Return to Neverland Chapter Forty-Three


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.

Despite a brief feeling of initial discomfort, Willow groaned with pleasure. She had forgotten how much she missed this, her legs spread, the feeling of fullness. She rested her brow against the cool wall before her, then leaned the weight of her body into the surface, her palms bracing her. She felt anxious and aroused, the anticipation of rhythmic release giving her breath a slight hitch. Feels so good, she thought with a soft sigh, before her brow stitched together with a new thought. But how--

"Ooooh," she sighed again, her knit brow going smooth as she gave herself over to the sensation of soft, feminine hands brushing over her hips, stomach, and breasts. Tara, she sighed in recognition of the touch, rocking her body slightly as a more voluptuous body than her own settled against her back, pressing her more fully against the wall, wandering hands making light circles on the slight girl's hips.

"Willow." The breath propelling the name fluttered against the soft hairs on the redhead's exposed neck. The simple spoken word was followed by a brief kiss on a freckled shoulder, and strong hands wrapping around Willow's midsection. The redhead groaned again as the hips nestled against her backside retreated and then thrust forward again. Willow swallowed, her mouth suddenly parched, and she closed her eyes to better concentrate on the feeling inside. Every inch of her was ready for this; she arched her neck before leaning forward again, her own hot breath bouncing back off of the wall and caressing her already-warm cheeks. Again she felt a retreat and thrust, and with another swallow, she rocked her own hips to follow the leader. For a few moments the pace was teasing and slow, gentle give and take designed to familiarize and tantalize. The pace soon changed though, quickening ever so slightly, the blonde's hands holding Willow steady as the thrusts became more urgent and absolute.

Willow cleared her throat as the now brisk thrusts began to push her hips into contact with the wall before her; brief brushes that felt more like shadows of actual impact. She swiveled her crinkled forehead against the warming surface, her eyes still screwed closed, her fingers curling reflexively. Her bare feet felt unsure on the hardwood floor, and her toes twisted and grabbed, like a bird's talons seeking purchase on an icy branch. The hands gripping her body relaxed and retightened, and the pressure from each fingertip caused Willow to tingle and return her own thrusts more forcefully.

A quiver in her right calf was the first indication of impending release--a slight twinge where her back met her rear, the second. Willow dug her fingers into the wall to try and center herself as her hips bucked and jerked. The hands holding her hips from behind slipped, one moving diagonally across her body and coming to a stop on her breast. The blonde's fingers massaged an already tight nipple, her forearm crossing the redhead's body like a seatbelt, reassuring Willow that she wouldn't fall should she become even more wobbly than she even was. The blonde's second hand slipped lower, briefly caressing the top of the redhead's thigh before traveling over, tickling hair, and sliding down.

"Oh god," Willow gargled, her neck arching back, the base of the back of her head bumping and bouncing to a temporary stop in the crook of the blonde's damp neck. Slippery fingers expertly fondled the redhead as the thrusts continued to fill her, and she reveled at how Tara's ardent breath settled in her ear. Willow grunted, the movement of her straining hips causing her head to fall forward with a barely controlled flop. She again rested her forehead against the wall, this time noting how matted her hair was becoming along her hairline, how sweat tickled her temple, trickled between her breasts, and moistened her already sweaty palms. How sweat slicked the skin slipping against her from behind with each thrust. The redhead groaned to feel the blonde's erect nipples press into her shoulder blades, delighted in the satiny feel of Tara's heavy breasts pressing into her back. She shuddered as Tara kissed behind her ear, weakened to feel teeth nibble at her flesh. A tiny, involuntary grunt from the blonde nearly buckled Willow's knees.

The redhead dropped a hand and reached back, fumbling behind her, her hand grabbing onto swaying flesh and leather. She clumsily squeezed and released, her other hand not strong enough on its own to hold her for any prolonged period of time. She returned her palm to the wall and immediately turned her fingertips inward, her nails scraping against the plaster. She groped the wall, awkwardly seeking something on the flat surface to help steady her as the muscles below her waist began to spasm and fire independent of each other. Her left hand finally happened upon the door jamb and she squeezed at the glossy molding, her knuckles turning white, her breath coming in shudders.

She came hard, her back arching ferociously, her toes curled and cramping, fingers dug into the wall and door jamb. Her body tensed and tightened, pleasure slipping through each cell in her body nearly simultaneously, and she found herself panting as she reveled in the blissful feeling of release. Lightheaded as her orgasm receded, her body uncoiled, and she rested in Tara's arms against the wall. "Relax, I have you." Willow nodded her head slightly at the blonde's softly spoken words, the whole of her slim body singing like a tuning fork, held in Tara's soothing embrace. After a long moment, the blonde asked, "good?" The redhead answered the earnest question, spoken softly into her ear, with a chuckle; the chuckle was returned in kind and sealed with a kiss to the redhead's dewey temple. "Good."

"Thank you," the redhead said coarsely, regaining her strength and breath slowly. She stood up more fully as she cleared her throat, the bulk of her weight now resting against the wall in front of her. "Thank you."

"You mean, thank you Good Vibrations," the blonde said, her voice coated in mirth.

"No, mmm," Willow slightly flinched as the feeling of fullness retreated, slowly. "Thank you," she reiterated, turning slowly and resting her back flat against the wall, her still-tingling legs letting the cool surface do most of the work in supporting her slim frame.

Twinkling blue eyes matched Tara's half smile, and as she backed away from the redhead and toward the bed, she ran a finger down the underside of the shiny lavender shaft situated perpendicular to her hips. "More?" she asked generously, hooking her thumb into the white leather harness.

Willow smiled widely and sighed contentedly, the steady throb between her legs intensifying in response to the sight of the blonde somewhat innocently fondling their afternoon purchase. "Give me a minute to regain my senses and we'll see." The blonde's half smile turned saucy and the redhead barely managed to remember to take in a shuddering breath. Wowzers... Tara sat on the bed, and without asking permission, reached over and pressed the snooze button on the newly sounding alarm. "Thank you," Willow said with a deep sigh as she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall. "You read my mind."

"I try," the blonde replied. "With varying degrees of success..." she added, deadpan.

"Ha, ha," Willow answered reflexively, still luxuriating in the feeling between her legs and the sluggish tone her muscles seemed to have developed. She took in a deep breath and let out a satisfied sigh. I don't ever want to wake up...

The redhead's post-coital bliss was interrupted with an unexpected query. "How do they live like this?"

"Hmm?" Willow asked, not daring to open her eyes, lest the moment, and Tara, disappear. "Who live like what?"

"Men," Tara replied. The redhead's brow furrowed slightly and she peeked at the girl on the bed across the room through a suspicious, squinty eye; the blonde laid prone on her back, and gingerly poked at the erect shaft before her.

Willow opened her eyes fully and raised an incredulous eyebrow as she pushed herself gingerely off the wall. "You know, I really don't want to be thinking about men and their stuff right now, if that's okay..." She stretched slightly, and slowly started a languid walk to Tara's side.

"Their 'stuff'?" The blonde asked, bemused.

"Still thinking about it--"

"Okay, okay," Tara relented, with what the redhead thought was obvious enjoyment at momentarily making her squirm. "What would you like to think about then?"

"You," Willow replied with a goofy grin, as she climbed on to the bed and straddled the blonde's stomach, carefully situating herself so that the lavender shaft gently rested against the curve of her rear.

"Me?" Tara answered, shimmying slightly under the redhead to get more comfortable. "That's a shocker."

"Hey," The redhead mock pouted, swatting the girl beneath her gently. "Be nice."

"I am nice," the blonde replied, her hands moving up to caress the redhead's thighs. "I'm very nice." She slid her hands up and squeezed Willow's hips, gently pushing the redhead back and reminding her of the shaft nuzzling her rear.

The redhead internally shuddered as she agreed, "yes, you are." She leaned forward to capture Tara's lips. After a long, soft kiss, Willow pulled back with a sigh, and awkwardly reached to her side to press the alarm's snooze button. She caught the look the blonde gave her as she straightened her spine, and smiled sheepishly. "What's one or two snoozes?" She asked innocently.

"Or three, or four," the blonde answered, teasingly. "But--" The blonde was cut off by a deep kiss. She moaned in mock protest before succumbing and returning the redhead's passion. After a long lip lock, the redhead sat up, careful not to inadvertently hurt the girl below her by pressing against the silicone caressing her backside, and smiled widely. She opened her mouth to speak, but stopped short as a loud thud made her turn and take in the wall behind them.

"What was that?"

"What was what?" Tara answered, as she resumed drawing soft circles on the redhead's thighs with her fingertips.

"The thud," Willow answered, still looking to the wall for answers. "With the loud, thuddiness?" She turned back to face the blonde below her, who answered with a slight shrug of the shoulders. "O, kay," the redhead said, returning her full-attention to the girl she straddled. "No on the thud." Tara offered a genial smile and Willow relaxed as she basked in being allowed a long look at the girl below her. The clear, deep blue eyes, the way the girl's full lips parted slightly, as if words were sitting just behind the ruby gates. The redhead thought about their afternoon together the day before, and the blonde's generosity in gifting her with a painting. And, whatever it was that led to me being pushed up against that wall... After a long moment of staring, Willow cocked her head to the side and said, "you look like you want to say something."

"I do?" Tara answered simply, her hands still lazily exploring the redhead's soft skin.

"Yes," Willow replied confidently, her eyes trained on the lips and the words she knew were just behind them.

"Are you sure?" The blonde asked, her expressive eyes meeting the redhead's gaze with an unspoken challenge.

The redhead tried to read the blonde's face, tried to see if the girl was daring her to press the subject. After a long moment spent deliberating, Willow replied hesitantly, "I think so."

Tara smiled widely and warmly at Willow's hedged bet. "What about you?" The blonde asked as she gently poked the redhead's thigh with her finger. "You want to say something, too, you know..."

"I do," Willow answered emphatically. "I mean, I know, I just..." the girl trailed off. "You know I will though, right?" The sincere redhead looked into Tara's eyes. "I'm not just going to, you know, never say it." The blonde nodded. "I could say it now," Willow said cheerfully, her bright green eyes sparking, as she took the blonde's hands in her own and interlaced their fingers.

"You could..." Tara replied, gently. "But, I don't think saying it here counts." She squeezed their joined hands reassuringly.

"No?" Willow replied, her shoulders sinking a bit. "What if you said what you wanted to say." Again her eyes trained on the prone girl's lips.

"Hmm, I don't think it counts if I say it here either," Tara answered, consolingly.

"No fair," the redhead grumbled slightly, untwining their fingers. The blonde chuckled lightly in response.

"What are you going to do about the envelope?" Tara asked, watching with some amusement as Willow ran her hands none-to-slyly up the prone girl's ribcage to her breasts.

"What envelope?" Willow answered distractedly, her green eyes trained intently on her freckled hands fondling the blonde's breasts.

Tara rolled her eyes in reply, and said, "the envelope on your dresser?"

"Oh," the redhead said. "Probably nothing." The blonde raised her eyebrows, and Willow flicked her eyes up to momentarily meet the girl's gaze. "You're too busy," she concluded with an apologetic shrug of her shoulders, her hands still moving gently against the artist's flesh.

"You don't know that," Tara replied, with a slight sigh. She reached up and took the redhead's hands from her breasts, and intertwined their fingers again. She pulled on their entwined hands, urging Willow to lean forward. The redhead complied, essentially pinning the girl beneath her in the process. Willow carefully untwined their fingers, and reached a hand up to smooth back Tara's hair. She gently traced her finger along the girl's jaw, before moving up to softly caress the blonde's cheek. I wish I could spend forever right here...

"Kiss me."

Willow responded to the soft-spoken entreat happily, leaning forward the few inches that separated their lips, her own hair falling more fully forward and lightly brushing against their cheeks. After a few moments, Tara reached up and brushed the hair from Willow's face, tucking it gently behind the girl's ears. When the redhead pulled back to thank the girl, the blonde spoke. "You're late."

"What?" Willow asked, her brown crinkling in confusion.

"That last time, you hit the off button instead of the snooze. You're la--"

Willow jerked awake, her heart hammering in her chest, adrenaline shooting like needles through her veins, as the dream she had so conscientiously tried to stay in faded like a shooting star. She blinked her eyes rapidly, furiously trying to adjust to the muddy morning light saturating her room. She turned her head just in time to watch the clock tick over to 9:09, and deep panic settled into her bones. Nine o'clock meeting, the redhead thought, panicking at the thought of her colleagues waiting for her on the group conference call. I have a nine o'clock meeting. After a paralyzing moment spent staring at the clock, all the redhead could think to say was a meek, regretful, "damn."

The second Tara's eyelids opened she was wide awake. There was no blinking back sleep, no adjustment to the pre-dawn light; it was unequivocal, she was already running before her feet hit the cool wood floor.

The blonde sighed as she pushed the covers from her chest, her body protesting at her mind kicking out of bed at this ungodly hour, and at the dense chill in the air. She rubbed her face, and blew out a puff of air, hoping the action would help kick start her sluggish muscles. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and again sighed. The anxiety she felt was almost oppressive; it was like a heavy stone of stress pressing against her chest, and Tara knew that it was this feeling, and this feeling alone, that roused her from the short, fitful bit of sleep she had enjoyed after the previous, late night spent working. Her mind was a mess of thoughts and worries, tasks and troubles flooding her to the point that she was almost unable to identify one from the other. It felt like each individual concern, each activity she had yet to accomplish was like a dry leaf caught in an updraft, and there were so many leaves tumbling around in the windstorm of her mind that she could hardly pick them out as they swirled, dipped and soared.

In the shower, as her muscles warmed and woke, she formulated a game plan, quickly identifying each of the tasks and thoughts the numerous swirling leaves represented. Her movements were purposeful as she washed, and she quickly and efficiently went through her morning bathroom routine, dressing in the same determined manner.

She headed downstairs in socked feet, reviewing her mental morning to-do list as she did, and accepting that she'd have to create an entirely separate list for the afternoon and evening. How did this much work build up? Entering the kitchen, she flicked on the overhead light, and made coffee while toasting two english muffins. Careful to pour the steaming kettle before it whistled, so as to not wake Willow hours before her alarm was sure to sound, the blonde polished off the last bite of muffin, brushed the crumbs off of her hands over the sink, flicked off the light, and carefully made her way to her studio in the near dark, the steaming coffee press and empty mug in hand.

She placed the press and mug carefully on her shadow-covered desk, dipped back out into the hallway, set the thermostat with squinting eyes, then returned to her studio and flipped on the overhead lights. The lights flickered on above, and she was immediately confronted with color, as the paintings lined along the walls and easel seemed to wake from their own slumber. The blonde slipped on a pair of clogs she kept under her desk, poured herself a cup of coffee, and sighed. The sigh done, she took a cautious sip of the hot, black liquid, placed the mug back on the desk, and then immediately set to work, plowing methodically for the next two and half hours straight as she plucked leaves from the updraft and ticked items off of her to-do list.

All of that frantic activity had led to this moment, about twenty minutes after eight, where she sat slumped at the kitchen counter next to a half eaten parfait, and absentmindedly picked at some dried paint on her plastic watch, too exhausted to do much of anything else. The watch sufficiently picked over, she reached up and lethargically brushed some hair from her bloodshot eyes, and then dropped her leaden hand to the counter. Ugh, she thought, turning her neck to the side slightly, hoping to elicit a satisfying series of cracks, I could fall asleep right here. Denied the desired readjustment, she slowly reviewed her morning. She had accomplished more than she had expected to; invoices were filed, budgets were set, paints were organized... Indeed, she had almost completely robbed the updraft in her mind of every single dry leaf spinning behind her brow. All, save one. She let her tired mind think about the last dry leaf floating around her brain, the one that she couldn't simply work away.

'My Xander.'

'My Xander.'

'My Xander.'

The blonde sighed. It was useless. She knew she had heard the phrase spoken by Willow the previous afternoon, before; the same tone, same inflection, same everything--but where? When? Well, there was the Thai dinner last week... the artist allowed. Willow had said 'my Xander' that night, right after she confirmed that she loved him at my prompting... the blonde thought, rolling her eyes at the uncomfortable memory. But... that's not it. Tara decided with a little shake of the head after a long moment spent deliberating. The tone was all wrong--that 'my Xander' had been different, meant something different. It had been softer, deeper, more feeling behind it... 'my Xander' from yesterday on the street was friendly. Platonic...? The blonde questioned. Thai-'my Xander' was much more than the buddy reference from the street, if indeed, Tara was correct in her assessment of yesterday's tone. Maybe she used the term another night, over dinner, or...?

The park? Tara thought, bringing her fingers to her face to bite on a ragged thumbnail. No, Willow had never said anything remotely so possessive. Hence the me getting my hopes up that day... the blonde thought somewhat ruefully. The redhead's mentions of Xander were more anecdotal that day, about how the dark haired man had once drunk an entire gallon of Gatorade without taking a breath to impress a girl in the seventh grade, or this one time when he thought he had syphillis. The blonde examined her nail, and deciding that it was sufficiently smoothed, dropped her hand to her lap. When else? The redhead spoke so infrequently about Xander that the instances when she would have said 'my Xander' were few and far between. I know I've heard it before though... Tara thought, as she tried to stretch her mind and remember less intense interactions with the redhead. Quiet moments over dinner in month's previous, perhaps, or some night when talking with Buffy... Tara exhaled sharply and rubbed her hands over her face in exasperation. Where did I hear her say 'my Xander?'

And then she laughed.

She had to laugh, because when she really thought about it objectively, the whole silly situation was funny. Five days ago she was convinced Willow was madly in love with Xander, and now, because of some throw-away line on the street she's sitting here trying to convince herself that, what? They were just friends? That Willow didn't really love Xander? That what she had overheard outside of Morgan's party was something else entirely than the plaintive cries of a girl having her heart broken into a million pieces by the construction worker over the phone? And why, why would she suddenly shift gears and suppose that something that had been canon to her, that Willow loved Xander, simply wasn't true? Because Willow said, 'my Xander' in a way that reminded the blonde of something she had possibly heard the redhead say in the past (though maybe not). The blonde chuckled again. So, so ridiculous...

The soft laugh evolved into a full-fledged chortle, the blonde's shoulders bouncing slightly as she further evaluated her thoughts. I mean, how ridiculous is this? Her brain kicks her out of bed because she was nearly suffocating from stress about her lack of painting progress and she's worrying about this? She has a date? with Morgan tomorrow afternoon and she's worrying about 'my Xander?' "Unbelievable," the blonde said to herself quietly, her laughs winding down. Tara thought about yesterday, how she had accomplished far less than I should have, and decided right then and there that the contemplation, the near-obsessive pondering of Willow's romantic inclinations had to stop. At least for today. She was too tired, too busy, to let another day slip away as she anguished about her attraction to Willow, and Willow's maybe attraction to Xander. Today, the blonde evenly concluded, is a Willow's-love-life-free day. The girl nodded her head. Yup, just a relaxed, non-analyzing day... She sighed softly. Best of luck with that...

The blonde stretched slightly, and sighed, the expel of air her way of letting the mental heavy lifting go for the time being. She turned in her seat and looked to the window across the way. Water ran down the surface in streams, shiny light pushed into the big room by a wall of gray. She put her hands on the corner of the chair, and then rested her face on her wrists, allowing herself the pleasure of simply spacing out.

She had spent a long time staring out the window the previous night after she finished applying gesso to the last of her empty canvases. She just sat and watched the fat rain drop and the odd car drive by. The streetlights framing her hilly side street lit the stormy world in yellow; a faint, pervasive glow that illuminated the shimmering buildings' reflections in the rippling puddles on the asphalt, casting the night's objects in a strange sepia tone. It took a long time, many moments spent staring at nothing and everything before the color seeped into her pupils and became the lens through which she saw the next step. When she turned back into her studio, to investigate a floorboard creak--or perhaps it was the silence of the place as Willow slept above--her gaze met the waiting canvas and it was clear; clear as the gloomy, moody night outside was increasingly shrouded in famous fog, just exactly what the color for the next base layer of paint on the fire side of her 'Frost/Flame' painting had to be. This yellow, this subtle yellow would ground the blaze sitting atop it, making the subsequent layers, the oranges, reds, and so ons, pop and crackle like a splintered, lit, wood match.

When she had looked over the piece in the morning, she had been somewhat surprised by how the yellow looked upon re-examination. At first she thought it was how the paint had oxidized, how different it looked compared to her usual slow-drying oils, how odd it was to see paint in a more advanced, finished form just hours after its application, but upon closer inspection, she realized with some amazement and pride that it was just the color she created. A simple, elegant yellow pulled directly from a street lamp's reflection in a shallow pool of water. It was almost hypnotic; not bright enough to be brash, but not common enough to be characterless. It was soothing and stunning, a quiet counterpoint to the blue to its left, and yet a definite promise of a fierceness yet to be applied. While Tara knew the yellow would be almost totally obscured by the next few layers, she felt confident that it wouldn't be overshadowed. This color, born of some simple, somnolent moments spent zoning out, could hold its own. It was searing and serene simultaneously; it was first glimmer of the mesmerizing flicker of a flame.

Tara let her mind linger on the near-completed painting in her studio. As a whole, it looked wonderful, almost exactly as she had first envisioned it would at this stage when she heard the song lyrics a week before. 'Or else this heat might turn to frost...' One half was cracked blue ice, an effect that she had toyed with in early works, yet had finally realized here. It looked cold, looked as if it would bite the tender skin on her finger tips if she reached out and touched its fractured surface. The other half was fluid and fat, waves of as-yet undeveloped heat threatening to overtake the icy stiffness to its left. She had another few hours to wait before she could apply the next layer, a rich crimson, or brazen copper, that she'd float above the previous night's yellow.

Maybe a shimmery gold? Tara frowned slightly, and swiveled in her chair till she was once again facing her half-eaten parfait. She kept second guessing the next step, unsure what exactly the work needed to give the flame its heat, its spark, the fire that would warn those who looked at it not to touch for fear of getting burned. A touch of orange, or perhaps a daub of transparent red, the blonde thought as she mentally spun through her own internal color wheel. Just one, little, touch...

The artist searched briefly, then surrendered, realizing that if it hadn't come to her when she first thought about it, it wasn't going to come to her if she pushed now. I'll figure it out later, she thought drowsily, as she reached over and fingered through a pile of papers to her left. Confirming with a quick glance that she had signed them all, she turned back to her breakfast and picked up her spoon. She half-heartedly swirled the utensil in the yogurt, and stole a glance at the microwave clock across the kitchen. Willow should be up by now... Tara thought. She had thought she heard an alarm sound a few minutes back, but when no movement followed, the blonde surmised it was her mind playing tricks on her. Not that she was waiting for the redhead... only I very much am, Tara admitted. She was eager to see the girl, spend a few minutes talking with her before the day got really crazy and they splintered off into their own worlds.

The blonde had no reason to believe the redhead would wake before 9, other than it was close to her usual schedule, and she knew that Willow did intend to work a full day. And, she will definitely need coffee before she plops down in front of the computer, which means a sure trip to the kitchen. The blonde smiled at this bit of familiarity. Tara again looked to the stairs, thinking she heard a muffled beeping sound. It abruptly stopped, and again there was no movement. Maybe she's snoozing... the blonde thought, remembering that Buffy had told her Willow was the queen of snooze. "'Just ten more minutes' should have been her senior quote in the yearbook," the petite blonde had once related years earlier. Tara smiled slightly. Maybe she's having good dreams...

The blonde was roused from her thoughts by the phone ringing to her right. She put down the spoon and awkwardly reached over and picked up the receiver. "Hello?"

"You know what I've decided I don't like?" a voice on the other line asked rhetorically.

"Small dogs in bejeweled jean jackets?" Tara asked with a slight smile, recognizing the perky tone immediately.

"Time zones," Buffy answered decisively. "They just don't work for me. When Dawn waits until 9am this morning to tell me you called last night, I then have to wait three hours until 9am-ish to call you back, and that really doesn't work with my do-things-now type of schedule."

"I'm sorry," the blonde replied, an amused grin gracing her lips.

"Yeah," the petite blonde sighed dramatically, "well what are you going to do..."

"Petition Congress for a single time zone?"

"Eh, sounds like work," Buffy said with what Tara could only imagine was a shrug of her shoulders. "So what's up?"

"Up?" The blonde asked innocently as she nervously straightened in her seat, suddenly remembering why she had called Buffy the day before. Oh no...

"With... you..." Buffy carefully led. "I didn't wake you up did I--"

"N-No, no," Tara reassured, blinking herself a shade more awake. She felt surprisingly vulnerable all of the sudden, and far too fatigued to deal with a noon-day Buffy as she herself just struggled to form words into complete sentences. Especially if she's going to grill me about what Dawn said... "I-I've actually been up for a while..."

"Mice in the walls?"

"More like in my brain..." the blonde replied wearily, rubbing her forehead slightly. She had almost completely forgotten about calling Buffy last night, that she had come a Dawn-save away from spilling her biggest secret to her best friend. Of telling Buffy that she loved Willow. Didn't I just decide to have an angst-free day? Tara thought a little bewildered. I don't know if I can do this now...

"Ah, the big spinning, squeaky exercise wheel of stress," the petite blonde said, her perky voice rich in sympathy.

"I have like seven days until I have to turn four paintings over to Marissa," Tara said heavily, her mind spinning out scenarios of how this conversation might go. Did Dawn tell her about our talk?


"I have one, and it's not finished," the blonde answered, hoping beyond hope that Buffy was just calling to chit-chat. Does she know about Dawn's 'straight girl' crack?


"Yeah," Tara confirmed with a sigh. She looked down at her hands, and sucked up her courage. If she's going to ask, she's going to ask... the blonde reasoned. There was no stopping Buffy when she had a point to make. "So..." Tara cautiously led. "Dawn remembered to tell you I called...?"

"Barely," Buffy confirmed, her tone affectionately annoyed. "It came out in a burst, with some rambling and big, big eyes while we were brushing our teeth. You know, I love the kid, but it seems like this last year has turned the perky-crusader dial up to 11. That, and she seems oddly enraged with Brad Pitt."

"B-Brad Pitt..." Tara said, squirming slighty in her seat.

"Brad Pitt," the petite blonde confirmed.

"Oh," the blonde answered, unsure of what else to say. So did Dawn tell Buffy about Tara's 'partner' question or not? Did she mention 'the straight girl,' or what...? She suddenly felt like the main character in a video game she had played as a child. She had successfully jumped the Xander-Willow pit of quicksand earlier in the morning, only to now find herself dangling precariously from a swinging vine over the open, snapping jaws of a crocodile named Buffy.

"I'd go into it," the petite blonde said, bringing Tara back from her momentary lapse into Pitfall-land, "but honestly I don't understand it myself. Something about him not being a good partner, or whatever."

"Oh," the blonde repeated, a little more relieved by Buffy's seeming ignorance of Tara and Dawn's conversation. "Well that's... H-How are you?" Tara managed to ask after a brief blip of silence. Okay, that was close... the blonde thought, exhaling a shaky breath. Funny how that works--last night I felt like if I didn't talk to Buffy about things I would break into a billion pieces, but now...

"Everything's fine," Buffy answered breezily. "Or, at least, okay. I spent a small fortune on some new cream rinse yesterday, and it's neither creamy nor rinsey." Tara smiled, despite herself. Good ol' Buffy... "It's still cold as a sub-zero meatlocker, but at least I have my snuggly yet stylish jacket, and we're still getting along. Mostly."

"Well, mostly is better than never."

"We were going to do the whole, Freedom Trail thing today," Buffy continued, "but the snowflakes outside and my constant whining convinced Dawn that the aquarium would be a better option. I think she made the right choice. We're going to head over after her English class."

"Cool," Tara replied, a ping of guilt tugging at her heart as she listened to her old friend go on about her vacation, oblivious to how close the blonde had come the previous night to confiding in her. I am such a coward...

"So what have you been up to, besides not painting?"

"Just, trying to get inspired," Tara said, drawn back into the conversation. "We went shopping yester--"

"We?" Buffy asked, curiosity dripping off of the single syllable question.

"Oh," Tara thought, her tired mind just catching up with her mouth. Couldn't have just said, 'I?' "Me, and Willow..." the blonde clarified, strangely nervous about the mention.

"Grocery store?" the petite blonde asked.

"A-Anya's, actually," Tara corrected.

"You... took Willow... to Anya's?" Buffy asked, her voice coated with an unmistakable incredulousness. "Huh."

"Huh"? Tara thought, her brow crinkling. Maybe it was her imagination, but it seemed to the blonde that a certain amount of tension had seeped onto the line with that short, pensive 'huh.' "I needed paint, s-she wanted to get out of the house..." Tara elaborated, Buffy's last word reverberating in her mind. "Huh"?

"And how is Anya?" the petite blonde asked carefully.

"Fine," the blonde replied, as cheerfully and non-chalantly as she could. "Making money, hand over greedy fist. She's thinking about buying an antelope..."

"You mean an Impala?" Buffy asked, confused.

"I guess antelope are like impalas," Tara said with a sigh, still a touch exasperated with the store owner's insistence on buying an endangered animal. "They're both deer, or, goats..."

"And, silly me, I was thinking of a Chevrolet..." the petite blonde trailed off. "I'm sorry, I'm still a little stuck on Willow wanting to go to Anya's store," the girl admitted.

"Cabin f-fever," Tara answered, repeating what Willow told her the day before. "It's been raining almost non-stop this week... I think she wanted to just, get out of the house. It didn't really matter where we went."

"I guess..." Buffy replied, skeptically. "I just thought that after their run-in at your last party that Willow would have rather bathed in tadpoles than spend time with Anya."

"Well, W-Willow kept her distance," Tara answered with a slight head bob. More, Willow ran far, far away while Anya stalked her from across the room... "They didn't, really, talk, that much, or anything..."

"So nothing embarrassing happened?" Buffy asked. "At all?" When Tara didn't answer right away, the petite blonde prodded. "Come on, this is Anya, she must have said something, done somethi--"

"She dragged Willow into Good Vibrations w-when we were walking back to our car," Tara blurted, immediately reasoning that if she hadn't mentioned it, Buffy'd hear about it eventually from Willow and wonder why the blonde just didn't tell her on the phone. Right?

There was a loud guffaw on the other end of the line. "I knew it! Kicking and screaming no doubt."

"Not quite, b-but close," Tara admitted. It felt weird, wrong even, to be speaking about Willow like this. I should have kept my big mouth shut...

"I bet Will morphed into the dictionary definition of 'spaz;'" Buffy bubbled. "She's such a prude-you know I've been trying to get her to go there for two months with me; you should see the look on her face every time I suggest it... it's like I was asking her to lick the sidewalk."

"I don't think that makes her a prude..." Tara replied, her unease with the conversation topic intensifying.

"Oh please Tara," Buffy continued. "She's worse than you were."

"Thanks," the blonde said with a slight frown, remembering her own embarrassing experience at Good Vibrations years before.

"You know what I mean," the petite blonde chided.

"I do," Tara replied. "Hence the 'thanks'."

"Okay... you do know that I'm kidding, right?" Buffy asked, a little confused by the blonde's responses.

"Yes," the artist answered after a mini pause.

"Are you sure?" The petite blonde asked, skeptically. "Cause, you're kind of sounding all big with the doubt right now."

"No, I, I just," Tara paused, searching for words. "I, I'm, sort of, uncomfortable, t-talking about W-Willow like this."

"Since when?" Buffy asked.

"Since..." Since I almost admitted to you yesterday that I'm in love with her. "You just, you didn't s-see her face yesterday, that's all." Coward.

"Okay," Buffy allowed. After a long pause, she spoke. "I'm sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable; that was sort of Mean Girls of me to laugh at Anya humiliating Willow now that I think about it."

"It's okay."

"From now on, no more laughing at the misfortune of others," Buffy amended, "unless they really, really deserve it." Tara rolled her eyes and smiled softly. "Anya didn't by any chance step in a really deep puddle after dragging poor Will into the ooo-baby-ooo-baby shop, did she?"

"Um, no."


There was a loud buzz at the door, and Tara snapped her head up sharply to take in the shrill noise blaring from the intercom. "Buffy, hold on one minute, someone's at the door," She heard the petite blonde agree with a mumble, and she stood, placing the receiver to her chest as she crossed the room. When the blonde made her way over to the intercom she pressed the 'Talk' button. "Hello?" She pressed the 'Listen' button, and waited.

"Ms. Maclay? It's Joel Wertz from Ship/Art International; I have a delivery for you from the Cross Street Gallery, and a scheduled pick up and delivery to a Mr. Howry."

She again pressed the 'Talk' button. "Yes, please come up." She pressed the downstairs buzzer and opened the door to the apartment, before taking a couple of large steps back into the main room to make room for what she knew would be a large delivery. After a deep breath she brought the receiver to her lips. "Buffy?"

"Who's visiting before 9 in the morning?" the petite blonde asked, truly curious.

"It's actually a delivery and pick up, I have some paintings coming and going."

"Ah," Buffy said, familiar with the process from previous deliveries and pickups at their shared apartments.

"Buffy, I'm going to have to go," the blonde said, rubbing the back of her neck lightly.

"Tara," the petite blonde protested. The blonde turned to face the door as she heard the movers climbing the internal steps to her home.


"I haven't talked to you in the longest time and I feel, so, so out of the loop out here. I haven't talked to Willow since last Friday, Xander's all avoidy," Tara's brow quirked at that, and she looked up and waved the delivery men in. She mouthed 'sorry' to the man holding the clipboard; he smiled politely and mouthed back, 'no problem.' "Can't you just, keep talking while they do their delivery business?"

"No, I- One sec Buffy." Tara again put the receiver to her chest. "Hi," she said to the two men holding the large plywood crate. "You can just put it down over there." She pointed with her free hand to an open area between the dining area and the living room. She then turned and addressed a young man holding a clipboard. "The other painting is in my studio, I'll grab it in a minute, and the paper work is there on the counter." The clipboard man nodded, and moved over to collect the stack of paperwork. "Buffy," the blonde said, bringing the receiver back up to her face. "I really have to go--"

"Tomorrow; can we at least talk then?" The petite blonde asked. "I'm free around 6, so, 3 your time; can I call you then?"

"Sure," Tara initially agreed. Wait-- "Wait, no, I--"

Her words were interrupted by a massive thud, as the two men holding the crate misjudged their actions and dropped the freight about a foot to the hard wood floor. Tara winced at the loud noise, and reflectively looked upstairs.

"I'm sorry," the clipboard man said hastily, rushing back over to the crate and instructing the two to pick the crate up again so he could inspect the floor beneath.

"No, it's okay," Tara said stepping forward, reassuring the men. "I'm not worried about the floor, so much, I- I'm sure it's fine, it's just my roommate is still sleeping upstairs--"

"She's still sleeping?" Tara heard a muffled Buffy exclaim.

"Just, if you could please--"

"Be more careful," the man said with a nod, saying it half as a reassurance to Tara, and half as an instruction to his assistants that they would. The men holding the crate nodded contritely, and after resting the crate gently on the hardwood floor, began to unhook the various latches keeping the crate's facing on.


"3 o'clock tomorrow."

"I, I c-can't," Tara said, rubbing a free hand across her brow. Great, the big thud probably woke up Willow, the drop probably scratched the floor, Buffy won't get off the phone--

"Let me guess, plans with Willow," the petite blonde said, her voice flat.

That was weird... "Morgan," Tara corrected, her brow quirking at the tone of the petite blonde's voice.

"Morgan?" The petite blonde perked up. "You have a date?"

"No, it's, it's professional," Tara said, her attention torn between the stairs, the men working before her, and the never-ending conversation on the phone.

"Professional," Buffy repeated, doubtfully.

The blonde turned her full-attention back to the phone. "She wants me to look over her portfolio, help pick out some paintings for the L.A. show."

"Are you ever going to date this girl?"


"I'm just worried about you, Tare. You have this hottie after you and... you're shopping with Willow." Tara's brow crinkled. What does that mean? "Just, call me? Soon? I'm lonely."

"Lone- what about Dawn?"

"She doesn't count," Buffy said with a sigh only an older sister could make. "Nobody that mad at Brad Pitt truly counts, unless you're counting crazies or you're Jennifer Aniston."

"Okay, I'll call, soon," the blonde said, eager to get off the phone at the mention of the 'partnered' actor. "Now, go have fun at the aquarium."

"Oh yeah, jellyfish, here I come."

"Bye," Tara said with an amused shake of the head.

"Good luck with the painting," Buffy answered.

With a sigh and click, the blonde turned off the phone and dropped it to her side. "I'm sorry," she quickly said to the men in her great room.

"No problem," clipboard man replied. With a swift pull, the two handlers removed the front panel of the crate, and revealed 'Fillmore.' Tara smiled softly. She hadn't realized until that moment just how happy she was to see one of her favorite paintings, how much she missed it on a day-to-day basis. Her attention was quickly pulled back to the man carrying the clipboard. "Hi, I'm Joel, we spoke on the phone?" He reached forward and offered his hand.

"Hi," she replied, taking the man's hand and shaking it. I must look like death right now... "Thank you for agreeing to squeeze in my delivery."

"No problem, Miss Maclay," he said, genially.

"Please, call me Tara."

"Alright, Tara," Joel said affably. "Where would you like this one?"

"Here's fine," Tara said quickly, turning back to the two men holding the now-free 'Fillmore' upright. "If you could just lean it against the table there, I can get it later."

"Are you sure?" Joel replied. "We do specialize in installation--"

"It's okay," the blonde said with a warm half smile. "It's an easy one." She lightly patted her hip to quick start her brain, and then pointed at Joel. "If you hold on one minute I'll go get the other painting from my studio."

"Sure thing," the man said, tapping the clipboard slightly.

Tara smiled again, and quickly turned, depositing the phone on the kitchen counter before she exited the great room, and rushed down the hallway to her studio. She entered the room and darted to the wall featuring the windows. A large earth-tone abstract sat framed and ready to go near the far corner. She picked the abstract up gently, and started for the main room, stopping only when she heard a flurry of activity upstairs. Well, I guess she's awake now... the girl thought, as she briskly exited the studio. I hope the thud didn't wake her up on a day when she was hoping to sleep in...

Tara smiled wildly as the two men near the crate came forward and expertly took the painting from her. They quickly turned and began to secure the work; she turned her attention to Joel as the front face panel was moved to the crate and the men began busily buckling it into place. "Um, M-Mr. Howry will need help with the installation," she said. "He's a bit prickly though, so please don't take it personally if he asks you try a couple of different places."

"No problem," Joel said with a chuckle. "We deal with 'prickly' all of the time. Now," he moved to her side. "If you could just sign here," he said, pointing to a line on the first piece of paper attached to the clipboard. Tara took the clipboard and quickly signed. "And here," he said, flipping the page and pointing to another empty line; Tara signed quickly. He ripped off a carbon copy and handed it to her. "This is your receipt for the delivery," he said, before ripping off another carbon copy. "And this is your receipt for the pick up."

"Thank you," Tara said, folding the papers and placing them on the table near her.

"And, this is for you," the man said, freeing an envelope from his clipboard and handing it to the clearly surprised artist.

"Oh," Tara said, slightly confused as she looked at the cream colored envelope with her name handwritten on it. She flipped it over to see the gallery's logo embossed on the back.

"Is there anything else we can do for you today, Ms.- Tara?" Joel asked, helpfully.

"No, I think that's it," she said, looking up from the envelope with a half smile. "I'll call Felix about scheduling the pick-ups for next week."

"Sounds good," Joel said with the nod of a head. Tara reached into her pocket and produced an envelope of her own, which she handed to Joel. He smiled politely upon receiving the tip, then nodded to the two men; they gently picked up the crate, and exited the apartment. Tara closed the door behind the three men and sighed. Well that was chaotic, she thought, noticing with some confusion the lack of sound coming from upstairs. She was awake, right? The blonde frowned slightly, unsure if the noise from before was just her tired imagination or a waking Willow, then moved back to her seat at the counter.

Once seated, she quickly opened the envelope, unsure about what the contents would be. 'Please come celebrate the artists who made Cross Street Gallery's biggest show their biggest success, next Friday at 8 p.m.' The blonde read over the fine script, finding her name prominently featured, and noticed with some gratitude the quick 'plus three,' written along the bottom in Lucy's recognizable hand. Plus three, she thought with a slight grin. Definitely moving up in the world...

Tara actually wasn't surprised that Marissa was having a party to close the series; it was a great way to get a large number of buyers together in the same room, and could help expose artists to a different clientele than they were used to seeing at their own openings. She flipped the card over, expecting to see a blank space, only to find a handwritten note, reading: 'Bring Willow!' Tara's brow furrowed. It seemed an odd thing for Marissa to write, given her earlier, 'pining for a straight girl' comment, and the way the frizzy haired woman had looked at Tara when she saw Willow by her side at Morgan's party. Which is why, the blonde thought, the proverbial light bulb flickering on above her brain, Michelle probably wrote it. The blonde let that sink in, and blushed. What does she know...?

Tara sighed, and tucked the invitation into her pant's pocket. She'd worry about who she'd bring, and whether Michelle was on to her, another day; now, now was work time. She quickly cleaned and dried the parfait dish, before moving to the great room and gently hoisting 'Fillmore' onto her hip. She stole one last look at the stairs, and with a deep sigh, shuffled off to her studio for what she hoped would be a productive rest of the day spent within its four walls.

Continue to Neverland Chapter Forty-Five

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