Return to Neverland Chapter Forty-Two


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.
Art history, pudding and a very nice gesture.

Well, Tara thought, if I can't create my own art, I'll look at other's. The blonde placed a steaming cup of tea onto the coffee table and then flopped down onto her couch, leaning back into the cushions and sinking into the fluff. She hugged an oversized book to her chest, and put her sock covered feet onto the table, careful to not disturb the tea. She covered her legs with a multicolor throw, then leaned forward and pulled the tea cup to her side.

She had given up trying to paint, or do anything even remotely productive in her studio, because her brain had apparently scheduled 'thinking about Willow' for the afternooon. It was like watching one of those obnoxious 24 hour news channels where the screen was so cluttered with disparete information that it was hard to concentrate on the main image. Willow ticker along the bottom, Xander stock prices in the upper left corner, the Buffy/Willow's mom infographic underneath the picture-in-picture of Morgan's smiling face. And don't forget the "breaking news" banner featuring Dawn's floating head... How could she concentrate with all of that tumbling around in her brain?

She had tried, leafing through her notebook as she ate a bowl of soup for lunch, but nothing grabbed her; nothing stuck. She was, as she was hours earlier, absolutely bereft of inspiration. Tara sighed, and shifted her head into a more comfortable position before she placed the large book onto her lap. History of Modern Art. She smiled at the sparse black lettering on the cream-white book jacket. She loved this musty, heafty tome. First, because it had been her first art history book, and second, because it had belonged to her mother.

Her mother had bought it from the San Francisco Museum of Art (now known simply as SF MOMA) during a family trip to the city by the Bay in the '60s. Tara's mom had been just a teenager, and it had been a little less than a year before she had met Tara's father, before the woman would abandon any dream of attending college, or art school, for the young love of her life. The book, at the time, was cutting edge, featuring the best there was in the diverse world of modern art to-date. Now, it was horribly anachronistic. Indeed, Tara couldn't help but snicker every time she saw the write up of the Sydney Opera House, "due to be completed in 1972." Even despite the time warp, however, the blonde loved it all the same.

By melding the best in "modern" painting, sculpture and architecture, the book had provided more than enough inspiration to the budding, then professional, artist over the years. She remembered with a tender smile the first time her mother let her look at the book, how she had sat on her mom's lap at the kitchen table and listened as the older woman described the paintings in the book. Why Manet used the colors he did, why something that looked like a mass of melted metal was beautiful, and why some otherwise non-descript apartment buildings in Spain could be considered art. Tara had been instantly enthralled. The book, and it's contents, had in one short sitting changed the way the young blonde had seen the world forever.

From that time on, everything was art. The rusty weather-vane atop the office building out back, the gray whiskers on her father's face at the end of the day... Even the striped wallpaper in her bedroom, peeling in places and slightly faded from age. Tara saw beauty, saw the building blocks for art everywhere, and she cherished the book that sparked it all as much as she cherished the time she had spent looking through it as a youth.

Tara often wondered how different her life would have been if her first exposure to art had been of the more traditional variety (say, a book of paintings from the Renaissance). What if she didn't even know work like Picasso's existed until she was much older? Would she have been as inspired? Would DaVinci have moved her as much as Braque? Tara genuinely wondered. Classic art seemed so specific; there was a defined sense of beauty, subjects were recycled at an alarming rate and instead of innovating, many artists seemed to spend their entire careers trying to recreate other's styles, only better. Would she have been inspired by the brush strokes, or the allegories? Tara didn't know. However, she suspected that she'd be a far different person. Modern art, with its ever-evolving spectrum, allowed her so much freedom. She couldn't imagine being bold enough to pursue her dream of being a professional artist if that freedom was no longer present, or if it had been introduced as she entered adulthood in university. Modern art had been the prism through which this otherwise shy girl had seen the world since she was seven years old.

Tara was loathe to admit it, but she had barely passed her Anatomy art course in college, her inability to accurately paint the human form, and particularly, human faces, a terrible embarrassment to her. I couldn't paint a person if my life depended on it... Tara thought as she traced her finger along the edge of the well worn tome in her lap. But she could paint emotion. She could paint what it felt like to look at a beautiful stained glass window, if not the window itself, and that was enough for her.

Tara propped her knees up, and randomly opened the book before her. Rodin. It was always Rodin, the blonde thought as she shook her head, an amused grin gracing her lips. She had a fondness for Rodin, even though she typically didn't like realistic sculptures (instead preferring the more fluid, molten work of Boccioni and her friend Jay). Perhaps it was all the time spent looking at Rodin's work at the Legion of Honor museum during college, or perhaps it was just because it was so evocative and powerful; classic yet modern simultaneously. She traced her finger over the sculpture in the black and white photograph featured high on the page, and wondered how someone acquired the skill to create something so perfect.

She flipped the book's pages, giving every image on each page a moment of her time. The majority of the paintings, sculptures and archetecture presented were shown in black and white photographs, a deficiency that she had not fully appreciated until her freshman year in high school, when she actually seen Franz Marc's work on a computer screen in the school library. It had shocked her how bright it was, how the color added another dimension to the already complex work. She had of course known that the black and white images presented in the book were not color-accurate, however seeing the correct colors had been shocking nonetheless. It had given her imagination another game to play when she looked through the book in college, as she imagined what color the artist actually used before comparing the black and white images with the more accurate representations in other books and on the web. The game had expanded her idea of how color could be used, and helped develop her own ideas of how color should be used.

Tara took her time leafing through the book, the rain pitter-pating against the glass to her left, her tea cup slowly being drained as she took increasingly cooler pulls from the fine mug. She looked at the work displayed before her intently, her fingers holding the pages gently. She poured over the color, the compostion, the meaning and the metaphor. She wondered how she could create anything new while at the same time feeling pride that she had in the past been inspired to do so. It was so amazing, getting a glimpse at all of these artist's inner thoughts. Art, she thought, was a snapshot of a world inside. She couldn't help but be impressed.

She took a final sip of her tea, and was surprised by how cold it had become; so unaware had she been of how much time had passed. She looked out the window, and noticed with some surprise that the street lamps had turned on. Once again, she had lost hours inside that book.

Tara leaned back into the couch, her neck cradled in the comfy cushion and her eyes caught the painting hanging proudly on the wall across from her, just over the fireplace. Her pride and joy, the one thing she'd never part with. She let her eyes wander over the paint for what felt like the thousandth time, again admiring the layered paint's effect, and again wondering how she had ever created anything so beautiful. She thought about how it had felt to create the work, the bristles of the brush scraping against the coarse canvas; the brushes initially smooth, soundless in daubs of paint, before giving way to a textured rasp as the paint stayed behind on the surface and the bristles grated against the canvas's grooves. She once again imagined each brush bristle dipping into each curve on the canvas surface, and then the layers of paint, her brush rising and falling over valleys like a rollarcoaster until the surface was covered and slick. She remembered so acutely what if felt like to paint that painting, as if it had happened yesterday instead of three years earlier. Remembered how visceral and consuming its creation was. How the painting had almost suffocated and freed her at the same time. It was... everything.

The blonde cocked her head slightly to the side, and squinted her eyes, suddenly feeling the painting mocking her, challenging her to ever create anything as great again. The blonde sighed and sat upright, moving the large art book to the coffee table, in no mood to be drawn into a fight with a piece of art, yet too prideful to look away. She stared, long and hard, before eventually frowning and looking away. And the painting wins again... She stood, and headed to the kitchen carrying the empty tea cup at her side, sticking her tongue out at the work as she walked away.

Willow jumped into her car, slamming the door behind her, quick to escape the fat drops falling from the sky. She turned the car over and immediately turned on the heat, rubbing her hands together furiously to get warm, shivering dramatically, if for no other reason than that she thought that she should. What is it about boys? She thought, as blood flow began to return to her blue fingers. Would it kill them to turn on the heat every now and again?

Despite the near-freezing temperature in Khalil's modest two-bedroom apartment in the Panhandle, Willow had had a surprisingly good time. The two had indulged in a Bar-B-Que lunch from Memphis Minnie's before heading back to his place to mix work with some illegal music transfers from their respective iPods. Willow liked Khalil. She liked his easy smile and very intelligent mind. He was one of only a handful of people that should could talk with as easily about advanced number theory as music, and it pleased her greatly that he seemed to like her too. It was nice having friends, especially after the first few lonely months in the city. San Francisco, it seemed, was finally beginning to feel like home.

After a long moment spent enjoying the newly-generated warmth, the redhead fastened her seatbelt, turned on the lights and backed out into the road. With a splash of the tires, and a quick look around to get oriented in the dark, she started on her way home.

Home... Willow wondered what Tara had gotten up to for the remainder of the afternoon and early evening, hoping beyond hope that the blonde artist had managed to take advantage of the alone time to paint. The redhead was beginning to sense that Tara was more stressed than she was letting on about her lack of production for the show, and that nothing could cure that feeling other than completing a few paintings. Hope she was busy... Willow thought, pulling up to a red light.

The girl tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, and thought about firing up her iPod, filled now with 30GBs of Khalil's music. Instead, however, she picked up her phone and dialed. After a couple of rings, a woman answered the phone. "Hello?"

"Hey, mom," Willow said, a small smile gracing her lips. It had been a few days since she had checked in with anything more than an email or IM.

"Willow, what a surprise," Shelia replied, obvious joy at hearing her daugher's voice apparent. "You don't usually call this late."

"Is it too late?" The redhead immediately asked, as she tried to quickly figure out the time zone differential.

"No, of course not," came the relaxed reply. "I was just watching Jay Leno. What are you up to?"

"Nothing," Willow answered, waiting for a car to pass before turning left. "Hey, did you know Sylvester Stallone has a line of pudding?" The redhead asked, her voice full of wonder. "Chocolate, vanilla, all very high-protein, low-cal; it's like he's a muscular Bill Cosby. Khalil's roommate Dave had a few cases. He kept trying to get me to taste some this afternoon while I was over working at Khaili's but I couldn't bring myself to try it. It was just too weird, I mean, it's Sylvester Stallone. Not screaming 'I know what's what with pudding,' you know?"

"Dave?" Shelia asked, and Willow immediately recognized the tone, that curious, leading tone, and the redhead instantly regretted mentioning Khalil's roommate by name. "And what does Dave do?"

"He's in pharmaceutical sales," Willow warily answered. She never stops...

"And he's nice?"

The redhead forcefully gripped the steering wheel, anger bubbling up inside her. "He's okay," she replied as politely as possible, her face hot. "We only talked for a minute. Seemed to be one of those guys who knows he's funny and good-looking though, you know?"

"You could do worse than funny and good looking, Willow..." Willow rolled her eyes. "Does he have a girlfriend?"

The redhead exhaled loudly and answered, her voice flat. "I don't know, I didn't ask during the two minutes he tried to goad me into eating Rambo pudding."

"Sounds like he was--"

"He's not my type," Willow quickly interjected when it appeared her mother wasn't going to stop, unwilling to let the older woman not-so-subtely continue with her nosy prodding.

"Not your type, what is your type?" Shelia asked, mildly exasperated by Willow's evasive behavior. "I know, I know," she quickly amended, hearing the hitch in Willow's breath and eager to avoid a familiar argument. "I just want you to start the next step in your life. I worry about you, out there all alone-"

"I'm not alone," Willow argued, her stomach twisted. "I have Buffy, and--"

"I just wonder when you're going to meet your husband," Shelia calmly explained. "When you're going to get started--"

"I am started," the redhead answered, in the same offended tone she had used every other time they had had the exact same conversation.

"All you do is work," her mother rationally countered. "You never leave the house, never mention men, I just--"

"I do so leave the house," the redhead hotly retorted. "I left the house this morning. I left and haven't even been back. A-And I mention men! Mentioned Dave and Khalil, mention Xander all the time!"

"You know what I mean," Shelia stated in her most maternally stern voice. "I'm just concerned, Willow," she continued. "Your father and I just think you'll be happier once you have someone in your life."

"I have plenty of someones," the redhead grumbled. There was an uncomfortable silence on the line as the two headstrong women waited each other out, Shelia eventually capitulating.

"I'm sorry I brought it up," the older woman said, her voice a mixture of sincerity and the knowledge that what she had just said wasn't wrong. "I just love you."

"I know," Willow concedingly grumbled, regreting having to have this uncomfortable discussion with her mother on a semi-regular basis.

"I just want you to be happy."

"Me too," the redhead answered, her throat tight. She couldn't help but wonder if her mother's sentiment would be the same after Saturday. If her mom would care one way or the other about whether she was happy once she said the words, 'I'm gay.' "How's dad?" The redhead asked, changing the subject to what she hoped would be neutral ground.

"Oh he's fine," her mother said. "He's finishing up a paper for review, and starting to rumble about missing out on all of the 'fun' we're going to have in San Francisco."

"Rumble?" Willow asked, her brow immediately furrowing.

"He was thinking he'd fly out with me and spend the weekend with you and Roger while I'm at my conference in Seattle," Shelia non-chalantly explained.

"What?" Willow immediately blurted, before attempting to recover. "I mean, he's not going to though, right? Not that he couldn't, of course he could, if he wanted to, it's okay if he's going to, I mean, seeing Roger would be, nice, and--"

"No, no, no," Shelia interrupted. "The ticket prices at this point would be ridiculous and he has too much work to do here to run away for the weekend."

"Oh," Willow replied, slightly ashamed at her reaction but relieved all the same. "Well, hopefully he has a good weekend anyway..."

"Now, listen Willow," the elder Rosenberg started, oblivious to the relief in her daughter's voice. "I've booked a room at the Marriott Hotel on Fourth Street, do you know where that is?"

"Yes, it's near the Metreon," Willow reflexively replied.

"And you can get there from your home?"

"Uh huh," the younger Rosenberg replied, turning right and slowing to a stop behind a double-parked car. "But mom, I can pick you up at the airpor--"

"Nonsense, there's no need. I'll take a cab," Shelia instructed. "Just meet me at the hotel at 6 and we'll go from there. Maybe you can do your computer thing and see if there are any good restaurants within walking distance."

"Okay," Willow replied, checking her mirrors before turning the wheel agressively to ease around the hazzard-flashing Jetta.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing you, even if it is only for a short while."

"Me too," the redhead replied guiltily, as she eased back into the lane. She doesn't know what's coming...

"It's getting late for me--"

"Yeah," Willow said with an unseen head bob. "I should go too, driving, raining; not a good combination."

"Alright then," Shelia said. "Call me if you need anything, otherwise I will see you on Friday."

"Okay," Willow said, numbed slightly by the reminder of the impending visit. "Bye." The redhead hung up, and her shoulders immediately sunk.


For the sixty-millionth time since she decided to tell her mother that she was gay this weekend, Willow felt guilty about the fact that doing so would severely exclude her dad. That she couldn't fathom the thought of coming out to both of her parents at the same time bothered her immensely, however, it was a reality that she felt she was stuck with. It was stressful enough to think about telling her mother-Willow felt that she already *knew* what that unfavorable, irrational reaction would likely be-but her father... she had absolutely no idea about how he would react, and that wild card scared her. Would he be a help with Shelia, or a hindrance? Would he be angry, or understanding? Willow didn't know, and she didn't want to find out, not in addition to having to deal with her mother.

It wasn't that she never intended to, or thought about, telling her dad that she was gay. She did, and soon, although her plan for as long as she could remember was always to tell her mom first, get a sense from her about how her dad would react and then plan on telling him from there. She knew her father was a liberal intellectual who, to Willow's knowledge, had at least two gay friends-his friend Craig, one, being a frequent poker pal. However, Willow knew that that didn't mean he'd take kindly to the news that his only daughter, his only child, was gay. (After all, Shelia certainly hadn't in the few times Willow had 'hypothetically' come out in the past.) But how best to approach her father with this very personal news, when he had, up until now, taken zero interest in her personal life?

Willow had never, not once in her young life ever, talked to her father about her love life. Not while she was dating Oz, not even after they had broken up. Her father seemed to take no notice of that facet of Willow's existence. Sure, he was kind to Oz when the musician was over for dinner, and her father always referred to Oz as Willow's boyfriend the two or three times it came up during introductions at family functions, but never, ever, had the two most similar Rosenbergs ever had a discussion about Willow's personal life. The redhead wondered if the idea of her having a personal life made her father uncomfortable, or if he just didn't think it was any of his business; that she was an adult, and her affairs were her own. She knew he cared, or, at least, it was intimated that he cared through her mother's many and varied mentions of her and Ira's concern over Willow's lack of dating, however, Willow had never heard word one from the man himself.

She naturally hoped he'd respond well to her news, though she had no reason for such hopes. She had tried to discuss the issue with him in the past, bringing up gay issues as she had done with her mother, only to find her father a less willing conversational partner. "What business is it of mine what people do?" he'd ask rhetorically, effectively ending the discussion, or, if asked a policy question like 'what do you think about gay marriage,' take the far left party line. Not once would he engage beyond stating his opinion once, not once would he let Willow egg him into hypothetical discussions. He never seemed uncomfortable around Craig, though he never seemed at ease, either. He was a difficult man to read, and though Willow felt that they had a good relationship, that they shared a close father-daughter bond, she had no idea about how to go about telling him who she really was. Computers, they could talk about... but this? A small part of her, though she would never admit it, even wished that she'd never have to; that Shelia would do the telling, and that Willow would only have to deal with the fallout.

Perhaps her plan of attack, coming out to her mom and mom alone first, was cowardly; Willow had long ago decided it was unfair, however, the simple fact was that she was closest to her mother, and feared her mother's opinion and reaction too much to risk having her voice, her painstakingly crafted argument about why it was okay that she was gay, stifled by a third party in the room. Willow was terrified about having too many cooks in the kitchen, her rational father taking over the discussion so that Willow couldn't speak to her mother's fears, or worse, that her two parents would team up on her and talk over her (as her mother had single-handedly attempted to do in the past).

The two elder Rosenbergs were intimidating when together-both very intelligent and very rational, and the two could condescend with the best of them. Willow knew if they decided to tell her she couldn't possibly be gay because she was too inexperienced with men to know, she'd have a hard time arguing back. Not because they were right, of course, of course she was gay regardless of her experience with men, but, they were her parents, and she respected them, and as a dutiful daughter she'd be loathe to disagree with them to the point of breaking their hearts. She didn't want to disappoint them.

Dutiful daughter, Willow internally mumbled. Try perfect daughter... She did everything for them. She had been a model child, with above average grades, good manners and a near spotless record of behavior (because realistically, it was always Buffy or Xander's fault when you got right down to it). She had gone to a top-flight university away from her family and friends at their urging, and had became a successful computer programer, partially, in order to make them proud. She had never side-stepped and yet here she was, about to take the biggest side-step imaginable. Willow took a deep breath, the fear tingling her skin. Coming out, she wryly joked, was harder than cooking the perfect souffle.

The guilt was the worst part of coming out so far, by far. She felt guilty about not telling her father that she was gay at the same time as she told her mother, felt guilty for popping their 'perfect daughter' bubble, for being a different person than the one they thought they raised. For disappointing them. She felt ashamed, and then affronted by her feeling of shame. After all, she wasn't telling them that she was a murderer, or some sort of crazy crackhead, she was admitting who she was, who she had always been and who she needed to be to be happy going forward. Why did she feel guilty about her parents knowing that? She wasn't a bad person, she was a good person, she was a loving, kind person and why did she feel so guilty about wanting to live life as a gay woman out in the open?

She had lived the life of a model daughter, done everything to make her parents proud, yet for some, inexplicable reason, she felt guilty for doing things her way for once, for coming out in a way that made sense to her, for putting her feelings and her needs ahead of her parents. She was taking care of herself and she felt... guilty? The redhead exhaled. Between the stress and the guilt it was a wonder she didn't have ulcers.

She thought about her gay friends. Well, gay friend, if you excluded Tara. Bryan's coming out had been traumatic. His father kicked him out of the house at age 16, and cut him off financially, his mother only contacting him only sporadicaly for the next year or two. His parents eventually divorced, Bryan suspecting the strain of his mother nagging his father to at least talk to him played a part, and here, years later, he still had zero contact with his dad. Willow wondered how much fear that story had instilled in her as she was first discovering her true feelings, her true self. She couldn't imagine life without her parents. Didn't, want to imagine life without them. True, they might not have been around for every moment of her young life, but they had always been supportive when it counted. She loved her family, sought their approval at every turn and to think of them rejecting her... Willow swallowed hard. She saw what it was like when you were on your own, how it was for Bryan, how it was for Xander (though he still attempted to make nice with his parents, despite their continued problems with alcoholism). Willow didn't want to be alone. Fear of being alone had, after all, kept her quiet up until now.

After a long moment, Willow thought about the upcoming weekend, about the discussion she was about to embark on, and renewed her resolve to proceed as planned. Her coming out, Shelia opening her eyes to the truth, once and for all, needed to be one-on-one. Willow needed to have the opportunity to reassure her mother, to answer her mother's questions and if necessary, challenge her mother's beliefs. Telling her dad... she'd just have to cross that bridge when she came to it.

The redhead pulled into the driveway of her home, and cut the engine, turning the switch for the lights off as she did so. She leaned back onto the seat, and then dialed her phone, noticing that the lights in her apartment's great room and Tara's studio were on. A shadow was thrown against a wall in the studio, and Willow smiled slightly. Tara.

Xander's smooth, cheery voice answered after the second ring. "Willster, how you doing?"

"Did you know that Sylvester Stallone has a line of pudding?" The redhead asked, slipping her fears about her parents possible rejection of her into a distant corner of her mind.

"Nooo," came the intrigued reply. "Did you know Steven Segal has an energy drink?"

"No," Willow answered, her face contorting in disgust at the thought. "What's in it?"

"Tibetan Goji berry juice, some vitamins, and I think, rusty pennies."

"That's disgusting," the redhead said, stress rolling off of her as she engaged in the silly discussion.

"It is," the dark-haired man allowed. "But can you imagine how many ninjas and steroid-enhanced Soviet boxers you could take out if you paired the pudding with the drink?" The man asked, the excitement in his voice palpable. "You'd be unstoppable!"

Willow giggled, and thanked the stars above that she was lucky enough to have a friend like Xander.

The redhead opened the door and smiled slightly as the apartment's warmth reached out and greeted her, soothing her rosy cheeks. Now this, Willow thought, with pride, is how an apartment should feel. The redhead freed her keys from the lock and quietly shut the door behind her, dropping the umbrellas cradled in her arms with a muffled thud to the pile of shoes to her left. She sighed lightly and turned, leaning her tired frame into the door. Home. The sense of happiness at knowing she was at her last stop of the evening was exactly how it should always feel to come home.

The short conversation with Xander in the car had reassured and relaxed her, enough so that her previous thoughts about her mom and dad were well-tucked away. The redhead reached up and wiped her brow, then smoothed down her hair before slipping her keys into her left jacket pocket. The rain outside was intermittent but persistent, and the combination had peppered the girl with giant drops of moisture as she maneuvered from the garage to the street entrance to her home. She smoothed her hands across her face again, and then brushed her moist palms against her thighs.

The girl flattened her back against the door and listened. The sound of soft rain tapping against the large windows across the open space echoed throughout the large room, and a semi-repetitive 'scritch-scritch' scratch came from Tara's studio, adding a rhythmic element to the already percussive, natural sound. The redhead melted a little, and appreciated both the sound of the rain against the glass, and the brush against the faraway canvas. It was one of the most soothing combinations of sounds she'd ever heard in her life, and as she soaked in the noise, she ran her fingers along the edge of the envelope in her right pocket. A small smile crept onto her face and she let herself relax further as she heard Tara start to softly hum from afar. Heaven.

After a long moment, Willow turned her head and noticed, to some surprise, two large envelopes resting awkwardly in her mail box on the secretary table. She leaned forward at the waist, loathe to leave the door, and picked the two envelopes up. She leaned back into the flat surface and her brow quirked as she looked at the return addresses on each envelope. Huh, the redhead thought, flipping one, and then the other, over. Applications... had she asked for applications? The girl let out a silent puff of air. Maybe she had... her mind had been in such a fog that day, thoughts of her crying at the party in front of Tara burning the insides of her eyelids and ringing in her ears as the realtor showed her and Roger each site. Who knows what happened that day, the redhead admitted, with a soft shake of her head. For all I know I put in a bid...

"I've been lonely..."

Willow looked up, her eyebrows shooting to her hairline as the quiet, melodic singing echoed into the room. "I've been waiting for you..." The redhead's eyes turned large as saucers, and she warily looked around the room. Was the blonde watching her? Teasing her for standing against the door listening to the rain and brush strokes? "I'm pretending, and that's all I can do..." A small smile quirked Willow's lips and the wariness melted away. The singing was coming from the blonde's studio, echoing slightly as it made its way down the hallway and out to the redhead's attentive ears at the door. Tara was singing to herself, and Willow couldn't think of any sound that could make her happier. "The love I'm sending, ain't making it through to your heart..."

Willow lightly pushed off the door, clutching the two large envelopes to her chest as she stood tall, careful not to make too much noise as Tara continued to sing. "You've been hiding, never letting it show... Always trying, to keep it under control..." Should I make a bunch of noise, let her know that I'm home? Or... or... the redhead eased out of one shoe, than another, as the blonde made her way, steadily, to the chorus. Maybe I can just listen for a minute...

"What about love..." A smile erupted on Willow's face as she finally recognized the song. "Don't you want someone to care about you..." The redhead didn't know why, but the fact that the blonde was singing *this* song really tickled her heart. She took a near-silent step forward, and then another, the mischevious part of her pushing her to try and sneak a quick peak at the blonde down the hallway. If the door is open, I can catch a quick glimpse, and then, maybe, heavy-foot it a bit, let her know I'm home without letting her know I was eavesdropping, maybe even say hi... She wouldn't do anything to startle Tara, and nothing to embarrass her. She just, wanted to see the girl sing for a moment, to have the memory of her singing this song imprinted on her brain.

Willow took the corner around the kitchen counter, and made her way to the start of the hallway. She arched her neck to the right and saw a sliver of the blonde standing before what looked like a blank canvas in the middle of the room. The artist seemed relaxed, her hair up in a loose bun, and Willow wondered as she took another step forward if the girl had spent the afternoon singing to herself, happy to have an empty apartment with which to indulge her guilty pleasure. "I can't tell you... What you're feeling inside, and I can't sell you, what you don't want to buy--"

It was at that moment that the still moist, and slightly shredded, bottom of The Folsom Lantern envelope decided to give; at once, the apartment was filled with the noise of just over a pound of papers, cards and a very nice ballpoint pen spilling to the hardwood floor with a thunderous crash. Both girls jumped; Tara in shock, Willow in mortification. The contrite redhead immediately dropped to a knee, quickly scooping up the offending materials just feet from the studio's slightly open door. Tara stared for a long moment before her lips finally moved. "Willow?" The girl asked, her wide eyes blinking like an owl, her mind too overloaded to think of anything else to say as her heart raced wildly with fright.

"Hi," the redhead sheepishly replied, her nimble fingers quickly arranging the papers into a somewhat manageable pile, her face crimson red. Stupid, stupid stalker person! "Hey," she added, unable to think of anything remotely coherent as she struggled to stand, her arms filled with bent and disorganized papers. She puffed an errant lock out of red hair out of her eyes, and winced as she awaited the blonde's reaction. When none was forthcoming, she lamely said, "sorry."

"How long have you been out there?" Tara asked, her heart still beating fast. She self-consciously adjusted the hemline of her shirt, and ran a hand over her neck, as bright red with embarassment as the nose on her face. She had been sure she had been alone when she began to sing; first a soft hum, then a slightly more confident mumble. Did she hear me singing? Did she recognize, what, I was singing?

"Not long," the redhead replied, eager to make the rigid and obviously-embarassed blonde feel more comfortable, and to assuage her own guilt at being caught sneaking a peak. "I'm sorry, really, so sorry; I just, you were singing and I didn't want to interrupt and I just..." Willow trailed off. "I like Heart, too."

Tara's blush went super nova, and she nodded, her eyes dropping to the floor. Oh my god... "I um, I h-had a b-babysitter, a w-woman who used to w-watch me after school... she loved them." She stuttered awkwardly, embarrassed by her song selection and Willow's sweet attempt to try and make her feel better about it. "S-Sometimes the songs come back to me." She paused again, and after shuffling her feet, sheepishly met Willow's gaze. "Hard not to sing."

"I get that," Willow said with a reassuring nod. I'm so, so sorry. "I think it's cool."

"Really?" Tara asked, her voice laced in doubt as she evaluated the obviously-chastened woman before her. "M-Most people don't think Heart is v-very cool..."

"The Wilson sisters rock," the redhead said with a resolute head nod, noticing with a quick drop of her eyes that the blonde wasn't wearing a bra. Humina... "I was also meaning more, the whole, having a babysitter who was into music," she said, hoping her quick perusal of the blonde's chest went unnoticed. "Me? Didn't have that so much."

"Babysitter didn't like music?" Tara asked, her eyes flicking to look at the envelopes in Willow's arms before looking back up.

"No babysitter," Willow replied. "I was a latch key kid, so... it was pretty much just me, and me. Well, sometimes Xander, too," the redhead added, remembering how the dark-haired boy would escape his dysfunctional home to keep her company after school when the fighting between his parents became too intense. "Me, doing my homework. Xander, doing skateboard tricks on the carpet, or watching cartoons, while I bugged him to do his homework." The girl offered Tara what she hoped was a charming smile. "The only music we ever listened to were my dad's old Doobie Brothers records." She paused slightly. "We were Michael McDonald's biggest 11-year old fans."

Tara smiled softly, and then pointed to the mess of papers in her roommate's arms. "You found your mail," the blonde said, eager to further divert attention from her singing, and from Willow's awkward attempt to make amends.

"Yup," the redhead said, bringing her arms out slightly as she internally kicked herself again for stupidly sneaking up on Tara. "It was easy though, because my very thoughtful roomie put it in in the mail box thingy."

Tara nodded with a slight half-smile, before turning slightly serious. "Big envelopes."

"Yeah..." Willow trailed off, looking down at the pile of papers. "And, apparently constructed of very shoddy materials."

"For the condos you saw, this last weekend?" Tara led, knowing full well what they were for.

"Mmhmm," the redhead answered, before her brow quirked slightly in confusion. "How'd you know?"

"The mottos on the back," the blonde replied with a slight blush. "'Exceptional urban living... something, something'," she trailed off with a self-deprecating half smile. "My friend Jay actually did some of the welding work on the Folsom Lantern."

"Really?" Willow asked with interest, stepping forward and leaning against the studio's doorjamb. "Jay who made the chandelier?"

"The very same," Tara said with a smile, impressed that Willow would remember a seemingly insignificant detail from the initial tour of the home months ago.

Willow nodded. "You know, I'm actually a little surprised to see the envelopes," she admitted candidly. "I thought, you know, that I had to ask for them. I guess I wasn't really listening closely when they were explaining the next steps..." She looked down at the papers in her arms and then back up, her voice sheepish. "I was sorta, in a bad mood that day."

Tara nodded. Oh, I remember... "Maybe it's just protocol; send an application to everyone who stops by."

"Maybe," Willow replied. The redhead's eyes drifted past the artist, and her face screwed up in confusion.

"What?" The artist asked, looking over her shoulder and then back to her roommate, not understanding what it was behind her that could cause such a look.

"Nothing," the redhead replied, shaking her head slightly. "I just, thought I heard you painting when I came in, but blank canvas so..."

"I was, well, not painting," the blonde reached behind her and picked a brush up off of the easel's crowded tray. "Treating, the canvas. You have to treat it so that it's waterproof, so the paint doesn't soak into the canvas."

"Why don't they just sell canvases that are all ready waterproof?" Willow asked innocently.

"They do," Tara replied with a smile. Always curious... "Just, most artists treat their canvases themselves. Some artists like the paint to seep in some, some like the paint to sit on the surface like, paint on glass. Quality control." The blonde shrugged slightly. "I do it out of habit."

The redhead nodded, tucking the new information into her, 'what it takes to be an artist' mental file. "Did you get a lot done today?" She asked, almost wishing she hadn't when a sour look covered Tara's face. "And, frowny face says no..."

The blonde sighed, good-naturdly, a slight, rueful smile emerging on her lips. "Not really."

"No inspiration?" The redhead asked, her voice concerned, her thoughts momentarily, and selfishly, pulled to the envelope in her jacket pocket.

"I just... can't concentrate," Tara said, gently slapping the brush against her leg a couple of times before turning and putting it back onto the easel tray. Probably a good idea to not mention the 'Willow-Willow-Willow' internal monologue... "It's just, I have to have an idea before I begin painting with the acrylics--"

"Because they dry fast," Willow added, like a good student.

"Yes," Tara said with a smile, impressed the redhead remembered the tidbit from yesterday. "I have ideas... but..."

"Not inspiration."

The blonde nodded. "I'm starting to get nervous..." She moved a thin hand over her stomach, her tummy fluttering in response to her admission of nerves.

"About, not finishing?" Willow asked, again noticing with a quick look how stunning the blonde's bountiful chest looked in the thin orange shirt.

Tara nodded. "And..." she trailed off.

"And..." Willow said, encouraging the blonde to continue.

"It's just an adjustment," the blonde said with a shrug of her shoulders. "I haven't used acrylics in years; I know how to use them, have used them before but... I just, am not sure what to expect. The colors, they're not as vibrant as oils... I mean, I bought the best available, but just, no matter what, no matter how I mix them they won't be as... lush? I guess..." she shook her head a little. "I just have to adjust. To think a little differently, see the world a little differently..."

Willow nodded, shifting her weight slightly before saying, "maybe seeing the world a little differently will be a good change?"

"Maybe," the blonde replied. She smiled slightly at Willow for the wise words, and after a slight pause, she nodded her head at her roommate. "Did you have fun at Khalil's?"

"Oh, yeah. We mainly goofed around, traded music..." The redhead briefly thought of mentioning the envelope in her pocket, before thinking better of it. "Hey, did you know that Sylvester Stallone has a line of pudding?"

"Hmm, nope," the blonde deftly replied, not missing a beat at the seeming non-sequiter. "Is it any good?"

"I don't know, I was too afraid to try it..." the redhead confessed before digressing. "Khalil's roommate Dave has like three cases of it; he tried to goad me into tasting it."

"Well hopefully he's not afraid to try it or else, you know, pretty silly purchase," Tara said, with a quick bob of her head.

"Right," Willow smiled. Just ask her... Her eyes darted to the blank canvas, and then back to her roommate. "I uh, I brought your umbrella up," she said instead. "You left it in the car earlier, in the door pocket."

"Right," Tara nodded. "Sorry."

"No biggie." The redhead shifted slightly, and after a short moment of silence, smiled. "Well, I better get up to bed, let you finish with your canvas."

"Yeah..." Tara said. Willow smiled again and Tara cocked her head to the side as she swore she caught a sparkle in Willow's eyes. A warmth. A... look? The redhead made three steps toward the stairs before Tara stopped her. "Willow?"

"Hmm?" The redhead said, turning to face her roommate again.

"I..." the blonde trailed off, her thoughts drying up before she could think of something to say. Of some reason why she'd stopped the girl. Of some reason for why she needed to see the girl's face one more time tonight. After an awkward moment, the blonde quickly looked over her shoulder and then back to the girl standing just outside of her studio. "Do you, would, you, like that painting?" Tara stepped back, and pointed to 'Confusing', leaning gently against the back wall.

Willow's jaw dropped slightly and she almost did a double-take at the gesture. "Really?" She asked, her voice squeaking slightly, unable to hide her surprise and delight at the offer.

"Yeah," Tara said, her heart warming at the happy look on Willow's face. "I, I don't know what to do with it, and I thought you might like it..." Seems as good a reason as any... the blonde thought, nervously.

"I would, like it," the redhead said, rooted in her spot. "But, haven't you already sold it?" When Tara's face screwed up, Willow continued. "It was with the commissioned paintings yesterday..."

"An accident," Tara replied with a slight wave of her hand. "It was actually supposed to be a test canvas, but after what you said yesterday..." She shook her head slightly a smile on her lips. "It's done."

"You don't want to try and sell it?" Willow asked. "I mean, couldn't you send it to L.A.?"

Tara slightly shook her head. "Seems like you should have it."

The redhead smiled brightly. Wow. "Okay." The two shared a warm look, before Willow's excitement bubbled up. "Can I take it now?"

The blonde laughed. "Sure, just let me put a wire on the back so you can hang it." She walked over to a wood box near her desk and pulled out a spool of wire. She unwound the wire a bit, and then cut it with a pair of wire cutters, then dipped into the box again and removed two pins. She moved to the work, and turned it, careful to keep the paint from touching her pants. She leaned over, and went about attaching the wire to the two vertical edges of the painting's wood frame.

Willow watched the blonde's actions in silence, her mind overwhelmed by the gesture and the sight of Tara's enticing form bent over the canvas. She sighed happily, drinking in the blonde's curves, and then stood to attention, eyes forward, when Tara turned around. "Are you sure you don't want me to carry this up for you?" The blonde asked, nodding to the papers in Willow's arms. "You're kind of loaded down already."

"I can carry it," Willow replied. She held out her right hand and hooked her fingers around the newly fastened wire, her left hand pressing the papers to her chest tightly. Wow, again. Though she wanted the blonde to help her, wanted more than anything for the artist to follow her up to her room, for them to spend more time together, maybe kiss her a little and gush about what a great artist I think she is, the redhead didn't want to do anything to pull the obviously frustrated artist from her work. "Thank you, so much."

"You're welcome, so much," Tara said with a bright smile. She hadn't anticipated making the gesture, of giving Willow the 'confusing' work, but now that she had... God she has a beautiful smile.

"I better get going," Willow said, her face straining from the large smile pulling at her lips. Wow, wow, wow, three times! "Let you get back to work."

"Yeah," Tara replied with a slight, kind eye-roll, acknowledging their earlier discussion about her painters-block.

"Thank you, again--"

"It's nothing, really," the blonde said, stepping back to the drop cloth situated beneath the canvas in the center of the room. She ducked her head, slightly embarrassed by the gesture she had just made, then looked up and enjoyed the way the redhead's eyes sparkled with delight. How they sparkled with unmistakable warmth. Wow. The look caught Tara's breath for a moment, and it took some effort to simply say, "enjoy."

"I will," the redhead said with a huge smile. "Okay... night."

"Night," Tara replied with a slight bob of her head. She watched as Willow turned and exited, keeping her eyes on the girl's attractive form until she disappeared up the stairs. Tara deflated a little as the girl left. She went to turn back to the canvas before something caught her attention; she looked down to see her nipples standing erect, pushing at the thin fabric of her shirt, and for the first time since Willow moved in, Tara realized how she must look as she pranced around without a bra. Her cheeks went rosy, wondering if Willow noticed, and wondering why she should care if the redhead did. She quickly crossed her arms over her chest, and shook her head to shake the flush in her cheeks. Don't be silly... she thought, dropping her arms and moving back to the canvas before her. She probably didn't even notice... She picked up the brush and moved it across the canvas twice, before reaching her hand up and touching her red-hot cheek, muttering, "get a grip, Tara, we all have boobs in this apartment..." She groaned aloud when the affirmation didn't help her feel any less provocative.

Willow snuggled into her bed, bringing her down comforter to rest just under her chin. It was just before 10, and she could barely keep her eyes open, the long day catching up to her quickly. She sighed, contentedly, her body snug and warm in her soft cocoon, and her eyes drifted up to feast on the painting now hanging on the wall across the room. Wow. The girl smiled widely and shimmied slightly, her wiggling a testament to how happy the gift made her. How happy a simple gesture-and an amazing painting-from Tara could make her night.

It had been a no-brainer where to hang the work; it had to be the wall opposite the bed, where she could see it when she woke up and fell asleep, and from where she worked when at her desk. In the near dark the red stripe looked purple, the dull glow from the street light reflecting off of the white canvas surrounding the paint.

The redhead's eyes drifted over to her dresser, and the bent envelope sitting on it. Oh well... she thought with an ounce of defeat before shutting her eyes and sinking further into the bed, her joints relaxing and her muscles loosening. What a day. Tara, Morgan, Tara, Anya, and more Tara. Her cheeks flushed red momentarily, remembering her embarrassment at Good Vibrations, and her ire at seeing Morgan at the gallery. The thoughts faded, however, as she remembered Tara's foot touching her own at the bus stop, as she remembered Tara's smile as she handed over the painting. Faded, as she remembered that despite all of the complications, she still had been able to spend a good chunk of time with Tara.

Willow sighed. She thought back to when she woke up that morning. She remembered waking up to the remnants of a dream... her brow crinkled slightly. Tara was in it... she was... she was here, in bed with me... the redhead remembered, bringing her left hand over to feel the cool sheets where the blonde had slept in her dream. We talked about going to see Anya... the redhead remembered, the fuzzy images returning to her consciousness slowly. I told Tara that I thought she was starting to like me... The redhead opened her eyes with a series of blinks.

I told Tara that I thought she liked me more than a friend. Willow's sleepy mind whirred as she attempted to process this thought. The thought that Tara not only liked her, but perhaps, just perhaps, liked her as more than just a friend. The redhead let out a measured breath as she looked at the painting hanging across the room, the painting that had been given to her just an hour or two earlier for no good reason other than that the blonde thought she should have it. In my dream, Willow thought, unwilling to trust what her tired mind was trying to tell her, Tara had feelings for me. The redhead blinked, then blinked again, before she turning to her side, and pulling the comforter tight around her. Sleep, a drowsy Willow thought, sleep, will make everything clearer... She closed her eyes, and moments later, drifted quickly into a dream-filled slumber.

Continue to Neverland Chapter Forty-Four

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