; in fact, if he came through like he said he was going to, she would actually think about giving him a firm and happy high five. She stood, content with her two conversations, and after a quick smoothing of her pants and a brief look in the mirror by the coat rack, exited the gallery office and immediately froze. Across the room, leaning into Tara, was Morgan.

"What the hell?" The redhead asked aloud before quickly slapping her hand over her mouth, eyes wide as saucers. She quickly looked around, and seeing that she was very alone and that nobody noticed her outburst, dropped her hand to her side. What the hell?! The redhead repeated. What is Morgan doing here, and where is Michelle? Willow looked around the space, smiling slightly when a UPS deliveryman passed by her. "Hi," she said sheepishly before sighing and turning back to the two artists chatting across the room.

Okay, no big deal, the redhead thought shakily. Just having a friendly conversation... She watched as Morgan laughed and Tara dipped her head, a smile on her lips. Just a friendly conversation with a woman who is *not* her ideal romantic partner. The redhead watched for a minute more as the two women chatted out of earshot. Willow knew she should move-toward them, preferably-but her feet felt like they were stuck in cement, and in all truth, she felt the opposite of eager to speak with her perceived rival. Tara's lilting laughter carried over the music and Willow sighed. Just a friendly conversation...


"Ah!" Willow jumped, startled, and turned her head to see Michelle at her right elbow. "H-Hi."

"Sorry," Michelle said, wincing. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"No, that's. Okay." Willow said, turning away from the woman as her heart rate began to return to normal. Did she see me staring?

"What are you doing?" Michelle asked, curious, a bemused grin tugging at the corner of her lips.

"Uh," Willow stammered. You mean besides spying on Tara? "Nothing. I mean, something, I was, I was trying to remember this phone number my friend just told me." She looked up to the ceiling and, as if recording the number to memory, said, "6,8...3,2...5, 3,8." She smiled and looked to Michelle, her face the picture of implied innocence.

"Do you want a piece of paper so you can write it down?" Michelle asked, amused.

"Nope, I think I've got it, thanks." Willow said quickly, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet nervously. "What, what do you have there?" Her clasped hands pointed to the large black book sitting on Michelle's hip.

"Ah, just another portfolio," the gallery owner's wife replied, hefting the thick book from her hip to her belly, and opening it wide so Willow could see the photographs. "It's the portfolio for the artist whose work is going up tomorrow; the paintings are in the supply room, this is for Marissa's invoices."

"Cool," Willow said, leaning forward to better study the work.

"Yeah, it's pretty neat," Michelle agreed. "Really different than the last series."

Willow nodded. The image before them was a modern take on iconic religious art; the photograph featured a painting of a blind man with elongated fingers. He stared up blankly from the page, a gold disc for a halo behind his thin head while a form of calligraphy looking more like street graffiti than the writing of monks occupied the top third of the frame. The redhead frowned slightly, and reading the script aloud, said, "love is blind."

"Say what?" Michelle asked, looking for the writing Willow was obviously reading back.

"It's, the writing in the painting," the redhead explained as she pointed to the top of the image. Michelle clucked her tongue and looked at the redhead skeptically.

"You read Latin?"

Willow nodded, innocently. "Just a little; I learned in high school."

"You went to Catholic school?" Michelle asked, her brows creasing. "I thought you were one of the chosen people like me."

"I am, Jewish, I mean, and I went to public school."

"Fancy public school that teaches Latin," the spiky haired woman said, again looking at the picture of the painting before them.

"It wasn't a class," Willow explained modestly. "More like an exchange, of sorts. The school librarian, Mr. Giles, he taught me Latin, and in exchange I taught him how to use the library's computer." She frowned slightly. "I think it was harder for him."

"Smart cookie," Michelle said, closing the book and nodding to Morgan and Tara. "Come on." Willow nodded, and after swallowing what she hoped was the majority of her apprehension, followed Michelle.

"How'd your phone call go?" The gallery owner's wife asked over her shoulder as they got closer to the artists.

"Good," Willow replied, her eyes meeting Tara's as she approached. Better to be back at Tara's side though... the redhead thought as she smiled slightly at her roommate.

Tara met Willow's gaze, and quickly looked back to Morgan. She had noticed the redhead a moment before, looking over a portfolio with Michelle, and her curiosity about what Willow and Xander talked about sat just below the anger and frustration that the conversation had happened at all. How can she not see? Tara thought again. Willow had smiled at her, had smiled, so whatever Xander had said had soothed the redhead's earlier annoyance with him. The complete opposite of this past Friday, Tara thought ruefully. The thought that things were fine with them again, that Willow would be back on the phone with him everyday, forgetting the pain she had been in on Friday... it hurt to see. Tara hadn't indicated to Morgan that she had seen Willow and Michelle talking earlier, and now, as Willow stopped inches from her left side, she tried hard to continue to focus on Morgan.

"Hey, Willow," Morgan greeted brightly as she took in the redhead.

"Hi," Willow replied, a slight, nervous greeting that was matched with a slight wave. God she's beautiful, Willow thought. Why in the world would Tara ever want me over that?! Quickly, before she would let the doubt stifle her, the redhead sternly corrected herself. No, remember - she is *not* Tara's ideal; Tara does not want her. Willow evaluated Morgan again. Damn.

Tara looked between the two women-the woman she loved and the woman she should love-and again was struck by how totally different they were. While Morgan maintained her loose posture, her form relaxed and friendly, Willow stood completely erect, her fingers twisting and eyes wide. She l-looks nervous... Tara thought, wondering if that was a result of the call or meeting up with yet another person who might bring up Friday night.

"So what's good?" Morgan asked Willow, the smile on her face curious and happy.

"What?" Willow asked in reply. She was distracted by the blonde to her right. Not that that's new, but this was a little different. Tara, was a little different. Instead of meeting her gaze and smiling, as she usually did, when Willow stopped at her side, the blonde almost ignored her, and seemed singularly focused on Morgan. Willow lightly touched Tara's arm, and catching her eye, smiled, as if to ask 'are you okay'?

Tara smiled slightly, enough to politely respond to Willow's kind look, and then looked back to Morgan.

"You said, 'good', when you walked up," Morgan clarified, her own mind spinning at the look that just passed between the two roommates. Michelle just grinned, placing the new portfolio on the information desk and watching the scene unfold out of the corner of her eye.

"Oh," Willow replied, unsure what business it was of Morgan's, and wondering if there was indeed something wrong with Tara. "Just, a conversation I had with my friend Xander." She looked to Tara and smiled slightly before looking back to Morgan. "It was good."

Good?! Tara stewed, forcing her face to remain neutral, unaffected. How can the conversation be 'good' she thought, frustrated. The last time they spoke she was shouting at him and crying on the street. She sighed, though not loud enough for anyone to notice, and thought about how petty she was being. She cast a quick look at Willow and again felt fatigued. She couldn't turn off the love she felt for the redhead, that much was clear by her heart's quickening pace, however the anger... the resentment at being in love with someone who was so, so, so... what? Tara asked herself. 'Stupid' was the first word to come to mind; one that Tara quickly erased with a guilty, mental sweep. 'Oblivious' was the second, and while it felt better, it still wasn't perfect. 'Wrong'. Tara again sighed, shooting another quick look at the redhead. Yup, wrong.

"That's cool," Morgan said to Willow as Michelle settled in next to her, the two Ms sharing a quick look. "It's so weird that you came over just now, cause we were actually just talking about you." She pointed between Tara and herself before taking a last sip of her coffee. Willow watched as the brunette shook the now empty cup and placed it behind her on the desk.

"You were?" The redhead asked, looking to Tara for confirmation. You were talking about me? She thought, as her brow wrinkled. With her?

"W-We were talking about your work," Tara explained quietly, as if reading Willow's mind.

"Oh," Willow said, looking back to Morgan. "Lemme guess; the big tent?"

Morgan nodded. "It's just crazy. Must be fun working from home though."

"It is," the redhead replied, smiling brightly at her roommate. "I'm really enjoying it." Tara smiled slightly in return, and quickly looked back to Morgan so as not to get lost in the redhead's happy gaze. Willow looked back to the women before her, and leaned a little right, her right arm briefly touching Tara's left.

"Cool," the brunette nodded, noticing Willow's slight shift toward the blonde. "Well, maybe you can join Tara and me when I come over on Thursday."

What?! Willow coughed, surprised, and patted her chest. Tara's brow crinkled, and she looked at her roommate with concern.

"Are you okay?" The blonde asked, resisting the urge to reach up and rub the redhead's back, to wrap her arm around the slim girl's waist and brush her hair from her face. Stop it! Tara thought, embarrassed by her impulse. She balled her fists up, and then crossed her arms to further cancel out the temptation, before dutifully leaning forward to keep a close eye on the redhead's face. Michelle flashed a knowing look at Morgan, who looked back at the gallery owner's wife, confused.

"Do you need some water Willow?" Michelle asked, reaching behind her for a bottle of water on the desk.

"No, I'm--" Willow cleared her throat and smiled, embarrassed. Slightly mortified here. "Sorry, flem, too much... dairy, this morning..." She again cleared her throat and turned to Morgan, composing herself. "You're coming over?"

"I'm going to help Morgan with her portfolio," Tara said, before Morgan could reply. She again resisted the urge to reach out to Willow, and pressed her hands into her sides. You're being silly Tara... the girl thought, her frustration with the situation simmering under her skin.

"Oh," Willow said. She looked to the brunette artist. "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing," Morgan laughed. "I mean, other than it's full of mediocre water colors."

"They're not mediocre," Tara kindly corrected.

Oh please, Willow thought, knowing she would have rolled her eyes if she hadn't thought she'd get caught.

"I just need some advice about which paintings to send to LA.," Morgan explained.

"Oh," the redhead replied. Feeling all eyes on her, she added with a forced smile. "Cool."

"Yeah, it should be fun for you guys," Michelle added, looking between the two roommates. She nudged Morgan, and slyly nodded at Willow. Morgan turned her gaze to the redhead.

"Fun, yeah," the redhead said, not noticing Michelle and Morgan's focused gaze as she forced a supportive statement past her lips. "What, with the... art, and stuff..." She trailed off and looked to Tara, trying to figure out what this meeting meant, is it a date? but was met only with the blonde's profile.

"We, um, we should probably get going," Tara said, a brief look at her watch and Willow staring at her with a questioning look on her face moving her to action.

"Right," Willow said with a slight smile, turning her attention back to Michelle and Morgan. "Want to beat the rain." And get the hell out of here...

"Well, cool," Michelle said, picking her coffee cup up off the desk and taking a sip. "Good luck with the rest of your paintings, Tara; you know they're dropping that last painting, 'Untitled' by your place tomorrow, right?"

"Yes," Tara nodded. "M-Marissa mentioned this weekend."

"Excellent - I'll tell Marissa you stopped by. Do you need her to call?"

"N-No," Tara said, taking a step backwards. "I should be fine. Thanks." The blonde caught Willow's eyes on her, again, and the redhead smiled. Tara smiled politely in reply and looked away, catching Willow's eyes dropping to the floor in her peripheral vision. At least act civil... the blonde self-instructed.

"Tara, I'll call you at home?" Morgan asked, noticing Willow frown slightly at her words.

"S-Sure," the blonde said with a nod. Morgan held up her hand, and waved slightly, and Tara did the same. Willow-not to be outdone-raised her hand as well.

"Bye," the redhead said with a slight wave, before turning and following her roommate out the large, gallery door.

The two roommates exited and Morgan leaned back into the desk, her lower lip sticking out as she reviewed the previous fifteen minutes. "Okay," she said suddenly, looking to Michelle. The brunette's brows shot up knowingly and the spiky haired woman just laughed.

"Oh thank *God* I'm not the only one who sees it..."

Continue to Neverland Chapter Forty

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