Return to Neverland Chapter Forty-One


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.

Tara sighed as she escaped the rain outside, a small frown tugging at her lips as she saw the soggy lump of mail that sat in a moist pile just inside the street-level door. She bent over, scooped the pile up and quickly ascended the stairs, the awkward combination of sopping mail, wet umbrella and a bag full of shifting art supplies threatening to fall at any moment. She struggled with the keys to her apartment once at her front door, and after a few choice words, managed to open the door. Pressing the mail to her chest to keep it from dropping to the floor, she dropped the umbrella just inside the door, then moved swiftly to the kitchen. In one movement she spilled the contents of her arms to the countertop, the wet mail flattening on the marble with a wet plop. Tara sighed, exasperated by the effort, then stood upright; she brushed a few strands of damp hair from her face, and after a deep breath, turned back to the door, removed her keys from the doorknob and shut the door behind her.

She leaned against the door and gave herself a moment to regroup. What a crazy morning... Willow, Morgan, Willow, Anya, and more Willow. The blonde shook her head, and tossed her keys onto the secretary table to her right. Willow. Tara couldn't help but be amazed at how much more, and less, she knew about the redhead after three more hours together. She knew more about Willow's taste in music, where it had originated, how Willow saw herself as a teen, how she hoped to become a mother... and yet, yet Tara smirked, she felt like even knowing all of that, she knew absolutely nothing because of a few choicely obscured allusions. To a fight that wasn't about what Tara had thought it had been about, and about two upcoming visits that Willow was apparently nervous about. If not... dreading?

Xander and Willow. "My Xander." Tara's brown crinkled. She knew she had heard that before... or had she? Ugh, who knows what I know anymore... she thought as she rolled her eyes. Prime example: What was going on with Willow and Xander? Things were, fine, it seemed. Good, even, which was so not in keeping with the assumptions the blonde had toted around all weekend. The assumption, was that Willow was in love with Xander, and that the two had fought about how Xander didn't return those feelings. Reality? Tara blew a puff of air through two red lips. Reality... is that Willow and Xander are friends. Willow relies on him, enough so that she asked the dark-haired man to come up this weekend.

Please don't come up this weekend, Tara thought with an internal groan before returning her thoughts to the pair... Willow had admitted this morning that the two long-time friends had fought on Friday, but that it had been about Willow not doing enough to have a good time at Morgan's party, more or less. Then what about the words I overheard on the street... The blonde puzzled. "This isn't some high school crush Xander... This is, love, real, true love and and I can't just pretend that I don't feel it"... Tara closed her eyes. The pain in Willow's voice that night had been palpable. It hurt, even now to remember them. What was she talking about? The blonde questioned. Why was Willow in so much pain on Friday?

It made no sense. Willow, made no sense, though, how is that new? Tara conceded. I mean, why did she say "partner," twice! The blonde sighed, still confused about the odd word choice. She needed to leave this confusion behind. As much as she was intrigued by her adventures with Willow this morning, and by the new light Willow had shed on her relationship with Xander and her mother, and with Buffy, Tara readily admitted that she really needed to find a corner of her mind to lock the experiences away for the time being. She needed to concentrate on work.

She was in for a busy afternoon. Try busy week... Tara internally amended. She was running out of days to create four works worthy of show and sale, and the blonde was beginning to feel the onset of panic deep in her belly. She had one painting halfway done, and three... she had three locked in the recesses of my Willow-addled brain... Tara harrumphed. What she needed was a break from Willow, and for something, anything, to grab her, to push-no, command-her to create. Just one little thing that would possess her as she put paint to canvas. One little thing that could mean the difference between art and a painting of Mums at the Radisson...

The blonde grimaced as she pushed off the door, her body protesting at the movement, and she returned to the counter to gingerly sort through the damp mail. The stack included the local phone bill, her credit card bill, a couple of now ruined catalogs and two large envelopes. Tara crinkled her brow; both large envelopes were addressed to Willow, and one, textured gray with some runny, purple print, was stamped 'application enclosed'. She looked at the return addresses on both. Shipley Square and The Baumeister Group/Folsom Lantern.

Tara carefully extracted herself from her soaked shoes as she tried to remember where she had heard of the Lantern before. The Folsom Lantern, The Folsom Lantern... A lightbulb flashed in her mind as it came to her; The Folsom Lantern was the new housing building on Folsom. Tara cocked her head to the side and flipped both envelopes over. The gray envelop read, "live well in the neighborhood", while the other simply said, "exceptional living in an urban environment. " After a slight moment of surprise, Tara realized that in holding the two envelopes, she essentially held in her hands Willow's potential next home.

Tara's brow crinkled and she placed the envelopes back down on the counter. She bent down and picked up her shoes, tossing them over to the pile next to the door, before returning her attention to the counter and the mail. After noticing that the large gray envelope was slightly torn along the bottom edge, and deciding against taping the wet paper, she gently picked the envelopes up and deposited them into a small box on the secretary desk labeled, 'Willow's Mail'. She placed the two bills in her pocket, and then took the quickly disintegrating catalogs to the kitchen trash, noting as she padded into the kitchen that her socks were damper than she had initially thought. She started the kettle, and again sighed.

The Folsom Lantern... She knew the building; her friend Jay, the expert iron sculptor and part-time welder who had helped her create the one of a kind chandelier hanging over her dining room table had done some contract work on the corrugated metal exterior. The aluminum encasement, combined with the double-height windows and state-of-the-art internal lighting gave the Folsom Lantern the look of an over-sized, cubist hurricane lamp. "Crazy modern," was how Jay had described it. "Floors are heated, glass partitions between rooms can be moved to expand or contract space... just bananas. I'd buy if I had mad loot."

A thoughtful expression took up residence on Tara's face. With a quick tap of her fingers on the marble countertop, and a look over at the envelopes, the preoccupied blonde left the kitchen and headed up the stairs to her room. She deposited the soggy bills on her bed and removed her bra as she changed clothes into blue cargo pants already stained from previous encounters with paint and a thin, orange long-sleeve shirt similarly decorated. She shucked her socks, replacing them with a fresh pair, and after grabbing the bills, headed back down the stairs, a pensive expression still residing on her face. She entered the main room as the kettle whistled. After placing the bills in her pants pocket again, she grabbed her rose mug, and poured herself a cup of tea, the entire time keeping an eye on the envelopes on the far table. She admitted to being thrown. Hadn't Willow just mentioned this morning that she needed to contact the realtor about getting the necessary paperwork? Maybe Willow was further along in her housing search than she had previously let on...

The blonde bobbed the circle-shaped tea bag in the hot water, gently creating soft ripples as she did so, before moving around the edge of the counter, picking up the bag of supplies, and making her way to her studio. She stopped for a moment midway, holding the bag of supplies awkwardly against her side as she lifted her free hand to set the thermostat. Hearing the furnace spring to life, she brought her hand down and tightly clutched the top of the bag, the shifting contents sliding together in a mass. She carried her tea and bag of supplies to her studio, blowing across the steaming top of the cup as she did. She started to close the door with her foot, but then decided against it, choosing to leave it ajar so she could hear Willow's eventual return.

She moved to her desk, and placed the tea and bag of art supplies on the table's cluttered surface. She removed the bills from her pocket and placed them in a small, open-faced box nailed to the wall. She yawned again, this time too lazy to cover her mouth. Finished, she turned and leaned into the desk, looking around her studio space as she tried to figure out where to begin, her lips pursed. After a moment of inaction, she exhaled loudly and moved to the far wall, flicking on the lights. The mood of the room changed significantly as the room was illuminated; no longer dark and small, it looked professional and spacious, the place where a dedicated artist could lose herself for hours painting. She turned to the large windows, and shook her head as she took in the rain running in rivulets down the glass face. It was unbelievably dark outside, and Tara wondered if they were in for a rare thunderstorm. Hope so... she thought, as she shuffled to the center of the room. Thunder-with its the soft rumbling and occasionally raucous booming-was surprisingly comforting to her. It reminded her of where she grew up, and the many happy days she had spent indoors coloring as a child, loosing herself in the lines and texture of well-worn crayons.

She exhaled loudly as she approached the work occupying the easel in the center of her studio. It was the frost-to-fire work she had started the day before, a work that was officially half finished. One side was icy and fractured with cracked blue frost, the other side layered in thick white paint, a base for the flames she would apply as soon as the paint was sufficiently dry. She reached up with her thumb and gently pressed into the white base, the paint giving way under the pressure. Not ready... She was pleased with the base paint's initial effect, the paint having been applied with a palette knife in heavy strokes, much like buttercream to a fancy, wavy birthday cake. When the base paint dried, she'd carefully apply another layer, and then accents and highlights... The 'fire' would rise high off of the canvas, a huge contrast from the frost's flat half. It would look like an ocean of flames, tumultuous and crashing like red waves into the canvas's middle. She checked her thumb, and seeing only a minimal layer of paint, figured she'd have a good eight hours or so to kill before she could continue with this work. She dipped her thumb in a small jar of mineral spirits, and then wiped the wet appendage on a stained towel hanging from the side of the easel.

She sighed, and looked around the room. Eight hours... She should set up a new easel and begin work on a new painting... after all, she had three more to go before she fulfilled her obligation, yet, the motivation to paint, to lose herself in a thought, or a feeling, was achingly absent. She covered her mouth as she yawned yet again, her face stretching as she did. Ugh. She was admittedly exhausted, the morning's mental gymnastics and emotional escapades catching up to her. Her mind's impersonation of cream of wheat didn't make the thought of painting, of expending what seemed like a non-existent creative reserve, even remotely enticing.

Even if I wanted to paint, I have no idea what to paint... The girl walked back to her desk, and picked up her tea. She gently blew on the surface, and softly sipped, testing the temperature. Satisfied she wouldn't be burned, she took a slightly longer pull. What did she have so far? Frost-to-flame, and a canvas covered in paint that was the same shade of Willow's eyes. Though, I have no concept for that canvas, beyond the use of the girl I love's eye color... where do I go with that? The blonde thought for a long moment, and then frowned deeply when her mind left her stranded.

With a disappointed sigh, Tara closed her eyes and tried to imagine the gallery in L.A. Sometimes if she could visualize the space, see the light, the place where the wall met the floor she could see her as-yet-unpainted work on the wall, see how it was supposed to look, how it would fit. She knew the gallery well, having been to a friend's show months previous. Wasn't that the weekend Buffy told Willow about the apartment, about the room for rent... The blonde shook her head slightly again, and tried to concentrate on the space.

After a long moment she opened her eyes. Nothing. Nothing but a stupid memory of Willow... again, Willow! This is going to be harder than she thought, the blonde started to think, until something on the wall caught her eye. She looked to the wall and pushed her lips together, realizing that the painting she had ironically named 'Confusing' just yesterday was still on the wall in the place of 'Fillmore'. Tara placed the tea back on her desk, and moved over to face the canvas.

She'd have to move the "work" soon, as 'Fillmore' was being returned home from the gallery tomorrow. She cocked her head slightly to the side, as a thought entered her head. Maybe she could do something with the silly strip of red paint on white, use it for one of the painting in her L.A. series. She looked at it critically. What could she do with it, how could she add to it? She looked at the stroke, how it moved from fat, heavy texture to a slim, delicate layer of paint that barely concealed the canvas below. She walked over to to the painting, squinted and then stepped back. She tried to look at it as just color, then as a commentary on composition, though, no matter how she looked at it, she couldn't think of anything but Willow's words. "It sparkles... it doesn't need a bunch of fancy accents to be beautiful. It just is." Tara sighed, slightly surprised. The redhead-who claimed to know absolutely nothing about art-was right; the work, no matter how confusing to Tara, was done.

She pulled the painting from the wall and rested the bottom edge of the unframed canvas against her belly. As easily as sending the canvas to L.A. would solve at least one-fourth of her problems, Tara knew she couldn't send it. What would she even charge for something so minimal? For something that was so different from her other work? For something that was a mistake in the first place? She shook her head at the anamolous work, then walked over to the wall opposite her studio door before gently placing the marked canvas on the floor. She'd think of what to do with the finished work another time...

The blonde lightly bit her lip as she righted herself and mentally moved on. One thing. It was always, always one thing that sparked her work. The red ribbon tied to a lamppost flicking in a dense fog, a feeling at hearing birds singing in a light rain. She needed one, special, thing to kick start her creative juices. To give her leave to lose track of time, to create until she felt finished. The blonde moved back to her desk, picked up her tea and a brush. She then sat on the floor, careful not to spill her tea, her back against the wall, her legs crossed. She held her tea in her left hand, and the brush in the right. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember her morning. Remember the little things that had made an impression on her as she moved through the hours.

She thought of the swirling movement of the crowd on the sidewalk, the green scarf that caught her eye as it passed in a blur, almost hidden beneath a gray, wool overcoat. The clang of the well-worn brown grates as people stepped on them; the look of concentration on Willow's face as she sidestepped the very same grates. The heaviness of the manhole covers in the streets, billous white steam barrelling up from underground through the octagonal holes in the metal. Willow's form as she cut through the steam, emerging unfazed on the other side. The sound of the red banners snapping from where they hung outside of the pricey four star hotel down the street from the gallery. Willow's red lips in the cold. Morgan's graceful, perpendicular stance, and the chipped burgandy polish on her fingernails as she picked at her coffee cup sleeve. Willow's freckles. The shadow of sleeplessness under Anya's assistant's eyes. Willow's laugh as they struggled to stay dry under the umbrella as the rain dropped from the edges of the rainbow above them. Willow's smile as Tara exited the car.

Why would Willow want to live in a cubist hurricane lamp? The blonde opened her eyes and shook her head, before tossing the brush up onto her desk, the wooden stick clanging about before coming to a silent stop. Trying to paint right now was a futile endeavor. Trying to think about anything but Willow was a worthless exercise. Willow, it seemed, was everywhere. The girl owned her. Absolutely owned her mind, her heart, her soul, and Tara sighed heavily at the somewhat oppressive admission.

I wasn't dreaming, was I? the blonde thought, trying in vain to remember exactly how Willow described the live/work building she had pointed out earlier as they drove to the redhead's work. Tara couldn't remember the words, but she could at least remember the tone. The redhead had seemed unsure about the places she had seen when she spoke of them earlier in the day... hadn't she? About as unsure as her voice had sounded as she spoke about her mother's upcoming visit, about Buffy's impending return, the blonde admitted. The direct opposite, she further considered, of how sure the redhead's voice sounded when speaking about Xander, and his possible visit.

Please don't visit, Tara again thought, the repeated phrase sounding surprisingly like a mantra. Rain slapped against the window with a gust of wind, and Tara slowly turned her head to peer out the glass. Aside from the rain, the apartment was eeirily quiet. It used to be like this all of the time. Before Willow moved in, the apartment was almost always quiet, save for the few times Tara played music to keep her conscious mind company as she performed tasks.

The quiet space had been her temple, her palace, her place to just be. She could be a hermit, she could paint, she could cook, she could do nothing at all but daydream. Not that that had changed so much after Willow had moved in. Tara still painted, still cooked, still daydreamed. But those activities had an aural partner. Feet moving along the second-story floor. Faucets turning on and then off far away, water moving through the pipes at the seemingly ghostly command. The sound of Willow's muffled voice on the phone, as heard through solid walls and closed doors. Even when Willow wasn't home, the apartment still felt occupied. It wasn't Tara's apartment anymore. It was their apartment. Their shared space. Their home.

The silence of the space pushed on Tara, and she felt like her ears were ringing from the absence of sound. A set of tires splashed through puddles outside on the street, and the blonde softly sighed. It would be very, very strange if Willow moved out. When, she moves out, Tara corrected, thinking again of the large envelopes on the secretary table. The blonde moved her free hand up to her heart, and pressed into her flesh through the flimsy shirt. Didn't she want Willow to move out? Didn't she want to move on? Isn't that why I gave my phone number to Morgan earlier today... the blonde thought, her heart constricting a little at the thought. It was amazing how much fear she held in her heart. She was afraid to move forward, afraid to stay the same. She thought of the love she felt whenever she thought of Willow, and recognized immediately how afraid she was of that feeling. How afraid she was of Willow, of feeling this unrequited love for the rest of her life. The situation Tara found herself in, was simply paralyzing.

Why did she say "partner"? the blonde thought, her mind again spinning back to the morning, and the raw information she had acquired. It was too much. It was just too much information, too many seemingly incongruous facts and there was a distinct possibility that she just didn't have the mental energy to figure it all out in any satisfactory way.

Tara sighed. She wanted to talk about this with someone, but who? She had almost said to Michelle at the gallery earlier, "I'm in love with Willow and I'm confused," before chickening out. Partially, because she knew that if she said it out loud, it would be real, something tangible that she'd be forced to take action on, whether in admitting the feelings to Willow, or letting go, and partially because she didn't know Michelle well enough to envision what her reaction to the news would be, and that scared her. Marissa, Tara knew, would lecture her on "pining for a straight girl;" Anya who would tell her to act, consequences be damned. Michelle's unknown reaction, however, had kept the blonde quiet.

Tara pressed the palm of her free hand into her right eye. She was so confused. So terribly confused, and the one person with whom she really, really wanted to share this confusion with, was not only 3,000 miles away, but someone she felt she couldn't tell. Buffy. What would she say? Tara sighed, and she realized just how much she missed Buffy. The girl was like a sister to her, the two had shared so much over the last five years; from problems with their siblings and the loss of a parent, to heartache and laughs... For five years they shared everything, everything but what Tara felt for Willow and now, now that the feelings were pressing against her, pushing on her chest until she felt paralyzed with fear and uncertain inaction... What would Buffy say if she knew? How would it change their friendship, if Tara's unrequited love for Willow was known? Would Buffy help make things better?

Tara leaned more fully against the wall, the bun of hair balancing her head against the flat surface. The blonde would die of embarrassment, likely, as Buffy's shock turned to sympathy, and the petite blonde embarked upon a rational explanation of why things with Willow could never be more than what they were right now. Which was... Tara sighed, which was what? Three weeks ago Willow was her roommate in the most clinical of terms only, and now, now they were friends, close enough to share mundane shopping trips and silly, sentimental gifts like mix CDs and fairy lights. Her feelings, Willow's words, Tara was so confused and Buffy... maybe Buffy could explain everything. Tell her why Willow was acting the way she was, saying the things she was, and Tara could go back to knowing-knowing-that Willow was unattainable. Buffy could talk her out of the things she was beginning to think. What am I starting to think...? Tara tentatively asked herself, before abruptly abandoning the scary, unanswered question.

The blonde reached up to the drafting table, grabbed the phone and dialed. The phone rang twice, and a chipper voice answered, "Tara!"

Tara's brow furrowed. The voice sounded too chipper, too perky, too... "Buffy?"

"Nope," came the chirped answer. "It's the more attractive, younger Summers sister."

"Hey, Dawnie..." Tara said, silently relieved that the more perceptive, older Summer's sister hadn't answered. Why does it feel like I just dodged a bullet... "Um, does Buffy know you're answering her phone?" the blonde artist led, a little confused as to why Dawn would answer Buffy's cell phone.

"Nope," was the quick answer. "But then again, she was the one dumb enough to leave it behind. And like I'm going to miss the chance to talk to you." Tara smiled at the younger girl's words. "What's going on?"

"Nothing, I-" Tara stopped and quietly sighed. I'm in love with Willow and I just wanted to run that by your sister. "I just haven't spoken to her in a while, w-wanted to see how the coat I mailed was working out." Coward.

"The coat is fine," Dawn answered, her voice coated in mirth. "You really called about the coat?"

"Sure," Tara replied, self-conscious about her covering comment. "Why not?"

"Because it's a coat," came the incredulous reply.

"It's Channel," Tara replied, hoping the correction would take.

"Well played," Dawn replied, and the blonde artist exhaled quietly. When in doubt, play up the importance of a designer label with the Summers girls...

"Hey, Dawnie," Tara led, her voice curious. "What would you think if a straight person referred to their boyfriend or husband as their 'partner'?"

"Ugh," Dawn's disgust came through clear. "Are you talking about Jennifer Aniston's Vanity Fair article?"

Tara's brow furrowed. "Jennifer--"

"'It's hard to deal with life when your partner is gone'," Dawn paraphrased in a derisive voice. "Okay, he was your husband. Leave the 'partner' business to people who can't get married, and lawyers, okay?"

"Huh," Tara said, surprised by the vehement response.

"And while we're on the subject: partner? Please, what is this, nothing more than a financial arrangement, some sort of clinical agreement? Just say husband or boyfriend, boys, or wives or girlfriends, ladies! Who cares what the neo-con reactionary right-wing fringe thinks; wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend: they're just words, and if you're gay, and you're married, especially if you're married in a country that doesn't recognize your right to live and love till death do you part, it's practically your duty to make the "traditional" descriptors yours."

"W-Wow," Tara replied, blinking. That was... wow. "I was, I was, um actually, not, talking about Jennifer Aniston," the blonde continued, sheepishly.

"Oh. Sorry," Dawn huffed on the other end of the line. "I just joined the Gay-Straight Alliance on campus a few months ago and I'm all fired up."

"Apparently," Tara replied, slightly amused. "So, the Gay-Straight Alliance, huh..."

"One of several clubs I've joined, though, not to meet boys. Officially." Tara snickered at the preventative denial. "I'm surprisingly passionate about a large and diverse number of hot-button issues these days," Dawn continued. "I can tell you why a lot of people are wrong about a lot of different subjects. It's kind of liberating, actually."

"Really..." Tara replied, her lips tugged up in a smile. Dawn, though similar to Buffy in so many ways, was her own person with regard to participatory college living. Buffy was nothing if not apathetic about the various causes cresting and collapsing on campus during their college years. That is, except for the Psychology Club, though Tara suspected that Buffy's participation was more on account of the tall, All-American TA leading weekly meetings than any desire to expand her understanding of the psychological discipline.

"So who said 'partner'?"

"Hmm?" Tara asked, brought back from her memories.

"The straight person, if it wasn't Jennifer Aniston."

"Oh," Tara said, her brow crinkling, before saying with what she hoped was a breezy tone, "just a friend."

"A friend, huh," Dawn replied, her tone mischievous and suspicious. "A girl type friend that you think might be gay?"

"What?" Tara asked, caught off guard by Dawn's deductive leap.

"Well, are you trying to figure out if the 'partner' mention was a hint that the straight person is something more, or--"

"N-No," the blonde interjected. "I, I was just curious. I haven't heard it used a lot, so..." Tara trailed off. "Wasn't sure if it was, a thing, you know, for some people to say..."

"Overly PC people maybe," Dawn replied.

"Noted," Tara said with a nod.

"I can tell Buffy that you called when she gets back," the younger Summers girl said. "I actually need to get going; there's an Environmenal Club meeting across campus that I'd like to get to. Don't want to miss out on all of the all-natural soda!"

"Okay," Tara said. Okay... she repeated, kicking herself for picking up the phone in the first place. "Um, try and not get arrested, please?"

"Check," Dawn said, her tone happy and light. "Leafy greens and not getting arrested. I think I can manage."

The blonde smiled at the reference to the summer Dawn lived with them. "I'll talk to you again soon, okay?"

"Sounds good," the younger girl replied. "And Tara?"

"Hmm?" The blonde asked.

"Good luck with the straight girl."

Tara grimaced in embarrassment as she hung up the phone. She could only imagine what Dawn and Buffy would be talking about as the girls chatted their way into the early morning hours. The blonde took a final pull of tea, and peered to the bottom of the cup. She looked up, and around again, at the paint that needed to be sorted, at the canvases that needed to be painted. With a sigh, she stood, and exited to the kitchen.

Continue to Neverland Chapter Forty-Three

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