A phone call brightened Willow's Thursday morning.
She had been standing outside Tara's door- who, on Willow's orders, had been given as many days as she needed off- for a solid hour, arguing with herself whether or not she risk inviting Tara, who had been in her room for five hours, down for some lunch, when the piercing chorus of Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows made her jump. Pulling out her cell quickly, she glanced quickly at the number, and grinned when she recognized it. Turning reluctantly from Tara's door, she paced a short distance down the hall, and flipped open her phone.
"Well, look at that! Do I have the right number? Because if I remember correctly, this is 'cutting unacceptably into your five-hour writing time'."
Willow grinned again. "Hey, Buffy."
"How's my favourite writer? How's the place? Settled in alright?" Willow could hear Buffy's grin, which only lightened her mood.
"I'm fine, Buff; everything's fine. Well..." Willow hesitated, glanced at Tara's door, and took a few more steps down the hall until she could slip into her bedroom. "I'm a little sad. One of my horses died yesterday; it really upset one of my ranch hands..."
Right away, Willow sensed the change of enthusiasm. "How many of them? Are there any cute guys-er...girls?"
Willow smiled gently "There's three. There's Riley, who I'm sure you'd love-tall, handsome, a real gentleman. Faith's a little...interesting, but she has a good heart. And then there's Tara." Willow couldn't help the way she wrapped her voice around the name like a caress.
Buffy's excitement was tangible. "Willow, spill! Is she pretty? Is she nice? Does she like you?" There was a pause, and then Buffy asked, half-teasingly: "Are you guys being safe?"
"Buffy!" Willow gasped, and then she burst into a fit of laughter. When the best friends finally quieted, Willow smiled wistfully, and finally let herself talk.
"Pretty doesn't even cover it; she's the most gorgeous woman I've ever met. Nice? Try the most beautiful, gentlest heart of gold you could ever find. And does she like me?" Willow stopped, and bit her lip. "I don't know. I don't think so; I'm sure she's straight. But, sometimes...sometimes...I look at her, and see her looking at me, and she has this look in her eyes, that I think maybe, just maybe, there might be a chance, and she actually-Tara!"
Willow jumped, mortified, when she saw that the person she had just been discussing happened to be standing in her doorway, in easy earshot of every word Willow had just spoken.
Buffy giggled. "Dang, Wil, you got it bad! Why don't you just ask her out?"
Tara's red-rimmed eyes were unreadable as she studied Willow in silence. "I-I'm sorry. I'll j-just come b-back later."
"Tara, wait! Don't go, okay? Hold on one second!" Willow cried, loud enough that she heard Buffy's accompanying exclamation of surprise.
"Ouch, Willow! What's up with you today?! She's driving you crazy!"
But Willow wasn't listening, too busy staring, horrified, when she saw a lonely tear begin to slide down Tara's cheek. "Buffy, I have to go," She mumbled tonelessly into the phone, cutting Buffy off mid-sentence.
"Wait, Willow! We still have to talk about Tara! Well, at least, could you ask Riley o-!"
Willow ended the call, and dropped her cell to the bed, up on her feet, and heading straight for Tara before it even hit the sheets.
"Tara, are you okay?"
Tara had her arms wrapped protectively around her abdomen, as if she were convinced she had to protect herself, a gesture Willow found both endearing and painful. She didn't answer.
Willow scoffed at herself, and shook her head. "Right, yeah, sorry, that was a stupid question. What I meant was: how are you doing?"
Tara looked her in the eye briefly, and then quickly averted her eyes. "I-I'm okay...b-better..."
"Good," Willow said softly. Hesitantly, she laid one hand on Tara's arm, and was elated to find she didn't pull away. It was probably her imagination, but she was sure she felt Tara lean into the touch. "I-I...I was really worried about you."
"I-I'm s-s-s-sorry to have put y-you through s-so much trouble." Tara wouldn't look at her, and Willow flushed, coming only to the conclusion that Tara had heard every word she had just said. "U-um, look, Tara..."
"I'm hungry." Tara pulled her arm away abruptly, cutting Willow off. "P-please excuse me."
"Of course." Willow's face fell, but then she looked up hopefully. "Do you want me to cook something for you?"
"I-I'm fine, t-t-thank-you," Tara murmured. She gave Willow an almost wry half-smile, and then disappeared down the hallway, too quickly for Willow to protest.
Goddess, how does she move so quickly and gracefully? Willow slumped against the doorframe, her knees suddenly, and unexplainably weak.
God help me, Tara Maclay, I'm so much in love with you, it should be illegal.
A half an hour later, when Willow's knees had finally strengthened, and she could walk properly, she sat on her bed, and studied her room in silence. It was mostly unpacked, except for her desk. As Willow stared at it, she realized how lonely, and undecorated it looked. How...unlike herself to not have completely decorated it. All she had done was unpack her laptop, and leave it on her desk.
Willow got to her feet, and glanced over at her closet, where a stack of boxes awaited for her diligent hands to unpack them. Before, the idea had been repulsive, but, now, her resolve was strengthened, and she headed towards them.
It took her seven minutes to haul the eight boxes over to her desk and bookshelf, both which had graciously been provided by Riley, Faith, and Tara. Both were a bit old, with gorgeous chestnut-coloured wood that shone softly in the life. Both were empty, and Willow decided it was time they were given the special Willow-touch.
She used her new key- courtesy of Faith, decorated in horses; go figure- to slice through the thick wad of tape on the first box, and then pried open the flaps.
Huh. Well, she'd met her first challenge already. In the box, wrapped carefully, but clumsily in newspaper, was her various pictures. She pulled them out, one by one, and arranged them on her bed so she could sit in the middle, and unwrap them without having to stretch too far. She scrunched up the discarded newspaper, and stuffed it all into a plastic bag she had happened to have in her closet; she was fairly certain she had seen Tara recycling pop cans before, so newspaper would be recycled, too.
Then the challenge was to find a place for everything. Willow was an avid photographer, but she couldn't be bothered to put them all in a photo album, so most of the pictures were either framed, or just hung on the wall with a glob of sticky tack. She didn't rush, just took a moment to examine each picture in turn before she carefully balanced them on the back shelf of her desk.
There was one of Dawn and Buffy, seated on the front steps of their home, back in Sunnydale-or, as Anya affectionately referred to it, Sunnyhell. Buffy had both arms around her sister, and they were both grinning so wide Willow was sure it had hurt their cheeks. And then there was another one of Buffy and Dawn, this time with Joyce behind them, her arms around both. Willow felt a little pain every time she looked at the picture, thinking of how Joyce had died...
Willow gave herself a little shake, and moved onto the picture. There was one of Xander and Anya, Xander standing behind Anya with his arms around her waist, and several of Buffy, her, and Xander. There was four of just Willow and Xander, two of just Buffy and Xander, and three of just Buffy and Willow. There was a couple of her and Dawn, and one or two of her and Anya.
By the end of it, Willow's desk was getting a bit crowded, but she didn't mind too much. After all of her pictures were unpacked and in position, she opened the drawer of her nightstand, and pulled out a couple of pictures. There was one of her and Faith- both of them had an arm around the other's shoulders, and Faith was, of course, giving her bunny ears- one of Faith and Riley, one of Willow and Riley, one of Riley, Tara, and Faith all together, two of her and Tara together, one of Faith alone- tongue out, glaring at Willow, of course- and two of just Tara.
The first one was her favourite. Tara had been going through an order form for three new horses when Willow had snuck up behind her with her camera. Willow had taken the picture at just the right time, capturing Tara just turning towards her, laughing, blue eyes sparkling, strands of blonde hair-escapees from her bun- falling in front of her eyes. The second was one Willow had taken without Tara knowing. Willow had been taking a walk, amiably taking pictures of the farm, when she heard the sound of horse hooves. She had looked up, to see Tara riding Heaven's Glory at a gallop, rising and falling gracefully with the gait. Willow had taken a picture just as Tara had turned towards her, then ducked behind the barn, and secretly video-taped her until she loped out of sight. It warmed Willow's heart just to look at them both.
She taped them up with the rest, the two of Tara in clear view.
The second box consisted of textbooks, writing guides, and other research-ey goodies. She put them on the bottom shelf. The third box- full of old, pen-ravaged manuscripts- was unpacked, and added to the bottom shelf. The fourth held her personal reading collection, which she stacked on the top shelf.
The fifth box, she almost shoved under her bed to hide it forever. It held all of her published works, and it was somehow embarrassing for her to see them there, covers shining, her name printed in visible silver letters. She was just taking the first out of the box, still staring at it, when someone knocked on the door.
"Come in!" Willow called absently, eyes still on her book.
The door creaked open, and Willow finally glanced up, her face breaking into a smile when she saw who it was. "Tara! Hey! Come on in!"
Tara edged in, and smiled hesitantly. "I b-brought you some hot chocolate. D-do you w-w-want it?"
"Do I?" Willow grinned, and nodded in the direction of her desk. "You can put it there. Stay for a bit?"
"O-of course." Tara carefully set the mug of hot chocolate down, keeping her own, and her eyes flickered across the desk. "I s-see you've been d-decorating."
"Uh-huh." Willow's attention, which had been riveted on her book seconds before, was drawn to the blonde, even when she turned away, and quickly began to slide her books onto the second shelf. She was still hyperaware of where Tara stood.
Tara took a moment to glance over the pictures. "U-um...why is this one h-holding a bunny, and the other c-c-cowering?"
Willow looked up. Tara was pointing with one finger to the picture of Buffy and Anya. Buffy was holding a stuffed pink bunny, offering it to Anya. Anya, of course, had shrieked, and made a run for it.
Willow chuckled softly. "Oh. Buffy, the one holding the bunny, was making fun of Anya- she's scared of bunnies."
"I s-see." Tara's brow furrowed slightly when she saw a picture of Oz and Willow. "Y-your boyfriend?"
Willow put down the book she had been holding, and got to her feet to stand beside Tara. "Ex. That's Oz. We dated in high school, but broke up after awhile."
"Ah." Did Tara looked slightly relieved? "I-I'm sorry to h-hear that."
"Eh. We're still friends."
Tara nodded politely, and her eyes shifted to the next picture- the one of her on Heaven's Glory. "H-hey! W-when did you take t-this?"
Willow ducked her head guiltily. "You looked so good, up there on the horse. Had to take a picture of it so I could remember, even when I'm one hundred and two."
Tara flushed, but, instead of being angry, she was amused. "Y-you plan on living t-that long?"
"Of course." Willow was indignant. "I'll invent some life-extending potion by then, of course."
Tara laughed softly. "I see. And w-w-who's this?"
"Dawn? Buffy's sister. Sweet kid, a little angsty. Typical teenager."
Tara smiled to herself. "S-she takes after her sister. I-in looks."
"Yeah, she does." Willow smiled fondly to herself, and then started when she realized she was so close to Tara their arms brushed constantly. Unsettled, she shifted back to the bookshelf to finish putting her books on the shelf. "I'm sorry; I must be boring you."
"N-not at all. You m-miss them a lot?"
"Yeah." Willow opened the front cover of the book she was holding, and stared sadly at the dedication. To Buffy. To Xander, to Anya, to Dawn, and to Joyce for being so supportive of me. "But I like it here."
"I'm glad you're here."
When Willow glanced over at her curiously, Tara didn't avert her eyes, like she normally would. They stared at each other for a long time, heat coursing through both, until Tara blinked, and looked away, blushing.
"U-Um...is that one of your b-b-books?"
Still dazed, Willow just nodded.
"M-may I s-s-see?"
Willow handed it over without thinking, and then her mind caught up with her, and she cursed herself for it.
Tara accepted the book, holding it carefully, as if it were something precious. She opened to the first page, paused to read the dedication, and then flipped the book to read the blurb on the back. Willow squeezed her eyes shut, and her clammy hands curled into fists.
How was she going to tell Tara it was a lesbian romance thriller?
Tara bit her lip as she read, brow furrowed in concentration. She seemed so into the book, was concentrating so hard...
It made Willow love her even more.
Tara finally looked up, and Willow averted her eyes, embarrassed to be caught in openly staring. Tara's eyes dropped back to the book, and then up to Willow again.
"D-do you mind if I b-b-borrow this?"
What was Willow supposed to say? She couldn't deny her. Better she find out her new employer was gay by reading her book than Willow telling her outright. "U-umm... of course. But, you'll need this one"-She paused, and scanned the shelf, snagging one of the books off it, and offering it to Tara- "instead. That's the third one."
Tara smiled Willow's favourite crooked smile, and took the book Willow offered, trading it for the one she held. "T-thanks. I'll l-let you know w-w-what I think."
If you want to ever speak to me again. "Sure. Enjoy."
"I w-will." Tara, hot chocolate mug in one hand, book clutched in the other, turned for the door. Just as she was about to leave, she looked over her shoulder. "O-oh, and W-Willow?"
"Yeah-huh?" Willow looked up from the book she was returning to the shelf.
Tara half-smiled. "Call B-Buffy, Xander, Dawn, A-Anya, and" -She grudgingly tacked on the last name- "O-O-Oz. Invite them here for C-Christmas. I-if you w-would like that."
Willow smiled softly. "I'd like that. But are you sure? It'll get a little crazy; do we have the room?"
"W-we'll squeeze e-everyone in." And it gives me an excuse to invite you to bunk with me.
"Okay." Willow smiled again. "Thank-you, Tara; this is really great of you. But maybe you should ask Riley and Faith first?"
"T-two beautiful, available y-young w-w-women? Riley'll g-go nuts. And F-Faith? She likes the c-chaos."
Willow laughed quietly. "Okay. I'll ask them."
Tara nodded, hugged Willow's book to her chest, and turned for the door once more. "L-let me know. Goodnight, W-Willow."
"'Night. And Tara?"
"Y-yeah?" Tara turned back once more."
Willow's smile was gentle. "You can call me Wil."
Tara's answering smile was dazzling. "Okay, W-Wil."
Both women smiled at each other for a moment, and then Tara dipped her head, and made a hasty escape before her knees gave out, weakened by Willow's smile. Willow took a moment to catch her breath, and then turned her attention to the hot chocolate Tara had brought up.
Tara had been considerate, and the hot chocolate had been just the right temperature- not too hot, not too cold. During their talk, it had cooled to the point that it was almost cold.
But that was okay. Willow was already warm.