Tara sat on the patchy green couch, legs curled comfortably beneath her, watching the seconds tick by on the student lounge’s clock. The last echo of the last bell still hung faintly in the air. It wouldn’t be long now. With a slow crescendo of chatter, students began pouring out of the classrooms, some wearing shell-shocked expressions, others relieved. Tara just waited. Sure enough, it was only a minute and a half before a familiar shade of red appeared in the crowd, weaving and bobbing forward until a beaming face appeared before her.
“Tara!” The blonde felt her lips curl automatically into a responding smile as Willow bounded towards her. “That’s it! I’m done! My first semester of college is officially over!”
“Congrats.” Tara patted the seat next to her, and Willow flopped down with a contented sigh. The blonde reached down, fishing around the legs of the couch for a moment, and emerged with a styrofoam cup. “Here.” She held it out. Willow took it, sniffing curiously at the lid.
“For me?” Tara nodded. Willow took a quick sip and immediately closed her eyes, making a happy noise. “Mmm. Thank you.”
“I thought you could use something sweet after your test.”
“Besides you?” she teased. Tara flushed pink and ducked her head a little so that a curtain of long blonde hair partially hid her face. Her companion immediately reached out and smoothed it back, tucking it behind her ear and tapping lightly under her chin. Don’t hide.
Properly rebuked, Tara raised her head and offered an embarrassed smile. I’ll try.
Willow gave a satisfied nod and continued. “Well, you weren’t wrong. Mochas are always appreciated. Is this a Christma-hanu-solstice present?” Their collective hodgepodge of religious backgrounds made for a somewhat long and confusing holiday season, but it was one that was strictly observed. Tara allowed herself to relax at the lighthearted comment and finally met Willow’s smiling green eyes.
“I was thinking of it as more of a Happy-End-of-Finals present,” she admitted with an uncertain shrug. Willow grinned indulgently at her for a moment, but the grin dropped abruptly into a pout, as though something troubling had crossed her mind.
“I didn’t get you anything for your last final,” she pointed out, frowning accusingly into her coffee cup. Tara had turned in her last final, a lengthy essay, the day before, to little fanfare other than a huge sigh of relief and a long, much-needed nap.
“You didn’t have to,” the older girl rushed to assure her. She didn’t need a present from Willow. It was nice just having her nearby. “Besides, you were still busy studying.”
Willow stubbornly waved off her assurance.
“Don’t worry. I’ll think of something,” she promised. The blonde shook her head quickly, starting to get amused by Willow’s persistence.
“Willow, you don’t need to. Honest. I’m just glad I don’t have to write another paper until next semester.”
“I said, I’ll think of something,” Willow insisted, punctuating it with a mock-glare and a wagging finger. Tara wanted to continue arguing, but knew it would be futile. Willow had her ‘resolve face’ on. The discussion was over. She struggled to stifle her smile, which was officially approaching ‘goofy’ levels of magnitude.
“Alright. I give. I’ll never doubt you again. I promise.” She held her hands up in defeat. Willow nodded, satisfied.
“You’d better not.” She shifted a little closer and lifted her legs onto the couch, stretching them over Tara’s lap. Tara masked her surprise enough to cautiously rest her hands on the redhead’s knees. “It’ll be cool, having all this free time finally. We can hang out all day. And stay up late. We might ever get to see Xander again.”
“He’s been pretty busy with work and stuff,” Tara hedged, watching her hands fidget on Willow’s legs.
“And we’ve been pretty busy with college and stuff.” Willow nodded in agreement and flopped back theatrically, reclining on the armrest and settling her legs more comfortably on top of Tara’s. Tara’s breath caught at the increased contact. “Speaking of college and stuff… what did you have planned for today? Besides coffee and waiting up for me?”
Tara shrugged slightly. She hadn’t wanted to make further plans in case Willow was too tired to do anything, or in case she wanted to hang out with Buffy or Xander instead. She knew that Willow had been busy the past week. She had made a little time for Tara, but probably missed her other friends.
“That was pretty much the whole plan,” she confessed.
“Well, we could hang out some more. Rent some movies, order a pizza, stay in. I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.” Willow apparently disagreed with Tara's view of the situation. The blonde raised her eyebrow at the strange comment.
“Ages? We’ve seen each other every day.”
Willow shrugged. A pink tint to her ears suggested she was a little embarrassed.
“Yeah… but we were studying and stuff. It doesn’t count. We need to catch up.”
Tara shot her a curious look. She was avoiding her eyes, which was unusual. Bemused, Tara just squeezed her knee reassuringly.
“Alright. I’m game.” She was always game to hang out with Willow. Always. The redhead smiled, relieved, and downed another mouthful of her mocha.
“Cool. Then I’ll pick up the movies and snacks, and you can order the pizza and we can meet back in your room,” she continued to plan. It was the the last word that caught Tara’s attention.
“My room?” she asked faintly. She had a single room. If they were going to have a movie night in her room, it would be a private affair. “Are we inviting Buffy? Or Xander?”
“I thought it would just be us. I’ve missed being alone with you.” Willow sounded oddly abashed, as though Tara had chastised her. The blonde barely noticed, still mulling over the implications of being alone together in her room after dark.
“Did you… did you want to stay over?” It wouldn’t be the first time, but it was usually something Tara had more time to mentally prepare for. A surprise sleepover was a different story entirely.
“Maybe. If it gets late. Is that okay?” Willow stared at her coffee cup, rolling it between her palms.
“Always.” The word fell from Tara’s lips before she could consider its implications. Willow lifted her head at it and gave another warm smile that made Tara’s heart stutter in her chest. One of the small hands released its death grip on the styrofoam cup and covered Tara’s. Her breath caught in her throat. The emerald green eyes, now a shade darker than usual, held her hostage, and the warm pressure of the hand over hers set her mind spinning. The air between them grew charged with electricity, and Tara felt her head inching forward, hazily intending to press their lips together and complete the circuit.
The shriek of the bell exploded through the student lounge, startling Tara back to her senses. Nerves ablaze, she stood abruptly, stumbling to unfold her numb legs. Her action upset Willow’s legs and seemed to thoroughly confuse the redhead. She hastily tripped over a weak excuse.
“Um… Actually, I forgot, I, um, have to go do something this afternoon. Pretty much now, actually.” She needed to flee before she did something she might regret later. Her heart felt like it was ricocheting around in her ribcage, and she knew her knees were shaking. Willow frowned.
“Oh. Okay. Will it take a long time? I could come with,” she offered, already making to stand. Tara shook her head quickly, holding her hand out as if doing so would keep her at bay.
“No, that’s– I-it shouldn’t take all day.” She almost winced as the stutter passed her lips. She never stuttered with Willow.
“Okay.” From her tone, Tara could tell that Willow was skeptical of her sudden, stuttering, excuse-ridden flight. Fortunately, she chose not to call her out on it. “We can still hang out later, right?”
“Right.” Tara nodded quickly, already inching backwards. “I just… need to go. Now.”
“Okay. Call me when you get back.” Willow’s brow was furrowed with concern.
“I will,” Tara promised.
“Bye.” Willow gave a final, half-hearted wave as Tara turned and fled.
“She’s trying to kill me, Xan. She knows. She has to. And she’s trying to kill me. By smiling at me like that.”
“What time is it?”
“I can’t keep doing this. I-It’s crazy. She’s driving me crazy.”
“You do realize I work nights, don’t you?”
“I have to do something. I can’t just keep going on like this. I have to do something. I have to tell her.”
Xander sighed and scrubbed his face to wake himself up as Tara blustered past him and paced, agitated, in front of his couch, still mumbling to herself and wringing her hands. He rolled his eyes.
“Hi, Tara. Yes, it’s nice to see you, too. Do come in and sit down. Make yourself at home. Who, me? Why, I’m just fine. I’m just recovering from a long night of bartending instead of sleeping. Say, do you have a minute? Why don’t we talk?”
His well-meaning sarcasm managed to penetrate her haze of panic. Chagrined, she halted her frantic pacing and slumped, exhausted, onto his ragged brown couch, dropping her head into her hands.
“Sorry, Xan. I just…” She shook her head hopelessly. He staggered back to the couch, steering around piles of dirty clothes and empty takeout boxes, and collapsed beside her, ruffling her hair in a brotherly manner.
“Willow, I’m guessing?”
Tara nodded miserably. This wasn’t the first time she had come running to him after a close encounter with Willow.
“She practically sat in my lap. And she stroked my hair. And she touched my hand. And she kept looking at me like… you know what.” She buried her face in her knees as even the memory of the intense gaze set her heart racing. Xander settled back into the cushions, propping his bare feet up on the coffee table.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve only been awake for forty-five seconds, but I’m confused. Isn’t that good news?” He scratched absently at the stubble on his chin. Tara lifted her head, her face marked with betrayal.
“Good? No. Not good. Not at all good.” She groaned and crumpled back against the couch cushions. “I’ve given up on… on talking my heart out of this mess, but my brain is supposed to know better. It’s supposed to remember that we’re not actually dating. But then she looks at me like that and everything goes fuzzy and I start to forget and then I almost kiss her and then I have to come here.” She felt the beginnings of a headache forming behind her eyes, sympathetically echoing the faint ache in her chest.
“Why do you have to come here?” Xander asked.
“Because you’re the only one who can talk some sense into me. Tell me to stop.” She couldn’t kiss Willow. She couldn’t. It would irrevocably violate their friendship, and no matter how much she wanted more with Willow, she knew she wouldn’t survive without at least that much.
“So I’m like… your sponsor? Your Willow sponsor?” Xander cocked his head like a puppy hearing a strange sound for the first time.
“I guess.” Tara shrugged at the observation. Willow was her addiction? Close enough. “Is that okay?”
“Sure. Yeah. It’s good. I like being Helpful Guy. Really I do. I just don’t know that I’m qualified to give relationship advice. Especially in this…” He waved his hands in a vague, confused motion. “Situation.”
“Well, for one, Anya. And all that she entails.” He smiled at the thought of their unorthodox relationship. It was the most successful one he had ever had, and he was grateful for Anya’s sometimes-too-blunt forwardness. Still, it was on a different plane of existence from what Tara was looking for in Willow. “But more importantly, you’re both my friends. We’ve kind of been through a lot together. I don’t like getting caught in the middle of these things.”
“I know.” Tara tried to offer an apologetic half-smile, but she could barely muster the emotional strength. The day was already testing her fortitude, and it was nowhere near over. “Things were easier back in kindergarten, weren’t they?”
“They must have been,” Xander agreed, smirking. “Although I seem to remember you hating me back then.”
A breathy laugh escaped her before she could stop it. The old memories wrapped around her like a warm blanket.
“It wasn’t personal. I just thought Willow liked you more than me. I was jealous.” She hadn’t liked the thought of anyone stealing her best friend– her only friend– away from her. Not much had changed in that regard. The idea of Willow dating someone else still filled her with vivid, white-hot pain. However, she no longer considered Xander a threat to her relationship with Willow. Smiling, she nudged him playfully with her elbow. “I got over it eventually,” she reassured him. He grinned back, the corners of his eyes crinkling.
“Well, I’m glad.”
They sat in companionable silence for a moment, recalling their younger days. Willow, Tara, and Xander. Best friends forever. They spent most of their childhood running around Sunnydale together. They had all had reasons to not go home.
Xander was the first to break the silence.
“Do you think things would be different if you hadn’t moved? If you’d been able to stay here for high school?”
Blue eyes clouded over. She didn’t even need to really consider the question. It was something that had whispered at the back of her mind from the second she left, the fateful summer after junior high. The whispers had only grown stronger with her return, five months ago, to Sunnydale and to Willow.
“Lots of things would be different,” she said finally. Willow and Xander could have been her emotional rocks as her mother’s health deteriorated. She could have made more friends, like Buffy (or even Cordelia, if Willow’s stories were to be believed). She wouldn’t have felt so isolated and displaced. She and Willow might have gotten even closer…
“But you said she’s been touching you a lot since you got back, right?” Xander’s voice interrupted her spiral of self-pity. She gave a half-shrug.
“I guess.” That was an understatement, actually. Since Tara had returned to Sunnydale for college and they had been reunited, Willow had grown more and more physically affectionate with each passing week. It was driving Tara out of her skull. She craved every kind word and every touch, but each time, she had to forcibly remind herself that Willow didn’t love her like that, couldn’t love her like Tara loved her. “We’ve always been like that, though. Even when we were kids.” Their friendship had always had a powerful physical aspect. Words had a tendency to fail both of them, but touch had never let them down.
“Yeah, but having sleepovers means something different when you’re nineteen instead of nine,” Xander pointed out with suggestively raised eyebrows. Tara, face flushing, frowned down at her shoes and avoided his gaze.
“It’s not like she’s tried anything,” she mumbled. Despite Tara’s deepest hopes, Willow had shown no ulterior motives behind her cuddling. Xander rolled his eyes melodramatically.
“And obviously if she didn’t try anything, it means she has no feelings for you. After all, look at how proactive you are about your feelings.”
“It’s not like I’m hiding them very well.” Tara bristled momentarily, before giving up and huffing a sigh. “I wish she’d just guess.”
Xander nodded sympathetically, patting her on the shoulder.
“Yes, relationships would be much easier if both parties could just independently figure out that they liked each other and then immediately act on their feelings.”
“Says the guy dating Anya.”
“Ah, yes. My dear, subtle-as-a-sledgehammer sweetheart. Her approach does make things easier.” A fond smile touched his lips. “But do you really want Willow to traipse naked into your basement and demand sex from you?”
Tara almost swallowed her tongue as the image flickered behind her eyes.
“Maybe.” But the image was wrong. Willow would never be so blunt and unabashed. “No.” Willow was wonderfully, beautifully overwrought. A love confession from her would probably be awkward and frenetic, hastily babbled in a blind, mortified panic. A few words lost in a sea of frantic overclarifications. The barest smile touched her lips at the thought. “She wouldn’t be Willow if she did.”
Xander patted her on the shoulder again as she hung her head miserably.
“You’re just going to need to figure out something less… sledgehammery.”
“Like what?” She felt that gloominess like this should at least merit a rainy cloud sitting over her head.
“Talking like sane, stable adults?” the bartender suggested hopefully.
“Besides that.” Tara was good at some things, but talking wasn’t one of them, especially when she was nervous and the stakes were high. And no stakes were higher than her relationship with Willow. Xander sighed regretfully.
“How about taking advantage of the holiday situation?” he suggested, gesturing towards a wayward Santa hat that was perched haphazardly on top of his old television set.
“The holiday situation?” Tara echoed skeptically. He nodded, gathering enthusiasm for the idea.
“Yeah. It’s Christma-hanu-solstice, the most wonderful time of the year! The time of giving and loving and Snoopy and desperately avoiding your relatives.”
Tara didn’t follow his logic.
“There are lots of ways to tell her how you feel that you can explain away as holiday tradition.”
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Many of Xander’s suggestions ended up being either extremely impractical or incredibly lewd.
“Like what?” She already regretted asking.
“Well, there’s the holiday classic, mistletoe. You just need to corner her under it and demand that tradition be followed.”
Tara tried to imagine the scenario, but ended up shaking her head.
“I don’t know, Xan. That seems kinda… manipulative? And awkward.” She frowned, furrowing her brow. An idea crossed her mind, and she brightened abruptly. “Unless we both end up under it, and then you demand that we follow tradition.” She wouldn’t have to make the suggestion herself, so she wouldn’t be risking as much if it failed. Xander just raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, me demanding that my two best female friends make out would be much less awkward.”
Her hopeful expression faded at the reality of the situation, and she slumped again.
“Next idea, please.”
“If you wait a little longer, you have the other classic, the New Year’s kiss.”
“But that’s not until New Year’s,” she pointed out. He raised an eyebrow at her.
“It’s only like a week after Christmas.”
She shook her head stubbornly. Willow’s affections had only been growing with time, and she couldn’t afford to delay her confession. Who knew what levels of affection Willow would reach if she had one more week. And, more importantly, who knew what Tara would end up doing if her actions continued to escalate.
“I can’t wait. If she keeps acting like this, I’ll end up just pinning her against a wall or something.”
“Which would be awful. Clearly. Just the worst.” Xander’s traitorous face suggested he rather liked the idea. While Tara had to admit that the appeal wasn’t entirely lost on her, it just wasn’t how she wanted their relationship to start. Or end, as the case might well be.
“It would be in this situation.”
“At least it’d be clear.”
“Clear like a sledgehammer.” Clear like Anya. Tara shook her head again. “Next idea.”
Xander huffed and scratched his head, shrugging.
“Well, there’s the solstice, I guess. I don’t really understand how you celebrate solstice, but it seems like it should at least include some naked dancing in the woods.”
Tara suppressed a laugh and shot him an accusing look.
“You think all celebrations should include naked girls dancing in the woods,” she pointed out. He threw his hands up defensively.
“Are you of all people really going to argue with me about that? I thought we had an understanding.”
Tara gave in and laughed, but still had to shake her head.
“I only want to dance with one girl. And naked is optional at this point,” she corrected him, smiling shyly.
“Are you sure? Because there are plenty of nice, naked girl fish in the sea who are not your platonic best friend who is woefully clueless about your feelings towards her. And I’m sure those girl fish would jump at the opportunity to dance naked with you. And this entire conversation has gone to a very strange place and I think we should just stop it right now.”
“Please,” Tara agreed fervently. As the last plan fell through, though, she dropped her head to her knees and groaned hopelessly. “What am I gonna do, Xan?”
“Don't worry so much. We’ll figure something out. Or just you. Preferably just you. Leave me out of it, if possible.”
Tara was about to reassure him that she was trying to think of her own solution, but a traitorous thought suddenly undercut that promise. She lifted her head quickly and looked at him with renewed hope.
“What about Buffy?”
His dark eyebrows shot up and he stumbled through a hasty answer.
“Buffy? I, uh, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t quite play for your team. I mean, I guess you could always try. There was this weird thing she had with Faith, but I don’t know if that really counts as–"
Tara cut him off with a scolding glare.
“I meant, can you talk to Buffy for me? About Willow? They’re roommates. And girls. And best friends. Maybe she’s confiding in Buffy. Like I’ve been talking to you.”
Xander blushed, but quickly changed his face to the puppy dog eyes.
“So why don’t you talk to Buffy?” he appealed hopefully. Tara shook her head.
“I barely know her. You guys were all high school buddies. The Three Musketeers.”
“We prefer Scooby Gang,” he corrected randomly. Tara rolled her eyes behind her eyelids.
“Fine, then you guys were the Scooby Gang together. I’ve only known her a couple months.”
“Tara,” he whined, intensifying his pleading eyes. “Don’t put me in the middle here. Xander always gets caught in the middle. The middle is a bad place for Xander. Everyone gets mad at him there.”
“You really think you aren’t in the middle of this already?” she said, offering a skeptical look. He hung his head in defeat.
“Point taken. Alright. I’ll try to talk to Buffy. But I guarantee no results.” He wagged his finger at her, hoping to look menacing, but his wrinkled T-shirt and smiley-face boxer shorts somewhat undercut his authority. Tara’s face relaxed into a relieved smile, and she squeezed his arm in gratitude.
“Thanks, Xander. I owe you one.”
He shrugged off her thanks and gently shoved her shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m the best. Now you’d better get out of here. Big, important, best-guy-ever Xander needs his beauty sleep. And I’m sure you have all sorts of special, important college stuff you need to go do.”
Tara blushed and leaned her head forward.
“Actually, Willow wants us to hang out and catch up, so she’s called for a movie night,” she admitted guiltily. “And sleepover.”
Xander just shook his head hopelessly at her.
“You just can’t make this easy on yourself, can you?”
Tara bit her lip and shook her head.
“I can’t help it. She calls, I answer. Always.”
Knock Knock Knock. Click.
“Willow!” Tara’s face broke into a smile at the sight of her best friend at her door, arms laden with packaged treats.
“Tara!” Her voice was muffled by a bag of cookies in her teeth. Tara giggled and took it from her. Willow looked down at the overflowing pile of food in her arms. “I brought snacks.” She really was too cute for words.
“I can see that.” Tara stepped back, ushering her inside.
“I got a little carried away. And then I couldn’t fit any drinks. I figured we could get some from the machine downstairs.” The redhead readjusted her arms as a clot of candy bars threatened to overbalance and slide away. Tara caught a stray one as it fell. She smiled as she saw the wrapper. It was one of her favorites.
“Sounds like a plan,” she said, setting the cookies and the candy bar on her desk. “I, um, ordered the pizza. It should be on its way. Not that we’ll need it.” Her eyes focused on the mountain of snacks. Willow scoffed.
“Nonsense. Pizza is an essential part of movie nights. It would be blasphemy to go without,” she insisted. The pile shifted again and she pulled her burden higher, clamping it in place with her chin. Tara rolled her eyes.
“Put that stuff down before you drop it.” Still grinning, Willow skipped over to the bed and emptied her arms onto the quilt. It looked like she had bought out an entire row of vending machines, or maybe the better part of a convenience store. Tara shook her head indulgently. “Why didn’t you put it in your bag?”
“That’s where my laptop is. And the movies.” Willow patted the bag with her now-free hands, and for the first time Tara noted that it was stuffed to bursting. She raised her eyebrows at the enthusiastic redhead.
“How many did you get?” she asked. Willow grinned mischievously.
“A lot. I grabbed almost all of the holiday ones.” She opened the top of the bag and began pulling out the contents, tossing them onto the bed as well. Almost all of them bore cartoons, clay figures, or puppets on their covers.
“Not Charlie Brown, though, right?” Tara double-checked the collection. Willow shook her head quickly, scandalized.
“No, not without Xander. It wouldn’t be right without making him do the Snoopy dance.”
Tara matched her grin. Watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special at Xander’s house was their favorite holiday tradition. Willow grinned impishly.
Tara led the way, Willow quickly catching up and linking their arms. Together, they trekked down to the laundry room, where the building’s most generous vending machine was located.
“I’ve always liked this machine,” Willow stated, apropos of nothing. She patted it fondly. Tara quirked an eyebrow at her, continuing to feed nickels through the slot.
“I don’t know. I guess because when you first got back, we always did our laundry together down here.” She screwed up her face in a frown of deep thought. “Why did we stop doing that?”
Tara smiled, striking the button for root beer, Willow’s perennial favorite. She remembered the shared laundry days. They had been so loathe to spend time apart that even doing chores together seemed practical. She couldn’t quite remember why they had stopped either.
“I think we just got busy.” A stray memory provoked a laugh. “And we kept mixing up clothes.”
Willow’s expression cleared. The sound of her laughter was covered by the grinding sound of the soda machine, which promptly dropped three cans of root beer down the chute instead of one. That was why they always used this machine instead of the one in the lobby.
“That’s right. You stole all my socks.” Willow mock-glared at Tara as she fished the soda from the slot.
“I didn’t mean to! Besides, you ended up with about half of my shirts,” Tara accused playfully, handing Willow her bounty. She went back to feeding coins to the machine.
“Yeah. I might still have one or two. And I still have that red sweatshirt of yours.” The redhead balanced the little pyramid of soda cans in her hands. Tara shook her head at her.
“Keep it. I like it when you wear red.” While she knew it should logically clash with her hair, she actually loved the color on Willow. It suited her somehow. Bright, loud, and passionate. She also kind of liked the idea of Willow wearing something of hers around, like those girls from high school who wore their boyfriends’ letterman jackets. Tara worried momentarily that she had said too much, but Willow just beamed at her. Smothering her own dopey smile, she quickly retrieved the rest of their sodas and motioned that they should head back to her room. Willow trotted ahead, leaving Tara to follow her up the stairs. Tara would follow her anywhere.
As Tara closed the door behind them, Willow stashed the soda in the mini-fridge. That task completed, she pounced onto the bed to set up her computer for movie night. Tara had never seen a reason to bring a television into her room, so any movies had to be watched via Willow’s laptop. Tara chuckled at her antics and followed more slowly, climbing onto the bed and settling against the headboard as Willow slid one of the disks into a slot in her computer. It produced a whirring sound, and while it loaded, Willow settled next to Tara, scooting back against the headboard and leaning into her side. Tara obligingly wrapped an arm around her shoulders as she snuggled closer.
“Comfy enough?” Willow checked. Tara nodded, although she wasn’t sure ‘comfy’ was the right word for what she was. On one hand, the movie-time cuddling was warm and familiar. They always curled up together to watch movies. On the other hand, her brain still bowed to her heart’s insistence. The contact made her head feel lost in an electric cloud, and her whole body was tingling from Willow’s proximity. Her best friend was using her shoulder as a pillow, and Tara couldn’t stop herself from leaning her head into the soft red hair. It felt like heaven against her cheek, and the scent made her feel drugged. She closed her eyes and reveled in the sensation, the blissful torture.
The movie started, although Tara wasn’t paying enough attention to even recognize which one it was. She could feel Willow’s body relaxing into hers, and one of her hands had strayed to slowly comb through the scarlet locks. She knew Willow was a shameless glutton for having her hair stroked. True to form, Willow leaned into her hand, breathing a sigh of perfect contentment.
It was times like this that it was hardest for Tara to remember that they were just friends. It felt like so much more. Surely Willow could feel it, too. It was obvious. Friends didn’t act like this. If she walked in on Willow and Buffy in this position, her head would explode, and she would probably challenge Buffy to a duel for Willow’s honor. It would just be wrong.
It would be so easy to kiss her now. She could use the hand in Willow’s hair to tilt her head towards her. She would barely have to lean down. It would only take seconds, and she would never again have to lie awake at night wondering what her lips would feel like. Would it feel sharp and electric, like being struck by lightning? Hot and fluid, like being filled with molten lava? Bright and exhilarating, like seeing fireworks behind her eyelids? Soft and warm, like being wrapped up in a huge blanket? She had to know. And it would be so easy to find out. Just a few seconds and the tiniest bit of pressure on her fingertips. A slight tilt of the head and the press of her lips. It could be that easy. She could do it.
Again, she was saved by the bell– in this case, the phone ringing. It was probably the pizza delivery guy telling her to come downstairs. As the ringing helped cut through the haze in her mind, she carefully eased herself away from Willow and went to answer it. Her side turned cold. Her eyes burned. She had to be more careful.
When she returned from downstairs, pizza in hand, she made sure to settle into a less intimate position as they swiftly disposed of the food and finished watching the Grinch find his redemption. She couldn’t forget again. She had to be more careful. She had to keep her head. She couldn’t let the fog cloud her mind again.
But as the night progressed, each movie brought a new iteration of sweet, agonizing affection from her best friend. As Hermey and Rudolph began their adventure, Willow pulled the blankets up around them for warmth. As Frosty came to life from the magic hat, she decided that instead of sitting next to Tara, it would be more practical to sit in front of her and lean back against her. As the Miser brothers argued and sang, she turned her head sleepily into Tara’s chest and napped for several minutes. As Scrooge realized the err of his ways and raised Kermit the Frog’s salary, her constant yawning finally compelled her to admit her exhaustion and get up to change into pajamas. Tara retreated to the shower to gather herself and try to keep her head together, to fight the haze that clouded her mind whenever Willow touched her, to brace herself for what would undoubtably be a very, very long night. The sweetest, most wonderful, most agonizing torture in the world.
As she climbed into bed, Willow snuggled into her side, and she knew she was doomed. When she woke up, her limbs and hair tangled with Willow’s, she knew that whatever her plan was, it couldn’t happen fast enough.
“Hey, I talked to Buffy.”
“Already? What did she say?”
“I think we have a plan.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well… what is it?”
“I can’t explain now. It’s already in motion, though.”
“What do you mean, it’s already–“
“Don’t worry about it. It’s all taken care of.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ll know what to do when the time comes. Promise.”
“Just go with it.”
“Just go with what?”
“Whatever happens. It’ll make sense later.”
“You’re coming to Willow’s tomorrow, right?”
“For Charlie Brown?”
“But we always watch it at your house.”
“Yeah, but her parents are out of town. Mine aren’t. It’s just better for everyone if we’re there instead of here.”
“Okay, but I don’t understand–“
“Just keep an open mind.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Tara stood outside Willow’s door, holding her messenger bag with both hands to disguise their trembling. Xander’s car was in the driveway, so he was almost certainly inside already. Despite her best attempts, she hadn’t been able to guilt him into telling her the rest of the alleged plan he had. So here she was, standing at Willow’s door, with no idea of what was going to happen that evening.
It was only a minute before the door opened, revealing the object of her affections. Willow immediately pulled her into a hug. Tara released her grip on the bag and wrapped her best friend in her arms.
“Merry Christmas, Will,” she said, resting her head on her shoulder. Her skin tingled happily at each point of contact, and she found the sensation oddly comforting. It cut straight through her fear and stemmed the flood of adrenaline that was pumping through her veins.
“Merry Christmas, Tara.” Willow’s voice materialized near her ear. “Are you ready?” Tara stiffened instinctively. For one wild second, she wondered if Willow was in on The Plan. “For the movie?” Her heart resumed its beating.
“Oh. Yeah. Definitely.” After a final squeeze, she released Willow and pulled back sheepishly. “Are Xander and Buffy here already?”
“Yeah. They just got here. We were about to make popcorn.” Willow seemed to realize that she was still blocking the doorway and quickly stepped aside. “Come on in.”
Tara smiled and entered the familiar house. She had been there literally countless times, coming and going to visit Willow. They had been next door neighbors, and best friends almost since birth. She had been in Willow’s house almost as much as her own, right up through junior high school. Then she had moved, and everything had changed. But now she was back, and somehow the house still felt like home.
“Do you think it’ll be weird, not having it in Xander’s basement?” Willow asked, locking the door behind them and following Tara in.
“I don’t know. It might be nice, having enough chairs for everyone.” Tara wrinkled her nose. “Besides, the basement is basically his bedroom now. We’d probably spend the whole movie trying to avoid his dirty socks. Or his parents. He says they’ve been even more… ‘uncooperative’… lately.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Here, we have the whole house!” She gave a quick twirl, arms out, indicating the space around them. Tara smiled.
Together, they stepped into the kitchen, where Xander and Buffy were squabbling about how to make the popcorn. Tara was secretly relieved that Xander had shown up. On the walk over, she had briefly considered that his ‘plan’ might be sending her to Willow’s house alone and hoping the rest would just fall into place. He wasn’t really good at planning.
“Hi Xander. Buffy,” she greeted. Willow rolled her eyes and took charge of the kitchen, shooing the two of them away. Tara approached them and lowered her voice to a whisper. “So what’s the plan?”
Buffy just shook her head and held a finger to her lips, casting a glance towards Willow.
“Just wait for it,” Xander whispered back.
“Wait for what?” she hissed as he started moving away.
“Why don’t I go get the movie started,” he suggested loudly. Willow nodded, and he disappeared into the living room. Tara glared at his back.
“Tara,” Willow called from across the room. “You wanna come help?”
She nodded reluctantly and went to assist Willow with the popcorn.
Fifteen minutes later, they were ready to start the movie and Xander was clearly ignoring her attempts to question him. Willow trotted into the room to take her seat. Naturally, she settled down next to her best friend. Tara thought she seemed a little on edge, but it seemed to go away once she was snuggled into her side.
As the movie began, Tara closed her eyes and prayed to every god and goddess she could think of for the strength to get through the night.
As soon as the movie was over, Tara left her friends in the living room. The room was too claustrophobic. Instead, she stepped out into the chilly night, grateful for the brisk air that cut through her heated body, tempering her thoughts to a more manageable level. She was still waiting for some kind of signal from Xander, who had spent the entire night skillfully avoiding her. She still had no idea what ‘the plan’ even was, and her ephemeral bravery was flagging. Even if she figured out what she was supposed to do, she wasn’t sure she would be able go through with it.
She choked back a self-pitying sob, shaking off the heavy emotions. If she cried, Willow would know. Instantly. It was like a sixth sense of hers. In one glance, she could read Tara’s face like it were a topographic map of her emotional state. The blonde sucked in a deep breath of the cold air, letting it stabilize her. Her heart was still thundering in her chest, but at least her head was clearing. She looked over from where she stood in the Rosenberg’s backyard to the next house over, the place she had called home for the first fourteen years of her life. She missed it. She missed things being more simple, more effortless.
“Hey.” A quiet voice interrupted her dismal musings. She whipped around to find the source. Willow stood a few feet away. She carried a bright yellow candle decorated with suns, and a red jacket was draped over her arm. “It’s cold out here.” She held out the jacket as if it were a peace offering. Tara shyly took it and slipped her arms through the sleeves. The cold was bracing, but she knew it wouldn’t last. Once the chill really sank into her skin, she would be freezing.
“Thanks.” She watched the ground, embarrassed. She didn’t know what to tell Willow about why she had fled outside. To Willow’s credit, she didn’t ask. She just followed Tara’s previous line of sight.
“I’m glad no one else has moved in since you left,” she murmured, observing the dark, empty house. “I think it would be too weird.”
Tara nodded in tacit agreement, burying her hands in her pockets. Willow ducked her head a little. She was acting uncharacteristically shy.
“When you left, I thought I would go crazy,” the redhead admitted in a low voice. Tara smiled wryly.
“I think I did, a little.” The loneliness had almost killed her. Everything had been falling apart– her mom was dying, her family was tense, her friends were gone, and there was no sign that any of that would get better, at least not before it got worse. It was better now, though. Mostly. She shook her head to herself. “Everything’s so different now.”
“It is?” Willow asked curiously. Tara blinked. She hadn’t realized she had said the last part out loud.
“Isn’t it?” she hedged nervously, trying to decode Willow’s reaction. “It feels different. To me.”
Willow paused, shifting her eyes to the candle in her hands.
“Bad different? Or good different?” she asked after a few seconds.
“I guess I don’t know yet.”
At that, Willow just gave an absentminded nod and took a few steps away. She canted her head back to take in the night sky.
“Look at that.” Tara could hear the soft smile in her voice. “They’re all still there.”
Tara looked up and realized what she was referring to. The constellations. Their constellations. As a kid, Willow had once taken a keen interest in astronomy and memorized the proper names for them, but Tara had shunned the senseless forms. She couldn’t look at Cassiopeia and see a woman sitting on a chair. She couldn’t see a bear in the Big Dipper. So she had started coming up with her own. Willow had followed suit, quickly abandoning the classic constellations in favor of their more whimsical fabrications.
“They are,” Tara agreed, tracing them with her eyes. It was winter, so the Big Pineapple was in season, and it seemed to float directly above them. Willow didn’t move, just stayed there with her head tilted back and the candle warming her hands. Tara couldn’t think of anything more beautiful than the flickering candlelight lighting her face and rippling through her hair. She was glowing.
“I looked at them more, after you left. It made me feel like I was closer to you. I mean, they’re so far away. Lightyears. Compared to that, a few hundred miles didn’t seem so far.” Willow’s voice was soft, and almost distant. She continued. “And they were always ours. Our constellations. Our stars.”
Tara’s heart warmed at the explanation. She stepped closer and peered into her face, searching for a clue.
“How long do you think we sat out here, stargazing? Counting them? Naming them all?” she asked. Willow finally lowered her head, chuckling.
“Gosh, I can’t even imagine.” She shook her head at the thought. Her eyes turned towards the line that divided the Rosenberg’s lot from the Maclay’s former lot. On the border stood a towering oak. It brought a warm smile to Willow’s face, and she took a step towards it. “How much time do you think we spent under that tree? Our tree.”
Tara shook her head this time.
“I have no idea. Years, maybe. We were there almost every day.” It had been a meeting place for them- a safe place to sit and talk. Tara took a few steps closer, giving it a fond look. The leaves rustled as a breeze started up, and the flame on the candle jumped and shuddered. Tara, still watching the branches, frowned to herself.
“What is that?” she murmured, tilting her head. She thought she had seen an unfamiliar shape on one of the lower branches.
“What? Where?” Willow craned her neck to follow Tara’s line of sight. Tara took a step forward, squinting through the darkness. She caught a glimpse of it again. It was something small, fluttering in the open space under the branch.
“Is there something in the branches?” she asked, hoping for verification. Willow followed her, searching the darkness with her eyes.
“I can’t tell.”
“Bring the candle over.”
Willow crept closer, Tara at her side, holding the candle aloft for illumination. There was something. It was hanging from a string, buffeted back and forth by the wind.
“What is that?” Willow whispered, squinting to make out the form in the dim light. As they moved closer to inspect it, its form became more clear. It was something dark and leafy, with a slip of paper attached to it. The leafy part looked suspiciously like a large sprig of mistletoe, and the scrap of paper seemed to have some large lettering on it, made by a bold black marker.
“ ‘The Plan.’ “ Tara read, dread already sinking into her bones and chilling her from the inside. “I can’t believe this.”
“That’s the plan?” Willow murmured, confused disbelief coloring her voice.
“That’s what it says,” Tara confirmed faintly, in a voice she didn’t recognize as her own.
That was it. That was it?! That was the plan? Getting them alone and shoving them under the mistletoe? Somewhere behind the dread, Tara felt cold anger ripple through her. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. It wasn’t supposed to be such a weak, haphazard attempt. It was supposed to be clever and sweet and inspiring and perfect. Not a poorly hung plant dangling from a tree branch with a big, stupid sign on it. She wondered if it was too late to explain this away, to tell Willow that she had no idea what that was and that they should really just go back inside. But it was. Willow had heard her recognize it. She would just have to talk her way out of this. Talking. Fantastic.
“I’m going to kill Xander.” “I’m going to kill Buffy.”
Their stunned, affronted voices lined up perfectly, overlapping and magnifying. They both blinked, registering the phenomenon.
“Wait, what?” “Huh?”
They turned towards each other in one swift motion, both at a loss for coherent words, both searching the other’s face intently while struggling to avoid direct eye contact. There was uncomfortable silence for several seconds.
“Did you… did you know that that…” Willow began, haltingly. Tara shook her head.
“N-no, I had no idea,” she stuttered. “D-did you say that Buffy…?”
“Yeah. And Xander?”
Tara shivered under Willow’s fleeting gaze. She wasn’t sure what was happening.
“So…” Willow shuffled her feet. Her fingers fidgeted on the candle. “Does that mean that you…?”
“Me?” Tara tried to parse the question, tried to fill in the blanks, to no avail.
“Did you…” Willow suddenly shook her head vigorously and huffed a frustrated sigh. “Aw, shucks. Were you in on the plan?”
Tara flushed at Willow’s approximation of bluntness.
“I… I asked Xander to ask Buffy for help, but I had no idea they would do something like this.” It pained her to admit it out loud, but she didn’t know what else to say. She was lost. Willow was uncomfortable. She would have to kill Xander. “I’m s-so sorry.”
“It’s okay.” It was hard to tell in the darkness, but Willow’s face seemed slightly darkened, tinged with pink.
“Did you know about the plan?” Tara asked carefully.
“I… I had asked Buffy for advice. She just said they were taking care of it. I didn’t know what she meant.”
“So… you were asking her advice… for…?” She wanted Willow to say it. Tara couldn’t. Not yet. She needed to hear it from Willow first.
“For you.” Willow’s voice was almost a whisper. “To tell you how I feel. You know, out loud.”
An unfamiliar, heady mixture of hope and relief began pumping through Tara’s veins. The feeling provoked a shaky smile.
“I was asking Xander for help. To tell you how I feel.” She chuckled weakly. “I wasn’t sure how you would react.”
Willow’s eyebrows crept up in surprise.
“Really? You didn’t?” Her voice held some measure of disbelief.
“You hadn’t said anything,” Tara argued weakly. Willow shook her head, a nervous laugh escaping her.
“I thought I was being obvious. I was practically throwing myself at you.”
Tara covered her face with her hands to hide the blush that made her face burn. And also to hide her smile.
“I thought maybe you were just… Oh, I don’t know.” It sounded stupid now. Willow shuffled one foot, tapping the toe of her shoe against the ground.
“You kept not reacting, or pulling back. I thought maybe you didn’t like it,” the redhead explained.
Tara just shook her head. This couldn’t be real. She must be dreaming. Or on drugs. Or dead. Or something.
“I did. Of course I did. I liked it too much. I kept pulling back because otherwise I would have just… kissed you.” There. She had said it.
“Well, that would have made things clear a lot faster than this.”
“That’s what Xander said.”
They both stared up at the mistletoe, swaying back and forth on its string. It was looking dumber by the second.
“I can’t believe this was their plan,” Willow said.
“I know.” Tara nodded, imagining all the ways it could have failed, or even backfired. “What if I hadn’t gone outside? Or if I went for a walk instead?”
“Even when we were both out here, we almost didn’t see it,” Willow pointed out. “I bet they would’ve felt dumb if we had just walked back inside none the wiser.”
The idea sparked an idea in the blonde.
“We still could,” she suggested, eyebrows raised. Willow cocked her head.
“What? Go back in and pretend nothing happened?”
Tara nodded eagerly.
“They would kind of deserve it.”
Willow screwed up her face in thought.
“Maybe.” Her voice was reluctant. “It did kind of work, though.”
“Yeah. I guess it did.” Tara had to admit that much at least.
“And now that we both know, I don’t really want to act like we don’t,” Willow hedged. Tara felt like she had swallowed an entire mug of hot chocolate in a single gulp, and now it sat, hot and sweet, in her stomach.
“Me neither,” she breathed. “So what should we do?”
Willow just looked up into the tree.
“Well… we are under the mistletoe. Sort of. When the wind is northerly.”
Tara’s smile crept further across her face. Willow wanted to kiss her. What were the odds?
“I… see your logic.” She tried to smother the grin, but couldn’t.
“And I think the best way to punish them would be to leave them wondering what happened,” Willow suggested.
“You mean…” Tara glanced back towards the house.
“Well, we both have nice cozy dorm rooms back on campus. And it’s not that far. Why don’t we walk home, and we can talk a little more about this…” One hand gestured awkwardly between them as she searched for a word. “Situation.”
“That sounds nice.”
“Good.” The wind blew northerly, and Willow took a step closer. She held out the candle. “Here.”
Tara laid her hands gently over Willow’s and took the final step that brought them within kissing range. She leaned forward, over the candle, under the mistletoe.
“Merry Christmas, Willow.”
“Merry Christmas, Tara.”
And there, like so many other times, they stopped talking and let touch convey their feelings.
Tara had wondered before if the kiss would be like fireworks or lightning or lava or blankets. She found, though, that all analogies fled her mind in the wake of the real thing, and she was forced to decide that, in the end, the kiss was like Willow. Soft and sweet and familiar and unpredictable and definitely the greatest force of good in her life.
“Let’s go home.”
And with that, they separated just enough to link hands and stride off into the night, leaving their friends to wonder about them as they explored their feelings more thoroughly somewhere more private.
And they all lived happily ever after.