Return to Neverland Chapter Forty


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.
Notes: Thoughts in italics.
Notes: Felt like reconnecting with the show with this one, so lines from 'Intervention', 'I Was Made To Love You', 'Pangs' and 'Older and Far Away' are strewn about! Enjoy!

The bell rang as they entered Anya's infamous art store, and Willow's first thought was that that bell must get really old, really fast. The two roommates walked clear of the door, and unbuttoned their jackets, their faces stinging at the noticeable temperature change. Willow raised her hands to her face and smoothed her hair back as her wide eyes scanned the store. She didn't know what was more impressive: that she had actually chosen to be honest with Tara on the street and admit that her life was less than tranquil, or that the store she was currently standing in was an actual, professional, real-life brick and mortar retail store.

Not that she thought she'd be dragged into some sort of art store illusion, some paint supplies shanty, however, she still found herself surprised by what she saw before her. Anya was so blunt, so déclassé that Willow somehow suspected that the store would be decorated to match the shop owner's brash personality. Large, tacky statues of naked men, walls done up in some tarty, pre-Rafaelite pseudo porno romp in the English countryside... Instead, it was an art store. A simple art store, with neat rows and signs over said rows describing the shelves' contents below. Paint, pencils, canvas, paper-all were laid out before her very wide green eyes.

It looks like the art section of the UC Sunnydale bookstore, Willow thought. The section of the bookstore where Shelia had taken Willow at the beginning of "the summer of creativity" between her fifth and sixth grade years. The two Rosenberg women had loaded up on pens, colored pencils and molding clay, only to realize after three weeks of frustrated tears and unrealized creations that little Willow was better off with a graphing calculator and Ira's old Intro to Chemistry textbook. The redhead let out a slight, shaky breath, the intimidation from those earlier days returning as she took in all of the artistic accoutrements before her. It all looks so complicated...

Tara looked over to see Willow's wide eyes scanning the store. After an amused moment of observation, the blonde nudged the girl and softly asked, "what?"

"What?" The redhead replied, snapping her head toward her roommate. "Oh," she recovered, sheepishly. "It's just, not what I expected." She flicked her wrist, waving her hand at the rows of supplies before them.

Tara looked around the room; it looked like just about every art supply store she had ever visited, although she would never share that observation with her friend, the owner. "What did you expect?" The blonde asked her roommate, truly curious.

"Oh, uh," Willow stammered, blushing lightly under Tara's open gaze. "Honestly? In an Anya-owned store?" The girl smiled impishly. "Walls adorned with floor-to-ceiling tarty bacchalian frescos and the ceiling done up with paintings of cavorting virgins."

Tara opened her mouth in a silent 'ah', her heart smiling at the color in Willow's bashful cheeks. With a straight face and dancing eyes, she looked her roommate square in the eye and said, "so you've seen Anya's office."

Willow glanced at the blonde artist with a dubious look, and smiled warmly. "It actually reminds me of UC Sunnydale bookstore art section. My mom took me ther--"

"Well, if it isn't the roommates." Willow froze at the words, turning her head slowly to take in a fast-approaching Anya. The bottle blonde stopped smartly before the two women, and after giving both an evaluative once over, turned her attention to the redhead. "I know Tara's here to buy things, but why are you here? Unless--"

"Mechanical pencils!" Willow blurted out. Anya and Tara both raised their brows, sharing a quick look between them, and Willow continued, sheepishly. "I'm, going to go look at the mechanical pencils," she said, pointing vaguely toward the section of the store marked 'Drafting Supplies'. "Is that--"

"Yeah yeah, go," Tara nodded, encouraging the redhead to escape while she still could. The redhead smiled appreciatively at the artist, then turned and offered an apologetic-and slightly gleefully-grin to Anya before briskly walking away.

"Well that was rude," Anya said as the redhead disappeared behind the first stack of supplies. "She obviously left because she knew I was going to say--"

"Something about how nice it is that two customers are coming to see you on such a slow day?" The blonde asked sweetly, her tone gently leading Anya into abandoning whatever it was she had originally planned to say.

"Well that, and that she obviously is here in the hopes that you'll see how much she wants to have sex with you," the store owner replied bluntly, not taking the bait.

Tara paused for a long moment, thinking of how she could possibly reply. "How's your money?"

Anya smiled brightly. "Fine, thank you for asking!"

Tara smiled, relieved, and deeply exhaled.

As Willow disappeared between tall, metal stacks filled with supplies, she realized that she was tingling from the encounter on the street. Fear from what Tara might have heard had given way to pride at how candid she had been, despite the relative vagueness of her statements. She wiped her clammy palms on her thighs, and came to a stop in front of a row of neatly organized mechanical pencils and small squares of doodle paper placed every few feet for customers inclined to test the wares before them.

As she turned her head to take in the rest of the merchandise surrounding her, she let out a sigh of relief; Willow suspected she'd be safe in the drafting area. As far as she knew, Tara had no need for protractors, graphing paper or the mechanical pencils she was moments away from playing with, and she trusted her roommate to keep Anya away. The redhead smiled. It was comforting, having that trust.

Willow reached out and picked up the first pencil before her, a flashy translucent purple number. She clicked the button on the side a few times, and a thick roll of lead emerged. She stepped to the first doodle pad, and thought about how nice it felt to be safe, how much she reveled in feeling protected by her roommate. It made her feel warm, like slipping pre-heated down-filled booties over frostbitten feet. It was a feeling that she hoped to extend to Tara; protecting the blonde's feelings was a top priority of Willow's, however, she knew from the girl's earlier evasiveness on the walk over that something was upsetting the blonde, and it bothered the redhead that she could do nothing to shield her roommate from the unknown cause of her distress.

It's not like you didn't try, though, the redhead thought, quickly drawing a small zig-zag on the pad of paper in front of her, as she acknowledging that she did attempt to find out the root of the blonde's ire, only to be deftly blocked. Willow's brow furrowed a bit, and she ran through several scenarios for Tara's unease. Morgan, her phone call, Morgan. She sighed slightly and looked up under her lids, surreptitiously watching Tara talk with Anya through a crack between the shelves.

The redhead looked at her roommate between to hanging sets of pencils. The blonde hair sparkled under the unusually soft shop light, and Willow felt her eyes turning into the shapes of hearts as Tara's trademark half grin emerged. The redhead audibly sighed. How could I have ever doubted that I was gay, Willow wondered, as her heart beat fast in her chest. One thing's for sure, the redhead thought as she pushed the button on the mechanical pencil again, I would have known a lot sooner had I known Tara earlier. The girl turned her attention to the doodle pad, and expertly wrote Tara's name, framing it in a heart with a quick flourish of her hand. Pleased with her creation, she ripped the page from its place and tucked the small sheet of paper into her back pocket. "I can't believe I thought her and Anya were ever *together*," the redhead said to herself softly. She looked back up the blonde, and sighed.

Still so much work to do, Willow thought, remembering their earlier conversation on the street, but then, that's friendships, right? Trust doesn't just, spring up overnight. There's work to do, and Willow recognized that she'd have to be a more reliable partner in this trust. Today was a start. She had admitted to Tara that something was bothering her instead of offering up her obviously misdirected batch of "I'm fines". She was letting Tara in, even though it would be several days before she could really open up completely to the blonde, admit to her who she really was, who she loved. The redhead took a deep breath. She hazarded a quick look to the register, then turned her attention to a silver pencil with blue accents.

"So what can I help you with today, Miss, 'I-just-sold-out-my-art-show-and-must-have-loads-of-cash-to-spend-at-Anya's'?" The shop owner clapped her hands together in obvious anticipation and smiled broadly.

Tara smiled her half-smile in reply to the unsubtle question and said, "I need paint, varnish and frames."

"And brushes and canvases." Anya added authoritatively, her wide smile in place.

"No," Tara replied, confused as she shook her head slightly. "Just paint, varnish and frames."

"....And brushes and canvas," the bottle blonde shop owner led, her chin dropping as her brow rose.

Tara smiled patiently, realizing with amusement what Anya was up to. "Paint, varnish--"

"And frames; god, would it kill you to impulse shop now and again?!" Anya asked rhetorically as she rose an open hand in exasperation. Tara's eyebrows arched. "Fine, paint, varnish and frames-but the really expensive, gilded frames, right?" The shop owner asked hopefully.

"We'll see," Tara said good-naturedly as she rolled her eyes and patted the woman's arm.

"Can I take a break?" Tara and Anya both looked to the register atop a raised counter, and the bored young woman slumped behind it.

"It's not even 11:30 yet," Anya replied, her voice incredulously annoyed. The bored girl simply shrugged in reply, and the shop owner sighed. "Fine, but tell Wayne before you go; he's stocking shelves in the back. And be back by noon. Not a minute late, missy!" The girl nodded, 'whatever,' and after grabbing a sweatshirt and bag, escaped from behind the counter and shuffled toward the back. Anya shook her head and turned back to Tara. "I have to stay up here, in case a customer needs some assistance. Nothing's changed, everything is still in the same place; when you're done with the paints, just come back and tell me what you want from the frame book." She nodded to a hefty tome sitting on the edge of the counter on the raised platform. "I'll keep an eye on your friend." Anya smiled mischievously, and only after Tara offered a long, warning glare, did the artist turn and head toward the paint supplies.

As the distance between her and Anya increased, the blonde realized she was trembling slightly from her earlier encounter with her roommate on the street. Anger at Willow had given way to confusion and well, more confusion. What had just happened, and what in the world had Willow just shared?

The blonde carefully exhaled, attempting to still her now racing heart as she stopped in front of her favorite brand of acrylic paints. She carefully read the different color names on the tubes hanging before her, but found herself struggling to concentration. There was too much in her mind. Like alphabet soup right out of the can; too many unintelligable words assulting her mind, with none of it making sense. So it's finally happening... Tara thought with a roll of her eyes, Willow is finally driving me crazy. What was it that Buffy had said weeks before, that Willow had been acting weird since she moved out from Boston? Well if that was the case, she's acting weird-er since Buffy left, the blonde thought.

Tara reached up and plucked a tube from the rack, and then another. Things were not connecting, that much was clear. Willow forgiving Xander for a ferocious fight that had had her holed up in her room sobbing into the night; Willow growing increasingly anxious and upset about her mom and Buffy's impending visits-both women whom, until now, Tara had assumed the redhead shared impeccable, intimate relationships with; and Willow in her life, questioning her relationships, infecting her daily routine to the point of distraction. What the hell is going on? Tara once again thought with a slight crinkle of her brow.

She hazarded a quick glance to her left, making sure Anya was still stationed behind the counter, and noted with a mixture of curious anxiety that the bottle blonde was watching the drafting section of the store with an eagle eye. Tara turned even further, craning her neck till she picked out a crown of red hair several rows away. She sighed, and turned back to her task, her fingertips brushing over several tubes of paint until she found what she needed.

Something was going on with Willow. The way the girl had persistently pushed for reassurance that Tara was okay as they walked, the redhead's sheepish admission that she had been frustrated? with Tara Friday at the party... And then there was how Willow described Xander. Not in the words she chose, though those were important, but the tone. Familiar. Intimate. Platonic...? Tara sighed. "My Xander." The blonde pursed her lips slightly. "My Xander." What was it about that phrase that was making her feel so uneasy, and not the way that would usually send her running for the safety of a Willowless space? A small crease between her eyes appeared, the concentration coloring her face. Where had she heard that tone before, that, possessive, friendly phrase before? She quietly hurrumphed when she couldn't place it, and tucked the tickling two words away for later evaluation.

The artist looked down to the crook of her arm, and after identifying all of the acrylics she needed balancing there, stepped further down the row to a hanging set of oil paints. Her eyes immediately sought out Viridian green; she reached up, and pulled the tube from it's peg and placed it with the others crowding the crook of her arm. So, what? I think Xander and Willow are just friends? Tara found herself asking as she sought out brown ochre. Buffy was convinced that Willow was still deeply in love with Xander, and wouldn't she know better than Tara? Unless of course something has changed since Friday night... Tara allowed. But, how does someone turn off a love that deep, a love held for so long?

Tara knew she couldn't have done it had it been her and Willow fighting Friday night. She knew from her experience with Jill how long even infatuation could linger, cloud her mind, affect her judgement; she couldn't imagine that Willow could turn her much-stronger feelings off, not so fast. Yet, if the redhead *had* deluded herself into giving in and giving up, how complete could that acquiessence even be after a crush nurtured so long? She could be fine now-as she certainly appeared to be on the walk over-but... could Xander walk back into the picture, flip a switch with a few sweet words and turn Willow back into the desperate, pining girl she had been for so many years? Could what Willow was making out to be a minor velitation really have been the most recent skirmish in an ever-escalating and damaging war for Willow's heart's survival? It was a question the blonde felt unsteady even contemplating.

And yet she did. Maybe, this current calm spell with Xander was merely a detente, something that would allow Willow to have a shoulder to cry on while she experienced whatever hard times she was-apparently-anticipating enduring with her mom and Buffy this weekend. Tara's face screwed up at that thought-Willow having hard times with those two women-and she mentally dog-earred the observation so she could come back to it. She turned her gaze quickly to her left, checking that Anya was still at the counter, and then turned back to the paint before her. Perhaps, perhaps Willow forgave Xander so that she could count on his friendship, instead of casting aside his counsel all together, when whatever was going on with Willow's mom and Buffy happened. Or perhaps the redhead and the carpenter really were fine, and this was the normal course of their very platonic friendship...

One thing is for sure, Tara concluded as she placed the last tube of oil paint with the rest of her future purchases in her arms and stepped down the aisle toward the varnish; the two, regardless of any rumored romantic aspirations or aspersions, were friends. Of course Willow would look to him for comfort if experiencing hard times, even if she was pining after him. Couldn't Tara say she'd do the same? If something happened with Donny, or Buffy, wouldn't Tara look to her new friend Willow for solace, despite the raging crush? Yes. Did it make her crazy to hear Willow talk about Xander that way? Yes, Tara again begrudgingly agreed. But... I can't be mad at Willow for that, though... the blonde surmised. If Willow knew how speaking with Xander made her feel, Tara was sure she wouldn't do it; not with how persistently caring Willow had been on the street, not with how she had been acting the last two weeks. And, if Willow needed Xander, for whatever reason, who am I to say differently?

The blonde knelt down to look at the varnish lining the bottom row, and muttered a wordless curse as a few tubes of paint tumbled from her arms. She squatted and picked up the tubes of paint, and then turned her attention to the varnish before her. She shook her head and squinted at the type on a narrow yellow bottle. Why in the world is Willow nervous about seeing her mom, and Buffy?

Willow hazarded a glance at the front of the store, and catching Anya's eyes on her, quickly looked away, and stepped behind a large display. Satisfied she was hidden, she picked up a fat, gold marker and removed the cap.

The redhead wondered briefly what Tara must think about her anxious anticipation of her mother and Buffy's arrival, as she moved her wrist and then ripped another heart-framed "Tara" doodle from a pad of paper before her. Probably that I'm just a worry wart, or, you know, insane. The poor blonde... New rule: act like less of a spaz, Willow thought, as she stepped down the row slowly, running her fingers lightly along the cool metal shelf. More honest, less spaz; check.

The redhead stopped for a moment and really looked around. She had to admit that it was more than a little overwhelming being in an art store with Tara. Sort of reminded her of when she would visit music stores with Oz, and she'd standing dumbly next to him, smiling and not understanding as he spoke with other patrons or employees about some speaker wire or amp pedal. I guess that's how Tara would feel in a computer store, Willow gamely offered up, only, she couldn't imagine Tara wanting to visit a computer store. She looked around at the brushes and the paper on the shelves the next row over, knowing that an expert like Tara would know each of their uses, each of the worth. She imagined Morgan would also know, and that made her feel insecure. They have so much in common, could easily lose themselves in a store like this. Willow, on the other hand, was hiding out in the drafting section testing mechanical pencils and thick markers by writing Tara's name repeatedly. Smooth, Willow, the redhead thought with a slight roll of her eyes.

She wondered how much of a connection Tara and Morgan shared, and how much was in her mind. Veruca and Oz had been in her mind... until she had found them on the floor together one morning, naked as naked could be. Had she sensed something between them, or had she created the situation with her suspicions? That was the battle that her mind battled in the days and weeks leading up to when she found them... how similar was that situation to what was happening now with Tara and Morgan? Was seeing Morgan and Tara at the gallery earlier like that one afternoon she found Oz and Veruca in the university quad talking guitar amps?

Maybe I should take an art class, Willow thought, not for the first time, the change in topic stemming a flood of bad memories. One where she wouldn't have to do any art, just appreciate it and it's raw materials. Surely there was a university extension course for that, or a community college class that she could take? She panicked slightly when she looked over to see Tara and saw nothing, then breathed in a deep sigh of relief when the blonde's head reappeared above the far shelf, and moved back toward the front of the store. She's so pretty... Willow thought, again writing Tara's name, framed by a heart, on the doodle paper before her. Again satisfied with her creation, she pulled the square from the pad and stuffed it in her pocket with the others.

"That was fast. Are you sure you found everything?" Anya anxiously asked, a deep furrow between her eyebrows as Tara returned to the counter and deposited roughly eleven tubes onto the glass counter top. "It doesn't look like enough. Maybe you need to go back, get more."

"I'm pretty sure this is everything," Tara said with a slight smile before moving behind the counter to the heavy frame book. Tara loved the frame book, how heavy each page felt between her fingertips, how satisfying it was to hear the sound of the turning page. She opened it and smiled to herself. She loved the samples attached to each page, the thin examples of what she'd end up surrounding her work with in the end. To run her fingers across the grain, or to feel them slip over the lacquered samples; to see her eyes shin in molded silver... it still felt like magic, even after all these years.

"So you're running errands together," Anya said, as she leaned into the glass counter and stared at Tara in amusement. "How very domestic."

"I think she has cabin fever," Tara said lightly, not wanting to encourage the bottle blonde, but not wanting to be rude. "She's working from home--"

"To be close to you--"

"Because her office is infested with rats," Tara continued, as if the shop owner hadn't interrupted, her eyes trained on the frame samples before her. "I think sitting in front of a computer all day long started getting to her..."

The front shop door opened and closed, and a burst of cold air blew in and tickled the loose hairs hanging from Tara's bun. The blonde reached up and brushed a particularly persistent folicle from her lips, then a fine hair trapped in an equally fine set of eyelashes; she then watched as Anya stepped down from behind the counter to greet the new arrival. "Welcome to Anya's Art Accessories," the shop owner said with an aggressively cheery smile. "How may I ensure your substantial business today?"

Tara shook her head in amusement, and turned her gaze to see Willow at the far end of the store, turning the corner from the drafting section toward the kid supplies. The blonde looked back down at the book before her, trying to concentrate on the samples on the page. As much as she loved the frame book, she hated buying frames for work that wasn't finished, yet here she was, picking how she would accent ideas that weren't even in her mind, much less on the canvas. Tara ran her thumbnail in the groove between the counter's wood frame and glass case, and looked up as Anya returned to behind the counter, the man who entered the store earlier leaving without a purchase. "Why even come into a art supply store if you're not looking to buy art supplies?" Tara looked up at the shop owner to see if she was supposed to answer, but seeing as the question appeared to be rhetorical, she simply looked back down at the book again. "Why is your friend in the children's section? Is she shopping for a child?"

Tara looked up again to where Willow was skimming over selections of construction paper, and then back down. "I think she's just browsing..."

"Browsing," Anya said, squinting her eyes in displeasure.

Willow stuck out her bottom lip as her eyes scanned the bright, colorful wares before her. Molding clay, construction paper-yup, all the stuff I couldn't do diddly squat with when I was 10. She cocked her head to the side, however, a small smile playing on her lips when her eyes happened upon something that didn't bring back a flood of negative memories.

Smell-O pens! The redhead smiled brightly and walked over to the set, quickly unsnapping the clasp and opening the binder full of pens. How many years had it been since she had seen a Smell-O pen? Ten, fifteen? The girl pulled a pen free with a substantial tug, and then pulled the cap free. She brought the pen to her face and looked up, the red cherry Smell-O pen an inch shy of her nostrils and she froze, meeting Tara's amused, perplexed gaze from across the room. The redhead quickly looked away, dropping the pen to her side, fumbling with the cap and shoving it back into the binder before snapping the button shut and then turning heel and walking down the row. Great, Willow frowned, embarrassed by being caught sniffing a pen. Now Tara thinks I'm a huffer...

Tara tried to contain a bright smile as Willow disappeared down a tall row of sketching paper. What in the world was she doing with that pen...?

"Would you like to see the website I designed for the shop?" The shop owner asked. "Or are you content to pretend to shop for frames while surreptitiously staring at your pen-sniffing roommate."

"What?" Tara replied, startled, as she looked to the bottle blonde.

Anya just smiled and swivled a laptop toward the girl. "What do you think?"

"Uh," Tara said, standing up straight and taking in the web page before her. She cocked her head to the side. "It's um, it's pretty much just a huge photo of you."

"Isn't it great?" The shop owner replied with a large smile, pride lacing her voice.

Tara looked from the web page to the shop owner. "Sure?"

Anya swivled the screen back toward her, looking over her handy work. "I'm thinking the new website and store in Oakland will triple my money."

"Triple?" Tara asked, shocked at the concept. "Like, first money, then money money money?"

"Yes," the shop owner said with a sharp nod of her head. "I'm thinking about buying something very expensive with it. Maybe an antelope."

"An... antelope," Tara confirmed, her brow deeply furrowed at the seemingly non-sequiter statement.

"Looks like a deer, more closely related to a goat," Anya answered instructively. "I learned about them on the Discovery channel when waiting for a show on talking monkeys. Turns out all the little primates are capable of are rudimentary imitations of elaborate hand gestures."

"And, you want to buy one..."

"A monkey?" Anya asked confused.

"An antelope," the artist corrected, not quite sure if her friend was kidding or not.

Anya nodded. "They're very rare; isn't that what people with new money do, buy rare, irreplaceable things?" The look on the shop owner's face was startlingly honest and innocent.

"They do," Tara nodded, cautiously, "but I think, when they use the word, 'rare' , they mean, one of a kind... not... endangered."

"Well, I guess I could buy one of a kind," Anya said with a sigh, "but there are nearly sixty different breeds of antelope. I mean, the immigration cost alone would eat up all of the profits, not to mention where to keep sixty antelope--"

"Why don't you buy a painting?" Tara interrupted, amazed that the owner of an art store wouldn't naturally go in that direction herself.

"Of antelope?" Anya asked, her face twisting.

"Or, other, things..." the artist patiently led.

"Okay," Anya said breathily through a toothy smile as she patted Tara lightly on the arm. "If you want me to buy one of your paintings, Tara, just say so." Tara opened her mouth to explain that selling one of her works wasn't the point, when the phone below the counter rang. Anya held up a finger and moved to the phone; answering, she chirped, "Anya's Art Accessories-how may I ensure your substantial business today?"

Tara raised her brows and turned her attention back to the book in front of her. She turned the page, and seeing something she liked, wrote down the order number on a small square of paper. She turned the page, and ran her finger down the groove of a lacquered frame. Maybe the work would be better presented with wires? The blonde frowned, frustrated again by her inability to picture the completed works in her mind. She looked to her left as the bottle blonde hung up the phone. "The gilded frames are toward the back," the shop owner offered, helpfully.

"Thanks," Tara replied with a slight roll of her eyes.

"How long does it take to buy paint and frames," Willow mumbled softly as she read the back of a bottle of Goo Gone. The redhead kicked her shoe against the floor aimlessly, and blushed in mortification as the rubber connected with linoleum and produced a loud squeak that echoed impressively throughout the relatively empty store.

Tara smiled as she heard a meek, "sorry," follow a loud squeak from across the room. "She better not be scuffing up the floors." The artist raised her brows and looked up at Anya, her eyes asking if the shop owner was serious. "I'm serious, I'm not planning on having the floors buffed for another week."

"I'm sure the floors will be fine," Tara deadpanned, returning her gaze to the book before her.

"Maybe I should go check--"

"No," Tara said, reaching out and grabbing the shop owner's arm. "She's fine."

"So you do admit that you find her attractive." Tara's mind cleared in confusion and Anya smiled widely. "See, I used the word's homonym features to change the meaning of your response to one of my liking."

"Very clever," Tara said warily, looking up at the bottle blonde from beneath a furrowed brow.

"I thought so," Anya self-congratulated. "So, you two--"

"How are things with Kevin?" The artist asked, hoping that inquiring after the shop owner's usually descriptive love life would divert Anya from inventing one for her and Willow.

"Over." Tara's brows shot to her hairline in reaction to the vehemence in the shop keeper's voice.


"He took me to a horror film about rabbits," the bottle blonde elaborated. "He said it was supposed to be funny, because it was claymation, and British, but what's funny about a gigantic bunny rampaging through a defenseless town devouring the enormous vegetables that the half-wit villagers spent their entire, pathetic lives nurturing and caring for? Nothing."

"That's... too bad," Tara replied, wondering at the shop owner's fear of bunnies. "He seemed nice," she tacked on lamely, not sure what else to say.

"And rich," Anya added, "but even suede couches can't make up for a sadistic streak." Tara nodded. "Besides, I have my eye set on someone new."

"Oh?" Tara asked.

"A construction worker."

"Oh," Tara said, wondering why everyone seemed to be so fascinated with construction workers. "What's his name?"

"Oh, I don't haven't met him yet," Anya said with a wave of her hand. "I just know that I want one." Tara's face screwed up slightly. "They're just so... masculine. All sweaty and rippling when they dig, or swing a hammer. And their outfits are so much sexier than boring business suits." The shop owner sighed. "Toolbelts and, tight, white shirts... I'm imaging having sex with one right now." Tara shook her head, amazed at her friend's very active, lusty mind. The bottle blonde came too and trained her gaze on the blonde artist. "You don't know any construction workers, do you?"

"Uh," Tara thought, wondering if it would be fair to set Anya, sexual predator extreme, on yet anther one of Willow's men. "No, sorry."

"Damn," the bottle blonde replied. "Oh well, didn't hurt to ask. You'll let me know if you do meet any attractive, manly, male construction workers, right? Maybe if you hire a contractor to knock out that unsightly wall you have near the fireplace."

"I--" Tara stopped. What unsightly wall... She looked up at Anya's smiling face, and a single brow rose.

The bottle blonde looked back at the artist with a smug, satisfied smile. "I'm imagining have sex with him again."

"Imaginary construction worker is quite the machine..." Tara said, almost to herself, as she returned her gaze to the frame sample book. The artist only glanced up for a moment as again the phone rang. The shop owner moved to the phone and lifted the receiver.

"Anya's Art Accessories-how may I ensure your substantial business today?"

Tara just shook her head in amusement, and shut the heavy book before her. She picked up the small sheet of paper with the frame order numbers she had already written on it, and moved behind Anya and down from the raised counter. She walked a couple of steps, partially on her tip-toes to spot the redhead, and then peeked around the end of a shelf, spotting Willow aimlessly picking up bottles, reading the labels and then returning them to the shelf. With a slight smile, the artist said, "Willow." The redhead looked up at the sound of her name, and smiled widely at the sight of Tara leaning against the shelf at the end of the row. "Ready to go?" the artist asked. Willow nodded in return, and walk toward the blonde. Once together, they walked to the register. "Find anything interesting?"

"Not really," Willow said with a shrug, the blonde's clean vanilla smell making her feel slightly dizzy. The two stopped before the counter, and as Anya hung up the phone, she turned her attention to the redhead.

"Hello," Anya said, staring at Willow with a tight smile.

"Hi," Willow replied, slightly confused by the greeting, yet as friendly as she could manage. She arched her eyebrows when Anya visually inspected her; the redhead looked down to make sure she wasn't sporting a stain before looking back up.

"Where is your purchase?" Anya asked, confused.

"What?" Willow replied, briefly looking to Tara and then back to the shop owner towering above her.

"Your purchase, where is it?"

"Oh. I'm not going to buy anything," the redhead said with a slight, polite smile.

"Why not?" Anya asked, her annoyance with 'browsing' bubbling to the surface.

"Uh," Willow looked to Tara for help.

"Is there something wrong with my merchandise?" The shop owner asked, her voice a strained mix of confusion and testiness.

"No," Willow replied, surprised by the interrogation. "It's fine, I just--"

"Then why not buy something?" Anya snapped. "It's customary after browsing for an extended period of time in a retail establishment to buy something."

"But I just--"

"Anya," Tara interjected, looking between the two women squaring off next to her.

"I saw you over in the drafting section," Anya continued, oblivious to Tara's calm, calling of her name. "Trying all of the pencils on the sheets of complimentary paper I have situated strategically throughout the store."

Willow frowned slightly. "Oh, that, I--"

"So it's alright to wear down the lead in dozens of pencils and waste countless sheets of paper without then offering to buy at least one measly writing implement for a low-low price of anywhere between one dollar and thirty cents and eight dollars and forty-nine cents?" Anya challenged.

"Eight dollars for a pencil?!" The redhead blurted, her eyebrows shooting to her hairline.

"It's a great pencil," Anya replied, through slightly gritted teeth.

"Anya--" Tara again interjected.

"Better be for eight dollars," the redhead grumbled loudly, looking down at her shoes, her eyes wide.

"Anya--" Tara again repeated.

"What?" Anya snipped, turning her head sharply to look at the artist.

"She didn't come here to buy art supplies," the blonde explained, patiently. "She's just here to keep me company--"

"So because she's trying to impress you by following you on errands, she can't buy something?" The shop owner asked, her voice taxed and confused.

"Anya," Tara continued, with a gentle, warning look. "I think my purchases are more than enough. Or, if you disagree, I could always go without frames..."

"Fine," Anya said, slapping her hand against her leg. "I suppose tagging along with a valued customer who is spending money is a valid excuse for just loitering and molesting the inventory."

"Thanks," Willow added snidely.

The shop owner held out her hand to the blonde. "Let me call in the frame orders." The artist stepped forward and handed the small sheet to Anya. "Your tab?" The shop owner asked, and Tara nodded, the two having arranged years earlier a monthly billing schedule for all of the blonde's purchases. The bottle blonde turned away from the pair standing below and, after picking up the phone and dialing, started reciting the frame orders into the receiver.

"Sorry about that," Tara said in a quiet whisper to Willow after she was sure Anya was otherwise occupied. "Are you okay?"

"Of course," Willow said with an easy shrug of the shoulders. "Although, I think your friend is a little pushy."

"I'm sorry," Tara repeated, her face scrunched up in a sympathetic wince.

"Why?" Willow asked, her face colored in amusement. "You weren't the one aggressively suggesting I buy, or else."


"It's okay, I'm fine," the redhead said, smiling brightly.

"Okay," Tara said with a relieved nod, smiling brightly in return.

"Did you find everything you need?" the redhead asked, looking at the bag next to the register before them.

"Yes," Tara said, as she took the bag from the counter and looked through it quickly. "A lot less than what Anya was pushing for, though."

"Yeah," Willow said. She twisted her fingers as Tara rolled the top of the paper bag over a couple of times. "I'm not a huffer," the redhead blurted out, turning to look at a surprised Tara. "I mean, I was smelling the pen, earlier, when you happened to see, me, because it was flavored. Well, not flavored, I didn't taste it or anything, it was, smelly." Willow's brow crinkled in confusion. "Not smelly," she said with a slight shake of her head, the area between her eyes crinkling. "It didn't smell bad, it smelled good, it was--"

"Scented?" Tara offered, a hint of a bemused grin on the corner of her lips.

"Right! Scented. You know, like purple is grape, and orange is... orange." Willow frowned slightly before smiling, sheepishly. "Smello-O pens; I used to have a set when I was a kid."

"Me too," Tara replied with a warm smile, one which the redhead readily matched.

"So gay," Anya muttered under her breath as she pushed enter on the register's key pad.

"What?" Willow asked slightly startled, not sure what she heard, but knowing that whatever it was the bottle blonde had just said, it was directed at her and her roommate and that she'd probably not like it.

Anya lifted her gaze, and spoke clearly. "I said--"

"W-We should go," Tara quickly interrupted, thumbing toward the door, not eager to get the two women started again.

"I'll go with you," Anya replied brightly, a large smile gracing her face as she saw the sullen girl from earlier returning from the back of the store.

"Um..." Willow said, her wide-eyed, unsure gaze looking to Tara to say no.

"I have to go to the bank; it's on the way." Anya explained as she reached below the counter and pulled on a camel colored polo coat.

"On the way to where?" Willow asked dubiously, her eyes locking on the shop owner.

"Wherever you're going," the bottle blonde replied through clenched teeth, her challenging gaze staring down the redhead.

"But how can it be on the way if you don't know where--"

"Let me just grab my umbrella," the bottle blonde said, smiling broadly at Tara before turning and ducking below the counter. Willow raised her eyebrows and turned to Tara, who just opened her mouth wordlessly, sighed and shrugged. The redhead shook her head slightly and Tara looked back down to the bag in her hands.

Disaster in the making, Tara...

"All set," the bottle blonde said, quickly rushing down from behind the register and pushing past Willow to stop by Tara's side. "I'll be back in a little bit," she said to her just-returned employee. "Whatever you do, don't let Wayne near the register." The girl behind the counter just shrugged, and slumped against the glass counter. Anya turned to Tara, and locking arms with her, smiled. "Let's go, girl, friend!"

The three exited on to the street, Willow grumbling as Anya pulled Tara left and started chattering about how fun it was for the girls to be "out on the town." The artist politely disentangled herself from the shop owner as they neared the intersection, and turned over her shoulder to smile at her roommate. Willow's frown melted, and she smiled slightly. The blonde slowed and fell in next the redhead as they crossed the street, Anya walking a slight half-step ahead to Willow's left.

"Which was your favorite?" Tara asked out of the blue, turning to Willow as they walked.

"Favorite what?" Willow replied, her nose stinging in the cold, her eyes darting up to see a rumbling, ominous gray sky grown even darker in the time they were in the art store.

"Smell-O pen," Tara replied, as if the answer had been natural and obvious.

"Oh," Willow said with a bright smile. "I always liked-- oof!" The redhead's speech was abuptly cut off as a strong hand wrapped around the front of her jacket and yanked her sideways off of the sidewalk and into a store.

Tara stopped abruptly at the twin disappearance of her two friends into a store to their left. Through the glass door the blonde watched as Anya dragged the stumbling redhead away from the street, and toward the back of whatever mysterious establishment they had just entered. What in the... Tara asked herself. She looked up at the sign, and her eyes went large. "Oh no."

"Hey!" Willow protested, as the shop owner pulled her out of the cold and into a store. The redhead's face stung, as again the temperature went from frigid to store-in-winter warm, and she stumbled as she moved, her feet unable to find the floor effectively as she was dragged at an awkward angle. "Will you stop?!" She yelped, unable to see where she was going, much less where she was. After what seemed like an enormously long struggle, Anya released Willow's jacket and the redhead came to an awkward stop. She quickly grabbed the hem of her jacket and readjusted the fit, then brought her hands up to brush her hair from her face. She spit a few hairs from her mouth, and then looked around in wide-eyed wonder. Where in the world--

"Which do you like better?" Anya asked, her back to the redhead. The woman turned and Willow flinched as the shop owner shoved two items into the bewildered girl's grasp. The redhead looked down in horror as Anya stepped back, and she recognized what she exactly it was she grasping in her tightly clenched fists. In her left hand was a soft, textured pink thing; in her right a smooth, cool plastic blue shaft. "So," Anya asked, nodding her head at the items. "Softskin Sam or The Dolphin?"

Willow's eyes blinked owlishly as she took in the two sex toys in her hands. Her head snapped up and she looked around; surrounding her were dozens of vibrators, feathers and other stuff-oh my god, where am I? And why am I here?

"Anya, what--" Tara came up behind the two and stopped at Willow side, her voice cutting out as she looked at the two items in the redhead's grasp. The blonde's eyebrows shot up and she looked up to find Willow's face washed out and panicked.

Willow looked down at her hands again, and the vibrators she gripped, then up to Anya. Her head then jerked sideways, and her wide-eyed gaze took in Tara's confused, questioning look. Oh god, oh god, oh god Willow internally repeated as she began to hyperventilate. Tara, staring at her as she double-fisted extremely large sex toys. The situation wasn't bad... it wasn't terrible... it was atrociously horrible. I'm going to die.

The redhead's face twisted in disgust and she snapped her head back to Anya; quickly, she thrust her hands forward, releasing the objects she held as she did so with force. Both vibrators hit the bottle blonde in the chest; with faster reflexes then either Tara or Willow expected, the shop owner grabbed both toys before they could tumble to the floor. Willow immediately crossed her arms tightly across her chest, shoving her clenched fists under her arms. "What--" she sputtered, her face crimson and her breath shallow. "What is *wrong* with you?" She spit the words at Anya, who calmly looked at the shaking woman in front of her. "You don't- you just-" Willow shook her head, too flustered to speak. Frustration overflowed and her mind swirled, thoughts entering and escaping so fast she knew the odds of composing a cohesive conclusion were far from good. I'm freaking out in a sex shop and Tara's watching me freak out in a sex shop; great, great, great...

After what seemed to be the longest moment of uncomfortable silence, Tara regained her wits and reached out a hand, touching the redhead's shoulder. "Willow--" The redhead shrugged out of the touch and quickly turned, rushing out of the store. The blonde turned to follow and stopped abruptly, watching as the redhead exited and then stopped on the street, the slight girl's shoulders immediately drooping, her head dropping. The blonde sighed as she watched people stream around Willow; the girl seemingly rooted to the spot on the sidewalk.

Anya walked around Tara to the shelf; gently, she replaced the toys and muttered, "well that was melodramatic." Tara looked at Anya with utter disbelief. The shop owner returned the look. "Well I didn't know she was going to panic and run out of the shop in a huff," the bottle blonde said defensively.

"You ph-physically dragged her into a sex shop," Tara intoned sharply.

"And?" The bottle blonde asked, not following.

"And," Tara started, shaking her head dumbly. "Y-You put... *things*, in her hands."

"But isn't that what girl friends do?" Anya replied, still confused. "Don't they shop for well-crafted erotica together?" Tara opened her mouth to answer. "It's what you and Buffy do--"

"Once!" A red-faced Tara interrupted, pointing her finger at the woman before her. "Did, one time, a-and B-Buffy made me."

"Like I made Willow," Anya said.

"N-No," Tara said shaking her head. She glanced back to the door, and saw that Willow had barely moved.

"But I don't understand," Anya continued. "She reacted very badly, and it's not like I dragged her into some seedy little sticky-floored hole in the wall with men behind the counter named Rog or Jimbo, and missing teeth all the same. Good Vibrations is practically a San Francisco landmark."

"I know--" Tara sighed, watching Willow start to pace slightly.

"It's a destination spot for thousands of sex toy starved tourists--"

"Anya--" The blonde closed her eyes, reopening them slowly to stare disapprovingly at her friend.

"There's a *half off* sale!" Anya exclaimed.

What are the odds?! the blonde thought. "But Anya, it's still..." Tara looked around, then back at the woman before her. "You don't, you don't just drag people you don't know, into places like this."

"But why not?" The bottle blonde asked honestly. "Isn't that how you get to know people? Through shared experiences?"

"You should have asked--" Tara's eyes returned to Willow's pacing form. The redhead's head was shaking slightly, her arms still tightly crossing her chest.

"Well what good would that do?" Anya replied testily as she gestured with her opened hand. "Willow obviously isn't going to say yes to that type of invitation; some people are too scared, or timid, or, whatever it is to that keeps their rational little goody two-shoe selves from from doing things they want to do but don't. Like how she follows you like a puppy but doesn't admit she's gay. I bet if you kissed her--"

"What?" Tara replied, startled by the seemingly incongruous change in topic.

"If you *ask* if she wants to be kissed by you she'd probably--"

"R-Run away?" Tara replied heatedly, nodding to the door as if Willow's storming out was a direct result of Anya's proposed activity.

"Say no, and stammer and turn even redder than she already is," Anya continued, cooly. "But if you just kissed her, I bet she'd melt, like a little ball of overheated silly putty." Tara rolled her eyes. "Some people need action; not words. Admit it, you think she's--"

"Straight, Anya, I think she's straight and no matter how many times you say different... " Tara exhaled deeply and closed her eyes, trying to cool down. After a long moment she reopened her eyes and said as calmly as she could, "you can say she's gay all you want, but unless Willow says it, unless the words 'I'm gay' come out of *her* mouth, it's not true." Tara stared down her friend, to no visible effect, and then looked back out to the street. No longer seeing the red hair she loved so much, she started walking toward the door. "I'm going to go see if she's okay..."

"She's fine," Anya said to the fast retreating figure. "Your meaning..."

Tara rolled her eyes and exited onto the street. She looked left, and then right, spotting Willow sitting at a covered bus stop about ten feet away, the girl's arms still crossed, her head still bowed. She looked small, and humiliated, her toes turned in towards each other. A drop of rain hit Tara's cheek, and she absently reached up and wiped it from her face. She walked slowly to the bus stop, stopping just next to Willow. "Hey," she said softly.

"Hey," Willow replied without looking up, her voice strained and tight. She further burrowed her hands in the sleeves of her long-sleeve shirt, her clammy palms sweating despite the cold temperature outside.

Tara shifted her weight, and then gently sat on the open plastic seat next to Willow. The blonde pushed her lips together, dimples appearing on her cheeks, and she tried to evaluate her roommate's mood. After a long moment she asked, her voice gentle and concerned, "are you okay?"

Without looking up, Willow blurted, "why are you even friends with her?"

"Oh..." Tara shifted uncomfortably in the hard plastic seat. That was not the question she expected to have to answer, and the venom in Willow's voice cut her. She really must feel humiliated... After a quiet moment organizing her thoughts, Tara spoke. "She um, she helped me a lot, when my dad died..." the blonde said softly. Willow's brow furrowed; it was her turn to be surprised. She looked up slowly at the blonde to her left as the girl continued softly speaking. "With the wills, finances. She got me the lawyer that's worked my case." The blonde stopped, thinking about how to continue. "Buffy... she didn't like to talk about that stuff, it reminded her too much of her own situation, with Joyce, I think, and I didn't really, have, anyone else... there was just, Anya."

Okay, I feel like an ass, Willow thought. "Oh," was all she could manage.

Tara nodded, and looked up, their eyes meeting. "Are you okay?" She again asked gently, concerned.

Willow nodded, her cheeks still flushed red. "I was just, surprised, back there..." she said carefully. "Tara," she started, before stopping. "I- I don't want you to think I'm a prude, or whatever."

"I don't think you're a prude," Tara replied, surprised that Willow would think she'd think that. "I think, I think I um," she paused for a moment. "I think I would have had the same reaction, if it had been me," the blonde said truthfully, hoping her honest admission would reassure the redhead.

"Really?" Willow asked, her brow scrunched, her voice dripping vulnerability.

Tara nodded. She fought every urge to reach over and take Willow's hand. Instead, she slid her foot over and rested it against Willow's. The redhead exhaled, reassured, and concentrated her attention on their touching feet.

"Have you," the redhead started, then stopped, before stammering on. "Have you, ever been, in one of those, kinds of stores?"

"Once," Tara said softly with a slight nod. Willow arched her eyebrows, not expecting the answer, but intrigued all the same. The blonde quickly continued. "With Buffy. She made me, said we'd be bonding." She rolled her eyes. "It was a 'girl's day out' back in college. I felt like my face was on fire the entire time we were there," she admitted, dropping her gaze to her hands.

"At least you didn't run out of the store like an idiot," Willow said, embarrassed.

"I w-wanted to," Tara replied, truthfully. "And, you're not an idiot..."

Willow frowned slightly, her voice quiet and confessional when she spoke. "I've never, I mean, I've never, been, to one of those stores; a sex shop." She grimaced at how naive she must appear right now. "I... I always thought, that if I did, when, I did, go... it'd be with my, you know, partner."

Tara's brow immediately furrowed. "Partner?" There's that word again...

"That, we'd go together. For, us, you know?" Willow stopped, looking down at her own hands in her lap. "Guess that sounds pretty stupid."

"Doesn't sound stupid," Tara said quietly. "Sounds like something I'd do." She looked over to Willow's profile, then back down to their touching feet. After a long moment of just sitting, a smile tugged involuntarily at Tara's lips, and she struggled to stifle a giggle.

"What?" Willow asked, looking up as she heard a snicker escape from Tara's lips. The blonde was jiggling, her shoulders hunched in an full, physical attempt to keep from guffawing.

"It's just," Tara took a deep breath, trying to keep the giggles at bay. "Y-You've never been, to one of those stores..."

"And that's all of the sudden funny?" Willow asked, her eyebrows rising, confused that it seemed that Tara was all of the sudden switching gears and teasing her about her inexperience.

"Buffy's 20th birthday..." Tara led, nodding her head slightly, her eyes wide. "The present you bought her..."

Willow's face scrunched up as she tried to remember the gift. "Buffy's--" The innocent redhead turned to look at her roommate. "That was a battery-operated back massager, i-it was portable, you know, instant gratification for all of her little acheys and oh my god!" Her eyes went wide and she slapped her hand over her mouth as she realized why Tara was laughing. Why her gift all of the sudden seemed very inappropriate indeed. "Buffy must think I'm a pervert!"

"No," Tara said, suppressing a grin. "She um, she liked it."

"Oh my god..." Willow said, her shoulders slumping as she realized the portable back massager could be used in other, less back massagy ways. "I swear I didn't- I got it at Brookstone, you know, the place with the massage chairs?" Her eyes went wide. "Those aren't sex chairs, are they?"

"No," Tara said, a bemused look on her face. "I think they're just massage chairs."

Willow shook her head. "I'm so embarrassed."

"Hey," Tara said, reaching out and touching the redhead's arm. "Don't be," she reassured.

"Easy for you to say," Willow grumbled. "You didn't unknowingly give your best friend a sex toy and then make a complete fool of yourself today running out of a sex shop like a little kid. I'm such an idiot..."

"I don't think you're a fool, Willow," Tara said. "Or, a kid, or an idiot..."

"Here," both women looked up, startled to see Anya standing before them, a large package held with one hand underneath one arm, a rainbow colored umbrella in the other hand extended toward them. "It's starting to rain," Anya explained, nodding to the spotted ground outside the covered bus stop. "God forbid either of you get wet." Willow's jaw set in anger at the dig and she stood up, snatching the umbrella from the bottle blonde's hands. The redhead opened it and stepped away from the bus stop wordlessly. She turned and looked to Tara, who stood slowly. Anya smiled at Tara, as if nothing had happened earlier and said, "I'll have the frames delivered by Saturday."

"Thanks," Tara said with a nod of her head. She stepped from beneath the bus stop overhang and walked to Willow's side; together, the two walked off closely as big drops hit around them. Anya shook her head.

"So gay," she muttered, before she crossed the street, heading to the bank a block away.

The ride home was quiet, the two listening to the music and the rain, barely speaking. The silence wasn't uncomfortable, just there, and it was almost as if both girls were already retreating into their minds; a retreat that both needed after the eventful morning. When they pulled up into the slight driveway before their apartment, Tara unsnapped her belt and said, "I'll get the garage--"

"You don't have to," Willow said, reaching out and briefly touching Tara's arm. The blonde looked back confused. "I'm gonna go to Khalil's," the redhead explained with a slight, tired smile.

"Oh," Tara said, unable to hide her surprise. Does she feel like she needs to hide out? After what happened with Anya?

"He called when we were at the gallery," Willow continued, thinking that if she didn't explain Tara might think her afternoon away was tied to the 'event' with Anya. "He has something I need to pick up, and I thought I'd hang out over there for a few hours, have lunch, maybe work on some stuff together."

"Okay," the blonde replied with a slight nod of her head. "Dinner?" Her eyes were kind, and concerned.

"Maybe," Willow said, the smile on her face answering Tara's silent question. "Don't wait for me though; don't know how much work we'll need to get done."

"Okay," Tara repeated. "Willow--"

"I'm fine," the redhead replied. "Really. Massively embarrassed and feeling like a complete spaz--"


"Seriously, go paint," The redhead smiled again. "I'm sure I've bugged you enough today," she joked.

"You don't bug me," Tara replied seriously.

"Okay," the redhead said with a slight bob of her head.

After a long moment, Tara smiled. "See you later?"

"Yup." Willow nodded. "Take the umbrella," she quickly added, nodding to the rainbow at the blonde's feet. "I have another behind the seat."

"Thanks," the blonde said, another smile pulling at one side of her lips.

"You're welcome," Willow said, melting slightly at the half smile shining before her. The girls shared a moment, and after some difficulty with opening the umbrella in the now-forceful wind, Tara exited the car, shutting the door behind her. The redhead watched the blonde enter the bottom apartment door, and after performing a head check, pulled out of the drive onto the street. She turned up the radio, pressing next song on her iPod until Rogue Wave filled the speakers, and humming along, she drove off into the rain.

Continue to Neverland Chapter Forty-Two

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